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The latest module by 4 Dollar Dungeons and heir to the SUPERB “Horn of Geryon” is a whopping 70 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 67 pages of content, so let’s take a look, shall we?
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, still here? Adrift in the vastness of the astral plane, there is a demi-plane…or a fraction of a planet. Or a sentient construct – whatever its nature may be, it’s called Panataxia, it’s shaped like a dodecahedron (a D12) and its layout may feel like an underground dungeon/cavern crawl, but it is so much more than that. Panataxia phases throughout worlds, accumulating, whether by accident or design, a diverse set of specimens has accumulated in the tunnels and caverns that suffuse this weird place. Used as an oubliette for a succubus, the place swallows the PCs – and that’s about the only thing fixed herein. Panataxia is, genre-wise, the most pure example of an underground sandbox I’ve seen since Open Design’s closed “Empire of Ghouls”, but is not a simple regular underdarkish module with a sense of planar flair dumped in. As the extensive (very extensive!) DM-advice suggests, the sheer wonder of subterranean landscapes here is suffused with unique planar properties that work cohesively as one due to the unique nature of the environment.
Due to the strange layout of the environment Panataxia, orientation via north, compasses etc. tend to start becoming a bit problematic and the module does not fail to address concerns like this in the wake of preparing a DM for running this. Speaking of which – we also get a table with encounters, treasures and GP-values – all at the beck and call of your hand. I wish more publishers would include tables like this – it makes running the module much smoother.
Now, I’ve said that Panatxia is essentially shaped like a dodecahedron – that is not wholly precise, though – that’s the meta-array on how the encounters are situated herein. In reality, Panataxia is essentially a sphere with its core removed and a sphere in the center, composed of the solidified nature of all four elements. Now if your players have a scientific bent and tend to experiment (like mine are prone to do), peculiarities of the gravity of Panataxia and the fact that the PCs may actually walk round the whole place in a straight line are all covered – which is just not the extra mile as far as I’m concerned, but rather the extra marathon. And yes, you can ignore many of these miniscule pieces of information if your players don’t mind – but they are THERE. While this is still magic, of course, the theory behind this place is as stringently logical as possible – well as logical as a magic environment like this may get.
Now before you turn away, rest assured that these concepts are in no way dry or boring in any way – and the module supports perfectly “regular” play-styles as well, featuring tables for strange effects from damaging walls (including wall harness and HP) etc., wandering monsters etc. And all of this aforementioned information not even takes you past the first 9 pages – so should you choose to ignore all of this background, you still get a HUGE module for the price-point.
But let’s get into the module itself, shall we? Arriving in a cavern where the wind flutes through natural holes in the walls and a bat swarm looms, the PCs are faced with a relatively common cavern – so far, so common. Less common: Once a kingdom was determined by law and clock, by a means of indenture and slaving. When the clock (spot the less than subtle tongue-in-cheek subtext), said instrument of oppression, was destroyed, Panataxia took its detritus and so its chute, a ball and part of its weird mechanism still suffuses one cavern as perhaps one of the strangest combinations of foe and hazard I have ever seen. By the way, have I mentioned that the connecting passages that lead from location to location also get their own descriptive details that clever players can use to keep their bearings? Well, yeah, they’re there – I told you this was massively detailed, didn’t I?
Ever wanted to go full-blown Sméagol on your players? At the shores of an invisible lake (which comes with all necessary swim-checks, nice and collated in a box), the choker Philos would make for a glorious example of a roleplaying encounter that can go either way. As befitting of a planar prison like Panataxia, not all opposition should be considered for immediate execution by 2nd level characters: The PCs have a chance to save an Aeon Paracletus (who makes happy beeping noises if saved in addition to offering bonuses…) from a CR 9 fire elemental. Yes. CR 9. the one chance the players have here would be to properly use the map and tight spaces to escape from the elementals predation – VERY cool and potentially lethal if your players are stupid, but gloriously exciting as well and something almost never seen in gaming. Climbing down into a cavern of mist (which also hides a vampiric mist) may be cool – but what about a cavern with variable, increasing gravity and making the encounter with a shadow so much more lethal – and unique. What about a cavern that could have been taken from an active volcano? One where the character’s prowess is determined by mental attributes? What about a halfling-home (of the resident planar explorer/wizard) with a panorama-view of the astral? An arctic goblin druid? And then there’s the potential option of being tricked by afore-mentioned succubus into a conflict they can’t yet win – hopefully, the PCs are not that gullible.
Have I mentioned a swiss cheese-like cavern that is now the home of a gibbering mouther? Sandmen? We also get the Bestiary-appendix with read-aloud fluff, a list of all monster-rules used, reprints of all spells used, 6 (!!!) pages of hand-out art and there also are maps galore – each and every location herein has been provided in full color both for the DM and the players in separate pdfs included in the deal and this pdf also provides all of these maps as jpegs to print out/use with software.
Editing and formatting are top notch, I didn’t notice any glitches. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read two-column standard and the b/w-interior art fits thematically nice – especially for the price. The cartography is also good for the exceedingly low price-point and most importantly, covers each and every locale in detail. The pdf also comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and in two versions – with one being optimized for US-paper-standard and one for A4-standard for Europeans like yours truly – awesome!
“The Horn of Geryon” was a surprise beyond belief for me – a superb, awesome wilderness module if there ever was one – but it could have been a one-of-a-kind phenomenon. Let’s get this straight out of the way – it wasn’t. Much like it, Panataxia oozes old-school flavor in all the right ways – this is wonder. This is weirdness. This module is players looking with a mix of puzzlement and horror at your screen, not knowing what is going on, sensing the unknown and embarking, wild-eyed on an adventure they can’t predict. Beyond even that, Panataxia is HUGE and the text for even connecting tunnels makes this simply glorious. With the archwizard, DMs still have a tool to guide players and lethal encounters are mixed with a spelunking-style that hearkens back in detail as well as in at times unobtrusive tongue-in-cheek humor and in sense of wonder to the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide of old, one of the best books ever released on that topic.
Richard Develyn. Remember this name. Managing to create one superb module is a fortunate occurrence. Actually surpassing it in the next offering is a trend. Managing to capture the essence of what planar adventuring is about, this module ranks among the best planar modules out there – unique, innovative, wondrous places, cool NPCs/monsters, superb terrain hazards – there is NOTHING about this pdf I could complain about. Let me spell it out – with this, Richard Develyn has reached a point where the environment created is on par with the iconic, legendary writing of Greg A. Vaughan. Let that soak in.
And then, there’s the price-point. 4 bucks. 4 friggin’ bucks. This is a joke. Seriously, I guarantee you won’t find a better bang-for-buck ratio anywhere. Panataxia not only should be considered a stellar module that fits into EVERY campaign, it should be considered a hallmark -I couldn’t for the life of me name any 2nd level stand-alone PFRPG-module on par with this one. Not ONE. Mind you, players will need both brains and brawns to survive this place, but I also guarantee that they will be talking about this weird place for years to come. This module BLEW ME AWAY. Whether for groups preferring a hack-and-slay-style or for those endeavoring to identify and codify environments and delve deep immersion-wise into a given environment, Panataxia delivers in unprecedented level of detail without losing its easy accessibility.
Seriously – get this if wondrous locales and inspired old-schoolish adventuring or excellent sandboxes to develop and play in even remotely interest you. I am thoroughly impressed and delighted by this module – it stands out among all of its competitors and should be considered an absolute must-buy. With this module, 4 Dollar Dungeons has the second module in my list of candidates for the Top Ten of 2013. If it were possible, I’d rate this 6 stars – and since I can’t, I’ll instead settle on 5 stars + seal of approval.
This module clocks in at 90 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 86 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Now the first thing, before anything else, you should know that this literally is the only book you need to run the module – no switching to thousands of different books, not a full bag of supplemental material – this module provides more supplemental material than you can shake a stick at: First, we get all spells used in the book; then, there would be the rules-reference section, which includes all those handy special abilities, from ability drain to breath weapons, handily explained for your convenience. The same goes for magical items, btw. And yes, there even is a nice array of animal tricks explained for your convenience, rendering this module exceedingly comfortable to run. Beyond even that, though, we get something you can use even when not running the module – the bestiary-section does provide ample Knowledge DC-checks to deduce information on the respective creatures featured in the module. Oh, and the module does sport all artwork handily collated at the back of the book in the form of a collated appendix, allowing you to print it out as a kind of look-see-artwork-booklet.
Think that takes up too much space? Let me assure you, it doesn’t – the module, even after that, clocks in at a massive 52 pages – there is *A LOT* of content to be covered. It should also be noted that this module, like all 4$D-modules, does provide handy lists of CR, adversary, XP and treasure for each relevant encounter, including options for extra treasure, depending on your playstyle (and extra PCs – up to +2 PCs are thus supported without you having to do ANYTHING). You should also be aware of the vast amounts of maps – while not necessarily beauties, I’ve seen worse and EVERY relevant location is covered – the sheer amount of maps provided deserves applause, especially since they also come with high-res jpegs and player-friendly iterations.
It should also be noted that the unique town herein does sport an extra mini-gazetteer for the players and that a clue-flow-chart helps running the module.
So far for the formal criteria, now let’s take a look at the module itself, shall we?
Now before we dive in, this is the SPOILER-WARNING. Potential players should immediately jump to the conclusion. Seriously, you will be so sorry if you spoil this one for yourself.
All right, so this module begins common enough – a drunk father and ratcatcher, bereft of his daughters (who have chosen the adventurer-lifestyle) have recently taken off and the grief-stricken father immediately tries to pick a fight with the PCs. However that works, in the end, the PCs will have been tasked by the man to track down his daughters and ensure their safety – and the trail leads into the aptly-named twisted moorland. Now if you have played the supreme “Journey to Cathreay”, you’ll immediately realize the sheer massive amount of detail you can expect from 4$D wilderness trips – and this module does feature just that – random weather-tables (with all relevant rules), random encounter chances by time – the level of detail is staggering and from lone guest-houses to the farm where the two adventurers hang out (sans the daughters, mind you, and very much hostile…), the level of detail provided is interesting indeed – take e.g. a druidic stone circle, where the devout PC may acquire a temporary elemental servant – not required by the story in any way, but it does add the sense of cohesiveness and realism to the magical world depicted herein.
Now whether on friendly or hostile terms with aforementioned adventurers, the PCs sooner of later will make the acquaintance of a dryad of a forest most dilapidated and desolate, who ahs struck a deal to ensure her survival – and in case you haven’t noticed, yes, there is a subtle theme at work here, but more on that later. Her combat tactics come with a level of detail scarcely seen and from TPKing to less lethal failure scenarios and the like, the encounter with the pragmatic, corrupt dryad offers quite an array of different options. Now, alternatively, the PCs may have found among the adventurer’s belongings a call for help in clearing out an evil temple or have been bluffed by them – in either way, the temple is just another elaborate anti-adventurer trap, much like the dryad’s gambit. If this does not look to exciting so far, rest assured that the way in which this is handled is superb – and the level of detail provided here is staggering as well – take a skeleton with a foreign pterodactyl bone rattling in its rip cage – and yes, this is a curious and intriguing foreshadowing of the things to come.
Either way, the investigation sooner or later will bring the PCs to the aptly-named town of Twisted Bridge, where a special kind of evil flourishes. The town is not a poor place; in fact, it is quite wealthy (and fully statted). However, it is a town rules by egotism and passivity- we have a macabre blending of gillmen working menial labor and a kind of aristocratic upper class, sneering at the irrelevant, marginalized people that do not belong to the illustrious crowd of the village’s people – here, everyone is in only for themselves and their immediate friends and family. Mind you, this is not a depiction of a town that is suppressed or “kill ’em all”-vile – it can be considered almost a subtle satire of a mentality that is all too real in our very world. Sounds too dreary? Players not into subtle, unobtrusive social commentary? No problem, just spring on them the top-hat wearing deinonychus currently running a errand for his master and they’ll be right back in the fold. And yes, this is one of the colorful sight &sound-style random encounters form the table. On a mechanical level, the mentality that considers “evil” behavior a matter of discussion and the townsfolk’s fun when looking at paladins whirling from all the evil they can detect is not only rationale and concise, it makes surprising sense and adds a whole new spin on the black-white-morality conundrums.
Twisted bridge itself is not only mapped, but also sports what essentially amounts to a lavishly-detailed gazetteer-section that had me reminisce about the weird cities in 3.X’s Scarred Lands, though, obviously, in less depth, Twisted Bridge definitely can be considered a town so unique and dripping with flavor and tangible magic, it exudes an allure that is difficult to describe – from undine sorcerors to lizardmen, from chocolatiers to female-only hair-saloons (aptly and humorously named “Rapunzel”), twisted bridge equally breathes a sense of decadence and wonder, of despicable passivity and carelessness and intoxicating wonders – and allows one to easily see how one can be sucked into the moral choices such a lifestyle may engender. The massive investigation-potential and related clues definitely allow for one glorious free-form investigation, set against one of the most compelling backdrops I’ve seen in quite a while.
The trail of the girl’s horses, though, can sooner or later be tracked to a farm – where matrons grow narcotics to allow the people in town to sedate their children, should they act up – have I mentioned, that, much like many a good fantasy or scifi novel, this module can be enjoyed on a consumerist perspective and still has some serious social commentary going for, should you be so inclined as to delve into it, all without shoving an ideology down your throat? Among the narcotics-inducing plants, though, jack-o-lanterns loom, including a moderately intelligent one, with whom the PCs can talk, alternating quickly between settings of potentially psychedelic horror and abject comedy – oh and then there is a level of detail that borders on the ridiculous, the ridiculously awesome, that is – the fields actually note which plants are grown where: From chai to chilies, the handout provides the detailed notes on this. Yes. *That* is a realism that can only be described as staggering -and whether you use it or not, it does add immensely to the sense of immersion. The trail, then, leads to the cathedral of bone, the macabre abode of the town’s de facto dhampir-ruler and aforementioned, top-hat wearing dinosaur companion. There *is* a macabre axe-beak skeleton to be found here, but whether or not hostilities break out depends very much on the PC’s actions – and yes, the reason *why* a friggin’ axe-beak skeleton is here, is also given – and the pterodactyl bone mentioned before may give the PCs away, so let’s hope their investigation skills are on par.
Among the weird places to be found (potentially via the nasty adventurers), an alchemist (vivisectionist) and the way golem he created as an automaton to sate the depraved desires of the townsfolk can also make for interesting encounters, the latter even for a potential cohort of the oddest kind. Tzitzimitle, the main antagonist of the module, currently resides in a clock tower most unusual – in that e.g. it sports a pool that is inhabited by piranha-level voracious, bad-tempered killer-goldfish. No, I’m not kidding. This is a thing – and it is glorious. My players actually started laughing as their PCs started to be chomped by the little buggers. The exploration of the tower, alas, yields no satisfactory results (apart from further leads and the satisfaction of destroying clockwork creatures and braving the traps with which the place has been laden) – and so, a further stop along the way may be the massive Necropolis of the town, where the bored, amoral gargoyle Gabriel, a picturebook sociopath, awaits – alongside Enya, one of the kidnapped girls, who is currently trapped within a mausoleum that is both warded and dangerously unstable – and hence, rescuing her will prove to be difficult.
Have I mentioned, that her statements (or the alchemist’s investigation) can lead them to essentially the same goals, namely the sewers, where the whispers of the dead abound and a worm-that-walks, the gaoler of Enya, provide further evidence of the horrible things to come: And it is at the very latest here that the pieces will *click* together – Tzitzimitl, an exceedingly powerful oracle (level 10) who has gleaned the circumstances of his death, but not the particulars, has entered an unholy alliance with a powerful wraith named Yetaxa – with combined efforts, they have not only engineered all those nasty anti-adventurer traps the PCs had to face; they have also introduced a truly decadent festival to the town, wherein the living dance with the wraiths under the control of Yetaxa – at the low price of just one innocent to be wraithified per festival – and who cares about strangers? Hence, the first of the daughters, alas has already been transformed by Yetaxa in the general rehearsal of the last festival -for today, shall be different. Wraiths cannot endure the sunlight, but a total eclipse renders a festival today possible – and also the only way in which Tzitzimitl’s prophecy of his own doom could come to pass – hence, he has engineered this rather elaborate plot to prevent just that.
Alas, the festival, detailed with a concise timeline and hearkening to a carnival, through a glass darkly, proceeds – and provides the PCs with an option to save Enya – provided they have been smart enough to provide her with an amulet they can acquire, which renders her impervious to Yetaxa’s cruel attempts of transferring her to undeath – so, in a finale both decadent and epic, the PCs will have to destroy Yetaxa in the catacombs – success frees the wraith and spawn from his control, resulting in a massacre and the prophesized death of Yetaxa, while also putting the PCs in dire peril, as they are shepherded into a dead end by now free, vast amounts of undead – only to be saved alongside Enya by the rays of the sun emerging from beyond the eclipse – and yes, if played right, this *is* one hell of a finale that also sees a town made uninhabitable by the undead – as well as killing the powerful Tzitzimitl and setting him up for potential sequels as a new undead threat to face!
Editing and formatting are very good, though I noticed a couple of minor typos – “intimation” instead of “intimidation” can be found once, as can be “wont” instead of “won’t.” The language-geek in me also cringed whenever I read “coup-de-gras” instead of “coup-de-grâce” – that has nothing to do with fat, greasy or the like, but refers to the deathblow. Layout adheres to 4$D’s printer-friendly two-column standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The pdf comes in two versions, one for the US-paper-format, one in A4 for Europeans like yours truly – love that! The artwork provided is copious and I have seen none of the neat, old-school B/w-art before – really nice! The cover, as always, is also breathing the spirit of old-school awesomeness. The cartography is functional, as are the handouts, and make up for not being the most beautiful being provided for just about EVERYTHING.
Okay, let me get one thing out of the way – my complaint about the typos above? That is the only negative thing I can say about this module. At this point, all of the following things are a given: 1) Whenever Richard Develyn releases a module, my players want to play it asap, even if it means putting the main-campaign on hold. 2) I actually go to these modules when I require a break from reviewing; when I’m frustrated and need a reminder of why I actually do it. 3) Every module has a radically different style.
All of these hold true with Dance Macabre – even though formally, like the Key to Marina, it can be considered an investigation module. Alas, the way in which it works is pretty much radically different – less of a scavenger hunt, more of a detective tale, it reminded me in the best of ways of the first Gabriel Knight game in the atmosphere it evokes – what we have here can be called a blending of far-out fantasy with the underrepresented panache of proper, fantastic Southern Gothic. From the themes provided to the imagery evoked, the glorious sense of decadence oozes from each and every pore of the module – you can play this as pure entertainment…or emphasize the striking themes it evokes: If you want it to, this module can serve as a social commentary and a rallying cry against indifference and cold-heartedness.
The absurd amount of details provided help running the module immensely, and so does the flow-chart, though novice DMs still should read the whole module before trying to run it – this one is very much free-form in its flow. The true genius here, at least in my onion, would be the blending of the horrific and the absurd, of horror and comedy – and the optional nature of either. A competent DM can easily ramp up the comedy factor and make this module genuinely funny. Or utterly horrific. I ran this module twice prior to writing this review; the first time emphasizing a Ravenloftesque sense of horror for my mature players – and it worked perfectly. The second time around, I mastered this with a mixed group that contained some kids – and emphasized the fun and odd parts. Yes, there are some dark elements here, but nothing kids (talking about the 8 – 12-range) can’t handle – make e.g. the courtesan a menial laborer à la Cinderella and we maintain the message, but make the theme child-friendly – cosmetic reskin and that’s it. One of them surprised me when she mentioned that she had understood that fear of death can lead one to horrible choices, that one should instead do good and that the town exhibited traits of our own society – and that payback for such a behavior might come in some guise or another. Subtle themes, clearly understood – yes, this can actually be played as a morality play with some educational value.
Southern Gothic horror, absurd, but still exciting comedy or a means of teaching about the world – the module provides a lot of playstyles – and it ran completely differently both times I ran it, so it has replay value to boot! I *ADORE* this module. It is unique in every sense of the word and sports yet another facet of Richard’s capacity that sets him apart as one of the few authors who push the boundaries and raise the level in the art of adventure writing. And yes, this module, in my opinion, can be called art…or proper literature. It is excellent and while the odd typo here and there may be slightly annoying; it is mainly due to the exceedingly high level of quality of the whole book this catches one’s eye. Still, I implore you to get this awesome piece of adventure-writing. It is unique in all the right ways and acts as one glorious example of what adventures could be beyond rolling dice and slaying monsters. Highly modular, versatile and with replay-vale, oozing with details, this module once again receives my highest honors – 5 stars + seal of approval and since this was released in 2014, candidate for my Top ten of 2014-status.
Holy Island is a massive pdf – 129 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with no less than 125 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
First of all – you should know that, obviously, not all of the pages herein are devoted to the module – instead, 4 Dollar Dungeons have a tradition of providing all required spells used in the module. A handy appendix collects them and prevents you from needing to constantly switch books. Beyond that, knowledge DCs and flavorful fluff information is provided for every creature encountered – consider these essentially fluff-upgrades; the type of information absent from most current bestiaries. Nice! Beyond that, it should be noted that all of the original artwork featured herein is contained in a look-see-art-appendix that can be used as handouts -I LOVE these appendices and wish more publications had such art-handouts-sections at least.
However, Holy Island also differs from other supplements published by 4 Dollar Dungeons in that it also utilizes the psionics-rules by Dreamscarred Press – and since you may not be familiar with how they work and/or not have Ultimate Psionics, the module also sports 10 pages of powers and basic information on how psionics work – so no, you do not need the psionic rules to run this, though it does help.
The pdf also comes with a massive array of 16 high-res jpgs of the maps featured in this book, with versions for both GMs and players being provided here – kudos for the player-friendly material!
All right, I have stalled long enough – so here we go: From here on out reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. And yes, you don’t want to spoil this one for you.
All right, still here? So, we are all aware of the legend of the mace of St. Cuthbert, right? The artifact has made appearances in mythology over the years and in many a game. What you may not know is that the artifact has a kind of homebase where it rests between making its appearances – this would be the island of Serafina, which coincidentally was known as Lindisfarne in aeons long passed. Evil does what evil does, though, and so, it was only a matter of time before Serafina was invaded – though the forces of good were not unprepared: With a colossus, the holy men and women were able to repel the invading hordes, but at a terrible cost – a toll so high, the order decided to sequester the island in its own demiplane, shrouding the island in obscurity and bringing an end to the fabled mace’s appearances across the planes.
Why does the artifact not simply plane shift to another plane? Simple – it’s a responsible artifact. This rationale not only made sense to me, it also got a chuckle out of me and is a great example of the unobtrusive humor that suffuses the prose herein.
Ever since then, the colossus has kept the few straggling vessels that cross the planar boundaries from leaving, destroying ship upon ship and thus generating a population of shipwrecked inhabitants – until a group of psionic individuals happened upon the island and saw its leader trapped by the colossus. But more on those folks later. In the long time since, deities have placed minions on the island – for a reason: The wielder of the mace may well be one destined for greatness and a bit of advertisement for one’s faith doesn’t hurt, right? Anyways, all of this would probably not be a big issue, had the order not died out -well, apart from one being: As in many a group of a certain size, there was indeed an odd man out, a former librarian now turned lich. Yes, lich. Third level module. I can hear you gulp. ?
Now, this module does provide what these days many a module lacks – extensive, concise help for the GM to run this adventure. From trouble-shooting to drawing some attention to the particulars of certain tactics and intentional rule-decisions – with SR and swarms being featured among the challenges, for example, there is a mechanical propensity here for a certain type of play-style. Now before I go into the details of this module, I feel obliged to mention something – this module presents a big sandbox with multiple encounters with aforementioned divine servitors. It is also pretty much a roleplaying module.
What do I mean by this? Well, as the module observes, our current modules seem to have moved away from roleplaying modules in the truest sense. And, let’s be honest, there is some truth to that claim. Pathfinder behaves, essentially, like a combat-simulator in battle, making the rollplaying aspect of the game pretty awesome. At the same time, the roleplaying as such, though, is surprisingly often a neglected component – the module calls attention to the tendency towards puzzle-design; I.e. figuring out what to do next as opposed to a dynamic response. Mind you, this module does not judge these components as inferior or the like – there is no snobbery going on. However, at the same time, it observes that this constitutes a strange dearth in PFRPG. Conversely, one could argue that VtM has nothing but that going on for it and while I love it and CoC, the latter often falls into the puzzle-game niche – that’s not a bad thing per se, either. When the puzzle makes no sense, when one component falls by the wayside or when there’s just one solution, then we get the issues. And I *know* that every GM with some experience under the belt has ran face first into these issues as a story ground to a halt. We’ve all been there.
You might be wondering where this rant leads, right? Well, this module considers itself to be pretty much a roleplaying module, extending the sandboxy design-aesthetic not only to the overall structure of the plot presented and rendering it pretty modular (apart from the climax), it also tries to mirror this in the encounters with the deific servitors that inhabit the island. Now, bear this in mind, for it is a subtle nuance that may be lost on you when first reading the module as opposed to running it.
Now I mentioned a group of psionic travelers, right? These guys would be both a proxy for the GM as well as a story-catalyst: The Guardians of the Multiverse. They are a delightfully weird cast of characters, yes, and they actually can be considered an homage to the Guardians of the Galaxy or similar far-out comic-book heroes, with their leader Psi-Lord being an Elan who is currently trapped in the massive colossus. Yes, the tone here is radically different than in just about every 4$D-module I’ve read so far – again.
How the PCs act and explore, ultimately, is up to them, but per default, Psi-lord’s Astral Caravan power is the intended way out of the island’s demi-plane. So let’s cover the possible first steps, right? Going on a salvage operation at their own stranded vessel? Covered. Finding a local village? Covered. Perceptive PCs may have noted Psi-Lord being trapped in a portcullis’d section of the colossus, though, and potentially try to save the elan. This would be generally easy since the colossus is not hostile towards the PCs and not constantly on the move. Would be. Were it not for one fun fact: The colossus sports a massive anti-magic/psionic field that annihilates every magic in the vicinity. All but the terrain-controlling and trolling spells the servant of the god of magic stationed here – which are tailor-made to prevent PCs from scaling the colossus. If your game is like mine, you’ll have a field day annoying the PCs here and the joy upon defeating (or bypassing the creature) will be vast indeed.
Now Psi-Lord is helpful and willing to get the PCs off the island, but first, there s the question of his fellow guardians being missing -and indeed, they have ran afoul of some of the less than pleasant divine agents featured herein, often in a somewhat ironic manner. So, reassembling the guardians and/or finding out on what strange place they have stranded makes up the bulk of the module, as the odd divine agents make up for strange encounters. This is further punctuated by the selection regarding the random encounters, wilderness survival and terrain features provided. It should also be noted that the module does several unique things herein, with each encounter sporting some component that renders it memorable beyond the basic adversary fought.
Ultimately, in the end, the whole gambit is all about finding out that there’s a lich present, seeking out and destroying the rather incompetent undead’s phylactery and then finding a way to defeat the lich while still being vastly outclassed, even with the support of the guardians. And yes, actually using logical thinking and coming up with a sensible idea here is pretty much the awesome linchpin of the module and was one of the high points of the modules for my group -being the obvious and yet clever central puzzle of the module. And no, your PCs won’t be wielding the artifact for long – unless you wish them to. I should also mention a certain, fully-mapped pagoda and a general penchant for some investigation to be had here, but going into the details would ultimately spoil some of the components I’d rather leave for you to discover.
Now granted, all of this, while a wide open sandbox, it looks on paper like it somewhat falls short of what you’d expect from 4 Dollar Dungeons – until you play it. You see, this module is actually a kind of alignment Myer-Briggs-test for the characters in disguise. What do I mean by this? There are ample ways to handle the issues the divine agents present – from signing a contract with an infernal Eve to defeating her to several other options, ultimately, though not explicitly spelled out in the module, the encounters faced within act as a test that can be used to determine the respective interpretations of a group’s alignment: After all, we all know how many discussions that topic tends to spawn.
So yes, this module can be considered a huge exercise in in-game ethics, which works exceedingly well when probing the depths and moral fiber of characters and yes, potentially, depending on the competence of your players in abstracting themselves from their characters, them as well. Now this never devolves into a simple good/evil/neutral-option – instead, you get a set-up. How the PCs deal with it ultimately is up to them. Now that being said, even if you do not care for this type of gimmicky subtext, the encounters themselves are complex and interesting, sporting a multitude of cool options – and yes, the very final questions posed by a divine agent may very be uncomfortable to answer – so yeah, this psychological dimension is mirrored in the climax as well.
Editing and formatting are weaker than in previous 4 Dollar Dungeon-installments, with a tad bit more typos and glitches and, rather glaringly, all plusses missing from the statblocks herein. The latter is a pretty serious annoyance, at least to me. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The artworks include nice, old-school full-color and b/w-pieces and the module comes, as mentioned before, with high-res jpgs of the maps, which btw. have a higher quality than those we’ve seen in the series so far. Finally, the pdf comes in two versions – one intended for the US-market in letterpack and one optimized for the European A4-paper standard to ensure that both can be printed in maximum efficiency. The pdfs come fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Richard Develyn is an artist if there ever was one among adventure authors and, hands-down, he is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Moreover, he is a thematic chameleon, switching up his styles in every module, again and again. That being said, Holy Island will probably elicit more than one “WTF?” from its readers. Let me go on a slight tangent here: My mother once worked for the US here in Germany and hence, I not only grew up with an early exposure to multiple languages, English in particular. I also could read English soon after I could read German, at the tender age of 5. This can be attributed to a clever trick: My mom had amassed this huge collection of comic books, some even from the Silver Age. Alas, they were in English and she tired pretty fast of the tedious task of translating comic books, instead setting about and teaching me to read them myself. Granted, many of the peculiar connotations of meanings were lost on me back then, but I could finally read this huge pile of glorious superhero knowledge – and be a wiseass to my friends about it. Yeah, some things never change, do they? ;P
Tangent aside, this module did evoke flashbacks to this era in tone – at one side, we have over the top, whimsical elements, at the other, we have real threats and a mood than can be described by an anything-goes ID run rampant, one that is kept in check by the necessity for narrative cohesion that later was to become the guiding principle that made worlds consistent, as far as that was still possible. Holy Island is essentially that – it is also a test of ethics and a subtle, satirical roundhouse kick in the face of several mythologies, though not a mean-spirited one. By combining elements from real life and game mythology, a subtle tapestry is woven that can provide a discerning reader with yet another layer of meaning that would not be readily apparent, nor is such a reading enforced or shoved down one’s throat – so no, if you are religious, your sensibilities, if you are halfway mature and have at least a tiny speck of a funny bone in your body, will not be offended. This is not disrespectful and the winking breaking of the fourth wall for the GM in the footnotes further enforces this.
The oddest thing about this module, though, is that it plays completely different than it reads. Perhaps it’s my playstyle and group, but when I read this, I thought things would get whacky and over the top, somewhat akin to certain Planescape modules of old, when in game, the whole module did turn out to be pretty atmospheric, with some light-hearted relief in between. Yes, this module can be funny. But it does not need to be. Analyzing *why* has been none too easy, but I have already touched upon the reason for this – namely the fact that the quoted mythology and inspirations evident in the text render the whole experience laden with a sense of unearthly gravitas, a sense of the mythological. Much like “Twilight of the Ice Nymphs” and similar arthouse movies utilize symbols and semiotics to generate implicit meaning, so does this module combine these connotations and ties them together with the respective divine agents and the inherent psychology of the conundrums presented unobtrusively herein.
Mythology resonates with the experiences of the conditio humana and thus, it should come as no surprise that the central experiences of mankind, some very powerful concepts of psychology, find the very root of their nomenclature in mythology. It is perhaps this fact, the application of the blending of the two and transference of this conglomerate to the mythology provided within the context of a game’s codified deities, which makes this module actually work, which makes the players sooner or later realize that killing everything may not be in their best interest.
Or not. You can disregard all of my ramblings and analysis and play this as an oddball hack-n-slash. But you’d miss out.
I’m trying to say the following here: What should, for all intents and purposes, be a complete, utter, total, unprecedented thematic mess of tones and ideas, something disjointed, boring, reductive, somehow, by some quirk of strange fate and talent, actually works. The weird blending of themes reads a bit jarring, the encounters sound a bit disjointed, but in play, all works – even better than I anticipated. So yes, my rational consciousness considers this to be one of the most impressive feats in establishing a thoroughly unique theme I’ve seen in ages.
My emotional response, as much as I love the sheer smarts of the module, how it plays etc., still considers this somewhat inferior to Richard Develyn’s best works. Mind you, that does not say much – Richard’s modules have continuously scored my highest possible accolades and even made the number 1 spot of my Top Ten of a given year; I’m complaining here at a level that most authors cannot dream to reach.
Why? Well, while I do not require a breath-taking story-line, it remains a huge plus and this one, with its subtext being so layered, has the main story suffer a bit; if you do not care for semiotics and symbolism, you’ll miss out on some of the module’s appeal, since the basic plot is pretty simple. Secondly, the subtext and diversified theme of the module ultimately render the encounters themselves hazy, dreamlike – a good GM can make them feature in a manner that will remind you of the logic of dreams, hence also my reference to “Twilight of the Ice Nymphs” before. (If you require a less pretentious allusion: Picture a symbolism akin to the one of the original “Death Bed, the Bed that Eats,” only less convoluted, game-themed and skippable via “I attack it.” and similar methods.)
Ultimately, Holy Island is, much like its predecessors, an adventure that can be considered art. However, it is an art that may be less accessible in its entirety than previous modules. The non-analyzing way to play this beast, obviously grounded in Silver Age comic-book aesthetics, is something, alas, utterly and completely lost on me, for while I recall my enjoyment regarding that time of my life, I unfortunately completely lack the psychological capability to access this memory through the haze of nostalgia goggles due to my excellent memory.
One could say that the regular way, the standard running and reading experience of this module is just as lost to me as my overblown analysis of the subtext above may be lost on some of you out there. What ultimately makes me still consider this a superb module, in spite of its glitches, is the fact that it can be read, run and enjoyed as nostalgia-driven pop-corn cinema or as an intellectual exercise – or as anything in-between. This module is odd, but I am exceedingly glad it exists.
So if you do check this out, run it before shaking your head and walking off – you may just be surprised in more than one way. My final verdict will, pretty much exclusively due to the quality of the writing here, still clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval, in spite of an alarming rate of minor glitch-increases. I’ve been thinking quite a bit on whether to make this a candidate for my top ten of 2015 – but in the end, I will do so; not necessarily due to me particularly liking the plot or set-up, but due to the achievement in generating a unique feeling, mood and theme that I can sincerely call a jamais-vu-experience. Check it out – it’s only 4 dollars, after all, and I’m confident you won’t find a module this strange and unique at this price-point.
The latest 4 Dollar Dungeon-module clocks in at 88 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 84 pages, so let’s take a look!
But before we dive into the nit and grit of this module, I feel obliged to point out some peculiar facts of this book: For one, I provided basic advice for a minor crunch-component that is part of the supplemental information in this pdf. I was not involved in any other way with this book. Beyond that, this book follows the format established by 4 Dollar Dungeons – that means you’ll get A LOT of supplemental material herein – spells, items etc. Basically, the idea is to provide a holistic experience and minimize your requirement for book-swapping. Additionally, the pdf does provide all artworks in an appendix, so you can easily print out the pieces and utilize them as hand-outs.
Beyond that, the module offers excessive and sound discussions on the nature of fear in roleplaying games, particularly in the fantasy-horror genre – the observations and justifications for the design-process presented here are more than sound – and the same can be said about the detailed advice provided for the more lethal encounters herein. Few modules provide this level of guidance, so yes, GMs will have a pretty easy time running this – also due to handy tables listing CRs, XP, treasures and encounter-difficulty as well as scaling advice. Of course, the by now traditional, detailed random encounters and traveling information are also provided and, as a bonus, monster-lore for teh GM to hand-out to players, can also be found.
All right, so let’s see whether Richard Develyn can maintain his streak of absolutely legendary modules. From here on out, SPOILERS reign. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. No, really. Don’t spoil a 4 Dollar Dungeon-module – you’d regret it.
All right…only GMs here? Great!
So can Richard Develyn write classic horror? I’ll let the module answer:
“Somewhere deep below the ground lies a vampiric creature of fearsome proportions […] it stretches its veins, each of them big enough to swallow a tarrasque, through densely packed iron and rock […] and when these tendrils break through to the earth’s crust, a new dynasty of vampires soon comes into being.” – and so, an ancient, quasi-cthulhoid menace spawned a vampire dynasty in Maison D’Artère. While subtle, the vampires, supplemented by this vein of terrible power, became a bit too confident – and so, they drew the attention of the order of the lily. Unlike the previous, foolhardy heroes that sought to end the undead menace, the cavaliers did their homework – and targeted a nodule of the vast cthonic creature, plunging the magical lance “Fleur de Lis” into the nodule, pumping poison into the vast creature to destroy it – but such gigantic threats are not easily defeated. Cutting the nodule off from crucial components of the vampiric Great Old One/deity-analogue, the isolated nodule soon turned against the vampires it had spawned – after the blood was drained from the vampires and after the cavaliers had fallen, nothing remained to sate the unholy appetite of the vast creature below castle Rougemord and so, the ancient veins petrified.
The Fleur de Lis, an intelligent weapon with an inflated ego (and a significant paranoia) remained lost, embedded in the ancient, chthonic threat. Now, the order of the lily has tasked the PCs to retrieve the lost item – the first clue of which will force the PCs to explore the tomb of Lemaistre, the fleur’s former wielder.
But first, the PCs will get a taste of the walled town of Englouti (full settlement statblock provided), where the module starts, which also will provide a new experience for people familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: Know how the cartography was pretty much the one thing not absolutely superb in the 4$D-modules? How it usually was copious, provided for all areas, but just functional? What would you say when I told you that this one sports absolutely stunning, original cartography, both in b/w and full color? Particularly the renditions of the towns and overland maps are absolutely awesome and not something I’ve seen in many pdfs, much less ones at this price range, with player-friendly high-res versions provided? Yes, particularly for the low price-point, this is more than impressive.
An interesting note regarding the structure of this module would also pertain to the PCs traveling to the village of Sans-secours, from which the fabled tomb can be reached: You see, it’s spring (NOT autumn or winter!) and thus, it is perfectly valid for the PCs to spend some time in the local village while they prepare their expedition to the remote tomb – and 3 weeks of slowly escalating weirdness and foreshadowing are provided for the life there, adding a pretty detailed depiction of the local life and allowing the PCs to form connections, rather than plunging head-first into horror. Oh, and they will probably fall to a bait-and-switch there – you see, the tomb does not hold the lance…or any undead for that matter. All the nice holy water and spells they brought…are pretty useless. Heck, the place isn’t even really dangerous apart from one particular creature, but that lairs beyond the tomb.
It’s when the trail leads to Rougemord, that things get creepy – fast. The castle’s vicinity seems to spawn rather disturbing visions and nightmares and the approach of the castle is guarded by a creature that fits with the horror-theme in a slightly less obvious manner; that being said, this adversary can TPK foolish groups and provide a nasty hit-and-run adversary. The castle sports massive amounts of ravens, deadly animals, crawling claws – and something I could hug the module for: There’s not a single undead to fear herein. heck, even dueling skeletons are animated objects. The exploration of the castle allows the PCs to partake in the horrors that once graced these halls and much of the place’s incantations remain…as do some outsiders. From psychopomps to devils, there is a lot to uncover and indeed, some places can be considered micro-puzzles.
Describing the immense amount of detail that the castle is studded with would probably bloat this review to an extent I do not consider feasible in this case – instead, let’s skip a bit ahead: Sooner or later, should the PCs not fall to the castle’s dangers, they will find those odd caverns…and finally, the lance. Who is a) annoying and not too smart and b) urging them to pull it free. What nether the lance, nor the PCs know, though, is that with the removal of the lance, a strange heartbeat is heard – and no amount of coaxing can properly jam the lance back inside. From here on out, things become rather dark very fast – all lupine creatures within miles of the castle howl to a blood-red moon, as more and more hungry vampire-spawn are released from the slowly revitalizing walls…and it soon becomes apparent that the PCs are in over their heads…massively.
Fleeing the castle precipice under the auspice of hundreds of snarling, lupine creatures, they can witness a friend fall to the maw of a winter wolf – who also constitutes the boss…but not the end. With the sledge conveniently brought by their erstwhile, now dead ally, the PCs have a sledding chance to escape the doom that has re-awakened in Rougemord in a final adrenaline-laden chase sequence. If you’ve handled this well, the darkness has returned to Rougemord and a new reign of terror will begin…and your players will look at each other in true horror and whisper “What have we done?”
Now if the apocalyptic awakening of a vast clan of vampires and a chthonic elder vampire thing don’t fit your plans, fret not – as the module suggests, there is a certain demiplane of dread all too willing to scour the whole region with its misty tendrils…
As mentioned before, the module has copious supplemental information, including the order of the lily, which actually features some intriguing visuals – and if your players are like mine, they may want to take up the order’s vow and seek to right the terrible thing they have unwittingly wrought…
Editing and formatting are very good -I only noticed pretty minor issues here and there. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeons’ printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience AND in two versions – one for letterpack-format and one for the European A4-format for people like yours truly. The pdf comes extensively bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The cartography’s quality (and particularly, the gorgeous isometric renditions of the places) are beyond what you’d expect to see in such a low-cost pdf. The pdf also comes with high-res jpgs for use with virtual tabletops and, as mentioned before, with plentiful materials for the GM.
Richard Develyn has written the most un-gothic gothic horror adventure I’ve ever read. That’s a great thing. Good horror is NOT, contrary to what 99% of found-footage movies believe, being startled. Neither does it derive its impact from being grossed out. Sure, that can be horrific – but it’s not horror. Horror may spring from the grotesque and alien, sure, but that’s not what this is about, either.
Horror has a psychological component that taps into our psyche with subtle imagery and symbolism – and such symbolism can be found herein – whether it’s the idiot child, the twisted mother figure and the like – we may not perceive it consciously, but our unconscious notes these.
Hence, this module is decidedly smart – it begins at a stage of innocence with set-ups, which, while foreboding, mirror a certain innocence that is inherent in the fantasy genre. It then begins to dismantle it – slowly, but surely, escalating the threat by making the backdrop, symbolically-charged and the imagery of the lance and the nodule resonate with a primal sense of horror to which one could ascribe perinatal dread hard-coded into our very being. The season of growth, early spring, and the imagery of wolves and ravens with their symbolic charges further supplements this reading – it’s these creatures that are the threat in the end, less so than the intentionally pitiful dragon that is featured in the innocent phase of the module.
Surprisingly, in spite of the lack of undead (a stroke of genius design in a genre that all too often is defined by the erroneous assumption that bones, blood and undead are creepy in and of themselves), this module GETS what makes gothic horror work…and one-ups it. While this can be read as a kind of gothic horror narrative, it could conceivably just as easily be read as a tale of cosmic terror or Lovecraftian proportions – the psychological imagery evoked by the module can just as well be externalized to represent a hostile cosmos of adversaries, a glimpse at a world at best indifferent to the suffering of its inhabitants. Note that usually, such a reading would be terribly at odds with any remotely related to Gothic Horror: Cosmic terror is existential, pertaining to a reality that is removed from the individual, to a sense of completely alienation from everything. Gothic Horror, on the other hand, is a deeply humane kind of horror, one wherein the internal struggles of the psyche are made into externalized threats – it is deeply personal. The only reason both are often confused is a shared array of backdrops and styles, both of which, however, sport vastly diverging meanings and readings – they may occupy the same physical building, but they do not play in the same house.
Horror must grow – and this pdf takes its time with a decidedly slow-paced set-up, one that has its climax hit all the harder – so hard, in fact, that it can become the nexus of a whole campaign, should you choose to embark on this train of thought. It doesn’t have to, mind you – but the potential is undoubtedly there. So what do we have here? We have a module that actually understands what gothic horror is about. Yes, at first glance it does read a bit like early Ravenloft modules – something almost decidedly intentional. However, unlike those “bones & blood are creepy”-modules, it shows a distinct understanding why some of the classic Ravenloft modules worked, while others devolved into sucky hack-fests.
This knowledge is not something you could easily convey, either in modules, words or artworks – it bespeaks of a deeper understanding of the genre. To the point, where not even aforementioned pseudo-lovecraftian readings of the subject-matter undermine the impact of this book, allowing for one of the very few cases where one could conceivably generate an overlap between the two without losing the impact on either. And yes, should you choose to, you can make the finale less…impactful…but you’d rob yourself and your group of a truly horrific pay-off of epic proportions.
On a personal level, I read this module with some sense of dread, mainly because I’ve seen A LOT regarding gothic horror – I’ve dabbled for many years in all of its forms and representations, not only in the context of gaming. However, Richard Develyn once again displays his vast and diverse talent by portraying yet another genre in a way I have not seen done before – the design-decisions, imagery and brave ending to the narrative conspire to make this module one that will leave your players at the very least gulping, at the best rather shocked…stunned even. Not via a cheap, narrative trick, but by virtue of all those little symbols and pieces falling into place with an almost audible “thwump.” This module could have been the plot to a classic tale by Poe, had he had a background of fantasy roleplaying games – what more can you ask for?
One more thing: If my above explanations made no sense to you, feel free to contact me and I’ll elaborate. And if you don’t care about any part of this, just run it – you’ll understand what I meant once you’ve completed this module…
Richard maintains his streak – this is the 7th module IN A ROW, all wildly different in focus, story, structure and genre, that gets 5 stars + seal of approval AND status as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015. In case you’re wondering – yes, so far ALL of these seven featured in the final top ten for their respective years. These modules aren’t simple adventures – they are stimulating, smart art that can be appreciated on a whim or analyzed in-depth. In either case, you won’t find a module even close to this level of quality anywhere near this price-point…or beyond that, for that matter. Dear adventure-authors (and particularly, anyone who throws the term “gothic horror” around willy-nilly without knowing what it means), take heed – this is how it’s done in a fantasy context without losing the impact the genre requires to thrive.
This adventure clocks in at 106 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2.5 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 100.5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Wait, before we do – in case you are not familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: The philosophy of these modules is that you get all the relevant rules-information inside: A Total of 31 pages thus provide animal tricks, spell reference, feat reference, bestiary reference and item references for your perusal. All artwork herein is collected in a total of 7 pages that you can print out, cut up and use as handouts. It should also be noted that no less than 18 high-res jpegs for use with online gaming (or as handouts) are provided; and yes, these include player-friendly iterations.
The pdf also has a great summary of encounters, with associated creatures involved and loot to be gained, including items, total GP values tallied for you and scaling advice. Set in the county of Surrey, weather and travelling distances by foot, horse or coach are similarly collected in one handy table. We also don’t just get one paltry random monster encounter table: Based on the specific region, each and every one of the 8 tables provides sensible creatures for the respective environments. Oh, have I mentioned the 9 (!!!) fully statted settlements, all with statblocks and descriptions? The modules released by 4 Dollar Dungeons do their utmost to make running them as easy and comfortable as possible for the GM.
Okay, this is indeed as far as I can get without going into SPOILER-territory. Potential players who want to play this module (Hint: You do!) should jump to the conclusion right now.
All right, only GMs left around here? Outside of the circle of Ravenstone in the kingdom of the Bretagne, there lies a circle of stone; a place of legend, where power is supposed to gather, but no one knows for what purpose – not even the wizard Humphrey and his devilish companion Beauregard, who are living nearby. As such places are wont to, it has become a kind of meeting spot to get away, drink and have a good time for the local populace. The circle’s supposed power is lending an air of mystique and danger to the environment that most of us will relate to; abandoned factories, rail-yards, playground, special spots in the forest – we all had a spot like that in our childhood.
Anyways, one dingy night in autumn, a group of 7 13-year-olds actually manages to activate the circle – but no creature from the stars manifests; no demon invasion begins – instead, a motley crew of adventurers, picked from their own iteration of reality, is picked and unceremoniously dumped inside the circle: Yes, that would be the PCs, who have just been summoned forth and now look into the awed faces of the following:
Deako, a pale-feathered, nervous tengu; Adriana, a platinum blonde girl in a fine dress and her similarly immaculately dressed cousin Augustus; Paulina, a light-haired and somewhat plain but pretty gnomish girl; Bairn, an honest and polite young man with good looks; Tilvern, timid and dark-haired and somewhat small for his age and Holly, a bright light-haired girl with a wide smile…perhaps a tad bit too wide. The children, though, are confused – Augustus conducted the summons and knows that the book he took it from was…well. Rubbish. The kids, spooked and with obligations in the morn, will undoubtedly leave an array of confused PCs with a distinctly unhelpful book, as school’s in the morning. Humphrey and Beauregard, both surprisingly amicable for their vast power (and…well, Beauregard being a devil), have a thesis that the circle granted a wish unconsciously thought by all of the children – and thus, the only way home for the PCs would be to fulfill the wishes of the kids. Each of the respective sub-chapters of the module, just fyi, lists the dramatis personae in a handy list in the beginning, allowing for easy juggling of the casts of characters, should the PCs oscillate between adventures/get stuck.
Thus, the trail should bring them to the nearby town Fordguild – all children attend the same school, while Adriana attends a “Special” school; with scaling successes, the PCs can do some leg-work – and it is here that the module becomes pretty free-form, for the sequence in which the respective tasks are tackled is all up to them – for all intents and purposes, the module acts as the adventure-equivalent of a short story anthology. As such tales are wont, there are leitmotifs here, though: Number one can be easily extrapolated from the title – each of the tales deals with one of the 7 deadly sins. Unlike what you may think, the kids are not the correlation with the respective sins; rather, it’s the parents.
It takes a special type of person (i.e. slightly insane, a bit narcissistic and inured to violence) to take up the mantle of the adventurer and as such, it should be not too surprising that beings who wield the power cosmic, cut humanoids to ribbons and make powerful enemies can make for rather problematic parents. Each of the kids has her/his own issues with parents, issues the PCs can help resolve. This whole component can be downplayed by the GM and taken to instead focus on a number of smaller quests, but the roleplaying herein can be rather cathartic, if you do opt to properly depict all of this. My own childhood wasn’t perfect, to say the least and I know that a lot of the anger, resentment and frustration I had was resolved by roleplaying; it can provide an angle towards a form of peace, an acceptance of unchangeable facts by resolving the challenges at least within the framework of our favorite make-belief game. Even as an adult, witnessing the like can hit close to home, yes; but it also represents a chance. At least I know the like worked well for me and a couple of my friends.
So, let us begin: 8 weeks ago, the brother of Deako the tengu kid, was tragically killed by a hippopotamus. The unfortunate Seako had been previously injured on a hunting trip with his samurai dad and was subsequently struck down by a single bite. This death has put a serious strain on his parent’s relationship and they ever since refuse to communicate or speak to each other, as the edicts of the two lawful good samurai emphasize personal glory for the father, protecting communities for the mother. Deako has formulated a plan to reunite his parents – he wishes to present the head of the troll that almost finished his brother and indirectly did, to his father; to his mother, he plans to bestow the teeth of the hippocampus that slew his brother. Unfortunately, he can’t do it alone and needs the PCs to do just that – and thus, the two beings need to be killed…but what happens thereafter is in the hands of the GM.
Adriana’s issue is rather different – she is supposed to be subjected to a arranged marriage she doesn’t want. Adriana comes from a well-off stock of humans haunted by tragedy – she has lost her father (and more!) to something truly sinister: A blood hag has been using her family as her breeding project for generations and Adriana is pretty close to what she wants…but not perfect. It is hence she has arranged this horrific marriage, keeps Adriana sheltered and locked up…and in fact, has replaced Adriana’s mother a long time ago, raising her perfect little angel for the most horrific of purposes. So while the tengu’s tale was pretty straightforward, this is one complex little investigation…and a word of warning: the blood hag is BRUTAL. If your players suck at piercing the clues (which, in some cases, drip with a subdued, delightful humor) together, be very careful here…or not. The module does mention the power of the adversary here, so yeah. While the death of the blood hag deprives Ariana of her mother, her further fate isn’t actually that grim and the elimination of this horrid thing does cancel the marriage…and fulfill her wish.
Augustus is rich enough to buy anything he wants…but unfortunately for him, money can never buy happiness. Raul and Dahlia, his parents, are unfortunately addicts – the decadent nobles visit a place called “The Hungry Caterpillar” on a daily basis and are disinterested and spaced out; in a secret basement, a rather nasty druid commands a variant basidrond with hallucinogenic spores and makes a pretty dime of those looking for far-out-experiences; in order to fulfill Augustus’ wish, the PCs will have to infiltrate the high-class establishment and eliminate the drug-producing creature.
Paulina’s dad was a famous “archaeologist” – complete with fedora and whip. Always not the best of fathers, one day, he simply did not return from his quest after the fables Shagreen, which he successfully tracked to the pyramid of Balzac. Paulina’s wish is to recover the Shagreen and thus fulfill her dad’s final quest and place the artifact in a shrine dedicated to him. The theme here being greed, much like the previous adventures, there are subtle tests associated with the respective sin written into the module itself: Greedy PCs may suffer consequences here…something to bear in mind and perhaps a wake-up call to “not become like Paulina’s dad.” On a formal level, the tales features a cool and pretty easy puzzle with glyph-plates and a hint…and here, just fyi, greed can kill the PCs hardcore. Being destroyed by a stone golem is the least of their issues, for if the PCs were greedy when securing supplies and interacting with the locals on the journey, they may find themselves sans camels or supplies…but a sphinx can show up, providing yet another well-crafted and simple little puzzle of logic to pose for the group and test their spirit.
In the sleepy village called hook, charming Bairn’s father Nik is well-known: The charming, silver-tongued bard just can’t keep it in his pants. The beginning of this section focuses on finding out what has happened to Bairn’s dad – and the PCs will have to follow the trail of broken hearts Nik has left…with, at least partially rather funny results – from a dryad to a centaur, an ogress (!!), a cecaelia (!!!) and finally a HARPY. Well, what’s left – for Nik has been taken prisoner by a medusa, who has petrified the harpy. The medusa’s living on an island with constantly shifting mists (concealment and total concealment by roll included – very cool…I’ll use that table a LOT beyond this module!) and she is not particularly on good terms with Nick – when he tried to abandon her for a kitsune, she proceeded to petrify and…use him, I guess. While this whole section is, theme-wise, pretty adult, it is kept mostly PG 13 and can easily be stripped of the slightly raunchy bits…or they can be emphasized for adult groups that don’t have an issue with a bit more graphic themes. Also: The characteristic foot notes in 4$D’s are a highlight here and actually made me laugh once.
Tilvern, timid and a bit of a runt…is actually the son of a paladin, noble Sir Reginald. And he has a serious issue: There is an uneasy truce between the giants of the Plantagenet mountains and the humanoids of Surrey; Sir Reginald’s former commander perished due to his own stupidity in an unnecessary, boredom-bred skirmish right in front of Sir Reginald…who has sneaked off to ask the giant king for a fair duel against the giant that killed his commander sans breaking the truce. Tilvern, understandably, doesn’t want the duel to commence and his dad to die due to his stupid pride. Unfortunately, Sir Reginald has rolled the maximum pertaining his stubbornness and even the best laid of arguments won’t dissuade him; in order to fulfill Tilvern’s wish, the duel must be thwarted for once and for all and either giant or paladin must die. In both cases, hostilities may erupt once again in the future and the question is, whether anyone has learned anything here…apart from the players, PCs and Tilvern, that is.
The final tale is perhaps the most creative of the bunch: Holly Willoughsby is a kind and nice girl, vivacious and friendly, in spite of coming from a wealthy family. In a seething satire, her dad, Elder, can’t seem to be bothered to do anything, but thanks to his sorcerous talents, he could…well, just animate his dead family members and have them do all the chores. Holly is somewhat horrified by this, but it’s the reality of her life and her father, thankfully, doesn’t seem to mind adventurers poking around as long as they don’t cause too big of a mess. Holly is frightened. Recently, spiders have begun swarming in her room and she wants to move back there – exploring the fully mapped and detailed manor, the PCs will be able to deduce that there is more wrong than just the problem with the spiders – and indeed, both an invisible friend (attic whisperer) and a friggin’ deathweb must be defeated to provide some sort of help here. Still, so surreal and suffused with dark humor, this did remind me more than just a bit of good ole’ Shirley Jackson’s blend of the macabre and dark humor.
Having finished the wishes of the children, the PCs may now finally return home – and the default here is a slightly comedic feel-good ending I appreciate, considering the subject matter. But I’ll get back to that below in the…
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no serious glitches or typos. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeon’s two-column standard with a mix of original b/w and full-color artwork. The cartography and numerous handouts contained are absolutely awesome and the high-res maps and player-friendly versions leave nothing to be desired. The pdf comes in two versions, one optimized for the US letterpack paper standard and one for the European A4-standard – kudos!!
Richard Develyn is a living, breathing one-man-refutation of the notion that mainstream RPGs like Pathfinder cannot be creative, cannot be art. If anything, this module truly cements his status as an artist and auteur; as someone who brings a whole new level to the game and steps up what to expect. With the exception of his first module, which is “only” good, every subsequent module he releases has made the Top Ten of the respective year. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Every single module does something truly unique; something creative and smart; he switches styles like a chameleon, writing horror with the same ease as sword and sorcery-esque fantasy, southern gothic or a thoroughly fresh take on the tired, but beloved Ravenloft-aesthetic. Beyond switching genres with ease, a subtle and profound distinctly English humor suffuses his works, making them an actual joy to read. Oh, and there would be the fact that his craft, nay, art, cannot be mistaken for that of another author – there is a distinct voice; a levity tinted slightly by the macabre that is utterly unique. Oh, and the modules leave nothing to be desired regarding running them. I have never, very wished for better organization in them, never had an issue running them from paper after the obligatory first reading.
And he does that not for the bucks. 4 friggin’ dollars is a huge steal for such a module. I can rattle of more than 100 modules that cost at least 5 times as much and feel like the phoned-in paint-by-numbers designs of amateur hacks in comparison.
Why am I talking so much about the totality of his work so far? Because even in this extremely impressive canon of works, Seven Sinful tales stands out. What would be an array of bland sidequests in the hands of a lesser author has more heart and soul in the introduction or one of its mini-adventures than most 100-plus-page epics ever achieve. This module has comedy, tragedy, investigation, wilderness survival, smart puzzles, a ton of social challenges and roleplaiyng opportunities, gorgeous adversaries, interesting terrain. It has, in short, everything.
That alone would make it already a must buy module. It’s more than that.
I mentioned this before, but this module’s subject matter pertaining no-good parents and their very mortal shortcomings can hit close to home for some of us; but the depictions are not mean-spirited. This is not grimdark and neither is it a feel-good fairy-tale, though it can be tweaked in either way. This is an allegory. There is a saying that the parents are gods to the kids and that sooner or later, their mortal shortcomings will result in disappointment, disillusion, rage…and so on. I can relate. I’ve been there. The problems the kids face herein are significant and every person who wished for superheroes to take them away, to resolve the issues they face will relate to this module’s stories at one point or another. The ultimate moral here, is that external persons can help resolve issues and that asking for help in dire circumstances may be required…but also that even a successful intervention does not necessarily fix everything. If your players are good roleplayers, this module can actually provide a catharsis for those of us who suffered from less than perfect parents; it can help mitigate the issues kids can have with their parents and their shortcomings, for even in the most comedic of the stories, the respective parent is not beyond redemption, the future not necessarily bleak, even in the case of the kid left orphaned. There is always light. The world always goes on.
I played this module twice and the envy and lust stories may need to be toned down a bit for kids; otherwise, depending on sensitivity, from ages 8 or 10 upwards, this works rather well when used with younger players. (Though they should have some experience with the system – this is not a cakewalk of a module!) Kids in puberty may actually eat this one up. That being said, if you want to emphasize this component, I’d suggest a slightly more somber end: Return the PCs sans a parade of happily ever after families. Then ask the players what *they* think happened thereafter. What the parents and kids have learned, what the consequences of the PC’s actions are and how things will turn out. Engage in dialogue. When handled properly, this module can actually defuse issues.
Well, or you can just run this as one awesome blend of all the virtues of old-school and new-school gaming: Internally consistent, with a great and creative story, memorable NPCs, a diverse variety of challenges and all of that sans railroading. To make that abundantly clear: I consider this to be the 4$D-module that had me slightly choke a bit while reading, yes; frankly, it resonated. At the same time, it is, and that should NOT be understated, FUN, as it should be. This is not l’art pour l’art – this may be the first time I’ve seen a module fully cognizant in its design as a means to teach about our very human shortcomings as both parents and kids within the medium of gaming; all sans a raised finger and jamming morality down our throats; it shows and doesn’t tell; it teaches by experience, not by reading a text.
I’m rambling, I know, but I need to drive this home: This module, when taken only on its merits as a module, as nothing more, nothing less, is excellent. But it transcends what I have seen any author do with the medium. It can leave people better persons for having played it. It can actually deliver the eureka effect usually reserved to novels, philosophy and the most inspiring of movies. This is not rated by my scale, it pushes it. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I’m saying that I was pretty skeptical about the premise. It worked out. Perfectly. This module has just raised my expectations, what I thought possible within the means of our medium. This may well be the first module I have read that truly deserves being called valuable from a humanist point of view and in the hands of the right GM, this can resonate more than all the earth-shattering apocalypses and demon-hordes you can possibly dream of.
My one regret here is that I have to operate within the very tight space of the usual rating system, so bear with me for a second: Picture seeing the star-shaped rating section of the online RPG-vendor of your choice. Now picture me teleporting in, slamming a post-it with one extra star right next to the 5 on the screen and vanishing. Every time you look at this module, mysteriously, the damn post-it phases in and tells you that this module is a one-of-a-kind experience that can make you laugh, make you cry, make you love more and become a better person…or just have a really great time. For 4 bucks. THAT is my rating. Post-it-teleport-in-level of ridiculously good and valuable; not only as a module, but for gaming in general. Since the teleport-thing, alas, only works in one’s mind and the artifacts of our civilization demand such, my final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval…oh, and this is a very hot contender for my number 1 spot of my Top ten of 2016.
Okay, you’ve read me gush and rave about this for more than 3500 words…so please…go ahead and buy this. We need authors that take chances, that are not content with games as only mindless entertainment, when they could be entertainment that also improves us in the very strictest sense of the philosophical concept of Bildung.