Haunting of Hastur #3: The City of Talos (5e)
This combined settlement supplement/ecology and adventure clocks in at two times 32 pages – 28 pages each for the adventure and gazetteer booklets, if you take away cover/editorial/etc. My review is based primarily on the kickstarter premium print version of this adventure/supplement. The sturdy wrap-around cover has a massive, gorgeous full-color map of the eponymous city of Talos on the inside – and Justin Andrew Mason’s map is player-friendly! That’s a huge plus for the print version right there.
As you can glean from the above, I have received a print copy of the module/setting supplement for the purpose of a fair and unbiased review. The books have thus been moved up in my reviewing queue.
So, at the end of the last adventure in the series, the intriguing “The Buried Zikurat”, which could be solved sans a single combat (amazing!), we this time take a sojourn into a sandboxy scenario in the truest form; but in order to talk about the adventure, we have to acknowledge the unique two-book approach. You see, one book is an extensive gazetteer of the massive City of Talos as the PCs encounter it, while the second book depicts the changes that will now befall this unique area.
Before we dive into the SPOILERS themselves, let me comment a bit on the formal components: The gazetteer is VERY rules-lite and can be of use in pretty much any roleplaying game. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a plus for the type of scenario presented here. Anyhow, the gazetteer also reprints the destroy stone spell that justifies the presence of the underdark as presented here, reprinted from the previous adventure. Similarly, the three formene items that granted the PCs access to this otherwise shrouded part of the realms below have been reproduced here. The minor hiccups present in them in the former adventure are still here, though. The prose, an important component of such a book, for the most part, is really tight and engrossing, though a few paragraphs feel slightly rougher than others. Still, atmosphere-wise, this does achieve something – more on that in the conclusion of the review, below. One aspect that I sincerely hope will be remedied at one point, would pertain nomenclature: The books use “Formene” to refer to both the reagion after which the unique elven culture herein is named, and to the elves. While this shorthand makes perfect sense to me, it can act as a minor detractor regarding reading flow. You won’t stumble over these, and context makes getting what’s meant easy, but it’s something I felt obliged to mention.
It should also be noted that the adventure-booklet includes an alternate segue into the module that does not require the PCs to have finished “The Buried Zikurat” – including an encounter map by Dyson Logos! It’s a pretty detailed alternate introduction and goes above what one usually gets to see. Skill references are usually bolded and in all-caps, making it easy for the GM to determine rules-relevant text on the fly. I noticed an exception, where the skills were only in Allcaps, but since it’s still easily discernible, I chalk this up to negligible aesthetic nitpickery.
The adventure book does come with a brief bestiary-appendix that includes short-hand monster stats that do not note all attributes; I know this is probably due to page-count issues, but it’s an aspect that slightly detracts from the otherwise nice chapter. As before, alas, formatting here also deviates in the statblocks from 5e’s standards: Colons instead of full stops, “Hit:” not italicized…you get the drift. The material is, as a whole, functional, but these deviations make it feel less refined than it otherwise would be. We do get a brief random encounter table for the Formene, should you require one.
We do begin the gazetteer-booklet with a detailed history of the Formene Elves, their trade nexus network and self-imposed isolation…but those were components we could piece together before. The two books go much farther than that. But in order to discuss the content, I need to go into SPOILERS.
All right, only GMs around? Great! So, beyond discussing the connections with Hastur, placing Trade Nexuses in the campaign world (SUPER useful when playing this in e.g. Golarion, Faerûn, Oerth, etc.), we get something I haven’t read in about 20 years; the discussion of Formene Elves goes beyond just throwing stats at you. In fact, that’s probably one of the best things about this book. Instead, we are told about the Dehava. These beings are basically elemental-like, rocky creatures that were afraid of the other Formene denizens for their propensity to steal their eggs as trinkets or decoration. In a surprisingly sensible twist, the dehava did not really consider cohabitation or true sentience possible prior to making magical contact with the Formene Elves. Considering how alien they are, this rang plausible to me – and their unique metabolism, which can excrete ingots of precious rock, has led to a surprisingly smart and unique form of cultural symbiosis. The Formene Elves can guard dehava young while the parents hibernate, and the dehava can provide a truly “elven” form of mining that feels both distinctly magical AND plausible.
The Formene Elves, hence, also have the ability to fabricate weaponry of mithril, adamant and similar materials, generating a type of resonance with the old concept of the “riddle of steel” from our own history, one often quoted in sword &sorcery contexts, but without requiring copious rewiring of your game-world. Indeed, the adventure book does note the type of weaponry that may be available. The culture of Talos’ Formene Elves and their first gaze upon surface-dwellers in ages, can yield an interesting roleplaying potential.
And more so than in pretty much any book I have read in a long time, culture is emphasized as a roleplaying catalyst and as a means to generate immersion and wonder. The culture of Formene Elves is focused on the 5 virtues of Efficiency, Grace, Knowledge, Harmony and Privacy. Notice something? While many of us may subscribe to these values being important, we do not place the same value upon them. The consequences of this clash of cultures between PCs (and players!) and Formene Elves is amazing to experience and see. Anyhow, the different quarters are assigned special things of note: For example, the focus on Knowledge means that the quarter houses transcriptions of books deemed long lost on the surface, while new books are cherished. Opinions of the locals regarding the reopening of trade relations with the surface, as well as potential problems, can yield here a treasure trove of intrigue, side-quests and unique encounters – probably enough to last you a whole campaign, should you choose to really dive into this section. I should also mention that we get a sample farm area map and discuss other humanoids living in the Lower Formene.
This gazetteer fits seamlessly with the adventure booklet; you see, the module takes a defiant stand in favor of capital letters ROLEPLAYING. If you disregard the alternate introduction to the adventure, we get a total of 12 side-quests of sorts that form the very sandboxy and open plot of this adventure. The PCs are basically ambassadors for the whole world above! The PCs will have to negotiate reopening the trade network with the surface, with key aspects of the surface and the Formene Elves provided in bullet points. No, there is no simple “roll to solve.” I love the adventure for that. ROLEPLAYING, not ROLLplaying. Discovering the archive of the Formene Elves, negotiating trade of mithril weapons (and whether or not to teach the skills to make them…) – this is utterly inspired!
If your players get antsy and want to do some exploring, we also get a deserted, similarly alien city of the Ryba-Wiek fish-people, rendered abandoned by a strange statue that still remains, with explorers haunted by flashbacks. The PCs may have to contend with a temporarily insane Dehava, look for the lost caravan, deal with potentially hostile human encroachment upon Formene Elf territory, explore an abandoned duergar temple, deal with a black dragon…and there is a mushroom cave, which can have really chaotic psychedelic spore-effects – in case you needed an angle to insert a Narcosa-module, there you go! Defeating a pair of medusas can allow the PCs to free no less than 23 beings! (Ages since petrified, looks and names provided…)
Well, all of that, plus any underworld sidetreks you may want to throw at your players! Each of these little sidequests on their own would not be more remarkable than e.g. a solid Mini-Dungeon or OSR-one-page dungeon sidetrek; but their contextualization and detail does elevate them. The whole is here, for once, truly greater than the sum of its parts. Oh, and if the like doesn’t fit the tastes of your PCs, you can easily run this as a series of combat-related issues and make the whole module go by quicker…whether or how you tie these scenario-components together lies within your purview as a GM – this is, in the truest sense of the word, a modular module.
Editing and formatting, on a formal level and rules-language level, are good, but remain the one aspect of the module where I can see some folks being less enamored by what’s presented. Layout adheres to a 2-column b/w-standard with copious amounts of high-quality cartography provided. Artworks range from compelling, original b/w-pieces to a few less amazing stock art pieces. As a whole, this is an aesthetically-pleasing module/supplement, though.
Okay, I have rarely been this glad to have been proven wrong. When I read the first adventure of this series, I filed the whole under “solid, but forgettable dark fantasy with obligatory Mythos reference”; I was dead wrong. “The Buried Zikurat” had a distinct voice, and so does this one. You see, L. Kevin Watson’s “The City of Talos” is an adventure unlike any you have probably read since the advent of d20. What do I mean by this?
Well, 3rd edition brought a focus on crunch, i.e. rules-relevant material. We’d get a gazillion of different elves with minor modification in racial stats. Fire elves, air elves…yeah, you’re probably as sick of them by now as I am. Rules-relevant material, from racial stats to archetypes, subtypes, weaponry and spells, began replacing what was once considered to be, you know, what made a race distinct. While the OSR-movement has somewhat flipped this, here, we often see an almost fetishized emphasis on *really* old-school dungeon-crawling and/or on immediate “gameability” – immediate hooks that affect the PCs on the personal level, that immediately segue into adventure.
This has cost us dearly, at least in my opinion. It took me a long time to formulate *what* exactly I loved so much about these two booklets; it’s not the presentation; neither the bite-sized quests/mini-adventures. It’s also not the emphasis on roleplaying over rollplaying, though I do like that. Still, we have seen all of these in recent years – not often, but we’ve seen them. Similarly, I have read and designed more races over the years that I could count, and the Formene Elves, while certainly distinct, also could not account for my fascination with these two booklets.
Then, it suddenly dawned on me. You know, when I started playing the game, and had NO IDEA what the difference between “gnomes” and “haflings” was, I read the books released in the boxed sets here in Germany. I read about gnomish ruby wine, and how it could render other races comatose, in strange psychedelic dreams; I read about elven poetry so haunting, it could break the hearts of mortals that witnessed it. I read about dwarven ales and bread. I learned why haflings wouldn’t usually want to go adventuring, about their agricultural (and pipe-weed growing) prowess, about the marriage customs of these races…and they came alive for me. Not because of rules, stats or immediate adventure hooks – but by virtue of their CULTURES.
Know what these things have in common? They are not immediately “gameable” and they are, what the low-attention-span, lowest common denominator demographics would consider “boring.” Now, it is my observation, that there, in some books, is merit to this observation. I know that plenty of racial books have bored me to tears with being uninspired twists/inversions on tired tropes. If I had to review one more “element + humanoid”-race (ice dwarf, fire elf, air halfling…blergh), I may smash my head against the table. I very much get how this type of writing got a bad reputation.
If anything “The City of Talos” represents a resounding rebuttal to the claims that only rules and immediate gameability matter; neither do you have to be weird to be interesting. Don’t get me wrong – there is PLENTY of material within this adventure that does offer immediate gaming; there are splices of things herein that can become atmospheric, weird, etc.
But that’s not where the soul of these booklets lies. The beauty, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word, was that this made me see elves, perhaps the most tired and exploited by various forms of media of the humanoid races, tarnished by a flood of good scimitar-wielding wanna-be Gary Stu drow Drizzt-clones and shield-surfing Legolases, in a fresh light. It showed me a magical culture that feels distinctly elven and yet, distinctly unique.
In a way, this module is an heir to an aspect of old-school gaming and aesthetics that is almost lost, that no one seems to give the proper due; an aspect that may, without folks realizing it, be responsible for a significant part of the fondness felt for those days long past. I couldn’t name a single adventure, or supplement for that matter, that takes this approach. This is very much conservative fantasy; it’s not weird, psychedelic or defiantly different – and yet, it proves in structure and presentation, in imaginative potential, that culture does not have to be boring; that it can engender, even nowadays, even among jaded veteran roleplayers, once more the sense of wonder that we all once felt upon exploring the first dwarven mine, the first elven town. Combined with the unconventional focus of the adventure and its open structure, we thus get an adventure that is wholly, utterly distinct in a surprisingly subtle way.
Is it perfect? No, as noted before, there are complaints regarding formatting to be fielded here, and when scavenged and divorced from the phenomenal flavor, this feels less compelling; the rules-components are simply not where the focus lies here. If these aspects truly irk you (they do irk me, don’t get me wrong), then detract a star from the rating. If you only want to murder-hobo everything, then this will not be for you.
However, otherwise, I can only wholeheartedly recommend you checking this out. L. Kevin Watson has found a distinct narrative voice and provides something within that is unlike anything you’re bound to find out there. This humble book has inspired me beyond anything I expected, even after module number #2– hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo…and this does get my seal of approval for managing the rare and tough feat of depicting a traditional fantasy culture that is wholly new. Highly recommended.
You can get this inspired supplement/module package here on OBS!
Prefer OSR-rules? You can get the old-school version here on OBS!
Missed the cool puzzle-dungeon that preceded this one? You can find it here!