Trollback Keep

By John Bertani & Aaron Fairbrook
Merciless Merchants
Gold & Glory/2e
Levels 4-7

The Crimson Legion has gained a foothold in the Dragonback Mountains. Having taken over Trollback Keep, they’ve gathered wealth, power and now seek to expand their territory. Villages of man and gnome have been sacked or enslaved. And now the Crimson Legion may be close to discovering the lost Shrine of Deralugos. Lord Brie and his men are busy fighting the raiding bands that are ravaging the area. He’s offering gold and glory to those who can find the source of this incursion and help put a stop to it!

This 34 page adventure details a couple of dungeons and wilderness encounters in a small region. The humanoids have a keep they are launching raids from, and there’s a gnome shrine and dungeon also. It’s a good well-rounded environment with lots of opportunities to get in to trouble … exactly what D&D should be.

Well, it looks like SOMEONE has been paying attention. The wanderers in this are doing things, like orcs congratulating themselves over an elk they’ve downed. AND there’s a reference sheet of monster stats/locations. AND the there’s some cross-referencing of information. AND most of the information is related in bullet form. AND there’s some new monsters and magic items. The astute among you will recognize these as all things I bitch about. That having been removed, I will have to find to find new things in this to bitch about. 🙂

I REALLY like the dungeon map in this. Laid out around a river, it has elevation changes, stuff carved out, the water can be used as a bypass, there are islands, same level stairs, features on the map. The river naturally divides the place in to some little sub-areas. It’s visually interesting with lots of features for the party to explore.

It brings some faction play and interactivity to the table. Gnomes can be added to the parties forces, and they can clue you in to some barbarians nearby who might want to ally … but they don’t like the gnomes. There’s a captured giant to free and the various humanoids in the keep could be turned on one another. It’s a complex social environment and that’s great interactivity. Beyond that the dungeons proper have interactivity, like a corrupted fountain that, if cleaned u p, comes to life for a moment and blesses the party. Part of the place is a gnome temple, which is an excuse for a few funhouse elements, like the boulder roll halfpipe from Dragon’s lair. They don’t come off as odious gnome tricks at all, which is an achievement in itself.

The area keys start with a nice little description. A recently gutted and oozing elk carcass hangs from a tree near a cauldron next to a pile of crushed goblin corpses. An especially warty and fat orcs stirs the cauldron occasionally. Good imagery.

Some of the descriptions get long. Some of the bullets get long. As length increases the ability to scan drops off. It doesn’t delve in to the history of a place, or trivia, but lets say instead there’s a wealth of pertinent information presented. There’s some correct balance here and, while its not bad, it strays a little close to the “too much” line at times. A lot of times. Because of that you don’t get the sense from the text that it’s easy to scan and run. I’m not saying its NOT, I’m saying you don’t get that sense. Looking at it you might sigh, but it IS well organized.

Well, mostly. There’s a thing where they put the monsters at the end of the encounter, bolded, at the same indent level (or, rather, a lack of indent) as the room key proper. This can make it seem like the monster is crowding the next room and lack a kind of intuitive layout. Page ten room 2&3, I’m looking at you in particular.

Also, the art choices are a bit weird. It’s not clear why you might choose to include a generic barbarian pic over a pic of the new translucent snail people who you can talk to. Likewise, a pic of the main keep could have been nice.

And that last point is related to the largest miss in this. There’s a part of this adventure that MIGHT be: gather some NPC people and siege/invade/sneak in to the keep to kill the humanoids. That could have been handled better. An iso view of the main keep, and a littlre more attention to “things high nearby that let you look down in to the keep” or other elements that support a base assault would have been welcomes. There’s a kind of order of battle and some day night notes in places, as well as guards and alarms, but I think that needs to come as part of a package. More variety in the keep yard to hide behind/use in combat. More features in the area around the keep. Some more notes on NPC tactics, etc. [Fair warning: Far Cry 1 is in my top 5 list and I loved the open-ended nature of the base assaults there. And I loved playing Danger International and the base assaults we did in that. So … yeah, I love base assaults and have lots of thoughts on them.]

But … this isn’t a bad adventure. It’s a good one. It’s organized ok, and has interactivity and dynamism to it. I’m fond of the emergent play origin story of the adventure also (I rolled three monster checks in a row and wanted to piece them together in a larger picture.) Man, I’m not gushing, am I? It IS good, just pushing the boundaries of thick a bit and the layout/summaries/bullets, while helpful, could use some tweaking to make the points come across better. I’d say MM have just about cracked the code of producing good shit on a schedule.

This is available for $5 on DriveThru. Easily worth that. The preview is 8 pages. Pages 5 & 6 of the adventure show the orc camp/chef I talked about, and more of the preview shows you the writing typical of what the adventure is.

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17 Responses to Trollback Keep

  1. Shuffling Wombat says:

    I think Merciless Merchants use stock art for reasons of cost: and stock art, by its nature, isn’t always the best/most appropriate. Nice to see a module where topography is a feature.
    I agree that Malrex and co-writers are building an impressive catalogue. I am particularly
    looking forward to the next collaboration with the Prince of Nothing.
    OK, you’ve sold me on this one as well.

    • YouDontMessWithTheJeff says:

      Agreed. The Merchants are putting out some good stuff.

      • Thanks guys! We are having fun doing it. You are right about the stock art and costs, so I may start to look into other options.

        And the Prince and I ARE tackling a new adventure together, with ideas for beyond as well….it’s starting to shape up nicely.

        • Slick S. says:

          You guys should do the art yourselves, regardless of skill level. The amateur OD&D-era drawings are super endearing and some of my favorites, in spite of (maybe even because of) how “bad” they are.

          • Slick S. says:

            ^ I didn’t mean for this to sound demanding/entitled, by the way. I understand that there might be time constraints and whatnot. Just wanted to express that as a consumer I’d take cheap sketches over stock art any day.

          • Every adventure Jon works on, we stick one of his pieces of art in (pg. 28–the banner). He is the more gifted artist out of the duo. The rolling balls was commissioned through a Patreon, but ya, art can get expensive and stock art doesn’t always work. A stick figure (if I tried) adventure might be an amusing project though…we shall see. Appreciate the feedback!

        • Anonymous says:

          Okay, very well then, I shall attempt to use more of my own art. That should be challenging. Thanks for the feedback.


    • PrinceofNothing says:

      Preciate it buddy. Working hard on it as we speak.

  2. Thanks for your time with the review Bryce. I figured there is always a lot of dwarf stuff out there to explore and that gnomes needed a little bit of love (just a tiny bit). Admittedly, traps are a challenge for me, and with the number of traps, I wanted to make sure they were clear–which might of made areas a bit thick. New monsters were inspired by real life critters (the more you know….) I’ll say as a player who has assaulted the keep twice over the years–it’s not easy, but we have had several fun nights taking it on.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes indeed Bryce, thank you very much for your time and honest feedback. It is truly appreciated. This was the third review you’ve provided for us, each one is getting better. So yes we are listening.
      Best regards,

  3. Froth says:

    MM are doing some of the best OSR adventures these days. I love their stuff.

  4. Eric says:

    Oh, so that’s what you meant by bullet points. Yes, I know what “bullet points” are, I was worried perhaps you were advocating the extensively bulleted style advocated on some blog I’ve forgotten the link to. Therein was described a method of turning two or three paragraphs into a list of about 6 bullet points, in a nested manner up to 3 or 4 levels deep, the hierarchy indicating the nested nature of item discovery or interaction

    • abandoned office
    • chair
    • desk
    • 2 x drawers
    • envelope (loose papers)
    • flask (needle trap ? poison)

    Ugh .. talk about sucking the fun out of everything.

    What you like is more paragraphs with a “this is the start of the paragraph” marker.

  5. Reason says:

    That doesn’t sound so bad- I could use a couple of adjectives in some of the bullet points & if necessary, explanatory paragraphs for traps or tricky secret doors/effects. Not the ONLY way but I’d prefer that to walls of text.

  6. Shuffling Wombat says:

    I expect many will be interested to know that the Merciless Merchants have launched a new KIckstarter “Voyages on the Zontani Sea”, with a free Zontani Sea Region Gazette (available on DriveThruRPG), adventures by Malrex and Jonbar, with more available as stretch goals. After the highly innovative “Cistern of the Three-Eyed Dwarves”, I am particularly interested in seeing Grutzi’s Shell of Telvion. Many Merciless Merchants’ products have earnt Bryce’s The Best accolade. Perhaps as well as being merciless, the merchants could be tempted to say a bit more about their wares?

    • Malrex of the Merciless Merchants says:

      Thanks Shuffling! I want to see Grutzi’s Shell of Telvion come out as well because 1. I think its an outstanding little adventure and 2. I want to get some art for it that fits the adventure…I don’t think I have any stock art out there that will fit his creativity. His ideas are fantastic! Anyways, thanks for the shout out, I’ll bite. We do have a Kickstarter happening right now–we just got funded last night, but we do have a lot more content we would like to share in the stretch goals. Thanks for your consideration and support:

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