From Ancient Grudge – Review

An adventure for Lvl 4-5 parties from Winghorn Press. 235338

The party is tasked with clearing a haunted castle of its spooky inhabitants by a local bigwig. To do so, they’ll need to bring an end to a tale of woe that owes a little something to that of Juliet and her poor Romeo.

Disclaimer: My copy of ‘From Ancient Grudge’ was given for review by Winghorn Press himself, Richard M Jansen-Parkes. Who I will refer to as ‘Winghorn’ as it’s shorter. He’s the author of my favourite introductory adventure, The Wild Sheep Chase. Check it out!

The Setting, the Story and the Structure

“Two households, both alike in dignity
In fair Verona Yartar, where we lay our scene
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life  are betrayed
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife  a castle of ghosts is made 

-William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet. Butchering by myself.

Off the shelf and before the DM puts their grubby mitts on it, From Ancient Grudge is an adventure set in the Forgotten Realms, in the town of Yartar. The author has done his research and anyone sticking to by-the-book Faerun will even be able to put this little town in its canonical location. Of course this isn’t necessary (Faerun always has the numbers filed off in my games) but I’m impressed that Winghorn has done the research in the endless stacks of Candlekeep lore. After all, it’s probably a safe bet that most adventurer’s will come straight out of the Mines of Phandelver. Anyway, the agents of Lawful Good need the adventuring party to clear out an ancient fortification and is willing to pay a low-level party of freelancers a reasonable sum for their work.

So at a glance, the central premise of the adventure is solidly familiar. But then you don’t need to reinvent the wheel if you just want to have a fast trip downhill. The openly Shakespearean plot and the interesting encounters make this more than the average dungeon crawl. As the players explore Arevon castle, they’ll uncover the legacy of the bitter feud between the Montague Tomagune and Capulets Talpuce families – and why Romeo & Juliet’s secret marriage was a better bet than creating the perfect Red Wedding scenario. Thankfully, the spirits of the castle will give plenty of opportunities to uncover both the story and putting the dead lovers, their families and their footmen to rest.

At first, you’re just wandering through a creepy but pretty harmless abandoned castle. Hopefully picking up useful clues about just what happened here and how you might solve things. However sooner or later, night will fall and the more dangerous sort of spectre shows up, including Romeo Ricard and Jaleta Juliet themselves. With some help from the ghost of the Nurse Priestess of Sune, the adventurers will (or should) learn that they must finish the interrupted marriage ceremony in a ritual featuring where two members of the party must play the parts of the star-crossed lovers, whilst the rest hold off a horde of ghosts. Complicating all of this further is a sort of gestalt of ghostly hatred, the combined fury of all those whose suffering would be made meaningless by peace between the two houses. After all, what makes a feud more futile than peace?

One thing that might be a problem with this module is how during the day, the adventurers are effectively unmolested by anything worse than a case of the creeps. If you don’t start in media res at the castle itself, you could well lose time with the questgiving portion at the beginning and then end up bogged down in overly cautious exploration of the building itself. Thankfully, Winghorn have come up with a great idea for ensuring the passage of time isn’t entirely arbitrary or overly long. Taking a cue from the board game Betrayal at House on the Hill, it’s suggested that the DM rolls a D12 every time the party enters a new room; if they roll under the number of rooms visited, then The Haunt Begins. I am sure this is from Betrayal because this is literally the exact words used in that great game – and implementing it here for D&D makes for a simple but sweet mechanic that bakes tension right in to the game.

Art and Design

Winghorn makes a pretty book. The design and the layout is clear throughout with sidebars, headings and crisp bodies of text interspersed with fitting artwork sourced from Adobe Stock, all of which is integrated beautifully with the text. The best piece of artwork though is the centrepiece, a commissioned work showing the living (?) embodiment of the ‘Ancient Grudge’ itself. On top of the evocative art (forlorn spectral figures, haunted castles, all that good stuff), there’s some solid maps made via Campaign Cartographer and at the back a nice set of appendices featuring stat blocks, items and handouts carefully crafted to be more fun than plain text. One thing that’s easy to take for granted is how all of this is set in a visual style straight out of the 5E handbooks, creating a nice consistent visual tone for all your D&D needs.

Combat Encounters & Challenge Rating

Winghorn recommends a party of 4-5 adventurers of a similar level and certainly that seems like it would be a good fit for a challenging but probably achievable adventure. The biggest threat is going to come from the nasty stat damage the ‘mook’ spirits of the castle can deal (hope CHA isn’t your dump stat) and the potentially disastrous encounter with the rather brilliant GoldBeast. This is a nice non-ghostly threat that players might not even encounter – but almost certainly will since it looks like a pile of 200GP. Anyway, the GoldBeast is tough and a party that doesn’t play it smart here will struggle with the climactic battle.

Speaking of which, the battle is probably the point where things would go awry for anyone. I’d encourage a short rest in the ‘safe zone’ of the Sune shrine prior to the ritual and hand over control of Mother Laurent to the party. Not only will the party have to fulfill the ceremony, they’ll be facing as many as 8 mook spirits and an even deadlier version of the ‘Spirit of Vengeance’. Four turns isn’t the longest time in the world but for a low level party, some bad dice rolls and spent resources might spell disaster. Throw in some damage resistances and some interesting moves from the bad guys, a party will have to think on their feet. Good, I say.

In a lovely touch, Winghorn has some advice on how to scale the adventure up or down in the final appendix. It’s this kind of attention to detail that I think sets Winghorn apart from the average author, even before you get to the production standards and fun central conceits. Although this is one area where I’d disagree with the author as I don’t think adding more bodies to a fight generally improves D&D, unless you fully embrace cannon fodder as a concept (AKA why goblins and kobolds should never leave your table). My experience is that whilst solo monsters die fast, outnumbering the party leads to a slow game.

Final Words

From Ancient Grudge isn’t my favourite of Winghorn’s adventures, but it’s a damn good one by any standard. It doesn’t have the whimsy of Wild Sheep Chase, the straight-up nastiness of Horror at Havel’s Cross, the crazy high-level messiness of To The End of Timethe easy adaptability of Honour Among Thieves or the compellingly weird problems of Wolves of Welton. Its closest rival in Winghorn’s library is probably The Hound of Cabell Manor, another module with a literary premise (though a little more recent) but one that’s a little more short and straightforward. I’d probably put this somewhere above Hound and below Horror.

Comparing the best with the best isn’t a particularly useful exercise though, so I’ll leave it there.  It’s only in comparison that this adventure suffers really, though I would think that it would need a disciplined DM to keep the party moving and prevent this from sprawling into multiple sessions where one would really be sufficient. The high number of potential encounters might bite into that precious time too.

All told From Ancient Grudge will put any party through both combat and social challenges as well offering any dedicated roleplayer the chance to bite into some juicy narrative. Any Shakespeare geek (or even a fan of Robb Stark’s scarlet ceremony) will love the scenario and the nods to that classic tale of romance and woe. And hey, even a purist has to acknowledge that the bard himself was a big fan of curses and hauntings.

TLDR – The Highlights:

  • Clean, crisp layout and good design throughout. Excellent production standards.
  • A solid amount of story and narrative throughout, with a nice climactic battle. Perfect structure for a oneshot.
  • The closing ritual – playing possessed characters is always great.
  • New monsters! My favourite is the Goldbeast.
  • Maps & Handouts
  • The “Building and Breaking Tension” mechanic – Using a twist on the Haunt roll from Betrayal at House on the Hill to move things from Day to Night (from safe to dangerously spooky)
  • A nice cast of NPCs both alive and dead to play with

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