Saturday 10 February 2018

[REVIEW] The Tainted Forest Near Thorum

The Tainted Forest Near Thorum (2012)
by Yves Larochelle, with additional writing by Reverend Dak
Published in Crawl! #4 by Straycouches Press
5th level

The Tainted Forest Near Thorum
All is not it seems in the small, idyllic village of Thorum, and strange things are afoot in the surrounding woods, inhabited by a sinister evil. This may be one of the most recognisable adventure structures seen in modules: a home base threatened by an evil force and its local agents; a dangerous wilderness; one or more adventure sites leading to the lair of the secret evil. There is a fairly good chance something like this was your first adventure ever. It is popular because it works, but it has been covered so many times that it is hard to add a new spin on it. It is also the main problem with The Tainted Forest Near Thorum.

All three major areas of the module repeat the same mistake: they don’t add to a very basic, very overused formula. We have a village, which is like all small, peaceful villages beset by evil. It has a halfling-run inn that’s like every other halfling-run inn. The barmaid and the town drunk know dark secrets. There are two temples which are like every other village temple. The local authorities behave exactly like they tend to do in these adventures. NPCs are one-note stock characters. Corruption is afoot and some villagers are working for the enemy, before the characters unmask and kill them in one of multiple predictable plot twists.

The wilderness section, a forest bisected by a wide river, is a typical example of the way D&D wrestles with outdoors adventure design. Travel through the Tainted Forest is mainly represented by a one-page random encounter table with a few deformed beasts, but otherwise, the The Tainted Forest Near Thorum has very little forest adventuring in it, and not much of it seems to be tainted. (The exception, and the best part of the module, is a one-in-six random encounter with a local “legendary beast”, which is actually an interesting and rounded-out encounter. Here, the adventure briefly goes from boring to intriguing.) There are all of three wilderness areas to find, and it is understood that they will be visited in a linear sequence. One is a lair, one is a very minor “ruin”, and the third is the entrance to the main dungeon. You can kill the inhabitants or negotiate with them, and you find plot tokens which take you to the next place.

The final dungeon is a complete disappointment. The map is beautiful as an illustration, but it is essentially a completely linear sequence of encounter areas with all of two side branches. (This seems to be a common problem with the DCC RPG.) Not only is it a linear ride, the encounters amount to some mighty dull fare:
  • a few pieces of “this looks evil”-style descriptive detail;
  • some “they attack”-style combat encounters (although at least some monsters, like spine-shooting giant hedgehogs, a doorframe mimic, and living mounds of bubbling flesh which can rip limbs off of PCs, show imagination);
  • frequent reminders of “an uneasy feeling” overtaking the characters without actually giving the players something that’d make them feel something;and a completely deadly and unfair death trap.
What’s lacking here are interesting decisions, discoveries to be made via clever exploration, or even sights which would leave a memorable impression.

There is very little in The Tainted Forest Near Thorum that differentiates it from the same adventure you have played, run and read countless times (but now in DCC). Things are reskinned here and there to follow DCC’s heavy metal fantasy aesthetic, but that doesn’t really count as the kind of added value that’d make the module worth owning. Scott Ackerman’s art (exterior and interior cover, maps) is really nice, and Crawl! gets the fanzine aesthetic, but these things just end up overselling a functional but otherwise disappointing adventure.

Actually, there is something there that got stuck in my mind: this is the scenario which feels the closest to Diablo. You know? The village of Tristram, the Blacksmith, the Stay-awhile-and-listen guy, the church dungeon which its tale of corruption. Adventure fantasy stripped down to its bare essentials, the most “D&D” plot of them all, given some gloomy flourishes. However, Diablo did something with this formula with its interesting crowd control-based gameplay, character building and heavy randomisation. The Tainted Forest Near Thorum could not make it work.

The module credits both its playtesters and proofreaders, which is nice.

Rating: ** / *****


  1. In our game, the treasure tables can sometimes put +2 or +3 items in the hands of low-level characters (+3 is the highest possible enchantment bonus). Unlikely, but possible. It does not pose that much of a problem, since it grants the character an edge, but also exposes him to higher risk. When you feel strong and confident, it is easy to bite off more than you can chew. If the item's value is apparent, or becomes known (for instance, the character uses it openly and frequently), it may draw extra attention from thieves, rivals, but also friendly NPCs who (again) overestimate the party's capabilities, and send them on more dangerous errands.

    This does not mean I "punish" the characters for playing well or being plain lucky, but if they want to play in the big leagues, they can. :)

    Practically, though, if they find a more powerful magic item, they have earned it.

  2. The DCC community holds Crawl! in high regard. I suppose that's mostly because it was the first DCC RPG fanzine, and the readers were starving for content from the very moment the game was released. I gave up on it after half a dozen issues, because the amount of content I could or wanted to use was negligible.

    1. I bought the whole run to save on shipping. My main problems with it are twofold:
      1) almost all issues are thematic, limiting the scope of ideas;
      2) there are a lot of restatements of A/D&D stuff that already exists. The usual "here is a paladin but it is a DCC paladin with spiky bits", "here is a paladin but it is a LotFP paladin with exposed genitals" deal.

    2. Something existing for AD&D doesn't mean jack shit for DCC RPG. Unlike LotFP it's not a retroclone, it's a system of its own, and thus neither classic D&D, nor d20 classes can be used as written for it.

      Thus I wouldn't have issues with conversions, if they were good. Unfortunately I found those in Crawl! either bland or badly designed. I also think having them available as beginning classes goes against the "Quest for it!" and "zero to hero" mentality of DCC RPG. I had paladins, acrobats, assassins in my DCC RPG campaign - they were warriors and thieves who went on dangerous quests to earn some extra training or power. They were goddamn proud of themselves after succeeding.