Adventure Review: Payback

Payback is the second of a two-adventure series that began with Wrath of the Goblinoids. In it, the players play goblins or other evil humanoids fighting against the encroachment of humans into their lands. As with my previous review, I’m reviewing a pdf copy I bought from DriveThruRPG.

The adventure begins with the characters attending a meeting of the various humanoid leaders at the great city of Ok’Gaeth; the Orc King, Peloch, has summoned them to discuss the threat to their lands. The way this is handled is problematic; for the adventure to continue, the meeting absolutely must resolve in one particular way, but by doing so you limit the ability of the players to make meaningful choices. I appreciate that the adventure attempts to allow the players to experience the great city of the humanoids for themselves, but it very much presents a problem for the structure of the adventure: it is railroading, pure and simple, a problem that also is present in Wrath of the Goblinoids. Personally, I’m not above a little judicious railroading, but I prefer to make it explicit and not imply that the players’ choices may change things.

The second section of the adventure sends the characters into the Forest of Despair to make alliance with the Thorn Elves. Although this really boils down to only two encounters – the initial meeting with Thorn Elf scouts and then the meeting with their Emperor – part of the Thorn Elf city is described for the DM. It may be useful for later adventures, but it seems unlikely to be used as part of this adventure.

Of course, the Emperor of the Thorn Elves won’t just help the player characters. He will only do so if the party retrieve an artefact for him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know where the artefact is, and the only clue he has to its location is a riddle in a language none of the Thorn Elves know.

What would be really good here is if the parchment with the riddle was enchanted so that only goblins or orcs could read it. Instead, what we get is a simple letter substitution cipher, from Norse runes to the English alphabet. It rather beggars belief that the elves haven’t solved it and a bunch of low-level goblins are then able to, but that’s how the adventure wants to proceed. Even if the players translate the riddle, actually working out what it refers to may be difficult.

The third section of the adventure deals with the quest for the artefact. It isn’t a particularly long quest, taking up fewer than three pages of text, but it’s at this point that the adventure really shines. The encounters are really inspired and one or two things don’t have significance immediately, but can be used by a Dungeon Master as the seeds for further adventures.

At this point, King Peloch decides that instead of attacking one of the human keeps in a frontal assault, he’ll use his army to draw out the defenders while the player characters infiltrate the keep and take it for the humanoids. This is the fourth section of the adventure, and the largest. The keep consists of 48 areas. Sadly, although all the areas are nicely detailed, there’s nothing particularly interesting about them. It’s mostly just room after room of guards with a few tougher opponents from time to time. The sense of the fantastic is almost entirely missing from the Keep. I wouldn’t mind this so much if it were smaller, but for such a large structure, a significant portion of time is going to spent running what aren’t particularly inspiring encounters.

The adventure concludes with an optional scenario where the group have to defend the Keep from a counterattack from the forces of Acrimos, the human kingdom. There aren’t any details given of how to resolve this; instead working out the details is left up to the Dungeon Master.

Apart from the adventure, the product provides the descriptions of optional humanoid races to play, five new monsters and four new magic items. The monster stats have a few issues requiring adjudication; for instance the Swamp Bear has the trait of Stench: “All creatures within 10ft of bear must make DC 10 CON check or spend round retching, unable to perform any other action.” When does this apply? At the beginning of each turn? Do you have to save every turn? Other monsters have the area of effect “stream”, which doesn’t exist in the 5E rules. The designer probably meant “line”.

As with Wrath of the Goblinoids, the maps are excellent, the layout is problematic, the editing and use of language is poor, and the artwork ranges between average and very good. I learnt that the King Peloch is an orc from the cover text; it’s never mentioned in the actual text of the adventure.

I find Payback a disappointing adventure. The quest for the artefact is really good, but after that the adventure trails away into a rather boring dungeon crawl. And, although the premise of the adventure is strong, I don’t get much of a feeling that the characters are different from normal heroic adventurers. It feels more like window-dressing than an integral part of the adventure. This does mean that you could easily adapt the adventure for normal heroic play, of course. There are a lot of good ideas here that are really strong hooks for later adventures; I just wish those had been the adventures here! That said, it is really hard to write adventures for evil (monstrous) player characters, and it’s entirely possible that my expectations are different from the expectations of others. Perhaps it has a lot more to do with how the players approach the adventure rather than the adventure material itself?

Sacrosanct Games have announced they’ll be releasing a super-dungeon for 5E, Depths of Felk Mor. I am looking forward to seeing what they do with that dungeon. Both of their 5E adventures have shown indications that they can design interesting encounters, so I certainly take a look when it is released.


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