A Thousand Dead Babies (2013)
Neo-classical Greek Revival
Zzarchov Kowolski, as I am in the habit of saying, is underrated. He was one of the guys in the background of Lotfp in its hayday, doing silent work while the A-listers were preening in the foreground, and managed to churn out quite a few adventures ranging from solid to downright groundbreaking. When I got the chance to obtain a hardback of his older work for a whiff and a dream the choice was obvious.
I never go into this but the binding is solid, paper quality is acceptable, the art is vivid and recognizable and the thing honestly looks very good for a POD? product. The adventure is written for the rather unfortunately abbreviated NGR but the OSR conversion is very solid and the result is perfectly playable.
A Thousand Dead Babies, one of his earlier entries, hearkens back to the Glory Days of T1, a module I have not reviewed, portraying a rustic village in the vale of Corroc, hiding many a dark secret underneath its unassuming exterior. This is then combined with Zzarchov’s signature design strategy; a location with various interlocking parts is presented with no single resolution in mind. The result is something that is aesthetically charming while offering various opportuinities for creative solutions; It’s OSR to the core, a playstyle I associate with Lotfp, Warhammer Fantasy and Peter C Spahn. The focus is not a singular dungeon but instead a quasi-naturalistic location, a variety of NPCs to interact with, some investigation and then a big fucking butcher-fight at the end.
The Town of Corroc has converted to Crystal Dragon Jesus two generations ago. Recently, rumors of Witchcraft and Demon Worship have begun to flourish. The PCs arrive to STEAL EVERYTHING THAT IS NOT NAILED DOWN HELL YEAH!
First thing that gets nailed in this adventure; your mother.
First thing that actually gets nailed in this adventure: Rustic, remote, base-level medieval village. You won’t find any 6th level Fighter/Mage barkeepers in poor Corroc that’s for sure. The village has a Town Reeve named Robert Doyle…that’s it! No town guard. If you make trouble you get beaten down by an angry mob. There’s a single guy who is a freeman after helping the local lord with a raid. There’s a knight, THE BEAR KNIGHT, with a lonely hall and a nag that is too expensive to replace. The reward for capturing The Black Knight is 100 lbs of turnips, 2 rams, 6 ewes, and 2 acres of pasture hell yeah! Every NPC is sketched in a few broad strokes, just enough, to be memorable. This is the leatherworker.
Hunter Jon is an ill tempered man with a weather beaten visage. He has a license to hunt game in the South Wood in exchange for working the village’s leather. He is usually found by his straw hut (the only one in the village) just past the little stone wall, elbow deep in entrails or faeces as he butchers meat or works leather. He does not wash his hands when he switches tasks. He is pretty bitter at the village and no one there really likes him. When he was a younger man, a bear wandered into the village and he wrestled it with his bare hands before killing it with a cheese knife. No one fucks with Hunter Jon
There’s MULTIPLE conspiracies. You’ve got a cult of Baphomet operating under your roof, but there’s also a cleric with an affair, a few villagers still clinging to the old (pagan) ways, a shrine to Titania with guardian Elves. Also, a longstanding tradition of the ancient days, when players were wolves and not sheep, is revitalized; ALL MAJOR NPCS HAVE TREASURE LISTED IN THEIR HOUSE. THERE ARE CATACOMBS IN THE CHURCH THAT CAN BE LOOTED. WOLVES YET AGAIN. ALL HAIL DISCORDIA!
Finally something to do if you are a thief. Stocking sample villages with loot that the party thief can steal and fuck up for the rest of the party is a time honored tradition that goes all the way back to B2 and T1 and I say that we bring that tradition back!
The encounters proper are written in a way that works to integrate them into the universe (i.e. everything has a role and relationships) but tactically it is primitive. You will not find many complicated plans, fallback positions etc. etc. Indeed the closest thing to a tactically complicated situation are the rites of the cult, and this represents an ambush opportunity for the players, rather then the cultists.
The cult proper is supra- classical, a proper fucking cult of Baphomet, complete with naked women frolicking around an altar, a baby sacrifice, a goat man that participates in the obscene rites, and a Silent Black Knight with a Pentagram Coat of Arms. Hot damn. It’s like I am reading Berserk again (RIP Kentaro Muira L ) I am an immense fan of putting actual devil-worshippers in your DnD and every time I see the word Cornugon or Glabrezu I want to stab myself in the hand. No they are not worshippers of a 24 HD Gluagon named ‘Spinko the Pain-Archon’ they worship Baal now fucking draw your swords before they throw the kid in the idol-furnace-mouth!
The resolution is interesting, and saddles the PCs with a fascinating kind of a dick item that should prove for an interesting half-session of play. It’s a cursed cradle that produces exactly ONE BABY every day. A live one! You can rid yourself of the curse but damn. There’s probably an unscrupulous monastery that can find a (non-evil) use for them. I know where my next generation of Crusaders is coming from.
There’s a dungeon component to it too behind an ancient oak tree that has the PCs either revitalizing the tree and ridding it of the demonic slime mould that has corrupted it or just killing the tree which has an effect of the type of ending that you get. This section is not terrible but it still carries a lot of baggage from the Post D20 days. 6-8 rooms, not much in the way of resource management. The encounters are all good but the location itself is small. The obstacles, many fungal or evil-spirit related hazards, are pretty interesting and I approve of the final encounter, which does require strategy and finesse and not mindless violence.
GP treasure is low. I think this might be the result of a disparity between the value of Gold Crowns in NGR and GP in more traditional OSR games. Conversely, potential magical item treasure is very high, and all unique. A sword + 0 , +2 in the hands of a Paladin might even be TOO MUCH, but like in the good old days, there is no guarantee of making it out alive with all the treasure (in fact the catacomb guardian might be an unwelcome suprise for anyone thinking to steal from the Almighty himself!).
Very nice wrap up with all the possible long-term consequences on the region. This is the type of craftsmanship we need in the OSR. A Thousand Dead Babies is tight, its varied, the locations have a charm and atmosphere to them, the treasure is all new stuff and the notes are EXACTLY enough to run it for AD&D or Basic or whatever your drink of choice is. Easily runnable, throw it in a quasi-medieval campaign for an appetizer for a good introductory adventure. Some sort of DolmenWood, Early White Dwarf, Xyntillan (?) mash-up.
Second Kowolski Omnibus purchased.
Check it out here.