Hoard of the Dragon Queen [5e]

hd

Wolfgang Baur & Steve Winter
WOTC
D&D 5E
Levels 1-7

In an audacious bid for power the Cult of the Dragon, along with its dragon allies and the Red Wizards of Thay, seek to bring Tiamat from her prison in the Nine Hells to Faerun. To this end, they are sweeping from town to town, laying waste to all those who oppose them and gathering a hoard of riches for their dread queen. The threat of annihilation has become so dire that groups as disparate as the Harpers and Zhentarim are banding together in the fight against the cult. Never before has the need for heroes been so desperate.

This is an 8-episode adventure that is, generally, not very good. It’s not the episodic nature, that I can accept. WOTC wants to run D&D at game stores every week and to do that they need episodic content. I get that. I might quibble that they could do better at the episodic nature and making it feel less railroad, but I get it. No, the adventure is of lower quality because it feels like a 4e episodic adventure. Here’s a monster. Go fight it. Next! A potentially exciting and dynamic environment is introduced! And then they screw it up with the details … or lack thereof. As a DM & player you have a lot choices in what system you play and which of the tens of thousands of published adventures you play. There is no reason to play this except for “it’s what everyone else is playing at the game store on Wednesday night.” That’s a shame.

I see a few major issues with the adventure. First, it’s generic. It’s very non-specific, so much so that it seems like the designers are actually afraid of offering details. They will provide reams of data on the over-arching story and plot but then when you get to the actual adventure there are words like “throw a couple of encounters at the players” … with nothing else present. Or they clearly have an idea of how the adventure should proceed, like with the lizard man allies in episode 6, but are terrified of being accused of railroading. This extends to the descriptions, which are almost universally uninspiring. They feel flat and boring. The magic items are completely generic “ 1 sword”, and the titular HOARD of the Dragon Queen is actually abstracted throughout most of the adventure. The text does not inspire you, the DM, and that may be the most important sin.

It is very rare for me to complain in a review about formatting I care much more about the content and the imagination present in the adventure, but this time I feel I need to. They have chosen a very conversational style that contributes to a Wall of Text issue. There is not enough use of offsets and bullet lists and the like to allow the DM to reference important information quickly. This conversational style confusion tends to mix with some some poor choices for organization of text. In episode 8, for example, the first part involves getting in to the castle, but this information is scattered throughout the text of the first part.

Three ARE issues with railroad, with lack of player agency, with villain monologues and “pass a skill roll if you want to go on the adventure”, but these are minor and more easily fixed, both by the DM and by the designers in the next adventure.

Episode 1 – Town under Siege

While pursuing the most generic hook known to man: caravan guard. In the first 2 D&D products that’s twice now that it’s been used. Time to maybe branch out and try a hook with some life to it? And both times it’s been a complete throwaway. The hook is literally “maybe the players are caravan guards.” That’s pretty lame. So lame that it makes me think they are pushing some kind of agenda. Idle speculation is idle though; in the end the hook is lame and reflects badly … but accurately foretells what it to come. Generic Lameness. You come upon a town being looted by monsters! Mercenaries, kobolds, and a dragon zoom about through the streets! Oh’s No’s! You’re then presented with 8 little encounters to run, one of which should be done first. The first is a family being chased by kobolds. The goal is to rescue the family and then they’ll tell you to take them to the central keep, where in you can pick up the rest of the missions. The kobolds ignore you, thinking you are their allies. If you escort the family to the keep then you are the last ones through before the gate is barred right before the keep is surrounded by enemy forces. It all smacks me as a little … forced. Look, yeah, I know why. You want to give the players missions to do. But there should be LOTS of ways to do that without forcing them in to the keep and setting up some kind of EPIC MOMENT when the gates are barred behind you. What about the same thing in the church? Or a family in a cellar? Or any of a dozen other things that could have been added? But no, rather than the thing being run as a dynamic environment with brief suggestions it instead has to be run as a railroad. BULL. SHIT.

Like I said earlier, I could quibble with the nature of how the episodes are done, and make comments on how they could be less railroady … but … ok, I guess I just did. The GENERIC content though is what breaks this. There is something that quite literally looks like a skill challenge. To sneak through town you need to make stealth checks. For every two you have a random encounter. Ok, that’s not bad. It even makes sense! But then the encounters … ug! 6 kobolds. 6 cultists. 2 cultists and an acolyte. That’s what passes for CREATIVE CONTENT from Wolfgang & Winter. Seriously? You get exactly one interesting option: 1d6 townsfolk being hunted by raiders. That’s it. That’s something a DM can work with. But just a generic list of monsters? Why the hell did they even both? Give the thing some life! How about those 6 kobolds have a wagon piled high with bed frame and dressers? Of the bandits are rolling some kegs of ale down the road? It wouldn’t kill you to add a single sentence each and it would do WONDERS to help bring the scenes to life.

This same thing is the problem with the rest of the first episode. The encounters are presented as generically as possible. Yes, the DM must bring the encounter to life, we all know and accept that. But the designers job is to give the DM the tools to do that. To help them. This don’t do that. The vast majority of the text is spent on bullshit superfluous text instead of communicating an evocative and dynamic encounter. “The Cult of the Dragon led by dKJSDFKHD KDFgwkDGF the high K:WDH:KE:H of K@WGKEGKE@ is …” Ug! How about instead you tell me that the encounter with the dudes at the stream bank has them about to drown a group of townsfolk? That would be cool! That create something to work with! The issues extends to the maps, or lack thereof. The church, mill, stream bank, are all supposed to be exciting encounter locations. I can understand not want to enable the tactical miniatures boardgames crowd, but it wouldn’t kill you to provide a small map of the environment with some interesting shit on it for the players to key off of. Reeds to hide behind! Slippery bank! Steep dropoff! Pile of hay, smoldering!

If you put “the party will encounter 3 groups of kobolds on the way to the inn” in the adventure then that is exactly what is going to happen in AP. The asshat DM is going to say “ok, you encounter kobolds, Roll init” and then they are going to say it twice more. I know the rules can’t cure stupid, or a bad DM, but you can at least give the tool something to work with. “You encounter a group of kobolds rolling ale barrels down the road.” That provides SO many more options!

You get glimpses every now and then that they are trying. The Governor, wounded, trying to marshall a desperate defense … but it’s just a glimpse and then it’s gone. Rather than coming across as a desperate town under siege with a beleaguered leader instead you get generic-ville, population YOU. :(

I don’t get it. Standards & Practices maybe? I’m not asking for full on gore mode but there’s hardly any flavor here at all.

Oh, wait, wait, I forgot. Governor MORON gets pissy at you if you’ve done something that caused the death of one of the townsfolk. Jerk moron NPC. I suggest gutting him.

Also, what’s with the duel? You put a solo PC up against a monster that they can’t possibly win against … and then if they actually manage to do so they are rewarded by the creature just reappearing later on. “Replace him with another 1/2 dragon warrior if the party manage to defeat him.” So …. The parties actions have no consequences … is that the message you are trying to send?

Episode 2 – My, grandma, what a generic camp you have!

This has the party gathering some information about the raiders base camp, after dealing with a couple of rear-guards. The problem with the content here is much the same as the first episode … the lack of it.

The mission is not bad, just a brief synopsis from THE GOVERNOR, but then it quickly spirals down with the multi-paragraph exposition from a monk who wants you to do something for him. How they decided what to bore the players with and what to generalize is not clear. The governors paragraph is written as DM text and points out the particulars he’d like you to follow up on. But the monks text is all read-aloud. “We fought a particularly savage battle against the raiders.” Uh huh. Nobody talks like that. It’s too long and feels stilted. SHOW, don’t TELL. “I lost sight of brother Maltese while Brother Carl was being gutted by these two mercenaries in purple.” See how much better that is? The governors text is straightforward and fact-based, without ANY embellishment at all. No “sitting at his camp table, surrounded by aides” or “speaking to the players while getting gangrenous arm removed.” That’s the entire problem with this adventure. No Soul.

The first of the rear-guard action is with some stragglers. This isn’t too badly done. Cultists and kobolds cooking some stolen chickens over a fire, the humans bullying the kobolds …. So the designer tried, and does better than usual with this, adding some specificity to the encounter to allow the DM to visualize it and bring it to life for the players. But even then … “bullying.” Wouldn’t it be better if the scene was cemented more in the DM’s and players head? The humans grabbing a bird from the kobold and kicking over the stewpot, laughing while the kobolds scrambled to pick up the pieces from the dirt to eat?Look at how few words that took and how much better it is.

The actual rearguard is lame as all get out. It could use a little map and some extra life, like they chuck boulders down on people, or there’s a streamed to follow or ALMOST ANYTHING AT ALL. The content is “make a DC check based on what you know. You see the ambush from X distance away,.” Screw. That. I’m being totally serious. There is NO creative content at all in this section. It’s just presented as a boring and mundane fight with no details beyond who is fighting you. It is one of the lamest things I have ever seen from a big name publisher. They should be ashamed of themselves for asking for money for this.

The raiders camp, I hate myself for even typing something so uninspiring, has brief flash of things going on, but they quickly dissipate in a mess of WALL OF TEXT. There’s this great thing they do where every time they are communicating info that a cultist would know they say something like “the cult of dragon – blessed be her glory – is on the way to destroy the world! The whole ‘insert the crazy catchphrase” thing is fun, as is the silly cultist salute of wiggling fingers. And … that’s it. It’s clearly written to be explored exactly one way: pretend you belong there. There is a lip service sentence or two about other options, but the VAST VAST majority of the text assumes you just walked in and they don’t recognize you don’t belong. There are references to a cave with hatchlings in it … but no details. There are references to a leader … but no details. In fact YOU ARE EXPLICITLY KEPT FROM INTERESTING The leaders tent is guarded by some guards who do not let ANYONE in. They do not fall for tricks. Period. It says so EXPLICITLY. We put this totally interesting thing on the map, this thing that is totally relevant to your adventure/mission, and then explicitly do everything possible, including fiat, to keep you from it. What planet are the designers from? Again, flashes of brilliance “maybe one of the officers assigns you to a few hours of food prep”, but not NEARLY enough of it. And, “peel potatoes while carving Tiamat heads in to them” is much more fun than “food prep.”

The conversational style of the text also stood out in this section. I don’t usually complain about formatting issues, but the style chosen here is crazy. There are details buried all throughout the text of the sections, buried in long paragraph descriptions. You’re going to have to pull out a highlighter and ready it several times and take notes in order to run the thing effectively. I don’t see how it’s possible to refer to the text effectively during play at all. I don’t get this choice at all. It’s like they are purposefully obfuscating what’s going on in order to comply with some design directive to be “conversational.”

Episode 3 – The Return of the Suckitude

Back in town the guy you were sent to rescue (you did rescue him, didn’t you? I mean, if you didn’t then the hook is not possible, so I hope you rescued him …) wants you to go back to the camp and look around some more. He’s got some cash. Uh … are the designers even trying? It’s like they just slapped down the first thing that came to mind and didn’t give any thought to this at all. Why are you going? Because that’s the adventure we’re playing tonight and if you want to play then say “Yes.” That can be valid sometimes but there’s a spectrum here and the hook for episode 3 is WAY down at the “bad” end of it. Here’s a quote: “If the party accepts …” Uh … what if they don’t accept? It’s the combination of a lame railroad that isn’t trying at all that is asserting it’s NOT a lame railroad that’s not trying at all that is frustrating for me.

The game is generally abandoned when the party returns. There’s a neutral encounter in camp, but it’s written in such a confusing way that you don’t realize the opportunities at first. There are some SCOUTS hanging around at the abandoned camp site acting as hunters. It turns out that the evil cultists hired some woodsmen to go bring in game meat for them and they are still there, brining in game meat for the dudes in a cave. They are gruff and taciturn unless you have a ranger, etc. They are just dudes doing a job and don’t give a shit what you do to the camp. AND THAT’S IT. That’s the description. This could be a knock-it-out-of-the-park NPC encounter. The designers have introduced a faction, and factions mean social opportunities and social opportunities in D&D mean FUN! Another two sentences, with a name or a quirk, or something idiosyncratic, could have turned this in a rock-star level encounter. But instead the general trend of “no detail” is continued. I don’t get it. I don’t understand. WHY? Why is there such a lack of ANY detail that would make the adventure stand out and be memorable? I’m not asking for an epic set-piece. Those are forced and generally suck. But why not give enough to INSPIRE the DM running the encounter to greatness. That’s your job as the designer. Why aren’t you doing it?

You learn that the only people left in camp are the hunters and the dudes in the dragon hatchling cave (Ah! So that’s where it is! In episode 3! Now I know why the area was completely locked and unavailable in episode 2! Because it wasn’t on the railroad yet!) The thirteen or so encounters in the dragon hatchling cave are some of the worst that I have ever seen. Ok, maybe that’s hyperbole. Maybe it’s not factually correct. But that’s how I feel as I sit here typing this, the book next to me. I am absolutely crushed that they suck so much. I can recall one, maybe two, being interesting. “The cavern below is carpeted with a profusion of fungi ranging from a few inches high to nearly as tall as an adult human.” That’s what suffices for a description of one of the more fantastic of all D&D environment: a fungi garden. Think of all of those WONDERFULLY evocative images … and then think back to that sentence. Go ahead, do a google image search on D&D fungi garden. Then go back and read that sentence again. There is NONE of the magic from those images in that sentence. Where’s the wonder? Where’s the FANTASTIC? Where the magic of D&D and your imagination? Not here. The designers can’t be bothered to communicate that.

Oh, wait wait! Here’s a good one! You know that moron dragon warrior that killed on of your dudes in that TOTALLY set up and LAME duel in the first episode? Here’s in here again! If you killed him, then it doesn’t matter, there’s another replacement dude in here! BECAUSE YOUR ACTIONS AS A PLAYER DON’T MATTER. Oh, and let’s say you didn’t fight him. Let’s say you snuck through camp in episode 2. Dude don’t really know you at all. “You look familiar …” he says “I’ve seen you around camp” Hey! This is going well! We might be able to bluff, or get some info! Uh … no. That’s not the STUPID RAILROAD you are on charlie! “If you came looking for trouble then I am the trouble you seek!” and he attacks immediately. Yup. You’ve taken the time to be thoughtful and careful and sneak and bluff and get in good with the enemy and you’ve even gotten on the dental plan and … and you are rewarded by him attacking you outright. BECAUSE YOU ACTIONS AS A PLAYER DON’T MATTER. This is SO insulting. I am so disgusted. Et tu, Wolfgang?

Again, there are bits and pieces of greatness here. There’s he standard “swarming bat room” but this time it’s got some stirge mixed in. All Hail Discordia! Wonderful. There’s also a nice trap that seems right out of 1973: a curtain of fur strips, much as in a meatlocker, but with a lot of small fishhooks in it covered in poison. That’s AWESOME! It has started with an idea: “wouldn’t it be cool if …” and then someone has attached some mechanics to it. That’s SO much better than saying “I need a trap. How about 2d6 … let’s see, a pit with spiked in the bottom.” The imagineering is clearly coming first in the fishhook curtain and I LOVE it.

But the rest? It’s like it’s been run through the generic-izer, or that it’s been outsourced to someone else who is just going through the motions. Like the fungi cavern, it’s as if they just don’t care at all about an evocative environment. I’m not talking about reams of text being present, but rather inspirational text. The dragon hatchery is just … I don’t know … not present? “The chamber that opens at the bottom of the stairs is immense. WA wide ledge runs along the left wall and drops away in to a pit on the right. Many stalactites descend from the ceiling.” Congratulations; you’ve said nothing of consequence. You’ve stated boring and mundane facts without any inspiration or imagination behind them. Ad this is the dragon , one of the core focuses in this episode!

Episode 4 – Frustrating Potential

This episode may have more potential energy than anything I’ve seen in a great while. It’s also extremely frustrating in it’s ambiguity. And it’s outcome. At issue is the design guidelines they’ve chosen. They’ve tried to lay out a very non-specific adventure with specifics for you, the DM, to liven things up. When combined with the conversational style of the writing it comes across as “Hey, maybe you could have a farmer go to bed one night.” I think I get what they are trying to do. They are trying to lay out a general adventure and then suggest things that could happen. Kind of like the OLD MERP products. Here’s this cool awesome keep and maybe in third age the ghost of a gully dwarf attacks. But then that’s the problem. It’s like this product is trying to straddle the line between two different type of products. Is it s a module an/or guidebook? A product describing a general place very generally and then suggesting, in very grand and remote terms, some adventures that could take place there? Or is it meant to assist the DM in running a 2-hour D&D game every Wednesday night? The former implies that I, the DM, has to spend 6 hours preping the game with maps, creating monster encounters, making notes, highlighting, filling in details, and all of that. The second implies that a decent amount of the work has been done for me. Both are valid. But the product is clearly MEANT to be the second while instead doing the former … and not very well at that.

Remember that the cult was gone from the camp in episode 3? In this one the party chases the cult to track down where their wagons of stolen loot are going. You take a river journey to “catch up” with them in Baldur’s Gate and then join a massive wagon train/caravan, which happens to include the cult along with a lot of others non-cultists, on their way to the next major waypoint. There are lots of NPC’s provided and lot’s of general ideas provided on things that could happen along the way. Ultimately though, the entire point of this episode is … for an NPC to kill another NPC so the cult can think negatively of the party. Yes, it’s a movie. Nothing the party does is important. Oh, sure, you can fun watching the stuff unfold, but it’s just a Disney ride: sit in the car and watch the events unfold. THAT’S NOT D&D! How much time & effort online has been spent debunking these grand epic movies? It’s can’t be foreign to Kobold Press, Wolfgang, and Steve, that is is just about the worst possible thing that can happen in an adventure. “Oh look, the DM’s pet NPC is fighting the DM’s villain NPC. My, aren’t they awesome. YAWN” And I don’t want to hear anything about how it needs to happen to set up the encounters in the next episodes. If that’s the requirement then you’ve done a pretty piss poor job of designing an adventure, episodic or not.

This episode runs about ten pages. The first three or so are a total waste of space. They detail you coming back to town from episode 3, getting horses to ride ahead to another town, and then having a god-aweful adventure in an inn. In the inn you meet a boisterous tool who wants to test you. If he’s favorably impressed then, after day or so of this, he takes you a back room to talk to two faction bosses. This is quote from one of the faction bosses: “thanks to you we know double what we knew a tenday ago.” Yeah? Then why did we put with that NPC shits antics in the inn? You’ve been back here the entire time in your room letting us screw around with your lackey tool when you’re about to send us on a urgent & time-sensitive mission? Oh, hey, what if we didn’t partake or your reindeer games? What if we don’t favorable impress your NPC lackey? I guess he never takes us to the backroom so we can play D&D tonight? Is that it? This kind of inane design is all over the adventure, in most of the episodes. It’s written exactly one way. Again, I understand it’s episodic, but that’s no excuse for the poorly written content INSIDE of each episode. Ok, still screwing around … dude sends you downriver to Baldur’s Gate where you’re to hire on to a massive caravan that will also include the cultists, in disguise. There is reams of detail in these three pages, almost none of which contribute to an interesting adventure or an evocative environment. Just reams of intentions and why’s and histories in an attempt to explain absolutely everything that is happening. A little of that may be fine, but even better is when it’s done in such a way that the party can impact things. That is relevant to the interactions the players characters will have. Content needs to SUPPORT actual play, not be full of useless detail that or detail that will never come up. “But it could come up!” So could the dietary requirements of the present king of France, but that’s not appropriate for the designers to burn words on either.

The maddening part is … there’s some good stuff in here! There’s an actual open-ended encounter or two in this, such as The Golden Stag , that inspires the imagination, is not forced on the party, and is open-ended. It’s one of the best encounters in the episode, and in the first four episodes. There’s something like 26 or so NPC’s presented for the party to interact with. There are a dozen or so encounter ideas for the party to have in their journey along the road. It’s all GREAT. There’s more content here than you could ever use in a 2 hour D&D encounters game session. You could easily work this shit for four or 6 or eight hours before it got old. The NPC”s are great, the encounter suggestions are great … well …. I mean … except for the fact that nothing happens. To over summarize, the NPC’s are described in some words like “taciturn but treats his horses well.” or “friendly but aloof and mistreats his draft animals.” This is then supplemented by some road events. “Someone tries to buy something from a PC at far too low a price. It goes missing that night. A third party stole it.” There’s actually a paragraph or so for each PC and a paragraph or two for each encounter. But then generalizations of the encounters are accurate: SOMEONE is interested and SOMEONE else stole it. It’s up to you to decide who. This is where the whole “here’s a bunch of parts. Enjoy putting them all together” thing comes in to play. The lack of any specific inspiration for these encounters makes them poor encounters. “It’s D&D! You can do anything!” is all fine & great, but a persons mind works better to fill in the details when you given a little constraint. IE: too much open-ended-ness does not lead to imagination but rather to generic dullness. This is further exacerbated with statements like “go ahead and insert a monster encounter or two along the way.” Hey, Wolfgang, I’m paying YOU for YOUR imagination. I could come up with own adventure if I wanted to do the work. That’s not the point of me dumping you, Kobold, and WOTC the $35 I paid for this. How about YOU use YOUR prodigious skills to add some life & flavor to things?

It’s also a bit frustrating that the cultists are portrayed as faceless villains. They are just referred to a “cultists” instead of “Bob the cultists who loves Tiamat and has a daughter in Baldur’s Gate.” This is notable in two regards. First, there are SO many naked personalities in this episode that the lack of names/personalities for the cultists really stands out. They become the faceless and generic enemy. “Kill them and take their stuff.” I’m fine with murder hobo’ing, but that’s not what this episode is. It’s one long social encounter. A mini-village on wheels. To not provide the cultists anything close to a face in an environment in which you are forced, over several weeks, to socialize with them, is a grave mistake. If I recall correctly, the cultists in … Against the Reptile Cult, all got a sentence of personality, and that’s part of what made the adventure fun. Again, it was a social adventure, in a village.

Finally, the railroad aspects are really bad. I guess they wanted some kind of epic story arc where you hit all of the wonder of continent, and thus had to get the PC’s on the road from place to place and away from the sleepy, destroyed, town they started in. But there’s no impact you can have. Two days before town is reached one of the NPC’s kills a cultists. Nothing can be proved, but the cultists believe it was one of the party members. That’s the goal of this episode. Want to kill the cultists? Want to loot their treasure wagons? Want to get friendly with them or convert? Want to do good and strike a blow and defeat the cult, like a goodey goodey adventurer? woah, Woah, WOAH! That’s not the railroad pal! A few sentences on this, and how it would fit in to the longer arc, would have been much more welcome and supported play much better than the bullshit ’test’ at the inn.

Episode 5 – Of Mice & Mensch

In contrast to the last episode this one is feels very light. It weighs in at three or so pages and details a roadhouse. Once arriving in the destination city the cultists hire on to a DIFFERENT wagon train going north to a way-station/roadhouse. It’s being used by crews rebuilding the road to Neverwinter. But the cultists are also using it to offload their treasures. They stash their loot there and in the middle of the night some lizard men sneak in to fetch it. The party is still on the “find out where the loot is going” mission, and thus they need to figure out where the is and where its going … and thus how its getting out of the roadhouse.

The introductory text here is not very strong. It’s supposed to communicate that the cultists “hire on” to another caravan going north, the Road Crew. This entire section is confusing in relating that information. That’s really just a matter of some better editing. More serious is the ten-day journey to the roadhouse. There are supposed to be a few encounters with creatures along the way, but they belong to the throw-away category of adventure design. “1 troll” or “2 ogres” or “8 giant frogs.” Stunning design guys, really stunning. “But that’s not the focus! It’s an investigation in the roadhouse!” Then why’s it in the adventure? If it’s in the adventure then it needs to contribute to the play. If it’s not doing that then it needs to be changed and/or removed. <— Period. I refuse to put up with encounters being abstracted away like this. Why not just tell them to roll on the table in the book? Why not just roll a d6 and on a 1-4 announce that the party won and had a good time? (On a 5-6 you get to re-roll.) There IS a nicely abstracted mechanism to handle the NPC guards also along for the trip. Roll 1d4-2; that’s the number of NPC guards who died in the encounter, while fighting their own batch of monsters. That’s a nice simple abstraction.

Speaking of abstraction … this is now the THIRD time the party will have seen the exact same cultists. The same nameless, faceless cultists with no personalities. Again, during another SOCIAL adventure in ANOTHER caravan during an investigation which is, by it’s very nature, SOCIAL. The height of this absurdity in design decision-making comes at one of the major events in this section: a duel. The cultist killed in episode 4 had a good friend. The good friend calls someone in the party, insults them, and attacks, out for blood. There’s supposed to be some build-up to this. Bad looks, stink eye, slights, and so on. But the villain here is just totally unnamed. A VETERAN (i.e.: use the veteran monster stats.) The pronoun used indicates it’s a woman. That’s it. No Name. No personality. NOTHING. This is what is supposed to inspire the DM to run a great encounter? And RIGHT before this encounter is listed there’s another one, a little throw-away thing, that DOES finally give one of the cultists a personality: a 1/2 elf who’s is stealing from the cult. Holy Smokes! Not all of them are blood-thirty fanatics?!? Look, I wouldn’t mind if they all were 1-dimensional, I’d just stab them in the face anyway, but if you’re going to force the party to interact with them over 6-8 hours of real time then support the DM in that endeavor. That’s your job, to support the DM.

This sort of thing is maddening. There’s a captain of the guard listed by name but with no other details. (What, there’s a captain of the guard?! Does he like the boss of the roadhouse, who’s secretly a cultist? I mean I’m certain that the players are VERY unlikely to appeal to him if they find out the boss is cultist … they’d never do that …right? Appeal to the authority who has a lot of guards at his disposal? Waaaaiiiittttt….) There’s a treasure room. Getting in to it is going to be one of the major goals of this episode. Elsewhere it EXPLICITLY says this is where ALL of the valuables in camp are stored. The rooms makes no mention of that at all. NONE. That’s not on the railroad. That’s not what the designer wants you to do. If you pay REALLY close attention you get the impression these are rough and tumble laborers in the roadhouse. Mention is made several times of how certain party actions could result in the loss of face, etc, with the people there. They “humiliate” or “treat badly” the people they think are cowards, weak, thieves, etc. But that’s all we get. No “they bump in to you at dinner, spilling your food. The cook says he’s out if you want more.” or “Someone has pissed in your bunk” or anything like that Just a few sentences like that would have made all the difference between a generic adventure and something memorable that the players will remember. Give me, the DM, a cue. One sentence: piss in your bunk. I can work with that. I can work it in. I’m inspired and my mind can fill in the rest. The EXTREME lack of specificity leaves things too open-ended, and thus too generic.

There is a good part here, better than your average bear. There is a one column bullet point list of actions/reactions. IF the party does this then this thing could happen or they can learn this. There are six or seven of these and they do wonders for this episode. It’s terse, imaginative, the reactions are more evocative than most … it’s the GUIDANCE for the DM that I’m talking about in most of the rest of this review that is generally missing. It’s perfect and fits well. Further, the bullet-list format makes it each to recognize and track down. This is in contrast to the rest of the episodes where this sort of information is generally buried in some kind of wall of test paragraph format. It conveys a lot of information, quickly, and it’s easy to recognize. The form+Function here is a perfect fit.

Episode 6 – Something good. Something bad. A bit of both.

The tunnel under the roadhouse leads to an exit near the swap where you find an obvious track taking you deeper in and leading to an old keep. From here you will somehow find out that the treasures are being taken through a portal in the basement to somewhere else. The keep, with it’s 40 or so rooms over four levels, lacks some focus. It looks like you’re supposed to sneak in and start an uprising amongst the three factions present. Given the IMPRESSIVE number of enemies present (hundreds) that’s really the only option. But they are trying to not write a railroad, so they have to present the entire scenario a little more open-ended. IF the party does this and IF the party does that.

For example, after tracking the cargo through the swamp some lizard men show up. They attack immediately. The text gives every impression, up to that point, that this is just another monster hack. And then the text goes on for at least a column about how one of the lizard men is totally looking to rebel and wants to join the party, etc. And this lizard man is referenced time and time again in the episode, assuming you’ve allied with him. It is COMPLETELY written from this point of view. And yet … they attack immediately, don’t converse with the party, etc. The designers have done something excellent here in creating factions within the dragon cult. The lizard men, the bullwugs, and the cultists. But then they’ve written the thing in exactly one way: you ally with the lizard men. Instead of doing that you could make the entire thing a little more dimensional and make the bullywugs less one-dimensional as well. The lizard man thing is REALLY good. The bullywugs are also REALLY good … even if they are not an ally. Picture lizard men going on a murderous rampage killing bullybugs at every turn while the party explores the keep, grinning at the party while they commit their slaughter. It’s a WONDERFUL opportunity. It’s just combined with some nonsense words at the beginning about how they attack on sight and how the bullywugs can never be allies.

One way or another, allied or not, the party is likely to end up in the keep. Maybe they pretend to be cultists. That’s HEAVILY implied as well, even though the party will face multiple combats outside the keep, pretending or not, so they are unlikely to believe they can pretend once INSIDE The keep. IE: patrols and guards, mostly outside, are suspicious, but inside the folks mostly assume you’re a cultists and let you go about your business. It’s just not clear that any party is going to make that leap after they’ve been attacked multiple times outside.

The inside of the keep is fairly boring. The descriptions and locations don’t lead to a lot of interesting things. There is an exception or two, like a tentacle monster in the garbage that can drag you in to his pit, or a section of rolling mist, but otherwise it’s a pretty uninteresting place. “Action shots” of fleeing bullywugs and the lizard man massacre will liven it up quite a bit.

I would like to point out that the episode does several things right, more so than in many of the others. First, there IS faction play possibilities. Faction play should be mainstay of any adventure with multiple parties. The creatures have their own goals and motivations and the party should be able to take advantage of that. The fact that they’ve included it, even in the goofy “attack but friendly” way, is a real bonus and shows a good understanding of the how’s and why’s of multiple-humanoid play in a dungeon/environment. D&D is a social game and, just as in the villages and the caravans, you must provide those opportunities for strong play to emerge.

In contrast to the many other episodes, the wandering monster encounters here are on the right track! There are 12 or so and they each have their own little paragraph expanding the one-liners in the table. A spiders web in misty fog. Frogs with sticky tongues. “the weed that walks.” and so on. They could use a little more to reach greatness. In particular, they need to be focused on PLAY. Giant frogs shooting out sticky tongues … in a cattail filled reeds? A spiders web in misty fog … along some downed trees? Or a section of destroyed cypress forest, logs floating … mixed with crocs? The Weed That Walks (which has a nice little bit if you have your lizard man ally) encountered in a bramble patch? In other words, they are all on the right track but need just a little more to ground them in your imagination … which then allows your mind to run wild.

There’s also a nice little bullet-list section on how the keep occupants react when the party invades/is finally discovered. This is a great section that allows the DM to better free-form run the adventure. It’s from this section that the the best idea comes from: “(the lizard men) then hunt the bullywugs on the castle & grounds and murder them mercilessly.” This is one of the few sections that grounds the action with strong language. It’s notable that it’s from this strong user of language that I hooked on to a great way to run this section. More of that strong language, creating evocative scenes through terse language, is what most of this product badly needs. The imagery of an ogyugh at the bottom of a destroyed tower in a pit of refuse, using its tentacles to pull people in who are trying to get past the garbage, is a strong one also, and it also is one of the few images that has stayed with me and was cemented strongly in my mind. More specifics, without going overboard in to paragraph mode. Another nice bit: you’re actually allowed to kill the NPC’s this time around. No “his brother shows up” or “his minions drag him” away nonsense.

There’s another glaring omission here: how the keep reacts. There are some VERY general guidelines in the bullet points “Bob tries to escape if it looks like the party is winning” and things like that. There are also at least two rooms that mention who else responds when they hear sounds of combat. In episode three this was a MAJOR factor. It was noted how far you could hear in the caves and how the sound traveled in the main parts of the cave. But in the keep there’s none of this. It’s very important, in any intelligent monster lair, to pay attention to how the creatures react. This is a curtesy to the DM running the adventure. The bullet list “goals” in this episode is a good start from a very general standpoint but it needs more. This could be as simple as ensuring the map is printed with the summary of who’s in the room. Is the next room full of creatures? DO you want to dig through the (conversational) text to figure out who is in that room? Maps in RPG products are not utilized very well for conveying almost anything beyond the dimensions and this sort of “intelligent monster lair” is a perfect place to note zones of hearing, or at least “which rooms have monsters in them.” This is part of what I mean when I say the adventure must support the DM in running it. It’s a play aid. So … aid the DM in play. If lizard man massacre breaks out then you can use it one way. If you are sneaking about you can use it another. If all hell breaks loose with the entire castle arrayed against you … well .. .the DM is going to need to know, EASILY, who is coming at you when.

Finally, I think there’s a leap of logic here that’s hard to make. The party sneaks in to the keep. They have to do this, and find the papers in the commanders office, in order to go to the next episode. It’s not clear to me that they WILL sneak in to the keep. I guess that’s an AP thing. The ties to the hook and plot (“find out where the treasure is going”) don’t exactly lead me to believe the party would “invade” an evil fortress to find the next part of the plot. Those could/should/need to be strengthened in the initial plot hook set up in (episode 4?) as well as in this one. Something is missing here that is needed for the party to figure out what to do. Sure, as the DM you could tell them what to do. You could also play Connect 4 instead. Or a better adventure.

Episode 7 – A Waste of Time

In this episode you are teleported from the castle in episode 6 to a hunting lodge. In that lodge you find a sub-luitenant from the the cult who, and I quote “the classic scene where the villain explains herself if the players are willing to pause.” Remember, they didn’t say it was GOOD scene, just a classic one …

The hunting lodge has 22 rooms. If you just walk in and poke around a bit you’ll face a couple of combat and then meet the lieutenant. She’ll give you directions to a cloud castle full of the cults treasure and ask that you go mess it up. It would help her out a lot by forcing one of her fellow lieutenants to fail and loose face.

The encounters here in the lodge are a bit more evocative than many of the others in the adventure. Trophy rooms, human servants with some personality that you can learn things from, prisoners to free and a weird thing tor to to deal with. But it’s mostly empty and devoid of content. Just go upstairs and listen to the monologue and hit episode 8. I will note, in another bit of excellent railroading, there is no real option for the party if they kill the lieutenant. Two sentences at the end say “if they kill her there’s no one to tell the party about the cloud castle. Consider leaving a paper trail in her personal effects.” Uh … if you can say that as, literally, the last two sentences in the episode then why can’t you put two sentences about the cloud castle paper trail in her quarters instead?

It does have something in one of the rooms that I’d like to point out. There tends in this obsession in D&D with explaining how things work. This seems common to most versions past 0E and I find it completely bizarre. In the lodge there’s a suit of black armor that is actually a helmed horror, disguised by an illusion that has an Evard’s black tentacles spell stored in it to use. I don’t understand this chaining of stuff in order to explain what’s going on. It’s magic. How about just a suit of armor that transforms and attacks with stats X and can do some power once a day? Why the need to EXPLAIN it by chaining effects together? It’s bizarre and I’ve never understood it. It turns something magical and wondrous in to something ponderous and grey and dull. I touch roses.

There’s really not a lot else to say about this section. The NPC’s could use a little more description, although they tend to get far more than usual. Again, if you’re going to interact with someone then give them a name and a quirk and maybe a motivation if you want some faction play.

The rooms are also described in the typical “expansive nothing” style that we’ve come to expect. The bathroom describes what a bathroom has in it. The pantry describes what a pantry has in it. The armory describes what it has in it. How about just saying “Armory” and “the usual weapons” or “Pantry” and then devoting your word budget to how the pantry supports play in the lodge? Note what’s cool and interesting and unique and what would support creative and interesting play, instead of telling me that the BEDROOM has BED with BLANKETS and a DRESSER with LINENS in it. Ug. I can make that up. Tell me about the black void of nothingness that pukes paisley flower, or something like that. Or just leave it blank with the word “Pantry” on the map.

This is really a nothing kind of episode, existing just to have the villain give the monologue and give the players the castle plans. In other words, filler. After all, episode 6 could have directly led to the cloud castle, eh?

Episode 8 – My only friend, the end.

You storm the cloud castle that is hauling Teh L00ts. Inside you find cultists and a second faction, the giants, that you can perhaps negotiate with. At the end, one way or another, you arrive at a site in the frozen north so you can play the next 8 episodes. Either the cloud giant in charge drives it there or it goes uncontrollable and eventually crashes there. Oh, and you didn’t escape beforehand. One the wyverns you rode there. Or through a spell. Or any of a bunch of other ways. Because then you’ll not be in the north for the next set of episodes. Errr, sorry, I forgot I’m not complaining about the episodic nature.

The beginning is a mess. You get to a village, completely controlled by the cult, and the sky castle is parked there on the ground. The cultists don’t attack you. But they do when the adventure says they do. It makes no sense. There’s this pretext about staying at the inn even though you’re not allowed and the adventure doesn’t want you to. I guess you are supposed to sneak in to the castle while it’s on the ground, but then if you don’t you could also grab some wyverns from the stables and fly to the castle. But to do that you need to make some skill checks. So, just to be clear: you need to roll high in order to go on the adventure. The adventure is clear: the castle flies off and the wyverns are trouble if you roll low. DC 15 animal handling, twice, or you don’t get to go on the adventure. This is bad bad bad design. The whole village scene and getting in to the castle is a confusing and muddled mess. It’s not clear or laid out well at all. There’s too much emphasis on a traditional keyed encounter format instead on personalities, timelines, and the objective of this part: getting in to the castle.

The castle works better as a keyed encounter, but could again use a kind of order of battle for reactions. In some of the encounters it’s explicitly mentioned who shows up and what the reactions are. A few bullet points on how the castle mobilizes to meet intruders would go a long way. There’s also a a very clearly meant to be some faction play between the cultists and the giants in the castle. Given the importance of this it seems unusual that so little attention is paid to “how to meet the cloud giant lord.” He’s got minions here, he’s got other giant allies here … but there’s not much at all on how this plays out from his standpoint … until you get to this throne room. THEN there’s words on how he talks rhetorically to his moron guards about what to do with the party. The other faction consists of a dragon, a vampire, a couple of red wizards, and the cult leadership. They are written almost totally independent of each other. Much in the same way that the cloud giant only gets significant write up in his room, the others generally only get written up in their areas. That’s too bad. This place doesn’t feel alive at all. This should be the one place where you WANT a big climax, where you could justify putting in some cool shit and forcing a few things. The players want the payoff for sitting through 8 episodes of this! I will note, however, that the threat level of the creatures in this section seems to have ratcheted up significantly.

But that is not to be. It’s more of the same. Generic descriptions devoid of life and interesting content. The entire place is powered by the dead wife of the cloud giant lord and even THAT is handled in the most boring way possible. The entire place is quite disappointing and continues the trend of Cloud Castles not living up to their hype. I don’t think I’ve seen a good one yet, but, then again, I actually have standards.

There’s also, finally! Some treasure here! It all belongs to the cloud giant. He’s got something like $20k in gold in one room. The stupid hoard you’ve been chasing? It’s abstracted to 500k in cp, 100k in sp and 5k in gp, along with 21 blue sapphires. Talk about anti-climactic …

Monsters
The creatures here are pretty uninteresting. As a beginning adventure using the data published for free, I guess that’s to be expected. It’s all standard monsters presented in a pretty boring fashion. I’m particularly disappointed the imagery used to portray them. I want descriptions and imagery used that make them interesting and exciting in your mind, so you can portray that to the players. I don’t want to tell the players “its a ghoul”, I want to DESCRIBE it to the players. SHOW, don’t TELL. I want the adventure as a play aid, to assist in that, to help bring it to life for me so I can do that for the players.

Treasure
ARGGGG!!!!! THIS STINKS! SUCKS! SUCKS! SUCKS! SUCKS! SUCKS! The vast majority of the treasure in this adventure is some of the most boring and uninspiring I have ever seen. Too much of the treasure is abstracted out, although not to the horrendous degree of “a treasure parcel worth 250gp.” The name is HOARD of the Dragon Queen, but nothing is done to bring to life those treasure. Recall that for most of the adventure you are chasing the treasure, with many opportunities to view it, steal it, etc. In all of those cases the hoard is merely abstracted. It’s like you are playing a computer RPG and find an object titled “massive treasure hoard” … But you can’t actually spend it or do anything with it. In fact too many cases, the overwhelming majority, the treasure is glossed over, or non-existant.

The magic items may, possibly, be worse. There are only a handful of interesting ones presented, and I would argue that even those are not actually interesting. There is a magic great sword, unique, that is wonderful. It’s sentient & NE and therefore deserves to have a personality and goals, which are completely absent, but the tradition of unique swords is at least alive. Other than that, the only real magic I recall are a couple of very generic +1 sword type items and several other, book items, in the same vein. And there’s really not much of that for a party at 8th level. It’s all boring and uninspiring, generic and not conducive to the type of D&D I want to play. I want magic that is ALIVE and FANTASTIC, that doesn’t just mirror effect mechanically but that seems WONDROUS.Ready for this? One of the largest concentrations is: +1 longsword, +1 longbow, +1 leather armor, bracers of defense. You feel like you live in a world of wonder and imagination yet? No? In some adventure I reviewed I recall a bag of holding that was actually a toad who’s mouth opened WIIIIIIIIDDDDDEEEEE, and you needed a little magic fly to activate. That’s a magic item. The stuff in this adventure ain’t nothing but mechanistic garbage.

Hooks
In spite of the general lameness, there is a decent hook or two for the players, just as there was with the rogue in Phandelver. Most of the suggested player hooks are the usual moralistic and tripe nonsense, but one or two are great. “You were once a gold dragon serving Bahamut.” Cool! Or, you used to be a cult member with your family until another cult faction wiped you out. Now your out for vengeance, with only three names on lips to go on. Or, grandchild of a renowned dragons layer, you’ve been hounded by ruffians beating you. You flee to the starting village looking for a little rest … Those are great. That’s the kind of non-generic and specific thing I’m looking for in an adventure. Any player can work with that and create some magical RPG moments.

A good DM could …
Inevitably someone will comment “Yes, but a good DM could …” or perhaps “but it’s the job of the DM to add …” Both statements are correct, and meaningless in this context. You’re right, a good DM could, and will, fix it. But we’re also looking for the designer to INSPIRE the DM to greatness. To give them little bits of flavor seeds that can explode in their minds to full fledged sensory scenes to be communicated to the players ad-hoc and ad-lib. Likewise some folks seem to confuse my statements around flavor and INSPIRATION to mean “a lot of text.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Those long & lengthy descriptions rob the DM of their imagination. We’re looking for JUST. A LITTLE. MORE than bare bones. We need to know what’s SPECIAL about this person, place, thing. The thing that makes the NPC or encounter come alive. The imagination is a powerful thing. You just need to suggest something and it will do the rest.

 

Hrumph. I edited my liberal use of profanity out of this for eventual posting on ENworld. I feel the review has now far less impact. That was a mistake. :(

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CE3 – The Folk of Osmon

ce3
By Daniel J. Bishop
Purple Duck Games
DCC
Multiple Levels

A mighty civilization once thrived where now only lonely Osmon Mire stretches across the land. The crumbled and vine-laden ruins of ages-old buildings arise here and there from the reedy mud and water. The remains of statues and derelict temples adorn low hills rising from the muck. Fell beasts roam the mire at night and man-like shapes haunt the swamp. After dark none willingly passes the low hill, with its blood-encrusted altar stone, where the Folk of Osmon are said to sacrifice their victims.

This could be a short, but jam-packed, encounter with blob-people in a swamp. This product describes a small 5 encounter area in a swamp, along with several new, weird, creatures that dwell there. It then follows this up with four adventure scenario ideas that the DM can use to work the area in to their game. Alone, nothing is too impressive. Smashing everything up together though would yield an exciting evening!

Hmmm, I’m not sure where to start with this one. The map is pretty simplistic, with just a generalized “swamp” setting with a small road running through it. Off to one side is a hill with some statues and rubble on it, and a small stone “alter” in the middle. There’s another hill nearby with a different statue on it. That’s it. Not exactly awe-inspiring in its capacity to support interesting play. But ….

Let’s combine it with the creatures that live in the swamp. First and foremost are some swamp-people. They are essentially humanoid blobs without sex or personality; the titular Folk of Osmon. They enjoy long walks in the moonlight … looking for victims, chucking gooey protoplasm at people … to sacrifice them, and reproducing through budding. Accompanying them in the swamp are some weird crocodiles with tentacle eyes, slithering vine monsters, will-o-the-wisp type creatures who are great at luring dwarves to their doom, and giant psionic salamanders who drain your INT. Oh, and the god of the protoplasm people: a giant ameboid. These are all GREAT creatures. Let’s take the Faerie Lights, for example. They feed off of precious metals and, in a play toward the screw-job monsters of old, they can smell like gold! That’s a great play off of the common DCC statement that dwarves can smell gold. Oh yeah Mr Dwarf? Well maybe it’s NOT gold you smell … The monsters here are very good, as DCC monsters almost always are.

The encounter locations are nothing special and are one of the way the product could have been improved. Given the limited number and the small scale, quite a bit more could have been with the locations. One of the hallmarks of DCC are the Mighty Deeds … but Mighty Deeds need an active environment to play off of. And an active environment this ain’t. Crumbling walls, fetid pits, rotten logs, quicksand, all could have made for an active environment … but they just are not present. Instead there’s a hill with a statue on it. Or a pool of water. Uh … not very exciting in a combat situation. Combine this with some boring mundane treasure and no magical treasure and you’ve got a pretty serious GONZO gap. There could have been some opportunities to get some biological items off of the god, or maybe the blob people. “I wear a blob-person suit to get close to the blob god to steal a proto face-egg that does BLAH.” But alas, that’s not presented.

The adventure ideas presented are nothing too special. Oh no! You’re captured by the blobs and going to be sacrificed. Or .. Oh No! Bandits attack … and then blob people attack! Or .. You have a map to buried treasure. The most interesting is the one in which one of the blobs turns out to have a personality and sex … and falls in love with a PC. But … what if you choose hidden option ‘ E’ … if you take ALL of the encounters and mash them all up … then the party is looking for buried treasure, attacked by bandits while digging it up, both groups surrounded by blob people and attacked maybe forcing them to work together and/or being dragged off to be sacrificed, where the unique blob-person falls in love! Now THAT’S an evening of entertainment! The bandits are given one leader with some decent personality but, given that the party is meant to work with them when attacked, could have used a couple of more with a decent or two each in order to bond with them better. There are a lot of really good ideas for using the unique blob-person on a ongoing basis … and lot fewer interesting complications presented for everyone/thing else.

This is a much better effort than CE2 and I’d gladly pick this one over that. If the treasure situation had been beefed up a bit, as well as the NPC’s and maybe the environment, then this would easily make my best of list.

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CE2 – The Black Goat

116395
By Daniel J. Bishop
Purple Duck Games
DCC
All Levels

Not all mountain passes are lonely.
Come meet the Mahmat Troth and the One they adore. Only in the high pass will you discover what the Black Goat truly is.

Go read that publishers blurb again. Pretty cool eh? Well … not really … Or maybe it is. I don’t know. Because this isn’t an adventure, it’s a place. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve often thought that it would be cool to do a series of products around medieval ‘businesses’, describing what they do and how they do it, with floorpans and some personalities. A rope walk, for instance. Then you could use that in your game. That’s the intent behind this product … it’s more place than adventure … which means, no matter how cool, I probably would not have purchased/reviewed that if I known it. Which, in a way, is the entire point of me publishing my thinking n these reviews: ensuring everyone else doesn’t fall in to the mistakes I have. It doesn’t matter how good the chair if in fact I thought I was buying a loaf of bread. In the end, this is a missed opportunity.

This describes a mountain pass that houses an oracle: The Black Goat. It has maybe eight encounter areas and three or four factions briefly described. There’s the Black Goat proper; the oracle that lives in the cave. There’s the tribe of creatures that live outside of the cave and serve as her … minions? There’s a handmaid in the cave as well, pulled from the tribe, who may have her own thing going on …. But only if I stretch things REALLY far. Finally there’s a tribe of different creatures that live down in the valley under the mountain pass. The two tribes mutually hate each other (Frankie!) and ownership of the pass, and thus the right to be minions of the Black Goat, sometimes changes hands. And, I’m sorry to say, that’s about it. Well, there’s a patron table for the Black Goat.

Oh, there’s other content here. A description of the tribal camp in the pass, a rumor table, a description of the Goat and her quarters, of the treasure cave, and so on. But it’s not really anything interesting, or of value. What’s present is a kind of general fact-based overview/summary, instead of the individual detail that would make for hooks. Do you want to know that there are 20+1d12 adult males and 4d14+20 adult females and 6d12 children and blah blah blah champions? Or do you want to know that Bob has a crush on Sally who’s father is the one that deals with traders and who secretly had a love affair child with a member of the opposing tribe? Both tribes are given a nice general overview which makes them REALLY interesting. The mountain pass tribe then gets a bit more, essentially detailing how many there are and how they eat gruel 24×7. But anything extra which would bring the situation to life is missing. One could argue that this is the job of the DM. One could also rebut that by saying: then why the hell did I buy this product in the first place if it’s my job to add everything? I would never argue that the DM doesn’t have obligation to bring the detail to life, but I WILL say that it’s the job of the designer, through the product, to inspire the DM to bring it to life. I’m not talking 24 pages on the ecology & diet of the tribes. I’m talking an extra sentence or two or paragraph to bring the thing to life … in exactly the same way the detail about the tribes does. The general overview of the tribes is short and is GREAT. But then it goes nowhere else … except in providing some mundane detail.

The Goat, her handmaid, and the four or so caves suffer from the same problem. Generic detail. Her quarters are ‘lavish.’ The treasure chamber has ‘bags of rice and dried meats and more lavish fare.’ Nope, that don’t cut it. What kind of rice? What kind of more lavish fare? SHOW don’t tell. Don’t say it’s lavish. Don’t say it’s opulant. SHOW why it’s that way. Describe it. That brings it to life in the DM’s mind and let’s them hook off of it. The rumors are more of the same. Generic and uninspiring. ‘The people beyond the pass are passionate traders.’ Well, ok, I guess I could do something with that. But a beggar noting how we was traded out of his lifes possession, in a fair trade, with the people beyond the pass, gives many more opportunities.

This product has a lot of potential. The core idea is a good one. The tribes are GREAT … from 10,000 feet. But it fails to deliver beyond the elevator pitch.

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CE1 – The Falcate Idol

ce1

By Daniel J Bishop
Purple Duck Games
DCC
Level 2

The Cult of the Harrower is ancient, and each of the eight eyes of its spider-idol is rumored to be a moonstone gem the size of a pigeon’s egg. Moreover, somewhere within the cult’s sanctuary, a pool flows from the Egg of Creation. Will your Thief seek to make a legendary score? Will your Wizard pursue the shards of the Egg? Will your Cleric join the cult? Or will your Warrior fight his way through the web-covered passages to rescue them if they fail? Any or all of these scenarios are possible!

This is an adventure through a ten room temple. It uses the same simple map that The Twice Robbed Tomb, by the same publisher but a different author, uses. That’s a clever and interesting idea. Or, it would be if the map were any good. I’m not sure if people are cueing off of the official DCC adventures or not, but the VAST majority of DCC product I’ve seen has had very simple maps. Linear, or nearly so. I have overlooked this in the past, maybe because I use DCC so much as one-shots. A complex map can lead to an interesting exploration element, where the PLAYERS feel lost and confused, but not in a bad way. In a manner that enhances a kind of Fear of the Unknown. Where am I? What’s around the corner? Is something going to come down that hallway behind me? The characters turn the unknown in to the known through their explorations … but those side corridors behind you always provide some risk, some questions, some GREAT BLACK VOID that might be COMING TO GET YOU!!!! But these maps don’t allow for that. Maybe that’s ok, since DCC has a different vibe going on. But I’m leaning toward it not bing so …

Ok, temple. This is supposed to have a kind of Lieber/Conan “Spider God” thing going on. It doesn’t do a spectacular job of it but it does deliver that flavor much more successfully than, say “The Spider-Gods Bride” does. There’s one priest and a couple of monster guardians hanging out … but then again there’s only ten rooms. The theming is of a kind of horrible spider/crab hybrid, with the initial chambers being devoted to cobwebbed bodies in alcoves and vessels to sacrifice blood to. The entire complex TRIES really hard to bring the vibe, but I don’t think in the end it works out well. There is a kind of … mundane thing going on in spite of what the adventure is trying to do. A room full of fresco’s, hiding vestments and a concealed door. Well, ok … but tat’s not really interactive, is it? Or FANTASTIC. The same for the entry room with the alcoves full of webbed bodies. Ok. But where’s the interactivity? Where’s the SHOW in show, don’t tell? The descriptions lack the evocative nature to transmit a picture by themselves and the lack of interactivity means that a great many of the rooms feel flat.

The rooms also lack something else, something CRITICAL to a DCC adventure: stuff for the players to riff off of. The environments are not interesting enough to support very good Mighty Deeds. The locales need more stuff in them, especially if you anticipate combat. This could be done very matter of factly … “and then I’ll put in a big kettle so someone could use it!” or, better, much more naturally … “a kitchen should have a bit wooden prep table, covered with knives, and boiling kettle over a big hearth in the middle of the room and maybe some giant hog legs hanging from the ceiling …” That’s some stuff that the party, and creatures, can use to spice things up.

In contrast, the monsters and treasure are strong, as they are in most DCC adventures. New monsters bring the horror of the unexpected and good treasure, magic or otherwise, bring on the SPECIAL nature of the reward. You’re not getting crap. Heroes don’t get crap. Heroes get some of the parts of the Egg of Creation. Hell Yeah! Some of the monster descrptions are REALLy excellent, such as the transformed former thieves, who’s faces/heads are nearly transparent and filled with webbing. “Their faces look transparent, like glass which has been filled with a hollow radiance.” …”If examined closely motes of darkness can be seen moving within them. Their bodies are actually filled with a tight network of shining spider webs, and the black motes are spider-like moon reaper young.” That is some REALLY good writing. It communicates well, to the DM, what is going on with these creatures, thereby assisting the DM to, on the fly, run an encounter that is going be very impactful to the players. I want ALL of the writing to be like that. Terse, and communicating with pin-point accuracy an evocative scene that instantly springs to life in my mind … which I can then use to turn the room.

I want to call out a couple of other things that the designer has done that are quite nice. First, he’s done a great job with a curse that comes right out of appendix N. Steal the main jewel from the idol? You’re cursed and the temple statue, now animated, hunts you down until all of it’s jewels are found and replaced. That’s a GREAT curse AND a great was to continue the adventure and give continuity to things after the adventure is over. He gives the statue “HD4+200” hp, which is also an interesting idea, that, in retrospect, I think I’ve seen a couple of times before. That’s a nice way of putting in a lower level opponent but still giving it the staying power that “more HD” that more HD are usually used to represent. Finally, the designer recognizes the power of Deity Disapproval in DCC. This being a temple, there are several opportunities to sneak about by making sacrifices to the spider god, wearing the vestments to sneak about, etc. These are things your own Deity won’t approve of, and thus your disapproval rating goes up. Nice way to handle things.

If you’ve got any amount of talent in you you could probably make this adventure come alive. It does a lot of thing … if not well then much better than the vast majority of adventures. I have very high standards and so what a pass for me may be a Must Buy for you. I wouldn’t hesitate mentioning this is someone was looking for a new DCC adventure … it just wouldn’t be at the top of my list.

 

EDIT: Corrected my mistake regarding the authorship of Twice-Robbed Tomb.

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Dungeon Magazine #39

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There was a Science Fiction in … Analog, I think, that recounted a bunch of human authors on an alien planet that treasured literature. The aliens hated the human literature. Their own recounted every detail possible of every thing possible in the story, giving the reader the complete context of EVERYTHING that occurred. Reading Dungeon for 39 issues, I can relate …

Below Vulture Point
Jeff Fairborn
AD&D
Levels 0-1

This is an assault/recovery mission in some caves high up on cliff where some vultures live. Five or six pages of introduction give way to about four pages of adventure. The kobolds in the caves are commanded by an Urg who has trained some giant vultures to compliment the standard vultures that live on the cliff. The content here is quite dry and not very evocative, with lame treasure to supplement a lame and boring backstory. On the plus side it seems like this is quite a hard adventure for 0 or even 1st level adventurers. The lair is laid out well and the vultures and *limited) third dimension used to some decent effect. The caverns, in particular, on the cliffside are handled in a nice way, giving enough extra detail to transform the location from “generic caves” to “that vulture place on the cliff! Remember!” The environment reminds me a bit of one of my favorites: the troll lair in 100 Bushels of Rye. The environment here is well worth stealing, and if the treasure was better and the descriptions more evocative then you’d have a fine adventure.

Flowfire
Steve Kurtz
Spelljammer
Levels 5-9

Sadly, this is just a collection of nine encounters for your Spelljamming. There are some decent things mixed n with the boring/normal encounters. A dead kid in a wooden chest? Cool! There’s also an interesting NPC you can run across, a pirate, and a group of Ogre whalers, all of which are at least a little interesting. The others are less so, to varying degrees. The undead is nice little idea but not evocative enough to be a decent encounter as written. The Ogre whalers, in particular, are a lost opportunity. They’ve got a great little idea going on but their personalities are ignored in favor of treating it like a combat encounter. The pirate encounter is similar. Both would benefit from being written more neutrally with the NPC’s have more goals. Spell jammer is one of the greatest D&D settings EVAR, and there’s a lot of ideas here to steal from and expand in to something decent, and little to run as is.

Last of the Iron Horse
Jasper Jones
AD&D
Levels 2-4

This is a GREAT encounter with a group of dwarves bandits and their lair. It’s got a great vibe going on and is one of the few things I’ve seen in Dungeon that you could run as written. The backstory is kept at a minimum at only one page. The idea of a group of evil little shit mercenary dwarves is a pretty sweet one, and appeals to my “old fairy tale dwarf” nature. Their lair is a short little ten room place, mostly linear, but with more adventure in it than Dungeon adventures that run 35 pages long. There are at least three groups of people in the small place that you can negotiate with, including crabmen and a vapor rat! For being such a small place there’s a lot going on. The map has a variety of features, from sinkholes to water clogged tunnels to shelves and columns. It feels more like a “Real” cave than most adventures do. The adventure relies on the Tome of Magic quite a bit, which lends the magic items a more non-standard feel. This is supplemented by an intelligent weapon and mundane treasure that it more than just a throw-away description of generic “gems worth 200 gp.” Black bears, giant crabs, lizards, chimneys … the list of interesting things go on and on without BORING you to death with it’s verbosity. You could mistake this for one of the GOOD adventures from Fight On! Magazine. Great job Jasper! … too bad this appears to be the only thing you’ve ever written …

The Fountain of Health
Ann Dupois
D&D
Level 1

This is a simplistic 22-room ruined temple. And by “ruined” I mean that on the map the rooms have fuzzy walls that represent “rubble” near them. Sigh This continues the long tradition of BASIC D&D adventures treating the players, and DM, like idiots. It’s full of very basic advice and seems written for Jethro’s 6th grade education. And a decent amount of the advice stinks: “The heroes could attempt to climb the walls. Discourage this since it would allow the PC’s to avoid most of the encounters.” What boring and unimaginative advice. How about instead you reward players who think creatively instead of blindly imposing your railroad will? In spite of this I’m conflicted. Or maybe it’s my three Old Style lunch. There’s a certain classic feeling here, in places, that I can get behind. The backstory has villagers trying to reach the healing water in a pool that the ruined temple contains. A place of legend that only the most desperate will seek out for its healing powers because of the dangers … that’s a nice thing going on and there are bodies of villagers throughout the temple who have tried their luck. That adds a certain ‘living’ effect to the temple that I can really get in to. Combined with Stone Golems with 8hp, magic stone axes, spider web bundles, and a boss battle that may be un-winnable, it gets my seal of approval. But for Vcna’s sake, let the characters climb the fucking walls!

The Fire Giants’ Daughter
Wolfgang Baur
AD&D
Levels 8-10

Oh Wolfgang, really? Someone needs to fail a save vs magic in order to go not he adventure? For serious? This is a mythic Viking adventure, or perhaps “encounter” would be a better word, and a decent one. Baur does a good job with the introduction, giving us a hook of mythic proportions, perfect for a group of viking bravos to undertake … a ghostly woman in a hot springs! And then the descriptions of the ethereal tale is “there’s a fire giants daughter in a skirt and having a sword.” Not quite the evocative setting one was led to suspect from the backstory bardic story. Anyway, if someone fails their save then the adventure may continue. You need to go visit some fire giants to try and free the fire giant daughter from her asshole father domination. What we get is a little mini-tale of a viking homestead, but with fire giants. The giant, his dominated wife, asshole sones, and beaten troll servant and dogs, are all in a cave, along with the daughter. What ensues is a little micro-casm of viking society, where the giants must be bested in order to free the daughter from her fathers clutches. It’s a decent NPC–monster encounter, although the giants are a little one-sided in their personalities. But at least they HAVE personalities and you don’t have to just slay them. The contest proposed are a bit generic. That’s sad. You’re going to need to embellish a lot to turn this from a rough outline in to a stunning adventure, but the core of the ideas are all there.

The Ulrich Monastery
Peter Aberg
AD&D
Levels 5-6

This is a one-on-one adventure with a cleric PC. You go to a monastery in the mountains only to find its occupants slaughtered and a blizzard settling in. Then the next morning a yeti attacks! At least it’s only four pages long. Enjoy the 11-room monastery and prepare for the yeti’s return. Uh, and be bored. Because there’s nothing to do here except get attacked by the Yeti after 12-ish hours of game time.

Legerdemain
Matthew Schutt
AD&D
Levels 4-7

Oh boy. This is an investigation adventure in a magical ren-faire theater. Magical chandeliers. Illusionists creating theater effects. Potions to help the actors. It’s enough to make you puke gorbels. It’s a social adventure and there are plenty of NPC’s to interact with, with various personalities and motivations that will recognizable. The party shows up, looks around, interacts with some NPC’s, and then interacts with the main NPC to get a kind of a mission. Then some NPC’s attack, the play goes off, and the major attack comes. The evil NPC’s are GREAT, but not used well. They just end up attacking the party without interaction so their various quirks and qualities and goals and motivations are almost completely lost. Essentially, the party is just watching events unfold around them with little chance to do anything about it, except stab someone when they show up and attack. That’s pretty poor design. The evil NPC’s need more of an ability to interact with the party to get their full effect, and the events presented could be laid out better, with a nice timeline and more petty incidents going on. Yeah, I hate this kind of magical ren-faire shit, but if you’re going to do it at least do it well.

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FT1 – Creeping Beauties of the Woods

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Daniel J. Bishop
Purple Duck Games
DCC
Level 1

The faerie tales of old have been conveniently ‘cleaned up’ from the days of old, when witches were considerably less beautiful, and being woken from a death-like sleep by Love’s First Kiss usually resulted in- more death. Big Bad Wolves, Tin Woodsmen, animated trees, Talking Animals- all just a little more creepy that we remember as children. But the rewards are great, as well… marrying the princess, gaining the throne, and gold and wealth, too! Explore the macabre wares of the Goblin Market, the Grave of the Sorcerer, the Elf Mound, and many more fascinating phenomena from anceint faerie tales. But don’t leave the path…

The party is encouraged by the Baron to scout out the Grimmswood forest and look for the dead Prince Charming’s three re-animated brides: Ella, Beauty and Snow. Since the previous adventure, FT0, they’ve been running amok killing everyone in the forest and thinks are getting harsh because of the lack of trade. Your reward for this, for once, is something actually good: the hand in marriage of the princess. Yes! No longer under the threat of death! No longer “or else!” An actual reward befitting of an adventure! Fairy Tales to the rescue! Hooks are a hard thing to write. The best ones motivate the players instead of the characters, making them WANT to send their characters in to peril. The hook here is good, which is why it’s a classic. It could have perhaps used a couple of more words about the princess in question, to be married off, but otherwise it’s fab. Short, sweet, to the point, motivates, and the Baron is direct without being an asshole. Achievement Unlocked – Hook!

The heart of the adventure is a little hex-crawly thing through the forest, most of it on trails. There are 16 or so encounters, with a couple of them being small location with six to eight locations, like a small cave, mine, or inn. Of these three are the main encounter locations, the locations of the three brides, and three are ‘on the way.’ The others are on small side-trail or out of the way locations. I’m not sure how I feel about this. If you stay on the road you complete the adventure with only 1 “side trek” encounter. There’s a LOT of good content in this adventure that will never be encountered if that happens. It’s not so much that “ZOMG! The players won’t get to see the cool stuff!” but rather the core encounters, the three with the brides, are so … easy? To get to. An analogy may be: in a dungeon with 100 rooms the two main encounters are the two rooms directly to the left of the entrance. Uh … ok. No, I don’t have a good suggestion in fixing it, other than moving them about on map.

The encounters in this are GREAT, across the board. The wandering monsters are all very interesting, with just enough fairy tale influence to be evocative but not so much to be kitsch or tired. Animated apple tress, “old style” jerky ethereal elves, and the like. The designer has done a great job of taking fairy tale elements and themes and twisting them just a bit to keep them fresh. This extends to the actual encounters. From a goblin fair to ancient barrow to a behemoth of necrotic flesh, it all recall an earlier, non-Tolkein, view of fantasy. They show an understanding of the source material AND of fantasy RPG’s, marrying the two together without being ham-handed. Many of these are classic tropes which live up to their classic nature. The goblin knight, guarding the bridge, is an excellent example. He disappears when the first rays of morning light strike him each day, to return at dusk to challenge all who would cross. These encounters pretty on your memory. They leverage all of the myths and fairy tales you’ve read over the years, your mind filling in the blanks and giving life to them. Excellent! Until it’s not …

Just as in the last adventure, FT0, the adventure suffers when it attempts to break away in to something larger. It’s not that it ‘breaks character’, but rather the darker imagery isn’t as successful. In FT0 the fish-men and the bug in the kitchen were, I believe, attempts to appeal to a darker, Lovecraftian, imagery. There are elements of that horror here as well, in particular with the Burnt Brides & Grooms. For whatever resin the imagery here isn’t as strong and they don’t communicate THE HORRIFIC. Just as in FT0 they tend to send more of a “just another monster” feeling. I’m not sure why. There have been strong portrays of things like this in Inn of Lost Heroes and the Fallen Jarls series, but here things just don’t seem to click. Weather it be the setting, the thumbing, or the descriptions, they just don’t work as well as they should.

This is a fine DCC adventure and my quibbles about the map and the weaker “horror” encounters shouldn’t dissuade you. This is turning out to be an excellent series.

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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 | 4 Comments

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.

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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.

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

kb

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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