Falls Keep (OSR) (Patreon Request)
This adventure clocks in at 13 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page advertisement, leaving us with 10 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was requested to be moved up in my reviewing queue at the request of my patreon supporters.
This Fail Squad Games Side Quest comes with boxed read-aloud text, and a total of 6 rumors can be used for foreshadowing, or to reward player characters for doing the proper legwork. The module features a couple of astounding full color artworks – Lloyd Metcalf is an artist, and it shows – I particularly loved the artwork depicting the eponymous Falls Keep: Near a guard tower, a low, square place, intentionally designed regarding windows and entry to elicit skull-like associations without being ridiculous, rests among stunning waterfalls that made my heart ache for some places in the United States or Scandinavia. I Love this artwork, and I’m seriously curious why it’s not on the cover. The cartography is a hand-drawn full-color map for the lead-in-encounter, and that map has no scale. Falls Keep itself sports a little full-color overview map for the outside, and b/w interior cartography – which does sport grids. To my chagrin, no key-less player-friendly versions are included.
I did like the inclusion of a visual puzzle, which is represented in three different artworks regarding clues…which brings me to a curious decision: Why not have these rendition in an art-appendix, so referees can print it out, cut it up, and show it to the players? As written, I need to print several pages and cut out these visual representations from the module.
This version of the module is penned for S&W (Swords & Wizardry), for 4-5 PCs, but adaption to other OSR-games is generally pretty simple. It should be noted that the module makes use of a roll under mechanic for checks. Genre-wise, Falls Keep hits closer to the dark fantasy side of things, sporting an instance where children might be slain, as well as a tragedy. It never devolved into grimdark territory, though. If you need a reference, I found myself most reminded of e.g. Tim Shorts’ less grim work, as featured in the Manor-‘zine. Regarding difficulty, this is a pretty brutal adventure, particularly regarding the final boss fight, and it is a pretty linear affair. I have an issue with the target level, which is 3rd. Unless your group contains a paladin willing to rest A LOT, you will encounter a hazard that you can only solve a couple of levels later.
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 module kicks off in the vicinity of the Wheatwey farm, where the PCs are attacked by hens in a blind rage – these hens are cursed. These are a precursor of the things to come, namely two cursed children currently devouring a farmhand they dragged up into the tree near the well. The well contains strangely radiating water, which, as it turns out, is the source of the berserker-rage-inducing curse. (As an aside: The curse can be mitigated via remove curse, dispel magic or cure disease. This is my aforementioned gripe with the suggested level-range: The farm contains further cursed individuals, and without a paladin (who can use lay on hands to cure diseases – I assume that counts!), the group will not have a way to cure the cursed, save to put them out of their misery. Considering that there are cursed kids involved, this begins on a pretty darn dark note. Considering the difficulty of the final encounter, I’d genuinely recommend this for level 5 characters, at the very least.
Anyhow, by carefully checking the strange, cursed farmstead, the PCs will be able to deduce the source of the contaminated water, namely the tower of the mad lord Venwexal, who retreated into it to escape the rebels during a recent uprising, sealing the keep behind him. His survival is explained by an escape to the Lands of Lunacy (not required to run this, fyi)…and so, the PCs, provided they can best some worgs gather clues from the remains of the Wheatwey farmer who perished here and from the guardpost: A parchment and markings that hold the key to solving the puzzle necessary to enter Venwexal’s tower. The tower gate holds 9 holes, with handles, and the correct ones need to be turned in the right direction – trying to bruteforce this will btw. cost you your appendage, which can be pretty nasty. The blades that cut off the appendages can’t RAW be disarmed or removed, or bypassed by magic, which rubbed me the wrong way as a bit of railroading. It should also be noted that the blades are, as written, +1 blades, and yet, the PCs have no means of removing them, which can be pretty problematic if you run with GP = XP.
That being said, so far, the module is a solid, unpretentious offering. Things turn a bit sour in Venwexal’s tower, though. There is a metal rod causing AoE-blasts of electricity (which have a really good chance of killing off magic-users), and there are animated items – an armor, a table and a firepoker – with the latter using the stats for a flying sword. No such creature can be found in the S&W Complete rules, or in the appendix, though. The appendix does have stats for animated objects, though. Spell-references here are not properly set in italics, and then, there’s the finale, which is the main issue of the module in several ways: Venwexal has 32 (As magic-user in S&W!!) Hit Points and can cast frickin’ third-level spells. Venwexal has “blindsight, darkvision, and true sight”, and can’t be surprised, which is lame. Also: Guess what does not exist in S&W? Bingo. Blindisght and True Sight.
Venwexal is brutally difficult (lightning bolt can TPK a 3rd level party, easily), and mad, courtesy of a rock: The stone has 60 HP, and notes no AC to hit, even though it is supposed to be the “good” way to solve the module, as it allows Venwexal to come to his senses. The stone orb’s destruction also makes the magical taint causing the curse to lift, but RAW does not end the cursed state of those affected.
Editing and formatting are okay on a formal and rules-language level; they are not exactly impressive, and I noticed a couple of formatting deviations, but yeah. You can run this. Layout adheres to a green-tinted two-column full-color standard, and as noted, the artworks presented are definitely my highlight of the book. The pdf comes with a second, more printer-friendly version. Cartography is okay, and the lack of player-friendly maps is a bit sad. The pdf has no bookmarks, but doesn’t necessary need them at this length.
Ian McGarty’s conversion of Lloyd Metcalf’s adventure is solid, if not entirely remarkable. Falls Keep starts off pretty darkly, and my main complaint beyond formal issues with this version, is that the OSR-iteration makes it nigh impossible to do the good thing, as the one means to help people, apart from putting them down, is beyond the grasp of most adventuring groups, i.e. all save those that have a paladin. Those with paladins will require A LOT of rests, which can be a bit grating. The module, this notwithstanding, was off to a pretty good start, and while I did not like that the PCs are forced to solve the puzzle, I can still kinda get behind that. Unfortunately, the module kinda falls apart in the end. The final encounter is pretty ridiculous, and wasn’t properly scaled for S&W; the end of the module also suddenly becomes inattentive with formatting, making the entire finale feel rushed, and unfortunately, very flawed in that it does not properly adjust the challenge faced down to the appropriate OSR-levels. This very much is a 5e-conversion that could have done it right, but didn’t. As such, my final verdict can’t exceed 2.5 stars, rounded down.
You can get this inexpensive adventure here on OBS.
Missed the cool Lands of Lunacy booklet? You can find it here!
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