[Review] Saving Saxham (DnD 5e); Last Wish for A New Age?

[Adventure]
Saving Saxham (2018)
Joseph Robert Lewis (Dungeon Age Adventures)
Levels 1 – 3

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The village of Saxham has been struck by a terrible curse! Or perhaps it’s being terrorized by demons, ghosts, and the undead? Or… was there a terrible storm? Maybe?

No one seems to know exactly what happened here. But the villagers are terrified, bizarre monsters roam the forest, and strange lights strike the woods every night at midnight…

Fear not, your Prince still lives and reviews, he was merely occupied elsewhere.

Saving Saxham is a 24 page adventure for DnD 5th edition by Joseph Robert Lewis whose request immediately put me on edge because it concerned a PWYW adventure for 5e and ended the request with a pre-emptive Thanks!, the summit of presumptuous salutations [1].  Fortunately for me I overcame my initial reservations because Mr. Lewis proved to a very courteous gentleman during the subsequent exchange and Saving Saxham is actually unironically good. And its for 5e!

Saving Saxham if anything, reminded me of Andrzej Sapkowski’s the Witcher, taking place in a bizarre not-quite fairy-tale dark fantasy setting against a backdrop of rural medieval village-life and involving a plethora of different factions, each with their own understandable motivations and most extraordinarily, it could be resolved entirely through diplomacy, ingenuity and stealth, requiring no great amount of violence.

Spoilers follow, for those who are interested in playing this module.

The village of Saxham is plagued by some incomprehensible and troubling event. Villagers awaken naked in the forest to find their village decrepit and long decayed. Horrid creatures of clay and wood haunt the surrounding area, and strange Green Flashes are seen coming from the Graveyard.

Occasional clumsy or conversationalist writing style nonwithstanding (the death knell of many an evocative fantasy), Saving Saxham is described in clear, efficient language that is rich in adjectives, creating a vivid image in one’s mind. While not always stirring the prose is effective in conveying the author’s intent. The formatting and editing is superb, using different fonts (all legible) for descriptive and gameable text and effective use of bullet points and bolded text (like some other really great adventure) to make it easy to reference it during play.

This two-story mansion looms over the nearby cottages. The collapsed roof and upper floor have buried the interior. Splintered debris fills the front doorway and windows. A flagstone path leads through an overgrown rose garden to the back yard. No debris blocks the back door, which stands square in its frame.

Simple but clear and efficient.

The adventure proper is remarkably complex, easily surpassing 99% of the 5e set-piece combat drivel that is vomited forth from the bottomless hellmouth of the DnD 5e 3rd party content system. It starts off as a bizarre mystery, doing some subtle foreshadowing that the village is not all that it seems, and the constant stream of new villagers showing up naked from the forest with the juxtaposition of the decrepit housing and rumors of abandonment from the surrounding region should clue the PCs in that there is something fishy going on. Dialog options in response to obvious questions are also provided, making the whole easy to assimilate, again, nice.

What sells it as a mystery adventure is that it is nonlinear, but the characters can glean there is something off about the village from multiple sources, avoiding the roadblock puzzle problem of many an investigative adventure. What sets apart from your run of the mill mystery is that is NOT A RAILROAD, presenting instead a dynamic situation with multiple parties active within the region, each with their own motivation, flavor and goals. A kicker is that if the PCs do not interfere the situation might actually resolve itself (though not without some unnecessary bloodshed).

And therein enters the Sapkowskian dillemma of multiple parties with conflicting agendas that all make sense from their point of view, with a clean resolution being possible but only if the PCs manage to puzzle everything out. The rest of the parties, a family of goblin bandits, two elven druids, the ghost of a Sister Anna bringing villagers back from the dead through a bizzare process of metamorphosis, all prefer to act rather then think.

There is something wonderous and unique about Saving Saxham that was completely lacking from Horror at Milltown. The bizarre clay and wood zombies, the colourfully described goblins, the use of Giant Badgers and Ant Swarms, hideous clinging black ichor in tunnels below a graveyard, it all feels very much like a twisted fairy tale. Magic items (that seem far too cheap but perhaps that is the osrman in me talking) are colorful and well described in the way of good minor magic items. Useful but also charming and embedded into the surroundings in a way that is not jarring. A +2 Axe and 1500 gp in a peasant’s hovel is jarring. A reliquary that protects from venom and allows you to heal poisoned people with three drops of your own blood is not. A cursed corset, a serrated knife for sticking rats, a necklace that allows one to be understood by all creatures but not speak their language…its charming.

There is of course the classic 5e paradox of being optimized for combat, yet having access to obscene amounts of healing in the form of the dreaded Short Rest, which is likely to render most encounters in the game relatively simple and exacerbated by the fact that Saving Saxhim is too easy. Indeed, with the exception of the Ghost of the Sister of St. Anna, combat in this adventure is going to be a cakewalk. But crucially, Saving Saxham is far more likely to reward players who try something besides attacking, and direct combat with the primary instigator of the resurrections (the Ghost) is likely to end poorly for 1-3rd level PCs.

There is an additional gripe in that the final reveal might be hard to swallow for some players and relies in part on entirely arbitrary fairy-tale logic of what a ghost can or cannot do. The fact a ghost would put prospective tomb robbers to work digging black ichorous tunnels so it can kill trees and use their energy to resurrect the villagers from death is going to require some clever GM legerdermain to prevent it from coming across as silly.

Saving Saxham is yet another beacon of light and hope in a time where a game of imagination and fantasy has never been more commodified, bland, generic and trite. Thank the Lord the flame of true DnD, which rewards cleverness, roleplay, ingenuity, daring and investigation, has not been extirpated by the grey legions of commercialism, political correctness, marketing and a decades of self-referential navelgazing. A good 5e adventure.

Pretty fun, but take with a grain of salt. 7 out of 10.

Check it out here (It’s PWYW).

[1] I know this because I use it at every opportunity.

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5 thoughts on “[Review] Saving Saxham (DnD 5e); Last Wish for A New Age?

    1. It’s not quite up to spec with the likes of Gone Fishin’ or Mines, Claws, Princesses but I am digging the departure from self-referential DnD to the sources that inspired the DnD in the first place; Mythology, Sword & Sorcery, Fairy-tales etc.

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  1. As I have DMed my fair share of Beyond the Wall, which takes much from classic fairy tails, I really dig this vibe in an adventure.
    I have heard about the reveal being a bit hard to swallow for some, but then again, atleast it’s something thatruffles the players a bit.

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    1. I think the reveal is a bit too much in this case. The problem with stand-alone adventures is that they don’t really have a setting complete with a system of magic to be integrated into, thus what is or is not possible is likely to vary wildly from campaign to campaign. An adventure that deviates too far from what is possible within the framework of the DnD ruleset should take care that it provides a convincing rationale or paints over the implausibility with vivid colours.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. [generic vs. specific background]
      Yeah. Like you wrote in your Age of Dusk timeline post: Either the adventure is so generic in its background, that you can plug it into any old setting, but it is most often bland and uninspiring then. Or it has its own rich background, which makes adapting it into ones own setting that much harder.
      As a DM and worldbuilder I will take a deep and rich adventure with a complex and interessting background any day over some bland, generic plug and play adventure. Most of the time the extra work is worth the effort 😉

      [Saxham reveal]
      It is a hard reveal that will take many players by surprise. As a DM I scan every adventure I play closely. Most of the time i adapt, change or discard some elements I think won’t work for me and my group. If I ever DM Saxham I will probably have to change some things about the reveal … but maybe not. Depends on my players and if I think they can take it.

      [shameless self-promotion]
      I have started a blog. Read it, like it, follow it 😛
      https://tinypinktentacle.wordpress.com/

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