Whisper & Venom Compendium (OSR/PFRPG)
This massive hardcover compendium of Whisper & Venom clocks in at 99 pages if you take away the editorial SRD, etc. for the OSR-version; for this version, I have consulted the hardcover, which a generous patreon supporter has sent my way as a present; while the person in question told me not to worry about a review, I figured it’s time to cover this.
I also have the PFRPG-version of this book, but I have that version only as a pdf. It clocks in at 142 pages, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page front cover, 1 page back cover, 1 page ToC, 5 pages editorial/dedications, leaving us with 131 pages of that iteration.
To sum it up: I have the hardcopy of the OSR-version, and the pdf-version for PFRPG; I assume that the hardcover version of the PFRPG-iteration is akin to the OSR hardcover, that the OSR-pdf is akin to the PFRPG pdf, but I don’t have the means to check that.
It should be noted that the pdfs’ additional pages that account for the increased page-count are something awesome – they contain all the monster/NPC/environment artworks as full-page handouts, greatly enriching that aspect of the module. Additionally, there are 4 pages of reference tables to render the experience easier to run for the GM. This makes getting the pdf as well a good idea.
As far as the OSR-version is concerned, it adheres to the Swords & Wizardry ruleset, and conversion to other systems is easy enough. The module part of this massive compendium is intended for levels 3 – 5 (or 4 – 6), though it should be noted that this *is* an old-school adventure. Careless PCs can and will die if they don’t act carefully and think they can slaughter everything. As a genre, one can call this a blend of an old-school sandbox and a more straight plotted adventure, and it blends these two rather well.
Originally, Whisper and Venom was a massive boxed set with various booklets, all of which have been compiled in a single hardcover tome here. In the print version of the OSR-iteration of the book, the book at times refers to guides and page-numbers that have been integrated into this tome, which is a bit unfortunate. On the plus-side, the digital version does have a TON of internal hyperlinking, allowing you to seamlessly navigate the massive pdf.
The first 36 pages (for PFRPG)/ 19 for the OSR-version, details the regional setting guide – basically a gazetteer of the Whisper Vale (which btw. comes with a gorgeous isometric full-color overview map, which, though, doesn’t feature a scale) and a detailed and similarly impressive full-color map of the environments of Whisper itself – though this one is top-down. While the pdf version is layered, it is, alas, not possible to turn off the labels and keys from the other maps included. Said other maps are btw. rendered in b/w, but also are rather impressive in quality. They have a grid where needed, but note no scale – but then again, the book does a good job of making the environments plausible.
The first thing you’ll note here would be level of density and detail presented here: The Whisper Vale sports a couple of very evocatively written natural wonders – the gelidstream, the strange tundra, the massive wall in the north, a natural, steep incline. Beyond that, the settlements provided include Whisper, a bucolic place famous for its alcoholic beverages, and, less commonly known and less universally celebrated – a temperance union of anti-alcohol wives. Beyond the thorp of Whisper, we can find Cleft, a dwarven settlement where the younger generation ceased working, thanks to an ingenious machine that simulates the sounds of working, pawning off the legacy of their forebears while no one’s the wiser. Finally, the goblin settlement of Swindle is known for its rotgut – immensely popular, its super strong alcohol has been made thanks to the still, though it has recently seen competition from the L’uort goblins that have since taken an old monastery as homebase. Then again, that is probably not that bad – Swindle is not a nice place; the goblins have an indentured class of enslaved and horribly mistreated pixies working for them.
Said pixies are kept enslaved due to the magical, addictive watersource they were supposed to guard having been traded to the goblins by Thopas – the malignant and thoroughly wicked gnome represents the mightiest spellcaster in the vale, and he is, indeed, a most deadly foe that the PCs should think twice about before they challenge him. The flavor here is surprisingly distinct: The prose is suffused with an unobtrusive, wry humor, and the fluff-only NPC-write-ups for the important personalities made me think of Charles Dickens of all – in the best of ways. The section also sports quite an array of unique and pretty fun hooks and angles – miscellanea and angles, if you will…for example about a clockmaker whose clocks always seemed to be running 69.3 second later every 30 days, and about the root of the conflict between two locals. These write-ups, and indeed, the whole section, breathe a type of universal compassion for the diverse cast of characters that inhabit the Vale.
So yeah, this gazetteer does provide a pretty great start for the supplement, and has an interesting leitmotif, namely how alcohol and similar substances can act as social glue – or as something destructive. This could have easily turned into a finger-pointing exercise, but the depiction of this complex topic via the various settlements and themes is surprisingly well-rounded. In an age where opinionated writing tends to easily fall on one side of very aggressive dichotomous disputes, it has been a boon to see how differentiated and compassionate the adventure depicts its chosen subject matter.
The mega-adventure section, then, would deal with 5 different adventure locations – these are fully mapped and illustrated, connected, and embedded into the context of aforementioned settlement and character-dynamics. They can be run in a linear manner (and indeed, some doe require to be in sequence), but you don’t exactly have to do that – you could relatively easily take apart this adventure into a couple of constituent mini-adventures. The respective keyed locations do get excellent read-aloud prose. Prose btw. is generally amazing, but has a few instances where it slightly dips in quality and sentence-structure complexity – this wouldn’t be as readily apparent in another supplement, but considering how great the prose here is overall, these few instances do stand out.
The book contains 4 random encounter tables of creatures, and a pretty massive bestiary. This bestiary section include apex predator flightless birds, the Rhacos, as well as quite a few other beings: Stats for the two types of goblin to be found in the Whisper Vale, are included, alongside stats for animals, etc.
Murkbeasts are strange crustacean/lamprey-like ambush predators, and crabs that conceal themselves beneath rubbish collected; there are monster beetles, and two types of creatures more crucial for the plot of the adventure itself. Undead, in an interesting twist, have been recast to have a kind of cycle, which is an interesting notion I’d enjoy to see developed further. The rules component of these stats is solid in both iterations – from a design perspective, the PFRPG iteration doesn’t always have the most exiting abilities (in OSR-games, these work a bit better), and there are a few minor hiccups in e.g. damage-types not correctly noted. An acid spray that doesn’t specify it deals acid damage, for example. These minor imperfections notwithstanding, the rules components are genuinely better than I expected them to be for an inaugural, freshman offering – no matter how ambitious it may be. This also extends to the magic items provided in this tome.
The book also sports two creatures that are more integral to the plot per se – but in order to discuss those, and the primary narratives underlying this place, I will need to go directly into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only referees around? Great!
So, this module is primarily concerned with the abandoned monastery that has been occupied by the L’uort tribe of goblins. The massive monastery grounds comes fully depicted and does differentiate between daytimes in some instances – goblins may be partying or sleeping off their handover, for example. Similarly, the whole region feels pretty organic: One of those aforementioned rhacos birds, a male with a massive plume on its head, is hunting in one region. The goblins try to appease it, and the chief wants the plume – any GM half worth their salt can make this a potentially interesting encounter, and this sense of plausible connection, of detail, suffuses the whole adventure, making the world feel lived in. This is not a place where the enemies are just waiting around for PCs to slaughter them – they have responses, and stealth may be smart and advisable. A full-blown assault will quickly show the PCs how tough these goblins, strangely, are. A Murkbeast may be hiding in a fountain; etc. Now, it should be noted that the L’uort are NOT nice guys. They are evil SOBs, and e.g. the desecrated altars and mutilated dead will drive that home.
Beyond the monastery, the mega-adventure does feature a horror-themed sublevel with the, as of yet, unplundered catacombs, where both treasures, but also dangerous undead loom. While the L’uort may not be dominant there, they do have a lair, and within their holdings, as the PCs make their way through the remnants of the monastery, they will realize that this goblin tribe has strange elixirs, which hint at the truth: You see, the L’uort are part of the leitmotif of consumption – they have a potent elixir that enhances them, but which is also highly addictive. It has been brewed from the venom of attoral. An attoral is the strange quasi-reptilian thing that you can see on the cover, and these do have a queen of sorts. The attorals are nothing new to Whisper Vale, but they seem to have changed – their venom now can cause a variety of different effects that may be beneficial or detrimental – including e.g. maximum hit point reduction/increase for a while. It is said strange poison that the L’uort are using to brew their potent elixirs. Once more, we have a theme of exploitation in the service to generating the drug – but there is more to this.
Beyond the trapped attorals, the module does have two underdark levels of sorts – the Subterrene, and beyond that, the Precipice. It is in these depths that strange magical critters skitter around, and that the truth behind the attoral’s strange change can be found: A cavern, where a gigantic, medusa-face-ish, fiendish thing looms – a living gate, from which strange baubles have been ejected. Baubles that turn out to be a vanguard of sorts for outsiders called Nexids. Slaying these and the arriving, very powerful nexid soldier, will end this strange incursion. In these and the attoral venom
Effects, the relative inexperience with PFRPG does show in that iteration, for these guys are much less impressive in PFRPG than they are in the OSR-iteration of this book. While the statblocks are generally on par for PFRPG, there are a few glitches in the statblocks as well.
On a thematic side, this corruption and strangeness underlying the addiction angle for the L’uort makes for a fantastic conclusion of the increasingly fantastic and weird implementations of the mega-adventure’s string leitmotif. It should also be noted that the adventure does a rather impressive job at strewing in small tidbits, treasure, etc. and reward player-curiosity. On the GM’s side of things, the adventure does provide some guidelines for the GM to run the more complex encounters – a handy encounter-mechanics appendix makes running the slightly more challenging encounters easy on the GM. Kudos for that!
There also is one true strength, that, at the same time, is a bit of a weakness: The aftermath of the strange gate, the epilogue, has the vale’s inhabitants stumped – and thus, the PCs will find Thopas, the nasty, vile gnome – his conclusion, is a stark one: “You got it all wrong. This is not an invasion. This is an exodus.” These words sent a shiver down my spine – and unfortunately, never find a form of conclusion or resolution, as “Death & Taxes” (Yep, review forthcoming) did not elaborate on that angle. This is a brilliant “OH SH**!”-level of revelation – I mean, what can make evil outsiders like the Nexid flee? OUCH! That’s epic foreshadowing…it makes the whole mega-adventure feel like a brilliant set-up of the things to come, and by that strength, does diminish it somewhat. The exodus/invasion angle never happened to arrive. It’s a small thing, but it, to me, colored the whole adventure in a distinct tone, hyped me up, and then never delivered on a sequel. It’s easy enough to ignore, sure. It doesn’t make the module weaker. But I still couldn’t help but feel that it would have been a furious, awesome kickoff point for a sequel.
Editing and formatting on a rules language level tend to be good in both iterations. While there are deviations from formatting standards in both, these tend to be consistent. On a formal level, the book also manages to be good – surprisingly good, particularly for a freshman offering of this size. Interior artwork ranges from solid b/w-artworks to a couple of truly phenomenal full-color mood pieces for some levels – the illustrations of the catacombs and final region in particular rock. The cartography is generally excellent in full color, and in b/w, though I wished the latter actually came with unlabeled versions as well. The pdf comes with a ton of bookmarks, and the hardcover is full color and sports a solid paper quality.
Zach Glazar and John Hammerle deliver an impressive mega-adventure here. While the book slightly suffers from having its constituent books collected in one tome, Whisper & Venom still remains an impressive achievement as far as I’m concerned. The writing of the vast majority of the book is excellent, and the challenges presented tend to be fair, enjoyable and well-crafted. Jeffrey Tadlock and Damon Palyka did a solid job with the Pathfinder conversion as well. All in all, Whisper and Venom is an intelligent region-sourcebook/mega-adventure with a very strong leitmotif that has been executed with a charming sense of subdued humor. At times funny, at times horrifying, this ultimately is a charming and flavorful book, and one well worth checking out. The one issue I have with this adventure would be that it, even before the epilogue, felt like Act I of a larger saga; it feels less self-contained than similar adventures, and a GM will want to/need to elaborate on some loose ends this sports. A series of interconnected sidequests between the different villages would have been nice as well – the illustrious cast of characters has them basically written into their write-ups, so a few bullet point-ish ones on a page would have added some value to the vale of Whisper. (Though e.g. the stand-alone “Birds of a Feather”-adventure does cover that partially; review forthcoming.)
All in all, I consider this to be a neat mega-adventure, which, particularly if you enjoy writing that manages to depict plausible critters and believable NPCs, if you enjoy plenty of small details, will be well worth the asking price. My final verdict, hence, will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded down for the purpose of this platform.
You can get this massive mega-adventure for Pathfinder here on OBS!
(The hardcover can be found here on amazon!)
You can get the OSR-version of this mega-adventure here on OBS!
(The hardcover version can be found here on amazon!)