No Country for Weak Men

by Anders Lager
Lazy Sod Press
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 3-4

Somewhere in Frostreave… “Ever since we left that so-called town at the edge of the land of eternal ice, I’ve been freezing my butts off! And no trace of that were-whatever-thing we’re supposed to hunt down. Our best scout, Halross, says she’s been passing here, into this valley, but I get a bad feeling from all this silence, frost and snow. It’s empty here. No animals. No tracks. No nothing, but ice and snow. It’s not natural… And now we’re stuck in this cave. The blizzard has lasted two days now, and our supplies are almost gone. Hell, I’d give a sack of gold for a cold ale and a hot wench in my lap right now. I can smell the fear of the others – die of starvation or disgust here, or freeze to death out there. And some other not so pleasant smells too… Some choice, huh? Maybe we can roast that gnome’s pony? Would have been nice with some food now… Or, we just roast the gnome… Everyone’s on the edge. No sign of the blizzard waning either. I reckon someone will snap soon… Well, not me. Guess it’s time we get moving…”
This is a short fifteen room tomb complex, mostly linear, in the frozen north. It’s got some decently unique monsters and magic, but it resembles some cross between Tomb of Horrors and Grimtooth more than a dungeon adventure. The adversarial vibe from Tomb of Horrors is present here as well, and it’s something I’ve always had a hard time getting into.

It starts off well enough: “General feel: Dark, cold. Everything is covered in a thin layer of frost. Not disturbed for ages. Faint smell of decay in the stale air. All areas are either cut out of the bedrock or natural caves. The doors are made of hard wood and locked or barred. All scribblings are in an archaic form of Old Elvish.“ That’s some pretty good inspirational text. It sets mood in a very good way. You can build off of that, getting into the right frame of mind to expand the room descriptions. Then it immediately drops off at the first room. About a half page of text to describe a cave with a body in it and a secret door in the back wall. And it’s not good description either. It has advice like “(easy perception roll)” and “Close to the corpse there’s a small triangular opening in the stone wall, leading into the depths of the rock. (average perception roll)” It goes on. A lot. This is a really great example of an unfocused writing style. It’s very conversational. It’s trying to provide atmosphere, and rules, and facts, and inspiration, but it’s not really doing much of any of that very well. Spurious text like “close to the corpse” doesn’t really give us anything to work with, it’s more like a boring fact. “Embedded in its bloody hand” does a much better job, if it is even required. The description is more like a stream of consciousness outpouring from the writer. It’s a decent start, for a first draft, but needs a polish to focus the writing, to dig into what’s important and improve it and drop the rest. Most of the rooms in the adventure are like that.

The grimtooth/Tomb of Horrors vibe turns me off also. It’s a pretty strong reaction from me, and I’m sure I’m prejudiced against this sort of dungeon. A pool of water in a natural cave that’s actually acid, or a sodium ball that drops into a pool of water to explode. Lots of levers to pull to make certain things happen. I like all of these elements, separately, but when put together in a “Challenge” style tomb I start to react badly. I think it’s the whole “the dungeon builder/wizard wants to test you” thing that I loathe, and this resembles that if you squint enough.

The dungeon is pretty linear. The map looks like a Logos-style map, but is’ pretty linear with a couple of offshoot corridors with more empty rooms and “challenges.” It’s not really large enough to stretch your legs in or to get that feeling of dread from not knowing what’s down the road not taken.

It does a decent job with the monsters and the treasure. It’s new monsters and treasure, which is always nice to see. The descriptions are a bit wanting though. “As normal skeletons, but armed with norse weapons.” Not exactly inspiring. Spectral skeletons dripping with ectoplasm (a different monster) is a bit better.

The ending has the undead king arise, 10 turns later, and begin to summon an army of the dead. The beginning has the party find a cross that is used as a kind of key to open some of the doors/traps in the complex. Both of those elements are pretty decent. It’s the middle that suffers a lot. The conversational style leads to the lack of focus in the descriptions, resulting in boring instead of inspiring.


Posted in Reviews | 7 Comments

Erde Manor (Dyson’s Dodecahedron #4 & #5)

by Dyson Logos
ZERO/Barrier Productions
Labyrinth Lord
Level 4

This is actually a review of issues four and five of Dyson’s Dodecahedron, and more specifically, of the Erdea Manor dungeon that is spread out between the two issues. The dungeon has four levels with about ninety rooms total. It’s an inconsistent effort, with the upper levels being more interesting and better than the lower levels. It reminds me a lot of my favorite dungeon, Level 1 of The Darkness Beneath, without the “effortlessly interesting rooms” that TDB has.

The ruins of an old manor sit on a hillside. And inside are four chaotic levels of factions and six different groups that feels much more static then the implies it should. Dwarves are hanging around, trying to wait out a siege of ogres that have recently moved in. The ogres have a rogue member who is out for himself. The old members of the family that owned the manor are hanging around in the basements, with, maybe, four different factions. There are vermin galore and a few other humanoids that have wandered in. And yet … it feels more static than that would imply. The dwarves are locked in a room and have no interest in leaving. There’s a bit of a Monty Python/French Knights thing you could do with this, but it’s not really interactive. Likewise the ogres … the intra-ogre conflict is not really a highlight or enabled very well. The three or four factions of the family in the lower levels are also not really … interesting? People, fish-people, and bull-people are presented as branches (As well as undead) but no real reference to their interactions, cooperation, or how they react to the parties intrusions.

The details for the monsters, and for many of the rooms, come off instead as window dressing, or maybe fondant. It looks nice but it doesn’t really contribute very well to core mission. Rather than enabling creative play it comes off mostly as trivia. The springboard to adventure is lost. Individually some of the rooms are quite nice. Gnolls displaced by cave bears who is eating one of their comrades in the next room. Goats hanging on hooks on the walls, or an ogre making dwarf-bone bread. There’s something missing here. Some kind of potential energy, a wound spring waiting to be released.

The treasure is mostly a miss on the hit and miss scale. Highlights are a pair of ceremonial platinum axes and a golden beard-clasp. That’s quite nice. But most of the treasure ends up in the “silver necklace” or “+1 spear” category of treasure.

The maps are what you would expect. They have a lot of nice features, stairs up & down, multiple ways into and out of the dungeon, a good mix of dungeon features. They remind me a lot of the Rappan Athuk levels; individually they can be a bit small but if viewed as a cross-section they get much more interesting.

There’s a good example of the room types in an old meeting room. On the wall is a portrait, almost completely faded. If you raise a toast to the person in the portrait then something happens. But there’s no clue that this is an option. As presented it’s just trivia. If it were a dinner party, with the figure prominent and everyone around him raising a toast to him? Sure, then there’s a clue. The room as written needs just a bit more to give it a push. To turn it from trivia to potential energy.

Erde Manor needs a good polish edit.

Pay What You Want–Vol-1-Issue-5

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Dungeon Magazine #63

Hunt for a Hierophant
by Chris Doyla
Levels 6-8

Your motivation here is that a town you call home is threatened. Lame. PC’s are murder hobos with no families precisely to avoid this kind of ham-handed DM manipulation. “Get married? Fuck No. I don’t want to go rescue her next week and every week for the rest of my life.” Go find a treant who can tell you how to go find a druid. A couple of forest encounters, the treant is insane, and the druid dungeon is full of “tests.” Oh boy. Tests. The only good thing about this adventure is a couple of monsters who don’t immediately attack, a dryad and a stone giant. How refreshing. This thing is BURIED in text, even by Dungeon standards. It like to explain things. A LOT. “A trigger spell activates a blah blah blah spell which activates a …” It’s fucking magic. The sword flies around because that’s what swords do. “Perhaps the purpose of your life is to serve as an example to others.”

Gnome Droppings
by Christopher Perkins
Levels 2-4

It says Spelljammer, but not really. The party sees a shooting star. Finding it next to a moorlock cave, they kill/scare away the creatures. The star is a crate, with two gnome robots in it. Some spriggans show up. Hilarity ensues as the gnome robot gets confused. Eventually some Spelljamming gnomes show up and ask for their robot back. There’s not much to this, and far, FAR too much text to describe what’s going on. That’s it. Nothing to see. Move along.

Huzza’s Goblin O’War
by Paul F. Culotta
Levels 4-6

A tiny pirate encounter. A hill giant throws an anchor grappling hook at the parties boat while margoyles fly over goblin raiders. And this is an adventure? “Next week please write 62 pages on a room with an orc and a pie.” That’s it. Nothing to see. Move along.

Blood & Fire
by John Baichtal
Levels 5-7

This is quite the long desert fetch-quest adventure. Find the missing prince, but you need to find the old vizier first. To do that you need to travel to an oasis. The folks there won’t let you have the vizier unless you kill the dragon. Travel to the prince’s valley prison. Meet locals. Invade mage fortress that has captured prince. There are bits and pieces of good design in this. Some of the creatures you encounter are doing things; dragging away a dead body, or in the process of attacking others. Some of the magic items are decently described, even though they only show up in a big treasure vault at the end. The apparatus of Kwalish shows up (I don’t recall ever seeing one in an adventure before … no, the 2E artifact adventures (Axe, Rod, Vena) don’t count.) It’s mostly long. It wants to be realistic and tries to cram in data, but it does so using the traditional room/key format, with lengthy introductions. If Baichtal was more familiar with sandboxes then it may have turned out different. “Tedious” is what I would use to describe this one.

Invisible Stalker
by Johnathan M. Richards
Levels 1-2

It’s only three pages. A woman comes running out of her dress shop, complaining of a ghost. It’s actually a thief with a ring of invisibility who is stalking her. That’s it. Nothing to see. Move along.

Beauty Corrupt
by Kent Ertman
Levels 4-5

This is a scene-based adventure that is primarily underwater. A merchant has suddenly regressed and is an idiot. The other merchants pay the party to find out why. Clues lead to the sea, where the party finds out about some hags that cursed a siren. Murder Time! There are some nice bits of descriptive text scattered throughout (wicked paring knife, they keep three feet to gnaw/snack upon, etc) but it’s mostly crap. The scene based layout is combined with mountains of text that doesn’t really say anything. (Talk about hand-holding!) The hags all have rings of spell storing with teleport, so they can escape. Joy. What a gimp. Why not just scream “DM PET! YOU CAN’T KILL THEM HA HA HA !” at the players instead? They both make the players feel the same way.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | Leave a comment

Brave the Labyrinth #1 – The Screams from Jedder’s Hole

by Dyson Logos
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 4-5

“That unholy wailing must be stopped. I sense a great evil lurking in the dark depths of Jedder’s Hole. I can lead you down along the secret paths, but if we falter, the price may be our immortal souls.” – Brother Helmad the Bold

This is a short five page adventure with twelve rooms, in a dungeon/former prison under a (reformed) temple of justice. It’s got some great imagery in it and is well worth whatever I ended up paying (PWYW.)

I’ve always had a hard time with Logos adventures. They are based around his maps and his maps tend to be a little small for my tastes. They are usually pretty well done, with some decent features and good use of elevation, but small. I’m more of a “family size bag of cheesy poofs” kind of adventure guy. But going into it knowing that it’s small helps a bit.

The conceit is this: Suddenly wailing has starts coming from a hole in the Temple of Justice. Bad King Dickhead used to chuck prisoners down there over a hundred years ago. The entire intro section is really well done, with some great advice for the hook. Introduce the temple over several sessions, and then, while visiting one day, the wailing starts up. Maybe in the middle of a ceremony the party is participating in. A wedding perhaps? The wailing, and hole in the floor it comes from, can cause those who really fail their saves to look down into it in horror and then, over 2-10 minutes, throw themselves in … That’s EXCELLENT. A wedding party interrupted, people transfixed in horror … and then the first one throws themselves in, just tipping over the edge! A mad scramble to prevent the others! That’s a good hook, a good set up, and a good effect that allows for great play opportunities.

The imagery in the adventure is well done. Skeletons of former prisoners on the other side of the only door in, having died trying to claw their way through the door. The sounds of bodies being ripped and rended and munched upon, coming from the distance and dark in front of the party as they descend into the hole … Most of the adventure provides these sorts of little bits of imagery that really work well to bring a scene to life in your mind, thereby leveraging the DMs imagination more effectively.

There are a smattering of potential allies in the hole, or enemies for the trigger happy. The magic treasure is quite nicely done. An Amulet of Blood with weird special effects, or a transformed skull that is now a CRystal Ball skull. That’s cool! More adventure should do that sort of thing.

This is a short review for a short adventure. While short is does have a decent amount of stuff going on, with more than enough stuff for the party to juggle in only twelve rooms.

The print version of the magazine is $4. The PDF version if Pay What You Want.–Issue-1-PDF

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

Dragon’s Horde #1 – The Undertemple of Akron

The Undertemple of Arkon
by Richard LeBlanc Jr.
Levels 1-3

[This is a periodical, and is my custom I’m only reviewing the adventure therein.]

“A recent report tells of a group of cultists disappearing into the ground where the temple once stood. Perhaps the cult is re-forming in some sort of underground lair. If this is true, then the gods help us.“

This is an underground temple to a panther god (ala Petty Gods.) It’s got about 44 rooms and is keyed in a VERY minimalist format, taking up about six pages of leisurely formatted text. Too minimal/Tegal for my tastes. There’s a highlight or two, all at the beginning, but not enough to avoid the “just another room with a monster” syndrome.

There’s a page of backstory (again, leisurely formatted, so only a couple of paragraphs) that tells of a mysterious giant panther, and the cult that formed around it. It was destroyed by wary villagers, and now rumors are circulating again that the cult is back. AKA, the usual. Attached on this page also is the wandering monster table … which makes little sense to me. Acolytes? Sure. Beetle, cube, undead? Sure. Bugbears and goblins? I don’t get it. The dungeon/undertemple has some captured bugbears, and a dead goblin, but they don’t seem to have any special relation to the temple. Monsters? Rescue party? Escapees? Just a couple of more words would have wonders here. “Escaped Bugbears” or “Bugbear rescue party.” The map is decent; large and lots of loops, a few secrets. It could, perhaps, use more features. Pools, circles, rubble, web, etc.

The encounters are a weird mix of decent and minimalist. The first half dozen or so are fairly decent, but then it drops down in quality quite a bit. Here’s a good example, from room 2:
This room smells sweet, with hints of pine and basil. The columns framing the doorway to the south are smeared with blood and spotted toward their bases with small bloody handprints. The fingers of the hands that left the prints are long and slender–otherwise, it might appear they were left by children.

A little verbose, but quite nice. Compare to this room, later in the dungeon:
Facing the door, armed and at the ready (cannot be surprised), are 2 skeletons with swords and shields

In the first eight rooms there are four or so that are quite interesting. Magical figurines, a slave pit … but then things drop off to “skeleton room” quality. There might be one more later on, with cultists pushing a bugbear at a panther in a cage, trying to make it eat.

The magic items are all +1 sword and +1 shield. The mundane treasure is “gold necklace” or “big sapphire.” This is not the kind of text that inspires a DM. The bloody handprint room? Great! +1 sword? Boring.

Too minimal for me; I’d quite disappointed that the rest of the adventure doesn’t follow the path blazed by those first few rooms.

Posted in Reviews | 1 Comment

Dungeon Magazine #62


Jesus H. Fucking Christ I hate reviewing Dungeon Magazine. For every decent adventure there are 20 more crap ones. I perused the letters this issue, by accident. Some fuckwit had to correct every single error in the Planescape adventure from last issue. “You can’t use blah blah blah to enter Sigil. The rulebook says so. “ I hope you fucking die you piece of shit Samuel Johnson loving asswipe. I hope that your own personal hell is a limit approaching 90 degrees.

Dragon’s Delve
by Christopher Perkins
Levels 3-6

This is a rescue mission into a dwarven kingdom to save some emissaries and a crystal dragon. The dwarves inside are being manipulated into evil. I don’t think this adventure knows what it wants to be when it grows up. Because of that it’s a mish-mash of different styles. I had a very strong initial negative reaction to this one. The long & implausible backstory involves the use of crystal ball, repeatedly, to kick things off … but the ball can’t see the parts of the dungeon that have the powers behind the throne … even though it actually sees that area? The party is given a horn of blasting that is clearly meant to be used in a couple of set pieces, no doubt because it would be cool. Blast the front doors down! Blast the crystal throne in the giant set-piece battle! Uncool Perkins, Uncool. This goes as far as knock-proof doors. There are a couple of good things, like a dwarf name/stat reference sheet (that really needs “attitude” on it as well) and several of the rooms and magic items are quite interesting. But is it a stealth mission? A frontal assault? An exploration adventure? There are aspects of all three here. To some extent this makes it an adventure in the same vein as G1/Steading. But while that one had a very neutral tone, this one is less focused. Are we exploring the weird stuff or making friends or sneaking about? There’s something just off about the writing style … this doesn’t come off as a place to have an adventure in. It comes off as a style being enforced … but there are multiple styles being enforced. And … it’s got WAY too many words for a room/key adventure, as Dungeon is want to do. This thing needs a good rewrite to focus it. Neutral module/location? Exploration? Enforced plot? Pick one. In spite of my very visceral initially negative impression, this one has something to it … but it’s … only a first draft?

Blood on the Plow
by Lance Hawvermale
Levels 4-6

This sidetrek is the most implausible adventure I have encountered. The party sees a woman struggling to bring in a wheat crop by herself. Inquiring, they find out that her husband broke both legs and their farmhand left. Helpful PC’s encounter a series of problems over the week of bringing in the crop. There’s a scarecrow in the field. STOP! Any PC gets any whiff of a scarecrow is going to immediately go whole hog in destroying it. It’s like saying there are gargoyles. The adventure wants a series of small misfortunes to happen over a week. (A couple of good examples are provided, but a lot more would have been better.) Then the final night the scarecrow attacks. In reality the party is going to focus on the scarecrow and destroy it instantly. And if they don’t then they deserve to be murdered in their sleep. Shhesh. They call themselves murder hobos …

by Jennifer Stack
Levels 5-7

Uh …. While in a swamp the party finds a small palisade with a hut in it. Inside is a dying lizard man. he tries to tell the party about the giant mummy crocodile in the swamp. When the party leaves the small patch of dry land they are attacked. That’s it. About a long as a side-trek, with enormous amounts of backstory that goes nowhere. Seriously, the amount of text in this is amazing for what it is. There’s a nice bit of magic: a necklace of stone fetishes that acts as a ring of free action. If you’re going to put in a book magic item then at least touch it up a bit, like Jennifer did in this one.

The Rat Trap
by Timothy Ide
Levels 6-10

The city is facing a group of grisly murders, and the protection money paid to the thieves guild doesn’t seem to be working anymore. The party is probably hired to get to the bottom of things. Unknown to almost everyone, wererats have taken over the thieves guild and are going to suck the population dry. There are some brief notes about the major organizations in the city, but the adventure is mostly event based. The amount of supporting information is quite light, which is going to make party progress beyond the events almost completely up to the DM and unsupported by the adventure. Uncool. The events are also so transparent that it’s hard for me to envision any party falling for it. The pickpocket is obvious. The party doesn’t set guards at the inn? The core concept here is a good one. The wererat philosophy is a nice one and they come off very good. But the adventure feels constrained by its length and/or the actual content that was chosen to be provided. Nicely, the king of the wererats may escape and come back for revenge. Nice potential for a truly interesting recurring villain. Or at least a murderous revenge plot.

Wild in the Streets
by W. Jason Peck
Levels 3-6

I’m incredulous at what passes for an adventure in this issue. Three baby monsters have escaped and the party is hired by the guards to deal with them. The owner misrepresents them as a baby panther (displacer beast kitten), giant armadillo (dinosaur) and something else (a rust monster kit.) That’s it. There’s one or two words about how they react, but no real joy or suggestions of what to do with the creatures. And it took four fucking pages for this?

Esmerelda’s Bodyguard
by Paul F. Culotta
Levels 6-9

This is the one that broke me for this issue. This is the one that inspired my opening diatribe. It’s one fucking room. One room. ONE. Six pages long. One room. Meet an asswipe on the road who challenges you to a fight. It’s a clockwork golem that winds down in one round. Woman entreats you to investigate the basement. Basement has a poly’d demon. End. This must be the antithesis of good design.

The Ghost at Widder Smither’s’
by John Baichtal
Levels 1-3

Lately Raggi’s LOTFP designs have degenerated into pretentious crap. But the early stuff was GOLD. This entire thing would have one sentence in Pembrooktonshire, and it would have been better. It’s “Widder” as in “Widow.” While having tea the old bitch sees a ghost. The party is encouraged to investigate by a nearby butcher, instead of gutting her. Inside the kitchen they see a ghost with a pickaxe working the floor, which soon disappears. If they dig through the kitchen floor they two wizards trapped under rubble, just coming out of a stasis spell cast during their battle. Ohs Nos! Who’s the bad guy! A good wizard who’s “friend to dwarves and elves.” *Bleech.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 2 Comments

Sordid Stories from the Mother City

by Josh Graboff
2e/Gold & Glory

This is a short murder investigation that leads to an evil cult. It’s got several things going for it: multiple factions, people who act like people, random complications, and a presentation style that is “place and timeline” rather than event or scene based. It also lacks a bit of focus, which can be seen in its thirty(!) page length. Overall it’s a pretty good example of how to present an adventure. If it could be tightened up a bit and focused more on gameable content then it would be a sure winner. As is … it’s hard to recommend given my obscenely high standards.

Let’s cover the presentation style first. There’s a timeline presented very early in the adventure. Given no interruptions by the party, this is what the evil cult do when. This is a great start. The cult exists outside of the party. Plans are in motion. Things will happen. Complimenting this is a list of NPC’s the party will/could encounter in the city. Again, very good. You can run into the major NPC’s almost anywhere so grouping them together in the beginning makes sense. Finally there are a list of places. Here’s the old house on the hill, what goes on there, and how the cult uses it. Here’s the whore house, who is there, and what they know. Here is the bar, who is there, and what they know. The sum total of this is that the DM is presented with tools to use to build the adventure around. There’s no need for a railroad, the DM now has the power to determine the whats and wherefores of the actions the party takes. It’s a breathe of fresh air after some of the railroad crap I’ve seen lately. This is how you present an adventure with a plot. Or, rather, how a plot adventure can be transformed into something in which the party has free will. I’m pretty sure Justin Alexander just wrote something to this effect recently. Don’t prep plots, prep situations. Give the DM the tools they need. This adventure does that. Well, mostly.

One of the other nice things is that the NPC’s and minions are not completely one dimensional. They are at least 1.9 dimensional, and sometimes two. They act like real people. If you’re about to slit their throat they surrender, or talk. How many times have we seen slobbering maniacs who don’t surrender and fight to the death? There’s a place for that, sometimes. But there’s an even larger place for people (and monsters) with a fucking hint of self-preservation. When every thing the party meets just attacks until death then the party will no longer try to talk, or parlay, or capture. It’s just a hack-fest. The game is SO much more interesting when the monsters/opponents talk.

This leads into the faction play. There are at least two factions to the evil bad guys, and maybe more if you squint a bit. A is getting too big for their britches and thinks they no longer need B. B is just about fed up with A’s attitude. That’s great! In addition to this there are a group of monsters who might revolt as well as … ready? A TOTALLY UNCONNECTED MAJOR EVENT GOING ON. That’s GREAT! Zombie movies are not about the zombies. It’s about what people do when confronted with pressure. Similarly, the major event in this adventure adds complications to what the party’s already doing. It puts pressure on them and adds all new avenues of events. It’s great!

The adventure does a couple of other nice things, like having large groups of enemies (2d8 guards …) and giving some explicit advice to the DM about how to warn the party that at least one of the Evil Bad Guys is quite powerful. Fair’s fair. A 23rd level orc that looks like a normal orc is not fair. The party needs fair warning that he’s a 23rd level anti-paladin … then there’s no guilt when they charge in and you kill them.

There are two significant improvements I think would have turned this adventure into something really specials. First, a reference sheet. All of the NPC’s on one page in a table, where they are, a couple of words on personalities and maybe what they know. This is the kind of basic DM assistance that every adventure should provide the DM with.

Second, the descriptions are too wordy. They are full of trivia not useful to the adventure. This is usually what I’m referring to when I say something like “the adventure lacks focus.” If it’s not relevant to the adventure then it should almost always be trimmed. The usual sins are “history” and “NPC backstory” (which I guess could be called history also.) The trivia presented is only relevant if it directly impacts the adventure. Then we wouldn’t call it trivia. The adventure does this a lot, in just about every description of a place or NPC.

A good example is the whorehouse. We learn who founded it, and why. But it then goes on to say that the current operators have been running it for 30 years and no one remembers the former owners and only know the cruelty of the current management. Then what’s the point of the history? STOP EXPLAINING! I loathe explanations in D&D adventures. I don’t care where the fucking toilet empties unless the party can explore it. I don’t care about the history of the whorehouse unless it’s relevant to the adventure. The same goes for NPC’s. I don’t care about their twin sister unless it somehow impacts the adventure. It’s irrelevant. Focus! Focus on the adventure!

Unlike most adventures which lack focus, this one does provide some good content. After the backstory/history generally comes a sentence or two of descriptive text or attitude that helps you bring the NPC to life. This is a bit hit & miss. The whores get some decent personality/quirks but many of the other NPC’s could use a bit more … life? They need a quirk, something to remember them by, something to bring them to life. The tavern, where the adventure starts is a good example of this. The NPC’s there come off a bit flat, as does the tavern proper. It/they need something else to bring it all to life and really solidify itself in the DMs head.

Again, while not a good adventure it’s not really a bad one either. Hopefully we’ll see more, and better, in the future.

Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments

Rogues in Remballo

by Matt Finch
Frog God Games
Swords & Wizardry
Level 1

This is a little investigation adventure in a neighborhood of a city. I really like the neighborhood map, and the concept of city neighborhoods in general. It’s got a pretty decent pretext and the provides a solid foundation for a good adventure. The NPC’s could use more life and some of the descriptions could be more … specific? More applicable to the adventure, I think I mean. It does a great job of providing the party a solid starting base in the city, making contact with several organizations that can be springboards to future adventure. I’m inclined to like city adventures, and I like this one. I just wish it were a little more memorable.

Very superficially this adventure has a couple of aspects in common with Kelvin Greens “Forgive Us.” Both are set in a series of buildings that form a courtyard, with something Not Nice going on. I used to think that the local lords should keep close eyes out on all ruins, statues, etc nearby in the wilderness and/or destroy them and salt the earth, because of the prevalence of such sites causing problems. I think “courtyards” now need to follow on, and need to be outlawed by city ordinance.

In the neighborhood of Dead Fiddlers Square, something is up in the area known as Four Corners. The guard know something is up. The Thieves Guild knows something is up. But they don’t know what. Through a quirk of local law the guard can’t go there. The thieves guild has their own reason for being subtle, suspecting encroachment from a more violent guild in another city. One, or both, could hire the party to look into things. Plausible deniability and all of that. There is another subplot going on as well, with a missing member of a banking family. This is good. Three agencies, all with a bit of the story, some of which connects and some of which doesn’t. Three entry points to the adventure, with the other two laying open for potential additions and/or exploitation and/or complications. Environments are the most interesting when there’s lots going on. There’s a decent amount going on here. It IS all focused around the adventure … more on that later.

This is a stake out. An investigation. Questioning of locals. Figuring out what’s going on. Snooping into the the area … that could potentially then lead to some combat, a chase, paperwork found, prisoners questioned, and the end of the adventure. The read aloud here is terse, exactly the way it should be. The map of the neighborhood is excellent. Lots of variety in how high the buildings are, doors, windows, and alleys/streets. It provides an interesting environment in which the to have the adventure and to exploit in gaining access to the courtyard, once that time comes. I can’t emphasize this enough: the environment presented by the map supplements the adventure well. It’s exactly what it should in order to provide an interesting place from which to investigate the goings on in the area of interest.

I’m going to quibble with some of the choices later on, but I think I’d summarize the entire thing as a strong foundation to support an adventure. The bankers, in particular, get a decent overview write up which can serve well in the future. Key individuals, heir areas of interest and so on. The thieves guild and the city watch get less … a lot less. Essentially you get a name and some brief information related to the their goal in the adventure. It’s enough … but providing a brief write-up, as the bankers did, would have allowed for a much more interesting environment to be presented. Lieutenants, favored stooge, etc. You’re going to run into these people in the course of the adventure, and they serve double duty by providing an environment that lives on for future adventures in the city.

This same criticism could extend to the NPC’s provided for the various locations. Each of the locations in the neighborhood is detailed with a few sentences/a paragraph. Who lives there, what they do, and what they know about the goings on. Most of the NPC’s come off a little flat. Just a name and occupation, for the most part. A sentence on personality and maybe activity, or relationship to someone else, would have brought the area to life. “Weaves baskets on front stoop and glares at passerby’” or “Likes to clean veggies at the window while she gossips with the neighbor Mary, her confidant.” Something more than presented that provides a springboard for the DM to build upon.

Now for the hardcore criticism: the adventure is not organized as well as it could be. I understand that may be taken as a matter of opinion, but give me a moment to make my case.

The thieves guild knows something. The thieves on stakeout know something also. The guard know something. The guards on stakeout know something as well. Some of the people in the neighborhood know something, while some do not. The problem is that the adventure is organized into the usual Key/Encounter format. That format is great for exploration adventures. It usually serves some purpose in every adventure, to some degree. But it should not be the PRIMARY source of information in all cases. There needs to be an overview, or somesuch, that tells you watch the guard lookout knows. “They get a delivery of horsemeat from the Andersons every day at noon.” and stuff like that. Insead this is broken up to the individual keys. If you read all of the keys, and keep it all in your head or, more likely, make notes, then you’ll be able to present this information effectively. But do you really want to have to dig through all of the keys for this, especially during play? (No, which is why you’ve made a crib sheet.) This is not universal. It’s absolutely correct that the entry for the Andersons should contain the horsemeat entry, and that the potter key should contain what he knows. But the general information, the entry point for the adventure, needs to be outside of this. In the same way that some adventures present key NPC’s outside of their locations, some information should be presented outside of the keys as well.

I might also comment that the room/key format supports visiting all of the people in the neighborhood. And yet the DM is encouraged to NOT let that happen, because it can bog the adventure down. Finch is correct, it can, and usually will, bog the adventure down as the party questions each and every person, knocking on every door. And yet … this is how the information is presented … as if the party had done this. The guards, which lead you to the Andersons, which leads you to the house painter, and so on, would have been a much better way to present the information, at least in an overview. I appreciate the advice, it’s absolutely correct and shows solid understanding of how the adventure could devolve and how to combat it. More adventures should do that.

Overall a solid adventure that could be better. A timeline, more of a community orientation, more going on, and better data presentation could have bumped this up into stellar territory. As is, you’ll need to read and crib, as you do in most adventures. This one has a solid foundation though.

Posted in Reviews | 2 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #61

by Dan De Fazio, Christina Stiles
Masque of the Red Death
Levels 4-6

Eleven scenes, a couple of which are optional and a couple of which are just window dressing in which little/nothing happens. A woman makes a frankenstein and abandons it. She stumbles across it later, and it loves her. She’s already engaged, but the monster wants her to marry him. The party investigates, at her request, and guards her wedding. The scene 11 climax is at the honeymoon cottage. This is a ‘meh’ effort. The NPC’s are done well but everything, except the NPC’s, is buried in too much text. Combined with the scene based nature, it’s less than a stellar effort.

Storm Season
by Paul F. Culotta
Levels 7-12

This is a pretty straightforward investigation and then assault, with a couple of high points. There’s a lame hook where the party finds a recently beheaded druid. Following up, they are assigned by a local city ruler to investigate some wizard deaths. This leads to them finding the Night Parade and then assaulting their warehouse base. There are some good NPC descriptions, terse and descriptive. “Fat, jovial, and with a face that scares small children.” The read-aloud is not excessive and has a nice over the top aspect to it. D&D is like old-timey theater; you need excessive makeup and exaggerated actions to get your point across. The rumors table is in the format I like, more of direct quotes from yokels rather than fact based. You get a fully city map as well as a VERY terse key, nothing more than a name. The investigation portion, and warehouse, vary between not-too-verbose and verbose, but it’s arranged well, if a bit conversational. This could be tighter than it is, but overall not a bad effort for a straight-forward adventure.

To Save a Forest
by Dovjosef Anderson
Levels 5-7

I shall not comment on the odiousness of the goody-goody implied morality in this adventure. A wounded druid asks you to travel to find an elder treant in a nearby forest so it can remove a curse on the druids own forest. The big treant is a dick and eventually helps. Unless you’re evil then he kills you outright. You travel to mountains to find some Pegasi, fight some griffins, and plant an acorn to heal the forest. Along the way you kill four shadows and a wraith. At the end a naga and 25 orcs show up. It’s a pretty straight-forward fetch-quest. The wandering table is a nice one with lots of nice little encounters on the three provided. It also takes up three whole pages, so it does so by providing a lot of text. But, still … it may be the highlight. I like classical adventure tropes, and I thought hard about this adventure. The odiousness of the background, goody-goody nature, and dick treant are real turn-offs to what otherwise could have been a nice little ‘magical wood’ adventure, a kind of Mirkwood & Lothlorein adventure. You could still do that, but you’ll not be inspired by this adventure.

Night Swarm
by Lorri E. Hulbert
Levels 5-7

A swamp village is plagued by swarms of insects; several villagers have died from it. It turns out that the local herbalist is actually a vampire who takes the form of a swarm of mosquitoes. Talk to villagers and get rumors, visit the herbalist, suffer through some dreams, get ambushed by the herbalists minions, chase him into the basement to kill him and rescue the villagers. The mosquito vampire and, maybe, the role play involved in convincing the villagers to dig up the graveyard (to find empty coffins filled with sand!) should be fun. The rest of this is pretty simple.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Ogress of Anubis

by Richard LeBlanc jr
New Big Dragon Games Unlimited
Levels 4-6

Azeneth believed the life of the high priest (or priestess) should be as comfortable as that of the kings and the gods. She spoke her contempt for her father’s “weakness” loudly and publicly, almost from the time she learned to talk. As she neared her teens, she made it known her plan was to supplant her father and become high priestess of the temple, sometimes claiming it was her place as the incarnation of the goddess Nekhbet. Many say Azeneth has the power to command serpents, and it was she who sent the asp that killed her father Kemosiri. Regardless, she seized her position as high priestess of the temple and set about her accumulation of power and wealth. Recently, children from the villages around the temple have begun to disappear. Rumors abound that Azeneth is sacrificing them and cannibalizing them because she believes this will make her wealthier, more powerful, and more divine. The people of the villages have begun to refer to Azeneth as the “ogress of Anubis”—believing it was Anubis himself that made this woman mad, and commanded her to consume the children she sacrifices. Someone must end this reign of fear and terror, and try to return the children alive—if it is in the will of the gods.

This is an egyptian themed adventure. It’s a raid on a temple compound to find some missing children. It’s more historically accurate than it is interesting. Or at least it looks historically accurate … since I don’t know nothing about Egypt. It’s interesting to review this so close to Valley of the Five Fires. The differences (dare I say improvement?) are quite interesting. It hits some of my pet peeves, and ultimately the goodies are few enough to make it uninteresting to me. Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn …

The adventure does a few things very right. It presents the area around the temple, including the villages. Each village gets a sentence or two to let the DM build on. Pretty good. Better would be that there was also something interesting in each village. Maybe you can fix this by taking some of the “continue the adventure” hooks at the end of the adventure and working them in. The temple compound area is pretty nice also. Priests, guards, support staff and pilgrims will around. It’s very much presented as a locale that exists outside of the party … and then the party gets to dream up how they will get in. That’s very nice. It harkens back to the scene in 13th Warrior where they see the camp outside of the cave lair and talk about getting in. I wish more adventures would do this sort of thing. It’s always memorable when the designer doesn’t railroad you into something. There’s other little bits and pieces that also make this nice, like the parents of the missing children insisting on going with you (Fucking finally! You’d think no one in D&D-landia loved their children they way all =seem to usually avoid trying to help you rescue their kin.)

There’s A LOT of mundane magic items in this adventure. It seems like every guard has a +1 sword, a +1 bow and a +1 dagger. And it’s all boring. “they each have a +1 dagger.” Oh, my, that’s exciting. If the need is to give them a +1 to hit then just give them a +1 to hit. “They all pump iron, bro-style, every day. +1 hit & damage.” Don’t kill the mystery and wonder of the magical by making it mundane. In fact, the mundane treasures are are a lot better. Alabaster objects, gold blood bowls, and so on. Very nicely described.

The temple proper is pretty linear and, I suspect, very historically accurate. Historically Accurate does not mean fun. Some of the setups in it are nice, like cages full of screaming children, a sacrifice in progress, and reed baskets with skeleton children in them. The adventure needs more of that … although … even that seems to be missing some … joy? It’s all presented VERY fact based. I like things organized but the text must also inspire the DM and mundane facts are generally not the way to do it. I’m not talking gonzo, or explosion-sounds, but rather a dynamic writing style to bring the descriptions to life.

This isn’t a bad adventure so much as it’s not really a good one. I guess it’s serviceable, but mostly uninspiring.

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment