This collection of 3 loosely-linked modules clocks in at 38 pages, front and back cover are contained in a separate pdf and so are the 4 pages of maps and the 2-page handout (more on that below). It should be noted that the page-size assumed would be a5 (6” by 9”) and that you can, provided you have good eyesight, jam 4 pages on one A4-page when printing this out.
All right, so, the 3 modules herein are set in the capital letter ODD town of Pembrooktonshire; while the companion-book depicting a gazillion of weird and strange characters is not required to run these, it does add to the general experience…but also, by virtue of the strength of the NPCs, can put the PCs of trail – so an experienced referee is required in such a case. Speaking of which: The pdf is very much a pretty sandboxy affair, which means no read-aloud texts or the like. This is obviously intended not only for experienced referees, but also for experienced groups. Indeed, one could argue that novices will not *get* what makes these modules unusual.
Situated in the backwater Pembrooktonshire, mired in the ostracizing behavior towards anyone not “proper” (Read: Anyone not from a long line of distinguished local families.)common here, PCs are wont to be subjected to in the xenophobic place, the PCs will begin their exploits in the Last Stop Inn and already notice that the townsfolk consider e.g. running around armed and armored to be problematic. Oh, and if the town’s guard is not enough to reign the PCs in, a wandering Knight of Science is in town, including his entourage. these guys are basically monster hunters with a self-importance that will make most paladins blush. While hardliners, they nonetheless represent kinda-good guys.
Yeah, and that is pretty much as far as I can go sans diving headfirst into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, still here? Great! So, it is my contention that these are pretty much post-modern adventures in that they subvert and systematically negate assumptions and preconceptions of players, with entertaining results, fulfilling thus the aspect of 4th-wall-engagement. This is not yours truly over-intellectualizing these, mind you: The introduction pretty much already states as much.
As the PCs enter the fray, the daughter of the prestigious local bookbindery, known primarily for the Bumblebee Bandit romance-novels (a complete list of which are provided -and the handout sports a hilarious drawing and excerpt from one), has been found murdered in the aftermath of her wedding -and the local travelling folk have been summarily rounded up for execution. Thing is: While a romanticizing lot and not “proper” according to the asinine views of Pembrooktonshire, while deliberately depicted as suspicious, the module proceeds to undermine this stereotyping process: For one, the characters depicted, including the fine Pembrooktonshire quasi-nobility and the knight’s retinue, as just as suspect on closer inspection…and indeed, when engaging in this bit of brief and none-too-complex free-form investigation, the PCs will, if they play their cards right, unearth the Bumblebee Bandit obsessed squire of the Knight of Science as the true culprit for the murder. More than the relatively simple plot and its ticking clock, the module serves as a nice way of establishing the Janus-facedness of the local population.
Module #2 further builds on the previously established sense of estrangement the players and PCs should by now be experiencing. Titles “The Great Games”, it is centered on a rather strange local tradition: The most esteemed families have young couples chosen to compete in a series of weirdling competitions and while being chosen to participate is pretty much tantamount to retaining one’s family’s high standing in local society, winning is not something people look forward to. You see, there is a threat of death in each of the games and only the males participate. The first male to die (which can, should the referee require it, be determined randomly) is deemed to be the winner – and his bride is moved up to the nearby mountain-range, as a tribute to the local dragon. The increasingly ridiculous and lethal games are depicted herein, yes – but PCs will probably not participate in them, considering their lack of social status. Indeed, sabotage will probably be on the mind of quite a few groups to stop this barbaric practice…but ultimately, a bride will be chosen for the dragon, be brought into the windswept mountain range, where a massive blast of flame heralds the dragon’s presence…only, it’s been dead for ages.
Investigating the cavern, the PCs will find a makeshift alchemical, stationary flamethrower. All those sacrifices…have been made to a dead dragon, incapable of claiming them. Instead, the hidden overlords of the mountains ( a nation of isolationalist, xenophobic dwarves) has maintained the ruse to keep the locals out of their territory. The brides, so far, died from exposure or the dangers of the mountains…not the hungry teeth of a dragon. Now here’s the thing: The PCs can actually save the bride, but must tread lightly: Pronouncing the truth to Pembrooktonshire will result in war between the dwarves and the locals…so yeah, the actual “meat” of this module happens in its aftermath and the depiction of the strange festivities. Granted, this may make the proceedings feel a bit like a prolonged cut-scene and stymie players…but again, this is by intent, cultivating basically a notion and awareness of having to wait for the right time to do the right thing.
Adventure #3 would be the first where PC-death is actually likely: “A Lonely House Upon a Lonely Hill” has an organic lead-in via the strange proceedings of module #2; if the PCs seek to find the truth of the mountains and dig hard in Pembrooktonshire, they will hear about one Konstantin Kuznetsova: Adventurer and agent, he supposedly found riches, namely a diamond in the hills, only to vanish due to the anger of the spirits (of whose existence the PCs will be, after module #2, not be convinced) – he was last seen exploring the haunted O’Shaunessy manor – and arriving there will put an intriguing conundrum before the PCs: Supposedly, the region is geologically stable, but there is plenty of steam arising from the crags of the house and itself – enough, in fact, to render communication inside impossible. Inside, it’s hot, steamy and the house is a wrecked ruin…though inside, the PCs can find a picture of Del Murrow O’Shaunnessy and his elven bride. Del Murrow has since moved away, but after the sudden death of his elven bride, the area was supposed to be haunted. Guess what? It is.
If you have some sort of experience with REALLY nasty critters, you’ll know what to expect and gulp. Confined within the grounds, the spirit of Shelagh Cori O’Shaunnessy still roams – and she’s a friggin’ banshee. Yeah, at that level. Turns out that shutting off those REALLY loud valves throughout the mansion may NOT be a good idea. In fact, finding and returning her wedding ring from the ill-fated spelunkers in the caverns below the complex only has a 33% chance of fixing the banshee-haunting…and may even strengthen the dread entity, depending on the roll of the dice and the cruelty-level of the referee/desire for further adventures – in any ways, the exploration of the grounds very much feels like a REALLY nasty survival horror experience. Oh, and guess what – that steam? It comes from the dwarven city below’s primary forge…these guys are who broke the deal with Del Murrow and poisoned the elven lady…or, well, you could make that an entry to hell or any other strange place – the module focuses on the experience of getting through the experience alive and potentially ending the grisly haunting.
No matter what happens, chances are that inquisitive PCs, provided they survived the death trap that is module #3, will either want to leave the place asap…or *really* unearth what’s going on…so a referee has his/her work cut out.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a no-frills, 1-column b/w-standard and the pdf sports several nice, atmospheric pencil-drawings. The cartography for locations where it becomes relevant is serviceable, though no key-less versions are provided. The pdf (and its cover-file, map-file and handout-file) come in versions optimized for both US-letterpack and A4-paper-standards, which is nice to see. Unfortunately, the pdfs have no bookmarks, which renders electronic navigation annoying. Print these out.
James Edward Raggi IV’s trilogy here can either be an absolutely phenomenal experience…or a total dud. More so than many comparative modules, this trilogy requires a deft referee with some experience. It’s not that the modules are hard to run, mind you – quite the contrary. It’s that the little peculiarities require some serious GM-panache to pull off: Number 1 requires the flexing of one’s acting muscles – it works perfectly, but only if you manage to depict all factions in the same, high-strung manner. #2 requires the referee to engage the PCs over a couple of days wherein they are basically witnesses to proceedings as grim as those in the classic Wicker Man. Finally, #3 is just EVIL.
Which brings me to the next component: These modules are intended for veterans. They deliberately take tropes of the art of adventure-crafting and flip them on their head in various ways. In short, the enjoyment of these modules stems in part from knowing the meta-conventions of adventure-structure and being surprised by how they are twisted here. Adventure #3 can, and probably will, kill at least one character, possibly more – but at the same time, it is clever in doing so and may see jaded veterans actually applauding the demise of their characters. Hint: If you can’t take a character-loss, then this is not for you. If you can, though…and if you’re jaded, cynical and bored by many of the narrative conventions employed again, and again, and again…then this will be a breath of fresh air, particularly when combined with the absolutely brilliant “People of Pembrooktonshire”-sourcebook and the horrible and strange folks therein.
What I’m trying to say is that gamers and referees that only know “new school”, who want CR-appropriate challenges, who want a clear three-act-structure, will probably not find this to their liking.
Then again, if you’re looking for something different, a change of pace, a series of modules that requires flexing of your GM/referee-muscles, if you’re looking for something that’s actually hard to survive and complete successfully…then this may well be worth looking into. More so than most modules, though, I can see these going horribly wrong in the hands of referees not up to the task…or for groups that just aren’t used to something as evil as adventure #3.
Personally, though, I had a total and absolute blast playing these 3 modules. Call me RPG-hipster, but oh boy was it rewarding to see the WTFs on player-faces once again, on hearing the laughter during module #1 turn slowly into a growing sense of unease over the course of subsequent sessions. Ultimately, the module all are one-trick ponies; they all have this one twist – it’s an excellent one every time, but that means they can be hit and miss, depending mostly on referee-prowess to deliver their punchline, if you will…which is why I’ll settle on a final verdict of 4.5 stars. Only you referees out there may decide where the modules fall for you and your groups…and while personally, for me as a private guy, I’d round up, the lack of bookmarks does hurt this a bit, which is why my official reviewer’s verdict will round down.
You can get these three modules here on OBS!
You can get the bundle with People of Pembrooktonshire here on OBS!