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Reviews: What's That Smell?
 
by Joe G. Kushner


What's That Smell coverWhat's That Smell?
Written by John Wick with Morgan Gray and Thomas Denmark
Published by Wicked Press
32 b & w pages
$10.00

The first multi-module from Wicked Press, What's That Smell is an adventure for 4th-7th level characters. As the characters wander down the road, they see a small halfling community, Nobbletog Grove. Here, the party may hope to see if halfling life is all it's cracked up to be. However, as the players look around, they find evidence of a struggle, and no halflings. Things continue to get worse from that point on.

Each encounter section in the adventure starts with a "Run-Down," a brief description of what it's about, followed by a "Set-Up," which provides the GM text to read. This is followed by "Action," the events that can happen in that location. A "Follow-Up" rounds up each encounter, providing the GM advice on how to keep the module moving.

In Nobbletog Grove, there are two charts for the GM. The first chart is a general information table with only four entries about what the general state of the house. The second chart, with twenty entries, has some specific examples of individual objects in the house. However, the writing here is almost humorous as it usually starts with a description of how wonderful the houses are, and then turns it around and states how they're covered in blood. If the games I've played in are any indication, most players aren't going to stop and appreciate fine art when there is carnage afoot. In the Grove, players can explore numerous houses, as well as see what's occurring around the statue of the Goddess of Hearth and Home, the Sheriff's Home, and the Old Man Bog's home, a three story house.

Most of the "action" here is for atmosphere and to build suspense as the players search through empty buildings and find evidence of slaughter. The adventure proceeds on the assumption that the party is good-aligned, as it points out that religious characters wouldn't steal from the dead, or that they can only pull an enchanted sword from "dead, cold fingers." Or when in a rogue's home, how thieves shouldn't steal from other thieves because of some thief honor code. All big assumptions about how an individual campaign works.

Part Two, "The Catacombs," occurs underneath Old Man Bog's home and puts the players in a role they're more familiar with: dungeon crawling. Based on what motivation he's given the Skitzee, the GM can harass the players with their awful smell (hence the name of them module), and work to split them up and take them down. Notes about the catacombs, like darksight not working and slow movement due to the slick ground, provide the GM with solid groundwork to run the second half of the module.

As the adventure proceeds, the characters are almost like the marines from the movie Aliens, running around in the catacombs under the city. The Skitzee have made this their home using their ability to form and mold a concrete-like substance. The movie parallels continue here, as halflings are buried in the walls, some dead, others not quite so lucky as the alien monsters feed on the smell of their fear. The place shifts and moves to and fro as a result of the alien nature of the spell that summoned the Skitzee in the first place. Some of the more interesting encounters here include one with a dark elf whose insanity acts as a mind altering and addictive drug to the Skitzee who stay away from him, and another with "The Other Party." This encounter is meant for GMs who want to spice up the module and allows the GM to throw an evil (or eviler) version of the party at itself. The big finale occurs when the party tries to close the Dimension Door that brought the Skitzee to the characters' world in the first place.

Appendix 1, Playtest Notes, provides GMs with the closest thing to director's comments I've seen in a module. Some of these notes really should have gone at the start of Part Two since they involve how the catacombs react to certain spells, as well as practical information about the density of the walls and the temperature of the rooms.

Appendix 2: Tables and Charts, provides the GM with a three-column table that describes how terrible the Skitzee smell as well as common smells that the Skitzee use to communicate with. It's almost like reading the old Hall of Heroes Forgotten Realms module in terms of how Dragonbait, a Saurial, communicated.

Appendix 3: Skitzee Stats, has a stat block for the Skitzee as well as combat and ecological information about them.

Appendix 4: NPCs, includes states for Boggins Burfoot, as well as background information about Boggins' old party, The Brotherhood of the Band. Outside of Boggins and Maggie, his niece, most NPCs aren't provided stats, which is good because they're not really needed. The background information is useful for understanding certain actions, like those of the drow, Druz Druzen, and why he escaped his home and how he could (if the GM chooses) accidentally summoned the Skitzee.

The second Appendix 4, which I guess should be Appendix 5, is the maps. It's an interesting twist with "Area Plates," maps at 25% size that can be copied and blown up and interchanged. This allows the GM to customize the maze in ways that players who own the module can't anticipate. There's a standard map in case the GM doesn't want to go this route, but doing so defeats some of the unique options of utilizing the maze in different methods. Also provided are drawings that can be copied for use as miniatures, including drawings of the Skitzees. The map of Nobbletog Grove is an overview that's simple and clean, making it easy to see the named locations.

The book's art is excellent, but there may be a little too much of it. There's so much art, the text density ranges from fair to poor as some pages have a high portion of space taken up by art with high margins surrounding it. It makes the art crisp and clean but does lower the text count. The same issue happens when text is boxed, making it widely spaced. This serves to make the pages easy on the eyes, but lowers the text density. If the interior covers had been used for the credits, OGL and D20 License Information, the module might've had a little more meat to it.

The game stats seem a little off in some cases. The Village Dogs, for example, have no hit dice, and no Challenge Rating listed, as well as a different standard for the stat block than most publishers use. This problem crops up with traps as well, as Search rolls are given a DC but disable device rolls aren't even mentioned. Traps aren't assigned a Challenge Rating either.

Some of the writing/editing is a bit sloppy. "The dogs are scared, hungry and willing to do just about anything for a meal," is followed just a few sentences down by "The dogs are hungry, lonely and frightened." Are they murderous, desperate beasts or just hungry animals? Still, writing, like art, is something people will have different opinions on. In my opinion, these problems work against the flow of the module.

Overall, the adventure suffers a little from lack of variety, as there are only two types of Skitzee: the grunts and the queens. In the end though, this is a solid module that is a little overpriced in the competitive D20 market. GMs looking for something a little different than standard adventures will enjoy letting their players ask What's That Smell?


 

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