Wednesday, May 5, 2021

[REVIEW] The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford (Low-Level Adventure Module)

 Here's one recipe for really good 'vanilla D&D': start with a cup of essence-of-Gygax. Now, add two heaping tablespoons of fairy tale - not the cheap Disney stuff, of course; I mean the older-fashioned, top-shelf, Brothers Grimm/Hans Christian Andersen material. Next, stir in one teaspoon of the Nibelungenlied or the Volsunga Saga. Finally, garnish liberally with player agency. Voila - you've got yourself multiple servings of an excellent ingredient for your RPG campaign. 

That 'recipe' also evokes the influences that came to mind as I read The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford, Chance Dudinack's excellent low-level adventure module (available as a 19-page .pdf for $4.00 USD on DTRPG). [Please note: all DTRPG links in this post are affiliate links, which help support this blog but add no additional cost for you].

I came across this hidden gem on DTRPG and was so impressed by the 8-page preview material that I wrote to Chance, offering to exchange a fair and honest assessment here on the blog for a review copy. I'm glad I did - Black Wyrm offers a really excellent tiny sandbox for beginner or low-level parties. It's chock full of genuinely interesting opportunities for interaction with NPCs and the environment. The details here are clever and fun and meaningful. There's a fair bit of danger here, too, especially for low-level PCs. Adventurers who show up and immediately try to fight everything in sight will probably be killed, mutilated, and transformed into donkeys (perhaps in that order). On the other hand, characters who at least try to talk to everything that moves will unlock incredible stories and possibilities for wide-open adventure. Despite that openness, the whole thing would fit comfortably within a single forested six-mile map hex - making the flavorful Black Wyrm an easy addition to most campaigns, and a really excellent launching-point to fill several sessions at a campaign's beginning. 

Now, this isn't a perfect adventure, by any means; I'll offer some critiques as well as praise below. But the (things I consider) mis-steps are not hard to fix, and the potential here is quite good. The closest extant adventure to which I'd readily compare this little-known module is the seemingly ubiquitous Winter's Daughter. With all due props to that triumph of layout/organization - and although this may sound like heresy to the average OSR fan - I'm much more excited about the idea of running Black Wyrm than Winter's Daughter, even though tonally the two could fit quite easily in the same campaign. Yeah, folks, I'm serious. This is a really good starter module. 

But the proof's in the pudding, so let's talk details. 

Please note - from this point on, SPOILERS WILL BE EVERYWHERE. 


As seen from satellite view, this is just a little micro-regional sandbox with a dungeon, a goblin lair, some other interesting sites, and a central monster. The module's title suggests that this is an adventure about a dragon problem. That's correct - sort of - but it also oversimplifies what's going on; killing the pesky dragon is only one possible end-state for the entwined goings-on at work here, and there are different ways to pursue even that goal. 

The whole adventure takes place in the little settlement of Brandonsford, and in the fey-haunted woods to its north. Brandonsford is described as a small town - it has two rival taverns described (and a reeve, an alchemist, a smith, a priest, a general store clerk, a hunter, and a farmer to boot) - but it feels more like a village (or even a hamlet) according to its description and context. There's no town map to settle the issue, however; if you run this, you might grab a free village map off Dyson's Dodecahedron to get you sorted. In place of a map, we do gain a wonderfully intricate web of social connections, suspicions, and adventure hooks across the community. There may be more residents living in 'town' than those listed above, but the ones listed are all connected in some useful way to one another and/or to mysterious contacts out in the forest. I mentioned two rival taverns, for example: one is a fairly straightforward place to drink ale, rent a room, and recruit hirelings (the four potential hirelings are described as more than just names and stat-lines: they have individualized descriptions like "Gentle face, freckled, one red curl hangs out of her coif. Generally patient and well-meaning, but in combat her fight-or-flight kicks in. Usually fight, with lots of threats and screaming"). The other tavern is a much less appealing place to spend time - partly because cost-saving measures are in place thanks to a spate of nighttime alcohol thefts from the basement. The proprietor is certain that the rival tavern-keeper is stealing from him, but if the PCs accept a stake-out job, they'll discover that a thirsty Fey ale-bibber from the forest is the nightly intruder. That encounter has the potential to feed the party clues leading to a buried treasure and a goblin king's court in the woods. But this is only one of many "node-mapped" ways to gain clues. 

All sorts of shenanigans are happening in the background. The smith is terrified that he's being haunted at night by a fairy, but that visitation is actually something else entirely - and investigating that little mystery can indirectly point the PCs out of 'town' to helpful company in the woods, as well. The general store clerk (ah, there's a very American D&D concept!) will complain about supply problems thanks to a dragon raiding wagons on the forest road; the reeve may hire the PCs to hunt down the dragon, and he'll put the party in touch with an eyewitness of the beast's predations - but the reeve also lets on that a witch in the woods is really the one causing trouble for Brandonsford (another villager knows said witch, and has a very different take on her activities). Everyone has an opinion about what's going on, and everyone can point the PCs to somebody else who can tell them a little bit more, or hire them to do something about it - just not the same something. There are no linear paths to tread or required actions for the party to fulfill, just a tense community of worried people who all want action but who all disagree about the solutions needed. This is a node-based adventure that insists that there are no right or wrong ways to move around the node-network, and the network might even lead to different goals. 

Yes, there is a dragon - well, again, sort of; he was a dwarven miner whose greed led him to kill his brothers rather than share a treasure - and then his evil greed turned him into a black dragon (5 points to Gryffindor if you can name the medieval literary inspiration there...). Now he's causing all manner of trouble in the neighborhood, but he's much too strong for a low-level party to just go slay. One line of investigation might lead to an old burial mound, said to contain a knight's magic sword used to kill another dragon centuries ago. Another approach might lead to a forest glade in which cavorting fauns drink the intoxicating wine shed from a magical tree, a drink that might just put the dragon to sleep...and the fauns will trade their stuff, but only for objects of real sentimental value - not for coin. The party might encounter goblin scavengers who can lead them to their Goblin King - who has his own (sinister) plans for the dragon, and can ally with the party to help them secure the beast. There's an angry giant to watch out for, a witch in the woods who might become a helpful ally or a terrifying foe, and a ruined dwarven mine haunted by ghosts who could be very informative indeed. There are also random encounters, with separate tables for things encountered in the forest or along a riverbank. These are more than "you meet 1d6 stirges" -  they offer flavorful little vignettes, tied together in a coherent ecosystem. The random encounters also bring along information to point the players toward different fixed encounter nodes, but without being heavy-handed or required. 

Just to offer one notable example of how flexible and open-ended this all is, the material on the Goblin King includes stats for fighting him and his retainers - but it also describes the terms he'll offer for working together. The Goblin King is really an awesomely evocative quest-giver. 

"Hogboon wants the PCs to find the dragon who lives in the forest, capture it, and bring it back to him alive. He keeps his reasons secret but offers the party the opportunity to become knights of the goblin kingdom if they do the job.

Nice. Suddenly I'm getting flashbacks to David Bowie and Labyrinth. And although King Hogboon sounds a bit like a self-important idiot, he suggests drugging or trapping the dragon - and he'll provide a magical rope to aid in transporting the beast once captured. Then:

 "If the party brings back the dragon: Hogboon grants them knighthood, along with a goblin squire to use as a personal mule and/or guinea pig.

No, your players wouldn't enjoy that either, would they? 

But on the other hand: 

"Hogboon plans to use the dragon to complete his takeover of the woods by charming it to obey him. Using the dragon, Hogboon will move to destroy Brandonsford and drive the other fairies out of the wood.

Other fairies? Oh yes. When I first read about the Goblin King, I thought it was an odd oversight that he's described as "a boar-headed man dressed in a dashing nobleman's frock." Wait...are you saying he's a male goblin, or he's...a man? Well, guess what happens if a PC kills Hogboon, and takes his magic ring? 

"If you kill the wearer of this ring and take it as your own, you become the new Goblin King. Goblins from Faerie will obey you unquestioningly. While you have the ring, you will be hunted by the agents of power-hungry fairies who want the ring for themselves." 

I mean: wow. This adventure hands really interesting hooks to GMs and players, and not all of those hooks require PCs to be shiny heroes - or just tomb-robbers, either. (To be clear, I'm sure none of your players would serve/support/become the Goblin King on his quest for local dominance, but...well, you see, my players are a different story...). 

The other thing I want to highlight here is the overall cohesion of the different puzzle-pieces in the adventure. Remember how I noted I was initially confused at the description of the Goblin King? In light of his ring, it looks like he may actually be a human, who usurped the Goblin Throne at some point. Little things like that tend to add up and make sense in the module. Near the Goblin King's seat is a buried treasure. The goblins don't know about it (it belongs to the fey tavern-basement-raider) but astute players may wonder why a 5'-wide patch of clover is "somehow a more vibrant shade of green than the other plants here" (IRL, filled-in wells or pits sometimes can be detected because of the extra-lush vegetation growing atop these sumps). 

What I'm trying to convey is that this is much more than a module about finding and killing a dragon. It's about all kinds of different things - each one genuinely interesting and interactive, and none specifically required as the 'right way' to beat the module. The content is regularly creative and fun, evoking whimsical and old-fashioned ideas in fantasy but capable of being dialed anywhere from RPG-for-kids to really-really-dark. 


Ok, now for the not-as-great stuff. 

I've already noted that a village/town map is missed. In general, the maps of specific sites here are adequately functional, but disappointing. Sometimes this involves information transfer, not just aesthetic preference. For example, the map of the Goblin Castle - actually a ruined ancient shrine - is confusingly over-simple:

It offers six different sub-encounters or areas within or around this structure. The individual descriptions are interesting (and quite, quite fun!). But there's no scale here, and I can't tell whether we're supposed to assume that when dealing with the 3 goblins making a mud-and-stone effigy of their King at point #2, the party is being watched intently by the goblins at other points. Is this basically one big encounter-in-a-throne-room with NPCs around the edges of the room, or is this a series of possible encounters in a massive hall or even in separate sub-chambers? 

I had a similar problem 'reading' the map in the old knight's Barrow Mound. On the whole, it's a very functional (and pleasingly non-linear) map, but there are two rooms in the mound's lower level that aren't described in quite enough detail to run without some initial head-scratching (I'll talk a bit more about that dungeon, below). 

The adventure is advertised as suitable for 4-8 PCs of levels 1-3. That's a sizable party (with good OSR street cred, especially if hirelings are brought along), but many people seem not to run groups of quite that size these days. A smaller party, especially at level 1, needs to be very, very careful fighting some of the enemies in here - especially the Black Wyrm itself. As already noted, the module provides several paths to treat combat as war here, but GMs should think carefully about massaging the stats to match the party they're running this for. Or, you know, just smile as your players roll up new characters. 

In its current format, this isn't a module to pick up and try to run without reading from cover to cover. Happily, reading the whole thing doesn't take much time! Most of the module is cleanly laid out and quick to read, but there are some places where the module's organization doesn't support its internal coherence as well as possible. The module notes that the party might work with or fight against Vivian, the Witch of the Wood. Unfortunately, I couldn't find stats for Vivian, or for her attendant pixies! There are a few spots that really would benefit from additional cross-referencing: page 12, describing the Goblin King, might direct the GM to check page 18, the list of magical items (including a more detailed description of Hogboon's ring). As page 10 notes, the party might free a captured monk tied up in a sack at a giant's house (if freed, the monk loudly thanks the party...but the giant is sleeping lightly nearby...). It would be helpful here to remind the GM that this particular monk had been sent by his superior on a mission to steal a magical sword from the barrow to the north, a mission that Brother Dirk may want help with - as described earlier, on page 6. Little things like this pose no problem if the GM has read everything recently, but small notations could enhance the ease-of-use at the table. 

The map for the region is nice (see above). The module's random encounter tables and map combined do provide a basic way to measure encounter frequency: basically, 2-in-6 chance per mile traveled, equalling each 2" of movement on the map. But those measurements roughly align with the distances between the different adventure nodes across the forest, anyway. I'd just convert the map into a point-crawl by drawing paths between nodes, and roll for a random encounter once on each trip between nodes. 


I wanted to set aside some comments about the Knight's Barrow, the larger dungeon area included in the module. I think this dungeon has lots of potential, but I also found it the weakest part of the module. Happily, it's not a required stop in any way - there's some useful loot here, but a GM could even omit this tomb or replace with another preferred small dungeon without doing harm to the adventure as a whole. To be clear, however, the Barrow has some really cool features and could be very fun - it just didn't seem as strong as the open-ended sandbox outside. 

First, some technical/functional critiques: 

The dungeon's Lower Level includes two really interesting undead wandering encounters. Given how 'talkative' most of this module is, I would have appreciated a bit more guidance on the intended hostility/aggression of these ghosts. The standard reaction table can do in a pinch, but I suspect there's a bit of creative vision here not being made explicit. 

Down on Level 2, Room 14 has a fun and potentially quite 'tactical' encounter with a ghost who animates statues to charge into intruders. The description includes the note that "Nine statues are placed in the otherwise bare room: ranks of stone warriors standing at attention." The ghost in the room can "command a statue to charge in a straight line, weapon out. 1d8 damage, save for half, statue shatters on impact with a wall." This is a very interesting encounter, and I bet the author has a very clear mental image of how it all works, but I don't! This is a complex-enough encounter that the room needs a more detailed map, or more information. How many ranks are there? 3 ranks of 3 statues, I presume...are they all facing in the same direction? If so, the ghost's tactic loses some efficacy. Are the statues' ranks serried, so that a charging statue won't run into the back of another statue, or are they all lined up nice and evenly and in each others' way? Just a bit more detail fleshing out relative positions on the map would help a lot here. 

The map shows a secret passage connecting Rooms 10 and 19 on the lower level. The text doesn't describe it - I think - which is a pretty normal failing of OSR dungeon descriptions. In this case, there's room for confusion, because the description for Room 19 includes a statue of a noblewoman "in the center of the room ... flush with the wall behind her is a closed stone door." There is a cool little puzzle here requiring the PCs to interact with the magical statue in order to avoid being attacked by it "if anyone attempts to open the door." Um, the door visible on the map leading south, or the secret door leading to a secret passage on the wall opposite? Again, the author clearly knows what is going on here - I am almost certain that 'the door' refers to the main double doors leading south into the Knight's crypt - but just a bit more detail, ideally in a map, would make life much easier for a busy GM.

My last critique of the Knight's Barrow is simply that its potential narrative interconnections with the rest of the module seem underdeveloped. There's a lot of cool stuff in the barrow - including a sacred knight at rest, while his former companions now wander the halls of his tomb, undead! The module doesn't explain why. On the one hand, Black Wyrm avoids a problem often lamented by Bryce at tenfootpole - pausing for useless exposition about what once happened here and what used to happen in this forsaken place. But given the high level of coherent interactivity across the rest of the module, there are some little mysteries crying out for elaboration here. The Knight's magical sword, +3 vs. evil, bears the inscription, "All shadows yield to my light." And yet just two rooms away, one of the knight's closest friends in life is now undead, animating statues with unnaturally long shadows...and another of the knight's boon companions is now a floating skull wandering the halls. There is what reads like a pagan and fey shrine to an antler-headed being located inside the barrow. That shrine and its offerings are unmolested, but the sarcophagi of the knight's friends have been violated. 

If I run Black Wyrm (and I hope to soon!), I'll likely weave this barrow a bit more tightly into the dark Faerie politics hinted at in the module. I mean, there's even a party of goblins on the Upper Level hoping to turn the barrow into the Goblin King's next stronghold (in typical fashion for Black Wyrm, the module provides details in case the players try to negotiate with these other intruders). For me, the barrow's description hints at an unclean, fey presence that desecrated most of the tomb and perverted most of its burials, but never managed to break into the knight's final resting place. Perhaps the Witch in the Woods had something to do with that failure - after all, I don't like that only the village priest (described as rather prejudiced...) knows about the buried magic sword and is at work to reclaim it for use against the dragon. Perhaps the Witch also is involved in an older power struggle for control of the barrow, and with it the woods...


I've taken the time to spell out my critiques for three reasons. First, uh, this is a gaming blog, and I like geeking out about adventure-design decisions. Second: I said a fair review and I meant it! :-) But third: because Black Wyrm is really compelling, and it deserves its few necessary tweaks - which are fairly easy to implement. 

Not everyone is looking for what some call 'vanilla' D&D - adventures and settings that fit the common European-inspired and Gygaxian vision - but demand remains for material suitable for that kind of setting, if it does more than just rehash now-stale tropes. The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford offers really good vanilla D&D, with one foot in medieval and early modern legend and another foot in the Village of Hommlet. Overall, this is an awesome little module. Though I find the Knight's Barrow its weakest part, the barrow-quest forms a truly optional mission. This module packs in a tiny but rich sandbox bursting with creativity and with colorful opportunities for interaction. In my mind, this module should be filed in the same general head-space with Winter's Daughter, the Tomb of the Serpent Kings, Redtooth Ridge (which I'm running now!) or Gatehouse on Cormac's Crag. With a bit more work on the presentation and organization, this module could be a real competitor in that headspace, too.

In closing, I want to note that the module's author blogs at Wizard Fight Club. Recently, Chance also has released (onto Reddit) some artwork depicting "old school humanoids" in the AD&D style. As you can see from this picture of Chance's dog-faced kobolds (posted here with permission), it's a style hinting at tradition, whimsy, a little bit of danger, and fun. 

Kobold Patrol! By Wizard Fight Club (by permission)

Black Wyrm, with its traditional artwork by Arthur Rackham, leans in a very different direction graphically, but the module evokes exactly those traits: tradition, whimsy, danger, and fun

Happy gaming!