The Garden of al-Astorion

by Gabor Lux

“It is said that there is a valley in the southern jungles which has been long forgotten by the short memories of the city people. Until now, even its existence had been a well-kept secret, and only the wise knew of its lost civilisation and cannibalistic half-men. But with the return of the explorer and adventurer Mal Bazhar, all has changed. His improbable stories about the strange garden and its magical fruit trees have drawn the attention of many. Who would write the final page in the history of a people sunk into evil? Who would find the treasures of the wizard Ladgloun or the hidden temple of the monsters lurking underearth? And finally, who would dare face the power that (or who) had already destroyed Mal-Bazhar’s company? The Garden of al-Astorion is only the first, but as we hope, not last among Hungarian-developed d20 adventure modules. On its pages, the Gamemaster can find everything needed – adventure hooks, detailed maps and the descriptions of the main adventure sites as much as the statistics of new magic items and creatures.”

Description and contents: Conceived as a throwaway encounter with a demented hermit (“Shalastar: hermit, follower of Emoré [LN]. Seventy years, has been living in small valley for thirty. Hates druids!” – see image below) but quickly expanded into a much more expansive adventure under a single evening before a game convention, The Garden of al-Astorion is probably best described as a wilderness dungeon branching off into multiple self-contained mini-dungeons incorporating various sword&sorcery and weird fantasy ideas. The legacies of fallen cultures and failed people living on beyond their allotted time is the central focus that binds together a lot of rather deadly encounters that otherwise wouldn’t belong together; the experience, although quite non-linear, is likely to conclude with the exploration of an abandoned garden populated by the horrors of plant life and the still living remnants of people who had attempted to discover its secrets.

The Grove of Shalastar: Proto-al-Astorion

The Grove of Shalastar: Proto-al-Astorion

Design notes: If I were to list the modules that had marked the development of my personal style after 2000 (as opposed to practicing the sincerest form of flattery), al-Astorion would have to be the first item. The lost world atmosphere of The Temple of Pazuzu was an oddity, a departure from a pretty standard old school campaign (and the unpublished “return journey” dungeon, Isle of the Cyclopes, reads almost like a love letter to Gygaxian AD&D); al-Astorion, close to the endpoint of our first Wilderlands campaign, was wholeheartedly embracing it.

The initial manuscript is surprisingly short at 20 handwritten pages (four a later addition to detail the Temple of the Old Ones, only mentioned in passing in the original) – as a finished product running 44 pages in the English d20 version, it is one of the larger things I have written. In one package, al-Astorion contained most of the things I was enchanted with at the time – degenerate ape-men, evil gods, shameless and somewhat misguided Cthulhu exploitation which I now partially regret, the magic-meets-technology of the Wilderlands and Leigh Brackett, and more. As Geoffrey McKinney has noted in his review, there is a lot of magic in the module that doesn’t conform to the standards of the rulebooks, or at least not directly: as I often write materials without rulebooks conveniently at hand, this was part necessity, part blessing; in recent years, it has evolved into a conscious, if tempered design approach.

The length and colourful grab-bag nature of the module was why it was selected to be my foray into amateur d20 self-publishing: I wanted it to be not just an introduction to the idea that ordinary gamers can outdo the pros in imagination and raw content per page, but also as a showcase of the things I found cool in old school and missing from the rather dogmatic Hungarian gaming scene. It was a typical, arrogant folly: I scaled down the font size until it was just readable in a 32-page A5 booklet, then, after being horrified by the rates real printers were asking, had the thing manufactured at a friendly (and gamer-run) print/copy shop at a bargain rate that allowed for a cover price of only $2.5. Out of the 70 copies, 50 were sold through various game stores (they were doing me a favour) and the rest were distributed to various friends and accomplices – some complimentary copies were even shipped overseas to Clark Peterson, Bill Webb, Bob Bledsaw and a few others as a way of thanks.

In the end, the venture was mildly profitable, but the intended sequels – a re-release of Pazuzu, a strange investigation scenario, and Ravit Island, a module that would have been written by my partner in publishing – were never realised. Was it lack of enthusiasm? The theft of my gaming materials and corresponding disillusionment with 3.0? The comment of a real publisher that this was all nice but he should be reporting me to Wizards for (accurately) supposing that I was not paying taxes on the sales? The lack of people following my example? Laziness? Hard to say; it was not the lack of feedback, since it was abundant and enthusiastic. In any event, al-Astorion is Hungary’s only domestically produced semi-commercial d20 module, and with the withdrawal of the license, is bound to stay that way. My “publishing outfit” (if you can call it that), E.M.D.T. (for First Hungarian D20 Society), only returned, some lessons learned, with the Kard és Mágia rules in late 2008.

To return to the module contents, the wilderness dungeon follows a successful “central loop and spokes” layout: a network of central encounters and spokes leading to short and mostly linear mini-scenarios. This is not quite as open as a truly non-linear sandbox (like a hex-crawl), but better than most. The mini-scenarios may be explored on the party’s terms, and contribute to the discovery of the things going on in the valley, although they are not required to complete the main objective (actually, during playtest, the players resolved every possible issue but the central one – they figured it was going to be too hard after suffering severe losses in an entirely optional side-area).

Cover illustration

Cover illustration

It is a major feature of al-Astorion and a philosophy I have consistently tried to apply to my games ever since that background information is not necessarily acquired in a predetermined order. Context is acquired as the characters come into contact with the environment, and it is up to them to come up with their own interpretation of what-does-what. In fact, I have even used this technique outside roleplaying games: in my missions for the Thief computer games, the player is placed in a fairly open environment with only a general idea on what is going on – and it is up to him or her to interpret the fairly ambiguous clues to piece together a more detailed but invariably personal picture. Using background information in this way encourages player imagination and involvement, and is also much less obtrusive than the force-fed boxed text of several professionally released modules.

Finally, three random bits of trivia. People who pay attention will quickly notice how the map of the wilderness resembles the skull of a primitive human (or a man-ape hybrid). Some would say this is something of an easter-egg, a nod to the themes of the module and an important set of encounters. To their disappointment, I would have to say it was entirely unintentional, and I only spotted the uncanny resemblance years and years later. Second, people have drawn parallels between the module and the Clark Ashton Smith story The Garden of Adompha; given the other, very direct CAS references, they would be entirely justified – but entirely wrong. At the time of the module’s writing, I had not read the story yet; it was The Flower Women, detailing an adventure of the wizard Maal-Dweb, which might have been an unconscious model. Finally, as seen on the scanned first page, the main antagonist was originally named Shalastar: I am not sure how I arrived at the much less lame al-Astorion, but it was either Jack Vance’s Alastor trilogy or, maybe more likely, Budapest’s Astoria metro station that became my inspiration. In either case, it was a last-minute change and I am much happier for it.

Where to get it:
The Garden of al-Astorion (Castles&Crusades, 5 MB PDF)

The Garden of al-Astorion (d20, 5 MB PDF)

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