"The Malady of Kings," Troll Lord Games

Pros: Gorgeous story
Cons: Passive characters; terrible free will violations; unclear descriptions; strict linear plot
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

First posted 6/5/2001
Review book courtesy of Troll Lord Games

This is an adventure for the D20 system (you’ll need a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, Third Edition to play this game). It’s virtually impossible to review an adventure without including some details that might be considered spoilers (although I’ll try to minimize them), so if your game master (GM) could potentially run this, you might want to skip this review. This adventure is set in the world of Erde, from the After Winter Dark fantasy setting.

Overview

The ghost of a great lady named Vivienne does not rest in peace. She never did find out, so many years ago, what fate befell her beloved husband, St. Luther. In this adventure it becomes the party’s task to find the proof of her husband’s safety necessary to give her peace. In order to do this, the party must cross the hazardous Sea of Dreams and free St. Luther from a terrible sorcery.

A Disclaimer on Bias

I’m going to be very up front about something here. This adventure runs smack up against my dislike of adventures that railroad characters into certain paths of action, or lack flexibility, or in other ways unnecessarily restrict character action.

This doesn’t necessarily make it a bad adventure – there are plenty of people who don’t mind adventures that do this. So be warned that most of my problems with this book stem solely from this bias, and not from any other major problems. If you don’t have a problem with adventures that do this, then take my upcoming complaints with a large grain of salt.

Aesthetics

Production value-wise, this book falls closer to Dzeebagd than “After Winter Dark.” Which is to say, it has a couple of slightly washed-out pages, but otherwise looks quite nice. The art is the best I’ve seen in a Troll Lord product yet – attractive and with quite a bit of character. This book also upholds Troll Lord Games’ laudable habit of having very few typos. The bits that are meant to be read aloud to the characters are nicely set off in pennants, so it’s very easy to tell them apart from the regular text.

The book starts out with a beautiful short piece of fiction. It isn’t too much for people who don’t care about that sort of thing, but it wonderfully sets the tone for people who enjoy a little atmosphere in their gaming books.

There are some cumbersome phrasings here and there throughout the book. And occasionally, a desire for a sort of poetic phrasing replaces the need for clarity. I love beautiful, poetic language as much as the next person, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of clarity.

Show Don’t Tell

When writing things that are to be read aloud to the players, descriptions need to be precise. They need to give the players a good sense of exactly what’s going on, so that the PCs can react to the situation. They should not be ambiguous or unclear.

Take a certain passage to be read aloud to the players on page 17: “Through the door comes a wizard, his movements as subtle as his words.” His words were hardly subtle, so I desperately hope this was meant to be irony – probably not a good idea, though, when you’re trying to convey the physicality of a situation. The players need to know what’s going on if they’re to respond to it! “And he moves between the material world and realms known only to him.” What does this mean? What effect will this have on anything the players try to do to him? What does it look like, since this is supposed to be describing a scene? On page 20 there’s a line about “its color that of one possessed of great magic.” Again, what does that actually look like?

Background and Information

There’s plenty of history, summary and background. If you already have “After Winter Dark” then this book nicely fleshes out some of the material and characters mentioned there. This is a fantastic adventure for people who want to explore the world some more.

This adventure plays around a bit with the dreams and fears of the player characters (PCs). Because of this, you’ll need to run it with a party of characters who have at least some minimal amount of character background. This isn’t going to work with a bunch of stock, stereotyped characters with little background and less personality. Because this adventure is meant for characters of levels 10-12, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Even the sketchiest characters usually develop some personality by this point.

Because there is so much background information provided, including geographical information, you can expand on this adventure pretty much to your heart’s content. This is definitely a plus! The adventure suggests that it could be worked into other worlds if you aren’t playing in Erde. If you plan to do this, however, I’d suggest you get the adventure ahead of time and start working some of the history into your game in advance.

Now, where this adventure truly excels is in its basic plot. A Dreaming Knight who works to protect the world, and who has been locked deep in a foul sorcery. A Sea of Dreams that has so much potential: “The Referee can use the PC’s own goals and desires against them. A character upon the Dreaming Sea may find himself face to face with his or her own nightmares.” An island where traps have been laid by Dream Warriors. It gives me a chill just thinking about it! Unfortunately, the suggestions provided for making use of the unique properties of the Sea of Dreams are brief and sketchy at best. The non-player characters (NPCs) are pretty interesting, in particular the female dragon and Luther himself.

Passivity

When it comes down to it, the party feels a bit passive in this adventure. They’re lead around by various characters, handed from powerful character to powerful character, and pretty much told what to do at almost every turn. It just feels like they don’t actually have many real adventure-altering decisions and choices to make, which runs the risk of making the players feel like they’re being led around by the nose through a pretty display. Those few decisions that have real consequences for them are either invisible or deadly – generally either they make the “right” decision and don’t even realize that there was a decision to be made, or they die (or suffer some other terrible consequence). Since the decision is invisible, the players aren’t left feeling as though they actually made a decision.

There are a few other things that have consequences for the characters, but they aren’t very well detailed. Thus, a GM in a hurry (or who isn’t sure what to do with the plot) is likely to gloss over it.

Flexibility and Free Will

I decided to put all of my arguments & issues regarding free will, flexibility, and so on into one section, so if they don’t matter to you, then you can skip them and move on to the end of the review.

I know very well that it’s quite difficult (if not virtually impossible) to write an adventure that doesn’t push the characters around at least a little bit. This is fine. The author can’t be there to adapt the scenario to the actions of the player characters – this is a flaw of the medium, not the author. However, the author can do his best to take this into account, and to make the adventure as flexible as possible. “Dzeebagd” actually did a surprisingly good job of this (one of the best I’ve seen). There were plenty of suggestions for how to subtly drag the characters into parts of the adventure that they missed, and even suggestions for how to handle it when they just plain skipped entire parts of the adventure. “Malady,” however, had some real problems here.

Flexibility

This adventure mentions up front that it is meant for a party of good alignment. They aren’t kidding about this. There are several places in the book where if the party does something on the “wrong” side of things, they will die. This is stated pretty much straight out in a couple of places – either they do the right thing, or they get killed (or they age suddenly, or they’re transported instantaneously to another realm with no saving throw). There is no learning experience here. In some places it even works out such that only one of two things happens: either they have no idea whatsoever that they ever came close to having something bad happen to them, or they’re screwed. In the case of the aging the effect isn’t at all immediate, so it may appear entirely arbitrary and causeless when it happens. What’s the point of this kind of encounter?

I understand the idea that sometimes an adventure just requires a certain sort of party – that’s fine. I also understand that sometimes characters just have to live with the consequences of their actions – also fine. But to have multiple points in a story where it’s “do the right thing or die,” with no warning pretty much, and no learning experience – why? What was the point of it? The author needs to play around with some less drastic consequences, or at least make the consequences more obvious and/or less certain.

Drawing the Characters In

Again, it’s tough to provide interesting and useful ways to draw the party into the adventure when the author has no way of knowing what the individual party is like. “Dzeebagd” handled this by providing a handful of different options that were fairly flexible. “Malady” handles this by providing only one, very spare suggestion: a map has “perked the interest of the party.” Ugh. This requires you, the GM, to tell the party members what they’re thinking and feeling – a terrible way to do things, from a free will point of view. (For more on this issue, check out our Free Will in Roleplaying articles – I won’t clutter up this review by reproducing all of the arguments here.)

Pushing the Party

Since we seem to have marched nicely into the subject of telling the party what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling, or pushing them into doing what you want, let’s move a little further into this thorny thicket. As far as I’m concerned, one of the worst infractions against allowing the PCs their free will is to have the GM tell the characters what to think and feel.

This adventure is rife with phrases like, “the characters should cross the stream here.” I know, this doesn’t seem like much. But basically the author has just told you that you need to get the party to do a certain thing, without providing you any in-game means of doing so. You either need to read through here very thoroughly in advance, and make a whole lot of notes on how you might subtly insert these suggestions, or you’re left feeling like you have to tell your players what you want their characters to do. Certainly GMs who don’t have a huge amount of experience are likely to feel that this is what is expected of them.

There are other, more noticeable problems of this nature. There’s an animate face on a door that is “obviously benign.” In a surprising number of places the GM is told to “encourage” or “discourage” specific actions on the part of the party, or worse, “convince” the party, make the party believe things, or remind the players of things. What are you supposed to do if the party tries something you’re supposed to discourage? Look dire, clear your throat, and tell them that they should re-think their actions? As far as I’m concerned, such heavy-handed tactics should be reserved for giving the party a second chance when things have gone really wrong, if they’re used at all. They should not be the base level at which the GM’s behavior starts in order to get the adventure where it’s supposed to go! There are almost always better ways to achieve these things – contextual clues within the adventure that convince the characters to behave a certain way (note that the clues are doing the convincing, not the GM), yet leave the choice ultimately up to them.

There are descriptions to be read aloud in which the PCs are told that they’re “marveling at” something, or that they “turn to investigate” something. Again, the GM is dictating actions and emotions. There are side-bars that give bits of conversation that are supposed to happen. This is a very dicey proposition – PCs have a habit of asking completely different things than expected, or of asking them in different ways than expected. Or of responding unexpectedly. This is just asking to have the provided material obsoleted by character choice.

Passing Judgement

On page 32, we’re told that “the intelligent players” will handle a certain situation in a certain way. This is a matter of personal preference, but I’m very much against encouraging GMs to call (or consider) their players stupid for making certain choices. This tends to encourage a very antagonistic dynamic between GM and players, which rarely leads to a fun game.

What It Comes Down To

In a lot of ways this adventure rubbed me the wrong way, but ultimately the plot, characters, history, and setting are splendid – and aren’t those much of what’s important? If you’re a GM with some experience who feels comfortable improvising and expanding on the given material, then go ahead and get this adventure. Make sure to read it through once or twice, and take copious notes on how to convey the things that you’re supposed to “encourage,” “discourage,” or “convince” the players of without having to resort to telling them what to do. Re-write those bits that you read to the players so that they don’t dictate emotion or action. Make a few notes on alternate possibilities for dragging the party into things here and there, to make things a little more flexible.

If you’re an inexperienced GM however, or one who doesn’t feel comfortable doing this kind of rewrite, then I suggest that you pass this one by.

Posted in Gaming, Reviews

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