Wednesday, 21 July 2021

[REVIEW] She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water

She Who is a Fortress
in Dark Water
She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water (2021)

by Phillip Loe

Self-published on https://captainahabsleg.blogspot.com/

Levels 5–10

Free modules with homemade charm rarely get the respect anymore in old-school gaming. The scene has commercialised, attention has become fixated on production values, glitz, and Kickstarter extras. More’s the pity, because there are still things out there which are not just free, but as good as anything released for money. She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water, a free wilderness and dungeon scenario, has action, whimsy, and a unique imaginative touch that puts commercial projects to shame.

The tone of the module is grotesque fantasy set in a swampland. Mother Cordelia, a now exiled member of a local monastic order, created a human child through alchemy, to eventually use his deformed spine as a key to the lock of a massive magical codex. Although her schemes were thwarted, now a different evil cult has kidnapped young Ignacio for their own nefarious plan, and are keeping him in an abandoned temple inhabited by lizardmen. Well, at least until the spine can be extracted and their evil plan meets with success (the mission is timed, precise movement rates apply, and STRICT TIME RECORDS MUST BE KEPT). The setup, while bizarre, does not lead to a grimdark module. The tone is more eccentric, with grotesque beings and events, and strongly original while staying comfortably within the boundaries of D&D gameplay. The locale, Theero Marsh has its own little ecology of denizens, from the unctuous oiltoads (human-faced toads whose gaze compels their victims to scarf down the poisonous critter there and then) to a local band of lizardmen, and a handful of weirdo NPCs. It plays effectively on disgust and decay, with a sense of humour to lighten the mood.

The first segment of the adventure is a swamp described as a pointcrawl (9 keyed areas), with rules for getting off track and getting lost (this chart is perhaps too punitive for the time limit) and a random encounter chart with entries that go well beyond “meet X monsters of Y type”. NPCs with their agendas or personal misfortunes, navigation hazards, and even a local petty god can appear before the party. A woman who asks the adventurers for all their food in exchange for a gift of gold thread and answers to three (but no more than three!) questions. A questing paladin with his retainers. Sunbathing crocodiles blocking the path. These chance meetings can greatly affect the rest of the module, adding or altering the way things proceed; or offer obstacles that require a bit of creative thinking to get through.

Free Hugs
The keyed areas, likewise, are a good mixture of challenges, and each one has something that needs more than a standard fight/flight/loot reaction. There are hand-fruit trees, a giant crocodile called Cynthia, and the ghost of a saint. It is very visual stuff, with things that poke your brain and stay there. The final location, the temple, is a lizardman dungeon with 20 keyed areas. Once again, the random encounters offer good interaction/conflict potential – the giant rats are not just there, they are “rooting in the garbage”, and the four different lizardman encounters each have something specific going on (some guiding captives, some fomenting rebellion, and some just absorbed in an impromptu game of dice). The location key here is shorter, less setpiece-like, but the temple as a whole has superb flow, and there are many different ways things can go once the players get inside. Even throwaway places have details like the obligatory barracks room using once priceless tapestries as blankets, an organ room with “a curiously intelligent magpie”, or a barricaded room with a sign reading “BATS DO NOT ENTER” (with an invitation like that, who can resist?). It goes quite far with small, “inexpensive” details, and stays original throughout.

She Who is a Fortress in Dark Water is free, pedestrian in layout, and unapologetically homemade in its art and cartography. It is, I believe, just about right for a small one- or two-session adventure. In 16 pages total, you get a good background, adventure hooks, imaginative random encounter tables, new monsters, a wilderness and a dungeon. The writing is tight yet not underdeveloped; it is the sort of text that’s helpful and rich with flavour. Where appropriate, underlining calls attention to important room features. It is clean and effective. (As an anecdotal detail, you can also see the original sparse sketch/key it has developed from on the author’s blog, and make a comparison between raw notes and finished product.)

Overall, there is simply a good vibe and a sort of balance to this adventure. It is whimsical, fairy-taleish D&D with a strong element of grotesque. This is what module writing should be about. It could be an odd detour in a regular campaign, or a more permanent fixture in something like Dolmenwood. I can wholeheartedly recommend it, and hope there will be more in due time.

This publication does not credit its playtesters (it was apparently playtested at GaryCon).

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

2 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for the kind review! I am a huge fan of your work—I use the Nocturnal Table pretty much every chance I get!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! Looking forward to what you may write in the future!

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