Tales of Zobeck
By Wolfgang Baur Bill Collins, Tim & Eileen Connors, Ed Greenwood, Jim Groves & Mike McArtor, Ben McFarland, Joshua Stevens, and Dan Voyce
Tales of Zobeck: Adventures in the Free City is Open Design’s first Ennie-winning patron project. The book recently won a Silver for best ebook at the 2009 GenCon Ennie Awards, so Wolfgang Baur, Kobold Extraordinaire, has decided to release the project to the public. Let me just say that this in one well-deserved award, and this ebook should go to the top of your list of purchases. I haven’t written reviews in a while, and I’m still reading through the book, but I was so impressed with what I’ve read so far that I wanted to tell others about it.
As the 114-page ebook’s subtitle indicates, there are adventures within this fine tome. You get eight 3.5 adventures—well, actually, Ed Greenwood’s piece is an adventure location—for 1st- to 6th-level characters in all by such authors as Joshua Stevens, Wolfgang Baur, Ed Greenwood, Ben McFarland, and others. I’m an adventure junkie and a continuing fan of 3.5, so the purchase of this ebook was a no-brainer for me. Luckily, it delivers in spades.
Reviews of adventures are difficult to make without referencing the nature of the adventures, so some SPOILERS may be present. Don’t read any further if you are a player in a Zobeck campaign—just in case your GM wants to take advantage of this supplement.
To keep the review to a manageable size (and time—I’ve got gaming supplements and fiction of my own I should be writing, after all ), I will only be showcasing two of the adventures in this review. This is not to say that the others are not comment-worthy by any means. I’ve read five out of the eight adventures so far, and they are all good. In fact, I may eventually post about those later.
In short, I’m very pleased with my purchase, and the two scenarios I’m expanding my thoughts upon below are the ones that I would run first out of the group that I have read.
“A Plague of Shadows” by Joshua Stevens is geared toward 1st-level characters. The characters find themselves in Zobeck during the height of an unusual, strength-sapping plague that is slowly killing off pockets of the city’s population. One area in particular, the Ashmill distract, is suffering the worst and has been quarantined and placed under martial law. Unfortunately, the PCs begin receiving strange dreams of doom from an imprisoned girl-child that lead them to the plague-stricken district to find answers.
The beauty of this particular adventure for me is the ominous tone it immediately strikes. As GMs, we all know long-time players can be jaded when it comes to plots like rescuing the girl and fighting off monsters to save the day. But toss in a fatal, inexplicable plague and watch that ho-hum attitude evaporate like mist. There’s nothing like an invisible threat they can’t be beaten down with a sword or spell to ramp the players up with immediate worry for their characters’ lives. Cruel but effective, I say.
But, of course, all is not as it may seem…
Other cool features that strike me about “Plague” are the cool introduction hook (the received nightmares of doom from an imprisoned girl), a fun chase scene, and a planar tie-in—I just love stuff dealing with the planes! Still, one of the best features of the adventure is the way it highlights the nature and feel of Zobeck itself. The players get real a glimpse of life (and death) in the city as they make their way through the City’s streets in the quarantined section where their investigation leads; they see the nasty side effects of mercantile disagreements in Zobeck; and they gain the chance to make some contacts with important citizens who can influence their future. Basically, I really like that the adventure encompasses all that is Zobeck. It’s a great beginning scenario to use as a campaign introduction.
I did have a few minor quibbles with the adventure, however. I was aghast at the amounts of treasure (500 to 750 gp each) offered to each 1st-level PC to recover the kidnapped girl. These amounts are fortunes for such tyros. I was expecting something more akin to 50 gp each. Additionally, there were a few DC checks on the near-impossible to impossible level (like DC 20 and 25, respectively) for new characters who would likely have a max bonus of +8 (+4 to the skill and +4 to the modifier if they were lucky enough to have an 18 in the appropriate attribute). At this level, I think DC 15s are more the standard, but that may just be my opinion. These are things any GM can change on the fly, so no big deal.
In “The Madman at the Bridge” for 4th-level characters by Wolfgang Baur, the Puffing Bridge breaks down, causing problems for those needing to cross the river. To make matters worse, whatever has affected the bridge is wreaking havoc on the clockwork men who guard it. The PCs are hired to find and fix the problem.
Baur explains in a sidebar that the adventure was written as a convention scenario. For this reason, it’s more of a series of short, loose scenes that blend into each other. The PCs must face clockwork men, a firebomber, ballista-firing ogres, zombies, hell hounds, a sorcerer, and just an incredible amount of mayhem, on their way to fix the bridge. A useful sidebar helps the GM track the escalating madness in rounds.
What I like about this little scenario is that I can easily envision the fun and silliness that can ensue during play, and this is definitely an adventure that I’ll run. In fact, I can see adding it to my convention toolbox. I also think the scenario would easily adapt to other game systems. I especially LOVE that kobold pre-gens are included for the scenario. Kobolds are a fixture in my home games, and I occasionally have kobold pre-gens for convention or pick-up games myself, so this is just icing on the cake for me!
As I mentioned above, the scenario is written in loose scenes. That really is fine for a convention adventure. However, the scenes are not accompanied by any buildup information, so having read over the scenario a few times now, I still find myself wondering at the bad guy’s motivations. There’s no background section to provide this information, and the summary section is no help there, either; it only hints at scenes to come. I find myself wanting this background and wanting a little more scene buildup—more of an explanation of how the PCs get to one place from the other. It doesn’t help me that the map doesn’t have a direct numbering system connecting back to the scenes. For instance, the PCs are to fight clockworkmen who guard the bridge, which is near the water on the map, but then they are attacked by a firebomber after fighting the clockwork men. On the map, the firebomber’s building not close to the bridge where they fight (though there is a symbol for a clockwork man in front of the building), so it isn’t immediately clear to me how that scene is to take place. In short, the editor in me is crying out for more structure in this piece, while the GM in me is saying the basic foundation is there and the rest is a matter of winging it. Regardless, I’m sure this adventure would be a blast to run. It strikes me as an experience that players would continue to talk about long after the fact.