First published 10/6/2001; last edited 1/5/2005; published to the reviews blog 2/13/2007
Pros: Interesting background and characters
Cons: Wasted space; inconsistency; plot holes; focus placed on the wrong things; designer bias; binary outcomes
Rating: 2 out of 5
Having read and playtested “The Succubus Bride”, I can’t in good conscience recommend that you run out and buy it. There are some problems with this module. It may provide some interesting background and an NPC or two for an existing campaign, but it does not stand well on its own. Beware, this review contains spoilers!
In “The Succubus Bride”, the characters are experienced adventurers (7th to 8th level). They have signed on to aid a kingdom named Ulria in a war against the monsters of the Rintrah Mountains as united under a wizard named Maldekore. The characters get to know Prince Halthar (of Ulria) and are invited to peace talks between the two countries. To seal the peace, Prince Halthar must marry Liandra, Maldekore’s sister. Halthar’s brother, Prince Havorn, suspects that Liandra is a demon and sends the party to retrieve a protective ring to safeguard his brother’s soul. When they return, the party must find Liandra, who has been abducted in their absence. The conclusion of the module is intended to be an epic battle between the PCs and Votan, the duergar who has kidnapped Liandra.
Bringing the Party Together
One of the first tasks of any module is pulling the characters together. “The Succubus Bride” starts with the assumption that the characters have signed on for Ulria’s war against Maldekore. The two suggestions given are that the players join the war for patriotism (if applicable) or money (if patriotism isn’t appropriate). The need to bring the PCs into a war was less of a problem in the other Guildhouse Games module we reviewed recently, “A Green Place To Die”. In that module, the characters were first level. “The Succubus Bride” is pitched to higher level characters, which means they’ve had much more time to develop personal backgrounds, preferences, and quirks. While the author of a module can’t scry into every DM’s living room and write accordingly, touching on a small handful of common themes, motivations, and emotions wouldn’t exhaust too much word count.
Once the party is in the game, things progress more smoothly for the first encounter, which serves to introduce the party to Halthar. The party is based out of Luren’s Glade, and Prince Halthar has been transferred there by his father. There are several mission plot seeds that should give the party a chance to experience the military life and get to know Halthar until the next section of the adventure.
While the mission seeds don’t indicate that any of the missions will accomplish goals of any import, this is consistent with the general lack of progress made by Ulria during the war. Unfortunately, we had to summarize these missions in the playtest, rather than playing through them, because we did not own a copy of the monster manual. The antagonists described in the mission seeds do not have statistics in the module.
Consistency and Common Sense
Some parts of the story lacked internal consistency. The war with Ulria began when Maldekore’s united monster nation battled the Ralstein clan of dwarves out of their mithril mines at the edge of the Rintrah mountains. Ulria fought for her allies, but the kingdom’s legendary cavalry fared about as well as … well … cavalry in a mountain range. While Maldekore’s attention is turned to the peace treaty, some duergar sneak into the mithril mines and conquer Maldekore’s goblin garrison.
The duergar start to erode the common sense in the story. As early as page 6, the dwarven stronghold is called “nigh-impenetrable”. And in several other places the difficulty of an assault on the stronghold is emphasized. And yet, not once, but twice in the last few months, the mines have been conquered. Votan, the leader of the duergar, plans to use Liandra to lure Maldekore into teleporting into a trapped room. Wouldn’t trapping Maldekore be easier under a guise of friendship? After all, both Votan and Maldekore want the Ralstein dwarves destroyed. Why didn’t Votan approach Maldekore with a deal? If Maldekore has any sense at all, he would see that the duergar are a great way to solidify his hold on the mines. And Votan can plot to backstab Maldekore at his leisure after the Ralstein dwarves are finished off.
Most of all, suppose Votan were to succeed and Maldekore were to be killed. Maldekore’s coalition of monsters wouldn’t hold together without Maldekore in the lead, a fact that Votan is counting on to keep the mithril mines. What happens a few months afterwards when Ulria isn’t occupied with former servants of Maldekore? Ulria and the Ralstein dwarves would find themselves up against, not the whole mountain’s worth of monsters, but just the duergar. Even if the standing army is oriented towards cavalry, Ulria could afford enough mercenaries to aid the dwarves in a fight reduced to such a small scope. After all, the “nigh-impenetrable” mines have already fallen twice in a year, why not three times in two?
More than the backstory of the mines, though, my favorite continuity break in the module comes when Maldekore tries to persuade the party to find his abducted sister. Suspicion is flying around that:
- Maldekore did it to sabotage the peace;
- Ulria did it to sabotage the peace;
- or, the Ralstein dwarves did it to (you guessed it) sabotage the peace.
Maldekore approaches the party (with his diplomatic envoy, Sygel, who does all the talking) and asks them to find his sister. The Ulrian authorities are already investigating, but he wants the party in order to have “an impartial party in the recovery to remove any question of wrongdoing from either side.” Did he say impartial? Yes, the PCs are hired mercenaries, but they’ve been fighting with Ulrian soldiers against Maldekore’s forces. Presumably they made some friends up at Luren’s Glade. Presumably, since the war hasn’t been going well, some of those friends are dead, or worse. The PCs are well known to be good friends with Prince Halthar, which is how they ended up in town for the peace talks anyway. The possibility that one or more PCs may be Ralstein dwarves or Ulrian citizens is even suggested as a plot hook in the introduction to the module. Impartial?! It is suggested that one of the PCs might even have developed a love interest in Halthar! How could this person have any desire to go out and find the woman he’s now supposed to marry? Please let me never deliberate on a jury with PCs from this adventure. “Well, I’ve gotten to know the defendant very well in the two months I’ve been sleeping with him. I’m pretty sure he’s innocent.”
Before I build a bridge and get over this, there is some icing for this cake. If the characters are hesitant to agree, Sygel insinuates that the characters are looking to sabotage the peace to extend their wartime contract with Ulria. If Sygel can readily come up with a reason not to consider the PCs impartial, then why approach them for help?
Oh right, I forgot about the big sack of cash. As was the solution if the characters don’t have any other reason to join the war, money is the bottom line. “Okay guys, club the love-struck elf and throw ‘er in the cart. I want that gold.”
Much later, when the party finds Liandra, she’s already been in contact with Maldekore. He knows where she is. He knows the duergar have taken his mines. Why let a small band of PCs blow it? Why not contact them, or have Liandra tell them to leave when they show up. Maldekore could put together a hand-chosen commando team of death-dealing evil and melt the duergar where they stand. Instead he trusts that the PCs are going to be fine against a duergar army. This is how he allocates manpower? And he was winning the war against Ulria? That terrain advantage of the mountains must have been quite something.
Space Well Spent
One of the most important contributing factors to the success of this kind of book is how well spent the space is. The format of this book is a small (6.5″ x 10.25″) page size, with only 32 pages. The advantage is that the book is only about $5 USD. However, with so little room to work with, the author must be very careful about what to include. Anything in there that doesn’t directly add to what the PCs see, hear, and feel is probably squeezing out something that would.
A lot of space in “The Succubus Bride” is devoted to exactly the wrong things. The introduction contains an absolutely beautiful discussion on changing the feel of the campaign. Depending on the mood or themes you want to work with, you can make King Ravorn (Ulria’s king) look more world-weary, more like a man sacrificing honor for the good of his people, or like a greedy monarch with an opportunity for a good trade agreement. I was very impressed with the thought that went into this sort of thematic customization.
Unfortunately, these suggestions are almost entirely irrelevant. The characters don’t spend enough time with the citizens of the kingdom to see these subtly crafted changes in the temperament of the people. They ride through town at a gallop on one mission or another, but they’re never given cause to really have to talk to anyone. And subtle changes in the way events reflect on Ravorn doesn’t make too much difference either, as the players don’t spend much time in his company either. The characters are never in a position to affect policy, so why fan the flames of their opinions on that policy?
The kingdom is described in the introduction as being “deliberately typical”. Although I’ve just claimed that the characters don’t see much of Ulria, they certainly see a lot more of it than they do of Maldekore’s patchwork nation (which sounds a lot more interesting). The idea seems to be that you can map Ulria down onto the kingdom of your choice if you want to set this adventure in a slightly different world or one of your own creation. Some people may prefer this kind of module; I don’t.
Maldekore’s background is similar to the customization ideas. It’s beautiful. I like it a great deal. But I’m going to lift it and graft it on to another character in another game entirely because my playtesters never saw any of it. To quote one of them, “Maldekore is a force of nature at best.” The party is excluded from the diplomatic negotiations, and the only time Maldekore approaches them, Sygel does all the talking. It’s not like the party is going to ask him if he wants to head down to the tavern and talk about his childhood.
Attention is misplaced in the Succubus bride. The word count and interesting details are given to the people and places that least show up in the game as far as the players are concerned. Some additional examples include:
- During the diplomatic meetings, there just isn’t much for the PCs to do but wait for the outcome. Unless they’re diplomats or nobility in their own right, they’re not even permitted to attend. Yet the terms of the peace get a lengthy passage in the module.
- In order to retrieve the ring to safeguard Prince Halthar, the PCs must travel to an island by boat. Several Mohrg pirates attempt to hijack the ship, while the PCs are ashore. The author writes, “The PCs need magic of some sort (fly, teleport, etc.) to have any chance of recovering the vessel.” If the characters just happen to have the right spell, then they have an interesting problem. Otherwise they’re just stranded.
- During the investigation into Liandra’s disappearance (before Maldekore approaches the party), a great deal of space is devoted to describing the clues of the mystery and the potential suspects. Then the module goes on to explain that investigating the mystery may be impractical because of the high level of political influence of most of the suspects (Maldekore, the princes, King Ravorn, etc.). Furthermore, the module itself says, “Most importantly, the guilty party has not been introduced yet, which is the hallmark of a bad mystery.” So why is so much effort devoted to the presentation of this bad mystery? In some ways, it was a moot point: the playtesters left the investigation in the hands of the Ulrian authorities until asked by Halthar to intervene.
- And lastly, while the characters are sailing out to Sinner’s Island, they are beset by a locathah patrol. The right thing to do is sit back and let the captain handle it, and there’s even a good paragraph or so about the captain’s familiarity with the locathah. But if the characters pick a fight, all that’s said is that it will cause a fight with the whole patrol. There’s no indication of the consequences.
Think Like This…
Every game or module has a certain amount of designer bias. Too much designer bias makes it much easier to solve the puzzle or survive the module if you think the way the designer does. The biggest single problem “The Succubus Bride” has is extensive designer bias.
The first example of this is Zonari’s tomb. Once the party is inside the tomb, they find a coffin in the floor. It has a body in it, humbly dressed. The module suggests that the lack of finery and material wealth should immediately cast doubt on this being Zonari. I wear blue jeans and a T-shirt every day, even to work, but I’m probably going to be dressed in a suit when they bury me. In the D20 setting, it wouldn’t surprise me if the dead were pretty well stripped of anything valuable before being buried (or after, by grave robbers). So why should the characters particularly jump to the conclusion that it’s probably not her?
About the duergar-controlled mine… despite the vehemence of some of my earlier complaints, this is definitely the biggest problem spot in the module. In the entrance to the mine, the party has to fight their way past a patrol of duergar. My playtesters managed to catch any duergar in a position to warn the rest of the mine. However, the party had no way of knowing this. In fact, after being met at the door by a squad of dwarves, they had every reason to believe that the duergar were fully aware of their presence. They believed they’d fought through the first round, but lost their chance at stealth right off the bat.
So, they did the reasonable thing and went in fast and loud, looking to get Liandra out. They only realized that the duergar had not been fully alerted to their presence once they were surrounded by an army of the grey dwarves. Individual duergar aren’t significant obstacles, but two or three squads of them with D20’s flanking rules leaves little chance to survive. Our playtest party survived only through lax treatment of the combat rules and our desire to see how the end of the game played out.
Perhaps the module author plays with a gaming group in which it is standard procedure to make everyone silent and invisible before heading into any dungeon. Or perhaps it is tradition that everyone else goes off to dinner while the thief in the party sneaks around solo to do recon. Even so, the chances of remaining undetected seemed very small and the consequences of discovery very deadly.
Writing and Packaging
The technical aspects of the writing were fairly good. There were very few spelling or grammatical mistakes. But the originality of the written material lagged behind.
I’ve already mentioned I didn’t like Ulria as “deliberately typical”. But the royal family is in a league all by itself. One heavy head wearing the crown: check. In fact, right down to the gray hairs in his beard, the lines on his face, and the weariness that comes from responsibility, King Ravorn is the picture-perfect image of the good king stereotype. One fiery, angry son in his nation’s military: check. Prince Havorn, the heir-apparent, is the cavalry’s general and is a decisive leader made angry by the bitter losses of the war. You can guess what’s next… one naive, innocent, but virtuous younger prince: check! Prince Halthar would really rather lead a life of adventure and eagerly listens to the stories of the party. Halthar is exactly what you’d expect and sadly nothing more. As covered above, the villains are actually fascinating characters; Maldekore and Sygel, although not so much Liandra, have interesting backgrounds and personalities, which never actually show up to the PCs in this module.
A last, unusual aspect of the royal family of Ulria is that we’re forced to conclude that they reproduce by an asexual means of reproduction. I double-checked to be sure, but I could not find any mention of the Queen of Ulria. Given that three other members of the royal family are described in multi-paragraph detail, I expected that even if she’d died much earlier, there would be some mention of the effect of that on her husband or her children. Some DMs would say that she simply died, or even yet lives, though with no impact on her family or her kingdom. But I scoff at such skeptics: the royal line must reproduce mitotically.
There are a few other conventions of fantasy game modules that are matters of personal preference. There is a tendency for characters to speak in monologues, probably because it’s easier to write italicized runs of text for single speakers rather than conversations. In practice, this didn’t bother my playtesters as much as me, so I’ll swallow that complaint as my own preference.
There are a few places where it’s easier to understand the events on a page if you’ve read some paragraphs a few pages later. Fortunately, this sort of out-of-order mention of events happens rarely and does not significantly detract from the module. Just read it over a few times before you run it, which is sound advice for any module.
The comments of the playtesters drove home two points. First, they complained that there’s too much of a binary choice between, “you win” and “you’re dead”. They cited the trap at Zonari’s crypt and the duergar situation as examples. Once you’ve made a mistake, there’s very little chance to recover alive and continue on. I believe this is mostly a matter of needing to think like the author, or at least like the author’s gaming group, in order to know the “obvious” right thing to do.
The second complaint they had was that Maldekore, as quoted above, was “a force of nature at best”. Sygel and Maldekore were the most interesting characters in the module. Certainly Maldekore’s nation had a lot more personality than Ulria and her royal court. Yet, all that personality came into play where the PCs weren’t. Even the specifics of the peace negotiations and the recognition of the nation of Maldekore don’t come up other than in summary from Halthar.
Ultimately, “The Succubus Bride” seems to keep the characters just out of reach of where something genuinely interesting is happening. When the characters do get their moment in the light, they do so in situations where the odds can turn horribly against them if they don’t play with the set of tactics assumed by the author. There are definitely some good ideas that can be mined from this module, and a very good villain character or two (Maldekore and Sygel). But I wouldn’t buy this book with the intention of running the module as its written.