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Reviews - The Secret at Greenrock
 
by Demian Katz


Secret at Greenrock cover Many times in my life, I've picked up a fantasy novel and attempted to read it. Nine times out of ten, I haven't made it past the first fifty pages. It rarely seems worth the effort of plodding through dozens of vaguely-described locations and unmemorably-named archetypical heroes just to revisit a storyline that's been beaten into the ground again and again since prehistoric times. When I started reading Citizen Games' The Secret at Greenrock, the first in a series of six adventures set in the land of Myrra, I soon realized that it was another one of those adventures. A lot of unfamiliar names are bandied about, but in the end, it's a very old story with very little meat on its bones. In fact, my first inclination is to describe it as "a whole lot of nothing." However, considering that it's 32-pages long and sells for $8.95, a better description would probably be "a relatively scant amount of expensive nothing."

It's hard to even begin to convey how poor the design of this module is, but the majority of its flaws revolve around one central problem: poor distribution of information. For the most part, the adventure doesn't provide nearly enough background material on anything. It drops a lot of names, but it doesn't bother to tell the GM what most of them actually mean; in fact, some of the major races present in the adventure are left completely undescribed. Characterization is also disastrously poor. The author apparently seems to have intended for the adventure's NPCs to play significant roles in the storyline, but none of them are really described in enough detail to give the GM anything interesting to work with. Although three entire appendices are filled with (obviously computer-generated) NPC statistics, only one of these twenty-one characters actually comes with a textual description. As if this weren't bad enough, the characters aren't even equipped -- the statistics simply list the total value of each individual's possessions in gold pieces. In any case, what good are character stats without accompanying information on motivation, quirks and other such details?

Although lapses of detail like this are infuriating, the adventure's problem isn't always inadequate information; sometimes the problem is just the opposite. When relatively meaty information is provided, it is provided in excessive quantities. There's an entire appendix, for example, which contains a translation of some hieroglyphics found in one of the rooms in the adventure's dungeon. This is a waste of space, since even if the party bothered trying to read the carvings (which isn't necessarily all that likely), they wouldn't want to listen to the GM reciting two dense pages of unbelievably boring pseudo-history. There's also an introductory passage about some people in some boat landing in some place, and while it contains just about the most detailed prose in the entire module, it has no real bearing on anything apart from describing a moment in the ancient history of the land that provides the setting for the adventure.

Even if the book didn't have massive problems in the information department, there would be little reason to recommend it. From the very start, it's hard to determine the player characters' motivation. The adventure begins with the party arriving by boat in a town on Myrra, which, combined with the adventure's relatively high experience requirements, suggests to me that the author's intent was for the GM to bring some PCs from an established campaign into this module's new world. However, all of the adventure hooks provided suggest that the party has lived in Myrra all along. Following this bit of confusion is a gratuitous barroom brawl, a two in six chance of a gratuitous encounter with vaguely-detailed roguish NPCs and, at last, the assignment of a mission to the party by a vaguely-detailed and either ominous or honorable (depending on how you interpret the text) Guild (with a capital "G"). This mission is to investigate the disappearance of a group of "kelnar," better known as dwarves, who vanished in the mining town of Greenrock.

Once the party accepts this quest (and God save the GM whose party decides not to accept), they set off on an overland journey filled with vague characters and events which the players are unlikely to notice or understand. There's a saboteur, for example, but she makes most of her sabotage look accidental or monster-related, and since she ends up getting captured by hostile beasts before the PCs even have reason to believe that she exists, one has to wonder why she was even included in the story. There are also some members of the Guild which assigned the mission who are secretly sent to ensure that the party doesn't chicken out. This seems rather odd. If the Guild is this powerful, why do they need the PCs to do their work for them? And if this is a test of loyalty, why not just say so? Ultimately, the only character whose purpose is clear is Doc Davitori, a comic-relief dwarf (err, kelnar) who exists solely to constantly irritate everybody.

Once the party reaches Greenrock, they find a crevice to crawl into, and the dungeon exploration begins. Unfortunately for everyone involved, much of the dungeon is about as exciting as this sample room:

16. Large Cavern
The cavern ceiling is approximately 150 feet high. The upper reaches of the ceiling of this cavern cannot be seen with regular torches. To the right of the entrance is a large pool of water (approximately 50 feet across). In the center of the pool is a large stone.
That's the complete room description. A ceiling, some water, and a rock. That's it. Admittedly, most of the other rooms at least include, say, an Ochre Jelly in addition to the water and the rock, but you won't find much in the way of thrilling design elements here.

Ultimately, if the party happens to wander into a particular room and decides to cast a "speak with dead" spell and manages to solve the resulting incoherent riddle and decides to act upon this vague information, they might actually rescue an ancient and good dragon from imprisonment, though they're unlikely to understand the significance of their actions unless they also happen to wander into a different particular room and discover the previously-mentioned hieroglyphics. There is a "Quest Trap" to help things along, but this isn't described in any useful amount of detail, so it's more or less up to the GM to make sure that the party doesn't stray from the path.

As you can probably tell by now, the content of this module is less than wonderful. Unfortunately, the presentation is considerably better than the material deserves, so it's entirely possible that many GMs will be fooled into making a regrettable purchase. The cover art is attractive, and the interior art is decent, though the fact that the work was done by four different artists lends a certain air of inconsistency to the proceedings. Apart from the text itself, the four dungeon maps are the book's weakest point. Not only are they rather mediocre in appearance, but they also place north in the direction where east traditionally belongs without including a compass rose to clue the GM in to this fact. This can cause more than a little bit of confusion if you're not prepared for it.

It's hard to look through a product like this one without asking "what were they thinking?" The purpose of an adventure module (especially one that costs $8.95) should be to provide material that your average GM couldn't come up with off the top of his or her head. With its computer-generated NPCs, empty dungeon chambers and minimalistic plot, The Secret at Greenrock just doesn't serve that market. If you need a quick adventure, just pick up any given issue of Dungeon Magazine; it's guaranteed to contain many times more content than this module and cost a few dollars less as well. Perhaps the later Myrra adventures are better than this one, but I can't quite bring myself to look at them to find out.


 

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