(5e) Madness of the Rat King

By Tomer Abramovici
Maniac Brews
Low Levels

This is a 28 page adventure (plus a dozen battle maps) in a fourteen room cave complex with a rat theme … with about half the 28 pages being appendices for new monsters and magic items. It can be wordy in places, and has a kind of 4e “enter room/face challenge” vibe going on in places. It’s also got a format that helps mitigate the wordiness and steers closer to interactivity than most products. There’s are things to explore and do! A decent effort that makes me interested in seeing another product from the publisher.

The monster descriptions, proper, are not that good. The first couple of sentences need to be what the DM immediately needs, the looks and demeanor, and not their creation history or some such. There’s a good example of this in one entry: Nipples the rat. The description starts with “Albino with a large cranium.” Perfect! When the DM flips to the monster appendix it needs to be easy to find the most important info, which is almost always the description & demeanor. (Well, besides the stat block, obviously.)

But it makes up the gaps with some creativity. Explody rats. Laser-Rats. Rat-Bear-Pig. It gets in to the spirit of real D&D by providing a new mix of monsters to pump up the old. New monsters keep players on their toes. They don’t know what to expect, it’s full of mystery. Further, they are a resource, in some cases, to exploit. In this case the dungeon has a couple of potions of rat control. Wonderful! It turns a great feature of the dungeon, the new rat monsters, explicitly in to a tool for the party to exploit to overcome other challenges! This is the sort of creative play opportunities that I’m looking for. It was a miss, however, to not put “wielding” rules in to the description of the Laser Rats; that’s the first thing I would do if I saw one.

There are a lot of battle maps, about one per room, I think. I don’t think they add much. They, along with the writing style and vocabulary used, tend to give this a 4e type of vibe. That whole “enter room and have a fight” type of thing. A focus on “Difficult Terrain” and other vocab that is clearly a callback to rules. It’s a weird feeling and more than a little misplaced. The first encounters reinforce this, with a rat ambush straight out of a “this is encounter” 4e textbook. But it’s … not right? Or maybe it’s a toned down 4e that is them mixed with a lot of older-style interactivity?

It’s that interactivity that won me over and elevates this adventure. Skeletons holding notes. A satchel hidden in the ceiling. Statues holding out their hands. Telepathy encouraging you to “Mix the blood!” Black Lotus floating the water pools. Not just a hack fest, but things to DO and explore.

The writing gets loose in places. Here’s the first paragraph for one of the rooms, which occurs in front of the read-aloud: “The Rat King works tirelessly on his various experiments here, hell-bent on his delusional plans of world domination. He is constantly coming up with (and often discarding) new alchemical brews or rat mutations to build an unstoppable army. There is no end to his tinkering and half-baked schemes.” That doesn’t add anything to the room. It’s trivia, useless during play. There’s too much text like this and gets in the way of the interesting text about interactivity, in spite of the bolding and paragraph breaks.

I have to draw some comparisons to the other wererat I just reviewed, Under Tenkar’s Tavern. This feels more exploratory than that, although the map is simpler. The text is formatted better to allow the DM to find things easier. It’s not going to win any awards in that category, it’s still not great, but there was clearly an effort made to help the DM locate things.

The adventure also has a half page to a page of suggestions for follow ups. Things that the DM could riff on regarding prisoners released, treasure gained, and so on. I like it when these small adventures do that; it adds an element of depth and continuity to them that others don’t have. Yeah, it’s a DM thing, but I’m all about the designer throwing the DM a bone to work with.

This is PWYW at DriveThrough, with a suggest price of … $0. It’s free! The preview shows you five pages, which allows you to see the first five rooms. It does a good job of showing the color highlighting, bolding, and use of paragraphs to help organize and orient the DM.

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Mistress of the Ghost City

By John Turcotte
Level 6-8

This fifty page adventure in an evil fortress is part four of the series that include Fallen Jarls, Towen, and Stormcrows. The last third are appendices, so you’ve got about thirty pages describing about eighty rooms/ over five levels in the fortress.

The snows are melting and the northern clans have rallied to turn back Her Dark Majesties forces. The party is sent to her fortress to kill her once and for all.

This tends to the minimally keyed side of the spectrum, with brief bursts of longer room descriptions. You can think of it as a little room description and then a longer “how the monster interacts” added on … with a lot of variety in that generalization. A two sentence room and a one page room are also featured. The descriptive style could be described as baroque or gothic, with word choice and sentence structure giving it a slightly off kilter vibe. It works well to help get you in to the “fortress in Hell” mindset. As with the previous modules in the series, illusions, both for places and for monsters/devils, are used to great effect to provide variety, mystery, and the horror of the unknown. “Bob the barned devil likes to hand out as a nude man with the head of a cuttlefish.” Well, ok. Don’t see that everyday. Likewise every banquet feast is offal and every majestic visage something else. Likewise a skeleton hunched over with a candelabra on its back, the only light illuminating a great hall. Illusion.

The encounters make the place FEEL like hell. (And … that’s what this is, a fortress that teleports between the prime plane and Dis.) Gardens full of beautiful flowers … that you can use to make poison. A great bell that tolls thirteen times at midnight. Rooms that dim your light and magic mirrors that summon a minor death that only the mirror-user can see. The adventure is full of weird little non-book things, illusions and effects, that make the place feel like a weird ass fortress in Hell.

The bell also serves as a nice entry mechanism to the fortress. After an overland journey (just some “normal” wandering tables) you see the ghostly fortress. At midnight a bell rings thirteen times and it fully materializes, until dawn arrives, giving you a window to enter and leave. That’s a great “enter the mythic underworld” transition to the dungeon.

These “evil fortress” adventures are, I think, hard to do, and I don’t think Turcotte has cracked the code. They need to feel cohesive and alive, and I don’t think this one does. It almost feels like little vignettes. He addresses several of the issues with evil fortresses by simply noting that Hell Is Weird, and the devils know that, so the mere fact the party is in the fortress doesn’t mean an full on alert.

But things feel disconnected at times. That great garden has a room with a gardener. “The gardener, a red abishai devil (HP: 16) dwells here. It appears as a tortoise-like humanoid with an impressive moustache. It has no treasure.” What’s the point of this? We know that they don’t immediately attack … but the encounter goes nowhere. What’s the gameable action this enables? Is he proud of the garden? Resentful? It is, essentially, minimally keyed.

The kennelmaster is another good example of this. “The kennelmster lives here. He looks like X.” and then a long paragraph on how he attacks. And yet other things in the adventure fit in so well. A guy at the front desk takes your names. If you read the book then clerics and mages get a certain bonus, since they now know so much about demons/devils from it. It fits perfectly.

I’m grasping for how to summarize this. There’s a minimally-described overland journey, and the same through a ruined city, with only the main fortress keyed. The fortress has great window dressing and great things to mess with. In spite of that I think it is still on the minimally keyed side of things. There’s just not that little extra to shove the DM’s brain over the edge in to ACTION.

“A pair of dead trees stand sentry on either side of the short passage leading to these doors, their withered branches intertwining to form a high-roofed tunnel of sorts. Weird garlands of iron wire, hooks, teeth and pins hang on the trees, numerous small bones dangling from the hooks and barbs. Beyond, the heavy doors are constructed of bronze and depict endish faces leering from wreaths of bas-relief owers. A flickering red candle is set into a small recess wall beside each portal.”

Great description! Now what? This is one of the best “evil fortress in hell” I’ve seen. The window dressing is excellent, if a bit long in places. But it feels like it lacks potential energy.

This is available, free, at Dragonsfoot.

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By Karel M
Coiled Sheet of Lead
Levels 1-4

Legends of a “mountain of gold” provoke a mad scramble for a mysterious book laden with clues to find certain statues around the city, which themselves hold additional clues leading to the hiding place of the fabulous treasure.

This adventure used my content partner service.

This is a 39 page urban adventure, a treasure hunt in a city mad with treasure lust, with the last 18 pages being appendices, handouts, etc. Care has been paid to orient the adventure to the DM, helping them to run it effectively. Reference tables, organization, great wandering content and a focus on gameable detail all push this above average. I like urban adventures and I think this one gives the DM things to work with.

There’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World vibe to this adventure. The tavern the party is in is abuzz, everyone excited, just like half the city, about the rumors of THE TREASURE. Rumors lead to a search for a book with a map/clues, and then a hunt to decipher them and find the statues that, together, reveal the location of the treasure, it’s vault being the last of the adventure. There’s a social intro, with the rumors and hunt for information about the treasure, which evolves in to a caper as the party tries to break in to one of the map/clue book locations, which evolves in to deciphering puzzles and negotiating a city half full of treasure-nutters. This then evolves in to a brief exploration of a great cistern and a mini-dungeon … that evolves in to consequences and cleanup as the party has to decide what to do with the treasure. That’s a lot of variety and that helps, I think, with designing a convincing city adventure. It’s not just one thing, it’s many, just like the city. Too often a city adventure is just “talk to people then fight in the warehouse/sewers.” This thing has dimensions.

The wandering table is a part of that and helps make the city a proper part of the adventure. A page of daytime and another of nighttime encounters makes give a decent amount of variety. Best of all, the encounters are oriented towards the adventure. There was some Dungeon adventure, a WIllie Walsh one I think, about a village of scribes tearing itself apart over the invention of a metal quill nib. Everyone you ran in to had an opinion … even, if you spoke with animals, a hedgehog. That’s what I mean by content oriented toward the adventure. In this case almost all of the encounters have something to do with the treasure hunt. Treasure hunters of all variety and people who know something about the legends. The city watch patrol like company to walk and talk, 70% of them know the legend, 10% know book clues and are gregarious fellows. To hire when their shift ends at sunset, perhaps? The orientation of the wandering monster encounters is focused ON THE PLAY AT THE TABLE. It’s not just random garbage that was pulled at random from a table in a DMG. This is value add. The extra detail on the walk & talk of the city guard. The orientation towards WHAT THE PLAYERS GIVE A SHIT ABOUT.

Those wanderers appear on two tables, a day and night table, that each take up a full page. This SCREAMS reference sheet. Print it out, two-sided, and you have a reference sheet available at all times for spicing up the partis travels and encounters in the city. Likewise I want to talk about the reference table for the rumors.

After a terse into of one column, the party starts at night under a portico at a courtyard wine bar. It’s loud, everyone is abuzz with dozens of people talking excitedly about something. That’s a good set up. It’s easy to imagine. What follows is a table of twelve entries that describes some of the people you can talk to. One group per line, with each line broken in to three columns. There’s a quick “who” column, that gives a brief appearance, first impressions for the DM to look at and consult. Then there’s a bit more information in the second column, about what the people talk about initially. Ice breakers and surface conversations, if you will. Finally there’s a longer third column that describes what they really know if you hang around and interact with them deeply, spending time talking, buying food/drinks, etc. From this the party learns the initial rumors as well as teasers for where to learn more information. That leads, in some cases, to the capers to steal books, maps, etc. The table is oriented to the DM and to the meaningful play at hand … the rumors and search for information.

Eventually, after perhaps a caper (again, the data about the caper locations are oriented towards what the party probably wants to know in order to break in/acquire the books.) it becomes a hunt to determine which of the myriad statues in the city is referenced in which clues in the book. The statues, again, are oriented toward actual play. We know from the first sentence where the statue is and then what it looks like and its role in the city, and then any complications with the statue are explored. One is covered in handbills and woe to be and murder hobo fucking with it … a mob ready to “defend free criticism” is ready to descend! Some are in private courtyards, one in a tomb. There’s are all little mini-adventure encounters all with the potential to spawn those zany player character plans that make D&D so great.

The little art pieces (from the web?) provide good inspirations. There are 3d outlines of houses for those scaling walls, and a myriad of other little small details that make the adventure easy to run and flavorful.

I’m fond of urban adventures and I’m fond of adventures that have a lot going on in them .. I think the chaos adds a great element to play in an adventure like this.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages long. You get to see the rumor table and the wandering table, both of which give you a good idea of their use as reference tables and the general vibe of the adventure, complications, and flavor.

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(PF) – Fen of the Five-Fold Maw

By Brian Berg & Skip Twitchell
Total Party Kill Games
Level 7

… delve deep into the Sorrowfen, an ancient swamp infested with lizardmen who have suddenly risen to threaten the beleaguered nearby village of Wyverglynn. The village needs aid from a aged witch that lives deep in the swamps and sends the heroes to seek her out. But will the swamp devour them before they can come to the aid of Wyverglynn, or will the fervored tribe of lizardmen within flay them alive?

ONE HUNDRED PAGES. FOR TEN LINEAR ENCOUNTERS. Words cannot describe the feeling in my stomach. THIS is what D&D means to people?

You go to a village in a swamp on some pretext. The villagers are having trouble and send you a witch in the swamp. From there you go to see a lizardman tribe who, of course, are now evil. You fight a big hydra-thing and then get chased back to the village, using chase rules.

So, yeah, obviously it’s overly verbose. Lone read-aloud. Long DM text. Mega long stat blocks. Lots of backstory and history that are irrelevant. The first encounter, an ambush on the road, takes seven pages. For a simple combat with some lizardmen and their pet frogomoth.

Getting to the village, the gates are closed and you need to roll to talk your way in. Roll badly enough and the guards attack you. A town guard attack is not automatically bad, but, in the content, it is. It’s a Roll To Continue. You MUST make your rolls in order to be let in to town and continue the adventure. Without success on a die roll the adventure is over before it begins.

There’s some chase rules The adventure says “After you complete your 24th chase challenge …” Seriously? 24 chase rolls?

It has some good ideas. The town guard not letting you in someplace is good. Making it a blocker isn’t. After all the party is 7th level and has considerable magicks at their disposal to turn this in to a fun exercise in working around the gate guards. There’s the potential for a GIANT maxx combat at the end, with at least a hundred lizardmen. This is the pretext for the chase; getting away from them. But … what if they were 1hd or 2hd lizardmen? Then it could be written as a pitched battle, letting the party stretch their legs instead of a bludgeon used to force a linear chase scene.

The party is sent by the village to go talk to the swamp witch. Turns out she’s a disguised hag. Sometimes she eats people in the swamp, but she also helps lost strangers and helps the village out. This is GREAT. Playing up that aspect would have been wonderful. It’s one of the reasons I like being able to talk to monsters in a dungeon, it presents another angle to play. Instead she’s obviously got a kidnapped girl in the hut and serves you a stew of fingers and toes. Well, duh, guess she’s evil, lets gack her. L.A.M.E. The town rumors are good also, in voice of the locals and fit in well. One of the hooks is also nice: someone in the party likes a beer and it not available anymore, you need to go the village to find out why. That’s a nice one to integrate in to play and is something to motivate a PLAYER. The other two, with a insane halfling and being hired are the usual dreck.

I just can’t get over how wordy this thing is. You can’t find anything in it, long stat blocks and meaningless text clog the thing up in a ridiculous manner.

This stinking pile is $10 on DriveThru. The preview is one of those “flip book” things, showing you the general page layout but nothing of the content.

And at fucking $10/pop for crap-ass PDF’s I’m going to have to put up a donate button or Patreon. This fucking shit is getting ridiculous.

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Crypts of Indormancy

By Ezra Claverie
Melsonian Arts Council

The tomb of Thuuz, Lord Nanifer, Elven General of the Western Isle, has been found. The Islanders he once exploited and terrorised would gladly hurl his bitter carcass back into the ocean. Others, hearing of an untouched crypt in the mountains, no doubt filled with all the pomp and pride of an aristocratic burial, arrive with less ideological motives for defilement.

This is an unconventional seventy digest-page adventure in an old elf tomb, about forty pages being devoted to the encounters … all ten of them. Kuntz is born again. Hidden depth abounds adding flavor at every turn, all seventy of them. But I don’t remember the hidden depth. I remember the weariness of page turning and trying to figure out what it going on.

There are ten encounters here, and they are essentially linear. The encounters run to the long side, with wide margins and large fonts helping some of the encounters to spread to four or more pages. The pages are organized well, generally one per topic, so if there’s a table in a room then one page will be devoted to the table and maybe another page devoted to the sword on the table, and so on. This gives almost a page worth of detail and background and history and Kuntz hidden depths to these objects. There’s a lot to explore and discover, with very little of it being more than window dressing.

But first, how about a couple of sentences from the first encounter, as the characters reach the top of a snowy couloir at the top of a mountain and see a state on a slab … “Passing this figure activates a phantasm: snow from the couloir above swirls down into a figure resembling the skeleton of a human infant some four meters long. It will crawl head first down the couloir, snapping toothless jaws.” Well, there’s something you don’t see every day! This is typical of the content and originality in the adventure. The rooms and objects are well detailed and slightly off the beaten D&D path, all of which I applaud. It’s not so alien or dark to be gonzo or a turn off to the mainstream crowd.

This adventure is crafted. It doesn’t engage in long-winded unfocused writing as most high page/low encounter adventures do. It is layered with depth, built up layer on layer. A singular vision of the designers making it the page. Can I admire and praise something while still not recommending it?

So, yeah, 40 pages describing ten encounters. The first fourteen or so pages describe some background and perfunctory islander civilization. “High level overview” would be an understatement. It’s just the vibe of an islander civilization. Part of what makes the adventure … compelling? is the setting. Almost-evil elves, no dwarves, little tips like “elfs are secretive, when PC elves retain secrets they get 250xp.” Specificity is the soul of narrative, and Ezra has that shit DOWN. It’s also so setting-specific that it’s probably impossible to integrate in to your game. Could you drop a Dark Sun adventure in, with their elves and dwarves? No? The content is excellent and I’d love to see a full on setting, but it’s fuck-all hard to deal with in an adventure. It reminds me of those historical D&D adventures in Dungeon. “A level 7 Holy Lands D&D adventure? How the fuck do I use that?”

The first real room has fresco’s on the walls. Interesting ones, with a history, that mean something culturally. And as far as I can tell have no impact on the adventure. After a couple of pages the last sentence is “On the floor on the north side of this archway sits the stub of a candle in a pool of congealed wax.” Yeah, it tells us someone was here. It’s a creepy detail. It helps it feel like a real place. All of it helps it feel like a real place. The two pages it takes to describe two dead bodies and their possessions (oilskin cloak, flint & steel) make it feel real. But Jesus fucking christ man …

Look, I want to emphasize that there’s a lot for a party to figure out. That’s VERY good. Players love figuring things out, even if it’s as simple as “oh, a candle, someone was here!” It’s also generally well organized (one thing per page, or so) and the shit is flavorful as all fuck. Those large margins and big fonts contribute to an easy to read zine-like vibe.

But fuck me, the length. I think the cracks really start to show in room 4, the Parlour. There’s more description here, especially around a wargaming table, than can be easily digested. And while most of the pages CAN be easily digested and related to the players on the fly, at least up until this point … well … the highlighting and note-taking increases a lot after this.

This thing screams ONE SHOT to me. Great for a convention game, once you digest the second half of the encounters. And digest and highlight you will, as things get more and more involved as you progress. It’s that … complexity of depth? in the second half that I think drags the entire work down. More effort in writing, editing, and presentation would have helped.

I’m keeping this to run at a con. Look, you can use this, but its unconventional format sometimes fights you and leaves you lost.

It’s $11 at DriveThru. The four page preview doesn’t show you anything. Bad Melsonian’s! No Boxing Day for you!

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Under Ruined Onm

By Joseph A. Mohr
Expeditious Retreat Press
Levels 5-7

Nearly seventy five years ago the greatest bard ever known in the dry land of Zanzia disappeared. Anton Deangelo was a hero famous for some of the greatest songs in Zanzian history. In verse, countless dragons he slew, dozens of giants he felled, and hundreds of demons he put to the sword! Outside of the world of song, he and his band of adventurers gathered significant riches and looted many dungeons all over the land. Then suddenly…he was gone. The last time he was heard from he and his merry band were outfitting an expedition to explore the ruined city of Onm in search of the lost Mandolin of Duaree the Mad. The Onm ruins are on the edge of the Blood River and the Dragon Teeth Mountains and no other ruins fabled enough to attract Deangelo are known to be in that area.

This seventeen page adventure details a three-level dungeon with about fifty rooms in it. The maps are basic and the writing fact-based, but it is full of classic elements like rotating statues, fountains to drink from, and riddles. Workmanlike, is a good description.

Travel to the ruins is nine days by foot or six days by horse, we’re told. It’s abstracted, since there’s no region/wilderness map. Wandering checks should be “made times a day with a 1 in 12 chance.” Yes, it’s left out. Worry not though! There are FOUR PAGES of wandering monster encounters. During the day on the road. During the night on the road. During the day off the road. During the night off the road. Each gets a little description, but they are generally not worth it. The ogres are true brutes of their kind and fight to the death. Joy.

That is, in a nutshell, the issue with this adventure. It tends to go on about the mundane without really telling you anything. If the ogres had a captive, or bargained, or almost ANY extra detail then the additional words would be worth it. But they don’t, and the words are just filler telling us nothing. A plague upon the industry, it is.

The dungeon, proper, is three levels. The creatures appear to live next door to each other, but in isolation. No factions, no how they got in to a room behind three other monsters. Look, I’m not searching for a fully blown dungeon ecology with entrances/exists, water, food, etc, I hate that stuff. But SOME design seems like it could be good?

Room 2 is “a large room with a 20’ ceiling. A pack of volts recently discovered a way in to the dungeon and taken up residence.” Well, that’s certainly evocative. A “large” room. Oh boy. The imagery runs rampant!

Most of the rooms in the dungeon are a combination of that ogre description and the volt room. A VERY basic room description and a very basic/generic monster description. There is sometimes a riddle or trick, like a rotating statue, or a treasure under a loose stone. Even those, I dare say, are not described very well.

But there ARE classic ideas present. Rotate a statue to point to a secret door to unlock it. A fountain you can drink from and a ghost king who can give you a wish. Great ideas! Implemented in a manner that is completely straightforward.

This is $14 on DriveThru. The preview is six pages. Most of it is the wandering monster tables but you do get to see room one and part of room two on the last page of the preview. ROom two is pretty typical, but a preview that showed one of the tricks would have been nice also, to get a feel for how the workmanlike writing translates in one of those rooms.

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The Lost Temple of Sharess

By Richard Reed
Level 1

Beneath the home of a wealthy merchant named Haroun, a floor suddenly collapses, revealing the entrance to a deep, dark cavern. But judging from the screams and laughter coming from below, this is more than a common cave. Will you conquer the long-forgotten horrors it holds? Will you discover fabulous treasures in its pitch-black passageways? And most importantly: will you learn the merchant’s own secrets before it’s too late?

This 32 pages adventure details a sixteen room ancient temple found underneath someone’s basement. Mountains of read-aloud and DM text, each room being a page or more long, hide a basic dungeon with tricks, traps, and classic features.

The intro is 8 pages, describing useless backstory that will never come up during play. The read-aloud for each room is about two paragraphs long, followed by reams and reams of DM text. For room two this is a page and a half of DM text. This is way WAY too much. Players hate read-aloud. They hate monologues. They hate not being able to PLAY. Wasn’t there an article by WOTC that players lose interest after three sentences? Which is three times shorter than the read-aloud in the rooms in this.

Then there’s the DM text. Almost everything feels like padding. “As the players enter, this is what they see [read-aloud.] Really? Did you really need that? “The beetles are giant fire beetles.” We know, you’ve told us twice so far. An aside tell us “It might be fun to make the party guess what the liquid is, but in fact, it’s just water–holy water.” A paragraph is used to tell us that writing at the bottom of a basin has the name of the Sharess, the temple goddess. This happens a bajillion times in the adventure and HAS NOT IMPACT. Who the temple belongs to is irrelevant, the information is never needed. And even if it were we don’t need to be told multiple times OR the explanation to take a paragraph.

More is not better. More gets in the way of the DM. The goal is to communicate information evocatively and effectively to a DM scanning the text as the players walk in to the room. Data like “once there was a statue here, but it was removed” is just useless trivia that makes things harder for the DM to run the adventure.

Which is too bad because it’s not altogether a terrible adventure. Each room has a little mini-map at the top. The basic guts have things like two NPC’s hiding from the monsters and who will join your group if you find them, or a holy water basin, or skeletons in a sarcophagus that will animate, with the sarcophagus in a alcove. Bodies in the bottom of a pit trap. There are A LOT of good elements present to work with … but it feels like the text is fighting you tooth and nail to figure out what’s going on, simply because of the wordiness.

This thing needs a HARD edit, getting rid of almost 2/3rd’s of the words. The remaining text would then be relevant to the adventure and easy to focus on, as the DM. Then you’d have a basic dungeon exploration.

This is PWYW on DriveThu, with the price currently at $4. The preview is about six pages long, and the last page shows you the first page of the 1.5 page long “room 2.” It’s a good representative example of the type of writing in the adventure.

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Dungeon Full of Monsters

By Johnstone Metzger
Red Box Vancouver
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 1-

EDIT: The morning after writing this review I feel guilty. MAN, I’m a hard ass these days! The first 10% of this was a turn off and some of the rooms lack purpose. If you can deal with that, and the modular nonsense, then it’s a good dungeon.

This is a 352 digest-page modular megadungeon with five levels and 51 different little dungeon map areas to connect together. About 180 of those pages describe the dungeon with the first thirtyish being into data and the last ~140 or so describing all of the new monsters. Special attention has been paid to usability and art, especially for the monsters. The modularity doesn’t really add anything and a few too many rooms come off as “just throwing some rando shit at the wall.” Still, this is a great effort and is hovering around a C+/B-, and you could justify a purchase based on it being a monster manual alone if you were in to such things.

Most of the layout of this book is great. It uses a “facing pages” layout os the map is primarily on one page and the encounter keys are on the facing page. In addition to room numbers, red lines are sometimes drawn from the room description to the room on the map, or small little notes appear on the map. This is GREAT design, putting a lot of what a DM needs right in front of their face, and is a great alternative to the “map on the DM screen and encounter keys on the table” format. Note that both put the map right in front of the DM’s face as well as the encounter keys.

It has a couple of other tricks up its sleeves as well, when it comes to usability. Here’s the description of the second room:
2. Worship Hall
This hall is empty. A secret door at the bottom of the stairs is camouflaged by tiles.
• Black and white tiled floors and walls. • Defaced statues of forgotten gods.
• Doric columns. • Smells like dust. • Very high, fan vaulted ceiling.

Note the use of the bullets to communicate impressions of the room. It’s a fast and effective way to communicate a general vibe and let the DMs brain fill in the rest. I REALLY like this format of communicating information. Note also the focused and short DM text that appears above the bullets. It all gets in and out fast and is easy to scan and then summarize/communicate to the party. This is EXACTLY what a room description is supposed to do. The text also has cross-references to direct the DM to specific page numbers for more information, an invaluable addition to usability.

Not all of the rooms use this format and, frankly, I think the ones that don’t are missing out and come off as weaker descriptions. Further, that description for room two is a bit generic in places and could use a second pass. “Very” is a very bad word. 🙂 Towering, cyclopean, there are lots of replacements that could replace the generic “very high,” I’m not overly fond of the abstraction in “forgotten gods” either, but at least the gods are not “very forgotten.”

The text also uses bold to call attention to certain words. “A glow and be ceen from further inside the cave.” Another effective technique, although I could again quibble a bit on its use. The bolding overloaded a bit too much. Keywords and concepts as well as creatures are bolded. In a couple of room statues are bolded. “The two headed diva statue is against a …” This being D&D … that could be a monster. Is it a monster? You don’t actually know until you go check the back of the book for the monster list. By bolding both monsters and keywords you sometimes confuse. A different treatment for monsters, sticking a ‘*’ in front of monsters, some other technique, etc could have been used to help with the confusion.

Monsters are very good and treasure pretty decent also. Monsters get either a full digest page description with art on the facing page or a one page description with the art integrated to the page. “Savage beasts tearing limbs from their victims and blubbering like children as they go about their assaults”, so says the first line of the Blubbering Manglers. Note that the focus here, the very first line, is directly applicable to using the monster at the table. It’s not some generic background/history/origin shit, but rather something that the DM can use AT THE TABLE while running the creature. The art for the monsters has a certain Low Life/Andy Hopp vibe which I find quite evocative, it again doing a great job of lending impressions of monsters. The number of +1 swords is on the low side while the “200# rhinocorn statues” and gold chains decorated with tiny rhinocorns” are on the high side. A lot of the magic swords, in particular, have that OD&D “and they do something else” quality to them. +1/+5 vs dragons, and so on. The magic items could use a little more work to bring them up to the monsters & mundane treasure lequalityvels, but they are better than generic book items.

The encounters are hit and miss. The Ghost Pool is made up of the ghosts of people who died in a certain area. Pretty cool. Even cooler? There’s a little section on what happens when you take a drink! (Why the hell do you think there were so many wish items in the early versions? In case drinking from the ghost pool was a bad idea you could reverse it!) Those sorts of things are great, but for each of those that are present there’s at least another room that seems … random. A pool of blood randomly shows up in a room. A strange smell. There’s a bit too much emphasis on window dressing There was a platonic example of this in the Dwimmermount draft, a room with two ghost chess players. Just two ghost images playing chess. You couldn’t interact with them in any way and they contained no clues or mysteries to solve. You can get away with a little of that in a dungeon but too much and I think the players start to not care anymore. And there’s a non-trivial amount of that in this dungeon. There’s a statue and if you touch it then you see the statue out of the corner of your eye at random intervals over the next two days. That’s it. Nothing else.

This extends in to the wandering monsters. While most are just names of creatures there is also a “special” list. “A pair of resh severed hands.” Well, ok I guess. How does that advance play? There are some decent examples that can drive play, like a local child lost in the dungeon, but they are all rather weak.

In fact, I’d say the entire thirty-ish page lead up to the dungeon-proper is weak. How to read the stat blocks, the wanderers, how to use the modular nature, and some friends and foes to spice things up.

The friends and foes, a kind of combination of potential hooks and things to spice up the non-dungeon aspects, are a good example of what I’m now calling abstracted content. It’s not actually aimed at the players. The church of law is just a generic LG church without any specifics. Or Mary the lizard wants you to go get some thing, and if you look in to her then she’s actually been hired by (a random table.) The content isn’t actually aimed at play. The church is generic, Mary’s backgrounds CAN be used to expand play, if you put some work in to it, but it’s not directed, specifically, at play. They lack the specificity that would allow the DM to, on the fly, insert them in to the game.

The “modular” nature is the weird part. I have no idea why this is modular. All that does is confuse things; it doesn’t add anything at all. Some fine person should hack up a permanent version.

This is an not a bad megadungeon … it’s just not stellar. I’m not a fan of the supporting material in the first thirty pages, but fuck it, you can just ignore it. It feels like a generic add-on to the main content (the dungeon & monsters) anyway. The organization of this is top notch, are are the monsters. The encounters proper could use a little work, as could some of the descriptions. It could do a better job providing a summary of what’s going on in the dungeon, specifically. It’s REALLY large for an on-the-fly figuring out of stuff.) When the encounters are good they are really good, and the rest of the content, rando window dressing or not, isn’t too offensive. It WILL fit the needs of a lot of people, it’s just not best of the best. It’s one of those I-Wish-Everything-Were-At-Least-This-Good.

This is $15 for the PDF at DriveThru, with hard/soft available for ~$50. The preview is quite long and shows you the (not useful) background, several dungeon sections, and several monsters. Note the great use of color and notes on those maps and some of those great monster illustrations.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 11 Comments

Fever Swamp

By Luke Gearing
Melsonian Arts Council
LotFP/All D&D
Level ?

The air is moist. The moisture mixes with your sweat — the heat is relentless. The drone of insects gives you headaches, and the fever from the infected wounds has left you delirious. Your raft is damaged, and there are spirits in the trees. … You’ve only been here for three days.

This is a 32 page (half appendices) hex crawl in a swamp with about fourteen encounters. It’s evocative and creative and FEELS like a swamp adventure. Well organized and almost dream-like, it presents a weird vision of a swamp in which nearly every aspect feels right. A few encounters suffer from their brevity and a devotion to format, but otherwise this is full of stuff you can work with. It’s more like an actual “module”, a place that simply exists without plot that the DM can twist to their will.

The swamp is 8×12 hexes each 18 miles wide, with fourteen encounters and a robust wanderers table to keep things moving. The hooks are covered in one paragraph and are a little better than most. In particular, there’s someone in the swamp, a scholar, with a bounty on his head. Searching the swamp for him gets the party moving in and through it and discovering other objects. There’s also an oracle, which I’ve always found great for command words for wands, where’s the hand of vecna, etc.

The cover pretty accurately depicts the swamp. There’s an oracular succubus (more like an invisible nymph, I’d say) , a suicidal swamp witch, scumboggle hives, stilt walkers, candle thieves, and so on. This thing is hitting on all cylinders when it comes to interesting and evocative encounter names. The candlthieves are the spirits of lost children desperate for a light to lead them home, pacified with sweet treats. They steal lights and try not to fight. Sweet! The head of the Ghost Olm (?!) can be worn and used to lie once to any entity which will always believe the lie no matter the evidence. A) Nice thing to go looking for and B) Sweet ass magic item!) It does this over and over and over again. The swamp witch is kind of fused to a tree, and begs for death, guarded by demon familiars who want to keep her alive … but she knows everything about the swamp and will trade the info for death. These are all strong, strong ideas.

It can also be inconsistent in places. There’s an encounter with “Hunger, the Crocodile” that has had a spirit fused with it. It’s just a giant croc though, nothing special about the encounter at all. That feels out of place given the gameable extras that most encounters have. There’s also a few encounters that feel too short. There’s a small village, up on stilts, that is less than half a page (not counting NPC’s) and that’s digest pages at that. Likewise a fallen monastery is half a digest page … though there’s a huge fungus colony in the flooded catacombs. Both places are a little too large for the more … abstracted? encounter descriptions that they get. The format works great, except when too short or the encounter too ‘big’.

And the village … I don’t know. The NPC’s feel a little disconnected from it. More like disconnected pieces than a whole. The NPC motivations feel a bit more abstracted; making them more action oriented, toward the party, would have helped here a lot. This strengthens the theme of the larger, more complex areas being the weaker areas and/or being hampered by the half-page-ish encounter. (There’s a dungeon that spans several pages that doesn’t have this problem though. I suspect it’s because it spans several pages.)

Still, it does a good job. It cross-references the rumor table with the focus of the rumor, letting you fill in details. It’s easy to scan almost all of the encounters. It has a great short paragraph on describing the misery of the swamp. The swamp people are organized in to small tribes and it has a very evocative table on making them weird. Almost like shudder mountain for swamp … if a little weirder.

This is $8 on DriveThru. You can see good examples of cross-references in the text and rumor table on page two of the preview, with a great overview of swamp misery on pages three as well as those great wandering monster encounter names.

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5e – Death in the Cornfields

by Merric Blackman
Level 4

A scarecrow in a field can be a little unnerving, but what if the scarecrow is actually a young man close to death? Why has he been left to die, and what dark secrets do the farmlands hold?

Now that Dungeon Magazine is over I’m moving over to Pathfinder and/or 5e on the day we make sacrificer to Saturn. And if you’re a purist who doesn’t like it then piss off; I deserve a reward for all the suffering I endured in Dungeon. Although … I’m not sure why reviewing 5e/Pathfinder is a reward. Can’t you get an Enduring Hardship reward in Tales of the Arabian Nights?

This is a four page horror adventure, with one page being the title page. It could be one page. There’s almost certainly not enough here for an evenings play, but this were a road encounter or a wandering monster event in another adventure then I’d be gushing over it.

The party finds a teen tied up like a scarecrow in a field, relating that his possessed parents did it after he came home from friends. Lookin in on the friends finds a bloody scene with them dragged from their beds and decapitated. The parents are grief stricken when confronted, eventually perhaps noting that their son and his friends had been bitten by a vampire. Then the kid turns in to a vampire at sunset and tries to kill everyone.

“We left our son to die with the sun and decapitated his friends” is absolutly horror. The situations and scenes speak of terrible things and the imagery supports it well. Bloody footprints trail off in to a muddy trail that leads through a wheat field to the parents home … wheat fields as far as the eye can see, reinforcing the isolation and desolation.

Merric’s writing is good, even most of his read-aloud. “The afternoon is cold, wet and drizzle.” I think we’ve all suffered through one of THOSE afternoons. In fact, here’s his opening read-aloud in toto: “The afternoon is cold, overcast and drizzly as you make your way along the road. Around you are fields of wheat, stretching as far as the eye can see. The clothes of an ill-made scarecrow flap in the cold breeze.” Short, evocative. It doesn’t tell the party they are miserable, it represents data which will then cause them to think they are miserable. It doesn’t tell them they are in a desolate land. It shows them endless fields of wheat and lets THEM draw the isolation and desolation conclusion. Tis is quite strong writing.

And then he goes and FUCKS IT UP. Here’s the second and last paragraph: “Suddenly, you become aware of a moan coming from the scarecrow. Looking more closely, you realise that it’s a young man tied to a stake. What do you do?” That’s the same old generic bullshit read-aloud that we’ve all come to know and loathe. The word “Suddenly” has never been used well in read-aloud. Never. Ever. Have I read everything? No, obviously not, but I can assure you it is the mark of an amateur. Likewise the “Way do you do?” nonsense. It reminds me of a Choose Your Own adventure book written at a third grade level. When the text addresses the players the read-aloud sucks balls. And I don’t mean that in a good way.In another read-aloud section there’s a hovel with the door standing open. The text ends “Has something happened here?” If the read-aloud were good the players would all be thinking and asking each other that. By telegraphing it you break that sense of player accomplishment of figuring out the tony mystery of the door being opening signifying something happened.

There’s some gimpy shit in the adventure. Kid is left out in thew sun to burn to death, but the sky is too overcast to impact him. Hrumph. The parents saw the signs of a vampire attack, but its all healed by the time the party see him strung up as a scarecrow. Hrumph. I’ll accept his bad memory of the evening before, especially if Merric had put a big lump on his head, but the overcast and healing are pushing the suspension of disbelief just a little too far.

It’s a grim adventure. Parents make a terrible choice and are heartbroken over it. The bloody scene at the friends house. Potentially killing a teen who has not yet turned, knowing that he WILL turn, or at least suspecting it. Your friend was just bit by a zombie. Do you let them turn or kill them now? A hard choice in every zombie movie. (Except Fear the Walking Dead, where they are all too stupid to live, and Walking Dead, where your friend dies of boredom first.)

I take exception with the length. This could easily be one page long and I’d pay the same price for it. It’s padded with that sixth grade D&D writing style iwhich assumes every DM is fucktard with no ability to add 1+1. Some more personality for the boy, the dead friends, the parents, all would have gone a long LONG way to adding some lives role-play to the adventure. In the Good Place tv show Janet the hologram pulls out a sonogram and say “I’m pregnant!” in order to keep someone from resetting her. That’s the kind of stuff that would have been nice as details for the parents or kid. They across as just generic commoners and that’s too bad; its a miss to add yet another emotional heart tug to the adventure.

Backstory about the family once being prosperous and thus they once had a large nice farm and now that they are smaller its in ill repair is useless. It adds nothing.

Nice imagery. Brings the horror. Needs to be written for a fucking adult instead of ESL sixth graders.

It’s $1 at DMsGuild. There’s no preview. No previews make me sad. 🙁

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