Secrets Of Shirakawa Castle – Review Part 2

An RPG Module Review

Module NameThe Secrets of Shirakawa Castle

AuthorsRCG Harlow/Rosemary CG (Same person. First link goes to her stuff on DM’s Guild, second link goes to her twitter.)

System/Character Level – DND 5E for 4-6 Level 4 players

Price – $4 (We were given a review copy for free.)

Well, there was a three week gap between this and our part one review, which is… sub-optimal. But life happens, things go on, and most importantly, we did finish the adventure!

If you want to read the first part of the review, you can find it here.

If you want to read our DM’s thoughts on running the module, you can find part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Two brief notes before we really dive into this article.

This article will contain spoilers for the module. We’re reviewing it, and we can’t review it without talking about the content. Which means spoilers. You have been warned.

There’s also one part of the module that’s not quite fair for me to review. I’ll go into why later, but to put it simply things went a bit off the rails as the end. Who’d have thunk?

Overall, my opinion on Shirakawa remains more or less the same as it did part one: it’s a strong module where the NPC’s are written well, and it has a bunch of interesting monsters that are outside of the traditional fare of role-playing games.

The module’s primary weakness is that it gets a bit linear near the very end. It also feels like most of the combat gets a little less brutal as things go on.

I say ‘most of the combat,’ because my players didn’t actually do the final fight. They mostly just surrendered to become slaves/concubines of the big bad. So yeah, guys, I love you, but god damnit. I even made custom tokens for the fight and everything. And then you all just surrendered into slavery to quasi-immortal fox demon in the shape of a women.

Really?

Really guys?

Even after she told you that she EATS PEOPLE? And was going to eat the 13 year she had taken hostage?

This is why I don’t feel super confident assessing the combat: because it’s quite possible that if your players don’t fall head over heels for this fox lady, it’s going to end up being a brutal battle.

I wouldn’t know because mine offered to be her slaves and/or concubines. I think a lot of stories have a hero who falls to the dark side, but I don’t think many of them have heroes who just fall for the dark side.

In either case, everyone enjoyed playing the module. If you have a few bucks to spare, I’d highly suggest picking it up. The ending is well written, as long as your players at least like… try to defeat the final boss, but I wouldn’t know. It does set up another one shot, Return to Shirakawa Castle, where I’m gonna make them face off against their old PC’s.

Other then that, I don’t have too much else to say. I’m gonna close out this article with some uploaded images of the maps I made for some of the fights. Feel free to use them if you end up running the module on your own.

Central Castle Area
River running through small forest with bloody footprints
Large destroyed house in middle of grove, with dead trees above it, and alive trees and a path leading to the house below.

Running Secrets Of Shirakawa Castle – DM Thoughts Part 2

We finished Shirakawa Castle! Here’s where I screwed up running the game.

Whoof. Secrets of Shirakawa castle, finally finished. While the module is strong, there are a few places where I feel like I massively screwed up, or could have run things much better. Our actual review is up over here, but lets talk about running the module shall we?

This post will have specifics on running the module, and spoilers. While the other post talks about the module as a whole, this post is just talking about things that I wish I had done differently.

#1. Sei – The Friendly NPC
One of the things I feel like I really suck at the most is having NPC’s with the party, and Sei is a fantastic example of this. Sei’s role in the adventure is to be sorta guide/hint source to the players, while also providing flavor, a bit of lore, and in one situation, combat backup.

However, because I was afraid of using Sei too much, I didn’t actually use them in a single combat encounter, which meant there were multiple encounters where they were just sorta…. standing to the side, and then going “Oh yeah, that thing you just fought. It was a X/Y/Z.” I think that if I wanted Sei to be a more active part of the game, I needed to include them in combat, and to actually have them be a critical part of the team, so that their reveals of their backstory and other such things feel meaningful.

What would I do differently? I think I’d try to have Sei help the party more in certain situations, and decide how they’d react to various things in advance. The players need to care about Sei for some parts of the story to be meaningful, and that means including them in combat. It might even be possible to turn them into a semi-PC if I was to run the module again. I don’t know if this would solve the problem, but I think it might be better.

#2. Managing the NPC’s
Being a social deduction module, Secrets of Shirakawa Castle has quite a few NPC’s, and they’re written quite well, including a very strong list of relationships and such at the back of the module. Each of them has information, secrets, and other such knowledge….

So when I forgot about two of them that was a problem. A big problem, when they’re supposed to be used as a key part of revealing the last bit of the mystery.

Whoops.

What would I do differently?
There are a lot of NPC’s. If I was to run the module again, I’d would make sure to introduce all of them, and for the ones that the players don’t encounter, have them run into them either at the bath house, dinner, or some other point. The players need to meet them. And since there are only a total of seven NPC’s, it wouldn’t be that hard. I’d want to give the players more time to investigate, meet them, and actually get to know them. So when they die, it feels worse.

#3. Running the Module with a Three Week Break

This one wasn’t really my fault, but it was something I failed to consider, and led to some pretty…. rough parts near the end. The module is built on making you care about the NPC’s, and it uses the first half of the module to do this, building up them, their relationships, and their secrets. The last quarter or so is more combat, encounters, and fights, and the weight of those encounters relies on you caring about those who have been murdered.

What would I do differently?
This one is simple. Secrets should be run as either a 6-7 hour one-shot, or if split into parts, the DM needs to find a way to bring the players back, and make them care about the NPC’s again. This might mean improvising or filler, but not using the NPC’s is a big waste of potential of the module.

Final Thoughts – Running Shirakawa well requires the players to buy into the story and the world. As the DM, if you screw up the people, you screw up the module. If I were to run the module again, I would want to focus on the people, their stories, and make sure I don’t miss anyone. Running a game is always a learning experience, and I hope next time I do a better job.

Take care of yourself folks.

Tiny Towns – More Board Games!

A simple looking and enjoyable board game about making a better town then everyone else.

Another week inside, another board game! I actually ended up playing Tiny Towns about a week ago at this point, but it was a bunch of fun, so it’s still worth talking about. You can find the game here.

So lets talk about the game. Why is Tiny Towns fun? Well, at part because everyone is on the same playing field. In Tiny Towns, each player has a 4×4 grid, and on your turn, you choose a resource, and place it on a square on your board. Each square can only have one resource, and you’re trying to use this to complete patterns to make a building. When you finish a pattern, you remove the resource squares from the board, and place a building on one of the squares that you removed resources from to make the building.

Which is all very simple, except for one little thing: Whenever any player selects a resource, every other player takes one as well. And you will almost always have to immediately place it. So all of a sudden, two things are happening. The board is a lot smaller, and the selection of building material becomes very important. What are your opponents going to take? Does it look like they need wheat, so you can grab stone? Will giving them brick let them finish another building?

Now, if you’re thinking “Why doesn’t everyone just build the same exact thing?”, I was wondering that too. And that’s where a mechanic I haven’t mentioned yet comes in: Secret Buildings.

Each player starts the game with a single secret building. On the whole, theses buildings can swing the balance of the game quite a decent amount just based on their point value, which is pretty good. Even more importantly though, you can use them to throw off your opponents on what you’re planning to build, and what resource you might be choosing on your turn.

So, that’s your overview of the mechanics. So why is it fun? Well, in part because it’s straightforward. I’ve mentioned I like systems where you make a simple choice with complex outcomes. On your turn, you will pick a building material, place it, and then build buildings. And that’s it. There is no upgrade phase, there are no special materials that act as wildcards, just three simple actions. In choosing your material you have to deal with both what you’re trying to build while figuring out what it gives your opponents. At least for me, a lot of the fun of the game is in trying to read other players boards, and figure out what material they’re going to pick.

Oh, and the game is quite fast. I think the round we played was under 30 minutes? I enjoyed it quite a lot. Thanks for reading, and if you have board game suggestions for stuff to play while we’re all locked up trying to not die, please feel free to hit us up on our Twitter!

RPG Module Review – The Secrets of Shirakawa Castle

A fantastic adventure, that pulls from a set of folklore and stories that really don’t get much chance to shine in tabletop RPGs.

Module NameThe Secrets of Shirakawa Castle

AuthorsRCG Harlow/Rosemary CG (Same person. First link goes to her stuff on DM’s Guild, second link goes to her twitter.)

System/Character Level – DND 5E for 4-6 Level 4 players

Price – $4 – (We were given a review copy for free.)

This post will serve as part one of two of the Shirakawa Castle review. As such, its mostly spoiler free. While none of the plot beats are discussed, there may be some info about the types of Yokai encountered, the beings infesting said castle. Read at your own risk! So, lets get started shall we?

There are two big things about Shirakawa Castle that I think might turn people off, and that’s a real shame, because it’s a ton of fun. Graphically, the module doesn’t look amazing. There are no splash screens of amazing art, there are no bright colors. It looks like a word document. The second thing is the names. I’ll talk about this a bit more later, but I really wish a pronunciation guide/glossary was included. Tengu is easy enough to say. Osakabe-Hime, Yamatai, even the namesake of the castle, Shirakawa, not so much. One of the big pieces of feedback I during a post-game wrap up is that some of my players couldn’t remember who was who regarding the human family members.

So, now that we’ve gotten those small issues out of the way, how does the rest of the module play? Well, it’s a ton of fun! For starters, nothing in the module feels like a traditional monster. There’s no goblins or orcs. Instead, you get a menagerie of strange and bizarre creatures, including a giant foot that demands to be washed, a three tailed cat, kappas, and super small group of creatures called Yanari, tiny little men that like to cause havoc.

The module gives each of these their own statblock, attacks, descriptions, and even gives a bit of info about their behavior. To me, the Yokai are one of the strongest parts of the module, brimming with personality, and with interesting mechanics. The aforementioned Yanari for example, have the ability to swarm up a character and tie them to the ground. Each creature has something special about it, and also tends to have its own unique weakness, as you might expect from something of myth. In addition, most of the encounters can be handled non-violently, if you have players who would prefer to talk things out.

The module isn’t all combat encounters however. Players will most likely spend a decent portion of time exploring the titular castle, and interacting with it’s inhabitants. And this is where one of my second favorite things about this module comes in: The NPC Profiles.

Most of the time, when you get an NPC profile, you tend to get a few traits, or maybe a background. Shirakawa Castle does both of these, and then goes beyond, laying out for the DM the relationships each of the characters has with each other. Since a large portion of the module is investigation, this is a lifesaver when it comes to things like whose sleeping with who, or remembering grudges or problems. For me, this is one of the strongest parts of the module, since it prevents any sort of “Wait, but X said that Y is…” or stuff of that nature. For me, it made the NPC’s far more real then just being servants at the castle, or the lord, or the lady. And it made it much easier to roleplay them. It also prevents the problem of “Well, I thought they would encounter this NPC here, but instead X,Y,Z happened, what would they say?” Combined with the monsters, this is what really sells the module to me.

I’ll post part two of this review after we finish the module, but overall, my players had a ton of fun. While the module might look a little amateurish at a glance, the level of detail in the monsters and NPC’s mark it as anything but. It’s a fantastic adventure, that pulls from a set of folklore and stories that really don’t get much chance to shine in tabletop RPGs. That isn’t say it is perfect, but it’s weak points are only in presentation, and a few additional things that would be nice to have. If your players are board of facing the monsters of European myth, or you want a great mystery module with varied and interesting combat, I’d definitely recommend.

Afterword: I’d usually put my thoughts on running the module down here, with things I could have improved/changed, etc. But because this post is so long, and this review will be in two parts, with more specifics and spoilers in the second one, I’m gonna split those out into their own post. But yeah, players really liked it, I had a ton of fun running it.

Single Player “Cheating”

The game I’ve been playing the most recently is the new Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I’ll be writing a bit more about it later, but something interesting came up in it recently, so that’s what this post will be about.

For a bit of context, I would consider Animal Crossing to be a fairly casual game. It has a huge amount of customization and content, and things to do, but it’s much more of a simulation game then anything. The game on the whole is fairly non-punishing. Your town will never get hit by a tornado. You will never get robbed. No one will steal your identity and use it to take out fake credit cards in your name, etc.

So when I say casual, what I mean is more or less the following: The game will not punish you for failing to learn its mechanics, and it also has no real win condition. If you are enjoying playing Animal Crossing, you are winning. You are having fun. It’s more akin to a toy/lego set. You can’t lose at LEGO’s. You can put something together wrong, or different, but you can then just take it apart and start over, and there’s no real punishment for it, except in terms of time investment, and again, as long as you have fun, it’s fine.

So…. can you cheat in Animal Crossing? Well, maybe. It depends on how you interpret “cheating” in a primarily single player game where you can’t lose in a traditional manner.

See, there are two main gates in Animal Crossing to interacting with new content. They are in-game time, and in-game money. Money in Animal Crossing is earned by selling things, and there are more and less efficient ways to get it. Time however, is tied to your game system time. And when I say in-game time, I don’t mean “Oh, wait a week, wait a day”. Some things don’t show up except during certain months. Some things don’t show up except during various seasons. So, if you’re willing to change your the time on your system, you can more or less warp around and massively speed things up, manipulate the prices of in-game items, and perform other such tricks.

For me, that feels like cheating. Right? For me, if you’re willing manipulate the games parameters to that extent, then you might as well just cheat. But when I reached out to some friends, I heard a few different things.

One friend told me they didn’t consider anything cheating in a single player game, and that for multiplayer, it really only counted as cheating if it everyone involved didn’t agree to it. Another said that as long as it was in the unmodified game, it was fine. So, for them, time travel is fine because it doesn’t involve actually hacking the game, just making changes to the settings of the hardware you play it.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion I had was with a friend who actually makes games. For him, whether or not something was cheating was heavily dependent on the intention of the game designers, and the intended role that something was supposed to play as a mechanic. He didn’t consider it to be cheating in Animal Crossing to time travel, as long as you didn’t go back in time, because, well, it doesn’t make sense to go backwards in time narratively, but forwards is fine.

I think the big takeaway for me is that what people consider cheating is a lot more varied then I had expected, even in digital games where you would expect the automatic enforcement of the rules to be automated. But I’m also surprised by how different the reasoning behind those standards were.

Woof! Long post. Less theory, more games for the next one, and stay safe out there folks.

Murder at Moonveil Manor

An RPG Module Review

Module NameMurder At Moonveil Manor

AuthorsVall SyreneMogman Dubloon (Links go to other stuff they’ve made.)

System/Character Level – DND 5E/4-6

Price – Pay What You Want

I was trying to figure out what to write about when a little voice told me “Why not write about one of the modules you played/ran somewhat recently?” I replied “Great idea little voice” and then the voice told me I should maybe disconnect from the voice chat for the moment and work on the blog post. So! Here we are, Murder At Moonveil Manor, a 5E module for characters level 4-6, though I think that if the players were all level 4, you’d want at least 4 people in the party to avoid a TPK. Some of the combat encounters can be a bit brutal. Also, I’m going abbreviate the title to MMM because typing the whole thing out is pretty long.

So, MMM is a neat mostly self contained encounter that can probably be slotted in almost anywhere you might want to put it. As a player, I played through it as part of a Curse of Strahd campaign, where our DM just slotted into the middle/end of the game, in a way that felt mostly like a breather. As a DM, I ran it as a one shot over two sessions when one of our players couldn’t make it for the weekly game, and gave all of them characters that were very different from their normal ones. There were a few reasons for this. 1. It let me play the monsters as brutally as possible. I’ve run into a problem with RPG games where I find them hard to really “teach” some of the more crunchy/mathy mechanics of combat in a good way, because I can’t just kill the players until they learn. Except in a one shot like this, in this situation I can TOTALLY go for the total party kill. And 2. It forced them to play characters that role-wise were very different from their characters, and I think that let me role play them/act them out a bit more.

Both of these runs were played on a set of maps that a friend of mine made, which brings me to my first issue with the module. No maps are included. While this isn’t a huge issue at the start, it becomes more of a problem once you move into later parts of the module, especially the combat bits, and if your players ever end up running around the mansion. I’ll talk a bit more about this later.

MMM sets itself up into six chapters, each chapter being more or less a phase. Acts one and two primarily set the scene, having the players arrive at the manor, meet the others at the dinner party, and then eat dinner. Acts three and four involve the murder of one of the guests, and a start of an investigation into what happened. Acts five and six conclude the story, involving the confrontation with the murderer, and the end of the adventure. As far as gameplay elements go, one and two are primarily roleplay, three is skill checks, and four through six are where the combat encounters begin.

While I think this general structure is fine, the biggest issue I have with the module is the following: MMM tries to be too many things at once, and it suffers for it. While the adventure sets itself up as a murder mystery, it’s really more horror themed then anything else. The problem is, these two themes sorta clash with each other.

The general progression of a mystery is something like this.

  1. Introduce the Characters/Setting
  2. Introduce Conflict between characters
  3. Crime Occurs
  4. Investigation
  5. Confront the Perp

And horror goes something like this.

  1. Characters arrive at location.
  2. Some small strange things happen.
  3. Characters attempt to leave/get help, only to discover they are trapped/bridges have been cut, communications severed, etc.
  4. Characters are picked off one by one, until the single remaining survivor escapes/defeats the threat.

The structure of MMM though, is something like this.

  1. Introduce characters and setting.
  2. Introduce Conflict
  3. Small Strange Things Happen
  4. Crime Occurs
  5. Characters(NPC’s) are picked off one by one
  6. Investigation
  7. Confront the Perp

It doesn’t really follow either structure, and the nature of the game means that both times I’ve played it, I’ve never seen the players attempt to leave the house. The Scooby Gang doesn’t book it back to the mystery machine when a horrible monster shows up, and neither do PC’s. If you put a dead body in front of your players after a dinner, they will assume this is a puzzle for them to solve, not a danger to be avoided.

This becomes a problem because the module wants to set up all the guests, so that you have suspects, but it then procedes to kill them off one by one, meaning that the mystery aspect of the game solves itself. It also means that any effort you put into setting up conflict between the guests ends up being fairly moot, because by the time it switches genres, the players don’t have a huge amount of time to investigate either. (The module also doesn’t give any dialogue suggestions for how to really run the interactions between the NPC’s, and frankly having to role play two NPC’s arguing with each other isn’t too much fun for your players. )

Secondly, of the seven NPC’s only four of them ever really feel like reasonable suspects, and two of those characters get killed off real fast, bringing you back down to two characters. I don’t really consider a coin flip an investigation.

So, does the module do horror well then? Well, sorta. Some parts of the module work really well, including the mimic attack, the mini-book mimics, and the fight with the murderer and the heart of the manor. The other parts not so much.

After part four, the rest of the manor activates, and this leads to traps being placed in each of the manor rooms. ( Again, maps would be nice here. ) Most of these traps are not remotely horrific or supernatural, and will either do one of two things.

  1. Kill the PC’s (Not horrific, just a death. It happens.)
  2. Not kill the PC’s (Also not horrific, they lived, why would it be horrifying?)

In addition the activation of ANY these traps more or less immediately gives away the identity of the murderer to any player/character. ( Because frankly, if I saw a set of stairs turn into a razor blade shredder, my assumption would not be “Hmm, it must be someone who doesn’t own the house” )

The conclusion of the module, a fight against the murder and the animated heart of the manor feels much better, and does a good job of hitting more of that horrific tone. The stat blocks for the manor heart itself are also pretty decent, and seem to have been well thought out. I would say that this conclusion/wrap up are overall the strongest parts of the module as written.

Overall, Moonveil Manor isn’t amazing, and it isn’t terrible. It’s all right, and I can imagine it slotting decently into another. I think the strongest parts of MMM are some of the fights, the few bits of flavor the module actually chooses to include, and the fact that it can most likely be slotted into almost any campaign very easily as a sort of one-shot/breather type game.

If I was to run it again, here’s what I would change up.

  1. Maps for each room. The lack of maps hurts, and I used some made by a friend who was the one who ran me through the first time. This is good, but it makes the whole house into one big things, instead of letting players really be in a location, where a lot of the module is based around encountering and exploring these rooms.
  2. Re-skin the traps. Given that they already give away the identity of the murderer, and the a lot of the flavor text is based around the house being this eldritch horror, I’d replace the sand pit with a gnashing mouth, the blunderbuss with whipping spikes, etc.
  3. Give the PC’s a reason to attend the party, other than “You were invited to a party”. I think this would encourage people to be a bit more interested in the house, and perhaps a bit more proactive about trying to solve things/protect the NPC’s.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll post more of these as I play em/run em.