Dungeon Magazine #131

The Beasts of Aulbesmil
By Skip WIlliams
Level 3

Nice to see Dungeon back in the business of publishing crap. You’re in a village for some lame pretext (an old friend is gone. The church has asked you to investigate … or the baron hires you to find his kidnapped son because his men might be recognized, which is a decent hook.) People have disappeared. Everyone thinks the miller is evil and is behind things. If you go to the mill you are attacked by the evil wererat miller and his thugs. Orcs in the barons hunting cabin are in league with the miller and hold the son. So you show up, get a miller clue, and confront the bad guy in the first ten minutes? “You go to the grocery. Everyone gains two levels.” You do, however, get to learn ALL about how the wererat committed his thefts and murders. Useless information. History and backstory are so seldom of use. The fetish around novelization is depressing.

The Hateful Legacy
By Greg A. Vaughan
Level 12

This ‘Lost Valley’ adventure starts with an attack by an awakened dire ape ranger. And that, alone, was enough to let me know how this thing was going to go. A society of warrior ogres guards the entrance in some kind of watchtower at a chokepoint. (Which might actually have been interesting, but I can’t for the fucking life of me decipher the map. I THINK the entrance MIGHT be area 7, but that doesn’t make sense either … Anyway, it has two more set pieces after the first two and then you get to pick up a bunch of coins in treasure. Joy. The whole transition from adventure and wonder to set-pieces with columns of pages of tactics has been more than a little disappointing for me. The mania to constrain the DM with rules was not a good path.

The Prince of Redhand
By Jesse Decker
Level 15

And then there’s the eighth installment of Age of Worms. Only four more after this. This is meant to be a social adventure. You need to talk to an elf, and she lives in a bandit town. Once there your only opportunity to talk to her is at a dinner banquet. There is a small dragon lair some Ebon Triad nonsense to go kill, if the players insist on stabbing someone who’s not a commoner. Rather than integrating the social aspects in the adventure, or integrating them in to other episodes, they instead have “the musical episode”; disappointing. Getting through the front gate takes a page of text to say nothing important. One event is “you roll some dice and regardless of the results you get an invitation to the banquet.” Another one is “you go to the elf house and get turned away at the door.” Maybe six “events” before the banquet and maybe as many at the banquet proper. The banquet has a host of NPC’s, with appearances, personalities, goals and so on, but it’s all presented in giant text form … meaning you’ll need to take copious notes to run it. Tables. USE. A. FUCKING. TABLE. TO. SUMMARIZE. Ug. Anyway, the events are longer than they need to be, of course, and this being 3e they amount to little more than some skill rolls. That’s too bad. The end result is that the elf chick agrees to talk to yu in a couple of days … the next episode. The events here are little more than a railroad, both before and during the party. That’s too bad. There’s a nugget of interesting adventure here, with a social dinner party and wacky nobles from the capitol … fodder for a 1000 LARPs, but it’s awkward to run.

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The Secret Machines of the Star Spawn

By Mark Taormino
Maximum Mayhem Dungeons
Level 6-10

Locals have been hearing whispers of strange happenings around the Ancient Volcano. Rumors over the last several years of an unspeakable evil that has risen up inside. An evil that “fell from the stars”. There is something wicked and devilish going on inside. Highwaymen report of strange creatures, mechanical monsters, horrible beasts and “little green men” that are roaming the land. You and your stalwart adventurers have decided to take on the challenge of plundering the mountain for the treasure within! Oh and get to the bottom of these dastardly stories as well!

My life is a living hell. This 44 page “adventure” is a linear railroad with aliens and technology. It’s written like your 7th grade dungeon master created it: adversarial with lots of tits. I actually went and looked up the designer to make sure it wasn’t the FATAL guy. It’s not. But he did make $3k from the kickstarter for this, and $11k from his latest kickstarter. This piece of shit is the closest I’ve seen someone get to WG7. I often cite expectations, and have a strict taxonomy. Put another way, I don’t give a flying fuck what you publish but you damn well better do a good job disclosing what it is so we don’t have to buy your crap.

I am supposed to start off saying something nice. The highlights. I’m struggling. It’s got a decent number of new monsters, themed to the adventure, nicely illustrated, and most with some interesting themed effects. One of the aliens has a “brain freeze” power, for example. One or two of the room descriptions, in read-aloud, are not terrible. A few of the encounters have an interesting set up. There’s a robot head you can pick up who talks to you and can operate technology/explain things. You can find his body parts and rebuild him. A somewhat interesting little NPC, a fun little side-task to accomplish. That’s good. One or two of the rooms have a decent description, like the room walls made up of thousands of gears of different sizes and directions and speeds, with a large black lever in the middle of the room. Jokes on you though, that lever, and entire room, does nothing. It’s just there to fuck with the players. Most of the descriptions … functional? But they tend to digress to being overly descriptive and long. In other words, the first couple of sentences gives a plain fact-based description of the room “This is a huge two hundred foot wide cavernous volcano chamber. It is divided by a jagged chasm where lava now ows. It is about forty feet wide and the lava ows into the deep underground realms beyond the volcano depths.” Functional, but not necessarily exciting. But then it goes on to describe more and more and more instead of just stopping. And that room is one of the shortest descriptions. The read-aloud can go on for paragraphs. Or columns. Or, in the case of the introduction/background: pages. This overly prescriptive description issue is key indicator that things are not in Adventureville.

And well they are not. The start map is a single linear hallway with rooms either hanging off of it or the hallway running to the rooms. No choice or decisions. The rooms are even better. Every one of the starting rooms. Six of the first seven rooms have monsters that either attack immediately or attack within one round. This is not an unusual occurrence. You walk in to a room you can’ avoid and the monsters attack immediately. That’s not a D&D adventure, that’s a caricature of a D&D adventure. The room encounters support this. “As the players enter the room the door they came through disappears!” We all know why, right? Because the designer has some “clever” or “fun” encounter that he wants to force the players into.

There’a creature you fight, the Dungeon Breaker, that, as far as I can tell, is never described anywhere.

One room has a teleporter. Each character is required to use it to continue the adventure. There is either a 50% or a 75% chance it will malfunction, the adventure mentions both numbers. If it malfunctions there is a 3-in-8 chance of instant death and a 3-in-8 chance of facing a BIG monster by yourself, and a 1-in-8 chance of being replaced with an evil clone. Do I need to explain this?

Up until now it’s just a bad adventure. Too much read-aloud. Linear. Almost nothing besides straight up combat. You could mistake it for a bad 4e adventure (or pre-DCC RPG Goodman adventures …) or something created by a 12 year old jr high kid. But then that 12 year turned 13 and hit puberty. And inflicted himself on others. The issue is not the prurient humor, or the tit-heavy sexualized art. I like to think of them as an exponent. If a good adventure is a “1” and you get a point added every time you do something crappy, then loud belches and cheescake are en exponent. 1, squared is 1, still a good adventure. 5, squared, is 25. It’s the icing on the cake that sends you in to suger coma. “Chocolate Thunder” is a black woman with a large afro in a tiny bikini who yells “Watch it sucka!” Ain’t nothing wrong with any of that. Everyone should have the balls to pull off that kind of style. But when in this shitty adventure its clear what the intent it, and it’s not positive. Likewise the tit-heavy gypsies. Or the mind flayer grabbing a womans tits with its tentacles. Or “the fat princess”

The preview on DriveThru will show you the art sample, as well as give you a hint of the humor style in the start of the barons page and half read-aloud on the last page of the preview. I’d read that last page, just to lighten up your day.

$3k on Kickstarter. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce.
Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce.
Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce.

Posted in Reviews | 15 Comments

Guests for DInner

By Jon Aspeheim
Level 0-2

The ground collapsed and you fell into a cave, with no way of climbing up you have to find your way out through ancient catacombs. That would be bad enough even if the tunnels was not the home of demon worshiping cannibals, zombies and a mutated cat!

This short little ten page adventure has about eleven rooms of content on about five pages. It describes a small underground dungeon that is being used by a cannibal cult. It touches on some true gruesomeness that really brings home the evilness of the main villain. It’s also written in a mostly boring style that doesn’t really evoke the environment very well … at all. It’s pretty clear what the intent is, it just doesn’t get there.

While out in the woods, a sinkhole opens under you and you end up in a cavern, with no way back up. There’s a worked stone hallway leading out. Thus begins your adventure in to an Eli Roth movie. Walking around the complex you meet zombies, cultists, a prisoner, a demon statue with blood around its mouth, a pretty girl that’s been lobotomized, a villain that unfolds insectoid arms from his back, and a prisoner on a butcher table that’s had his arms and legs removed, having been eaten earlier.

You know, I’m a fan of showing instead of telling. If the adventure said “Lord Vazzo is evil” the players would hack him. A demon altar with blood on it? Ok, sure, he’s worshipping evil, but maybe it’s animal blood. They might let him off. Showing the players the girl he lobotomized and then showing them the prisoner they ate limbs off off, Cormac McCarthy-Road style, will REALLY cement Lord Vazzo’s sins in their psyche. This is an excellent, if gruesome, showing of evil instead of telling of evil. You don’t need to be gruesome, but it’s hard to argue that Lord Vazzo is evil after some encounters like this one has.

Vazzo is a non-standard villain, with insect legs that unfold from his back and a demon cat. Those touches are appreciated since they take what could otherwise be a boring old NPC evil bad guy and weird him up a bit. There’s also a prisoner to free and a demon state that you can pour blood in to the mouth of. Just enough to weird the place up a bit.

Unfortunately, the writing is not very strong. “Boring”, would be a better description, with only a few exceptions. The pool of water you fall in to at the start is “Really cold” and “very deep.” A table is described as being “a nice table.” Really, very, nice: these are not descriptive words. They are generic and don’t paint a good picture of the scene because of it. Ice cold. Bone chillingly cold, rattle your bones, bottomless, gleaming antique … these are all better descriptions than nice, very, and really … and I would continue to remind everyone that I SUCK at evocative descriptions.

While a scriptorium is “sparsely furnished with wooden benches and desks”, a good, terse description, others drone on and/or delve in to trivia useless to the room. “Some of the zombies Vazzo uses as patrolling guards are becoming too rotten and have left stinking trails in his library. He now keeps them locked up in here until he can decide what to do with them.” This tells us nothing except they are rotten, which could have been with a shorter and more evocative monster description. The descriptions are mostly boring, being medium-length descriptions that describe typical examples of a room of that type. Oh, look, a normal dining room. Noting the exceptions I mentioned, everything else is just flat and boring.

It does present some simple & short rules for Level-0 funnels for D&D, and a very small village description, four shops, with about one sentence each. A nice terse short village. A little short, but at least one of the descriptions has an interconnection to another shop. A couple of people in the dungeon have ties to the village; this should have been mentioned up higher so the party could encounter them before their horrifying reveal.

The two-page sample on DriveThrough will show you the very brief village and funnel rules, but unfortunately you don’t actually get a sample of the room encounter style.

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Dungeon Magazine #130

Within the Circle
By Sam Brown
Level 1

This short little adventure has a nice introduction and wilderness section combined with a rather disappointing little twelve room dungeon at the end. It’s meant to kick off a Yuan-ti themed campaign, I believe. The party, retainers of a Baron, have dinner with a man from a remote village. He tells of the village being poisoned, livestock killed, crops in disrepair, all from a goblin demanding tribute. Later, in private, the Baron tells the party the real mission: that he wants them to check out a depot nearby that he was tasked with burning down when young. He questions now, that he is wiser, how he has risen in power, and why. The villagers act like villagers, the goblin is dealt with, briefly, and information on his lair is the same as the depot, which can be learned from him or fro some ambushing lizardmen, who retreat in deference when they learn they made a mistake ambushing the party.

Up until this point the adventure is pretty good by Dungeon standards. Lots of words, and read-aloud, but the motivations make sense and nothing is really forced. Parts of what going on could have been emphasized more, with trivia deemphasized, but it’s there, somewhere in the text … and its not as bad as the usual Dungeon fair in terms of wordiness. It’s a nice little thing that doesn’t really force the players in to anything, after the initial hook .. and I can even forgive that seeing as this is meant to be a campaign kickoff.

The goblin lair has bad read-aloud and is more confusing than normal. It’s mostly linear, with a lot of background and history clogging up the text. In one room, the main entrance, there’s a trap with a bag of giant centipedes. I still have no idea which door, or side of the door, that trap is on. Most of the rooms FEEL boring, even though there are one or two goblins with some motivations other than “KILL!” A matron protects the young with a spear, warding the party away but not attacking until she is. Another goblin spies behind a table and then tries to run away. Again, very relatable motivations. The rooms, beyond the goblins, are just not very interesting. There IS a nicely integrated trap that is not meant to be a trap, and several clues as to what is going on.

Its’ decent, especially by Dungeon standards. It reminds me of something out of those more realistic settings, like Harn or the like, but with more monsters.

The Palace of Plenty
By Tito Leati
Level 10

This is an Oriental Adventures themed adventure, that seems to be derived from watching too many 1940’s and 50’s Japanese ghost story movies. Vague hooks and no wilderness journey has you in a legendary ruined paradise city. Which takes a DC 10 roll to know where it is. If you fail, there’s a map in a library. The icy ruined city is large and ruined and very sparsely keyed. After wandering about and finally figuring out where you go you get to a non-ruined place, through white fluttering butterflies, which has mostly empty rooms. This place has such exciting encounters as “Sentry Box: The entry box is unremarkable.” The whole thing is “icy ruined village theme and then ghost village theme” all with that sort haunting quietness that comes from older Japanese horror movies. It gives it a very “story game” feel. It’s also nigh incomprehensible as an adventure. Props for taking a chance. It was your editor’s job to tell you it didn’t work so well. A STRONG edit may give you a Mountain Witch-like adventure. It’s just trying too hard with too many words to be as effective as, say, Inn of Forgotten Heroes … hence the need for an edit.

The Spire of Long Shadows
By Jesse Decker
Level 13

Another in the Age of Worms adventure path. Get out your lozenges, this one is the exposition entry! Miles upon miles of read-aloud in order to relate reams of backstory to the party, either through a sage they meet or through visions they have. It starts with a meaningless combat right out of the bullshit “have a quick first encounter so the party can get some dice rolling” advice column. It then passes to a small city where the party cool their heels a bit, and then a visit to the sage who talks at them for hours (Real time.) teleport to a far away land has the party at the site of where Kyuss ascended to godhood, and a pyramid temple full of kyuss worms and room after room of guardians. These are spaced out with visions the party has about Kyuss and the prophecy of his return. There are about A MILLION of pages before you get to the temple. The rooms embed history … in a bad way. “This room represented Kyuss’ master over death …”, or “the stairs were destroyed in year blah blah blah by blah blah blah.” Meaningless trivia that does not contribute to the adventure. This “adventure” is just an excuse to talk at the party with monologues and put in some combats with worm-themed NPC’s. Boring.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 6 Comments

AA#28: Redtooth Ridge

By Joseph Browning
Expeditious Retreat Press
Level 1-3

he plain wooden cup the dryad Aralina needs for her great oak’s rebirth has been stolen by creeping foul things! Small, man-like, creatures with great heads assaulted her and, in the confusion, pick-pocketed the cup before fleeing towards Redtooth Ridge. Without her cup, her tree with die before it can reproduce and she will die with it. In her distress, she has offered a reward of a beautiful coral necklace in exchange for her plain wooden cup. The call has gone out and surely a party exists willing to assault Redtooth Ridge?

This thirteen page, sixtyish encounter, adventure details a small wooded ridge and the remains of several buildings on it, primarily an old manor. It has decent maps and most of the encounter feel more like little vignettes with some loose internal logic than they do the more typical isolated-encounters-in-a-ruined-place. It engages in “used to be” and obsesses on ranger and thief mechanics a bit too much, all of which tend to clog up the text more than it should. It doesn’t engage in much that is new but it does deal with goblins, ogres, stirge, zombies, green slime, and the rest in a way that appeals to my love of the classics. A decent little adventure doing decent little things.

This is a pretty classic site based adventure. There’s a small wooded plateau with two paths running up to it. On top is the ruined compound of an old manor estate, as well as a small cave serving as an ogre lair. The family mausoleum is in the plateau cliffs. There’s a small wandering monster table that generally has the creatures lairing on it, with their numbers being depleted as you kill the wanderers. Otherwise, the party is free to do what they will. Exactly the fuck the way these site-based adventures SHOULD be.

The estate is walled, with numerous ways through the walls. There’s an underground/basement area that runs between a couple of outbuildings, as well as a few structures with more than one story, giving the map a little bit of a vertical presence and some interest. The open-ended compound nature of the map, as well as the open nature of the plateau, and the non-linear nature of the basement and manor home maps work well with a site based adventure. There are a number of “hallways with doors off of it” on the map, but there’s enough variety in style that it doesn’t feel constraining or forced. An art piece showing the profile, or better shading of indoor and outdoor areas, would have been appreciated. In addition, some of the map features are missing. Large cracks you can crawl through, and so on, seem to not be on the map but rather in the room descriptions. That’s not good. It would have also been nice to have all the maps on one page, instead of having the text integrated around them, in order to photocopy them easier for hanging on Ye Olde Dm Screen. But this isn’t the end of the world and sweet jesus in heaven thank you for maps that are not throw-away linear plot shitfests. These maps provide options and mystery … which is what ALL maps should do.

The encounters in the adventure almost feel like little vignettes … in the positive connotation. The rooms sometimes feel like they have multiple things going on, and exist outside of the adventure proper. I’m straining a little in that statement, but they are certainly more … integrated? than most adventures. The bedroom feels like it has bedroom stuff. The kitchen feels like a kitchen, with kitchen stuff encounters. The library feels like a library with library-like stuff encounters. Enough of the rooms have encounters that relate to each other to even put together a little story. It all feels like it makes sense and is not arbitrary. There’s this internal logic.

While walking up the path to the top, you see an ogre in a good mood on a rock eating a mite and pestie. The ogre lair is up top and mites/pesties also lair up top. Further up, some goblins watch the ogre, trying to decide to attack. They also have some friends up top. The ogre, eating another creature, is a hint, and makes sense in the context of the adventure as well as providing some fun, since he doesn’t attack immediately and is eating somebody. It all works together. There’s another example of a ghost who hates her servants, and if she possesses someone will go open a secret door to the basement in order to punish/kill the servants … who just happen to be zombies .. including some child zombies. The rats in the library have chewed books, and pulled in bodies through a large crack in the wall. These are not gonzo or forced, but just all work together easily. That’s refreshing. Gonzo stands out, but making giants rats, or zombies, work in 2017 is not easy. We can debate on if you SHOULD include book monsters in an adventure, but for an adventure that DOES include book monsters, this one does a good job with it. It seems effortlessly constructed.

The writing style is not particularly evocative. At All. ‘Boring’ would be the word I would use. And while the rooms descriptions are not particularly extensive, I do think that they concentrate too much on the useless and trivia instead of creating an evocative impression. The Dining room description is a decent example: “Over two dozen reclining couches dot this two- story-tall room, along with eight square tables. The room opens up to the second level and a minstrel’s gallery is above and to the east. The owners of the Ivory House believed in reclined eating and all meals were served in this fashion.” Not exactly inspiring, and I can make a good case that the last sentence falls in to the “explaining history” category of Sin. Likewise, many comments about things like “this used to have thick iron doors, but they were consumer by a wandering rust monster” … which occurs more than once in the text. This is trivia.

Further, there is an extensive appeal to mechanics in places that I don’t think is warranted, even if we accept this is OSRIC/1E. This occurs most frequently with notes (paragraphs, I should say) that give exceptions for thieves and rangers. “If there is a thief sneaking in the party then blah blah blah bonus/penalty because blah blah blah.” For a cobblestone floor. Likewise rangers get extensive notes in places for tracking efforts. Condensing or trimming these would help keep the product focused. It IS packing almost sixty rooms in to nine pages, so it’s not like it’s the biggest sinner ever, but it does stand out. Maybe more so because of the more ho hum descriptions. This sort of exposition is also found in several creature encounters, with notes on tactics and the like that seem to pad things out more than they should be. The adventure pretext is also light, a dyrad having her wooden cup stolen, or simply “the lure of rumored treasure”, but, whatever, it’s a site-based adventure and those are FAR easier to motivate in to a game than the plot adventures. The magic is all book items with no descriptions, which is very disappointing.

This is a nice adventure. I will sometimes say that adventures are salvageable with a highlighter. This goes a step beyond that. No gonzo. No explosions. No set pieces. Just a solid little site that could use a little edit to make things a little more evocative. It’s also going to be a ROUGH time for Level 1 characters, unless they know what the fuck they are doing. The whole “12-18 ghouls” thing is rough, and easy to stumble in to.

The preview on DriveThrough shows you the ogre and goblin encounters on the path, so you can get a good look at both the positive aspects of the encounter and the relatively lengthy parts of the descriptions. Likewise, on the last page, you can see room 1, the outer wall of the compound. It also shows the nicely integrated nature of the encounters, with tracks and the like, as well as the relatively heavy description length for the same. The preview does a good job of letting you know what to expect.

Posted in Level 1, No Regerts, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Ruinous Palace of the Metegorgos

By Evey Lockhart
In Search of Games
Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Level 1-3

Why Go to the Ruinous Palace? 1. Old Gold to be Stolen from Old Places 2. Rumors of Supernatural Fecundity and Ruination. What wizard would not wish to study such?
3. Nearby communities are hemorrhaging Livestock. The Dragon learns to hunt and gather.
4. A forest Unmolested for centuries… could become a fortune in Timber.

This is a twenty one page adventure with about six encounters, centered around a small ruined structure with a mythic abomination in it. It’s themed after one of those Earth Mother things: a naked woman, full breasts, giving birth to abominations. It has a STRONG mythic vibe going on; this is not your boring Paizo D&D but rather recalls all of the countless years of myth and story that have floated around the world. This adventure probably skews closer to level two or three than level one, and features some mature themed monsters.

This adventure FEELS like you are going someplace DIFFERENT. You journey through a creepy forest, full of creepy sad zombies. The ruins in which the main adventure takes place almost certainly have a massive dragon curled around them, asleep. Both of those, together, help communicate to the party that they are leaving the mundane world of farmers and lords and entering a different kind of world, where the freaky deaky will be found. IE: the transition to The Mythic Underworld, for those of you versed in blog-o-sphere lore. It’s a very effective technique for helping to set a mood.

The forest journey begins the adventure. There is no hook, just the little publisher’s burb up in the first paragraph, to set help up the why’s of the party going there. It’s a creepy, wet, pine forest, with a heavy but sporadic mist. Scattered throughout are the Sad Zombies. Imagine a zombie in a misty pine forest, in the distance, wearing only a mitre hat. Or one sitting on the ground, crying. Or one chained a tree, with the tree having grown around them. There’s not really much to this, other than the atmosphere of the forest and the sad zombie wandering table. Still, the weirdness of the situation, with the atmosphere, is a great way to begin the mood setting. At the end of it you encounter the ruins, which almost certainly has a huge sleeping dragon wrapped around them, with scales of obsidian.

The dragon is 10HD. Just inside the door is a 2HD monster made up of light, only hit by magic, but captured by opaque surfaces … almost a puzzle in monster form. None of the creatures here are book monsters. The dragon with obsidian scales, the light monster, some shit creatures, the daughters of the woman that are half hippo, and the mother herself. The players won’t have any idea what’s up, the creatures are strongly themed but without mountains of words. It FEELS like something out of myth or folklore.

Well, maybe a Guillermo del Toro folklore. Shit monsters and an earth mother monster who gives birth to needle fish to attack you is a little … uh … repulsive? You’ve got some mature themed creatures and effects that are going where other adventures don’t. Like turning your genitals to stone. That section includes this gem: “septicemia kills more murderhobos a year than any other disease.” It all makes sense, in the adventure and doesn’t feel forced or, oh, included just for shock value. Even tangential sexual themes, like in this, are more than a little unusual.

There’s a fair amount of fluff/inspirational text in the adventure, but it’s almost always confined to a page by itself, in LARGE font. More artful than wordy. This is a great way to include this sort of meta-inspiration without clogging up the text that the DM needs to run at the table. Magical treasure is light, at none, with mundane treasure fitting in nicely but lacking really solid sticky descriptions.

The adventure has a habit of putting entrance/transition information one room ahead of where it should be. In a room at the bottom of stairs you get the stair description, instead of at the room at the top of the stairs. In the room behind the secret door you get the secret door description, instead of in the room that has the secret door. This, and the lack of more mythic treasure, is annoying.

But still, a nice decent adventure with a great vibe going on if you can get past the pussy monsters stuff. When you finish, I suspect your players will really think they’ve accomplished something, much in the same way that happens something in good DCC adventures.

There’s no real preview on DriveThru, unfortunatly.

Posted in Level 2, Reviews, The Best | 6 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #129

Murder in Oakbridge
By Uri Kurlianchik
Level 5

This is a murder mystery. Someone is killing people in Sharn. It tries to do the right thing. It’s organized in to locations, murder details, and other events. This is a good style for a murder mystery, recognizing that the locations are just a framework for the events to take place in. It’s got a nice NPC summary with names, roles, and rumors about them … but then leaves off their locations and their personalities. The murder events are laid out with details of the murder and then clues that can be found. There are a couple of false leads with events associated with them also. The general investigation/information you can find out, could be summarized, and a few more NPC’s could have been included, as well as a few window dressing events, like hysteria in the neighborhood, etc would have been nice. The hooks are not exactly original, but do have some nice quirks. “Seeing the first murder” hook has the body falling off a balcony and landing right in front of the party … an oldie but a goody. The other has the guard hiring the party to investigate. Always a lame hook, this is spiced up by having the sergeant being REALLY dumb. Like “beat things with a club” investigation-style dumb. The large amounts of worthless text and torturous writing style, which takes forever to get to the point, makes the thing hard to use. It’s highlighter and notebook time if you want to use it … but it IS salvageable if you want to put in the effort.

A Gathering of Winds
By Wolfgang Baur
Level 11

Oh god. I had manage to forget about these adventure paths. After a fight with a black dragon the characters explore a Tomb of Horrors style tomb. Too much backstory abounds and the usual mix of undead, golems, and bound guardians, along with tortured traps, is present. The map is a bit more interesting than most linear Tomb knockoffs. There are a couple of nice little encounters thrown in to the usual ToH garbage. There’s a living door/portal that can get AoO’s on people as they pass through. It gets a full 3e monster write up as a “ghoul”, because god forbid something not be explained, but it’s still a nice little encounter. There’s a cute Salamander noble, with the dialog “so sorry to be stabbing you in the vitals old chap, forced becaused of conjuration magic you know.” Finally, there’s both a true ghoul and a shadow spider that both have some personality. It’s the personality, and social aspects, of these encounters that bring them in ahead of the the usual Tomb of Horrors dreck. It’s also NOT afraid of handing out good magic items, with four or five being present, including a part of the rod of seven parts. I’m having trouble with the usual bits: the pay per word bloat, uninspiring descriptions, and ToH style, but maybe you won’t.

The Twisted Run
By Wil Upchurch
Level 17

Wanna be “famous?” Figure out high-level D&D. This shit fest is an excuse to put AC 41 & 200HP monsters in front of the party. A god tells the mayor trouble is coming, but he can’t be bothered to spare people to look in to it .. .and appeals to the party. So, shit hook. And you get to look forward to stat blocks pages that span one and a half pages. There’s no arc from low to medium to high. No advice for high that’s worthwhile, in a meaningful way. Domain gets you a little way there, but beyond that?

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The Ballad of Sally Anne

By Vance Atkins
Leicester’s Rambles
Low Levels

Two generations ago, a tragedy befell a wedding night. The groom was killed on the way to the wedding, leaving his grief-stricken bride to live out her days in heartbreak. Even after her death, she haunts her family home, seeking some sort of solace. The adventurers have arrived on the anniversary of the tragic night, where terrible forces bring devastation to the surrounding lands. Can the heroes enter the house and find a way to put an end to this annual horror?

This ten page adventure in a haunted house is a mashup of a bluegrass ballad, about a wedding widow, and a old house plan for a manor. There are about sixteen rooms scattered through about five pages, with the rest being overhead, introductions, licenses, etc. It’s got a decent, slow, haunted vibe going on but it’s handicapped by a loosely organized structure and a lack of focus for the room descriptions. With about sixteen rooms and about four monsters, with maybe four or five “other” encounters, there’s a slow burn thing going on. IE: Creepy adventure is creepy. It’s less D&D and more horror, lacking fantastic beasts, etc. That’s not a negative, but more of a setting-style, for those of you looking for a lower-fantasy adventure.

The backstory is relatively short and inoffensive, mostly because of the single column layout and the inclusion, taking up most of a page, of the inspirational bluegrass ballad. The map is a found object, a historical floorplan of a manor. It’s interesting, but also handicaps the adventure a bit. The key matrix is a mix of room names and numbers, all from the original map. By keeping the map ‘untouched’ you have to live with the original notations for doors, which look enough like windows to cause a bit of struggle to find them on the map. Other features, like ruined stairs and so on, rely on the text in the adventure to come across instead of being noted on a map. I can understand the allure of a found map, but it’s gotta be usable.

The stairs, in particular, annoy me. One stairway is gone, burned in a fire, we’re told a couple of times in a couple of places. That kind of makes sense since it’s not listed as stairs on the map … The front hall stairs, though … those are unusable also. They are collapsed and you need a grapple or something to make it up to the second level. But the stairs, unnumbered, look normal on the map. And the details of the stairs are only found in the text that introduces the second level. The collapsed stair thing is a nice obstacle, but the limitations of the found map shine through here. Instead of cueing the DM with a number on the stairs we instead rely on the DM reading an introductory paragraph.

I mentioned the writing style is unfocused. The first room, the courtyard, is six paragraphs long. One describes the various entrances to the home … I guess because of the map issues. Two delve, to various degrees in to “explaining why.” Adventures seldom, if ever, need to explain the why of things. It clogs things up. “The body of a ranger WHO ATTEMPTED TO PENETRATE THE GARDEN lies dessicated at the foot of one of the vines. (emphasis mine, of course.) The ‘why’ of the ranger is superfluous, it adds nothing to the play of the game. Likewise, earlier up, is this paragraph: “The rose vines have become imbued with chaos energy of the sorrow within the house. The vines are competitive and evenly spaced through the courtyard. Opportunists, they normally prey on birds, small animals, and whatever other unfortunate creature entered the courtyard due to the diminished soils and undead energies of the house.” We’ve already been told about the many small dead animals, earlier up. This paragraph does nothing but justify the existence of the vines. It’s explaining. Don’t explain. At best, one or two that intimate their sorrowful origin, if need be as flavor text, but an entire paragraph? It gets in the way of finding the information you DO need to run the courtyard. The adventure engages in this “explaining” and generally unfocused descriptions in most of the rooms.

It also does several things well. It provides hints, the rooms, in several places. One room has several animals in silk cocoons, for the observant, hinting at a spider. The courtyard, as mentioned, has several dessicated small animal bodies in it, hinting at the vampire vines. In another room you can see a peeling plaster ceiling with water stains, hinting at the weakened floor above.

Both this and U1/Saltmarsh have a nice creepy old house vibe. This one, actually BEING haunted, gets to stretch its legs a bit more than Saltmarsh. There are a couple of curses, including some nice creepy paintings and cursed treasures that appear as wealth to the players but black tar lumps to others, an unusual curse different from the usual pure mechanical effects most resort to. The ghost, proper, and her “curse removal” also has a nice folklore vibe going on.

I’m fond of these slow burn adventures. Or, maybe, I WANT to like these sorts of adventures. The idea of exploring an old haunted house appeals to me. I like the creepiness and build up. I’m not sure, though, it matches my play style. The slower place, and lack of “fantastic beasts” is going to appeal to some DM’s/campaigns more than others. Hmmm this is coming off more negative than I mean it to be. It’s a decent little adventure that needs a highlighter or a second version to tighten it up.

The last couple of pages on the DriveThru preview show you a couple of rooms, and is a good indication of what you are buying. Check it out:

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Beneath the Comet

By Benjamin Ball
North Wind Adventures
Level 6-9

For weeks the Comet has blazed in the sky above Hyperborea, inspiring widespread superstitious dread and fear of some star-borne contagion. Under the light of this harbinger from the Black Gulf, the PCs have come to Bogrest, following a magical treasure map that reveals great wealth buried in the Lonely Heath north of the village. Finding that treasure will be no simple matter, however, for Hyperborea is a weirder and deadlier place than ever beneath the Comet

This 48 page adventure details a small wilderness scrubland area ending with a thirteen room dungeon under a barrow mound. The dungeon reminds me of a more realistic version of White Plume Mountain. You explore, collect keys, and go face the final boss. The keyed encounters, both in the wilderness and dungeon, offer a nice variety of decent ideas. The AS&SH writing style, is, however, present and a major barrier to entry/use/enjoyment. Your mileage may vary.

The party has a magic treasure map, showing the way. Generally, to some ancient mound in a scrubland. There’s a village nearby. There are four encounter locations in the scrubland, along with the main mound proper. The village takes three pages (one of which is a map) to add nothing to the adventure except a small rumor table. With a two paragraph introduction that adds nothing to the table. I’m reminded of the rumor table in Gus L’s Prison of the Hated Pretender. It’s title bar was “What the scabrous yokels in that village of broken down huts are saying:” That does at least as good a job as the three pages spent in this adventure on the village. What, pray tell, is the appeal of the “what equipment is available” fetish? This adventure spends two paragraphs telling us what the party can and can’t buy. I don’t get the appeal. All those words don’t really add anything to the adventure. There IS a “villager quirk” table that is rather nice, quirks and/or strong personalities, something to remember them by, should be a required part of every social encounter.

As indicated in just about every other AS&SH review I’ve done, I’m NOT a fan of the writing style used. I don’t think this is personal preference, at least not in the way I use that phrase. In other words, there may be multiple ways to fulfill my review standards, some of which I may prefer over others. I don’t think this is a case of the AS&SH line using a different way to get to same goal, a way that I might not prefer (personal preferences.) I think I can make a case that the adventures obfuscate data for the DM and are not evocatively written. Which is a fancy way of saying that they almost always have great ideas, but you have to work hard to get at them.

Some wandering gargoyles have strange and unsettling necklaces. The DM is elsewhere offered the advice “If the PCs make some attempt to distract or deceive the super ape-men, the referee must determine the success of their endeavour.” And in another area “the party can wash the poison off with alcohol or some other like cleaning agent.” The later two examples are, I think, examples of being too prescriptive. Of course the DM has to determine success; the DM does that about at least a hundred times in every session of D&D. Likewise the cleaning off the poison. This is something that this adventure engages in time and time again. This sort of prescriptive text add very little to the game and I would argue it detracts far more than it adds, by making the text denser for no good reason, making it harder to use during play.

The gargoyle necklace is in a different category. “Strange and unsettling” are not good descriptions. Those words are conclusions. It’s an example of using a TELL word instead of a SHOW word … and you should always SHOW instead of tell. Use different words to show me the necklace, to describe it. Then, if you’ve done a good job, the party members will conclude “ooh, that’s strange and unsettling!” This adventure engages far too much in showing instead of telling and therefore the evocative nature doesn’t come through well.

I want to spend a little time talking about the wandering table in this adventure. There are two tables, once mundane and one more fantastic. If you roll a six on the mundane table you instead roll on the fantastic table. (Which means, BTW, that the Rust Monsters in encounter six will never show up. I’m sure that wasn’t intended.) The mundane wanderers attack immediately. That’s pretty boring, I prefer slightly more pretext be offered, but, whatever. The fantastic encounters are, almost all, window dressing encounters. You meet a ghost child. Be nice to it and maybe get a combat bonus. You meet a fortune teller. Be nice and maybe get a combat bonus. You meet an X, be nice and you’ll get a combat bonus. It’s a bit of a one-trick pony. Yeah, the window dressing stuff is kind of ok, but its detachment from the rest of the adventure leaves it FEELING like it’s detached. Some effort being made to tie these in to the main adventure text would have made them come off better, as well as varying the reward a bit more. The better ones are the ones that ARE attached to other encounters, like a driverless wagon and the ones that offer variety, like a new henchman/hireling. The others feel … too samey and too detached from whats going on. They don’t LEAD to anything.

The actual encounters are pretty decent. Several of the locations in the wilderness tie together and all of them are interesting. There are a lot of things to interact with, things to do. Crossing pits on edge ledges, dodging around on moving mosaics, a two-headed pterodactyl with the usual lying/truth problem, a dude straight out of folklore who you have to REALLY hack to death, a rival NPC party to mix things up, and a decent amount more. Essentially, you get about 20 interesting “rooms” for the party to interact. They do mostly fall in to the same category of a funhouse-ish light sort of challenge/puzzle, but it’s all interactive for the players to play with and figure out, rather than just simply riddles. Closer to chessboard challenges, but not as divorced from continuity as chessboard puzzles usually are. I really like them. Maybe a little more variety, but they are nice. Plus, the lich at the end has got a GREAT short little paragraph death scene that will really make the party think they’ve accomplished something.

It’s just too bad that those encounters are hidden behind all of that text. Up until this point I would have said that Talenian has a distinctive voice. But this being a different designer I now get to generalize to: AS&SH has a distinctive voice. And it’s one I really don’t like.

The dungeon storeroom begins: “The floor of this room is stacked with funerary offerings: decorative furniture, brightly dyed textiles, wicker baskets full of grain and fruit, myriad clay pots and bowls, small idols of forgotten Hyperborean gods, teak chests filled with parchment scrolls, and more. These mundane items are amazingly well preserved by the magic of this room, but they will crumble to dust if removed from it.” So, a funerary offering storeroom with stuff that crumbles? (It does then go on to have something interesting happen, but the distinctive writing style makes the room description take up a full page.)

The preview on DriveThru is pretty useless in telling you what you will get getting, although the “Authors Note” section on the last page hints at the tortured writing style to come:

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Dungeon Magazine #128

Why keep on reviewing Dungeon? Because sometimes, when things are dark, you stumble on The One Ring.

By F. Wesley Schneider & James L. Sutter
Level 2

Danger: I LUV a good urban adventure. This is a DELIGHTFUL adventure! It’s a little mystery/guard mission in an old ladies house and is about 20 times more Ravenloft than almost all of the Ravenloft adventures. The Swan Street Slicer has escaped! On the way to jail, the mute halfling’s jailwagon was in an accident and he’s escaped! The guard is frantic, as is the entire town! Extra guards are everywhere! The party (hired? Hastily deputized?) is given the task of guarding the house of an old lady, her family having been one of the last victims. This is a nice hook. Hysteria in the city is fun, and its a good pretext as to why the guardsmen aren’t doing the guarding. They ARE, but EVERYONE/PLACE needs guards. It’s all hands on deck! So the party is in the old ladies house, guarding it/her and her daughter. The NPC’s in this are wonderful. A bitter old woman in a wheelchair. Her lovely daughter, no longer engaged since her fiance was murdered by the slicer. A halfing butler who is best described as ‘simple.’ Strong NPC personalities to interact with. Then there are the people who come to visit, PERFECTLY described. “Nina’s dim-witted but good-natured nephew.” or “a greasy but ambitious banker” and so on. In one fucking sentence for each NPC this adventure does what so many others can’t seem to do: focus on the NPC description on interactivity. Who the fuck cares what your special snowflakes eye color is? What we need to know is how to play them when the party comes to interact. There’s a great little table included for the old woman and her daugher on how the parties interactions with them will impact their attitudes/diplomacy checks. And, even better, the table notes WHERE YOU CAN FIND THINGS! Giving the daughter some letters from her dead fiance will give you some positive modifier, but the table also tells you that they are in room six! Oh the humanity! A writer who actually makes things easier for the DM! The NPC’s, the house, what’s actually going on, the window dressing, t all contributes to a wonderfully creepy vibe. As time passes the party will do that thing that brings joy to the hearts of players and DM’s. They’ll say something like “Ohhh! It’s her! I know it’s her! Ohhh! I know it!” This sort of build up, starting out slightly irregular and building until the party snap in to action, is wonderful. “Telegraphed” isn’t quite the right word, but the mix of horror, with the … levity? Anticipation? From the players is great. The maps are way too small, and you’re going to STILL need a highlighter for the rooms. They are shorter than usual for Dungeon, but still need a bit of help. That rarest of beasts: A Dungeon Magazine adventure Worth Checking Out.

The Champion’s Belt
By Tito Leati
Level 9

Another in the Age of Worms adventure path. I swear I’ve seen this adventure before … in Dark Sun form? You’re hired to participate in the cities gladiator games, a cover to investigate the tunnels below the arena. It’s the usual mess. Badly organized. Mountains and mountains of text spewed out all over the place that you have to wade through to get even the smallest semblance of how things are supposed to work. Anyway, four gladiator battles, some rooting around in the tunnels, hopefully the party finds and kills the stuff in the evil shrine before the final gladiator battle. If not, there’s a potential for thousands of wights to be turned loose on the city. THAT would be a cool thing to happen. It will be interesting to see if the next chapter of this adventure deals with that possibility. The adventure isn’t in and of itself, bad, but its very badly put together. It’s laid out in the usual encounter/key format but it’s NOT an encounter/key adventure, at least not most of it. It’s a social adventure with some investigation. You hang around. You meet people. You try and figure out how to get in to the secret tunnels, not be seen. Essentially, you want in to the Employee Only areas of the mall/football stadium, dodging employees, guards, etc. THEN you can explore and kill shit in the evil shrine. But its not laid out anyway near that to support it. Sure, you CAN run, if you dump a shit ton of work in to it. Even with the stupid fucking tactics-jerkoff-fest gladiator fights, this could have been a decent adventure, IS a decent adventure, if only you could pull the shit you need out of it in a way that makes sense for running the game. Most of the maps in this are small, and nigh unreadable, another stone against it.

The Fireplace Level
By Eric L. Boyd
Level 14

The finale of the three-part Vampires in Waterdeep adventure arc. Thank God. “The fissure opened up over six decades ago, in the Year of Catacombs (1308 DR). It’s just large enough to permit passage by a size Medium or smaller creature.” This is the kind of joy you are in for. And then … “In the Year of Catacombs (1308 DR), a purple worm passed through the Wormwrithings Portal (F2A) and appeared here. The damage might have been far worse is the temporal stasis trap in the hallway had not caught the gigantic worm at the locations marked F2B. Rge Company of Crazed Venturers stumbled upon the purple worm in the Year of the Gate (1341 DR). Calling on connections that Company member Nain and Savengriff had with the Blackstaff Tower, the Company managed to have the worm removed, after they transformed it in to solid silver with the help of a magic item. Khelben later cast gate seal on the portal ‘for the security of the city’ before departing.” That is but one part of the massive text in one hallway that has some stone damage in it. How the fuck does that enrich the adventure for the players? Actually, I’d much rather be playing THAT adventure than this one. Turning a purple worm to silver, looting it, all to get access to the dungeon its carcass is blocking, sounds like fun. But that’s not THIS adventure. There’a merman vampire, with a ridiculous picture. I don’t see how this is runnable in any manner other than worst caricature ever of a bad D&D game/DM. Go from room to room and kill shit. Joy. Oh Eric, I’m glad you finally escaped to a new job at the university. I just wish it were more memorable.

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