Birds of a Feather (2019)
Low – levels
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Perhaps, in mute contrast to the expansive extravagances of high level play we can indulge in a bit of slumming. One of the regrettable shifts in the OSR caused by the wide-scale adoption of B/X and the drive to cater to a massive influx of low time-preferenced tourists has been the compression of the level range (i.e. you fight the Prince of All Vampires at level 3) and the adoption of Mudcore or Low Fantasy design principles. The mudcore started somewhere as a rejection of 3.5-4th edition d&d with its ample safeguards, endless profusion of sterile +n magic items and irrecognisable and meaningless monster entries (e.g. the Shadowblade Bloodavenger or whatever). Instead we got one magic item per adventure, death at 0, 3d6 in order and you will take your copper standard and like it. Like many other ruinous trends, we can probably blame Lotfp as the patient Zero for the current iteration.
But before we burn down all adventures without at least a +4 dancing sword, a sphere of annihilation and a deck of many things for the follies of yet another overreaction against the previous overreaction, lets examine instead a charming little entry by Zzarchov Kowolski, the Master of Mudcore, if you will, and remind ourselves of the merits of this approach if it is done properly. A small locale that is vivid and immersive, the details leap out, what few supernatural elements that are present are magnified and outlined by their isolation.
10-pages, good for a single session of play. As an introductionary adventure it is quite suitable, on par with something like Temple of Lies. Charcoal burners have gone missing, a coach has been turned over, foul-smelling feathers found on the scene. The local reeve offers 20 GOLD PIECES (in a silver standard setting) if the culprits can be found. Two guides can bring you to the scene of the abandoned coach.
An investigative adventure morphing into a tactical scenario morphing into a horror dungeon crawl. Very un-traditional, inspired more by something like WHFRPG but charming. A handful of elements are introduced, and each one is used to its maximum potential, something we are used to from Kowolski.
The culprit behind the dissapearances are a flock of harpies roosting in an abandoned wizards tower, worshipping some hideous carrion god. They are in league with bandits and many of the villagers, who take the belongings while the Harpies and the Ghouls feed on their flesh. Your guides to the tower are in on the ruse and will attempt to alert the Harpies via a plume of foul-smelling smoke. If the players think to investigate the coach specifically, they can find the horses were released deliberately and track them to a nearby cave where the bandits hold up. The cave is not given a map and the trio of heavily armed bandits and the foreign hedge-wizard is not covered in great detail but a glance at the NGR skills section reveals a hint as to their nature.
Tower proper is where it is at. A good dyson map, a rare treat in 2019. 18 rooms across multiple floors of an ancient stone tower, no rumors no hints no random encounters and you don’t really need them. What you do get is a schedule where everyone is at different times during the day, notes on who is watching what approach, how the Harpies respond to an intruder (although there is no fixed number of turns it takes the Harpies to return to the Tower). Different actions are scattered throughout the room descriptions, which is a minor inconvenience but fortunately the inhabited part of the tower is small enough so that the neccessary information is relatively easy to extract.
What makes this adventure come alive is the surprising number of entrances, allowing for some tactical flexibility, the bizarre and vivid details like the offering bowl full of severed fingers (some rings still on them), the gruesome pit where the harpies cast the prisoners and give them water in exchange for severed limbs, treasure of robbed silken dresses, hideous organic stench coming from the pits and scrolls of human leather. There are the usual omissions for stats for, say, the prisoners and there’s a confusing group of ‘survivors’ holed up in a disused torture room whose allegiance (and stats for that matter) are not quite clear.
The biggest deviation might be the changing of the Harpies themselves. Their signature charm song has been removed and their HD reduced to 1 (with the exception of a matriarch). While this makes the scenario a lot more survivable for low level characters, this is one instance where simply dropping the scenario into one’s home campaign requires a bit of finesse, as simply restoring the Harpies’s original abilities would quickly increase the difficulty of the scenario to all but impossible. Leaving it as is might cause some unwanted continuity issues when it becomes time to trot out the harpies yet again. Perhaps this is a lesser strain of harpy? Something similar could be said of the (living, nonundead) ghouls on the bottom floor but these can very simply be passed off as Cannibal cultists or whathaveyou and everything is just in the world.
There is one more level below the Pit which is really its own thing and Kowolski handles the division very subtly. The stairwell to the lowest level is filled with water smelling faintly of urine. The door is waterproof. The door beyond it has a delicate and very valuable volume worth 1000 gp but it will be immediately ruined by the water. A nice bonus for using a subtle approach. The lower level is the lair of some slumbering low level undead necromancer and his two skeletal guards, who are given objectives for extremely mysterious reasons but it is cute to see. Creaking floors and an alarm trap are used to give the Necromancer a chance to sir in response to the intrusion. A 4th level spellcaster with 12 hp and AC 9 is not a huge problem, the Sleep spell and Acid Arrow however, are. I don’t know what I should think of a 2nd level spell that allows the animation of a single skeleton with a permanent duration and no material components. This is the OSR conversion talking again.
As with many Kowolski offerings, you get the idea you are being subtly shafted in the OSR version. Certain details like the secret to create an elixer to disguise the living are only given stats for the NGR verison, there are several volumes drawn from Hark! a Wizard! that are turned into generic spell scrolls for the OSR version, a lot of subtle NGR details are obviated and you are left with a vague sense of absence. None of these omissions really affect the core of the adventure, which of course works, by and large. Someday I will write an article about how you can convert any low level adventure from one system to any other system because of the relative lack of assumptions but converting even a mid-level adventure from one system to another is a herculean ideal because the deviations pile up as character abilities grow more sophisticated or whatever. Total treasure (nice and specific) is on the order of 3000 worth of dresses, rings, jars full of coins, silver goblets, occasionally hidden trinkets, ancient manuscripts and some magic scrolls, which seems about right for an evening of campaigning.
This has a similar sort of charm to The Dripping Chasm, that Tower adventure with the guilds and other ‘realistic’ adventures of yesteryear, minus the obligatory slight sloppiness and crude conversion. It can be read and absorbed in less then half an hour, it rewards clever play, its tough but not vicious or impossible and the writing is about average for Kowolski, a.k.a. pretty good. 5-8 characters of Level 1-2 should do fine. Can be dropped into a campaign at a moments notice, which is not to be underestimated.
A decent outing. My copy is included in the now unavailable Kowolski omnibus vol 2. but I believe it originally appeared in Zzarchov’s unnamed Zine (Zzine?) where it might still be available.
12 thoughts on “[Review] Birds of a Feather (NGR/OSR); Mudcore Man”
I wholeheartedly approve of restating monsters to be accurate to Greek mythology. Mixing up sirens and harpies or gorgons and catoblepae is a greater sin than the copper standard.
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The only problem is one of continuity and player expectation. Using Harpies WITH charm elsewhere after using them without charm before will confuse people.
Maybe these harpies all have terrible bronchitis?
It’s a simple matter to just describe them without using the name ‘Harpy’ if one wants to do this. ‘Cannibal bird women’. This sounds like a really good adventure to me.
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The corollary is also true: a mythology geek of name level coming to D&D will stare at what the Game calls “medusas” and “gorgons” with abject bemusement or cold fury, deleting as applicable. I’m with Starmentor on this one.
Archetypal WFRP as noted. I am slightly disappointed the party are not offered a hearty breakfast of sausages before they set off (and guess the source of the meat). To the best of my recollection WFRP harpies don’t have a charming voice. Other scenarios have made good use of this general idea: Adventure Framework 13: Gift of the Silent God (Pickpocket Press) is a variant.
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Came here to make this observation. From the review I feel the feel of a good White Dwarf adventure to it, a Black Arrow sort of affair but given the page count to develop.
I would not be surprised. It has that vibe. A sort of artisinal, craft-beer type of hearty stuff, playable in an evening or so, and fairly rich.
Eh, your mudcore standards are pretty low. Unless there’s nothing supernatural or fantastical to be found, everything is not covered in three layers of shit, and the Local Lord (TM) and his Men-At-Arms (TM) aren’t beating the crap out of would-be adventurers, it’s not mudcore enough for me.
Unless you are on the tin-standard, the leading cause of adventurer death is cholera and starvation, the pit spikes come with extra rust, the only class is diseased prostitute and the innkeep is missing an eye and most of his teeth, you aren’t playing MUDCORE.
That’s the spirit!
Also, 90% of Eastern European RPG scene used to be like that until relatively recently.
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