[5e] Modrons, Mephits, & Mayhem

By Tim Bannock
Self Published
Levels 5-8

It is primarily set in a modron-designed research facility that has been abandoned by its creators but retains guardians that are still active. Additionally, two groups have broken into the facility with their own goals in mind; the githyanki and their red dragon cohort are antagonistic and provide the main source of combat in this adventure, while a modron traveling with a few mephits may prove friendly although ultimately troublesome.

This seventy page adventure describes a three-level modron lab with about sixty rooms total. Only thirty or so pages are devoted to the dungeon, with the rest being appendices for monster stats, maps, etc, and it manages about four rooms per page when it is being terse and the rooms are simple. While for 5e, t’s trying to bring in elements of older play, with factions, better (non-linear) maps, interactivity and a generally slower/more exploratory environment. It’s trying to be organized, and succeeds admirably on several points, but the bulk of the text had readability issues, in both clarity and verbosity, which detract from the more interesting room elements which don’t come across well because of it.

A village water supply, from a river, has dwindled to nothing and you go up river to find out what happened. Discovering the water trickling from a (long-existing) dam you explore it to discover some other factions, friend and foe, inside. At heart, this is an exploratory dungeon crawl with another enemy faction (and the dungeon faction proper) already inside, and some allies to potentially recruit. Both the initial village, and another along the way, serve as rumor sources to collect information before venturing in. The NPC’s are all gathered in a small section, with personalities, that makes wading through their (longer) descriptions later a lot more tolerable. In addition, the information you can gather is separated out nicely in bullet-form faction, making it easy for the DM to locate and scan. It’s a great formatting decision.

The maps are decent and the three-level dungeon does a pretty good job of feeling like a lab to explore, without going full on gonzo nutso scifi. There are lots of levers, dials, viewscreens, and so on to play with. Command words to guardians with clues left about, prisoners to rescue to join forces with, simple room puzzles and interactivity. There are things to figure out and use to your own advantage when exploring/interacting. The core concept of the dungeon is a good one and the rooms, while not standouts, hit that bar of “good enough” in terms of variety and interactivity.

The adventure falls down, though, in the actual descriptions used to explain the rooms. They are long. They concentrate on irrelevant things. They try to explain WHY things are. In essence, the descriptions tend to focus on the irrelevent parts of a room, which obfuscates the more relevant portions. What follows is a lack of clarity and a hinderance to scanning the room and running it effectively.
Room D1-2, on page 13, the first level, is a good example. The first paragraph is all background, what USED to happen in this room. “The river originally flowed from X to X and then to Z but is now dry.” and so on. It tells us nothing new and adds nothing to the room. What USED to happen is irrelevant unless it impacts the party NOW … and ancient history seldom does.

The second paragraph tells us the evil faction came through here, heard a command word, and used it, thus the automated defences are still intact. The adventure falls in to this trap, explaining WHY, in a lot of rooms. There’s a decanter of endless water, held by an iron golem, who says the command word over and over again, in order to get a stream of water. It’s currently disabled, hence no water stream. There’s a trap here. The rules, those three books, they are for the players. There’s not a single word in any of them that binds a DM. You don’t need to use the rules to explain or build an effect. It happens because MAGIC. There’s no reason for a decanter until you want the party to steal it (which they will.) A water nymph pieced by a spear that bleeds water, or any of literally a ZILLION other things could create water. Dead unicorn heads, or horns, whatever. There’s never a reason to explain WHY. (Or, almost never, anyway.) All of that just clogs up the room, detracting the really important stuff: the evocative descriptions and DM notes. It’s hard to scan during play with this much text involved.

The read aloud tells us the pool is 40 feet deep. It’s only 20 foot full. It’s 15’ wide and 20’ deep. Steps lead up 5 feet. These are not evocative descriptions. The text should get a vibe across to the DM, so they can enhance it and get it to the players. Steel-walled, a deep clear pool with a catwalk over it. A gleaming glass tube coming from the ceiling and ending in the water. Present a vibe. The map can handle the dimensions.

And there’s another issue: cross-room issues. There’s another room nearby that causes things to happen when you step on the catwalk. But you don’t know that until you get to that room. Likewise, there’s a room nearby (the one with the decanter in it) that is at the end of a long hallway that’s patrolled, with a faction guardroom down near the other end. But you don’t know that until you get to the faction control room. “Uh, sorry, hang on guys, it looks like that hallway is actually patrolled, the one you came down.” Ideally, you integrate this sort of stuff either in to the map (the patrolled hallway) or reference it in another room. “If you step on the catwalk see room 1-3.” or some such. You need a pointer. Otherwise you’re forcing the DM to be INTIMATELY familiar with it or scribble on the map, make notes, etc. And that’s not the DM’s job. That’s the designers job.

I don’t want to come off too harsh. For a 5e exploratory dungeon, this thing is headed in the right direction. It’s got a nice order of battle for creatures in the dungeon, doesn’t have more than sentence or so on monster tactics, and uses bullet points pretty effectively in room descriptions. What is really needs is a stronger focus on the CORE of the rooms. The evocative nature. The text should be terse, but not minimalist. Every line should help the DM run the room. A BIG edit for verbosity and more evocative descriptions (not longer, more evocative) would do wonders for this and turn it in to a really good 5e exploratory dungeon.

It’s $5 on DMsguild.

There’s a free preview of ALL of level 1. Check out the last page & last column to see room 2/2a, with its backstory and explaining why. The entirety of 2/2A, that is seen here, could be shortened to maybe three sentences and be just as, if not more, useful to the DM running it.

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Dungeon Magazine #149

Not as bad as I was expecting for issue 149. Nice ideas, poorly implemented.

War of the Wielded
By Richard Pett
Level 5

Well, you don’t see that everyday. I tend to like things stretched to their logical conclusion, or at least I’m morbidly fascinated by it, and this adventure does that. A world with intelligent swords that can ego-overwhelm people? Ok, let’s see where that goes … Two groups of intelligent swords, with conflicting goals, are engaged in a kind of war. The party stumbles on a dead body and one of the swords. ENcouraged by a magic sword, and told of where to find more, they are encouraged by the sword to go rescue his “friends” … the other swords on his side. This leads to a fight in a bathhouse, capturing a rust monster, and destroying all of the magic swords with it. It’s linear, but the setup of magic swords engaged in a “war” with each other is a good one. You meet someone after the first encounter who wants you to destroy all the swords and it’s simply a given that the party will … but this comes out of nowhere. There’s no real motivation, horrific acts, etc, to motivate the party to give up a bunch of magic swords. It’s just the next stop on the railroad. It plays out more like a series of set-pieces with token roleplay to tie things together, and that’s never good. There’s a decent idea here; it needs to be given more room to breathe, with fewer descriptions of ordinary rooms. In particular, the hooks appeal to the PLAYERS, but tempting them with magic swords. Nice job that.

Twisted Night
By Stefan Happ
Level 10

I’m not sure about this one. There’s an abandoned village with a mad dude in jail and a boy under a boat, neither of whom know what happened to the villagers. There’s a sullen, forlorn vibe that I can dig. You eventually find out a tree monster signs after dark, luring people to their doom … which in this case meant slavers. But the slaves are still dying and the only way to save them is killing the plant monster. Good imagery with ogres skinning and hanging meat, the initial village, a drunk satyr, and, of course, the potential for pirate/slaver allies. It’s also very … encountery? Ogres in the village. A centaur slaver on a hill. Pirates on the shore. It all just feels like there’s monsters there BECAUSE. Still, nice adventure concept and some good imagery. It’s just needs a rework.

Enemies of My Enemy
By Wolfgang Baur
Level 19

Meet Charon and journey the Styx picking up allies to attack Demogorgon. Lots of words. Lots of forced combats and “testing skills” and meaningless read-aloud. There’s some decent roleplay in this, in negotiating the various creatures/scenarios of the planes and recruiting demonic allies, but it’s buried in a horrid page count from stat blocks and overworked “aren’t I clever!” text. It’s feel formulaic and repetitive.

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Catacombs of Chaos

By Walter P. Jones Jr.
New Realms Publishing
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 1-3

The trading season has begun and the town of Ravenor is filled with merchants and celebrators looking to enjoy the upcoming Spring Festival. But not all is well in the capital of Crysamar Vale. Tremors rumble through the land, damaging buildings, and fisherman complain that the fish are becoming scarce. And during quiet moments, when the fires burn low and most revelers have long since gone to bed, the rumors grow darker. Tales are whispered of bloodless bodies being found in the streets at dawn, of boats drifting down river in the morning mist, their crews gone, and of strange smells and sounds that make the blood of even the hardiest soul run cold. Something dreadful has come to Ravenor.

This 25 page adventure describes a fifty room “standard” dungeon The map is actually decent, but it is PLAGUED by long read-alouds, boring history and room trivia, and massive amounts of DM text. This reminds me, most of all, of the initial draft of Dwimmermount: minimal keying expansively described.

The start/introduction has a column of read-aloud. The town council, a column of DM text later, has another column of read-aloud text. The rooms have read-aloud. The read-aloud is boring. Here is a masterpiece: “ A small stream of water flows into this chamber from a passage in the north wall, feeding a large pool in the southwest corner. Light debris litters the floor and there is an opening in the east wall.” The focus is on trivia from the map. Where the stream enters. Where the pool is. The detail is uninteresting “light debris.” This is not specific, generic, using boring adjectives like “light” and unspecific nouns like “debris.” This read-aloud has done NOTHING for the DM or the players. Floors have dirt and debris in read alouds. Mounds are “large” in the read-alouds. This is poor writing, evoking nothing but boring genericism. This is then exacerbated by long DM text. It’s long, contains history and room trivia not relevant to running the adventure. “A hidden catch will open the secret door, revealing the passage beyond. There is nothing of value in the room.” This is akin to telling us, in a normal village, that the sun shines or that a door can be opened. Of fucking course a door can be opened. That’s the nature of a door. It’s notable if it CAN’T be opened. Expansive text for minimal keying.

There are bright spot. Creatures with bulbous eyes and webbed claws. And here’s a temple description in read-aloud: “Trailers of mist drift through this large room, diffusing the pale green light that emanates from a crystalline dome overhead. Mottled blue stone forms the walls and floor. To the south, a large object looms in the mist.” That’s a decent read-aloud description, painting a picture of a room in your mind. But there’s FAR too little of it and far too much DM text to wade through. Focus, people. FOCUS!

The map is decent, using color and having themed sections and a nice selection is flopping corridors, the way an exploration dungeon should have them. It’s only half a page though, making it hard to read; a full page map would have been better.

The adventure also has an objectives table You go in to the dungeon at the behest of the town council. As you come out, and share information with them, they will offer you various rewards. Did you tell them about the evil temple? They are pleased to know about it and they’ll pay you a little more. There’s about twenty entries on the table and I think it’s an interesting mechanic to push the party to interact with the council/town, and push them to explore. There’s not really any decent information to help the DM interact with the town, but, hey, the table IS interesting.

Lots of read-aloud. Lots of DM text. It’s a pain to wade through and the bulk of the text just isn’t that creative or interesting. The core of the dungeon, as a “generic dungeon” isn’t that bad, with rats, undead, mist, temples, etc, but the amount of effort you need to get there is just too much for me, much like the original Dwimmermount draft.

This is $6 on DriveThru. The preview is five pages. All it shows you is the massive read-aloud for the introduction/start and the town council, etc. You learn nothing of the actual rooms. Bad preview! No cookie for you!

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Tranzar’s Redoubt

By Joe Johnston II
Taskboy Games
Labyrinth Lord
Level 4-6

Every fool knows that a cornered conjurer is a most dangerous foe. But a truly wise wizard will always have a fallback plan to use when victory eludes him. A secret place cached with treasure, filled with monsters and guarded by dweomercraft most subtle is the defeated magician’s best friend. It is also a juicy plum for professional adventurers. Care to take a bite?

This 44 page digest adventure describes a twenty room dungeon in about twenty pages, with the rest being monsters, magic items, preg-gens, etc. It’s mostly a linear dungeon with a few branching rooms. I’d call this a funhouse dungeon, with iconic adventure tropes appearing in many of the rooms. It’s got some layout issues, gets long/redundant in places, and generally has bits and pieces of decent descriptions. If the layout/map/etc issues were resolved then I’d say this is one good edit away from being a pretty decent funhouse adventure.

Fair warning: I have a fondness for the classics. Waterfalls need a cave behind them, etc, and this adventure has that in spades. There’s a room with statues that ask riddles. There’s a dragon on a treasure pile that you can talk to. There are damsels on a rock in an underground lake. There’s an etting in a room with three magic fountains. A large mushroom forms a mouth to issue a warning. At times this is a like a who’s who of classic D&D room types.

The rooms have some decent imagery associated with them. A door with an evil fetish of chicken bones, feathers, and a ruddy brown stain. Nice! Odious vines. Statues illuminated with blue light from within. A statue face on a wall of a desiccated zombie with a mouth distorted into a rictus of hunger. These are pretty good descriptions. They get an image across to the DM immediately and these sorts of descriptions are not uncommon in the adventure. “Large” pods is not very descriptive. A common issue with much adventure writing is resorting to these common adjectives and adverbs. Large and big are both boring words. EVen if you don’t go full on Jabberwocky there’s always a thesaurus.

But these descriptions also tend to be buried in the text. “Stairs descend for about 20’ into a 40’ passageway ending in a door. The door is locked. Normal lock picking rules apply.” I wonder if normal combat rules also apply in combat? And it’s somewhat remiss to not tell us that normal gravity rules apply? It’s IS useful to know the room dimensions, since, you know, they are also right there on the map that we just looked at to get the room numbers, etc. You know, the central piece of information for all DM’s that’s almost always the centerpiece of the reference material they use. Oh, wait …. NOT useful. That’s right. REDUNDANT. It’s this redundancy, on both counts, that drives me crazy, especially with an adventure like this that is close to being acceptable.

The number one rule in adventures, published ones anyway, is that they are technical document, a reference for the DM. The implications of that statement will vary based on the type of adventure what section of the adventure, but it always needs to be on the designer’s mind. For room keys there needs to (ALMOST always) be a focus. What’s the DM need to know first? Usually this is the description; the short and evocative text that shoves an idea seed in to the DM’s head where it can grow and flourish and they can then ad-lib and fill in for the rest of the room. It’s. Not. The. Fucking. Room. Dimensions. First, it’s on the map. The map that’s almost always in front of the DM. No, putting it in the key is not good. More is not better. It distracts from the DMs attention. Suddenly there is trivia, useless information, that I must dig through in order to get to the stuff I NEED to run the room. I’m hot on overloading the map with detail because of this; it’s always there and can support a lot of the mundane needs of the DM without detracting from the evocative part of the room. Give me a terse and evocative room description then another paragraph of a couple of sentences that follows up on it. You don’t need tons of mechanics. You don’t need to spell everything out. You’ve got a DM there. Allude to things. Give the DM room to blossom.

I’m being overly harsh on Joe, the designer. This isn’t garbage, he does have some good descriptions and room ideas (and good magic items, for that matter), it’s just clogged up with the mistakes I’ve seen hundreds of times before. The difference here is that those adventures generally had few redeeming qualities, unlike some of Joes descriptions and room ideas. I feel like Joe is close. Take a room. Work it. Rewrite it. Focus. Have the magic click.

I’m also more than a little annoyed that the map is split over two pages in the (middle) of the book. I don’t know, I guess it’s digest sized and that takes some allowance, but I find those hard to read, and reference in play, and print out/photocopy for my DM screen. No, I don’t have solution. I’m just a jerk that way.

This is $2 on DriveThru. The preview is six pages, but it’s all intro stuff. I wish these previews would more often show you an example of the technical writing.

Finally, there’s a thread over at RPGGEEK where they are building a community dungeon. I’ve been critiquing their rooms. One of them, username=PurpleBrocoli, had a kind of meandering writing style that they cleaned up quite a bit and turned in something that meets my approval. Several others are rewriting their rooms also, and I do in to detail on most of the rooms, noting the trivia and so on.

Fuck if I know how to direct link to Purple rooms …

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Dungeon Magazine #148

The Automatic Hound
By James L. Sutter
Level 4

A beast stalks a village. Killing it just causes it to return the next night. The party has to figure out that the body of a recently dead boy needs to be returned to some standing stones in order to get rid of the beast. The townfolk and churchman won’t want the corpse of the mayors son engaged in some pagan standing stone ritual. The complications of the resisting town, differing and conflicting motivations, could almost make this a Zzarchov Kowolski adventure … if he were illiterate and knew nothing about writing an RPG. The adventure is more like a twelve page outline. There’s very little specific support for the DM, except a six room rooms with lots of room descriptions that don’t matter. The hiring, the investigation, the monster hunt through the village, the troubles with the villagers in returning the body … none of it is supported. It’s just an outline, that should be six bullet points long, expanded endless to twelve pages without actually providing any actual real support for the DM. That’s too bad because if it WERE there then it would be a complex social adventure, with an almost LotFP potential ending.

In the Shadows of Spinecastle
By Stephen Greer & Gary Holian
Level 9

Count Doku wants you to go to an evil town and find his missing spy and/or recover his intelligence information. You go to a bar and get attacked. You go to a house and get attacked. You go to an eight room linear dungeon. End. It’s just set-piece combats linked with the barest pretext of non-combat. Utter garbage. I’d wipe my ass with it but I got a bidet for Christmas.

Wells of Darkness
By Eric L. Boyd
Level 18

Typical computer rpg adventure. Go to market in abyss to get info. Get attacked. Go to palace and talk to demon to get information. Go to prison. Go elsewhere to free prisoner. Have big fight at the end. It’s ponderous, full of the minutia of backstory … I don’t see how ANY person could possibly run this adventure.

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A Forgotten Evil

By Alex D. Karaczun
Mischief, Inc
Levels 1-3

In ages past, nations fought great wars with the aid of powers from fiendish allies. Much has been forgotten since then, but sometimes that which is forgotten can be the greatest danger of all. Goblins are raiding the small villages near Caer Carega. Is it just the depredations of a few desperate tribes, or is there something more sinister behind the night raids?

This forty page adventure details a three level dungeon with about forty rooms, as well as a small overland adventure. Goblins have been raiding and the party is sent to find & kill them, ending up in their base; the tower. Inside is a “goblins have taken over a ruin” dungeon, stuffed full of magic and monsters. Long & meaningless descriptions that seem like filler are the highlights of this and, frankly, I’m struggling to find this adventure brings to a table. It’s just Yet Another Goblin Lair adventure.

You’re hired to go find and destroy some raiding goblins, while the regions own militia pull back to protect the villages and homesteads from the raids, which at least makes sense. The party is sent out in to the wilderness to find the goblins with no hints, NPC’s to talk to, or any supporting information even about which way the goblins come from. They wander the wilderness, use the wandering monster chart, until the DM drops a hint and they find a ruined tower wherein the goblins lair. I’m not a fan of most of this adventure, but this really stands out to me. It’s all abstracted away with no support for the DM to run a meaningful encounter in getting hired or asking about. No ruined villages or homesteads or any resources if the party asks about … which they are sure to do.

The ruined tower has ruined ground floor and then two dungeon levels. The dungeon levels are pretty standard with goblins, a couple of other demi-humans, some undead in old ruined areas, and a few vermin. It’s mostly uninteresting encounters with monsters stuffed in to rooms who react when you open the door, and little else to explore or interact with. The bugbear sleeps in his armor, there’s no real response to an incursion outlined, it all feels like just monsters stuffed in a room with not much tying it together besides “it’s a goblin lair.” It’s best when it is defying this, such as with the young white dragon that lives in the tower and may fly out. But there’s far far too little of this.

The descriptions are long; long read-alouds and long DM text, for meaningless text. Once, after a long read-aloud, there was a DM note, the first sentence, stating “the knives in the description are worthless.” That’s the story of this adventure in a nutshell. The mundane is expanded upon both in the read-aloud and in the DM text. “Characters may enter this room and begin searching it.” Well, that’s great to know, I guess. Can they also breathe in and exhale? It seems petty, but repeated, a hundred times, it gets tiresome. You’re looking for that special spark to make the rooms come alive and instead you get just filler.

The magic items are another example of this. There’s an attempt to provide lore, a background, for, oh, lets say six to eight of them, mostly weapons. I appreciate a little extra in magic items, a terse/nice description, a non-mechanical effect, and so on. But the lore sections for the magic items get themselves bogged down in to backstory that is unlikely to impact play. They are at their best when they say things like “baron butthurt will pay 3x-5x the price to recover this sword” … IE: when they lead to more adventure and drive action. Otherwise it’s just more useless trivia and that shit has a place of about one short sentence for people/places/things.

To top it all off, the disguised bad guy has a ring of mind shielding and needs to get away so the other adventures in the series can go off.

Byrce’s Tip o’the day: It’s always best to just kill all prisoners in a dungeon. Because, you know, THE. EVIL. ONE.

This is a rough adventure, with LOTS of foes, and a lot of magic items to go with them. The room descriptions drag on, describing trivia, and the entire thing lacks a certain focus of purpose, with little interactivity. It’s just another generic goblin lair, this time in a ruined tower.

It’s $10 on DriveThru. The four page preview shows you almost nothing, it being the first four pages of the adventure and all backstory and how to read a stat block. At best, the last page or so describes the generic hiring hook and lack of support for the DM in running the hiring/search.

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The Atheneum of Yearning

By Oswald
Self Published
Levels 1-3?

The atheneum was a center of learning which became the headquarters of a dangerous cult. Where forgotten ones hoped to be chosen for the pure land. Their rituals went wrong during the city’s raid. Now it’s been forgotten inside its containment cube for 50 years. Until a secret entrance was found in the basement of a nearby house. Only the players have access to this hidden chamber for now.

This nineteen page adventure is a three level tower with about fifty rooms in it. It describes a ruined home/library in a city that has been magically walled off … and now has a tunnel coming in from underneath from a nearby home. Greed, or searching for something specific, the factions and weirdness inside make this like a more active/interactive/action-oriented Tower of the Stargazer.

This is an interesting little adventure, something like a mix between Stargazer and maybe Spire of Iron & Crystal. The default hook is, as described, a loot-the-place-we-just-found-the-way-in adventure. The map here is three levels with various parts of the levels, especially the second, blocked off from other areas because of a collapsed floor. You can see them, both from below and on the the second level, and there are multiple stairs and ways up. This makes the map one of the better ones I’ve seen lately. It offers tantalizing scenes that pull the players in certain directions.

This also allows for faction play, with five being detailed. Where they live, what they want, and how they are related to each other. Billy needs a couple of things, then he can become The Chosen One and kill the Queen in the queen faction. There’s an interconnectedness here that many/most dungeons don’t have and that kicks things up a notch, particularly with the factions and their relationship to each other.

This is complimented by a nice overview of the street the house is on, and a timeline of what happens on the street, all on a small and well laid-out section of a page, almost like bullet points. I can’t compliment the format enough. It covers all sorts of things to make the OUTSIDE portion of the house, as the party retreat and re enter, as much fun as the inside, if not more so. Nosy neighbors, street scenes, gangs moving in; it’s well done and is exactly what you’re hoping to see when you want to make the OUTSIDE of the dungeon lively. It’s enough to get your imagination going and run an entire little vignette, or twele, but doesn’t do it either by droning on or boring you with generic random encounters.

The various encounters in the house range from weird vignettes, like corpses, that set the mood, to encounters that almost have a dream-like feel to them. If you go through a certain secret door, to a secret garden, you meet your mother. You know it’s her, even though she’s wearing a mask. She tells you not to go back through the door, because there are monsters there who killed your father. She can also give you a bonus. There’s a heavy innocence and innocence-lost theme to things. Pans lost boys fifty years later, as children who could have been The Chosen One (ala Potter to CS Lewis) They are weird, not in a gonzo way but in a slightly off kilter melancholy way.

The adventure isn’t perfect and I can point out a couple of flaws. The first is a little petty. The very first words of the first level tell us that every surface of the library walls is covered with shelves and overstuffed with books. This leads to the inevitable questions of “what are their titles and can we systematically loot and sell them?” … neither of which is addressed. A book title generator and/or value/quality system would have hooked in nicely with the timeline and factions, as the players “mine” the books and deal with the factions and the goings on in the tunnel house and the street outside of it. That would have been an excellent tie in.

The designer could also use a little more evocative language and scene setting. “Iron railing connects the pillars.” or “central spiral stairs leads to the middle chamber.” or “Each chamber has a skeleton, stacks of books, a cot, a chamber pot, writing utensils and paper.” These examples are all not at the sterling heights of evocative imagery. It’s important that the text be arranged to make sense to the DM and also to jam a scene in to their head.

This is PWYW on DriveThru, with a suggested price of … $0! That’s right, it’s free! The preview doesn’t work, but, hey, it’s free, and worth checking out. http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/217721/The-Atheneum-of-Yearning

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Dungeon Magazine #147

The Aundairian Job
By Craig Shackleton
Level 5

Holy shit! A sandbox! I’m not kidding, a real sandbox! In a late issue dungeon! It’s a bank heist. An exorcist wants a possessed amulet from a bank vault, so he can banish the demon in it, but the bankers have their rules and he ain’t got the password. No one is evil! Try THAT one on for once! There’s a bit of the ol magical society bullshit, with skylights held in place with sovereign glue and permanent whispering wind spell intercom systems. Without that stuff, and changing the place from a bank to “Karl the moneylender” and you’ve have more standard fantasy world adventure. There’s a corrupt clerk you can give you information on the maps, the guard rotations, security procedures, and so on. Then, it’s just game fucking on! Come up with a crazy plan and go to town, the essence of great D&D! It IS laid out incorrectly, using room/key format. This means that the security procedures, like the bears that roam the compound and guard posts, have long descriptions about how they work. Other rooms, like a shower room, have very terse ones. “With a handle that dumps cold water when pulled.” That’s about the most that’s appropriate for a shower room, in a caper adventure. The “big picture” details of the security and procedures should have been pulled out in general sections and then a terse room/key presented, with the two referencing each other. I don’t want to dig for information about the patrolling animals by trying to find the correct room with the info. Put it in “night patrols” section and reference room 4 as their pen, with room 4 referencing the night patrols section, noting it’s the home of the patrolling animals. With a rewrite this could be an ok adventure!

Dread Pagoda of the Inscrutable Ones
By: A shiton of people
Level 10

Part three, the final part of the Seeds of Sehan adventure path. Starts with an auto-ambush, no doubt “to get the players going for the night!” and follows with some yak-folk probably attacking in a forest. Then there’s a thirty room dungeon/pagoda to infiltrate/hack through so you can kill the last remnants of the Sehan entity. It’s all janni and room/key, and not even a brain in a jar can save it. It’s the strongest in the series thanks to its bluff/infiltrate basis, but digging through this to run it and understand what’s going on is a chore.

Into the Maw
By Robert J. Schwald
Level 17

Part none of the twelve part Savage Tide adventure path. You take your boat in to an abyss ocean, to a prison, to do a jail break. With a bullywug lich. All of the prisoners are either hostile or indifferent. That’s right Mr Angel-held-captive-in-an-abyss-prison is, at best, indifferent to the people freeing him. It claims to have factions, but since they all attack it’s really just some theming to the different areas. It’s just a fucking hack.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 1 Comment

The Ruined Tower Giant

By (Uncredited)
Unbalanced Dice Games
Labyrinth Lord

The party must go to the tower the giant took with him when he ran away. Something is bugging the Duke and his Necromancer thinks it has to do with the tower. The tower must be explored and the purgative put in every room. Will they have an easy time doing this? Of course not. The tower is dangerous but someone else has taken residence up very close to it. Only by entering the tower will they find out who that is…

!!!I DON’T KNOW!!!

This is a 43 page six-level dungeon with about 65 rooms in it. I don’t know how to summarize it. The rooms feel random, but connected by an overall theme. It’s like junior high kid wrote a D&D adventure … and english wasn’t their first language but they were fluent in it but they were raised in a skinner box with only the LabLord rules. It’s all basic and to the point, simplistic almost to the point of being iconic. This is BARE BONES … but not minimally keyed. It’s somehow one step above that.

After I bought this and cracked it I had a sudden realization: I had seen this style before. Looking back it became clear: I had no fucking idea what was up with the previous product I reviewed and I have no idea what is up with this one.

Nearby is part of a tower and attached to it is a giant that has been turned to stone. You’re hired to go put some magic salt in every room in order to put to rest the spirit haunting the Duke every night. The tower has three levels and the giant has been hollowed out in to three levels also. The magic salt thing is an interesting way to get the party in to every room and to explore all levels/rooms. It also has the kind of old timey folklore vibe that I groove on.

The maps are pretty good, with decent looping and variety of design. The treasure seems light with not nearly enough to justify going in to the place. But, really, the “highlight” here are the encounters. One room has two shovels sticking out of the ground, forming a V. WTF is up with that, you ay ask. I have no idea. You know as much as I. It’s the “shovel themed” area, I guess, cause there’s a zombie digging a hole in another room nearby, and another that like to lie in the holes he’s digging to rest. And another room with a bunch of buried bodies in it with a skeletons hand sticking “partway out of the ground.” One room in the giant has some pink fluid oozing out of it, the giant is still alive and begs you to restore him! Another has a giant stone thumb sticking through the towers wall with a magic sword sticking in it. (Sword, is explicitly stated, has no discernable effects.) The rooms go on and on like this. Almost every one is short.

There is some kind of intelligent hand massaging things here, but the entire thing is unlike almost anything I’ve seen before. The encounters are … simple, but with detail like an icepick. It’s almost like a series of minimally keyed rooms, loosely connected, but with detail then added that is EXACTLY what is needed to bump it up a notch in to “terse & interesting” territory. Your mind races with what is going on. Room three on the top level of the tower has No Ceiling, according to room name: “This area no longer have a ceiling. The sky is visible. Anyone who climbs upwards will be standing on top of the tower. From there they can see everything for a long distance.”

This thing is creative. The zombie laying down in the grave it is digging. The giant still living. The fact that the giant (a folklore giant who just wanted something to eat) has RUN AWAY WITH THE TOWER. Almost all of the writing is direct and to the point.

There’s something WRONG with it though, beyond the light to non-existent treasure. The rooms, while lightly themed, generally creative, and connected to each other (recall all the shovel rooms?) are somehow lacking. It doesn’t feel like a cohesive whole.

Imagine I created a random dungeon from a generator. Then I went through and minimally expanded the rooms a bit, and themed them a bit, to turn the randomness in to a decent little room idea. That’s what this thing feels like, this sort of vibe of things being random or unconnected or somehow off center.

It’s hard to recommend this. As minimall keyed things go it’s a decent endeavor with room creativity and variety that’s a cut above. The minimal keying makes it pretty terse and easier to run than most adventures. Combined, they make this better than the dreck of most adventures. It doesn’t all click together though and your happiness with it probably depends on your views of minimally keying.

It’s worth checking out one of these Unbalanced Dice Games adventures, just to get a toehold on the design behind it.

It’s $4 on DriveThru. The preview is six pages and tells you almost nothing about what is inside. The only “real” adventure page is the background, which is not really representative. Which is too bad. I Wish ONE of the real room pages was present in one of these so people would think I’m not crazy as I struggle to describe the style.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 4 Comments

These Violent Delights

By Darvin Martin
The Design Mechanism
Levels 1-2

When the son of an elven noblewoman goes missing, the characters are recruited by the Lady Nuathyn to find him, leading the party from the town of Gramby and into the mysteries of Grune Vel Wood. Is everything as it seems? And how will the characters cope with the moral choices ahead…

This 36 page adventure features a fourteen room dungeon after a small wilderness section. A son is missing and the party hired to find him, only to be faced with a “moral” decision at the end. It has some decently interactive room details but also goes in to to much history and backstory, leading to ¾ column rooms with long paragraphs full of meaningless trivia.

The sins are many, but let’s cover the decent parts first. Imagine the DM saying “the room has a mural on the wall.” What is it, you ask? “A mythic figure, king of the forest, Daren O’Reily, holding the sun in his left hand.” Anything else? You look closer? “The sun is covered in soot.” Something close to this is, I think, a great way to cover room secrets. The DM is providing hints and players picking up on it ask some follow ups and the secret is revealed: placing a fire up against the sun opens a secret door in the wall. This adventure doesn’t lead you to that interaction, that’s up to the DM, but it does provide the environment, in many rooms, that an interaction like this can take place … even if it take four fucking paragraphs to get to it. Secret doors outlined in fire if the players fill a channel with oil; it smells faintly of it. Swirling clouds of dust in rooms, or strange whistling sounds with normal explanations. I’m fond of this sort of secret, and have been since those holes in the wall in the DMG dungeon had bits of wood in them. This adventure provides that in several of the rooms. It’s an exploratory and interactive style of D&D.

There’s another nice social interaction encounter in the adventure which I think is a pretty good way to handle social rolls. While asking questions around town you could fail your roll. This doesn’t mean you don’t get information, but rather SOMETHING HAPPENS. This isn’t a “you get no information” fail, or a “not very good information” fail, but rather a fail that leads to more adventure. In this case, a drunk berserker trades blows with you. Then, if you do well against her, you might be able to recruit her! A die roll doesn’t lead to a boring fail/miss, but rather is used as springboard to MORE. More adventure. More complications … and not necessarily bad!

There’s also about a column of text in the beginning that outlines the NPC as well as the key points and timeline of the adventure. It tells you almost nothing interesting or important about the adventure, but I appreciate the style and I think bullet point style is a great way to present summary information to the DM.

And on the negative side: this adventure should be at least half as many pages as it is, and probably shorter than that. It is FULL of trivia. History. Backstory. Useless words. “The fireplace has ashes and the remains of charred wood it but nothing of interest.”


How about the price of tea in China? That has as much business as being in this adventure as does the empty fireplace description. How about some backstory about a wizard who tried to take over the dungeon and fell in love with a dryad and created some undead to guard some of the rooms? All so you can justify having a couple of skeletons in the fucking dungeon. YOU DONT NEED TO EXPLAIN THIS SHIT. Maybe it happened that way. Maybe the dryad created them. Maybe not. But it’s ONLY fucking relevant if its actually fucking relevant to something that’s going to happen in the adventure. If there’s no way for the players to exploit it, or it doesn’t add to the evocative nature of the description, then leave it the FUCK out! All you are doing is clogging up the fucking text and making it harder to find the information that IS relevant.

Bad read aloud introduction to the town that’s boring & generic. A page and a half meet & greet to get your assignment that falls in to the “exact dialog” trap, telling us our hostess wipes her wipes with a silk handkerchief and says “Thanks you for honoring my summons …” Ahhh, go fuck yourself. That’s the way YOU ran the intro. Your job, as the designer, is to provide the DM enough information to run it, hopefully in an evocative manner, in the shortest way possible. Maybe they will run it the way you did. Maybe not. Make a roll to find the secret grover so you can continue the adventure. Make a roll to find the secret door so the adventure can continue. These are terrible terrible design decisions, not to mention the traces of morality preaching. Leave the bear cubs you find to die in the forest or take them to town to sell? Well, I mean, not if you’re lawful or good, sez the dungeon. I guess logging is officially evil now also? Room dimensions in room descriptions, the list goes on and on.

The big morality play at the end is that the missing son is in love with a dryad, when you track them both down together at the end. Then some half-orcs, hired by the elf noblewoman, show up to kill the dryad. Do you help your explorers retainers, the half-orcs, or the lovers?

This is $3.75 at DriveThru. The preview is the first four pages. It doesn’t really show you anything other than the bullet point summary … which, while a good idea, doesn’t summarize the CORRECT things.

Posted in Reviews | 2 Comments