B2 – The Twice-Robbed Tomb

b2
By Perry Fehr
Purple Duck Games
Labyrinth Lord
3rd Level

The domination of Pheniket the Pharaonic ended nearly two centuries ago, but stories of his ruthless ambition still haunt the region. An intruder from a sandy land to the south, with strange gods and customs, Pheniket tried to establish a colony of one in the land, and nearly succeeded. Those that followed his power did so zealously, and seemed even to love the enigmatic tyrant. His strength came from arcane pacts forbidden in his homeland, that enabled him to cause his enemies to disappear, and gave him vast knowledge. Legends wax and wane, and 150 years later, intrepid treasure hunters came to the settlement nearest Pheniket’s palace and announced that they had uncovered the Pharaonic’s tomb. They looted it, with some opposition (some animated dead, a few poorly constructed golems) and came back with an armload of magic weapons, armor, and Pheniket’s grave goods. Minor prosperity hit the area for a time, not appreciated by all. Those that knew the now-deceased tomb-robbers well also know that there was part of the tomb that could not be accessed by the original discoverers, who were happy to leave with what they had, as a feeling of dark foreboding saturated that forgotten place, a malevolent presence guarding the true prize in Pheniket’s resting place.

A decent little adventure suitable for a single nights gaming. It is right on the verge of being truly good … which means it’s better than the vast majority of product being published.

This is a short, and decent, little adventure through a tomb that has already been looted. You pick up a key, map, and rumors in town and then off to a dungeon that is nearly completely looted. Except …. Admiral Akbar Meme! You are actually being lured to the dungeon. This is not a trope that I’m particularly fond of. It generally shows up as the boss testing you to see if you’re worthy or some other such nonsense. This time it’s a bit different: you’re being lured because you’re food … food that carries loot! For the tomb is now home to a succubus and her ghoul followers. This, as a background, is actually something I could get behind. It’s not exactly handled extensively at all in the adventure, and a few more words about it would have been appreciated.Signs of other parties, countryside disappearances, etc. This is a people-trap and I wish it would have FELT more like a people trap. I’m not talking about a literal cage, but rather the machinations of the succubus. At third level this may be on the first of this type encountered and it feels like it should be more than the throw-away encounter it is. It feels like a collection of stats from a book, just another monster, instead of a Creature of Evil.

The tomb complex isn’t bad. There ARE a couple of clues about, fresh bones and the like. There are weird things, like a still beating heart in a can optic jar. There are even WEIRDER things, like a portal to another (weird) dimension. The final room shows some chops, with weird pillars coursing with evil energy, a large pool of unholy water, and hot chick with ghouls sobbing at her feet … [Aside: “I kill it” Nothing good ever comes from someone who looks innocent who’s hanging out in a dungeon. You want to talk to monsters? Look for someone who looks evil. You find someone who looks good? Kill them. It’s a risk mitigation thing.] The ghouls react in an interesting way, getting drawn to fresh blood/carrion, and that comes in effect several times in the adventure. A smart part might take advantage of it.

This short adventure is a weird thing. It’s got a decent, and logical setup. Things will make sense, hints are relevant, and so on. It’s even got a decent number of little things of interest in it. Overall I’m going to take exception with maybe three things. First is the Succubus and “get another monster” syndrome. The second s the descriptions of the monsters. There are not any, or at least any that are strong. We get “12 ghouls” instead of a good description of a ghoul. This sort of meta really drags players out of a vibe. Providing guidelines on describing your monsters should be standard fair. Similarly, the magic items are boring. +1 shield. + 1 sword,, displacer cloak. There’s nothing interesting about those things. A skin of a displacer beast, with glassy blacker-than-black eyes? That’s interesting. It is the role of the designer to provide these sorts of things to the DM. The designers job is to help provide the ‘punch’ to the adventure. Yes, the local DM must bring it to life, but the designer must INSPIRE the local DM to bring it to life. Otherwise, what value do you offer that a random generator can’t?

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Dungeon Magazine #36

d36

Asflag’s Unintentional Emporium
By Willie Walsh
AD&D
Levels 3-7

Time to clean out the rats in the old woman’s cellar, except this time the old woman is a dead wizard and the cellar is his tower in the middle of the city. I’m not a fan of ‘joke’ adventures, although I do like humor in adventures and I LOVE the absurd, especially when it comes to wizards. Willie Walsh gets close on this one to delivering a fine adventure. His descriptions of the wizards tower and environs and history get REALLY close to that kind of OD&D non-standard wizard archetype that I adore. It’s got a nice Discworld Unseen University vibe; this kind of mix of the academic and the absurd. He’s got a decent environment but it comes off as very one note. Only one or two of the creatures in the tower will talk to you, and there are A LOT of creatures, so it devolves in to a monster hunt where you open a door, kill the monster, and move on. Further, while several of the monsters are nicely located (water weirds in fountains, cifal’s in beehives, the brass snakes that make up the chandelier animate, the tools in the garden shed animate, etc) there’s not a lot of THE FANTASTIC apart from this. The ability to explore and play with weird things and, for the most part, detect the garden tools early, is missing. I like Willie’s background, and the NPC wizards, and many of the monster encounters … but it’s just a monster hack-fest. In the Ed Greenwood adventure I reviewers awhile back (Eliminsters backdoor?) you got to go in to rooms and look at weird things but could not interact with anything, turning you in to a tourist. In this adventure you go in to rooms and a monster appropriate to the locale appears for you to kill. Neither capitalize on the wonder of a wizards tower and deliver it to the party. In this regard, S3 was a better Wizards’s Tower adventure than these two.

Troll Bridge
By William S. Dean
AD&D
Levels 2-4

This is a short little encounter. There’s a bridge. It’s got a troll under it. The troll is actually a renegade gnome thief/illusionist. He makes the spectral forces troll retreat to a hidey hole and ambushes the party there. It’s decent, I guess, but I can’t help thinking that an actual troll under the bridge would have presented more interesting opportunities. Oh, look, a monster isn’t actually a monster but something else … geee, haven’t seen that in a D&D adventure before …

Granite Mountain Prison
By Roger Baker
AD&D
Levels 4-6

This is a rescue caper. A fantasy prison is described and the party is given the mission to rescue one person. You come across some supposedly beautiful city, only to fine burnt out buildings and broken street barricades. The local government is totalitarian and the rebel leader just got tossed in jail. You get to go rescue him, because GOOD. The prison has 36 or so locations, and then the 365 cell blocks. It’s well described for the type of adventure it is. Guard schedules, where major NPC’s hang out, the routine of the prison, the response to attack, and so on. It’s also a little boring. There’s just not much to some featureless granite rooms. It’s also got that Magic Ren Faire vibe that I dislike. Decanters of Endless Water as a water source, permanent heat and chill metal spells, a captured air elemental to provide air flow, and so on. It’s need some extra zing to liven up its step. Some personalities for the dick guards, or maybe some random contents for the prisoners personal items, and/or a quick list of the other prisoners (instead of the random prisoner generator, which IS provided.) There was a one-page dungeon in 2013 that also dealt with a totalitarian state. These might pair up well together, maybe in a Midnight game? Anyway, it does a decent job at describing a PLACE for the party to invade/sneak through. I just wish Ir were more colorful. Yes, grey is a color, but cerulean is more interesting.

The Sea of Sorrow
By Steve Kurtz
!!SPELLJAMMER!!
Levels 7-9

I don’t know if I can review this well, so it may turn out to be a description rather than a review. It’s a dragon hunt, in space. While in a spaceport the party see a damaged hammership return to port. It had been in a part of space rumored to be cursed. The crew, however, discovered the truth: there’s an OLD radiant dragon preying on ships. You’re sent after it. There’s a cutoff system full of places to explore, lots of derelict ships to explore, a ghost ship, dragon flybys … it seems jam packed. It seems … large? Expansive? And seems to fit a Spelljammer vibe well. Places to explore, NPC races to interact with, and a nice … I don’t know, pirate vibe? Not pirate. But a kind of Wagon Train to the Stars vibe. It FEELS like you’re doing a kind of fantasy exploration to a strange place. Travelling from point to point and exploring and interacting. Spelljammer catches this vibe better than any other genre I know. Combined with the weird monster races and their penchant for trade and talking I think it provides a solid base for a D&D game. This one could use a bit of gonzo’ing up; it tries to provide some interesting situations but they come off as a bit mundane. The various locales could also use a few more hooks. You get some short little descriptions of various places but many of them could use a little more interactivity. This would be the difference between, say, Isle of the Unknown and Wilderlands. While Isle, and this adventure, provide just simple descriptive facts (there is a village here), Wilderlands would provide a hook (which is desperate for white buffalo hides.) This could use a little more Wilderlands hooks. Still, a great supplement if you’re running a Spelljammer game.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 4 Comments

[5e] – Lost Mine of Phandelver

5e

EDIT: For you new readers, I have VERY high standards. This adventure is one of the best to be published by WOTC in a LOOONNNNGGGGG time.

Are you seriously reading this review in order to figure out if you should buy 5e? Our long nightmare is over … D&D is back! Go buy it, play it, and enjoy!

The first segment of the adventure puts DMs through the basics of asking for checks and saving throws, as the characters venture into a goblin lair on a rescue mission. Once the adventurers have dealt with the goblins, they have free reign to explore the region around the village of Phandalin. Three more dungeons and five other adventure locations provide novice DMs with plenty of material to keep a campaign going for months.

This is the beginning adventure(s) from the D&D 5e starter set. D&D finally has it’s head (mostly) out of its ass in a set of adventures that provides a framework for the players to have fun in. This is not the “D&D turned up to 11” of some of the recent editions, but rather a solid 7, 8, or 9 that keeps delivering over and over and over again. It provides a pretty solid foundation from which a DM can build on, with a rough outline of action and some interesting, but not set-piece, encounters. It suffers more than little on the mechanistic way magic items are treated and in the lack of evocative descriptions … especially for monsters.Overall though this is a VERY solid adventure in the high-C/Low-B “Bryce has unrealistically high expectations” grading scale … even if “months of material” may be stretching things.

The adventure comes in four parts. The first is a small ambush and cave lair. It serves mainly as a hook. The second is a town. This serves mostly as home base with several quests that can be picked up. The third is an exploration of the region, driving by the quests in town, where several clues can be picked up as to … the fourth part: the Evil Bad Guy’s Lair. The adventure is written in a progressive rules learning style, with more rules presented inline with the adventure near the beginning and things flowing little more streamlined near the end. Embedded in the adventure is advice for the DM, most of whig is pretty decent. Things like “ham It up” and ‘don’t go on too long” and “let the players do what they want.”

This seems like a good time to cover something important. The starter set is intended for new players. New players will learn how to play D&D from this set. I believe VERY strongly that the tenor & tone of of an RPG derives mostly from the published adventures. The published adventure is what the masses will think is ‘normal’ or ‘how the game is played’ and thus the published adventure from the company has a vast opportunity to influence the direction of the game. If it involves 3 straight up combat encounters,no roleplaying, and a skill challenge, then people are going to play that way at home, published adventure or no. The RPGA and con games will do the same thing. If all you publish are dungeon crawls then people will think that’s what the game is about and play that way. These beginning adventures are important. Balanced against this is the very real fact that this is, essentially, a programmed exploration of the rules set for people who have never played before. Some things are going to be a bit clunky as the adventure holds your hand. I usually don’t give a shit, an adventure has to stand on its own merits. Im going to try and walk a finer line with this one, attempting to recognize and be generally ok with the hand-holding while still attempting to uphold standards of good adventure writing.

Part 1 – The most generic hook possible: you’re caravan guards
This was my introduction to this adventure. A cute little one column background that an entirely appropriate length followed by a couple of sentences explaining that the party are caravan guards. That hook was NOT a strong start. It recalls every crappy adventure ever written in which there was a throw-away line about the party being caravan guards. No details. You’re guards. Move along. Caravan guard is a classic trope. The classics got to be classics for a reason: when well done they are REALLY good. I recall an adventure in Dungeon Magazine in which the party were caravan guards. It included a short section that was a nice little realistic depiction of the duties during the day and what goes on the campfire at night and gave the (three?) merchants a personality and some wares to sell and they interacted with the PC’s, all described in a section that wasn’t overly long and used some strongly evocative language. This ain’t that. The whole purpose of the caravan guard thing is to put you on the road to the frontier town that will serve as the parties base … so you can be ambushed. Lame. LAME LAME LAME. Now, it turns, out, that the pre-gens all have some little hooks on their character sheets that motivate them to get involved in the adventure. Those hooks are pretty decent. The thief was part of the gang in town, they were framed and set up and now want revenge. There’s a do-gooder, a guy who has an ancestral tie to the land, and so on. These are pretty well done and should serve as some strong motivations to get to the town. The pre-text then, the caravan guard duty, is just the surrounding glue that motivates them to journey together at the same time. It is at this point I should disclose that I have DEEP scars about character motivations. I’ve seen them used to justify some pretty crappy PC behavior, all on the grounds of “that’s what my character would do.” This includes a player having their character sit out the ENTIRE adventure because ether character wouldn’t do that. I’m VERY suspicious of this stuff. In this case the written text seems to work well with the glue of the hook … EXCEPT FOR THE ELEPHANT, which I’ll talk about later.

So, goblins ambush you on the road. You chase them back to a cave, kill everything, take their stuff, rescue a dude, and continue on the way back to town, ending part 1. The purpose here is really to bind you to the town. There are looted caravan goods to return to the rightful owners. The dude to be rescued is moderately important in the town. There are other clues present that can bind you to the town and kick off that next part of the adventure. It’s very well constructed from this standpoint … EXCEPT FOR THE ELEPHANT. Things link together without shoving you down a railroad. It’s presented as things for you to explore, and secrets for you to uncover instead of GO TO POINT A AND THEN POINT B AND THEN SKILL CHALLENGE AND THEN POINT C YOU WIN YEAH YOU. The encounters themselves try very hard. They mostly succeed. The ambush has a couple of dead horses blocking the road, with black-feathered arrows sticking out of them. Nice! The goblins in the cave lair have some wolves chained up, with the wolves straining against their chains. And a goblin on a bridge overhead keeping lookout. Have a light?! He signals to have some flood gates broken open to flood out the streamed you are coming up! One of the goblins will talk to you if you try, and bargain with you so you’ll go get rid of the guy bullying the tribe. There are a lot of nice little things to ensure that every encounter feels like a unique challenge. There are notes about what the goblins can tell you if captured/charmed and you can talk and bargain with one of the goblins! In a completely sickish move the goblins betrays you … which sends TOTALLY the wrong message. Why ever bargain with a monster if they all betray you? Just kill them and move on. Is that really the behavior you want to encourage? Yeah, I’m sure it’s a deceitful little creature but … it’s not stupid. I’m sick of every monster you can talk to betraying their end of the deal.

Part 2: Welcome to Adventurehookville. Population: YOU
At some point you are going to make it to the small frontier town that will serve as your base. There you will be herded towards “the best inn in town.” Once there you’ll get an opportunity to be exposed to several rumors, which will lead to many of the other seven or eight locations in town. From there you can pick up quite a few rumors and/or quests of things to investigate or expire. Some are tasks and some are things the party might be interested in. It’s good mix and the locations do a better than average job of being connected and interrelated. That’s not exactly high praise since the vast majority don’t do anything at all like this, but, they tried and the effort shows. In particular, the adventure gives a brief summary of the major NPC’s, where they hang out, and what their objectives/quests are. That’s done in just a sentence or so each. I find these sorts of references INVALUABLE. Read through the adventure once and then use the summary to trigger your memory of what you read earlier. More adventures need to do this. In addition, the rumors from the main inn lead to other locations, which sometimes lead to other locations. That sort of interrelationship is a nice touch. The major NPC’s have some small personalities and many of them, besides keying the characters to quests, can offer membership in a secret societies of sone sort of another. There’s also some brief mentions of the vibe of the town. It’s described in terms that make you think of the ‘camp’/town from the Deadwood series. IE: a western frontier town. It doesn’t explicitly give you that character or vibe, it just says it has a frontier like character with prospectors, etc hanging out in town. I wish it had gone a little more in to some detail of some of those terrific Deadwood street scenes: the hawkers, characters, etc. The whole town is quite light on descriptive and evocative language/scenes outside of the core locations (and, I will assert later, IN the core locations as well.) Finally the town is lacking on interpersonal relationships. I would have liked to see a web of personal relationships between the various people living in town. What does the guild master think of the innkeeper, or the innkeeper of the trading company, or the trading company of the guild master … that sort of thing. These sorts of social environments THRIVE on the web of relationships between the parties. This will help make the town seem alive and to exist outside of the interactions of the party. “Welcome to Mortistown”, a zombie sourcebook for a town, did this masterfully. It suggested reactions, gave the starting positions, and suggested a timeline based on the motivations on the motivations of the NPC’s. I’m not saying that a town supplement/section needs to go to the lengths Mortistown did, but it’s a good example to learn from.

There’s a major encounter in town that could have been done much better. There’s a gang in town that kind of controls things and is bullying/extorting people. The NPC’s in the adventure provide some vague references to them being neer-do-wells, but there’s not much beyond that. The major introduction to them is going to be a fight between them and the party. That’s pretty poor. The gang needed more of a build-up. SHOW, don’t TELL. Show us scenes of their petty evil … evil not enough to deserve a sword-thrust to the gut but more than enough to tell us they are unsavory. You have to build up these sorts of things. Their hideout is under an old manor home and the exploration of that ‘dungeon’ is one of the major town events. It kind of feels … I don’t know … lost? Tacked on? The bandits/gang don’t really react to intrusions very well. They all sit in their rooms and wait to be hacked down by the party. Intelligent creatures should have some sort of order of battle for their lair. How do they react? Who calls who for reinforcements? The dungeon is a small one but has a couple of nice physical features, like a crevasse and a couple of other interesting features. A few of the rooms are mostly empty while most of the rooms have something going on in them. Undead. Slave pens. But it all just seems a little flat.

Part 3: Hex Crawl
Most of those rumors and quietists from Adventurehookville can be followed up on in the small hex crawl presented. There are six to eight locations scattered throughout the region. One is medium-sized, one large, and the others smaller single-encounter type locations. They are all within about a 2.5 day circle of travel. This allows for … Wandering Monsters! Once a day and once a night you check for wanderers on a d20 with a 17+ indicating a monster. I’m not sure about this working. Traditionally these served the role of sucking down the party resources but I’m not sure how effective that is when all your HP come back after a single nights rest. I’m going to have to play to get a better view of this but it seems to me, on first impression, that someone threw in wanderers because they were traditional. Given the new rules on healing I suspect there needs to be some work done to make the wanderers “fit” again with a decent purpose. The game is no longer about treasure, so that’s not it. You can heal in a single night, so that’s night it. So if the wanderers are no longer a ‘risk’ then what purpose to do they service? IDK. I will say that the wanderers are kind of lame. Only a grow of hobgoblins has any flavor to them. I would have liked to have seen a little more flavor, or the monsters doing something instead of the generic “they attack!”

I really liked the various locations though. You can talk to monsters and they have a decent mix of The Fantastic present. I want to mention a couple of points in particular that I liked. The first location is with a banshee. It talks to you and serves as a kind of oracle. That’s pretty sweet! It described near a ruined town/village that a major east-west trail runs through. Just the few words they use on the town paints a wonderful picture of some abandoned post-apoc-like setting with an important road still running through it. This whole thing was done really well. There’s another location with someone that is evil … or at least is known as the villain in most previous Forgotten Realms adventures: a red wizard. In this location he’s not really interested in the party and isn’t really doing anything particularly evil. it’s a great example of the party encountering someone or something that can help them … if you’re willing to pay the cost. These sorts of set up are SOOOOO much more interesting than a pure “THEY PUKE EVIL AND ATTACK!” encounters. Look, you can always hack the dude down later, because he’s evil or because he’s got some nice loot, but, first, TALK to them. There’s another location, the medium one in size that I referred to earlier, that is another ruined little village with nine or ten little locations to explore. And there’s a dragon! And it’s in an interesting location! Alas, the dragon is given no personality AT ALL and the location i.e. Barely described. I understand and support a terse style, but some suggesting for dragon-fighting in a ruined tower would have been great. Collapsing floors, stairs, loose timbers, rubble, etc. This would have been a great place for a little more detail on the encounter. The dragon should have had a personality as well, for exactly the same reasons cited above. Additionally … ITS A DRAGON. It’s your FIRST dragon. It should be impressive and full of life and personality and talk. Smaug is SO much more interesting because it talks to Bilbo. The final location, the major one, is a small ruin with fifteen or so locations. The entryway is one of the only interesting parts of this. A little set piece if you come through the front door, the rest of the site is pretty much just “room with a monster, room without a monster, room with a monster.” At best you can sneak around or maybe try to bluff through some of them. I guess I was expecting more … weirdness? Instead it’s more like a little tactical assault. Except, again, there’s no order of battle. The notes on who reacts to assaults and how are essentially nonexistent once you get past the gate guards. That’s quite disappointing, especially given the layout of the site. There’s a lot of doors and rubble and hallways to ambush and be ambushed and sneak past and so on. There are some nice notes about some monsters showing up back home at the end, after he major fights are over, and how the party can deal with them. That’s a nice little touch I appreciated. It makes it seem like the place is alive and exists as place instead of everyone just coming out of stasis once a PC opens a door.

Part 4: Dungeon
Nope, not gonna spoil this. Decent map, nice variety of features. A couple of good descriptions. Some interesting encounters. Overall, not enough to play with. There needs to be more weird and more stuff to fool around with. There seems to be a lot more risk than reward. This might be an apt summary for most post-“gold as XP” D&D’s. Why do this? I will note that the Evil Bad Guy, in this dungeon, doesn’t EXACTLY suffer from Lareth syndrome. He’s referred to in several places by several people before you hit the dungeon. What you don’t get, though, is a sense that the dude is E V I L. Again, this goes to the “Show, don’t Tell” stuff. He’s abstract, you know he’s there but the evidence of his evil acts is … almost nonexistent? Sure, he got some goblins to raid some stuff. Yawn. Where’s the beef? I don’t need gore but you do need to set the dude up better. Make the PLAYERS want to track him down instead of forcing them to make their CHARACTERS go after him “because it’s the right thing to do.”

Nice time to transition. The elephant is the moral worldview enforced by the designers. In most of the adventure you are expected to go do something Because It’s the Right Thing To Do. Chase the goblins? Clean out the lair? Return the stolen trade goods? Follow up on almost all of the hooks? BECAUSE … GOOD! In fact, for the trade goods, no other option is presented. The trade goods get you a reward for returning them but nowhere is the value otherwise mentioned, or an literate hook if you come in to town clearly selling something looted from a caravan. That sort of view is present over and over again in the adventure. Options and paths of play are just shut down. In the case of the trade goods, it could have been an excellent option to infiltrate the local bandit gang, or use in other creative ways. But none of this exists because the designer has decided you can’t do that. The designer should EMPOWER and ASSIST the DM, not enforce their plot or views upon them. Brand new players are often, in my experience, the MOST creative and providing the framework to support that creativity IS the designers job.

The monsters in this adventure suck. There should be wonder and fear when you encounter something. Do you say “you see three ghouls.”? No, of course not. You describe them and what they are doing. You leave the party guessing. What kind of thing is that? What does it do? What do they want? Can it kill us? That’s the kind of monsters encounter I want to see, ones that encourages the players to soil themselves over THE OTHER. Instead we get “you see three goblins” or something similar. Uncool WOTC. The monster descriptions are boring as hell, with almost no attention paid to what the DM actually needs: what the PC’s EXPERIENCE when they meet them. Stink like the grave? Matted patchy fur? None of that is present. And the monsters attacks are generally disassociated. Bugbears get a surprise damage bonus that is presented completely mechanically: if you get surprise you do 2d8 more. Yeah. Mechanics. How about something like “Their dark fur allows them to blend in to shadows well, giving them a plus 2d6 to damage as they leap out in the surprise round.” Again, you are teaching new players how to play and you just taught an entire generation of DM’s to say “you see two gricks.” Bull. Shit. That’s not the D&D I want to play. That a board game. Deliver the wonder! It’s not that hard. We don’t need a page, or a column, or a paragraph. Just one sentence. The free Dragonsfoot “Where the fallen jarls sleep” has a GREAT description of the undead, one of the best ever.

In a similar vein, the magical items generally are none too great. They tend to be very mechanical. ‘+1 sword, deals max damage to plant creatures.” Ok, That’s not as awful as just a +1 sword, and they generally do present a little backstory/history for each item. That’s very nice; they don’t go on for too long but they do provide a … grounding? For the characters to know what it is they are carrying and add a nice bit of the non-generic. The issue is that the items are all grounded in the mechanics. Pluses, maximums, additions, rerolls … it’s all very board gamey. In a game where you can ANYTHING, literally ANYTHING, you give us an item that gives +1 to defense? Ok, that’s a little hyperbolic, but the mechanical way magic is treated is much closer to 4e than it is to OD&D or T&T. Gems that you swallow and turn you in a beaver? The gem in the first level of the darkness beneath that shoots out flames? GREAT items without a whiff of the generic or mechanical. Effects are described instead of mechanics. It’s like someone is TERRIFIED of the ambiguity that this sort of non-mechanical thing may introduce. Another word for the DM is Judge. Let the Judge handle the ambiguity … that why they exist! There is a GREAT magic item in the hex crawl, a little statue that gives everyone an augury once. That’s a nice little touch and exactly the sort of magic item I’m looking for. It’s NOT straight out of a book and it oozes wonder and mystery. THAT’S what magic items should do.

Finally, I want to cover the user of descriptive language. There’s not a lot. The encounters and place just don’t seem to pop. They are generally interesting enough, like the goblin on the rope bridge or the flood they release or the wolves on their chains, for example. But they don’t don’t pop. They don’t do a very good job of springing to life in your mind. I think it’s because of the lack of descriptive language. While reading through the adventure I was struck by the goblin lair seeming a bit generic … but then when I looked back over it it was clear that the situations were interesting. But they didn’t stay with you. They didn’t seem … exciting? And I think what I mean by this is that the encounter didn’t get ME, the DM, excited about running it. In the town section this really stood out. It was either in the rumors section or somewhere else when it hit me. There were nouns and verbs but the adjectives and adverbs were not used very well. “The farmers wife tells you … “ instead of the “the prim farmers wife tells you …” There’s was nothing of the FAVLOR being communicated. Floods should be raging torrents. The NOC’s should have personalities, or flavors, to assist the DM and bring the encounter to life in your mind. Farmers Wife leaves a lot open. Granny, prim, biddy, lusty, stoic, proper … all of those give you, the DM, something to work with. They conjure a NON-generic image in your mind that you can build on. There’s WAY not enough of this in the adventure. Hence the kind of “generic’ vibe. Generic goblin. Generic cave. Generic wolves. This lack of descriptive material, just a word or two really, is a reall killer.

You don’t get it both ways. You can’t claim to be a Starter Set and then not include GREAT magic items and monster descriptions. You gotta make this thing pop. You gotta make people want more More MORE. The monsters, magic items, and descriptions don’t really do that. In the end you get a serviceable adventure/set of adventures. They are nicely connected with a home base that is better than usual. This is a decent adventure, it delivers over and over again in a non-sucky way. In an above average way. But it doesn’t hit the highs, consistently, that the best products do. I’m disappointed in that. I wanted this to knock your socks off. It’s big. It’s long. Both of those are great. But the quality isn’t what I was hoping for. But, in spite of the Starter Set adventure not being the second-coming of Dave Bowman or Calithena, it does put D&D back on SOLID ground again. I’d be happy to run this. I fucking love D&D, and D&D is now back!

Now for some self-promotion:
Did you seriously just read all of that? Wow. You should be playing D&D instead. If you’re in/near Indianapolis then you should check out the Indy Gaming meetup. My wife runs the group. We’re running an all-day play through of the starter set on July 19th. RSVP and come along!

Want to celebrate the return of D&D by being a butthead? Drop me a line! We’re having a bonfire to celebrate the evening of July 11th. Feel free to bring the old edition; we’ll need fuel for the fire.

Posted in Reviews | 11 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #35

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Seeing the pro’s names ad Dungeon authors reminds me of the strippers who show up at spring break wet t-shirt contests.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming
James Jacobs
AD&D
Levels 8-10

Adventures like this one are part of that great soul-sucking morass that drags down the hobby. The party is hired to go through a gate to a fortress on the shadow plane and bring back a staff, in order to close the gate because shadow monsters are coming through it. Turn out the guy that hired them is a rakshasa and that will free him from his prison. The hackneyed plot (lure adventurers to free me while I impersonate someone!) isn’t so much the issue as the MASSIVE amount of text that accomplishes NOTHING. This runs 12-14 pages and has maybe three or four encounters. The inn the guy lives in is described completely and realistically in the most boring fashion possible. So s the two levels of the shadow fortress and the two or three encounters in it. Page after page of backstory. Page after page of boring descriptions of featureless wilderness. Page after page of trivial detail and explanation that does NOTHING to enhance play. Three is so little content that I think you could easily do this as a one-page dungeon. The rakshassa part is lame also. Need a bad guy to launch a plot that can’t be foiled by Detect Evil or ESP? Rakshasa! puke

The Year of Priest’s Defiance
Rick Swan & Allen Varney
Dark Sun
Levels 3-5

Uh … this is an adventure? The party stumbles on a ruin in the desert with fresh grass. Inside the small 6 room ruin they find a magic cistern of water. A friendly NPC shows up and wants to break up the cistern. An evil NPC group shows up. The cistern gets broken, the water elemental it contained gets free and kills the evil NPC party. End of adventure. This is an encounter, not an adventure. A side-trek at BEST and more likely a one-pager. But I guess it fulfills the requirement to publish a Dark Sun adventure in Dungeon. This is just devoid of anything. It’s more like watching a movie than doing something. Kill the friendly NPC? He survives so the showdown can take place. LAME. Why not just roll a d6? On a 1-5 you win, and 6 you roll again.

The Whale
Wolfgang Baur
AD&D
Levels 1-2

This is a nice little short viking-themed encounter. A whale has washed up on the beach and a group of fishermen and a grow from the local lord are arguing for ownership rights. As the party approaches one of the land-men shoots an arrow at a women in the fishermans boat. Everyone stops talking and stares coldly at each other. That’s the perfect little moment to introduce the party to the scene, at the point things could change dramatically one way or another. The two groups have several personalities and some generic men, with the personalities having some good motivations and character to drive the action forward. The fishermen WILL starve if they don’t get the whale. The land-men DO have a real claim, but it is from an unreliable person. Baur understands that these sorts of scenes are driving by the NPC personalities and describes each in a paragraph or so and provides enough little background bits THAT ARE RELEVANT to drive the action forward. This is a great tangled mess where there are lots of possible answers. Nicely done.

Green Lady’s Sorrow
Joseph O’Neil
AD&D
Levels 5-8

Middle class morality. That’s the problem with this adventure. A green dragon contacts the party in order to get five of her eggs rescued. They fell in a hole in a volcano and she needs you to go in and get them back. Inside is an assortment of vermin (who attack), magmen (who attack), grue (who attack) and an efretti (who eventually attacks.) Then you get out and the dragon attacks. Wouldn’t it be so much more interesting if you could get an ally from green dragon, or from the eftreeti? You are doing a major boon to both, and both are highly intelligent. But they attack. Lame. There’s a nice little maze on the map, some of the eggs are fakes, some are hard boiled already, and ALMOST everything in the adventure is intelligent. And attack. There’s an interesting set up or two with the eggs, traps and the like. Giving the true, magmen, efretti, orcs (who are all dead, having been sent in before you) some personality would have really made this adventure something. You could do it yourself, but then … why did you buy this magazine? There was a great opportunity for faction play, since they all hate each other anyway, and lots of opportunities to make some fire & lava themed rooms. Instead you get a lava pool or two and nothing else. The end result is Just Another Stinking Dungeon, but with a couple of fire creatures in it this time. :(

The Ghost of Mistmoor
Leonard Wilson
AD&D
Levels 3-6

This is a haunted house adventure. An heir hires you to go in and help him get his ancestral treasure. There are a couple of rogues inside who are pretending to haunt the house … and some real ghosts as well. Some of the ghosts are neutral-ish (and not really ‘ghosts’ by D&D standards) and one is evil. You tool around the house getting ‘haunted’ and looking in to things and then probably meet the good-natured rogues. They, in turn, probably help you find the treasure vault, along with the goodish ghosts. Inside the vault you fight the evil ghosts. (which are really just shadows.) This is a pretty long adventure and most of the haunting things are done fairly well. There’s good advice present on how to run a spooky adventure, including he one dream sequence. I normally hate dream sequences, but this one is done ok and emphasizes the need to not do another one after it since they get old real quick. (True That.) This has a slow, investigatory quality to it. There are some vermin to kill prior to the showdown, but it’s otherwise an adventure which builds to several spooky moments. It does this better than most spooky adventures. It’s helped by the two rogues, scaring people off, who build things to a climax … and then they are probably caught, dispelling the tension. Until you find out they didn’t do everything … and then tension builds more, this time with your new helpers. Tension builds again until its dispelled by the finally meeting the real ghosts. Then there is the ominous battle of the treasure vault, that the party probably knows is coming. That sort of cycle works well. I would note that there MAY be a single problem. There are a decent number of bodies in the adventure from the olden-days. There is one high-level speak with dead spell. Completing the adventure relies on the spell being cast one ONE body in particular. I may have missed the thing that singles this body out. Anyway, good hauntings based on both room and time/event. The personalities of the ghosts and NPC’s are spread out a bit. Most detail is in one place but important other details are spread though the text, which makes running them a pain. All in all though, not a bad haunted house. Better than U1 anyway.

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X1 – The Unnamed Land

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Perry Fehl
Purple Duck Games
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 4-5
The charismatic wizard convinced you all that in the new land you could get a fresh start, that money and high birth couldn’t dictate what you could do. You burned the ship, built a town, and, with a few hundred intrepid colonists began to make a new life! The purple vegetation, eyeless animals and furtive crystalline inhabitants presented challenges, to be sure- and then the wizard disappeared…

This is touted as a hex crawl but is really just a starting base with some strong wilderness theming and a couple of plots in the surrounding lands. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s pretty well done, but it’s not a hex crawl. You might be able tot use this to great effect to drop in to Red Tide, NOD, or some other hex crawl. What you get is a small hex crawl map, a little detail on the local village, a “freaky’ wandering table with a fine selection of new monsters, and maybe four hexes detailed out of a 12×15 grid of 10-mile wide hexes.

The background is delivered in about a column on the first page. A wizard recruited a bunch of people to come settle in a new land. They boarded a ship, may have passed through a portal, and been in the colony for two years. Basically, this is a Jamestown settlement in a freaky deaky land that resembles more War Against the Chtorr than it does vanilla D&D. (That’s a compliment.) The Standard monster list is pruned down to most giant vermin, like crabs, scorpions, fly’s and the like, ooze-like things (ooze, slime, cubes, mold), a fungus or two (shriekers) and some of the weirder and more insect-like monsters, like a rust monster or eyeless wyvern. This is supplemented by seven or eight new monsters, all with a very weird, aliens, or insect-like theming. Not insects, but evocative of insects. Not hive mind creature, but evocative of hive-mind creatures. Notably, there are two intelligent crystalline humanoid races: the greens and purples. Ubarat Fel, the wizard leading the colony, disappeared awhile back n an excursion he claimed would get rid of the predator attacks the colony was facing. These green and purple humanoids are roaming about. The land is crawling with weird monsters. The colony-village proper has a very Battlestar Gallactica-vibe from back when they had that colony; lot’s of corruption, pettiness, and the like. In short: a perfect place to getting kicked off!

EXCEPT for the hook. Note the adventure is for levels 4-5 and the adventure starts the party off in this weird-land-beyond-a-portal by having them standing beside a fountain. That’s it. No starting hook. I’m having trouble rationalizing a complaint about this. DO you need a hook for a starting base and a hex crawl? It’s location based; you shouldn’t need much of a hook. EXCEPT … you’re starting at levels 4-5 AND you’re starting in a weird “not vanilla D&D land.” How did you get there? Did you level up in the village? Were you an original colonist? Did you somehow in this mega-isolated place after the fact? If so A LOT of people are going to want to talk to you about getting back. This is a nice sized hole in the product.

The only village on the planet (is it a new planet? Who knows … and that’s great! Except for all intents and purposes you can think of it as “the only village you will ever see”) has no map, a strong rumor table, and a description of about a half-dozen places. Group dorms that the 400 or so colonists live in, to the wizards tower, to the food stores, communal workshop, and meeting hall. Each one of these has something going on, usually personality/NPC. These entries generally last no longer than a paragraph or two and do a great job of conveying a location with lots of possibilities. The asshat cleric, the ONLY cleric, is now pretty full of himself and if you want healing you have to attend his lectures and declare your faith in his god. And he’s kind of a doomsday preacher AND has a decent number of followers. Joy! The perfect gas for throwing PC fire at! A dick thief is in charge of the food stores, using “indentured servitude” as currency with thug guards and pretty girls working for him. He supports any mining-type venture, since he REALLY wants to get rich. One of the communal dorms has a different thug thief as a self-appointed Dorm Warden, with her room having the only separate room … and lock. She’s the sometimes rival of the other thief in town, the guy at the food stores. This kind of stuff goes on and on. The wizards tower is arcane locked and his three apprentices are camped outside in tents (none having knock) arguing about who is new archmage. (They’re all level 2.) EVERY place in the smallish colony is like this. It’s a fucking powder keg . It’s PERFECT. My only complaint is that a small list of the core NPC’s and goals would have been nice as a reference, maybe with a few more of the townsfolk thrown in also. That sort of “reference material” for running an adventure is something that is generally missing, especially from village/social places, and is sorely needed most of the time in actual play.

The hexes suck. You get a short 8-10 entry wandering monster table for each type of hex (wooded, plains, etc) and then 6 “special encounters” of two sentences each. There are three other special hexes detailed: the hex where the wizard met his fate, the lair of the green men and the air of the purple men. The purple men get a page or two but the other two get maybe a column. Which is fine; that’s more than enough to communicate the vibe of the hex and give me enough eta to run it. The issue is that this isn’t a hex crawl, not in my definition. It’s a kind of Wilderness Clearing action, where you go from hex to hex killing some wandering monsters. There’s just not enough “traditional” hex crawl encounters. The whole adventure is like a coiled spring, full of potential energy, but sitting out by itself alone in a field. Without the hex crawl encounters the potential energy is wasted. The set up is good. The new monsters are good. The village is good. But it’s all fluff without an opportunity to use it on something. That’s why, in my introduction, I stated that it would be better if you dropped this in to an existing hex crawl. It needs the target, the goal, to be released at. “Well, you could make your own.” Yes, I could. Then why am I buying this? The very purpose of a purchased product (or a free one, for that matter) is to support play. We’re paying, money, time or investment, for the very content that is missing. Not to mention the traditional problem of the product not advertising what it is very well.

There’s one more problem with this that is acknowledged by the designer: XP. There is no coin in this new land. It’s suggested that you give 4-5x more XP for creatures killed and 100 XP per hex cleared. This turns the focus to killing and clearing. BASIC doesn’t do a great job at kill-based gaming and 100xp hex means A LOT of hexes must be cleared before level 5 or 6 is hit. It’s probably impossible. This alien land would also be ripe for weird new magic items, things, but that’s not present at all either.

This thing is $4. If it were cheaper it would be an auto-buy. If it was more of a hex crawl it would be an auto-buy. You’re paying $4 for a little village, a general set up, and a couple of sub-plots. I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less. I’m hesitating recommending this, probably because I’m disappointed I didn’t get the hex crawl I was anticipating. Fuck it. It’s worth at least as much as a beer. Go buy it.

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Dungeon Magazine #34

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This is a pretty crappy issue. The single exception drags the ret of the issue out of the gutter … but not THAT far out of the gutter.

Euphoria Horrors
Alan Grimes
AD&D
Levels 1-2

This is an eight-room cave with a couple dozen drug-addled tasloi. It is also once of the worst examples of adventure design I’ve seen. A kid comes out of the forest crying. Questioning turns up his friend Drake is missing. The kid runs away. That’s it. That’s your hook. And this adventure is recommended as the Premier Adventure for your new campaign. Sigh If you follow the kid you get to his parents house. They are complete dicks and won’t talk to party or allow them to talk to the kid, other than shouting “Go Away!” This is your premier adventure. Why would anyone go on this? Because that’s what the DM is running that night? That’s the reality of the situation, but, fuck, you have to make the adventure at least A LITTLE appealing to the players and characters to go on. A vague statement and then denying the party anything else is not a great start. The group is then supposed to wander around the forest looking for clues. Except they will probably fail and/or give up. There’s a 10% chance per party member of finding a clue. What if they don’t find a clue? I guess they don’t get to go on the adventure then. Yeah! Let’s Oh, wait, I don’t think that’s the reaction you are supposed to have. I’ve never understood this shit. If you HAVE to find the clue to go on the adventure then why are you making people roll for it? “Roll 1d6. On a ‘1’ you get to play D&D tonight.” Ug! Further, the clues are bullshit! There are three. The first two provide NO insight on where to go. The third, it is stated repeatedly, should only be used if the party is getting frustrated and don’t know where to go. Seriously? YOU HAVENT PROVIDED ANY DATA ON WHERE TO GO UP TO THIS POINT!!!!!! Eventually you find a cave. The first encounter in the cave takes a page to describe. It’s a fucking pit blocking the entrance with a fire behind it. That’s should tell you a lot about this adventure. It’s not the only example either. Many of the encounters take a page to describe and subjects are not just beaten to death but to a pulp. When you find the fairy dragon (euphoria gas) captured by the tasloi it breathes on you up to a dozen times. Hey! Dick! Know how many XP you’re worth? I’ll answer that: more than the bullshit excuse for treasure this adventure provides! There’s almost none at all. The concept of drug-addeled humanoids is a good one, and there’s a great non-standard undead, but that’s not enough to save this adventure. Garbage.

Rogue
David Howery
AD&D
Levels 4-5

A two-page side-trek that describes the clearing in which a rogue elephant lairs. There’s nothing remarkable about this. Two pages to describe what should be a couple of sentences or a (short) paragraph. Was Dungeon that desperate for material?

Isle of the Abbey
Randy Maxwell
D&D
Levels 1-3

This is a small little locale adventure on an island. Some mariners (a guild, perhaps?) hire you to clear the place out so they can build a new lighthouse. After getting on to the island, through a horde of undead, there’s a little adventure in the cellar of a ruined abbey where you meet the remains of the evil clerics from the abbey. This adventure has a different vibe than most and it’s something I can get in to. The party is presented more as a group of mercenaries. A lot of hooks essentially imply as much: “you’re hired to …” but there’s also some implied morality in most. This one doesn’t really have that implied morality, although it’s still essentially a fight against evil. The mariners want to build a lighthouse and they need someone to check the isle out before they do so and get rid of any threats. There’s a small lighthouse nearby that can serve as a base of operations, and it has a tactical resource in an old fighter who tends it. He can offer advice to situations the party can’t overcome. That, alone, is unusual for Dungeon. Not the resource, but the way the adventure is presented. The island is presented more as a … location? Than a set of railroad encounters. The beach is full of undead that crawl out of the dunes, so just getting off the beach will be a puzzle. The ruined abbey has some (evil) survivors in it who, generally, want off the island. They are presented as having motivations of their own and you can talk to some of them. More could have been done with that, with some better faction play, but at least a nod is given to a couple of people who just want out and damn their evil god. Hell, I even liked the little backstory of the pirates and clerics being in league, the clerics always shorting the pirates, the pirates always grumbling, and then the pirates showing up one day to burn down the abbey … only to get mostly wiped out by the undead … leaving an opening for the mariners guild. The treasures here’re not stellar, and more could be done with the NPC personalities in the ruined abbey, like sticking them in specific locations or putting a little more faction work in to play, but it’s defiantly above average for Dungeon.

The “Lady Rose”
Steve Kurtz
AD&D
Levels 8-11

Are there good nazi’s? What’s your position on orc babies? This adventure, either intentionally or unintentionally, asks those questions. A warship from a thus-far unknown empire shows up and raids a city, kidnapping all of the adolescent elves. Because their empire uses young elves as slaves. And keeps them drugged. And breed them. But they are not evil, the adventure says so. Seriously. “Slavery in the Dkdwfkd empire is not good or evil. It just is.” And their alignment isn’t evil, it’s almost all LN. It then paints the crew of the ship as just a set of sailor dudes. They hang out in bars, spend money lawfully, arm wrestle, gossip, all the things sailors do. Well, and slave adolescent elves. The depiction of a foreign power suddenly showing up and raiding a town, only to pull in to another and act lawfully, that’s an interesting depiction. Probably realistic. Depicting the crew as just a bunch of sailors, a bunch of working stiffs, and the offers who are just loyal military officers. All great. You get a couple of combats with a well organized military group painted in a realistic, and yet tactically fun, manner. And then you toss in the orc babies … the slavery. DM’s you throw that shit in are not good DM’s. They are dicks. The game is supposed to be fun not make you think about the meaning of life, hopelessness of existence, and put you in to existential crisis. The big battle at the end is supposed to be on the warship but it described in a boring way, with no thought as to how the crew react to an incursion. This is in marked contrast to the earlier ‘ambush’ encounter in which the tactics of a small subset of the crew, on land, are spelled out. The ship, in contrast, is boring, with no tactics and nothing very interesting to explore. This then is the most glaring mistake in the adventure, the abrupt turn away from the realism of the military response to Just Another Keyed Room format. Oh. And the adolescent elf slavery. Like I said, only a dick puts that shit in an adventure. The TSR standards were something like “evil must never be portrayed in a good light.” I guess this one slipped through because they were LN? I look forward to the next issues letters column to see if this comes up. Ultimately this is a sucky adventure because of the main encounter, the ship, is described as just a series of keyed entires instead of living, breathing place with a crew schedule, etc. The orc baby issue is what pushes from “the usual dreck” to “total piece of shit.”

On Wings of Darkness
Craig Barrett
AD&D
Levels 4-8

Dungeon adventures tend to be wordy. This one is both wordy AND confusing, a rare talent. The party is hired by a manor lord to go kill a predator killing livestock. Uh … then the party is attacked at night by “Darkenbeasts” under the control of Vedthor. Then they go kill a small campsite of enemies in the pay of Vedthor. Then they go to an estate and kill some more people in the employ of Vedthor . Yeah, I know it’s a mess. That’s because it’s a mess! So look, what’s going on here is the designer made up a cool dude, Vedthor, and put him in an adventure in Dungeon Magazine. Vedthor, the CE human male wizard, keeps a +3 dagger in his boot and a knife in his left forearm sheath. Boner much Craig? Vedthor has some evil plot and its his Darkenbeasts that are causing trouble. The idea is, I guess, that the party is pissed at being attacked during the night ambush by Vedthor and takes the fight to Vedthor. You see all that name dropping I did of “Vedthor”? That’s NOTHING compared to the number of times he’s fucking mentioned in this adventure. “Why Bryce”, you ask, “how does the party know where Vedthor is?” Well, first, let me thank you for name dropping “Vedthor.” Second, there are a bunch of fucking owls in the adventure. Why are tere owls in the adventure? I have no idea. But there are a bunch of giant owls at the enemy campsite and one talking owl in a cage at the campsite. And the talking owl has a page long monologue that fills the party in on all the details. And then every encounter from then on is written from the owls point of view. If some DM tried this shit on me I’d eat the fucking owl. There’s a couple of nice things in this adventure, in spite of the confusing mess it is. First, at he campsite, there are some hill giants chasing around some giant owls, trying to club them, while the owls flutter about from area to area. I like these sorts of vignettes during an adventure encounter. It’s much nice to see some semblance of realism then it is to just have a boring description of “3 hill giants in the clearing.” It doesn’t have to be long but just an extra sentence or so can make all the difference. Second, the estate at the end, while written from the owls point of view and a total confusing mess, tries to be an open-ended location. More than a standard keyed encounter locale, it tries to tell you that there are some guard at a lookout on the hill, and these guys on a boat, and these people in the house and so on. It fails because of the owl POV shit and the TOTAL lack of a plan and/or tactics on the part of the enemy. Oh! Oh! I just remembered! At the end of the adventure there’s an entire list of consequences based on the PC’s actions. Guess What! Nothing you do matters! No matter what the party does the outcomes are the same! Yeah you! You wasted your time!

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 3 Comments

The Monastery of Inexorable Truth

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By David Pryzbyla
Purple Duck Games
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 3-4

It is said that the truth will set you free… but is that, itself, the truth? The monks of the Order of Veracity built an amazing monastery complex in the frozen mountains, using the heat of natural magma flows, in order to contemplate the truths of their stern god, Ket the Unbroken. When they were given a wondrous tome, the Codex of Inexorable Truth, they thought that all of the truths in the world would be theirs to behold… and it would be a lie to say that their bones rest easily because of it. But the truth can be a valuable thing, and your party of intrepid adventurers has been tasked with obtaining the truth borne in the pages of the Codex, and must journey to the dark halls of frost and fire- to learn the Truth.

This adventure was a pleasant, if a bit hackey, surprise. It takes please in an abandoned monestary and exists more as a locale to quest to than as a plot to uncover or an Evil bad Guy to defeat. There’s a nice little artifact that’s present in the dungeon that can serve as an excellent adventure hook. Basically, the monks god rewarded their devotion with a book that contained the Inexorable truth. Ask a question and get an answer. And then get a second answer … the consequences of the first. The monks couldn’t hand the truth and ended up killing each other, and then they got punished by their god. Their god who, because he’s kind of a dick, finds it interesting to watch how the puny humans react to The Truth. I found this a really excellent backstory and hook. Best of all it’s all presented in less than two pages. A brief little history and backstory, the details of the god and the book, hooks and all the rest. There are a couple of other bullshit hooks as well, the usual sort of lame “hired by someone” and “great evil blah blah blah” stuff. But the core hook: Book of all Knowledge, is a VERY good one. It motivates the PLAYERS, rather than the characters, and those hooks are always the very best ones. Want the keyword for the Sword of Kas? Guess which monastery you are going to!

The map has thirty or so encounters on it and is done by Dyson Logos. I’m not the rabid Logos fan that others are, and this map is a good example why. In spire of this being a monastery set amid a lava lake, it’s boring It is, essentially, just a loop with the two hallways running directly in to rooms and then meeting on the other side of the map. Oh, there’s a side room here and there, as well as smaller loop, but not in a meaningful way. This is, far too often, a problem with Logos maps. Logos generally has a good idea or two but the maps tend to peter out after that idea and become small uninteresting affairs. If you strung all of the good ideas together you might get something good. It seems like there’s just something that hasn’t clicked yet with Logos. There’s another problem with the map, but I suspect it’s not Logos. The various rooms each note the doors as open or closed, the lighting, and the temperature. This is a waste. These sorts of things should be noted on the maps. The door is locked. The door is unlocked. The room is lit. The room is dark. The room is lit by magma from the hallway. The room is very hot. All of this should be shown on the map instead of taking up valuable space in the text. I know, I know, it seems like I’m backseat designing, but, I think not. This is critical information and just as relevant as how many exits there are and how big the room is. It should be shown on the map. The map is a reference document. That information is reference data. Represent it on the page that shows us reference data! There are four wandering monsters, all new, and all just presented as normal monsters. Eh. Nice to see new stuff but nicer to see them doing something. A few extra details in the wanderers activities could have pushed things over the top.

The encounters here are generally quite good and presented in an interesting format. Let’s cover the format first. Each room starts with a small bit of read-aloud. A SMALL bit of read aloud. No more than two sentences. I’m not opposed to read aloud, jus the excessive read aloud present in most products. This one gets things close to right. Here’s an example from the first encounter:
Monastery Entrance. An archway carved from the mountain rock frames an open doorway. Blown snow forms drifts that extend a few feet into the corridor.
What follows is then a bolded section that describes what’s unusual. In the above example there is a small subheading that describes the archway, the door, a lever inside the door, and what’s in the snow drift. Note how all of that is alluded to in the read aloud text. If someone examines something that you JUST told them about then they get a little bit of extra data. When the adventure is at its best it is focusing VERY tightly on the interesting aspects of the room. It GENERALLY succeeds more than it fails. Sometimes it drifts off in to the irrelevant, describing things that don’t matter. Sometimes the read aloud doesn’t mention something critical in the room which should be obvious to a casual observer at first glance. “There’s s shit ton of ice spiders” or “there are several pillars and pedestals with glowing markings on them.” Then sometimes it drifts in to describing something like a bench which has no purpose. While inconsistent and the format is a little wordy and, as mentioned before, notes far too often things which should be noted on the map, which only contributes to the wordiness. This ends us causing the product to only contain about four or five encounters per page. The format here is interesting, but we’re not buying the product for an interesting format.

There are, however, more than a few things going on in each room and the data presented is generally in line with supporting party interaction with the environment. For example, those snowdrifts mentioned in the first encounter have the body of a dead adventurer in them. His short sword is coated in blood, his body rent with claws, and his face blistered from heat. Interesting! The party now has numerous clues to one of the new monsters in the adventure. Yeah! The dude also has a gem in his shoe, rewarding those players who taker the time to interact with their environment. Other rooms have other clues to other new monsters, or to other clues to other things in the dungeon. That’s EXCELLENT design. The overall impression though is that the rooms are on the Hack side of the line. There’s not going to be a lot of negotiation with the vermin or the undead, and thus the faction play is sorely lacking … a problem with most adventures that feature undead. I noted ‘interaction with the environment’, above, but I’d like to back off of that a bit. While there are a lot of clues to what’s going on, giving inquisitive players a leg up, the interactivity, proper, is lacking a bit. There’s not a lot of ‘weird’ going on, or things you can impact, other than hacking them. The connected nature of the rooms is strange. On the one hand you’ve got lots of clues as to what might be in the next room, but there’s just not a lot of interactivity beyond that. The clues here are excellent, some of the best I’ve ever seen, but the interactivity (beyond hacking) is lacking. I don’t know if I’m making myself clear.

I’ve mentioned previously the new monsters. There are five or so, and few other monsters outside of these new ones. I REALLY like new monsters. I like a party that is afraid of the creatures they meet. They don’t know the special attacks or defenses or anything else . The creatures here are interesting and reverent to the environment, and have some decent descriptions. “They exude a powerful odor of charred flesh.” … Cool! The treasure is less great. There are some interesting treasures, like a desk or so, but there is far too much that is generic. “3500gp in misc jewelry” “a jade idol”. A jade idol of what? Just two more words and that had idol could have been a really special treasure. Instead it’s just generic junk. The magic items are similar. One or two get a description, like a handle that returns and is decorated with gold and red. But others are just generic +1 mace and “potion of levitation.” One or two more words, a little extra work, and the standard book item garbage could have been turned in to something special. :(

Origins was a bust, with only 1 OSR adventure, so I bought a lot of Purple Duck stuff during their recent sale. I was dreading the reviews, but, now, I’m cautiously optimistic about them. Let’s hope the other LL and DCC adventures from them are as good as this. Not the greatest adventure , but a solid C+ or B- in my opinion, which means it better than the vast vast majority of stuff published.

 

Hey, did you make it this far? I’m having a party in a few weeks to celebrate the return of D&D. If you’re in/near Indy drop me a line and I’ll send you the invite. And if you’re not in Indy but have 4e books you want to get rid of then let me know. I’m gonna kill 4e with fire.

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Dungeon Magazine #33

d33

Origins didn’t have shit in the way of adventures, so I bought a bunch on DriveThru this morning. New content soon!

Warning: the first adventure has a village of clueless morons. I LOVE villages of clueless morons, so the review may be biased. I also like sandbox things like sieges, from the second adventure, and fairy-tale like things, from the last adventure. Those reviews may be a bit more biased than usual.

That Island Charm
By MS Rooney, Patrick Carpenter, Greg Gliedman
AD&D
Levels 7-12

This is an adventure on a deserted island full of castaways who need some help solving an ogre problem. The party ends up wrecked here and the other castaways, from pervious wrecks, attempt to convince the party to go take care of some ogres who are preventing their ship construction efforts. When the party goes to do that, they get charmed by a morkoth and his marid buddy. Oh my god, I love this adventure. The hook is complete BS. From the seedy tavern with the confused barkeep to the railroad to get the ship to crash to the isle, the beginning is BAD. So bad I wonder if it’s intentional. I LOVE the crazy barkeep and bar, only briefly described, even though its a total set up. The journey to the island is lame as it ends in a shipwreck, but, shit, whatever, it gets the party to the isle. Once there they meet a CRAZY band of castaways, whose rough village is plagued by nearby ogres. Their story holds us to no examination. Their ogre defense barrier is a falling down bamboo affair with a gate that takes a STR 15 to push down. Their water source literally springs from out of nowhere. One guys been on the island for years, living in the same hut, only the hut is less than a month old. More and more of hat sort of thing, with the castaways giving the stupidest answers known to man. It’s a complete telegraph that something else is going on AND I LOVE IT. Screaming THIS IS a SET UP at the players and then watching them walk in to it anyway is one of my greatest joys as a DM. There are a couple of potential allies on the island, from an ogre (!) to a rebel elf. Everything kind of centers on a cave with a spiral entrance … a morkoth lair. The marid is a little inexplicable addition. It’s used to do weird stuff and be an agent for the morkoth on the outside but it seems out of place. Something has to keep up appearances, so the designer stuck in a marid. The writing seems tighter than usual for a Dungeon Magazine adventure and it’s good to see something unusual like a morkoth show up. It’s all book treasure, and the adventure is on the short side, but I liked it. In fact, the Moonday Murder Hobos are just setting off to take a sea journey tonight. I might have an island offshore have some smoke coming from it … This is a stupid silly little adventure, and I inexplicably love it. Wasn’t there some crappy bar from a Forgotten Realms document, the Swill & Swipe, or something like that? It served bar rag drinks or something like that. That bar would be perfect. Obviously, I’m excited, and that rarely happens.

The Siege of Kratys Frehold
Ted James, Thomas Zuvich
AD&D
Levels 1-4

This is a sandbox siege, with the PC’s defending a fort. It really quite different than the usual affair in Dungeon. The party ends up in a fort/manor and a large group of orcs attack and lay siege to it. The party gets to control all of the locals, from lord to peasant, and has access top all of the general supplies in the fort in order to fight off the attackers. There’s a timeline presented, some rough orc battle plans, and general plans of the fort and the surrounding lands. There are some battle system rules attached, but they are entirely optional. I like these sorts of “heres a location and heres a goal. Make it happen” kinds of adventures. The players are given a very free hand, controlling all of the NPC’s. Success probably depends on making raids out of the fort and destroying the orcs siege equipment, etc. The general overview map could be more useful for play if it had more features. It is basically a fort on a hill surrounded by trees. Given the (probable) frequency of sally raids a more detailed environment would have been better. Every party should have an opportunity for one of these once in their careers and this one may be nearly as good as the Dogs of War/I series from C&C. A little prep work in maps, character stat cards, etc, could turn this in a VERY memorable game for your party.

Dark Days in Welldale
J Mark Bickering
AD&D
Levels 3-5

A miserable adventure in an annoying cutesy halfling village with no reward to speak of. An invisible dragon has been granting them wishes while pretending to be a well spirit. While he’s away some men locks move in to the well and there are disappearances. All of the halflings are incompetent, grossly cute, and as far as I can tell there is absolutely no reason for a party to do anything other than burn the place down. No, that’s too harsh. Parts of this are interesting. The local lore about the well spirit liking apple pies, and the menlock lair is full of belly-crawling tunnels that force you to fight with a dagger … while they circle around behind you. That makes the lair sounds more awesome than it is. I really do enjoy the non-standard environment of the dirt-floor tunnel belly crawl, but it’s really just a side-view map showing some tunnels with one big dug out area. It’ unclear why I like the stupid villages in the first adventure and loathe the stupid/cute ones in this one. In any event, this could make a nice one-shot with a deceptively hard finish to it. Kick around the village for a bit, putting up with the cute halflings, experience a raid at night and/or search the well, then belly-crawl to the enemy. 13 pages is WAYYYY too much for the adventure though. That, however, seems to be a fact of life if you want to use one of these older adventures.

Alicorn
David Howrey
AD&D
Levels 1-2

This must be a side-trek, since it’s only four pages long. A unicorn has been poisoned and some goblins are hunting it. The wilderness/glade has five encounters, the first being the hook combat and the last being the poisoned unicorn. There’s a camped out gnoll and a couple of flying kobolds. That’s it. It’s clearly a Legend rip, with goblins, unicorns, horns, and poisoned arrows. There’s just not enough to this. Nothing interesting happens in it AT ALL. Even the gnoll just attacks on sight.

Mad Gyoji
Colin Sullivan
AD&D OA
Levels 7-10

The Dungeon Magazine Oriental Adventures have been some of the strongest in the magazine, but this is one of the weaker ones. An evil spirit is killing the village elders, one after another. You have one day before the current one dies to go to an island where a villager was banished years ago and get the curse removed. There are a couple of OA style encounters in the wilderness and then on to the small island, home to many small shrines and a temple with a major treasure in it. This is a major adventure, clocking in at about 20 pages. It’s strongest when playing to the OA/fairy tale vibe and weakest when being a traditional D&D adventure. For example, on the wilderness trail you see a hanged man and his spirit next to the body. If you let him possess you and complete his task (which is quite minor) the spirit is put to rest. Great! Nicely done with a sweet fairy tale vibe in the flavor text used! But then there’s a tasloi village. That takes up a couple of encounters and several pages and feels more like a traditional hack & slash D&D adventure than an OA adventure. It’s out of place. The lengthy description of the village implies a hack fest, but the best option Is probably just to run/sneak through it. That’s followed by a straight-up fight with an Oni on a bridge (from the cover) but that also feels out of place. Most OA Dungeon adventures have treated the creatures like real NPCs, with goals and motivations of their own. In fact, the OA adventures have tended to do that FAR more often and FAR better than the ‘regular’ adventures. But, again, in this encounter the Oni is just there to be killed. The shrine/temple island has a couple of good OA encounters, from a collapsing cliffside to an area infested with leeches and some shrines to be cleaned up. But those are mixed in with a couple of straight-up fights that detract from the … ethereal? Nature of the isle could have otherwise had. The main temple extends this clash. While a couple of the encounters COULD be good, with an opportunity for interaction and choices by the PC’s, instead they all end with “and it attacks.” This gives the party no options beyond hacking things, which may be the most boring option in D&D. Given the emphasis on honor and so on in OA I find the lack of non-violent options strange and out of place. I guess there’s a puzzle or two on the island, or an opportunity for smart play here and there, but they are far outnumbered by the raw combats. In the end I found this to not have a strong OA feel, in spite of the trappings.

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1A – The Inheritance

1a
By Bob Pennington
Mischief, Inc.
OSR
Introductory to Novice levels

Family friend, and great adventurer Gildas Trahern is dead. The journey to Caer Brennau to attend his funeral was pleasant enough and uneventful, but who could have predicted what would happen next? Raiding goblins, and thieving kobolds are just the beginning, but when the dragon Galversharn attacks it becomes a race against time to return what was stolen before Caer Brennau is razed to its foundations and every last man, woman and child killed in draconic wrath! To save Caer Brennau will take courage, fortitude and wisdom. The path will be long and fraught with much peril. Can a party of strangers work together long enough to complete the tasks before them? Is any inheritance worth all this?

Someone has stolen a dragons egg. You are charged with going to get it back. You talk to some townsfolk and assault two (boring/standard) humanoid lairs. You are also led around by the nose and forced to go from place to place and shoe-horned in to an adventure that has far more in common with the 3e/4e era than it does with more classic/open-ended product. This is a frustrating thing to review. It’s an OSR product. I know because there’s a label right there on the front cover that says “OSR.” It does some things right, like putting in some magic items with a few unique abilities. It MIGHT even have a non-standard monster or two, depending on if you call a kobold sorcerer nonstandard. It also railroads you, leads you around by the nose, includes copies boxed text and has lots of generic magic items, linear dungeon design, boring rooms, NOT ENOUGH TREASURE and a vibe and vocabulary that is much more aligned to the 3e/4e era. I’m not gonna say it’s a conversion, but it FEELS like one. This ISN’T a rip-off adventure, like many of the conversion products are. The designer clearly put some effort in to it. It just doesn’t click and hit the notes an OSR adventure should. Yeah, that’s right, I’m the arbiter of what makes an OSR adventure OSR. Because it’s my review. In the end this is Just Another Adventure, with nothing special to recommend it.

I want to start here with the hook and plot. The entire thing is CRAMMED down the players throat and then they are led about from A to B to C. You’re in a manor home getting your inheritance from a dead wizard when The Authorities walk in and try and arrest you. It’s done in a a very condescending (to the players) “Respect my Authoritay!” kind of manner which, I believe, every player on the face of the planet LOATHES. You are not put in the position of kissing ass. That’s the first act your character takes, kissing ass and licking boots. You HAVE to do it, or you are derailing the railroad. So, as player, do you accept this? You know that’s the way the adventure is but fuck that asshole for making you boot lick as your first act with your character. My players would NOT put up with it. If I were playing I’d choose stabbing the Authority in the throat. It’s the OSR, I’m going to die about 4 times anyway before someone makes it to third level, so what does my nameless/soulless dude have to loose? Not kissing ass? I’ll take it. There’s two NPC’s, one on each side, so there’s a lot of DM going back and forth going on with the characters ALMOST on the sidelines, their fate in the DM’s hands as he rolls d20’s for both sides. Not. Cool. And then there’s the whole “they try to take you prisoner and heal you if you resist” nonsense, since all this crap is just the fucking hook for the adventure and has almost no impact on things. This drives me CRAZY. Your actions have almost no repercussions. Kill the dude, don’t kill the dude, resist, be nice, whatever. You end up in front of the local lord where there is more groveling and boot licking expected. He either puts you in the dungeon or gives you a place to sleep. In either case a dragon attacks in the morning at which time you are released (from jail, the barracks, the dungeon) and forced to confront it. NOTHING you did had ANY impact on the events. That don’t sound like what I know the OSR play style to be. This goes on, with the party being led from place to place to follow the plot to the fort, town, lair 1, lair 2. Contrast this to Scourge of the Demon Wolf. In that adventure the locations were presented as separate and distinct places with relationships to each other, where you could learn about the other locations and rumors and so on. You might think this trivial but I think the distinction is critical. Does this place exist outside the players interactions with it (Demon Wolf) or is it just sitting around waiting for the rumor in site #2 so you can travel to site #3? Major portions of this play out like a movie instead of a Realm of Possibilities. This is perhaps best exemplified by the dragon attack that the players are forced out to deal with (after being treated like shit by everyone.) The dragon gets an entire page write up, but at AC –6 and 112 HP there is no possibility for anything to happen here. It’s just a movie where the dragon roars and prances about and the players force their characters to do what’s expected of them to move the adventure along.

Moving on to the actual encounters, things seem … generic? It’s a guardroom. It’s got some dudes in it. It’s a barracks. It’s got some dudes in it. It’s a storeroom. It’s got some storeroom stuff in it. There’s just not much to the encounters. A couple of the rooms have traps, but this feels much more like a tactical exercise than exploring a real place. I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if the adventure is tactical. But OSR characters tend to be weak and not suited for tactical play at level 1. In most version you are barely more competent than goblins & kobolds, which make up the bulk of the enemies in this adventure. Further, they have some kick ass AC’s and HP’s. But de-emphasizing the exploration element and emphasizing the tactical, in a low-level adventure, you are forcing the group in to a no-win situation. They don’t have the opportunity for those whacky Adventuring Party Plans because everything is just one combat after another. The rooms are fully described … to no effect. Instead of the descriptions focusing on what the party can do and interact with, ACTIONS, then instead focus on trivia. “This is made possible by small bearings in the base” or “the runes on the walls tell of the three people who were buried here, now looted and gone, and have no bearing on the adventure.” Then what’s the point in telling me about it? Because it’s “Realistic?” Seriously? My elf is farting fireballs and you’re focusing on realism? Rooms & encounters need to focus on what’s important to the PLAY and ACTION. Boiling kettles to use in combat. Weird pools to do stuff with and the like. The goal of the designer is to provide that sort of thing to the DM to assist them in running a GREAT game for the players. If all you’re describing is the mundane and normal and you can replace the goblins for bandits, then what’s the point? Why not play Harn? I want to back off just a little from that diatribe to note an exception. There’s a wilderness area outside the first monster lair. Big chasm, a couple of guardhouses/ruins, one good bridge and one broken, an old monastery back in a cliffside overlooking everything (the main lair.) This is pretty nice. What you’ve got here are LOTS of possibilities for assaulting, sneaking, crazy plans, monsters reacting, varying terrain types, etc. There’s a WIDE open list of opportunities for the players to have their characters utilize. The goblins who live here are mostly presented as fodder instead of something more interesting although, eventually, a parlay may be obtained for play more interesting than hacking down goblins. I was MUCH more impressed by this section than the railroad before it or the “epic” plot/railroad after it in the second lair, and it’’s all because of the open-ended nature.

Let’s talk treasure. The adventure starts with the characters each getting a magic item as part of the inheritance. Something generic, like a +1 sword, but then with JUST a little extra, like, oh, allows you to use a cure light once a day, or something like that. Each also generally has a nice little backstory to go along with It. I generally prefer my magic items even more non-standard than the ones listed, but big props for adding the extra flair to each. This happens at least twice more in the adventure, including one opportunity in which the party is rewarded for exploring. And then there’s the rest. +1 shield. +1 sword. +1 arrows. BLECH. Just generic book items without souls. It’s magic. It’s supposed to be weird and whimsical, full of wonder! +1 sword. Uh … there’s a disconnect somewhere. Then there’s the coinage. I didn’t add up all the loot, but it seems light to me. VERY light. Coins=XP in most OSR games. The loot is worth more than hacking, which is why “grab the loot” is more important than “be a hero.” The risk/reward ration seems WAY off in this thing.

Finally, let me note that the second humanoid lair map is TERRIBLE. It’s just linear. Ok, two lines. You go down the halls/rooms in door 1 or the halls/rooms in door 2. This is not a style that jives with the low-powered characters of the OSR. You need room to maneuver. Ambush and be ambushed. Head em off at the pass. Hide in the cracks. Sneak around. All this does it force you in to one encounter after another. There’s is a nice order of battle, for both monster lairs, which I always love to see, but it’s anemic here. Oh boy, more monsters in front of us. While on this lets’ talk about the Forms Being Obeyed. Obligatory introduction is present. Obligatory “describe the monster stats” is present, in spades. Obligatory “convert this to your games stats” is present, in multiple places, too many times. Also present: Obligatory Trade Dress. There’s supposed to be an epic kind of feel to this, but the creatures in the lairs are not telegraphed enough for it. You need some foreshadowing, some hints, that what is coming up is scary. Otherwise the Kobold Sorcerer, and his nefarious plans, are just another Lareth. And just another Lareth is what they are in this adventure.

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Dungeon Magazine #32

d32
My in-laws are downsizing their home and my wife had a yard sale to help them sell their excess. At the end of setup I was (passive-aggressivly) throwing stuff in to a wheelbarrow to take down to the from of the driveway where I dumped it out in a large “$1” pile. I was struck by this. All their life, all they held on to and saved, treated like crap and sold for a $1 each. Most of which didn’t sell. Visions of vast quantities of consumer goods, pristine, going straight from the assembly line to the landfill. I can’t help but draw comparisons to how I feel about the RPG market. Free to not, is this the BEST thing that could be put out? If not, then why do it? Or why keep it if you already have it?

Enough pontificating, time to return to my hypocrisy. I’ve been out of new product to review for awhile. I’ll be hitting Origins this weekend to grab some new review material and buy A LOT of old 4e product to celebrate, in my own special way, the wonderful return of Dungeons & Dragons

The Wayward Wood
By Leonard Wilson
AD&D
Levels 6-9

This is an adventure in a forest with three (four? Five?) waring groups. And the forest is walking. It tries REALLY hard and has some great elements but could have used a really good edit. A couple of jr. druids contact the party in order to solve the problem with their forest. You see, it’s gotten up and is now walking away. Right at the village the party is in. It will be there in 3 days. It seems the head druid is way for a few weeks and some trolls have wandered in. A group of firbolg have been fighting them, and using fire to kill them. A group of truants don’t like fire and so are having the woods walk away to get away from it. The idea is that the party meets the truants or firbolg, gets them to ally, and then everyone goes and massacres the trolls. The adventure has set encounters, timed encounters, which is nice to see, and I REALLY like the Walking Wood idea. It brings THE FANTASTIC and WONDER to the adventure, something sorely missing in the vast majority of product. It’s also nice to see LARGE numbers of enemies. The trolls number in the 30’s, all in 1 group essentially, and the firbolg and treats have large numbers also. That pretty much forces the creative players play that I enjoy so much. This is a very nice idea and is right on the edge of being recommended. There’s a nice climactic battle at the inn that the DM is encouraged to force in to play, but the rest of the encounters, well, there just are not very many of them. The walking wood is actually a very boring place. Trolls, treants, and the firbolg are about it. Essentially you wander around all day until you have a timed encounter at night, when you get to actually start the adventure. There’s nothing here NOT related to main plot … and very little related to the main plot, and that’s disappointing. So while the set up might be a nice one, it’s far too long with not nearly enough variety to make it on to my list.

Hermes’ Bridge
By Timothy Leech
AD&D
Levels 7-10

This is a small 10-room ‘dungeon’ on a bridge over a river. It starts strong, but ends boring. And by ‘starts strong’ I mean ‘has one good encounter.’ There’s this troll standing on the bridge (Yeah! Classic troll bridge!), but he keeps running over deeper on to the bridge and sticking his hand in an urn. When he does so a statue comes to life and whomps him, at which time the troll runs back and heals, with the statue not following. EXCELLENT! I love it! And then the troll sees the party and immediately attacks. L A M E! This was SUCH a great opportunity for some role-play between the troll and party! The mindlessness by which most encounters are written in adventures is BORING. The most boring thing a monster can do is attack. The best thing a monster can do if be friendly … while carrying a big and obvious bag of loot … and turning its back to the party a lot. I like combat, but its the easy solution and the one that can be universally appealed to at a later date. Start things off with the troll making an ally and then see how long the party will work with it, or tolerate it. The adventure tries to bring a few other elements, like a healing pool, athena owl, and the like, but it ends up just being room after boring room of monsters. Giant spiders here. Garygoyles there. Nothing interesting to play with. :(

Changeling
By R. Nathaniel Waldbauer
AD&D
Levels 8-10

A side-trek, so essentially a 2-pager. This time the party hears about a white dragon that has just shown up. Turns out it’s an albino red dragon. With no treasure. Lame screw job. I’ll never understand why this sort of thing became popular. All it does it encourage the party to be paranoid, which slows things down. This is different than a mimic or trapper. Those are one-shot ‘gotchas.’, almost traps. This is just an intentional screw-job. LAME.

Pearlman’s Curiosity
By Willie Walsh
AD&D
Levels 1-4

A mystery in a small village with almost/no combat. The party is hired to deliver a crate to wizard in a nearby town, but then the crate goes missing. The group gets to investigate several locations, with one leading to the next leading to the next. There are extensive rumors, clues, and the like presented throughout. Complicating everything is the presence of a nibolg, with the chaos that entails. The village could really use more life to it, things going on other than the adventure and more NPC’s in the village to interact with and get rumors from. There are a lot of rumors … but not a lot of colorful characters to get them from. Further, the amount of text and lack of an overview makes deciphering the entire adventure a chore for the DM. These things are supposed to be play aids but instead generally are a lot of word to prep to run. There might be something to this to you photocopied it and took a pair of scissors and highlighter to it. Do you want to put that much work in to a first level adventure with no combat?

Is there an Elf in the House?
By Rafael Fay & Dan DeFazio
AD&D
Levels 3-5

A murder mystery in a country mansion. And, of course, there’s a Ring of Impersonation and a Ring of Silence involved. When you have to gimp the party through the use of shit like this, that’s a sign you’ve not created a good adventure. There’s a lot of things going on in the mansion: the main murder plot, a secondary murder plot, a group of NPC’s adventurers staying as guests, the host is ill, there’s a ghost, a bricked up room, hidden skeletons and, of course, the servants. All set in a 50-ish room mansion which is overly described. The amount of weird stuff/subplots is a really good thing; I love a complex inter-personal environment. The format used here, which is the traditional keyed room format, really does not fit this sort of adventure. You get a massive wall of text and need to try and hunt down things which makes running this sort of thing a prep nightmare. Better would be a list of NPC personalities/goals, a timeline, and a minimal room key. IE: reference material. This is one of those adventures that I wish I had the time to rewrite in an updated format. Maybe one day I will.

Ghost Dance
By David Howery
AD&D
Levels 4-7

This is centered around an American Indian/plains culture with the party coming in to save the poor natives. There’s A LOT of background information on the natives and there’s a LONG section at the end which is almost devoid of player interaction. Neither of those are good things. The middle is filled with a relatively simple straight-line adventure, so this seems to be mostly an exercise in exploding the players to plains Indian culture. Kill some marauders. Visit a friendly village. Kill the chief and a small handful of warriors at an evil village. Then you get to watch the movie. Seriously, that’s just about the extent of the adventure. The ELEVEN page adventure. There’s a lot of cultural baggage here, from the Ghost Dance to war shirts and holy lances, from the AmerIn culture. There’s not a lot of noble savage; the only hint is them giving you a box of shiny round disks that outsiders treasure and they do not. There just isn’t anything decent about this adventure to justify the page count. I think you kill something like 14 dudes in 2 encounters and then the adventure is over. I’m not looking for a high body count, but I am looking for some type of content past the 2-3 encounters presented in this.

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