Psychedelic Fantasies: Proteus Sinking (OSR) This installment of the Psychedelic Fantasies-series clocks in at 11 pages of content, so let’s take a look! Yep, we get basically a fifth of a page editorial and the like – and then, the rest is adventure. This series adheres to a pretty minimalist approach to module presentation – two columns of black...
This module clocks in at 30 pages of content, already disregarding pages devoted to editorial, front cover, etc. The module was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Okay, so “The Red Prophet Rises” is an adventure intended for 3-6 characters of levels 3-5, using the For Gold & Glory ruleset based on 2nd edition. This means that we have THAC0s, descending AC, HD, morale noted, etc. – when all’s said and done, this means that conversion to pretty much any OSR-rules system is pretty simple, as the statblocks etc. note a lot of information. Even an activity cycle, mind you!
The supplement includes 5 new spells that may be encountered/learned, all of which have a strong blood magic type and properly note the classes and spell-levels. They are pretty darn evocative – Spear of Blood, for example, targets a corpse or injured target, crystallizes blood from the source. With an attack roll that employs the Wisdom bonus, the spear is flung into a target, dealing damage. Damage exceeds that of e.g. magic missile, but the requirement of blood source plus attack roll makes this clock out. There also is a delightfully gruesome self-boost/buff that makes the caster bleed from eyes and mouth with a burbling scream, praising the Bull God. Even per se less evocative spells that deal damage have an angle that makes them stand out – such as pronouncing a forbidden word with the curse of sanguine castigation. What about animating blood in serpent form? Or a spell that controls blood of targets for a gruesome puppetry-spell? Yeah, pretty cool. Three new monsters are included as well, all featuring a pretty detailed summary that explains their roles as well as their combat behavior.
The module also features 14 new magic items that follow a similar design paradigm – their names are bolded for convenience, and XP-values for them are provided. The items also manage to do something that precious few modules get right – they actually feel MAGICAL. They also are smart – there is, for example, an item that can increase weight – basically a magical anchor. Or what about the gourd of the old blood? Imbibing from that one makes you forevermore hear the heartbeats of those nearby. Sure, it can drive you insane, but it’s so helpful to prevent being targeted by those pesky assassins. Oh, and yeah, you can go berserker afterwards. What about a magical gypsum stone that can heat the surrounding area? There is but one item I’m not happy with – Veindrinker, a battle axe +2 that heals the wielder with each hit and animates the slain as bloodless corpses. Clearly an evil item, it is not intended for PC-use, as it requires the weekly death of a humanoid. That being said, the item would be better served if it had the caveat that only non-harmless creatures can be used to heal the wielder. Otherwise, those trusty murderhobos will be carrying a bag of kittens around to massacre and heal up. And infinite healing exploits are not fun, regardless of the game. That being said, a GM can and should limit this one to NPCs or add such a caveat.
Okay, that being said, the module does more: There is an appendix listing the friendly NPCs to be encountered with full stats AS WELL AS descriptions/read-aloud texts. Oh, and guess what? We get the same treatment for the hostile creatures as well! This is some next-level awesomeness. Furthermore, the final page is devoted to a super-handy monster cheat-sheet that lists all the combat-relevant components on one handy page. It should come as no surprise, but the module does feature random encounter tables, as well as a pretty extensive rumor section. It also has a strong angle that hasn’t been done in any other module I’m aware of: The primary hook of the adventure is that a paladin can get their steed here! The hook is supported by a proper vision you can paraphrase. It should be noted, though, that the adventure does not necessarily need this angle to work – it can be run perfectly fine without that. Reaction tables and the like are included as well.
Indeed, if the above was not ample clue, the presentation of the information herein is exceedingly effective: Each keyed locale features first a brief description, and then a bullet point list that makes it very simple and convenient to parse information. The b/w-cartography of the module is pretty detailed and sports grids etc. – while a few of the numbers on the maps are slightly pixilated, I found myself not minding this for once, as the locations themselves are smartly laid out. Unlike many a module, this one has a pretty strong focus on allowing the PCs to engage with it in a variety of ways; indeed, it is rather nonlinear. The module can and will run vastly differently for different groups due to the clever dungeon design. Case in point: The module has a SCHEDULE. Yep, a full table that notes when what happens each day, rewarding PCs for doing their legwork/reconnaissance! Oh, and before you ask – yep, the module does reference this table internally when required, making actual implementation of the schedule easy and seamless for the GM. Not only does this show smart design, it also makes the entire module more dynamic and alive.
Genre-wise, this is a Sword & Sorcery adventure, situated in some borderlands though one could easily argue in favor of it being dark fantasy. What do I mean by this? Well, this is a pretty bloody module, obviously, but it’s not grimdark; neither does it revel in excessive gore. (Unless you want it to…) It also has a very unique angle, in that it does not feel like a system is taken to express preset sword & sorcery tropes with it; instead, all the items and spells and components are used to make the atmosphere emerge from within. The rules are not bent to generate an effect. This is not a D&D-iteration used to express the themes, it is the themes emerging from play. I have seen precious few adventures pull this off. As an aside for all fans of WFRP (Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying) – if you make the Bull God an aspect of Khorne, this is pretty much an instant WFRP-adventure. As far as environments are concerned, this works imho in any region that can sport a canyon – I could see this work in anything from the frigid north to the blasting heat of the deserts, provided a sufficient amount of uncivilized tribes can be found. Difficulty-wise, it should be noted that this is probably closest in aesthetics to DCC-adventures – it is deadly, yes, but the challenges faced are founded on the principle of player-agenda; this very much focuses on roleplaying over rollplaying, and smart players will have a good chance of survival. Those PCs that think they can murder-hobo through the module by simply charging in? They’ll lose their lives upon bloodsoaked altars.
Okay, and this is as far as I can go without diving into serious SPOILER-territory. Potential players should seriously jump to the conclusion. You’ll hate yourself to bits for spoiling this one.
All right, only GMs around? Great! The people of the bull, wiry and beardless, are a harsh people tempered by life on the wind-blasted plains. When the outsider Khazra came and smote the chieftain, pronouncing himself prophet of the Bull God, things changed Driven by blood-shrouded visions of conquest and a crimson paradise, the tribe embarked on a grand pilgrimage across the plains, towards a canyon, where a featureless obsidian looms – here, so the prophet proclaimed, the bull of infidels would flow in streams, opening the gateway to the crimson paradise – and thus, with Khazra’s proclamation, a ritualistic revelry of sacrifice, bloodsport and orgiastic revels commended. Nearby villages were raided by the people of the bull, drugged by the hallucinogenic Crimson Tear, a flower growing solely on battlefields. Thus, the barbarians lair within the canyon, drugged (which btw. does have an impact on the rules and explains some of their bloodthirsty, fanatical behavior!), feeding the Obelisk That Thirsts with precious red.
Meanwhile, the steed touched by the forces of good is forced to act as a beast of burden, opening the lid of the pit of sacrifice. The PCs only have 7 days to stop the slaughter enacted by the people of the Bull, and if they’re smart, they’ll scout the region beforehand – the presence of the aforementioned schedule means that smart players will have a much easier time dealing with the adventure. I mentioned before that the module uses schedule and encounters to generate a sense of authentic, dynamic content, right? Well, guess what, this is even further enhanced by the presence of a multi-stage alarm system and detailed notes on responses to the PC’s intrusion. If the PCs are smart, they can time their assault, for example, so that the hunters are currently outside. Disguising and infiltration – all possible. Indeed, the whole region is subdivided in thematic regions, such as “champion’s quarters”, allowing the GM to quickly and precisely grasp the layout of the caves and canyon.
Even on the micro-level, the sheer attention to detail is astonishing – bookshelves note secret forging techniques (with actual impact on the rules!), tables contain a plethora of detailed items, and an alchemy lab, well-hidden, does come with a 20-entry long, one page spanning table of effects for experimenting with things that the PCs don’t understand. There is, for example, a vial with petrified wood inside – which emits a bloodcurdling scream. This is the result of random experimentation, mind you – and results in a wandering monster check, which is a great point to mention that the module is generally very fair – harsh, but fair. Traps make sense where they’re placed, and risk-reward ratios are tightly balanced in creative ways.
The first part of the module, unsurprisingly, deals with the canyon itself, and covers 27 keyed locales. And OH BOY. What a canyon it is. To quote the module: “A massive rough-hewn bust of a bald man with a lengthy braided ponytail glowers down from the 50 foot high rock outcropping that divides the canyon. Narrow stairs cut through the rock face ascend to rope and wood-planked bridges that connect the canyon walls to the rock outcropping.” This is not designated as read-aloud text, but frankly, it established a better atmosphere than many modules designating such text. You can picture it, right? The massive face, the canyon walls? Somewhere between Ozymandias and Savage Sword of Conan’s mind-boggling vistas, this sets a grand stage – and it’s but the introduction. Freeing prisoners and uneasy allies are just a few of the options available to the PCs as they explore this place, and indeed, smart PCs may find allies even among the People of the Bull – if, and only if they are smart..So yeah, this is decidedly not just a hack and slash module – you can attempt to play it as such, but it’ll probably wipe out the PCs.
Beyond the canyon containing the people of the bull and their orgiastic revelry, the module actually offers more – much like a multi-part Savage Sword of Conan saga, there is more – beneath the canyon lies a dungeon, abandoned cellars of a now ruined wizard’s tower, where true evil looms. Down in the pit of despair, in the dark, may be found – a summoning circle contains a massive, demonic arm rising from the floor, the entity trapped for untold centuries; floodgates and ghosts can be found – and there is the Keeper of Names – a magical construct that will progressively start to name the PCs if they don’t retreat – and names have an inherent power to them. The Keeper can annihilate those it names in detail, progressively unraveling their sense of self in a sort of weaponized nihilism powered by cosmic principles. I love this! I love it even more because it is a puzzle boss fight that rewards clever tactics by the PCs and makes the creature feel like a proper construct. And then, there is the obelisk – an inverted black pyramid at the top funnels, drop by drop, blood to the obelisk, where currently essentially a proto-vampire god lies entombed and trapped – the blood sacrifices of the people of the bull will awaken an obsidian lord in service to this thing…and the obsidian might spread. The boss fight against the obelisk’s creatures, with round by round effects both rules-relevant and cosmetic, represents a great, dare I say, nigh perfect conclusion for the module, with plenty of ideas for further adventuring, for I have touched on only a fraction of the components featured within.
Editing and formatting are top-notch on a rules-language level, very good on a formal level. Layout adheres to a nice two-column b/w-standard that evokes, down to the font used, classic adventures. The artworks featured within are b/w, plentiful, and well-chosen. You may know some of them from other publications, but even with my plentiful experience, I’ve seen a couple of them for the first time. The cartography is b/w and quality-wise and regarding its functionality beyond reproach, though I wished we a) got a key-less, player-friendly version, and b) that the maps were a bit higher res. I’d really love to see player-friendly modules – and I’m sure that the many VTT-fans would agree. I can’t comment on the electronic version’s merits, but the print version is perfect-bound, with glossy covers.
The information design of this module, penned by Malrex and PrinceofNothing, is excellent, and so are the details; the way in which…
Who am I kidding? I’ve strained very hard throughout the review to not burst out in jubilation, so let me make this abundantly clear:
This belongs in the library of any self-respecting GM. Period.
I don’t care if you’re playing PFRPG 1e or 2e, D&D 5e, OSR-games, DCC, 13th Age, WFRPG – if you even remotely enjoy dark fantasy or sword & sorcery, then you MUST OWN this module.
This adventure is not only a great reading experience, it actually plays better than it reads (!!) – it is a resounding rebuttal to several notions: It shows that new school type of narratives and old-school emergent gameplay are not at odds; it shows that you can write a module that feels like a lost TSR-classic (one of the good ones!) and improve upon the formula; it shows that you can use mainstream D&D-based rules to weave a sword & sorcery storyline without requiring a ton of tweaking to systems and implicit assumptions.
It also is, in my humble opinion, one of the very few examples where module-writing has been elevated to an art form.
And I don’t mean that in some hipsterish BS type of way; I mean this in the truest sense of the word. It is a very subdued and subtle process – one that is more evident in e.g. Trollback Keep. In that module, the use of leitmotifs and their contrasting was more readily apparent. In this module, EVERYTHING makes sense; the authors obviously share a deep understanding of not only what makes the tropes of sword & sorcery and dark fantasy work, they also know how to IMPLEMENT them within the context of the game, all while retaining an almost obsessive sense of plausibility. They clothe this pitch-perfect implementation of tropes and details within a rules system with panache aplomb, making the module’s plot and scenario slide into the system like a ruler into their regalia. Adding a constant sense of dynamic, lived-in worlds to the whole just puts the icing on the cake – if this module was a character, it’d be Thoth-Amon or Kulan Gath, in regal strides, surveying all below as they kneel. There is a sense of majestic rawness and harshness to this adventure that is hard to describe and even harder to evoke.
This is on par with the best of Harley Stroh’s sword & sorcery work for DCC. This feels like someone read the entirety of Savage Sword of Conan, wrought a distilled essence from it, and by some eldritch alchemy, crafted a module from it.
In short, this is a benchmark-level masterpiece against which all other modules in the genre will hereafter have to be judged. And many will be found wanting. This was released last year, but I only got around to reviewing it due to my health situation this year. As such, this gets what it rightfully deserves – full 5 stars, my seal of approval, the “Best of”-tag as one of the best sword & sorcery modules I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering, and this is a candidate for my top ten of 2019.
You can get this masterpiece here on OBS!
The Merciless Merchants are currently kickstarting a a mega-adventure that is, looking at what I’ve seen from them so far, a no-brainer – but they are not as well-known as they should be, considering how good their modules are. So if you want to support truly outstanding adventure-writing by criminally-underrated authors, please support the kickstarter for the City of Vermilion here!
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