REVIEW: One Less Grave

I must admit that Type40’s first adventure The Mummy of Pemberley Grange left me feeling somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, I am still a bit sore about paying $9 for the privilege of receiving some hand-outs and an adventure that boiled down to ‘the group are invited to a party and get attacked by a mummy’. On the other hand, my group enjoyed playing the adventure and the lack of detail provided in the PDF did encourage me to write my own stuff albeit within a set of structures provided by the adventure.

I have spent a few weeks trying to resolve my feelings of ambivalence and the closest I have come is the realisation that adventures do not need to read well in order to be useful. I can already think of about a dozen different ways in which to unpack and explore this idea but I’ll just leave it sitting there for now and return to it at another point. In the meantime, I have decided to give Type40 another try and see if some pretty hand-outs and a decent set of writing cues do actually result in better gaming experiences for my group.

Also retailing for $9, One Less Grave is another ‘adventure seed’ comprising a set of beautifully designed handouts, a single encounter, and a set of pre-generated player characters.

The suggested hook is that the characters are a group of poets who have heard that the dead rise on a particular night at a particular church located somewhere in the English countryside. The first hand-out is an ordinance survey map of the church and its surrounding area. The interesting thing about this map is that it is annotated. The text of the adventure never acknowledges the presence of these annotations or why the church winds up containing another set of plans annotated in an identical hand but my group spent about an hour obsessing over the identity of this mysterious annotator before concluding that the whole adventure was some kind of trap laid for them by naughty sex wizard Alastair Crowley.

The adventure itself revolves around the arrival of the undead and the need to solve a riddle in order to survive the encounter. This is a similar plot structure to the one used in The Mummy of Pemberley Grange and, as in the earlier adventure, the solution to the riddle turns out to be enjoyably macabre.

The riddle at the heart of the adventure is one of those things that play better than they read. As a GM, I was a bit nervous about the entire adventure hinging on the group decoding a set of paintings as my experience with these kinds of riddles is that any given group is just as likely to leap straight to the correct conclusion as they are to spend three hours banging their heads against the wall. There’s really no telling how your group is likely to react to the riddle but the nature of the riddle is weird and macabre enough that even clever groups will wind up having fun as they try to work out how to implement the solution to their problem.

One improvement on The Mummy of Pemberley Grange is that the encounter with the undead is both vividly described and grounded in a specific set of rules. It’s not just a generic horde of zombies, it’s a group of undead who look and behave a certain way in pursuit of a very specific agenda. It works really well.

As with The Mummy of Pemberley Grange, One Less Grave is really nothing more than a single encounter. This means that you can either run the adventure straight off the PDF with the characters turning up at the church or do a little more work to flesh out either the surrounding area or the path leading the group to the church. For example, my group are currently being dragged through a mystical initiation process requiring them to survive a series of encounters and collect some mystical objects. I placed the church near a village in the Chilterns and when the group went off to do their research, they found two newspaper stories: One about how the village had suffered absolutely no casualties during World War I, and another about how incredibly long-lived the local villagers were turning out to be. When the group arrived in town, they checked into a local hotel run by an Irish Republican who had moved to the mainland in search of work and had stumbled into running the pub only to be embraced by the entire community. The idea being that life in the village would remain idyllic and free from sin as long as a stream of outsiders continued to pay the cost. I then talked about how the church was immaculately kept but utterly devoid of parishioners. You might want to do something different but I find that providing a bit of back story served to make encounters feel a bit more meaningful. Which is more unsettling? Being in a church when a load of undead turn up, or being in a church when a load of undead turn up because the local villagers might be unwittingly using human sacrifice to give themselves better lives?

One Less Grave feels like both an objective and a subjective improvement on The Mummy of Pemberley Grange: It is objectively better as the quality of the handouts has improved, the encounter is better designed, and the text is more evocative.  It is subjectively better as I approached the PDF expecting a set of writing cues. The PDF’s lack of specificity allowed me not only to localise the setting of the adventure, but also to add various elements I knew would appeal to the interests of my players.

I really enjoyed working with this PDF and I know my players did too but $9 for a set of handouts and a few writing cues? Ehhhhhhh… little on the expensive side considering that most independently published D&D-compatible adventures sell at around the $5 mark and you will not get more than a single night’s play out of this adventure.

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