Quick Look: The Black Ballad – A 5e Afterlife Adventure 💀
Publisher: Storytellers Forge Studios
Year Published: Crowdfunding on Backerkit (Link at the end of this review)
Death is an inevitable embrace for all adventurers. So too is resurrection, it would seem, in worlds graced by divine magic. But what about that waiting period? While you are stuck in the afterlife waiting for a cleric’s hand to return you from a critical failure—how do you bide your time?
The Black Ballad is a 10-chapter campaign for Dungeons & Dragons inspired by DiAmorte’s savage metal opera of their second album. A partnership forged in fire and blood between the musicians, artists, writers, editors, and designers who brought you The Red Opera return with another massive campaign. All to place your party in the crucible of choice to determine the fate of the afterlife. For our story begins…where yours ends.
Welcome to the Black Ballad.
I have been seeing advertisements and media for Black Ballad for a few months now, and I can quite clearly remember shrugging off my first brief encounters and presentations of it. After all, do I really need another set of encounters and narratives for DnD 5E?
With all the materials that I currently own and have projected to hit my door step in the next few months (Such as the eagerly awaited Tanares RPG), I quite literally have enough content to last me years before I manage to run through it all.
So I never really bothered to take a detailed look into the materials for Black Ballad.
I mean, most of what I saw seemed to highlight that it was designed to be accompanied to a score of heavy metal music (I am an instrumental jazz musician and world music player after all, so something of this nature would not have an immediate pull for me).
And secondly, I had sort of had enough painful reminders of Eddie Munson’s swan song from Stranger Things at the time, and the pairing of this DnD campaign with a metal score highlighted a sore spot that I still have with Stranger Things’ latest season and how it treated a certain character. So there was that, too…
When I finally did manage to click and read through the ad for the upcoming Black Ballad campaign, my perspective changed from being passive and ambivalent to “this should be a must-have purchase for any 5E DM’s”.
And the reason why centers around a dilemma that most DM’s have faced, namely Death. Or more specifically, a TPK (total player kill) wrought by the monsters, traps and spells of a DnD setting upon hapless groups of adventures who were poor enough in their fortunes to all perish in whatever calamity befell them.
And the problem here often resides in “what to do next?”.
Do you have players start a brand new campaign with new characters? That can be an awful lot of work for the DM on short notice.
Or maybe you can have something where another adventurer happens upon the deceased ones and resurrects the party and player characters ; Highly unlikely, but maybe it could happen once or twice in the course of a campaign, but this does not feel like a realistic possibility after the occurrence repeats itself ad nauseum.
But ultimately, the cheesiest thing that I have seen happen is that every player re-rolls a new character to continue off where the old party died and you have Cait Sith 2.0 come in and replace Cait Sith 1.0 in a move that feels lifeless and devoid of meaning.
Narratively speaking this feels like virtually every loss or sacrifice is devoid of meaning since everyone is guaranteed a free extra shot at life.
So it was a fresh breath of air seeing that Black Ballad entreaties to eliminate the awkwardness surrounding Player deaths by creating a scenario in which players are given an entire new world to explore after dying.
I have read through the preliminary materials for Black Ballad and I must say I am impressed with all that it encompasses so far. The art, writing style, descriptions of locales and NPCs, as well as advice to the DM are all on a level of professionalism that once again reminds me that I find 3rd party creators to be vastly superior to the “official” DnD campaigns and sources. And I have said this for just about every DnD review I have done with Everything Board Games. Because it is often true.
Black Ballad starts you off waking in another dimension, within a subset of the afterlife that is “not quite” your final destination, but merely a crossroad. I really appreciate this aspect, as it allows for whatever religious beliefs you or your imaginary play characters hold to dominate the “final destination” of your afterlife, whether it be heaven, purgatory or some other place for evil-inclined individuals.
Within this place, players are given the freedom to explore this junction, or move on to their “final destination”. Or they are free to await (hopefully) being resurrected by a still-living player in whatever game world they happened to die in.
Regardless of their choice, players will not have it easy, and nor will what they desire be immediately obtained in any case, as the well-crafted narrative has created a world in which they are granted a sort of “shepherd” that needs to guide them to whatever destination they desire, and this flow of time works a bit differently than they are accustomed to ; it could take weeks or even years for them to reach their final resting place, whatever it may be. And within this dream world lurks its own unique set of dangers and challenges.
Unique monsters and NPCs adorn the literature of this material quite well, and most if not all of the monsters and NPC’s promise to be unique and exclusive to Black Ballad , meaning the Monster Manual shouldn’t be necessary. And what I have seen thus far indicates things will be both creative and well balanced.
One nice thing I noticed is that this adventure provides good advice for scaling the difficulty for all levels of characters — after all, the TPK could potentially hit groups ranging from level 1-20, so this is an important consideration that I am glad that the makers of Black Ballad did not forsake.
Additionally, I am doubly happy that this particular adventure is opting for a more “Theatre of the Mind” approach to adventuring, as there are moments (such as now with my running through Tanares Adventures) where I can feel a bit overwhelmed and intimidated by the amount of space miniatures and tiles can take up on my table. Again, neither approach is bad at all, I relish both, but given my current undertakings in Tanares, I certainly appreciate this type of approach now!
I did take a listen to the music that is designed to accompany Black Ballad, and despite my usual preferences for music, I did find the accompanying score to be quite palatable and fitting. I would most definitely recommend using this as background music for this particular setting after all, and I find myself surprised in saying this.
All in all, I must say that I do find that Black Ballad falls into the category of what I would call an “Essential Purchase”. And don’t get me wrong, or feel like I think that most other 3rd party DnD products are garbage. Quite the opposite, actually, again most of what I have played from 3rd party creators for 5E put out offerings that are consistently better than what I have played from WoTC. However, there are realistically only so many adventures one can run as a DM in their lifetime, and one can easily and quickly find that they no longer need ANY campaigns at all to add to their collection given the massive amounts of time involved.
Black Ballad is not the typical type of such adventures. By placing itself within the realm of Death , it opens up an entire new category of experience within any 5E DnD setting by being an open-ended but highly detailed way to deal with the pesky problems associated with TPKs. While there are other “solutions” out there , Black Death offers the most comprehensive and interestingly viable solution to player deaths I have yet seen, and that is saying something!
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer
Jazz Paladin is an eccentric at heart — When he is not learning to make exotic new foods at home, such as Queso Fresco cheese and Oaxacan molé, he is busy collecting vintage saxophones, harps, and other music-related paraphernalia. An avid music enthusiast, when he is not pining over the latest board games that are yet-to-be-released, his is probably hard at work making jazzy renditions of classic/retro video game music tunes as Jazz Paladin on Spotify and other digital music services.