3.31.2017

World's End

World's End




This module clocks in at a massive 69 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, slightly more than 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 66 pages of content, so let's take a look!

But before we do, I should not fail to mention that 9 pages of the module are devoted to spell, bestiary and item references - this means that you don't need to do any book-flipping when running this module. Kudos! Better yet, we actually get fluff for the respective creatures, all written and provided for your convenience. Similarly, in the tradition of 4 Dollar Dungeons, we receive an art appendix, which contains all the art, ready to be printed out. a total of 4 maps as jpgs (including player-friendly versions for the two of them that can use them!) are included, with one being a map of Asgard, based on Iceland.

The pdf also provides work-sheets for riddles, which have been reproduced as individual jpgs. as well.

So, this is not a spoiler, but it should be noted that this pdf assumes the Asgardian gods to exist; in fact, the assumption is that the tales we know from real world mythology are in progress. For guys like yours truly, who are intimately familiar with the mythology, the pdf provides a concise and easy to grasp summary of what has happened and what hasn't. If that sounds like it'd be hard to integrate into a given campaign, rest assured that it isn't - but to explain that, I'll have to go into spoiler territory, so you'll see that in the next paragraph. Before I go there, I should note that this pdf does contain a detailed glossary, which can help GMs not familiar with the myths to keep tabs on the names and places.

All right, this is as far as I can go without SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion NOW.
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All right, still around? Great! So, "World's End" is an inn unlike any other. For one, it is run by Odin...when he can be bothered. It also has a habit of jumping from plane to plane. The PCs, caught in a blizzard, stumble upon exactly this inn. Inside, a rowdy band of vikings can be found and promptly invites the PCs to a drinking game - but unlike anyone you would consider to be common. The PCs are peppered with poetic riddles pertaining the gods - and the PC's answers to the moral conundrums each riddle poses are noted down on aforementioned work-sheets. With a pounding head and 8 riddles answered, the PCs will find themselves in most peculiar beds after awakening - it seems they have shrunk!

Well, almost. You see, World's End adapts those it has taken on a planar ride to the worlds it happens upon; however, beings from other worlds do not receive this adaptation. And Asgard is literally larger than life - about thrice the size of anything the PCs are familiar with. While the PCs will have a fight for their lives with a spider, they'll soon hear that Asgard is thankfully pretty peaceful now...Note that while knowledgeable players may assume the truth regarding the nature of the deities, the module works perfectly well without prior knowledge - though, admittedly, helping Freyr (who is having a hell of a time with Gerðr!) get his inspiration back and maneuver the giant Gullinbursti out of a field makes for an interesting start.

The PCs literally are tiny, impotent motes in a land of living gods, but that does not mean that they don't have plenty of adventuring to do! The PCs will have to work for their upkeep - the tasks they perform will yield proper compensation...but ultimately, if the PCs wish to return to the regular prime material plane, they'll not only need escorts, they'll have to find Odin and bother him enough so he actually brings them back! It seems like Odin is interested in Freyja, so Séssrumnir, her domain, would be the first stop for the PCs. Here's a problem, though: Her chariot is drawn by cats. Which are, in relation to the PCs, Gargantuan. Cats are fickle and not too kind...so, in order to pass them by, the PCs will have to catch mice for them. Which are, actually, thrice their usual size. Various strategies are included for this endeavor, allowing you to reward creative players.

Well, turns out Freyja may not be too amused - not long ago, she has lost a golden ring she received from bedding a traveling minstrel called Faðr Galdr...and a strange vision of a golden fish the PCs had en route, may very well be the culprit of the loss. She promises to help if the PCs can retrieve that ring (as she suspects Odin's handiwork and will not demean herself to hunt that damn fish). This would btw. be as good a place as any to note that this pdf's writing can be HILARIOUS and as dead-pan as some of the sögur; When I read "Freyja is not a happy bunny right now." I laughed out loud. If you enjoy absolutely amazing, subdued humor, then this pdf will have you smiling time and again - often also in the explanatory and entertaining footnotes. Thankfully for the PCs, the fish will have croaked and beached by now, but unfortunately, the PCs will still have to traverse a truly spooky landscape and contend with draugr-rejects! (Hej, here even the rejects are deadly!)

The trail leads from here to...Yggdrasil! Yep. However, the PCs thankfully will sooner or later find a way to hitch a ride on giant eagles (for a proper delousing) and here, the PCs can meet the norns, all of which present, often metaphysical and interesting ways of proceeding on Yggdrasil: Walls of knowledge, teaching to make individual, fair decisions as a group, etc. - the section here is at the same time abstract and concrete, befitting of the norns. Oh, and the PCs can eliminate some of Níðhöggr's worms as well...but sooner or later, the trail leads to the annoying and abusive squirrel ratatoskr, who has a riddle for them to answer - and promises actual help. You see, he has an idea regarding Odin and so happens to have a favor owed from a giant deer, who could transport the PCs to the next stop - Bilskírnir, legendary abode of none other than Thor...who is currently not here. Obviously.

However, Sif is and the radiant beauty allows the PCs to wait here, but asks for a favor, namely the retrieval of a particular lichen she needs for her hair. (At this point, Loki has stolen her golden hair - she is wearing a clever metallic wig that is "beautiful to look at, but a bit of a pain to wash and she breaks a comb about once a week." - told you this pdf was hilarious!!) Oh, know what's even funnier? The cave is actually a lost boot of the giant Skrýmir - a colossal being over 150 feet in size! Once the PCs have defeated the slurk that has taken up residence, they'll almost be squashed by the giant...who thankfully has sensitive toes. Unfortunately for the PCs, the giant is currently en route to the wedding of Þrymr with...Freyja? Fans of Norse mythology will know that this actually would be Thor in disguise...and they'll be able to witness the comedic proceedings of the Þrymskvíða firsthand - and rest assured, if you are not familiar with it and can't be bothered to look it up, that the pdf does provide enough guidance in that regard to run the proceedings! Before things escalate hilariously with a Thor in drag on a killing spree of giants, the PCs will have to fight a giantess' housecat, ole' Fáfnir, for the amusement of the assembled guests though.

Saved by Loki from carnage that far outclasses their capabilities to deal with (i.e. Thor getting his hands back on his hammer), the PCs are spirited away be the amiable trickster god to the lava fields of Eldhraun (yep, I've actually been there - several locations from myths and this adventure do exist in Iceland!!)...and then, he'll take them to meet Baldr. Who is invulnerable, very much alive...and Loki hates his guts. You see, from his point of view, Baldr is a spoiled pretty boy who has achieved...nothing. He's just beloved for his looks and annoys Loki to no end. Thus, the PCs will have to brave a cavern, eliminate a crysmal and try their luck with these stones...obviously failing. Whether or not Baldr turns out to be an utter prick or truly a deity of love and light remains up to the GM, so if you're looking for a classic twist that still makes sense in the context of mythology, well, there you go.

The second task of the trickster god pertains a builder who is currently trying to build a wall around Asgard. More precisely, his powerful steed Svaðilfari - which may have the task actually succeed in time. (Bad news for the gods, who have promised Freyja's hand...) Thus, Loki transforms the PCs into...horses! They'll have to establish communication with the legendary steed and help him deal with annoying elemental creatures - as a means of thinking them, he'll let them in on a secret regarding his master...and the PCs may actually determine, from his behavior, a weakness that Loki would come to exploit sooner rather than later...but that is written in the myths!

Njörðr and Skaði also can be found here, with tragedy and high octane skill-based challenges included in the mix; and the sky may indeed shed a tear for her... Even Andvari does feature in the adventure: The legendary dwarf is in the underworld, though, so the PCs will have to survive a harrowing mini cart-ride...and they'll have to solve a nice logic puzzle posed by intelligent rats...

Once the PCs have thus taken a massive trip through northern mythology, they'll be contacted by Loki again - and they'll have to pass Bifröst...which is not an easy task and a rather interesting combat set-up, as the beheaded skulls of invaders rise from the bridge to attack...but ultimately, the goal here is to unleash the valkyries in the House of the Horn...who will promptly come to save the PCs, bring them to Valhalla...and then basically ignore them.

The PCs will not find Odin. Instead, sooner or later, Frigg will appear and lead them back, leaving them with a speech a s wise and memorable as you'd imagine. As for the divine items - they are surprisingly down to earth, but ultimately, can easily be made into artifacts, mythic items or the like, should that suit your campaign requirements better - so no, the module will not end with over-qualified PCs.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good - although there are a few formal deviations and typos here and there (one references "IReland" instead of "Iceland"), the pdf generally is professionally presented. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeons' printer-friendly two-column full-color standard with a nice blend of original and stock artwork in both color and b/w. The pdf comes in two versions - one optimized for the European A4-paper standard and one for the US-letterpack paper size. Very cool! The jpgs are a nice bonus as far as I'm concerned. the pdfs come fully bookmarked for your convenience.

I have never read a module like World's End. This module is utterly epic and the most high-concept low-level module I have ever read. At the same time, it is grounded in an almost hilarious sense of mythological realism. Let me explain that contradictio in adjecto: I love the Norse myths. A main reason for that love lies in the deities being...well. ...humane in their faults and behaviors. Unlike comparable pantheons of deities, they may behave like pricks, but usually not towards the mortals. This grounds the whole mythology as far as I'm concerned, makes it seem more plausible and relatable. It is into this context that the PCs stumble and the module deliberately asks them, in the 8 riddles in the beginning, to judge the faults of the deities and their behavior, to present their moral perspective.

And indeed, when the PCs then meet the deities, they may be taken aback, they may argue - but the PCs are not penalized for their opinions. This module is epic, but the conflicts the PCs face will be ones that are based on scale - they are thrust literally in a world where humble vermin can pose a threat and thus, if your PCs object to feeling small...then this module does its job. You see, the module plays with physical and metaphysical size and power; the humble 1st level PCs may not have actual, physical size and power, but they still help the gods; they are, in a metaphysical sense, participating in, nay, writing mythology. If you're familiar with Norse myths, this alone will make you grin from ear to ear...and if not, then chances are you'll be intrigued after completing this module.

Rereading my review, the module does sound a bit like a tour-de-force of mythology, but the matter of fact is that you can decelerate the proceedings however you want; similarly, you can speed everything up. The transitions alone could each carry a whole session worth of gaming, if you're inclined to work with them. The PCs are stranded in a strange land and much like many a mouse-protagonist of popular children's movies, they will be swept along to a degree; they will bear witness and interact, make a difference. Weave the myth presented herein.

At the same time, World's End is NOT, and let me emphasize that, "Norse myths - the module"; quite the contrary. It does not focus on the often quoted legendary beasts, on wartime, epic battles or the like - and shines a spotlight on the very human, almost always neglected aspects of the mythology. And it does so in a hilarious manner. I haven't laughed so hard while reading a module in ages. The themes and topics highlighted here, while founded in mythology, by means of their contextualization take on the shape of a comedy of manners with a delightfully dry and deadpan humor. This is, in short, the funniest module I have read in a while, with some of the jokes reserved for the GM, yes...but several situations in which the PCs will find themselves are very comical as well. It should also be mentioned that the respective vignettes can, for the most part, be recombined as the GM sees fit - they can easily be expanded upon...or even be cut.

Now there is one potential fact that can be problematic - and that would be to make the PCs accept that they're outclassed big time. Granted, at level 1 not too hard, but there are some personalities that can't cope with that....but then again, these folks may benefit the most from playing this module. You see, the leitmotif of "comedy of manners" also includes a certain humbling; everyone in this module is treated as a fallible being. The deities and PCs alike are subjected to circumstances that undermine self-importance and bloated egos - not in a mean-spirited way, mind you, but in one that invites players and GMs alike to take a step back and smile for once.

This is at the same time one of Richard Develyn's easiest and hardest modules to recommend. This module exists in the sharp contrast between the epic and the mundane and it makes this field of tension work perfectly; similarly, the lines of the comedic in the module receive a tinge of tragedy when read in the context of the whole mythology. I would not recommend this module to groups that have no sense of humor. But then again, perhaps those groups might be cured of that. I don't know. World's End is easy to recommend for its stints in the epic and fantastic, for its refreshing take on a mythology usually coded as violent and grim; at the same time, it can be recommended for how it manages to convey the "You are 1st level characters. The world is big and scary."-trope...without resorting to making the PCs literally meaningless in the context. They are, after all, mortals in a larger than life world of gods!

You can emphasize this, by expanding the day to day life between quests; you can de-emphasize it and make everything feel more like a dreamy, hazy journey that may or may not be taking place as written. World's End is very elusive in its tone and it is nigh impossible to adequately describe how it works.
The best I could come up with would be: A divine comedy of manners, wherein the PCs get to write and participate in myths, with "An American Tail"-like scenes and the ultimate goal of contextualizing judgments of people and putting deities in context." (Yes, Dante-reference intended - after all, the PCs, for most of the journey, do have guides!)
Fans and scholars of Norse mythology should consider this to be an absolute must-have offering., but that goes without saying.

This does require an experienced GM who can make the mythology shine, yes. And yes, I can see some players not coping too well with the requirements of this module. But at the same time, I am overanalyzing this big time. For most groups that play this, this will probably end up being a downright hilarious experience that will provide more scenes for the gaming annals than pretty much any other module I know. "Remember that time, when we witnessed Thor's "wedding"? *snicker*"

In short, this module is no joke; it is NOT easy. But it is delightfully funny and one of the very modules that manages to be funny without being ridiculous. It makes sense...and is epic at the same time. And, as always, it's ridiculously inexpensive. I mean it. For 4 bucks, you get a TON of truly creative adventure and scenes that you and your group will never, ever forget.

Well-researched, with a palpable love for the source material and a strong, distinct authorial voice, this module delivers in all the right ways and presents a type of experience I have never had before. That alone should justify getting this gem. My final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval and, no surprise there, as a total fanboy of humorous RPG-supplements and modules as well as Norse mythology, this also receives a nomination for my Top Ten of 2016.

You can get this utterly UNIQUE module here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.

3.24.2017

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit (OSR/almost system neutral)

Vornheim: The Complete City Kit (OSR/almost system neutral)




This book is 64 pages long, with one page credits...and we actually get MORE out of the book than its 64 pages. How does that work? Well, let me elaborate.

This pdf is based on the second edition, primarily the print edition. It has received pretty much a selection of awards. So why review this now? Because all reviews I found did not really prepare me for what this book actually brings to the table.

So let's start with the obvious: This book is radically and systematically designed to make use of the features of the physicality of the medium book. The hardcover comes with a sleeve and on the inside of the sleeve, you get a massive full-color map that can be found via a secret link if you get the pdf version. The map, much like the cover image and interior artwork, all adheres to author Zak Sabbath's unique and distinct style - a style that may polarize, but personally, I enjoy the somewhat post-punk/post-gothic fantastic anachronism that depictions of the city as black claws rising from the world conveyed - my immediate association would be the BLAME manga-series and its sprawling, cruel structures...but this is no mere quote, it is an aesthetic vision and, as all good art does, it will not be to everyone's liking.

The book's structure. Well, on the inside of the sleeves and yes, throughout the book, would be instructions for charts: The front and back cover, on the inside and outside, provide charts, with representations of the claw-like sprawling city structures framed by numbers; by for example dropping dice on these artworks, you can, for example, determine quick and dirty damage and attacks versus body parts or use it to jumpstart your imagination in a variety of other ways. One page away from the inside of the back cover (which btw. contains a gigantic table), we have a vast selection of professions - similarly, relations between them can thus be quickly determined. And indeed, while not all such functions championed by the book can be perfectly translated to all the different systems out there, I should not be remiss to mention that a significant section of this pdf is devoted to being basically one of the most amazing GM-aids I have ever read.

If you have ever read a fantasy book like Cgina Miéville's brilliant Bas-Lag novels and wondered how to ever depict a sprawling metropolis like that in your game without resorting to copious levels of handwaving or gigantic tomes of prepared material - this book is the answer. the urbancrawling rules are meta and brilliant: The book sports a vast array of so-called urbancrawling rules that allow you to almost instantly generate whole neighborhoods, street webs, etc. - beyond the fantasy metropolis, these tricks can be easily employed in pretty much any roleplaying context, whether the fantastic hive, a sprawling science-fiction station, non-Euclidean ruins... generating chaotic street-networks within a few minutes has been a boon for my own campaign ever since I read the tricks here - deceptively simple, yes - but oh so effective. And no, I am not going to spoil the details here. Why? Because I really want you to get this book.

Now, these urbancrawling rules obviously can only provide the framework for an enterprising GM to use, but in conjunction with aforementioned graphs and tables, it becomes more interesting. And if you require a vast array of detail, fret not, for a significant portion of the book is devoted to gigantic table upon table of names, professions, goals, names - and tying the NPCs together in social webs is similarly covered. I tried it. Within 30 minutes with this book, I can make a moderately detailed series of very professional feeling villages, neighborhoods and similar settlements. And I suck at drawing maps and am damn picky. And yes, from looted bodies to fortunes and magical effects, the strange and uncommon all tap into this massive dressing collection herein.

Now, the dressing here does tap into the Vornheim setting; the Grey Maze, its sprawling spires rising from the arctic plane, a city near a forest that should not exist, of which scholars claim that the trees may be phlegmatic undead; a city wondrous and vile, near the city of goblins, situated on a hive of stone, ostensibly the result of legendary medusas once petrifying the flesh of whatever once was. Here, the church of the god of Iron, Rust and Rain and the church of the goddess of all flesh exist. It is within this city that the decadent upper class has taken to the fad of purchasing slow pets, highlighting their copious surfeit of spare time; it is here that sometimes, there are masquerades; sometimes, the gates are opened to the wolves. It is common knowledge that the skin of snakes and serpentine creatures are books that contain ancient secrets and here, the wyvern of the well can be found - who will unerringly answer ONE question for any interlocutor. From the granary cats to the grub nagas and thornchildren, a selection of truly imaginative creatures inhabits this place...and a selection of superstitions can provide a vast array of different adventure hooks.

Which brings me to yet another aspect of the book: You see, Vornheim is ALSO a book containing three  modules.

I'll be brief, but potential players should still jump o the conclusion. There are some SPOILERS to be found here.
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The most common would be the House of the Medusa, wherein the PCs have to infiltrate the house of one of the fabled medusas...oh, and if they kill her, they may inadvertently de-petrify a significant part of the world, making it flesh once again...with far-reaching consequences.

The second module deals with the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, a menagerie of strange creatures gone totally rogue, where the primary antagonist of the book, the mastermind takes on a form most peculiar - and if the PCs don't want to brave all those lethal and unique creatures, they should be up to their A-game.

Thirdly, we have the labyrinthine puzzle-dungeon also known as the library of Zorlac, basically an interesting infiltration/espionage-scenario at your fingertips...or a truly strange place to visit and work in.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to a very buy one-column or two-column standard, with a ton of information on every single page. The layout is obviously made for the A5-booklet (6'' by 9'') size, though I'd strongly suggest not printing out multiple pages on one sheet of paper here - the sheer information density means that the font becomes too small if you try that here. The pdf-version comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The book is incredibly aesthetically pleasing if you enjoy Zak Sabbath's style of art, with layout using black frames on the pages - so yeah, this is not the most printer-friendly of books. And while the pdf does an admirable job at maintaining the raw functionality of the physical dead-tree hardcover, the sheer switching of sheets of paper takes a bit away from the immediate functionality when comparing the printed version or screen-version with the physical hardcover. The hardcover is the preferred version - with nice binding, sleeves and even the covers having a function...so yeah. If you can afford it, go for print.

Zak Sabbath's Vornheim is a piece of art that captured my interest to a higher extent that many, many books of ten times their page-count and more. As a GM-aid, this provides some phenomenally-innovative tools of the trade that even veteran GMs may not necessarily know yet - I learned more from this book's tricks than from any comparable GM-book, which is a feat in and of itself, considering the experience I have. While the quick-and-dirty attack-charts or any chart really, may not be for everyone, I'd be seriously surprised if any GM went into this book without some seriously cool new tool of the trade.

The city Vornheim itself represents one of the most evocative settlements I have read in a long time: Beyond the truly fantastic setting, its unconventional premises and unfettered, raw collection of absolutely inspired tidbits, the influences of contemporary weird fiction and the writings of Borges are readily apparent on every page. The city manages to evoke a sense of wonder only all too rarely still found among the settings out there - it is phenomenal and I would not have minded a 500-page tome on the city; it's brevity is almost painful, it's excellence achingly pronounced, particularly if you've found yourself bored with standard settlements and most so-called "fantastic" cities and customs.

The 3 modules contained herein all have different, interesting angles and while I explicitly remained brief in their descriptions, they similarly...well, are brief. They are interesting, evocative, inspired...but brief. Oh so brief.

You're probably seeing where this is going. Vornheim is, in all components of its content, whether as a GM-aid, as a sourcebook or regarding the modules included, a truly phenomenal offering; each component shines brightly like a cruel Northern star - but at the same time, while the components are interconnected, I could not help but feel like it was buckling under its own ambition - the book is so jam-packed, it strains at the seams and universally leaves the reader inspired and wiser, yes - but also wanting more. You will not finish reading this book and feel saturated. When I came to the end of the setting-section, I was disappointed I did not get more; the same held true for all other sections. This book represents a perfect kit to create a glorious city, a sprawling moloch. It perfectly depicts one of the most unique, fantastic cities I've read...but it may be, at times, too good, too inspired for its own sake.

I can absolutely see someone expecting a campaign setting/city-setting wanting more; I can see those craving adventures wanting more detail; I can see those that looked for the GM-aid components wanting to receive more dressing, more details, more tricks...but ultimately, all of these criticisms are not fair. Do I believe that this, at double the page count, would have been even better? Heck yes. Do I want a full-blown, massive sourcebook on Vornheim, perhaps a whole mega-campaign or AP set in it? OH YES. Yes, please. But the thing is - the book does not *try* to be just a city sourcebook; just some modules, just some game-aids - while the amalgamation of these components may put a strain on the reader, they also force the GM's hand.

Vornheim says: "This is what you can do with the book. Want more? Then strain your creativity, use your own brain. CREATE." This book, in short, forces the GM to act, to create. It strips away the pretensions, the excuses we make time and again and tells us to make its contents our own, make this grey maze our grey maze. Sure, we may crave just consumption - but this does not try to be simply consumed - it forces you to create, by virtue of its own brilliance.

All the accolades heaped upon this book are justified. While the pdf loses a bit of the impact of its physicality in the electronic version, I still consider this to be one truly amazing, unique book that should grace the shelves of any self-respecting GM. It is a brilliant exercise in inspiration, a rallying call to flex one's own creative muscles - it is, in short, an intoxicating vision. Get this.
My final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval. And yes, this receives the EZG-Essential-tag. This belongs into the library of any advanced GM.

You can get this amazing gem of a book here on OBS (great to check if you'd like it)!

 The physical version can be ordered here on LotFP's store!


Endzeitgeist out.

11.18.2016

Nightmares on Parade

Nightmares on Parade


This module clocks in at 35 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 30 pages of content, so let's take a look!

This review was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons....ah, who am I kidding? After the absolutely super Pixies on Parade, I would have covered this as fast as possible even without that.

Speaking of which - I strongly suggest playing Pixies on Parade before this one. While it can stand alone easily, I do believe that it has an added sense of gravitas when played as a kind of sequel - the pdf makes use of the concept of imagination magic and the inclusion of the dream-subtype should make pretty clear that yes, this will have an excellent reason for championing a thus more mutable reality.

...and this is as far as I can go without SPOILING anything. Potential players SHOULD jump to the conclusion. This also includes some SPOILERS for Pixies, so please don't read on if you want to play them. They're worth it.
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In pixies on parade, the PCs have managed to save Edwin from the clutches and malign influence exerted over him by the Nightmare King. He may not be escaping anytime soon...but he does not sit idly by, instead using his considerable power to draw the picturesque village of Glavost right into his nightmare realm! Uniquely empowered by their experiences in Pixies on Parade, the PCs thus receive the ability to manipulate reality - wishing for a unicorn,. for example, may actually manifest one - though the created dreams generated do not feature the abilities of the things they're modeled after, instead employing the lesser dream creature's statblock. Indeed, the somewhat parasitic/dependent nature of these dreams allows people tied to them to shape them.

Anyways, the module begins with an ominous darkening sky, a quake and mists drawing in - if your PCs have gone through the gauntlet of Ravenloft at one point, that alone will make them paranoid as all hell. Aforementioned dreams seek out the PCs and bond with them. As the PCs walk outside, they will notice Belle Leaflower walking the streets, unable o communicate or, well, perceive anybody - creative problem solution is the name of the game, as her anxieties manifest themselves and thus influence the next encounter, namely saving the ancient Elas Leaflower, who is obsessively trying to read as many books as possible at once, fearing that he is running out of time - and if the long beard and constantly multiplying books are any indicator, he'd be right. The PCs will have to contend with falling bookshelves, book swarms and find a way to convince Elas that his quest his futile, his books, as they are wont in dreams, gibberish.

This would be a kind of leitmotif to be found here - the Nightmare King has provided some delightfully twisted (and goofy) nightmares for the folks of Glavost: Dwarven chef Rus Ulden is hunted by jello-oozing killer cupcakes. And yes, you can actually eat these...which makes for a cool prop when fighting them...just as a note... Beyond these detailed encounters, however, there are also more simple, optional ones provided for your convenience: The more invested the PCs are in Glavost, the better. The fight for the minds and imagination of Glavost takes the PCs, ultimately, to the major's house, where a semi-solid sheathe of darkness covers everything and Edwin needs to be saved from what seems to be the nightmare king...though it is, in fact, "only" the most powerful dream plaguing Glavost. Having defeated this threat, the PCs now will have the proper power of a town's imagination backing them up, namely in the ability to duplicate mirage arcana as an SP...

But the Nightmare King is not just going to throw in the towel because he's been foiled here - instead, he figures he might as well go big or go home...and sends a friggin' army in the direction of the PCs. And this is where the plot thickens and parents and adults alike should take a good, long look: The kids of Glavost, while considered to be "heroes", were basically treated with condescension by the adults; as kids all across the globe are wont to be; one crucial and important lesson anyone can draw from this book and project to the real world is that kids deserve respect. In real life, kids may not create phantom armies...but that doesn't mean that they can't save the lives of others, that they may not be the triumphant factor in the battle for the hearts and minds of the adults around them. Just something to figure - kids are not property, they are people we accompany for some time along the way, that we try to help prosper and hopefully leave the world a better place for them...but I digress.

The PCs have saved the adults and so, they may shore up the defenses and use their imagination to save the town with offenses and defenses created. There may a saboteur in their midst - the teenage night hag Isabeth, who proceeds to trap the PCs and request them doing horrible, annoying chores - but they will have to do them, if they are to escape...and there's a way to befriend Isabeth in the process...which may well be used as a means to teach kids to deal with folks in puberty...but that just as an aside.

The module continues to "teach", if you will, life lessons while being played - there is a detention scenario next, where the PCs are targeted by suggestions and the gremlins running the show try to get them to acknowledge that they should not be brave etc. - the idea here is simple, yet brilliant: It is mathematically unlikely that all PCs fail the save (though such a scenario is accounted for as well), and thus, the PCs will have the chance to rebuttal the theses thrown at them, with grudging acknowledgement from the gremlins....but, of course, the more PCs fail, the more will they be forced to reply as per the wishes of the "teacher". This is something that the current generations definitely should take to heart: My experience with the younger kids is that, more often than not, they are taught to cave to peer pressure, to maintain a "pleasant" environment with their comrades, even if goes against their beliefs and convictions - when I compare my cousin's school experience to mine, for example, we have been horribly rowdies and rebels who stood up for what we believed in. I think that kids should be taught, as soon as possible, that their convictions have value and that the majority is not always right. This encounter does just that, without jamming its message down one's throat. It's also creative, so yeah - amazing!

Next up would be yet another interesting one - a satyr skald offers the PCs a fair deal: He was tasked to delay them, but finds this strategy distasteful and thus offers to fill the PCs in one the background story of the Nightmare King, which is provided in lavish detail - it is here that the old truism of knowledge equaling power may be taught...and the respectful demeanor and no-strings, straightforward and respectful attitude of the satyr progresses the thematic sequence of being show proper respect for one's achievements...and once the PCs have heard the story (or left or their own free will), it will be time for the army of Glavost's dreams to duke it out with the servants of the Nightmare King! Here, things become once again amazing, as, while the module recommends a descriptive and flavor-centric take on the battle of the armies, groups that enjoy rules-intense scenarios can employ the mass combat rules! Yup, army stats provided. I intentionally did not write "kids will use descriptive, adults the rules", mind you - I certainly know enough young ones that are REALLY into the nit and grit of rules! The amazing thing here is that the PCs may use their imagination to greatly influence the way the battle works: Mass imagination magic, flexible benefits - if properly employed, this is frickin' amazing indeed!

Speaking of the theme of respect - as the nightmare armies crumble, Behast, the Nightmare King waltzes to the PCs and actually offers an imagination duel; a scenario wherein he creates obstacles with his power for the PCs to overcome...and usually a respectful way of solving conflict sans violence amidst otherwise immortal beings. Having even the BBEG actually treat the PCs with respect is a truly amazing progression of the themes employed in this book. Speaking of amazing: The PC's actions throughout the module have direct consequences here - Behast may not enter the fray directly, but his champion has several abilities, each of which is tied to one specific type of action the PCs may have done...the better they treated their fellows, the more they helped them, the bigger are their chances against Behast's champion! Know, how in those cool 80s/90s kid's movies at one point, the kids would combine their powers, reap the benefits of the good deeds they have sown previously? It may be a bit cheesy, but it always put a good kind of shiver down my spine.

Oh, and don't tell anyone, since the Cs have to find out the hard way...but don't worry about player frustration in this book - a sidebar's got you covered.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good - with the exception of one purely cosmetic formatting hiccup (an ability indented one step too much), the book is pretty flawless. Layout adheres to a beautiful two-column full-color standard with a turquoise background. This may not make t too printer-friendly, but I'd suggest getting this in print anyway. The artwork adheres to Jacob Blackmon's style and is nice and internally consistent. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Apart from a darker map of Glavost, the pdf lacks precise maps, but considering the morphic theme and the set-up of every encounter, it does not need them; I was a bit skeptical regarding this component, but actual playtest did affirm that the module works smoothly.

Stephen Rowe has been a kind of anomaly among RPG-designers in that he's equally at home in the writing of crunch and fluff. Additionally, his modules so far have not failed to impress me, with both Pixies on Parade or Directive Infinity X being examples of excellence.

Nightmares on Parade is a whole different level. Let me elaborate a bit: Playground Adventures generally provides modules that can help educate kids, teach concepts and knowledge in a manner that is not obtrusive. Pixies on Parade was a pretty much perfect homage to 80s' kid's movies - you know, when we still treated kids as proper beings, not as second-class citizens to be sheltered to the point of generating narcissists, to the point where they're not ready facing a reality that does not cuddle them all the way. Pixies was brilliant in that it provided a scenario that dipped into creepy themes, but at the same time maintained a child-friendly levity in theme and execution. Oh, and in the hands of an even remotely capable GM, you could run it as a balls-to-the-wall horror/dark fantasy module. Think of a certain Goblin King's labyrinth, think of the last member of an equine, horned species and you'll see what I mean: Watching these movies as a child delighted me; watching them as an adult provided a wholly different context for both. Pixies did that and did it perfectly. Age-wise, all but the most sensitive of kids should be good with it and I ran it for a then-4-year-old sans issues. The target demographic, though, should be about ages 6+, for really, really sensitive kids probably 8+. It always depends on the kid in question.

"Nightmares on Parade" is the successor in that theme in more ways than one, maintaining the leitmotifs...but also presenting a dimension that far exceeds what regular modules offer, what you can witness in any of its predecessors. What do I mean by this? I have to wax poetically a bit here: The German concept of "Bildung" denotes the collective process of education and personality-formation, including a development of one's own personal ideology, convictions, etc. - the very word generates an association with building one's self as an eternal process, of describing the totality of construction work of your own personality and accumulated knowledge in all fields of life. There is exactly one other module, Richard Develyn's brilliant "Seven Sinful Tales" (That one's review is here!), which has ever made me employ this word in the context of adventures you can run. You see, the structure of this adventure teaches not precise information in a traditional sense; it goes beyond that. By virtue of its meticulously structured encounters and their diverse themes, it imparts genuine Wisdom upon the players, life lessons if you will. The module shows, rather than tells, what happens if you let fears (like not having enough time) define you; what happens if you're consumed by work (with a kid-friendly, literal analogue); to stand up for your convictions and what's right in the face of authorities and peer-pressure...and to never underestimate the power of imagination that so many adults have lost. (Though roleplayers tend to be safer there...)

There is not a single encounter in this module that does not provide, in unobtrusive subtext, a truly valuable, morally and ethically valuable lesson. And this does not only extend to kids: Parents running this module for their kids should carefully read this module and analyze it, for the aforementioned leitmotif of respecting your child, the importance of that aspect for the development of adults and the way in which this module treats kids can, in my most deeply-held convictions, potentially improve the horizon of parents alike. The theme of respect that ultimately is awarded to the PCs and their players by the BBEG culminates in a glorious experience that may well, in some cases, end night troubles...after all, the nightmare king has conceded defeat. But that as just an aside.

Beyond these psychologically relevant aspects and the wonderful, respectful way this book treats its audience, regardless of age, one should not be remiss to emphasize the downright amazing use of imagination magic throughout the book and the fact that, beyond the glorious lessons imparted herein, it ALSO is a truly amazing module. Whether or not you go mass combat, whether or not you play this as horror (Concerned parents, rest assured that this module, as written, is as wholesome as it gets...but any only semi-decent GM can make this very dark very easily and basically transform it on the fly into a horror-module just by adding non-kid-friendly dressing!) for adults, as a kid-friendly adventure as written, as emphasizing the crunchy aspects or de-emphasizing them via Imagination Magic, you retain maximum flexibility in the module. I've run this twice and both times in radically different manners - and in both cases, the structure held up: The kid-friendly run worked as amazing as expected, replacing Pixies as their favorite module. The experience of running this as an adult module with my own trademark tweaks went over just as well.

Ultimately, "Nightmares of Parade" may be a glorious module on its own...but its value lies beyond that. It is a module that not only dares to teach in a didactically unobtrusive manner, it is one tailor made, carefully and in a truly intelligent way, to leave particularly kids and parents as better persons for having played it. If you think I'm overanalyzing this, btw., then I'd point you straight towards the fact that this obviously is intended to achieve said stated goal; each and every facet of the module is devoted towards cultivating a respectful and benevolent development, a component of "Bildung" not only between the players, but also in their interaction with others and amongst themselves. It teaches spine and courage in the face of adversity and the value of behaving in an upstanding, honorable manner while still being kids. In short: Nightmares on parade is a masterpiece not only on a formal level, but also is one of the scant few modules that dares to try to leave its audience better off for having played it; it is one of the very few incarnations of our favorite medium that tries to do more than entertain without losing sight of entertainment being the primary purpose. Stephen Rowe has surpassed himself with this module and catapulted himself into a level of adventure-writing excellence that is rarefied indeed, that is a very small class of its own.

With all my heart, I encourage you to get Pixies and this, the sequel. We need authors that dare to do more than just entertain (though it certainly does excel here as well!); it is my firm conviction that roleplaying games already are a great way of helping people, regardless of age, connect, develop and improve in numerous aspects of life. This, however, takes everything one step further - it can actually be seen as a module that could be canon as something that truly benefits everyone involved, that helps form personalities and strengthen positive character traits. This is Bildung given the form of an exceedingly fun and modular adventure. This humble masterpiece is worth 5 stars + seal of approval and, unsurprisingly, a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. If you share my firm belief that roleplaying games can make us all better people...then take a look. This module, frankly, is art in the most unpretentious manner you can define it; it leaves you better for having witnessed it.

You can (and should) get this amazing module here on OBS ASAP as pdf, and again in print once that becomes available - we need modules like this one!

Missed Pixies on Parade? You can get that here on OBS!

The picturesque town of Glavost can be found here on OBS!

Endzeitgeist out.

9.16.2016

Darkwood Adventure Arc #2 - The Tormented and the Twisted

Darkwood Adventure Arc #2 - The Tormented and the Twisted




The massive second installment of the Darkwood Adventure Arc clocks in at 128 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 122 (!!!) pages of content, so let's take a look!

All right, so in case you haven't read my reviews of the first full module and excursion, please wait a second and even if you don't want to play a full sequence of modules, please continue reading, all right?

So, what makes these modules unique? Number one would be aesthetics: A central draw of these modules lies in the aesthetic and the truly fresh feeling that is based on taking aesthetics and tropes of classic Wild West, blending them with a healthy dose of weird fantasy and applying them to a fantasy scenario. Basically, this feels like a medieval Wild West that never was, suffused with a healthy dose of new school game design of the best kind. The mutating, complex disease first introduced in the first Darkwood installment can be found among the supplemental materials; the new magic items sports several full color artworks to represent them. The pdf features new alchemical creations, a stone-forming cleric archetype, a new witch patron with hexes, new spells, two new religions (one of which is all about technology as the thing to worship, basically representing transhumanism blended with magic and the ideology of enlightenment) as well as an update of the town Darkwood, including a bulletin board for the local tavern of sorts, where, rendered in full color, you can read about the prices and local policies. The pdf also has mechanics for intoxication, no less than 3 insanities and a fully rendered gazetteer on the ahsen'i, the local Native American-like ethnicity. We even get a char-sheet!

So yes, regarding bonus material, this leaves nothing to be desired...but you're not here for that, right? You want to know about the module? 
Well, I shall oblige, but in order to properly discuss this, we need to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion. Trust me, you do NOT want to SPOIL this one.
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Still here? All right! In the aftermath of the unpleasant attack on the locals in the last installment and extensive establishing shots regarding the unique nature and feeling of the setting, we begin with one of several fully rendered introductions. And I mean "fully" - with read-aloud text. Why is this relevant? The saga emulates coalition allegiances with an optional, rather rewarding allegiances system and each of the factions so far introduced gets its own introduction, establishing firmly the respective tropes and methodology of the groups...and boyo, does it do a good job here. While I could talk about magic keelhauling, strange séances and less weird practices for this section, ultimately I couldn't be able to properly capture the sense of immersion this book's prose manages to capture.  Have I btw. mentioned that, in said séance, the smoke forming a message has actually been reproduced as artwork, doubling as a handout? Oh yes, this is the level of care we're dealing with here!

There seems, in any ways, to be some sort of connection between the tainted, aggressive trolls that attacked the town and a mysterious elven explorer called Geneal -and each faction has a very good reason to want to talk to him. Here's the issue, though: The elf's incarcerated in Fetterstone prison, a veritable fortress under the command of duergar bondswarden Hafnir Kreigsbyte.
Yes. This is a prison break/infiltration. The module does take this complex set-up in a manner that I have frankly seen too rarely, so here is the list.
We have extensive notes on the information that can be gathered before.
We have intentionally incomplete, player-friendly maps of the complex.
We actually get different entry vectors, from full Stealth to various means of infiltration. We have stuff that Stealth-less characters can do.
We have a matrix of the key characters among the prison-fortresses guards noting their loyalty and whether they can be bribed and how much it takes to do so!
The prison has prepared alert levels with responses !!
We have a security detail map for the GM, with guards and the routes of the patrols !!!
We actually also have social dynamics among the populace !!!!
In all my years of Shadowrun, Night's Black Agents and similar, more stealth-focused games, I have never seen ANY module do this better. I did not need to do ANYTHING regarding security details, including magics. The level of detail here is absolutely immaculate and blasts everything about of the water.

This is truly glorious...and guess what? It also actually takes the "getting caught"-angle seriously; there is a second chance for the PCs if they screw up (or elect to use that entry vector!) - the PCs may actually be pressganged into a tactical assault upon a caravan with foreign agents in a fully realized encounter, including tactical map. This is simply going above and beyond.

Oh, and the dungeon below the complex is nothing to sneeze at either - with subtle humor (Mr. Pouncy the cat familiar), glimpses of the horrific, challenging traps, magical problems, unique critters...oh, and a truly lethal dungeon self-destruct mechanism that may see the dungeon flood as the PCs are frantically trying to disable the complex mechanism or run from the collapse, adding even more action and excitement to this frankly legendary module!

That's not where the pdf stops, though - the module does have two fully mapped sidetreks - mini-modules that in no way fall behind in detail or atmosphere behind the main meat of the module: We have "The Witching of Stump Hall", where strange occurrences have begun, as fey seemingly invade darkwood and a mastermind weaves the threads of a plan most grim indeed. In the second sidetrek, the PCs will have the opportunity to explore a Ahsen'i bonefield and deal with the deadly challenges lurking there. Yes, mapped as well. And yes, these "sidetreks" can be used as glorious, convention-style scenarios, if you're looking for that.

One final note here - know how the first module introduced written-in background challenges and character-specific sidequests a GM can utilize - basically, when used with pregens or modified by the GM, the pdf has character-specific arcs and quests written as optional components into its very nature, helping the players get more invested in the narrative.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no grievous glitches. Layout adheres to a gorgeous, two-column full-color standard with a ton of original full-color artwork of excellent quality. The pdf also features a ton of full-color cartography - with glorious full-color tactical maps, player-handout maps and nothing to be desired. Glorious. The pdf comes fully bookmarked with detailed, nested bookmarks and the pdf is layered, allowing full customization of GM labels. The pdf actually comes with a second pdf optimized for the use with mobile devices. I loved this book so much, I actually got the print version - and seriously, that's the one I'd go for.

Lars Lundberg & Nick Johnson's second installment of the Darkwood Adventure Arc is PHENOMENAL. This breathes a unique cultural flair that is inspired and unique in the truest sense of the word and must be called out as nothing less than the masterclass of adventure design. I have NEVER seen any prison-break/infiltration-scenario done even half as well as this one: It has EVERYTHING - from the absolutely glorious entry-vectors to the copious, well-written read-aloud texts to the trouble-solving options, supplemental material, builds, modules and production values, this module blows 99.9% of Pathfinder modules out of the water and leaves them in shreds. How this works for the more than fair price-point is frankly beyond me; this module has a spot of honor on my shelf, surpasses its already excellent predecessors and can be considered to e an example of the very finest of virtues that contemporary adventure design has to offer.

It's been a while since we had a module by SagaRPG and I don't know whether the arc will be completed, but even as a stand-alone, this has all the virtues and unique power it requires. Even as a stand-alone module, this is frankly one of the very most awesome pieces of content you can find and I'd frankly eat ramen for a month to support a kickstarter to keep this series going - that's how much I love it. I have frankly failed this series and should have highlighted this module so much sooner - not only on behalf of the team that crafted this masterpiece, but on behalf of you, my readers, for not pointing out the level of awesomeness this offers sooner. So yes, even though this was released sooner, I only covered, ran and enjoyed it recently - so this does get a final verdict of 5 stars, seal of approval and is a candidate for my Top Ten of this year. I love it that much. So please, do check out this absolutely legendary module. I am positive you will not regret it and if you do hate it, drop me a line and I'll see that I can make it up to you - that's how much I adore this module! Must Own. Get it!

You can get this glorious module here on OBS! 

Endzeitgeist out.