Review: The Pearls of Pohjola from Expeditious Retreat Press

So, turns out I’m an intelligent bear.

Also, let it be known that Expeditious Retreat Press is made of awesome.

The Pearls of Pohjola is the thirteenth adventure module in Expeditious Retreat Press’ series of one-on-one adventures. They’re modules meant to be played by the Dungeon Master and a single player. They used to come out under the D20 System Licence, and as of the twelfth module, using the Pathfinder rules. There’s also a nifty compendium of the first ten adventures converted to Pathfinder, including the infamous #6.66, The Pleasure Prison of the B’thuvian Demon Whore.

The module is written by Suzi Yee, who was the Guest of Honour at Ropecon 2009, and, indeed, the module begins with a note that it is in part a thanks to us, the organizers.

There are also a lot of less explicit references to the convention. While this is nominally a review, I cannot quite maintain objectivity, since I’m in a position to spot most of the inside jokes and references that the module is quite liberally sprinkled with. I’m pretty sure I’m one of them. Apart from the rampant inside humour which about twenty people in the world are privy to, the module has a loose Kalevala fantasy theme. So as not to bog down the body of the review, I’m covering the in-jokes and references at the end. This, by the way, is totally awesome.

Here there also be SPOILERS. If you intend to play this module in the future, stop reading now.

The Adventure

The adventure itself is pretty straightforward and even railroaded at certain points. Actually, the level of railroading occasionally reaches completely absurd levels, but the module does make an attempt at justifying this. I am not entirely certain it works, but it is an interesting idea.

There are many areas that could have been fleshed out in more depth, but I’m giving them a pass on this one as well, since there isn’t all that much room to work with. As I mentioned, the whole booklet is  just 20 pages, which actually strikes me as a bit odd page count, since they tend to come in multiples of eight – 16, 32, 64, 96 and 128 are normal page counts. Something to do with printers, as I understand. I gather this is also the reason that paperback novels sometimes have empty pages in the back. But I digress.

The Pearls of Pohjola is written for a single character, a sorcerer of levels 10-12. There is a pregenerated 11th-level elf sorcerer (fey bloodline) provided, named Ressona. There’s a short bit of advice for running it for a group of four characters of levels 6-7, mostly to do with adjusting encounter numbers. Mostly it’s about adjusting the number of enemies and in one case, replacing one with a tougher foe. It looks solid, though the module still has a plot aspect that requires a sorcerer in order to access the last third of the adventure. Depending on party composition, I would relax the requirement to needing just an arcane spellcaster or any spellcaster. Not a big deal, just something I noted.

The adventure can be divided roughly into three parts. The first part begins with the PC on the way across the icy Northland to a distant inn called the Tallinn Tavern. The module pretty much assumes that the PC has some knowledge of the pearls of Pohjola and is seeking them out.

At the tavern, they meet the couple owning the tavern and some travellers, including the bard Sysikuu, who will sing them a song about the adventure background, while playing his dulcimer (which I would change into a kantele, in keeping with the pseudo-Kalevala setting). The backstory is a suitably mythical tale about the ancient king of the northern lands, Pohjola, and his three daughters, who ended up trapped inside the pearls of Pohjola, a pearl necklace, because of the villainy of a hag follower of Louhi.

The poem is provided, and is a passable piece of work, though were I to run this, I’d of course translate it into Finnish, in trochaic tetrameter. I’m not entirely sure the metric scheme works here.

Anyway, in the night, there’s a werewolf attack, led by a werewolf chieftain who wants to pillage the inn’s booze cellar. The next day, the travellers from the Tavern and the PC go to meet a tribe of intelligent bears called the Jukkas. They’re all called Jukka. The PC petitions the Jukkas to guide him to a spellgate that would take her to the pearls of Pohjola. This is a nifty social scene that has a number of trials and ways to stack bonuses on a Diplomacy check. There is a way to proceed even if the check is botched, and interestingly, it’s possible to stack enough circumstantial bonuses to exceed the actual DC of the check and make rolling unnecessary. This is not easy, though. This scene is very well put together.

The gate takes the PC to a tropical island far from the snowy Northlands, where she has to find the pearls of Pohjola, which is inside a giant clam in the surrounding coral reef. There are also hostile iridescent corals in the reef, which will give chase. I found this a bit strange, especially since they are presented without any comment.

Once the PC has found the pearls, she has to interpret a clue from the poem and enter them. The final section of the adventure takes place inside the pearls of Pohjola, and consists of a hilariously railroaded series of tasks that the PC must accomplish before facing the BBEG. It’s like an old Sierra adventure game. There’s a specific task you must do, and before you accomplish it, there are actual invisible walls preventing you from proceeding to the next pearl. The railroading is justified and explained by the fact that this is a magical prison meant to test the mettle of the hero who would free the daughters. As I said above, I am not entirely convinced that it works, but it’s an interesting experiment.

The end fight is straightforward, though the PC gets two NPC warriors to aid her.

Overall, though it’s not perfect and I have a few minor problems with the way things are presented, I like this module and may eventually run it, if opportunity presents itself.

Inside Humour

Now, the fun part – scratch that, the awesome part – at least for the Ropecon team… I probably didn’t get every in-joke and reference, but I think I got most of them. On my first reading of the module, I was giggling maniacally.

Let’s start with the name of the module, The Pearls of Pohjola. ‘Pohjola’ is a nation in the Finnish national epoch Kalevala, but it is also the name of the Finnish RPG designer Mike Pohjola.

The first part of the module takes part in the Tallinn Tavern. Tallinn, of course, is the capital city of Estonia. However, as we remember from my convention report last year, we also took our guests of honour there. The menu of the tavern supper is pretty much exactly what we ate at Olde Hansa. I can’t place all the NPCs here, such as the innkeeper Otto, his wife Olli (also a male name, incidentally), or the eastern traveller Stefan, but the bard Sysikuu (meaning Dark Moon) is a reference to the troll rock band from the Neonhämärä (Neon Twilight) LARP campaign.

The werewolf attack is led by the werewolf Timo, which would be Timo Multamäki, LARP organiser, game designer and a member of the GoH team. His motivation to pillage the booze cellar, and a magic item he carries, Skoda’s liquor cabinet, refer to our trip to the liquor warehouse. I do not recall if either of our cars for the trip were Skodas.

The daughters of Pohjola are named as Marjatta, Katri and Outi. Marjatta is a character from Kalevala. Katri and Outi are members of the GoH team.

Then there are the Jukkas, the clan of intelligent bears. This is in reference to the fact that there were two guys named Jukka in the main organizing committee of Ropecon and a third one in the GoH team. The other two Jukkas are now chief organizers, I’m still the RPG admin. I joked that there are so many Jukkas that I had to relinquish my name and go by an online nickname because the others had seniority.

The trials of the Jukkas include the Trial of Strength, which is a wrestling match. The specific description matches what previous GoHs, Jonathan Tweet, Kenneth Hite and John Kovalic, have described as “Naked Indian Wrestling”.

One of the NPCs inside the pearls is a cheesemaker named Wizzu. Wizzu is the nickname of one of the chief organisers from last year. He’s now our technology admin.

Finally, the two warriors who accompany the PC to the end fight are Antti and Petri. Petri was a member of the GoH team and is leading it this year, while Antti is probably a reference to Antti Malin, another guest of honour from last year – the 2008 Magic: the Gathering World Champion.

In the interests of full disclosure, I paid full cover price for this module. Twice, actually, since I first bought a hardcopy from Fantasiapelit, gifted it to a member of the GM team, and then purchased the PDF. I’ve actually ordered a new hardcopy for myself.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Pearls of Pohjola from Expeditious Retreat Press

  1. To answer a few inside-joke questions, Timo’s car was a Skoda, the NPCs you couldn’t place had no real world correlates, Wizzu’s a cheesemaker because he cracked a joke about being one of many “big cheese’s” at dinner one day.

    Glad you enjoyed reading it. We thought it would be the most fitting way of saying thanks for the wonderful experience of visiting Finland and the great fun we had at RopeCon.

    joe b.

  2. Pingback: Ropecon taipuu yhden pelaajan D&D -seikkailuksi « Ropecon -blog

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