A Thousand Dead Babies (NGR/OSR)
The second of Zzarchov Kowolski’s self-published dual-format NGR/OSR-adventures clocks in at 20 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 17 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was requested by my patreons.
So, let’s talk about the pink elephant in the room first. The title is basically a gigantic trigger warning. This module is NOT about killing infants or the like, quite to the contrary. However, it deals with a really sadistic, high-impact conundrum that involves, well, babies. If infanticide by bad guys and the like are not something your group can handle, then don’t even bother. It goes without saying that this module needs to be handled with care, and that it is NOT for everyone. Genre-wise, this is really gritty, really, really *DARK* dark fantasy, so the title, ultimately acts as a deterrent and as a caveat emptor for anyone contemplating getting this. In that way, the title must almost considered to be a form of fair warning.
Anyways, this is the second of the author’s NGR/OSR dual-statted modules, and difficulty-wise, it is a step up. Some monsters for OSR-games are referred to by being e.g. wraiths, and chances of being heard, for example are presented as e.g. 1/6. Formatting-wise, e.g. magic items are noted as bolded in the text (not as italicized, as in most games), and e.g. some key-NPCs have notes like: “Level 4 Cavalier, Anti-Paladin or Fighter with XYZ strength (not capitalized) and maximum hit points.” If you’re using this module with more classic OSR-games, you’ll need to do a bit of work. For NGR, the book is more precise, noting parts of classes, specializations and the like. More importantly, holy/unholy ground is rules-wise more relevant and noted where applicable. As far as level-ranges are considered, I’d probably play this at the very soonest at 2nd level in most OSR-games, as the adventure can become TPK-y-lethal very fast otherwise.
This can also be found in the new spells: 8 of them are provided in total, but 2 only exist in the NGR-rules – bane of mush’kar, which allows for the storage of a removed tooth of a still living person. When burning the tooth, the spell is cast by the burning being. Breath of the moors is a spell that conjures forth fog, based on the obfuscation spell template. There are three low level (level 1 for OSR) spells for magic-users: One conjures forth a bee swarm, with the OSR version being a bit confused regarding verbiage:”… in a devastating cone with a radius at any given point equal to the distance from the caster.” Cone or radius? The NGR version does not have this issue. Faerie sense lets you smell magical items, and screams of anguish doesn’t generate more than, well, a scream, which can make for a good distraction. In NGR, the scream can slightly increase the difficulty of another spell. At 2nd spell level for OSR, we have a wall of thorns, and the 3rd level spell dire goose makes a goose (which are FRIGHTENING when angered – take it from me, I grew up in the country!) into a massive monster with 3HD, AC as leather and two 1d6 wing attacks. In NGR, the stress mechanics explain the rage of the monster. No, you don’t control it. Yes, I consider that to be funny. Finally, there is a spell to bind extraplanar beings in empty tomes, filling the book with cursed text – in OSR-games, this is a 5th level spell. In NGR, the spell is more interesting, requiring the creature to be defeated briefly after being touched.
There are quite a few magic items to be found in the module as well; even basic items like a +1 dagger of bone that also acts as a holy symbol get their one section, and the book of Aarrrgh (aptly named due to the demon bound within), a scroll made of manleather, a cursed coin, a pouch of teeth and the like provide a surprising depth regarding descriptions and effects for both systems.
One item is btw. also the central fixture and high-impact problem that the PCs will need to deal with, but before we discuss that one, I should note that the module comes with a really elegant layout and cartography (though no player-friendly maps), and that it has consequences for the actions of the PCs, and there is a pretty good chance that things will not end up well for the surrounding area – retaining the status quo should be considered to be a success. Did I mention Old MacDonald’s farm?
All right, in order to discuss further details of this adventure, I need to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only referees around? Great! So, the module is somewhat akin to the first dual-statted module published by the author, in that it takes places in a remote locale, here, the vale of Corroc, named for the settlement of the same name. As in the “Gnomes of Levnec”, we are introduced to the key-NPCs for the settlement, including the yeoman, a local berry-plucker, the village priest, etc. We also get such a fluff-centric write-up for e.g. the cook of the lumber camp, and the settlement New Smithwald, south of the Thousand Acre Wood, houses a potent knight, who has not been punished for not converting due to his stalwart loyalty and reputation.
Converted? Well, yes, for we once more have a situation akin to that of “Gnomes of Levnec”, where a remnants of a pagan cult are competing with Christianity (or its stand-in), but unlike in that module, there is no misguided cult of blithering, violent idiots responsible for some of the odd happenings. Instead, there is but one active human (she does have elven allies) member of the cult of Titania left – in the power vacuum that accompanied the purging of heathens, a dread cult of Baphomet has taken root. Alas, the none-too-smart village priest can’t keep it in his pants, having an illicit love affair. If his deeds are brought to like, they will have dire consequences for the poor maiden engaging with him, but failure to do so will not be helpful in the long run either. The very medieval aesthetic also is represented in the existence of a rather pitiful example of a black library of the church in town, which btw. also houses the crypts of once mighty pagans, where clever PCs can get magic items…or get a blessing from a fountain that may guarantee offspring. No matter the usual physiological hindrances like race or sex.
Anyways, the PCs are most likely here because they heard about footprints of an upright walking goat, and indeed, the dark cult of Baphomet is busy at work: Beyond the cultists in the settlement, there is a very potent black knight and an upright-walking, razor-sharp teeth sporting demonic goat monstrosity that watch over/participate in the grisly orgy/ritual every night…for they have found a mighty juju tree, once sacred. The tree is now afflicted with a demonic fungal infestation, a literal corruption, one that may be dealt wish, provided the PCs manage to stop the cult and water the heart of the tree with blood…provided they can survive the trip into the small dungeon, that is.
But how can a cult generate enough sacrifices? How does the cult manage to keep up all this mystical pressure on the potent tree? Well, the Goat in the Woods has a potent cursed artifact, found after the previous owner has committed suicide, being unable to cope with the responsibility. This vile artifact would be responsible for the module’s name – it’s the stork’s bassinet, and it teleports to its owner (who may only be saved by death or potent magics from ownership) every day. It then produces a single, healthy baby. Every. Single. Day. In the lack of an owner, the babies simply pile up. Are they teleported away from somewhere? Are they magical simulacra? Clones? No idea, but whatever choice you opt for, the consequences will be DARK. In the aftermath of the cult’s demise, it is quite likely that a PC will end up being the owner of the bassinet, which will require a quest to destroy. While it is easy enough for the GM to rule that one of the magic items in the module can destroy it, this is per se not intended by the adventure. This is also the reason why this adventure can really use the title to scare away folks that definitely will be offended – leaving the item or the babies generated anywhere will be a rather bleak and dark move for PCs and players to swallow, and even if you devise an easy and quick way to destroy it, there still will remain the fact that an untold number of these infants were slaughtered. This is not for every table.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level; on a rules-language level, there are a few minor hiccups and, due to the dual-stat nature of the module, the formatting can be somewhat unconventional. Layout adheres to a gorgeous two-column b/w-standard and the pdf sports two really neat original b/w-artworks that could come straight out of Death Frost Doom – no surprise, as Jez Gordon is responsible for both. Same goes for the cartography, where the absence of player-friendly versions of the maps makes for a comfort detriment. The pdf sports a couple of basic bookmarks.
Zzarchov Kowolski’s “A Thousand Dead Babies” is, on a formal level, more refined that “Gnomes of Levnec;” the presentation is smoother, and while we don’t get a cool “getting lost”-generator this time around, the module’s presentation and sequence is professional and nice. That being said, where the supplement on the gnomes focused on the weird and genuinely hilarious, this one is pretty much the epitome of super-dark fantasy. There is some subdued quip to be found here and there, but considering the subject matter, this is probably one of the darkest modules I know.
…and, to be honest, I don’t think the module required the shock value. If you tone that aspect done, you water down what makes this module have such a gut-wrenching impact, but you’re also left with a rather well-crafted adventure. Now, I firmly believe that a reviewer should be capable of abstracting being offended and the like, and I do not condone the subject matter; killing kids and infants is one of the few things that I do not tackle in my games, which otherwise tend to gravitate towards the dark. That being said, the PCs *ARE* the heroes here; they get to end this horrid massacre, and while the consequences may be hard to swallow, I can see this work well for groups seeking to explore the logistic and moral conundrums that arise from ownership of the vile item that made the cult’s atrocities possible.
Would I inflict this module on my players? No. But it is not up to me to decide what works and what doesn’t work for you and your game.
Which leaves me with the craftsmanship of the adventure, its locales, etc. – and here, the module manages to create a grim, captivating atmosphere that feels very medieval, grimy and desolate. Prose-wise, this is impressive. As far as the rules-components are concerned, I’d consider the NGR-rules to be significantly tighter than the OSR-material posed; lack of adherence to a specific system and minor inconsistencies mar that aspect for more common old-school games somewhat.
Don’t get me wrong – there is a lot to like here, and the module is not a gratuitous gorefest; however, it is hard to stomach due to its subject matter, and at this point, you probably already know whether this is for you or not.
Which leaves me with the job of rating this. I won’t lie. I wouldn’t have reviewed this sans the request, mainly because I have a hard time giving this a fair shake, because it’s really hard for me to look past one of the few things that I, as a person, consider distasteful and don’t want to see in my games. As a person, I frankly considered the grimdark topic of the adventure to be…well, superfluous. The base line is similar enough to the “Gnomes of Levnec” to allow for direct comparison, and where the latter went the weird (and hilarious) route in a slightly dark manner, this one goes pitch-black regarding its themes. If you enjoy that kind of thing and thought that Gnomes was too lighthearted, if you really wanted a twisted moral conundrum and shock value galore, if you thought that LotFP’s “Doom Cave of Crystal-Headed Children” was too gonzo/goofy and didn’t provide real grimdark themes…well, then this one delivers in spades.
If you’re not that into super-dark subject matter and want to check out what the author has in store, I wholeheartedly recommend the “Gnomes of Levnec” without any reservations; for this adventure, I am left with a per se captivating dark fantasy yarn that, depending on your preferences, either is enhanced or ruined by the themes presented. Hence, my final verdict will be 4.5 stars, and I’d ask you to round up if you are interested in the like; if you’re offended, then steer clear. However, the minor imperfections in the OSR-rules and the lack of suggestions regarding the central moral conundrum in the aftermath represent both needless detractors from the adventure; a “solution” or at least some suggestions, would have gone a long way to render this more palatable, at least for me. My final verdict will hence round down for the purpose of this platform.
You can get this adventure here on OBS!
You can find the less…grim and rather remarkable “Gnomes of Levnec” here on OBS!