Sunday, September 06, 2009
from Pueblo, CO USA
Review: physical specifics:
1. Each page has 2 columns of rather small 8-point? font which is very crisp and sharp. Any smaller and it would be a problem. As it is, it’s big enough for me.
2. almost no typos
3. 99% systemless: can be used with any FRPG
This module for low-level characters collects three thematically-related adventures, each involving a dead bride. They are set in Pembrooktonshire, though of course the referee can set them anywhere he pleases. Pembrooktonshire is an eccentric village of 2,000 humans almost all of whom are 0-level, set in an isolated valley. Pembrooktonshire feels rather 17th-century to me. See James Raggi`s People of Pembrooktonshire for a description of 137 of the town`s residents.
Each of the adventures can be ran independently of the others, though I think they would serve in the order presented as an ideal beginning for brand new 1st-level characters. Over the decades many of us have enjoyed taking 1st-3rd level characters through Quasqueton, the Keep and the Caves of Chaos, and Hommlet. This module, though, is a new thing. It does not try to ape the old classic modules for beginning characters. Instead, it breaks new ground in the old-school movement.
The first adventure is entitled “Small Town Murder”. First thing to do is randomly give each PC one of the 20 rumors regarding Penbrooktonshire. Supposing the party decides to visit Pembrooktonshire, they will hear the talk of last night’s murder. On her wedding night a bride was murdered, and the evidence points toward the gypsies hired to provide the wedding’s entertainment. Seems one of the handsome young gypsies got too friendly with the bride. Almost immediately the entire band of gypsies yes, including the children was arrested and summarily sentenced to be burned to death in three days.
Bam. There it is. Once the PCs hear about the murder, arrests, and sentencing, the module leaves them free to do whatever they desire. Want to poke around and search for clues? Fine. Want to question people? Fine. Want to draw swords? Fine. Want to ignore the whole thing? Fine. In short, no railroading.
Detailed descriptions of several pertinent locations within Pembrooktonshire are given, as well as detailed descriptions of several Pembrooktonshiretonians, gypsies, and other visitors. Perhaps my favorite is Tiberius Novius Tucca, a Knight of Science. The Knights of Science are insufferably holier-than-thou types, extremely judgmental and arrogant. But you can’t just hate them, because their unpleasant behavior to quote the module “is all tolerated because there is no question that the Knights will gladly, and without hesitation, sacrifice their own lives in order to save innocents from evil.” A holier-than-thou type who really is holier than you!
This adventure, in my opinion, is a great way to introduce PCs to Pembrooktonshire and its odd inhabitants. Spending 72 hours exploring the town and talking to its people is a great way for the PCs to discover what an intriguing place Pembrooktonshire is. Hopefully they’ll want to stick around for awhile. But if not, that’s OK.
The second adventure is entitled “The Great Games”. Once every 10 years, six engaged young couples compete for the honor of being sacrificed to the mountain spirits who keep Pembrooktonshire safe from invaders and from the depredations of monsters. The six grooms compete in rough-and-tumble games. The winner is the first one to die. His lucky bride gets to be sacrificed to the spirits. Everyone including the sacrifices thinks it’s a great system and a bargain: Just two deaths every ten years for a peaceful existence? Sign me up!
Once again, there is no railroading. The PCs can do whatever they want, though of course it would be unwise to openly try to disrupt the sacrifice as that would anger 2,000 Pembrooktonshiretonians. Not good odds.
After the lucky sacrifice is determined, she is conducted a little way into the forbidden mountains that surround the sheltered town. There, at the mouth of a dragon’s cave, she is tied to a pole and left to her fate. Every ten years when this is done, the sacrifice’s screams are heard as the procession descends the mountain.
Things aren’t always what they seem. The adventure reveals why Pembrooktonshire is seemingly immune to invasions, monsters, and even earthquakes. It tells how the sacrifices die. And it leaves all the decisions up to the PCs. It’s a great way for the PCs to learn that the people of Pembrooktonshire are not merely odd, but downright twisted.
The third adventure is entitled “A Lonely House on a Lonely Hill”. Eventually the PCs will decide to explore the surrounding mountains. This is one possible adventure they can have there.
A generation ago a Pembrooktonshire man did the unthinkable and left Pembrooktonshire to go adventuring. He returned with an elven bride. Here’s a spot where the module’s author really shines. The townsfolk didn’t think this marriage was wonderfully diverse. Nor did they envy the guy for having a hot elf chick. Instead, they saw her as “foreign and alien…so deformed that her eyes and ears were out of proportion”. Unsurprisingly, the deformed foreign woman was accused of witchcraft. Hence, the man took his bride into the foothills of the mountains and there built a house for them to live in, away from the ugly prejudices of Pembrooktonshire. Before long the man returned to Pembrooktonshire, because his wife had died. Now what do you suppose happens to a persecuted dead elven bride?
This section of the module details the house and grounds that the man and his elf-bride used to inhabit, as well as a system of caves. It all ties together well, not being just a glop of thrown-together junk. Fun point: Look up the name of one of this section’s monsters, “Tyhma Paska”, in an English-Finnish dictionary.
All three of the adventures in this module exude a strong atmosphere, further strengthened by Laura Jalo’s illustrations. Having a single artist do all the work helps give a feeling of unity to the module, and Jalo’s drawings are done in an evocative style different than other D&D art with which I’m familiar. I don’t know how James manages to find all these talented female Finnish artists and then convince them to draw for his RPG books, but I hope he keeps doing it. Jalo’s unique style is just one more illustration that the Old School Renaissance is more than merely nostalgia for “the old days”. The Old Game can be played with new pieces and new images and still remain the Old Game.
I would go so far as to argue that James is being radically faithful to old-school D&D by giving us adventures so fundamentally different than anything TSR ever published. When we first adventured in the Keep and rousted kobolds in the Caves of Chaos, we had never done anything like it before. We were treading on new and unexplored ground. If James had given us another dungeon with more humanoids to slaughter and rob, he would be giving us a very different experience from what we got the first time we experienced B1 or B2. Instead of giving us the sense of wonder and of newness we first experienced in the Keep or in Quasqueton, he’d be giving us a well-worn and comforting experience, kind of like an old song sung hundreds of times.