Review: Bluholme: The Maze of Neuromen

Picked up this module for free from RPGNow; you can get it here. Been flipping through it all day.

The short and vicious:
Gorgeous art, good ideas, inspiring – but many parts seem badly uninspired. You get far more than you pay for. I’m a cheapass and I’d probably drop $15 on a print version.
More after the jump (and, of course, spoilers)

So, I’m an absolute whore for Art Nouveau. Especially prints. Especially the more macabre varieties, or ones steeped in symbols and arcane references.
This book uses skin-crawlingly gorgeous art by Harry Clarke (Samples from a fairy-tale book he illustrated here, along with some other lovely and inspiring grotesqueries). The Maze of Neuromen uses its art very, very well. It not only illustrates the text, it gradually descends into decadence and morbidity throughout. The last few illustrations are gorgeously foul. Frequently the art seems to have inspired the text, and with the art chosen that’s no bad thing.

File Formatting
The PDF has a complete but annoying set of bookmarks. The maps are buried at the bottom, but each keyed location has its own bookmark. Unfortunately, many of the bookmarks are broken, and (in my copy at least) there are two entirely separate groups of bookmarks, each with a tree of mostly-identical bookmarks below it – more than half of which don’t work. The idea was good, the execution crap.

The Map is a Dyson-style B&W hatched map, compact and quite readable (I actually hate the “blues” – they were done in the first place using non-reproduce/blueprint paper, and serve no useful purpose. Plus my eyes are going bad). Anyway, the first-level map is acceptably Jaquay‘d, albeit by making most of the rooms a ring around a central room with exits to multiple points in the ring. There are a surprisingly small number of secret and concealed doors on level 1 (one, plus a magically password-locked one). The area’s easy to explore and map (a plus for newbie adventurers), but the maps for levels 1 and 2 are split between the first and last pages of the PDF – completely unnecessary in this kind of publication. Level 2 is basically linear, sadly, and infested with secret doors.

None. Except, there are several rumors or things the players could know by virtue of their profession hidden in the text. If you’re not intimately familiar with the module before you run it, you have two choices: blow a puzzle’s mystery immediately by handing them the answer on a platter, or ignore the rumor and let them stew.

Encounters & Treasures
I very much like the wandering monster tables.
They include special encounters, with an actual population cap for non-verminous monsters (very rare, in my experience). There is an outside encounter that provides the party with time pressures and a long-term reward and goal.
I am quite annoyed, however, by the disconnects and ellipses in some of the encounters. While they attempt to link a few, the actual execution is lacking, and substantial portions of the dungeon’s encounters will have to be reworked if the players head back for resupply. A group of watchmen, for example, are said to “run off to warn their fellows”, but there’s no indication of the effects of this, multiple groups of the monster are present on the level, and there are also many of this type on the Wandering Monster table. Who is warned? What will they do? A couple of encounters are of the “ooh, I stumbled on an argument” variety; again, they make no sense if the party pulls out and returns.
That otherwise quite nice first encounter references a treasure that has quite a nice effect. Logically, it’s one the quest-giver would dearly love to exploit – one that is only passed on by the death of the person bearing the boon. But the effect of stealing or using the item is never explored, or even hinted at; only reward comes if you return it, regardless of whether you’ve stolen its magic. Likewise, no hint is given to what lies in store if the PCs – who are, after all, PCs – steal the item or refuse to give it up.
Several encounters that have great potential to be unsettling as Hell, or at the very least quite Weird, are squandered for simple triggered hack-and-slash encounters. You have a monster whose appearance is triggered by game pieces, ones that you assuredly already have on the table. Yet, all that happens as-written is a cheap jump-scare and a quick, ugly fight. Tiny enclosed space with an unliving occupant? Let’s make it not make any noise or draw attention to itself in any way! Huge, well thought-out set piece.. used as a background for a couple tacked-on harpies, and the useful clues to their presence in the room’s key are buried in the monster text.
Two absolutely fantastic encounters hid within make up for many a bland one. I wish more had been like this.

The GP treasure is a lot more generous than I usually give out, but it is extremely well-done. Many items are interesting or useful to PCs in their own right – Elfin wine, finely crafted tools, and the like.
Magical treasure is the area where the dungeon feels most.. mundane, for lack of a better word. The vast majority of the magic items are simple +1 objects of armor or weapons. The “quest goal” is very nice (albeit for one person only), there is a characterful and interesting item (with almost no value as a tool..), and an amulet with deeply amusing effects if properly handled. The only other unique-ish magical item has a 50% chance of never being discovered even if the PCs do everything right.

Big problem: this sentence has no business being used in any heartbreaker unless it’s followed by some details. “Intelligent players may ferret something of value from the surviving books, but most are in obscure scripts or can be read only by magic users.” No, fuck you, give me something to work with because I will have someone in my party fitting that description. It’s an immense cop-out.
“The contraptions [in the room] are quite worthless as they are incomprehensible”. Again, there are items all over the rest of the dungeon that have value to someone, value that’s not easily apparent. The personal documents and tools of a vivisector, necromancer, and powerful mage are “incomprehensible” and “valueless” why?  It, and the refusal to imagine the PCs would defraud the Elves, feels like a nod to the “The PCs are, and must always be, Good!” bullshit in AD&D. Even though there’s another couple magical items that are only really valuable to an Evil character.

Few, several of the “Haha, fuck you*” variety, and frequently undermined by their context. For example: 50/50 choice, one way gets you the goal treasure, the other way poisons you.. with a weak and shitty poison. Which is the only one with an antidote seeded in the dungeon.  They are also mostly designed to deplete HP, rather than delay or otherwise hinder the party.

*”Haha, Fuck You” trap: a trap that punishes the players for behaving sensibly, or which requires pure luck to avoid instead of offering clues/bypasses. Also, traps whose clues are there to fuck the players. Lever next to a portcullis, with a sign saying “Pull me!” Oops, it just dropped a poisoned boulder on you! Not save-or-die poisoned needles in locks, not riddle traps that kill you in ironic ways if you answer wrong, but ear-parasites that live in doors and attack people listening at them. Basically, the things you’d look on as a player and call immediately as horseshit. Anywaaay..


Overall rating:
Utility (can I use it as it stands? Is it accessible to me in actual play?): 4/10. This is a pretty decent module, but the glaring gaps in content are annoying to patch. Additionally, critical room details, the bookmarks, and the maps are badly-organized.
Weirdness (How easily can I use it to fuck with my players/inspire horror? Is the magic “magical”?): 6/10; with a little tweaking of a few boring encounters it could very easily climb to an 8.  The magic items require a serious overhaul to be made more interesting.. but you could just delete the bland ones entirely and the adventure wouldn’t suffer all that much.
Puzzles and traps: 7/10. Solidly average, but actually including a riddle trap always warms my heart.
Character Engagement (how likely is it to keep those damned murderhobos on-task?): 9/10. By the time you get to the “goal” you’re in pretty deep, and there are enough clues pointing to more treasure to convince even the most dedicated murderhobo to come back later.
Treasure Engagement (how much of this is more than sacks of coins? How likely are players to straight-up KEEP the non-magical treasures?) 9/10. The variety and type of treasures is excellent and inspiring. You can very easily adjust the values of all these items to suit your campaign, and a few are the kinds of things players might hang onto rather than just whore out for coin back in town. The mage’s study is the only black mark here.
Modularity: (Can I drop it into my world? How hard will it be?) 6/10. There is a very Tolkienian bent to the presentation of the High Elves/Wood Elves, but I can easily replace them with no true damage done to the module. Not only that, most of the dungeon itself still works with an LotFP early-modern setting, and the backstory is specifically designed to interface well with the borders to the Weird in any world. There are also several points to insert adventure hooks, and a couple pre-made ones.
Aesthetics: (How pretty is it?) 10/10. Good art, good layout, good editing, good writing in general.

Overall : 7.5/10. Well above-average, and I like it. It has some weak areas, but it’s still inspiring. I’ll definitely be using it or stealing from it. Worth downloading, especially for the price (free!).

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