Cess Pit of the Bogg-Mother

By Jeff Dee
Level 1-3

What strange being has taken up residence in the long-ruined swamp-circled castle, and what is its connection to the increase of Orc raids in the region?

This eleven page adventure uses three pages, plus map, to detail a small seventeen room underground dungeon. The descriptions tend to the vanilla+ side of the spectrum, with things little too journeyman for me.

It is always with some trepidation that I review things by folks from the early days. It has been my general impression that they tend to copy their earlier styles, for better or worse. The nostalgia that clouds our memories, combined with the many uplifts in formatting and presentation, can lead to, uh, misaligned expectations. Jeff’s sins are not as major as some of his peers.

There is an odd division here between vanilla and what “cess-pit of the bog mother” would imply. Imagine in your mind those scenes from Aliens that depicted the slime tunnels at the bottom of the complex, full of victims, etc. If you had seen the movie and heard me describe it to someone as “alien slime tunnels” would you be disappointed with my description? The content of this adventure has potential but the writing is weak.

Muddy, tree roots from the ceiling, pools of water, trails of slime … these are some of the elements of the adventure. But it comes across in the writing as: “This is an empty, muddy earthen cave. There are several pools of muddy water on the floor. Roots dangle down from the ceiling.” Okkkkkk…. So, yes, that’s all true. But it is much more fact based than impression based, I might say. It certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it’s also not particularly evocative. When I say vanilla+, it’s what I’m referring to. The writing is generally solid, but not very interesting.

I might also cite a couple of editing issues. Note how that room description beings. “This is an …” A LOT of ofthe room descriptions begin that way. It’s pointing your finger at someone and naming it, instead of using it as some kind of implied potential energy. There’s a lot of “appears to be” and other little “weasel words” that steal the energy from the text and the writing.

Room six, in particular, has issues. This is the big baddies room. Almost a page long, the description is all over the place. I’ve talked about this before, but ONE of the better ways to write a room description is to start with a very general overview of what the players see/experience when they enter the room. That’s the very first thing the DM is going to need when running the room, so by putting it as the first thing in the description you give a nice little overvview for the DM. While the players are reacting to that First Post, the DM can be glanceing down at the follow-on details, perhaps organized with whitespace/paragraph, etc, around the major room elements. But in this room its all over place. You have to read the entire thing to get a sense of what is going on and then process it and then relate first impressions to the players. Uncool for a page long description. The adventures lack of bolding, or even much formatting beyond the paragraph break, is not a positive either. Again, a focus on helping the DM is missing.

There are other small things that set me off. The hag baddie creating healing stuff from a swamp herb … but its only usable if your evil. This is usually seen in the form of an artifact that is only usable by evil folks, but the entire “you can’t but they can” shit is lame. And then other weirdo things like a lack of tracks in the ruins above the dungeon etc. It’s just not very deep in a lot of places that are not specifically “slime monsters.”

The map, though, is fine for being a small one. Not really. It does a good job of showing detail in it and overloads the map with information for the DM. For a small map it’s pretty interesting with its features and loops, etc.

Is this BAD? No. Is it GOOD? No.

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. The preview is three pages. Only the last page gives you an idea of the writing, and that’s for the wilderness area.

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Frandor’s Keep

By David S. Kenzer, Steve Johansson, Jolly R. Blackburn, Mark Plemmons, Benjamin Sharef
Kenzer & Co
Hackmaster BASIC
Levels 1-5

Holding its lonely vigil high in the rocky hinterlands, on the furthest reaches of civilization, sits the military outpost known as Frandor’s Keep. Perhaps you come to the Keep as soldier, merchant, bounty hunter or wanderer, or merely to seek payment for a debt owed (continuing the adventure begun in White Palette, Ivory Horns). No matter, for you are here now, in a wilderness teeming with strange creatures and fraught with danger — the perfect forge for you to hammer your career upon.

This 160 page book is about half starting settlement/regions and about half adventures. Another Keep on the Borderlands, it expands the keep and town and mini-adventures in them/around them, as well as providing several larger Things To Do in the area. The town/keep/region is interesting, the background boring, the mini-adventures nicely done, and the main adventures suck.

The first chunk of this book, about half, describes the regional around the Keep, the town outside and Keep proper. IE: the starting base. The next chunk, about a chapter, outlines (at about a page each) some of the hooks mentioned in the region/town/keep as little mini-adventures/things to follow up on. The final large chunk of the book, again about half, describes some the adventuring locales in the region. The first two sections, though chapter eight (of eleven+appendix) are really quite interesting. It’s focused like a laser on being a starting location. The regiona, town, keep, NPC’s and little side-quests are all well done and relate to interactivity with the players.

SKipping past the background information gets us to the regional information. It is from that point on that the quality level stays high, until the main adventures are reached. It’s all pretty fucking focused. There’s a gembuyer in town. Turns out she’s just an apprentice to the main gembuyer in the keep and she only handles the small stuff. Oh, and she gets a payoff form the thieves to let them know who’s carrying. We’re looking at three focuses, all on the players. You can sell her stuff. She can introduce you in to the keep. And finally she provides a pretext for the thieves to hit the party and some follow up as the party tracks back to her. Focused. On. Play.

To be sure, it gets caught up in its own bullshit a little too much. Background, past lives story, etc, all go on a little too long for each entry. A little bit of the past is enough for the party asking around, we don’t need more unless it impacts play.

It’s hyperlinked and indexed well, providing references to find more information. It FEELS like a living and breathing place, with people having interactions at more than one locale, and being connected to others in different locations. There’s even tips in how to mix in some mundane shit to make it seem even MORE alive, like soldier patrols, woodcutters, and the like on the roads/wilderness. And, there’s an NPC reference chart! Hooray! It needs some personality on it, but it tries. And wandering encounters are doing things! And there are a FUCK ton of rumors, indexed, with context in different situations, all in voice. My Hero!

The last good chapter has a list of minor little adventures and subplots that were mentioned in the main town/region/keep text. Collected in one place, some expanded upon to a page or so outline, describing what’s going on, whos involved, etc, it’s a good way to handle those little side-quest thingies that come up in any large place.

There’s a lot here to steal. It’s a good read, and provides the sort of rich environment, the interconnectedness, that you need in a good town. I also mourn for the person trying to use this. It DOES go on too long with bullshit backstory. This is the sort of place you have to read a dozen times until you KNOW it, as if you created the content yourself. It’s rewarding as all fuck, but shows its age (2009.) It’s remarkable for it DOES provide, as a play aid from 2009, but this is not going to be an easy to use town. I’d love to see it republished using a more focused approach to play at the table.

And then the adventures start. The main adventures. Ug. Long LONG read-aloud text, long rambling room descriptions. Writing that tends to the boring side of the spectrum. Again, the interconnected nature of the things in the adventures are nice, and there’s a certain relatability to things, even a goblin lair, that is a nice realism, but jesus fuck, wading through that text is NOT worth it. A column to almost a page per room is NOT worth it. The challenge is to provide a rich environment while still remaining easy to use ta the table. This doesn’t meet that criteria.

You know, this reminds me, in a way, of the material in the big Rappen book that dealt with the environs outside the dungeon. There was a lot, and some of it quite rich.

Someone asked so I reviewed this. It places me in an interesting position. I don’t review regional/sourcebook type stuff. It’s all fluff and how much fluff appeals to you is a matter of personal taste. A starting base, though, is something else. I was genuinely excited as I read the town/base portions of this and day dreamt of how to incorporate it in to some of the games I am running. Likewise the ad-hoc and small adventures … while lamenting the quality of the main adventures. The first section is a fun read, in the way I imagine some people only read those Adventure Path things. But, its gotta be usable. And it ain’t.

This is $15 at DriveThru. The only preview is one of those “quick” ones, that don’t show you anything but an eagles eye view of the layout. IE: worthless.

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Life & Death

By Newt Newport
D101 Games
Crypts & Things
Low levels

Miraz the Golden sees itself as the inheritor of the old Lion Empire. It is an oppressive military police state which seeks to dominate its neighbours. Some say the wrath of the gods has been brought down because of its hubris and a plague currently strikes it. Its Tyrant looks on from his remote palace, as the victims of the disease shuffle around the streets as newly-risen zombies. While his heirs fight amongst themselves to see who will succeed their father, once he is toppled by the rebellion that is fermenting in the streets. Into this madness step the beginning adventurers, out to make a fortune and a name for themselves.

This 66 page book has three adventures and small fifteen page setting overview. Charming and full of genuine writing, evocative and non-linear yet clear of intent, it strikes to heart of what good D&D is. It also makes you fight it at times to get the content out; not all layout choices are equal.

Folks talk about toolboxes sometimes. Generally that means a bunch of tables and not what I could call an adventure. Sometimes It’s used to refer to things like the old MERP modules. There is something in between the MERP adventures and “normal” adventures and man, does it ever fucking resonate when you hit it. Sandbox is overused. It’s clear from the adventure what is going on and how the players would most likely interact with it, but its not exactly written to that end. Scourge of the Demon Wolf did this, and do did that Garden of the Hag Queen adventure, if I recall correctly. And this/these three adventures do it.

I can’t really put my finger on it, on the writing that enables it. It’s clear when you see it but its not exactly clear to me how its achieved. (Well, at least in the 30 seconds I think about such things,) But man, it’s the RIGHT way to write an adventure like these, that’s for sure. Shit is going on, judgements are not passed, it plays on the players expectations and gives them opportunities. It doesn’t deal with every contingency, but it also doesn’t pander to standard D&D. In addition, there’s something relatable about these things. In spite of the mythic/supernatural/magical circumstance, it FEELs like the real world. Maybe because it’s full of shades of grey and ambiguity … while not giving in to the “fuck over the players” style.

The opening adventure is a decent enough example of a couple of things the adventure does well. When I saw the adventure opened with a page of italicized read-aloud I thought “huh, I seem to to recall that other C&T adventure was good …” It’s introductory, and the party stumble upon a man in the marketplace, colorfully dressed, giving a recruitment speech for the Guild of Treasure Seekers. Break free of your mundane lives, gold, jewels, exotic treasures, travel and far away lands, don’t crawl in the dust and have your parents sell you in to marriage. We are a brotherhood, etc. Free bowl of soup when you join up! Oh, my heartstrings! A literal call to adventure, tt’s a pretext for all those players that seem to need one, and there are about a dozen different ones buried in the speech. It’s does this with a playful wink and a nudge. We’re all playing D&D tonight. Further, the guild is an interesting design choice. I’m usually not down with adventurers guild, but this one is a little different. It’s loose with requirements, gives the folks benefits, like food and lodging, provides the occasional pretext, AND DOESNT BACKSTAB THE PARTY. It also gives the DM a couple of tools, like magic portals, etc, to get the party moving across the game world and interacting with stuff. And then there is a the subplot of the guild hierarchy … but even then it’s not really a backstab. It’s all relatable, to both the party and to the DM as a tool to use, and appeals. It reinforces an Us vs Them thing that leaving your farm life behind generates. There is a bond, instantly forged and not saccharin or forced. And did I mention tha barker starts yelling with the Roll Up! Roll Up! D&D should be fun without a direct appeal to comedy, and this does that.

The NPC’s, which includes the monsters, are all well written. They have goals and motivations and nice little lines about how they all interact with the party. And it does this without overstaying their welcome with mountains of text. There’s also some decent use of bullets and formatting, in places.

The writing is, in general, evocative. Pulsating red star outlines on floors and the like. The scenes and … scenarios? That make up the adventure, the vignettes, events, opportunities, etc, are all … interactive, I guess I would say. And in a way that makes sense. Steal the magic family heirloom and the people in the family react in various ways, all of which should be expected. It makes sense, without feeling punitive.

At one point there’s a captive undead king chained up on a throne. He can turn some villagers from zombies back in to humans. That’s not EXACTLY the goal of the adventure, after all, you’re treasure hunters. But you met the wailing village women … and it does seem like the right thing to do … well, except he wants you to free him in return. And you know, the undead feel relatable, and horrific, the way they did in those Jarl adventures, but even more so. Man, I just love this shit, the relatable stuff and the grey zone of adventuring … without really judgement of the choices of the party makes … just reactions to the choices.

But, it’s not getting a Best Of from me.

For I am an asshole, whose standards are far too high for his own mental good.

The adventure makes use of italics for read-aloud.Combined with the smaller font it’s not exactly screaming “easy to read.” More importantly, though, it makes some quite questionable formatting/layout decisions. Well, more than italics and small fonts. The use of white space and bullets is not really great (yes, I know I mentioned that above as a positive, fuck off.) It doesn’t go far enough. The NPC’s & monsters are in a quite the loosy goosy format that could be tightened up quite a bit, would would help clarity also. It looks like it’s using different font sizes to denote section headings/changes and that DOES NOT work at all. The ability for the DM to place parts of the adventures in to context, to know what they need to know right now, and later, is important, and the small changes in the font used to denote this WAS NOT a good idea. I’m not sure if I’m gonna call this “organization” or what, but there is a tendency for things to kind of run together, sections that is, or, at least, to THINK they are running together while reading it.

It’s frustrating and non-intuitive. And good content that is frustrating and non-intuitive gets No Regerts.

This is $20 at DriveThru. Yeah. $20. The reviewer in me, who buys crap three times a week and gets ripped off, sneers at the $20. But, I also always say that I’ll pay big bucks for good adventures. The preview is six pages long and doesn’t show you anything of the adventures so you don’t really know what you’re getting. Bad Preview! Bad!

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 4 Comments

(5e) The Priest, The Witch, and the Lost Temple

By David McDonough
Self Published
Levels 2-3

The town of Whitehaven is beset with undead. The townsfolk are quick to blame the so-called Witch of Whitehaven, who lives nearby with her partner in the Surbrin Hills. Yet a more insidious evil lurks in the midst of town, cloaked in a holy man’s robes. And far underground, an ancient evil artifact stirs. The town is in need of heroes. Will you answer the call?

This forty page adventure details a baddy in a town becoming one with evil, blah blah blah, and some blame shifting to the local witch. It’s trying. It’s got some decent ideas and tries to implement good design. The major, major sin in this is the complete inability to understand the purpose of what an adventure is … exemplified through levels of useless verbosity in descriptions and backstory that match Dungeon magazine. What decent ideas there are is not worth the effort to dig them out.

David, I’m going to address you directly. I don’t know if you’re ever going to see this. I don’t really care if you do or don’t. This blog is entirely for my own benefit, but I’m a hypocrite, and in my arrogance I’m going to just assume you’re going to see this. You don’t deserve what I’m going to say, no one does, really. But I note that you’ve also been told, repeatedly, that this is an awesome adventure and been given five stars over and over again. Those people have done you a disservice. The culture in online D&D circles is to love everything and give everything five stars. I’m going to appeal to the academic in you to recognize the truth in what I’m saying. (Although, I see you mention “policy” as well, which leaves me disheartened on your background …) You have some ok principals that you follow in design, but you have no idea how to actually write an adventure. Work on that. But you tried, and the good things you did have me making a stronger effort than usual to explain what you did wrong, for the two thousandth time.

Let’s first cover a few of the better things David does that, frankly, surprised me.

There’s an evil artifact in this adventure, the Orb of Undeath, used by the baddie. Generally the Black Falcon Idol of Doom is only usable by the bad guy, melt when he dies, kills the user instantly, turns you to evil immediately, etc. In other words, the designer shoves in a mechanical bonus for the baddie and then doesn’t allow the party to have the item. That’s crap design. In this case though the item is left for the party. There’s some DC20 8d6 damage nonsense throw in, but it’s not outright banned from usage. That’s good. The party SHOULD get unique magic items, artifacts SHOULD be given to them, and when you toss in “its evil” or something else like it then you also give a little nod to the roleplaying aspects of the game. It’s MORE than just a mechanical bonus/effect at that point. The game is magic. The game is mystery. The game is wonderous. Mechanical shit is none of that. The appendix description is a little heavy on backstory and mechanics needing more in the way of evocativeness than the mechanics. It also does no favors by making the intelligent item cold, unfeeling, and bereft of humor. Since it communicates it could use a personality that is more than a lack of personality. Again, it’s a wondrous item and should come across as such.

There’s also a tendency to give advice on how things can go wrong. If the party doesn’t find the lever then you can do this other to make the adventure go forward. This happens in several places. First, it’s nice for a designer to note how things can and do go wrong when the irresistible force of the party slams in to an adventure and offer assistance to keeping things moving along. It’s gets to my core conceit: the adventure should be a tool to helping a DM run it at the table. So, Good Job! But, I have to ask, why put those roadblocks in at all? Or, rather, perhaps we can divide it in to two piles. Things can and do change when the party hits the adventure and advice on that is good. But in other places DC checks are placed as obstacles to continuing the adventure. I call this Roll To Continue Playing D&D. If the adventure depends on the party making a DC5 skill check then why is in there to begin with? In the first encounter we roll to find blood tracks, etc to track down some farmers. If this fails then you hear the farmers cry out for help. Woah! Why the fuck am I rolling the dice in the first place then? Or, putting the secret room behind a hidden level … and putting an imp in the adventure that leads the party to it if they fail to find it.

There’s also a good scene or two. At one point you catch two witches in the process of interrogating a demon in a circle. Fun! There’s some hackney shit should “forgiving” if you attack one of them, but, still, the setup is good. There’s also a nice bit where the townfolk rebel against the evil in their midst while the party is out fucking around in the woods with the witches. I can’t say enough how refreshing it is to see that. There’s some buildings on fire, some blood, people hold up in homes, attacking zombies, all its missing are a couple of bodies swinging from lampposts. It’s nice to see villagers not fuckwits for once AND that the game world has shit going on in it outside of the parties actions (or, maybe, as a result of the parties actions.) I note, also, that this gets to Rients assertion that gameworlds should be shaken up. It’s written like crap, but the core sentiment of this little section is a good one. There’s also a nice little bit of advice on what happens is a bad guy escapes, the consequences of that.

Now, on to the shitshow …

What is the purpose of an adventure? It is to help the DM run it at the table. That’s it. AT. THE. TABLE. All those people commenting on the rich backstory, etc, are fuckwits. Why? Because that does not contribute to running it at the table. In fact, it makes it HARDER to run at the table. When the party goes through a door in to a new room that DM gets to glance down at the adventure for a fraction of a second, grok the nature of it, and then communicate it to the party. Everything the adventure does needs to contribute to that. While the party is reacting the DM has a little more time to glance down and take in some more information. If you have to stop and read a page, or a column or information then the adventure has failed. [Aside: you can also write “sticky.” This is fucking hard. Google: Old Bay, the elderly hill giant who retired to eat giant crabs.] You have been infected by people changing what the concept of normal is. First, this the professionals, who write based on pay per word. All they care about is taking one idea and strapping enough words on to it to get paid. Second, there are failed novelists who write adventures with rich backstory, with no intent of running at the table, and companies who cynically pander to this market knowing that most adventures will never get run so why not cater to the larger market of people who only read adventure … and to whom this endless backstory/motivation shit appeals to. Finally, people have grown up on this shit and think that’s how you write an adventure. They know no better, It’s the normal way. IT’S FUCKING NOT. Fucking publishers.

Motivations, backstory, justifications, if you have to have them then stick the shit in an appendix. Then the fuckwits get their nonsense and you get to the keep the core of the adventure focused on its purpose: helping the dm run it at the table. When you bury important details in columns-long text you are not helping the DM run the adventure. On page seven important towny flavor stuff (wary/excited about strangers) is buried in otherwise garbage shit that is irrelevant. (Meaning, someone will justify it as tangentially relevant.) NPC’s with a column long description on how to roleplay them? No thanks. You get a sentence each, at most, for description and personality, and then you bullet point or use whitespace to effect to make it trivial for the DM to locate what they relate. Backstory and motivations in the main text? NO. Only what you need to run the adventure RIGHT THEN goes in the main text. What is relevant, IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY RELEVANT to the parties interaction? [Aside: Pedants like to take this to the logical extreme and say that’s my position. A special note to them: Fuck Off.]

Note location W3, The Tower, a location in town. The Name is “the Tower.” Then there’s a bunch of read-aloud. THEN you get a paragraph of DM’s notes telling you what the purpose is. How the fuck does that help me locate the mayors office when I’m running this thing? Seriously? Reading ALL of that? If I hand this to someone blind and say “tell me where the mayors office is in the first section” then thats a much more realistic simulation of running it at the table.

And, speaking of read-aloud … yes, there’s too much. You get three sentences. Maybe two. That’s it. There’s a study. WOTC wrote about it. People don’t pay attention after that (at the table, that is.) Bullet points. Improvise. Creative a terse and evocative description for the DM. The DM is the MOST powerful tool a designer has. Terse writing/organization contributes to running it at the table. EVOCATIVE writing leverages the DM’s brain to fill in the void left by the terseness and is MORE effective at creating atmosphere than ANY length of verbose writing. If you can jab a FLAVOR in to the DM’s brain then they can extrapolate indefinitely. Ug, and the FEELS. You don’t get to write read-aloud telling the party what they do/feel. “As you walk cautiously …” no. They didn’t walk cautiously. They ran willy nilly. But your fucking read-aloud doesn’t jive with that. Do you get it? “As torches spark to life.” No. We all have darkvision. We used continual light spells. We burned the place down.

And, of course, we have to suffer through mundane room descriptions. “There’s a side table in the dining room.” Well, whoop de doo! That’s certainly added a lot to the adventure! Seriously, what’s the point of this? To tell us what a dining room looks like? It’s fucking dining room, we know what a dining room looks like. Concentrate on the aspects of the room that are important.

Oh, what else? A thousand things. The hooks are all mission assignments. Those are boring. That’s an appeal to “do you want to play tonight or not?” D&D. It’s the most throwaway form of a hook. You practically have to beat two farmers to get the first part of the adventure. They are sent for help and yet you need to beg and plead and to be allowed to help them. I fucking HATE adventures that make you fight for the hook. Obviously, the bad guy is actually good and the good guy actually bad. Duh. This is so obvious I almost didn’t mention it. The first whiff of this is in an inn and its immediately obvious, so much so that I’d just stab the baddie in the throat right there … which to its credit the adventure addresses later on in some advice. But, still, wouldn’t it be refreshing if the wise woman was actually the bad guy?

Oh, the LG honorable ghost knight doesn’t have the heart to protect the party from the evil shadows attacking them since they were his followers once. Geee, LG much? The undead attack stuff is not handled well, there’s not much build up to it, no tension. A will O the Wisp is just presented as another thing to hack down, ignoring thousands of years of it luring people to their doom. (My favorite one imitated the scent of gold … in a game where dwarves could smell gold.) Important facts, such as things in the village like rescusing people, should have been presented in an overview section, etc, to introduce how the village was meant to work, etc. Same for the wilderness section, which just has section headings.

You can write adventures to make money. You can write adventures that are actually this kind of novel-thing that most fall in to. Or you can write adventures meant to be run ta the table. If you’re gonna do that then THINK. Question the core assumptions that have led you to think that more is better.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The previs is twelve pages! Nice! Pages five and six show you begging farmers to be allowed to play D&D tonight. Page seven shows you a VERY long inn entry that fails at transferring information to the DM efficiently and effectively … as well as Ye Olde Mayor’s Tower … that you have no way of knowing without digging in. The last page of the preview shows you some of the developments/advice for the unexpected. Overall, a good preview, with the writing typical of what you should expect to see in the rest of the adventure …

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Pollute the Elfen Memory Water

By Michael Raston
Gorgzu Games
Level … 4?

Dude from Lizardmandiaries wrote Tower of the Weretoads and I liked it, so I’m taking a chance on something that seems Eberron-like … also, I need to apologize to a guy who loves Eberron, so this is part of that. So … yeah. This is pretty fucked up right here.

This nineteen page adventure details a small building in a town suburb that the party is tasked with infiltrating to corrupt a shipment of water. It’s evocative, terse, well-organized AND BAT SHIT FUCKING CRAZY. Danger Wil Robinson; Bryce likes Gonzo!

Eberron, fantasy-punk, Misty Isles of the Eid Fantasy2/Madlands … anywhere you can have some corrupt elves and/or a a fucked up city (Drow or demon city, anyone?) you can put this thing in.

I don’t even know how to begin. Your client is “Equis Jud, makers of fine magical robes and assorted garments. They work aboard a converted prison hulk, a monstrosity of wrought iron. It churns along The White River, polluting it with magical effluent.” The Equis is a guild/business which … “Equis Jud is composed entirely of eymen, brittle, fragile people – vaguely humanoid but having heads of pure round eyeball orbs. They are always heavily armoured, wearing long full body chain suits and thick ornate helmets to cover their delicate all seeing heads. Communication is conducted through lip shaped amulets that speak on behalf of the eymen.” You’re given some vials to corrupt the water shipment, they are “will supply the party with a small bottle of red liquid in a bull shaped glass bottle. The eyes are tiny green gems.” The elven memory water jars (the things to be corrupted) are “Memory Water Jar: A glass container, about half the size of a barrel, filled with milky water. A braid of writhing pink tendrils stoppers the container while dipping into the liquid and splaying out the top.” AND THATS ALL ON THE FIRST FUCKING PAGE.

Ignoring, if you can, the more gonzo elements, and focus on how the writing cements images in your mind. The memory water. It’s not just a barrel, it’s a glass jar HALF the size of a barrel. Milky water. And that’s all before the tentacle stopper is reached. These are quick little elements that go just a little bit extra. We’re not dealing with your standard barrell. This is more. This is different. All of that is signaled through the description. It’s short. It stands out to the DM and the players. The ship “pollutes with magical effluent.” That’s so much more interesting than a boat on a river. All ships pollute, but by calling attention to it it really raises the bar of the description. The ship is not big, or large, or even huge, it’s a hulk, a monstrosity. This is the power of the language to go beyond the generic and in to the evocative to cement imagery and overload the description. If all you’ve taken from that is “Bryce likes gonzo” then you are a fool. Generic != Vanilla. This sort of writing is EXACTLY the sort of stuff I want to pay for. THIS is adding value.

The factory sits in a suburb, a little map of about thirty locations. Each one get a one or two sentence description. First, good inclusion of the neighborhood. This is a kind of caper mission, and the neighboring locations are always important for that sort of thing. Second, the locations don’t overstay their welcome. Location is 1 “Manbat infestation crawling along the ceiling of a semi flooded hovel, additional cockroach crab infestation in black filthy water.” Well, there’s something you don’t see in many adventures. Not your style? How about a merchant then? “Oam Mu, Black eyes, wears cloak of birds, untold cages of catlike animals available for purchase. Convinced Jzzkk the scrabmen running the eatery (22) is stealing, cooking and eating his cats. Willing to pay for him to be killed.” These are GUD. Again, don’t focus on the gonzo. They are short and yet they communicate everything you need to run them. There’s something of a physical or quirk to roleplay the NPC, and something to interact with when the party shows up. It’s focused on play. Some of them involve other locations, giving the play more life, a connectedness, than it would otherwise have. All in about a page and a half.

The rooms, proper, of the factory, give a one line description and then bullet point out the rest. Room five tells us:
5. Frigid and icy. Vegetation here is dead and withered. Blocks of ice stacked against wall.
* Pink tendril worms frozen in blocks of ice.
* Some blocks have melted and pink tendril worms either wriggle slowly half frozen or plop onto the frigid ground.

Note how it moves the from the general description, as the first line, to the additional lines providing more info if the party looks closer. The wanderer table has them engaged in some activity. The rando flowers on the wall get a little rando table. The monsters have short descriptions, with goals and motivations clear and terse, the writing focused on party interactivity.

I might note that the map is a bit crude, and could use a little more detail. One point of the roof is caved in. Imagine the party in the sky looking down and asking what they see and the DM digging through the adventure keys, reading each one, trying to figure out what to tell them. By putting major details on the map you know what to look at in the keys and focus on.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a currently suggested price of $1. There’s no preview. AND NO SUGGESTED LEVEL. Grrrr…. Hey, how about throwing the consumer a bone?

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 10 Comments

Arrival at Fort Perilous

By John Leeper
Grey Goblin Games
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 1-3

On the border between wilderness and civilization, Fort Perilous stands, keeping watch and holding the forces of Chaos at bay. Your heroes find themselves in the fort, drawn into the battles between civilization and monsters, between Law and Chaos.

This thirty page adventure describes a home base/fort, the region, and three dungeons with about seventy rooms between them. It’s ok, but tends to the UNREMARKABLE side of the evocativeness spectrum, with it being just a hair more than minimalist in its descriptions.

The fort/home base takes about three pages to describe: one for the map, one for the buildings, and one for the NPC’s. That’s pretty fucking terse. It doesn’t fuck around … either good or bad. The fort locations are all generic, in content if not in attempt. An armory, where things can be bought, sold and repaired. Ok. A church of law, with “five clerics” that provide healing. A paragraph for each of ten locations is about a paragraph too much for each location, as written. It could use a little more that’s not “the usual borderlands fort.”

The NPC’s fare a little better, with a state block, physical appearance and a personality that provides enough to run them but doesn’t overstay its welcome. The chief wizard looks like a bank clerk, is crotchety and grumpy, but interested in magic and arcane topics. That’ll do. A little bolding of important words, over the two pages of NPC’s, would have done wonders to help the DM pick out the keywords while scanning the text.

The region has about sixteen or so locations not fully detailed, each with a short paragraph giving the DM the barest of outlines. It’s enough to fill in the blanks and provide an occasional bit of an idea to help the DM kick off further adventures.

The three dungeons are the star of show here, or are meant to be. They feature orcs, hobgoblins, and gnolls, with a few other things thrown in to keep things lively.

It’s boring.

Look, I know people like to misinterpret what I say. It helps them carve out a niche for their own ideologies. It’s the whole generic/vanilla thing again. Generic Bad while Vanilla can be good. The adventure doesn’t have to be full of explosions. It doesn’t have to be gonzo. I doesn’t need any of that shit … but it does have to have SOMETHING. Let’s boil this right down to the core: if a typical room is “3 orcs” is that a good room? No, it’s not. It’s Vampire Palace level descriptions in 2018. If you’re putting that shit in then you’re engaged in some kind of performance art or making some kind of point. I don’t need a point made. I need some fucking content that helps me run the fucking adventure. Now, that’s a rather extreme example, but let’s look at a description from this adventure:

“Larder: This room has 2 orcs and 1 orc leader. The normal orcs have shields and hand axes. The leader has a shield and longsword. Hanging from the ceiling are a variety of dead animals, including deer, half a cow, rabbits and birds.”

This is just one step beyond the minimal keying. The only additional detail is the dead animals, and, while an attempt, is not the soul of evocativeness. The entire adventure is like this. I appreciate the attempt at terse writing, but not to the extent it is in this adventure. The adventure needs to have something to hang its hat on, or, more correctly, for the DM to hang their hat on. There should be SOMETHING for the DM to riff off of. Without it you’ve got what is essentially a minimally keyed adventure and I’m not fucking paying for that. That’s not adding value. If a random monster generator online can generate your dungeon then why are you charging for it?

The answer is not the minimally keyed dungeon. The answer is not the expanded minimalism of describing the mundane contents of rooms. The answer is not the endless room descriptions that plague other products, clogging them up like a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. (Mmmm. 60 pounds of impacted fecal colon sandwich …) There’s a middle fucking ground. Terse, but evocative. Something for the DM to use without sending them in a Joyce-like pit of text.

This ain’t it.

This is $2 at DriveThru. The only preview is that shitty “quick” one they offer and it doesn’t even work.

Posted in Reviews | 16 Comments

(5e) World’s End Masque & Ball

By Luke Pullen
Black Lamp Games
Level 1 pregens

Some say the world is ending. At the muddy end of a fruitless harvest, famine and plague stalk the land. The armies of darkness gather on the horizon. And tonight is the night of a lunar eclipse, the time when the astrologers predict a world-devouring evil will be born. For one group of decadent aristocrats, there is clearly only one possible course of action: lock themselves inside a castle, throw a masquerade, get loaded, and dabble in black magic. For a group of desperate adventurers, the masquerade is a chance to set things right. But on a night like this, they may get more than they bargained for…

This is a twenty page one-shot social adventure set during a masquerade ball. While it uses 5e, it could easily be adapted to just about any setting or ruleset. It needs just one more good PUSH to get it out of the mediocrity gate and in to the Good category.

This is more of an outline of an adventure … which works quite well for a kind of open-ended social setting. You get a one-page summary list of about twenty NPC’s, with a quirk, a goal, and an opening line of dialog to set the scene. You get a one page map of the castle with about twenty rooms and just over a page of description for those twenty rooms. You get a short timeline, of four hours, with what happens at each of those four hourly marks. And then you get some pregens, each of which has a goal to accomplish. This is all presented in a pretty compact way.

Thus the adventure is very open ended. It’s the DM responding to the party members as they attempt to achieve their characters goals, while using the NPC and castle map resources, as well as the events, to spice up the adventure and respond.

The NPC resources provided are pretty good. FOr example, a guy in a goat mask has the opening line “Why, aren’t you pretty?”, who’s named Kazimir, is a courtier, and wants to climb the social/power ladder. It’s a terse set of qualities that you can use together riff off of to provide the flavor you need.

Likewise the room descriptions. Room six is a “Boudoir” with a two bullet point description: “Women’s’ rooms. Baroness Koranye and Marchioness Ungern drink wine and chat quietly while looking out the window. They have much to say. Intruders are welcomed.” -and, as a kind of dialog- “I had the strangest dream. There was this egg—this great egg, cold and white like marble, at the bottom of the black lake. And then it was here. Really here! I touched it—it was cold. So cold. The egg can touch you back—did you know that?” It has something going on that the party can interact with. It deals with the “intruders” aspect, and it has a little bit of dialog to give the DM the flavor of the encounter/conversation … that’s also relevant to the various party member goals.

It does have me questioning, though, some of the decisions made. First, the party doesn’t know each other. I’ve seen this be disastrous in many a con game, from time wasting, and bored players waiting their turn to conflict. (Intra-party conflict is a big nono in Bryce games. It’s one of my most important table rules: you need to work together.)

The pregens are also a little lacking in the motivation department. “Find your lover and get them out alive.” is one of them. I feel like there was something missing about “tell the DM who your lover is and how they went missing”, either as explicit instructions for the DM/player or as an embedded backstory for that PC. Most of the party is like that. A couple more words would have solved that.

Weather it works or not, as an adventure, I don’t know. A lot depends on the DM. A lot ALWAYS depends on the DM, in every adventure. This is so true that I explicitly ignore it in my adventures, concentrating on “helping the DM run it.” I FEEL like there’s just a little bit more missing from it. A little more in the way of events, conversation, NPC’s based around the party motivations. As is it feels a little TOO open ended.

This is free on DriveThru. The preview is four pages and shows you nothing at all of the adventure. Then again, it’s free.

Posted in Reviews | 7 Comments

The Bogey of Brindle

By Lloyd Metcalf
Fail Squad Games
Level 2-3

The celebration of Firstfeast is upon the good folk of Westwego, and just as the smell of cakes and pies are warming up, you find yourselves among the bootlegging goblins of Brindle. Can you save Westwego? What about the celebration? What about the hooch!?

This 38 page adventure features a nineteen room dungeon full of kobolds and a small amount of outside the dungeon play. The dungeon environment is nicely varied and it feels like some effort was put in to creating encounters that would not just be “empty room with a monster in it to stab.” The read-aloud is clumsy and the room descriptions drag out for too long but the core elements are solid. It looks like the designer picked up some bad habits that need broken, but otherwise has good ideas.

It feels like the designer thought about each room for five minutes longer than usual, and that shows in the payoff. Everything in this is at least a bit above average (ie: crap) and most quite a bit. The hook included. The village religious feastday is approaching, but the tobacco and booze has not arrived from a nearby village. The pious church hates the sin of the booze & smoking, etc, but they LUV the taxes it generates, so they get the party to try and find the shipment/go to the nearby village. How’s that for a hook? It’s fun, embraces a little bit of medievalism (the feastday, the church) and also the hypocrisy. Further, it covers what happens if the hook is refused … the nearby village shows up and camps outside Westwego, hoping for additional protection from the bogeys that plague them. A hook refused, and offered again! Nice job on this. It drones on WAY too long for what you get/need, but it also illustrates how the adventure takes just an extra step … which turns it from generic to interesting.

The rooms of the dungeon, proper, also do this. The entrance cave has an ice cold stream (with some small rules for hypothermia) running out of it. It ends in a whirlpool, a passage on the other side. There’s a concealed passage under whirlpool (Yeah! Concealed! I love it when designers put something JUST around a corner. It rewards non-jaded play) that leads to the main cave lair. That passage on the other side has a natural pool in it … and piercers on the ceiling. It fits. It works. The pool/water is a distraction. The piercers fit naturally. The entire three room entrance areas FEELS right. Natural, mysterious. Things fall off from this high point as the kobold lair, proper, is reached, but it still maintains its above average effort.

I can pick this one apart on a hundred different points. The neighboring village is a goblin village. I’m not sure why this is. Making them goblins instead of humans doesn’t seem to add anything to the adventure and, as always, I think misuse of humanoids detracts from the overall impact humanoids can have on the party. They are also presented as comical. The same weird-ass New Jersey mob dialect that comic humanoids ALWAYS get, as well as comic antics. Again, I don’t get it. What’s wrong with stupid humans? This whole style is a turnoff to me, although I recognize its more of a personal preference thing.

There’s also some references to “throwing traps at the party” in the overland portion. I HATE this shit. It seems to break the player/DM contract and there’s an element of “guiding the story” inherent to it that I VEHEMENTLY disagree with. I’m ok with “1 in 6 chance per turn of a trap” but not “throw traps at the party until you feel like not doing it anymore.” Go figure. Or kobolds with perfect party knowledge who always attack under the cover of darkness in ambush while the party is resting. Yes, it makes sense … but the party should also be getting a detection bone thrown at them, at a minimum.

And there’s the emphasis on dimensions in the read-aloud, a pet peeve of mine. Telling us that a room is 20×20 and that a 15’ section of the floor is covered in pipeweed breaks immersion. COmmunicate the feel of the room and then RESPOND to the party when they ask how big a section is covered by pipeweed. “You walk it out, it’s about 15’ square.” There’s a back and forth between the DM and party that is a critical part of play, which when combined with the fact-based dimension read-aloud makes me down on dimensions and precision in read-aloud. The game should be about mystery and the unknown, not a flood of perfect knowledge.

The little vignettes go on a little too long, and most of the villagers could use a one or two line interesting tidbit to augment them, but, it’s not a bad adventure. It’s just not a good one either.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is worthless, at three pages, showing you absolutely nothing but the table of contents.

Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments

Dead God Excavation

Venger As’Nas Satanis
Kort’thalis Publishing
Crimson Dragon Slayer
Levels 1-3

A fifteen page non-adventure calling itself an adventure. One door, one room, a couple of NPC’s to interacts with. Didn’t Venger write a “How to write adventures” book? Yes, yes he did. Exhibits A & B in the buying things from DriveThru. Really, the jokes on me. His pitch for a review was more manipulative than his usual “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE REVIEW MY ADVENTURE PLEASE.” I knew it was a front and did it anyway. I just didn’t realize how bad it was.

So, yeah, it’s an archeology thing. Nobles and laborers are gathered around a recently unearthed big iron door. Carnivals, circuses, archeology expeditions, museums, post offices, DMV’s, sewers … it’s like the imaginations of the designers are bankrupt. I’m waiting for the circus archeology (or archeology circus?) adventure.

Which is not to say that the core social aspects of the nobles, sages, laborers, priest and sorcerer NPCs is bad. Quite the contrary, a group of fuckwith NPC’s each with different motivations hanging around the party while they do something dangerous tugs at my DM heartstrings. It brings the roleplay and involves a kind of push your luck mechanism with how much shit the party is going to take and/or how they are going to use the resources that a few extra bodies provide … Or, it COULD do that, if it were written well. Venger tries. You get that he’s trying to set this up with a bunch of different NPC’s hanging around, offering advice, getting in to trouble, etc. That is, if you squirt pretty hard and you see that. It comes across on a couple of pages, about a paragraph or so per NPC ending with a one line motivation. I’m going to address Venger directly now: Hey, dipshit, I know you read these reviews. Stop making the same mistakes over and over again. Put in a fucking summary sheet for the NPC’s. Stick in the name and a couple of words for motivation, characteristic, etc. That way I don’t have to keep turning back to the NPC pages and digging through the stupid text to find something worthy for them to say/do. See, if it were all on one page then I could attach it to my DM screen and look at it on the fly and see everyone in one glance and get some real nice interaction shit going on. And while I’m at it, if the NPC’s are supposed to be a big part of the adventure then give them a couple of things to do. Have the laborers smuggle in a couple of liquor bottles, or play the lotto, or a full tea service for the nobles or some such. You don’t need to drag it out, four or five words per. But its your job to help prompt the DM to action, giving them tools to work with. “Bob is a jackass.” is a little too open ended. Sure, it works, but if he’s a face talker with odious body scent/personal habits .. AND useful, all the better.

Ok, so, there’s this door. You open the door and there’s a room beyond with a dead god in it and a couple of other things to fuck around with. That’s it, that’s the adventure. Oh, and every fifteen minutes you take 1d6 damage from acid drips from the ceiling. And every fifteen minutes you have a 50% chance of just dying from some d6 table. That’s fun, right? Actually, I don’t mind the acid drips; it’s minor and encourages the party to find a way around it. The whole “evil effects while in the tomb” table, though, needs to go. It discourages exploration and interaction. Not cool. I get it, dangerous environment. But NOT exploring an erupting volcano is not fun.

Venger also puts shit in the wrong order. E’s got such a hard on for describing the dead god, and its effects, that he puts the room description elements FAR down in the adventure. Hey, first n the description is what the party see/encounters first. Then you expand it later on. You put what the DM needs first as the first thing the DM sees. Otherwise I have to read a page of text before I run the room. I’m not reading a page of your text at the table.

And what’s with the names dude? Miss Forgotten Realms much? Voss’th Ekk, Chanz Kol, grok-nods, Zirnakanan. I guess Forgotten Realms isn’t the only place where random letter generators are used for names. Next time try some names WITHOUT apostrophes in them?

He’s got some decent alien/demon magic items and At one point, when characters open a book, a woman screams at the same time … because she thought she saw a spider. Nice. That’s the kind of local colour I like to see.

Didn’t I like a Venger product in the past? Islands of Purple, maybe? Dude, what happened? Is this a money play or something else?

Get it together man. This thing needed a fuck ton more editing to tighten it up and expand it a bit.

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. The beginning of the preview shows your the NPC’s. They are not bad, they just need the summary sheet and a couple of prompts for causing trouble. The end of the preview shows you the “random death and damage” shit from when you are in the tomb. The middle shows you the, essentially, preprogrammed events at the start of the start when the party arrives. Sage touches tomb, gets headache, sorcerer shows up and warns everyone off, etc.

Posted in Reviews | 68 Comments

(5e) The Worthless Shrines – Part 2

By Daniel Casey
Levels 3-6

A promise from a mysterious mage, to grant any Wish if they discover the mysteries of long forgotten civilization, sends a party of adventurers into the far north…

What goes for ten dollars?
Well, whaddya want for ten dollars?
I want something different, I want something special.
Oh no, honey, not for ten bucks.

This 36 page adventure depresses me. It’s a linear plot-based thing, full of forced combats and do-nothing skill checks. Yeah, I bought it because of the cover, but I’m a stupid sucker for marketing and can’t ever learn my lesson.

First the goo, and it comes in two parts. The hook here is that you’re hired by a wizard professor to research/explore some mounds, with a Wish spell for each as a reward. Woah! That’ll make me sit up and take notice. post-oD&D doesn’t give out enough wishes. Neutral D&D means killing players, far more often than happens these days. But it also means resurrects, geas, and wish spells should be more common. Professor Dipshit is a moron, wanting to gain knowledge to rise on the colleges ranks … which appeals to me as an academic and as a guy who plays a lot of wizards makes me think “if you can cast five wish spells in a row, why not just wish yourself some knowledge/tenure?” Premise aside, the rewards are great. It’s the kind of hook that motivates the players rather than the characters, and those are the best kinds.

The magical treasure is also above average. Shambling Mound tap roots, a coutl feather, a faerie dragon wing cloak … they are mechanical, with advantages on saves and so on, but they also don’t drone on with multiple paragraphs of text describing them; one or two sentences and they are done. There’s an emphasis on monster parts, which both appeals to me and makes me wonder how many players still mine them? I suspect they will need some prompting.

Nothing else positive to say.

There are no maps. The directions and descriptions are all embedded in the text. This is shitty. A map is a wonderful thing, even a diagram/drawing would have oriented the DM better. As is, you have the text to find information. Here’s two examples of how the text attempts to provide a map: “Entering the mound, the party will immediately see several chambers branching off the central hall that meanders the length of the barrow.” and “The left chamber has two stone platforms upon each is a well- wrapped, ancient looking corpse.” Dude, just a picture with a pencil and include it. That would have much much clearer.

Which leads me to the next point: it’s ALL stream of consciousness plot based. You go from point a to point b to point c, being led by your nose, with the text not even provisioning much separation. It’s all just this happens then this happens then this happens then this happens then this happens. This is the hallmark of the DM TELLING A STORY style. AKA: one of the worst sins possible in adventure design. More so than most plot-based adventures, the text is a mess of stream of consciousness, making it hard to follow. It’s not organized AT ALL.

Finally, what would a shitty adventure be without meaningless skill checks? Not as shitty, self-evidently! Make a DC12 check to notice the path is getting overgrown, even though it becomes impossible to move through. Make a DC12 to follow a bears path .. or don’t find the pool of water you’re looking for. Make a DC15 to notice that …” they will realize the bear hadn’t just fought them making its way to the pond and that the plants around them are corrupted.” Actually, I have no idea what that text is trying to say/do. A satyr (who runs the bar in town; magical ren-faire much? I thought the world was supposed to be full of wonder. Next thing you know Drow will sleep on pallets and wool blankets) digs up an egg and you need a DC15 for him to explain what it is. What happens elsewise? Who knows! The adventure doesn’t continue!

It’s all confusing and not through out AT ALL. The satyr digs up the egg, but then it somehow becomes party treasure. What? SO he placed a shambling mound to guard it and then just gives it to the party, I guess. Oh, and there’s a magical couatl grove somewhere next to town, where the next part of the adventure takes place. But the Kenku village the town lawman is worried about gets no more mention. WTF man? PROVE RESOURCES TO THE DM. It’s the first rule of adventure design: help the DM run it.

I could bitch about a thousand small things, like including full stat blocks for NPC’s the party will probably not stab while choosing to bury their personalities in the text. Orient the adventure to the DM. If they are unlike to stab it then put it in an appendix, or summarize it, and put the fucking personality in the stat block so it stands out to the DM.

“4 will o’the wisps attack.” Really? That’s what it come to? A will o’the wisp is just a monster to hack down? There’s no soul. No leading them to the quicksand, or the dwarf smelling gold (one of my personal favorite will o’ moments I’ve seen.) or ANYTHING romantic or adventurous, just something else to stab.

Let me suggest that “kill the monsters and take their stuff” is a much more fitting tagline for modern D&D than it is for older styles of play. Older D&D embodies a spirit of romanticism that Blue Rose can only dream of in tortured opium visions.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a current suggested price of $1. There’s no preview, otherwise you’d never but it. Worthless indeed.

Posted in Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 4 Comments