Tuesday, 17 April 2018

[REVIEW] The Red Prophet Rises

The Red Prophet Rises (2018)
by Aaron Fairbrook (Malrex) and Prince of Nothing
Published by The Merciless Merchants
3rd to 5th level

The Red Prophet Rises
There are probably more good sword&sorcery rulesets than there are good sword&sorcery adventure modules. You can try it yourself, and the list in the left column will be longer than the one in the right. After a lot of hullaballoo about D&D’s pulp fantasy roots, and the importance of reading the “Appendix N” books to truly understand where Gary and friends were coming from, we still get more lip service in this area than the actual good stuff. S&S-style modules either miss something essential from the genre ingredients (most of them are just regular ol’ D&D with a thin S&S veneer), or – almost as often – they work better as stories than complex, open-ended game scenarios. It is a sad state of affairs. This review is about an exception.

The big thing about The Red Prophet Rises is that it does three things very well. It taps into the earnest violence of the genre, it presents an interesting situation offering a variety of in-game approaches in a complex, dynamic environment, and it is written in a way that combines functionality with flavour (proving once and for all that the two can be reconciled). Here is why it is great.

This is a module that takes one of the things sword&sorcery is famous for – unflinching brutality in barren, hostile natural environments – and sticks to its theme with both talent and consistency. Now, this is not “all” S&S is about, but it is S&S at its most recognisable – Frazetta, Brom, Conan (the movie version), buff people in S&M gear with horned helmets, butchery and raw violence. The module is set in a series of canyons in the middle of a rocky wasteland, as well as a series of caverns off to the sides. This unpleasant place is currently inhabited by a crazed cult of plainsmen engaged in a frenzy of killing, feasting and drugged orgies, awaiting the opening of their new paradise foretold by Khazra, their new prophet. It is the good stuff, and where the D&Disms creep in, they are handled in a way that doesn’t diminish the vision of this bloody spectacle.

There is a visceral quality to the writing which creates a great sense of place. You can smell the fires and smoke, hear the nomads carousing as they gorge themselves on charred rabbit by their fire pits, hear the brutal overseers bellow with whips in their hands, and feel the chaos as livestock runs wild among the plainsmen. There is blood, dust, an arena of death with a great throne above it, something called The Pit of Despair (hell yes!), a temple of blood, and living quarters carved into the rocks.  There is something feverish about the bacchanalian festivities in this wasteland hellhole, part the drugged orgy of the snake-cult from Conan the Barbarian, part the raiders from Mad Max 2 (Khazra and his underlings are basically Lord Humungus and his psycho bikers). This kind of thing hasn’t really been done before in old-school D&D modules.

Best of all, The Red Prophet Rises is an actually well-designed adventure scenario. The canyons and the surrounding caverns serve as a complex, dynamic environment which operates under its own logic and rules. As a dungeon (it is a dungeon kind of the same way Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is a dungeon), it is a dangerous cul-de-sac where it is much easier to get in than to get out, not to mention it is packed to the gills with frenzied marauders out for blood, run by two distracted but fairly wily leaders. However, it is also a sufficiently chaotic and busy place that a party of adventurers can come up with any number of plans to infiltrate it and accomplish whatever they came for (by default, the module was written for a paladin to find his special mount). There are great opportunities for strategy, underpinned by a fairly simple, yet reasonably believable timetable to determine what the cultists are doing any specific time of the day, robust encounter tables to complicate things (lots of hidden agendas and odd personalities in this camp of misfits), and notes on tactics to determine the inhabitants’ reactions when the party inevitably mess up.

The care also shows in the encounter design. Most locations on the key have their own, small-scale encounter dynamic or conflict going on, which can impact the way the scenario unfolds in multiple ways. There are hard decisions, surprises that call for quick thinking and improvisation, and there are also opportunities to seize, allies to find and hidden enmities to exploit. Getting into parts of the canyon system through social engineering, stealth, disguise, or a (potentially suicidal, although surely awesome) frontal assault can be a challenge by itself. The design really rewards groups who can think on their feet and move with the flow – there may even be ways to keep the action moving if the party’s cover is blown and they find themselves surrounded by a small army of armed killers. There is also good exploration, which puts the focus on being observant and imaginative rather than repeating rote dungeon routines (this is also the case for finding the magic items, which are almost all interesting new items with non-standard capabilities).

There is a second level to the module, in the same way In Search of Unknown has a second level – of course it does, but you tend to gloss over it because while it is not bad, it is superfluous. It does not really add to the experience, and it might even distract from the brutal revelry of the barbarian camp one level higher. The infiltration of an unholy yet living place gives way to more straightforward dungeon fare in a mostly abandoned environment, one that is altogether more in the vein of high-level D&D than the grim chaos of the canyon encampment. There is less to do, there are fewer ways to do it, and it is fairly disconnected from the things going up above ground (even in the physical sense). Finally, this dungeon level ends up revealing some of the mysteries behind the canyon and its holy site, and as it so often happens, we are better off not knowing – something raw and powerful is lost once things are made too literal, and we have an explanation instead of a hunch. I would just cut the whole thing (including area 27 on level 1) and reuse it elsewhere – it would work as a standalone mini-dungeon with some fairly cool obsidian-centric monsters and traps.

The Red Prophet Rises features good, effective writing, the kind I would like to see more often in game products. It is economic, and written to help the GM, but it is not a dry, soulless technical text. It is expressive without wasting words, giving you just the right kind of impressions to get the idea. “A brute with arms covered in ritual scars whips and brutalizes a bleeding and injured man kneeling on the ground”, or “The walls of the cavern are decorated with a variety of weapons, shields, and tapestries depicting lurid scenes of sacrifice, murder and war. Red curtains frame a throne of carved stone (…)”. Location information is broken down into a bullet point list, giving you more specific details after establishing the general scene. Helpful tables and side bars contain additional information. The booklet is well-edited; the information you need is placed at your fingertips, or you receive helpful references to help running the game. This is the kind of polish you don’t tend to notice consciously, but it makes a difference at the table. There is a monster cheat sheet.

The Red Prophet Rises is one of the pleasant surprises of the year. It holds up well any way I look at it, and achieves such a high level of overall polish that it sets a good standard to look up to and learn from. Furthermore, it is one of the rare sword&sorcery modules which combines a great understanding of the genre with the considerations of a fantasy RPG. As I argued above, the module does not really need its second level, and I would recommend just omitting it in play. Sure, you’d miss nine pages of fairly good stuff (in the three or lower four star range), but you are left with about 20 or so pages of pitch-perfect material, and that’s the real treasure.

No playtesters have been listed for this publication, but multiple signs point at it having been playtested.

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

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