Comparison and Review: New vs Old - The Stygian Library
by PM Schramm
The remaster. The ultimate chance to fix past mistakes and relaunch a product with modern sensibilities while incorporating the lessons learned into a finished deliverable, all while being paid to do it. It sounds like a dream come true, as long as your initial product drew enough interest that funding a remaster is feasible. The Stygian Library definitely fits this criteria. The self-proclaimed “dungeon for bibliophiles” by Emmy Allen has been lauded since its launch for the creativity and unique location it brings to a tabletop game. The highly variable tables within promise a unique experience every time it’s delved.
But, with a remaster comes certain expectations. Improvements. Simply rereleasing the same product already available can burn through goodwill extremely quickly, and being accused of making a “money grab” is a real possibility. Thankfully, The Stygian Library doesn’t fall into this category. The remaster is definitely an improvement over the original; however, does it do enough? Let’s begin by examining its predecessor.
Look, Feel, and Space Utilization
The original release of this random dungeon generator was available from DriveThruRPG and, as is usual from their print-on-demand products, the softcover end result isn’t anything to write home about. The paper is thin, the printing is blurry, the binding is glued, and the interior covers are not printed. Overall, as a beat-around copy you’d use at the table - which this product is really designed for - it’s passable. I would not be uncomfortable writing my own notes and fixing the grammatical errors I found in the margins of this booklet. Speaking of grammatical errors, looking at the rear cover gives you an idea of what can be expected within The Stygian Library, both from a content, and writing style point of view:
“Sufficient Knowledge twists the world around it into strange shapes. This, then, is the Stygian Library…a creepily genteel dungeon set in an infinite extradimensional library. Each expedition generates its route as it explores, resulting in new locations being is covered [sic] with every visit…It’s a big spooky library full of dangerous knowledge, spiritual automata and ghost-fuelled computers. Designed for low to mid power levels, and suitable for use with most old-school systems with a little adaptation.”
The book mostly delivers on the promises found on the rear. It has a middling layout with well-placed pictures and no text creeping from one page to the next.
Opening the work we find a title page, followed by a copyright page. Next is an extremely busy table of contents that is hard to parse. The only benefit to this page is that the tables are italicized, finding anything else at a glance is impossible. Even the titles and page numbers sometimes take up two lines. Following this is an introduction page that gives some insight into what inspired the module and what systems it was designed for/using. From there, we dive into the meat of the adventure. This begins with the rules on running it.
Located on page 7, this section really would benefit from a play example and referenced page numbers because, as written, it’s a bit confusing. Things that are referenced haven’t been revealed to the reader yet and an introductory section that gives you insight into the library (for example, the “Events” section located on page 8) would have set the stage much better. Overall, this book’s layout is out of order, and the excuse listed in the intro to “read the whole book cover to cover a few times” is a bit of a cop-out. Continuing on, the rules for running blindly aren’t explained clearly. When running, the referee is supposed to roll a 1d4-1 to determine how much deeper the party ends up, exploding and stepping up die sizes if a max value roll is the result. But, no reference to a result of 0 is given, and staying on the same level of the library isn’t a real option based on the other rules. My suggestion to those running the module would be to simply re-roll 1s to avoid 0s, but the author’s intent is unclear.
Perhaps these specific rules are buried in the prose somewhere, but finding them can be a bit of a challenge as, while no text carries from one page to the next, this is sometimes to the layout’s detriment, as displayed on page 11 in a wall of writing. Even in black and white, there would have been some options to help distinguish important information to discern at a glance, but this opportunity wasn’t taken through much of the adventure, including shading alternating table entries like could have been leveraged on pages 14 and 15.
The usability issues for The Stygian Library continue through much of the booklet. For example, one glaring issue is seen at the bottom of every page. The graphics are blurry. This could just be an issue with DriveThru’s printer; however, in addition to the blurriness the font choice for the page numbers is extremely small and hard to read. In a book you’re going to be using at the table, the ease of flipping around to find tables and other entries is a crucial piece of the puzzle that was overlooked. Granted, when flipping through, your brain has the tendency to fill in the gaps for numbers you can’t actually read, but I’m fairly confident more than a few people will have an issue locating things with the page number graphics selected.
Another issue is shown next in the locations: the order they’re listed in appears to be the order they were written in, rather than in an alphabetical or logical order. This makes it impossible to find something without looking it up first on page 13. Better yet, the locations should be numbered, which would allow a clever referee to forgo looking up anything at all on the Locations table, as they could simply roll the die and find the result within the book if they so choose.
Rounding out the remainder of the booklet there are a few more grammatical and usability errors, for example the fact that throughout the text sometimes the page numbers for certain Librarians are listed, and sometimes they are not. You may ask, “What are Librarians?” The answer is they’re an important part to this dungeon as they make the whole thing work. They’re listed at the rear of the module, in the bestiary section, far later when it would have been preferred to learn about them. It’s only one page, moving it to the beginning, near the intro, would have been a good design choice.
There are more than a few areas that could have used improvement in the original Stygian Library - let’s look at the new release. The first thing that’s immediately apparent is a drastic improvement in printing quality moving away from DriveThruRPG. In addition, moving to an offset also grants the ability to leverage the interior covers for the printing of the tables used most often, a great advantage to a procedurally-generated dungeon! Unfortunately, Allen opted not to use the interior covers for this purpose, but to instead display very basic artwork. The reason why this decision was made is unclear. The remaster has no additional functionality improvements in its form compared to its predecessor outside of a ribbon bookmark. That’s a huge missed opportunity in this reviewer’s eyes. At least the rear cover is now clear of grammatical errors.
Opening the adventure reveals a title page, a vastly improved table of contents, and then the introductory section. This is where the first differences in the interior text are noted. While the majority of the text and writing is the same, the references to Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Swords & Wizardry as particular systems used in the testing and writing of the module are now excluded, keeping instead the simple statement, “This was written & tested using a weird mishmash of OSR systems.” In addition, the mention of A Red and Pleasant Land by Zak S. was excluded from the section where the book’s inspiration is listed.
There are a few other changes here and there, some of which involves the addition of typos such as the space between “Somebody must have died there” and its period on page 9, but overall the format is much better and much less wall-of-textish. Another example showing improvement is the cleanliness of the “How to Run” section on page 10. The use of fonts and bolding is effective, something the previous iteration of this module did not leverage; that said, the time to revise the rules to provide clarity - specifically on the “Running Blindly” section previously noted - was disappointingly not taken.
This is the net result and my main gripe of the remaster. Most of the writing and information is exactly the same with only a few slight tweaks and a better, but not great, layout. For example, migrating the Librarians to the front wasn’t done because that’s how the original was laid out and the remaster doesn’t deviate a lot from its previous incarnation. Even though the Librarians are so important and it makes much more sense to put them directly after the section they’re first mentioned in on page 18, they’re still near the end of the book on pages 112-115. A remaster is supposed to be a reimagining of your previous work, a chance to fix and shore up the areas that needed improvement. The Stygian Library didn’t take this opportunity.
All the included tables are the same compared to their previous versions, excluding the removal of the “don’t add depth” rule from the original encounter tables. This is either something that was supposed to be added and simply wasn’t or was the only rules change included in the remaster. This author’s guess is the former, especially considering the error for results >20 on the dreams and rumors tables on pages 132 and 142, but as-is it’s not necessarily a negative. The change makes multiple re-rolls possible and boosts the average result higher. The tables look much better, but once again the results don’t have their numbers listed on their respective pages. At least they’re alphabetized this time, which makes it a bit easier to navigate, but why aren’t these tables on the interior covers?
More slight issues abound: the b on Bone Beast on page 49 is missing its bolding and the events table on page 24 should have when to roll a d20 vs a d12 listed here, rather than on page 13 where it could be missed. The encounter tables on the subsequent pages include clarifications, there should be some here too.
Overall, The Stygian Library remaster is, to put it simply, a missed opportunity. The original needed more than just a fresh coat of paint. It had some issues and errors that should have been addressed that weren’t, and the new format added issues that should have been caught in the editing stage. Some of these errors are downright lazy, epitomized by the error on page 139. “I Search the Body” result #28: Book (Roll on the Types of Books Table [ppxx]). Simply Ctrl+Fing for the obvious placeholder text [ppxx] during the layout stage or in the completed pdf before sending the book off to print would have caught this blunder, but no one thought to do it.
If you don’t own this adventure yet you want the remaster. If you own the original is it worth it to buy the new one? You make that call. It certainly does look better sitting on your shelf.
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