Review – The Bleak Harvest

In terms of full disclosure, I was privy to this adventure in its original draft form before it was picked up by TPK games. The author gifted me a copy after release.

 

As this is an adventure review, I’ll write a brief summation, then I’ll indicate spoilers to come. If you intend to be a player, skip the middle section and go straight to my final comments.

The Bleak Harvest

The Bleak Harvest is a 66 page adventure from Jason LeMaitre and TPK games, with an evocative cover, a credits page, 6 ½ pages of background & setup, 46 pages of adventure, 7 pages of appendices, 1 page advertisement and 2 pages of legal text. It is in appropriately muted colours, with mostly B&W art (a few colour) and colour maps.

Warning – The Bleak Harvest is a true Horror adventure. The themes within are both potentially confronting and in many ways a very subtle creep-up-on-you nasty. This adventure isn’t for everyone. At times it runs a very close line to where I think the limits lie in the Open Licence, but never over. There’s no overly gratuitous violence or body horror, but it still hits you.

For those unfamiliar, TPK games runs a dual rules format, where Pathfinder and 5 rules are placed concurrently in each section, with a text colour change noting the distinction. It takes a little getting used to, but it’s not confusing or distracting when done well (see Final Rating).

The premise of the adventure is that the PCs are asked to check up on the King’s cousin, who has been recovering in the prestigious Willowbrook Saniatarium for the last year. The King has lost contact with the institution and his messengers have failed to return. The PCs – presumably because of their skill set (8th-9th level PCs) are asked to investigate. Several other hooks are provided for less civic minded adventurers.

 

SPOILERS

The sanitarium has fallen under the influence of a Lovecraftian ‘outer being’ style entity, which is engineering its entry into the world through a ritual sacrifice of those afflicted with madness. Its earthly agent is a broken acolyte (seeking reunion with lost loved ones) who has complete access to the facilities, inscribing symbols and assisting a cult and idolised aberration to complete the dark rites by giving them access to the 25 souls-driven-mad needed to complete the ritual.

The party has just 2 days to uncover the conspiracy and halt the ritual. A timeline of events is provided for the DM.

What follows is a sandbox style investigation through a stereotypically creepy location (which is not a criticism) with some very subtle and clever elements, including the fact that identifying the duke is exceptionally difficult, but logically accounted for.  The records are gone, the staff are mad, confused or generally unhelpful, and the duke – by virtue of his madness – has developed a new personality. Better yet, the mechanic that allows for this has him take on one of several developed characters (the DM chooses or rolls randomly) ensuring a fairly integrated investigation where no one of the possibilities is more or less fleshed out than the others. Each offers insight into the current situation, but only if the PCs can navigate their unique psychosis. There are enough red herrings and personal agendas amongst the NPCs to generate true doubt, and again these are handled with depth and complexity.

The investigation eventually leads to a showdown with an otherworldly horror, either because the PCs themselves have uncovered the conspiracy, or because hew timeline advances the action. Its a solid mechanic that keeps the adventure moving without feeling forced.

SPOILERS END

 

The adventure has suggestions on managing tension, horror and madness, difficult choices and options that really put pressure on the PCs and advice on increasing the difficulty or injecting a little chaos into the mix.

There is a surprising amount of content and complexity here. There is no wasted space and a lot going on here. In addition to managing the themes, the DM needs to control the tempo and the various NPC and creature personalities, motivations and agendas, not to mention a timeline that moves in the background and numerous ongoing and triggered effects.

This is not an adventure for a novice DM!  

 

Final Rating

Firstly, Jason is clearly a horror fan, and a fan of ‘good’ horror at that. If you know your genre it doesn’t take much to see the nods to various tropes without overdoing it or throwing it in your face. As a story adventure it is amazing. If you don’t run this at night with the lights down and play creepy ambient music (even if such embellishments are not in your normal repertoire) you are doing your players a massive disservice. Horror is all about setting a mood, and this adventure delivers in spades.

There are, however, a few technical issues with the product.

There’s no contents page and no bookmarks in the PDF. It makes navigation difficult and cumbersome, and I have to say it’s one of my personal pet hates.

No significant spelling or grammatical issues jumped out at me, and I didn’t see any major rules mechanics problems. However, there are places where the text colour change to differentiate the 5e from Pathfinder rules is missing, and odd places where the rules language deviates from the standard. There are also a few layout issues where text is affected by the placement of art, and the text bounces from left aligned to justified throughout.

While the maps are good – courtesy of Elven Tower – half are unmarked and half are keyed. No “player” versions are available for the keyed ones. Again not a major issue, but it would be a nice inclusion.

Finally, the PDF price is $10. That’s not unreasonable, but it is at the upper end for a 60 odd page PDF. If you are like me, your expectations would be high for that price range. I can be more forgiving of a lower priced item. I feel like the production values might have missed the mark for the asking price.

The ‘minor’ issues begin to add up here. None are deal breakers, it really clashes that the author’s attention to detail is not matched by the layout and production. It could really use a v1.1 with some of the easy fixes addressed.

Having said that, nothing in the above critique should put you off buying this adventure! The content, presentation and atmosphere of the story alone easily eclipse all the small imperfections. If you are a fan of otherworldly influence horror this adventure is definitely up there with the best I’ve encountered.

I really look forward to more of Jason’s work in the future, though he’s set himself a lofty bar to clear with his first effort.

I’d rate it 5 Stars for content and 4 stars for presentation, for an overall rating of 4.5 Stars

You can get this creepy, atmospheric horror adventure here on DrivethruRPG.

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