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Friday, 6 September 2019

An Other OSR Quartet

The Spire of Quetzel is an anthology of four scenarios for use with Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World, the ‘Retro Open-World Survival Fantasy RPG’ published by Free League. It presents four locations which the Game Master can slot into her Forbidden Lands campaign—whether her own or Raven’s Purge, the roleplaying game’s epic eight-part campaign with an open structure built around eight locations and a finale at a ninth location—or possibly run as one-shots. They reflect the open play style of Forbidden Lands, in which the players and their characters are explorers, travelling across territories which have been cut off for centuries and of which they know little except legends. Such legends serve as hooks, pushing the characters to visit the setting’s adventure sites—villages, castles, and dungeons—and pulling them into the region’s history and secrets, often revealing the dark truths of lands that have been under a blood mist and demon-infested for centuries. Whether encountering a dreaming Demon-Queen, a prison of strange beasts who call themselves a family, a coven of witches who do not get along, or the weird graveyard of the last thunder lizard to walk this land, what marks these scenarios as different are their authors.

All four scenarios in The Spire of Quetzel are written by some of the leading writers in the Old School Renaissance. They include Patrick Stuart, the author of Veins of the Earth for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay; Chris McDowall, the designer of Into the Odd; Ben Milton, the designer of Maze Rats; and Karl Stjernberg, the designer of The Rad-Hack. They include a castle, a village, and two dungeons, all four of which are easily added to a campaign.

The quartet opens with Patrick Stuart’s eponymously titled ‘The Spire of Quetzel’, not so much a castle as a tower of high magic and mystery. The adventurers are approached by a crow-masked figure who asks them to perform a task—enter the tower where a long dead half elf, half demon sorcerer lies dreaming and return with her heart, a black gem. Once inside, the player characters first having to negotiate with demons before ascending into the tower’s upper reaches where its locations transcend the walls, spread out somewhere above the clouds. Several of these locations have a maze-like feel—one that the Game Master will need to improvise as the player characters progress—as well as an actual maze. Other scenarios for Forbidden Lands tend to have grim and gritty feel, but there is a sense of the ethereal to ‘The Spire of Quetzel’, one that echoes the dissolute and aged feel of an encounter that might be had by Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné.

The first of two dungeons in The Spire of Quetzel, Chris McDowall’s ‘The Bright Vault’ is home to a clutch of Demon spawn, siblings imprisoned in a blessed gaol lest they escape and wreak havoc upon a world only beginning to come to terms with the lifting of demon mists and some of the secrets so revealed. All four siblings are very different in terms of nature and motivation, and as much as the player characters will interact with them, they will be interacting with their guardian more and who will play a major role in their interaction with her charges. It also means that in places the Game Master is likely to be roleplaying one NPC against another and that is not always interesting for the players. Of the four scenarios in the anthology this is most awkward to run and prepare.

Technically, ‘The Hexenwald’ is a village, but really it is a set of similarly-themed locations—a coven of witches spread throughout a wood, on and around a lake. Ben Milton’s scenario is home to five witches, each with different pre-occupations and relationships with her sisters. Individually, these are interesting little encounters, but they are really designed to work together, their relationships driving potential events. Yet their homes feel too spread out to quite do that. Thus the Game Master might want to drive these motivations and interactions more proactively or have The Hexenwald a location that her player characters do not visit once, but several times, each time perhaps encountering different witches. Unlike the other scenarios in the anthology, ‘The Hexenwald’ is one that has the potential to be used in the long term.

Lastly, ‘Graveyard of Thunder’ by Karl Stjernberg is an entertaining change of tone, earthier and perhaps more natural. The location is actually a near-mythical dinosaur graveyard, which at the time of the player characters’ incursion is home to the cave system’s guardians and the last dinosaur which has come to die. They are not the only persons with an interest in the site, for an orc band has searched for the Graveyard of Thunder and its potential riches. The scenario is a pleasing contrast to the other three in the anthology, possessing a mythical naturalism where the others are archly arcane.

Physically, The Spire of Quetzel is a slim, but pleasing hardback, nicely illustrated with maps done in the same style as other Forbidden Lands books. Each scenario follows the same format as those other books—Background, Legend, Getting Here, Locations, Monsters and NPCs, and Events. In general, this works, but occasionally, where an NPC plays a major role in the scenario, for example, in ‘The Bright Vault’, having more information about the NPC upfront would make the descriptions of various locations clearer, less obtuse. Of course, this is not an insurmountable problem, but rather an issue upon first read and preparing the scenario with ease, and it helps that the fact that each of the four scenarios is barely twenty pages in length.

Unlike the scenarios in Forbidden Lands or Raven’s Purge, the four in The Spire of Quetzel are easier to adapt to other Old School Renaissance retroclones, not in terms of mechanics, but certainly in terms of plots and themes. Thus The Spire of Quetzel is a ready source of scenarios should the Game Master look outside of the Dungeons & Dragons-derived retroclones, but of course, the four scenarios in this anthology are best suited for addition to a Forbidden Lands campaign. They can be used as is, as one-shots, or as individual locations to be encountered in between others that are part of a campaign. Although some need a little more preparation than others, The Spire of Quetzel is solid collection of short scenarios that can be readily added to a Forbidden Lands campaign.

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