Jacob Hurst & Donnie Garcia Swordfish 5e Levels 4-5
Deep in the forest plants and animals twist and crack and seem to fill with stars before they vanish, screaming into nothing. A tomb has appeared, and lumberjacks argue about its origin over drinks at the Red Squirrel Inn. Some say it’s new, like a freshly grown cancerous lump; others say the twisting earth revealed an ancient trove of bone and unimaginable treasure. No one can agree, but townsfolk have begun to go missing, riders in black have been seen on the roads, and some say the candles are singing.
This 56 page “slightly larger than digest sized” adventure features about twenty rooms in about twenty pages, with generous art. Detailed, evocative, interactive, and frustrating, it can sometimes be hard to get a handle on the larger and more complex rooms. And it also presents a GLORIOUS vision of a lich lair. Flawed, but worth having.
Frank wants to be a lich and then an arch-lich and fly around the universe collecting power, ascending to higher planes of being, etc. He does some research, finds out that he needs willing sacrifice victims, and sets out. #1 is his true love, who truly does love him and truly sacrifices herself willingly. He then builds a place and starts luring other “willing” villagers. It’s a nice set up and he, a CR21 Lich, is in the dungeon.
The intro mentions, but doesn’t explain, some keywords that will be familiar to the OSR but less well known in the 5e world. Mythic Underworld. Combat As Sport, Answers not on the Character Sheet and, of course, running the fuck away from a CR 21 lich when you’re level four. I might question the ability of the general 5e public to grasp the adventure, but I shan’t be the one to pander to the lowest common denominator in this review. It’s got a solid head on it.
Supporting material is pretty good. The nearby village is well done. Brief quick hits of places and NPC’s, just enough to get things juicing. A good percentage is focused on the adventure at hand with some personal flavor to brighten them further up. Bolded words and good use of section breaks make it easy to follow. Information that add character is specific, not abstracted. It feels like a place that you can run, when you first glance at it. The hooks are great as well. And, uh, maybe in a first, ALL of them. Six of so, one paragraph each. In one the local curate summons you. He’s afraid that if words gets out about the missing villagers and the mysterious tomb that just appeared then his superiors will start up a witchburning inquisition … since they are already suspicious of their worship of a moon goddess aspect … Perfect! Makes PERFECT sense. Ties in well to the moon goddess. Which ties in well to the actual “tomb.” Or, a mining & timber business deal gone bad. WTF? In an adventure full of undead and a mysterious tomb? Fuck. Yes. Life is better when the world IGNORES the zombie army beyond the wall! The local color in both the hooks and village are EXCELLENT. I WANT to run it, and that takes some fucking skill!
The place is interactive as all fuck out. Dig through pits of undead. Candles of different colors that you can light and mess with. Piles of skulls. A trapdoor full of sand. A pool of banshee tears. Yes. it’s ALL the tears of a banshee. Hmmm, maybe that needs to go in my evocative section? Anyway, this place has it all: Trance, stilts, throw-up music, an albino that looks like Susan Powter, Teddy Graham people.
And it brings the fucking noise in evocative. I already mentioned the pool of banshee tears, right? Piles of skulls holding candles on top of them. Pits of bodies. Brief hits of mosaics on doors. Windows that shine the light of elysium in. Black sand, everywhere, subtly moving towards one room. Oh, you got mixed up in it? Skeletal hands reach out of it! How about creepy villagers, in only gossamer garments, draped with that ancient jewelry from Frodo’s barrow? Oh, how about a voice, barely heard, saying “This way. A little further.” O! O! O! That’s creepy!
The map is good, and has some atmospheric effects embedded in it, little keywords for the DM to emphasize, like the sand, cold, or precision of the construction. That’s a good tool to help keep things fresh in the DM’s head during play, so they can relate it to players to enhance the atmosphere. Likewise, it does a good job with cross-references to other locations.
And now for winters discontent.
It feels like something is wrong with the formatting.
It’s using a series of bolded keywords to draw the eyes attention, with some [brackets] to contain some additional info on those items, along with section headings that stand out to give additional information. Something similar is used in the small village/NPC section, to draw the eye via bolding. Here, though, it feels like the longer rooms, and many of the rooms are longer/more details, loose their essence in a forest for the trees type situation. That format, combined with the two column, the digesty size, and the more complex/lengthy rooms seems to be a problem for me. I have problems conceptualizing the rooms and groking them. They becomes a series of individual elements I have to pick out instead of a ROOM with elements. The entrance room, one, for example, is small and the format works well. But as the adventure moves to room two it seems to cloud up. I’m gonna let this review sit for another day and see if anything clicks.
Ok, coming back to this I think I can run it. The bolded words, issued as brief impressions in the initial descriptions, maybe with some [bracket] comments tossed in, and then interactive DM->Player play beyond that, with the section headings providing more details. It works pretty well. What’s missing, I think, is the creatures. They still seem out of place, or somehow not fully integrated in to the rooms/descriptions. It FEELS like you get a good room description but then there’s a “oh, uh, yeah, and there’s this banshee in here also”, or something similar. So, in summary, the two-column digesty bolded keyword format works, but takes a bit to grok … and I think you’re gonna have to make some notes for the more complex creatures to appear on the map.
Speaking of …
There are a couple of aspects to the adventure that are a bit subtle. It’s doing this thing, that I’m supportive of, where the “plot” and/or background data is conveyed through the keys. It’s a part of B2, G1, and other products and is a nice way to integrate things without a huge amount of backstory. In this case, though, one additional paragraph could have helped a lot. Essentially, the interaction of some werewolves and the banshee, along with a couple of other smaller points that are meant to impact play. Likewise, there’s a section of text which covers the rituals being performed inside of the “tomb.” This is generally self-contained on one page but is may be in more of a story mode (in spite of it being well numbered bullets) and less in a “actual play” mode. Step nine states that when a sacrifice gives up completely their body becomes ethereal and runes appear in two locations. What a great effect to happen during play, while the party is in 4 or 6! It’s certainly flavorful, as presented, but there’s another section, on the Lich’s extras, which is essentially trivia. Breaking that out to “actual play” notes, or including those AP notes on the map, would have been a cool thing and better integrate them in to the adventure, errr, help the DM do it. The sacrifice flow states that people wit in the chapel room for a week, but the chapel doesn’t mention this. Nor is much given to the “items of shame” that are a center of a lot of the adventure. I might quibble, also, with a couple of smaller decisions, like explicitly stating that, in the sand dune room, you can’t see the far door from the entrance door. Temptation and curiosity are great player qualities to exploit.
FInally, let’s look at the goal of this adventure. Why are we here? To save villagers? You’ll get a few out. Cash? Ok, but 5e is not a gold=xp game. Helping a couple of brothers save their sister? Maybe. But, solving the issue of The Tomb, proper, isn’t going to happen (not that I can see anyway) without something being done about Mr Lich. Hmmm, maybe I need to reread … maybe dealing with his girlfriend is good enough. As a kind of Thing That Exists, it’s good, but that’s not the general flow of 5e. 5e tends to be more story and plot oriented. The challenge is marrying the more OSR-centric flavour to that end.
This is a complex place. It could be tweaked some, or notes added, to ease actual play. But it’s a worthwhile environment to have for OSR play if not 5e play. Can your players handle a scenario that is not a TOTAL AND COMPLETE SUCCESS?
The PDF is $10 over at DriveThru, with a print version available at Swordfish. The preview is fourteen (!) pages long and does a good job showing you the type of content you’ll get. Check out preview pages 7 (real page 18) for the entrance first hallway. And then preview pages nine through the end for a complex room. Putting the room, the elements, and NPC together is a little rough.