The Globe

By John Battle
Swords & Wizardry?
Level 4?

Among the snow globes that sit gathering dust there is one quite unlike the others. One is full of sand and an ancient library. Shake it and you’re transported to the dungeon.

This is a free 27 room ziggurat inside of a snow globe. It’s a nice journeyman effort, doing nothing spectacularly but also not really failing in any area and hitting on a consistent above-average level with periodic GREAT content. It does a pretty good job of toeing the line being fast, loose, and evocative. It looks like it’s some kind of introduction to the OSR style for folks from the 5E/Pathfinder world. I don’t know about that, but I do know it does a pretty decent job of invoking a kind of OSR style. It certainly has room for improvement, quite a bit so in the “editing” category since there are lots of places where little bits are missing/overlooked. But that’s a pretty minor quibble, especially if we consider this a first draft effort.

The set up is exactly what the intro says. There’s almost nothing more to it but what’s in the introduction. And you really don’t need much more. The front cover, above, gives you a pretty good idea what the party sees: some ancient stone ruins covered in sand. Other than this there’s a very short background section and then a short description of the four major factions in the dungeon.

What’s great is that almost everything is focused on the players. How the players interact, how they interact. There might be a sentence or two of background, but most of the history and NPC sections are devoted to the actual play. How the DM can use the data.Where the monsters wander. How to use them. This is a theme over and over again in the dungeon. The dross is cut out and what’s left is play focused. Short, punchy descriptions with stickiness to them that remind me a lot of the best the OSR has produced. And it’s all got this slightly weird vibe to it.

The map has several levels, with several staircases and features to it. Same-level stairs, an outdoor element to get to some spires, ramps, sand choked hallways and stairwells. It’s a Logos map and it’s one of his better efforts. Sometimes his maps can feel small or linear. Not this time. Multiple entrances to the complex, light vertical/three dimensional elements, and a nice isometric sort of overview map to show how all of the levels and elements work together.

I mentioned factions. There are probably at least four. First you’ve got these weird “mummy” things that are some kind of cross between sandmen, mummies, and zombies. They beg for help, crawl, wail, and … Wait, here’s the quote: “They don’t understand what has happened to them, that they have already died and walk as undead. So they crawl, limp, and stumble towards anything that lives while they beg for help.” That’s pretty nice. It’s one of the better monster descriptions, and reminds me a bit of those great undead descriptions in the better Dragonsfoot adventures.

Beyond the zombies we’ve got a sphinx looking for answers to a riddle, an NPC party running around, and a “twisted lich” who’s only goal is to steal teeth. More than enough to work with. And some of them have random starts, clues that they’ve been in certain rooms, and or move around the dungeon.

It’s got four pages of maps and around four pages of keyed rooms and about four pages of monster/faction descriptions, background, etc. This is all done with a good font, wide margins and easy to read formatting. I approve. I don’t think it was probably anything more than a standard Word template, two column (the headings look like a familiar Word section heading font/colo.)

The room descriptions, as I mentioned earlier, are quite focused. Here’s an example from room three: “Door chained from the outside. A Mummy wriggles its arm between the door and frame. The chain is new.” Mummy arm wriggling is a great classic image. The chain being new tells the party things … someone else is here. That kind of simple and classic encounter type is present over and over again. The language isn’t exactly flowery or overly obtuse, more straightforward. But the focus present there in that description is great. One step more than minimally keyed. The adventure does this sort of thing over and over again. Broken furniture piled in front of doors, skeletal corpses piled on the floor, reaching out, as if trying to escape. The traps gives clues to their existence sometimes, like “pulverized stone and a flattened decaying body”. It even has just a slight touch of silly in places with the sphinx treasure being focused on “headgear/hats” and the library having a “Fanfic” section.

And now for the negatives. The mummies shows up as wandering monsters, mostly, and have a 33% chance every turn. That’s a pretty high chance/lots of mummies, even if they are capped at 30. They also range from one to four HD. I would probably vary the descriptions of them, in play, to give some clue as to their differences … then again I hate 8HD orcs. Silently changing the rules CAN be used nicely in games … but it seldom is.

The adventure also has some typos in places. “NPC sits in the magic circle.” … that sounds like a fill and replace mistake, and there are a couple of other examples of that sort of thing as well … hence the “first draft” comments above. In addition there are little errors of omission … at least I think they are omissions. A few monsters stats are left out here and there. In addition there are little bits that I think could have used just a FEW more words. One romo has some Draught in it … gin made from coffin wood. That’s just begging for one more sentence noting drunk effects and bonuses to death saves, or some such. There are a few other examples of little things like that. The treasure is not generic/terrible, being one step above with descriptions like “scarab earrings” and “amber ring”, and in some cases they are REALLY nice. But they could, in general use a few better words to bring them to life a bit more. It’s also not clear to me that there’s enough loot in the dungeon. It’s somewhere around level three, I’d guess?, and there doesn’t seem to be more then about a level one amount of treasure present, for XP=GP games. Finally, the writing, while serviceable, is a little straightforward.

This is one of the better free adventure I’ve seen. Buffed up a bit it could be a solid nine on a ten point scale.

This is free at:

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Dungeon Magazine 117

Fallen Angel
By Keith Baked
Level 3

A linear adventure inside a glass tower in the Fallen district of Sharn to recover a statue. You’re hired by a rich chick to recover a statue fragment, a hand, stolen from her. She sends you to a cleric in the Fallen district, a real scum/cannibal/hellhole district of the city. The cleric points you to a tribe of feral humans in a certain hall. There you find a glass spire from a fallen floating tower is sticking out of an old manor hall. Exploring you fight some bestial sub-humans and their doggy pets. It’s strictly a linear affair, with the investigation portion being quite small. It’s got a terser writing style than most and if you squint REALLY hard you can get some evocative imagery out of the thing. Mostly because the setting is relatively fresh with a small streak of fantasy-ish gonzo (instead of sci-fi gonzo.) It has a decent magic item, a book that lets you learn to speak blink dog, as the cannibal barbarian sub-humans do, at times, allow for some talking and negotiation. Not bad for Dungeon, the concept is a decent one. Better imagery and a more fully fleshed out journey to the tower and hall/tower interior would have turned this in to something quite interesting. I’d run this if I were desperate, or rip the ideas off for something of my own. Then again, I’m quite partial to an all-urban campaign.

Touch of the Abyss
By Greg A. Vaughan
Level 11

This adventure, the first of a three-part arc, is supplemented by an overview of the city, Istivin, it takes place in earlier in this issue of Dungeon. In this first part the adventurers are introduced to the failing city and encouraged by a sage to seek out answers in the keeps deep dungeons. This thing has some nice atmospheric bits in the general overview sections of it but then falls down in the MEGATEXT it bogs things down with and the decidedly un-creepy room real-alouds in the dungeon. The hooks include a kind of mad scramble for lands & title in order to get the party to the city, which seems a nice follow on to G1-2-3 in the history. The city is failing and this is communicated to the DM well in several paragraphs at the start, much more so in fact than the stand alone city guide that also appears in this issue. There are some events to spread out that do a decent job of bringing the creepy also. It all leads to this sense that the city is failing. But the lengthy stat blocks, tactics sections, nightmare-length sage read-aloud, and general obsessiveness with rules in the text drags it down. Once the dungeon is reached it again does a decent job of setting the scene, generally, and even has a decent empty room or two, with flooded stairwells and so on. But the ACTUAL encounter rooms tend to the boring side of things with the magic of those other rooms lost. This could be A LOT shorter and would gain immensely from being so.

The Winding Way
By Nicolas Logue
Level 14

“Players must survive The Winding Way, a series of deathtraps and trials created by the orders head to test the skills of senior students.” IE: The curse of S1 strikes the unimaginative again. I try to comment on the work, rather than the artist, but these deathtrap/trials/tests stuff seem like the epitome of lazy design. … Having read it … There’s nothing to this. It’s fifteen encounters in a courtyard-ish monastery and then six linear deathtrap encounters. Undead, intelligent undead, monstrous undead … it’s just fight after fight with some deathtrap shit at the end. The undead are generally non-standard, which is nice, but their use as combat-fodder negates anything interesting actually coming from that.

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Too Many Kobolds

aka: One Too Many Kobolds

By Mark Reed
Heroic Journey Publishing
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 1-3

The player characters have been hired first by the town of Coventon to clear out a pesky Kobold nest that has been harassing the town.

This is an eight page ultra-minimal adventure with a one-page village, a one-page five room kobold lair and a one-page ten room goblin lair. The town and set up has some nice bits, but the lairs are WAY too minimal. Frankly, there’s not really enough content here to even do a review.

The intro is about half a page, single column, and is more of an outline or the adventure than an introduction. The mayor hires you. The kobolds retreat. A few days later a halfing hires the party to clean out the kobolds again, since they retreated to his land. But it’s a double-cross! The kobolds paid him to send the party to goblin caves! It’s suggested, as a follow up, that another group of kobolds then hires the party to give them advice about their own caves, since the party is such experts at cleaning out kobold/goblin caves and they don’t want to get caught in a bad situation by adventuring murder-hobos … and then further that maybe another party shows up while the party is in the caves giving advice! There are a few other details present in this section, like how many kobolds and goblins are present in the lairs. That’s important because …

WOW are the lairs minimally keyed. The map, monster stats, and keyed descriptions all fit on one page for the kobold lair and another page for the goblin lair. The descriptions are “2. The Kobolds main Room. The majority of the warriors are located here eating or training.” That’s pretty fucking minimal. No treasure listed. Not even monster counts. That’s all up to the DM. The shamen room has this gem It is decorated to venerate the god this band follows.” … nothing more.

The village fairs a little better, with a few more bits of detail to flesh things out. The halfling innkeeper has cheap rooms but pushes “upgrades” for everything & service. That’s something to run with. It makes him interesting and memorable with lots of opportunity for fun play emerging from it. Likewise, the mayor offers 30gp each, even though the merchants put together 50gp each. Mayors got to have a finders fee, right? It also provides one of the best explanations ever in an adventure on why/how someone is willing to go up in reward price.

There’s really just not enough here though. The core concepts are nice but the fleshing out of them is essentially non-existent.

It’s a buck a DriveThru.

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Troubling Events

By Shane Ward
3 Toadstools Publishing
Labyrinth Lord
Level 1

Set in the city of Yahleui, the heroes have only recently come to the continent of Crimhuck, seeking adventure. The heroes are met by a large comely woman in a tavern called the “Winding Trail”, her name is Hilde. She tells them that if they can safely get a magical ring to her employer deep in the sewers under the city they will be rewarded with precious gemstones.

This is a free 24 room dungeon crawl, ostensibly in the sewers. It’s above-average in the variety of encounter options and doesn’t drone on, keeping its text generally tight and focused. As a cohesive whole it fails to deliver. A good hard hitting second draft of this dungeon could pack & deliver like UPS trucks. As written, it’s a bit random and disconnected but with decent variety and a style that is not odious.

The designers notes (GOD how I LUV designer’s notes! I really do!) indicate the core of this was procedurally generated from some random tables. The designer then took the results and massaged things in to a story and more coherent dungeon. This is all true. Once told this you can see a bit of what must have come up on the tables and how it was then twisted in to a more coherent whole. I’m reviewing this primarily because of that methodology. This sort of “roll some dice to get some inspiration” thing is something I believe in and I wanted to review something that fell clearly, explicitly, in to that category. The designer has done a pretty good job of taking those dice rolls and turning them in to rooms. They’ve done a less great job of turning the entire thing in to a coherent whole.

There’s not much lead in, essentially it’s just what’s in the intro paragraph at the start of the review. The only additional details are that a guardsman overheard your conversation with the woman and that some thieves, who originally stole the ring and then in turn had it stolen from them, as are on the track. This is the wandering monster table. On a one the thieves track you down and on a two the guards track you down.

The map is a decent mix of loops, hallways with rooms off of them and hallways that run in to rooms. Certainly it has enough complexity to run a decent exploration game and provide that darkness and sense of the “black unknown” that influences a good exploration dungeon. It’s supposed to be an unused sewer, but doesn’t really resemble that at all and once you get past the room one entrance “along the riverbanks with no sewage flowing from it” then I don’t think “sewers” is ever mentioned again. Thank God. (But Wait! Don’t forget I’m a hypocrite!)

The encounters proper are ok. Not great and not terrible. There’s a sentence or two about the room, first impressions and the like, and then a couple of more sentences, set apart is a second paragraph in italics, that is DM/secret information. It’s a decent enough format. The “normal” text could be used as read-aloud, if you were pleased to do so. Maybe that was the intent since room dimensions are included at the end of each one. “The room is 15×15.” As read-aloud that’s ok, I guess, if you’re more interested in a fact-based approach (yuck!) than artistic license impressions (Yeah!) If it’s not meant to be read-aloud then it’s duplicative and should have been removed since that information is on the map. The descriptions proper are not terrible interesting. “Two human guards are asleep in chairs, an empty bottle of wine sits on the table” is pretty much the highpoint of the descriptive style in use. It’s not overly long (yeah!) but also not particularly good/interesting/evocative writing(Boo!) The DM text is similar. Straightforward, not laser-like focus but still ok. “ There is a magical trap in this room, when the door is opened and the PCs walk into the room it fills with black smoke. The smoke is harmless and is meant to keep the guards from eating too much.” That’s not a bad. Maybe a bit clumsy at the start, and maybe I’d choose different adjectives and adverbs, but with a little thought it’s pretty easy to see how it can be used to decent effect. Most of the rooms are like this; they have something beyond just a straightforward hack/combat, most generally towards the more mundane but still interesting side of the spectrum. Decent variety, some weirdness, a few traps, people to talk to sometimes.

The rooms, put together, is where things fall down. Individually they generally work ok. Put together as a whole they make less sense. The guy you’re delivering to is pretty close to the entrance. Some of his allies are scattered around in other rooms, but he hasn’t told them you’re coming and reaction checks determine their desire to kill you on the spot. (not to mention his reveal that it was all just a test … UG!) The rest of the dungeon is just THERE … not really working together in any way, not really related. I may hate sewer themes but saying it’s in a sewer and then having virtually NOTHING to do with a sewer is a bit of a let down also. Level theming can be great thing.

The entire thing needs a serious rework. Moving things around, bringing out the sewer theme more (or eliminating it) and making the rooms relate to each other more instead of just being, essentially, unconnected to each other.

I’d like to suggest that a mistake was made with this adventure. The background, and then the core conceit, is that this is a large old city and the ruler may be some kind of evil vampire lord. Combined with the decent map and keys, I think a significant opportunity has been lost. If level one was MORE of a sewer (I know! Heresy! Especially from Mr “I-Hate-Sewers” Lynch!) and there were MORE entrances from the surface and some entrances to lower levels then this could serve as the kicking off point for a megadungeon! Level after level underneath, each themed. Level one’s map would need some tweaking, and the keys need an overhaul, but they need to be put together better anyway, so not much loss there. The background with the city & vampire rules has potential. The map and keys show potential. There’s not may adventures that suggest there should be more, or even could lead to a megadungeon … even some megadungeons. I think this one does. But, not in it’s current form.

You can pick it up at the 3 Toadstools website.

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Dungeon Magazine #116

Palace of the Twisted King
By Phillip Larwood
Level 5

Three encounters in an abandoned desert waypost with five menlocks. They do hit & run tactics on the party. It’s trying to create a creepy vibe, and has some decent suggestions for doing so. Some charcoal drawing, nver over a few feet high. Small bits of bone, gnawed upon. Asking for listen or spot checks. Taking a player in to another room just to tell them something innocuous, like they found a gold coin or some such. There’s a dc30 spot check that needs to be made on the EXACT square of trapdoor, which is a little ludicrous. (Maybe not? I don’t remember how large spot checks get at level 5 in 3e.) I’m not a big fan of the hit&run stuff from the dimension door abilities … I’m perhaps too damaged by adversarial DM tactics. The major problem, as always, is the length. It goes on about history and background ad nauseum. Oh, the caravans used to get their water from the well? Never would have imagined that! The effect is to hide the actually relevant details. The well has ID Moss in the side … which i buried in the middle of a long paragraph. Then there is the arbitrary crap. That loose flagstone, hidden by the DC30 spot check? It can’t be removed from the top. It’s not locked or anything. It just can’t be removed. What? Seriously? Again, this raises the Suspension of Disbelief issue, which, when in an obstacle, raises the spectre of the adversarial DM. There’s some german film, Funny Games, where one of the asshats, torturing a couple in their home, is killed. His buddy shouts “No!” and then rewinds the film and does something so it won’t happen. Bad DM! But, anyway, there IS some nice advice given about creepiness, although pacing could use a few words also. I just wish it weren’t buried by the immense amount of irrelevant text. In spite of the advice, I just don’t think this one has enough going for it to make it worth it.

Death of Lashmire
Psionic Heavy
By Tim Hitchcock
Level 12

Bob the psionic is in his lair when it’s attacked by some Gith looking to get a silver sword back. The party stumbles in for some lame pretext. There’s no point. It’s like watching a movie. I guess you could help one side or another. But why? ALso, some Gith attack and enslave you if you surrender/talk to them when they ask you to. What’s the odds the SECOND group of Gith, the ones who WILL negotiate, will be met with anything but a fireball?

By Christopher Perkins
Level 19

Adventure Path! The last one, thank god. The party travels to hell to kill the demon prince you controlled the cagewrights. There’s really not much content here. Undead beholder attacks. You go to hell. Find a trading city (which is the most boring place on any plane, ever) and find a hag citadel who knows where the demon prince is. The hag is a little interesting. The demon prince stronghold is a prison. It’s just ten or eleven rooms stuffed with monsters to fight and various gimps, like tar slime on the floors, no teleport or stone shape on the walls, etc. For some inexplicable reason you get a deva to go along with you at the start. Worst. Reason.Ever. to give up your deva-hood and fall? Helping the party in a Chris Perkins adventure.

This issue published their “experts” take on the 30 best adventures. Here’s my thoughts on their choices, all from my (failing) memory …

30. Ghost Tower of Inverness
A nice tourny dungeon, but little to offer otherwise. Cook slams it as “cliche’d” Fuck you. I like the classics. They are classics for a reason.

29. The Assassin’s Knot
Don’t know notin bout this.

28. The Lost City
Don’t know notin bout this … EXCEPT, it’s got an adventurers “quick pack” reference sheet in it. I photocopy the FUCK out of it. It’s one of my standard handouts at tables, both home and when running at a con. “Pick a character and a backpack A, B, or C and let’s GO!”

27. The Sinister Secret of Slatmarsh
I shall admit to having fond memories of this Scooby Doo adventure. I might do back and review this one day to see if my memory, which tells me its terse and full of classic stuff, is correct.

26. City of Skulls
Don’t know notin bout this.

25. Dragons of Despair
All I remember liking the isometric map and being absolutely and totally confused about the beginning of this. In retrospect, I wonder if I didn’t understand you were supposed to use the pregens?

24. City of the Spider Queen
Don’t know notin bout this.

23. Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun
I recall this as being VERY minimally keyed. Two adventures, really, or three if you count the wilderness. I always felt like there was something special to this but I never discovered what it was.

22. The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
Monster Zoo, shoving as much shit together as possible. A guilty pleasure.

21. Dark Tower
I like Dark Tower. I like Thracia more.

20. Scourge of the Slave Lords
I remember this as super linear and you starting as slaves, escaping? Both of which could be ok for a con/tourny game … but not otherwise. Make the SuperAdventure changes that?

19. Against the Cult of the Reptile God
I LUV the village in this; it’s a lot of fun to run if the everyone is hyperbolic. I recall also the dungeon being nothing special, except for the wet dungeon atmosphere?

18. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
Linear tourny dungeon is linear tourney dungeon? I’m not sure why these keep making the Best Of lists. They serve a very small niche.

17. Ruins of the Undermountain
Don’t know notin bout this.

16. Isle of Dread
Absurd amounts of content. You could set a large amount of your campaign here, if you were good enough to get past the repetitive parts.

15. Castle Amber
The teleporter/realms end of this never clicked with me. The entre things needs a bit of buffing up to set the mood correctly for encounters.

14. Dead Gods
Don’t know notin bout this.

13. Dwellers of the Forbidden City
Don’t know notin bout this.

12. Forge of Fury
Don’t know notin bout this. But I do have a hard time believing a 3e adventure is good. It was debut adventure also, wasn’t it?

11. Gates of Firestorm Peak.
Don’t know notin bout this.

10. Return to the Tomb of Horrors
Don’t know notin bout this.

9. White Plume Mountain
Look, I like tourney/con games. But the 30 best?

8. Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil
I seem to recall owning this. I don’t seem to recall getting in to it?

7. Keep on the Borderlands
Terse, thy name is B2. All the best and worst from Gygax. Fond memories, and a decent DM can do things with it.

6. Desert of Desolation
Don’t know notin bout this.


4. Temple of Elemental Evil
Don’t know notin bout this.

3. Tomb of Horror
Fuck you and die. The world would be a better place if this had never been published. It has generated a culture of adversarial DM’ing.

2. Ravenloft
I just finished Curse of Strahd, and don’t recall much from the original.

1.GDQ/Queen of Spiders
Uh … No. I think GDQ is a mess, with two exceptions. 1) G1 is one of the finest modules ever written. 2) I love the wanderers tables in all of the D modules; Freaky Deaky shit right there!

Of those thirty the only one I’m sure of is G1. It can still hang with the best of today. I’d love to include Barrier Peaks, but I question if my love of it is just nostalgia. Dark Tower MIGHT be able to hang, as could Thracia. Both would be strong Also Rans if they didn’t make my Top 30 list.

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Shadows Grip

By Jim Baney
KnightVision Games
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 2-3

Kobolds and Goblins living together? What has the world come to?

This is a very simple ten page/sixteen room cave complex with kobolds and goblins. The actual rooms are split over three pages, with the rest being maps, filler, etc. It has a very simple design. It seems disconnected in places, almost as if it were procedurally generated.

The party comes upon a smouldering farmhouse. Walking out is an asshole paladin with a shish kabobed kobold on his sword. The farmer and wife are missing. The party “track” them back to a cave, enter it, and kill everything. I’m not opposed to the smouldering farmsteam hook. In fact I prefer it to the more overly complicated shit and do-goodery that frequently shows up. Yeah, it’s tonights adventure and it’s obvious. At least you don’t have to put up halflings making a direct appeal to your kindness. But … would it be that much harder to add an obvious large chest, dug up, with gold (or even platinum!) coins trailing, and the paladin the tax collector here to check up on the guy? Lookit ma! Another motivation! It also adds another dimension to the “Asshole paladin” trope. You know, the one who can’t be bothered to rescue the captured farmer & wife because he wants to make sure the other farms are not attacked? But the local lord, out collecting taxes? He’d probably be willing to cut the party in on the take, a finders fee for getting him what he’s owed AND getting in better with the tenant farmers everywhere by looking out for the suckers. It’s not that fucking hard and adds/modifies maybe two or three sentences. On the plus side the whole intro is less just a couple of paragraphs, so no long lead-is, thanks god.

The dungeon proper then starts, with no real description of the journey to it or the entrance. Just rooms. The keyed encounters are … unusual. It’s pretty minimally keyed, think of B2. But the design is weird as fuck. Basically, each room has a kobold or goblin encounter. Here’s the description for the last room, sixteen: “Room 16 – Loose gravel is piled up along the walls. Part of the ceiling has collapsed. Goblin (1)” Weird, right? The description has little to do with the room shown on the map as well. It has stairs and a secret door. What’s the goblin doing in there? Who knows! What’s the purpose of the gravel & ceiling? Nothing! Here’s another example, from room six: “Room 6 – A putrid smell of rotting meat and urine permeates this room. A strange mist conceals the ceiling. Kobold (2)” The smell and mist are never mentioned. There’s no reason for it. It just is. Not mentioned is the chasm/bridge thing shown on the map that appears to span a large body of water. Other rooms are similar.

It looks like someone rolled on the random dungeon dressing table and just copied it in to the room descriptions. At the risk of telling you how to play D&D, I believe those tables are meant for inspiration, to help you build upon something, and not to be taken too literally. Because taken literally they add NOTHING.

I’ve already botched a bit about the descriptions not matching the map, but the lack of the pit trap is something I find interesting also. Room one has a pit trap. It goes on and on about the mechanics of it and how to run it. (Have I mentioned yet, ad nauseum, how I hate overly detailed mechanics? I hate overly detailed mechanics/rules in my adventures.) But … it’s not shown on the fucking map. The map shows bodies of water, and streams underground. It shows stairs. It shows secret doors (which never are mentioned in the text), it shows rubble piles. It has symbols for sinkholes. But it never puts a little “X” symbol on the map. Every fucking adventure from the beginning of time has marked pits on the map, but not this one. WTF? And the water/bridges, features are seldom mentioned in text. It’s like the map is divorced from the text.

The magic items present are decent. A pendant of invisibility you have to touch to activate. A hammer that teleports back to your hand after a hit. Those are ok. Not magnificent and weird but decent enough to show an effort was made. There’s also a nice tin can from ceiling sound trap. I love the classics. But then, there’s also this blue light bulb stuff on the ceilings in some places that is hardly mentioned. There’s no way in fucking hell the party ignores that. I don’t need an explanation spoon fed but “… comes from large bulb or sack-like structures hanging from the ceiling” is hardly supporting the DM. Just add “hacked insect abdomen” and I can go from there.

I don’t know why this exists. Was someone really “proud” to present it, as the publishers blurb states? No one is getting rich off of it, so presumably there was no time pressure to release it. Why was it published in its present form? Does it actually represent the vision the designer had in mind?

Now I want to start a freelance editing service. Not only do consumers deserve better, but so do designers. I suspect there is some attempt at copyediting and maybe even line editing from the big kids. But a real editor? I see a substantial gap there.

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Black Orc Down

By Kieran Brannan
Point Pony
Basic D&D
Levels 1-3

Nobody else wanted to take on a job of helping out an orc, but if their gold is good then who cares … right? Black Orc Down puts the party on the trail of a missing orc chieftain. Can they rescue him from the dark mysteries of the Undercity beneath Forecastle? Can they uncover the vile plot which threatens to disrupt the power structure of The Shades? If they fail, will the death of one orc really matter that much?

This is twenty page adventure in the “undercity” on a linear map with seven locations in a high-fantasy setting. It hits, negatively, a large number of my review standards. It is not, however, incomprehensible, or hard to run, so at least it’s got that going for it.

There’s this generic fantasy city that’s been taken over by different pirate lords. Pretty standard stuff. It’s high fantasy though, so there’s orcs and goblins and so on, entire tribes, in the city. Bob the orc, leader of some minor blah blah blah orc clan, has fallen through a hole in the floor that gave way while he was on his throne. He’s now in the undercity, the ruins of the old city that the current one was built on top of. He was attacked by skeletons and ran off and his orc buddies tried to save him but were beaten back by the undead. They hire the party, for 100 gold, to go save their orc chief.

I hate high fantasy. Or, rather, I hate THIS sort of high fantasy. I get it, different strokes for different folks. Like what yhttps://crou want and all that jazz. But this just sucks. One of my points is that I like humans instead of humanoids as enemies, most of the time. Or maybe I mean “in certain situations.” A sidebar DOES encourage you to change the orcs (and later goblins) to humans if you’re not playing a high fantasy game, but I want to talk more about the use of humanoids in general. When you take an elf and make him a farmer, on of many in a human village, you generally destroy what it means to be an elf. Elf garbage collectors. Dwarf millers. You’ve just turned them in to humans with pointy ears or short humans. The same with the humanoids. These represent THE OTHER. They should be different. Scary. Maybe bestial. In this adventure the orcs advertise on the local job boards. When they greet you the read aloud says “Thank you so much for answering our request for aid.” Seriously? I get it it. High Fantasy. But … seriously? There’s NOTHING in this adventure that makes the orcs seem like orcs. Or makes the goblins (a tribe of which you meet later) seem like goblins. A society of overly polite orcs drinking tea with their pinkies out? I can get behind that. But generic humanoids? Nope. Sorry. Disbelief broken. Grimy humans? Ok. Human cannibals? Ok. Humans can do some fucked up shit and making humanoids humans instead can lead to some good revulsion. It’s more relatable. But generic orcs with a “thank you so much for answering our request for aid?” High fantasy or not, that sucks.

Twenty pages with seven encounters implies a high word count, and that’s present here. There’s a MASSIVE amount of read aloud. Paragraphs and paragraphs that add little to no value. The writing isn’t particularly evocative, although it is serviceable and clear, generally. It falls in to the trap of telling instead of showing. “The environment is an oppressive unwelcoming shroud …” Well, no. It’s not. When you TELL me its oppressive then its not oppressive. SHOW me. If you’re going to engage in this type of read-aloud then describe WHY. Let the players draw their own conclusions. There are reams and reams of advice on writing that tell you why showing is better than tellings. Go google it for more. Or don’t. Whatever.

There’s a table in this adventure I’d like to talk about. It’s a loot table, in case the party searches a random building in the undercity. A typical entry is “You manage to find a small cache of silverware worth 2d10sp.” BAD BAD BAD! It’s generic. Just “Silverware” It’s written in read-aloud mode. “You find …” Blech! “Elven filigree tarnished silver olive spoons, bent.” Instead we get “The jewellery is of simple design, being of a quality a merchant’s wife might wear.” Generic sucks ass. Specificity is the soul of storytelling. And do it in under fifteen words. Please.

And, to boot, there’s not a lot of treasure. At all. So little for Gold=XP that the adventure encourages a story award at the end for completing the quest. That’s NEVER good. It implies a right way and a wrong way to complete the adventure. I’d be more ok with just giving the party a flat 2000xp after every session, or something like that, instead of a “story” award. It removes free will from the players and forces them to complete an adventure in a certain way. If you squint, then Gold=XP does the same thing. Or, rather, ?=XP generally results in the play style being optimized to get the XP, and thus the party will do whatever. I prefer a free will game.

There’s a part of this adventure that I can’t decide on. It goes beyond the generic encounters and dull descriptions of the various rooms. You track some goblins back to their lair/hideout. You come out in the “throne” room. There’s a door. Goblins come through the door. The DM is instructed to make variable number of goblins come through it, in order to heighten tension and give a moment of drama. It is absolutely undeniable that barricading a door, goblins smashing in to it, daggers poking through it, etc, would be a great moment of drama in a game. But FORCING that situation is lame as fuck, especially with a “just keep sending in goblins to heighten the tensions” advice statement. Uncool. If it happens, great. If you want to put 10 goblins outside in the guardroom and have them rush in, loudly, after three rounds that the players hear, great. But forcing the situation is un cool advice. D&D absolutely does NOT need more shitty DM advice.

Ultimately, this is just another generic D&D adventure. There’s little soul to it, even if you accept the high fantasy premise.

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Dungeon Magazine #115

Raiders of the Black Ice
By Wolfgang Baur
Level 1

Journey through the Black ice to a fortress to rescue from captured villagers. This is done over eighteen pages, with enough content to fill about five or six … maybe. It’s got a decent winter vibe, much more so than most winter adventures. From a village fight to worgs attacking a mastadon to a field of frozen corpses, it does a decent job of bringing in a variety of encounters and options for resolution that don’t just involve combat. Sneaking, talking, etc, all are involved. The wordiness though really detracts. When the content is expanded to three of four times … it makes one pull out the highlighter … and that’s NEVER a good thing. It’s not necessarily a special adventure, but if it were redone it would be a decent little thing.

Steel Shadows
By Keith Baker
Level 6

Creating a setting doesn’t mean you can write a good adventure. This is a pretty classi (IE: shitty) plot based adventure that wants to be an investigation. It contains such wonders as “let the bad guy escape if they catch on too soon” and “even if they use scry, don’t give them the clues”, as well as “the DC to interrogate is 50.” Warforged are being killed and the party investigates. The ties to the killer are, essentially, non-existent, until a programmed encounter of a massacre in a bar, and even then it’s a little soft. That’s never good. The DM is routinely instructed to punish the party for good play, with the scry scenario being a good example. If the party thinks to scry, pushes their odds and makes it then they should be given helpful information. Likewise if they capture people to question the DC should NOT be 50 for a run of mill hired thug. They should be rewarded for their interesting and non-combat/non-linear attempts of actually trying to play D&D instead of a mini’s combat game. The bad guys lair is put behind a secret door and thus the adventure stalls if its not found … never a good design. Finally, the thing pushes the limits of suspension of disbelief at times. Bad guy creates a bunch of wands of soften earth so he can dig out a lair behind a broom closet. And bad guy is a warforged/robot. This kind of shit turns a potential Planescape-like interesting gritty environment in to a shit-fest with an adversarial DM.

Strike on Shatterhorn
By Christopher Perkins
Level 18

Oh boy. The Shackled City adventure path again. I can’t wait.

Remember Cauldron, the volcano city? The refugees have all been taken care of easily. Consequence free adventureing, that’s what really embeds an adventure in the parties minds, isn’t it? Knowing that nothing they do matters.

This is the usual linear dungeon combat dreck. In room one, a bad guy eternally hides behind a low altar, waiting for intruders. Then there’s the will o’ wisp pets up above. Secret doors that you can’t find because they are three inches of plaster and automatically repair themselves after an hour if busted through. Oh, oh, and get this “Each plaster pillar holds a medusa rogue in temporal stasis.” There is,of course, the usual “used to be” and endless background text. This thing has, as far as I can tell, one good sentence out of its bajillion pages. Up above the dungeon, in the surface ruins, are some baboons that get eerily quiet when they see they party. “Only if attacked do they scatterm in which case they retreat in a strangely orderly, unnervingly silent exodus.” Also, unnerving is a conclusion. It’s telling instead of showing. Strike that word.

There’s nothing here. Just linear combat, room after room.

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Depths of the Croaking Grotto

By Dave Coulson
Cut To The Chase Games
Swords & Wizardry (and every other system under the sun)
Levels 3-5

A missing amulet sends the characters on the last caravan of the season bound for the frontier. Tracking the thieves turns into a dangerous journey through rough mountains, where predators and monsters lurk in the shadows of craggy peaks. Can a band of characters recover the missing treasure and return from the DEPTHS OF THE CROAKING GROTTO?

What makes the essence of a man?

This is a small hex crawl (eight locations) followed by an eight room cave, wrapped up in a nineteen page adventure. It’s wordy with a generic vibe that makes one wonder why this exists. Or, if I’m not being a dick today, “The author’s vision was not successfully communicated to the audience through the product.”

We start at the beginning of the middle part of the adventure. The party has already agreed to hire on to a caravan and find a missing amulet and they are already well in to the mountains. The designer assures us that this style of play is great. We should use a flashback to show how the party came to be hired. Not enough people do that, we’re assured. There’s a reason for this, sez I. It’s called Pretext of Free Will. What if the party doesn’t want to go on this shitty ass mission? What is the 50gp reward isn’t enough for them? What if they murder the dude in the flashback? Unless you’re running a con game. In which case feel free to hand wave past a few things. But flashbacks and In Medias Res is a dangerous proposition, fraught with peril. Unless you play one of those railroady version. Oh, wait …. More on that later.

You start at the scene of the ambush, at the caravan route in the mountains. A trail of stuff leads off. It leads SE. Each hex is 1 mile wide. Half the encounter hexes are NE. I don’t get it. This touches on some organizational issues as well. Some hexes have monsters that can see you in an adjacent hex, and swing by to attack. But this is noted in the hex with the monster in it. This means you get to check each hex nearby to see if there’s a monster that can see you. Maybe not a big deal when only 8 hexes have stuff in them. But you know what would have been better? SHADING THE FUCKING MAP. Hex 7 has a 1 hex alert distance? Shade the hexes around 7 so I know this from looking at the fucking map instead of having to dig through the fucking adventure looking to see what’s up. Fuck, maybe even embed the sight chances on the map. This is a prime example of how using the visual fucking aid can eliminate crap in the adventure and make life easier on the DM.

The encounters here are of the “monsters attack” variety, both in the cave and in the hexes. Manticores? They attack. It’s so boring. Sure, if you pause during the attack to offer a horse then they stop, but by that time I suspect the MU, with spikes in their ass, are not going to be in a talking mood. Inside the cave there’s a big pool of after in one of the rooms. After you enter a giant toad rises up and attacks. This is so shitty. Member Fellowship, and Mellon? Member how fucking with the water summoned the lake monster? Think how boring it would have been if it just started attacking. This happens over and over again.

There’s almost no real sense of exploration, mystery, or wonder. THe writing style is ponderous and wordy. The DM notes for room six indicate “The toad-men of this small tribe would bathe and be cleansed in the waters of this pool by Blundubba. Ultimately, the ceremony was nothing more than mummery and ancient phrases but it made the toad- men feel holy.” What the fuck is the point of that? DOes it contribute to the adventure? I’m not a fucking anthropologist. I’m a DM. You need to provide content that is SPECIFICALLY relevant to gaming at the table. None of this friend-of-a-friend you-might-be-inspired bullshit. It contributes or you make it contribute to YOU GET THE FUCK RID OF IT. The adventure does this over and over again with it’s conversational style. It’s exhausting and it hides anything of value.

Not that there is much. SOme frog men dancing on an island in torchlight, my description of which is about 10 times more interesting than the one found in this adventure. +1 long sword. +1 dagger. Hey hey now! I wonder how much effort and imagination that required to come up with! And there’s WAY too little loot for an adventure of this level for S&W. That’s because this adventure, even though it says it’s for S&W, is not a S&W adventure. It’s a conversion.

Your intuition tells you secrets, and then it tells you lies, sez my wife. While buying this I was presented with something like eight different choices of game systems. My spidey sense went off went off when I saw that. I’m not a believer in absolutes but I am a believer in hyperbole. Seeing an adventure for many game systems is a warning sign the size of a small moon. There’s some kind of correlation/causation/stereotyping caveat that goes in there, but ,it’s safe to say that this adventure fails to capture the spirit of any game system, being just a collection of generic words where insidious and repulsive toad creatures were called for.

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They Met In A Tavern

By Jason Blalock
Dice Addict Games
Black Hack

About a day’s journey by loaded wagon from a good-sized trading city, at the edge of a small farming community, sits a moderately successful inn and tavern called The Merchant’s Rest. Due to an unlikely confluence of circumstances, four exceptional people with as many reasons to mistrust each other as they have to cooperate, are about to caught up in a tide of violence and dark sorcery which will threaten not only their own lives but those of the local populace.

This is a 21 page adventure hook. A one-shot, set in a tavern, provides a VERY strong initial set up position in a tavern … and then says “wing it” for the rest of the content.

There’s an inn/tavern on the edge of a village. Four pregens are there. The scholar (a MU) has rooms. He’s got a bit of a heretical past, but s tolerated by the authorities because of the help he provides. The stablehand/blacksmith is a former soldier (a Fighter) in the religious wars. The Pagen (the thief) is cousin to the stablehand/soldier and has gotten himself in to DEEP SHIT, because of a cult he joined and an artifact he stole for them. He’s come to the soldier for help, who wants to introduce him to the Scholar for help. The Inquisitor (cleric) shows up to see if the Scholar “yet remains a friend to the faith.” Very strong archtypes.Very strong backgrounds. Custom made to interact with each other and generate conflict. I can’t emphasize this enough. I have played in a shit ton of con games with pre-gens of every style and RPG imaginable. These may be the best four pre-gens I’ve ever seen. Usually you’re lucky to get MAYBE one in eight with a background this strong. They have a relationship with each other. There’s this simmering tension, massive loads of potential energy, buried in the relationships with each other. And yet probably no outright conflict. All done in one digest page each, with an OVERLY generous font size, line spacing, and margins. BAD. ASS.

The characters are at the inn or show up shortly. Then the shit starts. The cult leader shows up and wants the artifact back. “Young mean with taloned hands and the heads of antelope will appear as if they had been lurking in the shadows of the common room.” Combat!

That’s it. You get almost nothing more. A brief sentence or two about the inn and the proprietor. (2 sable boys. 9 rooms upstairs. The innkeep lives beside the inn.) A couple of notes about there being a church nearby with a holy silver maul and how to destroy the artifact.

I get it. Some people wing it.

This is one of those products that wounds my inner child and makes me feel ripped off. (Pay What You Want aside.) The setup is wonderful; one of the very best. Nice villain. Nice monsters. AND NOTHING ELSE. This approach to adventure products is antithetical to my foundational beliefs. The purpose of the published adventure is to help the DM run a game in which the players and DM have a good time. The DM has had a shitty day. In ze’s job as an assistant crack whore trainee ze’s had to take shit from their boss all day. The kids are being teens. Traffic sucked. Dinner was cold. And ze needs to run a game for their friends in 90 minutes. They go buy this. Does it help the DM enough? Are their (my) expectations crushed?

In this case, Yes, expectations were crushed. The set up is rock star quality. It’s just missing anything other than “dudes show up and start fighting.”

This needs just a little more. Just a page of single sentence set-ups. They come crashing through the roof. They set the kitchen on fire, or a few NPC’s to toss in to the inn for preamble fun or combat complications. They don’t needs stats. They don’t need to be complicated. Just enough to get the MD’s imagination going for livening things up a bit beyond a straight up “Roll for init!” callout. An unrelated conflict in the inn.

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