3.24.2017

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit (OSR/almost system neutral)

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit (OSR/almost system neutral)




This book is 64 pages long, with one page credits...and we actually get MORE out of the book than its 64 pages. How does that work? Well, let me elaborate.

This pdf is based on the second edition, primarily the print edition. It has received pretty much a selection of awards. So why review this now? Because all reviews I found did not really prepare me for what this book actually brings to the table.

So let's start with the obvious: This book is radically and systematically designed to make use of the features of the physicality of the medium book. The hardcover comes with a sleeve and on the inside of the sleeve, you get a massive full-color map that can be found via a secret link if you get the pdf version. The map, much like the cover image and interior artwork, all adheres to author Zak Sabbath's unique and distinct style - a style that may polarize, but personally, I enjoy the somewhat post-punk/post-gothic fantastic anachronism that depictions of the city as black claws rising from the world conveyed - my immediate association would be the BLAME manga-series and its sprawling, cruel structures...but this is no mere quote, it is an aesthetic vision and, as all good art does, it will not be to everyone's liking.

The book's structure. Well, on the inside of the sleeves and yes, throughout the book, would be instructions for charts: The front and back cover, on the inside and outside, provide charts, with representations of the claw-like sprawling city structures framed by numbers; by for example dropping dice on these artworks, you can, for example, determine quick and dirty damage and attacks versus body parts or use it to jumpstart your imagination in a variety of other ways. One page away from the inside of the back cover (which btw. contains a gigantic table), we have a vast selection of professions - similarly, relations between them can thus be quickly determined. And indeed, while not all such functions championed by the book can be perfectly translated to all the different systems out there, I should not be remiss to mention that a significant section of this pdf is devoted to being basically one of the most amazing GM-aids I have ever read.

If you have ever read a fantasy book like Cgina Miéville's brilliant Bas-Lag novels and wondered how to ever depict a sprawling metropolis like that in your game without resorting to copious levels of handwaving or gigantic tomes of prepared material - this book is the answer. the urbancrawling rules are meta and brilliant: The book sports a vast array of so-called urbancrawling rules that allow you to almost instantly generate whole neighborhoods, street webs, etc. - beyond the fantasy metropolis, these tricks can be easily employed in pretty much any roleplaying context, whether the fantastic hive, a sprawling science-fiction station, non-Euclidean ruins... generating chaotic street-networks within a few minutes has been a boon for my own campaign ever since I read the tricks here - deceptively simple, yes - but oh so effective. And no, I am not going to spoil the details here. Why? Because I really want you to get this book.

Now, these urbancrawling rules obviously can only provide the framework for an enterprising GM to use, but in conjunction with aforementioned graphs and tables, it becomes more interesting. And if you require a vast array of detail, fret not, for a significant portion of the book is devoted to gigantic table upon table of names, professions, goals, names - and tying the NPCs together in social webs is similarly covered. I tried it. Within 30 minutes with this book, I can make a moderately detailed series of very professional feeling villages, neighborhoods and similar settlements. And I suck at drawing maps and am damn picky. And yes, from looted bodies to fortunes and magical effects, the strange and uncommon all tap into this massive dressing collection herein.

Now, the dressing here does tap into the Vornheim setting; the Grey Maze, its sprawling spires rising from the arctic plane, a city near a forest that should not exist, of which scholars claim that the trees may be phlegmatic undead; a city wondrous and vile, near the city of goblins, situated on a hive of stone, ostensibly the result of legendary medusas once petrifying the flesh of whatever once was. Here, the church of the god of Iron, Rust and Rain and the church of the goddess of all flesh exist. It is within this city that the decadent upper class has taken to the fad of purchasing slow pets, highlighting their copious surfeit of spare time; it is here that sometimes, there are masquerades; sometimes, the gates are opened to the wolves. It is common knowledge that the skin of snakes and serpentine creatures are books that contain ancient secrets and here, the wyvern of the well can be found - who will unerringly answer ONE question for any interlocutor. From the granary cats to the grub nagas and thornchildren, a selection of truly imaginative creatures inhabits this place...and a selection of superstitions can provide a vast array of different adventure hooks.

Which brings me to yet another aspect of the book: You see, Vornheim is ALSO a book containing three  modules.

I'll be brief, but potential players should still jump o the conclusion. There are some SPOILERS to be found here.
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The most common would be the House of the Medusa, wherein the PCs have to infiltrate the house of one of the fabled medusas...oh, and if they kill her, they may inadvertently de-petrify a significant part of the world, making it flesh once again...with far-reaching consequences.

The second module deals with the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, a menagerie of strange creatures gone totally rogue, where the primary antagonist of the book, the mastermind takes on a form most peculiar - and if the PCs don't want to brave all those lethal and unique creatures, they should be up to their A-game.

Thirdly, we have the labyrinthine puzzle-dungeon also known as the library of Zorlac, basically an interesting infiltration/espionage-scenario at your fingertips...or a truly strange place to visit and work in.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to a very buy one-column or two-column standard, with a ton of information on every single page. The layout is obviously made for the A5-booklet (6'' by 9'') size, though I'd strongly suggest not printing out multiple pages on one sheet of paper here - the sheer information density means that the font becomes too small if you try that here. The pdf-version comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The book is incredibly aesthetically pleasing if you enjoy Zak Sabbath's style of art, with layout using black frames on the pages - so yeah, this is not the most printer-friendly of books. And while the pdf does an admirable job at maintaining the raw functionality of the physical dead-tree hardcover, the sheer switching of sheets of paper takes a bit away from the immediate functionality when comparing the printed version or screen-version with the physical hardcover. The hardcover is the preferred version - with nice binding, sleeves and even the covers having a function...so yeah. If you can afford it, go for print.

Zak Sabbath's Vornheim is a piece of art that captured my interest to a higher extent that many, many books of ten times their page-count and more. As a GM-aid, this provides some phenomenally-innovative tools of the trade that even veteran GMs may not necessarily know yet - I learned more from this book's tricks than from any comparable GM-book, which is a feat in and of itself, considering the experience I have. While the quick-and-dirty attack-charts or any chart really, may not be for everyone, I'd be seriously surprised if any GM went into this book without some seriously cool new tool of the trade.

The city Vornheim itself represents one of the most evocative settlements I have read in a long time: Beyond the truly fantastic setting, its unconventional premises and unfettered, raw collection of absolutely inspired tidbits, the influences of contemporary weird fiction and the writings of Borges are readily apparent on every page. The city manages to evoke a sense of wonder only all too rarely still found among the settings out there - it is phenomenal and I would not have minded a 500-page tome on the city; it's brevity is almost painful, it's excellence achingly pronounced, particularly if you've found yourself bored with standard settlements and most so-called "fantastic" cities and customs.

The 3 modules contained herein all have different, interesting angles and while I explicitly remained brief in their descriptions, they similarly...well, are brief. They are interesting, evocative, inspired...but brief. Oh so brief.

You're probably seeing where this is going. Vornheim is, in all components of its content, whether as a GM-aid, as a sourcebook or regarding the modules included, a truly phenomenal offering; each component shines brightly like a cruel Northern star - but at the same time, while the components are interconnected, I could not help but feel like it was buckling under its own ambition - the book is so jam-packed, it strains at the seams and universally leaves the reader inspired and wiser, yes - but also wanting more. You will not finish reading this book and feel saturated. When I came to the end of the setting-section, I was disappointed I did not get more; the same held true for all other sections. This book represents a perfect kit to create a glorious city, a sprawling moloch. It perfectly depicts one of the most unique, fantastic cities I've read...but it may be, at times, too good, too inspired for its own sake.

I can absolutely see someone expecting a campaign setting/city-setting wanting more; I can see those craving adventures wanting more detail; I can see those that looked for the GM-aid components wanting to receive more dressing, more details, more tricks...but ultimately, all of these criticisms are not fair. Do I believe that this, at double the page count, would have been even better? Heck yes. Do I want a full-blown, massive sourcebook on Vornheim, perhaps a whole mega-campaign or AP set in it? OH YES. Yes, please. But the thing is - the book does not *try* to be just a city sourcebook; just some modules, just some game-aids - while the amalgamation of these components may put a strain on the reader, they also force the GM's hand.

Vornheim says: "This is what you can do with the book. Want more? Then strain your creativity, use your own brain. CREATE." This book, in short, forces the GM to act, to create. It strips away the pretensions, the excuses we make time and again and tells us to make its contents our own, make this grey maze our grey maze. Sure, we may crave just consumption - but this does not try to be simply consumed - it forces you to create, by virtue of its own brilliance.

All the accolades heaped upon this book are justified. While the pdf loses a bit of the impact of its physicality in the electronic version, I still consider this to be one truly amazing, unique book that should grace the shelves of any self-respecting GM. It is a brilliant exercise in inspiration, a rallying call to flex one's own creative muscles - it is, in short, an intoxicating vision. Get this.
My final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval. And yes, this receives the EZG-Essential-tag. This belongs into the library of any advanced GM.

You can get this amazing gem of a book here on OBS (great to check if you'd like it)!

 The physical version can be ordered here on LotFP's store!


Endzeitgeist out.

11.18.2016

Nightmares on Parade

Nightmares on Parade


This module clocks in at 35 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 30 pages of content, so let's take a look!

This review was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons....ah, who am I kidding? After the absolutely super Pixies on Parade, I would have covered this as fast as possible even without that.

Speaking of which - I strongly suggest playing Pixies on Parade before this one. While it can stand alone easily, I do believe that it has an added sense of gravitas when played as a kind of sequel - the pdf makes use of the concept of imagination magic and the inclusion of the dream-subtype should make pretty clear that yes, this will have an excellent reason for championing a thus more mutable reality.

...and this is as far as I can go without SPOILING anything. Potential players SHOULD jump to the conclusion. This also includes some SPOILERS for Pixies, so please don't read on if you want to play them. They're worth it.
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In pixies on parade, the PCs have managed to save Edwin from the clutches and malign influence exerted over him by the Nightmare King. He may not be escaping anytime soon...but he does not sit idly by, instead using his considerable power to draw the picturesque village of Glavost right into his nightmare realm! Uniquely empowered by their experiences in Pixies on Parade, the PCs thus receive the ability to manipulate reality - wishing for a unicorn,. for example, may actually manifest one - though the created dreams generated do not feature the abilities of the things they're modeled after, instead employing the lesser dream creature's statblock. Indeed, the somewhat parasitic/dependent nature of these dreams allows people tied to them to shape them.

Anyways, the module begins with an ominous darkening sky, a quake and mists drawing in - if your PCs have gone through the gauntlet of Ravenloft at one point, that alone will make them paranoid as all hell. Aforementioned dreams seek out the PCs and bond with them. As the PCs walk outside, they will notice Belle Leaflower walking the streets, unable o communicate or, well, perceive anybody - creative problem solution is the name of the game, as her anxieties manifest themselves and thus influence the next encounter, namely saving the ancient Elas Leaflower, who is obsessively trying to read as many books as possible at once, fearing that he is running out of time - and if the long beard and constantly multiplying books are any indicator, he'd be right. The PCs will have to contend with falling bookshelves, book swarms and find a way to convince Elas that his quest his futile, his books, as they are wont in dreams, gibberish.

This would be a kind of leitmotif to be found here - the Nightmare King has provided some delightfully twisted (and goofy) nightmares for the folks of Glavost: Dwarven chef Rus Ulden is hunted by jello-oozing killer cupcakes. And yes, you can actually eat these...which makes for a cool prop when fighting them...just as a note... Beyond these detailed encounters, however, there are also more simple, optional ones provided for your convenience: The more invested the PCs are in Glavost, the better. The fight for the minds and imagination of Glavost takes the PCs, ultimately, to the major's house, where a semi-solid sheathe of darkness covers everything and Edwin needs to be saved from what seems to be the nightmare king...though it is, in fact, "only" the most powerful dream plaguing Glavost. Having defeated this threat, the PCs now will have the proper power of a town's imagination backing them up, namely in the ability to duplicate mirage arcana as an SP...

But the Nightmare King is not just going to throw in the towel because he's been foiled here - instead, he figures he might as well go big or go home...and sends a friggin' army in the direction of the PCs. And this is where the plot thickens and parents and adults alike should take a good, long look: The kids of Glavost, while considered to be "heroes", were basically treated with condescension by the adults; as kids all across the globe are wont to be; one crucial and important lesson anyone can draw from this book and project to the real world is that kids deserve respect. In real life, kids may not create phantom armies...but that doesn't mean that they can't save the lives of others, that they may not be the triumphant factor in the battle for the hearts and minds of the adults around them. Just something to figure - kids are not property, they are people we accompany for some time along the way, that we try to help prosper and hopefully leave the world a better place for them...but I digress.

The PCs have saved the adults and so, they may shore up the defenses and use their imagination to save the town with offenses and defenses created. There may a saboteur in their midst - the teenage night hag Isabeth, who proceeds to trap the PCs and request them doing horrible, annoying chores - but they will have to do them, if they are to escape...and there's a way to befriend Isabeth in the process...which may well be used as a means to teach kids to deal with folks in puberty...but that just as an aside.

The module continues to "teach", if you will, life lessons while being played - there is a detention scenario next, where the PCs are targeted by suggestions and the gremlins running the show try to get them to acknowledge that they should not be brave etc. - the idea here is simple, yet brilliant: It is mathematically unlikely that all PCs fail the save (though such a scenario is accounted for as well), and thus, the PCs will have the chance to rebuttal the theses thrown at them, with grudging acknowledgement from the gremlins....but, of course, the more PCs fail, the more will they be forced to reply as per the wishes of the "teacher". This is something that the current generations definitely should take to heart: My experience with the younger kids is that, more often than not, they are taught to cave to peer pressure, to maintain a "pleasant" environment with their comrades, even if goes against their beliefs and convictions - when I compare my cousin's school experience to mine, for example, we have been horribly rowdies and rebels who stood up for what we believed in. I think that kids should be taught, as soon as possible, that their convictions have value and that the majority is not always right. This encounter does just that, without jamming its message down one's throat. It's also creative, so yeah - amazing!

Next up would be yet another interesting one - a satyr skald offers the PCs a fair deal: He was tasked to delay them, but finds this strategy distasteful and thus offers to fill the PCs in one the background story of the Nightmare King, which is provided in lavish detail - it is here that the old truism of knowledge equaling power may be taught...and the respectful demeanor and no-strings, straightforward and respectful attitude of the satyr progresses the thematic sequence of being show proper respect for one's achievements...and once the PCs have heard the story (or left or their own free will), it will be time for the army of Glavost's dreams to duke it out with the servants of the Nightmare King! Here, things become once again amazing, as, while the module recommends a descriptive and flavor-centric take on the battle of the armies, groups that enjoy rules-intense scenarios can employ the mass combat rules! Yup, army stats provided. I intentionally did not write "kids will use descriptive, adults the rules", mind you - I certainly know enough young ones that are REALLY into the nit and grit of rules! The amazing thing here is that the PCs may use their imagination to greatly influence the way the battle works: Mass imagination magic, flexible benefits - if properly employed, this is frickin' amazing indeed!

Speaking of the theme of respect - as the nightmare armies crumble, Behast, the Nightmare King waltzes to the PCs and actually offers an imagination duel; a scenario wherein he creates obstacles with his power for the PCs to overcome...and usually a respectful way of solving conflict sans violence amidst otherwise immortal beings. Having even the BBEG actually treat the PCs with respect is a truly amazing progression of the themes employed in this book. Speaking of amazing: The PC's actions throughout the module have direct consequences here - Behast may not enter the fray directly, but his champion has several abilities, each of which is tied to one specific type of action the PCs may have done...the better they treated their fellows, the more they helped them, the bigger are their chances against Behast's champion! Know, how in those cool 80s/90s kid's movies at one point, the kids would combine their powers, reap the benefits of the good deeds they have sown previously? It may be a bit cheesy, but it always put a good kind of shiver down my spine.

Oh, and don't tell anyone, since the Cs have to find out the hard way...but don't worry about player frustration in this book - a sidebar's got you covered.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good - with the exception of one purely cosmetic formatting hiccup (an ability indented one step too much), the book is pretty flawless. Layout adheres to a beautiful two-column full-color standard with a turquoise background. This may not make t too printer-friendly, but I'd suggest getting this in print anyway. The artwork adheres to Jacob Blackmon's style and is nice and internally consistent. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Apart from a darker map of Glavost, the pdf lacks precise maps, but considering the morphic theme and the set-up of every encounter, it does not need them; I was a bit skeptical regarding this component, but actual playtest did affirm that the module works smoothly.

Stephen Rowe has been a kind of anomaly among RPG-designers in that he's equally at home in the writing of crunch and fluff. Additionally, his modules so far have not failed to impress me, with both Pixies on Parade or Directive Infinity X being examples of excellence.

Nightmares on Parade is a whole different level. Let me elaborate a bit: Playground Adventures generally provides modules that can help educate kids, teach concepts and knowledge in a manner that is not obtrusive. Pixies on Parade was a pretty much perfect homage to 80s' kid's movies - you know, when we still treated kids as proper beings, not as second-class citizens to be sheltered to the point of generating narcissists, to the point where they're not ready facing a reality that does not cuddle them all the way. Pixies was brilliant in that it provided a scenario that dipped into creepy themes, but at the same time maintained a child-friendly levity in theme and execution. Oh, and in the hands of an even remotely capable GM, you could run it as a balls-to-the-wall horror/dark fantasy module. Think of a certain Goblin King's labyrinth, think of the last member of an equine, horned species and you'll see what I mean: Watching these movies as a child delighted me; watching them as an adult provided a wholly different context for both. Pixies did that and did it perfectly. Age-wise, all but the most sensitive of kids should be good with it and I ran it for a then-4-year-old sans issues. The target demographic, though, should be about ages 6+, for really, really sensitive kids probably 8+. It always depends on the kid in question.

"Nightmares on Parade" is the successor in that theme in more ways than one, maintaining the leitmotifs...but also presenting a dimension that far exceeds what regular modules offer, what you can witness in any of its predecessors. What do I mean by this? I have to wax poetically a bit here: The German concept of "Bildung" denotes the collective process of education and personality-formation, including a development of one's own personal ideology, convictions, etc. - the very word generates an association with building one's self as an eternal process, of describing the totality of construction work of your own personality and accumulated knowledge in all fields of life. There is exactly one other module, Richard Develyn's brilliant "Seven Sinful Tales" (That one's review is here!), which has ever made me employ this word in the context of adventures you can run. You see, the structure of this adventure teaches not precise information in a traditional sense; it goes beyond that. By virtue of its meticulously structured encounters and their diverse themes, it imparts genuine Wisdom upon the players, life lessons if you will. The module shows, rather than tells, what happens if you let fears (like not having enough time) define you; what happens if you're consumed by work (with a kid-friendly, literal analogue); to stand up for your convictions and what's right in the face of authorities and peer-pressure...and to never underestimate the power of imagination that so many adults have lost. (Though roleplayers tend to be safer there...)

There is not a single encounter in this module that does not provide, in unobtrusive subtext, a truly valuable, morally and ethically valuable lesson. And this does not only extend to kids: Parents running this module for their kids should carefully read this module and analyze it, for the aforementioned leitmotif of respecting your child, the importance of that aspect for the development of adults and the way in which this module treats kids can, in my most deeply-held convictions, potentially improve the horizon of parents alike. The theme of respect that ultimately is awarded to the PCs and their players by the BBEG culminates in a glorious experience that may well, in some cases, end night troubles...after all, the nightmare king has conceded defeat. But that as just an aside.

Beyond these psychologically relevant aspects and the wonderful, respectful way this book treats its audience, regardless of age, one should not be remiss to emphasize the downright amazing use of imagination magic throughout the book and the fact that, beyond the glorious lessons imparted herein, it ALSO is a truly amazing module. Whether or not you go mass combat, whether or not you play this as horror (Concerned parents, rest assured that this module, as written, is as wholesome as it gets...but any only semi-decent GM can make this very dark very easily and basically transform it on the fly into a horror-module just by adding non-kid-friendly dressing!) for adults, as a kid-friendly adventure as written, as emphasizing the crunchy aspects or de-emphasizing them via Imagination Magic, you retain maximum flexibility in the module. I've run this twice and both times in radically different manners - and in both cases, the structure held up: The kid-friendly run worked as amazing as expected, replacing Pixies as their favorite module. The experience of running this as an adult module with my own trademark tweaks went over just as well.

Ultimately, "Nightmares of Parade" may be a glorious module on its own...but its value lies beyond that. It is a module that not only dares to teach in a didactically unobtrusive manner, it is one tailor made, carefully and in a truly intelligent way, to leave particularly kids and parents as better persons for having played it. If you think I'm overanalyzing this, btw., then I'd point you straight towards the fact that this obviously is intended to achieve said stated goal; each and every facet of the module is devoted towards cultivating a respectful and benevolent development, a component of "Bildung" not only between the players, but also in their interaction with others and amongst themselves. It teaches spine and courage in the face of adversity and the value of behaving in an upstanding, honorable manner while still being kids. In short: Nightmares on parade is a masterpiece not only on a formal level, but also is one of the scant few modules that dares to try to leave its audience better off for having played it; it is one of the very few incarnations of our favorite medium that tries to do more than entertain without losing sight of entertainment being the primary purpose. Stephen Rowe has surpassed himself with this module and catapulted himself into a level of adventure-writing excellence that is rarefied indeed, that is a very small class of its own.

With all my heart, I encourage you to get Pixies and this, the sequel. We need authors that dare to do more than just entertain (though it certainly does excel here as well!); it is my firm conviction that roleplaying games already are a great way of helping people, regardless of age, connect, develop and improve in numerous aspects of life. This, however, takes everything one step further - it can actually be seen as a module that could be canon as something that truly benefits everyone involved, that helps form personalities and strengthen positive character traits. This is Bildung given the form of an exceedingly fun and modular adventure. This humble masterpiece is worth 5 stars + seal of approval and, unsurprisingly, a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. If you share my firm belief that roleplaying games can make us all better people...then take a look. This module, frankly, is art in the most unpretentious manner you can define it; it leaves you better for having witnessed it.

You can (and should) get this amazing module here on OBS ASAP as pdf, and again in print once that becomes available - we need modules like this one!

Missed Pixies on Parade? You can get that here on OBS!

The picturesque town of Glavost can be found here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.

9.16.2016

Darkwood Adventure Arc #2 - The Tormented and the Twisted

Darkwood Adventure Arc #2 - The Tormented and the Twisted




The massive second installment of the Darkwood Adventure Arc clocks in at 128 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 122 (!!!) pages of content, so let's take a look!

All right, so in case you haven't read my reviews of the first full module and excursion, please wait a second and even if you don't want to play a full sequence of modules, please continue reading, all right?

So, what makes these modules unique? Number one would be aesthetics: A central draw of these modules lies in the aesthetic and the truly fresh feeling that is based on taking aesthetics and tropes of classic Wild West, blending them with a healthy dose of weird fantasy and applying them to a fantasy scenario. Basically, this feels like a medieval Wild West that never was, suffused with a healthy dose of new school game design of the best kind. The mutating, complex disease first introduced in the first Darkwood installment can be found among the supplemental materials; the new magic items sports several full color artworks to represent them. The pdf features new alchemical creations, a stone-forming cleric archetype, a new witch patron with hexes, new spells, two new religions (one of which is all about technology as the thing to worship, basically representing transhumanism blended with magic and the ideology of enlightenment) as well as an update of the town Darkwood, including a bulletin board for the local tavern of sorts, where, rendered in full color, you can read about the prices and local policies. The pdf also has mechanics for intoxication, no less than 3 insanities and a fully rendered gazetteer on the ahsen'i, the local Native American-like ethnicity. We even get a char-sheet!

So yes, regarding bonus material, this leaves nothing to be desired...but you're not here for that, right? You want to know about the module? 
Well, I shall oblige, but in order to properly discuss this, we need to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion. Trust me, you do NOT want to SPOIL this one.
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Still here? All right! In the aftermath of the unpleasant attack on the locals in the last installment and extensive establishing shots regarding the unique nature and feeling of the setting, we begin with one of several fully rendered introductions. And I mean "fully" - with read-aloud text. Why is this relevant? The saga emulates coalition allegiances with an optional, rather rewarding allegiances system and each of the factions so far introduced gets its own introduction, establishing firmly the respective tropes and methodology of the groups...and boyo, does it do a good job here. While I could talk about magic keelhauling, strange séances and less weird practices for this section, ultimately I couldn't be able to properly capture the sense of immersion this book's prose manages to capture.  Have I btw. mentioned that, in said séance, the smoke forming a message has actually been reproduced as artwork, doubling as a handout? Oh yes, this is the level of care we're dealing with here!

There seems, in any ways, to be some sort of connection between the tainted, aggressive trolls that attacked the town and a mysterious elven explorer called Geneal -and each faction has a very good reason to want to talk to him. Here's the issue, though: The elf's incarcerated in Fetterstone prison, a veritable fortress under the command of duergar bondswarden Hafnir Kreigsbyte.
Yes. This is a prison break/infiltration. The module does take this complex set-up in a manner that I have frankly seen too rarely, so here is the list.
We have extensive notes on the information that can be gathered before.
We have intentionally incomplete, player-friendly maps of the complex.
We actually get different entry vectors, from full Stealth to various means of infiltration. We have stuff that Stealth-less characters can do.
We have a matrix of the key characters among the prison-fortresses guards noting their loyalty and whether they can be bribed and how much it takes to do so!
The prison has prepared alert levels with responses !!
We have a security detail map for the GM, with guards and the routes of the patrols !!!
We actually also have social dynamics among the populace !!!!
In all my years of Shadowrun, Night's Black Agents and similar, more stealth-focused games, I have never seen ANY module do this better. I did not need to do ANYTHING regarding security details, including magics. The level of detail here is absolutely immaculate and blasts everything about of the water.

This is truly glorious...and guess what? It also actually takes the "getting caught"-angle seriously; there is a second chance for the PCs if they screw up (or elect to use that entry vector!) - the PCs may actually be pressganged into a tactical assault upon a caravan with foreign agents in a fully realized encounter, including tactical map. This is simply going above and beyond.

Oh, and the dungeon below the complex is nothing to sneeze at either - with subtle humor (Mr. Pouncy the cat familiar), glimpses of the horrific, challenging traps, magical problems, unique critters...oh, and a truly lethal dungeon self-destruct mechanism that may see the dungeon flood as the PCs are frantically trying to disable the complex mechanism or run from the collapse, adding even more action and excitement to this frankly legendary module!

That's not where the pdf stops, though - the module does have two fully mapped sidetreks - mini-modules that in no way fall behind in detail or atmosphere behind the main meat of the module: We have "The Witching of Stump Hall", where strange occurrences have begun, as fey seemingly invade darkwood and a mastermind weaves the threads of a plan most grim indeed. In the second sidetrek, the PCs will have the opportunity to explore a Ahsen'i bonefield and deal with the deadly challenges lurking there. Yes, mapped as well. And yes, these "sidetreks" can be used as glorious, convention-style scenarios, if you're looking for that.

One final note here - know how the first module introduced written-in background challenges and character-specific sidequests a GM can utilize - basically, when used with pregens or modified by the GM, the pdf has character-specific arcs and quests written as optional components into its very nature, helping the players get more invested in the narrative.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no grievous glitches. Layout adheres to a gorgeous, two-column full-color standard with a ton of original full-color artwork of excellent quality. The pdf also features a ton of full-color cartography - with glorious full-color tactical maps, player-handout maps and nothing to be desired. Glorious. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks and the pdf is layered, allowing full customization of GM labels. The pdf actually comes with a second pdf optimized for the use with mobile devices. I loved this book so much, I actually got the print version - and seriously, that's the one I'd go for.

Lars Lundberg & Nick Johnson's second installment of the Darkwood Adventure Arc is PHENOMENAL. This breathes a unique cultural flair that is inspired and unique in the truest sense of the word and must be called out as nothing less than the masterclass of adventure design. I have NEVER seen any prison-break/infiltration-scenario done even half as well as this one: It has EVERYTHING - from the absolutely glorious entry-vectors to the copious, well-written read-aloud texts to the trouble-solving options, supplemental material, builds, modules and production values, this module blows 99.9% of Pathfinder modules out of the water and leaves them in shreds. How this works for the more than fair price-point is frankly beyond me; this module has a spot of honor on my shelf, surpasses its already excellent predecessors and can be considered to e an example of the very finest of virtues that contemporary adventure design has to offer.

It's been a while since we had a module by SagaRPG and I don't know whether the arc will be completed, but even as a stand-alone, this has all the virtues and unique power it requires. Even as a stand-alone module, this is frankly one of the very most awesome pieces of content you can find and I'd frankly eat ramen for a month to support a kickstarter to keep this series going - that's how much I love it. I have frankly failed this series and should have highlighted this module so much sooner - not only on behalf of the team that crafted this masterpiece, but on behalf of you, my readers, for not pointing out the level of awesomeness this offers sooner. So yes, even though this was released sooner, I only covered, ran and enjoyed it recently - so this does get a final verdict of 5 stars, seal of approval and is a candidate for my Top Ten of this year. I love it that much. So please, do check out this absolutely legendary module. I am positive you will not regret it and if you do hate it, drop me a line and I'll see that I can make it up to you - that's how much I adore this module! Must Own. Get it!

You can get this glorious module here on OBS! 

Endzeitgeist out.

9.09.2016

Seven Sinful Tales

Seven Sinful Tales




This adventure clocks in at 106 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2.5 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 100.5 pages of content, so let's take a look!

Wait, before we do - in case you are not familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: The philosophy of these modules is that you get all the relevant rules-information inside: A Total of 31 pages thus provide animal tricks, spell reference, feat reference, bestiary reference and item references for your perusal. All artwork herein is collected in a total of 7 pages that you can print out, cut up and use as handouts. It should also be noted that no less than 18 high-res jpegs for use with online gaming (or as handouts) are provided; and yes, these include player-friendly iterations.

The pdf also has a great summary of encounters, with associated creatures involved and loot to be gained, including items, total GP values tallied for you and scaling advice. Set in the county of Surrey, weather and travelling distances by foot, horse or coach are similarly collected in one handy table. We also don't just get one paltry random monster encounter table: Based on the specific region, each and every one of the 8 tables provides sensible creatures for the respective environments. Oh, have I mentioned the 9 (!!!) fully statted settlements, all with statblocks and descriptions? The modules released by 4 Dollar Dungeons do their utmost to make running them as easy and comfortable as possible for the GM.

Okay, this is indeed as far as I can get without going into SPOILER-territory. Potential players who want to play this module (Hint: You do!) should jump to the conclusion right now.
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All right, only GMs left around here? Outside of the circle of Ravenstone in the kingdom of the Bretagne, there lies a circle of stone; a place of legend, where power is supposed to gather, but no one knows for what purpose - not even the wizard Humphrey and his devilish companion Beauregard, who are living nearby. As such places are wont to, it has become a kind of meeting spot to get away, drink and have a good time for the local populace. The circle's supposed power is lending an air of mystique and danger to the environment that most of us will relate to; abandoned factories, rail-yards, playground, special spots in the forest - we all had a spot like that in our childhood.
Anyways, one dingy night in autumn, a group of 7 13-year-olds actually manages to activate the circle - but no creature from the stars manifests; no demon invasion begins - instead, a motley crew of adventurers, picked from their own iteration of reality, is picked and unceremoniously dumped inside the circle: Yes, that would be the PCs, who have just been summoned forth and now look into the awed faces of the following:

Deako, a pale-feathered, nervous tengu; Adriana, a platinum blonde girl in a fine dress and her similarly immaculately dressed cousin Augustus; Paulina, a light-haired and somewhat plain but pretty gnomish girl; Bairn, an honest and polite young man with good looks; Tilvern, timid and dark-haired and somewhat small for his age and Holly, a bright light-haired girl with a wide smile...perhaps a tad bit too wide. The children, though, are confused - Augustus conducted the summons and knows that the book he took it from was...well. Rubbish. The kids, spooked and with obligations in the morn, will undoubtedly leave an array of confused PCs with a distinctly unhelpful book, as school's in the morning. Humphrey and Beauregard, both surprisingly amicable for their vast power (and...well, Beauregard being a devil), have a thesis that the circle granted a wish unconsciously thought by all of the children - and thus, the only way home for the PCs would be to fulfill the wishes of the kids. Each of the respective sub-chapters of the module, just fyi, lists the dramatis personae in a handy list in the beginning, allowing for easy juggling of the casts of characters, should the PCs oscillate between adventures/get stuck.

Thus, the trail should bring them to the nearby town Fordguild - all children attend the same school, while Adriana attends a "Special" school; with scaling successes, the PCs can do some leg-work - and it is here that the module becomes pretty free-form, for the sequence in which the respective tasks are tackled is all up to them - for all intents and purposes, the module acts as the adventure-equivalent of a short story anthology. As such tales are wont, there are leitmotifs here, though: Number one can be easily extrapolated from the title - each of the tales deals with one of the 7 deadly sins. Unlike what you may think, the kids are not the correlation with the respective sins; rather, it's the parents.

It takes a special type of person (i.e. slightly insane, a bit narcissistic and inured to violence) to take up the mantle of the adventurer and as such, it should be not too surprising that beings who wield the power cosmic, cut humanoids to ribbons and make powerful enemies can make for rather problematic parents. Each of the kids has her/his own issues with parents, issues the PCs can help resolve. This whole component can be downplayed by the GM and taken to instead focus on a number of smaller quests, but the roleplaying herein can be rather cathartic, if you do opt to properly depict all of this. My own childhood wasn't perfect, to say the least and I know that a lot of the anger, resentment and frustration I had was resolved by roleplaying; it can provide an angle towards a form of peace, an acceptance of unchangeable facts by resolving the challenges at least within the framework of our favorite make-belief game. Even as an adult, witnessing the like can hit close to home, yes; but it also represents a chance. At least I know the like worked well for me and a couple of my friends.

So, let us begin: 8 weeks ago, the brother of Deako the tengu kid, was tragically killed by a hippopotamus. The unfortunate Seako had been previously injured on a hunting trip with his samurai dad and was subsequently struck down by a single bite. This death has put a serious strain on his parent's relationship and they ever since refuse to communicate or speak to each other, as the edicts of the two lawful good samurai emphasize personal glory for the father, protecting communities for the mother. Deako has formulated a plan to reunite his parents - he wishes to present the head of the troll that almost finished his brother and indirectly did, to his father; to his mother, he plans to bestow the teeth of the hippocampus that slew his brother. Unfortunately, he can't do it alone and needs the PCs to do just that - and thus, the two beings need to be killed...but what happens thereafter is in the hands of the GM.

Adriana's issue is rather different - she is supposed to be subjected to a arranged marriage she doesn't want. Adriana comes from a well-off stock of humans haunted by tragedy - she has lost her father (and more!) to something truly sinister: A blood hag has been using her family as her breeding project for generations and Adriana is pretty close to what she wants...but not perfect. It is hence she has arranged this horrific marriage, keeps Adriana sheltered and locked up...and in fact, has replaced Adriana's mother a long time ago, raising her perfect little angel for the most horrific of purposes. So while the tengu's tale was pretty straightforward, this is one complex little investigation...and a word of warning: the blood hag is BRUTAL. If your players suck at piercing the clues (which, in some cases, drip with a subdued, delightful humor) together, be very careful here...or not. The module does mention the power of the adversary here, so yeah. While the death of the blood hag deprives Ariana of her mother, her further fate isn't actually that grim and the elimination of this horrid thing does cancel the marriage...and fulfill her wish.

Augustus is rich enough to buy anything he wants...but unfortunately for him, money can never buy happiness. Raul and Dahlia, his parents, are unfortunately addicts - the decadent nobles visit a place called "The Hungry Caterpillar" on a daily basis and are disinterested and spaced out; in a secret basement, a rather nasty druid commands a variant basidrond with hallucinogenic spores and makes a pretty dime of those looking for far-out-experiences; in order to fulfill Augustus' wish, the PCs will have to infiltrate the high-class establishment and eliminate the drug-producing creature.

Paulina's dad was a famous "archaeologist" - complete with fedora and whip. Always not the best of fathers, one day, he simply did not return from his quest after the fables Shagreen, which he successfully tracked to the pyramid of Balzac. Paulina's wish is to recover the Shagreen and thus fulfill her dad's final quest and place the artifact in a shrine dedicated to him. The theme here being greed, much like the previous adventures, there are subtle tests associated with the respective sin written into the module itself: Greedy PCs may suffer consequences here...something to bear in mind and perhaps a wake-up call to "not become like Paulina's dad." On a formal level, the tales features a cool and pretty easy puzzle with glyph-plates and a hint...and here, just fyi, greed can kill the PCs hardcore. Being destroyed by a stone golem is the least of their issues, for if the PCs were greedy when securing supplies and interacting with the locals on the journey, they may find themselves sans camels or supplies...but a sphinx can show up, providing yet another well-crafted and simple little puzzle of logic to pose for the group and test their spirit.

In the sleepy village called hook, charming Bairn's father Nik is well-known: The charming, silver-tongued bard just can't keep it in his pants. The beginning of this section focuses on finding out what has happened to Bairn's dad - and the PCs will have to follow the trail of broken hearts Nik has left...with, at least partially rather funny results - from a dryad to a centaur, an ogress (!!), a cecaelia (!!!) and finally a HARPY. Well, what's left - for Nik has been taken prisoner by a medusa, who has petrified the harpy. The medusa's living on an island with constantly shifting mists (concealment and total concealment by roll included - very cool...I'll use that table a LOT beyond this module!) and she is not particularly on good terms with Nick - when he tried to abandon her for a kitsune, she proceeded to petrify and...use him, I guess. While this whole section is, theme-wise, pretty adult, it is kept mostly PG 13 and can easily be stripped of the slightly raunchy bits...or they can be emphasized for adult groups that don't have an issue with a bit more graphic themes. Also: The characteristic foot notes in 4$D's are a highlight here and actually made me laugh once.

Tilvern, timid and a bit of a runt...is actually the son of a paladin, noble Sir Reginald. And he has a serious issue: There is an uneasy truce between the giants of the Plantagenet mountains and the humanoids of Surrey; Sir Reginald's former commander perished due to his own stupidity in an unnecessary, boredom-bred skirmish right in front of Sir Reginald...who has sneaked off to ask the giant king for a fair duel against the giant that killed his commander sans breaking the truce. Tilvern, understandably, doesn't want the duel to commence and his dad to die due to his stupid pride. Unfortunately, Sir Reginald has rolled the maximum pertaining his stubbornness and even the best laid of arguments won't dissuade him; in order to fulfill Tilvern's wish, the duel must be thwarted for once and for all and either giant or paladin must die. In both cases, hostilities may erupt once again in the future and the question is, whether anyone has learned anything here...apart from the players, PCs and Tilvern, that is.

The final tale is perhaps the most creative of the bunch: Holly Willoughsby is a kind and nice girl, vivacious and friendly, in spite of coming from a wealthy family. In a seething satire, her dad, Elder, can't seem to be bothered to do anything, but thanks to his sorcerous talents, he could...well, just animate his dead family members and have them do all the chores. Holly is somewhat horrified by this, but it's the reality of her life and her father, thankfully, doesn't seem to mind adventurers poking around as long as they don't cause too big of a mess. Holly is frightened. Recently, spiders have begun swarming in her room and she wants to move back there - exploring the fully mapped and detailed manor, the PCs will be able to deduce that there is more wrong than just the problem with the spiders - and indeed, both an invisible friend (attic whisperer) and a friggin' deathweb must be defeated to provide some sort of help here. Still, so surreal and suffused with dark humor, this did remind me more than just a bit of good ole' Shirley Jackson's blend of the macabre and dark humor.

Having finished the wishes of the children, the PCs may now finally return home - and the default here is a slightly comedic feel-good ending I appreciate, considering the subject matter. But I'll get back to that below in the...

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no serious glitches or typos. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeon's two-column standard with a mix of original b/w and full-color artwork. The cartography and numerous handouts contained are absolutely awesome and the high-res maps and player-friendly versions leave nothing to be desired. The pdf comes in two versions, one optimized for the US letterpack paper standard and one for the European A4-standard - kudos!!

Richard Develyn is a living, breathing one-man-refutation of the notion that mainstream RPGs like Pathfinder cannot be creative, cannot be art. If anything, this module truly cements his status as an artist and auteur; as someone who brings a whole new level to the game and steps up what to expect. With the exception of his first module, which is "only" good, every subsequent module he releases has made the Top Ten of the respective year. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Every single module does something truly unique; something creative and smart; he switches styles like a chameleon, writing horror with the same ease as sword and sorcery-esque fantasy, southern gothic or a thoroughly fresh take on the tired, but beloved Ravenloft-aesthetic. Beyond switching genres with ease, a subtle and profound distinctly English humor suffuses his works, making them an actual joy to read. Oh, and there would be the fact that his craft, nay, art, cannot be mistaken for that of another author - there is a distinct voice; a levity tinted slightly by the macabre that is utterly unique. Oh, and the modules leave nothing to be desired regarding running them. I have never, very wished for better organization in them, never had an issue running them from paper after the obligatory first reading.

And he does that not for the bucks. 4 friggin' dollars is a huge steal for such a module. I can rattle of more than 100 modules that cost at least 5 times as much and feel like the phoned-in paint-by-numbers designs of amateur hacks in comparison.

Why am I talking so much about the totality of his work so far? Because even in this extremely impressive canon of works, Seven Sinful tales stands out. What would be an array of bland sidequests in the hands of a lesser author has more heart and soul in the introduction or one of its mini-adventures than most 100-plus-page epics ever achieve. This module has comedy, tragedy, investigation, wilderness survival, smart puzzles, a ton of social challenges and roleplaiyng opportunities, gorgeous adversaries, interesting terrain. It has, in short, everything.

That alone would make it already a must buy module. It's more than that.

I mentioned this before, but this module's subject matter pertaining no-good parents and their very mortal shortcomings can hit close to home for some of us; but the depictions are not mean-spirited. This is not grimdark and neither is it a feel-good fairy-tale, though it can be tweaked in either way. This is an allegory. There is a saying that the parents are gods to the kids and that sooner or later, their mortal shortcomings will result in disappointment, disillusion, rage...and so on. I can relate. I've been there. The problems the kids face herein are significant and every person who wished for superheroes to take them away, to resolve the issues they face will relate to this module's stories at one point or another. The ultimate moral here, is that external persons can help resolve issues and that asking for help in dire circumstances may be required...but also that even a successful intervention does not necessarily fix everything. If your players are good roleplayers, this module can actually provide a catharsis for those of us who suffered from less than perfect parents; it can help mitigate the issues kids can have with their parents and their shortcomings, for even in the most comedic of the stories, the respective parent is not beyond redemption, the future not necessarily bleak, even in the case of the kid left orphaned. There is always light. The world always goes on.

I played this module twice and the envy and lust stories may need to be toned down a bit for kids; otherwise, depending on sensitivity, from ages 8 or 10 upwards, this works rather well when used with younger players. (Though they should have some experience with the system - this is not a cakewalk of a module!) Kids in puberty may actually eat this one up. That being said, if you want to emphasize this component, I'd suggest a slightly more somber end: Return the PCs sans a parade of happily ever after families. Then ask the players what *they* think happened thereafter. What the parents and kids have learned, what the consequences of the PC's actions are and how things will turn out. Engage in dialogue. When handled properly, this module can actually defuse issues.

Well, or you can just run this as one awesome blend of all the virtues of old-school and new-school gaming: Internally consistent, with a great and creative story, memorable NPCs, a diverse variety of challenges and all of that sans railroading. To make that abundantly clear: I consider this to be the 4$D-module that had me slightly choke a bit while reading, yes; frankly, it resonated. At the same time, it is, and that should NOT be understated, FUN, as it should be. This is not l'art pour l'art - this may be the first time I've seen a module fully cognizant in its design as a means to teach about our very human shortcomings as both parents and kids within the medium of gaming; all sans a raised finger and jamming morality down our throats; it shows and doesn't tell; it teaches by experience, not by reading a text.

I'm rambling, I know, but I need to drive this home: This module, when taken only on its merits as a module, as nothing more, nothing less, is excellent. But it transcends what I have seen any author do with the medium. It can leave people better persons for having played it. It can actually deliver the eureka effect usually reserved to novels, philosophy and the most inspiring of movies. This is not rated by my scale, it pushes it. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I'm saying that I was pretty skeptical about the premise. It worked out. Perfectly. This module has just raised my expectations, what I thought possible within the means of our medium. This may well be the first module I have read that truly deserves being called valuable from a humanist point of view and in the hands of the right GM, this can resonate more than all the earth-shattering apocalypses and demon-hordes you can possibly dream of.

My one regret here is that I have to operate within the very tight space of the usual rating system, so bear with me for a second: Picture seeing the star-shaped rating section of the online RPG-vendor of your choice. Now picture me teleporting in, slamming a post-it with one extra star right next to the 5 on the screen and vanishing. Every time you look at this module, mysteriously, the damn post-it phases in and tells you that this module is a one-of-a-kind experience that can make you laugh, make you cry, make you love more and become a better person...or just have a really great time. For 4 bucks. THAT is my rating. Post-it-teleport-in-level of ridiculously good and valuable; not only as a module, but for gaming in general. Since the teleport-thing, alas, only works in one's mind and the artifacts of our civilization demand such, my final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval...oh, and this is a very hot contender for my number 1 spot of my Top ten of 2016.

Okay, you've read me gush and rave about this for more than 3500 words...so please...go ahead and buy this. We need authors that take chances, that are not content with games as only mindless entertainment, when they could be entertainment that also improves us in the very strictest sense of the philosophical concept of Bildung.

You can get this superb module here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.