Thursday, October 21, 2010

Reviewing James Raggi's Module

I have, fresh in my possession, four modules provided to me by Mr. James Raggi of Finland, who responded to my challenge on September 29 to send me ‘a copy’ if he wanted a fair review from me. I must say his delivery was prompt – I received an envelope Saturday, which makes the total turnaround time 17 days from Finland to Canada. So if you’re concerned about never seeing your copy once you’ve paid, don’t be.

Upon realizing there were four choices, I quickly made a decision about what to do with at least three of them. I would pick one and review it here. I would pick one and run my party through it. And I would have my daughter run one, so that I could experience it as a player. I’m not sure what to do with the fourth copy; perhaps Mr. Raggi would let me give it away as a prize for some future contest the D&D Wiki might run.

Having decided that, I pulled one at random (eyes closed and everything) and promptly hid the others away in my room. I will tell you honestly that I have no idea even what the other three are called, which is how I want it at the moment. As it happened, the one I chose to read through and review without playing is called The Grinding Gear.

Before I get started, let me reassure the gentle reader (and Mr. Raggi) that this review will contain no spoilers whatsoever. I have no intention of revealing the setting, any of the monsters or the principal characters, and certainly not the module’s endgame. I am not the sort of reviewer that spends half the review recounting the movie’s plot. There is only one question I intend to answer, and that is, “Should You Buy This Product?”

First impressions, the module size is fairly small, a little larger than a movie DVD case and compellingly illustrated and thematically oriented towards the horrific. Three fold-out covers in glossy stock are provided as maps and Dungeon Master’s aids, which I think would prove to be durable when used in game-play. It is unfortunate that the booklet holding the written material of the module is fairly low-grade paper, but no doubt it is a question of keeping the cost low. However, it means that after much handling and a couple of runnings around drinks and snack foods, the booklet is liable to feel used.

There’s much text here, so you’re getting your money’s worth where content is concerned. The 16-page booklet is written in 8-point font in two columns, and covers a lot of ground. The module suggests a party should try to play the adventure in one sitting … but we’re talking about a focused party because there is a fair bit to get through. There are lots of opportunities for parties to get bogged down with puzzles or figuring out rooms that may or may not have a point, and it wouldn’t be hard for a tolerant DM to find the party wasting up to an hour at some points.

Rest assured, this is a module. Much of the progress is episodic, particularly at the beginning, with a feeling that the monsters and rooms have little association except that this is the next room. The module does give an explanation for this, and it’s a reasonable explanation, but from a player’s viewpoint the explanation will be completely lost unless the module is finished. By that point, of course, it’s a cold comfort. So if you are looking for a bold step forward in module technology, you’re going to be disappointed, because all the elements of how a module works are certainly here; i.e., sequence A causes sequence B to function, or room C follows fast upon room D and so on, complete with rail tracks in some places.

It is, however, a very good module, where it comes to that. Where Mr. Raggi excels is in the overall descriptions and devious arrangements of the rooms. This, I believe, explains the rallying cry to the work he’s done – and believe me, there is a lot of work, and a lot of thought, put in here. Parts of it are simply cruel (which the author himself states on more than one occasion), the connections and sequences have a strong potential for excitement and for driving a party out of its ever-loving mind.

But I also see much potential for players to ‘lose it’ at the table, given that a lot of the foregoing cruelty serves no precise purpose except to potentially execute players. From my outside perception, I know I’d feel a great deal of frustration as things moved along, with a strong sense of being out of control and it all being quite pointless. In true Aliens style, my tendency would be to pull out and nuke the whole thing from orbit … but that’s just me. I think a lot of players, less concerned with ‘greater purpose’ and more concerned with ‘having fun’ would get a bigger kick than I. You have to decide what kind of game you enjoy.

Regarding the horror aspect, which Mr. Raggi aspires to, the feel here is less the sense of suspense provided by Scorsese and more the feel provided by an episode of the SAW franchise. Mr. Raggi might consider applying some of his talents to low-budget screenplay writing, where I believe he would excel.

Let me add that the edited quality of the booklet, and the three fold-out pieces, is excellent. The ideas are conveyed strongly and are easy to understand. There were no points where I could not picture the rooms in my mind. Nor was I distracted by the inevitable spelling and grammatical errors that always seem to plague independent works. Mr. Raggi, or someone well-known to Mr. Raggi, has provided considerable quality control here. The work is worth every penny that the buyer pays … and if I were speaking to Mr. Raggi as a friend over coffee in his hometown, I’d be saying, “You idiot, charge at least three dollars more.”

And so, I’ll say that if you have paid for modules elsewhere, and you intend to pay for modules again, buy up what Mr. Raggi has to sell before moving on. Or at least The Grinding Gear.

I am quite positive that I’ll never run it as a DM, and that I don’t expect at this point to enjoy running whichever of the other three modules I find myself running in the future. I know for a fact that I’d hate this as a player. That alone might encourage some of you to have a look at this module, particularly if you don’t like my personal take on D&D because it seems dull as dishwater to you.

My expectation is that I will get to running said module either this Saturday, October 23, or two weeks after, on November 6, so look for my second James Raggi review sometime in the next three weeks.


rmckee78 said...

If he sent you Hammers of the God make sure you read it, even if you do not play that one. I loved reading that module. I can't really say more without giving something away.

James C. said...

Alexis, excellent and cogent review. I own and love having read Death Frost Doom, but have not yet run a party through it. Acknowledging your decision to experience the remaining modules as stated, I won't go too deeply into specifics other than to say that it has both the delicious cruelty and the horror movie vibe you noted in Grinding Gear. The latter being ala Evil Dead I.

I think either adventure would be something of a shock to my party, and I by no means run a soft game. Perhaps with proper forewarning it'd be a fun night.

One thing is for sure, Raggi can both write and organize his thoughts and he has a clear vision for how his game should be played.

John said...

It's refreshing to read a review from someone who, like myself, has no real interest in buying the latest rpg material. While I probably won't buy any of his work in the near future I can certainly appreciate the effort and obvious care he has put into producing his rpg material.