Heir and Back Again (5e)
#7 of my Top Ten of 2018
This adventure clocks in at 64 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 60 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons.
Okay, so first things first: This module is intended for four characters – in fact, 4 specific characters. While they may be replaced, this will take a bit of time and the most sensible way of running this is as a 1st level module or as a stand-alone adventure.
The pregenerated characters, all of whom come with their own full-color artworks, sport detailed backgrounds and full-color artworks alongside their stats. The character would by Joylene Crumb, an adolescent human ranger girl, who grew up as the adopted daughter of peasants. There would be Talulla, a pooka druid trickster exiled from her fairy village for a prank gone wrong. There is Bjorn Bearson, a werebear barbarian, and finally, there is Fergus MacDougal, the talking cat. Who is actually a dwarven sorcerer. All of the pregens come with a read-aloud description as well as a background notes with flaws and the like.
Now, it should be noted that this adventure can be run as a 1-on-1 game, with one GM and one player; in such a case, Joylene is the PC, for the story revolves mainly around her. If the nature of the NPCs did not drive this home – the pdf has a very strong fairy-tale-esque aesthetic and as such, is suitable for kids as well as adults. In fact, I think that this works rather well as an adventure for kids, courtesy of a feature that sets this apart.
You see, Joylene begins play with a potent artifact, the amulet of unwound time. She’ll need it.
In case the cover was not ample indicator of what to expect herein, this adventure is a homage to the classic King’s Quest-series of Sierra-point-and-click-adventures. If you have played these, you’ll know that there are a TON of ways to die in a weird and comedic manner, and this pdf emphasizes and embraces that aspect. It also tells the GM and players to embrace this – the amulet acts as basically the save/reload function here.
Another aspect that sets this apart from any other roleplaying adventure would be the fact that it emphasizes puzzles over rules – in fact, it is very much possible to run this adventure purely on a narrative basis: All major aspects of the module are based on finding items, combining them, etc. and thus, while often tied to rules, can theoretically be run without rolling a single die. This module emphasizes puzzles over rolling the bones, much like the beloved point-and-click adventures.
But won’t the items become confusing? No, for the organization of the adventure is REALLY interesting: Quest items are always bolded – additionally, the GM gets them color-coded: Items that are freely available, are printed in green; those that need to be found, contingent on an ability or the like, are blue and those that need to be traded/given are printed in purple. Here’s a cool thing about that: The module sports a MASSIVE appendix, in which each item’s location is noted, alongside the respective color, how it can be got and the descriptive text. Oh, and an artwork. If you print these out, you can hand out the artworks to the players! The quest item table makes managing this aspect really simple.
Alternatively, you can always get the item card deck, which provides a player-friendly card for each of the items used in the adventure – not required, but a handy prop that cuts down on your prep-time. (As an aside – particularly when playing with kids, this can help immensely!) EDIT: As of now, the deck has increased in usefulness, as it now also contains the lavishly-illustrated locations, meaning that every place herein gets a mini-handout! That’s HUGE!
There is another aspect to this adventure that is extremely helpful for the GM: The location-spread. The Map of the Duchy of Sapphire is depicted in lavish artworks – one is provided for each of the “screens” that the PCs can explore, and the GM gets handy, color-coded arrows pointing from location to location, allowing you to have an easy overview of how to get from place to place. In fact, this is the time where I’d like to comment on how ridiculously easy navigation is – you click on an image of a locale and the internal hyperlinking brings you right to the place; same goes for the items, btw. These link to the item list. Each of the individual locations also has a list of items attained and items used, with the respective locations noted.
Even better, the respective locations themselves link back to the overview-spread, allowing for a really easy to use and comfortable GMing experience. The organization is really smart here, as the top of each page also lists the respective connections to other screens – one click and you’ll be there. This level of comfort really helps you maintain the upper hand while running this adventure.
Now, I am going to deviate from my usual format a bit here – since the main draw of this adventure are the puzzles, talking you through the module would make no sense – I’d SPOIL even more than usual. Instead, I’d like to comment a bit on the design aesthetics – much like in King’s Quest, the primary antagonist would be an evil wizard, here, Vaclav. He and pretty much all combats herein, though, are changed by the quest item use – they are actually required to best Vaclav, considering his power. That being said, it is possible to make the fight against him utterly and completely contingent on narrative means – i.e., based solely on these items. That would be one use of the adventure, and, if played as such, a capable GM can use either the PFRPG or the 5e-version and play this as what amounts to, a system neutral pen & paper point and click adventure. This is possible, if not the intended use of the adventure.
However, even though the obvious inspiration of this adventure would be King’s Quest, it actually plays, when tackled as written, for like a point and click adventure/RPG-hybrid, like e.g. the amazing Quest for Glory-series. The roleplaying elements in such a case add a degree of tension and uncertainty to the proceedings that make this module much more interesting, so yeah, running it WITH the RPG-components actually enhances the game. Much like early point and click adventures required often a degree of player skill (and luck), the use of this adventure as intended simulates this uncertainty via the rolling of the dice. It should also be mentioned that the presence of a roleplaying system as a backdrop can further help stumped players – and while there are no dead ends per default, this further helps mitigate potential player frustration for “being stuck,” providing a synergy of the best of both worlds in that regard.
There is another aspect to this module that warrants mentioning: When I, back in the day, started GMing, I noticed a sort of choice-paralysis by the players; conditioned by videogames and other forms of media, the sudden delimitation of options that pen & paper games provide felt almost overwhelming, and it took some serious getting used to for them. In a way, this module can ease new players into that: Yes, they can opt for combat and combat-related options in a couple of instances, but using items, ultimately, is the smarter move. This is a big, big plus in my book – we ultimately emphasize brains over brawn here and the module is better off for it.
This design philosophy and the aforementioned, child-friendliness, is btw. also a component that is reflected in the XP-aesthetics – solving puzzles and dealing with adversaries in a non-violent manner is worth more than trying to brute-force combat with them. This teaches the players that using their brains tops trying to kill everything, which is a big plus, ethics-wise.
The module also consequently rewards exploration: There are quite a few “optional” areas or somewhat branching paths that the PCs may find, with e.g. a fairy village, a magic waterfall, a poisoned pond, troll-guarded suspension bridges and nomadic camps all providing means to progress, to attain the tools that can help best Vaclav. Indeed, a particular item, the royal signet ring, is one of the determining factors for the 6 endings that can be found herein. And yes, whether or not the PCs subdue or kill the evil wizard makes a difference. As for scope – a total of 21 main locations can be found and most groups should get between 2 – 4 full playing sessions out of this adventure. You can brute force faster progression, obviously, but yeah.
Editing and formatting are top-notch in the 5e-version – I noticed no serious glitches. Layout deserves special mention – the pdf adheres to a 2-column full-color standard and the module has a TON of original, full-color artworks for items, characters and locations. More importantly, the internal hyperlinking and color-coding of links and items makes the module really user-friendly. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
A little tangent here: Time and again, I have been praised in my professional life for being able to think in uncommon ways, for thinking outside the box and coming up with creative solutions. I am 100% certain that my love for point-and-click adventures as a child has something to do with that; if you don’t just try to combine everything with each other, you have to think – cleverly and outside of your own comfort zone. They also help develop logic, language and abstract-thinking skills. There is a lot of overlap there with RPGs, who also teach math skills and creative thinking, etc. Notice something? Yeah, this is, in my opinion, a natural fit that can help ease kids into the hobby.
That is not to say that adults can’t enjoy this, mind you – this may be cute, but it’s not cutesy. It is child-friendly, but not childish. It treats the players respectfully. In particularly adults who have had some experience with the classic games will probably experience one nostalgic event after another.
So is this good? Well, in my opinion, it is excellent. I do bemoan the lack of full-page versions of the gorgeous adventure-screens, but the new and expanded card deck somewhat remedies that. That is about the only thing I did not like about this adventure. Yes, it requires that you and the players wholeheartedly buy into the premise, but when you do, you’ll be rewarded with a playing experience unlike anyone I’ve had with roleplaying games.
This module by Jonathan G. Nelson, with additional content by Serena Nelson (EDIT: It has MASSIVE contributions from Jensen Toperzer – mea maxima culpa for not stating that earlier!!), in short, is genuinely innovative and a really fun experience. As a huge fan of adventure/RPG-hybrids, a genre that lies horribly vacant in PC-gaming, this scratched a really powerful itch of mine, and did so in a heartwarming and fun way. I really, really hope that this is the first of many such adventures – my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval. In contrast to the PFRPG-version, the 5e-version feels a bit more refined and is, system-immanently, a bit more conductive to the playing experience, so get this one if you have the luxury of choosing which one to play. The expanded card deck makes for a really great prop as well and can be used to further enhance the experience.
Oh, and conversely, this is a candidate for my Top Ten of 2018. If you even remotely like the idea, check this out asap!
You can get this amazing point-and-click adventure/RPG-crossover here on OBS!
You can get the card deck for locations and quest items here on OBS!