Dread Machine

By Gus L.
Self Published
Labyrinth Lord
Level 3-6

This 52 page adventure describes a cavern and the machine at the heart of it, that can resurrect the dead. Three’s a small region presented around it, with the cavern locale having about five encounter areas, each with about five more keys, and then the main area with about twenty-one keys. Gus has a very descriptive and evocative writing style, although it gets verbose. The maps are cramped, but the entire thing is imaginative and full of interesting rooms to get in to trouble. He does a great job on imagination but this could use a good trim to make scanning/use at the table easy.

I sometimes talk about hooks appealing to players, and this adventure is a good example of that. Anything can be a quest, but if you can integrate your adventure in to what the PLAYERS want then they’ll be a lot more motivated to not jack around and be involved in the adventure. At some point resurrecting the dead is going to come up, either because of some plot of the characters or because one of them died. That’s where this adventure comes in to play: it features a giant machine rumored to bring back the dead. And it does! Instead of it being a screw job the party can instead find a machine that uses souls to bring the dead back to life. The ‘souls’ thing is going to limit it’s power, but even that opens up more hooks for the players. This is more than the usual fetch quest or hired by blah blah blah to do something. There’s personal interest at stake.

Gus does a good job with creating evocative environments with his writing, interesting things in the room/areas to interact with, and encounters in which there is potential energy. Farmers, hunting the party for a perceived slight, led by Pops Bonder. Zombies lurching hungrily, trailing eviscerated innards. A black pueblo under a curving cliff wall. A room braced with massive tree trunks waxed to a high sheen. An artificial wall covered in a maze of gears, pistons and metal plates. Gus presents a situation and dares you to go forward, giving the players a choice in their doom. An obvious blade trap over a door invites you to climb the wall and try to disarm it. A room has a whirling vortex of blue energy. A catwalk is covered with a slick oil … with a tantalizing view at the other end. The encounters invite the players in to them, almost daring them, tempting them.

The entire place feels coherent, alive. The farmers in the surrounding barren yellow plains make sense. The caves around the Dread Machine fit in with the farmers and the machine. The rooms of the machine are tied back with theming that’s obvious and not buried. The place feels different but not in a gonzo manner … at least until the machine proper is reached. The treasure, both mundane and magical, get just enough description to make interesting and more than throw-away items. A destroyed staff of the magi with some power remaining (inside a blast crater in the mud), a lump of golden metal (formerly a delicate thaumaturgical calculator), a gold ceremonial shark mask inlaid with mother of pearl.

The writing, colorful and evocative as it is, is also verbose. We’re not talking Dungeon Magazine standards, but it’s not uncommon for there to be two encounters per page, each being about half a page. There’s a header/summary at the start of each, so it’s not quite as bad as I imply, but it is still quite lengthy. The Secret Shrine has four paragraphs of text to describe a shrine with a treasure hidden in an idol. Two paragraphs paint a rich picture of the room while two more describe the hiding place and the treasure. “If the totem’s head, a twenty pound hollow ovoid of iron plate with indistinct features, is placed on the altar, the altar’s secret compartment slides open with a hissing gush of steam” That’s a great description. Or “Above the altar is a rough metal totem cobbled together from plates of black iron, welded and joined with thumb sized rivets.” Again, another great description. Almost EVERY sentence is a great description. But there are too many. It makes it hard to scan the text and find what you need to describe NOW.

There’s an attempt to mitigate this with a header section for each room. It describes the rooms appearance, smell, lighting, traps, treasure, and inhabitants in a little offset section. In theory this would be great. In practice … not so much. The summary attempts/descriptions are not particularly strong. “A dusty shrine to evil gods. Racks of skulls line the walls around crude totem and alter. Secret door on East wall to #3.” Both the initial “dusty shine” sentence and the “secret door” sentence are redundant. Instead telling us it’s a “crude black iron welded crude humanoid totem” and an “chromed sacrificial altar with pipes”, or something similar, would have helped. The players just walked in. What do I need NOW? Then the summary can kick in. And while they debate I can then scan the main text, which can call out important features with bold, or underline, or reformat so the more important sections are near the front of the sentence. That there fancy font don’t contribute to readability either.

The maps are a bit of a pain also. They range from half-page to third page creations. “The Black Pueblo” gets a little half-page isometric thing, trying to show the interior and exteriors of a location with ceiling access on moth rooms. The shading used to do that makes it seem a little busy. The map of the main location, a traditional map, has four levels snugged in to about a third of a page. It’s readable, but just, and a squinty chore that doesn’t exactly contribute to ease of use.

This is grade A highlighter fodder. It’s evocative. It’s got loads of interesting encounters. But it’s too verbose, which tends to hide what is going on in the rooms. The writing needs more focus on the editing side. I LUV those painting with a lot going on in them, every time you look you see something new. This adventure is like those paintings. Wondrous to enjoy, but if I tried to give you directions using the painting you’d get lost.

It’s free at Dungeon of Signs blog. Take a look at page eight for a nice wandering monster table, full of color. Pages eleven and eighteen have good sample maps to illustrate my points. The Secret Shrine room is on page twenty. Take a look at the summary section and then revel in the descriptions underneath.

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The Tall Witch

By David Pigndolli
Daimon Games
Level 1

It presents a classic adventure, with a mission assigned to the characters by the priest of a small village, and rumors of the coming awakening of the terrible Tall Witch.

This 26 page Pay What You Want “adventure” has five encounters, each with a witch, filling about twelves of its pages. The witches are interesting. The magic items are interesting. I just can’t get over the page count.This is wrong of me. It’s Pay WHat You Want.

Every 333 years a witch hatches fully grown from a giant egg near this certain village. The villagers then get terrorized. The time has come and the local priest has declared a big rock on the sea shore to be the egg. The party needs to go fuck it up. On the way there you either meet a young lady who’s mule is broken or a young lady drowning off the shore, if you approach by boat. You find the egg missing. On the way up the cliffs you meet three more young ladies, all witches.

The witches are fairly interesting. All dressed in strangely nice gowns … a tip off if ever there was one. The first pretending to be lost on the road, her mule having a broken leg nearby. SHe leads the party in to quicksand, the purple flower in her hair allowing her to walk on quicksand. The second pretends to be drowning near the shore, wearing a gown of sea algea. They come off as more sorceresses and have a fine OD&D feel; they’d fit in great in Isle of the Unknown with their weird powers and such. One, when she dies, leaves a pool of water that never dries up. Nice. Each witch encounter takes two to three pages to describe, with a generous margin, font, and random tables.

Treasure includes the aforementioned flower that lets you walk over quicksand, eggshell pieces that could allow you to teleport, and the bronze head of a child that talks to you and if you feed it blood can do more.

The location of the witches is the most confusing part. One on the road, one at the base of the cliff, and three more on the way up to the top of the cliff? This is more of a point-crawl/scene based adventure, but I found it impossible to visualize the witches in relation to each other. IN a 26 pages adventure you’d think that even a small ¼ page map could be included.

It’s hard to bitch too much about a PWYW. Yanking the witches and/or the village to dump in to something else would be nice; I do find the OD&D nature of the witches nice. Then again, this could easily be a 1-pager, or 1-page front & back, STILL be PWYW, and lose very little of its flavor

Is it your bag baby? Fuck it, It’s PWYW and I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less.
The preview on DriveThru is 26 pages long: the entire adventure. Page 7 has the “hook” with the village. Page 8 has the first witch and the first few paragraphs are worth looking over to get a feel for the “airiness” of the witches. The next page, none, gives a good example of the extra detail that bumps up the word count: tables for attack & disease.

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Dungeon Magazine #135

I have a headache and I twisted my neck last night. This issue isn’t helping.

Funeral Procession
By Mark A. Hart
Level 1

This is one of the stooopidiest things I’ve ever seen. You’r guarding a funeral procession. There’s a diversion. The hearse is diverted. The body in the hearse is replaced. The original is shrunk. A raven familiar flies away with it. The town is in an uproar because of it toso the watch can’t search for the famous escaped serial killer. How much fucking crap are you going to engage in to push forward your crappy plotline ‘story’? It gets better. The hearse drive is paid off and there’s a thug in the back of the hearse. In spite of all of the dire warnings the party gets i the hooks, about worries of the body being stolen, etc, I guess the party didn’t ride the hearse, burn the body in advance, drive the hearse, or anything else. I guess that don’t jive with the ‘story.’ At there are columns of read-aloud, long NPC motivations and backstories, and and it’s event based … For some reason the party cares and gets lead by the nose to a slaughterhouse stuffed full of baddies. The … passivity that a party would have to engage in in to not derail the adventure … I can‘t imagine.

That gives me a good idea. I should start a ‘DERAIL” events at the gaming cons. Take a linear adventure and the META rule is to derail it, while the DM tries to keep it on track. Or the DM rolls with it. “On track” makes it a fun contest but, of course, the DM always wins.

Chains of Blackmaw
By Nicolas Logue
Level 10

A mess of a prison break adventure. You’re hired t go to jail and watch the back of a new prisoner. Event-based, with long room/key and even longer NPC stat blocks and motivations. It needs a table summarizing the NPC’s, about 60% less text with the room keys, a table showing events and timelines. I can’t imagine the tenth level party who says “Yes! Let’s get rid of all our gear and go to jail for little to no reward!” Ok, fess, up, who has waded through all the text in this adventure to run it? What do you have to do to? How many pages of notes?

Dawn of a New Age
By Tito Leati
Level 20
Oh god … Age of Worms adventure path. At least it’s the last one: Kyuss shows up. You’ve got the Hand of Vecna. You’ve got two parts of the Rod of Seven Parts. You’re given a Sphere of Annihilation. You’re given three opportunities to undertake quests to weaken Kyuss before he shows up. He’s AC 59 and has 660 HP … a 3e Level 20 creature in all it’s unwieldy glory. Note that nothing you’ve done thus far will prevent Kyuss from arriving. That’s impossible. All you can do is kill him. As an exercise for the reader: Rewrite the entire Age of Worms adventure path to be a sandbox/regional thing using only 20% of the words. Your reward is a Cease & Desist.

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Forgotten Fane of the Coiled Goddess

By Joseph D. Salvador
North Wind Adventures
Levels 5-7

More than a month ago, your party found itself in Port Zangerios, where you heard of an Esquimaux thief selling a treasure map. Low on wealth but high in courage, you sought him out. The man turned out to be a fearful ex-slave who had “acquired” the map from his Ixian master. The map is incomplete but shews the Isle of the Serpent in far-off Lemuria, where rests a fabulous treasure called the Feathered Crown of Nanasa (or so thought the Ixian). Pooling your money to purchase the unfinished map, you bought passage on an Amazonian trade ship. After passing through tempests and torrential rains that shimmered with auroral light, you have come to the great city of Jhaman Ket. Now you must seek out the location of the Isle of the Serpent.

This is a sixty page hexcrawl/lost temple adventure on a jungle island with dinosaurs. It has a short eight page section on Lemuria, ten pages of new monsters appendices, etc, and the main hex crawl and titular temple in thirty four pages. It follows an “expansive minimally keyed format”, falling in to some of the usual traps with expansive text. The snake temple map is interesting enough, looking like a “main hallway with room s off of it” design but offering multiple entrances and the “Conan hole” in the ceiling. It comes off as bland.

I won’t cover the Lemuria fluff. Fluff is fluff and you either like it or you don’t. It does an ok job describing the general region of Lemuria, politics, towns, etc. It tends to the historical and overly specific “Round shields of iron and bronze are both in use …” I like my fluff different, driving action and all full of mystery.

For the main adventure, comparisons to Isle of Dread are inevitable. Be they inspired by the same Appendix N texts or simply hitting on the same themes, Dread was the first hex crawl many saw, it was on a jungle island, and had a ruined temple. Combine those elements, as this adventure does, and Dread comparisons are inevitable. The island hex crawls are, essentially, the same. Dinos, jungle, etc. There’s no friendly villagers and the temple at the center of the island, on a plateau, is more organized and less abandoned. Otherwise, you hex crawl through the jungle, see dinos, and try to not die.

The wandering monsters are rolled once an hour on a d6, with a 1 indicating a monster. That’s four encounters a day, on average. Certainly not EVERYTHING is hostile, there are some herbivore dinos, for example, but the rate is high, it seems to me. The island IS only 3 miles across, with six hexes to the mile, so a party with their ass in gear should mitigate most of that. Camping is going to be a bitch though.

There are heat rules. I have an ancient enmity with environmental rules. They always sound great but they tend to be cumbersome in practice. In this, every two hours you need to make a CON text or be exhausted and rest an hour, if you are encumbered or wearing metal armor. That’s one way to get people out of their armor: tedium. I don’t disagree with the theming, just the tedium required to get to the end result. Which brings up an interesting point. Given the focus on the wanderers every hour, and the heat checks every two hours, it seems unusual that movement rates are not covered. Each hex being 275 yards, it seems natural that a movement rate chart would be included on, say, the island hex map. Movement, and what you can see from your hex, are key elements in a good hex crawl that are missing here.

I think we can all agree Dread was minimally keyed and tersely written, except perhaps for sections dealing the customs of the villagers. I think the adventure here is also minimally keyed, but in contrast to Dread it’s verbosely written. Common elements are expanded upon in at text style that emphasizes plain factual data. Some North Wind adventures have a very tortured writing style that feels forced. I’m a fan of esoteric words and larger vocabulary in adventures, but I’ve come to expect to see this implemented in a cumbersome way in the usual North Wind adventure. This one has the opposite problem. The descriptions are plain to the point of being a killjoy … but the text goes on forever. The wandering monster table is three and half pages long, each monster getting its own stat block and short description. “Weighing up to 500 pounds, these seven- foot-long chamæleonic amphibians catch prey with their sticky tongues and can swallow a full-grown man whole.” Uh huh. You mean exactly what’s included in the stat block below that description? Occasionally there is a bright point like “giant ticks drop from trees”, but it’s generally this kind of non-useful text. It doesn’t really drive the adventure anywhere.

Similarly, there is an emphasis, in places, on historic uses for rooms. “This room USED to be used for …” or “In antediluvian times there were runes here …” These don’t help. They instead obfuscate other words which MIGHT help run the adventure. Now. Right Now. What’s of use to a DM running a party in the room RIGHT. NOW. A room that says “Study: Sometimes Bob used to read books here.” is not useful. That’s what a study is, a place where you hang out and perform study-like activities. We know that from the room name.

The encounters can be LONG, to little effect. Room three of the temple is a normal guardroom. Nothing really special. Snake-man pictograms on the ceiling. The text is a column long. An intro paragraph telling us the room is 20×30 (which we know from the map) and it’s got a 15’ ceiling (irrelevant to the adventure and doesn’t really set a mood at all) and then three GIANT stat blocks that look like they came straight out of the bad old days of 3e and/or Pathfinder. It ends with another paragraph telling us where the exits lead to which, again, we already know from the map. A column of text. This sort of expansive use of text for “normal” things is perhaps the adventures greatest fault. The temple has interesting layout for what is, essentially, a linear hallway, but the emphasis is on the mundane instead of the unusual. There’s a giant jeweled idol in one area, the kind every adventurer dreams of prying the jeweled scales off of. We’re told that desecrating the idol should causes curses and misfortunes as the DM sees fit. But, THAT’S what the fuck we’re paying the designer for! We’re not paying to be told that a room is 30×20 feet. We can see that from the fucking map. We’re paying for the unusual, the interesting, the imaginative. A constructed world of interlocking parts. We’re not paying to be told to roll for our treasure or make out own snake-god themed curses. A cult village doesn’t need to have gonzo elements to be good. But it doesn’t need five pages, as this one does, if all you’re going to tell us is the mundane. Placing an emphasis on how the party will interact is where the effort should have been spent. Guards. Patrols. Things to thwart sneaking around. To get to the temple, and so on.

The preview, on DriveThru, is only four pages long. It doesn’t really show you anything of the text you’re likely to encounter in the adventure. That’s not a very effective preview. It does include the table of contents, which is helpful, such that it is.

I’m disappointed with this adventure. Thus far, I’m pretty sure that the best AS&SH adventure I’ve seen has been the Crypts & Things adventure Blood of the Dragon. If you know of a better one then stick it in the comments. I don’t feel like anything I’ve seen so far lives up to the potential of AS&SH and I’d like to make sure I’m giving it a fair shake.

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The Forge of Ilmarinen

By Jeremy Reaban
Self Published
Levels 5-7

Ilmarinen the Eternal Hammerer was once widely worshipped by primitive people, whom he taught how to work metal. But once they had his knowledge, his worship was largely forgotten and his temple declined and was of course overrun by monsters.

This sixteen page adventure in an old “smith god” complex has sixteen encounters spread out over four pages, with another for the map and the rest of the pages being appendix material in the rear: new monsters and magic items. It is mostly a hack with only a couple of exploratory items. Nice treasure and all new monsters make this smarter than your average bear. The text has a weird thing going on where it is both to the point and padded out … a seeming contradiction.

Too many magic swords? Come on down to Big Ilmarinen’s temple and we’ll take care of it for you! We’ll destroy two of your magic swords and channel the power in to a third! The +1 sword glut can be a common game problem for some. Combined with the lust over higher ‘pluses’, the existence of a place like this temple is almost a hook unto itself. It motivates the PLAYER rather than character … and those are the best hooks of all. The actual hooks are pretty shitty: stumble across it, hired to investigate, or hear a rumor about it. Ok, the second one isn’t that bad since its related to that quality of player power envy. Just dropping a rumor, or crafting some failed expedition or some such is a decent way of introducing the place. You’ll get little help from the adventure through; the entire introduction is a column. I love a terse introduction and this one has it. Three sentences on background, three on hooks, and a short section on general dungeon conditions before the adventure keys start at the top of the second column. Perfect for an adventure like this. I might have suggested tightening it up even more, cutting the lame hooks and hook intro paragraph, and using the space freed to add a bit of color to the “tavern rumor” hook. But, still, terse and doesn’t get in the way.

The encounters are almost all straightforward hacks. Enter a room. See a monster. It attacks. There’s a place for this, but the over reliance on it detracts from adventures. All but one of the non-trivial encounters is a hack. Had the rooms been layered a bit more it would have been much better. What I mean is having additional elements in a room. If the room has monster then maybe it also has trap. Or there’s something unrlated to the monster to investigate. Or the monster attacks WHEN you do something … like fucking with the hole its living in. There are skeletons on a table in this adventure. When you come in to the room the skeleton heads detach, flame on, and then attack. That sends the wrong message. If, instead, FUCKING with the skeletons caused their heads to fly off then you’re closer to room that works better. Better yet, if you put an obvious ruby in the skeletons mouth THEN you’ve got a great situation. The players want the ruby. EVERYONE knows what’s going to happen when they fuck with that ruby. They get to make the choice. A very tempting choice to push the shiny shiny red cherry button … Madcap plans are created. D&D happens.

The writing is also a bit weird. It’s pretty fact based, which is what I think I mean when I cite it as “straightforward.” But it’s also got a pretty loose writing style that I think detracts from the adventure. Room four notes that: (bolding mine)

“Along the eastern wall are a stack of twelve kegs, three rows of four each. The curious thing is that the kegs are made out of an unusual metal, not wood. Half of the kegs are empty. The others may be opened, and if so, out comes a very skunky beer, long past its prime.

Along the western wall are two crates, both made of wood. The southern crate is opened and inside is empty, save for some straw like material. The northern crate is unopened. If opened, it will reveal 8 smaller sealed cases, each containing 50 rolls of summer sausage (1 lb. each). Amazingly, it’s still edible.”

What this entry does is describe a typical storeroom. We all know what a typical storeroom looks like. There is no significance to the crates being on the western wall, or being made of wood. There is no significance to the southern crate being open. Looking at those first three sentences, if they were replaced with a different description, or did not exist at all, the adventure would be no different. I can make a halfway decent argument for the same being true of the first two sentences of the first paragraph. If the text were removed, and it has no impact on the adventure, then the text has no impact on the adventure and should not be there in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, there is ABSOLUTELY room for painting a vivid picture in the DM’s mind (in a terse way.) That’s a legit reason for text. But bare fact-based statements seldom accomplish that. I would argue that most of the room descriptions in the adventure fall in to that category.

I do want to note the treasure and monsters in this adventure. Both are excellent. Jeremy has created an all new slew of monsters, relying on nothing from the “normal” books. Long time readers will know I love this. I love it when a party encounters something that they have to struggle with. New monsters represent the unknown, mystery. The party doesn’t know what special attacks or defences they have. There is an element of fear. There’s a place for returning favorites, but almost nothing generates anxiety like meeting some beasty with unknown abilities. The treasure is also a cut above. Room one has a bag with a mitten, stained with blood, with a gold ring inside. A monocle with a crack in it. Green troll jerky wrapped in a dirty piece of cloth. These things tell a story; they make your mind tell a story. They make you want to know what happened. There’s an eye, ripped form a gnome, that you can use for true seeing. The amount of extra work to make something more interesting than “state: 100gp” or “sword+1” is pretty small and I wish more designers would add value that way.

There are a few other misses. Two statues grab people and go jump in to lava. Great encounter! But the text refers you to the magic pool room instead of the lava pit room. Not huge, but indicative of the need for a second read through.

It’s PWYW on DriveThru. The preview on DriveThru is a good one. You can see the treasure for room one at the top of page three. The storeroom text is on the same page. In fact, the entire adventure is available in the preview.

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Dungeon Magazine #134

Home Under the Range
By Michael Kortes
Level 3

A linear “underdark” escort adventure with a farcical pretext. The party is charged with herding giant beetles through the underdark from one location to another. Five encounters later they reach their destination, currently the site of a pitched battle. Along the way you meet stone giants bowling, and three ambushes, all the while trying to keep the loses of the beetles low. I’s linear, and essentially a series of set pieces with the generally hated “escort mission” ltag attached to it. And yet … I have a fondness for the absurd, or, maybe, the ALMOST absurd. This is running right up close to the line. Generally I like my DM pretexts normal and my players to do the wacky shit, like come up with plans that say “I have the perfect plan! First we need forty giant beetles …” Too much from the DM and the games in danger of Paranoia ZAP territory. But this one? I don’t know. Something may have triggered my Personal Preference O’Meter, or I’m in a weird mood today.

It does get in and out in only about twelve pages, with half page art/maps on most that’s not a bad page count by Dungeon standards. It also has a hook I like. 3e-era players are looking for masterwork weapons at low levels. Sending the players to the dwarf hold and herding the beetles is a nicely little integrated response to the players wants/needs. THIS is the way plot os developed in D&D. Not by the DM but in response to what the players want. “We need/want this thing.” Well Mr and/or Ms Player, you can go get it here … Player driven action. (Even if it does fall in to the “then why don’t the dwarves herd them” sin of “can’t be bothered.”

And Madness Followed
By Kevin Carter
Level 9

And then there’s the wrong way to do things. Like this. It’s a King in Yellow/Yellow Sign themed adventures, with a group of travelling bards performing the play and turning villages in to aberration-monster zones. You visit a village and get attacked by monsters. You visit a town where the town center has gone to hell. You visit a city where the play is being performed in a playhouse. End. It relies on the party being do gooders. It has a one-page description of a NPC that somehow you are supposed to absorb and run, full of the usual nonsense that doesn’t need to be there because it has no impact on the adventure.

There are a couple of nice spots. The middle combat, the town, has the town barricading off the town center, keeping the madnes-creatures trapped there. The whole “town in chaos”, barricades, zombie apoc thing is an appealing concept, although they don’t really do much with it here beyond hearing things beyond the barricade. Too much tell and not enough show.

The first encounter, the village, has a manor home you can search. This is an abstracted manor home search. Roll your search check and the DM will give you a piece of information. I’m interested in methods other than “room/key” format for other types of actions. Room/Key works great for exploration. The whole Mind-Map thing works great for social environments, as does presenting things in tabular form. The question of “are there other formats for other adventure types” is one I find interesting. Is there a better way to present investigations? The method in this adventure, a search check with the DM then feeding information, seems too abstracted. It reduces an “Ah Ha!” moment to a simple die roll. Room/Key format may be cumbersome for this sort of thing, but just listing the “important” rooms and what someone can find in it would seem to be both better than the die roll and the room/key. It preserves the player agency, eliminates the “all D&D elements are die rolls” nonsense, and can be relatively dense/terse in presentation.

FInally, the hooks fall in to two types, both of which I find interesting. In one the players are almost inquisitors for the church of St Cuthbert. That takes care of the “do gooder” motivation. The other two are variations on the “Dying fan gets to watch Star Wars early” theme. Please go find the players, my favorite, I want to see one last time before I die, blah blah blah. It’s stupid, but I would TOTALLY ham this up, with pajamas, posters, drinking cups, etc.

Into the Worm Crawl Fissure
By James Jacobs
Level 19

Age of Worms adventure path, the second to last one. The party wander around three adventure locations, then “explore” a Kyuss shrine and fight the Kyuss herald: the dragolich. There is something going on in this adventure, but man is it a mess. There’s supposed to be a ghost, split in to three parts I think, that you can reunite to get help against the dracolich. I’m pretty sure there’s a vision the party has when they arrive at the site, which leads them to the first part, which leads to the other two. Those are the three adventure locales you can explore. It’s presented on a kind of small regional map with nine locations on them. But only a couple are actually detailed. For example, there’s the lair of a dragon from the last adventure, almost certainly dead now (because of the players.) That’s all you get. Why include it? If you’re not going to to do anything with it then what does it add to the adventure? This being Pathfinder, errr, 3.5, the state blocks frequently stretch to a full page, Combine that with all the background nonsense and the “used to” and “like to relax here” sorts of stuff that creates the text overload and you’ve got a mess. Better yet, the locations on the map don’t actually relate to locations presented in the adventure. So the map is labeled 1 through 9. The overview location page is labeled 1 through 9. The ACTUAL adventure locales are Part 1, Part 2, and so on, and you only know which witch is which by reading DEEP in to the text. This would have been so much better if 90% of the text were trimmed. Would it be good? I don’t know. Kyuss worms. Pools of slime, Hydras & chimeras, crazy lich, friendly ghost … it’s got the basic elements. A special callout to the dracolich treasures. A little overly described in places, but a scandalous dress, a nice violin, a large drinking horn emblazoned with runes and carvings of dead dragons.

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The Fall of Whitecliff

By Ben Gibson
Coldlight Press
Level 1

Awakening in the dark with splitting headache, you hear the curses of other tight-packed prisoners. No screaming. Must not be in the deep dungeons, not yet. Damned castellan-he’s as paranoid as he is venial. Apparently his keep is hard to crack even when he’s gone. But you’re inside now. He’ll regret this, if you can slip out of this cage…

Heads Up: This adventure went through my Critique Partner service. I ended up with five pages of notes and 20-ish messages back and forth.

This is a 22 page series of linked one-page adventure, about nine in all. It describes a “starting play” campaign arc, taking the players from level one to four, by presenting the adventure as a regional area/sandbox area along with how the areas relate to the inciting event and the goals of the villain. Otherwise the party is driving the action. It’s written for Pathfinder and does a good job managing the more … bloated aspects of that system. Colorful, terse, dense .. this adventure shows how a series of one-pagers can be linked together in a regional area, much in the way Stonehell did for dungeon play. It’s good.

Stonehell took the one page dungeon and showed that how, by linking them together and supplementing it with a few pages of text, you could create an interesting megadungeon experience with a DM reference, the one-page dungeon proper, that was actually useful at the table. This adventure is doing something similar, but for a regional/sandbox sort of campaign arc. What if you sketched out a small region on a single notebook page. It’s got this cruel baron, a couple of nearby towns, a thing the evil baron wants in some caves, someone that hates the baron, and so on. Now, you take one page, for each of those concepts, and jot down some notes about it. That thing the evil baron wants? Maybe map the caves it’s in and key it. Two or three sentences about the thing he wants and why. Another page has the hideout of some rebel scum on it, opposing the baron, and it’s under siege by the baron’s troops. Now you’ve got a little region detailed. Just sketches, rough ideas, and so on.

That’s what this adventure does … except it expands the rough ideas and sketches in to a more coherent whole. There are two types of pages in the adventure. The first are the one-pagers. These feature a map, either a dungeon or small region, that take up about half the page. That map is supplemented by about a paragraph of introduction/overview and then the keys proper. Monster stats appear on the map ,with arrows pointing to where they are. Special treasure, situations, etc also appear on map, as well as few other miscellaneous notes. The second type of page is the “text page.” These generally occur after the one-pager and offer guidance on “what’s next.” Not that you’ve done/visited/looted/escape from blah blah blah, here’s what the party may be wanting to do next, and how that relates to the rest of the support material. Where Stonehell used the supplemental pages to help explain the level, the supplemental pages here help explain the implications of what just happen, in relation to the other things going on, and offers advice to the DM in how to react to various party actions/needs/wants etc. For example, after the first one-pager, it notes that the party may flee to the sea, in which case Smugglers Isles or Village Bellrock would be places to end up. Or you could head to the nearby village of Turten Cot .. and how the people along the way are likely to interact and so on. Oh, so they go to the village? From the text: “Upon reaching Turten’s Cot, the party finds the village in turmoil, looking for heroes or mercenaries to aid them in their troubles. See page 8.” It helps both the DM and the players put the larger puzzle together to get a smooth and coherent game.

The adventure does a good job putting data at the DM’s hand. The actual regional map contains page references so you know where to turn to. The maps generally have personalities embedded in them. The opening map is, as the intro text implies, a scenario having the level 1’s imprisoned in the keep and they need to escape. A small table, on the map page, lists the keep personalities. Guard: just working the shift, bored, tired, irate, homesick, cheerful, nervous.” Or a servant: “fearful, despairing, resentful” or a (potentially) helpful smuggler: “cocky, sarcastic, mercenary” Everything you need on one page to run a delightful and color adventure. Doors are “stout”, locks are “brittle”, rooms smell “fishy”, guards “unmotivated”. It does a great ob of just using a word or two to jazz up the scene and bring it to life.

The maps and encounters are varied. The initial map is an escape from the barons keep. Then there is a small regional map showing a hideout of a bandit/rebel … and the enemy troops surrounding him. There’s a small smuggler city and dungeon pit for a different faction working against the baron. A hidden place, the castle dungeons, a dwarf tribe that mostly about negotiations and roleplaying … until the baron’s troops maybe invade at the end if HIS envoy detects things are not going his way. An old barrow with an ancient secret that impacts the baron, and a two-level cave map for the party to have a climactic battle with the baron. There’s no railroad here, just options. Roleplay, fight, explore, sneak … it’s great! And it’s all supplemented by a colorful wandering monster and treasure table. Amy the desperate pregnant runaway from the castle. Awakened raven with info, willing to trade for shiny stuff. Dwarven poachers with a slain deer. A snake oil salesman .. selling actual snake oil. A nice mix of specifics done in a terse format. Perfect.

There’s a certain density to one-page adventures, and that’s present here. Stone hell had a pretty minimal key/dungeon it’s one pager, but it expanded that by providing two (or three?) pages of additional material before the map, providing some context and additional information on the features of the map. Traditional one-pagers, and I would include this adventure in that category, try to make the one-pager self-contained. There are supplemental pages here, but they are more related to linking the one-pagers together rather than providing additional content for the one-pager proper. It’s this density and … rigor in vision? that makes this both a boon and a bane. On the one hand you’ve got EVERYTHING on one page that you can run from. The benefits of that immense. On the other, but limiting yourself to that format you are creating a dense set of text that can sometimes get in the way. I think this adventure has taken it about as far as you can, as close to the line as possible, in loading up the page while still being useful and readable. The Pathfinder stat blocks, notorious for being long, have been condensed well and the more complex/named NPC’s get pulled out to a separate page where their full stat block glory can be expressed. (although Ben still manages five to a page, an accomplishment for Pathfinder.)

I like this adventure, both in its content and in the form its forging ahead in. This little regional sandbox sort of thing, with a natural arc, feels a little like it sits somewhere between a good hex crawl and a more traditional regional/sandbox adventure. Tersely written, evocative, adventure sites with a relationship to each other and some advice/notes for the DM to link it all together. The one-page nature means you can pick it up and run it almost immediately after buying it.

It’s Pay What You Want on DriveThru … and is worth more than the $2.25 of it’s current average contribution. And it’s not showing up in search. And the preview isn’t working. The first map, Escape from Whitecliff on page four, is a good example of the one-pager. Personalities in the lower right corner. Stats on the map. A nice intro paragraph describing the set up that is short and full of flavor to use at the table. The key has bolded “interesting things”, like people and monsters. Take a look at entry A & C “stout door with a brittle lock” and “sister, weeping, with servants nursing bruises and welts.” There’s a lot implied in that text. It’s good.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 9 Comments

Along the Road of Tombs

By Gus L
Self Published
Swords & Wizardry
Level 2?

This free, 41 page dungeon adventure, with about 39 encounters, details four tomb-systems / lairs carved in to a huge mesa. It’s rife with factions, social play, weird shit, and has more than enough interesting stuff in it to keep a party busy for several sessions, including perhaps trips back at a later date, allies and so on. It reminds me much of B2 or Ironwood Gorge, a location to visit multiple times. The writing constructs a rich dreamlike tapestry of words in the various rooms in AS&SH style… and needs to be trimmed because it makes it impossible to find anything. It should be easy to drop in to almost any game. As long as you’ve got a printer and a highlighter.

The idea is that there’s a road out of the capitol, now seldom used, that has tombs all along it. There’s always been a bit of banditry, but things have picked up and the illegal folks in/near the city, running their craft through it, are feeling the pain. Rumors paint the center of the issue at The Red Mesa, a big tomb complex about a day away. The mesa is the center of the adventure. Carver all over with statues, tombs, etc, it houses four cave complexes, three of them connected in some way. There’s a small inn/waystop, a petty necromancers home, a sullen mythic tomb, and a group of hiding bandits. The innkeeps run a cannibal cult, the necromancer is dead of natural causes, the bandits only steal a little, unless threatened, and the one remaining ‘real’ tomb is mythic. In to this we chuck the party, probably acting as agents of the Matrons, a group of brothel owners who lair on the road near the city.

We learn almost all of this in the first page of the adventure. It delivers the background, the current situations, the factions and so on. It’s a great overview, full of flavor and supports the DM well in understanding the environment up front. It’s supported by three pages of rumors, one for talking to unsavory types, one for merchants, and one for the general populace. The rumors are excellent. Full of colorful characters and in-voice rumors. I often bitch about verbosity, and page bloat, in adventures (and will in this one also) but the rumors here are a good contra-example. Each rumor is almost a little mini-encounter, but it’s done in a way that organizes it easily and makes it easy to both run AND find. And that’s the key: usability by the DM. The goal is to support the DM and transfer data to them effectively during play. By placing the rumors in tables they can almost be eliminated from the word/page count of the adventure. Want a rumor? Here’s the table: run it. If this were integrated in to the text then you’d have to go digging. The organization/layout/presentation of the rumors supports the dm’s ability to run at the table.

The content itself is wonderful, and not just from the rumor table. A broken bureaucrat, ragged, his chains and badges ripped from his robes, tries to sell his worn sandals in an attempt to bribe his way back in to this job site. Strong stuff, flavor seeds laser delivered to your brain. A fallen titan, eternally sleeping ina cave-like chamber, awaiting a prayer to be said over him from the bloodline of forgotten emperors. An open pavilion on the top of mesa, surrounded by gold lettering, and the preserved naked body of a long dead general. The factions have notes on how they respond to intrusions, things they will try with the party, strong NPC personalities to use for the talking. And the talking isn’t just pretext; it’s real. There is real social interaction (probably) that makes this stuff useful and not just trivia. That could, through the party or the NPC’s, devolve in to combat, but it’s not the default. The rooms and encounters gets two or even three uses out of them. Friendly talk talk, the (probable) murder-hobo’ing, and then the exploration elements of tricks, traps, etc. It’s a well constructed and flavorful. Roads ‘debouch’ in to canals. It’s “… largely imperishable, with only mild crazing of its smooth bonewhite surface …” There’s an almost dreamlike quality to the language in places. It remind me some of the AS&SH use of language, except while I think Northwinds comes off cold I think this comes off dreamlike and mythic.

And, the language is also a problem. Or, rather, it’s one part of a problem with usability at the table. Taking a look at the (free) PDF, the first will become immediately obvious: the font. I don’t complain about this sort of thing much, except when it sticks out, and it sticks out here. Whatever font it is is a travesty in the eyes of readability. Old Man Lynch has trouble reading it and his eyes fight to easily make out the content. Not. Cool. Gus. Then we add in some formatting issues. Something has gone haywire in the formatting, or in my viewers display. Take for example the bottom of page 31. A normal 2 column layout somehow ‘breaks’ and the last two paragraphs, one in each column, belong “together” while the first column breaks above that last paragraph and continues on at the top of the second column. This whole section on page 31 & 32 seems out of whack. Finally there’s the writing proper. Gus’s dreamlike & mythic atmosphere is obtained, at times, by a writing style that degenerates in to walls of text in the various encounter rooms.

Room A1 of the feasthall, on page 12, is half a column long. The first paragraph is the front door. The second paragraph is the common room description. The third paragraph describes the employees, while the fourth details the sleeping & food arrangements. During play you’d be hunting for information, trying to figure out which information is where. Right off the bat, that last paragraph could have been a small table, or boxed off, instead of being in paragraph form. It’s reference data; pulling it out of “text form” doesn’t kill the vibe. Likewise the employee section. ‘Gear carried’ can be integrated in to NPC descriptions/stats and maybe employees boxed off or tabulated as well. These two changes make it 2 paragraphs to dig through instead of four. This is probably enough to get by. Another technique would be small section headings abiev the paragraphs, like Exterior, Interior, Employees, Prices. The technique isn’t important; the desire is to orient the DM to the text QUICKLY when they are scanning it during play.

Room C4, at the bottom right of page 28, is perhaps the best example of the strengths and weaknesses of the text in one place. “A chamber of torment for the souls of the one hundred and thirteen sorcerers slain by the ancient general, a testament to his power and alleged sainthood. The chamber is a cage of ancient wards and iron bars, containing a huge pile of petrified bones. One hundred and thirteen skulls hang from the ceiling in baskets of chain beyond the bars. A plinth, molded from the stone of the floor stands before the cage and proclaims “Look upon the bones of the fallen and ask how the great, the dread, the mighty and the powerful have come so low. I am the answer to that question, for my wrath carries all before it.” No signature is inscribed below this statement.” The first and last sentence are filler. Yes, they absolutely help work to strengthen the vibe … but only incrementally more than the core text of “113 skulls hanging from the ceiling in baskets of chains.” I note that there are two more paragraphs beyond this one.

There are some logic gaps in places that stand out a little more than the ones in B2 do. The necromancer has been dead awhile, people think he might be dead, but no one has gone over to his cave to look for him. Likewise the mythic tomb, and top of the mesa, are largely unexplored in spite of them being on a major road. The bandits are at least a little friendly with the necro, but haven’t walked round the corner to talk to him. Then again, the Caves of Chaos are two miles from the keep with a road going to them, so, you know …

The NPC descriptions are fully formed. These are fleshed out people in about three sentences each: descriptions, personality, history. I could quibble with some of the choices made, prefer the personalities up front instead of descriptions and bitch a bit about a sentence for character history, or things like The Boy hanging near Bruno but Bruno not saying The Boy is always near him … things that impact play.

The content of this adventure is good. It has strong imagery and imaginative encounters without the usual set-piece nonsense that modern adventures resort to. The one-pager about the road and the culture around it is great. The set ups are great … and probably a challenge for the party. I really like what’s going on. Its presentation, to the DM, is the major issue. The formatting, the extra language and that FUCKING FONT all work to help obfuscate. What’s that old saying about an artist knowing when to stop painting?

This is free, at Gus’ Dungeon Of Signs blog:

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Dungeon Magazine #133

Chimes at Midnight
By Nicolas Logue
Level 5

I cannot stand this fucking adventure. It’s Shadowpunky Eberron, which is not my favorite genre, but the real reason is that the design SUCKS SHIT BALLS. It starts with the usual ‘lets build excitement with a starting combat’ bullshit common to these plot shitholes. Some prisoners, being paraded, escape. I guess the party is supposed to give a shit and stop them. Or Not, and just watch. Whatever. There’s some pretext about “investigating a theft”, but it ends with the villain just inviting the party to his house. There’s a big sidebar that says “in order to make the final two encounters of the adventure more exciting, it’s best if the party are racing against the clock …” Jesus fucking christ. NO ONE CARES. Rather than give us an adventure to run its just a bunch of plot bullshit. What’s the massive amount of text spent on? Here’s an example, a detailed account of how a trap works, that amounts to “explosion in 5 rounds”:

“A bell hung on a cord rings when the door to the office is opened. This cord runs through the ceiling of the office to the laboratory above, and activates two separate mechanisms when moved. The first releases the deadly acidic fire gar contained in the large steel tanks in the lab. The second mechanism sets a pendulum into motion with a tindertwig attached. The pendulum slowly picks up speed over the course of the next ten rounds before striking the twig on the wall of the tower and igniting the gas.”

Yeah, you got a brand, and can publish anything you want. It’s no wonder the magazine died. Blaming this shit on ‘electronic’ is BS, it just sucked because no one gave a shit to produce a decent magazine.

Ill Made Graves
By Kevin Carter
Level 7

This nordic adventure has a nice vibe going on, right out of the gate. There’s going to a funeral for a viking king, a big pyre. During it an evil dragon spirit is awakened and the party is charged with destroying its vessel, a tooth lodged in the dead kings bod, in the river of fire in the old dragons lair. This intro could be a shit fest, but it’s skilfully handed. The awakened dragon is really just a fear aura, causing chaos when there should be respect. The hooks to get the party there involve a dying, valiant exiled viking asking the party to return his helm to people, and thus stumbling on the funeral, or a country in the south sending the party as an embassy, along with a sizable funeral gift, as a sign of respect and to curry favor with the vikings. Sorry, Ice Barbarians. The entire intro makes sense, is not overblown, is still exciting and interesting. Plus, destroying the dragons spirit by transporting it to his former lair and chucking it in to lava is a nice appeal to both folklore, the embedded Tolkein, and that destroying artifacts table in the DMG. It FEELS right. The actual dragons lair is small, but has some nice elevation features. It’s a short adventure, but full of flavor. Crows in the caves, the dead dragons body, the shattered remains of the dead kings magic sword … It suffers from the word bloat common to Dungeon but, if you want something G.U.D. GOOD to steak from then this is IT.

Kings of the Rift
By Greg A. Vaughan
Level 18

Another issue, another Age of Worms; installment ten of twelve. This time you’re getting the phylactery of a dragon servant of Kyuss. It’s hidden in a city of giants currently besieged by dragons, also trying to get the phylactery. It starts with a DC 30 lore check … or you can just ask a sage, either way the information is fed to the players. The “besieged city” is handled pretty badly, even Hoard of Tiamat opening is better, and basically involves getting attacked by dragons of varying power any time you go anywhere. It ends with exploring mindlessly in rooms, killing people, and taking their stuff. Which is boring as fuck. Multiple 300+ and 400+ hit point fights. Lots of them. That’s fun, right? It basically ignores, or gives the barest pretext to, the most interesting part of the adventure, the political situation and factions within the besieged city. This adventure doesn’t know what it is, and it shows.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 11 Comments

The Snake’s Heart

By Brian ‘Fitz’ Fitzpatrick
Moebius Adventures
Mazes & Peril/S&W
Level 1-2

As our heroes head past the small village of Elhann, they find themselves drawn into a battle that could lead to the end of the world… A local bandit is kidnapping children from this and other villages – but why? Will our heroes get to the bottom of the mystery before it’s too late?

This 34 page adventure has five encounters related to cultists capturing children and taking them to their snake cult tower to sacrifice. It uses film narrative for introductions, is linear, repetitive, and makes me want to bang my head on my desk until I leave a bloody smear. It DOES make use of classic tropes, which I’m a sucker for, and has an interesting “event” table or two. That doesn’t make up for being linear, overwritten and pretentious.

The adventure opens with “Over Black: Drums beat in the distance, like the heartbeat of the land.” and then continues with a narrator voice over. Judging a book by its cover it bad. Throwing up in your mouth a little and pondering the ultimate meaning of a meaningless life and the existential paradox because of the first two sentences of an adventure seems, though, like a learned habit.

I want to repeat again: 34 pages. Five encounters (Seven if you count two interludes.) I recently looked over an eight page adventure that contained enough for about six sessions. A recent 24 page adventure I looked over had enough content for six months of play. This one has five encounters in 34 pages. You fight 6 bandits at a village. You get attacked on the road to the bandit tower. You get attacked going in the front door. Then you have a CHOICE! You can go to the basement full of crying children and kill some bandits OR go upstairs and kill some chanting cultists! Clearly, a sandbox adventure, obviously. 34 fucking pages. Nine fucking dollars. For that. Each encounter is two to three pages. For a fight with six bandits, which is what most of them are.

I will give the adventure one thing: for a linear plot shitfest it DOES inject some color. Each encounter has a small/short table of ten entries to spice things up. During the village attack you get such things as a bandit dumping a villager in a well, a child running from two bandits, setting a bandit on fire with hot coals, and so on. Likewise a table of things a crazy old man says, or things you overhear the bandits talking about. It’s all just window dressing though. Like those 2d fighting video games. There’s a background, people cheering, or cars racing by. But it doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t really contribute to the adventure. Yeah, its great to see a villager thrown down a well in a village attack. But devoting half a page to window dressing? Over and over again?

It does have a certain Conan appeal. Bandits putting kids in cages. A tower with cultists actually chanting and sacrifice children as the party appears. Nice. But it’s also VASTLY oversimplified and simultaneously wordy to the point of ridiculousness.

Clearly going for a cinematic vibe. Linear, film narrative at the start of each encounter. But there’s just NOTHING to this adventure to warrant it. This is entire adventure is ¼ column in better designed product.

The $9 PDF is on DriveThru. The preview shows you the table of contents. That should be illuminating in terms of content as see it has five encounters. Page two has that great “heartbeat of the land” narration, which you can expect more of at every encounter, setting the scene. The last page shows you page ONE of the two page first encounter. It just repeats the same stuff, including the bandit stat blocks.

Posted in Reviews | 13 Comments