Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes

By Jeffrey Talanian
North Wind Adventures
Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea
Level 2-4

Somewhere in the depths of Diamond Desert lie the skeletal remains of Ymir’s Serpent, a legendary Viking longship. In days of yore, Sigtrygg Forkbeard led his company upriver, piercing the desert’s hostile heart. There the Vikings unearthed a lost mine brimming with green diamonds, but the River Æolus desiccated as the Serpent prepared for launch, and the ship was swallowed by the dunes. Forkbeard and his company were never seen again, but tales of a shimmering Viking ghost ship gliding over the dunes persist to this day.

This sixty page adventure takes the party through a border-village on through the desert to an old mine. There’s a nice variety of encounters, but the final dungeon skews hard to the “linear” side of things, in spite of the more open-ended border village and desert. It’s all wrapped in text that carries Talanian’s distinctive voice; a dream to some and a nightmare to others. There’s a real adventure here, along with a lot of Harn-like detail. Your tolerance to wading through the prose will determine your ability to run it.

The hook here is pretty lame: you’re hired by a wizard (“a male witch” the text kindly tells us) to take him to a lost mine of green diamonds, a a gemstone that can be rare and dangerous. What saves it is the NPC, the wizard in question. He’s got a pegleg and a distinctive arrogant/asshole/disdainful personality to go with it. That slowly changes as he closer to the mine. And his eyes glow. Green. Greener as you get closer. Nice NPC!

Off you go. You can stop off at a village on the edge of the desert to gain a level, from 2-3, under the pretext following up on a green diamond rumor. From there you trek through the desert, with a couple of distinctive encounters, until you read the mine … which is really quite a linear dungeon. The titular ghost ship is a rumor, and maybe flies around the desert a little at night if the wandering table turns it up.

The adventure here is a good one with a nice variety of encounters. The initial village adventure is a nice little social wandering that is well supported by the NPC’s in the village, with decent color. It’s supported by a nice little summary as well as a note of the key locations. There’s a nice rumor table as well, to add some local intrigues to the mix. It centers around a local scandal, with shades of Smeagel, brothers, wise-women, and a wildman. The more the party looks in to things the more color comes out and the more hints they get about what they are up against. The wildman lairs in an old temple. The entire section, from the village to the temple, is a nice, and colorful, little open-ended bit of adventuring.

From there the party ends up in the desert trekking to the old mine. There are a handful of places detailed as well as an “advanced” wandering monster table. Let’s hope that the party keeps their ules around to maybe feed to any purple worms that show up. A handful of small, but colorful, adventure sites are included, although I doubt most parties will encounter more than two or so. Still, they are quite nicely done. An old gem mine, dead atlanteans with a flamethrower, ant hills, and a giant spider are featured in one small encounter. In another the NPC wizard meets an old friend, a hermit. And almost certainly ends up blasting a hole in the dudes chest. Man, that NPC wizards is THE. SHIT. from an ‘adventure color’ standpoint. The gem mine, at the end, is more than a little linear and the ghost ship may not even show up. But still. Pools of water. Vermin, like Black Centipedes, slimes, a giant ape. Ancient technology. Its got lots of nice encounters down there.

Let’s address the gorilla in the room: Talanian’s voice. Jeffrey Talanian is one of the few (only?) people writing RPG supplements who, if formatted the same, you could tell who wrote the thing without their name being attached. Dude has a seriously idiosyncratic writing style. Grammer. Vocabulary. Detail. They add up to something more than the usual “technical writing” style that most designers use. It’s an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired. I admire that he has a distinctive voice. I just wish he tempered it more. “This natural cavern was worked to a gradient to accommodate the mining operations that took place here.” He means, of course, “the cave slopes.” I find his writing style exhausting, having to work through it to figure out what he’s trying to say. It’s like your car’s manual was written in the style of WIlliam Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. On of the primary conceits of the tenfoopole is that the adventure is, first and foremost, a tool to be used for running a game at the table. It is, therefore, a piece of technical writing. A peculiar type in which artistic license MUST be taken with language in order to deliver terse and evocative bursts in to a DM’s brain. All perfectly organized. Dionysus and Apollo, together at last. Too often I feel like I’m fighting the text in this. His archaic style obfuscates rather than enables, and often to little evocative effect. “The dais is dominated by an eight-foot-tall, verdigris-encrusted bronze statue of a cobra set within a glyph-incised alcove.” I assert that description, in spite of the vocabulary and grammar choices, is boring. Boring in the way facts are boring. Yes, it tells us what’s there. But it doesn’t necessarily inspire us, the DM, to a great mental image.

Talanian also deals with ecology and this is where the Harn comparisons come in, or perhaps the MERP region supplements. The village the party stops at has a festival once a year, that’s fully detailed. Harvest times are detailed. One encounter in the desert, unlikely to happen, is with a field of cactus. Which have their flowering seasons detailed and the fauna attracted to them. “… and small bats pollinate the pink and white blossoms of the early Tempest [spring.]” Uh. Ok. The ecology here is rich, both in the desert encounters and in the others. But this isn’t a MERP regional module. It’s an adventure to be run at the table and EVERYTHING in the main text must contribute to that. There’s a place for extra detail. It’s called an appendix. Many designers could improve their products by putting the extra detail in an appendix and referring to the page in the text. The village, likewise, suffers from this ecology fetishment. The village lies down at the base of some hills/cliffs. Up top, scattered along the edge, are some totem poles. There is one off-hand remark about this mid-way through the village, in the description of one of the shopkeepers (ok, a monk sect.) Something along the lines of “they main the totems around the village.” You don’t really learn they are there until you go to the wilderness text, after the village. Sure would be nice if you knew about it immediately …so you could tell the party about it immediately. Instead it’s like you’re reading some weirdly laid out cultural reference tome of the village and have to be intimately familiar with everything before you can get the big picture. Not to appear to be harping, but the cactus field is an excellent short example.

I have one more general complaint that will make me sounds like a petty ass: the use of italics. I don’t know if it’s the font, the kerning, or what, but the italics in this makes my head hurt. All of the read-aloud, sometimes a couple of paragraphs worth at a time, and other special thing, like trease, are in this italics font. I LOATHE it. It’s almost like trying to read a small italics cursive font.I suspect it has something to do with the “main” font, and readability. Whatever it is, it drives me nutty.

You gotta dig out the information in this one. But if you do you’ll have a nice little adventure, with a decent amount of the human condition driving aspects of the secondary situations encounters. Which is both relatable and something not very many adventures do. The result is something that feels a little gamma world-ish. Several fantasy environments, from Tekumel to Blackmoor, have a kind of post-apoc vibe deep inside of them, even though they are fantasy games. This adventure fits that vibe.

The preview on DriveThru is worthless, showing you just the cover and title pages.

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The Ghost of Jack Cade on London Bridge

By Dominique Crouzet
Dice of Might Publishing
Dark Albion/OSR
Level 1

There’s a spooky ghost on London Bridge! Can the party help?

This is a 28 page investigation/social adventure in a pseudo-historical/fantasy urban locale: london bridge. It’s presented in a more sandboxy manner than the usual linear plots-based dreck. It describes what’s going on, the people involved, and the locations on the bridge, and then leaves the party to figure out what they want to want to do. This is all adjudicated by the DM using the materials presented in the text to roll with the punches and determine what happens based on the backgrounds & data presented. You know, D&D. Thus the adventure groks the overall goal/vision but falls down in the execution: I don’t think it’s laid out in a manner that helps the DM run it.

The setting is Dark Albion, a kind of pseudo-historical europe that will be familiar to those experienced with the same sort of thing in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It’s a decent setting for a gritty urban adventure … gritty urban being a favorite genre of mine. As an introductory adventure it creates a nice hook: the party is, each individually, on their way to a pilgrimage in Canterbury, which traditionally starts in a chapel on the bridge. With a few days to kill because of a delay, the party sees a terrified woman rush in to their inn and corner a priest with tales of a ghost. As the only other people in the inn, he seeks the parties help. There’s enough extra to make it more than the usual empty adventure pretext.

The text gives a brief summary of what’s going on and then expands on each of the various aspects. There’s a little bit of history and then a description of the various main people in the set up. A brief description of how the ghost appears and what people do, a brief description of the major adventure locates, a brief description of some shops for the bridge. The adventure comes from how the party chooses to approach the hook. Go looking in to places? Asking questions? Hanging out to catch a sight of the ghost? Nothing is programmed in the adventure as a plot and all of the descriptions must then be used by the DM as a resource to respond to what the characters are doing. This is a great way to organize a more social/investigative adventure. There may be better ways, but if there are they don’t immediately spring to mind. There are some good businesses for an urban environment that will provide some nice GAMEABLE content for the party to have fun with as well some good loose-ends on where to take the party after the main adventure completes. The text is trying to provide a framework, resources if you will, for the DM to take the inciting event and then respond to what the players do. That’s exactly what this sort of adventure SHOULD do.

But, notice I said “trying to provide.” The gets itself in to trouble. There’s too much, even in this short adventure, to hold in your head. That means you have to refer to the adventure during the adventure. And the adventure doesn’t make it very easy to run at the table. The font is small, the data is organized in long paragraphs. Data is spread out throughout the book. When you do find a logical section then the data you need/want isn’t present. In one core building everyone inside gets their name stated in their little romo description. Except for the main guy, who owns the building. His name is in the intro section. One woman, a wealth of information, owns a shop. What kind of shop? Not stated.These are minor nits issues but lend to the general theme of the … unsuitability? of the text at the table.

This marries two concepts: background exposition and stickiness. I usually rail about excessive background information and I usually rail about encounters that are not tersely written. Except when the encounter is sticky. And except when the background information is relevant to actual play. (And not in some bullshit sophistry like ‘it MIGHT come up in play!’) In both cases we appeal to the general use: it can’t get in the way of actually running the game at the table. Stickiness helps there. In reusing my favorite example, you see the name “Old Bay’s Cave” and you know generally what’s inside and how to run the room without reading more. Stickiness and exposition can be exploited, together, by proving some summarized information. A good example is Maze of Blue Medusa. Each room gets a decent-sized write up. Let’s assume you read the room once, sometime before you actually run the game. If you never look at that information again you will, when running the game at the table, remember some amount of information about the room. One option is that you could run then run the room, from memory, without really doing much more than glancing down at the text. You would have some degree of success in running the room by using the text as inspiration, both from what you remember from reading the text beforehand and whatever you see in the glance at the big paragraphs. What Maze of the Blue Medusa does is then provide your failing memory further cues. It says “hey, here’s this picture on the map which is related to the room” … and you remember something more of the encounter from that cue. But, and more key, it also provides a little one or two sentence summary of the room. It is from that summary that most of your memory cues stem from. It has found a way to provide exposition on the room AND make the room usable at a glance in play while losing very little of their key nature. That is what this adventure, and many other adventures with dense text, sorely need.

That’s why I like summary information. Read the adventure once and then refer to the summary sheet to prompt your memory, with occasional glances at the text. That’s what this adventure needs. It needs a little timeline. It needs the NPC’s summarized with personalities (a stats sheet for enemies IS provided, which is QUITE welcomes! As would one for people/personalities since this is primarily a social adventure …) A timeline, a social summary, a location summary, all on two or three pages, would have made all of the rest of the exposition fall in to line and give the DM the tools they need. Instead you get to buy a highlighter and invest time in highlighting and making notes on a pad of paper.

It’s an ok adventure, it’s just hard to use in play. A little more personality for the NPC’s, a little more timeline. Some summaries. That would have turned it in to a good adventure.

The preview, on DriveThru, will give you a good idea of what to expect. The last couple of pages, in particular, show you what kind of descriptions you get for the locations, as well as the general timeline of the action (in text/paragrapgh form, rather than timeline form.) What’s you don’t get to see are the supplemental businesses on the bridge, in the back part of the book, which should add quite a bit to the adventure.—The-Ghost-of-Jack-Cade-on-London-Bridge

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Dungeon Magazine #127

Do you want something other than linear combat adventure? Then Dungeons & Dragons is not for you. After wading through all of these Dungeon Magazines, the Internet shift to the OSR makes complete sense.

Why are you still reading these “Reviews”?

The Hive
By Phillip Larwood
Level 5

Ant dwarf hybrids are featured in this linear hack-fest. Linear maps. Rooms with nothing more than combat. Go from room to room, with no choice, and masturbate to your min-max’d characters tactics. This “adventure” is just a simple wargame, and not a very good one. The word count is padded to shit and back.

The Hall of Harsh Reflections
By Jason Bulmahn
Level 7

Part blah blah blah of the Age of Worms adventure path. It’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for these. Gate guards abuse you, a couple of COMPLETELY telegraphed street encounters. A fight in a bar. Raid the doppelganger lair. Raid the mind flayers lair. “Oh no! The chimera in the parade has escaped!” Who cares. “Oh no! Combat in the bar!” Who cares. Some attempt is made, in the beginning to add a bit of variety. Wanderers include bandits, who flee when one of them is killed, and trolls, bitching about some adventurers that raided them. The corrupt gate guards exemplify things. They try to shake you down. They bake off if you insist on your innocence. What if you just kill the fuckers? Are you prepared to deal with that? I mean, the designer instigated the scenario and killing the asshats is certainly in the cards. Pages of text is used where a couple of sentences could suffice, especially for the shit that passes for “adventure” in this thing. The man behind the curtain is boring.

Blood of Malar
By Eric L. Boyd
Level 13

Vampires of Waterdeep, part two. This is a 36 room dungeon with a decent looping map. It’s at its worst when it’s engaging in Forgotten Realms simulationist/historically accurate fetishism, with mountains of text and long ineffective read-aloud. Lots of opportunity for useless background data “A year ago a destrachan crawled up from the underdark and fought some adventurers and died, resulting in this rubble filled room.” Note the contrast between this “explaining why” and Curse of the Shrine Goddess, where stars disappear from the sky with no explanation of why. One concentrates on play and creates fun. The other concentrates on some historical novelization of the adventure, and sucks shit. There’s some flying finger/hand monsters. Those are nice. The whole plot thing is is garbage, but can be easily ignored, thank god. Not odious, just not good.

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Curse of the Shrine Goddess

By Oswald
Self Published
Level 1-3

A man built a temple to a woman who died. It became a shrine for those who lost a spouse too soon. Later. Much later. A young couple came. Their tribes warred so they could only marry in death. It was poison. Which angered her. They walk the temple ever since, cursed by a shrine spirit. She has a hatred of suicide only dead widows can know.

Heads Up: This adventure went through my Critique Partner service.

This is an eight page PWYW exploration adventure in a shrine/tomb that kind of channels the backstory of the Taj Mahal. It’s got great imagery and lots of little scenes that lend this wonderful vibe of mourning and loss to the various areas. There’s some great construction in this, making things work together to an overall effect. It’s dreamy, haunting, frightening, and does it all through interaction with the characters, forcing nothing on them. It tempts.

Eight pages with twelve rooms makes this a pretty focused adventure. A title page, a map page, a rumor/mechanics page, and then four pages of keyed encounters and one more half page describing a couple of more mechanical pieces. The adventure describes Coral Castle, an old shrine and temple. What do we know about it? Well “the superstitious lot of local muck dwellers have this to say about it …” says the intro to the rumor table. I’d like to note that one intro sentence provides more gameable inspiration about the local village than dozens of the throw-away villages I’ve seen. “Muck dwellers” … maybe on stilts, on the edge of a bog, muck, literally? Oh yeah. The rumors, twelve, add to the fun. They are written in a kind of folk manner, embedding some part of the teller in to their wording. Reading rumor nine “We were a proud people once …” it starts out. And you get, through it, a detailed image of the speaker in your mind. A mournful kind of person, maybe a bit in their cups, knowing what kind of people they once were and how they’ve fallen to what they are now. To be clear: there’s nothing more of the local village presented beyond this rumor table. And this adventure does not, in any way, need it.

The imagery in this adventure is great. Rot swollen door. Cherry blossom leaves fall in slight wind. Sky blue splotches of color bleeding through the coral wall. A bowl of rot. A floor dirt soaked and hardened with animal blood. But that’s only the static descriptions. The Crypt of Widowed Virgins, underground, as some water on the floor. Skeletons in the lower alcoves crawl through the water, making no ripples, attempting to drag players in to the lower alcoves and drown them. Nice stuff! Short. Strong imagery. Great play opportunities. In an alter room skeletons in frilly pastel trousers playing pipes and carrying a litter with a skeletal bride and fight the party to get her to the altar to marry. Strong use of language compliments the more dynamic room elements, that are themselves well done, to bring about this excellent picture built up in the DMs head.

I tend to harp on terse and evocative writing. I do this because boring and lengthy writing is a common problem in most adventures and making it terse and evocative is an easy contrast that can’t be confused. There are Other Ways though. You can write sticky. You can create a little element that, while longer, only needs to be read once in your lifetime and it will remain with you. Old Bay, the hill giant in the crab-men caves from Fight On #3 (itself one of the best dungeon levels ever) is one of those characters. Once read you will never forget the old crab-leg loving guy. Likewise there are at least three things described in this adventure, a little longer than normal, that you will only need to read once, maybe just referring back to stat at some point but never needing to come back for their character. You grok them. There are two lovers trapped inside the shrine, cursed. There is a maze that can appear between doorways and a “minotaur” in the maze. All three are sticky in the same way as old bay. The woman, Alaesis is determined. Steely eyed obsession. She refuses to feel despair. Aturio is panicked and worried, desperate for help. Knows he is hunted. Has died 86 times and is a broken man. The minotaur is their child (not A&A, but the Taj Mahal builder dude and his dead love) that was never conceived. Perfect-looking, 20, Strong, beautiful, intelligent, kingly. Never fails morals. He could have been anything. He would have been great. There’s more text for all three, but I’ve given you some of the highlights. VERY strong characterization for the DM to work with and expand upon, without having to refer back to multiple paragraphs of text.

There’s a great element of the weird in this. You can steal gems from the night sky mural on the roof of one of the rooms. “Afterward, looted stars no longer show at night. Ever.” Nice! Or w window you can crawl out of, in to the void you see through it, to see the UNDERSIDE of the castle … and the secret is holds. There’s no real attempt to explain this, or the stars, or other details. And there doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t fall in to the trap of trying to explain the WHY of the weird in a game where elves shoot fireballs. And yet it’s not arbitrary. There’s a story that can unfold, through the various rooms, if the party pays attention. They can figure out some of the secrets hidden away

The adventure relies on temptation for a lot of its action. There’s loot laying around. Looting, in what is essentially a large memorial crypt, while the deceased is present in spirit form, leads EXACTLY where you would expect it to. When you loot, or do other things to piss of the dead lady, some of the room ‘activate.’ IE: the cherry blossom trees in the garden have their leaves fall and blow … acid leaves that burn the skin. That crypt of widowed virgins? They’ve mostly got valuable wedding rings on … I love it when a adventure puts this sort of temptation in front of the players. Everyone knows something bad will happen. The players are making a deliberate and informed choice (implicitly informed, sometimes) and tus THEY control the action. And if it were playing I’d gleefully loot the place like a cackling madman. Consequences be damned, they only add to the fun!

It’s a good adventure. My critiques are nitpicks. Maybe a little more formatting for certain sections to make the Treasure and Activated sections stand out a bit more than they already do. There’s a maze mechanic that you have to read a couple of times to get ahold of it. If I were doing it I’d probably devote a sentence or two to the approach, to try and generate a mythic underworld transition and/or enhance the otherworldly aspect; maybe put it up high on a cliff with a narrow coral path and lots of mists and sea spray or something like that.

This was a solid adventure and the revisions to it have really kicked it up a notch. I think it compares favorably to the adventures Gus L does at Dungeon of Signs. Short/terse. Evocative. Punchy. Memorable. Not forced but presenting opportunities.

The preview on DriveThru is a little TOO good. It’s eight pages long. And the adventure is eight pages. Not cool if you believe people are jerks, but WONDERFUL for a Pay What You Want adventure. You’ll know EXACTLY what you are getting. Check out the last page for the minotaur description or page four for the Aturio & Alaesis description. Or the second to last page for both the wedding altar and crypt of widowed virgins.

Posted in Level 1, Reviews, The Best | 10 Comments

The Nevermore Mines

By Jon Bertani, Aaron Fairbrook, Mark McAllister
Merciless Merchants
For Gold & Glory/2e
Level 4-7

For generations, bards have enjoyed spinning the tale to honest folk and their children of the lost Nevermore Mines and the Master of Darkness that lies within them. They warn the children that if they misbehave, the Dark Master will come for them and take them away to be lost in the Mines forever. Most folk regard these stories as spirited attempts by bards to make some coin, but the town of Oakvale was just recently attacked by the nightmare from the tales. Will your group be brave enough to travel to the Nevermore Mines to discover and put to rest this great evil?

This 56 page adventure describes a two-level mine now being used as a lair by a devil, along with the wilderness environs around the lair. It’s a pretty classic environment, with an encounter mix that is a cut above the usual dreck. It’s also a classic “highlighter adventure”, being absolutely clogged with text. It’s clear a lot of effort went in to this, and unfortunate that its usability is hampered.

A devil possessed a miner long ago and is now trapped in the mine; warded from leaving. He’s accumulated some followers. There are a small selection of hooks to get the party in to the mine, most of which are the usual boring stuff. Our children are missing. Hired to go find something, and so on. But there’s also … you won the deed in a poker game! This, and the associated “found the deed” and “were granted the deed as a reward” are great examples of appealing to the players. “Well, I got this deed to a gold mine …” That’s the kind of very personal appeal to a player that I think makes a good adventure hook.

The wilderness area leading to the mine is about five miles long, with a couple of paths leading off of the main trail, and ten encounter areas scattered through the side trails. This is supported by a small wandering monster table that … is a little fun! An etting having an internal monologue that does not immediately attack, hobgoblins that don’t attack immediately … it’s amazing! A variety of encounter types from mundane, to mysterious, to social, to the usual monster attack. The variety is refreshing to see. Similarly, the wilderness encounters proper have a decent mix of variety to them. Several simple barrows to explore, an abandoned hut, a nice rock bridge to a werewolf lair, “the slime cave” (with weird mushrooms!) and a bog, complete with ghost children carving weird pumpkins to scare off the evil one and light the way for their parents to find them. Again, several non-violent encounters or encounters that let the party get themselves in to trouble (grave robbing the high priest? Ought oh …) The variety and mix is great, as well as the fact that there’s an actual REAL wilderness area offered .. even if it is a little simple, being paths through the mountains.

The main encounter location is a two-level mine with about twenty five rooms in total. The vibe inside is that of … surprise! a mine that has a devil inside! There’s a mix of natural type things (spiders, mine workings) with devil-like things such as heads hanging on hooks and so on. Generally each room has one encounter in it, and there’s some direction on how to respond to incursions … so more of a lair dungeon than an exploratory dungeon. That would usually mean that it skews heavily toward “this room has a guard monster that attacks you” but this adventure throws in a decent amount of encounters that don’t just feel like a slog. There are captives to rescue, dead children to find, a ghostly prisoner to “make friends with” … which is a banshee! It’s a nice little devil lair with a bunch of fucked-up monsters, not all of who like each other.

The primary sin is verbosity. The adventure confuses a long descriptions with a good description. Every single room/encounter gets two or three paragraphs of text. The text is a combination of fact based descriptions and history, neither of which I’m particularly fond of. The history is, generally, not needed in adventures and serves to only pad the adventure word count. Which makes it harder to find the information that you actually DO need to run the adventure. The “fact based description” ding sounds weird, I know. While not the worst, I think these sorts of fact-based descriptions come off, at best, flat and at worst trend to the “useless detail” end of the spectrum … which once again ends up clogging things up. The flatness comes from a communication style that is attempting to communicate too much. The designer needs to communicate a vibe, or feeling, to the DM, letting them fill in the rest. There’s a very long paragraph in one of the rooms of the slime caves. “A large hole in the ceiling on the east side of the chamber opens into the open sky above and light from the moon or sun is able to shine through the room.” I think we all get what the intent is. The designer clearly has a picture in their head and is trying to get that out to the DM. And yet “God rays stream in from a hole in the ceiling.” 10 words instead of 33 and, I think, a much better visual built up for the DM. I know it seems minor, but that first long paragraph has eight long sentences in it and it would be a BEAST to go through during play. Short. Punchy/Evocative. The last paragraph, of the same room, reads: “ Anyone entering the bubbling mud bath will find it very warm and comfortable. The basin is approximately four feet deep and three human sized characters can fit in it at once. Anyone spending an hour or more in the mud bath will heal twice the amount from their next resting for a full day.” Again, this could be shortened considerably, getting rid of useless wording and still delivering the intent, less prescriptively, in a more evocative manner.

The barrow mounds are good example. One of them has four of five “empty” rooms, all of which get relatively lengthy descriptions, about sixty words, to describe chambers that have nothing much going on in them. They are, at best, window dressing. A short, punchy description, would have communicated more for less and be easier to run during play.

There’s also this tendency to elaborate on the “why” of things. Backstory for monsters, usually. Tickles the evil clown (yes, I know. It’s ok, the entire adventure isn’t like that. A better word than “clown” should have been used.) has this buried in his backstory: “However, due to the Master’s experiments, Tickles can now regenerate like a troll and has special abilities.” You don’t need to explain WHY a monster can regen, unless you’re doing some kind of mythic thing. In fact, we probably don’t need Tickles backstory at all. He’s unlikely to engage in conversation the way the ghost children in the bog are (who DO talk to the party, and thus a little more can be justified.) Again, all of this is towards the singular end of making the room descriptions, the text the DM has to wade through to run the game at the table, useful AT THE TABLE. Hunting for information is a pain. Hence … a classic highlighter adventure. Flawed, but a highlighter helps a bit. If you have to use a highlighter then things could be better.

There are a few other nits as well. There are a few magic items worth paying attention to, but most are just book magic items or treasure with no attempt to make most of them more interesting. That’s too bad, because the ones that ARE new are pretty interesting. The maps are weird. A bright blue background was chosen for a couple of them, which seems really weird and I find distracting. But, there’s also some attempt to include more interesting detail on a few, like the slime cave. That map shows a nice blue river running through the cave and tries to communicate some information with more detail on the map. The whole thing is jammed with art .. of varying usefulness. Sometimes I like a good monster art piece, or room art piece, because they can communicate a vibe well. This one is hit and well. The pumpkin man comes across well, as a monster, as does the slime cave entrance on the same page. Quite a few of the others work less well. They come across as “generic imp” or “generic gargoyle.”

This is a decent little adventure that’s going to take a decent amount of highlighter work, and DM visualization and notes, to make work to the degree I expect.

You can find this on DriveThru. The last page of the preview shows a description for wilderness area #1. That’s a decent enough example of both good art (the standing stone picture does a good job communicating the vibe) and the verbose/fact-based descriptions.

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Dungeon Magazine #126

Encounter at Blackwall Keep
By Sean K Reynolds
Level 5

Part three of Age of Worms adventure path. The pretext is escorting a wizard to see his friend at a keep. Getting there, it’s under attack by lizardmen. Breaking the siege you go to their lair and kill lizardmen, along with their minion harpies, kobolds, and anything else they could throw in. Coming back to the keep they find a creature in the basement is active, killing some of the remaining soldiers. The wandering table, on the way to the keep, is a cut above. Only one fight is prescribed … and even then maybe not forced. They focus too much on mechanics instead of evocative travellers, but, at least it’s something. There is an INSANE amount of text in this adventure, from the read-aloud to the DM notes. And EVERYTHING is all mixed up, with no rhyme or reason as to how information is organized in the DMs sections. The amount of crud you have to wade through in order to pull out data is truly amazing.

The Clockwork Fortress
By Wolfgang Baur
Level 8

Clockwork dude contacts party to get them to clean out his mobile fortress, full of derro and chaos. It’s full of the usual “pad the word count by explaining things you don’t need to know” that makes wading through, and using, Dungeon adventures so hard. I’m reproducing one section at the end of the review as an example. There’s really not much to the adventure. Just rooms with monsters in it to fight, along with a few gear-based traps and obstacles. To its credit, there ARE a few things that are not hostile, in essence a second faction to the fortress. It’s too bad Baur stooped to something like this, I assume, to get paid.

Blood of Malar
By Eric L. Boyd
Level 13

“Vampires of Waterdeep, Part One” is how this is touted … Vampire lady shows up in a bar and proclaims a young nobleman the target of “the hunt”. A bunch of patrons transform in to werewolves (who are themselves vampires) Noble runs away, werewolf vampire people give chase. The party, for some reason, gives a shit? There’s some subterfuge, and a hidden goal, but it’s all buried in some Forgotten Realms simulationist exposition that borders on fetishism. Full of names that only a fuckwit obsessed with the forgotten realms could love. “Headmistress Dhusarra yr Fadila el Abhuk”, “Lord Orlpar Husteem”, “Noreyth Harpell”,

The Menagerie
By B. Matthew Conklin III
Level 6

Some monsters (cockatrice, darkmantle, rust monster, etc) have escaped inside a shop. Four rooms, a different monster fight in each room, designed to be chaotic. Rust monsters in the dark of the mantle, cockatrice/chickens in a room full of shelves, etc.

Example Time!
Here is one paragraph from the text of the Clockwork Fortress/Baur adventure. Note the extreme use of explaining WHY and HOW that add nothing to the adventure.

Creatures: The waters of the moat that surround the Clockwork Fortress are surprisingly warm, heated by the inner workings of the fortress furnace. A dozen killer frogs (originally taken from Blackmoor) dwell in these waters. The frogs generally prey on wildlife in the surrounding region, and of late have caught more than a few derro as well. Rather than exterminate the frogs, the derro decided to give them a wide berth, figuring that they’d add a welcome layer of security to their operation. The frogs don’t attack anyone who crosses the drawbridge, but anyone who approaches within 5 feet of the moat’s edge (or enters the water) attracts the attention of 1d4 frogs. Killer frogs are pony-sized amphibians with long needle-like teeth that protrude from their jaws even when they’re closed. They also have long hook-like talons on their webbed hands and feet. Killer frogs (12): hp 34 each; see appendix.

Do we care why the water are warm or where the frogs came from of why they are there? No. The entire thing would be improved by simply stating (and remember, I’m a suck -ass writer!)

1d4 killer frogs attack any near/in the water, except people crossing the bridge. They have long needle-like teeth protruding from their jaws and long hook-like talons on their webbed hands & feet.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 2 Comments

The Curse of Harken Hall

By Simon Todd
MontiDots Limited
Level 1

Clovis Harken, Lord of Highcliff Gard has but six months to live, at least if the family curse is anything to go by. His wife, Karlina is going frantic as he has forbidden any from investigating the curse. But he has gone on a hunting trip, and Karlina has sent word to the wayside Inn asking for investigators to explore a mysterious door hidden behind a mural in the oldest part of the manor. It’s easy money if it were but a simple coal store….

This thirty five page adventure details the dungeon behind a newly found secret door in the manor of a cursed lord. With twenty-one rooms over thirteen pages, the rooms are … expansivly encountered, with each rooms many features generally ALL having some sort of thing associated with them. It could use a hard organization overhaul to deal effectively with the organizational consequences of that dense content. It can also be a little bland in its treatment of treasure and goes overboard with DM advice and mixes setting data in through a repetition I found tedious. This adventure feels like … I don’t know. It feels like a good old-school basement adventure in which each room has a lot of stuff going on.

Every lord of the manor dies at forty, because of some curse you hear about from a bard. A summons to the manor from the lady reveals her husband is out hunting and will return in six hours. She wants you to explore a new secret door she found, thinking it may contain information on lifting the family curse. The house guards are loyal to her husband, who doesn’t want anyone poking around with the curse.

I described the rooms in the dungeon as expansive, or perhaps dense is a better word. The first room has maybe six different things going on. There are spiders in the ceiling joists, with big wiggling food sacks hanging. There’s a chest and a mound of burlap. There are banners under a sheet, and 7’ tall statue, along with a table and a rubbish/slurry pile near a locked door with an obvious key missing from the keyring next to the door. Don’t go poking in the rafters and the spiders keep to themselves, you may not even see them. Fuck with their food sacks and rats run out of the walls to investigate. The wet burlap has rats in it. The missing key is in the rubble at the foot of the door, along with some giant centipedes. And on and on it goes, to the tune of a page and a half. The writing is not exemplar in its use of terse & evocative language, but it’s not exactly full of garbage irrelevent history and backstory either. Well. Usually. It IS more verbose than I would prefer in places. “Inform the player that the spells are instantly readable by a magic user” is the advice when you find some scrolls in a chest. Or “A cleric, magic user or druid is able to identify the dried herbs as St. John’s Wort, a plant used as a ward against fae that can also be used as a bug repellent if burnt.” In the table description there’s “On the table are gauntlets and a battle axe with a leather cover.” and then “the battle axe is serviceable.” This sort of thing happens again and again. I’m not sure I would make the choices to include this information … but it’s also pretty hard to damn the product for it. Well, but for …

The density of the rooms, combined with the organizational style, makes the extraneous data stick out more than usual. There’s just SO MUCH that you start looking for ways to manage your way through it. More than the detail I think this is an impact of the style. The rooms almost always start off with a read-aloud. In the case of room one it’s two paragraphs long. It’s pretty fact based, which I generally rail against, but it also touches on nearly every thing in the room to investigate. If you believe that the DM should feed “follow up” hints to party, for them to inquire further about, then this is the read aloud for you! Here’s the read-aloud section for the spiders and cocoons: “The rafters, 10 feet above your head, are coated in cobwebs. There
are seven cocoons about two feet long at intervals dangling from the ceiling. They twitch erratically.” Other read-aloud bits mention the table, statue, sheet covering something, the doors, and so on. Actually, the cocoon read-aloud is not bad for evocative imagery, but the rest IS pretty fact based. The various sections are then bolded out in the text. IE: “The Table” is a bolded section heading, as is “The Banners” and “The Chest and Mound of Burlap” and “The Statue” and “The South Wall.” Note the disconnect between the section headings and the read-aloud. Banners? No banners mentioned in the read-aloud. They are under a sheet that IS mentioned. The South wall? That’s the door on the south wall. Then there’s an entire section of text after the read-aloud and before the first section heading which describe a pool of seeping water, a stairway, the wall symbols the walls are painted with, the cocoons and spiders. Then the monsters are bolded in the various section, in a slightly larger font. It really needs slightly better organization. Consistency in the section headings, the monsters maybe indented instead of bolding with larger font, and the section heading being consistent. I recall another product I just reviewed that had a kind of bullet point layout. That format, I think, would have worked wonders to help group and call out the content in this dungeon. None of which means it’s BAD, just that it could be better.

The whole thing FEELS like a classic dungeoncrawl, even if the map is really just a couple of rings of corridors/rooms. The content of the rooms leads to this exploratory vive that’s going on. You can interact with stuff. Search the garbage for a key. Peel back peeling paint to find a door. Fuck with the statue. It’s quite interactive and some rooms, like the first room, are bursting with interactivity. More than anything else it feels like those old 1e DMG example dungeon rooms, with the holes filled with wood, the trapdoor, and the stream with a skeleton and scroll case in it.

Loves of B2 will rejoice knowing that the manor gets a small write up also … along with its considerable treasure and magic items contents. Murder Hobos, Represent! The adventure does get a little heavy in places, especially prior to the dungeon proper, with setting data. It tells you about 200 times that demi-humans and humanoids are called Erle Folk, clerics are multi-religion, and MU’s can brew potions. Maybe it’s the repetition, but the setting info felt a little too much, even though it does have a kind of interesting Ars Magica/Harn-ish vibe to it. More fantasy than those two settings but still skewing more in that direction than most adventures do. The treasure is generally pretty good. The magic items skew towards the book variety but they do have some decent details, like a +1 dagger with an ivory handle with inlay in the form of a sinister faun. (Which fits in to the “alien fae” theming as well.)

The exploratory nature of the dungeon as well as the variety in non-standard encounters (floating skulls shooting magic missile! Trapped fae spirit!) makes this one of those rare cases where I think it’s worth pulling out the highlighter. My impossibly high standards do a disservice to these journeyman works. One day I should collect them all on a second page. In any event, this is good enough to make me want to see more from the publisher/designer. Expect to see some more in the near future.

You can find this on DriveThru, but we warned the preview is pretty useless in determining what’s up with the actual useful content. (Ha! A new area for me to bitch about! “The preview doesn’t show a useful page.”)

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The Beast That Waits

By Curtis Lyon
Three Sages Games
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 1-3

Welcome to Graven, a quiet and peaceful little hamlet. Or is it? The Baron hasn’t come down from his keep in three years. Bandits and worse have been stalking the road. People have been disappearing down by the river. The mine has become unsafe since a recent earthquake… And something has started killing villagers in the night. There is a need for brave adventurers…

This is a 52 page region in trouble with various little things to do scattered throughout, and interconnected. It’s not really enough to call it a regional sandbox; more of a description of the lands around a village. It needs a little more ‘going on’ for the DM to throw in and suffers from a word count issue … but mostly because the sheer size of the product. IE: It’s more of a usability issue than a wall of text issue. It’s ALMOST where it needs to be to be a good product.

The “adventure” is really just a description of various locales around a village. The village proper is described, along with a dungeon and a barons keep and three or four wilderness regions. Supporting this is an appendix with a name generator, rumors, bestiary, and a couple of pages that offer solutions to the various more open-ended mysteries found in the village … larger mysteries than the ones explored in the adventure proper.

The wilderness sections are presented in about two pages each. A short paragraph overview and then a couple of wandering tables. There are no “set” encounters in the wilderness areas; everything is on the wandering table, which is an interesting idea I can kind of groove on, given the minor significance of the the locales on the table. The wandering tables are generally something like: “If you’re in the road in the forest”, with day & night options, and then also “if you strike out off the road in the forest”, with day and night tables. This is followed, mostly, by the stats of the creatures encountered, with little no extra context text. EXCEPT when there is. And then it goes on a paragraph. These are generally NPC encounters or some kind of encounter related to the various little things going on. “The Red Lady” in the woods is a ghost, with a little data on her (mostly things important to the game at the table!) At the end there’s a little section on “Clearing” the region. If you do certain things then the region becomes safer, here’s an XP bonus, and here’s how the impact on the regional/village. It’s a nice touch. It’s also the case that clearing a region generally requires some exploration of one of the OTHER regions. IE: the ghosts body is somewhere else. These little things are the primary points of the adventure. Hmmm, no, that didn’t come out well. Each one of those little things (a few per region, maybe six regions total) end up as a kind of To Do list for the adventurers, and that To Do is the primary adventure in this product. Arg! I still don’t think I said that well. I’ll table it. More on that point later.

The three major non-wilderness areas are the village proper, the old mines, and the barons keep. The later are both primary adventure locales, with above average maps (but not exploratory-dungeon type maps) having some elevation changes and other non-generic features. The keep is full of bandits … and maybe a werewolf, while the mines have gnolls and undead. There can be some social interaction in both areas, and MAYBE even some allies/faction play a bit with some evil folk. There’s not a lot, really only a couple of words for two people, if memory serves me right, but it’s there. While I’m on the social, let me say that this play is CRAWLING with potential hirelings. The village, the wilderness areas, and the keep … you could have a small army of followers. That’s a nice non-traditional resource and/or reward for the players, and goes a long way to showing that their actions have an actual impact.

I feel like I could write about two dozen pages more on this adventure, both positively and negatively. The villagers refer to the primary monster as “The Beast that waits” (although I’d shorten it the the beast), which is much better than “a couple of trolls been giving up trouble.” The brigands are part of a gang, with a name. There are tips about things the party will want, like silver weapons. The villagers, like the little adventures, have a few interconnections to other villagers. The “boss fight” in the mines is fucking ROUGH! The treasure is abstracted in some places and the magic items boring book shit. The imagery is sometimes useful (in the mines in particular) and mostly not. There needs to be some quick villager quirks/events to liven things up and get them going. I think though, I’m going to expand on only two more issues, both negative.

First, the adventure is a little … oh, I’ll say verbose. The issue is that the NPC’s all have personalities, goals, and descriptions, over a couple of paragraphs each, and they are all at the locations they are usually found at. I think this is a cumbersome way to present information FOR ACTUAL PLAY. Either keep the current descriptions and provide a 1-page summary of all of the NPC’s (“Farmer Ted: Short, limp. Hates his father. Loves his mother like norman bates. Location C16”) OR reworks the descriptions in to something that MUCH easier to scan during play. I don’t mind a paragraph or two for an NPC (when it’s full of gameable data) but I HAVE to have something to use at the table, and text paragraphs of NPC’s don’t fit the bill. That means a highlighter, at best. And Fuck You, how about you, the designer, highlight for me since I’m paying you? Hmmm, that came off a little strong for the degree of sin, but, the point remains.

Second, there is a REAL lack of motivation for the party. To be fair, the designer points this out as being key. The party MUST be engaged in the village. But the hooks provided (the most mundane of hooks at that) just get the party TO the village. Why they would want to get involved in ANYTHING is not covered at all. “Because”, I guess? This lack of motivation (other than the usual do-gooding …) Makes things rough. You could strike up a love interest, I guess. But what’s really missing is what the designer correctly points out in the notes in the appendix: why the fuck does the party care? There’s nothing present in the adventure to help on that one crucial point. Marrying them to the locations, literally, or perhaps figuratively, would be what’s needed. Maybe the king appoints the lands to THEM, or they are rightful heir, or some such. That would give them a reason to clean up this one horse region.

This is a decent little regional area and reminds me of Scourge of the Demon Wolf … except without the motivation events that Demon Wolf had. I was not expecting much and was pleasantly surprised with what I ended up with. A second edition, solving the problems, or perhaps two pages of free errata/expansion, would serve this product quite well. A few more events, a few more colorful villagers, a reference sheet of NPC’s, some better mundane & magical treasure, a reason for the season … this could be a great little product.

This is on drivethru. Check out the last page of the preview for a look at the wilderness format.–Swords-and-Wizardry-Edition

Posted in Level 1, No Regerts, Reviews, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #125

There’s nothing to see here.
Save yourselves! Flee now!

The Three Faces of Evil
By Mike Mearls
Level 3

Part 2 of the Age of Worms adventure path. Surprise! There’s a religious cult! They don’t believe in desecrating any of the elements with the dead. They can’t be buried or burned. They can’t be, cast out to sea. Oops. No. Sorry. That’s a song lyric. This is a boring hack-fest; a Temple of Elemental Evil, light. Go in to some mines. The main room has three exits. Each exit has an evil temple complex. Kill everyone (Because … D&D?) Then fight the big demon that arises because you’ve killed everyone. There’s an order of battle/reaction notes for the temple, but, the pretext here is SO light. The rooms are nothing but combat and the reasons for killing everything are essentially nonexistent. Someone who knows, please tell me: is this really representative of the best of Mearls?

Pit of the Fire Lord
By Andy Collins & James Wyatt
Level 8

Part three, the final, of the Shards of Eberron arc. Fucking seriously? Five rooms of combat? I see that Dungeon has just given up trying. “Go fight through these five rooms. Because.” I am both excited and depressed at this new Dungeon style. Depressed at the lack of trying and excited because the “reviews” I provide are now much easier. But the reading of them is not …

Seekers of the Silver Forge
By Tim Hitchcock
Level 15

Dear Lord, why? An underwater adventure. As I read it, you need to make a saving throw every minute or take 2d6 damage, from pressure, and a save every ten minutes or take 1d6 from the cold, even if you can breathe water. Gill-men gith, undead gith, and saughaun are the three “Factions” in this adventure. You can talk to the gill-men gith and to stop the undead menace in the seas you need to wipe out the saughuan. It’s just fighting underwater, and little more beyond that.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 19 Comments

Automata Run Amok

By John Ivor Carlson
Dwarven Automata
Levels 1-2

Out-of-Control automata have driven a wizard from his shop. He would like the PCs to solve the problem (without damaging his creations) while his rival will pay for evidence of the wizard’s dabbling in forbidden knowledge.

This is a 22 page adventure in a wizards tower with about nineteen rooms. It’s laid out quite well, using a bullet-point style, and has several great new monsters & magic items/treasure. The tower is in a city and there’s enough extra detail about the city to allow the DM to spice things up a bit before, during, and after the tower adventure. It’s a little one-note for me, being just “monsters in a guys house”, without the house itself adding much. It’s PWYW, so for a $1 it’s worth checking out the interesting format used.

The adventure is laid out in three sections. The last section is the appendices, with the bestiary, magic items, and the like. The middle section is JUST the wizards tower, and it’s laid out in landscape format, further delineating it from the first and third (last) portions of the text. The first section is all the introduction, lead-in, context, and follow-up to the keyed encounters. I find this quite interesting. It recognizes that the adventure is really in two parts: the dungeon and everything else. It’s a small point but I think it shows that the people behind this really thought about how to use the thing. In addition to this the monster stats are found on the map of the wizards tower (which has a front door, back door, and balcony entrance!), allowing for a quick reference kind of thing, and little mini-maps are scattered throughout the dungeon pages, on facing pages. Again, the way these features contribute to the actual usability of the adventure is quite nice.

Complementing that is the format used for the rooms. Each room has one sentence, which could be mistaken for read-aloud, that gives the vibe of room. FOllowing that are some sections headings like “Occupants”, “Exits” and then room features like “Shelves” or “Display Case.” Under each of those section headings are some bullet points, one per interesting thing, with some text. What this results in is a way to quickly at a glance scan the room to relay information as needed. It’s like heaven after all of the wall of text stuff I’ve seen!

Copy/Pasting a room wouldn’t do it justice. Here the “description” for the study: “Expertly staged salon for impressing clients with plentiful money but little sense.” That’s followed by several section headings. One for Exits, another for bookshelves, fireplace, and high-backed chair. Thus we now know, at a glance, that bookshelves, a fireplace, and chair are major features of the room. For the fireplace we get the following:
• Imposing stone replace occupying the entirety of the study’s western wall
• Stocked with Birtmin logs, which release a heady scent and blue ame when burned

Just the basics, expertly arranged for use in play.

This is all augmented with a nice little section at the beginning, about a third of a column, describing the city and major events going on, complemented by a couple of great tables that describe some random encounters, etc, tied in to city events. It’s a nice little additional that really supports the DM well in bringing THIS city to life. The adventure pretext provides, in very little space, five different ways to get the party involved in the adventure, all related. Two groups on the docs, some beggars, some children and some shop folk. Eventually one of these is going to catch the party’s eyes. It’s a great example of providing multiple opportunities to hook the party without it feeling forced. Those hooks are complemented by the nasty little guys who are interested in the party’s services. Academic, rivals, guild members, they don’t like each other, and thus you have the opportunity for backstabbing as well in some loose “outside the dungeon” factions/complications. (The preview on Drivethru shows most (all?) of this lead in to the dungeon proper. I’d check it out!) Scattered tips through the adventure are also pretty useful for running the game. It has a nice little “Playtest notes” kind of vibe to it. Finally, ALL of this is complimented by the art for the monsters. I don’t usually mention art; I think I have only a handful of times. The monster art is quite nice in evoking imagery, particularly the “Undying” piece in the bestiary. The treasure, both mundane and magical, is well done and a cut above the usual book items.

Clearly, I want to like this adventure, but it’s got a problem. It’s flat. Or maybe I mean One Note. The amount of interactivity is a little low. Other than the monsters roaming about, the rooms proper don’t have much going on. Oh, there are details. And things to look at. And things to search for loot. But, other than the combats … there’s not much else to interact with. It’s a bit like walking through an Ikea, except some rooms have a monster in them. You look around. You pick things up. You move on. Without the extra interactivity of the tower you’re left with the room descriptions being out of place. By this I mean that MOST of the descriptions are superfluous to the adventure. The fireplace, above, doesn’t actually have any impact on the adventure. It’s window dressing. As is almost everything else. An item or two serve to house some treasure but the rest just EXISTS, as if you’d succinctly described the major features of the rooms of your house. It’s not that I don’t like window dressing. I think it can do a good job helping a DM paint an evocative picture of a room. (Sometimes …) But in case it’s ALL window dressing. Or, close enough to “all” to be functionally the same. That same sort of thing DOES contribute to a more dynamic combat environment. Monsters climbing shelves, pulling the shelves down. Using an large armchair in combat, all of that is great detail for rooms in which combat might take place. I know this isn’t DCC, but a dynamic environment is still appreciated, and the rooms, with their descriptions, certainly do provide that. I might be a little unfair with this. I seem to be saying it’s not a classic exploration tower. And it’s not. The adventure is more of a “clean the spiders from the basement” variety. If that’s all you’re looking for then this does that and does it well.

It’s Pay What You Want on DriveThru, with the preview being most of the first third of the adventure. IE: everything that’s not an appendix or the dungeon proper. I think the preview is worth checking out, and the adventure proper, also, for the formatting/layout used, if nothing else.

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