[Review] Black Blade of the Demon King (Lotfp 3PP); Fear & Loathing in the Young Kingdoms

[Adventure]
Black Blade of the Demon King (2018)
Wind Lothamer & Ahimsa Kerp (Knight Owl Publishing)
Levels 1 – 3
Summary: Stormbringer + Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas + The Edda’s

Black Blade of the Demon King

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Gonzo:
1. of, relating to, or being a style of journalism marked by a lack of objectivity due to the writer’s immersion in the subject and often participation in the activity being documented
2. outlandishly unconventional, outrageous, or extreme 
– Merriam Webster Dictionary

3d6 refugees making their way to Støvring. If informed of its near destruction, they will smile grimly and continue with their journey.
– Black Blade of the Demon King, p.38

The boys at Knight Owl Publishing noticed my pilgrimage into lands of eternal ice and saw fit to donate their own contribution to see if it would be the promised land I had long been searching for. The best entry so far, and easily the strangest.

Black Blade of the Demon King is an insane trek [1] across the apocalypse-stricken ice-lands of Svärtgard, gonzo even by Lotfp standards, cheerfully combining Michael Moorcock’s Elric and Norse mythology with elements altogether less quantifiable. What origin does one subscribe to a Sasquatch Voltron? Kerp and Lothamer serve us a trek across the frozen waste to a gonzo dungeon place that looks suspiciously like the dreaded linear adventure, complete with Acts and title pages covered with nothing but Blue Oyster Cult lyrics or Percy Shelley lines but somehow manage to inject enough anarchy, chaos and player agency in there to make the whole not just playeable, but downright compelling. Or in their own words;

The Black Blade of the Demon King is a cinematic adventure, designed to cast the PCs as the unwitting protagonists in a fast-paced story about desire, sacrifice, and the unrelenting push and pull between the two

And then they secretively turn it into an actual adventure. The dastards! Never trust an Oregonian when death is on the line!

The story is that you, like many others, are drawn to Icy Svärtgard, following dreams of a black sword[2]. The Black Sword has awoken and will soon draw its erstwhile master, the Demon King, destroyer of all the Empires of the Golden Age, to the World to herald in the End Times. And its for levels 1-3!!!

The adventure is divided into Acts and days. There are events set to happen on each day. WAIT! Don’t close your browser yet hear me out! Each event is essentially the arrival of the PCs in some sort of location down the line. If the PCs are slow this only increases the chance one of their Rivals gets to the Black Sword first! There’s random variation so events might happen at different times and the adventure, while doing some basic assumptions, makes ample leeway for the characters to fuck up, ally with whom they wish, and generally stir up some shit. It also makes them march across a frozen wasteland with what might be no chance to regain hp or spells. Ah Knight Owl Games.

First interesting thing about Black Blade: When you arrive in the slowly emptying city of Stovring there are three NPCs looking for the Blade; The Seeker, The Defender and the Wild Card. Each of them will want to hire the PCs. Each can be randomly or deliberately selected from 8 different characters, mostly 11 out of 10 on the gonzo metre, for a total of 24 characters. The Seeker wants to use the blade, the Defender wants to destroy it, the Wild Card is Charlie Day from it’s always sunny. I cut the breaks! Wild Card Baby! There’s variations on the theme that will cause some Defender characters to fuck up destroying the blade and its generally very difficult to predict what the Wild Card is going to do. The large cast of characters gives a lot of replay value to the scenario. In any given game your rivals may be a cat possessed by the spirit of an ancient sorcerer, a murderous 3000 year old wizard emperor and a mushroom-cultivating homeless man. All of these NPCs are FUCKING GREAT!

Another point of merit. The adventure eases you into its myriad random components by clearly outlining what you need to prepare each Act in order for the damned thing to run. This metadata makes it MUCH easier to use at a glance, so kudos.

Coupled with this is the mixed bag of the sleuth of optional rules that Black Blade of the Demon King introduces willy nilly before speed-welding the gas pedal to the floor of your car and power-slamming whiskey and gasoline shots until it passes out in a glorious though somewhat incomprehensible final act. There’s an alignment mechanic that I kind of hate. Depending on who you side with you get either Law or Chaos points. The problem is that you need only accumulate 6 of them before either turning into a mutant beastman (Chaos) or a cultist of the Black Sword (Law) and rather then have them be opposing sides of the same spectrum BBoTDM just throws up its hands and goes FUCK IT, and allows them to exist in parallel, virtually ensuring at least one character will get alignmented out of the game. Having control of your PC taken away because of alignment chance is the DnD equivalent of a technical knockout. Yeah I get it we are doing Moorcock so its all about both Chaos and Law being inimical to human life in their extreme and you get d20 hours but fuck that.

This is offset by simple and robust fatigue and cold resistance rules, which are appropriate since the whole adventure revolves around a gruelling race to reach the Black Sword and you want to cover the PCs taking short cuts to beat the opposition. There’s multiple opportunities to buy equipment from passing merchants, a massive bonus since equipment shopping is essentially player agency at its purest, with some of the mundane items being vastly more powerful then other items (40 gp shields for +2 AC, a knife that disembowels opponents on a 17+ for 20 gp (though this is not mentioned when you buy it) and plenty of cold weather gear. BBotDK thinks nothing of giving opponents (the Babooneten) with seemingly mundane attacks special dismemberment abilities either, which I would almost count to its detriment. And its a shame too, because plenty of items that are introduced, like enchanted tattoos distilled from eldritch ice or the obsidean armaments of the Ice Gnomes are downright awesome.

Unlike Mertylmane’s Road, which establishes a sort of timeless, dreary routine interspersed by short and brutal violence and tiny pinpricks of wonder, Black Blade of the Demon King has an apocalyptic momentum to it that it reinforces with evocative imagery and occasional batshit insanity. Erupting volcanoes, meteorites, refugees and a mad giant stumbling into the harbor. A mad hatter-like proprietor of an inn located inside a windmill urges them to haste. You gain bonuses by taking a murdered berserker’s spirit into yourself or supping on Giant’s Blood. This treck through a world that is literally breaking down under the strain of the awakening Black Blade and the coming of the Demon King is riven with sudden bouts of murderous violence by Mutant Beastmen, Cultists empowered by eldritch might and the murderous schemes of the Seeker. And every day the urge to find the blade becomes stronger as some of the PCs gain no rest and are unable to drop their blades.

Tonally its a big fucking mess but then again its a gonzo module so perhaps that is to be expected. My problem with the gonzo genre is that its very nature almost precludes thought and care being put into it with the result you can have spectacularly good NPCs or encounters like a confused Giant stumbling into a harbor interspersed with wacky crackadoodle Yeti Voltron random encounters and no one bats an eye. Some of the stuff in this module, like the way of destroying the Black Blade (by plunging it into the heart of the Silver Queen, kindly spirit of the land) has real weight to it that is almost undermined by some of the sillier encounters in the dungeon or having one of the PCs be a goofy cat monster. I would have almost liked it if the adventure was a whiff more…restrained? It’s funky, straying on the edge of Moorcock at his most bizarre. The writing reinforces this by skipping between informal 21st century slang and epic fantasy speak without skipping a beat.

It got me rather interested in checking out Stormbringer adventures though.

The first 4 days are carefully mapped out, with two stayovers in emptying locations and a push your luck mechanic as you get to the Warrens of the Obsidean Gnomes, who trade their wares only for Polar Bear corpses.

And then you get to the dungeon.

In the epicenter of the plateau is a sloping tunnel. Any character with a Law skill of three
or higher will feel the pull of the Black Blade like a sexual urge—like an addict jonesing for their fix. It is time to enter the dungeon, claim the Blade and do what must be done.

The dungeon is random, almost funhouse. The map is good and contains multiple means of egress, a bunch of bizarro weirdness and plenty of dead bodies. A tree with fractally separating branches, frozen fruit that allows you to summon bears if you eat it, demonic larvae that guard a room filled with raspberries, it’s one step below Cha’alt and one step above all of the other dungeons in Cha’alt in terms of weird/coherency. Water horses trying to drown you, a room where you fight but it turns out to be just a dream, I kind of dig the surreal atmosphere and the final room, which can only be unlocked by finding an unlikely key and contains the Black Sword, suspended over great pits, is a thing of beauty.

The environmental effects, coupled with the lack of rest and some of the random encounters, seem harsh for a party of levels 1 – 3. d6 2 HD Babooneten on ski’s with +4 to hit on ranged attacks and a special pinning maneuver? Holy shit! But you have the option to rest and regain some health…but if you take more then 5 days there is a chance one of the NPCs claims the weapon.

Kudos for statting up the Black Blade properly btw. It’s the real Stormbringer. No punk ass Blackrazor or other weaksauce imitations. +5 to hit and damage, Ego 15, Save vs death or be destroyed on hit, +2 to saves -1 to all damage die taken if it has fed on souls and of course, the wielder is drained of hit points if lives are not fed to it every 72 hours. The prototypical evil artifact, second only to the One Ring.

The final confrontation is, ironically, left more or less open, with a few guidelines on handling it being just enough to make a big, sweeping conclusion. The GM is left arbitrating the end of the world if the blade is carried out into civilization again, for only 64 souls are needed to summon the Demon King, a fearsome being proof against any foe. Also statted up because FUCK YEAH.

There’s a big train to this adventure, by which I mean the bestiary, collection of possible NPCs, rumor page, dream page, knowledge page takes up about half of its prodigious 110+ page length. I suspect you can run this bad boy in about 2-3 kickass sessions, or one carefully time-managed power marathon.

The flavor in this is…spectacular. Out of work Berserkers and Bear sages with vows of peace must contend with Oleg the Mushroom Man, the Disciples of the Holy Words of Chaos and Tikki Tembo the Demon Boy. Lunatic mad hatter’s banter is exchanged on the eve of vicious cult ambushes. Something of the outre weirdness of Moorcock’s multiverse is harnessed but never derivatively and it is wonderful.

A railroad adventure that dabbles in filthy cinematic railroadery with a bolted on alignment system that is MEEH, BBotDK’s strong suit is its atmosphere, concept, execution and inspiration. A lot of modules are derivative or have one or two good concepts. Ideas in BBotDK are bursting from the seams, struggling within a cage of fairly well managed overland crawling.

Rating this has me at a bit of a loss. I obviously like it but I think its rough and a bit uneven in places (though not, say, on the level of a Venger Satanis module). I went back and actually compared a few things I tended to rate a *** to see if it was better then all of them. I couldn’t off the top of my head recall any adventure that I had reviewed recently that I gave a *** that was better then this one [3], so I will end this review, rather anti-climatically, by awarding it a low ****. This is far above Journeyman’s level, its got creativity, flair, style up the wazzoo and fucking ambition, perhaps it shall serve as my demarcation criterion.

Get this for a convention game, or a 1/2/3 shot. Get it if you are an Lotfp fan and you haven’t seen anything decent for a long fucking time. Don’t plonk this in your home game. You will break it. Get it if you like your DnD to be trippy and bizarre and apocalyptic. Get it if you like Metal. Don’t get it if you like your modules to be unobtrusive and quiet. Fucking hats off to Knight Owl Games. Looks like we are going to be buddies after all.

Get it here.

[1] Ice Elves…Mertylmane’s Road…I think we are starting to discern a pattern here.
[2] Normally an unforgiveable goad, its use in a situation that is actually every bit as grand and disturbing as portentions would indicate seems fitting, and more importantly, Moorcockian! The dreams increase in intensity, crippling character’s ability to rest, and slowly cause them to go insane and violent as the quest progresses!
[3] Fuck me I need to go and add a bunch of fucking stars to my old reviews. Crystal Barrier alone might have been better if it was finished. I don’t get the feeling that Black Blade is unfinished.


17 thoughts on “[Review] Black Blade of the Demon King (Lotfp 3PP); Fear & Loathing in the Young Kingdoms

  1. I liked “The Vanilla Adventure” by the former of the two authors. That was wild enough. Maybe this is too gonzo for me, but you make a strong case for playing this with one-off characters. Regarding unique magic items with drawbacks, if the drawbacks are severe I like the powers to be mighty (as here), so that the players are tempted. Are there options for dialing back the weirdness, whilst keeping the innovation? Or to put the question in a form easier to answer, are all the NPCs 8 foot budgies with fireballs coming out of their eyes?

    Like

    1. The possible NPCs are all over the spectrum. Some can be made mundane very easily, some are almost impossible to put into something resembling a “normal”-non gonzo campaign.
      You’ve got some emotionally damaged weirdos and strange characters … and an intelligent cat, a dwarfen cyborg on wheels and a suit of armor animated by an eternal spirit of law from the stars.
      One could probably tune back the gonzo here and still get a good vibe and a good adventure out of it.
      Question is: Why would you want to do that? 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you. I suppose the animated armour could fit in, after all sometimes necromancers have accompanying zombies.Or ghosts/haunts possessing people.

        My personal preference is for a fair amount of the mundane, so that the wondrous remains wondrous.

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      2. Hi! The writer here. There are some relatively mundane entries among the Npcs: There’s Karoush, a scion of a Horsetribe clan, Ctef, an archer with crescent moon arrows, Mushkah-Kul, basically just a dude with a couple dogs, Ophelia Fade is kind of a Lara Croft analogue, and Morren Zorander is basically a fighter-mage. A lot of the other NPCs are sort of loosely based on Moorcockian equivalents–a fighting lady in a hot air balloon named Hanna Il is modeled after Una Persson from the Oswald Bastable books, for instance.

        It’s not a certainty that any of the NPCs will join the party, (in playtests a lot of parties rejected all 3 NPCS) so there’s not many worries about them being too weird for the adventure.

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      3. Many thanks for your reply. Lots of play testing is a good sign as well.
        I guess I shall be taking the plunge and picking up a copy.

        Like

  2. Prince, you’re definitely throwing me for a loop with these reviews. Love for a railroad? Well, I had this on my wishlist for a while and you motivated me to pick it up. And…I totally agree. This is a terrific adventure. The list of possible big NPCs was a real highlight – they’re super interesting and full of possibilities.

    It’s all those possibilities that save this from being a traditional railroad. The big problem with a railroad is that the adventure tends to force certain outcomes to setup movie scenes from the GM’s head. This doesn’t do that at all. It does railroad you in that it sets up a series of encounters, but beyond that, it doesn’t constrain the outcomes of these encounters.

    What really shocked me is how quick a read this is. I was able to digest what I needed to know in one sitting. Usually, any RPG material in the 100 page range takes me a few passes. I’m still not sure how it went so quickly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think all the Corona has given me super reviewing powers and ZHNTDWTB and Nuroman’s Maze were just the adjustment phase. You’ve basically outlined why it works and you didn’t need a page, nor fifteen colorful metaphors. My review was good and covered all the basics but it was also wordy and not very clear. Perhaps I should have stuck to writing weird OSR Meta-fiction.

      I’m convinced the meta-data makes it easier to grasp the 3 Act structure so all the information that is flung at you becomes easier to place. That or wide page margins.

      Like

  3. [Metadata and margins]

    I just looked it over again, and this kind of sums it up. Only half of the text is the adventure; the back half is stats for custom monsters and NPCs. And throughout the adventure are pages that list things like the contents of shops. Speaking of which, I particularly like how the obsidian gnomes will exchange their goods exclusively for polar bear hides.

    [Funhouse dungeon]

    The dungeon portion really does have some wacky fun stuff going on. The first room has a tree with fruits of ice that summon a bear to do your bidding until you defecate the seeds. In the same room is a wooden statue that looks like the ugliest PC in the party with a nearby altar; sacrifice something nice on the altar and they get a level of experience, burn the statue and they die. Again, that’s the first freaking room.

    [Moorcockian]

    The whole relationship of Law and Chaos in this adventure is a bit hard to understand. I get the basic idea: they’re both assholes. But the mechanics for this seem a bit odd, and the idea that PCs fall out of the party if they go too far in either direction doesn’t really do anything for me. That’s going to be tough if you have any clerics or paladins in the party, by the way.

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  4. This adventure has some really strong ideas. It also has some very silly ideas that take away from its potential impact. Done properly this adventure could be one of the most epic things that ever take place at a table. I think it would be a great candidate for a rewrite. (So long, Yeti Voltron…)

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I have thought about rewriting it–the verbiage could be much tighter and I’d like to move over to OSE probably. However, there’s no way that Yeti Voltron is going. Haha, that was probably my favorite thing to write in the entire book. (But in YetiVoltron’s defense, it’s very unlikely to be encountered. I was thinking of Warmech in the original Final Fantasy game–it’s really more of an easter egg.)

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    2. I don’t know if I agree with the take that it should be less…Knight Owl Publishing. There’s something about the insanity of the ideas that kind of makes it work, and the very premise is larger then life. Apocalyptic Gonzo if you will. If you do rewrite it you have to go full on Doom Metal. A wicker man golem filled with burning skeletons, all heralding the Demon King’s Arrival. ‘Black Sword! Black Sword!’ EVEN MORE companions; Count Ulrich Von Drachenblutt of the SS. The Vulture-headed Warriors Of Inversion. Dr. Twilight and his travelling occult revolutionary circus & dentistry practice. The Last Ranger, with bullets forged from Nothung, Skofnung and Gram that he fires from double uzis. EagleSun, with flashing eye and the Black Gem that is both his Salvation and Doom. Mr. Jasper, time-travelling schizophrenic serial killer from The End of Time. Etc. Etc. Etc.

      Liked by 1 person

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