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The Covey 5E
by Thomas B. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 01/29/2020 15:05:18

PROS & CONS As noted in my full review, it's easy to fit into most fantasy campaigns, as long as the campaigns have hags, dwarves and ogres (or reasonable equivalents).

The types of hags are left up to the DM, to help set the challenge of the encounter.

The encounter as written can easily led to the death of a party member or two, if the group doesn't pick up on what's going on.

Some nice little world building has been sprinkled around, like letters from other hags (which can turn into a sequel hook for the PCs if they kill the hags). Looks like stock art was primarily used. None of it looks bad at all (and some of it looks quite good), but there are pieces that somewhat clash stylistically. This is hard to avoid unless there's a stock artist who has covered basically everything you need, but it stands out regardless.

I didn't do a deep dive into seeing how balanced it was (in my experience over two campaigns, balance in 5e is more of an art than a science), but there are still a couple of references to saving throws versus Poison. These are not a thing in 5e, and should likely be replaced with Constitution saving throws (as the most likely substitute).

Along those lines, skills were spelled out correctly for the hags and ogres (with bonuses), but for the dwarf NPC, they lacked skill bonuses and didn't even line up 100% with the 5e skill list, making me wonder if they weren't proficiencies from For Gold and Glory carried over.

WORTH IT?

I think so, especially for the price. I'm not likely to use it myself, because I had a memorable encounter with hags in my last 5e campaign, so my group's spider-sense would probably absolutely blow up, but I think it's a fun set piece if you can trick your group into going in a little off guard. I might modify that opening encounter by having the hag set up a trick to lure the group in, rather than hoping they follow her, but that's me.

For my full review, please visit https://mostunreadblogever.blogspot.com/2020/01/tommys-take-on-covey-d-5e.html



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Covey 5E
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The Chest
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 09/13/2019 08:45:38

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This module clocks in at 16 pages, 1 page front cover, ½ a page editorial (the other half is an introduction/how to use), 1 page SRD, 2 pages of advertisement, and 1 page back cover, leaving us with 10.5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!

Okay, so as always for The Merciless Merchants, the rules-system employed is For Gold & Glory – based on second edition AD&D. Ultimately, this means that adaption to e.g. OSRIC is super simple, and that there is a lot of information given – We have size categories, morale, activity cycles (!!), organization etc. noted for creatures. Attack values use the good ole’ THAC0 ( What we knew as ETW0, for all fellow Germans reading this…), and HD-ratings as well as descending AC are standards. As you can see, conversion to other old-school systems thus is pretty simple. 7 new monsters are presented, and these do come with a bit of information on them, and a separate combat section that explains the more unusual properties of the creatures.

The pdf comes with a b/w map that deserves special applause, in spite of not featuring an extra key-less, player-friendly version. Why? Well, the secret doors with their obtrusive “S”s that SPOILER players? For the most part (but not in all instances, alas, they form a straight line with the walls – so in most instances, you can cut up a printout of the map, and the PCs will be none the wiser, for the telltale “S”-secret-door blocks are beyond the wall. I like this, and with the exception of a few of them, this does render the dungeon easier to use for the GM. Speaking of GM-convenience: While we do not get read-aloud text, dark areas are noted FIRST in descriptions; then, a comprehensive description (that makes most read-aloud texts hang their head in shame) follows – further information is presented in concise bullet points, which makes parsing information simple and convenient.

Now, this is a dungeon adventure and an old-school module – it is not designated for a specific level-range, and there is a reason for that. While low-level parties can very much successfully explore quite a few of the rooms herein, there also are more deadly environments that are designed to challenge mid-level characters – this complex is intended as a campaign-accompaniment, as a kind of downtime module, if you will. So yeah, to master this module, the PCs will have to attain mid-level range. Design-wise, the module is excellent – while there is e.g. a riddle door, failing to answer correctly does not stump progress – instead, success allows for the avoidance of an encounter. Traps are telegraphed in a way that is not too obvious, but remains fair. The module comes with a wandering encounter table as well as a couple of magic items, but the main treasure provided here is something else. It should also be noted that there is an inherent logic to the complex presented and the presence of all adversaries. Oh, and this module can be seamlessly inserted into ANY conceivable campaign, at any time, any place. How does it do that?

Well, this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should REALLY jump ahead to the conclusion.

… .. .

All right, only GMs around? Great! So, the eponymous chest can be found any place you want it to be. The PCs will do the usual routine (check for traps, etc.), and then open it. There is no treasure inside. There are no traps. Instead, they see an impossible stairway leading down. The chest may be moved – it is an entrance to a demiplane of sorts, and full exploration of the place within, understanding how it operates, will allow the PCs to claim mastery and ownership of it.

Inside, there is a vault of sorts – the central hub rooms feature doors associated with different valuables – copper, silver – you get the idea. The chest spawns guardians appropriate for the respective region, and its depths also hide a kind of refuge…though that has been compromised. The aforementioned monsters mainly feature guardians associated with the precious metals, though e.g. skittering coin scarabs and a jewel golem may also be found. See, and this is where the variable difficulty curve comes into play: The copper region is pretty easy, while the refuge and the more valuable regions can be pretty deadly indeed. The greed of the PCs and players, their own willingness to take risks, very much governs the difficulty of this adventure.

Note that both players and PCs will find out the operation of this complex without requiring the rolling of the dice – the module is structured in a clever manner that way, and in case you do want to fill the party in on lore, there is a friendly gold dragon as one of the guardians. He does not attack, and can tell the PCs that something bad has happened. Turns out that a somewhat psychedelic monster (think eye-studded pyramid with tendrils that can shoot beholder-lite effects!) has intruded upon this place – and that the best-guarded door, currently sealed, seals the monstrosity as well. This is a brutal boss, but the party will have to face the monster sooner or later if they want to claim ownership of the chest…and they will want to do that. Safe, a secure place to rest, unfathomable potential for infiltrations, means to lure in enemies – the potential this magic item has? It’s staggering. (And the intruder creatures? The GM can use them as a means to discourage abuse of this potent tool…)

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good – while not perfect, the module is presented in a manner that will not result in issues for the GM, with precious few minor hiccups (such as a homophone error of waste/waist). Layout adheres to an elegant, old-school two-column standard that primarily presents nice b/w-artworks. While these are stock pieces, they perfectly fit what they depict and are rare ones – i.e. I haven’t seen them used in a ton of other supplements. The pdf does not have bookmarks, which is a slight comfort-detriment, but at this length still okay. The cartography in b/w, with its grid properly noted, is nice – as mentioned above, I wish the secret doors had been imperceptible in all instances, but that is a minor nitpick.

Aaron Fairbrook’s small adventure blows whole lines of adventures out of the water without even trying. It presents a module that is super easy to integrate into any campaign; it is clever, features a unique reward, is VERY inexpensive considering the quality provided, and it’s not boring. It is a genuinely creative, cool adventure that knows exactly what it is – it doesn’t try to aim for a world-ending plot, instead presenting a humble adventure that exemplifies how you can achieve excellence with even the tiniest of underdog budgets. This is an adventure that is both well-written, and well-designed, and precious few adventures genuinely get me this excited anymore….something that’s even harder to achieve when considering the limited scope and room this has. I could list a whole series of publishers that don’t have a single module as compelling as this humble mini-adventure.

It’s not perfect; the magic items found in the dungeon are not particularly mind-boggling for the most part, though I did love the glove that lets you call a fully statted silver falcon – come on, that’s cool! That being said, considering the goal and the price point, this is a no-brainer module that you definitely should check out! My final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval. And if you like what you’re seeing, please also check out the City of Vermilion kickstarter – I so want this mega-adventure to fund! The Merciless Merchants definitely deserve it, and I want their mega-adventure in a gorgeous Friesens-hardcover!

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Chest
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Standoff at Sandfell Sea Fort
by Cameron D. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 08/30/2019 08:27:55

The Merciless Merchants do an excellent job of making their adventures have an OSR feel and look to them - and Standoff at Sandfell Sea Fort certainly harkens back to that aesthetic. Starting off with a gripping encounter, a lot is fit into the 26 pages that comprise this adventure - swashbuckling adventure-action, devious political intrigue, and splashes of sandal and sorcery that is rare to see in D&D projects. The art is fun with its gritty ink feel, the adventure flows very well with a clear plotline, and it allows the players a great deal of agency in deciding how they play. Overall, an excellent little quest if you ever needed something to pop into a campaign for a breka game, or start a new one completetly.

Comics, Clerics, & Controllers d20 Roll: Nat 20



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Standoff at Sandfell Sea Fort
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The Red Prophet Rises
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 08/26/2019 08:27:18

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This module clocks in at 30 pages of content, already disregarding pages devoted to editorial, front cover, etc. The module was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Okay, so “The Red Prophet Rises” is an adventure intended for 3-6 characters of levels 3-5, using the For Gold & Glory ruleset based on 2nd edition. This means that we have THAC0s, descending AC, HD, morale noted, etc. – when all’s said and done, this means that conversion to pretty much any OSR-rules system is pretty simple, as the statblocks etc. note a lot of information. Even an activity cycle, mind you!

The supplement includes 5 new spells that may be encountered/learned, all of which have a strong blood magic type and properly note the classes and spell-levels. They are pretty darn evocative – Spear of Blood, for example, targets a corpse or injured target, crystallizes blood from the source. With an attack roll that employs the Wisdom bonus, the spear is flung into a target, dealing damage. Damage exceeds that of e.g. magic missile, but the requirement of blood source plus attack roll makes this clock out. There also is a delightfully gruesome self-boost/buff that makes the caster bleed from eyes and mouth with a burbling scream, praising the Bull God. Even per se less evocative spells that deal damage have an angle that makes them stand out – such as pronouncing a forbidden word with the curse of sanguine castigation. What about animating blood in serpent form? Or a spell that controls blood of targets for a gruesome puppetry-spell? Yeah, pretty cool. Three new monsters are included as well, all featuring a pretty detailed summary that explains their roles as well as their combat behavior.

The module also features 14 new magic items that follow a similar design paradigm – their names are bolded for convenience, and XP-values for them are provided. The items also manage to do something that precious few modules get right – they actually feel MAGICAL. They also are smart – there is, for example, an item that can increase weight – basically a magical anchor. Or what about the gourd of the old blood? Imbibing from that one makes you forevermore hear the heartbeats of those nearby. Sure, it can drive you insane, but it’s so helpful to prevent being targeted by those pesky assassins. Oh, and yeah, you can go berserker afterwards. What about a magical gypsum stone that can heat the surrounding area? There is but one item I’m not happy with – Veindrinker, a battle axe +2 that heals the wielder with each hit and animates the slain as bloodless corpses. Clearly an evil item, it is not intended for PC-use, as it requires the weekly death of a humanoid. That being said, the item would be better served if it had the caveat that only non-harmless creatures can be used to heal the wielder. Otherwise, those trusty murderhobos will be carrying a bag of kittens around to massacre and heal up. And infinite healing exploits are not fun, regardless of the game. That being said, a GM can and should limit this one to NPCs or add such a caveat.

Okay, that being said, the module does more: There is an appendix listing the friendly NPCs to be encountered with full stats AS WELL AS descriptions/read-aloud texts. Oh, and guess what? We get the same treatment for the hostile creatures as well! This is some next-level awesomeness. Furthermore, the final page is devoted to a super-handy monster cheat-sheet that lists all the combat-relevant components on one handy page. It should come as no surprise, but the module does feature random encounter tables, as well as a pretty extensive rumor section. It also has a strong angle that hasn’t been done in any other module I’m aware of: The primary hook of the adventure is that a paladin can get their steed here! The hook is supported by a proper vision you can paraphrase. It should be noted, though, that the adventure does not necessarily need this angle to work – it can be run perfectly fine without that. Reaction tables and the like are included as well.

Indeed, if the above was not ample clue, the presentation of the information herein is exceedingly effective: Each keyed locale features first a brief description, and then a bullet point list that makes it very simple and convenient to parse information. The b/w-cartography of the module is pretty detailed and sports grids etc. – while a few of the numbers on the maps are slightly pixilated, I found myself not minding this for once, as the locations themselves are smartly laid out. Unlike many a module, this one has a pretty strong focus on allowing the PCs to engage with it in a variety of ways; indeed, it is rather nonlinear. The module can and will run vastly differently for different groups due to the clever dungeon design. Case in point: The module has a SCHEDULE. Yep, a full table that notes when what happens each day, rewarding PCs for doing their legwork/reconnaissance! Oh, and before you ask – yep, the module does reference this table internally when required, making actual implementation of the schedule easy and seamless for the GM. Not only does this show smart design, it also makes the entire module more dynamic and alive.

Genre-wise, this is a Sword & Sorcery adventure, situated in some borderlands though one could easily argue in favor of it being dark fantasy. What do I mean by this? Well, this is a pretty bloody module, obviously, but it’s not grimdark; neither does it revel in excessive gore. (Unless you want it to…) It also has a very unique angle, in that it does not feel like a system is taken to express preset sword & sorcery tropes with it; instead, all the items and spells and components are used to make the atmosphere emerge from within. The rules are not bent to generate an effect. This is not a D&D-iteration used to express the themes, it is the themes emerging from play. I have seen precious few adventures pull this off. As an aside for all fans of WFRP (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying) – if you make the Bull God an aspect of Khorne, this is pretty much an instant WFRPG-adventure. As far as environments are concerned, this works imho in any region that can sport a canyon – I could see this work in anything from the frigid north to the blasting heat of the deserts, provided a sufficient amount of uncivilized tribes can be found. Difficulty-wise, it should be noted that this is probably closest in aesthetics to DCC-adventures – it is deadly, yes, but the challenges faced are founded on the principle of player-agenda; this very much focuses on roleplaying over rollplaying, and smart players will have a good chance of survival. Those PCs that think they can murder-hobo through the module by simply charging in? They’ll lose their lives upon bloodsoaked altars.

Okay, and this is as far as I can go without diving into serious SPOILER-territory. Potential players should seriously jump to the conclusion. You’ll hate yourself to bits for spoiling this one.

… .. .

All right, only GMs around? Great! The people of the bull, wiry and beardless, are a harsh people tempered by life on the wind-blasted plains. When the outsider Khazra came and smote the chieftain, pronouncing himself prophet of the Bull God, things changed Driven by blood-shrouded visions of conquest and a crimson paradise, the tribe embarked on a grand pilgrimage across the plains, towards a canyon, where a featureless obsidian looms – here, so the prophet proclaimed, the bull of infidels would flow in streams, opening the gateway to the crimson paradise – and thus, with Khazra’s proclamation, a ritualistic revelry of sacrifice, bloodsport and orgiastic revels commended. Nearby villages were raided by the people of the bull, drugged by the hallucinogenic Crimson Tear, a flower growing solely on battlefields. Thus, the barbarians lair within the canyon, drugged (which btw. does have an impact on the rules and explains some of their bloodthirsty, fanatical behavior!), feeding the Obelisk That Thirsts with precious red.

Meanwhile, the steed touched by the forces of good is forced to act as a beast of burden, opening the lid of the pit of sacrifice. The PCs only have 7 days to stop the slaughter enacted by the people of the Bull, and if they’re smart, they’ll scout the region beforehand – the presence of the aforementioned schedule means that smart players will have a much easier time dealing with the adventure. I mentioned before that the module uses schedule and encounters to generate a sense of authentic, dynamic content, right? Well, guess what, this is even further enhanced by the presence of a multi-stage alarm system and detailed notes on responses to the PC’s intrusion. If the PCs are smart, they can time their assault, for example, so that the hunters are currently outside. Disguising and infiltration – all possible. Indeed, the whole region is subdivided in thematic regions, such as “champion’s quarters”, allowing the GM to quickly and precisely grasp the layout of the caves and canyon.

Even on the micro-level, the sheer attention to detail is astonishing – bookshelves note secret forging techniques (with actual impact on the rules!), tables contain a plethora of detailed items, and an alchemy lab, well-hidden, does come with a 20-entry long, one page spanning table of effects for experimenting with things that the PCs don’t understand. There is, for example, a vial with petrified wood inside – which emits a bloodcurdling scream. This is the result of random experimentation, mind you – and results in a wandering monster check, which is a great point to mention that the module is generally very fair – harsh, but fair. Traps make sense where they’re placed, and risk-reward ratios are tightly balanced in creative ways.

The first part of the module, unsurprisingly, deals with the canyon itself, and covers 27 keyed locales. And OH BOY. What a canyon it is. To quote the module: “A massive rough-hewn bust of a bald man with a lengthy braided ponytail glowers down from the 50 foot high rock outcropping that divides the canyon. Narrow stairs cut through the rock face ascend to rope and wood-planked bridges that connect the canyon walls to the rock outcropping.” This is not designated as read-aloud text, but frankly, it established a better atmosphere than many modules designating such text. You can picture it, right? The massive face, the canyon walls? Somewhere between Ozymandias and Savage Sword of Conan’s mind-boggling vistas, this sets a grand stage – and it’s but the introduction. Freeing prisoners and uneasy allies are just a few of the options available to the PCs as they explore this place, and indeed, smart PCs may find allies even among the People of the Bull – if, and only if they are smart..So yeah, this is decidedly not just a hack and slash module – you can attempt to play it as such, but it’ll probably wipe out the PCs.

Beyond the canyon containing the people of the bull and their orgiastic revelry, the module actually offers more – much like a multi-part Savage Sword of Conan saga, there is more – beneath the canyon lies a dungeon, abandoned cellars of a now ruined wizard’s tower, where true evil looms. Down in the pit of despair, in the dark, may be found – a summoning circle contains a massive, demonic arm rising from the floor, the entity trapped for untold centuries; floodgates and ghosts can be found – and there is the Keeper of Names – a magical construct that will progressively start to name the PCs if they don’t retreat – and names have an inherent power to them. The Keeper can annihilate those it names in detail, progressively unraveling their sense of self in a sort of weaponized nihilism powered by cosmic principles. I love this! I love it even more because it is a puzzle boss fight that rewards clever tactics by the PCs and makes the creature feel like a proper construct. And then, there is the obelisk – an inverted black pyramid at the top funnels, drop by drop, blood to the obelisk, where currently essentially a proto-vampire god lies entombed and trapped – the blood sacrifices of the people of the bull will awaken an obsidian lord in service to this thing…and the obsidian might spread. The boss fight against the obelisk’s creatures, with round by round effects both rules-relevant and cosmetic, represents a great, dare I say, nigh perfect conclusion for the module, with plenty of ideas for further adventuring, for I have touched on only a fraction of the components featured within.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are top-notch on a rules-language level, very good on a formal level. Layout adheres to a nice two-column b/w-standard that evokes, down to the font used, classic adventures. The artworks featured within are b/w, plentiful, and well-chosen. You may know some of them from other publications, but even with my plentiful experience, I’ve seen a couple of them for the first time. The cartography is b/w and quality-wise and regarding its functionality beyond reproach, though I wished we a) got a key-less, player-friendly version, and b) that the maps were a bit higher res. I’d really love to see player-friendly modules – and I’m sure that the many VTT-fans would agree. I can’t comment on the electronic version’s merits, but the print version is perfect-bound, with glossy covers.

The information design of this module, penned by Malrex and PrinceofNothing, is excellent, and so are the details; the way in which… … Who am I kidding? I’ve strained very hard throughout the review to not burst out in jubilation, so let me make this abundantly clear:

This belongs in the library of any self-respecting GM. Period.

I don’t care if you’re playing PFRPG 1e or 2e, D&D 5e, OSR-games, DCC, 13th Age, WFRPG – if you even remotely enjoy dark fantasy or sword & sorcery, then you MUST OWN this module.

This adventure is not only a great reading experience, it actually plays better than it reads (!!) – it is a resounding rebuttal to several notions: It shows that new school type of narratives and old-school emergent gameplay are not at odds; it shows that you can write a module that feels like a lost TSR-classic (one of the good ones!) and improve upon the formula; it shows that you can use mainstream D&D-based rules to weave a sword & sorcery storyline without requiring a ton of tweaking to systems and implicit assumptions.

It also is, in my humble opinion, one of the very few examples where module-writing has been elevated to an art form. And I don’t mean that in some hipsterish BS type of way; I mean this in the truest sense of the word. It is a very subdued and subtle process – one that is more evident in e.g. Trollback Keep. In that module, the use of leitmotifs and their contrasting was more readily apparent. In this module, EVERYTHING makes sense; the authors obviously share a deep understanding of not only what makes the tropes of sword & sorcery and dark fantasy work, they also know how to IMPLEMENT them within the context of the game, all while retaining an almost obsessive sense of plausibility. They clothe this pitch-perfect implementation of tropes and details within a rules system with panache aplomb, making the module’s plot and scenario slide into the system like a ruler into their regalia. Adding a constant sense of dynamic, lived-in worlds to the whole just puts the icing on the cake – if this module was a character, it’d be Thoth-Amon or Kulan Gath, in regal strides, surveying all below as they kneel. There is a sense of majestic rawness and harshness to this adventure that is hard to describe and even harder to evoke.

This is on par with the best of Harley Stroh’s sword & sorcery work for DCC. This feels like someone read the entirety of Savage Sword of Conan, wrought a distilled essence from it, and by some eldritch alchemy, crafted a module from it.

In short, this is a benchmark-level masterpiece against which all other modules in the genre will hereafter have to be judged. And many will be found wanting. This was released last year, but I only got around to reviewing it due to my health situation this year. As such, this gets what it rightfully deserves – full 5 stars, my seal of approval, the “Best of”-tag as one of the best sword & sorcery modules I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering, and this is a candidate for my top ten of 2019.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Red Prophet Rises
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Trollback Keep
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 07/12/2019 05:29:55

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This adventure clocks in at 31 pages of content, not counting cover, editorial, etc.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy of the adventure. My review is based on the print version; I do not own the pdf-version.

Rules-wise, this game assumes the For Gold & Glory rules-set, which is based on 2nd edition AD&D; as such, conversion to other OSR-rules is not difficult. In case you were wondering: We do get a THAC0, HD-ratings, sizes, morale and the average movement rate for humanoids is set at 9, with small targets instead having 6. All in all, this makes modifying the module for other old-school systems pretty simple.

The book contains a new class – kind of. Essentially, if you’re familiar with how archetypes behave in PFRPG, you’ll have an idea of how the sorcerer class herein operates: It behaves like a regular wizard, save that it operates with a different casting engine. The sorcerer has a mana pool that they use for casting spells, and regain class level mana points per 8-hour rest interval (which means that taking them along will require loooooong resting periods before climactic boss fights – not a fan there. The pool’s size is equal to the number of spells known, which begins at 3 1st level spells. The way in which the increase of mana is handled is simple: If you get the first spell of a new spell level, you add the spell level to the mana pool – gaining the first 7th level spell nets you +7 mana. Any subsequent spell gained for a spell level instead nets you +1 mana point. While this is explained with copious examples that make understanding how it behaves viable, the relative inexperience of the author(s) regarding crunch-design is evident here, as the phrasing is a bit more convoluted and awkward as I like in my rules-language. Unique: Each spell, regardless of spell level, costs one mana point to cast, and the class does not automatically learn to read magic; while learning to do so to start learning new spells is possible, it is a pretty penalized operation. I am particularly fond of a small rules operation – sorcerers see magic; they benefit from detect magic when casting spells. Bonus spells known are governed by Wisdom, while bonus mana is governed by Constitution – the bonus hit points per level also applies to mana. Essentially, we have a character here who can cast longer and harder, but has a less versatile arsenal – the quintessential sorcerer. While not mind-blowing, it is an okay take on the sorcerer concept, but one you can ignore with relative ease.

Now, the main meat of this booklet is devoted to the presentation of the Trollback Keep adventure, which is intended for characters level 4th – 7th, and it is my pleasure to report that it, difficulty-wise, is a harsh mistress of a module, but one that I’d consider to be fair at any of its twists and turns. In many ways, this module is dangerous and potentially deadly, but it does a really good job of telegraphing danger and providing an internally consistent sense of plausibility regarding the things going on. Similarly helpful for the GM: The fact that a sentence in italics tends to highlight the things immediately apparent for a given room.

As far as maps are concerned, we do get solid b/w-maps, though unfortunately, no key-less version with redacted secret doors etc. that you could cut up or use in conjunction with VTTs is provided. Structurally, this is a sandbox – basically a hex-crawl-y wilderness region with a situation described. The players determine how to handle the issues presented, and what component of the module they’ll get to see. It should be noted that magic items are presented in gray boxes, making their rules pop out properly, which is a plus – if your OSR-system of choice presents GP or XP values for them, you will need to improvise these values, though. A general plus: The magic items presented within feel, well, magical. There is for example a pipe that can generate 3/day wall of fog, and also 1/day create a smoke duplicate that you can command to move up to a specific distance away – the latter may not sound like much at first, but it’s one of the tricks that makes clever PLAYERS start thinking, and then use in creative ways – you know, like a good magic item. Want another example? Okay, so PCs can acquire a blade made of amber that has insects inside, which lets you talk to insects, make them attack you last, if at all, and also has a minor healing power. Come on, that’s cool!! These items generally had me more excited than I usually am, so definite plus there!

The module comes with a total of 7 different hooks, plus what I’d consider the main hook, which takes place as the PCs make camp upon entering the mountain valley that acts as the backdrop of this module. Here, Drixell will arrive – a precocious gnome, who shares a tale of woe that is represented, if required, in an appendix. This represents the only text you’d consider to be read-aloud material – the rest of the book assumes that you know how to set the mood, but here, the module should be applauded for the way in which it structures its room entries – monster stats are where they are supposed to be, spells are consistently italicized, magic items consistently bolded, and e.g. traps are similarly bolded, making it easy to run this module. Where it’s sensible, we also have bullet points featured.

The module includes pretty detailed tables for wilderness encounters, and does something I very much enjoy – in the back, you’ll find a massive table of stats by encounter area as a piece of rather comfortable GM-helper. The individual tables also show up in the regular text of the module, obviously, and the end also presents 8 different sample barbarian NPCs, which belong to one of the new humanoid races statted up within.

In order to talk about them, though, I will have to start going into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

… .. .

All right, only GMs around? So, the book provides stats for spriggans and two new monsters, giant olms and zospeums – the latter being snail-huamnoids! And yeah, they can retreat into their shells, are blind, etc. – nice ones. The book also provides a small ecology of sorts for an ethnicity, the Verloren, survivors of an arcane cataclysm that have since turned back to a lifestyle that makes them hard and less reliant on magics – these are the Verloren of the Wolf Clan. I very much enjoyed this write-up, but as a native speaker, I do cringe a bit when reading “Verlorens.” Excuse me as I engage in a bit of linguistic pedantry that will not influence the final verdict: You see, “verloren” means “lost”; “I have lost my keys” – “Ich habe meine Schlüssel verloren”; if you make that a substantive, you’d get “eine Verlorene” for a female verloren, “ein Verlorener” for male verloren, and “die Verlorenen” for the plural equivalent of “the lost”; so “Verlorenen” would be closer to correct in this case. Anyhow, the tribe is actually presented in a pretty cool manner, in that they actually come not only with some flavorful notes, but also with unique rules – bringing them to the brink of death may result in a rather nasty berserker-move that, in a nice change of pace, uses checks instead of saves to operate.

Okay, so far regarding creatures – let’s talk about what this features, shall we? As noted before, a primary angle involved Drixell the gnome, who shares a story of woe. You see, the scarce game in the region? It’s actually due to the predations of the humanoids, who’ve become ever bolder and ever more successful. Originally rallied by a hill giant named Uthog, the humanoids have recently become bolder and better organized. And there’s a reason for that – you see, when Uthog, lazy as he was, relegated the task of leading raids to his underlings, he fueled the ambitions of his warlord Kron Mountainshaker. When the orc was sent to raid Drixell’s home, he saw his chance and forced the gnomes to create manacles, which he then tricked Uthog to take on – now, the erstwhile master and architect of the eponymous Trollback Keep is a prisoner in his own keep, peeing into a chasm, dreaming of revenge, all while Kron awaits the completion of means to also hijack the mind of the hill giant – and thus gain a living siege weapon under his command!

The gnomes have been stalling, but who knows for how long this will work. The second faction that can provide most, but not all of the information, would be the Verloren, who could be rather interesting, if volatile allies against the struggle to conquer Trollback Keep. (In the one somewhat grisly scene herein, the PCs can happen upon verloren females inside the keep, one mad from killing her half-orc offspring, the others pregnant, obviously against their consent at the hands of the orcs – yeah, there’s no doubt that these orc deserve to die…) You see, the keep comes fully depicted in a regular manner – it’s mapped, hunting intervals are explained, as do we learn about guards. How the PCs try to take the keep is totally up to them – this is basically a “take the fortress”-scenario, one that is entirely player-driven, which is certainly something I enjoy.

I mentioned before an above-average sense of plausibility here – this would be encapsulated best in the dungeon (which, while hard to miss, can be missed potentially). You see, the gnomes, honoring their deity, had a shrine erected below where the giant’s fortress now stands. This shrine, focusing on trickery and the abilities of thieves, contains a mighty treasure indeed, but its deadly traps foiled would-be adventurers for years, until no locals ventured inside. Erosion and earthquakes did their part, and indeed, only under Kron’s auspice has the work begun to unearth the shrine. The shrine itself comes as basically a dungeon cut in half – the occupants of Trollback Keep are digging from the entrance, not realizing that the chasm the imprisoned hill giant urinates into also leads below. (An ogre is fyi magically used as forced labor to clear the path, allowing clever PCs to have the brute aid them…)

Drixell and the local gnomes can warn the PCs of the dangers, sure – but when has that ever dissuades adventurers? The way in which the whole sandboxy aspect is set up is really clever – the verloren, for example, could be made more friendly by telling them where that elusive herd of elk has gone. Oh, and there is an awesome monster/magic item here – a braid of hair, which, when its original owner’s name is called, can be used to rope trick…but it can also animate as a nasty lasso that attempts to stow the party away, then close the dimension, trapping them potentially forever! This is easily one of the best spell-in-a-can items I’ve seen in a while.

Indeed, as mentioned before, the need to clear potentially a path into the shrine proper is an angle all too rarely seen; the shrine proper is rather interesting, in that it features plenty of water, cliffs and the like – it’s as non-linear as can get in such a context, and the presence of water lends further plausibility to the whole erosion/changing dungeon angle. The shrine itself deserves applause in that it manages to be challenging (that’s what the dungeon was created for – as a test!) and marries being something deadly not to be taken lightly with the notion of gnomish playfulness. When a magic mouth requires a knock-knock-who’s there-joke to bypass? Yeah, that is gnomish! And the party won’t forget that they’re treading the halls of gnomes – the contrast between the dungeon and keep is not only one of tone, but also of scale – while the keep has been erected with hill giants in mind, the gnomish shrine has obviously been made for gnomes, and is thus pretty cramped. I love this.

Structurally, this creates a tension of two totally conflicting styles – not once does the keep feel playful; it’s a place of grim and brutal savagery, bulky and makeshift, but also grand and imposing; the leitmotif of the shrine, in contrast, is one of cleverness, of dangerous, but also playful challenge. This contrast elevates and emphasizes the two different themes in contrast to each other, and adds a smart way to emphasize the unique nature of each environment. You may not consciously pick this up, but your brain does. It’s a small thing, but it’s surprisingly effective.

Conclusion: Editing on a formal level can be considered to be good – I noticed a few instances where prepositions are a bit awkward, or where multiple sentences started with the same fronted participle, which is not a practice conductive to the reading experience. These remain the exception, though. On a rules-language level, the module fares better – with the exception of the presentation of the per se interesting sorcerer class. The sequence of information presentation here is not exactly simple or intuitive, and considering the fact that this is not the most complex of concepts, this shortcoming becomes extra-obvious. That being said, what’s presented remains functional. Formatting deserves a big round of applause – plenty of old-school adventures tend to be sloppy in that regard, and this isn’t – the formatting conventions have been implemented in a tight and concise manner. Kudos! Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard, which, from font used to style of presentation, reminded me of the good modules from the days of yore, with artwork consisting of b/w-pieces I’ve seen before, sure – but they have been chosen in a pretty darn clever manner. The b/w-cartography’s highlight would be the slightly-isometric hexcrawl map of the region itself, which, while it could be a bit more crisp, is really neat. A downside would be that none of the maps come in a version without the map key. Ideally, versions that are player-friendly (sans letters and numbers, and with redacted secret doors) can make for a great enhancer of the playing experience, as you slowly unveil rooms. This also speeds up play, so yeah – I hope that the Merciless Merchants will think about including such maps in the future. As noted, I can’t comment on electronic properties, but my perfect-bound physical copy, with its glossy cover, is nice – I certainly would advise in favor of going print.

For me, the passions of roleplaying games and good food are remarkably similar. I am ever craving new and exciting tastes, the jamais-vu experience of exotic and weird experiences; a new taste like a fusion-cuisine sushi or the like? Heck yeah, I’m on board. Same goes for RPGs – I really love that, after all these years, RPG-supplements can still surprise me. However, I’m no hipster – I love, in equal manner, a well-made staple. Present me with a proper American BBQ or a good steak, and I’ll be just as happy and excited.

In a way, Jon Bertani and Aaron Fairbrook deliver an excellent “steak” here; we are all familiar with the themes and tropes presented here; however, there is a reason you go to a steakhouse and not some run of the mill restaurant; much like a good steak, a good take on classic fantasy is actually much harder to execute well than most people think. Bereft of an exciting elevator pitch concept to hook folks in, the supplement must stand on more subtle virtues like texture. To further the comparison – in the case of Trollback Keep, that would be presentation, consistency, the small things – like fair and plausible traps. Like rewarding player skill over character skill. Or the fact that this really lets the players decide on how to tackle it. Or the fact that an obvious dose of extra love went into all the magic items to make them feel, well, magical.

Now, there is one aspect where the whole comparison admittedly falls apart, and that is a good thing: For, you see, classic fantasy has the issue that it can easily feel stale, redundant, like a “been-there-done-that” sort of thing; this is not the case here. Much like a good seasoning can coax out new dimensions of taste from a steak, so have the authors managed to coax something new from the classic tropes. The juxtaposition of sizes and leitmotifs is one such subtle nuance, the other would lie in the twists employed. Come to think of it, warlord dethroned and enslaved by second in command? GNOMISH shrine that actually managed to feel, you know, gnomish? Think about it. It’s so weird, but I genuinely can’t think of an instance where these particular scenarios have been employed, much less in this constellation. And I’ve read a metric ton of modules.

In a way, Trollback Keep thus constitutes a good and honest classic fantasy module will a slightly dark tint regarding the primary antagonists. This module executes its themes surprisingly well, and makes for a pretty impressive adventure. There is not much to complain about here, and indeed, I consider this to be excellent example of an old-school adventure with a smart and GM-friendly presentation – it feels like a classic module that has taken modern presentation standards on board, that can manage to elicit fun even from jaded veterans. All in all, this can be considered to be a success of an adventure. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up, since the module is closer to the 5 stars than the 4 in my book. If the above even sounds remotely compelling, if you’re looking for a novel module that feels like a classic, check this out!

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Trollback Keep
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City of Illanter: Kellerin's Rumble
by Wayne G. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 03/28/2019 16:26:04

An excellent three part adventure.

I'm dropping this into my established Vornheim campaign and using the parts independently. The warehouse will provide exploration of the newly acquired property, conversion of it into a group stronghold, and claiming the surrounding area as their turf. The sewers are handy and fun, plenty of adventuring opportunites there building off campaign seeds I've already planted. And finally the mansion Rumble provides an opportunity to nudge elbows with big wigs and wager large (or not) - with several hooks offered.

The writing is evocative and clean, with only a couple typos noted. The entry layout is easy to use at the table. The random charts are thoughtful and fun. The art is good and adds to the atmosphere - certainly above what I could sketch out myself.

Definitely worth $5 for strictly what is provided but there is so much more a thoughtful GM could spin off or involve in it.

Downsides: the only thing that comes to mind is the final Rumble game is Shut the Box - which is a game where EACH player rolls dice. As there is only one box provided (which cannot be "reset") and eight final players, Shut the Box cannot be the actual game played. However, it should not be difficult to come up with some other game or approach.

All told, I heartily recommend this adventure!



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
City of Illanter: Kellerin's Rumble
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Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers
by A customer [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/07/2019 08:20:17

Review based on a read through: more may be added after play.

A region is detailed; there is a background plot which the PCs can interact with if they wish. Delightfully varied locations: in some areas PCs will want to massacre everything that moves; in the main area, infiltration wearing disguises is a much better strategy. Well designed magic items.

Reminiscent of the Red Prophet Rises without being a retread.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers
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City of Illanter: Kellerin's Rumble
by A customer [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/08/2018 12:08:30

The basic premise is that the PCs inherit a warehouse, and gain an invitation to a notorious gambling event. While some of the party are playing games of chance, others may be attempting rescues, burglary, or gaining information. I would recommend using multiple hooks from the given list, and would definitely include the rescue of a nobleman's daughter as the PCs are given a vital sketch map. Success will be measured in monetary profit, not numbers of foes slain.

Remarkable similarity to tackling a (Sean Connery/Roger Moore era) Bond villain: (i) you play him at games of chance; (ii) he has an exotic partner; (iii) owns a grand residence; (iv) his henchmen wear brightly coloured clothes; (v) one possible task is "rescue the girl"; (vi) crocodiles and big cats to avoid; (vii) opponents killed in horrific/unusual ways (acid bath).

Strengths: (i) Plenty for the PCs to do, and ample motivation to do it. They need gambling funds, so will wish to fence paintings from the warehouse; exploring the sewers will pave the way for a stealthy entry into the mansion. (ii) Interesting distinctive magic items. (A hallmark of this author.) (iii) Many intriguing NPCs well described in just a few words; should be a roleplaying treat. (iv) Lots of potential follow up encounters. (v) Nice clear maps gathered at the end.

Cautions/Weaknesses: (i) Referees will need to read the whole carefully and manage a divided party; it might benefit from a paragraph describing a likely chain of events. (ii) Does it really take one hour to play Shut the Box with nine players? A few minutes seems more reasonable. (iii) Kellerin should have extra cash in the games room, so that he can buy out gambling pledges. (iv) Some tables have very small print.

This version appears identical to a free download from the author's website. Whatever happens, it should be exciting. In play, my group were big monetary winners; they rescued the nobleman's daughter, robbed some chests, but one character was slain by a surprise attacker. As a PWYW offering, happy to give this full marks. Highly recommended.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
City of Illanter: Kellerin's Rumble
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Creator Reply:
Thank you very much for your review and great feedback! Glad your group had fun! This adventure has very minor changes (misspellings, etc.) compared to the patreon version. Other upcoming patreon adventures being sold here, I hired an editor. Thanks again for your time!
The Red Prophet Rises
by A customer [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 06/26/2018 08:45:51

A superior product, oozing flavour, some fantastic imagery. I am reminded of Thulsa Doom's caves in the 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie; I fancy there is a reference to that film when acolytes staring into a reflecting pool claim to see "uh...infinity". Stealthy raids whilst wearing disguises look to be the best bet, and there is plenty of opportunity for sneaking and bluffing before the inevitable clash of swords. There are some well-crafted, distinctive magic items; memorable foes; well described locations, for example a gladiatorial arena with a floor that absorbs blood; monsters which are variants on the classics; interesting allies to free and recruit. I would prefer all the maps to be gathered together (or on the inside covers).

No difficulty in converting and running this in WFRP (2e): the Bull God can be an aspect of Khorne that permits spellcasting; bugbears and centaurs can become bestigor brutes and centigors; named distinctive magic items are an advantage in a low magic setting. "Conrad of Bavaria" led the attack (and claimed the horse).

Highly recommended. This is the Swords and Sorcery module TSR never wrote.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Red Prophet Rises
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Special Area: The Ranger's Hideout
by Sandro C. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 03/05/2018 10:53:27

I had some nostalgia opening up this pdf. Great old school "module" for people who miss the 2nd Edition. It's chock full of encounters, maps, stats, etc. Unique things like sasquatch, guardian spirits, magic items...all in a wilderness setting but with some caves and a tomb thrown in there as well. This is well worth at least a few bucks.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Special Area: The Ranger's Hideout
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Of Beasts and Men
by Joseph C. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 12/19/2017 12:10:11

Great adventure, easily worth the price. An atmospheric adventure in a richly detailed setting. The underlying adventure is a bit on the railroad side (there is a goal and a time limit) but it's not overbearing and there's room for digression. The setting itself is detailed with room to grow into an area that adventurers may stay in. It's a little on the over done descriptions side, but I don't mind that. I would rather have a bit more and pare back as opposed to having too little and wondering why I bought a product. All in all I would recommend the product to anyone looking for a cool adventure that's mostly outdoors with some small dungeon bits too.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Of Beasts and Men
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Creator Reply:
Thank you very much for taking the time to offer feedback! We really appreciate it. We hope your players enjoy it (and survive)!
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