Oak Grove Whispers (2013)
Peter C. Spahn (Small Niche Games)
Levels 1 – 3
We have reached the end of the line. Oak Grove Whispers would be the last adventure by Spahn for Labyrinth Lord (though he continues to publish stuff like Operation Whitebox, an OSR WW2 game and there are some campaign setting sourcebooks we have not reviewed). Fortunately, it is a good un, and I retract my earlier fatalistic prophecies of doom regarding his output. The guy still got it.
Oak Grove Whispers is a Low Fantasy mystery-horror scenario that takes the form of three more or less connected mini-adventures culminating in an underground druidic grove and a fight with its horrific guardian spirits. The Spahn trademarks of thoroughness, low-fantasy, evocative human npcs, horrific creatures, fucked up Faery-tales and dream-shit combines to create a fun, if at times unwieldy adventure, as reminiscent of WHF fantasy as it is of DnD.
Underneath the district of Oak Grove Square in the city of Dolmvay lie the ruins of an ancient shrine of the Druun. Before the Church of Law and Order the nature-worshipping Druun ministered to Valnwall’s spiritual health with some nature worshipping of the oldskool variety; sacrifice, revelry, cannibalism and so on. Now they are all but gone, and Dolmvay squats atop their remains. Three tradesmen (A Butcher, A Baker & A Candlestick Maker!) discover an entrance to an ancient shrine of the Druun where they feast and live like Kings, complete with hookers. Tragedy eventually ensues.
The first adventure starts when the PCs enter Oak Grove Square, a poor neighborhood centred around some ancient oaktrees, inhabited by labourers, cobblers, low key thugs and an alcoholic 0th level cleric. I like it, it’s got a real salt of the earth vibe going on. Spahn demonstrates his almost obsessive conscientiousness by not only providing a good map with every building in the neighbourhood but also taking the trouble to statt out all the NPCs, and more importantly, give each one a little write up. Instead of the generic 0th level guards you would get in your mother’s adventure you get about 8 distinctive guards, a shitload of cobblers (some with delightfully mundane secret agendas, well done), innkeepers, laborers, an orphanage, prostitutes and so on. It’s almost overkill but it covers ALL the bases and the adventure does not require you to use all of the NPCs. I like it that there is a way into the last dungeon that involves befriending the drunken priest of the Labourer that nets you 500 xp and is mentioned almost nowhere. A good little secret. Why not? Average description here:
Marten is a lazy, overweight Watchman with a long drooping mustache who spends most of his time on duty drunk. This makes him prone to violence, however, Marten is a coward at heart who quickly backs down when confronted. His new partner, Samson Curter, has threatened to report his drunkenness on several occasions and tensions are high between the two.
Gives you a pretty clear idea no?
The first adventure starts when a prostitute steals a crown from the shrine and gives it to one of her favorite customers to pawn off and split the winnings, a master cobbler by the name of Galenar. Sadly he couldn’t resist donning the crown and now everything in his house turned all Silent Hill as Galenar’s nightmares have come to life. Conveniently, each Nightmare is representative of one of the artisans, providing a subtle clue to the perpetrators of the act (i.e one is a Pig in a blood-splattered apron wielding an axe and a butcher knife) as well as an Oak in the Garden!. The only puzzler is why Galenar would be dreaming of the men below, something that MIGHT need explaining but since the cause of the animate nightmares happens to be a magical Druun Crown we can let it slide. The hooks to this section all involve rewards and there is some loot (in the form of expensive wine or fancy dinnerware) but for the most part this is a pretty straightforward investigative/horror scenario with some nice scares. Hooks are simple and involve rewards from either the prostitute or Galenar’s servant and the adventure offers options to continue even if the PCs refuse to investigate (or more precisely, the hooks for part II and III do not require Galenar to survive).
Between each section is a sort of intermezzo that triggers the next event. In the intermezzo, the jealous wives of the three discover the dudes have been partying it up with a harlot and thus decide to follow her into the sanctum and there drown her after a shouting match and a hissy fit. This unexpectedly causes them to become younger ah la the Countess Bathory and also awakens the rather unpleasant guardian spirits of the shrine, meaning the shit has now properly hit the fan!
As impending doom looms threateningly over the horizon, our heroes are given a day of downtime, thank you adventure for recognizing the value thereof. Unfortunately, though the PCs might get sort of suspicious at this point, particularly if they talk to any of the locals (a Nice rumor table is provided to whet the investigative appetite), the adventure downright forbids your players from learning anything unless they use Charm Person, ESP or other unlikely methods. Props for pointing out that if the PCs are savvy enough they will figure out there is some magical shit going on underneath the city at this point and thus might find one of the entrances and investigate, in which case you can skip part II entirely.
The second chapter seems almost unrelated and involves the PCs having to oust, by means of their choice, a band of thugs occupying one of the tenement buildings and making their living extorting shop owners. Spahn understands the golden rule of making criminal gangs cool; SPE-CI-FI-CI-TY! The Hounds of Camber use trained street dogs, their lieutenant is a giant bald man who picks up and throws PCs into walls and off of Balconies ah la the Russian from the Punisher and their chieftain, the eponymous Camber, has been stabbed 17 times and did not die. Why you ask? Why his organs are located in subtly different places and thus he takes only half piercing damage as a result. Awesome! It’s little details like simple rules for fighting on Balconies (it sucks!) or stairways (you get +1 to hit) that add that little bit of spark.
A big weakness of part II is the payoff. The other two harlots apparently went looking for their friend and attempted to hire the thugs to find her, only to have them turn on the girls and attempt to beat the location of the rest out of them. The girls will connect Kirsten and her disappearance with one of the three but will otherwise be sort of useless, making this part essentially redundant, serving only to foreshadow what has already been foreshadowed in Chapter I.
Part III is the final showdown with the big bad, and starts off with the return of Kirsten, the missing redhead. Only now she has turned into some horrific creature of the Bloodling Queen (the name of the Druun guardian creature) and proceeds to murder THE FUCK out of everyone who defiled the shrine, including their families! Walton the butcher is the only guy still alive, and his wife has been ensnared by the power of rejuvinative sacrifice and is now magically compelled to study Druun secrets. Figuring shit has hit the fan properly, he decides to contact the PCs!
Part III is a 9 room dungeon. The first 8 rooms form a sort of symmetrical (but still interesting) sanctum, with the 9th one in a hollow below it, walled with ancient roots and carpeted with centuries worth of blood and bone. Fucking A! Each room is filled with interesting shit that both hints at the pagan horror of the Druun in true S&S fashion (i.e the Druun used the sacrifice of the Threefold Death, drowning, reanimation, hanging, reanimation and then Crucifixion!) and serves as interesting treasure in its own right. Thorn spears, accursed altars that give boons to the supplicant, clerical scrolls made of hideously preserved tissues (I mean three speak with animal spells inscribed upon a mummified elf how cool is that!), pagan treasures of bronze (nothing says old like bronze) and all manner of nastiness.
Encounters are pretty solid, and just varied enough for a nine room dungeon. The Bloodlings are half-ling sized monsters with bodies made of blood, bone and plant matter, led by their awful queen in the heart of the sanctum. Animated skeletons of centuries of sacrifice accompany them, bursting from the walls in spectacular fashion, AWESOME! A point of criticism is the final battle: The Bloodlings paralyze in the manner of ghouls (although the duration is much shorter) and during the final battle, the PCs face a total of six creatures that can cause a save vs paralysis on hit (with the projectile vomiting queen not even needing a hit roll), as well as 8 skeletons, meaning party composition and the right spell selection is essential if the Pcs mean to survive. Though the level recommendation says 1-3 with about 10 levels, my recommendation is that that one is skewed very heavily towards the 2-3 part, as a party of 1st level characters is likely to end up in a shallow grave indeed.
It wouldn’t be Spahn if he didn’t end by considering some follow up. The Church of Law and Order is very interested in buying any magical shit the party comes across (in fact, if the party is timid and cowardly enough the church will investigate by itself, eventually killing the infection, but not after a lot of people are dead. If your PCs are not heroically or financially inclined, this might not be the best choice for them.
There are two very nice random encounter tables, one for day and one for night, that serve to stir up what would otherwise run of the mill travels from tavern to church and so on. Props for not making any of the daytime encounters immediately hostile, which is nonsense in a small neighbourhood like this. Thugs attempt to intimidate, mongrel dogs attempt to get some food (used as they are to acting unopposed) and a harlot asks the PCs to escort her across the street at night. Good stuff.
A note about the NPCs. While there is a considerable list of NPCs provided, as I mentioned previously, none are essential to the plot. That means that the rather hefty task of getting some use out of most of these fuckers as more then window dressing will be up to the brilliant and merciful GM and the vagaries of emergent player-driven gameplay.
Pros: Spahn’s final ride. Dark Fantasy, adventure, terror, madness, violence. A thousand colorful faces! Come one! Come all! The Conscientious Conjurer! The Mage of Meticulousness! The Doge of Dark Fantasy!
Cons: The long list of NPCs might be a bit unwieldy for some. Fairly Linear, though it is possible to skip some parts or get some people killed. Bossfight difficulty coupled with enclosed location = TPK IF YOU SUX. The plot is not QUITE there and the writing could be tighter.
Spahn ends with a good send off. It’s nowhere near flawless and the second act, while perfectly fine in itself, feels a little redundant, included more as a sort of slavish devotion to the classic three act structure then any sort of ding-an-sich. That being said Spahn shows us once again that low-fantasy, event/character driven murder mystery DnD is pretty damn good. I can’t quit you brother. 7 out of 10.