Hidden Hand of the Horla

By RJ Thompson
Appendix N Entertainment
OSR/Gateway To Adventure

Legends tell of the Hand Mage’s Tower that once stood at the edge of the realm. Within the Hand Mage experimented and hoarded his magical treasures. The tower stood for many years until one day it mysteriously vanished. Rumors spread that the mage had offended the gods and had been eradicated from existence, or else had made a pact with a demon prince and was now paying his due. Whatever the case, the tales became legend and all but the oldest elves were unsure if the tower had ever existed at all. Now the tower has reappeared where it once stood. Will you dare to enter the ancient tower in search of riches and magical secrets?

This twenty two page adventure describes a fourteen room wizards town in the shape of a hand. Only about five pages have room descriptions, the rest being background, new spells, monsters, etc. It’s pretty basic. Goat-people are a highlight, but not even they can save it from its mundanity.

Single column. Have I ever reviewed a single column adventure that was good? I don’t recall doing so. I doubt it. It’s certainly possible, but I think folks using single column generally out themselves as someone who doesn’t really understand the adventure format. As always, we’re after usability at the table, and single column doesn’t lend itself to that. And see one footprint in the mud usually means there’s a trail of misinformed decisions.

Mostly, the adventure is just not that interesting. Yes, it’s 2018, and we’ve now seen many decades of adventures. This isn’t just the same old nothing new under the sun. Tropes and standard adventures can be enjoyable, even if the idea has been done a thousand times before. But it does need to bring some quality to the table. Thus “not interesting” doesn’t mean that it’s just the same thing we’ve seen before, but rather it’s the same slightly GENERIC thing we’ve seen before. Vanilla isn’t bad but generic is boring. And that’s what we have here, mostly.

It’s a kitchen with a rust monster. Environments that are just “a dining room with a table and chairs and a painting” or a wizards bedroom with a bed and table and drawers. This is not interesting. The writing is not evocative AT ALL and that is, after all, a major part of being useful at the table and adding value. It’s got to be scannable and it has to make you visualize it. That’s why adjectives and adverbs exist. And there’s just nothing here. A room, generically described. The kitchen tells us that there is a counter on the east wall. It’s irrelevant. The writing is boring.

There’s also come pretty heavy misses in added resources for the DM. We’re told in the beginning that there are some doors up high in the crumbling tower to get in, but offered no further advice about it. I guess we can rely on the rules for climbing, but it’s a serious miss to present something idiosyncratic for those wanting access.

Likewise we’re told, in the meat of the room three description, that you can hear the creature while you are in room one. Well … isn’t that really something for the roo mone description? I’m a good DM, but not a precog. 🙂 You have to put information where the DM will find it.

It feels like a lot of time was spent on the backstory, but not on the actual adventure or hooking the adventure in to the backstory very much.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a current suggested price of $0. The preview is siz pages, and the adventure free. Taking a look at the last page of the preview you can see one of the middle-length rooms, room one, and the kind of generic description and “all over the place” formatting in one paragraph. Important things first, details in separate paragraphs!

Posted in Reviews | 4 Comments

(5e) Pudding Faire

By Will Doyle, Shawn Merwin, Cindy Moore
Levels 3

BREAK A CURSE THAT ECHOES THROUGH TIME! You awaken on the morning of the Pudding Faire: just as you did yesterday… and the day before that… and the day before that! To escape the loop, you must break a curse that strikes to the heart of halfling and gnome lore.

This 24 page adventure deals a time loop ala Groundhogs Day, with a halfling and gnome god poking at each other. Not a total shit show and better than average, it looks like either it was actually playtested or some serious thought went in to organization, or both. Long but not really overly verbose, it handles “time travel contingencies” about as well as it can. It is non-trivial, but the overlapping events seems like a lot of fun.

Halfling goddess won’t let the (evil) gnome god of trickery join in the pudding eating at a local halfling/gone fair they are both attending, so he curses the village to relive the same day, while he tries to convince her each day to let him try the pudding. Solutions are to help her by keeping him from casting the curse, or convince her to let him also eat the pudding.

Bonus points for Gods. Modern D&D relies too much on piling kits on monsters to communicate the fantastic and not enough on the old folklore elements … and mixing it up with gods could be either folklorish or S&S/DCC-ish, depending on their treatment. It does a good job of handling the gods, covering blasting players with spells and why they don’t, etc. It supports the DM covering this as well as farming XP, gold, etc. “These are unusual situations, let’s give the DM a couple of words of advice on each.” That’s good work.

And that extends to other areas of support the adventure offers the DM. There’s a decent amount of advice about running the time travel elements that doesn’t get too in the weeds. Guidelines that get in and out fast. Then there’s a nice one-page summary at the end that has NPC’s, the problems/situations they face, along with a little personality and a location. That’s GREAT to see. It’s a perfect example of the designer including support material for the DM based on the idiosyncratic needs of the adventure they’ve written. Be it from playtesting or otherwise the support material thoughtfulness and advice shines through.

There’s about two dozen locations in the adventure. Each has a little description, some have a key event that happens at a certain time each day. Some have a little situation that happens the first day but not other days, and other have events that happen in response to other events and/or the parties actions.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with these time travel adventures. They have to account for the initial situation as well as the parties, and other NPC”s meddling in things. That can make for some long descriptions. These are not necessarily verbose, but the pure volume of events makes the description drag out. They COULD be shorter, with some really dedicated editing. And the headings could be much better. Right now there’s a “Significant Event” heading for those locations that have one. It would have been better to use more descriptive headings, like “SI: Mayor Turned in to a Toad” or some such. While the SI heading provides you the ability to find the SI section easily, you want to overload the data when possible to cue and orient the DM. The same goes for the other events headings. Further, there could be some bolding or better use of bullet points. The ability to scan the text quickly is important. If we assume the DM has read it once, then at the table we’re looking to job their memory … which bolding and bullet points can do well … and which this adventure does not do well.

It does a decent job with presenting some nuanced NPC’s … in some cases. There’s a thief to redeem … but also a gang of outlaws that can’t be reasoned with. You can help either god to break the curse, but the good god is clearly MUCH easier. The adventure even goes so far as to say the outlaws will never help the good guys and it should be VERY hard for the players to convince the good god to allow the evil one to eat some pudding.

I’ve got some problems with that. The adventure does a good enough job of being open ended that these discrepancies stand out. I remember a Deus Ex game in which you complete without violence … except for this one farmed-out boss battle that you had to fight. The outlaw gang stands out here. They have a mortally injured member and go so far as to kidnap an herbalist to save them … and its even mentioned that only divine magic can save him. But they will never side with the good god. Not even if she promises to save their buddy? And the whole good good good god pudding thing is kid of lame also. Gods has a historical basis in kind of getting along, even when they don’t like each other. Is it really so much to ask that the gnome god be allowed to partake in the pudding feast?

That accompanies some bad advice in places, like “throwing some skulks at the party when things are lagging.” That’s never a good idea.

But, still in all, much better than I was expecting. I was prepared to make a disparaging remark about the Adept level DMSguild stuff, having encountered at least one stinker, but so far I’m two for three for them not being total shitshows. That’s MUCH higher than usual for me, and ridiculous when considering the depths of despair general DMSGuild adventures send me to. It actually MIGHT be worth checking them out! I’ve also decided I’m grading this 5e/Pathfinder shit on a curve from now on.

This is $5 at DMSGuild. The fucking preview doesn’t fucking work!

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 1 Comment

In the Depths of EldHeim

By Quentin Acord
Pentagon Games
Level 1 Dwarves

For generations the subterranean city of Eldheim was the eternal home of the Dwarves, until the faithful day spoke of in legend. Fyor Blackhand, who’s clan was responsible for mining precious ores from the deepest depths of the mountain uncovered an ancient evil. The Entity promised him power in exchange for his service and that of his clan. Blackhand agreed, and in doing so became the first of the betrayers (called Duergar in the Dwarven Tongue).

My reviewing life is frequently a living hell.

This fifteen page pointcrawl has ten essentially linear locations. Forced fights, single column, lots of italic read-aloud, with a style that is more Storgame than OSR.

I know I take shit sometimes for my taxonomy. Yeah, sure, it’s OSR if you say its OSR. Meanwhile, those of us spending money on the shit want some expectation of confidence in what they are buying. If I buy something with “OSR” on it and it turns out to be a one page Fiasco playset of London gangsters, well … You can expect me to be upset.

I know the lines are not always as clearcut. If you stat something for OD&D, did you just write an OSR adventure, no matter its similarity to London Gangster playsets? Maybe you wrote a D&D adventure (and therefore an OSR adventure …) but it’s just a REALLY REALLY bad adventure. Maybe?

Anyway, this adventure shows little understanding of how D&D works, especially older styles of play. Everyone is a level 1 dwarf and you’re sent in to the ancestral home to find a kidnapped dwarf prince. You’ve got a hidden stat, Honor, which means that someone will “win” (get to the kings heir) based on an accidental following of what the designer thinks is honorable.

Tear down evil banners, get some honor. Loot centuries old abandoned market stalls? Loose honor. Unless their your clans, then no honor gain or loss. This is shit.

First, you can’t assume. Even in 2018 it’s not fucking clear what good and evil and right and wrong is. Peter Singer says you’re shit for drinking anything other than water and donating the savings to helping unfortunate people around the world. -1 Honor for drinking the coffee! Second, that kind of mechanic only works if the choice is meaningful. Meaning that the players have to understand the consequences of their choices. “You want to tear them down? That’s an honorable act … do you want to?” or “Looting the stalls could be seen as a dishonorable act, looting the dead. Do you want to? NOW the players have some choices to make and it is, after all, about them making choices for their characters. But that’s also kind of shit, right? I mean, if you tell them then they will (probably) game the system and only choose “good” action. That’s why there needs to be consequences. Sure, you can loot the Axe of the Dwarvish Lords from the old kings tomb … but there will be a massive honor cost … Now it’s a delicious choice. This adventure don’t do none of that. Just take your fucking lumps and move on. It’s shit, with no interesting choices or consequences.

Back to Ye Olde Fiasco playset, what’s your position on forced fights? D&D, early D&D, is fucking deadly as hell. Players needs to navigate risk v reward and all of that jazz. When you force a fight (in the second fucking room) you are forcing their hand. You are telling them that exploration, roleplaying, and everything else is secondary to tactics. Low and behold everyone min/maxes for combat and 4e shows up the day. It’s a fundamental lack of understanding about D&D. The same with treasure. Old D&D is a gold for XP system. This abstracts nearly all of the treasure. “If they loot the stalls they get treasure.” What treasure? Who knows! That’s up to the DM! Hey, I just paid you five fucking dollars, how about you lift your pinky or glance sideways as we pass Big Ben in order to provide some fucking value?

It’s all single column, which, as we all should know by now, is not easy to read and run at the table. THEN it makes us suffer through LONG read aloud. No one pays attention to long read aloud. Know why players are on their phones? THEY ARE BORED BY YOUR FUCKING GAME AND ITS READ ALOUD. And, it’s in italics. I fucking hate long sections of italics. It’s impossible to read and makes my head hurt. No, it’s not just me. It’s a readability/usability thing.

One rooms read aloud tells us that the forges has “a cooling station enchanted to never be empty and be full of blessed water.” Uh … how do we know that? Hey, how about a little interactivity? Lets the characters investigate, find out it nevers empties and is blessed? No? Just want to tell us everything inthe read-aloud? FUNDAMENTAL LACK OF UNDERSTANDING.

No. Redeeming. Qualities.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The last page of the adventure shows you the first three rooms, one of which isn’t even on the pointcrawl map. Enjoy the blessed water room.

Posted in Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 3 Comments

The Gray Ribs

By Mark A Thomaas
PBE Games

Hexed Places are outdoor locations and encounters based on the classic six-mile hex format and OSR sensibilities. Use these locales as a quick side adventure, to fill out your campaign sandbox, or expand upon them to create a multi-session campaign. Each includes an overview of the region, expanded one-mile per hex maps for players and GMs (PDF and VTT format), encounter and rumor tables, and descriptions of individual locations, encounters, and features within the hex. Files are available for individual download and as a single zip file. … This Hexed Places locale is mountainous and rugged, with a few patches of woods and hills. The Bugbears of Stoneroot Village trade iron, coal, and silver for the slaves needed to work Dragor’s Mine.

Well, that was a fucking waste.

This fourteen page hex crawl contains a 9×7 hex map from hexographer, with a 1 mile per hex scale, with six of the hexes expanded upon. And by “expanded upon” I mean “minimal description expanded in to minimal longer description. Minimal expansion is a bane.

There’s not much to this. A players map, a DM’s map, and twelve pages of text, two of which are wanderers and two of which contain hex details. The descriptions are minimally expansive.

Minimally expansive is where you take a short description and then make it longer without really adding anything of value. I usually bitch about this in dungeon rooms that exhaustively describe a mundane bedroom and list its contents. The key to this style is to not add anything of value to actually running the adventure.

Let’s take a hex crawl; we’ll use Wilderlands as a kind of platonic example. Wilderlands might say something like “A tribe of dwarves buys slaves to mine gold.” They are always on the lookout for new workers.” Wilderlands was good at embedding action. There was something in the description, usually, that was some kind of call to action and enabled interactivity. The dwarves want slaves, maybe they buy them and maybe they want to capture the party. Maybe they are greedy, as dwarves are want to be. The use of the word “workers” might imply some cornish american west gold miner/slave-in-all-but-name stuff. There’s enough for the DM to use context with the implied situation to build an interesting little interactive thing for the party to get in to trouble with. It was terse writing with lots of potential entry embedded in it. (I’m also romanticizing it a bit, I’m sure.)

Now, what if the Wilderlands description were longer? What if it named a few of the key dwarves, listed their treasure, and told us how many pickaxes their were and told us there were some twelve wooden buildings, like a smelter and an ore-processing place and a communal barracks. I think I can make a good argument that nothing of value has been added. It’s all either pretty obvious and doesn’t really add anything interactive or interesting.

That’s what this does. It expands a basic idea in to nothing. A generic cave hex has a chance for wandering monsters. Good thing that was told to us! The bugbear mining camp has a couple of names and the dozen wooden buildings/barracks detail, as well as a treasure list. There’s nothing to this.

Added value would be implied talking or tension, maybe a faction, some personality quirks. SOMETHING. One hex has a treant who hides unless the party fucks with the forest, and then it animates some trees. That’s not really much value. It’s not devoid, but, really, there’s nothing to that.

The two pages of wanderers are the same. No potential energy. The gnoll slavers are looking for slaves. Joy. I guess I should be happy they have the “slaver” descriptor, which is better than nothing But, really, it’s the added description I’m bitching about. There’s nothing there. Just pick a random adjective/adverb from the dictionary to add to some monster you picked out at rando and stick it in the adventure. Then describe what the adjective means.

Seriously, just grab a map and a random encounter generator online and you’ll have essentially the same content this provides.

There’s No Added Value beyond that.

Someday I’ll get around to producing a hex crawl guide. But, in the words of Theoden King, Not this day. Maybe in eight or so more years at my current rate of writing.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview shows you everything, so you can check out the hex descriptions for yourself easily enough.

Posted in Reviews | 4 Comments

(5e) Rats of Waterdeep

By Lysa Chen, Will Doyle
Self Published
Levels 1

Solve a brutal crime on the mean streets of Waterdeep in this madcap companion adventure for Xanathar’s Guide to Everything!

This 29 page city adventure is fun. Modeled on a Noir novel, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but never falls over the line in to humor or sillyness. It walks up and leans over it, waving its arms to not fall over it, but stays firmly planted while looking over its shoulder and giving the finger to the hardcare serious adventures behind it. Pretty well organized and written, I’d be happy to run this, and it’s good enough that I’ll look up the authors others works. Also: One of my vices is city adventures, so, be warned.

The docks are quarantined, there’s a plague. The watch has a message from someone inside that says they know what’s behind it. The party gets to escort the detective in … only to find the informant dead and the detectie most likely compromised.

There’s a touch of noir in this. It’s a mystery, the party escorts a detective. He’s new to the squad and wears a fedora and trenchcoat and doesn’t understand why the rest of the watch detectives just wear the city uniform. There’s a crime lord with a henchman, jilted lovers in the form of the Rat King and the Lady of Plagues, bored secretaries causing trouble … a lot of fun shit to roleplay with.

In this case the crime lord is Waterdeeps on Beholder Bob, and his lacky Mind Flayer. He meets the party after they find the first body, is bored, and sends his thugs after them while he floats away, bored and distracted, with his lacky. I bitch a lot about forced fights and so on, but, if you’re gonna do it then having your 1sts meets a behold and a mind flayer and get a chance to talk before thugging it up is absolutely one way fun way to do it. Plus, he disintegrates the detective you’re escorting if the party get lippy. NPC removed! Yeah! Fun! Yeah! This is almost a DCC aventure! Well, no, but still, closer than most!

It’s got a nice map/adventure flowchart up front explaining the area and the adventure and how the hooks and clues work together. PERFECT for a nice overview. It uses bullet points to convey information. PERFECT for scanning and locating information and breaking it up.

The elements are great. For example, at the apothecary-with-something-to-hide the secretary is trying to get rid of the players using the usual bored clerk gimmicks. The roleplaying notes for the NPC’s are good … pretty nice.

Oh, and the usual “lets explain everything in a diary?” bullshit? It’s handled through a player handout. Players LOVE handouts AND it doesn’t overstay its welcome by droning on. Great!

And, and, if you CATCH the plague you will turn in to a rat! You get features, like beady red eyes, or whiskers, for each save you miss in the adventure. FUN!

And there’s a town newspaper handout!

And on the down side …

The bullets are good, as are the NPC notes, but they do get a bit long at times. A little bolding, or a sentence or sentence and half less would be better, as would a more direct writing style. You’re conveying information to the DM who is scanning during play … it has to be terse … while remaining evocative. Cut the bs.

Certain details are abstracted. We’re told the plague goes by many names, including Rat Pox. Well, fuck, the fact that you named that one means rats are important. A few more naes mixed in would have been fun.

Finally, the two main characters are the Rat King and the Lady of Plagues. They are demihumans. B O R I N G. Think of how much more fun it would have been if they were straight out Petty Gods?!?!?! A REAL rat kind and a minor god plague?!?! FUN! And fun friends to make!

I’m clearly a fan of this. I like city adventures, this one is fun in the way I like adventures to be fun. Not humor, not silly, but with some nods to those elements. It’s not Sliced Bread quality, but it’s solid enough.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is broken. I has sads.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 12 Comments

Under the Temple Crypt

By Extildepo
Verisimilitude Society Press
Swords & Wizardry

This dungeon assumes that there is a temple somewhere with a mysterious walled-in doorframe in the basement crypt. The walled-in doorframe predates the temple itself and leads to ancient subterranean structures that hint of an older civilization as well as an expansive underworld.

This wight page dungeoncrawl has a twenty-ish room ruined city/underground area. It stands out for being mostly inoffensive, a wonder in and of itself these days. The writing is a mix of workmanlike facts and decent imagery, leading to an inconsistent vibe overall. A little polishing of the text would have elevated this quite a bit. Still, I’m not mad at it.

This one is close. It’s got a pretty decent “drop in dungeon” premise, being behind a bricked up doorway. The supporting map is ok, with lots of varied terrain, tunnels and hallways, under and over tunnels and so on, especially for its small-ish size.

This is just a basic little dungeoncrawl in a mixed dungeon, both in creatures and in setting, from caverns to mini ruined underground city portion. It’s quite successful sometimes in the writing. Overall you get themes of decay, dust, fallen stone block and crumbling ruins. This is built up through repetition and the artwork present, both of which are good techniques. Ornate pillars with stylyze reliefs of animals, large and sticky cobwebs hanging from pillar to pillar, slowing movement and obscuring vision. A green and purple luminescent glow emitting from behind a broken wall … thats room two and it’s a pretty good description. I can imagine it, and more, and because of that I can EASILY build on it for the players. There’s more than one room that reaches this great height of writing.

But it’s much more usual for the writing to be more workmanlike, and less evocative. “This crypt is typical of the times.”, “These dead priests still wear their ceremonial robes and stoles”, “This once opulent sanctuary is now a ruin.” or “The entrance to this building is open and arched.” It’s all very workmanlike, and more than a little bland. A bathhouse has pools of black liquid. BORING WORD CHOICE. Another room has a dozen large ceramic urns. Give it some life man! “This is the lair of a fearsome troll.” is not an evocative room description.

This extends to the creatures. There’s a giant spider who attacks. There are ghouls who attack. Various creatures. They just don’t have much life in them. Ghouls from a ruined city? Those should erudite ghouls, or an inquisitive spider, and so on. They need a little life to them. Not everything has to be something you can to, but it needs a adjective or adverb, some kind of descriptor to bring the thing to life.
So, it’s ok. It doesn’t overstay. It’s got a decent map and a few good descriptions along with some things to poke at that contribute to ok encounters. It tends more to the bland side, but, again, I have overly high expectations. It’s close. Some refinement, especially around word choice, would send it in very good territory.

This is $1 at DriveThru. Note that the level range is NOT in the product description, only on the cover. Boo! The preview doesn’t really show you anything more than the map.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 4 Comments

The Dragons Secret

By Jennell Jaquays
Fifth Wall Games & Miniatures
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 5-7

The Dragon’s Secret centers on a mystery from the past: villagers invited a gold dragon to bless and protect the region with her presence… for a little tribute… and a temple… and followers… and perhaps just a whole lot more tribute. When the dragon eventually went mad, she laid waste to the surrounding lands in a fiery rage, ending with her death at the hands of heroes. Except… they found almost none of her treasure. In time people forgot the cathedral’s location, but the legend of her missing treasure still inspires seekers to keep looking.

This 54 page adventure features a three level thirty room dungeon. A classic exploratory dungeon stuffed full of things, it manages to be both verbose AND scan well … generally. A few more cross-references and some rewording would push this beast in to very rare territory indeed. Also, it has the ducks/aardvarks, a featured Jaquayism, for those of you for whom D&D is serious business.

Classic Exploratory Dungeon. The rooms in this are stuffed full of things. It seems like every single room has three or four different things going on it. This isn’t the hidden depth of Kuntz, which is seldom realized, or the immediate gratification of a modern set-piece room with 12 terrain features to exploit. The rooms here remind me a bit of the classic examples from the 1e DMG … if they had more going on. You can poke and prod several different things in each room, or get poked, as the case may be. This turns each room in to a mini-adventure, with as much to do as the party cares to engage in. One small room is a square tower stairwell, opening on to a room at the top with a door that leads to the roof. Stairs count as #1 thing. The final rotation of the stairs are barricaded with thorny brush, heavy branches, fire sharpened stakes, etc. That’s thing #2. There’s also a secret door, but we’ll ignore that. The top of the stairs are rotten, that’s a “trap” and #3. Big pile of treasure in the a jumbled mess in the center of the room. That’s feature #4. And then there’s a bunch of piercers up in the rafters, that’s #5. Now, look, you could think of this as a room with a pile of treasure, a trap, and a monster. But that’s not how its WRITTEN. It’s both a cohesive room and yet it feels like there’s these separate elements to encounter and enjoy. Room after room after room does this. Secret side entrance. Gold dragon altar in the corner. Mechanical dragon if it sees you. Slide it aside to in a hole with treasure in it. But there are also centipedes in it under the treasure. And werewolves in the next room that can agro in if they hear you. It’s depth, it’s hidden, but it’s not obtuse and it’s LIKELY to be encountered. And, in both examples I cited. You can agro in creatures from the next room if you are loud. There are linkages between things. It’s a really, really good design. This is the kind of shit that I love to see. Exploratory, overloaded. It’s classic D&D at its finest.

The rooms are long. I’d say “a column” is average for a room in this, as the page count to room number would indicate. Rooms have a description, and then a backstory heading, a remarkables heading, a secrets heading, a curios heading, a denizens heading, a tactics/roleplay heading, and so on. I have theorized in the past that one could be verbose and still make something scannable. This comes about as close as you can get, I think. Th headings make it easy to locate (or skip, in the case of background …) the important sections of the room. You can the general description and relate it to the party and then, as they explore the room, your attention is drawn to the other various sections. It’s a tad mechanical, and I’ve seen terser formats that accomplish the same thing, but overall I think it works. It scans well, which means it helps the DM run the room, which is, ultimately, the purpose of all room descriptions.

Which is not to say it’s perfect.

My primary frustration is with one of the strengths, the rooms linkages. Gargoyles fly off to get help from the rest of their gagle. Yeah! Room linkage! Uh … which room is that gagle in? Or, noise from one room doesn’t really translate well in to what gets drawn in. That alter room has some werewolf treasure in it. They are in the next room. But you don’t know that. Until you come to that room entry. Thus what’s it missing are some simple cross-references. “The gargoyles fly off to get help [a8]”, for example. There ARE some attempts at cross-referencing, but this generally comes up in the case of the the adventure side quests and rumors, etc. They are GREAT there, and totally worth it and appreciated. But the rooms are missing it. There’s some great color in some of those, and more than enough to make this a pretty rich environment … if you put the work in. They are tacked on in the back and while each one references things in the adventure and adds a LOT of local/regional depth, they DON’T scan well and are, well, hooks to be developed by the DM. Prepare thy notepad! Wanted signs plastered all over for two criminals? Count me in on that color!

Finally, I’d note that the room descriptions, while good, are not great. I’m talking about the initial little description that talks each room, not the added section heading/expanded detail. The rooms don’t always start with the most important things near the top of the description and sometimes omit some things that seem important to the ‘hidden depth’ of the room. I’m not sure that knowing the werewolfs are two familiaes helps as the first room entry? There’s generally some good imagery, with light from dragon lamps, some missing and dark, illuminating a golden dragon statue, for example. But it’s also the case that some DM cues could be more obvious at the start of the room.

Wanderers are doing something (yeah!) but treasure is generally book items and boring +1’s and 150gp gems. I can has sads? I wanted more in that area. There’s also weirdly placed asides. I blame layout for this. I LIKE asides, like what makes THESE gargoyles special. But it appears deep in the adventure not near the first gargoyles. That makes you have to remember that you say it before. I don’t like membering.

Yeah, I’d pay $15 for this and I’d run it. Hyquatious Vaults, Blue Medusa, Guy’s work, Darkness Beneath/Upper Caves, and DCO all have their strengths and do things well. This falls close to Vaults and/or Guy’s work, being classic D&D exploratory, but with a FUCK TON more going on. Or, at least, FEELING like it is going on. It doesn’t feel as focused as those other adventures, which maybe is because of the room length or the overloaded nature of the rooms. I don’t know.

This is $15 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages and TOTALLY lame. It doesn’t show any of the rooms at all. It’s important for people to understand what they are getting and showing how a typical room is written, in the preview or product blurb, is an important part of that.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 2 Comments

(5e) The Curse of the Sandoval Estate

By Michael Hubbard
Self Published
Level 3

Many years ago a young man living outside of the Silverwood forest made a pact with Oberon, saving the Silverwood and it’s denizens. Given an estate and profitable business of woodworking Alexander Sandoval lived a blessed for twenty years. On the eve of his wedding Alexander slaughtered his family and the servants of the estate. That night a terrible curse has been laid upon the estate. Are you ready to unravel the mystery of the Curse of Sandoval Estate!?

This seventeen page adventure describes a 23 room manor house that is haunted by a past family massacre. It tries pretty hard, but is overly flowery/dramatic in its language and has issues with repetition. For the second time in a week, I’m wondering if there might be English As A Second Language issues … or else it needed an editor/copyeditor to clear up the writing. It’s almost unintelligible in places. And that’s coming from me!

This is the third or fourth adventure of this type I’ve reviewed. The basic formula is to take a site haunted by ghosts and have the party look around for important things that they need to put the ghosts to rest. There’s usually a ghost, the murderer, that shows up at certain places in certain times and acts out little vignettes, etc. You see the scenes, find the objects, put them where they are supposed to go, and lay the ghosts to rest. This time it’s dad killing his entire family and reenacting the evening every day for a week, once every thousand years (!). The idea is that you’ve got seven nights to learn from your mistakes, etc, in order to solve the mystery. [And, as an aside, as I’m doing this review two news stories have appeared in the last couple of days about fathers killing their families. The Affordable Care Act brought mental health service in to alignment with other health services. If you don’t want to read Camu then go make a fucking appointment. Geez, as if there’s a point to life anyway.]

It feels for all the world like the designer had a strong image in their head, or the adventure and the individual rooms. And then they went and fucked it up by not doing a second draft/edit. The text is in the same shape as one of my reviews, but, somehow, even worse. Weird comma placement, or lack thereof, clauses out of nowhere … it’s pretty hard to figure out what is going on. From the first rooms read-aloud comes: “Throughout the room, voices can be heard whispering and a sea shadowy figures float around the room.” Is that supposed to be a sea of shadowy figures? They are never mentioned again. Are they ghosts, or just shadows from the lanterns and statues? (see blow) Fuck if I know.

The front hall has some statues lit by sickly green light from bullseye lanterns in the corners. That’s not too bad. Likewise there’s a good ol hanging tree, a smokehouse, a bloody kitchen, and lots of other rooms that have a line or two of striking imagery in them. It’s not quite Inn of Lost Heroes territory, but it’s close enough to make you think of that adventure, and if that’s not a compliment I don’t know what is.

Plus its got a dying kid on a ghost unicorn that’s left a ghost trail as a hook. A pretty fucking literal Call to Adventure. 🙂

There’s no map of the grounds, in spite of that being pretty relevant and the adventure trying to be a sandboxy affair (and it is.) You need that map, the abstraction doesn’t really work. It also does things like “DC15 passive perception to notice the dead kids glove at the bottom of the lake.” I’m not cool with that sort of thing, you need to actively search for shit, not just walk it and notice it. CLues, scenes, players paying attention is what leads to search checks. Interactivity. Not just a walk by passive check. LAME.

The language can also get overly flowery at times. For every sickly green light there’s also a “Around the tree itself there is a faint pulse of life that rages against the fear and chaos that dominates the landscape.” This kind of overly dramatic shit is supposed to make you feel something. It does, but Apathy and Revulsion to the Text is not, I think, what the designer intended. I’m a fan of twisting words, using them freely to construct imagery, but falling over the line to flowery text and telling the players what they feel is a big bad No No. You need to provide imagery that make people THINK of fear & chaos, not tell them they think of fear and chaos.

The text is repetitive in place, like telling us about how a child died in the smokehouse three of so times in a couple of paragraphs. And for all of the bullet point organization of the hook information, it seems to fail at basic clarity for the endgame scenarios. You’d think that would be simple, but they seem to be out of order and almost stream of consciousness.

I don’t see an editor attached to this. If there was one the designer needs his money back. If there was not one then he needs one. I think most editors are shit, for adventures, but they would have caught some of the blatant language issues and, in my overly optimistic dream world I live in, even the organization and clarity issues. No, you don’t NEED an editor to do a good job, but you do need to put in the effort the editor would have.

This is $5 at Dmsguild. The preview is about six pages. Page three shows you hooks, and their bullet organization and that ghost unicorn I liked. Page five shows you the outside encounter areas that you have to piece together, and one of those passive DC checks in the brackish pool. The preview is a good example of the language issues, but doesn’t highlight the best of the imagery.

Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments

(5e) Escape from Wheloon

By Alan Patrick
Self Published
Levels 1-4

The walled city of Wheloon holds the criminal population of Cormyr. The residents
of that place are bound to it forever and cut off from the outside world. Inside, plans
are made and malcontents pool their resources – and outside, forces influence the
innocent to ensure that a dire plot can be realized without interference from the
knights and mages that guard the realm. Now you’re here with no memory of what
brought you to Wheloon, and all you can think of is finding out why!

This twenty one page town adventure sets new lows in adventure design. At the same time both railroady, taking away player action, and plot-based but with no fucking plot points. The usual issues with organizing the town incorrectly and useless detail. Lipstick on a pig indeed!

This is an Adept level DMSGuild adventure, an endorsement from WOTC of quality.

You wake up in town with no memories. You wander around, almost literally. Four scripted events happen. You somehow figure out how to get in to a smithy and have a fight. Done.

There’s nothing wrong with scripted events. They can add flavor to an adventure. There’s nothing wrong with THESE scripted events, at least in theory. In practice, just about every bad design decision that could be made WAS made. They are generally aimed at one of the members of the party and at the end of it you regain some memories and get awarded second level. Yeah, ok, I’m not going to quibble with that. But … in the very first one the PC has to make a DC 14 animal handling check. If they succeed they get the level award. All of the others just award the level. So, if, out of the blue, the party member decides to do an animal handling on a attack dog they MIGHT get a second level. I don’t mind this as a true award, but its written so you get some memories back if you do it, as well as the second level that everyone else is going to get. It’s bad design.

And in another some rando guide just has rumor dialog out of the blue. It’s just inserted and stuck in to the encounter. No intro. No NPC name. It’s a guide for fucks sake! But it’s written like … I don’t know. First it’s written as a guide. Then there’s this rando rumor dialog. Then there’s this implication that the guide just runs off. It like someone yanked out random sentences or paragraphs and those explain what’s going on.

And the railroading! It starts immediately. The DM’s announces that one of the PC”s has found the parities gear in one of the chests in the decrepit room they wake up in. WTF? Hey, that’s the parties fucking decision! Fuck the story your telling! It belongs to the players not the DM. And then when you walk outside you’re just told you’re in the city of Wheloon? And then you get to all make a CHR check and if you succeed you can bribe the guards. Again, WTF? Why the fuck are you dictating the hows and why of the parties interaction with their environment? Persuade, bribe, intimidate, there’s an near infinite number of choices … but the DC check is written out of the blue.

This happens over and over again. It’s like You’re sitting in an inn and the DM calls out “ok, everyone make a Arana check! Those of you who succeed channel the elder force and gain a level!” Wait, what? Why the fuck are we rolling? Shouldn’t the party ACT and then ROLL for success? (And that’s not even taking in to account the OD&D method of trying to succeed WITHOUT rolling.) The whole “ok, every roll for [esoteric skill] and lets act like you just used it” is nonsense, and happens repeatedly. It makes no fucking sense. In another place an NPC puts a ring on a party members finger, and then later takes it off. Uh, no, thank you very fucking much. How about you just roleplay my entire PC for me? How about you just roll a d6 at the start of the fucking night and on a 1-5 we win and on a 6 you roll again? YOU DONT TAKE AWAY THE PARTIES FREE WILL. Even for something that trivial. “Any character may attempt a wisdom check” … but why the fuck would they? You have to give the party some cue to interact. It’s like there’s no fucking roleplaying anymore.

Further, there’s no plot seeds, as far as I can tell. I guess you are supposed to remember something (when you roll a 1 on a d20, how many fucking times are you rolling the dice in this thing?) Somehow you’re supposed to figure out you go to this pond. And somehow you’re supposed to figure out you need a certain key. And somehow you need to figure out that the key is placed on a stone at the pond. There’s exactly one clue, I think, in a huge town map, that the pond is important. Third, the key you need is in building 8 with some duergar, according to the pond entry. Entry 8, though, a porter, has no mention or duergar OR the key. How the fuck did that make it by the editor? Oh, wait no, one of the scripted encounters is supposed to be there and IT has the duergar and THEY have the key. So, you mean, you meant the scripted encounter and NOT the fucking porter?

The town entries are numbered and there are 25 or so. Really? That’s the plan? That may be the shittiest way possible to organize a town. Yes, I know everyone does it that way, mom, bridge. What’s the plan with this? That somehow someone is going to want to go building 15, out of the blue? [Aside: entry #15 is labeled “Hawkmaster, a falconry.] Maybe they are looking for a falconry, and you should label it “Falconry?” Maybe you should arrange them alphabetically, by usage type? Are the party likely to go to the Bleue Beard Inn or are they likely to go to the Purple Dragon Knight HQ … which is in the inn? And the sites are almost all chosen at random … there’s no real rhyme or reason to most of them being included in the adventure. I mean, the mill? Seriously? Why the fuck would the party go there? What makes you want to include that entry over, say, the scribe?

Ok, a few good things. The big bad guy is rumored to be morbidly obese and cause people’s eyeballs to explode. THAT’S good detail. And the old mill, while useless, is rumored to grind other things at night … THATS a good bit of forboding. That’s about it. Most of the detail given, and the town entries are written in a useless meandering style. Trivia. “The identity of Lord Sarp has been lost to the decades” Perfect. Why the fuck does the party care about that? “Situated at the western end of the ferry that brings the convicted into Wheloon, the Wyvern Watch Inn serves as the receiving house for all new residents.” I FUCKING HATE THE SIBBY!

This morning while watching the Conan cartoon the voiceover said Conan battled the cruel wizard Wrath-Anon. I turned to The pretty Girl and said “don’t they mean: Warth-Anon, the wizard who sometimes does cruel things?” The designer and editor (copyeditor?) may not be bad people, but this effort is bad. VERY bad. You can tell what they wanted to do, but they fail at nearly every aspect of it.

The goal is to write something for the DM running it at the table. Terse, evocative, organized. This things needs ALOT of work to get there.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is three pages and utterly useless, showing you nothing of the adventure or the writing.

Posted in Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 3 Comments

Mim’s Recreation Garden

By herror
Rowdy Kobold
Levels 1-3

The Garden is some sort of self-preserving magical botanical zoo, an attempt at avantgarde entertainment for kids – it never opened to the public, but it still works.

This twenty page adventure describes a fourteen room dungeon right out Adventure Time. Candy colored weirdness closer to Willy Wonka than the Silmarillion, it presents an interesting environment to adventure in. It’s also gota touch of the “adventure as a walk-though museum”, ala Ed Greenwood, can be confusing to decipher, and maddinley abstrated. It’s hard to recommend because of that, but it sure is interesting as all fuck.

We’ve got a wizard’s lair here, and this time a wizard interested in plants. It’s laid out in a bunch of rooms that are more garden like than dungeon like. Inside we’ve got a bunch of happy singing tree people, bumble bee people, fungus men, and so on. It’s not quite cartoonish, but does lean that way more than it does to those mean old vegapygmies of S3. That means it’s the new fresh material that was common to Psychedelic Fantasies and OD&D in general.

The common elements of “things to fuck with” is present also. The seasons can change in the rooms and/or dungeon and that impacts the things around it. Several rooms have crystals, or other things, to play with. Interactivity is a key aspect to dungeon exploring and this brings that. Doors triggered on specifical elements, and tunnels in the walls that lead to strange new, and/pr random rooms, also help bring in an element of the weird and unknown. I’m such a fan of these additional elements being tacked on. The rooms feel stuffed.

But they are actually pretty simple. Two or three bullet points generally describe the rooms, with certain exceptions being made for those long rando tables. It’s pretty easy to scan and figure out the specifics of the room. The map also helps here, color coded for floor condition (mud, wet, slime, etc) and light elements in the room.

But …

There is a fuck ton going on in this and its also hard to keep track of. While the rooms are easy to scan they also rely, heavily, on overloaded information presented in the general information before the keys begin. The slimes, fungus, seasons, trees, light, wet … it’s all a little hard to keep track of what SHOULD be going on. The single column format doesn’t ease comprehension, but I think the major problem is … English, and/or the lack therefore. I really like adventures from our foreign friends. Their takes on fantasy, influenced by their own unique cultural experiences, can lead to a freshness that still resonates like my own Brave Little Tailor upbringing. It’s generally easy to ignore or forgive any awkwardness in the language, from translation from French, Dutch, Spanish, or Hungarian. In this case though I feel like the language barrier may have contributed to the confusion. It’s not so much awkward word choices or grammar, but rather a certain … organization? I know that organization is not necessarily unique to different languages, but it FEELS like the summaries/organization of the general information was hampered by the language barrier. There’s nothing really I can point to, it just feels that way. In any event, its the organization of the general information, and the awkwardness of it, that’s an issue.

The entire thing has a touch of the Ed Greenwood Museum tour to it as well. There’s not really enough … motivation? in it. Everyone is just a little too friendly. It’s like setting a D&D adventure in a grade school … visit the classrooms and see the differences … but what do you DO? Garden of the Hag Queen had a bit of opposition to it that this just doesn’t seem to have. Long-time readers will know that I like talking to creatures in dungeons, and I like a “neutral” dungeon environment … but there has to be SOME kind of potential energy in the dungeon to drive things, and this feels weak in that area.

It can also get abstracted. “This is the treasure room, with a big pile of treasure in the middle.” Uh … great? OSR adventures also are generally aimed at Gold=XP games, and this is light in that area.

And, one more nit. Room One says “Two homunculi (programmed to “protect goblins”) wait at the bottom of the staircase, which has been covered with lard and caltrops.” I’d turn that around. The stairs are coated with lard and caltrops and two hom are at the bottom. The first thing the party will encounter is the stairs, and that should be the first thing the DM comes across in the sentence.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages and doesn’t really show you much. You get to the dungeon map (star shaped, with colod coding) and the wandering table, which DOES give a decent vibe for the types of encounters in the dungeon.

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