Nightmares on Parade
#1 of my Top Ten of 2016!
This module clocks in at 35 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page inside of front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 30 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my review-queue as a prioritized review at the request of my patreons….ah, who am I kidding? After the absolutely super Pixies on Parade, I would have covered this as fast as possible even without that.
Speaking of which – I strongly suggest playing Pixies on Parade before this one. While it can stand alone easily, I do believe that it has an added sense of gravitas when played as a kind of sequel – the pdf makes use of the concept of imagination magic and the inclusion of the dream-subtype should make pretty clear that yes, this will have an excellent reason for championing a thus more mutable reality.
…and this is as far as I can go without SPOILING anything. Potential players SHOULD jump to the conclusion. This also includes some SPOILERS for Pixies, so please don’t read on if you want to play them. They’re worth it.
In pixies on parade, the PCs have managed to save Edwin from the clutches and malign influence exerted over him by the Nightmare King. He may not be escaping anytime soon…but he does not sit idly by, instead using his considerable power to draw the picturesque village of Glavost right into his nightmare realm! Uniquely empowered by their experiences in Pixies on Parade, the PCs thus receive the ability to manipulate reality – wishing for a unicorn, for example, may actually manifest one – though the created dreams generated do not feature the abilities of the things they’re modeled after, instead employing the lesser dream creature’s statblock. Indeed, the somewhat parasitic/dependent nature of these dreams allows people tied to them to shape them.
Anyways, the module begins with an ominous darkening sky, a quake and mists drawing in – if your PCs have gone through the gauntlet of Ravenloft at one point, that alone will make them paranoid as all hell. Aforementioned dreams seek out the PCs and bond with them. As the PCs walk outside, they will notice Belle Leaflower walking the streets, unable o communicate or, well, perceive anybody – creative problem solution is the name of the game, as her anxieties manifest themselves and thus influence the next encounter, namely saving the ancient Elas Leaflower, who is obsessively trying to read as many books as possible at once, fearing that he is running out of time – and if the long beard and constantly multiplying books are any indicator, he’d be right. The PCs will have to contend with falling bookshelves, book swarms and find a way to convince Elas that his quest his futile, his books, as they are wont in dreams, gibberish.
This would be a kind of leitmotif to be found here – the Nightmare King has provided some delightfully twisted (and goofy) nightmares for the folks of Glavost: Dwarven chef Rus Ulden is hunted by jello-oozing killer cupcakes. And yes, you can actually eat these…which makes for a cool prop when fighting them…just as a note… Beyond these detailed encounters, however, there are also more simple, optional ones provided for your convenience: The more invested the PCs are in Glavost, the better. The fight for the minds and imagination of Glavost takes the PCs, ultimately, to the major’s house, where a semi-solid sheathe of darkness covers everything and Edwin needs to be saved from what seems to be the nightmare king…though it is, in fact, “only” the most powerful dream plaguing Glavost. Having defeated this threat, the PCs now will have the proper power of a town’s imagination backing them up, namely in the ability to duplicate mirage arcana as an SP…
But the Nightmare King is not just going to throw in the towel because he’s been foiled here – instead, he figures he might as well go big or go home…and sends a friggin’ army in the direction of the PCs. And this is where the plot thickens and parents and adults alike should take a good, long look: The kids of Glavost, while considered to be “heroes”, were basically treated with condescension by the adults; as kids all across the globe are wont to be; one crucial and important lesson anyone can draw from this book and project to the real world is that kids deserve respect. In real life, kids may not create phantom armies…but that doesn’t mean that they can’t save the lives of others, that they may not be the triumphant factor in the battle for the hearts and minds of the adults around them. Just something to figure – kids are not property, they are people we accompany for some time along the way, that we try to help prosper and hopefully leave the world a better place for them…but I digress.
The PCs have saved the adults and so, they may shore up the defenses and use their imagination to save the town with offenses and defenses created. There may a saboteur in their midst – the teenage night hag Isabeth, who proceeds to trap the PCs and request them doing horrible, annoying chores – but they will have to do them, if they are to escape…and there’s a way to befriend Isabeth in the process…which may well be used as a means to teach kids to deal with folks in puberty…but that just as an aside.
The module continues to “teach”, if you will, life lessons while being played – there is a detention scenario next, where the PCs are targeted by suggestions and the gremlins running the show try to get them to acknowledge that they should not be brave etc. – the idea here is simple, yet brilliant: It is mathematically unlikely that all PCs fail the save (though such a scenario is accounted for as well), and thus, the PCs will have the chance to rebuttal the theses thrown at them, with grudging acknowledgement from the gremlins….but, of course, the more PCs fail, the more will they be forced to reply as per the wishes of the “teacher”. This is something that the current generations definitely should take to heart: My experience with the younger kids is that, more often than not, they are taught to cave to peer pressure, to maintain a “pleasant” environment with their comrades, even if goes against their beliefs and convictions – when I compare my cousin’s school experience to mine, for example, we have been horribly rowdies and rebels who stood up for what we believed in. I think that kids should be taught, as soon as possible, that their convictions have value and that the majority is not always right. This encounter does just that, without jamming its message down one’s throat. It’s also creative, so yeah – amazing!
Next up would be yet another interesting one – a satyr skald offers the PCs a fair deal: He was tasked to delay them, but finds this strategy distasteful and thus offers to fill the PCs in one the background story of the Nightmare King, which is provided in lavish detail – it is here that the old truism of knowledge equaling power may be taught…and the respectful demeanor and no-strings, straightforward and respectful attitude of the satyr progresses the thematic sequence of being show proper respect for one’s achievements…and once the PCs have heard the story (or left or their own free will), it will be time for the army of Glavost’s dreams to duke it out with the servants of the Nightmare King! Here, things become once again amazing, as, while the module recommends a descriptive and flavor-centric take on the battle of the armies, groups that enjoy rules-intense scenarios can employ the mass combat rules! Yup, army stats provided. I intentionally did not write “kids will use descriptive, adults the rules”, mind you – I certainly know enough young ones that are REALLY into the nit and grit of rules! The amazing thing here is that the PCs may use their imagination to greatly influence the way the battle works: Mass imagination magic, flexible benefits – if properly employed, this is frickin’ amazing indeed!
Speaking of the theme of respect – as the nightmare armies crumble, Behast, the Nightmare King waltzes to the PCs and actually offers an imagination duel; a scenario wherein he creates obstacles with his power for the PCs to overcome…and usually a respectful way of solving conflict sans violence amidst otherwise immortal beings. Having even the BBEG actually treat the PCs with respect is a truly amazing progression of the themes employed in this book. Speaking of amazing: The PC’s actions throughout the module have direct consequences here – Behast may not enter the fray directly, but his champion has several abilities, each of which is tied to one specific type of action the PCs may have done…the better they treated their fellows, the more they helped them, the bigger are their chances against Behast’s champion! Know, how in those cool 80s/90s kid’s movies at one point, the kids would combine their powers, reap the benefits of the good deeds they have sown previously? It may be a bit cheesy, but it always put a good kind of shiver down my spine.
Oh, and don’t tell anyone, since the PCs have to find out the hard way…but don’t worry about player frustration in this book – a sidebar’s got you covered.
Editing and formatting are very good – with the exception of one purely cosmetic formatting hiccup (an ability indented one step too much), the book is pretty flawless. Layout adheres to a beautiful two-column full-color standard with a turquoise background. This may not make t too printer-friendly, but I’d suggest getting this in print anyway. The artwork adheres to Jacob Blackmon’s style and is nice and internally consistent. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Apart from a darker map of Glavost, the pdf lacks precise maps, but considering the morphic theme and the set-up of every encounter, it does not need them; I was a bit skeptical regarding this component, but actual playtest did affirm that the module works smoothly.
Stephen Rowe has been a kind of anomaly among RPG-designers in that he’s equally at home in the writing of crunch and fluff. Additionally, his modules so far have not failed to impress me, with both Pixies on Parade and Directive Infinity X being examples of excellence.
Nightmares on Parade is a whole different level. Let me elaborate a bit: Playground Adventures generally provides modules that can help educate kids, teach concepts and knowledge in a manner that is not obtrusive. Pixies on Parade was a pretty much perfect homage to 80s’ kid’s movies – you know, when we still treated kids as proper beings, not as second-class citizens to be sheltered to the point of generating narcissists, to the point where they’re not ready facing a reality that does not cuddle them all the way. Pixies was brilliant in that it provided a scenario that dipped into creepy themes, but at the same time maintained a child-friendly levity in theme and execution. Oh, and in the hands of an even remotely capable GM, you could run it as a balls-to-the-wall horror/dark fantasy module. Think of a certain Goblin King’s labyrinth, think of the last member of an equine, horned species and you’ll see what I mean: Watching these movies as a child delighted me; watching them as an adult provided a wholly different context for both. Pixies did that and did it perfectly. Age-wise, all but the most sensitive of kids should be good with it and I ran it for a then-4-year-old sans issues. The target demographic, though, should be about ages 6+, for really, really sensitive kids probably 8+. It always depends on the kid in question.
“Nightmares on Parade” is the successor in that theme in more ways than one, maintaining the leitmotifs…but also presenting a dimension that far exceeds what regular modules offer, what you can witness in any of its predecessors. What do I mean by this? I have to wax poetically a bit here: The German concept of “Bildung” denotes the collective process of education and personality-formation, including a development of one’s own personal ideology, convictions, etc. – the very word generates an association with building one’s self as an eternal process, of describing the totality of construction work of your own personality and accumulated knowledge in all fields of life. There is exactly one other module, Richard Develyn’s brilliant “Seven Sinful Tales” (That one’s review is here!), which has ever made me employ this word in the context of adventures you can run. You see, the structure of this adventure teaches not precise information in a traditional sense; it goes beyond that. By virtue of its meticulously structured encounters and their diverse themes, it imparts genuine Wisdom upon the players, life lessons if you will. The module shows, rather than tells, what happens if you let fears (like not having enough time) define you; what happens if you’re consumed by work (with a kid-friendly, literal analogue); to stand up for your convictions and what’s right in the face of authorities and peer-pressure…and to never underestimate the power of imagination that so many adults have lost. (Though roleplayers tend to be safer there…)
There is not a single encounter in this module that does not provide, in unobtrusive subtext, a truly valuable, morally and ethically valuable lesson. And this does not only extend to kids: Parents running this module for their kids should carefully read this module and analyze it, for the aforementioned leitmotif of respecting your child, the importance of that aspect for the development of adults and the way in which this module treats kids can, in my most deeply-held convictions, potentially improve the horizon of parents alike. The theme of respect that ultimately is awarded to the PCs and their players by the BBEG culminates in a glorious experience that may well, in some cases, end night troubles…after all, the nightmare king has conceded defeat. But that as just an aside.
Beyond these psychologically relevant aspects and the wonderful, respectful way this book treats its audience, regardless of age, one should not be remiss to emphasize the downright amazing use of imagination magic throughout the book and the fact that, beyond the glorious lessons imparted herein, it ALSO is a truly amazing module. Whether or not you go mass combat, whether or not you play this as horror (Concerned parents, rest assured that this module, as written, is as wholesome as it gets…but any only semi-decent GM can make this very dark very easily and basically transform it on the fly into a horror-module just by adding non-kid-friendly dressing!) for adults, as a kid-friendly adventure as written, as emphasizing the crunchy aspects or de-emphasizing them via Imagination Magic, you retain maximum flexibility in the module. I’ve run this twice and both times in radically different manners – and in both cases, the structure held up: The kid-friendly run worked as amazing as expected, replacing Pixies as their favorite module. The experience of running this as an adult module with my own trademark tweaks went over just as well.
Ultimately, “Nightmares of Parade” may be a glorious module on its own…but its value lies beyond that. It is a module that not only dares to teach in a didactically unobtrusive manner, it is one tailor made, carefully and in a truly intelligent way, to leave particularly kids and parents as better persons for having played it. If you think I’m overanalyzing this, btw., then I’d point you straight towards the fact that this obviously is intended to achieve said stated goal; each and every facet of the module is devoted towards cultivating a respectful and benevolent development, a component of “Bildung” not only between the players, but also in their interaction with others and among themselves. It teaches spine and courage in the face of adversity and the value of behaving in an upstanding, honorable manner while still being kids. In short: Nightmares on parade is a masterpiece not only on a formal level, but also is one of the scant few modules that dares to try to leave its audience better off for having played it; it is one of the very few incarnations of our favorite medium that tries to do more than entertain without losing sight of entertainment being the primary purpose. Stephen Rowe has surpassed himself with this module and catapulted himself into a level of adventure-writing excellence that is rarefied indeed, that is a very small class of its own.
With all my heart, I encourage you to get Pixies and this, the sequel. We need authors that dare to do more than just entertain (though it certainly does excel here as well!); it is my firm conviction that roleplaying games already are a great way of helping people, regardless of age, connect, develop and improve in numerous aspects of life. This, however, takes everything one step further – it can actually be seen as a module that could be canon as something that truly benefits everyone involved, that helps form personalities and strengthen positive character traits. This is Bildung given the form of an exceedingly fun and modular adventure. This humble masterpiece is worth 5 stars + seal of approval and, unsurprisingly, a candidate for my Top Ten of 2016. If you share my firm belief that roleplaying games can make us all better people…then take a look. This module, frankly, is art in the most unpretentious manner you can define it; it leaves you better for having witnessed it.
You can (and should) get this amazing module here on OBS ASAP as pdf, and again in print once that becomes available – we need modules like this one!
Missed Pixies on Parade? You can get that here on OBS!
The picturesque town of Glavost can be found here on OBS!