An Endzeitgeist.com review
This massive first installment of the ambitious Dark Obelisk AP clocks in at a thoroughly impressive 497 pages, 1 page front cover, 2 pages of editorial, 5 pages of ToC, 4 pages blank, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with 483 pages of content, so let's take a look!
This was move up in my review-queue as a prioritized review and I received a print copy, further moving this up in my review queue.
Now, at this point, I have already talked about several of the unique properties of this AP - reward stars, quadded statblocks and attitude trackers. I explained those in the reviews of the books where they are most relevant. As a brief refresher regarding the helpful layout:
The book explains its unique presentation: Taking a cue from AAW Games' playbook and similarly well-presented adventures, we get handy, color-coded boxes: Obstacles are e.g. in an orange/yellowish box; loot can be found in blue boxes and icons clearly denote the respective components for what they are. When a random roll is required from the GM, a handy dice-symbol denotes the action as such.
As you can glean from my review of the Dramatis Personae and Bestiary book, the quadded statblocks are not in the adventure book, nor are the highly detailed fluff notes for the vast amount of NPCs in this book. These can be found in the Dramatis Personae-book. That being said, this adventure does contain statblocks - though they a) are rudimentary and b) violate PFRPG-formatting conventions left and right. Honestly, that's one of the most serious complaints I have regarding this mega-adventure/first part of the Dark Obelisk AP. I cringe whenever I see one of these nonstandard statblocks. And yes, alas, these have hiccups, so no change from the crunchier books for Dark Obelisk.
It should also be noted that the superbly-written prose for the NPCs and complex attitude-tracker-system from the Dramatis Personae-book SIGNIFICANTLY enhances the experience of running this book. I strongly urge any GM waning to run this to use them in conjunction with one another.
However, there is another innovation in this book, an interesting peculiarity I have not yet discussed in the other Dark Obelisk reviews, mainly because it did not come up: The concept of attitude trackers, which I explained in the Dramatis Personae book, is applied globally in a unique twist on the sandbox trope. You see, a lavishly-detailed sandbox like this all too often gets bogged down in the details - something particularly likely to happen in a book that has the lofty ambitions of this tome, namely to create a wholly immersive and dynamic environment. Hence, the module introduces a so-called catalyst tracker. The first thing a GM should do, hence, is to decide what the catalyst for Act 2 would be - 4 sample ideas are given, but any halfway decent GM can generate variants thereof.
Once that primary catalyst is determined, we have three values we can potentially track; Law and Chaos (mirroring the theme of the religious conflict between the lawful church of Zugul mainly worshiped by the upper class and the fatalistic, more chaotic church of Sheergath worshiped by the less fortunate majority) and Love - the latter determining more the heartbreak and sheer emotional charge, positive or negative, generated by the acts of the adventurers. Starting values are included, but there are definitely enough catalyst impacts in the literally hundreds of quests herein to start them off with 0, if you prefer slower-paced games. Once the catalyst has met the respective value, sh** gets real. This, in conjunction with the various FlexTables for random encounters, lavish detail for NPCs (when used in conjunction with the Dramatis Personae book) and sheer amount of detail for every single locale mean that no two experiences of this adventure will be alike. Additionally, some quests are particularly suited to act as a story-trigger, as yet another alternative. Oh, and the module does come with railroady tracks, if such a wide-open sandbox seems to daunting for you.
If the sheer amount of NPCs and locales and quests seem daunting to track, note that codes (like BC-1) for places and sub-locations make finding the proper places easy. Quests denote the exact page in the case they require information found elsewhere.
But to go into the details of how the adventure plays out, I need to go into the SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around here? Great! So, I could sum up the plot of this module in one sentence. No, I am not kidding you. If I did that, though, I'd be doing this module a disservice.
You see, the first Act of this massive adventure would consist of the PCs familiarizing themselves with the town of Berinncorte. This is a massive sandbox, where the PCs can meet the tough Lady that acts as a major and may be a bit overzealous regarding law; they can butt heads (and blades, if they choose to) with a local tough guy; they can get to know the local churches and their doctrines. They can find mundane books in the library, which actually enhance skills. They can investigate missing folks and just generally have a nice time. The whole of act one, in short, consists of small, personal quests, local color and tiny favors. These quests are not necessarily world-shattering; they are almost painfully mundane and idyllic. This is done intentionally. You see, for one, as mentioned before, these all represent ways to increase the catalyst tracker. Even if your players don't know it yet, even via these mundane quests, they're advancing the plot. The quests also generate a sense of the mundane, the almost-realistic, basically the fantasy equivalent of a small town-villanelle.
That being said, there are aspects of the fantastic to be found here, even within this relative calm that precedes the storm that inexorably will tear at the town: Go down the right cellar for a less than legit meeting and you may find yourself looking at the river, held in check by a semi-permeable membrane that allows folks to potentially fish by simple stretching out their hands! Similarly, a dastardly villain/serial killer is slowly feeling the need to escalate his cycle, so catching that person may make for a rewarding quest for PCs and players looking for a more heroic task. Still, I'd actually encourage the GM and players to engage with the "normal" folks and their tasks - the more of these folks and their daily struggles you can introduce and endear to the PCs, the more effective the second part of the module will be. This is also why I'd strongly suggest getting the Dramatis Personae companion book - the more detailed the NPCs are, the easier it'll be to endear the town to the players and the excessive amount of detail provided makes the settlement come to life much more organically.
At one point, whether by catching that serial killer, finding out about the forbidden love of a cleric or by a vast array of other scenarios, powered by the catalyst tracker, the second act will begin. One more thing: Just ignoring quests won't help either - NOT taking a quest is also a decision...and similarly, influences the tracker! Anyways, act 2 begins...literally, with a bang.
You see, this module, in essence, is a catastrophe movie or event book disguised as a massive sandbox. Once your individualized tracker has hit the threshold (or once your PCs have tired of the place), the market place will erupt and the disturbing, purplish-black, light-corrupting eponymous Dark Obelisk will break forth in an epic explosion, killing most folk in the market square and plunging the town into chaos - literally, for, from the invincible monolith and the bottomless chasm that has spawned it, a horde of undead, demons and worse creep forth. Acidic pools of goo litter the streets and the encounters suddenly become a fight for survival.
Here, the FlexTale random encounter-mechanic becomes important - if you're escorting maddened folks spouting eschatological ramblings to safety, you'll face more powerful foes more often. And yes, folks will die - including the powerful mayor, who'll give her sword with her dying breath to the PCs. Not everyone can be saved...but many folks can. The more the PCs like a given person, the more likely it is that they survive, if the GM chooses to employ fate rather than his own decisions to make that choice.
Basically, where act one was the "everything's all right"-version of the town, act 3 would be he hell on earth iteration: Walls are crumbled, temples invaded; the dead litter the street; grieving women search for their lovers. Sanctuaries need to be defended against lethal waves of enemies with the help of the militia...only to notice that, ultimately, the price in lives is too high. Indeed, the GM is encourages to use "villainous" and "unstoppable" monsters to make abundantly clear that the PCs won't defeat this monolith right now - no one knows anything about the invulnerable monument to chaos and death and even these "bosses" may well be beyond the PC's capabilities to deal with, requiring flight and the smart use of the completely mapped city to avoid.
In fact, in the hands of the correct GM, this can be a very Dark Souls-like experience in tone and the way the PCs have to slowly and deliberately choose their actions. Pretty much every character also has a quest (or multiple ones) in this chaos - escort-missions, securing items left behind, rescue missions, searches - there is a ton of stuff to be done here as well. Where before, these small quests were integrated in favor of establishing a homebase, a sympathetic town, the third act's quests are more combat-centric and more like walking through a warzone or a Walking Dead outbreak chaos scenario: You see small destinies all over the place and narrative threads from act 1 are continued and developed. When handled properly, this will make act 3 feel frantic, somber, frightening and apocalyptic, but all of that hinges on how well act 1 went. Again, this is why I consider the detailed NPC-prose from the dramatis personae book to be this incredibly important. If the players don't care enough, then the impact of this act is lost, so make use of those attitudes, those excessive fluff-notes.
Whether just a day or a whole week, sooner or later, the PCs will have to concede that talking down the elite gate guards and escaping the town, for now, is the only chance they and the besieged survivors have...and once that has been accomplished, once the town has been cleared/abandoned, the module ends....leaving me honestly wondering how that whole sequence will proceed.
While the VTT-jpgs etc. are included in the premium atlas and the GM-maps where they're needed in the module, the book does come with all the player-friendly, well-made and properly redacted maps in the appendices, so if you want the player maps, you don't need to get the atlas. Speaking of indices: Factions, quests, catalyst impacts, items, dead NPCs and maps all are covered in their own indices, which makes navigating this module significantly easier than you'd expect from such a tome. The three-letter codes etc. also help: Search the code, there you are. Big kudos!
Editing and formatting are impressive for a freshman offering AND a one-man-outfit. While I noticed a few instances of a sentence missing, that never pertained rules-relevant material and instead was in a designer's commentary, etc. The one component where this module makes me cringe is with the rudimentary statblocks and their nonstandard formatting. They are enough to run the module, yes, but why not include the properly formatted ones?? Quite a few GMs won't care there, but similarly, that may be really glaring for others. Layout adheres to a nice, two-column full-color standard with a parchment-like background. The pdf comes with a second, backgroundless version. While originally, the electronic versions were missing their bookmarks, a properly bookmarked version has been uploaded to my knowledge. The full-color hardcover I have is a massive tome of a book - in conjunction with the dramatis personae book, they exceed Slumbering Tsar in page count. The inclusion of player-friendly maps herein is a big plus, as far as I'm concerned. Big, big kudos - particularly for redacting secret tunnels etc. on the maps.
J. Evans Payne's "Dark Obelisk I: Berinncorte" is AMBITIOUS. Some may say "insane", but what's more important to me, at least, is that it tries to do something NEW. I have literally never played a module like this. The staggering detail of the coverage of the sandbox that is the town of Berinncorte is impressive. The fact that it does not read like a gigantic snorefest, in spite of act one's pretty mundane and harmonic atmosphere, should be considered to be a testament to the quality of the author's prose, particularly in conjunction with the companion book's NPC-write-ups. Now, I can't speak about how this would fare sans its companion tome - I can only speculate, and frankly, I think it's possible, but harder for the GM to make the players care about the locals without this amount of detailed prose on ALL of them.
This stands and falls with PCs and players caring. A good GM can make this an incredibly memorable module, but, in spite of the details, NPCs, maps, etc. stacking the deck in the GM's favor, this requires a bit of skill to pull off. Roleplaying heavy groups will gravitate to the personal tales of the NPCs; combat-focused ones to the carnage in act 3...and most, probably, will gravitate to both. The impressive achievement here would lie in the massive flexibility of the plot and the attention to detail. In this module, the "small quests"-angle worked perfectly, and I am interested in seeing how this will progress beyond the confines of this installment of the AP: After all, there needs to be a plot and the trackers most certainly can be used in more ways to render future modules just as dynamic. How that'll work with a more pronounced plot will be intriguing to see.
Now, I know, that all sounds a bit strange. here's the thing: Due to the book being so entwined with its companion and due to the sheer scope, it's hard to properly describe the book. In fact, this adventure is one of those that plays much better than it reads. There's a reason I try to play as much as I can. All that preparation, all that consideration in advance? All those quests? here is the biggest plus of this book: You can basically run it with next to no prep time.
"Okay, endy has gone off the deep end." No, I actually haven't. The searchable codes help. And the level of detail. Throw PCs in, they go to location xyz - you have read-aloud text. You have NPCs. You have quests. Instantaneously. Everywhere. This can be a pretty big thing for some of us. I mentioned in my reviews of this series how obsessively detailed my campaign is, right? I noted how other GMs I know also like that approach, right? Heck, perhaps you had such a campaign, perhaps while in college or university. You know, a campaign with ridiculous details, hundreds of quests? And then, at one point, you didn't have the time or drive or creativity to provide this level of information. We've all been there. I've been using a metric ton of modules, since I have a pretty darn good memory and only have to read a module once to run it, even years later. But, well, perhaps you went another road. Perhaps you went to APs and similar new-school modules. And they do a great job telling their story. I love them and collect them religiously. But players used to sandboxing don't take kindly to railroads and at one point, you'll be craving this wide-openness, this level of detail. You can go rules-lite for quicker details and material generation, but the crunchy guys and gals will miss the combat options. That's where this book comes in, at least for me.
I'm not a nostalgic man and the sentiment is alien to me; however, I do believe that this book scratches exactly that itch. That craving for a world that feels fully realized, that feels like a concise, deliberate vision. The GM's task, to a certain degree, is to generate the illusion of a believable world beyond the perception of the players, a world with all the details, that has "always been there" - pay no heed to the man behind the curtain...äh...screen. When PCs go off the rails, that illusion suffers and, in such hyper-detailed environments, chances are that this did not happen.
Because you had it all planed out. This book and its dramatis personae companion tome, used in conjunction, simulate that level of preparation - successfully, I might add.
That is a big unique selling proposition as far as modules go. Now, the module is not perfect. As mentioned before in the atlas-review, I consider the overview map to be not up to the quality of the other maps herein. The non-standard statblocks are slightly annoying and, as mentioned in the review of the dramatis personae book, there are some aspects of the formulae used in the creation of these books that need refinement. However, in this review, I'm judging the adventure, not the rest. I do feel the need to explicitly state that, sans the dramatis personae companion book, flawed though that may be, this book loses some of its appeal. I strongly suggest using them in conjunction.
I can see this working exceedingly well, perfectly in fact, for some groups, and I can see this being a dud for others. If you want an elaborate, highly complex metaplot, then this may be not for you. If atmosphere and immersion, if urban sandboxing and an epic payoff is what you're looking for, however, then this delivers. In the end, my final verdict for this adventure, taking all into account, will be 4 stars. With the caveat, however, that you need to be able to see past the copious flaws in statblocks etc. - if that stuff irks you, then you may want to carefully consider this one... Part II of the saga will have a tough act to follow here, for the trick used herein only works once. If you're looking for something completely different regarding design-philosophy, this is definitely worth checking out.