Today I get to do something I haven’t done for a while, and that’s review an adventure — in this case, The Snake’s Heart from Wild Games Adventures in collaboration with Moebius Adventures.
First, though, a caveat or two (which I also pointed out to the co-author, Fitz, when he offered me a review copy) – the system uses the Swords & Wizardry game system and I know next-to-nothing about those rules except that they are supposed to be “old-school” fantasy. So I’m in no position to critique the implementation of game mechanics; instead, I’ll be looking at the structure, presentation, and internal logic of the adventure.
Overall impressions are that it’s good, with lots of potential, but very incomplete, and uses large fonts to pad the page count unnecessarily. It’s worth the $1.98 US Price Tag that is being asked through RPGNow – but just barely. The sad thing is that it could have been a lot better than that, the seeds and raw potential are all there. A tweak in this place and that, and perhaps another page or two (even at this inflated font size) of content would have made all the difference. The maps are too small and not set up to be printable separately, making them next to useless – each really needs to be on a page on its own so that they can be shown to the PCs (removing markings that give the plot away, of course; those can be retained on the existing small-sized maps so that the GM can mark the larger version appropriately.
These were not as favorable. The cover shows a coiled snake against a toned background – but the area in the center of the coils hasn’t been toned, so it appears to be wrapped around an invisible egg or something. Moreover, the snake is drawn isometrically, ie looking down at an angle – but the ground it is sitting on is drawn as a flat horizon and foreground. As a result, the snake appears to be floating in mid-air with only the near edge touching the ground, and angled at 45° toward the viewer relative to the ground, as though the far end was lifted into the air.
This misrepresents the overall quality of the product, though it does accurately symbolize the flaws in the content. If the flaws that I have signaled were corrected, it would undersell the product. Easily corrected by using additional pseudo horizon lines receding (so that the surface appears as isometric as the snake) and adding tone to the center of the coils.
The “Script” Format
The supplement takes a cue from TV scripts in the way it describes scenes and settings, using a courier-style typewriter font for these sections. Unfortunately, this means that the first piece of content that you see looks clumsy. It’s supposed to be apparently written on an old-style typewriter, but the font is so large and so perfect that the impression that’s supposed to be conveyed is lost.
The actual text for the GM to work with is in a more standard font (still over-sized), and is far more robust and legible as a result. But here, too, there is a problem in typography – certain terms are supposed to stand out as referring to something else, and these have been presented in ALL CAPITALS to draw attention to them. The problem is that every reference to these terms has been given the same treatment:
“The HEROES are the adventurous souls of this day and find themselves riding near the village of Elhann, home to shepherds, gardeners, horsemen, and a few aged warriors. One day these HEROES too may retire to a pastoral life on the plains, but not today.”
As this direct quote shows, not only is this effect jarring, but it’s inconsistently applied, and gets in the way of quick reading without being sufficiently prominent to draw the GM’s eye, enabling him to find what he’s looking for quickly and easily. And shouldn’t the village name be similarly in all-caps?
- The first reference can be in all caps, but subsequent ones should not be.
- Bolding should be used to further make these references stand out.
So, here’s where the good stuff is, right?
Alas… this is where the potentially good stuff can be found, but time and again the mark is narrowly missed. Take that paragraph quoted above, and insert three words before “may retire” and see what a difference it makes:
“The HEROES are the adventurous souls of this day and find themselves riding near the village of ELHANN, home to shepherds, gardeners, horsemen, and a few aged warriors. One day these heroes too may be forced to retire to a pastoral life on the plains, but not today.”
(The above also incorporates the stylistic adjustments I recommended). That minor addition tells you a lot more about the community and its population and the society in back of it. At the same time, it conveys an attitude of adventure and enjoying life while you can to the players, getting them into the right frame of mind for the adventure to follow.
There are also one or two logic holes. Early on, some raiders attack the PCs because they don’t think the PCs can defend themselves adequately, even though there’s one PC for each raider (or vice-versa if you want to get picky). There’s no indication of why they might think that – seeing armed and armored men and women ride up of obvious physical health would convey the opposite impression. To have the (over-)confidence, the raiders should outnumber the PCs by at least 3, and possibly by 100%.
Missed opportunities and plot holes of this sort abound, and its those, more than anything else, that holds this mini-adventure back. I could offer several more examples, but have chosen not to offer spoilers. Because here’s the thing: all of this is easily fixable.
Achieving the Potential
It only takes a few minutes work for the GM who purchases this work to make these minor corrections. In the process, he will also make the adventure more of his own – I might choose one way to fix the problems, while you choose another. And fixing those problems produces a cracking good little adventure, one that’s easily worth the asking price.
The authors could fix these problems their way – and that would be fine. But I’m not sure that reducing the possibilities to one fixed solution would necessarily be better than the individualized result that obtains from letting GMs fix them for themselves.
The Biggest Hole
The biggest hole in the adventure for me comes at the conclusion. Two paragraphs spell out the rewards for success, but only a single paragraph is employed to paraphrase and generalize a description of events should the PCs fail.
That’s not enough. The GM needs a better description of the ultimate enemy as it progresses (I’m again being careful to avoid spoilers), what [pronoun] can do, and – at the very least – some suggestions for how a 13th hour victory can be snatched from the jaws of defeat. I would make use of the Crazy Cultist, who may turn out not be as crazy as he seems… Right now, if the PCs fail, the campaign ends. And that’s not good enough!
This adventure requires a little work from the GM, but the places where that work is required are so obvious on reading it that it’s easy to do. The results, with those changes in place, more than justify the initial purchase. There’s a reason it has five 5-star reviews!
“The Snake’s Heart” is available from RPGNow with a recommended price of US$1.98. Don’t just take my word that it’s worth it, go and check it (and its other reviews) out for yourself!