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Reviews - St. Anton's Fire
 
by Demian Katz


St. Anton's Fire cover Title: St. Anton's Fire
Published by Troll Lord Games
Written by Carolyn Parker
Artwork by Doug Kovacs, Andy Hopp, Jim Branch, & Marcin Rudnicki
Cartography by Davis Chenault
48 b&w pages
$10.95

In the early days of fantasy role-playing, countless small presses used typewriters, scissors and photocopy machines to churn out unofficial D&D adventures and supplements. Most of these products were of questionable quality, but they had a certain simplistic charm to them, and many look back on them with fondness. Unfortunately, TSR, the producer of D&D at the time, didn't look on them with anything resembling fondness, and during its years of iron-fisted rule, it ensured that the production of such products was strongly discouraged. When the game passed over to Wizards of the Coast and the open D20 System was introduced, though, things changed, and a new flow of small-press adventures began.

There are two major differences between the early days and the D20 free-for-all. First, due to advances in word processing and printing, it's harder than it used to be to distinguish official products from imitators. Secondly, due to the more story-oriented nature of modern role-playing, some amateur adventures are rather ambitious in nature, thus allowing them to fail more spectacularly than the formulaic dungeon crawls of old could have ever hoped to do. Sadly, St. Anton's Fire, an adventure for character levels 5-7 released by Troll Lord Games, is just such a spectacular failure.

The module doesn't look too bad at a glance, though its layout is somewhat minimalistic and its artwork adequate but unexceptional. Like so many third-party modules, it is set in the campaign setting of its publishers, in this case the world of Erde. At first glance, its basic plot certainly sounds workable. The players are summoned to the town of St. Anton by a Baroness who needs them to figure out why her husband has succumbed to a rather Shakespearean bout of madness. Little do they realize that the poor Baron has fallen under the evil influence of Blake Lorcan, a twisted entity who, but for a traumatic childhood, would have become a great healer. Forbidden to kill, this unfortunate being seeks the ashes of an ancient saint (after whom the town is named), known for his ability to mercifully end the suffering of the unfortunate. By consuming the ashes, Blake will overcome his natural inability to harm others and have freedom to rampage as he sees fit. In the end, the players can either enter the Dreaming Sea to put Blake's dark past to rest and restore him to goodness, or, failing that, they can whack him with their swords until he dies. Whatever happens, peace is restored, riches are rewarded, and everybody's pretty happy (except Blake, who should he be dead at this point).

As I said before, the failure of this module is spectacular. So spectacular, in fact, that it's hard to know where to begin in explaining how it fails. A good place to start would probably be with the writing, which is dreadful. At its absolute best, it is dull and dry. Unfortunately, its best doesn't last long. Awkward sentences and punctuation problems abound, and just when you think it can't get any worse, it lapses into lame attempts at imitating Old English. I grumbled a little at the numerous common errors ("it's" vs. "its," "affect" vs. "effect," etc.). I cringed when I realized that the author didn't know the difference between "innocuous" and "inconspicuous" or "inflicted" and "afflicted." I felt the need to beat myself over the head with something thick and pointy when this horror awaited me at the beginning of the "From One DM to Another" section:

Though these efforts are somewhat opposed to the general tenor of my woody soul, I shall forthwith offer some nodules of stony knowledge that you, as a DM and master of "The Game," should feel free to discard as so much flotsam and jetsam, as is your want.
I could go on all day listing examples of bad writing, but I will spare you (for the moment, at least). The bottom line is that the quality of the text is poor enough to serve as a major distraction from the content of the module.

On the subject of major distractions from the content of the module, another rather unpleasant characteristic of this product is its organization, or lack thereof. The story is supposed to be divided into four scenes. If the introduction is to be believed, scenes one, three and four are more or less linear, whereas scene two is an exploratory section which allows the players to gather clues to reveal Blake's identity. This is not exactly the case, however. Scene one starts out linearly enough, but then sort of transitions into a description of the Baron's castle, though it doesn't quite explain where the linear narrative takes place within the castle it describes. Scene two is aptly called "exploratory" in that it says a lot about the locations and inhabitants of St. Anton, but it's not in a very useful order, nor is it particularly coherent much of the time.

Inconsistencies are common. For example, one part of the module mentions that a murder happened "a year ago," while a character description mentions that the same murder has been kept secret "all these years." This is decidedly unhelpful for the DM, who is held responsible for conveying a lot of backstory to the players yet is frequently given little or no help in figuring out how to do such a thing. One section, for example, provides four paragraphs describing a character's tragic past. Then it suggests that if the players ever learn any of this stuff and just happen to wander across the character (whose home is included on the random encounter table for some reason), this should be read to them:

A figure, small and fragile as a child, lies motionless on a cot by the cold fireplace. Even as you enter and make your presence known, there is no sound nor movement from the bed. As you approach, you see Bethany. Bethany, who has crawled into the bed as if into a womb, fading away into her own mind, withering back into childhood until she is no more. You see in the gentle curve of her lips and the deep sea of her tragic eyes how lovely she must have been.
Little is said regarding how to handle the encounter if the party doesn't have prior knowledge of Bethany, a situation which seems the most likely scenario.

An even more serious lapse is the lack of explanation on how to guide the characters into scene three. Scene three is the most ambitious part of the module, the segment in which the players literally face Blake's nightmares, and it is so thoroughly mishandled as to be incomprehensible. It is very unclear as to how the GM is supposed to run it, and since Blake's history is never really revealed prior to this sequence, it is hard to see how the players could understand the significance of the events shown here even if the GM could figure out exactly how to present them. Scene four is only reached if scene three doesn't work out (which seems pretty likely considering the writing), and it consists of a bit of rushed text followed by a big fight with a bunch of random monsters. Predictably enough, tactical notes are not included.

Speaking of random monsters, these pose another problem. At least half of the monsters in the adventure are drawn from sources other than the Monster Manual. Most come from White Wolf's two Creature Crucible volumes, and at least one comes from Troll Lord Games' own World of Erde campaign setting book. Since these monsters are presented here only as description-free statistics, it would be exceptionally difficult to run many encounters without possession of several additional expensive tomes. At $10.95, this book isn't exactly a bargain itself, though that's a whole other issue. It doesn't help that typos further decrease the usefulness of the statistics presented here. I didn't spend much time reading stat blocks while reviewing this title, but I still managed to notice some errors: it appears that at least one number was copied from the wrong column when the Ghast's stat block was typed up, and elsewhere in the module, a Troll is listed as having "6d8+48+1d8+8" hit dice, whatever that's supposed to mean.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of this module is that it does manage to do one thing quite well, but that this one successful thing only serves to make the adventure even more useless than it already was. The strong point I speak of is the inclusion of some really good red herrings. Now, when I refer to good red herrings, I am not referring to the adventure's rumor table, which is almost entirely useless and contains such incomprehensible "rumors" as "I told her, I says to her, I says, daanng woman, those sticks are too big for te [sic] fire place." I still can't figure out what that's supposed to mean. Anyway, my praise actually refers to the fact that every character provides the players with a new red herring, and most of these red herrings are considerably more plausible than the actual solution to the mystery of the Baron's madness. If you were to run this adventure exactly as it's written, your players would happily wander around pursuing false leads for weeks and weeks, never figuring out what was truly afoot.

As if the NPCs' gossip and rumors weren't enough, several pages are also devoted to describing the detailed history and contents of a dungeon which, as far as I can tell, has little or nothing to do with the adventure's primary plot. Of course, a gratuitous dungeon and a wealth of false leads could be entirely acceptable if the adventure's main plot line were strong enough to win out in the end, but since the main storyline is so unexceptional, it is simply lost in all the noise.

Like so many modules of its kind, St. Anton's Fire isn't worth the price of the paper it's printed on, let alone the distressing MSRP that it's actually sold for. The adventure is nearly impossible to run successfully, and its execution is so confused that sorting it out would be about as difficult as writing a new module from scratch, only not as entertaining. For the sake of your sanity and that of your players, stay well away!


 

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