Game: White Robes, Black Hearts
Publisher: Dark Portal Games
Review Dated: 28th, February 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
The full name of this Dark Portal Games adventure set is “White Robes, Dark Hearts: Enigma of the Arcanexus”. Enigma is right. I was surprised to find this book bundled with a shipment of new releases. Dark Portal Games; I remember them; they were one of the quick companies out of the OGL gate. As I recall they hit on the good idea, they made much of their campaign world freely available online and then sold White Robes, Dark Hearts as a PDF. I thought they’d fallen off the face of the Earth after that.
I guess not. I guess they’re back. This printed version of White Robes, Dark Hearts certainly looks as if its come from an experienced d20 publisher. The text density is good, the cartography is good, the formatting is good, there are enough illustrations and the paper quality and binding are good. It gets vaguely Twilight Zone though. The introduction to the book doesn’t so much nudge you to towards the company’s two websites, one for Dark Portal Games and one for Arekoz the game world, as it baits the trap with free downloads and access to colour maps. At the time this review was written there’s no sign of either webpage, the address certainly doesn’t resolve and Google has no cached copies either and that suggests that these web pages have been unavailable for a while. Oh well, you do need access to the Arekoz website for the campaign world information if you want to make best use White Robes, Dark Hearts. Websites go down all the time and if Dark Portal Games are only just getting the ball rolling again then perhaps their internet side will resurface shortly. It’s worth checking before buying the book.
Ignore the back of the book; it doesn’t do the product justice. Would you fall for “Hark! Hark! A Kingdom has fallen! A Kingdom has fallen!” or “Also within this book you’ll find: 1 new spell … “? No, I thought not. Instead open the book up and flick through the pages. The contents are very much more impressive than the wrapper (although the cover illustration is pretty good). You’ll find an attractive and easy to read product, it’s the sort of supplement that invites you to start turning pages. If you’re a player and you think your GM is likely to run the game then don’t turn the pages. If you’re a player then you should be aware that this review will contain spoilers and so you shouldn’t read any further. Shoo.
The book uses five chapters to present five tightly linked adventures. There really are five chapters; the fifth is just hard to spot since the current chapter marker at the top of every page gets stuck at chapter four until the appendices start. The adventures cut to the heart core of the Arekoz setting and will have the characters meddling with world founding artefacts. The White Robes are the powerful religious cult that rule one third of the enormous continent. Five years ago they invaded the second third, have just taken over it and the adventure gets going as the local resistance begins to mount. The White Robes are very powerful, they managed to open a planar portal and strike a deal with an evil deity. It granted power, more than the usual deal between deities and clerics, in exchange for a strong presence on Arekoz. The White Robes feared that one sect within them might re-visit the plane and re-negotiate the deal or that someone might get through the portal and so they sealed it up. The arcanexus is the key to this portal. That last part explains how we can have a minor artefact being accurately described as having immense power. For their own petty reasons the White Robes at the time gave the arcanexus to a bunch of sun worshippers who conveniently turned to complain about the portal. These sun god followers took it on themselves to split off from their own faith and hide the device. A sect within the White Robes want it back now. The players don’t know all this and most of the NPCs don’t know it either. Play begins when a local resistance leader asks the players to go on a quest to find the arcanexus because they know they’d rather have it than let the White Robes have it back. It’s a “Do you accept this mission?” start to the game. If your players say “No!” or “Die in the name of the White Robes!” then you won’t get past page eight. It’s a 110-paged book too.
The rest of chapter one deals only with the players arriving in the key city of Gateway and talking to a kindly sage who they’ve been told can help them and trying to talk to the daughter of a now dead sun worshipping monk who is believed to have had the arcanexus last. The sage is actually a baddie; he’s helping the characters just so they can do all the hard work for him. We also discover that there’s a chap called Kador who’s following the players around, who will follow them around to the very end of the book where he plans to take the arcanexus off them. This is great if you pull it off, if the players suspect they’re being watched but can’t do anything about it then it’ll build the atmosphere. Some players might just refuse to do anything else until they solve the mystery of who’s tailing them, GMs will have to read the group well.
The suggested experience level for the characters is between third and fifth and group size of between four and six. I think it’ll make a big difference, a group of four third level characters will find it hard not to get slaughtered by Kador (or the real demon climatic fight) at the end whereas a group of six fifth level characters are going to be far less bothered. I think this is true despite the suggestion the group could see their experience levels increase by three by the end of the game. I quite like the experience levels of the NPCs in the adventure; they’re realistic. Guards tend to be first or second level warriors. This is a nice set up but I think it runs the risk of becoming one big juggling act. This five-piece adventure is part one of a trilogy. The arcanexus will be hunted by the villains throughout the series. So, Kador and Co can’t succeed and get the device at the end of this adventure if you have any intention of running the other two parts. As a GM wanting to continue to books two and three (once they’re published) you might face some dice fudging. We’ll also have to see whether the NPC guards mysteriously jump up three experience levels too – but that’s a pet peeve and it might not happen.
You’ll have to grips with the party’s power level for chapter two. Chapter two dives straight into the familiar dungeon crawl. It’s a dungeon crawl as found in quality pre-written dungeon crawls. The players will (they better had for the plot’s sake) discover that they need to explore the mausoleum built for the dead monk (the sun worshipper who was hiding the arcanexus). The chapter exhibits all that is good and bad about dungeon crawls. The attention to detail is good, there is certainly enough going on in the graveyard and underneath it to keep the players engaged, fighting and thinking. There are maps for the GM and strange symbols for the players to look at. There are interesting places to explore and strange creatures to discover. This is all good. The bad side is just as typical. Why do people still burry their dead in a graveyard teeming with the undead? The encounter tables suggest that there is as much chance as finding some kids playing in the graveyard as there is of running into a bunch of ghouls. Would you play in a ghoul infested graveyard? Invisible scything blade traps? Really, I think dungeon designers must be the most powerful wizards of all time.
The next three chapters are very similar; typical dungeon crawls. Each does well by providing interesting puzzles, carefully balanced hack, quality maps and rewards for the players. Each does badly by simply wandering through the usual stuff of the crawl; clichéd settings, yet more combat, inexplicable encounter tables etc. One thing to note is that the traitorous sage actually knows more about the arcanexus and its history than he should tell the players back in chapter two. He’s not supposed to mention that he knows anything about the sun worshipping monks’ temple until chapter three. These are the monks that are supposed to be hiding the arcanexus. I think it’s entirely likely one character will ask him about it. Sure, the sage is actually evil so I suppose he could just lie (even though he actually wants the group to find the device) but the GM will have to prepare a better excuse than “Oh, I just remembered.”
The adventure comes to a close once the players get their hands on the arcanexus and deal with Kador. There are some notes on what might happen next; the players could join the resistance, for example. There certainly isn’t any information on what the resistance does with the arcanexus though and if you’re waiting for the sequel games to come out then you can’t really write too much of your own ending for fear of wrecking the continuity. Nonetheless, I think there will be a genuine feeling of success and of having completed something of an epic if the players make it through to the end. This is a good thing. That feel good buzz is always worth going for.
I like player handouts. I think player handouts can make buying an adventure worthwhile. There are nine handouts to photocopy at the back of the book and that’s quite a lot. That’s a solid plus on White Robes, Dark Hearts’ side. The set of adventures is supposed to last several gaming sessions and I think nine handouts will be enough to keep the players interested but shouldn’t overwhelm them.
White Robes, Dark Hearts isn’t going to win any prizes for innovation or for promoting quality role playing. White Robes, Dark Hearts sets out to link five adventures together and it certainly manages this. If you’re looking for a set of dungeon crawls for the not too dim (because the players will need to think) with a backbone plot holding them together then this product does pretty well.