by Orion Holcomb
Title: Tsar Rising
Publisher: Monkeygod Enterprises
Written by Michael Tresca
Illustrated by William O'Connor, Theodor Black, and John Moniz
b & w, 60 pages
Tsar Rising is a d20 module intended for characters of eighth to ninth
level. Set in the land of Torassia (basically fantasy Russia), the party is
first hired to find a missing caravan, but instead find a man claiming to be the
Tsar's right hand man and commander. This is actually the Tsar in disguise, the
lone survivor of an assault upon a small advancing army of undead, which he
himself led. The "commander" asks them to escort him back to the capital city in
return for a handsome reward. Unfortunately, believing the Tsar to be dead, his
sons and advisors have already begun to feud over the throne.
One of the Tsar's advisors is actually a "devil," and the real villain of Tsar
Rising. The creature was summoned as a result of the Tsar's recent push to convert the
people away from their pagan ways. Further, the people of Torassia are no longer
as fond of the Tsar after taxes were increased to pay for a company of woolly
mammoth warbeasts! The plot is, of course, more complicated, but not by much.
The presence of the "devil" has caused many powerful wild beasts to wander in
toward the civilized lands. This seems to be little more than an excuse for the party to whet their
bloodthirsty appetite. There are eight new monsters, many of which are
intelligent and could provide for interesting interactions, both in terms of combat and
role-playing. But most of them are random encounters, and given no personality or
background. Unfortunately most of them are just
random encounters, with no personality or background and are just thrown at the
party for some hack 'n' slash. It seems like a case where bigger and bigger
monsters have to be thrown at the more experienced party just to give them a
Yet not all of the scenario is like this. The Tsar himself provides some
intelligent role-playing, as the characters will find that his story has more
and more holes in it as they travel together. In addition, several of the people
they meet along the way make for interesting character interactions and the
villain's last battle is well documented and thought out. However, the entire
story is very rigid and depends on the PCs' willingness to follow the requests of
the unpopular Tsar.
The writer uses many Russian names for things, especially monsters and this
definitely helps give Tsar Rising a strong Russian flavor, which is good.
However, there is no quick reference for these Russian names, so a lot of page
turning is required to explain a word that you have forgotten. ("What the heck
are kainkutho again? Oh, a type of bear.") Overall, the adventure is poorly
organized -- the back cover could have been used to list the glossary, for
example. More turning of pages is required for the planned encounters, since both
monster and NPC statistics are all at the back of the book and not where the
characters meet them. To add to the confusion, there are four sets of statistics
in the appendix: one for NPCs, one for NPCs from a specific town, another for
the monsters, and the last for the new monsters. The DM needs to be very familiar
with the adventure before running it as Tsar Rising is not something that could
be picked up, quickly scanned through and then played.
Both artwork and maps are decent, although the town maps do lack a scale, and the
layout and organization is good except for the problems mentioned above. I
discovered that the cover is almost indestructible after accidentally folding a
corner over, only to find that it didn't even leave a crease, and returned to its
normal shape. The front cover actually depicts a scene where apparent player
characters are fighting people mounted on a wooly mammoth. Unfortunately, this
never happens in the story, but oh well!
There are ten new magic items, new weapons, and some other good optional rules.
Firearms are included in the module, but are not essential to the plot, so they
can easily be ignored. Some of the new weapons and magic items are interesting.
Many help add to the Russian flavor, but for the most part they are not needed
and do not really improve the quality of the module.
Much of the story depends greatly on the supernatural and the existence of beings
from other planes. Tsar Rising may fit easily into some existing campaigns, but
not many. In addition, some parts are left rather vague. What happened to the undead
army and where is it while the adventure proceeds? What about the villain devil?
Some clues can be found in certain places as to the events taking place, but
these "rumors" are just as vague and need more of an explanation. Readers aren't even told
if the rumors are true or false.
The player characters seem rather limited in their
options, with little chance of discovering the true threat to the land (the
"devil"), and can only restore the Tsar to power, whom we are told at the end is
greatly changed as a result of these events and is a much better
ruler for it. So what is the point of Tsar Rising? If I was caught up in the
adventure, my inclination would be to go after the undead army. Certainly eighth
to ninth level characters would have no trouble stopping the skeletons, even if
they were being led by a devil. Restoring a Tsar to power is certainly cool and
all, but the plot to Tsar Rising is full of holes, unknowns, and unexplored potential.
Overall, the module has a nice Russian theme. Nice for the GM to practice a
Russian accent. But it also has a rigid plot full of holes, and foes who are
stupid battle fodder for the most part. I would tend not to recommend it, mainly
because of the $13.95 price tag. I realize it becomes more difficult to write
modules for higher level characters, but there must be better adventures out
there than this one!