Writing with Style: An Editors advice for RPG Writers.

By Ray Vallese
Rogue Genius Games

Writing With Style: An Editor’s Advice for RPG Writers presents 45 pages of concise tips on simple ways to make your roleplaying game writing cleaner and clearer. This guide doesn’t show you how to structure adventures, build stat blocks, or create worlds. Instead, Ray Vallese looks at some of the most common and easily fixable grammar and style issues he’s encountered in over twenty years of editing RPGs.

Yeah, it’s not a review of a D&D adventure. I know, I only do adventure reviews. Bare with me. (That one’s just for you Ray!) I’ve been on a kick lately, that I’m sure is showing up in my reviews, that these things are padded out with loose, sloppy writing. It’s almost all I can see anymore and it sticks out like a glaring neon sign. I’ve been surveying books on how to write adventures and came across this one. It’s pretty good for what it is. It’s also the only thing in the How to Write Adventures category that I’d recommend.

This doesn’t tell you how to write adventures. Instead it’s focused on the craft of writing proper, from an editor viewpoint. It’s a small manual of style focused on RPG’s. Most of the 46 pages contain quite good advice on the techniques for writing clearer RPG supplements. Given my sworn blood-oath against Samuel Johnson and the Chicago manual of Style, this is quite the feat.

Laying out my core philosophy, the adventure book is a tool to help the DM run the adventure at the table. To do this I assert two primary conceits: it must be perfectly organized and writing must be evocative. A core part of being perfectly organized is scannability … the ability of a DM to glance at the page and immediately find what they need … locate it on the page and absorb it. The majority of Ray’s booklet of advice will directly impact the scalability of an adventure, and in particular less padding and a more active voice.

I fumble with this terminology in my reviews. I know it when I see sentences padded with text. I know that a sentence would be clearer if it were rearranged. It’s obvious to me what the mistakes are. Then I fumble around with the terminology. I throw around the term “passive voice” since I don’t know any better. Ray knows better. He knows what the issues are called and he knows what they look like and how to fix them.

One of the early insightful things he says is about Expletive Constructions. He points out that these are filler phrases like “there is “ and “there are” that add no meaning to a sentence. Joy! Look! Someone knows that sentences should have meaning! Ray has an example: “There is an old wise man who watches over the children.” which he converts to “An old wise man watches over the children.”

This sort of padding comes up time and again in the adventures I review, and Rays addresses it time and again in his book. “You find yourself drawn to beauty” as opposed to you are drawn to beauty” in the section on “Find yourself.” Future vs Present Tense, my old friend passive voice, and a host of other examples.

Ray, being a scholar and a gentleman, also knows that the rules can be broken for effect AND points you at additional resources to get answers from!

Ray’s book is not perfect. He drifts in to editor minutia in places. I don’t care about editor minutia … that’s what you pay your editor for. 😉 He also forgets his audience in places.

The most glaring example of this is the way he has the book organized. Following his own advice on alphabetical organization … he organizes the topics alphabetically by topic. WRONG! I’m sure this like a logical way, to an editor, however I suspect most readers are not going to know what “Expletive Constructions” are, and therefore don’t know to look there. Further, the topic headings tend to be a bit … generic? “Human” or “Great” or “Power.” These are meaningless topic headings. Because of this the book comes off like a bunch of rando topics mixed up. One moment it’s a topic related to padding and another its the correct usage of player vs character. Rays advice naturally falls in to certain categories and I suspect his points would be better made and/or reinforced if the book were organized that way. A section on padding, a section on proper terminology, etc.

This isn’t a book on evocative writing, or even adventure organization topics like the use of white space or bullets. He does touch briefly, in an off-hand way, on those but not to any real extent. Here’s an example from a section on stacked modifiers (IE: adjectives & adverbs) that I think can illustrate the power of the english language:
Before: Its body is thin, scaly, and wormlike.
After: Its wormlike body is thin and scaly.

It’s not perfect. Some of the advice is suspect, but it does strike a decisive blow in the war against padding and bloat. Little anecdotal in presentation, but solid advice for trimming your writing and making sentences that scan easier and have more impact through being more direct.

It’s easy to recommend this. Now the challenge becomes figuring out how to get it in to the hands of every hack distributing on Drivethru.

This is $5 at DriveThru.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 8 Comments

(5e) Giantslayer

By M. T. Black & Richard Jansen-Parkes
Self Published
Levels 1-2

Yegor Bonecruncher is the most ferocious hill giant in the land. When he begins terrorising the small village of Frickley, the inhabitants have only one hope – the legendary warrior, Jahia Giantslayer. The PCs undertake a dangerous trek through the High Forest to find her, battling wild fey magic all the way. But can Jahia live up to her own legend?

This fourteen page adventure features the party taking a (very short) wilderness journey to find a retired adventurer, in order to fight a hill giant.You get two or three fights, plus the hill giant fight, in addition to a couple of persuade rolls. It’s (generally) not offensive. The publishers blurb notes that the designer is critically acclaimed. That’s one strike against it out of the gate.

Rather than focusing on the absurd power creep in 5e, I will instead note that a portion of this adventure focuses on getting the villagers to stay and fight instead of running away. Abstracted, the giant will start down 36HP if they do, and then their arrows will do 15 points a round to him. (I guess no firing in to melee penalties in 5e?) Getting the farmers to stay knocks the giant down 30 hp and getting the hunters to stay knocks him down by about 15 points a round. Best case, that leaves him about 30 hp to go. No unreasonable for a party of 1’s, especially if the retired adventurer is recruited, since she absorbs one giant attack a round for four rounds and does a further 15 points a round to him. This reveals two things. First, this is really a social adventure. Recruiting the farmers and hunters, as well as the adventurer, is critical to the success of the adventure. There are some throw-away words to getting the villagers to help, but I felt that the text could have been clearer on this point … the party needs to understand the importance of getting them to help, otherwise they can’t make meaningful decisions about it. Yes, it IS mentioned, but it feels abstracted when first brought up. Second, it harkens back to the time when you bought hirelings and henchmen with you to the dungeon. Getting a big ass group together to fight the monsters does more damage to them and makes it less likely YOU will be targeted. No one ever brings enough people with them, and abstracted hirelinelig/henchmen in combat rules should be a thing.

Suggested hooks are: your father dies and you go back home to your village. Ug. All adventurers are orphans for a reason, so the DM can’t fuck with their families. This is a perfect example of bad hook writing. Multiple half-column read-alouds make me grown out loud on the quality of the writing. Overwrought. “… where farmers and hunters share gossip over a flagon or two or ale and the odd bowl of mutton stew.” It’s a fucking generic fantasy inn. You’ve done nothing to it to make it interesting. Just say its a fucking inn and don’t make us wade through the failed novelist text. And you know, there’s nothing like intro read-aloud text that has the words “Suddenly you hear shouts up ahead …” Every. Fucking. Time. It’s like there’s a template these people use called “Bad 5e Adventure Writing.”

Beyond all of this garbage is some dubious advice out roleplaying. Yes, it does mention that you should have the players roleplay their persuade attempts instead of just rolling the die. I fondly recall DM’s a 4e con game once where, when I asked this, one of the players said ‘Ug, your one of THOSE dm’s …” Yes, I am; we’re playing D&D and not Warhammer minis. In spite of this advice, though, the designer then goes about fucking things up. You MUST persuade. You can’t bribe, or intimidate, or do other things. Those are all auto-fails. Bull. Shit. First, I’m not sure its ever ok to have hidden rules. “Haha! Jokes on you! I had hidden rules and you fail now because you didn’t read my mind!” But, more than that, Fuck you for deciding in advance how the party has to play this out. Let me intimidate or bribe people. What fucking difference does it make? It’s not your fucking story, it’s the players. If they want to bribe people then who cares? Just tell them the farmer is very proud, give them disadvantage maybe, or adjust the combat potential at the end with some morale pretext.

But, all is not bleak. The main NPC”s have some summary boxes that are easy to find. WAY too long, but still, I appreciate the effort. Less text than a half-column each would have made it easier to roleplay the major players all at once and keep track of them. So, hearts in the right place, just totally fucked by implementation. There are nice notes though, like a farmer embellishing a story and his brother vouching for him that give the DM good cues on adding flavor to the otherwise boring overwrought text. Likewise an encounter or two have some interesting things going on, like a harpy luring the party up a boulder to fall to their deaths.

The hook doesn’t really finish till page six (unless you count the village asd the adventure, which you could, given the persuade rolls.) There’s only a couple of wilderness encounters, since the hermits hut for the adventurer is only a couple of hours away. Those tend to be half page affairs, for simple things like “a fallen log” or “crossing a river on slippery stones.”

This is, essentially, an adventure written for ten years olds. It’s not meant to be, but its so simplistic to give that effect. I don’t mind basic, and its short and simple enough that you can almost keep the entire thing in your head … for better or worse.

This isn’t a terrible adventure. Most of the bullshit can be ignored. Some additional text to liven up the final fight would have been a good addition, but, whatever. It’s $2 and its not the great steaming pile of shit most 5e adventures seem to be.

This is $2 at DMsguild. The preview is only two pages long. You get to see the long read-aloud as well as the “start the adventurers off immediately with a fight!” bullshit and how its implemented THIS time.

Posted in Reviews | 17 Comments

(DCC) Unseen Vaults of the Optic Experiment

By Johan Noor
Stockholm Kartel
Level 3

Gruzx the Ever Watching – the infamous villain of the lands – has vanished. Howls and cries seem to come from the old tomb. And now everyone is complaining about bad eyesight? Best tie your shoes and grab your sword, for things are about to get messy!

This twenty page adventure features an eleven room dungeon straight out of the Weird Fantasy genre. More DCC-ish than LotFP torture, it has shapeless monsters, interdimensional beings, and spooky ghosts. Terse and evocative, it only sometimes engages in text padding. It’s a nice little dungeon.

The conceit here is that the baddies are researching true vision, so everything is a little off, visually. Blurry and so on, which allows for your other senses to kick in. This allows for a very read-aloud that is just an impression. Here’s one: “Cold metal, dust and sound of chains, stench of a sweaty fat man. Mad howls.” That, my friends, is the room with The Evil One in it. You know, He Must Not Be Named, etc? It’s a cute twist and a way to reference a former baddie in the campaign/world.

Further, he’d really like to be freed and could reward you. Also, the baddies need help with their True Sight and would be happy to reward you for that. Also, there’s a vampire ghost who could probably set up up with a nice keep in the ghoul lands. Also the spirits of the people in the tomb (this is a former tomb complex) are pissed at all the intrusions and may team up with you. It’s not exactly factions, and it would be hard to call any of them “good” or “not hostile”, but there are certainly opportunities to talk to just about everything in the adventure that has a brain. I SO get off on this shit. Adventures are SO much more interesting when you can talk to a creature. Sure, go ahead and stab it because its evil or you want the treasure, but talking adds delicious temptation and if that’s not the soul of DM pleasure then I don’t know what is.

The map is ok. Simple, but with notations on it. There are two versions and, IMO, the art heavy one is better than the computer generated one. Both have quite clear text and notations on them to give the DM hints of what’s to come . I really appreciate this, it helps with look-ahead environmental stuff, like sounds, light, etc.

The writing is pretty short and easy to read and scan. It DOES engage in fapping about though. Histories and purposes that get in the way. Here’s the intro to room one: “When the Freak Freaks turned the old tomb into their laboratory, the dead spirits were enraged and confused.
All their frustration and despair merged to form a shapeless, ghastly being – an emotion brought to unlife: Despair in ghostly form.” Or a section describing what the freaks do with their barrels full of vampire ashes. We don’t really need that shit.

It also engages in a secret door description fetish. I usually see this sort of thing with traps. Someone thinks they need to exhaustively describe how the trap works, and goes on for paragraphs doing so. Secret Door Fetish is a related DSM, but focuses on how to open the secret door. I don’t mind a little detail, a curtain, a paper-mache wall, etc. But let’s not go overboard. Hearing a click in another room, or down the hall, is a nice effect but … “Push one of the many stones in the northern wall, followed by pressing another stone only a meter away. An audible Click! is heard. You can now push the secret door on the southern wall – a heavy, cumber­some slab of stone …” goes a little too far for my tastes.

The treasure can bring the freaky, like a skull that can scout ahead for you, but lies frequently. (Mort?)

It’s a decent little adventure. A little short for my tastes.

This is $5 at Lulu. It being Lulu, there is. Of course, no preview.

Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments

The Barbarian King

The Gabor Lux
First Hungarian d20 Society
Levels 4-6

The Barbarian King pits the company against the ruined empire of the mountain barbarians… and the evil that still slumbers therein! This gloomy wilderness and dungeon scenario features deals with malevolent and ultra-powerful spirits, the burial places of a now defeated people, shadowy hosts and deadly traps.

This 24 page adventure details a small valley and the tomb of a … barbarian king. 🙂 It’s got a GREAT vibe going on, and Gabor takes things just a little bit further than usual for an adventure, thinking about things just enough more to make things make sense. It’s a good adventure.

It FEELS like some bronze-age shits got their asses kicked. I just saved an article about battlefields from (Encounter magazine?) so this stuff is on my mind lately, The valley where this adventure takes place was where the barbarians were wiped out. As such it’s got a good “old battlefield” vibe going on, with old fortifications, monuments, and the like scattered throughout. All shows the impact of time, with signs of damage and looting. You get a good vibe off of the descriptions and there’s a sort of abandoned melancholy feeling that hangs over things. That’s quite an accomplishment and gets to the sort of writing I’m looking for .. .writing that conjures something inside of the DM that they can then leverage to expand upon the encounters.

Statues of the victors god, now run down, available with boons if the party restore them. That should be a go to every time you see a shrine … the same way there should be a cave behind every waterfall. I’m fond of the way the mechanics are handled, with subtle healing, protection from evil spirits roaming the valley, and even a raise dead once the valley is cleansed. It makes sense. These are the gods of the people who cleansed the valley in the first place. Of course they have an interest in things. IMO, there’s not enough of this in modern D&D. Cast a bless, clean up a temple, or defile an evil one and get some pseudo-mechanical benefits … even if its just a vision or clue.

There’s a village of passive-aggressive shits in the valley. Former slaves, in denial that the barbarians were wiped out. It’s handled VERY well and you get an immediate sense of who they are and how they react to the party. Hate & fear, for illogical reasons. IE: they are humans not exactly acting rationally. Again, it makes sense. Gabor has put just an iota more throught in to the place than is usual for an adventure and because of that it is so much richer a play environment. It’s what you WANT from a village instead of the generic fantasy crap you always get in adventures.

Steep canyon walls, rushing river, broken down bridges and fords, mists hanging around at all hours, only burning off for a few hours in the early afternoon … Im in luv with this place.

I frequently harp on short & terse, well-organized descriptions. I think that advice works best for most people. But there are other ways. The sticky description, and so on. Melan does a good job building up a vibe, sentence after sentence, and providing descriptions that FEEL right. His use of paragraph breaks and bolding complete an eneoucnter style that’s easy to follow.

The single column gets old after awhile, I think it makes my eyes tired following it. The text can get long in places but its organized quite well, with bolding and bullet points and the paragraphs arranged in a way that puts immediate information up front and detail information in paragraphs following. IE: the right way. Or, maybe, “one of the right ways.”

The tomb, proper, is stuffed full of undead. FULL OF UNDEAD. Treasure seems quite light (unless I missed something?) for an adventure of this level.

I like the appeal to one-shot mechanics. Menhirs with runes on them can give you a temporary one-time spell boost. The temple restoration thing. It’s not all book mechanics and from that standpoint the adventure feels more … natural?

Oh, great, and now I discover I’ve already reviewed this, in another form, when was it appeared in Fight On! This must be the third or fourth time I’ve double bought something by accident. Ug. Also, I now call Gabor Lux “The Gabor Lux” because I think it’s fun. Idk, go figure.

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is ok. The last page gives you a good example of the writing style. It shows a flavorful and evocative style without resorting to the brutally terse style hat I usually expose.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 6 Comments

(5e) Heir and Back Again

By Jonathan Nelson, Serena Nelson, Jensen Toperzer
AAW Games
Level 1

Young Joylene Crumb always felt that life on a farm wasn’t for her… but with her adoptive father missing and rumors of a black dragon ravaging the countryside, is she really ready to run off on an adventure? Who are we kidding, of course she is, with the help of three unusual companions!

This 65 page adventure is a gimmick one-shot that uses 5e rules. It emulates the text-based/point-and-click computer adventure games. I can see it being an interesting experience as a one-shot for folks looking for something different, but it is, essentially, not an RPG. Or, maybe, it pushes that definition just about as far as it can go. In any event, while it does a decent job providing a resource key for the DM, it also muddles the main text by using paragraph exposition.

There are these little gimmick games called Parsley. One person emulates the computer in a text adventure and everyone else takes turns giving the computer commands. You explore the poincrawl, going back to pick things up to overcome challenges, and so on. The Parsley player follows a simple outline and comes up with clever things to say for successful and unsuccessful actions. This adventure is similar to that, except there are four player characters and a DM and each player has a pre-gen PC, as one would expect in a standard RPG. There is a pointcrawl map with about 21 “rooms.” Some location exits are blocked until you perform an action, like giving someone an object you found elsewhere. Doing this, you work your way through the adventure. The pre-gens provided are archetypes, like a comical pooka, a werebear proving himself, a housecat, and the little girl folk hero.

All in all, maybe an interesting parlour game for a con or other one-shot. The locations are generally one per page, so they are easy to find. The items, when found, are cross-referenced to the location and page where they are used, and on the page where they are used the are cross referenced to the page that they are found. There’s also a master item index at the rear that summarizes all of the objects and their locations and uses … although it could have been spread over fewer pages. Both the one location per page and the item cross-reference show an understanding of providing the DM the tools they need to run the adventure. The adventure, proper, is a little whimsical, heavy on folklore tropes, with the touches of nostalgia that will be charming when playing a throwback sort of thing like this. Find the needle in the haystack, literally, for example.

Two issues arise. First, the game uses ability checks to find some objects. BAD. DC19 to find the needle in the haystack. Or a spot check to find a rusty key that you don’t know exists. The advice given, in the case of the key, is to just move it somewhere else. This is all bad design. The fun of an adventure should not be abstracted to a dice roll. The party knows there’s a needle in the haystack. They should roleplay to find it. That’s where the fun is. A “roll to continue the adventure” check is never a good idea, and this adventure does that over and over again.

Further, the adventure muddles the DM text. Important information appears deep in paragraphs, that don’t always let you know within the first few words that this the right place to look. Far better to bullet point the information or edit the paragraph to make it far clearer, immediately, that this is the paragraph you are looking for. As is, it uses a more conversation style with too much “after this this shoos the group out. She wishes them luck but only since itll save our skins …” etc.

It’s a cute idea. I find the DM text too much of a pain to deal with, though, to want to run it. Or, rather, I’m partially inclined to run it but I won’t because of the DM text.

This is $13 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages, but it does not show you any of the locations. As such all you get to see is the usual bullshit into stuff with no idea of what to expect of the actual content.

Posted in Reviews | 11 Comments

(DCC) Fate of the Ruthless Wizard

By Marc Elsenheimer
Self Published
Level 0

The old tower looms over your small village. In the past it was a sign of resilience, but now it has turned into something else. As you step out of your small homes into the Towers shadow, the fear of the wizard Broshgar creeps back into your hearts. He took your food and your goods, he abducted your friends and your family and without remorse he killed anyone trying to stop him. Only a few months ago he took four of your children at once. And you let it happen. But today is the last day you’ll ever be afraid of him. Assembling in front of the towers entrance you are ready to end his reign of terror.

This six page funnel details an assault by villagers on a wizards tower. It’s as good first effort with a few interesting mechanics. It’s also got boring read-aloud, an obsession with trap descriptions, and feels bland for a wizards tower.

This is the authors first adventure he’s written. He’s also German and there are some minor spelling/grammar issues. I tend to let that shit slide even with native english speakers, as long as the intent is there, and it is here. Besides, his english is excellent; all I can say in deutch is Ich kann Glas essen, das tut mir nicht weh.

Its got a nice hand-drawn map with an isometric view also included. Probably not needed for a map as simple as this but I appreciate the effort. It IS hard to find the stairs on many of the levels. I still can’t find them … but I if you ignore that and make some assumptions then its ok.

One of the most interesting things about the adventure is the authors willingness to play with mechanics. Looting some armor from a battle you just won has the fumble die increasing by one because of damage. That recognizes both what the party WILL be doing (looting) as well as adding an interesting effect. Likewise, an item gives non-wizards a spell with a d10 action die. There’s a basic understanding here adding flavor to the game using unusual mechanics. That’s a significant step up from folks that just use book rules and monsters,

I would call the wizards tower a bit bland though. It kind of feels like a generic wizards tower. I think some of that is the writing. Rooms are described as ‘large’ repeatedly, with other rooms descriptions using the word “small”. One room uses the word “massive” twice to describe two different objects. This pattern continues throughout. The use of common adjectives and adverbs is a big nono. You want to convey flavor and Large don’t do that. It would be interesting to see what the original german words were. IE: hopefully we can chalk this up to translation difficulties.

But there are other issues also. Read-aloud telling us that there are two doors out of a room. Yes. We know that. The map shows us that. The read-aloud doesn/t have to tell us everything about the room. The purpose of it, if you’re going to use it, is to provide a short punchy description that will hook the players. It is not the end all and be all of the description. The DM can easily add “there are two doors out” or respond as such when asked by the players if there are exits.

I would also note some explanation paragraphs and sentence included. These generally attribute motivations and are entirely unneeded. For example. The DM text in the first room reads: “The Entrance room is designed to test potential guests, of which Broshgar had few. The barren room has only one object of interest, the Bookshelf. It is trapped to amuse Broshgar and hurt or kill guests that can’t keep their hands to themselves.” The second paragraph describes the trapped bookshelf. We don’t need to know he likes to amuse himself. It doesn’t add anything to the party actively adventuring the room.

Finally, there’s a bit of an obsession with detailing traps. I’ve noticed that some authors seem to have a mania about it. Every detail must be described. Just get in and out quick. If it takes more than about two-three sentences then it is probably too long. “Both traps are triggered by stepping on a special floorboard of a slightly darker colour.” Uh huh. That classic trap padding. Scything blade, 1d6, DC14 reflect to avoid. DONE! Yeah, I know, I write the most boring shut. But its also not two paragraphs.

Still, in all, a decent effort especially for a Dark Eye player. (Boing! Score one for Bryce’s international relations!) It’s not especially a bad adventure, and the end is a little video-gamey with some tricks involved. I like the appeal to non-standard mechanics and encounters, like a cauldron ooze, are pretty good. The writing isn’t going to win a C- in the evocative category, but, hey, english as a second language. That makes it less interesting, as wizard towers go, than it could be. But, as a nice, free funnel I’d say its pretty good. Better than a bunch of paid funnels I’ve seen. But, thats not really a compliment …

This is free at the authors blog, Out of Curiosity

Posted in Reviews | 4 Comments

(5e) The Secrets of Iriestine’s Order

By Cory Mann
Horror Module Publishing
Level 1

Deep in the heart of the forest, there is rumour of an underground temple forgotten by the ages, built for a god long dead. You have been tasked by a small town with trying to find out if there is any merit to the rumblings of the temple reawakening and followers flocking to it. Do you and your party have what it takes to delve inside the deepest recesses of the inescapable dungeon?

This is a 29 page adventure that mostly describes a five level dungeon with about thirty rooms in it. It means well and is better than the usual 5e fare, but makes some pretty basic mistakes. Still, it offers a hint of exploration, and the elements that made D&D popular to begin with: wonder.

What if the rumors weren’t true? You know, the villager have rumors of a temple in the jungle, the party shows up, finds the temple, and its just a ruin, abandoned? Adventure over! 🙂 But , anyway …

Ok, villagers are under attack nightly. You go there to make your name. The first night the village comes under attack and you go find the goblin attackers the net morning, in a ruined dungeon/temple, and then explore the five levels until you reach the bottom and some spirit dude who needs put to rest. Less linear than most 5e dungeon far, it calls the various levels “Acts”, indicating that someone has either never seen a real dungeon or is pandering to a market that expects things in acts. Anyway …

You can’t get in to town. In spite of asking for help, they have a guard in front of the gate that won’t let you in. You’re not given stats for her, so I guess a stabbing is out of the question, as is sneaking in. No, it’s made clear you need to describe yourself and make a DC 10 check to get in. This is a classic no-no; It’s a roll to continue. Some trivial challenge blocks your path but you have to roll to get past it. What happens if you fail your roll? You don’t get to play tonight? No stabbing stats, no sneaking in details … I guess nothing happens and we all go home? No, obviously that’s not what is going to happen. The DM is gonna fudge something and the game will go on. Then why does the roll exist? Why roadblock the adventure? It shows a basic lack of understanding of adventure design. Better, FAR better, to just let the party in and make the roll contingent on how they are treated, rewarded, or some other criteria. Or, not have it all. Just roleplay and let them in. “Please help us! We’re dying here! One more night and we won’t make it and we’ll all be dead!” … “But please jump through these 12 hoops first and agree to these 99 thesis …” Sometimes, D&D villages get what they deserve. Remember people, your choice for Beadle is important! Anyway …

The town, while unrealistic, have a good outline of things you can learn in the inn, as well as a good NPC summary; what they know and do son. It all fits in about a column and is organized well. WHich can’t be said for the rest … You learn of a ranger on the edge of town who can tell you where the temple is. But his details are located in an event called “The Fire” in which a building burns down at night. The whole thing is short enough that it doesn’t really matter … but any longer and it WOULD. It points to a lack of understanding of formatting and organization.

The core of the adventure is a five-level dungeon, with goblins, traps/puzzles and a few undead. It starts with goblins and some hoblins, moves to some puzzles/traps, etc, and then on to some undead at the bottoms. The whole “corrupted good guy” tomb thing again.

The encounters are not all bad. SLeeping goblins to take advantage of. Several puzzle like rooms. They’re not necessarily great ether. An illusion of a red dragon kill everyone, for no reason other than “because.” A pillar that allows you to float is in the dungeon explicitly so you can cross a pit trap … with lots of words about the players thinking creatively, etc. It’s trying, but resorting to things for no other purpose than doing them is not a great way to design. Empty rooms don’t drone on and read-aloud is kept to manageable size … mostly.

But …

It’s lacking core creativity. As such, its little more than a random dungeon design with some rando monsters that is expanded upon with more text. Goblins sleep in beds. Latrine rooms are included. Read-aloud indicates that the creatures see and they attack, etc. Stat blocks (big & bloated, of course) inconsistently appear in the text. One room has four coffins with duergar in them. Alive, as it turns out. WTF? In later rooms the dungeon becomes a test, and doors slam shut when you go in rooms, and there are challenges to prove yourself, etc. Descriptions describe exits. Things like the red dragon illusion pop up … for no other reason than … well, there is no reason cause there are no reasons. What reason ca… anyway …

Even something with these issues, though, is better than the usual bloated text plot things at is usual for 5e/Pathfinder. There is something TO this. It may be not great, but you comprehend it.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview doesn’t show you any of the core, the dungeon. The town entry is there, as well as the inn rumors, and the fire/chase events. Essentially, everything BUT the core of the adventure. Not cool. But the inn summary with the bullets and NPC boxing is well done and you can see that.

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The Dark of Hot Springs Island

By Donnie Garcia, Jacob Hurst, Evan Peterson, Patrick Stuart
The Swordfish Islands

This 200 page adventure is a jam-packed hex crawl on an island full of factions and weirdness. Close attention to both usability and imagination have resulted in a must-have product. Magnificent. And it would have been even more magnificent if they had put in fewer words justifying the lack of monster stats and had put in monster stats.

Sometimes products come along that are clearly exceptional. A strong creator vision combined with something new. On the Adventure side of thing, Wilderlands was an early example. We might also list Stonehell, Rappan Athuk, Maze of the Blue Medusa. Something new, leveraged to see a vision implemented. This is one of those.

There’s an island, with sixteen hexes making it up. Each hex has three encounters in it. Some of those are minor and some of those are multi-room dungeons. The first one hundred pages of the booklet deals with that. Two pages summarize each hex and encounter. Then each hex gets a more in-depth description, with all of the detail of each hex fitting on a single page. Then there’s an expanded section for each major encounter that describes each one in more detail, generally a page or two. Think of it as providing the map and encounter key for those little dungeons on the isle. This section is cross-referenced to all hell and back. Factions, NPC’s, other hexs … if something is referenced a page number is given.

There are great summaries of the island, the hexes, the factions. Wonderful examples of how to actually USE the book, and tables to help generate rando things, like names for NPC creatures. The travel system outlined is simple and easy to use. The maps are clear and easy to read. I am a hard art critic, not liking much, but I must say the two-page spread of “Hot SPrings City” is something I would have framed it it were larger. (Joining the cutaway of the Starship Warden that hangs in my living room. I note that they are both very busy pieces.)

The second half of the book describes the factions and the major players, as well as monsters and magic items and tables, the usual appendix stuff. But … the factions. Man. This fucking shit is deep. There’s a group of ogres on the island, fighting a rebellion. The ogres get a one page write up. Then one more about the high priests influence, whats going on right now, and a major subplot. Then there are eight different major NPC”s presented, each with a little history/write and bullet point list of what they want and what they don’t want, followed up a few subplo/traits. And they are not just things to hack! And that’s just for ONE of the six major factions. It’s nucking futz!

Th creativity is off the charts. Not exactly gonzo … more Isle of Dread with a bit more “ancient elven magic” mixed in. More Dread than Dread, I think also. The environment for creative play is there, and then …

AReas are lightly keyed. Generally this means a map, some brief descriptions of the map, a table to determine what the general 411 of the map is, and then en encounter chart with they are doing. The ide being you have a place (the map and keys) and then roll to see what’s going on. Simplified, let’s say “turf war!” And then you roll for each room to populate the room and what activity they are engaged in. And your mind naturally related everything to “Turf War.” The system works very well. If you are in to building it on the fly. I’m not sure I am.

Oh, and there’s no monster stats, which is why there is no level rating. And there are seriously enough NPC’s to choke a horse.

I am a jerk-faced jerk. I insist on usability at the table. That’s my definition of “adventure”, which is what I review. I don’t want to prep an adventure. If I have to prep its a toolkit and, while I might be fine with a toolkit, I want to make sure I understand that’s what I’m buying.

Didn’t someone redo the maps in DCO? This thing needs someone to stat the damn thing. And make a one-page/one-sheet NPC summary list. (Ahum, with page number cross-references.) And maybe a rando generator for the rando stuff. (Although, I could probably do that in about 30 minutes, by hand, for the whole book, which doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Remember, I’m also a hypocrite.) Didn’t I rip Gardens of Ynn for the same thing? It IS pretty easy in Hot Springs to do that, easier than I recall Ynn being. This is almost certainly a case of me being unreasonable and citing something for the sake of citing it. The generation takes about a minute per “major area”, which seems fine to me. I also kind of wish that the travel rules were condensed and on the map. That would be a great final nod to usability.

The intro nodes that the island is a powderkeg and the party is the spark. I like that analogy for a good adventure. If you’ve got a lot going on then you can dump in the party and watch the place explode. Lots going on, and lots of threads to follow and exploit. That’s D&D.

If you’re still on the fence then you might also red my review of the Lapis Observatory. It is ONE of the locations on Hot Springs Island.

The Lapis Observatory

Yeah, the physical thing is pricy. But … really? For the amount of play you’re going to get out of this the price is trivial. Most price pressure, I think, revolves around the fear of getting ripped off. I don’t have a problem paying if I know it’s good … and this is one of those stake-in-the-ground products. You’re a fool for not having this.

This is $20 at DriveThru. There’s a 20-page sample available at the publishers site. It goes through how to use the book, and then page nine shows you main hex summary descriptions, with a few samples of the locations to be populated and the NPC faction data. It’s a great preview of the writing.


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The Sinister Stone of Sakkara

By Alex Macris, Matthew Skail
Level 1

Over a millennium ago, when the borderlands were in the dark grip of the Zaharan Empire, the empire’s sorcerer-priests erected a profane temple to house the terrible artifact known as the Stone of Sakkara. Using the Stone, the sorcerer-priests could birth monsters and abominations with frightening ease and magically command the loyalty of chaotic creatures. The Stone brought its evil masters great power throughout the fell empire. In the centuries since the fall of Zahar, the Stone has lain dormant and forgotten. Now it has awakened, and warbands of beastmen have begun to gather sacrifices to power the Stone’s birthing pools again. Local farms and hamlets have been sacked and pillaged, and entire families have gone missing. The local legate has too few men to even patrol the border; he has none at all to hunt down the source of the evil. Adventurers are needed…

This eighty page adventure describes a keep on the borderlands along with some nearby ruins that has some mixed humanoid tribes in it, and an EHP. It’s the real deal, with a hundred room two-level dungeon and lots going on. It’s also dry and likes to hear itself talk about descriptions of normal bedrooms. It’s sad when you see the real deal obfuscated by verbosity.

You know the deal already. A keep on the borderlands, described in about thirty(!) pages. Then a two-level dungeon in about another thirty pages, and about thirty pages of appendix, etc. ACKS has domain rules, and as you would expect from those authors, the language used in this appears to be quite precise. No more sloppy usage of rounds and turns, etc. The authors seem to understand the theory and rules behind their own game. 🙂

The keep has loot, and named NPC’s and the possibility for a little intrigue. The same goes for the humanoids in the ruins. Factions are implied, there are empty rooms, the maps are large with some variety and a few loops. There’s are some notes on how the humanoids respond. The wanderers are engaged in some activities. Unusual treasure, like monster eggs, and hints for how monsters react based on the raction rolls. (You didn’t dump stat it, did you?!) Traps and tricks, such as mutation pools and the like are sprinkled throughout. Like I said, this is the real deal in terms of a dungeon.

And then they go and fuck it up by writing it down.

There are a few things wrong in this. Factions could be better outlined and/or noted on the map. Some sections don’t have great sections breaks … like a “travel to the ruins” paragraph which appears for all the world to be a part of the wandering monster descriptions. WHile NPC’ have page references for where they spend their time, a few more in the rumors, as well as the rumors being in voice would have been a good thing.

But that’s not the primary sins, not by a long shot. That’s all little nits. The major sin in this is the inability to describe a bedroom.

This is one of the most basic and fundamental skills in adventure writing. There’s been a lot of discussion about it online, not just from me. It’s not clear to me why people still can’t write a description for a bedroom. The basic question is: how much do you need to write when you are describing a bedroom?

Fundamentally, I believe the adventure must be usable at the table. The more information you put in a room description the harder you make it for the DM to actually run the room at the table. When the players open the door to the bedroom the DM must quickly scan the bedroom description and relay some information to the players. If the bedroom is novel-length then there will be quite some delay as the DM absorbs the information. Further, as the players explore the bedroom the DM must quickly find information in the bedrooms description and relay that back to the players.

I assert (as would many others, I believe) that this means the room description must be short. The DM has to be able to glance at them and quickly absorb the information in a second or so. Yeah, some rooms may be more complex, but that’s a formatting and layout issue. The key concept remains.

How can you accomplish this? BY LEAVING THE FUCK OUT THINGS THAT DON’T MATTER. Information can be implied, sure, and DOESNT MATTER is, of course, a bit subjective. Anything in the room that is normal can be implied, or referenced obliquely. The room description needs to concentrate on what makes THIS bedroom different .. relevant to the adventure. “A sumptuous appointed guest room.” May be all the description you need. In fact, you might title the room Sumptuous Guest Room and not offer a description at all. Or, maybe “with stained sheets and bloody manacles attached to the headboard.” We now have the image of a sumptuous guest bedroom with stained bedsheets and bloody manacles. THAT’S a good description. It implies things. It leaves room for the DM.

We don’t need to know the bed is a full size, made of cedar, with a chest of drawers with six knobs and full of X, Y, and Z. These sort of of exhaustive room description have little place. You’re not writing a novel; this is technical writing.

This adventure makes this mistake OVER AND OVER AND OVER again. It provides in-depth descriptions of the most mundane objects in every room, exhaustively listing content. It kills any imagination and comes off as dry. Every room is litke this, or close enough to generalize as every room anyway.

In town, rules are embedded in the room descriptions. The descriptions engage in explaining WHY things are, and give detailed room dimensions, duplicating the map. The emphasis on this mundanity detracts from the wonder. Common adjectives are used, like “huge” and “large,” BORING. English is a fabulously descriptive language, and that’s even before you start to twist it. But the word “huge” was chosen. Ug.

The rooms descriptions are a SLOG to get through. I’m not even sure a highlighter would fix it, they are so mixed up. The VAST majority of each rooms description is just not needed and clogs up the room, making it hard as fuck to scan. Yeah, it’s a decent little vanilla adventure. But I ain’t gonna slog it while running it. I’m going to pick something better oriented to the DM running it at the table.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages long. The last few pages give you a good example of ALL of the room/key description writing. I’ve also included four example below. The last example, in particular, I think exemplifies the damage done to a room by excessive description.

9. Stable-Barracks Block: See the Stable-Barracks Block Map. The stable-barracks block is 200’ long, 50’ wide, and 15’ tall. The block is built to house one company of 60 cavalry, along with four subalterns (platoon commanders) and one tribune (company commander), collectively spread across the block’s twelve rows.

Rows 1-11 are each sub-divided lengthwise into two 24’ wide sections. Each of these two sections consists of an inner living quarters (16’ wide, 9’ long, and 8’ tall) connected by wooden doors to outer stables (16’ wide, 15’ long, and 10’ tall) that open up to the outside. Ladders rise from the stables to hay-lofts (16’ wide, 9’ long, and 7’ tall) that sit above the living quarters. Each section ….

19p. Latrines: Marble and maple-wood benches are built over an underground water channel that flushes waste into the Krysivor River. Buckets near the latrines are furnished with sponges on sticks, with which the lavatory user can clean himself.

(guard room)
This 30’ wide and 20’ long room is guarded by six kobolds. The two largest guards (hp 4 each) are tormenting the smallest one (hp 1) by tossing its money pouch over its head, while the others enjoy the spectacle. The kobolds are considered Distracted for the purposes of being snuck up on (see ACKS p. 97-98). If the kobolds hear noise in room 2, they will end their game to investigate. If their morale breaks, the gang will flee to room 4. In addition to the guards, the room contains bedding for the kobolds, a round one- legged table, and a pile of gnawed animal bones. The kobolds carry 1d6 sp each, and the two toughest both carry 10 gp in small purses.

16. The Bloody Shore: This roughly oval cavern is about 80’ long and 50’ wide, with a vaulted, stalactite-riddled ceiling about 25’ above. A huge pillar of stone, 20’ thick, rises from the center of the cave to the ceiling. Everywhere else the cavern floor is covered with reddish “roots” that seem to grow up from the stone itself. If cut, the roots leak a thick sap the color and smell of blood. At the back of the cavern is a large pool of red fluid that looks and smells like thick blood. This is a birthing pool for abominations (see Appendix I, New Monsters, p. 66 and Appendix II, New Magic Items, p. 67). A single abomination lurks in the 5’ deep pool. It will only surface if someone enters or touches the birthing pool

(This is my (bad) edit:)
A mammoth column of stone, 20; thick, rises from the pool to the vaulted stalactite-riddled ceiling. The floow is covered with reddish “roots”, growing from the stone itself, which leak bloody sap when cut. A 5’ deep pool of blood contains an abomination that surfaces when someone touches/enters the pool.

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(5e) Shadows of Forgotten Kings

Zzarchov Kowolski
Level 3

The villages on the edge of the jungle used to be wealthy: they gathered fruits and exotic hardwoods from within the jungle and sold them as wines and furniture to regular merchant caravans in exchange for grains and other staples. But caravans do not make it through anymore. A handful of tattered survivors have made it back to the city and reported being assaulted by wave after wave of panthers that would attack, retreat, and attack again in replenished numbers. The merchant houses want their lucrative route back. The villages need grain and supplies; their people cannot live forever scavenging fruit and huddling by their hearths in fear every night. Tales lead deeper into the jungle – to the ruins of an ancient empire fallen to a terrible curse.

This 31 page adventure uses twelve pages to describe a ruined and forgotten city in the jungle. The encounters form a great neutral environment for the adventure, full of interesting things to get in to trouble with, and the final section of ruins contains a 90 minute timer. The text frequently forgets to get to the fucking point, and drives me crazy with “this room used to be”’s. Be it the writing, editing, or layout, someone fell down. Hard.

This is a pretty good forgotten jungle ruins city. It feels like one, and there’s lots to get in trouble with … without it feeling directed at the party. Each night a tree grows in the heart of the ruins. Fruit ripens and turns in to severed heads with sewn together kips, trying to scream. Eventually they burst and flies come swaming out. Which carry the plague. They fill the city from 15 minutes after dawn to sunset, when they die. Bursting the head before they do so naturally cause gore and maggots to come out of them. Ain’t that a stinker? That’s fucking AWESOME. Now that’s a what I call a curse! In another area there are fallen glass doors that, when you step over them, cause a magic mouth to appear and speak … which causes cursed panthers that roam the ruins to show up. But the next room is a hall of mirrors, which causes them to become disoriented. The entire thing is written in this very neutral manner. It’s not deck stacked against the party, it’s a natural environment that they can exploit, if they are smart enough.

A gold chain hanging from the ceiling may cause you to search the floor, to find what was hanging from it. IT MAKES SENSE. Someone thought for one than one second about the room, and it shows.A shadow demon who doesn’t want to be guarding anymore. Spells on clay tablets. A rosetta stone to crack the ancient language used throughout. Clues in one area to secrets in another. This adventure is CONSTRUCTED, a thing that few are.

And it’s weakened, overall, by its routine use of common sins. The number of fucking times I had to read “this room used to be …” and/or “its all dust now …” is beyond number. You know how I knew the room was a library? YOU CALLED THE ROOM “#12: Library”! And you follow up by telling me the room was once a library? USELESS. And it doe this sort of thing over and over again. It was once decorated with luxury, but now all is dust.

And voice! “Unlike whatever wooden furniture was once in the room, the club has not rotted to dust.”

Room entries bury information important to other rooms inside their own text. “The creatures in the numbered entries are treated like mummies” or”treat the undead like skeletons. When do reach the impacted rooms/text there’s no hint that they are mummies or skeletons. Bolding/etc for monster encounters or other important things is non-existent. “If you put the emperor’s body in this tomb then you get the following bonus.” Great! You know what would have been better? Putting “(#8b)” next to “emperors body” so we all know where it is. The relation of one area to another is great, and it doesn’t have to spelled out in the text, for clues relating to another area but a reference on where to find things is CRITICAL in an adventure like this, that tries to integrate the explanation of what’s going on inline with the text.

Speaking of what’s going, a gentle reminder: background information is ok … but not when you bury important things in there. Like DC checks. Which this adventure does repeatedly, thereby forcing me to read the backstory. LAME. Let me guess, Empire, Fallen, Curse, Evil, Corruptions, Gods. Did U get it right also?

I’m not a happy man this morning. I was hoping for better, 5e or no. There’s a decent mechanic for getting lost in the jungle and for adding some variety to the wanderers, but it’s plagued by a lack of proper editing. The starting village is plagued by pather attacks … but there is no data on that. The NPC (and wanderer) descriptions are lengthy. I don’t want to break up play at the table by reading a two paragraph NPC description before that NPC interacts with the party. I will read it once, a few hours beforehand, and I will glance down for a couple of seconds. That’s it. If it takes me longer than a couple of seconds to absorb then it’s no good. That’s how these things need to be written.

This isn’t garbage. It’s well constructed. A good wilderness followed by a good exploration area followed by a good dungeon. You just need to spend a lot of time with a highlighter going through it. I’m not going to do that. That’s supposed to be part of the value proposition that the designer/writer, editor, and production staff provide.

You know, bits of the writing remind me of that shitty Dungeon magazine room description of a trophy room that went on and on and ended with “but it was long ago looted and now nothing remains but dust.” It’s the same … cadence of words?

This is $7.50 at DriveThru. The last page shows you some of the Exploration system for the jungle, while the two before it show you the village NPC’s. Talk about wall of text!

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