Sunday, 30 June 2019

[REVIEW] Bitterroot Briar

Bitterroot Briar (2013)
by Lang Waters
Published by Expeditious Retreat Press
2nd to 4th level

Bitterroot Briar
Enchanted forests may be the number one staple of fantasy literature (probably going back to our caveman ancestors’ fireside tales), yet good forest adventures are hard to come by – which is why I tend to seek them out with particular interest. Bitterroot Briar is one of these modules: it revolves around an elusive enchanted grove surrounded by a ring of impenetrable briars, and hiding a series of lost mysteries.

Unfortunately, this scenario feels bloated at only 10 pages (not counting the cover and the OGL). It spends a paragraph where a good sentence would suffice. An overwrought backstory is followed by the description of an uninteresting village community. There is an area map which has no function whatsoever: the wilderness it depicts is represented by a random encounter chart, while the main adventure location’s position is entirely subjective. No other areas are described, or even located on this map. It is a mystery. Getting to the briar has no rhyme or reason to it. It is not at a specific location, so you can’t look for it; and there is no transparent means of getting there. It is mostly built on a random encounter chart and GM fiat.

Some things probably wouldn’t work so well at the table either. There is a one-column “Lore” section in the appendix with a childrens’s song containing important clues for the inside of the grove, but I know no GM who would break into a song during a game session, and thanks God for that. No, we didn’t sing those Dragonlance love poems either. This is not the best means of giving the characters a hint.

Map to Nowhere
The grove itself is an interesting concept: an anomaly of time and space, where visitors are shrunk to minimal size, and time passes out of synch with the normal world. As a neat touch, some of the grove’s inhabitants are transformed humans who were trapped here a time ago, and are now living as insects and other small animals while still acting according to their original personalities. The former good guys are bees and the former bad guys are ants, while the main antagonist is, of course, a snake. The seeds of an interesting adventure are there. Sadly, the actual location key does not actually do much with this material. Some entries are, again, a complete mystery:
“B. DEAD TREE: This tree has already been looted.”
“5. ORDINARY TREE: There is nothing of interest about this tree.”
“9–11. ORDINARY TREES: These trees have nothing unusual about them.”
Eight of the 26 keyed areas have nothing of interest to them. Eight more are lazily placed treasure drops:
 “F. DEAD TREE: An empty iron flask lies in the tangled roots of this dead tree, about a foot below the surface.” (Note unobtainable treasure.)
“G. DEAD TREE: A sword +1 dangles from some wines in the mid-branchs [sic] of this suicide.” (???)

You get the idea. There is, simply, a lot of padding, and because of the padding, even things which would be otherwise okay feel like more padding. The module has four different random encounter charts (one for the surrounding woodlands, one for the grove, one for the pools and one for a mini-dungeon found in a fallen oak). You would never notice, or even consider it a feature if the module had an abundance of useful content. But this is a module which takes its sweet time on these side issues, and leaves us hanging when it comes to the actual worthwhile content.

There is some potential there: conflict between the miniature denizens of the grove, the return of old history, treachery in the village that is linked to the grove, some interesting faerie animal characters – all of these could be incorporated into a fun, whimsical module, and it wouldn’t have to be longer than the present work. However, it never becomes a cohesive whole. Worse, once you strip out the chaff, not much of a location that could be used on its own. Some encounters are actually rather imaginative or at least moody, but this is a module where the whole is not more than the sum of its parts. Bitterroot Briar is frustrating because you see flashes of unrealised potential, but no easy way to set things right. Unfortunately, something elusive seems to have been lost in the writing here.

No playtesters are credited in this adventure.

Rating: ** / *****

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