Sunday, August 2, 2020
Sunday, July 26, 2020
I had this adventure in my wish-list for a while after Bryce Lynch recommended it on tenfootpole in 2019. Then, Ben Milton on Questing Beast reminded me it was on my wish-list with his review of it on YouTube, so I bought both the print and PDF versions earlier this month during DriveThruRPG’s Christmas in July sale.
I make numerous references to Ben and Bryce's reviews throughout mine, so you can find them using the links above if you're interested. I won't restate anything they said.
I ran the Bone Marshes as a solo adventure for my partner. So I’m writing this after running it for only one player, though I think the good things (and the problems) I found would still hold true for a group of players.
I have a different version than Ben Milton from Questing Beast did, so I’m guessing there was an update or something between our reviews. Thus, the page numbers I reference in this review come from a different version than Ben’s. I use page numbers from my print copy, not the PDF.
For the sake of thoroughness, this review contains SPOILERS. So if you plan on participating in this adventure as a player, don’t read ahead.
First off, this adventure has a brilliant creative spark. Many elements of this adventure (i.e. the merchant who points at birds, the rotating section of earth, the alien metal silfer) are all absolutely great. This adventure is unique, original, and emblematic of a lot of good things in adventure-writing. I also love the “local” inspiration Schirduan took for the adventure. I think that inspiration really shows in the flavorful descriptions of the Bone Marshes as a region.
I really enjoy the mini-systems the game included for fire-fighting, exploring underwater tunnels, and getting covered in mud. Beyond the unique place/people ideas, Schirduan also includes simple-but-effective mechanics to support players as they interact with the environment. The exploration rules that divide each day into six four-hour periods are excellent.
Schirduan also explores an interesting way to write descriptions of keyed locations. The adventure uses bold text for key features, more details in parentheses, then blocks of text in paragraphs – which isn’t necessarily unique to this adventure, but still good to see. Schirduan’s writing in the descriptions is terse and evocative. I think there’s still room for improvement there; I had to include some information from the paragraph text in my descriptions of the environments, which made the distinction between them feel meaningless. Why set the paragraph text aside if I'm going to have to read it to players, anyway? But that sort of organization and formatting for keyed locations is a lot better than the boxed text you see in other adventures.
Some issues other reviewers raised weren’t present when we played it. The problem Ben mentioned with the art for the Cavern and Mud Pit being awkwardly arranged was fixed in my print copy. And the issue Bryce saw about “where are the fires” is moot because there certainly are enough fires in the random encounters - so many that about half the hexes my player explored became burned. So Bryce mentioned how the fires “may be a play thing,” and I think that’s exactly right. The fires show up when you’re rolling for random encounters.
To close this section, I’d also like to say that Schirduan has excellent taste in music and literature. I totally appreciate the “touchstone” section (especially the reference to the Princess Bride) and I downloaded the songs by Hudson due to the recommendation from this adventure.
|Awesome adventuresome album, and I'm grateful to the Schirduan for the recommendation|
So I’m going to jump in with the most significant problem I found, then describe some other incidental stuff later.
The central conceit of this module is that the marshes are burning. That’s the problem for Azimech (the mage that recruits the PCs), Puddin’ Jack (the bandit that steals people’s water), the Guardian of the Spire, and so on. The marshes are burning, and lots of folks want to put out the fires. Good stuff. All on board.
However, the reason for WHY the marshes are burning confused me to no end.
I think the marshes are burning because the sun is stuck in the sky above the marshes. I think this because the adventure says on page 5, that after the Vault of the marshes flooded, “The vault’s onboard intelligence… attempted emergency meteorological procedures to dry itself. Unfortunately, all this has done is lock the sun in place above the spire.” The adventure makes several other references to the “constant daylight,” the “never-setting sun,” and trying to restore the “normal day-night cycle.”
And I'll admit - that's a bit outlandish for me, but I could work with it. I generally prefer more "low-key" problems for players to solve, but for the sake of a good hex crawl I can suck it up and have them save the sun.
However, the reason I say I think the sun is stuck in the sky, rather than I know the sun is stuck in the sky, is because the adventure later directly contradicts this idea. On pg. 13, describing how Azimech got involved with the marshes, the adventure says “she tried to sleep on the problem… but night never came. The sun set and rose as it always has (emphasis added), but the sky never grew any darker.”
What!? How can the sun “set and rise as it always has” AND be “locked in place above the spire?”
This isn’t the only place where the idea of the sun being frozen in the sky is undermined. When talking about sleeping the marshes, the book is “business as usual.” There’s no mention of how the sun keeps night from falling for the players. In fact, on page 7, the adventure says that the PCs have to burn a torch at night “to keep the bugs and darkness at bay” (emphasis added).
So after making it hardly a dozen pages into reading, I’m finding myself questioning what I read – having to go back, re-read, double-check, and cross-reference just to ensure I’m understanding the core conflict of the module correctly.
It doesn't help that the description on DriveThruRPG makes it sound like the source of the fires is some mystery the players must solve. All you would have to do is look at the sky and see the sun stuck there, right?
|From DriveThruRPG: "The marshes are burning, and we don't know why!"|
There’s also the fact that Azimech and all the other swamp NPCs seem to be most concerned about the fires in the swamp. So apparently, the biggest problem with the earth’s rotation stopping (or the orbit of the sun, if your game is in a geocentric universe) is the fires in this swamp… ?
Forget all the problems for the natural rhythms of wildlife, the effects on global weather and climate, or the inability to measure time in a pre-clock society. According to this adventure, the fires in this marsh are really the only problem that emerges from the sun stopping in the sky.
It's implausible (even for a fantasy game) that, were the sun to freeze in the sky, 1. A batty mage and some random adventurers would be the only ones to respond to it, and 2. In her flyer to recruit adventurers to the marsh, the mage doesn’t even mention the sun being stuck in the sky! She’s not even that concerned about it! Apparently, the day/night cycle stopping forever would be totally fine - if only it weren’t for these marshes in the middle of nowhere catching on fire!
|In her flyer, Azimech says "we don't know how the fires started." It seems like the sun being stuck in the sky would be a pretty obvious reason?|
It's one thing to write fiction that's a bit fanciful... but this defies suspension of disbelief.
This problem led me to try and rewrite parts of the module to have it make more sense. Which I don’t like doing. I buy adventure modules to save me prep time as a referee – not to assign me editorial work. If I hadn’t spent the money to buy a print copy, I probably wouldn’t have bothered – but because I had the “sunk cost,” I wanted to somehow make use of the adventure.
The issue about the sun isn’t the only contradiction in the module. The Swurmps are described as being “mute, semi-sentient humanoids” on page 18. According to the adventure, the Swurmps cannot speak, instead communicating with “simple images and emotions telepathically.”
Yet Puddin’ Jack (a swurmp), the King Swurmp, AND the Queen Swurmp are all described in their entries as having normal dialogue as they interact with the players. The text even gives you explicit lines for them to say. How is Puddin’ Jack supposed to communicate, “Welcome to the future of the Marshes! Give me a reason why I shouldn’t drain your water?” (on pg. 36) when he’s a mute creature?
Those contradictions aside, I couldn’t find a key telling you which terrain is which on the hex map (ex. which colors are forest, wetlands, pluffs, brambles). After re-watching Ben Milton’s review, I saw that Ben’s print copy actually had this, because the region descriptions were all on separate pages – but mine doesn’t have that explanation. I’m guessing an update or revision shuffled things around, and these labels got lost in the mix?
CONCLUSIONS, ADVICE, & FORWARD-THINKING THOUGHTS
Bryce Lynch gave a glowing review at tenfootpole (which is quoted in the adventure’s description on DriveThruRPG), even putting this in the category of “the Best.” So I’m wondering if perhaps I’m misreading the module? Maybe I'm being overly critical? Or maybe Ben & Bryce, being professional reviewers, just read the module and didn’t try running it for players.
But the issues I found made running the module a lot harder than it had to be, and they caught me off-guard because I tried to do my due diligence beforehand. I felt like I was reading & playing a rough draft, not a finished product. It'd be one thing if the inconsistencies and contradictions were ancillary to the module, but they have to do with its core premise & the problem the players are trying to solve. So it's a problem with the roots of the plot, not the branches or trunk. Though ultimately I don’t think I regret buying this module since it was on sale and I didn’t pay full price.
RATING: ⭐️⭐️⭐️/5 Stars (Recommended with reservations)
In case you do run this, there's a really cool roll-table that generates bandits that was left out of my copy. You can find it in the online handouts here. The table for travelling through the underwater tunnels is also much better in that PDF, as it has color that separates when the tunnels are wet or dry. I wouldn't have known about these handouts if I hadn't read the discussion page of this module looking for someone else talking about the issues I saw.
I'd also recommend changing the adventure's instructions to roll 2d6 for a random encounter with each hex the players enter. Four random encounters per day (plus the chance of another one at night, if the players don't keep watch) got old quickly. It's an easy fix, though. Labyrinth Lord says the chance of an encounter in swamps is 50%, checked 3-4 times per day. So instead of a definite encounter with each new hex, say there's a 50% chance of encounter with each new hex and another 50% chance if the players don't keep watch. Done and done.
In summary, I’d recommend this adventure if:
1. You like the Knave system and want to use this game’s version of it (or something VERY similar). I wouldn't recommend running this with Pathfinder or 5e
2. You want to run this mini-hex crawl as a few separate one-shots or as a mini-campaign separate from anything else. It compatibility with the Knave rules and the potentially world-destroying nature of its central conflict (ex. the sun stopping in the sky) makes this thing hard to “drop in” to an existing game
3. You don’t mind filling in the gaps of a published product. This thing will take some work to prep, run, fix, and generally figure out