An Endzeitgeist.com review
The prologue-adventure for the "What Lies Beyond Reason"-AP clocks in at 64 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page KS-credits, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a hefty 58 pages of content, so let's take a look, shall we?
This was moved up in my review-queue due to me receiving a print copy in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
The first thing to note here would be that, generally, this module works well enough as a stand-alone offering, so if you don't want to run the whole saga, that is very much a possibility. A total of 5 sample pregens with brief notes on personality etc. are included in the deal, which is pretty nice, though I do have to complain on a formal level about stat-block formatting - several features that should be italicized are not. This is a mostly aesthetic gripe, obviously, but it should be kept in mind, as it extends to NPCs and monsters herein - speaking of the latter: The statblock of e.g. a dwarf lacks the notes on armor in brackets.
Another thing one should be aware of would be the tone, for while this module is still very much a rather gritty endeavor, the campaign itself becomes a very much high fantasy saga, though one with mature themes. I will discuss what exactly that means in my forthcoming review of the campaign guide, but for now, just be aware that this module's theme could fit rather well in pretty much any fantastic context.
A thoroughly impressive component of this module, being a freshman offering for Pyromaniac Press, would be the cartography - we get full-color maps, with player-friendly for all encounters, with key-less versions provided as high-res jpgs in an attached archive, making this fully VTT-compatible. Since the main adventure site features a pronounced aspect of verticality, we even get a cross-view section of the main site's map - and a player-friendly version of that one as well. In the formal criteria, this is most definitely impressive - something further emphasized by the fact that this sports A TON of original artwork - pregen-portraits, important (and unimportant!) NPCs, wondrous caverns...this is impressively heavy on the full-color artwork, so if you and yours tend to enjoy modules supported by plenty of visuals, this delivers in that respect, impressively so.
The module also provides ample commentary in sidebars, which can help troubleshooting or just make the module run smoother and provide a glimpse behind the curtain. Finally, I should not be remiss to mention that, particularly GMs who have a hard time with read-aloud text and description-improvising, will get quite a bit out of this one - it sports impressive amounts of read-aloud text, some of which may be a bit overkill for players keen to act...but that's a catch 22-scenario. With the exception of the setting-the-stage-monologue, player actions or feelings are not prescribed by the text. (And here, the disgust exhibited by the PCs is very much justified...but more on that below.)
I mentioned a bunch of NPCs and there is a reason for that...but the most challenging aspect in this module would be that the GM has to juggle quite a few of these folks. Interestingly, while some have more levels than the PCs, they are built in a way that will not hog the spotlight from the PCs - big kudos avoiding the GM-NPC-syndrome there. The print copy is btw. a bit darker in tone than the pdf - which of the two you prefer is a matter of taste, but personally, I preferred the print copy's grimier, darker look.
In short: From a formal perspective, this looks rather interesting, so let's take a look at whether the module itself holds up, shall we? From here on out, the review will contain a ton of SPOILERS. Only potential GMs of this saga should continue reading.
All right, so we begin during a horrible storm, at night, in a rickety, thoroughly unpleasant tavern in the middle of frickin' nowhere. One of the places that just smell bad, that are bad news, you know, the kind you only get stuck in due to the horrible weather and lack of options. All NPCs and their stats are included in the NPC gallery in the book, just fyi: We have Bob, a thoroughly unpleasant and downright nasty old man of an innkeeper, Melissa, the gorgeous barmaid, Duran the merchant, James his apprentice, Lucious Thannillar the bard, Rufus and Faldor, mercenary brothers with a bad attitude, Thorgrim Shatterstone, the dwarven cleric, Barrat the gambler and Theric, the ranger. The PCs will have ample opportunity to interact with and seize up these folks and the GM retains a surprising degree of control over how much of the module pans out due to this cast of characters: Barrat, for example, seems to be cheating at cards, but strangely doesn't seem to empty the coffers of his victims...and there is a reason for that, but one the PCs may or may not find out during the course of the adventure.
As the storm rages on outside, the PCs awaken to some shenanigans, yes, but the module itself begins once the creaking starts...and a part of the tavern, with NPCs and PCs inside, tumbles through the floor into the cavern below, clogging the exit with rubble, unceremoniously dumping the PCs in a cavern complex that retains a surprising sense of authenticity - it is evident that the author has taken the timeless advice of consulting the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide...or has at least done his research regarding spelunking. The astute reader will notice that such a fall would usually kill PCs, but the rules-justifications for not doing so actually rang sensible to me...and if you're a sadistic prick GM like yours truly, that is a great chance to start bleeding their cleric NPC's resources dry...
It should be noted that NPC interaction is appropriately detailed for the GM...and one can quickly surmise that the danger-level and DCs required generally is pretty low - in the challenges posed, the 5E-version of the module, with rather low DCs, manages to capture the gritty feeling rather well. This has a reason: The anti-optimized and rather...let's say "colorful" NPCs that are caught with the PCs can provide the edge required to triumph, yes...but they also can be a liability if not handled properly. You tell the dwarf to get rid of his armor...
The exploration of the cavern-complex should lead players to an interesting cavern illuminated by quartz-like structures where a black ring-like thing with strange runes, obviously magical, can be found. While negligible in relevance for the plot of the overall AP, this is the lynchpin that holds the module together - the ring beckons and behaves very much like a well-known example of its kind. If the PCs want to get rid of it and let someone else do the heavy lifting of this burden, the module becomes a bit problematic. That's another reason you need those NPCs - to talk some sense into the PCs or to try to take the ring. It is, in short, the weakest aspect of the story and the one thing you need to make your players accept. Oh, have I mentioned that this ring actually made one NPC immortal? Calls to him? And resurrects him after days of grueling torment in the netherworld? Yeah, if you have read the module, you should find one angle or another to appeal to even the most mercenary of PCs
But before the ring becomes a true problem, the matter of escape needs to be handled and it is less simple than it should be due to the NPCs. While the DCs are appropriately low, getting all NPCs out alive will not be simple, considering that some serious climbing and traversing of difficult terrain awaits beyond e.g. mud oozes. If you're using this within the context of the campaign, it'll be worth it, for benefits beckon...as do the options to make enemies of the NPCs. There is quite a bit of interesting foreshadowing going on here, as the PCs make their way to the surface.
On a formal level, it should be noted that the adventure has a couple of instances where the skills have not been properly renamed - you'll find e.g. "Intimidate", "Bluff" and "Diplomacy" referenced here and there - not consistently, mind you, but the instances are there. Once the PCs have escaped the tunnels, they will reunite with missing folks (or their remains) and have but one logical choice - start heading towards the Eternal City, main site of the AP and massive metropolis. Whether or not and how many NPCs accompany the PCs ultimately depends on their interactions and the GM, though the immortal does head in a different direction...only to be sent to a temporary grave by a missing man.
The journey towards the legendary Eternal City is fraught with peril and several scripted encounters that employ horror-themed, classic foreshadowing and doom...and it highlights a crucial monster in the AP, so-called psychic motes that are annoying on their own, downright lethal in swarms (stats are provided and the pdf introduces the disoriented condition, which generally is an interesting addition)...and it is during these mapped encounters that the visions and nightmares begin taking their toll, imposing 3 exhaustion levels on the PCs, while everyone grows ever more paranoid and desperate - the effects are more pronounced in 5e than in PFRPG, which, for one, is something I applaud. Personally, I was a bit annoyed by the lack of a concrete travelling distance, but in 5e, that's less relevant than in PFRPG. I was also slightly taken aback on a narrative level by an enforced kidnapping and lavishly illustrated horrific scene, where an NPC (per default the barmaid) is strung up like a scarecrow, "Bring it Back" etched in her flesh. Considering that you want to instill the need for the PCs to bring the ring to the city, the unpreventable kidnapping and contradictory message thus sent seems not like the wisest decision and needs careful GM-handling - once again, the hopefully sympathetic NPCs can help here.
That being said, the PCs will sooner or later arrive at the Eternal City, namely at the vast tent-slum before it, dubbed "Pilgrimage" - and they will soon find folks with improvised weapons and murder in their eyes haunting their step, as they reach the city gates...where they will have to wait, where they'll be ambushed by the insane tracker that wants the ring (who doubles as the final boss) and where they will meet both the arrogant captain of the city's Seekers (more on that organization in the campaign guide review) and the helpful alchemist Damien - who presents the reliable means and candidates of whom to entrust the dangerous ring for safe-keeping...it turns out that these relics are not unknown here...
Editing and formatting are impressive for a first module, but can use a bit of work - I noticed, particularly regarding hyphens and the like a couple of hiccups. The module does feature a few relics where skill-names have not been 100% perfectly translated, but as a whole, the theme may actually work a bit better in 5e. Layout adheres to an impressive two-column full-color standard and the number of artworks within in impressive indeed, particularly considering their unified style and sheer number. This is, in short, a beautiful module. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and comes with a second, more printer-friendly version. The cartography is top-notch and particularly the inclusion of player-friendly maps warrants applause. The print copy is most certainly worth owning in the bundle with the pdf - the pdf is added for free to it, so yeah, I'd go with that one.
Micah Watt's first module is quite a gamble: It is a very narrative module that hinges on the GM juggling several NPCs, on social interaction, on players behaving in a certain way...and the module makes some risky gambles that look like they can push the PCs of the railroad. In short, it is not the easiest module to run, but when it works, it does so in a rather rewarding manner. While the plentiful read-aloud text makes this task manageable for even novice GMs, it still is a module that does require being capable of making NPCs likeable. So, form a structural point of view, I am not that impressed. The premise doesn't sound like too much either...BUT. The prose is actually really good. While there are a couple of hyphen-glitches and affect/effect-style hiccups, the writing itself manages to convey a surprisingly dense atmosphere that begins with grit and slowly builds up unease: Particularly what should look like a doomed hustle to the final destination would be a visual representation I haven't seen done well in a rather long while. There even is a handout page containing short, unsettling descriptions to hand out to a player, further enhancing immersion. Kudos for going the extra mile there!
In short: While not perfect, this is a module worth getting. It is not flawless and doesn't reinvent the wheel and it is a rather thinly-veiled railroad, but as far as spelunking, interaction and atmosphere go, you can do much, much worse than this! Much of the draw of this comes, ultimately, from the NPC-interaction. Oh, and, minor SPOILER: It's worth getting, in particular for the things to come, for the things set up here...but we'll talk about that in another review!
Now, the 5E-version of this module has me at a bit of a disadvantage (haha - sorry, I'll beat myself for that later) - you see, while the conversion relics and minor hiccups in statblocks are annoying, I do believe that this very gritty and grimy playstyle actually works a bit better for 5E. Comparing both versions back to back, the 5E-iteration has a bit more hiccups, but it, at least to me, tells the story slightly better. If you have the luxury of choice, I'd suggest getting the system that fits your preferences more, for while this one works, thematically, better in 5E, that cannot be said about all adventures in the AP. To give you a view behind the curtain: The 5E version gets +0.5 stars for fitting the narrative better, but also loses 0.5 stars for having more formal hiccups, which puts it on par with the PFRPG-version.
The verdict, right...so, honestly, I really love the map-support, the art-density and the atmosphere this creates, but the structural issues and cinematic conveniences stick out a bit, particularly due to the rather linear structure - the first adventure in the city handled that better, but we'll talk about that in that one's review. As a whole, this is a nice prologue for a fair price with very good production values and I have to take the freshman bonus into account - hence, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, though I can't round up for it. If you're interested in the AP, this is very much a must-have, though!
[4 of 5 Stars!]