Saturday, April 9, 2011

H for Hammers of the God

[Note: Any non-gamers tuning in to this series of posts are invited to consult my New Reader Introduction for some RPG-specific definitions and a general introduction to the Lands of Ara blog.]

Hammers of the God is at once James Edward Raggi IV's most conventional and most unusual module.  Its conventionality lies in the fact that it is more or less a standard dungeon crawl: along with Part Three of No Dignity in Death - The Three Brides, Hammers of the God is the least goal-oriented of Raggi's modules to date.  [Note that my comments exclude his recent LotFPWFRPG modules, Tower of the Stargazer and Weird New World, which I have not yet read.]  In Hammers, the PCs know very little about the dungeon location before they arrive, and even once they get there, their main goal is to "explore."  This conventionality of design and emphasis on exploration will make this module very appealing to a wide array of OSR gamers.

The unusualness of Hammers of the God comes mostly from its backstory, which, as I've suggested, only emerges in full once the PCs arrive on site (if at all).  The historical narrative that Raggi has created for the dwarves who built the Hammers dungeon is quite an achievement in itself, a haunting, pathos-laden tale that will substantially enrich how most fantasy campaigns conceive of dwarves as a race.  This "alternate history" for dwarves is exemplary of the kind of unique, outside-the-box thinking that we have come to expect from James Raggi, and may be worth buying the module for even if you never run the module itself. 

But this uniqueness may also serve as a kind of limitation upon how the module can be most effectively used.  Although there are more than a few really memorable and challenging locales in the dungeon -- without giving anything away, a certain bridge and the whole colored mist concept leap to mind -- the real "charge" of the module, the thing that makes it pay off in spades, is that haunting history of its builders that's waiting in there to be discovered.  What this means is that if you are not interested in exploring the nuances of dwarven history in your home campaign, or if -- like me -- you play in a campaign setting whose dwarves are flat-out incompatible with the history given in Hammers -- the impact of this module may be somewhat diminished.

Don't get me wrong: Hammers of the God is an excellent dungeon crawl, and (of course) clever DMs could reshape and revise that detailed back story to suit how dwarves "work" in their own campaigns.  Yet as a location-based adventure, Hammers taken separately from that mind-blowing alternative dwarven history is merely an excellent, not amazing, module.  This must sound like an incredibly petty quibble, and it is, but through his previous releases Raggi has set the bar very high for himself.  I (perhaps unfairly) tend expect great things from LotFP, and -- please note -- I am rarely disappointed.  To be clear, I am not disappointed in Hammers of the God either, but, perhaps because it will require such substantial tweaking on my part to bring it into line with the history of my own Lands of Ara campaign setting, I am saddened by the fact that I will not be able to use some of the greatest stuff in it strictly as written.  So my perception of Hammers' greatness is tinged with personal sadness.  Obviously that is a problem specific to my situation, but it could come up for other DMs whose home settings feature unique dwarvish histories as well.

More generally, I am ready to see Raggi tackle a module of Hammers' stripe -- a haunting but not horrific dungeon-crawl -- that features a "Circular Routes" layout, that is, an even more open-ended, site-based adventure than Hammers is. Pardon the possibly facile comparisons, but if The Grinding Gear is Raggi's Tomb of Horrors and Hammers of the God his White Plume Mountain, then where, I ask, is his Vault of the Drow?  Raggi has shown again and again that he is capable of creating modules with unique, memorable premises and inventive, well-designed individual rooms and challenges.  Hammers of the God is as close as Raggi has come to creating something that is fairly easily assimilable by all we heavily Gygaxian, high-fantasy influenced DMs, which is interesting given that Raggi himself emphasizes, in the Author's Introduction to Hammers, that

"when I run someone else's adventure, it's because I want the challenge of running something different [. . .] I think a referee can only benefit from taking another's adventure and adapting their style to the author's presentation, instead of doing the commonly-vaunted reverse method of always adapting published material to the referee's own campaign." 

I love the work Raggi has published so far, will continue to buy his products, and admire his stated goal to push many of us out of our DM'ing comfort zones.  Nevertheless I wonder: could Raggi take the Hammers-esque dungeon-crawl concept to the next level?  Pretty please?

Creativity and inspiration-value: 4 out of 5, the best part may well be the chilling dwarven back story, though the map is also quite good, if somewhat limited.
Use-value to DM's: 4 out of 5, would make a worthwhile (if less impactful) adventure even if the aforementioned history is of little interest.
Playability: Not yet tested.


  1. This module has 'spoken to me' more than any other OSR product. Which is probably why I lay down 75 euro one week ago for more Raggi products.
    My second best OSR product is B/X Companion, but since it is rules more than thematic, it hasn't fired my imagination as much. Watching it created by JB with the lead up blog posts did!!
    Raggi's Hammer of the Gods module completely reshaped my attitude to a certain monster race and demihumans. I used this to really alter demihumans in my campaign world. I would love to run Hammer of the Gods and then use it to step off into Death Frost Doom. Hammer of the Gods ends by giving good reason for players to venture into strange and forbidding locales; thus giving a reason the players can't just run away from Death Frost Doom, even if they might wish to!

  2. @Huntress: Thanks!

    @Jovial: Yes, I think Raggi is one of the best module writers around, and "Hammers" is especially evocative. It makes me want to figure out a way to integrate its history into my game-world, or modify it slightly to fit in there.

  3. This is a good and thoughtful review, and I agree that the backstory and setting materials are probably worth the price of the module itself. It's a really neat take on dwarves and an interesting way of conveying it without bogging down the module.

    I've been pondering whether Raggi's take on dwarves and dwarven history would prevent the module from being used in a setting like Ara where the dwarves have a different history. What are the chances that PCs exploring the place would be able to decipher enough of the ancient dwarven texts they might encounter to piece together a history that would contradict another one? He says that PCs that can speak dwarven and have INT 13 or higher can decipher it, but outside of magical means, no one else could. And the time it takes to read them = more wandering monster checks and other usual Raggi shenanigans, which would I think would make many PCs not want to dally.

  4. @Spawn: True, and I've even been thinking of explicit ways to justify the HAMMERS history in / around Ara anyway. . . .