The Darkest House

By Monte Cook
Monte Cook Games
System Agnostic (Uh uh. Sure.)

That house on the outskirts of town, sitting empty behind a crumbling wall. The one people whisper about. The one that has gone unlived in for years. Sometimes a few hearty souls creep in, it is said, to see what treasures or secrets they can find. Most find nothing—just an empty old house. Some return shaken. A few don’t return at all. You’ve seen this house before. If not in this city, then in some other. You’ve heard the rumors—and if not, well, someday they’ll find you. What happens to a house when it sits alone for so many long years? What jealousies and hatreds does it quietly nurture? What whispers echo through its empty hallways? What waits, crouched within its dark rooms, hungering for the return of life? For you?

(I just yanked a quote of the Mel Brooks Stand Up Philosopher bit. Which shows you where my thinking was going)

This is 150 pages of pretension fronting about seventy rooms/pages in a haunted house. It’s been designed for online play and has some interesting themes. Atmospheric, but, ultimately, an empty experience for most I’d guess. Actual adult themes inside. Seriously. 

This thing is basically a computer program that you run, on your MAC or PC. It’s optimized for online play, although I believe a print version is available as well. I don’t think online play works well, ever, but, I’m open to the position that the tools and style of play still haven’t caught up with it. IE: We’re trying to emulate  a tabletop experience when we should we looking to facilitate something a bit different. Vassal vs Unreal. So, Monte is trying, with this, to handle the online play environment. A page with everything the DM needs on it. Descriptions for the players, DM notes, a map, some artwork for the room to share with them, and for the monsters if they are present. And some “collapsible” bullet points that you can expand when the major room elements are explore. “I look in the chest” results in the DM expanding the “chest” section for the details relevant to it. It seems like a little more clicking, which I don’t think is good, but, also, that’s probably not meaningful given that the online game does tend to be a bit slower paced. Hyperlinked to fuck and back, it’s an ok effort in the core formatting. There IS a decent amount of red/maroon text on black background. OOOO!!!! How fancy! And also unreadable. I keep finding myself having to highlight, as if to copy/paste, in order to read it. That’s not good Monte. I don’t know how the fuck anyone involved thought it WAS a good idea. Anyway. Decent cross-references and core presentation. Elements the room descriptions are done well, for scanning purposes. Bullets, whitespace, and so on. But, then, also, some rooms have PARAGRAPHS of text for the expanded bullets. And in a room with a dozen sections to expand, with long paragraphs in some of them … these seems like a miss. It’s amiss both in editing, to make the descriptions shorter and more scannable, and in formatting … following your own innovations to perhaps embed more information in deeper levels of the “tree.” I really, really, really want to hate this just for the illegality of the red on black text. I shall not though

Shall I hate thee for a summer breeze? No, shall I for the 150 pages of pretension that contain “The GM’s secrets of the house.? IE: the GM guide. It has no secrets. It does not tell you, the DM, what is going on in the house. I don’t know, maybe, four pages have some info on running the house? Some themes in the five sections of the house and what happens when the house gets mad at you. The rest of it? Bullshit. 

Monte spends a decent amount of time explaining a new RPG system that he wants you to use. So you can concentrate on “the story.” Shove it up your ass man. Your system aint better or worse than anything else. Credit where its due, you’re not shoving a plot down on our throats, imposing the designers Story on the party and DM, but, also, your system aint better or worse than D&D or CoC. He does spend a LARGE number of pages defending choices made and so on, trying to undercut the nerdrage that all of the fanboys feel for their home systems. I can only imagine what its like having everyones targets on you all the time. Anyway, this entire GM book is bullshit. The house can whatever it wants. “The mystical tools disappear lost in the house again, hidden in different places now because the house hates you” or “This essentially means that time works exactly how you, the GM, wants it to. If you don’t want to pay attention to the passage of time and then suddenly say, “It’s been a long time since you have eaten anything. Your stomach is growling,” that’s fine. If you want to keep closer track than that, that’s fine too.” So, basically, do whatever you want, as a DM. This is bullshit and when I, as a player, detect a DM doing this then I tune the fuck out.  So, 150 pages of bullshit that appraches indie garbage. LIke “Have each player think of a truth and a lie that is true for them. A truth is something tha player and character believe and the lie is something that the character believes but the players does not.” Uh huh. You see where this is going, right? Yeah, telling the DM to challenge the players, character growth, blah blah blah. Fuck off with that pretension man. Anyway, like I said, you can just throw this entire thing out. All 150 pages. It’s pretty much useless.

The house isn’t really system agnostic, as it claims. First, it wants you to convert to his system, and second, its clearly a CoC/modern horror setting. Telephones, etc are in the game. And in fact, a rining phone is a big theme. Blah blah blah “fit it in” blah blah blah. Monte handwaves this shit in order to say its system agnostic/any system, when he should really just lean the fuck in to that fact that its a horror game in semi-modern times. (Conspiracy X bitches!) 

His advice to the DM can be terribly non-specific. If you anger the house you are inflicting with a DOOM when you leave it. DOOMS such as “Terrible nightmares and night terrors” and “A physical malady, such as a limp that impedes quick movement, a back injury that flares up at the worst times, or a prominent—perhaps even animate—and disturbing scar, OR a mental malady, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome that incapacitates in moments of stress, a terrible paranoia, or a serious and lengthy bout of depression.” THis whole DOOM shit is supposed to be a major theme, selling your soul to the house for success, but its impacts are, again, just hand waved. Wrong decision. POh, oh, and lets not forget those rooms that “are placed to build dread.” Blah blah blah “its the house fucking with you” explains why you hear footsteps walking upstairs. Ok, sure, It’s horror. So Maybe. But, fuck your handwaving explanations.

The actual rooms don’t tend to be bad. And, in fact, I’d say the theming is pretty damn good. In the first section of the house The Father roams about. His description is “He appears impossibly tall, with a dark face and yellow eyes, and usually carries a massive leather belt as a weapon. He’s always angry and violent.” I’m not one for that consent checklist/trigger shit at the table, but this is bordering on needing that. Especially once Mom shows up. We gonna assume you didn’t just drop this on the players out of the blue. That would be rude of you to inflict actual adult themes in a game. So, if you can handle that … then this is well done. And I don’t say that lightly. Its got more its fair share of crappy rooms. But also its got a lot of decent puzzley rooms that dont feel too much like a puzzle. And then when the themes show up … The closest analog, I think, might be those 90’s horror games. Maybe crossed with a little Myst. The rooms are very atmospheric. The art contributes to this. The read-aloud borders on being a sentence or two too long, but it not terrible. And the actual challenges are pretty decent. 

You’re gonna have to help sell the horror, as the DM (I’m thinking specifically of the second room, a completely dark one, and the third one, with a potential ghost.) The format can be clunky at times. The GM’s guide should just be thrown away. I’m only looking at the electronic version, I have no idea how a print version would pull this off. Whoever decided on Red Text On Black should be banned forever from ever being able to share an opinion or doing design. Otherwise … if you’re cool with some adult themes, not a bad effort. Which, frankly, is NOT the conclusion I though I was going to come to when I started this review. This may be Monte’s best work in a LONG time.

I might run this. If I were looking for something to run for a few sessions, Horror Related, then I might do this. Man, I really don’t like online play. But, if I were to do it I might use this. It brnngs down some of the highbrow theme shit present in the Indie press while still retaining some of it. 

Jesus fucking help me, I think I’m giving this a No Regerts. You gotta go in to it ignoring a bunch of shit. And you gotta wanna run online. And be a good DM to convert this to your system and bring the atmosphere to life. That’s a lot of requirements.

This is $45 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. The DriveThru page gives you an idea of the artwork to be shared with the players. And the youtube video shows you a little of the “room page’ layout, with the map, art, DM text, expanding bullets, etc. Also, if you read through the product description you can get a feel for the kind of pretension you have to deal with in that book you are going to throw away. There’s nothing, though, to give you the vibe of themes, which is really too bad. That description of The Father? Go with that. You chill with that in your game?

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 20 Comments

Adventure Framework Collection #1

By Stephen Grodzicki
Pickpocket Press
No Levels

Armed with this compilation, filling your sandbox with small – medium sized adventures has never been easier. Browse the collection, throw out a few hooks, and let the players bite where they may. Whichever direction they take, you’ll be ready to handle it with aplomb.

This 245(!) page volume compiles 22 of the adventures released by the designer. As with all compilations, it can be hit or miss. Themes emerge, with great wanderer encounters and room descriptions that need trimmed with the writing beefed up to be more evocative. This work, in particular, has more than a few “gimmick” adventures. I don’t know that I would ever buy a compilation?

Yeah yeah, it says “framework” and not “adventure.” But I think they are adventures, not frameworks, so I’m reviewing them like adventures.

Two of the works in this, Fane of the Frog God and Whitestone Tower, have been previously reviewed by me. Go check them out if you want a more in-depth covering of the adventures. They are decent enough reviews of decent enough adventures and the commentary there holds well for this volume.  I’m going to do a bad job in this review.

I’d like to cover two highlights of the adventures: the art and the wanderers. I seldom comment on art; I find most art in adventures worthless. Ideally, it would compliment the adventure, helping to bring it to life, as everything in an adventure should. The art credits in this are all over the place, but, there are some highlights. The monster art tends to be quite good, really bringing them to life. It does what good art should, helping bring the adventure to life for the DM, contributing to the evocative nature aspect of the adventure needed for the DM to convey things effectively to the players. To a lesser extent  the “general scene” art does this as well in this collection. Ruins, a tree with a skeleton on it … it helps convey a mood and they range from ok to excellent. The rest of the art tends to be the throw away stuff you see in every adventure. 

The designers wanderer tables are pretty fcking good as well. Soldiers shooting dice in an alley, An injured bear near death and not really a fighter. A beggar, getting a chamberpot dumped on his head. Even a stray cat encounter is a good one here. The energy in these little vignettes are something that I wish would also be found in the designers actual rooms/encounters. 

There are bits and pieces of other things I could talk about. NPC descriptions tend to be short and relatively good, following the three word system. In one adventure there’s a throw-away line about being hired by The Crone of Sumptown, and in another your shadows slip away from you … letting you know that things are about to get weird. These little bits and pieces, details and specificity, do wonders to bring an adventure to life. Most designers don’t come anywhere near this, and this designer sprinkles them in but a little too sparsely. 

The issue with these s that tend to be wordy. The individual rooms and encounters blow up the word count, for no good reason. In fact, The evocative writing seems to go down, quite a bit, when the rooms and encounters appear. “The face of the fortress is carved from the

mountainside, expertly cut and fashioned by the dwarven masons of old.” This is the entrance to a dungeon. It’s boring. It’s written like we’re reading a novel or series guidelines. There’s nothing useful about this description at all, for running the adventure at the table. It’s just padding. Parts of the adventures have some good bits to them. You can see them in descriptions like this one: “The tree at the centre has a skeleton nailed to it, wooden stakes hammered into the hands and forearms pinning it upright. Over time, vines have grown up around the bones, further securing them in place.” That description could be better, but its also supplemented by an good art piece. There’s this padding, and an abstraction of detail. A use of boring adjectives and adverbs, quite noticeable in the rooms proper. There are two issues here: the need to prune back the padding and the need to amp up the evocative nature of the descriptions. I will fully admit that evocative writing is hard … the hardest part of adventure design, I think. But it should be possible to prune these descriptions way back and get rid of the fluff that detracts from the good bits.

Collections are rough, because of the mish mash of adventures. This one seems particularly full of idiosyncratic adventures. One in which you play the monsters. A fey picks on the party. A zero level adventure. A roman gladiator/chariot racing one, a gang war hiring, a rooftop chase. There are some delights to be held though, or, perhaps, some better than others. An adventure involving a missing orphan and a town investigation, a couple of adventures sprinkled with the more alien of the D&D creatures … though eaters and the like. And a lot of fucking adventures where the party gets hired to escort someone to explore something. I guess its inevitable, when you’re producing so much, so reach a bit in the easy bucket. 

I’m not a fan of the abstracted treasure used in these. “Roll twice on the moderate valuables table.” This is not the evocative treasure that appeals to the PLAYERS that I’m looking for. The designer does the work. That’s the rule. If I did the work then we wouldn’t need the designer.

Cultists in Crows Keep, Folds Between Worlds, Red Moon Harvest … these are some of the more appealing ones to me. Mostly because they break away from the “Stark Dwarven Halls” that are impossible to do well … figuratively or literal stark dwarven halls, that is … 😉

This is $20 at DriveThru. The preview is thirteen pages. You get to see an overview of the adventures and part of the first one … which has that pretty nifty crucifixion tree that I liked so much … even in its iffy form.

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

Gravis Town Blues

By Stephen Thompson
Laidback DM
Levels 1-4

In the frontier mining town of Gravis all is not as it seems. A sapphire shipment has been stolen. The river boat transporting it disappearing without a trace. Thieves. Terrorists. River Raiders. A locked down virus-infected lumber town. A forbidden temple crypt. A lost ship yard that may hold the answers. What is the long-hidden secret of Gravis Town? And how far will you go to answer it?

This 68 page booklet uses about forty pages to describe about five “mini-adventures” based around some kind of convoluted plot. Magical ren-faire, conversational writing, long paragraphs with info buried in them, extraneous backstory padding in room descriptions and a casual disregard for lore results in a mess. And it’s not an OSR adventure. It’s 5e with a page or so on how to , generically, “convert” to OSR. Which is non-specific.

Breakfast this morning was anchovies on toast and a Triton Railsplitter IPA. You see, this is going to be a hellish week. I’m at the end of my DriveThru request. list. Which means overpriced, long, and pretentious works. Since I’m blowing $100 on adventures this week, it seems like a great time for you to all join the Patreon; I’d hate to not be a hypocrite.This looks like a kickstarter dude releasing a kickstarter adventure. So it looks like it did well and no doubt his fans and followers are happy. I am not. This is a steaming pile.

I’m not super in to D&D lore. For the most part I don’t give a shit. Mirroring, I guess, my views on art in adventures. I’d love for it to be great and inspiring, but I recognize its not going to be. Lore, in very broad strokes, is just something you take for granted. IE: it’s a fantasy world. If its not gonna be that then maybe make sure people know that up front. But, the small stuff? Who cares. And thus, I will now botch the lore in this adventure because it if soooo fucked up.

Basically the Laidback DM is doing whatever the fuck he wants without much if anything in the way of pretext. Shit just don’t make sense at a very basic level. You get to break the rules, but you need to break ONE rule, and have things follow from that. If I just think you’re doing whatever you want then there’s a different issue. You just don’t give a fuck. 

In one of these mini-adventures someone hires a tribe of Sahuagin to raid the boat they work on. An elf. ANd the fucking text tells us that Sahuagin hate elves with a passions, but that the deal was just too good to pass up. Serious? No? How about a wight in a tower that serves as the guard for the dude that lives there. What the fuck man?! Does tone mean the fuck nothing anymore? Orcs, goblins, bugbears, hobgoblins all attacking in a group as a happy little family. With harpy air support. Also, did I mention the magical ren-faire? Then there’s the golem. Sitting on a safe. WIth a bomb in it. And continual light torches lighting everything. Everyone in town has running water and flush toilets thanks to a magical gnome machine. And, in the town hall, all of the windows and balconies have magical glyphs on them that (explode, summon monsters, etc.) Mixed humanoid groups abound. Because the designer just don’t give a shit.

Which means … this is a 4e adventure. Someone tell me it’s not. Someone convince me that Laidback DM was not a heavy 4e dude/learned with 4e/etc. The mini-adventures are three pages each. A double page spread map with little pointers to the rooms with the monster in it that attacks you. Yeah., that’s fucking 4e all the fucking way. The blight on the game that keeps on giving. Look, you can like 4e all the fuck you want, just don’t call the fucking thing D&D. 

Let’s see here. A couple of paragraphs in backstory and history that mean noting to the adventure IN PLAY, in the middle/start of a room description. Of course it has that! FOurteen pages till we start an adventure? Of course! Long sections of italics? Yup, it sure does! A couple of manticore opponents at this level? Yup! Monsters have a 10% chance of having a magic sword or shield? Sure thing! The town has 5000 people and 500 are guards? Sounds fine. The mines are 30 miles away but everyone comes home on the weekends to see family? Yup! Fancy fucking fonts abound. Perhaps the most silly being the intro section, impossible to read, that tells me the entire point is to make my job as a DM easier. Ha!

Hmmm … this rooms says the monsters in it will respond if they hear fighting in the corridor outside of it … another room encounter. I’m gonna magically look at this room while running the other fucking room? No. We put that shit in the room it matters in … the corridor. The bandits in the basement of the town hall don’t want shit, they just attack, with no personalities at all .. even though they are surrounded by hundreds of zombies. There’s no tension. The Laidback DM does nothing to build a tense zombie siege/horde situation. “Make a DC 15 stealth check to sneak pas the 345 zombies.” Fuck off, man. Long fucking sections of text, written in a very conversational style, with a bolded word here and there. You can’t fucking run a room that way, not effectivly. Much less a town. Dude MIGHT be a good DM, I don’t know. But I do know he’s a shitty adventure writer.

There’s a decent part where bugs burst forth from a dudes stomach. Another part where a zombie is running up against a wall, meaninglessly. Oh, and the humanoid horde has a couple of commoners as prisoner, using them as human shields. Nice!  There’s your good parts of this 68 pages of crap.

The best example, of the kind of adventure this is, is the intro text for each adventure. For the first one it reads “ (Two paragraphs removed) You and your friends chat amiably about the town and your adventuring prospects, when you overhear an argument near you. Two burly mercenaries are disagreeing about something. It only takes a moment for the dispute to involve others. …” This is what D&D is to the Laidback DM. Just read some abstracted text and start a fight. Whats the argument? Roleplay? Specificity? Nope/ Just yell “Initiative!” and run yor fucking combat. I’m happy he found his following.

This is $25 at DriveThru. The preview is the first thirteen pages. Just fluff background stuff that is unlikely to be needed. Bad preview.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 15 Comments

Hillfort of the Pagens

By Andrew Cowley
Brittannia Games Design Ltd
Chivalry & Sorcery 5
Levels 10+

An advanced game, exploring the idea of corruption as a force, represented by demons and

otherworldly entities.  The game takes the characters on a surprise visit to the Royal Hunting Lodge on the outskirts of the mighty Cordelon Forest where they are sucked into a world like none other they have ever seen.

This 84 page adventure details makes a lot of wrong decisions. Emblematic of the modern style, it looks nice but glosses over the play in favour of … I don’t know? I seriously don’t know why or how it is as long as it is. A lot of conditionals?

I’m deep in to my request list now, hence a C&S adventure showing up. There’s a reason these things have not been reviewed. This adventure starts with three pages of fiction … which does not endear me to grabbing it to review …

I’m struck by two things in this adventure, once of which is common these days and one not so much. Second, there’s an almost mania in not actually covering the core parts of the adventure. In any adventure there are things that stand out a pivotal moments. And to generalize, in any encounter there are aspects to the room, or encounter, that are clearly meant to be why it exists. THE MAIN THING. And yet there’s this thing going on in this adventure in which these elements are glossed over. Its strange, to see the most important parts of the encounter given almost no words at all. I seem to recall the WoTC adventures doing this a lot, Tiamat in particular, when I reviewed it. 

And, firstly, this thing is emblematic of all of the adventures published by the minor game systems. You know what I’m talking about, all of the RPG’s other than D&D. C&S, Cthulhu, Runquest, basically every third party publisher of core RPG systems. There’s an emphasis on the product looking good. Glossy pages. Nice art. Layout that looks nice … but is essentially non-functional. While wandering around GenCon I would pick up A LOT of adventures and thumb through them and see the same thing over and over and over again. As if everyone is copying off of each other. Or, more to the point, as if they are going through the motions of producing an adventure, hitting the surface level stuff. The Trade Dress stuff in the OSR comes to mind.

There is an interesting little paragraph or two on Demons & Devils. On how they don’t actually want to kill people because that would work against their main purpose, corruption of the soul and spirit. After all, you don’t want them going to heaven, you want them to be corrupted. A nicel take and another aspect to them that is glossed over. I’m forced to think, again, about my monster book project that covers things like this with monsters instead of the mundane aspects of killing them and where they live. And now, on to the bad!

First, though, my usual bitching. Long sections of italics read-aloud. Just like everyone else does. Long read-aloud is a non no and long sections of italics are a nono. We don’t make things hard on the DM and we don’t compel the players to pull out their phones.

But, now, my gripes.

It’s like the designer doesn’t want to cover the core concepts of the adventure. Corruption, ad so on. There’s a part, early on, where the party is at an inn. There’s not much description, in spite of their being A LOT of words. And I don’t mean just the inn, but what goes on at the inn. We get the following: “Many of the NPCs will have tails to tell, of Trolls and Dragons, who have slaughtered even the mightiest of knights and heroes. Try to instil a feeling of desperation and fear from the NPCs in the group, making it infectious to the player characters.” This IS the heart of this part of the adventure. It’s why the inn is here. And yet this is all we get. There’s nothing more. The inn is five pages long, including the NPC’s, but they are little better. No stories for them to tell. Just “he was in war and got scars there.” Give me a sentence. Give me something to riff off of. You’re not dictating the game by doing this, you’re helping the DM run it. And then there’s a section that says something like “Do some gambling. Do some brawls.”  And I’m not really being an ass here, that’s all there is. Why? WHo’s brawling with who? Why? Give me some grudges, a cheat, something. You need something to hang your hat on and it’s just not here.

A core part of the adventure is finding a camp at the base of the titular fort. It’s got some missing soldiers in it, engaged in a bacchanalia. We get “The camp is a tough roleplaying encounter, the gamesmaster needs to prey on the characters beliefs and vows and try to get them to say or do something against these vows, beliefs or dogmas. That is, the people here are placed to try to corrupt the characters away from their beliefs.” But that’s it. There’s nothing more for the DM to riff off of. Oh, there are a lot more words, but to no effect in gameplay. THIS is supposed to be the heart of this encounter, and a major theme in this adventure. But there’s nothing here to help the DM run it. 

But there is text. Paragraphs of text. Columns of text. PAGES of text. Encounters, rooms, that take two pages in some cases. His is not runnable. You can’t run this at the table. You need a highlighter, notes, and copious time ahead of time to prepare it. And then I suspect its STILL a struggle. No dout the designer can run it, it is meaningful to them. They created it. But for the rest of us? No.

This is clearly a product with a lot of work that has gone in to it. And, yet, it misses the mark in almost every way possible. 

This is $15 at DriveThru. The preview is the first six pages, enough for the title page, contents, and the start of the fiction piece. It shows you nothing of the actual adventure, making it quite hard to make an informed purchasing decision. Unless, of course, you can recognize the Tyle 2 demon from a mile away.

Posted in Reviews | 7 Comments

Return to Wavestone Keep

By Kevin Conyers
Flooded Realms Adventure Press
Levels 1-3

Fear the waves, the tides and the sea itself! A fearsome tower of stone roams the oceans, delivering its deadly cargo of lizardmen wherever it happens to land!

This eight page adventure, written in three weeks, features nine rooms in a floating keep full of lizardmen. It’s a pretty standard affair, with little to either recommend or condemn. Meh.

Wavestone Keep keeps on giving! We have a late context entry here … from the designer of the original Wavestone Keep! And the verdict is: it’s meh. Which is good news! That’s a massive improvement! This is the kind of adventure that I find the hardest to review. Nothing really to gripe about or praise, so I narrow in on a few points. And I’m going to do that here. I wouldn’t run this, but, if it appeared in one of the Lair Compendium adventure booklets I also wouldn’t go out of my way to slam it.

So, we’re going to take a look at a couple of the room entries. Here’s the first one:

“The twin towers which flank the entry door. The are each 20’ tall and manned by two lizardmen guards. The guards stand on the roof of the tower. They are each armed with a throwing spear and a club. They have a 1in 10 chance to identify approaching ships as not belonging to their tribe, and a 4 in 6 chance to spot intruders approaching along the trail. Each tower has an alarm bell which they will ring, alerting their companions in room 4. After ringing the bell, they will attack intruders on the trail with their throwing spears before running down the stairs for melee. The entry hall is made of finely carved wavestone, and engraved with idyllic depictions of the sea, fishing vessels and sailors.”

It’s padded up. The first three sentences could be one, trimmed down. And then we’ve got a kind of reaction text that is also padded up. FInally, we have the description at the end. Normally, I want to see a description up high, first thing, but in this case the first thing the party is going to encounter is going to be the lizardmen, so they make sense to come first. Trimming up the text we could get to something like:

“Twin towers, 20’ tall, flank the door, with two lizardmen on top with a javelin and club. They spot intruders in boats 1 in 10, and on the trail 4 in 6. They ring an alarm bell, summoning room 4, then attack.” We’ve lost nothing in this, and it’s much easier to handle at play during the game. The final line, the description, is trying to be evocative but comes off a little bland. This is, I think, the hardest part of adventure writing, creating a terse but evocative description. The current one is a little abstracted and it could perhaps be improved with an actual description, using more adjectives and adverbs. (I note this is a theme here. Room two is “finely carved wavestone, and engraved with scenes of great navel battles between ships and sea monsters.” Again, abstracted.)

Room four is labeled as Barracks, with the description “Originally a barracks for the noble’s personal guard, now used by the lizardmen as a sleeping area. It is a roughly hewn room, containing a 9 sleeping mats. Kelp Tail sleeps in the section to the north, where the guard captain was supposed to sleep. At any time, there are three normal lizardmen here asleep. Kelp tail only sleeps here at night, else he is in 9. The door separating Kelp Tail’s area is made of a giant oyster shell. When sleeping, he keeps his Staff of Striking under his cot.”  Again, note the padding, through repetition of the room use, and a description of “what it used to be.” Trimming this up we could get something closer to “Roughly hewn with nine masses of rotting seaweed nests. Kelp Tail sleeps in the north section at night, with his door made of a massive opalescent oyster shell. Three lizardmen are half buried in their nests, asleep.” Shorter, more evocative. I did this in five seconds; I recommend agonizing over the descriptions and working them to death to get something really evocative that captures the feeling you are going for.

Interactivity here is pretty minimal, with most things being combat. The wandering table has a few decent entries, like a giant sleeping croc or a kobold having stolen a silver piece, intermixed with some normal “just the monster” entries. I harp, sometimes too much, on good wanderers, but a mix, like this, gets the job done. 

So, an also ran. Better room descriptions, cut the padding, and some interactivity improvements and this one could muster up No Regerts.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $1. The preview is six pages, and you get to see some rooms, so, good preview.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 15 Comments

Isle of Eldisor

By James Mishler & Jodi Moran-Mishler
James Mishler Games
Labyrinth Lord
Level ?

Jordvann was once a land dedicated to Law and Good, until the rise of Eldisor, the Devil’s-Son, who together with his hordes of giants, dragons, trolls, ogres, orcs, and goblins conquered the land, reduced the people to slavery, and brought down Fimbul Winter, which caused empires to fall world-wide. Eldisor ruled for 400 years, until he was slain or brought low during a rebellion of his captains, the Old Evils. Fimbul Winter ended, and civilization rose again elsewhere, while the survivors on the Isle of Eldisor sought to stay alive between the warring Old Evils.

This 76 page hex crawl might better be described as a regional setting. And, maybe, I’m actually reviewing a regional setting instead of a hex crawl. I note, however, that the hex descriptions are lacking in situations and are more places to explore … if the DM has time to quickly make a three level dungeon map.

So, Let’s take our own world, in, say the sixteenth century, in terms of geopolitics. But, lets set it in time of the norman invasion of England, in terms of tech, etc. And let’s add in dwarves and elves and shit. And then word gets out that ATlantis has been discovered and everyone races to colonize the new world … then advance the timeline by fifty years or so and go adventuring there. That’s what you’ve got here. I’d call this a campaign setting, more than a hexcrawl. As such, I’m not really going to cover MUCH of it, since I don’t review campaign settings. I don’t know how.

So, yeah, there’s a lot of talk about The Colonies. And you start as a part of the The Colonies. The framing of this is strange. I’m all for a West Marches game, and Points of Light and so on. But when you use the word Colonies it brings subtext and meaning with it. You want that in your game? Maybe? I don’t know. I usually just want to stab shit in the throat.

This thing is listed as a hexcrawl, Cyclopedia and Gazetteer. It is a gazetteer and cyclopedia for sure. You get some backstory, a description of the major parts of the island and surrounding seas, some weather, the local population and so on. The monsters are a little reskinned, so “Hobgoblins look a lot like small to medium-sized carnivores or omnivores, such as black bears, large birds, baboons, chimpanzees, crocodiles, large dogs, goats, panthers, and so forth. Their bodies resemble those of twisted elves.” Meh, I was down for the black bear thing. I’m also down for the twisted elf thing. I dn’t really know what the two together mean, but, our humanoid pals are reskinned and very Dr Moreau … without the good doctor around. 

Eldisor is an ok place. Nothing super interesting and freaky stands out in the campaign guide. Just a solid fantasy setting that deviates a little from the Greyhawk/FR baseline. 

Hexcrawling is a different beast. The hex descriptions take up about 27 pages of this 76 page adventure. Each is a short little entry. And, this is where I take exception.

I don’t think this is a hexcrawl? If so, its a bad one? 

Hexcrawls are a different beast. You want something that has a lot of situations in it. You want the party interacting with folks and doing things and solving problems and making things worse and leveraging shit. Wilderlands is the classic example. For more, I do a comparison of Wilderlands, the Stater crawls, and Isle of the Unknown where I go in to more detail on what makes a good crawl. This, alas, is not it.

“WRECK OF THE ZEESLANG. This sunken large sailing ship houses 56 Drowned Zombies, 7 Brine Ghouls, 5 Sunken Wights, and 2 Deep Sea Wraiths.” That’s not a situation. That’s monsters at a location. And the vast, VAST majority of hex descriptions fall in to this category. There is a decent number of “village” or “stronghold” listings as well, with 450 orcs and two chifeten types things going on. But, again, they feel static. Like “here they are!” and not much else going on. This is the Isle of the Unknown style of “in this hex is a rock.” sort of descriptions.

There is a random ruins/strongholds generator for the DM to use. FOr each hex roll and see if there’s a minor village/settlement or stronghold in it, and then roll a few more times to see what race, if there’s a monster, etc. 

This is ok, but, again, I think it would be nicer if a little more thought were given to it. Asa DM you’re going to need to roll up a few of these in advance … there’s little chance you could do something on the fly in a meaningful manner. So, as a designer, roll up a page or two othem, like, two lines each, and give them a couple of words of descriptions. Keywords or something, I don’t know. Just something to get things kickstarted. 

And, our hexes proper, follow this example. We’re told, A LOT, that there’s a three level labyrinth, or some such, in this hex. Obviously the DM is going to need to do something with that. In advance.

So, is it a hexcrawl? It says it is. I’m going to say no. This is a campaign setting. And the map is a hex map. And major settlements/sites are on the map. And there’s a way to put some other stuff in hexes. But, it’s not a hexcrawl. There are not situations going on. The hexes don’t really interact. And, in fact, I might say that the hexes themselves are not the most interesting hex descriptions in the world. 

I might liken this to Blackmarsh, from Conley. And I don’t mean that in terms of quality … I think Blackmarsh is quite well done. But, rather, I don’t think of Blackmarsh as a hexcrawl either. (I think it IS one, but it doesn’t occupy that space in my head) I think of it as a regional campaign setting … with a hex crawl. The hex descriptions are there to augment my own dungeon placement and stuff. IE: Just add your own shit. 

This is $15 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages and shows you a lot of the hex descriptions. Good preview! Even though the hexcrawl is not the point of attraction, I Think, in the product. 🙂 Maybe I’m just like my mother; she’s never satisfied either …–Gazetteer?1892600

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

Wyvern Songs

By Brad Kerr
Swordlords Publishing
Four Adventures, of Levels 1-6

THE SINISTER SECRET OF PEACOCK POINT Character level: 1. An introductory adventure for both new players and Old-School veterans alike. Explore an insect-haunted thieves guild secreted beneath a lighthouse. Claim the loot but beware the Skitterlord! FABIEN’S ATELIER Character levels: 2-4. Solve the puzzles in a flying, malfunctioning wizard’s workshop before it crashes to the ground. The sequel to Hideous Daylight (but can be run independently). THE SINGING STONES Character levels: 3-5. Investigate a mystical valley where stones can speak and monsters roam. THE DREAMING CALDERA Character levels: 5-6. Infiltrate a volcano full of monsters and stop them from constructing a dream-eating chaos god out of garbage.

This 112 page book features four adventures, from level one to level six. Written clearly, easy to scan and follow, full of interesting folks and situations. Every adventure here is better than 99% of the crap published, with a couple of them standing out even from that. A little whimsical without turning silly, this is what you were hoping for when you bought an adventure. 

It’s hard to know where to start with this one. Maybe FEELINGS and tone. My son said once, as a kid, when I asked why he didn’t want to pick out a toy at the store “they are never as fun as the ads make them seem.” Ouch! There’s a bit of truth in there to stab you through the heart … no matter your age. Who hasn’t bought something, full of excitement and expectations, only to be crushed with disappointment after? That could be the fucking moral of this blog, given my inability to deal with expectations. You buy an adventure, full of hope, and are plunged in to despair and disappointment when opening to the first page. 

But not this. This collection is what you were hoping for. You open the pages and are delighted. You can tell what is going on. It’s interesting. You WANT to run it. This is what every adventure ever written aspires to be: not a disappointment to its line of forefathers stretching back to the beginning. 

In tone, it’s veering off from the realistic to the more whimsical side of the spectrum. It’s not silly. It’s not whimsical. But it’s leaning, to varying degrees in the four adventures, to that side. It’s the D&D where Frank The beet farmer toils in the mud outside of the town gates yelling “You’re all gonna die!” and there’s a gnome smoking a pipe on a mushroom. A world where people wear bird masks and gnomes ride on the panthers. (Finally, this adventure has a couple of gnome merchants that make fucking sense and feel right!) It’s not comedy. Farce, maybe? But not extreme. It is absolutely the way I run D&D … pushing reality just a bit more. It’s fun, without TRYING to be fun.

The adventures are clear and easy to follow. The layout is clean. Good room descriptions, short and terse and evocative. Followed by bullets with bolding. And, Fuck if I know how he did it, but the layout here is  ajoy, easily one of the “cleanest” I’ve seen, with respect to readability and not seeming cluttered. The adventures all seem to use a different format, but, a little intro text followed by some other text to expand on it, in bullets, or bolding or some such, are common. Four different styles, related but different, all delivering the same effect. 

Let’s talk specificity.Many times, this is the break or break point in bringing something alive in the DMs had. Too often details are abstracted and generalized. With nothing specific to hang on to, the mind can do  nothing with it to riff on. But not here.

In adventure one, it is not a bandit gang in the lighthouse, but The Apple Bottom Gang. And, the wizard who (could) send you on this, is “Red Robbie, an elderly and exhausted wizard was robbed by a band of thieves; he scryed that his music box was taken to the lighthouse on Peacock Point; he offers a magic sword to a youthful go-getter kind enough to return it for him. “Whatever you do, DON’T open the music box.” Absofuckinglutly! This is how this goes. A bandage on his head. A swollen lump the size of a softball, blood running down it. This is EXACTLY how this sort of thing should go. Thanks to the specificity of the writing. The wanderers table, in this first, has Leggero an Apple Bottom Gang initiate and an extremely emotional teen, just returned from a job and is freaking out that everyone is dead. Startles easily and screams loudly. Fuck yeah man! Thats a fucking wanderer! OR Fish Guts, the toothless skeleton pacifist, the gangs mascot. With a horned helmet that says FISH GUTS. Pushing reality just a little more, just a little beyond what is expected. Specificity, brining those encounters to life.

And, I’d say, the first adventure isn’t even the best one. It’s probably the wilderness adventure, number three. All four are worthwhile, with that wilderness one being VERY good and the others being somewhat less than that but still great. The amount of things going on in that wilderness pointcrawl is amazing. Lots to do and see and encounters related to each other. Another one has a volcano god “waking up”, with weirdo monsters trying to help. And a floating castle that can crash to the ground in another, with a built in timer to keep things moving .. no dilly dallying with resting here! Even the town, thrown in as an afterthought, seemingly, at the end of the adventures, oozes with delight.  

This IS the adventure collection you wanted. You can, I think, just pick it up and fucking run it after five minutesof looking one of the adventures over. They are colourful, evocative, interesting, interactive and easy to run. This is what D&D is all about. Brad Kerr can go on your autobuy list now, I think.

This is $15 at DriveThru. The preview is 28 pages and focuses on that really really good wilderness crawl. It’s a good overview of the style of play, tone, formatting, and interactivity you can find within the collection. So, great preview!

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, Level 5, Reviews, The Best | 10 Comments


By Vasil Kaliman
Singing Flame
Level 1-?

DNGN #1: Weird-Fantasy Megadunegon is the first issue of a serialized zine that takes place in a megadungeon. Each issue will cover ten levels of the dungeon. It’s cover-to-cover of classic B/X monsters, magic items, encounters, secret doors, and old-school fun! It is a quick and easy resource of adventure material that a referee can use at the gaming table with no prep. DNGN is designed to work as a complete megadungeon adventure, or for levels be dropped directly into your pre-existing campaign setting.

This 44 page adventure features ten “2 page’ dungeon levels, each with about six rooms, and a “bonus adventure” at the end with a second dungeon. It’s HEAVY gonzo and, while the format is decent, the actual encounters feel almost procedural in the degree they are are on-theme and yet ultimately disconnected and unfulfilling, either seen separately or as a whole.

Yeah, how’s that bitch for a summary? 

The first of many issues, it claims, each with more levels of the DNGN. This feels like the art punk crowd found OSE and latched on to it. And I don’t mean that in the bad way. There are some fresh ideas from the art punks, and the OSE style is a decent baseline for formatting. But, ultimately, both are like buying a $800 drill and thinking it will turn you in to a carpenter; window dressing to the main event.

First, the OSE format. I like it and the rest of you dick heads who don’t can just fuck right off. We start with a room title, to orient you to the framing of what’s to come. Getting you in the mood, so to speak. Then some bolded keywords like “6 stone bowls” with some more details in parens after that, like: (12” radius). We then get some bullets to epands on the above descriptions, with their own bolded words and terse little descriptions. I think it lends itself well to scanning and fall naturally in to a “tell me more” Q/A style for play. The DM glances down, hits the bolded keywords, the players ask followup question and the DM can relate more, based o nthe paren information or the bullets. And, fucking importantly, it’s hard to fuck this shit up. Oh, it’s possible, I’ve seen it. But, also, it’s REALLY hard to turn this fucking shit in to a three paragrapgh wall of text shit fest. It kind of forces a terseness in the descriptions while leveraging the “less is more” style that I think our imaginations work best with. And, did I mention IT DOESN’T LEAD TO THREE PArAGRAPGH SHIT FEST DESCRIPTIONS? So, is it the best? Meh. It gets the job done. Do I respect the person who can craft a three sentence evocative and interactive room description in “sentence style?” Absofuckinglutly. But that number is quite rare and at least the OSE style formatting doesn’t lead to an unusable adventure. Theoretically, you could then focus on the interactivity and making the descriptions evocative.

So, on to this. I’m mildly surprised when I see, first thing in the adventure, the wandering monster table. 1d2 ACOLYTES dragging 1d3 ZOMBIES in chains. 1d4 DEEP ONES * sacrificing a human to an idol of a star god. 1d4 DUERGARS looting a charred and smoking corpse. Hey, that’s not bad! I can dig it! And then, looking depeper, only twenty entries for ten levels? And, I cherry picked some shit, there’s a lot of “they attack” on that table. Or, a merchant who has a key for sale for the nearest door? What’s that about? And, pay attention, the “what’s that about” applies to almost all of the entries, as we will soon discuss.

Ok, so, ten levels. Two pages per level. A sixish room map on one page and the facing page (digest format!) having the rooms keys. The map is clear and easy to read … but it only has six rooms also, so, meh. It does have light and  floor(?!) conditions though, for each room, on the map. Which is nice for running the dungeon, at least the light anyway. 

And the room entries? “Dead dwarf (in adventuring gear) sprawled on the floor. Bone fragments are scattered around the body.”Hmmm, I’m not sure … “Here lives a sadistic? CLERIC. He gathers his victims’ thumbs, strips the flesh away, and uses them to make bone curtains he sells to an eccentric clientele pictures/art” Oh, could it be that … “One statue in one room emits a foul odor. (entire figure is carved from human ear wax.)”  Ah, fuck me man. It is, essentially, procedurally generated. And I don’t mean a series of tables in the adventure. I mean that the entire thing is so disconnected from one another that it feels procedurally generated. There’s a theme, I guess, of some insects, and a heavy HEAVY gonzo sci-fi theme. So much so that I’m not even sure this could be classified as D&D. maybe a splugorth dungeon? Almost every room has some sci-fi in it. Anyway, the contents of a room don’t make sense. It’s like someone rolled on a sci-fi’ish version of the dungeon trappings table from the 1e DMG. Just some things in the room. And the individual rooms don’t really relate to each other. No zones or anything like that. Those acolytes? Who the fuck knows where they are going or why. That cleric? He’s got no story at all or relation to anything else in the dungeon. Just each room, individually. Almost like a funhouse dungeon. But, also, each room is not a set piece. It’s just a collection of random things. 

I’m super supportive of using tables, in a design, to help the DM spark ideas and get their imaginations going. But you can’t just write them down. You have to riff off of them, put them together. Make them work together to be larger than the sum of their parts, and, not detractfrom each other because they are all seemingly random. 

At one point, in a 30×80 room, there is a mass of vibes growing 4’ up the wall. With a purple worm hiding in them. For serious? There is no sense at all.

And the entries themselves, going back to look at them? Generic. Abstracted. The deep ones are calling for a trans-dimensional being! No. Absolutely not. They summon Cthulhu! Or one of the Great Old Ones! The Shadow People of Karth! Be fucking specific. “There is a journal in an unknown script.” Well, what the fuck does it say? I’ve got a fucking spell, that’s why!

So, the trappings are here. A “Megadungeon” with but six rooms per level. A format, but nothing to format. 

This is $8 at DriveThru. The preview is fifteen pages and shows you the maps and dungeon levels, so its a good preview.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 47 Comments

The Dread Lands

By Christian Blair
Self Published

These lands are plagues with horrors, awaiting for discovery.

This 54 page adventure describes a frozen northland full of zombies and the last few settlements. Numerous small quests and a handful of tenish rooms dungeons have a spark of interesting in them, but, it has a fatal flaw. And this, seriously, breaks my heart.

This is a hard review to write. I’m going to have to pass on this because of something I’m unhappy about complaining about. I wish it weren’t so. Because, at its heart, there are some decent ideas here, combined with a tone that I think could work quite well. But not in its present form. 

What we’ve got here is some frozen tundra. Forest. Snow. hard land. Got it? A kind of bleak and snowy landscape, but with a thing pine forest almost every. Great! We’re creeping it up already! And to this we’re going to add about a bajillion zombies. There’re everywhere. It is, essentially, the zombie apocalypse, with just a few locations left that have not fallen. A Game of Thrones Beyond the Wall analogy here would not be far off. Also, we’ll throw in some specters, wights, and wraiths here and there, whenever there is a decent sized horde of twelve or so. To this we add some locations. The Last Guard Tower, on the northern trail in, with their embittered and low morale soldiers. An old farming estate complete with one holdout left, and all of his traps. The Keep, on the verge of ruin from the attacks, with a twentish people golding out inside. And the last town, with about two hundred people left. And to ALL of this a silence … for sounds attracts the zombie hordes!

And, sometimes, the writing can be quite good! Let’s take a look at the fate of the North Party, a group of people who disappeared: “Before entering, players are welcomed by a series of crucified travelers. They are tied to wooden posts. Their bodies are upside down, their hands pointing skyward. They are in an advanced state of decomposition, covered in maggots and flies, feeding. The closer they approach the post, the louder the buzzing sound becomes. Strident and eerie. Inside lies the fate of the North Party. Their bodies are piled in a mass of putrefaction in the middle of the structure. A black cloud of flies circles around. On top of all the bodies, lies a naked man. His body is full of scars in the form of occult patterns.” Not too shabby! Maybe a bit long, but good energy there!

And this is the end of my compliments.

That example of the writing is a rare one. If the adventure had A LOT more like that then I would be  ok with it, and my main gripe would be undercut. (I’m working on my click bair, how’s it going?) But, before we get there …

This is for D&D. I know it says Generic, but it’s D&D. It’s stat’d for D&D. Which is great. That’s what generic adventure should do. Everyone can convert easily enough; mechanics is just mechanics. But, also, it’s not for D&D. It’s essentially HP, AC, and XP. Dude, just stat the fucking thing out for 5e, or 1e, or whatever. It’s chill. I really don’t think there’s a palace for generic/universal adventures in the hobby … because I think nearly every adventure should be written in such a way that it’s generic/universal. 

But, also, the Table of COntents has section headings but no page number. Hmmmm …. The wandering table only has ten entries, for a LOOOOONG adventure, and yet the yeti entry says it’s “very very rare.” Hmmmm …   Oh, here’s a section, let’s see … “Blizzards are powerful snowstorms.” … Hmmmm, I think I see where this is going. How about the moose entry onthe wandering table “A white moose is spotted in front of the players. If they follow the creature, it will lead them into a hidden spot where useful treasure can be found.” *sigh*

We got two main problems here. First, it’s a simplistic adventure. By this I mean … there are quest boards in places. Almost like … a CRPG. And in fact that carries over The very first one, at the guard tower, is to go kill the remaining 2d6 zombies outside and light six torches. Whait. What. For serious? Light six torches? Did I mention the fetch quests? Collect 600kg of wood and 100kg of ore. Uh … Or, how about in the town of 200 people, “Rebuild the Sanitorium” … where you collect 40,550kg of concrete. (That’s weirdly specific …) Oh, and the townfolk can sell you 100kg a day. That’s over a year! The scale, here, in time, seems a bit off. There’s no mention of long term play, but there is certainly a lot to imply it! Hey, man, but, if you rebuild the guard tower then your reward is two martial weapons. ?!?!?!?!?!?!

It’s all very frustrating. It’s like it’s ALMOST a regional setting, but, not quite. The quests are short. Or, rather, they take about ? of a page or so to describe, from start to finish. So, you don’t a plot based quest. It’s more of a description of a situation. Which, I can rock. I love that. Except, it’s NOT that. It’s full of padding and other garbage. But, also, it’s weirdly generic, or abstracted. Zoomed out. As if the designer is afraid to get in to the specifics that help bring something alive. 

That crucifixion description proves, I think (?), that the designer can do it. But we don’t get that. We get that “involved in local politics” generalization. Or, “The soldiers advise against following the trails due to undead patrols”. No. Nope. Absolutely the fuck not. That is not what the soldier says. The soldier is haunted and says “The dude roam heavy, still your tongues and avoid the trails!”, before wheeling his horse and riding off. Jesus man, be specific. Give some detail. SHOW, don’t TELL. 

Here’s the castle intro “When the players approach the castle, they are met by a party of 4 soldiers on horseback. They introduce themselves as Royal Guards, and offer escort to the castle. They explain they spotted them from afar, and that staying outside is highly dangerous.” That’s boring as fuck! They should be unkept, expect a weirdly kept lieutenant, clearly insane. In a rush, glancing about manically, rushing the players. Calling them fools. Wanting to save them by ushering them inside. Paint the picture man. And, for the castle proper we get “There’s a total of 20 people living inside the castle. Half of them are knights, the few that remain, acting as a guards. The other 5 are workers, and the last 5 are the few leaders of the region that are still alive, among those, Eweil the Regent.” B O R I N G.But, also, on the right track, right? I mean, maybe they are getting a little handy, all 28 Days Later style. Or those cops in the hospital in The Walking Dead. Give me something to actually work with!

“An undead giant lies on the floor, chewing on the bones. The monster is accompanied by 4d4 ghouls.” It’s sooooo fucking close, right? But then, also, “This used to be another room of the catacombs, but it must have collapsed long ago.” Arrggggg! And the town? There’s a fucking serial killer on the loose.It’s so fucking close. The situations are there. 

And, now, the bad part that I am uncomfortable with. I think this is an EASL issue. And I feel like a jerk faced jerk. But, also, the descriptions are just not there. To the degree that it feels like an EASL issue. Just , word choice and phrasing and cadence and things like that. I admire the ability of someone to write this well in another language. But, you have to also be able to transfer the ideas from your head, to the paper, to a DMs head. And while you can see the glimmer of the ideas here, you don’t get the transfer because of the attractions and generalizations. 

Oh, Did i mention that, after you kill the big bad lich at the end, you get The Soul Stone. Which, once a day, can bring someone back to life. Including a zombie. !!!!

Oh, and, let’s not forget, zombies, skeletons, wights, wraiths, etc, at level 12? Don’t they all turn to ass at seeing the party cleric? I’m not sure how you handle this.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $6. The preview is 38 pages. Which is fine. Dig deep in to it, past the fist few pages, and you get a true sense of the writing.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 20 Comments

The Vault of Larin Karr

By W.D.B. Kenower
Necromancer Press
Levels 4-9

Hunt for a Legendary Treasure. Deep beneath a peaceful valley lies the vault of the legendary drow adventurer, Larin Karr. Rumors claim that Larin Karr vanished long ago, but his vast treasure acquired from years of plundering hordes in the Underdark still remains. Can you find and loot the impenetrable vault?

This 114 page adventure features a small valley with numerous towns and adventuring sites, with the titular vault (25ish rooms) being the capstone. The adventure is designed well, a rarity in D&D, and the designer understands D&D. It’s the real deal D&D sandbox, with a major fucking caveat. A product of its time, and as such is not much more than a curiosity.

I own a Nissan Frontier truck, for off road camping. (#vanlife bitches!) The gold standard in this space is the Toyota Tacoma. I like to say that the Frontier is 10% more reliable than the Tacoma, costs 30% less than the Tacoma, and has 5% of the aftermarket parts of the Tacoma. Somewhere, a Nissan engineer designed the engine bay. He spent four years on it, fitting everything in it perfectly with no space to spare. This saved the company $.000001 cents per unit manufactured. And then I come along and want to add a fuse for a winch. Is the Frontier designed well? Absolutely! Is it a royal pain the fucking ass to work with? Absolutely.

And thus, Larin Karr. 

This is a real deal sandbox adventure. Things are interconnected. People are interesting. The locations are well done. There is a complexity here, in design, in interconnectedness. In morality and the situations going on. This IS a real sandbox adventure, designed well. IN THE LAND OF 3E WHERE SHADOWS LIE. For it is devoid of what is needed to make it runnable at the table. And, thus, I will never run it. Every adventure ever made in the history of mankind is now available. Why oh why should one put up with this adventure, and, I will assert in the following text, its nigh impossibility to run, when you could choose from half a dozen others that do the same thing and ARE easy to run? Why choose to suffer? Because Larin Karr is THAT much better than the other? No, it’s not. It’s good, but, once you reach those lofty heights, of being “good”, nothing s going to rock you harder than the others. This relegates Larin Karr to a curious place. A thing to be studied, to learn both how to write an adventure and how to not write an adventure. 

Larin Karr has an interconnectedness. Things in one place impact and/or have a relationship with things in another place. This is not “go collect the three gemstones scattered throughout the valley” (although this is present) but more the nature of how the real world works. The local lord, near one settlement, has a younger brother who runs one of the other three settlements. And a cousin who is mayor of the third. Family ties. Makes sense right? And the mayor is really self-appointed and hates his cousin and wants to overthrow him. Also, hes hired a gnoll in the forest to do that. Also the gnoll is now blackmailing the “mayor.” Also, both of them know some things about other things. You go places, you learn things, you talk to people, you return to places to follow up. On a decently fucking sized overland map with five mile hexes that is at least 27×40 … with about half of it directly relevant to the adventure. 

Further, note in those examples how things seem natural. They make sense. The infighting amongst relatives is common in history and fiction. The blackmail? Makes sense. The local lord is just a kid, barely 20. FABULOUSLY wealthy, and trying to appear not so because its so out of place here. The best of everything. Trying to do a good job. He comes to power and finds some records that this old abandoned ruined keep nearby actually belongs to him. So he sends out some party members to go take his keep back! That makes sense. Hes digging through shit, does not understand the full context, comes across shit, claims what is his. 

In other places we get a different kind of naturalism. An old orc burial site, underground. Floor dotted with totems, skulls on spears, necklaces of fangs draped over skeletons. Much debris scattered about, broken pieces of armour and shields, bits of leather, rusted lamps. A discarded cape in a corner. FUCK YOU! You just got eaten by the cape! A cloaker! It makes sense. It fits in well. The designer understands the scene, the orc burel ground. He understand what belongs there. It’s not some case of mechanics first, but, rather, what makes sense … ok, now lets fit it in to the rules. Which is the fuck how this shit should be. Things feel right. The interactivity is natural. 

“Two rusted portcullises stand half-raised at either end of this corridor. The dull ends of the grates descend to within 2 feet of the floor. Small or Tiny creatures may pass beneath the grate without difficulty; Medium-sized creatures must take a moveequivalent action to crawl beneath the portcullis; Large or bigger creatures require a successful Escape Artist check (OC 15) to negotiate the narrow space. Either portcullis may be raised entirely with a successful Strength check (OC 20), which breaks the raising and lowering mechanism. Once raised, a portcullis drops to the ground upon its release; future attempts to open it require no Strength check.”

So, that portcullis. Half opened. People squeezing through it. The mechanism breaking. That is exactly how a portcullis encounter should be. It’s not just a simple binary condition of open or closed, raised or lowered. 

And herein we also see that Larin Karr has a problem. A serious fucking problem. It’s a 3e adventure from the time of 3e. Usability, essentially, does not exist. 

That cloaker encounter I’m so fond of? Well, after that broken lamp sentence we get “One piece of trash, a discarded cape in the northeast cornet, is something far more sinister. The cape is, in fact, a cloaker, which lies curled in the corner of the save waiting for unsuspecting passers-by. “ This is, in no way shape or form, taking in to account that the DM has to run this room. Oh, the encounter is, but the writing for the DM is NOT. That fucking thing is padded to hell and back, a conversational style that does nothing to make it easy to scan. Quite the opposite, in fact. We see this all over the place in the this adventure. “A2: Rough Tunnel – Though poorly constructed and low (6 feet high), this tunnel nonetheless provides safe passage to and from areas A3 and A5.” Repeating what the map says. Telling us that, in fact, the kitchen is a kitchen. Poorly constructed and low is great. The rest … no. 

But, these are rather simplistic examples. The heart of Larin Karr is not, I would argue, the “dungeons.” There are a few of them, each with a handful of rooms (the titular vault having around 26, I think?) The heart of the adventure is the situations going on in the valley. The situations amongst people/places, and this, I think, is handled quite poorly. 

Oh, the DESIGN is great, but how its presented to the DM is terrible. 

Lord Kyle’s Manor is a location, in the first town area. This is where you get the description  not only of the manor, but of Lord Kyle. Which takes about a column. Which is about three DENSE paragraphs. The fucking paragraghs are great. The description is solid, in the first paragraph.; And the “Developments” in the next two, have some solid information. But, digging through a column of text, DENSE text, that is almost wall of text, to grab the information you need? Absolutely the fuck not! And yet, it’s got fucking gold in it! Nice commentary on other NPC’s and leading conversation … it lends to a natural development with him. And a great situation to resolve in the ruined keep, and how it comes to be, but, again, it’s fucking buried. 

And this is the way of this. It’s a continuation of the bad olf 2e formatting, the formatting from Dungeon. The long text paragraph, with little else to break up the words. TO call attention to things. To highlight sections. 

And this is BAD. Because of the density of material, it’s particularly bad in this adventure. It’s complex. And it’s hard to find and dig out. And I’m not GOING to dig it out. Maybe you want you run your highlighter dry, and make margin notes, and create summary sheets for yourself. I’ve got better things to do.

And, so, Larin Karr. An excellent adventure that is saddled with the Style At The Time. You can see how Necromancer built their reputation from things like this. It’s refreshing to see it, and especially so, I suspect, in the era of 2e/3e adventures, to see a real adventure pop up. The din of excitement around it makes sense. But, it’s not 2002. 

Larin Karr and Thracia fit much the same role. Very good adventures. Classics. But products of their time. And, because of that, they are little more these days but interesting curiosities. Less so Thracia, whos terseness it benefits from, from something to buy and examine. Something to learn from. Rare examples of actual well done adventures … and with fatal flaws to also learn from. 

You wanna run this? Good luck. You want to learn from it? Good choice. That’s right. Not The Best. Not Regerting this decision at all. Larin Karr deserves better. It deserves a refresh, like Thracia deserves one.

This is $11 at DriveThru. The preview is only three pages,and thus hardly a preview at all, certainly not enough to make an enformed decision about eh product from it before you buy it. But, also, the formatting, the tight text, almost reaching wall of text proportions? This is Larin Karr.

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