Wrath of the River King
Honorable Mention for my Top Ten of 2016
This module clocks in at 66 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page backer-thanks/introduction, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 60 pages, so let’s take a look!
My review is mainly based on the print version, though I also had access to the electronic version.
This is an adventure-review and as such, it contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
Okay, so before we begin: This is one of the modules that perfectly encapsulates what sets Midgard apart from your run-of-the-mill fantasy setting, for its begin in the small village of Riverbend is steeped in the feudal structures that should be inherent in all fantasy worlds. Let me elaborate: The miller in ancient times doubled as a taxman of sorts and was directly put in charge by the respective lords: There was no free choice of where to go, etc. and you had to pay miler and lord when having your grain processed. It is thus that the stereotype of the greedy miller came into being. An edge of the sinister had always stuck to the profession in a fairy tale-context, one perfectly exemplified by Ottfried Preußler’s “Krabat”, building on the Wendish legend. Not only does the book perfectly highlight the horrors of love and war and poverty, its use of mystical numbers and general plot have influenced magical traditions in my own games for ages. It is, in short, glorious and if your German is good, I’d strongly recommend the folk-rock cd “Zaubererbruder” by ASP, a poetic and really catchy version of the tale that has some really smashing tunes like “Denn ich bin Dein Meister” (“For I am your master”) or a brilliant portrayal of a duel of polymorphing cat and mouse – literally!
I digress, back to Riverbend: The miller here, as often, was the target of not an undue amount f jealousy…and worse, he actually had an elven wife! (Note: In Midgard, elves are VERY rare and considered to be closer to fey than regular mortals, making them feel more mythological.) The elven wife of miller Froderick has vanished, alongside with his millstone and people are pretty sure he has murdered her…after all, someone who consorts with fey is prone to be suspicious, particularly if he’s also the miller! The presence of the fantastic is making itself felt in town, with the omnipresent fey (exemplified as bugbears and forest imps) making the area dangerous…oh, and guess what: poor Froderick is facing the gallows if the PCs don’t help him. Indeed, investigation of Riverbend may yield the PCs some interesting information: For one, a band of satyrs with a talking bear have taken refuge at the local inn, much to the panic of the local population. Getting them out will require a complex skill-check-interaction…which brings me to one of my favorite parts in the module, at least from a design perspective.
You see, this was originally released for D&D 4th edition and while I loathe that system, its skill challenge mechanic is interesting: Basically, you set a complex task in front of the party and allow the respective PCs to accumulate success and failures based on skill-use. Let me make up an example to illustrate the concept: A tree blocks a trade road. The mage may use Knowledge (engineering) to discern the best way to move it, the fighter uses his Strength (or Profession (Woodman) to cut off some big branches and finally, the ranger or druid use Handle Animal to make the horses draw the tree away. Sure, you could depict that in sequence, but the beauty of complex skill challenges lies in the variety of options and the teamwork aspect inherent in besting them. The system is ridiculously easy to understand and I sometimes wish that particularly deadly traps used such a system more often, instead of relying on one roll. So yeah, the inclusion and proper conversion of these skill challenges is a big plus for me and I can’t figure out any drawback to their inclusion.
Beyond the satyrs, there is a flaxen-eyed kid in the mill – who is very nervous and claims that it belongs to him. The PCs don’t yet know that…but this boy is Froderick’s son. Ellesandra, his missing wife, was pregnant and raised the boy in the Summerlands, where time follows different laws….a magical place which can, just fyi, be accessed by the mill pond…which also explains the presence of a rather potent sidhe knight and his squire there…and they’re not pleasant beings. Speaking of not pleasant: The module makes an excellent display of highlighting the strange and capricious nature of fey, whilestaying true to the myths: If the PCs take a look at the accounts of Froderick, they may well find out that there is something missing…confronted with this discrepancy, the strange coincidences may make suddenly sense, as Froderick confesses to having had an enchanted millstone that he had to grind each day in order to keep his wife’s love…oh, and his wife was gifted to him by a fairy lord, to whom he was sending the missing tribute…but he vehemently denies being the shape that was seen attempting to drown his wife. (On an aside: Morally compromised, but well-meaning man, young and gorgeous wife that is only kept entranced with him, courtesy of his toil…you can see some nice social commentary here…yep, the like has even existed back in the times quoted by fairy tales…)
It seems that the PCs will have to dive deeper into the matter at hand and brave the mill pond if they want to get to the bottom of this mystery…literally here, for the tithe collector of the fairy, one nasty hag (who also, coincidentally, knew about the miller skimping on the due amount and who is the culprit of the attempted drowning) has sunk the mill stone in the mill pond…so the PCs will have to dive down…and there, finally, brave a kind of mini-game, if you will, as you’re diving into the river – getting to shore in the lands of the fey will be not an easy task…but once the PCs have managed to reach shore, things turn very much wondrous, as the Summerlands feel, without a doubt, like a realm both wondrous and magickal, as PCs get a chance to encounter eel hounds, witness the dance of moths, deal with frog-riding goblins…and save Elessandra from a fey bandit…and she is willing to fill the PCs in on her marriage being arranged…and thus that the woman has no intention of ever returning to the realms of mortals…but her wedding ring makes for a somber way of hopefully getting the miller off the gallows…but while the GM may elect for this encounter to just happen, it is very much at this point that the linearity you’d expect from a module like this…completely vanishes.
Sure, there are aspects that can be presented in a certain sequence, but, at this point, any remotely capable GM and group can either go in sequence through the specific dressings and NPC/monster-encounters, sure – but the goal itself and how they achieve it will depend in a very nice emphasis of player-choice highly upon the interaction with the mythologically-resonant cast of character: You see, with the miller not delivering the proper tribute, Riverbent is actually bound to become part of the Summerlands unless the deal can be renegotiated and the River King’s wrath quelled. Oh, and even if the PCs just want to run…well, they may have access to an incantation that lets them navigate fey roads…but that does not mean they can simply return home!
Thing is: Fey are elitist. And cold. And alien. And they seem to have taken a liking to some of the feudal structures seen among the mortals – thus, the PCs will definitely need to make some allies with powerful entities…and the entities being fey, well, let’s just say that strings will be attached, new roleplaying potential generated as the PCs make their impact known among the noble fey. In fact, the PCs may even claim a title, encounter the dragon Tatzel and there would be the Birch Queen’s magnificent and unearthly fair to visit. An evil lord of verminous butterflies, scorched treants and similarly wild beings allow for plenty of deadly encounters…or corresponding opportunities for roleplaiyng opportunities with some of the most interesting creatures to interact with in a while.
In order to save Riverbent, the PCs not only have to reach the source of the river and gain access to the court of the river king, they will also need to make a case for the claim of lord Flax on the lands being spurious…and negotiating with a personified force of nature…well, is not an undertaking to be taken lightly or disrespectfully. Fey are capricious, though, and the hag may well demand for a duel…oh, and in order to return to the mortal world, the PCs will have to defend the fairy-realm version of the mill from the forces of Flax in a furious siege…and, much like real-world fairy tales, this ends with a melancholy and bittersweet note, for Flax is Froderick’s son, the humble kid the PCs saw before, grown quickly and prematurely, providing a somber tone to contrast with the wondrous and impressive nature of the summerlands.
Editing and formatting are very good. I have noticed a couple of minor hiccups, but nothing grievous. Layout adheres to a gorgeous two-column full-color standard. The pdf sports several unique and beautiful full-color artworks and the pdf version comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. The cartography is glorious full color, though there are no player-friendly versions included. The print softcover, unlike earlier Kobold Press books, is just as gorgeous and full color as the pdf and definitely well worth getting.
Wolfgang Baur’s Wrath of the River King, beautifully and expertly translated to PFRPG by Ben McFarland was for a long time one of the blind spots in my Midgard-collection: While I have all the early Open Designs, I sat this one’s funding out back in the day, since I had no interest in 4th edition. That being said, after the glorious conversion of Courts of the Shadow Fey, I was hoping we’d get to see this one as well. When I finally got my hands on this book, I was surprised to see its relative brevity… but don’t be fooled: There is a metric TON of gaming to be had from this module. I’d be seriously surprised if any group can finish this book in anything below 6 full-day sessions unless they skip everything: This book not only manages to create an ambiance wondrous and miraculous, it also, much like the excellent “Courts of the Shadow Fey”, GETS fey. Where the shadow fey excursion was all about the dark and somber shadow fey, this one very much is all about the wondrous fey that are in tune with nature; this pdf pits the PCs against an alien and intriguing incarnation of the capricious forces of nature. From the small dressing bits to the NPCs and environments, the module oozes flavor from every single word and manages to be extremely concise while doing so.
This belongs in the hall of fame of the precious few modules that truly manage the feat to tap into the wonder and feeling of fairy tales and translate it to the medium of roleplaying games, only being paralleled by the amazing Courts of the Shadow Fey and AAW Games’ superb Snow White for PFRPG. This is a true gem that basically demands a place of honor on your shelf next to these classics. In short: It is not only one gorgeous book that manages to cram an insane amount of crunchy bits in its page-count, it also manages to perfectly evoke the sense of the fantastic. This should be considered to be one of the modules that need to be experienced by anyone who even halfway enjoys the world of Midgard, a module that I’d consider core-canon and brilliant. Particularly the beauty of the ending and its resonance of classic tropes is genius and an emotional note only few modules manage to hit. This is one superb offering and effortlessly receives a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval as well as a nomination as a candidature for my Top Ten of 2016.
You can get this amazing gem of a module here on OBS!
Oh, and if you’re a fan of 5e or PFRPG – this is the last call! As per the writing of this book, you have 4 hours to back the massive new books! Now or never! The link can be found here!