What Do I Know About Reviews? Swords and Sorceries (The Sea Demon’s Gold, Song of the Sun Queens, The Tomb of Fire)(OGL 5e)
This time on the blog, I’m not just going to look at one product, but all of the adventures that have been published for a line up to the time of this blog post. The company that produced these adventures is not new to RPGs, but this is their first foray into publishing for Dungeons and Dragons 5thedition. Er . . . their first time using the 5e OGL provided by Wizards of the Coast to produce adventures for The World’s Oldest RPG.
The company in question is Arc Dream publishing, better known for Call of Cthulhu material, as well as their own spin on cosmic horror, Delta Green. Their approach is a little different than other OGL publishers.
We’ll be looking at the Swords and Sorceries line of adventures, and also the web resources that make up The Broken Empire, the default setting that Arc Dream has cultivated for this line of adventures. The adventures in question are:
- The Sea Demon’s Gold (1st level)
- Song of the Sun Queens (2nd level)
- The Tomb of Fire (3rd level)
Appearance and Structure
All three of these adventures have strong artwork and distinctive formatting. They use recognizable conventions that have become the 5e standard, like sidebars and stat blocks, but use their own unique combination of colors and highlights.
The Sea Demon’s Gold is about 20 pages of adventure, a page for the OGL statement, and the rest of the 32 pages are filled with pre-generated characters (with their own distinctive character sheets). Song of the Sun Queens is 40 pages long, with an OGL page, and 24 of the 40 pages dedicated to the adventure itself. The Tomb of Fire is 34 pages long, with an OGL page, but without the pregens included in the main PDF, but available as a separate download.
Initially I was just going to review the adventures as separate products, but the more I looked at them, I wanted to make sure I was providing context. The locations of the adventures provide setting information on that particular location, but the broader context of the setting isn’t addressed much in the adventures.
The first adventure, The Sea Demon’s Gold, mentions that the core assumptions of the adventure deal more with Mediterranean cultures rather than Northern European, and some of the setting elements seem to be calling back to Babylonian and Sumerian elements, but without as much grounding in the Bronze Age. As an example, Tiamat gets name-checked as one of the gods of the setting, and another deity that opposes her sounds a lot like Marduk.
Zyirra was the largest city of an ancient empire, where diabolism was the norm, until the Samarran kingdoms overthrew the natives and occupied the city. Despite the sinister overtones of Zyirra’s description, modern society is described as “petty kingdoms,” framing the current age as somehow less refined as the past.
Most of the cultures are revealed through the details of their pantheons, including the gods of the Broken Empire, the Iskutai, the Kahlar, the Kiavalkans, the Sindusa, the Sunlands, and the Valkans. There are also separate pages detailing traditional D&D ancestries and how they are perceived in the setting, including pages for Dragonborn and Tieflings, Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes and Halflings, and Orcs and Half-orcs.
To quote the site on humanoids in the setting:
“To most humans, humanoids are exotic and strange, and therefore dangerous. Their origins are lost to myth. Most believe that they first came about as the offspring of gods, celestials, fiends, and elementals who took humanoid shape and mated with humans.”
Some of the information on non-humans is a little disturbing and disheartening for what I would want out of a setting being shaped in the modern era. Dwarves, halflings, and gnomes are mentioned as being wrongly conflated with goblins and kobolds, and assumed to be “murderers and rapists.” The implication being that the assumptions about dwarves, halflings, and gnomes are wrong, but maybe not so much wrong about kobolds and goblins. Orcs and half-orcs are noted as being formed by Orcus, the god of the Underworld, to punish oath-breakers with violence, but when not violently punishing, they are driven to be slavers and conquerors.
I’m going to touch on the pregens included with the adventures as well, as they are posted on the site for download as well as being included in the adventures. The default party included has two Sunlands characters, one dwarf and one human. The Sunlands are effectively based on nations found in the Serengeti region of Africa. There are also two Zyirran characters, which have Babylonian overtones, and one Valkan character, a culture that is a northern druidic society. One of the Zyirran characters is an elf, and in this setting, elves play heavily into fey tropes, and often leave children to be raised by humans as changelings.
The impression I’m left with after reading the setting material on the site is that the Swords and Sorceries line wants to avoid the well-treaded tropes of northern European based fantasy, but may be pulling on some tropes just as troublesome as it builds this separate set of inspirations. That said, the setting information is sparse, so let’s see how the adventures engage with the setting assumptions.
The Sea Demon’s Gold
Resting on the island causes the PCs to have dreams where the demon attempts to cut a deal with them, and the path to the temple has numerous dangers along the way, including poison spines that make a character appear to be dead once incapacitated, if characters can’t detect magic or poison, which feels kind of harsh for a 1st level adventure. There are also some creepy, fleshy traps that snap shut and need to be pried open to save anyone that triggers them. Towards the middle of the temple, there is a gelatinous cube whose job it is to herd people towards the inner sanctum, rather than actually fight or consume the PCs.
In the inner sanctum, the undead priest serving the sleeping demon of the island wants to get the PCs to agree to willingly worship the demon, and to commit to leaving yearly sacrifices. Assuming they don’t want to sacrifice a party member, or a friendly crew member that might accompany them, they will likely fight it out with the priest.
This adventure keys a lot on alignment. XP awards differ based on alignment. Characters are directed to rewrite traits based on potential alignment drift. It’s a little strange given how little mechanical weight 5e gives to alignment.
The adventure suggests that you use The Broken Empire setting if you don’t have another one in mind, and that the adventure assumes a more Mediterranean baseline, but it doesn’t feel like a lot of this adventure would be affected by outside forces. It’s a remote adventure, with the only real interactions being with the sea folk. For a first-level adventure, I appreciate how it jumps straight to the action, and assumes that treasure is the primary motivator. The tempting demon dreams when resting on the island are also a nice, atmospheric touch.
Song of the Sun Queens
It’s pattern recognition time! You are already in the Sunlands, ready to interact with two sister queens that can help you find a lost city full of treasure that you heard about. Did you see red flags when you thought about traveling to a central Africa inspired location to look a city when you aren’t from there?
The queens seem to be okay with it, and if you use the pregen characters, two are from the Sunlands, although we don’t get much information on how the dwarves relate to the other Sunland inhabitants. There are no sidebars or notes on the difference in interactions for characters from the Sunlands versus outsiders, and the adventure itself definitely sounds like it assumes you have traveled here from outside.
The PCs are invited to an ostrich hunt, which goes wrong when dinosaurs attack. If the PCs acquit themselves well, one of them gets singled out for sex with one of the Sun Queens. There isn’t a sidebar on changing this encounter if the PC isn’t okay with this, and the adventure has a consequence for characters that don’t sleep with her. There is also a “jump scare” moment that requires you to engage a least a little in describing the encounter.
When the PCs find out about the potential threats in their way, the locals use obfuscating terms like “Hyena Giants” and “Not-Theres” to describe gnolls and blink dogs, because the adventure assumes you can communicate well enough to understand most things, but the locals still somehow can’t express more straightforward common terms across languages. PCs have a chance to ally with the blink dogs to help them with the gnoll encounters.
There are a few more potential monster encounters, including some backup encounters if the PCs decide to run from the featured undead elephant. Upon arriving in the city, they find out the curse on the city is due to a summoned devil that will attempt to trap the PCs and slowly turn them into will o’ wisps. If the devil is killed, the seals on the city can be broken. And also, the city can be looted.
Like the temple in The Sea Demon’s Gold, the dungeon crawl is pretty focused, and avoids becoming too much of a sprawl. There is about enough dungeon to tell the story of who is here and why it’s bad, and I like that kind of focus. I also like that the devil isn’t plotting death for the PCs, just a slow transmogrification into cursed servant creatures.
On the other hand, I’m really not a fan of the exoticism on display here. Locals can’t make their warnings easily understood, because they have quaint local terminology. The beautiful queen likes to sleep with attractive, brave outsiders, and will scorn them if they don’t enjoy the offer. I’m also way less comfortable with “loot this city from another culture,” even with locals saying, “hey, that’s fine with us,” versus, “loot this demon temple on a lost island.”
The Tomb of Fire
So . . . stop me if you have heard this one. You get a tip that there is treasure in a land you have never been to before. You start off near, but not quite at, your desired location, which requires you to interact with locals.
In this case, there is a lost tomb said to have treasure in it. The locals that you initially deal with don’t like the tribe that guards the lost tomb, and assumes they are bandits and raiders. They also worship a god that isn’t popular with the first locals you interact with.
There is a lot of space used to express traveling hex by hex into the desert, how much water and feed you will need for horses versus camels, how likely you are to wander into the wrong hex, and how bad it is to wear the wrong set of clothes. While I understand playing up the dangers of the desert, I would rather have the locals make it clear that horses shouldn’t be an option, and then extrapolate some saves versus exhaustion on the way to the adventure site.The hex-based travel also has a line that feels like it’s trying to circumvent one of the ranger’s main abilities. It mentions that if you get lost, the ranger knows it once you are lost, rather than continuing to see if you get even more lost. If I was a ranger that had desert as their favored terrain, and I was told “no, you technically aren’t lost, because you know that you got lost,” I’d be a little upset.
On the way to the Tomb of Fire, the PCs can encounter desert ghouls, which in other games were distinguished from undead corpse eaters by spelling the name “Ghul.” The demons will attempt to tempt the PCs to do bad things, and just talking with them will cause them to potentially gain “corrupted” traits to replace their normal traits. I like that as a more subtle trick than some of the alignment shifting in The Sea Demon’s Gold. Unfortunately, when you encounter the ghoul queen, one of her fall back tactics is to try to seduce them, because a female monster apparently can’t corrupt someone without offering to sleep with them.
When you meet the locals, you find out that their god has strict tenants about being depicted, and that his later tenants espouse that his followers need to conquer the world and let people know he’s the best god, but they haven’t done so because they need to guard the ruined temple. Yes, I got a little uncomfortable with the reductive tropes involved with this religion.
The PCs are welcomed, but the locals won’t show them the tomb, because they are forbidden to do so, except that at least one of the locals has more greed than piety. Once they get closer to the site, the PCs find out that there is a rival group from within the local tribe that believes that the standard god’s brother is really the best god, and that he’s trapped in the tomb and needs to be set free, and the sect is willing to let the PCs head in, because they are fated to set the brother free.
The PCs encounter a little boy when they enter the tomb, which is the brother of the storm god in disguise, attempting to bargain with them in a sympathetic form. The various trials in the tomb feel very much like overtly supernatural versions of the trials from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and freeing the brother from the tomb even involves taking a piece of treasure beyond the boundaries of the tomb.
It turns out the brother is an efreet, and one of his last-ditch tactics is to offer his wishes to someone that frees him, but he can only follow through on this if the curse is actually broken. If the PCs take any other treasure from the tomb, he is allowed to attack them, but he apparently doesn’t have the magical ability to know when treasure is stolen, so the PCs can make all kinds of sleight of hand checks to attempt to get away with some treasure without a fight.
If they steal something, and get caught, the efreet throws down with them. Outside the tomb, the two sects of the tribe are ready to do battle, and if the PCs didn’t make a bargain with the efreet, the pro-storm god faction rewards them with treasure and horses. Which we were told earlier in the adventure will probably die on the way across the desert.
I like the setup of the adventure, and the repeated theme of temptation from the desert ghouls and the efreet, and when I joke about the Last Crusade elements of the tomb, I actually like the “Indy, but more magical” homage.
In the other hand, I feel like the religious tropes are reductive and heavy-handed. Given that the storm god is, well, a god, I don’t think there is enough of a clue that the brother is an efreet, and not a god, and therefore the PCs may not be willing to risk stealing any extra treasure and they might be terrified of a fight. I also think that a little bit of temptation is fine, but since the first inhabitants of the region don’t trust the tribe or their god, it feels a little bit like a local fight without context, meaning the PCs could wreck the region by setting lose an evil being, and just kind of wander away with their new wishes.
I like how focused the dungeon elements of these adventures are. I appreciate that the adventures firmly realize that D&D is a game about adventurers getting rich and famous, and frame most of their reason for exploring in this light. The temptation elements in The Sea Demon’s Gold and The Tomb of Fire give some great roleplaying hooks, and I like the interaction by way of a royal invitation to participate in a hunt in Song of the Sun Queens. With the exception of the contextual clues about the storm god’s brother and what he is, the dungeon aspects of these adventures feel well executed and fun.
While it feels like these adventures are trying to add in cultures and cultural elements that often go unused in fantasy adventures, the way they are used still allows for elements of exoticism and exploitation to be major narrative threads. It feels like a deeper treatment than similar elements have received in the past, but still too shallow to avoid harmful tropes. The desire to hard frame the adventurers getting to the good stuff is a good impulse, but in a few places, it feels rushed, and allows for some disjunctive elements (like getting horses as a reward when you can’t ride them out of the desert).
- The Sea Demon’s Gold
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
- Song of the Sun Queens
Not Recommended–There isn’t much in this product that convinces me to tell others to pick it up.
- The Tomb of Fire
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.
This line really needs to have more sidebars on sensitivity in presenting cultures, more awareness of harmful trends beyond just underrepresentation, and discussions on safety when it comes to the inclusion of storyline elements that involve sex and other aspects of the plot that might cross a player’s safety threshold, especially when those plot elements aren’t isolated, but can have ramifications on other aspects of the story.
I really like seeing more diverse cultures represented in the artwork of this line. I like seeing a broader range of cultures from which to draw inspiration in fantasy stories. In this case, however, I would recommend that anyone that wants to see inclusive fantasy settings for Middle-Eastern or African settings should check out the 7th Sea 2nd Edition products The Crescent Empire and Lands of Gold and Fire, both of which center the narrative on the cultures as fantasy adventure sites on their own, rather than exotic lands to be visited, and plundered.