A Faceless Enemy (DCC) (Priority Review)
This module clocks in at 33 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 30 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request of one of my supporters, who also donated the softcover to me.
DON’T SHOW THE COVER TO YOUR PLAYERS. This is one of the modules that has a SPOILER on the cover. -.-
This module is nominally intended for 4—8 characters of 5th level for DCC, and it takes place in the “Tales from the Fallen Empire”-setting.
…yeah, if you’ve read my review of that campaign setting, you might realize that this isn’t exactly good news as far as I’m concerned. HOWEVER, it should be noted that this module, while indeed placed in the somewhat unfocused campaign setting, actually doesn’t really integrate MECHANICALLY with the systems presented in “Tales from the Fallen Empire”: Neither the sanity mechanics, nor those for magic item creation or ritual casting are actually used herein, which struck me as somewhat puzzling. Indeed, when compared to other 5th-level DCC adventures, this yarn is positively tame in quite a few instances, so if you expect world-shattering, save for the final confrontation. That being said, when compared to “Colossus, Arise!” or similar high-level DCC yarns, the module is definitely less challenging. It also focuses more on rollplaying than quite a few DCC modules, with player-skill being slightly less important.
Genre-wise, we have a sword & sorcery yarn here, and one that can be converted to other campaign settings with relative ease; I’ll go into that aspect below, in the SPOILER section. The module comes with a nice b/w-map of the region it takes place in, which annoyingly lacks a scale, making distances just as difficult to determine as in the campaign setting. The other two maps deserve both being cheered for and booed: They get cheers for the fact that we actually get player-friendly versions sans SPOILERS. They get boos for their actual utility, for they depict, in scope and function, essentially a corridor and a boss-arena; overarching regions/complexes are not included. While aesthetically pleasing due to the artworks included on the maps, I couldn’t help but wish that the budget for these useless ornaments had instead be spent on actually useful maps.
Okay, this out of the way, let use dive into the SPOILER-section. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only judges around? Great! So, the knights of Tal Abastion are essentially an order of austere knights that looks after the ruins of the fabled city-state of Uruk, pretty much the magical ground zero of the setting when it comes to dark magics; as such, the knights are financed by other nations and states, and behave in a way like a foreign legion of sorts, where the stalwart, those that wish to escape, or that have a higher calling, can attempt to get away, start anew, and guard the realms. If you can insert a kind of super-deadly and dangerous ruined city in your game, and justify an order of people guarding it, then you can run this module.
This guardian army is facing a serious issue: their fortress of Harkanis Bek has been systematically deprived of the supplies they need in the wastelands surrounding Uruk by the brigand band known as the Red Scarves. The modules begins in the city of Tasagaroth, where Shou Shen hires the party to deliver an important magical item to Harkanis Bek, the Heart of Yan Shia, which can generate water and once per lifetime, heal a wounded person of their injuries. Unlike what you’d expect, this item is not properly statted, nor are its weight or dimensions ever properly defined, which is somewhat weird, considering that a local thieves’ guild, in a meaningless throwaway encounter, might well attempt to steal it.
The first grand decision the party needs to make, would actually be the caravan to join, which guide to hire, or if they want to set out on foot. This differentiation actually might well be meaningful on a micro-level, and I enjoyed the differentiation. While traveling durations are provided, the lack of an actual hex-map or overland map with any kind of grid somewhat disappointed me: The option for the players to actually plan their independent trip seems to have somewhat fallen by the wayside, with the caravan/guide options clearly the intended path.
That being said, once in the Dol Minor Wastes, the module manages to achieve something few published scenarios achieve – a genuinely branched pathway in a pretty story-driven adventure. You see, there obviously will be encounters with local fauna and random encounters, sure – but, no surprise, sooner or later, the party will happen upon the Red Scarves…and battle is very likely. Here’s the rather impressive thing: The module walks the judge through the army’s responses to the no doubt formidable resistance the party provided, as well as through negotiations and an invitation to the Red Scarves’ camp. And in a nice twist, NOT fighting through an obviously impossible force to beat is the better choice. (Which is also why I think this’d have worked better at lower levels…level 5 DCC characters may well wish to keep fighting…) Anyhow, this is one of the better instances of the “negotiate/capture”-angle I’ve seen modules in the Sword & Sorcery genre pull off.
The Red Scarves are led by the horribly disfigured Flayed Man, who, in conversation with the party, claims to be none other than the presumably dead Jannik Bel’Tarul, direct descendent of Tal Abastion, and former commander of the knights. This is a mind-blowing twist…that really needed to be set up. I strongly suggest judges who wish to play this module to mention the order and explain its history well in advance, establishing the significance of this revelation, because the module doesn’t do that, and it’d be a shame to have this revelation fall flat. Essentially, Jannik was captured by the demon Prince Mozarak, who flayed him and wears his skin; Jannik was rescued by his children, but the demons, with a copy of Jannik’s form and memories, has assumed control over the stalwart order of the knights of Tal Abastion – thus the guerrilla warfare of the Red Scarves. Jannik also confides in the party: He is dying, and he doesn’t want to leave this conflict to his kids, so he asks for help to destroy the demon prince in command of the mighty army. The depiction of the important NPCs and complex negotiations here is rather neat and enjoyable.
On the other hand, if the party managed to avoid the Red Scarves, the module may well end with the delivery of the artifact to the fortress of Harkanis Bek (which is also (briefly) touched upon; I kinda wished the module had more room to develop this strand. Either via a condemned man looking for his family, or in league with the Red Scarves – the party needs to navigate a secret tunnel (one of the small battle-maps noted) …and it sucks. It’s a twisting tunnel, where multiple “invisible-line” traps are included. You know, the sucky “walk somewhere, take damage because you didn’t guess correctly”-kind; one of the worst 3.X-design paradigms on full display.
Thus, they enter the ruins of Uruk! The fabled city! Do we get a map of it? Nope, need the campaign setting for that (back cover provides an excerpt of it…but only that); and no, the awesome, ultra-creepy, magically polluted ruins? The end of an Age in the setting? It’s so disappointing. Some random encounters, and then pretty directly the boss arena. No exploration. No actual roleplaying of skill involved in finding the antagonist…one of the most iconic environments in the entire campaign setting, relegated to window-dressing. That hurt my soul. Similarly, we get another battle-map of a ritual room, where the demon disguised as Jannik is scripted to complete the ritual. No use of the ritual rules from the book. No player skill involved. Just a hard railroad, which sucks big time as far as I’m concerned. It’s also super-obvious to all but the most inexperienced players. Making ritual-completion timer-based and actually having a developed Uruk, where actions and consequences influence the timer…well, that’d have made the actions of the party actually…you know. Matter.
Anyhow, there is one thing the module does rather well, and I get why it’s scripted this way: A gate opens, ritual complete, and the demon slips through the gate with the party in hot pursuit…only to emerge in Uruk, right in the midst of its demonic cataclysm! This is where the party can use those 5 levels, as they need to fight through demonic strike-forces and defeat the (rather mechanically bland) type IV demon prince while the city burns around them. Once more, it’d have been awesome to actually spend TIME here and have RELEVANT CHOICES. But at least the “time-travel to prevent the undoing of history” and cataclysm angles are compelling enough to make it easier for the judge to paint over the lack of depth regarding the module.
Editing and formatting are pretty good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to the setting’s two-column b/w-standard, and artworks employed are a combination of neat stock art (I think?) and original pieces – the b/w-art is consistently nice. The b/w-cartography being present in player-friendly versions is nice, but the absence of a grid or the like for the overland map and the lack of a map for the final areas hurt the module in this department. I have no complaints regarding the PoD-softcover; the pdf, though, commits a cardinal sin: It has bookmark. No, that was no typo. It has a grand total of ONE bookmark, making navigation a massive pain.
After the atrociously bad modules included in the back of the campaign setting book, Oscar Rios delivers a definite and HUGE improvement here. This module has several things I genuinely enjoy about it: For one, it manages to capture that elusive feeling of a Sword & Sorcery yarn, which so many published modules miss. This feels gritty and yet heroic and reminded me of one of the longer good old Savage Sword of Conan storylines, actually managing higher level gameplay without losing the feeling of the genre. The set-pieces provided are great, and the characters presented actually manage to acquire a modicum of depth, something I did not expect.
…but on a design side of things, this module also has serious issues. While it has all the set up and markings of a modular sandbox, these branching paths and options tend to fall by the wayside, which smells like a serious amount of cut content to me. And indeed, the module’s biggest weakness is that it provides an illusion of modularity, when its story, set-up, premise…all look like the material of a 64-or 128-page sandbox. And it could have been excellent: Present starting area, with map, and options; present overland travel with actual meaningful routes and choices, perhaps a fleshed-out caravan or two. Then present the warring factions, and have MEANINGFUL timelines for the plans of both, and how they respond to the actions of the players. Then, actually have the final, epic region be, you know, game-relevant and not just pretty window-dressing. This module has a set-up for a fantastic sandbox and manages to severely tarnish it by jamming it into a story-driven railroad that will have the judge scrambling to keep the party on the tracks.
Moreover, the actual design of the combat encounters and the (thankfully brief) tunnel-exploration are really…lame. Nothing of DCC’s usually high interaction-density can be found here, and these regions reminded me of 3.X-modules of yore, with “invisible line crossed, take damage”-traps and consequences scripted in a way that was somewhat hard to stomach for me.
You might not realize these shortcomings when you read the module; it reads like a neat yarn; but contact with actual play will require some serious work on behalf of the judge. Now, even though this might sound awfully negative, I actually do think that this is a yarn worth checking out for fans of the genre; I strongly suggest expanding whole sections, and personally, I’d divorce this module from its setting, foreshadow its lore, etc. – if you do that, then you may well have a truly epic, awesome experience. In contrast to the modules in the setting book, I actually enjoyed this one, and it’s worth running if you’re willing to rewrite parts and expand upon its ideas.
I can’t rate it for that now, can I? I can only rate what’s here, and what’s here is a deeply-flawed adventure. One I somewhat like and consider worth potentially salvaging, yes…but not something I’d consider to be operational for most groups as written. As such, my final verdict can’t exceed 2.5 stars, rounded up only due to in dubio pro reo.
You can get this adventure here on OBS.
While I cant recommend it, you can find the campaign setting here on OBS.
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