Once inside all the packaging, you’ve two ways to go: the campaign/city guide, or the adventure. I went straight for the adventure.
Here’s the scoop, it’s a gem. It’s not perfect, and won’t suit every group, but it’s really quite special indeed.
You get a lot of adventure for your money. This is 32pp in a two column magazine type format, but with very little art, no stats and no maps. That puts a lot of word count in the book, and it’s well written stuff too. No stats?! Don’t worry. This adventure has been written as edition neutral, and the foes are statted out in full online for free, where you get the choice of 3.5, 4 or 5th edition. No maps? Well, not at a tactical level anyway. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Hold on.
Here’s how the thing is structured. Spoilers a go go. The city is home to the last two inheritors of the divinity of the god of murder, Bhaal. In a highlander type move, there can be only one. And then he gets knacked by our heroes, the party. Hurrah! The city is saved, but not for long. That spark of murder is now on the loose and is looking for a chosen one. Bhaal gets busy manipulating and influencing, driving the city to destruction. Unless the party intervenes.
The plot is based around three main NPCs and their agendas. Each faction approaches the party, asking for their help and allegiance. It’s a free choice, and the party could go with two, but will almost certainly not be able to pick all three. As the plot goes on, they could do what they like about this set up. They could stay loyal, they could set them against each other, forge alliances afresh, whatever.
Then the adventure lays out 10 stages to the unfolding plot. These are events, written from multiple angles, mirroring the factions. They are presented as if the party don’t disrupt things, though of course they will. They’re not set in stone at all. They can flex in timing, location and in content to react to the parties influence. Each stage results in a behind the scenes winner, and the scores get totalled up by the DM so that the Finale showcases the ‘winning’ faction, which by that stage could include the party itself.
The stages escalate. They start off with fairly run of the mill little errands and missions, though none of them dull. None of the factions are ‘good guys’ though, and before long the stages turn darker and more morally complex. The catalyst for this turn in the events is the influence of Bhaal as he sets everyone to increasingly murderous intent. Now, given the predilection of adventurers to using fatal violence as the default solution to their issues, it might not be obvious at which point they’ve crossed the line to being baddies, but it will happen. That time will come, and every group will deal with it differently. Personally, I can’t wait to see the discussion at my table. This is not just kick in the door and grab the loot. This is sophisticated gaming.
In fact, there’s startlingly little direct combat here, and no catacombs to explore or items to lift. There’s stealth, guile, intimidation, politicking, negotiation, diplomacy, bribery, robbery and everything else you can imagine. The city is the only location (more on that when I’ve read that book) and the whole thing is wide open for exploration, and crucially, change.
The finale is one that isn’t inevitable, but highly probable, and it’s one that will leave an indelible stamp on the city, and the characters too. It’s a great ending, and it think it will prove enormously satisfying to conclude for the players and the DM who will have negotiated this very memorable mini campaign.
It’s a difficult adventure though. The DM has to be very agile, and able to build encounters from slim materials with probably little notice. The players will have to be clever, work well as a team, and plan their approaches carefully. They’ll also have to pick up on subtlety. There’s loads to do, and it can go wrong quite easily. City adventures are notoriously hard to run, and this one’s no different. The biggest potential pitfall is letting the NPCs drive all the agendas leaving the party mere observers. There are some scenes where that’s more likely than not, so care will need to be taken. Proactive parties will flourish.
The tone is striking too. It’s very low on fantasy. There’s not a spell named in the whole thing, and it seems very human and real, almost medieval despite the fantasy naming. It’s set for levels 1-3, but that’s by the by. I think this feels more like levels 5-8, just because of the stakes, not the monster roster. As I read through it, and knowing very little about Baldurs Gate as a setting, it reminded me of Middenheim from Warhammer. I also thought it could be transplanted into modern day or a sci fi setting very easily indeed. It feels very HBO.
I really like this adventure. Yes, it will take work to build into something but the potential is there for a spectacular experience. Usually I get grumpy if a paid for product doesn’t do enough heavy lifting, but in this case, you’re buying a huge amount of sheer plot. As a work of imagination it’s big, big enough to make you want to schedule your first session so you can start seeing your players faces as the story unfolds.
Next: the city guide. Icing on the cake? Or cheap padding?