Wednesday, March 21, 2018

[D&D] [Review] The Red Prophet Rises

I don't really do reviews. Mostly that's because I don't really buy new gaming stuff - both because I already have a lifetime supply, and because most of the new stuff I do run across tends to not be very good (or, more charitably, doesn't line up particularly well with my tastes). Nonetheless, occasionally people will give me stuff for free, and that's what happened here: one of the authors of this module (Malrex) reached out and asked if I'd be willing to read it and share my feedback if he gave me a free copy and I said yes. I gave it a quick skim-read, and found it surprisingly not-bad, and shared my thoughts with the author. And since I've already written them down, I figured I might as well post them here as well, as a review of sorts. The first part is background and summary for the benefit of people who aren't the module's author, followed by my reactions and opinions, pretty much directly copied and pasted from what I already sent to Malrex a few days ago.

The Red Prophet Rises, co-written by Malrex and Prince of Nothing, is a 40-ish page AD&D-ish adventure for characters level 3-5, published by The Merciless Merchants and available for $5 in pdf format (or $10 in print) from Drive-Thru RPG. It's a location-based adventure centering around a canyon occupied by a particularly nasty and brutish gang of cultists and a set of caves beneath their lair, of which they're at least mostly unaware, in which assorted ancient horrors dwell. There's a special horse being held captive that can become the mount of a paladin character, which is a possible hook to draw the players into the adventure; otherwise the DM is left to his or her own devices how to use this adventure (making it truly modular). The cultists in the canyon are bad guys to the core, keeping slaves and making regular bloody sacrifices to their Bull God. This is described in a fair amount of gory detail, but it doesn't go totally over the top. The level of gore is probably about on the level of Games Workshop's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventures from the 80s. Which brings up possibly the oddest aspect of this adventure, that it's rather-inexplicably labeled as being for use with the "For Gold & Glory" ruleset which, from what I gather, is an OGL "retro-clone" equivalent to 2nd edition AD&D. This is an odd choice by the authors, because not only did I not notice any particularly 2E-ish elements in the adventure (the NPCs don't have "kits" or "wild magic" or flintlock pistols or any of that stuff, the only specialist wizards are illusionists, etc.) but the tone and style of the adventure is very far from what I think of as "2nd edition AD&D" style: it's dark and bloody, and it's also location-based and open-ended, with minimal backstory and no real "story" except what happens in play. I'm sure the authors had reasons of their own for labeling the book this way, but it seems to me like an odd choice that will probably limit their audience, because people who like the 2E flavor won't like this adventure, and the people who would be more likely to like it probably won't even bother looking at something labeled as crypto-2E. With some very minor changes in the statblocks, this module could just have easily have been released for OSRIC (the 1st edition retro-clone), for which I think it would be a much more natural fit.

And with those preliminaries out of the way, here's what I did (and didn't) like about this adventure based on my skim-reading (I can't claim to have read every word of every encounter, but I feel like I read enough to get a pretty good feel for it):

In general, I like it. I like the set-up with the obvious bad guy cultists on the surface and the more mysterious and weird stuff hidden underneath. That's a pretty standard D&D adventure trope (e.g. Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun) but it's one of my favorites, and the way they've handled it here doesn't just feel like a rehash of earlier work. I like that the villains seems really villainous but without dwelling so much on the gore and cruelty that it feels like they're reveling in or getting off on it. It feels like a situation that could be straight out of a Conan story, which for me is a good thing. I like that the canyon is described in an open-ended manner so there are several different ways the players can approach and deal with it, that there are several flavorful NPCs and potential rival factions, and that there's a suggested timeline of events to make the location seem "alive" (and not just have everybody sitting in their rooms waiting for somebody to come kill them) but that it's not fixed on rails: there are some implicit or potential "scenes" but none of them are fixed or mandatory. I like the way the room descriptions are written and organized, with an introductory paragraph followed by bullet-points enumerating special features and/or possible actions and conditions in a very user-friendly manner that seems like it would work very well at the table - better than when reading. The way the room descriptions include the possibility of different conditions depending on when and how the adventurers encounter them (e.g. that various NPCs and monsters may or may not be present) reminds me a bit of some of my favorite adventures like Dark Tower and Snakepipe Hollow (the latter a RuneQuest adventure).

On the minus side, though, it feels really overwritten to me - like they've taken a situation worth about 20 pages and filled 40 pages with it. The setup feels to me like something that should be a pretty minor adventure - that should fill one or two sessions of play - but the authors have gotten carried away and added too much to it. The adventure details 43 locations, every one of which is described sufficient detail to make it at least potentially a significant and unique encounter. This seems overdone to me: since there are so many rooms and every one of them is something new and different and active there's no real "downtime" - no rising and falling action, but rather it seems like it's "all climax." It feels to me like the authors have crammed too much into the package - that they had so many good ideas and wanted to include all of them - and I think the adventure would've worked just as well (and would probably also be easier to run) if it had about half as many encounters, or at least if there had been more "mundane" stuff mixed in as palate-cleansers to help pace the big moments.

The treasure in the adventure is the same way: all (or almost all) of the treasure is unique magic items with individual names and paragraph-long descriptions of their various functions, most including both benefits and drawbacks for their users. To me this felt like too much, not necessarily the quantity of items as the number of moving parts per item, especially in combination, and especially if the adventure is played as part of a campaign where the players will keep these items and accumulate more on top of them. I know it's conventional wisdom nowadays that generic and from-the-book magic items - +x weapons, etc. - are boring and should be avoided, but in play these things work, because the players get the benefit of them without having to actively think about them, to remember and track all of the moving pieces. Standard magic items are the background against which the unique and colorful items stand out, but when everything is unique and colorful it becomes a burden and frustration, too much to deal with.

Now I get that the authors are in kind of an odd and difficult spot because this is something that they're asking people to pay money for, so they feel the need to give the audience their money's worth in terms of density of fresh and unique stuff that feels like something most readers couldn't have just come up with on their own, and I accept that that's a legitimate concern and that they've maybe handled it in the way they felt was best (make everything special!), but I don't think that necessarily makes for the best adventure to actually sit down and play at the table with a group of friends. If I were to run this in an actual game (and the fact that I'm even thinking in that way means that they've mostly succeeded) I feel like I'd probably end up cutting about half of it out.

Of course I might use something that I cut out of this somewhere else (it's not that I think the encounters are bad, just that there are too many of them; e.g. there are two full pages devoted to a hidden alchemy lab that feel completely excessive to me in this context, but I could totally see this room being inserted into another dungeon where it would fit just fine), and other DMs who feel the same way as I do might choose to cut other encounters than I would (kind of like how everybody agrees that the Beatles' White Album would've been better as a single album but no two fans will ever agree on exactly which songs should have been included on that hypothetical album). Plus we know  that most people who buy this (or any other module) aren't going to actually run it - they're going to dream about it and hopefully draw some inspiration from it and maybe strip-mine some material out of it. So, in that regard, this grousing should be taken with a grain of salt and the authors probably know what they were doing better than my armchair second-guessing gives them credit for. Being in a position that an adventure has too much interesting stuff that you need to trim some of it out to make it manageable to is certainly preferable to the all-too-common alternative of boring adventures that offer nothing that hasn't already been seen a thousand times before or incomplete adventures that the reader/would-be DM has to effectively co-write to turn into something decent and usable.


  1. 2e doesn't have a tone, or it it does, it is more like 101 different tones/pick the tone you prefer. I do not know retro clones well, but I can only presume the author chose as they did because they prefer one over the other. 2e (& presumably clones of it) actually are BETTER at changing up something like "tone", than 1e (& presumably OSRIC) was/is. Furthermore, most 2e gamers didn't use kits, wild magic or flintlocks (perhaps more's the pity).

    It sounds like a fine product from how you describe it, to me. "Too much interesting stuff" sounds absurd, but that there is no pacing changes probably IS an issue.

    Thanks for the review.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. We're not going to debate the merits of 2E AD&D here. Your opinion of my opinion of 2E AD&D is of zero interest to me.