The Evils of Illmire is a zine written by Zack Wolf. It was funded by another very respectable Zinequest 2 kickstarter (506 backers). The zine centers on the cursed town of Illmire and a 19 hex map that surrounds it, an entire campaign worth of material in 68 packed pages of small type--along with numerous downloadable bonuses including a 4-page "underdark expansion"--that you could run as is with almost no preparation.
I can't emphasize how much material the zine contains: a map and write up for Illmire the starting town; a keyed map for the inn where the players are likely to stay; nineteen meaty hex descriptions each with their own random encounter table (!); and FOURTEEN completely keyed and mapped dungeons (!!). Aside from the high page count and small print, the zine accomplishes this with a pair of nifty tricks.
- All stat blocks are relegated to a monster stat block section at the end of the book. The same for descriptions of the copious magical items inn the zine. Aside from one problem I'm mention later, I found it very easy to flip to the back to check on stats. (If I were running it, I would print this section out ahead of time.) This is a neat trick that save a lot of space; while not everyone will want to do this, it's a nice tool to have.
- All the dungeons in the zine are attractive two page spreads, unless they have a key factional player in them, in which case the two page spread is supplemented by a further two page illustrated spread on the major players involved. This makes the dungeons all pretty small, mainly lairs and hideouts.
Note, what follows contains some spoilers. If you might play in the world of this zine, probably don't read on.
I would describe the setting of the zine as vanilla, but in a good way. By vanilla I mean that it uses a lot of classic D&D monsters (not always by name), and the town of Illmire bears a very strong resemblance to Gary Gygax's classic module T1 Village of Hommlet. (In fact, you might think of the town of Illmire as a reskinning of Hommlet in an alternate universe where the forces of good in the town had been driven out or destroyed.) When I say it's "good" vanilla, I mean that it works with these iconic elements in ways that are refreshing and not stale. In that sense, this module would serve as an excellent introduction to players who wanted to experience classic D&D for the first time, while also offering surprises to old hands like me. While I'm obviously not a vanilla man myself (my zine is lilac flavored with candied orchids on top), I can appreciate a vanilla sundae with fudge sauce from time to time.
But I found myself vacillating between two very different views of the setting of this zine. On the one hand, there's something refreshingly light or fairytale like about a lot of things in the zine. There are alpine woods with enchanted lumberjacks. There's a lake covered in strange mists with a legendary giant fish in it. There's an impenetrable forest of thorny brambles, and a crystal palace in the mountains where a giant lives who will host you at a feast.
There's also a sandbox with a lot of mystery, with multiple layers, some more and some less obvious. There are a lot of ongoing dastardly schemes with villains hiding in plain sight. The mystery feels almost Scooby-Dooish at times, in a good way. I feel like the aesthetic of fairytale cursed countryside plus the Scooby-Doo vibe is embodied visually in the cover by Heather Shinn and Jack Badashski. It fits well with the "good vanilla" aspects of the setting.
On the other hand, the cult at the heart of things seems to be drawn from a different aesthetic universal. If anything, it reminded me most of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying. The cult is evil. Like, really evil. Extreme torture. Slavery, including vaguely implied sex slavery (the giant king has sex slaves too). Human Sacrifice. Total mind control. Poisoning children. Nurturing hideous entities in terrible basements filled with gore. There's something called "the Fearmother" involved. Of course there is.
|This excellent illustration by Patrick Olsson belongs more in this other aesthetic universe|
Reading this stuff left me feeling kind of awful. I'm a fan of Call of Cthulhu and a huge fan of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying (1E), so I can roll with demonology, hideous cults, and deadly alien entities in the right aesthetic context. But somehow these grubby and vile notes sounded dissonant when played alongside the charming mystery melody of the rest of the zine. But hey, I'm just one person. Maybe the notes struck together will be a dulcet harmony in your ear.
Interesting Approach to the Hexcrawling
Some Things That Could Be Better
There are some elements of the zine that could definitely be better. The prose could be more evocative, shorter, and punchier in places. The zine also has some organizational foibles that would be relatively easy to avoid.
For one thing, Wolf begins the hexmap key with a sequential overview of each numbered hex. I didn't find this very helpful, since the overview often didn't contain enough information for me to know what was going in the hex. The overview is then followed by a hexkey that has an almost random numeric order. It covers the hexes in this order: 19, 15, 16, 11, 10, 14, 18, 7, 12, 5, etc. You might be thinking this ordering corresponds to the different geographical regions of the map, but you'd be wrong. The sequence starts off with things in the order players are likely to encounter them, but then eventually jumps a fair bit around the map.
Here are some basic principles about keying maps of whatever kind: 1. Every numbered area must be keyed 2. The areas must be keyed in numeric order. If you want the description in the key to flow a certain way, plan ahead and number things accordingly. For this reason, I recommend numbering rooms and hexes on the map last, so you can move the keys for them around in the text as suits your purposes.
Bizarrely, the same thing happens in the stat-blocks of monsters and NPCs. They are roughly in alphabetical order. Are you kidding me? There are also some inconsistencies I noticed; for examples the demons are said to have magical powers in their descriptions, but none were listed in the stat blocks.
How I would Run This Zine
- I would start the party off coming into town and consider carefully how villagers and the cult are likely to react to them. I would think about how the villagers, who are all suffering from paranoia, would react to strangers coming into town. I think I would have the cult play it cooly at first, given that the adventurers are likely to seem initially like a capable group.
- I would pick a few starting dungeons and give the players hooks that tell them where to look for them. I would try to pick some that made them tromp across several hexes to get there. I would also make the hexcrawling rules known so that they realize that each hex has secrets to uncover.
- I would tone down the gore horror of the cult involved areas a bit, remove sexual slavery from the module, reduce torture references, and so on, to bring it more in line with the mystery woods vibe.
- I would drop hints about a couple of mysteries from early on, like where did the the druid go, and so on. I would try to give them a sense over time of how desperate people in the town were and make sure some of the townspeople were likable and memorable characters.
- I would probably add one larger-size dungeon to break up the relentless lair-sized vibe of the dungeons on the map, I'm not sure which one. I would likely add it to the underdark portion, since that's least explored. I also love the idea that Zack Wolf floats in his 4 page underdark supplement of a parallel underdark pointcrawl map with locations beneath various hexes. I would also think about adding Matt Finch's underdark module: Demonspore: Secrets of the Shroom.