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The Punch Line by Zzarchov Kowolski

This entry is part 47 of 56 in the series 2022 Reads

As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts get published with some lag. I’m trying to be more punctual, though, and this one’s very recent.

This is a very short old-school RPG adventure module. I’m tempted actually to call it an “adventure concept” because it’s very light on details, beyond statblocks, and designed to be something you can drop into your game easily. Aside from the NPCs, there’s some material about an insane clown cult (I was so tempted to say “posse”) operating in the area of the village where the adventure is sited (and NPC writeups/stats for its main members) and a ritual child sacrifice they apparently perform (yikes, but easily skippable), plus a little information about the village where the action is focused, and a bit about other villages affected by the cult, a few locales, some detail about the “red death” plague that infests the local population, some suggested clowny pop-culture references, and some quick-reference material. 

There are a few locales briefly written up—the kinds of places that it’s likely players would try to find and investigate—but all in all, this is more of a meta-scenario: a set of personalities and and a meta-scenario for any 17th century player characters to respond to as they like. Player characters could easily bail on the scenario, though Kowolski does at least mention some potential inducements for players to stick around, investigate further, and take a stand against the clown-cultists marauding their way across the countryside.

Of course, in old-school play (at least the modern version of it) this is a feature rather than a flaw: player agency is pretty much the name of the game, and you don’t want an adventure that railroads characters in any one direction. Even so, I did wish there were more tips, frames, and hooks for pulling characters into the action. If I were running this, for example, depending on the group I’d maybe have a lord send them to look into (and deal with) whatever’s going on, or perhaps I’d just set it in some village the PCs had passed through and come to care about. I know, some groups never develop that, but it’s something I’ve seen happen time and again with multiple groups. Again, the fact I could make those modifications like this with little to no thought about how it would affect the details of the adventure is a strength, in the OSR design space.

But that also sort of suggests the downside: it’s twisted, but it feels to me like it’s a par with what a lot of enterprising GMs could come up with themselves with a few hours of prep. Statting up four or five evil clowns, thinking up a disease, keying a few maps for inns and a cave hideout: it’s more content than you’d fit onto a pamphlet adventure, but it feels like you could do it with 6-8 A5 pages, even with a little art. In some way, the simplicity of OSR adventure design demonstrates the unnecessariness of this kind of OSR adventure as a commercial product, if that makes any sense? Or, rather, I think the rationale for OSR adventures is really that they model aspect of modern OSR design philosophy for GMs, who can then take up those tools and design their own stuff using them.   

But if it’s somewhat light on content, what fills this book? Probably the easy answer is, production. By that, I mean full-color art, including a few full-page illustrations and a lot of pages where the page is mostly art and map, with some text appearing within it. It’s thematic and solid work, as one expects from Journeyman1029. The quick-references on the gatefolds are well-done (and could easily be turned into tokens on a VTT), and the maps and illustrations are clear, easily-parsed, and attractive… I mean, if you find fake blood-smear and creepy clowns attractive, at least. It’s thematic, anyway!

All that said, I ended up feeling that it’s just a little light on content for a hardback book, is all. Longevity’s nice, but I’ve started to not think hardbacks are really a good choice for single adventures. Anthologies, sure… but I’m likely to run an adventure from a book once, maybe a few times at most, and for me most of the adventure modules I buy and read are more about idea-mining, inspiration, and seeing how different designers put together adventures, and I can do that just as well (but more easily and affordably) with a softcover book or zine-format adventure. (I could say the same of PDF, but I still prefer print to digital, sadly.)

On the other hand, it’s a classic Zzarchov Kowolski adventure, and it does have the added bonus that it’s completely mundane: there’s nothing magical between these covers, beyond what the player characters bring to it. But I still think I’d be happier if the hardback format were used to collect a few similarly-sized adventures together. 

Am I kicking myself for missing his Kowolski’s Adventure Omnibuses over recent years? Why, yes, yes I am. Curses!  


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