This scenario is 36 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial,1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a total of 31 pages of content -not bad for the low price point!
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS and indeed, more so than usually, I’d urge any player to NOT READ AHEAD. Much of this module’s appeal is due to its mysteries and by reading on, you’ll deprive yourself of the basic tenets o the module.
Still here? LAST WARNING
Okay, “You awaken in pure Darkness.” These words are what the PCs first hear from the DM and it gets mysterious – they get pregens (5 are provided) that lack physical attributes in their sheets. The DM takes one of 24 cards of these attributes and hands them to the player, to fill in their sheets with the missing information. Now every time they die, they return “Awaken in pure darkness” and gain new attribute-cards. Oh, and they all suffer from amnesia and have no idea who they are or how they got here. Much like Monte Cook’s classic “In Medias Res”-adventure, finding a way out of the strange surroundings and understanding who they are is part of the module’s appeal, for the PCs will be haunted by disjointed snippets of memories, flashes of insight that increase the sense of estrangement and possibly distrust. The snippets come at specific times or on 1s and 20s on d20-rolls, while the vignettes, larger chunks of memory, are rewards for besting mayor challenges along the way. Awakening inside a coffin and bursting free, the PCs are in a room with a total of 24 different coffins (their “pool” of bodies to succeed in the adventure, but they don’t know that yet) and can read strange kanjis – womb, tomb, the shogunate’s symbol, darkness…but what do they mean? Opening a coffin results in one of the reserve bodies being inhabited by an elemental spirit, raising the corpse as a soulless killer AND reducing the number of bodies available for the PCs – but, as mentioned, they don’t know that yet…
After the PCs have escaped from this strange first room, they’ll be haunted by the first undead samurai that inhabits these halls and indeed, haunts and traps seem to stud these darkened halls, making the danger here evident – even before finding out that a rather disturbing array of Gaki-no-kage spawn calls this place home. On the upper side, the PCs may find suitable weapons and armour, including thankfully magical protections – though they may pose dangers of their own.
The second level of the dungeon is rather cool in that is vertical and has the PCs navigate shafts upward – haunted shafts with flaming corpse-haunts, grease spells and stirges as well as kumo-gaki. In order to allow the CPs egress from these vaunted halls, they’ll need to find rungs to scale an otherwise almost unscaleable tube and brave yet another, though far more deadly undead samurai.
The final obstacle on the way out (and to regaining their memories) is a maze of pure darkness and the master of the gaki-no-kage the PCs have vanquished so far – including a stellar, disturbing one-page artwork of the creature. In spite of the heavy SPOILER-warning, though, I won’t tell you the shocking truth the PCs may come to realize at the end of the journey, only that I’d insert this one-shot at some time during part 2 or 3 of the Golden Spear Trilogy to give the regular group a chance to meet the PCs of this one-shot…
The pdf ends with appendices containing the pregens, monsters, magic equipment, 24 body-stat cards, a total of 60 (!!!!!) memory-snippets and 3 memory vignettes, all ready to be cut out and handed to the players.
Editing and formatting are very good, I didn’t notice any significant glitches. Layout adheres to RiP’s bamboo-lined b/w-standard and Mark Hyzer’s wonderfully disturbing original pieces of b/w-artwork lend yet more flair and graphic identity to the module. The pdf comes with extensive bookmarks and GM-advice on how to run it and enhance its creepy atmosphere.
“Up from Darkness” is suffused with twisted imagery that never beats you over the head with its horror – Jonathan McAnulty gets subtle horror and his Kaidan-modules have yet to disappoint me. This one in particular is pure gold, with its sense of uncertainty of identity and even whether one is alive or what one is creating a high-tension environment that, by nature of its design, can revel in being deadly without frustrating the players. In fact, I won’t even complain that we don’t get player-friendly maps of the dungeon, for a sense of disorientation and uncertainty would be lessened by handing out such snippets. Make no mistake: This module HAS to be run as a one-shot, but it is a glorious one and one that can influence your regular gaming group in ways they can’t fathom while running through it.
This module is a stellar sojourn, a blast to read and run, offers plenty of bang for the price and is quite possibly something your players have not yet seen – even those familiar with Monte Cook’s “In Media Res” will consider this one superior, if not in execution, then at least in length and atmosphere. My final verdict should not come as a surprise to anyone – 5 stars plus seal of approval. Do yourself a favor and check this out!
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