Trollback Keep (OSR)
This adventure clocks in at 31 pages of content, not counting cover, editorial, etc.
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a print copy of the adventure. My review is based on the print version; I do not own the pdf-version.
Rules-wise, this game assumes the For Gold & Glory rules-set, which is based on 2nd edition AD&D; as such, conversion to other OSR-rules is not difficult. In case you were wondering: We do get a THAC0, HD-ratings, sizes, morale and the average movement rate for humanoids is set at 9, with small targets instead having 6. All in all, this makes modifying the module for other old-school systems pretty simple.
The book contains a new class – kind of. Essentially, if you’re familiar with how archetypes behave in PFRPG, you’ll have an idea of how the sorcerer class herein operates: It behaves like a regular wizard, save that it operates with a different casting engine. The sorcerer has a mana pool that they use for casting spells, and regain class level mana points per 8-hour rest interval (which means that taking them along will require loooooong resting periods before climactic boss fights – not a fan there. The pool’s size is equal to the number of spells known, which begins at 3 1st level spells. The way in which the increase of mana is handled is simple: If you get the first spell of a new spell level, you add the spell level to the mana pool – gaining the first 7th level spell nets you +7 mana. Any subsequent spell gained for a spell level instead nets you +1 mana point. While this is explained with copious examples that make understanding how it behaves viable, the relative inexperience of the author(s) regarding crunch-design is evident here, as the phrasing is a bit more convoluted and awkward as I like in my rules-language. Unique: Each spell, regardless of spell level, costs one mana point to cast, and the class does not automatically learn to read magic; while learning to do so to start learning new spells is possible, it is a pretty penalized operation. I am particularly fond of a small rules operation – sorcerers see magic; they benefit from detect magic when casting spells. Bonus spells known are governed by Wisdom, while bonus mana is governed by Constitution – the bonus hit points per level also applies to mana. Essentially, we have a character here who can cast longer and harder, but has a less versatile arsenal – the quintessential sorcerer. While not mind-blowing, it is an okay take on the sorcerer concept, but one you can ignore with relative ease.
Now, the main meat of this booklet is devoted to the presentation of the Trollback Keep adventure, which is intended for characters level 4th – 7th, and it is my pleasure to report that it, difficulty-wise, is a harsh mistress of a module, but one that I’d consider to be fair at any of its twists and turns. In many ways, this module is dangerous and potentially deadly, but it does a really good job of telegraphing danger and providing an internally consistent sense of plausibility regarding the things going on. Similarly helpful for the GM: The fact that a sentence in italics tends to highlight the things immediately apparent for a given room.
As far as maps are concerned, we do get solid b/w-maps, though unfortunately, no key-less version with redacted secret doors etc. that you could cut up or use in conjunction with VTTs is provided. Structurally, this is a sandbox – basically a hex-crawl-y wilderness region with a situation described. The players determine how to handle the issues presented, and what component of the module they’ll get to see. It should be noted that magic items are presented in gray boxes, making their rules pop out properly, which is a plus – if your OSR-system of choice presents GP or XP values for them, you will need to improvise these values, though. A general plus: The magic items presented within feel, well, magical. There is for example a pipe that can generate 3/day wall of fog, and also 1/day create a smoke duplicate that you can command to move up to a specific distance away – the latter may not sound like much at first, but it’s one of the tricks that makes clever PLAYERS start thinking, and then use in creative ways – you know, like a good magic item. Want another example? Okay, so PCs can acquire a blade made of amber that has insects inside, which lets you talk to insects, make them attack you last, if at all, and also has a minor healing power. Come on, that’s cool!! These items generally had me more excited than I usually am, so definite plus there!
The module comes with a total of 7 different hooks, plus what I’d consider the main hook, which takes place as the PCs make camp upon entering the mountain valley that acts as the backdrop of this module. Here, Drixell will arrive – a precocious gnome, who shares a tale of woe that is represented, if required, in an appendix. This represents the only text you’d consider to be read-aloud material – the rest of the book assumes that you know how to set the mood, but here, the module should be applauded for the way in which it structures its room entries – monster stats are where they are supposed to be, spells are consistently italicized, magic items consistently bolded, and e.g. traps are similarly bolded, making it easy to run this module. Where it’s sensible, we also have bullet points featured.
The module includes pretty detailed tables for wilderness encounters, and does something I very much enjoy – in the back, you’ll find a massive table of stats by encounter area as a piece of rather comfortable GM-helper. The individual tables also show up in the regular text of the module, obviously, and the end also presents 8 different sample barbarian NPCs, which belong to one of the new humanoid races statted up within.
In order to talk about them, though, I will have to start going into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? So, the book provides stats for spriggans and two new monsters, giant olms and zospeums – the latter being snail-huamnoids! And yeah, they can retreat into their shells, are blind, etc. – nice ones. The book also provides a small ecology of sorts for an ethnicity, the Verloren, survivors of an arcane cataclysm that have since turned back to a lifestyle that makes them hard and less reliant on magics – these are the Verloren of the Wolf Clan. I very much enjoyed this write-up, but as a native speaker, I do cringe a bit when reading “Verlorens.”
Excuse me as I engage in a bit of linguistic pedantry that will not influence the final verdict: You see, “verloren” means “lost”; “I have lost my keys” – “Ich habe meine Schlüssel verloren”; if you make that a substantive, you’d get “eine Verlorene” for a female verloren, “ein Verlorener” for male verloren, and “die Verlorenen” for the plural equivalent of “the lost”; so “Verlorenen” would be closer to correct in this case. Anyhow, the tribe is actually presented in a pretty cool manner, in that they actually come not only with some flavorful notes, but also with unique rules – bringing them to the brink of death may result in a rather nasty berserker-move that, in a nice change of pace, uses checks instead of saves to operate.
Okay, so far regarding creatures – let’s talk about what this features, shall we? As noted before, a primary angle involved Drixell the gnome, who shares a story of woe. You see, the scarce game in the region? It’s actually due to the predations of the humanoids, who’ve become ever bolder and ever more successful. Originally rallied by a hill giant named Uthog, the humanoids have recently become bolder and better organized. And there’s a reason for that – you see, when Uthog, lazy as he was, relegated the task of leading raids to his underlings, he fueled the ambitions of his warlord Kron Mountainshaker. When the orc was sent to raid Drixell’s home, he saw his chance and forced the gnomes to create manacles, which he then tricked Uthog to take on – now, the erstwhile master and architect of the eponymous Trollback Keep is a prisoner in his own keep, peeing into a chasm, dreaming of revenge, all while Kron awaits the completion of means to also hijack the mind of the hill giant – and thus gain a living siege weapon under his command!
The gnomes have been stalling, but who knows for how long this will work. The second faction that can provide most, but not all of the information, would be the Verloren, who could be rather interesting, if volatile allies against the struggle to conquer Trollback Keep. (In the one somewhat grisly scene herein, the PCs can happen upon verloren females inside the keep, one mad from killing her half-orc offspring, the others pregnant, obviously against their consent at the hands of the orcs – yeah, there’s no doubt that these orc deserve to die…) You see, the keep comes fully depicted in a regular manner – it’s mapped, hunting intervals are explained, as do we learn about guards. How the PCs try to take the keep is totally up to them – this is basically a “take the fortress”-scenario, one that is entirely player-driven, which is certainly something I enjoy.
I mentioned before an above-average sense of plausibility here – this would be encapsulated best in the dungeon (which, while hard to miss, can be missed potentially). You see, the gnomes, honoring their deity, had a shrine erected below where the giant’s fortress now stands. This shrine, focusing on trickery and the abilities of thieves, contains a mighty treasure indeed, but its deadly traps foiled would-be adventurers for years, until no locals ventured inside. Erosion and earthquakes did their part, and indeed, only under Kron’s auspice has the work begun to unearth the shrine. The shrine itself comes as basically a dungeon cut in half – the occupants of Trollback Keep are digging from the entrance, not realizing that the chasm the imprisoned hill giant urinates into also leads below. (An ogre is fyi magically used as forced labor to clear the path, allowing clever PCs to have the brute aid them…)
Drixell and the local gnomes can warn the PCs of the dangers, sure – but when has that ever dissuades adventurers? The way in which the whole sandboxy aspect is set up is really clever – the verloren, for example, could be made more friendly by telling them where that elusive herd of elk has gone. Oh, and there is an awesome monster/magic item here – a braid of hair, which, when its original owner’s name is called, can be used to rope trick…but it can also animate as a nasty lasso that attempts to stow the party away, then close the dimension, trapping them potentially forever! This is easily one of the best spell-in-a-can items I’ve seen in a while.
Indeed, as mentioned before, the need to clear potentially a path into the shrine proper is an angle all too rarely seen; the shrine proper is rather interesting, in that it features plenty of water, cliffs and the like – it’s as non-linear as can get in such a context, and the presence of water lends further plausibility to the whole erosion/changing dungeon angle. The shrine itself deserves applause in that it manages to be challenging (that’s what the dungeon was created for – as a test!) and marries being something deadly not to be taken lightly with the notion of gnomish playfulness. When a magic mouth requires a knock-knock-who’s there-joke to bypass? Yeah, that is gnomish! And the party won’t forget that they’re treading the halls of gnomes – the contrast between the dungeon and keep is not only one of tone, but also of scale – while the keep has been erected with hill giants in mind, the gnomish shrine has obviously been made for gnomes, and is thus pretty cramped. I love this.
Structurally, this creates a tension of two totally conflicting styles – not once does the keep feel playful; it’s a place of grim and brutal savagery, bulky and makeshift, but also grand and imposing; the leitmotif of the shrine, in contrast, is one of cleverness, of dangerous, but also playful challenge. This contrast elevates and emphasizes the two different themes in contrast to each other, and adds a smart way to emphasize the unique nature of each environment. You may not consciously pick this up, but your brain does. It’s a small thing, but it’s surprisingly effective.
Editing on a formal level can be considered to be good – I noticed a few instances where prepositions are a bit awkward, or where multiple sentences started with the same fronted participle, which is not a practice conductive to the reading experience. These remain the exception, though. On a rules-language level, the module fares better – with the exception of the presentation of the per se interesting sorcerer class. The sequence of information presentation here is not exactly simple or intuitive, and considering the fact that this is not the most complex of concepts, this shortcoming becomes extra-obvious. That being said, what’s presented remains functional. Formatting deserves a big round of applause – plenty of old-school adventures tend to be sloppy in that regard, and this isn’t – the formatting conventions have been implemented in a tight and concise manner. Kudos! Layout adheres to a two-column b/w-standard, which, from font used to style of presentation, reminded me of the *good* modules from the days of yore, with artwork consisting of b/w-pieces I’ve seen before, sure – but they have been chosen in a pretty darn clever manner. The b/w-cartography’s highlight would be the slightly-isometric hexcrawl map of the region itself, which, while it could be a bit more crisp, is really neat. A downside would be that none of the maps come in a version without the map key. Ideally, versions that are player-friendly (sans letters and numbers, and with redacted secret doors) can make for a great enhancer of the playing experience, as you slowly unveil rooms. This also speeds up play, so yeah – I hope that the Merciless Merchants will think about including such maps in the future. As noted, I can’t comment on electronic properties, but my perfect-bound physical copy, with its glossy cover, is nice – I certainly would advise in favor of going print.
For me, the passions of roleplaying games and good food are remarkably similar. I am ever craving new and exciting tastes, the jamais-vu experience of exotic and weird experiences; a new taste like a fusion-cuisine sushi or the like? Heck yeah, I’m on board. Same goes for RPGs – I really love that, after all these years, RPG-supplements can still surprise me. However, I’m no hipster – I love, in equal manner, a well-made staple. Present me with a proper American BBQ or a good steak, and I’ll be just as happy and excited.
In a way, Jon Bertani and Aaron Fairbrook deliver an excellent “steak” here; we are all familiar with the themes and tropes presented here; however, there is a reason you go to a steakhouse and not some run of the mill restaurant; much like a good steak, a good take on classic fantasy is actually much harder to execute well than most people think. Bereft of an exciting elevator pitch concept to hook folks in, the supplement must stand on more subtle virtues like texture. To further the comparison – in the case of Trollback Keep, that would be presentation, consistency, the small things – like fair and plausible traps. Like rewarding player skill over character skill. Or the fact that this really lets the players decide on how to tackle it. Or the fact that an obvious dose of extra love went into all the magic items to make them feel, well, magical.
Now, there is one aspect where the whole comparison admittedly falls apart, and that is a good thing: For, you see, classic fantasy has the issue that it can easily feel stale, redundant, like a “been-there-done-that” sort of thing; this is not the case here. Much like a good seasoning can coax out new dimensions of taste from a steak, so have the authors managed to coax something new from the classic tropes. The juxtaposition of sizes and leitmotifs is one such subtle nuance, the other would lie in the twists employed. Come to think of it, warlord dethroned and enslaved by second in command? GNOMISH shrine that actually managed to feel, you know, gnomish? Think about it. It’s so weird, but I genuinely can’t think of an instance where these particular scenarios have been employed, much less in this constellation. And I’ve read a metric ton of modules.
In a way, Trollback Keep thus constitutes a good and honest classic fantasy module will a slightly dark tint regarding the primary antagonists. This module executes its themes surprisingly well, and makes for a pretty impressive adventure. There is not much to complain about here, and indeed, I consider this to be excellent example of an old-school adventure with a smart and GM-friendly presentation – it feels like a classic module that has taken modern presentation standards on board, that can manage to elicit fun even from jaded veterans. All in all, this can be considered to be a success of an adventure. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up, since the module is closer to the 5 stars than the 4 in my book. If the above even sounds remotely compelling, if you’re looking for a novel module that feels like a classic, check this out!
You can get this fine, well-executed old-school module here on OBS!
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