An Endzeitgeist.com review
The second adventure in the „Shadows over Riverton“-AP clocks in at 58 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 54 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy of the book. You’re seeing the review this soon because I received the copy prior to release to the public and thus had ample time to analyze and test it.
Now, before we dive into the meat of this adventure, let me talk a bit about the series: The author was one of the triad members of Living Greyhawk, and particularly involved with the Bandit Kingdoms. This module, in tone and spirit, thus breathes the legacy of Greyhawk, and indeed feels like a lost Greyhawk adventure with the serial numbers filed off. That is a good thing. The adventure takes place in the city of Riverton, the stage set in the first adventure of the series, and directly builds upon it – characters met and interacted with directly influence some of the proceedings and represent the main hooks. That being said, the adventure is VERY easy to adapt to other locales. As long as you can justify a humanoid slum (perhaps due to a lost war effort) in front of an otherwise more traditional city, you’re good. It should be noted that the Bandit Kingdoms-flavor that suffuses this adventure means that the town is grittier and somewhat more realistic than comparable settlements.
Now, if you recall my review of the first adventure in the series, you’ll recall some components I loved: For example, Riverton gets settlement statblocks for EACH QUARTER. These, if relevant herein, have their modifiers hard-baked into the challenges. This is just one the various components, wherein this adventure sets itself apart from the majority of modules. The second, and most important aspect here, though, would be the obsessively, meticulous detail that is provided for the GM. PCs follow their employer after the quest, due to massive paranoia? There’s a scene that covers it. Need an encounter for one of the myriad gangs in the humanoid-slums? There’s an encounter for that. Unlike most published adventures, I can’t see this one requiring much in the way of GM-expansion o account for players going off the rails, which is even more interesting and remarkable, considering that this is a pretty free-form investigation/infiltration!
Now, the adventure does another thing right that I really love: Rules-decisions, explanations and help for the GM is provided in a massive array of footnotes that further make handling the actual running of the module much, much easier. The adventure also sports a metric ton of statblocks, which render the challenges faced distinct and don’t leave you hanging dry when you’re looking for the stats of character xyz. This all conspires to make the adventure work in as much of a Go-Play-fashion as can be: While, being an investigation/infiltration and pretty free-form at that, the adventure works better (like all modules!) when you’ve read it prior to running it, but you won’t need to make many notes and GMs with at least a bit of experience under their belts should be able to run this without previously preparing it in detail. The adventure also presents an impressive array of read-aloud text, in vivid prose, bolds rules-relevant context so it’s easier to find (without violating formatting conventions)…and it eve sports an appendix, wherein effects of different lodging situations that the PCs find themselves in have significant mechanical aspects. The adventure also provides a handout.
In short: This is one of the most convenient to run modules I’ve seen in a while, and its attention to detail is impressive and really helps to set the stage and maintain the atmosphere throughout: It generates a sense of reality, an impressive achievement. There is, for example, a magic item that most groups will not find. It is pretty cool and relevant for a powerful figure in town, though – the adventure even devotes time to the negotiation process regarding the figure and the item! In short: There is A LOT of care poured into this adventure, and it shows.
All right, this is as far as I can go without diving deep into SPOILER-territory. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great! So, it’s been a few days since the PCs arrived – enough to have their accommodations in Riverton have an impact on their well-being. The Halfling Stefania, an acquaintance of the PCs from module #1, contacts them to meet up at a tavern – and while this may sound like the oldest trope in the book, it provides a great example for the case I made regarding details. The module takes into account that PCs may show up early and scan the area; it covers the discussion of the task at hand with both read-aloud text and bullet points for conversation, skill-use, etc. – and if they unearthed the connection of the goblins from module #1 to the slavers in the slums, that also plays into the proceedings. Misty is acting on behalf of one of the most powerful NPCs in the city, who comes to meet them: None other than Misty Homeagain. Now, in another module, the proceedings would just boil down to a read-aloud text. Here, Misty uses a custom spell to provide a discreet means to converse (and paranoid PCs are taken into account) before talking to them – it’s a small thing, but it provides a rules-based foundation to discreet talks that adds a sense of realism and authenticity to the matter at hand. Heck, as mentioned before, paranoid PCs stalking Misty may be in for a thrashing – they’re small things, yes, but they add to the immersion, and this level of detail is maintained throughout the module.
So, folks have been disappearing, and as the PCs found out in module #1, there may be a tunnel to provide egress to Riverton, past the corrupt, but at least nominally stringent guards. Thus, the mighty halfling wants the PCs to go to the humanoid slums before the city, to Beggartown, find the missing folks and rescue them. Sounds easy, right? Well, Beggartown is not a nice place to be – the rickety shantytown is characterized by lawlessness and the corrupt half-orc captain Llerdnig is one of the movers and shakers there. With orcs, tieflings, gnolls and goblins freely living there, some races like elves, dwarves, etc. may want to think about disguises. Nice: Stefania will accompany the PCs as a sort of GM-PC, and her input, well-meant, if not truly helpful, can help steer the PCs. If she does accompany them, they’d better make sure she gets out alive, though! Anyways, with incidents or without, the PCs enter Beggartown, where the trail does not really grow cold – instead, it becomes hot rather quickly, as the PCs are faced with a cool and diverse skill challenge/chase: The contact amidst all the squalor and misery of Beggartown seems to have just met his rather grisly end at the hands of gnolls, who see the PCs rather instantly, courtesy of Stefania. (Neat: This does help “sell” the chase as a not a railroad!) If the PCs succeed in catching up to the mottled gnolls, they’ll have a fight on their hands. But there is a pretty good chance the gnolls get away as well – so, how does the module handle that? Well, successful PCs can wring the location of the slaver compound from the gnolls, no problem…but if they failed…they don’t really have an issue.
Clever PCs will note that the mottled fur only is sported by one of the gnoll tribes in Beggartown, a tidbit of information that clever GMs can seed…and even if the PCs know where the complex itself is, they’re left with more than one issue. You see, the tribe is rather sizable. To the point where assaulting the compound sans doing legwork is not a smart move. But if they haven’t managed to pinpoint its location, we have no problem either: You see, the compound obviously needs to purchase goods, right? Well, one means of thinning the opposition (and potentially secure an ally for a coup-d’état of sorts) is to ambush said team! There are plenty of other ways to help weaken the gnolls, provided the PCs can survive in Beggartown, that is – random encounters for all of the diverse gangs in town are provided…and, indeed, if the PCs are smart, they may even manage to take down the Alpha of the gnolls prior to assaulting the complex: Growl, the rather huge (size Large) leader of the gnolls likes to spar in the Chapel of Slaughter, the ramshackle fighting pit/neutral ground of Beggartown, and the module actually talks, in detail, about the process of becoming pit fighters and potentially stopping the brute. No mean feat, but if the PCs manage to achieve success there, they’ll have a demoralized tribe when faced with the folks who defeated their champion.
Speaking of “Alpha” – where this, in another supplement, would have been just a moniker to denote the chieftain, here, we actually get a fully depicted hierarchy – and gnolls being gnolls, there is plenty of dissatisfaction and drama behind the scenes, including affairs and the like. Roleplaying savvy players may well be capable of destabilizing significant portions of the tribe before attacking the compound. Extensive notes on further development pertaining both success and defeat allow the GM to organically maintain the flow of the adventure. Oh, and guess what: Yes, the module accounts for the PCs buying the captives! Provided they have the funds, this would make for a smart move prior to attacking the compound, for example, as the PCs wouldn’t have to take care of the NPCs. Speaking of which: Hirelings and named NPC allies that have a stake in seeing the slaves freed may be recruited, and the adventure provides proper names, motivations and further adventure hooks for the slaves. Are you starting to see what I meant with “impressive details”?
The assault on the compound, should the PCs choose to undertake it, is btw. not a singular rail-road-affair – there are chances for folks not being there, and day/night does matter as well. Heck, the respective shacks etc. get full game-mechanics, should your PCs choose to smash through them! This is a bit like having terrain that can be damaged in a videogame. While, in pen & paper, you theoretically have that all them time, but flimsy construction of the shacks makes it really relevant here! Having stats for the frickin’ structures makes the whole complex feel more dynamic, and before you ask, the compound is fully mapped in pretty detailed color maps. As a minor downside, these maps do not come with a key-less player-friendly version, which is a bit of a bummer, considering that it’s pretty likely that the PCs will capture a gnoll at one point. That being said, the gnolls are amazing – there are plenty of archetype’d and template characters here that deserve the moniker: There would be, for example, a venerable gnoll who has become slow in her old age, the flavor represented by drawbacks; a crippled gnoll s who dabbles in fire breathing and makes use of goblin skull bombs, nearsighted ole’ Stinky…these gnolls feel indeed like they have lived. While rank and file beings exist, it is ultimately in these NPCs that the tribe truly comes to life.
I did mention an item, right? Really clever PCs may notice a magical shovel used near the trash pit, an unlikely treasure not identified by the gnolls – that would be the shovel of the final rest, which can yield PCs a nice financial windfall…if they don’t overly tax the goodwill of the guardian of the graves, that is. It should also be noted that XPs gained are contingent on more than enemies slain, so that’s another big plus as far as I’m concerned.
Editing and formatting on a formal level are excellent – Casey Brown’s professional background and experience in editing is quite apparent here. I wish I was as good at editing my own writing! On a rules-language level, the adventure is similarly impressive – though slightly less so: When e.g. a caltrop-trap references “slicing” damage that should be “piercing.” That being said, the module is actually more precise than PFRPG’s base rules here – caltrops inflict RAW, in a nonsense-decision, untyped damage, which clearly should be “piercing.” So yeah, my nitpick pertains something that the module does better than the core rules. Here and there, I could nitpick some minor rules-language in new content, but never to the extent where it would constitute a proper issue. The copious amount of statblocks are solid as well – I attempted to reverse engineer and encountered no problems. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The print version is b/w and sports a nice, matte cover; if you’re familiar with Raging Swan Press’ PoD-books, it uses that type. The lack of player-friendly maps represents my only somewhat valid complaint on a formal level against this module. The pdf version comes with a copious amount of nested bookmarks that render navigation comfortable and painless.
Casey Brown’s second foray to Riverton is amazing. It develops the strengths of his previous offerings and applies them vigorously to a module-type that is a) harder to pull off properly and b), wherein the application of this attention to detail is much, much harder. From a formal perspective, this is one of the easiest infiltration/investigation-sandboxes to run that I have ever read. So, it’s comfortable to run and provides plenty of gaming material as well.
The second strength of the module is one that is harder to describe and get right. Most folks would call this “old school”, but that term is, at this point, a flawed one. You see, “old school” does not equal “old school” – when we take a look at OSR-gaming, for example, we have e.g. the Advanced Adventures-line by Expeditious Retreat Press, which champions a slightly weird AD&D-ish feeling; we have the psychedelic nightmares of LotFP; we have Frog God Games’ fantastic Lost lands, which are a precarious, dark setting that always had, at least for me, a subtle sense of melancholia suffusing its books, a feeling of a world that is in the process of moving on, of empires fallen and a dark age impending; there would be Goodman Games’ DCC-material, which I always refer to “Metal-fantasy.” All of these, and many, many tastes more, are generally called “old school.”
There is another type of old school, one that you only get to see rather rarely – because it is really, really hard to pull off. You see, I could sum up this module as “PCs rescue slaves from gnolls in a slum.” I wouldn’t be lying. It’s a basic premise. The module does not throw some central weirdness in your face, it does not use some over the top shenanigans to distract you from structural shortcomings. It doesn’t have to. It is my firm conviction that unpretentious, Greyhawk-style fantasy sans a ton of high-fantasy stuff, with grit and detail and grime, is extremely HARD. You can’t rely on a catchy pitch that will make folks go “OMG, zis iz teh awes000m1111oneone!!” and you always risk the danger of becoming generic, forgettable. In fact, only your prose, your ability to evoke a concise, living, breathing environment, is what separates you from a “been there-done that” type of experience. You have to work in the small aspects, and when you botch the job, you’ll probably get a “soso”-review that can’t put the finger on why they were not engaged. That type of writing is HARD to pull off, very, very hard. Few publishers and authors manage to hit this precarious balance, this elusive sweet spot, with e.g. Raging Swan Press coming to mind as one of the few publishers that do.
You may have realized it by now: This module manages to hit the right mood right on the head. And it, in passing, serves as a perfect rebuke to the claim that complex systems like Pathfinder can’t do this tone. The module uses a TON of material from Pathfinder’s extensive mechanics to enhance the mood that is conveyed in the adventure, to underline the realities of the game-world. It represents an impressive synthesis of mechanics and flavor, all in the service of storytelling.
Why should you care? Simple. Because we frankly need more adventures like this. Because this atmosphere, this feeling, is precarious, hard to get right, and because, even if you prefer far out concepts, the weird ultimately does become stale if you constantly barrage the players with it. The wisdom inherent in this type of old-school sensibility is, that in order for the outré and fantastic to properly work, you have to ground it, contextualize it. And that is much harder than writing an adventure about 8-armed flying monkey/mi-go-hybrids with laser canons. See what I did there? I bet you thought “that sounds cool” – see, that is the elevator pitch I mentioned.
I can’t do the same type of elevator pitch for this module. Don’t get me wrong. I love far-out weirdness. But know what? Chances are, that if you buy this module (the price-point is btw. imho really, really low for the amount of material), you’ll start smiling upon reading the module. Because it draws you in. Because it feels alive and organic and plausible. Because it doesn’t rely on flash and bang and world-ending threats, instead opting for a more subdued theme – without becoming generic. It is interesting, once you start to think about it, that strange and weird concepts and high fantasy over-the-top superhero-esque gaming have become so prevalent that fantasy like this, grounded, grimy, and down-to-earth, has become fresh, unique, and a rare and treasured type of experience. I do get why, mind you – in the hands of a mediocre author/designer, this would have been boring. It’s not.
The second installment of “Shadows over Riverton” is an impressive, extremely flavorful, detailed, and most importantly, fun adventure that even relatively new GMs should have no problems with. In fact, it’s good enough to transcend the lack of player-friendly maps that most of the time prevents modules from reaching my highest accolades. This is worthy of 5 stars + seal of approval, and if Greyhawk and the type of module I mentioned above even remotely struck a chord with you, then give this a chance. If you never understood why those old folks lament the lack of proper Greyhawk support by WotC – look no further than this to understand it! (And, if you’re a fan of Raging Swan Press, check this out – same hold true for vice-versa, obviously!)