Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Review: Knowledge Illuminates
The Knowledge Illuminates scenario presents a nice mix of outdoor adventuring (complete with a 1/4-mile scale hexmap of a small wilderness area) and a small "dungeon" locale to seek out and explore. The wilderness map is well-designed, and Shorts' wilderness encounters offer a pleasing variety of challenges. Sure, there are the obligatory bandits, but there are also a couple of inventive monster encounters, some wonderful and unexpected character details (James the NPC is my favorite!) and a very memorable new natural resource that can be found and used if the PCs recognize it for what it is. This attention to details is one of Shorts' great strengths as an adventure writer: he comes up with terrific "flavoring," evocative Gygaxian naturalist touches that make Knowledge Illuminates much more than a simple locale to be found and looted.
While this type of "natural resources"-based adventure has been done before -- see Jason Sholtis' "The Font of Glee" in Knockspell #3, or my own Black Oil Operation plot in the Arandish Campaign -- Shorts executes his take on this trope with great panache. Both the incidental find mentioned above and the larger resource that gives the dungeon locale its raison d'etre are very clever and suggest far-reaching adventuring and trade possibilities in the Lascon Thickets region. I like this sort of thing -- small details that suggest much larger possibilities -- a great deal. In some ways, these incidentals interest me more than does the "big reveal" at the end of the location-based delve, although that reveal is well-thought-out and potentially campaign-altering in itself.
I can find only two weaknesses in Knowledge Illuminates, one a minor map design issue, one in the copy editing / grammar of the text. My design quibble is that the interior dungeon map is fairly railroady: there is really only one major route to the end, despite some interesting branches. I appreciate that this may likely be a result of Shorts' effort to keep the whole module brief -- it is a "One-Shot Adventure" after all -- but a tiny bit more "route variety" in the underground map would have been a welcome addition. (And I suppose an ambitious DM could simply expand the map a bit.) On the grammatical front, and this is a very small quibble indeed, there were some verb tense errors in the text: uses of present tense verbs (e.g., "be turn over" p. 3) where there should have been past-tense verbs ("be turned over"). There were also a couple incomplete sentences (e.g., "Its mouth agape revealing. . . " p. 9) that should have been joined via commas to other sentences. These errors did not interfere with my ability to understand the text, and I should note that Shorts is very good at evoking just the right amount of detail in his efficient, readable prose. But I am a college composition instructor by trade, so I could not help but notice these small grammatical boo-boos.
These minor quibbles aside, Knowledge Illuminates is a flat-out excellent introductory module, and at the low low price of $4.00 for the pdf, you can hardly afford not to buy it. What makes KI so good? Overall, it is the balance the module achieves between keeping it simple -- the scenario itself is quite straightforward -- and offering exciting possibilities for further adventures and/or campaigns. Shorts intentionally seeds the brief module with at least three or four great campaign-worthy ideas, including a locale the PCs can appropriate as a home base, a valuable natural resource they can harvest and sell, a few well-established organizations with a vested interest in the locale and its contents, and at least one lure toward another related adventure destination. All of this in a mere 13 pages (excluding cover and OGL) of content! This is an impressive achievement indeed. Furthermore, the artwork (by The Forge Studio) , maps (by Rob Conley), and overall layout are beyond reproach. In sum, I give this product my highest recommendation.
Creativity and inspiration-value: 4 out of 5. This is a well-designed and incredibly reasonably priced module, built on a simple premise but with some unexpected twists and "flavoring" that are sure to inspire. Even if the particulars of its subject matter don't grab you, Knowledge Illuminates stands as a superb model of effective "One-Shot" module design, which also increases its use-value (and /or emulation-value?) for we busy DMs and players.
Use-value to DM's: 5 out of 5. I assume this would be a damn fine module to run for a low-level party, and is easily expandable by the DM given the "sandbox" quality of its wilderness map. Given its intentionally brief scope, it is surprisingly chock full of ideas -- including a new monster, a new magic item, and a wicked new spell -- that could easily be horked for use elsewhere, should that be your inclination. (I definitely will be borrowing that spell.)
Playability: Not yet tested -- but I sure as hell want to!