What Do I Know About First Impressions? City of Decadence (Fables Episode Five, 5e OGL)
It’s after the first of the month, and that means another installment of Ghostfire Gaming’s Fables is available. We’re currently on episode five of six, and we’re less than a month away from the final adventure in this series.
If you haven’t read my other reviews of this series, it’s not too late to get right with the universe, but as a quick primer, Ghostfire Gaming has a monthly subscription service for campaigns, putting out one adventure a month, until they wrap up the campaign in six issues.
The current Fable is Citadel of the Unseen Sun, which is highlighting the world of Etharis from their Grim Hollow campaign setting.
I did not receive a review copy, and I have a subscription so I can receive this content for review. I have not played this adventure, but I am familiar with D&D 5e both as a player and as a GM. Additionally, I’ve reviewed the Grim Hollow Player’s Guide as well as the previous volumes of this campaign.
This volume of Fables is 84 pages long. This includes a title page, a credits page, a table of contents, and a full page OGL statement at the end of the volume. The formal, layout, and artwork remain to be high quality.
As with the previous volumes, the opening section of the book has four pages of information found in all of the previous volumes, discussing the art of being a GM, the expected ability to modify the adventure, an brief treatise on the genre of dark fantasy, the backstory for the campaign, and a summary of the individual adventures.
The adventure is laid out into the following sections:
- Welcome to Fables!
- Entering Nov Ostoya
- The Low Streets of Nov Ostoya
- Blood-Drenched Heights of Nov Ostoya
- New Monsters
- New Magic Items
The objective to this story is for the player characters to finally meet the mysterious being that hired them to oppose Kasimir Sundrinker way back at the beginning of the campaign. Their employer will be waiting for them at a gala thrown by the capital’s most powerful vampire rulers.
The PCs will need to enter the city without attracting too much attention, then find a means to enter the Heights of the City so they can make their way to the gala. At the gala, they are expected to perform some tasks for their employer before they are let into a secret room and told of the final task being asked of them.
Of course, the devil (or daemon) is in the details. The adventure assumes that the player characters will need to deal with one or two gangs, the Crownbreakers and the Volitants, to infiltrate the city extensively enough to make their way to the gala. Once they reach the gala, they will find out their employer was an archdaemon who wants to make sure that Kasimir cannot rule the Ostoyan Empire, but to ensure that the trapped sun can be released to weaken the vampires, whom the archdaemon thinks have become too complacent in their surface rule.
The end of the last adventure saw the player characters save a young woman who, like the PCs, has a fragment of the sun goddesses essence within her. She was hunted by Kasimir’s Light Hunters; undead warriors imbued with a fragment of the sun’s power. She was going to be used by Kasimir to create more Light Hunters.
After the PCs either outran the Light Hunter or destroyed it in the last chapter, the young woman was either going to be turned over to the vampiric rulers so they could protect her Kasimir, or she would be free to journey with the player characters. The adventure literally ended at the gates of Nov Ostoya, with the implication being that if the PCs turned over the young woman to the vampires, it would be bad for the young woman, but would probably be the path of least resistance for navigating Nov Ostoya.
On page 18 of this current adventure we get a sidebar on Liliyana Telespik the young woman from the last adventure. The sidebar makes is sound like once she makes it into the city, she finds her own place in the city, and there are notes on where the PCs might encounter her later in the story. In addition to deemphasizing an NPC that seemed like she was going to be important to this adventure, our adventure beginning gets walked back a bit. When you arrived at the gates of Nov Ostoya, you didn’t notice the crashed criminal transport wagon that has crashed spectacularly.
If the PCs rescue the prisoner being transported, they are introduced to their potential contact with the Volitants, who might serve as their “in” if they want to engage with that gang. Just inside the city, they also meet with a member of the Crownbreakers that can serve as their contact for that organization, although they aren’t as directly introduced to him.
When the PCs first enter the city, there are common folk protesting against being rounded up and taken into the Heights and used as food and entertainment for the upcoming festival. The NPCs are barricaded up, with the city watch attempting to dislodge them. This is where we learn that the Scarlet Watch is an elite group separate from the city watch, and there is a timer on this scene until the Scarlet Watch arrives.
In addition to potentially resolving this standoff, the PCs can meet a group of circus performers that are going to be performing in the Heights as part of the celebrations. Their potential Crownbreaker contact is giving the protesters water, which is holy water. He’s cynical enough to assume all the protesters will be hauled away but wants to potentially poison the vampire ruler’s food supply.
What Do You Do When You Don’t Like Anyone?
The Volitants are drug dealers that pay off the watch (but not the incorruptible Scarlet Watch) to continue their criminal activities. The Crownbreakers are supposed to be opposed to the vampire rulers, but the more you find out about them, the less they are actively opposed, and the more they are conceptually opposed and willing to exploit that concept to gain new members.
Initially I assumed that the circus members were going to be a vector for entering the Heights. However, the adventure has two phases of “entry,” moving from the Low Streets to the Heights, and moving from the Heights to the gala. Later in the adventure, the circus may help, but not from the beginning.
Both gangs will demand that player characters do a certain number of jobs for them, and after they do these jobs, the gang in question will help them get into the Heights. Both gangs also require the PCs to do some unpleasant things to help them out. Eventually there is a fight where the PCs may help the gangs escape the Scarlet Watch, and if they do that, they get a favor without doing the distasteful jobs, but that encounter may or may not happen.
The more the Low Streets are described, the more the PCs find that they have other options beyond the gangs, like selling themselves as food or entertainment for the festivities (meaning they leave behind their gear), or sneaking through the sewers without a guide. There is a magic item they may have gained from the previous adventure that will map out the city for them, and it seemed like this was going to be a major boon, but it serves to help the PCs avoid some of the worst of the sewers if they don’t have a guide.
I honestly wish there had been a more obvious neutral party that was at least likable that could have served as a broader guide, presenting their options in one place, and providing the upside and downside to all of them. As it stands, it almost feels like the PCs are being set up to do something like performing a morally compromising job, then having the adventure say, “surprise, you didn’t need to do this, don’t you feel terrible” at some point. Technically, the driver of the prison wagon could be that neutral guide, but other than explaining the Festival of Tears, he’s not mentioned as dispensing any information or sticking with them.
For your more action-oriented players, most of your combat is going to come from traveling in the sewers. This path has multiple fights, some of which won’t happen if the PCs have a guide or the map from the previous adventure.
As soon as the PCs get into the Heights, they are confronted by their employer. Not to tell them what they want them to do next, but so they can tell the players to meet them at the gala. They will also pass along that they need to look much more presentable as well as to not draw too much attention to themselves.
There are various businesses and NPCs in the Heights that the PCs can explore, where they can do things ranging from buying fancy new clothes, convincing merchants to help them forge important identities, buy some weapon enhancing magic items, or get into drinking games or gambling.
The main objectives of the PCs are to try and look the part and to find a way in to the gala. This can mean forging identities or sneaking in, but if they get spotted, they either must look like nobles or food/entertainment, or else there will be trouble. The gala, of course, has several opportunities where the players can save innocent people, but might blow their cover.
There is a note waiting for the player characters from their employer, asking them to steal two signet rings from the vampire rulers, steal a cup of blood from the blood fountain, and cause some kind of chaos at the gala, then find the room where the employer is waiting. There is a shortcut through the grates beneath the blood fountain that will let the PCs skip these challenges.
Meet the New Boss
Once the PCs meet up with the Nightseer Sage, they bare everything. They are an evil archdeamon that doesn’t really care about humanity, but who wants to see Kasimir denied control of the Ostoyan Empire, and the vampires to have to deal with sunlight again. They give the PCs the location of Kasimir and how to destroy his phylactery. Turns out, his hideout is exactly where the PCs were when they got killed at 1st level, so we’re going full circle.
If the PCs attack the Nightseer Sage, they don’t want to destroy the PCs. Oddly, the description says the Nightseer Sage will fight them, but not kill them, but later in the description it becomes obvious that the Nightseer Sage can leave whenever they want, so they don’t actually need to fight the PCs.
Once the PCs get their plot critical information, Kasimir’s Light Hunters raid the city, chaos erupts, and the PCs have to make it out of the city without attracting attention, lest they run into Scarlet Watch members with the ability to summon the Sanguine Street constructs, literally streets imbued with the blood of city citizens that animate to defend the city.
There are some amazing verbal pictures painted in this adventure. The Scarlet Watch, the Blood Tracker hounds, and the Sanguine Streets are all very vivid threats. I love the look of the Crownbreaker’s tattoos, and the descriptions of the festival gave me flashbacks to my Rakdos Magic Cards. The Nightseer Sage’s collection of faces is wonderful.
I do feel that you learn a lot about an adventure when you use plain language to describe an adventure. In this case, the being that hired the PCs, which can contact them at any time, makes them jump through multiple hoops to meet with them at one time and place to tell them what they are to do in the next adventure. In other words, the PCs employer, who they are counting on for direction, makes them do a number of unimportant tasks before telling them what to do next.
I feel like dark fantasy is getting entangled with player agency, as if being told this is a world where there are bad options and worse options is secondary to presenting player characters with actions that have hidden consequences. Honestly, I think dark fantasy works better when the characters know up front that there are no good options.
Additionally, dark fantasy doesn’t assume you never, ever get a reprieve. We’ve got an overall campaign arc where the PCs have died, gone to a false afterlife, and find out they are working for an archdeamon to fight a lich, hoping to make life worse for both the lich and the vampires. That’s already a solid dark fantasy framing. I would have much rather the PCs fell in with some more benevolent benefactors who still didn’t have all the information, forcing them to seek out the Nightseer Sage.
It reminds me of the old anecdote about George Lucas cutting a line from Leia saying “I’m bored” in the asteroid field in Empire Strikes Back, because he didn’t want boredom to enter the minds of the viewers. I feel like if the Nightseer Sage says “it’s all a game to me” one too many times, it reminds the players they are in a game, and if they don’t feel like they are making real decisions, why play?
I am really interested to see how this campaign resolves, because it has the potential to redefine an important section of the Grim Hollow campaign world. I wonder if that’s going to remain the path that this campaign takes, or if this could be potentially reflected in future Grim Hollow products.
I know every adventure could be someone’s first, but it also feels highly unlikely that the first adventure someone will run will be the fifth adventure in a six-part series, published in a monthly subscription model. I wish that we would get more of a letter from the editor, discussing the thought process of the current adventure, and previous adventure summaries highlighting what elements from those adventures will be relevant to this one.
In addition to that more dynamic setup at the beginning of the adventure, I hope going forward there is a little more consistency on what story elements will be important. It was kind of jarring to me when this adventure reframed how the PCs arrive at Nov Ostoya, and barely mentioned an NPC that seemed like she was going to be very important.
I don’t have a problem with linear adventures, but what has been the most troublesome to me about this adventure series isn’t that it’s linear, it’s that it’s trying to hide its linearity with hidden options that most likely won’t come about, and still end up very close to the same place as the more obvious resolutions.
I believe the next adventure series is not going to be set in Grim Hollow. On one hand, I’m ready for a break from the dark fantasy tone of this campaign, but I am a little bit sad that it means we probably won’t see a better integration, even in optional sidebars, of some of the rules from the campaign setting. I would have loved to have seen a few places where transformations could have been an option introduce to player characters in this series, as an example.