Continuing to support the in-house Crimson Dragon Slayer system, Kort’thalis releases Stairway of V’dreen, a sandbox adventure in a world that is steadily being erased as its erstwhile gods have moved on to other creations. Further embracing the zaniness of author Venger As’Nas Satanis’ love for random tables, this adventure shines in creating a surprisingly consistent world whose erasure is prompted by a surprising — and self-effacing — twist that the PCs can directly interact with during the Paranoia-esque conclusion. Though it’s clearly a beer-and-pretzels, “jump in fast and see how quickly things get crazy” style of adventure, there’s a surprising amount of depth to be uncovered.
Rating: Content 3/5 and Form 5/5.
Read on for the full review!
Like so many of Kort’thalis Publishing’s products, Stairway packs an optimal amount of adventure hooks and encounters in a minimum of space, cleverly leaving a fair amount of work up to random tables and minimizing background- and motivation-oriented text for NPCs and creatures so that the GM has just enough to run things but with plenty of room to riff on their own ideas. This also makes the adventure replayable to a great degree.
Unlike the previous outing we reviewed — Slaves of Tsathoggua — Stairway is not a dungeon crawl. Nor is it a hexcrawl, since the territory the party is going to explore is not mapped and is in fact beginning to dissipate at its outer edges into an obliterating void of nothingness. Instead, this adventure quickly drops the party into this ever-shrinking land, provides a couple set encounters, a couple of adventure sites, and a handful of factions the party can interact with. The GM is given all the pertinent details, but it’s up to them and the decisions of their players as to what order things will operate in, and where the party might wander off to.
Adventure Intro: Getting to V’dreen
The adventure opens with the party being forced to find cover — from what is up to them, and can be anything from a terrible storm to a rampaging kaiju — and in so doing they stumble onto a mad scientist that opens a portal to V’dreen and it’s pretty much assumed the party heads through. This part’s a railroad to get to the rest of the adventure, which I always personally take issue with, but it’s evocative and there’s a random table in case the party tries to screw with the portal that could result in folks getting killed or whisked off to other worlds, so if the players are intent on avoiding the adventure, they still might die. Very old school, and quite hilarious.
The World of V’dreen
Once everyone heads through the portal, they come upon a world that is slowly eroding: civilizations have fallen and disappeared, geography is fading, even the air is thinning and can lead to penalties for characters that exert themselves too hard. Although several sections follow with specific encounters, locales, and events, there’s a bevy of tables to help build the details and feel of the setting, including:
- A table for the effects of strenuous activity in the thinning air environment.
- Random half-heard whispers from the gods that abandoned this setting (hinting at the origin of the world and foreshadowing the finale of the adventure).
- Typical professions of the V’dreen residents of the ghost town of Laarzdyn, many of which are truly bizarre.
- Three tables that provide bizarre features for randomly encountered monsters.
- A list of non-player characters that are stranded in this realm.
We then get a brief overview of what V’dreen is — replicated in part below — but no map or artistic rendering, which is really the only major flaw in this product.
The lack of a map, general layout, or artistic representation of what V’dreen looks like is a miss. Few of the art pieces in the book evoke anything about the scenery, instead concentrating on the monsters and characters the party meets, and because of that there’s a real problem for those of us that are more visual when it comes to picturing the bizarre, extremely fun landscape elements of the setting. That said, the following encounters and locations provide for some pretty evocative fuel for a sandbox adventure.
Encounters: Fractious Factions and Scary Sites
The factions the party may face include:
- Insectoid raiders and slavers that attempt to kill the mad scientist that pulled the party through the portal in the first place.
- A group of Star Elves AKA Klyngon Elves (yeah, Klingons) seeking to use the mysterious Stairway of V’dreen.
- The B’xeeru, sentient clouds that protect the stairway.
- Zobleez, which are basically flesh-eating goblins.
- A masked warlord seeking slaves.
Then there are several sites the party may explore:
- The edge of the world, which is basically a drop off into nothingness (actually, it looks ominously like graph paper…).
- A temple inhabited by a demon that promises the party a powerful sword in exchange for carrying out a quest that will restore V’dreen (surprise: this is a lie).
- A garden of statues wherein hides three immortal former-servitors of the demon in the temple.
- A monolith that grants magical powers.
- A time-traveling wizard who lives in a cave.
And, of course, the stairway itself, which is guarded by a massive, nightmarish beast that combines all the worst features of a spider and a tyrannosaurus rex. The stairway leads to a stunning conclusion that has been well built-up by the various events, locations, and random tables throughout this adventure, which is great because that level of consistency often doesn’t show up in old school adventures: too often, random tables just feel random and don’t reinforce any particular theme. Not so here: everything comes together.
There’s a lot to like here — even if you don’t like the Klingon reference — because the groups are all framed with regard to how they view the stairway and the beast that guards it, and this makes it very clear how everyone interacts. There’s enough templates and stats for NPCs that you have a fair amount of enemies to work with, but I can’t help that the lack of a visual guide to the land also pervades the overall content: there’s just not enough presented for most of the factions (the Star Elves and B’xeeru have no stats or examples), and the adventure sites are pretty basic, likely not good for much more than an hour of play each at the absolute most, and that’s with a lot of riffing and throwing random encounters at the party (which incidentally there isn’t a table for). Ultimately, it feels like a great outline, but lacks enough detail to really sing once the players start really interacting with the people and places in V’dreen.
Conclusion: Ascending the Stairway
***BIGGEST POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT***
Highlight the following text to see it.
The stairway leads to a window that looks into the real world, revealing the “gods” to be a group of roleplayers who created and adventured in V’dreen but who’ve probably since moved on to other games or campaign worlds. Three buttons exist at this window and allow the PCs to swap V’dreen for another campaign setting (Venger’s Purple Islands, which are the subject of a couple modules he’s since authored) and unleash the demon from the temple, revitalize V’dreen, or completely obliterate V’dreen (and perhaps the real world).
***END SPOILER ALERT***
It’s worth noting that this adventure — like anything for Crimson Dragon Slayer — is easily portable to your OSR system of choice. This does shore up some of Stairway‘s lack of depth because throwing in any encounter from any product for games like Castles & Crusades, Swords & Wizardry, or Labyrinth Lord (as well as anything OD&D and AD&D derived) is going to be a snap.
A 19-page PDF, Stairway of V’dreen comes with both full color and printer-friendly versions that are cleanly laid out in two columns and are easy on the eyes.
The artwork is a great mix of gorgeous pieces of horrors beyond this world and a few that are more evocative of old school fantasy gaming, but they all fit seamlessly together and enhance the content. As previously mentioned, the only thing missing here is a map or stylized layout of the world of V’dreen, and this remains perhaps the only real flaw in the presentation of this product.
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