[Review] Mines, Claws & Princesses (5e 3pp); Holy Oldschool Holy Grail Batman!

[Adventure]
Mines, Claws & Princesses (2018)
Steven Oswald (Oswald Publishing)
Levels 2 – 4

The groom is dead, the bride Sunnhild taken. Men rave in pain whilst their women
wail in sorrow. Blood mixed with tears, the chieftain Erfried cries out “Only you are left
who can hold a sword. Go now. The orcs ride to Sanjikar and you must follow.”

When I was contacted by Steven Oswald to check out his new adventure Mines, Claws and Princesses I was pretty thrilled. I previously checked out The Atheneum of Yearning, and thought it was actually pretty good, despite the very homebrew presentation of it all. It was compatible with modern roleplaying games, not my usual forte, I only review old shit that no one plays, but fuck it, I said to myself. I can use some novelty. At least mildy intrigued, I sat down for a long read and opened it up…

…after I had smoked a cigarette on the balcony, still basking in the afterglow, I had to see what others were thinking. I had experienced something beautiful and I needed to share it with the world. But first I had to check out what the rest of the internet was thinking. A quick gander at Drivethru showed ONE other review, by Chris Kelly, who is apparently some sort of GM/blogger for 25 years or something. The review, a 3/5, revealed two important facts:

1. The module was held back from the vaunted 5 star score by virtue of having insufficient backstory, lack of boxed text and slightly mature themes.
2. Chris Kelly is apparently really good at handjobs because he sure as hell didn’t get that lead writing gig at Wizard’s Laboratory blog from knowing WHAT THE FUCK MAKES A GOOD ADVENTURE [1].

So motherfucking long story short, Mines, Claws and Princesses is pure unadulterated oldschool goodness of sanity-shattering proportions that eclipses all limp-wristed, droopy-eyed successor modules that pass for official DnD in this sanitized age. I don’t care what you run this thing on: 5e, 1e, 3e, fucking Polaris for all I care. This is a winner.

This module NAILS short and evocative description. One or two short sentences evoke and linger in the mind to create a vivid image or provoke a feeling of ancient wonder. It reminded me of equal parts Tolkien, Broken Sword or even older, heroic myths and legends of vaguely nordic-european heroic fantasy. It oozes charm and creativity from every utterance without ever feeling like it has been done to death. It drapes itself in archtypical robes but always surprises.

Let’s take the premise. A princesses is kidnapped by a Dragon. Literally the oldest fucking premise in the book. And Oswalt pulls it off with flying colors. It’s all how you dress it up; a ransacked, vaguely scandinavian village of desperate survivors, many still injured from the recent Orc attack. The last tribe of a once great orc horde have banded together under the recently awoken Dragon Kreyzabane. Monsters flock to the fortress every week (oh yes there is a counter, more on that later) to lay waste to the region and destroy all that is beautiful. The Orc King kidnaps the chieftain’s daughter, apparently reasoning that if he wants to be crowned King of Men he needs to marry a princess.

Once a phoenix rising by a canyon, Whispering Chasm has lived enough tragedy to finally die.

The adventure starts out not unlike Deep Carbon Observatory, with a sort of in medias res of two linked tragedies that the players can interfere in, with failure to do so likely causing the deaths of the NPCs involved. In fact, the descriptions are so similar I am pretty sure Oswald has read DCO.

The groom’s uncle, a thane of his tribe, tearfully accuses the village of weakness. This
is how lynchings start.

A flaming horse bursts through a wall, galloping to a field where Osmunda
treats the injured. They don’t stand a chance.

Only unlike DCO, if you interfere you actually get something else then a lifetime of sadness and visions of being molested by Psyduck. There are opportunities to recruit any survivors to join the party as henchmen but the trade off is that there is a timer involved and the more you interfere, the more prepared the Orcs in the fortress will be. But tarrying is not ALL bad since some of the NPCs are actually vital to the long term survival of the village and you can also use some of that time to gain useful rumors about the locale. The old woman Girelda pleads with the heroes to give up their quest (the last hero died, the Dragon Kreyvasbane rules there etc. etc.), the longer they stay in the village, but will eventually gift them with the blade Hadviya, a fluted blade of friendship between the races, except for Orcs, because fuck them.

Anyway, whether well-equipped and well-rested or nipping at the very heels of the warband that took fair Sunnhild, the party, presumably consisting of Beowulf, Boromir, Skafloc, Goldry Bluzco and Brandoch Daha, sets out for the Lightning Mesa.

The Lightning Mesa 24 miles north of Whispering Chasm, older than man, rising top scrub and pine, it shall stand long after man has fallen. The volcanic monolith speaks nightly with the sky, lightning dancing tween it and clouds. None but an elven wasteland sage would know their words. Paths switchback up its sides, one carved by dwarves, a few by none and more by races long forgotten.  

At this point I might as well just fucking quote the adventure verbatim in lieu of my review because the writing is so short yet so fucking poignant I cannot praise it enough. Fuck the occasional grammatical lapse, this shit resonates with the standing waves of the ancient times, when there was no internet and thus men were forced to battle Manticores and climb mountains for entertainment.

Also at about this point you should be getting familiar with the corvid allies of Kreyvasbane. That’s right bitches, the evil dragon is served by swarms of evil talking crows! If you take too long they tell her all that transpires so she knows you are coming, and they fetch monsters from around the land to join her and tell them of the party’s weaknesses. This dark army gains in strength every week, far faster if the Orc King Guurgen marries the princess. It’s all the greatest hits of evil humanoids, wolves, a manticore, with a random table on what they are doing (erecting fortifications, marching under a black banner, holding a tourney to find their new king etc. etc.). The adventure cleverly notes that they move into any areas the PCs have cleared. Even the crows are not omniscient, since days might pass before the Dragon learns of what has transpired.

 The dragon takes special joy when monsters swarm forth to smash art and disfigure beauty.

The ancient dwarven redoubt of Sanjikar is the stronghold of the enemy. And what a terrific dungeon it is. Oswald’s maps in Atheneum were kind of impressive for their use of the third dimension but this one is absolutely terrific and easily eclipses all that came before. Multiple means of egress that make sense! Multiple branching pathways both above, and below eachother, secret tunnels, entrances behind waterfalls, a fucking zigzagging stairway that goes 200 ft down a vast shaft before abruptly breaking off far before the entrance to the Inner Keep, forcing your players to come up with something clever to reach it. Ledges, a dam that can be used to redirect a stream. Occasionally the short description works to the detriment of understanding the spaces described and Oswald can probably use one more class of mapping-for-dungeon-dudes before he gets an S+ rating, but for the most part, the map makes sense and is wonderfully complex. Though you can enter the fortress through many different means, a 30 ft. Iron door flanked by two bronze lion statues is by far the most impressive (yes you can absolutely steal the statues).

What can one do but smile fondly as the Orc guards (naked, pig-faced and brutishly violent) were playing a game of throw-the-goat as they forgot to lock the front entrance (unless you spent too much time in the village). After that you are in for a treat my friend. The first level is reminiscent of Keep of the Borderlands, with most of the inhabitants being either Orcs or terrified slaves. To the credit of the module, Orcs are almost always doing something interesting, set pieces like a giant stewpot can add some spice to an otherwise formulaic feasting hall showdown into a salty surprise. Fuck there are even some Orc NPCs like the spurned witch-doctor or the jealous old father of the King, who could conceivably be an ally to the PCs.

A warm corpse in an exquisite gown leans into a corner. Sunnhild stares through the
body distant. Steam of staccato breath in a frigid place. Wedding banners on the
ground, dragged through mud. Repeating over the walls, reliefs of skull-headed dwarves. 

Drunken savagery and evil in a place of vast, faded glory and artifice. Mostly Orcs and the odd trap. The wedding is overseen by a talking crow that serves as minister. Wicked.

The second level is even stranger and has a more Fairy-tale/S&S vibe. Grotesque troglodytes, described as more the victims of a hideous slime disease then any race born of the womb, inhabit this level, worshiping their god, who happens to be a Slime Lake. A great hive of bees. An utterly unique tentacled monster that captures PCs to play a fatal game of hangman with but is otherwise very friendly. Sickened, diseased cattle. Disgusting and disease-ridden but also wondrous. Amid the filth are the tombs of Dwarven Lords and a museum containing their greatest treasures. Great, Iron Rods coated with runes hold their legends.

A tunnel studded in acid corrosion shoots straight to C in the mesa. Where the tunnel
pierces this cave, a sad giant porcupine lies imprisoned to an anvil beside a bale of soggy
grass and a dead wizard by a 20ft chain.

The different influences and details pile up and they should be overwhelming or render the whole a cacophonic, incoherent mess but somehow everything feels JUST congruent. It’s like you are reading a DnD module made by someone who remains entirely unspoiled by all of the conventions and tropes of DnD while remaining entirely cognizant of its influences.

The third level, and I use the order loosely, since it is possible to reach almost any place in the dungeon from any level with the exception of the Third One which is notoriously difficult to reach. The third level is the Inner Keep, inviolate to this day, littered with ancient traps and the bones of dead dwarves and orcs alike. This one feels the most like the mines of Moria, coupled with a hefty dose of Hammers of the God, or for that manner any other adventure where the spirits of the vanquished dwarves do not rest lightly. There is some absolutely epic magical shit going on here.
This is why the other review guy’s commentary baffled me. MC&P is short on actual backstory in its backstory section but so much is revealed through items, visions granted when offering tribute to sullen idols or the bizarrely addictive (and frankly terrifying) enchanted forge in the heart of the inner keep. Salient facts about the dwarves are communicated through items, runes or rooms.

After looting the throne, all present must Wis Save 18 or hear the roar “Usurper!
Bastard betrayer! A curse upon your line!” and scram in fear for 2d8 rounds. If rolling
under 10, their next child is stillborn.
Throne weighs 784 lbs. Worth 1000 gp.

Best thing yet, so much is interactive, yet it never feels cheap or unfinished. An ancient goblin warmachinedrillthing (I don’t know the logistics of it reaching the place it ended up in, one of the few lapses in the writing I have been able to detect) that can be REPAIRED AND USED GODDAMMIT. Just about every trick in every book I have ever seen or imagined or dreamed about shows up yet it never feels stale. Yet it’s not a slaughterfest either, the Inner Keep is home to anything from the damn crows to a group of wizards lured by their trusted friend who is in turn seduced by a Succubus to craft some sort of ring to help her escape her imprisonment within the fortress (it is the wedding ring btw). I guess I can gripe and ask how she and her human servants (you find wizard apprentices, in various states of life and death, throughout the adventure) manage to co-exist just five rooms from the batshit insane spirit of Kajir, Last Engineer and guardian spirit sworn to preserve the Inner Keep forever. It almost pulls a Death Frost Doom, only instead of just animating the Undead have tactics. It’s like MC&P devoured a library of good OSR adventures and now bestrides the earth in some sort of giant, amalgam of their shapes, spitting fire and shooting lightning bolts from its hands with every giant, earth-shattering step.

Forge: Euphoric heat beckons. Its madness gives advantage on tool use. Wis save 14+
(characters proficiency if tool proficient) or hammer psychotically for 1d4+1 days straight. A smith knows the forge wants more. Needs more. Sacrifice. When a product of the forge is quenched in something dear, enchantment is set. Each time it whispers… “More.”
+1 item. Giving your hand or limb
+2 item. Your child or giving 3 +1 items.
+3 item. Your life

The map descriptions here are the hardest to understand. I still don’t get what the deal is with a room with an aquaduct, broken bronze piping and a sea of dead beetles. But it is but two rooms in 78 total.

The lower caverns, vast, contains the Dragon Kreyvasbane and its vast hoard within an acid lake. And I mean VAST with a capital V, appropriate for a fucking Smaug Analogue who “has seen the death of the first dwarf queen, gods topple from the sky and emperors plea for their lives.” 9.000 gp, 60.000 sp and 500.000 cp as well as some cool unique shit. The only problem is that there is a fucking dragon sleeping on it (or awake and probably murdering you). You get a push your luck mechanic where you can take stuff from the dragon’s hoard at the chance of waking it BUT ITS NOT BINARY. As it stirs it swipes or coughs or does other things that make it very clear IT IS WAKING UP GUYS TIME TO GO. But we just found the gold-leaf burial shroud of the Swamp Elf King and its worth 85.000. ALRIGHT KRAMER YOU ROLL ANOTHER STEALTH CHECK YOU HAVE ADVANTAGE DADDY NEEDS ANOTHER 20.000 GP!

The treasure is absolutely STELLAR with not a single boring item both MAGICAL and mundane. It leans very heavily to the Tolkienian fantasy spectrum with unique swords with dwarven names but you also find bizarre marvels of dwarven engineering or what might be the severed hand of the human saint that defeated the Orc Horde or a Dwarven Shield+1 named Olren that replaces dex with str saves and Truesight/Blindsight can’t see past it. That’s the kind of magical shit we like to write home about. I mean there is an Underdark map that triggers campaign wide ramifications if it is ever carted off for pete’s sake. This thing is NUTS.

At this point I was pretty much sold but Oswald took the trouble of statting out the village too, describing the major buildings and NPCs. I am not even sure if the village needed a description. A few additional hooks are sort of okay but it shines again by adding such twists as an alchemist with a burnt down lab who can make potions from the monsters, procedures for what villagers live and die (which determines your henchmen quota, not unimportant), when the monsters will attack the village, an event where the Slime Curse breaks out and a fucking bizarre sub-quest is initiated in the secret catacombs of the church, where a golden egg must be taken from a frog, which is taken from a poisonous goose in a well that can only be seen by those not using lanterns. Absolutely stonking great.

A little flowchart in the back makes the adventure easier to use and god bless it for that. All the monster stats are crammed into the back too and should be relatively easy to convert to 1e, an appealing quality. Though nominally for 5e, there is nothing about MC&P that is quintessentially 5e, and hardly any nonunique magical items make an appearance.

A last detail would be the presentation, specifically, the art. It’s obviously amateuristic but at the same time I can’t help but commend someone who does EVERYTHING himself, having had some small taste of publishing and realizing full well the effort that goes into the entire process. For what it is worth, the MS Paint look kind of adds to the homebrew charm of this terrific high fantasy romp.

What bad thing can I say about this. The writing is rough, cementing the amateuristic feel of the entire piece. At times, the complex map is hard to understand and the short, evocative writing becomes a hindrance, instead of a help. I imagine there is a fairly big chance the dragon is going to waken before the PCs reach it, meaning they will be in for a VERY tough fight (though again, Oswald establishes where the dragon CAN or CANNOT follow you, setting the stage for an interesting battle).

Pros: A terrific oldschool high fantasy romp into a DnD that never was but should have been. Brimming with atmosphere, magic items, evocative encounters and wicked awesomeness. Terrific level design. Great peripheral elements give you the feeling that this adventure has been playtested and designed to the death, the death of anything that can prevent you from having a gay old time that is!

Cons: Hot damn but that map is hard to read sometimes. Occasional lapses of grammar do not make the piece weak, but it could be stronger.

Final Verdict: Goddamn I think I am in love. A rough, unpolished but utterly balls-to-the-walls oldskool thrill-ride that captures EXACTLY what I think old DnD should be about. The use of classic elements with their vestigial dnd-isms removed merely adds to the piece. An oldskool classic that never was. And for some reason its compatible with 5e?!? Fuck it. Whatever Oswald has been doing in the intervening time between Atheneum and this, I bet it would make for one hell of a Montage. Eat shit Chris Kelly. 9.5 out of 10.

It’s PWYW bitches. Check it out for yourself, and give the man some sheckles if you wanna support more content like this.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/240094/Mines-Claws–Princesses

[1] All rancour and shitflinging aside, reviews are very important to little Indie products like this and someone giving a signal boost to a DIY creator like Oswald is commendable, even if all of his advice is terrible and would make the adventure worse.

Update: Bryce musters his saintly patience and tries to gently pummel some sense into Chris “GM-Difficulty 4” Kelly by stating his case clearly and unambiguously but is forced to make a dignified retreat as his lancers break on the sheer thickness of Kelly’s Stone Wall and a torrential outpouring of dice related blessings.

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