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Friday 3 November 2023

Friday Fantasy: The Bone Alchemist

The Bone Alchemist is an adventure for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Written and published by Gaz Bowerbank—one half of the podcast, What Would The Smart Party Do?—it is designed for use with First Level Player Characters and takes place in a pseudo-Arabian Nights setting. The author suggests two possible initial locations. One is the city of Calimport in the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, the other is the great port city of Pylas Maradal in Valenar in the Eberron setting, but if not, the scenario is easily adapted to a Swords & Sorcery-style setting of the Dungeon Master’s choice. Wherever the scenario is set, a king and royal family rules the city inviolate, kept both safe and isolated from city life and any of its unpleasantness by a mixture of the royal guard and secret police. This includes the young nine-year-old prince, Masoud, whose pet pseudodragon has died, and with him unprepared accept the situation, merely thinking the beast asleep, Zoya, his mother has sought a solution to the problem and is prepared to spend deeply from the king’s purse. Unfortunately, their isolated lives have left both Zoya and Masoud gullible and thus ready to accept the ‘help’ and ‘advice’ of any of the city’s charlatans, tricksters, and opportunists. As The Bone Alchemist begins, both prince and his mother are missing, and the Royal Guard is desperate to find them. Ideally before someone tells the king…

The Bone Alchemist begins with the Player Characters in the city, in a tavern, come to meet a contact who may be able to help them find work. The scenario provides adventure hooks by Player Character Background—Acolyte, Charlatan, Noble, Sage, Soldier, and so on—to suggest why they might be there and why they might want to make contact with Equitable Ehsan, one of the city’s many wheelers and dealers. They know to meet him in a cantina, Olidammara’s Rest, which is where they find themselves in the scenario’s opening scene. In true fantasy fashion, this develops into a brawl and as a consequence, the Player Characters are either pushed or pulled into the scenario’s plot. This takes them into the bazaar where they haggle with a merchant or two, one of whom is perhaps too helpful, but will provide the Player Characters with a device which will enable them to track Prince Masoud, his mother Zoya, and his bodyguard, Atul. The device first points down to the beach where the Player Characters can gain further help, but not before delving into the first of the scenario’s two dungeons, but a dungeon with a difference! This is inside the body of a giant kraken, which a local gang is plundering for its precious alchemical components. Descending into its foul and foetid depths is optional, but doing so is to the Player Characters’ advantage. It is a ripe and bilious experience, thankfully short, but engagingly described and utterly in contrast with the rest of the scenario.

The other locations for the scenario include atop a dragon turtle, which is a great scene for a fight, and lastly, the dungeon of the true villain at the heart of the scenario, the Bone Alchemist herself. This is more like a traditional dungeon, but enlivened by some excellent descriptions and an air of decay and disregard that lingers in each and every one of its caves. Ultimately, the scenario will end with some home-truths for prince Masoud, who may have to grow up just a little, and the Player Characters either heroes or in further trouble. Either way, the scenario is supported with several hooks for the Dungeon Master to develop sequels of her own.

There is no denying that The Bone Alchemist is full of fun and inventive scenes, whether it is the brawl between the Talons, the local gang, and the palace guard in a tavern with the Player Characters caught in the middle, having to delve into the insides of the corpse of a kraken, fighting atop a dragon turtle, or fighting an undead giant goat who has already bleated out a warning! There are also pleasing descriptions for each of the scenario’s NPCs, accompanied by some flavour text that imparts what they might and how they might say it, instantly granting the Dungeon Master a feel for the NPC. Further, the author gives every scene a table of random events that enhance the action in that scene. For example, in the opening scene in Olidammara’s Rest, there is a table of rumours to glean and a table of events to throw into the combat, such as “The barkeep smashes someone over the head with a bottle from behind. One Talon or guard drops to 0 hp.” and “Equitable Ehsan appears on hands and knees, trying to crawl his way out of the carnage.” Of course, these are clichés, swiped from any one of a number of films, but they help set the tone of the brawl and thus the scene, as well as adding an element of humour, almost winking knowingly at the players in their familiarity. The combat events and random events tables are in general inventive and more tailored to their particular locations.

Yet in places the writing could be stronger, such as with the location descriptions which vary in quality and ease of use. For example, the opening scene in the cantina, Olidammara’s Rest is very much underwritten in comparison, for example, to the description given of the bazaar, which is rich in detail and flavour. The Dungeon Master may want to prepare some better descriptions—the equivalent of her own ‘purple prose’—to help set the scene for her players and their characters. To be clear, not every description suffers from this, the majority of them being expressive and great scene-setting. However, the villainess of the scenario, the Bone Alchemist, is fiercely underwritten and really lacks motivation, and that perhaps is the biggest weakness to the scenario. It is not necessarily a very interesting final encounter either and perhaps one option might be to enliven it with the undead remains of Masoud’s pseudodragon being turned upon both him and the Player Characters as nasty lesson to the pampered prince.

Physically, The Bone Alchemist is clean and tidy, and well laid out. The maps are decent and the artwork also good. Throughout there are notes for the Dungeon Master which add detail and flavour. Stats are provided only for two NPCs and monsters in the scenario. The Dungeon Master will need to provide the rest, but links in the PDF connect to DnDByeond.com and the right stats in each case.

The Bone Alchemist is straightforward and easy to prepare and run or even adapt to the retroclone of your choice. Similarly, it is easy to add to any Arabian Nights or Swords & Sorcery-style setting or campaign. If the writing is uneven in places, then at least 
The Bone Alchemist provides some entertaining set scenes backed up with evocative detail and description that will help the Dungeon Master set these scenes and then bring both their action and their NPCs to life.

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