Land of the Silver Lotus (priority review)
This adventure/mini-setting clocks in at 43 pages of content; this is content, not taking SRD, editorial, etc. into account.
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review.
It’s been MUCH TOO LONG since we’ve been to the World of Xoth, my friends, so please let me start with a brief recap: In the bad ole’ days of D&D 3.X, when pretty much everyone pumped out atrociously-balanced cookie-cutter stuff, and everything seemed unified and bland, there were a few companies that stood out, that generally delivered quality. One such company was Necromancer Games, but there is one book that is only relatively rarely talked about, and that would be Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia. A true, underappreciated and imho maligned classic, this book breathed the spirit of Clark Ashton Smith, Howard, et al.
As such, when PFRPG came around, I researched whether the author had written anything else, and one of my very last purchases for 3.X was a 200+ page colossus of a module-collection that doubled as a setting-introduction to the world of Xoth.
Xoth is radically different from regular D&D 3.X, PFRPG, etc. in one major way that radiates through the entire series: Xoth is SWORD & SORCERY. Yes, the classic sword & sorcery that deserves allcaps; the one from the classics; gritty, dark; sorcery is subtle, healing super rare, life is brutal, and alignment mostly irrelevant. There are bad things like slavery, sex and drugs, and yes, these are an integral part of the setting and its aesthetics; this is for mature audiences. This is a GOOD thing. Because, do you know what doesn’t work? Frickin’ sanitized sword & sorcery where every bit of edge has been sanded off; if your “Sword & Sorcery” setting is family friendly, you’re imho doing it wrong. Similarly, overemphasizing these less wholesome aspects makes a world feel schlocky and sleazy, and not in a fun way.
Xoth walks that tightrope PERFECTLY. The mature themes are here, but they are not explicit. Personally, I can’t fathom anyone getting offended over these, but then again, I’m a European.
HOWEVER, none of these mature themes are handled in a gratuitous manner, at least not to my sensibilities. In short: If you can read classic genre literature without being offended, this should not be a problem. If you’re one of the professionally-offended, steer clear of the entire genre.
Another important difference between Xoth and other examples of RPGs in Sword & Sorcery settings would be that its aesthetics hearken closer to the plausible; yes, there are supernatural monsters and cosmic entities and dark gods; but traditionally, the core aesthetic is one of relative grit when compared with plenty of other settings out there. And Xoth manages to excite within this frame of understatement, which is much harder to achieve than when you’re throwing high magic concepts into the world.
…in case you haven’t noticed: I am very, very fond of Xoth.
Okay, so, the module I’m tackling today is the last Xoth module released for PFRPG’s first edition, but frankly, you may want to stick around even if you’re playing another system. The adventure is nominally designed for 4–6 characters of levels 4th to 6th, but due to how different Xoth is, this does require some caveats from yours truly: For one, the module is not designed for high-magic classes, etc.; checking out the FREE Player’s Guide (also available for 5e, review of that one forthcoming) and blog makes sense, as the balancing of Xoth is old-school and operates with some paradigms that are more often observed in DCC or OSR gaming; there are high DCs, considering the low magic item density; there are instances where acting dumb will get you killed quick, and there even is one instance that is de facto a kind of story gameover, where the party tries to deal with something that doesn’t even have stats. It still has a save, though, which makes it kinder than my games sometimes are.
In short: This book puts a refreshing emphasis on player skill over simple character skill for a PFRPG module.
While we’re talking about mechanical aspects of the module: Considering that, apart from artwork/cartography, this is the work of a single person, the editing and creature design is really good; I noticed some minor hiccups in statblocks (like an initiative being off by +2), but as a whole, the new critters introduced here work. This is also, as you could glean from the above, a passion project of the highest order; it is peak-indie in many ways, but actually sports several gorgeous pieces of original b/w-artwork, as well as a surprising amount of b/w-cartography that looks aesthetically pleasing.
Which brings me to something that is perhaps the biggest strike against this adventure for me: The maps are nice, but no key-less, player-friendly versions are provided; labels all around; some maps also don’t have a grid; this does work better than it has any right to in Xoth’s interpretation of PF1 due to the reduced emphasis on magic, but it still struck me as galling.
Structurally, the module is a sandbox set on a tropical archipelago that consists of one bigger and two smaller islands (yes, hexcrawling! Nice!) and can be run as a sandbox; the author also proposes a kind of mini-campaign of sorts that the GM can tweak and adapt; this outline has but one potential issue, namely that it assumes (a trope of Sword & Sorcery) that a party member has to stay behind as a hostage…or a henchman. While great for when a player can’t make it to a couple of games, this can lead to a bit of rough patch for less experienced GMs and parties less familiar with the genre’s aesthetics. Easy enough to solve, but since it’s in the outline, I figured I’d mention it. Speaking of newer GMs: this module has no readaloud texts, so you should prepare it properly.
The eponymous silver lotus, just fyi, doubles as a super-potent magical drug (full rules provided) that can even replenish spells quicker. Why am I not screaming for blood, death and vengeance? Simple: the drug is unreliable; it’s the good ole’ d100, with several effects, and some are brutal. Oh, and silver lotus? Once you’ve seen that stuff, you probably really want to think twice about snorting/smoking it, even if you’re a power-hungry sorcerer. Random encounter tables are provided, and there is a LOT going on.
Oh, and that “a LOT”? It’s primarily player-driven and makes good use of a smart set-up as well as of indirect narratives, so while there is the possibility of an exposition dump for the GM, if so desired, at some points in the story, it is by no means required.
But in order to go into details, we’ll all have to enter SPOILER-territory. If you’re a player, PLEASE do yourself a favor and jump to the conclusion. This one has some serious oomph to unpack!
All right, only GMs around? Great!
So the silver lotus only blossoms in the darkness, burned to ash by sunlight, enhanced in its potency by the silvery sheen of the moon; its volatile power makes the drug a sought-after commodity for those dabbling in the dark arts as well; thing is, it only seems to blossom on the archipelago ruled by a rather unpleasant, decadent pygmy king, whose settlement (including two claustrophobic warrens, one for him and one for his shaman) are provided. But things are not as simple as they first appear.
For example, there is a Taikangian pirate junk current anchored at the island, and while the captain is nothing to sneeze at, the passenger and pirates can act as an interesting wild-card.
The obviously degenerate pygmies of the island are also not as unified as one would think: You see, while the pygmy king I mentioned before may be nasty and power-hungry (and he’s not above providing quests, if required), he’s still better than the swamp-dwellers, who are full-blown cannibals with crocs and aquatic juju zombies and a really nasty magical item that can make you walk into the swamp to drown yourself to the beat of the drum. Oh, and they worship carnivorous giant slugs as gods! The only thing missing was the archmage who fused his golden skeleton with one of those. (Kudos if you got that obscure reference!) Kidding aside, the slug god cavern complex is a nice dungeon example for what can go wrong if the party aren’t smart, because their slime is REALLY sticky.
But I was talking about the background: As any such island is wont to, there is a place that is taboo: The Forbidden Mountain, from which a massive waterfall erupts. There is but one strange thing here: There should be a rainbow, but there isn’t. Well…turns out that, obviously, there once was a potent civilization atop that mountain; there are frequent rainstorms on the plateau, so two subterranean rivers flow through the rock: One was used for drinking water, and one in a ceremonious manner, as a sort of Duat-like river to the afterlife for the deceased; the dead would be consigned to it, and said river would become the waterfall. At one point, though, an extremely (for Xoth) powerful mage hijacked the rainbow, trapping it in 7 stones, all of which provided benefits, but also corrupt the user. These stones, ultimately, turned the wizard into a lich (!!) who promptly took care of rivals, now banned as VERY angry spirits.
The pygmies, though, took 3 stones, and thus, the lich was dissembled in a way; the corrupting influence of these stones were the origin of the schism between the pygmies, and resulted in the even-more-tainted cannibal crew. Guess who wants all stones? Bingo: Pygmy king. The shaman doesn’t want that to happen. Oh, and OF COURSE the ancient ruins have their guardian monster! And yes, any foolhardy enough to bring the stones to the Gate of the Underworld of the old civilization will make the lich reform. Yeah, that probably is a story-gameover. A deserved one.
What does all of this have to do with the silver lotus? Not as much as one might think, but the plants are important as power-boosts to deal with the harsh module, and as a touch of horror: Silver lotus is essentially yellow musk creeper on speed; or at least, the regular and younger plants are; they are dangerous, make zombies out of you…you get the idea. Oh, and consuming the drug? Yeah, that may infect you. However, even beyond that, there is a nigh-bottomless chasm deep below, and from it, the plants rose; below is a vast network of titanic, ropy tendrils. The true silver lotus? No, you can’t beat that. And trying…well, you may end up wishing you hadn’t. The plant is supremely creepy, but also has the advantage of providing a very good reason to engage with it. This source, though? It’s pure cosmic horror regarding its potency; the thing doesn’t even have stats, and adds this cosmic revelation when the party realizes the vast power and reach of this plant-thing. This, to me, was the icing on the cake, blending the traditional archmage-reborn theme with sheer strange and alien weirdness/horror.
…have I mentioned that I like this module very much?
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level, particularly for an indie production such as this; on a rules-language level, the same can’t be said, and this gets only an “okay”; we have a few rough spots here and there, but the functionality of the content within Xoth’s paradigms is maintained. My review is based on the stitch-bound PoD, because I have all Xoth books in print. Layout adheres to a printer-friendly two-column b/w-standard. The original artworks in b/w deserve special mentioning and are awesome; the cartography is per se solid, but suffers from a lack of player-friendly/VTT-friendly maps, though, as noted before, less than a PF1-module has any right to.
Morten Braten’s “Land of the Silver Lotus” is, to me as a person, a no-brainer purchase and frankly, phenomenal. He just *gets* Sword & Sorcery like very few people do and has the gift of evoking the correct atmosphere without drifting off into high fantasy, horror, or dark fantasy; it’s always like one of the glorious Savage Sword of Conan b/w-comics when they were at their peak.
However, it is possible, if unfair, to poke holes into some aspects here: There is no “bone damage” as a type in PFRPG; sometimes damage types are missing; the cartography having no grid puts the PFRPG GM in a tougher spot than people running most other games. The lack of player-friendly maps hurts, there are hiccups in the statblocks, etc. This would have really benefited from a tight rules-edit.
In short, I can totally see this module being, at best, a 3-star file for some groups.
Personally, though? I love this. To frickin’ bits. And it’s not a rules-book, it’s an adventure, and one that oozes passion from every single page.
I have read and run a lot of sandboxes, and even more modules, and frankly? This is as far from the mediocrity of a 3-star-file as you can get, in a good way. This presents a captivating, awesome baseline, a ton of hooks to latch on to, and if you can’t make those factions react in a dynamic manner to the impetus of a party of PCs, then I don’t know. There is so much potentially going on here; there is a strong leitmotif to pursue if you want to; the set-up even makes capture and immediate sacrifice something that certain individuals would have a vested interest in interfering.
This is a sandbox in the best way; full of things that jumpstart the imagination; and their proximity escalates that; considering that we also get an outline to use or modify as a structuring tool, we have a genuinely amazing sandbox here. The emphasis on player skill is another plus, and the at times savage difficulty (when run in Xoth paradigms) works in the adventure’s favor without ever becoming unfair.
That being said, as a reviewer, I have a responsibility to my readers; if you can live with a couple of formal glitches and want some top-tier Sword & Sorcery, then get this ASAP; for you this probably ranks as a 5-star + seal file.
As a reviewer, I have to take the module’s shortcomings into account; as such, my final verdict can’t exceed 4 stars…but this does maintain my seal of approval. It may be a rough gem, held in the fist of a corpse from which strange, swaying blossoms grow, but it is a true gem. If you polish it even a little, it’ll shine very bright indeed.
The FREE player’s guides can be found here on OBS for PFRPG, and here for 5e!
If you enjoyed this review, please consider leaving a donation via paypal if you can, or joining my patreon. Thank you!