There’s a vast diversity of experiences that fall under the big tent of tabletop roleplaying. From different playstyles to games to even venues of play, everyone plays a little bit differently. There are some things that are common at one table and unthinkable at another. And some products, from battlemats to GM screens to even pre-written adventures themselves just aren’t seen at every gaming table. That said, if someone, say, reviewed RPGs for five solid years and had never once ran a pre-written module, you could be forgiven for saying they might be missing out on a common gamer experience. Well, that someone is me, and this month I made a change.
Do not think that the title of this review is a quip about the Troika module The Forest Primordia. I do not call it “My First Module” out of snark, it is literally the first prewritten module I have ever run in a serious game (my attempt to run the Tomb of Horrors doesn’t count, for multiple reasons). I don’t think I’ve ever had anything against modules, but for me the interest in running games was always couched in writing, and using pre-written material always seemed to produce a disconnect where there didn’t need to be one. As a result, it took about twenty years of my RPG career before I decided to give one a whirl.
Let me back up. The Forest Primordia is a Troika module by Heavy Crown Games, and is available on itch.io and Exalted Funeral. It tells the story of one of the many spheres streaking across the humpbacked sky of Troika, a forest world with a massive ziggurat visible from nearly everywhere. Far from the ziggurat is Amaros, the village who eats its god every night, a commune of eclectic characters who live at a leisurely pace thanks to the godmeat which sustains them. Between the ziggurat and the village is the eponymous Forest Primordia, filled with chaos creatures, drunken trees, and all other manner of dangers.
The adventure starts the characters on the pleasure barge The Emerald Vault, captained by the hedonistic and crass Miniferous Vank. When The Emerald Vault mysteriously crashes on the beach near the village of Amaros, Vank is missing, and the characters almost immediately start finding clues that something sinister is afoot.
From there, you’re off to the races. The adventure is fairly self-contained, providing a number of new backgrounds, monsters, and items to expand the locale from what’s available in the Troika core rules. Beyond that the bulk of the material divides out into a hexcrawl with four different zones and four unique keyed locations, one dungeon, and of course the underlying story which the characters are intended to follow.
I did appreciate that the story provides multiple avenues for the characters to find it, and these variances can be driven from a combination of player approaches, GM approaches, and sheer randomness. The two character-heavy areas, the village and the barge, have fairly dense random tables for social encounters, which do allow for a solid variety in how each area can play out.
At a certain point, though, the path of the adventure will collapse and the characters will head to the ziggurat. The ziggurat is the aforementioned dungeon of the adventure, and contained within are most of the key plot points which every group will encounter, given the fair amount of randomness that the hexcrawl and the other keyed locations allow. That also means that it’s the most spoilerful region, and the one I will cover least as a result. The dungeon in this case had some interesting design choices and twists and turns, but it simply funneled down in a way that was, after the first part of the adventure, fairly disappointing.
I’m going to stop right there. To what degree is the linearity I observed in The Forest Primordia simply to be expected in modules? My most recent experiences with modules and their critique has mostly come from Justin Alexander and his excellent rundowns of the first-party Fifth Edition adventures. While I don’t think it’s fair to say he likes none of them, it’s fairly clear based on how he describes the modules as well as his own personal GMing style (put on display in his blog The Alexandrian) that he has to give big allowances to these products in order not to dismiss them entirely. His article on Rime of the Frostmaiden, for example, blends his initial praise with a whole lot of disappointment (“Aha! Just kidding! I was a railroad the whole time!”). The baseline for pre-written material, at least in the most popular RPGs, is very low.
And to be fair, The Forest Primordia in a lot of ways transcends that baseline. Pretty much every part but the dungeon is written through dense random tables which give a huge amount of both leeway and sheer material to make the Emerald Vault, Village of Amaros, and Forest Primordia interesting. And even though the dungeon does lead inexorably to a binary conclusion of the module, it does at least offer interesting stuff that happens along the way. I know ‘interesting stuff’ is a copout, but as I think the module is worth buying and playing, I do need to avoid spoilers to at least some degree. And I’d be spoiling some really neat NPCs and, if not exactly a mystery, a twist that most players should grab onto. In the end, though, it is a funnel, though funnels are arguably better than railroads.
As far as the experience of running a module actually went…my immediate thought is that, at least in the context of an OSR-adjacent game, I get it. I get why pre-written modules are popular. I ran the module over two sessions and my entire prep for both was…reading the module. I not only cut my prep time to a quarter (less?) of what it usually is, I also could with that nominal prep run several combats in both sessions and not be vexed by the sinking feeling that I was, to put it bluntly, pulling it out of my ass. The same could be said for introducing interesting NPCs…knowing that I had something for everywhere the characters went reduced my stress level and made GMing a game I had run only once before feel as easy as one of my home games in one of my favorite systems.
There’s a secondary benefit when you consider that for a system like Troika, the fact that so many setting touchstones are implied but not nailed down can be maddening. The Forest Primordia not only made it easier to run Troika and feel like Troika along the way, but it provided a very good example of what an adventure site in Troika actually looks like. The sample adventure in the core book, “The Blancmage and Thistle”, takes place in a hotel and though it sets the tone right it provides little context about the world beyond. Weird fantasy is a hard genre to pin down because it’s, well, weird, and Troika unfortunately is less pinned down than its other weird fantasy peers, Electric Bastionland/Into the Odd and Ultraviolet Grasslands. The Forest Primordia is done by someone who gets the genre which in turn helped me get the genre.
In the end, I came to a split conclusion. The Forest Primordia is a really solid module which packs a lot into its pages. You can play it like my friends did, as a fairly straightforward adventure, or you could spend quite a bit more time around Amaros. The adventure has a lot of potential encounters in its charts, and could definitely serve up more playtime than my group had. That said, it is a one-shot candidate if your group is together once and you just want a night of weirdness. Although the module does eventually funnel down into a single dungeon with a single final encounter, the amount of breadth and flexibility it shows up to that point is impressive. If you’re looking for a Troika module, I’d recommend checking out The Forest Primordia.
On the other side of the coin, my first module did not convince me I’m missing anything by not using pre-written modules or settings. The ease I had with running the module was nice, don’t get me wrong, but I still think the additional work required to write your own material is easily outweighed by your personal ability to not only be flexible but also tailor whatever’s happening to your group and where they are. Beyond that, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there are games which are simply easier to prep and run; although running The Forest Primordia was way easier than prepping for my Cyberpunk Red campaign or even Electric Bastionland, running pretty much any PbtA game is still easier and, given an involved group, just as interesting. In running a module I definitely gained an appreciation for what they add, not just in terms of prep but in terms of seeing someone else’s take on the setting and things you may not have thought of. There are definitely times where I could see myself using modules for inspiration or to expand the palette of a campaign; there’s a lot of fascinating writing out there, especially in the OSR and in weird science settings like that of Troika. At the end of the day though, when I’m sitting down and running my game with my group, I’m probably going to keep doing things the way I’ve been doing them.
Thanks to creator John Kordosh for sending us a copy of The Forest Primordia to play through and review, and thanks to Fae and Dan for joining us on the Emerald Vault so we could see what the adventure had to offer! – Ed.
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