"Interludes: Expeditions to Bluffside," Jeffrey Quinn, et. al.

Pros: Refreshing plots; theme boxes; flexibility
Cons: Small things here and there
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

     

First published 11/30/2001
Review copy courtesy of Thunderhead Games

Interludes is a d20 supplement, so you’ll need the D&D Players Handbook, third edition in order to run it. As always I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers, but it’s hard to review an adventure module without giving away a couple of things. So if you think your game master (GM) might run this for you, you might want to stick to the overall scores at the beginning, or at least skip the “Material Provided” and playtest notes sections.

Interludes is set in Thunderhead Games’ Bluffside: City on the Edge campaign setting. While it would make sense to use them together, I believe that you can have a lot of fun with Interludes even if you don’t have Bluffside.

Customization

I’m going to start right off by discussing the thing I love most about this adventure: It’s customizable. It doesn’t just assume 4 characters of second level. It has these great little things called “theme boxes;” you check off the ones that are appropriate to your group, and it lets you fine-tune the adventure to your party! Have a group of first level or fewer characters? No problem. Third level or more characters? They can handle that too! Extra divine spellcasters? Extra arcane spellcasters? Multiple fighters? Multiple rogues? They can even handle that! For people who like to play with “non-traditional” parties, it’s one of the few adventures you’ll find that you can adapt easily to your group. Now that I’ve seen this work, I can’t imagine why more companies don’t do similar things!

Two Very Minor Problems

In one place the writer seems to have mis-used the theme box idea. As I understand it, you check the boxes that are appropriate to the kind of party you have and game you want, and just ignore the boxes you haven’t checked – those extra antagonists, traps, encounters, and so on just don’t exist as far as your party is concerned. However, in one place the theme box is used, instead, to convey information that only priests would be able to figure out. If you failed to check the box and thus skipped over it as though it didn’t exist, you might miss information that could be useful at some point.

One of the categories is for “roleplay-heavy parties.” The only theme box that I noticed for this category in this particular adventure was a vault door with a wacky lever-based set of combination locks supposedly designed by someone famous for his “un-pickable” locks. I’d imagine that there was supposed to be some sort of puzzle that made this interesting; unfortunately, I noticed no puzzle here. There are simply a handful of combinations, with no suggestions as to how your players might puzzle them out. Presumably they can sit there and try all the combinations, but then this is just a random in-game time-waster, not a roleplaying challenge at all.

Organization, Layout, Aesthetics

The organization and layout are clear and easy to read. The Table of Contents is fabulous – it individually lists and gives the page number for each item, spell, NPC, creature, and so on. NPCs are nicely organized by the location they’re relevant to. Every time a roll or check of some kind is called for in the text, it’s set off in a box so that you can’t possibly miss it. Information meant to be read to players is offset and in bold, making it particularly easy to pick out at a glance.

Maps are simple and useful. The ornamental side-designs along the pages are beautiful. Tables are clear and easy to read, as are theme boxes. The art isn’t drop-dead gorgeous in most places, but it is good and appropriate.

There are some typos, even of the sort that a spell-checker should have caught, but they aren’t frequent or annoying. There is one sentence that trails off into thin air, and a couple of bits of confusing or ambiguous wording, but I’ve seen much worse in other roleplaying products.

Material Provided

You’ll get a lot of use out of this little book! Not only will you find a full day of adventure and the seeds of much more besides, but there are lots of juicy tidbits to go along with the adventure. As the ad copy says: 12 new creatures (including a rather fun little creature that makes a great familiar), 2 new spells, 11 new items, 2 new prestige classes (both of which are interesting and suggest fun plots), 2 new feats, more than 30 NPCs, and more!

What I particularly like is the fact that the items, spells, wandering encounters, creatures, and so on aren’t just glued-on “cool stuff.” They’re things that make sense for the area. The location definitely has its own ecology, and it’s one that colors everything. This makes the setting interesting and memorable.

My only minor quibble in this area is that the adventure summary doesn’t really explain where the PCs are likely to fit into things. I know to some extent this is because you can’t predict how they’ll get involved, but on the other hand, it might help the GM to come up to speed quickly if the summary gave some idea of how the party might get involved.

Plot Hooks, Rumors, and People

Plot hooks having to do with various people and locations are frequent and easily set in simple list form, so you can pick, choose, and work them into conversations as you prefer. Same with rumors. This is wonderful – it’s so nice to see an adventure that doesn’t try to anticipate conversational directions (which always fails!) and instead simply provides you the means to easily respond to your own player characters (PCs).

There’s plenty of extra material in the rumor mill and plot hook sections for you to expand on for quite some time to come. There are even locations that are deliberately not detailed so that you can add your own material in if you so choose. The book makes it very easy to customize the area to your heart’s content, and the wealth of information really makes the town and its people feel “real.” This would make a fabulous start to a longer-term campaign.

The adventure background and plots are wonderful! No trite princesses to be rescued, lost treasure to be regained, and so on. Instead, it all revolves around a misunderstanding which you just have to read about to believe.

The people are likewise interesting. It’s hard to avoid some stereotypes when most of the NPCs are described in only one or two paragraphs, but that’s all right. The author concentrated on providing enough information to make each NPC stand out, to give each one his or her own personality – you won’t have any problems with NPCs that seem all alike! There’s also a lot of character to the temple ruins; they aren’t just another dungeon.

Small Plot Problems

I only have two real quibbles with the plot, and it’s possible that I’ve missed a detail somewhere that would have made them make sense. There’s a priestess in town who’s looking for a lost temple to her deity, and she has heard a rumor that it’s off in the woods somewhere. Later on you find someone from the town who knows where the ruins are. There’s no reason suggested for why he hasn’t told the priestess about them! (In a town this small, it’s awfully hard to imagine why he wouldn’t know that she’s looking for them.) I’d recommend introducing some reason why he doesn’t like her and would refuse to tell her.

The other problem is that if the party takes the diplomatic out to the plot, which is better for them plot-wise, they’re likely to miss all the interesting stuff in the temple ruins. However, for various reasons the goblinoids in this plot (who have control of the ruins) don’t want to offend anyone or get into trouble with anyone. So, if the PCs ask the goblins to show them around the temple, have the goblins do so – at least the non-treasure-containing places, which allows the party to find some of the religion-relevant spiffiness.

NPC Oddity

I do find it a little odd that a handful of NPCs that only show up at the end of the book are given fairly long descriptions, while the townsfolk, goblins, and so on only get one-paragraph tidbits. In most d20 adventures I’d say that this meant we’d just stumbled across the characters that the author ripped out of his own campaign and has put lots of past loving work into that he didn’t want to leave out. In this case, I think it has more to do with the idea that your party will probably stay involved with these characters in later adventures. (At least I hope so. This book has been so good so far that I’m willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt on this one.) I still think the space would have been better spent on characters more relevant to the module, however.

Free Will

Anyone familiar with my articles or adventure reviews will know that I’m a real stickler for the free will issue. I hate adventures that railroad parties in certain directions or otherwise dictate PC feelings or actions. This adventure almost entirely avoids this – quite a respectable feat! The only very minor problems were a couple of “read aloud” descriptions that provided subjective judgements on the part of the PCs. Leave out these lines and you’ll be fine.

By and large this adventure is much better about the free will issue than almost all of the others I’ve read! It provides some decent suggestions in case your PCs do various different things, and gives you plenty of loose suggestions and information such that your players can try almost anything. My only real quibble is with the assertion that the villain must get away to become a recurring villain. I believe that while it’s reasonable to make it very likely that someone will get away, if the players get particularly creative then they should be allowed to succeed.

Additional Playtest Notes

My players agreed with me that this is the best d20 adventure we’ve seen yet! Patrick called it “a better product than the main rulebooks put out by WotC.” The revelation that the plot revolved around cracked everybody up, and the players all agreed that it was original, interesting, and a lot of fun to find out about! We did have a few observations, however.

My first note is that NPC information is a bit scattered – some is in the NPC section at the end, and some is in the locations the PCs visit. This is a little annoying as it makes the GM flip back and forth a lot, particularly when the PCs run into an NPC outside of his or her standard location (which does happen now and then).

The adventure does suggest four NPCs that can be used as pre-generated player characters if you wish (yay!). My only problem with this is that since they aren’t printed on separate pages from the other NPCs, it’s difficult to photocopy them for players without giving them information relevant to other NPCs as well. (Update: I understand Thunderhead is going to provide these characters’ sheets via download on their web site, so this problem isn’t a problem any more!)

The adventure could use a couple of suggestions for experience point awards in the case of parties that take the diplomatic solution to the goblin plot; otherwise, there isn’t much material that’s experience-point worthy until the end of the adventure. This would also help to keep the violent solution from being so much more beneficial to the party in terms of experience points and treasure. I estimated an eep award, but it would have been nice to have rough guidelines.

Because the main plot is fairly time-critical, your party is unlikely to wander around and find out about all the spiffy plot hooks until after the adventure is completed. Which means that this supplement is more useful as a start to a longer-running campaign than as a one-off adventure. It would seem a shame not to make use of all the really neat plot hooks scattered throughout!

I feel it necessary to point out that pretty much all of the “problems” in this module were errors of omission – corner cases that the author didn’t think of, or small details that needed a little more thought. None of them are adventure-breaking problems. None of them are things that you can’t correct for with a few moments of thought.

Posted in Gaming, Reviews

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