By Chris McDowall, Patrick Stuart, Ben Milton, Karl Stjernberg Free league Publishing Forbidden Lands
Wind dies. Pale grass grows in spirals. Lichen forms blurred iridescent sigils on cracked stone. Black trees curl their trunks and crook their branches as if bowing. The Spire is driven through the skin of the world like a pin through curling paper. With every step toward the tower, it writhes and warps like a hallucination. It seems infinitely tall, like something in a dream. There is one silver door, marked with a pavonated eye in iridescent blue and green.
Forbidden Lands is some Modipheus RPG that tries to emulate OSR play, I think. I don’t know. What I do know is that they snagged a lot of Name Brand designers to write a volume of adventures for their game. That’s one way to get a decent base of adventures for your new game!
I don’t usually review anthology stuff, collections of adventures from many designers. I never feel like I give any one adventure enough attention and so I do a disservice to them all. In addition, you’ve got the issue of “How Much Did The Publisher Fuck With Their Creations” to deal with. But, I think I’ve found a new work method that might help me do better reviews of these anthology things. So, off we go!
Adventure 1 – The Spire of Quetzel – Patrick Stuart
This thing is 23 pages long and describes about ten locations in about eight pages, with the rest being monster descriptions, events, etc. Locations can be a bit of a misnomer; while some of the keyed locations are “normal” rooms, as one expects, others are more situations. “You are in a huge maze” or “you are in a huge greenhouse.” Patrick is a very good writer and uses language quite effectively to paint dreamlike images for the DM that I find quite evocative. His situation/encounters are also highly interactive. This feels like a process done right: imagined and then put down with mechanics as an afterthought, instead of mechanics driving the system. “I need a CR5 encounter” is the bane of adventure design.
Looking at those last two senses of the introduction gives a good summary of the descriptive style “With every step toward the tower, it writhes and warps like a hallucination. It seems infinitely tall, like something in a dream. There is one silver door, marked with a pavonated eye in iridescent blue and green.” This is an adventuring site, no doubt about it! This is what you yearn for! Adventure awaits! Not just some bullshit dry location, but someplace WONDROUS. And an eye, pavonated like a peacock feather. Note the relationship to the queens name: Quetzal. And then, the first encounter, a couple of bird creatures, peacocks crossed with archaeopteryx and Birds of Paradise. Demons. I, dummy that I am, still did not get it. Not until I saw an art piece. They are Vrocks. This is a strength is a good designer and Patrick does it wonderfully. Not just a Vrock. Not just a bird demon. No, he creates a description that causes you to totally rethink your preconceived notions of what a Vrock is. Turcotte did this with his devils and undead in his Jarls adventures on Dragonsfoot. It’s not a class of creature. It’s not a demon, or a vrock, or a bird demon. It’s not some genetic classification of monster. These are Grumis and Nachtrapp, weird creepy intelligent old men in brilliant giant peacock bird-creature form. Through specificity the soul of an encounter is gained.
Those demons also highlight the interactivity of the adventure. They guard a staircase. (Specifically, a spire of gilded bone leading up, with a keening wind echoing down and a pale light gleaming from above, with long-dead bodies strewn across the floor and hung like pennants on the walls. Tell me you can’t see that in your head are not excited to run it!) Anyway, those bird demons. They guard it, but they don’t want to. You cna talk to them. There are a lit of bulleted talking points for them, making them easy to run. They have a neato little entry describing their personalities, voices of hoarse whispers laughter of a goat coughing, non stop talking from them, the tone never changing, speaking as if discussing a minor poet in a library, no matter the intensity of the situation, never verbally upset. That’s a fucking NPC you can run!
There’s this kind of art nouveau quality to the descriptions, and they extend to the magic items, like The Feathered Blade: a dagger, it’s handle of lapis lazuli, carved in the shape of an eyes, it’s blade one metallic silver feather. If you wound a flying creature with it then it steals the ability to fly from it and grants it to you for a day. Neato! Fuck your “there’s a +1 dagger here.”
On the negative side, there’s quite a bit of long italics sections, generally for the room overviews. I assume this was the publisher “helping.” M<aybe some house style? It sucks because it’s hard to read long sections of italics. The monsters also appear in the end of the adventure. Generally, I’d be ok with this, but, given that they are so unique, with their personalities built in, you really need them “in” the room page to be able to run the adventure well without page flipping or some such. The formatting feels … I don’t know … normal? SOme of the rooms, particularly the “situation” rooms, are complicated and the text is pushing the limits by what can be accomplished for easy running in a “normal” paragraph layout style. (I wonder if this is digest form? Maybe that’s a contributor also?) It all feels very awkward. THis is exacerbated by some mistakes in the layout with line spacing and paragraphs and mushing things together so they appear to be a part of a subheading rather than, for example, general notes on a location. It feels like the vodka soda of layouts. Basic.
The Bright Vault – Chris McDowall
This sixteen page adventure describes a 24 room dungeon with three monsters in it. It’s high concept and empty and the kind of adventure that makes me feel like I’ve wasted my life when played.
Which is, perhaps, a bit harsh, but true. There is some sharp dividing line for me in adventures. Well, at least one anyway. On one side you have these sorts of exploratory adventures. There are things to do and places to go and loot to steal. It feels like you have a purpose in being there, if only to snag some phat loot. We might also include many plot adventures in this category, seeing as you have something to do in them. And then you’ve got the other side of the line. The museum adventure. You go some place and look around. It doesn’t feel like there’s much else to do in the adventure, or, rather, there’s not much purpose in doing anything. These feel, I don’t know, pretentious? Empty? Hollow? Like, what the fuck is the point of this place? There were a couple of adventures in Raggis Grand Adventure Plan that fit in to this, as well as some Ed Greenwood adventures and a host of indie game adventures. And, this one.
So, 24 room dungeon. It has three demon spawn siblings in it. There’s a bodyless aura-thing protector spirit there interacting with you also. One room is a treasure vault, but the aura-thing will only let you take one item. That’s the adventure. Three child-like demon-spawn, mostly innocent in nature, and an aura-spirit that lies to you and them to keep them inside the place. I guess you can kill the demon spawn, but why? Why even go in? Why even interact with anything?
A lot of rooms are empty, or might as well be. You go in a room and the aura-spirit says “this room is blah blah blah” and then uses the [mural, fire, whatever] to test the party and question them and find out more about them. Ug. At least, the first third of the rooms has specific cues for te aura to talk to the party, I guess because there are “Faces” on the doors to allow for that. But, given that the aura is meant to tempt and lie, especially to the spawn, then it seems … disconnected?
So, central conceit: poor.
And then there’s room descriptions like “A large wicker basket fills the room, thinly lined with straw.” and “A dusty library filled with even more dusty books.” Masterpieces of evocative writing, to be sure. This is augmented by one of my favorite design choices: I couldn’t be bothered. “Roll 2d4 precious treasures and 1d6 valuable treasures to be placed here.” *sigh* Just put the fucking god damned things in man! The randomness doesn’t nothing to enhance the adventure and all you’re doing is shoving more work off on to the DM.
The Hexenwald – Ben Milton
This eleven page “adventure” is less adventure and more “five witches in the forest you can talk to.” As such, there’s little to say about it as an adventure.
Bens writing is inconsistent, with some stellar descriptions like “The path north into the Hexenwald ends at a wide pond, buzzing with insects and covered in green scum.” Buzzing insects and green scum add a lot to the visuals of that description. In other places though we get things like “A wooden hut stands on stilts in the middle of a wide still pond.” The vodka soda of descriptions for a witches hut.
The witches themselves get about a column or so of description each, with their personalities and their relationships to the others. Frankly, this is a textbooks example of how something like a mind map could be useful for showing complex interpersonal relationships at a glance. Otherwise, you’ll be digging through the text trying to ferret out their relationships to each other.
There is a little section at the end that relates events and/or quests that the withes can give the party, mostly against another of the five witches. This, then, could be thought of as the adventure. Here are some places. Here are some people. Here are some things that could happen. I get it, and it’s one way to do it, but I think that the adventure aspects could have been done better and have been brought to the forefront.
There are some decent ideas, generally one per witch, in this. A hut full of lit candles everywhere, with runs inscribed glowing on them. Put one out and a smoke servant appears. Nice!
Graveyard of Thunder – Karl Stjernberg
This thirteen page adventure details a small eleven encounter cave with The Last Thunder Lizard in it, dying. IE: elephant graveyard/whatever that episode of the D&D cartoon was. Along the way you get a lizardman Last Guardian Of The Caves and an orc chief looking for the Phat Loot. Some nice elements here.
Big field. Mesahill in the middle. Lightning striking all around a a section of it, centered on the hill. I’m in, cause if that ain’t a great big pointy arrow I don’t know what is! And, that’s a strength of this adventure: bringing the wonder and some situations that are interesting without being explicit set pieces. Beyond the lightning field, I’d like to call out a couple of notable standouts.
Encounter one is outside the cave/hill, and, infant, outside the lightning field proper. Some tents just outside of it, with Mr. Orcy McOrcerson camped out, with his men. He heard about this place and wants the loot. He will tail the party, and/or “lead” and expedition the way Kuz did in to the Tomb of Horrors. The orcs hosw up a few more times in the caves, as warning corpses or abandoned scouts. However, they are really a missed opportunity. There was a chance here for an obsessed orc leader, KHAN!!!-style wanting to get in and squandering his meager resources of bodies. Instead we just get a couple of words on them and no real sense of how they could be used to better effect than they are.
There’s also, in more than one place/manner, some good tension building. In one place you find a body with dart in its neck … a good clue for the party AND building tension for whats to come. In another there’s this cast off line (two, I think, in separate places) about hissing in the darkness to scare off adventurers. Again, the hissing is a missed opportunity and the ability to leverage that in to a full on tension building adventure is missing.
The whole things comes off as a very journeyman effort. Good usability, like moving from the general description in the read aloud to the specific in the DM text, is done well. But in other places there are large gaps, like the absolute lack of any monster descriptions. Instead we get their history and backstory, when we should be getting a decent little one or two line description by which to make the party shit themselves.
Anthologies are a mixed bag. They seem like a good thing, but seldom are, due to inconsistency in either writing, design, or tone. There’s some House Style bullshit going on, like the italics for read aloud and shoving the monster stats, etc in the rear of the adventure. A little too rigid if you ask me. And you are, since you’re reading this. Still at $10, you might get a good adventure out of it.
This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages and show you fuck ll, except for the last page, which is the first location key for Patricks adventure. From it you can glean the encounter/formatting style. Very poor preview.