Guest Writer : Brian DiTullio
One-on-One Competition enthusiasts, grab your hat and buy your programs, this is not a drill!!!
To say “The Gem and the Staff” is a different kind of adventure would be accurate since it only requires one Dungeon Master and one player, rather than the usual group dynamic. The module contains two scenarios that are to be played under a strict 30-minute time limit with a scoring system at the end.
Before we get too much farther into this review, I will note some editorial bias. I played this module on two different occasions and I do have a fondness for it. I promise that it will not affect my ability to sling some nostalgic mud at it when it deserves it.
This package of linked scenarios is the first of two in the “O” series of modules put out by TSR in the early 1980’s. The module has a pre-written character specifically tailored for the adventure, “Eric The Bold.” Never has there been a more intimidating, or “Screw it I’m out of ideas here” name for a pre-written character.
Eric The Bold is an 8th-level Thief, and his stats are fairly unremarkable, but actually kind of realistic if you’re not power-gaming or trying to min/max. He does have magic weapons and a ring of spell storing, so the authors didn’t send the player off into the wild armed only with a slingshot and good intentions.
A breakdown of the product shows the classic TSR-era trifold cover with two 16-page booklets. The maps are well drawn, and the interior art by Harry Quinn is fantastic. The first book is the two linked scenarios wherein Eric the Bold has to first infiltrate Tormaq’s tower to steal back a gem for a royal family member, and then Tormaq employs Eric to steal the Staff of Fazzlewood in the follow-up.
Going through the first adventure, Eric must infiltrate Tormaq’s Tower, get past a hydra, a sleeping troll, some angry pixies, and deal with a grumpy invisible stalker with a speech impediment. If he can do that and get out without being captured, the mission is a success.
In the second adventure, Eric is tasked by Tormaq (either through compulsion to win his freedom as a result of being captured in the first adventure, or as a business transaction, depending on how the first adventure ended) to retrieve the Staff of Fazzlewood from a rival wizard. In this scenario, Eric must get past some Ogres, find the hidden door without falling into a giant pit, talk to a Magic Mouth, and then deal with a wizard’s apprentice, and possibly the BBEG himself, Felspel!!
The second book is a beautifully illustrated map book of all the encounter locations as seen from above, suitable for player use. It’s a shame this wasn’t done more in some of the more famous modules TSR put out in the 1980s as I do believe a map set like this one totally is worth the cost.
The scenarios are full of traps, tricks, and very well done character bits with the NPCs. For example, there is the aforementioned invisible stalker with a speech impediment received from a group sprites in an adjacent room who can cause bells to grow on Eric’s shoes or make him grow a long, Pinocchio nose.
That’s good writing, and it’s all over the module as everything seems to tie together, and mistakes made in one room WILL have consequences in the next room.
With the compliments free flowing to this point, it’s time to point to the gigantic yeti in the room. The first scenario begins with an emissary from the “Guild of Agents” knocking on an 8th-level thieves’ door in the middle of the night to threaten him to take this job or go to jail.
As anyone who has ever played the game will tell you, an 8th-level thief is not in a position to be woken up in the middle of the night with a polite knock on the door. That doesn’t happen until you reach Level 15. Until then, you are ambushed on the street and drug off to the king’s jail like anyone else.
The other glaring problem with the first scenario is that it is almost impossible to “win.” Having played through it twice as the Dungeon Master, I can attest to it. The scenario almost is a railroad story to get Eric the Bold to the second adventure to retrieve the Staff of Fazzlewood. The eponymous gem never is spoken of again, so even if Eric fails the first adventure but succeeds on the second one, he’s still staring at hard time.
The other real glaring problem with these adventures is the pre-ordained time limit of 30 minutes. While this does create a competition-like atmosphere, it also feels a bit unreasonable, even by just doing a quick read of the module before playing.
The quest to retrieve the gem from Tormaq’s Tower includes five legit encounters that take time to role play or run combat. One thing working in the adventure’s favor is that this is a 1st Edition module, so combat runs a lot faster than in many current versions of the game. However, as a veteran of timed competitions, and having written several of them myself, the 30-minute time limit simply is too short.
If I were to run this today, I would increase the time to 45 minutes if I wanted to keep a “ticking clock” on the adventure. The 45-minute clock still would be tight, but it would be reasonable, and allow the player to more organically get through the adventure. As it stands now, it’s just a race, which is fine if you’re actually running a tournament, but defeats the purpose of just two friends getting together to kick back and have a good game night.
A 60-minute time limit would be a more relaxed experience if you still wanted to keep some kind of clock on the adventure, but after that there’s no reason to time it if you just want to go through the scenario and not worry about a clock.
As for the scoring at the end of each piece, outside of an actual convention tournament, I’m not sure what the purpose is since most home campaigns I’ve ever played in either are for leveling up, or just the challenge of finishing the scenario.
The only other thing that ever really bothered me about this adventure purely is aesthetic. The player character sheet it designed to be torn out of the book, and it is on the backside of the cover page. My treasured copy still is completely intact. I would never tear things out of books, and I was upset that this option even was presented in the first place.
I photocopy that stuff like a normal person. DO NOT TEAR THE PRECIOUS!!!