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Saturday 11 December 2021

[Free RPG Day 2021] The Heart of Dako & Zara Harlowe

Now in its fourteenth year, Free RPG Day in 2021, after a little delay due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, took place on Saturday, 16th October. As per usual, it came with an array of new and interesting little releases, which traditionally would have been tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Of course, in 2021, Free RPG Day took place after GenCon despite it also taking place later than its traditional start of August dates, but Reviews from R’lyeh was able to gain access to the titles released on the day due to a friendly local gaming shop and both Keith Mageau and David Salisbury of Fan Boy 3 in together sourcing and providing copies of the Free RPG Day 2020 titles. Reviews from R’lyeh would like to thank all three for their help.


For Free RPG Day 2021, Hit Point Press released not one, but two things. However, the publisher, best known for its Humblewood anthropomorphic setting for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, actually put the two things in the one booklet and gave them a cover each, much like a Doubleday cover. So look at the one cover, turn the book over and upside down, and you have the other. Both contributions are for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but each provides the Dungeon Master with something different, one is more generic than other, whilst that other is setting specific. T provides an NPC designed to be dropped into almost any fantasy setting and a new Humblewood adventure.

The BIG BADS series presents a range of booklets, each detailing a villainous NPC which the Dungeon Master can drop into her campaign at short notice. The idea is that they be used when the Player Characters have wandered away from the centre of the action or the plot, and the Dungeon Master does not have anything ready for such an eventuality. Each entry comes complete with a description of the villainous NPC, his tactics and traits (Ideal, Bond, and Flaw), his allies, some background, and some adventure hooks. In the case of The Heart of Dako & Zara Harlowe release for Free RPG Day 2021, the ‘BIG BAD’ is Zara Harlowe, who can be inserted into major town or city which has a city guard and a single thieves’ guild dominating the criminal underworld. Zara Harlowe is the chief of the watch or city guard, and has managed to wage a major campaign against organised crime, breaking up gangs and intimidation rackets, foiling heists just in the nick of time, and filled the nearby gaols with innumerable crooks. However, one major criminal, the local Thieves’ Guild Guildmaster, known as Nix, eludes her, and it continues to frustrate the chief of the guard. Except, of course, it does nothing of the sort, for the simple reason that Zara Harlowe and Nix are one of the same. Zara Harlowe has long been corrupt, and her growing ties to the local criminal underworld put her in a position, eventually, to eliminate all of the local competition and install someone else on charge. Namely, herself—or rather Nix. By day, she commands the city guard to crack down on crime, invariably directing them away from her activities by night as the city’s crime boss. It is all a case of one big misdirection—through double agents, bureaucracy, ruthlessness, and disguise.

The Heart of Dako & Zara Harlowe also details her two allies in the know, both as evil as she is, one a Dragonborn shapechanger and wereboar, the other a Half-Elf Necromancer! There are good notes on roleplay on each of these villains, but especially Zara Harlowe, as well as details of what might be found should the trio be encounter at the Guard Station or the Thieves’ Guild Headquarters. Neither is mapped, which is pity, but the Dungeon Master should be able to find or draw something. Should the Dungeon Master want to use Zara Harlowe and her compatriots, the mini-supplement comes three adventure hooks, one a closed room mystery, one a heist in the city where Zara commands the guard, and the last a rambling letter which hints at the truth of her activities. All three will need no little development upon the part of the Dungeon Master, but they represent a good start. Lastly, there are the stats for each of the three NPCs, each given their own page and all accompanied by decent illustrations. In terms of Challenge Rating, all together they have a rating of ten or eleven, depending upon the situation, so the Dungeon Master will need to adjust according or choose when to run these NPCs.

The BIG BADS section of The Heart of Dako & Zara Harlowe runs to just twelve or so pages of content, but provides the background and stats necessary for the Dungeon Master to run this villainess and her allies with relative ease. She will need to make adjustments and development the content a little to fit her campaign or scenario, but no more than usual.


The other half of 
The Heart of Dako & Zara Harlowe is ‘The Heart of Dako’. This is a scenario for the Humblewood campaign setting in which you play anthropomorphic Birdfolk and other woodland creatures. It does not take place in the Humblewood region though, but in the Tanglewilds, a vast jungle far south of the Humblewood on the western continent of Wesden. Here Tanglewilds Guides are stationed at the guide outpost of Wayfare, from where they can be hired to lead expeditions through the jungles of Sania’s Paradise. The four pre-generated Player Characters, all of Fifth Level, are Tanglewilds Guides. They include Zenja Brightfeather, a Seeta Luma (or Parrot) Druid, a Sun Eluran (big cat) Cleric, a Sandscale Tilia (lizard or gecko) Rogue, and an Arma Hedge (armadillo?) Ranger. All four are given two pages each containing all of the necessary stats, features, and traits, plus an explanation of each character’s role, backstory, and equipment. These are all easy to read and understand, and thus far from difficult to ready to play.

‘The Heart of Dako’ opens with the four Player Character Tanglewilds Guides being hired by the Companions of the Blue Rose, a stalwart company of adventurers, to lead them on their way to the coastal city of Espinorra, where a ship awaits to ferry them to their northern homelands. They boast of great find, a precious magical relic they believe to be the fabled Heart of Dako, which they took from the Temple of Naba, and plan to take home with them. Thus they want to get home without any fuss or difficulty. Not long after they set out, the Player Characters and their employers are disturbed in their journey. It might be that they see a strange, apocalyptic vision, be suddenly warned by Companion of the Blue Rose about the Heart of Dako his companions are carrying, or they recall or hear a story about the dreadful outcome should the Heart of Dako be removed from the Temple of Naba. Essentially, the Dungeon Master is free to use these as necessary to persuade the Player Characters that taking the Heart of Dako from the Temple of Naba was not a good idea, each serving as a hook for the adventure proper. Making this decision though will come after the scenario’s opening scene when the Player Characters have an opportunity to interreact with the Companions of the Blue Rose, learn of some of the dangers they faced in finding and plundering the Temple of Naba, and more. This is no mere exposition, but essential in completing the adventure, because the Player Characters will not only have to retrace the steps of the Companions of the Blue Rose, but do so with hot on their heels after stealing the Heart of Dako!

‘The Heart of Dako’ perhaps suggests a nod towards Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but the scenario is more Indiana Jones—right down to one of the NPCs exclaiming, “ It belongs in a museum!”, than exploring the nature of European colonialism! After a race across a rope bridge, the Player Characters enter the Temple of Naba and must navigate the various traps and puzzles located in its various chambers. These include the classic spike traps and walls closing in trap, all before the Companions of the Blue Rose confront again and hopefully, the Player Characters can save the day.

In addition to the scenario, ‘The Heart of Dako’, the first appendix gives full stats for all four members of the Companions of the Blue Rose, as well as other NPCs and a handful of jungle monsters. The second appendix describes the Wilderness Explorer, a new Background, and the third, details the actual Heart of Dako.

‘The Heart of Dako’ is a short and linear and presumes that the Player Characters will do the right thing in returning the artefact to the temple. If not, the scenario ends badly… In fact, the scenario feels all too short and could have done with interaction and opportunities for roleplay as it does emphasise exploration, puzzles, and combat rather than roleplaying. This does not mean that there are no opportunities, but they feel sparse in comparison. The adventure itself can be completed in a single session or so, certainly no more than two sessions. The players are provided with some decent characters to roleplay, and the Dungeon Master likewise has a good selection of NPCs to portray. The Companions of the Blue Rose will need careful study as they are the equal of the Player Characters and just as detailed and capable.


Physically, The Heart of Dako & Zara Harlowe decently presented. The artwork is decent enough in ‘Zara Harlowe’, but fully painted in ‘The Heart of Dako’, and full of lush colours that help bring the various characters (Player Characters and NPCs) to life and the jungle too. A fair bit of the artwork gets used more than once, but it is really good artwork. Otherwise, the writing is good, though perhaps a better explanation of the scenario’s plot could have been included at the beginning.

Of the two pieces of content in The Heart of Dako & Zara Harlowe, ‘Zara Harlowe’ is undoubtedly the more useful, being generic in nature and easily transposed to any setting. Being more specific in its setting, ‘The Heart of Dako’ is less useful to the Dungeon Master unless she wants to run a jungle-set scenario and/or run an anthropomorphic scenario, and less useful to the Humblewood Dungeon Master it takes place far away from the core setting. That said, ‘The Heart of Dako’ is a preview of Humeblewood 2, which opens up the southern tropical continent for the Humblewood setting. As a preview though, it still feels all too short and perhaps wondering if ‘Zara Harlowe’ had been omitted, there might have been room for a bit more adventure and bit more of the Humeblewood 2 to be showcased. Plus, as an adventure for Fifth Level Player Characters, ‘The Heart of Dako’ is not necessarily going to be useful to run when Humeblewood 2 is released.

Overall, The Heart of Dako & Zara Harlowe as a combination does not quite work. The latter is more useful than the former, but detracts from the former which feels as if it could have done with a bit more adventure as a result. Both are available separately on the Hit Point Press website.

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