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Up From Darkness (PFRPG)

***** (based on 3 ratings)
RIP0271E

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You awaken in pure darkness.

Entombed far below the earth, brave warriors awaken in darkness, with no memory of who they are or how they came to be there. Now these warriors must ascend out of the depths. Yet their greatest challenge will not be the deadly traps or fearsome foes which stand between them and the surface. Rather, it will be discovering their own selves and coming to terms with who they are and what they have done to earn a place in the hellish dungeon of Botai-yami. "Up from Darkness" is a one-shot adventure by Jonathan McAnulty, designed for 7th level adventurers, and set in the dread realm of Kaidan. Perfect for a 4-6 hour session of play, the module presents a unique challenge where death, though it come often, is only a momentary setback.

Author: Jonathan McAnulty
Cover Artist: Mark Hyzer
Cartography: Michael K. Tumey
Pages: 34

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Product Reviews (3)

Average product rating:

***** (based on 3 ratings)

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The best one-shot scenario I've read in AGES

*****

This scenario is 36 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial,1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a total of 31 pages of content -not bad for the low price point!

This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS and indeed, more so than usually, I'd urge any player to NOT READ AHEAD. Much of this module's appeal is due to its mysteries and by reading on, you'll deprive yourself of the basic tenets o the module.

Still here? LAST WARNING

Okay, "You awaken in pure Darkness." These words are what the PCs first hear from the DM and it gets mysterious - they get pregens (5 are provided) that lack physical attributes in their sheets. The DM takes one of 24 cards of these attributes and hands them to the player, to fill in their sheets with the missing information. Now every time they die, they return "Awaken in pure darkness" and gain new attribute-cards. Oh, and they all suffer from amnesia and have no idea who they are or how they got here. Much like Monte Cook's classic "In Media Res"-adventure, finding a way out of the strange surroundings and understanding who they are is part of the module's appeal, for the PCs will be haunted by disjointed snippets of memories, flashes of insight that increase the sense of estrangement and possibly distrust. The snippets come at specific times or on 1s and 20s on d20-rolls, while the vignettes, larger chunks of memory, are rewards for besting mayor challenges along the way. Awakening inside a coffin and bursting free, the PCs are in a room with a total of 24 different coffins (their "pool" of bodies to succeed in the adventure, but they don't know that yet) and can read strange kanjis - womb, tomb, the shogunate's symbol, darkness...but what do they mean? Opening a coffin results in one of the reserve bodies being inhabited by an elemental spirit, raising the corpse as a soulless killer AND reducing the number of bodies available for the PCs - but, as mentioned, they don't know that yet...

After the PCs have escaped from this strange first room, they'll be haunted by the first undead samurai that inhabits these halls and indeed, haunts and traps seem to stud these darkened halls, making the danger here evident - even before finding out that a rather disturbing array of Gaki-no-kage spawn calls this place home. On the upper side, the PCs may find suitable weapons and armor, including thankfully magical protections - though they may pose dangers of their own.

The second level of the dungeon is rather cool in that is vertical and has the PCs navigate shafts upward - haunted shafts with flaming corpse-haunts, grease spells and stirges as well as kumo-gaki. In order to allow the CPs egress from these vaunted halls, they'll need to find rungs to scale an otherwise almost unscaleable tube and brave yet another, though far more deadly undead samurai.

The final obstacle on the way out (and to regaining their memories) is a maze of pure darkness and the master of the gaki-no-kage the PCs have vanquished so far - including a stellar, disturbing one-page artwork of the creature. In spite of the heavy SPOILER-warning, though, I won't tell you the shocking truth the PCs may come to realize at the end of the journey, only that I'd insert this one-shot at some time during part 2 or 3 of the Golden Spear Trilogy to give the regular group a chance to meet the PCs of this one-shot...

The pdf ends with appendices containing the pregens, monsters, magic equipment, 24 body-stat cards, a total of 60 (!!!!!) memory-snippets and 3 memory vignettes, all ready to be cut out and handed to the players.

Conclusion:
Editing and formatting are very good, I didn't notice any significant glitches. Layout adheres to RiP's bamboo-lined b/w-standard and Mark Hyzer's wonderfully disturbing original pieces of b/w-artwork lend yet more flair and graphic identity to the module. The pdf comes with extensive bookmarks and GM-advice on how to run it and enhance its creepy atmosphere.

"Up from Darkness" is suffused with twisted imagery that never beats you over the head with its horror - Jonathan McAnulty gets subtle horror and his Kaidan-modules have yet to disappoint me. This one in particular is pure gold, with its sense of uncertainty of identity and even whether one is alive or what one is creating a high-tension environment that, by nature of its design, can revel in being deadly without frustrating the players. In fact, I won't even complain that we don't get player-friendly maps of the dungeon, for a sense of disorientation and uncertainty would be lessened by handing out such snippets. Make no mistake: This module HAS to be run as a one-shot, but it is a glorious one and one that can influence your regular gaming group in ways they can't fathom while running through it.

This module is a stellar sojourn, a blast to read and run, offers plenty of bang for the price and is quite possibly something your players have not yet seen - even those familiar with Monte Cook's "In Media Res" will consider this one superior, if not in execution, then at least in length and atmosphere. My final verdict should not come as a surprise to anyone - 5 stars plus seal of approval. Do yourself a favor and check this out!

Endzeitgeist out.


*****

Up From Darkness, Rite Publishing's latest offering in the continuing attempts to punish PCs everywhere, is a tale woven by Jonathan McAnulty. 35 pages, with the obligatory page count adjustments made for covers, OGL, credit pages such on and so forth give us a total page count for the adventure of 22, with a 5 page section of GM aids...we'll get to those, you'll like. The pdf also gives you 5 pre-generated characters to utilize, which in this case are an extremely handy thing, which shall be explained.

Formatting follows the standard dual column layout, with embedded artwork, as well as a few pages with a solo art piece tucked in here and there. The pages are decorated in a pattern that will have invokes thoughts of stylized oriental bamboo framework. Michael K. Tumey's cartography brings a very old school feel to this project, and gamers with an appreciation for older generations of RPGs, or even fans of the many nostalgia clones on the market will instantly feel comfortable with the mapping style used for most of the cartography used in this adventure. Now, I say most as there is one seriously odd duck in regards to the cartography. One particular area has not only been done in the classic style for the interior, but a 3 dimensional CG model has been provided to show the exterior of the section as well. The purpose behind it makes sense in that it helps visualize the manner in which the rooms relate to each other, but the two drastically conflicting styles really make this particular map page look odd.

OK....so all of the basics and non story-point specifics out of the way, this is an adventure review...and we all know what that means, now don't we? That's right. Players, begone. Seriously, stop reading, forward the link on to your GM, close the page and go peruse your GM's wishlist to see how you can further let them know you appreciate all they do for you....OK, we alone now? Just us GMs and such? Alright. Let's take a look into this story, shall we?

First off, this is not anything I would call a standard adventure. The basic story idea is as follows...The PCs are attempting to earn a spot amongst the Hakayami, an elite unit of Shogun within the Kaidan setting. How elite? Final initiation involves ritual suicide and transference of one's soul into a “loaner” body entombed at the bottom of a pitch black dungeon. The PCs assume the roles of these newly self assassinated initiates. They awaken within stone coffins, alone, in the dark, with no memories or clues as to how they got there, who they are, and what the hell is going on. Throughout the adventure there will be key times that the PCs will trigger snippets of memory to surface, as well as moments that they can trigger through roleplay (much like a reward system, earning additional memory snippets). Along with the loss of identity, and of course their original bodies, comes the loss of gear....all gear. The PCs start with kimonos, and must explore to put together enough gear to survive the challenges that roam the dungeon, as well as the obstacles through which they must go on their upward ascent to escape the dungeon. Surviving the dungeon and regaining their memories as they go will earn them the coveted position amongst the Hakayami...it goes without saying the ranks of the Hakayami don't often swell with new recruits.

So...what we have here, story-wise, is a self encapsulated adventure. As a GM I would be hard pressed to sell this to my players as something to incorporate into an ongoing campaign or storyline. And, truth be told, I think that is where this adventure's strength lies. It is not concerned with where the characters were before this, who they were, or where they thought they were going. By limiting the playing field down to what it is, and stripping the PCs of their memories, it forces the players to go back to basics and work as a team to survive, period. The pregens supplied are recommended to be used as they have been written with this adventure in mind, and lets face it, most players are not going to be to happy to hear that their characters killed themselves to earn a right to be part of this adventure, so pregens avoids that entirely. Now, are there potential issues with this, yes. Right off the bat I find myself wondering about spell casters...the PCs have no memories, why would a spell casting character still have spells available to them? And no, I'm not even thinking along the lines of study time being lost to the whole dying situation, no I am thinking why would I, as a person, try to cast a spell unless I knew I could do it? Also, we have a pregen with some physical enhancements, for lack of better wording. Very cool concept utilizing a necrotic warrior (bone)....but I don't see why the “loaner” body would automatically get the bone spikes and spears abilities, as I see that as more of a physical concept of the PCs body, not an attachment to their soul...So, these would be what I see as being hurdles to the idea of waking up 1) in someone else's body, and 2) amnesia...both can be worked with and around, just giving a heads up to GMs, as this would be something for me that I would want to put some thought into to be prepared to answer when a player challenged it at the table.

Now here is where those GM aids really come to bear, with a selection of random memory snippets, as well as finishing touches for the pregen characters. A very nice touch in making sure that every time this adventure is played through it will be a different game. There are a few editing issues here with misspelled words though, and that does not help sell these as well as they should have been.

Now, right off the bat the PCs can manage to get themselves into trouble, as the room within which they awaken contains more than just the bodies they are inhabiting. Opening any other stone coffins runs the risk of allowing the creation of a tamashinaki, as an elemental spirit may take control of the “empty” body and immediately attack. Obviously this would pose an interesting challenge for the group, as they are weaponless at this point, but a great way to make sure they understand what level of danger they are up against.

Ghostly samurai, haunts, traps and hungry critters all await the exploring PCs on the lower levels of this dungeon...with areas set up to equip the PCs with the gear they will need to survive. And thematically I am really liking the feel of where the story is going at this point as far as the over all vibe of the dungeon itself...but there is a huge problem in the practical application here. The maps are missing key identifying marks. Several times throughout the text of the adventure we are given locations for haunts/traps/encounters etc...but those locations are not marked upon the maps. Add to that the fact that the maps are devoid of any form of compass rose, and trying to relate what the text flow is presenting to the maps becomes a confusing if not impossible scenario. I had assumed a default of North to top of page for the first map until the text for one of the rooms led me to realize that North was actually the right hand side of the page. A mishap of this nature can derail a great adventure, as it leaves the GM running the adventure having to do a great deal of free style placement, which really shouldn't have to be done to this degree in a properly presented adventure. Luckily, this is an easy fix, and one that I hope to see very very soon.

Crawling their way from the bottom to the top, facing an ever growing level of difficulty in creatures that are not your standard run of the mill grab bag of creatures, the PCs are in for a gauntlet that will more than likely cost a few of them their lives. The adventure is prepared for that though, remember there are additional bodies in the lowest level. Yep, if a PC dies they wake up and get to start all over again, no memories, no clues...evil...love it.

I am not a huge fan of adventures that are as self contained as this one is, I will not lie. But this one surprised me, pleasantly. The story idea is a good one, the idea of this being a one off with pregens works well for me and my playgroup, a nice break from our normal game. I can easily see this being used as an opener for a Kaidan campaign as well, if one were looking to attach the PCs to a faction for story purposes. My point here, this is a good story. An extremely good story. Which is why the next part of this really sucks. The pdf has several editing issues, odd spaces in the middle of paragraphs, irregular underlining format to the statblocks, misspelled words...and the map keys not being present. I can overlook a great deal of editing hiccups if they don't truly cause issues with comprehension...but being told in text that trap X is marked on the map at location C, only to go to the map and find no C...over and over...that I can not overlook.

I am going to level out at a 3 star...which is a shame. I am really hoping this is something that will be addressed and fixed, soon. I would be happy to raise my rating to accommodate an update, and am hoping to get the chance to do so, as this story deserves to be presented in the best light possible.

-EDIT-

OK...take note folks...for this is an important thing to realize. When things are not right, and people are willing to listen and go back in and fix them, that is how customers are won...period. This adventure is an excellent story concept that for me was held back by the original maps drastically. Not only have the maps been updated with proper markings to tell you where the author intends for encounters, haunts and traps to be located, the secret doors and stairs have been properly labelled. In addition, the second map's odd style change has been addressed, and I have to say the new map showing the ascent path is very impressive. This type of willingness to bring a product up to the bar it sets for itself is to be commended. Well done, well done indeed. Rating has been happily changed to reflect a well earned and solid 5 star rating.


Up From Darkness

*****

Friendly warning: this is an adventure which relies on surprising a player. If you intend to play, ask your GM to read it. If you are wondering if you should play it, the short answer is affirmative. For details, keep reading...
Disclaimer: I'm a supporter of Kaidan Kickstarter.

THE NUMBERS AND THE PREMISE

This is 35 page adventure for four 7th level characters, with 13-pages-long adventure, 14 pages of GM stuff like monster blocks, player handouts, pregenerated characters, single-page license and intro thingies like cover, table of contents, adventure background and synopsis. There is enough material to enjoy a long session, there is also a lot of interesting tasty bits to borrow and steal for your own campaigns.

The characters are going to play their part in a horror adventure set in Kaidan, a quasi-oriental ghosts-and-samurai setting by Rite Publishing crew, Michael Tumey, Jonathan McAnulty, Will McCardell, T. H. Gulliver and one Steve Russell. Of these five, Jonathan penned the adventure, Mark Hyzer did the illustrations (including cover), Michael lent his cartography and layouting skills and Steven has published it.
While more on the setting to be found on their Kickstarter page (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/937759598/kaidan-campaign-setting-pfrpg ) - and you're strongly recommended to expand your horizons there before running this scenario - there are several key points I would like to mention.

First of all, this a ghost story setting. The players find themselves burdened by heavy chains almost inescapable and tragic destiny. In the course of their adventures, they are to become witness to casual graphic violence, disturbing depravity and unforgiven unredeemed innocent souls who succumb to evil to escape agony. The horror and bleakness are not meant to assault PCs constantly though - they are the vehicles and endings for stories, while the PCs are intended to be bastions of heroism (note: this is my interpretation, not necessarily the view of the authors).

Secondly, this is neither Ravenloft nor Kara-Tur. The characters are given free will and they are not necessarily fighting Chinese dragons, Shaolin Monks and Samurai at the same time. While ultimately their fate is sealed, and there is not much to improve the hopeless state of the world, the players are encouraged to struggle, to defend their honor and quite possibly to achieve something positive on a limited scale.

Thirdly, the heavens are closed. The upper aristrocrats are dead and holding the reins. The sheer lack of perspectives slowly drives everyone insane and even the best guys are Othellos ready to unleash terminal violence at slight provocation.

Welcome to Kaidan, the world without hope and where neither sins nor good deeds are going to change the fate of your soul.

THE LOOKS

Very nicely laid out booklet with bookmarks (props for very clean design). Stellar organization of content. Somewhat boring fonts (Georgia and Times New Roman). Rather bleak unappealing colors. All of these form a somewhat unappealing, yet exquisitely formed whole. The vivid red with black and greys is very atmospheric, but the overall impression is that of sadness and melancholy - there should be brighter more eye-catching colors inside, to draw the readers in.
When compared to Pathways, a periodical also published by Rite Publishing, with their very evocative covers, it is my strong opinion that book would really benefit from looking more alive.

THE ADVENTURE

In the interest of keeping the book content a secret, please allow me to elaborate on the nature of the scenario in a roundabout way.

The horror experience here is derived of the following elements: sensory deprivation, lack of starting information, loss of D20 adventuring staple - equipment and finally harsh challenges and multiple deaths. The players are intended to be exploring their surroundings, then they are meant to be hurt and make progress fighting. The reward for overcoming obstacles are memories - confusing initially, illuminating eventually. Discovering the whole truth is the final reward, setting straight the story and possibly opening avenue to further campaign.
Also, the scenario makes heavy use of symbolism and very unique monsters and haunts. Your players are in for a lot of surprises.

Though I haven't playtested or ran it yet, my opinion would be that the non-spontaneous casters are likely to be penalized due to severe resource constraints. Self-sufficient well rounded builds capable of not relying on weapons and armors are quite possibly best suited to complete the adventure. The pregenerated characters reinforce this impression - a samurai, a rogue (scout archetype), a necrotic warrior (bone) - whatever this is, it feels like a Wolverine in Monk's clothing, and a sorcerer/fighter. The characters can be further customized by application of ability cards (I did mention multiple deaths, didn't I?).

Will the players like playing this? Quite likely so, as long as the GM resolves two potential threats. In some cases the players may split. If so, unless they are quickly brought together, a GM would be advised to call upon another GM or, alternatively, devise means for quicker re-assembly of characters. The other issue may take place in groups which enjoy puzzles and social interactions - there may be not enough of these to provide sufficient entertainment - if you GM for such a group, you want to add a little content.

TIPS FOR RUNNING THE STORY

Based on my reading of the book, here are a few tips for those running the adventure:
- do not overplay the darkness element. And keep Perception rolls to minimum. Let the players describe their actions and reward them with success for detailed and ingenious descriptions of their actions.
- heed GM advice in red-framed boxes. It's simply golden.
- stress the role of calligraphic symbols. Do some research and add a few letter based puzzles.
- at least one of the enemies can be converted into an NPC. Do so.
- the memories are rewards. Hand them to those who deserve it.
- if you feel like there were too many saves or haunts, remove them.

If I were to run Up from Darkness, I would do so in the course of a single night, Halloween or New Year's, with the following special rules in play:
- all monsters inflict special bleed and disease damage - everyone taking damage in combat takes one point of bleed every hour unless resting for 8 hours or more. Everyone taking damage in combat has a chance of running high fever after 24 hours. Healing of any kind prevents and removes these effects as long as you have clean bandages, make a high DC roll or use a healing spell and succeed at high DC caster level check.
- all players have d4+1 Hero points - you may spent a point before a difficult roll to succeed by a skin of your teeth, or you may spent a point to escape death or great wounds at some personal cost (instead of life, you lose or damage something else).
- those who die, instead of returning as PCs, would be allowed to play monsters during encounters.

THE VERDICT

This horror dungeon crawl with lots of symbolism is worth 5 out of 5 points as long as you are willing to do some work to add a little more fun for your players. Otherwise it's a solid 4.5.





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