Review: DB1 The Haunted Highlands

Posted: 20 June 2012 in Reviews

The Haunted Highlands, or DB series, is a sequence of modules for the Castles & Crusades RPG, so easily converted to most d20-based fantasy RPGs – that’s why I’ve filed it under D&D. The whole series can be had for less than I spend on coffee in a week, and that’s way too much, so I did a short caffeine detox and diverted the funds thus freed to RPGNow.

(The detox didn’t last, of course. It never does. Much like my resolution to stop buying new RPG stuff until I’ve used what I already have.)

DB1, the eponymous Haunted Highlands, is – like many first-in-a-series products – really intended to set the scene for a longer campaign, rather than an adventure plain and simple. It’s a 26 page document, written by Casey Cristofferson and illustrated by Peter Bradley.

The campaign area consists of the Duchy of Karbosk, which is kinda-sorta civilised; the Haunted Highlands, which are definitely not; and the lands east of the River Mandras, which are dominated by orcs. Based on the map scale, it is roughly 34,000 square miles; about the size of Hungary or South Carolina. With five villages, one city, a handful of ruins and a couple of forts, this is virgin wilderness; using typical population values for mediaeval settlements, it has less than one person per square mile – people are spread thinner here than in contemporary Alaska.

This setting is an old-school sandbox. By that, I mean:

  • It’s up to the players to decide what to do and where to go.
  • Encounters are not gated to PC levels – you meet what you meet, and woe betide you if you don’t know when to fight and when to run.
  • The DM is presented with a framework, but has quite a bit of work to do. Yes, it’s a standalone RPG setting, but you need to prepare some adventures to get the PCs up to 3rd-4th level, and it won’t take them much higher than 7th level as written.

The duchy is geographically isolated, conquered some centuries ago by a kingdom now in decline, and largely independent. Unknown to most who live there, this was once part of the vanished Empire of Umeshti. The history of the area is dealt with in a handful of paragraphs, then it’s on with the motley. The Duchy and the remains of the Kingdom both currently have their hands full with a full-scale orcish invasion, and thus the bulk of the land is left to its own devices.

The author recommends a fairly standard mix of classes for the party; one cleric, one mage, one rogue, and a bunch of fighting men of various types.

Places to go, things to kill:

  • Dirty Bowbe’s Roadhouse. A cross between the House of Beorn in Lord of the Rings and the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the Mos Eisley starport cantina, this fortified inn and its occupants are treated in some detail, as it is assumed the PCs will base themselves here. The details include the ongoing soap opera around the serving girls, the proprietor, and providers of other services; rules of the establishment; menus and price lists; pub games and customs.
  • The Crater of Umeshti. This is the obligatory large dungeon, detailed further in DB2 and DB3, but mentioned only in passing in DB1.
  • The City of Dro Mandras. This is the only city on the map, and is the subject of DB4 and DB5, although again it rates only a few lines in DB1. That part of it west of the river is still under the Duke’s control, but the area on the east bank has been overrun by orcs and is in ruins.
  • The Tower of Nesturon, a local mage of some note. That’s pretty much all you ever find out, so one for the DM to flesh out.
  • Assorted villages, ruins, and forts. For the most part, these are left vague, for the DM to expand upon as he sees fit.
  • Four fleshed-out encounter areas, each of which is intended to provide a single session’s entertainment. These are Mythnoc Cairns, a burial ground haunted by the restless dead; the ruined village of Bortenski, and its current unwholesome occupants; the Witch Moor, which features barbarian highlanders and witches; and the enchanted glen known as the Circle of the Green Man. You can see where those are on the map.

Conclusions

The module as written is suitable for adventurers of 4th through 7th level, and while it mentions scaling the encounters for different levels, I couldn’t see any advice on how to do this; the DM is thus expected to do this for himself. There are also sections on random encounters and a new monster, the Charnel Spider.

The setting introduced in DB1 is small enough, and generic enough, to be slotted in to almost any fantasy game without causing any problems – I could see that initially, and it’s one of the things that attracted me to it.

Rating: 3 out of 5. This is standard fare, but well done overall despite the lack of scaling advice and low-level scenarios.

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