By G. Hawkins
Levels 1-10+

Gunderholfen… Ancient, abandoned dwarf hold, battleground of arch-liches, cultist base, wizards’ playground, heroes’ bane and treasure-seekers’ tomb. Gunderholfen is a classic, old school exploratory sandbox-style mega-dungeon consisting of ten levels, a mini-campaign setting and one demi-plane.

This is a 420 page megadungeon with 930 locations, ten levels, and numerous sub-levels. About half the page count deails rooms, seven or so we page, while the rest is supporting information like maps, a town, NPC’s, wanderers, etc. Your satisfaction with this is going to best translate with how you feel about B2’s minimal Caves of Chaos descriptions. If you liked that then you’ll like this.

Let’s talk about those chaos caves a bit. From a usability standpoint, Gygax keeps the text pretty tight.  The text is one step beyond minimalism. A monster, their tactics, and a treasure. There is generally a short one or two sentences of room description beyond that for most rooms and they tend to be plain. “The room is carpeted, has tapestries on the walls and battered but still serviceable furniture and a cot.” or maybe “There are two cots, a bench, a stool, and a large box (filled with soiled clothing) in the room.”  Interactivity involves some implied social bargaining, pit traps, pressure plates for the most part. I’m sure nostalgia clouds me somewhat, but I think B2 is one of the better classic adventures. Not great, but not odious and the text doesn’t get in the way.

The same sort of things are to be found in this adventure. A focus on the monsters and their tactics. A little more explicit social in the dungeons. For the most part a light touch on interactivity with exploratory elements. Short and “normal” descriptions. B2 comes off as combat heavy and so does this.

Let’s look at one of the descriptions: “11. Kitchen (i) A blazing fireplace stands against the north wall while a large grate in the floor occupies the north- west corner. Kobolds are placing mushrooms and dead rats into a huge iron pot in the fireplace.” Two sentences. A ‘blazing’ fireplace but also a ‘large’ grate showing both the use of more colorful language and generic words (large, old, big, red, small, etc.) This is the way of the room description for this adventure, a sentence or two that are not overly evocative. Serviceable. Another room tells us that “This room is lavishly furnished with expensive pillows and silk blankets.”

In addition to a small room description there is also generally a monster stat block and a section on their tactics that tend to take up most of the text for a room. This will also contain some reaction text, like running to room X to get help and so on.

Interactivity tends to the pressure plate kind.  A pressure plate opens a hole in a wall. Search a pit to find a ruby. Pull a lever to open/close/disarm something. There are some notes here an there about parlay. I’d say it’s sparsely interactive with more interesting exploratory elements even rarer. And that matches my memory of B2 pretty well also.

It makes a good college try of supporting the DM. The short room descriptions, and explicit easily read monster tactics offset with stat blocks makes scanning the room easy. It does a good job providing some supplemental information, like multiple NPC parties to encounter in the dungeon. Other rooms contains important DM details like, in a room with a rope bridge: “The bridge can be cut through in two rounds.” IE: text oriented towards supporting the DM during play. There are a multitude of rumors and side-quests to pick up in town to add some extra depth to play. Wandering events in town are interesting enough. “A group of beggars flees through the street pursued by a City Watch patrol and an angry noble yelling ‘get that filth away from my daughter’” Likewise, rooms note if they are illuminated or not with a small (i) after their name.

All the writing, editing, maps and art are done by the designer. That’s quite a feat! The writing is not bad, neither absolute minimalism or overblow/overwrought. The editing and layout are not bad either. Layout and formatting change as needed by the situation.  The art is even above average and quite charming. At one point I was thinking “this needs an side-view” and there, on the next page, was a side-view illustration instantly cementing what the text was trying to describe. No serious mistakes are made. For a one-man show that’s a great accomplishment!

The maps here tend to the smaller side of things. Maybe thirty-ish rooms per map. It’s hard to provide a good exploratory environment with a small map, with exploration being a key element for megadungeons. Rappen Athuk can be like this at times, as is Black Maw. It’s not a deal breaker, but more commentary on the difficulty of exploration play style elements on a constrained map. I will note, though, the light situation. While the room text notes the illumination level of each room, the map does not. I think that’s a missed opportunity. Being able to tell the party what they see down three corridors, by looking at a “light” nortation on a map instead of running back to look up multiple rooms in the text, would have been a good extra use of the map. Like, noise, etc … if its obvious ahead of time then the map is a good place to help out with that. [Edit: It was pointed out I was wrong about the light. It IS on the map, and on the legend also. I tend to not look at legends, and it IS a little non-obvious on the maps, but once you “get it” it’s easily spotted and not an issue. IE: it’s only an issue for idiots who don’t look at the legend.]

The levels are themed and some come across better than other. Level 6, with a wizard lab, picks up a bit and things do tend to get weirder and more complex as you go deeper than this level. There’s also some individual designer voice in places with several items giving bonuses by also negative reaction rolls for looking like a pansy, or another item with Flatulent Fury. A little authorial voice can add to the flavour of an adventure, helping it stand out from the crowd and have its own voice. Even if its crude.

Overall, tending to the plain and combat heavy side of the spectrum. But it’s not a total hack and it’s not Vampire Queen minimalistic. Or even B2 minimalistic.

And thus I’m back around again to B2. If you liked 2 then you’ll probably like this. If you don’t like B2 then you probably won’t like this. RLM was reviewing Gidzilla and Dark Phoenix. They noted that they were ok movies, but there didn’t seem to be room anymore for ok movies. Given something like this adventure I can understand where they are coming from. This isn’t a bad adventure. In fact, from one person, I’d say it’s a major accomplishment in their life and a credit to them for seeing it through as well as they did. I note, also, the use by RLM of “room.” There’s no room anymore. And therein is the issue. Just about every adventure ever published is now available to everyone. And then there are dozens more a week being published. In that environment, if even a small percentage are good then there’s little room for ok materials. I might choose Rappen for a megadungeon, if I was only buying one. But this is also better than Stone Thief or the draft or Autarch version of Dwimmermount because of tersity and exploration. Adding this to a game is going to be similar to adding Stonehell, but with a smaller map. I’m having trouble getting excited about it and recommending it, but its clearly not terrible either, making it better than 95% of adventure written. I would probably insert it in to “DungeonLand” campaign as yet another megadungeon alongside DB, RA, SH, and BM.

So, a B2 megadungeon. Is that what you are looking for?

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is 18 pages with the last five or so showing you the first rooms in the dungeon. They are fairly typical for most dungeon rooms so you’ll be able to get a good idea what to expect from the preview. There’s a separate link on DriveThru for the maps if you want to preview them.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 9 Comments

Beneath the Temple of Edea

By Vance Atkins
Leicester's Rambles
No fucking level stated

This twelve page single-column adventure features a sixteen room linear dungeon with hobgoblins-ish enemies. A few nice features can’t save it from itself or the mish-mash of text that makes up each room. It’s a monster! kill it and move on.

There’s a small temple with six encounter areas and then an underground cave with the rest. The temple is a highlight, with statues holding lamps (nicely illustrated by an included photo, btw. Art that compliments an adventure is rare and this was the perfect art choice for this feature.) With four or so rooms per page the writing is kept relatively tight.

It’s doing something weird with the writing though, something that’s off putting and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’m kind of referring to it as a meandering style. I can’t exactly figure out the specifics, but its a loose writing style, with the focus of the writing, and organization, on things other than the rooms subjects?

There’s a loose phrase of two in the writing that’s obvious. “Examination may show that …” well, no. First you’re using the word “may” and second you’re phrasing this as an if/then. IF you examine the door THEN it [may] show that … It’s much more solid writing to say that there are scorch marks around the handle. (Which is a hint to the lightning trap on the door. I like trap hints for players who pay attention.) In another point there’s some commentary that a certain thing “may make it a dicey proposition!” A loose comment or two isn’t all that bad and if sprinkled wisely can provide a little humor/prodding to the DM.

But this isn’t what I’m talking about when I say it’s a meandering style. There’s weird background padding padding showing up before important room elements. Longtime readers will note that I prefer that obvious things occur higher up in room descriptions. The towering statue glowing red and shooting lazer beams from its eyes should be the first thing mentioned … unless there’s something else even more obvious when you walk in to the room.

Room 5, the monk living quarters, is a good example of this.

5. Manse – Up a short flight of stairs is the former residence of the temple monks. Its occupants were killed or carried off during the incursion from ‘below.’ The sparse furniture and fixtures here are overturned or broken and show more signs of struggle. There is nothing of value left beyond some cookware and thin clothing. One of the ‘guard lizards’ for the hobgoblins in the caverns (below) has wandered in here in pursuit of rats and is tearing apart the decaying corpse of a dead monk.

Up a short flight of stairs … the former residence. Killed or carried off. The guard lizard showing up last. Better would be a guard lizard eating decaying corpses in a ransacked living quarters, or something like it. The adventure text is almost conversational the way it meanders from the room approach (obvious from the map) the background, former room use, decorations, and then finally the obvious thing. And multiple rooms are like this in the adventure. They lack a strong focus. They are not overly long, but the writing feels loose and the interactivity feels empty, not a good combination.

The map is essentially linear. It does have a nice feature or two, with same level stairs and some escarpments to liven things up. But a linear map is a linear map. There’s little room to explore, you just kill what’s in the room and move to the next one.

I find these small and linear adventures quite unsatisfying. I know this is how many people run their home games, but as a prepared adventure it just doesn’t seem worth it. Then you add some substandard text and, well, why?

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggest price of $1. The preview is five pages and shows you the map and the first six rooms. It’s representative of what you should expect, so good on it.

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(5e Review) Foul Passage of Progress

By Stephen Yeardley
AAW Games
Level 7

A request to find out what has happened leads to an offer of assistance and a chance to help a lot of people out. All that is required is that the players descend the stairway and rescue the missing townsfolk, although they have been missing a week, which isn’t a good sign. Oh, don’t forget that the stairway is trapped, gets slick with algae and seawater and is used to dump all manner of waste. What could possibly be off-putting about any of that to experienced adventurers?

This 35 page “adventure” has 96 random encounter rolls and four caves. Someone had an idea and expanded it the wrong way. It has the usual poor formatting. A couple of neat ideas doesn’t save it from itself.

Ok, imagine a sheer cliff wall. At the top is a town. At the bottom a sea-side dock. Running up the cliff are a set of stairs, in four switchbacks. 96 stairs in total. Now, the stairs are not actually stairs, they are more like those columns that make up Devils Tower. Except each can, and sometimes does, move independently a bit. The riser height is, on average, about four feet. The town likes to dump their garbage down the stairs to let the high tide take care of cleanup.

There’s a table that lists each stair and what happens on it. And by “what happens” I mean “what happens in addition to the random roll the DM makes,” For, gentle reader, the stairs generally each has the DM rolls randomly as well. Roll percent and add the number of the stair you on, if it’s over 100 you roll on another chart. Yeah you! This could be a gap between stairs, some toxic good, a column moving, or a monster.

How does this work in practice? Do you actually roll for each stair as the party encounters it? That’s cumbersome. “What’s on the next stair?” I don’t know, let me roll. “How about the one after that?” I don’t know, let me roll. This is dumb as all fuck. I don’t see how this works without rolling for all the stairs before the adventure starts. In which case why didn’t the fucking designer do that? I don’t like rolling for the dungeon design during the adventure. I like to let people know what they are seeing/experiencing ahead of time after they ask me what see through the doors, hallways, etc. I just don’t see how that works in practice with these random design things without it all being worked out ahead of time. Which, again to beat a long dead horse, if you’re rolling ahead of time then why didn’t the designer do it for you?

No spider climbing or flying or other forms of magic allowed to descend the cliff/stairs. For the designer has decreed that you shall experience his adventure the way he intended and thus you shall walk down each and every stair. Make your fucking acrobatics roll you tools, that’s what the designer wants. This is TEXTBOOK too high an adventure. fIf you have to gimp the party then the adventure is too high, you should reskin for something lower and/or redesign it. If the lich is casting 99 wish spells to keep you from passwall’ing then maybe the stupid fuck should have picked a different spot to live in. Yes, I know high-level D&D adventures are hard to design. And I don’t give a fuck when you trot it out as an excuse to gimp the party.

I don’t know. There’s a collection element out of Assassin’s Creed … collect all of the dead porters guild tokens … Gotta catch em all! Actually, there’s a small table that lists them all with room to make a checklist and take notes. That’s a good idea. There’s also an NPC porter that seems designed to be annoying but, also, could follow the party if he’s not allowed to accompany them. An unwelcome but non-hostile tag-along behind can be fun.

The main text is well padded and uses the typical long form paragraph style. I just reviewed an adventure that did essentially the same thing. In contact to that, where it had short paragraphs that focused every word on essential detail and was well formatted to find information, this adventure does none of that. It’s just the usual stream of information in paragraph form making it hard to find information during play.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. It’s all background information except for the last page, which shows a cross-section of the stairs. That’s worth checking out. Not enough adventure have vertical elements or show how the vertical elements work. But imagine it … a roll for each stair …. ug.

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 1 Comment

The Withered Crag

By Guy Fullerton
Chaotic Henchmen
Levels 2-3

Chaotic Henchmen


Levels 2-3

… After clashes with inhuman raiders—some with armor fused to body like a second skin, and bewitched with unexpected powers—it becomes clear they are in league with a yet-undiscovered malefactor. Some of their recent tracks lead to the crater.

This fourteen page adventure uses six pages to describe a thirty-six room multi-level dungeon. Compact and efficient, it presents an environment that supports exploration, role playing, and interactivity. He does this seemingly effortlessly, with well organized room descriptions that are neither minimal or verbose. It has exactly as many words as it needs

So, big ass crater. In the middle is a massive outcropping with a fortress carved in to the top. At night the crater fills with mist. And, unknown to the party, it also gets tougher at night as otherworldly guardians emerge. Interestingly enough, you can also gain substantial treasure robbing the place, in the daytime, with not too much trouble. Thus the cycle begins anew: the players push their luck, trying to explore everything and steal anything not nailed down (and some that is.) Just one more room .. .and then it’s nighttime and things get hard. Or you stumble on an 8HD monster with an 18” move. This is great design. A couple of tough guys running around, some lesse monsters, a push your luck element … Exciting D&D ahead!

Interactivity here is good. Aside from big monsters chasing you, you have glass walls to shatter, statues to fuck with (multiple ones in multiple ways), cauldrons to bubble, weird-ass traps/locks to disarm. D&D’s exploration elements must include these interactive elements. Not all bad. Not all good. Some bad. Some good. Some just ARE. A neutral environment will of things to mess with. It harkens back to the interactive elements of some the best adventures written in the early days … or at least the best parts of them.

Supporting materials are great. The map has loops and multiple stairs on each level. Some rooms have windows. Some hallways are different sizes. There’s a side-view to show how the levels work together with the crater. There’s a summary sheet with all the monster stats. The wanderers are doing somethings. All of the little things that contribute to helping the DM are present. Magic is magical and well described. “Uneven frogs’ eyes, cauliflower ears, and a barbed-tongue handle all protrude from this golden hand mirror—its frame suggesting a gaping, toothless maw.” Oh, yeah, blood activates it. A specific description, a visceral activation, and a non-standard but understandable effect. The way magic items should be.

The writing is solid, and organized. The rooms start with a title. “4. Shrine.” You now now all of the usual stuff that should go in the room, so Guy can concentrate the rest of his text on the meaningful/actionable parts that contribute to the adventure rather than the trivia of what a shrine is. The Petrified Library has “Three rows of granite shelving support hundreds of useless stone book sculptures …” BAM! Done! Now the business of the room can begin, describing the books that are real and how they work. Or “Bridcage: 4 ft wooden cage encloses a pecked, rotting humanoid lower leg, and a few gray feathers.” The rest is a little DM text describing the cage.

Go ahead, stick your arm in that arm sized hole. You know you need to unlock the door. And we ALL know what’s going to happen. But then Guy turns it back and makes something unexpected happen. The party freaks, challenges to overcome under pressure and only bravery wins the day. Go ahead. Do it again …

You can talk to most of the intelligent monsters and guards. They want things. They are not necessarily friendly, and bloodshed will almost certainly happen, but a conversation can lead to melee while “They Attack” monster encounters all lead to the same place: D&D as tactical miniatures combat. B O R I N G. By inserting some motivations and the possibility of parley the role of the adventurers becomes so much more interesting during play.

There are few negatives. The side-view map could be a bit clearer, it took me a few minutes to figure out what was going on. I got the general gist immediately, the way side-view maps allow for, but the extra detail took me a second, especially on the undercaverns. There was also an opportunity lost, I think, to include some humanoids. If the baddies treat with evil humanoids them then an evoy party or two, in the rooms or wanders table,  may have added yet another element.

Guy knows what he’s doing. He understand supporting the DM. He understand what’s important in an adventure and he he understands how to write it well to be evocative and yet scannable. I know I get shit for saying it, but the best adventures today dwarf almost all of the older/original ones.  

This is $5 at DriveThru, and a Print version is at North Texas … and maybe after? Black Blade would know if they have extras. The preview is four pages and hows the side-vide map and the first fourteen rooms. It perfectly represents what you should expect once you buy this. Note the use of Day and Night sections for rooms, and the paragraph form used to concisely convey information. This is what everyone writing paragraphs is striving for (well, most anyway) but fail to achieve.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 29 Comments

Terror at Wolfgrasp Hill

By David Markiwsky
Aegis Studios
Levels 2-3

A writ of salvage has been issued for an area on the edge of the Untamed Gauntlet known as Hangman’s Folly. The Folly is known to have once been the site of a prosperous village that was beset by a witch and eventually burned to the ground. It is suspected that there might be valuable artifacts attributed to the witch within the ruins of the village. Additionally, a local landlord, named Baron DeCours ventured into the same area with a party of soldiers some 10 days prior, with the intention of investigating a string of attacks in the area and has not been seen since. A reward of 100 gold pieces is offered for information relating to the location of the Baron.

This eleven page adventure features a seven room dungeon. Tough monsters, minimal loot, small lair dungeon … it’s hard to love this. There is a surprise or two in store that I enjoyed, but it’s hard to separate this one from the pack.

Yet another in the long line of adventures based around a small Dyson lair map. This is a seven room cave complex with one of two outside locations. There’s a little shrine in the area as well a small ruined tower before you get to Hangman Hill … and the cave in the base of it. There’s no real wilderness/overview map, and my description of the area trumps any provided by the adventure proper. “When the players get to the cave …” announces the adventure. Wait, there’s a cave? “The tower is all that remains of … “ Wait, there’s a tower? Where did that come from? I suspect these were thrown in at the last minute and any kind of outside description orientation overlooked. With no context the locations are jarring.

Note how the intro uses the word Hangmans Folly?  The first room or two also are all full of tree roots hanging down, 13th Warrior style. And that withered tree on top of the hill (the top of the hill that doesn’t show up n the adventure, BTW.) Surprise, surprise, you get to a room FULL of tree roots hanging. The roots, it turns out, of a Hangmans tree monster! Oh snap! The adventure got me! Lulled in to it! Tree roots introduced in one room only to attack in another, from foreshadowing of “hangman” two or three times and a tree on top of hangman hill! This reminds me of the time some adventure had some figures, mentioned singing, and I didn’t make the connection to the actual monster, harpies. There’s nothing better than dropping multiple clues only to have the party miss them all and it all click to 100% obviousness in retrospect. That’s a well done set up. And shame on me for ever thinking that a room full of tree roots hanging down could be anything other than an issue. I revel when I get immersed in an environment, forgetting my meta-D&D think. That this managed that is a nice compliment. (Other things I’ve fallen for lately: a ‘wand’ sticking up from the dirt in the garden that was “stuck” and a cactus plant with fruit on it. And I fucking KNEW there sandworms; I’d warned people repeatedly, to the extent they were making fun of me. But I was overcome in the revel of the moment.)

There’s a serious issue with the monsters in this. A small dungeon with seven rooms that has 14 bugbears outside a hangman tree, a ghost, a werewolf, and four wights all incide. I’m not so sure that’s a level 2-3 adventure. While the text and publishers blurb says level 2-3 the cover says 3-4, which is closer, I think, to the truth. And still pretty fucking far off. Those are, IMO, some serious shit encounters for a level 4 group. A smaller dungeon exacerbates the problem, putting other creatures in agro distance and leaving few places to run, escape, leverage for wacky plans. And, of course, the cover says one level range while the advert and text says something else.

This thing has a decent issue with putting information out of place and/or not including cross-references. “You hear splashing nearby.” Well, from where? Nope, doesn’t say. Or the fact that the outside area mentions lots of tracks going in and out of the cave, but not words on what they are … until you get to encounter one, then you get the details. The information isn’t quite where you need it, multiple times.

It like to engage in a fair bit of explaining, like saying that a gold earring left a shrine was by a girl trying to curry favour with the moon goddess. Well, ok, but to what end? I mean, what purpose does this background expository (and there’s already a lot, a few pages of it at the start) serve? Instead we get text like “seven dead bodies” in the roots of the hangmans tree … an excellent opportunity lost to note their roots digging in to flesh, bulging eyes, dessicated bodies, etc. It tries to use descriptive text in the read-alouds but then all but abandons the attempt in the actual DM’s text.

A notable exception is the ghost. One sentence of a read-aloud tells us that “At the bottom of the pool, nearly hidden by the murky water, is the figure of a young human man, secured to the bottom of the pool by a series of thin roots.” This is then followed up, in the DM text with “… an eerie green glow begins to form on the bottom of the pool and a ghostly figure of the man drowned at the bottom of the pool emerges.” That’s not bad, overall. Drowned young man in a shallow pool, tree roots holding him down, eerie green glow, ghost of a drowned man emerging. That’s something that I can work well with to paint a good picture for the players.

The adventures needs a lot for of that short and punchy imagery and less background exposition. More cross-references and context for the outside, and less padded text.

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is broken. 🙁

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(5e) The Blacksmith’s Burden

By John Rossomangno
Self published
Levels 2-4

When the party arrives in the small village of Goldendale they find a shortage of metal goods and a community upset with the lack of production. Despite their admiration for the village blacksmith, folks grow concerned about his inability to complete the simplest jobs even though they hear the ring of his hammer throughout the night…

This 24 page adventure has a small investigation in a village followed by a small goblin outpost and then a seven room goblin lair. IE: the usual. It merges seamlessly in to the great mass of adventure dreck, not knowing how to format an adventure while offering nothing unusual in way of adventure.

The usual: a small investigation followed by a run in with the baddies and then a small lair. There must be about ninety bajillion adventures of this type published, as well as a significant number of home game adventures. I’m not gonna rail on the adventure type, it is what it is, but if you want to publish something in this type then you need to do a little more. Why am I buying this adventure, from among all of the other choices I have? This don’t do that. It makes the usual mistakes and ends up just being another also-ran.

If the pillars of an adventure are usability, interactivity, and evocativeness then this fails to meet any of those standards. It’s not actively promoting bad play, in as much as there is no forced morality, railroading, or other sins, but it’s not actually engaging in anything good either.

Usability: The village is described in paragraph long form with NPC quirks, investigation hints, and other data all mixed in to the general morass of text. Multiple paragraphs of text. Full of weasel words and padding, history, background and other things and commentary not relevant to the adventure. This obfuscates anything useful to the DM to actually running the adventure. Better formatting, focusing on a brief description, one or two sentences, and then key callouts of NPC traits and bullets for learned information, for example, would have been better. Or something like that. The specific style doesn’t matter but what does is making it absolutely trivial for the DM to scan the text and locate pertinent information. You can’t bog the DM down reading a great mass of text during actual play. And no, note taking and highlighting are not solutions. Those are crutches the DM has to engage in to make an adventure useful. If the DM has to do that then the designer should have done something to make it so the DM didn’t have to do that.

Likewise we see sections of text in maroon italics, as the default style of the time, that make it hard to read. Yeah, I know those fucking templates from DMSGuild make it easy for an adventure to APPEAR professional. But they stink from a usability standpoint. No fucking italics in read-aloud! (See, I didn’t even bitch that the read-aloud is both too long and also boring, my usual gripes. … except that by bitching about not bitching about it I am in fact bitching about it.)

Likewise we get dungeon rooms, in the actual lair, that follow a strict formatting guidelines. Thou shalt include a Developments” heading, and a “Treasure” heading. And a “creature” heading. Seven rooms in 24 pages, investigation or not, betrays an adventure with half-column or more stat blocks and an overly prescriptive layout/format.  

Which ends up being boring anyway. It’s mostly just goblins running up to attack the party. That’s exciting. Interactivity is not the exclusive domain of combat. If you want tactical mini’s then go play Warhammer. Or Gloomhaven. Adventures need things to explore and interact with. And exploring does not mean walking down a hallway.

Treasure: The implements on the workbench comprise a full set of alchemist’s supplies (worth 50gp). Although they are currently stored improperly, they can still be put to use in the right hands.

So … scattered alchemist’s tools (50gp) is what you mean? And that’s not even bitching about the abstraction of using the words “alchemist’s tools” instead of noting beakers, braziers, reagents, tongs, delicate magnifying glasses and the like. Abstractions are boring while details are the soul of storytelling and imagery. Of which this adventure misses the mark again and again.

On the plus side the adventure does let you get information out of someone without rolling dice. “Either through roleplay or skill checks.” That’s a miracle. There’s also a hook where you find clues in a previous adventure: a kobold lair you were to investigate is found wiped out, broken weapons and spearpoints bearing the mark of the blacksmith in this village … sup with that? Note the detail of his mark, and broken weapons, and the “surprise” of your adventure with the kobolds not being a kobold adventure.

I’m being a tad overly harsh in this review. This dude is doing nothing that the great mass of adventure designers don’t do. The fact that they nearly ALL do it wrong shouldn’t be this guys fault. He’s clearly got an inkling of what D&D is supposed to be, with this “you can use roleplay” comment. And like most he simply has not been exposed to, or understands, good adventure formatting. No real railroads, just as there is no real order of battle for the goblin reaction. No real forced morality ot failed novelist text, just as the writing is note particularly evocative or the dungeon interactive.

Get your usability down. Then focus on an interactive adventure. Then focus on evocative text (which I think is the hardest task.) Finally, edit it till your fingers bleed to ensure its usable, nteractive, and evocative.

This is $4 on DriveThru. The preview is only two pages long and doesn’t really show you anything of what you are buying, so it’s a bad preview. At most, it shows the use of paragraph style formatting as the primary means to convey information; you’d have to extrapolate to figure out the rest of the adventure is like this. It also has the kobold lair hook, which is kind of interesting to see alongside the more typical boring/crap hooks.

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 4 Comments

Forgotten Shrine of the Savior

By Malrex
Self-published/Merciless Merchants
Levels 6-8

This adventure is designed to be dropped in anywhere, whether by a nearby town, or deep underground. The shrine was constructed in honor of a four armed titan known as The Savior.

This is another entry, for the same map, from the adventure design forum that I run. The map was designed by a third party and everyone had to write an adventure based on it. The summer contest is going on now. There’s plenty of time for the new contest, August 1, so get your ass in gear and write something!

This 8 page adventure describes twenty rooms. A shrine to a titan, it’s full of weird little things and some decent imagery, at times. Good formatting helps comprehension, but it seems a little thematically off, or, maybe, the theming, strong in places, doesn’t carry through.

Malrex uses a format in which each room gets a little paragraph of text, a couple of sentences, that describes the general features of room. Things that one might see or experience when they first glimpse it. He then follows up with some bullet points that detail those various features. Further each bullet tends to start with the feature in question, making it easy to locate. For example, room 17 has a big red crystal in the middle of it and a floor full of thousands of earthworms. The text description leads off with “a massive redish-glowing crystal juts …” IE: that’s the first thing the party will notice and so that’s the first thing in the text description. It’s followed by the swarming earthworm situation. The bullets follow this up with “Moving through the room …”, describing the earthworm situation. We could quibble and say that “The earthworms require …” to lead off the bullet, but “moving” is good enough, besides, there’s only two bullets, one for the worms and one for the crystal. The crystal bullet starts with “The crystal attracts …” In both cases it’s fairly easily, through a glace, to tell which bullet is appropriate for the thing being followed up on.

As I’ve stated repeatedly, the ability to scan the room quickly by the DM at the table is a critical feature of usability. This does that. An initial “what the party sees/experience” followed by bullets that make follow up question/answer action/reaction play easy for the DM to handle. This isn’t the only way to format a good room, for usability purposes. There are probably numerous ways to accomplish that goal, but this IS one of the easiest ways for a designer to implement, especially when they are transitioning from the Bad Old Ways of wall of text to a format that encourages usability. I think it’s easy to describe to someone newly interesting in usability and fairly easy to implement.

Note also that the crystal isn’t big, it’s MASSIVE. This is a key point also. English being an incredibly descriptive language, using word slike big, small, large, old … they just don’t bring the overloaded context that richer adjectives and adverbs bring. Following up on this point, Malrex does something that is quite advanced … he plays with the language. “The floor moves on its own accord” or ten bedraggled and wounded men and women reach towards the 20’ tall ceiling” in the case of some statue columns. Another statue screams defiance at the heavens. Strong allusions and imagery that evoke images in the DM’s head. That, in turn, helps create a vibe for the DM that they are then inspired to communicate to the players. This runs in defiance to the failed-novelist style that many designers employ, where the spew endless words on the page in order to attempt to generate the same effect. More isn’t better, and leveraging the DMs imagination through short, bursty evocative writing is generally the better, though harder, solution. Gaps in the description, the creation of mystery, is what fires the imagination.  The less you know about the Pukel-men the more your minds fills in, or doesn’t, and the stronger the vividness. In this adventure when braziers flame to life it causes darkness to hide behind columns. Good stuff without droning on.

Interactivity is great, with levers to pull, statues missing limbs, mole-men to communicate with, and other features. Interactivity is more than combat and gives the players something to actually explore and do in the dungeon, besides loot and kill, is a key feature of D&D. Be it social situations or exploratory, designers often pay lip-service to this key pillar without getting it right. But this gets it right. And any dungeon with a “Scroll of Apologies” to sign your name to is ok in my book. 🙂

It does fall down some though in overall theming. While it starts strong, with giant statue/columns reaching towards heaven, and others whispering secrets about the titan, that titanic theme disappears in other places and the rooms come off, while interesting and evocative, as not really following up on this initial olympian/titanic imagery. Giant worms, hissing mole-men, and writing thousands of worms on the floor are all great also, but perhaps more consistency in musky/dirty flooring and so on would have helped in that other sub-section of the dungeon. It needs just a bit more both in the dirt-section and the titanic-section, to carry the theming consistently within those sub-sections.

Here and there a bit more could have been included. For example, one section has statues whispering secrets about the titan, but there no indication of what those are. A few bullets, or an appendix, would have served the DM well and perhaps dropped hints to other areas of the dungeon. Players love it when their paying attention reaps rewards.

Good magic items, great cross-referencing of the text for those missing statue limbs, etc, show that Malrex knows his shit.

You can pick this up on Malrex’s blog.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 7 Comments

The Cistern of the Three-Eyed Dwarves

By Grutzi
Tiny Pink Tentacle Publishing
Levels 3-4

… Lightning strikes unaturally often, sometimes even from a clear sky, people have strange dreams and all metal seems to be charged, throwing sparks at the slightest touch. There have even been reports of wild magnetism around the town! The case is clear for the rulers of Graycoast: Someone or something is using the heretical forces of electricity.

This 34 page adventure details a 20 room dungeon in about thirteen pages. It plays with a new descriptive style to try and communicate information in short, pertinent bursts to the DM. The theming is a bit idiosyncratic and the word choices could be better in places, but a solid adventure.

Awhile ago I went and created an adventure design forum, linked off of my review blog. It was supposed to help me organize for another project. Then I went and got busy and essentially abandoned it. The users, to their credit, are still there and had an adventure design contest. (I think they are running another one right one, for summer, in the Project Workshop forum) This was one of the entries.

All entries used the same map. It’s color-coded to help with comprehension, has different elevation areas noted on it, and has enough interconnections, in a twenty room map, to allow for at least a bit of exploration elements to adventures. My only negative would be the the brown floors and black walls of the cave areas tend to run together more than I care for.

This adventure contains not only the dungeon but a little wilderness region, about 3 miles by 3 miles. The region is torn by polluted water, contaminated by heavy metals.  The knights of the smashing hammer, a steam religion, won a religious war against the followers of the cult of the electricity. Clearly, some idiosyncratic theming. The cult is in the dungeon and the steam knights are camped out nearby, searching for them. There are weird machines in the dungeon/town, and some electricity traps in the dungeons, but it doesn’t go full on overboard in to steam knight armor or anything like that. It’s more a fire religion/water religion sort of thing, with stuff manifesting as magical effects, rather than true technology. So a kind of pretext theming rather than explaining. A little jarring at first, but easy enough to get used to and, like I said, it doesn’t go full on silly.

For this adventure instance, it uses about one page per room, a little more in some places and a little less in others. Single column, but not really an issue. Single column is an issue when your eyes need travel all the way across the page to read. That’s not really the case in this because of the bullet-list style format used.

This style will be the most noticeable thing about the adventure at first glance. It uses little icons, instead of bullets, to denote what the text is referring to. So a little eyeball is what you first see when you enter the room. A little magnifying glass is what details you see if you search something further. A litt treasure chest or gears call attention to the treasure or trap, and so on. Thus the single column is mitigated by bullets and the bullets (icons really, they are too large for bullets) help you locate information.

It’s an interesting idea that I think needs a little more work. It FEELS like it’s taken just a little too far. The whitespace, bolding, full-line-separators, and icons/bullets don’t quite live up to the platonic idea of easy to use. It’s not the full on “must include all sections for every room” shit that Dungeon Magazine sometimes did, but neither does the separation produce the clarity that I think was the end state goal. A little playing around with the formatting might help. It’s not bad, and as a first shot at a format is a great first attempt result, but it’s also not the solution. It may be, on reflection, that the organization is centered around the icons/bullets/sections. A more conventional style, using the icons to call attention, might produce a better effect. I don’t know, I’m just talking out loud.

Anyway, good interactivity here. The map is conducive to catwalks, lava pits and things to get shoved off of in combat. Treasure stuffed in cracks, “I look up” situations, fun little things to explore and investigate abound in this. Some treasure is interesting, other is a part of the environment/machines that you can steal. In one case there’s a secret door hidden behind a statue, with the statue details calling attention to the door. Little clues that help lead attentive players to more interesting outcomes. It’s got the interactivity desired.

It makes good use of cross-referencing to point the DM to pages with more information on NPC’s or curses, etc. Finally, there are also points where what you BEYOND the room you are in show up. You can see blue light in the distance down a hallway, that sort of thing. This shows a real sense of the designer picturing the rooms as a whole and how they work together.

There are some minor misses here and here, beyond the bullet/icon tuning issue. The intro/background is a little bullet crazy, something I saw in that Masque of the Worms review. The text block is still a good way to convey general information. Bolding & bullets work great to call attention to specific text you need to reference during actual play.

There’s also some misplaced text/information, specifically in the wilderness areas is where I noticed it. Three or four bullets describe a little town, just enough for a little character. But, in the dungeon, there’s a note about a rumor you can pick up at that town. That would have been better in the town. Likewise a tower getting struck by lightning frequently … better in an overview than the specific tower description. Likewise the time it takes to search a hex only exists in the one hex where the dungeon is located. Better that be general information for when the party searches other hexes also, right?

The writing could also be kicked up a notch or two. A “small wooden box” is under a bed at one location. Ok, sure, I guess. Small, Wooden, and Box are all fairly generic words. “Six double bunk beds stand at the walls.” This isn’t the most evocative test ever.  Big, old, large, small, there are better adjectives and adverbs that convey more imagery.

But, not bad, especially for the timelines I think the contest involved. I’d run this before I ran a thousand other adventure I’ve reviewed.

This is free at DriveThru, with a PWYW attached a full page count preview. Check it out!

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 16 Comments

(5e) Creeping Cold

By Ian McGarty and Jayson Gardner
Silver Bulette
Levels 1-5

In Creeping Cold, the players find themselves trapped at a remote waystop with a group of travellers and employees. As the days creep into nights, a mystery unfolds as creatures and people begin turning up dead. Who could be behind the murders? Will the characters find out? Will they survive? Or will their bodies be uncovered by the next group of adventurers seeking shelter from the Creeping Cold?

This forty page adventure uses 24 pages to describe being snowed in at an inn, when bodies start to show up. It ends with the party trekking through the snow to track down a missing girl, to end up in a small cave lair where they kill a were. Decent summary sheets are present, along with walls of text and LONG read-aloud. A S&W version is also available.

I was surprised when I cracked this one open. There is a summary sheet with all of the NPC’s in the inn, to aid in running the social portion, along with a timeline and a summary of winter/cold rules to assist the DM in running the adventure. That’s great; it shows an understanding of prepping materials for the DM to assist them in running the game. This continues with summary sheets details various information for various skill checks at different success levels. That’s all great; it puts what you need in an easy find and reference location. Big NPC social situations, in particular, benefit from summary sheets, and putting the scenario-specific rules and timelines on the summary sheet also illustrates the kinds of things a designer can do to help the DM at the table.

To top it all off, it says something to the effect of “make sure and award situational bonuses for creative play during the investigation.” I love it when 5e D&D is run like this, as opposed to boring old “the rulebook has all knowledge and must be followed religiously!”

It also is smart about the map of the inn. A map, with room names on it for the DM, showing various large items in the room, augmented with descriptions of each room in something akin to, but not exactly like, room/key format.  This is an exploratory dungeon, it’s an investigation in an inn. Room 7 tells us nothing but “Franks room” tells us what we need to know when the party goes off to search Frank’s room. We can find it instantly instead of digging through the text until we stumble on to room 7.

And then the designer messes it all up.

There are mountains of read-aloud. A column in some situations, representing something happening during the timeline. There is NO way in HELL my players are gonna let me read that much. I’d get interrupted in a hot second. I guess I can allow a small pass for a scripted event, but this comes off more naturally with NPC reactions and bullets for information imparted, or something similar. That leads to a much more naturalistic environment for play.

Further, the text, in most places outside of the summaries, come off as a wall of text. Bolding, whitespace, indents, bullets, etc are not used at all to break things up and pull out important information. It’s all “let me read this long paragraph and hold it all in my head.” Not good. This extends to the cold rules summary page, which needs bolding and better formatting to call out the important stuff and/or  a reduction in “padding” text to concentrate on the pertinent details. “If a creature’s hands are mildly affected by frostbite then they have a -1 to attack rolls” could better communicated. Frostbite – Hands – -1 attack or some such. IE: an actual reference.

It also has to fight against the default D&D spell list, full of divination, curse removal and the like. It’s hard to have a plot with the standard D&D spell list, you have to target low levels. This DOES do that, but it also handwaves that the were is a special type that normal stuff doesn’t work on to help get around the issue.

Finally, the summary sheet for the NPC’s could be better. It tries to concentrate on the their goals and a few personality traits, which is great. That’s what it should do. It also misses in that area though .One NPC is highly superstitious but that’s missing from the summary. Self-assured, cocky, rude, SUPERSTITIOUS would have been better than just the first three alone. That alone adds a lots to the NPC and should be a shame to miss. Also “infected” would have helped some. About half, I’d say, are missing that key trait. “Shrieking” is a great character trait, mentioned in the text description, for example, and the “excitable” word chosen. Both, together, make a strong NPC in summary.

Still, a much better effort than the first few Bullete adventures I reviewed. Getting the read-aloud under control, as well as the wall of text issues, would go a long way to bumping this up. The extra issues, like the NPC summaries, are really just tweaking and hard edits.

This is $10 at DriveThru. There is no preview. Bad publisher! No cookie for you!

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 1 Comment


By Simon Forster
Sky Full of Dust

The Spire. A towering edifice a mile high and nearly a third wide at its base. This conical spike pierces the fertile soil of a small valley, standing before a narrow pass that cuts through the Perilous Mountains. From a distance the Spire is as black as night, but upon close inspection it is made of dark volcanic glass, seamless. Openings lead inside, to dark levels that rise high, stretching from its Roots and the obsidian tunnels that criss- cross underground, to an interior garden and woodland. Higher still are levels where water is collected from rainfall, feeding a waterfall that waters the woods inside; excess rainfall cascades down the sides of the Spire, pooling around its base to form a small lake and a river that flows down through a gully below.

How much work you gonna put in to using something you buy?

This 168 page adventure locale used a triple-column layout to describe a small adventurers town and great Spire that rises above it, full of dungeon levels. About twelves levels and about nine or so rooms per level, the overview and town finish on page 41 with the rest being all dungeon descriptions; there are no appendices. Rich, complex, and imaginative it is also maddingly frustrating and inconsistent. Generic/universal means no stats or gp values and the map/key layout is one of the worst I have ever seen. As a source of inspiration it’s great. As a usable tool, well, not so much?

If I wanted to write an adventure usable for all systems, and went in with the knowledge that you’d have to spend some time valuing treasure and stating creatures, then you’d have this adventure. It’s creative, imaginative, full of exploration and interactivity. Mystery abounds, some explained and some not. Rich with an abundance of ideas and a complex social environment it is wonderful in concept and great in execution … if you’re looking for a general regional reference/fluff/inspiration. As a device at the table not so much. Which is a euphemism. Usability-wise some parts of this are as bad, while those same areas, maps for instance, or ok in other areas.

Ok, massive obsidian spire, with some dungeon levels. Around it is a town, built up from adventurer support. It’s got three churches more friendly than frenemies. It’s got bandit gangs, pickpocket gangs, smuggler gangs, merchant guilds, cults and more. It has A LOT going on. The perfect adventurers town. Party shows up, goes in to the dungeon, and as they come out to rest, etc, little sub-plots and other individuals show up. People met in the dungeon have connections outside of it. Want to get your hands on X? Then go see Bob over in the shantytown. The town is built around interactivity with the party. It concentrates on things that the party will want to, or may want to, interact with. And then it adds some relationships and complications to those things. And thus adventures outside the dungeon are born, sub plots, complications, fun. It’s fucking great. I could go on and on about the peculiarities of the churches, people, and places. They are rich, easy to grasp, and focused on players interactivity. Exactly as things should be. Events and personalities abound.

The dungeon levels are themed and are similar to the town. They are oriented towards actual play and interactivity. There are social opportunities aplenty. Rich encounters with exploration elements emphasized. Things to mess with. Places to loot. Creatures to talk to. Problems to solve. This is exactly the sort of thing you want in an adventure. Exactly.

Well, except for the usability. That sucks. A lot.

Simon had some usability ideas. First, two-page spreads. Facings pages for each room, a map and a descr, with maybe some going a little over for supplemental information. Great idea! He is also using mini-maps, so each room has a little inset map showing where it is on the big map. OMG this sucks. A lot. A lot alot. What’s missing are numberers. So the “big” level map, which doesn’t really take up the entire page, just has a layout, no numbers or anything. To find an individual room you have to flip through the pages until you find the mini-map with the correct shading that tells you that’s the room the party has just come upon. Mini-maps and shading that are pretty hard to make out at a glance. I could excuse the lack of scale & size, but, taken as a whole, it comes off as artistic inspiration of a level/room rather than a key piece of the usability puzzle, which it should be. And those individual maps are not always easy to understand. There’s one “The Den” that still makes no sense to me, I can’t figure out how the multiple rooms shown fit together and how they fit on the main map. It’s gotta be dumbly obvious and it’s not close to that.

Bolding is weird in places, not bolding something important but rather a kind of “I always bold the name ‘Church of Bob’”   The Restless Dead left this chamber years ago, the text tells us in one room. Restless Dead, the faction name, is bolded. Other places need cross-references, to lead the DM to the locations mentioned in the hint, etc.

The room text varies between good and poor. One room will go on a meandering description of history and have no real solid room descriptions or they’ll be mixed in. Another will be rock solid in terms of general overview and then paragraphs with follow-up information, making providing an overview and then following up with the players quite easy. Still others lie n the middle, unfocused in their individual writings and organization but full of rich information.

The “main entrance’ to the spire is buried in text about halfway through the book, seemingly at random. Find the right level that leads to the outside. Then find the right room on that level. Then the preamble to that room has the entrance description text, before you get to the “entrance room.” It’s as if it was written in a vacuum.

Little quests and other tasks are sprinkled throughout the dungeon. “The Church of Bob might ask you to do xxxx” says the text of a room that has xxx in it. Wouldn’t this be more appropriate in the Church of Bob text, or on a quests summary sheet? While there may be a lot fo connections and relationships the ability to to put it at the DM’s fingertips is just not there.

It’s generic. That means no monster stats and little in the way of GP values. What is a “Rain God?” That’s up to you, there’s not even an appendix to give a little overview, it’s all inline text and even that is sparse to nonexistent. Simon does have a few appendices on his blog, including a monster one, to help support this stuff. I have to wonder though if it would not have been a good idea to have a “localizer” page included for, say Gold=XP systems and so on.

And then … it switches. There will be a level with numbers that’s easy to follow. Or a level that has the room text laid out perfectly. And then it will switch back on a different level. It’s frustrating.

As is, this requires extensive highlights, note taking, study, and localization. You’ll have to be an expert on how each level works (Maestro, I’m looking at you) to run the level. That’s not great design or even good design for usability. Imaginative? Rich? Complex? Interactiv? All yes.

The PDF is $13 at DriveThru. The preview is twelve pages long. It isn’t really representative of the dungeon levels, but in reading through it you do get a good sense of the “adventurers town” and a hint of the factions and richness contained in it. You have to squint, but you can extend that richness to the dungeon as well … though I think the dungeon levels bear little resemblance to the town stuff in terms of usability, etc.

Posted in Reviews | 8 Comments