Saturday, August 22, 2009

REVIEW: No Dignity in Death: The Three Brides

No Dignity in Death: The Three Brides is a 40-page (including detachable maps), digest-sized adventure module for low-level characters, written by James Raggi and available as either a print product or PDF from a variety of vendors in Europe and North America. Although explicitly written for use with pre-WotC Dungeons & Dragons in its many forms, the module is rules light enough that it could be easily adapted to almost any fantasy roleplaying game without much work. Indeed, there are scarcely any game mechanics in this product at all, aside from occasion references to character classes, levels, and the use of specific polyhedral dice for random number generation.

As the module's sub-title suggestions, this product is in fact three semi-linked adventures sharing common elements, chief among them being the deaths of women either newly married or about to be so. Each adventure also takes place in and around the town of Pembrooktonshire, a sleepy mountain town where things are not quite what they seem. Raggi has clearly invested a lot of imagination in bringing the adventure locale to life and Pembrooktonshire is, in many ways, as much a character as any of the individual personalities that inhabit it. The place has a creepy, Twin Peaks-ish quality to it that I personally found compelling, but these qualities probably limit the module's utility for those who prefer their fantasy settings more staid and vanilla. Moreover, Pembrooktonshire doesn't really feel very medieval at all, having a more early modern feel to it -- not that that's a bad thing, but it's another way that it might prove less useful to many referees. Like its predecessor, Death Frost Doom, Three Brides is definitely an acquired taste, having far more in common with classic early 20th century weird tales than the heroic fantasies in vogue these days.

Each of the adventures can be played separately, although there are a few temporal connections between them that dictate the order in which they must be used. The first adventure, "Small Town Murder," is a fairly straightforward murder mystery in which a local bride is killed on her wedding day, throwing Pembrooktonshire into an uproar -- just as the player characters arrive in the isolated town. This adventure impressed me with its compact yet thorough presentation. Each significant locale and NPC is given a write-up, along with the information the PCs might glean from them as they investigate the murder. Among the NPCs, the Knight of Science stands out as truly inspired -- a "rationalist" Templar/inquisitor whose self-righteousness would make a traditional paladin blush. "Small Town Murder" has a default resolution, but the adventure is written loosely enough to allow for others. Raggi even provides plenty of alternatives to help referees in making the adventure their own.

The second scenario, "The Great Games," isn't so much an adventure as a situation. Every ten years in Pembrooktonshire, engaged couples participate in the Great Games, in which the would-be bridegrooms undertake dangerous feats of strength. The fiancée of the first one to die in the Games is then selected as the "Spirit Bride" and led away into the mountains in order to appease the spirits and ensure another decade of peace and prosperity for the town. Naturally, there's more going on here than the people of Pembrooktonshire realize and the PCs have the chance to delve into the mystery of the Great Games to learn the truth for themselves. This scenario is the most atmospheric of the three; it reminded me of The Wicker Man and in a good way. It's by far the most unnerving and atmospheric of the three scenarios, but it's also the one in which the PCs have the least freedom of action. "The Great Games" radiates helplessness, as the characters are more observers than participants, watching a dark pagan survival unfold before the eyes and being utterly unable to stop it from happening. That helplessness may be part of the point of the scenario, but I am sure not every adventuring group will appreciate it.

The third scenario, "A Lonely House on a Lonely Hill," also is not an adventure in the traditional sense. It's more of a wilderness encounter in the mountains surrounding Pembrooktonshire, although there are several leads to the encounter that the referee can use to entice the PCs into exploring it. The shortest of the three scenarios, it's also the least atmospheric, drawing on situations and imagery that have far more in common with traditional D&D lore than on the weird tales vibe to which the rest of the module pays homage. To be fair, the D&D lore in question is founded in European folk lore, but, given the unique style of the rest of Three Brides, "A Lonely House" was a bit of a let-down for me. I can see what Raggi was attempting to do here -- provide a thematic capstone to the whole module without resorting to Ravenloft-style boxed text melodrama -- and I applaud him for that, but, in this case, I think his reach exceeded his grasp. Three Brides thus ends with a whimper rather than a bang.

The module's unique style is, in part, created by the excellent artwork of Laura Jalo, who also illustrated Death Frost Doom. Her black and white illustrations are otherworldly and brooding, perfectly evoking the text and greatly enhancing my enjoyment of it. The text itself is similarly excellent, marred only by a handful of errors and odd word choices by Raggi. In general, there's a studied, almost clinical style to the writing that contributes greatly to its effectiveness when it describes the peculiar, passionate, and just plain weird events in and around Pembrooktonshire. Occasionally, though, Raggi will slip into colloquialisms that, while not always inappropriate, nevertheless don't jibe with the rest of the text. There are also some ponderous sentences that make it difficult to discern his meaning. Nevertheless, Raggi effects a strong, clear authorial voice throughout and it does much to elevate this module in my estimation. Whatever their blemishes, these scenarios are ones only James Raggi could write.

Taken together, Three Brides didn't quite make the same impression on me that Death Frost Doom did. Perhaps that's because I was more or less expecting the unique take on fantasy that I got this time around, whereas Death Frost Doom was more of a genuine revelation. Even so, Three Brides is another fine work of the imagination, one informed by both the literary origins of our hobby and earlier adventure modules but bound by neither. It's a bold, original product that shows off the true potential of the old school renaissance to use the wisdom of the past as a springboard for new ventures that avoid the mistakes of the past. Consequently, the module's flaws at least have the virtue of being new ones.

Here's to many more new mistakes from James Raggi in the future.

Presentation: 9 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for moody, evocative -- and weird -- low-level adventures.
Don't Buy This If: You prefer your low-level adventures to concern killing humanoids living in caves.

7 comments:

  1. I've just received my copy in the mail today! I can't wait to run it!

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  2. Great review. I wanted to thank you doing these, I picked up Death Frost Doom based on your review and I did not regret my purchase. As I'm currently putting together a campaign with a pulp horror/fantasy vibe, No Dignity in Death: The Three Brides seems like it might a useful purchase.

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  3. Just from the tenor of your review, I'm willing to bet I can adapt this and "Death Frost Doom" to WFRP without too much trouble; both seem to have that dark-fantasy flavor I enjoy. Thanks for the tips.

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  4. Good review, thanks. :)

    I do want to clarify a couple things, if I may (I know it's bad form for a review subject to argue a review and I hope I don't cross that line):

    Several people have mentioned the non-medieval feel of Pembrooktonshire, and I do want to mention that this doesn't include guns or steam technology in the town.

    While there may well be sections where the PCs are helpless (but not inactive - such passages provide the character interaction opportunities that made me believe People of Pembrooktonshire may have value), I am confident that they have full power to influence and determine (dice willing) all final outcomes. When I played The Great Games with my group, the resolution was heroic and successful with very little disruption. Their plan reminded me of Mission Impossible...

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  5. It sounds very Ravenloft-y gothic horror to me; probably not my cup of tea as I'm more a humanoids-in-caves kind of guy.

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  6. S'mon,

    I can understand the comparisons with Ravenloft and they're not wholly inappropriate. I'd say, though, that whereas Ravenloft is more "Hammer House of Horror," Three Brides is more like Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, or Clark Ahston Smith.

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  7. I do like William Hope Hodgson, the grandather of bug hunts - Boats of the Glen Carrig is a favourite, with its sturdy sailors hacking through hordes of foul beasts; The Night Land is amazing but hard going. The idea of dead brides makes me go *ick* though; not Jim Raggi's fault.

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