TSR Jam 1999 - The Heart's Final Beat
Author (of the Ravenloft adventure): John W. Mangrum
David "Jester" Gibson
This is a collection of small adventures written for the RPGA and compiled by TSR before it was bought out by Wizards of the Coast before it was bought by Hasbro. It features a variety of settings such as the Forgotten Realms, the Alternity game world, Planescape, and the Dragonlance Fifth Age game in addition to the Ravenloft adventure.
The Ravenloft adventure, The Heart's Final Beat, was written by the encyclopedic John W. Mangrum and was designed to highlight the Champions of the Mist accessory. While short, only 9 pages out of the total 64, the adventure is quite good. It takes place in Darkon shortly after the Grim Harvest when the entire huge Domain was still known as Necropolis and features a wide assortment of story elements. In short it includes the Order of the Guardian, the Unholy Order of the Grave, the Whistling Fiend, the Key to the Abyss, Happy-Scrappy the Wonder Pup, and more.
This adventure is heavily designed to take advantage of the kits in Champions of the Mists offering several opportunities for Ghostwatchers, Cold Ones, Guardian Monks and the like to stand out. It would almost be challenging to do the adventure without said kits. Even other kits such as the Monster Hunter and Psychics have small roles to play and are advantageous to have on the side. For a time the Kargatane had the original characters used in the adventure available at their site but these have long since vanished in the Mists. Something I regret not downloading when I had the chance.
The adventure is laid out simply, almost as a micro-dungeon crawl in a very limited structure. Accompanying this is a small but quite nice map that details the stronghold. Along the way through the crawl the players have to unravel multiple mysteries such as what happened to the monks and what was the suggested secret to destroying the evil artifact known, appropriately, as the Key to the Abyss. This is also all tied into an evil scheme of the Unholy Order of the Grave and a former Kargat vampire who has ties to the past history of the Key. As mentioned Mangrum crams a lot in such a small adventure and yet somehow manages to pull it off without feeling cramped.
The undead in the adventure are nicely done with a touch of personality. Even the ghouls are well done being more than the slavering near-animals they are often portrayed as. Necropolis and the Grim Harvest did much to improve the quality, and quantity, of undead perched to plague the Core. The progression of events during the adventure is also interesting and adds a sense of wrongness and urgency to the players' actions. This is especially true in the final moments when things begin to deteriorate during the zombie battle royale.
The adventure does offer limited player freedom and they have only a very limited course of actions. The progression of events is very linear as the party moves forward through the sanctuary from beginning to end. And at the end there is only one way to survive the encounter and “win”. But this is a very short adventure designed to quickly tell a tale and allow a judgable win or lose for the RPGA.
Included in the adventure are a small series of handouts, a single page of notes to be cut out and passed to players at appropriate times. Nothing special such as flashy maps or fonts that leap out, just simple italicized sections. It would be more atmospheric to copy these out either by hand or onto a computer where they could be prettied up but some DMs might enjoy the ease of reading or find yellowed paper and calligraphy to be distracting. It is nice to have the option. Also included are a number of illustrations that nicely highlight the events. All of these are well done and look good, even the one of the tainted vampire that could almost be considered cartoony, but is how he is described in the text.
One thing I noticed is the back story. These is much of it that would remain a mystery to players unless they caught every clue and paid attention. Even if they did and asked questions beyond what the text suggests they would be hard-pressed to find out the details of say Bralkain's background. This information, while nice for fleshing out the character during improvised speeches, really does not enter the plot. It is still a nice connection and its absenence would only create more problems but it would have been nice if there were some way for the players to discover his motives and it would add more emotional impact to the Whistling Fiend's actions.
Overall a short adventure but a minor part of the book. It is nice for collectors and completists or anyone who finds it for sale at a reasonable price. It would have been nice to have seen more adventures published like this, which could have easily been done given the RPGA's back catalogue of modules. But it is too late now.
Small Ravenloft but good Ravenloft. Three and a half severed digits out of five.
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