The Lapis Observatory

lapisob
By Jacob Hurst, Gabriel Hernandez, Evan Peterson, Donnie Garcia
Self Published
System Neutral

This is a six level fifty-ish room tower. It used to be an elven observatory and then was turned into an elven hotel/pleasuredome for the jaded. (Soulless/Eid elves, not the generic elves of modern RPG.) It conjures a vision of opulence and decadence that Carcosa wanted and was hinted at in Slumbering Ursine. It does this through some pretty stark design choices. It’s absolutely a must buy for those folks interested in design and a pretty good choice for those willing to put in a little work. For this is product is some weird marriage of a location and a toolkit for it.

The tower has five upper levels and one basement level, with access up a stark basalt cliff. The tower used to be an elven observatory was then turned in an elven pleasuredome/hotel. Thus we can check off rules one and two of good adventure locale design. First, the dungeon and/or entrance is notable. There’s a passage of some sort that marks your journey in to SOME.PLACE.ELSE. This is commonly referred to as the entrance to the Mythic Underworld, and while that’s a bit pretentious for my tastes, it is the case that some of the best dungeons do this. It signals that the rules are all wrong and every perversion is justified. You’re crossing thr threshold from the normal world to some place where the normal rules don’t apply. Sometimes it’s a journey across a lake, a well, a long staircase down, or even just a tower in the distance that lightning illuminates as a body falls from it. In this case it’s the tower sitting high up on black basalt spire, and the climb just to get there.

Secondly it leverages the transient nature of dungeons. It was something and now it’s something else. How to Host a Dungeon is built upon this as are some of the best adventure locales. This is a mixing of themes and types that allows for a more varied environment. In a megadungeon is might be strongly themes levels. In this tower it’s the leftover remnants of an elven observatory and then the pleasuredome hotel is became … and then the ruination that further occurred after Something bad happened inside.

It is, at this point, that we need to diverge a bit and address the adventures core conceits: this thing is trying out two ideas in a big way. First, the room descriptions are just bolded nouns with a few adjectives. Second, it’s awaiting population but the DM. Third, it is system neutral. I know, I said two, but the third is interesting also. It does all three of these in a way that I’ve seen discussed online but never seen in a print product. Each, individually, is interesting and in combination you get something … DIfferent. (hence the must buy recommendation for people interested in design.)

Here’s an example of the noun/adjective format:
“1. The Sliding Doors
20′ x 20′, two engraved panels[white stone, highly detailed, le panel broken, passable, crawling, engraved with: stars, constellations, sipopa flower fractals], rubble[door chunks, statue fragments: arms and heads], orange crystal [thick sheet, covers rubble and bottom third of door]

The orange crystal is brittle and shatters loudly if broken”

My copy/paste doesn’t really do the formatting justice. What you have is an excellent room name that is descriptive and cements something in to the DM’s head: sliding doors. Then a short burst of bolded text that your eyes pick up, noting the notable notables in the area: the doors have engraved panels, there’s rubble, and orange crystal. Then your eyes move to the move details adjectives: the rubble is statue fragments. There’s a star motif, the crystal is on the bottom of the doors. Finally, there’s one line of DM notes, explaining a mechanic: you can break the crystal loudly and easily. Longtime readers will remember I’m a big fan of evocative descriptions and leveraging the DM’s imagination to fill in the details. I think this does that. Your mind naturally fills in the details and a pictures is built up in your head, which you can then communicate to the players. I’m not necessarily advocating this style of traditional prose, but it’s interesting and i think it does the job it needs to do … which is rare. We get room after room of this style. Some have more things, some have less. They all tend toward set-piece environments with strong exploration elements. Things to do. Stuff to poke. Note that they are not set pieces, but more the environments that set pieces tend to have. A more fully worked out location with lots of things to screw with that one COULD use in a fight. IE: the big boiling cauldron in the middle of the lair that is begging to be kicked over., or have someone stuffed in to. An interactive environment.

Conceit the second is that the DM gets to populate the dungeon. There’s a 3d6 tables of creatures and a 3d6 table of what they doing and a number f blank lines on the map to write in what you roll up. “A lizardman shaman” and “making a delivery” might be two things you roll for room 2, the entryway. You get this build up of the dungeon that. Again, I would suggest your imagination tries to make sense of and add context to. This is then supplemented by a 3d6 table of “the overall vibe of the dungeon” that roll once on. For example, if you rolled entry 8 then d4+1 extraplanar party goers have arrived thinking the hotel is still open. How now does your brain do with the shamen? He’s clearly delivering something for/to the partiers. Maybe he’s confused, or jaded or a submissive servant. Who knows, but you’ve now got something to work with.

The Seclusium of Orphone was too generic with too much trivia in it. The tables here help drive the action in the rooms. But you have to put the work in. You will need to prep. You’ll need to decide what the population frequency of the rooms are, and roll to populate, and maybe jot down a note or two. But, critically, the adventure provides you the tools to do it. This is the kind of prep I can get into and am happy to do. It’s supportive of the DM and creativity, rather than punitive or the result of poor design. This extends to the magical treasure (which is wonderfully unique & interesting, which in BryceLands earns you a “Meets Expectations” award.) which the DM is encouraged to sprinkle throughout the rooms. And then to the mundane treasure, which is abstracted.The designer correctly notes that how much and what depends on level and the amount of gold in this place could unhinge an economy. While all true, it’s left entirely up to the DM to decide how much and where and what. This earns some grumbles from me, but I also can’t dispute the statement … the thing is system & level agnostic and you need to target the goodies at the level and system. The end result of all of this is something like that unique element to Ravenloft where you decided where the goodies were ahead of time and then rolled with whatever story ended up coming out through actual play.

This ALL hits the buttons I think are the right ones in designs for exploration: A location map, modified by events. Rolls on tables to determine creatures and room elements. An emergent environment/story for the dungeon that comes from these rolls. And then the characters encounter this emergent environment and a story develops on how they engage with the site.

Focus. This adventure knows what it’s trying to do and focuses on it the way few others do.

I’m quite enamored the the monsters also … all new. They have things they want. They have things they do NOT want. They have little seeds and interesting bits scattered throughout that support ACTUAL PLAY. Orange blob people will be obsessed with the body of a dead elf, as they try to imitate it horrified by dwarves because they are so ugly. The descriptions are full of these things which recognize that they are there to be interacted with by the party, and the descriptions support that.

This is a magnificent example of focused design. It’s also a magnificent example of system neutral design, eschewing ALL stats. If I had one suggestion it would be for a reference table for the blob people. There’s direction that they get random personalities (from an included table) and they all have names, so a short worksheet, pre-filled or blank, would have been nice to see. If I had a second suggestion it would be for a little more interactivity in the rooms, beyond the encounter tables. The encounter in the room creates interactivity, in a set-piece kind of way, but the entire site could use a little more in the way of things in rooms to play with and explore. It doesn’t need to be stuffed to the brim, but upping the quantity a bit would really put this one over the top.

Evidently there’s some kickstarter campaign coming soon and this is an example of the style; it’s one of the fifteen dungeons to be detailed in the location? I’ve seen a lot of shit released in support of kickstarters, examples of what you will get. They generally are lame BEYOND BELIEF. Not this. This is one of the very few examples of something doing what it’s intended to do: get people excited about what’s coming. No doubt I’ll forget to follow it and will miss the kickstarter, but I am genuinely excited to see more, and that’s quite rare.

It’s fluff! It’s an adventure! It’s wonderful.

$5 PDF (like on Etsy) or $15 print at shop.swordfishislands.com

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Escape from Groncho’s Lair

groncho

By Stuart P. Keating

Dioxin Dump LLC

OSR
Levels 1-2

Most adventures involve getting to the absolute bottom of a dungeon, blithely swinging hammers and swords through warriors and civilians, pillaging and looting along the way.This adventure inverts the traditional model: The adventurers easily run through a surprisingly unpopulated goblin warren and then get struck with amnesia at the very bottom. They know their identities, skills and class abilities but have no idea what’s happened over the past several days.

This is a 16 page, thirty room reverse dungeon crawl in goblin caves. You start at the bottom and make your way out, having suffered from limited short-term amnesia. IE: you can remember who you are, you just can’t remember your dungeon crawl to this point. It’s got a good mix of encounter types and a decent variety of topical dungeoncrawl humor that everyone should get a kick out of. It can be hit or miss at time with the descriptions, and the font selections make readability suffer A LOT. I like it, but I dread actually trying to use it, because of the readability issues, if you get what I mean.

The party starts out in one of the last rooms. In a room with a chest, a dead person, fried & still smoking, laying in front of a chest. Everyone knows who they are, but the memory of the last couple of hours no longer exists in their minds, evidently the results of the trapped chest. It’s a nice little in medias res start to the adventure that glosses over all of the rumors, rewards, backstory, why we adventure together, and everything else. You’re in the dungeon. Go!

The encounters here are a decent variety. There are a few straight up combats and more than a few more with cowering goblins or even goblins who are willing to talk and/or goblins who are willing to join up with you. The variety here is much more than in the usual dungeoncrawl and gives it that factions feel and adds that element of negotiation and diplomacy that most non-faction dungeons lack. To compliment this faction play is a decent variety of weirdness, things to screw around with, traps, and even some little set-piece like encounters … usually something to do with terrified goblins trying to protect and respond to the “Reavers” that have invaded. All the while the party is confronted with the results of of the typical dungeoncrawl: bodies, death, destruction, well-looted rooms, cowering women & children. It adds a nice touch of lightheartedness without going for over the top humor. A statue to fuck with, a dead dwarf body that could be a boon or bane. Nice little touches. There’s enough variety that things don’t get monotonous in one direction (combat) or the other (another empty room.) It’s really a positive example of design from that standpoint. (And cheap, so easy to check out.)

The primary negative is that the thing is impossible to read. I don’t bitch much about this sort of thing, but this is a bad bad example. It’s some combination of the font size, margins, font weight, mixture of italics and standards text …  the whole thing just combines to wash all together in a head dizzying spin. I know this is petty, but if it gives me a headache to read and it’s hard to find things in the text then it’s hard to use at the table. It can also be … mechanically? lengthy at times. The descriptions, proper, don’t seem to run on too much and are at times quite short. This contrasts to the DM notes which can be long because of the mechanics presented. Mechanics? DM notes? I’m not sure what to call it. Some rooms can be a column long because of this. Further, some details are buried in this DM text, forcing you to be familiar or pick out the text at a glance … which is hard to do because it’s buried further down and/or the font/italics/text issues.

There’s also this tendency to abstract. Here the entry for room 21, the Pantry: “Suprmeley foul food closet. No real treasure to speak of, unless you’re into rotting carcasses and garbage. Roll on the encounter table.” That’s not terrible and you get the idea, but it’s also abstracted. It tells you it is grody (a conclusion) instead of describing it and letting you make the determination. (Although  “if you’re into rotting carcasses and garbage” is pretty close, it’s still an abstraction.)

It’s also got some mechanical issues with descriptions. This is something that I’ve only ever seen one or two other adventures do. There are critical details missing in places. The last encounter has the party leaving the cave complex and being confronted by the boss outside, with his giant boar,  2 mercenaries, and a line of crossbowmen. How many crossbowmen? We’re never told. Further, the encounter implies, later down in the description, that there may be captives outside in the mix also … but it’s not very clear. Oh, and the treasure descriptions suck ass, just boring old mundane stuff.

It’s got a good design it just suffers from the ability to communicate that creativity to the DM in the most effective manner. This is something I’d love to run and think everyone would have a great time … it would just be a pain to run from the existing text.

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Dungeon Magazine #96

d96
Short “reviews” this time around. I’ve love to do something more in-depth. But that requires Dungeon having something worth the analysis.

Speak of the devil! A decent adventure in this issue!

Hollow Threats
By Richard Pett
3e
Level 1

Side-Trek. Six orcs in a dragon turtle shell boat attack a village. All of the villagers run away. The only good part is a conclusion/follow-up: it’s suggested that the chieftain of the renegade orcs can coerce the party to making him a wig from the hair of a fiendish dire wolf.

Provincial Prior Cause
By Johnny L. Wilson
3e
Level 1

Pseudo-historical adventure linear enough to count as Scene-based rather than Encounter-based, even though it’s numbered like an encounter adventure. This is seriously one of the most basic things I’ve seen outside of RPGA/Adventurers league 90 minute adventures. Land on a beach, go to an empty island hut/hermitage, go in the root cellar

Pandemonium in the Veins
By Frank Brunner
3e
Level 5

Gladiator-based adventure. Here’s some highlights from the summary: “when faced with evidence a contingency spell whisks him away” and “his son, who survives as a ghost possessing a black pudding, harasses the party.”

In spite of that nonsense, this is a pretty decent event-based adventure. It’s divided up into three acts, each with its own set of events and its own “Gather Information” table. This is tied together with a decent overview table. The entire thing is supported with the kind of tidbits that I’m looking for in NPC: something to hang your hat on. Weather it vaulting over tables to support the table or tucking his necklace into his shirt before fighting, the NPC’s here get something to make them distinct from each other, even the ones on the rumor/Gather Info tables. Mixed into all of this are actual gladiator fights. You end up with an adventure in which the party wanders around investigating and questioning folks, having gladiator fights in the arena, and then experiencing some events also. This is a great way to handle an adventure of this type. The party still drives the action and the events are triggers for more to happen, rather than being on a bullshit railroad. It needs help, in particular it needs some reference tables to summarize events, NPC’s, and so on. This is one of those rarest of things: a Dungeon adventure worth your trouble to run … and put effort into running.

Beyond the Light of Reason
By Caine Chandler
3e
Level 13

An adventure that wants to be good and fails. A village will be attacked soon and they need you to go to the mountain next door and relight a lantern they have that wards off evil. It’s got about forty rooms scattered between an upper cave level, a lower cave level, and a ruined temple. The upper/lower caves is trying to do a faction thing with a creature or two you can talk to, but the map layout isn’t exactly conducive to this. And your ally is probably an Aboleth … and I don’t think that monster works EVER. There’s lots and lots and lots of backstory in each of the room descriptions. In one you get the entire recent history of a group of manticores … for no reason at all. It adds nothing. “The manticores are growing weaker through hunger after the frost giants in room U2 killed three of their pride a few days ago. Two more attempted to leave the mountain but were killed by the dragon earlier this morning as she left (their bodies were taken as snacks to eat as she flew)” And that’s the adventure being terse. The temple area just ends up being a rooms after room hack with slaadi and devils. There IS a decent encounter with a disguised chain devil, but for the most part this is just drudgery. The concept of the villagers impending doom is a nice timing effect, but the rooms just stink.

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The Craft Dungeon of Reynaldo Lazendry

craftd
By Jeremy Reaban
Self-published
OSR
Levels 1-3

Nearly 200 years ago, the great wizard Reynaldo Lazendry vanished, his tower exploding in a spectacular manner that left rubble everywhere. Now time has weathered away that rubble, allowing access to the dungeons below …

The thirty pages in this adventure describe a seventy or so room wizard’s dungeon (in about fifteen pages) and then also has some village descriptions for a potential homebase. This level has a ‘hobby’ theme, with rooms devoted to theater, sculpting, wargaming, etc, and several more levels promised. The entire thing might be described as … vanilla fantasy, but not the straightforward dreck that clogs up the product shelves.

The closest comparisons I can make to this are either with Shadowbrook Manor or Many Gates of the Gann. In both cases those two products skew either more silly than this adventure (Shadowbrook) or slightly more weird (Gann.) We get a nice large and moderately complex map, as one would expect for a dungeon level with seventy rooms on it, closer to Gann than Shadowbrook. The encounters in all three have a more non-generic vibe to them than “12 orcs in a room.” There are levers to pull and mysteries to be solved and mini-quests to go in the dungeon. These are great because they get the party moving and give them mini-goals to pursue. Gotta find them all, when it comes to books, or, after finding a statue, you can haul it back to the de-statueizer machine. Some of the denizens can give you tasks to accomplish. A handful of the evil creatures don’t even attack you when you free them and/or will show up more as continuing plot developments. For example, if you free the succubus she keeps an eye on the party in future adventures and may even help them out … all because of an evil plot, but, whatever, it’s a nice result that’s a shit ton more fun than “she attacks when freed.” And the goal, of course, is fun. There’s talking food and a dead dwarf in the fridge and paintings you can fuck with to either free or trap creatures. These are the high points of the adventure, along with a decent variety of slightly non-standard magic items, like a magic sword that spews blood everywhere (a stage prop) or magic soldiers and so on. Lemure’s, possessing marionettes, is a nice touch also and reminds me of the polymorphing pumpkin-head devils from the best of the Dragonsfoot adventures.

The writing here is not really going to inspire much at all. There are some exceptions, like the dwarf body falling out of the fridge and so on, but the actual writing is a little flat. It’s quite business like and gets the job done but it doesn’t generally excite you to run the room. There is also sometimes a tendency to mention the mundane. The kitchen gets a brief description of it’s contents and where the plates are .. which is mostly meaningless. The sculpture workshop likewise get a short description of what tools are present. The workshop I could give a pass to but the kitchen description, and a few others, stick out as unnecessary. There’s also a few bits of flavor text that feels out of place. Nice, but … distracting? One room has a chair that falls off a table when the party enters. That’s great background, but reminds me a bit of the chess room in Dwimmermount … it’s not really interactive and it falls on the DM to ensure the party doesn’t get tunnel vision and still maintain the creepy flavor.

There’s some mention up front of some Lovecraftian theming of the wizard, proper, but that doesn’t really come across in level one of the his home. “Chanel Pits” and “Flesh Vats”, the names of the promised levels two and three, sound much more productive in that area. Overall the effort here is a little flat. I don’t mean to imply bad, but there were just very few things in the dungeon that the writing made me excited about running. There’s a decent number of interactions to be had and little bits of puzzle and interconnectedness scattered around that are great, but, still, come off with a generic flavor.

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Tales of the Scarecrow

scarecr
By James Edward Raggi, IV
LotFP
LotFP

8 pages of experimental horror, dread magic, and campaign-bending madness.

My first post-GenCon review, picked this up from the LotFP booth. It’s a small eight page volume that describes one brief setup for the characters to experience. It’s closest to Lamentations Adventure Number Ten, or maybe a side-trek in Dungeon Magazine. Adventure Number Ten, which I loathed, had about one idea a page. This has one idea, not quite as brutal as those found in Ten, expanded with more detail but still rather open-ended. It’s a sticky little thing, which deserves maybe one more page to it.

The setup is pretty simple. From the road you see a cornfield, lush and growing in an unseasonably way. There’s a path through it, and a farmhouse in the middle of the field. Thus the entire hook is one of those pot at the end of rainbow things: you see something weird and poke your noses in … Something a CHARACTER should never do but which a PLAYER should always make their character do.

Inside the house you find a barely living dude, a couple of dead dudes, and some things to tempt you in to making mistakes. Also, there’s a scarecrow in the field and the players get to be involved in how the scarecrow acts … a kind of push your luck mechanism where the most evil idea gets XP. That’s a cute META exercise. The goodies inside the house are tempting, and add a bit ,but they don’t really PUSH the players to the scarecrow. Essentially, once inside you learn you’ll have trouble leaving and the adventure is a kind of tension between leaving & facing the monsters or staying and being safe. Except … I don’t really think leaving is an issue? Essentially you have a 50 yard dash while you’re at ¼ movement, suffering one attack each round. The claustrophobia of being trapped is what’s intended to happen, I’d guess, but I’m not certain that’s what will happen. I guess that’s an actual play thing.

In any event, the writing is pretty sticky and you get the vibe in your head in eight pages. It could have used one page that served as a summary page for running the adventure. Maybe noting what’s what in one sentence for each thing. From that you should be able to run it with a glance or two at the other pages for one of the more complex items.

It’s an interesting little thing for what it is with, perhaps, a little weakness in the “being trapped in the house” front. The scarecrow mechanic can help a bit on this front, but, ultimately, the party is only trapped if they think they are.

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Dungeon Magazine 95

d95
The Jackal’s Redemption
By Chad MacPhee & Greg Oppedisano
3e
Level 9

Fourteen mostly linear encounters in a wizards tower and caves in Gehenna. A wizards tower phases in & out of existance, which started right about the time four armed demons started aabducting townfolk. Really just an excuse to throw xill & a couple of devil-like folk at the party. LOTS of read-aloud … the second room has four paragrapghs of read-aloud, as do a few others. The adventure like to describe former uses and mundane thigns that are irrelevent to the adventure. A journal appears to relate the backstory, because someone, someone, somewhere once thought that was a good idea. It’s not. It’s an easy idea. Bits & pieces sometimes get good: an imp whispering to captive how much pain they’ll be in when the xill egg hatches, villagers who can’t believe the wizards disappearance had anything to do with the demon attacks. But it’s mostly just boring old combat. Here’s one of my favorite, useless, lines: “Total immesion in molten rock is potentially deadly, even for 9th level characters.” And then two more paragrapghs on magma. Or, how about “Ankle-deep Magma: 2d6/second+1d6 for 1d3 seconds after leaving.” Sorry, sorry, I should know better.

The WItch of Serpent’s Bridge
By Russell Brown
3e
Level 3

A workmanlike adventure, tracking down a mystery that leads to a lair that leads to a humanoid camp that culminates with an attack on the village. It’s not particularly imaginative but it’s not particularly loathsome either, being relatively terse by Dungeon standards.The adventure has a very generic feel to it, with not much village detail or even interesting things in the lair or camp. When it gets specific you get glimpses of interesting content. The village priest says he had a vision that if they built a temple then Kord would rid the woods of evil … which is kind of true since the party will rid the woods of the threat. There’s also a young lady, a dead trapper’s daughter, who is obsessed with finding/killing boars, since once killed her father. Both of these are presented with about the same level of detail as I just related … really just some facts. And both have this … potential to them that you can build upon if you glare hard and twist them a bit. The fervent young priest. The girl who emulates boars, dressing up like them, rooting around like them. They need just a little more to push them over the top and the rest of the encounters need this extra bit also … good things are few & far between in this. It does end with a mass attack on the village, which is a nice touch. Yet Another Journal shows up in this adventure, in order to explain the monster backstory. *sigh*

Lust
By Bradley Schell
3e
Level 4

*sigh* Side-trek. A page of background for three charmed knights fighting with each other, and the party … all charmed by a Satyr.

Porphyry House of Horrors
By James jacobs
3e
Level 10

There’s a boob in some artwork in this, which is why I guess it warranted the sealed nature of the adventure? Oh, no, it must be that the main location in this adventure is a brothel with many perversion rooms described, and “rape” being included in about half the NPC backstories. The main claim to fame in the brothel is that the yuan-ti running the place polymorph animals and monsters into human form and use them as their prostitutes. I don’t tend to be judgy of sex stuff, but I do tend to be judgy of crappy stuff, and just tossing in boobies, dildo’s, orgy rooms, and an orgy regisration form that asks for the applicant’s sexual history does seem a bit much. A wizard has sex with his imp all the time, a regenerating ogre is bound in a bar for all to torture … it’s all a bit simple and forced and prurient for the sake of being prurient, rather than an integral part of the adventure. Page long NPC/encounter descriptions don’t help much, nor does the fact that the brothel has a room dedicated to “Wand Storage” or the fact that when you free the raped polymorphed sex slave harpies … they attack you. There’s not really enough background information for the city to run it free form (although there IS a lot of text, a lot of it is not gameable.) and yet free form is how the place is supposed to be run, with sneaking around, almost like a caper or heist.

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Streets of Zobeck

zob
I own this because either I saw online it was a good adventure or I saw online that someone thought it was a good town supplement. Lies! Fucking Lies! The number of decent things in this book can be counted on one hand. Worth Stealing: Dragged Woman, “Adventure Ideas when you own a brothel” and the couple of things I mention below. Otherwise it’s generic, overly described mundanity. I’m pretty sure every single adventure has the hook “The PC”s have gained a reputation as …” From now on I BORROW this kind of shit from people when I want to review it.

Everyone Lies L1-3 – Ben McFarland
Garbage. Oh, it wants to be good, but some fuckwit thought a railroad was a good idea. The pretext is good: Someone steals the Maltese Falcon …errr, I mean a book. About five different factions are involved. Thieves, secret police, ghoul info brokers, corrupt guards … and one fuckwit thief and his in over her head girfriend. This is a DELICIOUS set up. That is then ruined by the ABSOLUTE RAILROAD that follows. I mean, we’re talking Eliminster Heel boy” railroad. You go from place to place encountering toughs who threaten you, tell you information to get you to the next location, and fight you if you don’t take their shit. And after they fight you they give you, anyway, the information they were going to give you. And you get healed. By them. By a third party, doesn’t matter. Heal. Look, I try to stay neutral in things. I know different people like different things. But FUCK PATHFINDER if this this is the way they write their shit? Also, “Masters of Small Matters” is a great name for a messenger company. Props for that little bit of specificity, of which there is too little in this adventure.

Rust L4-5 – Richard Pett
Well … it’s not a railroad. It’s also pretty straightforward. When it gets specific it’s good but that’s
far too infrequent. Mister Corpulent and Master Doldrum, two loathsome petty merchants, both independently contact the party, looking for them to untangle some murders … which are tied to a treasure they both want. The investigation is short & mostly abstract: either watch & follow a killer to its lair or look at a scene, find a sign, and go to a temple to figure out who once used it. I’m summarizing, but not by much … there may be about two more sentences about the temple/crime scene investigation. Most of the text concentrates on a slaughterhouse and a few things in it. The Corpulent/Doldrum setup thing is good, but that’s about it. The adventure lacks specifics. It deals with horrific crime scenes in the abstract. Doldrum refers to Corpulence misdeeds in the abstract, instead of the specific. It’s these lack of specifics, in the meeting, I the crime scenes, in the investigation, and in the workhouse, that leaves the adventure lacking. Understand, I’m not looking for mountains of read aloud. I’m not looking for railroad, or mountains of DM text. But SPECIFICITY is the soul of storytelling. Without it there is nothing to hang your hat on and you might as well have written “Clockwork machines in a slaughterhouse.” and claimed it was an adventure. And remember: Describing the mundane does nothing. There’s also the customary betrayal at the end of the adventure by whichever Merchant the party threw in with, with the other one showing up also. This is lame. Betrayals, a time honored trope, are completely misused in D&D and lead to the party never trusting anyone, ever.

The Fish and The Rose, L5 – Christina Stiles
This is nothing but a linear dungeon. The monsters do not break morale. They have no treasure. The only redeeming quality is a prisoner you pick up who you, presumably, have to drag with you the entire way. I seriously can’t think of a reason for this adventure to exist.

The First Lab, L7 – Mike Franke
Nothing but a little linear lair with almost nothing interesting going on. Find stolen diary, beat thieves to hidden lair. You catch up by meeting the dragged woman: lighting the bloody end of a rope and giving up a precious memory. That’s nice .. but then again she’s one the best things about the entire booklet, so, no duh. Otherwise it’s all “enter room. Fight. Enter Next room. Fight.” I try to avoid falling into Old Man-itis, but, Fuck, if this is mainstream adventure design then I Weep For The Future. Oh, and there’s a Rolle To Continue in the beginning. Joy.

Rebuilding a Good Man, L98, Matthew Stinson
Linear AND a mess?! This is it! Fight some thieves, steal a clockwork body, find the parts to transfer a soul into it. The son of a poor ferryman is CR10 because, of course, he has to be in order to make this POS adventure have a bad guy attack at the end.

Ripper, L10 – Mike Franke
A mob hanging a foreigner and the party stumbling in on it! What a great start! Of course, you can’t actually do anything. I mean, you can TRY, and roll some dice, but no matter how good you roll or what you do the guy still hangs. This is what passes for Player Agency, I guess. The guard shows up. A R4 and six F3’s. They threaten and bully your level 10 party in to looking into some killings, or things will go badly for you with the lynchings. How is this even a thing? You really couldn’t find ANY better approach for the corrupt captain than bullying a party two to three times his level? Generic investigation follows, and if you don’t make your DC 20 Gather Information check then it’s going to be an AWFULLY short adventure for you. Then a body drops out of the sky in front of you so you can have your required forced combat, followed by you arriving at the location that connects all the murders JUST in time to see it under attack. It’s got one thing going for it: it’s not those last three shitty ass adventures.

Flesh Fails L9-11, Christina Stiles
Easily one of the better adventures in this booklet, and deserving of analysis than the ranting the other earned. A noble disappears and you’re hired to find him. Along the way you get to impersonate him at a party, explore a BDSM club, visit the hallowed halls of of the magic college, and finally hit up a necromancer’s private workshop. The BDSM club is about as tasteful as you can want and still have a BDSM club, so no worries for the prudes in the audience. The party where the group impersonates the noble is more abstract than it should be. It’s really just a short paragraph and a timeline of (mundane) events. This really needed just a bit more to kick it up and provide an delightful evening of role-playing. There’s a section earlier in the book, in the generic town overview, which offers a page of ideas/seeds if the party run their own brothel. The party/impersonation section needs something like that. Just a half dozen or so bullet points for things to happen. Shit for the impersonator to roleplay through or for the rest of the party to deal with. Yeah, I can make it up. I can also not pay for this book and make up my own entire adventure. Its this kind of DM support that adventures need to provide, not explicit detail but nudges to the DMs imagination. The bookstore above the BDSM party is nice, and complete with store clerks who eavesdrop because they are bored; real life always provides the best motivations in an RPG. There’s another skill check to continue the adventure, DC 10 in this case, to find the entrance to the party. I’m sure there’s no problem for Level 10 party, which begs the question, why make it a skill check? The roll to continue the adventure checks are super lame and need to handled through a different mechanism. Something like just giving them the location and the skill check provides a boon or bane, rather than making the rest of the adventure contingent on making the check .. no matter how trivial. The magic college is abstracted and the DM told to make up traps and senties … again, that’s why I’m paying Paizo. SOmehow you’re supposed to figure out that the office at the college is not really being used and there’s another one, at the docks. The “not being used” is tenuous and “the docks” is not really discoverable that I can tell. Maybe I missed it, but I did read several times. The dockside necromancy workshop is quite nice, complete with pens of zombies and some crates full of preserved zombie parts, a head on a pedestal that talks to you and a nice new magic items “a bag of arms.” A tad more specificity with some of the idea seeds and this one could have been good.

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Eyes of the Stone Thief

eyesth
By Gareth Hanrahan
Pelgrane Press
13th Age
Levels 4-8

Can you kill the dungeon before it kills you? In 13th Age, living dungeons slither up through the underworld and invade the surface lands. The Stone Thief is the most ancient and cunning of its kind; a vast monster that preys on the cities and structures you love, swallows them, and remakes them into more deathtrap-filled levels inside itself. Now, it’s hunting YOU.

It’s GenCon next week (which will have passed by the time you read this), so I borrowed this from a friend to kill time until I burn through my wallet in the dealer hall. Stone Thief does something that I don’t believe any module has tried to do: build a campaign around a megadungeon. Sure, most megadungeons recommend you do that but Stone Thief provides the tools to help you do that. This is more than the city in ASE1, or the wilderness/bandits in Rappan. This is all of the surrounding goals and motivations. Mini-quests. Things that could happen. Major hook and plot line suggestions. Less detail, like the wilderness sections of Rappan, but more Larger Context. It’s like Hanrahan read all the advice possible about building a megadungeon and implemented 90% of it correctly … within the confines of the 13th Age system.

For those not in the know, 13th Age is what modern D&D has tried to be … and failed at. 3.5, Pathfinder, 4, and now 5 (or, at least RPGA 5e.) It’s the ultimate evolution of the set-piece combat and linear plot and balanced parties and so forth. And it’s not bad. If you want that kind of thing then 13th Age does it much better than any other modern version of D&D. Wha 13th Age does better than those other version is provide some grounding. Rather than pretend Anything Is Possible it instead provides an opportunity for the players to ground their characters with motivations and relationships to some “Icons”, things like the rules of known world, the lich king, the elf queen, or the orc lord. This grounding helps everything get in to things much faster, IMO. Needless to say, you’re gonna have to re-stat this thing for a non-13th Age game. That shouldn’t be hard for anyone who’s not a stickler.

This dungeon, like all in 13th Age, is alive and travels underground until it pops up and eats a town. This is the pretext used to both the plot and to justify the various heavily themed areas of the levels found in the dungeon. And I use the word “plot” loosely here. The back third of the adventure describes how to integrate the dungeon in to your game. It’s got a lot of suggestions, a lot of variations, and some major themes. It definitely has an idea of how things should go, but I would argue that the “plot” here is lighter, much lighter, than about 90% of the adventures I review. It comes across os tools and ideas.

I’m going to say some things that I generally refer to negatively, as I describe the actual dungeon: linear and set-pieces. Not only linear, but the DM is encouraged to throw in some little minor encounters along the way (which are outlined at the beginning of each level, in about ¾ of a page. Nice touch to spice things up.) and also to rearrange the rooms and levels as the players explore the dungeon and re-enter on other quests/adventures. Remember, the dungeon is alive and a thinking being so it can do this … or at least that’s the pretext. The encounters tend to be set-pieces. Good set pieces, generally. I’ll remind you that I’m a hypocrite and also liked many of the newer DCC adventures that are, essentially, linear and full of set pieces. The encounters here are interesting and not throw-aways. They remind me a lot of the encounters from Tower of Gygax or the DCC funnels at cons … with a far lower mortality rate. 🙂 It’s going to be hard for someone to argue that the room encounters here vary significantly from the types found in Maze of the Blue Medusa. Certainly less talking than Medusa, and certainly fewer “choices” than Medusa, but the varied rooms do have a “free form” nature to them, even if they really are just mostly combat. Combat in pipe rooms with goblins dragging bodies in to them. A giant octopus with swords in its tentacles. The thing is packed with stuff. Let’s say something like seventy or eighty different encounters in the dungeon, almost all of which can be ripped off.

13th Age does a good job with mysteries. Both the core book and this adventure have a kind of open ended writing style that alludes to things but doesn’t come right out and explain in, in all cases. This makes the DM think. Or, rather, it encourages them to think. It gets their mind going. You start to think of explanations and possibilities as your mind races to fill in the details. Which is exactly what should be happening when you prep something for running it. It does some other similar things. There’s a very clear entrance to the Mythic Underworld present, you KNOW you are going SOME. PLACE. ELSE. It also has some great advice for changing the dungeon when the party returns to the same areas, and other advice for dealing with certain situations, and a great index/glossary that helps summarize things in the dungeon. You know how much I like reference data!

This isn’t a perfect product by any definition. The faction play elements or the dungeon are talked up however they are not really present in any meaningful way. Sure, there’s different groups in the dungeon, and you can talk to a couple of them, but the interconnected nature is not really present. So it’s faction play at its most abstract in that one or two groups, out of a dozen or more, are not immediately hostile. It also uses the old “it kills something/someone you love” as a hook. The DM is encouraged to make the players want to take revenge on the dungeon. From an old school standpoint this is an overused crapfest of a trope that is almost ALWAYS used incorrectly … and thus puts me on edge every time I see it. In 13th Age … well, it has an element of story gaming to it as you create your character, so revenge and character arcs, set up in advance, are not exactly out of the question.

These are nits. The worst problem is, I think, the lack of focus in the room descriptions with the Hard To Run consequences that results in. The descriptions, proper, are not bad. The actual text used to describe things is evocative and interesting. It makes you want to push the big red button. It’s also surrounded by a more conversations style of prose that makes it harder than it should be to pick out the important bits. Asides, with no meaning. The first line of room 3 is “The [dungeon] greets intruders with this seemingly unremarkable chamber. Six huge black pillars support the ceiling, where the faded and peeling remains of a once beautiful mural can be seen.” That second sentence is good, and could almost be decent read-aloud. The first sentence though, is useless conversational garbage. It’s completely not needed and clogs up attempts to pull out the data that IS important. This happens time and time again in the adventure. You end up needing a highlighter to draw attention to what you need to run the room. The elements are present. The initial description helps focus attention to the ceiling and the pillars, and both get a little break out to describe them more if the players have their characters investigate … exactly the way Describe & Inquire adventuring is supposed to go. Except … it’s a mishmash. The rest of the first paragraph, after the part quoted above, described the mural. Then the second paragraph describes the giant gargoyle statue in the room that holds a silver key. And then, later on, in the fourth paragraph, comes a description of the pillars. The basic room concept is a good one, but you end up fighting the text to pull out what you need rather than the text moving logically from one part to the next. The gargoyle is decent. The pillar stuff is excellent (they are actually hollow specimen cases with black swirling vapor inside … Wraiths!)

If you’re looking for a classic exploration dungeon then this isn’t for you. If you‘re ok with set pieces then it is. If you want to see something deal with a megadungeon in the larger campaign context then this is for you. It’s loads more interesting than Worlds Largest Dungeon, or Temple of Elemental Evil. I’m going to find a copy for myself, it’s interesting enough to warrant that. For 13th Age fans this should be a no brainer. For OSR fans you’ll have to deal with your own feelings about linear set pieces.

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Dungeon Magazine #94

d94
Bloodlines
By Luke Johnson
3e
Level 7

A simple dungeon-crawl with betrayal at the end. My life is a living fucking hell. MASSIVE read alouds. Almost seven full pages before room one. Irrelevant maps. A wall of force that can be raised or lowered at will so the baddie can monologue. The dude who hires you “watches your progress with magic” and then betrays you. Perhaps the definition of Wall of Text. Even though this has line breaks it has more Wall of Text than the people who don’t know what a line break is. Line after line of irrelevant detail clogging the thing up. Formatting to make a reader weep (which, in the designers defense, may be a Dungeon Magazine issue.) One room tells us there is a keyhole on both sides of the door. This is really nothing more than an expanded lair dungeon with nothing interesting going on in it. Just mundanity: Traps & combats, both boring.

Still reading? How about we have a contest and everyone tries to rewrite the following. I’ll give the winner some prize.
“The room is empty, but careful searching might benefit the PC’s. The far left corner of the room at one point has a wooden shelf; a successful Search check (DC 20) allows a character to find four holes bored into the stone in this location. The holes held pegs that supported the shelf and are arranged in a horizontal line, about a foot apart from each other and 5 feet off the ground. They are each a little wider than a thumb and extend into the wall almost a foot and a half. There is a secret compartment being what used to be the shelf. A successful Search check (DC 22) allows a character to discover the release mechanism: simultaneously pressing two small catches located in the two opposite holes. Two stone blocks slide apart, revealing a shallow alcove (1 foor deep, 1 foot high, and 2 feet long) Inside is the TREASURE.”

Note: the treasure is not the Hand of Vecna, but just three potions.

The Last Hunt
By James Wilbur
3e
Level 4

Escort an old knight in a forest for the last hunting trip of his life. Nine pages for five encounters: the soul of brevity. It’s just five scene based encounters. The only interesting one, in any way, is an encounter with a neighboring lord who accuses the knight of poaching. There’s just nothing here. A few set piece combats? Is that what THE FANTASTIC has come to?

The Excavation
By Michael T. Kuciak
3e
Level 3

A side-trek fighting a dretch and some ghouls in ruins.

Worms in the Exchequery
By Frank Brunner
3e
Level 15

The party is sent into the treasury to find some thieves inside. This is a stupid fucking adventure that is absolutely wonderful in the world it builds. Planescape, Vornheim, ASE1/Towers … “The Royal Halberdiers of the Reticulated Castellan” and “Attend, sors, the excises therein are for the public dikes and flood season draws nigh!” WONDERFUL! “You can’t just leave my husband trapped in there like common riffraff. What is a portal to the Hells has opened? The Hells are for commoners, not nobles!” Wonderful NPC rumors, all in the same vein as the above. There’s some bullshit around keeping divination magic from working. Otherwise, this is just a short six room adventure with a couple of combat, including the finale with some shadowdancer thieves. The beginning is definitely the best part, with the adventure proper being a major come down from there.

Spiral of Manzessine
By David Noonan
3e
Level 11

A joyless adventure putting the characters in the middle of an escape attempt at a prison for mind flayers. Forced combat after forced combat on a map that is almost completely linear. TO get the players to divert to the prison there’s a column of text explaining a cave-in and how each different way around (spells, mostly) will fail. Airtight doors. SIgils and magic tattoos every to ensure the mind flayers don’t escape. Bodak guards who avert their gaze for the prison staff. A door that summons a gelugon every time someone crosses the threshold. A double cross from a prisoner. (No double crosses! Fuck it’s tiresome! SOMEONE has to not double cross the party or the party will never trust ANYONE, and the roleplay with evil monsters allied is much more fun than Just Another Stinking Combat.) Set piece combats. Forced situations. It’s like adventure design has devolved into some weird exercise in which the DM uses the rules to nerf the party and build a monster via kits that can defeat them. The emperor has no clothes!

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The Gnomes of Levnec

levnec
By Zzarchov Kowolski
Neoclassical Geek Revival

…There are older things in these forests too; the knights did not just battle the pagan kings of man but also the forest dwellers; the wodewose. Spend too long in any tavern or listen to a village alewife and you’ll hear stories of knights and wodewose duking it out in little patches of now cleared pastures. One of these little villages is the village of Levnec, a sad little town ruled by a self appointed lord banished from his seaside villa far to the south. His name is Lord Kristoph and he has been looking to hire some transient sell swords to solve his problem. Some of the townsfolk are (repeatedly) going missing and others are refusing to work, even after examples were beaten and hobbled by his men. Seeing as the townsfolk are blaming the local Gnomes, he would simply like these drifters to saunter in the wood, murder some Gnomes and bring them back to show the townsfolk there is nothing to fear (except him) and to get back to work.

I wonder how many of my reviews are tainted by first impressions? There’s a wilderness map in this. Most of the page is covered with trees. There are are a few places annotated: Coven Temple, Strange Meteor, Here Be Gnomes, Dragon’s Den. I have no idea why, but this map sold me without looking at another page of the adventure.

That little publisher’s blurb is from the intro and man does it ever set the scene. Except it doesn’t. This thing is even more wonderful than that bad-ass intro implies. This is a pretty lightweight outline of an adventure. I have no idea where the twenty pages come from. Everything seems simple and is VERY sticky. This is very much the kind of adventure that you can read once and then run the entire thing from memory. There’s a decent number of elements mixed in, each of which gets a very brief outline and then it’s up to the DM to do the rest. One more page, of specific ideas, would have put this thing over the top.

The intro does a good job of laying things out in a colorful but terse manner. The village gets two short paragraphs. There are five or six places people/places presented with description for the village. A blacksmith, church, the “manor”, a couple more. They all have something to do with The Thing that’s going on in the village, alluded to in that intro. At about a paragraph each. They do a good job of focusing on what’s important. For example, the empty church focuses on what the party can steal and what the villagers do to prevent that. For the most part it’s just a general impression and then a sentence or two on how it related to mystery. This gets back to the core purpose of a product: to be a play aid for the DM. The descriptions here focus on the substance of that and ignores trivia. Exactly how it should.

To the brutal lord and the core mystery we add: a dragon in the woods, a bunch of woodwose who love human flesh, the gnomes proper, a pagan cult, and, perhaps my favorite: Gargamel. Yes, Gargamel is in this adventure. And he’s WONDERFUL. His name is Mel. He lives with his cat in a collapsing tower. He’s an alchemist. He loves the taste of gnome. “He’ll show those fools in town who is crazy now!” Which leads us to the gnomes: they are the smurfs. A twisted version, but smurfs nonetheless. Except they LIKE it when people eat them. It’s how they reproduce.

This thing is the definition of a sandbox adventure. It gives you a few places, briefly described at a page or so each, and adds some motivations along with five or six different things going on. They all have some tangential relation to each other but whatever pretext the party is summoned for ends up not being what is actually going on. It’s a mystery in that the initial presentation of events is not what is actually going on and the party, poking their noses in to things, explores the environment and goings on.

There’s a decent amount of treasure, most in coin form with a few exceptions here and there. One, in particular, stands out: the mummy head. You can find a mummy head with it’s mouth sewn shut. If you cut open its mouth it whispers a spell to you. Fuck yeah! Fuck your boring old scroll! Further, the spell is Summon Dragon. Yeah, and it’s first level. A dragon flies to where you are, in real time. And you don’t control it. Straight outta Call of Cthulhu or LotFP! I love it!

There’s a pretty good random wandering table for exploring the forest. It uses a series of dice rolls to create some encounters. WHere do have the encounter. What to encounter. What’s special out it. Etc. It’s a nice way to present some variety in wanderers, and motivations, as I’ve harped on several times before. You meet hunters. There’s a pig on another table. Ah! You meet the hunters chasing the pig! It’s a good way to spark the DM’s imagination and it works well here.

If I had a complaint/ask it would be about a little more … specificity? In color for the locations and NPC’s. A very good and evocative general overview is provided but I think a little more local color would have added a lot more to the adventure. The village, for example, comes off as a little one-dimensional. I can imagine something like one additional page of content, a summary sheet, with a d6 “color” for each location or person. The village table might include something like “local rabble rousing against lord” or “guards putting the beatdown on a small child” or something like that. Likewise the gnome village. Fishing tourney in outhouse” or some other SMurf like thing. In other words, I think it needs just a little more to ground the adventure in the DM and party and/or maybe give a shove in certain in certain directions.

I’m a fan of this though. I will sometimes say a product is pretty close to my cutoff line, either pro or con. Not this one. This one is very clearly over the line in the “Keeper/Good” category and is one of the clearest examples of something that it clearly decent but could use just a bit more help to kick it into superstar territory.

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