Friday, 14 October 2022

[REVIEW] Wyvern Songs

Wyvern Songs
Wyvern Songs (2022)

by Brad Kerr

Published by Swordlords Publishing

Lowish levels (1, 2-4, 3-5, 5-6)

Following in the footsteps of the surreal, deadly garden of Hideous Daylight and the aptly named (slightly cramped) Temple of 1000 Swords, this is an anthology of four mini-modules which can also be linked and placed in a loosely outlined mini-setting. The book – a very tidy, elegant publication in its hardcover edition – combines a whimsical imagination with strong accessibility. Many OSE modules don’t quite hit the mark, mainly due to their authors’ lack of experience or the adventures’ overly small scope, but Wyvern Songs uses the format to its fullest without getting hamstrung by its limitations. Here, it all works. 

The tone recalls things like Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, Jeff Rients’ stuff, and psychedelic childrens’ cartoons (for some reason, Jamie and the Magic Torch comes to my mind), and this is very clearly telegraphed by the art. It is the polar opposite of Appendix N, featuring none of the doom and gloom that has characterised most of modern old-school gaming, nor the “mediaeval quasi-realism” of earlier eras. This is fullbright whimsy filled with quirky characters and highly fantastic, often anachronistic ideas, and leans on these themes more strongly than Hideous Daylight did. It feels modern, not old – a little twitterish and cutesy, just a little high on the sugar, but not disturbingly so. Of course, theme is not all. What is important is function: and these adventures deliver places and situations with a high interaction potential, where interesting choices may be made and interesting consequences may result. These are true funhouses where you can push your luck, come up with creative schemes, leverage NPCs for your gain, or mess with one of the many “levers” (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively) to see what happens.

Of the scenarios, The Sinister Secret of Peacock Point (level 1) is a short, 25-area dungeon set in a thieves’ guild beneath an old lighthouse, overrun by the Skitterlord, a critter right out of a horror movie. This is the most conventional dungeon delve in the book, and a fitting setting to hone your dungeon-fu (appropriately enough, it also features in-game practice ranges used by the former inhabitants). The balance between the prowling horror and the sense of discovery drives the action and creates the main source of tension. There are loose ends and opportunities for expansion – what happens when you try to pawn off the stolen valuables? Or when some of the thieves who didn’t perish in their lair come back? It all segues into new adventures. **** seems right for this one.

Not depicted: Oompa-Loompas

Fabien’s Atelier (levels 2-4) is a puzzle-centric “wizard’s home” locale that was first mentioned in Hideous Daylight, and may be smoothly combined with it to create a more complex double feature. It is also the most anachronistic; the style of the floating dwelling is a lot more swanky 1960s lava lamp hangout/Jetsons flying saucer than, say, a grim basalt tower with gargoyles and stained glass windows. The central idea is puzzle-solving and exploration on a ticking clock, as the place is going haywire and shall crash into the ground below unless something is done. This also makes it a tougher challenge – with no time to retreat and recuperate, it will be difficult for weaker parties. The puzzles are fairly organic, although sometimes off the wall (the main solution to enter a specific room is to take a key-shaped door off its hinges and shrink it to fit a keycard slot; another requires catching a talking toucan with a key-shaped beak). Fortunately, there are workarounds, a sufficiently robust set of stuff to make mischief with (and come up with a truly original combination), and a few handy tips on nudging the characters forward if they are stalled. A ***, but a highish one.

The volume’s unquestionable highlight is The Singing Stones, a 23-location pointcrawl adventure set in an arid valley of musical rocks. Taken alone, this is close to five-star material. A central mystery is presented (the rescue of a lost prince who has gone wyvern-hunting, a task which requires solving two very significant challenges), but the real deal is found in the open-ended environment where truly complex adventures with side-plots and player-driven action can freely emerge without becoming an incoherent mess. The valley is populated with oddball characters, strange natural wonders, and has multiple things going on that may unfold and develop as the action proceeds. Most places have a surface idea and opportunities to go deeper if the characters care. Bullet points are being put to good use. The physical place as outlined is perhaps too large for the suggested six-mile hex (I would stretch it out to about four), but it is just the right size for a rich wilderness adventure. Add inventive random encounters and a rival adventuring party, and The Singing Stones is a definite winner, so we will call it a *****.

Lesbian gnome merchants!

The final adventure, The Dreaming Caldera, is a showdown with the followers of a newly emerging chaos god in a volcano lair where the god is being physically assembled by all sorts of chaotic creatures drawn here by their dreams. I honestly did not feel this one. It is not so much wildly imaginative Brad Kerr, and more Brad Kerr acting as a cover band of himself. The same kind of basic building blocks, just without the fireworks. There are still good features – a massive underground chicken farm in the middle of the dungeon with dire chickens; incompetent monsters being idiots while reconstructing their god; a rival and envious chaos god making the party an offer – but as a whole, it is somehow less free-flowing, and not as clearly outstanding as the anhology’s high points. This is a decent ***.

Wyvern Songs’ writing is smooth, effective stuff. It uses bolding and bullet points effectively (and, curiously, in a different way in each individual mini-module), and gets its point across without becoming too dry or too sparse. There are numerous quality of life features in the book – mini-maps on almost every spread (this does take up slightly more real state than ideal), short ideas on how to handle the consequences of likely PC actions, or how to expand and build on the adventures once things are wrapped up. There are even small touches like colour-coding the four adventures (neatly separating them for easier referencing), and listing their potential play times with an eye for one-shot suitability. Some of the monster stats refer back to the OSE books and are not listed in the publiction. This is a puzzling omission; not because you can’t just look them up, but for what happens when you have to manage multiple monster types working in concert or against each other. A few extra pages wouldn’t have hurt, and since the anthology packs a lot of material between its covers, it would have still been a modest-sized volume.

Charms U
The elegant presentation and the scope of the modules in Wyvern Songs would make them a good choice for novice gamemasters and players. No system mastery required, but creativity is rewarded and the experience is not bowdlerised – there are plenty of opportunities to die in entertaining and instructive ways, and there are other interesting failure conditions. Most of all, this is an adventure where you can try interesting things that lead to interesting consequences, and in various ways, they are all open-ended. There are certain limitations due to the scope of the individual adventures (again, The Singing Stones excepted) but taken as its own thing, this is the good stuff. If you like engaging with plots of pure whimsy in open-ended environments, messing with eccentric NPCs (who essentially tend to behave like modern Internet people), and coming up with non-standard solutions to non-standard problems, this is a sure bet.

This module credits its playtesters, as well as a bunch of other people who have helped with the project, surely the gold standard of giving credit as it is due.

Rating: **** / *****


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