[Review] The Queen of Spades (5e): Ren-Faire Prime

The Queen of Spades (2022)

Artem Serebrennikov (DM’s Guild)
Lvl 7

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After what was apparently a sound thrashing on tenfootpole [1], mr. Serebrennikov contacted me and asked me if I would be willing to take a look at his doorstopper 5e high level murder mystery adventure. I’ll say this much, you’ve got guts.

I’m 2/3rds in as I start this review but I feel at this point I have enough of an impression of the work to get started. Queen of Spades is a murder mystery, set in some generic metropolis of the benighted Forgotten Realms, and strives, in its introduction, to avoid the mistakes of many of its predecessors, and make an investigative romp that functions despite the presence of spells like Speak With Dead, Detect Evil, ESP, Augury and so and so forth. It also seeks to challenge player skill, keep the number of clues manageable, allow for a variety of different approaches and have enough twists and turns to serve as a proper mystery adventure. In this approach it cites Twenty Rules For Writing Detective Stories but what it should have done is go through a bunch of WHFRPG, Call of Cthulhu and older D&D scenarios and learn from their mistakes and successes.

The concept is good: Beshaba, Lady of Ill-fortune, seeks to have her drow Priestess [2] enact a ritual in the metropolis, summoning her prime servant The Queen of Spades and thus cursing all within with seven years of bad luck. Gengram Vashko, an ill-fated gambler, lost all he had by the Lady of Doom in a card game ten years ago. Mad, he was interred in a sanctum, freed only recently by the Drow Priestess and used to enact the ritual. He escaped halfway through, the lingering effects causing a series of freak accidents throughout the city. The PCs are contacted either by the City Guard or the Criminal underworld to investigate the accidents.

In my criticism I will try to differentiate between the style of the adventure, which is personal though shared by all men of good taste, and the structure of the adventure, which is more or less objective. There are also a few puzzling choices, such as setting the mystery in a generic city in the Forgotten Realms. In general it is better for the atmosphere to pick a single city and then add notes for conversions in case one wishes to place it in some other area though I suppose at this point 5e lore is essentially meaningless and everything is smeared together into a giant undistinguishable interchangeable cosmopolitan mess. Which brings me to my criticism of the atmosphere of the module: Everything is smeared together into a giant, undistinguishable, interchangeable, cosmopolitan mess.

I have no idea what period this adventure is set in. The Forgotten Realms I’m familiar with is somewhere in the Mid Medieval period, but this adventure seems to be set in some sort of Victorian Age metropolis, complete with gambling parlours, clubs for wealthy aristocrats, sanitariums, police constables and a halfling druid dealing in exotic plants in a central park in the city. I am unsure how much of this is the module and how much of this is modern forgotten realms but it is jarring. The hook: The Guard, which unintuitively but most assuredly has constables for investigating murders, is hiring you, a bunch of tosser mercenaries to investigate the killings to prevent a panic (there is an unspecified politically sensitive event going on), giving you all of a day to do so? They will pay you 2000 gp? I get that the underworld might be nervous about killings going on and taking their own steps but the fucking guard? This should have gone over like this: There are killings, but the corrupt City Watch either cannot or will not investigate, so the family members of the deceased pool together some resources, and ask a bunch of mercenary types for aid. But this is a minor gripe. Then it’s all fishmongers with class levels, a dwarf weapons instructor owning a magical construct, a tiefling warlock living in town, reading books like Is the Price Is Right for Your Soul: A Warlock’s Guide to PactMaking but we are somehow supposed to believe that this is not a sickening fucking abomination that would be put down immediately by well-meaning citizens taking the right in their own hands and so on.

The point is that the characters, services and conveniences in this place feel modern. Magic is casual and incidental. A drow, something that was so mysterious and dangerous in 1e that many considered them entirely fictional, can now be found wandering the streets. This sometimes interacts with the plot in ways that defy belief. The gambler spent 10 years in a sanitarium of Ilmater but we are led to believe they never bothered to cast Remove Curse or Restoration on him, which in this adventure cures his madness? Normally you’d pull the magic is rare card, but this right has been waivered long ago.

It is not like the idea of a magical metropolis cannot be done right. Imagine this: The droning noise of the dwarven preachers, the overwhelming spicey-scent of halfling cooking almost drowning out the half-fake squawks of the aarocka prostitutes plying their trade. Getting mugged by half-orc youths. The corrupt guard run entirely by haughty high elves. The exotic and alluring genasi district where you can get anything you want, for a price! Savage gangwars and blood feuds between the Half Elves and the Half Orcs. A bloodthirsty crowd gathers together to witness the execution of yet another werewolf by immersion in molten silver. A leprous tielfing fortune teller delivers a raspy prophecy before she is chased off by snarling human aristocrats out for a night of slumming. For all the races and creatures in this city, nothing feels distinct or like it has any weight or significance to it. The Vault of the Drow felt exotic. Mevielle’s Bas-Lag feels exotic (for all its faults). This (with the exception of the last part) feels generic.

But all this can be overlooked if the adventure is tight. Unfortunately here too it has problems.

Chapter 1 has the characters investigating each site of the murder. Clues and red herrings are helpfully listed in bullet point fashion, and often times there are witnesses, either subtly hidden (I do like some of these suggestions like casting Speak With Animals on the fish at the fishmongery) or in plain sight. In some cases the adventure flat out considers what to do in case you just get them Ressurected and interrogate all the murder victims directly, which is an absurd but in this universe completely valid consideration. There is also a playing card on each scene of the crime. I like a small section on how the PCs can get around with looting and stealing, showing that for all its flaws, the adventure has not forgotten the essential nature of player characters, even if this is 5e where treasure is almost meaningless.

The biggest eyesore is the insane amount of checks and rolls you have to do, often with low DCs (13 for a level 7 party with a spread of ability scores gives you, what? a +6 to +12 bonus, maybe more?) and the idea is that you really should be succeeding these checks anyway because otherwise the adventure grinds to a dead halt. Having clues denied to you by RNG in a murder mystery format fucking sucks. Having information be revealed by the use of certain spells like Detect Magic is great, or finding out information by interrogating someone’s pet giant lizard with Speak With Animals as is getting info if one remembers to check in certain areas. Walling it off behind pointless dice-rolls is not.

The scenes themselves are usually interesting. The hot house imposes possible penalties because of the heat, the Warlock’s place has a concealed Invisible Stalker trapped in the house, there’s a red herring with one victim actually murdered by a band of half elven mercenaries in service to the priestess of Beshaba, but made to look like a cult killing and so on. But the structure is off. There’s a calling card, created magically, left at the scene of the crime, explained away as the result of the ritual magic, but the calling card is also at the site of the murder of the mercenaries. ALL the victims have some sort of Dark Secret, but this does not play a role in the reason for their killing, and thus it is essentially a giant flood of unnecessary detail. It is already a 77 page adventure, hefty chonker, good for about 2-3 sessions of gameplay. If it’s a question of divining the motive of the killer, then it would be perfect, as is it is not.

In comparison with something like Terror in the Streets or In Deadly Fashion this section is also fairly weak because you leave it with no strong clues perpetrating your next course of action. The conclusion you reach is that there was some sort of supernatural event that killed all these people with accidents (excepting one) but there is nothing spurring you on further, no greater lead. I just contrast it with something like Terror in the Streets and wonder if it had not been possible to have some descriptions of the fugitive, the character Gengram Vashko, showing up. Instead the adventure must inform the players of the connection after they have already reached the conclusion.

I take additional umbrage at the inclusion of the so-called Beshaba’s Bane encounters, which are combat encounters meant to spice up the investigation. Excusez moi? Having the fish in the mongery animate and try to murder the PCs is all well and good but in a murder mystery we do not throw encounters at players merely to fill dead air, we make sure each encounter has some sort of additional clue or hints at the broader nature of the threat. Artem understands this in Act II, but in Act I we are given the option to bloat out the adventure further to seemingly no end. The encounters proper are often very good, say, having an Asiatic prince and his old guard show up, begging you for help and having them turn out to be an Oni and a Lamia in disguise, trying to murder and eat the PCs in some dark alleyway is a fantastic encounter. I love it. Give them fucking treasure next time, but good job. For a moment we are back in dangerous, exotic Waterdeep or Calimsham or Neverwinter or whatever the fuck.

Act II is actually stronger because once you actually know the Gambler’s name, you go to about 4 different locations where you eventually find at least one witness willing to help if you succeed at more fucking skill checks, but at least here behavior seems to affect the outcome. In fact not a single fucking diceroll is made with the Priest of Timora, all her info is gained via interaction. If you fuck up you just don’t get the info. She is a disgusting halfling and you have to indulge her obnoxious ramblings for hours on end but that is a detective thing, at least. The excellent lessons of this particular encounter are immediately forgotten and at the Gambler’s club we do have to pass through a series of humiliating skill checks, but at least little things, like the Varlet trying to scam us by having us all purchase a year long club membership by letting us in. I find myself nodding. The whole point is that you get piecemail information that gradually forms a picture and leads you in a certain direction, so even if you bungle some clues here and there it is easy to vaguely steer the PCs in the right direction. You actually find (I don’t know why you would randomize it but there you go) Gengram here and you have to protect him from Half-Elven mercenaries in the pay of the priestess, perfect! in particular because the adventure does cover what happens if they are interrogated or if Gengram is kidnapped. The mercs have a list of laundry items with them, which is actually an invitation with illusory script cast on it, and their headquarters is behind a laundry place. Kudos!

Anyway, it all leads back to the place where Gengram initially lost his fortune. The City Guard for whatever retarded reason, decides that additional muscle would just complicate matters and leaves you to fend for yourself, giving you a bunch of scrolls and potions or whatever. This sucks and it is gay. Anyway, you are led back to the cult HQ. For whatever reason the illicit gambling den is behind a laundrette. It is very lame that no amount of failure will stop the adventure to a dead halt or simply cause you to fail and you end up at the laundrette anyway.

Maps are pretty hideous. The colors are an eyesore. Technique is primitive and it hurts us. Some of the art in the module should probably also be omitted, reduced to a few tasteful pieces.

Some good things. The adventure treats the ground floor portion like you would some sort of open-ended infiltration or social encounter, with responses from the guards, what they do if they get captured, or if you show the right list, undercover cultists posing among the washerpeople etc. Why a laundrette has armed guards capable of resisting tricked out Giant-killers might be another question but let’s not get into that. This sort of intelligent treatment of the combatants, complete with them preparing in case of trouble, or warning to fetch others, or engaging in deception, these are actually good considerations. There’s things I don’t like about this adventure but this last section is actually reasonably solid. Considering the large number of combatants in the illicit casino, making some sort of overview would have been a good idea. Yeah there is a Canoloth in a room that says Keep Out which is a little odd but gosh darnit this is an actual Dark Heresy style infiltration, mystery casino gigantic smackdown part of the adventure. It’s tiered too so the PCs don’t immediately get to the cult lair, they get to the illegal casino. Okay, now what the fuck do we do. I would have appreciated some clever way for the PCs to figure out where the Cult is located from here but it is always possible to sneak around and kudos for making it possible to ROB THE CASINO, which has ACTUALLY DECENT TREASURE for once.

This trend of intelligent preparations and adversaries, sounding the alarms, at least continues in the last section. We actually get fucking traps and a fountain that if you drink from it generates a bunch of random effects. There are even, dare I say it, prisoners to free and ask about the layout of the 9 room dungeon? Some proper fucking old school tricks and traps are slowly sneaking their way into this bloated cosmopolitan behemoth. A note on the Development. Having characters respond to intrusion is good, but you might want to cover all of it under a single entry before the dungeon proper. Since the dungeon is only 9 rooms it is a forgiveable error but keep it in mind. At this point the adventure no longer feels like I am in 5e railroad hell and more like I am in 2e Late era Dungeon Magazine hell, but this would be one of the *** entries where you find yourself nodding and its actually not that bad. Yeah a room of initiation where a Grey Slaad posing as a statue makes the characters undergo 3 mystic trials of initiation. Having two of them just inflict damage is not very magical but the third one has you draw decks from cards and these turn into monsters. Why didn’t you have it order them to draw from the Deck of Many Things?

These fucking room descriptions are also something straight out of 2e. Long as fuck. Some of it can be trimmed but there is also just a lot of it going on. A giant smackdown at the end with the drow priestess and animating portraits. Occasional cute flourishes like thematic curses (walking under a painting of a latter into a secret door brings bad luck) or meeting the dreaded Queen of Spades and now having to deal with this fucking devil, help beef up this last part. I mean whatever my complaints playing against a greater demon of Beshaba in a game of chance to get rid of her with your soul as collateral is a stroke of genius and the option of just bargaining the Gambler’s soul if she leaves is also great.

The Queen of Spades is a very uneven adventure. The initial investigative parts are a weak and could use trimming of superfluous details, the plethora of checks to find the proper clues are annoying, but it ends much stronger then it begins. I think you could probably get a fun 2-3 sessions out of this, particularly for 5e players, but convincing them to do so when there are many good adventures available might be tricky. I would like to see a trimmed down, cleaned up version of this, with Act I flowing naturally into Act II, some consequences of failure attached to bungling up the investigation, its ren-faire elements diminished a bit, the cartography cleaned up and the last part just needs a bit of a useability upgrade. I don’t know how long 5e combats are and how well you can run them with 10+ monsters but the Order of Battle stuff is always nice to see and the temple ends up being actually fun, well-themed and engaging even if it is only 10 rooms. Strong ending. I appreciate the addition of some cardgames in the appendix.

I’d rate it about ** stars, bordering on acceptable, the weaknesses in the initial sections (which feel almost like filler) and its comparative length weighing against it. Also very relevant, this module credits its playtesters, very good. I would encourage mr. Serebrennikov to have another go at it, for while there is certainly room for improvement, nothing I have encountered here would suggest that he could not produce something fairly engaging. Getting it into a shape so someone else can pleasantly replicate the experience, this is the challenge.

It may be gotten here.

[1] I have not read the review in question to preserve independence and a fresh perspective
[2] An unusual choice for a worshipper of a human deity to be sure, which to its credit the adventure explains in the Appendix.


2 thoughts on “[Review] The Queen of Spades (5e): Ren-Faire Prime

  1. My most profound thanks to thee, o benevolent and dedicated reviewer. You have restored my faith in my creative capabilities.

    A couple of things I’d like to say in my defence:

    1) The whole Ren Faire malarkey. Straddling a line between the mundane and the fantastical is damn hard. I’ve tried to keep some elements more grounded (so, a hospital in an old warehouse instead of a Bedlam/Arkham Asylum; a public launderette, which is a 100% real medieval/early modern thing) while paying some lip service to the tastes of the Current Year public. And, take my word for it, I’m on the LOW spectrum of what FR Ren Faires look nowadays… Let’s say the end result is more like 18th century sans gunpowder than the mock-21st century which seems to be the norm now.

    2) Genericity. Really couldn’t make up my mind whether the story worked better in a Hive of Scum & Villainy or in a Shining City, tried to please both, ended up pleasing no one.

    3) Wordiness. Aftereffect of poisoning by the dominant WotC style + EASL + complicated stuff needing description/explanation. Working on it.

    Some things you were puzzled by:

    4) Why they didn’t just cure Grengram immediately? The priest that run the hospital was corrupt so he kept Grengram insane to keep “donations” from gawkers flowing in and then just couldn’t care less about Grengram’s well-being when his celebrity faded. It is stated in the adventure, but perhaps I should have spelled this out more clearly.

    5) Why the launderette is so heavily guarded? Well, it’s run by criminals in league with the cult as a front for the casino, so they want to put tough but unassuming guards to protect it against interlopers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are welcome. I think it is a factor of presentation but I wouldn’t give up if I were you.

      1) yeah I figured. I did look up the laundrette and found it had been around for centuries.
      2) I think going with a particular interpretation and providing some conversion notes helps ground the adventure
      3) Good luck brother!
      4) I had actually read the explanation! I suppose it would be possible that they had kept someone to generate income but it does seem less credible that they would then provide this person with food and bunk space for years if a remove curse spell would get him out of their hands and back in the streets.
      5) This made sense because it was a criminal establishment with a cult underneath, but from the point of view of the PCs it would be odd. I should have clarified and this is a fair objection.


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