They Served Brandolyn Red (DCC)
This DCC-module clocks in at 26 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page back cover, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 22 pages of content, laid out for 6‘‘ by 9‘‘ (A5), which means that you can fit up to 4 pages on a given sheet of paper if you need to conserve paper.
This review was requested by one of my patreons, to be undertaken at my convenience, and this being October, I felt that a review of a Halloween adventure would be suitable for the month.
This adventure is designed for 8 – 14 0-level characters and acts as a loosely horror-themed funnel adventure. The pdf recommends at least 2 elven PCs to participate in the game, since the plot does hinge partially on a tale of cultural interaction.
Now, structurally, the adventure is not the most lethal funnel for DCC I have seen, but it is nothing to sneeze at; this is deadly. We do get aptly-written read-aloud text that, regarding the quality of the prose, manages to evoke a concise atmosphere. The cartography, as usual for Goodman Games, is extraordinary, with great artworks supporting the atmosphere evoked by the adventure. The map looks like a fold-out map to me, as it spans two pages, which is neat indeed – I don’t own the physical copy, so I can’t comment on the execution in print. The maps sport hexes and no scale per se, so if that is a kind of thing that irks you, be aware of that. Unfortunately, there is no key-less version of the amazing map for VTT-use or handout use, which means that many players won’t get to see it. They will get to see the cool one-page artwork of the final boss fight, though…
Theme-wise, this is a gothic adventure in theme, with a weird twist added on top; if you enjoy, for example, LotFP’s adventures, then this will suit your tastes. Really cool would be that we get no less than 4 pages of handouts: One shows an artistic representation of a key-encounter’s area; one contains 4 heraldic crests associated with different families – the PCs are assumed to belong to one of these families, and each family comes with a mini-sheet of rumors and background knowledge that will influence certain key events of the module. There also is an artistic representation of the family trees of the respective families. The elven family among these would be the Whitegrass family, and the module takes place as an elven maid, Nala Whitegrass, is marrying Hort Leddy, a mere human – and not everyone is happy.
This is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS; potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only judges around? So, the PCs are all guests at the splendid wedding of Nala and Hort, when, just as they sip wine during the ceremony, horror strikes: Ant men erupt from theearth and proceed to dismember and decapitate the guests of the wedding, and indeed, the groom is decapitated as well…and the combat will need to be survived without most equipment – it’s a celebration, after all! So yeah, from the get-go, acid spitting ant-men make for one weird challenge.
This is also a good place to note that the module, for the most part, manages to perfectly execute the notion of player-skill trumping PC-skill, of careful observation being rewarded. The acidic spittle of the ant-men has a certain smell; and when they die, the smell changes. This actually is a point that will allow observant players to avoid a nasty trap. As the ant-men are defeated, the PCs will notice that the groom’s head’s been taken; the race-based hostility between Whitegrass and Leddy family seems to escalate, and blows are exchanged before the grief-stricken family-members intervene. The bride, meanwhile, is understandably nearly catatonic.
Lotrin Whitegrass, the bride’s father, will proceed to attempt to hire the PCs: The family Vintner, one of the families that the PCs will belong to, had once bested and sealed away ant-men akin to those faced, so the trail of the massacre will have the PCs first explore the Vintner vineyard and find the truth here; in an interesting aside that only perceptive PCs will pick up on, Lotrin also promises to reward the PCs for any remains the PCs might find – not just those of Hort. The family connections add motivation and a theme of erblast, i.e. sins passed down through the generations, to the PCs.
The main leitmotif for the vineyard, as the PCs explore it, is one of dilapidation, decay and corruption: The areas have the PCs encounter somewhat magical grapes, and here, we have a potential TPK creature that may be encountered: There is a plant monster that has sleeping gas, and while the DC is low, it is, at 0th level, a deadly for; same goes for the zombigator that may be found in the depths of an irrigation pool turned putrid mire. The read-aloud text deserves special accolades throughout these encounter areas, as the atmosphere evoked is indeed exceptional.
Now careful exploration of the vineyard may well be of tantamount importance to survive the aforementioned, hand-out supplemented encounter: During their trip through the place, particularly thorough PCs can find love-letters that are entwined with the history of the maiden named Brandolyn, you did lend her name to the eponymous vintage.
You see, the Vintner’s family’s crown achievement would be this phenomenal wine, and it was the last truly stellar one they produced; it is named after the deceased lady of one Gage Vintner…and the letters provide a grisly clue that not all may have been right and proper regarding her untimely demise. Indeed, depending on the family in question, some PCs will encounter flashes of insight, compulsions to blurt forth sentences and the like, telling the tale. You see, Brandolyn and Lotrin Whitegrass the elf had an extra-marital affair, and when Gage found out about it, he killed her in a most heinous of ways: Her skull was crushed in the winery, and indeed, the key-encounter of this whole region would be said winery, where the blood and grief of Bradolyn has suffused the much-cherished, nigh magical wine.
Said wine constitutes an important treasure during the adventure, and the chaotic (table provided) effects of drinking it can provide further clues regarding this story; once the connection between the wine and Brandolyn are unearthed, the PCs may use it to buy themselves a brief respite in what must be called the most brutal of the encounters within: Entering the winery triggers the ghost of Brandolyn to fire tools at the PCs, attempt to possess them to exert a price of vengeance paid in blood by executing Vintners, etc. – the encounter is brutal, suitably so, and indeed, Brandolyn may not be slain or put to rest, unless the PCs solve what’s happened to poor Brandolyn.
A trip to the Vintner family mausoleum on the grounds can be helpful there and provide clues that more is afoot: By examining the respective sarcophagi, the PCs will encounter their first gourd puppet, an undead that is animated by a huge swarm of animated seedlings, which will proceed to attack after the host body having been slain. Bear in mind that we’re still talking 0-level, so that should indeed be a horrific challenge!
Anyways, sooner or later the PCs will have to venture underground, into ant-man territory. PCs remembering the olfactory clues from their previous encounters with ant-men (or those that are lucky!) will have a chance to avoid some primitive traps on the way down. It should be mentioned that there is more than one way to get down here, which is a plus; indeed, it is nice to see this brief adventure attempt to be as nonlinear as possible. Instead of finding an organized resistance of ant-men, the PCs will find a new horror of sorts. While ant-men indeed will try to stop the PCs, they are also likely to encounter the ant-man queen, who has been decapitated just as the groom – ant-men are trying, in a futile and pitiful gesture, to mend their headless queen’s gaping wound with pupae. The things have, ultimately, been enslaved as well; they are, ultimately victims as the humanoids above.
Within the depths of the ant-man lair, the PCs will find the true culprit. Mad and obsessed Frezzo, the groom’s brother-in-law, stands next to a mound of flesh and heads – Samhain, the corpse harvester, an entity drawing sustenance and power from the corpses accumulated. It is this entity disturbing the Vintner’s place, which promptly animated the murderer Gage as another gourd puppet, which constitutes the final boss of this adventure. This also represents one of the few points of criticism I have here, namely that, while the flavor-text notes the possibility for Samhain to animate more un-dead, the like is not represented mechanically. From a structural point of view, rewarding PCs that dealt particularly well with Brandolyn’s ghost would have also made this deadly encounter somewhat more rewarding.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level, though not as tight as usual for Goodman Games – there are a few instances of attribute-references that have not been capitalized properly, for example. Similarly, the wine cellar region does have a bit of crucial information that should be included in the read-aloud text for PCs to make proper observations not formatted as such; a minor nitpick, but a point that may have an unprepared judge stumble nonetheless. Layout adheres to a 1-column b/w-standard and the interior artwork consists of original b/w pieces and is thematically-consistent. The cartography, as usual, is excellent, though the lack of player-friendly versions does constitute a comfort detriment. The pdf comes with basic bookmakrs per region, but not per keyed encounter.
Stephen Newton’s “They Served Brandolyn Red” is a nice weird fantasy/horror-ish module that manages to aptly combine dark fantasy and gothic trappings in a blending that is rewarding to run and experience. The angle of families influencing exposition and how the world interacts with the PCs is a great one, and the module manages to cram A TON of material into its pages; it is a surprisingly concise exercise in adventure writing. (Remember: 6’’ by 9’’/A5-pages, instead of the usual standard-sizes…) That being said, the module feels, to me, like a caged beast in a way: The brevity of the adventure can be considered to be its one true detriment; the family angle focuses more on two of the families than the others, and the tragedy to be unearthed by the PCs, ultimately, is practically jammed down their throats.
Even if you go full-blown murder-hobo mode, there’s a good chance you’ll get to understand everything; that may be a feature or a bug, depending on how you look at it, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the author would have done with 10 more pages to flesh out the mystery, to have the players unearth (and perhaps experience) the past in flashes, piece together what has actually happened…you get what I mean. The trappings of an investigation, of a mystery are here, but they ultimately are sacrificed to the page-count and the demands of the concise narrative.
Don’t get me wrong: This is a great module in pretty much every way, and a capable judge could easily expand the module with a few flourishes here and there to make it truly phenomenal. To make that abundantly clear: I am NOT disappointed by this adventure in any way, shape or form! This is a super-cool, creepy, in-your-face adventure! I just couldn’t help but feel like there was a smarter, more complex adventure here, waiting to be unearthed, one wherein the destinies of the families are more closely entwined with secrets and treachery.
When all’s said and done, then this module should be considered to be a resounding success and a great choice for a starter adventure, or for a Halloween scenario. It is fun and rewarding, deadly, and even if you don’t play DCC, this may well be worth checking out – converting it is super-easy and does not require familiarity with DCC’s more fiddly bits.
As a whole, this represents one fine adventure, and as such, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up for the purpose of this platform.
You can get this neat, gothic yarn here on OBS!