As you know, I'm a sucker for good, gritty Sword & Sorcery and today, I'd like to introduce yo to a module you may have missed by Xoth Publishing:
The Citadel Beyond the North Wind
This module is 40 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page of advertisement, leaving us with a total of 35 pages of content, so let's check this out!
This adventure for the Sword & Sorcery genre and character lvl 8-10, while utilizing the PFRPG-rules, uses some default assumptions that are different from you standard fantasy fare, as befitting of the genre. First of all, 6 cultural archetypes for humans are presented in the first appendix. Due to a lack of humanoids like elves and dwarves in Sword & Sorcery literature, the versatility that is the spice of roleplaying comes from choosing cultural archetypes with their own distinctive attribute modifiers, special abilities etc. Decadent characters, for example, get bonuses on social skills, Cha as well as a penalty to their will saves to represent their unwholesome lifestyle. Personally, I LOVE this approach, as it makes the different cultures and humans feel more versatile.
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion. All right!
Still here? Let's go! Essentially, the module presented in these pages is almost as much gazetteer as sandboxy module and details the frozen north of the world of Xoth, just short of the polar circle and much like in the classic renditions of the north we know from pulp literature, the glaciers beyond the black hills and the frozen swamps of Thule hide old things indeed. There, in the realms of the men of Yg, where petty warlords and princelings clashed for dominance over their frozen lands, a love triangle both sinister and repulsive has will draw the PCs into the power struggle between the two most powerful beings currently active in the icy north: The dread Witch-King of Galuga, Arkanth Mal, is scouring the lands, enslaving and kidnapping beautiful women in a quest to restore his fallen witch queen Eliyh. Seduced by the White King Boras, the beautiful sorceress once left her king behind to bear the children of the White King - only to one day realize that the White King is a terrible creature from beyond the stars. Driven mad, she was annihilated in direct confrontation with the beast, but had her life-force transferred to the fabled Ark of Zamar. Now, Arkanth Mal, still in love with the insane spirit of his once beloved, scours the lands for a suitable body to serve as the reincarnated Eliyh.
Whether the PCs stumble upon slavers, find Eliyh's former familiar in the process of being killed or are captured, they will be drawn into the machinations of the powerful beings that rules the icy lands (which are btw. presented as a one-page, hand-drawn, nice map). As a gateway to adventure, the border-town of Tartuum is provided in rather excessive detail, though a settlement statblock per se is not provided, the details and fully stated NPCs with flaws and mannerisms make the town immediately come to life. Better yet, the areas like the Moors of Sul or the Frozen Tombs of Yg, though only depicted in short paragraphs, evoke enough iconicity to make them not only valid targets for side-quests, but interesting locales, though I noticed a distinct lack of a ride skill on a supposedly mounted bog mummy riding a bog mummy horse. Have I mentioned the disturbing Yg-tree, which not only is baptized by blood, but has tendril-like roots animate special spore-spewing undead or the cannibalistic Ma-Gu?
We are also introduced to the fully mapped Citadel of Galuga, the stronghold of Arkanth Mal, where sorcerors from the south experiment with the dead and flesh-consuming plants and the Ark of Zamar and Eliyh's spirit wait for retribution against the vile thing that is Boras. 3 levels (fully mapped) and a player-friendly side-view of the palace are provided as well as several infiltration suggestions on hwo the player might tackle the challenge of the citadel. The final section of the pdf then details Naath, the land of Boras, his dread Ziggurat and stats for his true form Yon-Ylath-Ul. (And yes, as nasty as it sounds!). The Ziggurat-section is rather short though, providing only 9 locations, though many might spawn adventures of their own.
As mentioned before, the module also features the rather cool and excellent cultural archetypes for humans in the first appendix. The final appendix, then, deals with sample statblocks for the men of the north, providing a total of 10 additional statblocks as well as more information on organizations and ethnicities.
Editing is top-notch, I didn't notice any glitches in that department. Formatting has some peculiarities, though: The statblocks do not adhere to the PFRPG-revision with clear distinctions between offense and defense sections, providing instead the cluttered statblocks we know from earlier editions of d20. While usable and adhering to the rules, the presentation should be updated as well. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly b/2-2-column standard with a typical Sword and Sorcery of a nude female in peril and some fighters on the respective borders - this is a classic Sword & Sorcery-module and thus also tackles mature topics, just to let you know. The pdf comes fully bookmarked and the cartography and artworks are nice and serve to further enhance the sense of foreboding antediluvian antiquity. However, no player-friendly maps are provided, which is a major bummer in my book - just a version sans the map-key would be nice.
Xoth Publishing is sure to be either beloved or hated by people and I count myself among the former. Ever since I read Necromancer Games' Ancient Kingdoms:Mesopotamia, I fell in love with author Morten Braten's vision of an age through which a Cimmerian barbarian might stroll. When his anthology "The Spider God's Bride" hit virtual shelves in the 3.X days of old, I loved it and still wholeheartedly recommend you checking it out - even if you're by now playing Pathfinder, the information on the World of Xoth and its assumptions will serve to greatly enhance your enjoyment and immersion into the spirit of this module - or should I say gazetteer?
Honestly, to me it feels more like that. The adventure-section of this module is so sandboxy, a DM should not expect to be able to run this sans preparation. Dauntingly old-school, the module instead gives us a variety of different NPCs, potential plots and unique adversaries waiting in areas that, via clever use of omissions, hinting at things and linguistic skill manage to spark the creativity of all but the most burnt-out of DMs. The material herein could be seen as a rough skeleton of not a module, but rather a whole mini-campaign - enough information is provided and the cultural peculiarities that so vastly enhance immersion are second to none and alongside Adventureaweek.com's modules at the apex of this particular component of adventure-craft.
That being said, while I'm a vast fan of the overall content portrayed herein, I also consider the module to be far from perfect - the rather lackluster final ziggurat feels like it has been a massive dungeon once that was cut down. Another pet-peeve of mine is that not sample DCs etc. for infiltrations are given, though in scenarios like Xoth's they usually are the more prudent way to go.
Quality-wise, were I only to judge the writing, I'd immediately go for a full 5 stars, but unfortunately aforementioned minor blemishes, the lack of player-friendly maps and the fact that a tad bit more guidance would have been prudent, conspire to make me drop my final verdict down to 3.5 stars - UNLESS you're an enthusiast for the Sword and Sorcery genre like yours truly: We have far too few modules that cater to this genre and for me, as one who has all the Xoth Publishing releases so far, this is just awesome and 4.5 stars. After careful deliberation, I decided to round down in both cases, for final verdicts of 3.5, rounded down to 3 and 4.5, rounded down to 4 stars respectively.
By the way: The 3.5-anthology (which is awesome) "The Spider God's Bride and other Tales of Sword & Sorcery" has been converted to the Legends-system. It can be purchased here. The original 3.5-version can be found here.