Bill Webb’s Swords & Wizardry/Pathfinder massive sandbox adventure hits big
By Joe Bingaman
Bill Webb (he of the Dirty Tricks book covered here not long ago) has unleashed his mind on us again, this time with a MASSIVE sandbox adventure titled “Sword of Air”. This book clocks in at a hefty 429 pages, and is based off Webb’s own home campaign world that has been running since 1977, which may be older than many gamers who will use it (it certainly predates the reviewer). This impressive text has been decades in the making, and it shows. Even Webb admits that there are literally thousands of hours of gameplay inside the book. This is designed for the Swords & Wizardry OSR system, though anyone who has experience with the original Dungeons & Dragons game, or whoever can convert that to other editions, will find many uses for this massive tome.
One of the first things that strikes is the art. The art in this is amazing, and Frog God Games spared no expense on this, as Sword of Air uses a seven-person art team. The cartography by Robert Altbauer is fluid and stands out. Best of all, the art is in full-color. The cover art by Artem Shukaev is amazing, with great detail in the stained glass window.
One of the most interesting facets of Webb’s design is the manner in which a game master may use some or all of the side plot points, depending on how long they want the adventure to last. There is a main story involving the Sword of Air and a feud between wizards. Along the way, there are literally hundreds of side adventure plots; some which connect to others, while others are just little treks to out-of-the-way places which have no bearing on any other story here. One would have to be very committed to run this entire book in one shot, and therein lies the beauty of Sword of Air. You can run this adventure multiple times and never have the same places appear. For example, slight tweaking to the Sword of Air, using the other elements, a few replacement NPCs, and one could run a long campaign based around swords of the elements using just this one book.
Webb’s sense of humor shows almost right away, as the first chapter is a general overview and dramatis personae, alongside a bit of a list of the side treks. For starters, the Big Bad Guy is named Steve the Cat. Steve is named for Webb’s cat, and is described as a “cross between Eric Cartman and Orcus.” While it is a cat, it is truly a demon in disguise, determined to free the minions from his master, Tsathogga, the Frog God. Steve controls an NPC named Kayden, a mage. It is suggested that the characters should believe Kayden is the good guy, and will want to help him, which after several dozen hours of play, when they finally realize that they have been backing the bad guy, they will be shocked, and hopefully, mortified. After all, who would see a cat with a mage as anything but the mage’s familiar.
More of Webb’s dirty tricks shine through in here. In the first chapter alone, you get a representative of Kayden trying to give the PCs multiple potions that will heal them of all wounds and instill bravery before battle, when in reality they are hardcore sleeping potions. Kayden will also try to pay the PCs with a very valuable gem, only to attempt to steal it back later. By far, one of the worst things though, is a map that is highly-detailed with multitudes of treasure. In reality, none of this treasure exists. It’s all just an elaborate ruse, designed to play off the PCs’ greed, getting them ambushed (and lost in a swamp.)
Webb closes the first chapter with a few notes on running Sword of Air, noting that only two groups had completed the entire thing in its history. Both groups took over four hundred hours (in the reviewer’s gaming group, that would be two years of once-a-week sessions at four-plus hours each!) to complete. Sword of Air is designed to be slow-paced and tough, so if you are not into that sort of long-term journey (or if you have a constantly-rotating cast of characters at your table) perhaps attempting to run Sword of Air in its entirety is not for you. It can still be useful, as well as sped-up if needed, by removing side treks and some of the ideas that can spawn from just parts of this alone. Think of this as a gargantuan full campaign, with extra adventure seeds scattered throughout, along with the devious tricks and traps Webb has become known for.
Chapter Two jumps into the wilderness areas surrounding what’s known as the Gulf of Akados. Of note, this area is mostly wilderness, with few roads, meaning travel is slow and hard. Webb produces his various ways of handling this in a short section of roll charts to aid the game master in tracking the characters through this vastness. The sub-regional map’s hexes are fifty miles per hex, traveled in five-mile increments in Webb’s home game. With ten possibilities to get lost on d6 rolls per hex, it is easy to see how players could get lost (and the campaigns can drag out.) A game master short on time could cut out these rulings and speed up the campaign exponentially, but where would the fun in that be?
Webb also covers one oft-forgotten piece of wilderness travel: the need of food and drink. He lists the amounts needed per day for both characters and mounts, with weather factored in for additional consumption. If a party runs low, they’ll need to hunt for what they need to consume, and maybe even sacrifice their own mounts to survive. With the aforementioned ability to get lost easily, this may become quite the reality for unsuspecting PCs.
The remainder of this chapter covers the various sub-regions of the Gulf of Akados area. Inside each sub-region is a map at the aforementioned scale, with marked sites and random encounters found in each area. Of note, the area around Tsar is covered in another book, The Slumbering Tsar Saga, and is not really covered at all here; a disappointment for those who may be new to this setting of the Lost Lands. The same goes for Bard’s Gate (Bard’s Gate), Ghue Island, and the City of Apothasalos (both of the latter promised in a future release.) This detailed chapter is long and well-thought out, with many maps of encounter sites, both interior and exterior, dungeon and wilderness, dwellings and castles.
Chapter Three covers Kayden’s Swamp. This chapter’s map is on a much more manageable scale size, at one square equaling five-and-a-half, but that doesn’t make it a cakewalk by any means. Webb actually filled this up with multiple islands and encounters, both on the islands, and in the swamp itself. Most islands have a few encounters, but the main one (Kayden’s Island,) starts with a sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge towards Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with the bridge to the island guarded by, of all things, a black knight. Whereas Python’s black knight was easily defeated after a severing of his limbs and calling it “a draw,” this one requires a Dispel Magic or similar spell cast upon it before damage can be inflicted. Another dirty trick from Webb’s mind indeed, as mentioning Kayden’s name will allow the party to pass without a challenge, but should they fight, the armor, once dispelled, will be destroyed.
Kayden’s Island takes up over half of this chapter, as characters will travel (and risk getting lost again) on this island to Kayden’s Mansion, and eventually, his dungeon. Along the way, Steve the Cat will be encountered, but again, he appears to be a familiar, and his statistics are in a sidebar, along with a few tricks to defeating him, including a permanent one, in case this situation arises. Webb’s players apparently think outside the box. He apparently has to out-think them and has most situations covered.
Chapter Four: Sorten’s Tower covers the TRUE good wizard of the sandbox, Sorten, who knows where to find the Sword of Air (roughly,) and can be of aid to the characters, no matter which path they choose, as there are two paths to be chosen from. If the characters believe Kayden is good, they will seek out the sword and, eventually, help destroying the world inadvertently. Once the characters realize Sorten is the TRUE good wizard, they can prevent the plans of Steve the Cat, possibly bringing about his demise.
The entire chapter is the castle, and nothing more. There is a regional map, but most of it is not used in the chapter, and was covered previously in the book. Inside the castle, it still may be difficult for characters to discern if Sorten is the true good wizard, as there are demons and other evil creatures present inside, along with a gate to the Plane of Shadow. All of this may still keep the characters in the dark over the reality of the situation; again, another signature Bill Webb Dirty Trick.
Before the characters can even enter the castle proper though, there are plenty of gatehouses and barracks in the outer walls. Breaching these can be a cinch if the PCs play their cards right, as any full-frontal assault would most likely prove deadly to the party, even at this point. Convincing Sorten to help them find the sword is another matter entirely, however, as while he knows the location (sort of,) Sorten is not interested in finding it, as he suspects they could possibly be up to no good, owing to the nature of the sword itself.
Chapter Five deals with the Plane of Shadow, and it is not long, in terms of pages, but it covers everything needed to run an extended stay, if desired. There are plenty of encounter charts and monsters of the shadowlands covered. The Plane itself plays an important role in the adventure, as this is where the location of the Tomb of Aka Bakar, as well as the Sword Key, are revealed to the characters. The Plane of Shadow is not an easy place to survive, however, and PCs must tread lightly to navigate it without becoming a permanent resident through confusion. One day in the Plane of Shadow equals one week on the Material Plane, and the circadian rhythms of PCs can be thrown off so far when they arrive that they won’t realize they’ve become exhausted after up to 36 hours of being awake and roaming. This alone could cause madness or death. There is also the problem of food, all of which must be brought with the PCs, as there is no food for the denizens of the Material Plane on the Plane of Shadow.
A massive plot twist lies in here, and is a good opportunity for characters to realize just who is the good wizard after all, as the characters will encounter Cerannan; the apprentice of Sorten who was tricked by Kayden into helping him with his goal. If the players free Cerannan from this charm and the madness from being on the Plane of Shadow, it can reveal to the characters who is the good wizard, as Cerannan can be returned to Sorten, possibly for a reward. Of course, saving Cerannan could also lead players to following the other path, or even to nowhere, as his madness causes him to distrust either wizard.
Chapter Six, The Hidden Tomb of Aka Bakar, is not only extremely difficult (and potentially deadly,) but it is advised that any game master read this section thoroughly before deciding what to do. PCs can gain powerful artifacts here, and could also destroy the world. It is by this point that game masters should have an idea where the campaign is headed and how they’ll want it to end, so opposite effects can be avoided by any means possible.
The powerful archmage Aka Bakar created this place to house the Sword of Air. It is full of traps and lethal monsters, as well as the classic false tomb, false sword trick. There is a brief history on Aka Bakar discovering the sword and being tempted by Steve the Cat for the same purpose that Kayden currently is, but Aka Bakar broke it and prayed to Hecate, only after killing his family. She gave him sanity in exchange for hiding the sword. He did so, then battled Steve the Cat with two other archmages and defeated him, but ONLY with the help of the archmages. Game masters may want to keep that in mind, should the PCs wish to take on Steve the Cat themselves.
The PCs must be level 9 to even enter the true dungeon; any less would be surely fatal. Each succeeding level of the dungeon gets more difficult, as the second and third dungeon levels require that the PCs be at level 10, the fourth at level 12, and the fifth level (the Final Vault,) recommends players be at level 15. That should show the difficulty of the different levels of the tomb. PCs may need to rest often to heal up after battles with the many creatures of the tomb and their encounters with the devious traps Webb lays forth throughout.
The final two chapters deal with the choice that leads to destroying the world. They are quite optional if the players pay attention to clues scattered throughout the journey so far. The seventh chapter deals with the ruins of the Hyperborian city of Tsen and its environs. The area has a Fallout-feel, as mutations are common, and if one stays too long in the area, they will also start to mutate in various ways. The closer to the Webb-described “Ground Zero” one gets, the worse things get, as nothing really survives in Ground Zero. The monsters are even mutated, and this area includes what must be one of the best monsters ever, the squirrelthulhu; a squirrel with four retractable tentacles in its mouth that breaks open skulls and eats brains. A deviously cunning creation yet again!
The final chapter takes place in the Lead Mine under the ruined city. This area is full of guardians that are like the denizens of Beneath the Planet of the Apes, except they all guard a beating heart of a dead god, Arden, who placed his still-beating heart here to block the armies of Tsathogga from entering the world above. The Sword of Air will destroy this, and unleash them upon the world, and as Bill Webb says at the end, “Game over, man…game over.”
Overall, Sword of Air is incredible for everyone, whether you want to run it in its entirety or just borrow parts for your own campaigns. Even the monsters are incredible. Bill Webb has spun a great tale here that stands among the greatest tabletop rpg campaigns of all time.