[Review] The Obsidean Keep (OSR); Beacons of Hope

The Obsidean Keep (2020)

Joseph Robert Louis (Dungeon Age)
Lvl 1 – 3

The Obsidian Keep: A Dungeon Age Adventure (5e and OSR versions) - Dungeon  Age Adventures | DriveThruRPG.com

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I say unto you the Old Ways are Forever. While the tents of fickle pilgrims lie empty as they wander from our hearth into a trackless waste without shape or form, a desert that swallows men and that is named 5e, in search of salvation or simply driven by wanderlust, there are some who take with them the Old Faith, and in whose works are made manifest the teachings of the First and the practices of his Saints.

It is something of a truism 5e adventures are generally deficient in quality, and how could one be surprised? The largest D&D boom since time immemorial brings with it a vast influx of new players, either ignorant of old practices, raised on a diet of linear story based campaigns, following the teachings of a designer base that has long lost its way or suckled on Critical Role in a way that is detrimental or antithetical to the more open-ended, emergent, CHALLENGING form of play of old D&D. Many of those who play later try their hands at making their own stuff, and most of it abysmal.

But there are some, a hopeful few, who rise above the flotsam and create scenarios that are atmospheric, challenging and somewhat interesting. Enter Bryce-favorite Joseph Robert Louis, who previously submitted the promising Saving Saxham for 5e, and has since graciously decided to convert his catalog to an OSR friendly format for those interested hopefuls. Someone, out there, is spreading the spirit of the old ways to new players, and for that alone credit should be given.

But other then that, how was the play, Miss Lincoln? Obsidean Keep is a 31-ish page sojourn onto the Isla Requia, grievously transformed in the aftermath of a great magical conflagration, conjured up by its sorceress Duchess against an invasion of papal crusaders. The PCs are sent either to ascertain the fate of the sorcerers and the expedition OR to loot the place blind and recover valuable items. Enter the PCs.

Bryce loves the shit out of Dungeon Age and it does not take a genius to figure out why. Descriptions are terse, compressed nodes of flavor, statt blocks are microscopic, every section has meta-data to briefly explain what is going on and what the point is, ample highlighting, bullet point notation for each feature, notes for the GM so it can be quickly gleaned what the NPCs of a particular region know etc. The whole combines into something that is about as runnable as you can make it.

7. WHITE ISLAND The titanic skull of an Imperial Viperfish rests on the low rocks. Ribcages and rags hang from its slender fangs. A voice sings softly inside the skull.
· Viperfish. A gigantic anglerfish. Never seen alive.
· Rags. Yellow sailor jackets.
· Voice. Lounging in a sheltered pool is an Ursaloth, half woman and half octopus, named Angelica. She offers secrets and gifts, for a price.
· Give her a kiss: “Forza was always in control of her powers. But the Red Storm was all chaos. Beware! There is something very old in that palace. I fear only the angels could cleanse it.”
· Feed her a finger: The stump grows into a tentacle and you can now breathe in water as well as air. The Boon of the Ursaloth!
· Hidden Loot: Angelica sits on a small rusty chest full of 77 silver forks and 23 jade statuettes of dancing mouselings worth 500 GP.

At the same time there is something missing about Osidean Keep that I can’t quite put my finger on. Maps are primitive, without sense of scale, random encounters, while good, are not tied to any sort of time period and the palace is presented as a node (albeit with two entrances). It’s like watching a gifted prodigy blunder through an exercise he has never done before. While it is unquestioningly a champion in its own weight class the lingering 5isms mean it doesn’t quite interact with OSR systems in a way that is in full harmony with the spirit of the old games. It’s a bit too fast and loose, the magic items a bit too plentiful, the mundane treasure paradoxically light (and of course it would be, in a system where Gold = XP is not the norm).

Is this what transitioning from a starry-eyed beautiful boy into a grognard feels like? Does one habitually sneer at Harbor Sharks with only 1 HD? Must all beauty of the world wither through the lens of Father Time?

This should not detract from the fact that Obsidean Keep is quite good. The adventurers are dropped on a boat in the bay and are at leisure to explore the bay and its wrecks, the beach or the Obsidean Keep proper. NPCs ask for rescue, share information, have little sub-quests and very rarely act treacherously because this is 5e. I was pleased that a mutated cook offering to serve the adventurers does actually cause them to mutate if they eat it, and a pair of beach scavengers will take crossbow shots at the PC’s if they don’t fuck off so not EVERYONE is one’s friend. A skull-faced horse that eats ash and pebbles? Dibs!

The fantasy part of this fantasy adventure is horrific in a very interesting way. As the PCs get closer to the Obsidean Keep they encounter various mutants (seal with a human face, crab with a woman’s face scuttles away) and the palace entry proper is a nightmare of porcelain mask wearing lunatic nobles or cultists lacking eyes. Most monsters are given no flavor text, their nature must be derived from their abilities and hints of atmospheric description, which works well actually, since abilities are not complex.

A woman in black and white jester’s dress cartwheels toward you, cackling madly. Black and white feathers bristle from her torn clothes. Her hands are black scaled talons. The Motley Magpie attacks!

The structure is primitive (or is that quick/arcadey?) but there are heartening glimpses of interesting design, embedded in the interesting scenery. A stone colossus hand is raised above the water, chiseling it open reveals an enchanted staff! There are at least 2 instances where the party must climb onto something or otherwise use unconventional forms of navigation to get around (like, say, a rowboat), there’s the classic last room of the dungeon that is concealed. An unexploded Angelfire shell rests on the beach, with nary a note on how the PCs might use it. An approving smile. The old ways are not entirely dead. The Keep proper, sealed off with no less then 2 entrances, both locked, prompt a bit of investigation before one can proceed, though conceivably one could pick a lock or enter via a window. I feel a bit more consideration could have been spent on adventurers trying alternate methods of entry (like throwing a brick through a stained glass window) or climbing the roof or whathaveyou, especially since the place most certainly has balconies.

Monsters are good, an interesting mix of marine creatures, mutants and some undead, there’s not a hint of the tired and old, it all feels fresh and everything you encounter is at least doing something. Organization or tactics are virtually nonexistent, as is faction play. I think this could have been beefed up a bit with some encounters where it is better to avoid a fight or use some sort of environmental feature or strategy, rather than the direct 5e powerspam steamroller we are slowly becoming dreadfully familiar with right now.  

Magic items are all interesting but some of them massively overpowered for an OSR game. A glove that allows you to touch any object without getting hurt. Jet black platemail that renders the wearer immune to fire and lightning but halves his movement. A staff that renders the wearer resistant to necrotic damage and prevents Undead from approaching within 10 ft. All of it described in a clean 2-3 sentences with a lovely name and a gp value before moving on.

The palace section is a bit too simple. Effectively a straight line with two entrances, a locked door with a key that you pretty much HAVE to run into on your way through it which is a shame. There’s a nice whiff of horror and foreboding to the encounters without it seeming edgy. The final showdown confrontation with the Demoniac Worm has the opportunity to ally with the baddies, a nice touch.

Do I mention the flavorful bits and pieces? It tries. Infodumps are nowhere to be seen, info is told via recovered letters or in conversation with NPCs. Screwing up dialogue might get you killed by the Sorceress’s ghost. Its, again charming, I think the next level would have been integrating the information you learn into the gameplay.

What do I think of Obsidean Keep? It’s fine. Eminently useable, flavorful, the old storytelling via letters gambit is employed, and there are some creative touches. At the same time its lingering 5isms and at times incomplete grasp of OSR-type gaming means it can feel a bit arcadey and lightweight when compared to big beautiful modules like Lost Treasure of Atlantis or out there stunt-pieces like Inn of Lost Heroes or Black Blade of the Demon King. I think it would be a fine time for 5e-players and for anyone that enjoys his DnD fast and loose or wants a low-prep game where your PCs end up loaded down with a metric tonne of magic items. For all you tacitcs hounds, or people that readily spend an hour in town, learning the right spells, hiring 5 henchmen, figuring out how much burning oil the GM will let you carry and keeping careful track of the amount of torches, this ain’t your game.    

A high *** for what amounts to a promising journeyman’s adventure in the OSR listings. If anything Louis has improved since Saving Saxham.

7 thoughts on “[Review] The Obsidean Keep (OSR); Beacons of Hope

  1. I would lay the blame at the door of the official 5e offerings. They are not inspiring people to produce their best work. I picked up Curse of Strahd when it came out, and there is nothing particularly wrong with the new material. The trouble is, the best bits were already in the original I6 Ravenloft, and this is just a bloated version, with areas you are not supposed to wander into until you are at the correct level. There are also far too many (close) retreads of past classics, rather than using them as inspiration for taking a new idea and making it fizz.
    Pathfinder adventures have also been something of a step backwards: it seems certain elements have to be shoehorned in whether they fit or not, like a dungeon crawl in a social adventure. (See the otherwise decent Sixfold Trial.) Worse still, they seem to be at least partially written for reading rather than playing.
    The OSR (and those that never left) is an obvious grouping who have thrown off the shackles. There are others, but you need to look hard. For example, Citadel of Ice for The Fantasy Trip, a disappearing dungeon with factions, is worth picking up.


  2. I’m not sure if its the fluff, the Dungeon Age stuff doesn’t seem to have many deficiencies in that department. I really think its the system and the focus on ability based combat as the pinnacle, with strategy and planning a distant second and third, that does most of the damage. I hold hope for DA. I might be tempted to take a look at Citadel of Fire but the barrier for entry is a bit higher, as I would have to learn a new system in order to properly interpret its encounters.


    1. I was not referring to the work of this particular author, rather trying to find reasons for the lack of a superb edition defining adventure. Lost Mines of Phandelver is something of a B10 lite, and yet what has been better? The Chapel on the Cliffs is a good one, but the author admitted it was a translation from B/X. I think you have put your finger on part of the problem. However the sort of thinking which gives the green light to the 55th Terminator movie seems to be holding the edition back. Please convince me otherwise with counterexamples!
      Thank you for the review, and I agree this author is worth keeping an eye on.


      1. Ah, I understand now. Lack of knowledge of what such a thing is even supposed to look like coupled with a backwards gaze and corporate design by committee might be the cause. I can’t imagine the sort of superstar designers like Gygax, Cordell and even Monte flourishing under heavy-handed corporate checkbox design and whoever is left is the design stuff is mediocre at best. All the good guys jumped ship. Skip williams is plain bad. Perkins is mediocre. Mearls might be good but he is tucked away overseeing the video game etc. etc. I haven’t checked out Tomb of Annihilation yet, it might be alright from what I hear.


      2. Moving to the actual product now, I’ve only read the (extensive) preview, and looked at Bryce’s review as well as yours, so treat what follows with caution. I think you have selected an excellent example entry, that of the half woman/octopus. It has real potential. But it doesn’t have the pathos of the dignified yet pathetic mutant Ludwig von Wittgenstein in the WFRP classic Death on the Reik. (He is a Kafkaesque half insect.) The format is so stripped back it lacks the sort of sentences that can inspire, but not suffocate the referee.


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