Game: The Clockwork Heart
Publisher: Ronin Arts
Review Dated: 26th, August 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 7/10 [ Good ]
Total Score: 7
Average Score: 7.00
One way or another The Clockwork Heart will irreversibly change your campaign world. The Clockwork Heart is a capstone adventure that’ll bring your campaign to a close.
Yeah. This is a pre-written adventure. If you think it’s likely your GM will run this for you then go read something else on the site. If your GM is a Philip J Reed, or Spider Bite, or Ronin Arts fan and tends to run pre-written adventures then go find something else on the site to entertain you. The Clockwork Heart works best when there are no warnings, when the players don’t see it coming.
Actually. Hmm. Let’s clarify that. The Clockwork Heart works best when the players know nothing about the antagonists but it’ll work rather nicely if the characters know of the key places and notable NPCs beforehand. Foreshadowing, that’s the ticket to success and this idea is suggested in one of the many insightful GM options throughout the PDF. There’s plenty of time to seed your game world with features from The Clockwork Heart since the adventure is suited for characters between 12th and 16th level. If you’re characters are not yet at that level then consider bringing in NPC mages before they go mad and have your characters hear of famous academies before they come into focus here.
It’s the antagonists who give The Clockwork Heart much of its flavour. The bad guys aren’t guys, or even gals, they’re machines. Constructs aren’t new in D&D style fantasy but these constructs are different. Ronin Arts first introduced the concept of intelligent, emotional and evolving constructs in the d20 supplement Constructus Mechanus. You don’t need this first supplement to use The Clockwork Heart at all but it helps. The adventure has all the stats, descriptions and game information you need to run it. If you do have Constructus Mechanus then you’ll be able to design additional constructions but you’ll have to wrestle with the temptation to use the PC construct rules.
Machines fought a zealous war against biology. The constructs created by the Divine Forge were determined to correct the Error of Flesh. They succeeded. The Proof of Metal came to be. There’s a nice story here and it’s told well by the PDF. There was a brief division among the machines, an internal war which saw the mighty (and very scary) Ariel come to be and crush the rebellious constructs. Ariel appears on page 43 of the PDF and the illustration makes it crystal clear just how scary these colossal mechanical horrors are. The constructs are magical as well as mechanical and this important. They’re not anti-magic; in fact they make excellent mages. The amount of magic thrown around in the war between the Error of Flesh and the Proof of Metal, followed by the vast quantities of powerful spells used in the constructs own war was responsible for thinning the barrier between their dimension and the one your campaign setting is in. This is why The Clockwork Heart works best when the characters, even the players, have no idea that sentient and incredibly powerful constructs exist. Surprise them with the first appearance of the constructs and then scare them with the risk of thousands of the killing machines pouring into their world.
It’s not just Ariel, the uber-villain of the game, who benefits from illustration. As is typical for a Ronin Arts product there’s excellent support from artist Christopher Shy. It’s a colourful supplement. If you have a colour printer, don’t want to print in colour and don’t know how to disable the feature then The Clockwork Heart could give you problems. The layout makes effective use of blocks of colour, they work well to integrate the illustrations into the text, to break up the pages into attractive chunks and provide a natural delimiter for game mechanics. They’ll drink your ink though.
As noted above, Ariel’s illustration appears on page 43. I didn’t have to hunt around for that, The Clockwork Heart is good for cross-referencing pages, referring the read to somewhere else in the product for more information. That’s good. The catch is that all to often the cross-referenced page number is missing. Page XX must be the most detailed in history.
There’s plenty to cross-reference in The Clockwork Heart, so much so that it becomes one of the product’s successes. There are new feats and features for the constructs, twice as appealing if you have Constructus Mechanus. NPCs are used effectively and the author, James Kosub, is aware of typical RPG cliches and actively plots against them. For example, just when it seems a particular NPC is being used as the GM’s mouthpiece – you kill him off. Better still, although you’re encouraged to kill him off and it would be easy to do so, there’s provision as to what might happen if he lives. I always grumble when the pre-written adventure assumes the GM will (successfully) railroad the action.
The detail that The Clockwork Heart offers doesn’t get in the way on the adventure. The overall plot is simple. Arial is insanely determined to correct the Error of Flesh, has just discovered a whole dimension dominated by it and is on the verge of sending hundreds of thousands of terrible war machines through the rip in reality to solve the problem. In order to send his army through he needs the clockwork heart in his dimension to beat at the same time as a clockwork heart in this/your campaign’s dimension. The players have to stop this.
Time isn’t on the character’s side. The clockwork hearts are likely to beat long enough for Arial and one portion of his army to get through. This is a tough adventure. I think characters are likely to fail. This will mean your campaign world, as you know it, is doomed. The Clockwork Heart warns you of this possibility; believe it. Right at the start of the adventure your heroes, possibly 12th level, could find themselves fighting one CR 15 construct only then to find three more CR 15 constructs arrive (dramatically) and join in the fray. Hmm. Deadly.
War is likely. The Clockwork Heart doesn’t contain any rules for mass battles but the battles are likely to be epic. This could make or break your game and although the pressure here is on the GM, the Clockwork Heart provides valuable assistance. GM tips encourage us to stress the action and death in the battle. There’s a simple system of victory points too. The rolling battles are broken into stages, each stage being worth a set amount of victory points if the players do well enough. Later on in the battle, if the heroes have enough victory points under their belt they’ll have less work (and more chance) to reach key people, places and turning points.
On one level The Clockwork Heart is very much about vast battles against a scary and alien foe. That’s going to appeal to one set of gamers. On another level The Clockwork Heart can be very much more personal than that. Not every one of these constructs are evil and that’ll give the players something to think about – it makes a change from the question free slaughter of orcs. It’s possible that NPCs will become friends and allies but then, by hook or by crook, betray or downright attack the PCs.
The Clockwork Heart has a strong cinematic buzz about it. It’s an end of the world plot, the villains are visually impressive and the plot pieces reek of special effects. The game makes uses of behind the scenes cut-scenes, segues of action. I think these offerings will be hit or miss among the d20 crowd since they describe in-game actions taking place away from the camera, away from the players. It’s not the case that the characters suddenly become aware of this information and get to act on it. It’s the case that the players enjoy/suffer from the rich flavour and have can enjoy roleplaying their blissfully unaware characters. It’s not that simple either, very often segue scenes are set up to suggest something, an easy conclusion for the players to jump to, when the truth is something completely different.
There’s no questioning The Clockwork Heart’s success. It’s an engaging adventure; it’s cinematic, intelligent and compelling. As a pre-written adventure it’s not as flexible as a GM in control of his own creation can be but it’s far removed from a dungeon crawl. The biggest debate any GM will face when presented with The Clockwork Heart is whether he wants to open this can of mechanic worms in his campaign setting. If the characters fail then the setting will be over run by terrible, magical, mechanical constructs. Rolling up a new character will be rather pointless. It seems to me as if The Clockwork Heart works best when the GM has plenty of warning and the players none. If the GM can foreshadow the titanic events in the game then The Clockwork Heart can become the entire campaign. If, for example, you’ve started a 3.5 campaign just to test the rules and are now looking for a finale then The Clockwork Heart is just perfect for you.