Caverns of Ambuscade


By Davis Chenault
Troll Lord Games
Castles & Crusades
Levels 5-6

The silver mines run deep under the Unterbrook, unearthed by the clever hands of man and dwarf and the wealth has flowed like never before. But such wealth tends to draw unwanted eyes, and such excavations to cross powers best left asleep. Recently, all contact with the mines has been lost and a brooding silence settled upon the Unterbrook. Even the goblins shun the region. Plunge beneath the mountain’s roots and learn the mystery of the silvered caverns.

This 24 page adventure describes a mine with two levels and 24 rooms. It’s a Tuckers Kobolds kind of scenario, with ambushes and masses of low-HD opponents. In other news, I continue to have no patience for verbose, unfocused writing.

The Trolls may own the printing press, but its an editor that they need. Column long rooms, four paragraphs for an empty room. My intolerance for obfuscation seems to be growing. Building two in a old watch tower. It gets a paragraph of read aloud and then three more of additional information. There is a body in it, long decayed and picked clean by buzzards so you can’t tell what it was. But … we do know it was on guard duty and was killed by snakebite. Well, the DM knows this, the players have no way of knowing. What’s the point of this? The history of every rock and patch of lichen? The room has a cast iron stove in it, connected to a flue that juts out of the roof, with kindling in the room, and salt residue. It’s literal fucking trivia. The adventure does this sort of shit over and over again. It is COMPELLED to tell us the history of every little item encountered, as if it fucking mattered. You know what matters? Running the fucking game. You know what matters? Things the players will interact. Actual items related to actual play. The inability for writers to recognize this is one of the most frustrating experiences you can have. To see something this obvious, that happens over and over and over again. No Exit indeed.

How about a list of normal supplies? Want to know what’s in a room? How about a kitchen? A mining supply room in a mine? Have no worries, Davis is here to save you! Exhaustive lists of mundane room contents are included almost everywhere! Now you too can know what’s in a pantry! Joy! And to think, you’ve lived your whole life knowing this without the padded text of this adventure.

This is bad writing. It’s bad design. It’s some misguided appeal to realism. It has no place in the adventure. It’s only useful if it adds value to the actual play.

And this is to the detriment of the actual play value of the adventure. At one point there’s a steep stair over a chasm. A chasm that doesn’t show up on the map. It’s exceptionally confusing trying to figure out what is going on. Ledge … what ledge? Chute? Chasm? None of it is obvious AT ALL.

I leave you with two choice examples of text from the adventure. The first rivals Forgotten Realms for being incomprehensible. The second describes another point of trivia that has no bearing on the adventure.

Unbeknownst to the Leonhirdz, the mining operation alerted a Therafak (see New Monsters) living nearby. The Therafak bided its time and awaited an opportunity to do something. With the war in the south brewing, the Moorzeepin informed members of the Magdole Gang of the operation and they in turn informed a raiding party of Zjerd that had begun operating in that region of the Unterdrook. A Zjerd war

The kzarkim used several trullmirst to dig out holes in the walls leading from Room 2 to Room 4. They then stacked the planks and lumber over the holes in Room 2 so that they were not readily apparent. The idea was that, if anyone enters the mines and goes up to Room 3, the kzarkim can sneak out of the holes in here and ambush them.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. The last couple give you a good example of meandering writing style compelled to explain everything.
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/240691/Castles–Crusades–Caverns-of-Ambuscadia

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23 Responses to Caverns of Ambuscade

  1. Rom Elwell says:

    Sadly, TLG has become known for its shoddy and unprofessional approach towards editing. Their catalog is littered with poorly edited books. TLG seems to be more interested in sharing the Chenault Bros dense writing than something that can actually be used at the gaming table. In spite of this criticism, I do find the CKG and Guide to Aihrde to be above-average tomes.

  2. Gus L. says:

    You need to know about the stove because if it’s not connected to outside with a flue the room will be filled with smoke. If it is the PCs will beak the flue and fill the room with smoke as part of a scheme (which wouldn’t work as easily if there wasn’t fuel – hence the kindling). The salt residue is defensible only in as far as players will search the stove and it’s good to have one odd or interesting fact about everything examined. The snakebite/guard duty dead guy is useless though. At least that’s the way I think about dungeon dressing. I also hate bizarre incomprehensible and unmemorable names for things and your examples show one reason why – confusion.

    • Bigby’s Affirmative Consent Lubed Fist says:

      That salt could come in handy in case of a giant leech or giant slug encounter.

    • Adam W. says:

      That raises an interesting question. When writing an adventure for mass (hah) consumption, How much do you trust the DM-consumer to improvise vs spell out for them what to do? Like if there’s no kindling in the book and the player wants to start a fire is the DM gonna check the page and say no? Do we just assume OSR DMs are experienced enough to ad lib some kindling if required?

      • Adam W–good question. From reading these reviews and comments, it’s implied that writing every detail is frowned upon or that it ‘clogs’ the adventure. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with that point.

        BUT when writing an adventure, you tend to want to explain everything so every ‘level’ of GM is able to understand it and run it smoothly. It can feel like a ‘responsibility’…so that everyone can understand it. Brief, terse notes…some people scratch their heads, while others are able to run with it and have a creative explosion. The trick is being able to capture just enough info to help the GM without over explaining things, trust that the GM can ad lib some stuff, and share the information in an easy way for the GM to run the adventure during gameplay.

        Bryce’s reviews/style would piss me off if I was trying to assemble IKEA furniture that I never put together before, but after awhile and getting the hang of things–Bryce’s reviews would be great because I know what I’m doing but need a little hint here or there.

        Kindling is pretty easy to ad lib…having a timeline of what a NPC plans to do at a certain point in the adventure–helpful to know.

        Having said that…I never open up an adventure and run it….i ALWAYS read it first, jot notes and appreciate some of the flavor to let my creativity flow on how I want to run the adventure….Salt, kindling…mundane tools and weapons–there have been SEVERAL times when players in my group use something that is mundane and its helpful to have that listed so the GM knows whats in the room but that seems to be frowned upon here. But at the same time, at this point, the GM should be able to ad lib some of the usual, mundane tools inside a ‘mining room’…so I get it. But would newbie DM’s? maybe not…

        • Bryce Lynch says:

          I understand and empathize with the comment. It is very human, and I truly mean that in a positive way. I shall now destroy it in spite of my feelings of empathy, because it’s the right thing to do.

          We must not pander to the lowest common denominator. No lead shoes for our ballet dancers or grackle squawk voices.

          You cannot help a bad DM by pandering. Having suffered through RPGA/DDXP/Winter Fantasy, I have seen more than my fair share of bad DM’s that return year after year. Helping them be better DM’s is laudable, and even achievable, i should hope, but it has to be done through example rather than pandering.

          Do not wear the lead shot around your neck. Write the best thing you can.

          Also, I shall admit that I think you can, theoretically, write an eighteen page room description, listing all contents, and not earn my wrath. It’s only when the verbosity is combined with lack of usability that things get bad. But, and this is a major but, it’s very hard to write something usable at the table. The vast majority of adventures are NOT usable at the table, ergo, they need more work on the formatting/layout/organization OR they need more work on writing/editing. In reality, probably both.

          Given this, its is probably best if folks start with a terse writing style and then agonize over it to make it evocative. (Flair, maybe? I need an Office Space joke.)

          • Your comment made me think a bit….
            Were they ‘bad DM’s’ because of the adventure they were running, or because they were bad at the art of ad lib? If they are bad at ad lib, then wouldn’t they want to purchase an adventure that would assist them with that? Or are they just considered bad DM’s and should be cast aside from the hobby?

            Do publishers only want to write adventures for the few, or ‘pander’ to everyone for more sales? Do people buy adventures to run at a table or just to read to mine ideas from?

            I don’t know about anything above. Nor do I care, to be honest, as I publish adventures for fun. I’m not necessarily disagreeing with your comment/opinion above either because I think it has some merit and some good points that I can get behind.

            But, as someone who has published adventures (and maybe its just me), I think there is that feeling of…responsibility? or duty? not sure of the correct term, but I think there is a lean towards ‘pandering’. Because you are selling something for money and you want people to be able to understand it and not feel like they got ripped off. It’s a weird push that makes you write more…that more is better…its a struggle because you try to be terse…its weird. Try it yourself.

            Now I’m tempted to publish something with 0 pander, cept maybe a monster cheat sheet in the back.

        • Gus L. says:

          My impulse on this ‘kindling’ issue is that:

          A) Publishers shouldn’t care about the ‘market’ or anything of the sort – these are niche hobby products, just assume writing them is at best a side gig, and so economic considerations shouldn’t be controlling. Plus creating for a market is perhaps the best way to ruin a creative product – write what moves you as a creator and it will be better then what you think the market wants, when if you manage to get that right.

          B) While utility is a big concern in adventure writing, it’s also a form of creative writing and an extra word or two that better conveys a description or feeling for an adventure is a good thing. In the case of assuming a GM (let’s dispense with OSR chauvinism here) will fill in stuff, yes one can assume that especially if there are contextual clues (e.g. the room with the stove is inhabited and the stove in use).

          Inversely one of the reasons to purchase an adventure rather then write one is because a good one does some of that descriptive thinking for the GM. “4 goblins, kitchen with stove” is a pretty sad description and forces the GM to do almost all the work. While there’s a lot of truth in Bryce’s contention that basic room types don’t need a lot of description – some is still good – especially where it might differ from the standard conception. So “Kitchen with cavernous clay oven” is far different then “Kitchen with potbellied iron stove” and both are better at portraying a feel for the adventure. The second for sure gives an 18th or 19th century feel to the room compared to the first, something more frontier cabin then ancient bakery.

          Of course it’s best if the detail shows things about the space that aren’t immediately obvious, provide contextual clues to the rest of the location/setting and imply mood and feeling as well as direct description.

          1) “Four short gnarled blue creatures in long red stocking caps bustle about a bright kitchen of pie pans, flour dusted counters, a basket of strawberries and a warm pot-bellied iron stove.” This makes our goblin residents more like Kebler elves.

          2) “Squabbling over a cracked bone a swarm of four, diminutive, maggot fleshed creatures wave rusted knives at each other among the filth smeared ruins of a kitchen. The scene is lit by the red glow of a hot iron stove and in the doorway a blackened human hand curls like a large dead spider.” Now we’ve got some more standard grimdark(tm) goblins.

          Both are descriptions I like and I’d put bullet points below one with the goblins stats, mood and likely actions and a second to describe the stove’s ability to flood the room with smoke if its flimsy flue is broken and it’s odd salt deposits.

          I am also a verbose writer.

      • Dave R says:

        I have played under GMs who check the book to see if there’s kindling, and stick to that answer. And some are otherwise good, they’re otherwise fun to game with, so it’s not simply the case they’re bad all around and this is another instance of it. It’s a particular blind spot.

        And it’s understandable in one sense. An old-school adventure can be assumed to be challenging for the players as well as for the characters, it can be assumed that equipment matters, that there’s a trade-off between gear and encumbrance. So I assume these GMs are thinking “alright, it makes sense at a meta-game level because things are supposed to be challenging” when they stick to the text.

        Now that doesn’t automatically mean the solution is to list kindling in every room of every adventure for all time. Maybe some of these adventures need a sidebar right up front saying “this adventure does not list all mundane tools, housewares and sundries appropriate to every room, but assumes the GM will grant their existence if the players drill down to that level of detail”. Or at the individual room level some might say “and other appropriate gear to a book value of X.”

        But then, sometimes it matters exactly how many pickaxes and shovels the party can scrounge up, and a fixed answer is appropriate. Although I broadly agree with our host’s critique of the problem, the answer isn’t as clear cut as he makes it out.

  3. S'mon says:

    Reminds me why I love Stonehell so much.

  4. Flexi says:

    Leonhirdz, Therafak, Moorzeepin, Magdole Gang, Zjerd, Unterdrook, kzarkim?!? – The Trolls have been hitting the halfling pipeweed a bit too much methinks! 🙂

  5. Evard’s Small Tentacle says:

    Nah, the Trolls have some random name generator machine, which generates very nonsensical names…this goes back all the way….check out their earliest modules. FYI the same criticisms apply to some of the best of adventures that Bryce has recommended before (though they have worthier points)

    • Adam W. says:

      And it’s still bad design because unless something has a name which is simple, memorable and appropriate (and 60% of the time not even then) the players are just gonna to call it “lizard guy” or “shit head”. Hell I can’t even remember the PCs names half the time.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m of the general opinion that Bryce’s hang-ups on over-description are largely just a subjective nitpick. It’s better to have something and not need it, than to not have something when you need it; such is the case with long room descriptions IMO.

    OK sure, there’s extra work to sift through some things that aren’t properly formatted… but you know what else is extra work? Thinking up details on the fly and then finding somewhere to file that information when it inevitably comes up again in the future. The only real difference is that it’s much easier to ignore something you don’t need than to invent something you do need. Frankly since I’m buying a product, I’d much rather get too much material than not enough. Too much material means eagerness and thought on the writer’s part; not enough material reeks of laziness and under-delivering.

    That being said, I didn’t have a huge problem with Bryce’s most hated of adventures: 3/3.5 and PF adventures. Yes, they are verbose, but it always felt like a more rounded-out product than a half-finished product.

    You claim a good DM should already have the ability to make things up on the fly. I claim a good DM should be able to extract a room description from three paragraphs with little effort – especially in combination with another Bryce no-no: read-aloud. I’m sure there are more people who have the skill to determine the difference between pertinent and non-pertinent information than there are people with really excellent improvisation skills. Since the products are designed for the masses, are the authors really in the wrong for hand-holding the uncreative?

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      You can claim whatever you want, but, given the shitty state of adventures I would suggest that your 3-paragragh description-fu will leave us a bit lacking. As it has.

      I’m not arguing for minimalism. It has to also be evocative, which means you can easily imagine the scene, which means making up trivia on the fly is easy.

      • Anonymous says:

        I guess the thing about reviews that everyone needs to remember is that they are, by definition, totally subjective.

        What’s wrong for Bryce might be right for me, and vice-versa. Just feels like you get a little too hung up on it lately, is all.

        • Bryce Lynch says:

          Sure, whatever. And “reality” is the only word in the language that should always be used in quotes.

          Brining up subjectivity is bullshit. It’s the same as saying ‘Well _I_ liked it.” Perfect. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste.

          If we’re going to be able to have any ability to discuss things then we need standards. Use-a-fucking-bility seems like a decent one for adventures.

          Yes, I have strong feelings on this matter.

    • Wishful says:

      I really, really disagree.

      There are Pathfinder books with two-page spreads dedicated to an NPC’s biography. When will that ever come up? Some sort of criminal investigation? A bizarre use of a legend lore spell?

      Creating these long descriptions does make it difficult to find useful information, Think of how much time it takes to look up this information compared to making it up. Even if you sit in silence for thirty seconds while you decide which city an NPC came from or what a ruined bedchamber might look like, that’s better than regular page-flipping.

      If it contradicts something later on, so what? Adjust. This is why it’s better to have a few, easily-memorized details than a huge list of details (“Sorry guys, I know I said Bob joined the Holy Order 20 years ago, but I just read on page 31 that it was only founded 10 years ago…”)

      Also the honest truth is that these details aren’t there to help you or increase usability at the table. They’re there because of pay-per-word.

      • Anonymous says:

        There’s a difference between non-pertinent backstory that won’t come up (which I agree is a waste of space) vs. over-detailed descriptions.

        Bryce brings up time and again shit like “we know what’s in a kitchen, you only need a sentence to communicate what’s in a kitchen” – no, some people in fact don’t know what’s always in a kitchen, especially esoteric medieval kitchens inside a dungeon. Same with castle bedrooms, closets, and storage rooms full of supplies.

        To say “this adventure is bad because the author writes out all the kitchen utensils found sitting on the table” is ridiculous. Not everyone has the skill or time to improvise pearl-handled oyster forks, beaten copper pots, and linen satchels of dried gravy. And yes, that shit is totally applicable to the adventure, especially because 9 out of 10 players are going to comb over every square inch of that kitchen, and want to know the details. Everyone knows this. Plays scour everything – what’s the harm in actually pointing out what’s present for them to loot?

        • Yeah…I got to agree with this to a point. My players scour EVERYTHING. As a DM, I want to move forward to the exciting stuff…a fight, a situation, roleplay, etc. When I get to a kitchen with nothing really in it, I can just say ‘typical kitchen–pots, pans, and some plates. I’m bored…my players are bored.So I (and my players) appreciate pearl handled oyster forks and that kind of shit. It comes up 3 adventures later “Ill take out my pearl handled oyster fork and jab the jelly”. I can’t make this shit up!! I’ve seen it happen all the time, which tells me those little details serve a purpose.

          BUT–there IS A DIFFERENCE. A table, 4 chairs, pots, pans, and a cutting knife—ya, this is boring and I agree 100% with Bryce that it serves NO purpose. I can say that shit while gaming. But having the little details–copper beaten pots, a bag of potatoes, and a mermaid handled cooking knife–that stuff, to me, is helpful…and if I buy an adventure that just says typical kitchen…I’m going to feel ripped off. I actually wrote a title for a room with no description the other day: Kitchen…..and that felt wrong and lazy to me.

        • Gus L. says:

          The distinction here is between extraneous detail and useful detail. Good writing vs. Bad.

          Good writing should be on one hand: descriptive, evocative, even poetic, but on the other it needs to be: useful, terse and comprehensible.

          In the now infamous kitchen example – yes, PCs will search it, mine are always as acquisitive as tweekers pulling copper cable out of an old missile silo – but a long confusing list of mundane objects won’t help. I tried to provide two kitchen examples above of very different kitchens and the point is to trigger that creative impulse in the GM by providing cues in the room key so that they can expand.

          Obviously treasures such as “Set of 12 pearl handled Oyster Forks (120GP)” get details – they are treasures and we know to add description there because the PCs will be interacting with it. So do monsters and strange or unusual things in the room (a roaring fireplace with a spitted pig for example is going to get someone pushed into it to take 1D6 cumulative damage per round). To determine if there are pie plates, human bones or a crock of lard though (all of which PCs might want to know about) it’s often best not to list them out – better to simply make sure the GM knows what kind of kitchen one is in.

          For example – the Keebler goblins in the first above example obviously have stacks of pie plates and a lovely blue glazed pot brimming with fresh white lard. If there are human bones (a distinct possibility) they have likely been stored someplace to be made into stock or are in the garbage heap already. The same can’t be said for the grim goblin kitchen though: no pie plates (only rusting cleavers – really only cleavers, no chef or paring knives), lump of congealed stinking fat, and gnawed charred bone fragments including a child’s skull in all the corners.

          You don’t need to list this stuff though – it’s implied in a good description – meaning a bad description can be either too vague and devoid information to imply anything (e.g. Kitchen; 4 goblins; potbellied stove – the “Grognard Kitchen”), too bland and verbose listing all the mundane articles (the “Pathfinder Kitchen”), or even evocative but too verbose (the “Gus L Kitchen”).

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