Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.
A Spy in the House of Eth is a sixty page module by Zedeck Siew for Best Left Buried. Full disclosure: Zedeck and I were talking on discord, and this module came up, so he comped me a copy.
I’ll come right out and say the layout and typography doesn’t do this module any favours, for me at least. Formatting varies a lot within the text, intended to make things easier to read, but is a bit much and results in a less legible text. Certainly, the Best Left Buried boxed stat blocks could be a quarter of the size or even just bracketed, and it would make for easier reading. In this module, it feels like combat will play a relatively lower role in the proceedings and it gets more attention than it deserves. The bigger problem is the heading size and typeface choices, which make it genuinely difficult to identify and read subject changes. I struggled moving through the text in a way that I didn’t need to, especially as there is a lack of front-ended structural guidance aside from the map and the identification of the four major points of interest at the top of the table of contents.
The writing itself, however is firing on all cylinders with regards to imagination, evocativeness and terseness. There’s very little here that I’d come up with myself (Dugong-folk with Man ‘o War slaves), and they are brief and specific enough that my imagination immediately snowballs into asking “What’s next?”. This level of imagination continues throughout the book; the value of sixty pages of surprises can’t be overstated. This is the kind of writing where I want to keep quoting the best bits. Especially appreciated are the many, “oh, and —” surprises, where an already interesting idea is given depth and life in a later table or entry (kingfishers laying eggs, for those in the know).
Document structure is an ongoing challenge I think when writing sandboxes and hexcrawls. There’s a threefold difficulty here: This is a play-space intended to thrive when play is undirected, so there is no true beginning, no true ending, and must be left open for various approaches. So, where do you start?
Zedeck’s answer here is to detail the various factions that inhabit the world, and then follow up with the locations. I think this is a reasonable approach. Most authors would decide to place NPCs in an appendix, but these are interesting and exciting foundations for a campaign and fronting them is a great idea to hook you. I’d be interested to know his reasoning behind the order of the locations displayed in the book, because to me this is where the scaffolding falls down. As a GM wanting to run this sandbox, the most logical place to start it isn’t in the northeastern wilderness of the map where the fourth point of interest is, but rather at the major port in the southwest which is proximate to two points of interest. What is happening with Weiren Oils is interesting, but it’s not the first interesting thing the PCs are likely to encounter. Encounters and connections are well indicated with page references, however, which makes it much easier to navigate.
What would I change? Firstly, while I appreciate the subtlety of the gradually unraveling mysteries, a summary page would be appreciated, given you need to get a decent chunk of the way into the book before even meeting a spy. Secondly, more direction for where and when to start or hook the party would be beneficial, given the structure implies a northeastern route, but the southwestern one makes more sense but also puts you in the path of greater danger. In every new location, there’s a list of “What is here?”. If these lists were cherry-picked out and placed next to or on the map, I think the connections and goals of the locations be easier to run.
An example of the document structure betraying its own intentions is the placement of a key, ever-evolving hell-pollutant on page fifty-five. A very brief rule is here that describes how the greed-driven colonisation of hell has caused hell to seep into our reality, destroying and replacing what is there. This is one of two major storylines reflecting the overall themes of the piece, but I’ve already read much of the book without consideration of it. Better placed forward, or summarised early.
The spiel on the back of the book doesn’t do a great job of selling what’s in the book in my opinion; it’s a bit vague regarding the specifics of what you’re exploring the hexcrawl for; these specifics are interesting though, but they’re really well buried in implication within the module. I think that the fact that this is set in a colonised land, features hellish pollutions destroying the environment caused by the invaders, features slaves in an uprising against their owners, and that the players are asked to pick sides, places this module in a unique position that isn’t well stated outside the text itself. It’s a message that took 60 pages to communicate and would take many sessions to play through, but probably needs to be summarised for the sake of selling to the table and for ease of play.
Overall, Spy in the House of Eth is a powerhouse of evocative writing and conceptual density, hamstrung by a lack of scaffolding to step into the world and to navigate it. If you’re happy to expect to read sixty pages closely and take notes to run it (let’s face it, plenty of modules ask more, I’m a harsh critic), this is one of the better longer modules I’ve read, and I’d recommend it.
16th April, 2023