Malefic Book 0: The Mirror of Malatesto
Author: Marc Star
Publisher: Twelve Strand Media
Page Count: 84
Available Formats: PDF & Print
PDF (DTRPG) OSE version – $9.99
PDF (DTRPG) 5e version – $9.99
Print OSE version – $18.00
Print 5e version – $18.00
Malatesto, a simple yet humble gravedigger, stumbles across an artifact that changes the course of his life, his very existence. Discovering a mirror and set of clay tablets to unlock its secrets, Malatesto embarks on a course of action that changes the lives of many for years to come. However, the story begins somewhere else, some 2000 years early. To understand the present, we must venture back to the past and understand the forces in the Malatesto’s here and now.
Malefic Book 0: The Mirror of Malatesto is a stout zine with a whopping 84 pages, cover to cover, that provides ample foundational material to bring your adventuring world alive. Enclosed is an adventure, a prequel to a larger, more expansive adventure series to be seen in future issues. The adventure is billed as an “epic low-level adventure” without specifying level ranges. As the foundation for future material, the first fifth of the zine provides the Referee with background information, including geography, cosmology, and past and present history. It is available for Old-School Essentials (OSE) and 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons (5e). Although I will provide commentary on both versions, if and where they deviate aside from stat blocks, all references will be to the OSE version.
Note: Twelve Strand Media provided Rolling Boxcars with review copies for this article. Please visit our Product Review Request page if you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review.
Fundamentals In Brief
The continent of Lower Tauth is a remote, isolated land mass dotted by large tracts of forested land, imposing mountain ranges, and nearly surrounded by the sea on all sides; a single seaport allows trade access to neighboring regions. Today, there is burgeoning trade, monotheism, a healthy fear of magic, and a ban on all magic throughout lower Tauth. Long ago, more than 2000 years ago, in the First Age, Lower Tauth was the garden of the old gods. Letting their verdant garden grow and prosper, eventually resulting in humankind taking root. Ultimately, losing oversight of their ward, the old gods did not foresee a catastrophe in the making when a cyclical celestial cycle occurred. As the celestial body passed close by, its evil influence weighed heavily on Tauth, permanently affecting the gods’ garden. A rising evil and dragonkin took root, supplanting the old gods and polytheism. The First Age comes to a close as a group of cosmic watchers known as the Sorcerer Priests laid waste—cleansing Lower Tauth with fire, resetting the land as the old gods retreated to Mount Arkadius, and small bastions of their original flock remained to populate the land.
The coming of the Sorcerer Priests and the First Sage heralded the Second Age. Through the First Sage in the year 650, Lower Tauth began to see growth and prosperity return. The First Sage traveled the length of the land with devoted students constructing temples that attracted others to carry its wisdom and prophecy to others. Around these temples sprung up villages, towns, and cities, creating population centers that survive into the modern day. In the year 2500, the Ahm Empire rose to power and proclaimed Deitism the official cult of the empire. Deists, as they are known, are the modern worshippers of the First Sage. Fast Forward nearly another thousand years, and we arrive at the modern-day setting where Malatesto, the gravedigger, almost a century ago, set into motion a series of events that continues to play out.
As the first in the series, this issue lays down the setting’s history, forming a foundation I assume future zines will build on. As such, there is setting information that readers need to be aware of. Most prominently, the rich and detailed world history of Lower Tauth. It is the foundation on which everything else is built. These facts support that truth.
- Four factions: Pentaclist Cartel, a merchant guild with a stranglehold in Soulum; Sentinels, the authority of the Empire of Ahm and peacekeepers; Wildermen are hunter-gathers and herdsman linked by an ancient shamanic practice; Brotherhood of the Worm, members of a nefarious cult with a symbiotic relationship to a ravenous worm.
- Arcane magic is banned! Spellcasters beware; the penalty for magic use can range from exile to death. The author provides excellent tips on working within the confines of this belief and still discreetly playing a spellcasting character. Priestly magic is acceptable.
- Soulum, the localized setting of the adventure, is presented with a history and overview.
- The Bloodline Cult, a secret order, wishes to bring about the return of a terrifying evil.
- There is an excellent single-page timeline, putting historical events in relation to one another.
- There are rules for reading and learning from books and tomes found within the setting.
- More importantly, with magic forbidden but not unknown and mostly a human-centric setting, there is considerable advice on approaching character creation for the various class options available in both OSE and 5e.
The Adventure – The Mirror of Malatesto
“The Mirror of Malatesto” is an adventure in four parts, each serving as a story arc unto itself, but make no mistake, they are most assuredly connected and inseparable. All told, the story is dark and may not be for everyone. I am not going to sugarcoat this for readers. There are themes here that may be off-putting for some.
The adventure begins in “Part 1: The Road to Soulum” as the would-be heroes have been traveling for months on their way to Soulum seeking the employ of Magnus Zaragoza, Lord Master of Soulum, who is seeking hardy adventurers to retrieve a powerful artifact from a nearby mine. Nearing their destination, they encounter the murder of a villager at a wayside inn. The incident sets into motion a series of events that takes them down a new path, entangling them in the machinations of powerful foes. These foes see the heroes as nothing more than mere cogs in the machine suitable for their grander purposes. That is until the secreted manifestations of the past seek vengeance. The heroes’ tenacity is tested as they remain entrenched in the situation. What they find will test their resolve and maybe their undoing.
The story continues in “Part 2: The Arrest of Benedictus” with their arrival in Soulum, and the preceding events leading up to their arrival take a turn that further draws them in. The suspected murderer in the previous chapter is shockingly arrested, disquieting the residents of Soulum. It is here through any number of ways the heroes become further entangled in what has fast become a mystery. However, a psychic and haunting dream lures the heroes into the temple.
Exploring the Temple of the First Sage takes on the familiar tone of dungeon crawl. While it has a familiar feel, a story is still being played out. In “Part 3: The Mirror Beneath the Temple,” the heroes explore the area beneath the temple, following clues that eventually lead them to the adventure’s namesake, the mirror of Malatesto. And while it sounds easy, nothing in this dark and gritty adventure is that easy. In classic style, heroes must negotiate the subterranean level, puzzles, and things that do not want them there.
Finally, in “Part 4: Into the Mirror,” the heroes encounter the source of the psychic and haunting dream and travel to a pocket dimension. It is here they can learn far more than they could have imagined. With several possible narrative solutions to the overarching situation, the adventure’s outcome is not yet decided.
“The Mirror of Malatesto” is a well-written but dark adventure that will challenge players in many ways. It will test their mettle and push them in directions that are not always comfortable. In particular, Part 1 is the worst offender regarding this. There is an integral theme of child ritual abuse and torture for the purposes of lifelong subjugation. And while it is not overly graphic in detail, it may be inappropriate for some. Beyond this, the adventure’s dark tone continues, losing the cringeworthy elements but retaining the dark and gritty feel.
The artwork is dark in both aesthetic tone and evocative of the setting and adventure it is used to complement. The art style varies throughout. There are five artists’, and royalty-free art used. Most of the art is top-notch. However, there are a couple of instances where the art is good but needs refinement to fit more seamlessly. For example, on page 56, there is a wonderful illustration, but a distracting faint borderline surrounds it. On page 28, in the PDF versions, a watermark runs across this side view illustration.
The layout is nearly identical in both versions and is easy to read, utilizing text boxes to compartmentalize information to draw the reader’s eye to specific information—at least one page had the columns reversed for some reason. A few instances in the 5e version exist where the copy crowds up against the outer page margin. This is not the case in the OSE version. I believe this may be a result of the change in the paper stock (see below).
Both physical versions are saddle-stitched with some noticeable differences. Each uses a different paper stock. The OSE version looks and feels like a high-quality newsstand magazine with thinner, semi-gloss paper and a matching cover. The 5e version feels like a traditional zine with its thicker matte finished paper and heavier-weight cover. The OSE cover is a deep black, whereas the 5e version is a brown-tinged black which lacks the richness of the OSE. This color variance carries throughout and may be the result of using different paper stocks. There is a noticeable outward difference in the overall thickness of each zine and how they physically feel. I don’t know why the versions vary in physical traits, but each is lovely and high quality nonetheless. I prefer the feel of the OSE version better in my hands, and it easily lays flat when opened.
The publisher provides additional digital assets on their website. These include the “Enchiridion of the Environs of Lower Tauth,” which offers player-facing information extracted from the Referee’s introduction. The Enchiridion is a timesaving tool for players before a game or at the table. Also available are downloadable maps, map keys, and map sections for use with miniatures. Lastly, all of the art from the zine is available to help immerse the players.
I have a few minor quibbles that often happen when working in multiple rulesets concurrently. First, I found some instances of 5e style saves in the OSE version. Conversely, I found some X-in-6 references in the 5e version; admittedly, these are not the exclusive domain of OSE but are not something typically seen in 5e material. Lastly, intrinsic to OSE is treasure equates to experience points to which I have no concerns. However, there does not appear to be any scaling in the 5e version, which does not give experience points for treasure, and therefore there could be too much or too little—I have not analyzed it.
Malefic Book 0: The Mirror of Malatesto is a masterful creation. And while it does venture into dark territory, it is in keeping with the overall themes and tones of both the setting and the adventure itself. Marc Star has created genuinely good creative writing with a compelling setting and story. Despite my minor quibbles, which, to be fair, are relatively few and minor, my chief complaint is that the remaining parts of the quartet are not yet available.
If you are looking for a dark-tinged fantasy setting, Malefic Book 0: The Mirror of Malatesto is one you should certainly take a look at. Being for low-level characters leaves it wide open to interpretation, and groups of mixed-level characters should do nicely. Bravely venture forth, but watch your back!
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