Sunday, April 13, 2014

Scourge of the Demon Wolf

I just finished reading through Rob Conley's Scourge of the Demon Wolf and wanted to share my impressions. You should not consider this a "review" in any formal sense, it's just my ramblings inspired by having a good time flipping all those pages. In case you don't already know, this is what we're talking about:

Note that Scourge is billed as an "Adventure and Sourcebook" and that's exactly what you'll get: The first 30-odd pages describe a variety of encounters the player characters can have as they are trying to uncover the secret of the Demon Wolf, the last 40-odd pages then provide additional details about the locations that mostly serve as "backdrop" in the first part. Rob provides an excellent summary of why things are this way, so let me just quote him directly:
The majority of the adventures in my Majestic Wilderlands are based around locales and focused on conflicts between different groups. The players arrive in the midst of a situation and have to use their wits and roleplaying skills to figure out the underlying problem. The resolution results in new friends and enemies for the players. In later adventures, the players in my campaign find that these friends are just as valuable as a +5 sword.
When I first read this paragraph I didn't quite understand what it was saying yet, but in retrospect it's glaringly obvious: This might be an "adventure" but instead of dragging the players along a scripted "adventure path" it's really more of a "slightly constrained miniature sandbox" in a sense.

Yes, there's a "hook" that gets the player characters into the fray. Yes, there's a "finale" that uncovers the mystery and allows the player characters to "win" in a sense. But between those two points we have roughly 18 encounters that (with a few exceptions) could go in pretty much any order. If that's not player agency taken seriously (in the context of something rather small like an adventure anyway) then I don't know what would be. Hence let me heap some praise:
It's not just good, it's mind-bogglingly (lol, what a word) great!
Of course my incredible enthusiasm for this aspect of Scourge might just mean that I've read too many "scripted modules" in my life. Just to make the point explicit: The way things are set up it's unlikely that the players will immediately stumble to the final encounter, but theoretically they could. The world doesn't function along a plot line, it functions by itself. Therefore the choices the players make will matter a lot more than they otherwise would.

So we have roughly 18 encounters which despite the dependencies between some encounters lead to a staggering number of possible ways for the adventure to develop. The encounters involve roughly 7 distinct factions (more if you count sub-factions), each with their own interests, motivations, and prejudices. And it all plays out in roughly 6 detailed locations (a lot more if you count wilderness areas and locations only roughly sketched out). That's a lot of adventuring.

I have hopefully already convinced you to at least spend the money for the PDF of Scourge, especially if this kind of open-ended adventure seems attractive to you. Note, however, how I didn't say anything about the actual events in the adventure yet. In a sense the setup is rather simple: People died horrible deaths, someone claimed to have taken care of the problem but was wrong, and now the player characters are about to try the same. Yes, of course the Demon Wolf is responsible, but there's a lot more to discover in the process:
Where did it come from and why? What is it doing? What was it doing for the past two months during which everything seemed peaceful? Exactly how powerful is it and can we even kill it? Can anyone?
In other words, you get some kind of "monster hunt" wrapped in a "murder mystery" with a good deal of "explore the unknown" on top. And then there are the cool locations. Let me just talk about two here: The Village of Kensla and The Golden House Conclave.

Kensla is a very believable medieval village. There is a bailiff appointed by the baron and a reeve elected by the villagers. There are craftsmen, sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and yeoman farmers. There is a three field system and other details of the local agriculture. There are 43 distinct locations and every single building is described complete with its inhabitants, their stories, and their attitudes. The entire thing should be extremely useful well beyond the events of the adventure.

The Golden House is a conclave of mages. Its probably best described as an independent (well, mostly) magical research monastery. The masters, adepts, apprentices, and staff that make the whole thing work are all described in sufficient detail to let player character mages interact with it on a regular basis. Once again we get stories and attitudes for everybody, but in this case we also get details about the various research projects being undertaken and about in-game effects of studying magic here. Just like the village, the conclave is very believable and should be useful for a long time.

Okay, now that I've ranted on and on about how cool this thing is, what are the problems? There just two that I can see, and for the most part they pale in comparison to how great everything else is.
  • The editing leaves much to be desired. I am sure the spell-checker was happy, but there are missing or extra words all over and sometimes you have to read a sentence three times to finally parse it correctly. Worse in a way is that there are several inconsistencies. Just one example: "Bebba's husband, Norhelm, died three years ago..." is followed a page later by "...a lot of tension between him and the staff, particularly Bebba, the housekeeper (Norhelm's husband)..." and I guess you see the problems here.
  • There are several references to Rob's Majestic Wilderlands supplement which I don't own, mostly in the section about The Golden House. Some things are explained in Scourge itself, but there are several spells and magic items that are non-standard (at least to my knowledge) and must be from Majestic or from Rob's as-yet-unpublished Book of Lost Magic. Of course they are easily replaced with something the referee makes up, but I would have preferred another paragraph or three taking care of those lose ends.
And there you have it. Easily one of my favorite "adventures" now and I honestly can't wait to run it. Despite the immense campaign potential, I think it still makes an awesome one-shot. Maybe I can even talk a few people into playing it with the new Delving Deeper rules?

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