Dungeon Magazine #141

The Sea Wyvern’s Wake
By Richard Pett
Level 5

Savage Tide adventure path, part the third: a sea voyage. This installment is hard thing to review. It’s heart is in the right place but it suffers GREATLY from the three-column Dungeon format. Combined with the word-bloat common to Dungeon it makes this thing very hard to run. But … it has great elements. The party is hired to be “ship #2” in a two-ship expedition to a colony on an island and this adventure deals with the voyage. “Ship #2” allows for the party to make their own decisions but for there to a lifeline available. Run the ship how you want and if things are too bad then ship 1 is there is bail you out. And, of course, vice versa in certain situations. There’s an allotment of NPC’s to spice things up on board, some generics to die horrible, and some locations to visit along the way. “Hey kids, Meteor Crater is right on the road to the Grand Canyon!” Linear, but not exactly a railroad! The NPC’s have decent motivations and are interesting enough to get them involved with the party. As always, they could be organized better for use during play … a typical failing. But, still, recurring folks on a three-month voyage is a great thing to have! And their detail is PLAY focused, not just generic trivia that will never come up during play. There’s too much detail in place, such a entire column of text on “securing a vessel” when much less would have sufficed in an adventure that’s a follow on to capturing a vessel. In other places a little more could have been included, such as better help in recruiting crew and provisions in town before the party leaves. Similarly, there’s a small section, a column or less, on ship combat, but it suffers from the Dungeon 3-column text block problem, making it hard to reference during play. There are a few other nits, like a priest who dies a day after getting sick to reveal a slaad … nice, but if it were dragged out a bit it would be even nicer. Also, a stowaway assassin that takes a DC30 to find if the party searches the ship … because there’s an event built around them. The players should be REWARDED for thinking of searching the hold, not punished because it’s on the DM’s ToDo list for later. The thing is full of nice little vignettes and encounters on the way to the island. In short, I think it’s a pretty damn good sea/travel adventure, one of the best I’ve seen. It needs more expansion before town is left, and reference sheets for important things like NPC’s, combat, etc, and a complete rewrite of the encounters to pull out important details … but it’s heart is in the right place. It just needs a complete reworking to be useful …

Swords of Dragonlake
By Nicolas Logue
Level 12

2p backstory
Holy fuck, what a mess. This is an investigation in to a missing person … at a theater. Ug. Fucking Magical RenFaire shit. Anyway, there re about a thousand NPC’s, each of which get almost an entire page to describe them, along with an entire section on Gather Information checks for each one. MASSIVE amounts of text and a unfocused writing style make this one a bear. “In addition to the dressing rooms, the PC’s may decide to investigate the grid-like iron catwalk and rafters above the stage from which the moving scenery pieces [long list] and heavy sandbag counterweight are suspended.” Yes, Nicolas, they might. Which is why I, the DM, and looking at the “Fly Rail and Grid” section of the fucking adventure. This kind of crap just clogs things up. Scene/Event based and a mass of text make salvaging this one a losing cause.

Vlindarian’s Vault
By Jonathan M. Richards
Level 18

Oh man … can you accept the fact that the city has a storage facility/warehouse that has a bunch of slaadi employees? If so then do I ever have the Grimtooths adventure for you! You’re pleaded with to rescue a guys mate from a vault where she’s being held captive. There’s some nonsense about them being disguised silver dragons, but that’s irrelevant. This adventure JUMPS in to things immediately. Seriously, the keyed locations start on page 2 and I’m not sure I’ve EVER seen a Dungeon backstory/into that short! And the intro even includes a bullshit plan involving a magical shield and portable hole to smuggle the party inside the storage vault! It’ all feels a little Harry Potter/Gringotts, with a healthy dose of Grimtooth. Walls of Force that appear and disappear, teleport circles, rolling boulders. And every guard is either a slaad or devil, with the boss being a beholder. The maps a fucking disaster and needs a cross-section to clarify the confusing relationship between the levels and corridors. I’m going to forgive the abstracted treasure because the entire thing is so ridiculous. I love it! No gimping. High level. Absurd enemies and deathtraps! A glorious glorious mess! A little (lot) restatting could make this a fine low-level adventure also. Hard to recommend to seek out, but if you NEED this sort of adventure then this is IT.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 6 Comments

Binding the Wind

By John Mcnabb & Matthew Roth
McNabb Games
Level ??

Piracy is an omnipresent threat while sailing the open seas, and none are more formidable than the treacherous slavers that seek more than simple cargo. Often putting their newly captured stock to use in the rowing banks of galleys, these predators prowl the trade lanes and get rich off the suffering of others. Among the flesh-traders, the Iron Windrunner is a ship of no small renown. It owes its fame to its namesake, an air elemental restrained in enchanted iron bondage. Thanks to a complex system of gauged pipes, this living wind engine propels the galley to nearly unparalleled speed on open sea while keeping the traditional oars for finer maneuvering.

Eight Pages! Either this is a tightly written masterpiece or I’ve been ripped off. What are the odds?

It’s a pirate ship with a captured air elemental. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? My life is a living fucking hell.

You get: a detailed explanation of the ship. A paragraph on each of the half-dozen notable NPC’s. There’s nothing else here but reams of “hot notes” describing tactics and behaviors. There’s NOTHING in this. Nothing is particularly evocative. There’s nothing special about the fucking ship except it has got an air elemental. It takes eight pages to do what one paragraph could do.

So, there’s your two problems: it’s not a fucking adventure and it’s boring as fuck. It is, at best, an encounter.

In retrospect the cover says “ENCOUNTER” on it. The publisher’s text doesn’t say shit about that though. I fucking HATE IT when people don’t disclose what the fuck they are selling. That fucking joke Castle Greyhawk adventure wounded me deep.

And it’s boring. It’s just pirates. They swing up alongside, fire ballista, board the ship … we, as consumers, are paying for imagination. For inspiration. Far too often we get shit. I feel like this thing is the equivalent of paying for an orc guardroom.

“1. Guardroom. Four orcs at a table shooting dice.” I’ll expand it to eight pages later. You all owe me $1 now. Pay up.

It’s $1 on DriveThru. The preview is two pages long, showing the cover and title page. Note that the cover has FUCK ALL to do with the adventure, except, you know, pirates.

Posted in Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 4 Comments

Perils of the Sunken City

By Jon Marr
Purple Sorcerer Games
Dungeon Crawl Classics
Level 0 Funnel

The Great City is old and faded, a pale reflection of its former glory. Life is a challenge for most, but for the weak and unconnected, the city is a place of unrelenting hardship harboring neither hope nor promise of escape. With one exception: the Sunken City. Most find death in the crumbling ruins that stretch beyond sight into the mists; once rich districts now claimed by swamp and dark denizens. But for the desperate few, the ruins offer treasures the Great City denies them: fortune, glory, and a fighting chance!

This seventeen page funnel has about thirteen to twenty encounters areas and a small starting locale. It has a writing style that, while not terse, does an excellent job of communicating the flavor of the encounter. This is combined with a layout style that makes the mechanics of areas easy to find. There’s a good mix of encounter types, from mundane to undead to weird, with a couple of the encounters being truly excellent pieces of design. I dub thee “Easy to Run!” … if a bit bland in some of the corners.

The publisher’s blurb does a decent job of introducing the scene: a great city, overtaken by the swamp. On it’s edge is a small settlement from which scum (IE: adventurers) set forth. Condemned criminals seeking pardon, apprentices, etc, all form up small bands and head off. It’s an environment that appeals to me, the small insular murder hobo community with its own culture. Purple Jon does a good job here of communicating the culture of the place and it’s the first example of a descriptive style that’s rare … and very good.

I’m fond of quoting a section from Spawning Grounds of the Crab-Men, a room that has an ld retired hill giant named Old Bay. He’ll pay for dead crabs and his cave smells of butter. The room is a couple of paragraphs long but if you read it ONCE then you’ve got the vibe and can run it from memory. It’s sticky. I talk a lot about terseness in descriptive style, all for the purpose of helping the DM run the thing at the table. The ying to that yang is sticky. You don’t have to be terse if you can be sticky. That’s dangerous territory though since EVERYTHING is likely to be sticky to the designer. But when it happens it’s great to behold. This adventure is sticky.

The little outpost of murder hobos can be read once. The little section on the approach to the sunken city, with six or seven locales, can be read once. The four or so outside encounters can be read once. The main aboveground encounter can be read once. It all stays with you, at least enough so that when you look at the map you can recall it. This is all supported by the layout and formatting which makes it easy to find the mechanical bits. “Oh yeah, that’s the room with the tentacles that do weird stuff … “ and in the text the bullet format and bolding makes finding that “weird stuff” trivial to locate. The writing did an excellent job of giving me the vibe while the layout & formatting did an excellent job of making the mechanics & specifics easy to find. IE: It supported the DM, exactly what it’s supposed to do.

I want to focus on one encounter as an example of good encounter design. It’s one of the best in the adventure and I think many could learn from it. There’s a grotto underground. The witter glitters with glowing scarlet crayfish (window dressing.) There’s an island out in the middle … with something sparkling on it. You see a massive shadow swim under the water. TEXTBOOK tease. Everybody, from the DM to the players, knows that fucking water is a deathtrap … and yet … what’s that sparkle? It’s the kind of shit that makes players eyes light up. Wacky plans ensue. D&D is played. The treasure is a real treasure, not a rip off DM screw job. There are some things around … stalactites, giant braziers that could be boats … This is GREAT design and, again, once read it stays you and the mechanics of the treasure and monster and so on are easy to pull out of the (column) of text.

That room does something else, it provides some unexplained stuff, a mystery, about the monster. This happens routinely in the adventure; things are introduced that have a mystery to them. A giant ‘Warden’ who stalks the entry. A demon in a pillar that teleports. It’s not missing information, its writing in such a way that DOESN’T explain, but at best just hints at, letting the DM run with things and expand as need be. This is the kind of writing that fires the imagination.

The maps are clear with just enough art to contribute to helping the DM recall the rooms. There’s even a cross-section or two to help the DM understand some elevation elements … Excellent! But, alas, all is not well in Sunken City-ville.

Some of the encounters are a bit … mundane. Possemmen are great! Armadillo-cros are great! Yet Another Skeleton Encounter is less than stellar, as is “Generic Slime creatures.” This isn’t much of a condemnatio; most adventures have some rooms that are weaker than others. It’s just that the more mundane rooms could have been kicked up a bit, perhaps with more environmental/room details to make the encounters a bit more fun. There’s also a bit of a screw-job encounter, an arena the characters are forced in to and then a dungeon/hole they must enter to escape the certain death in it. It’s got a lot going on in it, with lightning walls, ghosts, spikes, death traps, and so on, but it FEELS forced. DCC published adventures can tend to the linear side of the spectrum but generally don’t feel forced. The arena encounter in this does.

This is $5 ar DriveThru. The preview is four pages and shows off the writing for the like murder bobo-ville and the general locales on the way to the sunken city. It does a good job showing off the “sticky” writing style. I challenge you to read those four pages and then look at the map and start running the game in your head. Should be trivial. It’s a travesty it took me this long to review a Purple Sorcerer adventure.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, No Regerts | 11 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #140

The Bullywug Gambit
By Nicolas Logue
Level 3

Savage Tide adventure path part two. When the synopsis contains “the party must then race to …” then I’m predisposed to not like it. “Stilt-walking monks” is something I would use if I were lampooning a genre. You are tracking down the tool from the first adventure. First have to journey to a village, but rowboat, sailing ship, or overland, varying by days to reach the village. Your choice is meaningless since nothing changes in the village. In spite of this the village scene is a good one. Rabid animals tearing each other apart, a bay oil slick on fire … the read-aloud sucks shit but the concept is a good one in spite. It doesn’t help that everything is all mixed together in the DM notes, making pulling out useful information difficult. It’s as if someone managed to successfully describe, in generalities, the vibe from the DCO intro … but buried it in the DM text and all specifics were instead terrible generalities. It’s full of embedded backstory shit, but it’s ALMOST got ahold of something good with the savagery vibe. This sort of “Rage virus” like 28 days later thing is pretty nice. There are a few challenges back in the main town, you know, the one you raced to to prevent your employer from being killed in revenge, making your way through some parade encounters including the ridiculous stilt-walking monks. Finally, you get to stop a bullywug attack on your employer’s house … which is very poorly handled, described like a typical exploration adventure instead of a more lightweight assault-type type adventure with tactics, etc. The outline of this adventure and it’s concepts are not bad and in some cases have some very nice imagery associated with them. But the endless embedded backstory, boring read-aloud, crappily organized DM text all contribute to something hard to run. A rewrite of this chapter could be something to look forward to.

The Fall of Graymalkin Academy
By Mark A. Hall
Level 9

An assault/looting on a magic school that is now a war zone, with four faction vying for control. Kind of Hogwarts if the final battle went on two months and has settled down in to a less fierce campaign. Dead students, magic books, little magical features. The map could have used some shading to show which areas were under whose control. Another good idea that needs at least ? of the words eliminated and the rest rewritten to be more evocative. The faction play combined with a wizard school battle aftermath make this interesting. Summoning circles, greenhouses, labs … the entire Hogwarts is here to explore.

Heart of Hellfire Mountain
By Dave Coulson
Level 20

Convinced/hired by a fire giant king to wipe out an evil temple in the nearby mountains. This is just a simple temple assault where the defenders are fire giants and devils, with little advice about the defenders responding. These sorts of things remind me more of mini’s gaming than RPG’s. You CAN do assaults RPG-style, but these high level ones, especially, just seem like excuses to combine kits and stats and make EL-appropriate encounters. *sigh* high-level D&D …

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 6 Comments

Trouble in Waterdeep

By Eugene Fasano & James Hutt
Arcana Games
Levels 1-3

An urban Waterdeep adventure.

21 pages of linear crap (with sewers!) that dips in to “barely comprehensible” territory wrapped in lipstick art & formatting to make it look decent. It embodies the more recent design style that calls for scenes instead of relying on player-driven interaction. Hackneyed, barely comprehensible, sudden scenes springing up, and poor DM support round things out.

The cities poort section is suffering from a plague. The players enter, have a couple of scenes to find poisoned grain, get led to the sewers to find zombie workers digging tunnels, and are led to a noble house to learn everything is masterminded by a bastard son who is killing everyone there to cover up his tunnelling for a longevity amulet.

The very first ‘scene’, past the hook, exemplifies the style of design. Two guards stand at the gate to the poor district. They have no personality, or even stats. You can’t bribe them. You can’t intimidate them. You can’t get in. You HAVE to go to the next scene, which has a merchant with a stuck cart. Helping him gets you his papers to let you in. This is SHIT for design. Linear, doing exactly what the fucking designer tells you to do. D&D on autopilot. Just sit at the table and roll your fucking dice and keep your ideas to yourself you POS player scum! It’s the DM’s story! Fuck. You. Real design would have given us a few details about them, supporting the DM in roleplaying them. It would have allowed you to stab the fuckers. Or put a building nearby to climb on to get in. Or Let you bribe them or intimidate them or befriend them. It would have ALSO provided the stuck cart. Then the PLAYERS get to decide how they want to approach the entry to the district, with the designers having provided the supporting material for the DM to respond.

Worried about catching the plague? Have no fear! The characters CAN’T catch the plague, according to the text! Recall folks that this is consequence free D&D; you have to eat the poisoned grain for WEEKS to get sick! Yeah!

There’s a nice vignette where a couple of noblemen retainers are handing out bread to the crowds. There’s a pickpocket, and a cream, and one of them chases after. The crowd rushes forward to get their bread, women and children in danger of being crushed … and that’s it. It’s a nice scene, lots going on, lots of potential for improvisation (completely unsupported by the DM text, of course) … and no consequences. There is no payoff. This is followed by a family wanted to get past a barricade guarded by two retainers. It’s just left hanging, with their stats. It’s so poorly supported that it’s almost minimalist. Imagine the four paragraphs of text were “2 guards won’t let a family carrying bread through a barricade. Their son is sick on the other side and the guards say everyone inside is DOOMED.” That could be an interesting wandering monster encounter in another adventure. In this telegraphed thing though it’s clear that it’s so poorly written that things have been left out and assumed. Of COURSE the party will attack, I mean, stats were provided and everything!

The next section starts the party in an infirmary; it’s just assumed the party is there. This sort of “now you are here” stuff happens all the time. The bad guys are all half-orcs. I’m not a paragon of social justice but fuck man, why? It’s the fucking laziness that gets to me. Like the exciting adventure (linear) in the sewers! Yes, the next section is all about sewers! One room the party overhearing a bad guy talking to some half orcs from outside. Stats are provided for ‘Gar’ a half-orc. Is that the dude? No, it’s supposed to be a human and the stats are for a half-orc. Who the fuck is the ‘Gar the half orc’ stats? It’s both linear AND incoherent, a great accomplishment!

It’s $4 on DM’s guild, or if you go look on Reddit you can find the designers pimping a free download version. This thing has all the trade dress of a WOTC adventure and doesn’t even reach THEIR low standards of quality. The preview is three pages and will get you a view in to the guard scene and the pickpocket scene. It’s a good preview in that it shows you what’s typical for what you’ll find inside.

Posted in Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 13 Comments

Against the Goblins

By Matt Kline
Creation’s Edge Games
Sword & Wizardry
Level 1-3

A foreboding dream of impossible foes; goblins with control over fire, disease, and death, leads to a tiny village on the edge of the wilderness threatened by three goblin tribes united by chaos and a legacy of hate.

This 65 page adventure has three goblin lairs near a village. There’s a terrible hook/pretext, and the writing is long and drawn out for what are, essentially, three standard goblin lairs. It rises slightly above generic by including a few extra features in a few rooms. Three lairs, two with 25+ rooms, stuffed full of goblins, means rough going for 1st levels and extended periods in the supplied village. The longer time in the village is refreshing, even if the three goblin lairs are a bit samey … just because it’s always goblins. As “generic first level goblin” adventures go it would be an uninspiring thing to fall back on … but I can’t get over the expansive writing that drags me down mentally as I try to imagine finding things while running the adventure. There are better choices.

The worst part of this thing is at the beginning and is something that can be safely ignored: the hook. You have a dream about fire and goblins and a certain village. You have it every night. If you ignore it you take damage … and eventually die from it. Look, I know there’s some give and take in hooks. We all pretend and compromise and find some pretext to want to take the DM’s shitty hook. But this kind of TERRIBLE advice on how to deal with people not biting is bad for adventure writing. Somewhere, someone is going to read this and think it’s an acceptable way to run a hook. Why the fuck this would be proffered as a solution is beyond me. “So, you don’t want to play D&D then?” would be better advice, as would pulling out a boardgame to play. I fucking hate this kind of shit. It’s not helpful for a new DM solving problems at the table and in facts hurts them. There’s no excuse for it. But, it’s easily ignored by most.

The intro and village take up the first seventeen pages, with most businesses getting a column or so of text. Given the amount of time the party will be healing, that’s not entirely inappropriate for a homebase, but I think it’s done all wrong. It focuses much more on trivia then on memorable bits. For example, some long-ish historical anecdote on how NPC Bob got his name/nickname. Long boring trivia, including most physical descriptions, don’t make folks memorable. The NPC’s need something to hang their personalities/peculiarities on. There’s a few side quests in the village, from killing rats (ug!) to wolves (ug!) to finding missing creates (ug!) Side quests are great, but something NOT hackneyed like rats in the basement. Further, the village has between one and THREE monster attacks night, from rats to wolves to zombies to bears and so on. More than a little excessive and would result in the town in a state of panic at that frequency. I think. Then entire village just comes off as generic, with the text expanded with boring trivia. There ARE a couple of investigatory bits, which can provide some assistance down the road. IF you find the goblins body then this other thing changes. Or IF you talk to the druid then she talk to the woodland creatures and you get a heads up on the goblin attack, and so on. It’s ALWAYS a good thing when the parties actions have consequences, especially when they see positive results.

The lairs are a small tower, some rate tunnels and a necromancer’s cave system, with the later two have 25-ish+ rooms in them. It’s mostly the usual stuff with guard rooms and so forth, with the text expanded upon with boring mundane details and and what the goblins usually do but not right now embedded history that is USELESS during a game. There are exceptions. A room with a dretch in a summoning circle, or a room with a pit in the middle. The latter, in particular is a good example of mixing up the terrain to make combat a bit more interesting. Chucking a goblin in a pit, or avoiding that fate, is great fun. A room described as having a table and chairs is boring mundane description if the room has nothing else in it. A room with tethering bookshelves described is potentially interesting combat terrain if combat happens there. The lairs are their best the bridges, ledges, pits, and summoning circles are in the rooms … things to make them more than just a room with five goblins … that takes a column of text to describe.

The random mundane treasure tables, and the few new magic items, are a delight and I would have liked to see those sorts of elements used more rather than the emphasis on the mundanity of the dungeon description and de rigueur text.

It’s $6 on DriveThru. The four page preview tells you almost nothing about the style of adventure you are buying, unfortunately. The last sentence of the last page, three, is fairly typical of the writing style throughout, with lots of detail about things probably don’t matter.


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Dungeon Magazine #139

There is No Honor
By James Jacobs
Level 1

The first part of the Savage Tide adventure path. I look forward to the tedious underwater rules and the magic item gifting to send the party Under The Sea. Hey! Surprise! But not in this adventure! This one is just a bunch of little railroad vignettes until a final “dungeon” in some thief guild tunnels. First you have to go fight some dock workers to get a ring. Then you have to use go to vault to use the ring to get in. They track down a chicks brother. Then fight off undead in some abandoned tunnels. Then track him down again, get ambushed by thieves guild, and then attack the thieves guild. It reminds me of those “How to write an adventure” articles. Start things off with a fight, include some roleplaying vignettes, etc … but all in the context of a linear story. The room descriptions are, of course, mixed up with history and irrelevant backstory, clogging them up. Want a linear adventure? Here’s one. It’s not too odious, if you’re in to that stuff.It’s also not particularly good. Perhaps the best part is when the party is trapped in some tunnels, surrounded by undead, and have to explore/escape while being sometimes attacked. It’s a nice claustrophobic feel … that’s still too long. The roleplay segments are not supported well, the set pieces are not supported well, blech.

Requiem of the Shadow Serpent
By Anson Caralya
Level 9

A fifteen room COMPLETELY linear cave under the pretext of being a troll lair but have yuan-ti at the rear. The first few rooms are a “test” to “try the mettle of intruders.” Ug. A lame pretext by the designer to just throw shit in and solve some imaginary continuity problems, you mean? It falls in to the trap of needing to explain everything. A nice little painting, with snaked designs showing patterns in patterns, has to explained as a they enjoy painting it as pastime and tormenting the trolls with the design patterns.” NO ONE CARES. The trolls are dead. It’s linear. The yuan-ti are dead. What the fuck is the point? Nice treasure, but this MANIA of explaining is a disease.

Maure Castle: The Greater Halls
By Robery J. Kuntz
Level 17

Maure Castle bitches! I LUV WG5. Hmmm, I need to go back and look at it again after seeing this entry in to the castle. The map is one of classic old school complexity, the kind truly made for exploration. The dungeon level has things to learn and puzzle out, especially with the help of Augury, etc to fill in the gaps. It’s full of weird paintings, statues, cryptic messages and the like, all positive. It’s also FULL of monsters being released from stasis, the ethereal plane, etc, which is a schlocky way to handle creatures and I don’t recall WG5 resorting to that, at least not to the extent that it’s done in this one. It feels like almost every room has “a guardian placed here by Wizard Bob.” There is a trap or two that could be straight out grimtooth, anti-grav, through an illusion ceiling, to a ceiling of spikes, that make you bleed to death, while putting you to sleep. A little of that goes a long way and Rob doesn’t really cross the line, except with the stasis monsters/guardians. The writing feels wrong, and needs to be tightened up. This isn’t really something to seek out, unless you’re a Maure Castle fanatic, and even then, its one of the weaker levels.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 2 Comments

The Treasure Vaults of Zadabad

By Carl Bussler & Eric Hoffman
Stormlord Publishing
Swords & Wizardry
Level 2-4

Hot wind snaps the black sails of the Soulcatcher as an eager voice calls from the crow’s nest, “Land ho!” Ahead lies the island of Kalmatta, your destination, home to plague colonies, marooned pirates, madmen and secrets no mortal mind was meant to uncover. It is also the location of the ruined city of Zadabad and its famed treasure vaults. Whether fortunate or ill-fated, you have in your possession the Rod of the Crescent Moon, a relic of dead religions and forgotten kingdoms. It is also the key to unlocking the vaults. But finding the lost city is a challenge many have accepted, but none have survived. Fetid swamps, harsh jungles and unforgiving mountains hide your prize. How far will you travel and how much will you risk to uncover the treasure vaults of Zadabad?

This is a 64 page hex crawl on an island, looking for a lost city and its treasure. Pirates, big game hunters, natives, tombs, a lost city, giant animals … it’s all here. Any hex crawl on an island will force comparisons to Isle of Dread. To its credit, this is about as far removed from Dread as you can get while still containing the major bullet points of native, pirates, lost cities and giant animals.

The natives are the descendants of a former plague colony. The pirates have a little town and will trade with you (a refreshing fucking change from the usual Attack On Sight pirates.) The toombs, and several other sites, are mini-dungeons. There are resources to exploit and mine/trade. It’s got a little of that Isle of the Unknown weirdness. I’ll summarize everything as saying it’s got a little Land of the Lost vibe going on, sans Sleestaks. The mixture of the tropes is refreshing.The plague village, the big game hunters, “friendly” pirates, teleporter circles and ancient tombs. All with the goal of exploring the island to find the lost city and its treasure vaults. There’s a hint of whimsy at times, with a knob turned to eleven, a heavy metal axe, and In The Garden of Eden all appearing in the lost city. For those that are turned off by this meta, it’s mostly confined to that one area and easily avoidable.

The adventure has two (three?) problems, both not new issues. First, the encounter text is laid out incorrectly. Yes, I said incorrectly and Yes, that means that there is a right way. It engages in a form of description in which things are explained in order. FIrst let me describe the trees in two paragraphs, then let me describe the acorns in two paragraphs. Then I will describe the Giant Ape statue that looms over everything and glows bright red. This is not a format that is helpful at the table. As you turn to an entry and begin to scan it, in order to run it, you either get lost in the beginning paragraphs or miss something. “Oh, yeah gang, there’s this giant glowing red ape statue that’s 90’ tall towering over everything.” That’s not cool. The descriptions need to be laid out in a manner that help the DM pull information out. That could be done with (SHORT!) read-aloud that mentions the major features. Or a brief summary in the first few sentences of the DM text. Or by bolding words in the various paragraphs (IE: highlighting it for us) or by using bullet points or indentation. There are many options but the result needs to be a text that assists the DM by making the information easy to find.

There’s a treasure room description on page twelve that’s a good example of this. The room is dry. There are intact paintings on the wall showing X, There are several chests of silver bars. Then there’s a section on the problems involved in moving heavy silver bars long distances. THEN there’s a separate paragraph telling us there’s also a mannequin wearing a colorful robe. Well, FUCK. I wish I knew about that earlier. This isn’t an isolated occurrence. Half column encounter descriptions mix the relevent with the irrelevant, mix up the important information, and generally show little care about how the information is organized in order for it to be used well. Which is a shame because some of it is good.

It’s got a great unique and colorful magic items, lots of new monsters, but also leaves out things like “what happens when your the dead woman back to life… you know the major feature of multiple encounters.” But the other major miss comes from the nature of the hex crawl proper. There are very few encounter areas that lead to other areas. The hunters and pirates have rivalry, and some teleportation circles, but there’s not much that leads you from encounter X to encounter Y. Rumors, partial maps, inscriptions, etc. The effect is a party just wandering around the island, exploring every hex so they don’t miss something and/or find the lost city … because no one else knows about it. In Dread you know about the Central Plateau, but here you just wander about. I’m not sure that exhaustively searching every hex on the island is “fun.” I wish there was more clues to things integrated in and maybe some words about seeing what’s in the surrounding hexes from the hex you are in. That would both reduce the tedium and provide some nice roleplaying as you find giant poop, or smoke in the distance. A brief paragraph at the start describing the general layout/overview would have been nice also. These factions exist doing these things, etc.

If you like Dread and you have a highlighter then this should be ok for you. It’s better than most Dread hex crawls and you can certainly make something out of it, with effort.

It’s $8 on DriveThru. The preview is four pages and doesn’t show you anything other than the table of contents. http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/176644/The-Treasure-Vaults-of-Zadabad-Swords–Wizardry?term=zadab&test_epoch=0

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The Trail of Stone and Sorrow

By Zzarchov Kowolski
Neoclassical Geek Revival/OSR
Level 1-3

Something wicked has emerged from the mountains and begun turning things to stone. The villagers are scared and have begun casting a suspicious eye towards a foreign wizard.

This is a rather short adventure, at eight pages (with three being title page filler), and focuses on the blurb: something is turning things to stone and there’s this wizard nearby … It s good little adventure for tossing in to a one-night party, with strong social elements for the party to roleplay and a mystery for the party to look in to that should not lose the party. The text could be formatted better for information transfer, but, it’s also only four pages long and is a decent little adventure for that size.

The wizard is rich, he’s foreign, and he’s a wizard; three strikes and the Salt of the Earth point their finger at you. Following the breadcrumbs, with the wizard or one of the other clues related by the villagers, leads to a trail or crushed vegetation, hoofprints, and/or stoned creatures. Following the rail leads to the creature. There are notes to convert to OSR, which is easily done on the fly.

More than a side-trek and less than most adventure, this is probably a single night adventure. Roll in to the village, get hired and talk to folk, then start in a clue and follow it to the end of the trail. To its credit you can enter the adventure from many points: the wizard, the stone creatures, rumors, and the adventure is open enough that starting at site three does NOT mean that one and two are not relevant anymore. It’s more than likely that the party will revisit locations several times for what is, in essence, a social adventure.

The situations presented are pretty strong, if a little long. The villagers distrust the rich, foreign, wizard, for all three of those reasons. That’s a pretty good hook in to roleplaying them. The wizard is relatable and yet suitably wizard-like in his esoteric studies. The farmers under attack are frenzied, sobbing, in grief, and shock and horror, which again comes across well in the writing. The creature has a good little hook: it turns things to stone AND does a mind transfer from the victim in to the creature body. That’s some gaze attack!

It’s only four pages but, still, needs a highlighter. The writing gets a bit long in places, or, maybe, I want a different word. It could have been bolded or indented in places in order to make the organization of the information better. The goal, of course, being for the DM to scan the text quickly to find the important bits during play.

It’s Pay What You Want on DriveThru, currently at around $1.80. The preview shows you three of the four adventure pages (five if you count the map) so you’ll get a good idea of the adventure and the writing style.

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Dungeon Magazine #138

It’s interesting, I’ve noticed another tonal change in Dungeon Magazine. The last few issues have contained adventures with a variety of styles. Linear, combat focused, more traditional styles. Accident or purpose? Who knows, but I do find the uptick in useful content refreshing. I’ve not been lothing my weekly review nearly as much.

Urban Decay
By Amber E. Scott
Level 2

Be aware: I’m fond of urban campaigns. Wererats. In sewers. Oh boy. Short & straightforward, the party learns some ratcatchers are missing. Checking in with the guild find the guild leader missing. A three room sewer reveals a wererat, which leads to a three room scow with another. End. I applaud the terseness, by Dungeon standards. This has a modicum of a low-tech/grunge feel to it, with a half-orc selling meat pies made out of rats and a “pigeon swarm” as guards in the sewers, as well as a giant cockroach. It’s nice theming. The NPC’s also fight to the death, for the usual reasons of fearing their superiors. Still, there’s room in this for roleplaying, bluffing enemies and the like. It’s getting pretty close to the platonic form of the lair-based/event adventure, but the roleplaying available and low-tech/low-life elements make it a cut above. It would make a nice little thing to dump in to an urban campaign.

The Weavers
By Richard Pett
Level 10

A long-winded linear adventure. Bob pleads with the party to stop an impending spider infestation in the city. You follow a linear trail, having fight after fight. Pretext after pretext for combat. Dude doesn’t answer his door and has a “guard drake.” Thugs don’t like people asking questions. On it goes. This is augmented by MOUNTAINS of justifying text. There has to be multiple paragraphs justifying the guard drake. Bobs mansion has a museum and there has to be a tour, to no purpose, so each room is described. The adventure goes on and on like this, as you follow the line,

The Mud Sorcerer’s Tomb
By Mike Shel
Level 14

This is the … fourth? version of this dungeon, I think? 2e (Dungeon #37), 3e (this issue), 4e and 5e. It’s a Tomb of Horrors like trap & temporal stasis dungeon full of puzzles. As I said in my d#37 review of the 2e version, the first room is a good example of what’s inside. Three names are on the front door in platinum letters. Examination reveals the letters of the last name “Elomcwe” can be depressed. Pressing “welcome” unlocks the door. By making this a Level 14 adventure it requires a pretext for gimping all of the players spells. Spells like augury, commune, contact other plane, etc were all originally used to AVOID death traps, but in this dungeon they, and others, are all gimped so the players can’t use them. This is a clear indication that the adventure is written for the wrong levels. Relying on Temporal Stasis is also a technique to disguise weak design. The puzzles, however, are top notch. A room with walls covered in eyes, all crying and moving. The tears are acid, making searching the walls for the secret door difficult. The adventure also illustrates the problem with the Search check. Previous editions had an element of player skill in the searching. The DM dropped hints in their descriptions, the players followed up and discovered things. In 3e this was abstracted to The Search Check. Just roll the dice, or take 20, and don’t bother with the more interactive portions. Rolling dice for routine resolution is boring as fuck. Once, running 4e RPGA at a con, a dude rolled his diplomacy to recruit an army of floating eyeballs from a bunch of wizards. “Uh, nope. What do you actually SAY?” I asked. “Uh, you’re one of THOSE dm’s. Can’t I just roll?” was the reply. This moment has stayed with me an excellent example of how mechanics can ruin play. Anyway, this is close enough to a clone of the D#37 adventure to be the same, except with the 3e mechanics. The 2e version, in play, should be stronger, because of the mechanics issues.

Challenge of Champions VI
By Johnathan M. Richards
Any Level

As with all of the others, it’s just a series of encounters for the players to overcome. It gets its “any level” designation because everyone in the contest gets the same stuff, provided in each room on scrolls, etc. Thus this is, essentially, a series of player challenges rather than character challenges. IE: the fun part of D&D/Combat As War. Generally the straightforward way is the worst way to tackle these situations, so ideas like “I stab it” are likely to be poorer choices than using your noggins. Creative play is encouraged. Still, I’m not really a fan of these. They require a game world with adventurers guilds with tryouts and a higher magic content than I’m comfortable with. As rooms that encourage open-ended play they are great though.

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