SG1 – Hill Giant Hall

By J.D. Neal
Self-Published
BFRPG
Levels 9-12

Evil has risen and the countryside is in panic. Life in the rich, flat farmlands near the forested hills has never been completely safe, but now giants have arrived, ransacking communities and waylaying travelers, stealing and killing anything they wish. Hundreds of the local residents have gone missing, and no ransoms have been demanded.

I heard a quote this morning on the radio. Attributed to Ebert, it was something like “My only regret with this movie is that I will never be able to watch it again for the first time.” Have you ever thought that way about G1? No more regrets my friends! You can now play G1 all over again for the first time .. And it doesn’t suck!

This is an absolutely remarkable product. It is clearly inspired by G1 – Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. One might go so far as to say it’s a clone of that product. It channels the spirit of G1 very closely without plagiarizing it. I consider G1 one of the best adventures that TSR ever published, certainly within the top 3, and thus is it amazing that this adventure can get so close to the spirit of G1. If you’ve seen G1 then you’ve seen this adventure as well … err maybe anyway … depending on the definition of the word ‘seen.’ Almost everything in this adventure is VERY closely inspired by what is in G1 … but not copied. It’s … Weird … but twisted just a bit. This thing is absurdly hard to review. I keep wanting to say “just like in G1!” but … it’s NOT just like in G1. It’s more like “just like in the spirit of G1!” For example, their’s a guard post, just like in G1, with 2 giants sleeping, just like in G1. But these guys are sleeping in cots and one guard is awake and whittling a log with a magic spear of lightning. it’s NOT just like G1. It’s not even a cheap rip-off of G1. The spirit of what’s going on is kept but it’s clearly different, and not just in token ways. I believe this line of product is intended to provide a free adventure resource in much the same way as the OSR clones do. And at this it clearly succeeds. This is absolutely a free version of G1 at the same quality level of the original.

I’ve been thinking about reviewing old product for quite some time. G1 is one of my all-time favorites and one of the FEW older products that I believe can hold its own against the best of the current products. [Fuck you and your blind nostalgia worship; most of that old shit is crap!] My review of this adventure could almost serve, word for word, as a review of G1.

You know the deal. Evil is afoot, giants are raiding, and the hill giants have built a big log fort. Time to kick some giant booty! G1 has a masterful intro. It’s short, communicates exactly what you need to know, and launches straight in to the adventure. This does exactly the same thing. The introduction is about half a page, there’s about 1/4 of a page on giant tactics & reactions, about 1/4 of a page for wandering monsters, about a page for random giant bag contents, and then the adventure kicks in. Not quite as short as G1 but almost the same. And … this one is even BETTER! I know, right? Better? Big words! But instead of the silly ‘death sentence’ stuff in G1 this one has the local rulers in turmoil with a call going out to privateers, begging for those with courage and strength to grab the reigns and bring the monsters to a stop! Sweet! We’re privateers! Jesu Christo, I LOVED The Last Valley, and any adventure that explicitly calls the characters mercenaries is starting strong! Amorality here we come! And, get this, that privateer line is followed by: “Some have tried. And the few to survive return with horrific stories of comrades roasted alive while hideous laughter echoed down from …” Bad! Ass! That’s the kind of local color I can get behind! This sort of extra fun detail is also seen in the giant bag contents. An iron pot full or toasted (burnt crispy) newts and frogs and wooden grinding pestle.” Sweet! Nothing generic at ALL about that! That’s the kind of stuff I’m looking for; the extra little detail that helps bring the picture alive in the DM’s mind. This adventure has that in abundance, without going off the deep end with endless mindless detail.

Let’s talk wandering monsters. I usually hate wandering monsters. Oh, I love the exist ace of a wandering monster table but I think they are almost always not implemented well. Yeah, they are ‘get your ass in gear’ tax, but they should also be an exciting gateway to adventure. “2d6+6 orcs” is not an exciting path to adventure. It’s boring. It sucks. How about “2d6+6 orcs planning to rescue their leader Graxar from area xx.” Now that’s an encounter! Or Harpies, spying for Queen Isabelle the Cursed, attacking only if provoked … or the Wolf Keeper looking for escaped orcs … or … you get the idea. These wandering monster encounters are great. They provide that extra little bit that helps the DM bring the encounter to life. Yeah, things slip back in to the same old same old once you’re inside, with the usual encounter tables, but the outside tables rock. The inside could be SO much more with just one extra column “diplomacy, art, food” and so on, to give the DM an extra hint to build the encounter around.

The map of the grind level seems a little more simplistic than the first level of G1, but does a fine job os creating loops. Rooms connect to rooms connect to hallways, there’s the central meeting room and the watch post and the outside courtyard, just like in G1. The dungeon has the natural caves and the worked stone area … and now has a secret level with still more going on in it. The map doesn’t quite capture that rough and tumble hill fort flavor of the G1, but as a functional item that enables creative and exciting play I think it works out just fine. It allows the party to sneak around, get chased, lock doors behind them, run up and down stairs, and do all of the normal things a party should be doing in Monsterland. No linear shit-fest present here! So, yeah, a few more map features, some extra info like shading for light/unlit or zones of hearing/vision, or a graphical upgrade to give the appearance of the F-Troop fort would all improve things here, but it’s still a great map. A fireplace entrance to the dungeon, or hole in the floor, or second stair would be nice also, but again, I’m just nit-picking at this point.

The encounters here are almost exactly what I’m looking for. Each one has enough detail for the DM to get a strong mental picture of what’s going on without the encounter droning on in to a wall of text. They are not exactly short, taking up about a paragraph each, but they do deliver to the tune of eight or so per page. One ogre is wearing a nose ring, that turns out to be ring of protection. The same room has tents made of rawhide, the occupants camping. Many of the rooms have this extra little bot of detail and many of the monsters are doing something when you encounter them. I find that extra bit of detail really helps in running the room. If I, the DM, can get a good mental image of what’s going on in the room, then I can fill in the rest as I communicate it to the players. MORE doesn’t mean BETTER in this case. I need a flavor idea. A seed. Then I can do the rest. This encounters in this adventure generally do that. It could be a better though. Monsters at rest or camping provide a little detail. How are they camping or resting though? I’m not looking for a book, but “camping telling stories” or “resting, hang in upside down by their feet” provides that extra little bit that would help things even more. There is an annoying habit of putting hit point boxes next to each monster. This clutters things up, but is, perhaps, a ‘feature’ of BFRP.

As for the quality of the treasure, well: 10 pounds of high quality salt (150 g.p.) in an engraved jar (worth 50 g.p.) which sits on a chainmail made of painted dinosaur scales (worth 600 g.p.) passes muster easily. It does fall in to the G1 trap of “1d6 pieces worth 1d4 100 each” in place. Let’s hope that’s an homage that disappears. The magical treasure, however, tends to fall in to the generic category. There are certainly a few items scattered about that are unique, but for the most part we get “amulet of undead protection” or “wand of metal detection.” Those are lame. They need descriptions, or format changes, or interesting descriptions. There’s no magic or wonder or mystery in those magic items. The monsters, also, tend to be a bit generic. These are all book monsters with not much more going on. I like my creatures a little more … unique. For example, there are some mummies and zombies in this place. The ogre zombies are handled well … they turn as mummies. The real mummies, well, not so much. They have an amulet of protection that turns them as a 6HD creature. This could be a lot better. Just make them hill giant mummies instead. Even better yet, DESCRIBE them and what they do instead of just saying “mummy.” Give me one sentence on what they look like that embeds the image in my mind. Mummies are boring. But describe the rotting courses to me and I guarantee I’ll be inspired and the PLAYERS will be anxious as hell during combat!

I’ve been picking a bit here and there are things but I do want to mention one more flaw: the thing needs better sub-plots. Let’s take good ol Graxar, that orc chief from the wandering monster table. He’s not actually named in room 23. Likewise the big secret giant meeting going on has no details. The leaders are in a room, clearly having a meeting, but there’s not detail about what’s going on. Or even that a meeting is taking place. “Actual meeting Hall is the name of the room, and it has five giants, including different types, but that’s it. That’s boring. Likewise there mare many opportunities throughout the adventure to sprinkle in a sentence here to there about things going on elsewhere. Those opportunities are lost, and their existence in G1 was one of the great things that tied the entire place together.

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Dungeon Magazine #26

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The Letters section of Dungeon magazine may be the most amusing thing an RPG enthusiast can read in 2014. “You suck! I will never buy your magazine again because you published a MSH adventure!” Response: “Ok. Enjoy the Tope Secret adventure in this issue.” It’s also nice to see that the rules lawyer and pedantic reader have always been present in the hobby.

The advancement in adventure design is also noticeable. You can run almost any level of The Darkness Beneath, from Fight On! Magazine, with just a brief read-through. Dungeon Magazine adventures, of this era anyway, seem to require an in-depth reading, a photocopy, and strong highlighter/margin notes work to get in to a runnable fashion. I complain a lot about newer stuff but almost all of it is more coherent than the older stuff.

The Inheritance
By Paul F. Culotta
AD&D
Levels 1-3

This is an assault on a small keep of 23 or so rooms, taken over by hobgoblins. It’s got a nice tactical/sandbox feel to it and could be a nice part of a new campaign kick off. Someone inherits a keep from their dead uncle on the condition that they kick out the humanoids that kicked HIM out. What follows is a brief description of a small keep, which is actually more of a fortified manor home in terms of size. The hobgoblins are given the rigid and organized military structure that describes them, with good guards and good responses to alarms/intruders. You get a decent feel of how they run the place and thus it turns in to a kind of infiltration mission … hence the sandbox label. Contributing to that are short descriptions of the tribe and the region the keep sits in, as well as how it related to Waterdeep. This is ALMOST enough information to have it act as a home base. A couple of more hooks and maybe a small description of a nearby village or tenants/neighbors would have turned it in to a full scale “home base” adventure supplement. The hobgoblins each get names and personalities, which is a bit unusual. If the party were to ally with them then it may come in to play, but the bulk to the adventure is laid out like a hack-fest, with maybe one of two of the hobgoblins willing to talk before attacking. The hobgoblin and regional background add a lot but its not clear it will come up at all unless this is springboard to larger adventure. It runs long, because of the verbosity of the descriptions, for what it is, but that seems to be the style of the time. It is one of the stronger adventures in the magazines run thus far. Batter monster/treasure descriptions and a STRONG edit to pare it down would turn it in to a pretty good thing to run. A much better infiltration adventure than any “you are all thieves. Break in and steal this thing” adventure that I’ve ever seen.

Operation:Fire Sale
By John Terra
Top Secret

I’m not qualified to review Super Heroes but I most certainly am for modern spy adventures, having played in a Danger International campaign for something like eight years. Dominic Conrad, Sven Jormungdr, and Imp Shantier shall live forever in the annals of tradecraft!

This is a straightforward investigation adventure with some opportunities for gunplay if the characters get found out. Someone at a west german army base is passing on secrets and the party is tasked with find out who. There’s a great timeline involved, along with location descriptions that are very appropriate for the adventure. IE: short-ish. “It’s a normal house. In the bedroom in a false vanity drawer you find …”. The descriptions are, in fact, much longer than that but not quite so long as to be unmanageable .. At least as long as your highlighter is at the ready. The reality of the scenario is that the party has to be very much on their toes or they will fail the mission. This then is the major flaw. Three hours in to the timeline almost certainly decides the adventure outcome. Hints and clues are never a parties strong suit and I doubt VERY much if they will pick up enough after the “3 hour window” to get to an interesting outcome. It’s more than likely they are duped and the adventure ends up being a snorefest with no real gunplay, torture, or excitement. I was quite pleased with the level of detail provided but the short timeline will almost certainly cause a fail … meaning no fun.

Caravan Guards
By Steven Smith
D&D
Level 6-8

A sucky adventure. How do you know to trust me on that? Someone is wearing an amulet of proof against detection and ESP. That ALWAYS means sucky adventure. The party joins a caravan, supports it in a couple of monster attacks, and then is attacked by the caravan when they transform in to monsters that night. Every possible trick in the GM book is made to screw with the party so “the big reveal” can be a surprise. They don’t lie. They don’t detect evil. They don’t detect as BLAH. They can control their transformations. They can blah blah blah. It’s a DM railroad of epic proportion. I would say it is completely not worth anyones times except for two things. First, the caravan attack encounters are of a nice length. They are short, just a fews sentences or so each (12 bugbears attack by blah blah blah) and the caravan keeps some meals ready, polymorphed in to birds and turtles, in cages. This could lead to some great little adventure hooks as the party turns the prisoners in to NPC’s.

Deadfalls of Nightwood Trail
By Jay Ouzts
AD&D
Levels 3-4

This isn’t really an adventure but rather an encounter. Some spriggan has set up a trap in the forest in between two trees. There’s a lot of stupid and unnecessary backstory present that tells of how the spriggan and ettercap and spider came together to seethe trap. This kind of extreme history/reasoning never made sense to me. This thing suffers a great deal from the authors “I NEED it to make SENSE” syndrome. You need a pretext of believability, you don’t need to rationalize everything from what’s in the books. Just do something new … THAT’S WHAT THE PEOPLE WHO WROTE THE ITEMS IN THE BOOK DID. Two pages for s deadfall trap==All that is wrong in the world==1

The Cure and the Quest
By Craig Barrett & Christopher Kederich
AD&D
Levels 4-8

This is a short little multi-day wilderness adventure that ends in a little puzzle room. The hook is problematic, which colors the entirety of what would otherwise be a decent little quest. The party finds a book in a clearing while setting up camp for the night. Touching it curses the party with certain death in 4 nights unless they go destroy the book. Fortunately, the way to destroy it is only 2-3 days away. That’s kind of a suck ass hook. Specifically, each day the party is attacked by a special monster. The first day 1, then 2, then 4, then 16, then 256, then an unlimited number. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime, so to speak. This feels like major transgression territory rather than roadside hook territory. Maybe a 4-fer, of 16-fer, over the long term of the campaign, but 256/continuous is a TPK. All for doing what the players should be doing … pushing buttons. “If’s the PC choose to ignore the warning and do not follow the quest then the DM is free to destroy them at his lea sure” This is the kind of DM behavior that a generation learned from. LAME. There are maybe three programmed encounters in the wilderness, two of which are moderately interesting while one is just “giant weasels attack.” The party runs across a tortured ranger and a patrol of soldiers form an expeditionary force. Both of those are going to have great role-play opportunities. There’s a local baron/king after the same location the party is going to and he’s the reason the ranger is tortured. I always like patrols of soldiers and the fact that this one leads them to the despot should end up being great fun. The Dukes’ camp at the location the party is traveling to could have used a more … tactical? Map to show the locations of the soldiers, tents, guards, and so on, since a sneak and/or running combat seems almost inevitable. The end of the adventure has a nice extra-dimensional space to explore that FEELS wondrous … or at least as wondrous as was possible in Dungeon in 1990. A magical valley, a shimmering doorway, and a mobius strip dungeon. Entering the room from one side of the strip allows you to create things and from the other side allows you to destroy things. Nice touch. The magical valley could use a bit more ‘magical’ description, but at least there’s a magic doorway int he middle of the air. There’s a handful of magic items present, like a ring of protection against stirges and a few other similarly unique items. Those were nice, even the ones that more closely resembled book items. The mundane treasure is just generic though. This is an adventure is a couple of good encounters, including the final one, but is lacking in the overall feel. The magical focus that is the subject of the quest needs an uplift, much of the wilderness journey is mundane and boring, and the hook, as given, sucks ass. This could be salvaged though by someone who cared. But is it worth your time to do so?

Nine-Tenths of the Law
By Willie Walsh
AD&D
Levels 7-10

This is an investigation adventure in a town. The group is hired to find someone, who turns out to be a lycanthrope. And possessed by the local evil sorcerer though dead. He wants his magic soul jewel back and is running around killing folk to get it. There are three locations described. Each has some information to learn from someone, if the party gets there soon enough. If they don’t then there’s a body/crime scene to follow up on. Eventually the party learns about a caper at the Museum (ug!) and perhaps tracks the dead-but-not sorcerer back to his sewer lair (ug!) It’s hard to recommend this. I;m predisposed to like this kind of adventure because the best campaign I ever ran was all in on one city. I like the open-ended nature of city games. The three various locations are handled well enough, and there’s some thought paid to the thieves guild: what they can tell the players and how they react. For some reason I got a very ‘Sopranos’ vibe from the thieves guild in this adventure, which I can very much groove on. I’m to sure if it came from the adventure proper or popped in for another reason, but it brought a new appreciation of he adventure to me, or at least that one aspect of the adventure. The backstory is hard to buy in to, as is the hook. The city is not detailed and a city without flavor is atrocious to run. The clue sites are well done though, as is the thieves guild. WAY too much time is spent on the tactics of the various sewer dwellers, so much so that it feels more like a 4e section. Did I mention the clue sites? The Captain of the Guard who bought himself in? The lowlife wife of the guy missing who’s shacked up with some other lowlife? The wizard dude who doesn’t care about anything else? Those clue scenes, and the guild are VERY well done. Almost like the designer ripped them from Cops or some street reality show. That’s what makes this adventure work. Good enough to steal ideas from, if not good enough to run.

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The Charmed Grotto

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By Dyson Logos
Freely Web Published
B/X
Levels 5-8

This is a small ten-ism room cave system under a hill near a village. It’s packed full of baddies, has more than a few interesting features, does treasure (mostly) right. It doesn’t quite have the weirdness or … puzzles? I would come to expect from an OD&D adventure. Because of this, I think, it feels like a much lower level adventure then it is. The high level is, primarily, because of one monster.

Dyson has created a little adventure around one of his maps. I’m so very frustrated with Dyson. Parts of what he does are very good, and I want to like them. But there’s never ENOUGH. A lot of his work ends up being very cramped or 2-houry. It’s like seeing only one small part of Water Lillies. There’s just a hint and taken out of context things are not as nice.

Near a small village is a grotto. In the grotto live some bad things. The party will go in to the grotto, kill the baddies and take their stuff. Dyson gets the party involved in three ways that all seem very natural and good. They could be attacked by bandits while camping/traveling, and track the bandits back to their lair. I like tracking things back to their lair and that fits in well with the moron bandits who live in the caves. Their’s also a hook involving the bandit leader. He escapes the caves and ends up in the inn in town, bloody and disheveled, talking about how something evil is in the caves, killing his men and making off with their loot … “thousands in plundered goods”, to quote Dyson. There’s a nice little moral setup that ends in gold and more morality. Hard to argue with that hook. The final is a kind of In Media Res. I imagine the villagers gathered around the hill that the grotto is on and the party coming up on them, kind of like wandering up on the scene of a little girl stuck in a well. Old Bill, the village “problem solver”, if you know what I mean, nought a rope this morning and went down in to the grotto. He’s not come back up.

Old Bill deserves a little more from me. Dyson does a good job of painting a picture of an NPC with Bill. A guy who has Skills, the party will recognize that, but what skills are never explicitly stated. He tosses dead animals down in to the grotto. He’s helped establish the town and drove off the goblins and bugbears that once raided it. Without anyone every coming out and saying it, or even the villagers knowing it, you get the vibe that Old Bill is the rock the community was built on. Kind of like having that Strider fellow always hanging around. Bill sees a problem and Bill solves the problem. Just the rumors and stories of this guy, with what few words Dyson uses, paint a memorable picture that the DM should be able to easily expand upon. Given the emphasis on the nearby village I suspect that a half-column of text describing it, or rather a few NPC’s in it, would have gone a long long way. In the absence of any village info ration we must instead be content with a quite good rumor table. Not the best I’ve seen but it does do a good job of giving the DM some flavorful ideas of things to weave in to conversation. And that, of course, is the goal of everything in a published adventure: to give the DM flavorful ideas to build upon.

Dyson does a good job on the map. He’s known for that and this is no exception. There are multiple ledges, pools, ladders, giant mushrooms, a river, doors, multiple entrances, a nice multi-level entry hall, same-level stairs, a hidden area, almost everything on could want from a map. But it’s too small. It seems cramped. The entire thing fits in about half a page. It’s great half-page but all most Logos maps, it leaves you wanting more … but in a frustrated way. He’s also left the scale off the thing. I don’t need a graph grid underneath but a reference to the size of the main hall would have been a nice addition to give a good idea of the scape & scale of the place. He accompanies the small map with a rather aggressive wanderers table, with 1in6 every 10 minutes. It’s nothing more than the monsters to be found in the place, and while it’s not explicitly stated I did get the vibe they were to just attack outright.

The main/entry room is the most interesting. The entrance is through a hole in the ceiling, some 50 feet up. There are multiple LARGE terraces in the room, each of which serves as a launching point in to one areas of the adventure: bandits, bugbears, or undead. Each section has a small handful of rooms, three or four. Ladders go up to ledges, ghouls lurk in pools of water, and monsters are stuffed in to rooms. Most of the creature rooms are not hat interesting, just a lair room with humanoids in it. That’s a bit disappointing. Some additional notes or items in the room could kick off a more interesting encounter. The non-humanoid rooms tend to be a bit more interesting. Undead under a pool of water, for example. Or a weird statue covered in cobwebs. But there tends to be nothing more to anything in the rooms. The statue is just a statue. Maybe it’s meant to be leverage on the bugbears that also dwell in the caves, but the bugbears are set up (charmed) so that is very unlikely. Likewise one room has a bunch of giant spiders drained of blood. A clue to those who look but ultimately a rather simple room.

The main monsters, some vampire toad-people, are interesting enough, especially in this environment and especially if, as Logos mentions, the players don’t figure out they are vampires. The rest of the monsters are just straight out the book though. I’m sure the level recommendation comes from the vampires. There are a lot of bugbears and bandits but I guess I don’t see much of a challenge here for a 5th-8th level group. The mundane treasure is hit or miss, with some good descriptions on some of it and a very bad “assorted jewelry worth 11,900gp” in another part. The magic items are quite poor. +1 shield. +2 chain. The best is a snake staff that turns in to a snake to constrict people. Having a couple of the items used by the vampire toads was a nice touch, but ultimately the magic items are flavorless instead of being the items of mystery and wonder that they should be.

Toning down the toad vampires a bit, and making the magic items interesting would give you an adventure for, say, 3rd-5th level play. Lots of humanoids to deal with but probably manageable. I really want to like this one. It’s walking a line though, and is on the other side for me. I have exceptionally high standards though, so maybe its good for you. It’s free though, so why not check it out?

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The Hidden Tomb of Slaggoth the Necromancer

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By Adrian Stone & Nick Whelan
Self published
System Neutral
Low Levels

Mentioning the name of Slaggoth the Necromancer was once met with hastily gestured holy signs and murmurs of fear. The dead things which crawled and slithered from Slaggoth’s hidden tower were ravenous and evil. In the two centuries since the necromancer’s body was entombed deep within a mountain cave, the name has lost some of its gravitas. Young adventurers, unperturbed by ancient tales of long past evil, now think Slaggoth’s tomb ripe for plunder. But Slaggoth does not rest alone. A trio of ogres and their hoard of goblin minions have settled in the caverns. They are deserters from a great army in a faraway land, and are determined to keep the freedom they risked their lives to gain. Any who enter the cavern will be sliced and stabbed, their meat hung on hooks to dry, and their bones fed to the wolves.
This is an interesting little system neutral supplement. It describes the 24 rooms that make up a small humanoid lair inside an old necromancer tomb. The system neutral nature of the design allows the adventure to concentrate on the interesting portions without getting bogged down in rules. I think it succeeds much more than most adventure supplements, and I’d be happy if this adventure represented the quality baseline of OSR fantasy.

It’s got a good bit of introductory text. The whole “deserters from an army” bit brings a context to the creatures that isn’t usually present and adds a whole host of roleplaying opportunities. Just that one little bit of text adds an enormous amount to each and every room entry in the dungeon that has the humanoids in it. The hooks are an interesting mix of lame and interesting. Two are pretty lame: the guard wants you to kill the humanoid bandits and are too afraid to do it themselves, and someone hires you to get and bring back a book/ring/skull/etc. The usual lame assort meant of “lets be a hero” and “someone hired us.” The second two are a bit more interesting though. A fire giant named Blazebear, lieutenant to Warlord Gorgin, is paying handsomely for proof of the deserters death. Hmmm, that’s something you don’t see every day, and it brings a certain ambiguity and … realism? To the murder hobo genre. The last hook has the party going in to find one of the lost consorts to Slaggoth; it seems she may have had her favorite toys frozen. These last two are the more interesting, I think, however the variety here is nice to see also. You can be a hero, be greedy, work an arbitrary line in the moral sand, or appeal to sentimentality. The best hooks appeal to players and, surely, there must be one in there to appeal to YOUR group of players.

The actual dungeon is more of a linear path through a cave with an offshoot here or there. There is some decent variety added to the map through stairs up and down, a tunnel running under another, and a chasm with rope bridge over it, complete with ledges for the humanoids to chuck shit at you. Pools, pits, doors, and a dais round out the map. This is, essentially, a linear map, but I think there is enough variety in the placement of the dead-end branches for the place to feel like a real cave and lessen the impact a linear map usually has. Linear forces choices on players that a more open design would not require. It also forces on to suspend disbelief a bit more. There’s a bear, relatively deep in, that has remained in hibernation A LONG time through a LOT of activity. I don’t know much about bear hibernation, but things are being stretched a bit, IMO.

The actual encounters are an interesting mix. The humanoids encounters tend toward the tactical side of things while there’s still decent mix of weird and unusual mixed in to the other rooms. For example, there are some goblins watching the entrance through a crack, that release wolves should anyone drop by for a visit. Similarly, there is a rope bridge with goblins on a ledge on the other side that fire on players. Both of these, and in particular the rope bridge, will need to be passed if the group if to continue. There’s nothing exactly wrong with either of these, but they do provide good examples of the problems with a linear map. Recall The 13th Warrior and the way they avoided guards? Variety in the map allows for variety in play, zany schemes, and much fun. The humanoids use the cave, the hibernating bear, an ol d battle-scarred spider, and others things to exploit and co-exist. Little bits have extra data and background in the ad-hoc sidebars. There are of varying usefulness. The old spider gets a nice little write-up, short but very interesting, in a sidebar. In play, however, its not clear how much this would add. There’s a silver axe blade stuck in its back as extra loot, which is a nice touch, but the whole ‘its smarter than most spiders” thing, which is the REALLY interesting part, doesn’t really appear to be able to be used very well given the context in which its encounters You can give your goblin sentry all the backstory and personality in the world, but it doesn’t matter if you then say “it attacks immediately!”

The room descriptions are nice though; each one has nicely short and yet evocative bit of text associated with it. It’s not hard at all to imagine the room and that’s the key to being able to deliver something interesting to the players. The hibernating bear is surrounded by fish bones and scraps of half-eaten food. Bones with marks of battle on them … and a silver ring with polished jade on one dismembered finger. Caverns with the stalactites and stalagmites broken off to make extra room. There are great puzzle rooms and weird effects, like a room full of mirrors with interesting things being seen in them. In terms of treasure there’s this little tid bit to serve as an example: The third chest contains 1000 silver pieces, and a bejeweled skull which will whisper the secrets of necromancy into the ears of a magic user, granting them a bonus on any attempt to research a necromancy spell. That’s pretty cool! Most of the magical treasure seems to be the same unique vein, while the mundane treasure has just enough description to be interesting; the silver & jade ring above being a good example.

This entire thing feels like a good old dungeon crawl, with a great mix of traps, treasure, monsters, and weird stuff. Except for some pixel-bitching about a [somewhat] linear map, I think it does an excellent job. I look forward to seeing more like this. But …
I’d like to believe there is a strong market for this sort of thing. I’m sure I’m wrong and would be depressed to learn that most players don’t look for supplements outside of their particular niche of rules. Just the meta-think makes me depressed. I’m need to go stare at that last illo in the 1E DMG.

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Dungeon Magazine #25

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The Standing Stones of Sundown
By Paul May
AD&D
Levels 3 OR 9

This is a brief village investigation followed by a set-piece combat in the village. The village has some standing stones in the middle and a chalk design on the hill. Two of the stones have gone missing and the village mage has turned up dead. Weird, eh? The party pokes around the village, finds the mages journal that reveals he turned the stones back to flesh, then find the mages ring that he did it with. A holy day comes around and a vrock attacks to get at the sacred chalice from the church. So … nothing you do makes any difference because the vrock will attack, out of nowhere, on the holy day. Oh, you can go dig around in some journals (oh boy! Story exposition via journal!), and you can kill a zombie and bring the rest of the stone circle back to life. But you won’t learn what’s going on and none of it will help or predict what it coming. Thirteen pages for that seems a bit much. And there’s virtually no detail for the village or the people in it. The whole “standing stone are actually flesh-to-stone shamans from a FAR earlier age” thing is nice. And when you bring them back they die in interesting way because of the erosion the stones saw. Most of what you need to know about this adventure comes from the following, near the beginning of the adventure: if good-aligned PC’s decline to go to the church then the DM should give each a diety-sent affliction, like a boil on the nose, as a warning. The adventure is further burdened with a terrific need to explain everything and there is a great deal of effort put in to keeping the party in the dark. Speak with dead requiring tongues, farm boys who have not seen their employers, dead mages who never saw their attackers … it’s all a set up to no purpose.

Hellfire Hostages
By Allen Varney
Marvel Super Heroes

I’m not really qualified to review a MSH adventure; I loathe the superhero genre. I think this has terrorists taking over a club for rich people, who are actually all evil super villains. Uh … that is all. [Insert amusing story about The Great Man Alive, a Champions character with the disadvantage “Dead”.]

Of Kings Unknown
By Randy Maxwell
AD&D
Levels 2-4

This is a ten-room lair/tomb full of moon orcs. Those are normal orcs who eat moon melons and have some random benefits. So. Orcs. It literally takes a column of text to tell you five entries on a table for random INT. -4. -2. Normal. +2. +4. So … padded to hell and back. I know, right? Padding in Dungeon Magazine! The lair/tomb is pretty small, at ten rooms, and the layout is a simple branching one. The first five rooms fit on one page, along with the map. The mutant orcs are a nice concept but poorly implemented; clumsy with too much text that looses the A W E S O M E they could be. Hell, mutant anything is cool. [Uh … Everyone knows that Gamma World is my One True Love, right?] The dungeon sucks. The first room is nice trapped door/murder hole guardroom set up thing. The adventure notes a few reinforcements when the shit hits the fan, but not much beyond that and nothing about the leadership jointing the frat. The leadership is disappointing as well. They get names, and individual lair rooms, and have some semblance of personality. There will, however, be no chance to interact with them and so all that they ever were or will be is lost in an instant. It’s a hell of a thing, killing an ma^h^h orc. Oh yeah, and it’s more fun to talk to someone and THEN kill them then it is to just hack them down.

One of the greatest examples in all Christendom of bad room writing is contained herein. It’s not platonic, but pretty damn close. I leave you with it, as an example of the joy you can find herein: “4. Trophy Room. This room once contained trophies of war. Swords, spears, and armor of all kinds were dedicated here to the everlasting glory of the fallen orc leaders. Centuries ago, the walls were draped with elven banners, dwarves sigils, gnome heraldry, and the flags and standards of men, goblins, and various orc tribes. The moonorc leaders have stripped the room of anything useful in order to outfit the tribe. The weapons and armor were quickly divided among the warriors, while the flags and banners were torn down and used for blankets or ripped apart and resewn into bags, sacks, and clothing. The room now contains only refuse and rusty, unusable equipment.”

Hrothgar’s Resing Place
By Stephen J. Smith
D&D
Levels 4-7

This is a small eleven room two-level cave complex. It feels more realistic than a lot of caves, probably because of the nooks, crannies, and major ledge. It’s a little bizarre. There’s about a page of introductory background text/journal for the players to find. There’s a regional map that doesn’t come in to play at all except to locate the adventure in The Known World … but there’s nothing special about the location and no wilderness adventure. The adventure is launched in to almost immediately (at least by Dungeon Magazine standards) and ends up being a tight little affair. The Wanderers table is nothing special (“they attack immediately!”) but the caveman, proper, is interesting. It’s got a couple of loops and seems more like a realistic cave. The way from the upper level to the lower is a huge chasm. There are ledges, nooks, and crannies. I really like cave adventurers that feel like caves and this one, while not Stonesky, gets close enough to satisfy. Inside is a motley assortment of creatures, from trolls to harpies, to giant worms. A spider attacks, lowering itself on silk, while climbing down a ledge. Harpies and trolls don’t like each other (more could have been done with that.) The adventure is nice little one, and includes a non-standard magic sword and some treasure that you can repair to make it worth even more! Reviewing Dungeon Magazine is not a pleasant affair, but this is a little ray of hope in the darkness. So much so that I went back to rpggeek to see what else the author had written. This isn’t OD&D, but more like some kind of … Harn-like environment. Quiet, primitive, tight. I wouldn’t have a problem running it. It even has some cave toads with paralyzing eyes!

A Rose for Talakara
By Wolgang Baur & Steve Kurtz
AD&D
Levels 8-12

Danger! Poser Alert! Danger! Poser Alert! Hmmm,ok, maybe not poser. See that cover, with the black knight holding the black rose? Yeah, you know what means: Someone read Ravenloft. In this case it’s Wolfgang Bauer. Checking his publishing history, we can see these early Dungeon adventures appear to be his first published items. This adventure is some kind of mash-up of Ravenloft and LOTR. Bob, Witch-Kingof Angmar, is under the control of Sue, Dark Lord of Evil. She’s got his magic circlet and he’s tired of being alive. He lures some adventurers to her evil volcano-land Dol Gulder and hopes they pop her ass so he can finally be free. And he’s a gardener because it brings some respite to his tired soul. [As a totally coincidental aside: does anyone know what the official emoticon is for “puking ones guts up?”] Oh, wait, wait! I gets better! The tagline for this adventure is “Red for Love, white for purity, black for death.” I wanted to blame Vampire for this, but it looks like it came out a year later. This is a hack-fest in a monster-filled fortress of Sue.

The first two or three pages are the setup. Lot’s of tortured souls, murdered high priests, black roses left as calling card, mysterious notes “My master bids you join him at his home” blah blah blah. Evil bad guy taunts players. Hang on, let me quote … “His imprisoned soul known only restlessness and torment.” The whole backstory hook involves a complicated timeline and special magical items and blah blah blah blah. The usual set up nonsense. The group is paid $10k each to go find the killer of the high priest. Lots of clues are left for the party, since the poor poor tortured soul wants the party to find him. There’s four or five wilderness encounters on the way to Mordor, at least two of which are totally bizarre, but not in a good way. The first is with a band of fire giants. Each has a name and a personality that goes on for quite some word count. They attack immediately and no doubt die ignominious deaths at the hands of 8th-12th level PC’s. Why pay all this detail to creatures which die immediately in 10 minutes of pure combat? And yes, later on in the fortress, the party encounter 8 elf prisoners who get NO detail at all, in spite of the fact they are eager to join the party and wipe out the evil menace. WTF?! The party also meets Radagast in the wilderness. This encounter takes a full page. The druid tells the party … well, nothing at all. The designer has spent a full page on a meaningless encounter. There’s also a decent, and deadly, encounter with Salamanders in a lava river. They grab people and dive under the lava. Ouch! But nice!

Dol Guldur gets a pretty extensive write up, with about 70 encounters. Gatehouse, courtyard, keep, it’s all there. It’s also some kind of monster circus. There’s a medusa in the garden, harpies in the towers, skeletons at the gates, shambling mound gardeners, fire elementals for hot & cold running water (ug!) The place has a decently interesting castle layout that reminds me of MERP products and the monster circus isn’t any worse than I6. There is the usual nonsense with room descriptions, like the paragraph that describes the history of a pool of dried blood. Yes, an entire paragraph to tell us that a pool of loos on the battlements is from where some skeletons shot an escaping priest. No body. Not fresh. Just some dried blood. The Witch King “tests” the pc’s, of course, by sending bad guys against them, and arranges to lead them to Sue. There’s also a whole complicated “wizard locked doors and gem keys” thing, which smacks of magical economy. Oh, and of course Sue has cast a bunch of wishes so passwall, teleport, etc don’t work inside her fortress. IE: the designer was too lazy to come up with an adequate adventure and/or scale the adventure to a level appropriate to passwall/teleport.

The place isn’t terrible, but it’s not all that interesting either. Kind of like a Ravenloft-light. An attempt at Realism that gets mired in some kind of jr. high Vampire the Masquerade nonsense. Sad face is Sad. :(

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They Came from the Stars

By Simon Forster
“and the sky full of dust” blog
OD&D
Levels 1-3

This little adventure is a brief village/countryside investigation and exploration of a small spaceship. It’s got a strong OD&D feel, is very lightweight, provides some decent imagery, and, all in all, is a nice little outline to running an adventure.

Villagers are disappearing. Green monsters have been seen in the area. Please, won’t anyone help! This is a cute little D&D adventure with a strong OD&D vibe. Aliens have landed and are abducting villagers, mutilating cattle, doing weird experiments, and generally being a pain. The villagers are terrified of the Greenies and are looking for help. There are some hooks provided that are generally not very good. The local baron hiring someone to deal with it (why aren’t you dealing with it yourself?), a friend disappearing (which is why all PC’s, and everyone I know, make have no family or friends, so they can’t be used as leverage against us) or Arnold the pathetic and obviously desperate and scared looking for help. Of these Arnold is the best, mostly because of that brief description of Arnold. It begs the question of why Baron Jackass isn’t doing his job. But since that’s ALWAYS overlooked in adventure design we’ll overlook it here also. The rumor table is very generic and uninteresting. People have been going missing, the Greenies are evil clerics, cows have been mount with holes in them and drained of blood. It’s all presented in a rather fact based style. That table could have been great with a little local colour added to it.

The village of Appleby is described on two pages. There’s not much here but what there is has been done with a lot of good things to riff off of. You get a very nice picture painted of a village in terror. The constable is locked in his office, slowing dying because he is too terrified to leave after an encounter with the Greenies. The locals gather in the church at night to pray and for defense. The fields are full of mutilated cows, some farms lie abandoned with signs of blood, violence, and a smokey stench in the air. There’s not really any villagers described well, except the constable. There’s a throw-away mention of a barkeep and the priest but there’s not enough there to really bring them to life. A little more there, and a couple of farmers, would have helped this section a lot. The place still gets a very desperate and scared vibe associated with it, so overall I’d say the designer does a pretty decent of setting the village mood.

The surrounding countryside gets a nice little write-up also. There are four or five little places scattered around to visit, in addition to the spaceship. A hermit in the midst of a religious revival because of the aliens, some bandits who have been devastated from alien abductions, a barrow, and some escaped slaves of the aliens. The scale here is 1 hex equals 2 miles. While the Hermit is on a path the others are in the countryside. They need some sort of connection, or leads, I think. Drop a couple of hints in the village, or put some clues about the bandits in the hermit and the slaves form the bandits, and so on. I like the individual encounters. The hermit is a unique guy, the bandits get a little write up, as do the slaves. In the case of the bandits and slaves you get a good overall vibe without any description of the individuals. Like the village the overall mood is communicated well but you don’t really get told that Boris the bandit is protective of his brother bob and worried because he was taken. A little more would have perhaps would have triggered some hireling/ally stuff, but then again I think the current write-up is pretty close to the line. I certainly came up with that and I suspect other DM’s would have as well, so perhaps there’s no need to mention or imply that. The slaves proper are mutilated with machine parts grafted on. A couple of more sentences about that would have gone a long way. The final area is the protective dome that surrounds the area around the ship. This is a pretty nice little area with an abandoned mine running under things, a radiation disposal pit, a crab tank to play with, animal pens to screw around with, and the spaceship proper crudely buried under a hill. The entire area is quite nice, each site just getting a sentence or two write up but the entire place working together to provide a nice little scene to explore. It’s just over he edge of being useful in terms of detail and length. Any less and it would be generic. More would add to things, but probably be unnecessary. Just enough to riff on and add your own flavor to. I like it.

The spaceship is tersely described. The aliens carry death ray guns (which are effectively magic missile wands) and force fields (belts of the Shield spell) and things like that. That’s very nice. I like the idiosyncratic nature and yet the way in which it makes sense. Most of the ships rooms have something weird and interesting on, from green good pools to glass tubes to half-machine people to large glass cylinders full of goo. The only negative may be a disconnect in how the Greenies react. There’s no real notes on an organized defense, and yet its pretty much stated that the captain is monitoring every room via the monitors all the time. That’s a gap to be filled.The adventure ends up with a nice little wandering monster table that covers four different areas (village, county, dome, ship) with six results each, each with enough detail to run it well. A wounded cow wandering alone. Slaves looking for new subjects. Bandits returning home with a dead deer. Escaped villager, fleeing. Greenie patrolling. Enough to run a nice little encounter.

This thing isn’t going to win any awards but it is a nice solid little OD&D vibe adventure. It’s what you WANT to find when you download an adventure off the Internet. It’s not professional. It’s not long. It’s a bit clunky in places. But it’s solid.

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Three Sad Wizards

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By Jasper Polane
Weird Opera Blog
OSR
Levels 1-2

This is a little mini-region with a village, three main adventure sites, a number of wilderness opportunities, and some follow-up suggestions. The intent appears to be an adventure that could be used with all age groups. It largely succeeds with only a couple of exceptions, mainly around the village proper. The entire thing has a nice OD& vibe, with unique spells, OD&D idiosyncratic wizards, and different treasure.

In the local village teahouse three sad wizards commiserate. All of them are having troubles at home. The village is only briefly described as is one location: the teahouse. Both descriptions do the sites justice, from sleeping in barns to eating what’s prepared to the local hobby production of tea. In both cases the descriptions are just on the edge of what’s required, which is almost certainly the correct amount of detail. The village could use a few more personalities, especially since its mean be a kind of home-base sandbox location. The village section is the weakest part of the adventure and is the one portion where the “all ages” agenda is the most apparent. Things are a bit … polite? Serene? Vanilla? In the village. I’m not sure if its the teahouse, or the lack of other personalities, or what, but this section feels aimed at younger players more than any other. It’s only briefly mentioned, but the wizards appear to be in competition to get the party to look in to their problem first. The three wizards each get a brief write up. The descriptions are not very strong, but there is enough to build something from, especially if you’ve sen Radagast lately. Whats really missing here is the hook. Three wizards commiserating the the teahouse is not exactly the strongest of hooks. Yes, the PC’s will take the bait, but just because it apparent that is what they are supposed to do. It’s all a bit weak. I suspect it’s the all ages thing. While it’s easy for kids to play up’ it’s a lot harder for adults to ‘play down’ and that may be what’s going on here.

The three wizards each have a problem at their home and the three main adventure sites are their three homes. They specialize in plants, bugs, and birds, so the towers/homes are based around those themes. The three towers all feel like a bit different and have different things going on while still having the same general fairy-tale vibe. I suspect the adventure is written that way for the younger players, but the building of an adventure site and encounters without game mechanics in mind is also the kind of D&D I enjoy. It tends to be weirder and somehow more evocative of wonder and the fantastic. One tower is having trouble with the plants coming alive. One tower has an apprentice (9 years old) running wild, and one has an intelligent spider running the show now. In all three cases you get a decent little magical tower full of strange things and then the encounters. In two cases you may be able to resolve the situation with the core opponent without killing them. That’s a nice touch. The baseline adventure is not ‘kill everything’ but rather ‘resolve the situation’, and while there are a couple of suggestions given there is more than enough room for the party to improvise and do their own thing. That sort of open-ended nature is how EVERY adventure should resolve. The encounters are things like a gem glued to the bottom of a stool, or a pear tree with fruit that turns you pear shaped, or a scroll in a water tank. In other words, enough little details to make the adventure interesting and feel like a wizards tower without it being a full on gonzo experience.

The forest and road wandering monsters are not quite what I am looking for. There’s a little bit of charm present, from a pack of stray dogs to brat kids to an old peddler, but they tend to be missing that certain something that turns it from ‘just another encounter’ in to something interesting. The peddler needs a personality. The bandits need something other than the very simple ‘they could ambush/camp/robbery’ note. The surrounding wilderness has a number of places to follow up with, from giant anthills to ogre caves to boatmen camps to lost tombs. These are very briefly described and generally also lack that little something extra. The ogres have a locket with a picture of a little girl in it, but that’s about the extent of the personalization of the encounters. “The leader fights with a +1 sword” is not the height of adventure design. There is a great variety of new spells and several new/interesting magic items, from a new wand of wonder to a badger cloak. Several of the monsters felt new also, even if they did share the names of several well-worn ones.

This isn’t a bad little adventure packet. I’ll probably keep it, and may get a Lulu hardcopy when I order again. The encounters need additional evocative detail, but there’s enough here for it to just scrape by. This is almost certainly because of the simple fairy-tale like charm of the wizards towers proper, and the strength of at least two of them.

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Dungeon Magazine #24

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In the Dread of Night
By Ann Dupois
D&D
Level 1-3

This is a six-level wizards tower with a nice little village attached. Weird things are afoot in and around the village and they are convinced its the nearby wizard and his orc servants. But he let them in to look around and everything seemed ok to them. But shit keeps happening and now the village leaders have disappeared also. He is, of course, evil. The village here gets five or six pages. There’s a nice map that’s almost Harn-like (that’s a compliment.) The villagers each get a little description and some rumors they know, and in addition there are some general rumors and rumors that only children know. A lot of the villagers come off a bit bland, without much interesting character, in spite of the two or three paragraphs that describe the occupants of each hovel. The rumors are good though, and a couple of the hovels get some decent character descriptions that ARE brief and memorable. This could really use a table for the village occupants and what they know and their memorable traits. To do the village justice you need that sort of reference to help run it as they wander from place to place. The tower gets a nice little outdoor map showing a hill, outbuilding, and some wolf guards chained by the front door. I liked those details a lot. Not just a boring little entrance but “on a hill” and “wolves chained to the front door.” The interior of the tower has about thirty rooms over seven levels. The tower is a weird mix of too much magic and not enough weird. There are glow globes that light rooms and a trapped fire elemental and piping system for hot water, etc. I really don’t get in to that kind of a “magical economy” sort of setting. This is then combined with a lack of the weird. Dude is an evil sorcerer and his tower feels boring and generic. This might work in a Harn-like setting but room after room of generic contents (Pantry, bedroom, bathroom, storage room) isn’t the kind of Magic & Whimsy, Wonder & The Fantastic! That’s what I’m looking for. This isn’t that. There’s not really a coordinated defense of the tower, so it’s another “guards die in place”a adventure. It’s too bad. If you combined the village and plot with a nice weird tower you’d have something more interesting. As it is, it’s a low-magic adventure, at best, and that’s being generous.

A Hitch in Time
By Williw Walsh
AD&D
Levels 7-10

This is a ten room tomb with a gimmick: when you leave everything you picked up disappears and everything inside is reset to a state before you visited. There’s the usual nonsense about getting hired and vetted and blah blah blah to go on the mission. There’s also an attempt at a good wilderness wandering table. Each creature gets a little description of what its doing, but the action is generally a bit misplaced. The giant 2-headed trolls just attack outright, because they are hunting. We need a little more, like, they throw stuff from the top of a waterfall or jump out of a tree, or something. Just a little bit more. Likewise the other wilderness encounters try to add a bit of variety/description but don’t really hit the mark. The encounters need a bit more description to add some variety and imagination to them. The tomb is nothing more than the usual trap/stasis-monster fest. These sort of set-piece things may be my least-favorite kind of adventure. There’s a bit of weird stuff, like the statues that represent he stages of the buried sages life that have different effects on the party, but for the most part the place is static and relies far too much on magic mouths speaking command words that release status fields that house monsters. One or two of the descriptive bits are ok, like a box made of cured leather stretched over a wooden frame. That’s some decent detail. Even the parts that are supposed to be weird, like the lab where clay golems are made, complete with molds, are a bit on the dry side. It suffers from what I like to call “1E Syndrome.” This is where things make sense but are boring. Like magic mouths saying command words that release temporal status areas full of rust monsters. There’s no wonder and mystery in that. So, Tomb of Horrors light, with a little reset gimmick. As Aziz would say, not really my cup of tea, because I don’t like huge piece of shit in my tea. But maybe you’re in to this kind of gimmick/ToH stuff. You poor, poor, soul. You deserve better.

Thunder Under Needlespire
By James Jacobs
AD&D
Levels 8-12

This is an underdark adventure with a strong “talk to the evil monsters” element. Underground gnomes are being impacted by earthquakes. They saw some mind flayers recently and think they are behind it. The party is sent to resolve the situation. There are eight adventure locations in the Underdark, with three of them being multi-rooms complexes, two quite large. Alas, the adventure sucks. The gnome halls where you start out are extensively described, even though you’re just picking up a mission there and there’s pretty much zero chance that combat will break out. The other two larger locations are a mind flayer outpost and a mind flayer city, both of which probably will NOT result in the kind of combat that would require an extensive map. All three of these are clearly social encounters and yet they are described room by room, with an extensive number of rooms each, just like you were exploring a dungeon. The outpost could be be forgiven for this, since its first contact with the mind flayers, but the city is a death trap to attack. There’s just no reason for the descriptions. It’s like you were docking at a warf in a city to get a tax stamp from the harbormaster before moving on the same day, and the entire city was described, room by room. I suppose you could reuse it, but then again you can say that for ANYTHING. The idea is that you make contact with the outpost, they convince you to parley, take you to the mind flayer city where you find out they are NOT behind it, but a big earth elemental thing is, and they want you to go fix the situation. The wrench is the drow chick running around who wants the elemental to destabilize the region. But she’s just a combat encounter and doesn’t show up as a social element, city or not. The under dark wandering monster tables are lame and boring ad just consist of a monster listing. The exception is for the ‘special’ encounters. There are 6 of these, occurring 1 in 20, which have more detail and are more interesting. A drow war party, a Rakshasa, a haunt and a water naga, for example. There add a little variety but the description emphasis is on realism rather than how they enhance play with the party. IE: the naga hides and the party stabs it, rather than the naga is an information broker or has a fetch quest or the like. The mind flayers at the outpost gets names, but not personalities, while the ones at the city get personalities, but not names. This is spite of the fact that the party will interact with the outpost flayers much more, the city encounter being mostly soliloquy. The big encounter at the end with the giant earth elemental monster and dark elf agent could use a more set-piece nature. More environmental stuff, ropes to swing from, or something stuff like that. As is it’s just a big room with a monster at one end, the agent hiding, and some chasms. Rope bridges, stone ledges, rubble to jump off of, etc, would have made this a more memorable boss monster fight.

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Temple of the Ghoul

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by H. John Martin

Rended Press

OSRIC

Levels 1-2

 

Something has been pillaging farms and leaving no living thing behind. Merchants have disappeared on the roads and the Tinker now refuses to make his circuit. All of this trouble started when a party of adventurers went to investigate the old temple on the hill. Five adventurers went up the hill to Lilanora’s temple and never returned. Who will follow those foolhardy five and discover what danger lies beneath the temple ruins?

 

This is a small ruined temple with about twenty encounters. It has a bright spot or two, but is generally an unimaginative and generic adventure. Unfortunately, it reinforces the “boring/generic” feel that I associate with 1E. It needs more wonder and imagination.

 

People have started disappearing ever since a group or murder hobos visited a local ruined temple … and didn’t come back out. The adventure takes two pages to set the scene and cover the backstory. You remember Sir Not-appearing-in-this-movie? He shows up in at least two different forms in the adventure backstory. It’s crazy. All of that space wasted by being devoted to things that have absolutely no relevancy in the adventure. I don’t understand all of this backstory. Is it just sloppy editing, or designers with delusions of authorhood, or do people actually like this shit? There are NPC’s referenced, more than once, that are at least three degrees removed from the adventure. What’s so puzzling is that this is mixed in with some modern day data that’s not bad. A one-legged sheriff, the importance of a traveling tinker, and the sheriff escorting him. People disappearing and in fear. There’s some decent stuff there. Not great, but enough to get started with at least.

 

The interior of the temple is so frustrating. It’s full of generic drapings that is then punctuated with a bit of the ultra-violence. Or at least some scene-setting straight out of the ultra violence. The very first room has the usual ‘once rich frescoes not defaced”, along with the usual “blood and fecal smeared pillars.” Ho humm, nothing new or interesting there. But then … “A dead dog lies in the doorway, its entrails draped over the stairs.” Wo! Thats nice! That brings the scene to life. In another room an alter to good is draped with dead animals and people, and an overpowering smell. That’s good stuff. There’s a crude drawing of an evil holy symbol on the floor … which would be MUCH better if it were instead laid out in teeth and small twig figures. Again, the core problem with the adventure. We get a generic scene that is then punctuated with something great. I understand juxtaposition. (I mock it all the time in my art reviews) and you would be forgiven in thinking that the normal is there in order to hi-light the bizarre. But that’s not it. The normal isn’t normal enough and it’s not evocative or jarring enough. It’s just the standard boring dungeon trappings. The rooms need to be more relatable and the evidence of violence needs to be more consistent, as in the holy symbol example. The monsters are just generic book monsters and the treasure just boring old book magic items. +1 shield. Ring of Protection. And a lot of coin. A LOT of coin and loot. WAYYYYYY too much.

 

The most disappointing part may be the main villain, the titular ghoul. It’s just a ghoul. “The ghoul will be here and will attack as soon as the PC’s enter the room.” That’s the ghoul description. After the dead dog entrails, and the weird ass alter, all we get is “ghoul.” I reviewed an adventure recently, maybe from Dungeon, that had a ghoul in it. In that one it was a gaunt and emaciated hunched over african man, with red eyes and yellow filed teeth. Absolutely no sense at all for the party to figure out what it was. Perfect description for a DM to build an encounter off of and help them run it evocatively. Compare to this one. “Ghoul.” Or, go check out “Where the Fallen Jarls Sleep” and the rest of the modules in that series, where undead get GREAT descriptions. This? This is not trying. Yeah, the alter and dog are nice, but there’s not much else in this to salvage.

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Winter Fantasy 2014

A rare “non-review” post! One of my three-ish a year. :)

 

Fair Warning: I don’t follow this shit so I don’t know the background here, or even if this is all common knowledge.

I played in the actual “Sundering” event at Winter Fantasy. It turns out Mystra wasn’t TOTALLY dead. The second half of the BI had the players attacking Cyric’s prison and “Sundering” his throne, which, along with killing Cyric (the spellplague was caused by it leaking from his head) and some intervention by Lathander, has brought Mystra back. She did a new weave and “the worlds are moving apart again” whatever that means. And thus Living Forgotten Realms ends and the whole Spellplague and 4e madness (god of madness, get it?) is over.

The whole “sundering and connected events/players impact the world” thing appears to be taking the Living Forgotten Realms model. People play adventures, send in their results, and the plot/further adventures are connected to those results.

WYC Playback:
I was at the con Friday-Sunday. The con seemed smaller. The convention center LCD’s said “DDXP/Winter Fantasy”, but I thought DDXP moved to GenCon for this year? There were 3 vendors, 2 guys selling game stuff and 1 selling T-shirts. There was an Artimis set up (didn’t play here but have before, lots of fun!) and the GenCon boardgame library.

The boardgame library generally had 7-10 tables going, and during ‘off’ times had as many games going as there were RPG tables. Pathfinder had a couple of tables, but I believe they suffered from a lack of Judges. There’s didn’t seem to ever be more than 2 tables of Next running. The Saturday Battle Interactive had 17-20 tables, which again seemed a bit smaller. I don’t recall there being any lectures/seminars/etc as there had in years pat, which I suspect is a by-product of it not being DDXP anymore.

The only game we could get Friday night was Pathfinder. I’ve only played once before. A mostly linear adventure to rescue some Dwarven diplomats from the religious fundie neighboring kingdom. The DM was one of the better ones (main Pathfinder organizer at the con, I think) during the weekend. The final scene was more open-ended than the rest of the adventure, taking place in a mostly empty, and largish, roadside inn. The battle, once engaged, took place throughout the inn as we escaped. That portion felt more open and “free flowing” than the rest of the adventure scenes. The adventure was full of bullshit names that did NOT roll off the tongue. It was comical how bad that part was. Nice & realistic though, of you’re in to that sort of thing.

Saturday morning we played Living Forgotten Realms 4e Core 6-1 “Behind Obould’s Lines.” War was coming and our 1st level dudes went behind the Orc lines. We convinced one tribe of to abandon the high king of the orcs because they had too many trade ties to the humans. We convinced the second set hat the high king wasn’t blood thirsty enough. We then destroyed some siege gear and killed a Netherese diplomatic convoy, before engaging in a lame skill contest to escape. This adventure suffered a lot from solo-itis. Many parts were focused on 1 or 2 people, leaving everyone else sitting out and waiting. And waiting. The first two sections were diplomacy, which of course meant the guy with the highest diplomacy did all the talking. And he didn’t want to roll play but just roll the dice. But still took forever. Then there was a “prove yourself” section which involved a 2 on 2 combat. This being 4e that took an hour. The rest of us would be punished if we interfered, so we were all sitting around doing nothing. Bad bad adventure design. The “destroy the siege engines” was a skill challenge. The “kill the diplomatic convoy” was an ambush turkey shoot, which was fun to be on the “shooting” side for once. It was also, essentially, the only group party thing we did. We then did THREE skill challenge sections to escape the orcs … which was all very thrown together at the end and felt really out of place. The DM was one of the core con staff, I think, and he wasn’t deviating much from the script. The allowed actions were the allowed actions. I did not approve of his style. At the end of the adventure we were bumped to Level 11 to allow us to play in the Battle Interactive, as a part of the adventure.

The BI is the BI, all 11 hours of it. If you don’t think of it as D&D then it will be one of the most fun things you will do at a con. Basically, you are an army of adventurers engaged in some kind of joint activity. So all of the tables, 20 or so at this con, were all doing about the same thing and our results impacted each other and the future encounters during the game. In this one the Netherese were attacking the last free city (Cormyr? Suthil? SOmething like that) and we were all the special forces. I guess the whole year of Living ZForgotten Realms has been leading up to this moment. It starts with forming up a group, and a group of guys from Columbus needed wizards (my son and I were playing the pregen 11th level wizards from the LFR website) so they asked us to join them. I always feel bad, and grateful, when this happens, since we NOT hardcore 4e at all and the Winter Fantasy crowd generally are. So we’re going to suck the group down AND you get to ply with a kid. How fun! But I’m also obviously grateful that they invited us to play with them and didn’t seem upset that we sucked.

Anyway, main DM gets up on a table and describes what’s going on. There’s evil dragons overhead, swooping down on the city! But then flights of gold, silver, and metallic dragons swoop out over the east and crash in to them in combat, and the battle rages overhead while we’re doing things on the ground. A giant floating sky city comes in to attack and then out of nowhere another small city appears and crashes in to it in the air and then after a bit they both crash to the ground! Then the united orc tribes rise up over a hill, all “Rider of Rohan” style, and the Orc king gives a mighty battle cry and yells who’s with me?! as he turns to face his nations and they charge down the hill! all 50 orcs behind him cheer and follow him in to the valley of death … his remaining tribal nations having deserted him! During this completely cheesy stuff various people are cheering, the ones who went on those adventures. And when he got to the orcs my son and I cheered. That was us; we did that and it had an effect on the battle! It sound stupid, and anyone who has read my reviews knows I can be a cynical asshat, but even now, writing this up two days later, I get a little choked up over the pre-battle action descriptions of dragon armies in battle and sky cities fighting each other and the orc armies.

On to the main BI action. They have a map of the city up on a wall via a projector with six adventure sites. Over the next four hours our table will try to complete as many of the missions as possible, just as the other tables will, and each time we do a green dot appears on the site. Enough green dots and that mission is ‘won’ and the battle changes a bit from there on. We started by attacking cult hideouts, then moved on to one of the corrupted treant groves, and then moved on to a strategic ruined tower, and so on. As you are doing yours others are doing the same or different ones, and the map on the wall is updating, allowing you to better choose the next mission your table goes on. It’s a lot of fun. At one point living cloudkill moved in to the city and some tables abandoned their missions to go help 1/6th of the city each. Again, it’s kind of cheesy to think of an army of adventurers but also lots of fun imagining all of these Special Forces tables undergoing missions while the main battle rages. They do a good job of making you feel special, and part of the larger effort with your actions having consequences, without it being the lame “you, Bob, single-handedly are the star and saved the universe.” It’s a very nice shared experience. The second 4-hour section had us attacking the prison of the mad god Cyric to sunder his throne and bring back Mystra so she could rework the weave. These didn’t seem as fun as the first section of missions, but at the end you kill Cyric, restore Mytra, etc etc etc. Oh, and for killing a god you get bumped to 21. So my son and I started as rutabega farmers that morning, went to the wizards tower to help with the war effort, were given some magic training and sent off to war (our backstory we made up), leveling up through 11 and on to 21 by the end of the day. Kind of a cute series of events.  Lots of fun, and just 11 hours of tactical miniatures battles using 4e, with nothing resembling the kind of D&D I like to play … but still an AWESOME con experience. I think we died something like 12 times among the 6 of us, with 2 complete TPK’s. We got res’d and they marked that mission as a ‘fail’ on map. It doesn’t have to make sense, it’s fun. 

I fucked up our tickets he next morning. We were supposed to play Castle Greyhawk from 8-12 and then Isle of Woe from 12-4, both 5e events. I looked right at the tickets and said “were playing isle of woe from 8-12.” and we did … and then couldn’t play Greyhawk from 12-4 because it was full. I was supposed to help tear down the boardgame library, filling in as a favor to someone who broke an ankle, but they pushed the time back to 3pm and I wasn’t about to wait around for 3 hours, so we drove home after I got a replacement. At the end of Woe a different judge made the mistake of asking me my opinion. There is STILL too much bullshit in 5e, IMO. Every time someone says something like “oh wait, you get an extra +blah because of …” or someone is looking at their Char Sheet instead of at the DM, then the the designer has failed. That is CLEARLY the 4e way, and the latest 5e rules have some of that also, although not as much. The judge announced it was free-flowing i 5e and then spent a lot of time judging the game like it was 4e (although not as hard core) with lots of rule look ups, etc. Maybe that was just because it was an intro game, IDK. I tried to make a point, since it was dungeon, of not taking combat spells but rather utility spells. There were not as many utility spells (to be “creative” with) as I would have liked. I don’t know what’s going on. If people are in Pathfinder/3e/4e mode and can’t look at the situation without looking at the char sheet and rules, or what.

On the way home my son (13) said something like “Im a little sad; 4e was MY first D&D and my favorite because of that.”

It was a good weekend, and my comments should not be taken as otherwise.

My test of a good DM is my equipment list. If I can use my Big Blanket and Chicken, shovel, crowbar, or sock full of CP in an adventure then the DM is a good one. If I can’t then the DM is a rules-bound tool. This isn’t hard and fast, but the DM’s reaction to creative play tells a lot about them, I think. I threw my blanket over a “sticks to snakes” square in pathfinder, and fed my chicken to a river serpent in pathfinder. That was a good DM. I didn’t even try anything in the BI, and the Obould’s lines DM wasn’t having any of my creative nonsense. The Woe guy let me get away with my Wand of Doors (from Fight On! Magazine) but was a little too combat focused. The dungeon was stuffed with nonsense creatures who wanted to nothing but fight. It felt a lot more like a 4e delve than a 1e dungeon. But there WERE puzzle rooms and weird effects and shit. I think I detected a “treasure parcel” which set off my rage-O-meter. I’ve had better DM’s at Winter Fantasy than the 5e guy, but he wasn’t in full on 4e mode. Gotta remember, Winter Fantasy attracts the hardest of the hardcore rules RPGA players.

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