5.12.2017

The Northlands Saga Complete

The Northlands Saga Complete




This GIGANTIC tome clocks in at 795 pages if you take away editorial, ToC, etc.. No, that is NOT a typo. While I was a backer of the kickstarter that made this book, I was in no way involved in the production of this epic tome.

All right, so the introduction tells us a bit of what this is: A take on Norse adventuring, with a healthy dose of the weird, fantastic and sword & sorcery sprinkled in. It should be noted that the 8 pregens from the Player's Guide, as well as the excellent "Winter's Teeth" stand-alone module from the "Long Winter's Night"-series are included in the back of the tome.

Okay, so this massive AP (and before you complain about the price, compare this tome's content with other APs and you'll notice you're actually getting an excellent deal...) is situated within the Northlands of the Lost Lands, and as mentioned in my reviews of Player's Guide and the stand-alone plug-in-module-series, it gets the flavor of the North, what makes the culture work etc. rather well - but unlike in those previously-mentioned tomes, we begin this tome with a massive, mapped and lavishly-detailed sourcebook section that explains the peculiarities of the region not only on a local, but also on a global scale.

As mentioned, one central fixture, theme-wise, would be the blending of the fantastic and the general aesthetics of the sögur with the fantastic, so one should not expect historic analogues in the traditional sense; however, the book is very strict in its adherence to the sense of authenticity it creates. This level of commitment can be found in the modified nomenclature and the pronunciation guidelines provided within this gigantic tome, to just note once example. I wholeheartedly applaud the decision to maintain a Nordic nomenclature instead of butchering the names; the book explains the Umlauts etc. for native speakers of English and dares to assume gamers that actually are smart and interested, dare I say, intelligent. It is one of the aspects that imho too often falls by the wayside nowadays and lends a sense to the book that its readers actually are interested in portraying a concise feeling. That is a big plus, as far as I'm concerned.

The commitment to generating a sense of a believable world is astonishing in its details: From ring-giving to hacksilver as a currency to a concise list of common kennings (hand those out to players!), the flavor generated by the details so lavishly and passionately collected herein, in the end, manage to create a surprisingly respectful and "real" take on the subject matter, putting this tome into the exalted context of the best of the Lost Lands books and their unique vistas.

This never just stoops to a simple reproduction of historic myths, however, - from modifications of the pantheon to minor changes in nomenclature, the Northlands here are always *almost* like hours, retaining their fantastic nature. And yes, both a massive time-line in the different chronologies found in the Lost Lands, as well as a full pantheon write-up complement this first part of the book. Beyond the class options (which, alas, share the weaknesses I commented on in the review of the Player's Guide) and items, we also receive a collection of magic items - which brings me to another point: The Northlands are intended for gritty and relatively down-to-earth gameplay (15 pt.-buy preferred): As such, magic items are not for sale and rare (YES!) and, as mentioned in the PG, several classes are banned in favor of options that fit with the aesthetic of the North. Once again, I applaud this commitment to the overall vision. Speaking of vision: In this first par of the book, which covers almost 170 pages, we also get a massive gazetteer of the north, with plenty of settlements with full statblocks, overview maps and the like. Moreover, the section contains a rather massive bestiary that includes some seriously cool, fantastic creatures as well as strange fauna - and the critters all get gorgeous b/w-artworks.

But that is not nearly the main meat of this massive section either. Instead, much like in Bard's Gate and similar epic-length tomes by the Frogs, we get an extremely helpful section to bring pretty much any region to life: With random encounters that cover the regular and the weird, strange phenomena and more. Additionally, it should be noted that, by region and theme, adventure hooks are provided by the dozens to bring the respective sections further to life, should the PCs step off the rails.

All right, I know what you've been waiting for...the adventures. Now those of you who have been following this for a while will recall the 3 brief stand-alone Northlands-modules that predated this one and my reviews for them. The lowest-level module clocked, back in the day, in as intended for PCs level 5 - 6, but this saga is made for a whole campaign: As such, we get modules that start at level 1, leading up to those we already know...and then, things go much further. Already played the classic modules? Flashback is the way to go. Seriously. You want to play these.

And at this point, I have come to the section that contains the main meat of the book, the massive campaign of Northlands adventures. It should be noted that the massive amount of maps and handouts amounts to over 150 pages! No, I am not kidding you. This is EXCESSIVELY mapped and better yet - player-friendly maps included FOR ALL OF THEM. That alone is a colossal plus for me. Now, the PCs are intended to be in the employ of the mighty Jarl Olaf Henrikson, jarl of Halfstead and begins in Silvermeade Hall.

As a discussion of the adventures, the following obviously contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. One more thing: I usually try to go into a lot of details in my discussions of adventures. If I did that here, the review would probably span at least 20 pages, which, even to my rather obsessive mind, would seem like overkill - as such, I will remain relatively brief and sketchy - this should not be taken to mean that the modules are short (or simple) for that matter; it is just a concession to the format of reviewing a single, ridiculously huge tome.
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All right, only GMs/referees around? Great!

Kenneth Spencer's first module "Spears in the Ice", begins harmless enough: The PCs are to escort the Jarl's 3 daughters as they gather flowers in their sacred duty to Freyja for the spring rites - and as such, the beginning is a roleplaying-heavy section that can be used to establish dynamics, characters and yes, even a sense of the idyllic - via a number of small events, the shape of things to come are heralded and actions taken are bound to have serious consequences in the future. When a witch puts everyone to sleep and kidnaps the girls, the characters will have to get back their horses and find the girls in a race against time with various routes to save the girls. While the sleeping spell may look problematic in conjunction with e.g. elves, the module actually handles this minor railroad rather admirably.

Part II of this module, similarly a full-length piece, would be the "Wyrd of the Winter King" - herein, the Jarl sets forth upon his mighty ship, the Long Serpent, towards the farthest North. En route, the PCs discover a floating ice palace. Going ashore and surprised by a blizzard, the PCs explore the place to find it being an abode of the cult of dread Althunak - only by defeating this menace can they return successfully to their ship. This would be a rather grim, environment-driven and evocative piece, including dungeon-exploration.

These massive modules out of the way, we receive a fully updated and modified "Vengeance of the Long Serpent" - and yes, the original, alternate lead-in is still here, but no longer necessarily required. The module presents a free-form exploration of Ulnataland, a North Pole-style region of eternal, unremitting ice - and a storm, as is fated, claims the life of Hallbjorn here, the captain, here, allowing the PCs to step up. The exploration of these icy regions may net the PCs a magical weapon and put them, beyond trekking through the tundra, in conflict with the children of Althunak, breaking the grip of this dread cult over the local population.

From here on out, the PCs venture forth "Beyond the Wailing Mountains" to the city of the lord of winter at the lake of frozen screams. Read that sentence again. All things considered, the book manages to constantly generate an atmosphere so thick and almost palpable that you can almost taste the frigid cold, as the PCs cross these regions into the cold to brave a locale incredibly fantastic. If you're like me and love the theme (and employ, like me, a particularly slower-than-slow XP-progression), you may want to check out LotFP's "Weird New World" for a plethora of arctic threats of the most horrid and gruesome variety - particularly if you're playing the OSR-version of this epic! But that just as an aside.

After this, we're off to one of my favorite among the previously stand-alone adventures in the series, "The Death-Curse of Sven Oakenfist", which assumes that the PCs are wintering with Jarl Anud Cursespear, who once slew the legendary reaver and direct descendant of Odin, the blight upon the world called Sven Oakenfist. Unfortunately, he came to his success and riches by the death-curse of said hero and now, as an old man, the wight of the legend returns and barges into the hall of the Jarl  to pronounce a final deadline - on the Feast of Freyja, Sven will kill and destroy everything and everyone who swears fealty to Jarl Arnuld. In order to vanquish the wight, the PCs will have to find a way to unravel his mighty death-curse.

Unfortunately, with essentially a divine bloodline, said death-curse will prove to be rather difficult to find even a HINT to unravel. Thankfully, the three utterly mad daughters of one of the norns might provide the answers - if the PCs manage to best their trials. From defeating a unique dragon to save a beautiful maid, to doing (rather dangerous)chores for a matronly lady and defeating an evil crone in a game (when she's cheating, nonetheless!), the trials are worthy of the legendary daughters - hopefully the PCs don't think they can best the mad demi-goddesses in battle...

If they play along with their mad delusions, they are rewarded with cryptic clues that add up to provide the information to kill the legendary wight - each successful trial also decreases the power of the final boss, unraveling some part of his wyrd, thus providing more than one way of finishing this adventure and rewarding PCs who manage to succeed in all tasks. The final showdown in Sven's cairn sees a furious finale, including a potentially fatal collapse and the heroes receive treasures befitting their actions during the adventure.

The next previously released module, "Blood on the Snow", takes place in Estenfird and could be considered to be the first of the modules that puts, as heralded before, the epic component into focus: Unbeknownst to just about all mighty beings, the beast-cult of the demon god Shibauroth has been gathering its strength: Making its adherents rather stupid, but enhancing them into deadly, primitive, cannibalistic killing machines via twisted runes, the cult has risen and seems to follow a surprisingly organized plan. The PC are to travel to the largest settlement, the town of Three Rivers, where local hero Hengrid Donarsdottir has traveled. On their way, they can recruit essentially a small army of undisciplined followers and hirthmen (alas, no Ultimate Campaign-synergy) to help the beleaguered capital of Estenfird.

On their way to Three Rivers, the PCs will have chances to deal with first encounters against the Beast Cult and, via befriending the Great White Stag, potentially even turn an otherwise lethal ambush upon the bestial cultists. In order to reach the city, they'll also have to sneak past the camps of the unorganized cult. Finally, inside the town, the PCs will have a bit of time to get accustomed to the fully mapped and lavishly detailed town before the horns are sounded and the assault begins - depending on the amount of followers the PCs have recruited, the respective monsters get hurt/decimated. Oh boy - the siege is awesome - standing on doomed ground, the PCs will have to combat elementals, badger-sapper-squads and even keep a war-mammoth from breaking the nigh-impregnable gates - all while ice trolls and drakes ravage the town in one of the most concise, superb depictions of a deadly siege I've ever seen.

As the dust settles, the PCs  will be in for a shock - the aasimar warrior-maiden has been kidnapped! Thus, the PCs have to enter a haunted marsh and infiltrate the poison-thorned, hedge-labyrinth of a frozen marsh maze in which the beast cult seeks to sacrifice the daughter of Thor himself in order to bring down their deadly beast-god: The finale sees the Pcs storm the ritual and hopefully free Donar's daughter from her bonds - otherwise, the terror has just begun. Oh, and bravery is required here - essentially the final encounter is insanely hard and requires the PCs to  focus on their goal of interrupting the ritual - should they succeed, Thor himself will annihilate the beat cult and scourge it from the lands. And while the treasure is rather weak due to the savage nature of the cult, the Aesir don't forget the PCs, as the module concludes with a feasting held by Thor himself to congratulate the PCs - if they succeeded, that is. If they failed, they'll have a  CR 22 Thanatotic Titan on their hands and survival chances that are at best slim...

Oh, and just as an aside: These previously released modules have not simply been copied inside: Details have been streamlined and we actually get Ultimate Campaign-compatible MASS COMBAT RULES!!! EFFFIN' YES!!!

After this truly epic and challenging module, we proceed with "Raven Banners over Gatland", penned by both Kenneth Spencer and master of evocative environments Greg A. Vaughan. Situated against a backdrop of a brutal feud between Gats and Hrolfs, the two jarls have tried to fix burned bridges by marrying their children - but, alas, hostilities are flaring up when the bride-to-be vanishes...and soon after, the groom as well. The PCs and surprisingly pragmatic jarls soon find the hand of the dread Jomsvikings in the abduction - in order to prevent the feud from turning into all out warfare (the jarls have to take the opinions of their folks into account, after all!), the PCs will have to board a ship and survive a horrible marine assault by the Jomsvikings and their supernatural allies...and ultimately, they'll need to capture one of their ships to have a chance to infiltrate the notoriously powerful island of these feared raiders.

Only by securing an alliance with the island's supernatural inhabitants and releasing them from the yoke of a powerful, devilbound witch and her creatures, will the PCs have a chance to infiltrate the nigh-impregnable fortress and rescue the two star-crossed lover...whose wyrd may not be so grim, after all! That is, if the PCs can survive encounters with the unique Jomsbeast and horrid, chthonic creatures - and yes, both of the youngsters may well perish - and all has consequences... This module is PHENOMENAL in all the right ways, managing to blend perfectly the aesthetics of the North and classic Sword and Sorcery literature - no mean feat, mind you!

Kevin Wright's "Plague in Trotheim" brings a completely different doom to the PCs - the dreaded Straw Death has fallen upon the city of Trotheim as the (hopefully!) wedding of the two jarl's children is interrupted by Meg Skulsdottir unleashing this horrid plague upon the unwitting population. A horrid pox is unleashed upon the city and the PCs will deal with the consequences of the horrid outbreak throughout this module, allowing a GM to free-form the encounters - here, godi are taken, lillin roam and fire elemental constructs erupt from funeral pyres for a rather apocalyptic overall theme - and only a mystic tree may provide the means to stop to the outbreak. Thus, the PCs need to hexcrawl through the lethal Andøvan mountains and best the tests of Skrymir...and best underworld dragons at the roots of the world and cure the rot that has befallen the roots of Yggrdasil's sapling - and then, Wotan shows up...and with echoes of Ragnarök's promise, the PCs venture back - provided they live through the hazardous trek back.

Kenneth Spencer and Greg A. Vaughan join forces again in "The Return of Hallbjorn", which resounds with the previous modules: Thought dead, the man returns with tales of Nieuland, mirroring the discovery of the new world and sparking a land and trade rush. Unfortunately, the jomsvikings follow to the new world: And yes, the journey is depicted and the colony and the threats encountered are only exacerbated due to the incursions of the jomsvikings - who also provoke the local skraelings into hostility, as unique threats and a strange prophet escalate the proceedings. This section is literally something I haven't seen before - a colonist tale of the conquest of a new world, with a healthy dose of viking and fantastic aesthetics. And the appendix btw. also allows for one or more PCs to take the mantle of the jarl - and the wilderness exploration of these lands sports a great change of pace in its aesthetics, while still remaining true to the themes. Another glorious winner in my book!

Returning to the Northlands, Kevin Wright & Kenneth Spencer depict a module deeply steeped in the culture and taboos of the North - "The Hallburning" deals with the aftermath of the horrid crime of the mordbrand, a murder-burning where a whole hall and all within have been cowardly burned to death - as depicted in one of the glorious short-stories in the Player's Guide. Gundrik Arison, Jarl of the Vestfelmarken, has been killed, but Runa Gundrikswif survived, against all odds, the horrid ordeal. Some of the perpetrators were caught and the Althing pronounced the criminals free to be slaughtered - and the PCs will probably want to eliminate the cowardly murderers...but there is more to this, namely a horrid conspiracy...the hall-burners are patsies...but there would also be the issue of competing adventuring groups on the hunt...and yes, if the PCs are not wary, they may fall to hall-burners themselves - and beyond exploring tin-mines and testing their mettle, they will also find themselves in dire need of speed - all actions have consequences and, in order to bring true justice, the PCs will have to best the jarl in holmgang...but the deities themselves may actually intervene here! And yes, I abbreviated the structure of this surprisingly brainy module rather excessively - this one is LONG.

Based on material by Kenneth Spencer and written by the dream-team Kevin Wright and Greg A. Vaughan, "Daughter of Thunder and Storm", we rejoin the PCs 3 years after they have taken the mantle of Jarldom. Hengrid Donarsdottir has survived (hopefully) Blood on the Snow, though a stand-in exists. In the wake of Hengrid's devastating raid on the Hall of the Hearth Stone, the PCs are summoned, for the daughter of Donar has stolen Kroenarck, the legendary sword of the High Køenig and most sacred artifact of the Northlands. The PCs are to return this sacred blade, but a godi present, in the fits of prophecy, tells them about Hengrid being possessed and fighting the dread entity, beseeching the PCs to save her. The PCs must venture to the  Virlik Cliffs, where their old foe Althunak raises his deific head - the entity is planning to usher in the Fumbulwinter to kickstart Ragnarök. Stakes high enough for you? Yeah, we're talking "epic" indeed, as the PCs follow the deific scion, still seeing signs of her struggle against the Lord of Winter - the PCs have to survive the creatures of the wild, the agents of the Lord of Winter and brave the legendary mountain Helgastervän's volcanic tubes, venturing to the gates of hell itself, opened by the sword - to save Donar's daughter, the PCs will have to venture into the Gunningagap and battle for the soul of the divine maiden - and yes, while combat is a means of solving this, we actually have a roleplaying encounter as an epic finale here: Smart PCs will have a significantly easier time, as no less than 5 iterations of this final fight are provided! Kudos indeed!

And there we are. 6 years later, in the final adventure herein, penned by Greg A. Vaughan and based on Kenneth Spencer's material. Levels 16 - 18. High level as can be. "The Broken Shieldwall" builds upon the consequences of the actions in previous modules and if the PCs have done their jobs right, Jarl Ljot Gatson, asks the PCs to raise an army to save his son and grandson from distant Mulstabha, braving the treacherous North Seas as they gather their forces, returning to Trotheim, Estenfird, speaking to the Althing, dealing with jomsvikings once again...and more, the PCs will amass an unprecedented host to lead into bloody battle. The war is on and the PCs will have to lead their campaign and infiltrate the citadel of Jem karteis, where the mysterious, ancient people of daemon-worshiping Huun and their legions prove to be the masterminds behind the plot. With no time and magic power, the PCs will also have to thwart a deadly assassination attempt on the man fated to become High Køenig of all the North...all while routing the forces of one of the most deadly and dangerous nations ever to spread its vile influence over the Lost Lands! And yes, once again, this truly epic, mind-boggling modules pits gigantic armies against each other in the most epic open warfare module I have ever seen - one that also pits the PCs against a titanic, quasi-deific monstrosity that will test their mettle to the breaking point. I have rarely, if ever seen such a fantastic conclusion to a saga.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting, particularly taking the sheer volume of this tome into account, are excellent, particularly considering that builds used herein do employ interesting combinations of creatures and crunch. Kudos to the editors Jeff Harkness, Dawn Fischer and Greg A. Vaughan. Layout by Charles Wright adheres to a printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. If you can, though, you may want to get the massive hardcover - build to last in the tradition of Frog God Games. The artworks deserve special mention: Artem Shukaev, Rowena Aitken, Colin Chan, Tyler Clark, Felipe Gaona, Chris McFann, MKUltra Studios, Terry Pavlet, Blake Wilkie, Brian LeBlanc, David Day, Talon Dunning, Eric Lofgren, Cara Mitten, Nate Pride, Richard Thomas and Tim Truman have created a book that is gorgeous to look at: Many of these artworks are absolutely stunning and incredibly evocative. A precious few artworks of monsters have been used before (which often represent the weaker pieces), but the vast majority (as in: 90%+) is new, original and glorious. The massive tome comes with exquisite amounts of solid maps in b/w, which, while less staggering, map pretty much EVERYTHING. The inclusion of player-friendly, key-less maps is a huge plus as well. The massive tome also sports a really nice full-color poster map of the Northlands on the inside of the back cover - big plus there as well.

The work of three men: Kenneth Spencer, Greg A. Vaughan and Kevin Wright - and it still feels like this one, amazing, whole, legend. The voices of the authors never clash and all is subservient to a shared vision of epic proportions that encompasses what's best about classic sögur, the fantastic and sword and sorcery. This book has managed to blend these potentially disparate elements into an incredibly concise whole. And, as you know by now, I am EXTREMELY particular about "my" North: Scandinavia and the old myths have a very special place in my heart and I'm  extremely picky in what's "right."

The authors get it. They show a keen understanding of what works and what doesn't. Unlike a few of the stand-alone modules, none of the modules in this tome even remotely feels like its Northlands aspects are window-dressing: The themes resonate with a poignancy and internal consistence that is frickin' phenomenal and a pure joy to read. Time and again while reading this tome, I put it away. Why? Because I honestly wanted to savor every page. I didn't want it to end. It was one of the tomes I read when a series of frustrating reviews (writing bad reviews sometimes really does a number on me) had demoralized me. I read it when I had a bad day. For half a year, just reading this book has brought me more joy than you can probably fathom. It's that good.
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While it does not have a linear plot per se, those of you who don't like the sandboxy nature of many Frog god Games books, well, this does deliver the more stringent and sequential sequence you wanted - though frankly, with the epic, multi-year timeframe of the saga, you will very well have a ton of opportunity to run your own material as well or insert other modules.

I am honestly sad to write this review. Why? because it means that the Northlands Saga, at least until I can run its entirety, is over for me. Now, this is not a perfect book: The player-content, as mentioned in my review of the Player's Guide, could be better. And while everything fits perfectly together, while consequences are evident, there could be a bit more repercussions from module to module, as far as I'm concerned.

Yeah, that's about everything I can say that could even be remotely construed to be negative.

The Northlands Saga, even in Frog God Games' canon of exalted adventure books, ranks as one of the best I have read. This gorgeous campaign delivers, with panache and aplomb, on the promise made of a true, Northern campaign, and that without bashing you over the head with Ragnarök. The themes resonate, a zeitgeist of the end-times seems to be slowly gaining traction, but if the PCs excel at their task, they may end this book on a truly heroic note. As an aside: This saga manages to portray high-level adventuring surprisingly well: Will the vast resources, epic armies clashing and ever more global problems, with metaphysical threats etc., the emphasis on roleplaying and the importance of brains is never lost - this is a book for roleplayers indeed. That does not mean, however, that there is not ample, amazing combat to be found herein - quite the contrary! The Northlands Saga manages to perfectly convey the grit and grime of the North, manages to depict, time and again, a harsh land steeped in mythology and horror, yes, but also in tantalizing beauty and wonder. This is not grim, nor is it dark. In a sense, it almost feels like a chronicle of a North that almost was, that could have been in another time, another world.

You know, I was excited for this and afraid at the same time. I am not a wealthy man and supporting a KS like this, for such a big book, is something I can't afford often. I also have a tendency to be very, very skeptical and nitpicky regarding the North. I also am not one of the guys who wants to like every KS I invest in; I am too jaded for that - years of reviewing will do that to you. ;) Supporting the KS for this book was only made possible by pinching pennies left and right for a prolonged period of time. TOTALLY WORTH IT! Worth every single day. I guess it was my wyrd to cave-in and get it  -wyrd bið ful aræd.

This is epic and amazing in all the right ways, a thematically incredibly concise, glorious book that, according to my projections, should yield AT LEAST a whole year of gaming, probably multiples. And even if you don't want to run the whole saga, you can easily just extract individual modules - the plus-side of being less driven by an AP-like plot and more by the players and how the PCs interact with their surroundings.

This ranks among the cream of the crop. This book is exalted and a masterpiece that deserves an honored place on my book-shelf. If you're even remotely intrigued by vikings, northern themes, sword and sorcery, gritty gaming or just want a change of pace: You'll be very hard-pressed to find anything better than this magnificent monster.

The Frogs do it again, as far as I'm concerned - this is absolutely phenomenal and worth 5 stars + seal of approval and is a no-brainer candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. Heck, who am I kidding here, seriously? It'll score high on that list!

The one thing that really galls me about this book? It's unlikely that we get Northlands Saga II anytime soon and, even after more than 800 pages of Northlands, I still want more. And yes, I am aware that even now, even after all this praise, I can't properly convey how much I love this tome. Apologies, dear readers...but see for yourself. The North beckons.

You can get this phenomenal tome here on OBS or here on tabletoplibrary.com!

Prefer OSR gaming? You can find the S&W-version here on OBS or here on tabletoplibrary.com!

Finally, if you want print, you can find that here on Frog God Games' store!

Endzeitgeist out.

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.