Originally written March 2002
Atlas Games is known for publishing high quality games, including Ars Magica, Unknown Armies, and Over the Edge. Like many established companies in the wake of D&D3 and the Open Gaming License, Atlas has established a line of d20 products — called Penumbra.
I was impressed by the quality and originality displayed in Touched by the Gods, a sourcebook dealing with unusual clerical sects and cults. So I jumped at the opportunity to see if an adventure from the Penumbra line lived up to Atlas’s usual high standards.
This review has three parts. First I address the physical presentation of the book, including layout, art, and related issues. Then I address the story and ideas in the adventure. Finally I discuss the problems and issues raised as a result of my playtest.
Maiden Voyage is a 40 page, three-color booklet with a full color, glossy cardstock cover. It retails for $9.95 — a competitive price in the market for equivalent products.
The cover art is average, showing a pair of adventuring types in the crow’s nest of a ship, with the deck and a few other people visible in the background. The piece has a bright, exciting, adventurous feel. Unfortunately, this tone is at odds with the blurb on the back cover — “Horror on the high seas” — and the tone of the adventure itself (which I will get into shortly).
Two different artists do the interior art. There are five scenes that illustrate different moments in the adventure, and eight portraits that accompany the different NPC write-ups at the end of the adventure. These pieces are consistent in quality, and capture the tone of the adventure more effectively than the cover art.
Also included are two “maps” of the ships that appear in the adventure. Unfortunately, they do little more than provide a general layout of each vessel. There is no scale, or any reference in the text to the ships’ size. This makes staging the two battles a bit awkward — especially the second, climactic battle, which has over twenty combatants involved.
The layout is a clean, two-column style with healthy margins and a nice balance of text to white space. Like many OGL adventures, the “rules” are separated from the text by boxes. In this particular adventure, the boxes have a blue and white wave pattern as a background.
This design is wonderfully thematic, but causes a couple of problems. The text in these boxes is difficult to read against the background. It also renders one of the most useful design features of the adventure — a full page sheet to help run the climactic final battle — almost useless. Attempts to photocopy this page resulted in a dark smear.
The same can be said for the player handouts; six pages of a ship’s log the players uncover during the adventure. The text is printed on a dark, “aged paper” background. It is difficult to read in the adventure; photocopying makes it virtually illegible. It was a good idea; the execution left something to be desired.
These problems aren’t too difficult to get around — I typed up my own copies of the player handouts on my computer, and used scrap paper to set up my own cheat sheet for the final battle. Still, I shouldn’t have to do that in the first place.
All complaints about the layout aside, the adventure itself is a gem. It is heavy on NPC interaction, unsettling in tone, and has a climactic finish that should give players the feeling that they have narrowly avoided a fate worse than death. It is suitable for insertion into any campaign with a sea voyage, and requires minimal work on the part of a GM to adapt to his choice of setting.
Every thirty years, a rare conjunction of the planets heralds the appearance of a ghost ship. Cursed by a malevolent sea god, the undead crew seeks another vessel to take their place. When the ship the player characters are traveling on — the Albers — becomes the target of the ghost ship, what results is a scenario straight out of a horror movie.
The first two days are spent interacting with the various NPC crewmembers of the Albers. The captain, Fenn, is a bit of a harsh taskmaster, respected by much of the crew, but not especially well liked. Many of the crewmembers believe Fenn is tempting fate by bringing his mistress, Selene, on board for the voyage.
The first mate, Huxley, on the other hand, is a popular, charismatic leader. Other crew include Ox, a large, friendly gambler; Wendt, the foul-tempered ship’s cook; Tomas, the nervous navigator who would really rather be anywhere else; and Dert the bright eyed cabin boy.
The biggest wild card is a prisoner being transported for trial. Vincenz is a multiple murderer, an inveterate liar, and a power-hungry sociopath. The player characters (and the crew), of course, don’t know any of this — a fact that Vincenz uses to his fullest advantage, playing off of the fears of anyone who will listen to him as events unfold.
As relationships between the PCs and the crew develop, a pair of ominous events slowly ratchet up the tension. An unexplained eclipse presages a sudden drop in the winds. Fog rolls in (something that shouldn’t happen out on the open sea). Then, on the third day, Captain Fenn is found dead in his cabin.
Huxley takes command, and regains some degree of control over the frightened crew. Then, from out of the fog appears a derelict ship, the Sea Maiden. Her hold is locked from the outside and filled with the bloated bodies of long-dead sailors. The only clue as to the fate of the Sea Maiden is found in the ragged remains of the captain’s log.
At this point, the simmering tension on the Albers erupts. Selene frames Huxley for Captain Fenn’s death, and the crew splits into two camps. Vincenz tries to take advantage of the situation, and the player characters may find themselves trapped in the middle of a mutiny.
At this point, the undead crew of the Sea Maiden attacks. The first round is little more than a rapid strike, but any crew injured (or killed) in the fight fall under the influence of the curse. These crewmen fight their former mates in the final assault, led by the newly undead Captain Fenn. This climactic battle comes complete with a massive whirlpool that leads to the realm of the evil sea god.
Unless the PCs unite the divided crew and fight off the final assault, they may very well find themselves the new undead servants of the curse. Even if they manage to survive the climactic battle, the crew of the Albers may be heavily depleted, and hard-pressed to make it to a safe port.
The plot requires more than a stout sword — effective diplomacy and other social skills are valuable, and groups that lack those skills may have a rough go of it. A deft hand behind the screen helps as well, because the tone and pacing set by the GM can make the difference between a dark adventure and a truly frightening one.
I ran this adventure as a one-shot in a single session that lasted about eight hours. This included an hour or so at the beginning to make up characters. It was a group of second level PCs, using only the core book rules. There was a human monk, a dwarf cleric, a gnome rogue/illusionist, and a half-orc fighter. We played on a Saturday at the local game store.
Early on I realized that the choice of venue wasn’t the best — the traffic and audience in the area detracted from the tension and mood that the adventure really needed. This isn’t a flaw in the adventure itself; I report it as a warning to others who might run the scenario in the future. The choice of play venue can adversely affect the tone you are trying to set with the adventure.
Aside from the distractions, the adventure ran pretty smoothly. The book does a good job of setting down the motivations and choices of the NPCs, and describes what happens if the heroes don’t get involved. I never found myself at a loss for what would happen next.
I did find a couple of things that didn’t seem to be problems in my initial read through, but were raised during the playtest. First of all, while the whole background story is spelled out in the adventure for the GM, there is virtually no opportunity for the PCs to learn many details during the story.
This is both good and bad — the unknown really increases the tension and unease of the players. Unfortunately, at least as far as a one-shot goes, it leaves players scratching their heads over why some events happen. Inserted into an ongoing campaign, it is possible to bring these details to light with later research (or with some foreshadowing — which the adventure does provide in limited quantities).
Second, the pacing at the end of the adventure suffers. There is a wonderful slow build of tension during the first two-thirds of the story. Unfortunately, once the players discover the journal on board the Sea Maiden, much of the tension is lost because the endgame is spelled out too soon. It is better, in my opinion, to spread the information out over a longer period of time, giving a sense of urgency to events as they unfold. I released a page or two at a time as the gnome deciphered portions of the text to try and maintain the tension.
Unfortunately, events happen so quickly at the end of the adventure that pacing the release of information with the next event didn’t work out quite right (at least, in my opinion). This necessitates some forethought on the part of the GM.
The final detail the playtest brought to light is that the climactic battle is tough to manage because of the number of combatants involved (basically the crew of two ships, plus the player characters). Also, the undead attackers outclass nearly everybody, with the exception (of course) of the player characters, and a couple of the “named” crew.
This does, however, play up the threat level and urgency of the final battle — if many of the crew are killed, the PCs may find themselves stranded at sea (not a happy situation for a group to be in).
Maiden Voyage is the first professional adventure by the author, and it shows a great deal of promise. It relies on mood, tension, and social interaction instead of a stream of old school hack-and-slash — always a plus in my book. The adventure is marred by a couple of poor graphic design choices, and it does suffer from a hiccup or two in the final pacing, but it is still a high quality product that can almost be run as-is.
There are a couple of suggestions I would make to anybody who wants to run this adventure. First, make a better map of the Albers for use in the final battle, because it will be a big help. Second, hold back on the release on information — specifically the journal from the derelict. Too much information too early ruins the suspense. Finally, take full advantage of the tension between the NPCs, and use it to drive the scenario. The best horror films spend a lot of time on ordinary people, and how they deal with terrifying circumstances.
I give Maiden Voyage a 3 out of 5 for Style, because while the layout, artwork, and overall presentation are generally good, the poor choices in background colors, and the all-but-useless maps really bothered me. For Substance, it gets a 5 out of 5, because while the adventure does have a minor problem with pacing, the ideas and plot are easily adapted to almost any standard fantasy game. In addition, the emphasis on mood and NPC interaction is a nice change from many of the combat-heavy dungeon crawls that have been churned out to jump on the d20 bandwagon.
The two products I have seen from the Penumbra line so far have impressed me. Atlas Games has, in my opinion, maintained their high standards in RPG product. I recommend this particular adventure, and feel that the line is a boon to the d20 system.