Review: The Sisters of Pestilence

Review: The Sisters of Pestilence Author: M.W. Poort For Levels 1-3, for OSRIC

In a lonely section of the Land far from the crowded confines of civilization stands a dark forest, a mass of thorny trees, brambles, and fens densely clustered amongst the ancient hills. Brave explorers venture within, seeking a tower said to contain the tomb of a forgotten king. Few return, but those who do tell tales of rotting corpses hanging from the trees and dark shapes flitting in the shadows, silence-shrouded days and fever-haunted nights, and an ever-present foreboding of something that lies therein, watching…..waiting. Dare you seek your fortune there, in the grasp of The Sisters of Pestilence?

Spoilers! Synopsis: The party is hired or stumbles upon an old tower, inhabited by a cult that also has a tomb to a once forgotten king.

Sigh…man….It’s hard to write adventures for others, not only because of the time spent doing so, but what I feel is the ‘pressure’ or ‘fear’ of writing the adventures. This pressure or fear stems from the fact that you want everything to make sense or that it’s clear for someone to understand. It’s like the ‘Ikea Furniture Construction Manual’ mentality. One tends to want to explain everything—so that it’s clear. The problem with this mentality is that it makes things cluttered, hard to scan, boring, and/or causes effort to find the good bits. There needs to be a balance between being clear, but also trusting the DM to know how to play….This adventure has some magnificent qualities, but falls victim to being cluttered and too much explanation. Let’ take a look.

The Bad

I was quickly disappointed with this adventure….why you ask? Well, because the Location description was amazing!! I immediately could visualize this forest with flooded fens and half decomposing bodies hanging and swaying in trees…holy crap, this sounds awesome! I wanted to venture into this forest….thus, the disappointment because there is only a Wandering Encounter table (with only monster stats, no activity) in this forest and no set locations….darn it!

Area descriptions usually started off with describing where doors or hallways went too. For example: “Beyond the secret door from the faux Valhalla (Area 10), a staircase ascends to a T-shaped intersection. The passage to the left (east) leads to a dead end (Area 12c). The passage to the right (west) leads to a small chamber (Area 12a), or a branching corridor that leads to a statue (Area 12b).”

Some may find this useful, but I do not. I can see all of this on the map. Instead I have to read through this paragraph to find out what the room looks like that the party just entered.

There is a little bit of history or background laced into some of the text:

“This chamber is used by the cult as a chapter room in which the women gather for communal time such as meals, indoctrination, and instruction from the Shrine Priestess. Like the chamber below, small (4” x 12") shuttered-but-open windows set high in each wall allow what light penetrates the thick forest canopy to brighten the room during the day. At night the room is dark, as no one is allowed within during sleeping hours except under special circumstances (such as an incursion into the tower by invaders). If an alarm has not been raised, no one will be present in this chamber.”

Would the party know that this chamber is used as a chapter room? Is there dirty dishes perhaps? Or that no one is allowed in this room during sleeping hours? The light coming in or the darkness is useful, but I think some of this stuff could just be taken out unless it’s pertinent to a party entering the room. It should be taken out so that I can immediately get to the description of the room:

“12 wolf pelts lie in a circle in the center of the room, atop each of which are a wooden bowl, spoon and cup. A short length of rope is tied to an iron rung set deeply into the stone in the center of the circle. The Sisters use it to secure animals or other creatures on which they practice spells (such as Cause Light Wounds). Something stands in the northwest corner behind the staircase, concealed beneath a dirty yellow robe.”

Aha! There are some dishes in here…ok. So just by reading that there are some bowls in there, I would assume that the cult eats here occasionally…which means I don’t need that explained to me in the first paragraph. Show, don’t tell. Same with the iron rung and rope…how is the party going to know that a cult member casts Cause Light Wounds on an animal here? Instead…maybe there is some blood, or tufts of fur…or maybe even better—a cult member actually doing it! When you tell the DM what it’s used for—you are placing more burden onto the DM to have to come up with clues for the party if they are inspecting it, instead of sprinkling those clues for a DM, that can easily be relayed to a player may who is investigating….does that make sense?

There are just some sections that are over explained in my opinion. For example a pit trap: “…a hidden pit which opens if more than 50 pounds of pressure is exerted onto the top, such as from someone stepping on it (a spear thrust or push from a 10-foot pole will not trigger it unless the wielder has a 14 or greater Strength). The pit drops onto spikes in the tower basement (Area 3b); those falling into it receive 1d6 + 1d8 damage (fall + an assumed 1d2 spikes at 1d4 damage each).”

Just provide the idea, and trust the DM to know how to run with it. Spiked Pit, 1d6 damage, 2d4 damage for spikes. Done.

Finally, different descriptive words could be used. All of these were picked out of one room description: “This large chamber…” “A large pile of kindling…” “A large barrel of water..” “…large pile of old clothes…” “…a large whetstone…” “…a large club…” Not a huge deal, but there is an opportunity to help create more of a mental picture for the DM. Every word counts! Massive chamber, dried pile of kindling, leaking barrel, heap of half-rotted clothes…etc.

The Good

Obviously, M.W. Poort put a lot of effort into this adventure and there are tons of hidden gems inside here. The layout looks great. Despite long winded descriptions, there is some effort to help the DM scan through this. Larger font, bolded room names—this is great to show where a room description starts and ends. There is stock art, but it’s used pretty well. I’m just going to start listing everything that the author did right because there is a lot:

1. Plot hooks provided. They are in the back and a little weak, but it’s an attempt to help the DM and it’s appreciated.

2. A rumor table! Cool!

3. Poisonous plants on the wandering encounter table. Honestly…plants aren’t used enough in my opinion. There is even a random table for their effects. If the party isn’t moving, there are guidelines for other things—like frog’s ribbiting, etc. The example given is a little long…but the idea here is great.

4. Some monsters gain a little uptick. Undead harder to turn…or zombies having a 5% chance to give their target a wasting disease. These examples keep players on their toes and honestly, I’m surprised zombies just don’t have that normally—it makes sense!

5. Location overview is great as I already mentioned. It immediately set me into the place.

6. GM Notes about walls, ceiling height, and doors…all right in the beginning. Immediately the DM has a sense of what the passages look like. Descriptions of rooms in general are pretty cool too—tiles to show forest scenes, etc.

7. Riddles….ok, I HATE riddles because I suck at them, but I appreciate the extra effort people do to put them in their adventure. It presents a whole other aspect than just fighting.

8. Monster stats highlighted. Boom! My eyes immediately go to them. Easy to find during a battle. But the author goes even further, providing stat sheets in the back! I can easily print those pages out, attach them to my DM screen, and use them when needed. Know what? The author also provides opportunities for roleplay. These monsters aren’t waiting to attack the first thing that comes in. Some are curious and don’t attack right away, or try to talk, or try to negotiate….this is what D&D is all about—interaction!

9. Cross referencing. You make some noise? Ogre may come investigate (Ogre Lair: Area 4). This sort of stuff makes the dungeon feel a bit alive. Monsters aren’t just waiting in rooms, they are moving around and doing stuff.

10. Cool magic items!! Just a little more effort was used to help make the magic items more wondrous instead of the typical magic items. Hazel….Jarnglumr….good stuff!

11. Talking statues…weird stuff…..INTERACTION! It’s all in here!

Finally, and the things that really made this adventure shine for me is all the great tidbits that were added to make monsters, etc. come alive. The cult members arguing whether the toad, rat or crow is the proper representative beast of their deity…an ogre rubbing himself with garlic and/or keeping a brazier lit because he is afraid of a snake and he thinks doing so will protect him. Titles for random books found. ALL of this stuff is awesome. Just a sentence or two like this and it makes it EASY for a DM to set the scene and/or give roleplay opportunities. And making things easy for a DM is a designer’s job! Conclusion: It’s obvious Poort grasps the idea of what tools are helpful to include in an adventure for a DM during play, however you may need a highlighter to get to the good parts. Bullet points, more bolding, indenting, and trusting the map…these could have been incorporated to help find the pertinent information quicker. Highlighting the monster stat block is on the right course! Overall, this adventure is boiling with creativity and worth a look. It would be easy to throw in your own campaign. The entire package looks better than some adventures I have purchased.

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