(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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The Vanilla Adventure

By Wind Lothamer
Knight Owl Games
Level 1

As the players arrive in Boson Bay, it should be assumed that they know nothing of the particular culture of this area. If anything, they will have learned that Boson is a bastion of humanity in an untamed wilderness on the frontier edge of the world.

Vanilla doesn’t mean generic.

This 52 page adventure is a wilderness crawl with an inciting event: dragons begin a rampage and burn the town to the ground … and then move on to do the same elsewhere. This starts the party moving and, I guess, a motivation to stop the dragons. It is charming, brutal, winks at Tolkien, and has no Vanilla in it. It’s also single-column and a hot mess. But man … it just needs a little more …

The party is level one and new in town. Night two: dragons burn the town to the ground. Then orc slavers move in and capture the refugees. The burning down of the town is, I guess, supposed to get the party moving in the wilderness to other locations, by stumbling upon them/talking to refugees, and provide an overall goal: stopping the dragons from burning down EVERYTHING. Because that’s what they do. There’s a mechanic in this for which wilderness encounter the dragons burn down each day. The 9HD dragons. (1e was 8HD at Ancient? OD&D is different?) The party move around the wilderness, learn of new areas from others and from refugees, and eventually … well, I don’t know. As far as I can tell there’s only way to learn what is causing the trouble: talking to the orc slavers.

But fuck that, this thing is charming as hell. Footpad Ferd is a thief you can recruit, as is Borrmormere and Eric Snow. Mary Pippins is a halfling in their village you can recruit, as is Billbeaux. The elves are forced to stay in their forest because they wear silver collars that cause their heads to explode if they leave. There are 200 orc slavers in their camp. There’s a poly’d unicorn who has forgotten who she is, and a harpy, her mortal enemy, is after her. The Dorkenstone is in a mine that has awakened the dragons, deep in the caves, and you need to make a -10 save to not go mad. Also, the caves are full of dead bodies and some weird insect hybrid monsters. This place is FUCKING. MADEHOUSE. And I LUV it!

You can talk to just about everyone. The orc slavers. The humans at the various guard keeps. Poor dwarves, elves, halflings, outlying farms, the unicorns. Go ahead, talk to them, make a reaction roll. Try and recruit them to your side.

The mechanic of burning down the main down and then having the dragons burn down everything else is MAGNIFICENT. It gets the party moving and provides motivation for for role playing skeptical people (who haven’t been burnt down yet) and in recruiting folks to help fight the 9HD dragons. As with the best ODD, it seems to started with imagination first and ignoring the deriguour elements. Yeah, and ripping off Tolkien with funny names is a time-honored D&D tradition.

It’s not super clear how the party is aware of the Dorken stone. The map for the Dwarf dungeon is missing, there being just a blank page where it should be. (As is, I think, a temple map.) There’s no scale on the wilderness map in spite of checkins being called for “for each day in the wilderness.” It’s single column. The stat boxes are HUGE, and the writing needs to be tightened up a lot. This thing should come in at 15-20 pages instead of 60, with better formatting. Layout, and tighter editing. It goes out of its way to use vanilla elements and rip off Tolkien, and probably more I don’t recognize, given that John Snow NPC reference. (Dorken stone ripped off from Heavy Metal?)

But fuck me man, this thing BRINGS IT. Each encounter packs and delivers. Lots of creatures. Lots of HD. The encounters are almost entirely written for play at the table with little no bullshit trivia. It’s a fucking mess, a glorious glorious mess! Get the party moving. Let them talk to things. Give everyone a bunch of treasure to tempt the party. Pretty fucking simple formula.

Also, it has Giant Beavers. As is wont in OD&D. Even those adventures not set in Canada.

Want to play some Vanilla OD&D and have a good time? This thing is it.

This is $5 at Drive Thru. The preview is 12 pages, with the (charming) regional map on the last page. Check out those monster stat block on the pages before that! This writing is not very typical of the rest of the adventure, it being mostly prologue. The Dragons, on page eight, would be the most representative, I think, although most the sections are shorter than this.

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Tyranny of the Black Tower

By Extildepo
Verisimilitude Society Press
Levels 3-5

The village of Sacrabad is a wretched place. Dark rumors abound concerning its steward, “His Lordship” Nim Sheog, who rules the place through terror and cruelty. Merchants who have passed through Sacrabad tell tale of how chaos thrives while the good folk wallow in misery. Nim’s guard are no more than a well-paid gang of thugs, hired to enforce his relentless and often bizarre laws and what’s worse, they seem to be in league with a nearby band of goblins, The Yellow Fang, who are often left to terrorize the villagers without reprisal. It is rumored that Nim keeps the rightful and lawful lord of Sacrabad locked away in the dungeons of the keep, the ominous Black Tower. An imposing structure that once afforded the village protection, the Black Tower has become a symbol of tyranny. But there is hope on the horizon. Hope in the form of a secret society who conspire to rescue the rightful lord and overthrow Nim and his guard. Can our heroes champion the cause?

This 24 page adventure describes a small village and the wizard/manor tower of the evil rules, as well as the dungeons under it. It has some interesting ideas that could have deserved to have been developed more, like a village rebellion. Given a strong cleanup of the text you’d have a fairly standard adventure.

So, you’re standard repressed village. Corrupt guardsmen, thinly veiled alliance with the local goblins, evil wizard in a black tower on the hill overlooking town. There’s a small group of rebels in town. The party will get thrown in the dungeon under the tower on a trumped up charge, thus disposing of them, or they will push back when the guards push them, probably then making contact with the rebels. Whatever the reason, the party will end up in the dungeons (monsters) and tower (guards/wizard.)

I hate the village and I love the village all at the same time. It’s laid out in standard room/key format, which is a lousy way to describe a social setting like a village. The entries tend to the long side, making information hard to find in each. What’s worse, it’s mostly just the same old usual tropes. These things should be written to cut fast. Get in and out fast; a couple of words of description and focus on what’s relevant to the adventure rather than the trivia and mundanity. But …. It’s also got a great hand-drawn village map. It’s great for one main reason: it complements the rebellion thing that’s going on in the village. There are a couple of resistors to the mages rule and they could make contact with the party. The map perfectly compliments sneaking around at night. Fields, ravines, rises, hedgerows, tree copses … all it’s missing are some guard notations and maybe a patrol path and you’ve have a perfect map to support some great intrigue play. The text is not great in that regard; the plots could be called out more and so on. But it definitely leads to the DM imagining sneaking around the village, torchlight, and shiving guards on patrol and pulling them behind hedgerows, WW2 style.

It’s also got a pretty good emphasis on … zero-levels! The bulk of the guardsmen are zeros, with a 2nd level lieutenant or so here and there. Finally, a village in which all of the guards are not 10th levels fighters!

The tower, proper, has the upper levels that house the wizard and his troops and the lower levels that house a more typical dungeon, and in which the party might be thrown in to. There’s a wizard to free down there, who could be an ally if nursed back to health, as well as some goblins, sentenced to death, who could be allies also if you can put up with them being goblins … not outright betrayal but rather some low level stuff like stealing. It’s a decent little “wizards dungeon”, not awfully special but an effort is made with the encounters.

The writing though, is very weak. A page of background. A page of hooks (which should have been formatted better) and lots of loose text in the descriptions. “If the referee wishes …” is a good example. Why would that be put there? It’s padding. Be direct in your fucking writing, people! It comes out as conversational and indirect. It obfuscates the text and makes it hard to find the relevant bits. Non-trivial facts expressed with evocative words.

At one point dwarfs find a walkway of suspicious design … but nothing more is said of it. Uh. What? Why would you not tell us?

This needed an editor. And not one of this shitty copy editors. That crap’s mostly useless. (Except, of course, for my reviews, which desperately need one. 🙂 Someone to cut the weasel words, flag the common adjectives, and tells the writer to switch to active voice. The bons are good, if you can slog it through.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages, most of which are useless. The last page gets closest to the real writing. Note the “hooked” section on the left. The paragraph writing could have been better organized with bullets, or some such, instead of mixing everything in to the text. The first key is not quite typical, but note the mixed location data and lack of getting to the point.

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To Bring Down the Sky

By Benjamin Gibson
Coldlight Press
Level 4

The overcast sky and dusty road are working in concert to make for a truly dismal day. It’s almost a relief to hear something out of the ordinary, like a wailing cry of panic and a harsh, coughing roar. Looking up to the clouds, a thin human figure hurtles down, chased by a savage beast with reptilian wings. But looking up past the two is an even stranger sight…three mighty isles loom out of clouds, impossible and yet somehow real.

This 49 page adventure, with about four actual adventure pages, takes place on three islands floating in the sky. The party travels there to recharge a feather of mass fly, and ends with fighting an quantum ogre. It’s terse, got good encounters, has a couple of interesting product concepts, and delivers on the “everything you need for one night” promise that so many other products fail at.

Normally, a 49 page adventure with four pages of content would arise my ire. This is PWYW, with a price of $1. I can pay a $1 for four pages. But wait, there’s more! This promises everything I need for a one shot/one night of adventuring. So many products do that. I’m pretty sure I’ve yet to see one deliver. Except this one. All of those other pages are support material. Blank character sheets. Party handouts. Pre-gens. Gear lists. A one page primer on how to play. 25 pages of battle maps. Some printable mini’s. I’d have a hard time imaging how someone could do better than this.

Then the adventure does something else interesting. There’s a DCC adventure that you can use when someone dies. You go off to the underworld to save their soul, if I recall. Blades Against Death. You pull out the adventure when someone dies. At that time I called it a whole new genre, the SItuational Adventure. You pull it out when a certain situation arises. I’m not sure I’ve seen another one in that genre since I reviewed Blades in 2013. Until now. This adventure gives you a magic feather that has, essentially, a mass fly spell. If your party needs to get a long distance, fast, then you can whip this one out. At the end they will have an item that can take them a long distance quickly.

Of the four pages of actual adventure you might consider two of them background. You read those ahead of time, once. They provide some background, a general overview, some clarification of wider goals, the preamble, hook of the adventure, and so on. Then there are two pages that are used during play, one a map and one a key. The map, isometric (I love isometrics for larger/complex places! DL1 to the rescue!) contains a few other pieces of information as well; some personality overviews and some stats.

Those personalities overviews are something Ben has done before/frequently, and I love them. He gives an NPC a three word description. The apprentice wizard on the isle is helpful, curios, and panicky. The old caretaker couple is dour, scared, and nostalgic. These perfectly communicate what you need to know to run the NPC and integrate them in to the adventure in a fun way. Panicky and curios gives you ideas. Nostalgic and scared gives you ideas.

The adventure uses a lot of techniques that I’m willing to call The Ben Style. Centered around a one or two pager, or a series of them, these short NPC descriptions, terse stat blocks and key descriptions, and some background information that is generally read-once orientation. It’s a great format. He also does things like give adventure follow-on suggestions, social mind maps for NPC interactions(Yeah!), and gives location reference in the text descriptions so you know what/where to look for things.

The encounters, proper, are interesting as well. The halfing couple are trapped in their house, with wyverns in the barn … along with the calf they don’t want to leave behind. A bridge pulls away from the main island. Wyverns lie sleeping, gorged. Bathing an artifact in the quantum ogres blood recharges it. They are interesting and make sense.

There ARE a few things that annoy me. The bridge that pulls away, it does that 30 minutes after the players arrive. That could have used some bolding or otherwise some sort of standout text instead of it being in the key description. Likewise, the monster descriptions are a little light. There’s at least one sentence/thing I don’t understand at all: “Pass to second isle exit is behind secret door.” Huh? The isle is connected to the main one by ropes … how can there be a second exit?

Is this one of the Best? I would say it has done as much as you can with with the format of the one/two pager. A little light on monsters descriptions, or evocative text. But … it’s a one pager. There’s a limit, I think, to the amount that can be accomplished with this format, and I think Ben has pretty much reached it. This is, absolutely, an acceptable level of adventure writing. If you were looking for an adventure and picked this up you would be satisfied, both with the adventure and with the claims it makes. It’s a good, solid performer. This goes against my absurd desire for every adventure to be an evocative tour-de-force, which is stupid. This is a good adventure. Ben would be my go to for 5e/Pathfinder content, at this point.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a current suggested price of $1. The preview shows you the main four pages of the adventure, all of the actual content. How can you ask for more than that?

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Grudge Immortal

By Emanuele Galletto
Rooster Games

The Year is 1564. A group of Western explorers reach Japan on board Portuguese vessels, lured by the promise of adventure, fame, and riches. What awaits them on the ghastly island of Takashima, however, is a much darker tale…

This 40 page adventure details a small Japanese island with a very bad spirit on it. Good theming can’t disguise the verbosity and formatting issues though. This could easily be half as long, if not less, and be much better for it. It’s a good horror adventure, and those are few and far between. But man, it’s a textbook example of an adventure making sense to the author, but needing the hand of a good editor to cut Cut CUT.

While in a small Japanese village the players hear some rumors. Some primitive villagers on a nearby island have silver with weird runes on them, there are pirates on the island, the island is a Heavenly Ark, left behind during the Age of Gods, and/or there’s a legendary sword on the island. This brings the party to the island. The first eight pages are full of background, historical and fictional, which condenses down to “you’re in a village and hear some rumors”, with it assumed the party follows up on. The actual content in this section is pretty weak, consisting mostly of just the half-column of rumors. Everything else should have been stuck in an appendix to safely ignore.

Achieving the island, it’s full of massacre site after massacre site with great horror imagery. A ruined fishing village full of the bodies of women and children cut down. The elders hut on a hill has some bodies torn apart, impaled, in a wholly different way than the rest of the village, and the headman is at the bottom of a ladder, his neck broken from a fall. Elsewhere on the island there a woman’s body stuffed in to a sacred well. In the ark proper there are the bodies of children in various states of decay mired in muck in a small dungeon room. It’s creepy as fuck, and a slow burn until it explodes in action. It’s got some great imagery, the dungeon proper has a lot for the players to interact with and get in to trouble with, and feels for all the world like both Japanese horror AND a deadly LotFP adventure. That kind of “the only winning is not playing” high character stakes shit that Raggi adventure have had. Good horror, the slow build with creepy as fuck shit, is hard to find in adventures. This is good horror.

The adventure is also a total pain in the ass. It engages in LENGTHY descriptions of things with seemingly on the very basics effort made to organize itself. So while you get major section headings like “Village” or “Pirate Base” you also get facts mixed in to the text, all stream of consciousness style. Mixed in to the pirate base description it tells us that at night you can hear gunshots from the base all over the island. Well, fuck man. That’s important. That’s not something that you bury in the text of one location. “Wilderness encounter 45 of 134: A great visage of God hangs over this site and can be seen everywhere, pointing a big red arrow downward.” The gunshots are perhaps the most glaring example of this lack of thought, but it shows up everywhere in the adventure. The formatting of large chunks of text is just plain WRONG. Important things are mixed up in the text of trivia. You have to read a full column or more to get a grip on whats going on in a location. General descriptions should be up front, with the most obvious things, with follow up text explaining more. Summaries, indents, bullets, bolding … use the full power of word processor and layout to bring clarity to the adventure text. This is just verbose stream of consciousness writing. Sure, the layout is nice, but who cares if its a pain to run?

Here’s the description of one of the rooms in the dungeon/Ark:
“Partially submerged within the sludge on the floor are the rotten corpses of eighteen male children, each in a different state of decay and swarming with arhropods. The most recent has probably been dead for less than three weeks, and the oldest is little more than a skeleton. All of them had their neck broken; a careful examination of the more intact corps- es reveals they were tied or restrained.

These are Tokiko’s failed experiments, the children kidnapped by the villagers and killed for Antoku’s soul to possess them. This process has never been successful: the young child-emperor has retained some of his sanity and purposefully resists the process. Tokiko doesn’t know this, or perhaps she refuses to acknowledge it.”

Note that the second paragraph is all fluff/history. Irrelevant. We’re actually told this information three other places in the adventure, iirc. The first paragraph is good, but, perhaps, formatted sloppily. The last sentence, maybe the last two, could be broken out in to another paragraph or via bullets or something. It’s not such a big deal in this room description, but as the descriptions get longer and the DM text does also, it becomes critically important to make the data easily transferred to the DM during a quick text scan/read at the table. It does this over and over again. You’re not writing fluff. You’re writing a tool to be used at the table. It CONTAINS fluff, those evocative descriptions and so on, but its primary orientation must be use at the table.

I like the adventure. Nice slow burn horror with dire consequences. That’s rare enough. But man, I can’t stand the format. This morning, it’s not worth it to me to go all highlighter on it. Let’s all remember though that I have very high standards; this thing is certainly interesting and its cons may be more manageable/acceptable to a wide range of folks.

This is $7 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. It shows you all of that background data on Japan, historical and fictional, and the small section on the second-to-last-page that has the rumors/hooks.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 4 Comments

The Scenario from Ontario

By Kiel Chenier & Zzarchov Kowloski
Self published
Low levels

(These are the results from a writing contest, with little extra polish.)

This 49 page canadian-themed adventure has two scenarios: Sugar Shack Slaughter and Maple Witch of the Beaver Wars. They each take up about half the book. Both are set in the pseudohistory of the 17th century of LotFP. They both ooze a lot of flavor, local and otherwise, with quite good encounters. And they both could have used more editing/layout, with the first being better than the second, but not great either. The first is essentially a monster hunt while the second has just a bit more roleplay, although I would say both are very roleplay heavy.

The first scenario is more developed than the second, with the second being more in the line of free form ideas in paragraph form with some general large section headings. The first dows more with whitespace, indents, bullets, and so on to make the information more readily available to find during play. The second has long paragraph that has three NPC’s in it, describing all three of them. Bullet points or paragraph breaks, perhaps with bolding, would have done wonder to make it more accessible and less like a wall of text … which major sections of it are.

Nitpicking at the first, the hex map is a little light to read hex boundaries, and the wandering and movement stuff really should have been included on the hex page also, to put everything together instead of spread out over multiple pages. It does this in multiple places, and could have been formatted better to keep important things, like what the syrup farm owner knows, all on one page. But …

It DOES have a nice little section NPC’s. The core concepts of both are great and there are PACKED with flavor. Furt traders, one sick, will trade some beaver pelt for a cure … but not all of them! That’s a great roleplay scene, between the party and them and between the two of them. “Jaque! Give them more so I will be healed! No! We need that money!”

The monster hunt has a 50hd 600hp blob monster that, if killed, reforms, That’s pretty nice! Finding your way to a cursed tree and a trapped spirit to be banished finishes things up. Along the way are complications from the natives, and government/business conflicts with bribes. Maple syrup, beaver pelts, witches, native tribes, fur traders … all its missing are some mounties and hockey players for the most canadian thing ever written.

(Speaking of, Canada needs some more tourist traps. Mounties, first peoples, hockey players, fur traders, all walking around in the same fake forts.)

The hooks present are pretty blah … except for one. It’s mostly just hired jobs and missing relatives. But, a central point of the first adventure is a missing maple syrup mogul. One hook has you searching for her … but for revenge! She has wronged you and by god you’ll not let her get off so easy as to have a monster take her! I love the logic of it! Great hook!
My, what a worthless review I’ve written. If you’ve ever wondered why I usually just reviewone adventure in multi-paks, this is it. I do a terrible job.

Anyway, they are both very flavorful and evocative. The encounters in each are top notch, memorable without trying to be over the top. And they both FEEL like Canadian adventures. And they both have serious usability issues. Whil the first, the monster hunt, has better formatting, it’s still quite lengthy, the sort that digest with large margins gives you, and the second is just free form text, IMO.

This is $4.50 at DriveThru. The preview is worthless, giving you no idea of the writing in each section.

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The Beholder Contracts

By David Whiteland
Fantasy Chronicles #3
Level 3

Eight pages of four column tiny font from an obscure Irish(!) rpg magazine from the 80’s that is ALSO a favorite of Kent? Sign me up! I finally tracked down a print copy of the magazine … well, two. The first was lost in the mail and the second came in from Uganda. I know. The things I do for love. We’ll pass on the usual wall of text and usability criteria for this one and just accept the limitations of four column tiny font in a magazine. That part blows.


I often talk about digging through boxes of junk adventures at cons and stumbling across a masterpiece. A hidden gem. That’s what this is.

This is a good adventure. Adventure outline? Something like that. Imagine something like B2. We’ll call that a normal and/or standard adventure. Location, keys, etc. Then there’s those BS plot adventures. Lengthy, scenes, a series of locations, etc. Something like Stonehell, or other one-pagers, might be seen as an outline of the standard B2 type adventure. It tries to keep flavor and what’s important while minimizing the rest, all in an abbreviated page count. (I’m straining the example a bit, B2 is pretty abbreviated already.) Beholder Contracts might be seen as an abbreviated version of the plot adventure. It provides a general outline, specifics to add color, and lets you, the DM fill in the rest. You get more than the usual plot adventure because it leaves things out. By providing an outline it allows for more room to color outside the lines, avoiding the typical railroad elements. We might think of it as a small number of places for the players to visit all connected by some threads.

While healing, the party is approached by a henchman of wizard 1. He wants the party to go recover a lute stolen by a musician who was then captured by wizard 2. Wizard 2 knows nothing, but finds a reference to the lute pointing to some barrows. Visiting the barrows turns up a ghost of the musician. Seems wizard 1 steals peoples eyes … and wants to steal the parties eyes for what they saw in Wizard 2’s home. A visit to wizard 1 is in order …

And absolutely every little bit of that outline I just provided is WONDERFUL. You’re resting in a little monk grotto/gardens. The flavor is well communicated in the text. Wizard 2’s abode is great … high on top of a mountain … with a great view. Not a meany, just a wizard. The ghost? Not actually. Half alive and half dead, he plays on the lute to partially revive his corpse each day … before the effect begins to wear off. The wizards? Flavorful as FUCK. Bob the all-seeing collects eyes. Wizard 2 is a lightning. Their stats break ALL the rules. Treat as level 6, but only with access to level 1 spells. Except for lightning at level 12. They FEEL like idiosyncratic wizards … which is exactly how the fuck NPC wizards SHOULD feel. The PHB is for the players, dummy!

The supporting material is good. General maps, showing just enough detail to ground the DM. Stat blocks and magic items are easy to find. There’s an abstracted overland travel map that concentrates on JUST what the DM needs to run it. It’s 120 miles from a to b, add 20 if you are taking roads. Roll on the hills wandering chart in the DMG once a day. As Shao Kahn would say … Excellent!

The writing style is quite evocative. It’s sticky. It’s all free-form paragraph descriptions, not typical room/key. For most people writing I would suggest room/key and the one or two sentence evocative description. But that is not the only way, and I would never suggest it is. It’s just the easiest way for most people, especially amateurs. But you can do anything you want as long as its effective. I’m fond of quoting the description for Old Bay, the retired hill giant who LOVES giant crab legs. Once read you will never forget him. The descriptions here are more akin to that. Sticky. Plus, the amount of detail to be kept in the head is relatively short for the DM. At just four double-sided pages, the DM need only read a column or so of text to keep in their head, and they can run the nights game of just that. There’s probably enough content for, I don’t know … three or four sessions? Thus you read tonights section, it gets cemented, and you run it. It’s all general descriptions, the vibe and feel of a place, with the rest left up to the DM. It’s a perfect amount, and type, of content.

The NPC”s and places are all memorable. The magic items are great and unique. There’s a natural progression to the adventure that doesn’t really railroad players but still has a kind of plot going on.

Having said all of that … this will require a highlighter. Some bits are more important than others and they are all mixed in. Plus, you’re not gonna find this for sale. Haha suckers! I got it and you don’t! (Which is why I tend to not review older things and I’m shoving this in to a weekend “free for all” slot.) Some kind person should get the authors permission to rewrite it, keeping the spirit and flavor while ditching the limitations of four-column tiny-font magazine layout limitations. Whitespace, bolding, boxes and indents … Some layout would be most of what it takes to turn this thing in to a 9 or 10.

Bah! My google art foo fails me! There’s an illustration of a water nymph standing in a pool of water, clutching a garment to her, with adventurers next to her with a spear, I think. Classic D&D art, maybe in the style of those old turn of the century styles that everyone grabs for free for their OSR stuff. This reminds me of that. The feel. The richness of it. I’ve seen 2e is be good ONCE. When it is it feels like classic free-form OD&D. Rich beyond belief. That’s what this adventure is, rich beyond words.

I feel like someone I know has reformatted other older adventures that were kind of a mess. Maybe they would like to get the authors permission and bring this one in a more usable form also, so the world can enjoy it?

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 6 Comments

The Palace of the King Under the Water

By W. R. Beatty
Rosethorn Publishing
Levels …? Mid to high?

Long forgotten by the people of the Rosewood Highlands, these ruins, now called Blackfalls Hall, have become the palace of the mysterious King Under the Water. […] What does the King Under the Water want? What is he hiding? Who will brave the depths of Blackfalls Hall to discover its secrets and treasures?

This 59 page adventures describes a multi-level complex of humanoids dominated by an evil king. With about 120 rooms, it is the real deal when it comes to multi-level dungeons. Fleshed out and fully realized, it has great variety and a … continuity? to it. Also, the editor was on LSD. I want to say something like “this is a nightmare of epic proportions” but that would be a great exaggeration. It’s disorganized with the DM text being all over the place, making it hard to parse at the table. For some reason I’m reminded of Dark Tower … great, but not simple to use. Or maybe Yrchyn the Tyrant from Usherwood … fully realized.

This thing don’t fuck around. It has a short background on page four and starts the keys on page five. Page 45 ends the keys and starts with the maps, monsters, magic items, AND A MONSTER SUMMARY SHEET!!!! The entire thing might have two pages of background info; that half page at the beginning and one page at the end describing rumors, hooks, and factions. The font is small and the information DENSE. It’s been a long long time since something like this popped by.

By my count there are seven levels, with varied map styles. Dungeons, grottos, outdoor cliff dwellings with an isometric view to help you understand it … perfect. The maps are Dyson. I know a lot of people love Dyson maps but I’m cooler on them. The ones I’ve seen generally tend to be small, almost like lair maps, with varying degrees of interesting features. Some of these are larger, to the point of being full on exploratory maps with many loops. Magic items contain a decent amount of uniques, especially with swords. For example, Bitter Root, the longsword, +2 can only penetrate magical armor, useless against non-magical armor though still cuts flesh.

Multiple prisoners to rescue, factions and machinations, up to and including the False King and the True King of the halls. Garran Ocar, High Priest of the Flood makes an appearance. Who the fuck is he? Hell if I know, but that name, oh man! Well, yes, I do know, he was drowned and raised by the true king. That’s the sort of detail that just oozes flavor. An old bitter ghost has cursed the place and now long-time residents are obsessed with birds (a part of it used to be a temple to a bird god.) This opens up some bird theming for the goblins, including riding giant vultures in places … like a cave mouth overlooking a high cliff, and a shamen that may jump out of window to be at one with the bird gods. There’s a kind of interconnectedness that runs throughout the place, with multiple themes. PERFECT for D&D exploration! Players love that kind of shit, and so do I as a DM.
Now, let’s talk about why this wonderful piece of work would be a nightmare to run. Room 1:

“The path up the cliff side is winding and treacherous, following a series of switchbacks, ending at the bottom of a series of buildings clinging to the cliffs on the western side of the waterfall. The entrance is about 50’ above the great pool below. The door here is thick oak, reinforced with iron bands and painted red and blue (the royal plumage of the Birdmen).”

That’s not a bad initial description. It even establishes some mythology with the red/blue stuff. We’ll give this paragraph MOSTLY a pass, since it’s really “the outside.”

Paragraph two …

“The door is locked. Inside the 15×20 foot room are 7 Goblin Guards and a Bird Shaman, called “The Sky Watch” by the other denizens. Normally they simply sit at tables playing dice or complaining. If alerted, one will climb the spindly winding stairs to the next levels to alert the garrison guard while the remaining six stand against the wall on either side of the door to ambush anyone who comes through while the Shaman casts darkness which covers the whole room.”

I’m gonna be an ass here. The locked door sentence belongs in the first paragraph. That describes the exterior and the lock is the exterior. In fact, that entire first paragraph could/should be a preamble before the keys start, but, whatever. Anyway, locked door goes OUTSIDE, where the information on outside is. Once INSIDE The room then you can start with those details.

Room dimensions in text are almost always bullshit. That’s what the map is for. Start strong, with the first thing. “7 goblin guard and a bird shamen dice & complain at a table. If alerted the Sky Watch will …” That’s direct. It’s targeted at play.

THEN comes the third paragraph …

“Each Goblin wears leather armor with a blue waterdrop symbol crudely painted on the chest, fights with a shortsword and a dagger and has 1d4 sp and 1d10 brilliantly colored bird feathers in a leather belt pouch. The Bird Shaman is covered head to toe in blue and red feathers. In addition to his spells, he wields the Staff of the Air (Stinking Cloud 2x/day, Predict Weather 3x/day, Air Blast 4x/day). Air Blast pushes an ogre sized volume of air (3’x5’x8’) at an extremely rapid speed, pushing up to 600 pounds of weight 4d6 feet (save for half distance). Air Blast does no damage.”

It is at this point I think the description is really off the rails. There’s really two things going on here. First is the description. Blue waterdrop and covered head to toe. Very nice, Probably belongs after the “complain at a table” since it’s something the party sees immediately. The leather/shortsword stuff, as well as the Staff of Air, probably belong in the monster stats, which is paragraph four, or even putting the staff in the magic item appendix, maybe with a page number reference. “Staff of Air (p44)”

(paragraph four)
Goblin Guards (7): hp 2,2,5,7,4,8
Bird Shaman: hp 9
Spells: Fly, Feather Fall,
Bird Form (limited polymorph self)

This sort of muddling of information happens not only within room but between rooms as well. Information from one room is referenced in another, obliquely. “They will release their pet.” pet? What pet? Oh, that’s in a different keyed entry. A reference to that entry, “rm 7b”, would help immensely. This is pervasive throughout the adventure, even if it can be excused a bit in the Cliff Dwellings section because of the way the buildings kind of all run together.

This is a great multi-level dungeon. I just wish it were edited better for use at the table. It’s a hard sell to slog through things. Something like 15 adventures made my Best Of list in the last year. That’s more than one a month. Why would I suffer? It’s time like these I have No Regerts.

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. The last half shows the keys, with room on, the bird shamen, on page four. Check out those last three pages for a great example of what you’re getting. A great preview.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 7 Comments

The Darkness Beneath Dalentown

By Tim & Matthew Bannock
Self Published
Levels 8-12

… Spurred by stories of restless spirits, the party soon finds themselves staring down an invading force of oozes, slimes, puddings, and jellies all in the service of demons! Worse still, the ancient dwarven lords that once protected this underground library and mining operation have been horribly transfigured by the infernal powers at work, and linger on as deadly spirits and automated guardians who are tortured by their station and forced to repel the intrepid adventurers!

This 37 page adventure has about seventeen room rooms on about eleven pages and includes a small town. Featuring sewers AND dwarf ruins, the DM text gets quite long. Pruned WAY back it would be an ok adventure.

While expanding the (very small) towns sewer system workmen break through a wall. Monsters and oozes start to appear. Adventurers were sent in and most got slaughtered. The party is sent in to clear things out and bring back the other bodies. There’s some undead, ghosts, and a Juiblex worshiper down there.

Dwarf ruins and sewers. *sigh* Once upon a time the world was full of wonder and there were ancient ruins attributed to no one .. or to cockroach people. Mystery is a good thing; it leads to a sense of wonder. Tired tropes are not a good thing.

The town provided is small, really just a village (with full sewer system …) and is Just Another Generic Fantasy Town. It’s text is expanded some to be fleshed out, just as the default hooks are. There’s nothing special going on with the town or hooks, just a little more information than usual. That little bit extra does wonders though for cementing ideas. Its right around my tolerance level in length, maybe a bit over the line. It does have a nice little events section, for what happens when the partyrests and/or takes their time. Ooze attacks and so on, with just enough detail to get the DM going. Nice length to them, short and terse with a few details, and it’s a good resource for making the place actually seem alive.

The dungeon map is mostly linear. The DM text for the encounters can be LONG. It’s full on “this used to be a …“ and “the plan was for ….” and lots of tactics, etc. But … nestled in each one there DOES tend to be a short little section that actually contains the room description. It’s not a masterpiece of evocative, but it’s a cut above the usual dreck. You just have to find it in the other text.

Here’s an example of the DM text. This is one paragrapgh in a six of seven paragrah full column room description: “The original idea was that water was stored in the cisterns, and could be heated or cooled through mechanisms that acted upon water in the shallow depression — a sort of pool or channel for water to flow through — but the exact nature is lost to time and damaged parts encased in the earth and other accessways throughout the complex that are now unreachable.”

But … here’s the first half of the first paragraph also, for comparison: “Two immense cisterns dominate this open warehouse- style room, standing in a shallow depression forming a channel that could move water through underground pipes. Iron pipes run along the length of the cisterns up into housings in the ceiling. Each cistern includes a lid”

That’s not too bad if it were standalone text. And then, of course, there’s three and half more paragraphs of text. Ug.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is twelve pages. Page seven shows you the town event chart, while the last three pages start to show the adventure proper. The text just gets longer.

Posted in Reviews | 15 Comments

(Pathfinder/5e) The Ties that Bind

By Michael Allen
AAW Games
Level 6

Still reeling from the twin disasters of the Great Schism and the Hoyrall Wars, the halfings of Picollo are a people cast adrift from ancient traditions. A cleric of the Great Mother strives to restore four great holy sites to the goddess, and in doing so restore the bedrock of halfling society.

This 44 page adventure has the party escorting slaves on a sea voyage to a southern-style slavehold run by halflings in full Deep South plantation attire. Oh, there’s a wayward priestess you can convince to change her ways, a ruined temple she’s interested in, etc. That shit is supposed to be the focus, and not the slaves. Sorry, “indentured servants.” It tries to be a sandbox, but it seriously wall of texted and hard to figure out what is going on. And the slave shit is BADLY done.

This is not a bad adventure. It is a badly DONE adventure. The party is hired to accompany a halfling and her large lot of indentured servants on a two month sea voyage to the halfling island homeland and deliver them to a village. That’s the pretext. In reality, she’s a heretic cleric who has fallen from the true faith. Being nice people will help her see the errors of her ways. There are some encounters directly related to this, and others that are just seeds floating around to perhaps take on. It’s less of a railroad than most (well, except for the sea voyage. What ya gonna do, you’re on a boat.) The major MAJOR problems of this adventure are the abstraction of the indentured servants (both them and the press ganged sailors) and the DISASTER that is the formatting of the adventure. I can barely figure the fuck out what is going on. This thing reminds me of the Principia Mathematica; yeah, it’s got something in it, as long as you study the fuck out of it for a week. I ain’t no millionaire’s son; I Got a job, two kids, a wife, three mortgages, and other interests besides studying the fucking text of this adventure. It’s the designer and publishers job to present it logically in a format/layout/etc that is easily digested. And that they don’t fucking do.This thing is a train wreck of wall of text and subplots appearing out of nowhere and lack of meaningful section breaks. I can’t quite figure out what they are doing, but whatever it is it’s A) Consistent and B) Doesn’t fucking work at all. The ship voyage is the just the first little bit of this adventure, everything after is self-characterized as a sandbox, but the sections are so incomprehensible it’s hard to figure out what is going on, or is supposed to go on. After two readings I’m still not sure how everything in the second section ties together.

Then there’s the slavery. Oh, sorry, indentured servitude. (I’ll also include the press-ganged sailors on the ship in this category.) And the racism. The fucking halflings are full on bigots. The artwork shows one of them dressed in a deep south plantation master outfit. First, this is all a little heavy. If I want that BS I’ll go play Mountain Witch. But, ignoring that, yeah, I think it’s a topic you can cover in a traditional RPG … if you handle it right. This doesn’t do that.

The slaves & sailors have no names. They are hardly ever mentioned except as “you need to escort them.” They don’t exist as people. First, that’s ham handed from an ethical standpoint of an adventure dealing with these subjects. Second, and what I’ll concentrate on, it’s bad fucking design.

You’re gonna spend two fucking months at sea with these people. Not even a name for the slaves & sailors? Not a personality? Not a subplot? That’s the job of the designer. One page with names, personalities, maybe a subplot/goal or two. What, you think the party are going to treat them like paperweights? Ignore them or treat them like cordwood? Even if they do it’s going to be a more interesting adventure if they interact, are real people, with real goals.

But beyond that, what’s a party member to do? You’re clearly in the employ of deep south bigots and transporting slaves BY SHIP. There is absolutely no mention of a slave revolt or anything like it. I guess they are all happy slaves, singing & dancing? Sorry, indentured servants. “Hey man, you wanna be an indentured servant?” is never gonna come up during play? How about the obvious bigoted statements? How about the time the bigot bosun whips people until red welts appear on their back? At some point in this party is a party member going to say “Enough!” Me, I’m eager for a bit of the ultra violence and would engage in some stabby stabby early, in spite of my NE alignment. NONE of this is handled in the text. A page of NPC names and a some advice on the slave revolt and/or diffusing tensions would have sufficed. Ignoring this is a MAJOR oversight in assisting the DM in running the game.

On the more traditional front, it’s got the usual stat box/Pathfinder shit. The ship has ghosts, mephits, and slimes on it … quite the small space for space for such density. I’m not gonna claim to ever be on a slave ship but are there really that many unvisited places on a ship? The cross-references suck. At one point you eat some soup and get sick. It impacts the next day. But you have to get to the next day text, a long way off, to learn that. A simple reference to it would have sufficed to allow context.

This thing is a nightmare. Yes, it absolutely has an adventure in it, much more so than the usual 5e/Pathfinder dreck. But the organization is CRAP, more so than usual even. And the lack of Slave Revolt advice … it’s like putting in a kobold with a chest of gold and not giving the kobold stats or describing the treasure. Obvious oversight is obvious.

This is $10 at DriveThru. Page four of the preview shows you the page-long italics read-aloud. Joy.

Posted in Reviews, Uncategorized | 11 Comments