Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Grave Trespass - Where the Wheat Grows Tall

Where the Wheat Grows Tall

A review by Yochai Gal

The Introduction

Where the Wheat Grows Tall is an old-school adventure for low-level characters inspired by Slavic myth. Written by Camilla Greer and Evlyn Moreau, featuring illustrations by Evlyn Moreau. Black & white, 44 pages digest-size zine. My copy was purchased during the zine's successful kickstarter.

The writing in Where the Wheat Grows Tall is dream-like, flavorful, and concisely written. The module is infused with creatures from Slavic fairy tales, heavily bolstered by concise writing and beautiful illustrations. The adventure suggests a (mostly) overland adventure, peppered with talking spirits & beasts, each with their own agenda and affiliations.




The Overview


Presenting itself as an "Agrarian Adventure," Where the Wheat Grows Tall is set exclusively in the area around a struggling farmstead, the last farm in the area. The module's central conflict revolves around two opposed spirits, the Fairy denizens of the field (each with their own murky alliances) and the Polotnikovs, a human family that works the adjacent farm. A wall divides the farm from an adjacent field, which flourishes despite the dead surroundings.

The field is governed by two ancient fey, their spirits bound to earthly totems. Now, something has upset the balance and the wilds of Fairy are spilling over into the mortal realm. The PCs are meant to explore the farm and the field beyond the wall, and find out what really happened to the Polotnikovs.

Crossing the wall and into the field transports the PCs from our world and into Fairy, a place with its own rules, history and personalities. Between the farm and field there are roughly 20 points of interest for the PCs to explore, each tightly distributed across a gorgeously-illustrated map. There are story hooks and rumor tables to help get the PCs started, mostly involving the disappearance of Piotr, a local farmer and father of four.

In practice, Where The Wheat Grows Tall is an above-ground dungeon, trading corridors of stone and squalid rooms for narrow clearings and row upon row of wheat stalks. I'm not convinced that the authors conceived of the adventure this way but it certainly plays as much. The module also refers to "conflicting worlds and roles within the characters" and challenges the reader (as well as the players) to answer broad questions about the NPCs, their motivations, and what's really going on.

Text


The text is sparse throughout and carefully concise, leaving just enough room for the players to fill in some of the descriptive gaps themselves. For the most part I found the writing clear and easy on the eyes, eschewing a denser presentation in favor of spreading information across multiple pages and ignoring grammatical necessities. Overall I liked it a lot.

Art


The book is packed to the brim with Moreau's unique art style, and her illustrations of the people, places & creatures really does a great job at creating a distinct "mood" for the setting. Included with the game is a PDF consisting solely of her illustrations (including some that didn't make the cut); unfortunately I only discovered this after we'd already finished the adventure. The map is well-designed and despite some minor flaws (see Layout Quibbles below) I found it quite useful during play.


Sections


A helpful index divides the book into multiple sections including background information, tools for running the game, a bestiary, and finally the adventure proper which takes up the last third. The adventure itself is divided by two uneven halves: The Farm and The Field Into Fairy.

The module opens with a family history coupled with a recounting of what has transpired "in recent days." The first few pages are dense with setting information about the two Fae sisters (the Midnight Maiden and the Noon Lady). The information herein is absolutely essential for running the adventure, yet somehow lacking at the same time. I recall referring to these sections during the game and wondering why specific answers (or even hints) were not given, particularly around NPC motivations—more on that later.

The following page entitled "Running this Adventure" provides an excellent overview on the module but similarly feels shorter than it should be; like the previous section I found it lacking in specific details and elaborations. The authors pose specific questions for the reader to consider while preparing and running the adventure, followed by hooks and one-shot suggestions. All of this is really great to see upfront in an adventure! Finally there is a useful rumors table and an oddly-placed description for a monster that appears whenever fires are started in The Field.

The book presents three different encounter tables divided into day, night, and "under the roots." I used these a lot while running this adventure, particularly the results that determined what a family member is presently doing or where they can be found. I would personally prefer a clock of some sort for those specific results as the family is pretty important; a run-in with most of them is fairly inevitable.

There is a wonderful page dedicated to "Farm tools as weapons." I found this very helpful and referred to it a bunch during the game, though interestingly the one farm tool the PCs will almost certainly come across (a mattock) is not described or drawn on this page or anywhere else.

In the Bestiary there are 6 pages of illustrations and descriptions of the many strange and unearthly creatures the PCs are certain to encounter. The monster stats are joyfully sparse, leaning heavily on bulleted flavor text to describe their unusual behavior, desires and fears of each creature. Creatures are given their traditional Slavic names as well as a more generic (yet still flavorful) alternative, e.g. Barstukai or "Children of the Crops." In general the creatures were less dangerous than what my players were used to, relying on defensive abilities over offensive.

In the final section before the adventure text there is a two-page "Polotnikov Family History" that recounts some more essential exposition regarding the NPC character motivations. There is a helpful illustration of the family tree, which comes up a few times.

Quibbles


Overall I found some of the layout decisions puzzling; some of which resulted in significant flipping around the book and having to look for something in multiple places.

• Why was Old Svarg (the fire spirit) placed beneath the rumors tables instead of in the bestiary?

• Why wasn't the "Polotnikov Family History" section merged with the introduction? It only served to confuse me when I was searching for a specific NPC detail.

• Why does the map (p.21) interrupt the first "section" of the adventure (The Farm, p.19), rather than precede it, or appear at the back of the book?

• In the PDF, the index sections were linked to specific pages. This was useful, and I wish it was also applied to the numbered POI on the map.

• Encounters 19 and 20 do not appear on the map. Both were underground (which perhaps explains it) but I would have loved for the designers to have made it more clear where the entrances to these places actually exist on the map.

• The path towards the bridge (13) does not connect with anything else on the map. How do the PCs arrive there? Do they head through the wheat itself? How does that work with the mechanics described on page 27?

• The path towards the 7 is described differently when accessed via the crack in the wall than entering via the old tree growing over the wall. I had PCs enter on both and it was hard to keep things consistent.

• The family history bits: I consider these some of the most relevant details in the book and finding ways to disseminate it organically through play was rather difficult.
The Actual Play

Let's get this bit out of the way first: the PCs in my game did not roll a single damage die during this adventure. Although my players tend to avoid danger (lethality is a big deal in my games) the outright lack of combat was highly unusual for them. There were plenty of saves thrown of course, and not all were successes, either. I'm not sure if this speaks more to my specific playgroup or the module itself, but I thought it important to note.

A Note About Time


Fairy is weird. Straying from the paths within the wheat field can be confusing or fraught with peril, and leaving isn't as easy as getting in. The module provides some guidance on how to handle these things, including optional mechanics for time. I elected to use these mechanics, and I regret it. I don't believe this is a fault of the module as proper time management is tricky in RPGs in general at best, and playing by post likely compounded my issues.

At multiple points during the adventure we found the PCs in different areas, governed by different time mechanics. For example, time became especially difficult to track after the Sun had set in Fairy but not on the Farm. Further complicating matters was the fact that "splitting the party" is especially easy to do in play by post games; there were even points during the adventure where players were in three different time periods of play!

Play


I ran Where The Wheat Grows Tall over Play By Post using the Cairn system (see my conversion notes here). My home group is comprised of three seasoned players who each bring a distinct play style and focus to old school play (problem solving, narrative/roleplay and discovery). Cairn is classless, but loosely the party was comprised of a Herbalist, a Miner and a Merchant.


Setup


"Upon which is agreed, An old stone wall separates the family farm from a field they say is cursed. Deep within the wheat, two forgotten idols once balanced the spirits of the crops. One has been destroyed and balance is gone, The Noon Lady rises and the crop spirits grow cruel. The Polotnikovs have disappeared into the field and their farm is soon to follow."

The PCs arrive at a seemingly-abandoned farmstead, though there are a few immediate sites calling their attention: ramshackle buildings, spilled paint, a broken wall, etc. As the party explored, I enjoyed meting out the evidence of what had happened here from the clues they'd gathered. Fortunately this is easy to do, as there are already a few NPCs to engage with: an obviously evil girl trapped in the well, a hungry creature locked in the granary, and a spirit residing within the farmhouse. There is a magical windvane that points in the general direction of any person that the PCs name aloud. It was one of my favorite bits of this adventure because it provided a useful & immediate mystery to my players.

The "meat" of this adventure happens largely on the other side of the wall, and my players knew as much but needed to explore and find out more. There are two major expository NPCs in this portion of the adventure: a young girl, Masha, and the house spirit, Oleg. From these the PCs can learn a bit about what happened before their arrival, and provide a central hook for exploration. Oleg was unhelpful, as the module explicitly states that he knows no family secrets, nor can he leave the house.

One of my players expressed a frustration with the opening points of interest. Specifically he felt that the initial encounters did very little to provide any actionable worldbuilding. For example, the Noon Wraith in the well and Spiteful Wierga in the Granary both tell a fascinating story of what had happened before, but don't actively spur any specific action or encourage specific problem solving. Why would the party care about dragging a plainly deceitful creature out of a well, or collecting fingers and toes for another they can't readily see? It's all very creepy, but there isn't much the party can do about that, or even care to.

Additionally, the PC's duplicitous first encounter with the Noon Wraith in the well led my players to distrust nearly every NPC they encountered afterwards! I'm not sure if this was intentional but it certainly set the stage for future interactions with characters like the Likho.

The Field Into Fairy


There are only two entry-points into the field: The Old Tree Growing Over The Wall and "The Crack In The Wall" (details for both are helpfully found on the same page). My players split up and explored the field both independently from one another and as pairs (or a trio, on occasion). They ventured through the narrow corridors of wheat and chaff, interacting with the strange denizens to gain information about the whereabouts of each Polotnikov family member. As stated before we never entered a combat state, though there was certainly a hint of danger laced throughout the adventure, particularly with respect to the Likho.

The central theme of two semi-warring factions and a loss of balance is well delivered through the various encounters in the field. The PCs formed partial alliances with all manner of folk on both sides in their search. With each new creature, the players debated amongst themselves: who could help them, who could be trusted, what they might want, etc. Although the writing does provide a modicum of interactive story elements for each point of interest, the players did complain that some of the NPCs held their cards a bit too close to the chest. I tend to provide maximal possible information to my players so that they can make educated decisions about what they should do next, and I struggled to deliver important information to the PCs organically and through the NPCs.

For example one of the first NPCs a PC encountered was Trull, hiding under the Bridge at 13. The book makes it quite clear that he is afraid of the Likho and unwilling to divulge secrets. As an expository device this character was difficult to handle; in the end the PC simply set the field aflame (leading to some fun interactions with Old Svarg, the fire spirit). The player remarked, "more exposition would actually have been nice in this one, with so many characters and backstories to track."

As the PCs explored the wheat field (as well as the bits underground) player actions seemed to devolve into a sort of "fetch quest," moving to and fro throughout the area and rescuing the various Polotnikov family members. And goodness, there were a lot of them! Although the module provides plenty of opportunities for the PCs to go off and do other things, rarely did the players see a reason to follow-through on them. There was little hint of treasure beyond the Likho's reward, and not enough expository details from the various factions. As a result, the players felt that any potential "results" of their PC's actions were limited in scope.

Towards the end of the adventure one of the players expressed an interest in learning more about the world in general, particularly regarding the Likho and her former lover (the Midnight Maiden). And while their desires were fulfilled to some degree through a vision at the water wheel earlier on, there weren't a lot of opportunities to actually transmit this history, which was so well told in the book text itself. There is a lot to be gleaned from the underlying text describing each encounter in the field, but at times their terseness leaves open gaps I struggled to fill. Or perhaps it wasn't the terseness, but the words they chose?

At the core of this module is a story, waiting to be plucked and told by the players. A family secret whose consequences echo throughout the generations. Former lovers, desperate to become reacquainted. Ghostly soldiers that sing of long-buried wars, hiding from the crows who only wish to carry their souls to the beyond. The authors weave together these tales of conflict, love, sadness, and hope into something truly special. It is unfortunate that I struggled so much to reveal all this to my players in a way that felt natural, organic and player-driven. I think if I were to run this module again (and I plan to) I would assign an NPC as a guide to the PCs, or assume that at least one of the PCs had foreknowledge of the setting.

2 comments:

  1. I've run Where the Wheat Grows Tall Twice now, and it's surprisingly tough to run. It's still one of my favorite modules of all time due to the theme and art, but it's kind of tough to pass information about the setting onto the players.

    One thing that has worked amazingly though is handing out pages from the artbook to the players as they encounter elements of the setting. I give the players some colored pencils, and when they fully color in a piece of art they get some extra bit of information about the setting. It's worked surprisingly well for large groups where it's tough to keep every player engaged for the entire session.

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  2. Fairy tale stuff isn't usually much of a draw for me, but this sounds neat. Evlyn's art is always great, and some of the tools you mention (such as the 'farming tools as weapons' section) are appealing.

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