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Author Topic: Shadow Falling  (Read 542 times)

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Shadow Falling
« on: November 29, 2006, 10:43:31 am »


Review: Shadow Falling
or, "The Trouble with Modules"
Shadow Falling, an adventure for 4th-6th lv. characters for the Dawning Star Setting
Reviewed by RPGPundit

Let me start with reminding my readers that I have already reviewed the Dawning Star setting; a sci-fi smorgasborg for D20 modern/future play.  That's back in November 17th.  If you haven't read it yet, you probably should or this review will seem incomplete to you.

Second, let me air out my own prejudices here: As a DM, I have never had much use for adventure modules (if you can still call them "modules" these days without being outed as a superannuated grognard that's starting to look more like E. Gary Gygax by the nanosecond).

I've always much preferred to play my own adventures, my own style.  Its partly the same reason I vastly prefer DMing over playing; as a player, I'll sit through the other guy's mastering, and even if I'm having a good time there's always that little voice on the back of my head telling me "shit, I could be doing this better".
Published adventures are even worse for that. Because by necessity they have this fairly generic feel to them, they carry little personality; these days even little of the author's personalities.  Gone are the days where you could noticeably tell the difference between a Gygax dungeon and an Arneson dungeon (the main difference being Arneson's had slightly more lightsabers and robots, and Gygax's had slightly more "save vs. death or die" traps).
Even if as a creative DM one infuses a published adventure with your own personal touches, its still going to fail to be as smooth or original as your own adventures; and frankly if you are incapable of making adventures that are AT LEAST as brilliant as the average published adventure, then you probably have no business being at the DM's table.

Anyways, that said, let's take a look at this adventure. To start with, "Shadow Falling" is a 56 page pdf, with as much (high) quality of production as the main Dawning Star book.  There are no problems there.

The basic concept of the adventure is summarized as one where the PCs get ahold of a map that shows them the location of an important alien artifact, in a restricted area.  The supposed goal is to travel to that area and retrieve the artifact.  Along the way they run into a bandit gang, some of the friendly "native" aliens who aren't so friendly in this case because the ruins are considered sacred to them, and then evidence of the really nasty "Starship Trooper Bug" type aliens, all of which is meant to make their quest seem dangerous.

When they finally get to the ruins they find danger in the form of some nasty giant vermin that have infested the place, more trouble from the bandit gang, and the aforementioned evil aliens, and the discovery of some of the secrets of the ruins and the history of the Dawning Star setting.

I'll try to avoid going into minute detail about the plot of the adventure beyond this, because that would kind of spoil the possibility of people enjoying it as players.  Instead I will try to focus on the structure and playability of the adventure.

The adventure is generally well structured, starting out with an outline of the adventure and some advice about using the adventure in other settings (in case you somehow managed to get this adventure without first getting the dawning star campaign setting?).

Then it dives right into the adventure itself. The scenario is somewhat cliched, but that in itself is no great crime.  The dialogue, specifically the parts that ought to be "read out" to players is pretty clunky and feels un-natural.  I'm sure that even the authors of these kinds of adventures wouldn't talk like that when running a campaign.  I wish that people who designed adventure would focus on set-piece descriptions and leave the rest, especially dialogue, up to the DM.

In other words, if you're an adventure writer/publisher, LISTEN THE FUCK UP:  Do NOT give me two pages of pre-written speech for me to read out to my players. Instead, tell me, in point form, what I need character x to say to the pcs in that scene, and then let ME do the dialogue. Nothing kills an adventure faster than having the players have to sit through a too-long too-boring speech written by what seems to be a scriptwriting school dropout, of what sounds like a soul-less drone using cliched expressions.  I read some of these dialogues and I wonder if the adventure writer imagined that the half-elf buccaneer or starbase commander was going to be played by Al Gore.

Anyways, back to the module in question.  The setup being a bit stereotypical is not a big deal to me; the railroading nature of the adventure as a whole, however, is.  Its another problem with most published adventures; you have a hard time writing enough material to leave things totally open as far as player options go.  

I usually don't run my adventures in ways that are strictly railroading, and in most published adventures I've seen there is all kinds of heavy-handed maneuvering that goes on to push players into following a specific adventure plot and more heavy-handed maneuvering in killing all their options so they don't veer off that plot.  This adventure is no exception.  There are very specific places the pcs must go, and things they must do; and if the PCs don't want to do those things, either you force them, or you throw away the adventure. There's no other options.  Mainly this emerges in the first part of the adventure, the part that involves getting the PCs to the ruins.  There are three or four options for why and how they get there, but no matter what, they have to go there, or you have no adventure.

Is this a fair judgement? Well, giving them "more" options would have required one of two things: either the book would have to be four times its current size, or the very premise of the adventure would have to be totally different.  I think that the first is unrealistic, but really the second is a fair judgement: why insist on writing adventures whose very premise depend on railroading?
Mind you, the only "adventure" book that wouldn't be dependant on railroading would be basically a miniature setting book. Anything more specific than that would involve some kind of railroading; but you can make adventures that have several different locales and events that are NON-linear, as opposed to linear, and that makes the whole thing feel much less railroaded.  If the PCs have to do "A, B, and C", but it doesn't matter which they do first, it feels far more free than if they have to do "A, THEN B, THEN C". Unfortunately, this adventure is much more the latter than the former.

The actual ruins, once your party arrives there, are pretty good fun.  They are something like a cross between a D&D dungeon crawl and "Indiana Jones in space".  It has a few interesting encounters, most of which are fairly set-piece, but its still good fun.

Probably the worst designed part of the adventure involves the "bandit gang" I mentioned.  This gang is basically there to cause trouble, and they are in several SET locations for encounters in different points of the adventure.  The clever thing to do would have been to have the gang be real thinking opponents, who are in a real RACE with the PCs for the artifacts, and have the DM track in some way the progress of the gang opposed to the PC group.  That way, instead of encountering them at certain set times, the PCs would encounter them (or not) based on where the PCs were and where the gang is in the "real time" of the adventure.This would give the adventure a more "lifelike" feel, rather than having the gang be just another monster to be found when you enter the 10' x 10' room, and who will be there NO MATTER WHAT the pcs do.

On the other hand, the BEST part of the adventure is the climactic battle at the end.  I don't want to give anything away, but its a very clever, time-limited battle, where the PCs have a very real sense of impending doom and desperation.  I liked this very much; too many adventures wimp out at the end to avoid a Total Party Kill.  This one can very easily end up with a TPK, and its up to some quick thinking and right choices from the PCs to avoid that.
And as if that wasn't enough, you get to run a large-scale battle where each player not only controls his PC, but a number of soldiers/archeologists in a desperate large-scale fight with the big bad bugs.  Its a good concept, and makes for a really great conclusion to the module.

The appendices are fairly standard, but include a number of counters for playing out the final battle, and for use as "miniatures" in the rest of the dungeon crawl if you so choose.

In conclusion:  This is a fairly mediocre adventure overall, but then, like I said, most of the published adventures I've seen are fairly mediocre.  Its very, very hard to make an adventure that's more than that.
It has a few areas that a good DM could probably house rule to make much better, in particularly by making the bandit gang more than setpiece enemies, and it has one particular element that makes it stand out, and that's the final scene.
Does that make it worth purchasing? I'm not sure.  If you are the sort of DM to buy published adventures, either to run as-is or to modify for your own style, then I would say yes.
If not, there's not enough that would make this spectacular; if you're the kind of guy who never buys published adventures, I can't suggest you start with this one.

RPGPundit Nov 25 2005
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