The Snake’s Heart

By Brian ‘Fitz’ Fitzpatrick
Moebius Adventures
Mazes & Peril/S&W
Level 1-2

As our heroes head past the small village of Elhann, they find themselves drawn into a battle that could lead to the end of the world… A local bandit is kidnapping children from this and other villages – but why? Will our heroes get to the bottom of the mystery before it’s too late?

This 34 page adventure has five encounters related to cultists capturing children and taking them to their snake cult tower to sacrifice. It uses film narrative for introductions, is linear, repetitive, and makes me want to bang my head on my desk until I leave a bloody smear. It DOES make use of classic tropes, which I’m a sucker for, and has an interesting “event” table or two. That doesn’t make up for being linear, overwritten and pretentious.

The adventure opens with “Over Black: Drums beat in the distance, like the heartbeat of the land.” and then continues with a narrator voice over. Judging a book by its cover it bad. Throwing up in your mouth a little and pondering the ultimate meaning of a meaningless life and the existential paradox because of the first two sentences of an adventure seems, though, like a learned habit.

I want to repeat again: 34 pages. Five encounters (Seven if you count two interludes.) I recently looked over an eight page adventure that contained enough for about six sessions. A recent 24 page adventure I looked over had enough content for six months of play. This one has five encounters in 34 pages. You fight 6 bandits at a village. You get attacked on the road to the bandit tower. You get attacked going in the front door. Then you have a CHOICE! You can go to the basement full of crying children and kill some bandits OR go upstairs and kill some chanting cultists! Clearly, a sandbox adventure, obviously. 34 fucking pages. Nine fucking dollars. For that. Each encounter is two to three pages. For a fight with six bandits, which is what most of them are.

I will give the adventure one thing: for a linear plot shitfest it DOES inject some color. Each encounter has a small/short table of ten entries to spice things up. During the village attack you get such things as a bandit dumping a villager in a well, a child running from two bandits, setting a bandit on fire with hot coals, and so on. Likewise a table of things a crazy old man says, or things you overhear the bandits talking about. It’s all just window dressing though. Like those 2d fighting video games. There’s a background, people cheering, or cars racing by. But it doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t really contribute to the adventure. Yeah, its great to see a villager thrown down a well in a village attack. But devoting half a page to window dressing? Over and over again?

It does have a certain Conan appeal. Bandits putting kids in cages. A tower with cultists actually chanting and sacrifice children as the party appears. Nice. But it’s also VASTLY oversimplified and simultaneously wordy to the point of ridiculousness.

Clearly going for a cinematic vibe. Linear, film narrative at the start of each encounter. But there’s just NOTHING to this adventure to warrant it. This is entire adventure is ¼ column in better designed product.

The $9 PDF is on DriveThru. The preview shows you the table of contents. That should be illuminating in terms of content as see it has five encounters. Page two has that great “heartbeat of the land” narration, which you can expect more of at every encounter, setting the scene. The last page shows you page ONE of the two page first encounter. It just repeats the same stuff, including the bandit stat blocks.–A-Lost-Age-Adventure-Mazes–Perils

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Secrets of the Wyrwoode

By Luigi Castellani
Artikid Arts
Levels 5-7

The standing stones at the heart of the ancient forest known as the Wyrwoode once was the headquarter of a savage druid cult. But those barbaric days lie in the past. Or do they? Children are being kidnapped on new moon nights as fairy raiders from the old forest rampage throughout the Downs. Are you going to be the hero that brings peace to the duchy? Or are you going to use for evil the secrets discovered in the fairy realm on the Other Side?

This is a 48 page adventure in the woods with a fey theme. There’s an old wood with a few weird things in, but notably a ring of standing stones. On the new moon you can get to a shadow realm on the fey side, with a bunch of fey themed encounters. The encounters are trying, but the writing comes off as mechanical and bland. They also tend more toward the prescriptive side of the descriptive scale, meaning they tend to the long side of things. Cursive fonts on the maps are not a plus, nor are boring wanderers. The idea behind this is good, but the execution suffers much.

I’m fond of fey-themed adventure,good ones anyway, that come with a heavy dose of old folklore in them. The strengths of this adventure are when it’s channeling that sort of thing. Standing stone with portals to elf lands under a new moon, rivers to drink from, fairy/mushroom circles, a classic folklore ogre on a bridge, old barrow tombs and humans abducted by the fey, goblins as merchants and nixies in the water … and saintly bones that can be used as a ward against the fey. This has a smattering of each in it. Many, if not most, of the creatures have some ability to talk to the party. In the case of pixies you have to put up with them. In the case of others you have to beat them in to surrender or bribe them in to friendliness. Most have a smattering of what they know about nearby. This adds some length to those encounters but make no mistake: anything you can interact with other than stabbing, or who doesn’t just fight to the death, is a positive mark.

Many minimally keyed adventures have expansive text, and this is no different. By minimal keying I mean a rather simple set up. The text expands on that, but not really in a useful way. Generally this is by endlessly droning on about what the room used to be used for, or describing the room in minute detail … neither of which have much to do with the core concepts of the room and/or adventure. They describe the wrong things. This adventure doesn’t do that, but it does go down another minimal keying/expansive text route. An encounter with pixies is a page and a quarter. It’s the usual pixie encounter; they fuck with you. A quarter of the text is what they know about the other encounter locations. There’s a fairy ring that takes up some text, along with a random table. The rest is a “pixies fuck with you” text expanded to fill the space. Note that this isn’t example of how they fuck with you, it’s just the saying “there are pixies & they fuck with you” in eight different ways. Nothing specific. No examples. The ability to expand an encounter in this way is truly magnificent. A river crossing is half a page. An ogre on a bridge is TWO PAGES. One column to describe a wrestling match. One column to describe a riddle contest. A column about paying a toll. It’s prescriptive in that is describe a lot of IF-THEN and goes in to more detail than necessary on mechanics, and generic in that it tends to be mechanical in its descriptions. But each has a nugget and the nugget is good. Dozens of bare skulls or pale faces looking up at you from the depths of the river with a blank, dreamy stare. The ogre is a former king, enslaved by the elf fey. There’s just too much ADDITIONAL text, and that subtracts from the overall encounters rather than adding to it.

It has some decent magic items in it, like the bones of the saint that can be used to turn fey. That’s a nice old world vibe. It’s a location that you’re going to have to bring your own adventure to. There are some hooks offered, but they are not very interesting. The usual ‘someone got stolen by fairies’ stuff, and not very much more than what I just typed. You’re going to have to bring your own reasons for the party to get involved and dig in to the site. But even then, the adventure suffers. The old road reads directly to the standing stones. Most of the encounters are off to the side in the woods, but there’s not really much reason to go there, if any. Likewise on the other side the Court of Thorns castle is visible, meaning there’s really only one encounter that’s going to pop before then. It needs more interrelated things to get the party moving around between the encounters. A rumor in the castle, sending the party to the barrows, which send the party to … and so on. It’s not that I’m suggesting every adventure needs that narrative, but that this one lacks the motive to explore the obvious locations.

The middle section, in the Fey Castle, also suffers from a mismatch in genre. The adventure switches from an encounter-based one to a social one, as you interact with people in the court. But it’s still described in typical room/key format. It COULD turn in to a hack, but it almost certainly starts as a social adventure and that is just cumbersomely described in typical room/key style. It doesn’t help that many of the rooms have the same occupant types and they get a full stat block in each room, even though there is already a full stat block on the same page for the same set of creatures. This is a great example of where a reference sheet could have helped. Pulling out all of those stat blocks would have GREATLY reduced their number and page count, delivering an adventure that was easier to use at the table for the DM.

The preview on DriveThru is nine pages long. It doesn’t really show you anything though but the introductory text and a little background.

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Dungeon Magazine #132

Wingclipper’s Revenge
By Christopher Wissel
Level 4

There’s nothing to this “fey type” themed adventure. The party is assigned a mission, they take a linear path through a forest, having linear combat encounters, reach a destination and have more linear encounters. Everything attacks. It’s just all combat. You know how to detect when you are being tricked? The NPC doesn’t start combat immediately. That’s your clue that you should just stab the due in the eye socket. It’s got a gossamer bridge made of webbing crossing a river, and an old cart all viney and other interesting little snippets of scenery, but it ruins it by just sticking in a combat. The thinning forest gives way to a blasted region of swampland (ok start.) “This area may have once been a very mossy, wetland glen, full of sprites and darting creatures.” (the adventure tells us, boringly.) “A greasy smoke hangs over everything” (yeah! nice!) “the once-prevalent trees being hacked down.” (boo! conclusion!) There’s a wooden signpost with a pixie crucified on it. Ouch. Guess the DM fucked with PC one too many times, eh? But, this is a good example of the adventures encounters. A mixed description that does a halfway decent job setting up a vivid little scene. These are not uncommon. Nor are the “and then they attack” words that are attached to every encounter. It’s mini-combat with a little pretext wrapped around and nicer terrain than most mini-combat folks make an effort at.

Caverns of the Ooze Lord
By Campbell Penney
Level 8

Slime themed cult. IE: Jubilex. Poor Jubliex. A pretext brings you to a village. If you get them to talk to you then you learn strange things are going on. (Weird! In a D&D village?!?!) Poking about reveals a slime cult and pointers to a cave system nearby. The caves go hog wild with the slime theme. It’s a little one-note in the “the slime creature attacks” department, but it does have a few things like pits, slopes, and crystal walls, pools and the like that the previous adventure didn’t have. It aso takes two pages to describe the slime cult in the village, far too long for what you get/need. This being Dungeon the wordiness continues in the encounters. Here’s the DM notes for a room with four pools of slime in it: “Morbion created these four pools of olive slime by using stone shape to create two-foot-deep hollow depression in the floor. He then transplanted a batch of olive slime to each and has been cultivating the four over the past several days in an attempt to develop variant forms of the ooze. So far, his experiments have met with failure and he’s only grown four patches or ordinary olive slime.” So, basically, there’s four pools of slime in a Jubliex temple? Who woulda thunk it! A great example of padding your word count using backstory that has nothing to do with the adventure at the table.

The Library of Last Resort
By Nicolas Logue
Level 16

I always seem to forget that Dungeon has this Age of Worms things in it. Perhaps it’s all the rubbing alcohol I drink after reviewing each one. Something like two of two and a half pages of read-aloud relate some backstory and the next steps, which involve going to find a library to tell the party where an undead dragons soul is hidden. There are a couple of small encounters in the library ruins … including orcs you can talk to! Then it’s through a magic gate to talk to some druid asshats who make you “conduct the trials!” Three or four quests/combats on the island also have you meeting a dude sporting the Hand of Vecna. Score! That’s the hand and one of the parts of the Rod of Seven Parts, for those keeping score! Anyway, more plot combat, a dream sequence with still more plot combat, and you’re done. It’s all about following the line to the next place and having a fight. It’s remarkable the extent of the backstory provided to try and enable that.

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The Weird That Befell Drigbolton

By Greg Gorgonmilk & Gavin Norman
Necrotic Gnome Productions
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 3-5

Something fell. A sickly gloaming lit up the night like mock daylight, just for a moment, and then the hills trembled. Now, an alien entity lies brooding in a crater gouged out of the moor. Local folk are enraptured with the toothsome jelly exuded by this being, but are blind to the true nature of the events unfolding in their rustic little backwater.

This 63 page digest details a small region around the village of Drigbolten, and the events currently transpiring. There are about eleven locations detailed, about half of those have another dozen or so sub-locations. It’s laid out sandbox style, with a regional, a goal, and a timeline for what could happen independent of the party. It’s weird, has some good ideas, feeling a bit like a Lamentations adventure without the death metal flavor. It’s also got a rather ponderous writing style that turns sentences in to paragraphs and hides the important bits the DM wants.

I like an adventure with flavor you can hang your hat on. Something in the adventure that you see and say “Oh yeah, I’m gonna love running this!” There’s an element to both creativity and writing in that, both contributing towards the same goal. Getting the DM worked up and visualizing things in their head, easily, is no mean feat and critical to producing an adventure that the DM can use as a springboard to their own filling in of the details. This thing has more than few of those moments. Starting with the most obvious: the star jelly. When the party arrive they see the villagers slurping this stuff down. Adding it to their beer. Adding it to their bread. Eating it. Drinking it. They all think it’s mana from heaven. As you read this you just KNOW how things are going to know. You get that little gleam in your eye. The wonderful ways you’re going to present the villagers consuming it, their fervent belief in its mana-like nature … and the parties horror-filled reactions. It’s telegraphed, but in a good way. You’re building tension with the party in a communal way. You know what’s going to happen. THEY know what’s going to happen. The fun is getting there together … and they get to plan and plot and all the other things that lead to goofy plans going wrong. There’s another strong example in the Rooms of Repast. The villagers have a room in their homes where they keep their dead relatives and ritually/symbolically feed them, in an ancestor-worship like dealeo. So, DM’s of the world, which if you is NOT grinning ear to ear right now imagining presenting this to the party and then seeing their reactions? Giant meteor crater, lots of wealth from the ore scattered about, and some locals with strange ideas add up to everyone sharing the secret and reveling in it. I’ve presented the best examples but there are a few more at other locations.

Given how poorly it’s generally implemented, you’d think that a sandbox adventure was rocket science. It’s not. The designer here has all of the elements included that you need. There’s a region with a variety of locations, some detailed and some single encounter locations. There’s some NPC’s to interact with and be both foil and a driver of action. There’s a reason to get to the region and travel around in it, the hooks. And there’s a timeline. The timeline is, in this adventure, what is driving the action. Each day the villagers eat more star jelly and certain things happen to them (SURPRISE! Wait, no one was surprised?), with the timeline detailing those changes and events. Likewise a few other locations in the region have timelines. Things happen. Not in a railroad plot manner, but in the natural course of events if the players don’t intervene. This is ‘plot’ done right.

The adventure comes with three reference sheets. You can think of these as a one-page dungeon. It presents a map and then a small summary of each location, with the expanded text for each location being found the main booklet. Similar things were done in Stonehell and maze of the Blue Medusa and it’s a good concept. Read the text and then run the adventure from the summary, relying on your memory and the text in the summary queueing that, with some quick thumb-backs when needed. It’s not done to as great an effect here as I recall in other adventures. The descriptions for the various locations concentrate on the mundane rather than the interesting and gameable, almost as if it were a travelogue to be handed out to the players. The pond mentions good fishing, but not why. The entries are all missing that last little bit to get the adventure going. Each entry DOES have a page reference, to go to for the real encounter text, something that more adventures could do. (Well, not Stonehell or Blue Medusa, those pages are obvious due to proximity.) Some timeline summaries appear on the reference sheets also, but these probably could all been pulled off and put together with the other timelines on a single, separate reference sheet. “Home of Miglin the Goatkeep” doesn’t really help. Miglin needs his personality added, as well as the little tidbit that drives action around him.

There are some things to quibble with with the organization. An appendix could have used for things like the Star Jelly description, to find it more easily and get the data dumps out of the main text. The hooks are not the best, being of the “sent on a mission” variety. The whole “starmetal is valuable” thing could have been worked up a bit more, instead of just having it as a pretext for someone to hire the party and put them under geas. A “gold rush” timeline would have just added to the chaos.

The major problem, though, is the ponderous nature of the text. Everything is drawn out and written in an indirect style. Lots of modifying clauses at the beginning of sentences, with detail and repetition that goes on. Pike Pond, one of the minor locations, is a good example. There’s a brief three sentence introduction, that we might call the “normie” description. The village men really like to fish here, the fish are easily caught, and there are pike present also. But then there’s a half page more description to tell us this is all because of WIllow the water nymph, who mates with the men in the spring, and the plump fishes internal anatomy is distinctly human. The text is trying to be a little too clever and flowery. I love flavorful text and words, but the real skill is in doing it tersely.

I want to like this. It’s trying to do everything right and it’s got that kind of strong pretext/flavor that I like. Making this work will require a highlighter for the main text and using the reference sheets to take some serious notes on. Conceptually, it’s good, but it could lose half to a third of its pages/text to a STRONG edit and be MUCH better. Combine that with a little reorganization and a rework of the reference sheets and you’d have a good adventure that was easy to run at the table. As is, it’s a good adventure that’s not easy to run at the table.

The preview on DriveThru has six pages. Pages three through six cover the core background summary (glad to see that included!), the hooks, and a bit about the timeline. Those pages do a pretty good job of being representative of the writing style. The same sort of voice/style is used throughout. You should be able to see how they could be shortened up by half to a third and still retain the color and flavor, while bringing more focus to the text.

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The Crocodile’s Tear

By Geoff Gander
Expeditious Retreat Press
Levels 3-6

A wealthy patron is outfitting an expedition to sail to the mysterious southern continent. The goal of the expedition is none other than the legendary Crocodile’s Tear: a massive magical emerald! Many tales are told about the southern continent, most of which paint it as a disease-ridden jungle filled with hostile natives, reachable only by crossing a pirate- and monster-infested sea. As the port winds fade into the winds of the open sea, the sails of The Mermaid billow firmly. Will the player characters survive the voyage, and will they find more than they bargained for? Oh, and was it mentioned that that two other trips set out before this one only to be swallowed up by the dense jungle…

This thirteen page adventure has a 25 day sea voyage, a forty mile jungle trek, and then a nineteen room abandoned temple, all to recover a giant emerald. It’s sparse on content, with only a few encounters in each area and is pretty free with the generalizations, rather than the specifics that bring an adventure to life, where the inter-village politics are concerned. Considering the jungle is one third of the adventure…and there’s no wanderers for the jungle, AND the ocean voyage is parse, AND the first ten rooms of the nineteen room temple are devoid of t-birds for daddy to take away … it seems likely that the adventure was built around a single encounter, the last one.

The adventure essentially starts with the a sea journey of 25-ish days to the fetid “southern continent.” You have 5 encounters to pick from for wanderers: a pirate ship, a skeleton ship, a squid, a sea hydra and some flotsam … “The GM should decide whether there is anything of interest.” The reviewer already has. No. No there is not. This gets back to the old issue of value being provided. Is it enough for an adventure you buy to just list a monster encounter, in ultra-minimal keyed format? That is what this adventure is doing with the wandering monster table for a 25 day sea voyage. What value does this content add over the tables freely available, or included in the book? “Giant squid attacks” is not value.

Likewise the 40-mile steaming hike through the fetid jungle with hostile natives. Only in this case there’s no wandering monster table at all. Or much of an adventure, really. Just the description of a couple of tribes, one paragraph each, and a couple of village descriptions, only two of which are likely to be relevant to the adventure. They can be summed up as “friendly” and “hostile”, with no other interesting roleplay opportunities in them. There’s a little bit going on with a couple of other villages, but not much more than “they tolerate outsider better” or “they have pearls to trade”, and, they are unlikely to come up in play since you’ll have a guide to take you directly where you want to go.

The temple is partially submerged in a lake, which has some interesting aspects as you attempt to build a raft and get to it while avoiding the hostile natives in the nearby village that also fish in the lake. After that it’s in to the ziggurat. The first ten rooms are, essentially, empty. They might contain a minor treasure or two, but the only thing mildly interesting is a secret door to a hidden sub-level. Under that is five or encounters in a linear map. It is most likely here that the first monster will be encountered” 6 fungus men and a crocodile. Finding the emerald there’s a brief time travel scene where you fight an evil king and his warriors, with the fate of the emerald (full power magic item or just a ‘minor’ 1d6 healing a turn) being decided.

So, book wandering monsters in the sea. No wanderers, or encounters, in the jungle. Three in the temple (probably.) What, you might ask, is in the adventure.

The usual nonsense, I sez me. “The king used to use this room for …” and boring descriptions of boring filler rooms. Over and over. This room once contained a chapel. The old king spent much of his time here. The wall paintings have been defaced … but there’s no ‘adventure’ or clue related to that, so it’s just window dressing. This room once housed. It’s frustrated just how little content there is and how what little there is fails to drive action. Detail, without being related to driving the adventure, is worthless. Further, it tends to distract and get in the way. Are there exceptions? Sure. But that’s why they call them exceptions. For almost everyone writing an adventure that detail will be worthless, just filler words to pad the thing out so you can get your pay-per-word fulfilled.

It’s $14 for a 13 page PDF on DriveThru. The preview will show you the ocean voyage and the “background” to the jungle, and map illustrating why most of that background is useless.

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Dungeon Magazine #131

The Beasts of Aulbesmil
By Skip WIlliams
Level 3

Nice to see Dungeon back in the business of publishing crap. You’re in a village for some lame pretext (an old friend is gone. The church has asked you to investigate … or the baron hires you to find his kidnapped son because his men might be recognized, which is a decent hook.) People have disappeared. Everyone thinks the miller is evil and is behind things. If you go to the mill you are attacked by the evil wererat miller and his thugs. Orcs in the barons hunting cabin are in league with the miller and hold the son. So you show up, get a miller clue, and confront the bad guy in the first ten minutes? “You go to the grocery. Everyone gains two levels.” You do, however, get to learn ALL about how the wererat committed his thefts and murders. Useless information. History and backstory are so seldom of use. The fetish around novelization is depressing.

The Hateful Legacy
By Greg A. Vaughan
Level 12

This ‘Lost Valley’ adventure starts with an attack by an awakened dire ape ranger. And that, alone, was enough to let me know how this thing was going to go. A society of warrior ogres guards the entrance in some kind of watchtower at a chokepoint. (Which might actually have been interesting, but I can’t for the fucking life of me decipher the map. I THINK the entrance MIGHT be area 7, but that doesn’t make sense either … Anyway, it has two more set pieces after the first two and then you get to pick up a bunch of coins in treasure. Joy. The whole transition from adventure and wonder to set-pieces with columns of pages of tactics has been more than a little disappointing for me. The mania to constrain the DM with rules was not a good path.

The Prince of Redhand
By Jesse Decker
Level 15

And then there’s the eighth installment of Age of Worms. Only four more after this. This is meant to be a social adventure. You need to talk to an elf, and she lives in a bandit town. Once there your only opportunity to talk to her is at a dinner banquet. There is a small dragon lair some Ebon Triad nonsense to go kill, if the players insist on stabbing someone who’s not a commoner. Rather than integrating the social aspects in the adventure, or integrating them in to other episodes, they instead have “the musical episode”; disappointing. Getting through the front gate takes a page of text to say nothing important. One event is “you roll some dice and regardless of the results you get an invitation to the banquet.” Another one is “you go to the elf house and get turned away at the door.” Maybe six “events” before the banquet and maybe as many at the banquet proper. The banquet has a host of NPC’s, with appearances, personalities, goals and so on, but it’s all presented in giant text form … meaning you’ll need to take copious notes to run it. Tables. USE. A. FUCKING. TABLE. TO. SUMMARIZE. Ug. Anyway, the events are longer than they need to be, of course, and this being 3e they amount to little more than some skill rolls. That’s too bad. The end result is that the elf chick agrees to talk to yu in a couple of days … the next episode. The events here are little more than a railroad, both before and during the party. That’s too bad. There’s a nugget of interesting adventure here, with a social dinner party and wacky nobles from the capitol … fodder for a 1000 LARPs, but it’s awkward to run.

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The Secret Machines of the Star Spawn

By Mark Taormino
Maximum Mayhem Dungeons
Level 6-10

Locals have been hearing whispers of strange happenings around the Ancient Volcano. Rumors over the last several years of an unspeakable evil that has risen up inside. An evil that “fell from the stars”. There is something wicked and devilish going on inside. Highwaymen report of strange creatures, mechanical monsters, horrible beasts and “little green men” that are roaming the land. You and your stalwart adventurers have decided to take on the challenge of plundering the mountain for the treasure within! Oh and get to the bottom of these dastardly stories as well!

My life is a living hell. This 44 page “adventure” is a linear railroad with aliens and technology. It’s written like your 7th grade dungeon master created it: adversarial with lots of tits. I actually went and looked up the designer to make sure it wasn’t the FATAL guy. It’s not. But he did make $3k from the kickstarter for this, and $11k from his latest kickstarter. This piece of shit is the closest I’ve seen someone get to WG7. I often cite expectations, and have a strict taxonomy. Put another way, I don’t give a flying fuck what you publish but you damn well better do a good job disclosing what it is so we don’t have to buy your crap.

I am supposed to start off saying something nice. The highlights. I’m struggling. It’s got a decent number of new monsters, themed to the adventure, nicely illustrated, and most with some interesting themed effects. One of the aliens has a “brain freeze” power, for example. One or two of the room descriptions, in read-aloud, are not terrible. A few of the encounters have an interesting set up. There’s a robot head you can pick up who talks to you and can operate technology/explain things. You can find his body parts and rebuild him. A somewhat interesting little NPC, a fun little side-task to accomplish. That’s good. One or two of the rooms have a decent description, like the room walls made up of thousands of gears of different sizes and directions and speeds, with a large black lever in the middle of the room. Jokes on you though, that lever, and entire room, does nothing. It’s just there to fuck with the players. Most of the descriptions … functional? But they tend to digress to being overly descriptive and long. In other words, the first couple of sentences gives a plain fact-based description of the room “This is a huge two hundred foot wide cavernous volcano chamber. It is divided by a jagged chasm where lava now ows. It is about forty feet wide and the lava ows into the deep underground realms beyond the volcano depths.” Functional, but not necessarily exciting. But then it goes on to describe more and more and more instead of just stopping. And that room is one of the shortest descriptions. The read-aloud can go on for paragraphs. Or columns. Or, in the case of the introduction/background: pages. This overly prescriptive description issue is key indicator that things are not in Adventureville.

And well they are not. The start map is a single linear hallway with rooms either hanging off of it or the hallway running to the rooms. No choice or decisions. The rooms are even better. Every one of the starting rooms. Six of the first seven rooms have monsters that either attack immediately or attack within one round. This is not an unusual occurrence. You walk in to a room you can’ avoid and the monsters attack immediately. That’s not a D&D adventure, that’s a caricature of a D&D adventure. The room encounters support this. “As the players enter the room the door they came through disappears!” We all know why, right? Because the designer has some “clever” or “fun” encounter that he wants to force the players into.

There’a creature you fight, the Dungeon Breaker, that, as far as I can tell, is never described anywhere.

One room has a teleporter. Each character is required to use it to continue the adventure. There is either a 50% or a 75% chance it will malfunction, the adventure mentions both numbers. If it malfunctions there is a 3-in-8 chance of instant death and a 3-in-8 chance of facing a BIG monster by yourself, and a 1-in-8 chance of being replaced with an evil clone. Do I need to explain this?

Up until now it’s just a bad adventure. Too much read-aloud. Linear. Almost nothing besides straight up combat. You could mistake it for a bad 4e adventure (or pre-DCC RPG Goodman adventures …) or something created by a 12 year old jr high kid. But then that 12 year turned 13 and hit puberty. And inflicted himself on others. The issue is not the prurient humor, or the tit-heavy sexualized art. I like to think of them as an exponent. If a good adventure is a “1” and you get a point added every time you do something crappy, then loud belches and cheescake are en exponent. 1, squared is 1, still a good adventure. 5, squared, is 25. It’s the icing on the cake that sends you in to suger coma. “Chocolate Thunder” is a black woman with a large afro in a tiny bikini who yells “Watch it sucka!” Ain’t nothing wrong with any of that. Everyone should have the balls to pull off that kind of style. But when in this shitty adventure its clear what the intent it, and it’s not positive. Likewise the tit-heavy gypsies. Or the mind flayer grabbing a womans tits with its tentacles. Or “the fat princess”

The preview on DriveThru will show you the art sample, as well as give you a hint of the humor style in the start of the barons page and half read-aloud on the last page of the preview. I’d read that last page, just to lighten up your day.

$3k on Kickstarter. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce.
Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce.
Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce.

Posted in Reviews | 15 Comments

Guests for DInner

By Jon Aspeheim
Level 0-2

The ground collapsed and you fell into a cave, with no way of climbing up you have to find your way out through ancient catacombs. That would be bad enough even if the tunnels was not the home of demon worshiping cannibals, zombies and a mutated cat!

This short little ten page adventure has about eleven rooms of content on about five pages. It describes a small underground dungeon that is being used by a cannibal cult. It touches on some true gruesomeness that really brings home the evilness of the main villain. It’s also written in a mostly boring style that doesn’t really evoke the environment very well … at all. It’s pretty clear what the intent is, it just doesn’t get there.

While out in the woods, a sinkhole opens under you and you end up in a cavern, with no way back up. There’s a worked stone hallway leading out. Thus begins your adventure in to an Eli Roth movie. Walking around the complex you meet zombies, cultists, a prisoner, a demon statue with blood around its mouth, a pretty girl that’s been lobotomized, a villain that unfolds insectoid arms from his back, and a prisoner on a butcher table that’s had his arms and legs removed, having been eaten earlier.

You know, I’m a fan of showing instead of telling. If the adventure said “Lord Vazzo is evil” the players would hack him. A demon altar with blood on it? Ok, sure, he’s worshipping evil, but maybe it’s animal blood. They might let him off. Showing the players the girl he lobotomized and then showing them the prisoner they ate limbs off off, Cormac McCarthy-Road style, will REALLY cement Lord Vazzo’s sins in their psyche. This is an excellent, if gruesome, showing of evil instead of telling of evil. You don’t need to be gruesome, but it’s hard to argue that Lord Vazzo is evil after some encounters like this one has.

Vazzo is a non-standard villain, with insect legs that unfold from his back and a demon cat. Those touches are appreciated since they take what could otherwise be a boring old NPC evil bad guy and weird him up a bit. There’s also a prisoner to free and a demon state that you can pour blood in to the mouth of. Just enough to weird the place up a bit.

Unfortunately, the writing is not very strong. “Boring”, would be a better description, with only a few exceptions. The pool of water you fall in to at the start is “Really cold” and “very deep.” A table is described as being “a nice table.” Really, very, nice: these are not descriptive words. They are generic and don’t paint a good picture of the scene because of it. Ice cold. Bone chillingly cold, rattle your bones, bottomless, gleaming antique … these are all better descriptions than nice, very, and really … and I would continue to remind everyone that I SUCK at evocative descriptions.

While a scriptorium is “sparsely furnished with wooden benches and desks”, a good, terse description, others drone on and/or delve in to trivia useless to the room. “Some of the zombies Vazzo uses as patrolling guards are becoming too rotten and have left stinking trails in his library. He now keeps them locked up in here until he can decide what to do with them.” This tells us nothing except they are rotten, which could have been with a shorter and more evocative monster description. The descriptions are mostly boring, being medium-length descriptions that describe typical examples of a room of that type. Oh, look, a normal dining room. Noting the exceptions I mentioned, everything else is just flat and boring.

It does present some simple & short rules for Level-0 funnels for D&D, and a very small village description, four shops, with about one sentence each. A nice terse short village. A little short, but at least one of the descriptions has an interconnection to another shop. A couple of people in the dungeon have ties to the village; this should have been mentioned up higher so the party could encounter them before their horrifying reveal.

The two-page sample on DriveThrough will show you the very brief village and funnel rules, but unfortunately you don’t actually get a sample of the room encounter style.

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Dungeon Magazine #130

Within the Circle
By Sam Brown
Level 1

This short little adventure has a nice introduction and wilderness section combined with a rather disappointing little twelve room dungeon at the end. It’s meant to kick off a Yuan-ti themed campaign, I believe. The party, retainers of a Baron, have dinner with a man from a remote village. He tells of the village being poisoned, livestock killed, crops in disrepair, all from a goblin demanding tribute. Later, in private, the Baron tells the party the real mission: that he wants them to check out a depot nearby that he was tasked with burning down when young. He questions now, that he is wiser, how he has risen in power, and why. The villagers act like villagers, the goblin is dealt with, briefly, and information on his lair is the same as the depot, which can be learned from him or fro some ambushing lizardmen, who retreat in deference when they learn they made a mistake ambushing the party.

Up until this point the adventure is pretty good by Dungeon standards. Lots of words, and read-aloud, but the motivations make sense and nothing is really forced. Parts of what going on could have been emphasized more, with trivia deemphasized, but it’s there, somewhere in the text … and its not as bad as the usual Dungeon fair in terms of wordiness. It’s a nice little thing that doesn’t really force the players in to anything, after the initial hook .. and I can even forgive that seeing as this is meant to be a campaign kickoff.

The goblin lair has bad read-aloud and is more confusing than normal. It’s mostly linear, with a lot of background and history clogging up the text. In one room, the main entrance, there’s a trap with a bag of giant centipedes. I still have no idea which door, or side of the door, that trap is on. Most of the rooms FEEL boring, even though there are one or two goblins with some motivations other than “KILL!” A matron protects the young with a spear, warding the party away but not attacking until she is. Another goblin spies behind a table and then tries to run away. Again, very relatable motivations. The rooms, beyond the goblins, are just not very interesting. There IS a nicely integrated trap that is not meant to be a trap, and several clues as to what is going on.

Its’ decent, especially by Dungeon standards. It reminds me of something out of those more realistic settings, like Harn or the like, but with more monsters.

The Palace of Plenty
By Tito Leati
Level 10

This is an Oriental Adventures themed adventure, that seems to be derived from watching too many 1940’s and 50’s Japanese ghost story movies. Vague hooks and no wilderness journey has you in a legendary ruined paradise city. Which takes a DC 10 roll to know where it is. If you fail, there’s a map in a library. The icy ruined city is large and ruined and very sparsely keyed. After wandering about and finally figuring out where you go you get to a non-ruined place, through white fluttering butterflies, which has mostly empty rooms. This place has such exciting encounters as “Sentry Box: The entry box is unremarkable.” The whole thing is “icy ruined village theme and then ghost village theme” all with that sort haunting quietness that comes from older Japanese horror movies. It gives it a very “story game” feel. It’s also nigh incomprehensible as an adventure. Props for taking a chance. It was your editor’s job to tell you it didn’t work so well. A STRONG edit may give you a Mountain Witch-like adventure. It’s just trying too hard with too many words to be as effective as, say, Inn of Forgotten Heroes … hence the need for an edit.

The Spire of Long Shadows
By Jesse Decker
Level 13

Another in the Age of Worms adventure path. Get out your lozenges, this one is the exposition entry! Miles upon miles of read-aloud in order to relate reams of backstory to the party, either through a sage they meet or through visions they have. It starts with a meaningless combat right out of the bullshit “have a quick first encounter so the party can get some dice rolling” advice column. It then passes to a small city where the party cool their heels a bit, and then a visit to the sage who talks at them for hours (Real time.) teleport to a far away land has the party at the site of where Kyuss ascended to godhood, and a pyramid temple full of kyuss worms and room after room of guardians. These are spaced out with visions the party has about Kyuss and the prophecy of his return. There are about A MILLION of pages before you get to the temple. The rooms embed history … in a bad way. “This room represented Kyuss’ master over death …”, or “the stairs were destroyed in year blah blah blah by blah blah blah.” Meaningless trivia that does not contribute to the adventure. This “adventure” is just an excuse to talk at the party with monologues and put in some combats with worm-themed NPC’s. Boring.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 6 Comments

AA#28: Redtooth Ridge

By Joseph Browning
Expeditious Retreat Press
Level 1-3

he plain wooden cup the dryad Aralina needs for her great oak’s rebirth has been stolen by creeping foul things! Small, man-like, creatures with great heads assaulted her and, in the confusion, pick-pocketed the cup before fleeing towards Redtooth Ridge. Without her cup, her tree with die before it can reproduce and she will die with it. In her distress, she has offered a reward of a beautiful coral necklace in exchange for her plain wooden cup. The call has gone out and surely a party exists willing to assault Redtooth Ridge?

This thirteen page, sixtyish encounter, adventure details a small wooded ridge and the remains of several buildings on it, primarily an old manor. It has decent maps and most of the encounter feel more like little vignettes with some loose internal logic than they do the more typical isolated-encounters-in-a-ruined-place. It engages in “used to be” and obsesses on ranger and thief mechanics a bit too much, all of which tend to clog up the text more than it should. It doesn’t engage in much that is new but it does deal with goblins, ogres, stirge, zombies, green slime, and the rest in a way that appeals to my love of the classics. A decent little adventure doing decent little things.

This is a pretty classic site based adventure. There’s a small wooded plateau with two paths running up to it. On top is the ruined compound of an old manor estate, as well as a small cave serving as an ogre lair. The family mausoleum is in the plateau cliffs. There’s a small wandering monster table that generally has the creatures lairing on it, with their numbers being depleted as you kill the wanderers. Otherwise, the party is free to do what they will. Exactly the fuck the way these site-based adventures SHOULD be.

The estate is walled, with numerous ways through the walls. There’s an underground/basement area that runs between a couple of outbuildings, as well as a few structures with more than one story, giving the map a little bit of a vertical presence and some interest. The open-ended compound nature of the map, as well as the open nature of the plateau, and the non-linear nature of the basement and manor home maps work well with a site based adventure. There are a number of “hallways with doors off of it” on the map, but there’s enough variety in style that it doesn’t feel constraining or forced. An art piece showing the profile, or better shading of indoor and outdoor areas, would have been appreciated. In addition, some of the map features are missing. Large cracks you can crawl through, and so on, seem to not be on the map but rather in the room descriptions. That’s not good. It would have also been nice to have all the maps on one page, instead of having the text integrated around them, in order to photocopy them easier for hanging on Ye Olde Dm Screen. But this isn’t the end of the world and sweet jesus in heaven thank you for maps that are not throw-away linear plot shitfests. These maps provide options and mystery … which is what ALL maps should do.

The encounters in the adventure almost feel like little vignettes … in the positive connotation. The rooms sometimes feel like they have multiple things going on, and exist outside of the adventure proper. I’m straining a little in that statement, but they are certainly more … integrated? than most adventures. The bedroom feels like it has bedroom stuff. The kitchen feels like a kitchen, with kitchen stuff encounters. The library feels like a library with library-like stuff encounters. Enough of the rooms have encounters that relate to each other to even put together a little story. It all feels like it makes sense and is not arbitrary. There’s this internal logic.

While walking up the path to the top, you see an ogre in a good mood on a rock eating a mite and pestie. The ogre lair is up top and mites/pesties also lair up top. Further up, some goblins watch the ogre, trying to decide to attack. They also have some friends up top. The ogre, eating another creature, is a hint, and makes sense in the context of the adventure as well as providing some fun, since he doesn’t attack immediately and is eating somebody. It all works together. There’s another example of a ghost who hates her servants, and if she possesses someone will go open a secret door to the basement in order to punish/kill the servants … who just happen to be zombies .. including some child zombies. The rats in the library have chewed books, and pulled in bodies through a large crack in the wall. These are not gonzo or forced, but just all work together easily. That’s refreshing. Gonzo stands out, but making giants rats, or zombies, work in 2017 is not easy. We can debate on if you SHOULD include book monsters in an adventure, but for an adventure that DOES include book monsters, this one does a good job with it. It seems effortlessly constructed.

The writing style is not particularly evocative. At All. ‘Boring’ would be the word I would use. And while the rooms descriptions are not particularly extensive, I do think that they concentrate too much on the useless and trivia instead of creating an evocative impression. The Dining room description is a decent example: “Over two dozen reclining couches dot this two- story-tall room, along with eight square tables. The room opens up to the second level and a minstrel’s gallery is above and to the east. The owners of the Ivory House believed in reclined eating and all meals were served in this fashion.” Not exactly inspiring, and I can make a good case that the last sentence falls in to the “explaining history” category of Sin. Likewise, many comments about things like “this used to have thick iron doors, but they were consumer by a wandering rust monster” … which occurs more than once in the text. This is trivia.

Further, there is an extensive appeal to mechanics in places that I don’t think is warranted, even if we accept this is OSRIC/1E. This occurs most frequently with notes (paragraphs, I should say) that give exceptions for thieves and rangers. “If there is a thief sneaking in the party then blah blah blah bonus/penalty because blah blah blah.” For a cobblestone floor. Likewise rangers get extensive notes in places for tracking efforts. Condensing or trimming these would help keep the product focused. It IS packing almost sixty rooms in to nine pages, so it’s not like it’s the biggest sinner ever, but it does stand out. Maybe more so because of the more ho hum descriptions. This sort of exposition is also found in several creature encounters, with notes on tactics and the like that seem to pad things out more than they should be. The adventure pretext is also light, a dyrad having her wooden cup stolen, or simply “the lure of rumored treasure”, but, whatever, it’s a site-based adventure and those are FAR easier to motivate in to a game than the plot adventures. The magic is all book items with no descriptions, which is very disappointing.

This is a nice adventure. I will sometimes say that adventures are salvageable with a highlighter. This goes a step beyond that. No gonzo. No explosions. No set pieces. Just a solid little site that could use a little edit to make things a little more evocative. It’s also going to be a ROUGH time for Level 1 characters, unless they know what the fuck they are doing. The whole “12-18 ghouls” thing is rough, and easy to stumble in to.

The preview on DriveThrough shows you the ogre and goblin encounters on the path, so you can get a good look at both the positive aspects of the encounter and the relatively lengthy parts of the descriptions. Likewise, on the last page, you can see room 1, the outer wall of the compound. It also shows the nicely integrated nature of the encounters, with tracks and the like, as well as the relatively heavy description length for the same. The preview does a good job of letting you know what to expect.

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