The Fortress of the Fungi Chemist

By Michael Raston
Lizard Man Diaries blog
Black Hack
Level 1

Lightless, vine-covered and rotting-stone, top level of abandoned dwarf fortress. Beneath vines is ever impressive carved stone, crumbling with damp and vegetation. Barracuda men mostly inhabit flooded western half, jungle dwarfs the east. As highest level of fortress allows views of jungle and of interior cavern.

This is an eight page adventure detailing the first level of a dungeon with thirty six rooms. It’s the first level, a demo level, or a project that is supposed to provide more levels. It’s got A LOT of terse evocative descriptions and is channeling a pseudo-one page dungeon, with one page for the map, one for the “core” room descriptions, two for monster descriptions and one for generic dungeon dressing. There’s a little bit of the “construct your own” of B1 in this. It’s nice, but has some “design in isolation” vibe in it.

Format first. The designer has a vision that is riding the format. ALL of the room descriptions, all 36, fit on one triple-column page, with a little room to spare. This is supported by a page with five or six random tables on it. Random treasure. Random magic items. Random corridor descriptions. Random trap effect. When you need one you roll and that supplements the room description. Likewise, the monster stats all appear on two pages at the end, two monsters to a page. Embedded in them, besides the normal descriptions/stats, are both a reaction table and an Emanations table … signs that the creature was here recently. What this amounts to is five reference sheets. I like reference sheets. I harp on the need for them all the time. This thing has, more than anything I’ve seen including Stonehell, a “reference sheet” mentality. They don’t LOOK like reference sheets, but that’s what they are. It’s a nifty concept. Tape the map to your DM screen and then have two double-sided sheets in front of you, one with the monsters and one with the dungeon. It’s an interesting vision and I think the format works well to enable the DM to easily run the adventure.

The room descriptions, again all 36 fitting on one page, are quite evocative. Just a sentence or two jabbing you like an icepick in the brain to implant a seed. Room one, the stairs in, are: “Great cracked and worn stone stairs, vine and damp covered. A dark maw of an arch, darkness beyond. Stench of corpse wafts.” Or how about this one “Black puddles swarming with larva. Piles of shed barracuda men skins in corners.” Impressions, these are both representative of the writing for the vast majority of the rooms. The designer leverages the DM to take the impression they’ve provided and let their DM brain fill in rest for the players to encounter. It’s exactly the sort of evocative description I’m looking for. A terse quick hit that implants an idea that IMMEDIATELY blossoms in my head and lets me fill in the rest of the details and interactions myself. It’s a good design principle when the writing is evocative, as it is here.

But … I think there’s a problem. The descriptions are terse. They are well written and evocative. But they don’t GO anywhere. They feel isolated from each other. I mean this in a specific way, but I don’t think I know the words to express it. It’s not theming. Certain parts of the dungeon are themed to barracuda men or jungle dwarves or so on. To that extent the rooms, such as the larvae pool example, contribute to the theming of that area. But they don’t seem to work together, or even in isolation, beyond that aspect. The number of rooms where there’s something TO DO is quite small. It feels a little like you’re browsing the World Showcase at Epcot. You can look around, maybe interact with the locals, but there’s not much more beyond that. The interactivity and the relationship of that interactivity between different rooms is missing. I question my thinking on this subject in only one way: this is the first level of a dungeon and I think there’s more room for ‘tourism’ and disconnected stuff in the first level of a dungeon.

This is, I would assert, where the designers formatting vision has let them down. Curtis solved this problem in Stonehell by providing three of pages of additional text to describe how the level and features worked. This allowed him to stick all of the monsters and map on one page and just say “Great Stone Face” … referencing the paragraphs on earlier pages that described how the face worked. I’m just not sure there’s any room to HAVE that interactivity, or relation, between the rooms in the “one page description” format used here. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I just can’t imagine how it would be done. I imagine the same dungeon, but this time instead of the room descriptions being one page they are one sheet, front and back. That would allow for “DM text” that expanded on the interactivity and relationships.

The “general table” page has a table for doors, to describe them, and one for trease and traps. There’s barely enough doors to justify a four-entry door table being separate, and there don’t seem to be more than four traps, making the four-entry trap table superfluous. The mundane treasure and magic item tables are excellent, but again it doesn’t seem like there’s enough of either to justify their existence … unless you are trying to get your entire dungeon listing on to one page.

Speaking of that magic treasure, it’s GREAT. A bronze ring that always sheds ash, you get advantage when testing fire resistance/handling. Removing it in the presence of flames cause sthe flames to whoosh towards it. All of them are light this. A terse description that has something weird/magical, an effect and then also a slight disadvantage. I love them and they are great example of how a magical item can retain its wonder while still providing mechanical effects.

Monsters are all new, with a little portrait, a name, some aliases, a short description that includes temperament, stats, and then the reaction table and the Emanations table. For barracuda men you might find an animal corpse quivering, claw wounds pulsating with fish eggs. Nice! Or one of three other signs that the barracuda men were here recently. That’s a good technique for foreshadowing the monsters and giving the players a nice build up. Good horror never shows the monster straight on, you always get hints first. The reaction tables are different for each monster, with the jungle dwarves being less likely to attack and more likely to talk/interact. Again, a nice way to differentiate the creature with the selected effects, like “Walks slowly backwards to the nearest body of water and submerges, hissing the entire time.” for one of the barracuda men entries. All that’s really missing is a little faction play; how they view their neighbors and so on.

This packs a mighty punch in just eight pages. There’s some mix between tourism and interactivity that works well. You need both. Too much interactivity feels like set-pieceville and too much tourism turns it in to an Ed Greenwood adventure; interesting to look at but going nowhere. I’m open to being wrong, because of the “first level of the megadungeon” issue, but it still feels light to me, constricted by the choices made for formatting.

You can pick it up on blogs webpage. Page four has the room descriptions and page six and seven the monsters.
https://lizardmandiaries.blogspot.com/2017/06/fortress-of-fungi-chemist-level-1.html

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Dungeon Magazine #144


The Muster of Morach Tor
By Russell Brown
Level 4

I have no idea. Simple? Overly-complex? Bob, the right-hand man of a towns leader, went to go review an outlying post in the swamp, guarded by friendly lizardmen. He didn’t come back and you’re sent to find him. The outpost says he showed up but headed back via the long road. From this one is supposed to deduce the lizardmen did him in. A gnome leads the party to another outpost (oh no! Evil lizardmen?!?!) ess where they find the guy, and he tells him of a huge troll army attack. The village defends itself. It’s … a mess? On the way to the first encounter you meet “an abandoned village with a wounded troll in it.” WTF kind of encounter is that? The lizardmen thing is weird also. Allied tribe, but somehow your supposed to figure out they are evil and find the gnome. It’s simple and convoluted at the same time, and not in a good way. It feels like a linear 4e adventure, with a heavy combat/tactical focus, without the adventure explicitly leading you around by the nose … but still being linear.

The Lightless Depths
By F. Wesley Schneider & James L. Sutter
Level 11

Savage Tide part six. Asked to bribe a dragon turtle, the party ends up in the underdark in an attempt to keep powerful magic items from being created. This is a non-traditional underdark, more koprah and aboleth themed, and does a much better job of being “underdarky” than Out of the Abyss. (No, I haven’t seen Veins yet. Because deep down inside I’m a bad person.) It’s a vision of mongrelmen, plague, and tube worms, gooey icky insects vats and the like. But … it’s linear. And it is LONG. LONG. There’s mountains and mountains and mountains of text for EVERYTHING. There’s backstory embedded and expanded upon to explain EVERYTHING. What’s that, an aboleth in an isolated chamber? Eight hundred paragraphs later we learn why, up to and including the use of a decanter of endless water. Someone, somewhere, thinks this extra detail is great. That person is a fucking moron. You have to dig through mountains of data. Your reward are some slightly freaky linear encounters. The vision of the underdark is a decent one, if you ignore 95% of the text.

Diplomacy
By Christopher Wissel
Level 18

Oh my. This point out the 3.5 problem, as well as how far adventure design fell. This is an attempt to create a high-level adventure that does not feature combat. Given that Dungeon Magazine seems to think that “high level” means “linear combat shit fest”, this is a quite welcome goal. Unfortunately, the design is incompetent. The party are representatives of Elysium in some negotiations to win the right to a planer diamond mine. There are representatives from other planes: an arcanoloth, a modron, a king of the xorns, and so on. The idea is that the party engages in formal debates with the other parties, advancing round to round, with the Jinn owners as judges. There’s an attempt at combat, and a couple of VERY briefly mentioned pretexts for other “spy” actions, to ferret out arguments ahead of time, but the core of the adventure is “make a diplomacy check.” At the welcoming dinner you have to succeed on two DC50 checks or the adventure ends right there; you’re kicked out. In other debates the party has if they fail their checks (DC 61!) then they lose. They are free to stay and watch the movie play out. Joy. During the debates, if the party responds to an argument with one of two specific lines of debate then they get a bonus to their diplomacy check. Reducing a night of gaming to a die roll is never a good thing. The lack of options after “failing” means the adventure is badly written. It’s roleplaying, not making a point in craps. The SUPER high DC checks are related to the attribute check bloat in 3.5. Either you pumped points in to Diplomacy and make the check or you didn’t and don’t. Finally, the “spy” portions are written like afterthoughts. Literally a line that says “the arcanoloth has a bag on his belt that has blood on it”, a hint he’s going to dump junn heads out of it during his debate, to intimidate the jinn judges. But there’s no ADVENTURE around it, just a die roll. No support for the DM to run a investigation, bribe, or whatever. And, if you do ferret the plot out ahead of time, it doesn’t change anything. You did a fetch quest for someone and get payment, bt there’s no real outcome. The adventure had good intentions but suffers from the lack of complete understanding in how an adventure should be designed.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 2 Comments

Eternal Knight


By Louis Kahn
Starry Knight Press
OSRIC
Levels 6-8

Long ago the brave knight Inara Marteen, Paladin of the Light, sacrificed herself to save this world. She lost her life leading her holy order’s charge against an invading horde of demons from the Planes of Hell. Inara fell in combat, where she single-handedly defeated the demon lord known as Soul Eater, driving it and its infernal minions back through their demon gate. There in the fires of Hell, banished for 100 years, Soul Eater sat and stewed on its defeat at the hands of the warrior maiden. A century has passed since that fateful battle and now, free from the bonds of banishment, Soul Eater has returned to this plane to exact its vengeance, first upon Inara and then upon this realm! Finding her tomb, the demon and its minions set about to defile it and destroy her rest, and her legacy. Upon waking from her well deserved eternal rest, Inara’s spirit is angry, defiant and seeking vengeance of its own! Sensing a party of goodly adventurers near her barrow mound, her spirit has reached out to you, worthy adventurers. Can you save this realm from demon invasion and help a noble knight to rest in peace? Will you answer the Eternal Knight’s call?

Heroes are down the hall. No worries, common mistake; we’re the murder hobo division.

This is a fifteen page dungeon adventure with eight rooms on a linear map, only two pages of which actually describe the dungeon. A ghost begs you to clean out the demons in her tomb. It has a page long read-aloud, the rooms descriptions concentrate on physical descriptions and “trivia porn”, the monsters are just thrown in as an afterthought. One might, euphemistically, say that the DM did not successfully translate their vision to print. AKA: it’s a prime example of shovelware crap.

You come to expect things, for better or worse. You try to not be controlled by them and keep an open mind, but, seeing certain things over and over again … things like “eight rooms in fifteen pages.” Short encounter count with a long page count could mean it’s a non-traditional adventure, or has a lot of supplemental information. Or it could mean its crap. It turns out, it’s usually crap. You see a page long read-aloud. It could mean … well, no, a page long read-aloud is always bad. I guess, theoretically, you could have one attached to a magnificent adventure, maybe because the designer was trolling, but it’s the case that people who write page long read-alouds don’t really understand what published D&D adventures ARE. What they are supposed to be. This adventure has a page long read-aloud. It has things like “you find you can’t move” in the read-aloud, all so the party can’t nuke the ghost delivering the read-aloud. Which doesn’t matter because you can’t hurt the ghost anyway.

Looking at the room descriptions things become clearer. Go back and read that first paragraph again, the publisher’s blurb. Here’s the description for room three of the dungeon:

“The western door from Area 1, above, opens onto a 65’ long corridor leading to a 5’ wide metal door opening onto a 20’ square chamber. The room’s walls are covered in faded murals depicting Inara’s trials and triumphs. They show her childhood on a farm, her joining the guard of a local priesthood, and her rise from a squire to a full-fledged knight. The final scene is of her kneeling before a priest who places a tabard over her head. The tabard bears the symbol of their order: a longsword with a pommel and winged cross guards of gold, and a blade wreathed in holy fire.”

First we notice the thing begins by telling us what’s on the map. Which room leads to here and the hall/room dimensions. Again, seeing that is never a good sign. The designer doesn’t know what the text is for, what its purpose is. But then notice the description or the murals. In depth. Detailed. And serving ABSOLUTELY NO PURPOSE IN THE ADVENTURE. It’s fetishism for a creation, just as the publishers blurb is, just as the ghost read-aloud is, just as the room descriptions (murals, more murals, oh boy …) in other rooms are. Someone loves their creation a little too much. There’s clearly a backstory here that the designer likes/loves. I dream about things also, like announcing I’m quarterback for the New York Jets when I’m inevitably captured by aliens and forced to fight to the death in their gladiatorial games. (FUCK polo!) The danger, that this designer has fallen to, is that your backstory is the emphasis. It’s all trivia. No one cares. There are no hints of puzzles yet to come, or interactivity, it’s just useless trivia.

Speaking of, the monsters are a masterpiece. There are things like “this room is occupied by 2 class A demons.” or “in this room are 4 dretch.” What passes for a masterpiece is “this room is being ransacked by a lone babau.” Not cool. They are demons. They are presented as static things, like a vase. “In this room are 4 dretch.” What the fuck is that about? Creative? No. It adds nothing. No smell, no ransacked room, they aren’t doing anything.

The high point of the adventure is a silver tea service and a platinum snuff box, both of which are decent mundane treasure. The magic stuff is boring though, and it takes a paragraph to communicate that a “wand of acid arrows” shoots acid arrows.

I always want to believe the best of people, but I find product like this very disheartening. I think it’s great that the designer put it down on paper and managed to publish it. That alone is a significant accomplishment. But, giving them the benefit of the doubt, whatever vision they had didn’t make it to the page and it’s just another product clogging up the bowels of the RPG adventure market.

It’s $5 on DriveThru. The preview is four pages that don’t really show you anything except the linear map and the first half of the ghosts page long read-aloud, on the last page.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/214866/SO1-Eternal-Knight

Posted in Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 6 Comments

10’+1 – Halls of the Dwarf Lord

Another double shot this Monday morning. We’re trying to figure out how to make this work.

 

Review 1 – Bryce Lynch

By Stephen Grodzicki
$1 Adventure Frameworks
Low Fantasy Gaming
Mid/high Levels (8?)3d6 7hd cyclops, 5hd boss

This is a ten-ish page adventure with a short overland and one level dwarf hold with about fifteen rooms. It touts itself as a framework to run a sandbox, and is a freebie from a Patreon site. The adventure tries hard and does several things very well, just missing the mark in several areas. With a little more focus this could be that rarest of things: a series that is good.

Woodcutters are seeing small woodland creature skeletons walking about in a cursed wood and want you to check it out. There’s a short overland adventure with a great wandering table that gets you to a small abandoned fortress on a cliff. Inside you find some cyclops and a crazed wight.

This is a good place to talk about the wanderers, both in the dungeon and the wilderness. Everyone is DOING something, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to see this. It’s not just a garbage encounter table copied from a book, but just a little more is added. Just about one sentence more. Just one, and it adds so much. Skeletons “looking for humans to kill and return to their master for animating.” Or cyclops “returning from a raid carrying sheep and children in heavy nets, for eating.” Giants rates “biting a chunk out of a person and then fleeing in to the undergrowth.” These are great. They ARE little frameworks that can be built upon, exactly what a good published wanderer encounter should be. It turns “skeletons” in to something much more, likewise rats and cyclops. THAT’S show you write an encounter. They are dynamic, doing something. It’s not loaded up with text. There’s not much useless detail. It’s focused. It knows what it’s doing. It’s stabbing the DM with an icepick of an idea in the brain where it can flower. As soon as I read the cyclops entry I’m thinking “the cyclops are singing and joking, happy, while the sheep bleet and kids cry and scream and the cyclops smack them.” That’s what you want, JUST enough from the designer to get your brain kicked in to gear and expanding it. Evocative and terse. More IS less, it hides the evocative and forces the DM to dig for the encounter.

The dungeon, proper, is at its best when its following this formula and at its worst when it is padding things out and dwelling on trivia. “This hallway is 20 ft wide and 30 ft long. Corridors branch off to the east and west. A 10 ft wide corridor runs about 100 ft east … “ and so on. This is garbage detail. It’s trivia, duplicating what’s shown on the map and does nothing but clog things up. Likewise a room telling us that a small dias “is where dwarven guards once stood guard.” Well, are the fucking dwarves standing guard there now? No? It’s a cyclops common room? Then why the fuck are you telling me about what USED to be in this room? Look, it’s great if, as the designer, you’ve built this backstory, but you don’t need to vomit it up to the poor DM. I’m desperately scanning text trying to run the room

But, the adventure has some great things in it. Once room has a pit covered by an iron grate and a winch. Brain Eating ZOmbies are inside, moaning, climbing each other to reach through the bars, thumping their fists and biting the bars. PERFECT! You know what it adds? “Releasing the zombies could be an extraordinary bad idea for any nearby humans (or cyclops.)” GREAT! It’s a thing, it’s interactive, it’s evocative. That’s kind of fucking shit you want in your dungeon. I don’t need to know the wight uses this chamber as a holding pen. It’s obvious. I don’t need the fucking room dimensions. The entire five paragraph description should be shortened to three (one being monster stats) and it would be a lean, mean Dungeons and fucking Dragons Machine!

But, for every one of those there’s something that doesn’t quite work as well. The cyclops common room has one abused & bitter one that could be a turncoat …but that’s not really likely in a big cyclops common room, is it? The thing isn’t designed for that detail to be useful. Likewise there are two encounters outside, near the entrance to the keep, on a bridge or in a stream/ravine that feel forced. “Griffins attack when you cross the bridge” and a river monster attacks when you cross the stream. These feel less natural than either the wanderers or the creatures in the keep. More of a “now is the time when you fight a monster” than a “there is a monster living here.” There’s also a section where there’s some ancient writing. It you don’t make you check to decode it/speak the language, then you still get the gist of the message. That’s fucking bullshit. Why fucking bother rolling then? Likewise the mundane treasure is boring abstraction like “trinkets”, while the magic treasure is boring potions or full of bullshit mechanics. Fuck the “advantage in all checks to resist fatigue and may invoke a Thunderweave effect once every 1d4 days.” boring Boring BORING. “The bearer never tires in combat and, once charged with static electricity (every 1d4 days) releases (whatever the thunderweave effect is.) Magic should be wonderful, not reduced to mechanics. I touch roses.

The map has nice details on it, even if it is a bit cramped. The challenge level is all over the place, with a room full of 7HD cyclops and a boss monster that’s 5 HD, zombies, skeletons, and a 10HD river monster … I’m just guessing at level 8.

It’s a decent effort and I think the designer is close. More focus, more evocative, more creativity (no, not every fucking room needs to be a set piece) and this could be a really nice series.

This is currently free, as an example of the designers work on their Patreon page. Check out those wanderer description on page three, or the zombie room (5) on page seven. Or, the absurd amount of text for room one on page five.
https://www.dropbox.com/s/1xtqfss1mfuc5r4/%2818%29%20Halls%20of%20the%20Dwarf%20Lord%20%28Parchment%29.pdf?dl=0

Review A – The Pretty Girl

Halls of the Dwarf Lord
By Stephen Grodzicki
$1 Adventure Frameworks
Low Fantasy Gaming
Mid/high Levels (8?)3d6 7hd cyclops, 5hd boss
Total Score: 15 (out of 22)

A bread and butter campaign written in the style of a late 2.0 Forgotten Realms Module.. I hope all those references and proper nouns show up in other modules.. otherwise it’s a bit silly to behave as if ~made up person~ has significance either within the module itself or outside. If I am expected to care that the famed hammer likes to be called Sally.. I better get the chance to meet her.

 

Optimal Applications

Novice GM Good structure and low complexity for someone still developing a personal style and learning rules.
Novice Players Straight forward situations and combat

 

Rating Breakdown
GM Complexity 5
Player Amusement 2
Graphics 4
Language 2
Maps 2

What do the numbers mean?

Posted in Reviews | 19 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #143


Riding the Rail
By Christopher Wissel
Level 5

When I saw this I thought to myself ‘this better not be a fucking magical Eberron railroad adventure …”. It’s a fucking Eberron magic railroad adventure. Joy. Magic tech. Bound air elements. A need to explain everything. There are NPC’s on the train, but they get no personalities, names, or anything else. A new fucking low in adventure design, you move from room to room on the train and in each you fight someone. No roleplaying. “A big climax fight on the roof of the train! Ohhhhhh!” *yawn* The tactics porn is the only thing that matters. Fuck the roleplay. Fuck creativity. Go memorize the rules and build your min/max piece of shit character with your impotent DPS ratings. Fuck you and your “different people like different things” shit. Go fucking play Dust Tactics.

Tides of Dread
By Stephen Greer & Gary Holian
Level 9

Part five of the Savage Tide adventure path. You wrecked on the Isle of Dread and made your way through the jungle to the colony of Farshore. You start out saving the colony and then wandering over the island accomplishing missions to beef up the colonies defense in prep for a pirate attack in two months. Then you defend against the attack, with everything done sofar earning you VP’s. Get enough and you win. In short the entire thing is: Do missions to Get points. There six when you first fight off the pirate raid, then five more on the island and then seven more during the big pirate invasion. The initial pirate raid and the final pirate battle both present some classic scenes: buildings on fire, pirates attacking villagers, and so on. The initial raid scenes are the best, with the final battle scenes being more in the “general crib notes expanded at length” variety. The middle section, across the island on missions, feels … disconnected? “Go see if the natives will help us” turns in to fighting fire bats, journeying across the island, and other “fetch” quests. ALL of the sections could be organized better, with better summaries and introductions and significantly cut text that instead focuses evocative atmosphere. I find myself to drawn to these “chaos decision” adventures. This one, chapter one of Hoard of the Dragon Queen (which I rewrote) and the start of DCO. I’m also not sure how I feel about them. I like the chaos and pressure to make decisions. What is seldom/never handled well is splitting the party. When you give them choices they will split to maximize outcomes and no adventure I’ve seen handles that well, either in execution or in preventing it. I like the concept presented in both the chaos/decision pressure and the “build defenses” section (and I think I’ve said down in the Troll Lord I series and a couple of Zombie Invasion type adventures) but it’s just not presented well here. Too bad, a jungle isle would be a good place for that. Time to go watch Zulu again …

Mask of Diamond Tears
By Nicolas Logue
Level 13

Why me? What have I done? When these thoughts arise, as they do with this adventure, I recall a line from Unforgiven: deserve’s got nothing to do with it. The first real scene is the party trying to talk to a guy in a restaurant. The maitre d’ won’t let you in. You’re 13th level and that’s not famous enough. You can’t bribe him. Period. You can’t wait outside to talk to the guy, since the guard captain dimension door’d in. It’s interesting that the most obvious solution, slitting his throat and letting him watch himself bleed out, isn’t discussed at all, even though it DOES deal with attacking the guard captain.

I’d like to break for a moment and discuss society and the role of violence within it. Imagine you are a medieval lord and your neighbor brings a suit against you, claiming that your apple orchard is actually his. He wins. His serfs show up to collect his apples and you send your dudes over and kill them all. From a certain point of view ‘right’ is what you can enforce. CLoser to home, if a maitre d’ turns down your $2billion bribe for a table and you stab him 127 times in the ocular window with your pen, ‘justice’ is again at the mercy of what can be enforced. You you post bond and flee? Bribe the courts/police? Donate $1billion to EVERY politician’s campaign for a pardon/law change? Hire a small army of soldiers to break you out of jail and start a blue-uniformed paramilitary organization with cool tanks? COBRA! Is it left as an exercise for reader on why you didn’t seek mental health treatment for your entitlement issues with all that money, but, whatever. I’m reminded of the Fargo TV series and the bad guy saying something like “People live their lives by rules. Want to know a secret? There are no rules.” At 13th level you’re quite a powerful group and I can construct at least a dozen philosophical justifications for various degrees of coercion against the maitre d’. Next time you hear about one of those “Nobles had the right to kill peasants without repercussions.” remember to remind yourself, maybe the dude was a snooty maitre d’.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 4 Comments

The Dungeon of the Selenian Conclave


By Alessandro Dellamotta
Starlight Games
Basic D&D
Levels 1-2

Deep underground, an orc-infested dungeon is revealed to be an abandoned sorcerous laboratory, the turf of powerful ancient wizards and their secret research… There, the Selenian Conclave labored on how to extend their reach to a place most remote indeed, for their aim was the Moon itself!

This is an eighteen page adventure in a small two level dungeon with nineteen rooms. About half the rooms are quite complex with the second half, mostly level 2, being much simpler. The puzzle rooms are very mechanical and the simplistic formatting used detracts from usability, fighting you, in almost a wall of text manner. There’s stuff to play with, but this is almost certainly highlighter material.

The core of the first level, and hook, are orcs raiders who have moved in, but after a couple of rooms it turns in to a wizards dungeon, with the five (gone) wizards rooms being the bulk of the dungeon, as well as their summoning circle. The puzzles/interaction in the dungeon mostly relates to the doors to the wizards suites and various tricks. A prismatic wall, fibonacci sequence lock, other simple logic puzzles. In their rooms you can find some parts that can be used to get a giant teleport circle in the basement working. Thus the interactivity is more of the traditional puzzle type. This makes many of the rooms over a column or so in length, with a significant portion based on just getting through the door.

The backstory is long, and not really interesting, with the dungeon actually starting on page six. Lines like “the broken statues were actually destroyed stone golems” adds trivia backstory that has no use in the adventure. This, combined with the already lengthy descriptions, creates an almost wall of text environment in the rooms where you hunt for the important stuff. There’s some combination of the font, spacing, formatting decisions, that make it all run together worse than usual. Highlighter is a necessity … and that’s never a good thing. It’s the designers job to make sure I DON’T need to use a highlighter. Bolding, bullets, removal of useless trivia … all needed. The mundane treasure presented borders on either side of the barely acceptable line, with gold necklaces and silver earrings walking one side and an ivory statue of a warrior toeing the other.

The setup is good, with the orc raiders and their response briefly touched upon, with a couple of sentences about the villagers, their pleas, rewards, reactions. It doesn’t drone on, even if it is more than bit disorganized, appearing in multiple places. This dovetails in to some NPC hostages the orcs have, with motivations and a decent/terse personalities to roleplay. Motivations that don’t go on and a lack of emphasis on trivia like appearances. There’s not really enough adventure, after rescue, to fully utilize them, a decent sized design flaw.

I find this one hard to judge. It’s trying to do the right things, it’s just implementing them clumsily. The adventure has three parts: the orc raiders, the further exploration of the wizard suites and dungeon doors, and then figuring out that there is a bigger summoning circle puzzle to solve. That’s a nice structure, as is the theming of the various wizards. The engineer. The prismatic one. The ghost. The spider on. Nicely done. But the entire second level is essentially empty except for a puzzle room, and the orc raider portion is a little small. Combined with the quite rough formatting/almost-wall-of-text, and a little bit of a “samey” vibe of the the thing feeling like every puzzle is a door puzzle …

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview if four pages long and shows you some of the backstory, some of the village stuff. The first two rooms (or, most of the second room anyway) are listed, which is a good example of the style of the rooms in this adventure. You get to see the NPC details (yeah!) as well as the LONG room descriptions and the font/formatting that I think contribute to the wall of text feel.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/212060/Dungeon-of-the-Selenian-Conclave

Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments

10’+1 – Tomb of the Serpent Kings

Another double shot review! The first by Bryce and the second by The Pretty Girl!

Review 1 – Bryce Lynch

By Skerples
Coin and Scrolls Blog
System Neutral
Level 1

This thirteen page adventure is a three level dungeon with 52 rooms. It’s a teaching dungeon, meant to introduce new players to various dungeon elements. Because of this it has a wide variety of things to encounter with lots of things to “play with” in the dungeon, from breaking statues to secret doors, traps, puzzles, and so on, with integrated designers notes. It’s also got a conversational style and, while targeted at new players, it’s almost certainly inappropriate for new DM’s. It needs to decide what it is, burn itself to the ground, and build off the nugget that’s left.

This is a teaching dungeon, meant to introduce new players to the various elements/tropes of dungeon. It’s a nice idea, but I disagree with many of the choices made. Yeah! Something interesting to talk about! The core concept of introducing players to dungeon tropes means that there is a WIDE variety of things to interact with in the dungeon. Status you can break open to find treasures, secret doors/statue interactions, weird lich-like monsters to talk to, weird trap things you can use against enemies, and so on. The variety of encounters in this dungeon is staggering and reminds me of Thacia and Blue Medusa in terms of density of things to do.

And this is my first issue, which is going to be super pedantic. It’s not an OSR teaching dungeon. It’s a SKERPLES-designed teaching dungeon, teaching you how to play Skerples dungeons. (Which, btw, seem to have LOTS of statues in them. 🙂 Further, it’s mostly teaching the standard Tolkien-D&D dungeon tropes. Is there a role for this? I guess so? I think I take exception to the Standard Tropes. I like the classics, but, I dislike the … genericism? that sometimes creeps in to them. Another path would have to include some classic pop-culture/folklore elements. Things behind waterfalls. A moving bookcase. Chandeliers that fall. A chimney with golden arms up it. I freely admit this is a preference thing, but I also think that my classics list would give n00bs a better first experience than generic D&D tropes … even though some of those generic tropes are likely to serve them better since THATS the stuff they are likely to see in 5e/pathfinder shovelware. So it does what it sets out to do, and a result you get a TON of variety to interact with, and that alone make this enough to take a look at.

While it may be targeted at new players it’s clearly not targeted at new DM’s. In fact, this would be one of the more difficult things for a mid-level DM to run. It’s system neutral, so our DM will be stat’ing everything either in advance or on the fly. The maps don’t have grids because “I think it’s important you redraw them yourself.” Further, the rooms are not really evocatively described and the details tend to focus on mechanics rather than evocative. There also tends to be a stronger focus on “gotcha!” traps than I would prefer. That may be personal preference, but I think it’s bullshit traps that lead to paranoid player play that slows things down. Searching every 10; of hallway and 30 minute descriptions of searching and opening doors. This is not to say traps are bad, but BAD traps are bad. 🙂 Each room has a “Lesson” to learn, that’s a kind of designers note on the purpose of the room, but could also be seen as DM text … if the entire thing wasn’t DM text.

Which is not to say this is a boring adventure, it’s just a very hit & miss thing. There are great things like a magic ring that lets you take out an eyeball to see … that’s about a million times better than generic clairvoyance rings. There are goblins you will elect you king and follow you as your minions … until they murder you during the next full moon. And, they have sticky skin to boot! An ultra-powerful lich-like guy you can talk to and maybe exploit … with a usual push your luck until he gets annoyed with you. This is great non-standard content and is the kind of content I WANT to pay for.

This thing lacks focus. It needs to figure out what it wants to be, burn the thing down to that, and rebuild it. Expert DM & new players? New players & DM? The core of creativity and variety is there, it’s just doesn’t really know what it wants to do. It has an idea, it states so explicitly, but I don’t think the stated idea matches what’s presented. So, overall, I have some philosophical disagreements about some of the content, but the conversational style and lack of focus is what I think makes it fall short of its own goals. As a general adventure, it’s got a lot of stuff to interact with and some decent new content, like the magic ring and goblins, that make it appealing, it just doesn’t do a good job being organized or evocative.

This is available on the Coins & Scrolls blog, and can be downloaded for free at:
https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwIV4ttS3R1JZGp2TGl6YTNDZjg/view

Review A – The Pretty Girl

Tomb of the Serpent Kings
By Skerples
Self-published
Total Score: 11 (out of 22)

Intended for, “New Players” this module nobly sets out teach the basics of advanced D&D Gameplay from the 2.0 – 3.5 era. Overshooting that goal, in the hands of an experienced GM this module could be pulled from to entertain any experience level players. Intentionally or incidentally, the methodical attempt to present a variety of 2-3.5 style encounters generated a nice variety. The degree of creativity in the module would be wasted on new players still bewildered on how to use ropes and cross bridges without sufficient support from a very experienced (and patient) GM. The assertion that the GM should make their own wandering encounter table was uncool.

 

Optimal Applications
Experienced GM Able to role-play NPC’s, take advantage of creative ques, and comfortable generating stats for their chosen game system easily.
Any player group The adventure could work for anyone

 

Rating Breakdown
GM Complexity 5
Player Amusement 2
Graphics 1
Language 1
Maps 2

Ratings Meanings

Optimal Application – Circumstance where this module would provide maximum benefit. All scores assume that the module is with the group most likely to enjoy and benefit from it

GM Complexity – Degree of effort required to generate a delightful game in optimal application of the material:

  • 6 – GM could open the document with no preparation and run a delightful game
  • 5 – GM would need to read through the campaign and expect to spend 1-2 hours preparing for each 4 hours of game play
  • 4 – GM would be required to reorganize campaign somewhat and smooth over some shortcomings spending 3-4 hours preparing for each 4 hours of game play
  • 1 – There are some innovative sections (encounters) that could be inserted into a different campaign, or linked together in a fully original way, but the material in its entirety cannot be utilized as is without investing a significant degree of GM effort and creativity
  • 0 – Material provides no more value than a random encounter table while presenting such an arduous unraveling it would be foolish to attempt running

Player Amusement – Quality of material presented that has the possibility to delight the optimal player group

  • 5 – Thoughtful pacing and ample opportunities to feel immersed in the game world, “Better than “Cats”, going to see it again and again”
  • 2 – It’s fine
  • 0 – Relationships between players and patients with the game itself will be challenged. Material creates multiple opportunities for rule quibbling and general discord

 

Graphics

  • 4 – Usable during the game to share with players
  • 2 – Useful only to GM
  • 1 – No graphics
  • 0 – Of no discernable purpose and in the way – crowds space

 

Language

  • 4 – Succinct and evocative
  • 2 – Conversational but clear
  • 1 – You should have hired an English Major to edit this
  • 0 – Very wordy/ incomprehensible

 

Maps

  • 3 – It’s a shame that you are trying to keep some information a surprise as the maps are so delightful you want to hang them on the wall and show them off
  • 2 – There are maps, they are legible
  • 1 – There are no maps
  • 0 – The included maps create logical inconsistencies with the written material that are difficult to catch
Posted in Reviews, ThePrettyGirl | 13 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #142


Masque of Dreams
By B. Matthew Conklin III
Level 1

Masquerade ball. Oasis. Archeological dig. Drugged food. Pretty close to shitty trope bingo! This has a social/ball/roleplaying element that then changes when the ball attendees all (except for the party) become drugged and behave bizarrely before goblins show up to attack. Tracking them through the desert the party arrives at a camp, kills the boss, and save the kidnapped guests. The adventure gets the NPC’s right, using the masquarade to give them a ‘look’ that is simple but memorable, and giving them a solid roleplaying personality, both before and after the drugging. Simple, iconic, and terse, at least as far as Dungeon is concerned. The vulture mask people follow the party around waiting for them to kill something, talk about how things taste and how to dispose of the bodies, etc. They could use a summary sheet, and there are probably too many of them presented for the amount of ‘action’ in the adventure. IE: they would work better if the “ball is attacked!” portion of the adventure was a bit more in-depth. There’s also a mix of events, room descriptions, and NPC descriptions scattered willy nilly, in a room based description style that doesn’t work with a social adventure style. It’s disorganized and hard to find things. I THINK it’s trying to be open, almost like a sandbox, with the monsters/attack, but it comes off as just some loose notes with not enough structure to support the other material. A complete rewrite would save this … and it might be worth it.

Here There Be Monsters
By Jason Bulmahn
Level 7

Your ship crashes on the Isle of Dread and you need to travel overland to get to a colony. What follows is a linear group of set pieces broken up by unavoidable events. T-rex attacks on the beach. Herbivore attack. Gargoyles on a cliff. Demon ape kidnaps a party member, and you go to the temple to rescue them. The encounters are ok but it FEELS like a series of linear set-pieces, surrounded, of course, by too much text. There’s a nice little mini-Moria where you have to go through a small eight room ruins to get through some mountains to the other side. The pieces ARE iconic, but there’s no chance to really do anything but stare blankly and roll dice for eventual outcomes. It’s hard to get in to something like this. This reminds me of those shitty ass DM’s who think they are “telling a story.” I can’t imagine anything more boring, iconic set pieces or no. You know it’s a set up. Why care? But … I still like the individual encounters. 🙂 They are just too long.

Bright Mountain King
By Caine Chandler
Level 16

This is a short eight room tomb to retrieve a stolen artifact for some dwarves. WHo are pretending to be good guys but are evil with a ring of mind shielding. Ug. A sure sign of lack of creativity. Anyway, then you’re supposed to go get the artifact back from the evil druids the dwarf dude gave it to by invading a small underground/cave fortress with a dozen-ish rooms. It’s just an excuse to roll high-level trap saves and hack everything. It’s also COMPLETELY unclear to me how you find out the dwarf was tricking you. He thanks you for getting the artifact (the first time) then turns flies off with it. These high level adventures are such a disappointment.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 1 Comment

Blue Crystal Mine

By Matt Kline
Creation’s Edge Games
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 1-3

An elven smith has recently relearned the long-lost secret art of crafting with the blue crystal known as azurite. He’s promised to craft you a few magic weapons, provided you can get him some of the crystal…

A fourteen page adventure with eight rooms in an old mine. I wish this adventure, and all of its cousins, did not exist. Boring, adding nothing of interest or indeed any detail beyond the barest of bare bones, but expanded upon with great vigor of writing. There is no reason for this to exist, let alone be charged for.

Eight room abandoned mine, four bandits in the entrance their leader in another room and a giant spider in a boarded up barracks. The back half is caved in, with a couple of giants ants and a crystal imp back there. There’s an arrow trap on a door. I have now provided you 95% of the content of this adventure in far fewer than 14 pages. I know, I’m prone to hyperbole, but, seriously, I just described the dungeon to you. The actual adventure offers almost nothing else that I didn’t just describe. The text is expanded upon, but, I’m not even sure it adds that sort of mundane detail in which I loathe so much. It’s just circular, describing nothing in quite the verbose manner.

An empty barracks room with a few generic things in it. The same, bt this time the room has a giant spider in it. The same, but the bandits leader is in it, who, of course, chalks up the slaughter of his men to them fighting … so there’s a pretext for him not leaving his room. Everyone/thing attacks on sight. There’s no nuance. There’s nothing interesting. Open door. Monster attacks. Kill it. Move on.

When you buy an adventure this is exactly the sort of thing you are afraid of: nothing of interest. Look, an adventure doesn’t need set pieces in every room. Or ANY room. But you have to add SOME value. The fourteen pages of this adventure add almost nothing to the three sentence description I offered earlier. This is like one of those procedurally generated news stories. Write an app to generate maps and random dungeon with random dressings and charge $1.50 each. Churn it out and ‘win’ by flooding the market and making it impossible to find things of value. THERE’S NOTHING IN THIS.

 

It’s $1.50 on Drive Thru. The preview of four pages, including the cover, and shows you nothing of the room design.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/214985/Blue-Crystal-Mine-A-Swords–Wizardry-MiniDungeon

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10’+1: The Flooded Temple


Welcome to Tenfootpole +1. Today you can expect the same old vitriol from Bryce, as well as a dose in the form of another review of the same adventure from The Pretty Girl. Lucky You!

We Begin!

By M. Greis
Greis Games
OSR
Levels 1-3

In the flooded temple is hidden a great treasure, and the adventures are in race to get there first, but the ancient temple is the home of Death’s Messenger and several cults each with their own agenda. Will the adventurers survive or be dragged off to the lands of the dead?

Review 1 – Bryce Lynch

This is a seventeen page adventure in a three level abandoned temple with about 25 rooms. There are multiple factions, puzzle-like things, weird monsters, an evocative environment, a moderately interesting map and MOSTLY terse text, at least for the DM notes. This is a good adventure. As I told The Pretty Girl yesterday: if all adventures were at least this good then I probably wouldn’t be reviewing adventures.

There’s this old almost forgotten temple in a canyon. Think of a slot canyon, like in Zion, or Petra. At the end of it is a temple, carved in to the soft rock. There’s a small stream running in the narrow canyons, and it flows in through a large crack, flooding the lower level to two feet. Inside are kobolds, at deaths door, victims of plague, they come here to die as a part of their death rituals. There are lizardmen, fishing. There are bugbear teens, undergoing their adulthood rites. None are hostile. The kobolds want to be left in peace to die. Filled with puss-filled bubos, they represent more of a trap (the plague) that is solved by roleplaying, sicne they are too weak to fight. The bugbears assume other people in the temple are undergoing their adulthood rites also. They tell ghost stories and boast by their campfire. The lixardmen would really like the other two groups gone, and will pay 1sp a head for kobolds. Then, in to this mix come some Dragon cultists looking for the PRETEXT. Again, not necessarily hostile .. but perhaps the parties pretext is to find the object first? IN which case it might be the party instigating.

Multiple factions are supplemented by a map that really allows for more complex explorations. There are, I think, like six staircases in the place, in addition to an open three-level area with balconies around it. This allows for stealth and a hunted/hunter thing to go on with any of the factions or the cult, once the party turns hostile. I think I counted four or five ways to get in to the temple besides the front door: a hole in the roof, the stream crack, a couple of windows … really nice sandbox design that allows for the exploratory and strategic play styles.

The faction monsters all allow for roleplay … that can then potentially end in combat, usually with the party instigating for some reason. In addition they all have a little detail, tersely communicated, and then some extra bits which are GREAT. It’s not just kobolds. They are dying/near death. And not just near death but from from plague. And not just plague but with bubos full of pus. Likewise the bugbears. Who are are on a adulthood rite. Who have ritually painted faces described. Who tell ghost stories at night around their fire. It’s just an extra sentence but it add SO much to the adventure. It’s what I’m referring to when I say things lie “plant an evocative seed in the DM’s head.” That’s the sort of content I want to pay for. Not reams and reams of text. Not railroady or dictatorial. One extra sentence that brings the adventure alive.

Puzzles, roleplaying, tactical options via the map, a timeline/order of battle for the cult that enters the temple. It’s all great and it’s clear it was written by someone who UNDERSTANDS how D&D works. This is further cemented by notes. XP for Gold notes. XP for rooms explored, and how it can push the party deeper in to a dungeon. The guy gets it.

Monsters are either book, such as the kobolds, lizardmen, bugbears, or new ones with the new ones being mostly of the tentacle-monster variety. As I noted earlier, the humanoids have something about them to bring them to life, while the new ones have great little combat powers that can really help mae combat evocative without being a drag. This is generally supplemented by some rooms have terrain effects; things under the water, etc, to spice up combat. 4e did this a lot but it felt forced, like a wargame. This does it in such a way that it feels natural. The new magic items are great and have a ”effects front” style. What does it do, then some brief mechanics. A Frogs Breath vial, that when uncorked has a greenish mist that flows out and can ID magic items … but then you need to recapture the mist. Great! A little twist to make things fresh and fun again … with just a hint of folklore.

This is a danish translation and it shows sometimes. A few of the puzzles are not formatted in the best way and you feel like you have to fight a text a bit in those more complex areas in order to figure out what is going on. There is some awkwardness in wording in a few other places, but it doesn’t distract enough to matter and overall it’s a testament to the translator. I might note, as well, that the word choice in places relies on conclusions. A smell is “foul”. I get what they are going for, but, that’s a conclusion. Describe the thing and then let the party make the determination that its foul. The readaloud is best when it’s not describing room dimensions but being evocative, and the DM text is thankfully short in most places. The introduction text is long, describing the factions, etc, but, read once, it does a great job of cementing the flavor in to your head, painting a picture so you grok it and need never look at it again. Which is exactly what the hell that shit should do. The boat captain mentioned in the “journey to the temple” section could have used a one or two word personality, as well as what happens to him/the boat when the cultists show up. But that’s really nitpicky of me.

As I look through my notes it seems like I made several notations on each page about little things the designer did right. If I were doing a second pass on this I might clean up the readaloud by making it shorter and a little more evocative and cleaning up the language and formatting in the more complex puzzle rooms. It’s system neutral, with no monster stats, which is LAME. Just stick in some LabLord stats for christs sake. If the designer had done that then this would be a GREAT adventure with almost zero prep. Read it once in 15 minutes and run it. As it is now you gotta state everything.

This is $2 on DriveThru and I think that’s a bargain for the adventure you are getting. The preview is six pages long, about a third of the adventure. It will show you those designer notes on xp for hold, some decent hooks (standard stuff, but well supported for the DM without being too verbose), faction information on page three (listed as page four) and in the last two pages a good sample of the adventure text. I really like what you are getting here: a classic exploratory adventure with some great roleplay and simple timeline elements to spice things up, with evocative descriptions.
http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/214529/The-Flooded-Temple–an-OSR-adventure

 

 

Review A – The Pretty Girl

The Flooded Temple
By M. Greis
Greis Games
Total Score: 13

 

Optimal Applications
Experienced GM Able to role-play NPC’s, take advantage of creative ques, and comfortable generating stats for their chosen game system easily.
Moderately Experienced player group Must understand how to play and enjoy non-combat encounter

 

Rating Breakdown
GM Complexity 5
Player Amusement 5
Graphics 0
Language 1
Maps 2

Ratings Meanings

Optimal Application – Circumstance where this module would provide maximum benefit. All scores assume that the module is with the group most likely to enjoy and benefit from it

GM Complexity – Degree of effort required to generate a delightful game in optimal application of the material:

  • 6 – GM could open the document with no preparation and run a delightful game
  • 5 – GM would need to read through the campaign and expect to spend 1-2 hours preparing for each 4 hours of game play
  • 4 – GM would be required to reorganize campaign somewhat and smooth over some shortcomings spending 3-4 hours preparing for each 4 hours of game play
  • 1 – There are some innovative sections (encounters) that could be inserted into a different campaign, or linked together in a fully original way, but the material in its entirety cannot be utilized as is without investing a significant degree of GM effort and creativity
  • 0 – Material provides no more value than a random encounter table while presenting such an arduous unraveling it would be foolish to attempt running

Player Amusement – Quality of material presented that has the possibility to delight the optimal player group

  • 5 – Thoughtful pacing and ample opportunities to feel immersed in the game world, “Better than “Cats”, going to see it again and again”
  • 2 – It’s fine
  • 0 – Relationships between players and patients with the game itself will be challenged. Material creates multiple opportunities for rule quibbling and general discord

 

Graphics

  • 4 – Usable during the game to share with players
  • 2 – Useful only to GM
  • 1 – No graphics
  • 0 – Of no discernable purpose and in the way – crowds space

 

Language

  • 4 – Succinct and evocative
  • 2 – Conversational but clear
  • 1 – You should have hired an English Major to edit this
  • 0 – Very wordy/ incomprehensible

 

Maps

  • 3 – It’s a shame that you are trying to keep some information a surprise as the maps are so delightful you want to hang them on the wall and show them off
  • 2 – There are maps, they are legible
  • 1 – There are no maps
  • 0 – The included maps create logical inconsistencies with the written material that are difficult to catch
Posted in Reviews, ThePrettyGirl | 13 Comments