For those interested; for myself if none other.
City of Shifting Sand
Self-Review by P. J. Atwater
After posting my original work, City of Shifting Sands, for the online public to view, I attempted my own run of the scenario with an online group. During preparation and session, I tried to imagine myself as any GM using this material for the first time. My aim was to separate myself from the role of author and evaluate the work objectively in terms of ease of use and how fun it was to play, in order to improve my craft and offer tips to GMs who wish to run the scenario.
For purposes of clarity, I will be referring to myself as the GM running the scenario in first person, and to the author of the scenario in third person. In other words, I shall attempt to maintain the pretense that I am not the author of City of Shifting Sands, and write this review from the perspective of a third party user. There will be SPOILERS.
My players seemed to enjoy this adventure. Even at parts where the story stretches suspension of disbelief in my opinion, they did not question or challenge anything too vocally. They were eager to face the challenges presented in-character, made many thoughtful choices, and even debated among themselves. I took these as indications they were satisfied with the experience, though a good GM can make any game fun.
My experience as GM was slightly different. While I appreciate simplicity when running a module, the author left quite a bit to my imagination, which was challenging at times. This includes not only narrative details, but also details of mechanics. These were the most challenging. Other mechanics that were provided in detail did not seem to work as envisioned. The travel times and Doom system in the “Journey to Thamaar” section was a good idea, but I found it extremely confusing in practice and had to create an alternative on the fly. I’d recommend disregarding the passage about Momentum spends removing complications. Over all, I’m glad this rule was there, particularly because it freed me from the need to keep track of the passage of time and gave me license over the pace of events. I also love features that put the Doom mechanic in the forefront. It just should have been designed more thoughtfully.
Another odd feature was the fire trap in the temple. The text states “player characters make a test,” seeming to imply the fire hits everyone in the zone, which I found redundant with the trap’s Area quality. I adjusted by only calling for a test from the player triggering the trap. He passed and avoided the danger, but if he hadn’t I would then have applied the Area on effect rolls as normal.
The magical jars in the apothecary’s workshop were one feature I had mixed feelings about. This is the first area with treasure for the Player Characters to find, and I was uneasy about it for many reasons. First of all, there is something about the potions that strikes me as just a little too “high fantasy” for a Hyborean adventure. One of the magical jars contains a substance which could conceivably kill a Player Character outright (the author did write in a way to reverse it, but the players have to be lucky to find it. Mine did not). It also seemed odd to expect the players to study the inscriptions closely, when they are supposed to be racing the clock. This could break the pace for some groups. Since no one in our party had any ranks in Linguistics, I declared that Sitaara was a scholar of Acheronian lore, and the players asked him to translate the inscriptions on the jars while they travelled, which worked out well. The players initially assumed each jar would be the key to a different puzzle, which also worked out for the best because as it happens, one of them is, and because it kept them from recklessly drinking their contents. I came very close to leaving the apothecary’s jars out of the scenario when running it, but had a change of heart when I realized that one of them would be the players’ best chance of defeating the flame wraith. Not my favorite part of the scenario, but not the worst part either.
My least favorite part of this entire adventure was the first half of the dungeon. Here we see a series of interesting set pieces, with little to no action and no treasure. The aim of the author seems to have been to establish mood, but until the Treacherous Corridor, I largely felt like I was reading a script to myself; and judging by how bored I felt I don’t have much confidence my players were very excited either. I wish the Hazards table had been placed at the beginning of this section instead of buried in the Appendix. There was not even a note in the main text referring you to the table, so I forgot to use it until the climactic scene at the end.
The encounter with the flame wraith went very well from my perspective. At first, the players attempted to communicate with it, and after spending 2 Fortune points on a Persuade test I felt they had earned the right, even though the author did not seem to anticipate this. My impression was that it was meant to be a mindless demon. I had it toy with them in conversation for a few rounds, dropping clues about the backstory and other areas in the dungeon. The inevitable combat was tense and very fun. The players figured out the “Thirst Eternal” jar would be a useful weapon, and used it to great effect, but the demon still gave them a run for their money. I was very happy with the design of this monster. The players seemed to take great satisfaction in killing it.
The Stone Sentinel was a little different. I think the main idea was very good, but some different design would have improved it. First, the monster’s very low agility rendered it quite unthreatening, even when I threw fistfuls of Doom to have it roll five dice on attacks. If I were to redesign it, I would increase its Agility stat to 8, and add an ability increasing the difficulty of all its Agility-based rolls by one step. Otherwise, this monster was sufficiently scary. Requiring it to spend Doom just to attack was enough to make my players afraid of getting close to it and, as hoped, they sought a way to outsmart it rather than tackle it directly. Again, the players congratulated themselves on smart play, and seemed to enjoy themselves.
The climax was by far my favorite part, and I think the entire scenario is worth the time just to build up to this moment. This is mainly what I was referring to above when I talk about stretching the suspension of disbelief, as I don’t think many people would take the risks taken by the villain for the sake of what amounts to little more than a robbery. To help explain this, I placed emphasis on the villains not understanding the full gravity of the danger of the situation through dialogue; whatever the case, the players did not seem to mind. They were determined to defend their spoils, and took relish in spending Fortune points to see hordes of minions buried in falling stones, angry scorpions and torrents of sand. I really felt like I had the chance to let the environment shine; I got to be creative and throw all kinds of action movie cliches at them, from a giant pillar rolling downhill to crush them to a hall of columns collapsing as they ran through. Doom flowed in and out of the pot like a storm-tossed surf.
In conclusion, I think this is a strong scenario. GMs should be mindful to break the monotony of the dungeon with Hazards, and consider dropping the odd piece of minor loot. The climax is an opportunity to give players metagame power over the narrative in an exciting way, and I think it was one of the most entertaining scenes I have ever GMed. Some of the mechanics are a bit wonky at best, especially those for timeline management, and the potions in jars, but I wouldn’t rather do without them. The more far-fetched plot points did not seem to deter the players from enjoying the action regardless, which really did amount to something epic for all of us. This is not among the most GM-friendly scenarios I have run, forcing me to fill in some gaps or search for information through some poorly-organized sections–though at least it’s a manageable length. For what my opinion is worth, the climax truly has the potential to be something special in the hands of the right group, but it’s a shame that some other parts of the narrative fall short of brilliance. With a few tweaks to scene and monster design in the middle acts, the entire thing is worth playing. I stand by City of Shifting Sands and would recommend it, even if I wasn’t the author.