Tuesday, October 19, 2010

REVIEW: Blood Moon Rising

For reasons I've never completely grasped, there have always been far more low-level adventures than mid- to high-level ones. I suppose it has a lot to do with the fewer number of variables in play when dealing with 1st to 3rd-level characters compared to, say, 9th to 12th-level characters, especially in old school RPGs, where mechanical balance isn't a significant aspect of their design.

Now, I don't have anything against low-level adventures; it's just that, unlike those intended for more experienced characters, they have a much more limited utility. In most campaigns, characters aren't low-level for very long, meaning that a referee can likely only ever use a few low-level adventures. Furthermore, most low-level adventures seems to be cut from the same cloth: a bunch of inconsequential ne'er-do-wells comes upon an isolated settlement besieged by something in a nearby desolate locale and it's up to said ne'er-do-wells to put things to right.

Again, I don't have anything against this setup; it's a classic for a reason. But I hope I can be forgiven for not jumping for joy every time I see yet another new adventure module, no matter how well done, that adopts this basic structure. Fortunately, Peter C. Spahn's Blood Moon Rising actually takes a new tack, presenting, yes, an isolated settlement, in this case the town of Garanton, and, yes, it is besieged by something -- or, rather, will be, if the PCs don't act to stop it -- but comparisons end there. Much like The Village of Hommlet, in some sense, Garanton itself is the adventure, as Spahn has put a great deal of work into bringing it alive, providing plenty of information about the place and its inhabitants. Unlike module T1, though, Spahn has not presented the town in such exhaustive depth that one is bowled over by minutiae nor has he robbed the town of the possibility for expansion by the referee. Indeed, as presented, Garanton more or less demands that the referee flesh out many aspects of it, particularly if, as is likely, it becomes the home base of the PCs for an extended period of time.

What truly distinguishes Blood Moon Rising, though, is its timeline of events and encounters. The adventure takes place during the Feast of St. Garan, an annual five-day festival celebrating the victory of the saint (after whom the town is named) over evil lords who once ruled the land. The module describes many events and encounters that occur over the course of the Feast. Some of these events are keyed to specific days and times and others are random. All of them provide opportunities to roleplay, even those that pertain to the growing threat that threatens to engulf Garanton and its people. Normally, I'm not very fond of timeline-oriented adventures, as they have a tendency to be heavy-handed in advancing a plot rather than a sequence of events, if you can understand the distinction.

Happily, that's not a flaw in Blood Moon Rising, whose timeline really is just a sequence of events occurring during the Feast while the characters are in town. There's no expectation that the characters do anything whatsoever. The evil that threatens the town and surrounding countryside don't "explode" after a certain time, forcing the characters to take action if they do not wish it. There are clues and events that point toward the growing evil and the characters may choose to confront it. Or they may not. If they do not, there will be consequences for Garanton, but not necessarily for the PCs, who might well leave the sleepy village before things really come to a head.

And that's what I really like about this module: it's subtle. Spahn provides the referee with an excellent little sandbox setting -- a village and the surrounding countryside -- along with an equally excellent little event, filled with encounters and clues. But he trusts the referee and the players to make use of it as they will rather than forcing anything on them. The adventure presents a "real" world, which is to say, a world where things happen with or without the involvement of the player characters. However, those events, most especially the great evil lurking in the background, are sufficiently "slow burning" that the decision to act or not is truly up to the players rather than the rigid demands of a pre-scripted plot. Of course, PCs are supposed to be adventurers, so one assumes they will choose to poke around and investigate, but I appreciate the fact that the module doesn't assume they will and it's every bit as usable, even if they don't.

Released as $4.95 PDF, Blood Moon Rising is a very well done adventure module, one of the most interesting I've read recently. It's 32 pages in length and includes a new spell, magic item, and monsters, along with extensive NPC statistics, simple though serviceable maps, and lots of evocatively written encounters and locales. Spahn's writing is clear and well edited; I noticed no editorial or grammatical errors. David Griffin's artwork is limited and occasionally dark but suited to the subject matter. The maps, as noted, are merely serviceable but I'll admit that I wasn't much bothered by this, as it is the rest of this module that held my attention. Though written for Labyrinth Lord, I would take little effort to adapt it to most other class-and-level fantasy games and it would probably work quite well with RuneQuest or other old school fantasy RPGs without much trouble.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 8 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a low-level adventure/sandbox that's nicely open-ended and imaginative.
Don't Buy This If: You're not interested in low-level adventures, no matter how creative.

10 comments:

  1. I tend to find higher level modules less useful than low level ones. By the characters in my games have reached a certain level, they usually have goals enough of their own that I don't need to use modules anymore.

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  2. James thanks for taking the time to review this and thank you for the kind words. I too have seen enough low level ruin clearing adventures. My goal with this was to make a potentially epic feeling low level adventure. Its not perfect but I'm pretty pleased with the way it turned out. Looking forward to your thoughts on my horror themed one shot the Inn of Lost Heroes which takes the opposite of the sandbox approach.

    Thanks again!

    Pete

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  3. I'm a fan of low to mid-level adventures and I generally think the most fun is had at the 4th-7th level range. Just a matter of taste really.

    "Unlike module T1, though, Spahn has not presented the town in such exhaustive depth that one is bowled over by minutiae nor has he robbed the town of the possibility for expansion by the referee."

    We must have different definitions of "exhaustive." I think of Hommlet as a sketch of a town, just a few major figures. Now anything for the Harn setting - that's "exhaustive." :)

    And thanks for the review; I plan to pick this up.

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  4. Pete,

    I'll be reviewing your second module later this week, time permitting.

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  5. We must have different definitions of "exhaustive." I think of Hommlet as a sketch of a town, just a few major figures. Now anything for the Harn setting - that's "exhaustive." :)

    "Exhaustive" might be hyperbolic when dealing with Hommlet, I'll grant, but it's still too persnickety in its details. I like my settings to be even sketchier nowadays.

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  6. I disagree with the utility of low level adventures in the market overall. If I remember correctly, Wizards of the Coast did some market research when they acquired the D&D brand and the rest of the TSR assets in the late 90s, and it suggested that most people's campaigns didn't last very long, didn't get into very high levels, and were frequently reset and restarted at low level again as groups lost interest in campaigns and restarted with a new idea or at least new characters.

    Even if I don't remember that correctly, that certainly seems to be my experience, and the experience of most gamers I've talked to. Assuming that to be true, low level adventures have the most utility, because gamers spend much more of their gaming time at low and lower mid level than at any other place on the portential character advancement curve.

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  7. Low level adventures are easier to manage especially if spell casters are involved. As Evan said above, by the time you reach higher levels your characters are fairly entrenched in whatever setting you're using. This makes it even more difficult to drop in a generic adventure which means higher level adventures have a tendency to become idea mines. I don't really mind that but for the time and effort involved i would prefer my modules actually be played which is why I cut off at about 7th level. 1st-3rd, 3rd-5th, and 5th-7th are what you'll typically see from me. High enough to have access to some of the cooler spells but not so high that you have to account for the real earth shaking magic that can really wreck a scenario if overlooked.

    Pete

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  8. Glad to hear this take on it - I bought it last night based on a K&KA review, but have not yet had a chance to do more than glance through it.

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  9. Normally, I'm not very fond of timeline-oriented adventures, as they have a tendency to be heavy-handed in advancing a plot rather than a sequence of events, if you can understand the distinction. Happily, that's not a flaw in Blood Moon Rising...


    That was exactly my concern. Good to hear.

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  10. I agree with the first comment - higher levels are driven more by the party's agenda than when starting out - and I also agree that many campaigns never get past about 3rd level as apathy or other complications set in and derail the game. I have to say that as a DM and as a player I have started quite a few more campaigns than I have ever "finished" or maybe "plateaued" : ) so these low level runs get used more.

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