Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Reviewsday Tuesday. Spinters of faith part 1: Railroad or Sandbox ?

Reviewsday Tuesday Presents:

Splinters of faith, Adventure 1: It started with a chicken.
Gary Schotter & Jeff Harkness.
 Frog God Games. 2010(ish)

Caveat: FGG sent me a bunch of free and unsolicited PDF product after I wrote a raving fanboy squeeee about Swords and Wizardry, Complete edition. All he requested was a fair review, which I hope to provide, but be aware that I did not pay for this, so that will color any comments I have.  See, maybe it's me, but whenever I buy something, I always read it with an eye to “Did I just waste X dollars that I could have spent more enjoyably on Beer.”. Needless to say, anything involving beer being wasted, even potentially, can inspire some serious nerd rage, which these kind of reviews will lack.

First question: was it worth the Beer ? Absolutely, as it was free. The only way to up its Product to Beer rating would be for FGG to send me Beer with the PDFs (are you listening ?). Would it have been worth the beer if I paid for it ? Read on.

SOF:ISWAC capsule review for the attentionally challenged.

Splinters of faith (SOF) is the first part of a ten part adventure series, intending to start players at level one, and work up from there, probably to level ten; oh yes, and save the world, while they are at it. They visit a village, get some well intentioned but incorrect information about a chicken, deal with the real problem, and discover a dangerous way to kill some time with a bunch of ghouls and such. Ideally, they realize that this Is Part Of Somthing Bigger and More Important than the chicken or their loot from the crypt.

So, okay, I liked it, although I may not have ever bought it on my own, mainly because there are so many damned modules, and I'm a snob (see note at the end) . Note that I did read it all the way thru (which says a lot) , and am very tempted to use it as a start to running D&D for my son and his overly sugared up friends.
It is easy to run as a basic railroad style “ read the backstory to the players via a bard, ancient tome or annoyingly intrusive wizard buddy of dad’s or something , and send them to save the worlds by visiting a bunch of places”; or, and this is key, a spooky mystery with threads buried throughout the more mundane bits of a campaign.

Regardless, it’s a nice module with a village, some wilderness and a nice crypt full of undead. It should challenge beginning characters, and actually hose them if they are really stupid. Otherwise, they’ll likely win, but know they’ve been in a fight. Which, really, is the point of adventures, right ? 'cause:

As his vision faded and filled with the sight of the Lord of the Nazgul standing over the bodies of Glorfindel and Aragorn, Frodo surrendered to despair and cast himself into the foaming river, the ring slipping from his drowning fingers. It was lost again, but still whole and would soon find its master; nothing now would stop the tide of darknesss, nothing but the worlds end."

Is depressing.

More stuff, lots o' blather and actual information occasionally .

Objective part:
What you get: a 16 page PDF, with some nice cover art which can be used to illustrate why elves are not nice benevolent angels like Frodo thought (Read the Hobbit again, and pay attention). The title is great: juxtaposing portentous (not pretentious. Look it up) phrases like “splinters of faith“ and the word “chicken” is always good postmodern fun. Actual text starts on page 4, and as foretold in prophesy, the last page is OGL stuff. So, twelve pages of actual stuff. Art isn’t excessive, and seems evocative; lots of maps (IE real content) are included. The campaign back story runs to page 9 before we get to the part that the players are in. The module can either be run as a one off (although it will lack some resolution, sometimes life is like that, and at least you get some cool stuff and a good ghost story), or as part of an organized campaign To Save The World By Remaking an Artifact.

I should mention that I'm reviewing the version for swords and wizardry, presumably the complete edition. This is great, and really convenient as it is the rules I want to run, and gush about. Probably why they sent me this one instead of the pathfinder version. Clever lads, them Frog Gods. That's about all I have to say about that, except that it nicely shows a wonderful benefit  of the rules lite and OSR approach to gaming: minimalist stat blocks. Let me say this here, MINIMAL stats and technical rules exposition  REALLY Helps Make the text more READBLE. No kidding. I have to read statistics books and software manuals for a living, so when relaxing, too much techtech makes my eyes threaten mutiny .
The Subjective stuff (aka dogheaded opinions)
Okay, it has an epic backstory, an evil icklord, and a McGuffin scavenger hunt. Pretty straightforward, and honestly, nothing new or surprising. The task (fix the mcguffin, stop the baddie) is cryptically spelled out on the door to the tomb, in case the bad guy comes back. Why they went with poetry and not a big skull and trefoil logo with warnings and instructions in in seven languages and stick figures is a mystery, but that’s priests for ya.

The actual play parts consist of one village, a small extra-dungeon wilderness, and a small but evil-encrusted barrow. One moves from the mundane (kill the fox that is eating chickens) to the surprise (oh, look, it isn’t a chicken) to the dangerous and spooky (Where does this go….oh man, so that’s why they are here…). The village is good and mood setting, the interim setting is an expected surprise, and the crypt is a very nice small dungeon which actually makes sense if you you know the backstory. If not, it’s a good undead fight, with clues that something very odd happened here. This is crucial to the point of the module. It’s the gateway to a long epic campaign, which always means, how to keep the players on script without chains and whips ? SOF1 has an unusual, and, I hope, intentional, approach to resolving this dilemma.

A digression about the Backstory:
Interestingly, apart from some cryptic poetry (in a crypt –get it ?) Most of the backstory is unavailable to the players without him tediously reading it to them : “The ghoul in life was an unspeakably evil man, servant of the big bad dude who was, as you all know, imprisoned here by and artifact of great puissance which was forged by the elder blah blah blah.)”. So, one can just hand them the backstory (ADD module XYZ123 style) , but me, I think that this lack of explicit exposition is a feature, not a bug.

In other words, the players should at most get the impression that something very odd, unpleasant and unfinished has happened here, and possibly something that is hidden in their histories –or lost. The module states that the players should have a definite feeling that the McGuffin needs to be reforged. Me, I’d play it as a Close Encounters like compulsion , or at least an itch to find out what the heck happened there.  At the very least they may be motivated to find out who the heck killed and left after having robbed the.....oh wait, spoiler. Buy it yourself, since I didn't have to, so they can make money. Geeze, what is it with you kids these days ?

So what’s the solution to running it as part of a  campaign ? Like I said, one can vomit forth the backstory and then highlight the cryptic poetry so they know what there mission is, or, alternately, and I like this, it is VERY easy to leave them baffled.

My opinion of a good horror story (which this is, with  a dark claustrophobic settings, Dark Lords and a side order of cannibalism, entombment and betrayal) is that you spend most of it going "WTF ?  Seriously, what was that about ?", then, "Oh gosh  ! I think its.... ", until you get to  "AAAAAAAAA we're screwed !".  This is an excellent vehicle for that kind of start to a campaign.

 The module claims that the following installments can be linear or in any order, and that suggests to me that the whole plot can be buried and only slowly uncovered between the lines of normal adventuring. At which point you start to discover that there’s something you should have done, and maybe you didn’t, and perhaps its not too late to make it right…..

Or, if your players hate to think, or don’t have lots of time, or just want to play epic mcGuffin hunt, one can easily give them the tour guide and a reservation on the Acheson, Topeka and Dungeoncrawl Railroad. Don’t knock it, kids, it can be a very fun style of adventure if you know what it is going in. Sandbox is not the only way.

 The Note at the end:
Confession: I never have liked adventure modules. This is an adventure module. Bear with me before I draw any conclusions. See, in the classic D&D era I snootily avoided them, proclaiming “why buy imagination that I already have in spades”; and then went on to run whatever, often as not no less derivative, railroady, unjustifiable and confused as any AD&D XYZ123 module. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. Possibly it was because I was cheaper then, being a highschool/college student, and plus, too, there was always the onerous amounts of beer and textbooks to pay for. So, I didn’t get a lot. Some classics, yes, and I always was a sucker for sandbox or city modules. But basically, I’ve always been a roll yer own kinda DM.
Now, however, I find time limits press upon me, and my gaming group. The time needed to build up a decent adventure is scarce, valuable, and often disrupted by (insert beer reference here) and family, too. So, my secret shame has been shopping for and using modules, pregens and etc.

This looks like a good mix of prebuilt and DIY....sort of like a module from IKEA ?  Oh well.  There goes any hope of beer from FGG.....


Jeff Harkness said...

Thanks for the review, Doc Grognard. It's great to get feedback about what we got right -- and wrong -- as we put the Splinters series together.

And you didn't get the beer? What's up with that! Surely an oversight of epic proportions!

Seriously, though, Gary and I are old-school gamers who are just glad Splinters is in people's hands now. It started as a 3.5 adventure, was converted to Pathfinder, and then was taken back to our gaming roots using Swords & Wizardry. And I'm with you in really liking the stripped down, easy-to-read format the SW rules allowed for.

Some things you touched on continue in the later modules in the series, from decidedly deadly encounters it's best to run away from, to small hints and elements in one module reappearing in another (for instance, a missing artifact in Splinters 2: Burning Desires shows up again in Splinters 5: Eclipse of the Hearth). For the most part, these are side adventures noted for the GM to pursue if he wants, or the PCs to pick up on if they are paying attention. We tried hard not to railroad players; one reviewer even compared the feel of the modules to old Judges Guild stuff.

Splinters 1 was the setup module for the original book that contained all 10 adventures (before it was split into 10 modules), so it does leave things hanging a little, but it picks up right away in Splinters 2 and doesn't really let off the gas until the end. I've got my own favorites coming up, and can't wait to see how players react to Splinters 5 (in layout now), Splinters 7: The Heir of Sin (with some statues that are going to put a glimmer of terror in PCs eyes every time they see another one), and Splinters 10: Remorse of Life, which ends the epic in true style with an assault on a city of the dead -- with such places as the Ossuary of the Tooth, the Transcendent Cenotaph and the Font of Bone all waiting for PCs to screw up.

OK, I've rambled enough, but it was great to read your thoughts on the book.

(And I gotta say, I laughed at the IKEA reference.)

Jeff Harkness

Gary Schotter said...

If you are at Gen Con this year, I will buy you a beer!
Thanks for taking the time to read and review Splinters of Faith. I found your blog title Crawdads and Dragons to be very fitting for chapter 2 of SoF (as you will see, we have both in the adventure). Jeff and I started with OSD&D way back when and kind of flowed through the various editions and Pathfinder over the years (yes… even 4.0 briefly).
I never ran store-bought adventures (except Tsar, although I buy and read printed material). Strictly home-brew…Our current group has been gaming together for 17 years and SoF was just one of the innumerous campaigns I ran. It started as an outline and many encounters where spontaneous moments of imagination during play. We tried to write the SoF tool with as much freedom, creativity and entertainment as possible with out killing PCs off the bat.
I hope you continue to review (good or bad) the rest of the chapters and enjoy them as much as we did playing and creating.

G. Schotter

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