RC2 The Brinkwood Thicket (2021)
Matthew Evans (Mithgarthr Entertainment)
Lvl 2 – 4
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Yet another part of a hopefully short lived series Against the Donation Cue, where I try to cull the clamouring hordes that have been piling up in my inbox to more manageable levels. Matthew Evans was a contestant for No-Artpunk 1, and asked if I would be so kind as to check out his follow up module, to which I answered with a solemn ‘of course’.
Know oh gentle reader, that before the eternally golden years of sandboxes, random generation and challenge based gameplay, even before the baroque era of feats, skill points, 5 foot steps and DC 10 + spell level + ability score modifier, there was a strange and barbaric epoch of dnd, during which all manner of obscene customs and procedures were observed. Men were bound as if by rails to the iron will of the GM and his Plot, whose precise design must be discerned via divination and strictly observed, lest the participant be reduced to base servitude with all manner of geases, gm pcs and other unwholesome instruments. There was in that superstitious era little left of the Appendix N, and the libraries of the capricious demiurges that ran such games were filled to bursting with thick, smudgy volumes of Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, David Eddings and Ed Greenwood. Through his unhallowed necromancies, Matthew Evans has called them forth from their prison beyond the ages, to haunt these latter days once more!
Brikwood Thicket is a follow up to RC 1 the Valley of Karaccia, and though it assuredly is made for Rules Cyclopedia (and it gets the treasure amounts right, arguably too generous even), this is a 2e module in heart and soul. In terms of production value, look and feel (right down to the naming conventions), the recreation is almost perfect. A module decanted from a Google Deepmind, gorged on The Sword of Shannara, Four From Cormyr and N4 the Forest Oracle. Whether or not this is a desirable quality is another matter.
During the annual Brightbloom festival, the Princess of Petals is kidnapped by a band of giant spiders, who turn out to be in cahoots with the Elves of Meanora, who intend to sacrifice the princess in the hopes of restoring Thalanil’s Pour from the strange malady that has been affecting it. Enter the PCs, who are faffing about at the local harvest festival.
The module opens and gets on my bad side by immediately starting off with a full page of rules for weather in the valley of Karaccia covering all 4 seasons, which happen to be both too long and comprehensive, while being devoid of any sort of gameable modifiers. % chance to calculate Fog, okay, so what is the effect on the PCs? Do they get a penalty to hit? Reduced visibility? Do I have to stow my bow if it rains? These sorts of rules aren’t covered in the Rules Cyclopedia (I don’t know if they are in the Rules Compendium but I assume no) and if you are going to expand upon them here, these modifiers are a great idea, otherwise such an extensive rule system is merely added as a sort of genuflection towards simulationism.
The opening text almost broke me and this is fair considering I have been dining on nothing but The Greatest of The Greatest for a while now but Great Garl Glittergold!
In which I implore Mr. Evans, who delivered a respectable contribution to No Artpunk 1, to find in his heart some small amount of mercy for a sensitive reviewer with a penchant for the dramatic and the literary and a minor touch of impatience. Full of ‘dancing, games, music, shows, food and other entertainments’ with nary a specific detail to help us conjure up some sort of evocative scene from this inert prose, followed by a description of minor carnival games that should probabilistically reduce the stall owner to bankrupcy if a particularly persistent thrower were to enlist . After which a band of 24 forest spiders show up, easily reduce the party to the status of inept stooges by means of combined paralysis webattacks, and then effortlessly trot off with the princess, without even so much as a mercy killing. While being stricken with flashbacks from Final Fantasy VII might appeal to a niche demographic of perfidious storygamers trying to take our dice, I would ask Mr. Evans put such events in the hook of his adventure in the future, rather then subjecting us to situations that we cannot meaningfully alter.
The insult is compounded when Sister Arianna Rosenfall, the local cleric, informs you smugly that the Princess must be saved but will neglect any mention of compensation. Screaming inwardly with the bottled rage of a thousand war gods, the PCs follow a linear trail of spiders they will not be able to catch, with no encounters, and soon make it to Quachurai’s Sink, where the first dungeon of the adventure takes place.
My stress levels went from KILO INDIA LIMA LIMA to a mere ‘trying to play chess with your girlfriend while an enraged Dutch yuppie loudly seethes over the English working class having access to the Brexit referenda’ because the map has elevations, there are branching passageways, it is legible, it is even somewhat mazelike. The encounters are…weird.
I don’t mean weird as in, Artpunk weird or Weird Tales Weird. Excluding a pair of lost goblins, this dungeon has nothing but three variant of Giant Spider, the Green, the Brown and the Black Widow Spider. That’s it. That’s all you are getting. But then the Google Deepmind wakes up and adds variety to these three encounters, so one group will be guarding the corpse of an adventurer, another will attempt to ambush, yet another will be Black Widow Spiders that merely LOOK like Brown Spiders etc. There are also the occasional descriptions like this ‘This sinkhole and its caverns are named after an elf explorer, Qachurai Wildtamer, who discovered it some 500 years ago before it was infested with spiders. Qachurai used this location as a retreat, and a bath was built around a natural hot spring in this cavern‘ which should probably be left up to the GM to infer but it most certainly has no place in encounter key 5. Bathhouse unless it will be information salient to running the module. There are nods to proper dungeon procedures, an area with treasure that can be unearthed after turns of searching, there is webbing to be burned through, a cruelly assholish wand of magic missiles with a hidden 14% chance to lob a fireball instead to be found, plentiful but not abundant new magic items with humble purposes (i.e. a magic bit that doubles horse encumberance f.e.) and a reasonable amount of giant spiders for the PCs to avoid (at the expense of losing treasure), get ambushed by, encounter and so on. Some variety in the diet would have been nice?
The quest continues as the spider lair contains plentiful magical shit but no Princess. You trudge along the trail and the game shifts into hex-crawling mode, with different terrain with different movement speeds and random encounter tables, all very well and good, but then there is a trail leading straight to the village and from there the PCs can just follow the river, so exploration is perhaps not the best word. Random encounters proper almost all have notes on rolling reaction at +X or -X, which CAN be good but feels superfluous when a band of random local goblins is concerned. I’m not even sure if introducing these random modifiers with such frequency has a meaningful impact on the game, unless there is a happy negotiation component. I would have enjoyed notes about how the Goblins and the Gnolls interact with the PCs and taken it from there. The rest is all forest adventuring hardtack, a pair of redcaps in a house, a bear in search of food, your robber flies, your tiger beetles, your giant hawk etc. The only break is the perfidious Silvathrax, an annoying shapeshifting wooddrake that tries to inflict himself on the party members by various schemes and scams and will likely condition the poor PCs to simply despatch any travellers they come across in the forest with no questions asked. I am missing the use of potentially positive random encounters, the friendly hermit, the wandering band of elves, the single fighter that is holed up in a tree, surrounded by death dogs etc. etc. I am missing a range of motion.
Take this one.
Two halflings show up, they sell bronze rings each…how much do they carry? Can I rob them? What if I, in a fit of pique after encountering @#$#%%$ Silvathrax in halfling form, decide to throw a sleep spell on the bastards and send them to halfling Hell? 10 gp per ring you say?
Arrival in the elf village brings with it further indignities. The spider-riding Wood Elves have had something happen to the ancient fountain from which the river next to their village springs so now it is dry, and after sending a party of their best warriors, which I guess were lvl 1 and incompetent, and not returning, they figure the next best step is to use their control of the Green Spiders, which presumably they could have used to accompany the warriors, to kidnap the village princess instead and sacrifice her in a barbaric rite to appease the spirit of the river. I kind of hate how this plays out. The number of elves is specified (500), but there is no map of the village so perhaps some sort of rescue can be effected in case the PCs do not feel like working for these cheapskate lunatics. What if I bribe the Goblins to attack the elves and try to take the princess in the confusion? ‘Of course, if the PCs attack instead of parlaying, the elves will fight fiercely to defend their home. This will be a poor choice for the PCs.’ And naturally the elves will furnish me with no retainers nor place to sleep. Two other NPCs are added more as fluff, though one does commission Mithril chainmail at the mind-boggeling rate of 250 gp each, a bargain if ever there was one.
By now seething and coping and occasionally pausing their journey to scream and beat the earth with their fists, the PCs continue their journey up the river to search for the mystical source of the fountain. On the way they get attacked by what seems like a very tough encounter, a highly poisonous worm with a stinger, and are given a free pass when, take a drink, a volley of arrows flies from the forest and the PCs are rescued by a band of goblins. ‘Who are you and why are your faces beat red with supressed rage?’ ask the Goblins. I don’t get why this encounter, which is pretty well defined, requires any sort of reaction roll, nor why not telling the goblins where you are going will give you a +2 on it, but regardless, it should end with the Goblins at least offering a bizarrely generous 4.000 gp sapphire if I kill the Beast God the metal-poor Sapspill gnolls are worshipping. How many goblins are in the village? What if I don’t trust goblins?
Okay, so after all this, we do finally get to the spill and perform a lair assault on the linear caverns behind the cenote. To its credit, basic alertness procedures, Gnolls posting sentries, tripwires and then moving on to warn the rest of the Gnolls, are put in place. A 2000 gp golden bracelet is concealed in the mud after a single giant frog is despatched. Is it me or are the B2 days long past and is this a softball? After the fairly dangerous save vs death mire of the Spider caverns, these Gnolls seem an only light challenge. Some foreshadowing of the identity of the gnolls’s god is given. There are about 10 gnolls, no chieftain, a heartwarming collection of Gnoll women and defenceless children in a nod to B2, one witch-doctor who could be formidable, has sleep and actually uses invisibility to hide, wait until the PCs attack his god and then rejoins, but did the Elves with spider control really fail against this?
A point in Evans’s favor. There is some considerable treasure here that is well concealed in a non-arbitrary fashion, while the possessions of the Gnolls proper are quite meagre. A key concealed behind a fading portrait opening a locked mithril vault for 10.000 gp is maybe a bit much, even for large parties.
The final showdown is with a Rust Monster, the metal-eating gods of the stupid gnolls, and is a bit anti-climactic because of its abilities. Encountering a Rust monster always creates a panic because you have to fucking run, but in this case everything else is likely dead, so a minor retreat before sending in the wizard and the torchbearer to club the thing to death with haymakers and spinning backfists and there we are. Where is my fucking mithril at???
After a relaxing stroll and collecting their 4000 gp opal, which the goblins do not attempt to scam them out even though doing so would be well within their power, the PCs arrive back at the elf village to pick up this poor young woman, and are given three baskets of 5000 gp worth of spider silk as an apology to the village that the adventure naively expects the PCs not to steal. ‘Listen you dumb bitch you keep the 2000 gp bracelet and keep your fucking mouth shut and we keep 2/3rds of the silk and we tell the elves only sent 5000 gp worth of spider silk okay?’ The adventure ends with that #@$#!$%@#$ drake Silvathrax once again showing up and attempting to steal your silk, and explaining the plot like a Scooby-Doo mystery at the end of it if you stop him.
Probably not to be overlooked, the adventure includes a single side-trek in the form of a treasure map that is relatively unlikely to be found, and leads to the Tomb of Jehanson the faithful. The module helpfully states that sprinkling these types of maps throughout the campaign world is good practice and I concur wholeheartedly. At this point Evans raises his arms and with a clap of his hands, banishes the loathsome spectre of mid 2e back to the realm of shadows from which it came, and we are back in diverting tombcrawling land. A simple tomb, 6 rooms. First room serves as the atrium and builds up the tension, and offers multiple paths. One nasty trap that is foreshadowed by an oddity, an excellent long hallway behind a reinforced door that contains dead tomb robbers who have written the words ‘go back’ in blood on the wall, a crushing wall block trap that is telegraphed well in advance, a fakeout tomb at the end and then you have to go back and do some investigation to find the real tomb. It’s a little mini-adventure, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, the reward is proportionate to the time spent and there is even, a very generously telegraphed opportunity for a TPK. It warms the heart it does.
Brinkwood suffers from the mid-2e GMing practices that I had hoped had been expunged in that it directs player action in a fairly heavy-handed manner. There is a strange focus on minutiae like the reaction rolls that have little bearing on the adventure as a whole. The flavour is heavily vanilla, without the evocative dopamine shots that are required to make that work. It seems constrained. The dungeons are okay in their fundamentals (although I miss the odd secret doors), the treasure serves (and might even be a bit high for parties of levels 2-4), magic items are cutesy in the manner of B/X-uWu, the rooms seem a bit artifical but the main problem is few things leap out and stick. You end up with something that faithfully evokes the gaming supplements of the mid 2e/RC era but I’m not sure if that is what most people are looking for these days.
I would encourage Master Evans to mull over these observations to see if they sit well with him, and I hope some occasional jeers and japes are forgiven as part of the format. Since I do still have RC3 in my cue, I’ll be interested to see where the adventure takes us next. In the meantime, anyone looking for a romp in 2e/RC land may do so here.
List of ‘Vanilla’ Fantasy worth consideration after Tolkien:
Three Hearts & Three Lions
The Children of Hurin
The Dragon & The George
The Well of the Unicorn
The King of Elfland’s Daughter
 The expected value of any single throw in cp is expressed as E(cp) = (.2 * 10 + .1 * 100) – 1 for someone with an average Dexterity Score, so on average you are expected to earn 11 cp every time you attempt the game. Given the duration of any single throw should be about a round, and accounting for negotiations with the stall holder and the likely duration of the fair, we can expect to earn about 105.6 gp per day for a Dex of 9-12.