By Lucas Curell, Chance Kemp
Embers Design Studio
Four factions struggle for the Book of Terniel, and in the middle of them: you! Choose a side or claim it for yourself.
This is easily one of the best Pathfinder adventures I’ve seen. It MIGHT be worth it to convert to Your Favorite Gaming system, be it 5e or OSR.
This 226 page adventure details the search for a missing book/artifact. Investigation, hex crawling, diplomacy and bluffing are all mixed in to provide what I would call A Real Adventure. There’s a lot going on in this and, while it provides good support information, it doesn’t quite provide enough to orient the DM easily.
An overview: you are in a village, investigate a missing book (with social, searching, and fighting.) It culminates with the party exploring a little mine and then it getting invaded by undead. Part two has the party doing a hexcrawl through a swamp to find the people who hit the mine before they did and who now have the book. Explore the swamp, talk to and kill people, and eventually find the lair of the “giants” who took the book. (Let’s call them “ogres.”) Part two is non-trivial and involves several humanoid village & towns in addition to the usual swamp stuff. Part three has the party in the ogre home, a huge place with multiple factions. Again, multiple social, exploration, and fighting possabilities.
Looking at that page count, I would have expected a lot of garbage detail and very little in the way of adventure. That’s not the case. There’s very little trivia and what there is presents well and doesn’t get in the way. I would have also expected a long appendix, as is usual. That ALSO is not the case. This thing is about 200 pages of actual adventure. At the end of it you are expected to be about level four, after starting at level one. I can EASILY anticipate this thing being the centerpoint of multiple months of gaming. For me that would be about twelve or so sessions. Again, this is the real deal.
Looking at the $10 price I groaned. We’ve been through this before, each of us. You pay $10 and get you a bunch of crap. And yet, I’m fond of saying that I’ll happily pay up to $50 or more for a good adventure. But we go in to this EXPECTING crap, and thus the groan. Such is the marketplace. This is worth it, easily. It does a lot of what the WOTC hardbacks are trying to do and for which only Strahd partially succeeded.
We start with a village, multiple NPC’s with short little descriptions. Several rumor tables. Talking to people yields clues on where to follow up, and maybe a side quest or two. Theoretically, this is what most adventures of this type do, so that description should be boring to you. And yet, this thing is complex. There’s a lot going on. It’s not just one throw off thing, but multiple avenues to follow up on. Likewise the swamp, with multiple areas in to gain clues and multiple paths to follow up on, with minor “quests” floating around also.
It’s able to do this well by organizing itself. Bullet points, white space, indents, colored boxes, bolding. The text is formatted to draw your eye to certain areas. There are summaries of what’s going on, of the different factions and their goals and what they want and what they will do. Oh, Oh! There are two evil factions after the book and you could ALLY with them! Your choice! I know, right?!?!?! The sidebars present extra information, trivia,or mechanically effects like what you find out for a local knowledge roll. There’s no pages of trivia mixed in. It gets in and gets out. Oh,oH! Stat blocks are NOT LONG. I know! Like, ¼ of a COLUMN! Wtf!?! It’s like these dudes didn’t read the Pathfinder script and are actually thinking for themselves!
Here’s the description for the region the party is in, presented in a sidebar. Ready? “The countryside is quiet and serene, consisting of beautiful meadows and bubbling brooks interrupted here and there by small copses of trees. The journey should leave the PCs refreshed and comfortable.” Terse. Evocative. Provides you the exact information you need, no more, and lets you know exactly how to run the place and relate it to the players. Note how it does NOT drone on and on. That’s usual. Even in the main text the details tend to be terse.
A giant fly is “the size of a boar.” Ouch! I’ve not seen that description before, but it’s relatable. Of a misshaped giant with giant maggots in it’s rolls of fat, tossing them at the party. Visceral, in both example. A quasit has suggested dialog, both imperios or groveling, depending on the situation.There’s loot hidden in strange places with clues about to reward those who take just a little more time to follow up on details. Rewarding good gaming, imagine that!
This thing delivers a rich and complex environment, with the large fonts and varied formatting leading to the larger page count, instead of useless drivel. I could go on an on about how skill checks are used correctly, and so on (if you accept that a game has skill checks, and this being Pathfinder we’ll allow it.)
As is usual and expected, it’s not all good.
Rumors could use a little more “in voice” instead of raw facts. The hooks are terrible and probably would have been better to just not include them instead of the throw-away “guard”, “relative” stuff that is usual for garbage adventures. New magic items are overly sparse (but the few examples are pretty good.) There are a few other minor things, like bullet point being out of order. (A good example is this cave with prisoners tied up in and two goblins. Neither appear high up in the description and only show later deeper in the bullet summary. Important/Obvious things should come first!) Related, there’s this wizards tower. And in some other place, the NPC descriptions, it relates a nosy neighbor the wizard has. But wouldn’t that have been relevant in the wizard location? To see a nosy neighbor hanging out of a window? Instead you have to remember that there’s a nosy neighbor and go look her up. These sorts of contextual references/cross-references are missing in lots of places in the more free-form play areas.
The major issue is … context? Relevance of information? I don’t know what to call it. This adventure has summaries. It does a great job with formatting, bolding, whitespace, callout boxes, sidebars, etc. (Well, for the most party anyway.) It even provides a kind of Big Picture overview. Of many of the areas/goings on. But it lacks a kind of medium level zoom/summary.
Town has some location descriptions, some NPC descriptions, a “scene” where you have dinner with the quest giver wizard, and so on. It’s even got little sections on how to follow-up, etc, on the various stuff, in places. What it lacks though is an overview of how this all works together. Normally that wouldn’t be an issue, but there’s enough going on in this that I think it’s necessary. Here’s how A relates to B relates to C. Yes, it IS possible to do it inline in the text (G1/Steading) but this adventure ain’t that one. There’s a lot more going on here. How do the various NPC’s and clues and locations interrelate? There’s an orientation missing. Same thing in the swamp for part two and the giant lair/town in part three. While the giants have a nice faction overview, how everything works together is missing and it’s too large/complex to hold in your head without it.
This means a read-through, probably multiple times, and notes and highlighter. Any time I’m REQUIRED to put in work to run the adventure I’m not happy. But this, as a kind of twelve session or so adventure, may be worth it. Individually the locations are ok and pretty easy to understand. I was also able to grok enough of the Whole Situation from the initial overview that I understand how the parts worked together … which helps with comprehension during the read-through which helps during the running of the game. But then in the middle zone, the big picture for the individual parts just wasn’t there.
But … this is easily one of the best, if not the best Pathfinder adventure I’ve seen. It tries hard to orient towards play. It avoids railroads. It’s much more than a hack. I’m having a hard time with the notes thing. If it weren’t for that I’d slap a Best on this. Given the general dreck in the Pathfinder world, I’m going to err on the side of Best, considering I consider a B, A, or Perfect to be The Best. This is good enough, if it were an OSR product. As a Pathfinder product its easily one of the best.
This is $10 on DriveThru. The preview is a good one. Pages 6&7 (in the book) give you an overview of the adventure. Pages 10&11 (in the book) show the bullets, whitespace, bolding, and sidebar usage. In fact, pages 10 onward give you a good idea of how the individual encounters/locations are presented.
Addenda: Evard says their follow-up products stink, being more typical Pathfinder. So, maybe be wary of your follow-on purchases with this publisher.