Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Review: Bone Marshes

This is a review based on a read-through, not a playtest.


Bone Marshes is a 45-page sandbox setting for Knave. It focuses on a salt-marsh region undergoing an ecological catastrophe caused by (this isn't much of a spoiler) ancient alien technology hidden below the surface. The sun is stuck at noon twenty-four hours a day, the marshes are slowly burning hex by hex, and only the PCs can figure out what has gone wrong. The module includes a hexmap, a cave crawl inspired by Veins of the Earth, and several interlocking dungeon areas.

This is a great example of a well-written, table-ready sandbox. Each hex has something for the PCs to actually do, not just look at. The NPCs all have goals and opinions - there are at least four who could take the role of "quest-giver" depending on how the PCs interact with them. The random encounter tables are stocked with actual situations, not just names of wandering monsters.

One thing that really stands out about Bone Marshes is its focus on ecological and environmental factors as gameplay elements. Spreading wildfires and fluctuating tides create dynamic environments for players to explore. Mud is a dangerous enemy, and fresh water a valuable resource. All these things are not just set dressing, but are backed up with hard mechanics that will force the players to engage with them.

The overall tone of the module is a little scattered. Some things, like the above-mentioned mud rules, point to a grim and gritty tone, something like the Dead Marshes scenes from Lord of the Rings. But this bleak and cruel environment is populated by a cast of rather whimsical characters: a seacaptain whose boat fell through a portal in the sky; mud-people who sell mud items but only in exchange for mud coins... The contrast is reminiscent of Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories. I think with the right attitude from the GM, it could work very well in play.

The useability of the text is generally good. The hex descriptions are laid out in spreads, the prose is slim and functional, and the whole document is hyperlinked. There are a few places where the text could have been cut more, and a couple of others that are vague or semi-contradictory.

For some reason, the author decided to include the entirety of the Knave rules text inside the module. It's a cute idea: you can run the whole game with this book and nothing else! But it's not helpful if you want to use a different system, or your own hacked version of Knave. Plus, important setting-specific rules (for things like mud and fire-fighting) are mixed in with the generic Knave rules, making them harder to isolate.

I like every individual part of Bone Marshes, but I don't feel that urge of "I need to run this!" which will actually get it off my shelf and onto the table. Maybe my problem is that the central quest line is a bit dull. It basically boils down to the PCs collecting a bunch of batteries so that an NPC wizard can fix everything off-screen. Also, the final area (the inside of an ancient alien spaceship) is pretty generic and doesn't have the same sense of atmosphere that the above-ground sections offer.

Here are some ideas for how I might change the module if/when I get a chance to run it:

- Although the quest-giving NPC Azimech is a well-written character, I think her presence detracts from the agency of the PCs. What if she wasn't there at all?

- Instead of mapping the Marshes for Azimech, the PCs have a royal charter that gives them exclusive rights to trade in the region. The safer they can make the trade route to the King's City, the more merchants show up.

- Instead of collecting VoltCells for Azimech, the PCs have to figure out the ecological problems on their own through experimentation and/or advice from NPCs like the Swurmp Queen and the Guardian.

- I would rewrite the Vault section to be a little more Prometheus. That's just my style though.

Despite these criticisms, I really liked Bone Marshes overall and would consider it well worth the asking price. Even if you don't run it in total, elements like the hex descriptions, the mud rules or the tide system could be transplanted easily into other adventures.

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Review: Bone Marshes

This is a review based on a read-through, not a playtest. Bone Marshes is a 45-page sandbox setting for Knave. It focuses on a salt-ma...