Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Review: Riders of the Maelstrom


One of my top ten Star Wars RPG modules, Riders of the Maelstrom centers around the characters infiltrating a top-secret meeting between two Imperial Moffs—a meeting that just happens to be taking place aboard a luxury space-cruise-liner. The adventure begins with a frantic chase scene, moves on to a vacation-like romp through the various diversions available ton the liner, and climaxes in a clash with a band of vicious space pirates!

Like many of the early adventure modules, Riders comes with a fold out supplement—in this case, a huge map of the cruise-liner Kuari Princess (the main setting of the adventure). This is one of the first things that drew me to this module. It is impressive and surprisingly detailed for a game that prides itself on keeping things 'vague'. This map and the 'sandbox' of locations it presents, makes the module somewhat unique among its contemporaries. The usual, linear plot of the adventure is quite suddenly blown out in the middle, giving the characters time and room to explore all kinds of tangents—most of which have nothing at all to do with the main story. As much as I do enjoy a well-run 'story-based' adventure, open-ended play like this is always fun to throw into the mix (in fact, I think its necessary to a healthy campaign to have a mix). 

Indeed, the main strength of this adventure is its subtle encouragement of roleplay. It gives the characters a wide variety of things they can do—things that will help build just WHO those characters really are—beyond just their stats and skills. The couple times I have run this adventure, the players seemed to take full advantage of this room. Some characters went to the bar/dance-club, others on a shopping spree, others lounged at the pools and still others competed with various guests in sporting events. 

While all this playing may seem to distract from the plot, the fact that the ship is a 'confined' location helped to keep characters from ranging TOO far (and out of the story entirely). Throughout this middle (and indeed main) section of the adventure, the writers include helpful hints and suggestions to keep reminding the players of the plot—Stormtroopers will occasionally pass by, threatening with their presence. The crew and passengers will spout rumors and the like of what is going on. The characters will occasionally glimpse the Moffs themselves as they move about their business. And finally, a secret Alliance agent will send them messages and updates about what is going on. All in all, its a nice way to 'gently' keep the player's eyes on the 'prize' without ruining their chance to run amok.

Eventually, though, the characters will have to get back on task and infiltrate the Moff's meeting to find out what they're up to. This is, in turn, interrupted by the attack of the titular 'Riders of the Maelstrom'—a vicious pirate fleet operating in the nebula through which the cruise-liner is passing. This sets up another rather open-ended scenario, turning the entire ship into a battleground through which the Character's must navigate. While it was a little overwhelming to me the first time I ran it, it was fun nonetheless. This battle is given a bit of an edge in the fact that the characters find out that the pirates intend to ram the ship into the asteroid base of a rival pirate group—a group that just happens to serve the Rebellion and is harboring thousands of refugees. Thus, there is more at stake here than simply escaping the ship with their lives.

Unfortunately, the climax of the adventure is hurt a little, in my opinion, by the somewhat weakly presented villain—Big Jak Targrim, commander of the Riders of the Maelstrom. Though he appears in a couple cut-scenes throughout the adventure, there really wasn't much development of him. Likewise, his odd yet interesting background (having been 'spliced' with the genetic material of legendary pirate/underworld figures) didn't seem to come across when I ran the adventures. I mean, it was interesting for me as a GM to know, but it didn't come across to the players. If I ever do this again, I will have to take steps to build on his character a little. Also, as with many adventures, Big Jak's stats were, by the time I ran this adventure, way too underpowered to give the characters a run for their money. As with most modules, I had to beef up the NPCs to keep pace with my PCs.

On a side note, Big Jak's reputation was further besmirched (in my eyes) during my second run-through of the module—when Sharon's character (still in her swimsuit and fresh from lounging poolside) beat the snot out of him in hand-to-hand combat. Yes. There were good rolls on her part and bad rolls on mine, but...I think the Big Jak is officially 'cursed' now (though quite amusingly so).

My only other criticism of the adventure is actually something I struggle with in a lot of adventures: the whole concept of 'In media res'. This is a cinematic technique whereby a movie starts in the middle of the action already. There may be some brief exposition as to how things got the way they are, but otherwise, the audience is thrown into the thick of a situation and left to guess/enjoy. Riders begins with the characters already running for their lives from Stormtroopers. On the one hand, I like a quick start up like this to get things moving. But on the other, it can be jarring to the players and feel kind of railroady. I guess the main issue is whether or not your players buy off on a situation or not. If they do, then you're golden. If not, then you may need to modify the beginnings of several of these modules.

All in all, Riders of the Maelstrom was a great module that broke the somewhat linear mold of many of its contemporaries and followers. It reminded me that giving the players some wiggle room from time to time is important—and fun. 

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