Sunday 21 January 2024

[REVIEW] Benighted Betrothal

Benighted Betrothal (2023)

by Sandor Gebei

Published by the Melsonian Arts Council

Level 3

Dubbed “a viking soap opera”, this is a small sandbox adventure describing the general area of a small northern village beset by inner conflicts, ancient curses, and mysterious locales in the wilderness. A wedding is being planned to unite to rival viking clans, others (potentially including the player characters) are planning to disrupt it, and things are set up to go astray in a dozen interesting ways. The module is mainly a toolkit to run these calamities: the soap opera aspect comes from the complicated web of personal enmities, obligations, and relationships which make the situation so unstable.

This is a slim, small 40-page hardcover with generous production values and just as generous empty space. References and summaries are provided, stretched to take up multiple pages with illustrations. For instance, there is a one-page location summary with a facing player map, then the same map is reproduced again for the GM on two more pages with just about the same content. That, in turn, means, the written content is rather slim; I would estimate this is around the size of a 20-page pamphlet using conventional layout techniques and the usual amount of interior art. It is effectively written; words are not wasted, and the module should be easy to use in play. But in the end, it is still  lighter than it should properly be.

The focus of the module is on open-ended problem-solving, and you receive useful components for that. The tiny town of Gnupr is mainly presented not so much as a location (this section is a bullet-point list of items like “Longhouses – 20’×60’ longhouses; half wood, half turf”, or “Smithy – source of constant noise”) as a network of social relationships and hidden agendas. Common knowledge, rumours, key NPCs, and a table of hired swords are used as the moving parts of the sandbox. Written with brevity, they are rich with potential to instigate exploration and conflict. For instance, rumours may be things like “Even our mortal blood has magic. It opens portals, they say”, or “Have you noticed how Thorwald acts all weird ‘round Helvi?” An NPC, such as the bride’s mother, might be described as “Not young anymore but still beautiful. Does everything to stop the marriage between Ingrid and Varghöss due to the terrible truth that [they] are half-siblings. She will not share this information with anyone willingly”. This is good an effective, although the book’s empty space might have been used better for a default progression of events, the description of a few possible developments or plans that may come to pass, or other sorts of useful information (it might be a natural idea to steal the bride-price for a combination of personal gain and to prevent the marriage, but where it may be kept and what form it may take is not provided). You mainly get the raw building blocks and get to assemble them yourself, or use random rolls to do so.

The Very Tiny Sandbox
The module’s other section is focused on the surrounding wilderness. The emphasis here is on ancient, mythical secrets which are the source of Gnupr’s present troubles: undead infestation, witchery, a dragon, and more are involved. They draw on the stranger aspects of Nordic legends (or might have been made up by the author, but if so, the fit is excellent). However, the wilderness section is much more sketchy and underdeveloped. There is a chart of 12 random encounters which are usually more complex than a simple monster fight – more like open-ended situations to build on and integrate into the action. A group of manhunters are seeking a fugitive (related to multiple denizens in Gnupr), a group of kindly nomads are herding their goats, which walk on two legs at night and are breastfed by their women; a swarm of crows coalesce into an ominous seer. This is the stronger part. The five wilderness locations (four monster lairs and an enigma) are honestly not much. There are interesting NPC antagonists, including a young dragon and the hag behind some of the village conflicts, but they are small in both scope and number. The wilderness feels tiny. This is partly intentional, as part of an inwards-focused situation-based setup. Most links lead back to the central conflicts. But unrelated elements also serve a role; and they are not present. It is also the case that even the largest of the locations, the hag lair, is essentially a three-room dungeon with three paths each terminating in a cave. The rest are even more aspatial. Not everything needs to be a dungeon crawl, or a pointcrawl, or another sort of crawl, and yet…

Benighted Betrothal is a decent, functional scenario whose primary value lies in its intricate social conflicts, and presenting them in an open-ended way that makes it adaptable to different needs, accommodating different styles of player problem-solving. Where it is weaker is in two areas. The location-based components are underdeveloped, and the wilderness adventure sites are just minor lairs. Ultimately, it is nice, but you come away with the impression this is a case where more would have been more. The “tiny hardcover” format perhaps drives this home more than a more conservative presentation would have, but the issues are there.

This module credits its playtesters.

Rating: *** / *****

1 comment:

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