Echoes From Fomalhaut #07: From Beneath the Glacier

By Gabor Lux
First Hungarian d20 Society
OSRIC
Levels 5-7
  • From Beneath the Glacier: Venture into the ice caves underneath a melting glacier, and discover the source of the nighttime raids on the mountain valleys. Dungeon module for 5th to 7th level characters, 21 keyed loations.
  • The Hecatomb of Morthevole: Morthevole has skeletons in the basement, and he needs to have them cleared out. Fun side job soon turns into horrible slaughterfest. Mini-dungeon for 2nd to 4th level adventurers (or plucky first-levelers!), 12 keyed locations.
  • The Tomb of Ali Shulwar: An article presenting one of the major Underworld complexes beneath the City of Vultures. Two entrance levels, three main levels and multiple sub-levels, from the hideouts of fantastic conspiracies to locked-away secrets and an enchanted forest beneath the face of the earth! 4th to 6th level (mostly), 66 keyed areas.

This 44 page zine features three dungeons and a smattering of other interesting information. I’m just going to review the Glacier adventure, but the other two are similar in style. The maps are cramped, but otherwise it’s another fine job of writing and interactivity from Melan.

Melan does these little zines pretty regularly. They each contain an adventure or two and a number of background articles. Published as a zine, physically, they tend to be available as a PDF after a bit, with a PDF thrown in if you purchase the physical copy. They feature high quality content, as one would expect from someone who has his shit together, like he does. I tend to skip over them when doing reviews, which is totally uncool of me, because they have a known quality of being good: you don’t need me to tell you that, Melans work is an auto-buy. But I had a specific request for this one, so I’m reviewing the adventure that was requested: From Beneath the Glacier.

Outlying homesteads are being massacred  and water is running off the glacier; it’s melting and, evidently, something frozen inside has woken up. This is indeed true. Trogs and Cavemen are thawing out, the way they only do in D&D, and waging war against each other … the cavemen generally on the losing side. Thus what you have here are an adventure of caves, ice, slushy cold water, and dudes and things half frozen in ice. 

The designer has a way, with words, formatting, and interactivity, that few others can compare to. I generally recommend that new designers use a style that is more rigid than the one used here. I think the more rigid style helps with the formatting and focuses the attention on what’s important in the adventure, allowing the designer to really get a good view of what they are doing … with an eye towards editing it to making it better. But that’s not the only way. There is no “only way.” You can generally write a good adventure using any style, as long you pay attention to to the goal: usable at the table. Some may be easier for people struggling to learn the skill … but once you’ve mastered what matters then you can generally do what you want, as Melan does here.

The encounter areas are generally laid out in a paragraph format, usually one per room with a second or so in some cases. In cases like this it’s critically important the writing remains focused; no weasel words, no backstory, nothing to get in the way of the DM scanning the room. And that’s what is going on here. The writing is TIGHT. This is combined with a bolded word or phrase in places to highlight to the DM important features, drawing their eye to it. 

This is then combined with evocative writing, showing an ability to paint a picture for the DM, inserting the vignette in to heads with a minimum of words and maximum of effect. And then, of course, there’s what’s actually going on in the room, the interactivity.

Putting it together we get something like 

1. Gorge: The mountain river rushes through a gap between tall cliffsides; great boulders and broken pines offer a way to climb upwards through the cascades. Caught among the rocks the purifying body of a troglodyte still holds an elk’s jawbone and a flint-tipped javelin. […] (it then goes on for one more sentence, noting a secret trail leading up to the cliffs.)

Note how the first word is bolded,the room name, and how it orients the DM to the encounter. It is a gorge. You’ve now got that framing in your head. Then comes one sentence, with a few words, that both offers an evocative description of the scene. Rushing mountain river. Great boulders. Broken Pines. Nothing is “big” or “large.” The trog body doesn’t hold a bone, it’s an elk jawbone. A bone would be abstraction, this is specificity, using just one more word to evoke the primitive nature of the humanoid. Further cliffs are jagged. A dazzling ice plain. A spacious low-ceilinged ice cavern bisected by a CHURNING river. You’ve got a thesaurus. Imagine the scene and use it and then agonize over the editing to create an effective, low word count description.

The adventure does this over and over and over again, as do the other adventures in this zine. Short, terse descriptions, just a sentence or so, that use language to put an image effectively in to the DMs head, allowing them to then add to and expand it. 

Mechanics are not harped on. They are present, inline to the things they refer to, but they don’t overstay their welcome. A secret trail found 1:6 or 1:3 by rangers or druids. 

Interactivity is great. Tings frozen in the ice lure the adventurers to fuck with them, rewarding or creating additional hazards/encounters. 

I want to call attention to the way he handled magic items also. Many adventures drone and on in describing their magic items. They destroy any mystery of the thing by going in to too much detail on the mechanics of them. A brass Jug of plentiful water is described as “This jug can pour an unlimited quantity of water at a leisurely pace. The flow persists until the jug is stoppered. That’s it. No going on an on about daily limits or flow rates. It’s leisurely. Interpret it as you will, you, after all, are the DM. 

My only criticism of the adventure would be the maps. In support of interactive and exploratory play they are great. Feature, height, tunnels running under things, sinkholes, boulders, rubble, etc. Lots to keep the party interested. No, the issue is the legibility. They are hand drawn little scrawls, limited by the digest sized pages of the zine. It’s not that you CAN’T read them, but rather that they don’t easily show detail as you need them, because of the size and cramped nature of them. The Glacier map is actually the best of the three, in terms of legibility, and even that has some substantial issues. It must be a pain, balancing how much effort to put in to them, especially for a quick and dirty zine. I don’t have an answer, because something like CC3+ has its own issues to contend with, but some extra effort in this are would pay off in terms of legibility. 

This is a bargain of a product at twice the price. Easily one of The Best.

This is $6 at DriveThru. Note how the descriptions show you the level range and how many encounter areas you are getting. The preview, at ten pages, shows you sixteen of the glacier rooms as well as the map. It’s a great preview.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/322655/Echoes-From-Fomalhaut-07-From-Beneath-the-Glacier?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 4, Reviews, The Best | 4 Comments

Treacherous Gold

By Peter Rudin-Burgess
Azukali Games
Rolemaster/Harp
Any Level

Treacherous Gold sees the characters stumble across a group of orcs escorting some hostages. The orcs think the characters are those they are meeting to exchange the hostages with for gold. The characters may choose to do so, or they may get ambushed by the orcs either before or after the exchange.

*sigh* I thought the publisher looked familiar. Did one of my “gentle readers” suggest this, or did I stumble upon it on my own? Yeah, I know, it’s Rolemaster, a system that has always intrigued me, in spite of my “light rules” preferences. Probably because of MERP. Anyway, it says generic (and it very much is) and I thought that maybe a Good Adventure is a Good Adventure, regardless of system.

This 32 page “adventure” details one encounter between orcs and the party. That’s about three pages. The rest of the product is a bunch of battle maps to print out. Still, one encounter in three pages is pretty impressive, right?

The idea is that the orcs have some hostages, encounter the party, and mistakenly think they are the ones they are meeting for a hostage ransom. You can pay and go on your pay with the prisoners. If you do pay then the orcs track you down that night and attack anyway. Because.

That’s it. It takes three pages to describe all of this. A group of orcs, hostages, some scaling (that’s the “Any Level” part) The rest of the adventure is a bunch of full size battle maps to print out. I remember this publisher now, as soon as I saw the maps. 

One encounter. Three pages for it. A product description that implies you are getting more than you are. Endless useless text about orc motivations. 

Ok, I’m seriously going to make a better effort on this shit. I’ve hit a string of these “not an adventure” lately and I don’t feel like I’m providing any value in “reviewing” them.  I’m not going to go all “Melan” and only review good/decent stuff, but I am going to make sure it reaches some bar. Like “an actual adventure.” Yes, I’ve said that before. This time for sure!

I’ve hit a bad patch with product, sorry gang! It does, though, provide some insight in to me. I’m always thinking that the product is going to be great and, in spite of repeated examples to the contrary, I never do the prep work required to determine if something is adequate before purchase.

This is $1.50 at DriveThru. The preview is all 32 pages. That’s a good preview. I should have used it. I’m a fucking idiot.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/324764/Treacherous-Gold?1892600

Posted in Do Not Buy Ever, Reviews | 8 Comments

(5e) The Crypts of Caverndel

By Daniel Anderson & Cameron Foster
The Bugbear Brothers
5e
Level 4

The Crypts of Caverndel have been ransacked! A giant deer-skulled demon, beset by plague and pestilence, has torn the dwarven watch limb from limb before squeezing through the Hagmaw and disappearing into the crypts. The Crown has offered entry into an upcoming knighthood competition to any who might prove their bravery by entering the crypts and slaying the beast. In turn, whoever wins this prestigious competition would be granted rule of one of the Crown’s vacant demesnes.

This 24 page adventure describes a six room dungeon with more than a hint of Guillermo del Toro. Freaky deaky shit has some good base ideas, but it suffers from a poor communication style and inconsistent descriptions. It’s also essentially just combat with room modifiers. IE: 4e. The designers are, though, on the right track.

Nobility has a crypt. It’s been invaded by a demon, the guards killed. You’re sent in to kill it. Along the way you learn, maybe, that there’s some extra plot behind it all. It’s a six room dungeon with a few town locales attached. 

Both the town and the dungeon locations show a certain knowledge of making things memorable for the players. IE: having a kind of strong concept for the DM to hang their hat on when running a room, or NPC. The town doctor is dressed up all plague doctor like, never taking off his outfit and has a high ethereal voice … and wants things. A patient has a weird undead leg, pegleg style. There’s an eyeball/palm monster straight out of (What’s that fascist Spain del Toro movie that’s all just an allegory? Arg! Memory fails!) There’s strong strong imagery in this, including the deer-skulled demon thing, and more than a few of the rooms. It DOES tend to the freaky deaky side of the house, which makes things a little easier for a designer to work with, but the underlying concepts, freaky or mundane, are the same, and they pull it off. 

But …

Our room descriptions, six of them, along with the business descriptions in town, use a muddled format. The Panopticon room tells us that it’s circular with a high domed ceiling, the surface riddles with hundreds of golden twitching eyes, following your movement in the room. Nice! Note the “twitching” element, and golden. That’s really good use of language to add specificity and detail, and evocative writing. Then it goes in to detail on the mechanics of the eyes. Then, in paragraph two, it tells us that over time the chamber has turned in to a lake, having been flooded by groundwater, and in the center sits a small island. Floating on the lake are countless bloated bodies of dead soldiers that have been hacked to smithereens. A couple of problems here. First, good job with those floating bodies! I might suggest that smithereens is not the best word, but the rest of the description is pretty good. But, then it’s all fucked up with the backstory. DONT. FUCKING. CARE. about the over time bullshit. It’s a fucking lake with bodies in it. The rest is just filler fluff explaining why, and that’s almost never called for in an adventure. Further, the description of something THIS important and obvious is in paragraph two. And then there’s the third paragraph also, describing he creatures in the room. 

Better would have been a short paragraph describing the room, circular, high dome, golden twitching eyes, that sentence. Then follow it with a lake in the center, with island, with countless bodies floating, that sentence, then the creature in the middle. Perfect! Then you can have three extra small paras, each starting with a bolded word, like “eyeballs” (bolded) and the mechanics for it. Then Body search  9bolded) and the mechanics for it. And all of the bullshit backstory of the room dropped. That would be a VERY effective format, delivering information concisely and maintaining reference ability. Hmmm, maybe i’ll do a (bad) rewrite of that room at the end.

Treasure can be abstracted in this. “You find wealth worth 1000gp” Well, fuck that’s exciting, I guess. Don’t abstract treasure, be specific. It’s what a decent number of players are after, even in a non Gold=XP game. But then it goes and sticks in a warhammer, magic, made from the molar of a front giant (mjjolner, anyone?) That’s great specificity. Inconsistent.

The adventure could also use more cross-references. When it mentions “the panopticon”, in reference to a room, it should be “the panopticon (r5)” or something like that. Likewise when it mentions people or places. Just give us a hand on where to look. Other weird things like putting the description of a hallway, outside a room, in the description of the room 30’ away. Clearly that should have been another locale. 

And then there’s the interactivity. This is mostly combat. Rooms can have a combat modifier, like difficult terrain from hands and arms reaching out to grab you, or the eyeballs confusing you. That’s very 4e, a focus on combat and terrain/combat modifiers. More interactivity. Exploration is a pillar also! 

So, decent attempt but they need some serious work on the layout/organization of their room entries and to be more consistent with their descriptions/abstractions. And something besides combat. Town is not for RP and Dungeon for Combat. You can mix it up. And put in some other shit in the dungeon also, besides combat. And I don’t mean just traps. 

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is ten pages, but it just shows you the town locations. You can get a look at some of the NPC’s and some of the muddled descriptions that are indicative of the issues with the rooms. It would have been better if it showed one or two rooms.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/316220/The-Crypts-of-Caverndel?manufacturers_id=15533?1892600

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 2 Comments

(5e) Hell Prisons

By Filip Gruszczynski
Self Published
5e
Level 5

Welcome to an infernal dungeon run by fiends! The devils are trying to tip the scales of the Blood War by establishing soul conversion facilities. These terrifying prisons are used to torment souls with an intention of creating more powerful devils and filling the battlegrounds of Avernus with powerful soldiers. Only brave adventurers can disrupt this horrifying scheme.

This 24 page adventure describes a three level dungeon, in hell, that is a prison run by devils. It has a nicely bureaucratic take on ell, and its devils, which adds a delightful aspect to the adventure. The map is simplistic, the read-aloud longish and the DM text could be formatted much better, to the point my eyes kind of glaze over. But, great room concepts!

Is there anything more conforming to our modern souls than seeing the concepts of of our lives exaggerated, just a bit, and then having the phase “it’s actually Hell. No, literally, it is Hell”: added to it? There’s a fine fine line here. You want to make Hell bureaucratic, and depict the Lawful evil nature of the devils and their corruption, but you don’t want to go all the way in to farce, depicting an actual DMV, for example. You’re taking the movie Brazil and then setting it in Hell. The scenes must be recognizable, approaching farce but not quite reaching that line. 

This adventure does that, and that’s what I mean by “Great Room Concepts.” It’s taking things we recognize of bureaucracy and power and just pushing it a little bit more, and adding Devils and Hell to it. The Devils, this being a prison, have a commissary. Plus, you know, this is Lord Mammon, greedy boy that he is, looking for some extra lucre. But no one figured that the prisoners would have nothing to buy with, so a bored devil sits behind the counter. Or, a torture device workshop, Mammon,getting the loewest price contractors to work on it, some slave Duergar … who ar enote particularly interested in attacking the party … unless there are dwarves present, of course. The devils in the barracks could not really care less about the party, being off duty at the time. There’s also an element of bribery involved with the devils … they always being willing to make a deal, well, generally, as long as its in their favor. You recognize this shit from your job. You recognize it from trying to get customer service from some megacorp, or dealing with some government bureaucracy.  It’s familiar, and therefore fun, with not pushed to the level of farce. Or, maybe not to level of a literal DMV in Hell anyway. This is a Hell, maybe the first one I’ve ever seen, that I can really get behind and see having fun running. The devils are their own worst enemies, or at least their LE nature is anyway. LE Hell finally makes sense. You can imagine an exasperated Cobra Commander …errr … Megatron … errr … Asmodeus, wondering why he just can’t get anything done. (Fun Bryce Fact, I own four action figures. Johnny Cage, who is not afraid to die, a giant Starscream, cause he’s the best, a giant Cobra Commander, cause he deserves better, and a giant Grand Moff Tarkin, cause he hold Vaders fucking leash. Yeah hierarchy!)

This is, though, the end of my compliments.

Read-aloud tends to be long, six or seven lines, and fall in to the common trap of over explaining. In the aforementioned Torture’s Workshop you see hunched silhouette gathere in the middle of the room loudly discussing a new contraction … and iron chair by the look of it. TMI! TMI! This destroys the ability of the characters to ask “what are they looking at?” Preceding the part I quoted is a pretty exhaustive list of things in the room, parts mostly, again, just adding words without depth. You want your read-aloud to be evocative but not to destroy the interactivity of the room, the back and forth.

DM text is then likewise long. Again, the torturers room, we get the backstory of the outsourcing vs unskilled labor thing Mammon has going on. That’s fun, but not really relevant to the actual play. (An aside or two like this during the adventure, for the DM, is ok; I’m not a total killjoy.) But, what’s missing, is WHAT they are talking about with the chair. Just replacing the Mammon stuff with a line about “Yes, but can we get the blood sausages any cheaper?” or some such would have added a lot and given the DM something to spring board from when the party asks “what are they talking about?” Better formatting, in general, separating the mechanics from the excellent fluff, could also be in order. It kind of runs together frequently and distracts. 

The map is simple, just a circle with rooms hanging off of it for each of the three levels. No real exploration. And there’s no real key. The rooms are “Bedroom” or “Barracks.” Please put in numbers. It’s almost always the right thing to do, a traditional key, in a dungeon like this. Some rooms have quite the screams coming from them, or steam pouring out. This is SOMETIMES noted in the section before the read-aloud, sometimes not, but it would also have been nice to note it on the map, letting the party know whet they see/hear/etc BEFORE, while looking/listening down the hallway. I always appreciate map queues to the DM.

The prisoners also tend to be generic. “Humanoids” appear a lot, without anything else. There is one small table of prisoners, but without personalities, just “warforged cleric of Bob” or some such. One page of good NPC prisoners would have gone a long way. Likewise, there are three examples of deals the devils will make, but a little table, or morse guidance here, would have gone a long way. It’s also doing this thing where “roll three times on the DMG table to see what magic items are for sale …” No. Just no. Put the magic item in the adventure. Just do the work ahead of time for us. It’s ok. We appreciate it. And, of course, there’s no level range on the cover or in the product description. Bad publisher! No “Regerts” for you!

A nice idea, but it needed more work to bring the ideas home in a gameable way. But, it knows what to do with the concepts, and that’s a far sight more than most genero plot adventures.

This is $2 at DMsGuild. The preview is three pages and all three show dungeon rooms. Yeah! You can see the sample NPC table, the expansive read-aloud, and messy DM text. Good preview.

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/325286/Hell-Prisons?1892600

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 9 Comments

Garden of Bones

By Diego Nogueira & Guiseppe Rotondo
SpaceOrange42
Gold & Glory
Non-novice Adventurers

The Garden of Bones was created by a powerful necromancer to be given as a present to a love interest of theirs. Once the gift was rejected, the necromancer turned the garden into a place of nightmares and horrific creations they built to externalize their frustration. It fell into obscurity after the ages passed away, and it became a myth. Now, a scholar with sinister interests has located a map they believe to lead to this mythical garden and desires to be taken there to admire the garden and possibly collect the legendary Ghost Lotus.

This 24 page digest “adventure” is just a series of random room rolls. It has a touch, here and there of evocative writing, but overall fails to deliver any meaningful interactivity from it’s poor encounters and descriptions. 

Gold & Glory is a Savage Worlds D&D-like adaption. It’s well disclosed on the product, so no hints of deception in the marketing. The blurb for the game says it delivers an OSR-like D&D experience. Does it?

Well, maybe? I don’t know. The adventure certainly doesn’t.

It’s another in a long line of rando adventures. There’s no map, you just roll for a new location every time you enter someplace. And “entering someplace” means “walking through a wall of fog that surrounds the current area you are in.” Of course, everything changes behind you. And, of course, this means that the exit is not fixed. The DM needs to roll a 20 on the random room table and then an exit appears. And when you leave that area, not going through the exit, the exit disappears, because the place changes all behind you. 

This is lame. I have no idea why designers think this is fun. It’s not delivering the exploratory element of OSR D&D. It’s delivering a “suffer through the random rolls” element. Just sit there, bored, with no control over your own fate, until the DM rolls a 20. That’s fun, right? You need some direction over your own fate in order to create tension. Do you continue or not? Are we pressing our luck? Delicious tension … absent from these random things.

The random rooms are, for the most part, not interactive and just window dressing. “A crushed skeleton under very thick dark vines.” reads one entry. “A 3 feet tall fanged skull with a small fire burning inside.” reads another. That’s the entirety of the encounter. A few years ago I made an observation that helped ruin the DisneyWorld magic for me. You sit down on something and it moves through a track and you look at little vignettes. This is the same thing. Walk in, look at something spooooooky, but there’s nothing really to do so you move on to the next vignette. Unless there’s a wandering monster. I guess you roll for one of those in each room also. 

You roll a d20. If you get a 2-10 then there’s a wandering element present. If it’s a 5-9 then it’s a creature. Why leave out the 1? Why put the monsters in the middle? Why not have it be 1-5 are monsters and 6-10 are “some other freaky thing?” I don’t know. Maybe a 1 means something special in the game? You got me. It’s a bizarre fucking way to organize things though.

The rumors are not in voice, which is lame, and you have to succeed on a roll to get one. I’m not a fan of hiding fun behind a roll. Just give the party a rumor. It’s fun. There ARE some more powerful rumors present, generally on the separate “i go to the library to research” table. That’s ok. Maybe a roll that’s modified by a skill check success level would have been better. Roll a d6 and 7-8 are the really good ones, that you get to by adding a +3 from reading a book? 

The descriptions are meh. At least they tend to be quite short. Too short. Monsters, in particular, you get bad descriptions for. “Half undead cultists” is a conclusion not a description. There’s just nothing about them, physically, to help bring home the mystery, wonder, and horror to a party encountering them. AGain, not an argument for a much longer description, but rather a much better one. I don’t care about the origin or backstory, what’s important NOW is what the party experiences. Perhaps the best example of this is a bone spider that shoots sticky blood from it’s mouth. That’s decent. The rest, though, are meh.

The general description of the garden is ok. “… extensive valley hidden by deserted rocky hills in a cold, mountainous region. The ground is completely covered by loose bones that rattle when walked upon …”  But then, of course, we’re told later, far deeper on the page that the place is covered with a constant greenish cold fog. That should have gone up with the general description of the valley. As you crest the hill, what do you see? You look down upon a valley. What do you see? You get an expansive overview of the area … and the general description should cover not, not put the fog in the “Walls” section. Yeah, it’s serving the purpose of a wall, but the party should be told about the fog initially, and for ease of use that should go up with the general description. 

So, it’s a wander around bored adventure, experiencing random things and maybe, occasionally, one of the unique encounters to interact with, until you find the flower you’re looking for. Then wander around some more until the DM rolls a 20. How about, insead, I roll a d6? On a 1 you find the flower on a 6 you find the exit. On any other roll I just roll again? That’s a fun night of role-playing, right?

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages. You get to see the two rumor tables. Suck ass preview. It should show up a wandering monster page and/or an encounter page. We need to be able to actually see the content we’re paying for, not the supporting material or title page nonsense. Bad preview.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/324122/GoldGlory-Garden-of-Bones?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 16 Comments

Valor in the Prison of Despair

By John Josten
Board Enterprises
OSR
Levels 5-6

Deep underground there is a prison where they keep some of the most terrifying monsters found in all of fantasy.  But these are predators, not prey.  How to keep them fed?  That answer is far worse than you have already imagined.  Are you ready to take on but prisoners and jailors?  If not, could it mean the end to the city?

This 76 page adventure uses about 24 pages to describe a one hundred room dungeon. Kind of. It’s basically just shit to stab and VERY long room DM notes. A textbook heartbreaker.

Look, no one is born with some kind of innate ability to know how to write an adventure. Adventure writing is technical writing of a special sort and it’s foolish to think that, BAM, right out of the gate, you’ll write a good one. Yeah, yo know where this review is going, don’t you?

I tend to focus on three main pillars of writing: interactivity, ease of use, and evocative writing, while bringing in that Special Sauce, Design, on occasion. All of these areas require some understanding of the purpose of an adventure (to be run at the table) and take some skill to pull off. None of them are gating conditions, but, in general, I’m much less forgiving if an adventure is easy to use (“it didn’t make me want to stab my eyes out”.) 

The chief complaint of adventures is that they are hard to use and require too much prep. This generally gets to the length of the text and in the encounters and how it is organized. This adventure gets it wrong in almost every way. It takes 1.5 pages, for example, to describe the gates in the dungeon: open, closed, controlled, and destroyed. One and a half pages. It goes in to detail not only on the description of the gates but also on the DM mechanics of opening a gate. This is crazy. I’m not messing with that. It’s too much to hold in your head and too long to easily reference, especially as presented in the text. 

The text relies a great deal on read-aloud. In italics. I will continue to harp on this point: long sections of italics, especially in a small font, are hard to read. If your own personal experience is not enough to convince you (after all, Mr. D, a demon might be deceiving you …) then there have been numerous academic studies stating the same thing. And yet the text here relies on LONG sections of it, in a small font. Essentially, th read-aloud. My eyes glaze over. I hate it. 

And then there’s the room text proper, mostly DM notes, that drone on and on about trivia. This room used to be. How the room is currently used but there is no one in this empty room to use it that way. The room “appears” to be something. It’s crazy how much of these rooms are padded out with text that makes no sense in the adventure. The designer is confusing text length, and a fully fleshed out description/purpose of the dungeon, with it being a “good” room/adventure. The purpose of the adventure is not an academic paper on the lifestyle of the dungeon inhabitants. It’s to run a great game at the table. In this regard, more is not More, More is Less. It makes the text long and hard to scan during play. It pulls the DM out during long pauses. The padding out of ineffective text, like “appears to be … “ just adds to the problem. Rooms that are a column or longer are not unusual. “It currently has no one in it.” Well no shit; the adventure tells us when there is. 

And, what is Interactivity? Is it stabbing shit? Is combat the only purpose of D&D, especially older D&D without its tactics porn to keep it company? To its credit the adventure does several factions and prisoners to talk to, but that’s only one part of good interactivity. There is no exploratory elements, no mystery, no wonder. No statues to fuck with and buttons to push. No fruit trees to poison yourself with. The resources to interact with, and perhaps exploit, are just not present. There’s a mini-game where you could avoid the big wandering monster boss in each section of the dungeon, but that’s not real great either. Room after room of boring and boring stabbing. 

Finally there’s the hardest thing, Evocative Writing. Good writing is hard, I will admit, and takes practice. “A huge ugly earthworm appears.”  Huge is a boring word. Ugly is a conclusion. Nothing make up good evocative writing. Use your thesaurus. Show, don’t tell. Agonize over your words to come up with a great, but terse, description. In fact, the earthworm is the exception, most monsters don’t even get descriptions in their entries, their appendix being just culture and history shit, boring to the players about to stab it. “The walls of the chamber are fairly smooth.” “There appears to be no one in this chamber.” A bizarre creature with huge legs. The entries do not come alive.

The designer clearly had a vision, witness all of the extra pages that describe background and how to play Old School. But they failed in their execution, byt a long margin. I would call this almost the textbook example of how to write an ineffective adventure. “Don’t do anything this adventure does.”

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages. You get to see the background and none of the room entries. Not a good preview; the preview should dhow s some of the actual encounters. That’s the purpose, to see if what the designer has written is worth our time. And, in spite of it being stat’d for OSR play, it does not tell us the level range before buying it. The level range is buried somewhere in the mountains of text inside of the adventure. I weep for the future.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/318051/Valor-in-the-Prison-of-Despair-aka-All-About-Wandering-Monsters–Game-Masters-edition?term=valor+prison?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 12 Comments

Of the Rakuli

By Simon Miles
Dunromin University Press
OSRIC

[…] These days there are few that have ever heard of the Great Old Ones, fewer still that have heard of the Rakuli.  Learned scribes argue over the legitimacy of any trace of their ancient culture.  Their artistic relics and magical items are often misappropriated by lesser species.  They have passed into the mists of irrelevance. So what were they?  What happened to them?

And why are adventurers returning from the deep Darkworld telling tales of powerful entities and carrying strange and powerful items they have stolen from these new foes?

This 52 page supplement is not an adventure. It just details the history and culture of some evil ancient race. 

Note that it is in the Adventure section of DriveThru. Note that the blurb talks about adventurers returning. Note that the blurb says “there are adventure hooks …” implying that there is an adventure. 

There is not any sort of adventure in this. 

I am NOT amused.

I am VERY MUCH not amused.

This is an ongoing issue with DriveThru. Not only is poetic license taken with putting non-D&D in the OSR category, but the publishers/designers seem to revel in placing non-adventures in the adventure category. I’m guessing this is some kind of cross-listing ploy, in order to maximize the visibility of a product?

Whatever it is, it sucks. Now I’m stuck with this thing. Frankly, I’m surprised this doesn’t happen to me more often, given the frequency with which I buy. I guess I’m getting better at figuring out from the descriptions that things are not D&D and/or not adventures/cross-posted crap. (And to be clear, it’s crap because of the trickery, regardless of the quality.) It seems amazing to me that you can’t actually buy what you intend to buy anymore. I ordered a power supply for my kids computer last night … and the same thing popped up. Right size? Right rating? Right format? Who knows.

I’m convinced that the key is a generous return policy. In this case it’s Pay What You Want, but I wish DriveThru had a more substantial return policy.

This is Pay What you Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $4.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/325933/SM14-Of-the-Rakuli?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 6 Comments

A Shadow Over the Greatwood

By WR Beatty
Rosethrorn Publishing
S&W
Levels 5-7

Trouble is brewing in the Rosewood Highlands. Wild Animals, usually timid and shy around the encroaching wave of human civilization, have become very hostile, attacking with no provocation whatsoever. More concerning is the fact that predators and prey are running in packs together. To top it all off, Old Joby swears he was some kind of beast-man up north of Gabon’s Ridge… and then he says a cougar was talking to the other day and then it exploded! (Of course, Old Joby is drunk a lot…)

This one hundred page sandbox region is stuffed full of interesting things, in a lower fantasy setting environment. Interesting areas and some above average writing combined with an organizational style that is not too bad, to create one of the more interesting sandboxes I’ve seen. Almost like a MERP region, but without the stuffiness and with actual adventure.

First off, I’m used to seeing large page counts padded out with appendices that are sometimes larger than the actual adventure. No so here. You’re getting at least seventy pages of locations and people, with the last thirty pages being monster descriptions, detailed new magic items descriptions, a monster summary sheet, and maps. This, alone, is refreshing. And then you get to the sandbox.

This region has some things going on. Chiefly there’s the animal isse, mentioned in the introduction blurb. But, along with that, are wise women, hags, a bear herder, caves, towers, dungeons, a couple of civilized area (with their own things going on) and the list goes on and on and on. 

The entire region feels ALIVE and REAL. There’s just enough specificity to breathe life in to things and make them seem that way without it going too overboard on the text length, bogging down the DMs ability to run the game. There’s a hill, and the locals in the village tend to give directions according to the hill. “Stay to the right of the Old Nob …” or “Through the swamp side of the Old Nob …” The villagers are common folk, and say common folk things, and get riled up in common folk ways. Argumentative meetings, Ghost Hill, hills barren of vegetation, hills that the locals claim they see spirits dancing on sometimes … Let’s talk the criminals to the bog mother and have her deal with them. Fancy some stewed potatoes deary? It’s hard to describe just how interesting this place is, and its those little details that both make it interesting and breathe life in to the setting. Not stodgy. Not bogged down. Life.

Rumors are in voice. Wanderers are doing things. There’s a little chart on who you might find in an abandoned house and what they might be doing. You can talk to people, and monsters, and maybe remove a thorn from one or two of their sides. Goblins are sheltered, unknowingly by the villagers, by a priest in the church. It’s fucking DENSE, man. Almost every single area, almost every single room/encounter, has something to bring it to life. 

Villager descriptions are brief, about one line or two. Locations don’t get bogged down in too much detail and generally have some interesting writing going on, evocative sentences and details. There are some order of battle notes for certain areas and monsters, where appropriate. There are a fair number of cross-references to keep the DM from hunting too much. 

It could probably do with a few more cross-references though. And some of the monsters could use some evocative descriptions, instead of just SPirit Goblins or The White Ghu, and undead knight. I didn’t really see distance notes, or a distance key on the hex map. 

And it’s big. Really big. Seventy or so pages crammed full. There’s a lot to pour over here. I’m not sure “study” is the right word; I do think you could almost run this without a read-over first, but pouring over it a bit WILL result in a more rewarding experience, I’m sure. But unique magic items, mostly unique monsters, and a place that feels ALIVE, even at first glance of the text, is something that you just don’t run across every day. Sure, the text could use a little work, pruning it back a bit would make it have even more clarity, but it’s not BAD in that regard, just not perfect. This one os worth the extra effort.

You could buy this and run the HELL out of it for many MANY sessions, and for only … $4? Uh, fuck yes, please!

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is ten pages. You get to see some of the village some of the wanderers, some of the regional encounters, and all of the other text in the adventure is similar, so it’s a good preview in that you get a good idea of what you are buying first.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/318409/A-Shadow-Over-the-Greatwood?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 5, Reviews, The Best | 3 Comments

Desert Ange Fiasco

By Joseph Robert Lewis
Dungeon Age Adventures
OSR
Levels 1-3

Today an enchanted flying ship, the Desert Angel, will attempt to cross the uncharted Great Sand Sea. The Vahid Trading Company has convinced enough merchants to fill its hold with silks and spices, as well as some other strange odds and ends.  But Master Vahid is very worried about the safety of his new ship and crew, as well as the cargo. He is looking for trustworthy mercenaries to provide security on the Desert Angel’s maiden voyage. Payment upon (safe) arrival!

This 25 page adventure is a delightful little railroad as you cross the desert on the trans-desert flying ship route. It has about fifteen locations/events to experience. Well organized, well written, interesting encounters that, for being arrayed like a railroad, give the party as much freedom as possible under the circumstances. A fun little romp.

So, camel caravans no longer! The first flying transport ship is ready to sail across the desert in record time, three days instead of three weeks and three times the cargo! And it needs some mercenaries to ensure it makes it and the cargo stays safe. Enter our level one caravan guards. Now, this is a caravan assignment I can get behind! It’s not just that it’s fantastic, but that it FEELS like something that will appeal to the players. I’d play it up all Trip to the Moon style, or at least the Tonight, Tonight version of it. A brass band playing. The mayor and town worthies in their finery. Dudes holding ropes to keep it down, banners and pennants, a key to the city presentation … that should appeal to the party! It is on donkey kong!

The adventure is laid out with a brief (very brief) description of the ship and a very simple sailing system; roll a d6 and add/subtract a few modifiers. Captain Alive? +1. Quartermaster alive? +1. Ship damaged? -1. Pretty easy. Then comes a few NPC’s. Captain, crew, merchants. Just a little note on their appearance and another on their mannerisms, in a format that’s quite to easy to follow and scan. If they have a secret then there’s a bolded SECRET section. Quite nice format and the NPC descriptions are interesting, evocative, and easy (and fun!) to imagine. And, really nice use of triple column layout. It gives lots of room, is easy to scan in the font size used. Good use of breaks, bullets, whitespace, sections … JRL has this format thing down. I’m not saying that this is the ONLY way to format an adventure, or even the BEST way, but it certainly does what it needs to do. Good job JRL!

The ship is sailing across the desert to another city, so, it’s a railroad. Kind of. The captain mostly listens to the party and what they want to do. So the party, or a sailor, will generally see something from the ship and then they can decide if they want to stop the ship or not. There are a few events and/or “random” encounters for the ship as well, but, for the most part, the party gets to decide if they want to stop at the huge pyramid made of solid gold. So, as much freedom as possible given that it’s a journey from point A to B. 

Speaking of that pyramid … it’s got a mummy inside. The walking, talking kind. And, she doesn’t fuck the party over unless they steal or lie. Nice lady, except for the dessication. The party can actually recruit her to join the ship; she’s interested in seeing the world. Another stop has an old hermit lady who wears a mask. She can cast warp wood at will, which can repair the ship. Yeah! She worships an elder abomination … but isn’t fussy/forceful about it. Wanna learn more? That mask hides a mouth full of tentacles; you’ll need a kiss. So … she’s a little crazy, but not in an evil way. And that comes across in an easy way, without mountains and mountains of text. 

Descriptions are great, short, terse and evocative. There’s a decent amount of interactivity, mostly from character interactions on the ship and some puzzle type things (like a laser trap in the pyramid … solved, in one way, by fucking with the white crystal at the top of the pyramid, for example.) 

It may be a bit heavy on the die rolls are times … or, maybe, it just seems that way. There are a lot of sailing checks to be made, to avoid hazards, and so on, and that can feel a little heavy sometimes. 

Otherwise, this is a nice solid little adventure. It’s as close to pick and play/zero prep as I think you can get. A quick scan of the intro page and you’re off! It’s a credit to the organization and writing abilities of its designer.

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is twelve pages and shows you the ship, the NPC section, and several of the encounters. I encourage you to check out the NPC’s on page 9 of the preview and the Day 1 section, with two encounters, on the next page. They are a great example of the formatting and writing style used throughout. Nicely done. 

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/322651/Desert-Angel-Fiasco-A-Dungeon-Age-Adventure-5e-and-OSR-versions?1892600

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 1, Reviews, The Best | 3 Comments

The Lie of Destiny

By Denver Cheney
Self Published
Modulus
Level ?

In The Lie of Destiny, an adventure for the Modulus system, your players get to kick in the door on some cultists and piece together the clues for a chance to save the Great Library from being burned! Pursue the fleeing cultists down back alleys and capture them before they make their escape to the Howling Sea aboard a stolen ship! This adventure drops your players in the thick of an important quest as agents for the Crown. While the enemies are weak, they are numerous and have paranoia on their side. Your players will have to be decisive, clever, and good at working together to achieve complete victory in this scenario.

This 12 page adventure is actually just a series of linked combats for your combat-oriented RPG of choice. 

This isn’t an OSR adventure, but it does say up from it’s for Modulus, and it in the Other category on DriveThru. It also says “adaptable for any age of sail game”, so that’s why I’m reviewing it. And, by Age of Sail, it means “Any game that can have a boat in it.”

There is a very popular mini’s game by Games WOrkshop. It’s just minis combat. What if you took that, or something like that, and had a little minis battle scenario. Then at the end you added some statement like “you find a clue that they are also headed to the library!” Then you’d have a series of minis combats interlinked by some VERY light roleplay-y elements. That’s what this is. It reminds me of those interlinked scenarios from Star Fleet Battles, another minis game. Thus you have a “campaign” defined by “ a series of interlinked combats.” Essentially 4e, if the roleplay elements were even lighter in 4e. (It’s always a good day when you can work in a 4e slam.)

There’s some background, but mostly on the game world. You’re agents for the EMpire and you’ve tracked the cultists to their lair. That’s how it starts. The pretext here is VERY light, starting, essentially, outside the shop the cultists use. The actual scene is described in half a column, so, two scenes per page. There are hints to the DM for reinforcements and the cultists running away to warn others, but that’s about it. Interactivity is limited to “looking for clues after the combat is done” or “stop the cultists from burning a paper during the combat” and the ilk. This really is just a series of four combats. 

The clues after the combat are meant to be the pretext to get you to the next scene, but they are VERY light. One cultists had ink stained hands. There are old books around. There are books marked off of a list. A scholar outfit is in the closet. THis means, of course, that the next scene/combat is in the Great Library. 

I would suggest that this isn’t a roleplaying adventure. It’s just a mini;s combat thing. Maybe that’s what the Modulus RPG is, just a combat game. Which is ok .. except when advertised, perhaps, as “compatible with any age of sail RPG.” There’s no real scene. No real interactivity byond combat. Just one combat followed by a teleport to the next combat scene. “You’re in the library. The cutists drop a lantern to start burning books!”

So, 4e was too heavy on the roleplaying front? Just want to stab some shit? This is the adventure for you. 

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. The preview is only two pages and just shows the intro text. It would have been better if it had shown an actual encounter, then you could have made a better decision on if the adventure was something or a type you’re interested in.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/324322/The-Lie-of-Destiny–A-Modulus-Adventure?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 15 Comments