[Review] Down in Yon Forest (NGR); Silver is For Monsters

Down in Yon Forest (2017)

Zzarchov Kowolski
Lvl ??? (est 3-4)

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The last entry in the Zzarchov Kowolski Omnibus Vol 1. and a holiday adventure to boot. Trepidation strikes. I must admit a certain disdain for holiday adventures. What few I have seen tend to be written more as jokes then functional adventures and once the initial snickering wears off the end product tends to be simplistic and underwhelming. Leave it up to Zzarchov Kowolski to buck the trend and produce something with numerous allusions to holiday movies but which is fully functional, internally consistent, and damn fine to boot.

Down in Yon Forest is part of Kowolski’s loosely connected medieval fantasy campaign, set in an alternate version of medieval Europe, and has as its companions such delightful romps as Thousand Dead Babies, the Gnomes of Levnec and The Roots of Bitterness. The set up is more or less the same with each one: The characters arrive at a remote settlement beset by some supernatural problem that is often not quite what it seems, and there are multiple ways to go about it. I am pleasantly reminded of the Sapkowski’s the Witcher, with its Dung Ages aesthethic, silver standard, faery-talery opponents and moral dillemas.

The Village of Sroda-Las has a pressing problem. Every year at the Winter Solstice, the Krampus Demon comes to take their children. Normally the villagers congregate in the local church and pray the problem away but this year the church has unfortuitously burned down 1 day before Winter Solstice, leaving the villagers up shit creek without a paddle. Marching the children to the nearest village with a parish would see them freeze to death long before the Krampus comes to take them. Enter the PCs.

This adventure is really a pastiche of two older adventures and it kind of shows, but to his credit, Kowolski creates an overarching framework so the whole does fit together. After questioning the villagers, there are essentially 3 ways to resolve the scenario: The PCs can find a defensible position to barricade the children within and wait out the night, they can try scouting the old fort nearby, which does have a chapel but which has been abandoned because of plague, or they can follow the advice of the Miller and try to re-establish the village’s fealty to the Winter King, the pagan god they served before the coming of the Holy Church.

There are some elaborations and permutations beyond these three choices. It is mentioned the cause behind the church burning down is actually the Miller, but this is something that CAN be discovered but it is not strictly neccessary to do so. There is a child-heating, hideously deformed witch living in an abandoned stone mill that could probably be convinced to aid the party against Krampus as his coming would severely curtail her food-supply (or could just be cut down in cold blood and robbed of her store of magicks, not a bad idea either!). There is a group of boisterous hussars in a nearby inn with strong doors that can be persuaded to help with sufficient financial incentives or a good pitch (but! the inn has a large chimney!). Little touches are added to breathe life and complexity into the scenario.

Option one involves the fortress, and is essentially a death-trap that unfolds like a horror movie, subtle foreshadowing, ominous signs and, if the signs are not heeded, a very deadly ambush. The fortress, a dyson logos map, once abandoned, was later looted, and the would-be looters dislodged three of the four gargoyles from the shrine they were placed next to, causing them to animate and murder the would be thieves. The gargoyles have prepared two kill zones that the panicking or overly curious PCs might wander into to their detriment. There are two primed ballistae/cannons that the Gargoyles will attempt to use but that ingenious PCs might find a way to repurpose. There are the subtleties: the way the shrine can only be moved through double doors, prompting the Grotesques (basically gargoyles) to prepare their ambush there. An instance of a grotesque impersonating a load-bearing pillar which a clever PC might discover is a deception. A frozen body with obvious plague marks carrying a bible of great worth, if you wanted to retrieve it the arm would have to be broken off, how do you proceed? The subtle way the iron pick-axes of the looters, which is equipment they WOULD be carrying, can be used to damage the Grotesques. It feels very naturalistic, like a location or situation was conceived first and the adventure was built around it. Depending on the amount of magical weaponry the PCs have access to, a potentially very deadly scenario with little in the way of monetary reward or magic items.

Pictured: Your doom!

Conversely, attempting to re-establish fealty with the Winter King is potentially highly lucrative but, if possible, even more deadly. An 8 hour trek through the forest, using a Kowolski style (d8,d6,d4) table that, while good, is maybe a bit too elaborate for the 2 rolls that are expected to be made upon it. The encounters are good and reek of dark sorcery: Eastern European Beastmen (the Pechten), wolves, trees dotted with fetishes, creepy cabins filled with implements of witch-craft and jars of human teeth and, if you are unlucky, a band of Pechten throwing the fetishes onto the fire under the watchful eye of a rotting black undead steed. Some of the more unlikely encounters should have just been features that the PCs come across along the way, the imposed time limit and the breadth of encounters that are only likely to show up under multiple forays don’t really work together well.

The idea is that the Winter King’s dolmen was sealed off by the efforts of the crusaders and his rage has merely exacerbated the situation, surrounding his abode with a lake. Additionally, a vampire has set up shop in the tomb proper, keeping the poor Winter King asleep and making off with his magical cauldron.

I’m not as enamoured of the map-design here, although I appreciate making some areas accessible to small creatures as a means of bypassing the locked double doors, but connecting nearly every room in the tomb to a central hub feels overly simplistic. I appreciate the way this is used, that one will readily encounter various treasures and situations which are then counted against the characters later on, when they meet the Winter King in O, but there must have been a better way to handle this situation.

The faery-tale atmosphere is very very strong. A possessed knight will warn off the characters from breaking the seal, but if the PCs have a cleric or Paladin they can lay him to rest without combat. Ghoulish elves, a dryad turned into a harp as punishment. Ice-coated halls and doors of arsenical bronze. The urns full of silver, gemstones of ice and enchanted Woodsmans Axe of the Winter King. It feels fantastical, not in the high fantasy sense, but in the manner of a nightmarish eastern european sprookje. In a suprising twist, it might actually be much better to just loot the place, don’t free the King, team up with the Vampire against Krampus or even better, just take the magic loot and run and to the Devil with those damn kids!

There are two possible conceits here. The first is the Vampire Volodimyr and his 8 (?) Ghoul Elves, who really doesn’t want the Winter King woken up. The problem here is that as written, he doesn’t really have a pre-set reaction or point where he notices the PCs which feels a bit underdeveloped. It also begs the question why he does not simply kill the PCs, as a Vampire and 8 Ghoul Elves should be formidable enough for most parties. It is interesting that the PCs can once again negotiate with the bugger, and he will fuck off in exchange for passage out of here (as he cannot cross the running water around the dolmen). The other part is even better. Freeing the Winter King from his icy slumber will mean he starts to assess the Party’s good deeds (freeing him and breaking the seal being one of them) versus their bad deeds (say, robbing him or killing the Harp-Dryad). If this equation doesn’t work out, he tells them to fuck off, and if he is very angry, he starts freezing people to death instantly, which is perhaps too harsh.

The third and final option is to barricade oneself inside a house and wait out the Siege, again with a wonderful number of additional permutations and finnicky bits, such as the strength of the door, the location of the shelter, what happens when you try to Net Crampus or using crosses from the burnt church to block off the Chimney (of course he comes down the Chimney!). The Krampus is a formidable monstrosity, worthy of legend, but fortunately for the PCs, he is there mostly for child-snatching and will seek to maximize the number of children snatched, only brutally murdering the PCs if they get between it and the younglings. 10 HD and AC as Leather and a 1d6+7 gore attack…could be worse I guess?

The conversion is on par for Kowolski, nice and smooth. In keeping with the NuOSR pre-Artpunk, treasure is stingy, magic items are unique but sparse and resource management is not as salient as in the traditional dungeon crawling format, but this is still a good, atmospheric romp. There are some very nasty surprises lying in wait for the unwary. Is there something about the Holidays that brings out a vicious streak in the normally docile and gentle Canadian?

Honest to god medieval fantasy, no iffs no buts, and a fine showing at that. The style is unostentatious but atmospheric. Layout is minimal but functional. The art is complementary and supports the module, rather then the obverse. As written the only regret should be that choosing one of 3 options will render the others unavailable but nothing says you cannot lift some of it for a future adventure or replay the adventure later with widely different results. It feels lean, punchy and gameplay and atmosphere are firmly and harmoniously wedded, with little rule systems guiding the action. Something as simple as a system for When the Winter King is angry, or the myriad considerations for slowing down Krampus, separate the IDEA from the much more important EXECUTION. Craftsmanship. Member when NuOSR didn’t automatically mean ‘Cringe Garbage’? Can we have this back again?

This is another adventure that is perhaps unusually frustrating to obtain, requiring either the (Printed) Omnibus, participation in some (now defunct) bundles or membership to Mr., nay, Dr. Kowolski’s Patreon.



One thought on “[Review] Down in Yon Forest (NGR); Silver is For Monsters

  1. Sounds good. Kowolski seems to be the best in the business at creating these D+D/Cthulhu hybrids. I would be interested in play reports, as imaginative players can find all sorts of unlikely solutions/hilarious disasters in these situations.
    And you, my dear Prince, are continuing to tease us with “module unattainable”. What is coming next? Curse on Hareth? Seren Ironhand? Starstone? Scenarios from Tortured Souls magazine?


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