The Fen of the Five-Fold Maw
This massive mega-adventure clocks in at 100 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 3 pages of advertisement, leaving us with 93 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
I was a backer for the KS of this module, but otherwise was in no way affiliated with the creation of this module.
Before we get into the meat of this module, let me briefly point something out – this book does sport 4 nice feats for swamp dwellers that allow for devastating uses of the terrain. The adversaries herein, often with pretty complex builds, sport statblocks more detailed than usual, meaning you won’t have to do much book-switching and also sport pretty extensive (lethal!) tactics. Finally, it should be noted that panthagators, stirge swarms and carnivorous giant lily pads are included as new monsters here.
While there is a chase card-deck for use with this module, it does not require the purchase of this deck – the book does provide regular playing card substitutions, though the chase card deck does facilitate using this particular scene. The Pdf’s brutal encounters sport scaling advice and the book also sports handy milestones that show a GM when the PCs may be underleveled for a particular challenge. The book also sports Laying Waste-compatible rules for the respective combat encounters – awesome!
All right, so, this being an adventure review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
Players, seriously, don’t spoil this one.
All right, still here? Now that only GMs are around, here’s how we begin this module – with hooks. Surprise, right? Kidding aside, the extent of detail these hooks utilize goes beyond what you’d usually expect to see – when e.g. a mad hermit spouts a cryptic prophecy, that prophecy is not only represented as a hand-out, it is delivered in a thick vernacular/sociolect – and there is *ANOTEHR* hand out that sports the “translated/deciphered” version…and that’s not where it ends: The book actually has a clearer, third version the PCs can glean via magic – and that is represented as a hand-out as well. If you’re like me, that fact alone (and the wonderful, cryptic threat included) should be enough for you to choose this one, though the others aren’t bad either.
So, the PCs are traveling to the town of Wyvernglynn, an isolated outpost of civilization amidst the damp and hostile Sorrowfen swamp – and even of their way to the place, they’ll be struggling, for the very first encounter with the lizardfolk that constitute the primary antagonists herein is pretty brutal and should initiate a kind of grudge-reaction…and allow a chance for PCs to turn their tails and run, for it only gets more brutal from here on out.
The town of Wyvernglynn is fully mapped and utilizes a map fans of Raging Swan Press’ Village Backdrops-series may know – perched precariously behind balustrades on an island in the midst of a river at the edge of the swamp, this place certainly is not a cozy one – indeed, the Germanic-looking populace is many things…friendly is not one of them. After the local guardsmen are done with their “We’re in charge, foreigners!”-routine, the PCs are free to take sidequests and research – and indeed, the settlement has been more isolated than usual, with caravans taken out obviously being the work of the raiders the PCs encountered….which is odd, for usually, the lizardfolk stick to themselves and only partake in internal struggles. The local inn’s keeper, one Ostler Giodianus, also seems to be hiding something and asks for a subtle meeting if the PCs do their job well – he confides in them, telling the PCs he’s being blackmailed: His daughter is missing….and indeed, the lizardfolk have a spy in town, the lethal assassin Thrazzeem, whose build is BRUTAL. The whole research and potential capture of this potent foe is btw. depicted in lavish detail, including sample read-aloud texts for GMs less comfortable with improvisation.
But sooner or later, whether the PCs defeat, kill or ignore this supreme foe, they’ll have to enter the Sorrowfen…and it is here that the module pulls no more punches: The Sorrowfen has entered my conscious as one of the most compelling, unique environments I’ve seen in my whole gaming carreer: With brutal terrain-based repercussions (Flight = bad idea), predators galore and strange light pointing the way, this is the single best rendition of such a terrain I’ve seen in a module. While the town already managed to capture the hostility and grime I love in dark fantasy modules, it is with the almost sentient Sorrowfen and its unique ecology that the module truly becomes inspiring: If the mist-choked, lethal swamp and its predators, which the PCs will navigate by moving from giant lily pad to giant lily pad (each of which may be carnivorous…) is not yet enough, if the rules-relevant limitations have not yet blown you away and driven fear into your PCs, then the encounter with the local old woman oracle may just do that.
The “kind” Ol’ Mamma Nis, presumably an oracle that guides kids lost out of the swamps does make for a slightly chilling visit: She tells the PCs about a staff, unearthed from dread ruins, sunk in the swamp, which now is wielded by the lizardfolk to dread effect and asks the PCs to bring the staff to her…and yes, this is a bad idea, for in her hut, the missing daughter of Ostler is awaiting the disguised hag’s tender claws. This encounter proved to be an exercise in oscillation: The Pcs will arrive with suspicions, then be taken in by her stew (If they eat it…horror later…) and perhaps, realize that something is fundamentally wrong: Oh, and much like Thrazzeem, she is a TPK Games-boss with unique tricks, lethal powers and a build that can send wimpy players crying for their momma. This is a pro-module and Ol’ Mamma Nis pulls no punches. She also constitutes the single best classic hag-encounter I’ve seen so far, with the grisly truth hiding just beneath the surface. Brilliant.
Speaking of which, since I thoroughly have to emphasize that: The Sorrowfen itself will be the enemy for the PCs, the most lethal component: With ruthless random encounters and terrain features, its properties span multiple pages, sparing you the need to swap books, while generating a terrain that most certainly will have PCs reminiscing about that cozy dungeon crawl on the graveyard the other day. It’s that good.
But the Sorrowfen is not only about random encounters, the module also sports a significant array of unique, planned encounters – the PCs have, for example, the option to establish an alliance with a tribe of grippli…or destroy this tribe’s sacred totem for Ol’ Mamma Nis – in either way, the PCs may leave this one with unique totems and/or a stained conscience. Within the swamp, the PCs may also seek out the half-sunken ruins from which this odd staff was taken, potentially allowing the PCs to piece together some clues from the troubled past of this item…and encounter yet more unique foes.
Sooner or later, though, the PCs will have to get to the lizardfolk settlement, where they have multiple approaches – Stealth is problematic; force as well…and if the PCs go in with a truce-flag and want to see the tribe’s “god” alongside the shaman, then help them whatever patron deities they may have: For, foolhardy PCs will then stand, surrounded by lizardfolk-onlookers, on a cluster of lily-pads, when the massive, regenerating, serpentine heads with their breath weapons and regeneration break the surface – the eponymous Five-Fold Maw is a brutal, mythic boss that ranks among my favorite boss battles in any module. It’s also exceedingly BRUTAL…and it’s not the end. You see, violence does not help and even if the PCs manage to win, they still have to escape the lizardfolk’s territory with the staff – while a brief insurrection buys them enough time to run, they’ll be a long, long way from home…and a long way from either Wyvernglynn or Ol’ Mamma Nis’ hut.
Which brings me full circle to the beginning of this review: The aforementioned, deck-based chase is different from any you’ve run: You see, it’s a chase than spans multiple hours, one that represents the PCs literally trying to evade capture against overwhelming odds in a terrain that is simply brutal at least 21 challenges…and it is one that can be *slightly* confusing due to a bit of information being lost in the final version of the module’s chase rules. Thankfully, the information’s out there, so for your convenience, should you choose to get this, here’s what’s missing:
” The Lizardfolk Horde (army) marker moves after all PCs have had their chance each turn. It will move onto the first Chase card at the end of the third turn after the PCs begin moving. It will advance one Chase card each turn automatically, unless the Chase card it is on says that it loses a turn. Many individual lizardfolk will be doggedly keeping pace with the PCs and harassing them (as represented by the Encounter cards), but if the Lizardfolk Horde marker catches up to any PC, that PC is considered killed or captured, at the GM’s discretion, and is removed from further participation in the Chase. However, that event holds up the Lizardfolk Horde marker and causes it to lose a turn, so PCs may realize that they have the option of sacrificing themselves to give the PC in possession of the staff a better chance to outrun the horde. Lost turns are cumulative with multiple PCs on the same card and cards that automatically cause the horde to lose a turn.
If at any time the players decide to end the Chase and make a last stand, the GM is free to play that battle out as s/he sees fit.
If any of the PCs successfully advance through 21 Chase cards, they have arrived at the hut of Ol’ Mamma ‘Nis. Go to that section of the adventure for information on how to run that encounter.
If the PCs elect to bypass Ol’ Mamma ‘Nis’ hut and run straight for the walls of Wyverglynn, they must successfully advance past 24 Chase cards. Go to that section of the adventure for information on running that final battle.”
—and when the chase ends, the PCs will be fatigued and tired…and depending on their choices, they may have to defeat a hyper-lethal boss and/or a horde battle against the lizardfolk brave enough to hunt them to Wyvernglynn for a thoroughly compelling finale…
Editing and formatting are, for the most part, pretty good, though here are some minor violations of rules-language herein. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard in swampy green in the pdf, while the softcover, alas, is only black and white – which is a pity, for, quite frankly, the copious maps and the artworks herein deserve to be in color. Regarding maps: Unfortunately, the pdf does not sport the maps as big versions you can easily print out, nor are there player-friendly versions, which is another strike against the book. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. I actually recommend the pdf version over the print this time around.
Skip Twitchell and Brian Berg have created a module that sports an awesome atmosphere, but one that is also deeply flawed, the missing chase-scene information and the lack of player-friendly maps…
I can’t do it. F*** my nitpicking routine here, it doesn’t do the module justice.
Yes, this is a flawed book with some serious rough edges. It’s also one of the best modules I’ve had the pleasure to run in a while. This is a downright brutal module for the pros, for the players who want a challenge; this is a module for all the fans of dark fantasy and unique locales; this is a module for everyone asking for a big, nasty wilderness module; this is a module for those of us that love the grit, the darkness, the brutal challenge that only few modules can provide.
How good is this book’s prose, how awesome its atmosphere and terrain implementation, how deadly are the bosses? Well, in a lesser module, the flaws I mentioned would have me smash the book to smithereens and detract at the very least two stars. I can’t bring myself to do this to this module. Even in TPK Games’ canon of awesome, deadly modules, this one stands out. Much like Frog God Games’ Cyclopean Deeps Volume I, this may not be a mechanically perfect module, but it more than makes up for it in its strengths – the bosses rank among the best I’ve seen in a published module. The Sorrowfen is downright awesome in its visuals and nasty properties. The whole, concise atmosphere generated and the savage, relentless, unforgiving, yet fair difficulty make this a module that, in spite of its glitches, belongs into the library of the discerning GM…or at least into the library of some of you out there.
If you’re very picky regarding the aforementioned issues, then give this a pass, but know that you’ll be missing out on a very GM-friendly, challenging, awesome module, perhaps even the best swamp module currently available for PFRPG. The fact that even an anal-retentive, nitpicky bastard like me takes a look at the book, scowls, run it, and then says “Screw it, this is awesome!” should tell you something about how good this damn beast is. I’ve been struggling with myself here – on the one hand, I should rate this down for its short-comings; on the other hand, I want to keep on gushing about it for even more pages than I already have. Ultimately, what made me make up my mind is the fact that the map-issue, while annoying, is not as bad as with some other modules: Being mostly site-driven and happening beyond the confines of a battlemap, their importance is somewhat diminished. Also, this is a module, not a crunch book, so mechanical precision is a *bit* less important than in a crunch book.
How to rate this, then? You may well call me a hypocrite, seeing how rigorous I usually crack down on the lack of player-friendly maps or issues like chase-info missing mentioned above. I am all too aware that I *ought* to penalize the module for this. But I am also beholden to my passions and it is this passion (or so I hope!) that I manage to transport in some of my reviews, the passion which I hope, from the bottom of my heart, you, dear readers, share. I am very passionate about this module. I absolutely adore this book. I love it. It’s absolutely glorious, evocative, challenging, well-written and unique. It’s an accumulation of almost everything I love in a module and a prime example of the level of difficulty and variability I look for in such a beast. In short – I can’t bring myself to rate it down. I really, really can’t. If you’re like me and, at the end of the day, want a book written in great prose, unique environments, deadly foes – the whole deal – then this is 5 stars + seal of approval for you. As a reviewer, I need to scratch that a bit as a concession to the book’s objective flaws, no matter how great I think this is – hence, my official final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars + seal of approval…and yes, I’m rounding up here. 😉
One final note: With more editing, player-friendly maps and sans the chase-glitch, this would have made my Top Ten-list of 2015. I wouldn’t even have had to think about whether to include it or not. Thank you for bearing with me through this rambling diatribe…now book your trip to the Sorrowfen and watch players gaze in wide-eyed fear at what you throw at them…
If you’re interested in the Chase & Encounter Deck utilized by the module, you can get that here on OBS!