What Do I Know About Reviews? Tales of the Old Margreve (5e OGL)
I’ve been pretty vocal about the fact that my new favorite setting for D&D is Kobold Press’ Midgard setting. I have really been enjoying the fact that the setting is just familiar enough that you can do “most” standard D&D related things in the setting, but just different enough that it doesn’t get watered down by expanding to accept everything D&D, all the time, and sets some boundaries on what feels appropriate.
That said, I’ve really wanted to have some kind of mega-adventure or adventure path for the setting. I’ll be honest, running a published adventure doesn’t keep me from doing a ton of work fleshing out side details and adding NPCs, but it does give me guardrails that occasionally tell me when to stop and veer back onto the path.
There is a more formal mega-adventure/adventure path for Midgard coming in the future, in the form of the Empire of the Ghouls product that was recently on Kickstarter. Until we get there, there is the Tales of the Old Margreve adventure.
Based on an adventure anthology originally created for Pathfinder, Tales of the Old Margreve was translated and expanded for 5e. While it isn’t quite a single unified story, all of the adventures take place in the Old Margreve forest, with some recurring locations and characters across some of the adventures. There are adventures in the book to take characters from 1stto 10th level.
Content Warnings and Clearing the Air
A number of people in danger, as well as the number of mysterious, magical creatures in the forest, are disproportionately women. For the most part, these women are presented as having competency, and in many cases, are actually quite powerful, but the “dangerous enchanted woman” trope is in evidence a lot, especially as this seeks to recall a darker fairy tale vibe.
What is more troubling is the recurring problems with the Kariv, a culture that is portrayed in a manner very consistent with the real-world Roma culture. The Kariv are literally cursed to wander, which changes the narrative of why they travel from racism and religious persecution, and they do perform divinations, which aren’t quite as enigmatic in a world where magic functions.
Unfortunately, despite having a cultural name native to the setting, with the Kariv, the book repeatedly uses the term g*psy, a term that many Roma people see as a slur. It occurs multiple times in the Gazetteer, and in particular in the adventure Gall of the Spider-Crone.
That adventure not only uses the term g*psy again, but also portrays the Kariv as untrustworthy, greedy, incompetent charlatans. It doesn’t just play with outdated stereotypes, but actively harmful ones.
I understand that Midgard leans heavily on Eastern European legends for its flavor. I just wish that the Kariv could be treated with more care and concern, given their obvious parallels to a real-world marginalized people.
Defining the Borders
This review is based both on the PDF and the physical copy of the adventure. The book is 204-pages long, with three pages of ads and the OGL statement taking up its own page. The pages have a greenish cast with a faded background of vines. The formatting is clear and easy to follow, and the artwork is some of the best fantasy art you are going to see in an RPG product.
The Old Margreve Gazetteer
The gazetteer gives a broad overview of the Margreve as an adventure location, and details some 5e specific rules that work in tandem with the setting. Magic is slightly less effective, as the forest “eats” it, metal rusts away from civilization, and the forest actively decides if it likes you or not.
There are Margreve specific charts for Status, a rules system that can be found in the Midgard Worldbook. In this case, status is gained or lost based on the forest’s concepts of right and wrong, and there are mechanics for random effects that can happen when status rises high with the forest, or is especially low.
In addition to the special effects that might happen with status, there are specific random encounters for the Margreve, divided into encounters on the road that moves through the forest, the outskirts, or the heart of the forest, as well as daytime and nighttime encounters. In addition to listing creatures encountered, the encounters explain what the various creatures are doing, or the extenuating circumstances that might be present in the scene when the creatures are found.
Several of the encounters reference creatures from the Tome of Beasts or the Creature Codex, and while I endorse both of those books (possibly even over some of the official Wizards of the Coast D&D monster tomes), the fact that the encounter charts utilize them may make this section slightly less useful for someone that doesn’t own them.
I am very happy to see the status mechanics get used for a more specific purpose. I like the concept from the Worldbook, but there isn’t much in that book to make it worth the effort to track. For this adventure, it has direct consequences on the game, and I hope to see an adventure specific version of status for use with the Empire of the Ghouls adventure as well.
Margreve Sites, Inhabitants, and Adventure Hooks; Magic in the Margreve
This section details recent history, geography, and several of the inns that follow along the Great Northern Road that bisects the forest. Various NPCs are detailed, and there is a faerie associated site that can act as a transition into the Wrath of the River King adventure. This isn’t just a mysterious site with some faerie in attendance, but a populated area with different events going on during various seasons and numerous detailed NPCs to interact with.
There are several inns mentioned, including the Bluebell Coaching Inn, which is almost the fantasy equivalent of the cantina on Mos Eisley in Star Wars. All kinds of magical creatures associated with the forest stop by the inn from time to time, making it a good staging place for adventurers, especially if your group has less traditional species in it’s makeup. There is both a rumors and adventures table and an NPCs table to add some randomness to the people in attendance, and like the encounters above, most of these detail a starting situation rather than just listing the statistics for a character.
The Dancing Stones are places of power in the Margreve that are tied to the ley line features of the setting. Each site has its own lore and rumored abilities, and over a dozen of them are given a paragraph or so of detail.
There are more details on magical effects in the Margreve, including a few new spells that interact with the rules of the forest. They can do things like allowing your shadow to become a spy for you, or letting you get sustenance from sunlight. There are also suggested side effects to different schools of magic based on the interests of the forest itself.
I enjoy all of this, and think it does a lot to reinforce an alien and self-aware ancient forest as a setting, but given that this modifies some class features, you may want to be up front with your players and get their buy in before telling them that their spells don’t function the way they think they do. In many cases, the forest just adds something “extra,” but there are detrimental effects like lowering the DC or proficiency bonus to hit with spells.
Rather than detail all of the adventures, I wanted to give an overview of the adventures and where some of the connections between them lie. There effectively two types of adventures. The first are the stand-alone adventures that might have some common people and places, and there are the shorter Derende interludes, which are more like specific encounters that get woven between the other adventures.
- Hollow (The PCs find a village attacked by a monster in service to an evil tree)
- The Honey Queen (The PCs negotiate with sentient giant bees for magical honey)
- The Vengeful Heart (PCs investigate a blood mage’s dealings with local villages)
- Challenge of the Fang (PCs get caught up in a ritualized hunt with wolves)
- The Griffon Hatchling Heist (One of the powerful griffon’s of the forest needs the PCs to help save her eggs)
- Gall of the Spider Crone (A forest hag needs help excising something living within her)
- Blood and Thorns (Plant folk attempt to secure their power over the forest)
- Grandmother’s Fire (Someone has stolen Baba Yaga’s hearth fire, and she wants it back)
- The Vengeful Dragon (the PCs return to the first adventure site to deal with a dragon that threatens the village)
Hollow and The Vengeful Dragon bookend on the same village, with the PCs being invited back with the assumption that they are heroes that helped out in the first adventure. There are various spider crones that are sisters that appear in multiple adventures as well.
The adventures all have strong dark fairy tale elements to them. Some of my favorites include the shambling thing helping an evil tree in the forest to evolve into something more powerful, as well as the gravitas that a job for Baba Yaga naturally holds, with the stakes being lifting a curse on the whole forest.
Some of the adventures have stronger opening hooks than others. If you are planning on basing your whole campaign on the forest, a lot of adventures kind of assume adventurers “stumble across” something, and The Vengeful Heart, as an example, feels more set up for outsiders being sent into the forest, so you may need to plan stronger, more unifying hooks.
The thing about the adventures that makes me the saddest is that I really like some of what is going on in Gall of the Spider Crone. There is a point where the PCs need to get the house of the crone’s sister to where the crone is laid up, and it’s a great and evocative fantasy scene. Unfortunately, this is also the adventure that has the most issues with how the Kariv are treated. My suggestion for this adventure would be to either not make the characters at the inn with Kariv, or go out of your way to portray them as being reverent and competent, but dealing with very difficult supernatural situations, to downplay the negative stereotypes.
The three other adventures in the book are interspersed, and are a bit shorter than the full adventures. They detail some mysterious sites in the Margreve, with a building undercurrent of something sinister happening. These adventures are:
- The Fingers of Derende (1st to 4thlevel)
- The Tongue of Derende (5th to 9thlevel)
- The Heart of Derende (10th level or higher)
While other places in the forest have an ancient natural magic feel to them, the Durende sites are all touched by “something else,” and imply that something unnatural and beyond space and time might be slumbering under the forest.
The first two adventure sites hint at some of the weirdness going on, but the final adventure can make an effective capstone, as the PCs have to deal with a creature infused with power as the Avatar of Durende.
Appendix: Forest Monsters
This section includes a few new monsters native to the Margreve, including the following:
- Bulbous Violet
- Vine Golem
- Piney Rootwalker
- Tree Skinner
- Wraith Bear
As you might expect, all of these revolve around plants, animals, or natural phenomenon. In some cases, like the stormboar, its an animal imbued with the power of a storm. I particularly like the wraith bear, which defiles plants to power itself, and can incapacitate people with its roar.
The Forest’s Bounty
The Margreve itself is a very colorful setting, and the rules in the gazetteer make it an attractive location to utilize even without the adventures. Some of the locations, like the Bluebell Coaching Inn, feel like must visit locations in any campaigns in the Crossroads of Midgard. Almost all of the adventures have a nice, creepy fairy tale feeling to them, and the almost cosmic horror aspects of the Durende interludes is a nice counterpoint.
Some of the introductory hooks are okay, and others are a little weak, but I would have liked even a few paragraphs on how to create a more cohesive framing mechanism to keep the PCs on the path to playing through all of these adventures. There are also a few rules artifacts of the Pathfinder version of the adventures that slipped through, like references to negative hit points.
The word g*psy shows up a lot, and that’s a boundary to inclusivity that makes it harder to recommend the book. In addition, the way the Kariv are portrayed in one of the adventures is especially problematic, and a GM hoping to avoid those negative tropes is going to have to do some work to excise them from the narrative.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
I’ll be honest, the Kariv material was making this one hard to recommend, but to compare it to a similar issue in another product, I feel like the tone-deaf issues in The Isle of Dread Reincarnated were incorporated throughout the process of making it, while I think Tales from the Old Margreve is clearly the work of many hands, some of which were less sensitive than others. That doesn’t excuse the fact that the product, overall, managed to get out the door with these issues intact.
The parts of it that work do so very well. It realizes its tone very effectively. The parts that don’t work as well serve to illustrate that even some of the best regarded publishers in the industry still have some work to do when it comes to empathy, sensitivity, and inclusiveness.
Note: I searched the PDF of the Midgard Worldbook, the Zobeck Gazetteer, and the Pathfinder version of Tales of the Old Margreve. Neither the Worldbook nor the Gazetteer use the term g*psy for the Kariv, and the references to the Kariv are largely unchanged in Gall of the Spider Crone from the Pathfinder version.