Friday, June 29, 2012

Review: Rat on a Stick

Rat on a Stick is one of those classic RPG modules that lingers in the collective heart of the community.  It's been immortalized in the Munchkin card game, and the real-world recipe is a thing of gaming legend.  This is exactly the type of thing I like to collect! Amazon.com had a used copy for under $5, so I decided to buy it.

The module was published by Judge's Guild (a favorite company of mine) for the Tunnels & Trolls rules system (another favorite of mine), but after reading through the module I have to say that, overall, it's pretty worthless.  I was initially tempted to give some allowance for the age of the product, but then I noticed that it was published in 1982--that's a year after TSR published The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh.  I use Saltmarsh for comparison because it's the first module that I ever read, so I tend to compare everything against it.  But, also, the places where Saltmarsh shine really illustrate the places where Rat on a Stick falls flat.

My first major complaint is the basic purpose of the adventure.  In Rat on a Stick, the characters are pretty much just breaking into homes to kill the occupants and steal their stuff.  Contrast that to Saltmarsh where the characters are called upon by frightened townfolk to investigate mysterious happenings, and along the way uncover a nefarious plot.  In Saltmarsh the characters are heroes who save poor innocents from dark forces, while in Rat the characters are racially motivated murderers and thieves!  (Lest I glorify Saltmarsh too much, I should point out that the nefarious plot that the players uncover is ... tax evasion!  *gasp*)

My next complaint is the sheer randomness of it all.  From the things I've read in my collection of old supplements, this was actually pretty common in the 1970's gaming scene.  See, in the 70's it seems that it was enough to just throw some random monsters and treasures into random rooms and call it a day.  By the time the 80's rolled around the concept of adventure design had matured.  A made up example: if there's a powerful magic sword in the otherwise empty room 6, then how come one of the orcs you fight in room 7 doesn't use it?  The 1970's answer is because the orcs don't exist outside of Room 6.  They are static beings; their only purpose in life is to wait around for some player character to walk in.  It's a lazy, amateur approach to dungeon design that I don't expect to find in a professional product.

A minor quibble is the selection of monsters.  The major culprits seem to be orcs, vampires, and (I kid you not) black hobbits. There's some trolls and dragons thrown in, of course.  There's a whole selection of "pun monsters" like the dreaded "windshield vipers".  But the author also threw in some creatures I'd never heard of.  T&T lacks any sort of "Monster Manual", so it relies on the creatures being part of the fantasy zeitgeist.  These were just names and MR's (er, that's "Monster Ratings"--T&T speak for "Hit Dice", only better). Fortunately it's not 1982 any more, so Google and Wikipedia let me know that these were creatures from the works of H.P. Lovecraft. In this modern age, I now have enough to run with, but back in the 80's I would have been stuck.  (Mind you, in T&T all you really need is a MR, but descriptions are needed to keep the illusion of fantasy combat versus a dice rolling game).

My last minor quibble is the layout of the dungeon.  Saltmarsh is a "haunted house"--and it's laid out like a house ought to be (though on a bizarrely huge scale).  And there's some natural caverns nearby, to add some randomness. The dungeon in Rat on a Stick is laid out like someone was designing a role-playing game module.  The only rationale I can come up with is that the dungeon was originally a natural cave formation, and then the walls were finished by "cave settlers".

Of course, Rat on a Stick has it's good points, as well.  The first is the module's namesake--the players can buy a Rat on a Stick fast food franchise. It's a kind of neat option. It lets the players set up inside the dungeon selling tasty treats to both monsters and delvers alike.  It also allows them to take a more defensive stance--characters get to defend franchise from would be robbers.  This goes a long way to addressing my first major complaint.

Another big plus is that the wandering monster table is accompanied by a "what is the wandering monster trying to do" table.  The "monster" might want to establish an alliance with the party, or might just be looking for the way home.  This means that each random encounter becomes a role-playing experience rather than just another combat.

I also liked the physical format of the book--32 pages, on 8.5x11 newsprint, and using saddle-staple binding.  It's basic, functional, and effective. I like it when companies care more about the content of a book than the cover.  I also like the complete absence of boxed text; I could spend a full blog post about the evils of boxed text in modules!

So, all-in-all, like I said, the book is pretty worthless.  I'm pretty sure I'll never run it, but the franchise idea might be worth stealing, as well as one or two of the magic items.  The rest is meh.  If it were for sale today, I would say $2.50 would be a good value for a printed copy, and maybe $0.99 for electronic.

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