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Friday 13 March 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: Oak Grove Whispers

This is a review of the adventure "Oak Grove Whispers", written by Pete Spahn, published by Small Niche Games.  The adventure is ostensibly for Labyrinth Lord, but can really be used pretty much as-is in any old-school D&D edition or OSR variant.  It's designed for 3-6 characters of 1st-3rd level, according to the cover.

The book is 37 pages long, not counting the license/ad pages at the back.  Its a softcover, with a black and white cover depicting a slightly creepy well; and the interior contains only a couple of black and white images, plus some nice looking floorplans/dungeon maps.

(I'll note that while the image on the cover does relate to something in the adventure, it's actually a little deceptive, since all the action is happening in a city, while the above looks like you're in for a 'deep in the woods' scenario)

As usual with adventures, I'm going to be cautious not to give away any spoilers.  What I can say is that like most of Pete Spahn's books, it is not your standard OSR dungeon-crawl.  Spahn likes to include more elements of investigation into his adventures.  This is great, because they're still very much in the old-school line, but give an often-needed break from just straight dungeons or sandboxes.  The setting is, by default, the Amherth setting that Spahn wrote and the adventure takes place in the city of Dolmvay (which is the subject of another of Spahn's books), but it would not take too much work to relocate the adventure into just about any other standard D&D-esque fantasy setting.

In this particular case, the adventure takes place right in the middle of a great city (Dolmvay) in a specific neighbourhood (whiteoak square).  This is an interesting sort of urban sandbox.  The locations are presented in sandbox format, and events will take place as time is tracked in the game, and not only in response to the PC's actions (but of course, the PC's actions will end up affecting the course of many events). The adventure is also, important, set up to adapt to the possibility of the PCs not involving themselves with certain stages of the adventure; if they ignore certain parts, then events proceed without them and these repercussions are felt, which generates new plot hooks.

Whiteoak Square and its various buildings are detailed; it is a small area, this is not a city-supplement, it's a very local neighbourhood.  It's actually a smaller area covered than most towns would be.  The locations are given sufficient initial details but there's nothing particularly spectacular or even unusual about the area itself (not counting the events related to the adventure).  It's very vanilla.

As to the adventure, it centers around some mysterious dancing lights and other unusual effects that the locals have started to notice.  These at first do not seem harmful, some think they might even be a blessing. But of course, things will soon go wrong. There are a few different ways that characters can get initially involved with the adventure, depending on whether they're locals or not, how well known they are, and what the GM thinks might entice them.

I really want to be careful not to give anything away here, particularly the secrets that might allow players to deduce what's actually going on before its time.  Suffice it to say that the first potential hook in the sandbox involves what appears to be either a curse or a haunting in one of the local manors. As mentioned before, this could theoretically be completely ignored (in which case the adventure can continue as time progresses, though only supposing the players are still sticking around in town at least, albeit for other reasons).
The next big hook involves a potential fight in a slum with a local gang, which, if engaged, will reveal some important clues about the supernatural events going on.  Again, there's a readied potential development for a variety of different levels of PC involvement or apathy.
Then the final big hook has to do with finding and going into an ancient dungeon that is related to the source of all the neighbourhood's troubles.  At this point it's pretty much 'go screw yourself' if the players still aren't wanting to have anything to do with this; I mean, if they are so dead-set on ignoring all goings-on as to pass up even the dungeon, you're probably running the wrong module and maybe the wrong campaign altogether.
In any case, each hook is its own chapter, has its own action and could with little modification be run as its own mini-adventure, even if you didn't want to run the full module.  That's a nice touch.

You get 7 whole pages with details on a large number of local NPCs, that give significant personality to the neighbourhood. Not all of them are going to be directly relevant to the adventure as the PCs handle it, some are listed just because they're there, in the sandbox. There's a couple of pages worth of random encounter possibilities, a page of new magic items, and three pages of new monsters (related to the mystery involving ancient religions and a kind of 'dark fae' motif).

So what to conclude about this adventure?
I have to say, I think it had some interesting twists; you rarely find adventures set in urban environments, and when you do they either focus on a single house or a vast overview of the entire city.  This one focused on a small neighbourhood, with all the possibility of the PC's making that their 'home base', particularly if they come out of things as heroes for having stopped the menace.

I also have to give a lot of credit to the very effective presentation of the sandbox structure.  Saying "it's a sandbox" is really easy if you're just doing a dungeon module, and still pretty easy if you just do a big section of forest with no actual events going on.  Doing a sandbox where there's a congested area full of characters and something is actually happening is a lot harder.

But at the same time, I didn't find that this adventure gripped me. I think it was good, and for the two points above in particular it was clever, but the actual plot itself didn't blow me away. At least it wasn't just undead again; there is that.

On the whole, like many of Spahn's adventures, it ranks somewhere between a B+ and an A-.  Good solid adventuring, some creative ideas within the context of OSR material, very good sandbox presentation, but not a story that blows my mind, and a setting that is very very vanilla.  If "vanilla" is what you're looking for, if you want an adventure that's good and solid and you can port into your Greyhawk or FR or other generic fantasy campaign without any real problems, you'll do well enough with Oak Grove Whispers.  Just don't look for the gonzo of DCC or the edginess of Lamentations here.


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  1. You know, I really don't look for gonzo or edgy any more. "Vanilla" doesn't have to be boring, as long as its well presented. From that perspective, Hommlet could be described as "vanilla".

    1. Then you could really like this module. It's definitely 'vanilla' but its very well-written vanilla.

  2. Informative review, as always. I will definitely check this module out.