"A Green Place to Die," by Casey Clark, Guildhouse Games

First published 10/6/2001; last edited 1/5/2005; published to the reviews blog 2/13/2007

Pros: Sensible, consistent, fun, well-considered
Cons: Some designer bias in places; use of in-voice prose to describe factual information
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

“A Green Place to Die” is a fun way to introduce first level characters to the gore and glory of life in the D20 system. If you are browsing through it at a store, I would recommend picking it up regardless of your first impressions. It plays better than it reads. Beware, this review contains spoilers!

In “A Green Place to Die”, the characters have been hired by Paltharium and trained to fight in a war. Paltharium wins the war against Valsinuos before the characters are even within sight of the front lines. When the adventure begins, they find themselves equipped, eager, and out of a job. Duke Rassos has been awarded land in Valsinuos and asks the party to help him recover a small fortune from a dangerous swamp. The treasure is held in the tower of Us’Tek. The tower was the fortress of a mad wizard decades ago. What the duke and the party do not know is that a lizard man named Kargker is using the tower to raise an army against the local human population.

Bringing the Party Together

One of the first goals that every module must accomplish is bringing the characters together and embroiling them in the plot. “A Green Place to Die” has it easy in one respect; the party is expected to be a new group of first level characters. A DM with a new party can ask players to create characters with the module’s backstory in mind. The PCs must have some reason to hire on for the war.

The war is over before the characters see any action, though, and there aren’t many options to bring the characters into the main of the story. Duke Rassos’ cousin, Parros, offers the party a job to find and retrieve some treasure in Bahgdair Swamp. If the party refuses, another NPC offers the characters almost the same job at less favorable terms. If the party still isn’t interested, the DM is supposed to play up the interest of other adventuring bands in the treasure. This only adds competition to the list of disincentives. The module notes that the DM knows the party best and can thus fashion the best story hook. I agree, but I don’t believe that lets the module author off the hook for suggesting better options from which to start.

Common Sense

Ideally, the plot, back story, and world at large should make sense. The module does a very good job of keeping the world and backstory sensible. There are a few points that confused me, but they were all related to the backstory of Paltharium and Valsinuos (the two kingdoms at war in the recent history of the module). All the characters in the story have understandable motivations for their actions, and none of the NPCs make giant leaps of intuition to further the plot.

Another thing I liked about the module is that the author didn’t strain to find a way to include a bag of treasure under a rock in the lair of every non-sentient creature. There’s plenty of slogging through swamp hazards that doesn’t pay well. The reward comes at the end, in bulk. This was a refreshing change.

Space Well Spent

The format of this book is a small (6.5″ x 10.25″) page size, with only 31 pages. The advantage of the space trade-off is that the book retails for only about $5 USD. The disadvantage is that this kind of module lives or dies by the what the space budget is spent on. Too much information on things that don’t show up in the game means too little of the information needed to run the game.

Here again, “A Green Place to Die” does well. A sizeable portion of the module is taken up by a description of random encounters in the swamp. When reading the adventure, these encounters seemed, well… random. They didn’t seem to add to the story, and they didn’t seem likely to play out as much more than transparent filler during play. During the playtest, I was pleasantly surprised. The encounters were great for setting the mood and bringing home the danger of the swamp environment.

I would have liked to see a little more space devoted to Rassos’ approach to dealing with the player characters. He is, after all, hiring them, and he does give them an opportunity to ask questions. In our playtest, their first question was, “Why us? Why not use your own soldiers?” The module maps out his answers to questions about the mission itself (locations, names, etc.) and haggling over the split of any treasure found, but it’s weak on answers to questions about the context of the mission or the choice of the party (such as why the party over the soldiery).

I have mixed feelings about the amount of detail on the villains that appear towards the end of the game. Kargker is a lizard man planning a war against the humans who live in and near the swamp. His two closest advisors are Selosh and Junias. A great deal of interesting character background is provided for Kargker, Selosh, and Junias. However, they’re encountered when the party sneaks into the tower of Us’Tek, which Kargker is using as a headquarters. The module scripts the characters running straight into Selosh, who will raise the alarm immediately if not silenced. Even if captured, Selosh is unlikely to go into great detail about how Kargker wasn’t loved enough as a child. So while engrossing for the GM, the history for the villains is mostly wasted. At least the author does translate their personality traits into preferred combat tactics, so the party did get some benefit from them.

Think Like This…

A common problem with modules is that characters must think like the author in order to accomplish their goals. “A Green Place to Die” does better than most, but I’m not completely satisfied. For example, when nearing the tower of Us’Tek, the party finds a crocodile skull on a stick. The module, in the description for the GM, reads, “The intent is clear, ‘leave now or else.'”

Pardon? Clear? What about these other equally clear meanings:

  • A scary animal-sacrifice religious rite took place here
  • Something dangerous enough to be able demand sacrifices lives here
  • It’s a warning, but not necessarily meant for the party
  • A spellcaster has cursed the area
  • The crocodile head is meant as a warning or threat to those who live here
  • It’s safe to pass now — we killed the giant crocodile menacing travellers
  • It’s an artistic statement
  • Creatures without good food storage technology live near here

The idea that the head is a warning is belied by the well-worn trail deeper into the swamp that becomes discernable a few yards later. Fortunately, this kind of leap of understanding isn’t called for often in the module, and it’s not of great consequence where it does appear.

Later in the module, during the party’s flight from the Tower of Us’Tek, strong encouragement is given to allow the party to succeed or fail on their own merits. The DM is reminded to give the party a fair chance at pulling off an inventive plan. The basic setup is heavily stacked against the characters, though. They have to move a number of heavy chests containing the treasure they’ve been looking for. They have to stay ahead of patrols and make it back to human civilization without being tracked or discovered by followers of (the hopefully now deceased) Kargker. The only route of escape from the tower predicted in the module is expected to fail with the party being seen by a patrol. So, in fact, in order to succeed, the party must come up with something the module writer didn’t think of.

The module does considerably better in avoiding designer bias with regard to power balancing the encounters. Or perhaps our playtest party was particularly well suited to the adventure. There were many near death experiences. All the characters survived, but some very lucky rolls were involved. Even in the last encounter, the PCs overcame Kargker and his lieutenants only by exhausting their spells and ingenuity. Similarly, the guidance for changing the power level of the campaign seemed sound.

Writing and Packaging

I was satisfied with the production value and writing quality. The page layout is good: the highlighted sidebars and the italicized sections for reading to the players stand out well. The artwork is solid, neither awe-inspiring nor mistakeable for clip-art. The book is small enough to have a two-staple binding. This gets the job done and hasn’t fallen apart, despite my abuse. The writing in the module was clear and to the point. There were a few confused wordings that editing didn’t pick up, but overall the quality is quite good.

The most distracting problem was the use of in-voice prose to describe factual information. For example, the background describes the campaign of Paltharium against Valsinuos as groundless agression with a thin veneer of respectable motivation. Two pages later, the same conflict is described as ending because of Valsinuos’ “weak willed people and the spineless rabble of their nobility”. How did the port city of Valsini become such an influential trade center if these deprecating comments about the province and its people are true? I can only assume the author was writing from a particular perspective, the viewpoint of Paltharium. In a module this short, the DM shouldn’t have to decipher whose viewpoint the informational text is coming from.

The one section that lacked the same clarity as the others was the description of the tunnel entrances to the tower. Read them several times before running the adventure. I recommend making a sketch of the area, particularly with regard to what is above or below water. Description of complex indoor terrain is not easy. A few insightfully chosen sketches could have made the geography of the area a lot clearer.

Conclusions

In general, the playtesters liked this adventure. It was described as not being particularly inspiring or subtle, but genuinely fun. The playtesters felt that all the encounters made sense for the area and seemed to fit together well in the atmosphere of the story being told. I can certainly vouch for this module being a great start for new characters, and by extension new players, as this was the first D20 game my playtesters and I have played. (We were all familiar with older versions of AD&D, howver, so we weren’t totally new to the system.) The last two pages (the section titled “Resolution”) have a number of ideas for future adventures that can extend the module into a longer running adventure. These are quite good and could have sparked several extensions to the campaign.

I wouldn’t keep a copy under my pillow at night, but for five dollars, this could definitely be a good way to start your new campaign.

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