Dungeon Age: Saving Saxham (5e)
This module clocks in at 18 pages of content , 1 page of which is the SRD, leaving us with 17 pages of content.
This review was moved up in my reviewing-queue due to me receiving a printed copy of the adventure.
All righty, this is an adventure for characters level 1 – 3, with well-rounded groups being the preferable target demographic, as often the case. This is a one-man operation, with the maps and artworks provided by the author as well. The cartography in b/w is solid, but does not provide a grid/scale or player-friendly, unlabeled version per se – however, it is cleverly constructed in a way which allows the GM to print it out and cut out the map section sans the labels, making the maps functionally player-friendly.
Let it be known that this book looks very professional from the get-go: Read-aloud text (which is flavorful) is clearly set apart from the text and color-coded, and important key words are bolded – whenever they point towards a locale, an item, etc. that has its own description/section, we have the information in brackets. This may sound like a small thing, but from an information-design perspective, this renders running the module surprisingly easy for the GM.
Indeed, in spite of being basically an investigative sandbox, this adventure can be run with minimum prep time, courtesy of its smart presentation. That’s definitely more forethought than I expected from a freshman offering. This is even more evident when it comes to room/locale descriptions – below the read-aloud texts we actually get helpful bullet-points that list items of interest/interaction points, rules-relevant information, etc.
The pdf also provides quite a few helpful minor magic items – for example a helmet that provides advantage on saving throws versus being stunned. Here, I need to nitpick their formatting a bit – no item scarcity is noted and “Attunement.” is bolded, when it should be both italicized and noted in the line for item scarcity. That would be a cosmetic hiccup, though. There is, alas, one aspect of the pdf that may well be a deal-breaker for some of you, namely those that tend to run 5e by the book. That would be the monster-presentation. Please do continue reading, though – it’s worth it!
Monsters have their name and XP-value noted in their own header – and below that, we get, to directly quote one such “statblock”, the following: “
18HP ▪ 16AC ▪ 30ft ▪ +5 ATT ▪ 1d6+3 slashing”. That’s the entirety of stats you’ll get for each of the critters and NPCs featured herein, and it is puzzling to me. 5e’s mechanics like passive Perception and saving throws based on all attributes make getting full proper stats nonoptional, and the amount of folks that write for it who fail to provide proper stats is simply jarring.
So yeah, I can see these super-rudimentary stats being a dealbreaker for some. Unlike generic OSR-compatible modules, there is no plethora of minor tweaks of 5e – 5e is 5e, and as such and considering the demands of the system, I very much hope that future modules will provide the proper statblocks. This is in so far puzzling, as even e.g. a goblin gets some personality, his own agenda and responses to news and the like – the narrative aspect and presentation-design is so good that this decision struck me as even more puzzling: We get dialogue options, guidance and this super-neat presentation; heck, even mundane, interesting items such as letters get detailed descriptions – in the fluff department, this totally excels.
But to properly explain what’s sets this module apart, I need to go into SPOILERS. Players REALLY should skip ahead to the conclusion. Seriously. Reading on will thoroughly SPOIL the adventure, and you don’t want that.
Okay, are only GMs left? Are you sure? One more time: I will spoil this thing! Big time! So, “Saving Saxham” begins as generic as it can be – there is a small village called Saxham, established by the wealthy Sax family, courtesy of the grist mill. As the adventurers arrive in the town, they will be puzzled indeed – a curse seems to have taken a hold of Saxham – houses are dilapidated an overgrown, weeds are all over the fields, and, as a boy tells the PCs en route, monsters are in the woods. All of these observations, save one, are correct – in the woods, there indeed are monsters – and as the local elves have come to investigate, there is a similar problem – the forest seems to be suffering a mysterious blight. Strange variant zombies, so-called clayskins (things of clay) and woodwalkers (basically woodzombies with green berries for eyes) lumber through the forest, with the former evolving into the more deadly, second form over time.
If this sounds like something that could have been taken straight from a Witcher-game, then you’d be right – the premise does not disappoint: There is no gizmo responsible. There is no evil necromancer with the cliché shadow boss. There is no standard evil humanoid tribe responsible. Nope, the solution is actually much more amazing. The surrounding area, NPCs and small dungeon, all detailed in intriguing ways, does hold a secret most delightful in its implications: You see, the buildings and fields aren’t cursed. Neither are the villagers. 30 years ago, the plague struck Saxham and wiped it out, making it a ghost town – and now, the ghost of the town cleric has risen, and in her despair, raises the villagers, successfully, I might add, from the dead. Okay, they need to shamble a bit around as beings of grave clay…and then as dangerous wooden monsters…but after that, they’ll come to their senses, stumble naked back into town, and have no recollection of what happened. The life-source required is drawn by the undead from the flora of the region. Bound to the cemetery, the ghost requires its minions to dig tunnels – and she is draining trees from below. If the adventurers don’t interfere, the blight will spread, but a town that has died will be repopulated…though, obviously, the elves wouldn’t stand for such a perversion of the natural order…
This is a fantastic and clever conundrum, a great twist, and frankly renders this one of the coolest first level modules I’ve read in a long while. I absolutely love it!
Editing and formatting, on a formal level, are excellent; as far as rules-integrity is concerned, we have formatting deviations and the glaring, only semi-useful statblocks as the one true flaw of this supplement. The pdf comes laid out in a two-column full-color standard with b/w-artworks and cartography, and a low-res version as well. The pdf does not have bookmarks, which constitutes a comfort-detriment – I strongly encourage you to print this out when running it.
Joseph Robert Lewis’ “Saving Saxham” was a HUGE surprise for me. First, I enjoyed the presentation and clever way in which the scenario handles information. Then, my spirits sank as I saw the statblock issue – and then, I read it. Oh boy. “Saving Saxham” is a fantastic, slightly weird fantasy-ish/dark fantasy module that provides a truly tricky moral conundrum, a clever story and evocative prose. This feels like a module I’d run in my home-game; it is clever, smart, and yes, fun. It has a very distinct narrative voice and is more creative than a TON of modules I’ve read. This is a true winner, and as a person, I LOVE it. If you have similar tastes, then do yourself a favor and check this out!! However, as a reviewer, I have to penalize the adventure for its less than perfect stats, no matter how much I, as a person, genuinely adored this adventure. Even considering that, I can’t bring myself to penalize this more than by subtracting 1 star. While usually, freshman offerings get a bit of leeway, the statblock issue and lack of bookmarks do add up and make it impossible for me to round up from my final verdict of 4.5 stars. HOWEVER, since I genuinely loved this module and want to read more from the author’s pen, I will add my seal of approval here. Considering that this was the first Dungeon Age foray, we have one author/publisher to watch here!
You can get this amazing little module for PWYW here on OBS!