jueves, 12 de noviembre de 2020

Review of The Unapproachable, a scenario for Mythras

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The Unapproachable is a short sword and sorcery scenario for the Mythras RPG. Matt Eager, the one-man orchestra behind Old Bones Publishing has published other adventures for Mythras under the Mythras Gateway License, such as Swords Against the Necromancer and Secrets of Blood Rock. He offered me a review copy and so here you can read my spoiler-free review of The Unapproachable, Matt Eager's 4th scenario for Mythras, which explores darker aspects of the sword and sorcery genre. 

Although Robert E. Howard is nowadays considered the father of sword and sorcery, the term for this subgenre of fantasy was first coined by Fritz Leiber decades after Howard had killed himself. Therefore, in his time Howard must have considered himself to be writing just fantasy tales. And he never had any qualms in using elements from other genres such as horror in his stories. After all, the most general definition of the fantasy genre would include horror and sci-fi. This early mixing of elements is in part explained by the many letters Robert E. Howard exchanged with H.P. Lovecraft and others, so he was influenced by other authors in the Lovecraft Circle, and he influenced them in turn. That's why, for example, Lovecraft's The Shadow Out of Time mentions a Cimmerian chieftain, and also why so many monsters in Conan's short stories have undeniably lovecraftian features. This exchange of ideas could be the reason why the sorcery side of the genre is always nefarious, corrupting, and therefore wielded exclusively by evil warlocks, witches, and demons.

The tale that GMs and players can spin by playing The Unapproachable scenario might well have been published in the pages of the Weird Tales magazine. The author seems to know well the sword and sorcery genre, and even the language he uses is reminiscent of the style of Clark Ashton Smith in tales like The Tomb-Spawn. In fact, the whole scenario plays very much like a short story, although that also has its downsides, as I will point out later.

The adventure begins in the city of Tozer, a setting from the author's imagination that draws inspiration from ancient empires, as well as other sword and fantasy worlds such as Zothique, Hyboria, or even old Kadath. It is only sufficiently described to paint the picture though, there is no map. If you wanted more information, Savage Swords Against the Necromancer contains other snippets, as it is also set there.

The main characters are pregenerated so they fit seamlessly into the story. Seven are provided. Three of them are strongly recommended and one of those is the compulsory protagonist: Samal. Daughter of a noble household, she is also a young but accomplished sage and mathematician. The story starts when a messenger announces that her great-uncle has left her his manor in his will, and therefore she needs to leave the metropolis behind, accompanied by some servants (other PCs), to examine her uncle's legacy at the border of the Tozerian empire. Of course, you can also play it with other characters, perhaps to better fit your own campaign. The scenario includes some guidance on this while stressing that the changes should be made with care so as to maintain the coherence of the plot. For example, at least one character should be literate. The scenario is actually better suited for a one-shot or the likely start of a campaign because to include it in a preexisting campaign you will need to modify many other details. Running it as a one-shot also has the advantage of counting with extensive notes about the background of the three main pregens. However, I wouldn't use the suggested idea of introducing some of the supporting player characters at a later stage into the scenario. If you do that, some players will need to wait until their character finally can make an appearance and join the rest of the party, and waiting is no fun.

Apart from the introduction, the first part of the scenario also includes the trip to the estate Samal has just inherited. There are plenty of possible encounters and situations briefly described to spice up the trip so that GMs can make the scenario last longer. These encounters can also be used to better describe the Tozerian empire. When the PCs finally reach the manor, the second part of the adventure begins. This is my favorite part because it involves mysteries, lots of roleplaying with NPCs, and clever use of the Task rules in Mythras. The author is fond of this flexible and easy mechanic and has clearly mastered the art of making the most out of it. He has even shared his knowledge in another brief publication: Guidelines: Setting Up Tasks. The Task rules are used in this case as a means of gauging how much information the PCs gather during their investigation, and the author supports it with advice on how to use them and even provides a worksheet to keep track of the PCs' progress. This is so good that any GM will want to include similar structures in other adventures.

This is also the part where it becomes evident why the scenario needs a literate player character. As the suggested protagonist is a sage, the pregens cover this. Here the mood of the adventure starts getting closer to Lovecraft, since reading old tomes, and learning secrets about your deceased relatives is such a staple of the tales by that author. However, the scenario never really abandons the sword and sorcery theme, as in the third and last part players will face tough combat challenges, as well as strange and dangerous secrets. I will not go into that part, in case any of your potential players happen to read this review!

As I mentioned earlier, the scenario runs very much like a short story. The downside of this is that players need to buy into its fairly linear development. However, it would be unfair to criticize this because this happens in the great majority of published one-shot scenarios. I don't mind linearity in one-shots, because the limited time to get to the end of it favors going with the flow instead of exploring tangents or branching into uncharted territory, but some players might have a different attitude. The Unapproachable handles this with the carefully crafted background of the protagonist and a bit of railroading. For example, if Samal decides against the idea of leaving the city to see the manor in the first part of the scenario, her parents will just demand that she goes anyway. You can also see this when the second part of the adventure finishes and the author states: "...if everyone were playing along as one might expect and hope...", so at the end of the day, you can only trust players will do the expected thing and follow the course laid out in the scenario. If not, improvising and following your players' decisions can also be fun!

As for the look of the adventure, The Unapproachable is a 59-page-long PDF. Aside from the mentioned pregenerated characters, it includes hand-drawn maps, and player handouts, which is great. On the other hand, Old Bones Publishing follows the motto "high quality writing with stylish, minimalistic presentation", so you are warned: the presentation is indeed rather dry. First, the cover is a real picture of an Egyptian obelisk and, while stylish enough, someone could mistake it for a historical scenario. Second, the interior pages have almost no art, except for a couple of black and white drawings. I prefer seeing a bit more decoration when reading RPG materials, but of course, investing in art is risky for tiny publishing companies. Still, I wish the author had used at least some fillers to spice up a little the columns of text. I also miss having a table of contents before the introduction, as it would make using the book easier. On the other hand, I like that the author provides a player-facing map, so GMs don't need to Photoshop one.

Finally, other details I love in this scenario are, for example, the way reading occult tomes is handled. With spells and Exhort skills for strange gods. There is also a way to handle sanity checks that is slightly different from the rules first included in the White Death scenario, and later in the Mythras Companion. I also love how at different points in the adventure, the player characters will need to roll against their own Customs skill to overcome their biases or to do things that go against their culture (but that may otherwise help them find important clues).

All in all, The Unapproachable is a 59-page scenario that will provide mystery, excitement, and fun to your players for 2 sessions of play. Perfect for a one-shot in two parts or to be played in a double session of play. It has combat, investigation, secrets, roleplaying opportunities, puzzles, and a final surprise, so it is well worth it if you and your players are fans of the tales by Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft and would like to be the protagonists in one of those tales.

What I like the most:

  • The rich backgrounds of the player characters (and the monkey!)
  • The use of task rules for the investigation part and the player handouts.
  • The rules for reading dangerous occult tomes.
  • The fact that PCs need to fight their own cultural biases at some points in the scenario.
  • The puzzle towards the end of the scenario.
  • The idea to link this scenario with a certain campaign by The Design Mechanism.

What I like the least:

  • If the scenario follows its predicted course, some players might feel cheated by the abrupt change of tone at the end.
  • The minimalistic presentation.

The Unapproachable is available at DrivethruRPG for 7$. As with other of his scenarios, the author also offers an 8-page preview as a free download. What do you think? Would you run it or play it?

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