Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Review: Rogues in Remballo (Swords & Wizardry)

Rogues in Remballo: An Adventure for Swords & Wizardry

Author: Matt Finch
Character Levels: 1st
System: Swords & Wizardry (or similar)
PDF: Free!
Print: Kickstarter

When +Matt Finch asked for reviews of this adventure I put my hand up. I had recently acquired the hardcover of Swords & Wizardry Complete (which I really like) so I was eager to see what a city adventure may look like within this system.

I had every intention of writing/posting this earlier, but I have been kind of slack. Now that I've finally read through the adventure and given it some thought, here we are. Before I begin I want to mention two things. Firstly, this adventure is available as a free PDF from the Frog God Games website (link above). Secondly, there is an in-progress Kickstarter where one may acquire this adventure in print form as part of the larger "Borderlands" project. If this review stokes your interest I would recommend downloading the free copy first. It has been produced in black & white, making it printer-friendly. If you absolutely love it, and like the look of the Kickstarter (link above) you may wish to back the Kickstarter and get a print version.

Anyway, let's begin. Rogues in Remballo (hereafter referred to as "Rogues") is a city-based adventure of political intrigue. Finch suggests this adventure is suited for experienced groups, and I can see the logic behind this suggestion. While less experienced groups could probably handle the intricacy and relative open-endedness of the adventure, the skill required on the part of the players (and certainly the Ref) is better suited for gamers with a number of adventures/campaigns under their belt. Having said that, one of the first adventures I ran was The Speaker In Dreams which contains a similar level of nuance. Regardless, there is soundness in Finch's suggestion. In the unlikely event that you are reading this and have never run a game of Dungeons & Dragons or Swords & Wizardry, I would be inclined to echo Finch's advice. Pick something simpler. For true beginners, the 5th Edition Starter Set is not a bad way to go. But I digress.

Rogues is set within the Borderland Provinces of the "Lost Lands" setting. At times there were references to setting specific elements not explained within the adventure, but largely the adventure site would be easy enough to transplant to any setting. From the outset the reader is provided with some clear and functional maps of Remballo, keyed with particular sites of interest. This city could be placed in most generic fantasy settings, or with a bit of tweaking, would fit nicely in more eclectic realms. The setting does assume a relative level of technological sophistication (such as banking systems/letters of credit), so these aspects may need modification if your setting is more primitive.

The main contention of the adventure revolves around two powerful forces within the city: The House of Borgandy (who have had one of their own disappear) and the local Thieves Guild. Additionally there are some other major forces at work, particularly the Thieves Guild of Manas and the City Watch. This adventure is largely non-linear, though there is a logical progression between beginning and end which is likely to coalesce in a number of possible outcomes: beginning within the walls of the city, progressing to an area called "The Four Corners", and reaching climax beneath the city itself. What happens in between is largely up to the detective work of the players/characters, and without skilful implementation by the Ref, this adventure could quickly become directionless or somewhat vague. At times this adventure appeared to be an exercise in door-knocking: "Hello sir, could I bother you for a second? Oh, you don't know anything about this event? Okay, well good day." As some of the NPCs were described as grumpy, this may deter players, appearing to be a dead-end approach to discovering the required information. I suspect that the adventure could have been signposted a little better. There are, however, a number of compelling motivations to get the participants interested in the adventure — including the classic incentive of gold payable from the coffers of The House of Borgandy and the local Thieves Guild. Smart or lucky players will be able to double dip and capitalise on the rewards of both. There is room for deviancy too, particularly towards the end where certain...goods...can be "acquired" from certain (probably dead) individuals. Finch provides a satisfying level of detail regarding the political factions within and without the city. This inclusion creates a satisfying and believable backdrop from which to hinge the whole affair. At this point I won't give too much away, lest I spoil the adventure if you wish to play/run it.

The setup and presentation of Rogues is clear with a satisfying balance between sparseness and depth. The Ref is at substantial liberty to flesh out various places, people, or events. The adventure often paints broad brushstrokes, and while this is largely appreciated there were times where multiple entries became prosaic. For instance, let's look at area #19:

This entry is fairly mundane, and I would ask whether it's even needed? There were a handful of similar entries, which became dull to read. At this point I don't really feel the need to know Jarn's name; who is he? Instead, I thought these types of entries could have been tidily subsumed into a random table rather than afforded separate entries of their own. The Ref could roll on the table if he/she needed to know the occupant of the building. If Isarn Jarn were a more interesting character I probably wouldn't have minded. For example, maybe his leg is injured, and when asked about the goings on in the city he becomes cagey (inferring he's hiding something), maybe he has a block of cheese on his belt, offering slices to visitors, or maybe his eyes constantly shift to a part of the room the characters can't see. More detail would have been good, or a more compelling reason why Jarn warrants his own entry. The latter part of the text was more eventful and pertinent to the adventure. I enjoyed the inclusion of the opium den, and the notion that violence and thuggery was associated with this undercurrent of the city. Again though, I felt this could have been developed a bit further. I mean, an opium den should be rife with atmosphere. Maybe a well-known local figure is either funding or frequenting the joint, and happens to be there when the characters turn up. How does the den look, smell, or feel? Similarly, the thieves guild felt a little too familiar or friendly. There was one mention of guild members getting executed if they committed a certain offence, but otherwise I would have liked a more ominous or menacing guild for players to interact with.

Despite the flatter 2D aspects of this adventure, I still felt like it was a good effort. There is plenty of intrigue, and for parties who enjoy investigative scenarios this makes for a very viable adventure. While generic fantasy, I did not see this as a negative thing. I felt oddly excited reading parts of Rogues. Again, I return to The Speaker In Dreams, because I have fond memories of that adventure. Both adventures have a similar feel (I'm not sure why), providing the Ref with the framework for a broader campaign. There were many events, situations, or conflicts that I felt could be readily developed. Various things were implied or mentioned in passing which allows the Ref to build on Remballo as an interesting adventure location. I imagine this would be a very fun adventure with the right group. My players would certainly enjoy it.

My recommendation is to download a free copy. I enjoy Matt Finch's writing. It's clear, punchy, and to the point. At 26 pages it does not take long to read, and you will very quickly decide whether it is right for you. Of the free adventures floating around the Internet, this one is solid, so take a look. Overall it is very good, but the mentioned caveats reduced my estimations somewhat. 

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