RPG Review – The Kobolds of Tzarker Mines
The Kobolds of Tzarker Mines clocks in at 36 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2/3 of a page SRD, 1 page back cover, with the inside of front and back cover being two generic battle-mat-style maps, leaving us with 30 1/3 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Thanks in no small part to Kobold Press, no other race can come this close to being as iconic as Paizo’s goblins – so it was a matter of time until we got a review that depicts the hard-knock life of kobolds – and it’s a hard-knock life – enslaved to the magma dragon Tzarkethitor, the kobolds of the Tzarker Mines have a difficult life – and the PCs are part of the tribe.
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, still here? Only DMs left?
Karken, the chief of the kobolds, has an issue – the crystals and gems have been stolen from the treasure pile of tribute for their draconic master and it’s up to the PCs to mine new ones from the haunted crystal mines – and we arguably get the first issue right from the get-go – in order to lift the plug that seals the mines, the kobolds have to make a DC 20 Str-check. Two issues here – why not state the weight of the plug? Secondly: Aid another + attribute checks is a pretty disputed topic, but since kobolds receive a racial -4 to Str, there is a very real chance that a group of kobolds that has elected to not include a Str-based character can’t open the plug via taking 10 or even 20; With aid another, the task can be frustrating, even with stacking aids. Then again, if ruled like this, the task can emphasize the need for cooperation, so this one gets a pass. The first thing you’ll note here would be the maps – this module sports beautiful full-color modules, though I wished the maps themselves sported player-friendly versions sans keys/legend to use as hand-outs.
So, the task of mining crystal may sound simple – well, it would be, if the mines were safe – which they, of course, are NOT – they are now the hunting grounds of a significant array of gremlins and sport interesting threats like ghost scorpions, a dire corby or an immature phantom fungus. Obviously, the irony of gremlins using traps versus kobolds should not be lost on the players and yes, generally, this can be considered a solid crawl section, with the skill-based loud mining being a nice reason to generate some paranoia and creatures reacting actually to the kobolds. Over all, these threats can be considered interesting, though some issues can be found here as well – while there are some mining tools in case the PCs forgot to bring them, a GM should definitely make sure the PCs have Profession (Miner), Craft (Stonemasonry) or Knowledge (engineering) – none of which are necessarily in the array of a given array of PCs, for they are the tools of the trade required to mine crystal. While the pdf does have a means for forgotten mining tools to be salvaged, no DCs are given for repairing them, which makes this failsafe less useful for the GM. It should also be noted that one of the gremlin traps has the wrong trap-stats – instead of its own stats, it duplicates word-by-word the effects of another gremlin-trap in a glitch an editor or proofreader ought to have caught.
Upon returning from the gremlin-infested mines (no consequences for not re-sealing the place?), the second act begins – Karken sends the PCs to contact Seargal, a kobold trap idiot savant. Now the cool thing here would be a kind of trap generator: Kobold traps as presented here have 4 components: The Pain, The Trigger, Cam-o-floj and Moover Parts, with the latter being optional. This generator is actually rather nice, though I honestly wished it was more complex and sported its own pdf -still, for a module, it uses the space allotted to it rather well. If that was not ample implication – Seargal likes to test her creations against unwitting kobolds and coincidentally, has her lair within a labyrinth not only inhabited by creatures from the ToHC (stats provided), she also has littered the complex with traps. Now here’s the fun part: Take the two flip-mat-like map-pages from the inside of the front- and back cover and put them back to back: Seargal and Karken allow the PCs to place dwarf lures into these tunnels and create traps:
The PCs get to create a trap gauntlet, designed to take down dwarves from the adjacent mines. Upon activation, the hapless experts begin entering the complex and start moving towards the lures. The PCs have to get a total of 10 dwarves. I love this set-up – it is interesting, cool and fun! It also, alas, suffers from a number of issues: 1) The PCs have no limited resource – the pdf fails to specify the number of dwarf lures available. 2) The PCs have no limited resources regarding the creation of traps – they can literally create a huge gauntlet and while a DM “can limit some of the more effective components,” this takes the challenge out of the set-up. 3) at 2nd level, the level 1 expert-dwarves are no significant challenge for the 2nd-level PCs in anything but numbers. The PCs don’t really need the whole trap tricks. What could essentially be an awesome set-up of trapmakers defeating foes becomes a pretty simple exercise. The area is also pretty small 17 x10 squares isn’t that much room to work with and even with the reduced dwarven speed, a lot of ground can be covered by just your average walking. I love the set-up, but the execution falls short of the exceedingly awesome premise.
Part 3 pits the PCs against the complex of Ol’ Lumpy – an oversized grick sleeping on a treasure trove – so not only will the kobolds have to brave the well-chosen, uncommon array of adversaries, they will also have to steal the valuables from under the grick’s nose. This is a great set-up! However, once again, we have problems: “Treat Perception checks on actions made in the room as a total of 22 for the grick for checks that aren’t opposed (12 if the action involves a creature that isn’t in contact with the floor or walls).” – that ought to be not the check, but the DC. Additionally, tremorsense (which the grick has) allows you to automatically pinpoint the location of foes.
Now the wording of tremorsense implies that an active effort is required to notice the target – if that is the case, then eliminating the +10 DC from being asleep makes no sense. If, however, one reads the ability to be always active, the very notion of a check in the first place becomes somewhat redundant for the sense allows for automatic pinpointing of locations – either reading does not gel with the means presented by this module. Now don’t get me wrong – I like for example multiple failures being required to awake the grick and a half-awake state at only +5 Perception DC – I love the set-up. But the execution sports some grains of sand in the fun idea. Now if coup-de-grâce (not “de gras”[sic!]) is the planned option, the creature’s stats make that a bad idea, so good job there. On the annoying side – I have no idea where the creature sleeps in the map’s big lair denoted as the resting place – which is important here, since Perception becomes easier, the closer one is to the target. I don’t mind other creatures not having their exact positions noted, but here, this is a damn issue that makes the cool climax harder on the DM than it should be. Conversely, this will probably pretty much become a one-kobold show for the skill monkey – at this level, it is highly unlikely that ALL kobolds have invested heavily in the Stealth-skill, which, alongside the rules as written for Stealth, makes a single thief more likely to succeed than a group – unless we’re talking stealth-synergy and teamwork-feat granting.
Upon their return, the PCs find out that the jewel thief has been identified – it’s an insane crysmal (which is btw. marked on the map for its caverns) that doubles as a very dangerous and lethal final adversary. Upon their return, the PCs find their draconic master has returned – and he is not pleased. The final encounter sports the PCs trying to appease the powerful dragon to avoid destruction – which boils down to a single skill-check – kind of anticlimactic – why not go the more complex skill-challenge (with two successes required, the set-up is here!) route with multiple checks required and different avenues for the interaction to go? The set-up is awesome and screams discussion, but the module instead opts for a Diplomacy, Profession (Miner) or Intimidate-check for each PC- success hinging on one roll. As a saving grace, at least the PC’s performance in the different parts influences the DC.
The pdf closes with a short gazetteer of the Tzarker mines – with 2d-maps in a kind of isometric set-up (picture a horizontally-sliced cake, with each slice slanting towards you at the same angle) to show how they interact -alas, no player-friendly version is provided and the one-page depiction of the maps means that parts of e.g. level 3’s map is hidden behind level 2’s map. The maps are there – why not provide them sans overlap?
Editing and formatting are okay – while a bunch of glitches are there, there could be more – but also less. Especially when the pdf is more opaque than it should be and when a glitch influences how an encounter pans out, this becomes an issue. Layout adheres to a beautiful two-column full-color standard with a surprising amount of original, nice full-color artwork. The adventure comes with a second, more printer-friendly version sans frilly layout and with all artworks in b/w. The cartography is actually rather great, especially for a freshman offering – full-color and beautiful. I just wished one would actually get the maps in an appendix so one doesn’t have to print out and cut up the page. I also wished this had player-friendly maps… Finally, this pdf has no bookmarks, which makes navigation much more annoying than it ought to be.
Brent Holtsberry and Dawson Davis have created an impressive first product that comes with relatively high production values and, more importantly, oozes heart’s blood while also sporting a novel premise and indeed, I absolutely love the premise of each single part of this module – they are fun, engaging and deviate from the old kill-em-all style. The writing of the pieces of prose fiction spread throughout the module is also neat. Where this module stumbles, time and again, is in the details. From enemy placement on the maps to similar small glitches that impede gameplay, this one has a bunch of potential issues for GMs to circumnavigate. While each of them, admittedly, can be ignored and fixed relatively easily, they do tally up over the course of this module.
Beyond these, the lack of bookmarks and no pregens further hurt this module – what would be an instant go-play module for any DM, perfect for conventions, is hurt by their lack. Why? How many players take sample kobold characters to conventions? Furthermore, the pdf assumes certain skill-sets to be available to the group, when the lack of them can spell potentially disastrous results -which makes me believe that it was intended to be run with pregens that are not present amid these pages. I really, really want to like this module and recommend it in the highest praise, but ultimately, it stumbles in one way or another in each of the admittedly conceptually awesome and non-conventional climaxes its acts provide.
This does have the marking of talented authors with a great passion and unique ideas, so I sincerely hope the authors continue what they’re doing and further refine their craft – in the end, all gripes are typical beginner’s mistakes and can be rectified. Since this is Bad Moon Games’ freshman offering, it also does get some leeway from yours truly – hence, my final verdict will clock in at 2.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.
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