The Spire of Quetzel
by Patrick Stuart, Chris McDowall, Ben Milton & Karl Stjernberg
published by Fria Ligan
for the Forbidden Lands RPG
pdf here ($10), print here ($21.13)
I spotted this from a mile away on the shelf at my FLGS. I was surprised. Rumours of this book had reached me from the distant lands of Kickstarter but having not backed it I thought I'd never see a physical copy. Despite knowing nothing about Fria Ligan or the Forbidden Lands game, I picked it up on name-check value alone. I think it turned out to be a good move, especially for 29 wooden nickels (excuse me, Canadian "Dollars").
The Spire is a slim but handsome hardcover with a great feel and obvious quality of production. It covers four site-based adventures in 71 pages. The lost world, swords-and-sorcery vibe of this book gels perfectly with my Land's End home game. Honestly If I asked these guys to write adventures JUST FOR ME I don't know if they could have done any better. If you want a TLDR for this review: I'll be dropping three of these adventure sites into my home game as-is. Each one is perfectly sized as a 'major hex location' - somewhere the PCs could stumble upon for one- or two-session adventure.
The imaginative content of these adventures is really good - all four authors blast it out of the park. The Spire of Quetzel is pure Patrick: a hallucinatory tower that winds through dimensions, built by a demon-queen and housing her not-quite-dead body. Going in here is honestly just a really bad idea, but if the players are (really) lucky they might make off with some really cool stuff. Every room presents an interesting situation or knotty problem in a strange, visually powerful environment. I am already jonesing to run it.
The Bright Vault is a strange 'social' adventure in a prison for demon-spawn. Each one has its own personality and goals while their enigmatic, disembodied jailer manipulates them (and the adventurers) for its own purposes. The teeter-totter social situation is balanced against the possibility of savagely dangerous (I think?) battle with these weird childlike monsters. This adventure could go in any direction once the PCs arrive. The magical treasure in this one is really inventive, like a magical "flashlight" which prevents death only as long as it's trained on the target.
The Hexenwald is a small forest inhabited by five witches. It could be used as a safe haven to rest, resupply and gather information or the PCs might decide to jack these crones up for their strange loot and magic items. Either way, social dynamics and buried secrets add interest to what otherwise would be quite well-mined territory. I already have a few swamp-dwelling witches in my home game, so this one won't get included whole cloth - but that only proves these guys are writing exactly the kind of adventures I want!
The last location, Graveyard of Thunder is an ancient dinosaur tomb! Just like elephants (or so I'm told), this ancient T-Rex called One-Eye has wandered back to its ancestral graveyard to die. Guarding it is the last lizardfolk of its tribe of dinosaur-worshippers, charged to protect the sacred site with its life. Outside a band of greedy orcs lust after the treasures and will happily send the PCs in to deal with the guardian. Seems like something I've heard before, but Stjernberg executes with a wide-eyed purity here that leaves no room for cliches. Will the PCs blaze past the guardian, fight One-Eye, maybe get eaten or take the ancient trident of lightning? Team up with Ssilsk to defeat the orcs? Who knows man, but I'm looking forward to finding out!
On the downside, this book is laid out poorly. I don't know if I can fault the authors for it. Each one follows the same format, so it must be dictated by Fria Ligan (anybody care to ask one of these dudes?). Each location is divided into several categories: Background (site history for the DM), Legend (some read-aloud text to get the players going), Getting Here (a few suggested hooks or travel info), Locations (the actual site key), Monsters and NPCs (stats, personalities etc), and Events (things that might happen at the location). This format is fucking horrible and you don't have to be Bryce Lynch to figure that out.
For example: in The Spire of Quetzel, area 3 is called the Red-Bricked Tower and is keyed as one would expect under "Locations," on pages 7 & 9 (pg 8 is a map). This area is prowled by the Bent-Backed Wolves and the Ghosts of Ash, statistics for which are found under "Monsters and NPCs" on pg 15. Meanwhile, the number of these creatures encountered is listed in the "Events" section on pp. 20-21. This is the only location in the whole book where you'll ever meet these creatures! Why the hell do I have to flip to three different spots in your 20-page adventure to run one single area? Every location in the adventure is done this way. Come the fuck on guys.
This steep downside is mitigated by the fact that I don't play Forbidden Lands, and so the monster stats are not useful to me: I'll have to do a fair bit of advance prep to make these adventures work in my home game anyway. But it's still no excuse! They claim to be inspired by the OSR in the introduction to the book - you wanna drop the name, you'd better play the game son.
The open-endedness of these locations is what I really like the most. They are perfect for a wilderness hexcrawl like my home game. Ideally I want an adventure location that can be returned to more than once - or at least permit me a multitude of approaches and strategies. My players love to kick ass, but they also like to meet strange creatures and make friends. These four sites fit that second demand perfectly. The work it'll take me to adapt the monster stats and take notes to avoid the formatting problems is worth including these wickedly creative adventures in my game.
EDIT: if you also want to get this adventure to use in your D&D game, the Forbidden Lands quickstart rules are here for free, they might give a point of comparison for porting the monsters over to your system of choice.
Now let's take a trip to 2029 for a minute: