The Wizardarium of Calabraxis

By Claytonian
Kill It With Fire
Level 1?

Apemen stole our children.

This is an eighteen page adventure in a dungeon/cave with history. The pretext is that apemen have stolen some children. The core of the adventure/keys takes place over two pages (!) describing 24 locations … although a decent number are just doors. This is, in essence, an adventure optimized to run out of a binder. Stonehell provided a one page map/key and then provided several pages of details to help support that key. Like Stone hell, this fits over two pages and then the rest of the pages support the keyed encounters. This could go on facing pages in a binder or on two pages of a traditional DM screen, with the supporting text then in front of the DM.

As with Lapis Observatory, this dungeon has history. An old mining site by ancient aliens, it was taken over by a wizard, and then seemingly abandoned with other folks moving in … like ape men. The style works well for most exploratory dungeon, providing additional flavor and theming, just as it does here. It allows a pretext to modify the monsters and to mix elements of several styles together.

The pretext for this adventure is Apemen kidnapping two children, one from an “elite” and one from a blacksmith. This is the extent of supporting information for the hook, except maybe a sentence about vampires stealing peoples heads, as local rumors of the old days of the evil wizard and a 12-entry table in the rear. This isn’t exactly the colorful locals that I prefer to hang my hat on. It’s trying to walk a fine line between focused support of the DM and minimalism. It doesn’t always succeed and this is one are. A little less in the way of filler text (pages 2 & 3, I’m looking at you!) and a couple of more colorful sentences about the local would have lifted the hook from “as good a 90% of what’s published” to “better than 90% of what’s published.

The rooms each have something interesting in them, generally something to play with and the stuff to play with is fun. Magic stained glass, heads you can talk to, a poop-slide, the 2001 obelisk and so forth, all supported by a map that, while not overly complex, is also not linear. The creatures and magic items are, this being DCC, all unique. The rooms are not difficult to figure out during play, meaning that there is not mountains of text to get in the way of quickly scanning the room and running it.

I would say it does lack two important elements that would really put the adventure over the top. First is the lack of room elements in creature rooms. This is mostly a DCC thing, and mostly because of the fighter actions thingy. Rooms with monsters, such as the first room, with apemen (yes, the first room resolves the hook pretext. Yeah!) need a little more to hang your hat on. The fights need something to work with if they are going to engage their creative fighting style juices. The adventure makes you work a bit for that. A human boy on the floor. “Primitive bedding & tools & crafts on the floor.” This is what the DM has to work with to give the players something to work with. I’m not necessarily making an argument for more text but I am making an argument, I think, for better text. Better text that provides a more dynamic environment for combat. Not a set-piece location but also not four empty walls. And while this is most obviously an issue for the DCC fighter crowd, I believe other systems also benefit from a more dynamic environment. Nothing is more boring than just rolling dice turn after turn as you try and stab each other.

The second issue would slightly related to the first: the descriptive style if quite fact based. It could use a bit of bussing up with some stronger imagery and evocative language. Here’s an example near the end of a room titled Circular Bedroom/lab:
“Door is ajar. Smells strongly of copper. Debris, scientific bric­a?­brac, a cot, and a fob­ watch­like thing litter the floor. Ceiling too high/dark to be seen by demihuman vision.”

Quite focused, I hope you would agree. The ceiling thing is a nice bit of imagery but the other parts are pretty utilitarian in their use of language. I’m not arguing, again, for more but rather I’m making a case for fewer facts and stronger imagery.

The adventure succeeds on two fronts. First, it supports the DM at the table, providing a format that makes it easy to run and yet with reference material handy. Second, it has that wonderful non-generic vibe in the creature’s, room goodies, and magic items that make DCC and OD&D in general the sort of non-generic fantasy environments that I think we’re paying for. If I can pull it out of the MM then why am I paying you? Not true here.

Oh, and one last note. To designers everywhere: Don’t be Claytonian, put a recommended adventure level on your product. 🙂

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Dungeon Magazine #98

By Bradley Schell
Level 4

Side-trek! But man I don’t get this one. It’s supposed to be, I think, a sandboxy little thing in a small farming region. Instead you get one hook location (farmer Ted hiring you), one encounter location (where Ted takes you first), seven destroyed farms all abstracted into the same description, and one more destroyed farm COMPLETELY DISCONNECTED FROM EVERYTHING ELSE. Somehow you’re supposed to find your way there and then fight a couple of rasts (neato enemy!), an evil cleric, and a couple of zombies. The massive text bloat of earlier issues has been backed off of but now a new sin has appeared: the encounter build. A bunch of random monsters thrown together in the “controller, artillery, grunt” style with the barest pretext holding it together. This has always yanked my suspension of disbelief and, I think, shifted the ground too far toward “game” instead of “RPG” … whatever that means.

Wings, Spies and Teeth
By Brian Marsden
Level 8

Side-Trek! A manticore and his lion buddies ambush the party in a narrow river valley. A dire lion appears first, that you can make friends with. That “hint” is done well, with the lion tentative and wounds, new & old, covering his body. That should be enough to get non-morons interested in something other than stabbing. Pretty simple, but ok for what it is. It should really be a part of a larger adventure and is, IMO, wasted on a throw-away side-trek.

Flood Season
By James Jacobs
Level 4

Adventure Path the second in Shackled City.

This second installment continues the tradition of having two “dungeons” lightly connected through some plot. You’re contacted by a cleric, her boss is under attack outside of town, you go to rescue him, finding bandits and him dead (that’s dungeon one: a large inn.) Heading back to town you’re encouraged to find some missing wands that the boss was bringing back. If you don’t, the poor in town are doomed because of impending flooding. A brief investigation gets you the entrance to some ruins under the town (that’s dungeon two) and the main bandit hideout. You slaughter many Bothans and recover the wands. The core centers around yearly flooding, which has been light in recent decades, and the complacency of the town, concentrating on the festival instead of flood prep. One temple tries to hold things back by obtaining some wands of water control from another town, but are ambushed and the wands stolen.

The adventure is decent, for the most part, up to the second dungeon. The priest who contacts you (the hook) is inexperienced and the supporting text really conjures up an image of someone inexperienced and very worried and, I think, allows a DM to channel this into a nice NPC personality. There’s a good creepy roadside encounter with hordes of baboons just stopping what they do and staring at the party while they pass, which reminds me of creepy ass atmospheric shit from ONS1; “Beware Cho-odo!” The atmosphere continues back in town after the first dungeon, with rains, cheerful flood festival prep in the streets … which turns to despair as the rains keep coming and people slowly realize they are about to be fucked by flooding.

The first dungeon is a large road inn with two stories and a basement, a courtyard, and multiple stairs up. It does a nice job of painting a dynamic environment of open space, running battles, and a third dimension. The bandits inside are all drunk with that providing multiple opportunities for the DM to have fun with and the party to take advantage of. This, and the map, turn what could otherwise be a boring set of combats in to a fun little section … including a big bad that eats tongues and mocks a severed head. The little bits add a lot of character.

The section between the two dungeons is devoted mostly to trying to figure out who stole the wands and where they are. It’s laid out fairly well, if generically, over one page. One curiosity stands out: you can’t really interrogate any prisoners from the inn. Oh, you can, but they don’t know anything … even though their comrades are in the second dungeon. It seems strange to shut down this part of and punish, instead of rewarding, characters who took prisoners and played thoughtfully. Instead the location is revealed to the party by a generic scene-based encounter. This DIRECTLY CONTRADICTS the concept player agency, punishing agency in favor of a MEANINGLESS railroad encounter. Thankfully, this is the only sort of example of this bullshit.

The second dungeon tends more toward a long slog of encounters. Where the first dungeon was relatively tersely written this one expands the text, to no good purpose. Combats, traps, more combats, more raps, shit strung together … it feels like a generic exercise in encounter building. And for a base of operations, with a loud alarm, it has little to no guidelines on the bases/guard’s response to that alarm. Further, the encounters seem a little much for level 4’s … or 5’s … or 6’s. There are A LOT of LE 4/5/6 encounters down there, and you need to experience a lot of them in order to find the eight wands. I THOUGH this version was built around four encounters a day also? Idk, maybe I’m misremembering. It’s only an issue in that you must, generally, fight, and there’s a time limit.
It could use some more suggestions of scenes of desperation as the town floods (ala Deep Carbon) and fails in several obvious plotline areas. If the town is in danger why don’t the guard/other factions go in to the base also to find the wands? That would be cool; multiple factions and a lot of armed idiots swarming through the base looking for wands/looting, killing the enemy and each other. All Hail Discordia! But no real text is devoted to seeking help from the town, with “apathy” being the given reason at the beginning. Further, the cleric that hires you is “too busy” to help you with either dungeon, as are all of her minions. Finally, it has a wizard halfling following vecna and an undead gnoll priest in the base, a were-baboon, as well as an emphasis on created wands and a brown mold refrigeration device. These all tend toward a style of play I don’t really enjoy and add almost nothing to the adventure, particularly for the amount of silliness they introduce. It’s all pretty easily ignored though, and (ALL too brief) glimpses of Cauldron are tantalizing. A good adventure, if the second dungeon problem could be suffered through or fixed.

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LG1 – Terror in the Forest of Gizzick

By Claude M. LeBrun
Levels 3-5

Something has been terrorizing farms and houses that lie in or near the Forest of Gizzick. People are being killed, livestock is being killed or stolen, and buildings are burning down. Even though no one has seen the cause of this terror, rumors abound. Some believe goblins or other creatures are to blame. Others think a demon is involved, yet other people worry this is the beginning of an invasion from some unknown evil. Does your party have what it takes to find and stop the terror?

This is a fifteen page linear cave/dungeon that describes a hobgoblin lair ruled over by a 9th level magic-user. It tends to the “minimal keying” side of the OSR. There’s something appealing to the soul about the hardcore old school monster HP’s and wizard, the likes of which I seldom see. Kind of like seeing one of those old meditating aesthetics that never has sex and subsists on one teaspoon of water a day in a cave on a cliff. Wow. Respect. This is one of those very basic adventures, similar in writing style and design to the lairs in B2, which, while not a throw-away, takes some on-the-fly DM work to run. Wow, I’m really dancing here, aren’t I? You can pick this up and run it. It’s more than the throw-away adventure dreck that clogs the RPG adventure pipeline. But it’s not too far above that line and really the saving grace is that it really IS an AD&D adventure. Hardcore. That doesn’t mean deadly. That means neutral.

It has about two pages before it launches into the keys. These two pages are really an abstracted hook, investigation, and travel to the caves. Maybe a quarter page, three paragraphs, to describe three generic hooks: kill evil, hired by the baron to stop raid, or someone’s friend/relative/village is killed. There’s not really much here to work, which is really the story of the adventure as a whole. Just as in B2, it’s a skeleton. I will note that the whole “dead relative/friend/village” thing is WAY overplayed and causes disruptive behaviour in players. No one ever has relatives or forms relationships because they know the DM is just gonna kill them off/capture them.

The investigation and journey to the lair are pretty generic and lightly covered also. Just a couple of notes about one survivor saying it was hobgoblins and a further hint: there’s a trail of fire going to the destroyed farm buildings. These are both important. Both details reward the players who look just a bit further. A token effort yields an advantage, both in learning the attackers are hobgoblins and that there is some kind of weird fire thing involved. I like foreshadowing, hinting, and rewarding the player that makes an effort. The search for the lair is just a flat 35% roll, or automatic for a druid/ranger/speak with animals and nothing really more than that. Again, pretty much the bare minimum.

The lair proper is only fourteen rooms. About half compose some caves that make up the hobgoblin lair/caves and the other half a little dungeon that make up the wizard’s lair Both sections are, essentially, linear. Or, maybe, “Linear with a trick, each.” The hobgoblin lair is a big room, but if alerted the males hide in some side chambers, ready to attack from behind. The wizard’s lair has a main path through it, with a “pass” that allows the party, or wizard, to avoid the most obvious path. These both turn what would otherwise be throw-away sections into something just a little bit more. Did the party use good tactics and “play the game right?” … because if they didn’t they are about to get their asses handed to them.

It’s pretty minimally keyed, with most of the text, where it exists, being devoted to tactics. This is not all that unusual: “6. NURSERY. 3 adult females, 4 young. hp; adults; 6, 4, 4, youth 2 hp each” The monster HP look rolled to me, and tend toward the low side because of that. It’s so refreshing to see a hobgoblin die when you stab the thing, instead of the combats being long slogs. It’s also going to be tough hitting the wizard. He lives behind a couple of traps, has a quasit to keep him informed, and has an ice storm, fireball, and lightning bolt at his disposal. Dropping on of those bad boys, closing a door, and running away is really going to give the party some heartache. Treasure seems light for AD&D, but there are some nice books on the lore of humanoids, demons, elementals, etc. That’s nice abstracted treasure and a way to give players hints and rewards for looking things up in the books.

This is too generic & vanilla for me. I’m having a hard time knocking it though because I recognize it as the type of thing that I’ve played in before and had a decent time … because of the DM. Te tools are here in this one but there is almost no hand holding at all. I like my text a little more evocative and slightly less abstracted.

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The Mad God’s Jest

By Shane Ward
3 Toadstools Publishing
Labyrinth Lord
Level 6

Deep inside the mind of Captain Sherborne, he’s cracked. His dreams haunted by a Harlot. However nothing is what it seems. He wanders the world looking for brave souls to help him. Will you?

It’s all a dream! Hahahaha! Just a dream! You can’t die! Hahahaha! Shit like this gives me a headache. It’s a 21-room cave complex full of bizarro encounters. There is a high point of two, but it’s too far disconnected from reality for me to embrace.

The hook is DM fiat: Captain Whoever has his crew kidnap you. He gives you a map to some caves and hires you to go into them and recover a boot. I’m pretty sure the boot isn’t in the caves. It makes references, obliquely in several places but never explicitly, to the fact the captain accompanies you. “If he dies” and “when he makes it back out” and so on. So it’s also an escort mission. If the captain dies you get to restart the entire thing, Groundhog Day style. How can this be? Because it’s a dream.

Consequence free adventuring. If you die you just wake up, XP intact. I hate this shit. It turns everything into Lacuna, or some co-op storytelling game. “Monkeys fly out of my butt because I’m an alien from Xrdoz-10.” This is the cheapest and lamest of all pretexts.

Oh, I get it. All D&D is a pretext. It’s just an excuse to sit around the table and have a good time with your friends. From that perspective, who really cares? The game is as serious as you take it. And yet … there’s some kind of suspension of disbelief that comes into play. I’m been arguing playstyles recently with designers who insist Different Strokes for Different Folks, so this is in the front of my brain currently. When anything is possible in D&D it turns it into Lacuna, it turns it into a storytelling game. And yet, w’ve chosen D&D for a reason. We’ve selected it because it has constraints and it has a DM. When those constraints are removed in a blatant way, as is done in this adventure, it’s a slap in the face. No, you’re not playing the game you signed up for. You’re playing this new thing. When the characters are kidnapped via DM Fiat it points out the man behind the curtain. When it goes all Groundhog Day it points out the man behind the curtain. When you wake from the dream after dying it points out the man behind the curtain. I don’t think this is positive, most of the time. Beer, pretzels, and the right mindset? Maybe. But that’s essentially justifying the existence of linear tournament modules. Yeah, they MAY have a place in a certain niche … but couldn’t you just try a bit harder and do something better that doesn’t have those limitations instead of just slapping on some pretext to justify the decisions made?

The encounters, proper, all have two notable features. First, they are the very definition of Funhouse. Second, they are aggressively exhibit based. The first is pretty easily described. There’s a room with a hot tub. There’s a room inside an ice block with a giant cooking the captains brother over a pit/spit/fire. There’s a torture chamber where cultists go to torture themselves. A pool of lava room. A jungle room. A mushroom room. It’s just a series of encounters with nothing to interconnect them except “it’s ostensibly a cave complex.”

Secondly the encounters are all aggressively exhibit based. What I mean by this is that they are all things you SEE. There are no hints of reaction. There are no defaults in the encounters. And I saw “aggressively” because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dungeon. The Pool of Lava room is a good example of this: “There is a large pool of lava in the centre of this room, the pool is manmade (amazingly enough the lava has not eaten thru the floor! into the tunnel below). The room contains 4 madness cultists that are being fed strange colored soup. A manticore feeds them, and yells when they spit out the this before so thoroughly.” That’s it! You get the manticore stats and a list of treasure. It’s like a little Vine movie playing in front of you. It ignores the fact that the dungeon exists for it to be experienced BY THE CHARACTERS. The complete lack of reactions is more than a little off putting, so I hope you’ve got your reaction roll table on your DM screen.

This one is weird. And not in a good way. Not in a bad way either, but it’s going to REALLY take the right mindset to make something of it.

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Dungeon Magazine #97

Blind Man’s Bluff
By Rob Manning
Level 6

Side-trek. An eloquent group of disguised grimlocks (WTF?!) get the party to rescue their buddies from an ettin wight. Once they do so, the grimlocs betray the party and attack from both sides. Oh, the humanity! A group of monsters that betray the party! What fun that, eh? Truly Rob Manning is one of the most original designers on the planet. This kind of shit is what me say things like “Dwarf lepers? I mercilessly massacre all of them.” Fuck your bullshit, DM! Misdirection spell. Fight to the death. All of the usual crappy design bullshit is present. Six pages of crap.

Heart of the Iron God
By Campbell Penney
Level 13

The party comes across a GIANT iron statue attacking a village and the dungeon are the levels inside the statue. This one has some bits of potential in it. The destruction of the village, and the chaos of the villagers, is glossed over where it should be a highlight of the start of the adventure. The gome engineers and hanggliding attackers are a bit of a style turnoff for me, but the adventure does many good things. A decent variety of the rooms are interesting, with things to play with, even though the combats in the rooms tend to be a little boring. More grinding gears and steam pipes and open access ports would have done wonders for otherwise boring old combats. The construct has a number of entrances, which is a very good thing, although there is more than a little gimping going on in the statue being immune to almost every useful spell. I really don’t like that in my adventures: the party should be able to use the powers they’ve earned. If it fucks up the adventure then you didn’t write a very good adventure. There’s a nice order of battle, for alarms going off inside and how the guards react, as well as a nice section on follow-ups after the adventure is over … which mainly focuses on rewarding the players and the feuding factions who want the statue body. That’s a nice touch, putting the party in respected positions and then swirling the chaos around them. The adventure text for complex rooms is quite long in places and badly needs pruned back, and the adventure does spend a fair amount of time on describing mundane rooms and items. On the plus side there is at least one area where you can NOT fight and talk. This is a decent effort for an Dungeon Magazine adventure

Life’s Bazaar
By Chris Perkins
Level 1

This is part one of the very popular adventure path “Shackled City”. CLocking in at 52 pages it’s pretty mammoth. It combines a simple two (primary) location investigation with two large (63 rooms and 34 rooms) dungeon levels. The investigation portions are ok, if overly described, with probably enough hints to get the party to follow the breadcrumbs. The city proper gets JUST enough description to make you want more and the extras presented, like some goons and the mayor’s office (a minor location) are just enough pretext to allow the DM to keep running. The town section, in particular, could use a reference chart of the NPC names & personalities. The church folk who hire the party, and give them healing, could also use some more personality since the party would presumably interact with them more. The inciting event involves a uniquely dressed thieves guild, and that’s an open point in the adventure. They are never really addressed even though they are the first bait the party receives. Not addressing or following up on them is a miss, from a designer standpoint.

The dungeons are pretty classic exploratory places, with a decent mix of encounters. It’s generally overly described and under specific, which leads to a bit of a bland feel to it. While there’s no organized response to the parties incursion (especially on level 2, the “lair” proper) it does have some notes about nearby monsters responding to light noise, in place. The ending has a beholder teleporting in, accompanied by an invisible wizard (classic “we need to explain WHY” bullshit.) The beholder wants to buy a small orphan boy from slavers. Since the party is after the orphans, this is probably going to be objected to. Thus the party gets to eat shit and let him take him OR the beholder gets to pull his punches, for some reason. This is not strong design. Far better for him to show up and just grab the boy and leave, eliminating this suspension of disbelief break.

The adventure outline is ok, and not really a railroad. It’s mostly just a pretext to get the party into the two dungeon levels and have some fun there, wrapping it in some slight pretext of an investigation and the cliffhanger mystery of the beholder. The dungeon is not a travesty but I don’t really feel it supports the DM the way a good design should. I suppose it’s probably as good as one can expect from this era of Dungeon.

By Hank Woon
Level 16

A fiefdom has gone silent, with rumors of demons. The party go to the local castle and kill a lot of demons and slaad. The adventure might be thought of as in two parts. The intro and village and then the castle proper. They both suffer from a lack of specificity (most Dungeon Magazine adventures do, but it’s notable in this case because …) but the first part is quite a bit more … atmospheric? than the second. There’s a creepy abandoned village where terrible things have happened vibe to both the intro encounter and the village. It’s not followed up on wel (lack of specificity …) but it does a much much better job than most Dungeon adventures in setting a mood in the DM’s mind. The second half, though, in the the castle, fails mostly in this regard. It turns in to a “room with an outsider in it that attacks” kind of adventure. There’s an encounter or two with some potential, like the insane mother with her eyes torn out, infected, but again it’s a little too fact based and lacks specificity. There’s a hint of scene-based play in the village, with some programmed attacks, like when the party LEAVES the inn. It does have a nice side-bar with how to deal with high level magic, the advice of which is not as terrible as it usually is. I may not agree with it all, but it doesn’t gimp the players. Fixing this would be a chore, since most of the castle would need shored up, but it is a nice little read for inspiration.

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The Lapis Observatory

By Jacob Hurst, Gabriel Hernandez, Evan Peterson, Donnie Garcia
Self Published
System Neutral

This is a six level fifty-ish room tower. It used to be an elven observatory and then was turned into an elven hotel/pleasuredome for the jaded. (Soulless/Eid elves, not the generic elves of modern RPG.) It conjures a vision of opulence and decadence that Carcosa wanted and was hinted at in Slumbering Ursine. It does this through some pretty stark design choices. It’s absolutely a must buy for those folks interested in design and a pretty good choice for those willing to put in a little work. For this is product is some weird marriage of a location and a toolkit for it.

The tower has five upper levels and one basement level, with access up a stark basalt cliff. The tower used to be an elven observatory was then turned in an elven pleasuredome/hotel. Thus we can check off rules one and two of good adventure locale design. First, the dungeon and/or entrance is notable. There’s a passage of some sort that marks your journey in to SOME.PLACE.ELSE. This is commonly referred to as the entrance to the Mythic Underworld, and while that’s a bit pretentious for my tastes, it is the case that some of the best dungeons do this. It signals that the rules are all wrong and every perversion is justified. You’re crossing thr threshold from the normal world to some place where the normal rules don’t apply. Sometimes it’s a journey across a lake, a well, a long staircase down, or even just a tower in the distance that lightning illuminates as a body falls from it. In this case it’s the tower sitting high up on black basalt spire, and the climb just to get there.

Secondly it leverages the transient nature of dungeons. It was something and now it’s something else. How to Host a Dungeon is built upon this as are some of the best adventure locales. This is a mixing of themes and types that allows for a more varied environment. In a megadungeon is might be strongly themes levels. In this tower it’s the leftover remnants of an elven observatory and then the pleasuredome hotel is became … and then the ruination that further occurred after Something bad happened inside.

It is, at this point, that we need to diverge a bit and address the adventures core conceits: this thing is trying out two ideas in a big way. First, the room descriptions are just bolded nouns with a few adjectives. Second, it’s awaiting population but the DM. Third, it is system neutral. I know, I said two, but the third is interesting also. It does all three of these in a way that I’ve seen discussed online but never seen in a print product. Each, individually, is interesting and in combination you get something … DIfferent. (hence the must buy recommendation for people interested in design.)

Here’s an example of the noun/adjective format:
“1. The Sliding Doors
20′ x 20′, two engraved panels[white stone, highly detailed, le panel broken, passable, crawling, engraved with: stars, constellations, sipopa flower fractals], rubble[door chunks, statue fragments: arms and heads], orange crystal [thick sheet, covers rubble and bottom third of door]

The orange crystal is brittle and shatters loudly if broken”

My copy/paste doesn’t really do the formatting justice. What you have is an excellent room name that is descriptive and cements something in to the DM’s head: sliding doors. Then a short burst of bolded text that your eyes pick up, noting the notable notables in the area: the doors have engraved panels, there’s rubble, and orange crystal. Then your eyes move to the move details adjectives: the rubble is statue fragments. There’s a star motif, the crystal is on the bottom of the doors. Finally, there’s one line of DM notes, explaining a mechanic: you can break the crystal loudly and easily. Longtime readers will remember I’m a big fan of evocative descriptions and leveraging the DM’s imagination to fill in the details. I think this does that. Your mind naturally fills in the details and a pictures is built up in your head, which you can then communicate to the players. I’m not necessarily advocating this style of traditional prose, but it’s interesting and i think it does the job it needs to do … which is rare. We get room after room of this style. Some have more things, some have less. They all tend toward set-piece environments with strong exploration elements. Things to do. Stuff to poke. Note that they are not set pieces, but more the environments that set pieces tend to have. A more fully worked out location with lots of things to screw with that one COULD use in a fight. IE: the big boiling cauldron in the middle of the lair that is begging to be kicked over., or have someone stuffed in to. An interactive environment.

Conceit the second is that the DM gets to populate the dungeon. There’s a 3d6 tables of creatures and a 3d6 table of what they doing and a number f blank lines on the map to write in what you roll up. “A lizardman shaman” and “making a delivery” might be two things you roll for room 2, the entryway. You get this build up of the dungeon that. Again, I would suggest your imagination tries to make sense of and add context to. This is then supplemented by a 3d6 table of “the overall vibe of the dungeon” that roll once on. For example, if you rolled entry 8 then d4+1 extraplanar party goers have arrived thinking the hotel is still open. How now does your brain do with the shamen? He’s clearly delivering something for/to the partiers. Maybe he’s confused, or jaded or a submissive servant. Who knows, but you’ve now got something to work with.

The Seclusium of Orphone was too generic with too much trivia in it. The tables here help drive the action in the rooms. But you have to put the work in. You will need to prep. You’ll need to decide what the population frequency of the rooms are, and roll to populate, and maybe jot down a note or two. But, critically, the adventure provides you the tools to do it. This is the kind of prep I can get into and am happy to do. It’s supportive of the DM and creativity, rather than punitive or the result of poor design. This extends to the magical treasure (which is wonderfully unique & interesting, which in BryceLands earns you a “Meets Expectations” award.) which the DM is encouraged to sprinkle throughout the rooms. And then to the mundane treasure, which is abstracted.The designer correctly notes that how much and what depends on level and the amount of gold in this place could unhinge an economy. While all true, it’s left entirely up to the DM to decide how much and where and what. This earns some grumbles from me, but I also can’t dispute the statement … the thing is system & level agnostic and you need to target the goodies at the level and system. The end result of all of this is something like that unique element to Ravenloft where you decided where the goodies were ahead of time and then rolled with whatever story ended up coming out through actual play.

This ALL hits the buttons I think are the right ones in designs for exploration: A location map, modified by events. Rolls on tables to determine creatures and room elements. An emergent environment/story for the dungeon that comes from these rolls. And then the characters encounter this emergent environment and a story develops on how they engage with the site.

Focus. This adventure knows what it’s trying to do and focuses on it the way few others do.

I’m quite enamored the the monsters also … all new. They have things they want. They have things they do NOT want. They have little seeds and interesting bits scattered throughout that support ACTUAL PLAY. Orange blob people will be obsessed with the body of a dead elf, as they try to imitate it horrified by dwarves because they are so ugly. The descriptions are full of these things which recognize that they are there to be interacted with by the party, and the descriptions support that.

This is a magnificent example of focused design. It’s also a magnificent example of system neutral design, eschewing ALL stats. If I had one suggestion it would be for a reference table for the blob people. There’s direction that they get random personalities (from an included table) and they all have names, so a short worksheet, pre-filled or blank, would have been nice to see. If I had a second suggestion it would be for a little more interactivity in the rooms, beyond the encounter tables. The encounter in the room creates interactivity, in a set-piece kind of way, but the entire site could use a little more in the way of things in rooms to play with and explore. It doesn’t need to be stuffed to the brim, but upping the quantity a bit would really put this one over the top.

Evidently there’s some kickstarter campaign coming soon and this is an example of the style; it’s one of the fifteen dungeons to be detailed in the location? I’ve seen a lot of shit released in support of kickstarters, examples of what you will get. They generally are lame BEYOND BELIEF. Not this. This is one of the very few examples of something doing what it’s intended to do: get people excited about what’s coming. No doubt I’ll forget to follow it and will miss the kickstarter, but I am genuinely excited to see more, and that’s quite rare.

It’s fluff! It’s an adventure! It’s wonderful.

$5 PDF (like on Etsy) or $15 print at

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Escape from Groncho’s Lair


By Stuart P. Keating

Dioxin Dump LLC

Levels 1-2

Most adventures involve getting to the absolute bottom of a dungeon, blithely swinging hammers and swords through warriors and civilians, pillaging and looting along the way.This adventure inverts the traditional model: The adventurers easily run through a surprisingly unpopulated goblin warren and then get struck with amnesia at the very bottom. They know their identities, skills and class abilities but have no idea what’s happened over the past several days.

This is a 16 page, thirty room reverse dungeon crawl in goblin caves. You start at the bottom and make your way out, having suffered from limited short-term amnesia. IE: you can remember who you are, you just can’t remember your dungeon crawl to this point. It’s got a good mix of encounter types and a decent variety of topical dungeoncrawl humor that everyone should get a kick out of. It can be hit or miss at time with the descriptions, and the font selections make readability suffer A LOT. I like it, but I dread actually trying to use it, because of the readability issues, if you get what I mean.

The party starts out in one of the last rooms. In a room with a chest, a dead person, fried & still smoking, laying in front of a chest. Everyone knows who they are, but the memory of the last couple of hours no longer exists in their minds, evidently the results of the trapped chest. It’s a nice little in medias res start to the adventure that glosses over all of the rumors, rewards, backstory, why we adventure together, and everything else. You’re in the dungeon. Go!

The encounters here are a decent variety. There are a few straight up combats and more than a few more with cowering goblins or even goblins who are willing to talk and/or goblins who are willing to join up with you. The variety here is much more than in the usual dungeoncrawl and gives it that factions feel and adds that element of negotiation and diplomacy that most non-faction dungeons lack. To compliment this faction play is a decent variety of weirdness, things to screw around with, traps, and even some little set-piece like encounters … usually something to do with terrified goblins trying to protect and respond to the “Reavers” that have invaded. All the while the party is confronted with the results of of the typical dungeoncrawl: bodies, death, destruction, well-looted rooms, cowering women & children. It adds a nice touch of lightheartedness without going for over the top humor. A statue to fuck with, a dead dwarf body that could be a boon or bane. Nice little touches. There’s enough variety that things don’t get monotonous in one direction (combat) or the other (another empty room.) It’s really a positive example of design from that standpoint. (And cheap, so easy to check out.)

The primary negative is that the thing is impossible to read. I don’t bitch much about this sort of thing, but this is a bad bad example. It’s some combination of the font size, margins, font weight, mixture of italics and standards text …  the whole thing just combines to wash all together in a head dizzying spin. I know this is petty, but if it gives me a headache to read and it’s hard to find things in the text then it’s hard to use at the table. It can also be … mechanically? lengthy at times. The descriptions, proper, don’t seem to run on too much and are at times quite short. This contrasts to the DM notes which can be long because of the mechanics presented. Mechanics? DM notes? I’m not sure what to call it. Some rooms can be a column long because of this. Further, some details are buried in this DM text, forcing you to be familiar or pick out the text at a glance … which is hard to do because it’s buried further down and/or the font/italics/text issues.

There’s also this tendency to abstract. Here the entry for room 21, the Pantry: “Suprmeley foul food closet. No real treasure to speak of, unless you’re into rotting carcasses and garbage. Roll on the encounter table.” That’s not terrible and you get the idea, but it’s also abstracted. It tells you it is grody (a conclusion) instead of describing it and letting you make the determination. (Although  “if you’re into rotting carcasses and garbage” is pretty close, it’s still an abstraction.)

It’s also got some mechanical issues with descriptions. This is something that I’ve only ever seen one or two other adventures do. There are critical details missing in places. The last encounter has the party leaving the cave complex and being confronted by the boss outside, with his giant boar,  2 mercenaries, and a line of crossbowmen. How many crossbowmen? We’re never told. Further, the encounter implies, later down in the description, that there may be captives outside in the mix also … but it’s not very clear. Oh, and the treasure descriptions suck ass, just boring old mundane stuff.

It’s got a good design it just suffers from the ability to communicate that creativity to the DM in the most effective manner. This is something I’d love to run and think everyone would have a great time … it would just be a pain to run from the existing text.

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Dungeon Magazine #96

Short “reviews” this time around. I’ve love to do something more in-depth. But that requires Dungeon having something worth the analysis.

Speak of the devil! A decent adventure in this issue!

Hollow Threats
By Richard Pett
Level 1

Side-Trek. Six orcs in a dragon turtle shell boat attack a village. All of the villagers run away. The only good part is a conclusion/follow-up: it’s suggested that the chieftain of the renegade orcs can coerce the party to making him a wig from the hair of a fiendish dire wolf.

Provincial Prior Cause
By Johnny L. Wilson
Level 1

Pseudo-historical adventure linear enough to count as Scene-based rather than Encounter-based, even though it’s numbered like an encounter adventure. This is seriously one of the most basic things I’ve seen outside of RPGA/Adventurers league 90 minute adventures. Land on a beach, go to an empty island hut/hermitage, go in the root cellar

Pandemonium in the Veins
By Frank Brunner
Level 5

Gladiator-based adventure. Here’s some highlights from the summary: “when faced with evidence a contingency spell whisks him away” and “his son, who survives as a ghost possessing a black pudding, harasses the party.”

In spite of that nonsense, this is a pretty decent event-based adventure. It’s divided up into three acts, each with its own set of events and its own “Gather Information” table. This is tied together with a decent overview table. The entire thing is supported with the kind of tidbits that I’m looking for in NPC: something to hang your hat on. Weather it vaulting over tables to support the table or tucking his necklace into his shirt before fighting, the NPC’s here get something to make them distinct from each other, even the ones on the rumor/Gather Info tables. Mixed into all of this are actual gladiator fights. You end up with an adventure in which the party wanders around investigating and questioning folks, having gladiator fights in the arena, and then experiencing some events also. This is a great way to handle an adventure of this type. The party still drives the action and the events are triggers for more to happen, rather than being on a bullshit railroad. It needs help, in particular it needs some reference tables to summarize events, NPC’s, and so on. This is one of those rarest of things: a Dungeon adventure worth your trouble to run … and put effort into running.

Beyond the Light of Reason
By Caine Chandler
Level 13

An adventure that wants to be good and fails. A village will be attacked soon and they need you to go to the mountain next door and relight a lantern they have that wards off evil. It’s got about forty rooms scattered between an upper cave level, a lower cave level, and a ruined temple. The upper/lower caves is trying to do a faction thing with a creature or two you can talk to, but the map layout isn’t exactly conducive to this. And your ally is probably an Aboleth … and I don’t think that monster works EVER. There’s lots and lots and lots of backstory in each of the room descriptions. In one you get the entire recent history of a group of manticores … for no reason at all. It adds nothing. “The manticores are growing weaker through hunger after the frost giants in room U2 killed three of their pride a few days ago. Two more attempted to leave the mountain but were killed by the dragon earlier this morning as she left (their bodies were taken as snacks to eat as she flew)” And that’s the adventure being terse. The temple area just ends up being a rooms after room hack with slaadi and devils. There IS a decent encounter with a disguised chain devil, but for the most part this is just drudgery. The concept of the villagers impending doom is a nice timing effect, but the rooms just stink.

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The Craft Dungeon of Reynaldo Lazendry

By Jeremy Reaban
Levels 1-3

Nearly 200 years ago, the great wizard Reynaldo Lazendry vanished, his tower exploding in a spectacular manner that left rubble everywhere. Now time has weathered away that rubble, allowing access to the dungeons below …

The thirty pages in this adventure describe a seventy or so room wizard’s dungeon (in about fifteen pages) and then also has some village descriptions for a potential homebase. This level has a ‘hobby’ theme, with rooms devoted to theater, sculpting, wargaming, etc, and several more levels promised. The entire thing might be described as … vanilla fantasy, but not the straightforward dreck that clogs up the product shelves.

The closest comparisons I can make to this are either with Shadowbrook Manor or Many Gates of the Gann. In both cases those two products skew either more silly than this adventure (Shadowbrook) or slightly more weird (Gann.) We get a nice large and moderately complex map, as one would expect for a dungeon level with seventy rooms on it, closer to Gann than Shadowbrook. The encounters in all three have a more non-generic vibe to them than “12 orcs in a room.” There are levers to pull and mysteries to be solved and mini-quests to go in the dungeon. These are great because they get the party moving and give them mini-goals to pursue. Gotta find them all, when it comes to books, or, after finding a statue, you can haul it back to the de-statueizer machine. Some of the denizens can give you tasks to accomplish. A handful of the evil creatures don’t even attack you when you free them and/or will show up more as continuing plot developments. For example, if you free the succubus she keeps an eye on the party in future adventures and may even help them out … all because of an evil plot, but, whatever, it’s a nice result that’s a shit ton more fun than “she attacks when freed.” And the goal, of course, is fun. There’s talking food and a dead dwarf in the fridge and paintings you can fuck with to either free or trap creatures. These are the high points of the adventure, along with a decent variety of slightly non-standard magic items, like a magic sword that spews blood everywhere (a stage prop) or magic soldiers and so on. Lemure’s, possessing marionettes, is a nice touch also and reminds me of the polymorphing pumpkin-head devils from the best of the Dragonsfoot adventures.

The writing here is not really going to inspire much at all. There are some exceptions, like the dwarf body falling out of the fridge and so on, but the actual writing is a little flat. It’s quite business like and gets the job done but it doesn’t generally excite you to run the room. There is also sometimes a tendency to mention the mundane. The kitchen gets a brief description of it’s contents and where the plates are .. which is mostly meaningless. The sculpture workshop likewise get a short description of what tools are present. The workshop I could give a pass to but the kitchen description, and a few others, stick out as unnecessary. There’s also a few bits of flavor text that feels out of place. Nice, but … distracting? One room has a chair that falls off a table when the party enters. That’s great background, but reminds me a bit of the chess room in Dwimmermount … it’s not really interactive and it falls on the DM to ensure the party doesn’t get tunnel vision and still maintain the creepy flavor.

There’s some mention up front of some Lovecraftian theming of the wizard, proper, but that doesn’t really come across in level one of the his home. “Chanel Pits” and “Flesh Vats”, the names of the promised levels two and three, sound much more productive in that area. Overall the effort here is a little flat. I don’t mean to imply bad, but there were just very few things in the dungeon that the writing made me excited about running. There’s a decent number of interactions to be had and little bits of puzzle and interconnectedness scattered around that are great, but, still, come off with a generic flavor.

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Tales of the Scarecrow

By James Edward Raggi, IV

8 pages of experimental horror, dread magic, and campaign-bending madness.

My first post-GenCon review, picked this up from the LotFP booth. It’s a small eight page volume that describes one brief setup for the characters to experience. It’s closest to Lamentations Adventure Number Ten, or maybe a side-trek in Dungeon Magazine. Adventure Number Ten, which I loathed, had about one idea a page. This has one idea, not quite as brutal as those found in Ten, expanded with more detail but still rather open-ended. It’s a sticky little thing, which deserves maybe one more page to it.

The setup is pretty simple. From the road you see a cornfield, lush and growing in an unseasonably way. There’s a path through it, and a farmhouse in the middle of the field. Thus the entire hook is one of those pot at the end of rainbow things: you see something weird and poke your noses in … Something a CHARACTER should never do but which a PLAYER should always make their character do.

Inside the house you find a barely living dude, a couple of dead dudes, and some things to tempt you in to making mistakes. Also, there’s a scarecrow in the field and the players get to be involved in how the scarecrow acts … a kind of push your luck mechanism where the most evil idea gets XP. That’s a cute META exercise. The goodies inside the house are tempting, and add a bit ,but they don’t really PUSH the players to the scarecrow. Essentially, once inside you learn you’ll have trouble leaving and the adventure is a kind of tension between leaving & facing the monsters or staying and being safe. Except … I don’t really think leaving is an issue? Essentially you have a 50 yard dash while you’re at ¼ movement, suffering one attack each round. The claustrophobia of being trapped is what’s intended to happen, I’d guess, but I’m not certain that’s what will happen. I guess that’s an actual play thing.

In any event, the writing is pretty sticky and you get the vibe in your head in eight pages. It could have used one page that served as a summary page for running the adventure. Maybe noting what’s what in one sentence for each thing. From that you should be able to run it with a glance or two at the other pages for one of the more complex items.

It’s an interesting little thing for what it is with, perhaps, a little weakness in the “being trapped in the house” front. The scarecrow mechanic can help a bit on this front, but, ultimately, the party is only trapped if they think they are.

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