Road of the Dead
I got this adventure for free for the purpose of this review.
Raging Swan Press has managed to publish one of my favorite 1st level adventures of all time with their very first release, Retribution. Road of the Dead is the new adventure by Raging Swan and thus, my expectations are sky-high and very hard to meet. While Retribution was EXTREMELY friendly on the DM and tried its best to make the adventure easy to run, Road of the Dead is the first adventure in Raging Swan's Go Play-series. The aim of the series is, as far as I've understood it, to make adventures the DM can pick up one hour before any given session, read through and run. A lofty goal indeed and I'll try to make my review taking both my own standards and this ambition into account. That being said, let's dive right into the review!
The pdf is 51 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 blank page on the inside of the front cover, 2 pages credits, 1 page table of contents, 1 page OGL, 1 page back cover and an accompanying blank page on the inside of the back cover. That leaves 43 pages of gaming content.
The module kicks off with 2 pages of explanation of how to read the stat-blocks to help novice DMs and 2 pages introducing The Lonely Coast, Raging Swan's free mini-setting, which, if you haven't already, you should check out. For ease of reference, we get both a player-friendly map (1 page) of the area and a table including how long travels to specific locations take with different base speeds. An awesome idea that helps run the area and, if you're like me, will appreciate. I hate calculating distances and overland traveling times. Thanks for not making me do it in this adventure.
In stark contrast to the multitude of different genres we had blended together in Retribution, Road of the Dead is a straight dungeon crawl spanning 18 pages. “Straightforward” might, however, not be the correct moniker for the dungeon the PCs are about to explore. Many of the encounters can be solved via more than one way, depending on the skills of the PCs. Only one kind of character won't have too much to do: If you happen to have a social skill monkey/ diplomatic character, you won't have too much for this character to do.
“So”, you're asking, “Endzeitgeist, what makes this adventure special or stand out? What about its atmosphere?” All right, I'm going into minor spoilers there, so potential players, please skip to the next paragraph. The basic idea is somewhat reminiscent of Aztec/Maya myths of a physical road to the underworld, adapted to a fantasy setting. 3rd level and PCs treading the road to the underworld? Yep, however, the dungeon is only modeled after the real road (or what the architects deemed the road to look like) and thus works.
Mechanically, the dungeon is interesting due to several factors that can be ultimately be summed up in one word: Clever. Almost every encounter features interesting environmental factors influencing the combat and rewards PCs for fighting clever and makes good use of these factors. In stark contrast to almost all “Pick-up-and-play”-modules I've read so far, this makes for complex and challenging encounters. And no, the DM is not forced to skip through the rules all the time to look them up: They are all summed up in the respective encounter and feature even tables summing up the modifications of e.g. fighting in the water. The finale is lethal and PCs should have learned to fight intelligently at this point.
With regards to the atmosphere, I'm kind of torn. On the one hand, the adventure can work awesome and build significant tension, if pulled off right by an experienced DM. On the other hand, most of the potential tension comes from encountering stuff like a bone portcullis, red water and the like, i.e. the "blunt force approach". While I personally like and can pull off romps like that, I can see the atmosphere becoming cheesy if the DM does not take care or one of the players starts picking on it. In e.g. direct comparison to Retribution, there is no psychological component or particular involvement on the player's part. Granted, that's not necessary for a dungeon crawl, but it would have been the icing on the cake.
The adventure closes with two optional encounters each taking up a page, one as a complication/sequel/follow-up to the final battle (at least for sadistic DMs like me) and the second one a fairly straight follow-up encounter/interlude.
After that, we get the first appendix, new stuff (4 pages): 3 new demons (all CR 3, nothing to really write home about), 1 new disease, 2 new magic items and a new exotic double-weapon.
One of the best parts of the adventure, though, is the second appendix (10 pages), which contains player's handouts. Several key locations have their very own artwork you can show your players along a part of the map for strategic position and in case they don't get the layout of an area from your description. That's right. Player friendly maps you don't have to cut from your DM-map AND artworks. And yes, no secret compartments on the player maps. Very, very nice. This should be standard in the industry. The 2 new magic items also get their own pictures in this section, so you can easily hand them and their stats over to the players.
The third appendix contains 6 pre-generated PCs. (7 pages)
The editing and formatting is top-notch, the artwork is b/w and, while not absolutely gorgeous, beautiful in its own way. Due to the many artworks in player handouts and their quality, I'd say you get a lot of good art for your money. The writing helps you evoke suspense and the complex encounters can easily be run without having any other book at hand or skipping through the module.
This is a hard one for me. If you'd ask me, which module was superior, I'd immediately, without thinking, reply: Retribution! And then go on to rant why it's so great. However, Road of the Dead does not try to be a sequel and it mostly succeeds at what it does. It's an atmospheric, cool dungeon crawl with an iconic location, clever encounters and intelligently designed environmental hazards. Has it succeeded at its premise, i.e. being a “Pick up & play”-module, with minimum preparation time? Actually yes, it did. I DMed the adventure and only read it an hour before running it and it worked, despite all the environmental factors. For DMs with limited time on their hands, this is a real boon and testament to clever organization and formatting. It was fun, too. Nice. I've played PFS-scenarios that needed MUCH more tweaking and preparation.
However, being the nit-picker that I am, I also have some criticism: Road of the Dead lacks the spark of genius I so enjoyed in Retribution. Even if you don't take into account the genre of the adventure (straight crawl vs. wilderness/mystery/crawl), I felt like something was missing and, after careful consideration, managed to pin it down: Social interaction.
The most suspenseful encounters in Retribution included talking to enemies and overcoming them via skill-challenges/role-playing and the like. In the case of Road of the Dead, your PCs won't have an encounter like that. I don't know whether my group is an aberration, but our diplomat (i.e. social monkey) didn't have too much to do in this adventure and one or two encounters like that would have deepened the immersion of the players. I realize that this criticism may be a bit unfair, as this is supposed to be a traditional crawl. Keep in mind that this is criticism on the highest level.
My final verdict is 4.5 stars. If you're looking for a nice, crunchy crawl that is easy to run, add half a star. If you are one of those guys who want their PCs to talk and negotiate with just about everything, subtract half a star. If you're busy and in need of a good module to pick up and play, be sure to pick Road of the Dead up – the artwork as well as the DM-friendliness is worth your money.
[4 of 5 Stars!]