The Hyqueous Vaults is currently available as a free download on Lulu.
There are plans to release it as a PoD.
Unusually, it was released and reviewed by two seperate people who both do good dungeon and adventure reviews and who both liked it.
Melan reviewed it HERE.
And Bryce reviewed it HERE.
This puts us in the interesting position of being able to look, not just at the adventure but also at two pretty intelligent and in-depth responses to the adventure.
I want to be clear; whatever I say about Hyqueous Vaults should be taken IN ADDITION to these two reviews. I don't fundamentally disagree with any of the main points in either of those and those points are almost completely positive about the adventure.
So this is my minority report. My response was slightly colder than Melan and Bryce.
If you read it on its own then it will seem more negative than it is. My comments and responses are personal and not absolute.
Firstly its very toyetic, very gamey. Arranged for play and less pseudo-natural or pseudo-historical.
Melan touches on this a little; "more fantastic than strictly realistic" and "the balance of encounters, while overall good, is heavily weighted towards ‘specials".
Nothing wrong with that since D&D is, in fact, a game. No D&D environment can be truly or absolutely naturalistic, there will always be joins and inconsistencies somewhere.
But its useful to talk about one of the main benefits of naturalism and simulation which is that (near-paradoxically) allows intelligent and paradigm-shifting 'ride the iceberg' play.
If the Orcs need to poop then you can climb up the poop hole, and this is an idea anyone can have.
If the dungeon-dwellers need light, if they have general logistical needs like food or something more abtruse, then this is a process you can interrupt, attack, infiltrate or simply manipulate, and again, this is an idea that anyone can have simply by thinking about the imagined world in a coherent way.
"Oh we could pose as a lamp-oil seller."
"Oh we could poison the food supply."
"Oh we could hide in the water when they are fishing and grab a fishing line and drag them in."
And so on and so on.
The more toyetic and arranged for play an adventure is, the more "boring" and unexplained elements are left off the table to speed up "interesting" choices, the more mild inconsistencies there will be that preclude boundary-breaking thought and out of the box solutions and the more difficult and uncomfortably incoherent the adventure or setting will become in response to such activities.
Boredom is Freedom is what I'm saying.
Again, not a failure, but a polarity to manage, an axis where you can't get everything from every range so you have to choose which benefits and flaws you would rather have, and in which the 'goodness' of the adventure should be judged on how well those flaws are mitigated and what advantage is taken of the benefits and where the adventures position on that axis refers more to rightness of fit with any particular group.
Things that make this Toyetic are;
- What is the Hydra eating and how did it get in there?
- How are all these weirdos so close to each other for so long and not in continual & absolute war? (Common to many Dungeons)
- The capital letters trick in the secret message (you better give them the printout).
- Light - where the fuck are the lanterns? How are people down here seeing anything?
- The percentages on the spectral candles (oh you need ANOTHER prime rod).
The adventure does have good opportunities for 'classic' out-of-the-box dungeoneering (i.e., you can think out of the box here the same way you thought out of the box last time), unusually good for most adventures. You can hide, turn allies, form partnerships, trade things and deeds that people want, get behind people if you are lucky and get strange & unlikely benefits & game-transforming effects if you take risks are are unusually lucky.
The opportunities for out-of-the-box out-of-the-box thinking, (so you jumped out of the box, which was in a bigger box, and you jumped out of that too) are there but lessened somewhat by the lack of naturalism and simulation.
There should probably be phrases for the kind of oblique, lateral strategy which is uncommon in a lot of mainstream D&D but a solid aim of a lot of OSR design, and for really What The Fuck strategies and tactics, so we can differentiate between them.
Although since a What The Fuck strategy is, by its nature, deeply unpredictable, I really don't know how you would design for it.
The only other thing about Hyqueous Vault is that its pretty Normie.
The Normie/Hipster axis isn't quite the same as Jeff Rients' Retro/Pretentious designations for games. Those could refer to rules systems as well as contents so Dungeon World would be a somewhat pretentious game but also a High Normie game.
There are a lot of things that go into making an adventure Hipster, I'll do a conversion chart at the end of this post. Normie is a lot easier to define, it's simply how much the adventure makes use of known quantities and elements, you could say - how likely is this to have an Orc in it?
If this is done badly then its deep Normie Trash. You will see this in a lot of Bryces reviews; In this room are d6 Orcs. In this room are 2d6 Gnolls.
If its done well the same elements become 'Classic', by which I suppose we mean familiar elements used with energy, imagination and precision. Bryce is particularly fond of this quality in adventures.
"In this room are 3 Orcs roasting a Goblin over a spit. The Goblin is alive and is trying to fake the Orcs voices to generate an argument so it can escape."
Not genius but a bit further along the axis from Normie Trash towards 'Classic'.
Firstly, Hyqueous Vault isn't full-normie, the Eel-Men are pretty good and quite creepy and interesting, the spectral candles are a novel & strange idea; a lot could be done with them, it has a big ameboid thing and in general the rooms towards the rear move more into Hipster territory with time loops, indoors cyclones and Mysterious Studies on a Cyclopean scale.
Secondly, where it does use known elements it generally injects a degree of energy and imagination.
I like the interior and back cover art by Alex Zisch, its has a strange, spiky, angular feel along with a dense scratchyness that I enjoy. The front page cover by Brian "GLAD" Thomas is of greater technical capacity but is definitely on the Normie side of the scales with Zisch on the Hipster side. The aesthetic tension between the two artists being a pretty good guideline to the aesthetic range of the adventure as a whole.
Would I Run this.... eehh maybe, probably not?
Would I have fun playing in it? Prrooobably yes.
For anyone wondering how to Hipsterise their product I have written this handy...
D&D ADVENTURE HIPSTER DOUCHEBAG CONVERSION CHART
- Monsters are now humans wearing masks of those monsters OOoooO.
- Monsters are now really into riddles.
- Hot Goth Chicks - but maybe with no faces. Freaky!
- Drugs are now involved - these baddies get HIGH.
- More specific lighting.
- Add Swears.
- Add Impossible Moral Choices - do you want to rape the dog or murder the cat? Well you will have to do one or the other to escape!
- Any small monsters are now lobotomised children.
- Any normal children are now Undead Children - spooky!
- It turns out you could have saved the Undead Children but you only get the ability to do this at the end of the adventure when you have already hacked most of them to pieces and there was no real way for you to know this.
- Add Colonialism.
- Try having more and better art.
- Would Gary like and understand the art? If so, adjust till this is not the case.
- Could you get a tattoo of whatever it is? If not, adjust till this is the case.
- ADD THEMES OF MADNESS.
- Is the art/map/text layout subtle and difficult enough to arrange that it could kill a friendship? If not, adjust till this is the case.
- Could you safely had this to a 12 year old at a Con? If yes, go back & start again.
- Is it non-Euclidian? If not, why not?
- ADD DEEP TIME. Years? Why not Eons?
- Does the pattern of risk to reward make rational and predictable sense? If so, alter until they are partially, but not fully, out of synch. The main treasure isn't really treasure but an ancillary hard-to-get thingy has a lot of specific but hard-to-cash-in value.