[Review] Dark Folk (1e 3PP); Keep on the Borderlands Coverband

[Sourcebook/Adventure Anthology]
Dark Folk (1983)
P. Karczag, S. Morrison, R.L. Asprin, L. Kay, A. Miller, I. Goldstein, A. Nudelman & S. Khas edited by P. Karczag (Mayfair Games)
Levels 5 – 9
Summary: (Orcs of Thar + Keep on the Borderlands + In the Shadow of Mount Rotten)/5

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor dark folk role aids

Note: As part of the spiritual rebirth of this blog, I am going to experiment with 5 Star notation for review purposes. Let me know if you like it.

Dark Folk is another puzzling 98-page entry in the Role Aids series, simultaneously impressive for the time it was made but also severly dated. It represents a sort of proto Monstrous Arcana entry, expanding the lore of monstrous humanoids and furnishing them with additional class options, notes on culture, deities, sub-races, racial magic items and an adventure centred around them. Crucially, it does not make humanoids playable characters, a decision that I support.

For 1983 this would be hot shit, providing a more expended take on well-known dungeon favorites like the Orc, the Troll and the Gnoll, but the writing can get a bit long-winded and the adventures are primitive to say the least. What I do appreciate is that this is clearly a product from before the satanic panic and the great sanitation, when DnD had a stronger, grittier S&S vibe to it that shows through in the writing. It does not attempt to portray Orcs as misunderstood freedom fighters or Trolls as noble savages, mostly staying true to their Tolkinian or Andersonian origins. I will cover each entry in detail.

Before the supplement elects to describe any of the aforementioned monstrous races it first delves into the setting of Jovian Falls and the continent of Mamaryl (about the size of france or england), the setting for the adventures in this anthology. As far as gazzeteers go it is not useless but somewhat lacking in its own distinct flavor, coming off as just another generic fantasy setting.

Jovian falls is an island city and centre of trade for the continent, having taken many lives to wrest from the tribes of the trolls that inhabited the region. A somewhat disconnected description of the city’s general attributes, entrances, city wall, garrison, sewer system and political apperatus is provided, along with a questionably useful series of tables to generate buildings and occupants. I am reminded of off-brand Judges Guild with all the good tables removed. THIS BUILDING IS TWO LEVELS AND HAS A WHEELWRIGHT. Thanks hoss. Further irritation is generated by having most of the interesting descriptions and details on the town be in the Troll adventure section.

Other locations on Mamaryl include a town constructed by shipwrecked slaves, a former pirate town under imperial garrison, a town where you can get anything, a theocracy of all religions (weird but interesting) and a city guarded by wizard-shaped reefs responsible for the construction of warships. What is lacking in these locations is adventure hooks and dynamic tension between different factions, failing to elevate them beyond encyclopedia entries for when you want to stick in some overland travel in between dungeon grinding.

Trolls (Paul Karczag & Steve Morisson)

Easily the longest section of the book (almost 30 pages), Trolls expands the background of that reaper of low-level characters and bane of mid-level parties, the Troll. While some of the writing takes an almost anthropological approach, Dark Folks interpretation of the troll never strays far from the Andersonian interpretation and as such we are left with information that is perfectly respectable, if somewhat old hat and TLDR after almost half a century of DnD.

Trolls are old as fuck, made by a monstrous servant of proto-gods and are characterized by their insanely violent nature. DF correctly tackles the first problem with the DnD troll, namely that with their regeneration ability and formidable strength a tribe of Trolls would probably effortlessly decimate any natural enemy they come across and would simply expand across the globe gleefully murdering anything that doesn’t breathe fire or is too stupid to use it.

The insane toughness and murderous nature of the troll has logical implications that prevent exponential growth. There is not a climate where trolls are not found. Every year trolls fight for chieftainship with the challenger fighting the chieftain to the death. Wars between different sub-species of trolls are extremely common. Also because of their resilience and strength, trolls are stupid, almost incapable of subterfuge and have little technology (although some variants have mastered basketweaving, iron forging or other talents). I think the decision to make them capable of bartering with other species despite their blood-thirsty nature was an excellent one that adds opportunities for interaction and complexity without diluting their absolutely terrifying potential for murder. Trolls in Dark Folk feel like Australopithocenes or other proto-human creatures, primordial and brutish, possessed of a hideous strength. Troll culture is simple and brutish, disobedience equals death, females are property and the tribe is all.

DF then descends into hyper-illithiad levels of autism by statting out and describing the culture, habits, traits and characteristics of 10 FUCKING SUBSPECIES OF TROLL, from your household variety Troll to the subtle Desert Troll, the powerful Two-headed Troll and even the rare Giant Troll [1]. If you want to a glimpse of the level of autism, there are even stats on the percentage of the total troll population each sub-species makes up. While I think no sane man would ever need more then, say, half that number of troll sub-species [2], I don’t want to hate on the descriptions too much, each species is given one or two paragraphs of description at best, with most of the information relating directly to play (e.g differences in weapon choice, tactics, regeneration, attributes etc.). Differences in statts are efficiently displayed in a row of tables consisting of only a single page so one cannot fault the presentation.

Trolls are provided with ersatz class levels in the form of the Chieftain, the Witch-doctor and the Shaman, with both statts in the form of additional hit dice and simple notes on access to spells, as well as descriptions of their initiation and role within the tribe. For fluff, it ain’t half bad. The trolls are even provided with several appropriately savage gods to pray and offer grotesque sacrifices too. Yarnarral, Targnargle, Szkarnadle and the Serpent Demon Lirabyth. The sparse description of the trolls is somehow all the more appropriate, lending credence to the primitive and savage nature of Troll culture. Each of these deities is given statts ah la Deities and Demigods but who cares, you aren’t going to fight these things directly.

As far as Trollonomicons go, this section is virtually complete, maybe even a wee bit too long for some. There’s notes on relations with other species (feared and hated), trade, slavery, relations with other troll sub species (hatred and female stealing) and finally a list of magical artifacts and items unique to the Troll, with a type of subdermal amulet by far the spookiest one. It’s nice to see not everything is related to combat; you’ve got enchanted clay jars that will keep food fresh forever, a portable well, ropes made of hair that can ensnare the species they were crafted from and other flavorful items. Some of the artifacts like the Red Claw, which allows its wearer to function as a fighter of twice his level, are ridiculously strong, but then again with artifacts that is kind of the point.

In contrast to the preceding section, The Troll Ultimatum is a terrible adventure.
The premise is that the town of Jovian falls has long been paying off the troll tribes to guard the trade routes instead of raiding them, a mutually beneficial arrangement that has created a semblance of piece between the two civilizations. Unfortunately the chieftain of the allied River Trolls is kidnapped, two parties sent to find him are never seen again, and Frozen Waste Trolls come to the city gates and demand a quarter of a million gold pieces (!) in tribute or the return of their two artifacts or an army swamps the city in 30 days. 1000+ trolls. The party is hired blah blah.

The adventure begins as an obtuse scavenger hunt for the items where the PCs can visit any of several locations in the town that are named proper Sierra Adventure style. EXTREMELY clever players might pick up on the unneccesary details and find out where the artifacts are located, other people can elect to grind for gp in the countryside, which is not mapped nor provided with appropriate random encounter tables. Finding the Troll army camp or the caverns where the Troll sub leadership is based is not terribly difficult (one can merely track the trolls or cast divination magic, the recommended level is 5-8), but the problem is that the troll hideout consists of THREE DUNGEON FLOORS FILLED WITH A FUCKTONNE OF TROLLS AND HALF THE MONSTROUS MANUAL THAT ATTACKS ON SIGHT.

Tiny whiffs of flavor, like Gorgons with knives+2 embedded in their hides or an Ettin that is fanatically in love with a troll witch doctor, does not alleviate the grinding, invincible monotony of entry after entry of room, so and so many trolls, high HD gnolls, troll shamans, a trap, treasure and more fucking trolls. There is barely an intelligent response to the invasion of their layer. Osgoth-Sogoth the two headed 7th level Troll Shaman and his council of Troll shamans and 6 mountain troll guards. How the fuck are you supposed to win this? Cloudkill is for level 9 wizards. Spectres pop out of hollow bedposts, cockatrice lairs, a Groaning Spirit, its like a greatest hits of FUCK YOU monsters. Even the Gnolls are all beefed up to 5 HD and equipped with fucking magic items ALL OF WHICH ARE FROM THE DMG. THE TREASURE IS BORING. Even worse, it is boringly placed, never concealed or disguised or unconventional. Terrible.

There is an additional mystery in the town in the form of the Snake gardens, but solving it means you find a teleporter that will just send you into some floor of the Troll Caverns without quick means of escape, making everything INFINETELY WORSE. Your reward for your inquisitive nature SHALL BE DEATH!

Incidentally would have liked a more fantastic description for the teleporters, which are more reminiscent of the Starship enterprise then any magical doorway. The snake temple where the PCs get to learn that they need the objects to banish the serpent goddess which will appear in the snake garden (this is mentioned ofhandedly but not covered) AND THEY GET TO FIGHT EVEN MORE TROLLS. GLYPHS SHALL REVEAL YOUR INVISIBILITY SO YOU CAN’T EVEN DO IT THAT WAY. The Snake temple has less endless hordes of fuck you monsters but more traps that either kill instantly or arbitrarily remove your memory for A WEEK. Desert Raven, a Troll shaman with a mace that fires beams of desintegration at magic users or anyone in front of them and a last room which is admittedly clever, filled with 25 statues of snake demons, one of which is real. Nice.

Hilariously, the Troll army is statted out in full so if your players decide some sort of ambush they can expect to fight 1000 trolls of varying types in what will probably be the strangest homage to the charge of the light brigade ever. To give some credit where it is due, there are some fairly diverse and interesting humanoid bands protecting the Troll cavern (a group of were-weasel orcs, goblin assassins carrying magic armor etc. etc.). It doesn’t matter since they attack on sight.

Troll Ultimatum is boring, suicidally difficult, lazy, arbitrary and arguably silly, apparently the trolls plan is to use the ultimatum to get the party to find the artifacts so the trolls can steal them which seems too cunning for trolls. Why? Why is it like this? Who does this to people? Final verdict: *

Orcs (Les Kay) 

This section starts off with a used caresalesmans trick. R. Asprin (of Thieves World fame [3]) is noted in the credits as writing the orc section but actually contributes only 2 pages of very flowery exposition, most of which is reiterated in the section proper, which is written by based rpg author Les Kay.

The Orc section is solid but raises etymological quandries on the right to exist of monster sourcebooks, adhering so closely to Tolkien’s interpretation they may as well have sprung straight from the pits of Angband. DF Orcs are cannibalistic, cowardly, lazy and violent, imperfectly made by a jealous and spiteful deity Osgda, whose feud with the elves and enmity for the sun stems from Osgda’s theft of the secret of life from the elven deity and his near death at the hands of the Sun God.

Orcs are predatory and cannibalistic, eating the flesh of all humanoids (even of themselves if all else fails), quarrelsome and lazy, preferring to take by force or steal rather then make things for themselves, which they suck at. Tribes are barely held together by brutish chieftains and his band of swaggering sub-chiefs, with Orc assassins serving as a sort of secret police (Orc assassins are highly respected). The game provides statistics for Orc assasins, shamans and the rare Chosen, which can advance up to 10th level and usually become chiefs and sub-chiefs. A powerful chief can even found the formidable but inevitably short lived Orc Nation, which collapses under infighting the second he is remove from power.

The problem is not that this section is bad, it is not, it is fine, presenting the Orc in its undiluted viciousness, straight from the pages of Tolkien with nary a new coat of paint and serial number. This is obviously a superior take on the semi-comedic Orcs of Thar or the misunderstood noble savages of Warcraft [4]. The fault one could lay at its feet is that this information, while a useful primer, is mostly available from the pages of the most popular fantasy novel of all time. That being said, if you haven’t read Tolkien in a while, this primer is pretty sweet.

There are no lavish statts for deities, no sub-races and only a few magic items. One of them is interesting, an amulet that sometimes provides 100% magic resistance but also disrupts spellcasting when it does so. What a dick item.

In contrast, Taking Toll is an adventure for 6 characters of levels 4-7 and represents one of the best takes on a lair assault I have seen outside of Caverns of Chaos. No seriously it’s a damn good Orc Lair.

The party is hired by merchants in jovian falls to get rid of some Orcs that are pestering the trade routes near the ruins of an old fortress.

The beauty of this adventure is in the strategy the party can employ and the intelligence of the defenders. You start on the road near the ambush site, but your party is level 4-7. You can figure shit out. Will you use illusion? Will you just sneak through the forest and check out the ancient fortress?

The fortress’s walls are crumbling so there are multiple means of egress. Some are very hard to navigate and loud. Detection chances are listed depending on the party’s plan of action. Do they go by night? Do they use invisibility?

The Orcs are intelligent, if the party is detected they will sally forth and prepare an order of battle. They use ambushes and misdirection. The first room has them releasing kobold slaves on them “gain your freedom if you can” while they fire arrows. While I suspect this module will be a little easy for characters of levels 5 and higher [5], punches are definetely not pulled. There’s a few creatures here to spice things up a bit, an Androsphinx and a pyrohydra, but they make sense and they feel like part of the dungeon!

The map is small but excellent, allowing for nonlinear exploration. There are secret doors, the orcs stage an ambush with a party circling back. The one irritating feature of the description is that rooms are often described in terms of what they once were. It’s nowhere near grating but its noticeable. Description is otherwise short and clear if not always evocative. The surface is abandoned but manages to have some interesting hard to find tidbits of treasure scattered about. And a collapsing section! It’s classic.

The treasure is good. A rusty suit of armor that turns out to be made of adamantium, a gem of Locking concealed in a hollow brick, carved ivory figures etc. Treasure is not just laying about but is either concealed or USED. Someone read the DMG. There is a secret door in a non-obvious location and the treasure trove is HUGE, exactly what it should be. A bossfight with the chief, his dire wolves and witch-doctors to cap it off.

The tragedy of a lot of terrific modules is that they are too weird, elaborate or hard to place in your homebrew campaign or that they take a lot of prep. This one does not have this problem, is only 7 pages long and packs a hell of a punch for its weightclass. I am tempted to do a comparison with the Jaquays module Borshak’s lair Melan mentioned in his review of Kiel Chenier’s craptastic Orc Lair for 5e but gosh darnit this one made me smile regardless. Final verdict: ****

Gnolls (Arthur Miller & Irwin Goldstein)

Gnolls are the least defined of the humanoid races [6] and as such one would expect the most creativity but the Gnoll section is among the shortest and weakest of the whole book. They feel much like Orcs Light only without the strength of the source material propping up the dull writing.

The section opens like an unusually long-winded monstrous manual entry, describing tribe size, gnoll strength, sub-chieftains and the composition of a gnoll tribe. For some reason Gnolls are given melee attacks like lizardmen in this intrpretation. Their tribal customs are like the Orc, only with less infighting between tribes a matriarchy and with a different demon god that cobbled them together from some hyenas and infused them with his own blood (that part is cool). Their customs are otherwise very vanilla. There is little to distinguish them from Orcs and Goblins and they lack defining features, or a role in the forces of evil or something to really set them apart from the other monstrous humanoids. Even the single artifact that is described, which is a cool artifact with a cool backstory (the knife that was used to make the gnolls), has vaguely defined powers. I read over it before dismissing it from my mind. Dark Folk’s take on Gnolls is dull, maybe Gnolls are dull I don’t know. I weep for the adventure that is to come.

Wedding Sacrifice for characters of level 3-6 is an okay concept married to an almost platonically bad execution, and while it is at least functional, it is dull. Irwin Goldstein, who is credited as the author, needs to be ashamed. 2 of its 6.5 pages are backstory. Goddamnit Goldstein.

A prominent council member got himself beaten up and his daughter kidnapped by Gnoll bandits. Raising the army takes too long. 20.000 gp if you can get her back from the swamp before the Gnolls sacrifice her!

Decent premise with boring execution. The party can either follow a linear trail through the swamp or they can SUCK A DICK. Prepare to roll random encounters and stumble into traps as you make your way to the village. This swamp sucks. Nothing that is awesome about swamp adventures (malaria, drowning, mosquitoes, heat) comes into play. The only concession are some random encounters, which are good because they are more then just statts, but bad because you only have three entries. Props for using a Will O’ the Wisp and a Catalopeblas btw.

The village proper has a map and positioning but no sign of a plan or anything resembling intelligence. That’s fucking boring. Each hut just lists the occupants in dispassionate detail along with the treasure contents like you are reading a scout report from the most jaded adventurers ever. Nothing special, just another snatch-n-grab and and some humanoid genocide. By the time you hit level 7 you can no longer hear the howling of their putrid young.
This entire fucking thing could have been done on one page. The rescue the mayor’s daughter part is the only interesting thing about it but the map barely offers anything to work with to come up with a stealthy or cunning ruse. Objects are barely described and treasure is fucking generic. At the time of its creation it would have been of marginal use, now its just not worth it. Final verdict: *

Kobolds (Alan Nudelman)

The section on Kobolds is short but sweet, forgeoing almost entirely any sort of mythical origin story in favor and instead focusing on Kobold society, tactics, culture and so on. In 5 pages (with a lot of art), Nudelman presents what is probably the best take on the damn things I have seen in years. Dark Folk works when it focuses on the essence of the creatures it wants to expand, and this section does so swimmingly.

Kobolds in DF are not imbued with the blood of dragons, cunning tricksters or great craftsmen of traps. They are the bottom of the food-chain, their only defense their great numbers, attacks from ambush, domesticated animals and vast quantities of crude traps. Kobold society can be extrapolated directly from their statts in game. They only attack when they outnumber the foe at least three to one, their morale often crumbles after mere rounds of combat, life is cheap in the warrens and they lack utterly any sort of high HD champion to throw at the PCs, which cements their position as bottom-tier adversaries all the harder.

Descriptions of kobold assaults as howling, frenzied charges whilst arrows are indiscriminately fired into the melee, inevitably striking both friend and foe put me in mind of Skaven, without the organization, intelligence or determination. It’s…it’s perfect.

There are but two disagreeable things in this entire section: It is stated that a kobold female can lay one egg every 2 years but the incubation period only lasts 3 months. With the high mortality rates Kobolds face when engaging almost anything else which the text acknowledges, that reproduction rate would have to go up in order for them to make sense. The second detail I didn’t like was that the Kobold deities Farhet (god of victory in battle) & Morhet (god of protection, nurturing, fleeing in battle) have a small percentage chance to appear if the kobolds either fight for more then 3 melee rounds or face annihilation in their den in every fight. I suppose that as written this way it is likely to happen a maximum of one time to any party that is in the dedicated kobold extermination business and there isn’t much point in statting events that are less likely. I like it that even the Kobold demi-gods seem puny when compared to other demi-gods, with the appearance of Farhet granting them normal morale (not even fearlessness, just not the extreme cowardice they suffer always) and causing fear in others.

There are some magic items as well, all of which are great. A horn that will give enemies the morale of the kobolds. The ring of Morhet which can absorb damage but ages the wearer for each hit point [7] and the Ring of Weight imbues the kobold with mass, allowing him to do huge damage on a charge.

The Tower is the accompanying adventure but a far more appropriate title would be Ze Kobold Kwestion or perhaps Ze Last Solution.

A crotchety old dwarf hires the PCs to drive the kobolds from the ruined keep of his ancestors so his ancestor’s tombs may be secured. They may keep any other belongings they find in the dungeons, and are offered a thousand gp each.

This adventure uniquely adheres to the source material and is probably the most…realistic? attack on a kobold lair I have ever seen. Prepare to systematically murder hundreds and hundreds of unarmed hatchlings, wade through dozens of crude pit traps and take about three hundred d3 arrows in the process whilst you fight a rear guard of kobold warriors so their women may escape. After you have explored 3 dungeon floors and 1 tower, you will be covered in the blood of 120 adult kobold males, 720 hatchlings and however many females failed to escape, but you will feel clean.

Pray that your GM is using either AD&D’s multiple attacks for fighters rule or Acks Cleave rule. Dear god you will feel its absence.

I said realistic and I meant it. As you go down the levels, trampling the bodies of unarmed hatchlings beneath you [8] you will not just slaughter hatchlings and soldiers but kobold potters, weavers, tailors, hatmakers, blacksmiths and all manner of craftsmen. Each trade group is armed with the tools of its trade if appropriate.

Prepare to take notes and go through reams of graph paper to track party movement so you can tell exactly when they have stepped in a pit trap. There are multiple ambush tactics for when the alarm is raised that you will all have to note down somewhere because the adventure sure as hell isn’t going to do it for you. This adventure isn’t bad but its hard to use and the microscopic Role Aids trademark maps aren’t helping.

It’s not even a one note map. There are two sanctuary zones in the ancient fortress that will allow parties to rest and recuperate, provided they clear it of GIANT SPIDERS AND CENTIPEDES first. The kobolds also make great use of domesticated animals like boars, weasels and giant otters to repel invaders.

There’s some okay treasure belonging to an old wizard in the lower levels and some items from the last section. I’m honestly a little stumped about this one. An adventure involving kobolds for mid-level characters involving just about any assets the kobolds are likely to possess without coming off as cheap or arbitrary. There’s even the odd bit of color to keep it from becoming too bland and there is variety within the set of opponents the PCs are likely to face. Its just that I see the need for a kobold tracker, a highlighted bar for kobold tactics, more legible entries for each level and so on and so forth.
Final Verdict: **

Goblins & Hobgoblins (Sue Khas)

This final section rocks. Could it be shorter? Yes. But it rocks. The concept of the goblin and the hobgoblin is distilled into its purest form.

It begins with an expanded Monstrous manual entry for Goblins and Hobgoblins, detailing encounter size (often in the d100s!), equipment, chiefs, sub-chiefs, warleaders, shamans and witch-doctors, type of equipment they use as well as percentage chances to own magic weapons. But you know that stuff already.

The real meat and potatoes of this section is how it gets rid of the chaff and provides additional information on goblins and hobgoblins to differentiate them from other humanoids, give them their own identity and make each one uniquely dreaded.

Goblins are sadistic, treacherous and ferocious. They are talented miners but lazy so they rather take over other settlements. They are experts in working leather and brewing poisons, many of which are detailed, from the fast acting PARSELISI which bursts your heart to the FATTYAR which degenerates tissue on touch. They trade their leather and poisons to others, even humans. They are unable to learn military tactics and fight like berserkers, especially when they are outnumbered. They mate indiscriminately and children are assigned to males by lot. They keep their slaves near the entrance of their burrow and will set them on fire to distract any foe should they be forced to escape. Awesome.

Hobgoblins are disciplined, ruthless, do not fear the sun and are renowned for their prowess at war. They forge their own weapons though they are below average craftsmen. They are cunning warriors who use ambushes, cut off retreat and cavalry attacks. They prefer to depopulate villages, inhabit them and then move on when the villages fall apart because of neglect. They serve as advisors and war leaders to the Goblins. There is something terrifying and savage about them that I dig.

Both species are given three hideous crone gods to worship: Elishadra the Pain-Giver, Chelitiara the Venomed One and Borzsanna the Vile-hearted. At a 5% chance of success and a 40% chance of having their soul taken as tribute, Shamans of the Gobin race can channel the power of one of the many demi-gods they worship and thus gain some of their strength, allowing them to use their spellike abilities.

There’s a bunch of shit about their lifestyle, laws and tribal structure that should satisfy, amply, anyone who wants to get their goblinoids into fighting trim for the big campaign without having all of their rough spots sanded off so they can look pretty for grandma, this is the stuff you need. For a supplement that covers monsters that see some of the most frequent use in all DnD, this is some good shit.

The Illarian Forest Intrigue caps off the collection with another great adventure plagued by layout difficulties and blessed with very interesting design decisions. This can easily stand up to most of the stuff in Dungeon.

Your party travels to the elven city of Illaria and encounter a story old as time itself. The  elves let goblins move into their forest. “The forest is big enough for all of us,” they say. “Those Goblins aren’t bothering anyone.” Cue several years later and the goblins have multiplied massively in the Watery Caverns and have started killing and enslaving the pacifist elves while talking about founding a “Goblin Nation.” The elves, consisting mostly of liberal college professors and hippies, barely fight off the initial onslaught, and one of the captured elves manages to bring word of some sort of “treasure” found in the caverns that will allow the Goblins to unite. Enervated by a lifetime of r-selection, short-time preferences and affordable housing, the boomers are reduced to begging humans to solve their problem for them before they are overrun. The solution:  Education Build a Wall Infiltrate the Caverns and destroy their Treasure before they can form the Goblin Nation.

There’s a fucktonne of backstory about the caverns, so much that I threw up a little when I read it, but the premise is interesting. An army is being mobilized in Jovian Falls but it will not be on time.  There’s a bizarre section in the beginning where the boomers are willing to let what is essentially their last hope leave UNLESS THEY EXPLICITLY ASK FOR A GREATER REWARD in which case they will lend them 8 rings of incredible power that will remain with them for up to six months before a powerful geas calls them back to Illaria. I am talking a ring that lets you cast three Power Words per day, another one for Three Fireballs and some other spellike abilities, A ring that lets you and several others teleport without error 1/day and so on. The adventure is already very doable for a party of 5-8th level characters (Fireball, Invisibility, Clairvoyance, Protection from normal missiles, Neutralize poison), with the artifacts, I fear the Goblin nation stands little chance.

There’s some railroadery bullshit where the party is harassed by goblin patrols if they refuse but fuck that noise. Generally with adequate incentive you can safely assume the party will accept a mission, don’t give us this ham-fisted nonsense.

There’s a few adventure design decisions that immediately make this adventure more interesting. There are more goblins then the party has a realistic chance of taking down (hundreds and hundreds) so the party must rely on either speed or stealth. The treasure they are searching for is hidden and its nature is unknown, so an element of intelligence gathering also comes into play.

The cave map proper is expansive (three levels), nonlinear and especially the second level is vast and sprawling (and mostly deserted). Intelligent responses to incursions are included in a way that I simply have not seen before in AD&D, with guards equipped with jars of poison, strategic retreats, cockatrices being unleashed in their wake and the grisly burning of slaves while the goblin warriors crawl out through narrow tunnels. It’s savage and visceral in a way that few modules manage to convey. There’s fungus farms or sections where a mad dwarf has worked on the walls to convey a sense of history.

The actual treasure is very well hidden and happens to be an artifact from classic mythology. The Well of Life prevents aging, heals all injuries, can bring the newly slain back from the dead. The catch is that if you stop drinking water from the well of life your body will revert to its former age. That also means that since the Goblins have been drinking the water for 11 years, if you disable the well all the goblins in the caverns age for 11 years which is sufficient to kill all of them. Nice. The only way to do this is to solve a riddle first so the Elder God that lives in the well may be summoned. Awesome. The merciful GM has thrown in a semi-hard to dicover soul-gem with the demon-goddess Borzjanna in there just to fuck with the party a little more.

Jars of save vs die contact venom for many of the guards seems rough but at 5-8th level you have access to so many countermeasures the challenge is fair. Direct combat, even with the artifact, is unlikely to succeed because of the sheer numbers of the goblin tribe. There’s interesting navigational hazards like a narrow underwater tunnel or the nearly abandoned 2nd level which keeps the adventure from becoming monotonous. This module is interesting because I think with access to a  Cloudkill spell it would be easily solved.

Treasure is book standard, along with thousands and thousands of gold pieces, 5000 gp worth of leatherworking goods, life-sized dwarven statues that must be carefully chipped out of the stone for risk of damaging them and some magic items from the DMG. This section could have been a little stronger, though with the number of goblins involved I understand the level of abstraction must necessarily be increased also.

There’s a few irritating layout issues. The first encounter refers back to an encounter on level three for the statts and rationale behind the poison jars and the frequency with which they are equipped which should be at the beginning of the adventure. I think some note-taking will be required to make sure the GM understands how the goblins respond to incursion. Highlighting what caverns contain goblins would have made the whole more legible, but its certainly not useless.

While not as tightly designed as Taking Toll, The Illarin Forest Intrigue at least feels like the designer put some work in and presents a sprawling and complex challenge to overcome against a numberless foe. If you are going to do goblins, at least do them like this: vast numbers, shrieking warrens, poison jars, burning slaves. I would have liked to see a version of this adventure using the more atmospheric language favored today but still, its damn cool. Final Verdict: ***

Dark Folk is an interesting take on humanoids from a less sanitized age, presenting humanoids as implacable foes of mankind that can be bargained with but never trusted. Their savagery and evil is emphasized.

Dark folk is an interesting if uneven take on monstrous humanoids. The different lengths, formats and focus of each section could have benefited from some standardization but it does keep book from getting repetitive or stale. The adventures, which are the real value of the book, are a mixed bag, rising from the heights of the stellar Taking Toll to the abysmal Wedding Sacrifice. Nevertheless, its interesting to see Dark Folk still stand its ground after almost forty years of DnD. It raises the lair-assault, a time-honored tradition introduced in such notables as Keep on the Borderlands, to levels previously unconceived. If you find yourself using monstrous humanoids with any sort of regularity [9], or you are interested in learning how to make adventures involving attacks on large tribes of humanoids, this book is well worth your time. 6.5 out of 10 or Final Verdict: *** [10]

Sadly Dark Folk is out of print today and Mayfair games has neglected to bring it back in PDF form, possibly because of the dodgy copy-right issues surrounding it? Its a shame Mayfair games has neglected to publish its catalogue during the rise of the OSR, when interest in such material would have been at a premium. Even today, with many sages pronouncing the death of the OSR, interest lingers in such publications.

Bonus: Check out the non-review of Dark Folk by Gorgnardia.  Once this man was your pope. Disgraceful.

[1] If this were a Raggi supplement one would imagine the Internet Troll to be included in there somewhere.
[2] One would almost come to suspect the authors deliberately included an unneccesary profusion of trolls to provoke an emotional response. To Troll if one wills.
[3] Should add it to my appendix N, the first Thieves World is gnarly.
[4] For the record, the best take on Orcs is Tolkien, followed closely by the Sranc from R.A. Bakker’s Aspect-Emperor series.
[5] I’d call level 6 or 7 about the end of the Orc’s shelf life, even with the odd levelled boss, after which they must be replaced with hardier dungeon crawling fare like Sahuagin, Trolls, Giants or Drow.
[6] I don’t even know if they have a literary origin in Appendix N
[7] Another gripe, it states that only 25% of kobold tribes will have one of these rings. That is still far too common for a magical item imho.
[8] Kobolds sensibly place their weakest tribe members without weaponry in the frontline so they can soften up the enemy before the warriors can finish them off.
[9] Honestly what GM doesn’t?
[10] I am contemplating the adoption of the 5 stars system to make it easier to parse content for the reader. Five would be Top-tier, Four Exceptionally good, Three solid, Two mediocre or very flawed and One would be reserved for Trash.

 


9 thoughts on “[Review] Dark Folk (1e 3PP); Keep on the Borderlands Coverband

  1. “Check out the non-review of Dark Folk by Gorgnardia. Once this man was your pope. Disgraceful.”

    I considered Rients my pope. At least his posts were fun or useful. Way too many JaMal ramblings felt like recollections of shit he saw or heard decades ago – probably because that’s all they were.

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    1. Welcome back Tamas.

      Rients’s blog can’t be faulted, which is why I was so surprised that his latest foray into Lotfp was so disappointing.

      I think my entry into the OSR went something like Jamal –>YDIS —> Blog. Very healthy. Jamal was a good introduction into some of the OSR stuff that was there but the sheer vapidity of some of his later posts is mind-boggling when you read it now. For 2008 though, when the movement was still in its inception, I can kind of get that any content was good content.

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      1. Man I remember the old days. Carcosa had just come out. Bottle City. Lamentations of the Flame Princess made a few good modules every one in a blue moon. We discovered Pundit had ripped off M.A. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne with his terrible Arrows of Indra setting. Rob Kuntz was working on the Machine Level for Castle Greyhawk. Kent had a blog. Zak’s human disguise was still operating at 100% efficiency. Gary Gygax was alive and working on Castle Zagyg. If you saw a 4th edition player on your lawn you would just open fire no questions asked. Nystull was living on couches and conjuring illusionary kickstarters.

        Someone needs to retroclone those halcyon vaporware days. An OOSR. WHO IS WITH ME?!?

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  2. I have this somewhere, but hazily remember the adventures as underwhelming. I will certainly need to have another look at Taking Toll. My recollection is that Gnolls were inspired by “Gnoles”; there is a DCC adventure “Gnole House”.

    Concerning Grognardia, whilst it was a fun trip down memory lane, I can’t remember many significant posts. Nothing of the quality of Melan’s ENWorld descriptions of dungeon complexity,or some of the Alexandrian, such as Jaquaying the Dungeon or the Three Clue Rule. It felt like rediscovering something you already knew was there. However as an introduction to TSR era gaming, I guess it did the job. I used to enjoy the comments as much as the articles.

    Does there need to be an “OSR Pope”? I would be perfectly content if authors are churning out interesting products, and there are ample sites reviewing adventures such as Tenfootpole, Vorpal Mace, the Endzeitgeist reviews, and this one.I would never has discovered “Gone Fishin” or “The Meat Grinder” without the first two. The Dragonsfoot Reviews section is excellent for the classic stuff. And you are a great source on Lamentations of the Flame Princess, for example. Is “No Rest for the Wicked” any good? The blurb on DriveThruRPG seems to be valueless generalities.

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    1. Taking Toll I think you will enjoy. Its vanilla but its solid vanilla, you gotta take a look at it and appreciate fine craftsmanship.

      [Gnole]
      I could find Gnole House but nowhere else is the Gnole mentioned. I am curious if its from Appendix N and if so, where?

      [Grognardia]
      I think his coverage of pulp fantasy got me into reading Appendix N. That in itself is probably no mean feat. Ah Jmal, wherever you are hiding, I owe you thanks for that if nothing else.

      [osrpope]

      Multiple dissenting opinions tend to produce a healthier, more accurate image and keep eachother honest IF they occasionally disagree. Thank you for your praise, please do not omit Beyond Fomalhaut, as Melan is a real OG and does plenty of reviews.

      [No Rest for the Wicked]

      I’ll review it after my next review, which is a donation.

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      1. There is a Lord Dunsany story “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles”.

        Melan is a tough reviewer in terms of stars, but fair in his comments. He also seems to look at some stuff others have missed. But one piece of praise per person per reply is my limit!

        I look forward to your review of No Rest for the Wicked. It ought to be fertile ground for LotFP, but does it avoid becoming too much about human misery? I like a bit of Blackadder style comedy.

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  3. Nice review as always .. and good to see you back in action … so to speak 😉

    [OSR Memory Lane]
    As someone who was “late to the party” I find it highly fascinating what people that took part in the young OSR recall and value.
    I also find it highly amusing that something that happened 10 years ago could be considered “in the old days” (I know Prince… you used it as hyperbole … but still 🙂 )
    The first IPhone came out 2007, yet t somehow feels like an age ago. Quite fascinating how the internet has made cultural evolution and the changing of trends and so on, that much quicker.

    [Grognardia]
    Heard of him, but never read the thing. Will take a look one of these days

    [OSR Reviewers]
    My intro to the OSR was tenfootpole and Br<yces reviews in general.
    Quickly after that i found your humble abode on the interwebs Prince.
    Gus L. Blog and Melans Beoynd Fomalhaut then popped up and thats about it.
    While I have a general sense of the OSR as a scene and a bit of knowledge who's who (Br<ce, Prince, Malrex, Melan, Gus L. Rients, CourtneyCampbell, Noisms, …) there suerly is much that i have missed.

    Sometimes I'm a bit sad that i missed the glory days of the OSR … then again looking at some of the shitstorms and SJW cursades that happened I'm glad I had no part in that (mainly because I am spectacularly bad at all that Social justice stuff and I surely would've rubbed a hell of a lot people the wrong way)

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