it's already that time again - another 100 reviews done on Paizo, for a grand total of 700 - to celebrate, I'll take a look at one of Frog God Games' (check out their Rappan Athuk Kickstarter!) premium adventures,
The Black Monastery
This pdf is 89 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving 83 pages of content, so let's check this one out!
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion!
All right, still here? Then let's check this one out! What is the "Black Monastery"? Mechanically, it's an old-school, sandbox style dungeon/haunted house-crawl. Where enemy placement does not have to make sense etc. - you know, primal, creepy and deadly with CRs far below and also potentially quite above the PC's capabilities. But that's not the true appeal, at least for me. What made me interested in this module is its story: While the slow ascend to wealth and power of a monastic order and its subsequent descent into evil and debauchery has been done before, the consequence of the tale is what matters: When their evil became to apparent, to blatant, the king attacked and it turned out that the Hill of Mornay, where their monastery stood, wasn't chosen by chance - enveloped in green flames, the monastery vanished before it could be taken. Ever since, when the stars are right, the complex seems to return with its riches, but only for a limited time. Like an architectonic old one, its arrival is accompanied by madness, disease, lycanthropy and similar apocalyptic events. The dark edifice to corruption has once again entered our world, from gods-beware it has been. Evil looms, madness stirs and treasure waits and the PCs will enter a place that may well take them to another plane or world. If you want to change setting, the Black Monastery is definitely an awesome way to do so. As you can probably glean from this story, inserting it into a setting is also rather simple.
Of course, an old-school module like this would not be complete without random monster tables and this is among the first things you'll get to see. More importantly, we also get a d20-table for strange noises and hauntings as well as discussions on the special magical effects in the monastery - you can't e.g. buff yourself before entering, since it exists in multiple places at once. "Multiple" is a good cue - 10 sample entrances into the compound are presented.
If the PCs e.g. enter the garden first, they'll have fun with 7 (!!!) Mohrgs and the "Gate of Fear" that provide access to the place make it immediately clear that the enemies are not playing softball - in the center of the monastery-yard is for example a huge stone golem that reacts differently depending on the moon's phase. They can also e.g. be caught by a mural, battle painted duelists. Mind you, not all adversaries are that powerful - there of course also are stranded orcs, goblins etc. and that's one of things I really like about this module: While the 1st edition feeling of the module is intact, the world/plane-switching elements to the monastery's background let these jumbled together humanoids actually make sense.
What truly makes the Black Monastery shine, though, at least for me, is its gothic convolutedness and its attention to detail: The crazed cook, and inscriptions upon inscriptions that hide hints and grant insight into the demented logic of the madmen and otherworldly forces that call this place home. Cursed nobles, mutated fighters, flesh-eating treants, ghoulish alchemists, Troblins (troll-goblin hybrids) and the unholy echoes of the brotherhood, the cimota roam these halls alongside other strange creatures - and indeed, none of the beings herein feel like filler, as they all make some kind of internal sense or feature a peculiarity in their encounter/ descriptions that in the end serves to take away any sense of familiarity and further enhance the horror of the place.
And then, there are the monastery's two towers: Kran, Dungeon master of the compound, guarded by iron golems and a greater shadow in his own right and Sacavious, mad and deranged failed lich make for two of the possible "bosses" of the module. Of course, the monastery also hides the piece of rock that transports it and in the depths of its dungeon, not only do terrible creatures roam, an evil artifact also awaits discovery. While 3 purple worms await adventurers to fill their gluttonous maws.
Editing and formatting are very good: I only noticed some very minor inconsistencies with the otherwise neat maps. A pity, though, that no player-friendly maps are provided as well. Layout adheres to FGG's 2-column standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked. Oh boy, the artworks. This pdf features some of the coolest, most disturbing, gothic-horror-style artworks I've seen in a long, long while - absolute awesomeness! With one exception: A demon's crotch is marred by a censor-bar and ruins the artwork for me. I'm an opponent of censorship in any form, so that somewhat jarred me. Oh well. The pdf comes with extensive, nested bookmarks. A quick glance at the price tag shows that this one belongs to the rather expensive category of modules and that's also the reason this review took me so long. I fought rather hard with myself whether I should give it a try.
Reviewing this module feels rather strange to me - almost as if it wants to defy being reviewed: Much like reading e.g. Poe, Howard or Lovecraft, reading this module shows you a lot of things that have, by now, become a staple of adventuring. But much like these classics, the Black Monastery has an eerie appeal of originality evoked by a combination of details, clever wordings and mysticism. Much like in the beginning, one's first campaign for example, the foes and things that happen herein defy our expectations in subtle ways that remove the players from their comfort zone and recapture the dread of not knowing what to expect from foes, how to handle situations and what might happen. By depicting this whole complex as a gothic mansion that is almost anthropomorphized by its vileness and ancient dread, its derivations from standard-expectations adding rather than detracting from the appeal of the module and its believability.
While the dungeon below the monastery can't completely hold up to the quality of the rest of the place, the love and passion that went into the crafting of this place in all its disturbing details are readily apparent- this module can easily be seen in a tradition with the two classic original Ravenloft modules and in fact make me wish Frog God Games had more of these (rather) horror-themed adventures.
Mechanically, there was one thing I was missing (probably omitted due to being declared "old-school"): Haunts. Haunts rock and make places like this one even creepier. On the other hand, this module is not perfect: There are minor map inconsistencies, the dungeon doesn't live completely up to the level of awesomeness of the monastery itself and I would have loved to see some complex puzzles or more little storylines taking place in the monastery as well as more passages on the outside - perhaps a park, a glass-house, a chapel. And player-friendly maps. Seriously, these should be standard by now. That being said, my first impulse was to give this one a four Rudii, but frankly, it's better than that. The unity of descriptions, attention to detail and awesome artworks serve to evoke something scarcely seen in nowadays modules: Dread. If foreshadowed correctly, the players will be jumping like crazy all the time and I am absolutely positive that you'll have a great time running this. And I actually regret that this is not a 300+page monster with even larger grounds and aforementioned additions like a chapel etc. The potential is vast and I really hope to see a sequel to this one, in one form or another. Thus, in spite of the points of criticism I have, I'll settle for a final verdict of 5 Rudii, but no seal of approval, though I so want to award one. If you want to scare your players with a haunted house, there's no way around this one. (And if you're like me and want haunts, but Rite's#30-haunt-pdfs and cackle with glee...)
That's it for now, as always, thank you for reading my ramblings!