I have recently had the privilege to read through two adventures from Blackbyrne Publishing – The Hidden Current and The Manor of Deceit. These are the first two adventures in the Dark Veil Campaign Arc, written for Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. I received them as part of a contest the publisher was running as a random drawing among their twitter followers. In case you missed the memo, I like new content, so I was surprised but delighted to receive the adventures.
I received both adventures in print form, though they are also available in PDF. I will be reviewing them together in one article, as I think they benefit from comparison.
Warning: Yarr! There be spoilers ahead!
Story/Setting: The first adventure will take your players from 1st to 3rd level. It’s classic fantasy fair, with bandits, goblins, zombies and even a dragon. You’ll find a standard caravan guard mission that becomes much more, and, of course, everything is not as it seems. The second adventure takes you down river to a larger town to continue the story. Your players end up navigating a decrepit manor, with secret tunnels, more zombies, some pirates, and lizardmen! (Regular readers know I love Lizardmen).
The author makes a point of including multiple reasons why the party may choose, or be coaxed down, the adventure path. These motivations are revisited later in the adventures to keep people from wandering too far or finishing early.
The story really is classic D&D. There’s nothing revolutionary here, which I do not see as a negative. You’ve chosen to play D&D for a reason, so you probably enjoy some classic fantasy tropes. If not, this adventure may not be for you. I don’t want to make the adventure sound boring because it’s not. It’s just not jaw dropping, I don’t believe it!, exciting.
Standard races are mentioned such as humans, elves, and dwarves. Newer races, like deva, or dragonborn are not. If you decided not to continue the adventure path, or are looking for an adventure to add to your current world, adapting this will likely be easy.
Layout: Two columns, with decent sized text makes up most of the books. NPCs are fluff, with no stats unless intended to be fought. Each encounter area has read aloud text, a description, tactics, illumination, terrain, tactics and notes on how to scale encounters, up or down. Oh, and did I mention full color maps?
The maps are easily what makes this product stand out over the rest I’ve seen. The author used Campaign Cartographer to map out his encounters. You get a mini map as reference in each encounters notes. However in the back of the book, taking up about half the pages in each adventure, you’ll find all the maps printed to scale. Simple copy (or tear them like me) and match them up on the table. No drawing required. The maps are reasonably reusable too, if you take decent care of them.
The other neat feature is that nearly all of the monsters have stat blocks in their own section, separate from the encounters. At first, I did not like this, because it meant I was flipping back and forth allot between the sections. However, in combat, that sheet is getting ripped right out for quick reference. There’s even a little initiative tracker at the bottom of each page.
There are some issues with editing, such as a missing or misplaced word, or an extra period, but they are minor.
Art: The art for the NPCs in the first adventure is distractingly low quality. I’m not trying to be mean, but they appear to be quick sketches that never got a second pass. I would have rather that there was no art, instead of art at that level. The rest of the art however was fine. It was simple, black and white, and of a consistent quality that reminded me of older products. Again, nothing awe inspiring, but pretty good. At the end of the day, I’m not buying any adventure for the art. So average is probably the best for the price range.
Encounters: Encounters were my largest issue with the first book. All the stats are new monsters presented in the adventure. They get reused a great deal. Anyone out there that runs this adventure, I highly recommend grabbing your Monster Vault and mixing up your goblins and bandits a little bit. I feel like my players would get bored fast. There is slightly more variation in the second adventure, that makes this far less of an issue.
In the first adventure, I also found that the description of terrain would often seem to contradict the given map. It would say the camp is clear, when there are clearly tents, and give no notes on how to handle the tents. This, again, happened rarely, if ever, in the 2nd adventure.
My final problem with the encounters are some questionable choices in the monster stat blocks. Some things feel like they were not thought all the way through, or possibly not marked correctly. An example from the first book, has Anvil Bloodbeard with two Melee Basic Attacks. One is completely useless in comparison to the other: it does less damage, it has no status rider, and the creature has no power that triggers it, or allows him to use both. In the second book one of the Lizardfolk has a rechargeable ability that allows it to attack again on a hit. This additional attack deals 1 damage with no other effect. Considering it has to recharge, then hit, it hardly seems worth describing.
Despite the listed issues, the encounters were for the most part quite useable, and often contained something more than just another fight to get to the end.
Wrapping Things Up
The Good: Classic fantasy, that’s easy to run, with free reusable maps.
The Bad: Some art is quite poor for a paid product. Some issues with repetitive monsters, confusing stats and map terrain descriptions.
The Meh: There’s a lot I could buy with twenty dollars. I’m curious how much cheaper it would be if those maps were black and white. Classic fantasy is also easy to produce if that’s your thing. Nothing here is really new. If you have time to do it yourself, this may not be too useful to you.
Overall: C+. I could use this, and I don’t normally use published adventures. The maps alone may be worth half the price, since it’s already printed to scale. The again, its nothing revolutionary and there are some problems to work around.
The Adventure’s are available from Drivethru RPG. They cost 19.99 for print, or 11.90 for PDF. As of this writing they were on sale, so check it out fast. The author has also recently funded his campaign, Age of Lords, via kickstarter. There is still time left to fund the project even more, and get a first printing you must act fast.