I had the pleasure to review Brother Ptolemy and the Hidden Kingdom before it was published, and seeing the final version makes me feel happy that the project is done and proud that I was able to help in a small way.
This new book from Nevermet Press is what they call an “adventure setting.” It’s more than just a published adventure, though a full adventure is included in the book. However, it’s not a full campaign setting, either. It’s a deep look at one piece of the world, which could be any world at all. This type of book seems aimed to inspire dungeon masters to include the city of Corwyn and its surroundings and inhabitants and events into the DM’s own campaign world. And given that the adventure in it is aimed at 5th-level characters, it’s easy to envision a DM starting a game in a rather undefined world of their own creation and giving the player characters a reason to travel to Cormyr after they’ve had the chance to have some other adventures.
As a product, it’s a useful and creative idea. I like to DM in my own world, so I wouldn’t want to use Dark Sun or Forgotten Realms or Eberron, as they are complete, fleshed-out worlds (though I could pick a small part of one of them for my world). The lands within Brother Ptolemy have the potential to fit in many different campaign worlds, potentially including my own at some point.
The book is available in either a PDF or a hard copy. The hard copy is nice – it’s a digest-sized book (the same as the D&D Essentials books) with a soft cover and nice artwork. The front cover is appropriately dark and creepy.
Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD. I am about to discuss the world of Brother Ptolemy and some of the back story, which I think is important for a useful review. This review is aimed at Dungeon Masters who might use the book, however, and a player who reads it might learn more than they really want to know, thus spoiling some of the surprise. You’ve been warned.
At the heart of this book is the “monk,” Brother Ptolemy, and his band of followers, the titular Hidden Kingdom. The book opens with the back story of how an immortality-obsessed Duke found himself becoming an immortal and ultimately undead creature, eventually becoming the masked Brother Ptolemy. The scene in which the Duke figures out what has happened to him – he is immortal, despite the fact that his body is effectively dead – is beautifully written and gives the DM great insight into why the Hidden Kingdom exists and what it offers its followers. Knowing the inside story makes the Kingdom’s offers of “freedom from hunger, pain and fear” work on a deeper and more disturbing level.
What I love about this characterization of the Hidden Kingdom is its depth. This is not simply a band of undead creatures determined to wantonly destroy the living. There is reason behind the madness, and it comes from the horrible realization that one is alive inside a dead body, with no hope for escape. Combined with a little insanity and the ability to pass this condition on to others via a ritual, a cult is born. The cult’s MO of performing charitable works in a city in order to gain trust and converts is brilliant and horrifying. These are great villains with tons of potential.
Chapter 2 of the book introduces a plague called the Red Harvest. Naturally, the Hidden Kingdom is behind the plague, and its effect on an area is horrifying and effective as a recruiting tool (people turn to the Kingdom out of fear of the Red Harvest). If I were to use this adventure setting in a broader campaign, I think it would use rumors of the Red Harvest as the hook. The adventurers could come to the region after hearing horror stories from time to time, deciding to come to help out.
Chapter 3 covers the city-state of Corwyn, where the adventure takes place. There’s a map that shows where Corwyn is in the broader region and a bit of back story on the town; fairly standard D&D fare, for the most part.
Chapter 4 contains the adventure itself. This is the meat of the book, and it’s a bit different from most of the D&D 4e adventures I’ve read and run. It basically takes place in three stages: investigating in Cormyr, exploring the Von Brandt Manor, and facing the music back in Cormyr.
The investigation section has a few skill challenges with combats interspersed here and there. The PCs will have the chance to meet some well-designed NPCs and even potentially bring one with them to the second section. I should mention that this section also has a reference to a group called Soul’s End that really appealed to me; I could see trying to give Soul’s End a bigger role in a campaign in this region.
The biggest part of chapter 4 is the exploration of Von Brandt Manor. This begins with a lake crossing (and what lake crossing would be complete without a creepy lake monster?) and continues with a rather free-form exploration of the house. This section feels old-school to me. Rather than have encounters pre-planned in certain rooms, there’s a House Events Table that the DM rolls on whenever the party enters a new area. Depending on the results of that roll, the party could discover information, items, or enemies. This is different from the 4e philosophy that I’m used to, and I admit that I would probably add more structure and less randomness if I ran the adventure, but this book certainly lets you do that if you wish.
After the Manor section, the action returns to town with what is technically a skill challenge but is really a free-form roleplaying section with some structure. The PCs are put on trial for their actions at the Manor, and many outcomes are possible. If you have a party that’s not into role-playing very much, you might not use this section. But if you have good role-players, this part is rich with possibilities!
Chapters 5 and 6 include items and rituals to help flesh out the world of the Hidden Kingdom. The book concludes with some ideas for possible adventure hooks (including the Red Harvest).
Overall, I think Brother Ptolemy and the Hidden Kingdom is a well-made adventure setting for a group that’s looking for something a little bit creepy. There’s plenty of background information and detail on the world, and the adventure itself is a good mixture of creative skill challenges and interesting combats. If you want some “creeping menace” in your world, you might want to incorporate the Hidden Kingdom.