By Benjamin Ball
North Wind Adventures
For weeks the Comet has blazed in the sky above Hyperborea, inspiring widespread superstitious dread and fear of some star-borne contagion. Under the light of this harbinger from the Black Gulf, the PCs have come to Bogrest, following a magical treasure map that reveals great wealth buried in the Lonely Heath north of the village. Finding that treasure will be no simple matter, however, for Hyperborea is a weirder and deadlier place than ever beneath the Comet
This 48 page adventure details a small wilderness scrubland area ending with a thirteen room dungeon under a barrow mound. The dungeon reminds me of a more realistic version of White Plume Mountain. You explore, collect keys, and go face the final boss. The keyed encounters, both in the wilderness and dungeon, offer a nice variety of decent ideas. The AS&SH writing style, is, however, present and a major barrier to entry/use/enjoyment. Your mileage may vary.
The party has a magic treasure map, showing the way. Generally, to some ancient mound in a scrubland. There’s a village nearby. There are four encounter locations in the scrubland, along with the main mound proper. The village takes three pages (one of which is a map) to add nothing to the adventure except a small rumor table. With a two paragraph introduction that adds nothing to the table. I’m reminded of the rumor table in Gus L’s Prison of the Hated Pretender. It’s title bar was “What the scabrous yokels in that village of broken down huts are saying:” That does at least as good a job as the three pages spent in this adventure on the village. What, pray tell, is the appeal of the “what equipment is available” fetish? This adventure spends two paragraphs telling us what the party can and can’t buy. I don’t get the appeal. All those words don’t really add anything to the adventure. There IS a “villager quirk” table that is rather nice, quirks and/or strong personalities, something to remember them by, should be a required part of every social encounter.
As indicated in just about every other AS&SH review I’ve done, I’m NOT a fan of the writing style used. I don’t think this is personal preference, at least not in the way I use that phrase. In other words, there may be multiple ways to fulfill my review standards, some of which I may prefer over others. I don’t think this is a case of the AS&SH line using a different way to get to same goal, a way that I might not prefer (personal preferences.) I think I can make a case that the adventures obfuscate data for the DM and are not evocatively written. Which is a fancy way of saying that they almost always have great ideas, but you have to work hard to get at them.
Some wandering gargoyles have strange and unsettling necklaces. The DM is elsewhere offered the advice “If the PCs make some attempt to distract or deceive the super ape-men, the referee must determine the success of their endeavour.” And in another area “the party can wash the poison off with alcohol or some other like cleaning agent.” The later two examples are, I think, examples of being too prescriptive. Of course the DM has to determine success; the DM does that about at least a hundred times in every session of D&D. Likewise the cleaning off the poison. This is something that this adventure engages in time and time again. This sort of prescriptive text add very little to the game and I would argue it detracts far more than it adds, by making the text denser for no good reason, making it harder to use during play.
The gargoyle necklace is in a different category. “Strange and unsettling” are not good descriptions. Those words are conclusions. It’s an example of using a TELL word instead of a SHOW word … and you should always SHOW instead of tell. Use different words to show me the necklace, to describe it. Then, if you’ve done a good job, the party members will conclude “ooh, that’s strange and unsettling!” This adventure engages far too much in showing instead of telling and therefore the evocative nature doesn’t come through well.
I want to spend a little time talking about the wandering table in this adventure. There are two tables, once mundane and one more fantastic. If you roll a six on the mundane table you instead roll on the fantastic table. (Which means, BTW, that the Rust Monsters in encounter six will never show up. I’m sure that wasn’t intended.) The mundane wanderers attack immediately. That’s pretty boring, I prefer slightly more pretext be offered, but, whatever. The fantastic encounters are, almost all, window dressing encounters. You meet a ghost child. Be nice to it and maybe get a combat bonus. You meet a fortune teller. Be nice and maybe get a combat bonus. You meet an X, be nice and you’ll get a combat bonus. It’s a bit of a one-trick pony. Yeah, the window dressing stuff is kind of ok, but its detachment from the rest of the adventure leaves it FEELING like it’s detached. Some effort being made to tie these in to the main adventure text would have made them come off better, as well as varying the reward a bit more. The better ones are the ones that ARE attached to other encounters, like a driverless wagon and the ones that offer variety, like a new henchman/hireling. The others feel … too samey and too detached from whats going on. They don’t LEAD to anything.
The actual encounters are pretty decent. Several of the locations in the wilderness tie together and all of them are interesting. There are a lot of things to interact with, things to do. Crossing pits on edge ledges, dodging around on moving mosaics, a two-headed pterodactyl with the usual lying/truth problem, a dude straight out of folklore who you have to REALLY hack to death, a rival NPC party to mix things up, and a decent amount more. Essentially, you get about 20 interesting “rooms” for the party to interact. They do mostly fall in to the same category of a funhouse-ish light sort of challenge/puzzle, but it’s all interactive for the players to play with and figure out, rather than just simply riddles. Closer to chessboard challenges, but not as divorced from continuity as chessboard puzzles usually are. I really like them. Maybe a little more variety, but they are nice. Plus, the lich at the end has got a GREAT short little paragraph death scene that will really make the party think they’ve accomplished something.
It’s just too bad that those encounters are hidden behind all of that text. Up until this point I would have said that Talenian has a distinctive voice. But this being a different designer I now get to generalize to: AS&SH has a distinctive voice. And it’s one I really don’t like.
The dungeon storeroom begins: “The floor of this room is stacked with funerary offerings: decorative furniture, brightly dyed textiles, wicker baskets full of grain and fruit, myriad clay pots and bowls, small idols of forgotten Hyperborean gods, teak chests filled with parchment scrolls, and more. These mundane items are amazingly well preserved by the magic of this room, but they will crumble to dust if removed from it.” So, a funerary offering storeroom with stuff that crumbles? (It does then go on to have something interesting happen, but the distinctive writing style makes the room description take up a full page.)
The preview on DriveThru is pretty useless in telling you what you will get getting, although the “Authors Note” section on the last page hints at the tortured writing style to come: