Roadside Respite (OSR)
This adventure clocks in at 36 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page mostly blank, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 31 pages of content, laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5), which means you can fit up to 4 pages on a sheet of paper when printing this. Since the font-size is pretty large, this indeed is a solid option here.
This module is designated as compatible with OSRIC and Labyrinth Lord AEC, though it should be noted that there are several inconsistencies regarding rules-language; we have, for example, a mention of summon zombie, which, for example, would in OSRIC rather be handled via animate dead. There is a Fear 15’ Radius noted, when fear uses a cone – these do not make the module impossible to run, mind you, but if you’re like me and like running stuff by the book, this will come up, and it will bother you.
Speaking of which: One of the things that irked me about this adventure, is that it bills itself as a “Mini Mod” – a sidequest that can be picked up and GM’d with minimal prep work. Thing is, when the rules language isn’t perfect, that won’t happen or, at the worst, grind the game to a halt. Worse, of all the pages, the adventure synopsis is actually the one with most typos and weird verbiages – to the point where it becomes a bit hard to understand what’s going on. That becomes clear upon reading the module, but yeah. When compared to e.g. Raging Swan Press’ Go-Play adventures (which CAN be run with 0 prep-work!) for a vastly more complex system, this is particularly galling. That being said, the module *does* do a better job at organizing its content than many comparable ones – stats for enemies, for example, are provided where they’re encountered, and read-aloud text is properly bolded.
A boon for my sore eyes: The formatting of this module is much better than that of many comparable OSRIC-adventures, and actually makes an effort to adhere to the conventions set by the rules. Read-aloud text is provided and presented in italics and bolded, and the module does provide a couple of GM notes.
This module is intended for 4 – 6 characters level 4 – 5, and if I were to categorize it, I’d consider it to be medium to old-school challenging regarding its difficulty; it’s not a meat-grinder, but you very much have a decent chance of perishing, particularly in one instance. A well-rounded party is suggested, and particularly characters capable of handling undead should be part of the party, though wilderness specialists also will have some scenes to shine. PCs definitely should have access to cure disease.
Genre-wise, it’s call this a somewhat gothic fairytale that has somber notes without diving into being grimdark or fueled by misery; it’s a module that will probably leave you with a bittersweet memory, emphasis on the “sweet”, rather than the bitter, which I genuinely appreciated, as it’s a) a rare tone to go for, and b) pretty hard to achieve. The background story includes the death of an unborn child, so that may be a trigger for some.
But in order to talk more about this, I will need to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only referees around? Great! So, the PCs happen upon a cellar of a dilapidated farmhouse, and soon are haunted by strange visions – these, ultimately, lead them to a shrine, where a riddle awaits (including a visual representation of the shrine in full color and a means to help players that get stuck), and after that, the module centers around a two-part dungeon exploration that starts off as pretty linear and then branches a bit in part II. The dungeon itself begins as a hidden sepulcher of sorts, haunted by the dead – which is, in a nice touch, represented, among other things, with a d12 table of random creepy dressing to enhance atmosphere. I liked that!
The way down a well-like structure and past the first alcoves may well be a rude awakening, as there is potentially lethal, nigh undetectable mold there – as a big plus, though, the PCs do get a grace period of 4 rounds, which doesn’t exactly make this save or die. It is an AoE effect, though – remember how I told you that cure disease would be helpful? Anyhow, exploring the dungeon will have the PCs face ghostly apparaitions mourning in sadness for their families, caught here – and a journal provides the exposition. While not necessarily elegant, it gets the job done. Puzzling to me, though: The journal’s text covers approximately a page, and is provided in a different font. It looks like a handout, it can be used as a handout – and it’s spread over two pages that otherwise contain referee-only information. I can’t for the life of me, fathom why this wasn’t relegated to an appendix as a proper handout.
Anyhow, the journal tells a take of woe: The Torrine family, once guardians of sorts, had a talisman bestowed upon them by the guardian of the woods, this pleasant ginormous, somewhat angelic owlbear on the cover. However, dark cultists of Grenndig infiltrated the family as guest-workers and incited a kind of madness that led the author to kill his wife – his corpse remains, clutching a box. This box is constantly referred to simply as “box” – until it suddenly is referred to as “soul box” when it becomes a prime way to deal with an issue – jarring and annoying.
Once the box has been claimed “activated”, the apparitions, in hopelessness, start to cling to the PCs – once more, this is where a cleric is very much recommended, as the can be turned as type 2 undead. The souls implore the PCs to find the Talisman stolen by the vile cultists, and return it to the homestead. Squeezing through partial collapses, the PCs will ultimately reach a gate guarded by a crypt thing of the more annoying variety, as it sends PCs back to the forest above – not a fan of this inclusion here. Here, the pdf also presents two magic items, which, alas, flaunt verbiage and formatting conventions in several regards.
Defeating or tricking the crypt thing allows the players to pass through the gate to the frozen temple, where Grenndig’s followers have been entombed by the Talisman – these now roam the second part of the dungeon as undead. Situated in the frigid northern tundra, we have giant tundra ants here as well – and a really brutal (but optional) room, where the whole floor is a thin sheet of ice over supercooled water that begins freezing very quickly if ice etc. is dumped in. To make matters worse, breaking through also releases a ton of methane, which, you guessed it, can cause a big BOOM…and potentially a TPK. This room is brutal, and I like it, though less experienced dngeon-crawlers should probably get a warning. In fact, the environmental effects are rather nice. Ultimately, the PCs will find the illustrated armature that holds the Talisman, which keeps blasting the PCs with spell-like effects (this is where such oddities as the aforementioned summon zombie come into place. Withstanding the assault once it’s removed is the brute-force way – you can also put it in the aforementioned soul box, which is here, for the first time, referenced as such. The Talisman will prevail over the dark, and the PCs can take it back from the tomb of these evil cultists – and either keep it, or present it to the guardian, bestowing peace upon the lost souls.
Formatting is decent, if not impressive. The same can’t be said for editing. There is a ton of typos in this book, and some weird sentence structures can be found – particularly the synopsis was a pain to read. Layout adheres to a one-column b/w-standard, with no graphic elements, making this pretty printer-friendly. The tables provide some unobtrusive touches of color, and the pdf does contain quite a few nice full-color artworks that would showcase Lloyd Metcalf’s talent – were it not for a grating effect that extends to maps and front and back cover as well: While the text is crisp, the artworks and maps are not: They all are pixilated in a really grating manner, which is a genuine pity, as I know the artist’s work and quality, and even in that state, they have something going for them. The cartography of the complex is in full color, but annoyingly, we do not get a player-friendly, keyless version. Finally, you guessed it – this has no bookmarks.
Lloyd Metcalf’s “Roadside Respite” made me grit my teeth. SO HARD. Why? Because this is actually a really nice old-school module. It’s unpretentious, challenging without being frustrating, yet has its deadly moments. It genuinely manages to evoke a somber-creepy atmosphere and blend it with the fantastic for a unique, relatively nuanced tone that resonates with me. As a person, after I finally got what this was about, I really enjoyed this sidetrek.
Which brings me to the crux: The formal components. Most of them. There are plenty of issues in both, and particularly the synopsis, the glitches made it really hard for me to get what was going on. The pixilated artworks hamper the book in the aesthetic department, where it’d otherwise offer some cool pieces, and worse, this extends to the map. Which is not provided in a player-friendly version. And to add one final insult, the pdf has no bookmarks. WTF. As far as the formal components are concerned, this must be called a failure.
Which is utterly galling, as frankly, with a strict rules editor, with someone making sure that this works as it was intended, with the proper pdf- and comfort-functions, this could be an easy 4 stars, perhaps even a 5 star-offering. This does feel like a passion project; it’s not cynical, it doesn’t feel like a rushed cashgrab. It is suffused with these little touches that show that the author CARES. And that’s a big thing for me. As a person, I’d take this VERY flawed module over many more professional, but soulless ones out there. It does have this spark that makes it clear that this is intended to be fun.
But as a reviewer, I can’t let the grievous issues this module has in the formal department slide. As a matter of fact, I should most definitely rate this 2 stars. But…I can’t bring myself to doing so. This may be a deeply-flawed offering, but it is also one that has heart, that has soul – and that, provided you can look past the list of issues, really can be a fun and challenging little sidetrek with a tone we don’t get to see often in published adventures. This is why, after much deliberation, I have opted to settle on a final verdict of 2.5 stars, rounded up for the purpose of this platform – with the caveat that you have to be willing to look past all the issues I mentioned.
If you’re not, then steer clear. If you are, however, then this might be the best formally-atrocious adventure you’ve ever run. Let me close this with stating that I hope that this review doesn’t discourage the author – I very much hope that we’ll get to see a revised edition at one point. The module would certainly deserve it, and I’d love to revisit a more refined iteration.
You can get this charming, if formally flawed module here on OBS!