Things that were bad in Sakkara that could be better in Nethercity

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Sinister Stone of Sakkara Backer
Joined: 2013-07-16 00:19
Things that were bad in Sakkara that could be better in Nethercity

Sinister Stone of Sakkara (SSS) is a well-written, very fun adventure with an excellently-designed dungeon structure. Nonetheless, it suffers from major usability issues and minor implementation issues. The usability issues could be remedied in Nethercity. The implementation issues are implementation-specific, so they may or may not be relevant in a new piece.

SSS aped the old TSR adventure design format very closely, which is cool, because “yay, nostalgia”. Unfortunately, TSR’s format is not good: it presents information in a cramped manner and often hides key details inside lengthy paragraphs. Two recent adventures have made impressive strides in information presentation: Forgive Us and Maze of the Blue Medusa; both can be used as inspiration for new works.

An illustrative example is the description of room 70 on page 50. It’s important that those six kobolds are distracted, but this detail is buried inside a lot of text, making it easy for the Judge to miss. Similarly, consider rooms 3 and 4 on page 39. A likely chain of events is that the party will enter room 3 and start a fight with the room 3 kobolds, and then more kobolds from room 4 will rush in as reinforcements. Unfortunately, this detail about the room 4 reinforcements is not given in room 3’s description. So it will go unnoticed unless the Judge has committed multiple room descriptions to memory.

One way to fix this is with better use of dungeon maps. In Maze of the Blue Medusa, the full dungeon map is divided into five-to-ten room subsectors. In the room writeups, each subsector map is reprinted right before its constituent rooms are described. The subsector maps are annotated with helpful information. Facts like the nearby room of reinforcements and the distracted status are examples of useful annotation content. It’s probably best to include both annotated and bare maps, so that you can use the latter as player handouts.

Another issue is the major NPC descriptions, which are mostly walls of text that are hard to parse on-the-fly. Justin Alexander presented a “Universal NPC Roleplaying Template” ( that I think is much better-organized, but maybe there is a better alternative out there.

The implementation issues are less prominent and more subjective. While running SSS, I noticed two aspects that could have been expanded upon. First, the Lady Below has no timeline for her plans. She just sits around in the buried temple indefinitely instead of eventually making a move toward Turos Tem or another area. A classic use of a good timeline in a D&D adventure is Red Hand of Doom. In that adventure, the PCs have a fixed number of days to accomplish their goals before the hobgoblin army moves.

The second thing I noticed is that, throughout the dungeon, characters with Knowledge-type proficiencies may get extra flavor text read to them. That’s cool, and the text is well-written. But the flavor text never has any gameable consequences. If Knowledge (Ancient History) can suggest the locations of hidden areas or hint at how to avoid traps or something, it’s easier to justify taking instead of a more utilitarian proficiency like Healing III.

I notice that there’s also a supplement about Cyfaraun. I’m not sure how detailed it will be and what format it will use. I think that table-based approaches (e.g., Vornheim, Yoon-Suin) work better for describing cities than do list-and-keyed-map approaches (e.g., Red Hand of Doom, Ptolus). That is also a more subjective opinion.

Patreon SupporterDomains At War ContributorSinister Stone of Sakkara ContributorLairs And Encounters ContributorBarbarian Conquerors of Kanahu ContributorACKS Heroic Fantasy Handbook Contributor
Joined: 2012-07-11 23:23

Wow! this is amazing feedback.  Thanks for taking the time to spell it out.

I have also beaten the drum of laying things out more like MotBM, so you're not alone in that.

nobody knows what the final layout will look like yet, but if you watch the video of the Kickstarter, you can see that as Alex lists off the subsections of the dungeon, it cuts to an image of just that subsection.  This gives me hope that those submaps will be present in a way similar to MotBM.

The Autarch
Joined: 2011-06-30 18:10

There will be sub-section maps for each part of the dungeon, and the sub-section maps will have some additional detail on them to aid in play. For instance, there's a massive cavern that has yellow mold patches scattered across it. The sub-section map will show the location of the yellow mold. 

The presentation of the rooms has been updated from Sinister Stone of Sakkara. Each room is presented with player-specific information first, followed by a series of tags that are for the GM's reference. The tags are:

  • MONSTER - Description of monsters with stats and strategy. 
  • TRICKS - Description of any tricks or special effects. This is a broad tag for anything secret or funky.
  • TRAPS - Description of any traps, including trigger mechanism, effects of triggering them, and how they can be found and disarmed.
  • GRAVES - Description of the date, occupants, and value of grave goods found. Wall graves are abundant in the Nethercity.
  • LOOT - Descriptions of treasure with value and weight. For magic items, an apparent value is listed as well as its actual magical effect.
  • NOISE - Information that can be gleaned by listening.
  • LORE - Information that can be gleaned by using proficiencies, reading scrolls, closely examining objects, etc.

The city is being designed with a list-and-key approach with supplemental tables. 

Patreon Supporter
Joined: 2017-09-04 12:05

I tried breaking down the maps in dwimmermount into one page mini-sections with short placeholder descriptions and monster stats for lvl 2a and 2b.  For other levels I just added monsters to the map.  

At the table, I found that the full maps with monsters were more useful.  When there was combat in one area, I could quickly determine who would respond to the noise.  The sectional maps were helpful, but I found myself going to the full descriptions anyway.  The stat summarys on the sectional maps were very useful., especially with the prerolled HPs.    

Barbarian Conquerors of Kanahu ContributorACKS Heroic Fantasy Handbook Contributor
Joined: 2016-01-12 05:34

This thread is a very good idea.

The one thing I found hard to grasp is SSoS was domain information - only one-page summary, three paragraphs of text and another page for trade modifiers. This is strange, considering the main difference of ACK from other OSR products. I had to thoroughly search this forum for explanation of  things like market class of Siadanos.

If Secrets of the Nethercity is for 'conqueror' level play, I hope it features more domain management content, like  a practical example to introduce judges and players to optimised domain management gameplay. Because SSoS was definitely not about that, and I'm sure lots of ACK judges who did actually run SSoS ignored this part of the game entirely, because the connection between domain/criminal guild management and the usual dungeon/hexcrawling stuff is too obscure. For example me - I created entire hexmap of the Borderland, with domain outlines and civilization radii, wasted tons of time on that, and I'm still not sure why I did that. I thought that somehow it should translate to new strategic level of gameplay, well it didn't.

Patreon SupporterDomains At War ContributorSinister Stone of Sakkara ContributorLairs And Encounters ContributorBarbarian Conquerors of Kanahu ContributorACKS Heroic Fantasy Handbook Contributor
Joined: 2012-07-11 23:23

Conqueror Tier is typicaly levels 7-10 while adventurer tier is 4-6, so this module will technically be STARTING around adventurer tier, with the possibility to finish around conqueror tier.  That doesn't mean there CAN'T be more details on the domains of the region, but I suspect it might mean those details wouldn't be needed until closer to the end of the module.

This could be sort of a tough balance.  This is an adventure module, after all, and while it's written in ACKs, one would hope it could be useful to people who might want to run it in another system. 

In any case, I wouldn't be opposed to any extra domain/campaign mechanic details in the cyfaraun book.  That'd be easy for me to port over to another city in my home ACKs game.