Clint Krause from Red Moon Medicine Show has impressed me in the past with his weird OSR fanzine Vacant Ritual Assembly (reviews here: http://dieheart.net/?s=vacant+ritual+assembly). The issues are creepy and strange and full of inspirational material for a small price. It’s one of my favorite zines and definitely worth a look if you like spooky old-school stuff.
Now he has written an adventure: The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem is a module for Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) and similar retro-clones. A haunted house and its surroundings serve as a location for a creepy venture for low-level characters.
Apparently this was a Kickstarter which was funded successfully in early 2015.
Please note: I received a review copy of the softcover print and a PDF from the author. This is a reading review, I haven’t played the module. And it contains SPOILERS!
First, let me say that I am not familiar with LotFP. I neither have read the game nor any adventures that were written for it. Thus, I can’t compare it to other works which are geared towards the European 17th-century horror feel of the game.
Having said that, with The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem Mr. Krause manages to convey a tone of strangeness and baroque bizarreness which should be in tune with LotFP. This is where this product shines and which makes it different from standard EDO-fantasy.
The color of this module is mostly evident in the descriptions of the monsters. Many of them sound like they sprung from a faerie nightmare: the gigantic Grandfather Toad, Archer Cherubs made from stone, a plant called Stranglecreeper, the Marble Knight, acid-spitting Gargoyles and more.
Still, there is some humor to be found in the forgotten manor: shitting goats, buzzard dandies or cheeky statues.
The product starts off with an introduction of Abelia Prem, a noblewoman who was obsessed with finding the mystical Stygian Rose but who suffered from dementia in her last years. There is a rumor table to get the players started.
The adventure consists of three main locales: the Manor itself, the Grounds and the Stygian Garden.
The book is organized according to these locations. There are several maps with map keys and corresponding entries.
The maps look modern and are easy to read. They are of a more digitized aesthetic and not so much of the old-school variant (i.e. the maps of msjx).
There is also a very nice illustration by Todd Gamble of the Manor Grounds which gives you a good overview about the locale. To my delight, there is also a player version so you can show that to your table without spoiling anything.
At the end of the book, there is a separate bestiary which repeats the monster stats and also a page for tracking monster HP. That’s very nifty. As a nice gimmick, the product closes with an In Memoriam where you can write down PCs that died.
I also like the appendix with Abelia Prem’s plants.
The map entries are well written and I like that the author used bold text for important bits (monsters, items, points of interest). It doesn’t save you from reading the module carefully, but it doesn’t look like you’ll accidently slip too much GM information in most cases.
Where The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem falls short for me is its logical progression which is probably due to the premise of being location-based. In most cases, PCs will start roaming the Manor as an entry point and then continue through the Grounds to the Garden. You can leave out locations but for closure you’ll presumably progress/crawl till the riverbank (A -> B -> C). Personally, I’m more a fan of modularity but a location-based module has physical restraints.
My next criticism ironically goes into the opposite direction: There are some “shortcuts” which will bring the PCs faster to their goal but which will make them miss out some of the most interesting sites of the adventure (at least if they don’t double back and explore everything).
On the other hand, what I really like about the ending of the module is that there are different possibilities about the river and the rose, it doesn’t need to be the river Styx and there doesn’t need to be a Stygian Rose. Mr. Krause included a simple table to roll on or you can decide.
Visually, the product is finely put together. It’s a neat softcover with 24 pages in half-letter size (pocket sized, feels most similar to A5). The cover looks neat although I’m not sure who the lady is supposed to be. Perhaps Abelia Prem in younger years? The interior artwork (black & white) is also impressive.
Altogether, The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem is a compelling module with a very good setting and tone. I’m not sure if I can judge this objectively because I already have a high opinion of Clint Krause from reading his previous works. I have some minor quibbles but nothing severe.
Depending on how much the PCs want to explore and how many random encounters you want to throw in, this should give you and your players several hours to sessions of fun.
For what it’s worth, I totally recommend this product even if you’re not into LotFP (like I am). While it’s a bit eerie, it doesn’t try to shock or disgust you but lures you in with its strangeness.
[4 of 5 Stars!]