Module Review: Cirrias Gambit (Sven Truckenbrodt): 4 Stars
“What an entrance! Why, the Nine Hells would talk about it for ages.”
Taking a cue from the ongoing Uncaged Anthology adventure series, Cirria’s Gambit sets out to subvert traditional hidebound characterizations of two well-worn “female monsters”: the banshee and the succubus. Cirria is a succubus banished from the Hells for kindness unbecoming a devil, and Kaera is a banshee who married the (quite alive) love of her life and settled down for a quiet undead existence on a country estate (Red Larch, though confusingly not the Red Larch featured prominently in Princes of the Apocalypse, Storm King’s Thunder, and other adventures – this Red Larch is not a town but a manor house). Circumstances pit Cirria and Kaera against each other; the adventurers – and a houseful of party guests – are caught in the crossfire.
Cirria has imprisoned and impersonated Kaera, and an anniversary party now has a fiendish twist as Cirria hopes to harness the collective emotional energy of the attendees to power her return to Hell. The adventurers can choose to aid either Kaera or Cirria, or perhaps find a way to reconcile the rivals. Along the way, they’ll have to contend with party guests ranging from snobbish to demonic and encounter denizens of the estate from every social stratum, from the presiding lord and lady to the intelligent giant rats in the cellars.
This is a socially complex sandbox adventure with a heavy emphasis on role-playing, and less experienced DMs will be reassured by the author’s encouraging tone and frequent helpful advice. Unfortunately, the author’s well-intentioned goal of supporting and guiding the DM is sometimes undermined by a tendency to over-write and include unneeded information or excessive elaborations. The adventure also struggles to deploy hooks that will motivate the adventurers; there seems to be an assumption that adventurers invited to a wedding will as a matter of course take it upon themselves to search and investigate the entire premises, including the private chambers of their hosts, with little prompting and thin incentive to do so (simply having a party member glimpse the face of a devil momentarily in an upstairs window as the party approached the estate – or including an NPC who expressed specific concerns about the wedding couple and asked the party to investigate – would have been easy and helpful touches here).
Proactive players who come prepared to get into trouble and aren’t afraid to generate their own stories will find a lot to like in the amusing sandbox that is Red Larch, and are likely to be surprised and impressed when they stumble into the drama surrounding Cirria and Kaera.
Fun Factor. Cirria’s Gambit does a great job of providing adventurers with amusing and inventive challenges, including coming up with a last-minute wedding present on the fly and playing pranks on a stuffy nobleman to impress an intriguing contact. Whether it’s recovering an item stolen by a mouse or diffusing the ire of a party guest who discovers one of the adventures has arrived in clothes identical to their own, this adventure is at its best when exploring creative and unexpected challenges. The included imaginative selection of magical spiked drinks could prove a useful addition to a DM’s toolbox.
Choices Matter. The final outcome of this adventure can vary dramatically based on choices made by the adventurers; their actions will have a very real impact.
Adventurer’s League-Style Encounter Scaling. I wish every adventure used this (including the WotC hardcovers, incidentally). Is it perfect in every situation? Of course not, but no method of 5E encounter balancing is guaranteed to survive first contact with the players. Is it better than nothing? Ever so much.
Production Value. Cirria’s Gambit features top-shelf production values. It features a gorgeous layout, clear maps, varied and effective artwork, and a generous selection of player handouts including magic items and story awards as well as diary entries, notes, and invitations. The creators have pulled out all the stops to deliver a special experience at the table.
Thoughtful Advice to DMs. This adventure includes thoughtful and sensitive advice for DMs; the Consent and Safety Tools section is a particularly welcome addition. Some of this content perhaps a little too basic – an explanation of 5E’s Three Pillars is provided, but I think we should assume familiarity with the Dungeon Master’s Guide on the part of the DM, so this could have been safely omitted. Sections like this and some general notes about DM empowerment to alter content as needed might be helpful for novice DMs, but can be safely skipped by others.
Too Much of a Good Thing? The backstory sections (yes, there are several) of Cirria’s Gambit exceed 3,500 words and run for nearly five pages. To put this in perspective, the backstory section of Cirria’s Gambit, a one-shot with a billed running time of 4-8 hours, is longer than the backstory section of Curse of Strahd, a campaign book running from levels 1-10 that takes most groups 20-25 4-hour sessions to complete. The author’s passion and enthusiasm is commendable, but for many DMs this will be too much of a good thing. While some readers will delight in the detailed and dramatic narrative, others might have preferred to avoid the task of sifting through the text to identify the elements that will help them in the job of running the adventure. Many DMs who gravitate towards pre-made DMsGuild one shots are pressed for time and looking for a “plug-and-play” experience; Cirria’s Gambit doesn’t provide one. The tendency to over-write extends to some of the encounters as well. For example, the opening encounter includes a full paragraph devoted to our heroes’ varying ability to detect the approach of a carriage carrying friendly NPCs, but any success or failure in doing so turns out to be utterly inconsequential. This is begging to be cut; there are similarly unneeded digressions scattered throughout the adventure. The author is clearly very invested in supporting a positive experience for the DM and players at the table – but most DMs in practice are grateful to authors who are willing to demonstrate a little more ruthlessness during the editing process.
Were the Tropes Really Subverted? The attempt to explode the traditional tropes surrounding the succubus and banshee are laudable but meet with mixed success. We’re told that Cirria is driven by an urge to see the desires of other creatures made manifest but that she will never do so if it means compromising other creatures’ agency (we are told she is “all about agency”). Nevertheless, the two main actions she takes are to imprison Kaera in a pocket plane and magically charm Kaera’s husband into stupefied submission (perceptive characters can spot him visible straining in desperation to free himself from her enchantment), depriving them both of all agency. In execution, her behavior tends more often to confirm, rather than challenge, traditional assumptions about succubi.
Cirria’s Gambit delivers a fun, sandbox-style adventure with resources, tables, and encounters that could prove useful to DMs well beyond the scope of the one-shot. There are inventive and amusing social encounters and skill challenges around every corner. Combat might be a little light depending on choices made by the characters. Most players and DMs are sure to find at least one truly delightful encounter or NPC in this adventure. The writing sometimes misses the forest for the trees; it’s often effective at depicting small moments and interesting details, but a little weak in terms of motivating the adventurers and engaging the overarching plot – and in places it would benefit from some judicious pruning. The production values are unimpeachable; this is a product overflowing with pleasing extras in terms of handouts, useful tables, story rewards, and clever items. 4/5
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Tal Aviezer re-discovered D&D in 2017 after a 20+ year hiatus. He is the creator of several best-selling titles on DMsGuild. He serves as the Artistic Director of Red Monkey Theater Group (link to www.redmonkeytheater.org) in NYC, and in that role produces the annual Dungeons & Monkeys D&D/theater charity fundraising marathon. He is a writer for the Wildlife Conservation Society.