In the Dungeon of the Wizard Lord Keraptis

By Tim Krause
Tomorrow River Games
Level 10

… The party has already delved into the depths of the mountain and stand at a crossroads where they have difficult choices. They have already defeated almost all of the creatures at Lord Keraptis’ command, rendering him far less sinister or capable of exherting his influence on the land. But do they risk it all and delve deeper into the mountain to eliminate Lord Keraptis for good ? What if something more sinister awaits them?

This 86 page adventure is a compendium of three different ones; three levels of a dungeon, with about 80 or so rooms overall. It’s about Keraptis, from White Plume Mountain, with the first level written back in the 80’s and the other two more recently. Tending to the minimal side of things, it’s pretty your basic low-grade ToH. It got some goofiness to it, in the log, in the same way a jr high adventure does. An arbitrariness.

Well, I just don’t know where to start.

This thing has some minimalism going on. Not the extreme kind found in VAmpire Queen, but a very plan facts like style. One of the rooms tells us that “The passage seems to end here in dense vines and the trunks of three large trees. The vines are from a Lurker Above and the tree trunks are Xorn.” That’s the room, all of it. Page after page of that, which is how the designer gets 75+ rooms in to about 20 pages … while still including big art pieces.

It is, essentially, only the mechanics that are included. “This is no saving throw or ability for the players to find this trap. It till instantly teleport them to …” is a phrase written more than once. There’s a certain minimalistic charm to this style. Kind of like one of those modern home living rooms that are all white with one simple L couch in the middle. Ok, yes, It fulfills the basic purpose I guess. But can’t we do just a little more to make it livable? “This room contains no creatures but has all of the implements to torture poor victims.” is not exactly Joyce.

There’s no real joy to this. The descriptions don’t really spark the DM much at all. A chest contains “It contains 30 pieces of jewelry, 40,000 gold pieces and three randomly determined magic items.” Well, ok, yes, I guess that’s a 4e treasure-parcel kind of thing? It’s the journey, not the destination in D&D. All of that gold and shit, yeah, we want it for XP, but it’s the fun of it that we’re really after. And “30 pieces of jewelry” isn’t really very fun. (Nor is an exhaustive list. Oh no! Adventure writing can be hard! Especially at high levels!”)

There’s this goofy simplistic thing it’s got going on also. An almost arbitrary thing. A dragon tries to surrender, if you almost kill him. If you DO kill him then his treasure just disappears. If you walk through a certain wall you take damage. But if you then jump in a river with your armor on you get healed. Its just … disconnected? This weird sort of logic. I know, I say don’t explain shit, it’s magic”, but there’s this sense of the arbitrary that I don’t like. Not explaining why is different from things just being arbitrary.

Wandering monsters happen on a 10% chance every turn. But … if you short/long rest then it’s only 10% every hour. This being 5e I’m sure that’s an attempt to control the resource game, but, still, man, that’s a little rough eh?

This is COMPLETELY unlike any other 5e adventure I’ve seen. It’s got a very “i made this in jr high and then edited it as an adult” thing going on. It feels more like an art project, like that kickstarter that made book of jr high published adventures. A curiosity, nothing more.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a currently suggested price of $2. There’s no preview.

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Kellerin’s Rumble

By Malrex
Merciless Merchants
Gold & Glory
Level 3-5

Congratulations!! Someone in your party won/found/bequeathed a deed to a warehouse inside the protective walls of Illanter, City of Broken Swords. Another bonus, while visiting said warehouse, you are invited to the mysterious Kellerin’s Rumble, an annual gambling event. Your group is the talk of the town! Gossip and rumors are flying around the city about the event….and YOU. Let the games begin!

This 27 page adventure describes a warehouse, sewers, and manor located in a small city. It’s centered around the manor, an invitation to gamble there, and several side quests. It’s organized well, is easy to scan, and has A LOT going on in it. It feels like a lot of the encounters can lead to other things … leaving everything feeling full of potential and hooks and things to follow up on. It ain’t gonna change your life, but it is certainly a very high level of quality with lots of potential for fun … and that’s what I’m usually looking for. I wish every adventure were at least this good. Also: I REALLY like city adventures and this is that, so, I’m predisposed to gush.

You get the deed to the warehouse, and the sewers have several connections, with short city-life events/NPC’s thrown in to add some color. Several potential hooks pop up, all meant to get you in to the manor and poking around. I get the overall feeling that a lot of of the encounters lead to something else. There’s a leper in the sewers being eaten by a blob which can turn in to an NPC. There’s a ship captain being dunked in the water by his crew because he owes them money. Who ya gonna side with? The main manor dude wears a ring that looks like a ring someone may have contacted the party over …

You know, there was this Nike “Just Do It” commercial once. It showed various scenes, over and over, in quick cuts, of people getting ready to do things. Runners on the line rearing up right before the gun went off. Swimmers getting in to their positions moments before they dove in. Things like that. Moments captured right before the action started … but never showing the action. That’s what this feels like. So many of the encounters feel like “Oh man! It’s about to go down!” But in a “set piece” kind of way. Friends or foes to make, no right or wrong choices, just situations that pop up in front of the party. Inciting action … over and over again. It makes the thing feel packed and ALIVE. Which is exactly the fuck how a city is supposed to feel.

For each location you get a short little description, a couple of sentences, and then a few bullets pointing out obvious stuff. It’s a great format to use, easy to scan. The descriptions generally tend to be punchy … not teeming with evocativeness but certainly a cut above and not bad. The bullets concentrate on important things. Treasure, traps, potentials for getting in to trouble, etc. It’s not trivia. It’s things that are important to the players. LUV.

There’s rando NPC tables for the town, there’s a NPC summary sheet for the other gamblers at the party. The maps are interesting. There are important things mentioned, like ow often guard patrols pass a certain point in the manor home. RELEVANT. There’s this little section on a wish that doesn’t allow you to talk about what’s going on inside the house once you leave. Even that’s handled well, with various methods to circumvent it that are NOT another wish.

I could mention a few negative things. Primarily, I feel like this thing is missing maybe two more paragraphs of text. One an overview of the adventure proper. What’s missing is “the party gets a deed to a warehouse to get tem in to the city and invested, and there’s fun stuff inside to make the first visit a good time, The sewers connect points A&B and are natural. The main adventure point is the manor house gambling, which A, B, and C tie in to.”

The second is something more about ‘the house at rest.” Windows & roof fun, more guard paths, a little more on sound travel, and roleplaying “ought oh were caught!” bluffs. There’s a bit of this, but feels a more ad-hoc and it needs some more concrete overview.

I saw this was an example product of what you get when you Patreon Malrex. “Ug, here comes the shit …” I thought. Oh, how wrong I was! Also, man, a fuck ton of lepers in this city! Didn’t I review another one like that at some point?

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a current suggested price of $5. The level is on the cover but not in the product description (Naughty!) The oreview is eight pages. You can see a rando NPC table, with short NPC descriptions, and the entirety of the warehouse and sewer descriptions. There’s also the additional hook stuff before the warehouse and the lack of the overview can be seen.Note warehouse rooms two and eleven!

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Hidden Hand of the Horla

By RJ Thompson
Appendix N Entertainment
OSR/Gateway To Adventure

Legends tell of the Hand Mage’s Tower that once stood at the edge of the realm. Within the Hand Mage experimented and hoarded his magical treasures. The tower stood for many years until one day it mysteriously vanished. Rumors spread that the mage had offended the gods and had been eradicated from existence, or else had made a pact with a demon prince and was now paying his due. Whatever the case, the tales became legend and all but the oldest elves were unsure if the tower had ever existed at all. Now the tower has reappeared where it once stood. Will you dare to enter the ancient tower in search of riches and magical secrets?

This twenty two page adventure describes a fourteen room wizards town in the shape of a hand. Only about five pages have room descriptions, the rest being background, new spells, monsters, etc. It’s pretty basic. Goat-people are a highlight, but not even they can save it from its mundanity.

Single column. Have I ever reviewed a single column adventure that was good? I don’t recall doing so. I doubt it. It’s certainly possible, but I think folks using single column generally out themselves as someone who doesn’t really understand the adventure format. As always, we’re after usability at the table, and single column doesn’t lend itself to that. And see one footprint in the mud usually means there’s a trail of misinformed decisions.

Mostly, the adventure is just not that interesting. Yes, it’s 2018, and we’ve now seen many decades of adventures. This isn’t just the same old nothing new under the sun. Tropes and standard adventures can be enjoyable, even if the idea has been done a thousand times before. But it does need to bring some quality to the table. Thus “not interesting” doesn’t mean that it’s just the same thing we’ve seen before, but rather it’s the same slightly GENERIC thing we’ve seen before. Vanilla isn’t bad but generic is boring. And that’s what we have here, mostly.

It’s a kitchen with a rust monster. Environments that are just “a dining room with a table and chairs and a painting” or a wizards bedroom with a bed and table and drawers. This is not interesting. The writing is not evocative AT ALL and that is, after all, a major part of being useful at the table and adding value. It’s got to be scannable and it has to make you visualize it. That’s why adjectives and adverbs exist. And there’s just nothing here. A room, generically described. The kitchen tells us that there is a counter on the east wall. It’s irrelevant. The writing is boring.

There’s also come pretty heavy misses in added resources for the DM. We’re told in the beginning that there are some doors up high in the crumbling tower to get in, but offered no further advice about it. I guess we can rely on the rules for climbing, but it’s a serious miss to present something idiosyncratic for those wanting access.

Likewise we’re told, in the meat of the room three description, that you can hear the creature while you are in room one. Well … isn’t that really something for the roo mone description? I’m a good DM, but not a precog. 🙂 You have to put information where the DM will find it.

It feels like a lot of time was spent on the backstory, but not on the actual adventure or hooking the adventure in to the backstory very much.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a current suggested price of $0. The preview is siz pages, and the adventure free. Taking a look at the last page of the preview you can see one of the middle-length rooms, room one, and the kind of generic description and “all over the place” formatting in one paragraph. Important things first, details in separate paragraphs!

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(5e) Pudding Faire

By Will Doyle, Shawn Merwin, Cindy Moore
Levels 3

BREAK A CURSE THAT ECHOES THROUGH TIME! You awaken on the morning of the Pudding Faire: just as you did yesterday… and the day before that… and the day before that! To escape the loop, you must break a curse that strikes to the heart of halfling and gnome lore.

This 24 page adventure deals a time loop ala Groundhogs Day, with a halfling and gnome god poking at each other. Not a total shit show and better than average, it looks like either it was actually playtested or some serious thought went in to organization, or both. Long but not really overly verbose, it handles “time travel contingencies” about as well as it can. It is non-trivial, but the overlapping events seems like a lot of fun.

Halfling goddess won’t let the (evil) gnome god of trickery join in the pudding eating at a local halfling/gone fair they are both attending, so he curses the village to relive the same day, while he tries to convince her each day to let him try the pudding. Solutions are to help her by keeping him from casting the curse, or convince her to let him also eat the pudding.

Bonus points for Gods. Modern D&D relies too much on piling kits on monsters to communicate the fantastic and not enough on the old folklore elements … and mixing it up with gods could be either folklorish or S&S/DCC-ish, depending on their treatment. It does a good job of handling the gods, covering blasting players with spells and why they don’t, etc. It supports the DM covering this as well as farming XP, gold, etc. “These are unusual situations, let’s give the DM a couple of words of advice on each.” That’s good work.

And that extends to other areas of support the adventure offers the DM. There’s a decent amount of advice about running the time travel elements that doesn’t get too in the weeds. Guidelines that get in and out fast. Then there’s a nice one-page summary at the end that has NPC’s, the problems/situations they face, along with a little personality and a location. That’s GREAT to see. It’s a perfect example of the designer including support material for the DM based on the idiosyncratic needs of the adventure they’ve written. Be it from playtesting or otherwise the support material thoughtfulness and advice shines through.

There’s about two dozen locations in the adventure. Each has a little description, some have a key event that happens at a certain time each day. Some have a little situation that happens the first day but not other days, and other have events that happen in response to other events and/or the parties actions.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with these time travel adventures. They have to account for the initial situation as well as the parties, and other NPC”s meddling in things. That can make for some long descriptions. These are not necessarily verbose, but the pure volume of events makes the description drag out. They COULD be shorter, with some really dedicated editing. And the headings could be much better. Right now there’s a “Significant Event” heading for those locations that have one. It would have been better to use more descriptive headings, like “SI: Mayor Turned in to a Toad” or some such. While the SI heading provides you the ability to find the SI section easily, you want to overload the data when possible to cue and orient the DM. The same goes for the other events headings. Further, there could be some bolding or better use of bullet points. The ability to scan the text quickly is important. If we assume the DM has read it once, then at the table we’re looking to job their memory … which bolding and bullet points can do well … and which this adventure does not do well.

It does a decent job with presenting some nuanced NPC’s … in some cases. There’s a thief to redeem … but also a gang of outlaws that can’t be reasoned with. You can help either god to break the curse, but the good god is clearly MUCH easier. The adventure even goes so far as to say the outlaws will never help the good guys and it should be VERY hard for the players to convince the good god to allow the evil one to eat some pudding.

I’ve got some problems with that. The adventure does a good enough job of being open ended that these discrepancies stand out. I remember a Deus Ex game in which you complete without violence … except for this one farmed-out boss battle that you had to fight. The outlaw gang stands out here. They have a mortally injured member and go so far as to kidnap an herbalist to save them … and its even mentioned that only divine magic can save him. But they will never side with the good god. Not even if she promises to save their buddy? And the whole good good good god pudding thing is kid of lame also. Gods has a historical basis in kind of getting along, even when they don’t like each other. Is it really so much to ask that the gnome god be allowed to partake in the pudding feast?

That accompanies some bad advice in places, like “throwing some skulks at the party when things are lagging.” That’s never a good idea.

But, still in all, much better than I was expecting. I was prepared to make a disparaging remark about the Adept level DMSguild stuff, having encountered at least one stinker, but so far I’m two for three for them not being total shitshows. That’s MUCH higher than usual for me, and ridiculous when considering the depths of despair general DMSGuild adventures send me to. It actually MIGHT be worth checking them out! I’ve also decided I’m grading this 5e/Pathfinder shit on a curve from now on.

This is $5 at DMSGuild. The fucking preview doesn’t fucking work!

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In the Depths of EldHeim

By Quentin Acord
Pentagon Games
Level 1 Dwarves

For generations the subterranean city of Eldheim was the eternal home of the Dwarves, until the faithful day spoke of in legend. Fyor Blackhand, who’s clan was responsible for mining precious ores from the deepest depths of the mountain uncovered an ancient evil. The Entity promised him power in exchange for his service and that of his clan. Blackhand agreed, and in doing so became the first of the betrayers (called Duergar in the Dwarven Tongue).

My reviewing life is frequently a living hell.

This fifteen page pointcrawl has ten essentially linear locations. Forced fights, single column, lots of italic read-aloud, with a style that is more Storgame than OSR.

I know I take shit sometimes for my taxonomy. Yeah, sure, it’s OSR if you say its OSR. Meanwhile, those of us spending money on the shit want some expectation of confidence in what they are buying. If I buy something with “OSR” on it and it turns out to be a one page Fiasco playset of London gangsters, well … You can expect me to be upset.

I know the lines are not always as clearcut. If you stat something for OD&D, did you just write an OSR adventure, no matter its similarity to London Gangster playsets? Maybe you wrote a D&D adventure (and therefore an OSR adventure …) but it’s just a REALLY REALLY bad adventure. Maybe?

Anyway, this adventure shows little understanding of how D&D works, especially older styles of play. Everyone is a level 1 dwarf and you’re sent in to the ancestral home to find a kidnapped dwarf prince. You’ve got a hidden stat, Honor, which means that someone will “win” (get to the kings heir) based on an accidental following of what the designer thinks is honorable.

Tear down evil banners, get some honor. Loot centuries old abandoned market stalls? Loose honor. Unless their your clans, then no honor gain or loss. This is shit.

First, you can’t assume. Even in 2018 it’s not fucking clear what good and evil and right and wrong is. Peter Singer says you’re shit for drinking anything other than water and donating the savings to helping unfortunate people around the world. -1 Honor for drinking the coffee! Second, that kind of mechanic only works if the choice is meaningful. Meaning that the players have to understand the consequences of their choices. “You want to tear them down? That’s an honorable act … do you want to?” or “Looting the stalls could be seen as a dishonorable act, looting the dead. Do you want to? NOW the players have some choices to make and it is, after all, about them making choices for their characters. But that’s also kind of shit, right? I mean, if you tell them then they will (probably) game the system and only choose “good” action. That’s why there needs to be consequences. Sure, you can loot the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords from the old kings tomb … but there will be a massive honor cost … Now it’s a delicious choice. This adventure don’t do none of that. Just take your fucking lumps and move on. It’s shit, with no interesting choices or consequences.

Back to Ye Olde Fiasco playset, what’s your position on forced fights? D&D, early D&D, is fucking deadly as hell. Players needs to navigate risk v reward and all of that jazz. When you force a fight (in the second fucking room) you are forcing their hand. You are telling them that exploration, roleplaying, and everything else is secondary to tactics. Low and behold everyone min/maxes for combat and 4e shows up the day. It’s a fundamental lack of understanding about D&D. The same with treasure. Old D&D is a gold for XP system. This abstracts nearly all of the treasure. “If they loot the stalls they get treasure.” What treasure? Who knows! That’s up to the DM! Hey, I just paid you five fucking dollars, how about you lift your pinky or glance sideways as we pass Big Ben in order to provide some fucking value?

It’s all single column, which, as we all should know by now, is not easy to read and run at the table. THEN it makes us suffer through LONG read aloud. No one pays attention to long read aloud. Know why players are on their phones? THEY ARE BORED BY YOUR FUCKING GAME AND ITS READ ALOUD. And, it’s in italics. I fucking hate long sections of italics. It’s impossible to read and makes my head hurt. No, it’s not just me. It’s a readability/usability thing.

One rooms read aloud tells us that the forges has “a cooling station enchanted to never be empty and be full of blessed water.” Uh … how do we know that? Hey, how about a little interactivity? Lets the characters investigate, find out it nevers empties and is blessed? No? Just want to tell us everything inthe read-aloud? FUNDAMENTAL LACK OF UNDERSTANDING.

No. Redeeming. Qualities.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The last page of the adventure shows you the first three rooms, one of which isn’t even on the pointcrawl map. Enjoy the blessed water room.

Posted in Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 3 Comments

The Gray Ribs

By Mark A Thomaas
PBE Games

Hexed Places are outdoor locations and encounters based on the classic six-mile hex format and OSR sensibilities. Use these locales as a quick side adventure, to fill out your campaign sandbox, or expand upon them to create a multi-session campaign. Each includes an overview of the region, expanded one-mile per hex maps for players and GMs (PDF and VTT format), encounter and rumor tables, and descriptions of individual locations, encounters, and features within the hex. Files are available for individual download and as a single zip file. … This Hexed Places locale is mountainous and rugged, with a few patches of woods and hills. The Bugbears of Stoneroot Village trade iron, coal, and silver for the slaves needed to work Dragor’s Mine.

Well, that was a fucking waste.

This fourteen page hex crawl contains a 9×7 hex map from hexographer, with a 1 mile per hex scale, with six of the hexes expanded upon. And by “expanded upon” I mean “minimal description expanded in to minimal longer description. Minimal expansion is a bane.

There’s not much to this. A players map, a DM’s map, and twelve pages of text, two of which are wanderers and two of which contain hex details. The descriptions are minimally expansive.

Minimally expansive is where you take a short description and then make it longer without really adding anything of value. I usually bitch about this in dungeon rooms that exhaustively describe a mundane bedroom and list its contents. The key to this style is to not add anything of value to actually running the adventure.

Let’s take a hex crawl; we’ll use Wilderlands as a kind of platonic example. Wilderlands might say something like “A tribe of dwarves buys slaves to mine gold.” They are always on the lookout for new workers.” Wilderlands was good at embedding action. There was something in the description, usually, that was some kind of call to action and enabled interactivity. The dwarves want slaves, maybe they buy them and maybe they want to capture the party. Maybe they are greedy, as dwarves are want to be. The use of the word “workers” might imply some cornish american west gold miner/slave-in-all-but-name stuff. There’s enough for the DM to use context with the implied situation to build an interesting little interactive thing for the party to get in to trouble with. It was terse writing with lots of potential entry embedded in it. (I’m also romanticizing it a bit, I’m sure.)

Now, what if the Wilderlands description were longer? What if it named a few of the key dwarves, listed their treasure, and told us how many pickaxes their were and told us there were some twelve wooden buildings, like a smelter and an ore-processing place and a communal barracks. I think I can make a good argument that nothing of value has been added. It’s all either pretty obvious and doesn’t really add anything interactive or interesting.

That’s what this does. It expands a basic idea in to nothing. A generic cave hex has a chance for wandering monsters. Good thing that was told to us! The bugbear mining camp has a couple of names and the dozen wooden buildings/barracks detail, as well as a treasure list. There’s nothing to this.

Added value would be implied talking or tension, maybe a faction, some personality quirks. SOMETHING. One hex has a treant who hides unless the party fucks with the forest, and then it animates some trees. That’s not really much value. It’s not devoid, but, really, there’s nothing to that.

The two pages of wanderers are the same. No potential energy. The gnoll slavers are looking for slaves. Joy. I guess I should be happy they have the “slaver” descriptor, which is better than nothing But, really, it’s the added description I’m bitching about. There’s nothing there. Just pick a random adjective/adverb from the dictionary to add to some monster you picked out at rando and stick it in the adventure. Then describe what the adjective means.

Seriously, just grab a map and a random encounter generator online and you’ll have essentially the same content this provides.

There’s No Added Value beyond that.

Someday I’ll get around to producing a hex crawl guide. But, in the words of Theoden King, Not this day. Maybe in eight or so more years at my current rate of writing.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview shows you everything, so you can check out the hex descriptions for yourself easily enough.–The-Gray-Ribs

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(5e) Rats of Waterdeep

By Lysa Chen, Will Doyle
Self Published
Levels 1

Solve a brutal crime on the mean streets of Waterdeep in this madcap companion adventure for Xanathar’s Guide to Everything!

This 29 page city adventure is fun. Modeled on a Noir novel, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but never falls over the line in to humor or sillyness. It walks up and leans over it, waving its arms to not fall over it, but stays firmly planted while looking over its shoulder and giving the finger to the hardcare serious adventures behind it. Pretty well organized and written, I’d be happy to run this, and it’s good enough that I’ll look up the authors others works. Also: One of my vices is city adventures, so, be warned.

The docks are quarantined, there’s a plague. The watch has a message from someone inside that says they know what’s behind it. The party gets to escort the detective in … only to find the informant dead and the detectie most likely compromised.

There’s a touch of noir in this. It’s a mystery, the party escorts a detective. He’s new to the squad and wears a fedora and trenchcoat and doesn’t understand why the rest of the watch detectives just wear the city uniform. There’s a crime lord with a henchman, jilted lovers in the form of the Rat King and the Lady of Plagues, bored secretaries causing trouble … a lot of fun shit to roleplay with.

In this case the crime lord is Waterdeeps on Beholder Bob, and his lacky Mind Flayer. He meets the party after they find the first body, is bored, and sends his thugs after them while he floats away, bored and distracted, with his lacky. I bitch a lot about forced fights and so on, but, if you’re gonna do it then having your 1sts meets a behold and a mind flayer and get a chance to talk before thugging it up is absolutely one way fun way to do it. Plus, he disintegrates the detective you’re escorting if the party get lippy. NPC removed! Yeah! Fun! Yeah! This is almost a DCC aventure! Well, no, but still, closer than most!

It’s got a nice map/adventure flowchart up front explaining the area and the adventure and how the hooks and clues work together. PERFECT for a nice overview. It uses bullet points to convey information. PERFECT for scanning and locating information and breaking it up.

The elements are great. For example, at the apothecary-with-something-to-hide the secretary is trying to get rid of the players using the usual bored clerk gimmicks. The roleplaying notes for the NPC’s are good … pretty nice.

Oh, and the usual “lets explain everything in a diary?” bullshit? It’s handled through a player handout. Players LOVE handouts AND it doesn’t overstay its welcome by droning on. Great!

And, and, if you CATCH the plague you will turn in to a rat! You get features, like beady red eyes, or whiskers, for each save you miss in the adventure. FUN!

And there’s a town newspaper handout!

And on the down side …

The bullets are good, as are the NPC notes, but they do get a bit long at times. A little bolding, or a sentence or sentence and half less would be better, as would a more direct writing style. You’re conveying information to the DM who is scanning during play … it has to be terse … while remaining evocative. Cut the bs.

Certain details are abstracted. We’re told the plague goes by many names, including Rat Pox. Well, fuck, the fact that you named that one means rats are important. A few more naes mixed in would have been fun.

Finally, the two main characters are the Rat King and the Lady of Plagues. They are demihumans. B O R I N G. Think of how much more fun it would have been if they were straight out Petty Gods?!?!?! A REAL rat kind and a minor god plague?!?! FUN! And fun friends to make!

I’m clearly a fan of this. I like city adventures, this one is fun in the way I like adventures to be fun. Not humor, not silly, but with some nods to those elements. It’s not Sliced Bread quality, but it’s solid enough.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is broken. I has sads.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 12 Comments

Under the Temple Crypt

By Extildepo
Verisimilitude Society Press
Swords & Wizardry

This dungeon assumes that there is a temple somewhere with a mysterious walled-in doorframe in the basement crypt. The walled-in doorframe predates the temple itself and leads to ancient subterranean structures that hint of an older civilization as well as an expansive underworld.

This wight page dungeoncrawl has a twenty-ish room ruined city/underground area. It stands out for being mostly inoffensive, a wonder in and of itself these days. The writing is a mix of workmanlike facts and decent imagery, leading to an inconsistent vibe overall. A little polishing of the text would have elevated this quite a bit. Still, I’m not mad at it.

This one is close. It’s got a pretty decent “drop in dungeon” premise, being behind a bricked up doorway. The supporting map is ok, with lots of varied terrain, tunnels and hallways, under and over tunnels and so on, especially for its small-ish size.

This is just a basic little dungeoncrawl in a mixed dungeon, both in creatures and in setting, from caverns to mini ruined underground city portion. It’s quite successful sometimes in the writing. Overall you get themes of decay, dust, fallen stone block and crumbling ruins. This is built up through repetition and the artwork present, both of which are good techniques. Ornate pillars with stylyze reliefs of animals, large and sticky cobwebs hanging from pillar to pillar, slowing movement and obscuring vision. A green and purple luminescent glow emitting from behind a broken wall … thats room two and it’s a pretty good description. I can imagine it, and more, and because of that I can EASILY build on it for the players. There’s more than one room that reaches this great height of writing.

But it’s much more usual for the writing to be more workmanlike, and less evocative. “This crypt is typical of the times.”, “These dead priests still wear their ceremonial robes and stoles”, “This once opulent sanctuary is now a ruin.” or “The entrance to this building is open and arched.” It’s all very workmanlike, and more than a little bland. A bathhouse has pools of black liquid. BORING WORD CHOICE. Another room has a dozen large ceramic urns. Give it some life man! “This is the lair of a fearsome troll.” is not an evocative room description.

This extends to the creatures. There’s a giant spider who attacks. There are ghouls who attack. Various creatures. They just don’t have much life in them. Ghouls from a ruined city? Those should erudite ghouls, or an inquisitive spider, and so on. They need a little life to them. Not everything has to be something you can to, but it needs a adjective or adverb, some kind of descriptor to bring the thing to life.
So, it’s ok. It doesn’t overstay. It’s got a decent map and a few good descriptions along with some things to poke at that contribute to ok encounters. It tends more to the bland side, but, again, I have overly high expectations. It’s close. Some refinement, especially around word choice, would send it in very good territory.

This is $1 at DriveThru. Note that the level range is NOT in the product description, only on the cover. Boo! The preview doesn’t really show you anything more than the map.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 4 Comments

The Dragons Secret

By Jennell Jaquays
Fifth Wall Games & Miniatures
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 5-7

The Dragon’s Secret centers on a mystery from the past: villagers invited a gold dragon to bless and protect the region with her presence… for a little tribute… and a temple… and followers… and perhaps just a whole lot more tribute. When the dragon eventually went mad, she laid waste to the surrounding lands in a fiery rage, ending with her death at the hands of heroes. Except… they found almost none of her treasure. In time people forgot the cathedral’s location, but the legend of her missing treasure still inspires seekers to keep looking.

This 54 page adventure features a three level thirty room dungeon. A classic exploratory dungeon stuffed full of things, it manages to be both verbose AND scan well … generally. A few more cross-references and some rewording would push this beast in to very rare territory indeed. Also, it has the ducks/aardvarks, a featured Jaquayism, for those of you for whom D&D is serious business.

Classic Exploratory Dungeon. The rooms in this are stuffed full of things. It seems like every single room has three or four different things going on it. This isn’t the hidden depth of Kuntz, which is seldom realized, or the immediate gratification of a modern set-piece room with 12 terrain features to exploit. The rooms here remind me a bit of the classic examples from the 1e DMG … if they had more going on. You can poke and prod several different things in each room, or get poked, as the case may be. This turns each room in to a mini-adventure, with as much to do as the party cares to engage in. One small room is a square tower stairwell, opening on to a room at the top with a door that leads to the roof. Stairs count as #1 thing. The final rotation of the stairs are barricaded with thorny brush, heavy branches, fire sharpened stakes, etc. That’s thing #2. There’s also a secret door, but we’ll ignore that. The top of the stairs are rotten, that’s a “trap” and #3. Big pile of treasure in the a jumbled mess in the center of the room. That’s feature #4. And then there’s a bunch of piercers up in the rafters, that’s #5. Now, look, you could think of this as a room with a pile of treasure, a trap, and a monster. But that’s not how its WRITTEN. It’s both a cohesive room and yet it feels like there’s these separate elements to encounter and enjoy. Room after room after room does this. Secret side entrance. Gold dragon altar in the corner. Mechanical dragon if it sees you. Slide it aside to in a hole with treasure in it. But there are also centipedes in it under the treasure. And werewolves in the next room that can agro in if they hear you. It’s depth, it’s hidden, but it’s not obtuse and it’s LIKELY to be encountered. And, in both examples I cited. You can agro in creatures from the next room if you are loud. There are linkages between things. It’s a really, really good design. This is the kind of shit that I love to see. Exploratory, overloaded. It’s classic D&D at its finest.

The rooms are long. I’d say “a column” is average for a room in this, as the page count to room number would indicate. Rooms have a description, and then a backstory heading, a remarkables heading, a secrets heading, a curios heading, a denizens heading, a tactics/roleplay heading, and so on. I have theorized in the past that one could be verbose and still make something scannable. This comes about as close as you can get, I think. Th headings make it easy to locate (or skip, in the case of background …) the important sections of the room. You can the general description and relate it to the party and then, as they explore the room, your attention is drawn to the other various sections. It’s a tad mechanical, and I’ve seen terser formats that accomplish the same thing, but overall I think it works. It scans well, which means it helps the DM run the room, which is, ultimately, the purpose of all room descriptions.

Which is not to say it’s perfect.

My primary frustration is with one of the strengths, the rooms linkages. Gargoyles fly off to get help from the rest of their gagle. Yeah! Room linkage! Uh … which room is that gagle in? Or, noise from one room doesn’t really translate well in to what gets drawn in. That alter room has some werewolf treasure in it. They are in the next room. But you don’t know that. Until you come to that room entry. Thus what’s it missing are some simple cross-references. “The gargoyles fly off to get help [a8]”, for example. There ARE some attempts at cross-referencing, but this generally comes up in the case of the the adventure side quests and rumors, etc. They are GREAT there, and totally worth it and appreciated. But the rooms are missing it. There’s some great color in some of those, and more than enough to make this a pretty rich environment … if you put the work in. They are tacked on in the back and while each one references things in the adventure and adds a LOT of local/regional depth, they DON’T scan well and are, well, hooks to be developed by the DM. Prepare thy notepad! Wanted signs plastered all over for two criminals? Count me in on that color!

Finally, I’d note that the room descriptions, while good, are not great. I’m talking about the initial little description that talks each room, not the added section heading/expanded detail. The rooms don’t always start with the most important things near the top of the description and sometimes omit some things that seem important to the ‘hidden depth’ of the room. I’m not sure that knowing the werewolfs are two familiaes helps as the first room entry? There’s generally some good imagery, with light from dragon lamps, some missing and dark, illuminating a golden dragon statue, for example. But it’s also the case that some DM cues could be more obvious at the start of the room.

Wanderers are doing something (yeah!) but treasure is generally book items and boring +1’s and 150gp gems. I can has sads? I wanted more in that area. There’s also weirdly placed asides. I blame layout for this. I LIKE asides, like what makes THESE gargoyles special. But it appears deep in the adventure not near the first gargoyles. That makes you have to remember that you say it before. I don’t like membering.

Yeah, I’d pay $15 for this and I’d run it. Hyquatious Vaults, Blue Medusa, Guy’s work, Darkness Beneath/Upper Caves, and DCO all have their strengths and do things well. This falls close to Vaults and/or Guy’s work, being classic D&D exploratory, but with a FUCK TON more going on. Or, at least, FEELING like it is going on. It doesn’t feel as focused as those other adventures, which maybe is because of the room length or the overloaded nature of the rooms. I don’t know.

This is $15 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages and TOTALLY lame. It doesn’t show any of the rooms at all. It’s important for people to understand what they are getting and showing how a typical room is written, in the preview or product blurb, is an important part of that.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 2 Comments

(5e) The Curse of the Sandoval Estate

By Michael Hubbard
Self Published
Level 3

Many years ago a young man living outside of the Silverwood forest made a pact with Oberon, saving the Silverwood and it’s denizens. Given an estate and profitable business of woodworking Alexander Sandoval lived a blessed for twenty years. On the eve of his wedding Alexander slaughtered his family and the servants of the estate. That night a terrible curse has been laid upon the estate. Are you ready to unravel the mystery of the Curse of Sandoval Estate!?

This seventeen page adventure describes a 23 room manor house that is haunted by a past family massacre. It tries pretty hard, but is overly flowery/dramatic in its language and has issues with repetition. For the second time in a week, I’m wondering if there might be English As A Second Language issues … or else it needed an editor/copyeditor to clear up the writing. It’s almost unintelligible in places. And that’s coming from me!

This is the third or fourth adventure of this type I’ve reviewed. The basic formula is to take a site haunted by ghosts and have the party look around for important things that they need to put the ghosts to rest. There’s usually a ghost, the murderer, that shows up at certain places in certain times and acts out little vignettes, etc. You see the scenes, find the objects, put them where they are supposed to go, and lay the ghosts to rest. This time it’s dad killing his entire family and reenacting the evening every day for a week, once every thousand years (!). The idea is that you’ve got seven nights to learn from your mistakes, etc, in order to solve the mystery. [And, as an aside, as I’m doing this review two news stories have appeared in the last couple of days about fathers killing their families. The Affordable Care Act brought mental health service in to alignment with other health services. If you don’t want to read Camu then go make a fucking appointment. Geez, as if there’s a point to life anyway.]

It feels for all the world like the designer had a strong image in their head, or the adventure and the individual rooms. And then they went and fucked it up by not doing a second draft/edit. The text is in the same shape as one of my reviews, but, somehow, even worse. Weird comma placement, or lack thereof, clauses out of nowhere … it’s pretty hard to figure out what is going on. From the first rooms read-aloud comes: “Throughout the room, voices can be heard whispering and a sea shadowy figures float around the room.” Is that supposed to be a sea of shadowy figures? They are never mentioned again. Are they ghosts, or just shadows from the lanterns and statues? (see blow) Fuck if I know.

The front hall has some statues lit by sickly green light from bullseye lanterns in the corners. That’s not too bad. Likewise there’s a good ol hanging tree, a smokehouse, a bloody kitchen, and lots of other rooms that have a line or two of striking imagery in them. It’s not quite Inn of Lost Heroes territory, but it’s close enough to make you think of that adventure, and if that’s not a compliment I don’t know what is.

Plus its got a dying kid on a ghost unicorn that’s left a ghost trail as a hook. A pretty fucking literal Call to Adventure. 🙂

There’s no map of the grounds, in spite of that being pretty relevant and the adventure trying to be a sandboxy affair (and it is.) You need that map, the abstraction doesn’t really work. It also does things like “DC15 passive perception to notice the dead kids glove at the bottom of the lake.” I’m not cool with that sort of thing, you need to actively search for shit, not just walk it and notice it. CLues, scenes, players paying attention is what leads to search checks. Interactivity. Not just a walk by passive check. LAME.

The language can also get overly flowery at times. For every sickly green light there’s also a “Around the tree itself there is a faint pulse of life that rages against the fear and chaos that dominates the landscape.” This kind of overly dramatic shit is supposed to make you feel something. It does, but Apathy and Revulsion to the Text is not, I think, what the designer intended. I’m a fan of twisting words, using them freely to construct imagery, but falling over the line to flowery text and telling the players what they feel is a big bad No No. You need to provide imagery that make people THINK of fear & chaos, not tell them they think of fear and chaos.

The text is repetitive in place, like telling us about how a child died in the smokehouse three of so times in a couple of paragraphs. And for all of the bullet point organization of the hook information, it seems to fail at basic clarity for the endgame scenarios. You’d think that would be simple, but they seem to be out of order and almost stream of consciousness.

I don’t see an editor attached to this. If there was one the designer needs his money back. If there was not one then he needs one. I think most editors are shit, for adventures, but they would have caught some of the blatant language issues and, in my overly optimistic dream world I live in, even the organization and clarity issues. No, you don’t NEED an editor to do a good job, but you do need to put in the effort the editor would have.

This is $5 at Dmsguild. The preview is about six pages. Page three shows you hooks, and their bullet organization and that ghost unicorn I liked. Page five shows you the outside encounter areas that you have to piece together, and one of those passive DC checks in the brackish pool. The preview is a good example of the language issues, but doesn’t highlight the best of the imagery.

Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments