This is #3 of my Top Ten of 2013!
The latest module by 4 Dollar Dungeons clocks in at 79 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a massive 75 pages of content, so let’s check this out!
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion. No. Seriously. You don’t want to spoil this one.
Okay, only DMs left? Great!
Now DMs may wish to know the following – like all 4$D-modules, this one does provide some guidance beyond the usual synopsis in modifying the hook for the DM to fix issues with encounters that might come up, rendering this module easier to prepare than most comparable resources. This level of foresight by the way also extends to the copious maps provided for the module – DM and player maps are NOT identical in every case – two thumbs up. Scaling advice, handy lists of encounters, treasures etc. – all provided, rendering the running of this module as easy as one can possibly make it.
Now let’s dive into the plot, shall we? We begin this module in the coastal city of Morphoton – or any other coastal city. Here, a note on adaption should be made – the module delivers a handy list of criteria a city has to fulfill for the module to run smoothly and this advice, once again, renders running this module easier – 50+ years, predominantly stone buildings, districts for different classes, a strong mercantile presence and a council among the governing bodies are rather easy to fulfill.
So, how does this scenario begin? Well, it (probably) is autumn, when, by some relation or friend, the PCs are bequeathed a picture depicting the Gardens of Marina, a local park in a less than popular neighborhood, with a cryptic hint that there is some mystery to be found there. Depending on your players, their innate curiosity may even suffice – for mine it did! Checking out the park the PCs encounter a scene of neglect and decay – the gorgeous statue in the middle of the park has been vandalized and several of the decorative statues from the park are missing. However, between nostalgic old people and the occasional loner frequenting this abandoned, dilapidated park, they may also notice a ring of odd, symbols around the fountain and a discrepancy in the composure of the statues. There is obviously a mystery afoot and the missing statues are obviously tied to the task. Hence, the PCs will have to hunt down the park’s former statues – wherever they might be.
Thankfully, at least one man can help the PCs, the by now over 90-year old senile gardener Arbitan, who may very well be the park’s only frequent visitor – it is via the interaction with this man (a nice way to once again enforce a theme of decay and finality and the fleeting nature of life, btw.), the PCs can glean the first hints – and much like in a good mystery/adventure-movie, the detective work begins – from the unpleasantness of essentially forced labor weaving to the bureaucracy of the council, dealing with greedy art dealers and snobbish custodians, the trails lead towards a crab-merchant, a bell-tower, a crypta and even a maze – and we haven’t even started the deadly part yet! Still, the individual encounters collectively manage to set a tone that starts resonating as one plays, slowly developing the mood in an excellent example of indirect storytelling.
Now from the plinths of these statues and their signs, provided as hand-outs for the PCs, btw. – after all, visual puzzles sans visual aids are hard and a total of 9 jpgs make visualizing the puzzle exceedingly easy. Have I mentioned that all combat-relevant aforementioned locations sport player-friendly maps?
So finally, the secret is unearthed, the access route opens to perhaps one of the best examples of secret dungeons I’ve seen in ages – and we enter the dungeon below – which is highly uncommon. Why? Well, first of all, the place is essentially an example for a vertical, rather than a horizontal dungeon, with cross-section maps being provided as well (and secret rooms not included necessarily in the default map. Secondly, the module’s dungeon sports massive tanks that can be modified and accessed via special keys – and which require some thinking. Essentially, this whole level can be considered one gigantic logic puzzle – not every room, not every creature is relevant, but the system per se is concise and well-wrought…and it makes one thing pretty clear – If your PCs are dumb, they can die horribly here: Diving into a mix of water over-saturated with oxygen? In case you’ve never played Metal Gear Solid 2, let me enlighten you: No, you can’t swim in it, yes, it’s a bad idea to try. The same can be said about diving headfirst into a tank as a level 1 character that contains a massive giant zombie shark – of course, you can just empty the tank and then kill it at range, though it will take some arrows to put down…
Smart tactics and smart playing will be required to properly navigate this part of the dungeon indeed – but the challenge does not end there – in order to proceed further, at one point the PCs quite possibly will have to deal with a rather lethal demonic adversary…only to stumble upon an evil seamstress (who do you think makes all those cultist’s robes?) and a massive chapter of Asmodeans. Thankfully, if the PCs are not dumb, they’ll be disguised in Asmodean robes. Walking the floors of this place should send torrents of sweat down the PC’s backs – multiple high level clerics, high-level outsiders – the PCs are well in over their heads and with imps buzzing to and fro, unmasking is suicide. Thankfully, the cult has not taken one thing into account -the reservoir. They have not been visited for ages. No one bothers them. Why guard the ingress? And who would have thunk that a certain tank now is filled to the brim with 1.5 tons of water? Some crowbars, a little bit of force and a massive, crushing tsunami-like floods can be used to annihilate the opposition that is so far above them, they will just be cheering. At least my players were. Thankfully, the water drains and with the missing head of Marina’s statue, the park can be restored to its former glory, the PCs rewarded and blessed and the module brought to a satisfying conclusion.
As always with 4$D-modules, we receive handouts of the artworks for your PCs, properly detailed maps, stats for all creatures, hazards, spells and yes, even creature qualities as well, rendering this literally the only book you need to run this module.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I did not notice any significant glitches. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly 2-column full color standard sans backgrounds and the pdf comes extensively bookmarked for your convenience. As an additional benefit for people like yours truly, we receive two pdfs – one in A4-format and one in US-format, making the printing of this module easier and better looking for Europeans like yours truly. Cartography is provided in full color, of just about every combat-related environment, with player-friendly maps and even cross-sections galore. It should also be noted that, as always, each encounter features the respective DCs for skill-checks and results in a handy mini-table.
No 4$D-module is like the other – but ever since “Horn of Geryon“, all three have been superb in their own, distinct ways. They all sport a subdued, mature humor that makes reading them a joy and provide a level of detail and logical cohesiveness seldom seen in any other publication. Instead of resting on his laurels, after “Journey to Cathreay” became one of my favorite wilderness modules of all time, author Richard Develyn instead opted for something different – and made a module that is equal parts investigation and essentially the exploration of a vast, magical and logical dungeon. Suffused with a sense of decrepitude, the module’s theme is enhanced by just about every step building atmosphere along the way – and this is good. Why? Because this module requires respect to beat. I am not kidding when I’m saying that this module is difficult – in an uncommon, very rewarding way – from the beginning to the end, this whole module is all about BRAINS over brawn. If this were a GoT-character, it would probably be Tyrion Lannister.
What do I mean by that? Organically, the dungeon and its challenges prepare the PCs (and players!) mindset-wise towards a most uncommon finale that would not work with another mindset. It’s essentially like the glorious classic “Tomb of Abysthor” and the author does not kid when the CR-rating for a particular room is denoted as “infinite” – at their level, the PCs have simply no chance to prevail other than being smart -something that would come out of left field in any other module and result in unfair TPKs here works as the logical conclusion of the things that have come before.
All right, I’ll come out and say it – this is the brainiest module I’ve had the pleasure to run in quite a while – and I mean that as a compliment. Mind you, there are enough combats in here and a skeleton whose skull is inhabited by an undead octopus and similar weird creatures make for fantastic changes of pace throughout the module and the fights before furthermore enhance the emphasis on tactics, strategy and using your brain.
This module can be deemed a love-letter to all the glorious modules that could not be solved by rolling a 20 every time, an homage to the brainier of mystery/adventure movies and is just plain fun to run. That being said, DMs should carefully read (and understand) the full module before running it – its modular nature and complex dungeon are not something you can pull off on the fly. if your players and you are bored by roll-playing, if you want concise and logical puzzles that do not require trial and error to solve, then this will be a true blessing for you. The Key to Marina is a glorious module that once again shows what was once considered to be the best of old-school adventure-writing and puts it into a new, polished form. At this point, I am using 4 Dollar Dungeon-modules as a type of balm for my reviewer’s soul – after reading flawed math, the oompteenth supplement dealing with xyz, after being frustrated by a logical glitch or railroading – this is when I open one of these modules, read them, run them…and all is well. And no, that was no exaggeration. Add to that the exceedingly low price-point and I guarantee that you won’t find something similar around.
I am aware that I must be sounding like a fanboy at this point and honestly, I kind of am – but deservedly so. The level of quality provided is staggering for this price-point and the amount of superlatives I can heap on this module are rather impressive as well – but you’ve heard those before, I wager. Hence, let me just reiterate that this is a module for the advanced player, for the thinkers, a module steeped in glorious detail, one that could be easily transplanted into e.g. Ravenloft or any other setting. It is also yet another flavor of awesomeness from the penmanship of Richard Develyn and the fourth (!!!) module in a row I consider a candidate for my Top Ten of the given release-year.
Yeah. this level of mastery is getting creepy. still, once more, let me spell it out – final verdict: 5 stars + seal of approval, candidate for the Top Ten of 2014. Go buy this now – it’s cheaper than a pack of cigarettes or a proper meal, even in a fast food chain, and it will stay with you for much, much longer.