Slumbering Tsar: The Desolation, Part I - The Edge of Oblivion is the opening part of the Slumbering Tsar mega-adventure and the debut release from Frog God Games. It details a forlorn and forsaken outpost at the edge of a terrifying wilderness and acts as the jumping-off point for adventures into the Desolation and beyond. Originally a Necromancer Games product (more on the module's history below), the adventure is a pdf-only download at present. Print-on-demand softcover versions are on the way, however, and a monstrous hardcover compilation of the entire series is also promised. Right now, though, we're just at the start of a fourteen-part series. So what do you get for your troubles and your two dollars?
Structure and Layout
Well, you get a full-colour cover with a truly evocative piece of artwork, one page for credits, one page for the OGL, three pages of maps and 27 pages of adventure (comprising a four-page intro and overview and a two-page preview of things to come).
The layout is crisp and clean and reminiscent of previous products from Necromancer Games. We have sidebars where needed, brief bursts of boxed text and a smattering of fine b/w art. Statblocks are placed throughout the text in the relevant places and maps are collected at the rear of the product (and are easy to decipher and read).
Writing and Mechanics
As you'd expect from an industry veteran like Greg A. Vaughan, the prose is clear and atmospheric, giving a strong sense of the setting, the NPCs and their ideals and motivations. The statblocks are complete where needed and limited to page references for creatures drawn from the Pathfinder Bestiary. There are plenty of creatures taken from the Creature Collections and Tomes of Horror, but statblocks for these are given in full. Even better, the statblocks for creatures from these older products have been updated to the Pathfinder roleplaying game. The same applies to a handful of spells taken from the Relics & Rituals book - these, too, have received the PFRPG treatment.
As mentioned, the artwork is good. However, there are only four pieces of artwork in the product (not counting the cover) and two of these are recycled from Tome of Horrors I and II, which leaves us with only two new pieces of art. While not a major failing, it would have been nice to see some more new art showing some of the locations in the adventure.
As for the subject matter itself, it's here that The Edge of Oblivion really shines. As mentioned above, the product details "The Camp", a filthy little outpost on the edge of the Desolation, which is a war-torn wasteland surrounding the ruined city of Tsar, site of an ancient battle with the forces of Orcus.
After the introduction treats us to an overview of the epic conflict that brought Tsar to its knees, we get right down to the gritty details of the camp itself. Like a refugee from a Mad Max-meets-spaghetti western, the Camp is a collection of hovels and shops. The adventure details its various locations, its notable NPCs (and their secrets), gives us rumours and encounter tables and provides immediate hooks and advice on using the camp and its denizens in-game. Reading this section alone will provide you with any number of ideas for play.
While the locations are standard (shops, inns, homes), their descriptions are evocative. A structure built from abandoned wagons, an apothecary housed in an abandoned barrow, a tavern that has been knocked down and rebuilt several times over - the concepts used here are gripping in their own right.
The NPCs are fantastic. We have a hanged man who won't stay dead, an alcoholic elf, an orc mercenary with a hilarious catalogue of injuries, an unusual collection of rangers, an ambassador from a nearby city who is clearly out of his depth, a fascinating ghast undertaker. The list goes on. There's even a lich knocking about the place, and it's one of the most fascinating portrayals of its type in any adventure anywhere. No crypt-bound "eeevil mastermind", this critter is developed to an unexpected degree of detail. When you never sleep, never breathe and terrify folks by your mere presence, how would you involve yourself in a thriving settlement? Vaughan's take on the undead is nothing less than remarkable. There are over a dozen fully-developed NPCs here (and half as many again generic types and creatures) and each one is an adventure unto itself.
If these weren't inspiration enough for you, the adventure continues with five suggested events to use in the camp. One is a startling introduction by way of a grief-maddened hill giant. Two others feature NPCs from the previous section, while the remaining two involve new faces. One of these, the midnight peddler, is an utterly wonderful recurring encounter that the DM can use throughout the entire series if desired and was a joy to read. The remaining encounter is to be used further down the line, and involves an enemy from a future part of the series who returns to the Camp to wreak revenge on PCs who have crossed him.
This last point, although a great piece of adventure design, also highlights what is probably the only major flaw with The Edge of Oblivion. Simply put, it's barely a taster of what is to come. Rumours put the final product at between 600 and 700 pages. These opening 30-odd pages provide a jumping-off point for the campaign, but nowhere to jump to. After visiting the Camp, your players will be champing at the bit to delve into the Desolation itself, to seek out Slumbering Tsar and its secrets. With this product on its own, there's nowhere for them to go.
Still, that's hardly a crippling flaw. As of this writing, Part II came out yesterday, with plenty of meat to sink your teeth into out in the Desolation (and plenty of teeth eager to sink themselves into you in return!) so if you pick up both, you're good to go. And if you only get Part I (and for a meager $2.00 you'd be crazy not to) you have an "edge of the world" settlement that you can use in any game featuring a vast wilderness just off the map.
The Series As A Whole
Slumbering Tsar was originally intended to be released by Necromancer Games in three parts. The Desolation was the first of these, and came out in pdf for 3.5e just before 4e appeared on the market. It contained material that is now being re-released for Pathfinder as Parts I, II and III of the series. For a while, though, it looked as if the whole adventure would never see the light of day.
Enter Frog God Games. Bill Webb, one half of the ground-breaking duo behind Necromancer Games set this company up only recently, with the plan to release Slumbering Tsar as a fourteen-part mega-adventure, one part per month. Which is where we are now, with Part II just available.
You have several options when it comes to buying the series. You can buy the individual chapters as they come out from Frog God Games or DrivethruRPG (with POD sofcovers soon available from the latter). Part I is $2.00 and subsequent parts are $9.99. You can also subscribe to the series as a whole by paying for all fourteen parts in a single lump sum of $89.99. This gets you all fourteen pdfs at a considerable saving. And if you really like, you can subscribe to all the pdfs and then have the series compiled as a hardcover at the end. This "premium" subscription currently costs $125.00, but only lasts for a few months, after which prices will rise. An excellent set of choices for all budgets.
As an opener for the series, The Edge of Oblivion is excellent. Rich with detail and hooks, it makes for a hugely enjoyable read even if you never plan to run it. You could steal ideas from here for weeks and still not be done. And at $2.00, it's perfectly priced to tempt you to dip your toes in the waters. Although light on the artwork, the meat of the content is succulent and tasty and deeply satisfying. If the remainder of the series maintains this high standard, we have a classic of the Pathfinder line in the making. Great stuff.
[5 of 5 Stars!]