The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence

by Venger Satanis
Kort’thalis Publishing
Fantasy RPGs
Hex Crawl

People only travel to the purple islands infrequently. It is this lack of tourism that gives it mystery. After all, everyplace is a bit weird once you first lay eyes on it. Those seeking adventure will find it. Those brought to the islands against their will should have their hands full.
This is a slightly gonzo hex-crawl on a series of three islands that are close together. There are sword & sorcery elements, gonzo elements (spaceships, time travelers, etc) and lovecraftian elements. The book has several issues, like the map, but overall they don’t detract enough from the awesome to make me not keep this. Yes, this makes it one of the few: a Bryce keeper. More than that, while I usually only do hex-crawls in PDF format, this might make it to print form … meaning I’d run it almost as-is, as opposed to mining it for seeds, hooks, and ideas.

I should note going in to this review that I love gonzo … AND you could also use this in Gamma World. It’s not the gonzo that makes this a good adventure, that’s just the icing.

This thing has a SHIT TON going on. Some may criticize the throw-everything-at-the-wall approach Venger has taken but I rather enjoyed it. It lets you pick and choose what to keep. Besides, I LOVE having a lot going on for the players to pick from. A complex and interrelated environment gives a much more solid sense of reality than the simplistic environments usually presented. In these cases, more IS better. Ultimately the strength of this book is derived from both the large number of things going on and the action-oriented nature of the hex encounters.

Action-oriented might be the wrong word. Maybe gameable content is better. ANyway, I think I covered this for the first time when I compared The Wilderlands to Hex Crawl Chronicles to Isle of the Unknown. Wilderlands and HCC had many more encounters that were written in a way to encourage interactivity. Let’s call that style Noun-Verb. Isle was written in the much flatter Noun format. “There is a bird here.” or “There is a statue here.” Compare this to the noun-verb style of “There are three mermen here hunting a wild boar.” That’s the first hex description from this particular hex-crawl, Purple. It goes on for just a bit but you get the idea. Rather than “3 mermen” or “Wild boar” it gives us something to interact with. Help them? Hinder them? Help the boar? Helping them might open up lines of communication … And so it will go at your table. The description is written in a way to encourage game play and interactivity. At least a great many of them are. It devolves at times into Noun format and that it one of the points where the book is weak. “There is a spaceship here.” is the entirety of one hex description. That is clearly pretty open ended and a DM could do anything with that. And yet, if it were a noun-verb format then you’d have yet another seed/more gameable content AND still have the noun available for the DM. The second hex described falls in this noun category as well, describing a giant skeleton graveyard littered with small totems and fetishes, and a slightly dissolved purple statue. Very interesting … but much more interesting would be something going on at this location. Overall though there is more than enough Noun-Verb content to keep the place VERY interesting.
I would also note that, unlike many hex crawls, Venger gives you some seeds to get things kicked off. These are pretty nice, in theory, and help solve one of the big Hex Crawl dilemmas: why are we wandering around? “necromancer of mount crystal, Totas Mundi, is raising an army of undead to conquer the islands. His doom hawks and zombie hordes routinely scour the main island of Korus for succulent prey,” This is just one of ten seeds given (I’d use them all, at the same time) and you can see how it might drive play. It falls down though in providing just a bit more for the DM. Just two more sentences and it would be at super-star levels. “His base is in hex 0416 and he organically expands NE. The snake-people are natural allies while the dark cultists oppose on philosophical grounds.” What this has done is grounded the seed into the actual island environment. It give the DM a place to start and provides a few reactions for some of the many factions to be found on the island.

I might pick nits that the various factions also exist in a vacuum, with their relationships to each other determined randomly. This is probably the contention between a box of legos (determine relations randomly) and an actual adventure (Bob loves Mary who hates Carl.) Either are ok, but I would suggest that things like this are to be left to change then perhaps calling them in a more organized fashion (“Chapter 2. Determining the setup of the Islands.”) might have been a better way to organize it, along with perhaps some ideas on the various implications. But, Factions! Yeah!

Here and there are bits that could use a little grounding. A great example of this is the rumor table. The first entry is “There is a blue-skinned queen that rules over the island.” That’s certainly not terrible, and is wat I would call “the usual” when it comes to rumors. I like things a bit more specific though. “The island is ruled by the 4-armed blue-skinned queen Markuva, who collects teeth.” Even better would be something like “Watch out boy! That blue-skinned bitch Markuva comes in the night to steal your teeth to use for her army to rule the island with!” Same thing, but more colorful and specific. I find these spur the imagination of the DM more than the generic form of rumor found in most products.

Finally, there’s the issue of the map. It needs some work. It is, essentially, a map of an island with a few terrain features and a numbered hex-grid overlaid on it. What’s missing is data. The party is in hex 403. They befriend mermen after helping them catch a wild pig. “Where’s the nearest village?” the party asks. Uh … I don’t know. Let me check. 15 minutes later you’ve scanned all of the entries and found a village. Placing landmarks of import on the map would have helped A LOT. As is a DM is going to have to do that themselves. Small icons of tribes, villages, domains of control (“Overlord territory!”, “Domain of the Dark Cults!”) would have all helped the map become an integral tool of the DM and kept the DM from having do this themselves, or at least minimized the effort needed.

There’s a lot of content in this book. Besides the hexes there’s A LOT of house rules, great magic items and monsters, empty dungeon layouts, and about a jillion different things going on, from crystals, to magic rain, to radiation, to … it’s easy to lose track.

This is not only a great hex crawl, it’s also a great little campaign sourcebook. Certainly worth owning.

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Dungeon Magazine #59


Seeking Bloodsilver
by Christopher Perkins
Levels 2-4

I’ve never played Birthright, so I don’t know if this adventure is typical. The party is expected to have a lot of retainers. Two combat NPC’s join the party. A band of brigands can be convinced to join the party. There is a group of 2 dozen mercenaries that could join the party, six or so of whom are named/classed. That’s a lot to keep track of. During your combat with 35 skeletons in a 30×50 room. Weird, and seems hard to manage. This is essentially an assault, rather linear, on a fortress full of undead. There are more than a few intelligent undead, and some faction play. There’s a bit of a haunted mansion feel, as skeleton drink beer, etc, but a lot of the joie de vivre is sucked out of it by the writing style. There’s a bit climactic battle at the end with a fourth (fifth?) faction showing up. The beginning section is overly wordy, even by Dungeon standards. The middle section has potential, but the writing is lifeless and the map mostly linear. The NPC’s need a simple reference sheet rather than each having 2 columns of personality. Hard to run, I’d imagine.

The Mother’s Curse
by John Guzzetta
Levels 3-5

This is quite the interesting little adventure, plagued by a conversational writing style that embeds information in unusual places. There’s a village investigation portion and then a monster base assault. Both sections have information scattered throughout them instead of being presented in a more logical manner that better supports play. In the village each NPC is described at their location, along with what they know. The text is WAY too long to support this style. A brief table of NPC’s would have been much more effective and made the adventure much easier to run. SImilarly, the monster fortress has an issue with things being scattered about instead of putting the important bits, briefly, up front and then doing the keyed/encounter thing. What really makes this one interesting though is that it’s a Hag adventure that FEELS like a hag adventure. A hag has switched babies with a human mother, in the womb. The pregnant woman is sick … and the hag carries the humans baby. The whole evil hag thing comes through VERY well, both in the village, in the swamps, and in her fortress. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and the way the adventure and monster and complications fit together well. It’s not just a case of picking a monster out of the MM for the adventure, the entire thing is built around a hag, with hag motivations and all. Another one for the “needs a modern rewrite” pile.

Wedding Day
by Paul F. Culotta
Levels 3-7

A railroad event based adventure centered around a wedding day. The DM is advised, up front, to not let the party catch the miscreant until the end. What follows are a handful of events based around wedding day: the preparation, ceremony, and party. A jilted lover disrupts the events of some scene and the party have to face the results and help fix things up, all while not in armor/carrying big weapons, etc, as the families want appropriate attire. Nothing to see; these types of adventures are a dime a dozen.

Voyage of the Crimpshine
by Tony Ross
Levels 1-4

This is a weird little adventure. Or maybe “adventure outline.” The party travels on a riverboat. It sinks. The party leads the survivors back to civilization. The party goes back to the boat to retrieve valuables for the survivors. Once at the boat again they find it occupied by merrow. The riverboat journey as well as the journey to/from civilization is pretty general. Just a couple of ideas and some rough ideas about the NPC’s you’re leading to rescue. “Fat Mike” the gnomish bartender, among them. This section could be both tightened up, from extraneous generalizations, and expanded with further encounters, wandering charts, etc. The last part is an underwater adventure (which I ALWAYS find tedious because of the extra rules) back in the boat again and is nothing very special.

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Descent into the Candy Crypts

by Venger Satanis
Kort’thalis Publishing
Crimson Dragon Slayer
Level 1

Fruit of the Doom, let’s show those candy sons-of-bitches what for!

This is a parody adventure with fruit people and candy people. That’s not a reason to skip it. The reason to skip this is the relative weakness of the various encounters. As is all too common with these types of adventures, too much time is spent on the parody and not enough time is spent on the adventure.

Two pages of encounters and one page of maps in a fourteen page adventure. Even with a generous full page art allotment, that’s a bit too much for me. There’s a quarter page of additional encounters and a quarter page of new magic items, and a bit of background, but the overall effect is A LOT of white space. $3 for 14 pages is a good deal. $3 for 3 or pages is less of a good deal. I’m not sure why this is rubbing me wrong. I generally don’t care about money/price/cost but in this case I’m getting rubbed the wrong way because of the actual shortness.

The map is linear. Just one long shotgun shack of a hallway with rooms hanging off of it and occasionally one blocking the way. The one “Y” in the beginning doesn’t count. It’s linear. ANd boring. just room after room that’s 20×20 with nothing to break it up. Zzzz….. Elevation changes? No. Ledges? No. Straight & boring hallway with rooms hanging off of it? YES! If you walk straight you face three encounters before facing the candy king. Nothing interesting with the map.

The encounters are generally poor. While a great deal of creativity has gone into the actual creatures they are lost in the rooms they are put in. Ice Cream Men can cause brain freezes and donut-men can squeeze you in their holes. There’s a monster that’s a cross between a crab, squid, and winged monkey. Very nice effects. More than a little bland in their descriptions but nice in their special powers. Likewise with a few of the NPC’s you meet. A thinly applied veneer. A kiwi that speak with an aussie accent. A traitor. A homicidal marshmallow. This is the extent of the support you get for the eight NPC’s in the prison cells. Not quite the evocative flavor I’m usually looking for.

The rest of the rooms are generally barely there also. There’s really not much more than Tegal Manor of Palace of the Vampire Queen here. Just a room name (Yeah!) and a monster listing. There are brief divergences from this, but they are few and far between.

This is really the same quality as Tegal/Palace Vampire Queen. But while those also had very simple room/key encounters, they also had a large enough map and a complex enough environment to build something more through actual play. The very narrow focus of this adventure, combined with the lack of evocative writing, really limits the adventure.

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Revelry in Torth

by Venger Satanis
Kort’thalis Publishing
Low Levels

Torth is a strange desert world. Always night, always deadly. A little bit sword & sorcery, a little bit science-fantasy, and just enough post apocalypse to keep things interesting.

This is a … book of adventure seeds? Maybe? I don’t know what this is. A very small part of this booklet is a description of a world. A very small part of this the description of a city on that world. A much larger part of the booklet are a series of events and/or adventure seeds, some of which are connected to each other. While it’s a mess organizationally it’s also got more soul in it than most of the products I’ve reviewed. This book is everything I wanted the XOth.Net adventures to be. It’s evocative and summons the imagery of Sword & Sorcery perfectly. Weird, bizarre, just slightly gonzo, Venger understands the core of Sword & Sorcery and brings it to the reader. Long time readers know that this is one of the key things I’m looking for; the ability of the writer to transfer their vision to the reader. In this respect it does what Deep Carbon Observatory did: provide little seeds and/or vignettes for the party to explore. Just not as well.

The first part of this booklet is more of an campaign setting. There’s a brief description of a world wracked by sorcery. There’s a brief description of the people in it, the various tribes, and then of some of the cults and secret societies. Weird costumes, food, and buildings round things out. This is all WONDERFUL. It does what I wish more supplements would: gives the area a distinct feel. “Remember that place where we ate baby sand squid sashimi?”, “Oh Yeah, where they walked around ‘covered in the blood of their enemies.’” There’s enough here to for a DM to work with. With it you can color to the various encounters the party has. It’s a very strong section. Just brief little sections, but they communicate the flavor of the place beautifully, and you end up wanting to run it, and start building scenarios in your head on how you would incorporate them.

The second section of the book is a loose collection of adventure seeds and/or events. Little brief vignettes, some of which lead to others. The strength of these is much the same as the strength of the first section. The imagery is quite strong and they make you want to run them. Your mind immediately starts building on what you read. They are generally very good little sceneses because of that. The overall arc is one of a killing in the streets and tracking down what happened. The king gets involved, there’s a demon idol, and a call for mercenaries. It’s all a little more coincidence based than character-driven. Still, quite imaginative/evocative and I’ll take that over Perfectly Organized.

The monsters and treasure mesh well into the Sword & Sorcery vibe going on. The magic treasure is distinct and not from any standard book I’ve ever seen. These are the sorts of things I’m looking for, something interesting and wonderful, rather than something that simply emulates and boosts a mechanical system from the game. The monsters fall into the this category as well, coming from the authors brain and having weird twists. Scorpion Squids, Giant Ooze Slug Brain with Spider Legs, Three-headed Sand Demon, Saber-Toothed Shadow Gator. This all places the adventure closer to the Psychedelic Fantasies/OD&D style than it does the mechanistic 2E/3E style … and that’s a very good thing.

It’s disorganized. It’s not obvious from the get go how the various events work together. Some of the events are stupid (like the sculptor who will destroy the world in an hour … and there’s no way to figure that out in advance.) It’s more of a collection of vignettes tied together with an OD&D Sword & Sorcery feel. This is right on the edge of me keeping it. I’m partial to city adventures, especially those cities with good factions/cults/etc, so I’m keeping it.

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Dungeon Magazine #58

Caveat Emptor
by Ted James Zuvich
Levels 3-6

A cut-rate magical dentist has infected her patients with lycanthropy. The party gets to track the victims down since the full moon is coming in a day. This is town adventure and starts well enough for the party: someone comes into the bar and tells them the dentists office is covered in blood. I have this thing for town adventures. The idea of the party as a gang of toughs, almost mob-like, controlling a neighborhood as “protection”, either in the sinister or do-gooder sense, appeals to me a lot. Unfortunately, I have SUCH an adverse reaction to “magical RenFaire” adventures that I can’t see past that. Magic dentist. A scroll taking magical dictation. These things appeal to me in gonzo-land but not in a non-gonzo adventure. Notably this adventure has an event chart. While that’s usually a good thing, in this adventure it used to time railroad events. “At 6:15 you have encounter #4. At 7:30 you have encounter #5.” The “hunt the victim’s” theme is a good one, and includes complications such as “how do we cure them once we find them?” but it’s WAY too wordy. The dentist office takes 2.5 pages to describe … and it has three rooms.

A Bad Batch of Brownies
by Lisa Smedman
Level 1 – Solo

An adventure for a single druid. I don’t review solo’s.

Challenge of Champions
by Johnathan M. Richards
Any Level

This is a funhouse “proving ground” adventure. All spells are on scrolls and all weapons provided, no armor, blah blah blah, which is how it’s an All Levels adventure. This is more X-Crawl then it is old school funhouse. 10 challenges, all of which are really puzzles of one sort of another. It’s hard for me to recognize this as an adventure; it’s more of an evening activity in my mind.

The Ghost of Silverhill
by Samuel Heath
Levels 1-4

This is a side-trek that has the party looking into a ghost in the hills, related to a tale a storyteller tells at the inn. There are two ghosts, both friendly, that lead to a cave in. You can put 1 to rest by burying him. There’s a nice magic item, a moonblade, but the party is bothered by elves if they keep it. The best part is gang of toughs in the inn that waylay the party on the way back. This would have been better had there actually been combat to weaken the party. The whole “attack you on the way back from the dungeon when you are weak” thing used to be a staple of adventures. It’s nice to see it back and to see it characterized as a gang of louts from the inn.

The Baron’s Eyrie
by Jason Kuhl
Level 3-7

This hits all of the required Ravenloft notes. There is some strong horror imagery associated with several of the encounters. There are evil baddies to talk to during a repulsive dinner. There are freaky-deaky things, like a full suit of armor that bleeds. It’s got a very nice “isolated inn in a great forest” vibe at the beginning, replete with palisade. The room descriptions are focused, as far as Dungeon goes. Almost all of them have something going on, or some point to them. The number of boring old “nothing here but I’ve provided two paragraphs of text about it” rooms is close to zero. There’s a bit of faction play and the fortress is a bit open-ended, because of the willingness of some of the folks in it to talk. There’s a ring that an NPC has that prevents the detection if lying, which is super lame, but the impact is minimal because of the railroady hook beginning. Once past it the adventure really shines. Fields of bone skeletons before the gates, piles of body viscera from dumped victims, ravenous feats … a nice Ravenloft adventure. There’s a bit of Dragonlance added in, which seems to add nothing and is easily removed.

The Menacing Lady
by Christopher Perkins
Levels 2-4

Vegapygmies in an herbal hospital in a city. Nice scene of fleeing nurses in the beginning. From there it turns into “where is the monster hiding in this room?” or “what weird thing is the monster doing in this room?” You eventually find a doctor inside who tells you of a cure elsewhere inside, and turn the pygmies back into people. A pretty simple & straight-forward adventure of looking at the bizarre thing in the room, coming up with a bizarre plan, and then moving on to the next room to repeat. Strangely, I don’t find this magical RenFaire adventure as odious as the magical dentist adventure. Herbs are more palatable? The nurses need more personality, since they have none.

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The Best Adventure Ever – 500 Reviews


Ye old Internets declares that my review blog is now four years old. I figure I’ve read and written reviews for about 1,100 adventures, if I include One-pagers and Dungeon Magazine. WordPress and RPGgeek think I just hit 500 reviews. It’s time, I think, to declare which adventure is The Best.

Declaring a Best Adventure is sure to be a nightmare. Best by what standards? Deep Carbon Observatory is a masters work, every word bent towards a purpose with a focus that’s hard to believe until you see it. I frequently look back on the Bowman/Sham levels in Fight On! magazine. Especially in the case of Spawning Grounds of the Crab-Men, it fits together elements that I can still recall years later. ASE1 brings to life the setting in a manner more vivid than a thousand other city/region supplements have failed and in far far fewer words. Welcome to Mortiston gets the town environment, with events, more right than any other I’ve seen. Stroh’s creativity, especially in Purple Planet, brings things to life in the minds eye. I could go on and on about Bull King, Slaughtergrid, or many of Finch’s work, Like Spire of Iron & Crystal. Naming all of those reminds me of how many I have NOT named but still rank as some of the best ever.

Maybe instead I mean “My Favourite?” I don’t know. Maybe. My “best” adventure is an adventure I always recommend. It’s my favorite to run at conventions. It’s my favorite for running with n00bs. It’s a great first adventure that sets the style and tone of the games to come. I’ve reviewed it before, but it was a part of a larger set of reviews and I don’t feel I gave it the spotlight it deserves. In poking around a bit, researching it for this review, it looks like the author only ever published this one adventure. Two other people helped out just a little bit, but it is at it’s core a one-shot DIY adventure from a person who never did anything else and only has a minor presence under their pseudonym. A nameless drifter showing up to do magnificent work and then disappearing has some romantic appeal as well, as does the appeal of the Everyman, representing all of those wonderful adventures that home DM’s come up with.

As of today, the best adventure of everything I’ve see is …

The Darkness Beneath Level 1: The Upper Caves
Fight On! Magazine #2
by Hackman, Calithena and David Bowman
Levels 1-3?

The adventure is tight, focused. And it invokes wonder.

More than any other adventure I’ve seen The Upper Caves channels wonder. The amazement of small child seeing something new, or one of those baby animal video when they encounter something mundane that is totally unexpected. More than any other adventure this adventure invokes the wonder of the first time you played D&D. The first secret door you found behind the bookcase. The first time eyes stared back at you in the darkness. So many people have very fond memories of those early TSR D&D modules. Nostalgia plays tricks with you. As adults we know there’s something false in nostalgia. The old adventures seem flat compared to the memories we have of them. This adventure fights that. Tomorrowland in Disney has the tagline the Future That Never Was. This adventure brings that nostalgia HARD. It does the impossible: it lives up to nostalgic memories we have of those first games of D&D.

For example:
4. There’s a small lake in this cavern with a waterfall going in reverse! The waterfall creates an anti-gravity effect in the lake which grows stronger the nearer one is to it.

The text goes on for a bit, but you get the idea. In another room a ball of fire rolls around it. In another there is an alligator statue that eats gems. There is NO appeal, at all, to standard mechanics in ANY of this. The effects are described to the DM, not ruled upon. There’s no explanation offered. In other adventures you’d see “Bob the 99th level MU cast Light, and Permanency, and Trigger, and then Delayed Blast and …” Explaining something robs it of its power. In D&D you want mystery. The mystery for the DM translates to the mystery for player. It’s open ended. No solution is presumed or implied. It Just IS … and the solution is yours to create. I fail. I utterly fail every time in trying to describe just what it is that makes those mundane descriptions awesome.

Let’s look at how this thing starts. There’s the opening paragraph that explains the setup … and that’s it. Eleven sentences. The introduction does four things. First, it give the purpose. This is the usual “first level characters” stuff, and places this first level of the megadungeon in context. Imagine that for a moment. A sixteen level community megadungeon introduced in just 2-3 sentences. That’s some tight ass editing. Focus. The second part of the introduction tells the DM what’s going on. “Troglodytes and Crabmen battle one another for supremacy, while a renegade Leprechaun and his ten Halfling minions play both sides against the middle. The Leprechaun will want to trick the party out of its goods (or use them to gain even more), but the Halflings are thoroughly evil and will probably try to kill the party outright if given the chance.“ Now the DM has the lay of the land. Factions. How the writer intended them when he put the words down. Perfect introduction to a dungeon level. It took two sentences. The third part of the introduction tells you how to the use the tables provided. The last sentence sets the mood. It’s one of my favorite lines ever. “Most of the areas are too large for a torch or lantern to fully illuminate, so the party will always feel exposed to the murky depths just beyond their present vision. I’d not wander off…” Revel in that sentence. What’s it bring to mind? The unknown. Danger. Mystery. Anxiety. It’s the exposure. It sets the mood perfectly for the DM to then communicate to the party as they explore … muck-farmers on their first foray underground. I’m going to come back to this theme, again and again.

Eleven sentences. The rest of the adventure doesn’t even need to be read. That’s right, after those eleven sentences you can start running the thing. You don’t even need to read the entire adventure and be familiar with it. You remember those words don’t you? They start just about every adventure ever written. Not this one bucko. This one is tight. You don’t need to read it ahead of time. Three pages of text and one more for a map. Two sheets of paper. The best adventure ever.

The items are wonderful. There’s this fist-sized orange gem. you can shoot fire bolts from it, for 6d6 damage. It you ever roll 12 or less damage then it burns out, melting the mage’s hand for damage. There’s this cursed plate armor that yells “HERE I AM!” when you get within 60’ of enemies. That’s brilliant! There’s a gold & ruby necklace worth 5000gp … an heirloom of a powerful lord in the area … it will draw attention is pawned. That’s great! Illuminator is a +1 sword, lawful, intelligent, ego=8, detects evil & gems and chaotic foes must save vs paralysis. it’s mission is to expose corruption among nobility, and it will withhold its powers if players don’t try to do that. after a while. Wonderful! Items that provide hooks to more adventure, with the magic sword being the most “normal.” Why adventures ever got away from providing interesting treasure is beyond me. Probably around the time got away from the players and began emphasizing the Plot. Bleech! I’m sure plot can be done well, but not to the exclusion of the players, and hooks.

I know I said you didn’t have to read it first. Maybe. There tend to be 9 or 10 rooms to a page. The rooms STICK. You look at them once, maybe just skimming them, and the entire concept of the room is lodged in your skull. You KNOW. From then on you need only glane at it and you know how to run it and what’s up. I really can’t emphasize this enough. These rooms stick with you.

There are fanciful appeals to old school tropes, like the random corpse table for the searching of the many corpses found on the map. It also defies a lot of what I conventionally note as Important Things In Design. In particular, some of the rooms can be wordy. But once read they stick. Forever more you understand, on a deep level, what that room is about and there’s no need to refer to text anymore while running … or minimal reference anyway.

There’s a lot of personal preference in this for me. What I like as Best may not be what you like. Deep Carbon Observatory, the Stroh DCC works … this may be more conventionally “Best”, or appeal to a larger group. But this adventure, with it’s quiet understated fully realized environment, an introduction for n00bs no matter how jaded, is the one I always think about nostalgically, and the one that lives us to that nostalgic feeling.

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Dungeon Magazine #57

To Cure a Kingdon
by John Hartshorne
Levels 8-10

This is one of those hyper-realistic environments and features an assault on an evil temple. You know the type this is: “the guards never look at the torchlit courtyard so they don’t destroy their nightvision” sort of thing. There’s good and bad in this. On the one hand there is plenty of advice on how the temple dwellers react. On the other you have to sit through yards of nonsense like “there’s a plumbing system that takes waste to the swamp” and other trivia. There has the potential for some large battles; groups of 48 lizard men or 16 giant spiders attack in the swamps on the way to the temple. There’s way too much read-aloud in the beginning, the “realistic” environment causes the room descriptions to be overly long and the traps overly elaborate. There are some nice magic items with nice effects. This needs a pruning but could be a nice addition to a mass-battle kind of campaign. Vikings, or nortlanders, or … man I really liked Vakhund. A Vakhund campaign addition. Man, that adventure was so borderline.

Carcass Fracas!
by Stephen J. Smith
Level 1

Uh … two thouls attack on a road. This is a side-trek? What’s next, a kobold you fight in a dungeon corridor? As an aside, “Brigands” are mentioned in the read-aloud. You should never say “Brigands” or “Bandits” in a game. It should always be “Jacks’s Gang” or “that mob of Bandy’s boys.” Specificity brings a world alive and genericism kills immersion.

The Rose of Jumlat
by Jeroen Grasdyk
Levels 3-7

While escorting a caravan you’re distracted and it’s ambushed. The party assaults a fortress to recover the jewel it carries. A very railroady beginning and a very railroady ending. The entire beginning can be thought of as the hook, as you’re railroaded all over the place so the caravan can be alone to get ambushed. The ending has an evil spirit, you’ve carried with you, fighting the big bad. The middle has a couple of highlights (tower of fire, tower of water) mixed in a lot of drudgery about sweet smelling privies. There’s some nice NPC descriptions in an ambush (a fat elf woman who uses small sharp knives, two twin brothers using javelins, etc) that calls to mind cheesy witty banter from GI Joe cartoons. That’s a nice little way to bring some additional color to an otherwise mundane ambush. The wondrous imagery of magical arabia isn’t strong enough to save this one.

The Murder of Maury Miller
by Cameron Widen
Level 1

I have some vague recollection of this one. There’s an arsonist in a small village that turns out to be a scarecrow. But it’s a good scarecrow, trying to draw attention to his murder. In life he was the miller, murdered by a corrupt tax collector. When presented evidence the king send you to apprehend the corrupt official. Way way WAY too much text here for such a short adventure. Let’s play a little game I call: Danger Wil Robinson! “Neutral characters will have trouble finding motivation to complete the adventure.” In lazy adventure writer speak this means “I couldn’t be bothered to think of any way to motivate the party.” Here’s another one: “There is nothing of interest or value to the PC’s here.” This means the reader has just ingested two paragraphs of text that has no bearing on the adventure.

Cloaked in Fear
by Peter C. Spahn
Level 3-5

Maybe the first published work by Peter Spahn? A cloaker is “haunting” a village and it’s cemetary. The party wanders around awhile as it gets hit & run attacks in. Nice “frightened villagers” thing going on, but Peter does resort to the tried & true “kill a friend of party to motivate them” tactic. You could probably make a great campaign around everyone the party interacts with, talks to, etc, dying shortly after they are met. This is one of the better side-treks, even if it is a DM torture porn adventure.

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Out of the Abyss

by Christopher Perkins, Adam Lee, Richard Whitters
Level 1

The Underdark is a subterranean wonderland, a vast and twisted labyrinth where fear reigns. It is the home of horrific monsters that have never seen the light of day. It is here that the dark elf Gromph Baenre, Archmage of Menzoberranzan, casts a foul spell meant to ignite a magical energy that suffuses the Underdark and tears open portals to the demonic Abyss. What steps through surprises even him, and from that moment on, the insanity that pervades the Underdark escalates and threatens to shake the Forgotten Realms to its foundations. Stop the madness before it consumes you!

This is a 250 page two-part adventure in the underdark that is, ostensibly, centered around demonlords. Some jackass drow cast a spell and now the demonlords have appeared in the underdark … but no one really knows that yet. The party starts off as prisoners, escapes, and makes their way out of the underdark, all in part one. In part two the party goes back into mess up the demonlords. It ends with a Royal Rumble, with each of the demonlords duking it out in a mass giant demonlord melee … that the party can determine the location of.

WOTC has given a couple of interviews in which they compare the underdark in this adventure to Alice in Wonderland. That is marketing nonsense; there is none/very little of that in this product. It is a serviceable adventure that will takes mountains of time to prep to play. It does a much better job than Hoard/Princes in presenting an adventuring environment, and even shines at times in some of the things it puts forward, especially with NPC’s and factions. It is quite weak in two ways: organization and what I’m calling, today, evocative specificity. In spite of this is manages to do an ok job presenting a sandboxy like environment with a plot. It’s light on railroads and heavy on needed DM prep … but maybe there is a way around that. As with all modern WOTC products, no one who has ever run a game at the table seems to have been involved in this product.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first and we’ll start with the organization of the product. There are roughly thirteen underdark locations descriptions, each in a separate chapter. There are also three of so “events” that get a separate chapter. Finally there are two chapters, one for the first “escape” half and one for the second “invade” half, that describe moving through the underdark. What there is not is an introduction or overview of the adventure to help you figure out what the F is going on. I’m a HUGE fan of plot coming out during play. Deep Carbon Observatory did this wonderfully. It was also much shorter and had no plot embedded in it. For a 250 page adventure with a plot there needs to be an overview that tells you how things work together.

The second part of the organizational problem lies with the chapters themselves, and more specifically with the locale chapters, which make up the majority of the book. They are laid out terribly. Each of these chapters is trying to do two things: describe the location and describe what happens at the location … to the party. This is the principal mechanism in which this sandbox has plot. You get to choose where you go, and what you do there, but there are events and motivations there as well, all related to the plot. The locale descriptions revolve around places, personalities, and factions … and it’s generally mixed in the plot portion. What you end up with a disconnected eventi-sh based description of the location. If the party doesn’t follow the script you’re left hunting the wumpus. Separating the two types of data would have been a much wiser decision, and allowed for better organization … which means better support for the DM. This is combined with ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE layout templates that WOTC is using for these. The headings, colors, size, break-outs, etc all run together. It is terrible from a “easy on the eyes/picking out what I need to” standpoint. I’m pretty sure Princes and Hoard used the same layout.

The end result of this is that the chapters are hard to read and understand. This is not an adventure you are going to be able to pick up, read through, and run at the table. There will be a lot of rereading, photocopying, note taking, reference sheet preparing, and so on. Combined with the sandbox nature, that MAY mean you need to do that for several locations at the same time in order to be able to deal with the party’s free will. Maybe. The one saving grace here is the “Travel in the underdark” chapters. The chapter locations are relatively far apart. Two to three weeks of travel to get between locations is not uncommon. This COULD mean that you could roll some random encounters in the Travelling chapter, etc, and that can serve as a breakpoint for the DM, giving them enough time to run content until the end of the evening and, presumably, a week off to prep the next location chapter. That’s not a valid excuse for the crap organization job of the chapters, but it is a decent workaround.

The second issue is a general lack of detail, or, perhaps, misplaced detail. The drow guards sleep on pallets. Gee, that’s exciting. Wouldn’t it be much cooler if they slept in spiderweb hammocks, or maybe cocoon pods? That would reinforce the Alice in Wonderland nature that WOTC claims to be present in the product. There are multiple examples of this all over the book. Choices are made to describe something in length and detail which is completely unjustified. Meanwhile, other things are left a little too open-ended for my tastes. For example, there’s an EXCELLENT wandering encounter with The Society of Brilliance. There are some “monsters”, each of which has an 18 int and is fluent in multiple languages. They are dedicated to solving the problems of the underdark. That’s about it. That’s a GREAT encounter, but with just a little more it would have been even better. Instead of paragraph after paragraph of detail that is meaningless, a sentence on the NPC’s personality and maybe the problem they are specializing in? That would have really brought these folks to life. There’s this fine line in providing inspiration to the DM. It’s easy to provide too little and, perhaps, claim it’s left to the DM. Frequently when something is TOO open-ended the mind can’t focus. By constraining things just a little the mind can then explode onward. Not a paragraph. Not “Doing the DMs job for them.” Not a bunch of read-aloud. Just a sentence more to narrow things down a bit. This adventure is much better than Hoard/Rise/Princes in this respect, but still pales in comparison to a well written adventure. Another nice example of this is the madness that is infecting the underdark as the demonlords influence grows. There was a great opportunity here to provide some bizarre examples in each locations of freaky stuff going on. Instead the madness manifests as “psychotic rampage” … over and over again. No OCD scenes. No random mandelbrots in blood, while blind. Nope, just Monster Screaming Demonlord Battlecry and Attacking. Seriously, just about every time they yell “For the faceless one!” and attack, or something similar. They didn’t even try and make it interesting. L>A>M>E The magic items are almost always just as lame. No Alice/demontainted stuff here. Generic book treasure. Yawn.

Obvious railroads are few, but jarring when you run into them. The locations are, otherwise a little formulaic. There’s this “random” cave in of the tunnel which blocks off your access, front and rear, but opens a side passage to a temple next door to the tunnel. Uh huh. Nice one there. [Aside: the temple is in the process of flooding. It could have been just a bit more obvious that you NEED to make it flood to get out.] There’s a second one also, AN EVENT, that clearly represents someone in a meeting saying “We really need a big finish for the first part of this adventure. What can you give me?” There’s this “the drow are chasing us” mechanic going on through the first half of the adventure. Choices the party makes will cause the drow to get closer or fall further behind. It’s GREAT … if only partially implemented. The location chapters have details on actions to cause the drow to advance/get lost, but they don’t have much in the way of how that manifests. As a result the party doesn’t really know they are being chased until the drow catch them. A small table at each location for how the various chase levels manifest would have been great. That’s that lack of detail thing again. Anyway, I digress. As the party are leaving he underdark they are attacked by the following drow who have caught up to them! That is a TERRIBLE thing to do. None of the parties choices have been meaningful. They’ve all been taken away in an instant because some jackass wanted a big combat scene as the party exit the underdark. That’s stupid and insulting. It stinks of the Hoard/Rise style instead of a more open-ended style from Phandelver and most of this adventure.

Things DO get a bit formulaic as well. Show up at a location. They try to capture you as slaves/arrest you/offer you a job. One factions, the leaders, want to suppress another faction …. invariably the one touched by the demonlords madness. It seriously happens every time in the first half. Capture you, offer you freedom if you kill the other faction. There ARE factions, sometimes more than two, and that’s GREAT. It offers wonderful opportunities. The lame captured/arrested/hired mission style of play IS one way to add plot to a sandbox … but it’s far too formulaic in this. The worse example is the dwarf city in which EVERYONE is trying to capture you as slaves or arrest you for any reason … so you can get offered your freedom in you go on a mission.

That’s a lot of negative, and I do tend to focus on the negative. On the positive side it IS a more open and less linear style of adventure and that’s very refreshing coming from WOTC. The presence of the factions EVERYWHERE is a great thing. There are memorable NPC’s, quite a few of which are willing to join your party. How about an intelligent gelatinous cube as a hireling? The first chapter, the prison break, starts you off in this regard with a HOST of fellow prisoners with different personalities, goals, and are quite memorable. [Too much of a good thing? The DM could get saddled with too many extras to run. Anything smelling remotely like “DM pet NPC” sets off a hair trigger for me.] The fungus level is a nice little place that is the closest to a “Bizarre/Alice” theme. The end of the adventure has each party member taking control of a demonlord for a titanic battle royale among the various demonlords. That alone is a nice end cap to a campaign. It DOES manage to marry plot to sandbox in at least a halfway decent manner that is NOT completely full of railroads. It does stretch its legs sometimes and get VERY good, such as with portions of the Society of Brilliance.

It’s worth noting as well that the adventure uses quite a few of “minor rules.” Madness, exhaustion, downtime activities … all are represented in the adventure. They’ve done a fairly good job integrating them in. Crossing an underground river? I bet someone wants to make a raft! Downtime activities. Similarly, the madness rules are used to help represent the incursion of chaos from the abyss and the impact it has on those nearby. These minor rules are presented well and integrated well into the adventure. They don’t feel like a tack on. Nor do they feel onerous as, say, the rules from Wilderness Survival Guide did. Instead they are abstracted to a degree that they are not a burden to play and, in fact, support it. Nicely done.

I would suggest that it’s the best adventure from WOTC since Phandelver. It’s going to take MAJOR work to prep the chapters/locations, but in the end you’d have something halfway decent to run. I just wish WOTC didn’t you work so hard to have fun. :(

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Dungeon Magazine #56

by Willie Walsh
Levels 10-12

This long-winded Celtic affair details the retrieval of a helmet from wizards lair. Saving the chieftains nephew and getting your mission takes many pages of text, after which follows a short jaunt through a forest. A simple wizards hut leads to a hidden wizard lair. The hook/chieftain part is VERY long, because everything has to be explained through Celtic light. The forest and hut are fantasy-lite, containing hints of what’s possible but never quite going all the way. The actual wizard’s lair is the most interesting part of this. It has lots of weird wizardy stuff to play with, a nice random library book table, a lab making healing potions, and so on. The imagery is pretty bland, but the attempt is there. The main enemy is a dragon that has taken over the house. Confronting the dragon is not necessary. There are a variety of options presented for follow-ons to the adventure; what the dragon does if the party does X, Y, or Z, for example. I like this. It feels like a third act is provided, even if it is just referenced slightly. Similar to the old “this passage goes to a cave of your own devision” thing from earlier modules, but more concrete. I’m big on providing gentle shoves to the DM and this is exactly the sort of thing I’m looking for at the end of an adventure. Guidelines. Anyway, good wizard lair bordering on funhouse, needing some descriptive help with a decent ending. The beginning is nice & Celtic, if overwrought.

Janx’s Jinx
by Kent Ertman
Levels 1-2

This is a nice low-key adventure with strong social elements. Hmmm, low-key is the wrong word. The party is not saving the world from evil necromancers. The situations feel real, and yet there is the element of the fantastic to the adventure. I like gonzo. I like funhouse. I also like folklore and the stuff that real people tend to do. This falls into the last category. A village is worried because their cattle have the foaming disease. No big deal, the cattle will get better, but the cattle having it means that the forest wolves will have it also, and it makes the wolves very aggressive. Thus the pretext is the wolf problem in the village. Both the cattle aspect to this and the wolf aspect make it a very real situation. “Yes, X is happening, and seems serious, but it’s not. It’s actually Y, the wolves.” This is augmented by some strong NPC descriptions in the village. Short but good, the NPC’s can add a lot to the play, and this is further augmented by a nice rumor table. The descriptions of the NPC personalities are evocative and terse and perfect for a DM to riff off of. A table of personalities would have been nice, but thats perhaps too much to be asking of Dungeon. To the “normal” aspect of the adventure (we’ll all Harn-like up until this point) is then added an albino elf riding on a blink dog, and the dog has been infected. Further, a temple is added which has unusual properties (and a goddess that takes no shit if you try and abuse the effects!) An albino elf riding a dog has a strong folklore vibe going on, and the temple shows that the writer, Ertman, understands how to keep a party under control. The adventure is a bit wordy, and could use some support material, but it’s overall very real and very human. Mass wolf attacks on a village, with the human drama of a few farmer thrown in, is not low-key at all.

A Watery Death
by J. Lee Cunningham
Levels 7-10

I loathe these sorts of things. It’s one combat with some water monsters on a bridge/in a lake/stream/ruined keep. The party undertakes a mission for 1000gp. They are 5 or 6 10th level characters doing a delivery run for 1000 gp? It’s hard to be objective when the pretext is so lame. Combined with the awful “this happens because they are wearing an amulet of blah and then this happens because they are …” … IE: the adventure feels the need to explain EVERYTHING. It’s like some Rube Goldberg type thing in it’s complexity in order to get something trivial to happen.

The Bigger They Are
by Steve Johnson
Levels 2-4

Third verse same as the first. Just like the last one, this is a convoluted setup that involves a pitched battle with overly complicated plans. A quickling lures the party in to his home and then tries to capture them to feed to his giant spiders. It involves some of my favorite elements, such as: forcing the party to take a certain path by making the other path impossible to travel via DM fiat, a mushroom house with 18 different reason why the party can’t cut it or climb it or dig in it or do anything else they may want to do except go in the door like the DM wants them to, and a Drizzel Durden references. Fairies have an unfair reputation of being DM torture porn. This does nothing except annoy the characters for showing up that night to play.

Grave Circumstances
by Bill Slavicsek
Dark Sun
Levels 5-7

Hrumpf. A linear adventure to chase a defiler. Get sent on a mission north to find new city states. Have a couple of encounters. Make a rep, maybe. Rep gets the attention of a bandit lord. Bandit lord wants you to pursue defiler. Defiler is in temple in the wastes, with a troll. End. I know Dark Sun treasure is sparse, but it’s REALLY sparse in this. Trade caravans with nothing in them? Not on purpose, like it’s a fake caravan, but rather no details at all. At first this seemed like a great way to expand a campaign to the north to find more city states, but after the entire thing goes down it’s just another Also Ran. There’s nothing in this of substance. Just some encounters, loosely connected. Boring Dark Sun, who wouda a thunk it?

The Lane of Men with Tails
by David Howery
Levels 5-7

A jungle adventure out of Fort Thunder. An important mans son has gone missing after searching for a golden idol in a lost city and you’re sent to bring him back. There are unfriendly headhunters and friendly pygmies along the way. The ruined city hosts an evil tribe. There are some large pitched battles in this, and an opportunity for stealth/a planned assault at the city ruins, both of which are very good elements. The imagery is hit & miss, with skulls piled around altars and corpses in trees being high points. It’s really wordy, but opened ended in a way that’s quite nice. I like the idea, but the implementation is not the greatest.

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DCC #87 – Against the Atomic Overlord

by Edgar Johnson
Goodman Games
Level 5

For a thousand years Mezar-Kul has known only war, and now the Overlord reigns supreme. From his gargantuan metal fortress he rules the blasted remains of the planet’s last city. Hope seems lost – until visitors arrive from a distant world, bringing uncanny, magical powers. Your adventurers must pick a path through twisted ruins, ancient missile silos, strange monorail systems, and a conflict with four deadly factions to save a world – or destroy it!

This is a frustrating sandbox adventure set on another planet, with mostly technology/Gamma World theming. In a ruined city, with faction, the party is asked to seek out The Great Egg and use it against The Overlord. It is presented in some confusing style that is part sandbox and part linear. There’s something here, but it’s poorly organized … some maddingly generic-but-specific thing going on. My head hurts.

The party is transported to the ruined planet. The pretexts given are all pretty light. “They find a spaceship,” or “A book transports them.” While I’m sure that, yes, one of those things can/could happen, they are quite generic. For example “The party finds a device capable of transporting them to Mezar-Kul.” Well, yes, true. But really very interesting, is it?

That same sort of thing happens time & time again in the adventure. Very specific read-aloud for rooms the party is likely to never encounter, combined with generic imagery and prose. “Itai promises rich rewards from the Spider Goddess.” Well … While perhaps factually true it’s not very interesting for the DM. That last bit is supposed to be the main motivation for the party. It’s not very inspiring, for the DM, is it? From that you need to create some rich rewards for the party.

That little bit is from when the party meets the leader of the first of four factions in their area. When the party arrives on planet they are immediately attacked by The Overlords troops. (Faction: Evil Bad Guys.) This first faction, their arrival having been foretold, comes to the parties rescue, and escorts them to their leader whereupon they get their mission, Along the way are a couple of more Overlord attacks. The party isn’t forced to ally/accompany with the first faction, but it’s what most groups would probably do.More on this “sandbox but not” nature later.

The first factions base is weirdly described. The various rooms get, essentially, two descriptions: one if you came willingly and one if the group is invading. This sort of weirdly specific read-aloud/descriptions is present in many areas. It’s as if the adventure can’t decide what it wants to be: a sandbox or linear. The best possible reading is that a headquarters is presented for each of the factions, along with some descriptions of their mini-bases. The problem with this is the weirdly specific text, combined with the overall genericness. It’s like the emphasis of the development was given to the wrong areas.

The four factions are well-detailed in their motivations, goals, and how they react to the party and each other. It is a little repetitive, but the information on the factions is very good, even if the “bases” are ignored. They feel distinct and the information is more than enough to mox things up a bit with the players and work on an ad-hoc basis.

The adventure doesn’t tie itself together very well, or present much additional data beyond the linear path assumed to be taken. The “reward” section above is a good example. The directive for detonating the egg (the Mcguffin) , and controlling its energies, while key to the adventure, doesn’t seem to come out anywhere. Nor does the reaction between the first faction and the faction that has the egg. It’s almost like someone assumed that there would be an additional section of data/background provided, but it was never completed/included. You can kinda figure out what the plan was, but …

In addition, going off script doesn’t get much support. Yes, you can strike off on your own and there IS an encounter table, but it’s more of the same very high level generic stuff. Some additional flavor regarding faction encounters, or the like, would have been a welcome addition to the wandering tables.

This is a frustrating adventure. You can kind of figure out what is supposed to go on, but it clearly could have organized better. There’s also a distinct lack of relevant color & flavor. The bush gets described (your mileage may vary on the quality of the description) but the core elements gets abstracted in to boring facts. I like facts. I also like color. Two great tastes that go great together. But not here.

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