By Thilo Graf
This adventure is 65 pages long, 2 pages front cover/editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 61 pages of content, so let’s check this out!
This being an adventure-review, the following text contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All right! It all starts with a missing rabbit. No, seriously. When the rather difficult daughter of a retired adventurer turned innkeeper misses her rabbit, he asks the PCs to investigate and, providing the distracting child can be persuaded to let the PCs snoop through her things (her interference actually makes the job harder – VERY cool!), they will find that a bauble has gone missing alongside the pet. The trail leads the PCs to a warehouse and it is here I’d like to mention one peculiarity of this module: The maps. While not particularly awesome, the fact that just about every major location is detailed not only in the module, but also as a separate jpg that makes for a nice player-friendly hand-out is a big factor on the plus-side. What about the warehouse? Well, turns out the culprit is one nasty druid named Alydon, who sent his snake companion to retrieve the bauble – the animal just couldn’t let the fluffy food just be! Alydon and his thugs are currently trying to “persuade” a local captain to get them to a certain island. It should be noted that we get a buff-suite and rather extensive tactics for Alydon, adding to the massive skill-DC-tables that help in the beginning investigation.
In the aftermath of the quarrel, the PCs will find yet another of the strange baubles – as well as a treasure map that also features a rhyme that will help the PCs decipher what to do – both again replicated as a jpg-hand-out. But how to reach a remote island at this level? Thankfully, they have just rescued a captain and thus, the PCs can board the Astrid to get to the island of Snakero. The tropical island was once a playing ground of Geryon, who led the local kobold tribes in a vast game to almost exterminate themselves while squabbling over the baubles called Hydra Eyes, 2 of which now are in the PC’s possession.
The sea-journey aboard the Astrid, a vessel with 4 (!!!) full color maps (again, with player-friendly versions) is AWESOME. From the mutated rats, chances to deal with diseases, minor lightning elementals accompanying a storm to bad dreams, the journey should be remarkable and would make a great way to e.g. enhance adventures à la “Journeys to the West” even if you don’t plan on running the module.
After 7 days, the Astrid reaches the island and the captain tells the PCs he’ll return twice for them at specific dates – after that, he’ll assume they’re dead. The island of Snakero is a great case of nomen est omen and offers a variety of dangerous serpentine life as well as a great, concise table of travel speeds that provides a godsend, easy help for the Dm to track movement and time. GLORIOUS and something I wish all modules with any amount of wilderness featured. Wandering monster tables, skills it takes to scavenge food and water would be expected – where the module starts breathing this magical sense of wonder, all too often absent from modern modules, is with the allies – from a lucky pelican that actually will provide quite a boon (great synergy with real life mythology) and a monkey (who may or may not give his life to prevent a particularly nasty ambush) to a well-endowed, but not particularly bright mermaid, the PCs will have some nice means of…ehem…interacting with the locals. Especially cool – not all of these interactions are required; there is no catch unless you absolutely want there to be one. This breaks the “everything is connected”-assumption and makes the module feels more…alive. Speaking of alive – the degenerate descendants of the kobold tribes of once still inhabit the island and the tactics of them are WORTHY! They fight dirty and smart – and oh so glorious. Poison-darts, cower below the water surface while breathing through reeds, summoned beasts, deadly ambushes – the environmentally-relevant combat encounters will test not only the mettle of the PCs, but also the brains of the players, which is EXACTLY what so many modules get wrong.
Presentation-wise, the exploration of the island is a sandbox in the truest and best form – the aforementioned encounters should provide for a lot of things to do alongside e.g. dealing with malaria and, of course, the Ordeals: Spread throughout the island, there are temples – one devoted to Geryon’s supremacy over the respective elemental lords and home to an hydra eye each. Every temple again comes with a full-color map that also is featured as a player-friendly map – and yes, e.g. wall hp/hardness are included! The respective shrines will scare the players and manage to evoke a sense of danger as well as explorer’s awe – the PCs may see the stones a medusa has left in the earth shrine before they find her remains the caryatid column guardian, for example. Or take the shrine of air, which is a small volcanic cauldron, only accessible from the main island when the tide is low – worse, the caldera is suffused by sulphuric mists that obscure everything inside and make for great hunting grounds for the giant constrictor snake living there. If your PCs are dumb, they’ll die here. Wait, why? Well, I mentioned tides, didn’t I? Turns out the mists clear depending on the tide and tables make this easy to recall for the DM.
But wait, you’ll say, do I have to track tides? Yes, for this module features 10 pages of tide tracking and food consumption-sheets for all the time the PCs spend on Snakero. Adventure-writers out there: Read this. Look at it. THEN COPY IT. These sheets are the difference between tedious tracking and easily looking it up and will feature in ALL my future island/coastal explorations. Better, they are not simply a backdrop/relevant for this one shrine, the tides also greatly influence the type of challenge the PCs will find in the shrine of water – as that one floods completely at high tide, but houses dangerous animals on low tide… The fire shrine is also awesome – toxic fume/heat build up, a maze full of hot mud lakes and flammable gas make exploring these caverns and the foe inside, an advanced thoqqua so rewarding I consider it one of my very favorite locations in ANY first level module I’ve read for any iteration of a d20-based game. Yes. That good.
As soon as the PCs have picked up the different eyes, they’ll have the tools to access the temple of Geryon, which is a stone 1 to 10-Hydra in the island’s central lake – yes, it rises from the water, NOT an island. In order to open the door, the PCs will have to scale the stone hydra-heads rising from the waves and set the eyes into the stone irises of the hydra-heads. As the 200 ton stone door slides open, the PCs may get inside the temple and face its guardian – a variant hydra that fights rather democratically and not to maximum efficiency, but which should still make for a massive challenge for the PCs. Worse yet for them – upon defeating the beast, the door will crush down in one round, the eyes will pop from the sockets and the PCs will be sealed inside. Now escaping via a variety of means is covered – from toppling Geryon’s statue and climbing out and various other means, the PCs will have some options…if one of them managed to get outside, he might even manage to find the eyeballs and set them back in – which, however, will trash the temple for good, for a suitably climactic finale. To once again show you the amount of details crammed into these pages: It is mentioned how many rations of meat the Hydra yields… Hopefully the PCs don’t succumb to the predators of the island while waiting for their trip home – now that they have wrestled the Horn of Geryon (by the way: Not the true horn, of course, but valuable nonetheless!) from the serpentine hell-hole of Snakero…
All spells used by spellcasters in the module have been reprinted in an appendix, as have been fluff-only descriptions of all monsters/adversaries included. A glossary of rules-terms, feats etc. provides even the most inexperienced of DMs with rules-information for just about any particular tactical option without requiring the DM to consult additional books and beyond the GENIUS tide/food-tracking sheets. The 12 pieces of artwork in the module have been reproduced in their own appendix to print out and show to your players, making for yet another great way to make “Horn of Geryon” more rewarding.
Editing and formatting re top-notch, I didn’t notice any glitches. Layout adheres to a crisp, easy-to read, superbly organized standard that makes running the module with an absolute minimum of preparation time not only feasible, but rather easy. The concise table of challenges and rewards also makes customizing the module rather simple with regards to reward/challenge-levels. The pdf is fully bookmarked and the pdf comes in two versions – one optimized to be printed out in a4-format and one optimized for letterpack (US)-paper standards, meaning that Europeans like yours truly get a printed out format that is nicely suited to our paper-size. The pdf comes with extensive, nested bookmarks, 10 jpg-player-handout maps, additional 2 player handouts (which are slightly lacking in the resolution department and could be a bit more crisp) and is VERY easy to run overall.
There are not enough wilderness adventures out there. In spite of their popularity, when compared to dungeons and urban modules, wilderness modules often get the short end of the stick – which is a pity, for when I think about 2nd edition and old-school gaming, the environment, the epic journeys through locations like the Desert of Desolation or the jungles of Maztica are what made a LOT of the glorious sense of wonder associated in retrospective with old-school modules. This module captures that sense of excitement, that sense of wonder, danger and challenge that made me get into roleplaying games in the first place. Suffused with subtle humor, details galore, puzzles that don’t feel artificial or might not be even seen as puzzles and studded with just about every comfort a DM could want, this module offers a window back into this peculiar way of crafting modules, one that evokes the sense of wonder associated with e.g. the first tomb raider game or aforementioned classics. Going even beyond that, its mastery in both writing and mood-crafting surpasses just about every module in the Dungeon Crawl Classics 3.X-line and is on par and perhaps even beyond Frog God Games. Yes. That good.
Author Richard Develyn has managed to meld superb ease of mastering with stellar writing in a grand voyage to the heyday of wonder, excitement and danger – survival, tides and the best environmental encounters I’ve read in any PFRPG-module make this a challenge that raises the bar for any wilderness module out there. Yes, the story is not that awe-inspiring, but it doesn’t have to be. If I were to complain about one thing, it would be the relatively low-res handouts jpgs, but then again, this pdf also comes at a price-point that is almost insane for this level of quality.
Want to really know how good this is? It’s so good that I consider it on par with Raging Swan Press’ Retribution, my all-time favorite PFRPG 1st level module. Where Retribution is story-driven, the Horn of Geryon exhibits a mastery of the genre of wilderness modules that has me craving more. “The Firemaker” was good – the “Horn of Geryon” is a whole different beast. Any DM of Freeport, Razor Coast, Skull and Shackles (and perhaps Serpent Skull) – GET THIS. And other DMs – get this as well. If you even remotely have a soft spot for a sense of wonder, for having your preparation time minimized (who doesn’t?) and for those of you who like humanoids that act INTELLIGENT, shell out the extremely fair 4 bucks. This module is iconic in all the right ways: Smart, witty, clever, easy to run, challenging, deadly, unique – in one word: Glorious.
If I could, I’d immediately, without hesitation, rank this 6 stars. We need more wilderness modules of this quality, more of this wonder, of this excitement, of this design philosophy. If you even remotely like Frog God Games modules, old-school-style or if you’re remotely curious what all those grognards are talking about when they complain about a lacking sense of wonder in those new modules, then this is an absolute must-buy.
And yes, if 2013 does not spoil me completely with mind-bogglingly good releases, this one will feature on my Top-Ten-list. It is not often I get to enjoy a module as much as I did this one. Far more scarce is the module I feel the NEED to run in my campaign. This one, I’ll run come hell or high water (pardon the pun!). Adventure-writers, take a peek. This is how it’s done. Final rating? 5 stars and seal of approval and the status of sharing the throne of my favorite PFRPG-1st-level module. Here’s to hoping we’ll get more wilderness modules from 4 Dollar Dungeons.
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