Monday, March 17, 2014

B7 - Rahasia - Review

Rahasia is a story focused module written in 1984 by Tracy and Laura Hickman, the folks behind Dragonlance. Rahasia is written for an extremely Tolkienesque fantasy world, perhaps the Basic D&D fantasy world that later became standard for TSR. Not sure why the story and setting are so aggravating to me – it may be descriptions like: “an elven maid, whose veiled grace and beauty outshines all others present as the sun outshines the stars-she is Rahasia.” The entire set up and world is so revoltingly encrusted with high fantasy bathos that it’s almost painful to read. Still, it's more than the descriptions that make me dislike B7, it's the way that Rahasia enforces the world it creates with GM-side rules that not only force the players to accept the adventure but penalize characters for not acting in a noble manner. All this is unfortunate because there are some good set pieces in the haunted temple itself. The maps are solid, the traps often well designed, numerous puzzles included, the encounters mostly sensible with several unique monsters, and there’s even some treasure that isn’t completely boring.  Rahasia still suffers from lesser problems beyond the absurd bombastic descriptions and mawkishness railroading. Treasure placement is somewhat non-standard, with a few large caches rather then a constant dribble of valuables. The magic items are not so great, but they are less common then in most early TSR modules and the authors have included a couple of interesting unique items. The most serious problem, linked to the railroading impulse of the module, is a lack of factions in Rahasia.  While several of the best encounters are with ‘good’ temple guardians or otherwise upend vanilla fantasy assumptions about when to fight or who to rescue, there’s no room in Rahasia for manipulation and gray morality.
decent art and execrable verse

The art and layout are fine, though for such a socially driven module I could have used a bit more about the village, especially if I am trying to get my players excited about saving it.  Some sense of the goals and potential outcomes of the module beyond - free the elf damsels, do good, adventure would also be nice. The box text isn't even especially bad, it's mostly short and fairly functional.  All of the poetry is terrible, and the wine jokes are bad, but I suppose one can spin that either as a function of poor translation or elven lameness.  I rather like the ink drawings in Rahasia more then B5 or B6, though they are similar.

I also doubt a bit if the encounters are sufficient to give the recommended party size and level much of a challenge, for example the witches who are the adventure’s main villains are first level magic users, with 5HP and two spells. Now one spell is sleep and they have panther’s protecting them, but when your adventure’s great adversaries are a pair of 4HD encounters vs. 10 – 24HD of party (without henchmen) there may be a lack of challenge. This might sound like a minor complaint, fixable by adding a few more hit dice or monsters here and there, but it’s not so simple, the weak enemies are a function of the structure of these modules and the way they insist (often through railroad tactics) players approach them. The second wave of ‘B’ modules suffers from pitiful enemies generally, because in keeping with their stringent lawful/chaotic morality the players are expected to fight and defeat the monsters. Where it’s clearly obvious that a party which tries to carve its way though the Caves with violence will fail if the humanoids are run with a modicum of thought, the opposition in Rahasia will fall to an aggressive party, and it must, because there are no other approaches considered by the authors.

The relative weakness of the opposition is a problem that I think derives from the module as narrative (as opposed to the module as location). If there’s a story to be told, and a specific way through that story for the players then it has to be possible for them to do that. One sees strange examples of this sort of thinking in modules like “Egg of the Phoenix” where there are specific solutions to early encounters necessary to survive the final encounter. Yet Rahasia (and Horror on the Hill to name another module from its era) also have requirements for how they should be played. The witches in Rahasia are weak, because they aren’t supposed to be killed – the party is supposed to save the elves whose bodies the witches have stolen. The party should walk up and engage them in melee (with a pitiful subdual mechanic) and not annihilate them with a single 3rd level magic missile strike or oil bomb. In my own experience with these sorts of forced solutions breed contempt in the players and will likely result in their doing everything possible to do the opposite of what they are ‘supposed’ to. A module is better if it offers a problem and allows the players to find the solution, not simply a story to playact through. When there is little room to trick, bypass or drive off monsters short of a full on melee this is a railroad as well, where the only solution is combat, and thus combat must be of the sort that the party can sustain for the entire adventure. I believe it’s this era of chaos vs. law focused adventures that were largely responsible for the idea that D&D is all about combat with monsters, rather than exploration.

We might do something about the weird
Orientialism theme as well.
So I can’t figure out if this is a good module with a presentation that irks me, or a sign of the decline in modules from open world sandboxes to railroads about heroics. I guess it’s both. The thing is that the majority of Rahasia’s problems are in its hook and its attitude, both of which can be fixed. The reason I write these ‘reviews’ is to think of how to fix old modules, and Rahasia needs some fixing, even if the core of the adventure is pretty solid.

Remove the railroad. Rahasia’s hook is a railroad, and an especially ugly one, because it both gives the players false choices and demands that they have a proper moral attitude to their adventure. In keeping with my approach to games, and opinion that the best use for old modules is as hex filler, it’s enough simply to put the mysterious elven temple on the map. Let the party find a dead elf (or have a living elf show up and make false promises to the party – it’s an elf, what does it care about the mayfly lives of a human adventuring party). If the party bites they can go to the elven village and meet up with the elf maiden. If not, three witches and an evil cleric start building an army of panthers and evil forest elves and likely carve out a little empire. Likewise if the party listens to Rahasia’s speech and is not impressed that an elf needs help without the promise of decent looting. Let the party go, and let them get attacked by brainwashed elven monks. No need for unstoppable knock out gas, several elves with sleep spells and a good ambush spot should be able to stop the party. This isn’t railroading – run the ambush as a normal ambush – because it makes sense that the villianized temple elves are watching the village and attacking groups that leave with info about the temple takeover. ). Likewise there is no reason to make the party either save the brainwashed elves or defeat the witches by trapping them again. Indeed, the witches and their flunky priest represent a potential set of allies for the party, if they are willing to see the more horrible faction triumph, and don’t mind slaying several dangerous holy beasts.

Mess with the elves and put factions into this adventure. I think removing the elves as Tolkienesque tree singing do-gooders (though to be fair to Tolkien his elves are pretty merciless and creepy sometimes) is necessary to open up the module a bit. They can still be elves, but it’s best if Rahasia isn’t a beautiful elf maiden who represents unalloyed good in need of help. The elves can be elves of the creepy sort, either forest dwelling aliens with twisted values (i.e. the lives of trees as long lived things are worth infinitely more then those of short lived humans), or some kind of weird unnatural lotus eaters who can’t be bothered to save their own temple due to assorted nonsensical strictures. Likewise, within the temple it should be clear that the elven priests are brainwashed, but also clear that their religion is pretty off. They keep a giant snake monster as a temple elder, and a water weird drowns people who mess with their wishing pool – I wouldn’t be surprised if human sacrifice was a practice they also endorsed. Perhaps they need not be elves, but rather some kind of religious community of humans or whatever, well outside the mainstream. That temple guardian is one of the better encounters within Rahasia, it’s a naga by another name. Some sort of snaky horror with a lot of cleric spells and several hit dice slithers out of the darkness. This thing is a friend, but it’s also the sort of creature that your average player will assume is a level draining spell casting hellbeast in need of that hoarded lighting bolt scroll. While making your player fight a high HD spell caster that could have helped them (if only they’d been understanding and not judgmental) has a certain raw ‘evil GM’ appeal, it works better for me it the creature is A) not especially terrible or aggressive in context B) Utterly alien and kind of awful. So we have two or three factions 1) Vilalgers/brainwashed priests 2) The witches and their clerical follower 3) The temple beasts – (which I think includes some of the strange random encounters here – like the gratuitous minotaurs).

The villagers shouldn’t be hard to fix up, as discussed above, but the witches need more context. It makes more sense if they themselves are some kind of demi-goddesses related to the villager’s cult, less benign representations of the ancient version of the village religion. That also explains why they have a powerful priestly servant. So the party is pulled into a three way doctrinal conflict. Village types who want the religion to stay calm and secondary to their lives, Temple beasts who want to awe the villagers and maybe turn the village back into a real religious community (starting with a round of scapegoating and witch hunts of course) and the ancient goddesses who want power, and glory and to spread their creed by conquest. 

Increase the Opposition - Now that the party need not fight everything and save elf maidens, it’s possible to increase the danger level of the encounters. It’s possible to really toughen stuff up because presumably the party can recruit allies to help them in fights. So the witches can have greater powers (especially once their hosts are slain – because dead puppet elves) and packs 3-4 panthers. I’ll add stronger guards (maybe they only have two hit dice when free, but have a third because they are dominated and ignore mortal wounds for a while), stranger temple beasts -waking from slumber (more gargoyles, stronger naga) and the evil priest can actually have guards, not orcs but some kind of cult mercenaries. With the elven guards and witches stronger, not fighting them toe to toe, and instead figuring out how to break their enchantment, or recapture their spirits makes a lot more sense as a tactical, and not simply moral choice. If these are tough fights that can be avoided by following environmental and story clues, rather then enforced moral choices, the players will undoubtedly feel better if they unravel the story and figure out how to retake/loot the temple without having to fight and suffer from dangerous opponents.

With these changes I think Rahasia makes a decent adventure. I’d also remove the random “Hey we built a temple atop a wizard tower, and make the whole thing levels of increasingly ancient shrines with increasingly off putting religious art. The bottom level, with traps that turn people into treasure (which is potentially ripe for abuse), is clearly a place of ancient faith with miraculous possibilities and an aura of decaying grandeur would be rather evocative. The wandering monster list could also use a fix, but with a story in place that should be easy (and really it already makes an effort to make sense).

All and all Rahasia is a good skeleton of a module, that can be improved by pulling out the awful railroading it demands to create a story about saving elven damsels. I don’t think eliminating that story is helpful (some players may really want to save elven damsels), but letting the players tell their own alternative (perhaps bringing back ancient deities and plunging a chunk of the world into holy war is more your players’ goal) seems necessary to making any adventure fun.


  1. Thanks for the review and the suggestions. I appreciate the suggestions because they make an older resource more useful. I find a lot of reviews of older modules to be just, "It sucks 'cause..." and then a bunch of gripes. You're showing us how to take these classic "gems" and make them better.

  2. This is fantastic advice and very timely as I was planning on using this module in an upcoming campaign. I purchased this module because it has a distinct southeastern feel to it, if you remove the out-of place Tolkien elements (I'm contemplating changing the elves into lizardmen or serpentmen). I really disliked the heavy-handed railroading and the moral strictures, and your analysis here will really help me greatly in reworking an otherwise disappointing module.

    1. I like the Serpentmen idea a lot. Make sense with the naga.

  3. One of the reasons I never did like the Dragonlance books (although a few of the modules were fun) is the oily prose and characters who seemed to be consigned to Fate (whether they knew it or not). This module suffers the same presumption of lack of agency that the characters in the novels did IMO.

    And the same brand of twee verse still makes me want to take a shower.

    But the deal breaker for this module for me is the incomprehensible teleport gate section. How would an average player map it? Does the heartburn so induced in any way contribute to the dungeon? It seems a dissertation by a sophomoric dungeon designer who demands you how to his superiority.

    In fact, I would call this dungeon the Mary Sue of dungeons, especially from this era.

  4. I bought Rahasia when it was released, and it was the TSR product that made me realize the company (and I suppose D&D) was moving in an unwelcome direction. I didn't know the term 'railroad' in 1984, but I called Rahasia an 'insert characters here' dungeon. I recognized this was a break from the format and playstyle of D&D as I had experienced it from 1979.

    This is where I got off the bus. I didn't buy another TSR product until I bought a used copy of Night Below in 1998.

    1. Thing is I actually have come around somewhat on the Hickmans - thier own railroads aren't usually that pushy (and heck in G1 Gygax forces the adventurers to raid the giants under penalty of execution so it's not as id they invented that sort of hook), compared to their emulators. Ravenloft is pretty good for example.

      I never read Rahasia back in the day,but I think TSR managed to produce some decent stuff (B10 for example) afterwards.