Vault of the Faceless Giants

By Richard LeBlanc Jr.
New Big Dragon Games Unlimited
Labyrinth Lord
Level 1-3

In a jungle village a complains that her baby has been taken. A lot of the villagers think she abandoned it in the jungle or a tiger got it. Individually they come to the party to relate rumors of an evil temple in the jungle. Inside is a dungeon with some psionic properties, if you are so inclined to use them.

This adventure is in a fifty-two room dungeon with a largely ring layout, symmetrical. It has a weird vibe to it. It has a lot of the elements that I would expect to find in an old school dungeon, but it is … plain? Boring? The writing here just doesn’t grip one very strongly. I’m also VERY suspicious of the ring hallway layout. Combined with a few other elements, I just can’t get into this.

The biggest problem with this adventure is probably the writing. I’ll cite a couple of specific examples of it being non-specific, but there’s something else going on and I’m not sure how to describe it. The writing is … technical? It’s very straightforward. It’s pretty clear. And it’s generally boring. I can cite a couple of examples of abstracted descriptions, like a bow that is described as “amazing craftsmanship” or a dagger that is described as “particularly well taken care of.” These descriptions are abstracted. They are conclusions. Rather than describe the dagger, or bow, and letting the player draw a conclusion that they are well taken care of (and therefore special) or of great craftsmanship, instead the read-aloud makes that conclusion for the party. This kind of genericism is the opposite of ecovative writing that inspires the DM and/or players. There’s something else going on with the writing though and I’m having trouble really putting words to what the issue is. The descriptions are boring because the writing style is just not exciting. Is that the right way to say this? Not dynamic? Not inspiring? I don’t know. It’s technical, and the elements are all there, and it doesn’t necessarily fall in to the trap of describing the mundane, but it doesn’t really make me excited to run the rooms either.

Here’s an example. It’s a little heavy on the number specificity (which I don’t think is appropriate in read-alaoud in particular) but that’s not really the problem: “48 straw mats are arranged in a 6×8 pattern in this 30’×40′ room. The walls are painted golden yellow, save for a large white symbol painted in the center of the west wall showing the symbol for the third/plexus chakra.
In each corner of the room, set on the floor, is an ornately-carved ebony incense holder featuring a seated figure. The room is permeated by the scent of lemon and myrh.” It’s an ok description. But not a great description.

Some of you may recall the chess-players room in the Dwimmermount draft. The room had two ghostly players playing chess. They ignored the party and you could not interact with them in any way. There are some of the same sorts of rooms in this adventure, rooms in which there is trivia rather than something to interact with. I’m not going to assert that every room has to be to fun and exciting, or that dungeons have no room for mysteries or empty rooms. This is something else. It’s presenting something that COULD be interesting but without any elements for the players to interact with or use the room. One of the early rooms in the dungeon has steam in it, that comes in through cracks, doesn’t go into the hallways, and dissipates, with the effect having a random chance each time the party enters. That’s it. This isn’t hinting at a volcano or steam later on. It’s not a terrain effect for a challenge. It just is. This is only one example. Murals and funerary are steam rooms are fine, but they need to contribute to the adventure … and these do not.

I am QUITE suspicious of the map as well. It’s symmetrical, and I’m not a fan of those, but the bigger issue is the ring nature of it. Imagine a long hallway that forms a circle, and bisecting the circular line are rooms. You must go into the rooms to walk the hallway. That is, essentially, the dungeon and it is, essentially, a linear layout, with all the faults and lack of options that come with that sort of design. There’s also a large number of monsters, humans mostly, that come out of suspended animation to attack the party, another element that I’m predisposed to enjoy. It just seems lazy. Combined with several other rooms where the read aloud has the monster immediately attacking, it’ just doesn’t seem interesting.

There are more than a few unique magic items, and some of the items descriptions ARE decent, like a +1 dagger with an ivory handle in the shape of a serpentine dragon with red fringed silk tassels. That’s something worth keeping, if you’re a player. It’s also got a classic set up or two like a giant spider guarding a gem. Those are all great examples of doing things well.

I just can’t get into this one.

It’s $5 at rpgnow.

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A Thousand Dead Babies

By Zzarchov Kowolski
Neoclassical Greek Revival/OSR
Level 1

A small little town in the grips of some religious turmoil. It switched to follow the Holy Church about a generation ago, throwing o their ties to the Old Gods (mostly). There are some hold outs. Recently however, tales of demon worship and witchcraft have begun to ourish, leading the young and inexperienced priest to enter a panic.

This delightful little gem describes the goings-on around the village of Corroc. It’s a small little village that could be used as a starting location or as a place the party is passing through. This place is a powder keg. There are a lot of factions running around and the NPC’s have enough life in them that a little of fire, say, from a party of murder hobos, is going to set the place off. Devil worshipers, pagans, the church, local lords, illicit affairs … and the cried of babies from the woods at night … You need this little gem in your life. It’s duel-stated for OSR & NGR in a kind of minimalist way … the way I like it.

The village is only briefly described, in a paragraph or so, with about another paragraph for a nearby village. It’s got a Harn-like feel to it … if Harn villages were full of gas and kids playing with matches. I like this kind of realisism, that’s relatable, without all of the slippage in to the NoFunZone that realism can frequently slip in to. Reeves. Asshole lords. Taxes. Intra-village gossip. You then get into the heart: the eight or so NPC’s that generally drive the action in the village. The NPC’s get about a long paragraph each, and the paragraph has a little about their personality and a little gasoline. The personalities are great, and generally thread in to the gasoline. For example, the smith is 15 and new to the village. He’s not very good, but doesn’t tell anyone that, faking his skill. To directly quote: “He is desperate for business and will tell the players anything he thinks they wish to hear to try and encourage them to buy or commission something from him. This includes implying people may be witches, especially if he thinks the players will then want to buy hot irons. He can make those.” Oh my goodness! And the village priest is good-hearted and rational. And having an affair with a local farm girl, sneaking around at night. And her father will disown her if it he finds out. And the local herbalist is old, has red hair, is a wise woman, is a loner, has a black cat, and the village thinks she’s a witch. Except for the priest, who is rational and knows these are just stereotypes. Except she IS a witch! And it goes on and on. I think anyone reading this now has a head FULL of ideas where some of this can go, and that’s only three or four NPC’s. The NPC’s focus on the the personality quirks and situations that the can drive the characters actions, instead of just being trivia the way they are in most adventures.

The location descriptions are likewise evocatively written (with a couple of exceptions) and serve to fulfill EXACTLY what you think they should, again with the focus on character interaction and how they will encounter the location.

Magic items are all unique. Bones. Spellooks with tattoo’d skin in them. A pouch full of teeth. A rose that’s ever-fresh and impacts spellcaster. A cursed wicker baby basket that creates a newborn baby every day … fuck man! That’s AWESOME! Think of the possibilities of that coming in to your game!

Speaking of possibilities, one column of the text describes the aftermath. What happens if the party destroys the cult, or the pagans, or the church, or some combination thereof. And again, this ain’t just trivia. Enemies, allies, land, a town cursed forever more, brutal knight justice.

I love this thing. Simple. Short. Sticky. If it has a problem then it may be the need for a few other things going on in the village, some way to bring all of the other people to life while the party is out getting into trouble with the main NPC’s.

It’s $5 on DriveThru.

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Dungeon Magazine #91

Challenge of Champions IV
By Johnathan M. Richards
Any Level

The fourth installment of the puzzle adventure series. The characters enter a tourney with no spells, items, etc, and everything is provided to them in each room, on scrolls, etc. They have to figure out the puzzle/win the fight to get out. Having just recently reviewed the Maze of the Blue Medusa, I’m struck by the similarity between the Champions series and the type of adventures i really enjoy, as exemplified by Maze. Both present some unique rooms which have a puzzle-like aspect to them. Bizarre things. I think this really gets to the heart of the nonlinear player-driven choices that, I think at least, drives old school play. Champions turns me off because of the forced nature of it. Not only the fact that it’s a tourney with all abilities taken away (forcing the PLAYERS to adventures instead of relying on their characters min/max’ing) but also because there’s generally a ‘correct’ solution presented for the room. Compared to Tower of the Stargazer, or Maze of the Blue Medusa, or the better Darkness Beneath levels, we can see the difference: the true old school adventures just throw your ass in and expect the players to use their characters to get past the room any which way they can with few if any assumptions. The popularity of this series, which gets a little close to the OSR style, stands in stark contrast to the linear crap-fests that plague D&D.

The Rock and the Hard Place
By Brian Corvello
Level 16

A side-trek. The party is literally caught in the middle of a street between a deva and a gelugon. Seven pages for one combat. A new low for Dungeon Magazine?

Bogged Down
By Terry Edwards
Level 1

The road is washed out and before it can be repaired the bodies washing up from the old cemetary need to removed. The issue is the dead guy that shows up. Tracking him through the swamp reveals his wife “the swamp witch”, who’s a little nuts. Her husband was murdered and now he’s a bog mummy. Tracking him to the old ruined city gets some evidence which allows the party to confront some mercenaries on the cut off village. It’s an ok adventure, but overblown for what it is. A couple of giant centipedes, the bog mummy, and then the mercs. Not much going on. Some more village color (actually, less words and more color, the village portion is quite lengthy already) and some more swamp color (there’s a “friendly” lizard man out there already.) More color, less words. It’s trying, but not succeeding, in creating the flooded village, swamp, and ruined city.

By J/ Bradley Schell
Level 6

Side-trek. Five pages for an air elemental trapped in a one-room hut. The only interesting thing is the entrails of the summoning wizard scattered around the walls of the hut. Next month, read the exciting twenty page adventure that has a giant rat in an empty room!

The Legend of Gathulga
By Tim Hitchcock
Level 1

Nine pages for a giant boar and a couple of halflings. Lots of read-aloud and DM notes for rooms and locations irrelevant to the adventure! I seriously have no fucking clue what the magazine staff were thinking.

Kambranex’s Machinations
By Robert Lee
Level 9

In my ignorance, I declare this to be the first 4e-style adventure in Dungeon. Linear. Full of bullshit flavor that is either irrelevant or justifies the unique monsters existence. Anyway, the monsters here all have a half-machine template attached to them. You find a wilman being attacked by them, save him, his shamen asks you, out of the kindness of your hearts, to save them all by killing the wizard creating them. You proceed through four or so more scene-based encounters/fights before hitting a mostly-linear seven room dungeon. One of the scenes has some read aloud that is something like “The magmin stop frolicking and dancing and their leaders says PLEASE GO KILL THE HYDRA AND WE WILL TELL YOU WHERE THE EVIL WIZARD IS.” There’s just not even a pretext to this shit. Lots and lots of words justifying shit, but little for the players. One of the combats/scenes is only a single column long, so at least it’s straight up about it just being combat. Oh, and, of course, the dungeon at the end has magic walls preventing all of the usual stuff. BULL. SHIT.

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Famine at Holderfield

By Frank Schmidt
Level 2

This tongue in cheek adventure brings new PCs into a small town after an adventure. Upon arrival they quickly discover that the small agricultural community has just been robbed of its harvest supply. With the seasonal change coming those supplies are necessary for the town’s survival. One of the victims of the attack was an alchemist. Contained within his bag were a few Potions of Growth. The bitter taste of the potion disagreed with the bandit who discovered it and he flung it into a field. Unfortunately for the PCs oversized fowl must be overcome before dealing with the bandits.

This is a short linear adventure with only five encounters, all combats, all in a row. It has some decent ideas, but executes the adventure poorly. It is really just something like notes you might jot down five minutes a game, and then each expanded to fill twelves pages … if you wrote linear combat adventures.

The idea here is that you stumble into an inn and upon a meeting of farmers. A traveller has been beaten unconscious and the farmers harvest has been stolen by five bandits. After they stare you down for a bit, they ask you to go get it back. The In Medias Res portion of coming in to a heated farmers meeting, the tenseness of you staring them down as they think you are bandits returning, and the badly eaten man on the table … this is all good and is the kind of “just a little bit more detail” that I’m usually looking for. It’s presented in a conversational and remote third-person style of voice that I don’t really get into: “Upon arrival the farmers will take a defensive stance against the party initially until they can be convinced they aren’t raiders.” Not exactly edge of your seat, but there’s enough to get the DM’s juices flowing, even if it does take most of a page (single column, big text) to get there.

Leaving the tavern to track down the bandits the party then faces three encounters in a row with giants chicks/hens/turkeys. The pacing here is WAY off. One encounter with giant chicks is great. It made me sit up and say “Hey, great! Cool! New monsters!” And then the next one . And the next one. And the next one. All linear. One after another. And switching up from Giant chicks, to a giant hen and chicks, and then more giant hens and chicks, and then a giant turkey is NOT providing variety. It’s a boring combat grind. Followed by a boring bandit combat grind.

The adventure tries to have some fun, in a way. There’s a wanted poster provided as well as a nice size comparison chart comparing the giant fowl to human sizes. Both of these are nice touches to help the DM and communicate flavor. And then it goes and ruins it with some REALLY bad choices. The one that immediately comes to mind is a “roll to continue the adventure” check. Someone needs to make a DC12 check in order to track the bandits back to their lair. I don’t have a problem with the party failing an adventure. I do have a problem with that failure being on account of a tracking roll. If they piss an obviously needed NPC off, then great, they fail. Die in combat? Great, they fail. Miss a bullshit no reason for it to exist DC 12 check? Nope. Uncool.

It also makes the chickens shrink again. This is un-fun. The chicks have grown because of a growth potion they drank. It makes sense they would shrink again, after 12 hours. It’s also lame. Walking around with giant chicken armor, having a giant turkey drumstick, a giant turkey wishbone, giant feathers … the amount of fun is ENDLESS. But the recommendation is to not have it. To take it away. The bonus the characters would get is trivial but the fun the players would have is massive, so the decision doesn’t make sense to me. Another example of realism getting in the way of fun in an elf game.

The cover is reminiscent of an OSR adventure, all hex-crawly and the like. Inside is as linear a 4e adventure as was ever written. Me has sads.

Free at rpgnow.

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Dungeon Magazine #90

The Elfwhisper
By J.C. Alvarez
Level 8

Oh, to mourn for what could have been. The party is trying to find a bandit in some woods and stumbles upon some cursed elves … who they COULD choose to free. This adventure has a lot going for it, and a lot going against it. It feels VERY padded … that all of the good parts were expanded upon with useless drivel. It’s got some decent rumors in town. You see, the adventure starts a bit forward. The party is looking for a bandit and makes it to a town the bandit was seen near. This entire beginning is abstracted and not really dealt with, which is GREAT. An ok hook, abstracted and essentially ignored by the text, with the first real parts of the adventure being the first part the party has a choice in: the town. The rumors are all in first person format, with folksy stories and so on, to add to that “Detail makes the Story” thing I like to harp about. A lot of the good information is presented in bullet form and the read-aloud. In fact, as an experiment, I might photocopy the pages and cut those out and see how the adventure travels. It would be A LOT shorter and I suspect loose nothing. In practice, this makes it easy to dig through the crap and find the bits you need. The bandits are all just pretext to get the party in to a haunted wood and have them meet some cursed ghost elves who plead for help. It’s done VERY well. You find the bandit leader, in a kind of anti-climactic (but perfect for the adventure) way, trapped in quicksand, led there by a will o the wisp. His mean are nearby, slaughtered. The party watch them rise as shadows. This last part is handled in, I think, two sentences, and is rife with the kind of great imagery that I’m looking for. “As the PC’s search the bodies of the dead bandits darken and fade away. Soon there’s nothing human left of them, as the corpses dissolve in to a sickly black mist.” These two sentences, combined with a previous description of the horror on the bodies, provides great imagery for the DM. It’s got a lot going for it, from an abstracted pointcrawl style to helping encounters to get the party on track if lost. It’s got some great cursed hags also. On the downside, there IS a lot of text. This is so common for Dungeon it’s almost unfair to hold it against it. The cursed elf ghosts are well done, but the entire middle portion, with them, feels more like an interlude in a movie, with lots of exposition. I’m not sure how to fix it. The… sadness? Of the ghosts needs to be conveyed, but the entire section is WAY too long for what it is: some flavor text to set mood. The hag caves (three beautiful elf maidens …) are essentially all crap. Just room after room stuffed with silly monsters. A hill giant here, crocs there, a water elemental. In fact, I’m getting to the point where seeing an elemental in an adventure means the designer didn’t try very hard. As with “animated objects”, they COULD be awesome … but are generally a crutch for weak design. Anyway, while the hags prepr are nice, the environment they are in does not jive with the hag encounter. They feel disconnected, their minions and the hags proper. The ghost/hag portion is optional and the adventure is laid out much like, I suspect, many games were at home in the 3e era: here’s some highlights jotted down on a notepad. It’s not exactly linear, or a railroad … or, maybe, it IS both of those things, but without the negative connotations they have come to mean. The players can still opt out and it’s not a straight A to B to C thing, but they are clearly connected in that way and WILL be experienced in that way. It’s more like the major areas are connected, linearly, but you have choices on what you do and where you go. Anyway, not exactly my style, but it’s got a decent human element to it and a decent ghostly element and a decent mythic element with the elf maiden hags. This is another one worth ripping off and/or fixing. Also: nice art!

By Bernard Mees
Level 4

This has a nice concept, and beginning, and then fails to continue to deliver. Rumors are heard of a cursed village. Investigating finds a village populated by skeletons, going about their daily lives. This leads to a wizard’s keep and then to a keep in which a princess is a soon to be wife of a Wraith King. The start is pretty nicely done, with rumors of a cursed village, encounters on the road with notable notables, and then finally the eerie village people. It’s all got a very strong folklore feel to it, a kind of quiet horror forest vibe. Then it becomes boring. Some clues can lead to a wizard keep and some boons inside, but the wizard’s keep is boring. It’s described boring and has little of interest in it. The keep of the wraith king follows in the same vein: boringly described and boring encounters. At one point you meet the last living people in the village … who have nothing to tell you. No doubt the party will focus on them as a source of protection, but there’s nothing there. “Help us escape” is fine, but why they survived so long is a problem. So, steal the beginning, up to and including the cursed town, and drop it in to something more interesting.

Prey for Tyrinth
By Tim Hitchcock
Level 5

A fifteen room flooded cave with a water naga in it. The focus here is on the party really feeling out of their element, and the element being on the side of the monster. Go in to a new area, the naga fucks with you, you deal with it by maybe burning some resources/spells, and then go to the next area. “The monster, in its native environment, taking advantage of its abilities” isn’t such a bad idea and it’s certainly a lot better than those old three room lairs that used to appear in supplements and adventures, to this day. It’s a little Hit & Run/Ambushy, as presented, and a few more words against DM Fiat may have been in order. It’s hard to call it good, since it’s essentially 15 hit & run attacks against the party, but it serves the purpose it was written for, without too much extra bullshit.

Tears for Twilight Hollow
By Angel Leigh McCoy & Christopher Perkins
Level 7

Forty three pages. Please, Hermes the great, the great, the great, give me the power to make it through this.

Nope. Stupid fucking lame adventure, poorly organized. Ok, MOSTLY stupid. Arrive in village, the people distrust you, see a funeral, get sent by cleric to where the paladin died to look in to bandits/etc, run around a swamp valley for a bit, a ghost sends you back to town hinting the cleric is evil, other people in town hint cleric is evil, discover evil catacombs, confront cleric.

The main hook here is interesting: escorting a bridal party (with the implied fun of that) and ending up in an innocuous location: Twilight Hollow. That’s not so bad of an idea to get the party someplace “normal” for an adventure. There’s lots of little weird encounters to illustrate their distrustful stance, but little to actually bring the village to life beyond that. IE: the events presume you hanging around but there nothing there to hang around fo. Eventually you get sent on a quest to a valley to figure out what killed a paladin, and do it because you are good people, I guess. The swamp valley is done well, but the entire thing is pointless. The actual instruction to the DM are something like “when they have wasted enough time in the valley, have them encounter the ghost that points them back to the town.” Uncool. Likewise, in town you THEN have some encounters that lead you to catacombs under the village, but NOT before you go to the valley! That’s the worse kind of railroading. I get what they are trying to do, but it’s carried out VERY poorly. The catacombs under the town house about a zillion evil cultists, all unknown to the village. The concept of the catacombs, and their separate areas is a good one, if inconsistently carried out. In particular the locations and evil-NPC’s have mountains of backstory that won’t come up in play. Also, the cleric wears a ring of mind shielding and the words “ethereal xill cleric of loviatar” are written in the adventure. Yeah, things get shitty at the end. The feeling of fear and paranoia and Who Can You Trust never really comes through. It’s just a hack a thon.

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Curse of the Kobold Eye

By Dave Olson
Cut to the Chase Games
Level 2-4

An unusual curse from their last brush with danger befalls a party of adventurers! Haunted by the spectral image of a one-eyed kobold warrior, the heroes must race to unravel the mystery of the curse while avoiding death at the hands of their ghostly visitor. Can they stop the effects of the curse in time before it consumes them entirely? A harrowing journey awaits them!

I try to be a good person. I promise. Do you think the people who write shovelware know they are doing it at the time? The answer, of course, is no. (I tell myself, for my own sanity, that it’s more like the way Ed Wood was depicted in the movie, a vision in their own eyes that doesn’t get fully communicated on the page. This shovelware raised $7k on kickstarter for a series of three modules.

DM Fiat. You know it as the crap-ass mechanic used by DM’s everywhere to enforce some petty tyrannies on the players. “Welcome to the game! Congratulations, you’ve been cursed, off-screen, and now you will suffer each day until you go on my railroad adventure. Have fun!” The party has been cursed, either from the first adventure (because they went on the adventure, you can’t avoid it) or a random kobold beggar on the street curses them. That’s the hook. Go on the adventure or else. This is not the fucking way you write, or run, an adventure. NO FIAT! Look, if the player has his character cut off his ear and attach the Ear of Vecna, then have at it. The SOB should know better and the player has made a specific choice for their character. Telling the party they are now cursed, for the contrivance of the adventure, takes away all semblance of control the players have over their characters. It makes it clear, in brutal terms, that the players are just toys for the DM, they have no control and their action, or lack thereof, are meaningless. Further, this PIECE OF SHIT hook has no real impact on the adventure. Other than punishing the characters and motivating them to go on the adventure, it doesn’t really have any impact. Evil Bob shows up a couple of times to attack them, on the curse pretext, and they have to go to the tomb to sprinkle the Magic Elixir McGuffin on his corpse, to break the curse, but this is all just pretext and not an integral part of the adventure. If it’s not … then why use such a crappy pretext?

On to the crappy-ass generic adventure! Get attacked by six zombies and a wraith, with no choice in the matter. Get attacked b a bear, with little choice in the matter. Get attacked by four animated books and a wraith, with no choice in the matter. Get attacked by a water weird, with no choice in the matter. Enter a basically symmetrical gnome tomb complex with twelve rooms. Get attacked by a poltergeist with no choice in the matter. Fight some undead until you find the body and sprinkle the goop on it to end the curse. This is NOT a good adventure, or even a decent adventure. It is, at best, a thoroughly mediocre adventure. Railroaded encounters do not an adventure make and further illustrate the power-mongering DM attitude that is illustrated so well in the hook. You have to give the party a fucking choice! You can’t just toss encounter after encounter at them! Ok, I guess, yes, technically you can. I rather disparagingly call that style “D&D Mini’s” and I FUCKING LOATHE IT. You like sitting around bored for four hours rolling dice and pretending they have some effect? Great. Knock yourself out. But you’ll have to excuse me while I ensure everyone knows that the adventure is just a 33 page expanded Chainmail encounter. That’s not what I’m looking for when I think of D&D.

The writing here is generic and abstract. “This room was once used for …” How many times have I railed against that sort of writing? Descriptions of what it once was, with little to no impact on how the party interacts with the room? It’s useless. It’s a waste. It does NOTHING to advance the adventure or provide a tool for the DM. This isn’t a fucking history lesson. It’s not a National Geo special on the burial rites and complexes of gnomes. NONE of that matters. What matters is describing something that the players will interact with. That’s the fucking point. To aid the in running the thing. This sort of basic lack of understanding of the point of the adventure is what has launched this thing in to thirty three pages. Yes, thirty three pages, for, maybe, eighteen or so encounters, plus a couple of wandering tables. Sure, there’s the license nonsense, and art, and DM and player maps, and monster stats, etc. But still, eighteen or so core pages, for what’s being presented? Long, wordy text that does nothing to add to the adventure.

Curse of the Kobold Eye, it is with great sadness that i bestow upon you the coveted tag of “Worst Adventure EVAR.” You join a hallowed group of Really. Shitty. Adventures. Your combination of a threatening hook, railroaded events, and boring and uninspiring encounters all combined with a writing style that can best be described as Phone It In earns you this prize. Your representative nature, being held up to all and standing in for all of the vast quantities of shovelware found on “Buy three get one free” shelf sales earns you this. Stand proudly, Curse of the Kobold Eye, know that you are just the latest in a long line of mediocrity in RPG design.

And because I am an ass: at one point you meet some giant badgers next to an abandoned gnome settlement. One of them can talk to you. I like talking animals, they harken back to folklore and I think conjure up a shared history larger than themselves. The poor things think you are the harbingers of the gnomes coming back and their greatness being restored. It’s a fun roleplaying encounter, overly described with too little specificity, but it also has a lot of potential and is the only thing in the adventure that is the least bit interesting.

And not enough fucking treasure! Gold=XP!

Posted in Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 4 Comments

Through the Cotillion of Hours

By Daniel J. Bishop
Purple Duck Games
Any Level

In this adventure, sleeping characters are invited to the Cotillion of Somnos, the Dreaming God. If they can make their way past the entertainments at the Masked Ball, they can petition the Dreaming God to fulfill some request on their behalf.

This is an adventure in the house of the god of dreams that mostly involves making savings throws … on a mostly symmetrical fourteen room map. I don’t like dream adventures, or symmetrical maps, so be warned. Weirdly, I don’t like this one either.

The idea is that this is a drop-in adventure. When the party needs something, or goes looking for something then you can drop in this adventure. The official DCC line did something like this in … Blades Against Death? In that one you could drop it in when the party needed to bring someone back to life. In this one it’s just ‘Something.’ Need a question answered, a life restored, or some other boon? You can drop in the house of the god of dreams! In principal I really like this kind of idea. It slots in to an idea that you can cobble together something from a published adventure to fit in to your own campaign. Need an oracle? Ding! Need a village for your plot? Ding! This is a kind of “supplement as a play aid building block” kind of adventure design rather than “supplement comes bundled with plot.” Generically, I think the concept is good. And then there’s the implementation in THIS adventure …

The entire adventure is timed. There’s a kind of clock counting off time and after it chimes thirteen times the characters wake up. When you go in to a new room the chimes ring.

Boom, you’re in the dream realm, in front of the god of dreams home, where a grand masked ball is taking place. You wander around from room to room until you find the god of dreams. In each room you find something that you need to fuck with in order to do something. That something is usually “leave the room.” Make a DC14 will save. Make six DC 10 agility checks. Blah blah blah blah. Sometimes when you miss a save it causes the chimes to go off because you’re delayed, etc. There are a couple of ways to Turn Back Time, none of which involve aircraft carriers or fishnet, sadly. Make some saves, maybe pay attention to puzzle-like element. Go to Next Room.

As an example, there’s a room with “Fear Nothing” or some such over the door. Inside the room melts in to a giant maw of your enemy and you begin to get sucked in. Letting yourself get sucked in advances you (Fear Nothing, remember) and there are vines that multiply faster than you can kill them, etc. That’s the kind of encounter you can expect.

Is that your thing? It’s not my thing. I’m not heavy in to combat (and, to be fair, this adventure really only has a couple of POSSIBLE combats in it, and then only if the party provoke, hence it’s all levels designation.) but I’ve got this problem with one note adventures. Make saves in rooms. Figure out puzzles. These things become boring after awhile. There’s little for the players to do with their characters. Making a save, especially multiple saves, is not exciting. It’s not the player directing their character. It’s just rolling dice, without even the tension of combat.

There’s also a decent chance the party will become separated. The adventure even notes that. That’s boring. With no hint of hyperbole, I don’t think ANYONE has EVER had ANY fun being separated and sitting there, bored, waiting for someone else to finish their turn so they get one step closer to being able to do something. Beyond physical separation, there are several times when someone could be permanently taken out of the adventure, usually by doing what they are asked to do. I one room, you ask an oracle a question. If you actually do so then you get the asnwer, but then your sucke dout of the dream world and your adventure is over. The oracle endgame portion isn’t bad but it’s the player elimination that is. I’ve got no problems with this in a boardgame but in an RPG? Lame. SImilarly, if you make the wrong kind of request to the dreaming god then you die. At some meta level this makes sense, Gods Take No Shit. But the players can’t make a meaningful decision unless they know the consequences, and just tossing DOOM at the them, almost at random, is not cool.

It was the usual problems with descriptions. A couple of paragraphs of read aloud per room are provided, but the text is generic. Rooms are “Opulent.” This is a textbook example of Telling instead of Showing. The designer has told us the room is Opulent. He should have described the room in such a way that WE make the determination that it’s opulent.

Nice general concept, but poorly executed. Also, nice to see Purple Duck return to core DCC: fucking with gods.

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Dungeon Magazine 89

Honor and Eta
By David Zenz
Level 1

OA! I Used to love OA in Dungeon! Used to …

A seven scene linear adventure that pits level 1 characters against a were-tiger. This has some pretext about honor, but that doesn’t really come in to it. The first few scenes involve the Eta, the lowest caste, and the systemic prejudice against them. That seems like something fun to game right? Next issue has orc babies and an adventure involving the trans-atlantic slave trade! Oh Boy! Anyway, seven encounters, and maybe three combats, the last with a were-tiger.Hope your level-1’s all have silver! Perhaps the only good thing about this adventure is that the Eta village, maybe the third encounter, is the turning point where the adventure moves from reality to fantasy. After the village the encounters are all myth: tengu, were-tiger, goblins. That’s a good transition to The Mythic Underworld. The adventure also does a good job in making clear the miserable treatment of the Eta and the hyperbolic class-based system in OA. Fun!

Rivers of Blood
By Paul Leach
Level 4

Dark Age Russia! Cool!
Wait, I meant to say “Event based Adventure! LAME!”
Just a railroad, with maybe two interesting encounters in it. “Defend” a village from horseman raiders. Defend the village from other Rus. Have a couple of encounters on the river. Visit a town where the Rus dude who attacked the village is selling them as slaves, and challenge him to combat. Maybe eight or nine encounters, all in a line, with far too much boring combat. When your adventure has the line “To keep player suspense alive, roll some dice to make it seem like they are having an effect on the battle” then you know you are a failure as an adventure writer. If the party doesn’t capture a boat, during the raid, then a villager offers them a boat. *sigh* So the parties actions have no effect. There is a nice talky ogre that will chat with you and not be a jerk, and even maybe be helpful, if you pay the toll. That’s refreshing. There’s also a hag/witch with a bridge of bones. Given my over of folklore in adventures it should be obvious I like that. The rest of the adventure is just boring and dull combats. With overwrought read-aloud. Joy.

By James Jacobs
Level 12

Fifteen rooms in a derro undead/simulacra fortress. There’s this theory that says that deathtraps are ok in a high level adventure. The idea being that the party has access to a lot of magic, divination, and maybe even wishes and if they don’t take advantage of all their capabilities then Fuck Them. I won’t take a position on that, but I will note that this adventure relies heavily on the party using their abilities in … non-modern ways. They are going to need to scry/commune/etc just to find the adventure and even then it’s 26 days away walking .. by which time the evil plan will have been enacted. Better have divined that and/or used fly/mount/etc! So, expert players only. Once inside it’s full of boring combats in a mostly linear, and small dungeon. Undead. Simulacra of monsters. Lots of nonsense text telling backgrounds and motivations useless to the adventure. The final encounter, in particular, will be quite rough, unless you have expert players who can think non traditionally. Then Orcus shows up and steals a major magic item, his scythe. LAME! I don’t find the adventure interesting, because of its linear nature and focus on combat, except for the expert-player orientation of it.

By Bradley Schell
Level 7

Enkidu-like barbarian is cursed with manners and the party needs to kill a troll priestess to free him. The barbarian with manners is a nice NPC, but the troll lair is only three rooms of mundane adventuring. IE: this is a five-page side-trek. Also, FYI: I have a brand on my left arm, in cuneiform, of Gilgamesh. Fuck you Doom of Man!

Wedding Bells
By Jonathan Tweet
Level 4

This weird thing is almost like it was written to be the Included Beginning Adventure in a boxed set. It’s very “You could do this or you could do this and if the party does this then you could do this.” in the same way that many introductory adventures are written. But it’s level four? It’s primarily a social adventure, with only one real or maybe two real combats. It’s also one of the worst fucking adventures I’ve ever seen. I loathe almost every choice Tweet made in this adventure. I usually try and keep ideas and actions separate from people. What you say or what you do may be stupid, but that doesn’t mean that you are stupid. Generalizations are evil. But I’m also a hypocrite. If this adventure is any indication of Tweet’s DM’ing style then I’m willing to say he’s fucking shitty ass DM.

The party visits a town for a wedding. Someone is missing. Out of the kindness of their hearts the party goes looking and fights a harpy in a tree. The end. Oh, on the way to the town the party is attacked by gnolls that the designers fully admits are not really connected in any way to the adventure and only exists to have a fight at the start. Wonderful. Upon reaching the town the party eats shit. Seriously, they eat shit. Over and over again. A hobgoblin guard shows up at the gates and belittles the party and makes petty (and not so petty) demands of them. Give me your weapons. It’s all a test, to see what kind of people they are. I’ll tell you what kind of people _I_ am, the kind that doesn’t take shit from police state thugs. *stab stab stab* Police state? Oh my yes. You see, one of the dock workers (it’s a lake town) is a third level paladin and uses detect evil on the party, in order to inform the sheriff. There’s a couple of encounters like this, including the little thief. A thief breaks in to the partes rooms at night. If the party hurts them, or god forbid kills them, then the sheriff probably kicks them out of town and the DM is encouraged to force an alignment check. Oh, and sick an elven strike force on the party. Even if it’s accidental, like a shot fired in the dark. The townsfolk generally treat the party like crap and then expect them to help find the missing person.

I’m not sure what Tweet is going for here. Pushing the party, repeatedly, and then punishing them for the action you’ve encouraged is Not Cool. In RPG’s the big red button exists to be pushed, because that’s the fun thing to do. The enforced morality in this adventure, the DM pushing the party over and over again …. This is not the way to DM your game … unless you are in junior high. It’s this kind of shitty ass crap that gives D&D a bad name and it’s this kind of shitty ass adventure publishing that encourages people to be shitty-ass DM’s. “The due that write the game write the adventure and he clearly wants me to be a strict dick to the party.”

The adventure does have a brief NPC synopsis in the rear, but they have no personality. It has suggestions on wedding prep, but no complications to have fun with. It has a nice scene where the town folk to come to the party with petty requests, in a kind of hero worship/celebrity sort of thing … that’s not really taken advantage of at all.

Beyond this, it’s long for no reason. A page and a half for a gnoll ambush? It gets back to his Introductory Adventure advice and conversational style that the adventure has. It’s also organized in a weird way. In particular, the Harpy stats and tree she lives in is at one part of the adventure, in the locales portion, and how the harpy reacts and what she does, etc when the party shows up is at the rear of the adventure MANY pages away.

Fuck You Tweet. I reject.

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By J.V. West
Random Order Creations
Level 1-3

The wind whips through the standing stones making the hill moan like something alive. Or perhaps something dead. You stand atop its barren crown. There is a whisper in the darkness. There is evil afoot…Whether you come to the hill for glory, riches, or by mere chance you might not walk away the same as when you came…if at all

This is a small six room tomb complex, with a seventh encounter outside. Inside are mostly spiders and and the big bad while outside is an aggressive wandering monster table. Those seven encounters take twenty-two pages to describe, so there’s clearly an issue with tercity in this product. It DOES do a decent job from time to time, a more old school flavor than most OGL stuff did, anyway. The primary drawback is the shortness, the verbosity, and the lack of treasure. (I thought I bought a OSRIC version but it’s clearly OGL. I don’t know, I probably fucked up.)

The adventure has at least one redeeming quality: it takes liberty with the rules. Wolves with cumulative fear effects. Spiders with new poison. Weird curses. It has no problem providing a new rule/ruling in order to handle an effect that is either outside of the rules or doesn’t use the rules for a crutch. Many adventures will try and explain everything through the existing rules. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen a monster released from a stasis field that is triggered by a contingency spell attached to a magic mouth spell. While I loathe statis field monsters, the whole “need to use the rules” things infuriates me more. Just make up a rule and move on with your life. This adventure does that and it’s refreshing to see. It also takes a paragraph where one sentence would do, and two paragraphs where two sentences would do, to explain the rule, but, well, let’s talk about that a bit.

I’m going to pick on this poor product to make a point that would probably be better illustrated in another, even more verbose, product. Sorry.

The text here is verbose. Very long. To little effect. Seven encounters over 22 pages is excessive. If we ignore all of the fluff, background, stats, etc, then we’re still looking at an average of almost one pager per encounter. Still too long. I need to make sure I’m clear here: I’m not complaining for the sake of complaining. I’m not looking for the ultra-tersity of Palace of the Vampire Queen. Those sorts of products have little place today. Nor am I looking to have everything explained to me. I’m looking for something on a different axis altogether: is this useful for the DM running the game? And even more hard-core: At the table?

In adventures, I assert that’s the definition of Well Written. Does it help the DM run it? At the table? Some abstract linkage, or friend of a friend idea doesn’t count. You can’t provide a six page backstory and assert that it’s useful to the DM because they might get an idea. I’m sure they might. But the primary purpose of the adventure is not as a bit of fluff to inspire. Sure, some folks might use it that way. I might use it to wipe my ass, but no matter how good it is as toilet paper that doesn’t reflect how good it is at helping the dm AT THE TABLE.

In this light you can start to see common themes in what I complain about. I like monster reference sheets because the DM can use them as reference at the table. I like a dense and overloaded map legend because it also acts as kind of reference at the table. (I’m not referring to the map complexity, but rather showing other information than room proximity on a map.) I like evocative writing because it can communicate a lot of information in a very small amount of space, leveraging the DM’s imagination through inspiration. And why is it important that it be terse? Because the DM needs to use the fucking thing AT THE TABLE. The party advances to room six. You look down at the book, at room six. You see eight paragraphs of information. How do you scan that and provide a fun experience for the players? You clearly can’t. We resort to highlighters, or taking notes, or annotating the maps, all to pull out the key information that the DM needs to know at a glance.

A well written product doesn’t do this. It’s focused. It communicates the key information quickly and evocatively. This is not a well written product. It uses A LOT of words when only a few would do, making it hard to parse and run.

It is, however, trying to communicate some interesting things. I already noted that it tries new effects out, which is great. Magic items get a “better than dull book” description, like a gold ring with a sapphire, and mundane items like an emerald encrusted silver dagger. (even though the treasure seems light for an gold=xp game, but, again, I think I’m looking at the OGL version not the OSRIC version.In my experience, the designers never update the treasure, but maybe I’m wrong this time …) A small ruling on the effects of sneezing on monster ambushing. A room of magic mushrooms that you can take with you. Foreshadowing the main monster through stuff the party finds is a great way to build tension, and it’s done here. The read-aloud mentioned scurrying creatures in the rooms with giants spiders.

There is a GREAT section on an NPC you find the dungeon. He’s wounded. If you save him, he’s still a bit delusional and he’s paralyzed from the waist down. One of his potential lines is “I … I have soiled myself and I’m sorry for the many things I did in life …” Great! Well, the exact wording could be better, but it gets the core idea across really well for that particular rant. The party might even get a hint off of him that a monster is about to attack, if they notice his suddenly maddening eyes.

This has something to say, it just has a hard time getting it across. A second giant spider attack is hidden in the body text, and unbolded, unlike all other monsters. It takes over a page to describe skeletons attacking when you dig up a grave. Yeah, there’s a curse and some foreshadowing, but, still, over a page?

Pay What You Want @ DriveThru.

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Sepulcher of the Mountain God

By Paul Wolfe
Purple Duck Games
Level 1

Braving the hidden tomb of an ancient tribal king, the adventurers become embroiled in a quest directly from Ira, the Mountain God – find the Skull of Vyache and his magic club, Alceon, that were stolen by Bashkim and the twisted minions of Gelihedres.

This is a 17-room mostly linear tomb/cave complex. It makes an effort, but ultimately provides lots of text to little effect and the linear nature of the adventure detracts. It turns into a slog, facing room after room, with little for the DM to get excited about.

I want to focus on the descriptions, which means the DM text and read-aloud. One of the themes I go back to time and again is the purpose of the text in an adventure. The purpose of the the text is to inspire the DM. This is, after all, a play aid. It’s meant to be a crutch for the GM to use in their game. The DM, or, rather, the DM’s imagination, is the single greatest ally the designer has in their attempt to provide value to the DM. To this end the designers text needs to be targeted to the DM, to inspire them, to plant a seed in head that can grow. The goal is, after the DM reads the entry, to have their mind racing. To have a fractal explosion of possibilities explode in their head. That’s the impact of a good description: the possibilities it generates excites and inspires.

If I was describing a room and wrote “The rooms is large” or even “the room is big” or “the room is huge” then a sort of very generic room idea seed is transferred from the writer to the DM. In this case the idea is rather abstract. I was very specific in my writing so the idea transferred is pretty boring. Is any of that appropriate for a Lovecraft adventure? Cyclopean, echoing, the top lost in shadows. In fact, I would suggest that both Cyclopean and Echoing are better than large, he top being lost in shadows is better than both. The best descriptions show, instead of telling. “Endless footfall echoes” shows. “The top lost in shadows” shows. “Large” tells. “Cyclopean” also tells, but it also conjures up more specific imagery than “large.” And what’s the key: specificity.

Let’s take a look at one of the descriptions in the adventure. This comes from room 1: “A larger, decorated corpse lies on a black stone bier at the back of the chamber.” Corpse isn’t the greatest choice, but my main beef here is “decorated.” It’s abstract. It’s a generalization. Decorated, but HOW? Garlands of fresh Luna blooms drape over the dessicated skin? I’m a suck ass writer but Garlands are better than “decorated.” What’s a luna blossom? Who cares (as far as the written text is concerned), the DM can make it up. The important part is planting the seed in the DM’s imagination.

There’s another very good (negative) example later on. The heads and shoulders of a foul giant are carved into a wall. Why is the giant foul? Is it leering? Misshapen? “Foul giant” is generic and abstract. The key is to be specific. Not overly so, not three sentences where a phrase or better word will do.

I’ve picked two examples out of the text but the general state is that genericism and lack of specificity. This is combined with overly long DM text. A decent college try is made with some item descriptions, but again they come off as long, full of things we don’t need to know, trivia. Similarly the hooks are quite nonspecific and little more than generic crap. Your god calls you, rumors of treasure, you’re related to someone who disappeared. That’s not really an effort at all. When all of this is combined with the rather linear map, there’s little to recommend here.

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