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Dungeon Crawl Classics: Saga of the Witch Queen
[GMGGC07]

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The following review was written by Matt Finch (a/k/a "mythmere") and posted on the Knights & Knaves Alehouse website (as well as a few other relevent websites). Matt has no affiliation with Goodman Games, nor with myself. This review was solicited by me, as one of the co-authors and editors of this product. Matt received a comp copy of this product to be able to do this review, for which I paid out of my own pocket. Matt's review is reposted here, unedited, and with his express permission.

Jon Hershberger
September 26, 2007

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I also posted this review on DF, ENworld and Gamingreport, so you might see it elsewhere. But hell, I spent a lot of time on it, so I might as well post it wherever there are reviews. Bottom line: this is actually a really good module, even though a lot of it is converted from 3e.

Writing the review made me feel a bit guilty that I haven't reviewed Semaj's two XRP modules, but I'm still hoping to play in those (so I haven't read them). If that hope evaporates, I'll also cover James' modules.

Saga of the Witch Queen by Harley Stroh with Jon Hershberger (Goodman Games Special 1e Gencon 2007 edition), 80 pages, perfect-bound softcover. This review contains spoilers.

Quick Preamble: Jon Hershberger approached me just before GenCon 2007 to write an independent review of Saga of the Witch Queen. Jon did all the 3e-to-1e conversion for the modules, and co-wrote the middle adventure with Harley Stroh. I don’t have any affiliation with Goodman Games whatsoever, and I barely know Jon – so this review is as independent as it gets. Not only that, but Jon certainly didn’t pick me because I’d be predisposed or even likely to give the module a good grade. He knows I believe 3e and 1e are so different that a well-written module for one system is, unless it’s almost rewritten, going to be a failure for the other system. Obviously, Jon was very confident his conversion, and the underlying quality of the original 3e module, was good enough to impress a tough audience. Almost across the board, it turns out he was right.

This is not a playtest review, only because my group is too low level and doesn’t meet often enough for me to suggest breaking the campaign stride for a playtesting session. When my group gets to the right level, this adventure is definitely going to be out there for them to find.

Overview:
The module is 80 pages long, and includes three adventures themed around the party’s pursuit of Kyleth the Witch Queen. The three scenarios (Legacy of the Savage Kings, Lost Passage of the Drow, and War of the Witch Queen) are eminently usable as stand-alone adventures. In fact, the only thing connecting them is the villain, who appears in the first and third modules, engaged in two completely different types of villainy. At first blush, that seemed strange to me, but then I realized something very key about this series.

It is NOT a single adventure with three parts, intended to follow one upon the other. Instead it’s a tool for managing the party’s interaction with a recurring villain – the three parts of the module can, and are expected to, occur with several other unrelated adventures taking place in between. Kyleth begins as sort of a bush-league bad guy in the first adventure. She’s shacked up with a stronger bad guy and following her own agenda behind his back. When the players break up the scheme, she cuts and runs from the whole situation. The party moves on to other adventures, and she makes it into the villain major league with a completely new set of objectives and methods, far from her old stomping ground. When the party eventually gets back on her trail, probably many adventures later, they’re facing an old enemy with a new bag of tricks and a new lair. The three adventures in this book are cards for the GM to play out slowly and only when the time is right, not a one-two-three sequence. For this alone, the Saga of the Witch Queen is quite a unique product.

Overall Conclusions:
This product is well worth the price and more: the first adventure, Legacy of the Savage Kings, is in my opinion as good as the old classics of the G and D series. It is truly a masterful piece of adventure writing, and I don’t say that lightly. The second two adventures of the series are good, solid, creative old-school adventures, well worth getting. In the details below, I point out a few quibbles -- but it’s important to realize that these are very minor in terms of the overall quality of the modules. I’d likely have the same number of “complaints” reviewing any of my favorite modules from the old days, too. Nothing’s absolutely perfect in every way.

Mr. Hershberger has done a fantastic job of converting the first and third modules from 3e to 1e; his conversion is not just a matter of replacing numbers and stats and die rolls with the closest equivalent. He has actually gone through and changed the module to fit the system – for example, many die rolls have been replaced with clues and conditions under which the players themselves, rather than their dice, can glean information or affect what happens.

One very important note: All three adventures are for very experienced players; those who aren’t alert and on the lookout for danger signs will get pasted.

Writing, Maps, and Organization:
The book’s inside cover is a TSR-style blue and white map for Legacy of the Savage Kings, the first adventure in the Saga. Maps for the Lost Passage of the Drow and War of the Witch Queen are in the book itself, in black and white. It’s a little inconvenient having to page around for the maps, but since it probably would have tripled the cost of the module to make detached maps I’m happy to fix the difficulty with five minutes at a copy machine.
Each module contains a table at the front listing challenges by nature: you get a snapshot of where the puzzles, traps, and combat encounters are found. A nice touch; not as useful as a combat roster, but helpful.

Each room has “boxed text,” which is actually in italics rather than a box, giving the GM a canned description of the room to read to players. As a general rule, I think this is a good feature when the descriptions are short, and a disaster if the module’s author overestimates the insect-like attention span of the average player for listening to long descriptions. Stroh and Hershberger keep the descriptions short, and the method works well here. A nice plus.

The presentation of “game facts” such as monster stats, trap details, etc. are kept separate from other text, allowing quick reference. This is a good tool for running an adventure, but it detracts from the quality of the initial reading. I ended up skipping around in the text before I got a good picture of what was happening. This is one area in which the 3e skeleton of the module still shows beneath the 1e flesh; the stat blocks are too long and too standardized. The feel of the module keeps getting interrupted with technical game-jargon: not that this isn’t the case with any game module, but 1e information can be compressed into much shorter descriptions than is done here. If I have one real criticism of the Saga, it’s that the game jargon and stat blocks are larger and more standardized than necessary. Example (from page 37): “Glyph of Warding (electrical damage): spell; spell trigger; no reset; spell effect (glyph of warding [electrical damage], 16th-level cleric, 32 points of damage, save vs. spell for half-damage); multiple targets (all targets within 5 ft.).” Could have been: “Glyph of Warding: the glyph delivers 32 points of electrical damage to all within 5ft (cast as a 16th level cleric), with a saving throw applicable for half damage. The glyph only functions once.” The second example (written by me) is quicker and more to the point, not breaking the narrative flow with excessive jargon. That’s a stylistic matter, but it is important for the GM to enjoy reading the module for the first time, to get caught up in it as a work of fantasy as well as a game resource with stats and numbers. What the GM reads, the images called up for him by the narrative, these are vitally important to the module’s success much later at the gaming table. A module has to fire the GM’s imagination for him to fire the players’ imaginations weeks later at the gaming session. Excessive stat blocking and jargon get in the way of this all-important first read. Saga of the Witch Queen is much, much better than a 3e module in this respect, but I still found it a bit intrusive. Keep in mind: the overall quality of the module is easily high enough to overcome this barrier to its readability, and the way it’s done might actually improve playability slightly. This is just a comment designed to tell the reader what to expect.

I’d be remiss if I left out mention of the fact that the first two modules contain some truly excellent ideas for expanding the modules into related adventures. In this regard, Stroh and Hershberger have actually done a far better job than TSR ever did (with the one exception of the Underdark setting described in TSR’s D1-3, which was obviously the most prolifically spun-off campaign idea of all time).

Artwork: The interior artwork is black and white pen and ink, just like the old TSR modules. The quality is excellent, and the art is evocative. There are several illustrations for the GM to show the players. The interior artists are Ian Armstrong, Jim Holloway, Doug Kovacs, Brad McDevitt, Jesse Mohn, Stefan Poag, and William McAusland.

The Modules Individually:

Legacy of the Savage Kings:

This first part of the Saga fills 32 pages, including a fortress, a series of linked swamp islands, a tomb, a roving dragon, and even a mad hermit. There are several possible “missions” that could bring the party into the area and into conflict with the monsters – the GM won’t have any trouble choosing or inventing a good hook to draw the players in. The backstory is creative, and does what a backstory should: it gives the players something to discover, gives the GM the information he needs to run the monsters if the players do something really unexpected, and spawns lots of possible “side” adventures and sequels. In a nutshell: the skull of an ancient demon is hidden away in a lost tomb, tainting the very earth of the surrounding marsh with evil. Kyleth the Witch Queen is mining the tainted metal and turning it into fell weaponry, glaives and scimitars for the legions of her lover-of-convenience, the Mountain King of the orcs. (The Mountain King himself sounds like a cool opponent, and there’s an almost automatic expansion of the adventure right there). If that’s not enough, the tomb is working on bringing its inhabitants back to life, but things have gone wrong; entering the tomb puts the party right into the nexus of some powerful magic that’s ready to go off on a hair trigger.

The writing is excellent, and the imagery powerful: “A thick fog hangs heavily over the chill swamp, turning the sun into a weak, red glow. Dead trees loom like skeletons in the mist, and everywhere is the stench of rot and death.” These are the first two sentences of the starting intro, which runs seven sentences long. Are you hooked? I am. Especially when a dead rider emerges from the mist, dragged by his horse from the scene of a nearby slaughter.

Quality of the Adventure:
I look for a couple of things in an adventure scenario: the players have to have lots of freedom to approach the problem in different ways: stealthy reconnaissance, taking prisoners to gain information, holding off temporarily to gain some advantage, infiltrating the enemy in disguise or under false pretenses, using a particular battle strategy, attacking from an unexpected direction, etc. For this to work, an adventure has to provide a map with lots of freedom of movement and a backstory that’s well constructed. The swamp and fortress portions of Legacy of the Savage Kings are almost a textbook example of how to do this right.

The backstory explains everyone’s motives without trying to write a novel in the process and without trying to give the GM every last detail about every event that’s going to happen. You’ve got one bad guy (Kyleth) with two intelligent minions who don’t have an agenda of their own. Outside the area, there’s another bad guy who periodically sends caravans in and out. There’s also a rogue dragon and some lizard men in the tomb. If the players do something unexpected, it’s easy for the GM to figure out how these folks will all react when faced with unexpected circumstances.

The tomb portion of the adventure isn’t quite as wide-open as the swamp and fortress areas; there’s only one pathway through it. This would be a problem for me if the tomb comprised the entire adventure, but it’s only a part of the picture. The tomb’s linear map actually gives it a nice, claustrophobic feel that works well for a tomb. The only minor problem with the way the tomb is written; there’s a good chance that something really cool is going to happen in there – and the author desperately wants the adventurers to see it happen. I don’t like it when a module’s author pushes the GM to “arrange” things for dramatic impact. It’s a pet peeve of mine. To my mind, a module should be written as a fair game, without crossing the line into deus ex machina or how to use it. When a module becomes stage direction instead of setting, it turns me off a great deal. That isn’t to say that I don’t use deus ex machina powers to improve the dramatic potential of a situation; I do. But it seems cheap and rigged to me when it’s written into the module itself. Fortunately, the events in the tomb don’t rely on the GM’s “fudge the situation” powers – the author just suggests that the GM do this or that. It’s just a minor and unfortunate breaking of wind at the tea party. The first module I ever published (a 3e module called The Goblin Fair) was actually much worse in this regard (especially once it was edited), so I’m definitely not one to throw stones. Rest assured, though, that the events in the tomb don’t actually require GM fudging; the author only suggests that the module’s improved if the party is there to see it. And that’s true, and I’d likely fudge things a bit in exactly the way the module suggests. I just don’t like reading that kind of advice in the module itself. So, it’s a minor point that annoyed me for a moment while reading, but doesn’t affect the module itself.

Other than that minor problem, Legacy of the Savage Kings is an excellent module, comparable to the TSR greats. Frankly, it’s worth buying for this module alone.


The Lost Passage of the Drow

This module occupies 16 pages of text and two interior pages of maps. The party ventures underground in an attempt to get through the sealed portal where certain clans of proto-drow were exiled to the depths of the earth. Getting through the portal will transport the party close to the Witch-Queen’s new lair, but the drow (and traps) are in the way.

This module has a very “underdark” feel to it, similar to the TSR D1-D3 modules. If you like the underdark and drow, this adventure is going to be a home run. If, like me, you’re sick of Drow, this adventure is excellent but needs your work to un-drowify it. Fortunately, that’s quite possible. Even if you hate drow, the quality of the “dungeon” makes it worth the effort to tinker.

The writing quality and the imagery it presents are both excellent. Giant brass doors with built-in flaming sconces blocking off huge tunnels under the earth, a long bridge of stairs built to span islands of massive stalagmites rising from an underground lake – the adventure’s setting is evocative and the writing puts you right into it.

Quality of the Adventure

As I mentioned in the review of Legacy of the Savage Kings, I judge an adventure heavily on the number of options available for the players to use their creativity in discovering, planning for, and attacking the challenges of the module. In general, this means a map with several pathways, and the ability to gain useful information from clues or reconnaissance. Lost Passage of the Drow does a medium-good job with the map, and a good (but not superior) job in terms of useful information. In short, there are two pathways through the map, one of which is probably lethal. Reconnaissance and clue-finding are good things, in that they prevent the party from going the wrong way. The map isn’t masterpiece status, which would provide more than one pathway in which there are pluses and minuses to different routes. So: the map is a good, solid design – not a masterpiece of adventure design, but better than many modules out there.

The players face a good mix of challenges in this adventure; there are several hints and clues, a very deadly trap, a couple of opportunities for negotiating a way out of combat, and a combat that takes place in a great tactical and dramatic environment. Although there’s combat involved, you’re going to have to be paranoid and quick-witted to get through this adventure with all the party members still alive. I don’t recommend it for beginners or whiners. Since it’s a bridging adventure, I think I’d make a couple of things less potentially lethal (there’s a possible long fall and a deadly trap). That’s just tinkering, though.

Other Comments Based on my Personal Dislike of Drow
In the grand scheme of the Saga itself, there’s no compelling reason to use drow for this bridging adventure. People either love drow or are sick of them (I think pretty much everyone loved drow at the beginning – dark elves sit right there in the collective unconscious – but many people including myself overused them so much that they seem uncreative). Does that kill this adventure? Not really. What you’ve got here is a set of stats and a dungeon built to imprison a bunch of exiles. Just invent any pre-human race or horrid reason for exile and change the description of the drow into your new underground outcasts – don’t even bother changing the stats. All that’s required is that the evil outcasts were divided into clans or groups of some kind (clan names play a role in the traps and such). You can quickly assemble an adventure that’s far more Clark Ashton Smith than J.R.R. Tolkien in feel; it just needs a tad of work.

War of the Witch Queen

War of the Witch Queen is 16 pages long, plus 3 pages of maps.

Once again, we start in a dismal locale (a sulfurous sinkhole) with limited visibility, and we get from there into an extra-dimensional place that’s frightening and bizarre. There are shades of Planescape, Tomb of Horrors, and The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga rolled together in some of the imagery. Basically, Kyleth the Witch Queen has taken one of thirteen spots in a very powerful, nation-spanning coven of magic users, occupying the lair of her defeated opponent. We don’t know what kind of evil plots she’s working on at the moment – that part of the backstory is left to the GM to dream up. I would have liked a bit more on this, because “discovering” the evil plot bit by bit always adds depth to the players’ appreciation of an adventure. The, “Aha, so that’s it,” moments are good gaming, even if they don’t affect the outcome of the scenario at all.

The quality of writing remains excellent in this module. The imagery and setting are also great. The dismal desolation of the approach sets the scene well, and the atmosphere shifts toward the Frankenstein-ish and the bizarre once the party enters the extra-planar holt of the Witch Queen’s true lair.

Quality of the Adventure

First off, Mr. Stroh uses a device that you might love or hate. I dislike it (I think it’s a bit gimmicky), but I think many GMs will think it’s a nice touch. There’s a fortuneteller in the scenario, dealing out information with a set of cards you photocopy, and the result of the fortune telling determines where the “key item” is located. The fortune telling also gives the characters random benefits or penalties, which is fine; I just don’t see the point of putting the key item into one of three different places in the module. Who cares that the GM gets a bit of unpredictability in the way the module plays out – “Surprise, it’s in location 3.” That’s a minus, not a plus, as far as I’m concerned. As a GM, I like to just know the answer. However, and here’s an important point – you can also just rig the results of the fortune-telling and pick the item’s location. This actually gives you three different configurations for the module, allowing you to choose the one you like without doing any rewriting.

As mentioned above, I gauge quality based on the number of tactical options available to the players. The pathway through this dungeon is not entirely linear, but the players are pretty much forced to go through it in one-two-three sequence. It’s got the same underlying structure as Lost Passage of the Drow; there’s a wrong-way switchback, but you probably can’t scout it, it’s very dangerous, and using it gives you very little benefit. In other words, it’s more of a feature than an option. There is, however, one very nice aspect to the adventure’s flowchart – once you’ve got what you need, you have to backtrack a bit to use it properly. So, the flowchart for the adventure is well crafted even if it’s not a complete masterpiece of design.

The Witch Queen’s lair is very small in terms of keyed areas, and there’s not much going on. A Cthulhoid monster (very cool) lurking about, a medusa who’s experimenting with grafting body parts of victims together (rather banal), and quasits maintaining wards that keep a devil from escaping (a nice touch, very creative). The scope and scale of it, though, just doesn’t scream “powerful evil villain” to me. I think it would have been awfully more satisfying to have hordes of minions dying under the characters’ blades as the adventurers mow their way through to the final encounter. They should find ominous evidence of foul machinations, dreadful devices, portents, and communications with the outside world signifying the Witch Queen’s power and influence – even if these have no particular bearing on the adventure’s success or failure at the moment. In this adventure, even though the Witch Queen is personally very powerful, her epic final battle is fought in a small place, almost alone. That feels more than a little anticlimactic to me, even though it’s going to be a tough head-to-head fight.

Despite its flaws, this is a good adventure for what it is. It could just be so much more, and in the hands of a willing tinkerer, of course, it can be fixed. I think the reason it’s so small in feel is that it’s a high-level adventure written originally for 3e, and those move very slowly. Adding hordes of minor demons, flavorful details in empty rooms, and communications with other villains in the outside world would slow this down to a crawl under the 3e rules. Not so for 1e, of course; horde-combat is easy, and we LIKE to investigate all the random junk villains keep in their dungeons. The core of the adventure is very creative; if you’re in the mood to build it into what it deserves to be, you’ve got a good start with this scenario. As it stands, I think it’s a bit of a disservice to a good arch-villain – Kyleth deserves to go out in a blaze of evil glory, not to be dispatched like a cornered ferret in a small hole.

CONCLUSIONS:

This product is worth every penny, and Legacy of the Savage Kings is a classic-quality masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. The other two adventures are very good and can be improved to excellent with minimal work. If you cherry-pick modules for pieces to use in your own homebrew adventures, all three of the modules in this book contain ample creative sparks. Across the board, the settings are evocative, the challenges creative, and the writing excellent. There are a few glitches here and there, as I’ve described, but these are minor in terms of the overall quality of the product.

Five stars.
Date Added: 09/27/2007 by Jon Hershberger
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