The Bleak Holdfast of the Heartless Queen

By Rob Alexander
Medium Quality Products
Levels 3-4

High above the snow line there is a castle on a crag. It is an object of fear and hatred, because the Heartless Queen holds court there and she is pitiless in her anger and host to terrible friends. Between the Frost Wyrms, the Ice Harpies, and the Frozen Thing that Guards the Bridge, even getting in is difficult. Most locals stay as far away as they can, but between courage, pride, and burning vengeance there are always some willing to take a shot at it. And travellers from the soft, warm south might hear stories of the Queen’s fantastical treasures and be oblivious about the horrors that protect them.

This 64 page digest adventure uses about thirty pages to describe a three level point crawl dungeon of an icy despot with about seventy rooms. When its firing on all cylinders it does a great job with descriptions, but it lacks a cohesiveness that makes the entire dungeon feel like its one place. A little too disconnected, which is not helped by the selected layout choices. A lot of unrealized potential here.

Ice queen lives up on top of an ice hill in an ice castle. What ho! Time to do some stabbin and grabbin!

The designer has a remarkable ability at describing things, both NPC’s, rooms, objects, and situations. The lighting in the castle “dulls colours towards in the way an overexposed photograph doe.” Which is a great way of describing that certain lighting effect and your mind immediately conjures it up. A witch uses as a weapon the embalmed right hand of her disobedient son, sharpened to a claw. Ouchies! The ice queen proper is described as “Tall, incredibly pale, bleach-white hair. Has a bloody hole in her chest, slightly to the left, and she features this with her clothes and accessories (e.g. a silver ring around the hole). When she is animate, the seeps blood, at a modest rate. Again, she dresses so you see this.” You know, I always say, it doesn’t matter what fashion style you have as long as you HAVE a style. And she’s certainly got one.  How about a monster “It is a 9’ high spider-thing with six arched legs and a crude human- esque face that hangs below its rough-ovoid body like an old leather bag.” Sweet! That’s going to have some party members quaking in their boots! Or a magic item, a human skull decorated with electrum pieces, a MU can use it to summon the freezing ghost that whirl around them, stealing the heat of everyone in a 10’ radius for 1d6 damage a round for three rounds. Usable once a day, unless they kill someone, in which case they are sated for a week. Sweet!

This extends to little room situations, like an out of the way place with some graffiti, including “we are all seals” … which comes in to the adventure later. Or a Skeleton, frozen in ice, with s stake through its heart and some long incisors … with a gleaming speal behind it. Want that spear? Gotta thaw that body! That’s a perfect example f he delicious kind of temptation that a good adventure will offer a party. Everybody knows what the fuck is going to happen when you thaw that body … do you want to do it? 

When the adventure is hitting these notes it’s doing a great job. It just doesn’t do that enough. And the digest format, with its wide whitespaces, doesn’t help. Or the fact that it’s a pointcrawl. Let me elaborate.

There’s something going on here, and not in a good way. The entire thing feels somewhat disconnected from itself. Not that the rooms are too far off theme, but, rather, it just doesnt feel like the whole thing works together well. The abstracted pointcrawl map, working with a kind of monster-zoo of NPC’s all packed pretty tightly together on the same level, and the other various rooms of the castle, just don’t seem to jive together. The NPC’s, full of color and description and personality, are just kind of THERE, in their rooms, all essentially right next to each other. There’s not a lot of potential energy BETWEEN the rooms, even though some of the NPCs have motivations that would tend to lead the adventure that way. 

The pointcrawl nature helps lend to this air of disconnectedness, I think, r at least doesn’t help it any. Then, in digest format, you’ve got this kind of big expansive thing with lots of pages, but with the generous whitespace allowance you’ve got this kind of sparness in the words. It doesn’t feel much like a reference document and, with a lot of NPC’s and it not being rare for them to be on two pages, it doesn’t really feel like something easy to use. 

And the elements which ARE good, the NPC’s descriptions, the better rooms, and so on, they are somewhat buried by the rest. There’s A LOT of leadin padding, of the environs, how the castle works, and so on, that I just can’t see being used in play, it being dropped out of neglect by a DM because of its verbose and somewhat generic nature. Yes, the appendices are, essentially, up front and there is more room for expansive text in an appendix, but the rest of it is NOT, and it just gets lost.

The hooks are a good example, taking up a page and not saying anything at all other than the usual “kill the queen” or “loot the place” type of stuff. If it’s just boilerplate then why include it? It just gets in the way.

The severity of my standards come in play with something like this. This one walks the line, trying to reach Regert status. I’ll probably end up putting it there, it does have some decent NPC’s and situations and items in it, along with good descriptions. It just isn’t the whole package. Which I guess is why I made that category in the first place.

This is $4 at DriveThru.The preview is eleven pages and ives you a good look at things, jumping around to several sections. On page twelve you can see the somewhat generic encounters, trying to do more but not reaching it. And then on pages 47 & 50 some room descriptions. This gives you a good iea of the mixed nature of the rooms. How they do so many things right and yet still don’t quite reach a good level.

This has been episode I Lost Track of Bryce reviews everything on his wishlist.

BONUS FEATURE! — Vaults of Vaarn #2

Holy fuckballs, this thing is great! It’s a kind of city support supplement for a post-apoc-like city. It would fit in ok with Eberron, maybe Dark Sun, any f a number of sci-fi RPG’s and so on. It’s got a brief description of a water-poor city and then it starts in with faction description, about twenty of them, about one per page, supported by a few more minor factions. This makes GREAT environment to have an adventure in. They are flavorful, colorful, and full of potential energy without outright telegraphing where they should go. This is then supported by a FUCKTON of tables for creating noble houses, npc’s taverns, merchants, whatever … which reminds me a lot of the Ready Ref sheets. The entire flavort ofthe city is told through the factions and the tables and they work GREAT to do that. This place is ALIVE and boiling over with fun shit.

I would view this as a kind of companion piece. I might create a small neighborhood and some adventures and then use the stuff in this book to augment it on the fly as needed (the tables) and use the factions to hep help create some adventures. As a support product, it both serves to inspire and rest as the foundation f your game, as well as serving as a handy tableside tool to roll a quick NPC or some such to help come alive during play.

Great fucking book!

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5 Responses to The Bleak Holdfast of the Heartless Queen

  1. Edgewise says:

    I’m just glad to see Bryce reviewing stuff that doesn’t lend itself to black-out whiskey drinking. Seriously it’s great to see reviews of good material. I know it’s not always clear what’s going to be good beforehand, and Bryce’s criticisms are A Service To The Community, but still.

  2. Stu Lemon says:

    Vaults of Vaarn sounds really cool. That’s something I never would have found if not for this review

  3. Sean Wills says:

    I have the first 3 issues of Vaults of Vaarn, all good stuff

  4. Thanks for this Bryce – really useful to see what you thought of it. Overall I set my sights on something too big and complex here.

    Might do a 1.1 version at some point. Easy wins would be moving to an A4/Letter format and dropping the weakest bits (e.g the hooks). Next easiest might be redoing the maps in topographic form.

    WRT the padding, if you have any more specific advice about what I should cut, I’m all ears. Part of it was driven by the weird environment – a castle of ice in an icefield – which left me feeling I needed to explain a lot of how it worked (some of which, to be fair, did come up in play). And some of it was indulging my NPC ideas too much.

    In the mean time, my next project is structurally a lot simpler, and less of a living environment.

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