Journeys to the West
By Thilo Graf
Disclaimer: I’m a contributing author to Christina Stiles’ current Kickstarter “Bite Me! The Gaming Guide to Lycanthropes” and was a patron of this project, though not a contributing one. If you haven’t checked out her Kickstarter, I urge you to do so. My verdict of this book was not in any way influenced by me contributing to “Bite Me!”.
This supplement/adventure anthology is 139 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page introduction/Kickstarter-backer-list, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page advertisement and 1 page back cover, leaving us 132 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This being a combined campaign supplement and adventure anthology, we delve first into a kind of hub for the explorations the PCs are sure to embark upon when utilizing the content from these pages: Barsella, the City at the end of the world in the Midgard setting is the last true fleck of civilization before the Western Ocean and as such an interesting place indeed – a combination of colonial outpost, trading town and frontier-city, Barsella’s write-up includes potential for adventure galore – whether it’s via the plethora of options available for explorations into the unknown or within the town – after all, Nethus, the chained god of the sea is still very much present in this place, as are the seafaring minotaurs and other thoroughly interesting components like gambling dens and brothels with interesting entertainers awaiting. And in the bedrock of the town, the tides have carved out the infamous wash, a set of smuggling tunnels and undercity that provides for an opportunity to crawl and explore other illicit affairs PCs may seek to undertake. An iconic interesting city-panorama, but not the focus of this product – for the true ambition of this supplement is to capture the spirit of frontiers, of trailblazing and wonder at strange locales in the spirit of mankind’s epics like the Iliad or the Gilgamesh-myth.
As such, the following chapters detail new islands to be found and the very first one already blows me out of the water (pardon the pun): The Island of the Morphoi is weird in uncountable ways. Fully mapped in b/w (like all islands in here), this place is the base of Mnemosyne, wife of the lost god of the seas – She also happens to be the goddess of time, history and memory who suffers from an inscrutable memory-loss that drives to obsessive brinks of madness, her weird morphoi-servants and twisted lamia scouring the world for knowledge to finally fill the void ripped into her otherwise omniscient and perfect recollections. The island is also plagued by temporal rifts, unstable areas of temporal flux (including massive tables to determine weird effects on the fly) and provides 3 domains and 2 subdomains as well as potential for adventures galore.
Meshong-Lir and its atoll of savage islands also makes for a truly intriguing setting that transcends traditional backdrops – the prison/remains of a Great Old One from the Far Beyond, these islands are now haunted by Heralds of Darkness and the ghosts of Elysian Titans. Worse, the arcane bonds that hold the creature enslaved are tied to thresholds and doors and every foray into the depths of Meshong-Lir brings the dread entity closer to freedom – if the intrepid explorers manage to survive the maddening taint of the forbidden knowledge engraved in the reality-warped ruins of an empire long since passed, they may yet gain knowledge both twisted and powerful – at least if they manage to surpass the other alienists, mad cultists and things-that-should-not-be. Have I mentioned that in order to live to tell the tale, the PCs also have to brave the fact that the island rises from the waves (including tsunamis) and sinks back below the waves: And yes, rules for all of that are included in the write-up.
There are also write-ups of so-called lesser islands, which, while slightly less detailed, are also lengthy – starting at Aroa, which is the home-base of the Rimegaurd that seek to rediscover the lost technology of the crab-like K’karoan and atolls, some with spatial rifts, also feature in this section, also the crab-like humanoid K’kin. The Burning Shores with its magmins and azers and archmage’s sanctum is also interesting in that it features hazards beyond regular fiery hazards – also including deadly gasses impacting local environment. The Leviathan, a living island inhabited by mongrelman, gliding through the waves (And featured in the module “To the Edge of the World”) is littered with eldritch remnants ready for the picking and intriguing locales/rules to enable PCs the diving leviathan.
Terminus island is interesting especially in the context of Midgard, for the world is flat and this ancient place, with its gigantic guardians and legendary fruit is located indeed at the very edge of the flat world. Finally, there’s Karn’lothra, where the last remnant of a proud race now lords as an undead empress over her realm. It is also here that a vampire philosopher has blended mind-boggling philosopher that essentially made reality reject him, rendering him quite literally beyond the grasp of even the gods.
The book also features a bestiary, where intelligent Coral Oozes (CR 6), Dragon Eels (CR 13), Lamia Mnemosynian Matriarchs (CR 12) as well as 3 Morphoi-variants, the disturbing Obanje (CR 5), Sons of Talos (CR 11 ancient siege-style golems) and CR 6 Totem-Pole Golems. The Prismwings, magical birds, are also nice, though their entry lacks the CR-value.
We also get 4 new magical items, from the modular boon-necklaces of the seas, to a cephalopod’s staff, an enchanted mokomokai (a shrunken head) and one of the tears of Mnemosyne.
After that, we’re off to the new modules featured herein and hence, from here on out, the SPOILERS reign. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All right! Adventure number 1, “Awash in the Wash” is an uncommon module for low level characters, as it starts the adventuring career of the PCs with an unpleasant surprise for the PCs: They wake up after having been drugged/press-ganged/etc. – in the notorious Wash, Barsella’s undercity. The PCs are the latest contestants in the infamous maze of the minotaurs of the city – and a famous geomancer is betting on their unlikely survival – why unlikely? Well, first of all, the maze is studded with traps and spectator-interference (also great for the DM to help/hinder PCs if required) is a constant addition to the place’s challenge: The aim is to collect 8 special rings and place them upon a specific statue – while avoiding an insane fiendish minotaur stalking the corridors, hunting for the PCs as well as the complex traps/obstacles littering the maze’s regular rooms. Thankfully, the minotaur (who is far beyond PC capabilities to beat) is slow and can be outrun – but not for ever…
Maze residents and multiple rooms with deadly traps make the challenge of the place more pronounced, though I do have some minor gripes with an otherwise great module: The fully detailed maps come without a player-friendly, key-less version and the text refers multiple times to letters and e.g. squares with traps that are not featured on the respective maps. This is one issue. The other one being how running the maze is handled: Essentially, the curving sections and make-up of the place make using traditional mapping hard for the PCs to do, suggesting instead handwaving all in favor of perception/survival-skill-checks – which is fine, though the insinuation that old-school handling of maze-running would bore most groups rubs me the wrong way – especially with a sub-maze of the maze that HAS to be mapped to properly run through is taken into account. A slightly more streamlined set of navigation-rules and help with keeping up dramatic tension with the minotaur-chaser as well as resolving aforementioned map-issues would have been imho nice and made a good module an excellent one.
The second adventure contained (by Dawson Kriska) in this anthology features an unpleasant assault on the docks of Barsella by a strike-force of Sahuagin – unfortunately being infected by a strange curse/disease named skinny-bones, one that defies curing. With the plague endangering Barsella (and quite possibly the PCs, since they’ve probably been infected in the combat), they have to cooperate with a famous captain and his druidic wife (see Pirates of the Western Ocean) and break through the naval blockade. Seeking the counsel of the archmage Allister Dorn, they arrive at his tower on the burning shores, where unfortunately the archmage is nowhere to be found. Having anticipated the PC’s dire need, he has prepared a collection of documents and diagrams that allows for the research of the disease – handling Deus-Ex-Machina-style just about all pieces of information out to the PCs via rather simple arrays of skill-checks, revealing the originator of the plague as an unfettered eidolon incited by aforementioned vampire philosopher. Stepping from the arch-mage’s study, the PCs find themselves stranded on the island of Malkay, where all the lost sooner or later wind up and where the eidolon masquerades as a type of savior/angel. The creature runs from the PCs, thinking them trapped on the desolate island, though they are promptly rescued by their NPC-allies – the journal harrow left behind leading them promptly towards Karn’lothra, the island of undead again where they get a chance to stop the mad eidolon’s plans and gather the ingredients to end the plague. All in all, a solid adventure, though I really didn’t like how the module treats the arch-mage-in-absentia and his notes as a kind of Captain Exposition – alternate means for the PCs to unravel the mystery of the disease would have been nice and feel more organic – as written, the dramaturgy is somewhat askew and suffers from the “Elminster-helps”-syndrome, i.e. the high-level-NPC helps, but can’t be bothered to do the job her/himself. It’s this that made me turn my back on the Forgotten Realms and I sincerely hope that future Kobold Press-adventures will refrain from creating too many of these plot-device NPCs – Midgard as a setting doesn’t need them to work.
Brian W. Suskind provides with a murder mystery in the most traditional way – the PCs are hired by Lord Arvid Olhouser through his aide Delgrade Agador to guard the expedition of his household to the fabled Leviathan-island. Unfortunately, soon after the arrival, the beast dives and thus, the PCs will have to make a frantic sprint to the fabled bubble-tower that contains air and allows people to survive the dives of the living island. Squeezing through the shutting Iris-doors, a group of precious few survivors is stranded in an isolated, claustrophobic locale – the classic set-up for a murder mystery. And said murder doesn’t happen too late – Lord Arvid Olhouser is murdered and the people locked in have motives galore: His wife, Lady Olhouser considers him a bumbling idiot and has an affair with his aide Delgrade. His spoilt son Hagen is a thoroughly unpleasant, cruel racist. Bertram Bodkin and his recently betrothed wife Alyce suffer from Bertram’s gambling addiction and accumulated debt which the lord declined to help with. Professor Myra Dolynn once had an affair with the lord, local veteran Lucas Cabral has an attachment to the unpleasant local mongrelman populace and Fynn, the 12-year old son of one of the Olhouser’s ship’s fist mates just had to see his father perish in the dive of the Leviathan. The mongrelmen hiding in the fleshy tunnels of the leviathan are essentially set up as culprits and the PC’s short excursion proves an exercise in the slaughter of innocent creatures – unless Lucas Cabral stops them in time. Worse for the PCs – after initial investigations, the deceased rises as a wight accusing them as killers, undermining their believability. Worse, Hakon, the scion of the house is the second victim and lady Margrat is next on the killer’s list – who actually acts smart, utilizing dust of illusions to throw the PCs off their guard and sow discord. The cast of dramatis personae allows for a vast array of motivations and the situation is actually more complex than one would believe: Alyce is actually quite a powerful sorceress and bastard-daughter of the late Lord Olhouser, but not the culprit for his murder: Lady Margrat and Hagen killed the lord and Alyce, bereft of her revenge, seeks to end them for it. At the climax of the investigation, she sabotages the tower’s mechanics and has the tower flood while the leviathan surfaces, making for a truly memorable climax. All in all a great murder mystery with multiple tables that makes running the complex motivations more easy for the DM. A minor gripe would be that one read-aloud-text mentions “The NPCs”, a slip in narrative level DMs should be aware of.
The next module, by Ted Reed, is hands down imho the best in the whole anthology, ranking as a pinnacle of awesomeness that lives up to the best of Open Design/Kobold Press modules out there: The basic plot is the following: The PCs are in the savage islands and have their ship sunk by the rise of Meshong-Lir, after rescuing a dashing old salt rake. Surviving the tsunami wave will be hard – to be captured/separated and beset by the dread pygmies and totem pole golems, the PCs will have to steal rafts to reach Meschong-Lir, for a legendary treasure awaits – the fabled ship Last Vagabond was dragged down by a statue jutting from the dread island and now could be claimed – for it requires a living being to serve as captain, though it is manned by a crew of ghosts. Unbeknownst to the PCs, their new ally is actually a servant of the trapped Great Old One of Meshong-Lir who is partly responsible for the ship’s current predicament. The PCs will have to scale the mile-high cliffs, negotiate with the ghost of a titan and impress the ghostly crew enough to become captains and owners of the legendary vessel as well as unmask the wolf in sheep’s clothing (no, not the monster) in their midst. And, they of course will have to drive the ship out of the maelstrom of the sinking Meshong-Lir! (and yes, it uses the vehicle-rules from UC -AMEN!) This module is so great it had me salivate, its locales standing out and its execution, especially how the captain is portrayed ranking among the finest I’ve seen in this type of scenario, the climax being sufficiently epic as well. Two thumbs up for this extremely well-crafted module that works even better thanks to the trouble-shooting interjected here and there.
The final module of the anthology centers on a character that is somewhat of a local landmark in Barsella, the Brine Pauper. The PCs are hired by Barsellan nobility to investigate the fate of the village of Kammae’s Landing, more commonly known as Hell’s Hole. On their ship is the weird, semi-coherent oracle and if the PCs manage to deal with the difficult anchoring, exploring the haunted remains of the coastal town should prove interesting indeed – for the brine pauper deposited a tear of mnemosyne somewhere in the haunted island, one that might contain vital memories. Unfortunately for the PCs, the Brine Pauper was not here alone – the last survivor of his group, they battled a witch that also perished and now roams the island as a witchfire on the hunt for the madman. Worse, the undead has taken control of a coven of hags and their allies and a disgruntled sea hag may prove to be a vital warning or deadly detriment. Guarded by dread Kech summoners and deep inside the island lies an ancient Ankeshelian prison that contains a dreaded nightwave of Nethus and the seal if breaking – only in the pauper’s memories lies the key to finding the hidden vril lock to reseal the dark terror, but only if the PCs can get it before the witchfire. Reaching the nightwave’s prison, the PCs will have to face a fraction of its power and solve an easy, nevertheless interesting riddle to escape. On their way home, though, a powerful Mnemosynian Lamia Matriarch tries to take their memories, which might bode disaster for the future…
Editing and formatting are very good, though not perfect: I noticed e.g. flavor-texts with “NPCs” being mentioned and the first module’s maps lacking some information from the text is also unpleasant. Layout adheres to a 2-column standard and is beautiful indeed – in the pdf in full-color, in the print in b/w. Artworks is a mix of full-color and b/w and ranges from good to serviceable. The cartography of the islands is completely in b/ and beautiful indeed – but I have one mayor gripe: Why don’t we get player-friendly maps? Seriously, a project of this size/scope should have key-less maps of its locales. What good is the STELLAR map of the cliff-side of Meshong-Lir to me when I can’t show it to my players since one of the ledges spells out what kind of creature is waiting there and how to get on the ship? Or another island, that features the name of the threats to be found as well as the location of a certain prison? I can live with Barsella’s map being keyed (though I’d prefer a key-less version there as well to hand out to my players), but in adventures, it’s a no-go for me by now. The maps of the modules are great, but I can’t use them. The pdf is extensively bookmarked for your convenience.
“Journey to the West” is the latest in a series of sourcebooks/anthologies by Open Design/Kobold press and lead designer Christina Stiles has succeeded with accolades in her endeavour of bringing us a supplement that brings the weird, the thrill of exploring, back to the game, with islands both wondrous and terrifying. The campaign-setting information, the island-write-ups, they provide information galore to run whole campaigns, clocking in as some of the most legendary locales I’ve seen in a supplement in quite a while, breathing their owns myths. I also applaud the decision to not contribute overtly to the feat/trait/spell-bloat and, unlike the otherwise excellent “Streets of Zobeck”, focusing on the topic at hand. Mind you, my criticism is at the highest level, but still: The adventures in this module left me partially disappointed at the very highest level of quality possible. They still stand out and are great experiences, but with the notable exception of Ted Reed’s contribution, they all suffer here and there from minor issues that keep them from rising to the insane brilliance of e.g. the offerings in “Tales of the Old Margreve”: The labyrinth-module suffers from its maps and slightly incongruent take on navigating the maze, the plague -adventure from the captain-exposition-flaw, the murder-mystery from e.g. mentioning a magical aura, but not the nature of it and the final one from feeling cut down – the desolate village would have made for a great place to build up tension via a continuing assault of haunts and instead makes the exploration a rather short stop in the module, with the same holding true for the prison. At first, this didn’t stand out to me that much, but Ted Reed’s module, with its perfect pacing and detail, its extremely iconic challenges and its vivid primary antagonist makes these minor flaws that wouldn’t stand out in other publications much more than they should. Though this module’s map suffers most in all the modules of this book from not coming with a player-friendly version.
I get that page-count is an issue, but honestly – I wish this book had been split (even further) – one book for all the setting-information and one for the expanded adventures, to allow them slightly more page-count to shine. As written, they are still great modules, but ones with minor blemishes.
But is that enough to rate this book down? I’ve been wrestling with myself for quite some time and have to conclude: Yes. Yes, it is. By now, player-friendly maps are a staple in most publications and at least for me, not getting any, especially if the cartography is this good, is kind of a big deal.
Don’t get me wrong – I still maintain this is a great book that belongs into the library of any Pathfinder-DM, but I still can’t give it my full 5 stars + seal of approval, instead opting for a final verdict of 4.5 stars plus seal of approval, rounded won to 4 for the purpose of this platform.
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