The Isle of Klamacki


By Jay Kemberling & Joel Logan
A Hole in the Ground Terrain & Games
5e
Leven 1

They have all been convicted of various crimes. Let your players come up with what they were rightly or wrongly convicted of. They are told they must keep a lighthouse lit for the next five years upon the island as their punishment. A supply ship will come every six months to bring them provisions for the lighthouse. They are told to stay within the walls guarding the lighthouse and not to venture onto the island for great evil awaits them there.

This seventeen page adventure has the characters stuck on an island. Two individuals offer them an escape, if they kill the other person. It’s quite long for what it is, offering really just two encounter areas. It’s a good idea, easy to read and run, but needs to be fleshed out more.; it seems too small/lite.

I reviewed a different adventure in this series and wasn’t very impressed. The folks there suggested I look at this one, one of their favorites. I can see why. It’s quite different in tone and organization from that earlier offerings. The background is short, only about two paragraphs, and describes lovers cursed, and that one must die to break the curse. Nice classic set up. As the intro implies, the party starts on the island. Being PC’s they will no doubt explore where told not to, and this encounter one or both of the NPC’s and be offered an opportunity to escape if only they would kill the other, freeing the NPC from the curse. A melancholy affair, I salute the adventure for getting in and out fast with background and the classic trope.

The unique magic items are ok, with unique effects but somewhat generic descriptions. A line of “WoW” would go a long way there. It adventure also does a decent job of making Question & Answer time easier for the DM. For each of the three main NPC’s (two accursed lovers and a lighthouse keeper) we get a small section description questions the party might ask and their response. It’s easy to pick things out, even though it is in “read aloud” format. The read-aloud doesn’t really add anything, and therefore it could have been in “DM text” format, saving considerably on space.

It also provides some guidance with common PC activities. Want to build a weapon? Or hunt? The adventure provides some short guidelines, as well as one or two obvious gimme’s for PC’s, like “A dwarf will recognize the stonework as elven.” THis is good adventure design: anticipating the most frequent issues the DM will have to face and addressing it.

It’s short, with only two real encounters: each of the former lovers. You may visit each multiple times, but it’s just those two. Other than the length and weakness of writing (which I’ll get to shortly) this is the primary issue with the adventure. It’s more of a side trek, in Dungeon Magazine terms. In fact, I’d say it could EASILY be a one-page dungeon and loose very little.

There ARE some long read-alouds. Again, you get three sentences, at most. More than that and people stop paying attention. Don’t believe me? Go find the WOTC article on the subject. It’s linked in my “Review Standards” page.

I would note also that he writing addresses the characters directly, which is never a good idea. This is done, generally, to build tension and communicate flavor and I think it’s a TERRIBLE way to accomplish that. “In your weakened condition …” or “You make your way to the center of the bottom level …” Nope. Do not. I hug the wall, like I always do, awaiting DM treachery. These attempts at first person writing don’t get the party in the mood, they do the opposite in yanking them out of it.

The read-aloud is also abstracted. “The lighthouse looks old.” That’s a conclusion, it’s abstracted from something. Better to write and describe the lighthouse in such a way that the listener/reader comes the conclusion it’s old. AGain, I’m not looking a novel here, just a short replacement sentence that communicates the vibe that the lighthouse is old, for example.

There’s a moral issue in this adventure, and those are always hard in D&D. It’s supposed to be a fun game; there are indie games available for exploring your childhood traumas. Two accursed lovers. Both want you to kill the other. Both offer you an escape from the island if you help them. No one really evil. That makes the choice hard. A little more in the “Chris was obviously evil, at least at one time” category, or a clear third option (there is one of those, but it’s not exactly clear to the party, I think) could help the designer out of that bind.

I wouldn’t say this is a good adventure, it’s a tad short and the writing a bit long. But it’s not exactly a bad adventure either. Given my recent 5e reviews that alone is a compliment. A one-page version of this would be a nice thing to experiment with. The vibe reminds me a bit of the Metagorgos adventure I reviewed … in the last year? I don’t feel ripped off, and while I think the themes interesting, there’s not enough to capture go forward with running it, I think. But … I’m also interested enough in the publisher to check out some of their other offerings.

This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview is only two pages, with the second page showing you that short little background at the end of it. A third page, showing an encounter, would have been helpful from a “make a purchasing decision” standpoint. http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/225869/Off-the-Beaten-Path-Vol-I-The-Isle-of-Klamacki

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Revelry in Northgate


By Stephen J. Grodzicki
Low Fantasy Gaming
OGL/d20
Level 2?

Lady Hargraves, a prestigious noblewoman and infamous socialite, has a desperate mission for the party: her husband Lord Hargraves is on a drinking binge once again, and she wants him returned home, in one piece, ASAP.

This eleven page adventure has the party searching about town for a nobleman on a bender. A random street encounter table, a selection of a dozen bars, and a finale bar provide the setting. Labeled a “Framework”, I would instead say it embodies the spirit of old school design, in both it’s focus on the adventure at hand and, well, Framework design. And while I can admire the concept I can also say that I don’t think it succeeds. The bars are connected as well as they could be, the outcome seems a bit random, and the street encounters seem more like window dressing. And, for the record, I LUV city adventures.

Rereading the hook, which I supplied as the publishers adventure description up there in the first paragraph, perfectly orients you to the adventure. It’s terse and relatable and I, the DM, know what to expect.

What follows is about a page of additional background to expand on it, something akin to the “first encounter” with her ladyship. Laid out over multiple paragraphs it could have done with some bolding of certain lines to make them stand out. Things like “Hargrave’s carousings tend to involve punching out other lords, setting stables on fire, emptying his gold purse in some of the less reputable “dancing” houses …”, or perhaps the finders fee/reward and so on. It’s also a bit sparse on a personality for her ladyship, and give that most of a page is devoted to this section it seems like that should be included.

The street encounters take up a little over one page next. I like the idea but not the execution. The encounters here tend to window dressing. “Etched into the floor of this tiled courtyard is an awe inspiring landscape (preserved elven relic): a clifftop overlooking the sea, with a pterodactyl rider fending off a pair of giant dragonflies.” And? This reminds me of the Isle of the Unknown encounters, where stuff just shows up, without any potential energy. Almost all of the street encounters lack this sort of energy, and I don’t believe any of them is actually related to the adventure at hand. Hmmm, maybe one, a curfew suddenly being declared. Otherwise they seem too tangential to provide the DM anything to work with to springboard off of. They need just a little more and/or a rewording.

At some point in the night you have an encounter with the secret police/palace guards. I don’t see it leading to anything other than combat 80% of the time. And yet there are no consequences for killing them. That seems unusual. It’s also a bit strange that their background and history are included in the main text, clogging it up, instead of in an appendix. I like my text focused on the adventure at hand with background data in an appendix where I can easily ignore it while running at the table.

The pub crawl to find Hargrave is, essentially, random. Roll a d12. If you get a 12 you’re at the bar where he is. If you get a 10 you’re at a bar that has a real clue to his location. Everything else is either some small little action and/or rpg element or a dead end clue. I’m not morally opposed to this style (yet, anyway.) But I am highly suspicious. In D&D the destination is meaningless and it’s the journey that counts. This FEELS like the party has little control over their own fate in finding him. Perhaps I’m too gun shy because of all of the linear adventures I’ve reviewed. It SEEMs like the bar crawl should be an ok idea, but it looks an awful lot like this other stuff I’ve seen that really sucks …

In conjunction with this is a kind of timer. Your reward is based on her ladyship not being too embarrassed by her husbands drunken antics. For every hour the party takes the DM rolls on the drunken antics table. But, recall, finding him is almost entirely out of the players hands, random. I might instead marry the concept to something like Short Rests, or whatever is analogous in the system this is being run in. If you “waste time” then an antic happens, where waste time is rest, conduct a ritual, go seek healing, etc. That would put the outcomes a little more in the players hands. Now their decisions to get in to fights/avoid them (wasting HP resources that need healing, etc) impact the outcome.

I like the concept/style/design principals of these adventure frameworks, even if this one was not stellar, and may check out a few more. Although … I could swear I’ve seen one of these before somewhere.

This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview is only two pages long, with only one page of real content, the background page.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/232395/Adventure-Framework-25-Revelry-in-Northgate

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The Dark Tower of Arcma


by Joseph A. Mohr
Expeditious Retreat Press
OSRIC
Levels 6-10

For many years now the locals around the village of Dunmoth have spoken only in whispers about the strange goings on in the Wild Woods around the village. Tales of a dark tower that appears in the night and then disappears again by day have been passed along for generations in the village. Strange creatures have been seen around this tower the like of which have never been seen or even heard of before. Creatures that appear almost to be some kind of monstrous combination of some of the most hideous and horrifying creatures known are claimed to have been seen near this tower. Rumors of the tower’s return have circulated, and a hearty band of adventures has left to explore the dread place. The question remains if they can return, however…

This sixteen page adventure describes a wizards tower with about fifty rooms; four tower levels and three dungeons. The tower levels are just one big open room each but the dungeon levels are small fifteen room-ish affairs. This leans towards funhouse a little, with certain rooms having encounters that make little sense in context, but that probably doesn’t matter; it’s D&D after all. Decent new magic items do not make up for the long paragraph writing style employed. It’s got a bit of the set-piece thing going on (again, the funhouse aspect), but getting past that I’d say the effort lacks a strong edit to impose good style.

The tower appears during the full moon and disappears when the first hint of moon appears in the sky. Inside are … challenges. In one tower level room you have to answer a riddle of a demon appears to attack. Another room is pretty explicit: a skull says something like “who accepts my challenge?” Doing so teleports you to a single combat chamber and you fight a monster. Long ago a player in a game made an adventure I played in. You spun the wheel from the game life and either got a treasure or fought a monster. That was the entirety of the adventure. While I appreciate them making an effort, the Judge in me raises an eyebrow, especially in a commercial product like this one. Surely there are better ways?

Likewise there’s another room where you answer a riddle and in return all of the suits of armor in the big tower room burn to ashes and a magic ring appears. Sooo …. As the owner of the tower I must say that I have chosen a rather strange jewelry box, what with the riddle and the burning down and the devotion of an entire level of my tower to such a lock. Again this points to the funhouse like aspect to the design. Rooms appear not because they make sense, or because they were crafted to work together, but rather because the designer had an idea they wanted to use and just put it in. I think maybe just a LITTLE more pretext is called for … or else go the other direction entirely and make it the Mad Jesters dungeon.

The room descriptions are LONG, three paragraph affairs with little formatting to them or attempts to call out special data via bolding, etc. This forces you to keep your head down, reading the entry and continually look at it. That’s not a DM style I can be supportive of. I want to have my head up, looking at the players, interacting with them, taking quick glances down. This is the “scanning method” that I mention so frequently. Reading the room is for the first time read through 45 minutes before players show up, not for running it at the table. These long writing styles with little formatting do not lend themselves to the scanning style. I don’t know, maybe I’m alone. I don’t see how it’s possible to be an effective DM while continually looking down and reading instead of interacting with the players.

At times we get long descriptions of normal things, like what an alchemist’s lab looks like. These sorts of laundry lists (or maybe Doomsday Book) of room contents are lame and do nothing to support an adventure. If you don’t know what’s in a bedroom or kitchen by now then it’s not the designers job to fix you.

Some of the magic items are just book things, but others are more interesting. A ring of Murder os made of congealed and hardened blood. Cool! Exactly the sort of specificity I am looking for, and it took almost no extra space to describe.

This stands in contrast to the new monsters. I generally like new monsters, they keep the party guessing. It’s also important to write the entries effectivly. The first line of the “Broken Ones” is that “these creatures are the sad objects of Arcmas experimentation.” Should that REALLY be the first sentence? Is that what the DM needs when they flip to this entry after a wanderer is called for? Description first, call out notable features, etc. The bullshit flavor text backstory can be shoved in later on. Further, I don’t thin the entries support the DM well. The Broken Ones are supposed to be human animal hybrids, all different, but that’s all we’re told. No table to help us out, or example given. That’s a MAJOR miss to helping the DM create an evocative atmosphere.

This is $14 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages long and shows you a lot of the adventure style. Levels two and three of the tower appear on page three of the preview and show you the funhouse riddle rooms. Virtually any room in the last half of the preview, the dungeon rooms, will illustrate the longish writing style.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/232291/Advanced-Adventures-39-The-Dark-Tower-of-Arcma

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The Bandit’s Cave


By Richard Kunz
Legendary Games
5e
Level 1

The people of Corbin Village are hardy folk, familiar with the dangers of the region. But when a band of orcs raids the village, Sheriff McBride realizes she has more troubles than she can handle and calls on a group of heroes to bring the orcs to justice. To complicate matters, the orcs have stolen an item of great historical value from the local sage, and he wants it back. Can the PCs survive the dangers of a nearby marsh and locate the bandits’ hidden lair? If they do, can they take down the orc raiders and recover the sage’s precious statue?

This fifty page completely linear adventure is aimed at n00bs and to be “quick and easy to prepare.” Linear, long read-aloud, too much DM information preventing scanning … all the usual bad choices are employed.

Before I start stabbing this NPC n the throat I’d like to mention a couple of nice things this adventure does. First, there’s a great picture of lizardmen in it. They look more like Gecko-folk, with red skinned heads and a kind of bipedal salamander body. I don’t often mention art, but I think this piece really adds to painting an evocative picture of the creatures. A little non-standard and a different take on them.

Secondly, there’s a bit in the swamp while you are tracking the orcs to their lair. The tracks reveal a mechant being forced along with them. This is a great way to foreshadow and ramp up the tension in an adventure. The party is now aware of a prisoner and will be on the lookout for them. Or, it would be if that were the case. I misread this section the first time around. Turns out there isn’t a captured merchant and they are not a part of the adventure. I can has Sadz.

I continue to be perplexed by these things. Fifty pages, the thing doesn’t really start till page sixteen or so, and the last dozen or so pages are just appendix padding. Is this the evil of Pay Per Word, or just bad lessons learned from WOTZ & Paizo? Whatever the reason, I find the bulk of adventures worthless. I want to say “modern adventures”, meaning Pathfinder & 5e, but in reality the problem plagues most systems … its just REALLY hard to find 5e/Pathfinder stuff that isn’t infected with it.

This could be a textbook example of bad read-aloud. It’s not full of insane 3-page long sections, but more representative of the usual read-aloud dreck. They tend to be long: five paragraphs, a page. That’s bad design choices. Players don’t care. Recall the WOTC article: you get AT MOST three sentences before people stop paying attention.

But wait … there’s more! The read-aloud is used to signal the start of an encounter. “You’re walking through a swamp. A frog jumps in to the water.” High alert! Everyone on their toes! By enforcing a system of encounters starting with read aloud you telegraph encounters starting.

Then there’s the ever present football player r… oops, no, I mean ‘italics.’ Italics is a popular choice for read-aloud, as well a fancy italics font. It is a BANE upon the products. The goal is to make life on the DM easier and a hard to read font, that you then italicize, is not easy to read. It’s hard to read. Put the shit in a shaded box or bold it or something, but the emphasis has to be on making it EASY, not more difficult.

Frequent readers will recall that I demand an adventure be easy to run with little prep. AT first glance, the designers “this is quick & easy to prepare” statement would seem to align. Except their definition is different than mine. I have no idea what their definition is, but it’s not quick & easy. The DM text is LONG. Very long. Encounters can be two to three pages long. This does not lend itself well to scanning at the table. It has a very loose, rather than focused, communication style with lots of padding and non-essential detail. A guy stuck in quicksand has been there awhile, we’re told, and his legs are numb and he can’t get out himself. Well no shit. It’s this sort of thing that adds to the text. It does not add gameable detail. It’s justifying the situation, which the adventure should NEVER do. Or, almost never. Whatever. It’s almost never called for.

But, specificity IS needed. At one point early in the adventure a sage relates that a statue was stolen by raiding orcs. It was created by “people of an ancient civilization.” That’s generic and boring. “It was created by the vile Arc-teryx people, long ago dommed by the sun god” is the sort of specificity that adds color to the adventure. Otherwise it’s clear it just a throw away line, the players will recognize that, and not be as invested.

I want to call out an additional thing that is sticking with me. In the initial encounter, when the orcs attack the village, the read aloud emphasizes a cart stuck in between the village gates, keeping them from closing. But, that’s not the first encounter. Instead the party is forced to some orcs battering away at the weaponsmiths door. Everything about the setup says “Close the gates! Free the wagon!” … but then the adventure forces you a different way. Bad design.

This is supposed to be an adventure for noob players and DM’s, especially younger players. It justifies choices, like its linearity and the linear orc cave at the end, by noting its simpler. Yes. It also forces a scene based system and removes player agency, which is one of the most important aspects of RPG’s. Ask yourself, do you want choices or is the DM telling a story? We’re not playing FIasco or Shab-al-Hiri. The switch to scene-based linear adventures, and DM storytelling, removes an important feature. And you know how I feel when I think I’m being tricked and my expectations are not met.

In the end, this is just another garbage scene-based adventure, impossible to run easily at the table because of the flood of text.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages, which shows you the credit and table of contents and publishers philosophy. IE: nothing of use to help to make a purchasing decision.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/183049/Trail-of-the-Apprentice-The-Bandits-Cave-5E

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Operation Unfathomable


By Jason Sholtis
Hydra Cooperative
S&W
Level 1-

BEHOLD!!! the Underworld in all its bewildering majesty as titanic Chaos godlings and their unsavory cults make genocidal war upon one another! EXPLOIT!!! a trail of dead horrors
supplied by the recent, doomed expedition of powerful heroes! SEIZE!!! eldritch artifacts and treasures far above your lowly station! PONDER!!! the mind-bending riddles and inscrutable anomalies of reality itself in an overwhelming cascade of cosmic secrets! THRILL!!!as you throw the gauntlet of your life into the smug face of the unknowable and embark upon this OPERATION UNFATHOMABLE!!!

I’m in LUV! mostly.

Unfair Advantage! Sholtis writes one of my favorite blogs, The Dungeon Dozen. It’s magnificently creative, when he’s not slacking off and not updating it. No pressure, Spudboy. Also, I tend to prefer the more simplistic & free-flowing forms of D&D, and this falls in to that genre.

This 110 page adventure contains 22 encounter areas in the cave world beneath your D&D game. Gonzo, fanciful, hyper-realistic, it is one of the most imaginative, and fun, things you will ever run. It also needs better use of bolding to call out important data and make the encounters more scanable, as well as a legible map. Still, it tends to marry the art to the writing to the layout in a way that very adventures do. IE: the art contributed rather than being filler. Easy to recommend.

The sorcorers-kings son has stolen the null rod from the Tower Impregnable and journeyed underground. The sole survivor of his expedition has returned mad, as has a guard group sent in. Guess what Level 1’s! You’re up!

What follows is a journey through the underdark unlike those seen before. This is firmly in the Weird side of the D&D spectrum, with little magical ren faire or pseudo-medieval to be found. I fucking love this shit. There’s little to no game balance present, it’s the brave little tailors vs The Strange. At heart, a pretty straightforward cave crawl looking for the pretext item, it shouts Come At Me Bro, at every turn, daring the party, over and over again, to engage. Enticing them. Luring them. Magnificent.

Fuck, back to facts. This was the results of a kickstarter, and started out in Knockspell Magazine #5. I reviewed that and loved it. The 22 rooms take up about 25 pages in the adventure, with about three rooms per page, except for the multi-room complexes, like temples. The appendices, taking up the last 25 or so pages, have the creatures and magic items, etc in them. The first fifty pages has a brief overview, the faction overview, and an extensive wandering encounter tables with monsters, strange stuff and so on.

The monsters are unique and magnificent. The magic items have a good mix of “normie” stuff, like potions of invisibility, and unique items. You even start out with some AND ITS NOT ODIOUS! I recall that giving each party member a random item was in vogue for awhile, as a manner in which to encourage creative play. The magic items given out here fit that mold, with a sword that can explode, Staff of the Magi style, offering up plenty of opportunities. The creatures and magic items are perfect, contributing to the overall weird vibe of the adventure and keeping the party on its toes. There’s no half efforts by just using book shit. This is the definition of the added value I’m looking for in an adventure.

I want to call out the art, specifically, also. I don’t usually do that. WIth very few exceptions I find that the art used in adventures are generally not evocative or inspiring. It’s filler. (And before the mob shows up, I’d like to note that I keep & display art while relegating almost all print material to PDF.) I don’t think art is generally used well. This is an exception. Almost every piece contributes directly to the evocative natures of the subject displayed. It helps bring the adventure alive by giving the DM even more inspiration than the printed word, which is what it should do.

Let’s talk NPC’s, including potential enemies encountered. From the pre-gens to the potential rival parties they come alive. The sullen guard sergeant sent with you to show you the way to the caves has already made funeral arrangements for himself. That’s fucking great. That’s a detail you can use. It makes me think he’s dressed in his finest, maybe has a coin in his mouth or has hired mourners. That’s what I’m looking for, detail that I can riff off of. This happens over and over again in this adventure. At one point there’s a terrified wooly neanderthal on a solo spirit quest. He asks questions like “What is good wooly neanderthal?” Perfection Personified.

The entrance to the caves is down a 1000’ ladder in a shaft. That’s a classic “entrance to the mythic underworld” right there. Fuck your 3e/4e/5e/Pathfinder set pieces, the parties gonna remember that ladder and climbing down it is going to set the tone and leave them scared shitless as they wander beyond. EXACTLY what its supposed to do.

Now that we’ve suitably inflated his ego, let’s talk about how Jason fucks up.

The map has a legibility issue. It’s got good terrain and level changes, lots of loops, and nice detail, but almost all of the text on it is impossible for me to read. I can read the numbers, but of all the text on the map, and there is a lot, I can only read “Start Here”, “Vault of Shaggath-Ka“and “Map of the Underworld.” Even if I take my glasses off and get close the text is fuzzy and hard to read. The PDF though DOES have the text hyperlinked, which is a nice touch.

The initial overview sections are organized well and use bolding to great effect to call out important details. It ALMOST disappears once the core of the adventure starts. It’s almost as if several different editors (or writers, whatever) were given different chunks and one person chose to highlight text with bolding while the others did not.

This is an issue because of … the text length. Jason can really get in to his descriptions, they are quite flavorful and easy to riff on, but at the cost of length. Length issues can be mitigated with organization and techniques like bolding. (IE: the highlighter.) The inconsistent nature of the bolding, mostly present in the (very sticky) summary and mostly absent wanderers/encounters, makes these sections more difficult to scan and run than I would be happy with.

Still, “Creative & hard to scan” is better than “boring and hard to scan” and “easy to scan but non -evocative.” I can fix it with a highlighter. I don’t WANT to have to fix it that’s the fucking writers/editors job, but I CAN. Well, I guess I could fix “boring” and “non-evocative” also, but then what the hell am I paying for in the first place?

This is $12 on DriveThru. The last couple of pages of the preview show you some of the weird “wandering stuff” you can encounter, and gives you a good idea of the writing style throughout the encounters.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/233145/Operation-Unfathomable

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Beneath the Fallen Tower


By Denis McCarthy
Aegis Studios
S&W Light
Level ???

Fifty years ago, a magician known as Melchior the Despoiler, rumored to be consorting with dark forces near the town of Southfork was investigated by a troop of militia and a priest… all of who returned from his tower as undead attempting to slay their own families. They were defeated, and after a petition for aid, the Duke lent the village his trebuchet and his men leveled the mage’s tower. Shortly before this assault was mounted, Melchior’s apprentice Xander escaped with a few books, a wand and a magical blade. Now that Xander has died. His apprentice, Aurelia, together with her henchmen, have returned to find the master’s library. Unknown to them, goblins have been living in the ruins for 30 years…

This is a 26 page adventure describing a minimally keyed seventeen room dungeon. A healthy introduction to the region takes up the first twelve pages, which along with the single-column format explains the large page count for a minimally keyed product. There’s not really anything to it.

*) This doesn’t have a level listed. I’d guess level two or three. There are a decent numbers of monsters, including wolves and bugbears.

*) The wilderness map is hard to read. I like the charm of hand drawn maps, and would not want to raise the threshold of publishing by insisting on comp-drawn, but the maps HAVE to be legible. The wilderness map in this is barely so. The dungeon map is better, but I still struggle with some notations on the map.

*) Speaking of maps, the dungeon is a simple branching design. Turn right and its the older undead portion. Turn left and it’s the goblin portion. Exploratory Games, like S&W, tend to do better with Exploratory Dungeons, with loops and so on. “Quest maps” are simpler and more suitable for Quest Games. Yes, there’s crossover in the genres; don’t be an ass.

*) The dungeon is supposed to have four entrances, but they are not really noted. There are two stairs, and I think I can tell which is which from the text. I think also I thinkered out entrance three, from we.. Fuck if I can tell where entrance four is. More clarity in this area would have been appreciated.

*) Out in the wilderness the wanderers are sometimes doing something, which I appreciate as a cue to the DM in helping them run the encounter. There is basically one sentence describing things, like bandits acting as toll collectors, of a tinker with dubious goods to sell. This is about the minimum text that I would say “adds to the encounter.”

*) The dungeon is minimally keyed. “Guardroom – 3 goblins and 1 wolf” or “Goblin Quarters – 4 goblins” is generally the extent of the description. This does NOT meet my acceptable level of Value Add. Rolling on the random monster table from the 1e DMG does not qualify. At least have them doing something in the guardroom, or put a big bubbling boiling pot in the quarters.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages. Near the end you can see the wilderness map I had issues with, as well as the wilderness wandering monsters, for better & worse.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/232358/Beneath-the-Fallen-Tower

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The Lost Hall of Tyr


By Douglas H. Cole
Gaming Ballastic LLC
5e
Levels 4-7

The Hall of Judgment: Here Tyr himself guided human and dwarf in the ways of honor, law, retribution, and justice in war and life. It has been lost for centuries, hidden by the power of Asgard from those without permission to enter. Until now . . .

Well it’s Saturday. Time to review another bad 5e adventure. Joy. Oh wait, it’s not utter dreck!

This 62 page norse-flavored adventure has sixteen or so linear encounters (with a few optional ones), mostly wilderness ones, before one room temple with a demon in it is encountered. The actual linear adventure is only about 16 pages, the rest being the lengthy introduction and the bestiary and battle maps at the end. The writing, while long, tends to be well organized in the individual encounters. But it also tends to make certain assumptions that leaves out critical information, leaving the DM confused with some of the baseline assumptions.

There’s a three page backstory that read like fiction. “Una’s bond with Aeiri strengthened over the distance …” I don’t bitch about this stuff anymore, since I can just skip the “failed novelist” garbage. Well, except when I can’t skip it because the fucking adventure is mixed in to it. What are you supposed to do, with what, and how? Well kids it’s all mixed in to that backstory. NOT. COOL. The adventure needs a short summary so the non-masochists among us can avoid the backstory. We’re on a quest to find the Domstollinn, whatever the fuck that is. I gathered, through the 60 pages, that we’re going to this hall at the behest of some priests and they gave us something to give us some kind of True Seeing kind of power. Summaries are critical to these sorts of adventures. Orient the DM BEFORE they get in to the text so they know what to expect. Yes, if you are an expert you can have it unfold via the text and not do a summary. New Flash: You are not an expert. I accept you’re the hero of your own story, but do the rest of us a favor and put in a summary.

There’s a map of the region. I guess it’s a map, there’s no key. It doesn’t really matter anyway since, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t show where you are going. Or any of the encounters. It’s just a picture of the region without any relevance to the adventure. It’s MORE confusing this way since I spent time studying it, trying to figure out where things were. It was hard, because it turns out they weren’t on the map. At least I don’t think they were?

The first encounter on the way (event based, remember), has a “striking rock format” and three out of place groupings of individual trees. First, let me nit and note that “a striking rock formation” is a garbage description. Striking is a conclusion. Tell us what it looks like and let the players determine it is striking. But, the real issue is the mistletoe. The trick to this encounter is finding the direction of the mistletoe. What mistletoe, you may ask. I don’t know. There is about two pages of info on this encounter and one bullet point, near the end and in the middle of the text says “The three trees, with mistletoe at the tip …” This is TERRIBLE design. When I say it makes certain assumptions, this is what I mean. Clearly, the designer had a vision in their head. They knew three trees had mistletoe and this was a clue. But they have not clued US in to that fact. The adventure does this over and over again.

There are some riddle-like things that are quite difficult. There’s a one word hint, Yggdrasil, that is supposed to clue you in that those trees are the right ones. Later on there’s a different one that says “Willpower through suffering increases joy.” This is your hint that you need to lift a rock and touch a door to open it. Those are both some pretty tenuous hints.

If you can get past the omissions of those base assumptions then the actual text is decently organized,or at least not poorly organized. Whitespace and bolding is used to good effect. There is still A LOT of text for what are simple encounters, but it’s not nearly as bad as the page count would indicate.

The encounters proper range from the riddle-like things I mentioned earlier, to straight up fights (with enemies teleported in to advantageous positions by a fae queen. Ug!) to skill challenges like climbing a cliff or crossing a rope bridge. The temple at the end is one room, with a trapped demon in it. A little anti-climactic after a one-month wilderness journey.

All is not hopeless though. There are some sections on using alternative means to cross the bridge, climb the wall, etc. It’s duel-stat’d for S&W and to the designers credit they seem tp get at least one aspect of old school play: no die roll is needed if the party describes well what they are doing. Die rolling is for looosers who don’t role play. Die rolling means a chance of failure.

This is a good example of the modern method of making an adventure. The Mcguffin is referred to as ‘the Mcguffin’ by the designer. The entire thing is about little set-piece-like events that take place. You have some small freedom in the individual events (unlike many adventures and to this designers credit) but the thing as a whole is just one thing after another with little choice involved. The text is long, but not atrocious by 5e/Pathfinder standards, although it trails by a long shot what I would consider good … although a decent job is done at organizing it. Except for those assumptions that each encounter seems based on. The editing job/proofreading was very poor not to catch that; maybe it was just copyedited?

“Not as bad as the usual 5e fare” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but it IS runnable. Kind of. Once you figure out what is going on. That’s a damn sight better than most.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages long and, to its credit, shows a couple of encounters, including the notorious #2, with the Ash & Mistletoe. It’s on about page five of the preview if you want to check out the weird assumptions made.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/226510/Lost-Hall-of-Tyr

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Flower Liches of the Dragonboat Festival

By Kabuki Kaiser
Self Published
OSR
All Levels 0 1st level, low

When omens portend ill fortune for the city, the priests call upon a Dragonboat Festival: a racing competition gathering swift boatmen from all over the continent. Their ancient chants call forth the powers of the undying, waking the Flower Liches from their distant graves. For a week, the liches roam the city freely, and oversee the race, taking the losing crews as tributes and sacrifices. Once the Dragonboat Festival is finished and the liches disappear, the city’s prosperity is magically replenished, and all the monetary wealth the citizenry had before the festival — player characters included — is doubled.

This 95 page digest adventure describes the events & notable locations in a fanciful asian city in which a festival is occurring. Flavorful, evocative and interesting but not quite all there in meshing all together well. A better D3 than D3, it revels a bit too much in places. You gotta put some work in to get past some of organization choices, but it is almost certainly worth it.

Ok, so a freaky deaky city. Imagine the underground parts of Big Trouble in Little CHina, but a full fledged location/city with normal city life thrown in. Add to that the Dragonboat Festival taking place, a boat race ruled over by actual liches with flower themes. That fair Verona is our setting. On top of that we add a some servants reporting ghosts in their ladies house … until the next day when they laugh it off. Finally, there seems to be an unrelated subplot with a weird suicide. Add to that some weird wandering town encounters and throw in some players character. I like town adventures and I like adventures with a lot going on. This has both.

This thing revels in its encounters and descriptions. “Maids & knaves wearing reggedy outfits” is the description of the servants in a house. “Smiling fat mandarin wearing imposing brocade robes and a tall pointed gold hat.” is that of one of the lords of the manor. The descriptions are short, punchy, and leverage iconic imagery to provide more than the literal text of the words.

And of the encounters, a Penanggalan has been hunted down, its body dead, only its head and entrails floating above the street, dripping acid blood and causing fear like a crazed childs lost balloon. Or drunk officials dropping paperwork or some import. These are wandering tables I can support: just enough extra text, a sentence or two, to add flavor to the encounter. The Penanggalan conjures images of a mob of peasants, scared, ineffective, in the streets, chaos, etc … none of which is mentioned but where my mind wandered given that little bit extra provided.

Animal people, like bullywugs and a bespectacled praying mantis person, add to the exotic vibe. The description of the liches themselves, at the festival conjures a scene of horror and revulsion and wonder. It’s all cranked up to 11. What are the wandering mercenaries armed with? Bohemian Ear Spoons, of course!

There’s a nice little mini-game for the boat races, proper, with directions and advice followed by examples to help sort things out. There are page references in the text, so when the Chancellor is mentioned its followed by a page number to go look them up. There are summaries provided to orient the DM to what’s coming. One creature, when killed, turns in to an obsidian flower that you can then use to summon it to help you, Figurine style. Flower Lices of the Dragon Boat Festival goes that extra little bit and it shows.

You know, I rail about gimping the characters in some reviews. During the race a lich erases spells from the casters mind, and they use a wand of magic detection to take away magic items. I thought “oh boy, here we go! Thanks Kabuki!” But then … “if you smuggle magic past the liches then its considered fair game.” Suddenly this “gimp” is turned on its head. It gets turned in to a “how can we cheat to win and not get caught?” Not a gimp, but a pretext to spur on crazy ideas and plans … that being at the core of some of the finest D&D moments in actual play, I think.

Still, there are a few things that could be done better. The equipment list is a little exhaustive, IMO, taking up three pages. Some of the more exotic fare could be kept but I question the wisdom of including book equipment on the list.

There’s some little effort to create rival teams with character but this is mostly just “they are lizardmen” or “goblins” sort of thing. A team name name and/or a little more in the rivalry department would have punched the the rival teams up a bit.

The location descriptions use an interesting format. There’s a small (but legible) map as well as a minimal key: just the room name and what creatures are there. Then there’s a page or so of text that describes the location and what’s going on in a free form style. It refers back to room numbers, etc, but it’s not in a room/key format, not quite stream of consciousness but more conversational. I’m not sure about this choice. You have to really read and grok the content and I’m more of a scan guy, at the table. It feels like highlighter fodder.

This feeds in to the general text length, which is up there. Big fonts and wide margins make it easy to read, and its organized quote well, so its not quite the chore that 96 pages might otherwise imply.

Finally, while labeled as a sandbox, I think it could use a little more pretext to get things going. You could be in the city to compete in the boat race (for the prizes, as a adventure goal for something else your DM has cooked up), or investigate the house servants. Those are two obvious hooks in the city, beyond “you’re in town and this is going on.” It feels, though, like the servant mystery and the other subplot could use a little more integration. Or maybe I’ve been reviewing too many linear lead-you-by-the-nose adventures.

This is $5 at DriveThru. You’d be a fool to not grab it at this price. The preview shows you the first six pages … probably the least flavorful six pages of the entire adventure.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/213677/Flower-Liches-of-the-Dragonboat-Festival

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White Dragon Run II


By James Boney, Joseph Browning, Joseph A. Mohr
Expeditious Retreat Press
OSRIC
Levels 2-5

Return to the little village of White Dragon Run! At the edge of civilization— the place where monsters are a constant threat and adventurers thrive—reputations are made or broken, and deeds are performed only to be set in verse decades after the real story is long lost. On this thin line between country and chaos lies White Dragon Run, the last stop for the civilized before the well-trodden road becomes the weed-infested trail leading to creatures that would rather fight than herd, fish or farm.

This twenty page adventure describes the small town of White Dragon Run, revisited from the the first supplement of this name, as well as four encounters for the wilderness around the town: a hermit, a humanoid cave, a weird tower, and a Yuan-ti temple. The actual encounter areas only take up about seven pages. The encounters are interesting enough, and provide good variety, but I find the writing skewing to the academic. I’m also more than a little bewildered on how everything fits together. I would say it’s the usual fare from XRP.

There’s a decent size hex map and in the middle of it is the town of White Dragon Run. The town has the notable business and personalities described, much in the way the Keep was; that one on the Borderlands. I find the “keep-style” of towns and villages not very interesting. It’ ends up just being a list of names and stats and prices. Maybe a potential sub-plot like “Bob is an assassin in disguise” or something like that. I can do without the pricing detail; in most cases it just seems like trivia. (Perhaps with the exception of the traditional “our bars speciality in food and/or drink”) But a one or two word personality, and maybe some subplots with the other villagers, would liven things up quite a bit. Grumpy blacksmith or Innkeepers wife in love with the bower; that sort of thing. It adds an element of interactivity that makes the places seem more alive. The rumors are old school as well “There’s an evil snake temple in the hills.” That sort of style. Again, I prefer a little more specificity, something like “Cousin Gary? Haven’t seen him since he went out looking for that old snake temple.” A little more character. Finally, there’s a wanderers table that is not much more than a book standard table and adds little to nothing.

In a surprise, the local lord, while remote and dandy, actually gives a shit and if notified of trouble will send a full troop at fast ride to help the party/town. It’s refreshing to see that; rubbing elbows with the lords is a nice way to transition play around level 5.

The actual adventures vary in size. The hermit is really just an NPC. The humanoid cave four rooms, the tower nine or so, and the Yuan-ti temple about 20. There are pools to drink from, a giant snake idle dripping golden liquid from its fangs, dead NPC’s, riddles, traps, and some terrain features to overcome in the various dungeons. Plus, the tower is OD&D weird, with pulsating hearts and lumpy faux-monster protrusions. I’d say the IDEAS present have enough variety that this feels like a 1e/0e adventure and not just a pure hack-fest.

I will say, though, that the writing is flat. It feels academic, or maybe fact-based. Here’s the bulk of the description of a snake idol room:
SNAKE GOD IDOL: There is a large statue here of the snake god Apep. It depicts a large snake head on the body of a man and its mouth has large fangs from which drip a sweet-smelling, golden liquid. The statue radiates both evil and magical energy.

That’s interesting, but not exactly inspiring. “Large statue”, “large snake head”, “large fangs” … large isn’t exactly the most descriptive word in the most descriptive language on earth. It also has issues with what I might call text padding. Giving a little background section or history, or a sentence clause that is irrelevant. “Otherwise the room is empty.” Does it matter that the room is empty? Is that fact relevant to the players interactivity with the room? I know it seems minor, but these things combine to reduce scannability and therefore usefulness at the table. Instead, focus on the adventure elements and making them evocative.

Finally, I might add that I’m a little perplexed about some of the choices made. The locations provided don’t appear on the hex map. Nothing does, except terrain and the town. I guess you just drop them in? The rumors kind of hint, but it’s entirely up to the DM how to introduce the characters to the snake temple … without the adventure provide much/any help at all. I’d like to see the locations integrated a bit more in to the town or NPC’s. The amount of text taken up by per-terrain wandering tables doesn’t seem to add much over the terrain tables in the standard core books. But, in one room, with orcs behind a 4’ defensive wall on top of a 6’ rise … there’s no words at all about climbing or reaching the top or defensive bonuses or anything like that. I would think that’s exactly the sort of guidance a DM would be looking for at that encounter.

I should note that these comments, as well as several others, all tie back to the purpose of a published adventure: helping the DM run it. I think we can all agree that the content of the adventure is meant to help the DM, the only question is how much/specific should the writer be? At one end you’ve Palace of the Vampire Queen and other minimally keyed adventures, while at the other is the stinking pile that attempts to describe everything in the room and every possible action of the characters and enemies. Generally speaking, the closer the text is to minimal keying then the easier it is to scan at the table, and therefore run. Some formatting mojo can help push that boundary and allow more text. However, the more minimally keyed, and thus easier to scan, the less inspiring it is for DM. There is some sweet spot where the text is minimal and yet still evocative. Where that sweet spot is depends on the “inspiring” part for you. This adventure skews to the Keep/Homlet side of amount of text, with maybe a bit more text than products provided, but still in the same spirit. While ok adventures, especially for their time, I don’t think either was written in a particularly evocative style, and I don’t think this is either.

This is $14 at DriveThru.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/222005/Advanced-Adventures-38-White-Dragon-Run-II

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(5e) Oath of the Frozen King


By Tim Kearney, Matt Click, Michael Barker, & James Kearney
Absolute Tabletop
5e
Variable

The only review says this is a ground-breaking product. Let’s find out!

I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind. I’m keeping an open mind.

Fuck me. It’s an adventure toolkit rather than an adventure. 62 pages. The front half is six locations, six encounters, six NPC’s, and a bunch of tables (include die drops). The idea is that you can kind of mix them all together to get create an adventure. Then the back half of the book has even more tables; a kind of inspiration for further adventures to creature. The “adventure” is actually pretty good, even though it’s going to take work to put it together. The back half inspiration tables are just inspiration tables. They are nice, but I think it’s hard to justify the cost when there a billion online for free. This is a complicated product to review.

I’m going to cover the back half first. There is room in my life for something like this. Something LIKE this, but not this. It’s a bunch of tables that, using, you can generate an adventures, and its various elements, from. For example, the trap section has six tables that you can use to generate a trap. First, what kind of saving throw does it require. It’s its Charisma, then there is some kind of fear to overcome or someone to fool. Then, what are the consequences of the trap. This is what type of damage (cold, acid, fire, etc) and what it does (blind, charm, frighten, stune, prone, etc.) Then there’s the style. A fake trap, leftover creature trap, natural trap, etc. There’s a couple of “severity/damage” tables, purely mechanical. So, rolling we might get INT save, Psychic Damage, Exhaustion, creatures corpse rigged as a trap. What kind of trap does that spark in you? A mind flayers body falls when you fuck with something, his tentacles kering that trigger a psychic blast that exhausts people? Not bad, plus we’ve determined that you can weaponize a dead mind flayer, which I like also! I like this concept and there’s room in my life for it, but I don’t think the print element works well. I might pay $10 for website access for HUNDREDS of table entries for each element. For example, for encounter terrain there are 20 entries and one of them is “floor is littered with skull and bones.” I might instead like to see “X littered with Y.” More variety and possibilities. It’s just an idea generator, after all.

The adventure, proper, is decent. I suspect it’s meant to be an example of how to use the tables, and it has some modular aspects to it that I think make it weak for “on the fly” use. Being modular, you need to do some rolling on tables then then some thinking to put the whole thing together to have it make sense before you run it. Yes, it IS a toolkit, and I guess that’s the difference between that and an “adventure.”

The hook generator, character motivations, and adventure twists, all tables, are pretty decent. But, I really want to touch on the Locations, encounters, and NPC’s. These fit three or so to a page, in a shaded box, and after about two sentences of read-aloud they are presented in bullet point form. A little verbose by good OSR standards but it does a great job in being easy to scan and providing impressions for the DM to work from. “The Altar of Sorrow” has the following read-aloud “A simple slab of rough-hewn stone dominates an alcove in this entrance chamber. A stone stairway leads deeper into the keep.” Short. A little generic, but good enough. The bullets though, in the DM text/bullet points, are pretty good.
A simple stone dais, cluttered with worn copper coins.
Yellowed bones of various shapes, sizes, and sources.
Scraps of parchment with words denouncing the Frozen King and his reign.

There are some sounds and sensations also, which get a little melodramatic, especially given that there are multiple sounds and sensations presented for each room. Pick one and go.
The locations are augmented by the Encounters, which the random element helps you place in the room. Again, about three or so per page and well formatted, using bolding, to help separate information. And, again, too long, dwelling too much on each aspect, but the core concept is a decent one.

Even the setting background is interesting, presented in about one page, in bullet points, detailing the world ala a Campaign Questionqire aka “The powerful wizard in the world is X” It’s not in that format, but give you an idea of the organization. I liked it, and might even pay for a booklet of one page campaign worlds in this format.

I liked just about everything in this, in their component parts. The location and encounter text does get a bit long, beating a dead horse instead of getting and out quick. If the publisher could learn from that then their actual adventures would be pretty good.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview shows you the die drop section and the last two pages of it show you the Midnight-ish campaign world. Alas, nothing of the core table elements or adventure pages though.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/224724/Oath-of-the-Frozen-King–Adventure-Kit

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