WHAT DO I KNOW ABOUT FIRST IMPRESSIONS? A Masque of Life (FABLES: CITADEL OF THE UNSEEN SUN EPISODE Three; 5E OGL)
It’s March, and that means the third adventure in Ghostfire Gaming’s Fables: Citadel of the Unseen Sun adventure has been released. The current installment is A Masque of Life, and the adventurers continue to make their way out of the False Afterlife, buried far underground.
My subscription to Fables is all mine, so I’m not working from any review copies. I have not run any of these adventures, but I am very familiar with D&D 5e as both a player and a DM, and I have reviewed other Ghostfire Gaming material.
So far, all these adventures have dealt with death, the undead, decay, and some degree of gore. Some of the monster depictions are gruesome. In this case, I would also point out that one particular encounter, involving an eating contest, was almost too much for me.
In general, I would like to see more content warnings at the beginning of adventures (or for longer adventures, maybe at the beginning of chapters). Since there are ghouls included in this adventure, that should give you at least some inkling of the content, but the description of the food being eaten for the contest just got to me more than expected.
This current adventure is 112 pages long. This includes a title page, a credits page, a table of contents, and a full page OGL statement. This has an attractive two-page format with headers, sub headers, stat blocks, and sidebars. The various chapters have large art pieces, with supplementary art pieces for different monsters and NPCs throughout. In addition to the adventure itself, there is an appendix on interacting with some of the NPCs in the adventure, and twelve new stat blocks.
Progression and Patterns
Now that we’re 50% into this campaign, I think it might be interesting to notice a few trends that are beginning to develop. Most of the first five pages of each of the adventures is the same introductory text and campaign outline, except for the last few paragraphs, which set up where the adventure starts and what their objectives for the adventure will be. This section is expanded by four additional pages this time, as this is where general area descriptions and the adventure flowchart are located.
Each one of these adventures has been getting progressively longer. The first adventure was 66 pages long, with four new stat blocks. Like the current adventure, because NPC interaction was important, there is an appendix about NPC motivation and ways to curry favor with them. The second adventure is 94 pages long, with nine new stat blocks. Unlike the other two volumes, there isn’t a separate appendix expanding interactions with the NPCs. Finally, this adventure is 112 pages long, with twelve new stat blocks.
This is the first adventure to include a flow chart. The presentation of this adventure is not unlike the previous adventure, where there is a lot of discussion of the general region and encounters before the adventure proper is presented.
The sections of this volume are as follows:
- Welcome to Fables
- Chapter 1: Reaching the Locks
- Chapter 2: Locks and Keys
- Chapter 3: Escaping the Locks
- Appendix A: New Monsters
- Appendix B: New Magic Item
- Appendix C: The Doges
Chapter 1 and 3 are short, while most of the meat of the adventure is going to be found in chapter 2 as well as the background material about dealing with the Doges, the overseers of the Locks.
This section devotes a good amount of space to explaining the Bautas, soul masks that are the captured souls of some of the inhabitants of the False Afterlife. These can bolster undead that wear them, but mortal beings wearing them start to get worn down by the effort of wearing someone else’s soul. There is an exposure level chart that is like other mechanical effects like exhaustion.
The next part of this prelude discusses traveling in this region, including the five rivers surrounding the featured city of the adventure. There are charts for scavenged scrap as well as the locations of the Keys of the Locks, the items that the player characters are attempting to obtain.
The very first part of the chapter further describes the channel the PCs will start the adventure within, presenting features, environmental conditions, and encounters. There are encounters that describe the disposition of souls, the location of some masks, some creatures from the local city, hags, and a local legendary creature. Some of these encounters hint at developments in this chapter that don’t yet have context.
The player characters begin in a slightly different starting position depending on how they resolved the last adventure. If they worked with Octavian and didn’t cause the downfall of Dreamtown, they end up on the banks of the river, interacting with some of the inhabitants of the nearby city. On the other hand, if they caused the upheaval that destroyed Dreamtown, they meet up with the Drowned Prophet.
In the last adventure, the player character’s original employer, the Nightseer Sage, shows up briefly before the adventure begins, and might be seen in Dreamtown. In this case, the Nightseer Sage is adopting another disguise, the form of a drowned animated corpse that floats in the rivers leading to the Locks. In general, he warns the PCs about needing the soul masks to enter the town without being hunted as living beings and explains that they need to find the keys to escape. I like this version of the Nightseer Sage’s “help,” which remains mysterious, but presents more useful information up front.
Not entirely unlike last month’s adventure, I’m not sure if I would have put the broad geographical and encounter information up front. I was trying to piece together some of the hints that seemed to refer to the introductory information as if I may have missed something, but that context was coming later in the chapter.
This is the bulk of the adventure. If the player characters find some of the soul masks and can resist their enervating effect on the living long enough, the PCs are assumed to interact with the inhabitants of the city. These inhabitants are all ghouls that have been made more powerful and more stable by the soul masks they wear. The more the players interact with the inhabitants, the more they find out about the Doges, the leaders of the four sections of the city, each one of which holds one of the keys that the PCs need to escape.
The PCs only need three keys. One key can be retrieved from the legendary creature introduced in the previous section. That means at a minimum the PCs need to secure at least two of the keys held by the Doges.
In several places in this chapter, there are different results for player characters sharing secrets or engaging in small talk, which allows them to make a Charisma check but using Investigation skill proficiency. These are usually split into six levels of rumors with increasing detail and relevance.
Each of the districts, ruled by one of the Doges, has an event in which the player characters can participate to get the attention of the Doges. There are races, parades, feats of strength, and an eating competition. Several of these events have the possibility of troublemakers appearing, which may give the PCs a few moments of action in the middle of navigating the favor of the Doges.
In addition to the locations in the city, there are also the surrounding channels outside of the city, where all the rivers come together. In this area, the PCs can encounter another information broker that might be more straightforward in explaining the best ways to engage with the Doges. There is a chance to encounter a Doge away from their more formal stomping grounds in town, and of course, there is a haunted boat. There may also be a clue as to a conspiracy that the PCs can join if they want to waylay a Doge for their key.
The Appendix that deals with what the Doges want and the missions they might send the PCs on also directs back to these locations in several instances. In some ways, the city is where the social action is, and the channels are where the physical action is, but there are exceptions in both locations.
Once the PCs collect three of the keys, the keys can be interlocked, and depending on the keys in hand, two of the channels converge to become a new channel that runs into the Facade Channel, which heads to the surface. This final stretch of water is blocked at the far end by a giant mask from which the villain of the campaign watches. All the masks still near the player characters will animate into guardians for them to fight. If they survive, it’s time to sail on to the next challenge in the next adventure.
There are four Doges who each have their own ideals and flaws. Each one has a location where they keep their key, and there are also notes on how each of the Doges feel about their fellow Doges and the player characters. By participating in events in the city, and by doing jobs for the various Doges, they may eventually take the PCs into their confidence.
The Doges are:
- Volto, Doge of Order
- Harle, Doge of Blood
- Gatto, Doge of Pride
- Colet, Doge of Gold
I should note that each of them gets full color artwork, and the artwork goes a long way to sell these NPCs. They have some detailed, distinctive looks. Each of the Doges have some jobs they want done, and may be willing to let the PCs undertake. Each of the Doges wants to escape to the surface, and they all think that their fellow Doges are unworthy of escaping the Locks.
Depending on which Doges the PCs engage with, they may find out about the legendary monster that has the fifth key, they might have the opportunity to win one of the keys from a Doge in a direct contest, or to see if they can negotiate for one Doge to buy another’s key. There is also some potential backbiting involving one of the Doge’s hired night hags as well as an organization of doppelgangers seeking to overthrow the city.
In some cases when I was reading about the various plots and hidden secrets in chapter 2, I was wondering how the PCs would even get an idea of where to start looking. The answer, of course, is in this section, as the Doges will start to drop more clues depending on how much they trust the PCs.
I really like all the components of this adventure, but the order in which the information is presented was a little tricky for me to follow. By the end, I understood it, but there is a lot going on. This is a pretty ambitious social interaction heavy adventure, and I appreciate that that can be harder to present than a list of encounter locations with assumed combats.
While some groups may lean hard into wanting to participate mainly in the social encounters, and some may really just want a lot of combat encounters, most groups I’ve known are somewhere in the middle. In that case, the DM is going to need to try and pace the adventure so that the PCs will learn about things to do in the channels in between contests and interactions in the city, and that isn’t explicitly built into the adventure.
Once you see the big picture, I love the interactions between the Doges, and how their personalities and goals pit them against one another in certain circumstances. I think it could be a lot of fun for the PCs to have the satisfaction of getting one over on multiple Doges by the end of the adventure.
That said, after the previous adventure, I don’t know if the PCs are going to be as willing to work with someone in a position of leadership in the False Afterlife again. I can also see some stalwart PCs that may not want to unwisely try to smite the whole city, but who may prefer to stealthily gather information and remove the Doges as threats, but there isn’t as much support for heists or guerrilla warfare approaches. I understand that effort has to be put where the “heart” of the intention lies, but it’s worth noting that some PCs may not want to go the subtle route.
I think there are some unexpected emergent items that come about as part of a monthly development cycle, where different designers are working on parts of a campaign based on an outline, but not the final versions of the previous adventures. For example, the alternate currency that isn’t intrinsically valuable from Dreamtown, and the scrap in this adventure, feel very similar, but I don’t think it’s an intentional theme. Interacting on a more social level with malevolent leaders of a region of the False Afterlife has happened in two concurrent adventures, after the first two adventures had variations on the characters dying but having new bodies and another chance at life offered to them.
I hope these adventures continue with the experimental, ambitious aspects, like the need to forge alliances, make moral choices, find unique ways to learn about past events, and have complex social interactions that allow for multiple ways to resolve a challenge. I am hoping for fewer recurring thematic elements that aren’t as intentionally derived as they might be. I’m also looking forward to adventures where the adventurers are roaming the world once again.