by Matthew Pook
En Route III: The Road Less Travelled
Published by Atlas Games
Written by Keith Baker, Chris Doyle, Geoff Habiger, Gareth Hanrahan, Eric Jensen, Rick Neal, John Seavey, Jon Thompson & Jeff Wikstrom
Illustrated by J. Scott Reeves
As the title suggests, En Route III: The Road Less Travelled is the third book in Atlas Games' series of short scenario anthologies for its d20 System Penumbra imprint. These are collections of the "side trek" style encounters made popular by both Dungeon and Dragon magazines. The idea behind this type of encounter is to have something happen to the player characters as they travel from one adventure to the next, rather than just gloss over such details. The basic set up is to have such events occur as they travel along a road, but the twelve given in En Route III include those that take place at sea, within the cosy warmth of a tavern, and even while in the midst of a teleport! As written, none of the twelve should take no longer than an hour to play, but if you have players like mine, some may last a whole lot longer.
Looking Down the Road
This being an Atlas Games release, the layout of En Route III is clean and tidy, with the few illustrations all fitting the encounter that they accompany. A mark of this publisher's intelligence is that they neatly categorise the contents of their d20 supplements into a series of precise appendices. En Route III is no different, with its final pages simply listing the book's new magic items, new creatures, various NPCs and miscellany into one appendix, the encounters by location in a second, and by their Encounter Level in the third. Together these work as the equivalent of an index, and for the most part, are better than any index.
Of the twelve encounters in En Route III, all of which are compatible with Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, some two thirds are for mid to high-level parties, their Encounter Level rating ranging from six to seventeen. The lowest Encounter Level is two, a quarter are EL10, and none of the encounters are more than seven pages in length, the majority averaging five pages long.
The book opens with Keith Baker's "15 Rounds of Fame." At the heart of this EL4 encounter is a construct sent to gain more information about a particular character. The Planar Observer's masters have records of the character's great deeds, but would like to add more details for their archives. This is a chance for the DM to foreshadow subsequent events in their campaign through the Planar Observer's irritating questions and hints that it cannot expand upon. Keith Baker also offers a second encounter, the EL3 "Whispers," in which a party falls prey to a psychic creature that feeds on the discord of secrets and betrayals revealed. This is perhaps the most flexible of the twelve encounters in the book, and can be adapted with ease to either static or moving locations.
Also EL3 is John Seavey's "A Quick Demonstration," an encounter that offers the party magical potions at pleasingly cheap prices. Unfortunately, the side effects are not as pleasing, and the meat of this mini-scenario involves further experimentation to reverse said effects. Greed is also a strong factor in Geoff Habiger's EL2 "Lady Luck," striking the finder of a large silver coin as well as gifting them with some very nice bonuses. Unfortunately (and in true "One Ring" fashion), the previous owner would like it back!
The EL6 "One More Marionette" by Jon Thompson is like the AD&D Ravenloft scenario The Created, a nod to the tale of Pinocchio in that the party members are drugged and end up as tiny puppets! Overcoming this problem is a pleasing challenge and should last a whole session rather than just an hour. Jeff Wikstrom's EL8 "Eye of the Opener" is perhaps the weakest of the encounters in En Route III, as its central attempt to scam the party into parting with some of their magic items is unlikely to work with most players, invariably a suspicious -- nay, paranoid lot.
A quarter of the mini-scenarios in En Route III are EL10. Like the earlier "15 Rounds of Fame," Gareth Hanrahan's "Between a Rock & No Place" has the acquisition of information as its central theme. When the party attempts a teleport, they do not arrive at their desired destination, but within the confines of the "Crystal Between." This is a magical construct designed to collect information for its creator, but unfortunately he has not been back to check on the device in a very long time and the crystal is in need of quite a lot of tender, loving care. The characters must also deal with ancient beings in "Hellcow3: The Sacred Cow," when they find a herd of cows tended by a very bored Rakshasa. Of all of the scenarios in the book, this one, which continues the series' tradition of cow-themed encounters, is the only one unaccredited. The third of the EL10 side treks takes place on a riverbank, in which Eric Jensen sets everything around the characters upon them -- the river, the trees, and even a raft all seem to have it in for them. The solution lies in helping someone out, as it does for Rick Neal's EL17 "Tears of the Ice Queen." Only the solution is much more of a challenge, involving the scaling of a 1500-foot high ice sculpture located on a flat iceberg and once up there, completing the giant piece of art!
The EL11 "Flotsam" by Chris Doyle is probably the most traditional of the scenarios in the book, involving a perilous ambush. Fortunately, it is well detailed and represents one of the few predominately combat challenges in the collection. Chris Doyle's second contribution is not so traditional, and is probably the silliest. "Stone's Throw Away" is an EL14 encounter with a band of Stone Giants, who demand that the party either pay or play if they are to pass! Naturally, the games that the Stone Giants want to play involve rocks -- big rocks.
The subtitle, "The Road Less Travelled," is rather fitting for this supplement. Though they are nearly all well done, there is the feeling that a DM is unlikely to get the fullest use out of this supplement. There just does not seem to be enough encounters in this book. After all, the original En Route supplement provided almost double the amount in this volume and at a more reasonable price too. Which means that while En Route III: The Road Less Travelled is a solid and useful book that is up to Atlas Games' usual high standards, containing as it does some entertaining little scenarios, in the end it feels a little too pricey for what you get.