This is a review of “The Stealer of Children”, written by Peter Spahn, published by Small Niche Games. Its a low-level adventure (3-6 characters of 1st level) for Labyrinth Lord, but of course this means its playable in any old-school D&D/OSR game. Its 26 pages long, with black and white illustrations.
As with all of Spahn’s D&D adventures, this is not your typical “dungeon crawl”. Its absolutely OSR; there’s no doubt. But unlike many OSR adventures its not just about trying to replicate “keep on the borderlands” (mind you, quite a few OSR adventures do that really, really well; and one or two take the caves of chaos to a new level). Spahn’s adventures are, instead, finely-crafted sandboxes full of NPCs, usually with an overarching threat that follows its own chronology, creating a sense of urgency in the environment. Some of these sandboxes are relatively large, the smallest (Inn of Lost Heroes) takes place in a single building.
Now, The Stealer of Children follows this same tradition. Without revealing too much that could spoiler the adventure, the adventure has to do with the PCs getting embroiled in a situation where an ancient evil is unleashed, that (as the title reveals) steals children and devours them. The twist is that the PCs have a very good chance of knowing just where the creature is from quite an early point in the adventure, but because of its power level can’t do anything about it (as direct confrontation would be suicide).
That’s an interesting twist, to be sure; and a clever play on some of the intricacies of the D&D system. For first level characters, a mid-hd monster with immunity to non-magical weapons can be an almost unstoppable threat. The way Spahn incorporates the rules of D&D into the setting (making it a direct part of the emulation, rather than something the emulation has to work around) is the sort of cleverness you don’t often see, reminiscent to me of the genius of the Mystara setting as it was presented in the Gazetteers.
Now, as to the downsides: first, if it is a downside, the PCs have the standard openness of a sandbox. But what this means is that a lot of groups, I think, might not end up trying to pursue the solution the adventure presents. Sometimes, this will lead to awesomeness, as PCs come up with solutions that work that the GM, Spahn, or myself would never have thought up in our wildest dreams! Anyone who’s run an old-school game knows what I’m talking about there.
On the other hand, there will be times when I could see things going very wrong: where the PCs will just get themselves slaughtered, for one (I know some groups that just won’t take “you can’t hurt it” for an answer). Other groups may just run away and end the adventure right there. Of course, you could say the former are just getting their just desserts, and the latter is a perfectly justified option. Fine, but I can also see some groups floundering around, in neither of the two options but also not finding the right solution, and I think that could be rather frustrating.
Oh yeah, as to the “solution”: it involves some investigation of the research-kind, figuring out the past history of the location (a location, by the way, that could be pretty easily ported into most fantasy settings), and some adventure of the travelling-through-the-woods-killing-stuff kind. And in the end, the magic needed to defeat the Stealer of Children has a very amusing twist to it. But I’ll be damned if I spoil it here; you’ll just have to get the adventure to find out what it is.
On the whole, I think that like most of Spahn’s work, The Stealer of Children is quite solid. I do think its possible that the set-up, while fascinating and clever, is something that could have complications for certain PC groups. I still very much recommend this adventure; but as an old-school GM you’ll need to think about what kind of party you have, and whether your players will love this kind of wide-open sandbox scenario with a Big-bad they can’t just hack into oblivion.
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(originally posted July 17, 2013; on the old blog)