Tales of the Old Margreve
By Thilo Graf
This adventure anthology/sourcebook by Open Design is 113 pages long, 1 page front cover, 2 pages editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving 107 pages of content, so let’s take a look at it!
The anthology sets the mood immediately via a two-page short fable about fey and beer and offers thus a great lead-in to the gazetteer-section on the Margreve, the ancient forest of Midgard, where both the wonder, strangeness, creepiness and awe of the forest come back to live and intermingle with the cruel Germanic and Slavic folktales. Both attitudes of the folk, their old ways and rites and customs and the global powers of the forest are detailed in a prime example of concise and flavourful writing. The culmination of this section is both the advice on how to play the "character" Margreve, different takes on it and a plethora of adventure hooks of the highest calibre for your perusal. The detailed subsections of the forest, ranging from creepy shadowfeyish to creepy dream-like and creepy primeval offer a vast plethora of potential ideas for DMs especially and even players on a minor scale. I guarantee that you’ll find inspiration in these pages if your creativity hasn’t completely dried up. Have I mentioned that e.g. Baba Yaga is a firm and unique part of Margrevian mythology?
On a rules-perspective, we also get a whole section on how magic works in the Margreve (subtly different, including visual clues) and mechanically different for those not versed in the Old Ways. We also get the obligatory part on new magic and, while this section more often than not, elicits yawns from me, let me assure you that each and every one of the 6 spells herein is pure killer and rocks – hard. Even better, for people like me who enjoy the primeval and dangerous flair of incantations, we get three new ones – Awesome!
Next up is the bestiary and in the fine tradition of Open Design, all of them, I repeat, all of them, are killer, no filler. From the Ala storm-witches, the supremely creepy children of the briar, the noble deer-centaurs, green hussars, undead mylings and rusalka brides, the extremely disturbing sap demons up to the majestic and lustful zmey, each and every critter herein has several unique abilities. Almost all of them feature their own unique artworks and concluding the oomphteenth time I read this section, I’m still all up in arms about the quality. If all bestiaries were of this quality, I could put my virtual reviewer’s pen down.
All right, that’s as far as I can go without spoilers, as now begins the adventure section of the book. Potential players, please stop reading NOW, SPOILERS abound!
All right, the first adventure, "Hollow" by one of the masters of horror, Richard Pett, pits the 1st-level PCs and a tiny hamlet under their command against both mad animals and the dread harvester of the singing tree, the hollow man. The Scythe-wielding CR 5 Hollow Man makes for a very disturbing enemy, as PCs of their level don’t truly stand a chance against it: While it is harvesting the heads of townsfolk and not interested in the PCs per se, they have a strict timeline in which they can try to stop the deadly enemy and finally confront and destroy the tree adorned with decapitated heads, which coincidentally sings unperceivable through the skulls and thus drives the animals of the forest insane. An awesome, smart and creepy introductory adventure!
Next up is "The Honey Queen", a completely different fare: Dreamlike and somewhat reminiscent of the Alice-novels, Jonathan McAnulty weaves a yarn of excellent narrative quality: The PCs are hired to acquire a special kind of honey that supposedly prolongs your life. Problem is, though, that the awakened queen bee lairs around hallucinogenic flowers (necessary for the honey) and that she does trade exclusively with the scáthsidhe, the shadow fey. As spokesperson and foe to the PCs on their way through the awesome, creepy hive is the adopted stepdaughter of the queen, a girl in temporal stasis who has developed the power to use bee-swarms as surrogate bodies. The PCs have to act smart to bring the girl back to life, get the honey and brave the bee-hive-dungeon. This adventure also rewards non-lethal problem-solving and can end on a plethora of notes, depending on the PC’s actions.
"Challenge of the Fang" by Dan Voyce has two excellent adventures to follow up on and succeeds – Challenge of the Fang can have severe repercussions for the PCs if they fail: Every 3 generations, the battle between wolf and man is fought again, in a dread ritual that will determine whether wolf or man reigns supreme and earns the favour of the Margreve. How is the outcome determined? Well, think "Little Red Ridin’ Hood" with the PCs and the wolves trying to get to the red-cape-wearing girl first, including a very fairy-tale like, cool series of tests, portents that come true etc. It’s hard to capture the mood of a fairy-tale in an adventure and Dan Voyce succeeded with grace – One of the best takes on the material I’ve seen – sufficiently close for the players to get it and far enough and creatively different to make it challenging and surprising.
"The Griffon Hatchling Heist" by Michael Furlanetto is a nice change of pace, from the grim and fantastic to an adventure that could very well have your players smile: When they are being approached by a housecat, they may very well have one of the most unlikely quest-givers ever – the housecat turns out to be the polymorphed griffon-leader Lesharrkk, who wants the PCs to infiltrate a tower where she and her brethren once nested and which is now the base of a huge amount of bugbears led by ogres and a cyclops. The PCs should get in, take the eggs and get them out before they hatch – of course, just as the PCs reclaim the griffon’s offspring they begin to hatch and getting them out without any one of them being perceived by the critters – after all, PCs probably don’t want to raise griffons…or do they? Depending on the amount of griffons saved, whether they consider the PCs their mother, Lesharrkk might make for a cool ally in future adventures. All in all, a great change of pace and one that made me smile!
After the rather light-hearted heist, we get a disturbing race against time in Tim Connor’s "Gall of the Spider Crone". When the PCs enter a tavern featuring a lot of Kariv, they quickly realize that the gypsies have something to hide: Just prior to the PCs arrival, one of the legendary spider-crones has stumbled into the inn and, while morally dubious, suffers from a huge gall that, in a disturbing perversion of pregnancy, is eating up the crone from within – operation seems to be not an option and the desperate crone offers the PCs the same rewards as the Kariv to embark on a race against time to procure the means to save her from one of her sisters. What she does not mention is, that temporary possession is a part of the cure… As the PCs embark on a stormy hunt through the trails of the forest, they are hounded by various complications before finally arriving at a spider-legged home clinging to a huge vine across a canyon. In order to return in time, the PCs will have to use the spider-legged house to navigate the Margreve back to the inn, save the crone and kill the ala that will burst from the gall. The iconic usage of the spider-house to travel back to the inn alone is worth playing the adventure – another winner!
I always considered mobile plants and fungi to be supremely creepy and a morbid fascination has forever tinged my approach to botanic foes in roleplaying games – Dan Voyce delivers another prime example why plants should be feared in "Blood and Thorns" – The children of the briar are on the prowl and thorns and briars encroach throughout the Margreve, powered by dread forces. On the way to investigate the reason for the thorny aggression, the PCs will have to visit the Spider Crone whose house they high-jacked in the last adventure and brave a supremely cool, honourable LG Spider-duellant construct called Snicker-snack while avoiding the numerous webs. Hopefully succeeding in their diplomatic mission with the Crone, the PCs will then have to follow a ghost-thread to the thorny base of the thorn-king, where they’ll hopefully settle for an infiltration (e.g. pretending to be possessed by sap demons) and end the alchemical, vampire-blood powered rituals and dispose of the king of briars before he not only becomes a major threat throughout the Margreve, but also for Morgau and Doresh…
Ben McFarland introduces us to one of the true major players of the Margreve in the touching adventure "Grandmother’s Fire" – no fire burns in the Margreve and the reason is that legendary Baba Yaga is angered – her hearth’s fire has been stolen and until it is reclaimed, the Margreve will feel the chill of the witches hearth. In order to restore the fire to the forest and to prevent a deadly winter indeed, the PCs will have to find the man (who turns out to be a werewolf), who stole the fire to set his love free. Said girl tried to procure a cure for lycanthropy from a vodyanoi and ended up one of his rusalka brides. To add insult to injury, the poor werewolf is actually a natural lycanthrope – there is no cure for him. After hopefully defeating the vodyanoi, the two lovers can finally be re-joined in either death or transcendence, we cannot be sure. Returning the fire to dread Baba Yaga, the PCs may have made a deadly, yet insanely powerful connection.
In the final adventure, Steven Robert’s "The Lustful Dragon", the PCs might want to cash in favours earned during their exploits in the Margreve as it opens with a bang: A Zmey, one of the dread multi-headed dragons attacks the village and the PCs will have to venture off on a quest to save a dragonmarked maid – a poor girl born with a birthmark that makes the zmey lust for her and doom her to be its mate and die giving birth to a terrible abomination. Via a hermaphrodite seer, the PCs can find the girl in the "tender" care of a spider crone. In order to stand a chance against the dread dragon, the PCs will have to procure the ingredients for a powerful incantation: A dragonmarked girl, a creeping vine of tremendous age, 1 lb of salt and the heart of a woman scorned (literally or figuratively) – once they have assembled the ingredients, they will have to work the incantation by piercing into the power of one of the Margreve’s hearts, battle the dread zmey and escape the wrath of the roused Margreve if they are to live – a stunning, cool conclusion to the anthology and one that has left me wanting for more.
Formatting is top-notch and while I noticed some editing glitches, there were less than 5 on 113 pages – not enough to detract a star. The pdf is extensively bookmarked. The two-column layout and the pieces of artwork are beautiful (though the pdf has a grey background, making it a bit harder on the printer than it should be), as is the cartography. If you couldn’t tell from my recap of the adventures or the gazetteer-section, the writing of this book is just excellent, ranking among the very best of anthologies and adventures I’ve read for any incarnation of any fantasy roleplaying game. Each and every one of the adventures has its very own distinct flair, while still tying the overarching pieces and flair together, resulting in a supremely cool series of adventures that each has its unique wonder, its components of wonder and awe you won’t see in most other publications. The authors have created a tapestry of surpassing quality, a blast between grim and light-hearted fairy-tale and a kind of fantasy you won’t find anywhere else – if you by some strange coincidence haven’t checked this out, do so now – I guarantee you won’t regret it. My final verdict is 5 stars and the Endzeitgeist seal of approval.
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