This adventure clocks in at 20 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 17 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was made possible and commissioned by one of my patreons, to be undertaken at my leisure.
Now, first of all: This is a dual-format adventure, providing mechanical stats for both NGR (Neoclassical Geek Revival) and the more traditional OSR-games. Stat-wise, we get the bare minimum for OSR– hit points/Hit Dice, AC expressed as “as Plate and Shield”, for example, and morale noted in general terms. The NGR stats work a bit better as far as I’m concerned, and use more terrain features. Now, both systems get a selection of different spells that can be found here – for example an iteration of the old hover disc spell; avenging bolt is a level 1 damaging spell that deals less damage, but may have the target barf…and, nastily, cause delayed damage after completing the next sleeping cycle. Open sesame can open objects, windows etc. and stone spirit, which is the only non-1st-level spell herein conjures forth just that. For OSR, this spell suffers from not adhering to a single system, making its rules-language somewhat elaborate for what it does. Now, two of the best spells herein are NGR-exclusives: Chalk mist transforms the target into chalk in a damaging manner, while childish conjuration is a cantrip that can transform material into different, malleable one, but only if no one is looking. The best spell available for both systems would be the level 1 spell beckon the dragon, which has the caster whisper the name of a dragon within 100 miles, beckoning the dragon to the caster’s location. No, this does not make the dragon liable to like you. Yes, this spell will potentially bite the PCs into their behinds, but it’s also ridiculously high-concept and players will love it.
Okay, the module does contain a charming, hand-drawn map of the region it’s set in (no scale, but that’s kinda intended), and it is basically a sandbox-set-up – the module presents a situation into which the PCs are introduced, but it remains wide open – there is no read-aloud text, but plenty of personality to be found. It also sports some…somewhat mature topics. Nothing grimdark in the traditional sense, mind you, but there is a macabre undertone here, though one that is also suffused by the author’s glorious, dark humor. To give you an idea, here’s the quote from the publisher-blurb:
“The Gnomes of Levnec is an adventure about the fate of an empire and the byzantine machinations of a court that no longer has a monarch. Just kidding, it’s about Gnomes.“ Such deadpan lines suffuse the module as well. They work. They make reading the module really FUN.
While the pdf does not specify a level-range, I’d suggest that it works best for new characters, i.e. level 1 for most games. As a special aside, I should note that DCC-judges should continue reading, in spite of this sporting gnomes. You’ll see why soon. The module is setting agnostic and works perfectly in most settings, including our own world, with magic very much subdued. E.g. the Black Dogs-zine theme-hack for LotFP by Daimon Games would make a nice fit – the area around Levnec is basically a frontier backwater that works well with gigantic forests and a lack of civilization or structure as a baseline.
All right, this is as far as I can go without entering SPOILER-territory. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
The area around Levnec is under the command of one Lord Kristoph, a rather bad and pathetic ruler, and indeed, this is a leitmotif of sorts: The area feels like a world that has moved on from a more fantastic epoch, but which, at the same time, hasn’t replaced the danger of the mythical era with an equal substitute – instead, it’s very much down to earth and somewhat grimy. Levnec is a poor thorp, with the write-up mentioning 4 different NPCs with a fluff-only write-up and a brief sketch of two locations that tie in with the metaplot of sorts. You see, the place isn’t necessarily considered to be fantastic, but there are ostensibly still pagans around, clinging to the old ways, and the church of St. Nicholas, while beloved by many, is a rather poor place of worship. The corrupt lord doesn’t help, and indeed, when fires ravaged the fields prior to last harvest, the lord refused to have his cattle slaughtered, resulting in a tenth of townsfolk dying. Wildlife is sparse and even the rats are gone in the aftermath of the starvation-inducing winter. While there is a low-level magic-user here, the tower is rotted as well, the caster a rather paltry excuse, who is planning to create a gargoyle to exact vengeance on the disrespectful townsfolk.
There is another plot here, one that ties in with the pagans I mentioned – the Coven of Veles. “These cultists believe they will be able to crush their enemies and be immune to the ravages of time […] So, there are a couple of things wrong with this. For starters there are no clerics here, only funny people believing funny things.” The humor here is hilarious, and they like abducting folks, dancing naked with masks on, and then making a manhunt of the poor sod, who’ll have his hands broken. Yeah, they’re bastards – to quote the pdf: “I am not sure Veles would even want them as followers.”The cult has a fully mapped temple hidden in the woods, and the temple comes with a nice, professional map, though no key-less, player-friendly map is provided. This mini-dungeon manages to evoke a concise atmosphere, portraying a dilapidated temple that may actually, Dark Souls-style, collapse into a gigantic chasm, evoking flashbacks to the deep regions of From Software’s series. Similarly, the dungeon sports interesting features and indirect storytelling that can be rather deadly – a mummified head with a stitched-shut mouth teaches present magic-users the beckon the dragon spell…and casts it. This is very much Soulsian, and it earns this by being fair, yet obscure – it’s a hard balancing act, but I feel this earns the favorable comparison.
While we’re on the subject of the dragon – it’s not a majestic beast, but a pot-bellied, paltry thing…but it’s still a dragon. But yeah, let’s return for a second to the “pagans”/wannabe-cultists. They also think that they might become woodwose, the big, mythic predators that ostensibly haunt the forests. They are wrong. Few woodwose remain, as the starvation and scouring of the local wildlife has rendered their numbers lower than knights ever could, but some remain.
Levnec itself has something rather strange for such a small place – toyshop, closed down. While the townsfolk are not helpful, some investigation will show that the owner was one of the mythical gnomes that ostensibly only exist here…and that the gnome feared being eaten “sooner than expected” by the townsfolk, which should be shocking, considering the childlike innocence of the writer. Some asking around will note that some of the villagers actually vanished completely in the forests, leaving only clothes, but no trail of their physical forms behind.
So yes, there are gnomes here. There is a gnome village in the woods, and it is inhabited by cute garden gnome style beings, with pointy hats and all, whose elite warriors are absolutely paltry…but in order to find the gnomes, the truth about the missing villagers, the cults, etc., the PCs will have to enter the forest…and here, a massive “Lost in the Woods”-generator makes for the mechanical meat of the module. It sports an 8-entry table of where, a d6 table of “What” a d4-table of “Weird” aspects…and rolling3 of the same number yields super-weird Trips-encounters, while two 5s or 6s add additional treasure…like, you know…food. Oh, and maximum rolls on all dice lead you where you actually set off to. This is a surprisingly fun “getting lost”/”Stumbling through forests”-generator, and it makes finding e.g. the gnome village a rather tough and fairy-tale-esque proposition. Now, the gnomes themselves, as mentioned before, are horrible combatants. They also have names like Nuttercloud that you can generate in a small name-generator. They also smell deliciously, garbage turns into delicious raw materials, and the smell of cookies suffuses the air. They only have few taboos, namely not giving them a name – apart from the leader, the Grand Poomba, they don’t seem to have a sense of individualism.
Oh, btw.: Magic-users claim that eating gnome can enhance your magical abilities, and the gnomes, while shy of discussing this, will not dispute it. Heck, it almost seems like their carefree nature, their smell of honey and cinnamon etc., might make them delicious. And indeed, clever players will be able to pinpoint gnomes that know about their “mothers” having memories of missing people. Who are nowhere to be found. You see…the gnomes are WEIRD. They are all they say they are. They are just as innocent and cutesy. They have innate magical powers and indeed, they grant magic powers when eaten. Alas, there is a resolution to what they truly are that is creative and really, really cool, as it ties into the woodwose having been decimated by the humans, and it makes all of it make sense in a delightfully, capital letters WEIRD way. No, they are NOT nefarious. They would not try to fool someone into eating gnome and there is no straight twist here…and if you really want to know what’s up with these strange gnomes, you’ll have to get the module. It’ll be worth it, regardless of system you’re playing!
Editing and formatting are very good on a rules-language level, as far as you can claim as such for the generic, non-system-specific OSR-components. The NGR-components are precise and to the point. On a formal level, I noticed a couple of typos, but nothing jarring. The layout adheres to a nice two-column b/w-standard that is crisp, well-presented and easy to read – surprisingly nice for a first offering. Same goes for the maps, though I do bemoan the fact that we do not get player-friendly versions. I strongly suggest printing out the pdf, as the electronic version has no bookmarks, which constitutes an annoying comfort detriment.
Zzarchov Kowolski’s freshman offering (as far as I know) is an impressive scenario for advanced GMs. The sandboxy nature and presentation requires that the GM knows the module properly and doesn’t bother with much handholding. At the same time, the scenario features a really cool mini-game and makes SENSE in its weird own way. The atmosphere is absolutely superb and its strong motifs echo throughout the book; the threat of starvation looming over the region makes for an uncommon and challenging obstacle for the PCs, and the reveal is amazing. This module can go a ton of different ways, courtesy of its open structure, and thus sports a ton of replay value. From a focused convention.game to a long-winded mini-campaign, it could carry a selection of different playstyles.
It’s also frickin’ hilarious. At least it was for me. I only rarely laughed this much when reading an RPG-supplement, and it earns this dark humor, without having it spoil the atmosphere. Now, the absence of bookmarks and player-friendly maps would usually lock this down to the 4-star-regions, but this would honestly not do the module justice. The Gnomes of Levnec is an amazing 1st-level module (or 0-level funnel for DCC) that manages more in its couple of pages than many modules with twice that page-count. It also gets the freshman offering bonus, which is why I will round up from my final verdict of 4.5 stars…and since I *really* enjoyed this, I will also slap my seal of approval on this, in spite of its formal imperfections. If you like your fantasy dark and weird, with a dash of black humor, then put this in your cart ASAP. Have I mentioned the hand-out? Well, it has one. I’m not going to SPOIL what’s on it, though.
You can get this module here on OBS!