Tsar Rising Capsule Review by Maz Fallah on 27/01/02
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)
A well-done adventure that keeps the characters harried and trying to figure out what they did to deserve it. In this case, nothing, they're not the stars. But they'll enjoy the ride.
Product: Tsar Rising
Author: Michael Tresca
Company/Publisher: MonkeyGod Enterprises
Page count: 60
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Maz Fallah on 27/01/02
Genre tags: Fantasy
Tsar Rising is a D20 adventure for characters level 8-9. As such, the adventure needs to be worthy of them, an epic. And that’s what this is. The plot is an epic story, a political situation that will determine the fate of a nation. As a nice change of pace, it’s set in Torassia, a fantasy Russia. This module is more than just an adventure, it also has enough information, especially in the appendix, to be a sourcebook for Torassia.
The Introduction gives a good dose of History, grounding Torassia, its people, politics, religion. This paints a bright tapestry that the adventure is set against. The history is believable and borrows from real Russian folklore. That’s a strength that runs throughout the module. The use of Russian folklore and terms makes for an enjoyable read for the DM. It also allows for a more immersive experience. Torassia is not Alaska.
The Introduction also gives background on the Torassian Wilds. This is the one stumbling block. During the course of the adventure, the players spend many days travelling through these wilds. I felt that not enough time was spent making them real. From the minor problem where the movement penalties need to be recreated from the text (though to be fair, a table appears to have been left out in the production stage), to just brief overviews of random weather and encounters. The monsters are described in an appendix, which requires the DM to familiarize himself with them first, and work out little scenarios in advance. However, I’d have preferred to be given a few 2-3 sentence encounter hooks for the random encounters. Otherwise it ends up being: ‘You spend a day walking. It snowed. Dire rats attack you in the midafternoon. You spend another day walking, nothing happens.’
When it came to the weather, with its snow, snowstorms and blizzards, I’d have liked to be given the shelter options available in the wilds. They would also have been helpful later, for guiding townsfolk safely to another town. How can they shelter during the nights and where can they forage for food, if at all? The emphasis on travel in Tsar Rising is just as the cut scenes between the action sequences.
Chapter One presents the characters with a mission to find a missing caravan. This is a standard plot hook to start many an adventure. Refreshingly, the caravan is at worst a red herring, and yet a foreshadowing of the future. It is during this search that the party meets up with the Tsar, and get subsumed in his quest. But he’s in disguise, and the party only know of him as Sergei, a member of the Tsar Peter’s retinue. Here is another great innovation of Tsar Rising. The characters aren’t the heroes of the story. The plot doesn’t revolve around them. They’re an aid and a tool for the Tsar. They’re the supporting cast, the sidekicks. Larger forces are at work, but not directed at them. Which leaves the players guessing. As I said, it is very refreshing to have players break out of that egocentric mold. It reminds me of Harlequin, an old Shadowrun module, which did the same thing, and was great to play, and even more fun to run as a gamemaster. In Chapter One, the characters meet up with ‘Sergei’, then go through a series of encounters, which build up feelings of supernatural forces and of being hunted. There is also a well-designed tiny village (the thorp of Volkov) that gives life to the Cossacks, in the middle of this hunt. Too bad it didn’t survive.
Chapter Two has the party protecting Peter and the surviving members of Volkov to a small town, Drakino. It is here that they are exposed to the plight of the people. The Tsar learns how his people live, and learns that his advisor has taken the throne. The characters learn about the religious strife between the new Khrestianin religion, and practitioners of any other, often including themselves. Drakino is full of role-playing opportunities. In the middle, there is the next attempt on the Tsar’s life. Even in a town of 2000, the hunt goes on. Is nowhere safe?! Some other encounters occur, both harrying the party and giving them the opportunity to learn more of Peter. Peter may even have to admit his true identity. The climax of this chapter occurs when the characters and Peter reach the Tsar’s Mammoth stables. The mammoths are the symbol of the Tsar’s power and his strongest fighting force. It is these same mammoths that have resulted in lots of extra taxation for the peasants. It is here that the scheming and scrabbling for power of Peter’s twin sons becomes clear. Politics can ruin a family. But the political discussion is interrupted by an attack that is a result of bringing the mammoths down from their normal range. It’s not an attack the characters are meant to win, but one they need to try to escape and survive. Here is a second innovation in Tsar Rising. Not every encounter is meant to be combat. Not everyone or everything they encounter is meant to be killed. If the characters are truly feeling harried by the constant hunt upon them, they should be more than ready to run here. And that is what they were meant to do.
Chapter Three is the endgame. The players accompany the Tsar into his capital to face the Devil that has orchestrated the entire ordeal and is now ruling Torassia. The tactics of this battle are presented to the DM. They’re also really good. This should be a very challenging battle, which makes for a great ending. But the defeat of the Devil isn’t the end for the characters. As their reward, they are offered noble rank and land in Torassia, in addition to some intriguing magic items. If they accept, it’s not the end of the adventure, but the start of the campaign, in Torassia. And thus, we reach a third innovation. Instead of walking off into the sunset, or in this case anywhere south and warm, the characters can end up tied to the land, the politics, and the people of Torassia. But they’ll have more than enough to deal with. There are further adventure hooks, describing surrounding enemies, plots, and religious strife, just waiting to intrude upon these heroes and new nobles. Of course, after what they’ve experienced, they may run like Hell, and not just because it’d be toasty warm if they reached it.
Overall, Tsar Rising is an excellent adventure. The writing is clear and amusing. The encounters set the mood and never let up on the players. The people and the towns are well-described, giving ample information for role-playing the setting well. The inclusion of Russian terms adds to this nicely. The adventure is more than that, it’s an introduction to the nation of Torassia, a realm that the characters may want to explore more when they finally get a chance. And that brings us to the Appendix, with a listing of NPCs, monsters, armor and weapons. These round out information on the realm. Tsar Rising is 60% adventure, 40% sourcebook, which means it continues to give and be useful, even after the adventure is over. That’s more bang for your buck.
I liked it. I think it’s well done. And I’m just waiting for an excuse to send some players up north…