AA#33 – The Halls of Lidless Shabbath

lidlessBy Joseph Browning, Stuart Marshall
Expeditious Retreat Press
OSRIC
Levels 12-15

Rolled into a yard-tall, ivory scroll tube, the worn charcoal rubbing of a giant map etched into an ancient monolith hints that travel between worlds was once easy. More enticingly, the map pinpoints the entrance to the eldritch pathway. The crude rubbing shows nothing but the location of the ancient and legendary dungeon known as the Halls of Lidless Shabbath!
The Halls are the home of the evil sorceress Shabbath. She was famed for having researched many new spells and created many unique magic items, as well as possessing fantastic treasures of gold and jewels, and the caves are also suspected to be a nexus of the planes. Little about the contents of the Halls themselves is known, save that Shabbath is rumored still to be alive, the Halls are reputedly haunted by demons, and a large warband or small army of trolls has been seen thereabouts.

This is a large dungeon with around 110 rooms scattered across four or so levels. It’s a frustrating mix of interesting ideas and repetitive generic text. It’s a little one note for my tastes, trending towards generic monster encounters with little to inspire and motivate the DM. It’s at it’s best when it’s providing those little bits of idiosyncratic detail. High level adventures are rare. Decent high level adventurers are rarer still, and I’m still not sure there IS a good high level adventure. This is better than most.

There’s no real hook here. It’s an infamous place with an infamous inhabitant and lots of rumored trease and a gate to other places. It’s left to the DM to hook one of those things in to appeal to the players. The background and introduction are mercifully short, at only about a page, before the keyed encounters start. You know what that means? No gimping! That’s right! This is one of the very few high level adventures that does NOT gimp the PC’s! Want to teleport, passwall, dig, dimension door? Have at thee! Finally, an adventure that can let a party stretch their legs and pursue their full tactical and strategic arsenal! Stuart and Joseph are to be applauded for this. In return they add HORDES of monsters. On the first level alone the monster roster tells us there are 45 giant trolls, 30 minotaurs, 55 ettins, and 200 trolls, in addition to the other creatures. Ouch! You’re gonna need those spells Mr Wizard; pains a coming!

Anyway, there’s a largish 88 room level 1/level 2 and then a smaller eighteen room sublevel that is separate from a large insect-filled caverns levels and then the eight room “home” level of the titular baddie. The cavern main map, of levels one and two, are large and basically consist of a ring corridor around the outside with a couple of side passages to make up three of four smaller loops. It’s not necessarily the most interesting map design but it is serviceable. I think maybe I was hoping to see a little more variety in it, similar to Many Gates of the Gann. Essentially, the maps are the bare minimum required to support a decent adventure.

What bugs me about this adventure is the aggressive blandness of most the rooms. “34. TROLLS: There will always be 2d6 trolls from the roster in this room if any remain. They have no treasure.” There’s really nothing to that room. This happens over and over again. The name of the room is the name of the monster and then just simple stats. One step above this is a series of lengthier room description that still manage to convey little interesting information. There’s a room with two chimeras in it, Shabbaths favorite pets. They have a taste for halfling. It’s just another another room on the map with a smattering of text that doesn’t really take advantage of what’s actually being described in the room. Pet chimeras with a taste for halfling could have been the basis for any of a dozen different room features that could have been highlighted, but instead it’s just this bland text that lends a kind of generic feel. It does manage to fit in about twenty rooms per page, a nice feat of terseness, but without the sparks of creativity I would have licked to see. I’m relatively certain that if different choices were made then twenty rooms of decent content could have been included per page. One room has four large bronze statues. “They appear to be of giantesses, hags, anisses or creatures like that.” Why? Why be generic? Why be nonspecific in the description? What are the four statues of?

But there ARE good little bits mixed in and what’s very frustrating. One levels continually drips blood from the ceiling and the walls and floor bleed when cut. Another has ancient writing which, if read, provides a possibility of a benefit … and likely something bad. In one room trolls spitroast a dwarf (dead, skinned, gutted and shaved) over a fire. Another nearby room has a vampire hanging out in mist form in the bottom of a pit, following the party to attack … but cowardly fleeing at the first sign of a stake. A room that is the inside of a geode, with magical spells inscribed on the walls, like a spellbook. But there’s not enough of it, not nearly enough. An enchanted water fountain with a greenish tint, colored by a gem … that’s actually a soul jar. More of this and less “2d6 trolls are present. They have no treasure.”

I seem to say this alot. What actually are you paying for when you buy an adventure? A room called “26: Trolls. 2d6 trolls are present in this room.”? Really? Is that content that’s worth $15 in PDF form?

I don’t think so. I think what you are paying for, as a DM, is inspiration. It’s the DM’s job to run a good game for the players and it’s the products job to give the DM the tools they need to do that. One of those tools is providing evocative, interesting, and creative content that the DM could not have come up on their own. This adventure avoids the usual low spots that many fall into but it fails in providing high spots that makes one excited, that makes you WANT to run the adventure. Your mind doesn’t get excited.

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

Dungeons of Fel’Valashar

felv
By Steve Gilman
Sundered Blade Games
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 3-4

Written in celebration of Swords and Wizardry Appreciation Day 2016, Dungeons of Fel’Valashar is a collection of mini dungeon adventures with a small region called Fel’Valashar that they take place within. Each of these adventures is written in such a way that they don’t have any ties to each other or to Fel’Valashar. This means you can easily drop them into your own world with no fuss.

This is a very basic set of three mini-dungeons, with about eight rooms each, located in a small little region. It’s all quite bland and provides few details that could not have come from a random generator, either for monsters or dungeon trappings. It begs the question: what are you actually paying for? I think you’re paying for the designers imagination, and alas there’s little here.

The first clue is probably the wandering monster table. Owlbear. Goblin. Orcs. Bandits. Ogres. Nothing more than stats. The value add here consists of copying the monster stats out of the Monster Manual and on to the page in abbreviated format. No one is doing anything, there’s no content that adds any value at all. Soooooo…. Why is it there? Because it’s supposed to be? Because it’s required to be? It’s the accepted form of adventures with a wilderness component to include a wandering monster table? If it’s going to be generic then it probably shouldn’t be included.

There are four mini-dungeons, in various forms, from partial caves, to an abandoned village. There’s an earth temple. As soon as I read “Earth Temple” I knew it was going to be some symmetrical dungeon design. I was not disappointed. The first map, an old cave system is one of the more interesting, with a ledge or two, some statues, a big pond, and other cave features mixed into a transition to dungeon chambers. The problems with the rest of the dungeons are fully in view in just this first one. The hooks are obvious: “unnaturally large dogs have been seen in the area” or “local wildlife has been found dead in the area, drained of all blood.” I would suggest these are not hooks at all. They are simply facts. They lack anything interesting or fun that the DM can leverage to get the characters involved. The actual dungeon has room descriptions like “Main Hall. The large hall was used for entertaining guests […]” or “Servant Quarters. Rows of dusty beds line the walls of what was once living quarter for the staff.” Yes. We know they were living quarters for the staff. You told us that in name of the room, Servant Quarters. We also know what is in it. You told us that also IN THE NAME OF THE ROOM. “Dining Hall. This room was once the dining hall for the inhabitants of the complex.” This is nothing but filler. It’s not needed. It clogs up the adventure text. It adds nothing to the adventure. The designer must either add value OR OMIT THE TEXT. The text here almost ALWAYS fails in both of those basic tasks. Each dungeon does typically have one bit, maybe two, that is not completely generic. “4 zombies are bent over the blood-drained corpse of an adventurer, feasting upon it, while 4 others shuffle around hungirly.” There’s another room, a cave, that has a two statues in it that you can loot. That has potential. Two statues, a cave room with a pond in it … it’s begging for something else, but nothing comes of it.

There’s a village with a harpy in it, almost completely empty except for generic adventurers wandering about as random monster encounters. “ Human Warrior” or “Human Magic-User” … that adds NOTHING. “Farm. Crops were once grown at this fenced in farm.” *sigh*. Again, “the rotted remains of pigs that were left here …” is one of nicer bits of text in the the town, as is the very concept of a spiraling pit mine in another of the mini-dungeons. But it’s just not enough. One idea per mini-dungeon is not enough to sustain play or justify an eighteen page booklet with four dungeons.

The product is only offensive because of it’s lack of value. You’re not going to be bombarded with volumes of text ,but I’d assert that you’re not going to get anything here that 5 minutes with a pencil and paper wouldn’t get you. It’s safely generic, and I’ve no place in my life for that.

It’s Pay What You Want at DriveThur, but you have to want it first.

Posted in Reviews | Leave a comment

The Sunday Suck #3 – DDAL4-03 – The Executioner

ddal403

I lied. I’m back to using The Sunday Suck. This is in honor of this adventure, one of the worse I’ve seen.

By Jerry LeNeave
WOTC
D&D 5E
Level 3

The locals are spreading rumors of the emergence of an age-old relic in a remote farming village. Surely you won’t be the only one to seek it, but can you afford to not be successful in this mission? And why haven’t they claimed it for themselves?

You know the drill. 31 pages, the first nine of which are (mostly) garbage and the last eleven are reference, leaving about eleven pages for two hours of adventure. Suck it you Adventurer’s League fools! Beg to pay for your weekly abuse from WOTC! Bwahahahahahahahaha!

Hmmm, a little harsh. There is a nice little adventure overview section and an NPC reference in the back reference material. Five of the Seven NPC’s presented are not present in the adventure, which means several of the NPC’s that ARE present in the adventure are not mentioned. The hook is either “you’re already in the village” (from the last adventure) or “mists transport you.” The first is fine while the second continues the long tradition of Not Even Trying. It’s ok, the summary looks like a railroad and the baddie, a wight, is running around town wearing a hat of disguise. Why? Please dear god, why? A wight in a hat of disguise. Why not just make him the archdevil asmodeus in a hat of disguise, or an atrophal or a black pudding in a hat of disguise? What do you want for $3? Spend $2 more and get Maze of the Blue Medusa? Ha! Not official WOTC!

The adventure is in three parts. Part one is to sit in the tavern and listen to rumors. The important points are in bullet form and generally summarized nicely, while the non-bullet information is generally useless and adds little to the adventure. One important point, a way to get the party out in tot he town, IS buried in the main text, and the rumors are not particularly interested. “Bob’s has been selling shit to Lazlo” is the form they are in. IE: all fact based. A little colour never hurt no one and a nice little colorful sentence could have replaced the fact, conveyed the same message, and been far more interesting. In the end the entire point of the adventure, the motivating force for he party, doesn’t actually come through. At all. There’s no real motivation provided.

Part two is to roam over town. Long and boring descriptions are the rule of the day, although to its credit at least one of the encounters allows for a nice bribe to avoid a combat. Oh, the wight in the hat, doing his shopping for the day. If attacked/defeated he gets to make a plot shield escape. “A patch of mist glides in and when it fades then he is gone.” That is a crap ass idea. Plot shields are crap ass to begin with but that one is worse than usual. Wait! Wait! It’s better! Check this shit out! “If at any point the characters begin spending too much time outside without taking direction, or they progressed quicker than anticipated feel free to roll on the random encounters table.” Ha! Just monster attack after monster attack there!

Part three is getting attacked by some undead: two zombies and two ghouls. It wants it to be a big torches & pitchforks and fire mob scene, with undead coming out of a burning house and forest to attack the mob and the party and wounded villagers paying about and so on. It fails miserably at this. There’s not much in this to inspire the DM to run a decent adventure … and four undead hardly match what text there is is trying to convey. Oh, then the mayor shows up and demands a strip search of the party and attacks them. Yeah. Great Adventure.

So, just to be clear: nothing in part one ties the adventure to part two. Nothing in part two leads to any other location in part two. Nothing in part two leads to part three and/or the mob. Nothing is strong, but the ties here are VERY tenuous. Basically, the DM MUST feed the party the adventure and lead them around by the nose, cause there ain’t no clues forthcoming and the adventure is not in a form in which the DM could run it in a looser manner.

It’s trying, especially with the bullet points and reference material. But the text is dull and not evocative and the reference material misses the point most of the time. Combine it all with the railroad nature and the UTTER lack of coherence when it comes to providing the DM information, so he can run it for the players, this wins one of my coveted Worst Adventures Of ALL Time awards.

Posted in Adventurers League, Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 2 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #80

d80

Fortune Favors the Dead
By Lance Hawvermale
AD&D
Levels 5-7

A search for pirate treasure map (and the treasure!) in a spanish/ren type setting. This reminds me a lot of Hoard of the Dragon Queen/Rise, in terms of writing style. There’s this aggressive “overview” and appeal to genericism. Lods and lods of text on history and backstory and little to help the DM run the actual game. Tons of bandits and ½ orc bandits and orc bandits, and a lot of “Pirate Ghost” encounters for the big bads. Most of this is searching for the map and doing quests to get the pieces with the actual treasure locale being mostly glossed over. It’s as if you took a long and rambling and not very good 18th century novel and added stats. Oh. In trying to see if Lance had an ties to Hoard/Rise I see he’s an english professor …

The Frothing Miscreant
By Robert A. Van Buskirk
AD&D
Levels 2-4

Tinker gnomes. The core of this one isn’t bad, but it suffers from the implementation. Evil gnome cleric animats bird skeletons, sticks some fire traps on them, and sends them off to attack ships from his pirate ship. The hook is a fisherman finding the body of one and figuring it out, then contacting the party for a cut of the loot. The investigation is handled in bullet points, which is fairly terse … and nice. What follows is an assault on the gnomes estate. It’s mostly in standard room/key format, which is not the best for something like this. There’s the potential for a large pitched battle, which could be nice, but it’s quite disorganized in how it presents things in and around the estate.

Challenge of Champions III
By Johnathan M. Richards
AD&D
Any Level

This popular series presents a series of puzzle challenges. It’s very theater of the mind: no magic items or spells for your casters, everything is provided for you in scrolls, etc. Each room is more puzzle than anything else, as you try to figure out how to get past it; that’s how it can be for any level. I’m not a fan of these. I like the concept of open-ended rooms and rooms without traditional encounters/fights/etc, but I prefer a more natural set up instead of the general “room built for one solution” format that the Challenge of Champions series has. I know the series was very popular though, and was one of the few times, I think, that creative thinking was actvly encouraged.

Sarfion’s Collection
By Felix Douglas
AD&D
Levels 7-10

Side-trek … with a maggot golem! Not much to this, a MU in a magic store is helping a brain collector collect brains. A couple of NPC’s to interact with, nice … horror? Set up, I guess. The core concept is worth stealing, but I suspect most of us have already stolen a “backroom of evil” for many shops.

A Head for Business
By J.D. Walker
Alternity Dark*Matter
Level 3

Scene based planes train and automobiles, with sandmen showing up and killing folk and the PC’s investigating “tracking them down” on the figurative and literal railroad. Lots of forced combats, which is never a good sign.

The Trouble with Trillochs
By Peter R. Hopkins
AD&D
Levels 6-9

Side-Trek. This packs three encounter areas, several hooks, and an eleven room necromancer lair in to a few pages. The hooks are solid, and one is generally unrelated to the adventure except as a pretext to get the party into the area. It’s got some decent detail, like a stuffed basilisk and a instructions to turn yourself into a shadow demon! That there’s some nice looking loot! I wouldn’t call this a Go To adventure, but it’s better than the usual stuff in Dungeon.
The lair and environs feel a bit more alien than most, thanks to pech, galeb-dur, and a xag-yi. Not great, but better than the usual fare.

The Scar
By Ray Winninger
AD&D
Level 1

This adventure was built from the Dungeoncraft articles in Dragon magazine. The results are mixed. It’s meant as a beginning campaign adventure. The characters start as prisoners of orcs who force them to dig in a temple. The temple has 45 or so rooms. The map is excellent, showing rubble, light sources, and where there are orc guards (and how many) during the day and night. Combined with this is both a daily timeline of how the orcs gaul the slaves around to dig, and then a longer timeline showing what happens, event wise, over eleven days. There’s also a nice little table of random events that can happen each day. The overall design here is pretty good, and open ended, but it has the usual issues with lengthy text clogging up what the DM needs to run the adventure. Beyond this (and the usual genericism of AD&D) I could also quibble with some important “escape” details being mixed into the adventure text. The orcs with a gambling problem, for example. It probably would have been better to summarize the escape means built in, briefly, in a paragraph around the same place the timelines are enumerated.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | Leave a comment

Peaks and Valleys: Among the Dwarves

pv
By Olivier O’Brien
Grinning Gargoyle Games
OSR
Levels 1-5

Far to the north, in the Okhan mountains, a great dwarven lord has put out a call for mercenaries from all corners of the world. Are there any who can bring the goblins of the mountains to heel and find the lost vault of legend?

This is an interesting little mountain sandbox that should take characters from level 1 to 5. 155 pages with largish text and a hex crawl with 34 locations makes for an encounter/location about once every three 6-mile wide hex. There’s a decent mix of encounters, several settlements, several sub-plots to get mixed up in and creatures that don’t always attack on sight. It’s little mundane in its use of standard monsters and standard magic items and has a few problems here and there with organization leading to a lack of clarity. Individually I wouldn’t call the encounters too imaginative, but there is a zoomed out campaign thread here that makes no assumptions about how the players will tackle it. It’s a pretty good first effort.

There’s a dwarf hold in a mountain region. It’s relatively new and there’s a human settlement nearby that helps feed the hold. There are a couple of outlying holds. There’s a lot of ancient ruins. There’s a lot of intrigue. The idea is that the dwarf king has spread some rumors about an old mythical treasure vault in order to lure mercenaries and adventurers to the region, figuring they will help take care of some of the monster issues. I think this falls squarely into “Be Careful What You Wish For” territory, knowing the behaviour of the typical murder hobo.There’s a few pages of overview information and wanderers and then the 34 hex encounter begin at about one location per page, with some being several pages if they describe a mini-dungeon.

All politics is local, so goes the saying, and this adventure feels a lot like local politics. The dwarves have a couple of factions. The humans have a couple of factions. There’s an elf faction. There is an evil witch and the kobolds who oppose her as former slaves. There’s bandits in league with some people, monsters and human. There is a monster ‘town’ in addition to several monster lairs. So, lots of factions. And everyone has an opinion about at least one other faction. This is great. It’s a way to generate adventure, spread rumors, get the party into trouble with one group of another … or, rather, let the party get themselves into trouble. At behind and woven into it all is the mystery of rumored treasure vault. The rumors and faction play and little jobs that some of the people have serves to get the party moving and mix up the batch off nitro just waiting for it to reach temperature and explode. The last couple of pages has a decent overview of that explosion. What can happen as you strengthen the dwarf king. What can happen if you strengthen a different dwarf faction. What can happen if the monsters in monstertown get strengthened, and so on. It’s a nice way to provide some context and a future timeline based on the parties general actions.

And yes, you can help the monsters! There are certainly more than a few encounters in which the humanoids are hostile, but there are others in which they don’t immediately attack, or will parley. I love this. There’s no presumed morality or Good Guys in the adventure. The party gets to do what they want. By letting them talk to the monsters you open up a whole new avenue of roleplaying and possibilities. One of the things this adventure does, which I also LUV, is to make the non-hostile monsters targets of the party. Make them non-hostile and set up a situation where the party lusts after something they have. There is more than one encounter like that in this adventure. I’m thinking specifically of a great lizard man lair. Inside it’s an idyllic place … with an OBVIOUS elf tomb in the hatchery and another interesting door in the place where their giant crayfish god lives. They also have some interesting loot displayed prominently. Who wants to level?!?!? You know Gold = XP … This is wonderful. It gives the party an interesting choice that has consequences either way. And there’s not a wrong choice, or a choice where they are punished, but rather just natural consequences to decisions.

It’s got pretty good treasure descriptions. About half the magic items have a description and more than a few mundane objects get an interesting description, like giant python fangs in a trophy case or a silver salt cellar in the shape of a maiden. The treasure descriptions fall a little flat, I think maybe because they are just for mundane book magic items. +1 swords and +2 shields. The added description is a nice touch but a little something more than a mechanical bonus from the book would have been preferred over a nice description. One of the more interesting things found is a journal from a dead wandering person. It can help you decipher which rumors you hear are true or false. That’s a great way to add colour and information to a game in a way that doesn’t just rely on boring old “you find a diary” nonsense.

Some of the encounters presented are quite nice. The lizard men, for example, have a dude outside in a double fur coat. Inside they roll about in the sand and bask in hot springs with their trained giant macaques. The entire lizard man lair is a great example of adding just a little more and getting something more interesting than “3 lizardmen in the room.” The rest of the content and encounters kind of falls of from there. Hmmm, how to say this … the factions and intrigue are great and nicely done, but the encounters are not necessarily the most evocative. They tend toward the generic side of things with the personalities and factions then punching it up to the next level weight class. Without that, and the interconnected nature of the various encounters, this would be far less interesting.

I guess the wandering monster table may be another good example of this. It’s just monsters on a table, and there’s nothing much interesting about it. But then there’s the ‘special’ table. It has great things like wandering elves, abandoned camps with tracks leading away to the nearest encounter hex, and things like that. Not all that good, but generally much better than “2d4 goblins.”

There’s a nice little Blood in the Snow horror encounter which, while interesting, could use some editing for more flavor and organization. It’s not exactly clear which of the three inter-connected mining camps you find first, second, or third, which is important, I think, to the mystery. That’s probably the most obvious example but there are other little organization issues here and there.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru. It’s got a good basic outline and the interrelated groups and encounters are something that you don’t usually find in adventure, even in a hex crawl. This isn’t a home run, by any means, but it is a great first effort. A little editing, a little better word choice for more evocative encounters/loot and it would be solidly in my B range. I think this falls into my “If all adventures were this good I wouldn’t have to review adventures to weed out the crap.”

Posted in Reviews | 6 Comments

The Tomb of Rakoss the Undying

rakoss
By Bob Pennington
Mischief Inc
OSR
Levels 4-6

Rakoss was a great wizard of ages past who served the Emperor of Maere. Tales tell of his prowess as a military strategist, but they also tell of his fall. It is said that although he won campaign after campaign for his emperor, just one failure earned the wrath of his master. The Emperor had Rakoss, his generals, strategists and personal guard sealed in a tomb somewhere in the Ganlaw Mountains, and cursed them. Who knows what treasure was buried with Rakoss and his retinue, or what horrors remain to test any who might enter the tomb. Certainly only a brave few would dare seek out the final resting place of Rakoss, and even fewer can survive the terrors of The Tomb of Rakoss the Undying!

This is a generic dungeon crawl in a sixteen room dungeon that takes eighteen pages to describe. It begins generic hook #23: “hired by sage fetch quest.” That takes one directly to the dungeon and then bores both the party and DM with generic encounters, descriptions, and read-aloud. There’s a bright spot or two, but I’d chalk this one up as “slightly better than the average dreck.”

The dungeon keys start on page seven. That means five or pages of backstory, advice to the DM, hooks, and general conversational material that goes nowhere and adds little to the adventure. Half a page is spent describing state blocks. “Hit dice will be listed as number and type, such as 3d8.” The new Bryce, now with fewer crushed expectations, notes that it’s pretty easy to just skip over the first seven pages and get to something halfway decent. He would recommend just ripping them out and never reading them at all. The bitter old Bryce would note that this lengthy and irrelevant intro is a portent of things to come. It telegraphs a lack of focus in the writing, of not understanding and concentrating on what’s important in an adventure.

About ¾ of a page is spent on the default hook, the sage fetch quest. There’s nothing unusual in it. Sage hires party, gives them map, he wants the books they bring back. A) that’s boring. B) it takes ¾ of a page of boringness to get to the end of the boring. The alternate hooks are “you find a map” and “someone hires you to go there in exchange for something from the tomb.” IE: the exact same hook as the ¾ page hook. One of the most interesting things in the book are the two sentences devoted to the third hook. “A band of undead spontaneously comes to life in a nearby town as a result of unstable negative energy that emanates from the tomb. A local lord hires the characters to investigate.” The previous hooks are simple tasks. Jobs. But this third one is full of potential energy. Random attacks in the night. Weight effects in the countryside. Scared villagers. A local lord disappointed with his men and in fear of losing control. All of that is implied in those simple two sentences. That’s what good writing does. It inspires the DM to greatness. It makes their mind race to come up with possibilities to use. If the adventures had instead spent ¾ of a page focusing on an OUTLINE of that hook, instead of ¾ of a page of boring read aloud for Generic Hook #23: Sage Fetch, then you’d have a couple of hours of hook for the party to get into and get the context. Alas, this is not to be. A full page wilderness map is complemented by ¼ page describing an uneventful trip through the wilderness (then you wasted the map …) that ends with a forced combat with a band of Ogres. Preprogrammed combat encounters are not fucking content. They are boring and they take away decisions from the players.

This all ends in a paragraph of overwrought read-aloud about the tomb entrance. “Although the noonday sun is hot on your face …” oh, sorry, I threw up a little in my mouth. Anyway, the illustration showing the entrance is a great one. A nice semicircle opening, runes above the door, cold air mists coming out, icicles inside with trees and little hollock. Really top notch in bringing a mood to the DM. About 20 times better than the generic fact based boring overwrought text.

This brings us to the part of the review I like to call “The terrible design places a lot of terrible restrictions on the party because the designer can’t be bothered to design a level appropriate adventure.” IE: blah blah blah justification. Blah blah blah you can’t use passwall, teleport, blink, dimension door, etc. Blah blah blah undead are a lot harder to turn. Blah blah blah everything inside gets +2 AC and +2 to saves. This is lame. The characters earned those abilities, why cheese them out of it? So what if they passwall? Good for them! An adventure can be played many different way. By limiting the party you are telling them and the DM, that they will play it EXACTLY the way you described it. I should only aspire to that degree of conceit. “It might be too easy!!” Good. Smart/Creative players are SUPPOSED to have an easier time. Unconventional thinking is what makes the game fun.

The room keys try to pay homage to classic design elements but are hampered by generic boring read-aloud. A big stone statue of a knight that comes to life. A wizard’s lab. An evil shrine. All the classic room types but hampered by boring read aloud. “You open a large wood door to reveal a moderately sized rectangular room.” Boring read aloud. BORING! “At the south end is a twenty foot tall large stone statue of a fiendish knight carrying a dire flair and a tower shield.” It tells. It should show. Why is it fiendish? Describe it and let the players imaginations run wild and draw their own conclusions. It doesn’t help that almost every read-aloud ends with “and then the monsters attack!” I think this shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what old school gaming is, or even what FUN gaming is. This is not an exploration adventure, it’s a combat adventure. Room after room of it. Remember the forced ogre combat in the wilderness? Np sandbox environment here. Just forced combats. And remember, no cheat spells so you can’t avoid them.

The monster descriptions are boring also. Instead of exciting content we instead get a list of things, ala 3e/4e/5e/ that the undead are immune to. “Undead: Immune to mind influencing effects, poison, sleep, paralysis, stunning, and disease. Not subject to critical hits, subdual damage, ability damage, energy drain, or death from massive damage.” *whew* Good thing I was told that! It sure did add a lot of enjoyment to the adventure for both me, the DM as WELL as the players!

The treasure is lame and boring books treasure, with the exception of one item. The monetary treasure is not appropriate to the level of the adventure and is pretty boring as well, except for maybe a demon tapestry and a tiger skin rug. It is telling that one of the items is described as a Masterwork Greatsword. This whole things feels like a conversion.

The map triess. It shows lots of details on it, from furniture to some rubble to traps. That’s good; it uses the map to help enhance the adventure text. It’s a little small and “light” in the lines, making it hard to read/use, but they clearly tried. Likewise there’s an element or two of good things: destroying the statue reveals a giant ruby inside (Yeah! Not explaining!)

The classic elements and tropes are present, but not used well. They come off as boring instead of exciting or imaginative. Fundamentally I think this is because of a lack of focus. The read-aloud and DM text do not enhance the rooms. The text just ends up being useless. This could easily be a one-page and lose nothing, because there’s nothing to lose. That’s a shame.

Posted in Reviews | 1 Comment

Adventurer’s League Sunday – The Beast

beast
Ok, I promised. When I found something that didn’t completely suck I would rename the Sunday review.

By Alan Patrick
WOTC
D&D 5E
Levels 1-4

Something strange is afoot within the Quivering Forest. So much so that even the elves of Greenhall have left their homes to seek out help from their newfound neighbors. But, their tales of a strange beast are not earning them any favors; especially among the Vistani, whom the elves suspect are to blame for their ills. Return once more to the Quivering Forest and learn the terrifying truth! Part Two of Misty Fortunes and Absent Hearts.

Well, shit. It doesn’t completely suck.

It’s a railroad but it does make an effort to support the DM and add flavor to the game. A village will likely starve and not make it through the winter if the local trappers, missing for several days now, are not found. There’s a couple of forest encounters, some of which do a good job in setting mood. It ends with a forced combat, and then maybe a nice epilogue. When the adventure goes out of the way to add flavor it does well. When it is presenting “just D&D stuff” it feels like it is phoning it in. Designed as a two hour adventure, it provides some (really obvious) guidelines to turn it into a four hour adventure. Essentially, you talk to folks in a village, wander the woods a bit and have a couple of combat or “mood” encounters, and then fight the baddie, all with the threat of a blizzard coming up.

The first eight pages are essentially filler and garbage and can be thrown away, except maybe the three (short) paragraph adventure overview. Everything else is boilerplate or generic. “You find yourself in the adventure village one morning …” Oh My. THAT’s a brilliant hook. Also: “you have terrible dreams.” Clearly the hooks were a token afterthought.

The mood setting is better than average and pays lip service to this season “being about the land of Barovia as an additional character in the game”, or whatever. The village has thick cloud cover, giving the village dismal gloom. There are piles of snow here and there , it being winter. Cold fat raindrops splatter into the mud. Mud, fresh rain, wood smoke, whipping wind, clattering shutters, rain on wood and metal. They’ve done a decent job. The cave later is fresh with the smell of wolf urine and raw meat. Ewwwww! Elsewhere an old woman/hag (not the MM kind) is well described with some fun dialogue lines and good guidance for the DM. Large stick figure effigies ala Blair Witch in the wintery woods. The faint cries of an infant in the distance, intermingled with the yowling of wolf pups. None of this is in the read-aloud, it’s all DM noes and atmosphere, and is, gasp!, easy to find and use!

This can be contrasted with the usual terrible read aloud. The same as is usual for Strahd, it’s either banally short “The forest has grown silent, and the wind has gone eerily calm.” or is just the same old generic fact based generic stuff, adding nothing useful to the adventure. IE: why is it read aloud at all? Someone in WOTC must have finally gotten their (internal) two-sentence/three-sentence read-aloud reminder, only about the half of the read-aloud is longer than three sentences. Every once in awhile there’s one of the old stinkers in the DM notes: “the sun has not yet fully awoken from its slumber.” Uh huh.Hey buddy, reserve that shit for your unfinished great american novel.

Organization wise it’s a mixed bag. There are nice bullet point lists in the village section, to help pull out information. Other sections are rampant with extra DM text and wordy, generic descriptions that add little. The rumors/information/investigation section is also a little too fact based. A more conversational style would not have had to add any length and would have added a lot to the atmosphere. There’s a nice NPC overview in the back, all on one page, for the DM to reference during play. Bravo! Gold Star! SOMEONE associated with WOTC has run a game at the table and understands the need for such reference material. It also buries important text in surrounding nonsense, making it hard to find at times. The verbose style and useless detail (as opposed to useful/inspiring detail …) hides facts that you need to know.

Maybe the biggest problem, beyond the text padding/obfuscation, is the LACK of flavor in the combat encounters. Essentially, any time you fight something it’s presented a generic D&D combat. It’s not really clear why. Blood bords attack, or Death Dogs attack, or plant-men attack. There’s just nothing interesting. Not in the read-aloud, not in the DM notes, not in the monster text. It’s just boring. Nothing even in the terrain to make it interesting. There are a couple of exceptions. There’s a cute Zombie Apoc/Walking Dead encounter with three zombies attacking some elk. Useless read-aloud and DM text, and uninspiring DM text, of course, but the concept is a nice one. Like wire the bloated bear corpse that explodes in a shower of gore and swarm of centipedes. Very Nice! THAT one has nice read aloud: A very dead bear sits, leaning against a tree slightly off the path–its belly horrifically distended. The stench is overwhelming, even from nearly forty feet away.

Ultimately this is not the complete piece of garbage that I’ve come to expect from Adventurers League adventures. It does try to support the DM in important ways. It misses in the combat encounters and could use some interesting treasure and some better editing to prune back the garbage text and highlight the text that eithers important to know or inspiring to the DM. It’s hard to have a two hour adventure that is not a railroad and this is, essentially, a scene based adventure. If you accept that it MUST be scene based, because it’s AL, then maybe we can forgive this. I don’t know. It seems like there must be a different way.

Posted in Adventurers League, Reviews | Leave a comment

Dungeon Magazine #79

d79
Keep for Sale
By Peter Zollers
AD&D
Levels 1-3

This is quite a nice little adventure and has several elements atypical for Dungeon Magazine. A grifter has a deed for a castle and sells mps to it for some gold so prospective buyers can check it out before purchase. The castle is a wreck and so no one ever buys and he’s free to sell another map. There’s a small overland portion with two distinctive areas, one mostly civilized and one mostly not, along with a short paragraph on a rough and tumble border outpost. The keep has two parts: the outer part and an inner tower, with dungeon below. The outer part has goblins and an ogre exploring while the inner part has Seawolves. Neither group has to be hostile and talking is possible with both (gasp!) and you could play one party against the other. There are prisoners to rescue, trapdoors to other areas, and some NPC/oddities entities to interact with. The treasure is not magnificent but IS presented in a more interesting fashion than most adventures. I like this one a lot. It’s got the usual wordiness problems and get a little detailed in the prescriptive “if X then Y” nonsense advice. It’s a charming little adventure with possabilities and lots to interact with.

The Best Laid Plans
By Kent Ertman
AD&D
Levels 1

This is a two-page side-trek, and maybe the one truest to the vision of the side-trek, as I understand the concept. The party sees men riding hastily by and disappearing into a certain area. In town they learn he’s a famous bandit, with a fat reward on his head. There’s a small six room cave complex that it mostly traps/early warning for the bandit lair beyond. Probably a big bandit fight at the end, but it does have a zipline! A little too much “and then here’s another trap, and then …” for me, but I like the hook/concept and the focus, keeping it to two pages, is nice.

Bad Seeds
By Kevin Carter
AD&D
Levels 1-3

This short adventure takes a long time to get where it’s going. After a stay at a rural inn the party wakes to find everyone gone. Then some kobolds attack. This leads to the lair of a plant cult. The lair is small but has a nicely creative layout, complete with giant turtle skeleton/shell entrance in a hill and a bridge over a river chasm inside. This could and should be a lot shorter. The quite interesting map isn’t quite large enough, at only seven rooms, to take advantage of the multiple levels and elevation changes in it. IE: fit this all in two-pages and it would be an ok side-trek.

Cloudkill
By Jeff Fairborn
AD&D
Levels 4-8

This adventure has one central idea and then wraps a lot of garbage around it. There’s one large cave chamber, a foundry, run by derro. Multi-levels, lots of equipment, derro guards, workers, slaves, names slaves, captured prisoners, bugbears guards, all essentially in this one large complex chamber. Slag buckets, ladders, ledges, chains, the whole works. That’s the main encounter. It would work as a stealth plan, or one large mini’s combat scene at a con. It’s surrounded by some garbage about flying horses and some token aerial combat with manticores and blood birds during what is, essentially, one large and long hook. Way, way, WAY too much text describing the factory in order to be usable. The encounter area would be interesting if it were GREATLY simplified in text length.

The Akriloth
By Matthew G. Adkins
AD&D
Levels 10-12

I take it back. Cloudkill, above, is the SOUL of tersity compared to this one. Underwater fetch quest in an old merman temple. Bullshit lame intro intro and backstory, as is usual for Dungeon. The temple has several levels and is notable in that is has a lot of larger rooms and a lot of empty rooms that are not described. It’s got a random room generator table section in back to help fill in, but there’s not really much interesting on the table. The rooms commit one of the capital sins in their at-least-one-column-of-text-per-room descriptions: lengthy descriptions of what the now-ruined rooms were once used for and held. The text length is a MAJOR turn off. There’s not much in the way of interesting encounters, anything halfway decent is ruined by the railroading DM advice. It all boils down to combat after combat. 🙁

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 1 Comment

Maze of the Blue Medusa

mbm
by Patrick Stuart & Zak Sabbath
Satyr Press
Fantasy RPG’s
Level: 1-4 if you’re smart. 5-10 if not.

Infinite broken night. Milky alien moons. Wavering demons of gold. Held in this jail of immortal threats are three perfect sisters…

Known then that it is the year 2016. The known universe is ruled by the DIY RPG. Future generations shall think themselves accursed they were not here and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks they played Maze of the Blue Medusa.

Executive Summary:
The PDF is $5. It’s magnificent. This is the type of D&D I want to play. Go buy it.

This is a 304 room dungeon described over 144 pages. It houses a medusa “timeless eons old” who runs the place kind of like a prison, petrifying the worst of the worst. It’s not a maze, in the minotaur/labyrinth sense, but rather a large (304 rooms!) and complex map. Some of her friends live there. Some nut jobs are running around. It’s magnet for anyone and everyone who is interested in a timeless eons medusa and the threats she imprisons. This isn’t a hack piece where monsters attack when you enter the room. Some people are going to be turned off by the flavor of this. It’s not orcs in rooms. If you can handle Planescape then you can handle Maze of the Blue Medusa. And you should. It’s one of the best adventures ever produced, ranking among the best both in creative content and usability.

In the forward there’s a short note from the publisher. He notes that games can contain art & writing better than most of the work spat out from the big four publishers or hung up in Soho. Clearly referring to his own publishing industry, the existence of a work like Maze of the Blue Medusa makes one wonder about the big publishers in our own little niche. The dreck keeps rolling out from the big names doing work for the big RPG publishers. I have no idea why people tolerate it. The blathering platitudes of the fanboys shouting THANK YOU SIR PLEASE SIR MAY I HAVE ANOTHER (Princes of the Apocalypse sits with a rating of 90% at ENWorld.) gives one pause. And then something like Maze of the Blue Medusa comes along and you can breathe again. I should retract that last statement. Nothing like Maze of the Blue Medusa has come along before.

Patrick has written a lot of great content on his blog as well as putting out the masterful Deep Carbon Observatory. DCO is one of my favorites of all time; a magnificent work of terseness and evocative language with wonderful situations centered around the players characters. Zak has published a couple of excellent gaming supplements and writes pretty insightful adventure commentary on his blog. His writings are spot on when it comes to adventure design. Will two great tastes taste great together? Of course. I already said they did. You did go buy this, right?

Forgive me while I stick my head up my own ass a bit before I get to the usual bits of reviewing. There are a couple of interesting things going on with this adventure that go beyond my usual review criteria. First, in relation to DCO, this is different. It shares the creativity and evocative language of DCO, but that’s about it. I think Patrick has published three things so far. Each has been very distinct from the others. That’s quite remarkable.

Second, the adventure has a different style. It’s make different assumptions. Most of the WOTC/TSR campaign settings are just D&D. High D&D. Low D&D. King D&D. Space D&D. A foray into CoC. And then there was Planescape. It was different, somehow. It made different assumptions, it had a different feel. Clearly on the same D&D spectrum but way down at the end of it. There’s an OSR game, Mazes & Minotaurs, I think? It does a bit of the same thing. Instead of Gygax/etc writing D&D based on LoTR and Appendix N, it presumes that instead that context did not exist and they made a fantasy RPG based around their love of Greek myths and legends. Maze of the Blue Medusa feels closer to that. There was this vibe in Caverns of Thracia where things felt a bit … older? A bit more mythic or inspired by things other than Appendix N. A little more classical, in reference to the greek. Maze of the Blue Medusa ramps that up. Where Thracia may have dipped it’s toes in then Medusa is some magnificent mash up of a classical vibe and the weirdness from Planescape and/or Vornheim. Mosaics come to life. Philosophers. Tragedy. Things come in threes. Three swords, three sisters, and so on. Creatures and NPC’s take on platonic qualities. “I do not age.” “All who see me love me.” and so on. It’s not similar to the classics because it has a medusa in it. It’s similar to the classics because of the themes and re use of the shared consciousness from those stories. This creates, I think, some kind of universal context that almost everyone can relate to. This may be a bit off putting to folks who want their standard orcs and standard ogres to fight their standard Wizards and stands dragonborn fighter in a standard set piece room. It appeals to a different kind of play, a kind of play that I find exciting and wonderful. A play centered around the imagination. Tower of the Stargazer had this, to a certain small degree. The Tower of Gygax con games and to a lesser extent the DCC “continuous play” games have this as well. A kind of raw purity that you then interact with, but not so much in the mechanical way that Standard D&D has become.

One more thing. This plays with format in the same way that the One Page Dungeons do, and in the same way Stonehell does. I’m big on things beings USABLE at the table. This means the product, in form + function (hey, I bought my sofa from Helmut at that store!), must help the DM run the adventure. The one page dungeons focus on that. Everything is on one page, the DM is never hunting. Stonehell does that also. A couple of pages of introduction for each level just to get you oriented and then everything including the map, on one page. These format are, I think, all trying to solve the problem with the DM having to take notes. You read the source material, in the case of Stonehell, and then the map and keyed entries, all on the same page, serve as your notes. They trigger you to remember what you read earlier in the more extensive couple of pages about the level. If you don’t get it all right then who cares? You’re the DM, it’ll be ok. Medusa tries a different formula to do something similar. Hmmm, actually, I might say it’s very similar to the Stonehell formula. There’s a big overall map, of course, but the sections of the dungeon are split up into little parts. Each little part has it’s own map. Two maps, actually, spread out over two facing pages. One map has pretty pictures on it, along with ONE sentences, usually short, describing the room. The second … Fuck fuck fuck. I’m getting ahead of myself. More on the maps later. For this section let me say that there’s a map, with notes, and a short key with a couple of sentences per room, on facing pages. The next couple of pages describes the keyed rooms in more detail. The intent is that you read the entre section once through and then actually run the adventure from the facing map/terse-key facing pages. IE: one page per section, just like Stonehell. But oh so much better than Stonehell in both form + function.

Ok, meta-gushing is over. Time for specific gushing. Again, my standard warning apply: I don’t think I do a good job reviewing good adventures. I’m too excited.

The language used to describe the various encounters, objects, and NPC’s is stunning. Longtime readers will recall that I think that the purpose of the adventure text, the actual language used, is to inspire the DM. One well crafted sentence can do more than pages of boring fact-based dreck in communicating the vibe and feel that the designer is going for. The most important tool the designer has is the DM. If the designer can communicate the swirling chaos of the idea in their head to the DM, effectively, then the DM can take it and run with it, expanding it, augmenting it. So many designers fail in this. I’m sure that in their head they have something great and wonderful swirling around … but they then fail to get it out of their head and on to the page in a way that communicates their idea to the DM. Not so Maze of the Blue Medusa! Here’s an example from the garden: Bad Statues: Everything is black. Flares and vines grow around and into black soapstone statues depicting the forgotten dead.” Wonderful! Even without reading the supplemental text I can picture the scene in my head and I immediately start to expand on it! The black light of dead stars! A mixture of the dead and black thriving plants. Shades of black. It’s great. Massive hearts molted with a pulsing green. Pathetic, unwary, mute and terribly dangerous, NO-FACE is a shambling and tendrilled beart that guards the pipes. Constant screaming laughter drifting through all of the surrounding rooms. These descriptions inspire. They make you WANT to run the room/adventure. They make you want to draw others in and have them experience them as well. “Soft cello music emanates from this room. It is the music of the Moon Man mourning his stolen sons.” You don’t need a thesaurus to write an impactful description.

The encounters proper are creative and full of potential energy. “Hiding in the darkness behind the fallen shelves is an ID pig.” That’s full of action! Characters poking about in a ruined scene, full of shadows and potential danger. A sudden bursting out of a squealing pig. One of the first rooms, available in the preview I believe, is the Starlit Stones. Shadows turn into pits in this room, allowing you to fall into the pit shadow cast from a fellow party member if you are unaware/not careful. It’s weird. It’s not explained WHY. It just IS. Zak & Patrick understand that you don’t need to understand the why’s, you just need to know enough to run the room. Room after room after room. Some one to interact with. Some thing to interact with. Something weird. Something mysterious. One of the great joys of an environment like this is the players having their characters mix and match what they find to overcome obstacles. Maybe they come up with some need, later on, to trap someone in a shadow, or sea someone away. Ta da! Goofy plan time! Let’s lure it to the pit room! Escher stairs, with gravity reorienting toward the door last opened. Line walking with consequences … and creatures nearby that know and lurk. How about tiny lilliputian toy machines committing crimes of war? No? How about “A curly-horned devil with a twisted blade. He paces back and forth on cloven feet, listening at the western door, waiting for his chance, whispering to the knife he holds: “Now ..? Wait … now?” Jesus! Can you imagine?!?! I mean, now that we’ve been infected with the idea seed you obviously CAN imagine. That’s the entire point. Potential. Energy. Interaction. The players are confronted with a situation. I don’t even think I have the words to describe it. (Maybe that’s why I have a problem describing good adventures?) It’s not that it’s in medias res. It’s something else. You WANT to know what’s going on. It lures you in. It does this time and time again. It’s magnificent.

I count 139 named individuals in this adventure to interact with. Not monsters. Essentially, every creature you meet has a name. Every one has a motivation, something they want, something they don’t’ want, and at least a modicum of a personality. One of the key difference between this adventure and most others, and what it shares with the best, is that you can interact with the creatures you meet. This is SO much more interesting than just getting attacked by everything. It adds roleplaying, and plotting, crosses and double-crosses, and maybe even make friends and allies.The creatures are in the keys, but also summarized in the rear for easy reference. That section is an excellent aid to playability, ease to use, ease to find what you need, and the creatures/NPC’s goals. Here’s one of the entries I’m fond of “Waerlga: Animated statue of a Vampire. Telepathic, but can’t move. Very well informed about crowned heads. Wants: Blood spread all over hi. Someone to turn the lights off. Does Not Want: To be destroyed. That’s wonderful! The interaction possibilities for the party are mind-boggling! You can ALWAYS resort to hacking someone, but to be offered other choices … wonderful! The stories I remember are the ones where the hero is talking to the creature, and outsmarts them, or takes advantage of them, or does them a boon. Besides, there’s NOTHING more delicious than tempting a party with a friendly NPC that has something they REALLY want. An anarchic wax golem wanting to overturn the power structures … but who is terrified of the consequences … or getting found out. Just about every creature in the “maze” a relationship, positive or negative, with at least one other entity. There is very little presumption of guilt or innocence in their descriptions. Just people, with people problems, who have wonderful things for you to steal, or problems and boons if you help them. While a lot of their goals intersect with the medusa, it is her pad after all and that’s why they are all there, it’s not a black and white situation. This extends to the medusa proper; she’s not necessarily evil. It’s not that simple In fact, she might be thought of as doing good, or, given your own proclivity for moral absolutism, maybe a corrupt cop. This NPC/monsters are truly one of the special parts of this adventure. The factions, the possibilities, it’s wonderful. Time and time again there could have been the temptation to tell us about these creatures. It’s evil. It’s frightful, etc. But they don’t do this. Instead they SHOW why the creature is horrid, or a moral, or super-intelligent. You the DM, and implicitly the players are left to draw their own conclusions and make their own judgements.

The map in this adventure is quite interesting, in the way the Stonehell maps were., from a functionality standpoint. A full page map shows a color inset of the rooms about to be described, along with a picture in each room that acts as a reminder as to what the encounter is. It’s also got a nice sentence in the room on the map that describes the encounter. “Divided monster” or “indecisive devil” or “fountain with trapped elemental.” This section, without the notes, is based on the original work of art Zak produced that the adventure then flowed from. The surrounding rooms, with their room numbers, are also shown along with their room number, albeit in a subdued grey. This gives you the context of what’s nearby. The facing page shows another version of the map section in question, closer to what one would expect a traditional supplement map to look like, along with a small inset showing this section relation to the greater section it’s a part of, and where it fits in the entire maze/dungeon. (Zones, with themes! A megadungeon requirement to be sure!) This same page has the one or two sentence summary of what the room is, along with a hyperlink to the full romo description. As I mentioned, earlier, this format is quite functional and essentially shortcuts the note taking and highlighting that marks most adventure prep. I’m hesitant to use the word “perfect”, but the format is pretty damn spot on for running a megadungeon, expanding and improving on what the one-age dungeons do, and on what Stonehell then expanded upon.

Let’s finish up with the PhaT L00T. We’ve all seen adventures with +1 swords and potions of healing. Not so here! The best way to describe it is that many objects in the adventure can do things. Some of those things are swords & armor. Others vary wildly. The shield Rex Absentia, bears a fierce heraldic lion. It only provides a bonus if you run away, and then the first attack on you misses. Looking closely, the lion on shield is actually waving goodbye. That’s great! Interesting, detailed but not overly so, an effect that’s not just a mechanical +1! That’s a pretty perfect magic item in Brycelandia. How about a sword that turns blood into wine? Or one that transfers thoughts between any plant creature cut? (Rest assured, there are LOTS of plants in the maze.) Magic that’s actually wondrous and magical! Imagine that! Beyond the ‘typical’ objects there are hosts of others. The Tears of Time can undo one event, with a chance of failure/disaster equal to the number of syllables in the request. Mechanically brilliant AND mythic. A wrench that makes machinery breakdown? A bag of gremlins. An oil that corrodes moving parts? A book called “Moving on with your life” that will end a negative effect suffered from the undead? The place is teeming with non-standard items and things the tears, objects that can be “reused” for effect. These are the sorts of things that Rulings not Rules revolve around. How can the characters exploit what they’ve found an/or their environment? It’s this type of play that ENGAGES the players. It’s this type of play that I luv Luv LUV.

Each element of Maze of the Blue Medusa is near perfect. And I dare hazard to say that the entire thing is greater still than the sum of its parts. One could quibble with a stinker here or there, like the giant snail encounter that seems more static than other encounters, but given the overall quantity of the quality that would be the epitome of gauche. There are a handful of products that rank among the best. Choosing among the best is hard. It would be foolish to ask “What is the best painting?” Zak and Patrick are both very creative and produce creative work outside the bounds of traditional RPG channels. Zak, in particular, is quite vocal about the DIY community. The best content in the last few years is coming out of the DIY community. This work is no journeyman’s. It’s result of two DIY masters coming together and collaborating on something blindingly brilliant. I’m struggling here. I’ve been fighting myself for hours. I’m fighting against saying this is the best thing ever produced. I’m suspicious of absolutist statements. I’m suspicious of my own feelings and in the dangers of conflating preference with best, and with the confusing addition of nostalgia to the mix.

Maze of the Blue Medusa is in some higher tier than The Best. I love the gonzo of ASE1. The love the vision of Deep Carbon Observatory. I love the childlike wonder of The Darkness Beneath: The Upper Caves. Maze of the Blue Medusa is right up there with those four products. It’s not just good. It’s doesn’t just rank with the best. It ranks with that very smaller group of three adventures that I love. It ranks with those adventures that are not just the best but with that small handful that tower over the rest of the field known as The Best. And so three becomes four. Team Lead? First among equals? The best? I don’t know. Best to not think of artificial labels Bryce. Of the over one-thousand adventures I’ve reviewed this is the best. And because I’m a weasel and hypocrite I’ll say it’s tied for best with those other three.

The PDF is $5. It’s got some hyperlinks in it. A more hyper-linked version is coming out soon. There’s a print book on the way which, I believe, is claimed will drool-worthy gorgeous. I can believe it. The preview can give you a good overview of the style of the product, the map layouts and “DM Notes” I referenced earlier, and so on. I believe it’s the first eighteen rooms. I’m not sure that’s the section I would choose. The first room, in particular, is one of the more challenging of the text. It could also be the case but the first room also faces the challenge of getting you oriented to the text/layout style and that the later rooms are easier to pick up because you are already oriented to the text. The escher stairs, the shadow pits, Lady Nine Bones and most of the NPC’s are, I think a little more representative of the work as a whole than that first room, in terms of ease of comprehension. I love the first room, it’s just not the easiest to grok.

You can find a preview at the publisher, Satyr Press: http://satyr.press/motbm-teaser.pdf

Oh, did I mention that one of the wanderers are the Chameleon Women? And they are armed with machetes? If I were a murder hobo and I ran in to a group of women armed with machetes in a dungeon I think I’d pee myself a little.

Posted in Reviews | 14 Comments

Dungeon Magazine #78

d78
Oh god. Do you know how to tell when you’re about to have a bad day? When the cover of Dungeon Magazine proclaims “Shakespearean Giants!”

Lear the Giant-King
By Mike Selinker
AD&D
Levels 6-9

Ok, ok. It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be. It’s King Lear. It’s got a weird mix of abstraction and keyed entries. It’s scene based, which is never a good sign. A fight scene with 5 giants is weirdly detailed but the camp of 95 giants is almost completely abstracted. (but, hey, 95 giants! That’s a cool encounter!) Similarly the sons of Gloucester are essentially abstracted into two encounters, while Lear’s evil offspring get some bit of encounter/key presentation. It’s thick and dense writing, with a lot to convey and even more prep work for the DM, especially when it comes to the jester. I’m not sure it’s runnable in any decent form without ten or so hours of prep. It’s one of the better Shakespeare adaptations in Dungeon … but a ten hour prep is not what I’m looking for in an adventure. As a bit of advice … if your NPC requires two columns of text to describe how to run then the something is wrong.

Veiled Threats
By Peter R. Hopkins
AD&D
Levels 4-6

Oh man … a side trek. Four pages. While in the baron’s throne room an old woman enters. For some reason the party doesn’t kill her immediately. Let’s see … using a scroll the baddie cast Veil on himself and his followers. And a delude spell. And a stoneskin spell on himself and his followers. And strength spells on his main followers. Wait!! Wait! It’s better! One of them has a spring loaded thing on his arm so his wand of polymorph shoots into his hand, all Wild Wild West style. And another one throws glass vials full of green slime. Someone else has a wand loaned to her by the baddie. I’m sure it’s obvious I loathe this shit. No doubt these are Peter’s pet NPC’s and/or stand-ins for himself in his game. This reliance on .. contrivance? To create content perfectly illustrates the decline of D&D. If the elf shot green slime rays from his eyes I’d have absolutely no problem with it. It’s the need to EXPLAIN and to hamper the DM with the rules that I find … detestable. Every rule ever created for D&D is for the players. Imagine there are 1 billion schools of magic, each as different from each other, and from the magic system presented in the books, as plasma is from human baby. That’s the relationship between Da Rules and the DM. PC’s memorize and cast spells. NPC’s shoot green slime rays.

Peer Amid the Waters
by Johnathan M. Richards
AD&D
Levels 1-2

WoW! This is a good adventure! And I don’t even mean it on the “by Dungeon Magazine standards” grading curve! It’s actually good! I’m serious! Ready? I’m totally serious here, it’s good EVEN CONSIDERING WHAT I AM ABOUT TO WRITE. First, keep in mind it’s for level 1’s. And has what feels like an endless and boring backstory. And a hook that feels like it’s about 10 pages long … all to keep the party from killing some asshat nixies. And then consider it’s underwater. And has two mummies. (got magic weapons?) And an undead leopard. (more magic weapons needed!) And all of the room descriptions are like half a page long and full of shit no one cares about. AND ITS GOOD! I know! Level 1? Underwater? Ha! A million loaned things for the arty, right? Right? No! Nixie kisses! It’s wonderful! All is right in the world, it fits perfectly! And an egyptian tomb to explore? (a teleport circle opened a portal underwater to the tomb.) Lame … except … it’s an alien environment,, and totally bizarre to find out of nowhere! Mystery! Wonder! And combined with the already alien environment of underwater, it works great! And the DM Torture Porn of Underwater Adventuring is toned down to be just the good parts that are fun and enhance the adventure! How is that? Light sources halved … so the descriptions play on that … shadows and chaos suddenly appearing in your (very) restrictive magic 10’ light circle! And not immediately attacking you! Lungs full of water and can’t cast? How about an air pocket under an overturned boat? Or a glob of air stuck to a diving beetle? Perfect! Mummies? That’s easy! The folks who you are in search of almost killed it AND it’s got a CLEARLY magic sword sticking out of its back while it’s engaged in a fight with the diving beetle! The undead kitty is torn between protecting the tomb and curling up n a ball every round, because it’s a cat in water! Treasure chamber problems? The party has enough time to grab some loot before the teleport circle starts to disappear! This things MASTERFUL in it’s design It exploits the FUN inherent in the situations. I LOVE it when I expect something to suck ass and it turns out wonderful! WAAAYYYYYYY too much text in this, but fuck it. Get a highlighter and go to town! All Hail Discordia!

Unexpected Guests
By Jeffrey P Carpenter
AD&D
Levels 4-6

A good concept, ruined. The party find a magic bag that turns out to be a mashup between a bag of holding and a instant fortress: a little home inside of a bag that you can climb in to. Pretty cool! And then the three derro trapped inside attack. That’s all Derro EVERY do in D&D: attack. Sometimes I feel like there was a special monster manual that only had derro in it and that a significant number of Dungeon Magazine contributors only had access to that one MM. No, they are not thankful or grateful for being released. I would be. Demons, djinni’s and derro are NEVER thankful for being released. That sucks. Having an evil buddy could provide LOADS of fun roleplay. Think how many great things could have been in that bag … instead of three derro who instantly attack. Lame.

Trial of the Frog
By Tito Leati
AD&D
Levels 3-4

A frog-man wants your help to get through a doorway. It’s a three room cave with a duergar and some skeletons. The grippli is very charming and has a nice story; it should have been presented as NPC data though instead of a giant monologue. It’s a nice non-human motivation with enough relatable content for the players to want to help.Otherwise, quite short.

The WInter Tapestry
By Stephen C. Klauk
AD&D
Levels 5-8

This is a brief overland journey and then an assault on a white dragon’s lair on an island in a sea of ice. Except the dragons dead and a frost giant family has moved in. The overland coomes form a map the characters get on a tapestry, showing the way to the dragon’s lair. Nice little town bit, nice little features on the (very brief) overland. It’s almost abstracted … especially compared to the description length on the island. The island has a nice map and the concepts in it are quite nice, but the length of the rooms changes dramatically to be quite long. Paragraphs to describe each trap, lots and lots of room decor information, and so on. Which is too bad because as a kind of “fully realized front giant home”, on an island, it’s actually pretty nice.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 4 Comments