This is a review of the “Majestic Wilderlands Adventure and Sourcebook” entitled “Scourge of the Demon Wolf”, written by Robert S. Conley and published by Bat in the Attic Games. This is, as always, a review of the printed edition, of about 70 pages; which has a colour cover (a fairly nice one that riffs on the “hexmap” concept but with scenes relevant to the adventure, one would assume), and black and white interiors. The interior has some nice old-school style art, including some guys that look like they stepped right out of any 1970s era D&D product (fairly high quality, though); but that said, the best “Art” in the product are the maps, in my opinion, which are quite awesome: hexmaps, dungeons, local encounter areas, floorplans, a village, etc.
I’ll note that some could say I have a bias toward Conley’s map-making skill since he was the one who provided the truly amazing maps for Arrows of Indra; but of course, I wouldn’t have run with him if his map-making skills weren’t so truly awesome.
The book is divided into two parts: the first is the adventure itself, the second is a fleshing out of the locales of the adventure to form a regional sourcebook. The setting of the book is the Majestic Wilderlands, and that is also the default system that the game is made for; for those unaware, Majestic Wilderlands is a sourcebook that Conley put out earlier, detailing a number of new rules, classes, races, magic, etc. for use in the particular version of the classic Wilderlands setting, from Conley’s long-running campaign. In the introduction to Scourge, the reader is advised as to how he can modify the adventure to fit any other version of D&D or to place it in a setting other than the Wilderlands (the latter is fairly easy, the former involves changing the various homebrew classes of NPCs back into the standard D&D classes; as well as changing back the monetary system). Modifiers are presented in the game in the form of D20 mods or percentage mods, so that both are available depending on what type of “skills” you are using in your D&D game. The statblock format mostly conforms to those of Swords & Wizardry.
The adventure begins in media res, and it is fairly non-linear; there are several options as to how the PCs can start out in it, as well as to how things could progress. No railroading here, this is a sandbox adventure!
As always, I want to be careful not to give away too much when reviewing an adventure, but here’s the basic gist of it: the region of the adventure, the Barony of Westtower, which the PCs are either passing through, or specifically called to by one of many reasons related or unrelated to the central issue, has been of late beset by a terrible “demon wolf”, a vicious monstrosity that has been murdering locals. The Baron’s hunters had thought they had dealt with the creature, but it appears they were wrong and its come back; most notably butchering the local Bailiff almost beyond recognition. Now the villagers of Kensla (where the attacks are occurring) are refusing to bring in the harvest unless the Demon Wolf is destroyed; the imminent loss of the harvest and its income infuriating Baron Michael.
The adventure is written out in the format of a series of encounters, some of them have certain chronological conditions, and a few depend on finding clues at previous encounter locations, but there’s no specific order that the events must follow. In some cases I’ll note that the descriptions of these different encounters there are certain moments where characters, groups, or locations are just introduced by name or very brief description, without any real explanation of who they are; notes by the author indicate that you have to go looking later on, in the “sourcebook” section of the book, to find out the correct details.
A few general notes about this adventure:
First, it seems to contain a considerable number of “red herrings” meant to lead the PCs to make (incorrect) speculations about just what the “demon wolf” might be. I think that’s fair enough, however, as in at least some cases these speculations are likely to only be pursued assiduously if the Players are using out-of-character ideas based on prior D&D gaming, rather than sticking to what the characters themselves are likely to interpret.
Second, the adventure is as much about interacting with interesting NPCs and groups of NPCs as it is about fighting wolves; there are all kinds of interesting characters and different groups with differing interests in the region: there’s the baron and his interests, the villagers and theirs (and conflicts between rival groups in the village), bandits, a mage-order, a tribe of gypsy-like beggars. How the players interact with each will very much decide the tone of the adventure and subsequent events.
The adventure does have a climax, which all events should lead to sooner or later (with some possible exceptions; like the party being able to overcome the problem much earlier through pretty spectacular luck, or of course the party being wiped out or abandoning the mission/investigation/whatever), but just how that climax plays out would depend very much on what the PCs did along the way, and which individuals they end up making what kind of connections to.
The adventure is quite good, and it proves the lie to the notion that OSR adventuring isn’t going to feature sophisticated roleplay, or that the only thing that old-school is about is dungeon-crawling.
The supplement section of the book is actually the majority of the product, the last 40 pages (out of 70). It establishes the Barony of Westtower as belonging to the Duchy of Dearthmead, south of the City State of the Invincible Overlord. The supplement produces extremely detailed information about a relatively small region, in the case of the various settlements of Westtower including things like the number of households (the largest being Kensla with 43 households), the estate holder, the primary resource, and potential military force. There is very much a sense of “small scaled but very detailed” going on here; and for that matter of the “village of homlet”-style details of information on the locals unlikely to ever be used in actual adventuring. The essence of the area is fairly low-powered, quite medieval, and kind of depressed (not as in “depressing” but as in “living in hard times”).
The section particularly goes into details about Kensla, providing 43 different location descriptions for the town; many of these amount to things like “peasant, sharecropper: Edward (age 44) was an apprentice to a prosperous merchant” who developed an illness that forced him back to the town, but his contacts led him to make a good life for himself with a wife and five children. In other words, the kind of Hommlet-homage that certain OSR-players adore, but that in general tends to be a lot of flavour information that will never be used unless you really plan to run an entire campaign in the village. A similar level of detail is provided for the beggar encampment; and also the mages of the order of thoth (found in “The Golden House”, a kind of wizard-enclave) are statted out in full with personality descriptions. Various pages are dedicated to the masters, adepts, apprentices and support-staff; as well as floorplans and details thereof. All of this paints a very interesting picture, but it seems to me that other than its instructive potential as to how a Mage-house should look like, it doesn’t really seem to have much utility.
In fact, you could say that about much of the “supplement” section of the book; fortunately the adventure itself is quite good, but the supplement section is just not what I’d be looking for in a sourcebook. It has too-few adventure seeds, and far too many descriptions of farmers or teenage wizard-school apprentices (though I guess you could use it to run an OSR version of Harry Potter, or something). Its just not my thing; I think its only really the thing of certain OSR-nuts who are just way too into the Village of Hommlet. If you’re looking for that kind of minutely-detailed small-town settings, then you’ll probably love this section; if not, you probably won’t find it of much use.
All in all, what’s worthwhile about Demon Wolf is the adventure portion, which I expect to be quite playable, interesting, and enjoyable; its great strength being its non-linear nature, though this can also mean that just how playable, interesting or enjoyable the adventure turns out to be could vary wildly depending upon the tracks taken… though one could probably say the same about all but the most Railroady of modules.
Anyways, I’m guessing I’ll probably try running the adventure myself, some time. But I doubt very much I’ll have much use for the supplement-section.
Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Poker + Rattray’s Marlin Flake
(originally posted April 4, 2013; on the old blog)