Quick Reading Guide:
I run two kinds of modules: 1) those that offer me quality content in an easy-to-reference format that I can run nearly blind, or B) those that offer an experience that is unique, compelling, and well-supported by the module to the point that what it offers would help me improve on my own adventure writing skills.
Kidnap the Arch Priest is solidly in column B. It takes more work than a module expressly designed to be low prep, but it provides the tools to create a rich experience that leaves you better-equipped to prepare your own heist adventures afterward. You can find it at DriveThruRPG for just $5.
The Elevator Pitch
Kidnap the Arch Priest promises a mildly Catholic-flavored political intrigue adventure that teaches you how to run heists while you prepare it. The premise of this module has your players visiting a new city, scoping out the political and geographic situation, and executing a plot to kidnap the city’s most protected figure. The player characters have roughly 48 hours of in-game time to accomplish this, and they’re expected to make good use of all of it. The module gives you a city map with a well-detailed castle, a host of intrigue-oriented NPCs to facilitate and/or complicate your party’s plans, and a set of guidelines on how to handle planning and executing a heist from a mostly system-neutral point of view.
That last bit is particularly important to why I think this module is useful. There are already fantastic systems like Blades in the Dark that handle heists through a set of procedures that focus on the actual action of a heist and less on the planning. This module assumes that your party is interested in playing out both the planning and execution of a heist and it gives you a solid set of tools to handle that, complete with advice on why the tools exist and what you should be using them to achieve. All of this is packaged in Skerples’s trademark utilitarian style that emphasizes functionality and versatility.
If this elevator pitch interests you, buy this module and actually run it, because it does all of these things well. You know that blissful wave of relief that comes when a player asks about some small detail that informs a pivotal game decision, you think “wait, maybe the book can answer this” and realize that not only has the module anticipated and met this need for you, it’s made sure that the answer makes for as interesting a decision as possible? This book gave me that feeling over and over. While I have some issues with finding information in the module, which I’ll expound on later, I was more than satisfied with the tools included. This is a straightforward, low buy-in premise executed thoughtfully. Nine times out of ten, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a module.
If you’re still on the fence and what a brief look at what’s valuable about this book, here’s a quick run-down of some of my favorite features:
- A time table that shows you what most of the major NPCs will be doing each hour of the day, with an optional alternative table if you prefer to be surprised at what and who the players find in each room.
- Castle room descriptions that duplicate this information to show you who’s likely to be in a given location when your NPCs arrive here. This way you don’t need to look back at every NPC’s activity for that hour on the schedule when the players enter a room. A good example of how duplication of information to suit different use cases is immensely useful in a module.
- Encounter tables that, with minor adjustments, work just as well for the players’ escape as they do for when they’re casually walking through town.
- A treasure table that provides a lot of fun toys to get the players involved in further political machinations. They’ll find things like a letter of excommunication missing only a name and a ring they can use to fake authority within the church. One of my favorites is a bag of coins that effectively geas the person you give the coin to, but which would then allow the new owner to do this to next person to receive the coin.
- Extensive guidelines and GM-ing advice on things like pacing the amount of NPCs and locations you put in front of your players, judging the amount of time it’ll take to accomplish various tasks, and a list of possible kidnapping and exit plans you could suggest to or have an NPC sell to your players (if you’re short on time or have players new to this kind of game, you could even hand them these sheets at the start!).
- A table of potentially valuable information that serves a dual purpose: you can roll to see what information the players find and from whom or you can pick a piece of information the players want to know and figure out who they need to please to get it. This is important, because you will quickly realize that a lot of the planning phase will consist of your players investing some kind of resource in exchange for information. A lot of what you’ll be drip feeding them for those resources will likely come from this table.
- Some great NPC art from Luka Rejec, and a nice and clean layout from David Shugars.
- Solid hand-outs: Players get their own blank schedule to fill out, images of the exterior of the castle, and even some pre-made plans for purchase if they’re floundering for direction.
- An isolated adventure setting that is easy to drop into a campaign that doesn’t otherwise focus much on the church. My campaign is more South- and East-Asian than European and I didn’t find it to be too much work to adapt.
Content and Organization
This module has many “toys” on the board for the players to discover and play with, and many of which somehow connect to each other. The schedule, rumor lists and NPC descriptions offer things like businesses making routine deliveries that serve as a way into the castle and secret meeting implying sordid connections. This module works fine if you go the route of filling in whatever details need to exist in response to a plausible plan the players come up with, but it also rewards players for paying attention to the pieces of the puzzle that already exist in the adventure.
Here’s a fun example: just by staying at the inn the players may find a hint to a kidnapping plan right off the bat. The inkeeper’s wife is tired of living on the island and has started an affair with a man who looks exactly like a high-ranking priest because he’s the priest’s illegitimate son. This gives the players three things to play with: 1) a way to blackmail one of the cardinals, 2) a possible method of infiltrating the castle, and 3) a hint at the interests of the character necessary to do the first two things. Details like this are what make a module most useful to me. Sure, given enough time I could come up with a similarly game-efficient NPC, but would all of the content I come up with in an hour contain so many gameable outcomes in so few elements? Probably not. The NPC descriptions are terse while still featuring some kind of twist likely to result in more interesting decision-making. They’re a high return on a low-ish investment. That’s what I want out of a module!
True to the book’s promise, Skerples made a strategic decision to organize this book for maximum pedagogical effect. I can’t not show my appreciation for this. Modules are, in my opinion, most effective when they lead from bigger to smaller ideas and when they summarize the ideas for easy reference. I shouldn’t be that surprised when I read an individual room description of a dungeon because the introduction to that wing of the dungeon should’ve given me some idea of what to expect. If there should be a pervasive smell of a corpse in Dungeon Wing A, I shouldn’t be finding this out in the key for Room 22 of this wing.
Skerples gets this. The book leads with a bird’s eye view of the adventure and what to expect from, then it gives you a survey of the major phases of the adventure and the areas the players are likely to visit. While there’s no “floor summary” for each story of the castle, the headings on the rooms make it easy to skim and see at a glance what kinds of things would be there. The surprises are all for the players, not me. As they should be.
There is a downside to this organization, however. Skerples provides summaries and recaps for information with the assumption that you’ll want a refresher on what you just read. This means you’re more likely to absorb the information on your first read through, but it also makes it quite easy to forget where these summaries are located in the book.
Further, the placement of some of my most frequently referenced tables were placed where they fit in conceptually rather than grouped together for usage at the table. I’d be constantly flipping back and forth trying to remember which page this or that cardinal’s description was on or even where the rumor table was. I think it would’ve been more useful to move all of the most commonly referenced tables and descriptions to the back of the book.
To Skerples’s credit, he does tell you which pages should be printed out and reorganized. I would recommend doing this even if you bought the physical book. When I ran it, I had the PDF, the book, and my print-outs all open at once. It’s not as ideal as being able to quickly and painless flip between parts of the printed book and find what I want without searching, but it wasn’t that much extra work.
What I Did With It
- I’d recommend compiling a chart of all discrete bits of information you can hand out to your players. For example, I let my players bribe or blackmail certain NPCs to find out what the Archpriest would be doing at certain hours. Having bite-sized pieces of useful information to trade as a commodity is a thing I’d recommend for any module, but it is especially useful here.
- Do what Skerples says and print out pages 1-43 so you can easily pull out the pages you’ll need to refer to repeatedly. The schedule, NPC descriptions and location overviews were big ones for me.
- Print two copies of the blank schedule at the end: one for your players and one for yourself. Use these to track what the players do during any given time block (I used a column for each “team” when the party split) and also what NPC schedule hints they’ve gathered.
- If you have a lot of players, decide how many characters need to work together to complete any given activity. I had six players and made the decision early on that we’d be tracking time in two or three groups. I can’t even imagine tracking the time expenditure for six separate one-person parties.
- I also made the players have to schedule “team meetings” to reconvene, share information they learned and strategize in character. This will make the module take a bit longer but my players enjoyed the immersion this added.
- I gave the Arch Priest a personal bodyguard who chased the players through the streets during their final escape. I like an explosive finale, and figured this would work well since the players went with a rather “loud” extraction.
- It took me a total of 5 sessions, or 10-12 hours of play to run this module for my table. I suspect it can be done much faster if you set some time limits on planning and deciding how the players spend their time. You can also abstract many of the NPC interactions instead of playing them all out like we did.
I don’t often have the patience for a D&D module that asks me to do a lot of my own work. Kidnap the Arch Priest is a worthy exception to this rule that begs for iteration. Skerples’s trademark “vanilla” style is a great template for weirder or more unconventional riffs on the heist concept that are begging to be written. So please, buy this module, read it, run it, and then make another one. There are so few products like this on the market in the OSR sphere, but this is a fantastic base for new voices to improve on.
- Skerples has some other good supplements worth reading: Magical Industrial Revolution (an industrial city supplement) and Magical Murder Mansion (a “funhouse” magical nonsense dungeon) are both worth checking out.
- The Roleplayer’s Guide to Heists handles a similar topic with a diverse range of authors giving their own takes on the idea.