"Review of The Pale Lady" and "The Squid, the Cabal, and the Old Man"

So, a couple of adventures that were add-ons to the Better than Any Man kickstarter have been published in the last few months, and I picked them both up today: The Pale Lady by +Zzarchov Kowolski and The Squid, the Cabal, and the Old Man by Andre Novoa. Since both are rather brief, and since I got both at the same time, I figured I'd do a double feature review, especially since there's some nice compare and contrast items. As with previous reviews, I will follow +Gus L 's lead in format and approach.

Spoilers follow! So turn back if you plan on playing either of these.

The Pale Lady

The Good

This adventure is written in Zzarchov’s usually enjoyable writing style - brief, readable, just a hint of silliness, but with his usual “actually darker than you might think” treatment of subjects. It is admirably concise and the set up is interesting.

The layout is clean and easy to read, and the art is somewhat sparse but attractive and evocative. It reminds me of WFRP art in a good way. More importantly, all of the content is admirably concise, focusing on what's interesting and necessary for adventure.

The Pale Lady is an interesting and well done version of the “aloof, amoral faerie” that I rather like. Spending the night with the Pale Lady is at once mechanically significant, creepy, gross, and “magical”, so well done there.

Speaking of the Pale Lady's creepiness, the Rabbit Men are wonderfully creepy and disturbing, and the whole concept of children abducted, neutered, and enslaved if they aren’t sacrificed in a ritual? Yikes (in a good way).

The mirror claiming it is Lucifer is an interesting choice. I find this a much more compelling and useful “unreliable narrator” situation than the poor crazy guy at the beginning of the adventure, where gamer sense will figure out you should believe him pretty quick, unless you constantly screw with your players.

Along the lines of the Lucifer bit, I like the possibly-divine take on the Word of Creation. The benefits are mechanically interesting and do a good job of conveying the flavor of “divine knowledge beyond normal mortal comprehension” - but then, I’m a sucker for the concept of magic = divine language.

It is also nice that there are multiple ways to “win” this adventure, depending on what the players define as a “win” (save the slaves, figure out the cube, loot the place, kill the scary elf witch, et cetera). 

All told, this is one of the more directly usable LotFP modules, even if you aren’t hardcore into the "LotFP adventure ethos", while still retaining the feeling of creepy weirdness. It also is perhaps more “modular” than many LotFP (or other) adventures, being neatly set apart from normal reality, easily engaged with to a varying degree, and then never dealt with again if desired. So, it's an easy way to drop some weirdness into your campaign without committing to possible apocalypse-level events.

The Bad

In an RPG, I’m not sure how much mileage you’ll get out of the “unreliable narrator as quest-giver” idea - your players will be inclined to believe that crazy crap is real, especially in the context of someone telling them about a possible adventure. It's an interesting concept, but I don't know how interesting or useful it would be at the table.

Likewise, not sure how I feel about the fake “reward” offered in the form of the not-really-magical sword the nuns have. It totally makes sense, and the adventure offers plenty of other payoffs, but it feels a bit “gotcha” to me, with very little information given to the players to inform their decision as to whether it's something they might want to undertake an adventure to get until it's too late. 

Inside the Pale Lady's estate, my main issue is with the structure of the main puzzle. The library and laboratory offer a few clues on the cube, but it still feels a bit like a one-solution puzzle - ask the Pale Lady or you're screwed. But maybe I’m not crediting player ingenuity given the available clues enough. Plus, getting inside the cube is hardly "required" so maybe it ought to be difficult.

Speaking of the cube, I’m a little torn on what seems to be the central “Gimmick” of the adventure - on the one hand, it’s an interesting philosophical issue, but on the other, I don’t know how much bringing it up will add to a game or group dynamic, but on the other other hand, I did rather enjoy the conundrum in The Prestige, so maybe I ought to just appreciate this. I guess my main concern is that the philosophical debate that I totally agree is likely to happen at the table might not actually make the game of sitting around the table with your friends pretending to be elves and magic users and what not any better. But maybe I don't have a broad enough idea of what the game is about.

What I Would Change to Run It

Honestly, I don't think much needs changing here for most settings. In the re-reboot of my own Fellhold setting that I am currently working on, I don't think there are elves/fairies, nor is there a proper "right" church. So, the Pale Lady becomes either a demon or a massively powerful witch, I probably keep her Rabbit Men rabbits for the sake of creepiness (goats could work too, but would have less incongruity to trade on), and the Divine Word cube would become some kind of runic object, probably a relic of giants or greater demons. I'd play the crazy quest giver more for pity than for "he's nuts, yo", and I'd either stress the poorness of the quest-encouraging nuns, or else give their offered treasure some benefit (or maybe offset it by combining it with some tangible benefit with being high in the Nuns' books as do-gooders). 

Really, though, one of the best things I can say about this module is that I don't think most campaigns would have to change much to use it, but it manages to do that without feeling generic.  

The Squid, the Cabal, and the Old Man

The Good

First off, I rather like the choice of material - ever since I read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, I’ve had a soft spot for these characters and this time period. Further, I also rather like Foucalt’s Pendulum and of course Mr. Lovecraft, so the stated influences for this adventure hit a significant portion of my buttons. It helps matters that the writing is friendly and conversational with just a hint of “not quite native speaker” that adds to the perceived enthusiasm and charm of the text. It's obvious that the author, Andre Novoa, genuinely cares about this adventure and wants you to have a good time with it, and that's nice.

The look and feel is pretty good, with well chosen fonts and decorative elements, even if nothing in the font choices or layout jumps out and makes me go "yes! this is the best ever!" Also, +Kelvin Green 's illustrations work well with the feel of the adventure and look good where they're placed.

I love that the set up for the adventure is “here’s three guys and three places, here’s their relationship, and here’s a reason for the players to get involved. Go!” Andre takes some time to tell you not to sweat any particular way for this charged situation to play out, and to roll with whatever develops in play. That's nice. It’s an excellent example of a situation presented, rather than a plot, to reference the Alexandrian.

I like the facts about the setting (late 18th century England) presented as sidebars - they're useful if you want them, but not stuff you have to memorize to run the adventure successfully. And none of the detail given is stuff that doesn't matter to play. As a quick aside, English currency is made of madness. Clearly, the inclusion thereof is meant to further the Lovecraftian vibe. Seriously, though, even though I am someone who values the more naturalistic English/Imperial/Standard units of measurement over the soulless and foul Metric system, my American brain just flat out can’t understand His/Her Majesty's Currency - which is perhaps ironic, given Mr. Newton’s later role as master of the Royal Mint.

Anyhow, returning to the adventure, the imaginary cabal is a pretty nice touch, especially since there is a real secret organization with similar (but by no means identical) goals to the imaginary one. I’m not positive how much the players will get out of this distinction, though, unless they end up chumming up with Newton as well as conducting a lot of investigation. Still it provides a nice roleplaying cue for Newton - paranoid, jumping at ghosts everywhere.

Speaking of the real secret organization, I like the brain-stealing cult quite a bit, and I enjoy their being tied into historical acts of lost knowledge, but I feel like worshipping space squids was the low-hanging fruit in the Lovecraftian orchard. For my tastes, a Mi-Go rip off would have been more fitting, that is if you’re bent on using the trappings of a familiar Lovecraftian beastie. You could always take the approach of some other LotFP modules and use the concepts of cosmic horror with some wholly new monsters/creatures/situations.

Anyway, moving into the adventure locations, Kelvin’s maps are fantastic. I’ve grown to appreciate them even more since I’ve (partially) run Forgive Us for my home group. Also, it is definitely appreciated that they don’t waste space describing normal rooms or regular house stuff - the detailed maps do all of that detail for you, and it works. Only the rooms/stuff that matters gets called out in the key.

Hah! While we're talking about keys, in Newton's secret Alchemical laboratory, there's Easter Eggs! On the Nature of Quicksilver by Stefan Nilsson indeed. (Quicksilver was the first book of The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson I mentioned above).

Further, in Newton's reproduction of Solomon's Temple, the fact that how the secret doors are hidden and how to activate them is described is a nice touch. I've got some more thoughts on the temple below, and if you look at the whole thing as  just some bonus material, I guess it’s alright, but I gotta admit, I had a few more negative things to say than positive.

Skipping ahead to the evil cult's temple, I rather like the sphere room, both the image and the weird effects. . . except for the “you’re an evil cultist now, have fun with that!” result. Maybe it’s fitting for LotFP, but somehow this seems worse than either “you’re dead” or “you’re crazy” as the result of a die roll for "doing what the game is about" and "interacting with the space you're exploring." Again, maybe I don't get the LotFP ethos, but it just seems kinda screwjobby to me.

Oh yeah, and the mummy squids are a pretty cool monster, as is the watchful squid in the walls of the corridor.

Overall, this adventure has a fantastic set up and a lot of really inventive concepts/ideas, but unfortunately, there were some downsides that  I dive into in the next section. 

The Bad

Despite the fact that I love the "voice" of the writing, I feel like the text could have used a slightly harsher content edit - often, there were times that the text was lengthier and more detailed than necessary - such as providing referee advice. Now, maybe I'm just too steeped day-to-day in OSR referee philosophy, because I didn't think any of the advice was bad, I just felt like I didn't need it in an adventure. Maybe if it were packaged as part of an intro box, but as a stand alone adventure, I found a lot of the basically sound, obviously well meaning advice to be unnecessary filler.

Speaking of which, the “running the adventure” section strikes me as overly wordy/detailed at best, and unnecessary at worst. As I said, all of the advice is well meaning and pretty much totally correct, just maybe extraneous. I will say though, why on earth are the dice generators in this section presented in paragraphs!? Gah! They are clearly tables in all but form. That’s just bad information presentation. By all means present them in a paragraph, as long as you show them as a table again later. It’s a shame, because these are immediately useful (if pretty basic) tables for helping the situation to be dynamic as the players come into it. More of this sort of thing would have made for an even tastier adventure.

On the other hand, there were one or two areas where I felt like some advice to the referee specific to the adventure would have come in handy. For example, near the beginning of the adventure, the idea is presented that the “real treasure” is knowledge, rather than gold/silver, but then it gives no guidance on how to tweak LotFP’s Silver-for-XP system. Sure, any referee with some experience under their belt can figure something out, and later on, guidelines are given on how to monetize some of the esoteric knowledge uncovered, but if you are going to specifically write an adventure to go against the standard written into the game rules and proven valuable over decades of play, some guidance would be appreciated. 

I've struggled with this very concept in my Heresies Without Number game, because providing indirect, fungible/holographic incentives to advancement is a really robust reward mechanic. Anyway, I think overall it works out okay, but some more thoughts on how this sets up an intrigue based game, or how the players can gain fictional (but non-experience/treasure based) advantages in the game world would have been nice in an adventure that seems to go to some lengths to discourage standard "steal everything not nailed down" play.

Anyhow, getting back to the details of the adventure - it strikes me as a bit wacky that all of the dramatis personae are such hard SOBs. Even Hooke is a 2HD mofo. I get that Halley is a secret sorcerous cultist, so his improved stats make sense, but Hooke and Newton having 2HD seems not to jive with the usual LotFP “everyone is normal except the PCs” approach. I almost wish Andre took it to 11 and made all 3 or them secretly hard ass former adventurers, even if that wouldn't be very historically congruent.

Now, I mentioned Kelvin's delightful maps, but I wish Mr. Novoa and Mr. Jagosz had consulted him on the text and layout of the map keys as well. While it's appreciated that mundane rooms are left undetailed except in the broadest of strokes, the "interesting room" key entries are still somewhat wordy and they fail to fall into Mr. Green's wonderful "one building, one spread" layout from Forgive Us. Just a hair more discipline there would have been greatly appreciated, even if the "crawling" the locations is not the focus of play. 

Speaking of locations, neither Hooke’s house nor Newton's as locations offer a ton of interest. I feel like more clues as to their enmity, madness and paranoia, and/or contact with Halley would be useful. As it is, neither of these locations give much reason to "crawl" them, and I'd probably condense most of the action in them into a pretty abstract terms. Probably even for Halley's House and the Observatory, as well. 

Speaking of breaking and entering in early Natural Philosophers' homes, I’m torn on Newton’s (possible) employment of Ryan O’Flannagan. On the one hand, having a hard bastard come after you because you stole from a rich and paranoid guy makes a lot of sense. On the other, it feels a bit like a “gotcha” for PCs doing what PCs do - robbing a place blind because somebody asked them to. I think I would rather see the threat of this happening telegraphed a little more clearly - give the players a chance to find out that Newton will go to any length, even questionably legal ones, to recover things he considers important, or rumors that he’s been beefing up his security, or whatever. My main issue is not the severity of the consequence, but rather its inability to be anticipated.

Okay, while we're on the topic of "crawling" these locations, the replica Temple of Solomon under Newton’s mansion strikes me as something of a missed opportunity. See, I love that the temple replica is there, given (real, historical) Newton's interest in alchemy and Solomon's temple, but the problem is, there’s not actually, you know, much to do down there, or much of value to find. Certainly almost no leads into further adventure. Just a couple of double-secret treasures/easter eggs.

When it comes to the actual physical format of it, I’m not thrilled with the well entrance to the temple. The key being literally the only way in there is kind of weak, especially when you consider that key is also in a secret room the players will have no particular reason to find, unless they are lucky or careful mappers. Add on to this that if you do figure out the key situation, you get gassed and Newton will get you executed if he finds you, it seems like an overly bottlenecky kind of thing, especially for a not very valuable, not important at all to the "main plot" kind of location. 

Come on! Replica Temple of Solomon.  In he basement of the greatest natural philosopher of his age. This is a solid gold idea that gets maybe a bronze treatment. It's not bad, it just should be so much better.

Anyway, moving on to Greenwich Observatory, which gives the impression of being the "main" adventure site (which I think is sadly back-tracking from the awesomeness of the "three guys, three places, one conflict" set up the adventure began with). I’m not a big fan of Flamsteed being 100% reticent to talk unless the players convince him they’re “experienced enough” - I think a better approach here would be to just qualitatively describe him as terrified and afraid to talk to anybody, then let the referee decide how easily (or not) he’ll open up. Really commit to "here's the pieces, you figure out what happens" rather than trying to push any particular reactions or storylines.

Further, the telescope-entrance to the temple seems waaaay too fiddly. I’m fine with needing to know what star to point it towards, considering there’s still another way in to find or that the players could just crowbar/sledgehammer the stone blocking the entrance, but the fact that they need to find the information about Lyra and then still have a lengthy, boring fiddling around with it to get it right? That doesn’t strike me as a fun kind of puzzle - it strikes me as more of a pixel-bitchy kind of puzzle.

Once the party gets down to the evil temple, the dungeon itself is totally linear. Sure, going in the temple at all is not technically “required” for the adventure, but it’s obviously where almost all of the fun weirdness is, so it’d be nice if it were slightly more compelling as a map. And again, the locations are presented in standard prose form, with parenthetical references to map locations. It's not very helpful for reference or ease of access, and the good stuff isn't really highlighted.

Another specific callout, the cube puzzle strikes me as way too many blind, uninformed decisions unless you found one elusive clue in the house, and even then, you might mess it up. It’d maybe be okay for experimentation, except there’s a huge number of possible combinations, so it’s not really realistic to expect the players to figure out any “rules” in any kind of reasonable amount of time. So this leads to non-meaningful guessing, boring choices, and a puzzle that pisses off more than it tantalizes. I can certainly get behind the inspiration for this section of the dungeon, but I think it deserves its own entire adventure where figuring out "The Cube" is the whole point with lots o ftime and tries and more clues on how to make it work. As it stands, it's more likely for the party to get stuck and super frustrated.

What I Would Change to Run It

So, what would I change to run this? First off, I'd give each of the three main figures some even stronger personality cues, and then leave it up to what the players do to figure out how they interact. I'd probably also leave it ambiguous whether Newton really had stolen Hooke's formulas (just to make it more interesting). I'd insert some more interest into each location - I'd give Hooke some kind of tenuous social connections, play up Newton spiraling into a connection with shady elements, and then put a few more cult clues into Halley's house. 

I'd make Newton's Solomon's Temple more interesting - probably a caged demon down there, definitely some rituals you can accidentally trigger just by moving through it. I'd also make it a little easier to get into without Newton having you murdered.

I'd probably also add in the Royal Society as a form of forced interaction between all of these personalities, a way for the players to meet more weirdos, and a source for further adventures.

Finally, I'd redesign the creepy cult and their temple. Mi-Go (bugs, fungus) instead of tentacle everything, a more Jaquayed dungeon, and I'd probably greatly simplify "The Cube". 


So, overall, I think I found Pale Lady a more immediately useful module, but The Squid, the Cabal, and the Old Man has a lot of promise in its fundamental concept, it just would have benefited from being maybe half as long. Despite the fact that Pale Lady would be easier to use as is, I see it as more likely that I'll modify the basic structure of SCOM to my game than that I'll use Pale Lady at all.

For the price, both are pretty well worth checking out. Pale Lady is a better bet if you're looking for a true "module" that you can drop into any existing game with minimal fuss, while SCOM is a richer vein of mineable ideas. Do what you will with that, and enjoy.