by Ramanan Sivaranjan on August 22, 2013
I had placed a few orders and backed several Kickstarter campaigns from Lamentations of the Flame Princess over the last year, asking that everything ship together to save me some money. And so it came to pass that I ended up with a giant pile of books to read a few days ago. I thought i’d start with The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time, James Raggi’s ode to H.P. Lovecraft. There are no giant Cthulhu monsters, but there is a lot of existential woe. This review is full of spoilers.
The module is split into three parts: first we are told about the random encounters that occur in the valley that surrounds the Monolith; then we learn about the Monolith itself, the area immediately around it, and the monsters that guard it; finally we learn about the bizarre interior world of the Monolith. I’ve never read another module like this one. This is both a compliment and a complaint. The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time is an interesting read because it’s full of zany ideas and encounters. The problem is that a lot of these zany encounters are, in my estimation, straight up dick moves.
A lot of the encounters in this module feel like they are sprung on the players without giving them any recourse whatsoever, and no clue they’re about to get screwed. Simply looking at the Monolith is the trigger for one ill effect, and the only way to end the effect is to venture into Monolith to destroy it—which is a pain in the ass, trust me. The Guardian, an invisible monster located just outside the Monolith, is for all intents and purposes completely invincible, and the DM is instructed to make sure the players don’t realize this is the case so they may waste their time fighting the thing. A portion of the adventure written by Kenneth Hite called “The Owl Service” is probably the worst offender when it comes to all of this stuff. It is a random encounter in the valley that surrounds the Monolith in which players stumble on some owls, have to hang around them till they are sufficiently creeped out, and then their characters are haunted by owls till they die. Yeah. For a challenge to be interesting in a game of D&D there needs to be some way for the players to circumvent or overcome it. A pit trap you always fall into no matter what is boring.
The Monolith is all risk, no reward. As a player, if I wandered all the way to the Monolith, explored it’s creepy-ass interior, and then escaped broken and maimed, i’d probably be a bit annoyed that I wasn’t coming home with buckets of money. The only treasure of note in the adventure is a magic-user’s head—and you need to eat it to reap its rewards.
Placing the Monolith in a sandbox game with a warning to never go there still might be interesting. You could have NPCs who have visited the Monolith, now afflicted by its curse, wandering the countryside leaving trails of dead bodies in their wake. It could be a source for all sorts of crazy out of context monsters and super villains. The players may feel compelled to sacrifice their characters to destroy the Monolith and put a stop to all this evil, which sounds like it’d make for a good story and a fine way to cap off a campaign.1
You can tweak the adventure to make it more fair. You could provide more clues about what’s going on. You could drop some of the encounters that don’t really belong in a game that is supposed to be fun. The thing is, at what point would the adventure cease to be scary? How do you fill your players with a sense of existential dread if they can overcome all obstacles presented through smart play? It seems like a true horror game is at odds with one of the most important parts of a good D&D game: letting the players make meaningful choices.
So, here’s the rub: I liked this module. Crazy, right? You’re probably wondering why you wasted your time reading everything I wrote above. That terrible owl encounter I mentioned previously is really well written. The whole module is. The art is fantastic and totally unlike anything else i’ve seen in an RPG book. I read this module a couple days ago and it’s really stuck with me. This is a terrible adventure to spring on your players, but i’m not sure the adventure itself is terrible. Confused? You should read The Monolith from Beyond Space and Time.
“Solutions? Explanations? The Monolith owes you none.”
So minutes after I posted this Zak from D&D with Pornstars suggested another way to use this module that would work quite well: “Like Tomb of Horrors, it could be considered a ‘go in, get killed, make a new PC, act with metagame knowledge, do it right this time’ situation.” To take this idea a little further, you could have characters killed during the course of the adventure simply wake up again somewhere in the valley. This would keep with the spirit of the module and makes a lot of the screw-you traps seem less harsh. ↩
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