Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: Zzarchov Kowalski's Scenic Dunnsmouth (PDF)

Scenic Dunnsmouth is great. Get it.

A bit more detail:

Dunnsmouth is a delightfully creepy swamp hamlet, which is randomly generated using some dice, a deck of cards, and a piece of paper. Therefore, you're effectively getting thousands of possible towns for your buck, most of which revolve around a mutant Spider Cult, and all of which will include: the reality-warping Time Cube, a Roma witch, a cannibal serial killer with a thing for bear traps and rock falls, and backwoods incest, rivalries, murder, and sin. It has an amazingly pulpy, '40s Radio Horror Adventure feel, and a lot of possibilities. The scenario is geared for a 3rd or 4th level party, or maybe a bit higher.

Organization

The module starts off with a description of Dunsmouth, three different ways you might draw a party into the swamp, the two major elements of the module, and a description of how to generate the town. It's all easy reading, and town generation is very straightforward - I generated three towns in 50 minutes, and if I was about to run it it would probably take about that long to generate a single town, print out all the NPCs that appeared, and be ready to go. The whole thing really boils down to three or four major steps - roll the dice, draw the cards, figure out which NPCs are present and where, and tidy up. But Zzarchov splits it up into fourteen crystal clear mini-steps, which is very helpful, and prevents you from having to flip back and forth across scores of pages to figure everything out.

The next part discusses the most important locations in town. Some of these are guaranteed to appear, though their status (and sanity) depends on how the dice came out. There are also two "kickers," each of which have a 50% chance of being a special location - so Dunnsmouth could play host to one or two elves (one of which is, to my mind at least, one of the top 3 most horrifying NPC's in the book), or perhaps an old fortification, or possibly some light industry.

After this comes the largest part of the book. Dunnsmouth is inhabited by up to four families, one for each suit in the deck of cards, with each card representing one household. So this book nets you 52 households, with multiple NPC's in each one, only 10-12 of which will actually appear in the game. The presence or absence of certain individuals and the relative strength of each family can provide a lot of fuel for blood feuds and drama, even if the Spider Cult doesn't make an appearance.

Finally, we have an appendix and index of sorts, with references for some of the items and spider-mutants that might be found, and a helpful step-by-step example of town generation.

Strengths

I think my favorite part of the module is how the way each location is changed by the NPCs inhabiting it, or how each household's behavior & characteristics are altered by the spider mutation, gives you much better insights into their psychology than a simple description does. Ivanovik and Magda are potentially located at any one of the ten special locations, and in addition to that, have several possible homesteads they might build if not. Reading about how they (and the Original Spider) set up and fortify each location, reacting to its unique characteristics, more than makes up for the scant direct information we're given  about who they are. The infection does the same for the rest of the NPCs - simmering resentments and hidden attractions are brought to the fore by the spider gene's quest to reproduce and dominate. It's showing, not telling.

I also liked (as I mentioned before) the replayability and variety built into the module. You could keep running it, with a different setup each time, or you could mine out its stockpile of NPCs and use them to spice up other, less distinctive villages. There are a few "joke" NPCs in the book (used if you fail to completely clean the deck), which you could always throw in by choice if you wanted to move from horror to Bizarro. (Although the Black Joker, Jesse McLaud, didn't strike me as that bizarre, and I left him in the deck). I think this aspect, makes this the perfect module for a new DM to run - it's like training wheels, but still puts you through the paces of personalizing a scenario and forces you to think through it beforehand, rather than blindly assuming it's all ready to go.

Finally, the art by Jez Gordon is amazing. It evokes a delightful, pulpy-horror feel and really helps conjure the darkness and fear that's found in Dunnsmouth. The character portraits in particular are very well-done, in most cases conveying just as much information as the character descriptions themselves. They also make great icons for player maps (as I've done below) so you can show them who lives in town without immediately giving away any information about family allegiances or ranks.

Weaknesses

Since this is my first review, I should state that I'm not always looking for the same thing out of every module, so of course everything's going to be pretty subjective. My main critique is that, for all the characters this module has, I felt like only a handful of them actually had character. Almost all of them are pretty cartoonish backwoods stereotypes of one type or another. I don't think this will come up in the course of running the actual module, because you'll only have a dozen households and it's clearly intended to be a bunch of cartoonish backwoods stereotypes - but after the thirtieth straight page, it got exhausting. Few of them are actually compelling enough to draw a party into their struggles and feuds, Spider Cult or no. Because of this, I don't think Dunnsmouth lives up to its promise of "moral peril." Maybe it's just my Utilitarian ethics, but there's really no character sympathetic enough, or interesting enough, to give me much pause. The module wants you to be forced to decide, what am I willing to do to save these people? But I'm stuck on whether I want to save any of them at all, aside from a generic "well these people have children!" element.

Suggestions/Recommendations

The full text of the actual Time Cube Treatise is available online. I just love that this turned up in an RPG somewhere. Needless to say, my Dunnsmouth will have 96-hour days.

Always offer your players the chance to purchase Dunnsmouth's debt at the start of the module. It's my favorite, by far, of the three "leads" - it gets your party right up in the villager's faces, and I'm pretty sure most versions won't actually be able to scrape up the cash.

Though there's a certain romance to the idea of rolling the dice and rolling with the result, I think it's worth generating two towns, and picking whichever one seems more interesting at a glance. That way, you can take the second town, remove duplicate characters and generally align it with the "Expanding Dunnsmouth" section at the back, and add a bit of heft to the module if you need to.

Duncasters? A secret shame? A defunct cult with a mountain headquarters? Zzarchov's practically yelling at you to put Death Frost Doom in the mountains next to the swamp.

Maybe you don't tell players about the Time Cube. Maybe you just draw concentric circles around it on the player map, mark down the slowdown ratios, and let them figure out the distortion themselves.

Town Sampler

So I whipped up player and referee maps for each of the towns I rolled, just to show a bit of the variety you can get from the module.


Scenic Dunnsmouths