Howler

howl
By J.V. West
Random Order Creations
OSRIC/3.5
Level 1-3

The wind whips through the standing stones making the hill moan like something alive. Or perhaps something dead. You stand atop its barren crown. There is a whisper in the darkness. There is evil afoot…Whether you come to the hill for glory, riches, or by mere chance you might not walk away the same as when you came…if at all

This is a small six room tomb complex, with a seventh encounter outside. Inside are mostly spiders and and the big bad while outside is an aggressive wandering monster table. Those seven encounters take twenty-two pages to describe, so there’s clearly an issue with tercity in this product. It DOES do a decent job from time to time, a more old school flavor than most OGL stuff did, anyway. The primary drawback is the shortness, the verbosity, and the lack of treasure. (I thought I bought a OSRIC version but it’s clearly OGL. I don’t know, I probably fucked up.)

The adventure has at least one redeeming quality: it takes liberty with the rules. Wolves with cumulative fear effects. Spiders with new poison. Weird curses. It has no problem providing a new rule/ruling in order to handle an effect that is either outside of the rules or doesn’t use the rules for a crutch. Many adventures will try and explain everything through the existing rules. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen a monster released from a stasis field that is triggered by a contingency spell attached to a magic mouth spell. While I loathe statis field monsters, the whole “need to use the rules” things infuriates me more. Just make up a rule and move on with your life. This adventure does that and it’s refreshing to see. It also takes a paragraph where one sentence would do, and two paragraphs where two sentences would do, to explain the rule, but, well, let’s talk about that a bit.

I’m going to pick on this poor product to make a point that would probably be better illustrated in another, even more verbose, product. Sorry.

The text here is verbose. Very long. To little effect. Seven encounters over 22 pages is excessive. If we ignore all of the fluff, background, stats, etc, then we’re still looking at an average of almost one pager per encounter. Still too long. I need to make sure I’m clear here: I’m not complaining for the sake of complaining. I’m not looking for the ultra-tersity of Palace of the Vampire Queen. Those sorts of products have little place today. Nor am I looking to have everything explained to me. I’m looking for something on a different axis altogether: is this useful for the DM running the game? And even more hard-core: At the table?

In adventures, I assert that’s the definition of Well Written. Does it help the DM run it? At the table? Some abstract linkage, or friend of a friend idea doesn’t count. You can’t provide a six page backstory and assert that it’s useful to the DM because they might get an idea. I’m sure they might. But the primary purpose of the adventure is not as a bit of fluff to inspire. Sure, some folks might use it that way. I might use it to wipe my ass, but no matter how good it is as toilet paper that doesn’t reflect how good it is at helping the dm AT THE TABLE.

In this light you can start to see common themes in what I complain about. I like monster reference sheets because the DM can use them as reference at the table. I like a dense and overloaded map legend because it also acts as kind of reference at the table. (I’m not referring to the map complexity, but rather showing other information than room proximity on a map.) I like evocative writing because it can communicate a lot of information in a very small amount of space, leveraging the DM’s imagination through inspiration. And why is it important that it be terse? Because the DM needs to use the fucking thing AT THE TABLE. The party advances to room six. You look down at the book, at room six. You see eight paragraphs of information. How do you scan that and provide a fun experience for the players? You clearly can’t. We resort to highlighters, or taking notes, or annotating the maps, all to pull out the key information that the DM needs to know at a glance.

A well written product doesn’t do this. It’s focused. It communicates the key information quickly and evocatively. This is not a well written product. It uses A LOT of words when only a few would do, making it hard to parse and run.

It is, however, trying to communicate some interesting things. I already noted that it tries new effects out, which is great. Magic items get a “better than dull book” description, like a gold ring with a sapphire, and mundane items like an emerald encrusted silver dagger. (even though the treasure seems light for an gold=xp game, but, again, I think I’m looking at the OGL version not the OSRIC version.In my experience, the designers never update the treasure, but maybe I’m wrong this time …) A small ruling on the effects of sneezing on monster ambushing. A room of magic mushrooms that you can take with you. Foreshadowing the main monster through stuff the party finds is a great way to build tension, and it’s done here. The read-aloud mentioned scurrying creatures in the rooms with giants spiders.

There is a GREAT section on an NPC you find the dungeon. He’s wounded. If you save him, he’s still a bit delusional and he’s paralyzed from the waist down. One of his potential lines is “I … I have soiled myself and I’m sorry for the many things I did in life …” Great! Well, the exact wording could be better, but it gets the core idea across really well for that particular rant. The party might even get a hint off of him that a monster is about to attack, if they notice his suddenly maddening eyes.

This has something to say, it just has a hard time getting it across. A second giant spider attack is hidden in the body text, and unbolded, unlike all other monsters. It takes over a page to describe skeletons attacking when you dig up a grave. Yeah, there’s a curse and some foreshadowing, but, still, over a page?

Pay What You Want @ DriveThru.

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Sepulcher of the Mountain God

smg
By Paul Wolfe
Purple Duck Games
DCC
Level 1

Braving the hidden tomb of an ancient tribal king, the adventurers become embroiled in a quest directly from Ira, the Mountain God – find the Skull of Vyache and his magic club, Alceon, that were stolen by Bashkim and the twisted minions of Gelihedres.

This is a 17-room mostly linear tomb/cave complex. It makes an effort, but ultimately provides lots of text to little effect and the linear nature of the adventure detracts. It turns into a slog, facing room after room, with little for the DM to get excited about.

I want to focus on the descriptions, which means the DM text and read-aloud. One of the themes I go back to time and again is the purpose of the text in an adventure. The purpose of the the text is to inspire the DM. This is, after all, a play aid. It’s meant to be a crutch for the GM to use in their game. The DM, or, rather, the DM’s imagination, is the single greatest ally the designer has in their attempt to provide value to the DM. To this end the designers text needs to be targeted to the DM, to inspire them, to plant a seed in head that can grow. The goal is, after the DM reads the entry, to have their mind racing. To have a fractal explosion of possibilities explode in their head. That’s the impact of a good description: the possibilities it generates excites and inspires.

If I was describing a room and wrote “The rooms is large” or even “the room is big” or “the room is huge” then a sort of very generic room idea seed is transferred from the writer to the DM. In this case the idea is rather abstract. I was very specific in my writing so the idea transferred is pretty boring. Is any of that appropriate for a Lovecraft adventure? Cyclopean, echoing, the top lost in shadows. In fact, I would suggest that both Cyclopean and Echoing are better than large, he top being lost in shadows is better than both. The best descriptions show, instead of telling. “Endless footfall echoes” shows. “The top lost in shadows” shows. “Large” tells. “Cyclopean” also tells, but it also conjures up more specific imagery than “large.” And what’s the key: specificity.

Let’s take a look at one of the descriptions in the adventure. This comes from room 1: “A larger, decorated corpse lies on a black stone bier at the back of the chamber.” Corpse isn’t the greatest choice, but my main beef here is “decorated.” It’s abstract. It’s a generalization. Decorated, but HOW? Garlands of fresh Luna blooms drape over the dessicated skin? I’m a suck ass writer but Garlands are better than “decorated.” What’s a luna blossom? Who cares (as far as the written text is concerned), the DM can make it up. The important part is planting the seed in the DM’s imagination.

There’s another very good (negative) example later on. The heads and shoulders of a foul giant are carved into a wall. Why is the giant foul? Is it leering? Misshapen? “Foul giant” is generic and abstract. The key is to be specific. Not overly so, not three sentences where a phrase or better word will do.

I’ve picked two examples out of the text but the general state is that genericism and lack of specificity. This is combined with overly long DM text. A decent college try is made with some item descriptions, but again they come off as long, full of things we don’t need to know, trivia. Similarly the hooks are quite nonspecific and little more than generic crap. Your god calls you, rumors of treasure, you’re related to someone who disappeared. That’s not really an effort at all. When all of this is combined with the rather linear map, there’s little to recommend here.

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Dungeon Magazine #88

d88
The Door from Everywhere
By Roger E. Moore
3e
Level 6

A ruin with some doors that can teleport you to nine different locations/encounters throughout the forgotten realms, as well as a Zent jerk that shows up to fuck with the party while they “explore” the doors. Six pages of fucking background, read-aloud, and nonsense. Oh, for the glory days of Dungeon … and then a full page on the historical context of the ruins! A page and a half for a couple of orcs guarding a door! Page after page after page of meaningless descriptions and how things work and historical context. This is probably the stupidest fucking adventure I’ve ever seen in Dungeon. Teleport to a new area and have an encounter! This monstrosity takes 25 pages to describe ten encounters. Moore should be ashamed of writing it and Perkins should be ashamed of letting it through.

Thirds of Purloined Vellum
By Graham Robert Scott
3e
Level 1

This is a decent investigation and then assault, in a city. Run around chasing clues from place to place to discover a set of papers, and then assault the townhome where they are being kept. This isn’t terrible. The usual Too Much Information background, but it does provide a nice summary table of the clues to be found, as well as some overlapping of the clues and some other street-life encounters to mix things up a bit. Some advice on running interviews is welcome also. Somewhere someone said “Hmmm, going to be a lot of interviews in this one, as the party asks around. You know … since the adventure relies on that then let’s give the DM some advice on it!” Regardless of its actual value, they tried. If you could yank out the Slave to Formatting state blocks, etc, then you’d have a decent little adventure. Maybe a little light on color and flavor. Of course, it IS full of state blocks and other Slave To The Standards formatting. It does rely on the party being nice people, for the hook, and saving a merchant under attack. That’s akin to “this is the adventure I have for you tonight, save the guy if you want to play D&D.”

Make it Big
by Jeff Quick
3e
Level 9

This is a cute side-trek. Hill giants blackmail the party: work for us for we’ll flatten that nearby village. There’s a great line in this: “You look around, and maybe you think ‘these giants got good caves, plenty to eat, lots of people to steal from … a pretty good life.’” They want the party to make beds, pots, etc, so they can live the high life. They bully and harass the party, if they agree to craft for them, all with the threat of the village destruction hanging over their heads. I could only hope that the party would agree, then get disgusted, say “fuck this shit” and strike back. I think it’s set up in a way that is not forced and yet gets the party into a crafting situation where that can occur. The caves are not overly described (yeah!) but it could use a few more examples of bullying giants/flavor.

The Seventh Arm
By Tito Leati
3e
Level 7

Textbook Dungeon Magazine adventure exploring an old tower. A very long intro. Mostly linear. Choices have no impact. REALLY long encounter descriptions that describe little of value to the DM. The hook has the party saving someone because it’s the good thing to do. A parkour chase across roofs either ends with the bad guy getting away or, if the party make a zillion skill check, him falling to his death. IE: No impact on the adventure. This is a capital offense in Brycelandia. Exploring some ruins the party encounters bugbears. You can’t talk to them/question them … they fear their leader! How many fucking times do we have to read this bullshit justification? What surprise is going to be spoiled? Do you really need this crap? Isn’t’ it much better to reward the smart party, and take advantage of scheming plots and everything else that a social element adds? No? You say you’re a hitty DM and you run D&D like it’s a mini’s combat game? Oh, ok, as long as we’re all clear that you’re a tool …. Anyway, dungeon under a ruined tower that is mostly linear and uninteresting. There are four or so factions, but not really, you can’t really talk to them or exploit them or play with them, they are really just four different main groups of creatures.

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Slumbering Ursine Dunes

sud
By Chris Kutalik
Hydra Collective
Labyrinth Lord
(Mostly HD2-4 … except for the demigods. Mostly.]

This is a pointcrawl with 25 locations and two dungeon-like areas. It’s set in giant sand dunes with paths running along the bottom and has several factions and a decent amount of weirdness. It would make a decent wilderness setting if you were looking for someplace to locate a dungeon. IE: I think it works best as a locale that the characters visit repeatedly, more so than a separate location that is the target of the adventure. It’s the age-old hex-crawl problem: why are they crawling?

Easy stuff first. A pointcrawl is just like a hexcrawl of dungeon, except abstracted. The map is laid out with nodes, the adventure locations, connected by lines. You can ignore the lines, and climb the dunes to go a different direction, but it’s mostly like an old text adventure game. Exits in the wilderness are E, NE, or S. The dunes are made quite challenging to climb, but the explicit advice is to allow it, if the party really wants to.

While the product is 68 pages, the actually pointcrawl locations don’t take up much room at all, maybe six pages if the art were removed. Only a couple of the entries have much size to them, with most being one or two short paragraphs. Centaur tollkeeps, hermit in a zardoz head, antidiluvian lake of super-intelligent and civilized beavers and so on. Mixed in with the “normal” encounters are the two dungeon encounters, a golden barge buried in the sand and the tower of a local demi-god, who is at home. Also mixed in are some encounters with the various factions. Pirates in the service of a local were-shark, the demi-god and his centaur and bear-men followers, an old adventurer and his kin, and then the evil elves. Oh, the evil elves. These guys have quite strong melnibonean influences and are the best “haughty evil assholes” I’ve seen since, perhaps, the GURPS Fantasy 2/Madlands “Soulless” jerkwads. Oh, I love jerkwads. The “nice” one has a chair and table made of old peasants. That’s sweet.

The monsters and treasures are great, exactly what I would expect. Want a healing potion? No generic shit in this, you’ll instead be drinking the pure white soul of someone who has drowned in a pond. You can get them from a “dude” who lives in the pond. He likes it when the pirates drown people in the pond. What else? How about some undead? Drowned corpses with long hair hair resembling willow leaves swaying and singing eerily in the night as they hang from trees. Ouchies!

The factions add a pretty good social element to the dunes and almost everyone is willing to talk under some circumstance or another. It never feels like the adventure is forcing you into something. The monsters are great. I don’t know enough Slavic mythology to know which witch is which, but they feel fresh and interesting and that they make sense in the environment. The treasures are great, with enough interesting bits that the party will want to keep some and be tempted by others and be horrified by others still.

If there’s a problem it is, as I alluded to above, the problem that all hexcrawls have: Why? And you know, I should back off of that. It’s not a problem, it’s more expectation setting. Much like the old MERP products, this thing describes a place and provides PLENTY of opportunities to get into trouble. (All Hail Discordia!) But it provides no over-arching plot. The points and factions have goals and things that will happen and there is definitely some elements of plot, but no overarching structure. You need to bring the adventure. There’s nothing wrong with that. In that respect it’s more like a hexcrawl that you use as the players travel between City A and the B, or a wilderness that you use when they travel between town and dungeon, or a city supplement. This is a resource for running an adventure, not an adventure in and of itself. It’s a wilderness-type thing you can drop in as the party: need an oracle, need a curse removed, are looking for a dungeon/object.

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England Upturn’d

By Barry Blatt
LotFP
LotFP

This sandboxy thing is set in historical England (Duh!) right before the civil war. It’s big, at 128 pages. It’s full of people and places and things to get into trouble with. It has three horrific possible endings. It’s hard for me to see how you can use this, effectively, in play without a couple of read throughs and MUCH notes taking.

You get a rough outline of what’s going on, a couple of pages each on the major NPC’s, a description of the area, in very general terms along with some potential complications in each area. You also get a description of the major adventure villages/locations, again with things to complicate the goings-on, a brief timeline, and a brief description of three possible endings as well as some historical context. All in about 128 pages.

I like my adventures with a strong social element. In dungeons I usually talk about faction play, with various groups wants different things, and perhaps even factions within the factions, to spice things up even more. In towns and villages I like it when the various folks have some sort of relationship with someone else. They hate betty, they want george’s leather apron, etc. This spices things up and provides motivation for the party and for the NPC’s. Besides, with A LOT of stuff going on then there’s the chance for more chaos, and I think D&D thrives on chaos. This sandbox does that. Just about every place you go and every person you meet has something going on. They hate Bill. They are secretly an X. You can find Y. On and on and on it goes. This is the primary strength of the adventure. Lots going on, lots to interact with.

That is also the weakness of the adventure. It’s not that there is too much but rather that it is organized rather poorly. This combines with a nudge, nudge, wink, wink writing style that is a bit too verbose for its own good. This is not a book for running a game at the table. In spite of the 128 pages there’s no real reference material for the DM that’s targeted at actually running the thing, except a map. There are timelines, hidden in various areas. There are random people on the road tables, or rumor tables, scattered about. The list of potential NPC’s is pretty long.

What this needs, badly, are two reference sheets. One needs to show the various timelines, expanded with the various NPC’s. Assuming the party didn’t just show up and fuck things up, the main plot would move along like this and the various little NPC’s subplots would move along like this, along with a cross-reference of where they would take place. Reference sheet two needs a list of various NPC’s. Their various personalities, in three or four words, where they are, and what they want and/or how they interact with the timeline.

It’s not that there’s too much content. It’s that the content is not organized enough for the amount that there is. Overlapping major NPC’s plotlines, all of the minor plotlines, the various NPC’s, and the scattered things of interest. In particular, there are some clues scattered about and the party is going to need to be poked in certain directions if this is going to be anything other than aimless wandering put to an end by Call The Stars. Bringing everything under control, dropping hints, channeling the party, and responding to their various wanderings, who they meet and what they see and how it relates to the larger plot, is what’s missing here.

What are your expectations for a 128 page adventure that takes place over a four or five days? Is this a fluff book, that you expect to rip apart, take copious notes, and get inspired from, or is this a resource to run, generally as written, at the table? If it’s the later, it needed to do a MUCH better job at saving the DM time and effort.

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Dungeon Magazine #87

d87
I think this issue had a CD in it? But my second-hand copy does not. 🙁 Nor does it have a cover.

The Raiders of Galath’s Roost
By Skip WIlliams
3e
Level 1

This is a rough one to review. It’s essentially an adventure in two parts: an investigation around a ruined keep and then an assault on a Zhent citadel. The first half is a pretty nice ruined keep, and environs around it. Just about everything you find is related to everything else, with lots of clues and one thing leading to another. This includes the wandering monster table, which is both useful for the overall mystery and in what’s in the ruins. Things to talk to, places to explore, a nice variety of environments, creatures, and types of encounters. Almost a picture perfect example of a nice small build-up area to a main adventure. This then transitions into THE WORST WALL OF TEXT I’VE EVER SEEN. The second half, a Zhent citadel, is nigh incomprehensible because of the wall of text issue. Two sentences, or less of room description gives way to a half page stat block, or more, with other “Requirements” providing lots of words and little usefulness. It does have a nice order of battle for the citadel which is always useful for an inhabited area. Both areas also have decent maps, with lots of ways to get between places that add much needed variety and tactical options. A couple of empty crypts in the ruined keep seem out of place, but one of the hooks is nice: one of the characters relatives was involved in the original siege of the keep and has left you a map. I like this adventure. I like the beginning a lot, especially, but the second half is essentially unusable as written.

The Cradle of Madness
By Rob Lee
3e
Level 6

A mediocre, at best, adventure with few to no redeeming qualities. It’s got a nice column long read-aloud, those are always fun, right? How about making the main enemies cultists who all have a suicide tooth that they use to kill themselves if captured. No? How about death traps everywhere in the dungeon. No, again? I know what’s fun! How about an arch with a high save disintegrate trap! And if you fail you also take a lot of damage! With a high spot check! You know … if only some of those cultists could have been captured,, I bet they could tell us all about those traps! Look, I ain’t got a problem with death traps, especially at high levels, but I do have a thing about stacking the deck against the party. It’s adversarial, and D&D ain’t adversarial. If your DM is adversarial then tell them to Piss Off and go get a new DM. It’s like, at high level, you had a no save death arch and put in a note “any augury/commune/legend lor, etc spells will show the arch to be friendly and giving a boon.” This is just some lame ass shotgun shack evil temple with lame theming, lame opponents, and little connection between the hook/plot (A damien-like Tharizdun pregnancy) and the actual environment.

Glacier Season
By David Eckelberry
3e
Level 15

Eeek! The title art, of a dragonborn, gives me horrible flashback memories of Hoard of the Dragon Queen! Man, Hoard sucked shit. This is a journey to, and then assault on, an ancient white dragons lair. The lead into the lair has about a zillion ice golems. Every time the party turns around there’s an ice golem attack. The journey to the lair is linear, boring, and the encounters mostly disconnected from the actual adventure, except for one or two. (IE: in contrast to the first adventure in this issue which did an excellent job of tying everything together.) “Bob wear a hat of disguise and has an undetectable alignment spell.” Ug. Lazy. The dragon’s lair has a nice entrance thing going on, but the inside just feels like room after room crammed full of high-level monsters. I’m not particularly fond of G2/Jarl, but it has A LOT more character than this place does. Has there ever been a good dragon adventure? There’s the Kramer one, but even that one did a better job on the environs than the lair, IIRC.

Valley of the Snails
By W. Jason Peck
3e
Level 1

You’re implored to go find a guys missing friend, and the signs lead to a valley. He’s deranged, because of some goblins running around the valley and their blowgun poison. It’s long. It’s not very interesting (especially compared to the first adventure in this issue, also a level 1) and it had the stats for a small wood box. Yes, that’s righ, a box … used in a fox trap. ‘Wood. 1” thick. hard=5, hp=10, dc=16’. A hidden valley, hidden ways down, weird things in it … it should be great … but it comes off as boring. Tediously long and boring.

The Shalm’s Dark Song
By Tito Leati
3e
Level 5

Uh, an ogre and a druid in a 4-room temple. I guess this is the 3e version of a side-trek? It’s too bad this is so simple, it’s got a nice little setup and (possible hook.) The origins of the temple are very folklorish “I’m throwing my hammer in the air, if it don’t fall back I’ll do it!” sort of thing. Related to that it’s written in a … plot-neutral manner that allows it to be slotted into a larger campaign. “When the party needs an oracle/question answered then drop this thing in.” It even can end with the “Saint” reappearing. That’s all nice. The cartoony bad guy and simplicity of things is a turn off though. Find a good temple and slot this hook/background into that.

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Fever-Dreaming Marlinko

marl
By Chris Kutalik
Hydra Cooperative

Visit Marlinko, a borderlands city where life takes a strange fever-dream cast …

I suck at describing good things. This thing is Goooooood!

At its core this is a city supplement. It describes a city. It describes a city in which EVERY. SINGLE. THING. Is something that the party can interact/have and adventure with. It is PACKED FULL of adventure seeds. Of quick hit text that strikes in a sentence or two and then moves on. It is one of the clearest examples of excellent writing that is appropriate and directly useful to the GM.

There are these things we know generically as “adventures.” Some of them are traditional plot based things. Some of them are more neutral locations that can be used in your own campaign arcs. Some of them are event based. Some of them are investigations, or mysteries. Some of them are hex crawls. This thing is …. Hmmmm. It’s some combination of a hex crawl and one of those neutral “module” (the old definition of module) locations. Except it’s in a city. And it’s one of the best city supplements every produced, if not the best. If you’ve seen Towers of Kryshal, or the city section of ASE1 then you’re on the right track. But this isn’t Kryshal or ASE1, it’s something different. It’s a all about the city. More, it’s all about DOING things in the city. Not static. Not a shopkeep with lanterns. It’s dynamic. Things are going on. I could be wrong, but I think EVERYTHING in this place can be interacted with, or, rather, has something going on that that can directly impact the characters. It’s not abstracted. It’s not mundane. It’s not interactivity like “you can buy a lantern” or “she’s a fortune teller.” That’s not interactivity, at least not in the way I use the word in these reviews. I use Interactivity in a way that means driving the fun forward. This product is ALL that definition.

I talk about this a lot in dungeons and other place descriptions. Inevitably there’s some a room description that goes something like “10. This is a bedroom. It has a bed. There is a wardrobe. It has clothes in it. There are sheets, blankets and pillows on the bed. There is a lantern on a side table next to the bed.” That is a shitty fucking description. (It’s also the soul of tercity compared to some of the descriptions I’ve seen.) It describes a normal bedroom. I know what a bedroom looks like. You know what a bedroom looks like. More to the point, the bedroom and its contents are irrelevant to the adventure. It is doing nothing to advance the adventure, or for the party to interact with or get into trouble with, or anything like that. Understand, I’m not complaining that’s there is, essentially, an empty room. That kind of shit can sometimes have a purpose. I’m complaining that the adventure was taken up with a bunch of useless text for the DM to wade through. If you’re going to write something then write something that advances the adventure, or the fun, in some way. Similarly, in a town supplement, the entries are full of inn descriptions, or shops, or other stuff that is boringly described. The price of food. Price lists. Boring normal fantasy stuff that is nothing more than window dressing in a B-Movie.

Not. This. Everything in this contributes to the fun. Everything is a hook. Everything is interactive. No boring old descriptions here. The town government building gets a two line description. Here’s the second sentence: “While technically sitting in Golden Swine territory, the structure is open and available to the bribery and graft needs of all citizens.” That pretty much tells you everything to know, in one sentence, and is focused on HOW the party, and/or adventure, will interact with the council. The plaza, outside, has a one sentence description. Here’s the second half: “[the plaza is] filled with clusters of citizens, eccentrics and grifters (though that may be a redundant set of distinctions).” Again, this immediately gives you the feel for the place. You now know, instinctively, how to run the place and what color to add. You mind flies with the possibilities. And it’s clear HOW they will interact with the party and how, possibly, the party will interact with them. Time after time, Place after place. NPC after NPC, this sort of thing takes place. The hiring hall, how they treat scab hirelings, and how they could picket/protest. Complications! Fun! There are a couple of townhome/dungeons provided for two of the major NPC’s/sites, but most of this is directly targeted at the sort of quick hit things that parties get into trouble with, or are looking for, in town. Buying a house? It’s in there! Temples & unguents? Lots of places to go! … with lots of creepiness and/or hooks!

I love cities like this. They directly enhance play, providing a diversion from the dungeons and wilderness with none of the dullness usually associated with Boringtown of BoringLand.

A perfect home base for your party.

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Come To Daddy

c2d
By Anders Lager
Lazy Sod Press
OSR
Levels 4-6

“The battle with the barrow-draugr had taken the most of our energy, and we barely escaped with our lives. The gnome was sorely injured in the leg and everyone was frozen to the bone. The horses and most of our supplies were still left in the draugr cave, where we had to abandon it to save our hides. Times looked bleak and despair had set in for real when Halross shouted: “-Hey, I see a farm over there” A farm out here in the outback? Strange, but in our current situation the prospect of a warm fire and some hot soup seemed like a gift from heaven. Slowly, we started our descent alone the snow filled slopes towards the cosy farm.”

Do you like Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Do you want to play it as an adventure? This is decent. Not great, but certainly better than average. It’s also REALLY not my style. I’m suspicious about my review because of that.

This is a small “survive the night” type adventure set in a rural cabin/farm. It’s decent for what it is, and could be used in any horror type game, including CoC or even planetside. 86 pages for something this short means a loose description style and a lot of support material. It could use a little shoring up in the treasure department.

You’ve seen this sort of thing before, in numerous movies. There’s a cabin in the Woods, the hills have eyes as well as having chainsaws made in Texas. Cannibal murder family meets travellers. Mayhem ensues. This is good and bad. If you’ve ever seen one of these movies then you immediately have the vibe the designer is going for. There’s a line here, too close and you are emulating instead of leveraging. Too far away and you can’t leverage the source material to inspire the DM. This preys on those same sort of memories that my love of folklore in adventures does, this kind of appeal to some deeper psychology found in the soul. Both the DM and the players get to leverage this as they play. The DM is inspired and the players are preloaded with whatever (in this case fear of being hunted and dreamlike powerlessness?) and all of that leveraged for the adventure.

The end result of all of this, in this case, is that the adventure can very nearly be run with just the maps and maybe a monster stat block reference. There’s even some nice maps on the designer’s site for you to print out. Read the adventure once, print out the maps, make a couple of notations, write up a monster ref sheet (which the designers really should have done, considering all of the other reference data provided) and maybe chuck the trap and wandering tables on to it. You could then just about the run the thing without the book after a single read through. That’s … good and bad.Good because, as I mentioned above, the DM grks the adventure immediately. Bad because … well … where the value?

Oh sure … tentacle monsters, horrible aberrations, mutilated prisoners … the little touches of horror here and there build the tension well. Finding any one of them pretty much tips off the party and they are scattered around pretty thick. (More on this later.) But … +3 short sword. Silver necklace. Silver brooch. +1 battle axe. Wand of fear. The treasure is boring and very little of it is themed to the setting/adventure. That’s a pretty major miss.

The entire adventure pretty much relies on one thing: the party staying in the cabin with the family and not catching on till dark. Almost any poking around at all will reveal some kind of horror that will set off the alarm bells in the parties head. I have NO idea how to introduce this thing and make it work. Maybe just a “Sure, you find a little farmhouse and the family is willing to put you up for the night,” ANYTHING else and the party will know something is up. Maybe it’s just me and my courageous group of Murderhobos, but a DM that says ANYTHING is called into question fast. “You have a nice dinner …” ‘NO! No I don’t! I don’t eat ANYTHING! Or drink ANYTHING! I triple lock the door, we all sleep in the same room and post a double guard! Also, I start working on the floorboards and ceiling in case we need a fast escape!’ The adventure encourages you to get the party to trust the hick family. Not. Gonna. Happen.

There’s this taking the bait thing that happens at one shots, con games and sometimes in home games. Everyone knows it a setup but you take the bait anyway because that’s the adventure and you’re here for a good time. That seems out of place here. The odds are weighed against the party and playing this in a Take The Bait fashion seems unfair, because of the lopsided nature. But without taking the bait then the DM must rely on under describing … which again feels a bit … unfair? I just don’t see how to use this.

Once it gets going there’s another problem: why do they stay? Why not just run away? The obvious answer is because half the party is drugged/captured, etc from the meal served … which is also the official version of events. I’m not sure about this. Splitting the party, or asking half the group (or more) to sit out the game is not a recipe for success in the fun department. The only way I can see working is to have the party (or the undrugged character(s)) find the prisoners pretty quickly after the inciting events. This provides a motivation, beyond the party proper, to stick around.

It’s good at what it does. Twisted family. A ghost that could be friendly. Tunnels under the land with hidden entrances. Twisted science experiment creatures. Things from another realm. Scarecrows. Creepy dolls. The dumb brute family member. The knife family member. Pa. Ma. Little girl. Everything you want in a Texas Chainsaw adventure is here. It should be fairly easy to run (if they hook in and stick around.) You could use this in CoC, modern, 1920’s, D&D/Fantasy, and probably even Sci-Fi. The text is long, but you need almost none of it at the table once you do a single quick read-through, especially is you annotate the maps.

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Dungeon Magazine #86

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Anvil of Time
By Tracy Hickman
3e
Level 5

This Dragonlance adventure is a thirty or so room dungeon that is repeated three times, during three different ages. You get kidnapped in, muck about meeting famous people and collecting time travel gems/coordinates in the various ages, and then exit. I am … intrigued by the concept but loathe some of the choices made. The kidnapping/hook, in which the players are just teleported in, is just fucking lazy. “You’re in room 1 of the tomb of horrors and need to get to the end to get out. Go!” There’s also a good bit of “famous people in history” running about. Huma and a dragonlance and orb of dragonkind, Lord Soth, Fistandant … it seems like a weak excuse to name drop rather than something to advance the adventure. There is some lengthy read-aloud and in places even lengthier DM notes, usually describing some contraption in meticulous detail. There’s also some “The bowl is normal and the archway is not harmful” text, which is just bad editing, as is “the room is burned. There was a fire here in the past.”We don’t need to know about the past, even in the time travel adventure. The map could have been better, perhaps with some different colored notations, to note different creatures in different times. Some of the read-aloud and room descriptions make notes of sounds heard or have things in the room impacted by things the next room. These are nice touches that make the rooms seems more alive and help the DM run the adventure. I just can’t get over my distaste for the name dropping and teleport kidnapping hook.

Rana Mor
By Richard Baker
3e
Level 6

Meh. This is supposed to be a ruined temple in a jungle. It feels like a normal dungeon. There’s a journey up river with several forced combats and a couple of encounters that are trying to decent: an old hermit and a faux war party. The temple proper is about forty rooms. It’s got some undead priests, some living cannibal priests, and a couple of animal types that have wandered in. The room descriptions can be quite lengthy, as can the read-aloud, making it difficult to find things during play. Further, they are not very interesting. It just doesn’t feel very much like a jungle temple. The language is stilted and … remote? Cannibals, priests, undead priests a ruined jungle temple, that should be great. Instead it feels like just another dungeon.

Stormdancers
By Ole Munch
3e
Level 3

This is a short adventure through the woods, across a bridge, through a five room cave, up to the top of a mountain. All in a storm. The various encounters are not terrible, although there’s a bit of trap-weariness in the caves. A glass brigde, in a storm, with a couple of mephits harrying the party. A stone circle with air elementals dancing and then, of course, the monster/trap zoo in the wizard caves. The rooms descriptions are VERY lengthy, with every trap getting a long paragraph, explaining too much, and everything seemingly getting a description and background that is not needed. This could have been as a 1-pager or 1 sheet adventure. As a longer adventure it’s torturous to use.

Mysterious Ways
By Thomas Harlan
3e
Level 7

A D&D adventure in the Holy Land during the crusades, for level 7 characters. Did I miss a source book? This seems more than a little idiosyncratic. The long monologue says that a part of the true cross has been stolen. Tracking the hospitaliers to Masada leads to saracen lands, and then to Petra to face the final enemy. Long read-alouds in monologues form at the start of the two halves of the adventure. A lot of DM text telling you the historical significance of an area and/or what happened there in the past. Really nothing more than a couple of fights, with little text to support the DM run an evocative/living environment. 🙁

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The Fungus Forest

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By Carl Nash & Lee Reynoldson
Self Published
OSR
Levels … 3-4?

This adventure details a cave system of eighty or so rooms stuffed full of mushrooms and fungus. There are at least seven major factions running around inside, with several other random individuals and scattered unaligned monsters. There’s no motivation for initial exploration, but several possibilities, although once in there are several things can be done for the various factions. It’s got a decent layout, above average, to be sure, for a pay what you want product.

I am convinced that a good dungeon (an exploratory one, anyway) lives and dies by its social content. Without a social element the dungeon can be one-dimensional, combat after combat, and therefore boring. The set-piece design, spicing up combat, is not a solution, nor are traps or puzzles. A strong mix with a STRONG social element is the solution. Variety. The cave system here has seven major factions in the caves. Most, but not all, will talk to the party in one way or another. Most would like to see at least one of the other factions wiped out. They are varied enough to provide some variety in how they play and how the party interacts with them. In addition to the factions, and the mini-quests they can hand out, there are several unaligned individuals, each with their own goals. The friendly merman, the crazy old mage, the sad ghost, the witch. Most of the factions would like to see at least one of them wiped out. Most of the individuals are harmless or at least not as odious as the people wanted them killed. Moral quandaries! Yeah! In short, there are a lot of folks to interact with, get into trouble with, ally with, and have fun with. Good Time, good times.

The encounters tend toward two types: someone lives here or magic mushrooms. Someone lives here is pretty obvious, and it’s usually tied to one of the factions. Mushroom farming, guard rooms, defences and so forth. Magic Mushroom caves usually have a mushroom of sort in them, with some magical effect. In spite of many of the rooms being stuffed full of magic mushrooms, the rooms tend to the mundane side of the spectrum. Upside down waterfalls and other weird unexplained things (other than the shrooms) are pretty rare occurrences. In essence, take a normal cave room in a simple dungeon, shove it full of mushrooms, and call it a day. This is a little harsh but I would contend that the encounters tend more toward that side of the spectrum than they do The Fantastic. Most of the encounters have a couple of longish paragraphs that describe them, generally an appearance paragraph and then an effects paragraph. Here’s one of the better ones: “Dotted around this cave are seven large globular Fly Puffball Mushrooms. They wobble and shake and a faint humming noise can be heard coming from within them.” That’s not terrible. I would call it great, either, but there is an effort. There is some … misplaced? information in places that doesn’t do the DM any favors when hunting the wumpus for information during play. For example, you can parlay with the goblin tribe. They meet you at the entrance to their complex and escort you to meet the king. In the descriptions of the kings throne room you’re told that the king does NOT meet with parlay folks in that room, instead he meets with them in a different room. That room has no mention of the parlay at all, it’s just a pretty non-descript room. I understand, I think, the logic. The king is the one that parlays and the king is normally in his throne room so the parlay is described under the king description in the throne room. But that’s not what the ‘usual’ occurrence for the parlay, I would assert. This being D&D, the fucking players will probably end up parlaying with him on the other side of the map entirely, but, still, it seems off to me. I could cite other example of this organization logic as well.

The map is pretty, but I think may be a bit linear. It is, essentially, a ring road with passage off of it. There’s a river running through things, and some teleport circles that can add some variety. Once in a “section”, though, it’s essentially just side passages. It’s colorful, with some features on it like a few slopes and ledges. It could have been improved with, perhaps, some notations of which rooms have enemies in them (a small red dot or something?) Given the faction play, and the way some areas may mobilize (which is usually well detailed and not verbose) it would have perhaps been useful to have that data to help run the game a bit smoother without either having to do it yourself or hunt through the book during play to find out who can hear/see/notice nearby. That’s really just nit picking though, the map is serviceable.

Treasure seems a bit light to me. Gold required to level becomes a bit high at levels 3-4 (which I think this area is targeted at.) There are a couple of rooms with hoard-like treasures but I think the entirety could be doubled or tripled to get to some decent loot for Gold=XP games. I’m pretty sure this is targeted at those sorts of games, so the lightness seems weird. Likewise the magic seems a bit … off. The potions and scrolls are just potions and scrolls. The shields are +2, maybe with a logo of St Gygax on them. Not exactly exciting content there. There’s a unique magic item or three which are much more interesting. Better descriptions, more unique instead of book, scrolls on fey skin, wings embedded, or potions with eyes in them or dead dark fey … that’s the way I want in my magic items. There is some REALLY great mundane treasure though, including some dark fey/pixies rapped in amber jewelry and so on. Nice!

There’s an ok wandering table, with most of them doing something, and an ok but not great rumor table. I like my rumors a little more … conversational. A tidbit overheard, and so on. While there’s no hook there is enough in the dungeon to give the players one … although I would have liked to see it better integrated into the rumors table. The treasure hoards of the fey, the immortality mushroom, and so on. More not-pickings.

I’m keeping this, but I think it’s on the edge of what I usually keep. I may be unduly influenced by fey, caves, and mushrooms being present.Large social environments are not the most common thing to encounter, though, and the writing is probably evocative enough to kickstart the DM. This is pay what you want at DriveThu, etc.

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