Campfire Tale

By Mark Craddock
Cross Planes Games Studio
Black Hack/Labyrinth Lord
Levels 1-3

Uh ….

This eleven page “adventure’ details one encounter, a forest clearing. I think not.This review is going to suck because there’s nothing in this “adventure” to review.

The publishers blurb says “introductory adventure” and “levels one through three.” In this case “adventure” means one forest clearing that a naga attacks in to while the party is camping. Then a hag shows up to attack also. The end.

Yeah. Level one. A naga AND a hag. 3HD and 4HD. There’s this certain aesthetic in old school play that overpowered encounters are ok, and I agree with that. The deal, though, is that the players have a choice to engage or not. Your first adventure. You are camping in the forest, 5 minutes after creating characters. Then a 3HD naga crashes in. Uh … uncool. And then a 4HD hag shows up to kill whoever is left. That’s decidedly NOT old school play.

And then it does this weird “roll to continue the game” thing. You have to make these investigate rolls … for basic information. And if you miss it, well … nothing happens? You have to make a roll to notice a thick fog rolling in? And a crescent moon, and the fog, and … it just makes no sense.

Side Trek adventure from Dungeon Magazine, crappy though they were, generally had more going on than this ENCOUNTER doe. Not a fucking adventure. ENCOUNTER. I could never have the audacity to publish something like this. Which is why I’m a middle class wage slave.

This is $1.50 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. You get to see everything but the hag battle at the end.

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The Castle that Fell from the Sky

Steve Robertson & Jimm Johnson
Self Published
Levels 3-5

Even in the far gulfs of space, the struggle of Law against Chaos, Good versus Evil is eternal. But wherever evil is not extinguished, it will revive to exact vengeance on those who would keep it at bay… …On the fringes of the realm, where civilization wanes and adventures begin, rumors are whispered of a castle that fell from the sky. Some say it has poisoned the land where it fell and nought but death can be within its walls. Some say creatures, foul and dangerous, have gathered at the dark fortress. But others, the treasure seekers and thieves who haunt the local taverns, scoff at such dire warnings and view them only as a thin ploy to keep adventurers from winning the vast treasure that surely waits within. To your ears have come these very rumors— and more: you have learned the location of the fallen sky-castle!

This fifty-two page adventure contains a multi-level funhouse dungeon with about forty rooms. A good mix of OD&D elements, it manages to mix a more light-hearted style in without it becoming silly. Classic elements abound. Both in style and in presentation to the DM, it reaches acceptable levels. Since my standards are stooopid high, this is a compliment.

Being OD&D-like there are lots of new creatures and treasures. The guards that have fish-heads can blow giant bubbles that, if they touch a magic user, deletes a rando spell from memory. Giant mosquitoes roam. A snake with a single cyclops eye. Note how familiar the creatures are. It’s a normal thing, just twisted a little bit. Freaky enough, or more, because you KNOW it’s not right, as a player. That fucking snake has one eye man … I ain’t going over there! Treasure tends to be similarly unique. We can extrapolate this in to “the OD&D style.” It’s not all over the top nuttiness, in creatures, treasure, or room encounters. There’s something familiar about them. It’s a basic thing, pushed and twisted just a little bit. Familiar enough to have some recognition but it’s that extra little twist that pushes you in to freak out/caution territory. It’s a great vibe and totally by bag baby.

Speaking of rom encounters, let’s look at one of them:
“TOAD IDOL: Against the east wall is an onyx toad idol with a sinister grin and a single ruby eye. The ruby is a deep blood red and has a strange gleam. It is cursed. If anyone removes the ruby, the stars of the sky appear on the ceiling and slowly descend upon the thief, covering him in a green-black shimmer. That character is now cursed, and all rolls will be considered a 1 until the ruby is returned.”

Pretty terse. Not the most evocative, but blood-red and gleams and green-black shiffers are a cut above the descriptions most adventures have. It’s a pretty basic setup: the cursed eye-treasure statue. It’s the onyx toad and stars appearing that really push this up in to great territory. And yet .. it’s so simple, isn’t it?
So far it’s a pretty standard adventure. Put the first room has a big red button with a sign that says “do not push the button.” And there’s a leprechaun-like creature called Barbar Jinx that can show up when you say his name three times aloud and uses “meesa” and “yousa.” There are other examples as well. This is really the tonal part that completes the definition of funhouse: a couple of pop culture things tossed in has always been a hallmark of the style. I kind of enjoy the fucking around nature and having a good time, but I recognize that as a tonal thing not everyone wants.

There is, of course, room for improvement. There are great summary sheets, but a little bit more of them, like having the wanderers doing something, would have been good. It also seems like there’s just a little bit more missing from a lot of encounters.

How much instruction/guidance to the DM are you looking for? The modern trend of “all DM’s are idiots and I must spell out everything” is something I abhor. On the other end of the spectrum is no advice to the DM at all. Just let the DM run it however they want.

Note the toad room from earlier. No treasure value for the gem, and no mention of a save for the curse. There’s another room that has a brazier in the center that “fills the room with fire” when the opposite door is opened, 1d6 per turn. Is there a save? Instant or slow enough that, say, you could get one turn to run out of the now opened door to save yourself if thats the first thing you tell the DM? It’s ALL up to the DM to interpret and run.

I get the style, and it’s fine; I’d much rather this style than the “explain everything” style. I get excited when I run the game, so little cue’s to help me not forget things does a wonder. Just putting “[sv]” would be enough. Or “(10,000gp)” or “instantly” vs “slowly” would help me out.

This is in digest format and in single column … one of the few ways that single column is acceptable to use.

It’s a good adventure and I’d have no issues with running for folks.

This is on Lulu for $6. Lulu previews require flash. I don’t do flash.

By the time you read this I’m fucking around in Central America for a month. Every review after this one, for the next month, means I was a good boy and wrote ahead. We shall see …

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(5e) The Deadly Den of the Wanton Wolf

By Talbot S. Raiche
Self Published
Level 3

The people of Yarlstone are afraid to go into the woods at night. It started with an increase in poaching, but soon merchants and guardsmen were found dragged from the trails and torn apart. A bounty has been placed on those responsible, but who is brave enough to investigate the howling that comes with the full moon?

This twelve page adventure features a small cave system of eighteen rooms with a werewolf in them. Terse and largely evocative room descriptions are a highlight, but slavish devotion to regimented formatting brings the product down, as does the lack of supporting material for creatures and setting.

5e and twelve pages would normally mean a shit product that describes three encounters, maybe … at least that’s what I’ve come to expect. When I saw this was single column I was looking forward to a total shit show, but I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of a shit show rip off product (ie: three encounters or less) it is instead someone with a vision who needs some help improving.

The rooms (in an old cabin) have descriptions like “Living Room: Dim. Creaky floors. Dusty tables and chairs, Cold Hearth. Old rugs.” or “Closet: Dark, Musty, Moths, Worn cloaks on wooden pegs.” That’s pretty good! It DOES create a great atmosphere that a DM can then fill in and riff upon. That’s what a DM needs, just enough to get an idea in to their head, then they can expand upon it as the players explore and ask questions. You grok the place, and because of that you have infinite power over it to convey the vibe to the players. It’s easy to scan at the table and does what it needs to do. I like the style, a lot. It’s not the ONLY way to achieve the evocative & terse thing I look for, but it is one of the simplest to understand and mimic for n00b writers, I think. The room names could have been overloaded some “Decrepit Living Room” or “Musty Closet”, for example, but hey, that’s nitpicking.

And …. I’m done being nice. The rest of this adventure barely exists. It is, essentially, minimally keyed. Rooms have “5 cultists + 3 wolves” or “2 black bears.” Treasure is boring old book stuff. There’s no real reason behind things. There’s some pretext about the werewolf being a bandit, and a wolf cult, all relayed through backstory, but the adventure keys proper are as close to minimal as you can get. Take Palace of the Vampire Queen and add those atmosphere descriptions and you’ve got this adventure. The creatures and environs come off as cold and mechanical. The creatures need to be doing something. The traps need a bit of life. There’s tis devotion to the rigor of formatting that’s weird. Rooms have a section stating “Doors: Slatted wood fencing – locked.” And then, each on a newline, “Pick: DC 14 Dexterity Check” “Force: DC14 Strength Check” and “Break: AC15, HP27.” Ok, get it. I get what you’re trying to do. But it comes off as rigid and mechanical and lifeless … and also takes up too much space. Imageine putting it all one one line, with bolding, underlines, italics, bullets, etc. Same impact to support the DM’s scanning and more fluid.

Further, imagine the doors, traps, treasure, and monsters were given the same treatment as the room atmosphere. Just one sentence of atmosphere each. There’s not village, or wilderness, but imagine that a village was listed, with the same one or two sentence atmosphere, along with, say, three NPC’s given the same treatment. And a little wilderness section of the same. As is, the hooks are essentially non-existent, just that there is this bandit cult leader and he lives in the woods and the nobles don’t like poachers. But give that the same atmosphere treatment? And those wandering monsters? Same thing. Instead of “1-2 black bears” how about instead “1-2 black bears, foraging, wounded, starving” or something like that? Then you’ve given the DM just a little more to work with.

Also, would it kill you to put in a one page summary of monster stats? You use the same thing over and over again … why not fill one page with their stats. Just a summary, so the non-pedants among us can run the monsters from it?

Finally, a note on formatting. Yeah, it’s part of the Notebook Dungeon series and you put it on a background that looks like a legal pad, single column. First, don’t use single column. It sucks for communicating information. I know it’s fucking easy, but its been well established that double column is better for information transfer. Easier to scan up and down than left to right. Yes, I promise, some google searches will turn up the lit. Second, the legal yellow and lines don’t improve the legibility of the adventure, they detract from it. It gets in your eyes way, especially the lines. Don’t do that. (Just like you should not have large sections of italics. Its hard to read.)

Nice idea for the rooms, but it went too far minimal.

This is $2 at DriveThru. Alas, there is no preview.

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The Beasts of Kraggoth Manor

By Tim Callahan
North Wind Adventures
Levels 4-6

Your party have travelled northeast from the great city of Khromarium, through the unforgiving expanse known as the Lug Wasteland. You undoubtedly seek greater riches in the north: ruined tombs secreting ancient artefacts, deep caves filled with long-lost Atlantean technology, or strange villages built atop sacred Hyperborean burial grounds that brim with pre–Green Death treasures. Finally, after having emerged from the treacherous bogs, you set up camp on a craggy outcropping that provides dry land and a modicum of protection from the crawling unknowns. Straightaway your attention is drawn by a nearby light source, a fire not more than a hundred yards away. Through the cacophony of croaking frogs, buzzing insects, and hissing slimy things, a shriek of pain knifes through the air.

This 52 page adventure describes a manor house with 35 rooms that is stuffed full of things to stab. Some decent rumors and magic items are added to encounters that have a certain life and interconnected nature … that the signature North Wind “lets fuck this up by writing a novel instead of an adventure” style is then added to.

I thought this time it would different. A North Wind adventure not by Talanian could be an interesting thing. A different take than the creators, using the same reskinned AD&D setting but brining a different style. How wrong I was. I guess AS&SH self-selects, or Talanians hand as co-developer is too evident.

I’ve got a certain amount of respect for someone true to their vision, even if that vision is WRONG. I see this time and again, and suspect its true for Advanced Adventures as well. It’s good to have a vision but you need to know when you have blinders on and do something about that. North Wind in general, and this adventure also, tend to focus on a novelization sort of description rather than a playable description. And, comic book guy, don’t be a shit; “playable” doesn’t mean boring. I’m fan of archaic words, nonsense words, tearing gramme apart, and so on, all to the end of creating an evocative environment. At first glance this adventure does that. You can certainly find a lot of twenty dollar words and archaic sentence structures. But it’s sin, I believe is in putting those before playability. What’s more important, creating an evocative environment or playability at the table? If we accept “evocative” then we justify 10,000 word room descriptions. We we accept “playability” then we leave ourselves room for both, the evocative description is important, but it must be a slave to playability.

These are the sins of Paizo, and North Wind in general, and in which this adventure seems to fall into. The actual keys are only about twenty pages long, averaging one or two a room. Backstory and timeline are enumerated, and wilderness encounters get a page of text, or at least a column.

The first sentence of room four, of the manor, is “Though far less barren than the area immediately outside the crumbling defensive walls, …” Nite the indirect passive writing style. Perfect for a novel, a love letter to the Appendix N heroes of North Wind, but absolutely shitty for playability. Long descriptions in passive voice, writing in a backwards style, forcing archaic word choices that are dry instead of vivid. We’re left with an adventure full of thralls and apen-men that somehow comes off as boring and dry.

I will say that, in places, it almost seems like two separate authors. The entire wilderness section is a mess, full of these column long novel descriptions of rooms, and this carries over in to certain parts of the manor. But other parts of the manor seem terse by comparison, only four sentences per room. Here’s room 3A “The smell of rodent urine consumes this area. In the southwestern corner, stairs spiral about a newel up to the first floor. The northeastern corner is piled with sand, leaves, shredded rope, tattered cloth, and other debris in a three-foot- tall, five-foot-wide mound, where rest 6 giant rats. The rats exhibit timidity and will retreat deep into the debris at the presence of men, but if the nest is poked or prodded, they will react violently.” That’s not so bad. Needs a little formatting and whitespace to fight some wall of text issue, but ok. Smell hits the party first, a basic description that’s not half bad with tattered and shredded things, and then the monster reactions. Not rock star, but not enough to botch too much about. But that room description, and others like it, stand in stark contrast to the columns of text that seem to consume other rooms, as well as their overuse or archaic structure.

I like the setting, a manor besieged by ape-men, evil folk and creatures inside, and it’s got some non-boring magic items mixed in and an encounter or two that are more than ok, with the vast majority being imaginative enough to handle an AD&D style. I just wish it were playable without making struggling over the text and highlighting it.

The rooms have some interconnectedness, or at least some theme areas, with thralls, apen-men and so on all being around in certain sections … always a great idea. But the initial description of the outside doesn’t dwell on the ape-man sige, even though their are all about outside (on roofs) doing weird things. The party needs to see the shaem on the roof with with bubbling cauldron at the start, not have that part hidden in text deeper inside the adventure. “Let’s see, what do you see? Hang on, let me look through every room description and check and see what you can see from outside …”

It’s also more than a little hack-y. Essentially, everyone is an enemy. The evil ape-men are trying to stop an even greater enemy, but, hey, ape-men. The thralls look friendly, but attack. Shit gets old fast.

Do you just read D&D books instead of playing? Great, buy this.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is worthless, showing you nothing of what you are buying.

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(5e) Saint Floras Grounded Circus

Joseph Avery & Walter Haynes
Sin ‘n’ Strut Productions
Level 7

The circus is in town and with it is an settling group of carneys. The show in the big top where death defying acts all seem to be going wrong is cut short and the audience leaves in silence. Without any clues to follow, the party must look to other attractions for clues. Egghead the clown can be heard from the funhouse in Mirrors and Mazes. A crippled carnival barker lures passersby into Sinisterio’s Hall of Curios. A silent and hulking mass of a man pulls a cart through the grounds advertising the Haunted Hayride and Scavenger Hunt. All the while time slips away, half remembered. Can you uncover the mystery of the circus? Can you get out before it gets you?

This seventeen page shitshow of an adventure (Leading the witness!) has the party forced in to being trapped in an extradimensional circus. You hang around for awhile and then get sent home, with everyone dead being brought back to life. So, basically, a shitty “it was all a dream’ adventure. (Again, objection! My Lynch seems to be saying the adventure is shitty because it is shitty. – Overruled, and go back to your Critical Role ‘Story’) This adventure makes a lot of bad decisions.I don’t recall if it makes any good ones. Let’s generalize and say “it has no redeeming qualities.”

First, “it’s all just a dream” is going on. In this type of adventure nothing has any consequences. You wake up (or, in this case, come back from the demiplane) and you’re generally ok again. Dead people come back to life. You keep some treasure or an effect or two in some of them. The main thing though is: your decisions don’t have consequences. It is, in effect, just an excuse for the DM to fuck with you. Arbitrary shit happens and then you go home. Gygax was kind of being a shit when he said you can’t have meaningful adventure without keeping track of time, but I would instead say you can’t have a meaningful adventure if your decisions have no consequences. (Yes, I know what he meant. Fuck off pedant.) You gotta have some skin in the game, and dreamtime adventures don’t have that. Usually mostly.

The very first thing you encounter as a player is some read-aloud. It’s under “opening act” (which makes me throw up a little in my mouth, but whatever. It’s a pretentious tonal thing.) Here’s the opening read-aloud: “You’ve gotten news of a circus just outside of town. All of the derring-do has worn the spirit down and you remember wanting to have a fun night out. Take in a show. Eat something greasy. Your memory is hazy on how long the walk was to get here, must not have been too strenuous.” Note that third sentence, “Your memory is hazy.” At that point, as a character, I don’t care any more and have checked out. It’s means “dreamtime” and that means I get to be bored for the next four hours, enduring arbitrary DM bullshit I will have little impact over. (Also, for the record, I feel a little shitty calling this shitty D&D adventure subgenre dreamtime. Yes, for all the reasons you would imagine. Still, I shall persist.)

Arbitrary you say? Arbitrary I sez! The key to getting out of the demiplane of circus is … the arcanololth in charge decides to send you back. Oh, hmmm. Yeah … ARBITRARY! “He doesn’t want his little demiplane playtime interrupted by chaotic adventurers.” or some such. uh huh. WEAK DESIGN. I think you mean. And, ultimately, of course, if you did you just appear back on the prime at 1 HP at the end of the adventure. No consequences. Arbitrary. That’s shitty unimaginative design.

The mechanics of the writing and organization are not much better. Maybe worse. Action, much akin to watching a play, takes place in long paragraph form. Sit in the stands and watch the big top means “DM wades through text saying that this happens and then this and then this.” Bullets people. Distinct paragraphs. Use whitespace. Organize it so the DM can, at a glance, figure out what is going on without actually READING a paragraph of text, fighting their way through it to try and find the next relevant bit of information. Bad Bad Bad.

Oh, what else. It seems in vogue these days to abstract mazes through the use of playing cards. This is the second one I’ve seen lately, which means WOTC must have published something that everyone is cribbing. I get the concept but, again, it comes off as arbitray. “Just make a bunch of skill checks.”

You know, related to many modern adventures, and this one in particular: the story is NOT yours, as a DM to tell. I know, i know, people say it is. That’s a common thing. Those fuckwits are WRONG. Yeah yeah, onetruwayism, whaever. They are wrong. The story belongs to the players. Their choices are what the game is about. As a DM you get to react to them and synthathize it through the lens of the adventure, but its THEIRS not YOURS. Maybe think of it as you, the DM, writing the villains story. (Then cut out all of the trivia and nonsense backstory, focus on things of import to actual play.) You want to write the villains story right up until the time the speeding freight train otherwise known as The Party runs in to them. The villain has plans, he’s doing things, he’s making an impact. He’s going the distance. And then he’s caught in the middle of the railroad tracks.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The previe is too short, but the last page shows you the crappy “this then this then this” attempt at describing a scene.

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Stjernheim – The Siege of Deepknell Hold

By Ben Dutter
Sigil Stone Publishing

This 42 page mess is an non-linear sandbox style adventure, or so the adventure tells us, repeatedly. Non-linear by the standards of Apocalypse Engine, maybe, but not when compared to anything above “dreck’ level adventures. A couple of faction camps outside of a linear dungeon that runs between them underground is all you get. It is the most basic of things, expanded to 42 pages.

Some giants are laying siege to a jarls fort. The fort guards one end of Moria. Out in the woods are some Freefolk in a camp that sits on another entrance to Moria. They have the giant chiefs daughter held hostage to get them to do the siege of the jarl fort. This COULD be a great gasoline storage facility for tossing in the molotov that is The Party. Instead it’s dull.

The fort and freefolks camp each get about two pages. It’s starts will some bullets. Great! The important bits! Oh, no, it’s just all trivia, expanded upon the main text that follows. It tells us the freefolk are descended from jormundt. It tells us the camp sits over the entrance to Moria. It tells us it holds the jotunns daughter. It’s fact based boring shit. Or it’s useless trivia shit that doesn’t contribute much to the actual play. A great gaping fetid maw that everyone avoids and the sun seems to shine a little dimmer … that’s a good bullet, but “Covers the entrance to Moria” is just boring. The difference should be obvious. One makes the DM feels a certain way (if done well) and they in turn communicate that vibe, and expand upon it effortlessly, to the players. Worse still is the trivia, like the jormundt thing. Ok. Jortmundt. Why the fuck does the party care? How does that lead to interactivity? Actual play? No, not implies x which implies y. Play. Now. It doesn’t.

Then the main text follows and it expands upon the uselessness. A column full of dull and useless trivia. The dungeon is sometimes worse, giving you lots of wasted rooms, text, and the like, combined with overly long and boring descriptions when you DO reach something interesting. And it’s essentially linear. Joy. Linear is useless. Passing by a dark side passage freaks the party the fuck out, and there’s value in that. Uncertainty is what the underworld is all about.

Look, I get it. Apocalypse is a different beast. It’s not D&D. Some people like it and that’s ok. But bad writing is not ok. Making us dig through text to find something useless. Trivia. Fact based descriptions that are not in the least evocative. Those should be common elements regardless of the system and how it plays. You want linear? Fine, you can enjoy that, I guess. But badly written? Nope.

I will say that there is something the rest of D&D could steal from Apocalypse: the creature blocks. Or, what’s in them anyway; the blocks themselves seems longly formatted. But, it uses those brief little bursts to communicate flavor. Creatures have Trail Tags, like “silent lurker, aquatic, slippery, surprisingly strong.” That’s GREAT. Less is more. It leaves you with impressions that you are free to riff on. THE SAME THING THE REST OF THE DESCRIPTIONS/ROOMS SHOULD ALSO BE DOING. Then there’s this little abilities section and some TINY comat notes, like leads tribe in to combat with shrieks, or some such. Again, GREAT. Cues for the DM when running them! They aren’t always done well, but other RPG’s could learn a lot from them. (The same could be said for 4e’s special monster abilities … assuming everyone had not memorized the MM.) This specialness and abstraction of mechanics, rather than focusing on the details, also applies to the magic items and, because of that, they have flavor and character. Which is what the fuck magic items SHOULD have.

You know, I had a feeling, based on the name, what this was going to be and I was right. I try not to prejudge adventure but, man, I wish authoris would pay more attention. I guess I blame T$S and WOTC. They have spent MANY years publishing shitty adventures and people have “learned” that is the correct way to do things. But, fuck man, look around at what people consider to be good outside of your echo chamber. Yeah, you have to put some work in. A lot of fuckwits (and there are A LOT, they drown out critical thought) will tell you that something is good that is not. You gotta put some effort in. But you’ll be a better writer.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is 19 pages long; and I applaud the authors for this, it gives you a real chance to see what the actual writing is like before purchase. Jumping to the last third or so will show you the bullets point summaries that begin each section (a great idea poorly implemented) and the expanded upon dullness.

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Through Ultan’s Door #1

By Ben Laurence
Through Ultan’s Door

Go through Ultan’s door in this inaugural issue into the Ruins of the Inquisitor’s Theater, a 30 room dungeon replete with oneiric puddings, delicate shadow puppets, giggling white swine, and much more. This 36 page zine contains everything you need to launch a D&D campaign in the Zyan, flying city of the dreamlands.

This forty page “zine” contains a thirty page dungeon and the supporting monsters, spells, etc. Lush, rich prose, the ruins of a decadent empire, and heavy opium clouds bring the OD&D HARD. Digest format is as digest format does. It’s good. I’m also predisposed to this kind of shit.

I didn’t think people still used opium in the US. This adventure proves me wrongs. Yes, that’s a compliment. It’s important, I think, that I communicate the vibe of this adventure. There’s this thing that some of the Psychedelic Fantasy adventures fell in to, and some of the Calithena/Bowman Darkness Beneath adventure briefly hit upon. It’s also present in in some of the pointcrawl work of Slumbering Ursine and those world weary decadent elves of that setting. From the Vats, Operation Unfathomable, Blue Medusa and some other Patrick shit, the city from ASE1, a touch of Tekumel, and Lapis Observatory. There’s this lush, sometimes lurid, velvety decadance … sometimes in the writing, sometimes in the environment, sometimes in the imagination behind the encounters. There’s this intro to a Frankie Goes to Hollywood mix, cribbed from Nietzsche I think, that gives me a certain feeling when I listen to it and this adventure reminds me of that feeling.

A part of this is the OD&D thing it’s got going. By that I mean, in part, the monsters are new. You don’t know what a new monsters will do. It’s powers are unknown. That creates apprehension in the players and that’s usually a great thing for an adventure to do. Not only are the monsters new, the descriptions focus entirely on the actual play of the creatures. Descriptions are: Sinuous white swine, with children’s hands, and mischievous human eyes, or Each is a tangle of raven’s wings with no body or head, flitting erratically like a quick moving bat. In the center of the conjoined wings is a single staring eye that gives baleful glares like cutting knives or worse. That’s what the characters encounter so that’s what the description says. The only addition to that description is their spoor (hints to come) and the monster stats. No bullshit history or crap to clog up the adventure … just pure impact for the players. Fucking. Perfect.

There’s another part of the OD&D vibe that tends to concentrate on the non-standard encounter. I’m not saying it well, but there tends to be this de rigeur way of writing encounters. It almost seems like there’s this hidden formula that people follow to create a boring encounter thats the same as every other boring encounter. Tolkien genericism. I’m not bitching about orcs, I’m bitching that they always appear the same way, as do pit traps, etc. There’s this emphasis on mechanics, as if they come first “a 100’ pit trap”, and then the rest follows. When I talk about OD&D encounters/imagination I’m then I’m talking about that being flipped There’s some weird ass scene imagined … that’s the focus, and then some mechanics are are lightly bolted on. There’s this room, smelling of decay, with a straw floor, and a balcony up above, and three bodies hanging from it with hoods over their heads … and a bear trap in straw under each body. Balcony with hanging bodies and bear trap … just a little twist that keeps it fresh. And this adventure does that over and over again.

The descriptions are lush and rich with great imagery. A door of cerulean blue and gold leaf glittering in the candlelight. Or, to directly quote: “The statue at the end of the room is made of basalt. It depicts a robed figure, with a long beaked mask. She pulls apart her robes, and dozens of small- er beaked masks peer forth form the darkness beneath, pressing out. Lapis Lazuli borders her robes, and the eyes of the masks sparkle with polished carnelians and peridots.” That’s a pretty cool thing that I’m DYING to run! Which is exactly what I’m looking for. I want to be excited. Ben jabbed an idea in to my head and I can fill in the rest effortlessly because of his ability to communicate the seed to me, the DM. WHich I can them have a much better chance of doing the same for my players … and communicate my enthusiasm to them. Nd, as an aside, much of the treasure is great also. A necklace of bismuth stones strung on a chain of platinum, each stone a miniature rainbow labyrinth. Fuck Yeah I want that thing man! If you have treasure that the players want to keep, wear, and use, instead of just abstracting away in to gp, then you’ve done a good job and this is a good job.

Twenty-ish rooms means the map isn’t too large, but it’s good enough, and it appears that the next “issue” will be the next level of the dungeon. My only major complaint is that the room numbering is not as trivially legible as I would prefer.

Ben’s got an overview of the game world this comes from, a kind of Dreamlands-ish thing, on his blog. That should give you an idea of what you are getting yourself in to. These days Dreamlands makes me think “arbitrary”, but that’s not the case here. This is a concrete, real adventure.

Another great example of a “going to a freaky place” adventure … with the door signaling that the rules are all wrong and every perversion is justified in the mythic underworld … communicated via the door transition.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is ok. Showing some of the rooms, or wandering table, would have been better. The general fluff stuff is ok, amd gives you a view in to the writing style, but the actual rooms and wanders give you and better view in to the FOCUS that the actual rooms give, and encounter types. As is, what’s previewed seems to imply a longer writing style than is actually encountered and not as much of the OD&D style. It’s more setting than adventure in the preview.

It is, of course, Frankie, and Frankie only …

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 17 Comments

(5e) A Night in Seyvoth manor

By David Flor
By Darklight Interactive
Level 6

…Throughout the years, the village has had its share of disappearances; most of them had been blamed on the harsh environment of the surrounding forest and the natural dangers of the world we live in, but recent evidence leads to the doorstep of the Seyvoth estate. And when the two young daughters of a prominent noble go missing and the village sends out search parties to the surrounding area, two separate search parties passed through the iron gate at the entrance to the estate and have yet to return….

This 44 page adventure describes a an evil/vampire manor with about eighteen rooms. Realizing the promise of the 4e adventure… but written in 5e, this thing is essentially eighteen set pieces strung together. It attempts to marry the more open ended styles of play with the rich room encounters that were a hallmark of the 4e style. If you can accept that, and its implications, then the amount of odiousness it engages in is minimal. Maybe. I can’t decide if its arbitrary. Or, rather, if the arbitrariness it engages in is any different than normal D&D arbitrariness.

There’s a tournament component of this that is … strange. The party is given four hours to complete the mission to find the girls in the manor. You can keep playing, but after that they turn in to a werewolf and vampire. There’s also a scoring system. Fifty points for this and ten points for this other thing. And if you die you start back at the front doors with scoring penalty. It just comes out of nowhere, with no explanation. “If you die you start back at the front door with a scoring penalty.” Huh? Like I said, out of nowhere. It’s more than a little disconcerting, as if you’ve missed something. If I digress here, to talk about this adventure as a tournament adventure, I’d say it’s one of the best. Most tourney adventures tend to be rather linear, in fact, the most linear. This isn’t that. It’s a real deal “explore the house as you will” adventure, up to and including reasons to revists certain areas. And it’s completely usable as a non-tournament adventure also. David has done a good job at duel use.

It can be a more traditional “explore” adventure and a tournament adventure because, more than almost any other adventure I’ve seen, this thing is CONSTRUCTED. Getting to the secret room requires you place a necklace on a statue. But first it has to be “blessed” by the ghost it belonged to. And you have to find it first. And if you give the WRONG thing to the ghost lady, like the jewelry of the maid her husband has been fooling around with, well .. you can imagine. And that’s but one of the interconnected things. A ghost girl wants her dolly. There are a lot of dolls around the house … and she’s not going to be happy if you give her the wrong one. But there are pictures, etc around the house that provide clues. And there’s a ghost composer who’s like his sheet music back … getting him all of it distracts some of the ghosts as he plays, providing some assistance later on. This doesn’t FEEL like a fetch quest. It feels more like “Oh! This is related to that other thing we saw!” That’s the sort of discovery that always good for a D&D adventure.

The rooms, proper, are RICH. They are LONG, with multiple elements in each room. We’re talking at least a page per room. It manages to put multiple elements in the room, some of which have no relation to each other, and make each room a place where the players can explore quite a bit. I note that this can be difficult to achieve and still be scannable … but this adventure manages to mainly accomplish that. It starts with bullets that give an overview, and then sections that are, essentially, tied to each bullet. These have good use of bolding and whitespace to make finding those sections easier. The individual sections DO get a bit long, but I think it’s manageable. The Graveyard, for example, has a cliff edge, graves, a fountain, sarcophagi, a gazebo (with ghost), and statues. Then there’s a long multi-paragraph section on the main event, the ghost, and another long section on “Encounter” which means potential combat with some of the previous room elements. THEN column long stat blocks. It’s a lot, but manageable. The formatting, as well as the emphasis on playable content, rather than mentioning trivia. Keeps it on track. The long text in the individual elements is related to the EXPANSIVE hand holding. Lots of text on opening doors, disarming traps, and so on. Almost a defined template/schema that is being followed, that is closer to the SPI end of the spectrum than I can comfortable with,

There is definitely some abstracted D&D here, from the 3e/4e era, that shows and stands out as being crappy. There’s an emphasis on skill checks to discover things. If you have a DC13 per check you can see that the statues arm is hinged at the elbow. This is SUBSTANTIALLY different than telling the party that the elbow is hinged in response to them saying they are examining the statue, or looking closely, or something. That’s shitty D&D. I know people like skill checks these dys to tie your shoes, but they are overused. Unless it’s really hard/hidden, and even then, if they ask you should be telling them. The answer is not in the build on your character sheet. The adventure relies on this shit over and over again. It’s easy enough to ignore and play the right way. (That’s right, I said THE RIGHT WAY.)

It can also be arbitrary at times. All D&D is arbitrary, to a certain extent. It’s a part of the game. You don’t know what’s behind the door. There are parts of this though that seem a little more than that. If you give the ghost the wrong thing she freaks the fuck out. She doesn’t actually tell you that she’s looking for a necklace … and I’m not real sure that the maid/infidelity thing is related very strongly. This allows the party to engage in what they think is the right thing, but are then punished for. It’s important to not set up a situation in which the party just never tries because it’s not worth it, based on past experiences. Sometimes warnings about what will happen this is done with foreshadowing, or warnings from others. A pile of dead bodies holding shitty jewelry, around the ghost, for example. From that we can learn of the horrible consequences. There’s another part, in this same thread, where another ghost tries to trick the party in to taking the wrong necklace, it pretends to look like the ghost in question. (In a mirror, ghostly pointing. Really well done.) But at this point it’s hard to tell that you are doing the wrong thing. In fact, you’re being told it IS the right thing … and it’s not clear to me that there are cues you are on the wrong path to success. Wizards and Clerics have “are we doing the right thing” spells, but without a strong history of the party using them that’s not really the way a lot of modern D&D is played. (Shame!)

You know, there’s also not an actual map. Oh, there are lots of tactical battle maps, one for each room in fact, in order to solve the “I see a map! That means combat!” metagaming from the party. But there’s not an overall map. That’s bullshit, and by far the most impactful issue when trying to play this.

There’s also this weird emphasis on handing out cards that represent treasure. Everything together (that long text, remember?) gives this a very boardgamey vibe. There’s a clear lineage to 4e … but lets say 4e done right … but written for 5e.

I’m a fan of this. I’m surprised myself to say this. I think it’s an interesting approach to writing an adventure. I find it interesting for that reason alone, but I also think you can actually run it easily. Is it The Best? Sure, why not, if we’re grading on the 5e curve.

This is $10 at DriveThru. There’s no preview? Really? That’s kind of toolish.

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The Sunken Fort

Nickolas Z Brown
Five Cataclysms
Levels 1-4

On the edge of a swamp beneath an old forest lay an even older fort, constructed for some ancient and unknowable purpose. The shadows are stronger here, and the scent of madness lingers in the air. The fort may seem mundane at first glance, but you will learn soon enough that something is not quite right…

This 27 page funhouse dungeon has eighty rooms. Imaginative, terse and well organized it brings the OD&D vibe with unique monsters and a metric fuckton of shit to get in to trouble with. Your enjoyment of this is going to be directly related to your view of funhouses. I like funhouses, they are just not the easiest to use sometimes.

This thing knows what it is doing. Funhouses are not set piece dungeons, even though they have lots (and LOTS) of little self-contained rooms. They are not challenge dungeons where some higher power is testing the mettle of the party. They are not riddle dungeons or trap dungeons. They are a curious mix of things that make sense and not. Most of all, I think they are tend to be Push Your Luck dungeons, or Temptation dungeons.

There is a certain type of … Gleeful D&D. In this style everyone is grinning and everyone is on on the secret. Imagine a room empty but for a skeleton on a throne .. and it’s holding a big fat ruby in its hands. Fuck it, maybe you even have to put your hand in a mouth of something to reach it. The DM knows that the room is a set up. The players all know that the room is a setup. The DM knows that the players know … and the players know this also. And everyone is sitting around grinning at each other. “Well, You wanna stick your hand in and grab it?” says the DM. “Looks like it might give you enough XP to … Level.” This isn’t really adversarial D&D, but really everyone kind of knows what’s gonna go down. That mouth is gonna close and that skeleton WILL be animating. Push your luck, take a chance, there’s not really hidden information. That’s a good dungeon room. And a good funhouse dungeon is stuffed full of them. And this is a good funhouse.

There’s an art to writing them to get them right. Imaginative situations, clear setups and consequences pretty clearly implied. These are done right. They are mostly pretty simple. Open a door, set a gold statues with ruby eyes floating towards you. Oh course, it’s got a floating clear ooze surrounding it that’s initially hard to see … but, of course, everyone knows SOMETHING is up with it. It’s just a matter of what. This dungeon executes over and over again. Big big fan.

OD&D style has a strong element of the new and interesting for monsters and treasure, and this is most definitely OD&D. No orcs but lots of new monsters with new gimmicks. I love that because the players have to figure out new things to do to defeat them. They instill apprehension, if not outright fear, in the party. And those fuckers always need a bit of fear to keep them in line. OD&D thrives on the non-traditional. It’s the anti-Tolkein. Or. maybe, thrives closer to Bill & Berts issues with sunlight. Talk to the monsters, and get the KICK ASS magic item when you get them turned to stone.

The map is nice and large. Eighty rooms in 27 pages means a terse writing style. There’s enough text to get the DM going and it’s organized well, with bolding and paragraph breaks and general text leading to more specific. It’s RIGHT on the (wrong) side of providing GREAT room descriptions. So close to being really magnificent … but still very good and NOT falling in to the verbosity trap. The monsters, in particular, have great descriptions that take a heartbeat longer than “perfect 10” to get the DM’s imagination going. Exploding Ethereal Skull. A lizard of scrap metal that reeks of machine oil. Bloated firebats are “A fat winged creature that has gorged itself on fire oil and transformed into a flying orange blob.” Imagine it barely able to fly, dripping big flaming globs of oil. That’s where my imagination went.

It’s even got a GREAT hook, with villagers getting their shadows ripped from their bodies by some pale creature with a description straight out of a nightmare. It’s fucking WONDERFUL.

It could be better. The descriptions are about a heartbeat behind perfect. Some of the rooms are not perfectly organized. Room two is an example, with statues being missed in the initial description … and then the “a,b,c” elements of room not standing out as well as they could in the text. A lot of the mundane treasure is “a pile of 1200gp and 80 gems worth 800 gp” … not the soul of evocativeness. It also lacks a certain … theming? Both players and DM need theming to put certain logic to use (for differing purposes) in the dungeon. There’s a lack of a cohesive story in a funhouse dungeon. Now, I’m talking 5e story, but more a many Gates of the Gann story. An element of the entire dungeon kind of working together. That is, I think, what separate this from, say, The Upper Caves of the Darkness Beneath. (Well, that element and a few other things.)

This thing is fun. It can work as a one-shot, for beer & pretzels, or at a con. It can also ABSOLUTELY work in a normal campaign. There’s not a lot of “modern” puzzles, etc that break immersion. Yeah, not everything makes sense to be in a dungeon .. but it’s not some fucked up mish-mash of an elevator puzzle either.

This is $5 at DriveThru. You get to see the map (yeah!) the wander monster table/descriptions (yeah!) and the first page of rooms (yeah!) It does whata preview needs to do.

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Murder Knights of Corvendark

By Glynn Seal
MonkeyBlood Design
Swords & Wizardry
Level 4

No one knows from where they came. All feathers and spite. Their vile beaks spit angry screeches, and beneath their wing beats, acrid miasmas swirl. […] Since the coming of this otherworldly realm, the Grimwater Lake region has been plagued by the atrocities of the ‘harpies’ — as they have been incorrectly named — regularly raiding the surface lands. None have been ravaged more so than Wychington, a small town on the northern lake edge at the mouth of the Lesselling River. […] The Lord of Wychington, Corben Truss, has sent out word of the need for aid and assistance to any that will heed it. Maybe, just maybe, that is you?

This 49 page adventure describes a couple of adventuring locations with about seventy rooms. A small town gets attacked by things they think are harpies, but are actually crowmen. It’s vaguely interesting, but hard to get in to. Something is wrong and I don’t know what.

This should be a cool adventure. The crowman thing is interesting. The maps looks good, both the color regional ones and the location maps. It’s got some decent ideas in it. The town has some barely covered viscera and blood from the attack the night before. The crowmen burn people alive. They feed on innards. “The attack is as violent and damaging as it can be for the townsfolk.” That’s pretty nice. Good advice for the DM to convey a mood.

But … when I look at this my reactions is that it’s a combination of hipster story-game adventure and some Pathfinder adventure. And I can’t point to ANYTHING that makes me think that. It doesn’t click, or resonate. The descriptions might feel flat? I don’t know.

Here’s one for a certain room: “This chamber is covered in niches with burning red candles. Bits of viscera cover the floor and rusting iron chains hang from the ceiling with half-eaten cadavers hanging on blood- soaked hooks.” That’s one of the better descriptions, and I’m not sure I would characterize it as sanitized … but it also doesn’t come off as … I care about?

I don’t know what the fuck it wrong.

I DO know that other bots are misses. The DM is advised to have the characters arrive in town at dusk and if not then fuck with them with attacks, horses running off, etc, until they do arrive at dusk. And that’s not for any real reason that I can tell. Yeah, the first attack happens at night, but … so? There’s viscera over town, people are cleaning up, but there’s no advice on what they relate and so on … which would seem to be a natural question if you walked in to town and saw a bunch of blood being cleaned up all over the place. The actual night attack in town doesn’t happen until page 18, so the adventure can get a bit long in tooth in relating irrelevant things. The town map is not helpful, separating the key from the map, and the town entries are not in any kind of order I can detect … just a rando list of place names to dig through to find something. And some rooms go on WAY too long, like the one with the exhaustive list of what two dead adventurers are carrying.

But the main issue is that fucking text. I don’t know. Font, background images, spacing and margins … it all points to something too interested in itself. But that’s not something that impacts the text. It actually gives decent advice in places, like an order of battle for how the crowmen react to incursions.

Here’s another bit of text: “A three-day old, disembowelled human female corpse lies here caked in blood and bits of guts. This is a Wychington villager that was dragged down here as a later meal.” What a fun introduction to a new location!

Maybe they feel abstracted, or disconnected from the rest of the text?

You know, it feels flat. Even with the more colorful descriptions. Flat in the way that Barrowmaze sequel, Spider Caves? felt flat. Or maybe it doesn’t feel cohesive?

So, look, it’s probably a fine adventure. I’m probably just off today. Maybe.

I have no idea what to think about this. It has parts that seem cool … but it just doesn’t click for me. At $5, with no preview, it’s kind of much to take a chance on. If you’re rolling in cash, buy it and tell me whats wrong with it. My eyes glaze over.

This is $5 on DriveThru. The preview is broken.

Posted in Reviews | 11 Comments