The Exfiltrators (2018)
by Lance Hawvermale
5th to 7th level
First things first, this module was produced by one of the best Kickstarter campaigns I have seen. The objectives were simple and clearly laid out. The product description stated the designer’s aims without cloudy obfuscation and deceptive language. There were no stretch goals to build false expectations and stretch out production into infinity, and the pitch was based on a written, edited manuscript. The Kickstarter did something which very few Kickstarters actually do: it was meant to bridge the gap between manuscript stage and delivery. Finally, the campaign was launched February 2018, and the completed books were delivered April 2018. Hardcore! This approach gets my official endorsement. If you want to crowdfund something, this is the way to do it. (Note also that it raised all of $1,613, which makes my wisdom highly dubious.)
In The Exfiltrators, you must enter Velgate Prison, the kingdom’s most notorious penitentiary for those criminals who have to be put away very securely. The place is staffed by professionals, the prisoners are under continuous surveillance, and escape is impossible. Time to prove the warden wrong – your characters either get to break out of the most secure prison in the land, or break into the prison to investigate who is targeting them and other adventurers with perfectly orchestrated ambushes.
A good prison break hinges on confronting an interesting, complex security system to find its gaps or contradictions, and exploit them for your purposes. This is how they work. Unfortunately, Velgate Prison itself is completely underwhelming, which is not a good thing as the module’s lynchpin location. You would expect “the kingdom’s most notorious jail” to be a sinister, imposing and labyrinthine place, with prisoners lost somewhere on the lower levels. Instead, you get a much more modern and much-much more modest outfit using the panopticon design. It is, in fact, mostly one big room with a central observation chamber surrounded by multiple stacked levels of cells with the inmates inside them. This one room carries much of the adventure. All the rest of the prison is made up of humdrum support rooms like the guard barracks, the weapons locker, the quartermaster, and personal domiciles for the senior staff. It is all firmly in the “fantastic realism” school, mostly stating the obvious.
|Nipple rings and tattoos: clearly EVUL|
There are altogether 12 guards in the whole prison, ten inmates, and (beyond individual jail cells, which are counted separately in the key) 15 keyed areas, including a sloping passage, a description of a door, etc. The prisoners are your motley crew of maniacs, murderers and bandits, given lots of personal details and some personal effects. One of the intended ways to play the module is to get caught in the panopticon and McGyver an escape plan from old combs, hairpins and what have you while under watch. There is a convenient deus ex machine / complication due to a haunting spirit if the plan doesn’t succeed. In a more interesting case, the characters enter as investigators, and must pick the falsely accused from the convicts who deserve to rot. This is a good deal better (it is left to the GM who is who).
I must admit writing this review was hard. I had to read and reread parts of the module to recall the details, which doesn’t usually happen. The material is slippery, lacking the memorable bits which stick in your mind. Outside the aforementioned panopticon and a weak extraplanar plot thread (including the laziest planar maze I have ever seen), the module seemed to lack a distinct character. It is more in the late AD&D style where the game abandoned conceptual simplicity for increasingly self-referential designs. In my mind, this is an important paradigm shift. Early AD&D starts out as an open framework which finds inspiration in outside sources it incorporates into its own logic (rules, procedures, content). It is straightforward, action-oriented, sometimes not very elaborate, but it is open to new infusions of pop culture. Comic books, horror movies, TV shows, pulp fantasy, mythology and all kinds of board and puzzle games the players enjoyed could find a way into their shared imagination. Late AD&D, in contrast, becomes a closed world which largely refers to its own legacy.* Reusing and combining pre-existing elements becomes the norm.
One feature of this period is the substitution of rules and canon knowledge in place of finding new outside stuff to mine. The stuff that turns up in Sage Advice, the worst column in gaming after the Ecology of… series. This module has both of that in spades; it relies on rule exploits to build some of its encounters, and the AD&D canon to build its background. This is more a personal taste than a design issue, but I don’t like it. I can appreciate someone who knows the AD&D rules deeply enough to use them creatively (this is a skill I never mastered), but here, we mostly find mechanical creativity instead of something out of the box – on the other hand, it is not the kind of vanilla I enjoy. If you like late 1e and 2e, this might be more to your taste.
|The demiplane of randomly generated suckage|
However, the cop-outs sting. The setup includes a thoroughly choreographed ambush where the orchestrator is “meant” to get away, and the adventure really stacks the deck in his favour. By the book? 100% by the book. Are magical commando tactics legitimate in AD&D? Logically, they would evolve in a magical setting, but again, this is a device which feels off. Multiple times, the GM is instructed to add or subtract opponents to scale the module. The prison has a secret deus ex machina NPC who is meant to even out the odds. If you need him to open the cell doors and let the PCs get away, he will give them the key, just like that. Or “a crowbar appears magically beside one of the PC’s cots”. Yes, that’s a quote. Or “using shape change, the Boy in the Box appears as a giant lizard or other monster, prompting the guards to flee the spire and regroup elsewhere”. Or if you need him to open a door leading to the extraplanar segment, he will be there for the characters. I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from Once Upon a Time in the West: “How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants.”
The writing is competent and obviously done by someone who knows how to write prose, but it is not a good adventure text. The sentences work but it is a dreadful reference where information gets lost and the information you get is often not the right kind of information. A high wall: “Optionally, the PCs can throw a grapple onto the wall’s upper edge, but quick-thinking players might believe such sounds have a chance of alerting one of the guards.” An observation post: “The windows have been darkened with a special alchemical process so as to permit the guard to see out while blocking attempts to see inside the spire from without. However, those with infravision can still clearly see the heat signature of the guard within.” A lot of clutter; a lot of important details left in obscure corners of the module, the works.
The Exfiltrators is not a cynical cash grab, and it is not designed carelessly. There are parts of it which are competent; the author is a writer who has been published professionally in fiction, poetry and RPGs. Some of his modules are fairly good. This scenario isn’t. It reminds me of the worse kind of Dungeon Magazine adventures (quoth Bryce: “Jesus H. Fucking Christ I hate reviewing Dungeon Magazine.”) Verdict: Skip this harder than Skip Williams.
No playtesters are listed for this publication.
Rating: * / *****
* Note: in recent decades, this trend has turned into an endless recycling of the D&D classics. These exercises have more to do with brand-building and IP management than actually learning from the things the same products were attempting to do.