Monday, January 1, 2018

Review: A Fabled City of Brass

We've seen unique and strange (Maze of the Blue Medusa) and unique and trippy (Misty Isles of the Eld), unique and grotesque (various offerings for Lamentations of the Flame Princess), but A Fabled City of Brass, by Anthony Huso, offers something new: it is unique and beautiful.

A Fabled City of BrassFrom the gorgeous cover, through each (appropriately) glossy page, the book stays on theme without sacrificing function.  The DM never needs to flip a page: the necessary map is always right there and the color artwork (Jeremy Deveraturda's work hits all the right notes!) helps the DM get her mind into the feel of the location--and feelings matter here in a place that is a ghost-town paradise. 

The text descriptions of each location, marked "Players" and clearly intended to be read aloud (boxed text without the boxes), are evocative of the city's beauty, without being verbose or bloated--it's no surprise that Huso is a novelist.  Words, atmosphere, and a sense of place are so important here, that it causes Huso to misstep: he commits the sin of telling the players what their characters feel.

"Though you do not vocalize it, the obsidian wall terrifies you ..."

"This pattern ... lends a hysterical terror to the mundane jumble of dry, web-strewn baskets."

"Like an ice palace rising from flowered vines, a mansion of alabaster awes you on the avenue of glass."

"The building is covered in plaited carvings of primordial, vaguely geometric shapes that make you anxious."

"Oh really?" the veteran player rejoins, "My paladin has squared off against demon lords before, and now I've got the heebie-jeebies over a sinister looking tower?  Do you have any idea how many sinister-looking towers I've seen?"

"My barbarian kicked Vecna in his nethers, and now a pile of baskets fill me with hysterical terror?  Please."

By crossing that last boundary of agency, it breaks the spell of beautiful words that makes the setting so evocative and unique.  Now we are thinking about mechanics ... "My character has +4 to save vs illusion, and is immune to magical fear effects, did you include that?"   

Now the DM can assert, "Well it's a psychic effect of the city's curse," but this still ignores the fact that this is AD&D, not poetry.  "Save vs narration?"

Another way around this might be an out-of-character discussion with players prior to entering the city, to let them know that here alone, not only their perceptions, but their character's reactions to those perceptions will be subject to the haze that cloaks the city ... not an entirely satisfying work-around and a shame that it needs to be addressed in what is otherwise such an excellent product.

Speaking of psychic effects, A Fabled City of Brass makes extensive use of psionics, which I personally dislike both in concept and in execution in AD&D, and they are integral to many of the fierce challenges found therein.

DM's of the same taste can simply buff the spells and spell-like abilities of the creatures and traps encountered to approximate their psionic equivalents, but with high level characters in the mix, I'm not certain that this will be easy to pull off while maintaining the difficulty of the obstacles Huso had in mind.  AD&D Psionic saves are stat-based rather than level-based with fixed modifiers for class, race, and other factors, and results of Enrage, Panic, and Feeblemind are among the most common.

You can run A Fabled City of Brass without access to the full line of AD&D hardbacks, but it does make some use of Unearthed Arcana, Fiend Folio, and even refers to The Manual of the Planes at one point--something I don't recall from other 1st ed. AD&D products!

Huso is very direct from the outset about the fact that he is writing to a niche of a niche and I really appreciate that.  A Fabled City of Brass is stronger overall for being exactly what it is, a high level AD&D adventure, rather than trying to operate as system-agnostic (which would probably be a mistake for anything written for characters above level 10 or so).   

Huso's, back-cover challenge: "If the high-level heroes in your campaign are bored, promise them more treasure than they can long as they are willing to risk their souls." is spot-on.  This is no sadistic, Isle of the Ape or Tomb of Horrors meat grinder designed to wear characters down and Huso resists the urge to extensively nerf PC abilities, as 2nd edition Ravenloft products did, or even to apply all the watering-down of items and spells offered by Grubb in Manual of the Planes--Huso doesn't mistake mere mechanical penalties for actual challenge.

Title notwithstanding, A Fabled City of Brass doesn't present either a functional city (its bazaar is silent, its rulers and folk mysteriously absent), nor an entire city -- we get to visit a handful of small walled districts, adjoining a Palace of the Painted Dawn.

While I favor a loose approach to time tracking and movement, not all torches in my campaigns burn for the same duration and not all 50-foot corridors require the same amount of time to traverse, that won't do in the City of Brass!  Time keeping is essential here and time is certainly a resource to be carefully spent alongside scrolls and hit points.  Fortunately, Huso provides a simple time-tracker to assist the DM with this.

A suggestion to readers:

Except for the three pages on City of Brass Rules & Systems (Appendix E), read through the entire main city guidebook prior to opening City of Brass Appendices.  Don't go chase down the details of the unique NPCs, artifacts, and dead races that you'll discover until after you have finished your journey through the city.

That way, the secrets of the history and its curse will unfold for you a bit at a time as you explore each district--the same way that it will happen for your players.  You won't get the whole picture of course, and neither will they, but the depth is there.  In fact, the curse of the city all but ensures that the PCs won't ever get to the bottom of the mystery of why a place of such perfection and beauty stands largely empty, but the answers are there to be found.

Huso has accomplished in less than 100 pages what other ventures sprawl far longer to try and reach: a place that adventurers will long to return to, but whose streets, with a sigh and a shake of the head, they will refuse to ever tread again.


Your players have seen it all and are ready for something completely different or if you simply enjoy reading well-written adventure modules.


You are at all daunted by adapting 1st ed. AD&D to your system of choice or if you are so attached to the player characters of your campaign that you won't want to see them forever changed.