Adventure Site Contest - The Observatory
An ogre with his heads in the clouds
An offering for low level OSE from Ben Gibson of Coldlight Press, the proprietor of this contest. It presents a very unique location in the form of an abandoned observatory, now inhabited by an exiled 2 headed ogre and his goblin servants / cult members. The two main gimmicks of the place are repeated type of trap called a Nightsky Trap and the massive, but broken telescope in the brass dome. The traps are in several rooms (with varying degrees of telegraphing) and seem to have affected the Ogre, Url-Egyl, resulting in one of his heads having black, star-filled eyes and ranting out riddles pertaining to the stars and the future. The telescope can be repaired via a truly esoteric puzzle, or broken to retrieve a massively expensive diamond (10,000 GP). Overall a fairly whimsical location, but there are some severe weaknesses that drag it down.
First, the positives. The map is really good, both exterior and interior. I like having the isometric view of the location, it adds a huge amount of character and charm to the place. The rooms are mostly clear between the sections, though I am somewhat confused on whether or not the basement connects to the rest of the complex or not. There is a cargo elevator that connects from the dome to the basement, but it's unclear if there is a shaft that can be climbed, or if the controls at the top are the only method of operation. If it does, that's good because it means there are multiple points of egress and ingress, which is always a bonus. The patrol and order of battle presented are good as well, and the inclusion of the goblin's personalities for the referee's benefit. The note that they are being forced to be active during the day and sleep at night is a nice touch. Information presentation is pretty good, although I would suggest moving the Bestiary and Hazards to the beginning. Reading about Midden Rot, Rickety Repairs, Nightsky Trap[s] and poisoned blades with no obvious effect serves to confuse the reader until they reach the end.
The main puzzle on how to restore the telescope to working order is, unique, to say the least. It involves retrieving objects with resonance with specific zodiac signs and placing them in alcoves in the main observatory dome. What items resonate with what signs is an exercise in moon logic. If you are a fan of 90s PC adventure games, this will likely interest you. I can find no rhyme or reason as to why some zodiac signs require a product of their related being (Wool for Aries, Poison for Scorpio) while others require the thing itself (Cancer needs a crab, Pisces needs a fish) and Virgo requires hair, while Gemini requires "twins." The worst offender here is Leo, which requires a sea lion (thankfully, there is one located on the premises). Madness. Worse than madness, this is the sort of puzzle that could lead to a night of arguing between players and a referee, or constant attempts at real life persuasion checks to allow certain objects to count for the puzzle. If a group likes esoteric puzzles this is wonderful, if they don't then this location is a pretty big miss.
This leads me into what I think is the major weakness of this module, information density and presentation. There are a lot of moving parts to this location. There are a lot of small, but very important details that can be easily missed. For an example, here is a relatively simple room:
7. Astronomer’s Study: This acrid-smelling wreck of a room is used by 2 goblins who wield poisoned blades. Ancient tomes everywhere are shredded for bedding, but a couple gold-embossed books (worth 200gp each) remain under the piles. In the closet among the ruins of tattered silk robes, 9 tiny scorpions are caged, milked for their poison (1 scorpion roams free on the floor hidden amid scraps, angry).
Poisoned blades, good. What does the poison do? Likely it's whatever the scorpion poison does since they are being milked here. At the end of the module, this question is answered:
Scorpion: 1hp, Move 60' (20'), AC6 , THAC0 19 , Sting (poison, save or DEX at 3 for next day).
That is a brutal poison, but it isn't Save or Die. That is the sort of thing that is nice to have on hand. This is a general trend, while all the information to run the module is there, it's very hard to tease out in many case. For example, the Nightsky Trap that is present in various rooms:
Nightsky Trap: Save vs spells or paralyzed, continuing to stare at additional -1 to saves per round, 5 rounds, eye go black with stars within, obsessed with the sky and futures.
The way this is written is extremely difficult to parse what the trap itself does. My guess is the traps paralyze a victim for 5 rounds on a failed save, and during that time inflicts a -1 on any other saves conducted. Then the eyes are blackened and the victim suffers a madness about the sky and future until the end of time. The madness could be debilitating enough that this is functionally a Save or Die situation. Or it could be left to simple role-playing flavor. Url-Egyl and an unlucky goblin serve as examples of how bad it should be, but they make me lean more towards this being a thing that requires a character to retire.
Now for little things. Treasure is weird, there is a huge swing with whether or not a group is able to extricate the diamond at the center of the telescope. To do so, they must intentionally force the gears and collapse the floor under the telescope. So, the diamond is not a reward for the puzzle, which seems like and odd choice (and a good way for a referee to lose out on future snack money from disgruntled players). There is a relatively difficult to remove statue that makes up the bulk of the rest of the value. The total swing is 4,655 without the diamond and 14,655 with. That puts a party of 6 at just shy of 1000 XP, which seems a little small for a place as dangerous as this. Url-Egyl is an interesting character, exiled from his tribe for the crime of being weird and getting two spell saves (one per head), He's a neat encounter that I could see players becoming more interested in and perhaps working for like that goblins instead of looting his place and leaving. Aside from the cognitive load of figuring the thing out, this should fit neatly into most campaigns without too many weird changes or implications. Also the focusing lens that can be used to deal fire damage is a cool flourish.
Overall, I think this one is somewhat of a miss for me, despite the good premise. The weird puzzle for seemingly no real reward is just not something I would want to run or play in. My group tends to eschew puzzles like this, and I can already hear the accusations of unfairness and lack of mental acuity being leveled at me it I ran the solution as written. If your group likes that sort of thing, then this becomes a much more appealing location.