Demonspore – The Secret of the Shrooms (OSR) (Patreon Request)
This book clocks in at 81 pages of content, already disregarding editorial, etc. My review is based on the perfect-bound softcover version, which was sent to me by one of my patreon supporters, with the note to enjoy it, and optionally review it at my convenience, so here we are! I don’t own the pdf-version, so I can’t comment on that one. The softcover is perfect-bound and has its name on the spine, making it convenient to find on the shelf.
In order to properly talk about this book, we need to embark on a brief excursion together: In the beginning of the OSR-movement, Expeditious Retreat Press published what may well have been one of the first, or the first OSR-module that you’d usually designate as such. This was Matthew Finch’s “The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shrooms”, and to claim that this module was influential would be an understatement. It established a lot of things we take for a given when looking at modern modules in the old-school style, including the popularity of concepts that could be likened to a subdued note of weird psychedelica, and the prevalence of mushroom-themes. It is tough, very dense in its presentation, and established the weird as a more pronounced angle in these modules, moving a step away (and back) to certain classics in the history of adventure-writing. It holds up well to this day.
More than 20 modules in the Advanced Adventures series later, I was somewhat surprised to see two sequels to this modern classic released by Expeditious Retreat Press – the two Shadowvein adventures, “Down the Shadowvein”, and “The Mouth of the Shadowvein.” Both are penned by Joseph browning, and both have some serious appeal, though the change in authors does show in style, as Joseph Browning tends to emphasize a subdued science-fantasy style with a careful and constrained dose of gonzo elements in some of his modules. These two also hold up well today, and certainly are compelling yarns.
How is this relevant for this book? Well, in all but name, this is the sequel to “The Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom” – it also features the plots of this super-intelligent race of malignant shroom-people. And yes, one of the reasons you’re seeing this review is that, had it not been for my gracious reader, I wouldn’t even have been aware of this book’s existence. The book contains two different adventures, which can be used in sequence, or on their own. Unlike many comparable modules, there is absolutely no problem disjoining the two modules from each other – just running one of them on its own is ridiculously easy and requires zero work on the GM’s side.
The module uses the Swords & Wizardry rules, so we get both ascending and descending AC, HD-values, etc. – you know the drill. The module is intended for 4 – 8 characters of 3rd to 6th level, which does warrant some elaboration: This is an old-school module, in that there is a good chance of character death, but said death, unlike in bad OSR-modules, tends to be warranted. This is a module that can potentially challenge parties at 9th or 10th level, if they think they can murder-hobo through it and the referee’s up to their A-game. Don’t get that wrong: A 3rd level murderhobo party *can* successfully murderhobo through this module, but they need to be *smart* about it. Charging in without a plan will TPK them – as it should. More interesting, though, would be the versatility of the adventures features in this book. The more interesting and rewarding angle to experience this book is definitely to engage in roleplaying/infiltration and *selective* murderhoboing. The locations are meticulously-crafted in that regard, and if the players are predisposed to such, there’ll be ample opportunity for ROLEplaying, not just ROLLplaying. So yeah, the emphasis here is firmly on player skill being more important than character skill, which is something I wish more publications would emphasize. Instead of instant save or die, effects tend to have a timer that allows the players to turn the tides and save their characters. They can still die, of courses – this is not for the faint of heart, but it is fair in its challenges.
Anyways, before we dive in, there is one more thing to note: This book contains a pretty significant bestiary-section, and the creatures featured within are good examples of design: While they are simple to run (this is an old-school module, after all!), they do have unique properties and tricks up their sleeves and actually, in some cases, made me wonder why nobody hadn’t come up with the concepts. They are good examples of interesting old-school creature design. I particularly enjoyed that both modules herein have really cool boss fights that are distinct in mechanics and style.
It should also be noted that this is essentially an indie-publication in the truest sense of the word, though one that is much more professional than you’d expect: Apart from Jason Sholtis’ interior artwork, the book was handled in its entirety by Matthew Finch. It should be taken as testament to his diligence that the formatting and editing herein are better than in many a comparable run of publications. While there are instances of e.g. magic items or spells referenced missed their italics, and while there is one pretty nasty glitch (which I’ll call out below), the module otherwise is pretty much ready to run.
At least the first one, that is. The second module contained herein definitely requires an experienced GM to pull off, but I’ll get to that in the SPOILER-section below. This is primarily due to the map-situation – the b/w-maps presented are perfectly functional, but the unique nature of the second module does require the referee to engage in some prep-work to pull off in game. On the plus-side, we get well-written read-aloud text that helps convey a consistent atmosphere.
Okay, and this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only referees around? Great!
So, the first module is called “Throne of the Toad King” (hence the cover), and before you groan and start thinking that the toad-men herein are yet another savage toad-race, please wait a second. You see, the toad-men herein, first of all, are not hostile. I know, right? The PCs can freely explore their compound, within limitations, and they even have a human magic-user as a guest…who has certain ideas about the toad-men and can be used to point the PCs towards the conspiracy at hand. But I’m getting ahead of myself: The depiction of the brutish toad-men deserves all accolades: Their series of caverns is vast and houses a huge amount of stirges, which are one of the food-sources alongside the bodies of water, providing an organic reason for PCs to carefully consider when to fly and when not to. This is clever and makes the place feel lived in. What about the bridge, where a bucket of viscera can be purchased? Why? Because the water it crosses houses a dread toad-hydra, which can btw. attack with multiple tongues! The monster is brutal, but it can be avoided via simple roleplaying…or, f your players are like mine, they’ll plot on how to kill it, dive down, and take its stuff. And guess what? That’s very much possible and rewarding. The risk/reward-ratio here is great – and if the PCs die to the hydra, they have nobody to blame but themselves.
Their culture, with their batrachi priest caste is a prime example of telling a story indirectly. There is, for example, a hulking mutant toad-man, a brute with strange pustules that, when burst, exude potentially deadly spores that can kill you if not treated properly. But why? Well, the toad-men seem to have a shroom ambassador here, who also seems to be held in high regard by the king, so what’s actually happening? Well, faded murals and clues abound, but if the NPC does not suffice, there is also a kind of taboo area. Exploring it will introduce the PCs to three enigmatic, enlightened toad-men, the masters: Where murals previously hinted as quasi-eastern cultures devoted to the forces of law, these frustratingly-vague masters emphasize the truth: The toad-men once were a civilized culture of individuals striving for enlightenment, stalwart champions of law, with martial arts traditions and the like. All that changed, though, and now, only the three enlightened masters remain as examples of what the race once was. Of course, finding out the truth is not limited to this: You see, the toad-men have the “Bell of Mysteries” (actually a gong) that governs their activity cycles. Since their grasp of time is at best approximate, clever PCs can ring the gong and make them “go to sleep”, which greatly increases their chances to snoop around.
But what’s happening? Guided degeneration/devolution, that’s what. The shrooms have installed a sham priest-caste (which the PCs actually can piece together!) and false religion; the alchemical rites, which none of the priests actually properly understand, the rites used to prepare the tadpoles have thoroughly destroyed the once-noble race, and the thoroughly-indoctrinated priest-caste has become fully convinced of the necessity of these ceremonies. The king is but a puppet as well – beyond the shroom-ambassador, the true enemy here is actually his throne, possessed of a fungal weird. While the throne can be properly purged out of combat (it takes 100 fire damage to destroy it), doing so in combat would be hard…and even then, the toad-men are corrupted and tainted…so yeah, as noted before, smart murderhoboing is recommended. The throne, of course, is a germinating lesser seed of sorts, entrusted to a race that was tainted into becoming essentially a warrior-slave race for the shrooms.
Clever PCs that grasp what happened here will realize what the shrooms have wrought here – and that they need to be stopped at all costs.
This is where the second module herein kicks in, the “Stone Cyst of the Shroom Priests” – and here, player skill becomes even more important. Careless intruders into this sanctum sanctorum of the shrooms will summarily be annihilated and/or find a fate worse than death waiting for them…for example as spore slaves, essentially zombie workers hijacked by fungal infections. Last of Us, anyone?
But I’m getting ahead of myself: I noted one rather nasty glitch before, and it’s on page 33, in the massive read-aloud text that establishes the wondrous vista in which this module takes place. The first paragraph is doubtful, but the second makes it clear: The second paragraph in the boxed read-aloud text should NOT be in the box. Personally, I’d also exclude the first paragraph.
Anyways, this should not deter you from running this, for the stone cyst is a vast vertical, hollow shaft, with caversn in the sides on different levels – it is here that the shroom’s deity was vanquished in aeons past – and it is here that zealots among the genius fungal masterminds are cultivating perhaps the oddest project of their history:
They are growing themselves a new god.
If you’re like me, this single sentence sent shivers down your spine.
The stakes are high indeed, and the PCs won’t have an easy time, for the shrooms have essentially cultivated their own guided evolution here, with plentiful servitor creatures: Beyond classics like vegepygmies, we also have lichenthropes, plant-like ant-things, creatures like animals or humans infected by strange fungi and turned into something…else (Jason Sholtis’ artwork here is great); we have Flytrap-headed, polearm-wildering horse-sized warrior-things shambling around on tendrils, and much, much worse.
The vast stem is illuminated by slightly acidic, floating light globules that generate an unearthly atmosphere, and then there are the green brains – floating things that act as extensions to the burgeoning sapience of the demi-god Demonspore, extending its will beyond its still limited sphere of influence, controlling mindless plant-things with military precision. Where the first module limited flight consciously, or added a risk factor to it, this one is the opposite – it requires that referee and PCs embrace flight, and beyond magic, flying transportation shroom-creatures are included.
Picture it: The PCs riding flying shrooms stealthily through this twilit shaft, evading the plant-creatures? This is a phenomenal set-up, and one that gains further dimensions once you realize that the shrooms are not a unified force: As to be expected by super-genius masterminds, the respective shroom fanatics have rather diverging ideas about their general approach, and clever PCs may use the resentments held among them to progress through a module that quickly will annihilate the careless that think they can just waltz into this place.
The execution of the location’s verticality as a defining feature is absolutely fantastic, though here, I have a bit of a niggle: Considering that aerial combat and diagonals will be more important, side-view maps of the cyst would have imho been very helpful. Anyways, in the end, there is but one end-goal here: The PCs have to ascend, reach the dome, and deal with the rhyzarch of the shrooms – and, more importantly, slay the Demonspore before the nascent god can reclaim more of its power! The boss-fight against the Demonspore is, just in case you wondered, absolutely awesome.
Editing and formatting are, as noted before, one aspect of the module that is slightly weaker than it should be – there are a couple of formal niggles, and the glitch in the read-aloud textbox is nasty. Considering the lack of an editor, it is still impressive, and certainly superior to quite a few books that did have an editor, so yeah – take this criticism as one born from comparison with the quality of the remainder of the module. Layout adheres to a no-frills two-column b/w-standard, with a couple of really nice original artworks by Jason Sholtis. The softcover, as noted above, is perfectbound and sports the module’s name on its cover. The cartography is functional and nice, but no player-friendly maps are provided, which is a bit of a downer and comfort-detriment.
Matthew J. Finch penned two of my all-time favorite Frog God Games books, with Cyclopean Deeps Vol. I and II – he gets the wonder and weirdness of the realms below, that they should not feel like a two-dimensional copy of the surface, but like something strange. Wonder and danger are inextricably entwined in this module, and the two parts manage to feel very different from each other, while retaining the sense that they organically complement each other. This book manages to portray an underworld that can be horrifying and inspiring at the same time, and it does so with a degree of panache, creativity and professionalism that would behoove some bigger publishers rather well to emulate. In short: I almost can’t believe that this is such “high- end indie” production.
In case you haven’t guessed it by now: I adore this book. It shows how you can deliver a versatile, clever investigation that can also be run as hack-and-slash and follows it up with a locale that is in equal parts wondrous and spine-chilling. The formal hiccups and lack of player-friendly maps serve as the only detriments I could find, and while these should make me round down from my final verdict of 4.5 stars, this simply deserves better. It is not “good” – it is a great book that has aged really well. Hence, I will round up, and also grant this my seal of approval. Highly recommended!
One last note: This is one of the rare books that is worth the hassle of converting it to more complex games. It also is, aesthetics-wise, something I’d recommend to DCC-judges to take a look at.
You can get this gem here in print!
You can find it here as a pdf!
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