This massive adventure clocks in at 56 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with an impressive 52 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review is part of a request of one of my patreon supporters.
Now, first of all: This adventure is unlike any other I’ve reviewed so far; it genuinely managed to evoke a sense of jamais-vu, which is a rare thing for me these days. It should be noted that a portion of the proceeds from selling this adventure will be donated to a charity focusing on technology education for rural, Latino youth. Formally, this is a DCC-funnel. That is, it is a module for 0-level characters. 3 -4 per player, for some will die. It is also an adventure that actually defines a lot of the campaign world into which the PCs will be thrust. We have plenty of read-aloud text, in case you were wondering.
While one could construe it to be a holiday adventure of sorts, in that is has themes of the year ending etc., it is, ultimately, a module that works just as well during any other time of the year. It is also a module that has left me deeply conflicted, more so than almost all other adventures I have covered over the course of my reviewer’s existence. As such, I’d urge you to read the entirety of the review, for there is a lot of ground to cover.
Since some of my readers tend to ask: This module is pretty deeply entrenched within DCC’s rules aesthetics, so it’s not any easy module to convert in a linear manner; while the module offers a rich and easy panoply of things to mine conceptually, I think that converting this one would prove taxing for me. Make of that what you will.
Okay, so the default assumption of the module is that it takes place in the region of Varjorma, basically a frigid north where the border between world becomes tenuous and thin. The PCs are assumed to be Zvart as a default – lithe, olive-skinned demi-humans with a slightly animalistic cast. A 10-level race-class is provided, and we have a progression of up to +6 for Fort and Will-saves. Action die starts at d20 and upgrades to d20 + d14 at 6th level,, +d16 at 7th, to culminate at d20 + d20 at 8th level. Crit die and table begin at d6/II, and improve to d16 over the course of the race-class progression. Attack improves to +6, and we get 5 titles for levels, culminating at 5th. Zvart get 1d8 HP per level, are trained with single-edged daggers, darts, slings, javelins, short spears, clubs and short swords. They are sensitive to iron like elves, getting a free mithril armor and weapon at first level. They have infravision 30 ft., and they are lucky: They may burn Luck to lower the results of enemies that would attack, damage or use spell-like tricks or skill checks that would harm the zvart. This only works when direct harm is the result. A zvart may burn a maximum of 1 + class level points of Luck to affect a single roll of the bones.
Zvarts may make an action die roll to lay on hands as a clerics, and they may not heal undead, constructs, etc. Stamina modifier and level are added to the action die, and treats the target of restoration as being of adjacent alignment for the purposes of determining effects. The race-class comes with a d24 occupation table. Hmm, personally, I think these fellows are a bit overkill, and they don’t exactly fit my vision of DCC’s flavor, feeling more like a high-fantasy race. That being said, it is easy enough to ignore these fellows and run the module with other characters.
Now, the adventure also presents two fully-depicted new patrons, including invoke patron tables, but it should be noted that these are inextricably entwined with the story presented within. Thus, in order to discuss both them, and the narrative framework of the adventure, I will now go into SPOILER territory. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only judges around? Great! In the ancient times, two evil demi-gods coupled, spawning the Nine Afflictions – one of those being Grim Inchyron, inventor of colic and artificer most foul. An agent of Chaos most foul, the entity managed to murder Lamushea, the Law-Shaper, wearing the deific face to instill untold chaos among mortal agents, prompting untold suffering to spread. Unbeknown to the entity, Lamushea was not truly slain – instead, the divine essence had fled into the mighty Krytz, a potent scrying device and divine symbol. However, on the eve of victory, the plans of Grim Inchyron were foiled by the most unlikely of things: An act of moral transcendence, wherein mortals forgave their obviously mad deity. This act struck down Grim Inchyron, making it a mere shadow of itself, the devil-wraith. The corporality of the legendary Artificer of Anguish fused with Lamushea’s essence, becoming something else entirely – Laylokan, the God of Weighing the Cost of Balance. The birth of this god stripped the world of any memory of these world-shaking events, and these memories converged into a kind of planar morality tale, which encapsulated both devil-wraith and the Krytz. Laylokan fashioned the eponymous winter-calendar to contain this lost tale, and he has borne the massive thing ever since.
The PCs meet Laylokan in a penumbric glen, in the space between planes and worlds, trapped, in a way: Barbed imps assault the wintry clearing and drive the PCs towards the vicinity of the world-calendar. Communication with Laylokan will, among other things, yield this:
“The Winter Calendar
Contains the tale
Of murder and miracle
That upended the scales
Hubris for both:
Devil, and ‘wisdom impearled;’
The morals you glean
Will reshape the world!”
In order to return from the penumbric twilight, the PCs will have to enter the morality tale in order, from chapter 1 to 7, exploring the Sacred Krytz Mystery. The god emphasizes that the PC’s task is NOT to stop what is happening – the events have already come to pass, after all. It is their job to witness, and they cannot influence the ultimate outcome of the story. After 4 intervals of the story, the PCs are to relate what they witnessed within the chronicles, and determine the moral of the tale. One or more PCs MUST take the perspective of Law; one or more PCs must take the perspective of Chaos – this ultimately provides a lens that is a great example why I loathe the alignment system as a simplification in all D&D-related games with a fiery passion. Here, the dichotomous nature of the Law/Chaos-conflict looks particularly bad, as DCC favors the old-school notion of Chaos equaling…well, Warhammer chaos. The thing with tentacles that’ll end worlds. I was pretty surprised, considering the dichotomous set-up, to see the consequences here slightly more nuanced than what I expected to witness.
But back to moral-making. The remainder of PCs will decide on the preferred interpretation, and if you don’t want to handle the like solely on the basis of roleplaying, there is a mechanic solution presented as well, and some guidelines for judges are presented. A moral should, for example, not exceed 12 words, and some example from playtesting help judges contextualize material.
Now, in contrast to my expectations, this indeed makes good on its promises as per the vast impact this adventure can have on the world: The first of the aspects, and most obvious one, would be the two new patrons. One of these would be the aforementioned devil-wraith as a remnant of Grim Inchyron. On the other side, we have the Logos of Lamushea the Law-Maker, a radical and stern adherer to the law, who is, depending on your interpretations and personal point of views, just as dangerous as the devil-wraith – less overtly malign (doesn’t make tainted PCs spread colic to kids, unlike the devil-wraith…), and more Judge Dredd-y, if you will. Both of these do come with proper invoke patron tables, patron taint tables, spellburn and no less than 3 signature spells per patron. These patrons may end up replacing a major deity of the campaign world or never materialize, depending on the choices of the PCs.
Moreover, the decisions of the PCs influence pretty much EVERYTHING. How stifling and restrictive or how loose and inefficient laws are, religious freedom, warfare, government, morality and ethics – Law, Chaos and Neutrality all have the consequences of triumphs for a given field noted in specific sheets, and a sheet for the judge allows for easy tracking of the consequences of the PC’s decisions. These decisions not only influence fluff – they also greatly influence how some class mechanics and in-game crunchy bits work. This commitment to consequences is the greatest and most impressive aspect of this adventure, and something that made me smile with honest glee. At the same time, it also represents the crucial failing of the adventure itself, but in order to elaborate upon that, I need to start discussing the respective chapters into which the PCs are thrust.
You see, the fact that the module per se does not recount the tale as exposition (that would be boring) means that it sports basically scenes from the epic conflict between law and order – the first scene, for example, puts the PCs into the homebase of Grim Inchyron, the labyrinthine undercroft ( a nod to Melsunian Arts Council’s ‘zine?), where the horrid entity if currently recounting his masterplan in a kind of pulpit, while his demonic legions haunt the caverns. The complex comes with a small map (no scale provided) and mechanically is navigated via Stealth and Navigation checks – d20 + Int modifier + 1 for related occupation +1 per successful assist. The PC’s task is to escape, to survive, and enough successes mean that they get out. Pretty detailed tables closely correlate exact performance and thus help, though the features the PCs happen upon doe not really mirror the pretty small complex. Basically, ignoring the map and running this like an abstract labyrinth are the best course of action, as the horrid Affliction rants on and drones. And yes, the rant is represented.
Sounds like a cool encounter? Yeah, it is. Here’s however, the failing of the module, and it is a pretty crucial one, as far as I’m concerned. The actions of the PCs and the themes of the respective encounters do not correlate to the things the PC’s moral making influence in the world to come. The first component here is about government …yeah, I could draw a (very) flimsy connection here, but ultimately, there is no really pronounced one. This is so obvious to me, and kinda sad, for the story told *is* epic enough to actually feature such themes, to correlate to the things changes. Not every encounter has its own moral-making, mind you: This whole sequence prompted moral making number 1, whereas the next two encounters have one moral making process assigned to them, not 2.
The second encounter, though, blows this one out of the water – big time. The PCs are transported to a place of fundamental power, to witness Grim Inchyron’s assault on the forces of Lamushea. (As an aside: The pdf previously stated that Laylokan would not utter the devil-wraith’s name, yet here it’s stated in the read-aloud text.) This place of power is a ginormous tower fashioned of house of cards style clay tablets, and it’ll be assaulted by slag hellions, and clever use of sticky clay vats and terrain can help the PCs stave off the horde, as a fight of most epic proportions rages. Well, or here things become actually cooler, you can blend this encounter (which is hurt slightly by the lack of artworks or maps – I had to really carefully read this to get what’s going on) with Jenga or a similar game as a prop/mini-game to supplement the proceedings! This is epic and a really creative alternate way of determining the extent of foes faced(how well the PCs prepared. Kudos!
Encounter 3 has the PCs meet an elven arms dealer working with grim Inchyron, and then infiltrate the Foundry, where the horrid entity is creating the Ferro-Zefir (think infernal bull mecha, it’s there to impersonate Lamushea) – there are different means of getting out of the sweltering heat and choking fumes of the foundry, and falling unconscious is just as possible as stealing the Ferro-Zefir – the escape clause here is truly banal. There is a minor layout glitch that cuts off half a sentence here, though, and this would be another good point of criticism against the module. It is utterly puzzling, from a player-perspective, how to beat this one. There are multiple ways, and failure is very unlikely here, but ultimately, in this one, following the task of just witnessing is all that’s required….where previously, getting out was required. Just waiting did not suffice. I strongly suggest to all judges running this adventure to provide some additional hints by Laylokan – otherwise, this can become a bit frustrating, as player’s attempt to guess what’s required.
In encounter 4, the PCs are to bear witness to the world suffering by the claws of chaos, but are told that they can lessen that harm – ultimately, that has no consequence, though. The PCs witness the forces of Grim Inchyron attempting to burn the Chapel of Akaa – instead of providing a reward, failing to stop the firestarter devil-things will expose the PCs to a chance of gaining a corruption…or to dissolve and die. As an aside: The chapel’s artwork features a black sun, which may be a hint towards the rather…potentially dark components of too strict law-adherence. Or it has been chosen by accident/for its non-political meaning. This encounter and encounter 5 are linked as far as moral making is concerned, and encounter 5 rocks: It has super-shrunk PCs in a ginormous living room of Grim inchyron eats sprites – these can be freed and grant luck…but freeing them will cost time, the carpet is a horrid thicket, and the dire rat? It’s, relatively to the PCs, gargantuan. These two encounters feel like they should easily have a direct correlation to morals, but they are associated with…war and racial conflict. Okay
The final scene within the calendar presents an emotionally brutal decision. The betrayal of the Artificer of Anguish is in full swing, and the PCs happen upon a priest being in danger of being slaughtered by an enraged mob. Forgiving the god is a noble act…and if no PC volunteers, a little girl will do so, but whoever offers forgiveness…is actually slain. No save. The character is transformed into pure, redemptive force, part of the energy that created Laylokan in the first place. Well, correction – only the PC with the highest Personality is slain – the others instead get a +1 Personality and Luck…which isn’t really fair from a game-design perspective and could be somewhat frustrating. Indeed, the module seems to acknowledge that this represents a WTF-moment that may require explanation – but, you see, that is one of the issues here. If there was a correlation between encounters and moral making, this would be more evident. Similarly, it would be fairer if the player whose PC actually died received some form of reward. PCs trying to take possession of the Krytz is also covered here, and after a final moral-making, the PCs are sent back to their world.
Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect on either a formal or rules-language level. Layout adheres to a no-frills two-column b/w-standard and the pdf features a few decent b/w-artworks. The cartography is basic, with the exclusion of the cool isometric map of encounter 5. No key-less, unlabeled player-friendly versions are provided. The pdf does come with two hand-out style artworks. The pdf does have bookmarks that point towards these aforementioned small graphics, but that’s it. In a puzzling decision, the pdf has no bookmarks apart from these, which renders electronic navigation a colossal pain. I strongly advise in favor of printing this when using it, particularly since you’ll want to use the moral making sheets for reference. I can’t comment on the merits or lack thereof of the print version, as I do not own it.
Steve Bean and Julian Bernick, with development by Roy Snyder and Brendan LaSalle, have created a truly UNIQUE adventure that particularly jaded “been there, done that” players will appreciate. I certainly have never read anything like it, and the idea behind the living morality tale to form a world? Pure frickin’ genius. Indeed, the same could be said about a few of these encounters. This module provides the means for the PCs to play in the mystic high-fantasy land that Appendix N literature usually relegates to the past, referencing it only in remarks and subordinate clauses. Theme-wise, this is more high fantasy than what we usually get to see in DCC, while still sporting the general notions and aesthetics we associate with DCC-adventures.
That being said, as much as I love the sheer ambition and creativity of many of the encounters and the overarching plot, I also consider this module to have failed. The lack of correlation between encounters and the things the PCs shape via their morals makes the whole tale and the consequences feel disjointed, and the module does not do the best job of providing the exposition that would make it evident for the players what actually happened. The cosmic plot and struggle, ultimately, can be hard to grasp. This may be intentional, but I don’t think it is in this case, as the success-scenarios of the respective encounters also suffer somewhat from this issue. In one instance, passivity and focusing on survival is rewarded, whereas in another, failing to intervene results in a save-or-die. The module is inconsistent. It also clearly depicts Chaos as evil – granted, something that DCC tends to do, in the tradition of old-school gaming, but here and there, glimpses of a more nuanced concept of law and chaos can be glimpsed at, with the patron for Law featured within being potentially rather creepy.
In a way, this adventure feels like it almost achieves true greatness, but then falls flat of what it could have been. The puzzling inclusion of the new race eats some pages that the encounters could have used to flesh out their challenges or differentiate between successes. Anyways…as noted in the beginning, there is a lot to love about the ambition and high-concept idea of this adventure, but similarly, it’s easy to dismantle the scenario and show the flimsy connections between the cosmic plot, the morality aspect and the consequences ultimately encountered, almost as though the morality angle had been added in hindsight.
But I’m speculating here. When this module works, it has impact, gravitas and works exceedingly well – using a funnel to shape the campaign world is a glorious angle, and one that plenty of judges can certainly reappropriate to their own scenarios. But when the encounters feel suddenly very down to earth or even banal, when the success-conditions are opaque and when players are suddenly punished for things that were clearly fair game an encounter ago, the module can also be excruciatingly frustrating in how close it gets to greatness. Instead, all those glitches, lack of bookmarks, etc. do accumulate – unfortunately to the point where I can’t rate this higher than 3.5 stars, rounded down. If you do think that the type of tale woven here, that such a world-shaping funnel would be fun for you and yours, then this is worth getting. Just get ready for some work to polish the connective tissues of this adventure’s narrative.
You can get this imperfect, but thoroughly novel and interesting adventure here on OBS!
You can contact Steve Bean Games and order this in print here on their homepage!