Dungeon Magazine #94

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Bloodlines
By Luke Johnson
3e
Level 7

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

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

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

The Last Hunt
By James Wilbur
3e
Level 4

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

The Excavation
By Michael T. Kuciak
3e
Level 3

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

Worms in the Exchequery
By Frank Brunner
3e
Level 15

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

Spiral of Manzessine
By David Noonan
3e
Level 11

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

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The Gnomes of Levnec

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By Zzarchov Kowolski
Neoclassical Geek Revival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lair of Drecallis

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By Rich Maffei
Expeditious Retreat Press
OSRIC
Levels 4-7

For a second year in a row, Drecallis has not appeared on the appointed day to collect her tribute from the people of Longridge. Is the terrible beast dead? Or has the great reptile departed for greener pastures? The elders are desperate to discover the truth, and if the dragon is indeed dead, a priceless hoard may be sitting in the dragon’s lair, unguarded. A call has been put out for brave souls willing to seek out the remote lair of Drecallis and investigate!

This is a thirty-ish room cave complex with a good variety of creatures crawling about. It has a vanilla slant to it, although a decent variety of vanilla with several touches of classic D&D. The text is long on words and short on interesting.

You might think of the complex map as a kind of star shape. Each of the legs has an entrance in it, with a common convergence areas/no-man’s land in the middle. Trogs in one arm, gnolls in another, vermin-ish stuff is another, and a behir in the last leg (the old dragon lair proper.) There’s conflict here between the three main groups, but not full on faction play. Everyone is hostile in spite of their problems, with on the behir willing to talk, at a low probability and only under certain circumstances. This is an opportunity lost for faction play, although the generally linear nature of the “legs” of the map make interesting faction play/exploration hard to pull off on a map like this.

It’s hard for me to find the words to describe the dungeon. I want to say “boring”, but I think instead the writing is quite flat. A spider in a hole, trogs torturing a gnoll, a crayfish attack … there’s a lof of classic and, in an academic sense, interesting potential to the encounters. But the writing style here just puts you to sleep. It takes a lot of text to get where it’s going. It’s almost as if the entire thing is written in an “aside” kind of style, but more of an academic footnote than a nudge nudge wink wink kind of aside. There are these descriptions about the hows and why of things, the motivations and in places irrelevant detail. None of it really adds to the encounter the DM will be running. “A box of assorted tubers.” Oh. Ok. Thanks. “Two tuns filled with rainwater.”

Everything here is a bit … crufty. The magic items and the other mundane treasures just don’t get much here. A +2 ring. +1 swords. The variety turns up a bit when you get to the hidden treasure of the dead dragon. Paragraphs on a lamia deception. Paragraphs on a doppleganger deception. But very little in the way of making it INTERESTING.

And that’s a shame. The variety here is well done. Very little in this adventure feels forced at all. Everything fits together without pushing it at all. There’s a lot of decent little set ups, like the skeleton in the water, or the spider in the hole. Or, even, the POTENTIAL for faction play. Dead NPC parties, and a banshee bitter from her abandonment. Harpies in their filth ridden lair. It should be great. Instead it’s flat.

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Dungeon Magazine #93

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Fun fact. I pulled the next Dungeon off the pile, looked at the cover and thought. “Fuck! Another Gith adventure?!!? And on a magic carpet?” Then I noticed I had a dup of issue 92. I would like to change my answer to “Fuck! Another adventure about melodramatic storm giants?!”

Vanity
By Bradley Schell
3e
Level 5

A pretty classic Dungeon Magazine: seven rooms in ten pages. It accomplishes this by spending a decent amount of time telling us what each room used to be used for, in detail. This, of course, adds nothing to the adventure. Several hooks are presented for this lair/tomb, one of which, a boring “you see reward posters” is expanded upon greatly. Two others are more action oriented, with the party either ambushed by four bugbears or seeing the end of a caravan ambushed. The track back leads to the complex, with a few rooms of bugbears and an ogre. A chimera (who never needs to eat .. sigh… ) guards a tomb room with a spectre. The concept of the tomb room add-on is nice, but I don’t think it really comes across as the add-on it should be. It comes off more of a paste-in than a natural part of the adventure. The entrance is a nice set piece defensive work to get past, and once that’s over the adventure one trick pony is done.

The Statue Gallery
By Johnathan M. Richards
3e
Level 9

Side-trek is a medusa gallery/cave in the underdark. The medusa wears a hat of disguise and an amulet that makes her look like a statue. She has a pert mimc, phasm, and vargouilles. I always throw up a little in my mouth when I see a hat of disguise in an adventure. It’s almost always paired with some mind-protecting magic item, so the statue amulet was a surprise.

Swamp Stomp
By Jeff Ward
3e
Level 4

Mill hook, dead relative
Doing it
“A woman named mother grundy owns this stall.”
Ok rumors

This is the usual “dragon is actually good and the princess is the bad guy” adventure. In this case the halfling mayor is the bad guy and the lizard men & naga are good. The hooks are mostly lame, including the horrendous “one of your loved ones is captured/killed” … which should never be used, ever, in any game, ever. It compensates for another hook in which one of the party members is deeded a mill, which is one of the better hook ideas. Giving the murder hobos ties to something, without punishing them for those ties, is a great way to encourage involvement. The read aloud has some truly horrid things to say, like “A woman named Mother Grundy owns this stall.” That’s a conclusion that can’t be reached by observation. Long descriptions of meaningless places, a boring swamp, a boring town … even a drifter camp is boring. How can a drifter camp be boring? AT least it’s got two halfling Coitius Companions interupted mid-haystack by lizard men. THAT’S good.

The Storm Lord’s Keep
By James Wyatt
3e
Level 21

Room after room after room after room after room after room of combat make this one of the saddest adventures pushed thus far in Dungeon. Big HP opponents. “All of the cloud giants drink fly potions before the combat.” Long read alouds. Magic walls with 720hp. This is all textbook how to not write a high level adventure. After slogging through about a million high-level fights the big bad sits down to talk to the characters. Zoinks! The only interesting thing AT ALL in this adventure is the first encounter. The players stumble upon a village preparing to be attacked. Almost everyone is level 1 or 0. Then a 5d6 hail shower starts, followed by lightning strikes, followed by cloud giants riding rocs/dragons. The overwhelming nature of the attack is quite nice, along with the challenge of the party defending them … if they choose to do so. It’s going to require quick thinking and a certain selflessness, but I think it’s an interesting challenge for a high level party … let them die? Try and save them?

Nice Polyhedron cover this issue!

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Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine

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By Logan Knight
Last Gasp Grimoire
LotFP
Level 1

Parasitic infections, stylishly cursed armour, amateur veterinary surgery, unreliable incendiary devices, edible mushrooms, spells unheard of, a wizard in need. Disgusting glory and lost limbs await you within the Sleeping Palace of the Feathered Swine

This is a cute little thirteen room cave adventure that manages to out-Lament most of the adventures published by Lamentations. A cave with excellent descriptions, gross stuff, interesting encounters, and enough of that Lamentations GRIM without going overboard in to cannibal corpse territory. Absolutely worth checking out.

The hook is, to quote “Find the wizard Felix Longworm cowering by stones and a mournful tree.” There’s another sentence that describes his former mission (removing cysts from the swine) , and then two short paragraphs that describe the process of removing the cysts. Given that the hook is one, maybe two sentences long, this is GREAT. In fact, I would suggest that the actual hook is only the first sentence and the second sentence the entirety of the “DM Background” crap that usually, in some overblown form, plagues adventures. It really doesn’t take much to get a party into an adventure in a good way and this is an excellent example. It piques their curiosity. They learn they can profit, in money or spells or equipment. Sold, AMERICAN!

The actual text of the room descriptions/encounters is divided into roughly three parts. First comes some initial impressions, followed by some DM text that elaborates on the impressions, and then there’s a small outline of the room at the bottom, showing the general shapes, entrances and exits, etc. This is an interesting format that has some similarities to that used in the more recent Maze of the Blue Medusa. These formats recognize something important that most adventures do not: it’s meant to be run by the DM. The layout/style/whatever is directly targeted at the DM, at providing them what they need to run the adventure. I’m not necessarily advocating with the particular choices made in this adventure (although I do like it) but rather lauding the choices made to aim the writing at the DM.

Adventures are technical writing with a very specific purpose. Aid the DM. Further, they’ve got a very hard problem: planting the encounters seed in the DM mind where it can grow. I mentioned above that the first part of the room descriptions are the initial impression. This is the seed pod portion of the encounter. “Dark entry cavern, rocks and shit and nothing too special. Sells of cold, stale air. Your eyes feel dusty.” It’s these feelings and impressions that are critically important to the DM. Important to lodge the room ideal in their head so they can expand and grow it, organically and on the fly, as the characters encounter and explore the room. Feather Swine does this well, keeping these impressions short and flavorful and evocative. The DM text that follows could use a little more formatting and editing to make it a bit clearer and easier to read, but that’s a pretty petty complaint.

Feathered swine presents interesting little situations. Press your luck situations. Curiosity situations. Lots of little things to get the players to risk their characters. In one room there are some holes in the walls. Crawling in to one of them gets you pulled in, all horror movie style, by the creature inside … unlike the first two holes with goodies.

Ooey ooky monsters well described. Horrific situations to encounter. Weird objects to bring back home. Easy to run by the DM. Imaginative, with a lot in common with the Weird Environments modules from Psychedelic Fantasies. Absolutely worth checking out.

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AA #27 – Bitterroot Briar

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By Lang Waters
Expeditious Retreat Press
OSRIC
Level 2-4

The small village of Ipwich has been plagued by mystery for years. Why do some people, last seen decades ago, come stumbling out of the woods looking as young as the day they disappeared, raving mad? Why does the forest itself whisper in the blowing of the trees or the babbling of a brook, beckoning to its center? Local folklore holds that the answers to these questions lie on the other side of an immense wall of thorns in the heart of the forest, the Bitterroot Briar, as do the remains of a good number of would be riddle solvers.

This is a charming little set of encounters/adventure in a magical grove. The encounters have a nice social and faction element, and all have that folklore vibe that I enjoy. It may be a little weak in a couple of parts, particularly those related to lore … like how to get in and get out of the glade. It has a curious mix of very nice magic items and boring mundane ones. Even with those inconsistencies it’s a charming little thing.

The briar/glade is in a forest with a nearby village and the adventure starts there. There are four or five NPC’s presented, each in a paragraph or so, and they generally have strong enough personalities to add some value to the adventure. The rumor table is ok, with a really standout children’s nursery rhyme, and more verses available if the characters play with the children. That sort of integrated rumor is a very nice thing indeed, and, in fact, the entire vibe is nicely done. People wander out of the woods, lost in time, slightly mad … It’s pretty classic folklore set up. Most of the the hooks are the usual weak stuff, like generic “rumors of wealth” or “set here by your boss” kind of stuff, but a singing sword calling to you and … an Admiral Akbar round out the good ones. Yes, one of the hooks is that the evil grove is summoning adventurers to it as a trap … but it’s not a total throw away in this one. The sick mayors maid is in cahoots with an evil spellcasting snake that lives in the grove. Oh, oh! And get this! The snake just has spells he can cast! He doesn’t have levels or any bullshit like that! That’s awesome!

The wanderers in the forest are pretty decent, with most of them being unique-like encounters. Hunters afraid of their quary (an owlbear) and other various NPC’s and things to talk to. It’s all well done. As are the actual encounters once you reach the glade. A mean braggart troll, that in the end just doesn’t have much fight in him. Giant bees, spiders, crawfish, and ants that can all talk and all have some slightly different goals. It’s almost like the glade is a prison and each of the little gangs wants out, hates other people, and is looking for an edge. The usual asshat pixie, a fairy dragon, giants talking frogs. This is one of the best, if not THE best, talking animal adventures I’ve seen.

The magic items are a mix. One of the effects is that the rumors say the treasure is in the trees, and it is … you can find treasure in the dead trees. There are also these weird sympathetic magic things, like a skeleton with spider web over its eyes … that acts as a gem of seeing if you hold it up to peer through. I LOVE that kind of stuff! There’s also a flute that birds like. It doesn’t charm them. It’s doesn’t let you control them, but they tend to come around when you play it. That’s another great example of a magic item that is described by its effect rather than the rules around it. There’s also a decent number of +1 sword/+1 dagger hanging around, as well as more mundane books items. That’s too bad, those are the least interesting items in the adventure. (Although … I might make an exception for that iron flask … but then again the Misc Magic Items were always one of the best DMG sections.)

The text is a bit longer than it needs to be, with two sentences being expanded to a paragraph, but the nail sticking out to be hammered down is the … lore? This primarily impacts two areas: finding the glade in the forest and getting out of the glade (you’re trapped there once entering.) The glade has to “find you”, which is mentioned in one of the rumors, but it doesn’t really go in to much detail on what you need to do to make the glade find you. Basically, you get to wander around the forest, catching glimpses of the glade, until you commit wanton violence on the forest, stumble across a certain pixie encounter, or someone specifically listens to the wind/water for ten minutes. That’s a bit … tenuous, I think, but maybe the evil village NPC could drop some hints. The other area is escaping the grove … it’s not really obvious. The grove is clearly meant to be a bit of sandbox, but the lore on escaping has an issue: if everyone knew it then they’d all try to escape … and they all very much want to escape (with a couple of exceptions.)

Those aren’t exactly show stoppers, in any way shape or form, and they don’t detract from the adventure as a whole. A little more organization, or clarity, maybe, but otherwise I think this is a nice one, especially if you’re in to the more simplistic/folklore view of adventure.

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Dungeon Magazine #92

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So, here’s a poser: is Dungeon Magazine a poetry magazine or a house organ? By this, I mean does the magazine staff have a directive to preserve the author’s writing, no matter how bad, or do they have an obligation to publish something decent? Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. Either the staff didn’t know what a good adventure was, or they felt a need to preserve the author’s voice or they just didn’t get enough pages to fill the magazine and took anything.

Interlopers of Ruun-Khazai
By David Noonan
3e
Level 13

Thirty pages for an “empty rooms” adventure. Generic hooks send the party to a fortress/rock on the astral plane. Right after they arrive some githZ and githY show up. FIghts happens. Then the current owner of the fortress shows up and attacks everyone. This thing has almost nothing going for it. There’s nothing special about the fortress, and almost all of the rooms are empty, so it’s not really an exploration mission. There’s a timeline for the three factions, so it does have that to help things out, but the factions are all essentially mad dogs, except maybe for the Z’s who will at least talk. Otherwise it’s all “explore empty room and get attacked by a roving band of gith.” Long descriptions for empty rooms and trivia about Gith culture means Frustrated Author rather than Fun Adventure. Travel to the fortress/astral plane is glossed over, and the monsters take at least half a page each to describe. Wasn’t there an OSR adventure about a pass with crystals and factions in it and and old battlefield? Go get that instead. (dammit! I can’t find the name!)

The Swarm
By Tito Leati
3e
Level 1

The party tracks down some goblins in the mountains. While travelling in the mountains the party stumbles upon some bickering dwarves with a dwarf body from their recent goblin ambush. The party can return the body or find the dwarves taken prisoner. The mount is, essentially, a pointcrawl, since it’s hard to get from place to place except along the narrow paths/passes. It’s got decent wanderers with a lot of personality, and a very nice “old map” the party finds that goes along with the DM’s map. The encounters have some decent variety, although the suspension of disbelief is pushed at time. (“When the party passes they have no chance to spot the hidden paths the goblins use to ambush them.”) This isn’t a stellar adventure, but it the wordiness were resolved then it would be an ok adventure with decent variety and choices. Also, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. And this adventure ain’t Thomas Jefferson.

Return of the Blessed Damozel
By Frank Brunner
3e
Level 11

Side-trek. In a city park the party finds a woman berating a tough looking kid. Her dead daughter, his ex-lover, wants him to turn from his evil (Thug Life!) ways. The party can help convince him. Regardless, his friends (6 3rd level fights) show up to prevent him from leaving the gang. The rakshasa gang leader may show up also, which is why, I guess, this is level 11? Gang war in a park, all Sharks & Jets or Warriors style, woudl be cool, but that’s not really what it going on here. A mashup of this, the gith warfare adventure, and a good adventure would be cool. Rumble in the city park!

The Razing of Redshore
By James Jacobs
3d
Level 20

“Awakened sperm whale druid” wages war against assassins guild, destroying overly-described town. After four attack events the party meets the whale in event five, followed by exploring a five room underwater cave, the guild headquarters, and then a final assassination attempt on the party. The town portion is mostly meaningless, except for a couple of clues, and doesn’t justify the pages spent on it. The events are ok, I guess, if the party is using divination to explore the town for clues, as ways to introduce some life into the adventure. The caves feature a level 9 cleric gargantuan kraken and are not TOO bad. The guild fortress is an excuse to have a lot of assassins using their death abilities on the party. “Four assassins all do death strike on you, mr crappy saving throw. You die.” Good high level adventures/challenges have always been a problem for D&D.

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Vault of the Faceless Giants

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By Richard LeBlanc Jr.
New Big Dragon Games Unlimited
Labyrinth Lord
Level 1-3

In a jungle village a complains that her baby has been taken. A lot of the villagers think she abandoned it in the jungle or a tiger got it. Individually they come to the party to relate rumors of an evil temple in the jungle. Inside is a dungeon with some psionic properties, if you are so inclined to use them.

This adventure is in a fifty-two room dungeon with a largely ring layout, symmetrical. It has a weird vibe to it. It has a lot of the elements that I would expect to find in an old school dungeon, but it is … plain? Boring? The writing here just doesn’t grip one very strongly. I’m also VERY suspicious of the ring hallway layout. Combined with a few other elements, I just can’t get into this.

The biggest problem with this adventure is probably the writing. I’ll cite a couple of specific examples of it being non-specific, but there’s something else going on and I’m not sure how to describe it. The writing is … technical? It’s very straightforward. It’s pretty clear. And it’s generally boring. I can cite a couple of examples of abstracted descriptions, like a bow that is described as “amazing craftsmanship” or a dagger that is described as “particularly well taken care of.” These descriptions are abstracted. They are conclusions. Rather than describe the dagger, or bow, and letting the player draw a conclusion that they are well taken care of (and therefore special) or of great craftsmanship, instead the read-aloud makes that conclusion for the party. This kind of genericism is the opposite of ecovative writing that inspires the DM and/or players. There’s something else going on with the writing though and I’m having trouble really putting words to what the issue is. The descriptions are boring because the writing style is just not exciting. Is that the right way to say this? Not dynamic? Not inspiring? I don’t know. It’s technical, and the elements are all there, and it doesn’t necessarily fall in to the trap of describing the mundane, but it doesn’t really make me excited to run the rooms either.

Here’s an example. It’s a little heavy on the number specificity (which I don’t think is appropriate in read-alaoud in particular) but that’s not really the problem: “48 straw mats are arranged in a 6×8 pattern in this 30’×40′ room. The walls are painted golden yellow, save for a large white symbol painted in the center of the west wall showing the symbol for the third/plexus chakra.
In each corner of the room, set on the floor, is an ornately-carved ebony incense holder featuring a seated figure. The room is permeated by the scent of lemon and myrh.” It’s an ok description. But not a great description.

Some of you may recall the chess-players room in the Dwimmermount draft. The room had two ghostly players playing chess. They ignored the party and you could not interact with them in any way. There are some of the same sorts of rooms in this adventure, rooms in which there is trivia rather than something to interact with. I’m not going to assert that every room has to be to fun and exciting, or that dungeons have no room for mysteries or empty rooms. This is something else. It’s presenting something that COULD be interesting but without any elements for the players to interact with or use the room. One of the early rooms in the dungeon has steam in it, that comes in through cracks, doesn’t go into the hallways, and dissipates, with the effect having a random chance each time the party enters. That’s it. This isn’t hinting at a volcano or steam later on. It’s not a terrain effect for a challenge. It just is. This is only one example. Murals and funerary are steam rooms are fine, but they need to contribute to the adventure … and these do not.

I am QUITE suspicious of the map as well. It’s symmetrical, and I’m not a fan of those, but the bigger issue is the ring nature of it. Imagine a long hallway that forms a circle, and bisecting the circular line are rooms. You must go into the rooms to walk the hallway. That is, essentially, the dungeon and it is, essentially, a linear layout, with all the faults and lack of options that come with that sort of design. There’s also a large number of monsters, humans mostly, that come out of suspended animation to attack the party, another element that I’m predisposed to enjoy. It just seems lazy. Combined with several other rooms where the read aloud has the monster immediately attacking, it’ just doesn’t seem interesting.

There are more than a few unique magic items, and some of the items descriptions ARE decent, like a +1 dagger with an ivory handle in the shape of a serpentine dragon with red fringed silk tassels. That’s something worth keeping, if you’re a player. It’s also got a classic set up or two like a giant spider guarding a gem. Those are all great examples of doing things well.

I just can’t get into this one.

It’s $5 at rpgnow.

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A Thousand Dead Babies

1000
By Zzarchov Kowolski
Self-Published
Neoclassical Greek Revival/OSR
Level 1

A small little town in the grips of some religious turmoil. It switched to follow the Holy Church about a generation ago, throwing o their ties to the Old Gods (mostly). There are some hold outs. Recently however, tales of demon worship and witchcraft have begun to ourish, leading the young and inexperienced priest to enter a panic.

This delightful little gem describes the goings-on around the village of Corroc. It’s a small little village that could be used as a starting location or as a place the party is passing through. This place is a powder keg. There are a lot of factions running around and the NPC’s have enough life in them that a little of fire, say, from a party of murder hobos, is going to set the place off. Devil worshipers, pagans, the church, local lords, illicit affairs … and the cried of babies from the woods at night … You need this little gem in your life. It’s duel-stated for OSR & NGR in a kind of minimalist way … the way I like it.

The village is only briefly described, in a paragraph or so, with about another paragraph for a nearby village. It’s got a Harn-like feel to it … if Harn villages were full of gas and kids playing with matches. I like this kind of realisism, that’s relatable, without all of the slippage in to the NoFunZone that realism can frequently slip in to. Reeves. Asshole lords. Taxes. Intra-village gossip. You then get into the heart: the eight or so NPC’s that generally drive the action in the village. The NPC’s get about a long paragraph each, and the paragraph has a little about their personality and a little gasoline. The personalities are great, and generally thread in to the gasoline. For example, the smith is 15 and new to the village. He’s not very good, but doesn’t tell anyone that, faking his skill. To directly quote: “He is desperate for business and will tell the players anything he thinks they wish to hear to try and encourage them to buy or commission something from him. This includes implying people may be witches, especially if he thinks the players will then want to buy hot irons. He can make those.” Oh my goodness! And the village priest is good-hearted and rational. And having an affair with a local farm girl, sneaking around at night. And her father will disown her if it he finds out. And the local herbalist is old, has red hair, is a wise woman, is a loner, has a black cat, and the village thinks she’s a witch. Except for the priest, who is rational and knows these are just stereotypes. Except she IS a witch! And it goes on and on. I think anyone reading this now has a head FULL of ideas where some of this can go, and that’s only three or four NPC’s. The NPC’s focus on the the personality quirks and situations that the can drive the characters actions, instead of just being trivia the way they are in most adventures.

The location descriptions are likewise evocatively written (with a couple of exceptions) and serve to fulfill EXACTLY what you think they should, again with the focus on character interaction and how they will encounter the location.

Magic items are all unique. Bones. Spellooks with tattoo’d skin in them. A pouch full of teeth. A rose that’s ever-fresh and impacts spellcaster. A cursed wicker baby basket that creates a newborn baby every day … fuck man! That’s AWESOME! Think of the possibilities of that coming in to your game!

Speaking of possibilities, one column of the text describes the aftermath. What happens if the party destroys the cult, or the pagans, or the church, or some combination thereof. And again, this ain’t just trivia. Enemies, allies, land, a town cursed forever more, brutal knight justice.

I love this thing. Simple. Short. Sticky. If it has a problem then it may be the need for a few other things going on in the village, some way to bring all of the other people to life while the party is out getting into trouble with the main NPC’s.

It’s $5 on DriveThru.

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Dungeon Magazine #91

d91
Challenge of Champions IV
By Johnathan M. Richards
3e
Any Level

The fourth installment of the puzzle adventure series. The characters enter a tourney with no spells, items, etc, and everything is provided to them in each room, on scrolls, etc. They have to figure out the puzzle/win the fight to get out. Having just recently reviewed the Maze of the Blue Medusa, I’m struck by the similarity between the Champions series and the type of adventures i really enjoy, as exemplified by Maze. Both present some unique rooms which have a puzzle-like aspect to them. Bizarre things. I think this really gets to the heart of the nonlinear player-driven choices that, I think at least, drives old school play. Champions turns me off because of the forced nature of it. Not only the fact that it’s a tourney with all abilities taken away (forcing the PLAYERS to adventures instead of relying on their characters min/max’ing) but also because there’s generally a ‘correct’ solution presented for the room. Compared to Tower of the Stargazer, or Maze of the Blue Medusa, or the better Darkness Beneath levels, we can see the difference: the true old school adventures just throw your ass in and expect the players to use their characters to get past the room any which way they can with few if any assumptions. The popularity of this series, which gets a little close to the OSR style, stands in stark contrast to the linear crap-fests that plague D&D.

The Rock and the Hard Place
By Brian Corvello
3e
Level 16

A side-trek. The party is literally caught in the middle of a street between a deva and a gelugon. Seven pages for one combat. A new low for Dungeon Magazine?

Bogged Down
By Terry Edwards
3e
Level 1

The road is washed out and before it can be repaired the bodies washing up from the old cemetary need to removed. The issue is the dead guy that shows up. Tracking him through the swamp reveals his wife “the swamp witch”, who’s a little nuts. Her husband was murdered and now he’s a bog mummy. Tracking him to the old ruined city gets some evidence which allows the party to confront some mercenaries on the cut off village. It’s an ok adventure, but overblown for what it is. A couple of giant centipedes, the bog mummy, and then the mercs. Not much going on. Some more village color (actually, less words and more color, the village portion is quite lengthy already) and some more swamp color (there’s a “friendly” lizard man out there already.) More color, less words. It’s trying, but not succeeding, in creating the flooded village, swamp, and ruined city.

Sloth
By J/ Bradley Schell
3e
Level 6

Side-trek. Five pages for an air elemental trapped in a one-room hut. The only interesting thing is the entrails of the summoning wizard scattered around the walls of the hut. Next month, read the exciting twenty page adventure that has a giant rat in an empty room!

The Legend of Gathulga
By Tim Hitchcock
3e
Level 1

Nine pages for a giant boar and a couple of halflings. Lots of read-aloud and DM notes for rooms and locations irrelevant to the adventure! I seriously have no fucking clue what the magazine staff were thinking.

Kambranex’s Machinations
By Robert Lee
3e
Level 9

In my ignorance, I declare this to be the first 4e-style adventure in Dungeon. Linear. Full of bullshit flavor that is either irrelevant or justifies the unique monsters existence. Anyway, the monsters here all have a half-machine template attached to them. You find a wilman being attacked by them, save him, his shamen asks you, out of the kindness of your hearts, to save them all by killing the wizard creating them. You proceed through four or so more scene-based encounters/fights before hitting a mostly-linear seven room dungeon. One of the scenes has some read aloud that is something like “The magmin stop frolicking and dancing and their leaders says PLEASE GO KILL THE HYDRA AND WE WILL TELL YOU WHERE THE EVIL WIZARD IS.” There’s just not even a pretext to this shit. Lots and lots of words justifying shit, but little for the players. One of the combats/scenes is only a single column long, so at least it’s straight up about it just being combat. Oh, and, of course, the dungeon at the end has magic walls preventing all of the usual stuff. BULL. SHIT.

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