This massive book clocks in at 243 pages, not counting front cover, back cover, editorial, etc; if you take away the KS-thank-you page and the SRD, this huge book still remains 240-pages strong. My review is based primarily on the hardcover of this book.
I backed Snow-White on kickstarter, but have contributed to this massive book.
All right, first: A brief history of this project. Back in 2013, AAW Games released a two-part adventure-saga as part of their A-series of modules, set in the campaign setting of Aventyr. The adaptation of Snow-White as a module was heavily inspired by traditional, non Disney-fied versions of the folktales; basically, the ones I grew up with, and did a LOT of things right – with several highlights and takes on the tropes, a lot of imaginative potential and unique environments, the series made my Top Ten list of that year. When the kickstarter was launched to expand upon this already excellent basis, I knew I’d have to get it. Now, a massive hardcover in full color graces my book shelf – but has getting the revised version been justified?
The short answer to this question is frankly “OH YES!!”. The more complex answer is a bit longer. Before diving into the meat of this mega-adventure, let me clearly state that this is not just a module – this book basically doubles as a city/wilderness sourcebook and has greatly expanded upon the concepts of the original iteration of the adventures. All right, but before we do: A piece of advice for both players and GMs – try to not SPOIL yourselves – this mega-adventure works best when you do not immediately know what you’re actually playing, so put up those GM-screens, fellows.
In order to avoid SPOILERS, potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? So the Klavekian kingdom and its more loyal vassals often have rather strained relationships – there is racism versus non-humans, the ever-present tax man looming and then monsters and hazards both mundane and magical exist in the world of Aventyr…plenty of work for adventurers. Unless you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes, the war is far away and the resident adventurers are out there smiting the villains, who wisely hide in their hell-holes to bide their time until more turbulent times arrive. Indeed, in the lull and pastoral idyll seem to be but the precursor for a new golden age for the town of Morsain: The daughter of the town’s lord Herttua Valta is about to be wed – to royalty, no less: Gorgeous, intelligent Lumi Valkea Valtatytar is about to be joined in wedlock to none other than the Klavekian Prince Ruhtin – and, seeing how the job-situation is pretty bad, the PCs have accepted guard duty – not knowing they’ll be guarding nothing short of a royal wedding!
Suffice to say, the module thus begins in an unconventional manner – guarding the festivities, after all, is not an undertaking you embark on while armed to the teeth with weapons of magical mass destruction and in grimy, blood-caked armor – the PCs will be pretty much naked regarding the magical arsenal, which provides a unique change of pace from the get-go. So, Castle Morsain – in the original, this place was little more than a backdrop for the mechanically relevant components. Here, nothing could be further from the truth: The castle sports a huge full-page illustration (one of many, just fyi) and detail-wise even explains the flag-based warning-system employed. Moreover, the massive castle actually sports drop-dead-gorgeous isometric full-color maps made by map wizard and heir apparent to Jonathan Roberts, the one and only Tommi Salama. Yes, I may be a bit ecstatic regarding them…but they’re just so beautiful!
Ähem, beyond the gorgeous presentation, the beginning of the module has been streamlined – in order to prove their mettle, PCs will still have to deal with the security of the castle’s respective rooms, which conspicuously contain a significant gauntlet of traps – now here’s the interesting component: The respective traps escalate in power – in a surprisingly linear way, but they did so in the original…the trick this time around is that the skill DCs provided generally sport degrees of success. Of course, the increasingly devious traps and poisons employed only are a means to determine the capabilities of the PCs and, if in doubt, there is a means to save lethally poisoned PCs in the guise of the famous and beloved queen attendant Haijyin. Of course, this should already incite paranoia and distrust – are the grinning ragamuffins (think of them as a cross of racial-equality/anarchist/anonymous-like guild) behind the traps? To make that clear – No. The traps are there to provide a means to judge the competence of the respective adventurers – for, eventually, after investigating the local crème-de-la-crème, sooner or later, Lumi is very likely to drop down during the pre-wedding banquet – and a member of the elusive group is running – fast.
Whether or not the PCs manage to grab the fugitive, Lumi will be unconscious, courtesy of a brilliant, nigh impossible to detect 5-component-based super poison. Under the stern auspice of a less than amused prince Ruhtin, the PCs will be assigned guard duty….and, obviously, the night will not be kind: Awoken by a hustle, the PCs will have to storm Lumi’s room, only to witness swarms upon swarms of bats and even dire bats trying to abduct Lumi! Worse, each area of effect attack in the noble chambers will be VERY expensive…so yeah, fireballing the swarms is NOT a smart move… This particular encounter was a bottleneck in the original module – well, this time around, we have scaling bats depending on the capability of your PCs and the proceeding chase across the roofs is wonderfully detailed and smart. And yes, the module goes on whether the PCs manage to retrieve her or not – Lumi will be kidnapped…potentially by a doppelgänger of a PC, whisking her away right from under Ruhtin’s eyes, implicating the PCs to be in cahoots with the ragamuffins…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
On the next day, the PCs will certainly have their work cut out for them – after convincing Ruhtin of their noble intentions, the hunt is on – how exactly, well, that does very much depend on the sensibility of your group – thanks to a scroll of locate object, the PCs may actually find a culprit – who promptly dies when captured, of course…but there is a more..let’s say, wicked: The Huntsman, with Lumi in tow, leads 4 horses into the woods – and the PCs will have a highly complex and entertaining chase on their hands (it is here that you can use the chase-deck, should you own it) – the chase offers alternate obstacles and is pretty brutal, as the PCs make their way through the never-ending sea of trees. However, the huntsman actually is VERY smart – 4 horses, an orb of misleading and invisible correct horse – unless the PCs are up to their very a-game, they’ll be on a wild goose chase. But, alas – while Lumi may be lost in the woods, the Huntsman doesn’t manage to finish her off – instead, he is destined to meet his end at the poisonous mandibles of strange albino-centipedes…and the PCs will stand in front of royalty without anything to show for. However, the albino-centipedes and complex investigations (with a streamlined mini-game) may provide a means that points towards the catacombs beneath caste Morsain, sealed beyond a logical lock with a connect-the-dots-puzzle.
However, before (or while the PCs are crawling through these catacombs, you may wish to have them explore the massive, fully detailed town of Morsain – the colossal place is a true fairy tale town – perhaps THE evocative fairy tale town. What do I mean by this? Well, know how I said that this was a sourcebook as well? Guess what: Morsain has enough material to run a whole campaign in it – and I certainly hope we’ll see many more adventures here, for the potential is MASSIVE. If you consider yourself a scholar or someone versed in mythologies and fairy-tales, this will be an exercise in proving your mettle: No less than 144 locations (!!!) are provided, plus 6 delightful adventurers – these are fluff only, but hilarious: Sandoval Poe with his tame ravens Eddga and Alleynne is fun, but obvious; a kid grippli ranger is fun – but see, the 144 locations and shops cover…just about all of Grimm’s Fairytales – including the more obscure ones. The truly astounding achievement about them, though, is how they all add a unique spin on the material, codifying it in the context of the roleplaying system: The Bremer Stadtmusikanten become polymorphed bards in the guise of animals; Hansel and Gretel are selfish witch-killers, spirit-bottled secrets sold by a night hag in disguise, shops that always see you make a loss, Bluebeard as a barber – all of this just breathes imaginative potential and literally can occupy you for years, should you choose to develop the material. The chapter also features rules for varying proficiencies in a given language (simple and long overdue!) and, as a whole, renders this massive chapter exceedingly compelling. Obviously, the city is fully mapped.
Speaking of maps – the aforementioned catacombs, which, in the original, were nothing more than a short filler, now are a proper dungeon, 4 levels strong, with the elements as a theme – before you groan at an elemental dungeon: One, it comes with superb isometric maps. Two, and more important, this is a dungeon for the thinking man – sure, you can waltz through this one – but the whimsical fairy-tale style riddles and puzzles contained in this dungeon actually make it a delight to run – with a lock of hair as rewards for braving the dangerous dungeon, the PCs return to an enraged prince and lord, if they manage to survive the snipers, that is. Only to have Hajyin teleport them after the hair, smack into the middle of the haunted forest – which has its name for a reason…and it’s COLD. VERY COLD.
Remember when I said that this was also a wilderness sourcebook? Well, the haunted forest comes with a massive alchemist’s journal of magical plants – from bladebark leaf to ghost flute shrooms, the massive chapter sports a huge array of lavishly illustrated plants that have intriguing alchemical uses, come with harvesting and use-information…and yes, this section also covers unique non-combative fauna – fey elk, frost crickets, frogs of ice, beetles with leprechaun-like faces…and have I mentioned the miniscule minitaurs or the laughing squirrels…there also are paralytic fleas…angel moths…and quite frankly, with these unique plants and creatures and the detailed random encounter pages, you can run encounters for weeks before even touching the main plot of this free-form section of the adventure. The haunted forest does have several places that can prove to be rather lethal, depicted in more detail, though. The first of these and one of my favorite hazard-encounters ever, would be the bottomless pit – a predatory, intelligent pit. No, I am not kidding. And yes, careless groups can actually be TPK’d by this beast.
More on the whimsical side, which is never far from the dark in this eerie forest, would be an opportunity to play kasta, a unique mini-game with some fey in their fully mapped glade…and also find out about a fey currently entombed in a coffin of crystal – this being is tied to another sub-storyline of the forest, namely the forest’s maze. The maze now sports a much more complex design, has an absolutely gorgeous map, more versatile encounters – and, it has a twist: Like every good maze, it obviously has a minotaur – who waits, weapons drawn, at the center, guarding a girl forever asleep – though the strange fruit that caused this sleep can also be found in the forest, obviously their effect can only be broken by true love’s kiss – something you either roleplay or check via tables provided. This girl is btw. tied to the fey – they both fell afoul of the dread fruit – and yes, the minotaur, fearsome though he may look, is the girl’s guardian and family, so murder-hobos will potentially be in for a shock.
Anyways, sooner or later, the trail will lead the PCs, e.g. via the girl they just saved, to a hidden cabin close to some gushing waterfalls – and yes, the cabin is fully detailed with isometric maps as well…and by now home of the 7 dwarves (AAW Games’ crew being represented in their awesome artwork – including my dear departed friend Joshua…he would have loved this…) who are currently kinda-but-not-really are holding Lumi hostage/thinking on what to do with her – after all, the position of non-humans in Klavekian society is anything but nice: Capable and actually nice, their traps and fighting capabilities are pronounced, so a friendlier approach may be in order – whether by fight or party, the misunderstanding is hopefully cleared – but meanwhile Lumi has fallen to the wiles of her adversary, put into stasis by the queen attendant’s cursed items, guarded by dangerous flora – and yes, you can actually run this first and then have the PCs search the forest for potential cures, leading to the girl etc. – the whole haunted forest, ultimately, is thoroughly modular – and so is the solution to this module.
You know, there is more than one way to awaken Lumi – alive or unconscious, in love or not, allied with the dwarves or not – and this ultimately determines the social climax of this module, the homecoming – no less than 8 (!!!) final scenarios are detailed for the GM. Now here’s the catch, though – the PCs may, even after all this, potentially not realize what they played…or they lack evidence of the exceedingly cunning queen attendant – who has a superb means of escape in her repertoire. So yes, she will probably get away…but there may be a wedding after all. Sure, the honorable and reasonable scenario sees a wedding with Ruhtin, right? Well, I always had a thing for pale, black-haired women with red lips and blue, grey or green eyes…so personally, were I playing this module as a PC…I’d try to go for true love, become an outlaw and try to fulfill my childhood fantasy of living happily ever after with Lumi…which would put the mightiest nation of Aventyr hot on my trail…but I guess that would be a tale for another module…
Now obviously, this module is not limited to the adventure – there is an array of unique magical items to be found in here and none other than Wolfgang Baur has crafted an array of unique spells -which includes spinning straw to gold or animated, dancing hatchets? Have I mentioned the wall of animated gloves that may chaotically poke or slap you around? There is also a poison- and trap-index, full stats for 3.5 and PFRPG and Ed Greenwood provides a tragic twist on the classic tale in his “The Things We Do To Chase Beauty” short story, which expresses sympathy for the devil. If you’re not familiar with the unredacted tale…the classic Grimm-tale is included herein…oh, and one thing made me grin from ear to ear: You know, all those gorgeous, massive maps? They come in an appendix…and with extra, player-friendly, key-less versions. And yes, beyond the isometric ones, we ALSO get top-down versions – now THIS is how map-support for such a premium module ought to be done – absolutely gorgeous!
Editing and formatting are very good – for a book of this size in particular, the editors did a great job. A special shout-out to the layout artists Justin Andrew Mason and Jensen Toperzer – the 2-column layout is STUNNING – with apple blossoms and apples as borders for read-aloud texts and gorgeous initials, this very much aesthetically feels like a beautiful, old fairy tale tome. Similarly, the artists Mates Laurentiu, Jacob Blackmon, Justin Andrew Mason, Jen Page, Bruno Baxila, Eric Quigley, Jack Holiday and Jeff Ward have achieved something remarkable – in spite of the different artists, this book’s huge array of artworks, many of which span whole pages, are not only original – they have a distinct, unified visual identity and style, basically think about classic roleplaying artwork in full color quoting fairy tale imagery. THEN add the absolutely superb maps by Tommi Salama, player-friendly versions included. Oh yeah, the electronic version is fully bookmarked – but if you have the option, get the hardcover. It’s gorgeous.
SERIOUSLY, if you usually skip my conclusion’s first paragraph, please read it this time around – these folks deserve recognition for the fantastic work delivered. This is one of the most beautiful, huge adventures I’ve ever read and seriously is so concise in its aesthetic direction it is a pure joy to just flip through the pages.
Stephen Yeardley, Jonathan G. Nelson and Will Myers, with contributors Jacob Blackmon, Justin Andrew Mason and Joshua Gullion (R.I.P.) have taken an already legendary two-part-saga and crafted something thoroughly outstanding from it. Where the original modules had some bottlenecks and minor filler places/weaknesses, this new iteration of the material is absolutely legendary in every way: What was before a bland filler mini-dungeon is now a thoroughly unique dungeon; what was before a bit opaque or linear is now thoroughly modular: If your PCs out-or underperform in the module, the narrative is there to catch you – basically, this module is now as nonlinear as it can be and can be considered a thoroughly unique take on a tale as old as time. The adversaries are smart and the book goes one step beyond – the city of Morsain and the haunted forest would be great stand-alone source-books – even as “only” a scavenging ground of backdrop for your own stories, this is a massive success and worth every cent of the asking price a hundredfold -personally, I’m particularly impressed by the immense feat of making a linear tale we all know thoroughly modular and FRESH.
So no, there can be no question, not even an ounce of a doubt regarding the final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval + BUY THIS!!!-recommendation. As a reviewer, I face only one conundrum – the original modules already made my Top Ten-list of a year (which should tell you something about how good this is now!) and I have a policy of not nominating books twice for my Top Ten lists – otherwise, e.g. Strange Magic’s constituents or Ultimate Charisma would grace my lists in the respective follow-up years. As crunch-books, I could at least designate them as EZG-essentials, though.
However, there is a huge amount of new material in this book…so what to do? Well, Frog God Games’ Cyclopean Deeps was a two-part-saga and Part II has been retroactively added to my Top Ten of 2014. Here, however, that wouldn’t feel right, for this would score higher than the initial books. I thought long and hard…and know what? This deserves a Top Ten of 2015 spot…so I’m cheating my own system, hopefully retaining my fairness regarding the other nominees: This gets an unranked bonus-spot on my Top Ten of 2015 -this would be on the list, high on it, were it not for the previous wins. Consider this as basically a thoroughly impressive, wonderful book that could work just as well with younger audiences. I know who I’m running this for soon… Ähem…oh yeah, once again: Get this!
You can get this gorgeous mega-adventure here on OBS!