[Review] Six Faces of Death (D&D 5e): You Shall Rue This Day Ant-man!

Six Faces of Death (2019)

Jason Bradley Thompson (Dragon+)
Lvl 11 – 13

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Sometimes people can still surprise you. In OSR-circles, the overall shitty quality of 5e modules has become something of an accepted fact, like the abysmal quality of Mork Borg or Zweihander adventures, something that is so readily apparent that it is not even questioned. Yes they suck, yes there are exceptions (Joseph R. Lewis and whoever wrote The High Moors), and that’s all she wrote, too much craft has been lost, and little incentive is given to regain it. And then you get a donation by a mr. Thompson, from Dragon+ no less, that is actually good.

It tries to conceal the fact of its actual goodness in manifold ways. Despite using only book monsters and omitting statt blocks (albeit from Mordekainen’s Tome of Foes) it is lengthy and verbose, and I mean trim by 15% verbose. It occasionally gets soft and mushy in ways that are unbecoming of an adventure for lvl 10+. Characters at this level are assumed to be crafty, swift, deadly and sharp, and any adventure that challenges them need not pull its punches. The style reads like a Marvel comic-book adaptation of late 2e planar mish-mash D&D and the premise of the adventure is several layers deep into DnD’s own by now hideously convoluted mythology that is likely to be impenetrable to anyone not feeding DnD lore directly into their arteries. Yet the transgressions never reach the point that I feel like writing it off. It is a good adventure. A good high-level adventure. For 5e.

The premise is convoluted and suffers a bit too much from over-explanation. A flying cube from Acheron captures a Modron that inadvertently unleashes a terrible contagion of Law, the pixellating curse, upon the denizens of the cube, killing its Infernal master and leaving one of its horrifically transfigured undead servants, the Skull Lord Vaako, in command. Cue a massive attack by Yugoloth mercenaries and the Cube is propelled into the Faerunian ocean, its systems (?) crippled, the Pixellating curse contained by the Waters of the Styx. Lord Vaako seeks to add more skulls to himself in order to gain greater attunement to the Cube, restore its full functionality, with terrible consequences for the Sword Coast if he does so. Cue expeditions by Shadar-Kai and Drow, the renegade Derro Artificer who designed the damn thing still on the loose, a faction of Abishai in the basement and factions of Yugoloth mercenaries and you have yourself a fine mess of an adventure. Your retard adventurers think its just a weird island that appeared off the coast and is surrounded by mist and they have to get a Genasi Mage (sigh) back. Cue actual ambiguous rumors about the happenings (though not on a table, there is still growing to be done), some of which might have to be discovered through judicious use of Legend Lore (good) or god help you, an Intelligence check (terrible), and the suggestion you might just tell your employers to go fuck themselves and keep the Wizard’s copious amount of Ioun Stones, you might decide to team up with an adorable slightly retarded Modrone who can offer only babbling hints and will soon turn into a liability on the island because of the pixellating curse, and bang you are off.

After that it starts doing god’s work. One of the biggest problems of high level characters, and 5e characters in particular, is their resilience and vastly greater access to healing and other resources. For fucking once in my goddamn life, Six Faces of Death actually adresses this. As soon as you get to the Cube, you are hammered by the Pixellating Curse. Objects and creatures become unrecognizable cubic blurs, making them hard to identify. The module actually uses this to disguise several environmental hazards later on, which is clever. You can douse something with Styx water or Dispel magic to temporarily reverse the effects. Every 10 minutes, saving throw. You fail? Infected. The infection progresses with each short rest and faster with each long rest. You can remove the curse with various spells…but then it’s saving throw every 10 minutes again. No bullshit. As the curse progresses physically, you have to make different saving throws or you become mentally infected. Three stages of mental infection? Bam! You transition to full lawful neutral npc-hood and start posting about politics on social media. The adventure actually does a good job using Random Encounters, yes I know, in 5e!, to also keep this pressure up.

It also doesn’t immediately ruin the adventure by copious hand-holding. You want to get to the island? asks Six Faces, buy a ship, or ask your boss to hire one. Whatever! It actually considers the possibility the characters might try to fly there, or use teleportation. If they use teleportation, they are immediately fucked because you can teleport onto the island but you can’t teleport off of it.

Natural hazards are the bread and butter of adventures and can often suplement the more traditional men & monsters and at the higher level these natural hazards must often be extreme in order to challenge the superheroic might of the PCs. Six faces starts off very good. The Cube is surrounded by Styx water. Fuck you if you fall in. Double fuck you because there are 3 Hydroloths in the water. Extra fuck you because the Island is covered with sorcerous mists inhabited by Vampiric Mists from a leftover Yugoloth item. Extra Extra fuck you because the surface is pixellated and thus hatches to the surface will not be immediately obvious, and then you discover the Cube-face actually rotates every hour. Excellent start so far. It does carebear out by allowing characters that have been dunked into Styx-water to slowly regain their memories + Int/Cha scores by successive long rests which is a sickening display of weakness that Six Faces will occasionally suffer from. Greater restoration or Roll Another Character Dumbass! is the correct answer.

Description is mostly mundane, but if you read between the lines it is actually really cool. You read about a Drow galley, mundane description, mundane deck, cannons, very mundane, and then a throwaway line,

Between the central hatch and the starboard rail, the ship’s fungus-wood timbers are damaged and streaked with foul-smelling slime. A successful DC 15 Wisdom (Survival) check determines that some large creature crawled out of the hatch and went overboard. (This was the balhannoth, currently on face 5 of the cube)

Which comes across as just about the most technical, boring jargon and goes to almost extreme lengths to avoid discussing the fact that this is some fantastical galleon of petrified fungus, with sails of spidersilk and spun essence of Shadow, that has crossed the Ocean of Night and sailed the underground rivers to seek out this benighted place, only for its crew to die here horribly. There are, again, too many explanations of what is going on and they are located in the room key, not in the preface. If you ever write an adventure again, consider throwing a paragraph of good, evocative description, then moving onto matter-of-fact functional information that pertains to the entire section, then moving on to room keys. And then you get something like this, which is actually a gruesome description, suitably chilling.

The bodies of over a hundred unfortunate human, kuo-toa, and myconid galley slaves are still chained
to rows of filthy benches, where they were killed by the hydroloths. Near the central hatch, the bodies
have been dismembered in gruesome and imaginative ways. Toward the edges of the fray, they are each killed with a single blow to the head or chest, as if whoever massacred them began to grow bored

I should point out, this adventure was written by someone who has not only actually played DnD but might actually like it. You see it in many things. There is the occasional hidden treasure, or trap where characters could reasonably expect there to be one, and possibilities of negotiating with the various creatures of the Cube and its environs are discussed. What it avoids, and what a lot of NuOSR publications suffer from, is something I will perfunctorily call Tenfootpole Faction-play Stockholm Syndrome, where the clumsy and dim-witted neophyte author, having read on Tenfootpole that Faction play is good, proceeds to have everyone and their grandmother in the adventure talk to the players and exclaim ‘ HELLO FELLOW TRAVELLER. HOW WOULD YOU LIKE TO JOIN WITH ME AGAINST THE OTHER GUYS? THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY IS MY FRIEND. I AM GAY. DUR HUR HUR.’ You see it in Halls of The Blood King. Immediately the adventure is downgraded to the status of idiotic farce, a therapeutic aid for the distraction of mentally deficient toddlers. This is avoided here. Yes evil characters will bargain, but they will be evil, and will betray the party, or lie. It is possible to negotiate with any of a bunch of factions, from the Yugoloths to the Skull Lord himself, but they will mostly be duplicitous assholes that try to get one up over the party WHICH IS THE ENTIRE FUCKING POINT. IT IS ALL ABOUT TRICKING PEOPLE AND PLAYING THEM OFF AGAINST EACHOTHER OR PLAYING FOR TIME. Later on, the Skull Lord tries to trick you into some sort of illusionary reality that looks like your hometown JUST to waste time, on the off chance the Pixel-curse will get you. He has lies prepared. He has goals. This is all good shit. Then you add more NPCs that are NOT always evil so negotiation is sometimes rewarded.

The exterior of the cube is mostly a handful of monsters coupled with some light environmental hazards until the characters figure out what the fuck is up and how they can get in. There is investigation coupled with natural hazards, coupled with combat with deadly monsters. It is almost like we are doing exploration, like we are having an adventure. Cue weird ass tricks with local gravity that, if the players are not careful! have a chance to propel you down a 200 ft. shaft and to 20d6 Bludgeoning damage thank you very much. Was that treasure lodged in between the pixellated corpses on one face, and was one item a cursed medallion that will turn people to stone if they look at it? Was there a severed Githyanki hand that I can use to open the Hatches, which are keyed to lawful alignment? Again, I could swear I was playing D&D.

The interior of the Cube is a modest but fairly nonlinear 40 rooms, divided over 3 levels, which feels a bit small but is on the verge of acceptable. The adventure suffers a momentary spat of weakness by unceremoniously dumping the Pixel Glasses, items which allow you to penetrate the terrible Pixellation curse, at the bottom of some shafts where they are easily found but at least has the decency by introducing a nasty drawback of making the wearer that much more vulnerable to the curse while also making its physical effects much harder to notice. The rooms proper are more supervillain-y then planar-horror-y, it feels like I am playing the best FASERIP adventure ever? Glass tubes of slime, barracks, mechanical reactors etc. etc. Occasionally the cube will introduce some ruined shrine to a Lawful Evil deity, now infested with the Pixel curse, but these are afterthoughts, rather boring. I was pleasantly surprised to discover actual guard posts, then actual barracks, with combatants numbering in the tens or even the thirties, with notes that fighting in them would draw soldiers from all the nearby guard posts. That’s damn near an order of battle, and is a good old school trick, that of LARGE NUMBERS. 5e adventures, maybe because of slower combat, tend to atomize everything to battles with 1-4 combatants. Bullet dodged. Good. There are actual great parts. The cube is still receiving a drip feed of petitioners, who are incarnated as LE fighting men every round, but because of the changed orientation the poor buggers just fall 200 feet down to their death, AND THE ADVENTURE ANTICIPATES THE PCS FINDING SOME WAY TO ARREST THEIR FALL AND POSSIBLY USE THEM AS AN ARMY, BUT NOTES THEY ARE SUBJECT TO THE PIXEL CURSE. I like it too that as written, the lower level is an absolute hell of a floor with almost no treasure and it mostly involves getting screwed over by a hellfire engine. And then it has tiny pipes that small characters could force themselves through to reach the Heart of the Cube without having to fight everyone and their grandmother. That’s very good. I think the biggest thing that is missing is some notes on how the cube reacts in an organized fashion. There are points about the denizens getting alarmed earlier in the text but no follow up, a shame!

I can talk about how for once in it’s goddamn life, a 5e module actually has decent treasure, keeps its decent treasure in a decent treasure vault, has the foresight to make robbing the fucking thing a potentially lethal affair and makes the generous reward more then worth it. Good treasure too, as far as I can tell, the odd unique item, like the Quasit dice, or the Handkerchief of Night, interspersed with book items.

I can talk about the little twists. The fact there are rules for getting the Cube fully operational and actually using it, I can gripe about how as written the Cauldron of Blood is monstrously powerful and allows you conjure forth a staggering if not unlimited amount of Vampiric mists, or whether or not it makes sense that an Undead Lord can remain partially unaffected by supping from the Waters of the Styx. The Derro and his Grey Render companion with its randomly determined attitude towards the players. The way the adventure has an opportunity for a brutal climax by placing a pixellated black ring of iron, in actuality a dreaded Steel Predator, around the Heart Engine. The 5e-isms are threadbare. This is a late stage 2e Adventure in the vein of Bruce Cordell, a grand, slightly stupid fantasy blockbuster style tour de force with explosions, egomaniacal speeches, magic explosions and unrelenting pressure. Yes modern D&D probably has too many evil outsiders. Yes putting both Genasi, Drow, Shadar Kai AND Derro in one adventure risks fucking with someone’s Niche protection. Yes one encounter is a Steel Cobra while the other is 8 Abishai and an Eidolon. Yes Oinoloths are CR 13 in 5e now, don’t ask. But these are blemishes on that rarerst of rare things, a good high level adventure.

A difficult call. If we are just looking at the writing it is very long, can use a bit of a punch-up and as previously mentioned, a lot of it relies on knowledge of D&D’s convoluted mythology. The occasional side-bars allow you to keep track of the motivations of the key players but there are many of them so if you do not have a strong memory I would recommend some note taking and prep, especially because many of the monsters have unique abilities that they WILL utilize to their fullest and unlike many 5e adventures you will actually have to keep careful track of time to accomodate for the Pixel Curse (the rotation only affects the outside, as the gravity in the Cube is set to a single face, but MAY BE CHANGED!). You might require some minutes to get over the slight goofey-ness of the idea of a Pixel Curse. But this is ultimately a fine adventure, presenting a myriad of complex challenges, a mixture of negotiation, combat, exploration and a mutable environment that must be understood and mastered for victory to take place. A deadly adventure, especially by the standards of 5e. I suspect the restrictions on teleportation magic are sufficient nerfing, although judicious use of Etherealness might render the completion of the adventure somewhat more likely. The lengthy descriptions of events and motivations can get a bit wearying but in an adventure that accounts for such extensive social interaction it is warranted.

Let this be a challenge to all you OSR module cobblers, who have stayed in the shallow end of the pool for years and years. DnD has a level range and that level range goes over 10. Use it!

Fine work. The embers of DnD will sputter long into the darkness of this fallen world. Free on the WotC website. ****

9 thoughts on “[Review] Six Faces of Death (D&D 5e): You Shall Rue This Day Ant-man!

  1. I fucking love planar shit so much.
    I love when stuff from beyond the black portal comes to roost and the mundanity of default 5e fantasy world gives way to the wild and weird of extradimensional curses, goofy tinpot servitors, and weird elfmen space privateering on evil dragons in their eternal war against the tentacle monsters from beyond the stars.

    God that shit is the good stuff. 10/10


    1. It’s fun stuff. The planar cosmology can get a little ridiculous, but only a little, and it’s got such scope for all kinds of things.

      It probably says something about me that the only bit about the cosmology of this adventure I found difficult to swallow was the idea of someone giving a shit about Faerun.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Factions and whether they will seek the PCs out and propose an alliance is an interesting topic. If the PCs are trying to rescue the duchess from a building, and blunder upon a group of brigands who fancy looting the place, I would put all the onus on the PCs to make the running in pointing out the advantages of working together. (They would be wise to say they are trying to release a relative, to keep ransom out of their potential allies’ minds.) However if the threat is of the “existence as we know it could be about to end” (high level) kind, then other factions might be proactive, especially if they have been rebuffed and have taken losses. In this case the skill may be which offers to accept (and how to guard against treachery), and keeping all folks in any alliance happy (as some may point-blank refuse to work directly with others). The assault on the Aboleth Savant city at the climax of Night Below has this flavour.


  3. Good review. I’ve spent the last few weeks reading and re-reading it in preparation – you are absolutely correct that there’s a lot to master and figure out, but that it’s got some great depth and ideas. I’m astounding at how well it came together when I imagine the instruction was “create an adventure that uses as many monsters from this book as possible and have it make some sort of sense”.

    It also seems incredibly deadly to me. I’m very nervous for my players.

    And it’s great to come here and learn that there’s an updated version. I’ve downloaded it!


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