Today, we'll take a look at a freshman-offering, the one by 4 Dollar Dungeon.
This module is 39 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, ¾ of a page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 35 ¼ pages of content, so let’s check this out!
This being an adventure-module, the following review contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion.
All right, still here? The village of Pig’s Trotter is your typically (un-)friendly backwater village – peaceful, distrustful of strangers and featuring a pig-based economy. All would be well, were it not for strange incursions from the nearby forest – pigs get slaughtered and though the village is located in the middle of civilized lands, humanoids like goblins and worse are sighted. A job for adventurers, to be sure! Doing some research in town might be helpful and the fully mapped village is provided n quite some detail, including a settlement statblock. Also, a layout peculiarity I actually like is introduced: Where applicable, all DCs with short pieces of information on what they are for are collected at the end of each room/location, collecting all rules-relevant bits and pieces in one place. Nice!
It should quickly become apparent that the PCs will have to track the goblins back through the forest and before we get into the action, there’s yet another thing to be aware of: The amount of notes for the DM: Drawing your attention to particularly nasty tricks, potentially lethal traps as well as the VERY extensive and detailed information that helps adjust rewards via a table is commendable indeed and makes running the module with relatively short prep-time a possibility. Again, kudos!
In classic modules, a sometimes distinct and oftentimes macabre component was part of the gaming experience, as was a certain anything-goes mentality and one of the most refreshing things about this module is that it breathes this spirit. You see, the source of the incursions is a tribe of pyromaniac goblins with its allies, under the command of one Ifrit sorcerer named Kalza. While I still could froth at the mouth at Paizo getting the mythology of the term “Ifrit” wrong, this is not the module’s fault, so back to it: The fire planetouched sorcerer has ventured forth to an abandoned mining operation of a clan of dwarves, where once mithril was excavated and smelted down. To properly conserve resources, these dwarves have bound a fire elemental, which they conveniently forgot in the old place and which has since then turned mad. Kalza seeks a way to turn this as of yet bound creature into a companion. The dwarven mining complex is surprisingly 3d in layout and features several interesting features, one of which would be a rotund that allows access to all 4 levels of the dungeon.
Interspersed throughout the levels, the PCs may meet goblins playing skull-ball, a zombie wyrmling, a psychotic bugbear, a young ogrekin (whom they may command to stand in the corner when confronted with parental authority – though he’s bigger than the PCs and carries a nasty greatsword) and his mother, an ogress that ate her son’s father since the hobgoblin failed to maintain her. It should be noted that the dungeon features a kind of ecology that explains what people do and while it can be run as static, you could easily make this a dynamic environment – guidelines for NPC behavior are part of the deal. Speaking of which: If the PCs confront the ogress with the death of her son (e.g. by throwing his head at her – and if your players are like mine, you know they’re capable of doing something like this!) – she is first taken aback and then gets a frenzied morale bonus. Minor? Yes, but reactions like that make environments stand out and characters believable.
Now the ultimate goal beyond the exploration of the dungeon would of course be the defeat of the ifrit and the elemental – perhaps the PCs even manage to get some mithril out of the ground! I’ve mentioned old-school writing and another favorite of mine is a quite deadly trap: While recognizable and telegraphed in advance, there’s a pit-trap that is almost guaranteed to kill whoever falls in. On the interesting side is how it’s covered: With paper painted like the floor – prodding the ground with a stick/carefully working your way forward automatically finds the trap, even if perception-checks failed. Call me grognard, but in the days of old, we saw more often puzzles, traps and hazards that could be avoided/disarmed/moved around by just acting smart instead of (only) relying on die-rolls. As long as the rolls are still there to represent character-expertise versus player-competence and as long as they make sense, I applaud solutions like this and would like to see more in the future.
When all’s done in the complex, the PCs will btw. also have a route to further adventures in the underdark open. The module also offers a 3-page index of reprints of spells used in the module and 4 pages of glossary that covers rules from catching fire to undead traits and should make running the module especially for less experienced DMs easier. There also are 4 full-color (though less detailed) versions of the maps of the complex with grids. The final 4 pages collect the artwork as a kind of player-hand-outs.
Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect – I noticed punctuation errors, lower case letters that should have been upper case and minor misuses of words. Nothing that would detract from understanding the module, though, and all belong to the world of minor glitches. Layout adheres to a 2-column standard with statblocks being shaded reddish. The b/w-artworks are nice stock art and I welcome the decision to collect the relevant skill-DCs, as it makes running the module easier. The pdf is also rather printer-friendly, not succumbing to the parchment-background disease and instead opting for a printer-friendly white background. The pdf sports extensive bookmarks and comes in two versions: One optimized to be printed out in us letterpack format and one optimized for A4, which is a great service to Europeans like yours truly and duly appreciated. The module also comes with 8 jpegs – 4 depicting the simple versions of the dungeon-maps and 4 depicting the more detailed versions. What really bugs me with the cartography is not its quality (though it is nothing to write home about, it serves its purpose and I’ve seen MUCH worse…), but the fact that ALL versions are studded with numbers denoting the respective rooms, which makes it impossible for me to hand them out to my players sans breaking immersion – a version of the maps sans numbers would have been much appreciated.
Honestly, I didn’t expect too much from this module, but it proved to be a pleasant surprise – not due to antagonists, story or anything like that – honestly, these components are not the module’s strengths. The strengths lie in author Richard Develyn’s subtle humor that suffuses the module without making it ridiculous, in its details that make it come alive. Not only via front presentation, but also in style, it remembered me of the better installments of Goodman Games DCC-series for 3.X. While I did not enjoy the series universally (having been more a Necromancer Games fanboy myself), it did provide us with some interesting modules then, though not all were of superb quality. Is this a good module, then? Yes, I think by virtue of its relatively interesting dungeon-design and its characters, it stands out as an above-average offering that should delight some of you.
As much as I like the module’s go-play approach, it should be noted, though, that minus maps, glossary and appendix, its page-count is much less impressive, at roughly 21 pages – still respectable, though I can’t help but feel that some sort of proper epilogue/catharsis to the module would have been in order – something to make its end feel less abrupt. Another minor issue is that some creatures are named in the fluff/DM’s text, but when they just use a monster’s stats straight from the bestiary, the statblocks don’t sport this name. Minor, yes, but a slight inconvenience that is only relevant due to the otherwise extremely user-friendly presentation. I also would have liked to see slightly more terrain-use by the respective combatants, but in contrast to some other modules out there, we at least get some of that.
When all is said and done, this is a nice freshman-offering with an old-school flair for a fair price and thus my final verdict will clock in at 3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 for the purpose of this platform.