The Throne of the Gods

By Joseph Mohr
Levels 15+

Rumors have reached the adventurers about the recent discovery of the legendary Throne of the Gods. This epic level journey will take the adventurers to places of unimaginable danger. But the adventurers may not be the only ones seeking this artifact.

This 34 page adventure describes a two level dungeon with about thirty rooms that has the Throne of the Gods at the End. Or, as the cover states: “The THrone of the Gods.” It is basically just a series of fights. Monster Zoo, with padded writing.

What is a D&D adventure? A series of challenges to overcome? But if that model is adhered to too strictly, ot literally, you can get a flat adventure. Just a series of rooms with monsters in them. Or a series of puzzle traps. Or a series of riddles. Or … Whatever. It’s hard to argue that those elements are not a part of D&D adventures but when the D&D adventure starts from that framework I think you get substandard work.

And that’s the case with this adventure. It doesn’t feel like a real place. It doesn’t feel like it started out as caves, or a throne room, or whatever. It feels like it started out as a series of challenges to be overcome. Room after room of high HD monsters. Roc’s. Mind Flayers. Beholders. Dragon Turtle. Devils. Titan. NPC Parties. It’s a monster zoo of high HD enemies.

The designer does say that high level adventures are hard, and I would agree. I’m not sure anyone has cracked that nut. It’s certainly one of the largest unsolved issues in D&D. A dungeon full of monsters to hack doesn’t do it.

To it’s credit it doesn’t gimp the party. But it’s really just room after room of monsters to cut down with a couple of dead-ends or a puzzle/evil alter or two. It feels more like a 4e adventure with its focus on combat.

And then there’s Maude. Err, the text. ¾ of a column to describe a dead body. Padding the text with phrases like “Should anyone climb up the statue and inspect the mouth of it they may find a …” or “Should you use divine magic then you learn [something irrelevent.]” Or telling us, at a certain pit, that a Monk may be able to reduce their falling damage through the use of one of their powers. Well, yes. Why tell us that? Do you also explain how to use Thac0 in every combat, noting it was optional in 1e? Or how MU’s cast spells?

This is available, freely, at Dragonsfoot.

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The Beast of Briar Creek

By J
New Realms Publishing
Labyrinth Lord
Level 1

On a mission to request aid from the Enchanter Tyrion, your band of volunteers will be traveling along the Weatherstone Road. A well traveled route, there are few travelers on the road now and what you do find isn’t friendly. And then there is the lurking menace, the monster that has come to dominate the fears of travelers and locals alike, the Beast of Briar Creek.

This seven page adventure has two encounters in it, in a linear format. You walk up a road rom your village to a wizards tower. Get attacked on the road. Visit an inn, maybe. Maybe get attacked. By kobolds. Cross a bridge with a monster under it. End.

So, it has read-aloud and the read-aloud is short. It’s not the best read-aloud, but it doesn’t suffer from things like describing room dimensions or other problems. And it is clearly making an effort to paint a decent picture.

The DM text after the read-aloud tries to describe a situation for the DM. It has a paragraph or so of things like a mud-bogged road, and so on, and then says something like brown blobs attack from the trees. If I squint hard I can maybe see what the designer was going for. What is comes across as is “you’re on a muddy road and some blob monsters come out of the woods and attack.” I think though the designer may have been trying for something else. Let’s say that instead of free-form text the DM text was a list of bullets. The first one said. Something like “the road bogs down in mug, travel is quartered. Shoes get stuck in it and come off feet. People slip.” and then another one that said something like “2/3d across the valley blob monsters come out.” or something like that, or more. Then you’ve got a little scene. The DM is going back and forth with the players. The mud is reinforced. They are trying to avoid it, or keep their shoes on, or wipe the mud off when slipped. Maybe even some muddy puddles that LOOK like the blob monsters. Now you’ve got a little more than “you are walking down the muddy road and get attacked.” Certainly the text doesn’t preclude the little extras I mentioned, but it relies on the DM to add it. The bullets, extra detail, etc instead give a clearer picture to the DM of the environment and encourage further play without necessarily being prescriptive. Which is assisting the DM in running it at the table.

A lot of the intro text is abstracted. The weather is foul. The crops are rotting. The water has gone bad in places. Rumors of monsters in the night. Village elders held a meeting. This is all abstracted. Old man Crawford’s well went bad his plow ox died after drinking it. 3 weeks of rain and the fields are waterlogged. Old Man Martin is again going to the wizard for help but Crawford is distraught and wants his help, gummit! This cements things in a way that abstracted text can never. There’s buy in.

Finally, lets talk price. I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I think I’ve mentioned it before. This is $2 for seven pages (which includes the cover and legal statement.) There are five encounters, one of which is just a “leaving the village” read aloud and one of which is just “visit an inn.” Further, a third one might not happen if you skip the inn, do it right. Is it worth $2? G1 is a good adventure, is 8 pages, and was $17.50 in 2019 dollars. And yet I see people bitch about $2 adventures that have 50 rooms in them in a good dungeon level format in 6 pages. There is a bias, I think, against short page counts. We expect shit to be padded to hell so we don’t accept a short $2 adventure. Which means it has to be padded to hell to justify a page count to justify the $2. That’s not cool. Cool things can be short. I will say again, I wish DriveThru had a no questions asked return policy.  

This is available on DriveThru for $2. There’s no preview. Otherwise you wouldn’t buy it?

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(5e) Blood on the Snow

By Curt Carbonell
Levels 5-8

It’s the dead of winter in the High North. People are going missing, rumors abound of savage creatures in the wilderness, and the outpost town of Jotnar’s Folly is teetering on the brink of starvation. You must travel to the frozen foothills of the Spine of the World and put a stop to whatever is causing this suffering. Will you be able to survive the freezing temperatures, solve the mystery, and defeat the threat in time to save the town from certain destruction?

This 22 page adventure has the party trekking through bitter cold (environmental hazards) and meeting some gnolls before hacking a frost giant and his pet remorhaz. Pruning back the writing and some tweaks to the organization/support information would go a long way to making this an inoffensive adventure. At its heart it’s just a boring old set-piece battle with the added complication of a gnoll parlay.

Set in a far northern town, the children don’t drink lemonade but they do get hacked down. You pick up a couple of quests in town, go to a farmstead to find some dead bodies, find some gnolls at a campsite that you might be able to roleplay with, and then fight a frost giant and his pet.

This adventure tries hard. You can see the designer trying to do the right thing and then kind of leaving out what they needed to succeed. I’m going to assume it’s because of a lack of exposure to good design principles.

The adventure is set in the frozen north and the environment is supposed to be a big part of the adventure. There’s a little section at the beginning on sights and sounds that tries to help the DM introduce some atmosphere. Crunching snow, glare off the snow, etc. It’s got some nice ideas in it. But, what the adventure needs, is reinforcement of those ideas. Including that section in front kind of sets the DM’s mood while they are doing their initial read through, setting up the lens by which the further encounters can be viewed through. The encounters, proper, though need this data reinforced. The data should be repeated, not word for word but elements of it, in the various encounters. When you reach the ruined homestead a few words, under the title, like [crunchy snow, glare off the featureless plain] would have done wonders to help the DM set the mood WHILE RUNNING IT. Remember, the adventure needs to be focused on running it at the table. So while the initial sights & sounds are ok, the DM needs that brief environmental data reinforced in the actual encounter that they are looking at. The DM’s attention is drawn a hundred different way while running the game, helping them recall is a good thing. But, you have to do it without getting in the way. Hence the suggestion of the “feelings” under the encounter title.

Likewise the adventure tries to set up a situation where travel between the various encounter sites has an element of the environment in it. Face a blizzard or hide in a cave? Go over a frozen lake or maybe go the other way to have a monster encounter? These little things have a number of problems. First, the table they are presented on only has three options, driven by a survival check. Given the multiple travel options it’s certainly possible that the same one could happen more than once. It would have been better to tweak this in to something else, like removing the check. This ISN’T messing with player agency because of my second point. It’s not always obvious what the consequences of the players decisions will be. For the decision to be meaningful the players must understand the nature of the decisions they are making. Going over the lack will reduce time but it looks treacherous. The other direction looks safer but maybe has monster spoor. Or you can see a blizzard in the distance, or something like that. They need to know that the blizzard is coming and/or that it will delay them. Otherwise the choice is random and you take the players agency away, things just happen to them. The adventure is not necessarily doing this on purpose but it doesn’t make it clear. Finally, the linkages between the hazards are weak. It mentions, for example in the “Rock and Hard Place” line on the survival table that the party might have to survive the weather and then has a section about a column away called Surviving the Weather. That’s generic, and could apply to the entire adventure when it’s MEANT to apply to this one line on the survival table. Rock & A hard place on the table could be called “Blizzard or Yeti?” and the blizzard referred to as “Event: Blizzard” or something like that. By being cute with the names you make the comprehension harder for the DM.

Read aloud is contained to just one entry per “major section” but can be long, and, as long time readers know long read-aloud, being more than 2-3 sentences are bad. Instead, rely on bullet points or other techniques to rely information to the DM so they can easily find it and convey it. Further, flowery read-aloud is almost always bad, in general, and is in this adventure as well. “Arrows stick out of the snow like frozen flowers.” is not good writing. Evocative writing is a good thing to strive for but metaphor is almost always a bad idea. In my experience it almost always comes off as groan & eye-rolling worthy.

It’s handles survival mostly through the 5e exhaustion check mechanism. This is a decent way to include it but not focus on the tedium of outdoor survival, like so many adventures do in the heat or cold. It would have been better, though, to include a brief summary of the exhaustion rules and maybe some modifiers, etc, in the adventure, maybe on the last page or something, to make the DM’s referencing it during play easy to find. I don’t want to go hunting in the PHB or leave the page open in the hardback during play. Remember, the designer should be focused on helping the DM run the adventure during play at the table.

But, to that end, a little travel table is provided between sites showing distances and typical number-of-days travel time. That’s the kind of helpful data I’m looking for, so well done!

It’s got a couple of other nice things it’s trying to do also. The mayor is being blackmailed by a protection racket, leading to some of the hooks, and provides better depth than usual to what would normally be a throw-away hook. That’s great. It’s exactly what I’m talking about when I ask people to think about their hooks just a little more He needs the lost protection money back, and it also leads to potential further adventure at the end of the adventure. Likewise, there’s a cowardly sheriff, a hero in his own tale, that has caused some trouble. This is a non-trivial element of the adventure, as he has killed a gnoll and they can be, potentially, allies of the party if the sheriff and gnoll tension can come to a end. The sheriff thinks he did the right thing. The gnolls are pissed he killed one of them. They are not necessarily hostile but potentially hostile. That can be a good encounter, with no enforced right or wrong to it. [The gnolls come off a little too do-gooder for me, like humans wearing gnoll costumes. There could be some more nuance there but its painfully easy to see where the designer is going.] The entire idea of the sheriff and gnoll group, with factions in the gnolls, is a great idea. It just needed some more work.

Folks will recall that Rients suggests shaking up the campaign, and the giant could very well fuck up the town. That could be GREAT!

It also tries to do something interesting with hooks. Four locations are described in town, each with a hook related to the adventure. This goes a long way to the concept of leaving out the shit don’t matter. Four ways in to the adventure, or further nuance to it, and thus four locations described in the town. That’s focus. The NPC’s are left to the appendix to describe, and I’d prefer a couple of keywords in the description to riff off of, but, at least they are short-ish.

The DM text tends to the medium and unfocused side of the spectrum, needing more whitespace/bullets/pruning back to enable focus on what matters when running it. Finally, it’s got a trigger warning at the start noting that some innocent people get killed as a part of the adventure. Uh … Seriously? If anything I’d say it doesn’t go far enough in this area. Showing why a bad guy is evil, instead of telling us, is a key way to motivate the party. I’m not looking for graphic depictions, but the current descriptions are abstracted enough that they don’t bring anything/much to the table.

Finally, This is really just a three encounter adventure. Go to homestead and find some bodies and the sheriff. Go to campsite and find more bodies and the gnolls and hack them and/or roleplay. Go find frost giant and his pet and kill them. Three encounters in 22 pages, for $4, is not exactly “Participation Award” worthy. Yeah yeah, environmental encounters between the main ones. Whatever. I don’t wandering monsters in OSR adventures and I’m not counting Wandering Environment encounters here. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that, if you hack the gnolls down, there’s any way to figure out there’s a giant involved or where he’s going. It’s assumed, I guess, that the gnoll roleplay works out. Strengthening the “ought oh! The giants the bad guy!” part could be better. Or, maybe not, and you just let the giant fuck up the town. But that smacks of the designer saying “you better talk to the gnolls or else!” and that’s NOT good design.

For 5e it’s decent. But most 5e adventures are dreck. If instead its looked on as the initial effort of a first-time designer then there’s maybe a little hope in the future that they improve and bring us good things in their coming products.

It looks like this was produced from an RPG writers workshop the designer attended. I can’t say that it was perfect, but this one did come out better than most first time efforts. Maybe next week we’ll take a look at the workshop runners adventures. In any event, I do hope a lot of these 5e/Pathfinder designers expand their horizons and get out of their echo chambers. There is so much GREAT design work going on outside of the mainstream, and so little within 5e/Pathfinder. Broadening their perspectives would be great for these folks, if they can buck the emulation echo chamber trends.

This is $4 at DMSguild. The preview a good one, eight pages. You get to see the town and how the plot hooks are integrated in to the locations. You get to see the first two encounters (most of them anyway) and their read-aloud. The lack of NPC personality (it being relegated to an appendix) and the more conversation style of DM text that comes off as unfocused and hiding the details the DM needs.

Posted in 5e, Reviews | Leave a comment


By Luka Rejec
Hydra Cooperative

… It’s an intimate, tragic adventure of witch hunting in a town huddled between rivers and mountains and forests one wet and cold October.

Warning: This adventure gets up close to a line I’m uncomfortable with in adventures. You should keep that in mind as you read my skepticism’s.

This 68 page “adventure” describes the NPC’s in a small town and wraps some rules around for garnering support from the locals to burn people as witches. Some reference sheets are provided to help the DM with the social situation, and it is CERTAINLY a well-charged situation in which to throw some PC gas … but I’m having my doubts as to the “Adventure” nature of this thing, as well as playability. In the end, I’ve decided it’s an adventure, and a cute idea, and some decent NPC’s, but it doesn’t all come together.

Ye Olde town council hires the party to find the witch in their town. If you can do it in less than a month then you get the cash. There are some mini-mechanics provided on convincing the town council that the accused is a witch, and some around the town folks growing to love, or hate, the party. There are thirty main NPC’s provided, each with a quirk or secret or two, and each generally with a small group of others in the household, also with a quirk or so. There are reference sheets for tracking the love/hate thing, and mini-rules for mob justice.

It is a social adventure. Each of the thirty days in the month has some little small event, like townsperson x tells the party townsperson Y was a witch when they were younger, etc. This is also augmented by some kind of calamity, some witchsign like stillborn cattle (and generally much weirder) that whips up the locals a bit more. Too harsh with the locals and they start to fear you. Too many fear you and a mob forms to burn the party as witches, the tables turned.

It’s a decent set up. The locals are in witch fear fever. Everyone has something to hide. The mini-rules handle the extra new situations well. The calamities and rumors on each day keep the action moving. And in to all this you add a WHOLE bunch of gas in the form of the party and wait for the shit to go down. It’s all very loose, almost a framework for an adventure rather than adventure. That’s both a strength and a weakness.

There’s no actual plot, other than what naturally develops during play. That’s because there is no actual witch … the locals are just all spun up because of some coincidences. But … no one knows that. The coincidences are not explained. The locations and events precipitating things are not touched on AT ALL. So, the pumpkin that spills teeth when cut in to? Only mentioned in passing once, in as much detail as I just typed. Or the fish that turned up dead with a handprint on them? Again, no more explanation AT ALL than I just provided. It’s literally all just rumors and people with something to hide. There’s strength to that, it recognizes that all you really need is a volatile situation and adding the party can turn it in to an adventure. On the downside … well, it  feels plotless. The lack of explanation for the “bait” that starts everything is totally up to the DM. And not explicitly so, just implicitly.

It’s also the case that the party will need to frame someone to get the money … and/or save themselves from the mob. Or, they can just rob people.

The lack of the precipitating events, and of a plot, does leave things feeling a bit hollow. It’s all just fucking around. You could just as easily take People of Pembrocktonshire, or any other NPC book and say “they all live in the same village. The party is hired to find the village witch, but there isn’t one.” Same adventure, essentially.

It’s heart is in the right place. It tries to provide reference sheets, etc. The entire thing needs A LOT more cross-referencing. Every time it uses the words The Mayor it also need to put “(p39)” right after it … and do the same for all NPC’s. You gotta help the DM out … especially when things are as loosy goosy as this. People affiliations, like Councilor, Cult, Lodge could also be better noted in more locations. There’s also about a column of “background story” for each of the main NPC’s. They do a good job of communicating flavor, but are useless in play. I also think they are useless in play if you skip them … there’s no way you can hold 30 NPC’s in your head.  This seems much more aimed at people just reading the adventure rather than running it. Still, skip it and your ok.

It’s all a bit too aimless for my tastes. The secrets are not explicit, or damning, in most cases. “I can tell wwhat’s wrong with someone when I touch them.” Ok, sure. I  guess so. It needs a little more push in the PC direction and just a little more pretext at the beginning, I think. Yeah, there’s a rule on how to actually put a witch in the adventure. But, it’s just random.

Luka has done something different and I applaud that. It FEELS a lot like that movie The Witch … except for the ending of course.

And therein ends the review I wrote four months ago, when this thing first came out. I have NO idea how I didn’t post it then. In fact, I trashed it. I went through this morning to buy it and DriveThru said I owned it. A search in my Google Drive showed a doc in trashcan. Restoring it got me the review above. Fuck if I know man.

In rereading the adventure and the review I think I should add a few words. You can see me struggling with the open-ended nature of the adventure. Or, maybe, The Adventure As Theater. The Red Herring Adventure. Or maybe The Adventure As Journey Rather Than Destination. This is perhaps best exemplified in my disgust with most “it was all a dream” adventures, or adventures that, by fiat, remove consequences. “All the dead PC’s return to life. Yeah!” This adventure isn’t that, but the commonality is, I think, Theater. Let’s say the DM wings it one night because they have no adventure prepared. They make someone stare at the party when they enter the tavern. The guy follows them in and they see him stare at them some more. Nothing is actually going on, the party just catches the guy looking a bit. The party reacts, and the DM follows the natural consequences. This adventure is closer to that setup and you can see me struggling in my review. There is no witch. The phenomena is unexplained. And yet we continue to live our lives and have an adventure, placing meaning. [Life is, of course, without meaning. You can’t give it meaning. You must live it anyway, recognizing the absurdity.] This adventure gets up close to a line I’m uncomfortable with in adventures.

If you can accept the nature of the adventure then this is not a bad adventure. In fact, it’s a pretty decent adventure that could be better with a little work. It’s certainly one of the Best, if you’re not an overly-analyzing git like myself.

Also, Luka tells me that the Funeral Edition has some worksheets that make it easier to run. Luka is smart, so I suspect the new worksheets remove some of my troubles with keeping track of the mechanical systems, etc.

This is $13 at DriveThru. There’s a free version available.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 18 Comments

What Ho, Frog Demons!

By Chris Kutalik, Luka Rejec
Hydra Cooperative
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 2-4

Weighing in at 112 pages of pure Slavic/Vancian/Moorcockian acid fantasy, What Ho, Frog Demons is the fourth stand-alone, mini-sandbox adventure in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes series. Fever-Dreaming Marlinko was an experiment in reforming the city setting book: sloughing off the tedious bits and cranking up the most adventurable qualities. What Ho, Frog Demons is a similar experiment: what happens when you rev up a regional setting book really high for pure play at the table.

This is a 112 page regional setting, with hex crawl, a small-ish dungeon and a village adventure. Regional, as in it links up the previous three titles in the series with the region surrounding them. It’s at its best when it’s focusing on its core mission of “pure play at the table.” It drifts off in to Isle of the Unknown encounters at points, providing just window dressing instead of interactivity, in contrast to its Pure Play mission statement. It also revels in its text too much, generating some wordiness that detracts from scanability.

When this is good it’s quite good and when it loses focus it drifts off in to focusing on the trees instead of the forest. Great in-voice rumors and maybe a bit light on treasure for gold=xp games, there’s a good focus here on play at the table, as one would hope when the designers state it in the products mission statement. The hireling who eventually steals, the horse buyer who doesn’t really care where the horses come from, a slave trader of dubious quality, a grove of weird fruit that can heal you. The region generally delivers encounters that have some memorable quirk as well as a good degree of interactivity. In many of these cases there’s this Potential Energy thing that I sometimes talk about. A kind of tension inherent in the encounter that can drive to interactivity with the players. They WANT to do something with it. Interact, talk, loot, whatever. That is key to a good adventure and this has that. Usually.

Some drift in to Isle of the Unknown territory in which things simply EXIST, without that energy to drive action. At one point there’s a great bronze arm laying in the countryside with a family of talking badgers living in it. Ok. And? There’s nothing more. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a short two-line description, like this one has, but I’m generally looking for that tension/potential energy in an encounter and this one doesn’t have that. There’s a place for empty rooms in a dungeon and I’m sure a place for a friendly group of talking badgers, but by giving them something they want, ot have, then we prompt a bit more interactivity. The adventure isn’t full of these, most of the encounters ARE interactive, which makes the non-interactive ones stand out more.

Tonally, the adventure stands out also. It drifts in to the silly side of things a bit too readily. I’m a big fan of the Rients Stooopid play style, but I get quite nervous the more silly/stupid elements are introduced. In Actual Play I’ve got little trouble Going There, but my tolerance for it, in written form, is greatly diminished. A little goes a long way when baking it in. There’s some need to maintain the facade of Serious Elf Game or else I tend to lose interest. So, some=ok and there’s a line. Do robo dwarf monsters with chainsaw hands cross the line? How about monsters yelling out that they have a fabulous deal on a timeshare for you? The Hydras have cranked it up to twelve with these when eleven was more my style. Monsters calling out about hidden treasure, etc, in order to lure the party? Check. Monsters offering Bay Lake Tower rental point deals on a timeshare colet? Good concept poorly related, I think. I recall some Level 5 Robin Hood adventures in Dungeon, or some Magical Levant adventures. Turning it up to twelve narrows the use cases and endangers dismissal instead of riffing.

The writing and language used in the encounters revels in itself. Layered, dense in its imagery. And if I’m going to knock Talanian for the readability in his High Gygaxian then I should also knock the Hydras for their layered opium. The writing can reach points where the density fights immediate comprehension. Recall, I want to read this once and then scan the entry while running it at the table. The lushness of the text fights against that in some cases in the exact way that High Gygaxian can.

Cholly the Cursed Halfling is an example of this. Here’s (most) of his entry:

After donning a woefully cursed helmet, this diminutive Black Hobbit began roving the land in search of a place to wreak his darkest fantasies of violence. The awful fetid heart of the Frog Demon Temple seemed like a sound spot to enact such dire plans (plus it got him away from all those irritating Chaos Party membership drives). Rather than attacking on sight, Cholly will wait until PCs are involved in something distracting before sneaking in from the sides and attempting to target the most vulnerable members of the group, either with standard weapons or his four bombs (hand-sized stereotypical black spherical bombs with sizzling fuse).

Cholly wears a gleaming helmet with two grotesquely-oversized horns spiraling upwards. The helmet is actually a particularly annoying minor frog-demon, so reviled in demondom for his frequent and tediously predictable rage-quits, that he has been permanently bound into the item-form known as the Birse-Helm of Mnuch’s Extreme Vexation. The helmet provides infravision out to 60’ while worn, and allows the wearer to deal an additional 1d6 damage on a charge. Unfortunately, it also causes a deep and furious insecurity in its wearer. Any suggestion or attempt to remove the helmet will cause the wearer to respond with a (quite literal) homicidal rage for 1-8 rounds. The helmet may only be removed with Remove Curse or the death of the wearer.

Note the first two sentences in particular, and the second sentence of the second paragraph. Yes, it’s lush and layered and deep. And dances in to excess and backstory … which is NOT “pure play at the table.”

The first adventure, the Frog Demon temple, is advertised a lower-level Tomb of Horrors, and it is. Complete with a statue on a pedestal with a spell on it to make it impossible to lasso, etc, and special giant frogs trained to hide under the water. That sort of thing is absolutely in the vein of a bad Tomb of Horrors adventures. Beets for the Beet God involves a cult takeover of a village/region, etc, and is more open-ended. The Village Generator, Rural Carousing and other info in the appendices are quite nice and accentuate the setting well.

Completionists who own the other three books will want this one. I would not suggest this as the first exposure to the series. Ursine remains a great introduction and Marlinko the best of the four, with Eld being the perfect follow-up to both/either. The rest of us, well, we have hard decisions to make. The book is interesting and creative. Most of the wandering encounters are good and great many of the locales are good also, with the specificity needed to fire the DM’s imagination … if a little muted in total length.

It’s weird. I think the encounters, for their actual length, are not more content than the one or two sentences found in Wilderlands. Or that’s the impression I have anyway. In contrast my memories of the other three books ar that they are more pamphlets, instead of the 112 pages of this, and choked full. A testament, perhaps, to the overall quality of those other three.

It’s lush. It’s interesting. And it strays in to ‘12’ territory where ‘11’ would have done.

This is available for $12 at DriveThru. The preview shows you good rumor table and then shows you the Weighty Conversations rumor table, with lengthier descriptions. The last page shows two hexes. The first is irrelevant, since its the Misty Isles. The second though is a decent enough example of what a hex contains in What Ho.

I spell checked this one, but, I refuse to type “in to” as “into.” It found nothing else. So … “tongue stuck out.”

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 24 Comments

(5e) Death in the Wood

by Jonathan Garland
Self Published
Level 1

The Bell Wood has always been rumored to be a dangerous place, full of strange creatures and odd happenings. Timber from the wood is highly sought after for its reputed magical properties, so brave foresters sometimes dare the wood to harvest trees to finance their futures. But this time, people are dying. Loggers are vanishing, their mutilated bodies recovered from the undergrowth hours or days later. What has changed in the wood? Can anyone solve the mystery? And can they survive the investigation?

This twelve page adventure has the party looking for a womans missing lumberjack boyfriend while avoiding a cursed wood that is killing people. Not exactly a railroad, not exactly terse, both an outline and prescriptive. It’s a mass of contradictions and I suspect that, with a little work, the style it uses would be ok. If you think a four-hour adventure should be contained in four pages. Still, not odious, which is a compliment.

Let us imagine a barren desert with no features at all. It is rocky and hard to walk across. Right down the middle of it is a narrow path clear of rocks, easy to walk on, with water fountains every 3 miles. Do you have free will in this situation? If I write an adventure that does not force you to take the path, but doesn’t really support you in taking another path and make the easy path REALLY obvious, then what? That’s what this adventure is.

Show up in town. See a woman in a bar pissed off that he boyfriend is still missing after two months and learn of a series of murders in the woods. Then a barfight breaks out with lumberjacks, the guard shows up and arrests the party. Yeah, ok, you MIGHT be able to avoid the fight, but its supposed to happen. And the adventure specifically points out you could escape arrest, and to let the party if they do. (Imagine, having to write those words in an adventure, What a World! What a World!)

This thing telegraphs in every sense of the word except actually handing the party a piece of paper saying “MANFRED DID IT.” In the first place, the bar, you learn he used to date the Erin, the woman with the missing boyfriend. And in the second place, the jail, you learn he has a history of violence. He proudly shows you his axe with a notch in it (that later matches the notch in the boyfriends skull.) A sprite in the woods says “You big people always killing each other.” This is a railroad in every sense of the word even if it doesn’t use DM Fiat to keep things on track. Or, maybe, it’s so simplistic to be confused with one? Anyway.

It features trig blights and Galafanakis evil tree thing. What’s up with this shit? It seems half the 5e adventures I see have them in it? Are they the new kobolds?

“You killed someone last night” says the sheriff “Deaths, even in self-defence, are unacceptable. Get out of town.” Yeah? How about I stab you in throat 157 times? Seriously? We’re supposed to stand there and get slaughtered? Oh, they weren’t going to kill us? You can see the future now? You look like the sheriff and not a mother fucking sorcorer, sorry to mistake you. You know, it occurs to me that I may have a problem with authority figures in elf games.  Or, as I would say “so called authority figures.”

There’s long read-aloud at the beginning of each location and you would not be wrong if you made comparisons to a scene-based adventure format. The read-aloud tends to be describing a social interaction though, as if you just walked up on something happening. It’s also pretty well written, which I don’t think I’ve said more than three or four times?  It does a good job of communicating the social vibe going on. It’s still too long and the players are almost certainly going to be playing with their phones, but it’s not the overwritten fantasy drivil that is present in most read aloud. What’s that thing they say about character-driven movies?

I could also point out that the loggers in camp seem willing to talk to the party even if the party killed a few of them in the bar … at least I don’t thin I saw a few words of warning otherwise. It also commits the sin of “throw a few more blights at the party if they try to take more than a short rest.” Uh, No. We don’t play adversarially in D&D and the DM isn’t telling a story. Who cares if they rest?

I’m coming off negative here, but I want to mention more than a couple of posativies. It IS based around the relationships of people, which is a good thing, and relatable. Simplistic, but still, it comes through well. Information tat tha party can learn is relayed in bullet points so it’s easy to find. Further, the locations/scenes are set up in a way that adds just a little more. In the section on the logging camp it notes that the loggers, wagon driver, or cook knows the following … That’s the first time the cook and wagon driver are mentioned. It’s not much, but it adds just a little more detail to the camp other than “just loggers” and that’s the sort of thing a DM’s brain need to remind them to paint a full picture instead of a boring one. It does this in multiple scenes/locations.

This thing is simplistic but easy to follow for the most part. (There is some “paragraph” information presented that could be organized better.) It’s based around people, the bullets convey information well. It’s not really interactive, in any sense other than “talk to people a lot” and seems to rely on the “opening fight” crap advice that should have never been published. But, I would not stab my eyes out if handed this and asked to run it. High praise! (For new readers, yes, that actually IS high praise.)

I don’t know about the read aloud. Some of it is ok here AND its longer than it should be. Too bad. Yeah, I know you have to make things REALLY obvious in investigations, but, man, this is WAY obvious. From the first location/scene.

This is Pay What You Want at DMSguild with a suggested price of … $0! People who pay $0 are jerks, even if that is the suggested price. Give the dude a dollar, at least!

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 7 Comments

The Judgement of Rad

Emanuele Betti
Basic D&D
Levels 3-5

Things not always go the way they are supposed to. It’s not uncommon that an adventure, especially in a long campaign, can be greatly derailed due to a player who has got no experience, does not think an action enough or just screws things up for the fun of it. Whenever this kind of things happen, the Master must find a way to fix the situation and give the characters a way out of their trouble, and a second chance to succeed.

This eighteen page adventure details a twenty room dungeon and is to be used at some point in the game when your characters are jailed. Decent interactivity in the dungeon is marred by bad read-aloud and writing style issues. Good concept poorly executed.

This is an english as a second language adventure, from the Italian I believe. There are some grammar and wording issues in it, but all of my commentary disregards this. The issues are not with the translation, I think.

I have a soft spot for “special use” adventure. Use this adventure when someone dies, or use this one when someone is in jail, like this adventure. Yeah, there are some level variability issues, but I think the concepts they present are an interesting genre of adventure that is not well explored. You pull this one out when the party is in jail for a serious offense.

The conceit is that there’s a legal loophole: the party can submit themselves to the Judgement of Rad. The relatives of the victims get to set a quest and the party, given one light source and one normal weapon each, must complete the quest. If they succeed then Rad has clearly indicated that the parties motives were pure. If they fail, well, they were just gonna be killed anyway so no great loss. In this instance the relatives send the party down to a dungeon/well that has a great jewel, to be obtained for the relatives, that will likely kill the party anyway, so a win-win for the kinfolk.

The dungeon proper has a cursed monster, with the (cursed) jewel in its chest that moves around in a preset course, it changing rooms when the party does, as a kind of monster hunt gimmick. It’s a decent idea, and, maybe could have been supported a bit better by noting its path on the map instead of in text in the adventure. You know how I love to leverage a map to overload information for the DM.

The undead in the dungeon, previously killed by the monster/jewel, try to rip the hearts out of characters and eat it when they down a party member, since they had their own hearts done so. That’s a good detail. Breaking up the “i hit you/you hit me” stuff in D&D is almost always a good thing and I wish more adventures would give their monsters a little more character.

The rooms, proper, have some decent interactivity. There’s a crude shrine that will summon a ghost if you pray at it. Some toads hide under a bridge, and there’s a dead body under the water you can dive for … with hidden loot! I don’t talk about it much, but this sort of interactivity is, I think, what makes a good D&D adventure good. The play athe table stuff and the evocative environments are key components that, for me, must each not suck too much. If they are ok, or good, then the D&D adventure can go forward. But the interactivity of the adventure is what’s going to turn a middling adventure in to a great one, providing elements for the party to interact with.

This adventure pays little attention to those first two points. There are multiple points in the adventure with page long read-alouds. That’s hard to handle. Room that say things like “The room seems empty” in the read aloud … and then the DM notes tells us it’s empty. Things should never SEEM or APPEAR TO BE, they just are. Those weasel words just pad out an adventure. In places the read-aloud jumps the gun. It tells you almost everything you need to know about the room. The body is dried out, its missing its heart, etc, etc. The read aloud, if used, should be the initial impression. When the players go examine the thing THEN the DM can follow up with “the body is dried out” or “the heart is missing.” This back and forth between the party and the DM is a critical part of the D&D experience and when you put everything in the read-aloud you negate that core experience. Let the players DO something. Again, interactivity, back and forth between the players and the DM.

The entire preamble is about the prison and justice system. This is mostly specific to Galantri and is the usual “held in lead lined cells” sort of thing. Just removing it all would have been better. It also adds two other prisoners to the party … for seemingly no reason. I thought they would betray the party, but, no, in a refreshing change of pace they are just NPC’s. I have NO idea why they are there … although I do admit a couple of desperate prisoners trying to glomp on to the parties potential release is a nice effect. They just need a little more personality.

The entire writing style could use more whitespace formatting, bullets, etc, to make wading through the DM text easier. As is, it’s just not worth it to me to wade through the text to get the adventure out of it.

This is free on Pandius. And thanks to Dreams/Mythic Fantasy for turning me on to the Pandius site!

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Secrets of the Black Marsh

by Claude LeBrun
Levels 10-14

Black Marsh is a large wilderness area, most of it and unknown and unexplored. Over the years many explorers have entered the marsh never to be heard from again. Those that have returned brought back tales so outrageous that people thought the explorers were insane. Rumors about the Black Marsh tell about a treasure trove hidden somewhere in its depths. Does your party have what it takes to survive this dreaded place?

This 35 page adventure has the party having their magic items stolen and then venturing in to a 600 square mile swamp to ght a Level 30 Thief/Assassin Lizard Man and his evil druid buddies. There are only about twelve pages of adventure, with the rest being appendix. God this sort of adventure gets on my nerves. This is why I don’t look forward to high level adventures.

Evil druid hates magic items and pays level 30 Lizard Man to steal them so she can destroy them in her swamp lair. Long read-aloud, in italics, so both the players AND dm can be miserable. Thief hires some halflings to steal them from the party on the street. This, I suppose, motivates the party to give chase. It’s all sort of fucked up, with forced shit against the party, cutting open their bags to let them scatter on the street, hiding in the crowd, etc. It’s all one big gimpy set up to force the party to go on the adventure. “Hahaha! They stole everything you have! Hahaha! Guess you have to do the adventure now!”

They flee to a ship, which leaves in 30 minutes so you probably miss it. Except the party is level 10-14 and one does not steal from, or hide from, level 10-14 characters. “You miss the ship!” can be countered twelve ways to Sunday with high level cleric/MU spells.

You track the ship to a swamp town/hideout. It has 26 lizard men. One is a level 20 Thief and Level 10 assassin, while six others are level 9 thieves. The adventure then spends a page and a half on tactics porn describing how they attack the party and how deep the water is at all points. But you get like $50k, mostly in gems, when you search their huts!

Enter now the 600 square mile swamp, with an emphasis on food, water, getting lost, and getting a parasitic infection. Except, again, the party is level 10-14 and so that shit probably don’t happen. Remember how I said the adventure was actually only twelve pages and th rest appendix? Well, i fibbed a bit, the appendix contains most of the swamp encounters. By which I mean the random encounter tables. There are only two encounters, proper, in the swamp, one of which is the climax. There are 4 druid patrols covering the 600 sqmi swamp, so, you know, exciting action!

Oh! Oh! I forgot! You remember that fleeing boat? The captain is level 10, the mate level 8, and all the crew level 6 fighters! Joy. 🙁

There’s nothing to this. Just another ill conceived high level adventure. Throw shit at the party, think up implausible situations like level 30 lizard men, and over describe mundane shit tactics. I suspect over-investiture.

This is available on Dragonsfoot, for free.

Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments

(5e) The Shadow over Dunsmore Point

By John R. Davis
Self Published
Level 1

Well, fuck me. I just bought and reviewed Moans of the Dead again. And almost bought Fungus Forest again. Looks like something is up at DriveThru.

This 68 page adventure is more of a small regional setting/sandbox than the typical 5e fare. Centered around a village, there are a variety of plots and several dungeon locations to explore. This is a notch above the usual fare, being crafted and more open-ended than I used to seeing in 5e adventures. That’s a pleasant surprise, and I was going through it I found myself rooting for it. Alas, the issues with organization, summaries, and wall of text are too much more me to even have No Regerts

Pretext pretext pretext, the characters are in a village. Therein they learn about several things going on, maybe get asked to do a few things, and the longer they stay the more happens. This is both because of the timeline of events and the picking up of more rumors, etc. Pretext pretext pretext, relatives, and the usual assortment of crappy hooks. But … got a military or mason background? You’ve been tasked with surveying the old lighthouse by some officials and picking up whatever supplies are left. Nice! The regional government actually doing something with the tax dollars for once!  And maybe it gives the party a little authority also … that hook has legs!

It’s a sandbox, just a village with several locations around it that the players will learn of, and several plots to uncover as they learn more about the life and history of the village. There’s a short little timeline to note events that may happen and a little DM checklist to note all of the various interesting things that the party could learn about / get wrapped up in. Like … 18 different things! Explore the Ruined Fort. Explore the town and notice that there are a lot of ‘twins.’ And so on. The timeline is good. The DM overview list is a good idea. The entire sandbox thing it’s got going on is GREAT. Some of the NPC’s are described in like, three words each, attributes they have like  young, full of enthusiasm, inexperienced, and so on. It tries to use bolding and bullet points in places and, generally, rooms/descriptions don’t overstay their welcome.

So, it’s trying. And it’s trying REAL hard. It knows what it SHOULD do. It just can’t figure out how to do it.

There’s a short table that tells us how many residents, workers, and adults are in each location in the village. Ok …. Is that relevant, beyond mere trivia? So while the idea of presenting the information in a table is great, it’s not really relevant to the adventure to have it at all.

The map of the village is numbered. But, in my experience, that’s not how PC’s explore a village. They don’t go up to a building and say “ok, what’s next door to this building?” They say things like “I want to find the inn”, or the tailor, or the general store, or whatever. But the village buildings are numbered. You have to go digging though the text to find the [general store] and then find the number and then go look at the map.

With a few notable exceptions (the inn, I’m looking at you) the village locations are pretty focused. Just what you need to know to run it and just what relevant to the adventure at hand with little to no trivia. But … inexplicably there’s read aloud for each location. Dry, boring, read aloud that doesn’t really add anything to the adventure. I guess the designer thought they needed read aloud for each?

The timeline, and indeed much of the text, doesn’t cross reference information. So that little DM checklist I mentioned? It doesn’t really point the DM to any place to learn more about the twin situation. Or the page number of the old fort. Or lighthouse. You have to go digging through the text again. If you reference something then provide a number or page cross-reference so the DM can orient themselves.

And this brings up the overall sitch. I’m not really sure what is going on in the village. All of those 18 things … I’m not sure how they work together (or don’t.) There’s no real overview or summary. That DM checklist could have done the heavy lifting if it had pointed the DM to places to learn more. Instead you have to pretty much read and re-read the adventure until you’re as familiar as the designer. Not cool.

Some information is provided in terse bullet form. Other places the bullets are long. Other places REALLY needed to be broken up in to bullets. The initial caravan trip in to town, wna dhwt athe PC”s know, is a great example of this. Everything is buried in various paragraphs. If it had been bulleted out it would have been easier to scan and find, especially in relation to PC inquiries.

Which brings me, again, to the lack of cross-reference. The Reeve says something to the effect, at one point “i don’t know, I wasn’t reeve then.” This begs the question: who was Reeve so we can go annoy them? Nope, nothing provided for the DM, even though this is the most natural follow up question of all.

Some of the maps are small and hard to read. The read-aloud, besides being generic bad, does things like “The stonework looks recently damaged.” No! No! No! That’s not something you tell the party when the walk in the room. That’s something you tell them when they investigate. The back and forth between DM and PC is a key part of D&D, the interactivity. By saying things like “You look under the table and see a box” in the read-aloud you are taking that away, and this adventure does that repeatedly.

The wanderers do things. It’s a real sandbox location. It tries, hard. It doesn’t commit the sins that most 5e adventure do. But, it’s like the designer hasn’t seen these writing techniques in practice, or is somehow focused on the wrong things. The mere fact that it’s a non-trivial sandbox, for 5e, get’s it a long way up the rankings, in my books, but I just can’t bring myself to push it over the edge in to Regerts. The lack of summary/orientations, and a slipping in to a kind of wall of text writing style obfuscates the adventure enough that it makes be not WANT to read it. And that makes me a little sad because I can tell there’s something here.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is 15 pages, although it doesn’t really show you the heart of the adventure, only the (mostly) useless preamble stuff. The lower left side of page ten has the caravan intro, and you can see how it could be better organized as bullets, etc. Page eleven has the timeline, and you can see how cross-references to pages would have helped immensely in following things. Thirteen is the village map .. needing some named in addition to numbers, maybe? Fourteen are some in-voice rumors that are pretty good, while the last page, fifteen, has a good example of bulleted information on the right and left columns, including that DM Overview that is SORELY in need of cross-references to solve the summary/orientation/overview issue.

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 4 Comments

The Keep of the Broken Saint

By WR Beatty 
Rosethrone Publishing
Swords & Wizardry Levels

Only vague rumors speak of the ancient Keep of the Broken Saint. Divination fails to reveal anything useful, prayers and powerful magics continue to falter. Yet the rumors insist the place is real and that the Broken Saint has the keys to immortality. Even if the shadows of rumors that make their rounds are not true, surely a ruin that has been lost for generations holds secrets and treasures.

This forty page adventure has about sixty rooms in a keep and dungeon. It has a certain feel, like that of a pseudo-historical saint magical resting place? A non-simulationist version of that, anyway, which is a good thing. Room after room delivers the interactivity. It still needs help in the comprehension category, using some passive voice and layout/writing decisions that do not always lead to good results.

The vibe here is interesting. You know how harn has this kind of realistic vibe thing going on? Let’s start with that. Then add in to it a Saint. Let’s also add the Saints ruined keep. Now, turn the keep in to a mythic place that goes beyond Harn, turning each room in to more of a traditional “fantasy things actually happen”  place that Harn doesn’t usually have … but still root it in this kind of pseudo-historical draping, without it fetishizing simulationast or history. That’s this. A ruined multi-level keep of a saint with a couple of tower outbuildings and dungeon levels. With “realistic” historical keep maps that still remember they are used for D&D. Harn and/or Ars Magica, but with actual stuff going on in each room, and thus firmly interactive D&D.

Level 8-10 in S&W is pretty kick ass, and about as close to high level play as I’ve seen. The adventure doesn’t gimp the characters and allows them to use their powers. The various things in the keep (a lot of undead, it’s a broken saint after all) have a decent “talk to the guy in the underworld” kind of thing going on where they interact with you. Bow to you. Ask you questions to pass. Defer to characters in certain conditions. Can get laid to rest and/or not. To this we add some bird people, roosting in historical nesting ground and some enemies of theirs that have taken over.

I’ve mentioned some of the interactivity, undead to question and the bird people and other things you can talk to. There’s also lamps to light, chains to break, fountains to drink from, and so on. Interactivity, I think, is the third leg to a D&D adventure being “good”, once you get past scannable and evocative environments. IE: Can I find the information I need, is the place described well, and is there something to do?

Wanderers are doing things. There’s a monster summary sheet. There are some cross-references. Some of the magical items are new. The hooks are not throwaways. It’s all got some decent bones behind it.

I can take exception to a few things. First, the monsters are not really described. One area has “4 Host of the Broken Saint Archers.” There are stats, in the summary sheet, but no real description. I have no idea what it is, or any of the other stuff, for that matter. There are 46 different monsters on that summary sheet. I suspect that some simplification would have helped a bit and allowed for some extra space to describe a few of them in an appendix.

The formatting does good things in places. Large black banned herald the arrival of a new room, with a place name, so the section breaks are easy to find. There’s lots of white space in rooms. Maybe too much. They come off a bit … large? The information tends to be spread out. The first paragraph deals with things in the first thing, the second with the second thing and so on. This causes you to have to paragraph jump, taking the first line from each, when looking at a new encounter the party has. The writing, proper, isn’t exactly prescriptive, but it tends in that direction, which causes things to be a bit more lengthy than they could be. Together this all causes the rooms to be a little more confusing/wall of text/spread out/harder to grok then I think they could be. It’s not terrible, but it’s not exactly “easy.”

Maybe a little bit more of an overview is needed as well. At level 8-10 the party can command some pretty decent spells for finding things. “Where’s the broken saint” and “where that immortality staff”, and things like that, could use a bit of help in the text to help facilitate.

But, all in all, GREAT mythic vibe to the place. I’m not sure the treasure is all there for some levels 8-10 peeps, but fuck it, it’s a nice adventure.

This is $5 at DriveThru. Page four and five of the preview has a look in to the hooks, while page six goes over a few higher-level ideas/effects of the Broken Saint proper. Both are nice. The last two pages show the first six encounters. Note the disconnected paragraphs in room five and the more “movie watching” encounter in room six. Room two and three show a good example of both interactivity and the more … expansive layout/writing style that I think could be tightened up.

Posted in Level 8, Reviews, The Best | 4 Comments