#1 of my Top Ten of 2016!
This adventure clocks in at 106 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2.5 pages of ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 100.5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Wait, before we do – in case you are not familiar with 4 Dollar Dungeons: The philosophy of these modules is that you get all the relevant rules-information inside: A Total of 31 pages thus provide animal tricks, spell reference, feat reference, bestiary reference and item references for your perusal. All artwork herein is collected in a total of 7 pages that you can print out, cut up and use as handouts. It should also be noted that no less than 18 high-res jpegs for use with online gaming (or as handouts) are provided; and yes, these include player-friendly iterations.
The pdf also has a great summary of encounters, with associated creatures involved and loot to be gained, including items, total GP values tallied for you and scaling advice. Set in the county of Surrey, weather and travelling distances by foot, horse or coach are similarly collected in one handy table. We also don’t just get one paltry random monster encounter table: Based on the specific region, each and every one of the 8 tables provides sensible creatures for the respective environments. Oh, have I mentioned the 9 (!!!) fully statted settlements, all with statblocks and descriptions? The modules released by 4 Dollar Dungeons do their utmost to make running them as easy and comfortable as possible for the GM.
Okay, this is indeed as far as I can get without going into SPOILER-territory. Potential players who want to play this module (Hint: You do!) should jump to the conclusion right now.
All right, only GMs left around here? Outside of the circle of Ravenstone in the kingdom of the Bretagne, there lies a circle of stone; a place of legend, where power is supposed to gather, but no one knows for what purpose – not even the wizard Humphrey and his devilish companion Beauregard, who are living nearby. As such places are wont to, it has become a kind of meeting spot to get away, drink and have a good time for the local populace. The circle’s supposed power is lending an air of mystique and danger to the environment that most of us will relate to; abandoned factories, rail-yards, playground, special spots in the forest – we all had a spot like that in our childhood.
Anyways, one dingy night in autumn, a group of 7 13-year-olds actually manages to activate the circle – but no creature from the stars manifests; no demon invasion begins – instead, a motley crew of adventurers, picked from their own iteration of reality, is picked and unceremoniously dumped inside the circle: Yes, that would be the PCs, who have just been summoned forth and now look into the awed faces of the following:
Deako, a pale-feathered, nervous tengu; Adriana, a platinum blonde girl in a fine dress and her similarly immaculately dressed cousin Augustus; Paulina, a light-haired and somewhat plain but pretty gnomish girl; Bairn, an honest and polite young man with good looks; Tilvern, timid and dark-haired and somewhat small for his age and Holly, a bright light-haired girl with a wide smile…perhaps a tad bit too wide. The children, though, are confused – Augustus conducted the summons and knows that the book he took it from was…well. Rubbish. The kids, spooked and with obligations in the morn, will undoubtedly leave an array of confused PCs with a distinctly unhelpful book, as school’s in the morning. Humphrey and Beauregard, both surprisingly amicable for their vast power (and…well, Beauregard being a devil), have a thesis that the circle granted a wish unconsciously thought by all of the children – and thus, the only way home for the PCs would be to fulfill the wishes of the kids. Each of the respective sub-chapters of the module, just fyi, lists the dramatis personae in a handy list in the beginning, allowing for easy juggling of the casts of characters, should the PCs oscillate between adventures/get stuck.
Thus, the trail should bring them to the nearby town Fordguild – all children attend the same school, while Adriana attends a “Special” school; with scaling successes, the PCs can do some leg-work – and it is here that the module becomes pretty free-form, for the sequence in which the respective tasks are tackled is all up to them – for all intents and purposes, the module acts as the adventure-equivalent of a short story anthology. As such tales are wont, there are leitmotifs here, though: Number one can be easily extrapolated from the title – each of the tales deals with one of the 7 deadly sins. Unlike what you may think, the kids are not the correlation with the respective sins; rather, it’s the parents.
It takes a special type of person (i.e. slightly insane, a bit narcissistic and inured to violence) to take up the mantle of the adventurer and as such, it should be not too surprising that beings who wield the power cosmic, cut humanoids to ribbons and make powerful enemies can make for rather problematic parents. Each of the kids has her/his own issues with parents, issues the PCs can help resolve. This whole component can be downplayed by the GM and taken to instead focus on a number of smaller quests, but the roleplaying herein can be rather cathartic, if you do opt to properly depict all of this. My own childhood wasn’t perfect, to say the least and I know that a lot of the anger, resentment and frustration I had was resolved by roleplaying; it can provide an angle towards a form of peace, an acceptance of unchangeable facts by resolving the challenges at least within the framework of our favorite make-belief game. Even as an adult, witnessing the like can hit close to home, yes; but it also represents a chance. At least I know the like worked well for me and a couple of my friends.
So, let us begin: 8 weeks ago, the brother of Deako the tengu kid, was tragically killed by a hippopotamus. The unfortunate Seako had been previously injured on a hunting trip with his samurai dad and was subsequently struck down by a single bite. This death has put a serious strain on his parent’s relationship and they ever since refuse to communicate or speak to each other, as the edicts of the two lawful good samurai emphasize personal glory for the father, protecting communities for the mother. Deako has formulated a plan to reunite his parents – he wishes to present the head of the troll that almost finished his brother and indirectly did, to his father; to his mother, he plans to bestow the teeth of the hippocampus that slew his brother. Unfortunately, he can’t do it alone and needs the PCs to do just that – and thus, the two beings need to be killed…but what happens thereafter is in the hands of the GM.
Adriana’s issue is rather different – she is supposed to be subjected to a arranged marriage she doesn’t want. Adriana comes from a well-off stock of humans haunted by tragedy – she has lost her father (and more!) to something truly sinister: A blood hag has been using her family as her breeding project for generations and Adriana is pretty close to what she wants…but not perfect. It is hence she has arranged this horrific marriage, keeps Adriana sheltered and locked up…and in fact, has replaced Adriana’s mother a long time ago, raising her perfect little angel for the most horrific of purposes. So while the tengu’s tale was pretty straightforward, this is one complex little investigation…and a word of warning: the blood hag is BRUTAL. If your players suck at piercing the clues (which, in some cases, drip with a subdued, delightful humor) together, be very careful here…or not. The module does mention the power of the adversary here, so yeah. While the death of the blood hag deprives Ariana of her mother, her further fate isn’t actually that grim and the elimination of this horrid thing does cancel the marriage…and fulfill her wish.
Augustus is rich enough to buy anything he wants…but unfortunately for him, money can never buy happiness. Raul and Dahlia, his parents, are unfortunately addicts – the decadent nobles visit a place called “The Hungry Caterpillar” on a daily basis and are disinterested and spaced out; in a secret basement, a rather nasty druid commands a variant basidrond with hallucinogenic spores and makes a pretty dime of those looking for far-out-experiences; in order to fulfill Augustus’ wish, the PCs will have to infiltrate the high-class establishment and eliminate the drug-producing creature.
Paulina’s dad was a famous “archaeologist” – complete with fedora and whip. Always not the best of fathers, one day, he simply did not return from his quest after the fables Shagreen, which he successfully tracked to the pyramid of Balzac. Paulina’s wish is to recover the Shagreen and thus fulfill her dad’s final quest and place the artifact in a shrine dedicated to him. The theme here being greed, much like the previous adventures, there are subtle tests associated with the respective sin written into the module itself: Greedy PCs may suffer consequences here…something to bear in mind and perhaps a wake-up call to “not become like Paulina’s dad.” On a formal level, the tales features a cool and pretty easy puzzle with glyph-plates and a hint…and here, just fyi, greed can kill the PCs hardcore. Being destroyed by a stone golem is the least of their issues, for if the PCs were greedy when securing supplies and interacting with the locals on the journey, they may find themselves sans camels or supplies…but a sphinx can show up, providing yet another well-crafted and simple little puzzle of logic to pose for the group and test their spirit.
In the sleepy village called hook, charming Bairn’s father Nik is well-known: The charming, silver-tongued bard just can’t keep it in his pants. The beginning of this section focuses on finding out what has happened to Bairn’s dad – and the PCs will have to follow the trail of broken hearts Nik has left…with, at least partially rather funny results – from a dryad to a centaur, an ogress (!!), a cecaelia (!!!) and finally a HARPY. Well, what’s left – for Nik has been taken prisoner by a medusa, who has petrified the harpy. The medusa’s living on an island with constantly shifting mists (concealment and total concealment by roll included – very cool…I’ll use that table a LOT beyond this module!) and she is not particularly on good terms with Nick – when he tried to abandon her for a kitsune, she proceeded to petrify and…use him, I guess. While this whole section is, theme-wise, pretty adult, it is kept mostly PG 13 and can easily be stripped of the slightly raunchy bits…or they can be emphasized for adult groups that don’t have an issue with a bit more graphic themes. Also: The characteristic foot notes in 4$D’s are a highlight here and actually made me laugh once.
Tilvern, timid and a bit of a runt…is actually the son of a paladin, noble Sir Reginald. And he has a serious issue: There is an uneasy truce between the giants of the Plantagenet mountains and the humanoids of Surrey; Sir Reginald’s former commander perished due to his own stupidity in an unnecessary, boredom-bred skirmish right in front of Sir Reginald…who has sneaked off to ask the giant king for a fair duel against the giant that killed his commander sans breaking the truce. Tilvern, understandably, doesn’t want the duel to commence and his dad to die due to his stupid pride. Unfortunately, Sir Reginald has rolled the maximum pertaining his stubbornness and even the best laid of arguments won’t dissuade him; in order to fulfill Tilvern’s wish, the duel must be thwarted for once and for all and either giant or paladin must die. In both cases, hostilities may erupt once again in the future and the question is, whether anyone has learned anything here…apart from the players, PCs and Tilvern, that is.
The final tale is perhaps the most creative of the bunch: Holly Willoughsby is a kind and nice girl, vivacious and friendly, in spite of coming from a wealthy family. In a seething satire, her dad, Elder, can’t seem to be bothered to do anything, but thanks to his sorcerous talents, he could…well, just animate his dead family members and have them do all the chores. Holly is somewhat horrified by this, but it’s the reality of her life and her father, thankfully, doesn’t seem to mind adventurers poking around as long as they don’t cause too big of a mess. Holly is frightened. Recently, spiders have begun swarming in her room and she wants to move back there – exploring the fully mapped and detailed manor, the PCs will be able to deduce that there is more wrong than just the problem with the spiders – and indeed, both an invisible friend (attic whisperer) and a friggin’ deathweb must be defeated to provide some sort of help here. Still, so surreal and suffused with dark humor, this did remind me more than just a bit of good ole’ Shirley Jackson’s blend of the macabre and dark humor.
Having finished the wishes of the children, the PCs may now finally return home – and the default here is a slightly comedic feel-good ending I appreciate, considering the subject matter. But I’ll get back to that below in the…
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no serious glitches or typos. Layout adheres to 4 Dollar Dungeon’s two-column standard with a mix of original b/w and full-color artwork. The cartography and numerous handouts contained are absolutely awesome and the high-res maps and player-friendly versions leave nothing to be desired. The pdf comes in two versions, one optimized for the US letterpack paper standard and one for the European A4-standard – kudos!!
Richard Develyn is a living, breathing one-man-refutation of the notion that mainstream RPGs like Pathfinder cannot be creative, cannot be art. If anything, this module truly cements his status as an artist and auteur; as someone who brings a whole new level to the game and steps up what to expect. With the exception of his first module, which is “only” good, every subsequent module he releases has made the Top Ten of the respective year. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. Every single module does something truly unique; something creative and smart; he switches styles like a chameleon, writing horror with the same ease as sword and sorcery-esque fantasy, southern gothic or a thoroughly fresh take on the tired, but beloved Ravenloft-aesthetic. Beyond switching genres with ease, a subtle and profound distinctly English humor suffuses his works, making them an actual joy to read. Oh, and there would be the fact that his craft, nay, art, cannot be mistaken for that of another author – there is a distinct voice; a levity tinted slightly by the macabre that is utterly unique. Oh, and the modules leave nothing to be desired regarding running them. I have never, very wished for better organization in them, never had an issue running them from paper after the obligatory first reading.
And he does that not for the bucks. 4 friggin’ dollars is a huge steal for such a module. I can rattle of more than 100 modules that cost at least 5 times as much and feel like the phoned-in paint-by-numbers designs of amateur hacks in comparison.
Why am I talking so much about the totality of his work so far? Because even in this extremely impressive canon of works, Seven Sinful tales stands out. What would be an array of bland sidequests in the hands of a lesser author has more heart and soul in the introduction or one of its mini-adventures than most 100-plus-page epics ever achieve. This module has comedy, tragedy, investigation, wilderness survival, smart puzzles, a ton of social challenges and roleplaiyng opportunities, gorgeous adversaries, interesting terrain. It has, in short, everything.
That alone would make it already a must buy module. It’s more than that.
I mentioned this before, but this module’s subject matter pertaining no-good parents and their very mortal shortcomings can hit close to home for some of us; but the depictions are not mean-spirited. This is not grimdark and neither is it a feel-good fairy-tale, though it can be tweaked in either way. This is an allegory. There is a saying that the parents are gods to the kids and that sooner or later, their mortal shortcomings will result in disappointment, disillusion, rage…and so on. I can relate. I’ve been there. The problems the kids face herein are significant and every person who wished for superheroes to take them away, to resolve the issues they face will relate to this module’s stories at one point or another. The ultimate moral here, is that external persons can help resolve issues and that asking for help in dire circumstances may be required…but also that even a successful intervention does not necessarily fix everything. If your players are good roleplayers, this module can actually provide a catharsis for those of us who suffered from less than perfect parents; it can help mitigate the issues kids can have with their parents and their shortcomings, for even in the most comedic of the stories, the respective parent is not beyond redemption, the future not necessarily bleak, even in the case of the kid left orphaned. There is always light. The world always goes on.
I played this module twice and the envy and lust stories may need to be toned down a bit for kids; otherwise, depending on sensitivity, from ages 8 or 10 upwards, this works rather well when used with younger players. (Though they should have some experience with the system – this is not a cakewalk of a module!) Kids in puberty may actually eat this one up. That being said, if you want to emphasize this component, I’d suggest a slightly more somber end: Return the PCs sans a parade of happily ever after families. Then ask the players what *they* think happened thereafter. What the parents and kids have learned, what the consequences of the PC’s actions are and how things will turn out. Engage in dialogue. When handled properly, this module can actually defuse issues.
Well, or you can just run this as one awesome blend of all the virtues of old-school and new-school gaming: Internally consistent, with a great and creative story, memorable NPCs, a diverse variety of challenges and all of that sans railroading. To make that abundantly clear: I consider this to be the 4$D-module that had me slightly choke a bit while reading, yes; frankly, it resonated. At the same time, it is, and that should NOT be understated, FUN, as it should be. This is not l’art pour l’art – this may be the first time I’ve seen a module fully cognizant in its design as a means to teach about our very human shortcomings as both parents and kids within the medium of gaming; all sans a raised finger and jamming morality down our throats; it shows and doesn’t tell; it teaches by experience, not by reading a text.
I’m rambling, I know, but I need to drive this home: This module, when taken only on its merits as a module, as nothing more, nothing less, is excellent. But it transcends what I have seen any author do with the medium. It can leave people better persons for having played it. It can actually deliver the eureka effect usually reserved to novels, philosophy and the most inspiring of movies. This is not rated by my scale, it pushes it. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I’m saying that I was pretty skeptical about the premise. It worked out. Perfectly. This module has just raised my expectations, what I thought possible within the means of our medium. This may well be the first module I have read that truly deserves being called valuable from a humanist point of view and in the hands of the right GM, this can resonate more than all the earth-shattering apocalypses and demon-hordes you can possibly dream of.
My one regret here is that I have to operate within the very tight space of the usual rating system, so bear with me for a second: Picture seeing the star-shaped rating section of the online RPG-vendor of your choice. Now picture me teleporting in, slamming a post-it with one extra star right next to the 5 on the screen and vanishing. Every time you look at this module, mysteriously, the damn post-it phases in and tells you that this module is a one-of-a-kind experience that can make you laugh, make you cry, make you love more and become a better person…or just have a really great time. For 4 bucks. THAT is my rating. Post-it-teleport-in-level of ridiculously good and valuable; not only as a module, but for gaming in general. Since the teleport-thing, alas, only works in one’s mind and the artifacts of our civilization demand such, my final verdict will be 5 stars + seal of approval…oh, and this is a very hot contender for my number 1 spot of my Top ten of 2016.
Okay, you’ve read me gush and rave about this for more than 3500 words…so please…go ahead and buy this. We need authors that take chances, that are not content with games as only mindless entertainment, when they could be entertainment that also improves us in the very strictest sense of the philosophical concept of Bildung.
You can get this stellar module here on OBS!