|Vault of the Mad Baron|
by Christian Toft Madsen
Published by CTM Publishing
A hollow Earth with a populated interior is a great setting for adventure stories, and a good way to place even stranger things under your fantasy world. From Verne, Doyle and Obruchev to Burroughs and Lovecraft, as well as the highly underrated weirdo children’s science fantasy series, Sunken Worlds (a.k.a. Spartakus and the Sun Beneath the Sea), it has been occupied by dinosaurs, UFOs, cavemen, nazis, punk pirates, dancing yellow pangolins, and intelligent lizardmen. This module is the second in a three-part series exploring the “Inner World”, two of which have been published so far. Journey to the Inside Out (itself an outstanding module I read but have so far failed to review) was a lost world setting with cavemen lorded over by a technologically advanced alien race, Vault of the Mad Baron is a bustling mediaeval city, and the forthcoming Labyrinth of the Dreaming Machine is going to be post-apocalyptic. The three modules are set in the same place, except separated by millennia (with time travel possibly linking them). For instance, the main dungeon of the first module is revisited here in a way that leaves most of the physical space intact, while showing how the place has been affected by the passage of time and repurposed by its new inhabitants.
Vault of the Mad Baron has a more conventional setting than Journey to the Inside Out, being set in Bergfried, a Late Mediaeval / Early Modern port city ruled by a hereditary monarchy founded by Northman conquerors, as well as a monotheistic church, the nobility, the guilds, and a rising criminal underclass. The pulp elements of Journey are still present, but fairly well hidden underneath the thick layers of a normal fantastic mediaeval society that reacts to these elements – a mysterious plague caused by messing with things that ought to have been left buried – in a fairly realistic way a fantastic mediaeval society would. Corruption, intrigue, the lust for power and revenge come to the fore as the plague spreads and things start falling apart, heading towards some sort of resolution between Bergfried’s competing factions.
This is the module’s basic premise: it presents a complex, interconnected sandbox setting in a large city with an eye towards realism, then throws curveballs when the characters start to dig deeper and events in the city escalate. It is sort of a low-magic and relatively low-level sort of D&D; light on monsters and treasure (perhaps a bit too low, especially on the latter), and high on realpolitik and competing factions. You could easily run it without the hollow earth premise if you wanted. The module notes it “contains topics which may be unpleasant to embrace in a fun pastime activity such as colonial aspects, abuse, murder, drug substances, poverty, diseases”, which is a bit like saying a candy jar contains candy, or a fantasy story features swords. Luckily, the module delivers on the good stuff in spades, without it being either preachy or puerile.
|Vault of the Good Layout|
This efficiency is a necessity. As sandbox settings go, this one is heavily interconnected. The keywords are complexity, complexity, and more complexity. Everything relates to something, leads to something else, or is in conflict with a third thing. There are many moving parts, but the book does an admirable job of keeping them within the GM’s reach. There are occasional hiccups with table coding: is that Table BG, Table EG, or Table G1? It is not always completely straightforward to find where they are, and let me tell you, there are a lot of tables – it is hard to find a page spread without one, or five. However, this is the worst thing I can say about the module’s presentation. It is mostly just very solidly made.
|Vault of the Shady Factions|
In addition to the detailed static setting, a dynamic element is introduced through a simple but useful progression chart handling the advancement of NPC agendas – all based on how things get resolved through faction intrigue and player agency. Bergfried is a powder keg ready to blow, and there are serious opportunities for tipping the balance – with an element of moral dilemma. The city’s mighty and powerful all have something to hide, and are all eager not to have the skeletons in their closets disturbed. And disturb them you can: the headquarters of these organisations are written up as mini-dungeons (usually with about 30 locations each) ripe for stealthy and determined infiltrators. The cloak-and-dagger aspect is well done in both the physical and intangible sense, even if the room descriptions are mostly one- or two-line notes. As one-page dungeons go, they are the better sort.
|Vault of the Vault|
The Bergfried Dungeons form the module’s centrepiece. The two levels (three if we count the castle above them) are more detailed than the preceding city sites, using bullet point-based presentation with terse, matter-of-fact descriptions. The room entries are nothing to write home about – they serve their purpose, but you will not find entries that make you go “Wow, I should have thought about this one.” It is more of a low-key and realistic affair of prisons, workshops, guard rooms, cultist/bandit lairs and abandoned sections, without much in the way of “specials”. Realism takes precedence over whimsy. However, the dungeon system is ultimately saved by its interconnected nature, and even its size. This is an appropriately large place to explore, containing enough mysteries and dark secrets to uncover – all of which links back to things going on in the city. As a nice touch that will be mostly lost on those who do not have Journey to the Inside Out (an error you should redress when you can), the upper dungeon level is identical to the one in the previous module, and contains several callbacks to Bergfried’s prehistory. While the upper level is largely abandoned with the occasional guard outpost and NPC/monster lair, the challenge of the lower level involves four distinct areas, two of which are occupied and run in a systematic fashion by the Baron’s men, with guard schedules, checkpoints, and defensive systems. We also find the module’s weirdest things crammed in here, deep beneath the surface – and there is a large contrast indeed. It makes for a pleasant sense of discovery if the players come this far.
In summary, Vault of the Mad Baron is an exemplary adventure in both content and presentation. It lies slightly outside the standard D&D paradigm – it is a more-or-less realistic, low-magic Late Mediaeval setting with an underlying element of science fantasy, focused on a combination of cloak-and-dagger intrigue and dungeon infiltration instead of reckless adventuring. It lowballs its treasure values (something I am also guilty of, although not to this extent), so not that much character advancement will take place here, but that can be altered if you wish, and the NPCs largely play by the same rules. The tone is serious and tends towards the darker side; shades of grey and hard decisions all around. If you are looking for something after you are done with Hole in the Oak, this may not be the perfect sequel. You could say it is a bit like a LotFP adventure not written by edgy children. This is a module which inhabits its niche effortlessly: if you are interested in the premise, you will be happy with what you are getting. It is a large-scale, high-effort scenario that does “everything”, and does it very well. It comes with GM and player maps for VTT use. Oddly enough, there is even a trailer.
This module credits its playtesters, and that is, also, as it should be.
Rating: ***** / *****