Review: Dungeon Crawl Classics #50 – Thrones of Punjar

When 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons was about to be released, Wizards of the Coast completely dropped the ball on getting information about the game to third party publishers. The result was a dearth of quality, unofficial supporting material for the new edition at launch. Joseph Goodman of Goodman Games was the only game publisher with the foresight to recognize several things. Wizards of the Coast has a track record of putting out great rule books, but mediocre adventures. Also, due to the aforementioned lack of support and licensing information, no other third party publishers would have products in their development pipelines. Joseph spoke with his attorneys and figured out how to release his products using the existing open gaming licensing until the new third party licensing information was available. This strategic move gave Goodman Games a several month lead over its competitors and gave the gaming public some of the best adventures yet for the fourth edition.

Leveraging the star power of the Dungeon Crawl Classics line of products, Goodman Games launched their 4th edition line of adventures with DCC #53: Sellswords of Punjar under the OGL. They continued operating under this license  through DCC #61: Citadel of the Corruptor with the advice of legal counsel and I suspect some back room chats – are you going to sue me, Hasbro? Goodman then switched to using the released and revised GSL with DCC #62: Shrine of the Fallen Lama.

Of the adventures released thus far by any publisher, DCC #60: Thrones of Punjar by Rick Maffei stands out as one of the best adventure released for D&D 4th edition. Though released last year, I was shocked to not find a single review of this adventure on the internet. Be you a follower of the Old School or the New Generation, every gamemaster owes it to themself to seek out and study this work of art. Maffei fleshes out the interests of several competing factions and weaves them together into a cohesive narrative. If you take the time to read through the adventure module and study the characters motivations, you will be able to extemporaneously move your players through the module regardless of the path they take.

The foundation of any great adventure is to have an interesting and memorable villain. Thrones of Punjar has this in spades. One of the major villains is an albino aboleth called Churlydtyrch. An outcast of abolethic society, Churlydtrych has taken up residence in the sewers of below the Devil’s Thumb district of Punjar. Punjar is a gritty port town in Goodman Game’s campaign world of Aereth, but can easily be recast into any campaign setting. The aboleth has comfortably encircled itself with servitors lured from the city streets above. Churlydtyrch has thrived for some time while operating below the radar, but people have been disappearing and the citizens of the Devil’s Thumb have grown suspicious and fearful.

Several lower noble houses vie for control of  the Devil’s Thumb. House Rohamari has been running a succesful gambling establishment for some time, but House Malhaven recently opened a competing operation that is growing in popularity. House Rohamari’s profits are suffering and they seek to do away with their chief competitor. Beluth of House Rohamari, a cunning, former adventurer, has uncovered the existence of the aboleth and forges an alliance. Beluth agrees to help hide Churlydtyrch and provide new servitors in exchange for use of the aboleth’s thralls. Beluth sets up a secret cult based in a chamber below the House Rohamri casino to recruit unsuspecting victims.

The nobles of Punjar often share the responsibilty of hosting high-ranking visitors of neighboring cities. House Malhaven has been tasked with hosting the daughter of a prominent ambassador named Ardwen Toldara. Beluth sees his opportunity to discredit his enemy. Working through Churlydtyrch, he ambushes and captures Ardwen. The players are tasked with finding Ardwen before his arrival.

Maffei imbues the story with a sense of urgency that propels the player characters forward. The ambassador is rushing toward Punjar while the guards frantically search for his daughter. If the players do not find Ardwen before the evening of the third day, she is slain – a fact that is held back from the players.

The adventure plays out like a mystery novel. Along the way, the players find clues that lead them closer to Ardwen. As the party makes its way through the city, they constantly run into competing interests. A gang of street toughs attempts to hold them up on the docks. A band of doppelganger assassins are hired by Beluth to ambush the heroes launching an interesting battle. The doppelgangers attempt to split the party up and mirror the player appearance to confuse them.

Maffei makes extensive use of scripted events throughout the book. Different events are triggered depending on the previous actions of the players. The story can get slightly confusing, but a flowchart with several branches is given at the end of the book to make it easier. This adventure is squarely in the new school of gaming. The adventure is story-driven, detailed and internally consistent.

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading this module, I can see how some people would object to this type of story-based adventure. What if my players happen to go right to the end of the story and the flowchart says I should kick off a particular event? Don’t feel constricted to slavishly following the flowchart. Maffei devotes several paragraphs to each non-player character’s personality and motivations making it easy to riff the story in any direction your player’s choose to run.

I wholeheartedly recommend Thrones of Punjar. The best complement I can give this book is I actually want to run my players through it in its entirety. When I read a module, I usually rip out a few encounters or ideas and work them into my campaign. After reading Thrones of Punjar, I really want to re-skin and run the entire module from start to finish. The story is well written and the villians are memorable. Every gamemaster should add this new school gem to their bookshelf.

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