Madam Maze’s Cabaret of Carrion Delights, D&D adventure review

By Nick Milton
Nick Milton Publishing
Generic/Universal/No Stats

Deep inside the bowels of an Elderwolf god lies a crumbling cabaret. Like an intergalactic traveling circus, the cabaret is constructed from ingested realities, only the truly bizarre and profane making the cut. Haunted monasteries stand side-by-side with chateaus run by monstrous flies. Preceding over the amusements is the mysterious Madam Maze, and she has a business opportunity for you. She hands you a spool of Alchemist Twine and offers you riches and safe passage back to your reality if you can frankenstein together a new act for her. Use whatever limbs from forgotten entities you can find still roaming about her kingdom. Time is running out and the seedier elements of her cabaret are awakening. Stretch Lords sharpen their fingers and Hemogoblins sniff the air for blood. Can you make it out in time or will you be consumed by the madness?

This 29 page “adventure” describes … I don’t know what the fuck it describes. An interdimensional freaky-deaky place with five sites each with a about a half dozen or less locations in them, all with a body horror theme and that light slight winking style so popular in some circles. 

You’re in a bar. The people inside starting screaming, tearing at and off their clothes, to reveal a message on their skin “Madame Maze’s Cabaret of Carrion Delights! Outside an emaciated 29 story direwolf show up, knees, opens her mouth, and a skeleton in a tophat steps out and chains her mouth open. To get in to the cabaret you have to offer him a part of your body. Well, that’s one of the hooks anyway.

A Berlin song? A Mo simpsons quote? Commentary about our artist friends? A kind of exquisite cadaver of parts, art, and words, the tone of this one makes it hard to stomach. Get it?! Get it?! It takes place in a stomach! A quote from the designer states “I’m a firm believer that body horror can be hilarious and quirky.” A common theme among artists, and this one certainly channels the artist nature of the the paroxysms of intoxication. So, we’rve got a body horror cabaret inside of a demi-god star wolf constellation. It’s run by a virus blob woman who wants you to stitch together a new act, literally, to amuse the bored dilettantes of the star wolfs pups, who sit in the front row of the cabaret. One of the acts of which is “a monstrous hairless cat with a nub tail licks itself casually as a weeping naked man begs it to clean him.” Successfully channeling the post modern nature of stage plays and the artist body horror, this may be the best supplement yet to refer to when you are looking to spice up your characters journeys through the planes of hell. Otherwise, you’ll need a group that can handle the nod-nod wink-wink nature of the cabaret and its locations … all set inside the stomach of a cosmic dire wolf. 

The writing herein can be frustrating. There can be long sections of italics ro ruin the eyes. There can be information related in paragraph form, events and plot and details that are hard to pick out. And yet parts are bolded to draw the eye. And yet that bolding doesn’t have enough weight to REALLY draw the eye. The ideas, always interesting, range from the more mundane, like “a cultist who ha stitched a wolf pelt on to his skin (another hook)” to the REALLY out there. “Lively music can be heard from the end of the wolfs throat” (which appears in the throat scene but should be in the mouth scene, in order to lure the players in) Great imagery. Great thoughtfulness. But, poor implementation. There’s a gift shop in one location. One of the creatures has an attack that will “remove any element from your body that is not ABSOLUTELY necessary for you to be technically alive. Their blade fingers work quickly.” Ok ….

So, it’s weird, the way that only our art friends can be weird. It uses bolding and offset boxes, cross-references and so forth to help bring some organization to the weirdness. And yet … it justifies only have five cabaret patrons by saying that business has been down lately. No doubt, but, just like ancient dour dwarf fortress, perhaps in the infinite multiverse we could find one in which the business has been down but there are a few more than five patrons available to be present? 

In the end, you stumble about, to location after location, trying to find things to stitch together. A chef wants something daring, something forgotten and something fresh for his sauce. Tasting the sauce heals all your childhood trauma and turns poison effects to healing effects on you. This is the tone. These are the encounters and situations that you encounter. 

It’s system neutral, with no stats. Mayhap a good choice. I would suggest, though, that while it is system neutral, I don’t think it’s game genre neutral. I suspect it works better for those more indie type games and less well with stat heavy games. Polaris comes to mind, but the tone is off. Maybe Mork Borg. Reformatting it, throwing off the chains of “ The Standard D&D Adventure” and embracing the less structured play style of those other genres would have worked to this adventure’s favor, I think. 

This does a better job of describing an alien/hellish environment than other supplement I’ve seen. All of those decadent drow cities and hell planes supplements pale in comparison. If you can handle the tone then you’ll find some truly off the wall things, with full on body horror present everywhere. Rough to follow in places and with encounters that are a lot more opened (on purpose) and subject to interpretation, it struggles with that, I think. It’s not TOO open ended, mostly, but its really close to the line of being pointless. Or, pointless in a way that Alice in Wonderland is pointless. You have a task and are trying to bend a truly bizarre world to your ends. 

“An unmotivated beam of light shines on a statue of an adorable baby Lich on the south wall. The space from statue to door is 25 ft. Approaching the statue will cause you to grow younger and the Lich Statue to grow older, its cherub-like form swelling with carved hatred. By the time you get to the foot of the now monstrous Lich you are a toddler with the equivalent mental capacities. Crawling into the Lich’s folded hands will reverse the magic and a token will plop out of the Lich’s back. The struggle is convincing a toddler to crawl into the hands.”

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is the entire thing. The art gives you a good indication of whats to come. For writing, I’d check out page five of the preview for the descriptions of the maw and throat. Some bolding, some boxes to bring order to the chaos, but still too rough to scan quickly. I would note, as well, that these are the more mundane of the encounters. It never really falls over on to the Weird for the Sake of Being Weird side of things, but it’s really really close. This isn’t the “normal” weirdness of avant guarde adventure, of the poser weirdness of some Venger stuff, but weird as only the exquisite corpse can be; with structure.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 3 Comments

The Darness Beneath Brightwell Manor, adventure review

Tim Bannock
Self Published
B/X or 1e
Levels 10-14!!!

The reclusive Brightwell family has been corrupted by the whispers of a vengeful sorceress-turned-fiend. When this newfound master suddenly grows silent, the madness infecting the household is no longer focused, and cannot be contained. Mayhem spills across the countryside. Meanwhile, deep below the Brightwell estate, the family’s patriarch Eldon Brightwell inflicts horrifying experiments on both servants and family…

This 53 page adventure uses about thirteen pages to describe about sixty rooms in a manor home with a couple of basement levels. It’s minimally keyed, bland, and a 5e conversion.

It’s got clean and clear maps that are easily read, and uses a landscape format to provide easy to read three-column text. It doesn’t mess around with too much backstory, and puts most things like that in an appendix, which also has a reference for NPC’s to be found in the manor. It’s extensively hyperlinked. The first of the map pages also describes the general features of the house, like windows and doors, which is useful to have on a map so that they are “always on” for the DM to reference duringplay.

Now that the good is over with …

First, it’s a 5e conversion, it looks like. It calls for rolls with advantage, making perception checks, and so on. I get it, 5e sells more than anything else so make the adventure for that. And, of course, just like with Roll to Continue, this kind of stuff can be easily ignored by a DM and/or converted on the fly. But it shows a lack of caring. If you’re converting to another system shouldn’t you actually convert it to that system? Especially if you claim in the the introduction that “This adventure uses 1E and B/X style OSR mechanics …” Uh. No. It uses 5e mechanics. Anyway, that’s me being petty. As I said, just as with a lopsided page count of adventure to supporting material, which this has, I think it tends to be indicative of those things that don’t bode well.

You are a 14th level adventuring party in 1e/B/X. In both cases you’ve all probably got your own keeps, etc. In B/X, in particular, I think you’re walking godlings, based on my experiences with my players. So one of the hook is that the village hires you to look in to the goings-on at the manor. *sigh* By giving us each new land holdings? There’s one hook that makes sense, as you visit looking for lore/alchemical components. Again, who cares? But, again, it shows a general lack of level awareness in the conversion. Time and again adventures are produced for high levels that should be lower level adventures, and their strain to make them high level shows.

“Room 2: Foyer – Unwatched and unguarded.”

“Room 1: Porch – Three scarecrows nailed to the porch columns (actually corpses!). 

“2-1. Stairway & Hall – Signs of carnage, blood trails leading to Area 2-2”

This then is a minimally keyed adventure. Take the 1e DMG and roll for “dungeon dressing.” Ideally, this would serve as inspiration, the designer riffing off of the rolls and their imagination coming up with something to put in the room. Or, you could just put “Signs of carnage” as the description. It’s an abstracted description. No specifics. “Dried foodstuffs, but supplies are getting low.” You could do so much more with that. Replace that sentence. Add another one. Done! But you’d have something much livelier, something that danced in the DMs head. 

Traps? “One of the steps is creaky. Roll a save or the next monsters are alerted.” The alerting is good, and a creaky step is a classic, but the traps in this tend to be of the “Gotcha!” variety. There’s little to no warning. Thus they are just punishments for not min/maxing your save rather than a dose of interactivity that you can explore and play around with.

In general you need between about 200k and 400k xp to gain a new level at levels 13-14. Let’s say 200k. With a party of four that’s 800k experience to gain a level. Let’s say you’re leveling every … 6 sessions? You need 133,000 xp. Do you think that there’s 133,000 gold in this adventure? Do you think this adventure is a true 1e conversion?

Creature descriptions are boring. Magic items descriptions are boring. Treasure descriptions are boring. Everything is abstracted descriptions. “Zombies are mindless creatures.” 1d6 gemstones with 500gp each. A potion usable by all classes. At one point there are two gibbering mouthers in a room. I THINK they are supposed to be the wife of the manor lord? It doesn’t say, but might imply it if I squint. No personalization. No touches like “wearing his wife’s dress” or  “combing its hair.” Just two gibbering mouthers in a room. Why two? I don’t know, that would require effort.

The focus here is misplaced. It’s not overwritten, to be sure, and I appreciate that. It’s clear that some care was taken in trying to do a few design related things. But the room descriptions and encounters are so bland. Abstracted descriptions. Mundane interactivity. No focus on the wonder that is D&D.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is all nineteen pages of the encounters/dungeon. This is good. You can tell exactly what you are buying beforehand. Nice clean layout.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 11 Comments

Fire in the Hole, dungeons and dragons adventure review

By Derek Jones
Self Published
Castles & Crusades
Levels 4-6

Blovar Thistletine, a wealthy halfling, decided recently to remodel the wine cellar in his summer home.  Work progressed well for a few days until the crew arrived one morning to find a tunnel had mysteriously appeared in the floor of the cellar.  The crew tied a rope to one of the workers and lowered him down the shaft to explore.  A few minutes later, they could hear the poor worker’s brief scream of agony and the rope went slack.  All they recovered when they pulled up the rope was a charred end.  The workers refused to continue their work.  Mr. Thistletine is offering a handsome reward for a party of adventurers to explore the shaft and eliminate any threats to his beloved wines.

This nineteen page adventure uses six pages to describe 31 rooms in an underground bandit lair. It’s a hack-fest. It has some hints of knowing how to format things, but falls down on implementation.

I’m not going to judge this negatively for just being a hack. Some people like that. And, not even an exploratory game has to explore all the time, hacking IS a part of the game after all. This IS a little lop-sided in that direction, but then again so were the B2 kobold caves, I guess. (Although its been fifteen years since I looked at it.) So, it’s a hack. At the end there will scores and scores of slaughtered 1hd gecko-men and the water floors will run red with blood. The gecko-men looks like normal men, mostly, and can stick to the walls. That’s kind of fun. It combines both the “use a lot of humans” stuff that I generally prefer with actually having some monsters. Eel-men, etc would all do the same, I think? It’s aking to using chaos-men and mutants in Warhammer, I think. Keeping it grounded. And, there’s an order of battle for their getting indeed, which is nice to see. 

The map is hand drawn and clear enough. The adventure notes that all but two areas are flooded to 4” of standing water, and others have lights on. This should have been noted either on the map or by text on the map. These sorts of “always on” things should be front and center for the DM to refer to throughout the game. Either shade the map, etc (not feasible in this case since its hand drawn, at least not easily) or just put the text on the map. I note, without comment, the abundance of magical torches in the hallway that light the way … that only work inside THIS lair. *sigh* There goes immersion. Wait, now I’ve commented. Fuck.

Wanderers are doing something, although they are almost always gecko-men. A hint of humor is present in places, with them tormenting small cute animals or their leader pissed at the magic tapestries that show his mens devotion being transferred to his fire priests. Treasure is … ok? There’s about 5k in “normal” treasure and then also a scroll work 10k to certain buyers. That feels low for a a hack, and a little strange that its so portable.  And the 10k scroll could use more to it, given the lopsided nature. It would add a lot to a game if it were.

The adventure is using room names in combination to the room keys. So, something like “10. Larder.” Using room names is good, but they could be overloaded with a descriptor, such as “Viscera Larder” or some such. Set the DM’s framing early so they absorb the text in that context. There’s also a decent number of rooms that are empty. Such as that larder. And by empty I mean “the room has no text at all.” So you get “Larder” and nothing more. Or, for a living quarters “Empty. They are all out raiding.” Thus the descriptions of the rooms are VERY MUCH on the extreme minimalism side of the spectrum. So much so that I would suggest that there is not much here at all to work with. This is one step more than Palace of the Vampire Queen, and not a big step at that. 

This feels like the outline of an adventure. Something that gets produced that the final draft is then created from. While it states its a hack, it could do a little more to enhance SOME interactivity to break things up. And it could do more with its writing to create evocative descriptions. You’ve got a lot of choices in what you use at the table, why not choose something that does those things?

This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview is all nineteen pages. I can’t fault the dude for either the preview or the price. Like I said, the designer has some ideas of how to do things right but just isn’t there yet in implementing them.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 8 Comments

The Sleep of Reason, dungeons and dragons 5e adventure review

By James Hanna, Brett Sullivan, Isaac Warren
Fey Light Studio
Levels 2-4

The towns of Bassu and Inloc are at each other’s throats. But behind their mutual loathing lies a threat greater than either knows. A fiend in the form of a nighthag invades the sleep of the town leaders night after night, haunting their dreams and transforming them into nightmares.

This 54 page adventure uses 32 pages to describe about 24 encounters, the vast majority of which are social. The designers had a vision, but it fell far far short of that in implementation, leaving you with something that is nigh unrunnable in its present form. Which is too bad, the basic idea is decent. I’m considering changing my life goals, after reading this, and adding “beating in to people how to use skill checks” as a new project.

Two houses, alike in dignity in fair Ver … oh wait, no. This thing has the elements of adventure that I like. Or, at least, it claims to have them. A hex crawl exploration of the wilderness. A strong social element as you work the factions and NPCs within two towns, rallying them to your cause! Who wouldn’t like that? A little intrigue, a little social, a nice crawl, and then stabbing the shit out of something and looting some fucking treasure! Well, that was the promise anyway. No doubt the vision of the designers. That’s what made me leave my nice safe little bubble of shitty OSR adventure and venture once more in to the land of shitty 5e adventures. In practice, its garbage, of course.

I have now said just about everything nice that I will about this adventure. Good concept. There are a couple of VERY nice art pieces, by Tithi Luadthong and rangizz, that seem out of place. Not tonally. They work for that. But it’s like Aya Kato did your Get Well Soon card for a coworker that you feel apathetic about. Conceptually, there are a few decent ideas, like the hag living in a dead and rotting GIANT snake in the swamp. The descriptions are shit, but conceptually its good. The recruitment of allies, again good in concept but shitty in execution. There’s a hint, here of there, or decent writing. At one point if you mention “The Maiden”, a swamp ghost-like apparition/myth, then the guards and their goats both shift uneasily, the goats bleat softly, and the captain says something like “Nothing good comes from that swamp.” in order to twarn the party off of The Maiden. That’s fucking great! That’s what I’m talking about when I mention specificity and detail. No the color of the fucking innkeeps trouser buttons, but things that add to the actual game experience. 

The back cover contains the marketing blurb while the drivethru description is just bunch of little JPG images, with no text. Well, the images have a few words of text. WHo’s fuckingidea was that? You’re burying your marketing blurb on the back cover where it will never be seen and essentially nothing NOTHING about it in the actual storefront? I’m not a fucking expert on this shit but that seems counterproductive? In the extreme?

It’s full, FULL of shitty skill checks. Which is weird because they claim to have a system of “social moves” for you to use which, no doubt, turns the heart of D&D, roleplaying, in to even more of a dice fest and rules mastery then it already is. This thing is LITTERED will skill checks. I guess because it’s a social adventure, or thinks it is one? And I’m pretty sure that nearly every single one of them is implemented badly. Every one. Every single one. There are about twenty rolle to continues in this adventure. Twenty. These are places where you can’t continue the adventure unless you pass a skill check. In practice, this never happens. If you fail then the DM fridges and the game moves on. So why the fuck do you have a roll to continue? You’re forcing people to make dice rolls for no reason other than making a contest against a skill check. It doesn’t make fucking sense. The outcomes are all the fucking same. It’s unreal.

Try to use your intimidation skill? Roll a 24+? (Which I’m pretty sure is good …) then the DM is told it doesn’t work and the NPC works around it. What the fuck man? Why? Becusa it will break the designers vision for the fucking adventure? Jesus H … let the fucking party enjoy their fucking success! And, those eighty gazillion skill checks you make? They are essentially meaningless. Just little window dressing bits of information for the most part, teasing out descriptions and tone. Which, again, works against the fcking adventure. You WANT the tone out there. You WANT the details out there to set the tone. Don’t hide the heart of the fucking adventure behind a fucking skill check. 

It starts with combat. Lame. “STart your adventure with a combat to get the party going” says all of the bad old advice. Pfft! You bring the body to the nearest town. The gate guards say “Hello strangers who have just admitted to killing one of our town members. Please come in and enjoy yourselves!” What the fuck! Seriously?! 

NPC descriptions are bad, long and hard to use. The hex crawl has like one sentence for each hex, most of which are just boring “asps attack” or “roll a DC19 to avoid hazard” types. No detail. Nothing interesting. 

The actual format is TRYING to be helpful, but has gone COMPLETELY overboard with boxed and offset text. The page is COVERED with it, so much so that you can’t actually tell what the fuck is supposed to be going on in the encounter. Why are we here? Whats the line of path to follow? It TRIES to tell you that, but its so seriously broken … I know I mention putting this stuff in a lot, but, there’s a fucking limit. It’s supposed to help you find and run it, not obfuscate the game. 

The hag is an actual monster instead of an old women. Lame. The snake description, the sum total of it while inside, is “Within the snake, its ribs curve around to create a grim hallway illuminated by green glowing orbs along its length. The floor shifts slightly underfoot, pressing into the unspoiled viscera below.” The viscera part is good, but, fuck man, we’re inside a giant snake, how about a little more? Oh! Oh! And the subplots?! They are LITERALLY in a place called the Town Quest Center. Seriously. The questgiver gives them quests. Well, it’s a townsperson, but thats how its referred to. If you do enough fetch quests then you unlock the plot quests. Ug.

So. Good concept. It knows what its trying to do. It has just made every single bad choice possible to get there.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview doesn’t fucking work.

I leave you with this screenshot of one of the scenes. I dare you to figure the fuck out what is going on here and how to run it. I dare you. Go ahead. You’re running the game. The players are sitting the fuck in front of you. Right now. They are staring at you. They glance nervously at their phones, ready to pick them the fuck up if you stray for thirty fucking seconds. Run this fucking encounter.  Where the fuck is the actual plot to this encounter? I know where, but you have to fucking hunt for it. Seriously, you get … five seconds. Set up a time. Starts it and then glance at the page for five seconds then tell me what the scene is about and how to get it going well. And, I’m being GENEROUS in giving you five seconds. I really think it should be less than two. No fucking cheating!

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 13 Comments

A Tomb to Plunder, dungeons and dragons adventure review

By FEI Games
FEI Games Inc
Levels 1-3

one-off 1st-3rd level OSR hack-n-slash mini-adventure. Includes the new monster “Guardian Statue”

… Your party is traveling from one place to another when you spot a rotting backpack that is still worn by a decomposing body partially hidden in some tall grass. Closer inspection reveals a hand drawn map that hints to a location that might be a small tomb or crypt. Could this be worth checking out? From the various landmarks drawn on the map this location appears to be in this area. The next village is not far away and they might have some idea on where this is located …

This eight page dungeon describes three rooms, a door, and two hallways. The shovelware industry is alive and well, with little content, no good descriptions, and padding and abstraction galore. Plus, FEI Games can’t be a man cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me, DEVO version. 

The first sentence up there, the one that doesn’t start with a capital letter? The one that inspires the imagination with it’s “includes the new monster …” statement? That’s the publisher blurb on DriveThru that’s supposed to make you want to buy the product. Look, I dont’ marketing either. As a good midwesterner it feels wrong. But you have to do SOMETHING to let people know what they are buying and get them interested. I mean, I might not like to do it, and it might feel wrong to me, but you need to engage in it to get people to want to buy the thing, right? Even _I_ recognize that. The second paragraph up there is the first one in the adventure, all in italics as read-aloud, and serves, I think, as a much better blurb. I mean, there’s nothing to that encounter other than what it says. And, it’s a masterful work of abstraction. You are travelling “from one place to another”. Wow! Exciting! “Hints at a location …” Sign me up! “Various landmarks …” Oh boy! I can’t wait! This is textbook abstraction. It’s nothing but padding. I suspect it’s written like that to insert in to any world, but specificity is the soul of narrative. It still sucks. 

The adventure is full of such abstractions and padding. Rooms “appear” to be empty. Which we all know is never the case. And it just padding. Everything in the world “appears to be “ something. It’s the way your senses work in a world cursed by consciousness. Padding and abstracted.

“Put in your treasure” a column of text tells us. Joy. Not even the loot is done. Why would you want this? If you had to do the work yourself then why would you buy the adventure? Does it make sense that a DM is going to creature interesting treasure on the spot for a party that just reached the end? No, of course not. 

“These tattered banners are worthless but may be of interest to a historian” … with no treasure value listed. Making something worth more to one party than another is an good concept, but you need enough to put in to make it worthwhile. Likewise, another room has unknown writing. The fucking game has a spell that has a decippher language impact. What the fuck does it state, even generally? We’ll never know. 

“You feel like something bad is about to happen.” and “as the last person enters the room the door slams shuts and locks.” OMG these are bad. You don’t address the party in read-aloud. You don’t, especially, tell them what they feel. You describe an encounter in such a way that the PLAYERS says “oh, wow, I feel like something bad is about to happen …” THATS what makes a good description. And, the old it slams shut and locks trick? LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! LAME! 

“The monsters have no treasure” the adventure tells us. Well no fucking shit, man. That’s why there is none listed. That’s not how one spends their word budget! Most of one column is spent describing one simple poison gas trap. This ain’t no way to run a railroad.

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Gang Lords of Lankhmar, DCC adventure review

By Harley Stroh
Goodman Games
Level 1

The City of the Black Toga: Home to hundreds of back alley courts, rotting tenements, and an endless number of gangs, whose fortunes rise and fall as surely as the tides of the Inner Sea. Each gang vies against the others, pitting beggar against bravo, slayer against thug, and gang lord against gang lord. It’s a Lankhmar story that’s been told a thousand times, and would be entirely forgettable, save for one key element: the characters. The initial stakes are small as the gangs vie for control of a small slum. But as bodies begin to appear in the Hlal and the shadow war threatens to spill over into street violence, the price of blood favors those who trade in swordwork and black magic. If they hope to survive, the PCs will need to be both deadly and cunning by turns. For when the first rule of thieves is to never kill the hen that lays brown eggs with ruby in the yolk, old hands know it won’t be long before the Thieves’ Guild moves to protect their interests. May Death himself have mercy on those who stand in their way.  

This 32 page adventure outlines a gang war in a neighborhood slum. It has most of the gameplay elements down right, if flavorful,  but doesn’t quite know how to present them in a way that makes it easy to run. Highlighter City.

A slum neighborhood. Three minor gangs. One gets uppity ands hires the pc’s to shake things up, he wants total control of the neighborhood. Things go downhill in a series of strikes, retaliations, and escalating events that cause others from outside the neighborhood to notice. It ends with, perhaps, the party in charge of one of the gangs, setting up a fine fine city adventure campaign. And I do LUV me a city adventure campaign! 

A city adventure campaign forces the party in to a more cautious play style. Uh, hopefully, anyway, since it IS the party. No more wanderers, they get to learn of, and live with, the consequences of their actions. Their own neighborhood. How the other people in the city react and so on. It places back the social control of Keeping up with the Jones’s and not being ostracized by everyone else around you. Like the fence. Or the temple. And, of course, not getting squished like a bug but those MUCH higher up on the ladder.

And that’s what this adventure is trying to do, and largely accomplishes, I think. In a tortured way. There’s a neighborhood tension tracker. The more people you kill, etc the higher the tension in the neighborhood. As it gets higher things in the neighborhood start to change, people get wary. As it gets higher the criminal element in charge of the city tells you to cool it. And then assassins show up. And the city guard starts hassling you more, singling you out. And then they stop hassling you and actually start doing their job. And finally, if left to get high enough, the Overlord notices, puts the neighborhood under martial law, and the guard goes house to house in a brutal crackdown to find the party … and the neighborhood isn’t going to appreciate that, I’m sure. Thus the social element returns to D&D. Yeah!

Other elements help feed in to the overall vibe. There’s more than a few encounters with scouts on rooftops, keeping track of the party. There are good summary overviews of the what’s going to take place. The core of the adventure is events, on a timeline, that the DM drops in, supplements by a few location descriptions, of the three gangs and a few other “notable” places in the neighborhood. There is a web of relationships, in places, and a great sense of flavour. The doorway to one of the gang hideouts has a bunch of rusty knives, cleavers, etc hanging over it by strings, or an old crone at the tavern who is brought dead vermin by the neighborhood orphans to cook … and fight to defend her. Great great ideas and situations in this in to which the party can then dip their toes to pour their own brand of gas on things. It’s a sandbox driven by a timeline. 

But, alas …

There are two things wrong here. First, the trivial. Goodman clearly has a style guide which states that read aloud is in italics. LAME! Hard to read! There’s not a lot of it, but there are multiple sentences when it shows up. Lame! Well, at least in 2018 they had it that way.

More importantly, they don’t know how to format an adventure like this, or, Harley doesn’t know how to write one like this, in order to make it easily playable. There’s just too much for the “standard text paragraph” to handle. “Here’s everything about the place in paragraph format” is too much to hold in your head. It’s hard to find things. It’s hard to grab elements to shove in to your game and enhance it. I don’t think I’d be able to keep in my head the shopkeepers general reactions to the party, the old crone, the orphans running around, in addition to the main plot elements. But THOSE things are what is going to make the adventure immersive. Those things are what is going to make this one of the best adventures the party has ever played in. But, the DM has to be able to find it, remember to include it, remember to enhance the adventure with that flavor. And that just breaks down after a certain point. You can’t hold everything in your head. That’s why “always on” map text is important. That’s why summary sheets for NPC’s are important. That’s why its important to have a format other than paragraph form for longer and/or more complicated sections. 

This is a GREAT city adventure. It oozes with flavor. It can set up things that the party will be enjoying for a LONG time and talk about forever. (Also, remember, i LUV city adventures.) But, I don’t think you can run it in a way that takes advantage of it all, without some serious highlighting and creating your own notes and summary sheets. Are you willing to put in the work? 

This is $7 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. You get the overview/summary, the timeline of events, and the first event laid out. From that you can get a good idea of both the flavor and a hint of the difficulty in running the thing to maximum effect.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 14 Comments

Snotsoil Mire, Dungeon and Dragons adventure review

By Sean F. Smith
Self Published
Mork Borg
Level ?

Quality writing like this and a willing to spend $6 on a four page adventure comes from the support of my generous Patreon supports. Support me today. Uh … For support, or something.

The edge of the Bergen Chrypt is flooded. Into that slick swamp, the ducal twins of Schleswig fled. Bring them back. (Or at least their signet rings. We’ll pay the same.)


This four page hexcrawl is devoid of content?

The designer write something I kind of liked. I saw this pop up and was like, “Woooah, six dollars for four pages?!?!” But, as you should all know by now, I am a dreamer. I believe in a world in which a four page adventure is worth six dollars. This is part of the lies I tell myself to make it through the day. A short page count doesn’t necessarily mean a bad adventure! Money is meaningless, mostly, these things cost less than half of one cocktail in a bar, so the cost is trivial. The person who just came up to me at the gas station is telling the truth and really did just run out of gas and needs $5 to get back to Forth Wayne, home of Taylor and Winter Fantasy. I have the luxury of living these small lies; it keeps me optimistic and, in spite of what you generally read here, from being a bitter old man. You, gentle readers, get to peek inside that optimism and see it continually shat upon. I know my lies are not true, but I want to live in a world in which they are. You get to see me deal with my own hypocrisy three times a week.

Mork Borg: a decent idea currently being flooded with shit. Near the beginning of the OSR there was a trend where publishers converted their adventures for old school play. They just took whatever they had, some pathfinder or 3.x adventure they wrote fifteen years ago, and just did a stat conversion to Labyrinth Lord or OSRIC or something. They usually forgot to remove the skill checks and had things like “Make a DC32 perception check to find the giant cave entrance.” One adventure published for 23 different systems. It was a blatant low effort money grab. My true contempt is reserved for those publishers. I usually try to separate critique of the creation from critique of the creator. You may have written something bad but that doesn’t mean you are a bad writer. Those money grabs are a time where I give myself permission to break those rules. Sure, they all do it, but you have to retain a bit of plausible deniability or else the optimists get pissed.

Which brings us to todays review of Snotsoil Mire. 

The adventure has four pages. Single column, digest I think, with A LOT of whitespace in there. There is no art to take up space, or justify the cover price. It’s done in garish hot pink background that burns the eyes. A nice light baby blue is used, as well as yellow, just in case the hot pink color scheme should not give your eyeballs nightmares. Each of the six hexes has three possible encounters. The landwhale attacks, the aire if full of cold light rain (etc), or someone twists their ankle. Just about dix words for each of the three entries, most repeated on other tables. That’s it. 

RPG’s can teach us a lot. The vocabulary in the 1e DMG for example. I learned the definition of chutzpah from the 1e Paranoia game, geez, must have been in the eighties. A person who kills their parents and then begs for mercy because they are an orphan, I seem to recall. Chutzpah.

Is this thing a fucking joke? Did Sean have some kind of bet going with someone else where the point was to write the pointless thing ever and give it a high price tag? What the fuck is the point of something like this? This sort of garbage is the kind of thing people wave around as a banner. “Look, THIS is what can happen so you should ban X!” 

Mayhap the designer can fill us in on their thinking? See! See! I’m STILL optimistic that this isn’t some fucking troll product.

Congratulations Sean. You have written something iconic. You will now forever be associated with this. Bloodymage, Alfonso Warden, FATAL, Smugglers Cove. Snotsoil Mire & Sean Smith.

This is $6 at DriveThru.

Posted in Do Not Buy Ever, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 24 Comments

The Cape of Old Daemons, Dungeons & dragons adventure review

By Michael Raston
Gorgzo Games
Ordure Fantasy d6/OSR
Lower Levels

The Cape of Old Daemons is on the fringes of The Red Sun Kingdom. Ancient wrecks and ruins of an age filled with magic and technology are littered across the cape. The Prodigal Caravan, a nomadic tribe of wizards has settled here, attempting to pick clean the ruins. A camp of Red Sun Agents watches over them, ensuring anything of value is returned to the King. Tension simmers between the two groups, while beneath the earth The Hookmen plot the downfall of all …

Let’s see …
A one page Mork Borg called Putrud Dungeon Rites of Pestilence? PASS.
A Frog God adventure about St Patrick’s Day? PASS.
A Joseph Mohr adventure about the city sewers? PASS.
See, I CAN learn new tricks!
A vaguely science fantasy setting that seems to be a mashup of Gamma World and Dark Sun? TAKE MY MONEY!!!!

This 21 page “hexcrawl”/setting describes 24 adventure regions and seven home base regions. It is flavorful enough, but its use of random tables detracts from play rather than enhancing it, reading to an incomplete vision. I’ve got three things to talk about here. The mythology of the setting, the use of random tables, and the nature of hex crawl encounters. 

We’ve got the Prodigal caravan a group of wizards that live in towers on top of giant wagons. A huge camp gathering. They act as a kind of home base and faction. Then there’s the Red Sun Men, agents of The Undying Autarch, The Red Sun King. Skin tight leotards covered by voluminous robes. Another faction. This, alone, should give you an idea of the ideas set forth in the booklet and how they hint at deeper mysterious, and the joy that brings to the DMs mind. The designer starts off solid here. He hints at things. Brief imagery, that encourages your mind to race to fill in the gaps. Which is exactly what good writing should do. 

The setting is a kind of Gamma World/Dark Sun thing. Oracle of War made me view Dark Sun in a new light, scavvers on the edge of civilization, but was still a little too … staid. Slightly less control was needed on the edges, a Deadwood like place with little government … but slightly more than the implied Gamma World setting of “only your TL1 village of twenty huts remains.” 

And the setting isn’t exactly post-apoc, at least not how its generally imagined. This isn’t the magical ren-faire post apoc of Dark Sun or the recognizable future post-apoc of Gamma World. There are no guns or cars. It’s more “here are three small pink pyramid crystals.” It’s more like a crashed spaceship tech in which you have absolutely no foundation in figuring out what things could do. This is great since it multiplies the mystery, and, it also begs the question What is Post Apoc? Why is this setting post-apoc? It is because its described that way. Ruins, finding weird things in them. That’s post-apoc. But, if you find some ioun stones in a fantasy dungeon is it post-apoc? With just a little tweaking what you could have here is a kick ass Points of Light game, just like in most other “borderlands” types games, but without the implied tech. Hmmm, maybe that’s it: this is a post- apoc setting without the implied futurism of Gamma World or the retro-steampunk shit of Dark Sun. It’s DIFFERENT. 

Oh random table, what hath thou wrought? Everything in this is generated by a random table. Each of the “hexes” gets three rolls of a d6, and three different d6 tables describe the hex. There are six of each type of hex and six entries on the tables. Thus you are getting some kind of unique combination, but not much else. Thus you might roll what the exterior of a Bone Ruin looks like, “sloppy slag heaps cooled molten metal dripping from exhaust pipes jutting from the ruin. Combine this with a roll on the interior table “Choked with metal middens of cogs, chains, screws, bolts and the like. These crawl with palm sized rustmites (Health 1), fat and vicious from the neverending feast of scrap. Rustmites will attack if their middens are disturbed, swarming and easily melting flesh with acid dripping mandibles.” And then a roll on the “filled with” table: “A thick iridescent dream fog – stalked by rainbow drenched silhouettes who shimmer out of existence when examined.” Ok Mr DM, run that!

But, why is this content being generated randomly? These are a couple of sentences each, for each of the three tables. This is not a minimalistic wandering table with another motivations tables in order to spark some in-game riffing quickly. These are the core locations. They are finite. Why are they random? I have to think that the content would have been better,m the locations more interesting and more interconnected, if the designer had kept this randomness out and had just rolled and created their own, and then tweaked them to build them in to more than the sum of their parts. The location map is set up for the DM to roll ahead of time and record the results on it, which is nice, but why? Why random? It feels like people don’t know how to use random tables anymore. (Also, the map icons for two of the locations, the vat fields and vt gardens, are VERY similar. I might have given them a bit more differentiation.)

This is a hex crawl. It doesn’t have hexes and there are no crawl rules, but it’s a hex crawl. There are locations that you travel from place to place and you get a brief little snippet of text that the DM must then turn in to an adventure. That example I gave earlier, do reread it. That’s whats generated for one “hex” in the bone fields. (Ok, there’s two more tables for exploring chambers inside.)  From that the DM has to run the game. I’m not saying it’s bad, but what I am comparing it to is a typical hex crawl, because that’s what is most resembles. Not from the “we go visit locations outside standpoint” but rather from a “now run a game from this hit of text” standpoint. Is that an hour of gameplay? A session? Who knows, it depends on how much the DM riffs on it. And herein we have the hex crawl dilemma. Things like Carcosa, Isle of the Unknown have THINGS. “Here is a thing.” Here is a giant parrot bird. There is no action or situation implied. “This hex contains a giant bird that looks like a parrot.” Wilderlands and John Stater hexes tend to present situations. “12 dwarves are hunting a giant bird; they started as 100.” One implies a static thing while the other implies a dynamic situation. Guess which is better? This is less Wilderlands and more Isle. It’s generating locations to explore (which to be fair IS what its supposed to be doing) but they don’t feel like situations, they feel static. Really really well described/evocative, but, more static than dynamic. Again, I think, the nature of using a table to generate it rather than designing it. 

Faction play is present, as the publishing blurb implies, and the loot and “mutations” (unfair! They don’t seem like mutations at all. This just seems like a freaky place) are great. The whole fucking thing is great. I love the world this thing takes place in. I just don’t think it follows through to its potential because of the random generation and the static environments that tends to create. I REALLY fucking like it though, but, Gamma World is number one in my heart of hearts.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages. You get to see how the tables are used in the generation of serfs in the home base area. Not a great example of locations explored, but it does give you an idea of how things are going to go.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts | 2 Comments

Night of Blood, Warhammer adventure review

By Jim Bambra, Lindsay Law
Cubicle 7
"Relatively new characters"

It’s a dark, stormy night, and the forest creaks as foul creatures howl through the undergrowth. As freezing rain slices from the roiling sky and attack threatens from all sides, the desperate adventurers stumble upon the warm glow of a fortified inn. But everything isn’t as it seems, and soon the unwitting heroes face deceit, betrayal, and horror as they strive to survive a terrifying Night of Blood.

This eleven page adventure details a small inn that has been taken over by cultists posing as the innkeeper & staff. It sets up some interesting situations and has some decent specificity and flavor, but could use a little less abstracted generalities and a little more traditional formatting. It comes to me as a request to review.

It looks like this adventure appeared in a 1987 edition of White Dwarf, and then was updated and released as a separate product in 2018 for the 4e version of the WFRPG. This explains the original writing credit (Bambra) and the updated one (Law.) I’m not sure how he original went. This one has some issues.

There is some great color in this adventure. That, and the setting up of situations, is one of its great strengths. It starts with the party caught out in a forest road, in a storm, at night. You can hear the braying of the beastmen in the distance. The braying gets closer, and closer. And then it stops, they having brought down the deer they were chasing. The party, of course, doesn’t know this. They are just shitting themselves by this point, this early in the adventure! They see an inn in the distance. The gates in the walls are locked. The ferryhouse, unlocked, shows signs of a struggle and blood, if investigated. Getting in through the side doors of the walls, the party hears unhappy horses from the stables through the storm, and sounds of laughter and mirth from the inn. 

What the adventure does very well is create tension and go back and forth between creating suspicion and plausible explanations. The horses could be loud because of the storm. The laughter in the inn dies when the party knocks on the door … which is to be expected. The innkeeper is portly and gruff, having well to do guests staying and not wanting the parties kind tonight. The roadwardern inside asks the party questions. A worker mops the floor. And … theres a mutie in the stable hayloft munching on the dead stable boy. The worker is actually mopping up blood. The portly innkeep is a fat mutie. The roadwardens outfit  has bloodstain at the base of his back. The floor upstairs to the common room is wet … hmmm, are those remnants of carpet where the hallway wood is now? Was a carpet just pulled up? 

Suspicion. Plausible deniability. Things that makes sense. With alternative facts …

 The adventure does this sort of brooding and tension building very very well. 

It also does a great job with its monster descriptions. Short and good. A beastman with a cattlehead (with a great little illustration) andmutie descriptions that are both short and decent enough to run with. A great description of a little situation and enough personality and mannerisms for the DM to run with it pretty well.

And it makes a lot, A LOT, of bad decisions.

To begin with, the location key. You get the standard numbered map. In a nice surprise, there’s a little key on the map to tell you which room is which. Room 11 is the stable, for example. But, then, the adventure text doesn’t use the numbers. It uses the room names. SO you have to go find “Bedroom” in the text. And it’s not in alpahbetical order. Instead it’s in some kind of plot order. The party will be outside first, as they approach the inn, so the ferry and stable are outside he inn, and the party might explore there first, so those descriptions come first. Then, in some fucked up decision that only its mother could love, we get a background/introduction section that explains what is going on in the rinn, what has happened and what will happen, kind of. Then we get the main floor inn descriptions. Them ots assumed the party goes upstairs to sleep, cause thats where the loose plot is taking us, so we then get the description of the upstairs of the inn. Then, more plot/timeline stuff and the cellar of the inn is described. It’s a completely fucke dup way to describe the place. Yeah, I get it. I get what is trying to be done. Butit’s nonsense. The monsters/staff/etc are all mixed up in there. This experimental formatting is NOT good. Room/Key format is not perfect for every adventure, but it DOES help you find things easier. Unlike this mess.

It’s also a little handwavey in areas that I think could have emphasized better. Cutting down the word count (A LOT) would have focused better what’s remaining, in the DM’s head. Emphasizing the storm and the chaos/sounds it creates would have gone a long way. As would more advice on playing up suspicion and plausible deniability. Teasing the entire thing out just a bit more. Maybe an order of batt;e/advice section for how things could go down in a couple of situations, just a few sentences each. 

In short, it’s an open ended situation. That’s GREAT. But it could have been focused on that and provided some hints to the DM about how to run that and be organized around that, with better break outs of the NPC”s, clues, and little events like the blood mopping. Instead you get this fucked up little plot thingy going on instead of a proper timeline. ANd then it ends with the cops showing up and taking the worst read possible on the situation and the party getting a decent chunk of XP for explaining to them. This partis totally handwaved, with almost no more words than I have typed here. A little more on the cops would have been much appreciated, especially given the XP reward it comes with. 

It’s a nice try, and I see the potential it has for a great night of gaming. Good concept here and one of the better “fucked up roadside inn” situations, but severely missing some things. 

This is free at DriveThru.–Night-of-Blood?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 17 Comments

The Incandescent Grottos, Dungeons and Dragons adventure review

By Gavin Norman
Necrotic Gnome
Levels 1-2

A bubbling stream cascades into a hole in the earth, leading to a series of underground watercourses and scintillating grottoes. Adventurers who delve within may discover odd mosses and fungi, a ruined temple complex, and the lair of a crystal-eating dream dragon.

This 56 page adventure features a two level dungeon with about sixty rooms. Multiple factions and lair areas combine with some weirdo dungeon stuff (in the more traditional definition of weirdo dungeon stuff) to crate an excellent example of The Dungeon As A Weird Place To Go Down In To. A more sensible Operation Unfathomable, or something similar to the The Upper Caves in Fight On. The classic OD&D dungeon.

There’s an airy forest glade, wide and clear. A dream like atmosphere, where time seems to dawdle and a cheery stream running through the glade, bubbling over rocks. There’s a hole in the ground. The stream flows in to it, all misty waterfall style. There’s a pool at the bottom. There’s a rough cut set of stone steps going from the surface down to the pool. 

That, gentle readers, is a classic dungeon entrance. You get this idyllic little scene, with hints of otherworldliness, like the waterfall mist and the dawdling time. And then, the hole, with rough steps leading down. THE MYTHIC UNDERWORLD AWAITS. You know, as a player, that shit is about to get weird. Your heart beats a little faster. This is the waiting line to the ride at a Disney park. It sets you up for the experience to come. It’s done GREAT in this.

The map is a series of zones, on two levels. Different factions live in each zone. There’s some VTT maps, for this day and age. [As an aside, while I don’t VTT, I do appreciate it. It’s a recognition that a substantial number of people DO vtt, and they need/want a map suitable for the fog of war feature.] The map is clear, easy to read, has great details on it to help fire the DMs imagination. It’s keyed easily, has an underground river (!!! Always a staple of beginning dungeon!) Monsters are noted on the map. I like it. Glynn Seal is doing great work. I don’t know how the fuck they are pulling of the writing matching the cartography so well, but its working for me.

There’s a fine summary up front, a loot summary, a summary of the factions and what they think of each other. Wanderers doing something without them falling in to the gonzo end of the pool. The rooms use a boiled keyword format, with section heading following up on it. I think it works well, as I’ve said in the past. I might quibble with the monsters not being in the initial description but rather in large sections later on, but, maybe I just need to get used to it. There are extensive cross-references, so if the key says the monsters are heading toward the BLACK TOMB then it also tells you (#44) so you know where the fuck to have them going without having to dig for it. The rooms also have notes like what you can hear down a corridor to the next room, and so on. Nice. These sorts of details are present throughout, giving the DM exactly what they need to run it. 

A quick shout out to some of the art. The trogs herein are depicted as tall thin pot-bellied Gollum-types in hot pink. Reminiscent, in a good way, of the Kuo-toa. Other art has style that is reminiscent of … Adventure Time? I don’t know. I don’t know art. I probably just insulted someone. Anyway, it all fits in well with the MYTHIC WEIRDO (but not so weirdo as Operation Unfathomable) UNDERWORLD vibe. And, for the record, I fucking love OU.

There’s a degree of detail present in the rooms which is quite interesting. They are loaded with things to poke, prod, look at, touch, and interact with. Some of it is the classic interactivity that I’m looking for in an adventure (statues to twist, buttons to push, as the platonic examples) but others is just things to look under, in, read, and so on. The rooms are fucking loaded. A crystal grotto (lets fuck with/mine crystals!). Some of which are 2’ long, grey andkeening gently (weee special crystals to fuck with!) A sandy floor (eeek, whats under it!) with glowing purple moss BLANKETING the walls (note the word choice, blanketing, to evoke the imagery in the DM), a carved archway to the east of imposing stone (carvings? Of what?!) and a heavy stone fallen door to the west (with writing underneath it!) A spy fucking hole in the wall, with a metal grate. That is also crawling with bugs, spiders and centipedes. Oh, and then also the room has kobolds doing some shit. Like, what the fuck man, it’s like a magical fucking wonderland for the party! Even shitty book treasure like +! Arrows get a little detail, like “iridescent feather fletching”. Sweet! See, not hard at all to spice things up!

The rooms might be getting a bit long, but, whatever. THIS is what I want the baseline of our hobby to be. The fucking formatting and ease of use issues are essentially taken care of. The writing is evocative enough to be good. This then allows for concentration on the interactivity, the plot and that most elusive of all things, THE DESIGN. This should be the minimum acceptable baseline for our hobby.  Yeah, it’s pretty transparently the shit I continually harp about that they solved. And?

GnWell, Gnthe Gnomes Gnhave Gntheir Gnshit Gndown Gnpat Gnby Gnnow Gnit Gnseems. GnThree Gnreleases Gnand Gnall Gnthree Gnfiring Gnon Gnall Gncylinders. GnDare Gnit Gnbe Gnsaid Gnthat Gnthe GnUG Gnis Gna Gnpublisher Gnto Gnbe Gnrelied Gnupon? 

It’s $7.50 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages long. You get to see several rooms, so you know what kind of encounters and writing and formatting to expect. Great preview.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews, The Best | 18 Comments