Saving Saxham

By JR Lewis
Dungeon Ag Adventures
Levels 1-3

The village of Saxham has been struck by a terrible curse! Or perhaps it’s being terrorized by demons, ghosts, and the undead? Or… was there a terrible storm? Maybe? No one seems to know exactly what happened here. But the villagers are terrified, bizarre monsters roam the forest, and strange lights strike the woods every night at midnight…

Fuck me. An eighteen page 5e adventure that doesn’t suck. Good magic, good NPC’s, good information transfer (mostly) and a setup that’s not the same as every other adventure under the sun. It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than most 5e. I’d run it.

Twice now I’ve seen .. “gentle?” 5e adventures. I’m playing in a 5e game and when confronted with an evil artifact controlling people, three kids with black eyes speaking in unison … and then when they started to crackle with blue electricity I blew out one of the kids throats, killing him. Turns out I was supposed to save the kids. IE: find a non-violent solution. This adventure is similar, with aspects of the “the dragon is actually the good guy” trope. This is a different play style. While I’m always a fan of letting people talk to monsters, the whole “ultra-violence is not the answer” 5e style is new to me. I think it’s interesting.

Here’s your spoiler, which I’ll actually warn you about for once: everyone in the village died from plague. 30 years later, the ghost of the village priest is bringing their bodies back to life, but it’s a three day process during which they _resemble_ evil treants and then evil zombies. Left alone, everything will work out ok. But we’re not leaving things along, are we? We’re adding the PC’s ….

Thus you’ve got this village with moron villagers saying things that don’t make sense, confused about their surroundings, “evil” shit walking around in the woods, and even a couple of factions. There are some elf druids ready to burn down the world, or at least the woods and village, to stop the blight, and then some faeries that would be unhappy if their woods are burnt down. There’s even some goblins to talk to. It can be a VERY social, and non-violent, adventure, if you can not blow out the throat of a small child with your magic missiles.

There’s a good summary at the beginning of what’s going on, the NPC’s get a little memorable description in a couple of sentences and then bullet point information to convey to the party, all in their own voices. The magic items are flavourful and non-standard and even tend to the non-mechanical, making them more wondrous than the usual +1 sword fare. I’m overcome by a magic ring faintly smelling of patchouli. Always. 🙂 I’ll chop off my hand for Vecna in a heartbeat, but that ring .. man … patchouli? IDK .. And THAT’S a magical fucking experience. Even the wanderers in the fort are great, from a sickly bear whose belly bursts to an rotting animal carcass covered in ants. And the fucking monsters? ONE FUCKING LINE EACH. Yup, all stats on one line. It’s like the designer actually plays D&D! And those goblins and elves? Great. Friendly goblin looking for his sons and a shit-head elf druids. Perfect! Who doesn’t love some arrogant fucking elves in their game?!

There are issues, of course. First, the nature of the village is a little light, or, rather, how the villagers are coping. It’s in there, a little, with their confusion, etc, but maybe not as much as it could be. This is going to be a major part of the parties questions and interactions with the villagers, so a little more guidance/resources in that area would be good.

Second, there’s a … disconnect? Between the map and the descriptions in the adventure. The map is nice, locations are numbered, and a little key on the map says that #2 is the weasel mound, for example. But the adventure heading (which is large and bold, Yeah!) says “Road to Saxham. Well, yes, that’s technically correct, but not quite what I was expecting to see. #2, Weasel Mounds, or some combination thereof is what I would expect to see. Then there’s an entry called “Overgrown Fields.” Well, yes, that is the next thing you would see if walking up the road to the village, and there is a field drawing on the map, unnumbered. Thus the text is laid out in a kind of “walking tour” format, if you start at one end and walk to the other. It IS an open area, so it’s not a linear adventure, but the text is laid out as it were, if that makes sense. Traditional number/key would have worked, as would maybe matching the section headings to the words on the map. There is a vague feeling of being lost in the text, which I think stems from this organization decision. But it IS close to the line, as if I’m almost there in understanding things.

But, still, it’s quiet and fresher than most and rewards the thinking player who doesn’t blow out kids throats with magic missiles at the first sign of crackling blue electricity. I’m gonna grade on a 5e curve and give this the Best tag, understanding that I may have had No Regerts if it wasn’t on a curve. It’s not the usual dungeoncrawl with weird elements and that’s nice to see also.

This is PWYW at DriveThru with a suggested price of $3. The preview is nine pages and gives you a good sense of the actual adventure and the writing style. How the NPC’s are presented, the confused villagers, the section headings/maps, and on so, although you miss most of the social stuff with the elves/goblins/ghost/etc.

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Dungeons of the Dread Wyrm

By R. Nelson Bailey
Dungeoneers Guild Games
Levels 10-15

Rumors hint that below a barren crag in a forlorn range of hills lies the lair of the great dread wyrm, Felmurnuzza. This dragon has mercilessly terrorized and plundered the nearby civilized lands for hundreds of years. However, no one has seen her for many decades. Nonetheless, these kingdoms continue to pay the fell serpent tribute out of fear. Many now say that she sleeps that sleep of death — her legendary fabulous hoard unprotected and ripe for the taking. Of course, if the rumors of her death are not true, a grim death surely awaits those that seek to discover her treasures.

This 37 page adventure describes a linear three level dragon lair with 41 rooms. Am I the only one who groans every time I see a high level adventure? Here’s your recipe: gimp the characters, make it linear like Tomb of Horrors, stuff it full of death traps like Tomb of Horrors. This adventure follows the recipe.

I feel like there was a crucial decision to made in the design of this adventure. There’s a decision between writing a high level adventure and writing a dungeon adventure. High level adventures have to deal with the insane party abilities that high level PC’s have. Over their lives they have had to deal with a bunch of crap, and have used abilities to help survive. And I don’t mean fireball. DIvination, teleport … things to help them determine and avoid the dangers ahead and bypass and/or escape when need be. A high level adventure has to address this. Hidden facts don’t exist and walls don’t stop high level PC’s.

But note that a dungeon is pretty explicit in its use of walls to channel and guide the party and limit their movement. Further, the environment is a “close” one, allowing for lots of room for hidden information, such as traps and other secrets. This is, essentially, WHY the party has all of those abilities. The challenge for the designer then becomes creating challenges for a party whose growth path was specifically designed to thwart the environment.

It seems like this almost inevitably leads to gimping the party. In essence, the designer refuses the challenge and instead just says “fuck you.” The walls are made of lead. Everyone wears rings of mind shielding. No teleports, or stone to mud, no ethereal, no scrying, no detect/divination spells. (This adventure even goes a step further and halves the thieves find & remove traps ability.) You got a room full of human fighters? Just say they are all immune to mind-control magic that way the party has to fight them!

This is a fundamental misunderstanding of what D&D actually IS and how it works. Is D&D, fundamentally, about tactical combat? It is certainly an element, at times, but I don’t think that’s what make it appealing. (And, on the other end of the spectrum, it’s not about storytelling, especially by the DM.) There’s an ad-hoc element to D&D that, I think, makes it appealing. A back and forth between the DM & players reacting to each other. It’s a human interactive game. There’s a part of me that wants to say that the more you can computerize your adventure, or THINK you can computerize it, the worse the adventure is. Note that this covers both tactical combat play styles as well as railroad plot game styles. I don’t exactly buy 100% in to this idea, but there’s an idea buried in there somewhere that appeals to me and I DO think is true.

Yeah, Gygax gimped people in adventures. From stupid +1 turn amulets in B2 to the Tomb or Horrors. Look man, I would have wanted to explore greyhawk dungeon with him DM’ing as much as the next player, but that doesn’t mean he was infallible. Far from it.

Either this should have been an adventure for lower level players that did not have as much “bypass” magic, or it should have been rewritten as something other than a dungeon. Yeah, it’s hard. That’s why there are not a lot of high level adventures and “domain play” is a thing.

This has got another problem. There’s a style of writing that obsesses over dimensions. Room two, we are told, is “… unadorned 30’ by 40’ room. A 9’ tall, 7’ wide, 9’ long statue of a dragon sits across the room from the entryway. The dragon is constructed of bronze and sits on a 1’-tall pedestal. It sits on its haunches with wings folded, its mouth hanging open menacingly.” Or, as a better adventure would say “a massive bronze statue of a roaring statue.” Who the fuck cares that it sits on a 1’ tall pedestal? Is that trivia relevant to the actual play? (Leading the witness by using the word trivia!) This shit stems from the mistaken belief that more is more. It confuses trivia, like dimensions, with providing a good description. You can never provide enough detail to turn a description in to something good. It can be hard to grasp, but its critical to embrace the less is more philosophy. By proving less you are allowing the DM’s imagination fill in the details. THEY can provide an infinite amount of detail to the scene, if need be. This allows the designer to focus their writing. The craft that very short description in something extremely evocative. That little description will jab like an icepick in the DM’s own brain/imagination. THAT’S the goal. Plus, it’s easier for the DM to scan and use during play. A more evocative description, that lets the DM’s imagination build on it, and as a consequence is also easy to scan during play.

Hey jackasses (IE: my devoted readers), don’t confuse this with minimalism. I’m beating the terse/evocative/scanability horse because 95% of adventures fall in to this trap. When “Room 1: 12 skeletons” adventures show up I’ll instead bitch that a random number generator doesn’t provide value. There’s a middle ground, and it’s not minimalism.

One more bitch. Rube Goldberg design. Explaining effects with mechanics that already exist. Put on a crown and get “teleported without error” to the abyss. IE: the magic mouth says a word that dispels a massmorph that summons a … It’s fucking D&D. Shit happens, you don’t need to explain why.

Fuck, no, sorry, another point. I like Grimtooth. I have fond memories of pouring over it as a young teen, along with my Battletech technical readouts. But it’s not a style to be emulated. “The pit has a cone shaped bottom so thieves can’t climb walls out” is both a bit of gimping and a bit of Grimtooth and A LOT of the traps have a Grimtooth element.

It did have a couple of nice hooks, like A Throne card from A Deck giving you the ruined castle that sits on top of the lair, or a captured spy revealing they were working for the dragon, or a prophecy about a certain group of heroes slaying a dragon when a star blazes during the day … hey … what’s that flaming orb up in the sky? I was also rather fond of a room whose walls were black glass scorched, with a big urn in the middle. The urn is full of wraiths and spectres, from the dragon torching the room of workmen. I would have made it wiggle a little and smoke a bit … the best trouble is the trouble the party gets in to of their own accords. 🙂

Anyway, just another Tomb of Horrors.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is the first six pages, meaning it shows you nothing except the hooks and rumors on the last page.

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Phaunt’s Tower

By Jonathan Hicks
Farsight Games
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 1-3

Welcome to Wherwest! This is a town full of opportunities at every corner, adventure through every door and danger at every turn. Glory and gold awaits! That is, if you can get past your first night here.

This 22 page adventure details a nine room friendly wizards tower that has been invaded by demons. Event based, forced fights, and sloopy text detracts from the attempts to add a little sparkle to the adventure.

Well, there’s some nice wording here and there. Nice imagery (with art attached) of a small fortified village with a tower in the middle, blue light on top, acting as a kind of beacon in the wilderness. After a magical explosion there’s the smell of sulphur and rotting meat wafting through the smoke and fog around the tower.

There’s also a nice scene or three, like … “a badly damaged gelatinous cube sloshing its way down the street, falling apart with great globs splashing onto the ground …” Or people trapped inside that need escorted out. Or a cleric fighting for her life … who heals you if you save her. And … consequences. Going after the cube or saving the people slows you down; it’s a distraction from your main mission: getting to the top of the tower to stop a demon infestation. Getting distracted has consequences: an extra demon added to encounters after that.

This sort of consequence based events appeals to me. Fuck around and it gets harder. Save a villager and it gets a little easier with heals, etc.

What’s less interesting is … well … everything else. 22 pages and nine rooms means issues. In this case, single column, long read-alouds, and extensive DM text, all of which detract from the adventure. “This is the main hall where Phaunt receives guests, petitioners and dignitaries”, begins the description for room one. And then dimensional data. And then a description of a normal room. And THEN a description of the combat with demons in the room. Most important things come first people, and room purposes are not needed, nor are histories or descriptions of typical things.

The DM descriptions are expansive, with a lot of asides “so the party should be able to deal with them [demons] quickly.” says the text, adding nothing to the adventure except a conversational style that clogs things up. Text is wasted describing the detailed mechanics of an archery contest, with no hint of flavour to make it exciting, like onlookers, other contestants, the judge, etc. That’s what will make the context interesting and memorable, not the mechanics.

And, of course, there’s the forced fights. S&W level one. What’s that mean, something like 2hp each? Maybe 3? The party faces forced combat after forced combat. That’s ok though, we’re told repeatedly that if they get in trouble then the DM should send a town guardsman in to help them. Ug.

The main treasure room in the tower exemplifies the adventure. Lot’s of simple book +1 items … that you can’t use because they are locked down by the wizard. What’s the point of it all?

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages and doesn’t show you much. But … that long read-aloud? While nothing else reaches those heights it is a good example, nonetheless, of the style.

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(5e) Temple of the Nightbringers

By M.T. Black
Self Published
Level 1

A tribe of goblins are raiding travelers on the Long Road, and our heroes decide to help. After a dangerous overland journey, they enter a mysterious abandoned temple where they encounter terrifying monsters, deadly traps, dark magic and a shocking secret. Will they survive the Temple of the Nightbringers?

This eleven page adventure feature a twelve page dungeon and is not a terrible 5e adventure. It’s not particularly good, either. Given the dreadful state of 5e adventures I think you can understand how excited I was to see this one. You should even be able to run it without having read it. I know! It’s like the designer gave a shit!

Dude gets in and get out with his DM text. The innkeeper is Seth Grimhill and he is a bit short tempered. The elven hunter happily tells the party what she knows. There’s enough NPC detail to roleplay them without us having to hear their entire life stories. Thanks. Fucking. God. Further, and get this, elf chick lives with the butchers family and won’t unlock the damn door after nightfall. One sentence. That’s all it fucking takes. One sentence. “If the adventurers try to see her that night, the butcher will tell them to come back the next day and refuse to unlock the door.” That scene builds in your head as you read it. Not a page or a column or a paragraph. A fuckton of designers could learn from this example. Sure, it could be better. The NPC’s could have two aspects, or the butcher a personality, etc, but I’d sure the fuck wish people err on this side of the terseness spectrum; at least it’s still usable as an adventure when they do.

The dungeon shows some similar thought. There’s a bit of read-aloud (more on that later) and then a small DM notes section. If there’s something important then it appears BEFORE The read-aloud. Room noisy? Door spiked shut? That’s the sort of shit you need to know before you get to the read-aloud and it’s actually placed before the read-aloud. It’s as if someone thought “what information will a DM generally need first?” and then they went ahead and put that information first. I know it sounds obvious, but the vast majority of writers don’t do that. The DM text tends to be short as well, just a couple of sentences. PERFECT! Give me the TOOLS to run the room rather than obfuscating the room by hand holding.

As far as the content, proper, it’s trying pretty hard and DOES use several aspects of good encounter design. First, you can talk to a few things. That adds IMMENSELY to adventures. After all, it’s a roleplaying game, and that doesn’t mean we take turns hamming it up. You can always stab something, talk to it first, have some fun. Throw those worgs some wagyu and bribe that bugbear.

There’s also this thing in better dungeons where you can fuck with things. Glowing pool of water … wanna fuck with it? That risk-taking OUTSIDE of combat is one of the hallmarks of good D&D. Yeah, yeah, the dungeons dangerous and bad DM’s put in pit traps, but FUCKINGwith something. That’s tension baby. The players debate. They conspire. They come up with stupid plans. That’s D&D.

There’s also a nice magic item, a mask. Wearing it gives you a +1 bonus to a few things and lets you take a short rest immediately. And the effects last an hour … minus one minute for each time you use it. And it slowly shifts your alignment. That’s a decent magic item. Maybe a little too mechanical, but it is still 5e after all. It’s not just a +1 sword

The read-aloud is also too long. Three sentences, that’s all you get. And putting in the room dimensions and where the doors are is lame. Let the players ask. Remember, that WOTC study showed that no one pays attention after 2-3 sentences.

I also noted that I have a REAL problem with “storyteller” style text. “You know the mud from your boots as your cross the threshold” makes me want to retch in my mouth. The story belongs to the players, just be a neutral judge.

There’s also a level of abstraction I’m uncomfortable with. We’re told that this is a particularly savage goblin tribe. B O R I N G. Details. Heads on pikes and blood angels made of entrails. That’s still short and NOT abstract. Likewise the rumor data is abstracted. The key is to make it flavorful while still being terse. That’s powerful writing. That’s what we should be paying for.

I can quibble with a few more things. ‘How many goblins are there’ is a natural question for the players to ask while investigating, but there’s none of that information provided anywhere by the NPC’s, or easily by the adventure, for the Dm to look up. The ELven Hunters information would be better in bullet form, as the rumor table is. It makes it far easier to find information.

There’s some bullshit skill checks also. DC10 to be let in to town. Some Religion roll to know something is related to some god. Neither of them actually have an impact. The Religion stuff is trivia (and besides, I think the party is told the goddess straight off? Weird that a statue to Shar in the temple of Shar, right?) Who did that/those article on good vs bad skill rolls? Hack n Slash or Finch maybe? It should be required reading for designers AND editors.

Finally, it engages in history in a few places, why zombies are in a room or the EHP backstory. Stick it in an appendix if you must, but keep the damn shit out of the main text where it clogs up running the adventure.

I’d say this one is on the low end of what I might find tolerable. It’s got nothing much special going for it, content wise. It IS one of the few traditionally formatted adventures that you could run 5 minutes after buying. That’s not a trivial accomplishment. Compared to most 5e adventures this thing kicks ass.

This is $2 at DriveThru. Ye Ole Previewe doesn’t seem to work?–Adventure

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The Cult of the Green orb

By Extildepo
Verisimilitude Society Press
Swords & Wizardry
Level 4-7

It’s a holiday, so Sapporo at 9am instead of “4 cups of coffee by 9am.”

For half a century, life in the mining outpost of Piktown has been peaceful and prosperous until a strange green glow in the nearby mountain range rekindled a frightening legend from the past. Does this recent luminous phenomenon signal the return of the dreaded Cult of the Green Orb? The Overlord has hired you and your fellow adventurers to stop the troubling green glow!

This twenty page adventure describes a thirty room dungeon. Undead, spellcasters, demons, and even a dragon in what one could call a classic mixed dungeon-crawl. A verbose writing style mixes with classic fantasy elements to provide a nostalgic dungeon experience.

Classic experience indeed. The front doors feature a great statue of a dwarf, carved in to the mountain, backlit with green light. They close behind you when you hit a pressure plate. There’s a dragon literally slumbering in the throne room atop a pile of loot. There’s a demon trapped in a summoning circle. These classic elements are combined with popular fiction elements. There’s a troll head that could be out of The Thing, a gollum-like NPC … friendly until he gets his sanity back, and the Locknaar of Heavy Metal fame. And those were just the most obvious. This all combines to create a charming nostalgic feel to the adventure. No gimps or gimmicks, just fuking with demons and dragons, weird green glows, and the like. The map is decent enough to support an exploratory type play.

Alas the writing and formatting is terrible. Paragraphs do a great Wall of Text imitation, making it hard to wade through them. It’s combined with the usual unfocused verbosity. Room 24 is an Apprentices Lab, or so says the room title. Also, the first sentence of the description is “Here is the typical apprentice’s lab.” Okkkk… I think you just said that? Also, then there’s a description that follows that tells us what a typical apprentice lab looks like. Seventy wasted words, followed by a purple velvet bag hidden in a corroded brazier … maybe fifteen useful words. This is the agony of my existence. The NPC’s back in town are another good example. Trading Post dude is boisterous and barrel-chested with a strong black beard. Good imagery, all self-contained in one sentence. And then we learn he’s in his 30’s, young for his job, and took over from his father, Frank, who was killed by a green dragon named Cylith when the NPC was ten. THEN follows a bunch of read-aloud that contains what he knows about the shit in the area/dungeon. This nonsense goes on for two pages. Name, personality feature sentence, a few in-voice bullet points. That’s all you need. The rest of this garbage text is useless and gets in the fucking way of running the adventure and I HATE it when that happens.

This is one of my favorite room descriptions. Not as good as that Dungeon Magazine empty room thing, that’s still the all time best by far, but this one is good also:

“4. Empty Cells: This is where the prisoners of Azul Rik awaited trial. They are all empty and each cell door looks as though it has been forced open. Some shackles are missing or broken off at the chain. A few bones (some goblinoid) litter the cells. This place was once full of long­dead prisoners of the Iron King, but they were raised long ago by the Loknaar for Zed’s army.”

Nothing. Just nothing. There’s always some fuckwit that needs to disagree, so, please, go ahead, tell me why this is a good description. Empty Cells, forced open, broken shackles, indeterminable humanoid bones. And I’m a shitty shitty writer.

This is $4 at DriveThru. There’s no preview?

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AA#40: The Horror of Merehurst

Joseph Browning
Expeditious Retreat Press
Level 1

The island of Merehurst was once a bustling center for trade. But this was not to last, for in one single deadly night sixty years ago all the people and the animals of the town died – collapsing where they stood. The neighboring villagers of Coombe claimed that the miners dug too deeply into Ynyswel and the spirit of the isle was offended. The island gained a fearsome reputation and only the bravest would dare set foot upon its forested grounds. Yesterday strange lights were seen in the sky over the island and Ynyswel started smoking. The villagers can wait no longer. Brave adventurers must be found who are willing to investigate the Isle of Merehurst to either appease or oppose what lies behind the latest mysterious activities.

This seventeen page adventure describe about 45 locations on a small island: an abandoned village, farmstead, and mine. It’s got a creepy ass vibe and does a great job creating an exploratory environment. If his editor had cut half the words instead of over-explaining it would be a great, solid first level adventure. Oh, wait, it looks like he wrote it AND edited it …

THis thing sets itself up as creepy as fuck. The background information is all mysterious. An entire village dying overnight on the island. Strange lights on the island that can be seen from the shore. No word from the loner family living on the island … it’s a nice erie set up. It’s strengthened by a wandering table that has a fair amount of creepy and weird happenings on it to help with the mood. Crawling hands, dripping blood, a flopping fish far from the water. With a decent DM the party will be shitting itself in no time. In this respect the tension built is kind of wasted on the “normal” wanderers, especially the undead. It feels like that would break tension. But that’s an actual play thing ands easily adjusted in play … more of an academic point of debate I guess I’m asserting? Anyway, it’s got a great creepy vibe n the environment and nice encounters to support it like undead children and the like. I seldom mention art, but in this case the undead kids, creeping eyeballs, and “map art” is all top notch and does a wonderful job contributing the overall vibe of the adventure. That’s exactly what art SHOULD do in a product, and does not in most cases.

The encounters are a great mix of the mundane and the dead. There’s a substantial set of ruins in the village and plenty of room for that giant tick in the overgrown collapsed building, as well as the half-dead. There’s even some room to talk to a few things. It’s not packed to the gills with combat with, again, reinforces that creepiness.

The writing is, again, the downside. It’s not overly evocative, for all of the attempts at creepiness. Dripping blood is not quite as good as oozing blood, which is an issue here; it is solidly in the “workmanlike” category of descriptions. A little more time spent agonizing over word choice would have gone a long way here.

As would, as I said earlier, an editor to challenge on the writing. That assumes an editor would, and I don’t think they do much anymore. Copyediting and other simple suggestions? Writers need challenged. Every sentence, if not word, should contribute, and that doesn’t happen here. A storage room description tells us “As the mine expanded more storage was needed and this part of the new stone building was set aside for that purpose.” It is almost NEVER The case that explaining WHY is useful, and that drops even more when you talk about usage and history and “used to be.” That sentence doesn’t help. It doesn’t help me run the room. In fact, it detracts from it. As I look at the entry while running the adventure I have to wade through it before I get to the actual room description that I need to run the room. This adventure does that over and over again. Stirges are nocturnal hunters who travel in to the northeast when the sun descends — —they’ve learned to avoid the ruins of the city as several of them have recently been killed by the various predators within. What’s the point of that? It has no bearing on the room. If the party is here at sunset do you think I’m going to suddenly remember this detail and make the stirge fly out? If you WANT me to do that then you need a section in the front on day/night changes that will prompt me. No, this is more explaining. It’s fleshing out a world in a kind of computer RPG manner. Richly describing things that will almost certainly never happen. If I was playing Fallout and say some batlike oobs fly out of some ruined building at sunset it would get my attention … but, again, that’s not what is happening here.

Treasure does “spill from pouches” at times, but it’s mostly the usual assortment of +1 swords. Again, workmanlike.

This is $14 at DriveThru. The preview doesn’t seem to work?

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(5e) The Claws of Madness

By Chris van der Linden
Level 1

For centuries, Aelmor Monastery near the port town of Sestone was a safe haven for scholars, monks, and pilgrims seeking enlightenment, its renowned library home to an enormous collection of ancient manuscripts, tomes, and peculiar writings. After suffering a devastating attack at the hands of a possessed monastery elder, Aelmor fell into ruin, its troubled past forgotten. When villagers start disappearing and turn up horribly mutated days later, fear takes a grip of Sestone. What sinister forces are at work? And to what end?

This 36 page adventure details an island and dungeon with 46 rooms. It’s slightly better than the usual 5e garbage, as the page count to room number would indicate. It tries for a creepy vibe but, still, it’s nothing more than a sub-par hack with the usual thin plot to drive things.

Generic hooks and the usual setup: disappearances, bodies, etc. Must be coming from that old monastery on the island where bad things happened! Of course it’s an island, that makes it plausible why the villagers haven’t gone there and yet puts the party close enough that at first level they can make it there. Islands in the harbor: the new sewers. Anyway, hooks and plot are for fuckwits and can always be ignored. The real question is: is this thing worth my time to slog through? As is usual, the answer is no.

I wasn’t completely sure of that answer though, at least when I first dug in. The designers appears plagued by a certain rare form of mistakes. He clearly had a vision for this, and a couple of good ideas, but had no idea how to sustain it.

Lets us examine, for example, the opening scene. A sudden commotion in the town square full of people reveals guy with tentacles bursting from him. In most adventures this would be that well-known (and shitty) “start them off with a fight!” advice. But not here. He’s not hostile. You can even help him some and/or ease his suffering. It almost makes sense! He’s a villager, he’s come back to the village for help. Why would he eat his friends?

This was followed up by a keyed map of the village … that is just that, a key and nothing much else. OMG! NOT a long drawn out description of a general store! NOT a long drawn out description of an inn! Just a map and a notation of which building is which, essentially. It’s almost like … like … the designer knows that doesn’t add value!

Then there’s the “gather information” portion of the adventure. It’s one column with some non-odious headings to help you find information. Hmmm. Not exactly terse writing, but, still, it’s only a column.

Then there’s the NPC descriptions. Here’s the one for a guy who’s got some missing shipments: “his short and stout man is a cunning negotiator and expert appraiser, always on the lookout to make a profit. His left eye has been replaced with a sapphire that he usually keeps covered with a fine purple eye patch. When he gets excited about a deal, he cracks his knuckles and stretches his arms out in front of him. His braided brown hair has distinctive dark orange streaks in it.” I could do without that last sentence, and it could be shorter, but, still, the description is focused on meaningful things. Not his life fucking story, but how to roleplay him. Oh course, the next one is full of batshit studpid trivia like “he lost his beloved dog while fishing during a stormy night”, but, still, there are hints in these things that this is not a lost cause.

Then there’s this attempt at a kind of Lovecraftian dread. Whispers in the darkness, a little bit of subtle madness, the tentacle/corruption thing. Notes are scattered throughout to help the DM with this. I don’t think it really conveys the full impact of what he’s going for … but it’s not shit either. That vibe is hard as fuck to achieve, even in a CoC game, and then throw in swords, fireballs, and a “we kill it” attitude and you can get the sense of the challenge. But his heart is in the right place and while not super effective the advice is not shitty either.

So far, things are ok. Not terrible.

Then the actual adventure starts and it goes downhill FAST.

There’s this island, with a monastery and a couple of levels of dungeon under it. It’s just stuffed full of shitty encounters. I hate to sounds like an old grump, but it reminded me of the “If Quake was done today” video. “Shoot enemies to kill them!” as on screen advice. While walking up some stairs on a cliff were confronted with this little gem: “… One of the bandits is on guard duty, scouting the area about 200 feet ahead of their camp. The adventurers can attempt to make a Dexterity (Stealth) check against the scout’s passive Perception to move closer undetected.” Ok, everybody, make a Stealth check. Why? Uh … just do it. It’s this weird game-like vibe. If captured one of the bandits will relate that there’s this mean gnoll thats a tremendous fighter that took out two bandits single-handedly! Do you think bandits refer to themselves that way? As bandits? “Four of our comrades died when we were attacked a day ago by a pack of gnolls.” It’s all awkward.

The place is just stuffed full of meaningless boring old fights. There’s a ghost … that does nothing, tells you nothing, and is meaningless. And then there’s the text padding. There’s a room titled “Catacombs Antechamber” which gets the following description: “A small anteroom serves as the entry into the catacombs. On the left and right, two wooden doors lead into a U-shaped room filled with sarcophagi. A small flight of stairs directly ahead leads down to the Crypt of Anthomodus. A ghostly presence can be felt in this area. See the “Ghostly Presence” sidebar for more information. If the characters investigate the stone door, read:”

So … it’s an antechamber? And the room looks like it does on the map? The only interesting thing is the ghostly presence sentence. Just all padding.

Also, the adventure gets NO bonus points for putting in the Hand of Vecna. Oh, it’s not CALLED the hand, but it’s the hand. Why no points for the hand? Well, because you have to gimp it, of course. Putting it on means you instantly turn CE. Ug! I hate that shit! You want some curse and shit? Fine. But your moralizing with alignment changes are LAME.

Anyway, long boring room descriptions. Long boring read-aloud. Nothing much going on except for some things to hack down. (mostly.)

Just another boring adventure, with a little bit of window dressing and a faint glimmer of hope that the designer can get better.

This is $7 at DriveThru.

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Nightstone Keep

By Ed Greenwood
Frog God Games
Levels 4-6

The characters will be able to explore the ruins of the keep, which have become a plant colony, and attempt to wrest a powerful treasure from the clutches of the araunglyd, a gigantic sentient fungus. The araunglyd will attempt to thwart the players at every turn, using its drone-like minions to harass and hinder them as they go.

This 23 page mess describes a keep with … 10 rooms? It is ABSOLUTELY a fucking mess. I think it might be another Aliens-type adventure, like Arachnophobia by Usherwood. Take Greenwoods expansive writing and combine it with Frogs utter incompetence when it comes to editing and you’ve got a very special product indeed. This thing is like it’s been through 6 passes of a translator, one of which was old english. There’s a fungus monster in the keep … and he’s got some minions? That’s about as much as I can dig up.

I don’t know who’s to blame. I suspect Greenwood for his writing style and no one at Frog pushing back … and then also an “editor’ … who I suspect didn’t read it at all. That’s the only excuse I can think of. I remind you that the Frogs put out an adventure with the wrong cover .. an no one ever seemingly caught it. It’s cra.

It’s got be be pretty fucking egregious for me to say something, and I’m saying something. “… connecting to underground areas in the Mainmain Cellarcellar beneath.” That’s not an infamous Bryce typo. That’s a$8 adventure with an editor attached. That’s not the only example. This shit happens all over the place. The Speartongue monster has “Hit Dice: 32” Not, that’s not a hit point mistake, as in it has 32 HP. It bears no relation to reality. Someone just put in 32.

The fun starts almost immediately. As you approach there are two birds atop the keep that attack you. This is a four paragraph encounter, for some fucking reason. It starts with this little gem “A mated pair of carrion graw nesting atop the keep see any characters approaching. The graw can’t immediately be seen from below, as they lie on its roof with wings spread and heads down, peering out through the gaps where merlons have fallen away. The graws will swoop to attack as soon as any character moves into the open.A mated pair of carrion graw (giant predatory birds) nesting atop the keep see any character character him” That last sentence looks like notes or something, that was expanded in to the text, maybe, that appears before it? It just ends, with the “him”, without punctuation. And the fucking adventure does this all over the place!

And the format Oh boy. It’s not room/key. There’s just a big bold heading, like “Throne Room” … and then four or five paragraphs of text explaining what is going on. Or “Main Cellar” or something like that … with seven paragraphs of text. From that you have to read it all and figure out what is going on. It’s fucking nuts. It’s not even wall of text, its something else. I have no fucking idea what to call it. No one spent ANY time trying to massage this thing in to something useful. It’s like you tries to have James Joyce write the pre-flight checklist for an airliner … sure, it’s kind of neat in a weird way, but its utterly useless for the purpose of which its intended.

This adventure, for 4th-6h level characters in a game where gold=xp, has 25sp and 148gp of treasure, as well as a Gem of Vitality … which heals you for 1d4hp every round and can bring the dead back to life. It has no downsides/curses, etc.

This is $8 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages and only shows you one page of text … the one with the start of the bird encounter on it.

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Caverns of Ambuscade

By Davis Chenault
Troll Lord Games
Castles & Crusades
Levels 5-6

The silver mines run deep under the Unterbrook, unearthed by the clever hands of man and dwarf and the wealth has flowed like never before. But such wealth tends to draw unwanted eyes, and such excavations to cross powers best left asleep. Recently, all contact with the mines has been lost and a brooding silence settled upon the Unterbrook. Even the goblins shun the region. Plunge beneath the mountain’s roots and learn the mystery of the silvered caverns.

This 24 page adventure describes a mine with two levels and 24 rooms. It’s a Tuckers Kobolds kind of scenario, with ambushes and masses of low-HD opponents. In other news, I continue to have no patience for verbose, unfocused writing.

The Trolls may own the printing press, but its an editor that they need. Column long rooms, four paragraphs for an empty room. My intolerance for obfuscation seems to be growing. Building two in a old watch tower. It gets a paragraph of read aloud and then three more of additional information. There is a body in it, long decayed and picked clean by buzzards so you can’t tell what it was. But … we do know it was on guard duty and was killed by snakebite. Well, the DM knows this, the players have no way of knowing. What’s the point of this? The history of every rock and patch of lichen? The room has a cast iron stove in it, connected to a flue that juts out of the roof, with kindling in the room, and salt residue. It’s literal fucking trivia. The adventure does this sort of shit over and over again. It is COMPELLED to tell us the history of every little item encountered, as if it fucking mattered. You know what matters? Running the fucking game. You know what matters? Things the players will interact. Actual items related to actual play. The inability for writers to recognize this is one of the most frustrating experiences you can have. To see something this obvious, that happens over and over and over again. No Exit indeed.

How about a list of normal supplies? Want to know what’s in a room? How about a kitchen? A mining supply room in a mine? Have no worries, Davis is here to save you! Exhaustive lists of mundane room contents are included almost everywhere! Now you too can know what’s in a pantry! Joy! And to think, you’ve lived your whole life knowing this without the padded text of this adventure.

This is bad writing. It’s bad design. It’s some misguided appeal to realism. It has no place in the adventure. It’s only useful if it adds value to the actual play.

And this is to the detriment of the actual play value of the adventure. At one point there’s a steep stair over a chasm. A chasm that doesn’t show up on the map. It’s exceptionally confusing trying to figure out what is going on. Ledge … what ledge? Chute? Chasm? None of it is obvious AT ALL.

I leave you with two choice examples of text from the adventure. The first rivals Forgotten Realms for being incomprehensible. The second describes another point of trivia that has no bearing on the adventure.

Unbeknownst to the Leonhirdz, the mining operation alerted a Therafak (see New Monsters) living nearby. The Therafak bided its time and awaited an opportunity to do something. With the war in the south brewing, the Moorzeepin informed members of the Magdole Gang of the operation and they in turn informed a raiding party of Zjerd that had begun operating in that region of the Unterdrook. A Zjerd war

The kzarkim used several trullmirst to dig out holes in the walls leading from Room 2 to Room 4. They then stacked the planks and lumber over the holes in Room 2 so that they were not readily apparent. The idea was that, if anyone enters the mines and goes up to Room 3, the kzarkim can sneak out of the holes in here and ambush them.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. The last couple give you a good example of meandering writing style compelled to explain everything.–Crusades–Caverns-of-Ambuscadia

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Beneath the Ruins of Firestone Keep

By M. T. Black, GM Lent, Dave Zajac
Self Published
Levels 1-3

Lord Blackmoor’s son has been kidnapped, and is being held in the crypts beneath an ancient fortress. Can our heroes rescue the boy before he is sacrificed in a diabolical ceremony?

This twenty six page adventure has a twenty five room dungeon crawl. Long read-aloud, lots of explaining and justifications for things pad out what would be normal crawl.

There are four chapters here, where chapter one is “hook, two is “wilderness journey” (IE: two linear encounters”), three is the dungeon and four is the NPC betrayal. As soon as I read the hook I knew the lords sister was the baddy and, sure enough, she turns out to tbe the baddy. Shoulda just killed her to start with.

Anway, Lord Who Cares’
Son has been kidnapped and he wants the party to go get him. He knows the kobolds did it and that they lair in a ruin nearby. In my opinion, he’s getting what he deserves for not slaughtering the kobolds earlier, but whatever. He loves his son so much that he can’t be bothered to send his six guards with the party. “They can’t be spared.” Uh huh. It’s this kind of shit that breaks the suspension of disbelief. “Sure, whatever, I guess we have to if we want to play D&D tonight.” Just give the due no guards, or let the party have them if they are smart enough to ask, or something else. Why fuck around with saying no? I’ll tell you why, because the designer said so, that’s why!

A pit trap takes two paragraphs to describe. Remember pit traps? They used to be drawn on the map as an X with no text in the adventure? Not anymore. Some rooms take over a page to describe. Read-aloud overstays its welcome … while simultaneously saying nothing. “There are two doors, one open and one shut.” I FRIGGING HATE THE SIBBY!!

One of the chief sins herein is engaging in explaining and justifying. “He was a necromancer, which accounts for the high amount of necrotic energy in the crypts.” That’s FUCKING irrelevant It doesn’t matter if it has no impact on the adventure. What’s the explanation for? WHO’S the explanation for? It has no impact on play. The adventure engages in this activity over and over again, justifying shit, noting trivia. Make a DC15 Religion check to know the frescos re related to Bane, god of War … which is nothing but trivia. At one point there’s read-aloud that says something like “as if it were clawing its way out of a nightmare.” No. Just No. Failed Novelist Syndrome. Or how about conditional descriptions? IF the party triggers the tripwire THEN the kobolds will … Again, no, No, NO! This sort of phrasing drives me insane. It’s nothing but padding.

The map is ok. It’s a bit larger DYson map than usual, and has some loops and passages running under others. It’s not an ANTI_exploration map and is good enough for the tactics and mystery needed for a dungeoncrawl map. The magic items are generally boring, with the exception of an item or two, like a faulty mirror of scrying and a magic glaive that gives you advantage on intimidates and has a nice glowing jewel and makes cool sounds when wielded. IE: its a magic item and not just a mechanical bonus.

This is $3 at DriveThru.–Adventure

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