Retribution & Road of the Dead

 Retribution

Retribution is 71 pages in pdf format with 1 front cover, 1 blank page (inside the front cover), 3 pages credits, half a page OGL, 1 page ads and 1 page back cover.

The pdf is extensively bookmarked for ease of reference; all the statblocks also have flavor-text describing the monsters/enemies as well as summaries of the obtainable treasure at the end of each part, making the adventure very easy and comfortable on the DM.
The adventure starts off with the obligatory 3 pages of introduction, synopsis of the adventure, background and a map of the Lonely Coast, the region in which Retribution is set.

This being an adventure review, the following does contain SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion.

Part I: Sanctuary (8 pages)Retribution starts off with a journey through a snow/sleet storm towards the Priory of Cymer that perfectly captures a foreboding, gritty and harsh atmosphere of the adventure and sets the mood for the rest: The tone is one of an old, uncaring world that is not too far from the past of our own in terms of the dangers of traveling.
The 2 encounters on the road are very good examples for the fact that environment, circumstances and the like may make for very interesting encounters, even on first level. There are also some hooks suggested to start the adventure, one of which assumes that some of the PCs are sick and go to Cymer to get healed. That’s an unconventional hook that actually worked very well for my group and further set the gritty mood – Excellent idea. The wilderness-journey part of the adventure ends when the PCs arrive at the Priory of Cymer.

Part II: Signs (31 pages) The next part of Retribution is a roleplaying-heavy/investigation-section, something I’d love to see more often, especially due to the fact that the atmosphere is constantly building up. From the beginning and the introduction of the NPCs, the first thing that springs to mind as an analogue to the atmosphere is The Name of the Rose. The atmosphere is simply superb and one of the most dreaded role-playing encounters, the dinner with several NPCs, has been presented in a way that makes the conversations flow naturally and with ease as several sentences and talks are presented for the DM.

Furthermore, the text is interspersed with troubleshooting advice, columns on the reaction of NPCs to some of the ominous happenings in the next couple of days and ends in an exciting series of encounters that serves to further underline the established gritty and ominous atmosphere. The climax sees the PCs undertake a kind of skill-challenge and roleplay their way past a potentially dangerous being.
When first reading the whole of part 2, I thought: Hell yeah! That’s how a role-playing adventure should be.

Part III: Darkness (12 pages) The final part of Retribution is a descent into darkness, both physically into a dungeon and symbolic, into the tarnished soul of the primary antagonist: It includes a chasm and a tidal surge, mirroring the emotions of the antagonist in the obstacles and enemies the PCs will have to face until they reach a furious showdown and triumph in battle, slaying the villain. No, wait. They can actually talk sense into the villain in the final confrontation, save his soul and solve the encounter by role-playing instead of roll-playing! In my humble opinion, a showdown of a diplomatic skill-challenge, a heated discussion can evoke even more suspense than a frenetic battle (Plus, the PCs had enough of that already!).
Thus ends the adventure section with all the NPC-destinies results of the PCs blunders or victories.

We also get a 5 pages appendix on the Priory of Cymer in excruciating detail, going so far to even provide a short list of the books in the library.

The second appendix is 8 pages long and focuses on the folk of Cymer, presented in the detailed manner I’ve come to expect of Raging Swan Press: That means they all have their own b/w character portrait, own distinct mannerisms and distinguishing features that help the DM to make them memorable. Each of them comes with an additional hook to draw the PCs into the adventure, centered on the NPC, making the adventure easier to individualize to your PCs.

The pdf closes with appendix no.3 and new rule items (4 pages), to be precise the half-goblin race, a new magic item (the Blessed Aspergillum, which has its own picture and even a whole print-out page in the look-see art web-enhancement) and information about the 2 default gods used in the adventure as well as a sect.

As always with Raging Swan products, you can download several free web-enhancements on their homepage:

– One contains 4 pregen-characters
– One has the collated statblocks: The pages are organized by creature/faction type, 9 pages long
– Advice on scaling the adventure: 1 page
– Look-see art has all the art from the adventure, easy to print out and show to your players: 14 pages
– The last enhancement, Nemesis, has 4 statblocks to make the villain level with the players and reuse him for future adventures.(lvl 3, 7, 12, 18)
The whole, free Lonely Coast pdf can be considered a huge additional web-enhancement for Retribution.

 

Conclusion:

The quality of the editing is top-notch, I didn’t find any typos or glitches. The adventure has wilderness, investigation and dungeon, action and role-playing, does not shoehorn or railroad the player’s actions (as far as that is possible in a non-sandbox-module), is extremely easy on the DM and features the evocative, very atmospheric fluff I loved in the free supplement The Lonely Coast. Due to the multilayered characters (that actually deserve the moniker and go beyond being one-dimensional encounters/foils for the PCs), the attention to detail and the symbolism of the adventure, Retribution not only manages to slowly build up tension, but continuously ups the ante on the mysterious happenings and locations until the finale. The diplomatic skill-challenges that encourage the use of more than one skill in role-playing as well as the fact that the adventure dares to not solely rely on “Kill-it-with-fire”-tactics is another major Plus.

I’ve only got two minor complaints:
First is that there is no player-friendly map of the dungeon. I like to cut up printed maps and present them to players while they are exploring.
My second gripe is something more severe, though: The maps of this adventure feature my arch-nemesis, the bane of my existence: Letters on maps. I hate them with a passion. I realize they are necessary for the DM-maps. But why do they have to be in player’s maps? So they can see all significant locations and walk from A to B to C? So they can be reminded that this is a game with hotspots and get ripped from the awesome mood of the adventure? I just don’t get why maps bare of letters and numbers to hand out to your players are so rare. Usually, that alone would suffice for me to deduct one star.

However: With the web-enhancements, top-quality prose and plot, the free Lonely Coast file as an additional supplement and the subtle, yet intricate symbolism, I am almost forced to acknowledge one fact:
Retribution ranks among the best first level adventures I’ve ever read. It’s not over the top, it’s personal. And it’s better off for it. Check it out. It’s better than almost any first level adventure I’ve read for PFRPG and its predecessors. My final verdict will thus be 5 stars + seal of approval.

 

 

Road of the Dead

Raging Swan Press has managed to publish one of my favorite 1st level adventures of all time with their very first release, Retribution. Road of the Dead is the new adventure by Raging Swan and thus, my expectations are sky-high and very hard to meet. While Retribution was EXTREMELY friendly on the DM and tried its best to make the adventure easy to run, Road of the Dead is the first adventure in Raging Swan’s Go Play-series. The aim of the series is, as far as I’ve understood it, to make adventures the DM can pick up one hour before any given session, read through and run. A lofty goal indeed and I’ll try to make my review taking both my own standards and this ambition into account. That being said, let’s dive right into the review!

The pdf is 51 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 blank page on the inside of the front cover, 2 pages credits, 1 page table of contents, 1 page OGL, 1 page back cover and an accompanying blank page on the inside of the back cover.

That leaves 43 pages of gaming content.
The pdf kicks off with 2 pages of explanation of how to read the stat-blocks to help novice DMs and 2 pages introducing The Lonely Coast, Raging Swan’s free mini-setting, which, if you haven’t already, you should check out. For ease of reference, we get both a player-friendly map (1 page) of the area and a table including how long travels to specific locations take with different base speeds. An awesome idea that helps run the area and, if you’re like me, will appreciate. I hate calculating distances and overland traveling times. Thanks for not making me do it in this adventure.

In stark contrast to the multitude of different genres we had blended together in Retribution, Road of the Dead is a straight dungeon crawl spanning 18 pages. “Straightforward” might, however, not be the correct moniker for the dungeon the PCs are about to explore. Many of the encounters can be solved via more than one way, depending on the skills of the PCs. Only one kind of character won’t have too much to do: If you happen to have a social skill monkey/ diplomatic character, you won’t have too much for this character to do.

“So”, you’re asking, “Endzeitgeist, what makes this adventure special or stand out? What about its atmosphere?”

All right, I’m going into minor spoilers there, so potential players, please skip to the next paragraph.

The basic idea is somewhat reminiscent of Aztec/Maya myths of a physical road to the underworld, adapted to a fantasy setting. 3rd level and PCs treading the road to the underworld? Yep, however, the dungeon is only modeled after the real road (or what the architects deemed the road to look like) and thus works.

 

Mechanically, the dungeon is interesting due to several factors that can be ultimately be summed up in one word: Clever. Almost every encounter features interesting environmental factors influencing the combat and rewards PCs for fighting clever and makes good use of these factors. In stark contrast to almost all “Pick-up-and-play”-modules I’ve read so far, this makes for complex and challenging encounters. And no, the DM is not forced to skip through the rules all the time to look them up: They are all summed up in the respective encounter and feature even tables summing up the modifications of e.g. fighting in the water. The finale is lethal and PCs should have learned to fight intelligently at this point.

With regards to the atmosphere, I’m kind of torn. On the one hand, the adventure can work awesome and build significant tension, if pulled off right by an experienced DM. On the other hand, most of the potential tension comes from stuff like a bone portcullis, red water and the like, i.e. the “blunt force”-approach. While I personally like and can pull off romps like that, I can see the atmosphere becoming cheesy. In e.g. direct comparison to Retribution, there is no psychological component or particular involvement on the player’s part. Granted, that’s not necessary for a dungeon crawl, but it would have been the icing on the cake.

The adventure closes with two optional encounters each taking up a page, one as a complication/sequel/follow-up to the final battle (at least for sadistic DMs like me) and the second one a fairly straight follow-up encounter/interlude.

After that, we get the first appendix, new stuff (4 pages): 3 new demons (all CR 3, nothing to really write home about), 1 new disease, 2 new magic items and a new exotic double-weapon.

One of the best parts of the adventure, though, is the second appendix (10 pages), which contains player’s handouts. Several key locations have their very own artwork you can show your players along a part of the map for strategic position and in case they don’t get the layout of an area from your description. That’s right. Player friendly maps you don’t have to cut from your DM-map AND artworks. And yes, no secret compartments on the player maps. Very, very nice. This should be standard in the industry. The 2 new magic items also get their own pictures in this section, so you can easily hand them and their stats over to the players.

The third appendix contains 6 pre-generated PCs. (7 pages)

General features:
The editing and formatting is top-notch, the artwork is b/w and, while not absolutely gorgeous, beautiful in its own way. Due to the many artworks in player handouts and their quality, I’d say you get a lot of good art for your money. The writing helps you evoke suspense and the complex encounters can easily be run without having any other book at hand or skipping through the module.

 

Conclusion:
This is a hard one for me. If you’d ask me, which module was superior, I’d immediately, without thinking, reply: Retribution! And then go on to rant why it’s so great. However, Road of the Dead does not try to be a sequel and it mostly succeeds at what it does. It’s an atmospheric, cool dungeon crawl with an iconic location, clever encounters and intelligently designed environmental hazards. Has it succeeded at its premise, i.e. being a “Pick up & play”-module, with minimum preparation time? Actually yes, it did. I DMed the adventure and only read it an hour before running it and it worked, despite all the environmental factors. For DMs with limited time on their hands, this is a real boon and testament to clever organization and formatting.

However, being the nit-picker that I am, I also have some criticism: Road of the Dead lacks the spark of genius I so enjoyed in Retribution. Even if you don’t take into account the genre of the adventure (straight crawl vs. wilderness/mystery/crawl), I felt like something was missing and, after careful consideration, managed to pin it down: Social interaction. The most suspenseful encounters in Retribution included talking to enemies and overcoming them via skill-challenges/role-playing and the like. In the case of Road of the Dead, your PCs won’t have an encounter like that. I don’t know whether my group is an aberration, but our diplomat (i.e. social monkey) didn’t have too much to do in this adventure and one or two encounters like that would have deepened the immersion of the players. I realize that this criticism may be a bit unfair, as this is supposed to be a traditional crawl.

Keep in mind that this is criticism on the highest level.

My final verdict is 4.5 stars. If you’re looking for a nice, crunchy crawl that is easy to run, add half a star. If you are one of those guys who want their PCs to talk and negotiate with just about everything, subtract half a star. If you’re busy and in need of a good module to pick up and play, be sure to pick Road of the Dead up – the artwork as well as the DM-friendliness is worth your money.

 

All right, as always, thank you for reading my ramblings,

 

Endzeitgeist out. 

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About Endzeitgeist

Reviewer without a cause