They Met In A Tavern

By Jason Blalock
Dice Addict Games
Black Hack

About a day’s journey by loaded wagon from a good-sized trading city, at the edge of a small farming community, sits a moderately successful inn and tavern called The Merchant’s Rest. Due to an unlikely confluence of circumstances, four exceptional people with as many reasons to mistrust each other as they have to cooperate, are about to caught up in a tide of violence and dark sorcery which will threaten not only their own lives but those of the local populace.

This is a 21 page adventure hook. A one-shot, set in a tavern, provides a VERY strong initial set up position in a tavern … and then says “wing it” for the rest of the content.

There’s an inn/tavern on the edge of a village. Four pregens are there. The scholar (a MU) has rooms. He’s got a bit of a heretical past, but s tolerated by the authorities because of the help he provides. The stablehand/blacksmith is a former soldier (a Fighter) in the religious wars. The Pagen (the thief) is cousin to the stablehand/soldier and has gotten himself in to DEEP SHIT, because of a cult he joined and an artifact he stole for them. He’s come to the soldier for help, who wants to introduce him to the Scholar for help. The Inquisitor (cleric) shows up to see if the Scholar “yet remains a friend to the faith.” Very strong archtypes.Very strong backgrounds. Custom made to interact with each other and generate conflict. I can’t emphasize this enough. I have played in a shit ton of con games with pre-gens of every style and RPG imaginable. These may be the best four pre-gens I’ve ever seen. Usually you’re lucky to get MAYBE one in eight with a background this strong. They have a relationship with each other. There’s this simmering tension, massive loads of potential energy, buried in the relationships with each other. And yet probably no outright conflict. All done in one digest page each, with an OVERLY generous font size, line spacing, and margins. BAD. ASS.

The characters are at the inn or show up shortly. Then the shit starts. The cult leader shows up and wants the artifact back. “Young mean with taloned hands and the heads of antelope will appear as if they had been lurking in the shadows of the common room.” Combat!

That’s it. You get almost nothing more. A brief sentence or two about the inn and the proprietor. (2 sable boys. 9 rooms upstairs. The innkeep lives beside the inn.) A couple of notes about there being a church nearby with a holy silver maul and how to destroy the artifact.

I get it. Some people wing it.

This is one of those products that wounds my inner child and makes me feel ripped off. (Pay What You Want aside.) The setup is wonderful; one of the very best. Nice villain. Nice monsters. AND NOTHING ELSE. This approach to adventure products is antithetical to my foundational beliefs. The purpose of the published adventure is to help the DM run a game in which the players and DM have a good time. The DM has had a shitty day. In ze’s job as an assistant crack whore trainee ze’s had to take shit from their boss all day. The kids are being teens. Traffic sucked. Dinner was cold. And ze needs to run a game for their friends in 90 minutes. They go buy this. Does it help the DM enough? Are their (my) expectations crushed?

In this case, Yes, expectations were crushed. The set up is rock star quality. It’s just missing anything other than “dudes show up and start fighting.”

This needs just a little more. Just a page of single sentence set-ups. They come crashing through the roof. They set the kitchen on fire, or a few NPC’s to toss in to the inn for preamble fun or combat complications. They don’t needs stats. They don’t need to be complicated. Just enough to get the MD’s imagination going for livening things up a bit beyond a straight up “Roll for init!” callout. An unrelated conflict in the inn.

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Dungeon Magazine #114

In this issue dungeon changed formats again. It loses Polyhedron and gets more content.

Mad God’s Key
By Jason Bulman
Level 1

Holy shit! A Dungeon adventure that doesn’t completely suck! If you can accept a Sensoria/Do Right hook, and the usual mountains of background/exposition that plague Dungeon, then this is that rarest of things: an ok plot-based adventure in Dungeon. Two thugs loot a shop across from your inn in broad daylight. This leads to a thug on the docks who hired them, which leads to a building that serves as the hideout for a street gang. That leads to a tomb nearby hiding a Vecna cult. I LUV the whole idea of a Cyperpunk-style looting in broad daylight. Just stroll up to a shop, toss a garbage can through the window, and begin looting. People in the inn across the street watching? Who gives a fuck. Fortune favors the bold! If the party spares those two street thugs I swear to god, Donnie Baker style, that they would appear in every adventure I ran from then on out. The adventure also feeds info to the players in several ways. There’s some clue that leads to the next location, and generally if you take a prisoner then you get some extra information. That’s a nice touch that rewards folks who use just a little more brain power in their murder-hobo’ing Always Work/Go To Church do-gooder lifestyle. The encounter of the docks is a little forced and is clearly an indicator of the 4e Skill Check system to come, as there’s a chase across skiffs moored together with each having some little challenge on it. Fish guts, a drunk, etc. The street gang manor house is an ok location that stretches reality near the end in a set-piece in a room full of veils. Finally, the temple at the end, taken over by the vecna cult, has some memorable stuff, like a stone skull spewing blood, a secret door until a pool of blood .. with the blood in the pool draining down the stairs when it’s opened. Sweet!

This is all a set up for Living Greyhawk. This poor quality of this Living shit has been inflicted upon me at every DDXP/Winter Fantasy in Fort Wayne. This one is about a zillion times better than my (limited) exposure to the linear Living hack-fests I’ve seen. WAYYYYYYY too many words, with too many “used to be’s” and relevant background data, but I think it’s worth checking out.

Isle of Dread: Torrents of Dread
By Greg A. Vaughan
Level 6

Second verse same as the first? There’s a mini-setting in this issue describing the Isle of Dread, and this adventure accompanies it. Your ship, in a storm, needs supplies and repair and you’re sent ashore by the Captain to make arrangements with the local village. There you find them, essentially, barricaded in their homes during the storms. Strange things are afoot, with disappearances, the matriarch dead, and the witch doctor missing. Undead roam the graveyard and the central pyramid has bullywugs on top! Underneath are water-filled muddy catacombs with undead and bullywugs and finally, the now-evil witch doctor. Two of Dreads big bads, the kopra, are in a room conjuring the storm. It’s not a bad adventure, but does bad things. A lot. The captain you three potions of tongues so you can talk to people in the village. Bad Mojo that’s a little too deus ex for me. Either use gestures to talk, or give all the villagers perfect english accents, or use the MU to cast comprehend languages. But by giving the party potions you introduce an obstacle and then do NOTHING with it. You also have to beg the villagers to help, with rolls, which is always lame, IMO. Don’t want my help? How about I burn the place to the ground instead of begging? The text is long in places, with WAY too much background data that is irrelevant, as is the style with Dungeon. Finally, I think introducing the kopra in this adventure is a bad idea. Saving the village is a great introduction to the isle of dread. But revealing the big bads immediately? I don’t know. For a Dread campaign i can get behind the foreshadowing aspect. But if you were using this as an intro to X1 I would probably do something else. Finally, the catacombs, under the pyramid, are a little too combat oriented. It’s like every room is a guard room, and all hallways run directly in to rooms. This turns the adventure in the catacombs in to a hack-fest, IMO, instead of a “smart party” adventure.

On the plus side, the tropical storm is a great backdrop for exploring the village, without it being too much of a pain in the ass to run, rules wise. Likewise, the partially flooded catacombs, muddy, dripping water, full to about 3 feet, is a nice little environment challenge also without being too much of a pain. The “conjuring” is centered around a bronze tablet. GREAT prop for a conjuring on a low-tech island, bringing up Lovecraft, low-tech cultures, and the like. Finally, this could be a great “first adventure” for bringing parties on to the Isle. It gives the villagers a reason to aly with the party, assuming they solve their problem. Finally, if the summoning/storm spell DOES succeed? It brings a new creature to the island to terrorize folks … left unspecified. MYSTERY is always welcome as a springboard to the future. So, issues, but not terrible, especially if you want to use the village as a springboard to other adventures on the island.

Thirteen Cages
By Chris Thomasson
Level 16

Textbook shitty. Just a bunch of rooms with traps and monsters. Everyone is prepared to fight. Teleport doesn’t work. There are fake walls to stump Find The Path. Bad guys wear “rings of the thirteen” that give them a +2 ac, endure elements, and nondetection .. .and can only be worn by evil people. The place is full of “very realistic curtains that actually feel like a stone wall!” to hide things. Pretext after lame pretext to fuck the party. All so you can go to the next room and fight something in it. Tactical bullshit text all over the place. I’m sure this is a wet fucking dream adventure for the rules mastery/min-max crowd.

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Arsenal of the Warrior Princess

By Alessandro Dellamotta
Starlight Games
Levels 4-5

An ancient underground hideout, filled with weapons, magic and lore from a long-gone empire… And a terrible curse.

This is a seventeen-ish room dungeon spread over 21 pages … that’s been formatted to fit on four print pages in folio format. It’s an ancient complex with undead and vermin. There’s some decent non-standard magic items in places, and unusual magic items for the book items. There is also some decent imagery in places. In other places you have to work for it and in still others it’s a little fact-based for my taste-in-room-descriptions.

The pretext here is quite light, but strong enough to sustain it. It’s an abandoned complex of an ancient empire. You’ve got two possible pretexts presented. First, the party could be after some kind of magical research thingy and since there’s a magical lab inside you could find what you’re looking for there. Second, you could have found this magic sword, cursed, and you can lift it by exploring. This is a nice contrast to the usual plot-dreck. In other words, the dungeon is presented as a place for you to wrap your own characters story around rather than a place to have the designers shitty ass plot forced down your throat.

This suggests an interesting question: which is worse, a crappy exploration dungeon or a crappy plot based adventure/dungeon? Is the answer obvious?

The room descriptions are a mixed bag. There is a decent attempt, in some of them, to provide some nice imagery. A skeletal blacksmith has a hammer wreathed in flames, and a dim fire burns in other skeletons eye sockets. The blacksmith gestures for them to rise … It’s a little … direct? Inelegant? In its implementation. The noun/verb choice is pretty straightforward instead of a more esoteric usage to convey hidden imagery. Still, above average. Even during the pre-animation description of “A decayed skeleton wearing a blacksmith’s leather apron lies propped up on the wall next to the forge, hammer in hand. He still wears a golden key on a chain around his neck. Another dozen skeletons are scattered throughout the room.” It’s the specificity. An apron, propped, key around neck. Not the greatest ever but a decent image without getting too bogged down in useless garbage description.

There are a few other descriptions like that in the adventure. If you squint hard then you can see opportunities for others. The wanderer table has a few things on it that are ripe for this. “15 skeletons with sword & shield.” This was an old military installation. Well, they are obviously patrolling, all Red Square May Day style. Until they reach a room and then they enter it all Rainbow Six tactical style. “2 wights”, and they both happen to wear silver rings. Why not glowing with bright silvery light against the wights decaying background? I’m being, perhaps, a little too generous in my squinting. On the one hand the )brief) background gives rise to the inspiration that feeds this (Yeah!) on the other hand I don’t review fluff product because “I was inspired by it” is such an ambiguous measure. Objectively, a little more of “what they are doing” would have been nice for the wanderers. Subjectively, there was enough here to push me in to filling in the details … which is one the reasons I harp so much on the terse (easy to use by the DM) but evocative (captures the DMs imagination) description. The wanderers (and some of the other encounters) are overly terse AND lack the evocative nature … but I picked it up in the rest of the product.

But that doesn’t touch other areas. One of the weaker rooms ia an armory with a door “marked with a magical glyph” and “and ancient cracked amber golem in the shape of a tiger.” These are mere facts. “Ancient” is a conclusion, in this case, not a description. Showing, instead of telling us it is “ancient” would be better. And there are more than a few rooms like this.

The designer contacted me and asked for feedback, so I’m going to fall in to the pedantic now and play Editor. You may want to skip this paragraph. Taking one of the better rooms, “3. Forge” we immediately see a missed opportunity. “Forge” is boring. Why not embed a description? What’s the overall sense of the room you want to convey? A massacre, long passed? Or, I see the forge is still lit and the description says “casting a dim reddish glow on the room.” That’s a decent first impression. How can you update the room name to better convey that? “3. Shadowy glowing forge”? I’m terrible at this, but you get the idea. Second, I see that the first line of this room’s description, and most rooms description, are the dimensions. “This 9x15m room used to be a well equipped smithy.” Well, we know that. It was the room name, remember? Secondly, we know the room dimensions. It’s on the map. The map is a real map, and not some art school project, so you’ve got a grid. Don’t pad the room with useless words. The designer of Adventure Mos Fowl just commented, on my review, that “better to have it and not need it, right?” He’s missing the point. WHile that could be said, it’s also critically important that the words not get in the way of the DM running the room at the table, which is amazingly easy to do. SO watch your room descriptions. Focus. You go on to say that there’s an anvil up against the wall (duh, it’s a forge, does this add to the room, or the gameable nature? If the anvil was missing and was the key to getting to a secret door, maybe, but that’s not the case here) and that there’s a narrow air vent. Again, while wonderfully pedantically historically accurate, not necessarily applicable to running this room. You want to put a thin trail of smoke in the room description somewhere? Ok. But that’s an appeal to the evocative and is a visible effect of the air vent. The last line of the first paragraph(!), The shadowy room being lit but a dim reddish glow, is DYNAMITE, as is the second paragraph, describing the skeleton. You might get rid of the first paragraph and combine the two so the skeleton is lit, barely visible, by the dim reddish glow? The third paragraph, a list of mundane objects, is lame. Convey it terser and/or combine it somewhere else. The monster description is good, but the additional “he does not talk but he is no mindless undead. He is sentient and cunning” is padding. He’s cunning. Or he’s [insert a better adjective.] Finally, you’ve clearly made a very deliberate choice in dividing the room content in to different, labeled, sections. “Haunt”(nice!). Room. Monsters. Treasure. Feature. I’m not going to pass judgment on that, except to say that separating out the “Haunt” is a good idea. I would, however, leave you with a couple of things to think about, understanding I’m not necessarily telling you to change things. First, If the room is so wordy that you have to have separate headings for each little thing, then maybe the room is too wordy? Second, “Room” is obvious, and probably doesn’t need a heading. Its implied because … we’re reading about a room. Second, monsters are usually obvious in a room because of the stat block. In any event, a separate paragraph, with a stat block. Is usually enough, I find, to find the creature. Usually. Finally, the treasure/feature, located at the end of the room after the monster description, is probably adequate. Or, you could mix & match heading as needed to bring out important information. IE: don’t be slave to including the headings in EVERY room, but just use a heading where you think you need to call something out. I don’t assert your choices are wrong, I’m just giving you other things to think about.

The magical items are interesting and are a mix of non-standard and unusual standard. The forge is lit by a severed fire giant hand, that burns eternally. Nice! There’s a +1 dagger made of ice that also deals cold damage and can freeze liquids and put out fires with a touch. Nice! Magic silver platemail, which can deal damage when silver-vulnerable monsters touch it. The final monster, the warrior princess proper, can even be won over to your side and used as an ally and NPC in an ongoing campaign. REALLY nice touch there! Further … she’s got PHAT LOOT. Kill her and take the Loot=XP or keep her as an ally? Oh, the despair of choice! You know, there’s another room like this, a room with an ochre jelly. It doesn’t attack unless provoked. If you kill it it turns out that there’s treasure inside. I would have TOTALLY played that up in the description. Make it obvious it has treasure inside. Or imply heavily it does. Put the big red button in front of the party and dare them to press it. There’s another room, with normal spiders with human intelligence, that misses an opportunity. This roleplaying GOLD and could use a sentence or two more to expand on some personality, what they know, etc.

There are some visual aides in the back of the adventure, to show the players. Props are always nice. The concept of a “four print pages” format is pretty interesting as well. I remain a bit skeptical about it working out in practice … the font is a bit small already and printing two per page … my old eyes may protest. The formatting and wordiness detract quite a bit, IMO, from an otherwise generally decent adventure … that has several rooms that need some extra evocative help. I think it’s a first effort. If so, it’s an excellent first effort.

It’s $2 on DriveThru.

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The Oddbox of Zoforon

By Lawson Bennette & Jimm Johnson
The Scribes of Sparn
0e,1e, B/X
Levels 5-7

Through the aeons, a golden box appears from time to time to tempt the greediest of thieves and treasure seekers. Sages say the origin of that odd box is lost to the gulfs of time, but in the Scrolls of Skrel there is one account… When Man was new and Angels and Demons walked the world, a king arose, uniting the tribes, and waging war on Demonkind. This was Zoforon. Of such valiance was his crusade that the Angelic Order joined his cause. Thus began the age of the Holy Wars. Years of conflict became decades, and the decades beget centuries. The endless struggle ground Zoforon down, until finally he descended into madness. The Archangel, grieved by Zoforon’s fall, but fearful of the Demon magic he now possessed, fashioned a golden box in which Zoforon might be bound and forever locked away. But Zoforon was no fool. Facing hostile forces of Angels and Demons alike, he devised a trap to thwart them all!

This is a 32-page adventure where you’re transferred in to a gold box … a trap/puzzle dungeon devised by a long dead king. It’s not quite a fun house dungeon but more of a puzzle/trap dungeon that does a decent job of channeling the OD&D style … which I LUV. It has several clever mechanisms but it’s also more than a bit wordy … and it’s got the whole “puzzle/trap” dungeon working against itself. The entire genre has been ruined by mountains of shit which hides more decent entries, like this one. The whole “heres a hidden dungeon/sub-level!” thing is as cool as it ever was … I don’t know. It’s good for a puzzle/test dungeon … I just have too much trauma associated with puzzle/trap dungeon.

Good King Wenceslas (it’s the holidays, fuck off) has built himself a puzzle/trap dungeon and it shows up every so often to fuck with people. The result is a little gold box, lined with red velvet (which is how the interior of the dungeon looks) that you get teleported in to when you open the box and read the magic words. This continues a long tradition that has, in recent years, fallen by the wayside: the dungeon in a dungeon, or sub-level. Bottle City would be a decent example of this, but you can find a sub-level here or there in some of the megadungeons. Anyway, it’s a trap/test dungeon and King Asswipe is, unknown to the characters, at the center. The initial motivation is “holy shit, we’re stuck inside, we need to get out!” Not necessarily bad, if not overdone (and it’s not overdone here.)

At one point in the dungeon there’s a question: do you want to exit now, with no treasie, or go on and maybe get rich? This is handed in a kind of metal/DCC manner (which is ALWAYS a good thing… ) at least if you squint a bit. “Sign your name to the Book of Fates to exit ..” Handled right that would be a cool moment, and something to leverage for future adventure hooks. The explicit “you’re gonna get your asses kicked, do you want to go on?” is a nice DM’ing technique.Giving people explicit choices is a good thing.

There’s another aspect to this that I find interesting as well. One of the initial encounters is a kind of hall of mirrors … with a gold box on the floor … just like the one the party found and just got teleported in to. If you actually found the box then the party would discover that when the box is opened then the dungeon is reset. The party appears at the beginning again. Everyone is alive. Spells back. HP back. Monsters back again. It’s a complete “do over” mechanism. This, once again, matches the tradition of more liberal Wish-giving-out from older adventures. Wanna keep your treasure or wanna not be fucked up? Your decision Fighter-Bob. D&D is good when the party is making explicit decisions about what to do, knowing the consequences. You can push that too far, but I think you get the general idea.

The core dungeon is about four rooms, start to finish, if you do it in the most efficient way possible … a kind of shotgun shack of a hallway. There are a door or three hanging off of the hall, making for eleven rooms total. Only four of these have serious monsters in them, with three rest being some kind of trap or trick. In one room there are two strone thrones facing each other. One has a state of a mind flayer on it, holding a stone chest. If someone sits on the empty throne THEY are turned to stone and the mind flayer is turned to flesh. It’s the only way to get the chest. It’s a trick! It’s a push your luck/making an explicit choice for risk! It’s fun for all ages while you try to find something/one else to shove on the empty throne to get your party member back! This is a great example of a classic Weird Thing that appears in dungeons. I wish more D&D were this this playful and interesting.

The second set of rooms, if you decline to sign the book of fate, is linear with eight or so rooms. There’s a forced combat, but also a nice trick/trap rooms or two. In one room you’re directed to wear blindfolds. Inside is full of medusa and basilisk heads mounted on pikes. Wearing your blindfold? Yes? Imagine feeling your way around that room! Peeled grapes! Peeled grapes!

This is a nice little dungeon. The single column digest format, with wide-ish margins, does not lend to a terse feel. I’m not sure if a different formatting would help or if it needs a strong edit to reduce/focus the test. It certainly does channel OD&D, which is ALWAYS a good thing.

This one is on Lulu.

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Dungeon Magazine #113

Queen with Bruning Eyes
By James Wyatt
Level 1

This adventure, with tie-ins to tiles and the D&D miniatures line, is a basic dungeon combat crap-fest with one notable feature: it has a couple of events outside of the dungeon. For some pretext of a lame hook reason (do gooder! Stop evil! It’s tonight’s adventure!) you’re poknig around in a dungeon. When you exit you’re approached by a man who wants you to find an amulet inside the dungeon for him. And maybe later you’re attacked in your inn, while resting from your dungeon, by cultist thugs and dragged back in to be sacrificed! This is nice. It shows the place as a living environment. People want things. People resent your intrusion. Hitting the party while they’re down is something from Rappan Athuk, Lich Dungeon, and many others. It integrates the environment. The dungeon, proper, is a piece of shit that is just “room with a pretext for combat”, one after another, with most creatures attacking immediately in a twelve room “branching off from one location” map. It’s also interspersed with nitpicky rule reminders. “Remember, you get a +5 to free from spiderwebs if you have your footing!” and “you get a -2 to stealth over rubble!” All of these are fine RULINGS and suck ass RULES. Fuck your rules mastery. Roll a d6 to save!

Practical Magic
By Jason Nelson
Level 9

Jesus Christ, what a convoluted adventure. The party is hired by the .gov to investigate the disappearance of a local wizard, last seen at an inn. There they discover her aquatic-elf boyfriend was the last to see her. He’s been dominated by a mermaid vampire. As has his sister. Talking to the vampire mermaid reveals another clue to the wizards disappearance and a conversation to not kill her. After all, she lives in balance with the city nearby, only feeding on the poor and destitute. Following up (DC30 and/or divination magic) leads to a partially underwater lair. It’s full of zombie workmen overseen by lacedon locksmiths. And lacedon armorers. And lacedon masons. And lacedon … you get the idea. After wading through a shit-ton of zombies & lacedon and other undead you find the wizard and the guy who “kidnapped” her. Who is actually NE but a decent undead guy who single handedly saves the city on several occasions. The wizard has been visiting .. .maybe? To talk business with the dude. And the wizards plan is to find the right moment and steal the undead NE guy blind after learning all of his secrets. And if the party would kill the dude then it would be much easier for her. So, in the end, the .gov sent the party on a snipe hunt. The undead dude is interesting enough, but placed in a position to be pissed at the party and have his “workers” hacked through. The “not really captured” thing is ok also, but there’s probably not enough lead-in to realize that the N wizard chick is actually the tool of the adventure. More in those areas would have enhanced the adventure and made it a more role-play/things-other-than-combat adventure. I have NO idea how you save this thing though. It’s so intertwined that I don’t see anything other than the base concept (NE doesn’t meant mean enemy, wizard is a tool) being salvageable.

Foundation of Flame
By Chris Thomasson
Level 15

Ug. Adventure path. Oh, wait, this one is different. It’s mostly a series of mini-events, that go on too long. Last time you killed the beholder that secretly controlled the town. This time things are kicked off when you’re invited to a party to decide the fate of the city. The party is talked up during this section, giving them a sense that they are actually respected and their actions have had an impact on people’s attitudes. This is always a nice touch and gives the party a sense of accomplishment, I find. There’s a shitty reference table provided, for people you encountered in OTHER adventures, that doesn’t have much use, and the people who are actually AT this party are given LONG text descriptions. They are the ones that need the reference table. As is, it’s going to be note time. Extensive notes. The party is, of course, attacked. After that the volcano under the town starts to go off. This is the main part of the adventure. There are four or five sections to the town and the party needs to earn 16 or so “evacuation points” in each section to successfully evacuate it. There are a number of encounters provided, with only a few specific to the area of town, for the DM to throw at the players. It reads like a 4e skill challenge, over and over again. At best, you’re going to have to have like ten of these encounters. AT worst, you could be looking at fifteen or so. This drags out WAY too long, with suggestions to repeat events if you run out. The skill checks run in to the 28-35 range, which seems a bit high to me, but there ARE nice suggestions on how the party can leverage the crowds to accomplish their goals. The events range from people in burning buildings, under rubble, monster attacks, and so on. The entire thing ends with a red dragon attacking.

The events text is long, repetitive, and there are too many of them. The concept is good, but I don’t think it works as a standalone set of tasks. Integrated with some other task, like an attack on the town? Yeah. It’s too bad the party part is so bad.

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The Ytroth Larvae of the Scarsea Cliffs

By Karl Scheer
Low Levels

A ragtag group of adventurers delve into the mouth of one of The Ytroth Larvae of the Scarsea Cliffs seeking antideluvian treasure from underground civilizations!

This is a two-page adventure with three rooms that is more conceptual than product. It’s packed full of ideas but is severely constrained by the size. It’s too wordy for a 1-pager and there’s not enough content to sustain a more traditional OSR style game. This best way to think of this is that it’s a 2-page proposal of an outline of a good DCC adventure. Tends to weird. Good content. Rooms with things going on. And linear.

The idea is that every 50 years some giant larvae burrow up from underground and kind of beach themselves, like cicadas. Except they are HUGE … and they spent their years underground tunnelling through ancient cities/civs … so their guts are full of loot. The desperate descend on them en masse to try and earn their fortunes. As the first line of the adventure says “a low-level module for the despondent and desperate adventurer.” Thus the adventure provided is getting into the worm, traveling through its guts, and looting it from the inside. This translates to three adventure locales: the mouth, the stomach, and the heart.

Each of the three rooms, taking up about a third of the two pages. There’s a little read-aloud/inspiration piece of a sentence or so that does a decent job communicating a vibe. For the mouth it’s “A stench of moist earth and warm rot flows out between layers of needle teeth.” Not bad. Decent imagery. After this bit there’s a paragraph of other DM notes that does a good job describing what’s going on. Sunlight fading to darkness. Gems & coins just out of reach between sharp teeth. Cries of help from failed adventurers that have fallen in to the teeth. Precarious resting places amongst the teeth. And the threat of “scrapworms” roaming between the teeth, a kind of lamprey/parasite monster. Just impressions, and concepts, but LOTS going on, and each of the three rooms is like that. It does a good job of building up in the DMs mind the picture and painting it vividly, with few words. You KNOW how to run this room.

Following that are a few bullet points on dangers. These could be thought of as events, or things for the DM to take advantage of. A fallen adventurer cries for help while the lamprey worms crawl ever closer. The larvae flexes and the jostling is dangerous in the teeth section. Two monstrous molar teeth grind down near a a cache of loot. There’s are all about one sentence, two at most. Concepts. I love it. After that is a description of the monsters, without stats. “Medium damage, low health”, for example, along with a few concepts about them. “Follow the smell of blood. Eat stragglers.” and “inject sickness with bite, drag in to shadows.” I really groove on this sort of description. It help communicate the vibe of the monster and leaves the mechanics to the DM. I’m just going to ignore the mechanics anyway, if presented, and do my own thing in the excitement of an adventure, so I can appreciate that. The treasure section which follow is abstract for for the mundane loot: “2d4 gems” and so on. The magic trease though, is nice. A warhammer that can glow but needs to be recharged with the blood of a foe. A medallion that can crawl around and pick up loot, or “The High Prophet carries a bejeweled dagger that inflicts bleed damage and is masterfully crafted. Worth 20g.” Like I said, decent magic item ideas, but the mundane bits are off.

This is just a linear three room adventure. It’s packed full, conceptually, but it’s still just three rooms. This deserves more. An actual map, with choices, a shit ton more rooms, maybe a column or so on a shantytown nearby and/or complications from other groups/factions. I want more, which is high praise indeed.

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The Devil in the Crypt

devilcrBy Terje Nordin & Mattias Narva
Svard & Svartknost
Levels 1-3

Death will come on swift wings to those who disturb the tomb of the Black Pharaoh! Haunted by evil both otherworldly and mundane, the tomb of the sorcerer-king Akhenseti lies waiting. Within its halls are secrets to be uncovered, enemies to be defeated, and weirdness to be encountered.

I’ve mangled the name of both the authors and publisher by leaving out the umlauts, etc. Sorry.

This is a deceptively interesting adventure in an old tomb complex. It has factions, some interesting entrance options, a symmetrical map (ug!) and a text/design style that runs right up against the line of being useful while still being terse. It may be, heaven help me, one of the better “egyptian themed” adventures. Those things almost always suck, but this one drops the historical pretense in favor of a more Indiana Jones style room theming. IE: it targets the rooms at actual play. Yeah!

The pretext here is pretty light. “Hey, man, there’s a tomb nearby that people think may have fab loot in it.” That’s supplemented by a few rumors and a about one (digest sized) column of background text. Among the rumored loot is both a devil-ring and an oracular device … both of which could serve as excellent pretexts for the party wanting to explore the tomb. Ain’t nothing like “we need to find an oracle to tell us how to destroy the hand of vecna” as the next step on a quest to get the party moving AND not entirely lead them by the nose. It’s a good pretext for an exploration dungeon.

The tomb has multiple entrances and this is one of the strongest elements of the map. I count seven encounters outside but right nearby the tomb as you try to get in and explore around it trying to find an entrance. I think the actual entrance count is four, with the front door and paths down both sides having entrances. (Ya gotta think of something like Valley of the Kings.) Once inside the tomb gets symmetrical, with the core being a 3×3 layout with a few side rooms here and there. I’m not particularly fond, in general, or symmetrical layouts. They tend to be boring and use boring themes. In this this case though something else is going on: factions and some classic room bits.

There are cultists in the temple (and a couple of wanderers on the table support them) doing their cultist thing … which ties back to one of the town rumors. There’s also a mummy in the tomb tasked with, along with his skeletons, protecting the tomb … and the cultists are pissing him off. The mummy is presented in roleplay format more than the cult is, but there are decent roleplay opportunities for both. This makes the various rooms a potential battleground, and could involve hints and missions. Great additions to the dungeon that turn it in to more than a hack and slash.

This is supported by some classic room elements. Statues that hypnotize you with their bejeweled gaze. Bronze gates. An obelisk and green cold flames. A scarab on the wall in gold that when pried off, as parties as want to do, releases scarabs from behind it. Rickety wooden bridges, cavernous rooms full of bats, and so on. A nice variety of classic elements to explore and encounter.

This is all communicated through a quite terse description style. That concentrates on concepts for the DM to expand upon. Room 2c is “A large bronze gate on the southern wall.” In general most of the rooms follow this format of one or two sentences, sometimes supported by some monster stats. “4c. Barricade – Nine skeletons trying to break through a door using a crocodile-headed statue as a battering ram.” It does a good job in giving each room a name and then just presenting a concept. I might have gone just one phrase or sentence further. While the descriptions do a decent job of presenting the core room concept I think that just a bit more on the IMPRESSIONS of the room would have been nice. Something to inspire the DM in their interactions. Dusty tomb with broken statuary, or some such, in the barricade example. Less facts and more creative license of impressions.

It’s taken a concept often done badly, egyptian tombs along with symmetrical maps, and made it pretty decent. By linking the outside exploration, the inside map, the factions, and the classic elements it’s made them all work together to present a surprisingly interesting little resource for DM’s. The descriptive areas are RIGHT at the line of being useful, with any less being a disaster. Decent interesting magic, mostly mundane monsters with a splash of the ultra-violence and fantastic from undead and devils … it’s running right at the edge. A little more color in tow, a little more colour in the rooms, maybe some multiple elevation stuff and this thing would be a 10.

You need to bring yourself to this, but I think it’s interesting enough to keep/want.

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Dungeon Magazine #112

Fair warning: I loved the original adventure.

Jesus Christ, please don’t suck.
Please don’t suck.
Please don’t suck.

Maure Castle, Levels 1-4
By Gary Gygax, James Jacobs, Rob Kuntz, Erik Mona
Level 12

Maure Castle is trouble.

This is a 3.5 update of the old WG5 adventure module, with the original three level supplemented by a new fourth level. (And later, a few more levels, I think, appeared in Dungeon.) This new rewrite is essentially the same basic adventure as the original, with expanded text. The classic exploration dungeon suffers from this new presentation, adding a new set of warts on top of the old adventures existing ones. All is not lost though. The new text DOES add to the adventure, providing strong imagery and motivations that were not present in the original. Unfortunately, it does this ad-nauseum. For those interested, either photocopy this one and take a brutal approach with the highlighter, some homemade reference sheets, and extensive column notes. Or, Go buy the original (I think it’s available as PDF on classics? Print it out and then fill the columns with notes from the Dungeon Magazine version. The end result would be the best of both worlds: non-verbose with strong inspirational imagery. I wish I could do this without getting busted. 🙁

There are four levels here, each with a theme. Themes in these classic dungeons are good, they keep things fresh between levels and prevent everything from having that samey feel when you’re on room #206 of dungeon level five.

The expansion of text is non-trivial. Read-aloud has been “added” and in some cases the DM notes section has been expanded. In some cases new areas have been keyed. For example, the original level one has nineteen rcore rooms while the new level one has twenty-two rooms. This doesn’t tell the entire story since some areas have been consolidated and others newly keyed. In terms of raw page count the old adventure had five pages for level one (with some generous art inserted) while the new adventure has ten pages for level one with almost no art. But the old adventure was triple columns of small text and the new adventure is double column large text. In many cases the room text copies, word for word, from the old adventure; the first paragraph is the read aloud while the second is the DM text. So who the fuck knows.

Well, I do, because I read through the entire damn thing. It’s “longer”. It’s more confusing and harder to use at the table. The words run together, the larger text and double column layout are not conducive to finding and running the rooms. The additional text has a lot of “used to be” and other other descriptions of history and motivations of people long dead. NONE of this is relevant to running the adventure. It has no use when the characters enter the room. The content needs to be focused on supporting actual play, and a great deal of the content here does not do that. Further, there’s duplicative data presented. Wandering monster motivations show up in at least three different areas, essentially saying the same thing. What D&D needs, has always needed and will always need, are strong editors.

But … the added text also does a decent job in places. In particular the imagery in the read-aloud does a great job conveying some of “figure out the connections yourself” present in the original adventure. Because of the “text copying” and turning the first paragraph in to read aloud, much of the read-aloud is more fact/DM based. Dimensions and facts instead of impressions and feeling. But then we come upon this little gem: “The corridor spills out into a room so immense that your light merely reveals a fraction of its size. Perhaps a hundred feet away, what appears to be a chalice on a raised stone platform casts eeries green illumination upon what looks like a watery pool. The western wall is pock-marked with hundred of shallow niches.” A giant dark chamber with a glowing green chalice/pool in the middle and an entire wall of niches?!?!?! Sign me up! That’s new text for this area and it paints a striking picture of something that was always present in the room. It’s a great moment. Sure, the read-aloud could be better, but it’s much better than the fact-based “DM notes turned to read-aloud.”

It’s hard to say how many of the words are new and how many are direct copies … and therefore how that contributes to the confusing wall of text issues. I suspect it has more to do with the larger font and double-column layout.

There are decent wandering monsters on level one now, for example, with small motivations like “don’t get caught by the real guards” and so on. This makes them interesting and more fun to roleplay than generic wandering monsters that are doing nothing. I wish more adventures would do this. At the same time … it again gets lengthy. Or … SEEMS to get lengthy because of the formatting issues?

Comparing it so much to the original is worthless for those who don’t know it. It represents a pretty classic take on old school dungeons. And I mean that as a compliment, from a time before D&D became standardized. One of the early level one rooms has four doors, each with a lit candle and a fresco of a fighter on it. Putting out the candle means the fresco for that door jumps down and begins a fight. Hilarity ensues as the party is caught with their pants down … AND potentially uses this room as a weapon against foes encountered elsewhere. A classic “neutral” room to explore and play with. There’s a lot of this sort of thing in the dungeon. Original, and exploration based.

The text of the original was by no means terse. Multiple paragraphs, in some cases, would suggest I suspect that Kuntz was the primary author. The depth of the details would seem to indicate Kuntz as well … for better and worse. It’s very original, wordy, and full of details of dubious usability/need.

The first level text is closer to the original while the deeper levels seems to have more changes, expansions, read-aloud, and DM notes. The new level presented, The Statuary, seems a bit stabby stabby to me, with a lot of stuff to fight. The map continues the tradition of being interesting and is a true exploration map with lots of paths available, with all that enables. The hacky nature is sure to be enhanced by the 3.0/3.5 tradition of big HP and long fights.

This is thing absolutely WG5. It is BETTER than WG5 in some respects. It’s also worse because of the wall of text/formatting choices made (enforced?) by Dungeon Magazine.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 2 Comments

Broodmother Skyfortress

By Jeff Rients

Jeff Rients is fucking crazy. And I mean that as a compliment.

This is a 173 page digest book on how to DM a great game … with an adventure included and used as an example. The first 95 or so pages are the “how to with adventure” with the rest of the book being “a best-of from Jeff’s Gameblog.” The entire booklet is in the same conversational voice Jeff uses in his blog, making this a low-density affair in terms of traditional content . If you’re buying this for the adventure then you’re making a mistake. If you’re buying this for advice from Jeff on how to design and run an adventure then you’re buying it for the right reason. It’s packed full of great advice and chock full of alternatives and ideas. What you are NOT getting is a dungeon taking up 173 pages in traditional room/key format. The nominal pretext is atha a big sky castle is raiding villages. Or, as Jeff says “What would happen is a bunch of giants showed up here and wrecked the place?”

Let’s cover the second half of the book first. It is, true to word, a best-of from his blog. This includes carousing, motivations for jackass players who can’t figure out why to go on an adventure, dungeon dressing between forays in to it, his famous 20 questions, and a variety of essays on morale, XP for exploration, and a variety of house rules for his own D&D-Mine. Jeff’s blog is insightful and his approach to D&D is pure joy. That comes through in his essays & writings in this section. It generally advocates a less “Holy Writ” approach to D&D. Monkey with the rules. Monkey A LOT with the game world. It’s all a kind of big old lego set that you can break apart, rearrange, destroy, and build upon in a free-wheeling fashion. The style of D&D is describing is one close to my heart and that I aspire to. It looks like all of the included material is essentially the same as is on his blog, but collected. You’ll four or five of them a repeat of Miscellaneum of Cinder … one of the three reference books I keep handy at the table. Is there were ever an OSR “Dungeon Master’s Guide” then Rients columns should be a required part of it. The advice is invaluable. He does tend toward the silly side of D&D, but not so much so that it becomes cartoony (in spite of the cartoon art style in Broodmother.) D&D works best, I think, with some moderate pretext of seriousness that devolves in to archtype NPC’s, crazy plans, and weird stupid magic items (and their exploitation.) Traditional Gamma World games usually work out this way as well. And both do NOT work when you TRY to be silly … 4e Gamma World I’m looking at you. Anyway, Jeff is encouraging to get really close to the line, take a load off, and have fun. The line for SIlly will be different for everyone but he doesn’t cross it. What he does do is promote AWESOME.

As for the adventure, well … let me cover the monster section of the adventure in detail. From that you can extrapolate to get an idea of what the rest of the adventure is like. Generically, the monsters get some OSR stats. For example, the primary villains, the giants, get a set of OSR style stats. (There are also some Pathfinder style stats later on in the book that look like one would expect for Pathfinder.) These are pretty normal. AC:17, HP: 10d8, Mv: 120, +10 hit, Morale 10, Save as 10th level fighter, hit things for 4d6 and throw boulder for 3d6. Jeff labels this “Boring Generic Fantasy Roleplaying Game stats.” He then Jeff’s it up. Fuck your rules. Generic stats are boring. Let’s wreck the players expectations and put the fear of the gods in to the party! It’s Clobbering time!

The new giants stats don’t have an AC. The players don’t even have to roll to hit the giants. They are so big that you can’t miss. Think about that for a minute. When you relate that to the players somehow. “No, you don’t need to roll to hit. It’s so big that there’s no way you can miss.”
What are your players then thinking? I’ll tell you what they are thinking. They are thinking the same thing every single roleplay gamer in the world would be thinking when told that by the DM. “Holy fucking shit man! We’re in trouble! Game over Man! Game over!” You, as the DM, have now effectively communicated the situation and vibe to the players. Then follow the consequences. Hp:20d8, which is related as “In LotFP terms that’s nearly godlike. Which is fine, because one Giant loose in your hometown should seem like a visit from an angry Jehovah.” And then a DR of -5, with two paragraphs of why. The why is not some bullshit ecology of the giants. Many adventures, or games, would go that route, trying to justify it. But it doesn’t NEED to be justified. You’re the DM. It’s that way because of a different reason. Because of the impact it will have on the players and the game and the way they will experience it through their characters. Jeff doesn’t say any of this explicitly, I don’t think, anywhere in the book, but its the core essence, I think, of what he says repeatedly. Break expectations. Break the rules. The rules don’t apply to the DM the way they do to the players. They don’t even apply to the NPC’s or monsters the way they do for the players. Always with the end-state goal in mind: be awesome and have fun.

As a result of this exposition (which goes on for damage and thrown boulders and so on) the length of text is larger. The boring old generic stats for the giants if about 1/6th of a page, and a digest page at that. The new stats take two pages. It’s not because they are dense, like some old 3.x or Pathfinder stat blocks might be. It’s because the philosophy and reasoning for doing what in the stats is explained. The DR section is two paragraphs. To describe “-5 points.” Clearly something else is going on here and that something else is the Reasons Why. Not the ecology. The reasons why you want to do this to promote gameable content and actions. Telling the players their blows bounce off. Watching the futility when you announce a roll of 6 barely scratches the surface. How to use the “ecology” of the monster to promote the vibe and gameable content. It’s ingrained in to every part of the stat block for the “new” giants.

And this happens over and over again for almost every part of the adventure. The giants here are centaur monsters with the lower half of elephants and the upper parts of sharks … because Rients. What are they, actually? You get four pages of options of what they could be, from Angels to Space Aliens to Mutants to shark-elephants, along with the consequences of those decisions. And the flying castle? Again you get four options on who could have built it,along with the consequences, theming, etc of those decisions. And then you get the section before all of this, where RIents is telling you that you should be doing this with ALL of your content. Awesome it ALL up … but just this one time he’s going to walk you through what “Making it awesome” looks like. The adventure and the How To are tightly bound.

I’ll cover the actual adventure briefly. Some half-shark/elephant giants in a floating sky castle are attacking villages. The characters get to track them down/their path, find a way to get to the castle, experience the sub-humans in the tunnels under the castle and the giants in the castle proper. Maybe twelve rooms in the castle and maybe twelve more in the tunnels under the castle. Motivations? Make one up. Someone got captured or the giants took something. Destruction path? Make something up. Witnesses. “What would this place/my campaign map look like if giants destroyed it.” The giants get brief personalities. They have some factions. The subhumans underneath represent another faction. The fortress proper represents the better parts of the style of G1. “Here’s the big place, there’s a lot of stuff going on, like a slave revolt, a lothario and so on. Go interact with it.” The giants move around a bit, and there are nice effects to this. The lead-in, with the village destruction, etc, communicates the vibe rather than specifics. Night attacks, the terror of huge shadowy things in the dark. Weird egg hatchings. Fire everywhere, screams, and so on. The vibe you’re going for is communicated well. The faction play is good. The “how to get your ass to the cloud” is good … because it has nothing in it except some advice on how to evaluate the crazy-ass plans the party will come up with. Crazy ass plans, and the disasters that ensue, are a chief component of D&D fun, IMO. The rooms in the castle have some control panels to fuck with , a crazy dead brain in a giant skull that’s not dead along with a body to play with, and are generally all quite wonderful. And you’re going to need a highlighter, notes, and a photocopier to get the most out of it. Even the most casual of readers of my blog should know by now that this style is not one I prefer. Given the teaching nature of the adventure I’m giving this some slack. Yes, everything IS awesome. And I still gotta run it at the table which means margin notes and a highlighter. Likewise, condensing a couple of tables on the giants, their interactions and personalities, in to one page for printing/photocopying would have made life easier on DM’s. I understand the dichotomy of explaining why and room description usability. But DO NOT PASS GO on condensing/including reference tables in a way easy for a DM to reproduce and use at the table.

The adventure is designed well, if a little abstracted and verbose because of the “how to” nature. The map encourages play, as to the factions and various elements. It might be the best primer thus far on running things by the seat of your pants in an OSR manner … if there is such a thing. “Here’s the basic set up. It’s written in a neutral fashion. A plot will develop as the party experiences the place. GO!”

It’s the holiday season. You could do a lot worse than buying this for your DM. It’s packed full of advice, examples, and how to’s.

Addendum: Jeff appears to live in Illinois. I suggest we all move to his town in Illinois so he can be our DM.

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Misty Isles of the Eld

By Chris Kutalik, Robert Parker
Hydra Cooperative
Labyrinth Lord
Level 3-4

Come visit the acid fantasy mini-sandbox of the Misty Isles, a hellish pocket plane that’s brutally displaced a bucolic paradise. Marvel at its massive grub-ridges, shake at the body horror of its protein vats—and watch as your players dynamically unleash the Anti-Chaos Index through their own in-game actions.

This is a 103 (digest) page sandbox/pointcrawl adventure on an island that bends towards the gonzo end of the spectrum. I tend to enjoy that sort of content, so, you need to be aware that I’m unusually inclined to like this. ANyway, about 60 pages have adventure contact/pointcrawl/complexes/wandering monster tables with the last forty pages being things like a bestiary, items descriptions, a kind of (lightweight) psionic system, and so on. There are four locations that quality as “dungeons”, or, rather, plces with lots of rooms to explore. It’s a pretty focused adventure, with a terser, but not terse, writing style that generally conveys a lot of information with a few words. The main adversary race is described as “Lawful Evil space elves with a taste for bizarre bureaucracy, biomancy, and (David) Bowie.” ANY idiot should be able to take that run. Which is exactly the level of aid an adventure resource should provide. This product is good, and reminds me that, for all the dreck, we truly live at a wonderful time for RPG material. It feels like a wonderful mashup of the Soulless from Mad Lands and Splugorth stuff from Rifts. Two great tastes that taste great together!

It’s an island! Full of mist! Once a fairy realm, the Eld have moved in, merging their plane with the island. Once ON the island it’s hard to get off again, thanks to the mists. On the island we find a great example of an alien environment taking over, with their brutalism architecture being imposed over the fairy-land. The party have a chance to correct that. As they explore and destroy/kill/get into trouble it’s likely that they will begin to push reality back towards the natural fantasy elements and away from the Eld-environment. This sort of real, positive feedback on the parties actions is not something a lot of adventures do but the parties I run seem to get a lot of … motivation? out of it. In general, letting the party see the consequences of their actions, in a real and tangible way, showing instead of telling, is a great way to reward the party in a non-traditional way.

It’s laid out in a pointcrawl style, for the party to wander over the isles, with giant sandworm type things forming ridges to make it harder to go around. Several of the locations (four?) are expanded upon in detail, with 18-30 or so rooms per. The entire setting has this vibe that this both stark and baroque. It’s clearly a “Fantastic Environment” and taking a ship through the mists is a pretty classical way to declare You Are Somewhere Else Now And The Normal Rules Don’t Apply.

The Eld, as an organized foe, have a variety of response levels to the parties incursions on their plans, with the response being pretty straightforwardly presented. More patrols. Locked doors. Calling for help, etc. It’s all to the point and makes sense for how an organized foe would respond … with the Eld personality twists thrown in. The NPC have great one-sentence summaries and then a few sentences more to expand upon them. This makes it easy to get their vibe, quickly, and improvise a great NPC interaction with them. Importantly, not everything is combat oriented and, even for those that are, their (terse) descriptions are focused on making that encounter memorable. It’s not just empty backstory garbage descriptions, but they are focused on the DM’s use of them. That’s EXACTLY what a NPC description should do, even if they are fodder for the parties swords.

Monsters and magic are both non-standard. Not knowing what to expect with a new monster is part of the fear/fun of encountering new things. New items abound, with the psionic/biomancy vibe. Stuff to play with. Stuff to experiment with and get in to trouble with. Stuff to exploit. There’s no gimping the party in this. In fact, I think it’s a great example of how to provide an environment in which you don’t NEED to gimp the party. It’s relatively low level, which of course helps a lot. In fact, MOST adventure which gimp the party should really be for a much lower level party … and then you wouldn’t need to gimp them!

Anyway, this is an excellent effort. Great environment, a lean towards the bio-gonzo, but not enough to turn off the people who hate Gamma World D&D adventures. A pretty decent terse writing style. Cause & effect for the party to witness along with a decent mix of encounter types beyond straight up combat. If you can tolerate the more gonzo-leaning product then this is a must buy. And even if you can’t stand gonzo I’d give one a try. Stylistically, it fills a nice niche between the originality of OD&D and wonkiness of gonzo.

Also, I know I don’t mention art much. The art style here is nice and compliments the core conceit nicely: conveying easily the Lawful Evil Space Elves with a taste for bureaucracy, biomancy, and Bowie.

Also, I don’t update reviews. Ever.

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