This dual-format module clocks in at 79 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page front cover artwork sans titles etc., 1 page SRD, leaving us with 75 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Okay, first things first – like “Slaughter at Splinterfang Gorge”, the author’s first module for TPK Games, this is a dual-system module. If you’ve read my review of the previous module, you’ll note that I was quite positively surprised by how it managed to stay true to its dual-statted premise. Most of the time, the peculiarities and special considerations required by different systems can lead to issues in the finer aspects of rules-interactions, can make one of the systems supported feel like a secondary one. Well, “Slaughter at Splinterfang Gorge” managed to avoid those pitfalls, mainly courtesy of its surprisingly crunchy, tactical focus on challenging combat and its NPCs/bosses, which ended up being significantly more interesting in both systems than I would have expected. To the point where I didn’t even consider a complaint about shared real-estate, page-count-wise, valid – the module is a deadly action romp in both systems.
Now, this module here has a somewhat tougher task on its metaphorical hands, as its focus is different. There are a couple of special considerations I should mention: As before, stats and rules-relevant information is color-coded by system – red denotes D&D 5e material, while black rules-information points towards Pathfinder material. The respective encounters come with rather cool scaling advice for the GM, allowing you to scale more potent groups and expert players – one of the things I love most about TPK Games’ modules: They are significantly less work on me than most, courtesy of daring to actually pose, you know, a challenge.
Anyways, the pdf does sport a significant array of hyperlinks for your convenience (though even words that do not pertain to mechanics are hyperlinked, which can be slightly annoying) and it does feature nice, full-color cartography of the initial encounter and the dungeon featured within – however, it should be noted that no key-less, player-friendly versions of these maps have been included – if you’re like me and enjoy cutting maps up and then handing them to the PCs as they explore (I suck HORRIBLY at drawing), then this can be a bit of a bummer. Similarly, when using VTTs to game, the lack of such versions of the maps can pose a bit of a hindrance. On the big plus-side of things, particularly for GMs less experienced in creating atmosphere, the module provides a massive amount of read-aloud texts, including guidance through the important talking sections – big kudos here, particularly considering that the prose is well-crafted indeed. Finally, I was positively surprised to see a section talk about the weather during the module – it may be a small thing, but one that is a) often forgotten and b) an easy means to evoke a certain emotional base-line that pretty much everyone can relate to.
Okay, enough rumination on the theoretical aspects of the module, you’re interested in its plot, right? Well, from here on reign the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Excellent!
So, Vorlash, a dark stalker that was too problematic and eccentric even for his own kin set out on his way to the surface, he did not know that his retinue and him would join forces with two particularly malevolent Jackalweres, Sanhler and Kahliss – as a team, the evil humanoids accepted a high-profile assassination. Paid for discreetly by Duke Harris Dunhare and executed against his brother’s wife, incidentally also his former flame, who spurned him, these three factions of evil went into an unholy alliance, forming “The Unlit”, a potent, new thieves’ guild. The Baron, Bruce Dunhare, griefstricken by the murder of his young wife, hasn’t been idle either – his best bounty hunter, Terent Segnar, is on the case.
Terent suspects foul play and it is a professional’s mark to realize when one better should call in the cavalry – as such, he contacts the PCs, asking them for a discreet meeting in the Broken Barnacle Inn. He comes with unique, custom stats for each iteration, which is nice to see, even though I did notice a few minor hiccups in them. PCs that do their legwork may also unearth some nice background intelligence, but strangely, the table only provides the DCs for PFRPG’s Knowledge (local) – the 5e-information gathering DCs etc. is missing here. On a more positive note: En route towards the Broken Barnacle, the PCs happen into a fully mapped and rather complex ambush that is pretty fun – while a player-friendly map would have been nice, the encounter makes pretty sure from the get-go that this module will not be a cakewalk: The ambush is well-presented and challenging enough, though a difficulty discrepancy can be found, mostly due to something that’s not the adventure’s fault: The thugs presented for PFRPG are solid, but those for 5e are brutal. If you’ve run thugs versus your PCs in 5e, you’ll know what I’m talking about – pack tactics make them brutal. Anyways, regarding statblocks – once again, we have some minor hiccups and formatting discrepancies here. I’ll stop commenting on these for now, but suffice to say, I wished that this aspect was a bit tighter throughout the module.
Provided the PCs manage to defeat the thugs, they’ll happen to encounter the city watch, just as they’re recovering from the attack…though, thankfully, they get one of the city’s few honest officers…still, this is a definite chance to screw up big time. Anyways, the PCs finally enter the Broken Barnacle and hear Terent‘s proposal: In a lavishly detailed conversation (including text for likely questions), he fills the PCs in about his role – and tells them about “The Unlit”, the new thieves’ guild…and that he suspects the guild to be responsible for the murder most foul. He has already found a new means of ingress into the guild’s base, the house of a half-elven jongleur named Orron Fisket, which the PCs are to infiltrate. Terent, in the meanwhile, will take care of the other entry-point he has scouted out, trapping the new guild between him and the PCs, hoping to defeat them all.
He wants to strike immediately, but once again, the PCs can benefit from doing some legwork, with two tables of information provided for PCs asking around – once more, these are PFRPG-exclusives; while it’s easy enough to impart the information in a 5e-game, I still wished that the pdf would provide at least an acknowledgement here.
The PCs thus tackle the mapped Fisket residence (in full color and neat, but the map is pretty small – and since there is no map appendix, printing out the page and cutting the map out doesn’t exactly yield great results). It is also here that the dual-system format, at least regarding what I’d expect, begins to stutter: While lavishly detailed regarding DCs to for scribbled messages and the like, it should be noted that 5e does not receive the same depth of coverage here. It’s easy enough to appropriate 5e’s mechanics when dealing with a Linguistics DC, sure; sure, Survival, for example, is a concept represented in both games…but when e.g. a 5e-GM doesn’t get stats for a door, while the PFRPG-GM does, that’s something I have to complain about as a reviewer – basically, the rules-coverage in the details is significantly stronger for PFRPG. While the dual-stats for the adversaries are neat, the details do leave something to be desired, and since that extends to potentially combat-relevant aspects, it is something I have to penalize the pdf for.
Anyways, while exploring the house, the PCs can run afoul of nasty arachnids, which represent a side-quest for them – for the bard Orron has been slain and asks the PCs to get rid of these…if they help him ascertain his family’s state – nice bit of moral gray area here, as their fate has not been kind. But the tragedy here notwithstanding, the PCs have a job to do – Enter and clear the undercroft of the Unlit. It is here that the module becomes a full-blown dungeon-crawl against the interesting thieves’ guild and their intriguing defenses: Traps are provided, just like stats, for two versions and the challenges posed are pretty neat, making great use of terrain, etc. – though it is here that aforementioned missing details for 5e can become galling – suddenly, a dark creeper’s sneak attack refers to a dark stalker. A fireball-duplicating trap is noted as dealing 8d8 fire damage in PFRPG (not the correct damage die); a skill DCs (28) that should be different for both games and passages of text, sometimes parts of a sword or sentence that suddenly turn gray sans rhyme or reason – on the formal side, this pdf could have really used a final pass by someone really picky.
Anyways, on the plus-side, the combat challenges and individual bosses of the guild deserve special mention – they are interesting and creative; same goes for spellgorged zombies (which come with 2 exclusive 5e-spells, fugue fog and inexorable fatigue – the latter of which is pretty broken: It causes temporary exhaustion levels, even on a successful save. Considering 5e’s exhaustion mechanics and their lethality, this spell is still ridiculously potent and has some serious ramifications: 6 casters casting the spell are a guaranteed kill against anything that can be exhausted. Yeah, that’s broken. On the plus side, the module does feature a ton of cool hooks for further adventuring against the associated of the guild and rejoining with Terent makes for a fun way to manage one of the boss fights; a wealthy prisoner/artist may be saved (and he knows about the Baroness’ necklace…) from the holding cells and the PCs will also have a chance to deal with a dark caller associate of Vorlash and a babau demon, before they can finally say that they have squashed the vile guild….but not their associated and erstwhile employers, leaving some powerful beings who may consider the PCs to be loose ends that should better be tied up…
Editing and formatting are inconsistent – on one hand, we have precise and o the point rules-language where required, cool statblocks with unique abilities, etc. On the other hand, we have formatting violations against the standards (purely aesthetic, for the most part) and weird lines where text suddenly turns gray. The general features are great, but the devil’s in the details here – never to the point that the module becomes really tough to run, but yeah. Since this module is less of a hackfest than the previous ones, those aspects become more important. Not happy here. Layout adheres to a 2.column standard with a white background – the module is pretty printer-friendly and sports a blend of full-color and b/w-artworks, which do their job. The cartography in full-color is really nice – though the small maps (ambush + house) could really have used a big version to be printed out. The lack of player-friendly maps hurts the module – particularly since the maps are nice. It’s 2017 and keyless player-friendly maps are pretty much standard for most publishers by now. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, though.
William Tucker knows how to write really good modules (additional content by Brian Berg and Rick Cox) – his style is interesting: He manages to evoke a pretty gritty feeling, courtesy of technically interesting challenges and adversaries. Story-wise, the module doesn’t tread new ground, but it does manage to depict its content in a fun manner, courtesy of the vibrant characters encountered. That being said, as much as I loved the content of this module, I do believe that it suffers, significantly more so than the previous one, from the dual-system approach. The meticulous attention to detail in the PFRPG version is not necessarily represented in the 5e-sections – and while defaulting is simple enough, I couldn’t help but feel that separate DCs or versions for the module would have done it a lot of good. Beyond that, I couldn’t help but feel as though, regarding the formal criteria, the pdf at one point was rushed – there are a lot of minor hiccups here that could have been caught. Each one on its own is negligible. But they do accumulate.
Which is a pity, for, as a whole, this has all the makings of a 5 star module: The fights are tight, the challenges diverse and the small details (magic cooking plate as potential source of terrain hazard) are SMART and, more importantly, fun. At the same time, this does feel like it is hamstrung a bit by its dual formats, by the avoidable glitches in the details and oversights. In adventures, I look mainly for an engaging past-time – and rules take a bit of a back-seat compared to e.g. crunch-books. But when oversights can hamper the ease with which a module can be run, then we’re looking at an issue. The 5e-component of this module takes a definite backseat to the PFRPG-material – the latter is significantly more detailed, beyond the system-immanent requirements. Add to that the lack of player-friendly maps and copious small hiccups and you get the impression of an unfortunately rushed release that could have used some time to file off the rough patches and polish this to a shine.
Now, don’t get me wrong – you can have a total blast with this. But if you’re picky, chances aren’t bad that you’ll be quite annoyed by some hiccups herein. How to rate this, then? Well, here, things become difficult. You see, I liked the prose herein, and I liked the mechanics, but at the same time, the lack of player-friendly maps hurts this module and the glitches do accumulate. In the end, when all is tallied up, I can’t rate this higher than 3.5 stars. PFRPG GMs should round up, 5e GMs should round down. Personally, I’ll round down for myself; at one point, all the glitches in the details started frustrating me. As a reviewer, I do have an in dubio pro reo policy, which is why my official verdict will round up.
You can get this module here on OBS!