9.17.2010

Endzeitgeist reviews Slumbering Tsar - The Desolation


This is it.

This is the place where it all started.  Here, Lou posted about the unpublished Magnum Opus by Greg A. Vaughan and here the whole development that led to Frog God Games being founded. If you had asked me a year ago whether Slumbering Tsar would ever be released, I would have shaken my head, made a sad face and continued. And yet, here it is. The epic struggle against Orcus and his temple-city. And I'm here, on Rpgaggression, where it all began, to review it. It's a glorious feeling and I'm really grateful for Lou to offer me this opportunity.


Now, that I have this off my chest, let's dwell into the compiled reviews of the first 3 installments of Slumbering Tsar, which make up the first major part of ST, detailing the dread wastelands around the accursed city.

The Edge of Oblivion:

This pdf consists of 33 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page credits, 1 page OGL.

 That leaves us with 30 pages of adventure.

 First, we get a 5 pages Introduction to Slumbering Tsar, its epic background story as well as several, extensive hooks to draw your PCs into the adventure. 

 Chapter 1: The Camp gives us the main meat of this installment of Slumbering Tsar, the so-called Camp at the edge of the wasteland called Desolation. This camp is far beyond your average town or frontier settlement, expertly evoking a unique flavor reminiscent of a combination of old-school Necromancer Games-feeling and a touch of end-time melancholy √† la "The Dark Tower"-saga by Stephen King. The chapter also includes stats for the inhabitants, 4 spells converted from Sword & Sorcery's Relics and Rituals and takes up 14 pages.

 Chapter 2: Events in the camp is 6 pages long and describes events to spring on your players. They are very cool, and, keeping the promise in the introduction, quite lethal. I won't spoil the fun, though an entity called "Midnight peddler" should be mentioned...

 Chapter 3: A Desolation Primer is 2 pages long and helps DMs portraying the Desolation. 

 After that, we get 3 pages of beautiful maps.

The prose is captivating and the editing is very good: No awkward phrases, no typos. The S/W-artwork is among the most beautiful I've ever seen in a 3pp's book and is on par with the heyday of NG. You get the stats for the creatures and NSCs where they are most likely to appear, which helps immensely.

For a measly $2.00, you get an awesome, big pdf, containing one of the most imaginative small towns I've read for quite some time. Even if you don't plan to check out the whole saga, at least give this installment a try. You'll be very hard-pressed to find a better bang-for-buck ratio or quality out there.

The Ghosts of Victory:

The second installment of the epic Slumbering Tsar Saga, The Ghosts of Victory is 75 pages long.

 

One page is taken up by credits, 1 by the front cover, 2 by the OGL.

 That leaves us with 71 pages of gaming goodness, prefaced by a one page introduction to the eastern part of the wasteland that is the dreaded Desolation.

 

The pdf starts with Chapter 4: Ashen Waste, depicting one of the major areas of the wasteland. The Ashen Waste is an inhospitable land with its very own environmental dangers (e.g. acid rain or storms made of pulverized, choking bones), extensive notes on random encounters in the waste as well as 3 planned battle encounters, 2 mini-dungeons, 1 safe spot to rest (guarded by a hostile, rejuvenating guardian, though; nothing is simple in Desolation!), 1 oasis (with several sub-locations) and an encounter with a creature that is a fitting and creepy (unofficial) bossmonster for the area. 

 The chapter is 27 pages long and includes a new bloodline for sorcerers. The overall atmosphere of the whole area is focused on hopelessness and a constant feeling of trespassing on a battlefield that once has seen countless feet tread upon the shattered remains of both friends and foes. Awesome and incredibly concisely written, this chapter could serve as an autonomous desert/wasteland in itself.

 Chapter 5 details the Chaos Rift, the second huge area of the Desolation. The chapter begins with its very own extensive discussion on random encounters in the Chaos Rift, showing already a difference in tone and setting. In stark contrast to the Ashen Waste, the general mood in the Chaos Rift is rather one of Chaos, Destruction and planar evil of a magnitude that only high-profile villains like Orcus could have inflicted on the mortal plane. The Chaos Rift is, as the name suggests, a terrible series of canyons or rather wounds, ripped into the very foundation of the earth in the war against Tsar. 

 

After being lowered down into the canyons by Rock Troll brothers (or other means), the PCs are confronted, again, with unique environmental dangers and new challenges. Apart from the planned encounter with the brothers and 2 encounters containing environmental damages, this chapter contains 3 combat encounters (one of them may actually send foolhardy PCs to an untimely death in Orcus' realm in the Abyss!), 2 outdoor encounters (with a series of sub-locations) and 2 mini-dungeons. For fans of The Grey Citadel and The Eamonvale Incursion, this chapter offers a nice tie-in. 

(It should be noted, that one versed in the modules of Necromancer games will find numerous tie-ins with the other modules, that, while not necessary, are nice eastereggs.)

The chapter also contains the slime-zombie template and is 25 pages long.

 ST: Desolation 2 concludes with several appendices: 

-4 pages Monster Appendix (Spitting Gargoyle, Ossuary Golem, Screamer (not the fungus!), Shadow Dire Bear)

-1 page with a new magic item (Chain of Beguiling)

-4 pages prestige class appendix (An update of the Justicar of Muir-PrC for PFRPG, vastly superior in design to its 3.0.-incarnation, with its own codex, fluff and abilities – nice.)

-9 pages of Maps (1 page Ashen Waste, 1 page Chaos Rift, 1 page Tomb of the Sleeping Knight, 1 page Garden of the Reclaimers, 1 page Tark's Mound, 1 page Old Death's Hollow, 1 page Spitter's Canyon, 1 page Wolf pack / Bartileus' Lair, 1 page Sepulcher of the last Justicar)

ST: Desolation 2 contains enough ideas to make each component of the Desolation its own wasteland. In a way, they are unique enough to work alone, although they, of course, work even better when used as intended. Building upon the awesome mood created in the first installment, the Desolation thickens the already awesome mood.

To quote James Jacobs from the foreword of Paizo's Spires of Xin-Shalast: "The thing about Greg's adventures that has always impressed me the most is his knack for catching the excitement of discovering something new. Each of his Dungeon adventures was set in an exotic but nevertheless iconic location; be it under pyramids on the Isle of Dread, on haunted islands, in cliff dwellings on the edge of a canyon, inside of a primeval lost valley, in a lost temple dedicated to gods from the far side of the world, or even in the Abyssal kingdom of the Prince of Demons."

Once again, this is true in his imagining of a deadly wasteland somewhere between ancient battlefield, demonic, blasted landscape and endtimes-atmosphere. 




The Western Front:

ST: Desolation 3 – The western Front is a 48-pages pdf;  One page editorial, one page front cover, one page OGL – that leaves 45 pages of content in this installment of the Slumbering Tsar saga.

 

The module kicks off with one page of flavor text and a nice b/w artwork and then delves into the first area featured in this incarnation of ST, The Boiling Lands.

The chapter on the boiling lands is 15 pages long. Once again, we get planned encounters as well as a random encounter table and have an iconic wasteland. The boiling lands are riddled with geysers, mud and pestilence and poison are key factors among the hazards the PCs will face here. Don’t forget to bring your cleric! To give you an idea what to expect: A muddy battlefield defined by water- elemental warfare, disease and a general feeling of wading though plague-ridden swampy lands seeking to devour you and a prevalent decay that seeks to claim the PCs and make them part of the ever-present muck. Two sub-locations are provided (along with their respective maps in the  appendix), The Last Outpost and the Geyser Cluster.

The next chapter details The Dead Fields, is 14 pages long and another no-man’s land with a distinctive flavor.  The coolest place of the Dead fields is a Dwarven outpost that will be defended by the players against sheer countless waves of undead. Awesome! As a nice bonus, PCs may also befriend a dire wolf. A “Firebase of the damned” also promises some fun for your PCs.

The Crossroads and Tsar chapter is 5 pages long and features a gateway monster the PCs have to defeat to finally enter Tsar.

The Monster appendix features 2 new monsters, the Battlehulk and the (Poisonous) Mudmen. Both are interesting and cool.

The appendix featuring new magic items features both the “Reverse Gravity Mine” and a mighty hammer with an interesting drawback. The hammer even gets its own artwork.

As previously mentioned, we also get 6 pages of maps, 1 for the regions and two for the subregions each. My only gripe with them is, that I can’t show them to my players due to the legend features. I’d love to see some player-friendly maps sometime or in the final book.

Conclusion:  The final installment of the Desolation chapter features once again some iconic wastelands and will surely challenge you in the unique Vaughan-style, i.e., this one is DEADLY but extremely fun. My personal favorite was defending against the waves of undead – I can see players loving this. Unlike previous installments, though, this one is plagued by several editing and formatting glitches. I found the following:

There are relic s on page 14 as well as page 19. On page 26, there is line that strikes through the flavor text, page 27 and 31 have a formatting glitch about the number of wights that are encountered and the brackets are placed wrong. Finally, page 34 has two more relics.

Don’t let that detract from your enjoyment, though: You still get quality, awesome locations and challenging encounters for your PCs.

This is it. After surviving the third part of the desolation, the PCs will have to brave the dangers of the temple city of Orcus!

 
Conclusion: 

The prose of all the chapters is excellent, there is beautiful b/w-artwork and both the monsters and scenarios are unique, cool and make my sadistic DM-heart cackle with glee. I heartily recommend the saga to just about anyone, be it old-school gamer or just people who love iconic locations and a true challenge for the PCs.

Overall, I rate the first 3 installments of ST that make up the Desolation 4.5. Rudii, due to the minor glitches in The Western Front. Don't let that detract from your enjoyment though: ST offers  bang for buck and is an awesome experience, both to read and run.

Thanks for reading my ramblings,

Endzeitgeist out...for now. I'll be sure to review the other parts of ST, too. 



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