Tuesday, June 19, 2012

D&D: Shadowman's Tricks and Traps review

If you’re a GM, like me, there is a possibility that you one time or the other dared venturing into the exciting terrain known as riddles and puzzles. Like me. The benefits of such seem obvious, truth to be told, especially regarding various fantasy settings such as Dungeons and Dragons. Games in which the heroes all too often get to rely on their brute force and high numbers and solve most things by a mere roll of the dice.
Puzzles are awesome in this regard as they force your players to stand down and approach the issue from a whole new angle. This also counts for the metaperspective; there is nothing I love more than watching power games being reduced to frowning piles of passive aggression, as their “ZOMG PERFECTLY BEST BUILD!!!” does nothing against riddling texture on a door. It’s just how it is.

If you’re REALLY like me (okay, we’re stretching it here) you’ve delved deep into various sourcebooks for puzzles and riddles because you, let’s face it, are not clever enough to come up with your own. That’s okay; I usually tell people it’s because I work too much to figure out my own riddles. Luckily, for people like us, the internet and plenty of books out there offer solid alternatives and today I’m going to talk a little bit about the newest order that hit my mail; Shadowman’s Tricks and Traps by Cloud Kingdom Games.

How not to get carried away by a moonlight shadowman
Some people might be familiar with previous publications from Cloud Kingdom Games; such as Riddle Rooms 1: Dungeon Dilemmas and Riddle Rooms 2: Wilderness Puzzles and Perils. Whereas both books did offer some interesting ideas, some certainly more involved and creative than others, to me it was never a secret that the big time hitters were the Shadowman-scenarios included. One in each book, the second one being notoriously longer and more challenging than the first.

Essentially, the shadowman-scenario reduces the campaign to a PC adventure game from the 90’es. The players are stripped of all powers and let alone in an isolated area, such as a room or a very small house. Unable to escape, unless they acquire a very certain item, they are forced to muster their brains and do some serious chain-thinking in order to succeed. It’s the classy adventure-game mentality as some of us have learned to love. In order to get the map tattooed on a guy’s back we need to get to him over burning sand, which requires us to find something that will allow us to pass the burning sand, but before we can get to that, we need to find a way to distract the guard watching it, and so on. It’s an awfully simple, yet appealing, way of dealing with problems that often turned more complex than intended.

Enjoy the front. It doesn't get any better.
I ran both Shadowman scenarios for my Savage Tide group with great success. It was therefore no biggie for me to set up a big event before ordering Shadowman’s Tricks and Traps (honestly, a whole book NAMED after him! Awesome! It even says it comes with three small adventures of pure puzzles!) and today it arrived in the mail.

My impressions?
Not really that positive. But it’s important that you know where I’m coming from with this.

What’s wrong with Shadowman’s Tricks and Traps?
Allow me to first and foremost say; if you’re one of the (very few, I imagine) people out there considering to order the book for the same reason as I did; don’t. There are ZERO scenarios in the 90’es adventuregame style. None.

The book is bigger than I imagined and roughly speaking contains a small series of separate puzzles followed by a few chapters of connected riddles and challenges, such as being stranded on a deserted island and finding your way off. In addition, the book is supplemented by a Hint and Solution chapter which is greatly needed for some of the challenges. Compared to previously mentioned books, there is surprisingly few illustrations in STT and the few you’ll find are mostly boring and look like clipart torn out from Windows in black and white. Shame.

Regarding the quality and difficulty of the puzzles it’s worth noticing that this book first and foremost seems to be a riddle book and then secondly, something you can use in your roleplaying campaign. There is often a quick tip as to how you can incorporate a puzzle into a session, but nothing that will rock a seasoned GM. It’s easy to get the impression that this books is in fact better enjoyed alone on a winter’s eve before the fireplace, or on holiday at the beach in which you wish to keep your brain on the run.
But again, nothing a good GM wouldn’t be able to compensate for. Just don’t rely too much on the illustrations.

However, for this very reason the puzzles never get specific ally fantasy-minded. Most of them are pure word-plays, code cracking or intended to take up time. For example, in one puzzle you’re simply presented with a text of gibberish that COULD be read as a certain sentence provided the players have a certain kind of twisted mindset, as the book states. Even though hints can always be given, this seems to be stretching it. Even when I was aware of the solution and ran through the puzzle once again, I just never saw it. And knowing my players (and thinking of just about every player I’ve had) I’m damn well sure none of them would as well.

Of course everything gets better with hints. Otherwise, the sole way of solving some of the puzzles seems to involve staring down the page till a revelation presents itself. Again, wordplays, puns and numbers make up the bread and butter for the puzzles in this book, meaning you’d likely be safe using them in a D&D session as well as taking them to a social night with your co-workers (although I wouldn’t guarantee about their reaction). These puzzles are SAFE puzzles, for good and evil. They are neither original nor especially innovative in any ways.

Speak English!
STT is in English; hardly a surprise. But what matters is the fact that since the book insists so heavily upon wordplays, you’ll likely have a really hard time shoehorning some of the puzzles into your game unless it’s an English speaking one. For the majority this is no issue and you can likely look past this complaint. But for the rest of us this gets a bit annoying. Whereas some people in my own group speak great English, I know for sure some of them would be put off at the very notion. And I already loathe when I cut off players due to puzzle-placement.

An example of this, which is really not a huge spoiler, is getting a guy a spyglass, even though there is no spyglass to be found. Instead, the solution is to steal a drinking glass from the spy drinking in the tavern. This one is clever, I really liked it, but it’s damn near impossible to translate into my language. A more horrible example involves a blacksmith looking for a hammer. The solution is to get a ham and have butcher write an R into it. HamR. HaaaamEEERRRRRRR. GET IT??

In these cases, STT seems more like a cheap montage of entertainment. Bad puns rather than challenging puzzles, and it’s a shame. I really hope that someday I’ll get the chance to try it out with an English speaking group just to see the difference, but until then it now rests safely on the shelf, high up and away from use. While the ideas behind the scenarios and some of their challenges are not bad, these are pretty much the only good thing I can point out regarding this book.

The conclusion
If the language issue is not prominent in your case, I’d say it might be worth a try, although you shouldn’t expect miracles regarding some of the puzzles. If you’re group is more pragmatic or they wish to solve puzzles through actions and not only pun-play; I really wouldn’t recommend getting this at all. Save your money for something better, perhaps try the other two books I’ve described. As for now, 20$ is not a whole lot for a riddle book, but on the other hand; it’s too much for THIS riddle book.
It’s a shame we see so few truly dedicated puzzle-riddle books for the fantasy setting, but if have any recommendations that don’t fall into the pits mentioned in this review, I’d love to hear from you and pass along the info!

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