Review of "Red or White," by James Herring, Guildhouse Games

First published 5/21/2002; last edited 1/5/2005; published to the reviews blog 2/13/2007

Pros: Interesting characters
Cons: Lack of plot hooks and information; focus on the wrong things; filler
Rating: 2 out of 5

Let’s get one thing straight right off. This playtest review has many spoilers in it. This review might well totally ruin your sense of mystery and wonder with regard to “Red or White.” If you’re a GM, this isn’t an issue. But if you’re a player, you’ll probably learn things in this review that your character would never know, even after going through the adventure. And that, gentle reader, is the biggest problem with this module.

The Adventure Hook

But before I get a ahead of myself, let me address the adventure hook. The party is sitting in an inn. A cleric comes in and offers the party money to check out a rumor that someone in Thentis has a non-magical cure for lycanthropy. There are several things that bothered me about this introduction.

Lack of plot hooks: The priest that is looking to employ the party asks if they are for hire. If they say no, the module decrees that the game ends. There are no alternative story entrances provided, nor even does the author concede the possibility of other reasons to pursue the plot. Couldn’t the characters be motivated to seek a cure for lycanthropy in Thentis above and beyond blindly taking a job from the priest? Couldn’t the GM arrange to have one of the characters or a loved one catch the disease or believe they have caught it? (Given that Thentis merely has a treatment, not a cure, this would make for particularly poignant farewells at the end of the adventure.)

If anyone in the party is a cleric or magic user, couldn’t knowledge of the workings of the cure be played up to pique their interest? Later in the adventure, the characters are given works of art from a private collection as a reward. Couldn’t one of those works be something that one of the characters has been searching for anyway, with rumors pointing to Thentis? It’s not hard to provide a handful of hooks the GM can tailor to his or her party, but this module fails to do so.

Lack of information: The cleric is able to provide precious little information about the cure rumored to be found in Thentis. In fact, all Drukar (the cleric) can tell the party is that for several years, rumors have floated about that someone in Thentis knows a cure for lycanthropy that doesn’t involve magic. Written straight into the module is, “He doesn’t know anything else.” Apparently Drukar doesn’t know where he heard this rumor, who from, how long ago, how often, or under what circumstances. This leaves the party totally unable to do any legwork on the reliability of the information before leaving for Thentis.

Pointless red herring: Lastly, the module makes an off-handed attempt to misdirect the party into believing that Drukar may be afflicted with lycanthropy. However, if the party chooses to investigate Drukar rather than travelling straight to Thentis, there is no material provided in the module to support the effort. It’s a red-herring, but not one that can be sustained beyond the front door of the inn using the material provided in the book.

All three problems touch on the same theme. The loving detail in this book is not put where the players will get hold of it.

My Name Is Bond… Erwin Bond

Imagine, if you will, that you are Ian Fleming. You’ve just dreamed up James Bond’s latest outlandish adventure. It’s your best work yet. The plot is absolutely diabolical in its complexity. The villain is a reflection of man’s darkest dreams. Q division even has a wristwatch that can yodel. Naturally, you write the book centering around the life of Bond’s second cousin, the actuary, who will never come into contact with the diabolical plot or devilish villain, right?

This problem haunts the rest of the adventure. Baron Orenzky actually killed a number of townfolk. However, the murders took place nearly five years earlier, and the townspeople remember them as having happened before the Baron’s return. Therefore, there’s no reason to suspect him and no physical evidence left. The nobleman is actually a vampire, but unless the party is very paranoid with divination magics, such as detecting undead, they are unlikely to find this out either. (If they anger him, such as by threatening his town, the baron may reveal his true nature, but the party is unlikely to survive the revelation.)

Once in town, the party is welcome to investigate the rumors of a cure for lycanthropy, but no one in the town is willing to talk about it. None will even admit that there are lycanthropes present in town. The only NPCs who are willing to open up to the party don’t know about the lycanthropy. So there is, as scripted by the module, nothing to find.

A special inn set aside by Baron Orenzky for the enjoyment of the winery company has its own interesting background. In particular, the woman who runs the inn has a very colorful and criminal history. Unfortunately, it’s another mystery with no clues for the PCs to use in solving it. In fact there’s nothing even to make them suspicious. She’s used her current identity for a number of years; there’s nothing to tie her to any previous wrong-doing.

Even the discovery of the wellspring of water near Thentis brings only unanswered questions. It’s the water that contains the magic. An emperor of an empire long since fallen lies buried near the wellspring. He loved his nation so well that his spirit imbues the water with magical properties, one of which is suppression of lycanthropy. However, even if someone has the bardic knowledge necessary to know something of the emperor’s life and recognize his grave, that doesn’t provide a strong link to the cure the party is supposedly looking for. (Remember, no one has even admitted to the presence of lycanthopes in town to the party.)

Unfortunately, because all of the space in the module is spent detailing background that is never revealed to the party, very little space is spent on what the party sees. The plot feels like a linear tour. Sure, they may choose not to undertake the missions requested by the baron. But that ends the adventure, much like refusing the work offered by the cleric, as mentioned above. The other variation is that the party could fail instead of succeeding. Other than that, the results are all scripted.

Perhaps much of the product was intended to be a town setting guide to Thentis. If so, that intention should’ve been more clearly marketed with the product. As it stands, the section detailing Thentis and twisted background of its inhabitants simply reads like adventure material that is never likely to appear in the adventure.

Lycanthropy? Second Door on the Right

One of the complaints of the playtesters was that the module really had very little to do with its advertised theme. The party goes to Thentis. No one talks to them about lycanthropy. They talk to the winery and shipping staff. No one knows anything about lycanthropy or its cures. They go on a mission for the baron. No one says anything about lycanthropy. They go on another mission for the baron. He tells them everything they need to know about lycanthropy and sends them on their way. Pardon? Wasn’t there a plot, you know, missing in there somewhere? We expected a story about lycanthropy, cures, and uncovering information. The module delivered none of those things except as the framing elements for a different story altogether.

To be fair, there is a brief jaunt in the middle out to talk to a hunter who was once attacked by a shapeshifter. Guess what the party learns from him about lycanthropy or a cure in Thentis? Yep — nothing. It’s written into the module that he will not reveal that there are lycanthropes (and by extension a treatment) in Thentis.

Parting Shots

Above, I’ve already complained that the module doesn’t provide enough information that will actually impact game play. This sacrifice buys room for a great deal of irrelevant background and detail. I’ve also made the claim that the module really isn’t even about what it advertises itself as being about. How much more damage can I do?

There is a combat encounter near the beginning of the adventure with a bandit named D’Jet and a number of cronies. This doesn’t really add anything to the game. It’s there to work some of the bloodlust out of the party, as the module puts it. But with no connection to any part of the rest of the module, it’s just filler. If you really have a party with bloodlust, roll some random encounters.

Some of the backstories and personalities in the town of Thentis are worth keeping. If you pick up the module, you may find it valuable to take some of the characters and stories and use them in your own campaign. In fact, if the part of the book devoted to the advancing the plot, such as the missions against General Targati, had been dropped in favor of more detail on the people of Thentis, it might have been a pretty good setting resource.

The editing in the book is, on the whole, good. There were few ungainly spelling or grammar problems. The writing was a bit rough in places, particularly the use of metaphor and simile. One of our playtesters burst out laughing when I read the italicized text describing the forest and the mountains fighting for control of an area.

The art was unremarkable line art: neither inspiring nor attrocious. (The exception is the drawing of the rose carved out of a solid chunk of ruby. I rather liked that one.) On the whole, the technical aspects of the writing were not bad, but they could definitely be improved.

    Packaging: 7 out of 10
    Inspiration: 3 out of 10
    Nuts and Bolts: 3 out of 10
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