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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.