(Review) Saving Throw Fanzine

Jim Kramer is the guy behind Usherwood Publishing. Several of his adventures appear on my Best & Regerts list, including Arachnaphobia and most his Bone Hilt campaign series. He does EXCELLENT maps and, doing layout for a living, his layouts are top notch. He’s a behind the scenes guy, doing layout work for many things, including Knockspell and OSRIC. This 64 page fanzine was put together by several folks as a fundraiser to help with expenses after his third(!) brain tumor. I’m going to review the adventures. You should go pick this up because you’re not an asshole. And, also, because the adventures are quite good. Also, there’s a lot of OTHER content in it, beyond the adventures.

Sorcerer’s Stone – by Keith Sloan [No Level Given]

This five page adventure describes a dungeon with about forty rooms. On top of a hill is a ritual site where a cult gathers to … perform rituals and make human sacrifices. Underneath is the dungeon with a couple of evil priests (who think the cultists are amateurs) and a traditional “ogres, spiders, etc” dungeon. The map is good with decent complexity, same level stairs,pits, some water features and the like. Decent loops. Each room gets a bolded room title to orient the DM, a good touch. It is, essentially, a minimally keyed dungeon. “2. GUARD CHAMBER: This old guard chamber is empty.” and “A Carrion Crawler has made its way into this room.” tend to be the extent of the descriptions beyond stats and treasure. This does allow for about 24 rooms per page, but I would have preferred to see four or five more words, or, perhaps different words, in each room description. Instead of a carrion crawler moving in (and, as an aside, a lot of the descriptions are like that “X moved in”) I’d like to see something like a carrion crawler hanging from the ceiling, or munching on a goblin or something. A more active description. The cult activity outside is done well but could be organized better with bullets and bolding, and non-monster interactivity is a bit low. One more pass through to make the rooms active, clean up the outside, and insert a little more interactivity  and this would have been top tier.

Perladon Manor – by Gabor Lux – Levels 3-5

This delightful five page adventure describes fifteen rooms of a ruined manor over three-ish levels. Melan uses a single-column paragraph form, but arranges the sentence/text order well to put First Things First and then expand on them later, with good use of bolding. The encounters are great examples of the non-standardized style of D&D, with stabbing frescoes causing shadows damage, hypnotic patterns caused by magical loadstones, and inscriptions providing hints leading to more adventure. High interactivity and a fantasy vibe that is not constrained by the rulebooks provide a great adventuring adventure in a small page count and room count. 

The Tiled Labyrinth – Guy Fullerton – Levels (It’s got a minotaur)

This two page mini-dungeon is a labyrinth with about fifteen rooms. It provided three maps of the level and a small set of rules (close the incense burner) on changing from one map to another … which basically means the rooms stay the same and the hallways/doors switch layouts. It’s a clever idea for representing a labyrinth layout … minotaurs traditionally have a hard time in D&D having their lairs represented in anything other than “you’re confused at intersections” mechanics. Guys descriptions are good, with the details focused on player-oriented things and activities. Rich soil, copper watering cans, inset stone shelves … Guy slaps in the extra adjective/adverb to spruce up his descriptions well. One of the incense burners is a vented statuette of a heroic man holding decapitated bull head … with a lever to open/close the vents. Plus there’s a red meteoric long sword of sleek, angular design. Sweet! A good, if small, entry from Guy.

Lizard Man Lair – by Steve Smith Levels 5-7

This fourteen page adventure describes an outdoor lizard man lair. It’s complex, in a way these things usually are not. There are multiple factions, other race NPC’s, slaves, animals, varying terrain. Guidelines for several different approaches are offered up. It is, perhaps, more complex than can be handled in two-column magazine format, something that I sometimes thought in Dungeon Magazine. Meaning that it’s deep and complex but that the 2-column format doesn’t work well for this. I’m not saying it CANT, but that it would be a lot of work. As a standalone product it is both of limited scope (one lair) and better suited for a more leisurely layout/format that could be targeted to its complexity and depth. Good ideas in it.

The Mere Beneath by Guy Fullerton, Allan T Grohe jr and Henry Grohe – Level 5

This six page adventure details about 25 locations in a dungeon level with a large water feature. A great adventure in a fanzone full of great adventures. The map is interesting, complex, and offers on-map details to encourage creativity and help the DM. The wanderers are doing things. The creatures in rooms are doing things: bloody-faced from finishing a meal or tearing apart something. Writing is evocative with small little room text written so as to be more than the sum of their parts, inspiring the DM to greatness and to build upon them. Zones and multiple levels themes are well used. Creatures are just a bit from norm with ghouls and ghasts wearing bone masks. It all combines to give that non-standard OD&D vibe that I love so much. I might put this in my Darkness Beneath binder, as a sublevel from the waterfall in the Crabmen level. (And perhaps the level title implies a relationship to Darkness Beneath? The tone matches well.) A solid marriage of usability, interactive, and evocative.

This is $13 at DriveThru. Go get it!

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/288750/Saving-Throw-fundraiser-fanzine-for-James-D-Kramer

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 9 Comments

The Village and the Witch

By Davide Pignedoli

Daimon Games

LOTFP

Levels 2-3

This fifteen page supplement has some tables in it that lets the DM generate a witch, a village, and some opposition to the witch in the village, as well as some witch events. It’s not an adventure but rather a situation-builder (in fact, I think the designer uses almost the same words.) I think it’s good at what it does.

I only review adventures … but sometimes I buy the wrong thing, mostly because it’s in the wrong category on DriveThru and I don’t really read the descriptions. And sometimes I’m feeling curious and go for something adjacent. Like this supplement.

A theme I haven’t touched on in awhile is how different adventures have a need for different sorts of organization. Exploratory things, like dungeons and so on, fit the room/key format really well. As free text they work less well. And room/key doesn’t necessarily work well at all in other, non-exploratory situations, like a social adventure. Understanding what sort of adventure is being written, or what a specific portion of the adventure is trying to do, is key to getting the right format … which in turn is key to helping the DM run it, a major goal of the designer.

And that’s what this supplement is doing: it’s providing the DM the tools they need to build a situation in a village that has a witch in it. There are seven or so tables that describe what’s going on in the village, organized via die drop. The die drop helps determines the layout of the village with the results of the dice being the structures and situations involved. Thus we get a little information about the village, the basic layout of the place, major features, the witch details, and who opposes the witch. The tables, taken together, are excellent as inspiration and for building a situation. And that’s what they are trying to do: build a situation. This ain’t Seclusiums “they have green eyes” bullshit. It recognizes the dynamics required to create tension, and therefore adventure. The booklet tells you several times that Things Have Reached A Boiling Point. The tables help with that. The opposition is dynamic on the tables. The witch events are dynamic. The tables are designed to strategically locate open gas barrels in a village where everyone lights their cigarettes with a blowtorch they carry. This is not passive. It’s meant to create a situation FOR PLAY and create a situation it does!

A couple of quirks about the supplement. It doesn’t go out of its way to get the party involved. It’s more like “you see a mob” or a burning building, ro someone complaining, or so on. Thus the hook tends to be curiosity, although the motivations of the witches allies and of the witches opposition may also lead to them trying to get the party involved. It feels natural … but it’s also one of the more … reachiest reaches in using the tables for inspiration. It’ also could have used a summary sheet of the tables. They are spread out over the book, one or two per page. The surrounding fifteen pages of text and art do a good job of adding content to the tables and setting up the appropriate vibe to get the DM in to the mood, as well as providing some examples of how, say, the village priest is an ally to the witch. That’s all great. But, if the core tables were on one page then it would pretty trivial to crank out a village on the fly when the party reaches it. Or even attach it to my DM screen or put it in my binder. Which gives me an idea … what if EVERY village had a witch in it with things boiling over? What fun! 

I don’t have a problem with tables. I love The Dungeon Dozen, the rear of  the 1e DMG is great, and I use tables sometimes to generate ideas for an adventure or a room. The brain tends to work best, IMO, if given a couple of things to work from. “Make a village to adventure in!” is a big ask. But, if you seed the task with a few random rolls, well, the brain is good at making connections between things. This recognizes that and takes advantage of it.

I’d have no problem paying for this as a supplement. It’s not an adventure, so I don’t feel I can slap a Best on it, but it’s certainly worth checking out if you want a village generator that gives you not Tavern Names and General Stores but playable situations.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages and shows you some intro/framing pages and then all of the core tables for the die drop. You’re seeing the core of the generation in the preview. 

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/251586/The-Village-And-The-Witch?1892600

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 1 Comment

Spiral Isles

By Jere Hart, Shane Walshe
Stygian Studios
5e/OSR
Dead PC's

The adventure is designed to give dead characters a chance to return to life, or as the framework for a campaign into the underworld.

This 57 page pointcrawl details an underworld location in which the party can attempt to return to life. It’s large, with locations having as much detail as a Wilderland hexcrawl. Like Wilderlands, the DM needs to bring significant abilities to bear to flesh the locations out. But it DOES provide the sort of unified cohesion that is missing from many hexcrawls. This place is themed and consistent. It’s easy to recommend … if you know what you are getting yourself in to.

There are 21 islands in a little spiral island chain. Each island has three or so locations on it. There are some ferrymen that will follow certain routes between islands, generally each island being connected to three or so other ones in this manner. Oh, and you’re dead and a ghost. If you manage to collect enough lifepoints you can, at the last island, make it through the magic door and come back to life. And there are a lot of other spirits between you and there to beg, borrow, steal, and kill you to take your lifepoints away. And a few to help you.

I always got a bit of a baroque vibe from Blue Medusa. If you lighten up with that vibe a little and combine it with Planescape and Sigil and turn THAT setting down by about a factor of five or ten then you’ll have something akin to what’s going on here. And maybe some Hunger Game Capitol turned down some also. 

You wake up in the middle of an island. It’s PACKED with other souls. Shoulder to shoulder. Too much jostling and the people on the edge fall in to the void, forever lost. If you stand still enough, they say, you will be rescued. One end has a small coral with some mindless people in it. Eventually it fills up and a large Spanish galleon shows up and hauls them away. You can see some ferrymen off shore … you’re told not to trust them. Crowded, crammed in, ignorant, this is how you start. But of course you were adventurers and not like the people on the island. As you work your way up the island chain you encounter thugs, villages, towns, cities, the mob, rebels, rumors, cultists, swindlers, and just about the whole gamut of society. The further you travel, the more lifepoints you must have, the “wealthier” you are, and richier/more cosmopolitan the islands become. The goal is the last island, which has a door you can pass through if you have enough, bringing you back to life. 

Along the way are factions. Thugs. Thug rebels. Rich people galore with their motives. Governors of the regions, organized guard groups, cultists, The Real Rebels, and Mayor, pulling the strings. It is from this, the factions and dynamics, that a significant tension is created. A wants X and B is trying to stop them. Who are you helping? Are you joining a faction? Are you working against another one? Or are you just trying to ignore them all and keep them from manipulating you so you can get your loot and get out. Hey … they all have a lot of loot … (loot being a way to gain lifepoints.)

It’s a city adventure with all of the massive social intricacy and subplots that bring. It’s a hexcrawl/pointcrawl, with the openness that brings. It’s pretty fucking kickass, and reminds me a lot of that Mothership adventure I reviewed recently, Dead Planet.

The ideas presented, the settings and scenarios, are great, with the writing a little flat. It a bit too workmanlike in its descriptions, not trying hard enough to really convey the evocativeness of the situations encountered. That makes it a little harder than I’d prefer to really run with and make my own. Still, it’s got terse writing and it’s easy to grasp the overall situation of the many locations easily. 

There’s a myriad of little mini-systems and other details that pop up, all pretty well handled. At times it does seem like some weird heartbreaker of a system, but it doesn’t go too far overboard. 

I would note, that for a huge expansive setting, the NPC table only has about twenty entries. You’re gonna need to think fast on the fly or do your own NPC table ahead of time in order to come up with the, inevitably numerous, NPC’s the party tries to interact with. Flavour is the name of the game here and some serious margin work to include more on most of the pages would have been a nice touch and an opportunity lost.

It’s a hexcrawl-type product, in hell, that does the planes better than just about any other product, even if it’s not really a planes adventure. If you go in expecting a hexcrawl type product then you should be satisfied. it’s also got a lot more in common with OSR type adventures than it does the bland railroads that seem to dominate 5e. It’s got conversion notes for both 5e & OSR.

This is $10 at DriveThru. There is no preview. Naughty designer! No cookie for you! How are folks supposed to know what they are buying? You can get an idea of the layout, in miniature, from the kickstarter pages but it’s not enough to see the actual content. Major miss.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/279703/Spiral-Isles?1892600

(And I’m not a gonna mention the fact that the Armory is missing a list, however brief, or its contents … when turning weapons in to mana/lifepoints is one of the major themes of the adventure.)

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 1 Comment

Gellarde Barrow

By Michael Moscrip
NGR
NGR
No Level Given

GELLARDE BARROW is a small site based adventure about the joys of robbing from both the living and the dead, wacky hijinx are bound to ensue.

This twelve page adventure details a small barrow tomb with ten rooms in about four pages. Decently interactive with evocative descriptions in places, it does tend to bog down descriptions with minutia. It seems to enjoy testing the limit of how many words you can have in a paragraph and still have it usable. It’s a nice adventure, especially considering it’s a new author, but gets rough to use in places. 

The dungeon is small but has several nice features. The creatures inside ALMOST act like factions. Some bandits. A hippo. Some stone golem-like things, and a root monster. And, of course, the undead. While they are not really factions their own little zones feel unique to them and it FEELS like they have some relationship, no matter how small, to some of the others. This, along with the evocative nature of the text, makes the place seem like it has a lot of depth.

The text descriptions in the various rooms do a good job working together to form a kind of cohesive vibe. The same-level stairs inside are steep . 10’ raise in 5’ of space. That conjures up a certain type of picture in your head. A corridor thick with tree roots, giant trilobites, and the undead rising up THROUGH their stone sarcophagus with an erie green glow. This place does a pretty job of both feeling like an ancient barrow (and I LUV barrow adventure) as well as feeling like a classic dungeon crawl adventure. 

Interactivity is pretty good also. There’s levers to pull, water to raise and lower. Hallways full of tree roots and caskets to break in to. The key here is, I think, the anticipation. There is an element of the unknown. Of barriers and obstacles, things to play with and challenges to overcome. Most adventures just have combat, maybe with a skill check somewhere. This, however, does things right by having a mix of things in the dungeon. It’s SO much more interesting, as a player, to be able to squeal with horror and delight as things are uncovered and your actions have reactions and/or consequences. 

Topping things off is a great magic item: a wooden mallet that lets you hammer two things together. ANY two things. Like nailing an incorporeal ghost to a wall … with suitable example provided in the adventure. The item is described not mechanically, with a skill roll or plus to hit, but rather by what it does: nailing two things together. This is MUCH more mysterious and wondrous, and is the right way to do things with magic items. 

On the down side, the headers used for rooms is some kind of weirdo font, hollow, and not the easiest to read. A little Order of Battle, especially for the bandits, would have been nice also. They are just generic bandits, as described, and could have used a gimmick, like royal tax collectors or orphan fund or something to give me a little extra. 

But, the length of the text itself is the main issue. It’s using a traditional paragraph format but it’s also trying to be smart about it. It bolds the major features and puts the text after those words in order of things that might be important about it. This essentially mirrors a common format I like to encourage beginners to use. It falls down a bit though because of the sheer amount of detail that some of the rooms engage in. If A then B. If B then C. There are hold 1” deep every 3” along the roofline except on alternate Tuesdays. This is getting in to Trap/Door porn, the condition where some designers seem to believe that a two paragraph description of every trap and/or door is needed. There’s also an element of disconnectedness in places; the first room goes through the description of a large chair as the main feature of the room … only to later note that there may be a bandit asleep on the chair. Now both the chair and bandit are bolded, so your eyes will be drawn to it, but somehow this feels wrong and/or confusing.

Speaking of confusing … parts of the dungeon can be flooded. WHICH parts I’m still not sure. There are text descriptions with “the corridor to the best of the room X up to the height of stair Y” and so on. Reading it twice I still don’t get it. A little shading on the map would have done wonders to show the potential for water. Again this looks like a Dyson map and it feels like people just take his maps and don’t alter them much if at all. The map needs a little context, that would have pretty much eliminated my (continuing) confusion.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $3. The preview is four pages and, alas, showing you nothing of the encounters. Bad Zz!


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/280259/Gellarde-Barrow?1892600

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 6 Comments

Halls of the Bonelord

By Alexander Langlet
Stealth's Modules & TRPG Content
1e
levels 1-3

… Pillage the Halls of the Bonelord, an ancient king who’s name has been lost to time. …

This five page adventure is a dungeon with twenty rooms. Single column, It is one step removed from being minimally keyed. There’s a decently evocative sentence or two here or there, but is short on mundane loot and interactive content.

Well, I say “short on interactive content”, but … to its credit the adventure does not have every monster attack as soon as the party opens the door. There’s snake, shadows and skeletons that only attack when the party fuck with them/their room. In some cases this causes to arise that most delicious of things: zany party plans to get the treasure. A long abandoned alter, covered in dust, obvious loot on it … and a shadow flitting about. Fuck yeah I’m goon try my luck! Or a large snake, coiled around some loot. Or some skeletons guarding a massive set of double doors. This is some fine examples of exploratory D&D play. Pushing your luck is tied to the resource mechanic in Gold=XP systems. And I fucking love temptation (and, as a player FALL FOR IT EVERY SINGLE TIME.) Beyond a few instances though, there’s not much here beyond some combat. And that’s too bad. Interactivity means more than combat and those few examples of pushing your luck are not really enough, I think, to support a twenty room dungeon.

Treasure is low here, there’s not much at all. Which I always find weird in an OSR game. The goal of the game is to get the loot and I think there’s an implicit agreement between the DM and the players that there WILL be loot in the dungeon, especially in a single isolated level like this. If not then the DM will, I think, fall short on players in a classic Gold=XP style. What’s in it for me, as a player, if you remove the gold from gold=XP but keep the system? There is a decent amount of potions and a wand … maybe I’m just discounting the XP from those too much.

The main baddie is a 3HD AC3 skeleton. That’s a fearsome combo for lower level players, but probably ok with some running away. There’s also a room with 60 cubic feet of green slime in it. Yes, CUBIC. A 20×30 room 10’ high filled to the ceiling with green slime. My mind is furiously working out all of the possibilities with that much green slime at my disposal …

There’s a sentence or two that’s a good start to some room descriptions.  “Piles of dry and cracked snakeskin are scattered in this room …” or a dry & dusty room with two skeletons with polearms guarding a set of double doors. A sack is tattered and a bowl engraved with opals. A bock of grey stone with a black cloth draped over it, a silver bowl and fist-sized gem on top and everything covered in dust. It’s not bad. Not enough of the rooms do this and it’s inconsistent in the rooms that do.

The room content is close to being minimally keyed. In one room a couple of kobolds stand guard armed with slings and staves. That’s the extent of the room description … Vampire Queen turned from stat block to sentence.

Low loot, inconsistent description, low-ish interactivity … at least its not padded.

This is $1 at DriveThru. There is no preview. Put a preview in. Even if the adventure costs $1. Even if it’s 2 pages long. Give us a view of what we’re buying!

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/286824/Halls-of-the-Bonelord?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 4 Comments

(5e) The Right to Arm Bugbears

Curtis Baum

AAW Games

5e

Level 6

Strange humanoids are gathering in the nearby Forest of Mists and have been exploring ancient ruins using maps stolen during the robberies. Can the party stop these creatures before they are able to raise an army of kobolds, gnolls, and bugbears?

This 28 page adventure contains seven encounters. I don’t even know how to summarize it. There’s nothing to it but, essentially, monster stats?

Sometimes I am a loss to convey what an adventure is and this is one of those times. 

Let’s imagine a minimally keyed adventure with seven encounters. “4 orc guards” and “1 bugbear sargeant” for example. To each of those lets’s add some read-aloud. Something like “The bugbear sergeant notices you and says It’s time for weapons practice boys!” But also lets make read-aloud lengthy in places at a couple of paragraphs or more. This is, essentially, the adventure. Yeah, I know, if you abstract enough you could describe many adventures this way. You don’t need to do much abstracting to this, though, to make it happen.

Each scene (since that’s what they are, not encounters), has a little section at the beginning. It describes doors. Lighting. Mood. History. Walls. It’s the same offset format for all locations, covering each of the same topics. It’s as if someone had a form they had to fill out and they just blindly went down the boxes typing things in. Some of the form boxes are clearly supposed to be mechanical. Giving the DC of a door in some sort of fixed format has been popular for awhile, especially in Tactical Miniatures of 4e. And that’s what this feels like. Just a little bit more pasted on, just like 4e adventures/encounters/scenes were, so you could call it something more than a wargame/boardgame. This adventure is just one step removed from the The Fantasy Trip, and it’s not a big step either. There’s a puzzle at some locations to work ot after your fight. You get to roll perception to figure out some guards talking to you are actually Orcs In Disguise! Monsters attack no matter what, even if you give then a 200gp bribe. Just fight your fight and go to the next DM encounter. 

Look, I know D&D covers a wide spectrum. But something has to mean SOMETHING, doesn’t it, in order to have some kind of interactive discussion? The scene setting in this is terrible, perfunctory. It takes 28 pages to describe a couple of combats. This is not the D&D I know and love. I don’t know, I’m glad people feel enabled to write stuff. I just fucking wish they’d take some time and figure out HOW to write stuff. I just can’t go on with this review. THERE’S NOTHING TO THIS FUCKING THING

This nonsense is $7 at DriveThru. The preview is excellent, you can figure out exactly what you’re getting from it. I suggest page two for an excellent look at the “scene overview” form, read-loud, and bold adventure styling. 


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/286401/5E-B12-The-Right-to-Arm-Bugbears?1892600

Posted in 5e | 10 Comments

Darkland Moors

By Jeff Dee
UNIgames
1e
Levels 3-5

A huge, monstrous presence rampages through the farms and villages of Darkland Moors, throwing the locals’ formerly peaceful lives into turmoil. What manner of giant is responsible, where is it taking its captives, and what is their fate? To restore peace, our heroes must scour the misty Moors and track the beast to its lair!

This ten page adventure fits 21 encounters in to four pages. A hexcrawl in search of a marauding giant, it does a decent job with hex rules. The encounters are more of a setup for the DM to fill in with a writing style that is not always consistent in how it conveys information, especially where enemies are involved. I respect the hex crawl stuff and think the format for the hex crawl has possabilities, but the details need work to make it worth something to check out.

This is a hex crawl, searching for a marauding giant in some fog-covered moors. Dee does a good job of summarizing some basic hexcrawl rules.  Movement is covered: 2 per day on foot or 4 by horse. Likewise he covers getting lost in a very simple manner, as well as basic “what you can see in the next hex” landmark details. Concise hexcrawl guidelines have always been lacking, IMO, but this is one of the best summaries of basic hex crawl rules I’ve seen. It’s not worth it just for this but it does show that Dee has pretty good understanding of how things are supposed to work, and the need to transfer that to the audience.

The encounters are presented as general situations which the DM is then left to expand upon. Recall the 21 encounters in four pages? That includes several ruins and village/towns. The ONLY way to do that is to present the general situation to the DM and let the DM fill in the details. There’s nothing wrong with that, in fact it’s the general manner of all hex crawls. 

The encounters, though, feel flat. The detail is, again, abstracted to a degree that it removes the life from the encounter. I think I can understand the why of this; you can’t fill in the details of these largish locations and still have a decently-sized product. Some of the hexes would easily be their own adventures if expanded upon in this way. 

I would suggest, though, that there is another path. Rather than writing a very generalized and generic abstracted description the encounter/situation could instead be imbued with brief bursts of color. “A local farmer blinded the giant before being eaten.” is one of the sentences. Better, I think, would be some local color for this farmer, his family, or something else. Picking out one thing per encounter, maybe the most significant part of the place, and adding/changing the wording for some better adjectives and adverbs or more color. I’m not arguing for a significant increase in word count but rather a better use of those words, targeting some aspect of the encounter. 

As always I’m looking for something that inspires the DM while they are running the encounter. Something that the DM’s own imagination can build upon and be leveraged by the designer to add more the encounter than what’s written. In this adventure, in particular, the page count could be about the same with some trimming. The map and hex crawl rules note what can be seen from each hex … and then each encounter ALSO notes what can be seen from this hex. Doubling down on the information is quite necessary and the word count could have been used to add some color, some building blocks, to the actual encounters.

The writing also, at times, feels tacked on, especially where enemies are concerned. You’ll get a paragraph description of a place and and then another paragraph description of enemies which can totally change the vibe and what’s going on in the first paragraph. This happens multiple times but the first encounter is a good example. A ruined farmhouse, as if a mighty blow had been dealt to an upper corner. All valuables looted. Just some broken simple furniture inside. And then the next paragraph tells us how 11 large spiders live inside, it’s got a web-festooned interior, and there’s treasure. All of which kind of contradicts a bunch of info in that first paragraph. Or, at a minimum, the first paragraph totally leads you down one path when the second one yanks you back a different direction. It’s almost as if they were written by different people who only knew “ruined farmhouse” and one write an empty farmhouse and one wrote a monster farmhouse and an editor just slapped them together. There’s no cohesiveness at all. 

The hex crawl summary is great. The terseness/length of the situations is about right, I think. The descriptions though are too generic and too disjointed. It needs work.

I also note that this is listed as being for “Advanced rpg games.” Man, T$R really did a number on the old employees. From the Eldritch ENterprises use of generic stats to the dancing around “1e” stuff. These people have WOUNDS.

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. The preview is three pages. Good news, it shows the hexcrawl summary rules! Bad news, it doesn’t show you any of the encounters. A preview really needs to show you a few of the encounters so a potential purchaser can see what they are getting … or not.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/126811/JD2-Darkland-Moors?1892600

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Island of Blight

By Thom Wilson
Throwi Games
1e/5e
Levels 3-5

The Red Priests of the Snake God suffered a crushing blow to their plans when they failed to take the small town of Thuil. Reeling from their defeat, they have returned to the deep jungles of Nolgur-Wul to regroup. The human villages outside the jungles know that it is only a matter of time before the Red Priests and their minions return. Now is the time to take the fight to them, deep within the jungles! The characters are urged to delve into the depths of Nolgur-Wul to track the Red Priests back to their clandestine temple where it is said a serpent queen, maiden of the Snake God himself, leads the growing cult. On the trail of the fleeing Red Priests, the adventurers find that a mysterious blight has recently begun to destroy the western jungles, villages, and all life within. What starts as a quick investigation becomes an unusual and deadly puzzle. More importantly, is this blight the Snake God’s doing or something completely separate?

This 28 page adventure describes a little overland journey and about forty indoor locations in three locations on a small island. Generic writing, generalized abstractions. In short: it’s boring.

Ok, so, there’s a bunch of vegetation dying in an ever increasing area. You find some abandoned villages, maybe. You find an island with some ruined buildings on it. There’s a bunch of notes and zombies scattered around. In the basement in a machine that’s generating the blight and the notes, deciphered correctly, help you set the levers to turn it off.

It’s got some monsters reference sheets. It’s got some cross-references. Ultimately though it’s boring. There’s a kind of generalized abstractaction that ribs the adventure of anything interesting. Instead, there’s an emphasis on history and explaining why the way things are. “This rock is here because someone kicked it down the stairs three hundred years ago.” That sort of thing does not create interesting play opportunities. That sort of thing does not inspire the DM to run a fantastic room or encounter. It’s boring.

“Wonderfully decorated doors lead to areas B8 and B10”, the text tells us. The second part is clearly just telling us what we can see from the map. The first part “wonderfully decorated” is a great example of that abstraction. It’s a conclusion someone might draw rather than what someone might observe. This is TELLING instead of SHOWING. Lapis & amber inlaid bronze doors with minurettes and palms … that’s showing instead of telling. That text inspires the DM and then leverages the DM to add more while the previous text instead burdens the DM to come up with it all from scratch. 

The text must inspire the DM, that’s what I generally mean when I’m talking about evocative text. Text that shows instead of tells. Text that enables the DM to add more rather than requires them to add more.

On top of this the text is padded out with trivia. A secret door is easy to find because it was left partially open when some residents of the temple fled from a blah blah blah. Or, “This escape passage provided Kahleemar with a way to leave his bedchamber quickly or hide from unwanted visitors. The escape tunnel is completely dark” Well that’s all fucking great. By which of course I mean, completely useless at a gaming table. There’s no furniture because cultists stole it. A rich and deep history of a location is not the same as a location that’s evocative, interactive, and easy to use. It’s maddening to see all of the trivia included while being faced with the abstracted descriptions. 

And then the monsters and other important facts are buried deep in room text. First things first: it’s there’s a giant flaming eye of sauron (lower case) in the middle of the fucking room then fucking lead with that in your description. THATS what is going to stand out. Burying it in the second paragraph is dumb. “Oh, uh, sorry gang, there’s actually a giant flaming sauron eye in the room” or a long pregnant pause while you read three paragraphs of room text in order to give a description to the players? Neither you say? Damn fucking right. Obvious things should come first. 

Oh, I could go on and on. Maybe five or six thousand in treasure for a 1e adventure at levels 3-5? This is a do-gooder adventure, light on treasure. The villages you find along the way are boring abstractions. There are lots and lots and LOTS of notes lying around fr the party to find, in order to solve the final puzzle. The titular blighted island has three primary exploration areas on it … and the main one comes before the two minor ones. There’s not real explanation of the slight spread or “the blight line”, crossing over it, etc. Just a note, buried in a later sidebar, on how to apply disease rolls. 

JABA – Just ANother Boring Adventure.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview iw four pages. It shows you four pages of a monster reference sheet. This is a bad preview. Show us some room encounters for Vecna’s sake so we know the quality of the writing we’re fucking buying!


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/259774/Island-of-Blight–TG2202?1892600

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(5e) Descent into Mirefen

By William Murakami-Brundage
Menagerie Press
5e
Levels 5-7

Within Mirefen’s bog is a ruined temple. This edifice is now home to a tribe of toad folk, who have defiled the holy site with strange effigies to their squat, bestial gods. Can the adventurers wrest magic and treasure from the swamp?

This 44 page adventure details a not-bullywug tribe in some swamp ruins and is a kind of base assault on a 35-ish room area. They’ve got a magic gem and someone with ill-intent wants it. The intent, outline, and framing of this are good with the execution sucking. The usual poor read-aloud and trivia DM text is to blame. There are some nits also but, this ain’t no railroad. 

Toak people in a swamp live in some ruins. In the ruins is also a magic gem that they like a lot. In town you meet a drunk guy in a bar who is supposed to guide a diplomatic mission to the toad-people pretty soon, when the mission arrives in a day or so. The mission wants to bring the toad-people under their allied umbrella and get the gem. Their from a god of strength and war, all Might Makes Right. The guide is LE and it’s pretty strongly implied the mission is also. It’s all “no hesitation in destroying people who disrespect them”, as well as the tribe etc.

The tone is interesting for 5e. Usually it’ raving maniacal evil cultists and the like. You can negotiate with the drunk guy and join up with the mission. And while they have evil alignment it’s not really displayed much more than any PC party would be. “Yeah, we’re going to these ruins full of bullwugs to get a magic gem … they better not try and stop us.” It’s a much better approach and it open up the adventure to a lot more possibilities.

And that’s what I mean by the framing, outline, and intent of the adventure. It takes a more neutral approach to the design. That drunk guy? The LE guide? You can pickpocket him. You can break in to his room at night. You can join up with him, either for realisies or as a deception. The high paladin that leads the mission? Essentially the same thing. She’ll bring the party along as she negotiates … and potentially slaughters, the toad people. And they might even be good allies that don’t backstab the party if the bullywugs ambush the mission. Or you can try and beat the mission to the ruins. And then you could try and fool the toad-people. Open. Ended. It is SO much more fucking refreshing to see an adventure written this way. There are suggestions on how to handle common things that might happen, the various situations, and that’s exactly what an adventure should do: support the DM

So, an adventure written in an open-ended way that doesn’t force the party down a narrow path. Great! There’s even a kind of reaction matrix for the village on what they do when folks attack.

There could be another table, I think, noting day/night cycle movements and so on, to help support a stakeout and stealth mission, but I’ll take what I can.

On the downside, well, there’s a lot. 

Most importantly, the designer doesn’t know how to write an encounter decently. Read-aloud, while generally the correct length (thank Vecna …) is the same boring generic stuff that appears in every adventure. It’s not evocative at all. Although, interesting enough, each major area (the swamp, the ruins, the dungeon) has a little section that describes conditions and those ARE evocative. Rank sweat, herbal smoke and old ale. Yum!

DM text also has the usual issues. It’s conversational, writing in a style that is more at home in a novelization (without the purple prose) then it is to what the DM text should be: a reference document. As always, this makes scanning for information hard.  There’s also a substantial number of suggested skill checks that are essentially meaningless to the adventure. “Make a DC 15 to figure out this meaningless trivia!” 

I might note also that I mentioned a base assault in the intro paragraph. There’s not much weird in this, or things to play with, but there is a lot of combat. It’s not entirely devoid of more interesting options, there’s an alter here or there, but it generally restricts itself to “boring old base” more than crumbling ruins to explore and get in trouble with. Of course, stealth, combat, and talking to the toad-people are all included, but some other things would have been good idea. In particular, a more complex map, for better sneaking/pushing ruins over on people.

The “evil” mission is also a little generic. The members don’t really ge personalities or quirks at all. A few of those, even if just for the leadership, would have made a roleplay with them as allies more interesting. Imagine hooking up with them in town and watching their movements. That’s all for the DM. 

 And it’s gone ape-fucking shit with the name. Sha Halthas, Mirefen, Shigguk village, Dhrnu alliance, Dannt and Besharas. At least it not that 20-sylabyl Forgotten Realms shit or Venger’s can’t-hav’e-to’o-man’y-apostriphe’s. Seriously, make the adventure approachable. 

Finally, just some weird shit left out. The starting town is known for its fine almost-magical horsies that they sell. But there are no horsie details. Uncool dude. There’s also a potential wandering encounter with a black dragon, flying overhead and not fucking with the party unless they fuck with it. My OSR mind immediatly went to “Fuck that magic gem. Let’s follow it to the lair! Dragon Hoard!” Ok, so that last one is not really related to the adventure. 

If the designer can get their writing game pumped up then maybe future projects will be worthwhile. It’s gonna take a lot of a delete key, though, and some agonzining writing.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is ten pages. Good try, but it doesn’t actually show you any of the encounter writing. A decent preview should show some of that. The ninth page does show some of that “atmosphere” text block that I think is a little better than most of the writing.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/281980/Descent-into-Mirefen?1892600

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The One-Hundred Clones of Timothy the Wise

By Nickolas Z. Brown
Five Cataclysms
OSR Games/Five Cataclysms
"High Level" ... and he means it

A powerful Wizard named Timothy the Wise has cloned himself a hundred times, and all of the clones have run amok, eager to differentiate themselves from the original Tim; they need to be special unique individuals. This has led to absolute chaos in the Wizard’s infinite tower, but that’s quite alright. Timothy just needs you to crush their skulls and retrieve the soul marbles he planted in them. For reasons.

This 126 page adventure features one hundred rooms of a funhouse dungeon. Very high level, no gimping, decently organized, fanciful without going over the line inBob Barker dungeon farce but blows away any hint of a pretentious campaign. Focused on situations a combat, but that’s the mission. A great work, but fuck me if I know how to use it.

Let’s use Blue Medusa as a baseline for this adventure. Blue medusa presented a wide variety of rooms, each with something interesting in them.  A person, a situation, something. There were some loose connections between things. It pushed the boundaries of logic but nothing went too far overboard. It you were running a serious campaign then it would not be too much of a stretch to work Blue Medusa in. On the other side of this is a dungeon with a game show host in it and modern anachronisms. Not your normal “wizard has a raygun shit”, but stuff like a 50’s diner and so on. 

100 Clones is somewhere in between those two. A hydra with Tim the Wizard faces. A matador Tim. A Tim-ber. Basement Dweller Tim. It’s pushing the 50’s diner line, hard, but I don’t think it is relentless in going there. But it IS a departure from the usual D&D pretext and your ability to use this adventure depends a lot on how you would frame the odd tone this and work it in your game. 

It’s easier, I think, because it’s high level. Someone asked me once what a high level dungeon would look like and I think this adventure is it. And to be clear, I think you can have a high level adventure that is not a dungeon, and be more serious, but to keep it a dungeon at high levels you need to expect some things to go a bit wonky …On the plus side it doesn’t gimp the players at all. You can come and go as you please and cast all the spells you wish. The only dungeon limitation is in holding the doors between room open. Otherwise, run away and Wish all you wish.

So, Tim the WIzard lives in an interdimensional tower. He’s cloned himself 100 times and they’ve run amok. There are 100 rooms and 100 Tims, but some rooms have no Tims and some have multiple Tims. It’s random, with the DM rolling before the game or during it to determine how the rooms are connected … but once connected they stay that way. 

Each room is a little vignette, much in the same way Blue Medusa was. Some are small. Small or small-ish room, like a chandelier in the ceiling with a Tim tied to it … and a deadly trap on the floor under him. Others are huge. Room one is ten miles in diameter with 500 1HD monsters, an 18th level Necromancer Tim, a 20HD monster, and a small village of 127 people. Everything/one except the Tim is a hand. Like the thing at the end of your arm. Some giant. (It was pretty clear, but the time I got to page six of this thing, that Five Cataclysms and Unbalanced Die Games are the same people.)

You’ve got a basic set up of a village of hand-people (farm hands …) and a tower full of undead hands that only come out at night and attack light sources. And a 20HD hand monster that only attacks those without light. And a day/night cycle of 2 hours on and 1 hour off. And the Tim necromancer living in the tower on the top floor with his 500 hands stuffing the bottom floor during day cycles. And … Go! The rest is up to to DM to run.

Typical encounters are 20HD monsters. 120 8HD skeletons and a 50HD skeleton. Weird monsters. Unique powers. Lots of loot and very deadly encounters to get it out. 

Like most funhouse dungeons there is a possibility that some rooms can be overcome with by a part of almost any level. And when things turn deadly they turn DEADLY. Higher levels let you fuck up once or maybe twice before fleeing. There are some allusions to things people will recognize, like a Sorcerer’s Apprentice brookstick room and even a fake Time .. .the tool-man. 

Encounters can be long, a page or two for some of the longer ones. They are organized well with a brief intro paragraph, bolded words, and then follow-up paragraphs that start with that same bolded word/s to guide the DM’s attention. It’s pushing things with its room lengths, but survives, I think, by providing those succinct summary intros to each room. I can’t imagine rooms much longer though being able to pull this off. Good use of paragraphs, bolding and white space also contribute to making information easy to find on the longer rooms. 

And I must say … I like the Unbalanced/5Cat humor style: 

“Timothy – (Believes he is the real Tim, and acts very much like him. However, he will find that he has little to no power, cannot even cast spells, and has no items or contrivances to assist him. He is an HD1 nobody. If he convinces the players to take him back to his tower, the true Timothy the Wise will guide them to his ‘x-ray’ chamber to show everyone the soul marble in the clone’s head. The clone may initially object. The x-ray device is actually a smashing device which will instantly pulp the false Tim’s head. The real Tim will pluck out the soul marble and say “Oh, look at that! I managed to get one back all by myself!” he will then stride out of the room whistling contentedly leaving the characters alone with the mess of brain, blood, and bone.)”

This is a delight. I don’t see how you can use this in any way other than some dedicated campaign time with high-level characters and a GOOD old school player group that thinks outside the box for most solutions. Full on Tower of Gax. 

This is $8 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages with the last few showing you the first four or so dungeon rooms. Room one is that Necromancer domain while room two is a column-long Chandelier Tim. They give you a good feel of the writing style, tone, and content of the adventure.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/273565/100-Clones-of-Timothy-the-Wise?1892600

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 7 Comments