Posted on June 14, 2006 by Flames
The Initial Impression
Weighing in at a hefty ninety-five pages (excluding an appendix of various maps and player handouts) and retailing for a reasonable $18.99 (US), What Lurks Beyond is a fantasy horror adventure module published by Cutter’s Guild Games (best known for their Deathstalkers RPG). So, what are you getting for that investment? First the good news….
Billed as an adventure module, the product reminds more of a mini campaign, due largely to its scope and length – it is heavy on the meat. The basic plot of What Lurks Beyond is both well thought out and engaging, if somewhat hampered by the product’s presentation. And that’s it for the good news. Now for the bad news….
A poor understanding of basic d20 System presentation standards (as well as the OGL itself) and a series of alternately anachronistic and nonsensical riddles punch some very large holes in what is otherwise a really nifty product. Patching these holes is, unfortunately, not an especially easy endeavor and, thus, does a great deal to detract from the product’s high points.
Ultimately, my first impression was that the product was a mixed bag of good and bad. And, to be fair, that has been my experience with other Cutter’s Guild products, as well. What’s more, I’ve found that the ratio of brilliant writing to barrel scrapings is often wildly divergent from one Cutter’s Guild product to another. I guess that’s part of the company’s charm, though – I never know quite what to expect.
Upon Further Inspection
Past my initial impression, the following high and low points of What Lurks Beyond stood out to me upon a thorough reading of the product in question. While my initial impression remained largely unchanged at the end of the day, the specifics of why that was the case bear discussion.
The High Points
From the standpoint of price versus amount of content, you’re getting a good deal if the quality of the content meets your personal standards. In the space of ninety-five pages, adventurers stumble across a long forgotten town, explore the surrounding region, unearth its deadly secrets, awaken an ancient evil and, hopefully, lay that evil to rest for all time. As I said earlier, there’s a lot of meat here – easily enough for a short campaign, as opposed to a single night of adventure. Thankfully, not only is there a lot of adventure, but it’s pretty entertaining to boot.
The basic plot of the adventure module reads like a ghost story (in fact, adventurers will get to encounter more than a few ghosts as it unfolds), and is dripping with atmospheric description. The simple yet engaging story arc is parsed to great effect with descriptive text (both of the “read aloud” variety and of the more mundane “for GM eyes only” brand), doing a good job of evoking an eerie atmosphere that players won’t soon forget. I’ve never been a big fan of mass-produced fantasy horror, often finding that it misses the mark, but What Lurks Beyond gets the job done and does it right.
Finally, there is a good balance of story and combat here – adventurers won’t simply be hacking up creatures ‘just because’, but they will be hacking them up. Your group’s combat monsters and resident detectives alike will find something here to sink their teeth into. One part standard fantasy adventure, one part Tomb Raider, and two parts Edgar Allen Poe, What Lurks Beyond covers a lot of thematic ground and does so very well. If the lack of breadth in thematic content is a problem that you feel many adventure modules suffer from, What Lurks Beyond should pleasantly surprise you.
The Low Points
First, the riddles. The riddles are bad. There’s just no getting around it. From anachronistic elements such as modern day word jumbles and crossword puzzles (yes, just like those in the Sunday paper) to poorly worded logic problems, the riddles in What Lurks Beyond go a long way toward destroying an otherwise excellent product. Not only are the anachronistic word games extremely mood shattering, but in terms of meta-gaming, they’re outrageously intrusive upon the game that the group is already playing. How would this go over in your group?
“Alright. We’re going to set aside the roleplaying game for a few minutes and concentrate on solving a crossword puzzle!”
Not well, right? Well, now tack on “And if you don’t solve it in 7 minutes, One of you will immediately be slain – no saving throw!”. That’s right, in addition to dropping modern entertainment into a fantasy setting, there’s an arbitrary PC death attached to many of the riddles in What Lurks Beyond. Now, it may be that I’m just extremely out of touch with what the current generation of roleplayers find fun, but I really can’t imagine most people taking any of this well if it suddenly shows up in the middle of a fantasy game without warning. But enough about riddles….
The other most notable shortcoming of What Lurks Beyond is in its presentation. For a d20 System adventure, it makes next to no use of d20 System product presentation standards – none of the new creatures presented in the module have a listed CR, alignment, or creature type; while major NPCs write-ups (15th level characters) boast absolutely no feats or skills. For a product that sports the d20 System logo and is marketed as a d20 System adventure, this departure from the accepted presentation standards for creatures and NPCs in such products is unforgivable. The authors should have spent some more time with the System Reference Document before they put their pens to paper.
The copy of the OGL located at the end of the book has its own problems. First, the Copyright notice (Section 15) hasn’t been updated to include What Lurks Beyond, as per the requirements of the licence (Section 6). Additionally, a clumsy effort has been made in the attached “Notices” to identify certain content as OGC, only to follow this attempt at identification with “All contents of this book regardless of designation are copyright 2003 by Cutter’s Guild Games” in some kind of misguided attempt to shove the cat back in the bag. The whole thing is an exercise in obvious misunderstanding about how the OGL works and why it exists in the first place.
Finally, there is no brief overview of the product’s content’s anywhere (for the GM’s eyes only or otherwise). The only way to glean the overall plot of the adventure is to read it from the front cover to the back cover. While this isn’t a problem if you already own What Lurks Beyond, it makes getting a quick impression of the module prior to purchase nearly impossible. Likewise, if you own, but aren’t intimately familiar with the module, the lack of such an overview makes running it with a few hours notice very difficult. As such overivews have been common fare in adventure modules since the late 1970s, I’m definitely counting this as a strike against the product.
The Final Analysis
Ultimately, what you buy adventure modules for will determine how satisfied you are with What Lurks Beyond. If you’re looking for an adventure that has an engaging story arc, several locales to explore, and some very well-written flavor text, you could do far worse than to pick up a copy of What Lurks Beyond. If, on the other hand, you primarily buy your modules for crunchy bits or quick implementation in existing campaigns, then steer clear of this one – the presentation cripples many of the crunchy bits and makes quick implementation into an existing campaign next to impossible.
Rating products like this can be tough. With that in mind, my final ‘2-Star’ rating reflects both the good and the bad in What Lurks Beyond. In the end, the bad narrowly wins out over the good, but this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give the module a chance. If you love a good ghost story, What Lurks Beyond can offer you a lot – but you’ll need to apply a healthy amount of elbow grease to buff out the rough spots.
Game Master Spoilers
Some of you no doubt want me to spell out the plot in detail. As a general rule I don’t like doing this in reviews, lest you have nothing left to surprise your players with when actual play rolls around. That said, I’ve caught some flack for my decision not to do this thing (i.e., spoil the adventure) for readers in the past, so I’m going to try it this way, instead.Plot Synopsis
Long ago, in times forgotten by most, the city of Bladesedge River was a bustling community with much promise. Things were looking good, and when the powerful wizard Ezreal came to town, they only looked better. Ezreal promised to enrich the city with his powers, starting by constructing a massive tower to the Northeast that would ward the town from outside intruders. And that is just about when things started to go downhill…
As it happened, Ezreal wasn’t entirely honest. Yes, he would enrich the town with his powers, but only insofar as it suited him to do so – that’s right, Ezreal was evil. Very evil. And the town of Bladesedge was in his grip. Finally, two paladins (Seth and Adrial) led the charge to oust Ezreal from his seat of power and free the town from his rule. Things didn’t go as planned.
An undetermined number of years later, Bladesridge River and Ezreal’s tower lie forgotten, nestled deep in a dark wood, waiting to be discovered by the PCs. And Ezreal waits there, as well – as do many former residents of Bladesedge, transformed into Ezreal’s servant’s by his magically engineered plague. And that’s the basic set-up.
Where the story goes from this point is anybody’s guess – as the dice hit the table, you and your players get to decide how the story ends. Will your group uncover and finish the ancient quest of Seth and Adrial to vanquish Ezreal – or will they inadvertently loose him on the rest of the world?
Spoilers End Here
Reviewer: James D. Hargrove