Send Your Adventurers Upstream with “The Hidden Current”

Blackbyrne Publishing has started a series of adventures designed for use with 4E D&D. The first volume, “The Hidden Current,” will carry 1st level PCs into some intrigue and banditry. And a lot of ambushes.

Blackbyrne Publishing is essentially a one-man operation, run by author Jeff Gupton with the help of a few artists. Initially offering a couple of free 4E encounters, Blackbyrne has moved onto to bigger things with “The Hidden Current,” a full-length adventure module available at RPGNow.

If you’re looking for an adventure that uses fourth edition rules, but still has that first edition feel, “The Hidden Current” might be of interest. Partly by design and partly because he’s an independent publisher with a limited budget (I know how that feels), this adventure definitely brings to mind some of those early 1E releases. With the pencil-sketch art, the simple layout and the old-school stat blocks, it feels at times like something you might have created during 9th period study hall. And I mean that in a positive way — it really feels like a return to the core of what we love about RPGs.

The adventure itself starts out with the somewhat shopworn “you’ve been hired to protect a merchant caravan” hook. From there, the PCs run into a group of predatory bandits, then get caught in the machinations of a wizard before finally exploring the lair of something far more old and evil than anything they’ve ever faced before (admittedly, they are only level 2 or 3 at this point).

There are some nice touches, including printable grid maps with the appropriate terrain for each encounter and some excellent integration of skill challenges. Each encounter also includes guidelines for scaling up or down depending on the number of characters in the party. Our D&D group can fluctuate from four to seven PCs from week to week, so this is a welcome inclusion. The plotting is tight and mostly linear and carries the characters through a variety of locales. The mix of combat and skill challenges will put the newbie adventurers to the test.

It does seem like there is a bit of repetition in the encounters — you’ll fight quite a few bandits before moving on to more interesting foes. It can be difficult to find good monsters to fight at first level, but a little more variety in the early part of the adventure would have been good. There are also a lot of ambushes. I count five encounters that involve the characters walking along a road or path and getting attacked by a bunch of bad guys hiding in the trees. In some instances, the enemies seem to get an arbitrary guaranteed surprise round, regardless of the characters’ perception rolls (or, in one case, only spottable on a Perception roll of 20, negating anyone who trained in perception).

My last gripe: an NPC named “Dig Dirkler.” It just feels like a pointless and juvenile pop culture reference in the middle of what would otherwise be a fairly engrossing adventure.

Overall, “The Hidden Current” is a solid 4E adventure with that old-school charm. It’s the first of a planned series, so hopefully some of the rough edges can be cleaned up and future adventures from Blackbyrne will be even better.