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Reviews - Tsar Rising
by Orion Holcomb

Tsar Rising cover Title: Tsar Rising
Publisher: Monkeygod Enterprises
Written by Michael Tresca
Illustrated by William O'Connor, Theodor Black, and John Moniz
Price: $13.95
b & w, 60 pages

Tsar Rising is a d20 module intended for characters of eighth to ninth level. Set in the land of Torassia (basically fantasy Russia), the party is first hired to find a missing caravan, but instead find a man claiming to be the Tsar's right hand man and commander. This is actually the Tsar in disguise, the lone survivor of an assault upon a small advancing army of undead, which he himself led. The "commander" asks them to escort him back to the capital city in return for a handsome reward. Unfortunately, believing the Tsar to be dead, his sons and advisors have already begun to feud over the throne.

One of the Tsar's advisors is actually a "devil," and the real villain of Tsar Rising. The creature was summoned as a result of the Tsar's recent push to convert the people away from their pagan ways. Further, the people of Torassia are no longer as fond of the Tsar after taxes were increased to pay for a company of woolly mammoth warbeasts! The plot is, of course, more complicated, but not by much.

The presence of the "devil" has caused many powerful wild beasts to wander in toward the civilized lands. This seems to be little more than an excuse for the party to whet their bloodthirsty appetite. There are eight new monsters, many of which are intelligent and could provide for interesting interactions, both in terms of combat and role-playing. But most of them are random encounters, and given no personality or background. Unfortunately most of them are just random encounters, with no personality or background and are just thrown at the party for some hack 'n' slash. It seems like a case where bigger and bigger monsters have to be thrown at the more experienced party just to give them a challenge.

Yet not all of the scenario is like this. The Tsar himself provides some intelligent role-playing, as the characters will find that his story has more and more holes in it as they travel together. In addition, several of the people they meet along the way make for interesting character interactions and the villain's last battle is well documented and thought out. However, the entire story is very rigid and depends on the PCs' willingness to follow the requests of the unpopular Tsar.

The writer uses many Russian names for things, especially monsters and this definitely helps give Tsar Rising a strong Russian flavor, which is good. However, there is no quick reference for these Russian names, so a lot of page turning is required to explain a word that you have forgotten. ("What the heck are kainkutho again? Oh, a type of bear.") Overall, the adventure is poorly organized -- the back cover could have been used to list the glossary, for example. More turning of pages is required for the planned encounters, since both monster and NPC statistics are all at the back of the book and not where the characters meet them. To add to the confusion, there are four sets of statistics in the appendix: one for NPCs, one for NPCs from a specific town, another for the monsters, and the last for the new monsters. The DM needs to be very familiar with the adventure before running it as Tsar Rising is not something that could be picked up, quickly scanned through and then played.

Both artwork and maps are decent, although the town maps do lack a scale, and the layout and organization is good except for the problems mentioned above. I discovered that the cover is almost indestructible after accidentally folding a corner over, only to find that it didn't even leave a crease, and returned to its normal shape. The front cover actually depicts a scene where apparent player characters are fighting people mounted on a wooly mammoth. Unfortunately, this never happens in the story, but oh well!

There are ten new magic items, new weapons, and some other good optional rules. Firearms are included in the module, but are not essential to the plot, so they can easily be ignored. Some of the new weapons and magic items are interesting. Many help add to the Russian flavor, but for the most part they are not needed and do not really improve the quality of the module.

Much of the story depends greatly on the supernatural and the existence of beings from other planes. Tsar Rising may fit easily into some existing campaigns, but not many. In addition, some parts are left rather vague. What happened to the undead army and where is it while the adventure proceeds? What about the villain devil? Some clues can be found in certain places as to the events taking place, but these "rumors" are just as vague and need more of an explanation. Readers aren't even told if the rumors are true or false.

The player characters seem rather limited in their options, with little chance of discovering the true threat to the land (the "devil"), and can only restore the Tsar to power, whom we are told at the end is greatly changed as a result of these events and is a much better ruler for it. So what is the point of Tsar Rising? If I was caught up in the adventure, my inclination would be to go after the undead army. Certainly eighth to ninth level characters would have no trouble stopping the skeletons, even if they were being led by a devil. Restoring a Tsar to power is certainly cool and all, but the plot to Tsar Rising is full of holes, unknowns, and unexplored potential.

Overall, the module has a nice Russian theme. Nice for the GM to practice a Russian accent. But it also has a rigid plot full of holes, and foes who are stupid battle fodder for the most part. I would tend not to recommend it, mainly because of the $13.95 price tag. I realize it becomes more difficult to write modules for higher level characters, but there must be better adventures out there than this one!


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