Trouble at Durbenford (initial scratchings...)
Durbenford has a fairly complex background/plot. It seems that when the world was young, it was ruled by this titan named Rynas. Apparently the Greek mythos sort of Titan, sort of god-like. Anyway, the evil people of the world didn't like this titan, so they ended up fighting him, led by an Ogre who had Orcus's sword. The battle was sort of a draw, with everyone getting killed and the sword lost, or at least, out of the hands of the evil guys, and into that of the good guys, the Celestials.
Rather than taking this super-evil artifact someplace and hide it, it seems the Celestials simply decided to leave it where it was, in the mountains near Durbenford, and put guards on it for the rest of eternity. But fairly wussy guards.
This artifact provides about half the plot for Trouble With Durbenford. The other half (or more like 3/4s) revolves an indisdious plot by an evil (is there any other kind?) Druid to drug people. It seems this drug makes people work harder.
Durbenford gets about 20 pages devoted to itself. Though not explaining why it's called "Durbenford", since while there are "Durbens" (that's the name of the ruling family), it seems to be nowhere near a "ford" or even a river.
You get a very basic map (very computer looking, with cookie cutter buildings) a few prominent NPCs, and keyed locations for their houses. A few other locations are mentioned - a brothel, an inn, and a shop.
Anyway, the adventure basically consists of 4 parts: Retrieve the evil artifact; Discover the evil Druid making the drug and kill him; Fight the gang distributing the drug; Defeat the evil villain behind both plots. The last two sort of run together a bit.
Before the first part, though there's a handful of sort of mini-adventures. One is solving the problems of 2 local farmers. The most detailed involves an evil, almost Cthulhu style cult, and a raid on its stronghold. Another deals with an imprisoned, hidden, sleeping Chimera that may or may not get released depending on the PCs actions (or inaction). I would have liked more of these, and less of the main quest.
The retrieval of the evil artifact consists of 3 dungeon levels and not quite 30 pages, so this section is perhaps comparable to the standard 32 page dungeon crawl module in length. It's sort of a weird place, because you have all these evil critters and Celestials living there. The Celestials to guard the evil artifact to keep evil critters from getting it, and the evil critters are just sort of chillin' (I actually have no idea why they are there, other than simply squatting).
One level has a puzzle which really reminds me of something from a computer game. They have to find the 3 parts of the magical phrase, and then say it in the correct order. But if they say it in the wrong order, it disappears form their memory, and they have to go back and read each phrase again. Although this is unlikely (since the phrase only makes sense one way), this is potentially something that would really annoying players.
Once they get the evil artifact, the PCs are supposed to hand it over to an NPC (one they haven't actually met). Many players would find this somewhat troubling, I mean, why should they turn over an incredibly evil artifact to someone they don't know, and thus could in fact be evil himself. But that gets put on the backburner, as the PCs are then expected to go fight the drug problem.
Once they off the Druid, they presumably go after the group behind. This involves raiding their base in town, then moving on to their secret hideout behind a waterfall.
Lastly, you get some apendices.
The most notable is one on new monsters, and monsters that have been updated to 3.5 from 3.0 from the Tome of Horrors. Nothing terribly exciting. Nilbogs (which I really hate), some daemons and demodands (blah), the vegepygmies (whee!).
Also one on magic items. I liked one of the new magic items, and instant mansion. Sort of like the instant fortress, but it's an instant hovel. But inside the hovel is really a mansion, thanks to the power of extradimensional magic.
The book's layout is okay, but nothing special. All the stats are in an appendix in back, but instead of directing you to an exact page number, it just says something like, "See the appendix". Never mind the appendix is 25 pages of wall to wall statblocks and thus not exactly easy to find the monster or NPC in question. The proofreading is good - I noticed a couple of typos and editing gaffes, one fairly major one which gives the sentence the opposite meaning, but other than that, not too bad.
The book features some artwork by Brian Leblanc, who is in my opinion, the best artist working in d20 these days, if not RPGs in general. I love his stuff. It's not entirely his work, I guess his stuff is about 1/3, but the rest of the interior stuff is quite good.
The cover is sort of eh. Not great, but not bad. (Why they never get Brian Leblanc to do the cover, I dunno. Almost all the covers of Necromancer Games stuff is unremarkable)
I would have liked to have seen portraits of more of the NPCs. Or at least, portraits near the writeups of the NPCs. In some cases, the NPCs don't have much in the way of physical description (for instance, one key NPC is described as "a slender half-orc of unremarkable features"), so a picture to show the players would have been nice. Otherwise I pretty much have to pull an actor or actresses name randomly to describe them. "He looks like Fess Parker".
I have to say, I really didn't like this product much. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't all that good, either. I was expecting a product of the same quality as the previous site based adventures from Necromancer, like The Grey Citadel or the Vault of Larin Karr, and it's simply not.
My trouble with Durbenford is essentially fourfold. First off, it's not particularly generic, and thus I am unable to fit it into my campaign world. I wish the back of the book blurb told more about the actual plot, so I wouldn't have bought it.
Call me crazy, but I don't think "generic" adventures should involve a large kingdom and the politics of it's ruler, including lots of interaction with him. Generic adventures should focus on a much smaller scale, because the smaller, the easier it is to fit in. If you need kingdoms with troubled rulers and rampaging armies and complicated mythologies, then you aren't really generic anymore.
Secondly, it's way too linear. If not a railroad, maybe a slot car. I mean, other than a couple of small side quests at the beginning, there's basically only one route through the module. Based on my past experiences with large Necromancer Games modules, this is unusual - most of them were site based, and the parties could generally either wander around, or if there was a plotline they must follow, it was somewhat non-linear. They could do a few things in any order, then go to the showdown.
In this, they have to do x, then y, then z. This would have made a decent computer RPG scenario, but as a pen & paper one, it's not to my taste, nor my players. Especially as it's for fairly high levels, players expect their PCs to be more active as opposed to reactive.
Thirdly, I would have liked Durbenford to have been fleshed out more. I mean, 11 keyed locations in a city? Most of which are homes? Guess who is going to have to flesh out the city - the DM, ie, me. A random chart doesn't really cut it. I realize that this would have taken space from something else, but why not rip out the useless mythology that no one can possibly use? (Since Necromancer Games hasn't released their own setting yet).
Forthly, there's a lot of little nitpicky stuff that doesn't make sense to me. For instance, why would Celestials (or a plucky group of clerics) put a horribly pervasive artifact near a large town or pristine forest, full of cute and fuzzy animals. Why not, say, in the middle of nowhere? A desert, a great big mountain (ie, the Himalaya sort), an uncharted island. Or why not ask the Celestials nicely to take it out in space someplace. The possibilities are endless, just about, given how big the D&D universe is.
The whole drug plot doesn't make much sense. If you simply want harder workers, just use real zombies with the animate dead spell. It also says the drug is only used in out of the way small villages in hamlets (which is itself pointless, since they wouldn't really produce much in the way of goods to begin with), but the only village in the game that uses is, happens to be on the only navigable river in the area, and gets a lot of ship and barge traffic. Wouldn't they notice that the villagers are basically drugged to their eyeballs? Based on some of my experiences in college, this is actually something people do notice and comment on.
So, both plot points are basically unbelievable. Plus there is minor stuff, for instance, there's a group of "Mire Rangers" who do nothing but guard this swamp which is ruled by a vampire Druid. Which is somewhat dubious to begin with, since why should they? (They aren't even good alignment). But they actually happen to be more powerful than the vampire Druid they are guarding. They are 14th level (and there are 3 of them) and the Vampire Druid has a challenge rating of 13. Now admittedly, it wouldn't be an easy fight, but if they teamed up with someone, mostly a cleric, it wouldn't be that tough. And did I mention they ride giant bears? (Swamp bears, apparently.)
Plus, at the conclusion, the PCs are supposed to use incriminating documents they find proving the King was behind the whole drug scheme (or at least approved of it) to force him to abdicate in favor of his non-evil son. But, why on earth would a king do that? Why wouldn't he just simply order the PCs to be seized and imprisoned? I mean, an evil king has an evil scheme. How shocking! That's what evil kings do. In a monarchy, a king is basically answerable to no one - if he really pisses people off, his nobles will revolt, or maybe the people. (Plus, as Dan Rather discovered, supposedly incriminating documents are very easy to fake.)
Still, one thing I liked was how the author generally took into consideration that the PCs would have access to spells like speak with the dead and raise dead, telling details that dead NPCs would tell about and whether or not an NPC that dies would choose to come back from the dead or not (and in many cases, if so, giving stats for them).
My first thought was to give it a C-. But the more I thought about it, the more and more I went from "eh" to "wow, I really hate this". Some parts are salvageable, but not that much.