By Thilo Graf
The revised edition of „The Dark Totem“ clocks in at 37 pages (more than double the content we got before), with 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 33 pages of content, so let’s check this out!
From the Get-go, if the page-count was not clue enough, we realize that this has not that much to do with its first iteration – designed for the Awesfur setting, the module should nevertheless make for an easy plug and play module into just about any campaign. To help the DM with the respective fluff, we are first introduced to the basics of the the setting – essentially, the backdrop of this module, the city of Varatolo, is located in the Wyldelands, a kind of river kingdomesque collection of fiefdoms and small kingsoms, with dangers lurking everywhere. Varatolo as a town stands out due to housing a rather famous Wizard Academy and is also governed by the academy’s prime wizard – a meritocratic magocracy, if you will. (If you’re scavenging as much in the world of 3pps, why not make the town a colony of Headless Hydra Games’ Mor Aldenn?) In contrast to its first iteration, we thus are introduced in broad strokes to the city’s districts (have I mentioned the full city statblock?) and fluff and to the Blind Basilisk – the tavern that will be a home away from home for your player characters. Named for Bessie, the tame, blind pet basilisk that is the tavern’s mascot, the tavern itself now comes to life, with the triangle of the half-orc proprietor/bar-tender, the dwarven morning maid and the beautiful waitress offering three interesting short write-ups. Not content with just providing a fluffy backdrop, we also get a FULL MENU for the tavern (!!!!) as well as a new piece of local color: As a drunken game, there is Gnome Toss and it’s exactly what you’d think it is – local gnomes let themselves be thrown by others as a kind of competitive sport and yes, betting is going on! Very cool, indeed, especially since we get crunchy rules for this nice tavern game.
Speaking of gnome toss – the adventure kicks off in gnome toss-night, when a distraught farmer interrupts the hijinxs – his son, inexplicably fascinated with a ruined chantry, has gone missing and he needs someone to enter the notorious place and rescue his boy. Once a bastion of the good faith of Galayne, this keep houses a totem, in which a dread demonic entity lingers, watching and waiting – it once almost succeeded in going free, when it tempted a twisted man called Caleb Sutter to murder the clergy after posing as a man in need. Ever since then, its vile siren-call sought to enthrall those nearby, but the overnight haunting has left it isolated – until a boy with a spark of evil in his soul answered the call…
10 miles from town, the keep awaits the PC’s exploration and OH BOY. The outside of the keep is now studded with collapsed ankheg-tunnels, lending a sense of desolation to the keep and when in a small shack outside the PCs may find the remains of a bum tortured to death (again, with skill-check DCs to determine more information), it should become apparent that they are in for a dangerous endeavor. The keep now also features a full-color map and exploring the decayed keep with its evidence of violence and all the details and pieces of information (even the privy yields hints!) is interesting and can actually be quite tense. Caleb, now turned undead ghouls rogue with his small pack stalks the halls and while he may show up in his room, he and his mates react dynamically to e.g. PCs trying to operate the keep’s now ruined pumping system, making the encounters stand out as much more dynamic and believable, but they are not the only threats to be found in this place – a hobgoblin priest of the god of tyrants (also, like Galayne, featured as a brief write-up) acts an agent for a force far worse and while neither he, nor the bugbear brothers that also lair in the place have managed to breach the vault that contains the totem until the PCs enter, they do guard a pit in which little Kristof can be found. Inside the safe, the dread totem prison waits and will feature in the modules to come. Have I by the way mentioned the extremely cool haunt that can be found in the keep’s smithy?
Beyond that, we get the cleric’s spell-selection relevant for battle in the appendix, making the skipping of books unnecessary as well as a cool handout, excerpts from Caleb Sutter’s increasingly maddening diary – VERY cool! Even better, we get 5 pages of blown-up maps for use with miniatures, in full color, that cover each of the combats in the module. Again, two thumbs up!
Editing and formatting are very good, I didn’t notice any significant glitches. Layout deserves special mentioning – whereas the first iteration of this module suffered from the worst layout I’ve ever seen, it actually now is rather pretty and functional – a brownish background, red headers etc. make this easy to read, with relevant skill-checks in bold print, an easy-to-read font and both village statblocks, haunts and stats coming in the required format. The pdf is also bookmarked for your convenience and comes in two versions – the second one being background-less and easier to print out. The maps, while not stellar, cover the locale in full color and the blown-up versions are a great bonus indeed – in any way vastly superior to the first iteration of maps. If I had to complain about one thing, it would be that there’s no number-less version of the overview map and as a second, lesser gripe that the pdfs are rather big – clocking in at approximately 50 mb each. But these both are minor concerns.
WOW. You rarely see me non-plussed anymore these days. In a way similar to the first offerings of Adventureaweek.com and TPK Games, Rocks Fall Games has improved, but honestly, I wouldn’t have deemed it possible to see them improve THIS MUCH, for, to be honest, in contrast to AaW and TPK Games, they at first had NOTHING going for them. There literally was NOTHING I would have considered good about their first offerings.
Whereas the original version of this adventure was inept and amateurish, abysmally bad even, this revision of the module can be accused as neither of these. Learning from their mistakes at a staggering pace, the crew from Rocks Fall Games has: 1. Revised layout so it doesn’t suck anymore. 2. Added bookmarks, serviceable maps and a printer-friendly version. 3. Expanded the content. And it is here the pdf shines. Whereas in the first version, the module was generic and static, it now feels organic, alive, sports a level of detail almost on par with Raging Swan Press-offerings, a hand-out even. Where in the original, the adversaries were generic, name-less blocks of numbers, they now come alive, the chantry keep breathing its own brand of decaying splendor and tragedies long past. While here and there, especially in the setting-introduction, the writing still falters a bit, overall it has improved to a point where I almost felt it hard to believe that the same persons are responsible for the module. Comparing both versions back to back, I almost got whiplash, so pronounced is the jump in quality.
Now don’t get me wrong, the structure of the module, its narrative may not be reinventing the wheel – but it doesn’t have to. With the Blind Basilisk as a cool backdrop, cool pieces of local color and a pronounced attention to detail, all for a VERY fair price of $2.50, this module is a great buy, if perhaps a tad bit on the easy side for level 3 PCs – my group could manage to clear this place at 1st level – but then again my players are insane veterans.
One sentence perhaps describes it best – “From Zero to Hero” – if this is the quality we can from now on expect from Rocks Fall Games, then I’m looking forward to reading their future offerings and I encourage you to give them a chance, for their revised quality standard indeed deserves it. My final verdict for the revised edition of Dark Totem part I will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 due to the low price.
Adventures in Awesfur – The Dark Totem pt.1: The Chantry Keep is available from: