Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Beware Parties Bearing...

The truth of the matter is that Dungeons & Dragons has always had a slightly awkward relationship when it comes to Oriental fantasy. Whether it is the “Kitchen Sink” and complexity approach of Oriental Adventures for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition; the combination of the dual stats and the rich setting of Rokugan that brought together Alderac Entertainment Group’s Legends of the Five Rings and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition; or the woefully underdeveloped, if brilliantly titled, Ruins & Ronin, written for use with the Swords & Wizardry White Box; the end result has never really been all that satisfying. So the fact that Rite Publishing has published a trilogy of adventures for use with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game set in its own Japanese style milieu, Kaidan (currently on its own Kickstarter program), was not necessarily encouraging. The trilogy, entitled Curse of the Golden Spear is available in print via Cubicle Seven Entertainment.

Inspired by Japanese folklore as much as its history, the setting of Kaidan – which means “Ghost Story” in Japanese – consists of a number of islands that have long been isolated from the rest of the world for three basic reasons. The first is political, as gaijin or foreigners are forbidden from setting foot on Kaidanese soil by Imperial Decree; the second is physical, as the islands are surrounding by a great wall of forbidding fog that few sailors dare to penetrate; and the third… Well, that will be discovered by the player characters as they play through the events of the trilogy, beginning with Curse of the Golden Spear: Part 1 – The Gift. Given the name of the setting, it is no surprise that it focuses on horror and mystery as much as it does adventure and combat.

As the trilogy opens, the political bar that previously prevented entry onto the islands of Kaidan has been lifted. By Imperial decree, Kaidan’s ports have been opened to gaijin sailors and merchants; which is why at the beginning of The Gift, the party is aboard a ship sailing towards Kaidan. It is accompanying a merchant, Marl Tyro, who has an important gift that he wishes to deliver to Lord Hachiwara of Tsue-jo, daimyo of Oniba province on Yonshu Island. The player characters have been hired by Tarl to serve as bodyguards, not necessarily his bodyguards, but bodyguards for the gift itself, which is contained in a heavy mahogany chest.

Initially, the scenario focuses on the attempts by Marl Tyro and the player characters to get further than the “Foreigners’ Port” of Gaijinoshima as the papers necessary to travel beyond its limits and onto Yonshu Island seem to be unavailable. Mostly this will involve their dealing with some of Kaiden’s less than savoury inhabitants, though in Kaidanese eyes, they are only marginally less savoury than the gaijin player characters! Once off the island and onto Yonshu Island, the party must make its way by road to the city of Tsue-jo, their journey punctuated by various odd encounters or harried by bandits and other threats.

For the most part, The Gift is a “Road Trip” style adventure. For the most part, it reads and plays as standard Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder Roleplaying Game scenario, but the author does add elements that impart the difference of the setting compared to other occidental fantasy settings. Most notably in the dealings with the actual masters of Gaijinoshima, in an overnight stop at a cursed inn, and a contest with some of Kaidan’s outré inhabitants. The second of these, the overnight stop at a cursed inn, is perhaps the scenario’s set piece and its horror highlight, more than any other in the scenario, promising a night of bloody terror and nightmarish dread.

Despite these highlights, The Gift is not wholly satisfying as an adventure. Its central villain seems wasted, and its conclusion fails to answer any questions that the events of the adventure have raised and despite a final confrontation with the adventure’s villain, just seems to fizzle out. In addition, the adventure leaves it up to the GM to address the motivations of the individual player characters, The Gift not only suggesting several, but also working them into the four pre-generated adventurers that the adventure comes with.

In addition to the pre-generated adventurers, The Gift also comes with an array of Kaidanese monsters, a glossary, and an explanation of Kaidan’s cosmology. The latter is definitely different and it certainly figures in the course of the trilogy.

Physically, Curse of the Golden Spear: Part 1 – The Gift is neatly presented in full colour. The artwork is variable in quality, with some of its feeling a bit too randomly Japanese. It is a pity that not all of it is in colour though. The maps are decent though, but in places a little too large given the amount of information that they have to impart. Overall, the contents feel a little stretched over the course of the book’s sixty-four pages.

One of the reasons for examining The Gift was to see if it was in any way compatible with Alderac Entertainment Group’s Legends of the Five Rings and its setting of Rokugan. Although Kaidan and Rokugan share similar sources, the differences between the two are many, not least of which are the differences in their cosmologies and their effects on their respective settings, and their respective attitudes towards gaijin. Indeed, the presence of gaijin on the Emerald Empire’s soil has only been acceptable during very short periods in Rokugan’s history. Of course, the acceptance, even if only grudgingly, of gaijin on Kaidanese soil is the exact reason why The Gift works as a scenario. Nevertheless, there are scenes in The Gift that would make for interesting encounters in a Legends of the Five Rings campaign.

There is no doubt that the author of The Gift imparts the cultural differences between the oriental fantasy of Kaidan and the occidental fantasy of standard Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Another pleasing aspect of the setting is that Kaidan’s isolation makes it easy to slot in a campaign of the GM’s own devising, and thus would make for an interesting and perhaps lengthy excursion for a traditional Dungeons & Dragons style party. Although, moments on the journey are more interesting and more exciting than the journey itself, Curse of the Golden Spear: Part 1 – The Gift is a solid start to the trilogy.