Game: In the Depths of BlackWater
Publisher: Philip J Reed
Review Dated: 22nd, January 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 4/10 [ Just shy of the mark ]
Total Score: 5
Average Score: 2.50
It’s a brave attempt. In the Depths of Blackwater is an adventure setting with adventure seeds. It’s trying not to be a linear pre-written adventure. That’s great; I’m no fan of those restrictive sorts of games. Unfortunately In the Depths of Blackwater doesn’t quite break free of those restraints and in its attempt to do so has left itself rather battered and tired. You should assume that there are spoilers for these adventure seeds in this review.
The adventure seeds are not snippets of plot that might bloom into the flower of a scenario or campaign. They are summaries of short adventures. These short adventures summaries really need the players to end them as per the script and very often there is one route into the adventure and a specific encounter that must happen in a certain way. The term “adventure seed” seems to be slightly miss-used here. In itself that is no biggie. These adventure summaries must begin and conclude as planned because they chain together to form… er, something bigger. That’s part of the problem; I’m not really sure where the Blackwater adventures are going. I can’t get to grips with the mood or feel of the adventure. You could run encounters in Blackwater as a horror game, as a fairly gritty fantasy game or as the beginnings of a high fantasy romp. Of course, a set of short adventures that link together one after the other is pretty much the definition of a linear adventure. To be fair, Blackwater specifically says that it isn’t a dungeon crawl and does not make explicit promises about being flexible. However, after running a series of encounters in the sewers below the city the DM may find it hard to convince the players that the game wasn’t a dungeon crawl.
In the Depths of Blackwater isn’t an expensive product. It’s a cheap 22-page PDF. After the required legal text, the front cover, the introduction and the adverts at the back – there’s quite a bit squeezed into the download. We have Blackwater’s history, an overview of the city, maps, a new core class, a new race, new monsters and the adventure seeds. Although it’s a small PDF product it could still do with bookmarks.
The history to Blackwater is as much a plus as it is a negative. On the plus side, it’s useful to know, characters might enquire about the history of the strange town. On the negative side, much of the history doesn’t matter one whit in the game and the relevant bits would seem to encourage the players to take actions that will screw up the linear progression of the adventure seeds. On the whole the story of the founding and the growth of the city of Blackwater doesn’t inspire me, some parts of the history threaten to become tedious and after reading it I wasn’t left with any empathy for the city whatsoever. There are some nice ideas in the back-story though, notably the rise of the Abominations, their attacks on clerics, temples and ultimately the city itself. Clerics are banned in Blackwater and the Abominations are the good reason why. Bizarrely the last adventure seed sees a low level cleric and colleagues arrive in the city and (right on cue) undead pouring out from the city’s sewers. Strictly speaking the undead (easily considered to be abominations by some) aren’t the same abominations from the past but even if the characters know their Blackwater history well then they’ll know that each wave of Abomination infestation was different from the last. The players are supposed to know that the presence of these NPCs is not responsible for the undead (although future supplements might reveal that they are) and invite them to stay and defend the city. The logic seems to be akin to “The house is on fire! Make sure that fire elemental stays and helps put it out!”
One reason why we see lots of linear adventures is because they’re easy to write. One reason why we don’t see lots of non-linear adventures is because they’re not easy to write. Blackwater’s adventure seeds are a wonderful example of this and although they don’t work outright they’re easier to “fix” than a purchased dungeon crawl would be.
The overview of the city should be the bulk of the product. If this is to be our introduction to Blackwater then it would be great to have a handful of locations in the city to flesh out games with. Blackwater will have shops, the ever-present inns and taverns, embassies and guild houses. We don’t get any of these. We do get a quick list of the noble houses and the numbers that make up the city council. We have a map of the four quarters of the city. There’s a map of the sewers too but it’s not very useful.
The new race peculiar to Blackwater are the Elan. Think elf and you’ve got Elan. They’re very similar but different enough to warrant a new PC race. The Elan are more a cultural curiosity than anything else. One of Blackwater’s successes is the way that it encourages the GM to get these strange cultural quirks right.
The Elan are very much tied into the new basic class as well. The Guardian class synopsis is that of a druid with a sense of duty to the local community. That annoyed me at first; traditionally druids do have responsibility to local communities. It’s only the D&D druid that’s been mangled into some sort of wilderness hermit. Fair enough. I was annoyed at first but came to accept the Guardian as a fair call. It’s still a high fantasy class (with wildshape) but might serve well instead of the core rules druid class if you’re trying to run a less cheesy game. There are new feats as well.
Blinding lime green warns the players reading the download to stop reading once they reach “The Depths” chapter. GMs with sunglasses can safely read on. It is here that the map of the sewers is give and the unlikely history of their construction. There are a few monsters too; specifically the Ananoka as the monstrous goblinoid race that’s illegitimately set up as the villains in one of the adventure seeds.
The four adventure seeds are squeezed into two pages. A GM wishing to use them will require to do a fair bit of preparation – which is only fair. We’re told in the introduction that Blackwater is for a GM with experience, someone looking to build a campaign around Blackwater. It will take an experienced GM to ensure that the characters stay on track (without railroading their actions) and that the game can continue down the series of linked adventures as planned. Its worth noting that the adventure seeds are designed to be played after one an other but not back to back; there should be other adventures woven in between the latter seeds.
In the Depths of Blackwater isn’t a failure, it’s just not quite a success. You have a history for a city and some possible short adventures for characters there. These characters must come from fairly narrowly defined limits too (no gnomes, for example). You don’t quite have the framework for campaign building that the supplement is trying to be.