The Stealer of Children (2013)
Peter C. Spahn (Small Niche Games)
I have to admit I looked toward The Stealer of Children with no small amount of trepidation. After Atarin’s Delve I didn’t know if Spahn still had it in him. Another great man, I told myself, another great man brought low by fame and golddigging whores that didn’t have the guts to quit when he was no good anymore and now we have to witness his breakdown expressed as a series of gridmaps of imaginary ruins. But I was fucking wrong! Spahn is back to form, disco never died, santa claus is real and all your pets may join you in heaven!
The Stealer of Children is another solid dark fantasy adventure by Peter C Spahn for the Chronicles of Ahmerth setting, but since that setting is essentially a Greyhawk/Mystara hybrid, you can comfortably throw it into any setting that has Fey. And what setting doesn’t at this point?
There is something about adventures and Fey that makes them work really well in adventures. As I delve deeper into the OSR, my Sword & Sorcery proclivities begin to diminish and I find myself acquiring a taste for Faerie tales and whimsey alongside blood, death, sorcery and sword-fights with the degenerate remnants of fallen empires.
This is essentially, a horror adventure, even going so far as to utilize the classic three act trope. Spahn makes brilliant use of a familiar trope, the monster that is immune to magical weapons, by placing it in the setting where it is most effective, at 1st level when the PCs have no magical weaponry and are thus forced to rely on their wits and the whimsical dictates of the Plot for victory.
The setting is the village of Lasings Row, on the borderlands of the Duchy of Dolmvay (familiar to any Labyrinth Lord player as the default starting region). More then a century ago the village was plagued by a creature of darkness, and children were taken in the night. Left with no recourse when prayer goes unanswered and plagued by the dissapearance of his own child, Lord Lansing beseeches the local forest spirits for aid. This all goes swimmingly and he obtains means to contain the evil and destroy it, but the superstitious peasantry turns against him at the moment when the evil would be destroyed. Now a century later, whatever ward held the creature in place is now broken, and the Stealer of Children Returns!
The adventure opens ominously with the PCs meeting a terrified farmer being chased by a century old Man-at-arms in the faded livery of the forgotten lord. He is, naturally, undead. After the PCs dispatch him (or don’t, the adventure takes into account the PCs will simply say FUCK THAT and continue on on their way) the adventure opens op and there are multiple courses of action. Whatever action they take, the man at arms keeping watch at the cave of the hideous Stealer of Children has been freed and thus the Stealer awakens!
Lansings row serves as a sort of home-base and is fully fleshed out, with a cast of 0th-level NPCs with distinct personalities and sufficient hooks to sustain adventure beyond the immediate threat of the Grombel (the Stealer’s name). The hooks should be immediately recognizable to anyone who has played the classics; caverns where humanoids once held sway, an abandoned mill with maybe some rats in the cellar and a mysterious stone spire. As hooks, they are weak and fail to provide the awesome thrill ride into dark faery tale wonder that Spahn doles out.
The workmanlike thoroughness of Spahn, like that of the honest craftsman, shines through in this outing like the burning rays of the midday sun through a paper wall. Nary a possibility is not dealt with in his advice, making the adventure easy to use for beginning GM’s. What do you do if your players are not keen to investigate the threat? What happens if they immediately set out for the Grombel? Who do they talk to to get some fucking answers. It’s all dealt with and accomodated for in less then a paragraph. Spahn knows his shit and you can’t help but respect it.
By far the strongest sections are the enchanted forest where the players may go to get the recipe for the Anti-grombel potion (there is actually another way to obtain it, once more avoiding linearity in what on the surface would appear to be a simple railroad). The forest is a masterpiece of weird faery-tale encounters. Mushroom circles, a Giant Boot, scared and superstitious bandits, a spectre trapped in a block of green ice that pretends to be a prince, the works! With but a few random encounters, Spahn evokes the otherworldliness of the enchanted forest.
This chamber is littered with rotting scraps of
cloth, broken toys, and thousands of child-sized
bones that have been picked clean.
The Grombel itself is handled perfectly. The tunnel-like lair builds up, making you confront its maggot-like offspring and a room full of rotting children’s toys (that’s some disturbing imagery right there, and it works even if you run a family game) before you confront the damned thing near a fucking children’s bedroom where it DRAINS THEM OF LIFE AND THEN PUPATES ITS HIDEOUS LARVAE IN THEM.
So the big deal with the Grombel is that it is immune to normal weaponry, and the PCs will not have magical weaponry at level 1 in order to defeat it (and its fey-like nature renders it immune to any 1st level spells that could take it out of the fight). The proper way to deal with the creature is to find and brew a magical elixer that will turn the PCs into children (ironically it can be hurt by weapons wielded by a child) and then confront the beasty in its layer like a slightly more fucked up version of IT, though not by much. HOWEVER, if I know PCs and the Lamp Oil market in Lasing’s Row is as strong as it is in most of Dolmvay, I estimate some parties will just stock up and prepare for the smell of Napalm in the morning. The Grombel is almost perfectly statted for an encounter with PCs to be formidable without being unstoppable, with one fucking exception. Ready? A Roar attack that functions once per day and deals 2d4 damage to all within earshot (save vs breath weapon for half). Say goodbye to your wizards and thieves. My suggestion is to replace the damned thing with some sort of stunning attack. Siccing a spectre on stupid PCs and giving them an opportunity to run is fine with me, but you HAVE to confront this damned thing.
Even the child-transformation thing could just have been written off as a statt penalty/bonus, but Spahn actually covers how you would find armor and recommends the GM award PC’s who can come up with something clever to protect themselves since their armor is now almost certainly too big, as are most of their weapons. An awesome little twist that adds a lot.
Like a true gentleman, Spahn finishes the adventure with short description of all the major NPCs of the village (again, mad props for toning down the levelled characters, avoiding any chance of the “But Why CAn’t YOU Do It?” syndrome that plagued the forgotten realms modules of yesteryear. The NPCs feel like actual town people, with petty town intrigues, petty town ambitions and petty tragedies occupying their lives before this otherworldly horror returns once more to plague them. A place, in short, that needs its heroes (or amoral mercenaries). If there is criticism to be levelled, the module VERY MUCH assumes the PCs are of more of a Lawful bent, and the village provides few incentives to help them (beyond exile and the spreading of ill rumors should they refuse the call to adventure). It is fitting, but it will not be to everyone’s taste.
The Stealer of Children packs a hefty punch for its 31 page length, and delivers the kind of fully fleshed out locations and little extra hooks and details that separate the boys from the men. Anyone looking for a kickass horror adventure for 1st levels, complete with frightened, superstitious peasants, otherworldly horror, faery tale wonder and a probably batshit insane IT-like conclusion that makes the heart sing would do well to check it out. Well done. 7.5 out of 10.