Highfell

By Greg Gillespie
Self-published
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 1-

Local villagers call for aid! An eerie green light appeared atop the Dwimmerhorn Mountain. The light came from HighFell – the ruins of an ancient wizard school. The infernal blaze grew until a great explosion rocked the mountain. Like a massive floating island, HighFell pulled away from the mountaintop and now slowly drfits across The Great Salt Reach. What happened to HighFell? Why does it float errily across the landscape? Are you brave (or foolish) enough to explore the ruins of HighFell: The drifting Dungeon?

This 248 page “lost valley” adventure location details twenty wizard towers, ten dungeons, and a small overland region in about 120 pages. Lots of interactivity and a mix of every element that D&D contains are surrounded by text that is just a step beyond minimalism. It’s good.

There’s this Land of Wizards on this mountaintop. A bunch of wizard towers, buildings, etc. The wizards generally move on/out and the one day the wizardland rips off the top of the mountain and starts floating through the sky over a little region. When it reaches a certain boundary it teleports back to the far side of the region and drifts over it again. That was awhile ago, now the top of the mountain still floats across the sky, but the plateau is mostly ruins … except for all those wizard towers sticking up …

Got it? Big regional map. Over it a small “lost valley” floats. Your party gets it ass to mars and loots all of the wizard school remains they can. Most of the wizard towers are level 1-3, with some 3-5 and 5-7 thrown in. They tend to have about twenty or so rooms on several basic levels above ground. About half the wizard towers have dungeons under them with about sixty or so rooms. And then the plateau has wandering monsters in its 300’ wide hex-full-of-rando-ruins-in-between-the-wizard-towers. And sometimes instead of teleports to the “upwind” side of the regional map, when it reaches the “downwind” side it will instead teleport in to an elemental plane or a demi-plane for a day or so, mixing up the rando encounters with some of THOSE inhabitants. 

Interactivity is high. These being wizard towers, etc there is a lot of shit to fuck with. Force fields, constructs, levels, and buttons. A corpse on the ground, wiggling a bit? Wonder what’s going on there? And I fucking LOVE IT when the party is presented with things to wonder about, even something as simple as a wiggling corpse on the ground. Things to do beyond hacking! Some light factions with some agendas, especially as higher-level play is reached. Challenges here go up to level 9 or so, I’d guess? 

The overland map is full of landmarks, things to see in the distance to draw your eye towards travel there. There’s a little illustration book with an illustration of each wizards tower WHICH I FUCKING LOVE! Greg usually has some new mechanic/feature for his dungeons. In this one its a bunch of Wizard Hats and and a system for looting books and spell components, with an extensive table of book titles provided to add detail. He’s got a little section covering all of the various ways folks can get up to the floating plateau, from potions, to spells, to mounts, to teleport, etc. This anticipates a need of the DM and takes care of it … providing them the information they need during play. Exactly what a designer should be doing. 

Who’s a jerkfaced jerk? That’s right! Me! And now let the bloodletting and wailing begin!

The hooks and rumors section are mostly perfunctory to get the party TO the region to see the floating place. It doesn’t feel integrated at all, and while a homebase town is provided it, again, doesn’t feel integrated in to the adventure. Sure, there are some ties between the town and plateau, but other data, that the party is likely to want to search for an find answers to, is not really present. The main content is the plateau and the towers/dungeons. 

Cross-references are few and far between and there’s not really a way for the party to NOT get in to trouble with the higher-level towers early on. The lower level ones are generally visible and near the edge, but you could walk in to something dangerous. Which is ok, but putting the level ranges on the Wizard reference sheet would have helped the DM guide the players a bit by dropping hints rather than hiding the level ranges in the main body of text. I just penciled mine in on the map, which does what I need it to do.

Rooms descriptions are a hair above minimal. “The hallway is empty with the exception of some

rubble debris and leaves blown in from outside.” Ok, blowing leaves. I can work with that a little. Another room says “Two partially-destroyed beds and a wooden box sit against the eastern wall. There is nothing of value.” The rooms are easy to scan and run because of this, but also come across as more than slightly generic. Giving each room a title like “Destroyed Bedroom” or “Once opulent bedroom” or something may have helped with this. Further, I noted a lot of “this room was”, “this room has” and so on in the adventure text. It’s like there’s no context assumed. Yeah, it’s a room. This just pads out the text and I think I recognize, in my own writing a weakness in this sort of description. A kind of passivity in the text.

It makes repeated but infrequent references to both Barrowmaze and Arachia for certain monsters and/or rules, so be aware of that. It’s not really anything important that can’t be handwaved though.

Random tables. Weird ass sky-lost-valley adventuring site. Hexes. Towers. Dungeons. Interactivity. Terseness. Some social. Rival parties. Elemental planes. A homebase. New magic items (to go with the boatload of generic book ones) and new monsters. This adventure takes just about every element D&D has that makes it good and exercises it a bit. Better bring a lot of food, torches and hench with you when you make it up top to the plateau … you probably gonna be there a bit and need to manage your resources …

If I were running this I’d make some generous printouts. One for the new monsters. One for the wanderers and demi-plane stuff. Print out the “plateau wind drift” paragraph and attach it to my chart. I don’t see a lot of need to make notes or highlight text, but rather print out stuff already there for “situational” references. I’ll happily add this to my dungeonland campaign, and pay the cash for the PDF. My biggest complaint is that I’d prefer just two-three more words per description, for some evocativeness. This is a great example of how the D&D elements work together to create emergent play in a non-linear fashion. 

This is $35 at DriveThru. That’s for the PDF. There’s no preview and Greg explains why in the DriveThru description. But, still, a link to another preview in the DriveThru description would have been nice. $35 is a bit much for a PDF blind buy. 


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/277804/HighFell-The-Drifting-Dungeon?1892600

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 6 Comments

The Hidden Tomb of Nephabti

By Jeremy Reaban
Self Published
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 5-7

Aeons ago, the forces of Apophis defeated the great paladin of Isis, Nephabti, and imprisoned her in stasis in a hidden tomb, along with those that had failed Apophis. Somehow or another the PCs have stumbled across the tomb.

This seventeen page adventure features a small egyptian/pyramid dungeon with 23 rooms spread out over about seven pages. Jeremy’s dungeon are interactive, and terse enough that the words don’t get in the way of running them, but they also fall on to the minimalism side of the evocative spectrum.

Statis tombs are not favorite. It’s one of the old problems in dungeon design: why the fuck are the monsters there? And “they come out of stasis and attack” is one of the oldest solutions. “Kept prisoner here and now insane/angry/etc” is another one, and it shows up as well. It’s an attempt to make sense of the monsters in the dungeon and why they are there; I guess a nod to ecology. Neither really work well, IMO, when overused. More than about one a dungeon and I start to sigh. It feels like an easy out and when I’m using something by someone else I’m not looking for the easy out; that’s what MY adventures are for. There are multiple stasis fields in this dungeon, releasing monsters. It feels, I guess, too much like a DM declaring “now is the time you fight monsters.” Yeah, I know it’s a tomb and its hard to justify. 

Which is not to say that there’s nothing else going on here. There are mummies, murals coming to life, stasis fields, guardians held hostage and the like all present. They add a welcome variety. In particular, I’m sure the murals will quickly be defaced upon room entry. 🙂

Interactivity is good. For every swirling well monster there’s another one in which the well swirls are not a monster. Poke things, prod things, bend bars, lift gates, talk to NPC’s, and drink from the fountains. Mummies go up in flames, with their dust clouds and, as I mentioned before, just about anything that could animate DOES animate, in one room or another. It might tend a little to the monster/combat side of interactivity but its a far sight from from an endless hack.

Certain rooms are brilliant, with electric eels forming a kind of rat ring, their bodies wearing gold rings. When Jeremy is at his best that’s the kind of content and imagination you get. A Bench of Ramming to batter down doors. In other places there’s a kind of weariness. One room has nothing but a monster in it, with no other description, and the +2 weapon is found far more often than the Tub of Bathing.

There’s a minimalism to the writing that I can both appreciate and be uninterested in. Jeremy doesn’t mince words. He writes a description and then gets out.  Here’s a typical room description: “In each corner of the room is a sarcophagus. On the northern wall is a gong. On the southern wall lies a wooden chest.” Just the facts maam. That keeps the room descriptions minimal, thus mitigating any Ease of Use issues. Large Apes. Sinister Alters. Your feelings about this adventure are going to hinge on those three phrases. Is that a good room description? Are Large Apes and SInister Alters ok with you? I think “large” is a boring word and Mr Thesaurus could have come up with something better. Likewise, I think sinister is a conclusion.  And the room description lacks anything which could be considered evocative in its writing. A tarnished gong, moldy chest and gleaming copper is more what I’m looking for. It’s the value that I think a designer adds, or should, when they write and publish an adventure. It’s part of the value I’m looking for anyway. The marketplace is too crowded with options for less.

I might say, also, that most of the NPC’s and intelligent folk you meet along the way have few notes about their use. There’s generally a roleplay note or two (which are useful) but “where the real tomb” and “whats in that next room” are likely to be questions that the DM gets little to no guidance on. Hey froggy froggy, what do you know about the tomb? Alas, the world shall never know. Look, yeah, I can make it up. But then again, I’m paying, in time if not money,for someone else to help out with that.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $1.50. The preview is seventeen pages, showing you the entire adventure. Good on Jeremy. He’s a decent designer and he gets the scene.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/274372/EG1-The-Hidden-Tomb-of-Nephabti?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 8 Comments

(5e) The Tower of Tharikthiril

By Devin Cutler
Self Published
5e
Level 3

The evil wizard Tharikthiril was defeated by the dwarves years ago. But why then are the groundlings becoming numerous around his ruined tower? And what are those strange lights seen in the distance coming from the direction of his tower? Has the wizard somehow cheated death and risen again?

This 31 page adventure describes an evil wizards (former) tower with about fifty rooms described in fourteen pages. It can get lengthy at times, in DM text and read-aloud, but tends to keep things reasonable. What is suffers from, more than anything, is being boring. It tries, but beyond monsters and lengthy traps it has little to offer. 

This wizards tower, errr, former wizards tower, has a large ground floor of 33 locations and then a couple of very small tower levels and a couple of very small dungeon levels. Running around inside are some vermin, goblins and corrupted dwarf-mutations, and an evil wizard with a few abominations. 

Traps are sprinkled throughout, each taking up far more space than they should with multiple skill/stat checks referenced. There’s a few attempts at a weird effect or two in a couple of the rooms.

Unlike most adventures, this thing takes a good running start at an evocative writing style. One room has it’s corner collapsed with rubble strewn down the mountainside. A mosaic purposefully pried up in one hallway. A room choked with stone from the ceiling, mud, water, dung, all forming a thick goop with the skeleton of a small humanoid lying atop it, gibbets of meat still on its bones. We can argue about the use of small and goop, but gibbets of meat still upon its bones, and the image of the skeleton in the much room, if a good one. It’s a nice lure to bring the party in. In general the adventure does a pretty good job of getting in and out with its read-aloud while providing the correct degree of specificity to be evocative when mixed with its colorful use of adjectives and adverbs. It’s not exactly The Best but it is CLEARLY a cut above the fact based descriptions that permeate adventures. A little scrubbing or agonizing editing and it could have possibly been really a standout in that area.

It does fall down on interactivity though. The adventure interprets this as monsters and traps and therefore it falls in to a rut of combat and traps. There ARE a few rooms where you can speak to a demon lord via a circle, and so on, but, especially on the homes main floor, it needs some more interactivity. For every small skeleton luring you in to combat there are 12 rooms that are far FAR more mundane. It doesn’t have to be a funhouse but interactivity needs to be more than combat and traps. Especially when those traps are nearly never telegraphed. Bad!

And then it goes and gives a full page of read-aloud monologue at the start, as a hook. Or gives you a page of text for a room with a quasit in it. These are extreme examples, but its clear that restraint failed in several other rooms as well. Long read and short DM text is usually a key that something fucked up. Short initial read-aloud, and an exploding format of the DM providing more and more detail as the players investigate would resolve this. Experiences are consistent, at least initial ones, with the DM consulting for more as needed. 

It’s also clear that, for most of the adventure, an order of battle is missing. With a couple of groups of at least semi-intelligent humanoids I would expect a few notes on how they respond to intruders or summon help, etc. 

And then for every good room description we get history and backstory embedded in the DM text, adding noting to the adventure but getting in the way.

Not doing much good. Dipping in to the bad on occasion but not living there. Is that enough to recommend an adventure? No, but it’s enough to not hate it. For its faults, this thing is better than most published 5e adventures. What’s heartening is that I think usability and interactivity are more easily learned than evocative writing. It’s possible that this designer may get things together and figure out the interactivity and usability elements while kicking up their evocative writing another notch. There’s just too much decent content available go lower than “Decent.”

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $2. The preview is quite poor, showing you that page long read-aloud in the hook and nothing of the actual rooms/encounters. Thus you have little idea of what to expect when you buy the thing. 


https://www.dmsguild.com/product/177184/The-Tower-of-Tharikthiril?1892600

Posted in 5e, Reviews | Leave a comment

Bone Marshes

By David Schriduan
Technical Grimoire Games
Knave

We need your help! The marshes are burning, and we don’t know why!

This 48 page hexcrawl has 25 hexes. [Hex size defined as “four hours to cross] It falls in to the “Real deal” category of adventures. Not mini-dungeon, but fully formed with lots going on. It makes some non-intuitive choices but it’s easy enough to use once you’ve got the hang of it. Chok full of adventure.

You find some magic flyers saying the swamps are on fire and some mage needs help. The mage has a mission for you: charting a path through the swamp for her supply caravan to reach her base. After that she another mission, and then another. These come with handy dandy tracking sheets and notes on modifications on how to turn each in to one-shot. The above references two themes: an impishness and a nod to usability. 

There’s a tone present which isn’t gonzo and isn’t deadly serious 1e AD&D and isn’t humor. It’s a slightly bizarre character thing, drifting toward ren-faire but never actually getting close. There’s some tech present in the swamp, at the heart of mystery in fact, but its not a gonzo adventure. It’s more subtle. There’s no real humor, but there are non-serious moments. These are almost entirely in the form of the NPC’s. They are not humorous, but they do have strong character. A guy who like to see things burn. Sages who like their comfort. And the primary quest-giver, a mage with a lot of money, not much sense, a childlike wonder, and who is looking to make a name for herself. Further in the swamp are memgomanicial bandit kings and some swamp-creatures with a trial separation going on. They don’t go over the top, or least not enough to make the adventure a farce. They do provide strong elements to hang your DM hat on and provide engaging play for the party. Which is what it’s about.

There’s also an emphasis on usability. I noted the handouts for the three missions, which double as a kind of note-pad, etc for the party. The character sheets also have some nods to usability for a “you got mud on you” mechanic. The hexes are noted in a format to help aid the DM, as is some underground/flooded tunnel notes. The descriptions make good use of bolding and summaries, whitespace, bullets, and terse evocative setting descriptions. It’s clear that usability was a major design consideration, and it pays off.

There’s a lot to do and interact with in the swamp. Fighting, fire fighting, NPC’s to talk to do, schemes to plot, places to explore and so on. It’s a small hex crawl done right. There’s some over-arching goals for the party and a canvas full of things waiting to happen for the adventure to develop as the party tries to achieve their goals. It’s a great example of both plot and sandbox mixing in the correct proportions to achieve some directed purpose without dictating which way things should go. 

And it’s not without its flaws. For all its attempts at usability a few fall short. 

The adventure makes an effort at cross-references, they appear in more than a few places. It also doesn’t always use time when it should. There are five gizmos scattered about the swamp that play a major part in the adventure … but there’s no unified place where they are all mentioned. Other elements, mentioned in passing as goals or so on, also do not get a cross-reference. Where was that swamp-throne again? 

The swamp map is a little non-intuitive as well, at first glance. The hexes are numbered A through R. Then the hex descriptions start. It took me more than a few minutes to recognize that the hexes were keyed by the encounter name. “Archies Camp” is hex A. “Queens House” is hex Q, and so on. I get it, once I figured it out, but I’m still not sure it makes the layout/design more intuitive. It also moves from one area to the next a little more fluidly then is helpful. In particular the indoor and underground sections for the main encounter areas end up being less intuitive then they could be if done in a more traditional format.It’s not BAD, exactly, but it does require more work than usual to figure out how things relate to each other.

Finally, there’s the fire aspect. This is the pretext for the entire adventure: the swamp is on fire and the mage wants to put it out. Mechanically, this is covered. There are rules for fire fighting, damage and the like. Easy to find, laid out, and understandable. Then there are tactical level fire issues: many random encounters and a few fixed ones have fire elements to them. Hexes tell yo uwhat they look like before and fires in them. But it feels like there’s a gap when it comes to, oh, let’s call is Strategic fire management. Let’s start with something very basic: where are the fires? Having spent a couple of hours with this adventure I can only tell you one hex. If you levitate up, or fly, or somehow get high up and look out … where are the fires? Where is the smoke coming from? There’s not help in this area. [Further, in retrospect, I don’t think fires exist, except in isolated circumstances and that one hex. I think they mostly come up through play and random encounters. The feeling of “smoke and small fires everywhere” doesn’t really come through for me. This may be a play thing though.]

But, these are minor nits and generally easily addressed. Monsters are freaky and get good descriptions. Hex/item descriptions are evocative and terse and the text easy to scan. It’s just how it all fits together that could be better. Still, easily one of the best. A “real” adventure, and there’s not many of those out there,

This is $10 at DriveThru, and worth it. The preview is fifteen pages. You get to see a DM overview of one of the “plot quests”, laid out nicely. You also get some bestiary pages, showing off their descriptions and freakiness. Preview page 10 and onward shows you sample hex encounter descriptions, with wanderers and the main layout/descriptions for hexes. It’s a good preview. 


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/275159/Bone-Marshes?1892600

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 2 Comments

(5e) Deception at Undervine

By Perry McKinley
Self Published 
5e
Levels 1-4

The PCs will need to investigate the town of Undervine, carefully examining the various personalities there. They will travel to the Muckfoot Bog, the Shadytree Woods, and the nearby Caverns of Undervine. the players will face obstacles and enemies that will challenge their very resolve, until they discover the true evil behind the murders at Undervine.

This seventeen page adventure details a ten location town, a sixteen location manor, and a 6 location cave. You wander about and poke your noses around and kill some shit. There’s a lot of explaining, history, backstory, and read-aloud … very little of which contributes to the adventure. It’s almost certainly completely mis-labeled in terms of level. It’s a mess. And this review is going to be a mess also. Because Reasons.

Yeah, ok, I fucked up. I saw the cover and “Forgotten Realms” and thought I was buying OSR. It’s DMSGuild so it’s 5e. Not that there are any stats provided in the adventure. Not that it matter anyway; the opponents include a Gibbering Mouther, three wights, a basilisk, and an ancient legendary werewolf. At level one? Yes, at level one. I tend to give encounter balance a pass in many of my reviews. A little plus/minus here or there doesn’t matter. Running away is a thing, as is Combat as War. But in a plot-heavy adventure, or linear one, then my eyebrows raise a little. If you HAVE to do an encounter then things need to a little more in line. I guess “have to do” is all relative anyway, you can always just leave the town to its fate. Still, man, 3 wights? A Werewolf? A fucking basilisk? The power curve on 5e changed, but this is silly!

This thing engages in Why Bother syndrome. This is when the designer tells the DM that they can do whatever they want. This does that over and over again. On the way to the town in question “The DM can decide whether to challenge the PCs with an encounter, pass, or roll on the encounter table below.” Or, maybe you’d like some “Once the party moves on, the DM will need to decide if the story has progressed enough for the final conflict with the Werewolf.” Oh, joy. So things just happen because the DM wills it for the sake of the plot and story. This is BAD FUCKING DESIGN. Look, to a certain extent this shit happens in every D&D adventure and in every D&D game. Yeah, the DM drives things from a certain point of view. But in good design its in reaction to the players characters and their actions. In bad D&D it’s because the plot demands it or through DM fiat. Toss an extra clue in somewhere, or clarify things when the players misunderstand or are talking themselves in to a corner? Ok, no problem. Throwing baddies at the party until they reach ability exhaustion for the sake of the plot? That’s bad design. We’re paying for content, well written and designed content. 

The usual long read-aloud is present. I roll my eyes every time. There are walls of DM text with little breaks, dictating the history of rooms, reasons why X is Y, and so on. Bob used to take his meals in this room but he hasn’t been going down to eat lately, having lost his appetite. Uh. Ok.So? Is that meaningful to the adventure in ANY way? No? THEN WHY THE FUCK DID YOU WRITE THE WORDS?

Perhaps my favorite part is the hook at the beginning. A storyteller in an inn relates the tale of the town. He won’t tell the party his name. Outside, if followed, he disappears in a fog. He can’t be fought or killed. He’s some kind of ghost thing for absolutely no reason at all. He just is. If it were a storyteller named Bob that you could stab, would it make any difference? Does the presence of short little DungeonMaster in his red robes add anything to this adventure?  Or is it just more of the DM fucking with the players for no reason at all?

On the plus side the Lynch brothers (the wights) were hung in the village and there’s a frozen fountain the village, covered in snow. Cleaning off the snow reveals a body frozen in the water. That’s nice imagery, and easily the best idea in the entire adventure.

This is Pay What You Want at DMSGuild, with a suggested price of $2. The preview is six pages. It is an accurate and true representation of the adventure in all its glory. From the writing, the read-aloud, and DM text to the muddled confusion of how everything works together. 


https://www.dmsguild.com/product/181334/Deception-at-Undervine?1892600

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 4 Comments

(5e) Belmey

By Michael LaBossiere
Self Published
5e
Levels 1-4

War is coming. Two nations have set aside their differences to fulfil their historical ambition: to reclaim a province lost long ago. As with any war, arms and armor are needed and who better to claim a long-lost armory stocked with Imperial equipment than the bold adventurers? Complicating the situation is the fact that the old armory is located near the ruins of the summer estate of Count Bekus, a necromancer who was killed, beheaded, burned and interred in a special vault so that he would not plague the world again.

This 37 page adventure details the exploration of a small ruined estate with about 21 locations. It’s abstracted to the point of almost being an adventure outline. Interactivity is generally limited to combat, and the writing is dull with meandering DM text. 

Today I’m going to talk about direct and indirect illocutionary forces with regard to adventure design. Nah, I’m just fucking with you;, it’s The Cave, as per usual. Also, I’m supposed to be nicer in these weekend reviews since A) they tend to suck more and B) the designers tend to be full of enthusiasm from their 5-star drivethru reviews. That means I’ll cut out the The cave bullshit. Yes, that was all for your benefit. Go figure.

Let’s talk good things first. Note that the folk killed, beheaded, burned, and then interred the remains in a special sealed vault. Nice! The local lords generally don’t do enough patrolling of old ruins or tearing them down and digging them up/salting the earth. Just loke town councils INSIST on sewer systems. It’s good to see the local folk dealing with the necromancer effectively. Once the bad guy goes down, keep hacking and burn the body. Fire is man’s oldest friend, use it! 

This blow-off comment about a line of flavour text in the into blurb concludes my discussion of the adventures good points. 

I’m sure the designer here was, as is  generally the case, excited about this effort. Enthusiasm does not a good adventure make. My belief is that designers don’t know what a good adventure looks like, a good published adventure anyway. They are flooded with bad examples, from WOTC, from PAIZO, through the marketplaces. These drown out any good examples that may be hiding. If everything gets 5-stars then how are you know what is good and not good? These people face an impossible challenge. Further, attempts to divine what makes an adventure good are marred by all of the bad advice. Be it well-meaning fuckwits on forums or freelance writers with a deadline, there’s almost nothing worthwhile. Well, almost nothing. Listen to voice saying Follow Me …

Evocative writing is hard. Interactivity, beyond combat, is not straightforward. (See, that’s me being nice.) That leaves us with Usability — Ye Olde Informatione Transfere. This is the basic point that the VAST majority of designers get wrong … before they even get to evocative writing or interactivity. They don’t know how to write an adventure so it can be used at the table. This is, at its most fundamental form, the purpose of an adventure. The DM uses the adventure at the table to run it for the players. The adventures primary purpose is that. The writing, layout, and so forth MUST be oriented towards that. And the vast majority of adventures don’t do that.

In this adventure that applies most directly to the hook. Bob the half-orc has a mission for you and his bard buddy has some information. This is all related in a page of information formatted as paragraphs. This is poor design. For this one scene you have to an entire page of words in your head. That’s foolish, right? You can’t remember that much. You’re gonna want to refer back to the text during play. This means scanning the text to find the thing you want. And yet the information is presented as a great text block with just a  few paragraph breaks. Further, it’s generally formatted in PLOT style. First this happens then this then this then this. This is TERRIBLE. I often talk about bolding, whitspace, offset boxes, and bullets. I’m noting specific techniques toward a greater goal: Helping the DM run this section. The players want to know something and/or you need to respond. You glance down at the page. Can you locate the information you need in less than 3 seconds? [Whatever. An ‘instant’ amount of time that doesn’t delay the game and break flow.] The formatting and organization is critical to this … and its missing here. 

Usually that’s a problem with rooms also. Over described and too prescriptive are the usual sins. This, though, is different. It feels like the encounters are more 4e. You get a large number of locations, lets say, 12, in the upper ruins. Really ruins, just some wall remnants. The keyed encounters takes … I don’t know, one column for 9 rooms … most of which is taken up by one room. Locations 4-8 are noted as “The once fine hamber hall and entrance are now but ruins.” How can this be?!?! Because there’s a little section before/after noting that there is at least one zombie in rooms 6,7,8,&9. (That’s you level scaling for you. Remember, this is plot D&D where the DM fudges everything and player agency is therefore nearly non-existent.) “Put in some stirges if you want.” Or, maybe, buy a well-crafted adventure if I want? Oops , sorry, I’m being nice today.

Anyway, it almost an outline, or 4e style. Here’s a bit fucking map with a lots of rooms. There’s an ooze in it roaming around. GO! It sets up a situation. IN some respects, this is a good concept, that IS how D&D should be. But it feels less like adventure and wonder and Free Play  then it does “Here’s a TACTICAL situation. GO!” Hence the 4e comparison. 

Column long stat blocks. A level range in the blurb that’s different than the one in the adventure. Which is all meaningless anyway since it’s all fudged with numerous implicit and explicit fudging advice to the DM. “Ghoul miners dug this tunnel.” Why do we need to know that? It doesn’t add anything to PLAYERS experience since it’s just DM knowledge. That’s bad. You’re wasting words. Words are supposed to help the DM with PLAYER action. I’m being hyperbolic here, since there’s room for a little of this, but, in general, words have to have GAMEABLE meaning … why is this relevant to the players? “This temple was constructed in order to conceal his true faith.” Well, maybe, but why does that matter? Constructs, who the party will never hear, mutter ”oh my look at the mess.” Sure, every once in awhile you can slip in something for the DM, but it doesn’t come off like that in this adventure. 

This is Pay What You Want at DMSGuild, with a suggested price of $6. There’s no preview. Put in a fucking preview so we know in advance what we’re buying! Yeah, it’s a PWYW, so the entire thing is a preview. I think I’m terrified that some precedent is going to set and we’ll start down the slope of the form changing and thus all the shadows following suit. Ha! Did it again!

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/280959/Belmey?1892600

I leave you with this, a portion of a (potential) PC backstory, between the PC and someone who will eventually become the guard captain who gives the party the quest. 

“Being at the front of the wagon, you could see the two orcs driving it. One looked back into the wagon, holding a crossbow at the ready. He was splattered with blood and seemed eager to spill more. The other orc looked different, quite like a human and there was something softer about his eyes. As he kept looking back at you and the others, even your young eyes could see the struggle going on in his soul.

As the wagon left the village, he let out a terrible howl and swung his axe clean through his fellow’s neck, showering you with blood. He turned and said “I can’t let you go through what my mother did. I’m going to save you all. Or we will die together! Hang on!” You were surprised you could understand him, then you realized he was speaking common.”

How many innocent people did he kill? How many fields burned? Plagues delivered? Atrocities committed? But, saving one child absolves him of his sins? Nah, I’m just fucking around. But, Tonal Mismatch much?

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 8 Comments

Wyvernseeker Rock

By RP Davis
Aegis Studios
O&O/BX
Levels 2-5

A long age ago, beyond mortal memory, a forgotten people built a watching post and refuge atop and within Wyvernseeker Rock. A hundred years ago, an adventurer named Olaf Wyvernseeker claimed the Rock for his own and set out with companions to clear the lands thereabouts. They were never heard from again. The upper chambers of the Rock are a convenient lair for a Giant Rhadogessa and its spider servants. Still, it’s got to be safer than climbing the cliff. Right?

This six page side-treckish adventure has five linear rooms. It has some decently evocative text, but misses on several aspects, like stat check puzzles. It’s ok for what it is, but nothing I would seek out.

This is a short side-trek/obstacle “adventure.” While following a stream through the forest you come out to find a sheer cliff wall, with a waterfall. Next to it is a small cave with a weird arch entrance. Go through the arch, up the stairs, through the five rooms, and come out on top of the cliff. Sadly, that statue from the cover doesn’t make an appearance.

The text in this isn’t too bad, at least the descriptive text. “Hewn into the face of the cliff is an arch, around which are carved mystical runes too weathered to decipher. Through the arch is a cave. Niches line the walls of the cave, each just large enough to contain a humanoid skull.” That’s not too bad. Short, a little evocative with hewn, niches, weathered, etc. Likewise room two says “Thick dust carpets the corridors. Clearly no one has walked here in centuries. Tiled mosaics of water creatures riding waves line all the walls.” I could do without the “no one has walked here” stuff, but thick carpet of dust and tiled mosaics give a decent touch to the description. It abstracts at times, like “ornamental pool” and so on (a few more/different words would have been a better description) but the text, at least the descriptive test, doesn’t overstay its welcome. And it’s not bad read-aloud, or read-aloud at all. 

It starts to fall down in some of the mechanics. That arch over the cave entrance, and another one, is an ability check puzzle. Meaning that you can’t decipher it through actual play, you have to roll a stat check to bypass. Three times. Three successes and you decipher all of the runes (again, abstracted) and you can pass. Fail a check and take some static damage. That sort of stuff encourages mix/max play, where the challenge becomes building a character within the rules rather than player challenge. If you want a stat check to help decipher the puzzle then that’s ok in my book, by making the challenge ONLY about ie rolling and character optimization during build encourages the wrong type of play. You do get a skeleton next to the puzzle, to hint the trap is there. That’s always good. I even liked the description: “Huddled against the base of the door is the skeletal remains of a Wild Folk clutching a spear.” Hudled, remains, clutching a spear. Not great, but good enough.

The map is a small Dyson one, as I alluded to in the “five rooms” note. And it’s not numbered. I get it, the map/adventure is linear and therefore this doesn’t HAVE to be a deal breaker. I don’t hang on Dyson’s every word, but I hazard a guess that he’s not going to loose his shit because you added room numbers to his map. Anything more than two-ish rooms probably should have room numbers. I hate having to figure this shit out during play. “Which room was this again? Let me count …”

It’s a short adventure, the main DM text hangs around a little long, but the descriptions are decent. The puzzles are too stat-based. It’s short. The concept here is a decent one; a little rework from the designer/editor and it could have made it to No Regerts.

This is $1 at DriveThru. And alas, there is no preview. Stick in a preview!


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/278025/Wyvernseeker-Rock?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments

In the Company of Thieves

By Aaron Lopez
Aegis Studios
O&O/BX
Levels 2-3

Outside the city of Luminere lies the town of Crescent Falls, a medium-sized village of 500 residents. Crescent Falls has been relatively quiet until recently. Several rural farmsteads have had their entire family go missing leaving local authorities stymied. The small garrison of the town is already overloaded as most of the soldiers and town guard has been called to aid with a harvest festival in Luminere. The town watch only has three members left to keep the peace, so they have called on assistance from adventurers to get to the bottom of the mystery.

This nine page adventure is a straight-forward hack of a small wererat lair with five rooms. The text is the usual muddled mess. 

The exploration of O&O from Aegis Studies continues. I will say that Aegis has done a great job of getting a wide variety of designers to write adventures; I don’t think I’ve seen a repeat designer yet. As long as that continues then I’ll continue to review the new designers content.

Rather than presenting facts that the DM can work with, the adventure is formatted in “paragraph” form, which tries, in its own way, to tell a story. This starts with the hook. You get the usual read-aloud with the sheriff telling you whats up and then long paragraphs of when the party does this then this other thing happens, usually someone telling the party something. This makes it hard to scan the text during play. You have to dig through the paragraphs to find the information you want. It’s not that paragraphs are, in and of themselves bad, but the length of them, combined with the lack of whitespace/breaks, makes it hard to scan for information. Better formatting in the way of more whitespace, offsets, or bullets would have helped this a lot. 

I know I harp on this a lot, but it’s an important point. I HATE digging through text to find information during play. Rather than present a situation, like some facts about the boy, in his own section, instead it all gets buried in the text in one place and you have to take some pauses to read the entire thing … and hope you didn’t miss anything buried in a different section. The adventure must first and foremost be usable by the DM at the table. It’s an immediate turn off when its hard to use. More than my own personal preference, I think its one of the major design flaws in almost every adventure. It’s like people have forgotten how these things are used. I’m sure it has something to do with the designers innate knowledge; they KNOW what they wrote and how its supposed to work, so they are not having to refer to the text. The rest of us, though, have to rely on it. 

It doesn’t help that the adventure is behind a stat check. Yes, the dreaded Roll To Continue the Adventure appears. To find the lair you have to succeed in a stat check to track the wererats back. Yes, it’s also a roll that everyone is going to fudge when the party doesn’t make it, so why does it exist in the first place? An additional challenge, or boon, makes much more sense in these situations.

I continue to be aghast at the mechanics of these O&O adventures. I don’t get the system (which maybe means I should buy the book and check it out.) 3HD wererats have 19 HP. I guess maybe this is on a d8 instead of a d6? Then again, the adventure is full of wererats, which I’m pretty sure still take magic weapons to hit. At level 2. Combined with this being a straight forward hack with almost nothing else going on, I have to wonder how many people play old school D&D like this? Just room after room full of things to cut down with nothing much else going down? I like killing monsters also, but the charm of old school is sometimes twisted in to that being the ONLY thing going on in an adventure, and that sort of grinding combat is something I would expect from 3e, 4e, or something like Warhammer minis at a con. 

The cave is dim because foliage grows up outside. The rats have dug a trench from a river in order to get fresh water. There’s so much justifying, in just about every room. “This thing is this way because they did Y.” Is this really necessary for most of this stuff? No. It’s a trench with fresh water. Why does it, and everything else, need a backstory and justifying? It’s just padding that gets in the way of the adventure and, of course, makes it harder to scan and use during play.

There’s a tapestry of exceptional quality, with no further details. You have to roll on the treasure tables for the loot the wererats have. A few words more should have been spared for some detail on the tapestry and it makes no sense to tell the DM to roll for treasure. Isn’t it the designers job to create specificity for us, to inspire us to greatness? 

Just another mess of a hack adventure.

This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview is three pages. You can see the intro/hook text in paragraph form, the roll to continue,  and the first part of the first room. All on the last page of the preview. It gives you an excellent idea of the writing style you are to encounter, even though I would have preferred to see an entire room in the preview.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/280977/In-the-Company-of-Thieves?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 16 Comments

(5e) Waking the Wizard

By Robert L Rath
RATHSQUATCH Publishing
5e
Levels 1-4

The morning dew hasn’t even had a chance to evaporate when the carrier rides in. His flowing shirt decorated cart, and a tabard adorned with a lion within a purple diamond tells you that this individual brings a message directly from the capital city. In a village this small, it doesn’t take long for word to travel. The council is summoned, messages delivered and decisions made before the sun even reaches mid-day. What is it that has sent this little village into a scramble? A letter from the King. But what role do they play?

This 121 page adventure features a couple of sub-plots on the journey to explore s wizards house. It also appears to have gone down the “bad adventure” checklist, ensuring that just about every mistake possible is made. It’s an unusable mess.

Let’s cover the good first, and yes it does do something good. As a starting adventure it covers each of the potential 5e backgrounds and has a little hook/background that integrates with the generic PHB background. Local hero, spy, etc, they all get a little section on how that characters background fits in to their life in the starting village and how it drags them in to the adventure at hand. I think i’ve seen maybe one other starting 5e adventure do that; it was a good idea then and it’s a good idea now.

Of course, it absolutely ruined during the implementation. It’s presented almost as read-aloud for the PC, rather than notes for the DM to relate.  You are angry. You feel X, Y, or Z. It’s the worst type of background information, telling the players who they will be playing, ruining whatever ideas they already had for their character. Yeah, in a con game or a one-shot, sure, it helps get things going.

This ham-handed stomping on player agency continues throughout. Mountains of read-aloud (mountains and MOUNTAINS of it) do a great job of relating the parties feelings and what they do. You sit down on some hay bales. You’re disgusted. You wonder. It’s this garbage failed novelization shit that pops up again and again. It’s trying desperately to set a mood and its attempting it in the worst way possible: by forcing the players. Instead it should be presenting evocative descriptions that instill the mood. Is it better to say “yo ufeel tense as you wait” or is it better to presents descriptions that create a mood that get the players thinking they feel tense? Obviously, the second. And that’s something that this adventure does over and over and over and over and over again. And by “does” I mean “does not do.” It’s not quite a puppet adventure, but its close enough to make me roll my eyes on at least half the (very numerous) read-aloud.

Every description is too long. For every business in the villages. For every encounter. For every keyed encounter. There’s too much read-aloud. The read-aloud is bad. There’s too much DM text. The DM text is bad. Oh, oh, I’ll include a section at the end, for a kitchen. I fucking lvoe bad kitchen encounters. I should write a book of collected bad kitchen encounters in RPG’s. It would be magnificent.

It’s trying to include some sub-plots on the way to the wizards house, and even inside the house, but the writing is utterly incomprehensible for play at the table. Long paragraphs relating exactly And then and then and then and then and then. Details embedded in paragraphs, long NPC motivation paragraphs that hide the information you need to actually run the NPC at the table.

Area 16: The Kitchen

[read aloud]The southwest corner of this room sports two cooking pits, which don’t appear to have been used in quite some time. Each pit is large enough to cook a medium-sized animal, with a three-foot stone ledge built around it to keep the meat within. The pits are filled with ash and charred remains. A chimney leads up from here, but it is much too small to investigate.

Long tables line each wall while bowls, cups, and moldering food sit upon them. This only fuels the rancid smell within the room, although it was hard to place at first. The cheese upon one of the tables looks especially bad, with a fuzzy growth upon it. Finally cooking utensils hang from the ceiling.[/read-aloud]

This is the stronghold’s kitchen area, but it hasn’t been used in quite some time.

There are two doors leading into this room.

The west entry is a Simple Wooden Door (10 hp immunity to piercing damage) which slides upward and is unlocked.

The East Entry is a Strong Wooden Door which is locked (DC 15 to open, DC 20 strength check to break; 20 hp to smash but has immunity to piercing damage

And that is our kitchen. Two paragraphs of read-aloud garbage that amounts to nothing followed by some door stats. It’s evocativeness is matched only by its interactivity.

This looks like a home game/campaign conversion, with all those loving details thrown in. I have no doubt this was someones labour of love. It’s just that the designer had no idea how to translate that in to an effective written form. No doubt they took as an example other written adventures for 5e, which were themselves terrible. And thus the cycle of bad 5e adventures continue. No doubt the 5-star reviews are already pouring in. I wish that designers had more guidance on how to write/present their adventures. We’d all be happier. I wonder how much blame goes to editors, who SHOULD know better, and how much goes to a designer who won’t listen? I’m not saying that’s the case here, but an editor who is just a copy-editor is no editor at all.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. You get to see the players background integration text that I was fond of in concept and hated as it was implemented. You also get to see some read-aloud and DM text, which should serve as fair warning as to what to expect in the rest of the adventure.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/278644/The-Chosen-Ones-Part-1–Waking-the-Wizard?1892600

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 9 Comments

From the Mouth of Babes

By Ken Carcas
Aegis Studios
B/X
Level 2-3

A dirty pair of hungry goblin children wander upon the party on the wilderness side of The Untamed Gauntlet. Through difficult communication, the party manages to find out that something bad happened to their clan. The children, still unaware of the villainous nature of man to goblin, attempt to convince their newfound ’friends’ to come and help. Leading the party back to the lair, they are eventually confronted with the fact that the clans own hunting wolves are responsible for the clan’s demise. To make matters worse, it appears the crazed nature of the wolves, due to the arcane effects of the poison has transformed the once ordinary wolves into poison wielding beasts in their own right. Will the party overcome these freaks of nature and their poison attacks, and what will become of the goblin children themselves?

Nothing to see here, move along.

This sixteen page adventure features a five room linear dungeon. With encounters spanning a page or more, the backstory and irrelevant detail is strong with this one.

The exploration of Aegis Studios carpet-bombing of content continues, and probably will as long as different designers keep producing content for it. I think this is designer number six under the Aegis banner? Aegis certainly came on strong with O&O content.

The hook encounter is a page long. It involves two goblin children coming out of the forest, hungry, asking the party for help. This should have been the first warning … a full page for this is long, with separate read-alouds for day and night. To its credit it does present a second hook, for when the party kills the kids; a diseased wolf shows up and you can track it back to the same caves.

Otherwise …

To find the goblin cave you need to make a wisdom check. If you fail you can try again next hour. Each hour you get a +1 bonus. There are no wanderers, so it’s just pointless dice rolling.

The encounters are between a column and a page and half long. Two giants rats? That’s a column of text. Three goblins, that’s a page and half because of all the backstory they could relate to you. An empty room is a quarter page. Two wolves is a page long.  This is all textbook padding through history and other detail that’s irrelevant to the game at hand. “The remaining goblins from Area 2 have recently killed a couple of giant rats that ventured into their lair obviously looking for an easy meal. The goblins managed to kill both but only managed to drag one back to Area 2 before the Venom Wolves from below ventured up to see what the noise was all about. It is unknown why they chose to leave the remaining dead giant rat where it was and not claim it as a meal.” In the end I sigh, roll my eyes, and thank Vecna I never have to try to run this at the table. There’s just way too much shit for each room to be able to scan it and run it easily. Padding, filler, poorly organized … it’s words for the sake of words. I wonder if Travis pays per word?

The female goblins are listed with HD:1-1. They have 14HP, 12HP, and 8HP. Is this on a d20? Maybe it’s just me, but something seems off to me …

This is $2 at DriveThru, where Featured Reviewer Megan R. gives it five stars. A quick check of her last sixty reviews shows one three star review (for a Delta Green DM screen) a couple of four stars and mostly five star reviews. This is the world we live in.

Anyway, the preview is four pages. The last page shows the Wisdom Check for the cave, the first room, and the start of the (1.5 page) second room. Room one is a good example of what to expect, only much much much more so, in terms of padding.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/275682/From-the-Mouth-of-Babes?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 10 Comments