You may perhaps not know this, but I'm a sucker for horror-games. I really love them to death. Whether it's CoC, ToC or any kind of gothic horror, I'm all in. Thus, it should come as no surprise that I backed a trilogy that depicted horror from a source that is rather rarely seen in gaming: Very dark, Japanese horror in the style of the old stories, blended with a significant touch of Ravenloft. Jonathan McAnulty and Michael K. Tumey have created an adventure trilogy as an introduction to these dark lands. Now, with a kickstarter for the whole setting, I figured it would be prudent to introduce as many people as possible to these neat modules.
Thus, without further ado:
This adventure/setting-introduction is 61 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD and 2 pages back cover, leaving 55 pages for the first part of the Kaidan-trilogy, so let's check it out!
Disclaimer: I'm a gold patron for Kaidan, but I didn't participate that much in the design process due to real life.
First of all, one cannot help but notice the beautiful full-color layout featuring bamboo at the page-borders (similar to In the Company of Kappa) and the stunning cover artwork - rest assured that the rest of the book is just as visually pleasing.
This being an adventure, I will have to go into some mayor SPOILERS later. I'll start off with what Kaidan is in the beginning, which one could consider minor spoilers, so beware. I'll explicitly add another warning prior to going into the adventure details.
There are a LOT of Asian settings out there, and good ones at that, so what exactly makes Kaidan unique? First of all: Its focus. Kaidan is a horror-themed setting inspired by Japan and Japanese mythology. Not L5R-style, not Chinese WuXia (like in the quite cool HotJO-setting), but by Japanese horror-stories. Being a bit of a fan of Japanese horror-games like Fatal Frame (aka Project Zero in Europe) or Forbidden Siren, I can attest to there being a plethora of almost unknown tropes of awesome and disturbing narratives that have largely been untapped by western pop culture and even rpgs. Kaidan seeks to at least partially remedy that, but does it deliver?
SPOILERS abound now, players please don't continue reading, you have been warned!
The adventure kicks off with a beautiful, full-color map of the land of Kaidan and an introduction to the basic concept of Kaidan: Shrouded and isolated in a perpetual cloud that only recently has been partially lifted, the place immediately evokes positive reminiscences of the best of Ravenloft's concepts, but goes further: Kaidan is essentially the idea of reincarnation going horribly wrong - the dead don't go to the afterlife and rather roam the land, become haunts and creatures or even trying to force others from their bodies, essentially killing living people and being reborn in the cruelest, most twisted take on reincarnation I've ever seen. Even worse for the poor people of this beautiful, yet haunted land, even this endless circle provides no true escape from the rigid and merciless caste-system.
So, what's the story? Marl Tyro, a merchant plans to kill an undead daimyo, who has taken the merchant's daughter hostage to force Marl to bring him a loyalty-enforcing, cursed golden spear. Marl, plotting vengeance, has condensed jewels of positive energy set to provide a nasty surprise for the daimyo and the PCs accompany him to the dread lands of Kaidan as Gaijin (longnoses), thus facilitating the introduction to the customs of this rather xenophobic land. The welcome the PCs will receive is a rather frosty one - the first ambush has already been prepared for them as soon as they get off the ship in Gaijinoshima, the gateway to Kaidan- Yakuza-thugs stand ready to confront and kill the PCs in the name of a mysterious woman. A full-color map is provided for the dock and the encounter, which is always a plus. Assuming the PCs survive, they'll encounter the rather uncooperative officials, who'll refuse them landing on mainland Kaidan until the proper papers have been obtained. The PCs are thus stranded in the town and can explore - as long as they carry the heavy chest containing marl's gift around, that is. The harbor-town also gets its own full-color map. After encountering a damsel in distress and rescuing her from an ogre-assault, she tries to recruit the PCs to accompany her to the cemetery, to ostensibly find gold her late husband has stolen from the oni-lords. This, of course, is a ruse, but more on that later. After all, the Yakuza seek restitution for the defeat of the welcoming commando and the PCs might be forced into a duel with one of their more powerful members or another full-blown fight. After being introduced to mind fever ( a sickness that precedes a replacement of souls), the PCs have an opportunity to dine with a Yakuza-lord, wrestle for his enjoyment (once again, the lair has its own beautiful map) and thus might secure the necessary friends in the right places to get the paperwork for their journey finally done. What about the damsel, though? She tries to lead the PCs into the clutches of a jikininki, a terrible, shapechanging, ghoulish creature the PCs will have to defeat. Once they PCs have survived this trap, they are free to finally set foot on mainland Kaidan. Well, relatively free, that is.
After all, they're still Gaijin and subsequently will be accompanied by 17 Kaidanese, there to make sure that the longnoses don't stray too far from their allowed trail. The first station along the way is a cursed way station inhabited by both a plethora of deadly haunts, flesh-eating ghouls, a ghost and featuring both tainted food and terrible nightmares for your PCs and, once again, a beautiful full-color map. This encounters alone might be worth the price if you're looking for some genuinely creepy encounter.
Once the PCs reach the highlands, the PCs will encounter bandits, a tamashinaki as well as an encounter at a bridge (again with a map) and another mapped, very creepy encounter with a well full of undead children and subsequently their dread killer. Further on their journey, the PCs can help defend the town Agoya against a coordinated bandit rush/siege, having consequences in the sequel as well as during their brief stay in the village. On the road to the next settlement, Tsuje-Te, the PCs will have another encounter (again, with a grided, full color map) with some mischievous Kappa and some additional random encounters before being assaulted by the damsel in distress from Gaijinoshima and her minion - an ogre-brute like the one they fought, only this time, the damsel drops her cover and, as a hebi-no-onna, attacks as well, serving as a nice and challenging climax to the adventure that ends with the PCs reaching the town of Tsue-Jo.
There are some appendices to take a look at, though: The first deals with PC reincarnation, as resurrection etc. don't work in Kaidan and reformation as a malevolent spirit (yurei), a tamashinaki or even inflict a Kaidanese with mind fever, supplanting him/her. This process also may entail foreign memories and the appendix also features a great mechanic for tracking karma and rebirth. We also get 2 new monsters and of course, full stats for the two featured tamashinaki, 4 pre-gens and a two page glossary/pronunciation guide to help a GM properly display the culture of Kaidan.
Layout adheres to the beautiful full-color, bamboo-lined standard we already know from "In the Company of Kappa" and goes a long way to convey the unique atmosphere of Kaidan. Editing and formatting are very good - I only noticed one minor editing glitch and one minor formatting relic. When I started reading the sections on Gaijinoshima, I was rather underwhelmed with regards to the horror-aspect of the setting, but don't be fooled - this part of the adventure serves to accustom the PCs with Kaidan and the subsequent horror-encounters are demented, dark and deadly and rank among the finest I've read in quite a while - Kaidan manages to walk the tight rope between horror and fantasy with a deceptive ease and furthermore accomplishes the feat of being unique and captivating as both a setting and an adventure.
Fans of Ravenloft HAVE to check this out. Fans of Gothic Horror should check this out. Fans of the darker aspects of Japanese folklore and mythology have to check this out. Have I mentioned that I love the extensive map support and the stunning, awesome b/w-artworks that rank among the best I've seen in 3pp books? Can you guess my final verdict? Yup, I award full 5 stars and the Endzeitgeist seal of approval - Jonathan McAnulty, Michael K. Tumey and the crew at RiP has done an awesome job of going out of their way to provide a premium quality horror-adventure of the highest caliber.
But perhaps you don't want to jump in head first into the trilogy? Well, why not check out the FREE Kaidan module
This adventure is 40 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 7 pages advertisement, 1 page back cover and 1 page SRD, leaving 28 pages of content for the adventure, so let's check it out, shall we?
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players might want to skip to the conclusion!
Still here? All righty!
Frozen Wind takes place in Kaidan (though any monastery/Asian-themed setting will do) and offers what I've come to love from the series - a brand of Japanese Gothic horror we rarely, if ever, see in RPGs.
The PCs arrive at the monastery when the chill of winter/ice-cold temperatures catch up with them (or due to personal reasons) and are shown their sleeping quarters. The adventure wastes no time, as the PCs are awakened by gaps of the dying - frost-coated monks suddenly convulse as their souls are ripped from their body (which coats them in frost in this particular instance) and the PCs are left in a suddenly very cold monastery - all the fires have gone out. The PCs should probably look for firewood and a way to keep warm while figuring out what exactly has happened.
Essentially, the monastery is a huge trap as the supposedly benign Kami it is devoted to actually turns out to be a Yuki-Onna who made the founder pledge the souls of the monks to her before making him forget this whole deal. Subsequently, her Koori-no-Oni (Ice-Oni) are the first opposition the PCs will have to contend with in an otherwise rather silent monastery - after all, the monks are now all dead. Once they have concluded this first act, the monks rise from the dead as frozen undead and seek to annihilate the PCs, who should at this point not only be fighting against the dread creatures, but also against the growing cold - survival horror at its best. Somewhere in the monastery, the Yuki-Onna awaits them for the first showdown and should they defeat her, she tries to escape and seeks to summon a dread ice-kami which (along round 2 against her) makes for the final showdown. The impending summoning of the dread Kami makes for an additional counter that urges the PCs to keep up the pace and not waste any time - if she manages to summon the huge ice-bear, the PCs will have a serious problem on their hands.
The pdf concludes with 3 new monsters (one of which is a template), 6 pregenerated characters (each on his/her own page - ready to just be printed out and handed to your players) and gamemaster aids, to be precise, a temperature tracker and a summoning tracker for the Kami as well as a scoring sheet if you want to run this a convention scenario.
Editing and formatting are ok - while I did notice some glitches and would usually detract half a star/a star, this adventure is free and easily usable as written. Layout adheres to the beautiful 2-column full-color, bamboo-lined Kaidan-standard and the artworks are mostly thematically-fitting, Japanese stock, but do actually contain some original pieces of gorgeous artwork - not something I would have expected in a free pdf! The pdf is also extensively bookmarked.
Special mention should be given to the presentation of the monastery, as it continues to change during the course of the adventure - thankfully, the beautiful full-color map helps picturing the monastery. The pregenerated characters all come with special missions they can complete in the monastery and the gamemaster helps mean that you can run this scenario with a minimum of preparation. While this is a convention scenario, it does not feel like one, but rather like a full-blown, regular adventure, that does benefit from using the pregens, but could easily be run in your home-game. Personally, my sadism will make me reanimate all fallen foes after 1d6 rounds, making this adventure even more lethal, but that's just my preference. What can I say? This adventure surpasses many commercial adventures in quality and atmosphere and is free - essentially a no-brainer, especially at this time of the year. If you're still looking for a nice adventure for Halloween, dl Frozen Wind- it's worth the HD-space and if you like what you see there, check out the other Kaidan adventures - they're awesome as well! Kudos to Jonathan McAnulty, Michael K. Tumey and Steven D. Russell for giving this quality adventure away for free - my final verdict will be 5 stars. (If it weren't free, it still would be 4 stars, without glitches 4.5 or even 5 depending on the hypothetical price.)
Now, If you've read the reviews and checked out the free module, you might wish to check out the kickstarter for the Kaidan Campaign Setting - the project's already funded and it has some unbeatable deals to get all Kaidan-files in one fell swoop!
As always, thank you for reading my ramblings, we'll see me alternate between this and another great trilogy in the next couple of days!