Up From Darkness, Rite Publishing's latest offering in the continuing attempts to punish PCs everywhere, is a tale woven by Jonathan McAnulty. 35 pages, with the obligatory page count adjustments made for covers, OGL, credit pages such on and so forth give us a total page count for the adventure of 22, with a 5 page section of GM aids...we'll get to those, you'll like. The pdf also gives you 5 pre-generated characters to utilize, which in this case are an extremely handy thing, which shall be explained.
Formatting follows the standard dual column layout, with embedded artwork, as well as a few pages with a solo art piece tucked in here and there. The pages are decorated in a pattern that will have invokes thoughts of stylized oriental bamboo framework. Michael K. Tumey's cartography brings a very old school feel to this project, and gamers with an appreciation for older generations of RPGs, or even fans of the many nostalgia clones on the market will instantly feel comfortable with the mapping style used for most of the cartography used in this adventure. Now, I say most as there is one seriously odd duck in regards to the cartography. One particular area has not only been done in the classic style for the interior, but a 3 dimensional CG model has been provided to show the exterior of the section as well. The purpose behind it makes sense in that it helps visualize the manner in which the rooms relate to each other, but the two drastically conflicting styles really make this particular map page look odd.
OK....so all of the basics and non story-point specifics out of the way, this is an adventure review...and we all know what that means, now don't we? That's right. Players, begone. Seriously, stop reading, forward the link on to your GM, close the page and go peruse your GM's wishlist to see how you can further let them know you appreciate all they do for you....OK, we alone now? Just us GMs and such? Alright. Let's take a look into this story, shall we?
First off, this is not anything I would call a standard adventure. The basic story idea is as follows...The PCs are attempting to earn a spot amongst the Hakayami, an elite unit of Shogun within the Kaidan setting. How elite? Final initiation involves ritual suicide and transference of one's soul into a “loaner” body entombed at the bottom of a pitch black dungeon. The PCs assume the roles of these newly self assassinated initiates. They awaken within stone coffins, alone, in the dark, with no memories or clues as to how they got there, who they are, and what the hell is going on. Throughout the adventure there will be key times that the PCs will trigger snippets of memory to surface, as well as moments that they can trigger through roleplay (much like a reward system, earning additional memory snippets). Along with the loss of identity, and of course their original bodies, comes the loss of gear....all gear. The PCs start with kimonos, and must explore to put together enough gear to survive the challenges that roam the dungeon, as well as the obstacles through which they must go on their upward ascent to escape the dungeon. Surviving the dungeon and regaining their memories as they go will earn them the coveted position amongst the Hakayami...it goes without saying the ranks of the Hakayami don't often swell with new recruits.
So...what we have here, story-wise, is a self encapsulated adventure. As a GM I would be hard pressed to sell this to my players as something to incorporate into an ongoing campaign or storyline. And, truth be told, I think that is where this adventure's strength lies. It is not concerned with where the characters were before this, who they were, or where they thought they were going. By limiting the playing field down to what it is, and stripping the PCs of their memories, it forces the players to go back to basics and work as a team to survive, period. The pregens supplied are recommended to be used as they have been written with this adventure in mind, and lets face it, most players are not going to be to happy to hear that their characters killed themselves to earn a right to be part of this adventure, so pregens avoids that entirely. Now, are there potential issues with this, yes. Right off the bat I find myself wondering about spell casters...the PCs have no memories, why would a spell casting character still have spells available to them? And no, I'm not even thinking along the lines of study time being lost to the whole dying situation, no I am thinking why would I, as a person, try to cast a spell unless I knew I could do it? Also, we have a pregen with some physical enhancements, for lack of better wording. Very cool concept utilizing a necrotic warrior (bone)....but I don't see why the “loaner” body would automatically get the bone spikes and spears abilities, as I see that as more of a physical concept of the PCs body, not an attachment to their soul...So, these would be what I see as being hurdles to the idea of waking up 1) in someone else's body, and 2) amnesia...both can be worked with and around, just giving a heads up to GMs, as this would be something for me that I would want to put some thought into to be prepared to answer when a player challenged it at the table.
Now here is where those GM aids really come to bear, with a selection of random memory snippets, as well as finishing touches for the pregen characters. A very nice touch in making sure that every time this adventure is played through it will be a different game. There are a few editing issues here with misspelled words though, and that does not help sell these as well as they should have been.
Now, right off the bat the PCs can manage to get themselves into trouble, as the room within which they awaken contains more than just the bodies they are inhabiting. Opening any other stone coffins runs the risk of allowing the creation of a tamashinaki, as an elemental spirit may take control of the “empty” body and immediately attack. Obviously this would pose an interesting challenge for the group, as they are weaponless at this point, but a great way to make sure they understand what level of danger they are up against.
Ghostly samurai, haunts, traps and hungry critters all await the exploring PCs on the lower levels of this dungeon...with areas set up to equip the PCs with the gear they will need to survive. And thematically I am really liking the feel of where the story is going at this point as far as the over all vibe of the dungeon itself...crawling their way from the bottom to the top, facing an ever growing level of difficulty in creatures that are not your standard run of the mill grab bag of creatures, the PCs are in for a gauntlet that will more than likely cost a few of them their lives. The adventure is prepared for that though, remember there are additional bodies in the lowest level. Yep, if a PC dies they wake up and get to start all over again, no memories, no clues...evil...love it.
I am not a huge fan of adventures that are as self contained as this one is, I will not lie. But this one surprised me, pleasantly. The story idea is a good one, the idea of this being a one off with pregens works well for me and my playgroup, a nice break from our normal game. I can easily see this being used as an opener for a Kaidan campaign as well, if one were looking to attach the PCs to a faction for story purposes. My point here, this is a good story. An extremely good story. Which is why the next part of this really sucks. The pdf has several editing issues, odd spaces in the middle of paragraphs, irregular underlining format to the statblocks, misspelled words...and the map keys not being present. I can overlook a great deal of editing hiccups if they don't truly cause issues with comprehension...but being told in text that trap X is marked on the map at location C, only to go to the map and find no C...over and over...that I can not overlook.
OK...take note folks...for this is an important thing to realize. When things are not right, and people are willing to listen and go back in and fix them, that is how customers are won...period. This adventure is an excellent story concept that for me was held back by the original maps drastically. Not only have the maps been updated with proper markings to tell you where the author intends for encounters, haunts and traps to be located, the secret doors and stairs have been properly labelled. In addition, the second map's odd style change has been addressed, and I have to say the new map showing the ascent path is very impressive. This type of willingness to bring a product up to the bar it sets for itself is to be commended. Well done, well done indeed. Rating has been happily changed to reflect a well earned and solid 5 star rating.
[5 of 5 Stars!]