|Villain or victim? You can find out by reading|
the adventure (or this review)!
Quack Keep was written by RuneQuest and Judges Guild veteran Jennell Jaquays (an expert of both duck-centric adventures and sandbox settings), and Darcy Perry (the excellent sculptor running Star Hat Miniatures). Like The Dragon's Secret re-release, Quack Keep was part of the Dungeons of Doom IV kickstarter campaign. Unlike The Dragon's Secret, this was an entirely new product.
The 54 pages long book's cover is a stunning piece by Jaquays, depicting some of the locals facing the fiersome ducdrackon. I'm not sure if it's the colors, or the stern expressions of the ducks, but the goofy premise doesn't detract from the serious tone and tenseness of the scene. It's a damn fine cover, one I would gladly put on my wall. The interior feels like a black & white book that got colored later: the text is black & white except for the red titles, the header and some pictures are greyscale, while others are full color. While this dissonance irks me a bite, the top notch quality of the artwork more than compensates for it. The character illustrations done by Darcy Perry are particularly praiseworthy, they are both beautiful and full of personality.
Quack Keep begins with an introduction and a guide about how to use the book. The setting uses the Story Scale System, which is a universal system to describe the stats of anything - characters, magic items, you name it. The scale uses both numbers and descriptors. It goes from 0 (Calamitous) to 100 (Mythical), with a value of 2 being average, 5 superior, 40 legendary. I had a hard time wrapping my head around it and gave up on using it for conversion. Going with either an exact numerical system (preferably one close to D&D, which most buyers use anyway), or a purely descriptive scale with fewer tiers would have had been a better choice. If there are plans to use the SSS for future products, I recommend creating a conversion guide at least, for at the moment preparing to run the module in any system needs a tremendous effort from the GM.
The book introduces the setting's backstory in a single page. Reedy Bend is an unremarkable section of the river Cygnus, which happens to be a Nexus Point - a place where planes intersect. The region was settled by ducks after the god Oduck's ship, Squidquacknir crashlanded here. They built a prosperous civilization, that had to be rebuilt after the ducdrackon Daffyd Platypyros wrought havoc upon the area. Nowadays the ducks thrive again, despite the gargantuan monster's presence. The summary is great for several reasons: it's short, it puts the reader in picture about the region, and it leaves several questions unanswered. Anticipation to find out more is a good way to keep the reader motivated in getting involved with the setting.
|You can find creepy stalkers, pet rocks, and good mead in Banquak Pond.|
Unusually among sandboxes, Reedy Bend isn't overwhelmed by wilderness. Settlements cover a large section of the map, and even the depths of the marshes hold a hint of civilization, like a ferry ran by bandits, the above mentioned Night Market where people meet to arrange their shady dealings, and the camp of hillbilly swamp dwarves who hunt ducks (yes, the fowl folk ducks). It doesn't mean these areas are friendly of course. Reedy Bend is still full of places to explore and mysteries to solve! Where did the Squidquacknir crashland and what happened to it? What's up with the legendary ducdrackon that devastated civilization a century ago? What lies beneath the crypts of Bluebill temple?
My absolute favorite enigmas are the Marsh Lords. These stone idols fell out when the Squidquacknir crashlanded. Their upper parts are ducks, their lower parts are unknown, they are all over the region, they all look towards the same point, and some people claim they communicate with each other. The truth about them is utterly horrifying lovecraftian revelation. Brilliant. Speaking of exploration and mysteries, I must mention the Sunken Caverns, the defining dungeon of the region. It only has sixteen rooms, but it's delightfully non-linear, barely has any straight lines, and is connected to several other locations. Within the adventurers can find ancient crypts, living rocks banished by the first ducks, a fowlbear lair, an evil demon, the bottom of a Marsh Lord, and the ducdrackon's hideout.
The amount of detail each place gets is a erratic: some are lavishly detailed, while others only get a few paragraphs. Some sections even have "BYO Maps" (Bring Your Own Maps) notes, which means all the GM gets are a handful of ideas about what to put there, but everything else is up to him. I wouldn't have any issues with this, if the most intriguing adventure site didn't get this treatment: the Whispering Tower. It is basically Moorcock's Vanishing Tower - an everchenging, plane shifting dungeon. A missed opportunity, although it's understandable, since such a concept deserves an entire module of its own. Fingers crossed that's what Jennell is working on! Another disappointment is the titular Quack Keep. The ancient castle ruins are truly all that they seems to be. There are two entrances for BYO dungeons, but other than that the location feels more of a tourist attraction than an adventure site.
So far what we have is pretty solid overall. A bit uneven, but good. But good is the minimum one should expect from a module, and if you buy something with Jennell's name on it, you are probably looking for more. Well, fasten your seatbelts, because we reached the part where Jaquays really shines this time: the denizes.
|The fate of the dol-men is one of the darkest secrets|
of fowl folk history.
For many sandboxes the environment is the most defining feature. Quack Keep is all about its inhabitants. They feel like real people, and as you learn more and more about them you realize that why Reedy Bend is different from your average D&D setting: violence doesn't feel right. It doesn't solve most problems the people have here, and murder would just take away from the colorfulness of this unremarkable river section. Okay, the trolls and swamp dwarves are total bastards, they are the exception... But even the supposed main villain, the ducdrackon Daffyd Platypus is sympathetic in some. She was a human assassion, who took the wrong job, made a bad decision, and paid the ultimate price. Now all she wants is returning to her normal life with her girlfriend, but alas she can only become human during full moons, when she visits the Night Market to socialize a bit before turning back into the hideous monster on the cover. Transformation, and how it can change someone is a returning topic by the way.
Remember the Whispering Tower? If you read Moorcock you probably expect an Eternal Champion to turn up. Well there are three of them in Reedy Bend, and the are other epic scale figures in the neighbourhood, like the Ducktor with his time traveling inn, the feebleminded Oduck who lost his memories with his ravens, the 16 feet tall otherworldy arch fey owl Lunos, and some more. The region has creatures and NPCs for every level, from wimps to godly entities.
Besides being fun the NPCs are also well written. There is enough information to work from in their descriptions, and to make the GM's life easier, their frequent places and related NPCs are included in tags. It could have been even better is if they were linked in the pdf, and the page numbers were included. It boggles my mind why such tags weren't included for the locations about the NPCs frequenting them. Some more help would be welcome, because the information is sometimes all over the place, the story of the ducrackon being one of the best examples.
Following the denizens are the Reedy Bend Tales, a collection of adventure ideas. There are more than seventy seeds here of various quality and magnitude: they range from simple fetch quests to world shaking events, and are usually one or two paragraphs long. There are plenty of pop culture references again, including Batman, John Wick, Big Trouble in Little China. Like the NPCs, these entries have helpful tags too.
There are two pages for encounters and curios (they are back from The Dragon's Secret), though a half page is eaten up by an image of trolls. I have no clue what they are doing, but they look damn fine. The tables are just as good. Here are a few examples:
|If Coduck runs from it, you too should be concerned.|
Coduck appears, waddling at full speed. He charges through the party ranks shouting “Crom!” A thunderous roar splits the air and the earth shakes. He is being chased by a hungry web-footed carnosaurus!
An odd wheeled boat-like craft has been found half-sub-merged in the marsh, it’s an amphibious combat vehicle from another realm called a “duck.”
A Marsh Lord, still damp and newly risen from the marsh. It resembles a member of the party.
A colorfully painted door and frame… but no wall.
Two pages are devoted to the appendices. They introduce the various kinds of fowl folk living in the marsh (which is basically the same list as the one in The Dragon's Secret), and tell a bit more about quack magic, standing stones, before ending with a random chart of Artifacts from Squidquacknir. Would you like some sci-fi in your fantasy? Well of course! Three spoonful. Heck, make it four... The list has such mouth-watering objects as chainsaws, jet packs, electric tooth brushes, and some weirder stuff, eg.:
Jamie’s Magic Torch - This device is a blue cylindrical object with yellow ends and the name “Jamie” etched into it’s base. Activate the switch and a light shines forth. When shone at a flat surface, a portal appears; a hole with a helter skelta slide that takes the rider to Cuckoo Land.
Good stuff, again.
The book ends with gorgeous full color maps of Reedy Bend that cover pretty much everything. I have no idea how, but there are two maps for the Sunken Caverns in my pdf, but the section doesn't seem to be missing anything. Kudos to Jennell for including both metric and imperial units on the map! It takes such a minimal effort to do it, yet barely anyone bothers with it.
The layout is solid, editing in is much better than in The Dragon's Secret, and it is an entertaining read. I have a hunch though that most folk won't run it ever, because it needs some serious effort from the GM. There are places to be finished, stat blocks to be designed from scratch, duck minis to be painted (optinally, of course), and people to be convinced to play in a World of Fowlcraft.
Is it a must have product? No, but you should buy it. Not only to prove me wrong by running it (for example with Ryuutama - seriously, it's a match made in heaven), but also because it's a beautiful product, full of heart. It's the Alfred J. Kwak of OSR products: on the surface it's a fun tale with about ducks, but if you pull the curtain back you will see unexpected maturity and seriousness.
Tl;dr: An unusual sandbox where the fowl puns and silly quackracter ideas hide deep and engaging personalities.
Where to find it: You can find it in print in the Star Hat Miniatures webshop along with a bunch of amazing miniatures, and you can buy it on DriveThruRPG in both pdf and print on demand format.
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