Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: Kidnap The Archpriest

Skerples has released an adventure entitled Kidnap The Archpriest. It is available for purchase on rpgnow here. Billed as a “Heist” module, it’s 54 pages and surprisingly setting/system neutral. The module features a thankfully ink-friendly layout (black, white, and grays mostly) for printing, and although it is pleasing to read on the screen, some parts are almost essential for physical reference. The layout is clear and crisp even within the denser pages and the illustrations and cartography are very well done.

This module attempts to address an aspect of play that is often overlooked or simply “tacked on” to a larger path by most adventure publishers. It eschews the standard dungeon, sprinkled with antagonists, treasures and wandering boxed text for something more focused on honing the player skills associated with Non-Player Character engagement, planning, and less “directly fictionally material” resource management. It’s billed as a method of gradually teaching players the essential elements of this style of adventure, but it certainly doesn’t neglect the GM.

The module emphasizes the need for player engagement, and this is refreshing. I wish more modules reminded GM’s about this occasionally. What one reads on the page or within the sometimes-ponderous short flavor-fiction of an adventure, will not necessarily translate well to an entertaining adventure if it is missing this essential ingredient in the admixture of role-playing. There is thankfully no lengthy prose-dump or heaped backstory to report here: this is a functionally utilitarian adventure.

It may not necessarily serve as fodder for a successful evening foray if your players have no interest in running a heist or have other pressing goals in mind. Thankfully, the over-arching concept is straightforward enough that this module could slot into a sandbox relatively easy, as the setting is very neutral (but the key conceits, such as Locations and NPCs are not flavorless to the point of being bland…more on that in a bit). There’s even advice for making minor modifications to whittle the module down to slot into other genres.

I’ve always been interested in options for play that do not involve the conventional D&D graph-paper flow-chart experience, but this module seemed a bit ambitious. Could a tutorial be produced that provides the necessary tools to run a successful, entertaining, and exciting adventure without the typical focus on combat encounters and character sheet-bound challenges?

After pawing over KtA a few times, I’m pleased to say it does an admirable job at providing these tools. Here’s the relatively spoiler-free skinny: The player’s characters are offered the task of kidnapping someone (the titular Archpriest). The someone is well-defended and a figure of renown. Most of the first portion of the adventure revolves around the players skills with managing a trinity of resources (Time, Money, and Information) to be sufficiently forearmed to come up an actual, bona-fide plan.

Tension is incredibly important to pull the necessary levers for an exciting and engrossing heist. KtA uses Time for this. People and places have schedules, and things are wont to happen according to strict timetables barring any interference from the players. Limited time ratchets tension and should hopefully help discourage the decision paralysis some players encounter when asked to think creatively. Even a flawed plan is better than no plan if it’s all you have when time’s almost up. The included timetables, schedules and advice for handling this are all extremely useful and helpful.

Money appears to be the lever that can be pulled in lieu or in addition to role-playing/social encounters in order to obtain Information that’s not immediately apparent. While this could vary greatly depending on the finances of the group of characters involved in the adventure, I enjoy that almost everyone and everything not only has a price, but falls under auspices of the incredibly effective admonishment of “No heist should fail because the PC’s can’t find equipment.” The module also features valuable advice for how to obtain things faster (requiring less Time) by spending more Money.

When adequate Time and Money are furnished, the result is completing the triumvirate with Information. This is the necessary element that replaces a hare-brained scheme or plan with something that stands a chance of succeeding. My only recommendation would be for the necessity of this process to be more directly telegraphed to the players: while it can be understood or conveyed through actual play somewhat easily by and to an experienced audience, something in the form of a more direct, if kayfabe breaking, coaching statement to this regard might work a little better for players unaccustomed to less traditional adventures. I’ve gamed with players that see their character abilities and sheets as the hammer for every nail, regardless of the nature of the problem.

The interlocking of these elements is beautiful when taken in concert with other aspects of the module, particularly the development of the NPCs which largely serve as the dispensers of Information that isn’t readily obtainable through devoting precious Time to basic observation (i.e.: a plan built only on a lengthy intelligence-gathering stakeout phase only reveals so much and is almost sure to be discouraging).  NPC descriptions are delightfully brief (and true the system-neutral claims) and contain only the most actionable information needed at hand for a GM to successfully portray the character: The GM is provided with the Name, Appearance, Voice (important and often neglected for bringing a character to life and differentiating them from each other!), Wants, Morality, and Intelligence (expressed in relative, descriptive terms instead of an Ability Score). Stats are conveyed using a simple shorthand, such as “As a Noble” which is expounded upon later in the module in terms of the type of challenge the NPC would present to the PCs should it come to fisticuffs or handily, bluffing them.

Several key NPCs are outlined in this manner and all are distinctive and interesting enough to provide plenty of fodder for the Information gathering phase, but one of the real standouts of this prescribed process is the incredible Rumor table this adventure provides. The table, like some of the NPC descriptions is peppered with the seeds of exciting schemes. I find it very difficult to imagine a situation where the players could make it through the Information gathering phase without a usable germ of an idea on how to proceed with the heist. Some are naturally more feasible than others, but the important thing here is that they open additional options and notions to the players that may have gone unconsidered initially. The complexity of the potentially revealed inter-relationships is truly appealing and arms the GM with some surprises down the road. Central NPCs are also given the aforementioned time-tables and schedules which become indispensably important to help determine their given location when the actual heist is underway.

Locations receive a similarly succinct but still very functional treatment, with enough information to provide quick descriptions (advice within the module hammers this home: this is a Kidnapping, not a room-to-room tour with time to search every nook and cranny), obvious/visible Loot and Plunder, and the additional advantage of some in-line scheduling notes for the times during which NPCs would normally be present. This addition alone makes for a much more dynamic and functional method of describing locations than I’ve typically seen, especially when coupled with the NPC time-tables to understand what they are doing here.

The maps, as previously mentioned are very well done and useful. The inclusion of walk/run times (for Escaping with the quarry is part of the heist after all!) between locations that will be central to most heists is far more useful than a simple distance key for the city. In a very welcome departure from typical presentation, areas of larger maps are reproduced, enlarged, on the same page as their keyed descriptions which is very handy indeed. This makes for much easier reference by the GM for pesky, critical, and inevitable tidbits such as “Where’s the nearest Exit!”

Flavorful encounter tables are also provided to further furnish the GM with some interesting complications and situations. I really can’t see this module going the same way twice, which can seldom be said for more traditional site-based crawls.

The module closes with some additional advice for designing your own heists using the blueprint followed in KtA. It breaks down the constituents of a good heist-based adventure and almost serves as useful design notes/insight when taken into consideration with the rest of the module. There’s some real wisdom, beneficial tips, and warnings of common pratfalls tucked away here that would be useful to anyone attempting to design this style of adventure.

I’ll end with a quick table that will likely only make sense if you purchase the product, which I definitely encourage you to do if you are interested in running any kind of Heist-style adventure:

You saw a Black Endoguard do what?
“The blighter was at least two pike-lengths away from us, and we was whispering. When we talked about pilfering the silver though, he perked right up and started moving towards us. We ran we did.”
“He strode into the library, to the section where they chain the big books down with fetters as wide around as my arm. Ripped it free and walked to the Fortress with it, he did.”
“Saw one tangle with a sorcerer once, I swear on me mum that he flat out just caught a Magic Missile in his gauntlet, crushed it, and only red dust remained.”
“An out of control cart was a-barreling down the cobbles toward him. One swing of his Flamberge and both horses were decapitated. Cart crashed into him a right mess of splinters…didn’t even wince.”
“Waked right into the sea, sure as the sunshine. No bubbles or nothing. Was down there for what seemed like ages, came back with an anchor that had a skeleton in robes tied to it.”
“Oh, they don’t never stop moving…during last years’ archery contest in Market Square one of ‘em waltzed right into the line of fire like it was nothing. Should’ve been hit by any one of the hundred arrows flying his way…”
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