Publisher: Knight Owl Press
System: Old School Essentials (Advanced)
The other night I was browsing through DrivethruRPG when an adventure module, Arête caught my eye. I looked over it and tossed it on my wishlist. The gods must have been watching, as the next morning one of the first things to cross my twitter feed was Ahimsa Kerr asking if anyone wanted a review copy of Arête. And I am really glad that I hit him up!
Arête is an adventure module intended to be used as a one-shot for Old-School Essentials, and includes some characters using classes from the Old School Essentials Advanced Fantasy rules.
The premise of the adventure is simple: Cerberus has run away, and monsters across Mythic Greece are running amok due to his presence. As the Underworld is already overflowing, Hades selects a number of great heroes and offers to return them to the land of the living if they will return Cerberus and quell the monsters.
The characters are pregenerated OSE characters based on Ancient Greek heroes such as Orpheus, Medea, Theseus, Atlanta, and Bellerophon. Aside from reasonably good stats for an OSE character, they each have a special power, a special advantage against one foe or type of foe, and one special weakness. These are taken straight out of myths about the character and made mechanically apropos to OSE.
The characters begin at first level, and the monsters have had new stat blocks tailored to make the scenario work without inflating levels.
What I Loved
Arête is beautifully laid out, with easy-to read text. it uses classical borders for its pages, and a simple textured background that is pretty, but not distracting. As a GM, I found it helped me immerse myself in the setting as I read.
This is augmented from very simple character art of mythological greek figures taken from shutterstock, and map made with very visually elegant hex tiles by the Highland Paranormal Society.
Graphic Design aside, i found the book was very intuitively written. information was placed where it made sense in spreads that required little to no flipping.
A printer-friendly version is also available, that gets rid of the visual embellishments.
Arête is a lovingly-crafted to fit with Greek Mythology. Every special power, divine intervention, monster ability, and even the equipment for sale in the city of Polis ties into the myths of the Olympians. The level of research and thought that went into the module to create such an experience had to be incredible.
Every monster has been redesigned to both be a challenge that low-level PCs have a small hope of beating if they play intelligently, and to be accurate to the myth (with a couple of D&D's liberties left in for Harpies, Chimeras, and Medusae.)
Divine Intervention Mechanics
This is the part of the book that I read and said "Okay, I am stealing this!"
As is apropos to a module trying to recreate the vibe of ancient Greek Myth, characters can call on the gods to intercede on their behalf. To do so they roll a massive jumble of dice (1d4+1d6+1d8+2d10+1d12+1d20). On a roll below 15, the gods smite them for impiety. below 22, they are cursed and cannot get the gods' aid again. Over 42, and the specific god called will intervene with some impressive feat straight out of Greek myth, including Poseideon hurling a mountain at your foes, or Artemis turning them into a stag.
It is a very hackable mechanic that I highly recommend reading for yourself and considering stealing for any game where the gods are likely to be meddlesome.
The city of Polis that serves as the campaign's starting point and a hub between the various monsters in the countryside is not highly detailed, but has random tables that let you create NPCs to deliver gossip and information. What gives the city life is a cast of four NPCs, a mentor, a craftsman, a merchant, and a mercenary that offer the PCs with most of what they need for a one-shot adventure, and that have enough colour to make the experience interesting.
Each monster has not just treasure, but a useful item or part of its body that can grant an advantage against one or more of the other monsters that the NPC's will set out to hunt. The Axe of Ares from the Minotaur can greatly weaken the Erymanthean Boar or the Learnean Hydra. the tusks of the Erymanthean Boar can be made into a helmet that can wound the Nemedean Lion and protect against the Symphalides, etc. The PCs are rewarded for each successful monster slaying with a tool to harden them against the next one.
Level One is Awesome
By giving the NPCs a couple of special abilities with limited and specific uses, and seeding a handful of useful magic items around the map, Arête creates something I am always looking for: a level one adventure that feels epic in scope. it is a prime example of a module that makes a low-level adventure still feel like it has a major impact on the game world and higher stakes than fighting rats in the cellar.
Too Big for a One-Shot
While Arête is explicitly described as a one-shot adventure, it is actually a pretty long adventure. If the PCs aim to eliminate even one or two of the monsters before taking on Cerberus they are looking at several hours of game time with random encounters. Unless you compress the sapce or skip the random encounters it is likely to take two to four game sessions to complete. I am at five hours and counting in my playtest.
Advanced OSE Limits Player Access
I don't possess a copy of Old School Essentials: Advanced Fantasy yet, although I intend to rectify that in the near future. Reading Arête, it struck me as an odd choice for a for-sale product on the basis that some of the characters are using classes that only exist in the OSE Advanced books. They aren't in the OSE SRD, nor can you substitute, say, the Thief-Acrobat or Barbarian from AD&D's Unearthed Arcana without putting in some work.
One of the things I like about OSE adventures is that, usually, you don't need OSE to run them. I can use my Rules Cyclopedia or Labyrinth Lord, and know that I am 99.9% playing the same game. I use OSE materials with other systems all the time. I can't do that as easily in Arête.
It's a minor gripe. I can operate just fine using a thief-acrobat from UA as a template and pound it into OSE conventions, for example. I would consider this module worth the time that would take. Or I could just making something up. But I expect that using the OSE Advanced material has limited the potential market for this module somewhat. And it deserves a big audience.
Where's Hecate and Hades?
The list of possible PCs includes Medea, a witch in the service of Hecate, but Hecate is not listed among the gods the PCs can call upon in a time of need, nor is she listed on the encounter table for random encounters with non-Olympian gods. I found her absence to be something of a missed beat. And, as the PCs are meant to be working for Hades, I would have thought calling on him when seeking divine aid would have been an obvious choice.
Show Me Numbers!
OSE stat blocks include Number Appearing at the end of the block. It is easily missed in the clutter of a compressed stat block. I found this a bit jarring when looking for more details on the encounters. For example, the Symphalides are mostly dangerous because of their numbers and are described as a flock, but you have to hunt for how big of a flock that actually is.
This isn't bad design; The info is there. But even most older AD&D modules mention how many monstrrs will be encountered either in the encounter table, in parentheses after the title of the encounter, or in the fist sentence of an encounter's description. It seems to be a very odd piece of information not to put right up front and on the tables. It would be something I would consider for next time.
This is a cleverly done and well-researched module with a couple of very cool and hackable mechanics in it. More importantly, it makes even first level feel epic.
It is a combat-heavy adventure built on wanton monster-slaying, but it doesn't only do that: it has enough material for social encounters, deep character role-play, and further adventures with very little extra effort on the part of the DM. And the combat encounters are designed to reward intelligent play.
This adventure has been tossed in my "go file" for adventures to break out if I am running an impromptu game. And I will definitely be borrowing its divine intervention mechanic in the future.
I rarely review modules, because I feel that you can't do a module justice unless you have played it. In the case of Arête, I decided that I wanted to review the module badly enough that I decided to play through it as a solo game.
My luck swung from the unbelieveably good, to the nightmarishly terrible, and back as the campaign progressed. What surpised me was how much of a narrative emerged as the game proceeded.
In a couple of days, I will follow this review with my play report for those who are interested.
Even with incredible luck and powerful magic items, this adventure is so full of terrible monsters and wild events that it always keeps you on the edge of your seat. Sure, you might have the ability to call on the gods, or get a +1d12 on attack and damage once an hour of play... but the Nemean Lion will still rip your whole party to shreds in seconds if you slip up even once. It is good, exciting fun.