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Rule Brittania! A review of Simon Todd’s Tantalus: an Introduction to The Cauldron

British fantasy gamers have always been a bit different than we Americans. White Dwarf had a different feel to it than The Dragon, and the Fiend Folio was clearly not a sequel to the Monster Manual. There is a different aesthetic at work, influences that shine through that American gamers and designers tend to either dismiss or apply in a very different way. This is not a bad thing. I was a fan of the Fiend Folio, and the creatures in that book have been in the weave of my game universe since it became available all those years ago. White Dwarf was a rare but well loved reading experience for me.

So while my experience with the British side of the gaming world was admittedly limited, I did love what I managed to see of it here in the boondocks of Missouri.

So I thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to Montidots and Simon Todd. https://bluefairydesigns.wordpress.com/about/ (Have a look-see here.)

Note: Tantalus is written for OSRIC, which makes it easily used with the earlier editions of the World’s Oldest Roleplaying Game and the numerous retroclones thereof.

Tantalus is the first adventure in The Typhon Cycle, which is a continuation of the Highcliff Gard trilogy of adventures. If this sounds like an epic in the making to you, that’s because it is. Like Dragonlance and Tablets of Fate before it, this series describes a long and detailed story and setting. I have to confess, jumping in at this point felt like a daunting task at first, but thankfully, the adventure is written so that the DM can include it in his campaign even if he has not run the preceding adventure.

So down to the adventure itself. We have a great deal of backstory, more than the players will know or need to know. DMs that have run the Highgard series will find this material especially useful, as it further details the default world in which these modules are set.

The best word I can use to describe Tantalus is big. The story involves the world of the fey, and the world of man, and the history between the two. Tantalus is a demiplane where the world of the fey and the plane of Tartarus have merged. The area described in this module is approximately 15,000 miles from east to west by 8,000 miles from north to south. And this is not counting the maps and descriptions of the environs in which Highcliff Gard took place, or the two levels of dungeon crawl that form the basis of the adventure.

Even if one has no intention of running the storyline, the amount of material contained within is sufficient for a very long campaign. “The Isle of Dread” comes to mind for comparison in terms of scope. According to the author, a number of follow up modules and perhaps even full sourcebooks detailing the locations in Tantalus could be produced in the future.

The story revolves around the party entering a mist and being transported to the entrance to a dungeon of fair size (two levels worth) and fairly severe difficulty. I would expect two to three game sessions from the time I set up the journey into the mist until they are out the other side. (My players would kill an additional game slowly figuring out that the trip was one way and they were stuck.)

The dungeon the players arrive in is the lair of a Tartaran horror called the Dereloth. It is asleep. Evil DM that I am, I chuckled when I read the stats. Suffice it to say, it would be in the best interest of the players never to wake it. It’s big, has a lot of hit points, eats anything that moves, and does a horrific amount of damage.  I don’t want to give too much away here, since some of you readers might be players later, but this is a dungeon that is going to demand skill and intelligence to navigate and survive.

This is certainly not an adventure for the dull-witted.

Assuming you don’t have a TPK, when the survivors make it out the other side of this dungeon, they will rapidly find they are off the prime material, if they haven’t already figured this out. The players encounter some very key npcs who are the only real means of egress from the island they have emerged on. They are also the only real source of useful information about The Cauldron and the various locations therein. You have a very large scale map of the various islands that make up the demiplane, and while it is dangerous and inhospitable, it is inhabited. The DM should be prepared to do a fair amount of work fleshing out the areas that the party can visit from here. Thumbnail descriptions are provided, ala the original Greyhawk, but the real work is up to the DM. No two versions of this world will be alike.

The impression I get is that the story that began with the Highcliff Gard trilogy opens up into a tremendous sandbox. The setting has a great mix of fey, demonic, undead, and racial influences. Gold, gems, and souls (including, potentially, the players) are used as currency. The whole plane exists in a vast storm, and skyships are employed to navigate the winds that blow ceaselessly through the vast setting.

Fans of Planescape will find much to like here, but I have to confess I prefer the somewhat darker feel of this setting to the more mainstream feel of the Planescape box. (Although I will readily admit that is a classic work that deserves the love it gets.)

Tantalus is pulling triple duty. The work is a continuation of an existing work, a dungeon adventure, and an introduction to a truly vast campaign setting. Simon Todd is writing, designing, mapping, and illustrating the entire piece, and succeeds wonderfully well in producing a very commendable work with that unique British voice that I personally enjoy very much.

There are a lot of reasons to check out this module. Fans of epics like Dragonlance and Tablets of Fate, the Fiend Folio, Planescape,  and the classic “U” series will all find much to recommend this. DMs who like to take thumbnail information and develop it according to their own designs will love this. Montidots is making a bid to create something as vivid, unique, and alive as the original TSR gaming worlds and the Judge’s Guild classics.

 

 

Rating: a solid A+ for superior writing, design, and artwork. 

 

 

 

 

 

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