Sands of Saqua-Ra

sandsofBy Matthew Kline
Creation’s Edge Games
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 6-8

Dune striders set out from the walled city of Jewel each day, carrying sages and sightseers across the desert out into the sprawling ruins of Saqua-Ra. On this day, three expeditions set out but only two came back…

This is a little nine room symmetrical dungeon inside of an old pyramid, complete with shifting sand and mummy. A little wordy for it’s length, it’s fairly inoffensive and straightforward.

A tour group has disappeared while visiting some nearby ruins, after a sandstorm came up. You’re hired to bring em back. AT the ruins you find a newly opened passage, cleared of sand by the recent storm. Inside is a tomb, a mummy, and a curse that can be lifted to restore the tour group from their sand-shapes to their true forms.

This claims to be a mini-dungeon … and that’s certainly true. There’s just not much here to work with, either in quantity or interest. Each of the nine rooms does have something going on. Generally that something is a bit … bland? Or, maybe, blandly presented? There’s certainly room in most adventures for being more clear, but not at the expense of giving the DM something to work with. To be sure, more words are not better; it’s generally DIFFERENT words that we’re looking for. The first room is a great example of this. “… a raised alcove where a statue stands. The statue’s arms are crossed in an X over its chest. There’s a body lying face down at the bottom of the steps.” That’s the read-aloud. The room goes on to say that the statue is in the likeness of the queen and what’s under the body. The read-aloud and DM text needs more adjectives & adverbs. The text is expanded upon, but not in a way that is generally useful to the DM in running the room. Wordy, and more than a little generic and bland.

Certainly there are bits and pieces that are better. The second romo has clay jars filled with ash and bone bits and a trinket or two. A mace and scythe in room one have silver blades and an ornate gold handle studded with gemstones or a head of a large piece of red quartz. But these are the goodies in the room, not the room proper.

One of the traps has a statue on a large copper plate, according to the read-aloud. I might have instead used “metal plate” and then informed the party it was copper when they asked, but that’s mostly a quibble. Instead, it’s a hint of a trap to come, something that far too many adventures don’t provide. Cues from the read-aloud or DM are critical in this regard.

Not much to a review for not much to an adventure. It’s organized fairly well. Has some decent, if bland, encounters, and is short enough to run through in a single night. This sort of expanded upon minimalism, that keeps the generic, is not for me. I wish it took some extra time to go through another edit to make the room descriptions, and creatures, more evocative.

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Dungeon Magazine #101

Only two adventures and a shift to combat focused adventures does NOT bode well for my future state of mental well being …

Prison of the Firebringer
By Richard Baker
Level 13

Heh. “Over the centuries he has come to hate Faerun … with a vitriolic ire ….” Preach it brother slaad!

A fire cult, full of slaad, is trying to free a slaad lord (cr21.) It has the pretext of an investigation up front, with many words on several pages, but there is nothing very useful in it. This is really an adventure with a couple of pitched battles followed by two combat-heavy dungeon/lairs. The first three encounters, an ambush, a beholders tower, and a old farm-like compound, fall into the set piece category. That’s not exactly a criticism, but more of an observation. All three present an environment in which a large and ranging combat could take place. “Oh, the farm has seven rooms to describe …” No, it has seven places where combat can start. It’s not an exploratory environment. I like a complex environment for a battle, crashing through floors, pulling down walls, setting hay on fire, etc. It’s the seventeen pages it takes to get to the point that’s more the problem. And that’s just for those three encounters. After that the dungeon starts, which is really just an underground fortress stuffed full of things to hack. Unlike the dynamic 3-d environment above ground the dungeon area doesn’t offer the height and open spaces and is less suited for the sorts of “pulling agro” combats … as anyone holding a doorway can attest. There are some advice sections on how the creatures react … but EVERYTHING is buried in text. How many creatures are there? Time to dig through the text. Key elements? Time to dig through the text. I really like the party coming up to a combat site, formulating a plan, attacking the farmhouse compound, and then the plan going to hell and chaos breaking out. Those sorts of wide-ranging things are conducive to creative play and fun. But endless combat after combat in the dungeon against an organized foe? Slog-fest.

The Chasm Bridge
By Desmond P. Varady
Level 7

Just another bullshit set-piece environment. There’s a chasm in the underdark and a bridge with toll collectors. If you don’t pay the toll you get attacked. If you pay the toll you get attacked. If you go around you get attacked. Not by different foes, mind you, but by the exact same groups. This is really just a side-trek.

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Lost Lair of the Lizard Laird


By Johnathan L. Bingham
Ostensible Cat Design
Swords & Wizardry
Let’s call it … level 1?

…the tribe is willing to release them and forgive the party’s trespass if they will perform a task on behalf of the tribe. Tsoraz Tsoraz believes that he has found one of the entrances to the upper halls of the great kingdom of Saralan Smasah – the Upper Halls of the Sun and Stars. If the party can recover the Scale Heart, one of the Lizard Laird’s badges of office believed to have been part of the treasury at this site; then the party will have earned the gratitude of the tribe and be free to go. If not, then they may well find themselves invited to dinner – as part of the menu!

This is a forty four room dungeon on a non-linear map with a “ruined halls of the lizard man king” theme. It has a decent mix of encounter types but a very … utilitarian way of describing rooms. The utilitarian description is then expanded upon with mechanics that are a touch too verbose for my tastes. The designer is going someplace and I get where they are going. They just don’t make it too terrible easy to get there. Ruined jungle/swamp temple with vines, a crazed madman alone in the ruins, fungas-bug zombies and a final room with a giant fungus/fly/decay pit in a ruined sun god temple with a towering cracked dome … it’s all there. It’s just presented in such a way that doesn’t make it easy to put it together in your head.

Mechanical bits first this time. And I shall start by being petty: there’s no level designation anywhere I can find. The map, taking up most of a page, is nonlinear … thank god. It’s got a decent mix of twists, turns, hallways, loops, secrets and so on … enough to make a party wary about that hallway they passed up, in the dim torchlight. I like a map that gives the party some place unexplored to flee in to. Some place for monsters to come up from behind them from that offshoot they didn’t explore … the impending sense of dread caused by not knowing. That’s what a good exploration-adventure map should do and that’s what this map allows for. The wanderers are just all vermin, snakes, flies, spiders, ants and the like, and the monsters are all book standard except for a few with a fungus infection that regen a little bit. The treasure descriptions are a step up from the normal, with silver daggers with swan hilts and supple knee-high womens leather boots. (Sharing violation Johnathan!)

Back to those monsters, the ones that regenerate because of the fungus. One of the first rooms has evidence of a fire. There are four ant bodies in the room … thus a hint that the ants may have something special about them and the party may need to burn the bodies. Another early room gives the party a hint about a trap later on. You encounter fungus-zombie vermin a couple of times. This sort of interconnectedness between rooms is something that’s critical for an exploration dungeon and something that is almost always missing the smaller plot/lair type dungeons. They give the party small victories as they learn that their actions DO make a difference. Rather than just say “Fuck it!” and hack something and move on they are rewarded for using their brain-noggins a bit. The dungeon has puzzles and mysteries and things to discover … and that’s fun!

This isn’t a bad adventure … but it’s not particularly exciting or inspiring either. I think sometimes people misread me when I talk about those things. I’m not referring to gonzo, or other weird elements like crystal people or so on. I’m generally looking for a writing style, for the fluff/description part of the room, that makes you want to run the room. I think that’s a writing style which conjures up a picture in your head … without droning on. You want to see descriptive text that your mind latches onto and fills in the rest. “Ruined jungle temple” is some pretty plain text. “Crumbling pillars with vines snaking up them and a low mist hugging the ground” is better … but remember, I’m terrible at this. The text in this adventure is a little too utilitarian for me. “A relief of a stylized grinning lizard face is located in the northeast corner of the room.” is a decent example of text from this adventure … followed by three sentences of mechanics for a poison gas trap. Or “The end of the hall is covered in an ornate relief that depicts the sun with several celes al bodies in varying orbits around it.” or “A life-sized statue of a lizardman holding a large snake over its head dominates the room.” These are all pretty … generic? descriptions. Again, I’m not argue for more text, I’m arguing for DIFFERENT text that is more evocative.

It’s a decent adventure and certainly better than average. If I bought it I would not be bitter that I had been ripped off. It just needs a bit more to push it over the top in to excellence.

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Temple of Lies

By Zzarchov Kowolski
Self Published
Neoclassical Geek Revival/OSR
Levels 1-2

The Temple of Lies is a small light hearted adventure about the typical shennigans one gets into involving human sacrifice and severe opiod addiction.

Black Lotus Peddler: “Two or three years ago it was just another snake cult.”

This two level dungeon, for an urban environment, is an opium den with a cult temple under it. Seven up top and eight rooms underneath form a simple, but not completely linear, map. It’s conversation style assists scanning during play by highlighting with color certain text. The most obvious details. The treasure. Potential hostiles. What we end up with is a nice little gritty urban dungeon that can be used with the cult actually having magic powers or with the cult being charlatans. It’s got a definite Conan vibe going on, with low magic, gritty environments, and communicating the sense of dust and dirt and bareness (in a good way) that the Conan urban scenes did.

Two hook ideas are presented: a loved one is kidnapped and you chase the kidnappers to the opium den, or someone who owes you money, etc, is kidnaped and you chase the to get what you want from the victim. The adventure points out the major issues with any hook for this adventure: you need to want to get the kidnap victim back and there has to be some reason to not go to the town guard. Loved One hooks are completely lame and cause the party to not form any emotional attachments (the downside of murder-hobo’ing, I guess) while the second hook is more interesting. The whole “I don’t give a shit about the dude except for the fact we need something from him” is a nice classic twist.

The rooms are pretty focused on what’s important. If the room is important it’s longer. If it’s less important it’s shorter, maybe just two or three sentences. But even then there’s something to loot/glean. The mud room is a good example. There are 12 cloaks on hooks and 40 shoes & boots. In most adventures this would be the kind of extraneous detail that just clogs it up. In this adventure it’s a clue that there’s something hidden and more people about than just reside in the opium den … ie: we need to find the hidden area with the other people in it.

There’s a good trap example here also. Many adventures have traps. A lot of those traps are seemingly random. This can force the party to slow down play as they go about searching for traps everywhere because the shitty DM & adventure sprang one on them once. Slow play is not fun. In one room there are two massive quartz crystals leaning against each other to form an arch. You have to walk under it to get to the doors on the other side. Also? A tripwire. The players are cued in by something unusual, giving the non-stupid ones a clue to search. Traps done right.

The room styles are very conversational. Very. I’d normally rip something like this apart because of the difficulty of scanning the text during play. Zzarchov instead provides assistance to the DM in the form of color coding. The text for the “Latrine” room takes up about a quarter of a digest sized page. Ug! Gotta read it all quickly at the table to run it! Instead, though, the designer has provided his own highlighting: Three stalls are made of cheap pine. This is generally enough to get the party going We know it’s a latrine, in an opium den, and that it has three stalls made of cheap pine. This gives you enough time to scan the rest or run it from memory. In this case I remember that the middle stall has a scone right over the hole, making using it awkward. And that it’s a tie point for a rope to get into the temple, below. More than enough.

The treasures and magic items are well described, in an appendix, and suitably unique.

It’s a nice little urban adventure. I enjoyed the opium den and the temple level at the very start (crystal arches and rope pit to get in) the most. A writhing masses of snakes in a room, snake nuns, ancient sarcophagus, and the required giant snake. Except this time its in the process of swallowing the kidnap victim.

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Dungeon Magazine #100

Ought oh. I think the blog comments are right: I’ve in for a very rough time ahead.

Old Embers Never Die
By Andy Collins
Level 12

Two dungeons, barely connected. Number one has six rooms and is kobolds. The entrance is guarded by a kobold druid in monitor lizard form controlling two Huge shambling mounds on either side of the entrance, with five different terrain elements described with their impact on combat cover, stealth concealment, and movement rate. The rooms are each a little set piece. Dungeon two has five-ish is the dragon proper, and includes a half-red dragon giant crocodile. Again, each more of a set piece. We are in full on Combat As Sport mode in this adventure. Room, “interesting” combat, repeat. [Insert tirade about the death of D&D here.]

Woe to Mistledale
By Skip WIlliams
Level 8

This has some heavy Forgotten Realms theming, but is easily ignored. It also has a scene based structure, but it’s not actually scene based. It starts with the party seeing a wagon crashing into town with runaway horses, and then two trolls pop out and start killing people. An investigation about the wagon and its cargo follows, with lots of resources … and lots of read-aloud. A significant portion of time is spent describing a drow attack on a lumber camp … that the party will almost certainly not be present for to participate in.

Beast of Burden
By Michael Kortes
Level 6

A fortress, open air and enclosed, on top of a humongous creature. The party is tasked with stopping it. It has some nice advice concerning getting on top, and a nice set of skirmishers at the bottom to keep the party on its toes. It’s a too combat focused, with most encounters being entering a room, killing whoever is there and then moving on. In addition the fortress, while having an interesting layout, is prone to one area spotting the party from a completely separate area. While some of this is noted in the text there is little to guide the DM, meaning you’ll have to photocopy the maps, read the text. And then mark up the maps with some sight lines, or least the areas that may have outdoor people. This is a nice concept but too lopsided with hacking and needs an order of battle.
The Lich-Queen’s Beloved
By Christopher Perkins
Level 18

High level 3e hack fests can be a bear, and this is not exception to that. You invade the Gith lich-queens palace and try to kill her. Some of the rooms have some decent imagery in them and it does, at times, FEEL like the palace of a lich-queen. Fleshy orb balls, the screams of tormented souls, weird ass organic (dead and otherwise) doors, lots and lots of creepy and and gruesome (for Dungeon) imagery. It also deals with the high-level magic issue in an interesting way. Teleport and paswall all you want! But the souls of the dead, embedded in the walls and constantly screaming and moaning, will take a high toll on you as you save vs insanity. Likewise, hack through a wall … but it regens at 10hp per round. This is a much better way to handle things than just saying “you can’t do it.” Give the party a choice. The queen spies upon you at all times .. but there’s no real organized reaction to the parties presence, which is a miss. It’s combat focused, with little to do besides hack things and trigger nasty traps that are put on weird objects around the palace. Still … nice imagery. You might look around for a PDF or a very inexpensive copy just to check out the zombie doors and flesh portal doors and mind-flayer orb ball and so on. It should inspire.

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Cyclopean Deeps Chapter 2 – Eye of the Titan

By Matt Finch
Frog God Games
Swords & Wizardry/Pathfinder
Level 10-12

Eye of the Titan takes the adventurers to the strange, underground fortress of Ques Querax, where they may discover strange secrets if they are unlucky enough…

While on another Kon-Mari binge I came across a few things that I had forgotten about. No doubt because I have, once again, purchased the Pathfinder version. Because I am an idiot.

This is a wide spot on the road in the underdark hex map, a small fortress town ruled over by a giant floating eyeball. It is describing a single hex on the larger hex crawl map from the first in this series. It’s meant to be a home base for the party to strike out from as they explore the underdark further. As such it has the usual mix: a tax to get in, some guards, a couple of bars, a temple, a store, and The Boss.

The fortress is 200’ across, has some guards who demand 1/20th of your total possessions for entry. Inside the home base stuff is hit or miss. Every once in awhile Finch drops the bomb on you in a short sentence of A.W.E.S.O.M.E. Then he writes up something that has nothing going on at all. The human bar is pretty boring, and meant to be a safe place to base out of. A vrock can show up in the bar, but that’s about the extent of anything interesting going on. The Serpent-man bar doesn’t even have that. It gets four sentences, telling us it is the bar for serpent-folk over and over again, and then roughly a little more than a page in monster stats. The jeweler stands somewhere in the middle of interesting & not. His face has been torn off. That’s AWESOME and is a great example of of a small detail adding excitement. The rest of the three paragraphs though are a bit meandering in comparison. Shifting again, Alterations in Ownership is a store (the only one) run by a giant slug with four slaves. That’s pretty boss! And then the Temple of the Head of Terror has an empty room with a severed head in the middle of the floor and three weird priests who are always in the same position and turn to stare at you when you enter. Oh man, that’s great shit. That’s the kind of weird shit/mystery drop all in two sentences that a DM can build upon.

The misses, though seem more prevalent. The guard captains are nothing more than a name and a stat block. Any sort of fun & interesting stuff going on is pretty much limited to fetch quests. “Get me some more giant lizards.” or “Bring me some moss.” The interactivity between the various stores/buildings/personalities is virtually non-existent. When that’s combined with a lack of personality/interesting bits for the majority of the NPC’s and places, and the lack of, say, ongoing events or anything more than “what’s this weeks fetch quest” then the usefulness as a home base comes in to question. Or, rather, the usefulness of this as a DM Aid in a home base comes in to question. The giant slug running the store, the hints of the Leng Men, the head temple, the big boss, the faceless dwarf, the Vat Animal store … these are all great. It just needs a little more to bring the others up to that level and to add some interactivity to the NPC’s and locations in order to sustain the environment as a long term base.Just a little more of a shove.

Part of this is my own damn fault. I look at line after line of Pathfinder stats and wonder why, insead, a little more content couldn’t be there in its place. But, from looking things up, it looks like the Pathfinder version is six pages longer than the Swords & Wizardry version. Ouch! I wonder what my impressions would have been then?

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Castle Gargantua

By Kabuki Kaiser
Labyrinth Lord
Any Level

“Ride the beanstalk and crawl into the sprawling halls of Castle Gargantua. There awaits the most legendary of giants and the fiercest creatures known to man. Delve further than ever for the great doors of Castle Gargantua have swung open once again, and what lies ahead isn’t for the faint-hearted.”

This is a build-it-yourself atmospheric megadungeon toolkit/outline. As with Lapis Observatory, this adventure is trying out some new/old things and, like Lapis, if you are at all interested in design then you should pick this up. For everyone else, this presents a poser. You are going to have to put some work into prep this dungeon. More than a simple read through, you’ll need to roll dice a few gazillion times, either before play or during play, to create the dungeon as you go along. Is there an encounter in this room? An ‘empty’ room, just a treasure … how many exits … You’ll create it as you go. Spicing things up are a series of special dungeon areas, premade little areas to toss in. It is, in essence, a version of the random tables found in the back of the 1E DMG used to create a dungeon … but more focused and definitely not generic.

I’m going to need to cover the design mechanic first. This is a toolkit. It’s focused, unlike many toolkits, but it’s still a toolkit. The core map is a 5×7 grid of squares, each color coded in one of five colors. Each color represents one area of the castle, and each square representing, in an abstract way, 4 to 8 rooms. The DM generates these rooms on the fly or a little ahead of time. Once the rooms in the “big square” are explored (4 to 8, depending on how big the DM wants the castle/adventure to be) then the room exits will take you to the next colored square. Each of the colored sections has a list of rooms you can pick from, and mark off, once used. Morgue, butchery, cold room, barracks, guardroom, crevasse, and a couple of dozen others are exampls from the “blood” section of the dungeon. From there a d4 tells you how many exits and what type. A d6 tell you how big and what shape the room is. A d8 tells you what’s in the room, with four of them being “empty” in the Blood section. A d10 indicates what kind of treasure, if one is called for, and a d12 indicates what kind of monster if one is called for. Finally a d20 indicates atmospheric details. There’s another small table that indicates how far away the next room, down a corridor, the door opening in to it, etc. The monsters & magic are all unique and interesting, as they should be.

An example here might be two broken wooden doors as exits, in an octagonal room 60’ per side, with a bloodstone megalith in it, and the clamor of a distant battle. I’m going to randomly pick “battlefield” off of the list of room types. As a DM, I imagine this monolith type thing jutting into the room from the floor in a corner at an angle, blood red pulsing veins on it, Bodies of various ages and condition all around it suffering brutal wounds, one of the door it a makeshift barricade of wood and bodies piled in front of it … maybe the one the party comes in through. And the “sounds of distant battle” are the creams of agony from someone just having been killed in the room, the last person, when the party is travelling down the corridor to get there. That’s what the tables are supposed to do, they are supposed to spur your imagination and allow the DM to fill in the details with their racing imaginations. Some of you may recognize that this is exactly what I think an adventure SHOULD do. Minimal details, but enough of an Idea Seed to get the DM’s juices going. The “gold” rooms, seven or so provided, are prebuilt little areas of a couple of pages that represent a more traditional format.

The entire thing is level neutral because the creatures scale with the party. HD-party average, and so on. In addition there are quick systems for determining if they are normal sized or huge, and easily scaling up damage, etc.

The entire thing appears to work fairly well in practice. It’s pretty easy to roll a bunch of dice at once to generate a room. I’m not SUPER thrilled with the tables spreading out over two pages, but maybe I’m just being a picky git. The monsters and magic items and theming of the areas and atmospheric effects/window dressing are all suitably interesting and work well enough together to create the little narratives that can allow for a minimal keying. There’s a nice set of reference tables in the back to allow the DM’s rolls to be recorded at the time of play, or maybe even a little ahead of it.

You’re gonna need to read the monsters and traps and weirdness ahead of time and maybe highlight them a bit; they do get a bit “long paragraph”, but I guess that’s to be expected for weirdness. Once you’re through once and hit it with some yellow then you should be good to run on the fly.

It’s an interesting idea. A kind of mix between a preparing a dungeon ahead of time, minimally, and running something on the fly.

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Dungeon #99

Two adventures. A new low?!?! Or maybe stocking up for issue 100?

By Peter Aperlo
Level 14

The very definition of a lame adventure/the perfect example of a ‘Combat as Sport’ adventure. It’s just a bunch of forced combats held together by a pretext. Evil cleric of Nerull disguises himself and casts undetectable alignment so the party will go get four pieces of a key that defeats a newly awakened chaos creature. He’s not lying, so the disguise and alignment spell just reinforce the lameness of the inevitable betrayal (and he does! Wow, couldn’t see that coming …) You go in a shrine that you can’t passwall, teleport, ddor, etc and answer four riddles, each teleporting you a different location. There you fight three of four encounters to get part of the key. You then go fight the chaos monster. There’s one possibility to negotiate with someone, but that’s it. Just forced combat after forced combat. The whole mindlessly rolling dice in combat thing eludes me. If you like it then good for you, you would like this adventure. I just wish your game didn’t have the same name as my game, mostly so that I didn’t have to wade through your dreck to find my dreck. IE: the story of my blog.

Fish Story
By Adam Jortner
Level 5

More interesting than the usual Dungeon fare. Some Locath have moved into the town mill and the party is encouraged by the town to do something about it. An assault OR negotiation (I know, right?!) gets the story that the locaths old encampment, a flooded village, has been taken over. Going there the party discovers a locath ghost who tricks them into going into a small dungeon under the town. Inside THAT is a kobold vampire and a trapped water elemental. The locales in this are a little more interesting than the normal boring fare, and the creatures all seem to have some motivations.The ending is not as simple as just killing everything and ferreting out the “mystery” and the intersecting goals is a large byproduct of the adventure. It’s not quite a faction adventure but it does have a mystery to solve (if convoluted) or you can just blunder through and come out the other side with more unhappy creatures than happy ones. I wish this would get a stronger formatting and the intersecting goals worked out a little more, that would bring those to the players minds in a much more frontal fashion, keeping them there to ponder the consequences of their actions. As it is, the DM is going to have to recognize this element and work harder at it.

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Cyclopean Deeps Chapter 1: Down to Ques Querax

By Matt Finch
Frog God Games
Swords & Wizardry/Pathfinder
Level 10-12

I’m digging deep in to my pile on this one.

This is a D1 clone.

Seriously, if you take the core of D1 and replace it with a new hex map and replace the entries on the tables with new entries then you essentially have this product. The hex map has a player’s copy that is incomplete. The hex map has major and minor encounter areas. The corridor types are primary, secondary, and tertiary. The wanderer table has caravans on it. The major/minor encounters are not really described.

I’m doing this from memory (of D1) but that pretty much describes D1, doesn’t it? The fascination with Underdark Hex Crawl is beyond me. This must be the fourth or fifth D1 clone I’ve reviewed and they are all the same. Three tunnel types. Partial player map. Two types of encounter area. Caravans. Is it seriously the assertion that nothing new has happened in Underdark hex Crawl innovation in the last forty years? Wait, hang on, I don’t need innovation. But NOT just copying the format of D1 … is that the end all and be all of underdark hex crawls?

There’s one area described. It’s a steep canyon down with a small “weird thing” area at the top that allows you to teleport past the canyon, avoiding its many environmental hazards. There’s an interesting anti-magic effect here in one area that makes magic flight dangerous. It’s some anti-magic steam coming from a bubbling pool at the bottom. It does that strangest of things: not screw the players! By this I mean that you are allowed to bottle the steam and use it as as a grenade weapon for an anti-magic effect! Imagine that, something in the environment that can impact the players either negatively OR positively! More adventures needs to do this. Far too often they are written in a more adversarial style that keeps [insert whatever] out of the players hands. It’s too evil. It doesn’t work. Blah blah blah. It’s far more fun when you give the players a way to exploit what they find. The ones that think to anyway.

The language here is weird. It’s got a distant, archaic and round-about way of speaking, especially in the first few pages, which reminds me more of Webb style than it does of Finch’s.

So, it’s a D1 clone. Do you want a D1 clone published by the Frogs? Do you already have D1? Not the D1/D2 thing that TSR did, that would have far more content than this adventure. Just D1. Or maybe you have Down the Shadowvein? How about The Rebel Faction? Under Shattered Mountain? No? None of those? Then Congratulations, I present you something new.

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The Wizardarium of Calabraxis

By Claytonian
Kill It With Fire
Level 1?

Apemen stole our children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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