Dreams of the Lurid Sac

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by Paul Keigh
Psychedelic Fantasies
D&D

Uh … I don’t know if I can review this.

This is a site based adventure with no overarching objectives or hooks. It’s just a place for you to dump into your game. I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s breaking any new ground in any particular area. What it IS doing though is being committed to a vision. This thing has a core concept and it is FOCUSED on it. Elements of this adventure have been found in other adventures in bits & pieces, but no other adventure has, I believe, put them all together in one shell.

You’re adventuring inside of a creature, the titular Lurid Sac. Remember Fantastic Voyage? The interior sets looked … alien? Weird fibers, colors, flows, creatures. Well that’s what’s going on here. Most of the “adventuring inside a create” things I’ve seen have been half-efforts. There are doors, or stairways built in, or something like that. None of that is in this one. No stairs or doors or comforts of home brought in by travellers. This is a truly alien environment … exactly the way an alien environment should be.

Imagine a hundred overlapping bubbles, on maybe three layers. That’s the map. Where they touch you can massage the membranes to get through. Some of the bubbles have special purposes: the cortex, the mouth, the neck, the “sponges” that allow access to the outside, and so on. The rest of the bubbles are procedurally generated, as are the contents. There are random monsters, events, contents, humours … you get the idea. Most of it is simply enough to handle in practice.

Hmmm, that’s a description and not a review. Ok, review. First, the environment is truly alien. You’re gonna be confronted with having to understanding it, from what’s written, and in relaying it to the players. It should be worth it though; I’m not sure I’ve seen something so alien and so … committed, even with all the bizarro stuff I’ve seen in the 1-page contests and the weirder Finch stuff. This is good. Strange pools of humors, veins of humors, bulging membranes, this should all provide a unique experience for your players.

The creatures, while procedurally generated, are well done. They are, of course, unique. This is a feature of all creatures in Psychedelic Fantasies modules. While procedurally generated, each one DOES have 6 or so activities they could be engaged in. This is PERFECT. It takes, literally, 2 extra lines of text and provides the EXACT sort of springboard the DM can combine with the procedurally generated room in order to run the adventure. PERFECT. I say again: PERFECT. This is a monster table done right. There are also factions, with faction based rewards. The Lurid Sav vs. The Invasives, with the parasites running around on their own. GREAT for launching mini-missions within the environment.

I could go on. I could go on a Lot. This is a fully realized place that, while procedurally generated, brings more … bizarro? than a hundred other products. I’m generally down on procedurally generated stuff, but I’ll take this one.

This IS going to take some work to prep for. A few rolls ahead of time, some monster reference sheets/photocopies/printouts and the like will reduce the page-turning during play. It’s also going to take a STRONG read to wrap your mind around it. That could point to the need for better organization, although how I’m uncertain. The crossover potential, from Rifts to any sci-fi or modern day game, is huge. How many adventures can truly say that?

Like I said earlier, the only new ground here is the commitment to the vision. Because of that there is no letting up; this is a relentless view of an alien environment. If you can handle that then this is a must buy. It’s what, $3? You won’t spend $3 on one of the most bizarro environments I’ve seen in nearly 500 reviews?

You know, when I go to cons I sometimes dig through the used/old book boxes in the dealer hall. I’m looking for some forgotten gem. Something different, something special. A forgotten work of genius. This is that thing I’m looking for. When someone picks this 30 years from now they are stare in disbelief as they page through the thing. This is thick and dense the way Thracia or Dark Tower is. It’s alien in a way I’ve never fully seen before. It’s got the uniqueness in creatures and treasure that Psychadelic is known for. The ONLY downside is the procedural nature, and even that has had the rough edges filed off and made easy for the DM.

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The Caves of Ortok

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by John Paul McCartan
InfiniBadger Press
Labyrinth Lord (& S&W & OSRIC)
Levels 3-5

Centuries ago, the great wizard Ortok broke apart his treasure vault and secreted his collection in multiple hidden caches throughout the world. Some of these caches have already been found, but many more remain undiscovered. Rumors suggest that one such cache may be found in some caves nearby. However, that is not all that the caves hold!

This is a short nine room adventure through a cave & dungeon, with the front half being combat heavy and the back half puzzle focused. A sub-par effort in producing an adventure that, explicitly, wants to support the DM during actual play at the table. The “support” seems more like filler, and the actual parts of the adventure that need the designers help are missing. Sometimes, explicitly so. Combined with unremarkable ideas, lots of text, and an uninspiring premise, this is just more fodder for the great morass of “buy 1 get 3 free” vendors at the cons. Content is King … and this has little to none. If I were mincing words I would say that the designer is very unsuccessful in communicating their vision.

The adventure is wordy. Ignoring that, it’s also aggressively generic. Almost none of the descriptions amount to more than “There’s 2 Sahuagin in the room.” Take the rumors: “Pearls can be found washed up on the beach.” or “Many people explore the caves and never come back.” First, these are generic. They are fact based. They communicate no life and no soul to the DM. Second, they don’t really add anything to the adventure. Compare this to Blackeswell. There the rumors guided the party to adventure. But here they are simple facts only very tangentially related to the adventure. Yes, they communicate about the beach and the caves, sometimes. But they don’t do it in a way that adds anything to the adventure, either for the players (“we should follow up on this!”) or the DM (”Oh Boy! Now I can X, Y, and Z!”.) There’s a partially submerged stairway. It’s described as a crude steep and slippery stairway. That’s boring. Dollars to doughnuts the designer had some very strong idea of how this looks in their head. I’m guessing it was exciting. But the language used to describe comes out cheap and uninspiring. The purpose of those room descriptions should be to immediately and solidly build a strong visual image in the DM’s head. The DM’s imagination will fill in the rest once they have an inspired solid foundation. This lays a generic foundation.

Moving on, the product claims to want to support the DM. There are pre-gens. Yeah! They don’t have HP, or spell slots. (Because they are written for third THROUGH fifth level ..) And then there’s the main treasure. The mighty artifacts that Ortok is rumored to have hidden. The goal for the entire adventure. “Gamemasters are encouraged to enter their own treasure here.” There’s a little treasure, like “3d1000 in mixed coins” or “Dagger +1 with a Special Property.” AGGRESSIVELY generic.

Finally, I want to note that there are some puzzles in this adventure. Three if I recall correctly. The adventure makes the fatal mistake, like so many others, of not providing clues. Instead the players must use trial & error to discover that A) deadly stuff ahead, and B) puzzle solution. This is the worst kind of puzzle. It doesn’t support play. People get bored, give up, mess with their phones. Good traps/puzzles foreshadow themselves with clues ahead of time. Both that they exist (“Gee, why is that body chopped in half?”) and in a general line of inquiry for their solution. (“Remember all those murals of Ortok paying a harp?!”) Otherwise they are random. There may be place for that at higher levels, with Augury, etc, but not at low levels.

Ortok, Ortok, See what you have done. You may be dead but the module-people said “Let’s make Another One!”

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Dungeon Magazine #47

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Shades of Darkness
by David C. Wright
AD&D
Levels 4-6

This is, essentially, a set piece battle in darkness. The party stumble on village whose manor lord has just been killed. Looking in to the manor discovers a few clues to what’s to come, and then it’s off to a four room cave in the basement filled with Dark Creepers and a Stalker. This is the darkness set piece. A little role-play in the village, a little investigation in the manor, and then a rough fight in the darkness with 1 HD monsters. It’s an inoffensive little adventure. I think I’m predisposed to like these sorts of “one notable encounter” adventures, but dropping it in as a diversion seems simple enough. Also: there’s an odious section where the party meet some people who fight with the flats of their blades. IE: a designer who can’t stomach the consequences of what they’ve written.

Quelkin’s Quandary
by Christopher Perkins
AD&D
Levels 3-5

Retaking a wizards tower from an NPC party. The NPC’s have personalities, and there’s a roleplaying element possible with them. The wizards tower tends to RenFaire wizard rather than gonzo sorcerer. There’s quite a bit of detail, and while I can quibble with the boxed text the content of the rooms are at least passable. The NPC locations vary throughout the day and they have a plan for invasion. There’s a little too much exposition of the tower, especially when you consider the core is the running battle/stealth from the NPC party. IE: this is keyed and described like a typical location and yet the emphasis is not on exploring a location but rather taking it back from the NPC’s. That’s where the emphasis of the text should be, with only the best of the wizards tower details remaining, after a good strong edit.

Smouldering Mane
by Rona Kreekei
AD&D
Levels 7-10

Who likes seeing alignment used as a bludgeon! You do? Great! Better not ignore the NPC Wemics plea for help when he asks in this Side-Trek! There’s a puzzle element, in stopping the fire, a combat element when you discover a fire elemental, and a roll-your-eyes element as the adventure implores the party to recognize the destruction the fire has caused and the need for a create & food water to keep the little animals and Wemics fed.

When the Light Goes Out
by Steve Loken
AD&D
Priest 1

1-on-1 for a 1st level priest.

Fraggart’s Contraption
by Willie Walsh
AD&D
Levels 1-2

This is the poster-child for 2E Dungeon adventures … the good and the bad. The hook for this reads like a Paranoia adventure, replete with experimental devices that may work the way you want. Four pages of hook/introduction, the tinker gnome subculture, each gnome fully realized with personality and backstory, backstory upon backstory. A brief overland with a fully described wandering monster table. All ending in a small 12-ish room bandit cave that takes many many pages to describe. Full detail. Rich environments. Interesting trivia. EVERYTHING spelled out for the DM in detail. All ending with a gnome in an Apparatus of Kwalish. The detail is a mix of trivia and gameable content, but the content tends to be over explained hand-holding. The kitchen table and it’s stools are described, including one slightly higher for a gnome to sit on. WTF is that? Trivia. If you arrive before or after an ambush you get some DM guidelines. If you arrive at the exact moment you get a wall of read-aloud text. Many of the bandits get A LOT of backstory. You can probably run this, with some furious note taking ahead of time. You will probably have fun. It’s unclear though that the effort will be worth it. I like the ‘quiet’ nature of the adventure, the monsters who may parlay … Again, it’s just not clear to me that there’s something of substance here. Like I said, good & bad … This could also be a hidden gem of your game, if you put the work in to it. No thunder, just little works for 1st level adventurers. Kind of the opposite of a DCC adventure; still involved, but not in a gonzo way.

The Assassin Within
by Paul F. Culotta
Al-Qadim
Levels 3-5

This is a sad, sad adventure. You’re supposed to be guarding a university professor from an assassin that is targeting his family. It’s marred by glaring issues. Way WAY too much backstory on motivations of everyone involved (justifying what’s going on in the adventure.) Forcing the party to do what the designer wants them to do. (There can be no appeal to the authorities, the university colleagues, or anyone else.) The usual “the enemy has exactly what they need to forsee every situation the party comes up with so the way I want to adventure to proceed can’t be messed with.” And, worst of all, no real Al-Quadim flavor except for mindless trappings like changing the names of the currency, etc. Finally, the adventure lacks focus. The focus is supposed to be on the cat & mouse game the assassin plays. But then the adventure, it’s descriptions and locations, are not focused on that. It’s all over the place, describing this and that, bits thrown in here and there. Know what the purpose of your adventure is and focus your writing/descriptions on that.

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The Fungus That Came To Blackeswell

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by Yves Geens
Psychedelic Fantasies
D&D
Third Level?

Publisher’s Blurb: “The inside of the detached cover has the map of the subterranean village of Blackeswell. It’s a site-based module. No quests or plots. The word “Fungus” is in the title for good reason. This is a creepy, mushroomy, fungusy adventure. If you are like me, you love that squishy, slimy, over-ripe botanic feel of lots of vile, rotting fungus in your D&D. This module has you covered. This is the best, most original fungus module of all time. It gave me some shudders. This is definitely the scariest of the three Psychedelic Fantasies modules.”

This is a tight and dense ten page adventure, packed and delivered like a UPS truck. DCC does a great job providing kick ass adventures. Psychedelic Fantasies does the same great job, but in a different manner. Looser and denser than DCC and providing great value, this line brings to life a … freer? form of the game. It describes situations, without the need to appeal to mechanics. As a result we get an adventure of imagination. No explanations of WHY the X is Y. No attempts to describe everything in sight. It IS … now deal with it. This is a refreshing view, and is closer to my platonic ideal of a prepublished adventure than the vast majority of published material. SHOW, don’t tell, is the phrase of the day, and this adventure shows us. Because it shows it supports the DM during during play. “Bob is evil” only tells us Bob is evil and communicates nothing. “Bob is pulling the legs off of a spider” shows us that Bob is evil and tells us a LOT about Bob. This adventure shows.

It’s a village with something going on … a fungus infestation. There’s no overarching quest, or plot, or anything else. Nothing is assumed about why the party is there. You can drop this into anything you’ve got got going on and use it. At best, it’s implied the party has heard about the infestation of fungus and is getting there before the authorities cordon off the place … getting in to do some looting before The Man stops you.

In one quarter of a page we are introduced to the background. In one quarter of a page we have the rumor table. In one quarter of a page we are presented the current situation. The encounter locations start. No muss. No fuss. This is the perfect sort of thing for an adventure of this type. Essentially, you are presented with what everyone nearby knows about the village. Then you’re presented with a series of rumors that can be used as hooks. The innkeeper is a miser with a hoard. There’s a powerful wizard with an apprentice. There’s some high-value mining going on. Once the party gets to the village they can use the rumors as a springboard to adventure. Go find the wizard. Go loot the gems, or the innkeepers hoard. This is gameable content. It’s not trivia. It helps drives the adventure forward and gives momentum. This is so, so important. The rumors, and the background, are directly related to pushing the adventure forward. They point you towards areas of the village where interesting things may happen. Likewise, the current situation of the village provides the general background of the CURRENT status of the village. This part could be slightly stronger, but it does a decent job of laying out the general descriptions that can be used for the rest of the adventure.
“Lying facedown in a puddle of his own face.” Oh my. That’s visceral. The encounters here tend to two sorts. Either they are quite brief, like a burned down oil merchant, or an infested green grocer, or they are more involved. Even the briefer ones are interesting, like the barbershop with a bloody torso, the extremities torn off and playfully hidden around the shop. The shorter ones tend to be a monster encounter (the barbershop) or a treasure, maybe with a tick (the grocer, or the abandoned homes.) The longer ones tend to have something more involved going, and also tend to be Places of Note, such as the Inn, the Church, or the Wizards tower. There are a smattering of NPC’s still around to interact with, rescue, and get help from. There are others that, while lucid, need mercy killing. The descriptions here are all good ones. Each paints a scene, showing instead of telling. They act as springboards to imagination.

As with everything else in this line, the monsters and treasures are all unique. Nothing from the book and everything wonderfully mysterious. The Putrid Supper monster forces rotten bits down your throat, causing you to gag and retch. The magic thimble and needle repairs even magical garments. Blaster rifles blast (and even an NPC has one!) You can climb inside a robot and maybe even fuse with it. There are fungus-ish healing pods. As the tagline says, No Orcs, Fireballs, or +1 swords inside this baby.

On to the negatives, and there are a few. There’s a wandering monster table, and, being Petty Bryce, this is the worst thing in the adventure. It’s just a series of monsters. I like my wanderers doing something, as a kickstarter for the DM building on the action. Petty complaint #2: “Check for wanderers every turn” could be instead written as “Check every turn for wanderers, 1 on a 1d6.” The various ways to check for wanderers is a pet peeve of mine, along with travelling and sight distances in overland maps.

There’s also at least one encounter, a very hard one, that could be telegraphed better. ZOG is 12 HD. Everything in the adventure is bizarre, so it’s hard to tell is bizarro #1 is tougher or easier than bizarro #2. Sprinkling a few dozen corpses around the building should do it. Otherwise it’s a random death trap roll out of nowhere. I’ve got no problem putting in a tough monster or a deathtrap, but the players should make a conscious choice for their characters to engage it. Otherwise it’s random and unfair.

Finally, the map could be better. It’s a simple line drawing on a piece of graph paper, handmade. I don’t care at all about that. What I’d like t see on the map are more … annotations? Sights, smells, piles of corpses. It is, essentially, just a village map drawn in rectangles. There was a serious opportunity missed for the map to add more to the adventure. I’m big on published adventures being a Play Aid for the DM. The map should communicate more than just the numbers to look up the room. This one doesn’t do that.

I like this adventure; it meets my high standards. I’m keeping it AND am a bit disappointed I can’t get these in print form anymore, but must rely on PDF’s. Now the hard part. There’s something wrong with it. I’m not sure I completely understand what it is. I’m generally pretty solid in my opinions, but from here on out in this review you are encountering some assertions that I’m writing down in order to see if I believe them. The room descriptions are dense. They are also shortish. That’s what I want. There is also some kind of wall of text thing going on, if you can describe a four sentence room as ‘Wall of Text.’ Adventure design is, I think, a delicate balancing act. You are presenting as the publisher states “unconstrained imagination” and yet you need to do so in a way that’s easy and convenient for a DM to use during play. Do you need to use a highlighter in preparing the adventure? If so then something is wrong. Usually the room descriptions are full of trivia and you need a highlighter to pull out the one sentence that is critical. In this adventure things are so dense that … I don’t know. My head is spinning. I THINK there’s some kind of additional … organization? structure? convention? needed in presenting the unconstrained imagination to the DM. Certainly, I’ll take this over industry norm any day. Unconstrained Imagination is what you should be paying for, not well organized (ha!) generic trivia.

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DCC #80.5 – Glipkerio’s Gambit

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by Jobe Bittman
Goodman Games
DCC RPG
Level 2

Atop the highest spire of Mount Tyche, your patron’s temple is under attack. A demonic miasma rolls down the frost-blasted peaks leaving a vile stench and foul magics in its wake. Winged black creatures roost along the crumbling solitary road to the temple. The bloodthirsty shrieks of snow apes and the moans of the tortured dead echo from the jagged rocks above. Your patron has saved your skin more times than you can count. Now it is your turn!

This is an assault on a time-travelling wizards lair that he’s just recently taken over. I’m conflicted here. What’s present is, oh, I don’t know. Confusing isn’t the right word. Muddled, maybe? On the one hand there’s some great little things presented in this adventure. Some decent atmosphere, a decent set-piece finish, and a couple of decent encounters. On the other hand … I’ve gotten the overall impression that this is a … dull? adventure? Maybe it’s made promises that are not being kept?

The idea is that you are contacted by The Fates. Their temple has been taken over by a wizard and they need you to free it. (There’s a nice bit in there where they give you a bit of thread from the spinning wheel to tie around your finger. Nice way to work in the myth and give things a more folklorish/realistic vibe.) From there you climb up a mountain on a road (or, the hard way) with five-is encounters and hit the temple up top with maybe seven encounters.

There are these great random events on the mountain. “TURN BACK NOW” chiseled into the mountain in giant letters, dead birds raining from the sky, Crimson slush, Art & Crafts messages imploring the party to go back, ala Blair Witch Project stick figures, frozen hands severed at the elbow sticking out of a snowbank with their finger outstretched as if to say “Stop.” Those are all REALLY good little things to drop in and exactly the sort of flavor bursts I’m looking for. There’s also a REALLY nice corpse gate encounter, with severed limbs and a mouth for a keyhole. The final encounter could be thought of as one of those video game Boss Fights: there’s some amount of puzzle going on during the combat but not enough to be frustrating and it’s telegraphed enough (with enough DM advice) to make running it almost certainly a major hoot.

There are two or three things here though that mar the overall attempt. The first is the lack of … theming? This is the temple of the Fates and yet there’s really only one adventure element, a stairway, that brings out that theming. “Not you explore the underwater volcano lair of Abraxis, Terror from the 10th planet!!!” “Uh … Abraxian 10th planet underwater architecture looks a whole lot like a 10×10 grey dungeon corridors …” I might say that it’s an overall appeal to the mundane rather than to the fantastic. This would extend to several (most?) of the encounters. Snow apes throw rocks at you from above. Devilkin swarm you and pick your pockets. There’s an ice bridge where two dudes attack you. I generally summarize a lot in my reviews, but in this case I’m not doing it as much as I usually do. For these “mundane” encounters there’s really not much more than what I’ve described to you. I’m not asking for each encounter to be a stand-alone set piece. But if you take the time to include something then you should take the time to make it awesome, for whatever definition of awesome is appropriate to the encounter. Never in my life do I ever want to hear “Sometimes you just have to fight a couple of kobolds.” No! reject! Reject! REJECT! I never want to see any sign of that, especially in a DCC adventure.

These .5 adventures from Goodman seem of lower quality than the others. I don’t know why. It almost seems like they made a single writing pass through the adventure and then sent it off to the printers. The “awesome it up” pass doesn’t seem to have been made. Maybe these are intro adventures? If so then this is a critical error. Introductory adventures should be THE MOST awesome of your published material. Those are the ones that will get the most exposure and introduce the most new players/markets to you, aren’t they?

Some nice things in this to steal and overall of much better quality than the vast majority of adventures. I’m a harsh critic and some of these “almost” adventures get a raw deal from me.

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Dungeon Magazine #46

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Dovedale
by Ted James & Thomas Zuvich
D&D
Levels 1-3

Danger! Folklore! Danger! I Love this stuff to an unnatural degree!

The village stream has run dry, causing the villagers crops to have issues. They want you to fix it. The cause of the problems is a small band of goblins who have captured the stream’s source, a nixie, in order for the chief to better catch a giant talking fish. You see, he’s an avid fisherman. One of the rumors says a local ran across him one afternoon and they chatted while both fished and shared a beer.

OMG! I LUV this shit. A talking fish, a talking owl, and a talking giant rat are a part of the adventure; the local ‘kings’ of the animals. The goblin chief being an avid fisherman is great … as is the STUNNING gold and ruby fly he is tying in his fly vice to help him catch the talking fish. The goblins are old style. Stinkfoot (who has stinky feet), Swoop (who rides a giant bat), fishbelly (who can swim) and so on. One of them resembles a local boy and likes to go into the village and play pranks, and the local boy gets in trouble instead of him. It’s laid out well (especially considering the year), has a decent number of NPC’s, and the text is relativly terse and evocative. It’s the OLD folklore goblins rather than the generic sword-bair goblins that D&D usually presents. This adventure gets a hearty Thumbs Up from me …. uh … I’m not sure … this may be the first one in Dungeon I’ve ever done that for, without reservations?

Anyway, you have no soul if you don’t like this. I’m just saying. You suck if you don’t like this. You don’t want to suck, do you?

Floating Rock
by Steve Kurtz
AD&D
Levels 5-9

As little site that describes a band of bugbears that makes their home on the back of a giant turtle. So many side treks suck. This one has a very interesting bits about sacrificing captives by tossing them in to the turtle’s mouth, but otherwise is generally unremarkable.

Goblin Fever
by Randy Maxwell
AD&D
Levels 3-5

This is a fetch-quest adventure in a plague-filled city that you could mine for ideas. You run around gathering ingredients for a cure while chaos surrounds you. It’s a curious mix of generic wandering tables, string ideas for location encounters, and then too much text as some of the locations are expanded upon. The wandering encounters don’t have enough detail. You meat bandits. Or a mob. Or someone else … with no description past that. The locations seems to expand on the wandering table. You meet a vigilante mob, or a kangaroo court, or a doomsday cult. The shorter ones have enough interesting detail to really cement the encounter strongly in your mind while not boring you. The longer ones go into excessive detail on the contents of a bedroom. It does contain that implied morality I hate so much: no X for killing people who are trying to kill you. If you think of this one as a broad outline and mine it for ideas, and as, say, a piece of inspirational fiction that you can build on, then you could have a nice little thing to toss in to a city game. But there’s work. It would be like reading a, interesting newspaper story and building an adventure from it.

The Iron Orb of the Duergar
by Peter Aberg
AD&D
Levels 11-15

This is a brief visit to a northman city and then an adventure in a duergar mine. It probably has a large mass battle with 150 or so duergar and a set-piece ending. The basic outline is ok. You sneak into a northman city, meet a rebel leader, get betrayed and flee to the mines where they are constructing a giant iron golemish thing that will allow them to declare war on the dwarves. (The high priest is being controlled by a duergar artifact that hates dwarves.) You adventure through the upper mines, meet some drow allies, and then hit a ruined duergar fortress where you have the mass battle. In the lower level you have a set piece encounter when the high priest tries to bring the iron golem to life.

There are some good ideas here. The whole rebel leader thing, and the potential drow allies, the crazy scheme, etc are all pretty nicely done. Even now, a couple of days after reading it, I can remember vast portions of it. That means it ‘stuck’, and that is a sign of some good writing. It’s wordy and railroady, but that was the style at the time. It’s the ‘stickiness’ that impresses me. The core of the stickiness is not even conveyed through the extensive verbiage. The core is communicated quickly and briefly. It then uses a bunch more words that don’t really add much. A pretty decent adventure, given the style at the time.

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Princes of the Apocalypse

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by: A lot of people
WOTC
5E
Levels 1 through 15

The first signs are always small: bandits on the roads, pirates on the Dessarin River, monster sightings throughout the Sumber Hills—all too close to the lands of civilized folk. To top things off, a delegation from the dwarven city of Mirabar has gone missing. Are these events all some bizarre coincidence, or is there a deeper reason behind them? Working through its prophets, the Elder Elemental Eye has emerged to spread chaos across the Forgotten Realms. How will the adventurers prevent absolute devastation?

Life is seldom black & white. This adventure is neither good or bad. I think it’s work, a lot of work. More work than I would prefer, by far. That work could have been minimized with better organization. The grand scope of a single book adventure spanning 15 levels with dozens of locales, the very definition of a sandbox, works against the adventure because of the organization issues.

This is a sandbox adventure, a combination of locations and events that attempt to work together to present a dynamic environment for the characters to adventure in. It is largely successful in what it is trying to do, being roughly equal in quality, and style, to Phandelver but with a much larger scope. As with Phandelver it could use better organization, more DM resources, and less genericism. There is good, solid imagery in this, but there is not nearly enough of it. I’ve seen every version of the Temple of Elemental Evil this one is the best. Probably by far, from what I remember of the others.

Clocking in at 250 pages, it provides an adventure path from levels one through fifteen. It contains some serious background information on the factions and the cult, a section that describes the general region the adventure takes place in, and then three separate bases/dungeons/locations for each of the four elemental cults, finishing up with some side-trek events and cult retaliation events as well as the seemingly required “new monster & new magic items” section. Essentially: background, the region, and locations/events.

Dull Genericism vs. Exciting Imagination
A sandbox needs to have a more expansive view of things. That is, after all, what a sandbox is. But it can’t fall into the trap of confusing that expansive view with being generic. A sandbox has to present many ideas/themes/events/locations VERY strongly in very few words. By cementing core ideas in the DM’s mind the DM can then run with them. If instead a generic environment is presented then the designer has added no value. In other words: I know what a kitchen is like … what’s special about THIS kitchen? While this adventures IS a sandbox, it doesn’t go far enough in adding value to the sandbox.

Let me cite a few positive examples from Princes of the Apocalypse. I’m going to center, specifically, on the air cult. First, the cult gets a great name: the cult of howling hatred. It’s like wearing an athletic shirt that says “Miskatonic University Athletic Department”. If you know then you get it. Otherwise … just another snake cult. Compare this to the Cult of the black earth, crushing wave, or eternal flame. Those SCREAM elemental cult. Howling Hatred? That’s style. More concretely, page 34, in the region section, has a paragraph on the “first” air cult base. It’s Feathergale Spire, a private retreat used by a rich Waterdhavians flying club and their hippogriffs. They are dashing “and given to drinking, singing, wearing fashionable clothing and general revelry.” Just those two sentences are a wonderful description. Given that, and a rough map with room names I could probably fill in everything in their base with almost no effort. Rich, spoiled, preppie, slightly condescending but jovial polo club of 20-26 year olds. That’s the kind of very solid quick hit that I’m looking for. It’s one of the best examples in the book. There’s another example later on where three new cult initiates have been assigned kitchen duty and are found over a steaming cookpot, breathing in deeply trying to “be the steam.” That is GOLD. It’s concrete. You can hang your hat on it. You can build and build and build on it.

On a similar note, some of Adventurer League factions come to life in way they never have before for me. The Emerald Enclave is a great example of this. There are two paragraphs on them. The very first sentence starts: “A widespread group of wilderness survivalists …” Holy Shit! They are the American militia movement! I never realized that before! Now, forever more, the Emerald Enclave has been brought to life in my mind. Not just generic druids, rangers, etc. They are, to a certain degree, nuts. Spider holes. Birthers. Crazy, almost alien ideas that you can barely get a grasp on. Wilderness Survivalists is such a strong idea. The Harpers? They are Anonymous. No real organization and self-declared with a variety of motivations.

The adventure doesn’t do this enough though, and it doesn’t tend to follow through when it does. The Emerald Enclave presented are not given strong survivalist tendencies that would reinforce the initial concept. The swagger found with the private flying club overview is not followed up on in their headquarters. These are lost opportunities to present a consistent, reinforced, strong idea. Instead the adventure falls into generic location and room descriptions. Take this example, which is actually a cut above most:

Ancient Silos
There are two of these rooms, both identical.
“This room is strewn with crumbling masonry. A dry pit lies in the middle of the floor, ringed by a five-foot-wide walkway.”

These two rooms were once granaries for the dwarven citadel, but any food stored here rotted away long ago. The siloo spaces are each 30 feet deep. Other than the possibility of a nasty fall, these rooms provide safe places for the party to rest.”

So … it’s an empty room? If you change the room name to “Crumbling & Ancient Grain Silos” and eliminated all of the additional text then nothing would be lost. There’s nothing special about this room then why is text being wasted on it? There are extensive read-alouds in this adventure, one for almost every room. Almost none of them add any value. They describe generic kitchens, guard rooms, barracks, etc … all in generic minutia. The adventure needs to focus. “Be the steam!” is value. Poncy Flying Club is value. Generic minutia is not value.

One of the bases is a wicker-man type festival. Promised is some kind of hippie festival … I imagine the hippie pilgrims in Conan. That’s one throwaway line that promises that, and it’s a VERY good line. But then what’s presented is far far less than that. Six small groups of people camped out. Where are the farmers & peasants? Imagine the chaos of a hoard of people, an an evil wicker man! But alas, it’s not to be. The monastery base is just a boring generic fantasy monastery that’s actually evil. For the party to think better of the locations there have to other things about it, otherwise anything special is obviously evil. Monks travelling doing good deeds. Their special brews famous in the villages. The lord repairing the keep showing good deeds and protecting things/people. You need build up. The build up is not present.

A special shout-out here to a couple of magic items … which of course i can no longer find in the text. I’m thinking specifically of a dagger, a sword, and a greataxe. The dagger has moon motifs, a night-blue leather handle, and is covered in dried blood. It doesn’t make any sounds when it hit or cuts and can glow blue by saying the word “Rezsu.” This is a great item, the kind of item that a player has their character hold on to long after the +2’s and +3’s come around. This is the sort of magic item I’m looking for. It inspires wonder and feels magical. The sword is less vivid, but is made of dragon bone and glows red when near a dragon, while the axe helps you find the nearest tunnel to the surface. These are not the generic “sword +1” or ring of fire resistance that permeate the rest of the adventure, and other adventures in general. This is the sort of content you should be expecting, that you are paying for.

The Organization of a Sandbox
Published adventures require a very specific form of technical writing. The content must be imaginative, to be sure, but it must also be organized and laid out so the DM can take advantage of the content. This is the long tail of the adventure being a Play Aid for the DM. A superb NPC is of no advantage to the DM if you can’t find it.

The adventure is 250 pages long. There are at least thirteen main bad guy bases, and it feels like two dozen other smaller locales to visit. Dozens of NPC’s. Factions within factions. Motivations. Content. It’s all laid out linearly, making it difficult to find what you need. Dull room/encounter descriptions are something that many DM’s would fix on the fly. Uninspiring content? “A Good DM” to the rescue! The disorganization is solved in another way: a LOT of front-end prep work. Notes. Notes. Notes. I’m sure everyone who has ever run a published adventure is familiar with the prep work that is generally required. WOTC has done a shit job in organizing the adventure … the expansive nature of the sandbox is not working against itself. It makes me wonder if whoever organized this has ever played D&D, not to mention run a adventure from a published work.

What it’s lacking are summaries, notes, and overviews. I’m not looking for twenty thousand words on the cults background. I’m looking for something that tells me how the entire thing is put together. There IS a general overview, and a couple of chapter overviews, but it is, in general, laid out … wrong. I know that’s a strong word to use to describes another’s vision. But it’s also the correct word. The wrong choices were made and as a result the product is hard to run.

Let’s take the Adventurer’s League factions. There’s a quick write-up in the front of the book. In the sandboxy region description setting, which covers all of the minor locations, some have notes like “Boojie Boy, who runs the spud farm, is a contact for the Emerald Enclave.”

Ok, pretty nice. Our factions contacts are scattered throughout the region and the party can get in touch with them. Let’s imagine how this goes in actual play. You’ve met your secret society contact in a confession both. “Ah”, they say “You’re on your way to the town of Red Larch. You can find help at …” … hang on, let me look at the book. Flip through the pages, find a map. What’s on the road from the Dallas Fort Worth water gardens to Red Larch. Broomfield. Hmmm, let me go look up Broomfield. Nope, no Emerald Enclave there. What else. Dragonsden. [Flip through more pages.]

You get the idea. Page flipping, looking for information, hoping it’s where you think it is. Now comes the prep work. Print out a map, mark the faction contacts on the map. Maybe also mark the cult outposts. Write out a page of notes to help me run it. This is what a DM’s prep work looks like, after you’ve read the 250 pages twice through. And that’s for the AL factions. How about the cult factions, which have factions within factions. Key NPC’s? Rumors & foreshadowing? After all we we wouldn’t want to repeat one of the original sins of game design: Lareth the Beautiful syndrome. You know that one, right? In Village of Homlett, a lead in adventure to the FIRST Temple of Elemental Evil adventure published, you end up in a dungeon. At the end of the dungeon, in the last room, you find an evil cleric, Lareth the Beautiful. In all likelihood you stab him immediately. But he’s the evil bad guy. EVerything is on him. He did it all. And you never know. The solution? Going through the adventure and taking copious notes, so you can reference NPC’s during play.

Imagine capturing one of the nameless cult members. You interrogate them. “Who’s your leader!” you scream in their face, threatening fire & torture. “Hang on, hang on, let me go look it up …” L.A.M.E.

One page. One miserable, rotten page. It could have solved all of this. A brief summary of the cult leadership, where they are, and their relations to each other. That’s what I’m going to have to do if I ever try and run this. This is what I mean by the above implied incompetence insult directed at the person who organized this. Pages of meaningless backstory that will never be relevent to play or inspire the DM are included. Meaningless room detail are included. But key reference and summary data to help you run the adventure is missing. Have they EVER run a pre-published adventure before?

Monster stats? Go look it up in the Monster Manual, we can’t be bothered to provide a 1-page summary sheet. Maps? They are ¼ of a page, or worse. If you want to take notes on a map you need to go google/pirate it or figure out how to blow it up on your office photocopier. The examples are endless. Key data is scattered throughout the book, forcing you to look in multiple locations to find everything you need for single locations.

This is a shame because buried inside of the book is the foundation of a great sandbox. Truly open, events scattered in, lots of NPC’s, factions, factions within factions. Almost every one of the locations does not assume combat. Imagine that. A WOTC product that does not force you into combat. You can sneak in. You can bluff in. There are enough NPC’s to make either at least a little interesting. Some of the locations even tell you how the fortress reacts to intruders, or who comes to the aid of who. That’s wonderful. That’s the kind of details that shows someone paid attention to what a sandbox is and how it works in actual play. There are even some evil folk you can ally with. That’s great. That’s roleplaying gold. Far too often they are directed to betray the party, which is lame and reinforces the idea that you should stab evil on sight, but that’s easily overlooked. They TRIED.

In conclusion … I don’t know. I want to like it. It’s better than Rise/Tiamat and I LUV D&D and want WOTC to succeed. I disclose that because I’m not sure if that’s coloring my opinions. The quality of the adventure is not quite what I’m looking for (inspiration & imaginative detail) and it’s going to take a lot of prep work to run (poor sandbox organization/play aids.) If I had to run a WOTC 5E adventure I’d pick this one. If I had the time to “fix” a WOTC adventure I’d fix this one. It’s a solid middling effort with occasional highlights in a grand scope.

Posted in Reviews | 11 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #45

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An Artist’s Errand
by Steve Kurtz
Spelljammer
Levels 6-8

This adventure is some juveniles masturbatory fantasy. Some hot chick from a “provocative artistic race” hires you to go return a stolen necklace. SHe wears clothing with a lot of holes cut in provocative places, that’s how you know she’s provocative. And I’m pretty sure she tells you. You follow the trail to a fortress, probably assault it and kill all the drow inside, and then follow the trail to the drow ship. it’s painted flat black with yellow highlights to make it look like a wasp. K00L!!! Kill everyone, get the necklace and return. You know the deal by now: you’re not allowed to fuck with the NPC that hired you, they have powerful friends, magic and make unreasonable demands. On the plus side, it does have giant space hamsters and the drow ship differentiates between “battle stations” and “green light” stations. Otherwise this overly long adventure has nothing to recommend it. Oh, and it features a gnomish crew. A word of advice: when running NPC halfling, tinkers and gully, a little goes a LONG way. It’s often more useful to murder them all and dump the bodies (or display them proudly if you have cool DM.) “Well, it says I have blue, but I decided I wanted grey eyes.”

All Things Nice
by John Baichtal
AD&D
Levels 2-4

Three pages to describe an encounter with 4 con-men disguised as merchants. It’s not very interesting. They don’t have decent personalities, or fake gear, and don’t have any hooks/interesting things going on. Literally just 4 people each with their own generic graft.

Rudwilla’s Stew
by Christopher Perkins
AD&D
Levels 1-2

“Charming” is probably the word I would use for this … but remember I like folklore adventures and this thing has a couple of folklore witches. It’s got a very BASIC feel to it, which is a compliment. The party is hired to bring the yearly tribute of some stew from a witches hut to a bugbear chieftain in order to maintain the peace. The witch needs ingredients and there’s a little intrigue at the bugbears. It’s straightforward, but in a good way, concentrating more than usual on the environment and the personalities. The bugbears have a jersey/gangster accent that folks try to use to portray humor in monsters. That’s pretty odious. Parts of the adventure are a little opaque, like finding the ingredients. Otherwise though, this is one of the highlights of Dungeon Magazine … a solid C or C-.

Gritzel’s Guidance
by Bradley Schell
AD&D
Levels 9+

A con-man pulls up to the PC’s castle in the guise of a seer. If he’s not hired he makes prophecies and then uses his invisibility and illusion powers to make them come true. I like the premise; it’s so blatantly obvious that the ensuing role-play should be quite the jolly time, especially if you insert it into another event going on at the time like a dignitary visiting, farmers in for a contest or some such. The whole “I have exactly what I need to carry out my dastardly plan” thing is old, but not too out of line in this adventure.

Prism Keep
by Richard Baker
AD&D
Levels 6-8

This is a decent adventure marred by the style of the time. You’re going to need to photostat the adventure and make liberal use of a highlighter, and perhaps prepare some other play aids as well. For example, summarizing all of the guards/NPC on a single reference sheet with simple stats and personalities. But WITH that work you could have a decent adventure … and that work is significantly less than with other Dungeon adventures. I wouldn’t quite hunt down an issue of Dungeon for this one, but if it fell in your lap you could certainly have a decent adventure with an hour or two’s work.

A cloud castle floats overhead and a crystal falls to the ground which the party can use to create a rainbow bridge to the castle. Maybe it’s got a note attached that says “Save me!” or something like that. upstairs the castle has six spires, each of a different color. In each spire is a crystal. Place each crystal on a pedestal at the center of the courtyard and a new, white, tower appears, along with the real master of the tower. You see, a demon and evil apprentice tricked and imprisoned him, breaking his white powerstone into the separate colored crystals. (It feels like there should be a Voltron or Captain Planet reference in there somewhere.)

The towers are, of course, themed. Green=garden, blue=water, red=war, and so on. There are some puzzle elements to several of the rooms that are nicely done. And by nicely done I mean “the solution is not telegraphed to you.” For example, there’s a crystal at the bottom of a deep pool of water. Or a crystal floating up in the air. Or a crystal attached to a statue that will CLEARLY come to life if fucked with. These are best kinds of puzzles. It’s not a “put together the subtle clues to figure out you have to spin around 3.5 times while reciting the alphabet backwards under a waning moon” but rather a “use your abilities and brains to get to your goal.” THATS encouraging creativity and active play.

The room encounters/descriptions are not so badly done either. They ARE wordy, hence the highlighter recommendation, but they almost hit the mark in being evocative places. A lantern in the red tower is made of shortsword blades. The cockatrice have made a nest on the veranda, using the seat cushion and ilk, torn apart for bedding. It’s not just “they have a nest on the veranda” but rather the imagery conjured by using the cushions torn apart as bedding.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 1 Comment

The Rise of Tiamat

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by Steve Winter, Alexander Winter, Wolfgang Baur
Wizards of the Coast
D&D 5E
Levels 8-15

The Cult of the Dragon leads the charge in an unholy campaign to bring Tiamat back to the Forgotten Realms. With the race against evil moving from Waterdeep to the Sea of Moving Ice to Thay, the situation grows more perilous with each passing moment. The heroes must succeed, or Faerûn will succumb to draconic tyranny. In the end, the world will never be the same.
How hard do you want to work to run an adventure? How much do you want to pay to do so? Rise of Tiamat is a 10,000 foot outline of an adventure that is not organized to effectively support a DM during play. There are a few specific instances of the adventure providing gameable content, advice, and structure, but the overall assertion remains: this is not an adventure. It is an adventure outline that is 94 pages long. Those 94 pages lack, to the major extent, gameable content and structure for a DM and instead provide extraneous generic information.
I’m not talking about this being a sandbox. I know what that is. At the other extreme, I’m not talking about holding the DM’s hand or providing too much information; I’m well aware of that from my 50-ish Dungeon Magazine reviews. This adventure fails by confusing detail with gameable content & advice. That is, while it has 96 pages it uses those 96 pages for the wrong kind of words. Let’s take for a theoretical example a meeting between two sometimes-friendly rivals and the party. Telling us that NPC1 has blue eyes and a grey cloak adds nothing to the encounter. It’s not gameable; it’s just superfluous detail. Telling us he has a cloak of owlbear feathers that he treasures & grooms subconsciously is a little better. He has now some non-generic detail that the DM can leverage and use as a springboard. By this I mean it has, hopefully, sparked something in the DM’s own mind that helps them grasp the scene and individual; implanting a powerful trope/idea in their head that they can fill in the details of. A grey cloak and blue eyes doesn’t do that. In this example though we have two people, rivals who sometimes work together. Even better than the owlbear cloak would be something like NPC 2 needles NPC 1 over the cloak while 1 makes snide remarks about 2’s gambling debts and how he did his husband 30 years ago. And even better than that would be a couple of sentences of remarks/suggestions/examples of the needling. (I envision something like Sean Connery in the Jeopardy SNL skits, needling Trebeck.) Now we have something that brings this encounter to life. Both individuals now have personality. In just a few sentences we have provided the DM with a strong internal image of the encounter. This is direct gameable content. A description of blue eyes, red hair, and a grey cloak add nothing to the players enjoyment or in helping the DM run the encounter. It’s trivia that anyone can fill in. We don’t pay $30 for trivia. We pay $30 for a play aid; gameable content.

Rise of Tiamat confuses trivia with gameable content. It provides background and context. Frankly, the background and context is not interesting at all in almost every instance. I forget which review it was in, but I cited a good example once. The room description went on and on about how this room was trophy room. It had banners of several wars and trophies of war and swords and shields from fallen opponents. And then it ended with something like: but was all looted long ago and now nothing remains but dust. Uh … Great. The purpose of the adventure is to aid the DM in helping the players have fun. How did that help? It didn’t. And neither does the vast majority of the content, the trivia, in Rise.
The dichotomy of the adventures “detail & outline” failures are then highlighted by its aggressive genericism; the outline. In examples too numerous to cite the adventure says things like “maybe they rest at an inn and have an encounter” or “make up your own dragons hoard” or “the party meets some humanoids. Maybe they are hunter or slavers or farmers.” It’s trying to be a sandbox but it doesn’t know how. The sandbox gives the DM tools. These are not tools. I would suggest that they don’t even rise to the level of “ideas”, since I would assert that an idea must have something non-obvious about it. Aggressively generic trivia.
The highlights of the adventure are when it forgies this. When it adds a unique magic non-book magic item … that doesn’t even have mechanical effects! Bits and pieces of specific advice that bring flavor in a gameable format. Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about holding the DM’s hand. We’re not talking about provide absurd levels of detail or railroading. We’re talking about supporting the DM during actual play … through gameable content.
This thing is … disorganized. I’m going to strongly suggest that WOTC, or Kobold, or whoever put this together go off and hire … I don’t know. An editor? Proofreaders? Someone to tell them that their writing is a disorganized and needs to be better organized? What’s that job called? You know, the one person in an organization that has some Common Sense? You have to fight this product to get the adventure out of it. You have to fight the text, you have to fight the repetition, you have to fight the disorganization and the seemingly complete lack of playtesting that went in to it. How do I know this? If it were playtested by someone outside of the wiring group then it would have been organized differently with better tools/aids for the DM. It’s a damn play aid. It an AID to PLAY for the DM. You’re supposed to be making my life easier, not harder. There’s a song lyric (lifted in a sample, I believe) that goes “‘Reality’ is the only word in the language that should always be used in quotes.” I’m going to steal that tactic.

The following is going to sound a bit petty. I think it provides a solid example of how the adventure is not “organized” to support the DM in preparing, or during, play. The adventure is “organized” in Episodes. To me, the word Episode has a certain meaning. Episode one happens before two, and two before three, and so on. The text does make a good point that the this adventure can be approached non-linearly. Except … it’s a mess. You see, while they labeled “Episodes” they are not actually episodes. They are sections. The very first episode details the Council of Waterdeep AND THE FOUR MEETINGS THEY HAVE THEY FOUR DIFFERENT TIMES DURING THE ADVENTURE. So, not an episode. More of a section heading for a series of events that the DM can cause occur at some time in the adventure. Likewise episode 5 is The Cult Strikes Back, which details three events that happen at three different points in the adventure. The introductory text attempts to clarify this, but it’s still not very clear. The choices made seemingly confound explanation.The level advancement scheme is tied to this. That section notes that the party should level after episode 3, episode 2, then episode 5, then episode 4, then episode 5 again, and then episodes 7 and 8, and then again after episode 5 again. Uh…. you can imagine my confusion when reading this. So, not “organized”. Not “organized” at all. It’s pretty clear what they are trying to do with this adventure. They want a series of things that can happen to the characters and that will happen in the world. They are just completely disorganized in getting that idea across and presenting it. The idea is a good one. The Scourge of the Demon Wolf attempts to do something like this and generally succeeded; presenting people, places, and events as well as a rough summary/background and suggestions on how things could play with advice on what to do otherwise. This doesn’t do that at all.

Let me cover two more things about the sections of text that appear before the episodes do. First, the factions and personalities are not “organized” in any real way for play. The run-up to the first chapter presents no fewer than 16 people who the party will interact with … a lot of them in the very first event. These are complex people, representing different factions with different goals and motivations. The bulk of them will be encountered at least four times, usually in a group environment. The information is presented to you, the DM, in Wall of Text form over about seven pages. No one thought to include a brief NPC handout? Sure, they are stat’d out completely and include a metric ton of information that will never be relevent in play, but they didn’t make it easy to actually run an encounter with the NPC’s. What ever happened to that? To making the adventure easy for the DM to run? TO including summary tables? Is that my job, as a DM? Really? After I just paid your ass $30? You can find a great play aid in “The Lower Caves”, an adventure in Fight On! magazine issue #6. The author, David Bowman aka Sham, is one of the best adventure writers. His adventures show an understanding that the adventure is a play aid for the DM and exist to help the DM run the game.

Then, of course, there’s the moronic railroad. The very first paragraph on the second page of text tell you that if the party kills one of the NPC just resurrect them or replace them. The spice must flow and the railroad must not be stopped! I try not to get personal in these review. Ideas suck or are poorly implemented, not people. I’m going to make an exception for this. Shame on you! Screw you and your advice! This is absurd! The Story! The Story! Will no one think of The Story! Of course, it’s also suggested that resurrects be freely available to the characters well. Wouldn’t want to derail this nonsense. This bullshit makes inconsequential any decision the players make. Any sacrifice, and idea you have to advance your goals, no matter the cost, is irrelevant. In the final event Tiamat is being summoned and her buddies need to be next to her. As an alternative, the writers might have TRIED TO WRITE A BETTER ADVENTURE. If your adventure hinges on little Billy not getting killed in event number two then you better not put him in that position in Event 2, or, better yet, not make the rest of the adventure contingent on little Billy being there. Yeah, yeah, Epic Scope, blah blah blah. That’s no excuse. Do a better job.

The rest of the review covers the adventure episode by episode. There are specific examples, good & bad, as well as a smattering of suggestions for improvement. If you are running the adventure, or interested in adventure design, then read on.

Episode One – The Council of Waterdeep
This chapter presents four council meetings that take place in Waterdeep. The purpose here is two-fold: hooks & finale. The council presents opportunities for the party to get missions to complete, AKA: the rest of the events in the adventure. This is where they are fed the information they need to figure out what they can do next. In essence, this is the portion of the adventure that allows the rest of it to be generally non-linear. Well, except for the scaling. I mean if event one is written for level eights and event four for level thirteens then …. well, you get the idea. The second purpose if setting up the finale. As the group completes missions, and negotiates in council, they will earn the favor and ill favor of the various factions that make up the council. Get the support of the arch-devils and the Order of the Gauntlet might not be happy. Kill someone instead of interrogating them and the Harpers might not be happy, and so on. There’s a convenient scorecard for the DM to keep track of the goals for each faction provided for the DM at the end of the adventure. That’s the kind of play aid I expect to see. It’s a very nice little mini-game, and should bring the diplomacy home to the players, if only …

There are three major problems with this section, two in “organization” and one in Quantum Ogres/player agency. The first I’ve already covered. These four council meetings are role-play encounters. The lack of any kind of summary of their goals and personalities means you get to do it yourself or you get to flip back and forth while trying to run this. If you know you need the notes to run the section then why weren’t the notes provided?

I’m going to cover the agency as the second part. In order for the players to make meaningful decisions they have to know they are making those decisions. “Do you want to support the rebels or the king” is a far sight different than just wading in and killing folk and then at the end finding out you were supporting the rebels. Well hell, if you’d known that then maybe you would not have done it? There is some place for this sort of thing, but generally as a hook or complication. In the council meetings the factions react to you based on your actions … and yet you don’t know what those actions are. Do you kill the NPC or bring them back for questioning? What you do will move the faction-o-meter but you don’t know what it is you are doing. You move the meter by accident. Yes, that can be amusing. But it’s far more fun for the players if they know the consequences for their actions. That way they are a part of world and the events are not just spinning out of control around them. They can directly influence the world. None of this is brought out in this section. For example, if you kill or capture Varram, one of the baddies in one of the first encounters, the factions react to you in different ways. But there’s no indication at all that this will happen. No “and get me some prisoners!” or “Kill them all and let Thor sort them out!” Without that, you can’t make a decent decision. A fun decision. With the players trying to decide what to do.

Finally, the council meetings are “organized” for shit. It tries, a bit. There is a brief section “The setup” as hooks for adventure and then another called “Follow-up” to deal with what you just did – the adventure right before the council meeting. IE: the Setup form the last meeting. The information for the hooks is scattered all over the chapter. For example, here’s some direct text:

Setup – The Sea of Moving Ice
The sounding of the Draakhorn weighs heavily on all th leaders of the Sword Coast. Seeking more information on the horn and its whereabouts leads the party on an expedition to the frozen North and episode 2.

That’s it. There are four other general paragraphs about the first council meeting. There is also another setup/hook and a brief Follow-up (dealing with the outcomes of the lead-in adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen) but there’s nothing more in this section about the horn. The four paragraphs describing the meeting, overall, are just general nonsense like “you’re lead in” and “too much mistrust still burdens the factions.” Elsewhere in the chapter there is a section called The Draakhorn Sounds. It describes, in read-aloud, the disturbance in the air that happens when the horn is first sounded and a couple of generic details, like cats being skittish. There’s also a section of read-aloud that says NPC #13 relates in the first council setting. It’s two sentences long. I hope you can see where I’m going here; the information is scattered throughout the section and not well organized” at all. This makes it VERY difficult to run the adventure. The other council meetings are similar.

Episode Two – The Sea of Moving Ice
This is a ‘traditional’ adventure, and one of the better parts of the campaign. The party is ostensibly looking for information regarding the Draakenhorn by exploring its last known location: an iceberg. That’s home to a dragon. You’re following up on a missing NPC who set off to find information about it. In the course of events you’re introduced to a tribe of humanoids, some factions, and of course, the dragon. It’s overly long for what it’s trying to do, but in the end you get a passable adventure.

It starts with background on the horn and your mission briefing. A hard ass, such as myself, might comment that the adventure would be better served by including this in the Council chapter, since that’s where you’ll encounter it, instead of in the introduction to the adventure chapter. If I were in a generous mood I might mention that it doesn’t really matter; the DM is provided the information. A hard ass you is complaining about the general lack of “organization” in the adventure would not however that spreading the hook information out over the entire book is pretty lame and causes the DM is flip back and forth through the book when trying to run the council setting.

On to the meat. You’re provided some decent wandering monster tables for both the journey through the sea (by ship) and in the iceberg. In particular, you get a hint of what is to come. This sort of thing is critically important for the players to be able to gauge their approach to the challenges ahead. On the sea, for example, there are some of the typical things you would expect: a giant octopus attack and so on. More importantly there are encounters with the local natives. These set the scene for what is to come. Nervous, not overtly hostile but certainly not the usual shyness that the local usually display. When reaching the actual iceberg, and the main local tribe area on it, the players then know something and can adjust their play style accordingly. This sort of thing is generally not done enough in modern adventures.

It leads into one of the strongest portions of this episode: the faction play. There are several groups living on the iceberg, each with their own motivations. The local tribesmen are cowed and afraid, interested in scaring off the party because of fear of retribution from the dragon. The ice toads minions are intelligent and have their own speech with their own motivations for doing the work of the dragon. The kobolds are slaves and even the trolls present, which are generally hostile, have a mechanism for winning them over and getting to at least ignore the party. This is so, so important in a good adventure. You can sneak, disguise, parlay, and negotiate, in addition to a pure frontal assault. Suddenly the party has options, and because of that the play is much more interesting. The faction play could be summarized better at the front of the chapter, but it IS present, and faction play is always a highlight.

The environment, proper, is also interesting. There’s a decent attempt at providing a dynamic 3d environment, with differing levels, ramps, chutes, and so on. This adds possibilities, again, for the party to pursue their objectives. It also adds complications, such as the slipperiness and steepness of the ice ramps/slopes, and the possibility of people slipping, chases, etc. The map could be better in displaying the height, slopes, etc, but it does make an attempt through shading to portray the information. A “diagonal” view may have been quite helpful in portraying the environment better. In any event, there’s a few ways up and down through the levels and you do get the sense, though roughly, of a kind of ice cave.

There are some downsides as well. The environment is not really well described, a problem that runs throughout the entire book. You don’t get good imagery conveyed through the text and instead it comes off as just slightly better than generic. This extends to the magic items present, which suffer greatly from a lack of detail. Potions & scrolls, a magic ring, and arrows of dragon slaying all come off as just generic objects. “2 arrows of dragon slaying” is boring and not what I would expect. There’s also a bit of a 1-way ride in the adventure. Everyone you meet advises you that only way to travel is forward; there can be no retreat. “The dragon will know”, etc. In all likelihood it won’t be an issue, but it still rubs me the wrong way. Allowing the players to retreat … and face the consequences of their actions, is far better than not allowing them the option to retreat. That strikes me as more of the Ye Old RailRoad. For example, you find the NPC you’re looking for on the first level, and then have all of the information you need and came for. But alas, no, you must then go forward and face the dragon. No doubt the designer wanted an epic battle, but then, that’s the problem with this entire series. You’re railroaded into what the designer wants you to do.

Let me note also a problem that carries forward from Horde of Tiamat: the lack of treasure. The “hoard” of the white dragon is 800gp, 1000sp, and a few gems. This misses out on one of the strongest themes of dragons: avarice and greed. For forty years now, since The Hobbit cartoon, we’ve been bombarded with dragon hordes and the themes of greed and avarice that run through most dragon stories. This adventure had an opportunity to embrace that and at the same time repudiate it. What use is riches when Tiamat arises and lays waste to the world?

Overall though, a pretty strong adventure. Not top tier, but solid enough.

Episode Three – The Tomb of Diderius
Ready for the seeming impossible? This is a great episode. I know, right? It’s framed like hell but the core of it is quite good. The idea here is that the council has heard that the White Dragon Mask (that the adventure asserts, incorrectly, was so large a part of Horde) has been stolen and that the cult leader who formerly held has gone to recover it … and is therefore vulnerable to attack. Again, this information is present in Revenge of the Sith rather than in the council meeting chapter, and isn’t really setup for anyone other than the DM. The adventure proper tries really hard, and gets close several times. It almost presents a nice location to visit, in the form of an inn. It wants the inn to be some kind of seedy wild west Deadwood bar set up in a big tent. It’s supposed to be rowdy. It then uses the word “pavilion’ to describe the place and, in a travesty of role-playing justice, does nothing with the place. An opportunity lost. Well, almost lost. It also presents the evil NPC you’re after as a kind of hero, since he stabbed a disguised yuan-ti in the face while he was at the inn. (ok, not in face. I added that.) This has the guy you’re after presented/treated as a local hero. Almost! almost! Just a little more and this could have been an epic little encounter. What’s unusual is that the adventure, as a whole, almost always avoids even this little amount of detail. When you encounter little bits of greatness, like the tent/inn and the local hero bit, it stands out from the background genericism that the rest of the adventure provides.

The tomb proper, likewise, gets quite close to being a great adventure. There are some giant statues outside, defaced and parts of them broken off, that turn to you and speak when you approach. Shades of Ozymandias there. (Oh God. You don’t think it’s copyrighted?) An avenue of statues inside also turn and look at you when you pass, their darkened faces spewing secrets man was not meant to know. This part, in particular, is wonderful. Advantage on Int checks for the next little bit! Also, Insane for the next little bit! That is wonderful. Fantastic, mysterious, magical, weird. Those two encounter exemplify exactly what D&D should be.

There’s another part where you meet five devils sitting at a table, making sure someone doesn’t come out of a certain door. Oh the delights to be had with such an encounter! It’s presented in a generic and dull form. Sitting at a table? Really? You couldn’t give them something interesting to do? They have no names and no personalities, another lost opportunity. The ability to talk to creatures, especially those allied with the evil NPC, in a joyous thing to see. Give the party a choice. Have the devil’s doing something mildly, or a little more than mildly, despicable. Make them interesting. Provide just two more sentences, one for activity and one for names/personalities, and this could have been a rock-star level of encounter. The CORE is good, even if the implementation is lame.

That then is the tomb. The first half of the tomb, in particular, is very good. The second half tends to break down a bit when you meet the yuan-ti. It then transforms into a “the room has 2 yuan-ti who attack” standard – boring as all hell. The final room is a hostage stand-off, so its inherently got a little more going for it. But the language used throughout is on the dull side. Some really good ideas that suffer from being starved for about two more sentences each. Not to say the rooms are short. They are long on nonsense that you don’t need and short on the all important imagery.

Take for example two rooms in particular: a campsite outside and a room with a well. They are linked by a sewer and trolls live in the sewer. The trolls have killed the folks camping at both locations. Quite recently also. And yet … there’s no description of the scene. No bloody mess indicating action just missed. Why tell us the cultists were in the campsite and just killed? What’s the point of doing that? It’s meaningless backstory that adds nothing. If you instead show us the results of the trolls raiding the campsites then you add flavor, setting the scene in the DMs head for them to then describe and relate to the party. The party can then use this information to make decisions. But it’s not done here. And as a result, when the party camps out in the same trolls attack they will have lost the opportunity to make an informed decision. (Or, to regret ignoring making an informed decision.)

Also present is the mania to describe magical effects via the rules. What’s weird is that it stands in direct contrast to other rooms that are present in this episode that appeal to the looser form of magic that I find more refreshing. For example, the mysterious status that speak to you … the effects are just stated. There’s no attempt to explain the Why’s and How’s of how the effect was accomplished. But in other areas there is an attempt to explain. Programmed illusions and magic mouth spells. Bleech. Why do this? Why attempt to explain how the effect was achieved? There’s some mania to explain how magic works. It’s magic. You’re the DM. You ain’t gotta explain stuff. Gods, demons, and devils walk around the planet routinely meddling. Wizards and sorcerers conjure up arcane might. And YOU, the DM, architect of it all, need to figure out which series of spells in the PHB are needed to make a statues head move and talk? Please … If you think Im magical cause roses bloom at my touch, that’s mathematical and I think you think too much. If observing a particle changes what it is, then attempts to explain magic destroy the mystery and wonder that magic conveys. Don’t do it. Don’t pave paradise.

This one breaks my heart in the way few adventures do. It’s so close. The ideas are strong, but poorly related. The overwhelming genericism, broken by the talking statues, etc, wins out. The adventure, just like Hoard, seems afraid to provide this little more bit. As the first entry on the wandering monster table says: You meet humanoids. They might be escaped slaves, or treasure hunters, or scouts. Uh … .thanks for inspiring me?

A Special Award for Magic Items. There’s one present in this episode which is truly magical. No mere book item, or “new magic item” described like a book item. This gets a text description and no name, just an effect. Two goblets that when you pour from one to the other they become listed by mist and drinking from them gives you a bonus save vs poison. While in the end I would have prefered that hey do something other than just give a +3 save vs poison, the journey to get there is a good one. This sort of thing is what magic items in D&D should be. Screw the mechanical bonus. Make it wonderous.

Episode Four – Neronvain

What do they say about the exception making the rule? Welcome to the rule. The sucky, sucky rule.

The elves at the council want you to track down a dragon in the misty forest. It’s killed all of the elves in all of the villages it’s attacked, except for one. They want to start there. This information is related in plain facts that do nothing to bring it to life or help you run the adventure.

At the village, generically described, you get to talk to generic villagers who related generic facts. The one highlight of the village is a shrine to a elf ranger. That’s it. That’s the extent of the text of the shrine. I’m not making this up. That’s all there is about the shrine and the shrine is the only detail of the village described in any meaningful way. This is the epitome of generic drudgery. Soulless and lifeless. In the village there’s one elf, the leader, who is described as nervous. From this you & Dirk need to track down where the dragon’s lair is. There is a clever bit about using Speak with Plants/Animals to find out more information, which really is clever. It’s also the only way to actually find out what is going on. It’s the only lead and the only clue. This is akin to “if you walk in to the forest 23.5 paces and dig down 90 feet you will find a metal box with a map to the lair.” That’s not a clue. That’s not a lead. You have to then confront the elf with his treachery to get the lair location. But if confronted he resists and he works against the party. The only way is to confront him with sympathy for his wife’s death during the dragon attack. That’s it. If you don’t guess the secret word you don’t get to continue the adventure.

This nonsense continues in the forest. A druid want to help the party but first she wants to test them to make sure they are truly heroes. “Tests” are bullshit. It does have a nice folklore ending, with her presenting magical garlands to the party and then turning in to an owl to fly away, but the whole “test’ thing is so abhorrent that it’s clear the writer didn’t even try to come up with a decent idea.

The dragon’s lair is probably just a running battle. If you sneak in you might get a chance to mess with some ettins or face auto-combat with scared elf nobles. Really? Scared elf nobles that work for the dragon? That’s the best you can do? That’s akin to saying you have to fight paladins who are scared; it goes against every trope. I’m supportive of busting a trope, but not in a throw-away sentence in a crappy room encounter.

You ready for this? The big give-away, the thing the whole episode is built around, is revealed in a journal. Not a gloating evil NPC. Not a bitter NPC. A journal. Bryce Lynch Pro Tip: If you need to do a reveal using a journal/notes then you did a bad job with your adventure. Go back and edit it again.

This is nothing more than a boring generically described snooze-fest that ends up just being one big battle in a cave. The only good thing about this episode is the magical garlands that make you invisible to the dragons animal spies. (It’s mentioned, I think twice, that the dragon has animal spies that inform him of the parties whereabouts … unless you wear the garlands. That’s the extent of the information about the animal spies.See Also: Lack of atmosphere and/or Giving the Party Choices/Quantum Ogres/Agency in Play.)

By the way – The asshole evil NPC in Episodes four & five supposedly have dragon masks, providing some additional motivation for going after them. Of course they don’t actually have them because then the party might get them and the railroad would have to stop.

Episode Five – The Cult Strikes Back
This is the worst of the worst. A true low point of modern adventure design.

This episode attempts to describe three attacks that the cult organizes against the party. The idea is that while pursuing their other missions that the DM will toss in one of these encounters. Essentially, they are hits. The cult sends a force after the party to kill them. There are three provided: the first a lightweight attempt, the second a medium attempt, and the third a murderous onslaught. The idea, in and of itself, is not bad and there is a bit of advice or two sprinkled in that helps the DM set up a memorable encounter. Things like the cult attacking in a crowded square with breath weapons without regard to the bystanders. There might be two of these useful tips in the entire chapter. Not enough to provide the sort of visual imagery I’m looking for.

Instead everything comes off as generic. Build a point based encounter and attack the party. Maybe at an inn or on the road. I’m serious, that’s the encounter. There are a lot of words wrapped around it but it is not hyperbole when I say that the extra words are meaningless; they provide no gameable content.

Let’s cover the Original Sin: Agency. In each of the three encounters you are told to build an encounter, via points, to meet specific conditions: an easy encounter, a hard encounter and a deadly encounter. If I squint hard I can call this “scaling the adventure.” But then … you are directed that, if you judge the party great than the sum of te parts to then bump the encounter up more and make it harder. Hmmmm, a group that works well together being judged harder breaks the wall of player contract with the DM. Then, further, you are directed to ensure that some of baddies get away, or, if none do, then to ensure that the characters understand that there were actually more baddies, watching from afar, who have escaped. Hmmm. That’s not cool. So the players actions are meaningless? Further you are directed when to hit the party. While they are fully rested. While they are nearly depleted, etc. I don’t have any problems with players using metagaming. I do have a major problem when the DM metagames. That smacks of adversarial and “cheating”, if a DM can be said to do so in a game where they control everything. Certainly, perhaps, breaking the contract between DM & player.

Finally, we get to the peak: the battles are meaningless. This goes goes to great lengths to repeatedly make the point, as several of the earlier episodes did, that it’s ok to kill the players. If they die, even if it’s a TPK, the council will just bring them back to life. Go back and read that again. Nothing the players do matters. If they do well it’s meaningless. If they do poorly, even to the point of a TPK, it’s meaningless. The scene is a cheat. If I was a player in this game I would walk out if that happened. Seriously. What’s the point? There’s no risk. Without risk there’s no tension and nothing you do is meaningful. I flirted briefly with Indie rpg’s back when the first wave came out. I had the same revelation, twice (because I’m thick-headed.) The first was during Lacuna, a dream-world game. I realized that the game was meaningless because there was no challenge … you could do anything and thus there was no buy in. This happened later, again, at an Origins game of Fiasco. Both Fiasco & Lacuna might be great games but they offer a different experience than a traditional RPG. This is why many indie RPG’s are now called story games. If you want to play a story game then I fully support you. But to have a crunch heavy system (even in 5E, in comparison to many Indie RPG’s) and then to take away the choice and consequences of the players? Not even story games do that. Here’s an idea. At the start of an adventure someone, elected by the party, rolls a d6. On a 1 through 5 you win the adventure. Yeah you! On a 6 you reroll. Then we all dig in to a case of Little Kings and play Baron Munchausen. And/or invade Belgium. There’s more choice in the Baron, and more consequences, then there is in this adventure. Screw your story. Write a goddamn novel next time.

Episode Six – Metallic Dragons, Arise.
Whenever one of these evil dragon adventures comes up there’s always the same question: what about that asshat Bahamut and the good dragons? Bahamut is still AWOL but the good dragons make an appearance in this episode. It seems they are having a meeting of their very own and they want the characters there.

Oh, where to begin, where to begin. The adventure refers to the dragon council as some of the wisest creatures in all Fareun. You get to convince them not to help, for they’ve already decided to do that, but rather in how they will help. Specifically, will they join forces with the humanoids or will they go it alone and attack the Well of Dragons on the own. Yes, the wisest creatures in all of Fareun, which from now on I shall refer to as ‘the fuckwits’, are trying to decide if teamwork is better than going it alone. I swear to the non-existent god that I don’t believe in, if I were playing this and the fuckwits put the question to me … I don’t know, I guess I would troll the hell out of the fuckwits. “Go it alone? Seriously? Uh, sure. You should totally do that. Nope, I’m being serious. You’re right, Mr Gold Fuckwit, you should not trust the humans or the elves. Have at thee Tiamat! Good luck guys!”

*Snark Off* 600 miles away you get to talk to five good fuckwits, one of each type, and try to convince them to team-up with the humanoids and KO Chaos. Each one has a starting attitude, some concerns, and some kind of specific ass kissing that they need in order to get them to join your side. Do enough ass kissing and get three of the five fuckwits to join your side, and none of them actually hating you, then you get the fuckwits support.

Yeah You! (More on this later.)

This is a very short episode but I would mention problems with the fuckwit chapter. (Yes, the above text is the positive part of the episode.) First, another summary page would have been nice. Otherwise you’re flipping around the book again, trying to run a social encounter with five different beings. They also don’t really have personalities. There’s some little … history? backstory? attitude? for each fuckwit, but they don’t really convey a personality. That’s too bad; this would have been a great opportunity to provide the DM with some guidance on dragon personalities. Perhaps other aspects of avarice, such as vanity or gluttony?

The second is overall crappiness of the … guidance? in the adventure. This is a problem in most (all?) of the episodes, was a problem in Hoard, and stands out very well in this chapter. The fuckwits are having their council about 600 miles away. A fuckwit will fly if you leave right now. If you wait or do another adventure then you have to get there on your own. (What is that, 30 days at 20 miles a day? Hope Tiamat’s not on a schedule …) Anyway, if the party travel overland then they “might pass through some ruined settlements, or encounter cult marauders, brigands, refugees, and chromatic dragons bent on destruction. Use your own discretion when choosing how many combat encounters the journey should encompass.”

Well Golly Gee. Looks like someone is not even trying at all, are they? I mean, you did railroad the party in to three specific combat encounter designed to kill them, but providing a modicum of detail on a month long journey overland would be infringing on the DMs creativity I guess. This is such nonsense. Just as i cited in the wandering monster encounter earlier Humanoids. Maybe slavers, etc) and, in other places, where the DM is encouraged to create their own treasure parcel, it’s like they don’t even care. Somehow someone has decided that the adventure must be generic. That specific and detail must be avoided at all costs, but of course it’s ok to ram a story down the players gullets. It’s incomprehensible to me that someone thought this was a good idea. This isn’t the whole “and this passage can lead to a dungeon of your own devising” that some older adventures included. This is outsourcing to the DM major portions of the adventure. It’s a shame. Literally, a shame. Wolfgang, and whoever at WOTC oversaw this project, should be ashamed to have done this.

Episode Seven – Xonthal’s Tower
Rumors of another dragon mask draw the characters to a wizards tower that the cult has taken over. I’m sure you already know where this going: you don’t get the mask. Or, rather, you do, but it’s a fake. Same thing. No exiting the railroad. Tiamat is coming and the writers are too lazy to let the pesky players interfere with their story. It’s lazy design.

The tower episode has four parts. There’s a village, a hedge maze, the tower proper, and the dungeon. That’s about twenty-one rooms in all. The village is abstracted with only one feature: a couple of rumors. A blue dragon seen in the air, and rampant speculation about the recent lights seen in the tower after it being dark so long. The hedge maze is … a mixed bag. The core concept is that the tower (and maze) is magically protected and the only way to get to the tower is through the maze. The central concept is a sundial that display a puzzle. If you figure it out … five times, you get to go to the tower. Otherwise you get to face one of the eightish challenges in the maze. I’m not a huge fan of puzzles of this type. The individual maze challenges are where the mixed bag thing comes in. Some are forced combats. Some are maybe combats. Each othe them have one solution and only one solution. One of the best is a boulder hurling contest with a couple of cyclops. There’s an opportunity lost by not giving them personalities; they only explain the rules. There’s also a nice example of alternative monster rules. Some carnivorous plants, for example, are run as if they were an otyugh. A nice change of place to show the value of borrowing rules and mechanics and making them your own. Perhaps the worst encounter is one with suits of armor. You fight a suit of armor and then two more, and then there are three on you … and if the room runs out then more form from the ruined armor on the floor from the fallen suits …. until the DM rolls a 6 on a d6. Then you get the key to leave the room. I think it was an old April Fools issue of Dragon magazine that had the Wandering Damage table. Same thing. Just take damage until the DM’s actions result in your passing. How someone thought this was a good idea is beyond me. It runs counter to everything I know as a being a good DM.

The tower proper is just a series of boring combats until you meet the leader, who has the keys to the dungeon. Enter a bedroom, kill some cultists. Enter a barracks, kill some cultists. Finally find the top floor, kill the leader, and get the key to the dungeon. There is maybe one nice encounter feature in one room: a couple of skeleton dragon arms that animate to attack. Disembodied skeleton dragon arms are cool. heh. [Ed – How does one imitate the vocal styling of Beavis & Butthead in written form?]

The dungeon is better. Some of the descriptions/dressing are better (signs of battle, bloody footprints and trails and so on.) In addition, the freaky “We’re in a wizards tower!” that was absent from the tower is present in the dungeon. A bridge to the stars with a micro meteor shower to knock you off, a whirlwind of papers that attack as a swarm of ravens. (This is the second time I’ve seen this; the first being at a haunted house at Universal Orlando. Is there some Poe reference I’m missing?) Overall, the ideas in the dungeon are nice, if not always well executed. The adventure finishes up with a dragon attack in the village; perhaps an opportunity to get revenge on the blue dragon from Greenest in Horde.

I do want to call out the completely bullshit tactic of forcing the party in to the maze. You can’t fly. You can’t tunnel. You can’t hack your way through. The writer said you go in the maze and so you go in the maze. The standard excuses are offered: the wizard wants to test people/avoid visitors, he used a lot of wishes, you can’t teleport or scry. Uncool. The maze should have been saved for lower level adventurers if you can’t otherwise challenge a higher level party. By forcing the idea then the concepts of fairness, towards the players, is stretched. If you can’t write the adventure without gimping the players then you have made a mistake. You need to adjust the adventure to a lower level or you need to modify it to accommodate the powers and creative techniques that the players come up with. That’s one of the strengths of the cyclops boulder encounter; the players are given carte blanche to get their boulder farther than the cyclops. But not with the tower. Not there. THUS SPAKE THE ADVENTURE WRITER. Bad design.

Special Award: There’s a decent magic item present. A series of diamonds that allow you to teleport within line of sight, once per diamond. Very nice. The D&D world needs more items like this.

Episode Eight – Mission to Thay
Lame!
Lame! Lame! Lame!

There is potential here beyond compare and yet it is completely squandered by … a 4e skill challenge! It’s not called that, but that’s what it is. This episode is only three pages long. It contains no specific window dressing and just generic descriptions. What could have been a truly wonderful journey into an alternate society, abhorrent practices and What Price Victory/Means To An End is instead reduced to a modicum of roleplaying modifying a couple of skill checks. Cleric or Paladin? Get a -. Worship death? Get a +. Hmmm, what’s that? Your roleplaying is having no effect? The only way to get a, active bonus during the encounter (as opposed to “get a bonus because you a human” nonsense. Ie: things you can’t modify) is to not lie and call the leader by her title. That’s it. And it’s not a bonus; you don’t get a penalty. You make a series of skill checks (succeed at 5, or after 8 overall checks) and if the party rolled well then you win Thay as an ally. Otherwise, no soup for you!

This is so, so, so disappointing. You’re in an evil empire. You’re meeting with a vampire. You’re doing the Enemy of my Enemy thing. And there’s no detail. No window dressing. Nothing to convey to either the DM or the players the strangeness and evil of this place. You meet with a vampire. Oohhh! Scary! Don’t tell me they are evil. Show us why they are evil. What happens while the players are there? What kind of things can be done to make the characters/players … uneasy, or maybe even queasy at the thought of allying with Thay.

You do get a finger bone that, if broken, acts as a protection from undead scroll. Nice reimagining of an otherwise standard magic item.

Episode Nine – Tiamat’s Return
This is it boys, this is war! The president is on the line. 99 red dragons float by!

Up until this point in the adventure the parties actions have had little to no effect. Theres no hope of ever getting a dragon mask. You can’t stop the adventure before this point. Not even a TPK can get you out of the adventure. This is it …

The conclusion of the mess. Which is a mess. Using your handy dandy Council meeting scorecard you will determine who joins … well … no, you won’t. Nothing you have done has any real impact. Everything leading up to now has, essentially, been an aid to the DM in describing the final mass battle. Do the good dragon fight in the skies? It’s just flavor text. Thay on your side? Just flavor text. IMPLIED flavor text, at that.

Instead you’ll be doing just another mission: breaking into the dragon temple to stop the summoning of Tiamat. There are a number of hidden victory conditions that can help you in your final fight against Tiamat, when she finally shows up. You don’t know any of them, and so can’t impact your own fate, except by chance. All of them are related to episode nine/the temple, so nothing you’ve done earlier in the book has had any impact. (the flavor text states, erroneously I believe, that you’ve had the chance to take the black dragon mask. I think that’s an editing mistake. In fact, strictly speaking, it means you probably can’t defeat Tiamat as written. We’ll ignore that though.) Instead, you’ll almost certainly feed the players information via the Council and the Harper spies to make up for the bad episode design. Ah, long expositions, there’s nothing like them when you’re playing, eh?

In reality there are only two things you can do: save some prisoners from sacrifice and kill everyone involved in the ritual. No sneaking allowed! The adventure explicitly rules this out, because the designer didn’t think that creative play should be allowed, I guess. The main summoning chamber has ten or so red wizards in it, as well as Severus. Killing/incap’ing at least 6 wizards will disrupt the ritual and keep Tiamat from showing up. Messing about, killing Severus Snape (who is also present), destroying the temple, etc will not stop Tiamat from showing up, only weaken her if/when she does show up.

I don’t have a problem with a finale, and it’s almost certain that the party will lay waste to everyone anyway, but it would have still been nice to have the specific goals known up front. A larger overview of the battlefield, better impact of your allies you’ve won, a desperate battle plan developed that allows the party to know what they actually need to do and come up with one of those zany party plans to infiltrate … Oh well. Just another boring tunnel crawl. It’s a shame too, there’s a nice NPC wraith down there. His story/room is actually pretty well done. He’s fanatically loyal, so there’s not going to be much roleplaying going on with him, so all of that will be lost as becomes just another guy to get slaughtered.

[ENDOFLINE]

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Dungeon Magazine #44

d44
A Hot day in L’Trel
by Ted James & Thomas Zuvich
AD&D
Levels 1-3

This is a city adventure that is clearly on the right path. Essentially, the city catches on fire during a catastrophe and the adventure follows the characters over the next three or four weeks. The fires here are just a backdrop to the other action taking place. What you get are some brief descriptions of some notable places in the city and some idea of what happens to them over a month, and then a series of events over the next month that the party can take part in. Looters, food riots, and so on. There is a little advice on how to get things going and maintain them, some general tools such as a quite nice rumor table, and then … you’re off! as such this is more like a sandbox setting. One of the most successful campaigns I ever ran was a city game. The lessons I learned from that campaign are present in this adventure, although implicitly. EVERYTHING is a hook. Everyone you meet, every interaction you have will cause something else to happen. Free someone trapped under a cart? He was once an important person in the city army. Don’t do X, then Y happens. This entire adventure is a springboard to adventure. The burning city, and its aftermath, can provide the backdrop and kickoff to a wonderful campaign centered around the city. You’re going to have to put some work in, obviously, to fill in the details of what happens, but you would expect that. In this way the adventure reminds me of one of my favorites, and one of the best done ever: Welcome to Mortistown. This was a modern-day zombie setting. It described the scene, the people, some of the important places, and gave a timeline of what would happen. The zombies are the pretext, just as the fire is in this. This would be a great adventure to kick off a campaign or make a major part of an ongoing game. There’s a sense that this place is ALIVE. City games take a lot of work & record keeping, so don’t tread lightly, but the sense of context and connections the characters make will cause the work to pay off in great play experiences.

The Hand of Al-Djamal
by Stephen J. Smith
D&D
Levels 9-12

I loathe this shit. Twelfth level characters investigating the murder of a night watchman in a museum. A magical security company that guards all of the artifacts against theft. The curator has powerful friends who will retaliate if the party gets handy with him. If the party does steal some stuff then the advice given is to make it very hard for them to find a fence that deals in museum-grade items. In Glantri. Run my stupid ill-conceived set up EXACTLY the way I want you to … OR ELSE! Somethings gotta give here, or should have anyway. Either don’t make it a high-level adventure or don’t make it “investigating the murder of a night watchman.” What’s the problem? Fucking magical ren-faire shit.

Raiders of Chanath
by Randy Maxwell
Dark Sun
Levels 3-5

Pro Tip: If your adventure requires 3 ½ pages of text to describe one encounter then you know you’ve done something wrong. Tribesman are raiding trade routes and the party is hired to stop it. The island they live on has a peaceful settlement. They indicate that the evil-doers are to the south. There’s a small fight with an outpost of human slaves and gith, and then a small 8 room/2-level tower. Inside you find some more slaves, more gith, and a giant brain in a jar that takes 3.5 pages to describe. This adventure has nothing to recommend it, being straightforward and “normal” … which is really saying something since it’s a Dark Sun adventure. Talk about humans with pointy ears … this is the Dark equivalent of that.

Train of Events
by Timothy Ide
AD&D
Levels 6-10

This is a disappointing effort and a forced idea. A bajaillion pages of backstory, introduction, and notes tell the tale of a dwarven steam railroad in operation. The last two trains to a certain city have disappeared; the party is hired to guard the next one. Some random encounters might happen, and then the train passes through an illusion wall and is attached by a large force of derro and duergar. A large enough force that Battlesystem, etc is recommended to be used to resolve the battle. There’s both a small derro lair and a small duergar lair to then explore. This thing has a GREAT rumor table (birther dwarves? I didn’t know FOX also reached the D&D dwarves …) for a tavern you encounter right before the ambush. It also has some pretty ok room descriptions for the lair rooms. Nothing super-fab but a cut above the usual by providing game-able content for a number of the rooms. A guardroom with jars of white chalk, for invisible intruders, for example. Simple, terse, game-able. The enemies are well-described with personalities, etc, but that will never be used because you’re just going to butcher them mindlessly in the opening battle. I guess maybe you could parley with one or two during the battle, or during a chase. The ENDLESS amounts of text given to the railroad, it’s repair and operation, are the real problem here. It’s just window dressing that has no real impact on the adventure other than maybe a logistical challenge or random monster attack. But that’s like saying you’re going to run an adventure using a modern Amtrak journey. Uh, ok, we’re delayed by a freight train. Uh, ok, we’re delayed by an engine breakdown. Wow, that’s exciting … The actual train plays very little role here, in spite of the enormous amount of space given to describing it.

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