Monday, 17 May 2021

[Review] The Red Prophet Rises

I decided to throw some love to the DIY D&D community yesterday by doing something which I almost never do: buying modules. I'm going to review them on the blog. The first is Red Prophet Rises, by The Merciless Merchants. It cost me US$5, and it's 41 pages long.

The Good

  • There is an endearing semi-professional quality to the product. The layout, art, and typeface approximate what one might have expected of the industry standard in the early 90s, except slightly worse. For me this is a feature, not a bug (although see my comments regarding art below); I like the feeling one gets, paging through it, that this is the work of hobbyists who have day jobs. It was, in other words, made by people who embedded within the community of people who would buy and play this stuff. 
  • It is - high praise indeed - efficiently written without being leaden and terse, and usable. No, it does not read like it was written by Marcel Proust. ("A massive rough-hewn bust of a bald man with a lengthy braided ponytail glowers down from the 50 foot high rock outcropping that divides the canyon.") But it does what it needs to. 
  • Stuff going on. There is always something to interact with, in every keyed area - at least as far as I can tell. This should simply be standard practice by now; perhaps it is - I'm out of the loop.
  • The writer has a very nice way of giving locations an air of dynamism - as though the PCs are not merely happening upon vignettes held in stasis, but are stumbling upon events that have their own trajectories. ("A horrifically scarred, hyena-headed humanoid squats on a flat rock gulping desultorily from a mug of ale. It tilts its head and inspects visitors...[He] hates Velan and attempts to convince the party to kill him.") Great - not just a potential enemy in a room, but a thing with apparent volition. This is practiced throughout, and makes the whole thing eminently usable. I almost feel one could run it on the fly.
  • Nice new spells and magic items.
  • No railroading. What is presented is an adventure site in the truest sense - a site in which to have adventures. Not an imposition of an adventure upon the group.

The Bad

  • Perhaps I am being unfair, because this is an entirely subjective criticism, but the overall tenor of the setting is not to my taste. It is to my eye very much situated in the kind of Raymond E. Feist or Steven Eriksson vein of what I call MDF - Melodramatic Dark Fantasy. There is lots of doom, blood and misery. Everything feels portentous. Nothing really raises a smile. Not so much LotFP's excessive gore and horror, but more a prevailing mood of po-faced epic fantasy. This more than anything else would probably discourage me from running it.
  • Far be it for me to criticise, but it could have done with a proper proofread. 
  • The DM is encouraged to give little XP bonuses for PCs doing intelligent things (100 XP for using the trappings of guards as a disguise) or for doing vaguely plot-related activities (500 XP for rescuing a particular prisoner). I'm just not a fan of this. If PCs behave intelligently the results should be their own reward - likewise if they do something significant, like rescuing an NPC from harm. Put more simply, I prefer the rewards for good play to develop within the fiction (intelligent use of disguise helps you get past the next set of guards, for example, rather than giving you +100 XP). 
  • Irregular coin totals (98gp, 133sp, and the like). Have we fought and died in vain? Round them to the nearest 25, for heaven's sake. 

The Ugly

  • I feel guilty for confessing that my personal preference is for no art rather than bad art. I have a soft spot for truly terrible and amateurish art which does not present itself as anything other. But too many of the pieces here aspire to be good, without quite getting there. I would have preferred the module to have had mostly text and maps (or to have used stock images) if the alternative is slightly drab and uninspiring illustrations. 


This is worth purchasing. My misgivings are mostly due to personal taste; in terms of the nuts and bolts, this is an exemplary module.

4 out of 5 becs des corbins


  1. Hear, hear for the "no art rather than bad art" criticism. OTOH, I do like the Merchant's dark fantasy doom vibe. And he does it better than Morkborg.

    1. Yes, it's totally a matter of taste. The Gardens of Ynn, which I'm reviewing next, is much further up my alley.

  2. @ Noisms:

    Yeah, I hear you on this one. Recently picked up both RPR and The Palace of Unquiet Repose. I try not to write reviews of an adventure I haven't run (how can you know if it's actually good until it's played?) but my impressions were not such that I would WANT to run these.

    Regarding Red Prophet specifically...maybe I'm need to give a closer re-read to the thing, but I didn't find a whole heck of a lot of impetus for players to even BE there, besides "this is the adventure we're running." While you praise the "stuff going on" in the adventure, in the end it feels like the issues raised in the scenario will pretty much resolve themselves without the PCs interference.

    ALSO: no matter how you tart it up, one more "invade the cultists HQ" adventure is kind of blah for me these days, unless there's something REALLY worthwhile to motivate the PCs.

    1. Hooks in modules are odd. A lot of times a module can come up with a ton of hooks that wont click with the group. As DM you make up your own hook 9 times out of 10. When I ran this I used the raiders taking prisoners for their blood sacrifices hook. Its an old trope with refugees talking about the raiders sweeping down. The adventures official hook felt like it was the paladins horse. That's a fair pull for a good party.

      With the adventure resolving itself I'm not so sure. I get a Cthulhu vibe from the end, if you leave the problem it gets worse. The creature that emerges from the blood pool is going to wreck the countryside.

    2. To be fair, there is the list of rumours at the start of the book.

      I hear you on the "invade the cultist HQ" point though.

    3. I've started to add hooks to adventures, but felt the rumor table was 'hooky' enough for this one. As a player, sometimes I like that there isn't some storyline that I must follow or even a reason for being someplace--its all about exploration and getting myself into trouble--or not and just moving on. But I realize that may not be for everyone. Maybe a good motivation for your group JB is if the party is captured and they need to fight their way out/escape before facing the Champions. Regardless, if you ever do run it--I'd love to hear your honest opinion/experience.

  3. Whilst I disagree with your conclusions, you have acknowledged the dynamic nature of the place, and no one can argue against personal taste. However I do strongly disagree with "everything will turn out OK if the PCs do nothing", unless you define OK as devastation to the surrounding area and eventual blotting out of the sun. And regarding motivation, what character wouldn't want "Aeryon, Grandson to the King of Horses" as their mount?
    For me, this is the first adventure that really captured Thulsa Doom's caves from the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film in module form. And my biases lie in the opposite direction: to me, it is a magnificent offering.

    1. @ Anonymous:

      Aeryon might (depending on the campaign) provide motivation for one PC. What about the rest?

      Okay, so there's a sun-blotting, Whole World Threat for the party of level 3-5 PCs to overcome. What do they do at level 7? Save the galaxy? How about at 10th level?

      As I said, it's really hard to judge an adventure you haven't might be fantastic fun. But as written it doesn't encourage me to run it.

    2. @JB

      Out of curiosity (and not trying to trap you or anything), is there an adventure you consider to have particularly strong hooks?

    3. @JB
      There is a window of time when the threat is manageable for a skilled level 3 to 5 group; then a 14HD Obsidian Lord appears and much higher level characters would be needed.
      This is a brutal swords and sorcery module. It is not without humour: there is a Slave Overseer Ogre with bull horns nailed onto his skull, which he thinks look great. If there is much comedy in play, I prefer it to be initiated by the players (and their actions). I greatly enjoyed refereeing it. But you are the best judge of what you and your group would like.

    4. "Thulsa Doom's caves from the 1982 Conan the Barbarian film"

      Yes, the 1980s Swords & Sorcery feel is very strong in the module.

  4. My thanks for your honest assesment. I think if you liked it you will like Palace of Unquiet Repose also, although it is, if possible, even MOAR S&Sish.

    R.e. the hooks for RPR. When I and Malrex started writing it never seemed to need any strong hooks (besides the ones already mentioned). There's rumors of gold, a looming threat, a divine horse to be liberated etc. etc.

    1. Yeah, I didn't particularly feel it needed a list of hooks beyond what's there.

  5. Thanks for the review. I always appreciate the opportunity for feedback so that I can get better. RPR was before we tried Kickstarter where we could afford commissioned art as sadly my stick figures aren't really good so I resorted to stock art. I really liked your bonus XP comment...feels like giving bonus XP might be a lazy approach instead of the actions giving the reward, so will take that to heart. But hey...sometimes I like rolling the coinage as I me a break from typing! :)

    1. No worries. My criticisms are all quibbles, really - it's a really good module that puts most official ones to shame.

  6. Really enjoying these reviews - not least because I'm intending to publish an adventure (actually finished writing it in January, but am in the perfectionist stage of faffing over whether it's ready). This review prompted a bit of soul-searching 😅

    I completely disagree with you on irregular coin totals! Irregular numbers are some of my favourite things. Mind you, that's in everyday life as much as in gaming - if someone's asking for charitable donations, I won't give them £20 or £30 or even £25, I'd rather pay £23.23 (Facebook donations won't even accept penny amounts, which pisses me off no end). I figure that multiples of 5 get to have things their own way way too often! (OK, this is probably quite an outsider view).

    Actually, I have a similarly skronky view on money in RPGs, which I wrote about here:

    I also like goal-based XP. This might be because that's the way things are done (and done well) in Warhammer FRP. That came out when I was about 14, and taught me so much about what gaming could be outside D&D. But I also find the mechanism of Gold for XP a bit insane. I did read a good defence of it somewhere, possibly the LotFP rules, and playing with gold for XP in your game has been fun. But ultimately I think players should get XP for their experiences, not an arbitrary proxy). Actually, I really like the 5e approach of levelling all the PCs up every few sessions, when it feels like their characters have actually grown.

    I'm probably rehashing about a decade's worth of OSR debates here, I managed to stay out of gaming until recently, so have missed all of those 😊

    1. I prefer XP for gold because it's objective. I don't like the idea of the DM giving out XP for subjective reasons - but maybe that's just a hang-up from when I was a kid and people would be given XP for "good ideas" or "how well they role-played" and whatnot in totally biased and inconsistent ways. Generally XP for gold ends up rewarding good ideas and "growth" indirectly and in the long term.

      Although, not naming any names, some people do sometimes get entirely unjustified windfalls which allow them to suddenly gain vast amounts of XP due to being the only survivor of fights which they themselves started... ;)

      Send me the adventure if you want a second pair of eyes to have a look at it!

    2. I'm inclined to agree, but it's a hard sell these days. Or maybe it just is in the group I'm playing with.

      Once the pandemic is over I'm thinking of looking for another (additional) group of players to GM some solid hardcore dungeoneering, with miniatures on floor plans, XP for gold, problem solving, resource management, fairly detailed rules for combat & magic and characters dying when they fatally run of hit points. Cold, objective outcomes. Player skill.

  7. On the subject of art in modules, I think a good cover sets the mood. (And I like the cover of Red Prophet Rises.) Interior art helps to break up walls of text if nothing else; it can be a valuable help to the referee regarding descriptions. But I don't think it needs to be fit to hang in the Louvre: I discovered "The Meat Grinder" via a review from Vorpal Mace, where the illustrations are definitely not sophisticated, but they are evocative.
    The Palace of Unquiet Repose (from this duo) has bespoke art (funded by a Kickstarter), so it may be more to your taste. Another cracking adventure.

  8. I have this one, I kinda like the po-faced melodrama feel. It reminds me of bad '80s Sword & Sorcery like the Raven books or the Conan pastiches. It would fit great in Primeval Thule. Or the Dothraki Grasslands. The major issue is you have to get your PCs over to some plains. I see motivation in a continuing campaign as being the biggest issue.

  9. If you are being censorious, you might say that the 1982 Conan film uses stunt doubles in the lead roles. However I think it is a cut above other 1980s sword and sorcery: the combat scenes are great; the lead performances somehow work; stalwart character actors like James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow anchor the film. Above all, Milius achieves his aim of making it seem like a telling of ancient history. And there is much fun to be had riffing off quotes: That is good, but what is best in life? To crush OSR modules, ridicule their artwork, and hear the lamentations of their authors.