Witches of Hagswallow

By Anthony Hunter
Sleeping Griffon Productions
Battleaxes & Beasties/OSR
Levels 2-4

People and livestock are going missing again in the areas that border the Hagswallow Bog. The locals think the Witches are to blame. It is said that they are found near an old, ruined tower near the far edge of the bog. Will the Adventurers save the missing people and put an end to the menace of the mysterious Witches of Hagswallow, or will they disappear into the bog as well, never to be heard from again?

This 46 page adventure details the exploration of a ruined manor tower and it’s dungeon. 37 rooms come in on 24 pages, with the rest being maps, pregens, and appendices. A simple & direct writing style is quite evocative with great use of showing instead of telling, even if it wastes space with explaining WHY things are. It’s a good, basic D&D adventure.

The intro & background are nothing special, but for one reason. Reading it, and the title, I thought for sure it was another hag adventure. Then there’s the background, describing very generally what a bog is, and some shitty hooks like “you see a tower in the distance” or “a relative goes missing.” This entire intro section is perfunctory and you could almost remove the entire thing without losing anything. Except … the locals give an account of the hags. Tall. Sing-songy voices. Oh, so unusual hags then? No. Harpies! TOTALLY had me fooled. Like I said, the entire intro is just garbage, except for the bit about the descriptions. There’s not even an investigation or a village, just some very abstracted notes about background and the general description.

Looks, that’s all shit anyway, what I really want to talk about are the room descriptions in this thing. It’s one of the best examples of showing instead of telling that I’ve ever seen. It its all of the notes that SHOWING gives you. This starts, I think, with a description of the prisoners of the harpies, that comes before the keyed entries. The teenage boy Yar lives in the bog and can find his own way home but thanks for the rescue. The teenage Girl Peneolpe Hazzar, father=merchant, who argues with her father and he probably thinks she ran away. The large mentally challenged fellow karl, who heard the pretty music from the angels and was hauling shiny rocks from past big mountain to horse people. That’s all great; short and it gets their personalities and goals across immediately.

But then, in the keys, it gets even better. The smell of mold, rotten wood and decay with fungi growing of many surfaces of the stable, skeletal remains strewn in the hay. Damp, mold-covered and cracked stone steps leading up to a door. A floor in the tower thick with harpy droppings and feathers floating in the air. Not enough? How about a prisoner who’s had strips and bits eaten off of her while she’s shackled to the wall? No? How about a room , a nesting area, decorated with the remains of her favorite snack, children. EVIL. That’s difference between saying the harpies are evil and showing the harpies are evil.

I’m also fond of the maps, but not in a gushing way. Simple black & white, they look done of a computer. They are easy to read and do a decent job of showing holes in roofs and walls. 37 rooms in six levels (three above and three below) means that the maps are not the most complex. The treasure, mundane and magical is above average, if a bit long winded. A 14” tall ebony statue of a rattoid, very heavy for its size. And then another two sentences explaining it has a gold covering, which is in turn covering lead. Ora small leather pouch, tied shut with braided blonde hair. Inside is a withered finger with a gold ring set with four small turquoise stone. (Aside: “Small” and “heavy” are boring words, try to use better words.) A little long, being about a paragraph each, but certainly richly developed.

I would note, however, that the writing isn’t exactly tight. This brings up the spectre of locating information. It is the Old Wound My King. Room ten on page elevent is a GREAT example. The room takes a column. About a third is a generous monster stat block. The last section is the treasure/what you find if searching, laid out in bullet points. This sort of organization is really good. You know where to scan for what information. But it’s the first section that’s an issue. Here’s the description:
“The harpy Lyvyne nests in this room. She is the second most senior harpy in the aviary and wants to be the Harpy Queen. Although she has the largest area of this level of the tower, most of it it open to the sky and elements. An especially vile specimen of her species, Lyvyne has decorated her nesting area with the remains of children, who she nds particularly tasty. In the straw on the western side of the room is Lyvyne’s pet Bogsnake, Grilla.”

Most of this is padding. The first, second, and most of the third sentence could go away, as could the “an especially vile specimen of her species” clause. There’s not really any factions within the harpy clan, or NPC interaction, so the whole second most senior, etc is just wasted space. The net impact of all of this is the obfuscation of the critical parts of the room, the most excellent SHOW of the tasty little child tidbits.

I find this adventure charming. A good solid basic adventure. It needs a highlighter. It’s a great example of showing instead of telling, with most of the intro being worthless.

This is $3 on DriveThru. The preview is six pages and just shows you the worthless intro portions. You can see, however, on the last paragraph of the left column on page 5, the witch rumors I fell for.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | Leave a comment

Night at Fausen’s Manor

By Ben Gibson
Coldlight Press
Level 3

Up here in the mountains, the sun sets fast. The path has narrowed yet again as it diverts into this small slot valley. A gentle stream parallels the path; it’s pretty, but the smell of rotting vegetation dissuades from lingering long. In the lengthening shadows, birdsong seems oddly muted. As the forest clears a bit up ahead, a small manor upon a little pond comes into view. The birds have gone completely still.

This 24 page adventure (with 17 additional pages of maps) is a “missing persons” investigation at a remote manor, targeted at “zero prep.” I can quibble a lot with atmosphere and order or pages, but it largely accomplishes what it should.

First things first: this adventure claims to be everything you need for a night of fun. Even a brief expose to the cesspool of adventures will reveal that MANY adventures make this claim. This thing gets very close, so close I’m willing to say the marketing is truthful. If you print this out and spend about 5-10 minutes reading it then you can play D&D tonight as soon as the players show up.. This is a non-trivial accomplishment. It’s success revolves around two points: the support materials and the making the adventure clear to the DM. First the support materials, which make up most of the adventure page count, like, 15 pages worth. Pregens. A brief one-page overview of d20 rules, some little paper minis. Maps. What’s in your backpack.

The adventure, proper, is about four pages. It is, essentially, a one-page dungeon, or at least maybe a four page dungeon? One page DM map with notes on it, and then a second page with a relationship mind-map and room key and two pages of overview. Thus it accomplishes it’s “two page dungeon” in the same way Stonehell did, by providing a reference page to use during play and then a couple of pages to look over and read that you almost certainly DONT use during play. It’s an effective format. The background/supplemental information pages get you in to the vibe of the adventure, giving you the broad strokes of the adventure so you can get the core ideas and concepts going on. The “one page” (or two, in this case) then act as your DM notes for actually running the adventure.

I find this very interesting because I think it both matches the way most people create their home adventures and it tries to address head on the issue with communicating vision in a product. I suspect many people, when creating an adventure at home for use in their games, get an idea and maybe sketch out a VERY rough map and do some kind of VERY minimal key, just to jog their memories. They kind of know what they want to do in their head and then the reference map/key is just some very brief notes. But the vibe, all that really makes the adventure come alive, is in their head. It’s that aspect that separates a good writer from a bad one. Can you get the vibe out of your head and and down on the page so the DM reading it can understand it, really understand what you’re trying to do. Then, the references pages, the map and room keys, are just again the simple notes that we all use during play. And that’s fucking hard to do.

This adventure, proper, is an investigation. An old man summons you to his manor because his butler is missing. There are two servants and his daughter in the isolated manor. You talk to people and poke around. Investigations don’t work in D&D unless they are at a low level, which this is. At higher levels there’s too much magic available that destroys mystery. THis makes sense in a deathtrap exploratory dungeon but doesn’t transfer well on other types of adventures … except at lower levels. There’s a mind map present which summarize the personalities and how the people relate to each other. This is PERFECT for a social adventure like an investigation. The NPC’s, and how they come alive, are a major part of these things and mind maps do a good job of summarizing that information in a way that’s easy to reference.

It could be better in a couple of areas. The descriptions could be quite a bit more evocative, to help with at horror vibe. Likewise the NPC’s could use a little more in the events category to drag out play a bit more. The setup is a kind of gothic romance horror, but the gothic horror vibe doesn’t come through very well in the “two page” notes. Some names on the map, in addition to or instead of numbers, would have been helpful. “Masters bedroom” is more informative than “room 6” for these small locations. And I’m NOT a fan of italics on the character sheets. My eyes are old.

This is PWYW at DriveThru, with a suggest price of $0. This is a decent low-prep adventure with an interesting format that I think others could build upon. With a little DM provided atmosphere it would be very good.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 2 Comments

Grave of the Heartless

by M. Greis
Greis Games
Labyrinth Lord
Level 3-4

A curse is upon the land. In the old barrow long forgotten a forgotten general awaits trying to confront death, and until heroes can guide his way, the land suffers.

This seventeen page adventure details a haunted burial mound/barrow with about a dozen rooms over five levels. The evocative text and interesting rooms drift to the long side, while the map is both interesting and drifts towards confusing to understand in places. I tend to like a good barrow adventure, and I like this one spite of some flaws.

The adventure doesn’t fuck around, giving us just a short little overview and background before launching in to the hooks. The “normal” ones involve a burial item being stolen from the barrow and needing to be returned, with a couple of variations. Hero hooks include finding a bloody and grisly trail and an “adventure path” hook involving invading humanoids and the arrow of a once famous general. What’s nice here is the variety and in particular the adventure path hook. Tangentially related to a couple of other Greis Games adventures, the “invading army” and preparing for it are now something I find interesting enough that I may run these as an alternative path over Winter Fantasy weekend instead of subjecting myself to that torture.

With maybe three pages of monsters and magic items in the appendix, most of the pas count is devoted to the adventure. There are two small barrows next to each other, one with an entrance, and the adventure proper has the party exploring the dozen or so rooms between them. The map is three dimensional and reminds me of an ant nest, with circular chambers and sloping dirt tunnels running up and down between them. Thus most of the chamber are actually under the barrows instead of inside of them. Hobo’s gonna Hobo, and the adventure correctly provides advice for parties digging in to the barrows. (And it’s the correct advice also: let them do it.) There’s also a chimney and a well that cut through several of the levels, providing alternate routes.Laid out two dimensional the map wouldn’t be that stellar, but adding the sloping passages up and down as well as the “cut through” well/chimney both really elevate it,

It is here we will pause and relate some house rules and design philosophy spelled out for us via offsets in the adventure. First, you can talk to almost everything. From hobgoblins lost in the barrow to an undead dude, most of the intelligent creatures are not immediately hostile. Stabbing things is but one way to achieve your goals in this thing. That’s something I wish more designers did. Yo can ALWAYS fall to stabbing someone, usually out of frustration with them, but adding a social element really adds depth to the adventure. You can get to KNOW the creative prior to stabbing it. Or, maybe even note stab it and get valuable information!

Greis does something else that I like also: give XP for each room explored. This adds a kind of explicit Push Your Luck mechanism to the game. With GOLD=XP games being about resources management and treasure extraction, it’s nice to see this other element added as well. My platonic example is an ogre wearing a jeweled crown. Get that crown and you’re leveling up … but the ogre is powerful AND friendly. Want that level? How much do you want it? Enough to do something stupid … like backstab the ore or explore the room up ahead with the wailing?Playing with resource management and push your luck mechanisms results in tension and tension means a good time at the table.

But, back to the adventure. This is a conversation from the Danish and, some dropped words aside, does a MUCH better job than most native english speakers in creating an evocative environment. Shadows seep out, darkness swallows sound, the cold weather bids no one welcome and no birds sing and no insects buzz. Methinks someone got their moneys worth out of their minor in Beowulf! But, seriously, both the boxed text and the DM text does a GREAT job of being evocative. You really get a FEELING of what the scene is. This ranges from the blood and viscera of slaughtered game outside the barrow to a good low/cold expanse that the barrow sits on, as mournful as an classically described barrow plain. The dungeon vibe, with darkness swallowing sound and shadows seeping out, only reluctantly dispersing when light approaches … I can fucking use that. It both builds the vibe in your mind AND provides gamble content to scare the shit out the players. Your DM just told you the shadows linger in your light and then kind of snap back all at once in your lantern light … H O L Y F U C K thats gonna put me on edge as a player! Mythic underword and all that indeed! You know you are in a place where the normal rules don’t apply.

There’s lots to do in the rooms and lots to explore, including a passage to the lands of the dead deep in the barrow, and an undead hero who doesn’t want to pass on. Treasure is well described, with silver belt buckles shaped like a pouncing lion with sparkling red gem eyes, ring and bracelets decorated in geometric pattens, and a gleaming green glass drinking cup with a wolf paw silver foot, a brass quiver lined with fur etched with people hunting boars … the effort it takes to describe treasure well is minimal and it adds SO much to the adventure, early giving the players the sense that they have found something. “You find a treasure parcel.” Fuck you. Why not just roll a die, on a 1-5 you win the adventure and on a 6 you rereoll? The journey IS the destination.

The adventure does have a few problems. The mini-maps, inline with the text, do a good job of showing where the various room passages lead. The “big map” in the appendix is a FUCKING SHIT SHOW. It’s trying to do something with letters to show how the passages link up, but I am fucking confused to all hell and back. Maybe drawing some lines between things would have helped, or explicitly putting room numbers on it, like the mini-maps have. Maybe a nice isometrics or side view also? I don’t know what would help but I do know that the main map is terrible. The minima’s solve all of the problems with it though.

I could quibble a bit with some of the monsters descriptions also, and/or lack thereof. The fire beetles and hobgoblins both get a decent physical description, for example, with a 3-foot long armored better with high mandibles and a fiery glow from smoldering chemicals. Or grey-red skin with gleaming yellow eyes and clothed in the skins and leather of heated animals and worthy foes … those are great descriptions. They are also prominently displayed i the creature description, you don’t have to fight through a bunch of cultural of history shit to get to what you need RIGHT. NOW: what the party sees. But then, when it comes to the undead (which play a big part in the adventure)we get almost no description at all. Corporeal undead, “they cannot move on to the afterlife.” “Remnants of the dead existing only as shadows and memories.” Yes, but what do the fucking players SEE, or experience? “Sliding along walls as shadows with monstrous long claws and fearsome jaws gained from the nightmares of children.” Fuck yes! THATS’s what I want to see! Monster descriptions should be high up in their entry, and you better have a pretty good fucking reason to not put it first. Those shadows with claws and jaws are a great example, while “incorporeal undead who can’t move on” is a great example of a shit description. Help me, and through me the players, experience the creature.

The descriptions can get long, running a column or so for a room. Read-aloud, at four or five sentences each, is VERY good if a bit long. The DM text stretches for the rest of the column. It does a good job of using bold to highlight sections to help the DM find things, but does on too long in places. Evocative, but you could rip out about a third, padding, and not loose much. This is absolutely NOT a shit show of wall of text, it just needs a little help to go from “Very good” to that once Bryce standard: perfect. I suspect the non-english nature of the source text results in a this a bit, the mechanics taking a bit longer to get out than a native english speaker?

This is a good adventure, and I recall liking the previous offering from Geis Games also. I want to know more about the Hinterlands settings and the adventure path-is thing these are a part of. It reminds me a bit of those early chapters of the Mere of Dead Men adventures in Dungeon. The bleakness of the wilderness, people hanging on, and shit about to GO. Down.

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. The preview is good, with it, starting at page three, showing you the dungeon proper. I like the page 3 “general dungeon text” in the right column, especially, to set the mood.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | Leave a comment

Of Beasts and Men

By Jon Bertani
The Merciless Merchants
2e/Gold & Glory
Levels 3-6

Your party has been roaming through the Dunderro Wilderness, following a treasure map that you hope leads to a great treasure. But the howl of a wolf quickly changes the plan and a choice must be made to continue onward to potentially great treasures, or to help the residents of Oakvale against the Great Hunt.

This fifty page adventure details a wilderness area that houses a band of marauders called “The Pack.” About twenty encounter areas, including five or so dungeon-ish areas, fleshes out the adventure giving a very luch/rich area to adventure in. Quintessentially 2e, it drowns itself in prose that would be more appropriate in a novel or Middle Earth atlas … and it desperately needs a summary.

While following a treasure map is an old elf ruin, a guy runs out of the forest being chased by wolves and a couple of dudes. He needs to go to [village] and let them know about [thing.] There the old dude in charge wats you to go get [spear] to kill the [bad dudes.] I’m being a little overly harsh, but you get the idea. Also, I did NOT get the idea, not until reading the entire thing. The adventure starts with the guy being chased through your camp and then just goes through the keyed wilderness encounters, one after another. There’s no summary of what’s going on anywhere to get you prepped. Literally, one of the wilderness encounters says something like “if you tell the NPC you are looking for the spear he tells you that it is here.” This is the first time that point pops up. The plot/adventure unfolds through the keys, and they are not exactly in order, with the larger sections (dungeons & town) being located in an appendix in order to not clog the flow of the main text. That’s GREAT! Except … that those appendices contain the actual info you need to irent yourself the first time around. I think I’ve figured out that the marauders are wolf dudes and, moreso, their main camp is not where their leader lives. He lives in a cave in a separate keyed entry. It was REALLY hard to put together what was going in this thing, and I’m still not sure I get everything.

Fuck. I started negative. I apologize, I drank a lot at lunch. This adventure is the real deal. It’s not some fucking mini-adventure or mini-dungeon. It’s a full region with stuff going on and a full town at the center to support the play. Fifty pages and almost all of it is “Real” adventure, and not new spells, monsters, pregens, etc. You get almost fifty pages of adventure and that’s unusual for a product these days. This is the real deal. There’s content in this, and not a bunch of generic supporting data. If you imagine the Tharizdun adventure, but with each site expanded a bit then you’ve got some idea of what to expect. A large wilderness with a lot of encounters in it, surrounded by your initial quest (find/loot elven temple) and the two regional quests to recover a magic spear and kill the pack lord, ala 13th Warrior, in a cave past a bad guy camp. It’s almost like a simpler version of Scourge of the Demon Wolf, in a more traditional format.

This being 2e, it has decent magic items and treasure, well described, with the magic weapons and armor having a little bit of legend lore behind them and non-traditional bonus effects that both work to bring the items the life. The mundane treasure, gems and jewelry, go the extra mile also with the little bit of additional detail that make them more than just a treasure parcel. Wandering monsters and town wanderers get enough, an extra sentence or so, to make the encounter more than just a roll on a table that results in a hack. Likewise, the main enemy camp gets an order of battle/reaction description as does the bad guy cave lair. All of these are great elements.

But … it tends towards a kind of novelization style for text descriptions that results in them being hard to understand. A kid of mix between read-aloud and a … strained? text style that is overly arty and focuses on soft edges. Almost all of the text, and I’m not exaggerating much here, is in a flowery format that more out of a novelization. And then it’s also written and presented in a way that makes it seem like boxed text. It’s not offset, or differentiated in any way, by the tense and tone makes it seem like read-aloud. Here’s the “DM text” for wilderness area B:

B. The Pass: The gurgling river noises quickly get swallowed up by the dense vegetation and thick trees that surround the trail creating an eerie silence. However, the silence is broken by the occasional abrupt noise emerging from the brush from hidden birds fluttering to the safety of the towering branches and from an irregular-timed, lone wolf howl. The trail begins to twist its way through the somber forest as the terrain forces a gain in elevation. A weak mist still wraps its tendrils within the branches of the trees, creating perplexing shapes against the vegetated hillside as it swirls through the forest from a light wind. The wolf howl is finally answered by another, and both seem closer than before.

I can’t make sense of it. Some of the individual elements are not bad: weak misty tendrils, birds fluttering, somber forest … but there’s some kind of “programmed event” thing going on. In other words, it not just read-aloud, it’s read-aloud that assumes things and has a timeline/first-person element to it, and then on top of THAT it puts in this forced diction and sentence structure. I don’t know what I’m looking at. Read-aloud? DM text? Evocative setting? The end result is a confusing mass of text that’s VERY difficult to pick out data from. This is not an isolated example; most of the encounter text is in this format. And it can be LONG. The opening event NPC soliloquy is almost a full page long. Add the old “Masturbatory NPC fighter chick that joins your party” and throw in a lot of meaningless history in the description (“the river Arno gets it’s name from an old adventurer that passed through long ago.”) and you get some REALLY long entries. What the fuck bearing on the adventure does the naming of the river have?

Here’s another example, from a bridge in a village:
8. Bridge: This rope and wood planked bridge spans a narrow, deep tributary of the River Uurden. There are some marred, knotty logs stored nearby, perhaps to block passage in times of defense.
? Teenage boys hang out here and bully other kids who are trying to cross the bridge.

I’m not opposed to the teenage boy stuff, it adds some color even if I WOULD prefer the color someone was more directly related to the adventure. But the rest of it … what’s the fucking point?

I want to emphasize: this is a real fucking adventure. It’s not one of those cheap ass no-effort mini-dungeon things that’s so prevalent, in the OSR and elsewhere. But it is SO hard for me to dig through the text, I feel like I’m fighting against it to get out information in order to run the game.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages and is EXCELLENT. You can see the little additions in the wanderers tables, as well as the initiating event and monster read-aloud on pages two and three. The last few pages show the wilderness map and several of the encounters. Great preview; it shows you exactly the sort of thing you are buying.

Posted in Reviews | 9 Comments

(PF) The Horseshoe Calamity

By Ron Lundeen
Legendary Games
Level 7

On the frozen frontier far from civilization, a recently-disturbed shrine to an evil god has brought chaos and conflict to a community of centaurs and humans. The humans blame the centaurs’ greed for the plague of undead, and the centaurs seek a powerful magic item—starting with a single horseshoe—to put the threat to rest. Will the spirit of chaos bring all-out war or can both sides face down an ancient menace that threatens to destroy them all?

This 28 page adventure details the exploration of a small evil shrine with thirteen rooms. Set in the frozen north, it provides a small village to get hooked in. Realistic interpersonal dynamics in the village and an interactive dungeon can’t make up for the linear nature of the dungeon as well as the word bloat.

While travelling through the north you come across a village of centaurs and humans who seem to dislike each other but fall all over themselves to welcome the party. Recent charges of cowardice and greed stem from a recently found hole in the ground with a legendary centaur artifact, the titular horseshoe, found in it. The party, hopefully, investigates and has a linear dungeon crawl.

Before I get to that though let me mention the positives. The dungeon, proper, has quite a bit more interactivity than I was prejudging. In fact, I think it has the right amount. The entry passage has clues. An evil alter can be sacrificed on. A hidden in plain sight treasure can cause a ruckus to attract nearby monsters. There might actually be twelve of the thirteen rooms with something going on, from combat to traps to something else to do. And it doesn’t feel like a hack-fest or a trap-fest. There’s a good mix of encounters, they ALL (including combat) fit in well. This is a non-trivial accomplishment and makes the adventure feel like an old school dungeon. There’s even a decent magic item: a consumable that makes you forget one language and be endowed with knowledge of another. That’s exactly the sort of non-book magic I’m interested in seeing in an adventure. The interpersonal situations in the mixed village at the beginning also makes sense, which is rare. Pride, greed, misunderstandings all contribute to a situation where everyone is right and everyone is wrong. That’s what villages are about: the social adventure, and this adventure delivers on that. There’s also a little regional description that includes some gameable background information. One ridge, for example, has a myth of unbreakable oaths sworn on it … a perfect little thing to include in the roleplay.

And the adventure does nothing with it. Lots of text, lots of background data, lots of history, lots of trivia, all to no effect. It gloms up the works and makes it harder to find the actual gameable/useful data in the descriptions, room or otherwise. Missed opportunities abound. The regional data is great, describing the valley well in terms that makes you think “wow, I wonder how that’s going to used?” Short answer: it’s not going to be. The party is led directly to the shrine. Swearing an oath on the oath ridge, or visiting the standing stone graveyard or exploring the fence in the goat fields … no reason to do it. There’s about a 99% chance none of that will ever come up. It’s just wasted space instead of the village/adventure being written in a way to take advantage of them. L*A*M*E Instead it’s just one more bit of included lame ass long boring backstory that will never be gamed. “Mika the centaur hasn’t been comfortable expressing her authority until recently.” Great. WHy the fuck does that matter when the party comes calling?

Read aloud is almost always useless and boring, not evocative at all. There’s an exception or two, like the narrow crevice entrance to the shrine. Tumbled boulders split by a narrow crevice with a dim blue light coming from deep within, or some such. Bit most of it is just boring description, in blue italics on a blue background that contributes to it being hard to read.

Lots of room history that is meaningless and then one important room that doesn’t mention the undead monster or the the dead bodies in it. The bodies are central to the conflict in the village, but THAT room doesn’t get a read aloud or much mention of the undead except for stats. In spite of the events being a major hook in the adventure. Instead we get things like “the doorway leads to room 4.” You mean, exactly like the map shows us? Good thing you wasted all that space and distracted us from the important shit in the room, making it harder to find it.

And the map … it’s linear for no fucking reason at all. Just walk in a spiral and have encounters/experience rooms. There’s absolutely no reason for it. Both the undead attacking the village and the search for the artifact are more than enough reasons to explore the place and yet the party is led around by the fucking nose. Why the hell would this choice be made?

And much of the publisher intro is just wrong. It talks about hyperlinks … of which there are none as far as I can tell. And it talks about product branding, so you can know which products are supplemental to adventure paths … which this is … and whose branding is not present on the cover as the text says it should be. “When you see the “Adventure Path Plug-In” logo at the top of a Legendary Games product …” Guess what’s not at the top of the product?

This isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be. The region is interesting, though unused. The village dynamics and interactivity were both pleasant surprises. And there was NOT the usual Stat Bloat, at least not an extent that I expected. Not just a hack-fest, this adventure makes sense. A highlighter could make it useable. The descriptions need to be more evocative and the trivia bloat needs to be taken care of, with the region integrated better. That would make this a decent adventure, even by the higher OSR standards.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages and tells you nothing, just showing you the (wrong) publisher intro and a bunch of boring as fuck backstory. Show the fucking content so we can make an informed purchasing decision!

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

Megadungeon #1

By Courtney Campbell
Hack & Slash Publishing
5E & OSR

Come explore Numenhalla, the god halls. Learn about the altars and the logos, see the ettercop lair.

This is a 43 page periodical focused on megadungeons, with two two-page dungeon areas presented. Imagine is a megadungeon was broken up in to parts and serialized through a number of magazine issues. That’s what this is. You get a few sections/articles about how to run a megadungeon, a few more with some background/weird in THIS megadungeon, and then a couple of parts of the megadungeon proper. It’s less academic and more oriented towards play.

I’m being generous here, because I only review adventures. If I think of this as, say, Dwimmermount, broken up in to different issues, ala The Darkness Beneath, then I’m still reviewing an adventure. Plus, I like megadungeons and I’m a hypocrite.

Courtney has a conceit that the idea is based around: megadungeon are infinite. With this in mind the periodical thing makes more sense. He’s not publishing a dungeon but rather parts of the dungeon … and that could go on forever. This has the effect of the dungeon parts looking a little like they do in the 13th Age Eyes of the Stone Thief; little self-contained modules that stand in for the levels in a traditional megadungeon. It’s up to the DM to tie them together.

And that’s a theme. The advice sections are just advice, needing a DM to tie them together. We’re told, for example, that a plunge in to the megadungeon is to accomplish a task, get something or so on. But for the SPECIFIC megadungeon presented there’s none of that present. A table and/or article for a future issue, perhaps? These advice sections range from explaining how megadungeon play different, and what’s important about it, to how to run a megadungeon campaign in 5e. The advice here is pretty standard megadungeon advice, or, maybe I mean “new megadungeon advice.” It covers concepts like exploration and treasure extraction, resource constraints as a part of play, the weirdness and ambiguity in megadungeons and so on. Folks who have kept up with the OSR should recognize the ideas. Being oriented toward play, their are less academic article presentations and more brief summaries of the issues. There’s a place for both and I’d hope to an inclusion of the more academic type in the future.

There’s a small amount of specific information presented for this dungeon. A mythology article, one on the gods, one on their “altars” (which are a lot like ASE1.) This is good stuff, but it’s all essentially fluff. Actually, it’s a little better than fluff. The god descriptions are just the generic god stuff, but then hey have a little poem/myth snippet that is pretty good for reference during play, enhancing the mystery and ambiguity of a megadungeon.

There’s a bit of extra campaign content, like a new class (machine men, you have to go to town to get spare parts to heal!) and so on.

There are two megadungeon sections/levels provided. The first is an entrance hall area and the second an ettercop tree level. They share the same basic layout even with the entrance being a kind of traditional “top down” view and the ettercop level being arranged vertically around a tree. Both have around eight encounter areas. Both have the same basic layout of a map page, resembling an artistic rendering rather than a 10’ hex layout, and then a page of text using an uncommon description style. FInally, there’s a page of free text that may contain tables, etc. Let’s call it “the appendix data for the level on the previous page.” Column one has a room name and a short evocative description under it in italics. Column two has facts related to the rooms in column one, short punchy statements of mechanics, etc. It’s not exactly space efficient, but it does make it easy to find information.

The art/map is integral to the description. In the second dungeon room two says “the tree is 15’ away” … which is the only mention of a tree in the room description, either part. But the map/art clearly shows you are on a ledge with a big tree a short distance away. This sort of interplay between the map and description is a good thing, overloading the data on the map to provide more context.

But … there’s some hand waving. In the context of the periodical, and advice, it makes sense. “Use wandering monsters that make sense.” In the context of helping a DM at the table … well, not so well. The wandering monster table would be better fixed to the DM screen or appearing on the maps. (Hmmm, a new magazine feature? “Print this and attach it to your screen.”) Plus, a little table of actual wanderers for the level would be trivial to include, enhancing usability.

The content is spot on. A black doorway that kills all who touch it … you have to be dead to pass through. A spider queen you can talk to. People being sacrificed to said spiders who are happy to talk about their willing religion/sacrifice. And some silly stuff, like anthropomorphic ants that pretend to be spiders with community theater costumes.

This is a serviceable product. I think I would have prefered a more academic approach to the advice and still more actual dungeon content. The ettercop dungeon, in particular, is a memorable level while the entry hall is full of mystery and implied danger … exactly what an entry should be.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview shows you the table of contents (disguised as a dungeon map) and one page of intro text. A sample dungeon map/text would have been a better representation, as well as perhaps one page of an advice column. That would give you a better understanding of what you are purchasing.

Posted in Reviews | 7 Comments

The Shrine of Sirona

By Jeremy Reaban
Self Published
Levels 5-7

Twenty years ago, the Shrine of Sirona was attacked by evil creatures. Now it’s time for you to take it back!

This is a six page adventure in a small symmetrical ten room dungeon. The dungeon fits on two pages, plus an additional one for the map, so the writing is tight. Essentially a hack, there are hints of better things in Jeremy’s head, both in content and style. I’d like to see those better things.

There’s a half page of introduction before the keyed encounters start so there’s not much to comment on in the background. It’s short to the point of being almost non-existent. It’s just the bare basics. On top of a mountain is a shrine. It was overrun by evil creatures. There are five hooks, all presented in one sentence. Stumble on it, hired by a cleric, hired by the parents of a captive, a town was raided. It’s just ideas. This is straightforward and direct DM text. It doesn’t drone on with generic detail. It knows what it wants to do and does it. It’s not presenting a plot it is instead presenting a location and keeps the non-essential information to a minimum.

The first room has a good progression of text. “In the center of the room is a large fountain with brackish water. Upon closer inspection, there are two large blackish lumps in the water. After a minute or so in the room, two large forms emerge from the water and attack. They are undead, re-animated zombie bears set to guard the shrine from any good beings.” What does the party see first? A large fountain with brackish water. What do they see if they look closer? Two large blackish lumps. What happens in the room? The figures come out and attack. It’s a good progression of text. Giving the DM the information they need in the order they will need it. It seems simple … and it’s surprising how many adventures can’t do it. I could quibble with parts of it. “Large” is a boring word. “Upon closer inspection” is an “if/then” statement that almost always just pads text out.

There are bits and pieces of specific detail that Jeremy describes that adds a lot to the adventure. There’s a hag who’s raising a girl to eat on her 18th birthday. You can find some crude invitations to the party. That’s pretty sweet! Likewise there’s a curse that gets just a few words more. Most curses are just mechanical bullshit. But this one is “a terminal respiratory disease.” That’s exactly the kind of specificity that adds so much to an adventure. Three extra words. That’s it. That’s all it takes. And in most cases they could replace the bullshit mechanics text that most adventures rely on, paragraph after paragraph, over-explaining and filling all loopholes in. But here? It’s just “terminal respiratory disease.” That is EXACTLY enough information. One might say the minimum, and two more words could spice it up even more, but just this opens up the imagination. Guess who’s hacking up black and blood colored phlegm! That’s right! You!

But … there’s just not much going on here. It is, as the designer readily admits, just a hack. There’s a nice little bit with a potentially friendly mimic, and a Helsinki Syndrome waif, both of which add a lot to the adventure. The rest, though, is essentially just a hack. Room 3, the Wyverns lair, doesn’t even get a description, just monster stats. And the big alter room makes no mention of the ogres and naga whose stats are in it, except for tactics. Jeremy also notes that killing Ms Helsinki, as well as taking the treasure in the same room, is an evil act. I don’t know about this … a heads up that it may be an evil act? I can get behind that but the shift to This IS an evil act starts to set off my “enforced morality” alarm … which I admit is a little overly sensitive. I could nitpick the language a bit; One rooms descriptions starts with “This room appears to be bare except for … “ NO! No! No! No! No “appears to be” is allowed! This is just padding. ”The room is bare except for …”

This is a cut above a minimal keyed adventure, but is still just a hack with book monsters and book treasures. A little more work on it would have really bounced this up a lot. Spice up the magic items, the room descriptions/monsters a bit. It wouldn’t take much and the adventure would be quite a bit better. Given the good stuff that IS present I’m confident it would have been done.

This is PWYW on DriveThru with a suggested price of $.50. The preview shows you all ten rooms as well as the intro. Check out room five for the great birthday party or room one for the text progression.

Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments

Don’t Follow the Lights

By Joel Logan
A Hole in the Ground Terrain & Games
Levels 3-4

Many of the children of the village of Quiet Acres have been going missing for the past few years. Though their crops and livestock are doing better than ever they cannot explain or fgure out what has happened to so many of their children. The few villagers who have been courageous enough to go into the Dark Forest to search for their loved ones never return. The villagers and farmers in the region are scared to leave their homes at night and many have seen strange glowing orbs oating through the air all throughout the region.

This eighteen page adventure, with six pages of actual adventure, has the party following some child-voiced glowing lights to avenge their deaths by an evil hag. An interesting premise, but three combats, one of the worst cases of telegraphing & abstraction I have seen, and, ultimately, the simplicity make this hard to love.

But first, what the fuck man?! Was October National Baby Eating month? This is the third baby eating adventure I’ve reviewed in as many weeks, I think. I like seasonal activities; I’m kind of disappointed I missed the festivities …

Man this thing is bad. Or maybe it’s a work of genius. What if you had the shittiest most misplaced design goals of all time but then PERFECTLY implemented your plan? This thing is a perfect implementation of the shitty path 5e adventures are/were on. Shitty long read-aloud. Abstracted text. Useless DM notes. Leading the party around by the nose and COMPLETELY telegraphing what they need to do. It just blows chunks, doing a perfect job writing for a DM with a second grade education and players with a first grade education. And yet …

A hag living nearby, pretending to be a wise woman, working her evil but being kind of benign also, is a great idea. The little glowing orbs of light as the souls of children is a great idea. There are bits and pieces of good text. Here’s a little snippet from an evil alter in the swamp: “The shrine is located on a small rise of land within the center of the swamp. It is surrounded by ancient black and gnarled evil looking hardwoods. In the center is a sacrificial altar surrounded by tall stones with abyssal glyphs carved into them.” That’s not a terrible little bit of writing. There’s a Dagger of Blood magic item, predating the invention of metalworking, glowing red when covered in blood. That’s pretty sweet! Perfect little spiffing up of a generic +1 dagger to make it something the party will want to hang on to long after it becomes mechanically overshadowed. There’s another little scene where the hag is confronted, after the party is led there by the lights. Making the hag overpowered and making the little lights turn in to ghost children who suicide their souls to take revenge on the hag would have been a nice little thing. You could have even tied it mechanically to something the players control, making them choose between defeating the hag and destroying little souls. Great little bits in this adventure.

But FUCK ME THIS THING SUX! Mountains and mountains of read aloud. And it has got to be close to the worst read aloud I’ve ever seen. It telegraphs, saying things like “You should go over there and do THAT.” It fucking abstracts to a level of cRaZy! Here’s a little bit: “You reach the edge of the forest and see a large swamp before you. The blue orb carefully helps you walk a treacherous trail deep into this miserable place. The blue orb reaches a point where it says it can go no further and tells you to destroy the place of evil.” Hey! Dishit! That’s the fucking adventure you just abstracted. You don’t even get a “Please destroy it! It pains us!”, instead getting “it tells you to destroy the place.” Fuck me man. And that’s not an isolated incident. “The orbs bring you to many ghostly visages …” Thats the fucking adventure dishit! You ever hear something about the relationship of the journey to the destination? No? You grew up on 4e and Adventurers League/RPGA adventure? I weep for the fucking future.

And then there’s the exciting DM notes! “The manticore is intrigued and excited about combat with the players. It has been a long time since he has fought a worthy opponent.” This adds nothing to the adventure. And this shit happens over and over again.

I don’t know what to say about this. It feels like it’s got a good idea and then goes about implementing it in the shittiest way possible. This isn’t the usual sort of dreck I review. It’s actually got an idea but it’s like the designer doesn’t know to wrap it in anything but the shitty 5e/4e/AL/RPGA formatting style. Hard work in learning how to present ideas would results in a great deal of improvement.

This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview doesn’t really show you anything other than the table of contents … which makes it a pretty piss poor preview.

Posted in Reviews | 2 Comments

RPGPundit Present #5 – The Child Eaters

By RPGpundit
Precis Intermedia
Dark Albion


This eleven page “adventure” details a witch cult in a small village. It’s more of an outline, as if you were describing an adventure idea to a friend over a beer. There’s a Spanish version available.

A witch comes to a village posing as the Mother figure of the three-fold pagan goddess, setting up shop in an old grotto under the church. She recruits a Maiden and a Crone from the village head-family. Crops start to crow well and the villagers feel invigorated as they all convert to the pagan worship. A nearby village has formed a bandit gang and suspect something evil is up, as their babies go missing around the new moon. The local lord supports the cult villagers, unless brought incontrovertible proof. One more new moon feast and a dark beast will be summoned and the cult will move on the surrounding lands.

That’s the adventure. It really just outlines about eight NPC’s, the general village demeanor (they are pagans now and don’t know about the evilness of the cult) and the endgame.

It’s an interesting enough outline, but I don’t think it’s an adventure. I know, I know. “Bryce has taxonomy.” “WTF is your taxonomy Bryce?” “Why isn’t Scenic Innsmouth an adventure Bryce?” Look, I don’t think this is an adventure. WHat makes an adventure? I don’t know. But this ain’t it. Innsmouth wasn’t an adventure, it was a town description. Not an urban adventure, a town. This isn’t an adventure. It’s an adventure outline, or maybe an adventure idea, at best. It represents the bare minimum of an idea communicated to someone. It needs fleshed out. It reminds me of those “50 adventure idea” products that used to be (still are?) popular.

A little more about the village. A little more about the surrounding lands. A little more about the neighboring villages. A little more about subplots in the village. This entire thing needs a little more to hang your hat on.

This is $2 on DriveThru. The preview just shows you the formatting and is too small to see the text.

Posted in Reviews | 1 Comment

Mysteries in Mannath

By Thom Wilson
Levels 1-2

The small village of Mannath is faced with several different issues, but lacks the resources to solve them properly. The mayor of the small hamlet, Hans Kildor, is eagerly seeking outside help and will immediately ask any visitors for assistance the moment they arrive.

This 56 page adventure details a small town and nine short adventures in and around it. A few nice magic items and an attempt to make the area feel alive don’t save it from the expanded upon trivia that obfuscates the adventures proper. This feels unexamined, or, maybe, a first draft.

People have gone missing from the village, including, very recently, the mayor’s daughter. The town well has gone dry and people blame a nearby wise woman. The watchtower almost certainly has the body of the last guard in it, but seems haunted now. Then a farmer shows up saying he’s got a giant hole in his field. In to this environment our party is thrust, with the outcomes of those initial offerings leading to others. There are two major plot lines going on with a couple of other isolated “adventures” tossed in also. The idea, I think, is to have a little area that seems alive and you can sink your teeth into, both as DM and player. Hobo’s no more! Well, at least until level 3 …

I don’t think, though, that the text works well for its intended purpose. It’s supposed to have a high degree of connectivity but it comes across disconnected and isolated. There’s NOT that feeling of a living breathing place. The town has a long description, maybe ten pages worth. The vast majority of the text is just generic town data. Bob has a wife named Mary. The inn charges normal prices. Eds farms produced wheat, barley and common vegetables and fruit as well as a few varieties of grape.

That’s not useful information.

This is part of a problem I like to refer to as The Bedroom Problem, or sometimes The Kitchen Problem. Writers will put a bedroom in an adventure and then spend long paragraphs describing it to us. It has a bed. The bed has a mattress and a box spring. There’s a desk. The desk is made of wood. It has three drawers. There is a mirror in the corner. And on and on. Likewise the kitchen description will focus on the common elements of a kitchen. We don’t need that. It contributes NOTHING to the adventure. We all know what is in a kitchen, or bedroom, or torture chamber, or guard room, or inn. What we need to know is what is special about THIS place. What is the relevance to the adventure and/or interactivity with the party? I rail about history and backstory in adventures and room descriptions so much for this very reason. If it’s not likely to come up and be relevant during play then why the fuck are you diverting the DM’s attention away from what IS relevant and contributes to play? Look, I’m not unreasonable. If you want to say that “the farmer’s wife is in love with the innkeeper and visits him every night” then have at it. It adds a little color to the village, and her nocturnal visits can be used as blackmail and/or a red herring. But it needs to be pretty close to what I wrote above and not three paragraphs worth of their fucking backstory. You can put your Beren and Luthien love poem in the fucking appendix if you have to.

And that’s what this adventure does, both in the town and in the “adventures.” It fills the text with trivia and distracts from the actually interesting bits. This village has a “slum” section, with three buildings used for migrant labor, not inhabited year round, which is causing tensions. That’s great! Perfect chaos that can appear during play! But even then it gets glossed over too much, with the witches visits to the slums, and differing village viewpoints glossed over in a manner not very conducive to contributing to play easily.

It does try to make things easier for the DM. There’s a table of the adventures and how they are related to each other. The rumors are easy to find, the local bandits have a timeline for their kidnapping activity. An NPC summary sheet for the town would have been quite useful, with names, locations, and personalities/subplots, as would a better method of describing the bandits day/night locations in their lair. But even then, Things Fall Apart. The text refers to the “adventure relations” table multiple times as the order to be run in, but it’s not obvious at all. And it needs to be, because …

Man, the difficulty is all over the place. The hole in the farmer’s field is from giants ants. 3HD giants ants. And there are encounters in which you meet five of them at once. S&W is low-power, right? I’m not a balance nut, at all, but this seems like things are being pushed a little. Likewise the ghost tower has an actual undead that you need magic weapons to hit … at first level. This this is clearly a conversion from another system (the text says so up front, in fact) and it looks like it. Treasure can be quite light and encounter fights can be quite tough. There ARE a couple of nice little non-standard items, like a cap that prevents you from falling asleep and some crossbow bolts that can’t break (oh boy, could I ever abuse that …) but it doesn’t really help the gold=xp situation at all. The ghost is worth 1000xp .. good luck with that.

Speaking of the encounters … four of them are less than 50 feet in to the forest that is on the west side of the village. An ogre, bandits, a witch, and a burial mound. But the villagers don’t go over there for fear of “disease.” Maybe this village deserves to get what they are earning …

I like the concept of this. I like the attempts to make the village come alive and present interlinking adventures and other little tasks that are not clearing out sewers or old lady attics. I just can’t say this succeeds at what is trying to do. It doesn’t present the information lor resources to the DM that they need in order to fulfill the vision. Less concentration on trivia and more focus on the ACTIONABLE parts of the adventure would have solved this. Less really IS more.

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Bad designer! Back to gong farmer with you!

Posted in Reviews | 4 Comments