Keys of the Apocalypse 1 – Pestilence

By Jay Parker
Dilly Green Bean Games
S&W (Modern)
Levels 6-10

First play as Red Ops as they head to an island off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine to retrieve a Senator’s wife and daughter after contact with the island is lost. But a looming hurricane is making things tricky and a missing Coast Guard cutter is drawing unwanted attention. Not only has that, but something biblical has occurred that will change the world forever…

This 49 page adventure contains brief rules for modern S&W play as well as “three” adventures, only one of which is relevant, and is ten pages. The other two are a solo mission and a Blay as the Bad Guys thing. The “Real” adventure does a good job portraying a survival horror base raid, but it completely marred by the walls of text and lack of any coherent method for organizing the text. And it fucks with the characters too much, even for a one-shot with included pre-gens, which this has.

In high school I played a lot of Danger International. It was/is a low-powered/normal person version of the Champions using the HERO system rules. Spies, special ops, commandos; a kind of James Bond type game that usually had a kind of investigation ending with a commando type raid on the evil bad guy base. This fits in to that genre. While this adventure seems to communicate post-apoc from its marketing, it’s actually more of a Delta Green type type affair with the party being a kind of investigation and special missions type unit set in the modern day. This book uses S&W for it’s system, with first eighteen or so pages having some rule adjustments and character classes, followed by a “normal” adventure, then a solo mission and another niche one that I won’t cover; just the “Real” on in this review … and I’m not covering the rules either. As a result there’s only about ten pages to the “core” adventure. 

Sentaos wife and daughter are missing on a island that has a medical facility they were visiting, no contact, multiple previous teams sent in not responding, and so now it’s the party of pre-gens turns (or, make you own, but pre-gens are provided.) Of course, there’s been a virus outbreak and there are zombies, something that any self-respecting group should immediately pick up once “medical facility” and “no contact are mentioned.” As a result this is a kind of Resident Evil or Silent Hill type survival horror mission.

These things live or die by the vibe they create, and this one does a pretty decent job. Abandoned ship in the harbour, bloody handprints, an abandoned dingy floating, pouring rain, hearing a crying baby, figures seen alone out in the rain … it does a great job of including the kind of slow build/burn environment, building dread and tension in the adventure. It’s not an adventure for the light of day, but uses the typical genre elements or body fluids and dread to do a great job building tension.

The evocative writing lends to this. Sounds of a crying baby building tension, and pale people soaked in rain with a dead eyed stare, holding a pistol loosely in one hand. When the adventure knows it’s trying to build dread it does a great job of presenting a situation that does that. 

But when it’s not trying it is REALLY not trying. “This is a refrigerated lab that is empty.” Well, ok. I guess I can’t ding it for overwriting most of the room descriptions and descriptions for “empty” rooms/ But there are opportunities lost to provide the DM with just a little more information to help them build a scene. Giant tanks, or freezers with cold air mist escaping from the lids, a fog covered room from the mist, and so on, would have helped. I’m not saying every room has to have something in it, but helping the DM out to create an evocative setting is a part of the designers job, and this doesn’t really do that with the environment. When it’s got something to say, when it decides to put something IN the room then it brings the noise, but otherwise it doesn’t really try. Again, not every room needs to be a tour d’force, but I do expect SOMETHING to bring the room to life. There’s a place for an empty room, but the empty room has to be something also, at least in an adventure like this one. 

The major, MAJOR problem though is the wall of text that it brings to the table. The opening intro must be three or more pages of exposition text mixed in with directives to the DM. It’s hard to tell what is what. There’s nothing to catch the eye. There is very little organization, use of whitespace, bolding, headings, etc in order to make it easy for the DM to find information and make it easier to assimilate and run. It’s more of a first this happens and then this and then this and then this … and thats hard to run. This sort of thing continues in the “interesting” rooms as well. There are times to switch formats, and certainly I’m not calling for every room to look like a “good” dungeon room, organization wise, but when you are doing a complex room, or a room with something in it, it requires the designer to put some effort in to make the room easy to run. This don’t do that. 

There are some “gotcha” things as well. The crying baby is a zombie like thing and if you kil it then you release a plague on the world. But there’s no hint that’s the case. And there are sometimes bodies on the floor. They don’t rise up zombie style (well, some do, but not the ones I’m thinking of …) If you get too close to the bodies on the floor then you die, instantly. It’s the arbitrary nature of the scene that makes it problematic, even for a one-shot. By doing what the party normally does, go in rooms, they die instantly without warning. 

It also uses randomness in a weird way. Encountering the abandoned dongy in the harbor only happens on a 1 in 6 chance. Why? This is an encounter to build dread. Why would you make it unlikely to happen? You’re fighting the very nature of the adventure type with this behavior. In other places there is a chance for a random encounter. I’m not talking wandering monsters, those are always ok for driving an adventure forward, time-wise. I’m talking “if you leave the room then there’s a 1 in 6 chance of the following fully described scene to take place.” And the scene takes a page, or half a page to describe and, again, builds horror. This doesn’t make sense in a survival horror genre. Again, I’m not talking wandering monsters, I’m talking fully fleshed out scene. That should be included. There is no principal of old school gaming here; you’re doing a different genre, survival horror instead of exploration, and the tropes and standards for it are different. There may be some things to borrow from exploration adventures but random scenes isn’t one of them. Programmed is ok; it’s not a railroad, it’s part of the room. 

I’d say this is essentially unusable because of the wall of text/organization issues. I can’t say I’m surprised, for all the trouble with OSR adventures not knowing how to do it I’d say that other genres have much MUCH more issues with this. Refer to just adopt every Call of Cthulhu adventure ever written. And that’s too bad. The scenes are good, in a little “standard zombie medical lab on an isolated island” kind of way. It’s what you would expect, but it knows how to do survival horror. It just doesn’t know how to present the adventure in a wy that a DM can actually run it. 

This is $1.50 at DriveThru. There is no meaningful preview, just the usual “thumbnail” one. It needs to show some text of the actual adventure to give people an idea of what they are buying before they buy it, $1.50 or no.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/311241/Keys-of-the-Apocalypse-Pestilence?1892600

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9 Responses to Keys of the Apocalypse 1 – Pestilence

  1. Robert, OSR Heretic says:

    One look at the cover is all I need to know that this is probably a mess on the inside as well. Wall of text issues? You don’t say!

  2. a new fave Bryce typo…. “the abandoned dongy in the harbor”. I’d have to ask…..how much is that dongy in the harbor?

  3. Edgewise says:

    Once I encountered an abandoned dongy in the harbor (it was on my sixth visit). I called the police immediately.

  4. Anonymous says:

    New Class: Gangsta Rapper.

    Really?

  5. LL says:

    Things that DO NOT BELONG on the same adventure cover:
    “Beer and pretzel” and “survival horror”
    “Levels 6-10” and “survival horror”
    “Gangsta rapper” and “survival horror”

    I struggle to imagine how the hell you’re supposed to create dread and a tense atmosphere while Lil’ Big Sneeb drops it like it’s hot and tanks the zombie attacks with his 30 HP. This module was doomed from the start.

  6. Gnarley Bones says:

    As a diehard CoC Keeper, I can attest that 99.99% of CoC adventures cannot be “run at the table” without notes/outlines/tabs. In fact, they are notorious for being dense.

  7. Bigby’s Affirmative Consent Lubed Fist says:

    Keys of the Apocalypse: Pestilence?

    I dunno, I’m already playing in the LARP, and it’s no fun at all.

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