There are certain things you know you are going to get with a James Raggi adventure: it won't be like anything else your players have ever encountered and will have a major impact on your campaign world. Outside of that, all bets are off.
Lovecraftian themes of overwhelming alienness and hopelessness have long been associated with his work, but The Monolith From Beyond Time And Space is James' attempt to write something overtly Lovecraftian - but without drawing on clichéd tropes like the Necronomicon and The Great Old Ones.
However, Gamesmasters will also find strong elements of Michael Moorcock's more 'out there' writings on the Multiverse, Clive Barker's grim inter-dimensional horror and a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey, so the adventure can't be easily labelled as a simple homage to HP Lovecraft.
That said, it is an immensely frustrating piece of work. There are moments of genius and magnificence (such as the mapless final destination) coupled with annoyingly, inescapable, campaign-wrecking moments.
It is, of course, difficult to review this module without giving too much away, but in essence the players stumble upon - or are sent to investigate - a mysterious valley that has suddenly appeared nearby.
While some of the more overwhelming encounters are random and therefore can be excluded if the gamesmaster is uncomfortable with them (such as Kenneth Hite's guest spot with Owls' Service, a mini-encounter that WILL - no save - effectively destroy certain characters, albeit over a long period of time ), there are a couple of set-pieces that cannot, as they occur when the characters arrive at the titular monolith.
One is a monster that the characters stand no chance of interacting with in any meaningful way, although this might encourage them to get a move on to the next stage of the adventure, but the other is nothing more than a cruel piece of GM Fiat that serves no purpose other than to wreck a campaign.
A standard fixture of James' work - and much of traditional 'old school' gaming - is punishing the stupid and greedy, players who walk into obvious traps, but here there is no warning, no clue, of the "psychonauts" and nothing the players can do about them.
In truth, they won't even know they've met these entities; they will probably never know what is going with their characters, except that they are no longer masters of their own destiny.
Again, like some of the random encounters, I imagine most Gamesmasters will leave this encounter out... unless they've grown tired of their campaign world or want to punish their players with extreme prejudice.
For those in the know, compare it to the potential world-changing consequence of Death Frost Doom, where at least the players can still feel as though they have a part to play in events and some freedom of choice and action.
The final section of the 46-page adventure though is where The Monolith From Beyond Space And Time truly comes into its own, making the weirdness the player-characters dealt with the valley seem like a walk in the park.
Like a hallucinatory fever-dream, the climax of this piece takes the characters - and their environment - to a whole new level. It will mess with the characters' - and players' - heads. But in a good way.
This is some of the cleverest and most inspired adventure writing James has yet given to us through his Lamentations Of The Flame Princess publishing house and is certainly a scenario the players will never forget.
One segment is quite complex, but I believe with enough preparation a Gamesmaster could cope with the various possibilities, and nothing in here is an instant campaign-destroyer - even though there is a strong possibility the characters will emerge at the end of their exploration much changed.
For those who worry about such things as "level balance", the adventure is described as suitable for "any level, from zero to infinity" as - echoing much of James' other work - The Monolith isn't about character's battling level-appropriate monsters for a prize but about the players thinking their way through a giant puzzle. Only this puzzle exists in all of time and space!
Spectacular, photo-realistic artwork for the module is provided by Aeron Alfrey and, unlike the lay-out for Death Love Doom, much of it is presented in full-page format that can be shown to the players at the "right time". I guess if you have the PDF you could easily print off those pages to whip out when you want to blow the players' minds.
The Monolith From Beyond Time And Space also includes one of my all-time favourite quotes from an adventure module:
"If a time paradox does occur ... the campaign world and all connected universes fold in on themselves ending everything. Not only is this game over, but the Referee in question can never run an RPG session again, with any system, because all their possibilities have been cancelled."Regardless of what you may think, this is not pertinent to any of the campaign-destroying moments I alluded to above, because this the players would have brought on themselves by their own pig-headedness.
Yes, I could see myself running this adventure for the Tuesday Knights one day, but certainly not "as is". While not as taboo-challenging as Death Love Doom (there's only a single reference to baby eating here, for instance), I'm no fan of inescapable plot developments.
Gamesmasters are encouraged to create their own random encounters for the valley anyway (to quote James: "it could be said that the Referee is running the adventure wrong if he does not"), but I would either leave out the "psychonauts" or somehow rewrite that segment to allow the player-characters some agency.
I totally understand why James puts an atmospheric encounter such as this in a piece of Lovecraftian cosmic horror like The Monolith but it jars with my ideas of what makes a fun role-playing adventure.
I'd want my players to believe they could have done something else and any destruction wrought on their world is therefore their fault - not just something I inflicted upon them because I could.
It should also be pointed out that, like the bulk of James' adventure output, The Monolith isn't limited to just being an old school Dungeons & Dragons module. Its very nature means it would work equally well in any setting - from science-fiction to superheroes, wild west to wuxia.