Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.
The Big Squirm is an 80 page, fully illustrated mystery for Troika! by Luke Gearing. I backed it on Kickstarter. It is a complicated module to wrap my head around, being an investigation with randomly generated clues. First up: Impeccable art by Andrew Walter and very suave type facing. Honestly the cover doesn’t do the interior justice. Just lovely to look at, with very few missteps in layout.
It opens uniquely: A description of the state of the city and the stat blocks of two feature creatures, before the contents page. I like this as an opening, to be honest, and am of two minds because if I wasn’t reading a .pdf, I might have just skipped the stuff before the contents page? Like, there isn’t usually anything useful there.
Information here is disseminated to rival investigators after four days, which serves to even the playing field and put some fuel on the fire, as the enemy can easily catch up and interfere with your plans. The d66 information generator is cool, and would make sure scenes aren’t replicated across play throughs. I’m always a bit suspicious that a table that should be rolled in advance should be a table at all, though.
There are six competing investigators, and the author really leans into the strengths of Troika to make them memorable, terse, easy to run characters. This is gold.
The “Interested Parties” are the factions, and these are fun and weird as Troika! factions should be, excellent ease of use and interest. They’re just funny, too: “At the height of the speculation, the Left Yellow Gang began crafting harmless imitation worms. These sold well…”, then: “Goals: Shift a bunch of papier-mâché.” Some layout decisions I wouldn’t have made, put similar information in different page positions across spreads for three of the spreads (just switch the art positions for consistency!).
The locations section is anchored around a spectacular and functional map. The location summaries suffer from something that is a peeve of mine — the largest location at twenty pages comes up first, the smaller ones (between one and seven pages) come after. I find that approach a little overwhelming and it makes the latter areas underwhelming. The best of these are pithy and witty, (“The concierge is a dog with very, very long legs, wearing its hat at a rakish angle. She doesn’t appear on any salary records, but no-one has yet been able to remove the hat”, and the worst are unnecessarily verbose. The latter would benefit from either an edit or shudder dot points. There is a single page with four locations on it, and each of those nails it. The longest location feels like it may be the main adventure location, a major heist, which is not the vibe I expected until I arrived at that location in the book, and could use stronger telegraphing. I did miss the minor telegraph on my first read through: A footnote in the information table suggests the presence of a complex location.
I’m very torn on this module all together. On one hand, the vibes are impeccable, and it’s lovely to utilise a system like Troika! for an investigative module like this. The best investigation module in my opinion is Witchburner, but it’s a much tougher module to engage with than this.
On the other hand, while The Big Squirm offers more replay value, I think (not having run both) it would be the more challenging module to run. This is mainly due to the information economy and the random information generation systems. The latter can be ironed out easily, though. I think it’s hard to gauge whether the information economy would have value except table to table, and whether it would achieve its intended effect for your table specifically.
I came up against information design concerns reading Witchburner, but it was easy enough to reframe the module to find a good approach. The Big Squirm feels more traditional in its location-based structure, and hence it’s much harder to simplify your approach or reframe information to similar effect.
Why am I struggling? I think, after a week’s pause, another bath, and a re-read, it’s because the Big Squirm is two things: An investigation and a sandbox. I don’t think it manages to square the circle. If I approach it as an investigation, I want a summary of the mystery as a GM. I want a final confrontation with the Weaver. But, this module also wants freedom at all points in between, which causes problems with my capacity to prepare. And what’s more challenging, Troika! as a system encourages more chaos! I honestly have no idea which direction this adventure would take, and that’s after two read throughs.
There’s so many great things about the Big Squirm, and it really showcases well a fantastic writer working in a comedic mode. It’s interesting and lighthearted. It’s an investigation. It’s really a unique module with a lot to offer. It’s hard not to recommend it, despite my concerns about managing all the complex information in the module, which would probably require a lot of preparation for a GM like me. So, the Big Squirm: Recommended.
31st May, 2023