Trials of the Toy Makers (DCC)
This module clocks in at 42 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, ½ a page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 38.5 pages of content, though it should be noted that the content is laid out in booklet format (6’’ by 9’’/A5), and this means that you can theoretically fit multiple pages on a given sheet of paper.
This review is part of a request of one of my patreon supporters, who requested it to be undertaken at my convenience.
Okay, first things first: In spite of the cover being as cutesy as DCC is probably going to get, this is not necessarily for kids – it is definitely intended for adults. Don’t get me wrong: I’d have loved this as a kid, but then again, I taught myself English to be able to read Conan, Poe, etc.; I always had a macabre streak and considered to be the cover of Bat out of Hell’s vinyl one of the coolest ever. While not grimdark, this module *can* be rather creepy. Discretion is advised. If your kids are how I was…well, then they may love this.
All right, as always, a well-rounded group of 6-8 characters (level 2, here) will have an easier time. I strongly recommend having multiple characters capable of spell dueling when playing this; if you want a happy end, Mighty Deeds do help. Read aloud text is provided, and the module is NOT easy. Characters may die. It also firmly emphasizes player-skill and can have rather high-impact consequences upon failure.
The module is set in Vajorma, the frigid north where the border between planes is thin…wait…sounds familiar? Well, yeah, this does have a couple of ties to Steve Bean Games’ “World-Quest of the Winter Calendar” (Review will hit sites before New Year’s Eve, as that module feels more like an end-of-year module to me.). You can ignore these easter eggs, and having played said module is not required to enjoy this.
All right, as always, the following contains SPOILERS for the module. Potential players will want to skip ahead to the conclusion.
Okay, so, in the lands of Vajorma, there is a tradition that reminded me of the nisse from Scandinavian cultures: There are gnomes called Konhengen in the semi-arctic steppe, and said gnomes reward particularly virtuous kids with presents. Now, 3 kids have gone missing, and indeed, no presents have been delivered this year. What looked like innocent gifts and a simple rescue mission, though, quickly become immensely important.
There is actually a strict timeline in the module, and indeed, the PCs arriving at the lake that houses the mountain wherein the Konhengen dwell just heralds the shape of things to come. There are a couple of basic things to note: For one, the PCs will be attacked by scything topiaries – think of those as nasty plant-looking constructs. The exploration of the Aerie of the Konhengen is surprisingly vertical – 5 levels, and these make sense in many ways: For one, the halls may feel claustrophobic for Medium-sized characters, but for the gnomes, they sure as hell are grand – this gives the whole dungeon a Gulliver-ish vibe and established a sense of alienation. The fact that the gnomes use slugs and moles as animals also adds to that…and yes, chances are that the PCs will have to face a rather agitated slug at one point. As a whole, this place makes sense in its fantastic nature.
It should come as no surprise that something bad has befallen the kind gnomes: As the PCs explore this place, they will be haunted and hunted by so-called Desperate Phantoplasms – basically the spirits of the slain Konhengen, risen to guard this place against ALL intruders – including the PCs. Their semi-corporeal form means that a lapse in vigilance can justify surprise assaults, and in comparison for the level…these spirits are pretty pitiful. There is a reason for that. You see, they can’t be truly slain. Defeating one of these ultimately just initiates a cooldown respawn, which means that being able to swiftly dispatch them is crucial. They allow a judge to wage a war of attrition, to constantly keep the threat levels up – without overpowering the PCs. This generates a seriously impressive tension throughout the adventure, and it provides a great way to shake up proceedings if the PCs are stuck. Speaking of which: The pdf provides a commendable amount of guidance pertaining the handling the tougher sections of the adventure…and I have not yet touched upon the truth of what has befallen this place.
Sure, the PCs can find a unique and potent alchemical substance and use it to their own advantage (or blow themselves up – so it goes…), and they can save the aforementioned kids. Speaking of which: I’m a big fan of the choice to allow for e.g. Mighty Deed use to save them from attacks and the like. A kind judge may also use these kids to sprinkle in some hints and the like, but there is another primary hint-giver herein…one super-creepy fellow.
You see, as the PCs explore this place, they will notice that much of the carnage to be found stemmed from the disciplined Konhengen basically imploding their social structure. Co-workers tore each other apart, etc. This is due to the machinations of one of the dread Nine Afflictions, horrid demon-like demigods of evil and chaos, one Yedreksas – an incarnation of envy.
They have inadvertently stumbled upon a task of cosmic significance, as at the very latest, the unfortunately blind, but sentient and kind mill (!!!) (think of the handheld devices that you use to grind coffee!) can explain…at least partially. And beyond that, one particular former Konhengen is now a vile and dark being, trying to goad the PCs in engaging in as many deals as possible. We thus have plenty of options to provide hints. The PCs will need them.
You see, the presents crafted by the Konhengen? They are actually over-designed components, prototypes of sorts, granted to pure kids, as their virtue shields these from the forces of darkness. Literally, this time around. Kivas Kota, the fiery eagle that is the sun, annually is caught by the forces of death, and it’s only the work of the Konhengen that allows the sun-bird to rise again and stave off eternal darkness. The presents the Konhengen create are prototypes for basically what amounts to a celestial rube-goldberg machine of constellations that is annually recreated for this specific task! (!!!) If the PCs don’t make their own version, well then the sun will never rise again. Stakes high enough for you?
Here is the best thing about this module, though: How it presents this whole issue. You see, the PCs are not spoonfed any of this, but instead have a TON of different options to realize how this works and what’s at stake. This is basically a mystery investigation, and one that is supported in a phenomenal manner: There are no less than 7 (!!!!!) handouts for players: From blood-drenched parchments containing hints about the importance of the task to basically rune-based paint-by-numbers puzzles, this pdf pulls out all stops in the most amazing of ways. Even better yet, judges are not left hanging either – annotated explanations of texts to be interpreted, solution-sheets and more all conspire to make this a mega-impressive adventure in the aesthetics department. Better yet: The adventure, while focused on a puzzle, actually doesn’t put it front and center. Instead, the true challenge is to find out what is happening, and there are myriad ways to solve this. Moreover, the puzzle does not have just one solution – being a wide-open logic puzzle, it embraces PC creativity in a manner that I have not seen before.
Compared to that, the epic milling of a new set of temporary constellations while holding off a demigod in spell duel (the only truly viable means to do so) almost feel anticlimactic by comparison. Almost. Did I mention the wood-spider things?
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no issues on a rules-language or formal level. Layout adheres to a 1-column b/w-standard, and the pdf sports some really cool b/w-artworks. The cartography is b/w, plentiful, ad just as amazing as we’ve come to expect from Goodman Games. Alas, no player-friendly versions are provided. The pdf version is fully bookmarked, and I unfortunately do not own the print version, so I can’t comment on its merits or lack thereof. The truly plentiful player-handouts and visual judge-reference sheets (which include a timetable) are utterly amazing.
Steve Bean’s “Trials of the Toy Makers” is a masterpiece, pure and simple. It is one of the best Christmas-themed adventures I have ever seen. It thoroughly rewards player skill over character skill, has an atmosphere that is absolutely fantastic, and presents one of the most intriguing conundrums and epic solutions for an adventure I have ever seen. Even in DCC’s context, where significant cosmic events can also be encountered at lower levels, this stands out. It brims with creativity and passion and feels like an honest labor of love. It is ambitious in more than one aspect, and manages to fully and properly realize all of these components. In short: This is one of the best Christmas modules out there. It engages more cerebral players and those that like combat; it’s environmental storytelling is excellent, and it is polished to an impressive degree. Even among Goodman games’ holiday-themed adventures, this stands out. 5 stars + seal of approval, and frankly, if I had known about this adventure in 2014 when it was first released, it’d have made my top ten list for that year. Yes. That good. This is the kind of gem that makes reviewing worthwhile.
You can get this inspired adventure here on OBS!