Friday, June 17, 2022

Preview Read-Thru: The Doom That Came To Astreas

 Greg Lambert and the good folks at Chronicles of Aeres were kind enough to slide me a preview pdf of their latest Kickstarter book, The Doom That Came To Astreas.  It's a sword-and-sorcery setting and adventure for D&D 5e, and I figured as an occasional 5e DM and Sword And Sorcery Respecter, it would be fun to take a look.  Am I the target audience for this book?  Probably not, and that's okay - and we'll circle back to that later.

It occurs to me that when you look at a product, there are several important questions we ask that help us decide its quality.  The first two are what does it say it is, and what is it actually.  Sometimes you grab and adventure and it's more of a sourcebook, or vice-versa; sometimes a book claims to support a particular sub-genre, but then you read it and...not so much.  The third, and maybe most important question, is how well does it do it.

In the case of The Doom That Came to Astreas (hereafter just Doom), the answers to the first two questions are clear.  Doom says it's a sourcebook for a sword-and-sorcery continent, and a decent-sized 5e adventure set there.  And, thankfully, that's what it is.  Whether you enjoy the style of presentation is one thing, but Doom is certainly what it says on the tin.

The sourcebook section of the book gives us the rundown of Astreas, its current status and history, and the major threat (we'll get to that presently in the adventure).  Doom does so, in part, through quite a bit of fiction, and character quotes.  This technique is sufficiently prevalent that I really felt like it was the 90s again and I was reading a White Wolf book (your mileage will of course vary).  Through these pieces we are introduced not only to the world of Astreas, but to some of the NPCs and PCs (you heard me) we'll be dealing with in the adventure portion.  The art throughout is nice enough, and the maps in the book are colorful but maybe a little muddy and cramped for my tastes.  The layout is modern in terms of fonts and color-on-color, but readable throughout (thank you).  Doom is written in a modern style - which is to say on the loquacious side - with some read-aloud text in the adventure here and there.

As far as crunch, 5e folks will find new takes on bird-men, frog-men, lizard-folk, and barbarian types within, each with special qualities that fit with the Astrean milieu.  I don't know how plug-and-play adaptable any of these races would be to another 5e game.  I was a little surprised there weren't new spells to help shape genre expectations.  The five great cultures of Astreas each represent one extreme of alignment (Good, Law, Evil, so forth), and they have monolithic cultures that generally exist in isolation from one another - which is why a mixed group of PCs tromping about to each area in the provided mega-adventure is kind of a big deal.  There are also horgs (they're orc/hobgoblin stand-ins) and kobolds, who are standard draconic 5e kobolds.  

The provided adventure sequence is a strange beast.  Although it can be played with original characters, it is designed to be played with the 7th-level pregens included in the book, who are nicely representative of the vibe of Astreas.  Those characters aren't empty sheets, either - they have backgrounds and deep ties to the storyline.  So in this sense, there's a lot of Dragonlance going on here.  Some of my readers will be cringing at this point, but when you consider that Doom is meant for 5e players, this all makes a good bit of sense.  The adventure itself is designed to run 5-10+ sessions using the pregens -- so maybe this is a good palate-cleanser adventure for a group taking a break between WotC hardbacks, for example.  The pregen PCs are fairly iconic, and have the gimmick of having come together previously to stop the evil sorceress, but failed and were flung back in time a month, de-aged (ie lower in level).  Now their only hope to actually defeat her is to assemble the broken bits of an artifact.  You can see this has all the tropes, stacked nicely - so it comes down to whether running something like this whole-hog is right for your group.  Again, you could run it with original PCs, but I honestly think you'd lose a little something by doing it that way.

The adventure itself is a globetrotting fetch-quest in which the PCs have a month to collect the bits of the ancient axe in question, reassemble it, and use it to whack the BBEG.  However, the substructures of this adventure are not as railroady as that might sound (with the understanding that epic questline stories like this are inherently railroady -- again, "does what it says on the tin").  As the PC are dispatched, via magic, to the different parts of Astreas, they get to do a little hexcrawling in each 'zone'.  Here, the authors want you to keep your strict time records, enforce the need for food and water, and so forth -- nodding to old-school D&D play as the hexcrawl proceeds.  See what I mean by a strange beast?  Neither fish nor fowl.  I wonder if players who are on board for the epic quest will be turned off by the hexcrawling?  There is actual stuff for the DM to track throughout - the ongoing invasion of the horg hordes must be marked on the map, and should influence which way PCs travel (and to what zones they travel first).

Each geographic section of the adventure provides wilderness encounters, and a hexmap with adventure locations of note marked and detailed.  The adventure itself has a LOT OF STUFF in it, plenty to do, with varied combat and social and intrigue challenges.  The authors have inserted innumerable sword-and-sorcery easter eggs throughout, which were quite fun, but I note that for the most part they're second-generation references - ie winking nods to the Conan films, or Fire & Ice, not sly references to a Lieber novel.  I found that kind of interesting, and it jibes with some of the author statements as far as influences.  Regardless, all the tropes you'd think would be somewhere on the map, are indeed somewhere on the map - ziggurats, gladiatorial pits, standing stones, stinking fens, lost temples, etc.  The epic quest is a whirlwind tour of sword-and-sorcery stuff.  Naturally, eventually the PCs assemble the artifact and have their confrontation with the BBEG.

So now we come to the third question - how well does Doom do what it sets out to do.  I'm content to say it does it very well, but we must understand it's a narrow target.  A sword-and-sorcery setting sourcebook with a Dragonlance-style epic quest as the default mode of play, with small regional hexmaps meant for real crawling, all done up for D&D 5e.  If I'm not the audience for Doom - and perhaps I'm not - then the real measure of its value, and success, will be whether the 5e audience is ready for this love letter to sword-and-sorcery films.  The separate adventure bits are good, but I suspect any old-school DM with a strong pulp background would not find them super valuable to loot from.  However, the encounters and mini-hex-maps are solid enough that a 5e DM would probably find them useful even if not running Doom itself.

Not recommended for: old-school non-5e DMs looking for something to easily cannibalize.  Although you might be entertained reading parts of it thanks to the setup and easter eggs.

Maybe recommended for: 5e DMs looking for something to steal from for their own campaign, especially if your campaign has space for mighty-thewed barbarians, dinosaurs, and ziggurats.

Definitely recommended for: 5e groups tired of WotC/Forgotten Realms adventures and looking for a change of pace, especially if the idea of "sword-and-sorcery plus we do a little hexcrawl" appeals.  (Compare Tomb of Annihilation, though; if your group just did Tomb maybe it's not time to do Doom yet if you're looking to shift gears.)

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