Campaigns in Cairnvarthi is a big product – 145 pages in total – which its author, Matthew Evans, has made available through DriveThruRPG in pdf or print-on-demand format. Part campaign setting, part adventure, it’s something he’s been working on for some time.
I’m not going to review the campaign setting here in detail. It contains a short history of the world and details on the nations, gods and monsters, as well as providing a number of random encounter table. It takes up the first half of the book.
The second half of the book contains a number of adventures which provide a small sandbox adventure setting for characters levels 1-5. The adventure begins in a small dungeon and ends in a bigger dungeon, and between are town adventures, short wilderness expeditions and other dungeons.
The dungeons provide a good mix of traps, tricks and monsters. They feel very much like old-school dungeons, something that I enjoy. The adventure almost uses the old Law vs Chaos theme of original D&D, with Orcus being described as the chief god of Chaos, not as a “mere” prince of demons, although the text primarily uses the terms “Good” and “Chaos”.
Where the setting is let down is in the lack of well-described NPCs in town. Although the villagers are the sources of several missions for the characters, they’re basically ciphers. There’s not that much meat to role-play with. Yes, you can create your own personalities, but I would have liked to see more motivations and conflicts than do appear. Strangely enough, the book does manage to give a lot of NPC personalities in the random encounter tables, but more developed personalities are lacking in the town descriptions.
The artwork is good to very good, and the maps are likewise well done. It’s a nicely presented product, even if the editing is occasionally erratic; I should say that it’s a fair sight better than a lot of other products I’ve read recently, although we do get a new take on one of my pet peeves of misspellings: “Foreward” – halfway between “Forward” and “Foreword”. (Forward is the direction, Foreword is the introduction at the beginning of a book! Gary Gygax managed to get them confused in the original D&D books…)
However, despite these misgivings, there’s a lot of very good material in the book. The campaign setting material is pretty solid, especially the random encounter tables, and there are a lot of good encounters in the adventures. My chief problem with the work is the lack of a good villain; you don’t really get a good narrative arc (such as in Lost Mines of Phandelver, which this somewhat resembles). This is an adventure about discovering about the forces of Chaos, which is likely to be important in future adventures.