Jul 9, 2013

Review: Slaughtergrid

Slaughtergrid is a module getting a lot of attention right now, but almost every review I've read of it leaves out that it takes place in the anatomically correct loins and bowels of a giant stone golem woman. You enter through the vagina, and exit through what I think is the antrum cardium (the point where the esophagus joins up with the stomach). When you die, you're born as a clone-mutant from the golem's remaining ovary (which is called an "ovum" throughout). The boss monster of the dungeon is a bunch of vaginas (5) on top of a bunch of breasts (5) with dicks for hands, and if you don't believe me there is a helpful picture on page 29 of the pdf to clarify that nothing I just wrote was hyperbole. It makes its servants trudge through its shit every day. There are gold eating monsters called "gold whores" that eat gold exposed to air and that you get pregnant with one if you eat gold while in Slaughtergrid and there is a NPC mid-way through who has eaten gold and gives birth to one just so you don't miss out on this happening at least once on your trek through the dungeon.

Basic themes in the dungeon include forced impregnation, bodily corruption, sexual violence and sexualised violence, cannibalism, imprisonment, shit, etc. The book is pretty explicit about these themes, both in telling you up front that's what it's about (though not on either cover), and in depicting them, though obviously any individual referee is going to have ultimate control there.

To be honest, I think the theme of crawling around in the giant body of an ancient war machine or giant beast is a good one, but the module explores the idea of a homology between the human body and the dungeon's internal layout too rigidly and loses the opportunity to imaginatively deviate from existent anatomy that a mere analogy to human anatomy would have allowed. I hoped for at least one totally fantastic organ-room, but unfortunately did not notice one, if indeed it even exists.

The dungeon-dress is also kind of absurd when you start looking into it: Why would a stone golem have reproductive and digestive organs that are functional? Why would its reproductive organs reproduce flesh but not inorganic substances? Why would its digestive organs dissolve flesh and not inorganic substances? Why does the golem not have an anus or rectum if it has a functional digestive system? Why are stairs oriented in such a way that the golem standing would render them unusable as stairs? Why does the ziggurat in its stomach face sideways when the golem is standing? Why is the floor a pressure plate when it would be the rear wall when the golem is standing?

The actual presentation and layout of the module is strong. The backstory includes the opportunity to randomly generate / pick elements of it from a premade table, there is a hex map for the surrounding hexes to the dungeon (though unless I missed it, few of the hooks there tie directly in the dungeon, a missed opportunity), recurring elements in the dungeon are picked out in a set of sections at the start of the book for easy reference, and a clear summation of the treasure and XP is included to help referees manage these issues. The monster stats (using the OSRIC system) are provided in the room descriptions, and then reiterated in the back of the book for easy reference when they occur as wandering monsters. The map is keyed, and the room descriptions keep boxed text to a minimum. It occurs just once, to provide some sample statements a NPC can utter when the PCs talk to them - in a change from my usual stance, I do think that they should have provided more boxed text of this sort for at least two other NPCs that can be spoken to, and possibly a few more beyond that. The book is free of spelling errors so far as I could tell.

The ovary, though it may be distasteful to some referees and players, is a clever element that allows the referee to keep a core group of characters in the highly-lethal dungeon without having to figure out how new characters have gotten in (since part of the challenge of the dungeon is that one is sealed in and looking for an escape route) or reducing the lethality. The mutation tables at the back are good, and provide some penalty for dying without removing the character completely for play. As well, the ovary's existence is well integrated into the dungeon, with monsters exploiting their ability to regenerate from death in consistent and intelligible ways.

Treasure is generally interesting, named, with a limited number of uses or drawbacks to using it, though some of it is dumb (I don't automatically object to an opal dildo as treasure so much as I find it silly that it's a "cubit" long). The module gives rules on reducing the amount, but it seems like it's actually somewhat punishing for the amount it provides. In particular, because of how the ovary clones the PCs but without their gear, more mundane equipment in the dungeon, even if in crappy condition, would be ideal.

So, the treatment of sex, reproduction and scatology through the lens of body horror is either an immediate turn-off on ever running this, or it isn't. A lot of the violence and corruption is wrought on female bodies, though it's not exclusively so. I think some of the treatment is less interesting or much goofier than it wants to be (cubit long dildos; vagina monsters with dick hands; the "gold whore" monster; the rape-unicorn) and in fact, most of the really good body horror in the module has nothing to do with sex or sexual violence. The first level has an undead draugr who, back when he was alive, used to repeatedly kill himself and eat his own corpses until he finally went totally insane and became undead, and there's an implication that if the PCs don't find some way out, this too will happen to them. There's a village of shrunken prisoners the dick-hand monster uses as a living diorama for its amusement, and it is unclear how many, if any, of the people the PCs will actually be able to save from this fate. There's a magic-user mini-boss who has mutated extensively into a horrible creature. The mutation table and its interaction with the ovary has only a few entries involving reproduction or genitals, and yet is one of the best parts of the module. I personally would prefer more of this sort of thing, since it's less one-note, harder to come up with on the fly, and just generally more richly playable than mere mentions of poop or genitals.