Monday, April 29, 2013

Tollenkar’s Lair – A Very Belated Review

This review is a mere 33 years too late, but I had a few observations not made by other reviewers and so decided to publish this anyway.
Of course, Steve Jackson’s gaming credentials are well known, and this, his first published adventure module, certainly highlights his immense talent. As a previous review pointed out (see The Space Gamer, No. 31, Capsule Reviews pg. 26), “The greatest strength of TOLLENKAR’S LAIR is its extensive detail. It is logically arranged and the significant characters are well developed.” However, this is both a strength and a weakness, as we shall see.
So these are the observations that I would make regarding this adventure. While I consider Tollenkar’s Lair to be a great adventure supplement, it has some shortcomings.
The first thing that one notices, upon reflection, is the total lack of anything truly “supernatural” or other-worldly about the adventure. All of the foes, with the exception of traps and nuisance monsters, are standard human type characters, mostly heroes but with a few (powerful) wizards thrown in. No dragons or demons or vampires, just a straight up fight (more or less) between the players and other similar figures. In this sense it lacks the variety, atmosphere, and ominous encounters found in, say, Gary Gygax’s B2 “Keep on the Borderlands” module, which has foes both relatively mundane (i.e. orcs, goblins), more otherworldly (the minotaur and medusa), and even creepy (the evil temple).
It is to be noted that the above is purely a subjective complaint, and should not really be taken as a strike against Tollenkar’s Lair, but I do feel that the B2 module was a noticeably more enjoyable product, in that it really felt like a fantastic world, full of magic, mystery, and adventure. This is a recurring problem one finds with TFT, for example with vampires and werewolves simply being victims of disease, and eliminating any hint of “magic” or mystery.
A minor complaint may be directed at the artwork used in the module. Apart from the cover art (which plausibly depicts Tollenkar) the rest of the handful of artwork (as opposed to map type illustrations) in the module have nothing to do with any of the encounters found within. Though they are well executed, they have no relevance to the situations described in the module. When compared with the art found in D&D modules (which are more plentiful and usually tied to a particular encounter in the module) this is something of a disappointment.
I think a more genuine complaint is this: while the D&D (and AD&D, etc.) modules tend to be entirely too generous with wealth and magic items (c. f. T1 Village of Hommlet, where the village could be looted for far more gold at far less risk than the dangerous encounters in the moathouse…), Tollenkar’s Lair (and, really, all of the Microquests) tend towards the opposite extreme and are quite niggardly and stingy. Indeed, many aspects of the TFT rules design could be interpreted as being an “equal and opposite” reaction to elements of D&D design. Not that TL necessarily lacks treasure and magic altogether, but it is almost entirely concentrated on the bottommost level with the deadliest bad guys. To a point this is wholly as it should be, but I feel that SJ went a little too far, where some of this lack of good items does not even make sense.
For an example one need look no further than Captain Jamie Littlejohn, the commander of the elite bravoes on the 5th level. Here we have a 52 attribute figure, obviously a veteran of literally years of campaigns and battles, and yet not only does he lack magic items of any kind, but he doesn’t even have any fine equipment, such as Fine Plate or a fine battle axe! One would think that such an obviously successful warrior would have invested some bucks into better quality equipment, to give an edge in a serious fight! Even the bandit leader Little Kess (a measly 39 point figure) had an enchanted +1 damage morning star, for pity’s sake! Similarly, in reference to Worwackawack and his single +1 DX crossbow bolt, the statement is made that “Tollenkar is generous with gold but stingy with magic.” Stingy indeed! But does any of this make any rational sense? Is Tollenkar the only mage on the face of Cidri capable of making magic items? Methinks not… And have these bravoes worked solely for Tollenkar their entire careers? Again, extremely unlikely. Thus, the near total lack of magic or even fine quality gear makes no rational sense whatsoever, and is a serious logic hole in the design of the module. The bravoes certainly should have gear, both fine and magical, that corresponds with their extensive experience. (Parenthetically, even if Tollenkar was terribly stingy, would he not consider giving his guardians a magical tactical edge that might help, indirectly, prolong his own life? Talk about penny-wise and pound-foolish!)
One other area that makes little sense is the section regarding Tollenkar’s reactions to adventurer’s attempts to explore the Landmaster Hall ruins. Basically, Tollenkar ignores incursions to the uppermost levels, and only responds if the lower two levels are attacked. And even then, he only hires replacements – perhaps doubling them if anyone on the 6th level is killed. But does this make sense? Personally, were I the dastardly mage Tollenkar, plotting outright treason against the local aristocracy (need I mention punishable by death…), I would be hiring assassins to track down and kill anyone that was poking around even the upper levels of the ruins for any reason, as I would not want even a HINT of my existence to be discovered.
It is for these reasons that I do find TL to be a difficult module to run properly. A big problem is that a party strong enough to deal with Tollenkar and his crew will simply mow down Kess and his bandits without working up a sweat. Conversely, a party that could be challenged by the latter troop would never survive the lowest two levels. Yes, one can simply ignore the concerns raised above, thus allowing multiple forays into the ruins, but that seems unsatisfactory due to the noted illogic of it all.
Another strike against Tollenkar’s Lair, though in this case directed solely at the publisher (Metagaming) as opposed to the author, is a lack of counters. For example all of the MicroQuests have countersheets, but Tollenkar’s Lair does not. Yes, one can argue that they are not strictly speaking necessary so long as you have just about any other Microquest or Melee/Wizard, but it still would have been nice. One could make a case, though, that this should have been released in a format similar to the MicroQuests (or perhaps the later MetaGames, such as Dragons of Underearth), complete with a separate full color map and counters.
All of the above having been said, this is still an excellent adventure that is generally well thought out and tightly written. Though it has some shortcomings, it is still a good value and worth obtaining.
Price: $2.95 (when published in 1980; rather more expensive now on eBay)
Ratings (out of a maximum of 5 stars)
Content: ****
Layout and Graphics/Artwork: **½
Components: **
Value: ****
Written by Steve Jackson, © 1980

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