The Bleak Harvest (PFRPG/5e)
This adventure clocks in at 66 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page advertisement, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with 61 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request of my patreons. My review is mainly based on the softcover copy, which I received, though I have also consulted the electronic version. A peculiarity there: There are two versions of the pdf: One with the front cover, and one without it – the latter has bookmarks, so that’s probably the intended one. If in doubt, I referred to the print copy.
All right, let’s first address a pretty big thing: This is a dual format adventure, with rules for both D&D 5e and PFRPG included in the same book. Since both of these games are rather rules-intense, this means that we ultimately pay for some information that we won’t be using – I am not a big fan of dual stat books, particularly for rules-heavy games, for exactly that reason. The rules herein have been codified in a way that is easy to grasp at first sight – Pathfinder in black, 5e in red. The usefulness of this color-coding is obviously contingent on meticulous implementation. The last dual-statted modules by TPK Games suffered from their dual-statted nature – they were neat as Pathfinder modules, but significantly less compelling for 5e. Now, let me get that out of the way right now: Author Jason LeMaitre, developer Mark Hart and editor Michael Ritter have managed to get the formula as right as it can be. In contrast to previous dual-stat modules by TPK Games, this one is superbly precise in its rules-language and formatting for both systems. While PFRPG has a huge wealth of material to reference, 5e instead gets well-crafted conversions of items and traps – for example, there is a sands of time based trap that is just a spell-reference in PFRPG, a whole, tight explanation of its effects in 5e. In short: The module is playable in both versions, with the same enjoyment. DCs have also been adjusted accordingly – so yeah, as far as dual-statted modules go, this one does an excellent job in the formal categories.
One downside and something of a missed opportunity would be that the module pays for this by not making use of all the wealth of PFRPG – I don’t necessarily begrudge the lack of Horror Adventures-support’s less than interesting sanity system, mind you, but I did find myself feeling that the modified fear-progression and occult rituals would have enhanced the adventure, but that is me nitpicking on a high level. Most groups will not mind. From a technical perspective, I do consider the 5e version, surprisingly, to feel a bit more concise this time around – I think that would be my preferred system.
Now, if you’re reading this review, you’ll know that this is a horror module – it says so, literally, on the cover. It is also one set in a sanitarium, one of my favorite environments due to the massive creepiness factor. To contextualize the book: My favorite 2nd edition adventure, ever, in how it ran, was Bleak House: The Death of Dr. Rudolph Van Richten’s Book I: Whom Fortune Would Destroy. This one did not manage to topple the classic, but it didn’t need to. Similarly, I have only recently reviewed the latest installment of the “What Lies Beyond Reason” AP by Pyromaniac Press, which also takes place in a Sanitarium. That being said, the aforementioned “Sanitairum”-module by Pyromaniac Press (Links: PFRPG/D&D 5e) and this one are as different from another in themes and execution as night and day. Pyromaniac Press’ adventure draws its horror from the slow burn ignited by the campaign from the get-go; it represents an intrusion of the weird, a dissolution of social order and reality impending, as exemplified by what the PCs unearth. I’d consider its effects to be closer to psychological horror, which makes sense, at it does not represent a culmination of a story, but an escalation.
The Bleak Harvest, on the other hand, focuses on a more personal and in your face type of horror, one that is very much both self-contained and on a smaller, more personal scope, also thanks to its rather disturbing body horror-ish angle in the middle – I’ll elaborate on that below in the SPOILERS.
It should be noted that “The Bleak Harvest” sports copious amounts of read-aloud text, play-hooks, and in the absence of necessarily rules-enforced madness, it sports a nice variety of mind-games/flavorful tidbits that you can use to unnerve your players. These tidbits, alongside the high quality of the prose, means that this adventure is a surprisingly nice reading experience: The atmosphere is tight, and the module does have some replay value, though not as much as it could potentially have; still, this is also a big plus. The cartography within is excellent, full-color and provides a scale for the region and encounter maps, but not for the building map. A minor complaint: A few of them are slightly pixilated. A major complaint: My players will never get to see these maps, as no player-friendly versions are included. Not in big versions you can print out in the back, not as jpgs…so yeah, that’s, particularly considering how nice the maps look, an unnecessary oversight. The maps not even have the GM-maps in a map-appendix to print out. That really sucks and, at this point, is weird when e.g. Legendary Games, AAW Games, Frog God Games, etc. all regularly have the like.
All right, the formal criteria out of the way, let’s go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great! So Willowbrook Estate is the crème-de-la-crème of Asylums – basically a luxury rehabilitation facility/place where you lock away embarrassing family members if you belong to royalty/nobility, it is far from civilization and has a vast scope: the walled compound contains a vast swathe of land, it has its own groundskeeper, etc. – picture a truly vast place, and one that is actually dedicated to healing or at least, keeping the folks in states where they won’t hurt anyone. The king’s cousin, Berard, who is suffering from multiple personality disorder, is in this institution, and teleportation inside the compound fails; communication has broken down and the king’s diviner’s can glimpse into the place. Upon arriving at the forlorn and rather creepy place, the PCs will probably soon find out why: Sigils are smeared in blood or feces or dirt, or scratched into solid objects, all over the compound…and as they’re likely to find out, erasing these sigils will do nothing: They simple reappear.
Arriving at the estate, the PCs will be greeted by the inmates, freed from their cells – and while creepy, they are at least not hostile – courtesy to the ministrations of Dr. Alainne Von Shrugal, Nurse Naul and her idiot assistant, Deocar. The PCs are soon filled in on what’s happening: Madness is spreading and inmates are getting worse; some disappear with disturbing frequency, never to be seen again. There was a fire in the records room, so who is missing and who’s here…nobody knows. And considering the issues many of these folks have, even finding Berard will be a tough task indeed.
Beyond aforementioned lunatics (the confused, nameless NPCs), the estate has but 6 patients left – and interacting with them will not be easy, though interact the PCs must – they can provide crucial clues required to solve this mystery, and the PCs better not dawdle, for there is a timeline and a countdown: The PCs only have two days to solve the mystery before failure can have catastrophic repercussions. And yes, a handy timeline is provided. Once the PCs promise to help, Dr. Von Shrugal drags the PCs in front of the lunatics and tells them that the PCs are her friends – and thus secures cooperation from them. (As an aside: Commanding a troop of lunatics would have been a great “mini-game” in PFRPG – well worth statting them, imho, and one missed chance regarding the PFRPG-version as written.)
But why are they compliant? Well, these hallucinations, the madness slowly seeping into the PCs? These flavorful tidbits I mentioned? Well, the doctor has experimented. She has attempted to use a creature she alchemically created (which, alas, makes for a deadly foe in the attic) and other experiments: So far, the only thing that halts the madness reliably…is a lobotomy. Yep. A frickin’ lobotomy. And yes, this is codified with nice rules, including chances for death. The operation can only be undertaken in privacy, with one PC assisting, and the module recommends sending the other players outside – this is smart, as the good Dr. has pretty much a villain-name that will make most players really paranoid about being operated by her…
Anyways, the downside of the procedure is that the PC subjected to it will take everything at face value, which can be a really cool roleplaying angle…and yes, the book does note means to end the state, though frankly, I think that would take away from the impact and gravity of the decision. There are a couple of issues, though: the gamekeeper, for example, hasn’t been seen around in a while.
He represents one of the complications this module offers. While the estate grounds come with random encounters noted, the groundskeeper and his cabin represent a red herring of sorts and one of the weakest parts of the module. The groundskeeper is a werewolf, and an afflicted lycanthrope – as such, he should not have much control over his lycanthropy, but the modules mentions that he can no longer control it, which is odd. When confronted about the state due to nosy PCs trying to stay at his place, witnessing and surviving his transformation, he tells the PCs that he drags a carcass in a circle around the cabin and thus has the transformed form hunt the trail all night. That makes NO SENSE and represents the one dumb logic bug this module has. As far as red herrings are concerned, a trio of slender-man-ish, odd observers, Mi-go in disguise, are more effective. And so is the convicted serial killer among the patients. On the plus-side, this does mean that the GM has more stuff to throw at the PCs to throw them off their game.
Ultimately, there is a dark grove hidden on the grounds, where the cultist that has infiltrated the complex (not spilling who it is here!) and a unique dark young of Shub-Niggurath await, sacrificing the patients, night by night, trying to bring ole’ Shubby to the world. Suffice to say, the PCs should definitely stop this madness, and having some guys that have been lobotomized may well be the key to success…As a downside, the elaborate background story of the primary antagonist cannot really be discerned, which robs the antagonist a bit of the impact the story would otherwise have.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard, with a blend of cool stock photography and great artwork I haven’t seen before. The cartography is, per se, excellent, but the lack of properly-sized GM- and Player-maps for printing out and VTT use sucks and is a detriment to the module’s functionality. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The PoD-softcover sports a nice, matte cover, but has a small, white line at the top of the page. Still, I consider the softcover to be worthwhile.
This module, on one hand, gets a lot perfectly right – while one of the red herrings is pretty lackluster, the module, structure-wise, achieves what it sets out to do. Perhaps a bit better in 5e than PFRPG, though.
This is the first module by Jason LeMaitre I have read, and it gets horror right. In spite of making use of the by now rather trite Cthulhu mythos, it does so in an excellent manner, and manages to really drive home the personal horror angle. The scene for the “procedure”, the fluffy tidbits and the cast of creepy characters all conspire to render this adventure a rather atmospheric experience. The prose is particularly crisp and evocative and makes the setting and the weird happenstances come to life admirably. In short, this represents an amazing genre-module that manages to execute its subject matter with panache and style – it made me excited to read more from the author’s pen! While most of my criticisms boil down to nitpickery for PFRPG and very minor components that are offset by the freshman bonus, the lack of properly sized versions of the maps does constitute a massive comfort detriment that I have to penalize.
Hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded down. Sans the map-issues, this would have made the 5 stars. If you’re looking for a good horror adventure with a well-executed mythos angle that actually has some bite, check it out – it’s certainly worth owning!
You can find this cool horror-adventure here on OBS!