If you’ve read my original review of the Earthdawn Second Edition GM Screen (and if you haven’t, go read it now), you will remember that I wanted to do a full playtest of the adventure, but a side-tracked party made it more or less unfeasible at the time.
Well, a couple months later, I managed to work the storyline back in, and the player characters set out on the trail of the false map supplied to them by the bandits. The group at this stage consisted of the following adepts, all second circle.
- Gir, a Windling Beastmaster (and her animal companion, Perrn)
- Kira, a Windling Thief
- Thrak, a Troll Warrior
- Rezak, a Troll Archer
There were also a handful of first-circle NPC “rookies” who were along for the trip (they had another copy of the map, and it was their excited “oohs” and “aahs” that got the player characters back into this storyline). They were looking to the more experienced characters for leadership and guidance, in awe of the stories of their recent adventures. (“You’ve been to Parlainth? Cool! The Blood Wood? Wow!”)
Anyway, even knowing that it was a trap, the PCs walked right into it. At this stage, I was perfectly willing to let LRG’s scripted adventure go out the window, because there were a lot of things that had happened that their suggestions and guidelines didn’t call for. Fortunately, I didn’t need to improvise too much.
First observation: When you’ve walked into an ambush from a score of bandits armed with bows, raining pointed death down on you from above, take cover! One of the PCs (Rezak) tried to escape up the box canyon (rather than into the shelter of the kaer) and was pretty quickly cut down by a hail of arrows. Scratch one PC. Fortunately, with the stable of NPCs that were along for the ride, the player picked up one of them without fuss.
Amazingly enough, I found it easy to trap the PCs (and their NPC cohorts) inside the kaer — one plot point I had some concerns about. When everybody was inside the kaer, Thrak slammed the doors to keep the bandits out. A few moments, there was the distinctive sound of the chain and lock being replaced on the outside (since the Thief had picked the lock, instead of breaking it).
Exploring the kaer and uncovering the secret exit, on the other hand, was a bit more difficult. The key information is contained in a series of murals in one of the kaer’s chambers. All of the PCs failed the Perception test to learn the relevant details from the murals. Even if they had, none of them spoke Sperethiel (the elf tongue, which the murals were inscribed with), and none of them had the ability to learn it using the Read/Write Language talent.
Fortunately, one of the NPCs I had along with them was an Elf Illusionist, who not only knew Sperethiel, but also made the Perception check to decipher the murals — she described them to the group.
Then, when they found the throne room in the kaer (where the secret exit was), I discovered that there were not enough clues in the mural to unlock to secret passage — the players deduced pretty easily there was one there, but didn’t know how to open it. While the key phrase for the door was in the mural, there was nothing in particular to draw attention to it. I added (after the fact) the phrase again, this time on the final mural. The repetition of the phrase was the clincher, and the door was unlocked.
Now, it is possible that because of the timing of this tweak, its importance became glaringly obvious (in fact, I pretty much told my players as much when I revealed it). However, I think that if this feature is added at the appropriate place, it provides enough information for players to solve the puzzle without resorting to major GM manipulation.
The fight with the undead guardian of the passage was tough, but not insurmountable. No real problems there — when you have three or four heavy combat types on one opponent, they tend to go down relatively easily. I am a trifle concerned that the numbers on him are a bit high for the recommended circles (which are first through third). He has two attacks per round at Step 12 — higher than any of the PC defense ratings (except for the Windling Thief), and his damage step of 15 on each attack is rough, even with the heavier armor the Troll Warrior was wearing.
Add on to that both Physical and Spell Defense ratings of 12 and both Physical and Mystic Armor ratings of 10… it seems pretty clear to me that smaller groups, or those at the lower power-end of the suggested scale will probably have a hard time with this fight. And if the PCs somehow manage to wound this undead guardian (which my group didn’t do), he gets even tougher, getting another three attacks per round for a total of five.
The potential for a serious party wipe out is high.
With the guardian defeated, the PCs were free to escape the kaer. They actually spent another whole day cooped up inside, healing their damage from the ambush and fight with the guardian. No problem — they had enough food supplies to last them a while. When they were healed, they emerged from the kaer, found the trail of the bandits, and followed them back to their camp.
In the text of the adventure (assuming you follow the story details there), one of the bandits actually gets trapped in the kaer with the PCs. Assuming they don’t kill him, he will gladly give details of the bandit camp in exchange for his life and freedom. This is a nice role-playing opportunity, and may present a bit of a moral dilemma for PCs — can they trust this individual who, not moments before, was pouring burning oil down on their heads? If he sells out his friends so easily, won’t he betray the PCs at the earliest opportunity?
Because of what happened at the ambush, the bandit was not trapped in the kaer with them. Regardless, the trail back to the bandit camp is easy to find (even if you don’t have a Beastmaster with the Tracking talent). A Windling Thief makes for a great scout, and it was easy for them to learn the layout of the camp, who was there, and plan their attack.
The adventure gives information about the camp schedule, when the bandits are awake, how many are on guard, that sort of thing. It was nice to have, and comes in handy in this last stage.
The Thief snuck into the bandit leader’s tent, stole his bow, and the assault began.
Here is probably my biggest complaint about the adventure based on my playtest. There are two adepts in the bandit gang — the leader (who is a Circle 4 Elf Archer), and his Lieutenant (a Circle 3 Troll Warrior). They are not given full stat write-ups, with all of their talents listed. All they have is the shorter creature-style stat block, and much of the information given there is just plain wrong.
For instance, the Warrior has a Strength Step of 9 (which is high, but possible for a Troll). His knockdown step is given as 6 — which is odd, considering that knockdown is based on Strength. He’s also given an Initiative Step of 10, despite a Dexterity Step of 6 and armor that should reduce his Initiative even further (his base Initiative should be 5, based on what’s described). Sure, a Third Circle Warrior can use talents to boost his Initiative from 5 to 10, but to do so causes strain each round… which there is no indication of.
Plus, he’s given a Physical Defense of 11, which is three higher than what his Dexterity would indicate is his likely base. Again, there is a talent that could boost this to 11, but it also causes strain, and the bonus only applies after the talent is used for the round. If he’s using it every round, then his attack step is higher than it should be, based on the numbers present.
There are a bunch of little things like this that upon examination, just seem wrong. The mundane bandits, for instance, seem to have both Missile and Melee Weapon skills at rank 7! The Archer bandit leader is pretty much correct (though he seems to have Missile and Melee Weapons at rank 7 as well). Once again, though, no mention is made of available talents, and whether they cause strain, or require karma. (Come to think of it, there is no mention of karma for either of the adepts involved!)
In short, the stats provided (for the two adepts at least, and probably the mundane bandits as well) are wrong or misleading, indicating enemies that are a lot more skilled than some of their numbers indicate. Not only that, if you’re going to have adepts as the featured villain, you should probably have full NPC write-ups, with available talents, skills, and so forth. These numbers can be figured out by a GM using the rulebook, but they really shouldn’t have to — you may as well create the NPC from scratch yourself. What’s the point of using a pre-written adventure if you have to do almost as much work as you otherwise would?
The PCs won the day, though one of the rookie NPCs was killed by the bandit he was facing.
My initial impressions of this adventure were more or less on target. Some points that I thought would be tough to implement turned out not to be, but the other problems I uncovered in the course of running this adventure more than made up for them (and that isn’t a good thing). If you’re going to use this adventure, do your prep work, use the basic plot outline, and make sure you stat up the NPCs beforehand. Trying to do it on the fly is rough — even for an experienced GM.
Based on the numbers tossed around here, even a full-size group of first circle characters (the adventure text says it was designed for four to eight PCs) is likely to get beaten bloody — and may lose a character (or five). Higher circle characters will have an easier time of it, but I would think it’s likely to still be tough. I recommend that you adjust the numbers downward (especially attack steps) to better suit the capability of the PC group.
But I can’t really recommend this adventure, except as a starting point for a story of your own devising. It’s certainly not good enough as-is to run straight. Take the flaws of this adventure along with the flaws I mentioned in my initial review, and the Substance: 1 is well deserved.