#3 of my Top Ten of 2015!
The latest 4 Dollar Dungeon-module clocks in at 88 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 84 pages, so let’s take a look!
But before we dive into the nit and grit of this module, I feel obliged to point out some peculiar facts of this book: For one, I provided basic advice for a minor crunch-component that is part of the supplemental information in this pdf. I was not involved in any other way with this book. Beyond that, this book follows the format established by 4 Dollar Dungeons – that means you’ll get A LOT of supplemental material herein – spells, items etc. Basically, the idea is to provide a holistic experience and minimize your requirement for book-swapping. Additionally, the pdf does provide all artworks in an appendix, so you can easily print out the pieces and utilize them as hand-outs.
Beyond that, the module offers excessive and sound discussions on the nature of fear in roleplaying games, particularly in the fantasy-horror genre – the observations and justifications for the design-process presented here are more than sound – and the same can be said about the detailed advice provided for the more lethal encounters herein. Few modules provide this level of guidance, so yes, GMs will have a pretty easy time running this – also due to handy tables listing CRs, XP, treasures and encounter-difficulty as well as scaling advice. Of course, the by now traditional, detailed random encounters and traveling information are also provided and, as a bonus, monster-lore for teh GM to hand-out to players, can also be found.
All right, so let’s see whether Richard Develyn can maintain his streak of absolutely legendary modules. From here on out, SPOILERS reign. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. No, really. Don’t spoil a 4 Dollar Dungeon-module – you’d regret it.
All right…only GMs here? Great!
So can Richard Develyn write classic horror? I’ll let the module answer:
“Somewhere deep below the ground lies a vampiric creature of fearsome proportions […] it stretches its veins, each of them big enough to swallow a tarrasque, through densely packed iron and rock […] and when these tendrils break through to the earth’s crust, a new dynasty of vampires soon comes into being.” – and so, an ancient, quasi-cthulhoid menace spawned a vampire dynasty in Maison D’Artère. While subtle, the vampires, supplemented by this vein of terrible power, became a bit too confident – and so, they drew the attention of the order of the lily. Unlike the previous, foolhardy heroes that sought to end the undead menace, the cavaliers did their homework – and targeted a nodule of the vast cthonic creature, plunging the magical lance “Fleur de Lis” into the nodule, pumping poison into the vast creature to destroy it – but such gigantic threats are not easily defeated. Cutting the nodule off from crucial components of the vampiric Great Old One/deity-analogue, the isolated nodule soon turned against the vampires it had spawned – after the blood was drained from the vampires and after the cavaliers had fallen, nothing remained to sate the unholy appetite of the vast creature below castle Rougemord and so, the ancient veins petrified.
The Fleur de Lis, an intelligent weapon with an inflated ego (and a significant paranoia) remained lost, embedded in the ancient, chthonic threat. Now, the order of the lily has tasked the PCs to retrieve the lost item – the first clue of which will force the PCs to explore the tomb of Lemaistre, the fleur’s former wielder.
But first, the PCs will get a taste of the walled town of Englouti (full settlement statblock provided), where the module starts, which also will provide a new experience for people familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: Know how the cartography was pretty much the one thing not absolutely superb in the 4$D-modules? How it usually was copious, provided for all areas, but just functional? What would you say when I told you that this one sports absolutely stunning, original cartography, both in b/w and full color? Particularly the renditions of the towns and overland maps are absolutely awesome and not something I’ve seen in many pdfs, much less ones at this price range, with player-friendly high-res versions provided? Yes, particularly for the low price-point, this is more than impressive.
An interesting note regarding the structure of this module would also pertain to the PCs traveling to the village of Sans-secours, from which the fabled tomb can be reached: You see, it’s spring (NOT autumn or winter!) and thus, it is perfectly valid for the PCs to spend some time in the local village while they prepare their expedition to the remote tomb – and 3 weeks of slowly escalating weirdness and foreshadowing are provided for the life there, adding a pretty detailed depiction of the local life and allowing the PCs to form connections, rather than plunging head-first into horror. Oh, and they will probably fall to a bait-and-switch there – you see, the tomb does not hold the lance…or any undead for that matter. All the nice holy water and spells they brought…are pretty useless. Heck, the place isn’t even really dangerous apart from one particular creature, but that lairs beyond the tomb.
It’s when the trail leads to Rougemord, that things get creepy – fast. The castle’s vicinity seems to spawn rather disturbing visions and nightmares and the approach of the castle is guarded by a creature that fits with the horror-theme in a slightly less obvious manner; that being said, this adversary can TPK foolish groups and provide a nasty hit-and-run adversary. The castle sports massive amounts of ravens, deadly animals, crawling claws – and something I could hug the module for: There’s not a single undead to fear herein. heck, even dueling skeletons are animated objects. The exploration of the castle allows the PCs to partake in the horrors that once graced these halls and much of the place’s incantations remain…as do some outsiders. From psychopomps to devils, there is a lot to uncover and indeed, some places can be considered micro-puzzles.
Describing the immense amount of detail that the castle is studded with would probably bloat this review to an extent I do not consider feasible in this case – instead, let’s skip a bit ahead: Sooner or later, should the PCs not fall to the castle’s dangers, they will find those odd caverns…and finally, the lance. Who is a) annoying and not too smart and b) urging them to pull it free. What nether the lance, nor the PCs know, though, is that with the removal of the lance, a strange heartbeat is heard – and no amount of coaxing can properly jam the lance back inside. From here on out, things become rather dark very fast – all lupine creatures within miles of the castle howl to a blood-red moon, as more and more hungry vampire-spawn are released from the slowly revitalizing walls…and it soon becomes apparent that the PCs are in over their heads…massively.
Fleeing the castle precipice under the auspice of hundreds of snarling, lupine creatures, they can witness a friend fall to the maw of a winter wolf – who also constitutes the boss…but not the end. With the sledge conveniently brought by their erstwhile, now dead ally, the PCs have a sledding chance to escape the doom that has re-awakened in Rougemord in a final adrenaline-laden chase sequence. If you’ve handled this well, the darkness has returned to Rougemord and a new reign of terror will begin…and your players will look at each other in true horror and whisper “What have we done?”
Now if the apocalyptic awakening of a vast clan of vampires and a chthonic elder vampire thing don’t fit your plans, fret not – as the module suggests, there is a certain demiplane of dread all too willing to scour the whole region with its misty tendrils…
As mentioned before, the module has copious supplemental information, including the order of the lily, which actually features some intriguing visuals – and if your players are like mine, they may want to take up the order’s vow and seek to right the terrible thing they have unwittingly wrought…
Editing and formatting are very good -I only noticed pretty minor issues here and there. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeons’ printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience AND in two versions – one for letterpack-format and one for the European A4-format for people like yours truly. The pdf comes extensively bookmarked with nested bookmarks. The cartography’s quality (and particularly, the gorgeous isometric renditions of the places) are beyond what you’d expect to see in such a low-cost pdf. The pdf also comes with high-res jpgs for use with virtual tabletops and, as mentioned before, with plentiful materials for the GM.
Richard Develyn has written the most un-gothic gothic horror adventure I’ve ever read. That’s a great thing. Good horror is NOT, contrary to what 99% of found-footage movies believe, being startled. Neither does it derive its impact from being grossed out. Sure, that can be horrific – but it’s not horror. Horror may spring from the grotesque and alien, sure, but that’s not what this is about, either.
Horror has a psychological component that taps into our psyche with subtle imagery and symbolism – and such symbolism can be found herein – whether it’s the idiot child, the twisted mother figure and the like – we may not perceive it consciously, but our unconscious notes these.
Hence, this module is decidedly smart – it begins at a stage of innocence with set-ups, which, while foreboding, mirror a certain innocence that is inherent in the fantasy genre. It then begins to dismantle it – slowly, but surely, escalating the threat by making the backdrop, symbolically-charged and the imagery of the lance and the nodule resonate with a primal sense of horror to which one could ascribe perinatal dread hard-coded into our very being. The season of growth, early spring, and the imagery of wolves and ravens with their symbolic charges further supplements this reading – it’s these creatures that are the threat in the end, less so than the intentionally pitiful dragon that is featured in the innocent phase of the module.
Surprisingly, in spite of the lack of undead (a stroke of genius design in a genre that all too often is defined by the erroneous assumption that bones, blood and undead are creepy in and of themselves), this module GETS what makes gothic horror work…and one-ups it. While this can be read as a kind of gothic horror narrative, it could conceivably just as easily be read as a tale of cosmic terror or Lovecraftian proportions – the psychological imagery evoked by the module can just as well be externalized to represent a hostile cosmos of adversaries, a glimpse at a world at best indifferent to the suffering of its inhabitants. Note that usually, such a reading would be terribly at odds with any remotely related to Gothic Horror: Cosmic terror is existential, pertaining to a reality that is removed from the individual, to a sense of complete alienation from everything. Gothic Horror, on the other hand, is a deeply humane kind of horror, one wherein the internal struggles of the psyche are made into externalized threats – it is deeply personal. The only reason both are often confused is a shared array of backdrops and styles, both of which, however, sport vastly diverging meanings and readings – they may occupy the same physical building, but they do not play in the same house.
Horror must grow – and this pdf takes its time with a decidedly slow-paced set-up, one that has its climax hit all the harder – so hard, in fact, that it can become the nexus of a whole campaign, should you choose to embark on this train of thought. It doesn’t have to, mind you – but the potential is undoubtedly there. So what do we have here? We have a module that actually understands what gothic horror is about. Yes, at first glance it does read a bit like early Ravenloft modules – something almost decidedly intentional. However, unlike those “bones & blood are creepy”-modules, it shows a distinct understanding why some of the classic Ravenloft modules worked, while others devolved into sucky hack-fests.
This knowledge is not something you could easily convey, either in modules, words or artworks – it bespeaks of a deeper understanding of the genre. To the point, where not even aforementioned pseudo-lovecraftian readings of the subject-matter undermine the impact of this book, allowing for one of the very few cases where one could conceivably generate an overlap between the two without losing the impact on either. And yes, should you choose to, you can make the finale less…impactful…but you’d rob yourself and your group of a truly horrific pay-off of epic proportions.
On a personal level, I read this module with some sense of dread, mainly because I’ve seen A LOT regarding gothic horror – I’ve dabbled for many years in all of its forms and representations, not only in the context of gaming. However, Richard Develyn once again displays his vast and diverse talent by portraying yet another genre in a way I have not seen done before – the design-decisions, imagery and brave ending to the narrative conspire to make this module one that will leave your players at the very least gulping, at the best rather shocked…stunned even. Not via a cheap, narrative trick, but by virtue of all those little symbols and pieces falling into place with an almost audible “thwump.” This module could have been the plot to a classic tale by Poe, had he had a background of fantasy roleplaying games – what more can you ask for?
One more thing: If my above explanations made no sense to you, feel free to contact me and I’ll elaborate. And if you don’t care about any part of this, just run it – you’ll understand what I meant once you’ve completed this module…
Richard maintains his streak – this is the 7th module IN A ROW, all wildly different in focus, story, structure and genre, that gets 5 stars + seal of approval AND status as a candidate for my Top Ten of 2015. In case you’re wondering – yes, so far ALL of these seven featured in the final top ten for their respective years. These modules aren’t simple adventures – they are stimulating, smart art that can be appreciated on a whim or analyzed in-depth. In either case, you won’t find a module even close to this level of quality anywhere near this price-point…or beyond that, for that matter. Dear adventure-authors (and particularly, anyone who throws the term “gothic horror” around willy-nilly without knowing what it means), take heed – this is how it’s done in a fantasy context without losing the impact the genre requires to thrive.