Monday, October 11, 2021

Flying Dice: The Valley of Karaccia

Cover for The Valley of Karaccia. It is styled after early TSR books, with bright colors, lots of text, and a 'window' in the center with art. The art depicts an elf in full plate armor attemting to cut off her own leg, which is being pulled into a gelatinous cube. The cover reads: Regulations Codex RC1 The Valley of Karaccia. The Valley of Karaccia is a mountainside basin in the realm of Imlar; a perfect place for beginning adventurers to learn the ropes. Contained in this module you'll find an overview of the valley, detailed information on the town of Brink, and two adventures to kick off a new campaign, "The Crimson Caverns" and "The Relic of Fallsbarrow." RC1: The Valley of Karaccia is the first in the new Regulations Codex series from Mithgarthr Entertainment, focusing on gameplay using an Encyclopedia of Rules, but can be played with any OSR style game!" Following this is the Mithgarthr Entertainment logo, nordic runes which appear to spell Mithgarthr.

The Valley of Karaccia
(kuh-RACK-see-uh) is yet another book I found whilst exploring the "Newest" category on DTRPG. As of writing this critique I have read it, but not played it.

The book can be broken into three parts: setting introduction, followed by two loosely-connected starter adventures. The broad strokes of the setting are standard D&D fare sprinkled with some charming details. For example, I like that the local dwarfs can often be found working with humans, but rarely recreating with them. I had not seen the social dynamic described in quite those terms before, but it suggests an interesting relationship between the two peoples. Similarly with the halflings preferring to live near human communities, but not in human communities. I also like the enclosed play area à la Thunder Rift: a pleasant mountain basin surrounded on nearly all sides by granite cliffs. Tiny settings where players will need to interact with the same communities over and over again have an intimacy I find more compelling than continent-spanning campaigns.

The setting descriptions lean into unnecessary wordiness. It never rambles on too long about any given subject, but does take time to state obvious or irrelevant information. The value of tropey settings like this are that we can rely on shared cultural knowledge to fill out most of the details. The author doesn't need to explain what a dwarf is. They can just describe the interesting bits, and trust that the reader already knows that dwarfs are short, stocky, bearded people who like to dig. To this author's credit they do exactly that with reference to some topics, but not all. For example they make a point of spelling out that "Assault, murder, slander, tithe avoidance, and theft are all illegal." This on the same page where the dominant religion is described as believing that "abuse, assault, torture, murder, and the like [are sins]." I can't help but feel like the author's creativity and page allotment—as well as the reader's time—could have been put to better use than explaining that murder is frowned upon twice on one page.

Religion plays a major role here. The Church of Erm is adhered to by 99% of the valley's inhabitants according to the book. It gives off an eerie vibe which I don't believe was intentional. The simple fact that humans, elves, dwarfs, and halflings all share an identical faith is odd in itself. Two of the three major settlements in Karaccia are called ecclesiarchies, but the only one described in detail—the town of Brink—more closely resembles a theocratic dictatorship. In Brink's description there's a papering-over of conflicts with the church which was probably done to orient players firmly towards the dungeons, but comes off feeling very Stepford Wives. Everybody in town is perfectly happy to be governed by the high priest. There is an imminent transfer of power as the old clerical dictator prepares a young successor to take over, but everyone in town loves both of them, so there is no issue. The retiring cleric is 14th level and has access to powerful miracles, but only provides healing for profit. A sensible mechanic when one is trying to restrict magic healing to players, but the sort of thing that ought to irritate townsfolk who already need to pay this guy 10% of their earnings.

The teachings of Erm are also suspect. For example the church "believes that the evil races and creatures (beasts like kobolds and orcs, dragons and the like) […] should be snuffed out." That's such peculiar phrasing to me. It's not a fundamental truth of the world backed up by unquestionable divine revelation. It's simply a belief that demands utter brutality. There's also the strange situation of Erm's sister divinity, Sra'ha, around whom the second adventure pivots. We learn that this other goddess was worshiped alongside Erm until about 100 years ago. She's described as being a death god the locals used to invoked during funerary rites, but is never described as evil, merely as banned. The party will even discover some writings contemporary to the banning in which the authors are clearly apologetic towards Sra'ha. If the players do everything right their adventures will end with Sra'ha literally manifesting into the world to save an important NPC's life. She is depicted as a loving God who takes care of the dying, yet once she's gone there's no mention of thanking her. Sra'ha presumably remains banned. I am tempted to call this inconsistent world-building on the author's part, save for the fact that it is consistent in depicting the Church of Erm as suspect in its ethics, and unreliable in its teachings. The text otherwise prioritizes clarity, and at no point is Erm ever framed as anything but capital-G Good. Nonetheless, if later releases in the Regulations Codex series see the players taking up Sra'ha's cause against a spiteful Erm, I would be impressed by the subtlety of the craftsmanship.

The book's art deserves some attention here. It leans heavily on stock images, though I didn't track down every piece and can't say whether any is original. Split between six artists, the visual style of the book becomes a little inconsistent. None the less the art is all full-color and highly competent. It also fits the content of the book well enough that I didn't realize it was stock art until someone else pointed it out.

The art falls into roughly two schools. The centerpiece images are of a "photo-realism but with elves" sort of style. Very popular, very technically impressive, but for my money there is a sort of uncanny valley effect. When you take something silly like a dragon fountain and depict it with such seriousness, it becomes farcical. That said, the armored elf on the cover who is in the process of chopping off her own leg to get free of a gelatinous cube is gorgeous. Dean Spencer deserves recognition for that one. The other school is more my speed: simple line work and flat colors. Much of this art is incidental stuff (a gem, a scroll case), but there are a pair of kobolds that I absolutely love. I am a long-time advocate for reptile kobolds, but the adorable dog kobolds depicted here are so distinct, so full of character, that I must admit I can see the appeal.

Cartography is all done in software, with varied results. I'll talk about the dungeon layouts when I talk about the dungeons, but artistically they're fine. The hexographer maps used for the overworld look like hexographer maps and are likewise fine. I probably would have skipped making any statement about cartography if not for the Brink map, which is assembled from mismatched digital assets. It's a style much in vogue with books that have higher budgets than this one, so I don't mean to pick on The Valley of Karaccia. That said, it's a style that values fidelity over both form and function. There is no beauty in its ability to cram detail and color into a tiny space. Also, and this is a nitpick, but the dark black hex lines on the Brink map are much too bold. A light gray, or maybe a green that was off-color from the grasslands would have done the job without breaking up the field of view so jarringly. My own frustration aside, it is just one map which doesn't impact the overall quality of the product.

The first of the two adventures is a straightforward cave dungeon. There are Kobolds in the area, they need to be wiped out. Notably there is never any mention in the text of the Kobolds doing anything to provoke this violence. Their cave does have a room filled with heads on spikes, but given that two adventuring groups showed up to kill kobolds on the same day it seems completely believable that these heads were gathered purely in self defense. I'm taking it as further evidence that Erm is not so Good as she claims to be. The adventure has a cute introduction, with a braggadocios local rushing off to claim all the glory ahead of the party, only to be found dead in the very first room. He then rises as a zombie to illustrate the dungeon's core gimmick: mysterious red light radiating from glassy veins in the cave walls causes anyone who dies here to have a chance of rising as an undead. It's a solid gimmick: the party kills a group of monsters, only to get attacked from behind a few rounds later by those same monsters turned to zombies.

The layout of the caverns is simple. It's not linear, but no path ever meets up with another path. It has a sort of 'radial-linearity.' Players may come to a crossroads where they must pick a direction, but each choice leads to a linear series of rooms, or perhaps another branch. Eventually all exploration will reach a dead end, and the party will need to return to a previous branch in the path to pick a new one. There are some evocative details here, like a series of rooms the Kobolds don't enter because they don't like the smell of the mushrooms which grow there. There are also some confusing bits, like why the kobold chief lairs as far as he can possibly get from the rest of his people; and how the kobolds have been in this cave long enough to collect 100 heads, but not long enough to figure out how to open the chest in Area 10. Also, I can't help but feel that if a creature is killed by direct contact with the magic crystal which is the source of the dungeon's red light they really ought to come back as something tougher than a zombie, like a ghoul.

The first adventure is simple, serviceable, and packs a decent punch for a 2-pager. It's followed by a strange bestiary of creatures which might be encountered overland. There's not much of a theme to the encounters, almost none of which are described beyond names and combat stats. I would be able to get more use out of this bestiary if it had 1/6th as many creatures on it, and those creatures were given some detail and purpose.

The second adventure has a somewhat more interesting structure. The party are sent to a dungeon to get an item, but all they'll find is a clue that leads to another location. In that dungeon they'll find a key, and only then can they return to the first dungeon, open a secret path to its lower level, and find the object they need. It's a fun structure. The dungeon with the key in it is particularly nice. Players must enter it via a vertical shaft filled with living plants that'll strangle anyone who touches them. Three different levels can all be accessed via the shaft. It's a great example of using vertical space.

The main dungeon in which the second adventure begins and ends is less interesting to me. It has the same radial-linearity that the first dungeon did, but expanded to nearly 60 rooms.  The lower floor is one big loop with linear segments branching from it, and the upper floor's only loop is hidden behind secret doors at both ends, neither of which have structural or textual clues to suggest their presence. Other secret doors are telegraphed better, which is good. However, behind one of them is the only clue that can lead the party to the second dungeon. Players ought to be able to fail, but it seems a shame to hinge more than half of the adventure on something as fragile as the players locating a single secret door. My preference would be to include 2 or 3 clues pointing towards the second dungeon, with perhaps the most revealing of these behind a secret door.

There are some interesting rooms and encounters in the second adventure, though these are outnumbered by the simple fights against zombies, skeletons, or ghouls. I want to note that there are statues of both Erm and Sra'ha here, but only the statue of Erm can animate to attack the players. (Coincidence?) There are a lot of untelegraphed traps in the second adventure, but also many opportunities for characters to heal. Neither are part of my preferred play style, but one can see how the two keep the party on their toes without just killing them off. There was one example I thought was a big wasted opportunity: a room illuminated by green light because the light is filtered through a green ooze waiting on the ceiling to drop on unsuspecting prey. A good trap! In a later room a gray ooze tries to get the party with the same ceiling-drop technique, and if it had also been filtering light this would have been a great opportunity for players to learn from earlier mistakes.

The second adventure culminates in a color-matching puzzle which is either very charming or very cheesy depending on your inclinations towards such things. Solving the puzzle unlocks a final combat encounter with a ghoul-priestess of Sra'ha who was interred alive when this place was sealed. (Given that it was sealed by clerics of Erm, this once again suggests to me that Erm is not the Good god she is depicted to be.) The fight seems like a fun one. The players actually encounter the object they're searching for before the fight, but can't access it because the priestess refuses to stop chanting prayers of warding. The fight with her includes some special powers and tactics, followed by the party needing to offer some deference to Sra'ha in order to access her relic safely. They can even offer a prayer to Sra'ha here in order to fully heal all their wounds. They don't even need to pay the exorbitant prices charged by the high priest of Erm!

There is a style of play which approaches tabletop RPGs like chess puzzles. The same familiar pieces, each with their familiar functions that can be learned and mastered. The challenge arises from shuffling those familiar elements into unfamiliar arrangements. That appears to be the school of thought which produced this adventure. It's not my preferred style of play, but neither is it the wrong way to play because there cannot be a wrong way to play.

The Valley of Karaccia was authored Matthew Evans, with editing by Jeffery Hines. Its illustrations were sourced from Dean Spencer, Donnie Maynard Christianson, Giulia Valentini, Jeshields, Rick Hershey, and William McAusland. It's available as a PDF from DriveThruRPG for $4.99. As of this writing the print edition is "coming soon."

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