Review: Sky ov Crimson Flame

Sky ov Crimson Flame cover image

Some preamble: I buy a lot of RPG material. Rulebooks, modules, random tables, settings, zines, and so forth. I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to my hobbies, especially when I first dive in. I go for breadth and worry about depth later. This leads to a collection that’s stupidly big. Worse, I’m not actively reading these things because I’m still in discovery mode trying to find all of the great stuff. But, at some point, I have to dig in and start actually reading—and hopefully using—the stuff that I buy.

A while back, Ray Otus had a great series called RPG Tax where he reviewed items in his collection that he had purchased, but hadn’t read for one reason or another. Looking around Google+, I also saw Sophia Brandt has at least one post with a #rpgtax tag, and I think I recall Ray saying she may have started the trend. I’m not sure. Either way, I’d like to do something similar. My pace will be largely based on my reading pace and the size of what I’m reading.

With that out of the way, lets talk about Sky ov Crimson Flame. The book itself contains two things: a level 0 funnel—the eponymous Sky ov Crimson Flame—and Blights ov the Eastern Forest, a level 1 hex crawl. The book is 60 pages and half is dedicated to the funnel and half is dedicated to the hex crawl.

Warning: If I’m your GM, stop reading now.

Sky ov Crimson Flame

It began with the disappearance of Belesa—the raven-haired beauty with jade colored eyes. Then others began to vanish! One by one, friends, loved ones and finally the children screamed out in the night and were lost… In vain you helped in the search, but no trace nor track could be found.

Now as the Horned Moon rises a thunderous sound ripples across the night sky and in its wake a Crimson Star ignites in the East! Remembering the legends of screaming witchlights that blazed and dance across the sky the village elders have determined those stolen must have been taken to the Ancient Keep—a place of dread that lies hidden within the dark boughs of the Eastern Forest.

You here are the only brave souls the village of Reed could muster. It is up to you to save those who have been taken and stop whatever evil now dwells within that accursed structure of yore. Together you steel yourselves as you enter the Eastern Forest.

Your players represent villagers from the town of Reed that have entered the Eastern Forest in an attempt to rescue Belesa and the others from the village. During a midnight stroll, Belesa was drawn into the ruins of the Ancient Keep by the dagger Atma-khanjr. That dagger is a shard of a necromancer named Balrothhariid who lived at the Ancient Keep. When Belesa picked up the dagger, it possessed her and enticed her to flay herself using the dagger and she now believes she’s the next incarnation of Balrothhariid. Since then she’s been the one who’s abducted the villagers and later the one who flayed them. Our heroes need to go to the keep and either stop Belesa from bringing Balrothhariid back or defeat Balrothhariid if he’s brought back to our world!

I enjoyed reading through this one, but if you haven’t guessed by now, this adventure is pretty gruesome. If you’re a bit squeamish, you may want to skip this one. We have:

  • Flayed bodies that are wracked by pain
  • Cherub Head-Bats, which are severed baby heads with wings constructed from stretched skin stitched to the side of their heads
  • Adult Head-Bats which also have spinal cords attached that are used as weapons
  • A suit of flayed flesh that shambles about the castle’s dungeon who attempts to liquify a victim by encasing them in their acidic skin, and
  • A creature that’s a fusion of children that’s “one ghastly ball of rolling eyes and mouths that each squeal and cry and whine at once”

If you’re past that and still interested, you’ll find it hits a lot of what makes a great funnel:

  • high risk, high reward choices
  • more than one path to get where you need to go
  • a race against time, and
  • interesting monsters to fight.

The various paths and choices you make work really well. You can either scale the walls of the Keep or find the lower entrance via a narrow ledge under the bridge to the Keep. Additionally, you can skip the fight with Belesa if you manage to find her flayed face in the dungeon. I love that kind of stuff.

That race against time is pretty great. It’s near the end of the adventure, but Belesa is holding a ritual that will bring back Balrothhariid. Every round is details as the ritual gets further along and latter rounds make things more difficult as oppressive winds start whipping around the tower.

The monsters all felt unique. The Cherub Head-Bats want to chew you and will continue to do so until they’re dead or shaken off. The Adult Head-Bats want to impale you with their spinal cords. The Cherub Head-Bombs are suicide bomber versions of the Cherub Head-Bats. The Butcher Cultist will attempt to flay your skin, causing permanent Stamina damage, or break your bones, causing permanent Strength or Agility damage. There’s a Shambling Flesh Mass that feels like a land based kraken that has eight regenerating entrails that each attack. Even the monsters that don’t feel unique—Belesa and Balrothhariid—manage to ratchet up the tension in other ways (the race against time and a random table, respectively).

The handouts are great and the maps are generally good. My players love handouts, especially when it gives a visual to a hard to describe scene. I felt like the interior isometric map could have done a better job indicating where various stairs lead to instead of just mentioning the level and room it leads to (e.g. “to 3-1”).

There’s some additional variety with the random tables. When your players get to the library within the keep, the shelves of ancient tomes and shiny baubles will likely catch their eye, but what’s on there? Roll a d6 to find out. Later, during what’s likely to be the final encounter of the module, what happens when they’re transported to the Nexus between their Realm and the Other Worlds? Roll a d20 each round to find out. I like that. In addition, there are other times when as a GM you’ll be rolling dice to see how a sentient weapon affects a player or where that suit of flayed flesh happens to be. Maybe the players will run into it as it changes rooms?

The other weaknesses worth mentioning are pretty minor. I think the biggest weakness is there’s little chance for actual roleplaying, instead most of the time the monsters are going to attack you. This feels in line with other DCC adventures, but it’s always a nice change of pace to talk it out, even if the monster is just trying to manipulate or stall you.

While the cover is a fantastic piece by Stefan Poag and he has some contributions to the interior art as well, there are some pieces that feel out of place and not up to the quality elsewhere.

Worse, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen bits and pieces of this adventure before, especially in Sailors on the Starless Sea. You’re villagers in a town with a mysterious keep where something strange is going on. A few brave souls muster up the courage and go off to deal with the problem. I’m not sure it’s a big problem, but just something that was in the back of my head.

Clearly, I think this funnel is pretty good, almost great. It has a few things holding it back, namely that it feels so similar to other adventures, but it has a lot going for it as well. I’m planning on running this as a Halloween adventure for my ongoing DCC campaign and I’ll have a mixed party of level 1 and level 0 adventurers. I’ll report back later.

Blights of the Eastern Forest

Hex map of the Eastern Forest

The second half of the book is dedicated to Blights of the Eastern Forest “a 1-level Mini-Campaign” in the form of a hex crawl. This was a stretch goal as part of the Kickstarter campaign for the book and it feels like a stretch goal. The various sites are inconsistent with some being deeply haunting places, another feeling something like a Grimm’s fairy tale, and then another having demonic gummy bears.

That being said, I’m definitely going to have this map waiting somewhere in the Ancient Keep and I’ve also made a table of rumors to draw the adventurers to the various sites. Additionally, there are wandering monsters (of course there are!), some of which you can only find by wandering around the forest and others you’ll run into at some of the adventure sites. In particular, I really like the Hound O’ the Wood—who could be an ally—and the Whisperer in the Flame—a spirit that manipulates a party member with particularly low Willpower.

But then there are the other sites, what do they hold and how do they rank?

Lair of the Yss’sak

The Yss’sak feels like a fairy tale creature from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It offers to leave the forest if you get its medallion back, but it turns out that the medallion will rejuvenate the beast and it’s going to mess you up.

I like that this site is here because it’s a rare chance to talk with an NPC in this book. I also like that the Yss’sak has a scar from the sword and wielder who laid entombed in the Ancient Keep from the funnel, nice continuity. On the other hand, this is a very short encounter.

Hellspring Hollow

This one feels like a proper DCC adventure in miniature. There are flesh-eating trees that will attempt to swallow adventurers whole. There’s an underground canal of blood leading from the beating heart of a Chaos Lord that’s encased in a metal rib cage. There’s also a whirlpool that will have the adventurers questioning their sanity and possibly diving into the oblivion.

About the only thing missing from this site is a reason to be here other than cleansing the land of filth. Players can earn some serious bonus experience if they roll well, but otherwise there’s no loot.

Tower of the Coo’ng

After trudging through the woods our players find a clearing with a tower in the middle of it. If the players are here at night, they’re likely to be attacked by the Coo’ng, a former sorceress corrupted by the effects of magic. The book describes her better than I ever could:

Her appearance is that of humanoid shaped creature with a hide of thick pale skin and mottled patches of fur that be- comes luminescent in the moonlight. Long black claws protrude from her hands and with nimble, powerful muscles, she strikes down prey with one swift attack from behind. The Coo’ng flies with dual sets of wings that grow from its back, resembling an unholy union between the moth and the bat. Below an antennae brow, saucer-shaped eyes shim- mer an iridescent blue; two sharp fangs protrude from human lips.

Outside of the Coo’ng the rest of this site feels pretty boring. There’s a tower. It has a few levels. There’s some read-aloud text and maybe the players will find some spell components, a spell of the judge’s discretion, and possibly a potion of invisibility. And then you find where the Coo’ng sleeps and either get ambushed if you’ve been noisy or have a normal fight if you haven’t.

Again, needs more loot and a more interesting reason to be here.

Jhumbii-Beyr Glen

Okay, so here’s the one with the demonic gummy bears, also known as Jhumbii-Beyrs. Now, I love gonzo adventures, but this is the site that singlehandedly makes me realize that this hex crawl is a stretch goal simply because of how different it is from the other sites.

That being said, I really enjoy that the Jhumbi-Beyrs come in different colors and that each color has some wrinkle in how it fights or what it attacks with. I also love the gonzo nature of the creatures being turned into future Jhumbi-Beyrs in the chambers below.

As for why you’re here, well, the best you can do is cleanse the land and maybe find a level-0 party member if you’re lucky.

Sanctuary of the Sightless Sisters

This is my favorite site of the lot. First, there’s the continuity with the history of the Ancient Keep and the sister of King Roulreed. Second, there is loot, but you’ll be taking some serious risks in order to get it, but oooh it’s sooo shiny.

You’ll be able to talk with a long-deceased knight and squire who live in eternal pain. You can have a player sacrifice their eyes in order to see the body of St. Margaret and either take the offerings or praying piously (not likely with these adventurers…). If those adventurers take the offerings they’re likely to spring the steam trap that will likely kill them unless they move fast. And I forgot to mention, if the adventurers force a character to sacrifice their eyes, the six sisters who worked here will raise as wights and attack the party!

This one has some great situations, fun traps, tough decisions, and it has loot!

The Wrook’s Hut

From where the Wrook originally hailed or what exactly he is none with any certainty can say. Many surmise he is an exiled demon trapped within the forests perimeter. Others say he was once a hermit and turned vile by the sickness of the forest. In any case, this demonic creature with mid- night black skin and two golden orbs for eyes claims the entirety of Eastern Forest as his domain.

You may never run into the Wrook in The Eastern Forest, but if you did, there’s a chance one of your characters has lost its soul. You can get that soul back if you manage to get past the near infinite number of crows outside of his hut.

This is a small site, just the hut’s two rooms and the area surrounding it, but this place has some treasure, in fact it probably has some of the best treasure in the woods as the Wrook demands treasure from “trespassers” of his forest. And if they don’t pay up, he’ll take their soul and lay them as Soul Eggs—2 foot tall, 3 foot wide with a dark transparent shell, weighing up to 150 pounds. If one of your characters lost their soul earlier, you’ll find it here.

I like this one because it ties into the encounters, but it’s pretty small.

The Whole

I generally like this hex crawl and will almost certainly run it for my players, but I feel like my standards are pretty low as I haven’t read other crawls and I haven’t run a single one. Still, the adventure sites are generally interesting and having your players chase down rumors in the forest should be a fun enterprise.

I felt like this hex crawl would be better if it had more loot and a good rumor table to get the party interested in the various sites. I’ve created a rumor table and rolled up some fun magic loot for two of sites and I’ll be posting that later.

Once my party has going through the woods, I’ll report back and see if my expectations were in line with reality, but I think this looks like a good introduction to a hex crawl for a group of new players.