Fosc Anansi: Shadow of the Spider Goddess (OSR/5e) (Patreon Request)
This module covers 50 pages, with two additional pages devoted to the Lands of Lunacy character sheet for OSR and 5e, respectively; this page count already excludes front- and backend matter and editorial. My review is based on the hardcover version of the module. I do not own the electronic iteration. The hardcover does not have the name on the spine, in spite of sufficient space, but considering the striking, white cover and art-direction of the book, it stands out on the shelf.
This review was requested by my patreon supporters, and as such was moved up in my reviewing queue.
I’d like to ask something of you: Please read the entire review before making your decision, for the rating this received is VERY contingent on priorities.
Obligatory caveat: I don’t think that dual-system supplements are ever a good idea for the customer, as you have to pay for at least one system’s content that you usually won’t be using. Different systems have different power-levels and internal logic: Some OSR-games assume that you can fling plenty of fireballs, while others don’t. The power level of a 5e or PFRPG group will vastly exceed that of e.g. a similar party made in Labyrinth Lord, and implicit design assumptions, like an ability to fly at certain levels can result in some serious logic issues. That being said, as far as this module is concerned, these problems did not surface for me. One more downside from a reviewer’s perspective: How do you rate a book that does one system well, and another atrociously? You have to rate such a book at the median value, which can be rather sad; a good example would be Brindlemarsh, which is a nice module in the old-school context, but fails utterly at 5e.
Okay, so this module is intended for 4 to 6 PCs of 6th level, and power-level-wise, this actually works both for OSRIC and 5e without being too deadly or easy in either iteration. While the adventure briefly references the Lands of Lunacy, the like is not required to properly run this. Rules-wise, this module assumes OSRIC as the OSR-system., so let’s talk about that aspect of the book for a bit.
The monster appendix presented can be commended in a positive manner: We get stats for the relevant creatures featured in the adventure, and the presentation is actually easier to parse than OSRIC’s standard statblocks: The creature writeups take a cue from 5e, in that they list the respective creature abilities, with bolded headers – much like e.g. the formidable Old-School Essentials presentation of B/X-rules does. I really like this, as it makes parsing the information of more complex creatures easier. On the downside, the creature skittershade’s web ability erroneously uses the 5e-ability. This type of guffaw is the exception, though – at least when it comes to rules. As a pleasant surprise, the book for example codifies global spider rules for web walking etc. There are some small hiccups here: The distance a web can be fired, for example, is erroneously called “reach” instead of range.
On a formatting side, the ability headers are inconsistent, and so is the way in which venom is handled, which, apart from the inconsistency, is per se a plus: Instead of giving every spider a save or suck poison, the module takes a more differentiated approach. One spider’s venom e.g. causes additional “venom” damage, with a save for half; on a failure, the target is reduced to 0 HP and has a few turns before dying, allowing for intervention. Now, granted, there are enemies with save or die here, but as a whole, the module exercises a welcome restraint here. The aforementioned inconsistency pertains to this venom damage, by the way – in one poison, it’s untyped, in the other, it’s designated as venom damage. This does not impede functionality, though. “nausea with fever induced” as a consequence, sans rules-repercussions, though, is a bit weak. Does this nausea work analog to sinking cloud, for example? The rules-formatting does sometimes fall into an almost 5e-territory, instead of rephrasing them. An example: Venomous Spit. Ranged Weapon Attack: Range 120 ft., one target.[…]” You may not mind, but it’s very jarring if this is the ONLY attack of the target formatted thus. Even a cursory editing check should have been able to unify these.
Spell-references do not properly italicize spells, as per OSRIC’s conventions, and instead capitalize them. There are also typos like “venemous[sic!]” or “Axionatic[sic!]” to be found. On a formal level regarding the criteria, these are a mess. On a rules-language level, though, they are functional. You can run these rules without needing to fill in crucial gaps. There are exceptions to this rule, like aforementioned nausea, but they are few in number. One even made me smile for how absurd it is: “1/day – Darkness at will.” You can glean from the context that this is simply supposed to be darkness at will, but if you need further proof that even a moderately capable rules-editor could have polished this further…well, there you go. There are two magic potions/ointments included; one of these references the advantage mechanic from 5e, probably, because, short of one paragraph, they have been cut-copy pasted. In 5e, they lack scarcity ratings. In short, the formal criteria of the rules-presentation are not good, but they are not atrocious – I’d call them passable.
Can the same be said about the 5e-materials sported herein? Well, it’s “Constitution saving throw”, not “CON save” in 5e; “(Recharge 3-4)” should be in italics and bolded, and it should be (Recharge 5-6) instead, as recharge is rolled with a d6. As one can read on the 11th page of the Monster Manual, in the very basic core rules for critters. Medium creatures have d8 HD, not d10. Large creatures have d10s, not d12s as HD. The final boss does not list their HD next to the Hit Points. Spell-references are not formatted properly, and there are typos like “rech[sic!]” for reach. We can also find incorrect skill or ability score values: Skittershades should have either a Wisdom modifier that’s +1 to make their Wisdom-based skill values check out, or increase the value of the two by +1 to justify that with getting double proficiency bonus to the value; as presented, the values are incorrect. One of the spider statblocks puts the “poisoned” condition in quotation marks and erroneously refer to the associated damage type as “venom damage” instead of poison damage – particularly egregious, since the minority of the statblocks use the correct damage type.
Average damage values are often off: 1d6+3 does not average to 5; 2d6 don’t average out to 6, but to 7. The average damage value for 3d6+4 should be 14, not 11. The Huge Brown Spider’s Dexterity should be 16 to make her Stealth and attack values check out. The Huge Wolf Spider’s Wisdom score is off for her passive Perception, and Strength needs to be 18 or 19 to make her bite attack value check out. 2d8+3 does not equate to an average damage value of 9. Funny: The same paragraph gives 12 as the average value for 2d8+1. Webbing, instead of giving an escape DC, requires a Strength check. There is no cure disease/poison spell in 5e, that role is served by lesser restoration. By any metric applied to the statblocks, they are not good – which is puzzling, since they are close to correct in almost every instance. Syntax is generally correct or at least very close to it, and the balancing of the adversaries is suitable for the power-level. In short, while the stats are pretty bad, they are not nearly as atrocious as some others I’ve seen. If you don’t care about statblock integrity, you can run the module with what’s provided. Still, I have rarely found myself wishing so hard that some competent 5e-designer had at least looked over these statblocks.
Now, as for the formal criteria of the module: The adventure comes with read-aloud texts, and uses brackets to denote 5e-rules and DCs -the latter being sometimes rather problematic – “Observation DC 17”? that’s not a 5e-skill…so yeah, aforementioned issues bleed into the module, but not to the degree where I’d consider them to be getting unduly in the way of running the module. The adventure provides random encounter tables, where applicable. Structure-wise, we have a village and a brief overland trek leading to a dungeon with small levels, but multiple ones. The complex actually has more than one entrance-vector (which are fully realized – level 2 is actually the most likely entry-level!), and the dungeon comes with a sideview that helps the GM picture it properly. Furthermore, we get lavishly-detailed maps – they are aesthetically-pleasing, and show more details than usual, including webbing. Much to my most pleasant surprise, we get the full array of them presented in player-friendly versions as well – a huge comfort-plus! Even better: The maps actually do redact secret rooms and the like in a manner that makes the maps spoiler-free. Huge kudos for going the extra mile. Less pleasant for 5e-GMs: The maps assume 10-foot-squares, which makes them less useful for the purpose of 5e’s tactical combat.
As for the general aesthetics: The module probably fits best into a setting such as AAW Games’ Aventyr (With a reskin for the start to the underworld, it’d make for a nice expansion for AAW Games’ fantastic 5e-Rise of the Drow) or Kobold Press’ Midgard, as the module tends to gravitate to high fantasy aesthetics, with some subdued magitech. It should be noted that this doesn’t mean that you’ll find guns or the like – the tech is somewhat steam-themed and has a pre-industrialism feel, so it won’t e.g. break the consistency of settings like Faerûn or Krynn.
Ideally, you set this module up a few sessions before running it, but in order to talk in detail about this, I’ll need to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
Only GMs around? Great! We begin in a small town, where a talented smith named Jenest lives – this NPC works best if established as an ally/valuable asset/friend before the module starts, as the default hook sees the small village encased in webs as the PCs arrive – and overrun by dangerous spiders, their smith kidnapped. The trail through web-choked forests leads the PCs to a cabin (where smart 5e-players and pretty much any OSR player whose character reached 6th level knows to rest – in the dungeon proper, that’ll be a bad idea. It should be noted that a random encounter can yield a handout, which can be found in another way as well. Either way, the trail leads to cliffside – on top, a chimney is an optional means of getting inside, if the main entrance seems foolhardy to the PCs – in and below the cliff, the complex of Nevnooblin awaits. What’s Nevnooblin? Well, it’s a pretty damn cool setup for a dungeon: It is essentially a dark gnome/svirfneblin startup, where the gnomes have taken to infusing giant spiders with chaos energy siphoned from a planar breach to the Landy of Lunacy. Why? Turns out the silk thus infused is super-potent, and their drow investors acting essentially as venture capitalists, want results.
Funnily enough, this rampant exploitation of spiders has rather irked none other than the eponymous Fosc Anansi, a unique demon/godling-esque monstrosity that did not consider this exploitation of his eight-legged servants funny. Suffice to say, the shadow of the spider goddess did not hesitate when wreaking havoc and assailing the complex.
Nevnooblin as a dungeon deserves the fullest respect and is the best thing I’ve read by Fail Squad Games so far: The dungeon is internally consistent and makes sense: With its network of water/steam pipes (which may be damaged and harvested, at the risk of destroying weapons), it feels unique. Granted, the rules don’t operate as they should in 5e (and the separation of the two systems breaks somewhat apart here), but these pipes also essentially give the PCs means to use the dungeon to their advantage, which they definitely should do. So, we do have a dungeon that has unique tactical properties – from hissing steam to creaking valves, Nevnooblin feels very distinct, and it does an excellent job at environmental storytelling – the dungeon does not explain its purpose per se, but clever players can and will piece together the function of the complex.
The somewhat twisted logic (worker safety? Pff, who cares…) also extends to e.g. a massive compactor – which is btw. no stupid save or suck trap, but rather a handy tool that clever players can not only learn to use, but do so with devastating effect regarding their opposition – the compactor deals tremendous amounts of damage. Automata, looms and sewing stations – slowly but surely the complex will divulge its secrets, and unlike some of eh weaker offerings by the author, the complex doesn’t lose steam (pun intended) and retains its fidelity and organic construction throughout without railroading the PCs into actions. The details provided help the GM understand everything and manage to achieve what precious few modules do: Make the complex feel plausible and unique, yet fantastic – and WITHOUT constantly resorting to “A Wizard did it”-syndrome. Everything makes sense, and the level of detail goes so far as to provide temperature values in both °F and °C. Awesome! Thank you! There is also some mild horror to be found, including e.g. survivors with last dire prophecies/hints before dying…oh, and the notes and exploration? They hold the key to actually finding the ways to properly win the scenario.
You see, ultimately, the PCs have to stop Fosc Anansi and his legions, but things get worse, as the drow party sent to take control is approaching as well – the finale requires a tough decision as the PCs save Jenest: Leave to stop Fosc Anansi and have her stall the drow (she succeeds, but pays for it with her life), or stop the drow, but have Fosc Anansi massacre the town…They can’t eb in two places, so what’s the smart move? Well, there is this one engine that the note for new recruits told you not to set to a certain setting, right? Well, doing so transforms the entire complex into a gauntlet of bursting pipes that will collapse sooner, rather than later, preventing the need to fight the drow as well, and freeing the capacities to stop mighty Fosc Anansi – provided the PCs are toasted by their attempts at getting out of the complex, that is! The fight against Fosc Anansi is btw. a multi-stage affair, with phase one below, and phase 2 above – this is not only the best boss fight in any Fail Squad Games module I’ve seen so far, it’s a really good boos fight regardless of publisher. It’s deadly in both the OSRIC and 5e-versions, and ole’ Foscy gets two different forms in either. The one-page artwork of the final form also provides an intimidating handout for your players. Just sayin’…
Editing and formatting are the one thing that this module struggles with, big time. On a formal level, there are more typos herein than I’m comfortable with, and formatting is inconsistent time and again. On a rules-language level, we have some minor snafus in OSRIC, some major ones in 5e – the book really needed a strict rules-editor or developer to go through this and polish it. In my estimation, fixing this book’s issues would have taken a day or two, tops. Layout adheres to an easy to parse two-column b/w-standard that is simple, yet elegant. As often for Fail Squad Games, the artworks deserve special mention: All original pieces, all impressive. My personal aesthetic highlight, though, were the maps: Their details, and particularly the fact that we get proper player-friendly maps? That’s a HUGE plus, particularly these days. I can’t comment on this regarding bookmarks, etc.; as mentioned before, the hardcover is stark white, distinct, and doesn’t have the spine on the back.
Bryan Burns as the 5e-conversion specialist, unfortunately, didn’t help the integrity of the rules to the extent that I wished. On the plus-side, the 5e-material can be used, but there are too many errors in them to consider that task a success. My list above? It’s not comprehensive. Not by a long shot. So yeah, the OSRIC version runs smoother if you want my opinion. It’s not perfect either, but its rules are better than the 5e ones, provided you can stomach a bit more checks than usual.
Lloyd Metcalf’s modules always have some sort of potential, but things can get in the way. In some, it seemed like the author ran out of steam; in others, the rules got in the way so badly that the modules ceased working.
It is my tremendous joy to announce that this is NOT the case here. The attention to detail and genuine love that went into this, is palpable. This has all the markings of a labor of love, from the small details to the way in which the module establishes a sense of plausibility that is hard to achieve; the little touches show a level of love that is impossible to fake. This is n earnest, well-crafted yarn with a dungeon littered with interaction points and things to do, that rewards good roleplay over good rolls (though PCs should not be sucky – this is an old-school module!).
In case you haven’t seen that coming: I genuinely enjoyed Fosc Anansi. It plays well, feels unique, and if you want to support the author, I wholeheartedly recommend getting this book.
But this book puts me into a super-weird spot as a reviewer. Not only do I have to account for two systems, I also have to account for the fact that we have a writing/concept-wise fantastic module, but also one tarnished with blemishes so serious that it’s hard to recommend this, particularly for 5e.
To give you an idea: If I rated this purely for mechanics, I’d give it 3.5 stars for OSRIC, 1.5 stars for 5e. If you want correct stats, correct rules-language and are as allergic as I am, or more so, regarding having to fix nonstandard rules to fit the system, then think twice before getting this. There’s a good chance the book will aggravate you to no end. You should probably consider this to be, at best, a 3-star book, probably lower if you run 5e.
If, however, I disregard mechanics and rate this solely on the strength of its vision, based on the obvious love poured into this – well, then this’d be a 4.5 or 5-star module. In many ways, it vindicates what I’ve said before. There is some serious talent here, hamstrung by VERY pronounced issues in rules design and editing. If you play rules fast and loose, or if you consider rules-glitches to be great exercise for flexing your own design muscles (hey, I know I do!), and if you’re looking for a great fantasy yarn full of spiders that takes a different approach, then chances are that this module will make you smile as much as it did make me. I really liked this module, in spite of its glaring and very pronounced issues.
Fosc Anansi is, ultimately, a mess of a book, but a lovable, charming mess. If you’ve read and run as many modules as I did, you recognize when somebody really poured their heart into a book. This is such a book. And traditionally, I have always rated fun and ambition above mechanical perfection. Went back and forth for quite a while about the final verdict, but considering the difference in quality of the complex featured and the genuinely cool ideas and set-up, my final verdict, this once, will be 4 stars – if, and only if, you have a VERY pronounced tolerance for rules-hiccups. If not, consider my rating suggestions above to be more representative. I genuinely hope that Fail Squad Games can recapture that spark and build on it with better rules in the future.
You can get this pdf here on OBS!
If you want the print-version, you can find it here!
The epic and vastly-expanded (and mechanically precise!) 5e-campaign Rise of the Drow can be found here!
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