Dungeon Magazine #38

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Note my new feature, in which I try to find something worth stealing for your own game in every adventure!

A Blight on the Land
Richard Green
AD&D
Levels 8-12

Monsters are attacking a village and people are starving. You’re called in to help. Wizards in a ruined keep have planted monster summoning disks throughout the land. Kill the wizards in their manor home, go fight the monsters and destroy the disks. The scenery in this one isn’t so bad. The land is just out of monarchy and, facing desperation caused by hunger, is about to elect a new official. There are a lot of throw-off descriptions of electioneering which can provide a great backdrop to the adventure if sprinkled liberally throughout. Frankly, the adventure could have used a lot more of this. The rumors are not bad but the 32 room “Wizard Manor/Hideout” could have used A LOT more beefing up. There’s a lot of useless descriptions of things not important to the adventure and then little to make it memorable. In particular, how the manor reacts to intrusion is missing. This sort of thing should ALWAYS be present with intelligent opponents. Inside the manor you find a map to the monster summoning devices, and by using it you dig them all up, defeating monsters along the way. When you get back to town you discover that he guy behind it all was just elected to be in charge. You confront him and he leaps over the table to single handedly fight each and every one of you … and the village mob? That doesn’t seem right for someone who’s described as a cunning schemer. This sort of adventure is fairly typical for Dungeon. One good idea that is surrounded by mountains of text and irrelevant detail, with no interesting treasure or imaginative magic items or encounters. The electioneering thing is well worth stealing though.

Things That Go Bump In The Night
Rich Stump
AD&D
Levels 3-6

Kipper the Dog, the Adventure! This is an absurd number of pages, 22?, for a non-adventure. Elves in forest hear scary noises coming from a taboo place. Go there to find some friendly firbolg, tearing the taboo place down. They’ll stop if you kick out the witch Lady Ugly. She’s actually a friendly drow who’s made friends with a lot of the forest creatures, including The Black Unicorn. But the truants and galen dur don’t know that. It contains one of my all-time favorite examples of how to not write a room description:

5a. Old Animal Pen
This area, defined by the eight stake holes shown on the map, was used as a holding are for horses and animals that would ventrally end up in the goblins’ stewpot. The wooden pen has long since rotted away. Adventurers finding the holes can only guess at their original purpose.

Fucking seriously? Not just what is used to be, but how it was used before you tell us it’s all irrelevant? The entire adventure is like this. There are THREE pages of backstory and history that will NEVER come up in play. It’s CrAzY! MOUNTAINS and PAGES of text about the elves, which serve only as a hook. On the plus side a couple of the magic items are slightly above the usual dreck. A ring which acts like a broach of shielding and a scepter that acts like a staff of withering. Yes, that’s what passes for “above average” in magic item descriptions from Dungeon.

Pandora’s Apprentice
Leonard Wilson
AD&D
Levels 8-12

This is a very short adventure, meant to frustrate the players. Do your players like to be frustrated on purpose? Mine don’t. A little girls steals a magic item from a PC and runs away in to a six room tower. Inside there are a bunch of doors that act like a phase door, a couple of cursed items in one room, and a few things like that. It’s supposed to play out like Home Alone., except there’s not nearly enough in the tower to support that style. You’re supposed to capture her and free her from a curse. I’d just kill her, but, hey, that’s me.

Horror’s Harvest
Christopher Perkins
Ravenloft
Levels 8-12

Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Ravenloft style. You’re hired to retrieve a meteorite and end up in a village with friendly people (pod people) and paranoid villagers … some with a secret or two in their closets. This adventure is trying to do the right thing but, perhaps, struggling through the format popular at the time. It recognizes the importance of the NPC’s in the village and how the adventure will revolve around them, giving a little stat summary sheet to refer to. The text of the adventure also lists how those villagers feel about other villagers and how they interact with them and what they have to stay about them. That is GREAT. A good social adventure thrives on the interpersonal relationships among the NPC’s in order to come alive. This tries real hard to do that, although it’s still going to take a lot of reading, highlighting, and note taking to run it that way. The adventure relies on one key thing: getting the mayor to tell you where he buried the meteorite. And he’s bats hit crazy insane AND has magic items to keep you from taking a shortcut. This is a rough one for me to recommend. It has good advice on running the pod people, and good advice on running the villagers, and good rumors integrated in. It’s just going to take a solid session of photo-copying the thing and transcribing notes in order to get it in to a position to play it easily. That’s a lot of prep work … I think you could get a really nice adventure out of it though. The NPC’s are strong in this one. If I were to every find the time to rewrite some Dungeon adventures to improve them with modern day formatting, this is one of the ones I would select.

It did strike me though that, in the context of 5e, the standard spell list should be closer to a ravenloft style one, with more ambiguity in good/evil detection, lies, and other magic that skips parts of the adventure, like commune, teleport, passwall, stone to mud, and so on. These things are troublesome for a style that emphasizes plot. The standard spell list would be great for a more OSR style 5E game that relied on the meta aspect of those spells to solve dungeoneering problems. And it would shut me up about bitching about “the tombs walls are immune to passwall.”

Bryce’s Standard Hook Advice: Every time you read “adventurer”, replace it with “mercenary” or “mercenary scum”, as your campaign dictates. Things make a lot more sense that way and give you a radically different vibe.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 1 Comment

FT0 – Prince Charming, Reanimator

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By Daniel J. Bishop
Purple Duck Games
DCC
Level 0 funnel

Prince Hubert Charming, son of the Baron of Westlake, and heir to Westlake Manor, is well known as a cold man, whose watery blue eyes seem to betray no emotion at all. Yet he is a great lover of beauty, as all his wives have proven. The first he found working in the cinders of a woodsman’s cottage. Some say that the girl’s jealous stepsisters threw her down a well to prevent her from becoming the young prince’s bride, but even death did not bar Prince Charming, and she enchanted everyone at the wedding. Her stepsisters were placed in spiked barrels filled with hot coals and dragged through the town until they themselves died.

This funnel is a jaunt through a ruined castle under the curse from a fairy tale … on pain of death! There have been rumors of field hockey … errr, I mean, of Prince Charming’s peculiar tastes in brides. Now Charming and his men have rounded up a group of villagers and he’s sending them in to a ruined castle in the Grimmswood to search for the rumored Princess beauty, who is sleeping therein. Thus starts our 0-level mob! The background here is quite Charming (:)) The designer does a pretty good job of weaving in the fairy tale element in the backstory and in alluding to it throughout the adventure. I don’t mention art often, but in this the negative style marries perfectly with the imagery in the text to provide a wonderfully evocative feeling of the strangeness present in fairy tales.

The adventure starts fairly strong with a rose-vine obstacle and a wizards lab. The roses fit in well and the wizards lab is straight out of the best OD&D adventures: weird, strange, and not of the standard rulebook. The wizards lab is full of weird stuff to play with. Glass eggs shows scenes of the deserts of mars, pickled frogs in various stages of life, a three-headed imp in a bottle, and a complete collection of Black Sabbath albums, among the other goodies. They all come at a hefty price though, although the spirit of the wizard does show up to impact gifts. The roses are a different matter. They are essentially an obstacle. You can take an alternate entrance or suffer their wrath and take the hit they impose.

Most of the rest of the adventure does not rise to this level. The stables, the courtyard, the kitties … these are all classic locations that scream out for life, and instead are given more of a throw-away encounter nature. Empty, with nothing interesting to explore, or in the case of the kitchen just full of a generic monster. The monster proper is interesting but it doesn’t marry well with the environment. You’ve got a great ability to invoke many classic elements with hearths, giant pots, cleavers, cheese, and all the rest from the vast fairy-tal milieu, and instead you choose a giant bug … and nothing else to interact with in the kitchen. This occurs presently in the adventure. When it tries to do something interesting it generally succeeds, but it doesn’t do that often enough. The rose dragon and the spinning wheel marry well with the vibe. The sleeping maidens have this mystical otherworldly vibe going on, exactly what you’d expect in a fey & fairy-tale sort of adventure. The rose dragon may be a decent example of the issues. It’s got a great set up: a mound of freshly cut roses three feet high, the scent fresh & strong! And that’s it. No other imagery or marriage of the creature to environment or even theme to the creatures abilities. It’s a half measure. The rose dragon deserved more.

There are some decent magic items in this adventure. There’s a golden orb that can answer three yes-or-no questions a day. That’s a great little item and it fits in well to the fairy tale theme. The other items tend to be more mechanical, and thus weaker. A shield that negates a crit, or a holy symbol that gives a bonus? A +1 sword that detects chaos? I rebel against these mechanistic monstrosities. The orb seems to have it origins in “this would be cool” and then the mechanics folio. The other items seem to have their origins in mechanics with a strained idea following. Yes, I realize that’s how most items are done in most adventures, but that doesn’t make it right. An idea, or effect, is much more powerful than a mechanic. The whole thing also full of generic jewelry treasure, which is more than little lame. Give it some thought and some detail Make it wonderful! That’s what we’re paying for, Wonder!

The primary baddies are the Hobyahs, which originate from a 1894 fairy tale book. They are given a weird little description .. And not weird in a good way, and then there’s this sudden emphasis on how they react to dogs. That comes from the fairy tale, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a funnel character with a dog. If it’s possible it certainly doesn’t warrant all the emphasis the adventure gives. Perhaps expanding it to ALL animals would help. The descriptions are a little weak also. The primary description is “The hobyahs are fey goblin-like things, a quarter the size of men, and seemingly a mixture of human- oids and black fish.” That’s a pretty good start, but it doesn’t really go anywhere with it, just like with the rose dragon. The adventure needs more flavor and imagery, especially for these, the primary villains.

I really really want to like this. I like the premise, I like the wizards lair, I like the heavy rose thumbing (even if the read-aloud doesn’t really do a good job of selling it. I want more “cloying smell of roses” and less generic room description bullshit. The Hobyah have potential and the adventure ends well … its just has a very weak middle and makes only half efforts at supporting the DM in the encounters. If you going to have read-out it needs to SELL the room; painting a very strong picture. Be Awesome! Not mundane. Especially in DCC. I’m on the fence with this one, probably because of the my love of fairy tales and fey. If you’ve got a strong attraction to those elements then I would encourage you to check this out. If you’re not so strong I would pass … this thing needs some … support? During play. Yes, A certain amount of that s a DM’s job, but the adventure must inspire the DM to that and this adventure, while having a good handful of ideas, doesn’t really do enough to support them.

Posted in Reviews | 13 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #37

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I’ve been sick, work has picked way up, I’ve had a super busy personal life. But those are all excuses. The reality of the situation is that reviewing Dungeon Magazine sucks the soul out of you. Even when they don’t to ally suck, like with with issue.

Serpents of the Sands
By John DiCocco
AD&D
Levels 6-10

This is a decent little dungeon crawl with a little wilderness table surrounded by one of the most god-aweful and implausible rube goldberg setups that alone drain any enthusiasm for it. It amounts to: somebody stole/killed some thing/one, go get it. And the “somebody” turn out to be yuan-ti. After the soul sucking BULLSHIT os over the actual adventure is better than Ok. The wandering monster table is a nice one, with things like “you step on a sandling” and “dervishes looking for a ruin” and “nomads who trade with you.” There are a few “attack on sight” encounters and many more that have just a bit more to them. That extra bit, usually just a single short sentence, adds a wonderful variety to what otherwise could have been yet another generic desert dreck-fest. The dungeon entrance (which is really the first couple of levels) is mostly linear with A LOT of secret doors that you to find to keep playing. I’ve never quite liked that; secrets should lead to a reward and not be work required to be done in order to go have fun. Anyway, the real level has decent amount of looping corridor variety, especially for a level with only 15 or so rooms. It works and fits together well and provides some decent variety. There’s some decent descriptive text that serves to inspire: manacles turned left to open a secret door and poison needles shooting out of skull eye sockets. It goes off the deep-end in places with history & ecology and could use a good pruning down, but it’s much better than it’s introduction would lead one to believe.

A Wizard’s Fate
Cristopher Perkins
AD&D
Levels 1-3

This feels more like a D&D adventure than an AD&D adventure … and that’s a compliment. An evil wizard has disappeared … and so has the local girl he was courting. Inside the tower you’ll find a small 11 room dungeon that pairs with the three or so outside encounters around the tower. Inside is the usual assortment: skeletons, spiders, a “guardian” or two, and an imp … who is behind all the trouble. You wander around a non-complicated dungeon layout and find clues/key to get through a special door. This has a decent little vibe to it, although it seems a bit simplistic. The treasure, for example, is help in magical floating spheres, and a skeleton has a key lodged in its ribcage. It’s not a strong adventure, but it is strongER than many of the others in Dungeon. You could dump this in almost anywhere in a hex campaign and just up the monster HD to make it fit as a kind of mini-encounter in a hex crawl.

The White Boar of Kilfay
Willie Walsh
AD&D
Levels 3-7

This has a mild Celtic vibe to it. It’s a hunt for a mysterious killer white boar that both the kings of men and elves want dead. It ends up as a kind of mini-dungeon crawl trough a forest and then a wizards tower/keep before the board shows up, turns out to be good, and kills the bad guy it was looking for. The white boar runs out of the forest, chased y wild elves, and in to the hunting party of the kings son. The son dies as does one of the important elves. The king sends the party to kill the boar, and the elves stop them and ask them to do the same, escorting them to the evil part of the wood. There the party follows the path, has a some adventures, and finds a ruined evil keep. Turns out the boar was there also, killing goblins, henchmen, and the evil mage. There’s a mild mythic/fairy tale vibe going on here that I generally like, although it is quite mild in this adventure. The goblins and wilderness encounters are handled nicely, with the goblins having only one man let, a coward, and a bossy chiefs wife and they are all holed up in one room. As with the previous two adventures, the quality level here is much higher in terms of evocative test and interesting things going on that a DM can work with. The adventure, especially the end, is more than a little slow once you get out of the forest. The ruined keep needs more to keep the suspense going or else the players attention is likely to wander.

Their Master’s Voice
Roger Baker
AD&D
Levels 2-4

A side-trek featuring two trained leucrotta. They lure you out an attack. I guess dungeon needed filler and couldn’t afford comics?

The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb
Mike Shel
AD&D
Levels 10-14

Widely regarded as one of the best Dungeon published. This is a Tomb of Horrors style adventure without some of the arbitrary nature of ToH and with some of the “hidden depth” that makes exploration worthwhile. There’s something like three pages of introduction and background before the 36 room dungeon is launched in to. Linear doesn’t quite describe it, but perhaps “linear with some dead ends” does … just as ToH did but on a slightly larger scale. The actual encounters though meet or far exceed throne in ToH. Many of them smack of the classics. The very first encounter is illustrative: three words in ruins carved in the door: Errukiz, Ezdrubal, Elomcwe. Dwarven for the Three Sins of Ruin “Treachery, Sloth, Foolishness.” Except the last one is actually buttons and you can press them in order to spell “Welcome.” THIS. A thousand times THIS. That’s what I’m looking for. It’s simple, it fits in, it’s short-ish (for Dungeon anyway) and it appeals to classic elements of play. Walls covered in eyes cry acid tears. Hill giant mummies lay DORMANT until their sarcophagi are looted. How great is that? They don’t attack on sight! There’s a green devil face you can shrink yourself to get past by crawling through a nostril … it goes on and on like this. It makes sense. I’m not a big fan of things making sense, generally, but in this case it’s all different. This is going to sound crazy, but … it’s like the designer thought up a dungeon AND THEN went back and filled in some mechanics. Oh joy! The vibe here is not “how can I force my mechanics to fit the situation” but rather one of “here’s a cool thing, and here’s the mechanics I added.” This has good thumbing and nice tricks & traps with some decent imagery at times. Everything you need to have a good time. Another good example are some of the monsters. In one room there’s a section of clay floor. If you pour water on it a figure struggles to get out … an emaciated human with the head of a fanged pig. It’s a clay golem! … But the party has to figure that out for themselves! This is PERFECT. It evokes the EXACT vibe that I want out of a monster. It’s integrated in, it isn’t given away to the players but the clues are there. That’s great stuff! The monster integrates perfectly in to the room, in much the way that some of the creatures in Many Gates of the Gann did, or the devils in the Her Dark Majesty series. This adventure is well worth checking out.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 2 Comments

[5e] – 23 players, 12 hours – The Lost Mine of Phandelver

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Five hours ago we finished up a 12-hour D&D 5e meet up event with 23 players during which we played through the Lost Mine of Phandelver. This has some details about 5e, the module, the events, and some AP “Let me tell you about my character” fun.

[5e]
After 12 hours of AP, I’m not yet sold on 5e. I don’t know if it’s specific to the rules in the Starter Set (I haven’t read the Basic PDF yet) or if something else is going on. I try REALLY hard not to fall in to Old Man Syndrome and be open to new things … I’m kind of hoping that I’m just not in to the new vibe yet. I like the Adv/Dis system a lot as a simple mechanic that doesn’t get in the way of the fun. The Clerical Turning stuff seems a bit wonky: once a day, only one creature(?) and one minute? Maybe I got the rules wrong. There was a little confusion when casting spells about bonuses … when to add in the proficiency bonus and when to add in the stat bonus, especially for the cleric. The thief Sneak Attack When Next to Someone thing seemed a little too “DPS” for me when I was reviewing the character sheets. In practice it kind of worked out ok, but I’d say that mostly because most of us at my table were not too clear about when things got sneak attack. Grappling, from the BASIC PDF, seemed really powerful. I panicked momentarily during the game when I thought the aristo-fighter was going to turn to using it over and over again. In the end they used it mostly to take a couple of prisoners of human bandits. The traditional thief ability of search, open, disable, climb, seemed a little confusing also. This may have been expectations perhaps? Maybe I was expecting them to work a certain way “roll your open locks check” and they don’t work that way anymore. Similarly, I think I was surprised by how many spells didn’t seem to allow a save. Sleep seemed to be a good example. I’m not sure how much of this 5e confusion is us misunderstanding the rules from the first play, wonkiness from the way the Starter Set presents things (with rules in the Rules, Character Sheets, and adventure) or expectations getting the way. I think the HD healing worked fine. Damage output from the monsters seemed high and yet only 1 of the 22 characters died. I’ve been playing 0e/BASIC for a couple of years now so the fast advancement of the first two levels seemed … weird? I get what they are trying to do but what happens, it seems, is that your “first level character” (at second to third level) has a shit ton of HP. I’m not sure if the murderhobo mood I’ve been in clashes with that more heroic high-HP style or what. It just still seems hard to kill someone. Maybe the adventure was bad with the CR’s and threw a bunch of lightweight stuff at the party? 1/4 CR goblins do not a challenge make! The lack of monster descriptions, in particular good, evocative ones, was, as I suspected, felt, by me as I ran the game. Further, a lot of what description there is focuses on attitude (they are cruel and cunning) rather than appearance. I have no idea what a Nothic is. The picture helped, but several didn’t have pictures OR descriptions. It should be obvious by now how I feel about a DM product that doesn’t actually help the DM run it …

You’ll note some of my thinking is around power levels. I think I’m still feeling the wounds of monstrously long 3e & 4e combats, and perhaps the mechanistic approach of the published 4e rules & scenarios. In the last few years this has pulled me back to the opposite extreme of 0e power levels in which things are fast & deadly and combat is no longer the entire focus of the adventure, explicitly or implicitly. Now that the power levels are ramping up again, with more HP and more fast early “apprentice” levels, and more damage, I’m getting a knee-jerk worry about the ramp up and visions of the 3e/4e arms race. I’m trying to keep this in perspective and give 5e a chance, but the previous wounds are deep. Yes, combat went fast. At first, second, third level. This is not an OSR game. This is a new, Something Else game, inspired by many sources, including the OSR. I’m trying to keep an open mind and may be just worrying too much.

As a transition between 5e and the adventure, I want to hit the Magic Item things I touched on in my review of Phandelver. Update: I fucking hate the wands & staves. “Anyone can use them” combined with “it recharges a bunch of charges each day” is fucking bullshit. I’m willing to take the “Get off my lawn” hit here … that they create a lame ass vibe. You’re getting something like 6-10 castings A DAY from the things because of the recharge, with a 5% chance of nuking the device? BS. This waters down the magical feeling that magic items should provide. They should be a thing of wonder, not the BS mechanical wonder that the staves and wands are. It’s totally fucking lame. If I had to change one thing about 5e that would be it. I know, it sounds petty, but it’s the kind of magical arms race and “taking magic for granted” shit that I LOATHE. I’ll forgive the “sip a potion” rules and the” think abut your item to ID it” shit, but not the infinite charge crap. The whole situation smells of the 4e magic item situation. Shit needs to change. Of the two staves (Defense & Spider) the Spider staff is FAR better. They both get a decent description from the Defense staff is purely mechanical: it lets you cast a shit-ton of Mage Armor and Shields. The Spider staff allows you to cast the Spider Climb spell and Web. Spider Climb is an EXCELLENT spell. It opens up all sorts of new opportunities for the characters to get in to the sorts of zany plans and stuff that I love D&D for. It FEELS like magic and opens up new opportunities for play. Web does so also, but to a much lesser degree. Shield & Mage Armor are just boring bullshit. Fuck you and your min/maxing! I love the augury statue as much in AP as I did when I read about it.

[Phandelver]
Almost nothing but good things to say about this adventure after 12 hours of actual play. I’ve covered the magic item and monster criticisms already. I wish the town was a little more ‘alive.’ I ended up running it like Deadwood, from the Tv series, with Sildar showing up turning things around, kind of like the Sheriff does when he finally takes up the badge in the series. Lots and lots of stuff to do in town. Two of tables did EVERYTHING in town. The final dungeon doesn’t quite communicate the “dividing line” between the undead and the invaders. The barricaded bugbear room does this, but the entire vibe is something that could have been better communicated; that’s the kind of thing that a good murderhobo exploits. I really like how some of the newer, and better, WOTC stuff is rewarding exploration. If you climb up the rubble pile, or look under it, or go down in to the crevasse then you find an extra bit of loot. Careful play is rewarded. The wandering monsters still seem like an afterthought, both in the wilderness and the dungeon. They don’t do anything productive. And no, they do not add realism and depth, at least not in a good way. They need more personality and/or need to be used to stop the wizards from doing a 5-minute day thing (which the two at my table were pushing for a lot after blowing their loads in the first combat of the day.) Anyway, the highest praise I can offer is that on of the players is a DM for a big Call of Cthulhu group that runs games at Origins & GenCon. He gave it high praise for having some depth to it. I agree. It manages to offer story without a railroad. Very nice. Also, as I suspected, NONE of the tables really ended up being heroic. Experienced D&D players, not forced to be heroic, pay lip service to the idea and then do whatever they want. This included one table taking over the red cloaks operation. Oh D&D, how I love thee!

I repeat my statements that the adventure needed a separate tear sheet for monsters. I ended up cutting out the last, monster, section of the adventure and stapling it together so I could refer to it during the game. I also found some .jpg images of all of the adventure maps and printed those out so I could have the appropriate one on my screen to refer to. Both of these help the adventure move a lot faster. The lack of this shows a real gap in how the adventure is published. While they’ve developed a fine adventure they have not provided the tools the DM needs to run it. And no, jackass, that’s not the DM’s job. That’s why the DM bought the adventure, so it wouldn’t be his job. This is almost a Usability type issue. By publishing the monsters, maps, and other important factoids in the back they could at least be cut out and then used as reference during the game. I ended up making my own town reference, with the name of each place, who was there, and the defining vibe of the place & person. I’ve the read the adventure, I just need cues from my reference sheet in order to run it now. I find it hard to believe that the play testers didn’t do the same thing. I suspect no one watched the plaiters to see how they were actually USING the product.

The pregens were excellent. They contain the leveling data right on the sheet, as I predicted they would, and their backgrounds and hooks fit each character quite well. Everyone found it very easy to slip in to their role after a brief read and I don’t THINK anyone felt phoned-in. Maybe the cleric seemed to have the weakest? The rogue, however, was clearly the best. His whole ‘revenge’ thing was a great hook.

I’m kind of happy that, after a long absence, I will be finally able to buy product from WOTC again to use with 5e, or an an older edition.

[Meetup]
This was the second half of our Welcome Back festivities for D&D. Last weekend we had a totally juvenile and wonderfully fun bonfire where we sent off the last edition. About 40 people showed up to drink, smoke, swap stories, shoot roman candles, and act like asshats. Yesterday was part 2. We hosted a meet up with 23 players and three tables and played through the 5e starter set adventure for 12 hours straight. We has about 26 players signed up and we’re prepared to run 5 tables. In the end about 23 people showed up. This is an AMAZING conversion rate for meet up. It’s been my experience that you can get A LOT more RSVP’s for an event that people who actually show. Having attended an event before seems to raise the probability that someone will show, as will charging for an event. This seems a little counter-intuitive, however I suspect that people either take clicking on the YES button more seriously when they see a cover charge or they take showing up more seriously. We charged $10/head and provided a bunch of soda, snacks, hot dogs for lunch, and pizza for dinner. Let me note that the hot dog roller and large popcorn maker are two of the best purchases we have made; trotting them out during large/long meet ups saves A LOT of hassle. We started up the industrial percolator at 8am and at 9am, the start time, already had about 20 people at the house. We started out with three tables of five and a table of four in the sunroom, dining room, living room and basement/hobby room. After a couple of hours one of the DM’s had to leave so we added one more person to two tables and put the others at one table in the basement. I think things worked out fairly well. The sunroom AC doesn’t kick on as often as it should, but other than that things went well. I tried to run the rules RAW because I assumed people wanted to get to know the new rules, and ran the adventure pretty loosely. All of the tables seemed to have great time. We had a good mix of older (40-ish/50-ish) players and younger (20-ish) players who all seemed to get along ok as far as I could tell. Time seemed to fly by, with my teen son saying “Gee dad, It seemed like only 2 hours has gone by.” More than one person expressed a sentiment to the effect of “I fucking love D&D!” When we were all hanging out after swapping stories everyone seemed to have a great time. I am now absolutely shredded, hoarse, bone tired from standing and keeping up high energy for 12 hours, and yet wired from the 2-liters of Mellow Yellow. Sunday is gonna be rough. My table ‘finished’ and the two other tables finished chapter 2 at the end of the 12 hours.

[Let Me Tell You About My Character]
At the end my group had developed Shock & Awe strategy. They would stack up at a door, cantrip it to slam it open, and then RUSH the room killing everything they saw. If there had been a pit/trap/etc they would have been totally screwed but it ended up working out for them. The free Surprise round they got was generally used to great effect. It was a nice Swat Team feel to entering rooms. And kept the pace up.

They ended up doing this to the Big Bad at the end. The wizard got init and dropped a fireball from scroll as soon as he heard the word “Drow.” Hilled him and 1 bodyguard, the party got init the next round, and finished off the other drow and the other bodyguard before any of them got to act.

The goblins at the ambush crit’d their stealth rolls. Two were hiding INSIDE the horse and burst out for surprise! And rolled 1’s. Covered in gore, they could not see who they were supposed to attack.

Then ended up killing the town master and chucked his dead body in the cell with the two red cloaks they captured. Oops. This was after the got a writ from Silgar appointing them Sheriff and the town master accused them of disrupting a peaceful group of red cloaks on the way to their morning Pinochle game.

The Sherif/aristo-fighter gave a rousing speech after to rally the townsfolk against the red cloaks. He got the brother in law and neighbor of one of the cloaks latest victims to join up with the party. The neighbor fell in the pit and died just as we got our sixth PC from the split up table. She ended up playing Hanzel, the brother. Who almost immediately found his sister-in-law, niece & nephew in the cloaks cells! [In retrospect, I should have given each player a DCC mob to play. That would have been a better reward and more fun.]

They left their inn in the morning to go to the manor and were jumped by four red cloaks, up late. They blew their spell loads and went back to bed after the Mayor incident. Shortest 5 minute work day ever. The red cloaks ended up setting the roadhouse on fire that night as revenge.

The guy who was the Sherif kept yelling “we have to take them alive and bring them back for justice!”, which would then inevitably be followed by copious mass murder.

They gave the beaten/captured dwarves pillowcases to wear, after they tore out head and armholes. It was funny at the time.

My table CONSISTENTLY went straight to the bad guys. Entered the back door Cragmaw and killed the king fast, made all the right turns in Wave Echo and went straight to the Big Bad room. Skipped through most of the town adventure and the chapter 3 stuff, only visiting Agatha. I pushed hard after Cragmaw to get them to Wave Echo, otherwise, they pretty much did complete the adventure in 12 hours without things feeling rushed or Fucking Around being sacrificed. There was much screwing around at my tie and a leisurely pace. They just made almost all the right decisions to zoom through.

They almost got TPK’d when the skull dropped a firewall on them in an enclosed space. The front bodies corked the passage and the rear folk pulled them out by their feet and got them after their second failed save. Our table finished up right after, as they went in to the smelter and the ghouls rushed in. The cleric didn’t recognize them as ghouls (I just described them) and we faded to black as he went down and the rogue was surrounded on the floor. 9pm had come and the DM was ready to DIE from exhaustion.

There were many many may more mementos of the kind of fun that only D&D can provide, and which always sound lame when told to someone who wasn’t there.

D&D is back! Hail to the king baby!

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B2 – The Twice-Robbed Tomb

b2
By Perry Fehr
Purple Duck Games
Labyrinth Lord
3rd Level

The domination of Pheniket the Pharaonic ended nearly two centuries ago, but stories of his ruthless ambition still haunt the region. An intruder from a sandy land to the south, with strange gods and customs, Pheniket tried to establish a colony of one in the land, and nearly succeeded. Those that followed his power did so zealously, and seemed even to love the enigmatic tyrant. His strength came from arcane pacts forbidden in his homeland, that enabled him to cause his enemies to disappear, and gave him vast knowledge. Legends wax and wane, and 150 years later, intrepid treasure hunters came to the settlement nearest Pheniket’s palace and announced that they had uncovered the Pharaonic’s tomb. They looted it, with some opposition (some animated dead, a few poorly constructed golems) and came back with an armload of magic weapons, armor, and Pheniket’s grave goods. Minor prosperity hit the area for a time, not appreciated by all. Those that knew the now-deceased tomb-robbers well also know that there was part of the tomb that could not be accessed by the original discoverers, who were happy to leave with what they had, as a feeling of dark foreboding saturated that forgotten place, a malevolent presence guarding the true prize in Pheniket’s resting place.

A decent little adventure suitable for a single nights gaming. It is right on the verge of being truly good … which means it’s better than the vast majority of product being published.

This is a short, and decent, little adventure through a tomb that has already been looted. You pick up a key, map, and rumors in town and then off to a dungeon that is nearly completely looted. Except …. Admiral Akbar Meme! You are actually being lured to the dungeon. This is not a trope that I’m particularly fond of. It generally shows up as the boss testing you to see if you’re worthy or some other such nonsense. This time it’s a bit different: you’re being lured because you’re food … food that carries loot! For the tomb is now home to a succubus and her ghoul followers. This, as a background, is actually something I could get behind. It’s not exactly handled extensively at all in the adventure, and a few more words about it would have been appreciated.Signs of other parties, countryside disappearances, etc. This is a people-trap and I wish it would have FELT more like a people trap. I’m not talking about a literal cage, but rather the machinations of the succubus. At third level this may be on the first of this type encountered and it feels like it should be more than the throw-away encounter it is. It feels like a collection of stats from a book, just another monster, instead of a Creature of Evil.

The tomb complex isn’t bad. There ARE a couple of clues about, fresh bones and the like. There are weird things, like a still beating heart in a can optic jar. There are even WEIRDER things, like a portal to another (weird) dimension. The final room shows some chops, with weird pillars coursing with evil energy, a large pool of unholy water, and hot chick with ghouls sobbing at her feet … [Aside: “I kill it” Nothing good ever comes from someone who looks innocent who’s hanging out in a dungeon. You want to talk to monsters? Look for someone who looks evil. You find someone who looks good? Kill them. It’s a risk mitigation thing.] The ghouls react in an interesting way, getting drawn to fresh blood/carrion, and that comes in effect several times in the adventure. A smart part might take advantage of it.

This short adventure is a weird thing. It’s got a decent, and logical setup. Things will make sense, hints are relevant, and so on. It’s even got a decent number of little things of interest in it. Overall I’m going to take exception with maybe three things. First is the Succubus and “get another monster” syndrome. The second s the descriptions of the monsters. There are not any, or at least any that are strong. We get “12 ghouls” instead of a good description of a ghoul. This sort of meta really drags players out of a vibe. Providing guidelines on describing your monsters should be standard fair. Similarly, the magic items are boring. +1 shield. + 1 sword,, displacer cloak. There’s nothing interesting about those things. A skin of a displacer beast, with glassy blacker-than-black eyes? That’s interesting. It is the role of the designer to provide these sorts of things to the DM. The designers job is to help provide the ‘punch’ to the adventure. Yes, the local DM must bring it to life, but the designer must INSPIRE the local DM to bring it to life. Otherwise, what value do you offer that a random generator can’t?

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Dungeon Magazine #36

d36

Asflag’s Unintentional Emporium
By Willie Walsh
AD&D
Levels 3-7

Time to clean out the rats in the old woman’s cellar, except this time the old woman is a dead wizard and the cellar is his tower in the middle of the city. I’m not a fan of ‘joke’ adventures, although I do like humor in adventures and I LOVE the absurd, especially when it comes to wizards. Willie Walsh gets close on this one to delivering a fine adventure. His descriptions of the wizards tower and environs and history get REALLY close to that kind of OD&D non-standard wizard archetype that I adore. It’s got a nice Discworld Unseen University vibe; this kind of mix of the academic and the absurd. He’s got a decent environment but it comes off as very one note. Only one or two of the creatures in the tower will talk to you, and there are A LOT of creatures, so it devolves in to a monster hunt where you open a door, kill the monster, and move on. Further, while several of the monsters are nicely located (water weirds in fountains, cifal’s in beehives, the brass snakes that make up the chandelier animate, the tools in the garden shed animate, etc) there’s not a lot of THE FANTASTIC apart from this. The ability to explore and play with weird things and, for the most part, detect the garden tools early, is missing. I like Willie’s background, and the NPC wizards, and many of the monster encounters … but it’s just a monster hack-fest. In the Ed Greenwood adventure I reviewers awhile back (Eliminsters backdoor?) you got to go in to rooms and look at weird things but could not interact with anything, turning you in to a tourist. In this adventure you go in to rooms and a monster appropriate to the locale appears for you to kill. Neither capitalize on the wonder of a wizards tower and deliver it to the party. In this regard, S3 was a better Wizards’s Tower adventure than these two.

Troll Bridge
By William S. Dean
AD&D
Levels 2-4

This is a short little encounter. There’s a bridge. It’s got a troll under it. The troll is actually a renegade gnome thief/illusionist. He makes the spectral forces troll retreat to a hidey hole and ambushes the party there. It’s decent, I guess, but I can’t help thinking that an actual troll under the bridge would have presented more interesting opportunities. Oh, look, a monster isn’t actually a monster but something else … geee, haven’t seen that in a D&D adventure before …

Granite Mountain Prison
By Roger Baker
AD&D
Levels 4-6

This is a rescue caper. A fantasy prison is described and the party is given the mission to rescue one person. You come across some supposedly beautiful city, only to fine burnt out buildings and broken street barricades. The local government is totalitarian and the rebel leader just got tossed in jail. You get to go rescue him, because GOOD. The prison has 36 or so locations, and then the 365 cell blocks. It’s well described for the type of adventure it is. Guard schedules, where major NPC’s hang out, the routine of the prison, the response to attack, and so on. It’s also a little boring. There’s just not much to some featureless granite rooms. It’s also got that Magic Ren Faire vibe that I dislike. Decanters of Endless Water as a water source, permanent heat and chill metal spells, a captured air elemental to provide air flow, and so on. It’s need some extra zing to liven up its step. Some personalities for the dick guards, or maybe some random contents for the prisoners personal items, and/or a quick list of the other prisoners (instead of the random prisoner generator, which IS provided.) There was a one-page dungeon in 2013 that also dealt with a totalitarian state. These might pair up well together, maybe in a Midnight game? Anyway, it does a decent job at describing a PLACE for the party to invade/sneak through. I just wish Ir were more colorful. Yes, grey is a color, but cerulean is more interesting.

The Sea of Sorrow
By Steve Kurtz
!!SPELLJAMMER!!
Levels 7-9

I don’t know if I can review this well, so it may turn out to be a description rather than a review. It’s a dragon hunt, in space. While in a spaceport the party see a damaged hammership return to port. It had been in a part of space rumored to be cursed. The crew, however, discovered the truth: there’s an OLD radiant dragon preying on ships. You’re sent after it. There’s a cutoff system full of places to explore, lots of derelict ships to explore, a ghost ship, dragon flybys … it seems jam packed. It seems … large? Expansive? And seems to fit a Spelljammer vibe well. Places to explore, NPC races to interact with, and a nice … I don’t know, pirate vibe? Not pirate. But a kind of Wagon Train to the Stars vibe. It FEELS like you’re doing a kind of fantasy exploration to a strange place. Travelling from point to point and exploring and interacting. Spelljammer catches this vibe better than any other genre I know. Combined with the weird monster races and their penchant for trade and talking I think it provides a solid base for a D&D game. This one could use a bit of gonzo’ing up; it tries to provide some interesting situations but they come off as a bit mundane. The various locales could also use a few more hooks. You get some short little descriptions of various places but many of them could use a little more interactivity. This would be the difference between, say, Isle of the Unknown and Wilderlands. While Isle, and this adventure, provide just simple descriptive facts (there is a village here), Wilderlands would provide a hook (which is desperate for white buffalo hides.) This could use a little more Wilderlands hooks. Still, a great supplement if you’re running a Spelljammer game.

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[5e] – Lost Mine of Phandelver

5e

EDIT: For you new readers, I have VERY high standards. This adventure is one of the best to be published by WOTC in a LOOONNNNGGGGG time.

Are you seriously reading this review in order to figure out if you should buy 5e? Our long nightmare is over … D&D is back! Go buy it, play it, and enjoy!

The first segment of the adventure puts DMs through the basics of asking for checks and saving throws, as the characters venture into a goblin lair on a rescue mission. Once the adventurers have dealt with the goblins, they have free reign to explore the region around the village of Phandalin. Three more dungeons and five other adventure locations provide novice DMs with plenty of material to keep a campaign going for months.

This is the beginning adventure(s) from the D&D 5e starter set. D&D finally has it’s head (mostly) out of its ass in a set of adventures that provides a framework for the players to have fun in. This is not the “D&D turned up to 11” of some of the recent editions, but rather a solid 7, 8, or 9 that keeps delivering over and over and over again. It provides a pretty solid foundation from which a DM can build on, with a rough outline of action and some interesting, but not set-piece, encounters. It suffers more than little on the mechanistic way magic items are treated and in the lack of evocative descriptions … especially for monsters.Overall though this is a VERY solid adventure in the high-C/Low-B “Bryce has unrealistically high expectations” grading scale … even if “months of material” may be stretching things.

The adventure comes in four parts. The first is a small ambush and cave lair. It serves mainly as a hook. The second is a town. This serves mostly as home base with several quests that can be picked up. The third is an exploration of the region, driving by the quests in town, where several clues can be picked up as to … the fourth part: the Evil Bad Guy’s Lair. The adventure is written in a progressive rules learning style, with more rules presented inline with the adventure near the beginning and things flowing little more streamlined near the end. Embedded in the adventure is advice for the DM, most of whig is pretty decent. Things like “ham It up” and ‘don’t go on too long” and “let the players do what they want.”

This seems like a good time to cover something important. The starter set is intended for new players. New players will learn how to play D&D from this set. I believe VERY strongly that the tenor & tone of of an RPG derives mostly from the published adventures. The published adventure is what the masses will think is ‘normal’ or ‘how the game is played’ and thus the published adventure from the company has a vast opportunity to influence the direction of the game. If it involves 3 straight up combat encounters,no roleplaying, and a skill challenge, then people are going to play that way at home, published adventure or no. The RPGA and con games will do the same thing. If all you publish are dungeon crawls then people will think that’s what the game is about and play that way. These beginning adventures are important. Balanced against this is the very real fact that this is, essentially, a programmed exploration of the rules set for people who have never played before. Some things are going to be a bit clunky as the adventure holds your hand. I usually don’t give a shit, an adventure has to stand on its own merits. Im going to try and walk a finer line with this one, attempting to recognize and be generally ok with the hand-holding while still attempting to uphold standards of good adventure writing.

Part 1 – The most generic hook possible: you’re caravan guards
This was my introduction to this adventure. A cute little one column background that an entirely appropriate length followed by a couple of sentences explaining that the party are caravan guards. That hook was NOT a strong start. It recalls every crappy adventure ever written in which there was a throw-away line about the party being caravan guards. No details. You’re guards. Move along. Caravan guard is a classic trope. The classics got to be classics for a reason: when well done they are REALLY good. I recall an adventure in Dungeon Magazine in which the party were caravan guards. It included a short section that was a nice little realistic depiction of the duties during the day and what goes on the campfire at night and gave the (three?) merchants a personality and some wares to sell and they interacted with the PC’s, all described in a section that wasn’t overly long and used some strongly evocative language. This ain’t that. The whole purpose of the caravan guard thing is to put you on the road to the frontier town that will serve as the parties base … so you can be ambushed. Lame. LAME LAME LAME. Now, it turns, out, that the pre-gens all have some little hooks on their character sheets that motivate them to get involved in the adventure. Those hooks are pretty decent. The thief was part of the gang in town, they were framed and set up and now want revenge. There’s a do-gooder, a guy who has an ancestral tie to the land, and so on. These are pretty well done and should serve as some strong motivations to get to the town. The pre-text then, the caravan guard duty, is just the surrounding glue that motivates them to journey together at the same time. It is at this point I should disclose that I have DEEP scars about character motivations. I’ve seen them used to justify some pretty crappy PC behavior, all on the grounds of “that’s what my character would do.” This includes a player having their character sit out the ENTIRE adventure because ether character wouldn’t do that. I’m VERY suspicious of this stuff. In this case the written text seems to work well with the glue of the hook … EXCEPT FOR THE ELEPHANT, which I’ll talk about later.

So, goblins ambush you on the road. You chase them back to a cave, kill everything, take their stuff, rescue a dude, and continue on the way back to town, ending part 1. The purpose here is really to bind you to the town. There are looted caravan goods to return to the rightful owners. The dude to be rescued is moderately important in the town. There are other clues present that can bind you to the town and kick off that next part of the adventure. It’s very well constructed from this standpoint … EXCEPT FOR THE ELEPHANT. Things link together without shoving you down a railroad. It’s presented as things for you to explore, and secrets for you to uncover instead of GO TO POINT A AND THEN POINT B AND THEN SKILL CHALLENGE AND THEN POINT C YOU WIN YEAH YOU. The encounters themselves try very hard. They mostly succeed. The ambush has a couple of dead horses blocking the road, with black-feathered arrows sticking out of them. Nice! The goblins in the cave lair have some wolves chained up, with the wolves straining against their chains. And a goblin on a bridge overhead keeping lookout. Have a light?! He signals to have some flood gates broken open to flood out the streamed you are coming up! One of the goblins will talk to you if you try, and bargain with you so you’ll go get rid of the guy bullying the tribe. There are a lot of nice little things to ensure that every encounter feels like a unique challenge. There are notes about what the goblins can tell you if captured/charmed and you can talk and bargain with one of the goblins! In a completely sickish move the goblins betrays you … which sends TOTALLY the wrong message. Why ever bargain with a monster if they all betray you? Just kill them and move on. Is that really the behavior you want to encourage? Yeah, I’m sure it’s a deceitful little creature but … it’s not stupid. I’m sick of every monster you can talk to betraying their end of the deal.

Part 2: Welcome to Adventurehookville. Population: YOU
At some point you are going to make it to the small frontier town that will serve as your base. There you will be herded towards “the best inn in town.” Once there you’ll get an opportunity to be exposed to several rumors, which will lead to many of the other seven or eight locations in town. From there you can pick up quite a few rumors and/or quests of things to investigate or expire. Some are tasks and some are things the party might be interested in. It’s good mix and the locations do a better than average job of being connected and interrelated. That’s not exactly high praise since the vast majority don’t do anything at all like this, but, they tried and the effort shows. In particular, the adventure gives a brief summary of the major NPC’s, where they hang out, and what their objectives/quests are. That’s done in just a sentence or so each. I find these sorts of references INVALUABLE. Read through the adventure once and then use the summary to trigger your memory of what you read earlier. More adventures need to do this. In addition, the rumors from the main inn lead to other locations, which sometimes lead to other locations. That sort of interrelationship is a nice touch. The major NPC’s have some small personalities and many of them, besides keying the characters to quests, can offer membership in a secret societies of sone sort of another. There’s also some brief mentions of the vibe of the town. It’s described in terms that make you think of the ‘camp’/town from the Deadwood series. IE: a western frontier town. It doesn’t explicitly give you that character or vibe, it just says it has a frontier like character with prospectors, etc hanging out in town. I wish it had gone a little more in to some detail of some of those terrific Deadwood street scenes: the hawkers, characters, etc. The whole town is quite light on descriptive and evocative language/scenes outside of the core locations (and, I will assert later, IN the core locations as well.) Finally the town is lacking on interpersonal relationships. I would have liked to see a web of personal relationships between the various people living in town. What does the guild master think of the innkeeper, or the innkeeper of the trading company, or the trading company of the guild master … that sort of thing. These sorts of social environments THRIVE on the web of relationships between the parties. This will help make the town seem alive and to exist outside of the interactions of the party. “Welcome to Mortistown”, a zombie sourcebook for a town, did this masterfully. It suggested reactions, gave the starting positions, and suggested a timeline based on the motivations on the motivations of the NPC’s. I’m not saying that a town supplement/section needs to go to the lengths Mortistown did, but it’s a good example to learn from.

There’s a major encounter in town that could have been done much better. There’s a gang in town that kind of controls things and is bullying/extorting people. The NPC’s in the adventure provide some vague references to them being neer-do-wells, but there’s not much beyond that. The major introduction to them is going to be a fight between them and the party. That’s pretty poor. The gang needed more of a build-up. SHOW, don’t TELL. Show us scenes of their petty evil … evil not enough to deserve a sword-thrust to the gut but more than enough to tell us they are unsavory. You have to build up these sorts of things. Their hideout is under an old manor home and the exploration of that ‘dungeon’ is one of the major town events. It kind of feels … I don’t know … lost? Tacked on? The bandits/gang don’t really react to intrusions very well. They all sit in their rooms and wait to be hacked down by the party. Intelligent creatures should have some sort of order of battle for their lair. How do they react? Who calls who for reinforcements? The dungeon is a small one but has a couple of nice physical features, like a crevasse and a couple of other interesting features. A few of the rooms are mostly empty while most of the rooms have something going on in them. Undead. Slave pens. But it all just seems a little flat.

Part 3: Hex Crawl
Most of those rumors and quietists from Adventurehookville can be followed up on in the small hex crawl presented. There are six to eight locations scattered throughout the region. One is medium-sized, one large, and the others smaller single-encounter type locations. They are all within about a 2.5 day circle of travel. This allows for … Wandering Monsters! Once a day and once a night you check for wanderers on a d20 with a 17+ indicating a monster. I’m not sure about this working. Traditionally these served the role of sucking down the party resources but I’m not sure how effective that is when all your HP come back after a single nights rest. I’m going to have to play to get a better view of this but it seems to me, on first impression, that someone threw in wanderers because they were traditional. Given the new rules on healing I suspect there needs to be some work done to make the wanderers “fit” again with a decent purpose. The game is no longer about treasure, so that’s not it. You can heal in a single night, so that’s night it. So if the wanderers are no longer a ‘risk’ then what purpose to do they service? IDK. I will say that the wanderers are kind of lame. Only a grow of hobgoblins has any flavor to them. I would have liked to have seen a little more flavor, or the monsters doing something instead of the generic “they attack!”

I really liked the various locations though. You can talk to monsters and they have a decent mix of The Fantastic present. I want to mention a couple of points in particular that I liked. The first location is with a banshee. It talks to you and serves as a kind of oracle. That’s pretty sweet! It described near a ruined town/village that a major east-west trail runs through. Just the few words they use on the town paints a wonderful picture of some abandoned post-apoc-like setting with an important road still running through it. This whole thing was done really well. There’s another location with someone that is evil … or at least is known as the villain in most previous Forgotten Realms adventures: a red wizard. In this location he’s not really interested in the party and isn’t really doing anything particularly evil. it’s a great example of the party encountering someone or something that can help them … if you’re willing to pay the cost. These sorts of set up are SOOOOO much more interesting than a pure “THEY PUKE EVIL AND ATTACK!” encounters. Look, you can always hack the dude down later, because he’s evil or because he’s got some nice loot, but, first, TALK to them. There’s another location, the medium one in size that I referred to earlier, that is another ruined little village with nine or ten little locations to explore. And there’s a dragon! And it’s in an interesting location! Alas, the dragon is given no personality AT ALL and the location i.e. Barely described. I understand and support a terse style, but some suggesting for dragon-fighting in a ruined tower would have been great. Collapsing floors, stairs, loose timbers, rubble, etc. This would have been a great place for a little more detail on the encounter. The dragon should have had a personality as well, for exactly the same reasons cited above. Additionally … ITS A DRAGON. It’s your FIRST dragon. It should be impressive and full of life and personality and talk. Smaug is SO much more interesting because it talks to Bilbo. The final location, the major one, is a small ruin with fifteen or so locations. The entryway is one of the only interesting parts of this. A little set piece if you come through the front door, the rest of the site is pretty much just “room with a monster, room without a monster, room with a monster.” At best you can sneak around or maybe try to bluff through some of them. I guess I was expecting more … weirdness? Instead it’s more like a little tactical assault. Except, again, there’s no order of battle. The notes on who reacts to assaults and how are essentially nonexistent once you get past the gate guards. That’s quite disappointing, especially given the layout of the site. There’s a lot of doors and rubble and hallways to ambush and be ambushed and sneak past and so on. There are some nice notes about some monsters showing up back home at the end, after he major fights are over, and how the party can deal with them. That’s a nice little touch I appreciated. It makes it seem like the place is alive and exists as place instead of everyone just coming out of stasis once a PC opens a door.

Part 4: Dungeon
Nope, not gonna spoil this. Decent map, nice variety of features. A couple of good descriptions. Some interesting encounters. Overall, not enough to play with. There needs to be more weird and more stuff to fool around with. There seems to be a lot more risk than reward. This might be an apt summary for most post-“gold as XP” D&D’s. Why do this? I will note that the Evil Bad Guy, in this dungeon, doesn’t EXACTLY suffer from Lareth syndrome. He’s referred to in several places by several people before you hit the dungeon. What you don’t get, though, is a sense that the dude is E V I L. Again, this goes to the “Show, don’t Tell” stuff. He’s abstract, you know he’s there but the evidence of his evil acts is … almost nonexistent? Sure, he got some goblins to raid some stuff. Yawn. Where’s the beef? I don’t need gore but you do need to set the dude up better. Make the PLAYERS want to track him down instead of forcing them to make their CHARACTERS go after him “because it’s the right thing to do.”

Nice time to transition. The elephant is the moral worldview enforced by the designers. In most of the adventure you are expected to go do something Because It’s the Right Thing To Do. Chase the goblins? Clean out the lair? Return the stolen trade goods? Follow up on almost all of the hooks? BECAUSE … GOOD! In fact, for the trade goods, no other option is presented. The trade goods get you a reward for returning them but nowhere is the value otherwise mentioned, or an literate hook if you come in to town clearly selling something looted from a caravan. That sort of view is present over and over again in the adventure. Options and paths of play are just shut down. In the case of the trade goods, it could have been an excellent option to infiltrate the local bandit gang, or use in other creative ways. But none of this exists because the designer has decided you can’t do that. The designer should EMPOWER and ASSIST the DM, not enforce their plot or views upon them. Brand new players are often, in my experience, the MOST creative and providing the framework to support that creativity IS the designers job.

The monsters in this adventure suck. There should be wonder and fear when you encounter something. Do you say “you see three ghouls.”? No, of course not. You describe them and what they are doing. You leave the party guessing. What kind of thing is that? What does it do? What do they want? Can it kill us? That’s the kind of monsters encounter I want to see, ones that encourages the players to soil themselves over THE OTHER. Instead we get “you see three goblins” or something similar. Uncool WOTC. The monster descriptions are boring as hell, with almost no attention paid to what the DM actually needs: what the PC’s EXPERIENCE when they meet them. Stink like the grave? Matted patchy fur? None of that is present. And the monsters attacks are generally disassociated. Bugbears get a surprise damage bonus that is presented completely mechanically: if you get surprise you do 2d8 more. Yeah. Mechanics. How about something like “Their dark fur allows them to blend in to shadows well, giving them a plus 2d6 to damage as they leap out in the surprise round.” Again, you are teaching new players how to play and you just taught an entire generation of DM’s to say “you see two gricks.” Bull. Shit. That’s not the D&D I want to play. That a board game. Deliver the wonder! It’s not that hard. We don’t need a page, or a column, or a paragraph. Just one sentence. The free Dragonsfoot “Where the fallen jarls sleep” has a GREAT description of the undead, one of the best ever.

In a similar vein, the magical items generally are none too great. They tend to be very mechanical. ‘+1 sword, deals max damage to plant creatures.” Ok, That’s not as awful as just a +1 sword, and they generally do present a little backstory/history for each item. That’s very nice; they don’t go on for too long but they do provide a … grounding? For the characters to know what it is they are carrying and add a nice bit of the non-generic. The issue is that the items are all grounded in the mechanics. Pluses, maximums, additions, rerolls … it’s all very board gamey. In a game where you can ANYTHING, literally ANYTHING, you give us an item that gives +1 to defense? Ok, that’s a little hyperbolic, but the mechanical way magic is treated is much closer to 4e than it is to OD&D or T&T. Gems that you swallow and turn you in a beaver? The gem in the first level of the darkness beneath that shoots out flames? GREAT items without a whiff of the generic or mechanical. Effects are described instead of mechanics. It’s like someone is TERRIFIED of the ambiguity that this sort of non-mechanical thing may introduce. Another word for the DM is Judge. Let the Judge handle the ambiguity … that why they exist! There is a GREAT magic item in the hex crawl, a little statue that gives everyone an augury once. That’s a nice little touch and exactly the sort of magic item I’m looking for. It’s NOT straight out of a book and it oozes wonder and mystery. THAT’S what magic items should do.

Finally, I want to cover the user of descriptive language. There’s not a lot. The encounters and place just don’t seem to pop. They are generally interesting enough, like the goblin on the rope bridge or the flood they release or the wolves on their chains, for example. But they don’t don’t pop. They don’t do a very good job of springing to life in your mind. I think it’s because of the lack of descriptive language. While reading through the adventure I was struck by the goblin lair seeming a bit generic … but then when I looked back over it it was clear that the situations were interesting. But they didn’t stay with you. They didn’t seem … exciting? And I think what I mean by this is that the encounter didn’t get ME, the DM, excited about running it. In the town section this really stood out. It was either in the rumors section or somewhere else when it hit me. There were nouns and verbs but the adjectives and adverbs were not used very well. “The farmers wife tells you … “ instead of the “the prim farmers wife tells you …” There’s was nothing of the FAVLOR being communicated. Floods should be raging torrents. The NOC’s should have personalities, or flavors, to assist the DM and bring the encounter to life in your mind. Farmers Wife leaves a lot open. Granny, prim, biddy, lusty, stoic, proper … all of those give you, the DM, something to work with. They conjure a NON-generic image in your mind that you can build on. There’s WAY not enough of this in the adventure. Hence the kind of “generic’ vibe. Generic goblin. Generic cave. Generic wolves. This lack of descriptive material, just a word or two really, is a reall killer.

You don’t get it both ways. You can’t claim to be a Starter Set and then not include GREAT magic items and monster descriptions. You gotta make this thing pop. You gotta make people want more More MORE. The monsters, magic items, and descriptions don’t really do that. In the end you get a serviceable adventure/set of adventures. They are nicely connected with a home base that is better than usual. This is a decent adventure, it delivers over and over again in a non-sucky way. In an above average way. But it doesn’t hit the highs, consistently, that the best products do. I’m disappointed in that. I wanted this to knock your socks off. It’s big. It’s long. Both of those are great. But the quality isn’t what I was hoping for. But, in spite of the Starter Set adventure not being the second-coming of Dave Bowman or Calithena, it does put D&D back on SOLID ground again. I’d be happy to run this. I fucking love D&D, and D&D is now back!

Now for some self-promotion:
Did you seriously just read all of that? Wow. You should be playing D&D instead. If you’re in/near Indianapolis then you should check out the Indy Gaming meetup. My wife runs the group. We’re running an all-day play through of the starter set on July 19th. RSVP and come along!

Want to celebrate the return of D&D by being a butthead? Drop me a line! We’re having a bonfire to celebrate the evening of July 11th. Feel free to bring the old edition; we’ll need fuel for the fire.

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Dungeon Magazine #35

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Seeing the pro’s names ad Dungeon authors reminds me of the strippers who show up at spring break wet t-shirt contests.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming
James Jacobs
AD&D
Levels 8-10

Adventures like this one are part of that great soul-sucking morass that drags down the hobby. The party is hired to go through a gate to a fortress on the shadow plane and bring back a staff, in order to close the gate because shadow monsters are coming through it. Turn out the guy that hired them is a rakshasa and that will free him from his prison. The hackneyed plot (lure adventurers to free me while I impersonate someone!) isn’t so much the issue as the MASSIVE amount of text that accomplishes NOTHING. This runs 12-14 pages and has maybe three or four encounters. The inn the guy lives in is described completely and realistically in the most boring fashion possible. So s the two levels of the shadow fortress and the two or three encounters in it. Page after page of backstory. Page after page of boring descriptions of featureless wilderness. Page after page of trivial detail and explanation that does NOTHING to enhance play. Three is so little content that I think you could easily do this as a one-page dungeon. The rakshassa part is lame also. Need a bad guy to launch a plot that can’t be foiled by Detect Evil or ESP? Rakshasa! puke

The Year of Priest’s Defiance
Rick Swan & Allen Varney
Dark Sun
Levels 3-5

Uh … this is an adventure? The party stumbles on a ruin in the desert with fresh grass. Inside the small 6 room ruin they find a magic cistern of water. A friendly NPC shows up and wants to break up the cistern. An evil NPC group shows up. The cistern gets broken, the water elemental it contained gets free and kills the evil NPC party. End of adventure. This is an encounter, not an adventure. A side-trek at BEST and more likely a one-pager. But I guess it fulfills the requirement to publish a Dark Sun adventure in Dungeon. This is just devoid of anything. It’s more like watching a movie than doing something. Kill the friendly NPC? He survives so the showdown can take place. LAME. Why not just roll a d6? On a 1-5 you win, and 6 you roll again.

The Whale
Wolfgang Baur
AD&D
Levels 1-2

This is a nice little short viking-themed encounter. A whale has washed up on the beach and a group of fishermen and a grow from the local lord are arguing for ownership rights. As the party approaches one of the land-men shoots an arrow at a women in the fishermans boat. Everyone stops talking and stares coldly at each other. That’s the perfect little moment to introduce the party to the scene, at the point things could change dramatically one way or another. The two groups have several personalities and some generic men, with the personalities having some good motivations and character to drive the action forward. The fishermen WILL starve if they don’t get the whale. The land-men DO have a real claim, but it is from an unreliable person. Baur understands that these sorts of scenes are driving by the NPC personalities and describes each in a paragraph or so and provides enough little background bits THAT ARE RELEVANT to drive the action forward. This is a great tangled mess where there are lots of possible answers. Nicely done.

Green Lady’s Sorrow
Joseph O’Neil
AD&D
Levels 5-8

Middle class morality. That’s the problem with this adventure. A green dragon contacts the party in order to get five of her eggs rescued. They fell in a hole in a volcano and she needs you to go in and get them back. Inside is an assortment of vermin (who attack), magmen (who attack), grue (who attack) and an efretti (who eventually attacks.) Then you get out and the dragon attacks. Wouldn’t it be so much more interesting if you could get an ally from green dragon, or from the eftreeti? You are doing a major boon to both, and both are highly intelligent. But they attack. Lame. There’s a nice little maze on the map, some of the eggs are fakes, some are hard boiled already, and ALMOST everything in the adventure is intelligent. And attack. There’s an interesting set up or two with the eggs, traps and the like. Giving the true, magmen, efretti, orcs (who are all dead, having been sent in before you) some personality would have really made this adventure something. You could do it yourself, but then … why did you buy this magazine? There was a great opportunity for faction play, since they all hate each other anyway, and lots of opportunities to make some fire & lava themed rooms. Instead you get a lava pool or two and nothing else. The end result is Just Another Stinking Dungeon, but with a couple of fire creatures in it this time. :(

The Ghost of Mistmoor
Leonard Wilson
AD&D
Levels 3-6

This is a haunted house adventure. An heir hires you to go in and help him get his ancestral treasure. There are a couple of rogues inside who are pretending to haunt the house … and some real ghosts as well. Some of the ghosts are neutral-ish (and not really ‘ghosts’ by D&D standards) and one is evil. You tool around the house getting ‘haunted’ and looking in to things and then probably meet the good-natured rogues. They, in turn, probably help you find the treasure vault, along with the goodish ghosts. Inside the vault you fight the evil ghosts. (which are really just shadows.) This is a pretty long adventure and most of the haunting things are done fairly well. There’s good advice present on how to run a spooky adventure, including he one dream sequence. I normally hate dream sequences, but this one is done ok and emphasizes the need to not do another one after it since they get old real quick. (True That.) This has a slow, investigatory quality to it. There are some vermin to kill prior to the showdown, but it’s otherwise an adventure which builds to several spooky moments. It does this better than most spooky adventures. It’s helped by the two rogues, scaring people off, who build things to a climax … and then they are probably caught, dispelling the tension. Until you find out they didn’t do everything … and then tension builds more, this time with your new helpers. Tension builds again until its dispelled by the finally meeting the real ghosts. Then there is the ominous battle of the treasure vault, that the party probably knows is coming. That sort of cycle works well. I would note that there MAY be a single problem. There are a decent number of bodies in the adventure from the olden-days. There is one high-level speak with dead spell. Completing the adventure relies on the spell being cast one ONE body in particular. I may have missed the thing that singles this body out. Anyway, good hauntings based on both room and time/event. The personalities of the ghosts and NPC’s are spread out a bit. Most detail is in one place but important other details are spread though the text, which makes running them a pain. All in all though, not a bad haunted house. Better than U1 anyway.

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X1 – The Unnamed Land

x1
Perry Fehl
Purple Duck Games
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 4-5
The charismatic wizard convinced you all that in the new land you could get a fresh start, that money and high birth couldn’t dictate what you could do. You burned the ship, built a town, and, with a few hundred intrepid colonists began to make a new life! The purple vegetation, eyeless animals and furtive crystalline inhabitants presented challenges, to be sure- and then the wizard disappeared…

This is touted as a hex crawl but is really just a starting base with some strong wilderness theming and a couple of plots in the surrounding lands. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s pretty well done, but it’s not a hex crawl. You might be able tot use this to great effect to drop in to Red Tide, NOD, or some other hex crawl. What you get is a small hex crawl map, a little detail on the local village, a “freaky’ wandering table with a fine selection of new monsters, and maybe four hexes detailed out of a 12×15 grid of 10-mile wide hexes.

The background is delivered in about a column on the first page. A wizard recruited a bunch of people to come settle in a new land. They boarded a ship, may have passed through a portal, and been in the colony for two years. Basically, this is a Jamestown settlement in a freaky deaky land that resembles more War Against the Chtorr than it does vanilla D&D. (That’s a compliment.) The Standard monster list is pruned down to most giant vermin, like crabs, scorpions, fly’s and the like, ooze-like things (ooze, slime, cubes, mold), a fungus or two (shriekers) and some of the weirder and more insect-like monsters, like a rust monster or eyeless wyvern. This is supplemented by seven or eight new monsters, all with a very weird, aliens, or insect-like theming. Not insects, but evocative of insects. Not hive mind creature, but evocative of hive-mind creatures. Notably, there are two intelligent crystalline humanoid races: the greens and purples. Ubarat Fel, the wizard leading the colony, disappeared awhile back n an excursion he claimed would get rid of the predator attacks the colony was facing. These green and purple humanoids are roaming about. The land is crawling with weird monsters. The colony-village proper has a very Battlestar Gallactica-vibe from back when they had that colony; lot’s of corruption, pettiness, and the like. In short: a perfect place to getting kicked off!

EXCEPT for the hook. Note the adventure is for levels 4-5 and the adventure starts the party off in this weird-land-beyond-a-portal by having them standing beside a fountain. That’s it. No starting hook. I’m having trouble rationalizing a complaint about this. DO you need a hook for a starting base and a hex crawl? It’s location based; you shouldn’t need much of a hook. EXCEPT … you’re starting at levels 4-5 AND you’re starting in a weird “not vanilla D&D land.” How did you get there? Did you level up in the village? Were you an original colonist? Did you somehow in this mega-isolated place after the fact? If so A LOT of people are going to want to talk to you about getting back. This is a nice sized hole in the product.

The only village on the planet (is it a new planet? Who knows … and that’s great! Except for all intents and purposes you can think of it as “the only village you will ever see”) has no map, a strong rumor table, and a description of about a half-dozen places. Group dorms that the 400 or so colonists live in, to the wizards tower, to the food stores, communal workshop, and meeting hall. Each one of these has something going on, usually personality/NPC. These entries generally last no longer than a paragraph or two and do a great job of conveying a location with lots of possibilities. The asshat cleric, the ONLY cleric, is now pretty full of himself and if you want healing you have to attend his lectures and declare your faith in his god. And he’s kind of a doomsday preacher AND has a decent number of followers. Joy! The perfect gas for throwing PC fire at! A dick thief is in charge of the food stores, using “indentured servitude” as currency with thug guards and pretty girls working for him. He supports any mining-type venture, since he REALLY wants to get rich. One of the communal dorms has a different thug thief as a self-appointed Dorm Warden, with her room having the only separate room … and lock. She’s the sometimes rival of the other thief in town, the guy at the food stores. This kind of stuff goes on and on. The wizards tower is arcane locked and his three apprentices are camped outside in tents (none having knock) arguing about who is new archmage. (They’re all level 2.) EVERY place in the smallish colony is like this. It’s a fucking powder keg . It’s PERFECT. My only complaint is that a small list of the core NPC’s and goals would have been nice as a reference, maybe with a few more of the townsfolk thrown in also. That sort of “reference material” for running an adventure is something that is generally missing, especially from village/social places, and is sorely needed most of the time in actual play.

The hexes suck. You get a short 8-10 entry wandering monster table for each type of hex (wooded, plains, etc) and then 6 “special encounters” of two sentences each. There are three other special hexes detailed: the hex where the wizard met his fate, the lair of the green men and the air of the purple men. The purple men get a page or two but the other two get maybe a column. Which is fine; that’s more than enough to communicate the vibe of the hex and give me enough eta to run it. The issue is that this isn’t a hex crawl, not in my definition. It’s a kind of Wilderness Clearing action, where you go from hex to hex killing some wandering monsters. There’s just not enough “traditional” hex crawl encounters. The whole adventure is like a coiled spring, full of potential energy, but sitting out by itself alone in a field. Without the hex crawl encounters the potential energy is wasted. The set up is good. The new monsters are good. The village is good. But it’s all fluff without an opportunity to use it on something. That’s why, in my introduction, I stated that it would be better if you dropped this in to an existing hex crawl. It needs the target, the goal, to be released at. “Well, you could make your own.” Yes, I could. Then why am I buying this? The very purpose of a purchased product (or a free one, for that matter) is to support play. We’re paying, money, time or investment, for the very content that is missing. Not to mention the traditional problem of the product not advertising what it is very well.

There’s one more problem with this that is acknowledged by the designer: XP. There is no coin in this new land. It’s suggested that you give 4-5x more XP for creatures killed and 100 XP per hex cleared. This turns the focus to killing and clearing. BASIC doesn’t do a great job at kill-based gaming and 100xp hex means A LOT of hexes must be cleared before level 5 or 6 is hit. It’s probably impossible. This alien land would also be ripe for weird new magic items, things, but that’s not present at all either.

This thing is $4. If it were cheaper it would be an auto-buy. If it was more of a hex crawl it would be an auto-buy. You’re paying $4 for a little village, a general set up, and a couple of sub-plots. I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less. I’m hesitating recommending this, probably because I’m disappointed I didn’t get the hex crawl I was anticipating. Fuck it. It’s worth at least as much as a beer. Go buy it.

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Dungeon Magazine #34

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This is a pretty crappy issue. The single exception drags the ret of the issue out of the gutter … but not THAT far out of the gutter.

Euphoria Horrors
Alan Grimes
AD&D
Levels 1-2

This is an eight-room cave with a couple dozen drug-addled tasloi. It is also once of the worst examples of adventure design I’ve seen. A kid comes out of the forest crying. Questioning turns up his friend Drake is missing. The kid runs away. That’s it. That’s your hook. And this adventure is recommended as the Premier Adventure for your new campaign. Sigh If you follow the kid you get to his parents house. They are complete dicks and won’t talk to party or allow them to talk to the kid, other than shouting “Go Away!” This is your premier adventure. Why would anyone go on this? Because that’s what the DM is running that night? That’s the reality of the situation, but, fuck, you have to make the adventure at least A LITTLE appealing to the players and characters to go on. A vague statement and then denying the party anything else is not a great start. The group is then supposed to wander around the forest looking for clues. Except they will probably fail and/or give up. There’s a 10% chance per party member of finding a clue. What if they don’t find a clue? I guess they don’t get to go on the adventure then. Yeah! Let’s Oh, wait, I don’t think that’s the reaction you are supposed to have. I’ve never understood this shit. If you HAVE to find the clue to go on the adventure then why are you making people roll for it? “Roll 1d6. On a ‘1’ you get to play D&D tonight.” Ug! Further, the clues are bullshit! There are three. The first two provide NO insight on where to go. The third, it is stated repeatedly, should only be used if the party is getting frustrated and don’t know where to go. Seriously? YOU HAVENT PROVIDED ANY DATA ON WHERE TO GO UP TO THIS POINT!!!!!! Eventually you find a cave. The first encounter in the cave takes a page to describe. It’s a fucking pit blocking the entrance with a fire behind it. That’s should tell you a lot about this adventure. It’s not the only example either. Many of the encounters take a page to describe and subjects are not just beaten to death but to a pulp. When you find the fairy dragon (euphoria gas) captured by the tasloi it breathes on you up to a dozen times. Hey! Dick! Know how many XP you’re worth? I’ll answer that: more than the bullshit excuse for treasure this adventure provides! There’s almost none at all. The concept of drug-addeled humanoids is a good one, and there’s a great non-standard undead, but that’s not enough to save this adventure. Garbage.

Rogue
David Howery
AD&D
Levels 4-5

A two-page side-trek that describes the clearing in which a rogue elephant lairs. There’s nothing remarkable about this. Two pages to describe what should be a couple of sentences or a (short) paragraph. Was Dungeon that desperate for material?

Isle of the Abbey
Randy Maxwell
D&D
Levels 1-3

This is a small little locale adventure on an island. Some mariners (a guild, perhaps?) hire you to clear the place out so they can build a new lighthouse. After getting on to the island, through a horde of undead, there’s a little adventure in the cellar of a ruined abbey where you meet the remains of the evil clerics from the abbey. This adventure has a different vibe than most and it’s something I can get in to. The party is presented more as a group of mercenaries. A lot of hooks essentially imply as much: “you’re hired to …” but there’s also some implied morality in most. This one doesn’t really have that implied morality, although it’s still essentially a fight against evil. The mariners want to build a lighthouse and they need someone to check the isle out before they do so and get rid of any threats. There’s a small lighthouse nearby that can serve as a base of operations, and it has a tactical resource in an old fighter who tends it. He can offer advice to situations the party can’t overcome. That, alone, is unusual for Dungeon. Not the resource, but the way the adventure is presented. The island is presented more as a … location? Than a set of railroad encounters. The beach is full of undead that crawl out of the dunes, so just getting off the beach will be a puzzle. The ruined abbey has some (evil) survivors in it who, generally, want off the island. They are presented as having motivations of their own and you can talk to some of them. More could have been done with that, with some better faction play, but at least a nod is given to a couple of people who just want out and damn their evil god. Hell, I even liked the little backstory of the pirates and clerics being in league, the clerics always shorting the pirates, the pirates always grumbling, and then the pirates showing up one day to burn down the abbey … only to get mostly wiped out by the undead … leaving an opening for the mariners guild. The treasures here’re not stellar, and more could be done with the NPC personalities in the ruined abbey, like sticking them in specific locations or putting a little more faction work in to play, but it’s defiantly above average for Dungeon.

The “Lady Rose”
Steve Kurtz
AD&D
Levels 8-11

Are there good nazi’s? What’s your position on orc babies? This adventure, either intentionally or unintentionally, asks those questions. A warship from a thus-far unknown empire shows up and raids a city, kidnapping all of the adolescent elves. Because their empire uses young elves as slaves. And keeps them drugged. And breed them. But they are not evil, the adventure says so. Seriously. “Slavery in the Dkdwfkd empire is not good or evil. It just is.” And their alignment isn’t evil, it’s almost all LN. It then paints the crew of the ship as just a set of sailor dudes. They hang out in bars, spend money lawfully, arm wrestle, gossip, all the things sailors do. Well, and slave adolescent elves. The depiction of a foreign power suddenly showing up and raiding a town, only to pull in to another and act lawfully, that’s an interesting depiction. Probably realistic. Depicting the crew as just a bunch of sailors, a bunch of working stiffs, and the offers who are just loyal military officers. All great. You get a couple of combats with a well organized military group painted in a realistic, and yet tactically fun, manner. And then you toss in the orc babies … the slavery. DM’s you throw that shit in are not good DM’s. They are dicks. The game is supposed to be fun not make you think about the meaning of life, hopelessness of existence, and put you in to existential crisis. The big battle at the end is supposed to be on the warship but it described in a boring way, with no thought as to how the crew react to an incursion. This is in marked contrast to the earlier ‘ambush’ encounter in which the tactics of a small subset of the crew, on land, are spelled out. The ship, in contrast, is boring, with no tactics and nothing very interesting to explore. This then is the most glaring mistake in the adventure, the abrupt turn away from the realism of the military response to Just Another Keyed Room format. Oh. And the adolescent elf slavery. Like I said, only a dick puts that shit in an adventure. The TSR standards were something like “evil must never be portrayed in a good light.” I guess this one slipped through because they were LN? I look forward to the next issues letters column to see if this comes up. Ultimately this is a sucky adventure because of the main encounter, the ship, is described as just a series of keyed entires instead of living, breathing place with a crew schedule, etc. The orc baby issue is what pushes from “the usual dreck” to “total piece of shit.”

On Wings of Darkness
Craig Barrett
AD&D
Levels 4-8

Dungeon adventures tend to be wordy. This one is both wordy AND confusing, a rare talent. The party is hired by a manor lord to go kill a predator killing livestock. Uh … then the party is attacked at night by “Darkenbeasts” under the control of Vedthor. Then they go kill a small campsite of enemies in the pay of Vedthor. Then they go to an estate and kill some more people in the employ of Vedthor . Yeah, I know it’s a mess. That’s because it’s a mess! So look, what’s going on here is the designer made up a cool dude, Vedthor, and put him in an adventure in Dungeon Magazine. Vedthor, the CE human male wizard, keeps a +3 dagger in his boot and a knife in his left forearm sheath. Boner much Craig? Vedthor has some evil plot and its his Darkenbeasts that are causing trouble. The idea is, I guess, that the party is pissed at being attacked during the night ambush by Vedthor and takes the fight to Vedthor. You see all that name dropping I did of “Vedthor”? That’s NOTHING compared to the number of times he’s fucking mentioned in this adventure. “Why Bryce”, you ask, “how does the party know where Vedthor is?” Well, first, let me thank you for name dropping “Vedthor.” Second, there are a bunch of fucking owls in the adventure. Why are tere owls in the adventure? I have no idea. But there are a bunch of giant owls at the enemy campsite and one talking owl in a cage at the campsite. And the talking owl has a page long monologue that fills the party in on all the details. And then every encounter from then on is written from the owls point of view. If some DM tried this shit on me I’d eat the fucking owl. There’s a couple of nice things in this adventure, in spite of the confusing mess it is. First, at he campsite, there are some hill giants chasing around some giant owls, trying to club them, while the owls flutter about from area to area. I like these sorts of vignettes during an adventure encounter. It’s much nice to see some semblance of realism then it is to just have a boring description of “3 hill giants in the clearing.” It doesn’t have to be long but just an extra sentence or so can make all the difference. Second, the estate at the end, while written from the owls point of view and a total confusing mess, tries to be an open-ended location. More than a standard keyed encounter locale, it tries to tell you that there are some guard at a lookout on the hill, and these guys on a boat, and these people in the house and so on. It fails because of the owl POV shit and the TOTAL lack of a plan and/or tactics on the part of the enemy. Oh! Oh! I just remembered! At the end of the adventure there’s an entire list of consequences based on the PC’s actions. Guess What! Nothing you do matters! No matter what the party does the outcomes are the same! Yeah you! You wasted your time!

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