By Valleria Studios Valleria Studios 5e Level 6
Oakheart, a once vital trading post, has been struck by a mysterious disease. Over the past month, Lord Ulric Von Vymarc, townmaster of Oakheart, has set out his men to look for the source of the disease and a cure to put a stop to the disaster. Yet they’ve failed to find any clue to what this might be. As the weeks passed, more people got infected to the point where most of the shops had to close. The town’s guard is undermanned as they’re falling ill themselves.Ships are starting to avoid the town, as rumors about a disease are starting to spread. More importantly, The Feast Of The Stars is approaching. This would be a major source of income for the people, as many from all over the land come here to pay their respects to the gods, feast and spend many of their valuables. The town is already accommodating the first of many visitors to come. Yet most of them leave once they find out about Oakheart’s situation. Lord Ulric has sent out letters to renowned adventurers across Valleria to assist in this serious matter.
This 28 page adventure details a short little investigation in to a virus(!) and about eighteen rooms in the mad alchemist’s lair. It has some sparks of interesting encounters when it comes to the creatures, although the puzzles are a bit on the nose for my tastes. Still, for what it is it’s an above average adventure that shops promise, particularly in regard to creativity and formatting.
I was full prepared to hate this. $17 for a PDF is the reason I picked it up. Then, it’s got the generic title. The generic trope of an alchemist as an enemy. It’s 5e, and then there’s the trade dress. None of these give a favorable first impression. Generic background, generic “you can adapt this to your world!” information, padding to page six, and, at a quick glance, read-aloud that tends to three-four paragraphs long talking up a quarter to two-thirds of a page. These are all the symptoms of a bad adventure. And yet … it’s not really. Plus, there’s enough going on here to actually write a real review for a change
This is a virus adventure, with people in the town getting sick. I’m surprised that, given the pandemic, we’ve not seen more of these. You’re hired by courier, taking a ten day boat trip to the plague town to meet with the Lord Mayor. The ‘hired’ trope is not particularly well done, although there is a full page “fancy font” letter you can hand out. I love those. Props are a lost art and letter handouts are one of the last remaining. Anyway, it’s a little easy to get a plague town, breaking the immersion a bit and, most of all, a lost opportunity for some roleplaying efforts and scenes to set a mood. The “hired by the town” trope is boring as well, especially when just a hand wave as it is here. But, whatever, we’re playing D&D tonight. (And, I will leave unmentioned, the fact that the party arrives by ship in ten days and later walks only half a day to find the cause of the infection. Ug! Immersion again!)
It is, at this point, that things start to get better. A check-in line at the town, a sickly gnome at a desk wearing a mask, coughing in to it. A tavern with a sign that has a cat head sticking out of a caldron “The Boiled Cat.” Things are starting to look up! Further, the innkeep has a nice section called “What the innkeeper knows” laid out in an offset box with bullets. Nice! This trend continues for others people that the party are likely to talk to, at least within the bounds of the investigation play.
Let’s return, though, to The Boiled Cat. This simple thing, the naming of a tavern, is a degree of interesting content that is not usually seen in adventures, let alone 5e adventures. Not generic. It’s specific and not abstracted. This continues in other areas of the adventure. A delivery boy brings you supplies that you request, and he might keep some of it or charge more, etc, because his family is hurting. Again, an interesting interaction that can lead to more, either sympathy or annoyance with the boy. A young guard, Tim, worried about supporting his family, wanting work, wanting to not get sick or get them sick, torn between these things. This is not your usual generic shit, and, I think, works well because it effectively channels real world things in a way that still makes the game fun. It makes sense AND adds to experience in a fun way. The party can relate.
The dungeon encounters are likewise interesting. Gibbering Mouthers as a failed experiment? Perfect! And they slither under doors! Even better, a fresh take! A grey ooze that looks like a rock. A treasure chest in a cell … that turns out to be a mimic. These all make sense as failed experiments, they surprise and delight and, for whatever reason, they are interesting takes on them. The party hearing a “slosh slosh” as a mouther stalks them on the ceiling. Specificity. Brief points of which shine like binding light in bringing an adventure to life. A flesh golem shoults “Freeeedoooommmm!” Every time it attacks. Great thing added to the encounter, you can imagine a tortured soul doing that. Also, it’s a clue that “Liberty” is the answer to the puzzle lock in the next room. Clever monkey. That’s good design.
There are substantial downsides though.
I mentioned the long read-aloud, never a good thing. A substantial amount of information is communicated through diaries. This is almost always a bad decision, an easy crutch. THings are better when they are communicated more naturally, and, no, I don’t mean through the villain monologue. There should be more than enough possabilities, in an eighteen room lair, to get across the points made in the diaries.
The plague is not very visceral. Like I said, its easy to get to town. There are not a lot of plague vignettes. There should be some cross-references, both from the lord mayor and the innkeeper, for plague information, so the DM can find that information easily when the party inevitable asks about it. Some of the plague victims in the infirmary have different symptoms than others. This would normally lead to follow up investigations for them … which are not provided at all. No, you get everything you need from the mayor int he first meeting. “My alchimist friend disappeared on Blood Cove a few days ago.” Uh huh. That’s the next step, allowing the party to skip the infirmary altogether. The town, the plague, the infirmary, they are all non-existent as far as the adventure is concerned, which is too bad, a serious lost opportunity. And only a Greater Restoration spell can cure people. There goes all the benefits of living in a magical ren faire world.
The puzzles in the dungeon, though, are a low point. These are all pretty on the nose. A combination lock made of letters, level puzzle, and so on. The clues, likewise, are on the nose, with bits of paper left around with things like “CIRCLE = GOOD GOOD GOOD” and so on. Yeah, it serves a purpose, but its also about the easiest way possible to relate the clue and they show none of the creativity, either in the puzzle or the clues, tha the better encounters and NPC do.
To finish up I’ll saw that the map tries to be artistic and it fails at that. Maps are hard, I get it. A simpler map would have been clearer. Or, at least a different color choice for the backgrounds which reproduce more clearly. There is a cute little art piece, masquerading as a town map, that I think gives the town a nice vibe though. It’s numbers, but I think it’s more art than map, unlike the lair proper.
Not a bad effort for someone with no credits to their name! I’d run this before I ran a lot of other things, $17 or no.
This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $17. You can grab the entire things, obviously, but the preview is 20 pages also, giving you a good idea of what you are about to purchase.