“What the hell is a geniza?” my wife exclaimed, upon seeing the title of the article on the dinner table, where I was (re) reading it in preparation for this review.
“Exactly!” I laughed.
Ultimately – and remember that although this issue is in the slightly-desported list of lowest total sales, it’s at the top of that list, and not terribly far from being only a single standard deviation from the mean sales for individual Pyramid issues – I suspect that one of the reasons that this issue isn’t in the middle of the pack for individual issue sales is that the title, while evocative, is utterly useless at informing the reader of what’s in it.
This article is 25% of the content of the issue, and there’s really no telling what it is. Perhaps that’s not fair, though – The Deadly Spring and The Last Gasp aren’t exactly informative either.
The Golden Geniza of Ezkali ( +Matt Riggsby )
What this article contains is an adventure, something that is often begged for on the forums, and yet where does this issue fall in sales? Well, getting ahead of myself, that’s not Matt’s fault. The adventure presented here in five pages and probably fewer than 4,500 words is eminently mineable for content and ideas. Whatever issues I have with it (and I’ll get to those later), it’s not that it’s bad.
The Philosophical Apparatus
The first section explains the crux of the theory here. That in societies with a strong bent of oral tradition, that there’s going to be some embellishment and story creep that happens, even with really important central myths and legends. Even with legends that are seemingly the same origin, the retelling can be very, very different. Thus the crux of the issue (so to speak): what if there really is only one true story, and that truth is critical to achieving some goal?
The Golden What, Now?
I usually don’t spend a lot of time with boxes, since they’re designed to provide supplemental, but not critical, content that is somewhat outside the flow of a typical GURPS/Pyramid article. They can, theoretically, appear on any page in a manuscript and be understandable by themselves (though SJG Layout Guru Nikki Vrtis always finds the right place for them).
So, that aside: a geniza is defined in this box, and I’ll give it away because frankly, to understand what it is is to understand why a party of adventurers might care to risk life and limb to find it. It’s a document treasure trove, a giant mount of information which is sequestered because of the (often holy, always important) nature of the documents themselves.
Honestly, the merest hint of the existence of such a thing should draw Sages, Wizards, and Clerics (if it’s a holy, rather than magical, geniza) like moths to a flame.
Preparing for the Adventure
A brief set of instructions for how to take the article, make the desired changes, and set up the key conflict and challenges. It’s basically a two-paragraph (but long paragraphs) how-to, and concisely lays out what the GM must do.
The Story of Ezkali
The other somewhat impenetrable part of the title is who the frack Ezkali is. Other than the title itself, this is the first time you hear about him, and it’s in a section designed to be cut out of the article, pasted into your favorite word processing program, and altered so that each PC has a slightly different version of the story. There are thousands of possible versions here, so each PC can have very different versions of the story to work with.
The story is fairly straight-forward, and can probably be altered to fit your gameworld if you don’t wish to plunk it down wholesale.
The Temple of the Golden Geniza
Laying out the principle of this very linear adventure (and that’s a good thing), the PCs will basically be navigating a series of traps. If they can win through, they may claim the geniza.
The nugget here is that Matt lays out, in seven categories, all you need to know about any trap ever. Perhaps it’s already been done, but a random generator based on these seven descriptors would produce millions of potential traps. +Christopher R. Rice may or may not have taken advantage of this when he wrote It’s a Trap! in Pyramid #3/60: Dungeon Fantasy III.
The article then quickly and succinctly lays out the challenges involved in passing through the temple to find and claim the geniza.
The article ends, and then you get four pages of maps, with hex grids, to give you the nuts and bolts of the Temple. These aren’t beautiful, but they get the job done and are an important addition to this article, since the GM would otherwise have to create them himself.
First, the adventure is very, very linear. This is, as far as I can tell, an absolute requirement for such things, either in e23 supplements or Pyramid articles. The entire feel of these adventures needs to be that of a side-quest in your typical MMORPG – something a GM can drop into an existing campaign and not have it wreck everything else. So the linear nature is a feature of the adventure, not a bug.
Overall, the only thing that really bugged me is that the article makes unusually heavy reference to other required works. There are four works referenced: DF2, DF4, DF8, and DFM1. No one will likely do this without at least Dungeon Fantasy 2: Campaigns, but having important bits of info spread through three other books could be a problem. I’d have rather seen the information in the article itself, but referencing other works is important. It drives sales and credits other authors, plus there’s lots out there that you can mine in those books.
Style, Writing, Execution [-2 to 2 points]: Recall that a score of 0 means “didn’t get in the way,” and doesn’t represent a bad score. I’d call this one a 0, in that it was short, matter of fact, and told you what you needed to know. There wasn’t a lot of rhetorical flourish here, but it definitely did its job. 0 points.
Background, Inspiration, Epiphany [0 to 4 points]: There are several good background elements that provide “a ha!” moments here. The concept of having multiple versions of a story, the linear side-quest for traps, the notion of a big pile of documents as a reward, and the list of stuff that goes into a proper trap. The legend itself wasn’t that inspirational, and mostly served as (useful) fluff informing the choices the PCs will need to navigate the adventure. 3 points.
Drop-in Gaming Utliity [0 to 4 points]: The maps are the obvious bit of drop-in, and I’ll give it high marks for the stand-alone nature. I’m going to dock a point for needing three other DF books, but if you have them, you can run this with probably an hour or less of prep. 3 points if you don’t have the books; 4 if you do.
Overall: 6/10 if you need to go purchase the other volumes referenced, 7/10 if you already have them. This article is a good primer on what a GURPS adventure will look like as presented in Pyramid (and likely e23 as well, and Mirror of the Fire Demon is likewise reputed to be a fairly straight-on challenge that can be dropped into most campaigns.
Would I use it? Likely not exactly as-is, and I’d need to do some work on the particular myth I’m using, but with a few hours of prep, it would make a nice single adventure. The real key would be deciding how much utility one can get from four tons of paper. The utility for me would likely be the overall concept, which is a lot deeper than what is presented in this short article. Circumventing traps as a basic concept, ensuring that even though the PCs have a story, it may not be the right story, and information rather than gold, weapons, and other gear as the quest object? All good stuff.
I suspect that this is an overlooked gem for many DF gamers, and if the concepts I describe here are of interest, this one’s worth picking up.