Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Slyth Hive

I’ve said before that it’s not really possible to review an adventure that you haven’t run or played. An adventure module is not a book; D&D is not a film to be viewed or acted. Dungeons & Dragons is a game that needs to be played to be experienced. Without that experience of play, the best one can do is offer thoughts and opinions, critiques and praise over how one BELIEVES the thing will play. And while…sometimes…those opinions will be informed by the experience of the “reviewer” with regard to game play and design, it’s still all just “theory” until the adventure is actually run as a game.

Call all that “The Standard Caveat.”

Slyth Hive is the latest adventure penned by the erudite rapscallion known as Prince of Nothing. You may recall his earlier adventure modules: Red Prophet Rises and The Palace of Unquiet Repose. I own both of those modules; I have not played them (nor reviewed them), though I have offered opinions on them (here and elsewhere): generally, I find them “okay.” In relation to other adventures published these days they are far better than the standard fare, but this is an extremely low bar and, despite nice writing and good-to-interesting atmospherics/aesthetics, I have my issues with is doubtful they will ever see my gaming table.

Slyth Hive, on the other hand, is a different matter.

This is no sophomoric work or retread of earlier work. Rather, it is tour de force, far surpassing (in my estimation) the quality of Prince's early work, while still displaying his trademark flair for evocative writing and his penchant for sword & sorcery tropes. Yet Slyth Hive is elevated, and...for the most is well designed.

True, it needs polish and definitely a good pass with the editor's pen. Several minor flaws related to the map and keying are present (I intend to send him a list of fixes...for when he has the time) and there are numerous 'slip ups' with regard to the system. But the bulk of what's here is "good stuff," and a cut above his earlier work in a way his earlier work is a cut above the usual business produced for publication. 

Let's begin with the basics: the adventure is written for high level (14th+) AD&D play; fully outfitted pre-gens are included. The adventure itself in its current form is some 50ish pages in length PLUS twenty-one pages of appendices (pregens, new monsters, magic items, notes, etc.), ten more pages of maps, and roughly half a dozen pages of (AI generated?) art. Characters seek to penetrate and conquer an enormous, multi-level hive of insect-like super predators (and their minions) obtaining great fortune and glory and (presumably) putting a civilization-razing threat to the sword. The adventure has been play-tested more than once...I observed Prince running it at the Cauldron convention, and I have heard nothing but glowing reports from those who've played the thing.

Something like this, but far nastier...and bigger.

It has been fascinating to watch Prince's gaming evolution over the last 6-7 years (well chronicled on his blog)...from Basic play (generally of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Labyrinth Lord variety), back to 2E (from his own primordial origins), to 1st Edition AD&D, aka The King of Games. It seems to have been quite a journey of discovery, aided both by discussion on various forum sites and his own delves into the numerous publications ('zine, mag, and module) of the game's early days.

Writing this post, I find myself wanting to write more about our Brave Sir Prince himself, rather than the module proper. You see, I've met the Prince...I have broken bread with him, have talked with him, have gamed with him. I have had the chance to take something of his measure. He is very intelligent and creative and cursed with the nagging self-doubt that ALL intelligent, creative, self-aware people seem cursed with. He is a young man...but he's no kid. As a creator, he is still maturing, and you can see the growing pains...even as you can also marvel at the brilliance of the work.

Okay, down to it: the scope of the thing is massive, though the premise is simple, drawing amply from a rather obvious list of horror and sci-fi media of the "bug hunt" variety. The tyranid species of Warhammer 40,000 figures hugely in the titular antagonist's mutating/adaptation abilities, creating the main operative pressure on the player characters: the more they fight the slyth, the more the buggers change and adjust (via manifest organic weapons and defenses) to come back harder against their persecutors. This is a wonderful and original concept and...while I might have some quibbles about its is a fantastic way to challenge and punish players who take a passive and/or tentative approach to engagement.

The environments here are excellent: a level of prehistoric simulacrum, a level of fungal forests and killer slimes, a more-or-less submerged (underwater) level, a level featuring nothing but a gigantic cavern with a waiting army of killer bugs, etc. Good stuff. Non-bug creatures abound as well, including both minions and subterranean denizens willing to become allies of the player characters. This adventure offers many, many interesting challenges for experienced players, in a horrific, terrifying environment, with (what appears to be) plenty of reward. I'm fairly satisfied that this will provide many hours of glorious bloodshed and adventure gaming, and probably not a few "oh, shit!" moments...exactly what jaded, er, "high level" players are hoping for.

I will move to the criticism: aside from needing an editor to catch some of the errors, the thing could use an editor to tighten things. I hate to say it (because I can already guess the reaction) but, in my opinion, the thing is too big. There are a few many encounters that are too much the same despite the transformative ability of the slyth. There are things added that have the marks of "this would be great!" but really add little to the adventure as a whole. There are two or three too many Giant Impossible Utterly Devastating New Monstrous Threats sprinkled endless video game boss battles. There are one or two too many homages present (sorry, not a fan of the Dune reference) that for me would indicate a little too much exuberance with the source material.

And I don't just mean the fiction from which the author draws...I'm talking about the source material of OTHER "high level adventures" that Prince has digested and is now re-synthesizing. He may have looked at TOO MANY examples from days of TSR past, adding things that are unnecessary in terms of theming or even gameplay. By the time an adventuring party has braved a gauntlet of six or seven levels they should be in their last legs...resources depleted, men lost, bleeding from scores of wounds. You don't then hammer them...and then hammer them...and then hammer them again with Ever Bigger Hammers. There is a rhythm to game play...ebbs and flows...even in an adventure like this. 

Back to the good stuff for a moment: Slyth Hive actually includes TWO sets of pregens. A group of mid-level miscreants than get sent in to investigate, followed by the immense high level heroes.  This is a great gimmick: it gives the players a chance to scout a bit and get some idea of what they'll encounter before taking the REAL troops into the jaws of death. Unfortunately, the mid-level guys aren't likely to get too far (unless played extremely well), and the Hive's defenses against gathering intelligence means the party is going to be operating in a blind, reactive state from at least the mid-point of the adventure. Perhaps that won't be an issue for experienced, resourceful players...but it could be a rough go for players of middling proficiency using the pregens.

Eh. That's just critique. As noted, the adventure has been run...multiple times for multiple players...and I am unaware of any complaints. "Stylistic nitpicks," I suppose...but I know what I like. And this'over-exuberant.'

Even so, there IS room to breathe, in the adventure...there are 'beats' that don't feel rushed. The adventure is BIG, but (for the most part) it is has the appropriate DENSITY of information. I didn't feel that in Prince's early adventures, even though they were written for a "basic" edition of D&D. last negative, and then I'll stop. Going hand-in-hand with the "learning too much of the (maybe wrong) thing" category, let's talk treasure. There's a LOT of treasure, and its not just the hand-waved 'millions and millions' found in TPoUR; but a many of the treasure piles are incredibly obscure...they take the whole 'treasure should be hard to come by and/or hidden' thing a little too far; some examples:
  • a monster whose "carapace, treated with acids and worked by a supremely capable dwarven blacksmith, yields 3d10 gemstones of 1,000 g.p. value..."
  • 125,000 in coins buried under a diamond-hard stone slab that weighs 50,000 pounds and is immune to stone to mud and passwall spells (but not disintegrate).
  • a 50,000 g.p. sapphire hidden in the heart of a giant mushroom (requires 120 h.p. of damage by edged weapons to cut through; every round of attack requires a save vs. poison at -4 to avoid effect of hallucinogenic spores; fireballs and the like have a chance of destroying the gem).
  • an immense pile of treasure covered in a colorless, odorless contact poison (lethal, -2 save, seeps through fabric and even metal gauntlets). The poison is slow acting (only takes effect after 1 turn) so everyone handling treasure has the potential to be wiped out without warning.
  • a purple worm nest with nearly 200,000 in detailed treasure that is not on any map and no indication is given of how one might discover it
A brief accounting of monetary treasure indicates something less 1,400,000 g.p. worth, which is surprisingly small given A) the size of the adventure proper, and B) the number and level of pre-gens on hand. However, magic items are plentiful (though many...specifically Eyes taken from, I assume EoPT sources, have no value listed), and I suspect that this, accompanied by valuable "cores" dug from specific corpses could get that treasure total up to 2.5 or 3 million. But that's still...not much? I'm probably looking for something on the order of 8M or more for something this size, and I can't believe I'm saying this (there are ENORMOUS sections of detailed treasure!) but this might be...stingy? Not on purpose, mind's just tough when you're dealing with things of this size and scope. By the book, 92,000 silver pieces weighs 4.6 tons...and is worth only 4,600 g.p. That's not much bang for the buck when your 16th level mage needs 350,000 x.p. to level up.

Still. There's a lot of combat x.p. on the docket in Slyth Hive.

This "review"...this list of going to sound overly negative, I know. Please allow me to reiterate that the adventure is an immense, fantastic tour de force. I have issues with it, but this is a case where my feelings are 90% positive and 10% negative, and I am only harping on the negative because...well, because that's what I do. I am impressed...very impressed with Slyth Hive. I paid $15 on DriveThruRPG for a PDF so that I could read the thing, and I'm not disappointed. It's an ass-kicker of an adventure, with some fiendish design, clever ideas, and evocative writing. It is solid enough to run. With a bit of polish and editing, some slight mechanical fixes (if you're going to include UA rules, you need to get them right), and...perhaps...a slightly streamlined system to the slyth adaptations, this thing would rate in among the best high level adventures of all time.

And I say that as someone who's not really into 80+ page modules.
; )

EDIT: For a more detailed review/advertisement for what's in the adventure (including designer notes and substantial SPOILERS), please check out Prince's own article on Slyth Hive.

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