Saturday, June 17, 2017

Anomalous Subsurface Environment 1 Review

To start off my RPG review blog, I decided to do a page-by-page review of the latest product I received, Patrick Wetmore’s Dungeon Module ASE1, or Anomalous Subsurface Environment. I detail the highlights and impressions from every single page. If you don’t want to see the minutiae of my review, just skip to the TL;DR at the bottom. NOTE: This review, by necessity, contains major spoilers.
Cover: The cover features amazing art that really sets off the module in an interesting manner, as well as a fun and concise summary of the module.
Page 1: The first page is merely the cover but in a black-and-white color scheme. Nothing much to report here.
Page 2: The second page is merely credits, disclaimers, and such. Again, nothing new to report.
Page 3: The third page is solely devoted to a table of contents and a list of all of the tables in the book. This is exceedingly helpful if you need to find table X right now.
Page 4: Page 4 starts with a description of what is contained in ASE1 and the meaning of megadungeon. Wetmore states that ASE1 is meant to have campaigns revolve around it and begins to talk about the organization of the book.
Page 5: Page 5 contains advice for running the city of Denethix and advice for referees new to retroclones based around OD&D. While not for everyone, the advice for new referees is concise while managing to hit most of the main points.
Page 6: On this page, advice is given for referees to give to inexperienced players. This is limited to a few short bullet points that the referee can just rattle off. This finishes off the introduction and without further ado, it begins to describe the campaign setting. The core part of the setting is that it is based in a post-apocalyptic land where wizards rule the wastelands, with Denethix being the only chance for a decent life.
Page 7: Page 7 finishes talking about the brief setting description given and begins to talk about ‘orbital gods’, the deities of the setting. In the Land of One Thousand Towers, the gods are in fact artificial intelligences created prior to the cataclysm that reside in satellites. From their satellites, they communicate through the God’s Eyes, which are described on
Page 8: On page 8, even more information is given about the orbital gods. It tells that for the most part, the gods are Neutral, sometimes bordering on Chaotic. It provides advice for paladins and clerics and reveals the pantheism of the gods. After this, the Cult of Science is explained. The Cult of Science is a group of people who literally worship science, using a basic understanding of some minor aspects without any true discoveries or research. This is quite original and provides a cool bit of flavor for the setting.
Page 9: Page 9 introduces the Cult of Starry Wisdom, infravision, and demi-humans. The Cult of Starry Wisdom is devoted to Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos. They are heavily Chaotic and prone to practicing human sacrifice. One of their primary goals is the seeking of the Shining Trapezohedron, an ancient artifact. Infravision has been expanded to wide spectrum vision, a choice that does make sense for the setting. Demi-humans have been cosmetically altered from Labyrinth Lord but have no real mechanical alterations. All in all, this page crawls with great flavor that really resonates with the reader.
Page 10: Page 10 revolves around goblins, revealing that they are merely the servitors of Hive Minds, aliens exceedingly like illithid elder brains. It also begins to describe the map located on
Page 11: Page 11 is devoted to a map of the Land of One Thousand Towers. It uses a hex grid, but the terrain is not tied to the hex grid. This is one of the better options for using a hex grid, allowing players to move on a hex grid but not restraining the map to fitting into set hexagons.
Page 12: Page 12 describes places with names as flavorful as ‘the Feasting Trees’ or ‘Lanthanide Wastes’. Every place comes with a brief description of the rumors enshrouding it and of the dangers lurking within, typically around four sentences each. The page ends by beginning to describe the history of Denethix and its mad ex-ruler Feretha. All in all, this page drips with adventure ideas.
Page 13: Page 13 describes the fate of Feretha, who died of a stroke and was secretly replaced by the only two people who witnessed his death. This was what led to Denethix being the haven of freedom that it is. The second half of the page is devoted to describing law and society in Denethix, especially the bureaucracy and hazards involved. This page shows some unique concepts and ideas but not as many as the previous ones.
Page 14: Page 14 begins to showcase the various factions of Denethix. The sample stat blocks provided for the members of the Unyielding Fist are quite helpful and the descriptions do suggest several concepts. The enmity between the Society of the Luminous and various other factions especially could prove fruitful.
Page 15: Page 15’s key features are stat blocks for Koyl Yrenum and Marcus Tyro, the two true leaders of Denethix. Besides this, not too much helpful information is included.
Page 16: A basic map of Denethix is on this page, along with descriptions of the Street of Upright Living and the Street of Worthy Servitude. The map is barebones, but this is a necessity due to the constant change to the planning of Denethix.
Page 17: Page 17 details the Street of Lesser Men, the Street of Industrious Efforts, and the Street of Students. The average inhabitants of each are described, as well as lists of popular inns and taverns there. The lists of popular inns and taverns are a welcome addition.
Page 18: Page 18 continues detailing locations, ranging from the Street of the Alien to the Verdant Plaza. The locations mentioned here are more interesting and unique than the ones found on the previous pages. Quote: “The poor also live in wooden tenements tucked between the slave warehouses and manses of the flesh peddlers, but it is an uneasy existence…” That quote immediately suggests an adventure hook of the party coming upon the scene of a slaver enslaving a citizen.
Page 19: Page 19 contains a quarter page illustration of people at the Inn of Alabaster Surprise, one of the more popular establishments in Denethix. It also describes how the (wealthy) people of Denethix receive power.
Page 20: Page 20 contains descriptions of more interesting locations. The most interesting location is the Bank Inviolable, the heart of Denethix’s economy, which is protected by four man sized automatons who kill any would-be robbers. All in all, this is a decent selection of locations.
Page 21: On this page, two more locations in Denethix are detailed, as well as a few towns and villages surrounding Denethix. It describes the mold farmers of Gansett and the dirt farmers of Chelmsfordshire, who hang out at the Muddy Cup. While not very serious, the towns and villages thus far seem to be quite interesting.
Page 22: Page 22 contains information on more villages and towns. The most detailed and interesting is Lugosi, a town that practices several odd rituals and festivals based around their vampiric past. For each of these towns and villages, the most popular eating houses are detailed.
Page 23: Page 23 contains another hex map that focuses on the areas around Denethix, such as all of the surrounding towns and villages, as well as the River Pristine, the River Effluent, and Mount Rendon.
Page 24: Page 24 details three more towns and cities, each of which have an interesting detail that goes along with them. It also has a table that allows you to randomly generate city rumors. The best one, “The Unyielding Fist’s got a new laser, see? Big one! But get this… it’s fueled with people! People!” However, all of them could set the stage for a cool side adventure.
Page 25: Page 25 contains even more random tables, that let you generate unusual curios, shops of the greater Denethix area, and random city events. Every single one of the unusual curios are indeed unusual, such as a four-sided triangle or a doll made of human teeth. The shops are quite easy to comprehend and the events have brief and detailed descriptions.
Page 26: On page 26, the random city events table is finished and a list of city encounters is provided. For every encounter, a type of person and a random number is provided, as well as any other relevant information.
Page 27: Tables for dangerous encounters and random encounters are on this page. All of the dangerous encounter entries contain stat blocks and a few relevant details. An amusing pair of entries are one entitled ‘Sometimes mold cakes just don’t satisfy’, where you encounter beggars turned cannibals, and one entitled ‘Sometimes when you kill a beggar-turned-cannibal, they don’t stay dead’. The town and village encounters are quite interesting as well, with examples being gauchos riding protoceratops and an ancient robot continually planting seeds. All in all, this page contains two of the better tables.
Page 28: Page 28 contains tables to generate good clean country violence, fashion for wealthy gentlemen, and haute couture for ladies of means. These tables aren’t quite as interesting, but, once again, the good clean country violence table contains complete stat blocks.
Page 29: Page 29 contains tables for generating random horrible secrets and barkeepers. Every entry in the barkeepers table gives a name and a description of their manners and appearance. Each of the horrible secrets is indeed a horrible secret, ranging from being an aspect of Nyarlathotep to not having a soul. These tables help add to the gonzo theme of ASE1.
Page 30: This page contains tables for generating villagers and urban poor. Just like the barkeepers table, every entry has a name and a unique feature about the person, from having two noses to seeking to make a ‘parrot’ from a carrot and a potato. The entries on the urban poor don’t always have detailed features, sometimes just a brief description, but the rustic villager table is more robust.
Page 31: Page 31 contains tables to generate the bourgeoisie and the opulent. Both of these tables make the characters seem interesting and have a sense of mystery or motivation.
Page 32: Page 32 contains a table to generate random demi-humans and orbital deities. The table to generate demi-humans is somewhat lackluster but the table of orbital deities lists their domain and what they manifest as.
Page 33: On page 33, the final random table is provided for henchmen for hire and a section on equipment begins. The henchmen for hire table lists a short description, a name, and a class. The equipment section lists a short background on how the assembly line and mass production are not used and begins to describe the weapons that are described. The fact that the propellant used instead of gunpowder is a waxy paste made from fusillade beetle excrement is a fun detail.
Page 34: Page 34 contains a table detailing various guns and other ranged weapons and details on machine guns and grenades. The table is fairly small and contains a bevy of ranged weapons.
Page 35: Page 35 contains descriptions for plasma and laser weapons as well as flamethrowers. It then begins to talk about reloading and acquiring ammunition for weapons, and prices for ammunition. All in all, this is a mostly flavorless, albeit necessary page. It ends on a quite interesting note with describing manifold weapons, weapons that phase shift through dimensions and use Cherenkov radiation to deal damage.
Page 36: On this page, a new table with information on advanced melee weapons is given as well as information on miscellaneous equipment ranging from paint guns to baby grunkies (read discount trap finders). This page is much more interesting than page 35 and makes me wonder what my players would do with this non-traditional equipment.
Page 37: Page 37 details costs of living per day, monthly rental costs, and cost of ‘purchasing’ a home (houses are only semi-permanently leased in Denethix). All in all, this allows you to always have an answer for a player asking ‘Hey, how much would a [building] cost’, when trying to establish a base of operations or HQ.
Page 38: Page 38 has prices for meals, ranging from mold cakes to peryton hearts, and begins to introduce more information on wizards in the Land of One Thousand Towers.
Page 39: Page 39 provides some sample stat blocks for wizards in the Land of One Thousand Towers. The most interesting one is Canus, lord of the hounds, who created the Dober-Men, dog-human hybrids after killing the wizard who experimented on him. The other wizard is Ferayn, wizard of Tab-Nakel who flies in a giant stone head.
Page 40: This page contains more information on Ferayn and a stat block for M onsantor, lord of the stalks, a riff on Monsanto. Monsantor controls a corn army to raid his neighbors and take his loot to his massive grain silo.
Page 41: This page details the history of the Anomalous Subsurface Environment, the megadungeon introduced in ASE1. The ASE was once a mine owned by Integrated Mineral Exploration Services/Dynamic Materials, Inc. that contained unique materials and that violated the laws of physics. For seven years, the dungeon was excavated and mined until a lock down procedure was initiated, locking every single person in the ASE inside. This history of the ASE interweaves with the history of the Land of One Thousand Towers and makes sense.
Page 42: On this page, the main materials that can be found in the ASE are detailed, protonium-metal, argonium, and sick rock. Each of these have special mechanic features, often saying that a weapon or piece of armor is effectively a magic weapon.
Page 43: The introduction adventure, Moktar Lair, is introduced and detailed on this page. A small map is included and every trap is detailed. This adventure is designed to get the party’s hands on some sick rock to open the ASE.
Page 44: This page expands upon Moktar Lair, detailing more rooms and loot that can be found in the lair. The characters and monsters detailed inside feel realistic and the moktars are smart, using the spider cave to store their loot safely. All in all, this is a well-polished dungeon with interesting traps, such as an electromagnet that smashes anyone wearing metal armor into the ceiling.
Page 45: This page contains a table for wandering monsters on Mount Rendon and describes the gatehouse of the ASE. The table, once again, contains complete stat blocks and the description of the gatehouse mentions the metals that it is made from. Some of the automatons using the human remains to jury rig repairs and the rift between them and the other automatons is quite ingenious.
Page 46: On this page, several rooms are detailed, as well as a table for wandering monsters in the gatehouse. It is evident in several of the areas that it has been abandoned for years, such as a green slime having taken over the showers and a black bear living in the entrance to the gatehouse. There are a couple minor typos (‘to’ instead of ‘too’ and so on) but no major problems.
Page 47: This page contains a map of the gatehouse and descriptions of the barracks. The map is more constrained to the grid than the overhead maps of the terrain, but not wholly constrained to the grid. Usefully, prices are given for items that may be stolen by the party, such as wall sconces and pins.
Page 48: This page contains information on more rooms in the guard house, with more prices for miscellanea (papers in the engineering room)! There are also rusted weapons that were once used by the guards. Cool details such as cages underneath pit traps falling if too much weight is applied and signs indicating directions are welcome additions as well.
Page 49: Page 49 contains a cool illustration of the emergency generator core as well as six more rooms. These rooms range from empty rooms to rooms packed with automatons searching through human remains to find any potential replacement parts. Dimensions are given for lots of the items in the rooms and the undisturbed wooden tables disintegrating if touched is a nice touch.
Page 50: This page contains yet more descriptions for rooms ranging from a lair of a powerful automaton to a training simulator. A bit of dark humor can be found in the hologram stating that the AES has been accident free for the exact amount of time that it has been sealed away from the outside world. Ways to randomly generate results for touching wires together and a secret closet full of loot are fun additions as well. These sections of the guardhouse are quite loot laden, with the abomination having one thousand and two hundred fifty gold pieces in treasure, in addition to a protonium-metal bar.
Page 51: This page details the last sections of the guard house. The fact that there is an empty trapped chest with a secret compartment filled with… nothing is interesting. For every footlocker in the guard room, the contents are specifically detailed. The entrance to the dungeon is sufficiently grandiose, with klaxons sounding and searchlights activating when the entrance is opened.
Page 52: On page 52, the hierarchy of the first floor is revealed. The screechmen and the goblins are abused (can’t think of a better word) by the morlocks who truly control the first floor. On this page, there are also a list of new entrances to the AES and what other factions do to them. This page does indeed do a respectable job on introducing the structure (social and physical) of the first floor.
Page 53: On this page, the first few rooms are detailed and a table to generate wandering monsters is included as well.  The table to generate monsters is quite interesting and so are the rooms. The room called ‘Eyeful of Jellies’ is quite interesting, with corpse jellies being released from the eye sockets of skeletons if enough levers are not pulled. It even provides a percentage for the players being surprised by this occurrence. The page also contains a decent illustration of the room containing the jellies.
Page 54: On page 54, more rooms are detailed on the first floor. The ‘Place of Bones’ is where bones are dumped and has a location where a green crystal skull can be used to make a non-magical object into a magic item. In addition to this, there are also an assortment of descriptions of rooms where there are not many interesting artifacts.
Page 55: This page has a massive map of level 1 and a description of another room. The map is highly detailed and easy to understand. Once again, the man-made sections are more limited to the grid but the more natural elements are not.
Page 56: Page 56 contains a small drawing of the cross room and details three new rooms. Once again, crystal skulls (red this time) are used to generate magical effects, in this case a portal. The room entitled ‘Screechman Surprise’ should be a challenging encounter for the party but there is not such a gonzo attitude as in the other rooms.
Page 57: This page details several interesting rooms, from a trapped throne to a set of evil spheres called ‘party balloons’. This page also details the dungeon highway, a passage that the screechmen, goblins, and morlocks use to travel from place to place on the first floor. Several alcoves that can be found in the dungeon highway are described and many intricate details about the highway are listed.
Page 58: This page details a cellar full of slime, a chamber with a hidden treasure, and a trapped bejeweled statue made of stone. How long the gas from the trapped statue takes to fully dissipate is interesting and the jewels and gold on the statue have prices as well. This page helps foster the unique atmosphere of AES.
Page 59: This page details a room with a trap set by the morlocks and a cave filled with the serpent. The serpent and goblin spiders make sense as minibosses, or more powerful individual enemies that would reside in the room.
Page 60: More rooms utilized by the goblins are detailed on page 60, including the goblin lair and the room where the goblin hive mind was. The room of the hive mind has been mostly abandoned after a morlock raid killed the goblin hive mind, leaving the goblins without intelligent direction. The goblin lair is just filled with what little treasure the goblins could find and a few goblin spawn-sacks. Once again, prices for miscellanea are provided, from clawfoot chairs to a mahogany table.
Page 61: Page 61 details a storage room and the misty arches, a room where the archways are filled with colorful mist. The room has unique properties based entirely on which archway was entered through. The effects caused by pouring the jug of water into the basin can either grant the character unique powers for a day or cause them to take a penalty for a while. Regardless, the potential benefits and penalties are well balanced with each.
Page 62: This page finishes describing the misty arches and continues describing an assortment of rooms that do not have as much detail as the misty arches. It contains a cold room full of human bodies, a dining hall with a cursed item, a dance hall full of intelligent mushrooms, and a carving of a bearded man who will answer any question. This collection of rooms doesn’t seem like it should be able to go together but with the background of the AES, it makes quite a bit of sense.
Page 63: This page mainly details the morlocks, with information about other rooms that don’t contain as many weapons. It contains a paper about the trapezohedron detailed in the description of the Church of Starry Wisdom that is in scientific jargon that can only be deciphered by a successful check. There is also a bit of a technological joke where a secret door’s passcode is 1234.
Page 64: On this page, it details a cool magical item and more rooms used by the morlocks. The morlock skins are exceedingly interesting, grafting onto a wearer’s skin and slowly transforming the wearer into a morlock. Another interesting room is the audio/visual training room, a room that contains a training hologram and talks about some of the rooms found on the lower floors.
Page 65: This page talks about a room containing masterpieces from before the cataclysm and a room containing a cyborg sasquatch. The masterpieces in question are da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and Michelangelo’s David. In a bit of irony, due to the current residents not being aware of the fine points of art involved in the creation of each piece, the price for selling one is very low. There are also two blade zombies with a solid gold hookah for no immediately obvious reason. The grammar and mechanical writing here is quite good though.
Page 66: Page 66 explores several small rooms, one containing more party balloons! In addition to the party balloons, there are wood gnomes in the shape of lawn gnomes and tunnel moths surrounding a lamp post. Besides these interesting rooms, there is nothing else of note on this page.
Page 67: This page contains descriptions of several rooms, ranging from a room with a mummified corpse holding a letter, a ‘treasure mollusk’, and a series of shelves for crystal skulls. There is also a room with a party of troglodytes trying to hide from the screechmen… who will negotiate!
Page 68: Page 68 deals with a room called the treasure grinder, the last room detailed! It is a pool that dissolves anything but gold. And if you remove ~half of the gold in the pool of acid, a trap is triggered and cylinders of DEATH try to cut you to death and splash you with acid. Basically, the final room is a deadly, and creative, death trap.
Page 69: Page 69 devotes a couple paragraphs to finishing the description of the treasure grinder and starts describing magic items. The magic items described are the amulet of vampire health and the cannibal’s crown. The amulet of vampire’s health stops characters nearby from healing normally and siphons hit points from nearby sleepers to the wearer. The cannibal’s crown detects nearby meat but compels the wearer to perform acts of cannibalism.
Page 70: This page details the malicious mirror, a mirror that is effectively the opposite of Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised, showing you horrendous scenes. Luckily, it contains a table to randomly generate what you see, ranging from seeing nothing to seeing the viewer kill everyone in the room and then himself.
Page 71: On this page, more stat blocks for monsters that are found in the AES are included. It contains stat blocks for the lesser automaton abomination and the greater automaton abomination, along with a more in-depth description for each.
Page 72: On this page, more statistics for automatons are included. Besides the more in-depth descriptions, nothing of note is included here.
Page 73: Two cool graphics are on this page, one of one of Monsantor’s cornstalk warriors and one of a blade zombie, zombies with blades stuck throughout their body. The blade warriors aren’t necessarily a unique idea but are quite interesting and the cornstalk warriors are quite a weird addition to this monsters section.
Page 74: This page contains information on the custodians of the Bank Inviolable and the corpse jellies, as well as a graphic of the corpse jellies.
Page 75: This page controls a picture of a dungeon elemental and of a dober-man, the two monsters detailed out this page. The dober-men appear to resemble Anubis but with the heads of Dobermans instead of jackals.
Page 76: This page details the giant earwigs and the dust ghost. Dust ghosts are the remnants of an automaton carried through static electricity between dust motes and filled with great rage. Giant earwigs are effectively just giant earwigs who attach to their enemies.
Page 77: This page contains a picture of a goblin spider and statistics for Exterminators, goblin spiders, and grunkies. It also explains the origins of goblin spiders – “The goblin spider is a weapon bred by the Hive Minds for their use. Without a Hive Mind controlling it, it is a mindless killing machine, seeking only to feed.” This makes the goblin spider’s inclusion in the module and the goblins’ fear of it far more understandable.
Page 78: This page contains a picture of a grunkie and a jawhead, as well as stat blocks for grunkie overlords and jawheads. Grunkie overlords are quite interesting, gaining their massive stature (~5’ tall) from consuming too many grunkie pineal glands. 
Page 79: On this page are pictures of a malignant sphere (party balloon) and a moktar. Moktars are lion headed raiders and mercenaries while malignant spheres are mindless bubbles that stab tendrils at its enemies.
Page 80: This page contains no graphics but contains stat blocks and larger descriptions for the morlocks, perytons, and giant pill bugs. Besides suggesting that morlocks could be the descendants of the miners trapped in the AES, this page doesn’t really contain much of note.
Page 81: This page contains statistics for the pincer serpent, sasquatron, and screechman, with a picture of the cyborg sasquatch sasquatron. Out of these, the sasquatron is the most interesting, with the claw for a right hand and a computer in lieu of a proper head.
Page 82: This page contains statistics for flat screechers and steel leviathans, the vehicle of choice of the Unyielding Fist. Here, at least, the greater description of the steel leviathan was greatly appreciated, as we finally get a better idea of what these hulking behemoths are, but sadly no illustration.
Page 83: This page contains statistics for the radioactive stirges and the treasure mollusk but nothing else of note.
Page 84: This page contains statistics for the tunnel caterpillars, tunnel moth, and vagabond mushrooms without any illustrations. It is interesting that the tunnel caterpillar uses coins and gems to bait its tunnels so that it can lay eggs in the corpses of adventurers though.
Page 85: This page is merely an index of some of the more interesting items found throughout this module/setting.
Page 86: This page is the Open Gaming License necessary to use Labyrinth Lord material.
Page 87: This page contains the end of the OGL and the copyright notices for the product.
Back Cover: The back cover contains a picture of a blade zombie and an enticing introduction to the ASE.

TL;DR: In summation, although it does have its faults, the ASE is a wonderfully fun and entertaining read and accomplishes what it set out to do: give you a stage and platform to run a ‘gonzo robots’n’swords campaign’. All in all, I would give ASE1 5 stars out of 5, especially due to the cool black and white illustrations scattered throughout in addition to the excellent material. Definitely check this out on Lulu if you have some spare funds.

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