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Review of The Hidden Current by Blackbyrne Publishing

O! for a Muse of Fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention…”  ~ Chorus (The Life of King Henry  the Fifth, William Shakespeare)

My tastes in Shakespearean theater always ran toward the comedies and tragedies, at least until I saw the Kenneth Branaugh production of Henry V.  The movie had an absolutely amazing cast, with stunning action and stellar performances by everyone involved, particularly Derek Jacobi lending his mesmerizing voice to the part of Chorus.

If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, I must strongly recommend them, as the film can be pretty inspiring to anyone who likes medieval history or fantasy.  What really drew me into the film was the opening prologue, where Chorus begs the audience’s forgiveness for daring to portray the famous events leading up to, and including, the Battle of Agincourt, on a mere wooden stage.  Of course, the film does not take place on a stage, but in fantastic castle sets and in the French countryside, so there is a bit of irony to his words.

But consider for a moment, that essentially, Dungeon Masters do something very similar when we create our adventures.  We create a fantastic story of battle and drama, on a dining room table “stage”, every time we run a D&D session.  And like the great playwright, we hope that our audience, the Players, will be able to work with us in order to make the plotline flow.  And, for the most part, our Players are always willing to lend their “thoughts that now must deck our kings, carry them here and there; jumping o’er times, turning the accomplishment of many years into an hour-glass…”
the hidden current cover
So as long as we offer a good solid adventure story for their Characters to experience, Players are pretty willing to pardon our “unworthy scaffold” where we perform our game.

Blackbyrne Publishing is making its first foray into providing adventures to the D&D 4E community.  The Hidden Current is the first of The Dark Veil Campaign Arc, and while it is their third product released, is actually their first “for pay” offering as a third-party publisher under the 4E Gaming System License.  But does the Author present a story worthy of even the “wooden O” of the gaming table?

The Hidden Current
  • Designers: Jeff Gupton
  • Illustrators: Daniel Firak (cover), Kristy Eden, Carmel Reyes (interior)
  • Publisher: Blackbyrne Publishing
  • Year: 2010
  • Media: PDF (76 pages)
  • Cost: $11.90

The Hidden Current is the first adventure module of The Dark Veil Campaign Arc, and is an adventure designed for 4-6 Players with 1st to 2nd Level D&D 4E Characters.  The adventure is set in an area of the Author’s campaign world called Boarland Falls, within the Darkfall Forest near a mountain called Krithakk’s Peak.  While the Author does not make any reference to how the adventure might be adapted to other campaign settings, insightful Dungeon Masters will probably be able to adapt it to other worlds as needed.  The adventure consists of over 16 encounters, plus several skill challenges and a few traps that must be overcome, including a new type of dragon.  The Author has included full-sized, color, encounter dungeon-tiles in The Hidden Current.  These come printable on 41 separate pages, which can then be pieced together for use during play.

Despite the well done tactical maps created by the Author, the overall quality of the product is below average to poor.  It is very difficult to read the material, which is presented in two column format within the PDF, but the space between the columns is so narrow, that it is difficult to the left side column without reading to the right side.  On some pages, the separation between the columns is about one character.  Having no bookmarks or table of contents in the PDF increases the difficulty of reading the material.

The monster stat blocks do not follow formats expected by most players – more reminiscent of a layout like 3.5 stat blocks.  This was apparently done intentionally by the Author, according to the Forward:

One thing you will notice that is obviously missing is the 4E-style monster tables for all the monster stats. I chose to keep the format simple not out of any cost issue, but to keep the aesthetics more like the “good-ole-days” of AD&D modules. No worries though, the information is all there, but inline rather than table format with no color coded heading.

I am not sure why this would appeal to 4E gamers, particularly those that have never played 3.5 Edition.  It simply makes the material less recognizable and more confusing to 4E Dungeon Masters, and does not enhance the professionalism of the adventure module.

The cover art by Daniel Firak is quite well done, as are the maps, but the rest of the interior art is fairly lackluster, and do not particularly enhance the products production quality.

SPOILER WARNING: Reading beyond this point will introduce you to spoilers regarding the plot of The Hidden Current.  If you are planning on playing in this adventure, you might wish to skip to the “grade card” at the end of the review.

The adventure involves a band of Characters that have elected to act as caravan guards, transporting goods to a little town called Boarland Falls.  There they are beset by bandits, who are the main antagonists, operating in league with a merchant in town to drive out all other competition.  However, while dealing with the bandits, the heroes become embroiled in a plot by an eons-old lich and a young dragon to recover some artifacts.  The adventure concludes in the destruction of the dragon and the lich’s timely escape from the 1st and 2nd Level Characters.

Setting the plot aside for the moment, there are several other issues in The Hidden Current which are even more disconcerting than the reason why an eons-old lich would flee from a pack of meddling adventurers which could be obliterated with a single undead thought.

The first concern involves encounter and monster design, particularly the Iron Fist Bandits which are used extensively in the beginning of the adventure.  The Author uses modified “human” monsters as his Iron Fist Bandits, and, for the most part, they conform to human rabble from the DDI Compendium.  However, the Mob Rule power has been replaced with a new power called Trained Killer, which grants a +1 power bonus to all attacks for each bandit adjacent to them.  This power, when used in conjunction with combat advantage, could grant a situation bonus of +4 or more to hit adventurers.  Given the armor classes most beginning heroes have, this power could be devasting, and allow a small pack of bandits to overwhelm even a defender.

And Anvil, the “boss” of the bandits, has far too many hit points for a 3rd Level Elite Brute with a 14 Con to have.   His Will and Fortitude defenses are extremely high given his statistics, which when coupled with his hit points, makes him a very hard target.  I’m not sure what template was used to create Anvil, but the monster seems unbalanced to use against a 1st level party.  Considering that the adventurers have had to progress through two difficult encounters prior to reaching Anvil, with the last one occurring only moments before the bandit chief shows up, I would have major concerns that a low level party of heroes could take the elite leader down.

Assuming that the adventurers can defeat Anvil, the plot moves them toward a meeting with the lich and the young dragon.  But before that happens, the heroes must explore the lich’s home in town to find clues where he might be lurking.

Now, the lich is posing as a reclusive hedge wizard, and has a secluded home in the village.  The adventurers must infiltrate the house and find clues, assuming they can get past the zombies and goblins the lich has stationed outside the house, due to his concern with the powerful low-level Characters.  Not only is the plot at this point a bit implausible, but I also had some concerns with this part of the adventure, particularly the map.  Xalander the Lich’s home is a approximately a rectangle of 6 x 12 squares.  But inside his house, where the clues are hidden, along with more zombies and a homunculus on the upper floor, is 10 x 16 squares.  Clearly while the lich does not command the powers to simply annihilate 1st level adventurers, he has mastered some amazing architectural design magicks, making rooms much larger than the outside of his house.

Another major concern is the sheer number of the encounters, and how the skill challenges and traps are designed for use in the adventure.  With a massive sixteen encounters in one adventure, plus traps and skill challenges, even 1st Level Heroes with 0 XP will be 3rd level before the final encounter, and 2nd Level Heroes will be nearly 4th. Clearly, this will have a serious impact on later encounters in the adventure, which are designed for 1st and 2nd Level Parties.

The skill challenges use the old format for Complexity 1 of two failures instead of three, and they give out massive amount of experience points, far beyond what is expected by the rules.  A couple of the skill challenges are oddly designed, and a simple skill check could simulate what the Author wanted to accomplish (such as sneaking into a bandit camp).  Also, there is a trap encounter, involving a tilting floor over a pit that could lead to a total party kill if the Player-Characters are not cautious enough.

Up until the grand finale of the The Hidden Current, I had been struggling to follow the story, but at this point, I regret to say that it stopped making logical sense for me entirely.

When the Characters burst in upon the eons-old lich, who is consulting with a young spectral dragon on how to translate a Draconic manuscript, the undead wizard chooses to flee from the group of low-level heroes, rather than simply annihilating them.  And not only does Xalander the Lich flee, trusting a young dragon to finish off the meddlesome adventurers, but he teleports without grabbing the pages of artifact research, representing “eons” of his work .  Of course, if the heroes defeat the young dragon, these notes will provide hooks to further adventures along The Dark Veil Campaign Arc, and presumably to further meetings with Xalander.

The Author claims that Xalander’s stats and history are on the Blackbyrne Publishing website, and I looked there in hopes of finding out a reason as to why the lich did not kill the heroes outright.  However, I was unable to find his stats, so have no idea why a lich felt he could not measure up to a party of newbie dungeon delvers.  Perhaps that is explained in later adventure modules in the campaign arc.

Overall Grade: C-

Despite wanting to like this adventure, I simply found The Hidden Current had too many serious issues throughout its 76 pages.  The plotline of the adventure has weak points that don’t make sense, and the encounters and monsters have some design flaws which need work before they could be used at the gaming table.  There are simply far too many encounters in this adventure, given that 8-10 are all that are needed to level a party.

The Author has a fairly wordy writing style, which when coupled with the layout issues involving the overly narrow two-column formats, makes the adventure difficult to read and comprehend.  The lack of bookmarks in a 76-page PDF further hampers the product’s usability.

While providing the printable encounter maps, neatly drawn with Campaign Cartographer, was a nice touch, they do not justify the whopping price of $11.90 for a single adventure.  Wizards of the Coast publishes their adventures in paper format for $16 to $20, so it seems unlikely that gamers will want to spend $12 for an electronic PDF of an adventure that they will have to print themselves.  And considering that an entire campaign setting, such as Destiny Games’ Night Reign or Alea Publishing’s Feudal Lords, can be had for $11 to $15, purchasing a single adventure for around that price is simply not very cost effective.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

Editor’s Note: This Blog’s Author received a complimentary copy of the product in PDF format from which the review was written.

Grade Card

  • Presentation: C
  • - Design: C
  • - Illustrations: C+
  • Content: C-
  • - Crunch: D+
  • - Fluff: C
  • Value: C-

About The Author

Editor-in-Chief
Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.

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