Dark Obelisk II: The Mondarian Elective

Dark Obelisk II: The Mondarian Elective

The second part of the Dark Obelisk AP clocks in at a MASSIVE 839 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of colophon, 1 page editorial, 3 pages of ToC/information about the studio,3/4 of a page blank, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 830 and ¼ of a page of content.

 

No, I am not kidding, that is genuinely the amount of content. This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a physical copy, which is, quite frankly, ridiculous in size. On my homepage, you’ll see a direct comparison of this tome and Occult Adventures. This is a massive doorstopper of a tome.

The basic explanation of the FlexTale system and a brief recap as well as a hook that gets the PCs to the Mondarian Elective, a mining city, is handled pretty quickly. FlexTale deserves special mention: It is essentially a GM-toolkit for quickly determining details on the fly – see my review of the FlexTale 1.0-book for a more detailed breakdown of it; for the purpose of this review, it should be noted that the book assumes you’re using it; while a capable GM does not need it, FlexTale, as a tool, significantly enhances the experience of playing the adventure. It should also be noted that the FlexTale book contains the random encounter tables for this module. The book is provided alongside this adventure in pdf-format, in case you were wondering.

The massive Atlas provided for the module also enhances the experience, and I highly recommend that you get it when running this module; the atlas is not included in the regular Dark Obelisk II-module, in case you were wondering.

 

It should also be noted that this module contains 187 pages of statblocks – NPCs, new monsters, etc. – all come with original artworks, many of which are downright stunning full-color pieces. If you’re familiar with Infinium Game Studios’ modus operandi, you won’t be surprised to hear that these stats are presented in a quadded format, i.e. there are 4 iterations for different power-levels provided. This is in as far relevant, as Dark Obelisk I could go in a variety of ways: It was very much possible to spend months playing it, or to resolve it in one or two sessions. The predecessor spotted a ridiculously detailed settlement, with a huge amount of different side-quests, notes on NPCS, etc., but mostly dealt with a kind of local cataclysm and evacuation scenario when it came down to it, allowing for the like. In short: There was a ton of optional content that you didn’t necessarily had to use, with the core plot being swift and relatively simple. That was, structurally, perhaps the least impressive aspect of the first book.

 

This tome is different. This is essentially a massive, somewhat investigative mega-dungeon, and it is bereft of filler-quests, fetch-quests or the like. Nobody can complain about missing depth regarding the main meat of the offering here. Why is this relevant? Because, as a result, Dark Obelisk 1 can end with groups with massively diverging levels. While the quadded statblocks are supposed to help there, I don’t think that the higher two iterations of the stats work well for the context of the story told here; that being said, very few groups will enter this module with characters in the upper echelons of mid levels or high levels. Personally, I’d suggest starting this adventure somewhere in the vicinity of level 3 to 5 for the optimal experience in tone, challenges faced, etc..

 

Okay, that digression out of the way, it becomes relevant to start talking about the NPCs and monsters provided; after all, there are 187 pages of them: As usual for Infinium Game Studios, the statblocks come in quadded version, and each NPC gets a brief write-up that provides a description, an appearance, and combat tactics, though the latter are more akin to general combat guidelines, rather than explicit commentary on how to run the NPCs. The latter would have been more helpful, obvious, but considering that the builds tend to not be as complex, I wager that most GMs won’t be overtaxed by running these fellows. Anyhow, where applicable, the statblocks note faction affiliation as well, and make use of skills like Artistry and Athletics, though these are ignored/modified easily enough, if required. As usual for Infinium Game Studios, the effects of feats, abilities, etc. have been copied in, so you don’t need to flip pages. The stats cover both generic NPCs and named ones, with the latter generally getting the better, or at least more interesting, stats.

 

This’ll be a good place to note that the pages are coded with bands on the side of the hardcover edition: Said statblock chapter sports a light green band, while the town on the surface gets a blue band; the massive dungeon sections also have their own band, which allows you to quickly open the book at the correct level. It may be a small thing, but it is one that increases the utility of the tome rather significantly. But I digress. So, beyond the NPC-stats, the book also contains a series of monsters that share a certain leitmotif, which I’ll explain in the spoiler-section below. This deserves special mention, since the artworks employed there are extraordinary; while the massive NPC-chapter uses an original artwork for each statblock (a delightfully decadent expense), these tend to be either solid b/w-drawings, or downright gorgeous full-color pieces. I very much loved them, but the monster-artworks? They are outstanding.

 

On a mechanical level he builds tend to fall somewhat by the wayside in comparison, though: There is e.g. a statblock of a being infected by something. This fellow is undead, has an awesome description…and gets a whopping 1d4+5 damage output and 25 HP at AC 16. That doesn’t sound bad? That’s the CR 6 version for the second power-level bracket of the quadded statblock. The build uses the commoner NPC-class as a baseline (and incorrectly assumes that 1 commoner level equals a PC-class level regarding CR), but does not properly account for its lack of power and versatility in the CR. Granted, it has a couple of proper offensive options like Power Attack and Greater Bull Rush, but compare the fellow to other CR 6 foes, and he’ll look like XP waiting to be picked. Beyond that, know what would have been more helpful that this statblock? Getting a proper template for the affliction. So yeah, there are instances herein wherein the limitations and problems of the quadded statblock approach become very much evident, even in the sections of what I’d consider the “default brackets/tier” of the quadded statblocks for the module, i.e. the first two. An experienced GM is definitely recommended, and I’d furthermore recommend the adventure RAW for groups that are not that into the build-aspect of PFRPG, at least when running this as written. Analogue to previous character/NPC books by Infinium Game Studios, I can’t help but think that the quadded statblock in theory is a good idea; its implementation, however, does not live up to the demands of the system, to PFRPG’s rather complex and nonlinear scaling. If you’re like me and prefer your new monsters to feature an array of new signature abilities to set them apart, you won’t find the like herein, which is rather jarring, as the aforementioned leitmotif as a connection practically demands being employed in a unique, cool template.

 

The good news, however, is that this is, by far, the weakest aspect of the book. Take the notion of the catalyst tracker, which tracks the behavior of PCs according to law, chaos, balance and love (the latter being about compassion over the ideology of the traditional ones) worked in Dark Obelisk I mainly as a means to have the micro-level interactions with NPCs influence the macro-level of the story; in Dark Obelisk II’s different focus, there are much less catalyst things to take care of, and these aspects pertain to the quests herein in a meta-level and generally feel more like solutions/behavior in line with general party ideology, which makes integration easier for GMs who don’t want to go all in on tracking. This is a plus here, as I feared to see a rehash of the gimmick in DOII.

 

Now, let us talk about the scope of Dark Obelisk II, for unlike the first book, it is a less compressed experience: This book covers a massive mining town, the eponymous Mondarian Elective, as well as a ginormous 9-level mega-dungeon/mine below, one that even dwarfs the town above. Structurally, the module represents a significant improvement over Dark Obelisk I, courtesy of a lot more unique hazards and terrain features, which render the exploration and combat simply more interesting. City and mine have default random encounter tables, with more specific ones provided where applicable. One of the issues of the mega-dungeon in general sports a rather neat solution: Provided the GM wishes to do so, the minecart system can be used as a sort of fast travel, which may or may not be exempt from random encounters. I very much appreciate having this option represent in a physical manner in the module. The module also includes elevators as further means of progressing between the mega-dungeon’s levels; beyond this, the module also lists the connections of each of the levels to other levels in the beginning of each dungeon-section. Read-aloud texts are provided, with read-aloud texts in italics employed for text that is only read if certain conditions are met, such as the presence of elves or dwarves among the party members. As a nitpick, a few of these pieces of information are gated behind racial prerequisites, aligning them with language. The thing is, PFRPG does allow for very easy access to said languages – you don’t have to be an elf to speak elven, and in the case of obscure and barely legible scrawling, the like is usually handled via Linguistics check, not via racial prerequisites. While this is easily enough remedied, it’s something to be aware of.

 

Theme-wise, we have a class-struggle with racial tones as a backdrop, as the elves of the Druid Enclave are essentially the overlords of the city, with dwarves and other humanoids as the workers. It should be noted that Dark Obelisk II also “discovers” something I very much enjoyed seeing: Subtlety, and the more silent tones that build atmosphere. Dark Obelisk I was very much an action romp once the escalation trigger was reached; in comparison, Dark Obelisk is a slow burn, and one that manages to evoke a sense of what I’d call a “Silent Apocalypse.” You know, this subdued sense of desolation that Dark Souls so perfectly encapsulated? Picture that sort of theme, taken down a notch. The environments here are not yet as bereft of life and hope as e.g. Lordran, but the general sense evoked, ultimately, is one of a recent cataclysm that went unnoticed, of a place where terrible things happened.

 

This commitment to the notion of a slow burn is one that really sets this massive module apart, as most adventures simply can’t pull it off due to the limitations imposed by their very scope. As you have by now realized, Dark Obelisk II does indeed have the massive scale required, and it’s one of only two mega-adventures that attempt t evoke this type of atmosphere, the other being Greg Vaughan’s masterpiece “Slumbering Tsar.” In many things, Slumbering Tsar’s setting gets closest to the aesthetics of the Dark Souls games as far as I’m concerned.

 

Dark Obelisk II has a different focus than aforementioned book; where Slumbering Tsar manages to evoke a nigh-unprecedented vision of a lavishly-detailed region and ruined city and mega-dungeon, with the focus eminently placed on challenging veteran players, Dark Obelisk II has a different focus. Where Slumbering Tsar sports a strong survival theme, Dark Obelisk II instead focuses on exploration, with some minor investigative focus added on top. In short: Dark Obelisk II won’t necessarily be a module that’ll challenge veterans of the game on a mechanical level, also courtesy to aforementioned shortcomings in the statblock department. A similarity, though, would be the emphasis placed on atmosphere, which is arguably the main focus of Dark Obelisk II, to the point where the actual story of the adventure is a less important.

 

Okay, this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

 

..

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All right, only GMs around? Great! So, the PCs are basically called to investigate the Mondaria City, probably on behalf of the Druid Enclave that controls the massive mining town; communications have stalled, and foul play is suspected. And it is Mondaria City that drives home very well that something bad has happened. Chances are rather high that the PCs won’t meet locals at first– just signs of struggle, fruit spoiling in the market-stands, and upon closer investigation, the PCs will soon find corpses, signs of attacks – and probably encounter some creature sooner or later. This is where I have to recommend two things: While the module does leave it up to the GM to determine when to spring NPCs or monsters on the PCs (you can do so via the module’s system/random encounters), the best thing you can do, is let the PCs breathe in the atmosphere of a place abandoned, a place stripped of (most of its) people. If you let the PCs meet NPCs soon after arriving, I’d strongly suggest not using some of the rumors featured in the global rumor table – there are a few of those that take a bit of the mystery, and one of the best aspects of the module, away.

 

This atmosphere is driven home by the phenomenal amount of details provided: Let’s take  the small marketplace as an example, shall we? We have read-aloud text and material for every stand, every tent. Every house, building? Everything is fully depicted. It is utterly impossible to discern the usual “interaction points”, “relevant buildings” and the like – instead, the book manages to depict EVERYTHING. And unlike Dark Obelisk I, the respective places manage to attain a degree of fidelity that is impressive indeed: You can see each toppled stool, you can count the cutlery on the table;  you can see the number of barrels, or crates, you can see blood-spatter on the floors. If anything is indisputable for Dark Obelisk II, then it is that the adventure is a serious achievement regarding cartography. Gone are the inorganic or somewhat blocky structures in the previous module: Mondaria City, and the dungeon itself, are absolutely lavish in their details. This book contains all the GM maps required to run the adventure, with the Atlas supplemental book also sporting the player-maps.

 

But there is more to this than just maps: Each map has read-aloud text for rooms, regions – and rewards attention to detail, lets the players contemplate the things happened. Which brings me to the second supplemental book I’d strongly recommend for use in conjunction with this, namely the FlexTale 1.0 book included in the purchase of the module. You see, the adventure uses that engine to fill in even more details, if required: Let’s take one random room from the book by flipping it open: I got a table that reads “Crates, Large, 3x”; contents list “Glasses, metals and Woods, Large” – so you roll on the respective table in FlexTale, apply the modification for the amount, and there we go! In short, beyond the already massive attention to detail provided by the maps and sheer amount of area covered with read-aloud texts, the FlexTale system can be used to add even more detail on the micro-level to the setting.

 

In a way, this represents a means to “zoom in” on a huge amount of objects that’d usually just be generic set dressing. To give you an idea: Mondaria City’s overview map contains 28 keyed locations. Each of these keyed locations correlates to another one-page map, with a rough average of 10 keyed locales per such location; the total number of individual keyed locations for Mondaria City alone exceeds 300. That is before adding details with FlexTale. On the ground-floor only, and many buildings have multiple floors and basements. The ambition, hinted at in Dark Obelisk I, realized here, is quite staggering. Mondaria City is infinitely more compelling, feels much more alive, than Berrincorte ever did, in spite of being a less populated place.

 

In the face of so much material, it should be noted that small boxes containing the level-map, with the respective sub-area framed, always allow you to retain control over the proceedings; you’ll never be confused where a sub-area is with regards to the global map of the level. Now, I know that I’ve been raving about Mondaria City for a while, but the module manages to retain this depth in the dungeon as well: Different-colored mushrooms, different spider-webs, clearly visible barricades of the minecart tracks. As noted, this module lives a lot through its cartography, which is btw. provided in jpg format as well, though these do tend to be rather massive in size; the sheer amount of detail provided on these maps makes the GM’s job rather easy – just start unveiling the map, and a single glance will show what’s relevant.

 

Now, I’ve been calling the mines below a dungeon, because that’s functionally how it operates, but this is not 100% correct either; you see, this is a huge mining operation, and as such, there are essentially cafeterias and buildings down there; the mines always retain the sense of being, well, mines, but they similarly have a touch of the subterranean city as well. Sooner or later, the PCs can e.g. happen upon a camp of male and female prostitutes. The result of all of these components coming together is unique: The restraint shown with fixed quest-lines and the relatively low amount of “boss encounters” throughout result in a different kind of narrative experience: The focus lies very much on environmental storytelling and lore – not in the “background story/info-dump”-way, but instead in the way of objects, NPCs, hazards, etc. coming together; the observations of the players will ultimately tell the story more compellingly than a simple expository text could.  And there is a reason for that: I can explain the module in one sentence: “The locals were ordered to dig deeper, regardless of consequences, probably in order to mine the exceedingly powerful dark obelisk shards, and happened upon a proper Dark Obelisk.” That’s pretty much all there is to it. The corrupting influence of the obelisk drove people mad; dreadslime was exuded and tainted beings; dreadslime golems and even an infected dragon can be found. It is said dreadslime, by the way, that makes up some of the dark fantasy-components, and that I referred to opaquely before: This should have been a proper template.

 

Anyways, regardless of my frustration with some mechanical components, I was talking about the indirect storytelling, right? Well, cognizant of the danger, some of the former shard-mining parts are hidden behind secret passages, and the mine does contain false obelisks worshiped by those tainted. The latter are one reason why I recommended caution regarding the rumors: The chance for careless PCs to be faked out by having “solved” the issue is nice – though if they check the magics, the party will notice the ruse. I like this type of thing, and the rumor table can spoil that one. On the positive side of things, the module does seem to be very much conscious of just how strong its scope can render it: Level 8 of the mines, the penultimate one, is essentially just a massive descent, not much beyond that: Endless stair or elevators down, fully describes and mapped. Try it at your table, have the PCs walk down, read it, unveil the map slowly. It WILL make them properly anxious for the things to come.

 

There is another aspect of the module that I personally liked: As written, the PCs have no proper way to destroy the Dark Obelisk. They’ll arrive here, after much hardship, and probably will have to leave – for the means to destroy the obelisk include the requirement for humanoid sacrifice. This is handled in a more narrative manner, and, somewhat to my chagrin, not by using PFRPG’s perfectly serviceable occult ritual or incantation rules, which, mechanically, deprives this finale of some of the impact it could have had. Then again, having the PCs be forced to retreat is a rather rarely-evoked strategy, so in a way, I do actually appreciate this to a degree.  And if the PCs have no compunctions sacrificing dreadslimed miners, well, then the finale can make for a mechanically interesting and rather intriguing finale, though not all parties will consider resorting to the like a viable option.

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are better on a formal level than a one-man-project of this staggering size would make you believe. On a rules-language level, we have perhaps the one aspect where Dark Obelisk II does not realize its full potential, but more on that below. Layout adheres to Infinium game Studios’ two-column full-color standard, and, as noted, the artworks provided for the NPCs and monsters are original pieces ranging from solid to amazing. The full-color cartography, in many ways, is the aesthetic star of the massive module, at least as far as I’m concerned: The lavish attention to detail, the focus on making the entire city and dungeon feel organic and plausible is a singular achievement as far as I’m concerned. It is also an intrinsic, vitally important factor of the playing experience, to a greater degree than in other adventures. The hardcover is an enormous tome, with everything noted on the spine; the pdf comes in two versions: The screen-version is fully bookmarked, and the printer-friendly version has a white background, but seeing how the module uses a lot of color-coding, I wouldn’t recommend printing it in b/w.

 

J. Evans Payne’s Dark Obelisk I was compelling in many ways, in its novelty and ambition, but in comparison to this module, it almost feels like a gimmicky test-run of what the author can achieve and do. That’s obviously a good thing, since the novelty per se can’t carry yet another such book.

There are ultimately two conflicting perspectives one can have regarding this tome.

 

To make that abundantly clear: Mechanically, this is not a particularly impressive book; it does work, but neither NPC/monster builds, nor are the DCs or implementation of skill-use for interaction particularly well-executed. They are functional, but that’s as positive as I can become about them. In many ways, while the formula and aesthetic has evolved regarding the narrative, the storytelling, etc., and shows the restraint in combination with the scope that makes it so special, the quadded statblock formula does not yet work to the same degree that the other components do. This becomes particularly evident when looking at the cool monster artworks, and the comparably lame statblocks – I am not sure at this point, but the problem may be system-immanent, as the scaling employed simply does not correlate with realities at the table. In many ways, I think, that with ONE set of genuinely cool statblocks for monsters and named NPCs, instead of 4 at best mediocre ones, this’d be significantly improved. This scaling issue also shows up, as noted, in the FlexTale book that you’ll consult a lot for lock DCs, etc. On the other hand, FlexTale does allow for a ridiculous amount of depth on a micro-level regarding the mundane treasure found. If you take a look at this solely within the context of the mechanics of being a PFRPG adventure, it will not fare too well. My recommendation for the mechanical aspects of this, particularly regarding NPCs and monsters, is that you take a look at your collection of monsters and populate the adventure with those builds for the combat-relevant NPCs instead, and use the stats herein for the nameless individuals.

 

However, it is my firm conviction that doing so, that only considering the mechanics, would be a disservice to this tome.

 

Yeah, I never figured I’d write those words either. You see, Dark Obelisk II is firmly, staunchly, made to be PLAYED. It plays much better than it looks, or that the rather basic set-up would lead you to believe – and that’s due to something that I genuinely have never seen before.

 

Where other books of this size, with precious few exceptions (like legendary Slumbering Tsar) tend to try their hands at regular dungeon design on a grander scale, and as a result feel cluttered, Dark Obelisk II exerts a surprising amount of RESTRAINT. It lets its vast scope BREATHE, develop. There is a ton to do, don’t get me wrong – but the use of the cartography and daring to not jam in an encounter or quest every 2 rooms lets the players take in the vastness of this environment, lets them actually take the time to speculate about the environments, about what might have happened here.

 

The result is an adventure that plays unlike anything I have ever laid my hands on; much like a good horror/mystery game, it lets you take in the environment; it feels decelerated in an almost daring way. To me, this is very much the antithesis of the action-blockbuster railroad, a lore-centric sandbox devoted to indirect storytelling, and one that very much knows how to capitalize on its strengths.

 

This adventure will not be for everyone; it is much more daring than Berrincorte ever was, stepping away from traditional formal structures in a kind of narrative experiment that I personally consider to be a grand success. At least when you run it as intended, with the Atlas and FlexTale properly in use. While the latter has some issues, I penalized that book in my review of it, and doing so again here would be redundant. Still, without these two books, Dark Obelisk II loses some of its appeal; not getting the atlas means that you won’t have those handy player-maps (see my review of that book), and without using FlexTale, you’ll lose the depth on a micro-level regarding the mundane treasures throughout. Without these, I’d suggest subtracting at least 1.5 stars from the final verdict.

 

How to rate this, then? Well, here things become tough. I’d usually penalize this for outsourcing its player-friendly maps, but considering their sheer amount (see review of the Atlas), and their level of detail, I get it. As noted before, the biggest weakness of the module would be its functional, but comparable weak stance in mechanics, situating it, at best, in the 3-stars vicinity; on the other hand, managing to genuinely evoke a jamais-vu experience anno 2019/20? That’s some seriously impressive achievement, and considering the huge amount of roleplaying supplements out there, can be seen as the well-deserved vindication of the concept underlying Infinium game Studios’ approach to world-design. For this component, I admit to being sorely tempted to consider this to be in the 4 – 5 star vicinity, and one could argue that it deserves the seal of approval for doing something novel that well.

 

And I don’t mean “novel” as in “novelty”; where Berrincorte’s selling proposition of scope, depth and vision was novel, Dark Obelisk II does not have that luxury anymore, and still manages to blow its predecessor right out of the water with a singularly interesting vision that fully utilizes the strengths of this adventure. It’s that much better than the first module, and it caters to a taste that is usually not serviced by roleplaying game supplements. I hope that may review helps you determine whether this is for you, or not, because I can see this being very polarizing – you’ll hate it or love it; just give it a shot in actual play before you judge it from the reading experience alone.

 

As far as verdicts are concerned, I can’t rate this as high as I would want to due to its mechanical shortcomings; however, I do love what this tome does, how its uses its format. My final verdict will thus be 4.5 stars, rounded down – and this gets my seal of approval for its uncommon approach to storytelling.

 

You can get this thoroughly unconventional book here on OBS!

 

While my review is based on the PFRPG-version, there is a 5e-version as well. You can find it here.

 

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Endzeitgeist out.

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