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Wednesday, 30 March 2016

RPGPundit Reviews: Beneath the Banshee Tree

This is a review of "Beneath the Banshee Tree", described as "an investigative city adventure" for the Sertorius RPG.  I have previously reviewed Sertorius' main rulebook, and reading that review might be useful as context.

Beneath the Banshee Tree is a softcover book, 69 pages long, published by Bedrock Games, and written by Brendan Davis. It feature an appealing though not action-oriented full-color cover, with an image of an elf maiden of some kind sitting at what appears to be the base of some odd tree, holding a skull in her hands. The interior art is black and white, and appears to be from a mix of styles (and of what I think is likely public domain art vs. commissioned pieces).

So, as always with adventure modules I'm going to try to balance this review between providing enough information for readers to judge about it, while not providing too much information that would amount to spoilers in case people were going to play the adventure.

First, if you're not familiar with the Sertorius RPG, you may want to read my review of that game in order to aquaint yourself.  In brief, it is a fantasy RPG where you play extremely powerful heroes (basically demi-gods); kind of like the better-known Exalted, but a lot less pretentious.

The basic premise of Beneath the Banshee Tree is that the PCs come to the city of Talyr hearing that the King is offering a generous payment to any Sertori (super-dudes) who will work for him in his government or trade guilds. When they get there, they find that someone is trying to drain the magic of visiting spell-casters. After this, some people go missing, and a reward is offered to anyone who can solve the mystery.  There is of course a particular villain, with sinister occult intentions.  Also involved is a "Grim", one of the dark entities that some Sertori might intentionally or unintentionally turn into.

The module presents a very nice hex-map of the region where the adventure takes place: the "Talyr Pass in South Eastern Gamandria".

The book then goes straight into the adventure, starting with the mystery of a sertori NPC who suddenly appears to have a doppleganger. The adventure presumes the PCs have just arrived in Talyr. It is set up very much as a semi-sandbox, with the PCs free to go around and explore, but there are certain hooks and certain events that take place. One of the earliest hooks, for example, is a banquet held in honor of the visiting Sertori, which the PCs will presumably want to attend. Now, I'd say this is as best a semi-sandbox because the adventure is fairly predicated on the PCs actually participating in most of the events that take place.  For example, no explanations are given of how to proceed if none of the PCs attend said banquet, or a subsequent audience.  They could just wander around the city, but would be cut off from the main 'mystery' plot (at least, until events relating to the plot ended up involving them by force).  This is not so bad as it seems, since the very nature of the plot means that, as Sertori, sooner or later they will start to be targets of the villain of the adventure; how soon will depend on just what spells the PCs have. Presuming the PCs don't just decide to leave town, they'll be involved sooner or later, though it might have been better if there were more suggestions as to how this should play out in the event that the PCs don't bite into any of the hooks.  In short, the adventure doesn't railroad, but it presumes the players will actively go along with the obvious hooks offered.

The accelerating nature of the mystery is applied through a table of random events that happen once per day. These are set up so that they can happen in any order. Each particular event has details on what happened, how the PCs can get involved, and what the clues may lead to.

Chapter 3 of the book details the city of Talyr, and includes a nice-looking full-page city map.

It gives you a decent overview of the city, and some details on the surrounding areas, as well as a random encounter table just in case the PCs venture abroad. Within the city, there are random encounters for the "lower city" and the "upper city", which is to say the slums vs. where the posh people live. There are also a few detailed encounters that can happen at the GM's discretion, whenever the GM might feel like it.
You also get information on Talyr's culture, its merchants, gladiators, slaves, gangs and other groups of importance, and different specific areas of the city.  The latter includes the assembly place, the baths, a couple of inns, a coffee house, the markets, a couple of taverns, the grand temple, the city's main water source, the library, an old grove rumoured to be haunted, the gladiator pits, the barber shop, and the slums.  Various areas have notes of certain events or knowledge the PCs can pick up only after certain events in the adventure have taken place.  This whole chapter takes up about 20 pages of the book.

The remainder of the book provides stats and information on the main villain of the story, and on various other NPCs that can be encountered.

So on the whole, I think that "Beneath the Banshee Tree" is a pretty fine adventure for Sertorius.  It is quite open, not rail-roady at all. The city is interesting and the plot intriguing, with a good element of peril for the PCs.

I think that if you are interested in Sertorius, you'll be likely to be interested in Beneath The Banshee Tree.  On the other hand, if you aren't, there are some difficulties for using this adventure in some other game; mainly because the power levels of Sertorii are well above the D&D-standard, and the nature of the plotline is very setting-specific.


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