An Endzeitgeist.com review
This is the second part of the "Return of the Fey"-AP set in the world of Dark Return (previously known by the elven name, Uteria) and clocks in at 99 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page advertisement, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 94 pages of content, so let's take a look!
It should be noted, though, that not all parts of this book are module-material; the final 26 pages are devoted to the "Tome of the Arts" - a guide to magic in the setting. If you are not interesting in that, please skip below to the review.
Since this aspect is pretty much bereft of spoilers, I will begin here: After several well-written in character letters, we are introduced to different groups of casters and a general history. Magic has only recently returned to the lands, and as such, it is considered to be rare. Spells are not cast via a vancian method; instead, spellcasters have a mana pool that increases at every level, depending on the spellcaster's caster level. The system also assumes that you can choose the respective spellcasting attribute. You take a look at the second table, which codifies bonus mana by governing attribute and add that to the caster level base. Simple, right? Nope. Unfortunately, the pdf fails to talk, in any way, about how feats and abilities that influence CL interact with this subsystem. It also fails to take multiclassing into account. There are plenty of options to gain full CL when multiclassing; in the instance where you take away the spell slot mechanics, this full upgrade suddenly nets you a ton of mana. At least RAW, there is nothing to prevent that.
Spells do not need to be prepared in advance and mana is regained after resting. The Dark Return is an E8, gritty world and as such, spell levels cap at level 4, character advancement at level 8. Spell levels have a base mana cost: Cantrips cost 0 mana, 1st level spells 1; every additional spell level increases this cost by +2. However, the system behaves somewhat like psionics in that it rewires spells to behave only at minimum efficiency if they are dealing some sort of damage. (The wording here is awkward.) Damage-dealing spells can be powered by spending additional mana: Each point spent increases the CL, but only for the purpose of dealing damage, not other parameters. Unfortunate wording issue: The rules-language notes "increase" and "damage dice" in the same sentence to refer to such escalations; unfortunately, this usually refers to e.g. d6s becoming d8s, rendering this aspect of the book a bit obtuse. Your level doubles as the cap of the maximum amount of mana you can pump into a spell.
The pdf covers metamagic and also basically takes a cue from Dark Sun by having the "focusing and ravaging" - mechanic: If you run out of mana, you have these two options. Focusing requires that you succeed a concentration check versus DC 15 + spell cost; on a failure, you take Mental fatigue damage. On a 1, you accidentally ravage instead - which should account for ample of mistrust towards basically any caster. It should be noted than 10 ranks in Spellcraft supposedly help and end the chance, but the rules seem to not be presented in too concise a manner here.
Mental Fatigue behaves pretty much like nonlethal damage, with the notable exception that it cannot be healed by magical means. For as long as you have at least one point of Mental fatigue, you're fatigued. Resting eliminates all Mental Fatigue, but, alas the precise way in which this works still is too opaque and pretty clunky: Are separate totals tracked for regular nonlethal damage and Mental Fatigue? No idea. If not, how do they interact? Is Mental Fatigue permanent or does it regenerate like regular nonlethal damage? What if you already are fatigued? Do you become exhausted? So yeah, unfortunately, that aspect, as far as I'm concerned, is non-operational.
Ravagers, much like Dark Sun's defilers, instead draw magical energy from living beings in the vicinity. When they cast a spell via ravaging, either a) all living creatures within 10 feet take the spell's mana cost as "physical damage". (Does that mean bludgeoning? Piercing? Slashing?) or b) all creatures with spell's cost times 10 feet take 1 "damage" - again, not properly typed. If said damage is supposed to be "physical", does it count as magic for the purpose of overcoming DR? Ravaging does not require concentration, but you still roll a d20: On a 1, you cause damage to yourself equal to the mana-cost of "the failed spell" - which seems to indicate that a 1 means failure here. Again, from a didactic point of view, that needs to be clearer. Ravaging is an evil act and, as an optional rule, you start suffering from some nasty physical changes of a cosmetic nature when engaging in the practice. It should be noted that RAW, the ravager takes damage when ravaging - clearly not intentional, but that would open another bag of worms regarding spellcasting. Again, alas, the ravaging system's not operational.
The pdf recognizes two spellcasting classes: Wylders and Luminars. Wylders receive 3/4 BAB-progression, d8 HD, good Fort- and Will-saves as well as proficiency with simple weapons, light armor, medium armor and shields, except tower shields. They still suffer from spell failure chance when wearing armor and shield, though. Odd: The description noted dropping shields to avoid spell failure, which implies that the act of dropping the shield can end it for armor as well: RAI is clear, but RAW...not so much. Interesting: They have no spell book and instead learn spells by committing them to their memory, allowing for the learning of spells on sight. They also get the option to generate wild bursts of magic. The rules-language here, alas, violates pretty much all tenets and conventions: "You must succeed a ranged touch attack +2. It causes 1d4+1 points of damage, doubling in power every 2 levels. It is a force effect." That is part of the ability's "Rules"-language. All right, I'll play. Ranged touch attack +2 - is that fixed? Does it substitute the ranged attack's attack bonus with +2? What type of bonus? What does "doubling in power" mean? Is the progression 1d4 +1 -> 2d4+2 -> 4d4+4 or does "doubling" here follow PFRPG's usual rules for doubling, which only ever comes up in threat ranges? Broken mess. The damage, for a force effect, is supposed to be force damage, not untyped. Have I mentioned the other ability that suddenly talks about ice, water and wind damage, none of which exist in PFRPG? Does not work as written.
The Luminar gets 1/2 BAB-progression, a non-standard Fort-progression, good Will-saves and proficiency with club, dagger, heavy + light crossbow as well as quarterstaff. Their HD are based on a training path - and guess what? The training paths fail to specify that. The class is supposed to e a catch-all for wizards, druids and clerics, but frankly, I am not going to dignify it with a full taking apart of the mechanics. They are not up to par.
Speaking of which: Advancement for legacy weapons, armor, etc. is provided...and there is frankly NO REASON to screw up that aspect. Both Purple Duck Games and Rite Publishing have fully functional systems for such weapons that exceed in precision and usability the sloppy basics we get here, which fail to articulate what type the respective benefits supposedly are and just presents a linear, boring conglomerate of brief tables that provide no variance or versatility. The chapter concludes with a list of spells available in Uteria.
Alack and alas, the spellcasting system is pretty much STILL a total and unmitigated mess.
All right, let's take a look if the adventure-section of the book fares better, shall we? The following is the adventure-review part, so from here on out, the SPOILERS reign. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, still here? Great! The PCs have been doing some odd jobs in the aftermath of module #1 (which also depicts Ferryport -without access to said module, the backdrop of this one is a bit more opaque) and we begin with the PCs taking a couple of bandits in custody - preferably alive. After this, we immediately kick off with a job offer: The PC's contact Garamond has recommended them to a druid-ally, who asks them to ascertain the whereabouts of the missing Lord Resly, last seen in the vicinity of the circus that has come to town. Investigating the manor of Resly can yield some hints, as can further inquiring in town, but sooner or later, the PCs are expected to check out the circus. A nice note: Traveling to and fro from the circus can yield an easy encounter on the road, which GMs can use to steer the PCs towards the next phase of the module.
The circus itself, however, is pretty much the star here: In the hands of a capable GM, this whole section's NPCs can pretty much present a great panorama of interactions in this free-form section of the module. Some fixed encounters and some optional ones provide a structure, but it is the cadre of NPCs, with excessive background information, adventure hooks, hang-outs, rumors and clues they can divulge that render this part of the module interesting to play. The NPCs are certainly the stars here, for while they do not come with stats of the like (which will make Sense Motive etc. awkward), their ample characterizations go above and beyond what you can usually find in a d20-based module and certainly represent one of the highlights of the book. Indeed, one could argue that they ultimately make for great dressing-scavenging. That being said, this may be as good a place as any to note that, annoyingly, skill-references generally are not properly capitalized herein.
Ultimately, the hints gathered should point the PCs toward the local cemetery and the eponymous dead gulch, where the tomb of the Resly family sports a simple trap-puzzle (with a visual representation) and a brief dungeon, wherein boggards await as well as Resly - who has brought a siren (or sirin? the book's inconsistent there) back, while unsuccessfully trying to resurrect his wife. Maddened by grief, his devotion is absolute - but no matter how the PCs deal with the subject at hand, his fate is sealed - he seems to have had an accomplice among the folk of the circus and indeed, Rosaga similarly seems to have wanted to bring back her love...foiling her plans and ritual will be a challenging task as well...
...and frankly, with the storm and tensions rising, the PCs may have to calm down a mob. However, the spirit form of sirin is nigh-indestructible and to defeat her, the PCs will have to encircle her body with salt and then pierce her heart with a silver weapon. Which is an amazing type of potential encounter and frankly something I've been using, a lot, in various games of mine. To get to her, the PCs will have to brave a challenging dungeon that includes several disturbing vermin-things, boggards and worse, rendering them pretty spent when they encounter the dread entity. That being said, the lack of rules for actually generating the circle of salt and the like, while feasible in a home-brew, make for a less compelling case in a published module. A GM basically has to take note on how to handle that specific aspect.
The pdf also provides 7 pregens for levels 2 and 3 each, all of which come with notes on background, etc. as well as ideas for further adventuring. Finally, we do get a nice glossary.
Editing and formatting, on a formal level, are very good. On a rules-level, they are unsatisfactory. Layout adheres to a nice, two-column full-color standard. The artworks deserve special mention here: They are gorgeous, often coming with full-page, hand-out-style drawings that really make them shine. Cartography is pretty CGI-y and is the one detracting factor from an aesthetic point of view: While the remainder of the book adheres to this lavish, old-school vibe with its gorgeous art, copious read-aloud texts and visual elements, these feel a bit off. That wouldn't be an issue per se, but the lack of player-friendly, key-less versions is a comfort detriment as far as I'm concerned. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience. Users of electronic devices should note that this is a pretty big file, at over 90 MBs.
The Dead Gulch, Michael Bielaczyc, Shonn Everett and Cameron Tomele's investigation with circus-theme, is ultimately one of the modules that does not make my job easy. You see, this book, for me as a person, hits pretty much all the right notes: A ton of lovingly crafted multi-facetted characters you want to interact with, some nice, seriously free-form interaction/investigation, a bit of puzzles, a challenging dungeon - this hits all the right notes and pretty much feels like a module I'd craft/run in my main campaign. In short, it hits all my personal preferences and aesthetics dead center. I like the module depicted here and for the low price point, it IS a steal, even if you only scavenge the dressing.
That being said, while this book gets the artistry of adventure crafting down, it fails in the craftsmanship aspect. The statblocks of even CR 1/2 and similar simple critters sport glitches. We don't get stats for those amazingly detailed characters, formatting-conventions are flaunted left and right and the less said about the spellcasting system in the back, the better.
In short: This desperately needed an editor or developer who knows the system and its semantic and syntax. Time and again, the wonky rules get in the way; time and again even the most basic of rules-language components are mishandled. This against the backdrop of what otherwise would be a most compelling, evocative and artful investigation, to me is jarring. This is, in short, an excellent module that could have made the 5 stars + seal easily, but it is hamstrung by its own, wholly avoidable shortcomings. As per the writing of this review, this module is ridiculously inexpensive and as such, definitely worth checking out, particularly if you're a semi-experienced GM who knows how to run an investigative sandbox. Let me reiterate: I can literally fix this module's issues while playing it...but I can't rate it based on what I can do. I have to rate this as presented, and as presented, it is, unfortunately found wanting from the craftsmanship perspective. Even when ignoring the horrid spellcasting-system-appendix, the module still fails to realize its potential for excellence. I like it. As a person.
As a person, I value and cherish the complex cadre of circus-characters, the art and the ideas herein.
But as a reviewer, I cannot turn a blind eye towards the pronounced flaws this has. If mechanical perfection and copious crunch or precise and correct builds are what you expect, I'd steer clear here; the mechanical aspects of this module are in the 1 - 2-star-range.
At the same time, the non-mechanical aspects of the module very much are evocative and enticing and the extremely fair price point also makes this a valid scavenging ground. hence, ultimately, my final verdict will clock in at 3 stars.