(5e) The Dungeon Terrier

Frank Voelker
Protodragon Games
"Early Levels"

Tactically delve into moist halls and sample locally-sourced flora in search of Sir Howard, a gentleman terrier marooned in the depths of a lost smuggler’s den, now colonized by a mysical diviner and other less savory creatures.

This ten page adventure details a 13 room small lair dungeon. It’s experimenting with a nested bullet style of formatting that has some potential, although could use more polishing. It’s a slow dungeon, with only a few encounters.

Well, it’s got the stink of Pugmire on it, the game of talking dogs/PC’s. PUgmire entrenches too much magic for me, but, whatever. This also has a charming aspect to it, at its core. The encounters, even those not to my liking, feel like someone put some effort in to them and that they form a cohesive core. Even down to the DM table called “Who’s a good Boy” that only has one entry” Sir Howard, the missing dog in question. There’s both a clarity and a charm to the writing, overall.

The creatures all have names and some kind of personality, even the giant spider that jumps out to eat you. And in “personality” I mean just a couple of words, usually, to describe a motivation or tactic or some such that lifts them up from just being another boring monster entry. This is combined with some attempts at creating an unusual environment. A boney arm sticks up from under a moss patch, or some glowing blue fungus, or a mushroom patch, for example, with table to describe them.

The format here is a kind of nested bullet point style. Each bullet has a couple of words to describe it, and then some nested bullets below it to describe it, each of which may a few words of their own and so on.

Campsite: Grimy, wet, ashes,
          Campfire: burnt out, small, still warm
          Rotted crates: deteriorated, half-gone, contains the following:       
                 Blackened dagger: oak handle and wide blade. Homemade
                 Hooded lantern +oil.

It’s an interesting format and it feels like I’ve seen similar formats before. It’s going for easy scanning, with bloding, and keywords to paint an evocative picture. Important things first, general vibes first, then expanding that.

I’m not sure if this adventure is a good one to judge that format by. It feels like the full potential of the format hasn’t been reached. The descriptions could use some work to make them really pop. The real problem, though, is the adventure feels unfulfilling, and I think that colours the formatting a bit.

There’s a lot of trivia. The thing is full of skill checks that don’t necessarily lead anywhere. Roll PER to smell like earth. Roll higher and smell dog urine. Ok. So? Roll Survive to figure out a giant boar laired here a year ago. Ok. So? Quote a bit of effort is spent on rooms and descriptions that don’t really offer much true interactivity. It feels like a “huh, ok, that’s weird. Let’s move on.” sort of encounters. Greenwood has done this a lot. You need something more than “here’s a something weird.” I get a slow burn and all that, and some weird shit is fine. But the emphasis must be on meaningful interactivity, or the potential thereof.

On the petty Bryce side of things: the rapids mentioned are not on the map. Can you modify the map when you license it from Dyson? Idk. Also, there’s no level mentioned in the product description on DriveThru, you gotta blow up the cover. There’s also a mention about giving the caves some lead-in to create an “entering the dungeon” vibe. Give the length, ten pages, it seems that a paragraph or a couple of sentences could have been devoted to that actual description, rather than going meta and saying “i put some caves in front of it to give it an entering the dungeon vibe.”

Finally, the room with the dog in, Sir Howard, and intelligent and kindly beast, seems to be full of his treasure? It’s weird to see a very friendly NPC with a half page description of his loot. Or maybe it’s not meant to be his loot and it’s the Bad Kids (yeah, a 13yo is the villein) stuff? Which is also weird that the dog hasn’t investigated it? I don’t get it?

Something else strikes me about this. It feels like the players may get too comfortable. There’s an implied “dark unknown lurks in front of you” from the map, but that doesn’t really come through very well with the descriptions. That could have been heightened either through the descriptions or through the mechanics (wanderers, etc can do this) to put some pressure, time, danger, etc, on the party.

This is better than most 5e adventures, but still misses.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru. The preview shows you all ten pages. Yeah Frank! We all know no one is going to make any money on this shit, so by giving people a good preview you ensure happy consumers BEFORE they buy.


Posted in 5e, Reviews | 3 Comments

The Pilgrimage of Hunger

By Gregorius21778
OSR/Generic/Veins of the Earth
Lower Levels?

The Pilgrimage of Hunger is a small cave system written for Veins of the Earth. The idea behind it is that it came into being in response to the hunger of the living, sentient minds and souls of the Veins. If it is the creation of cruel and dark gods, of a devil or demon, something from the Outer Dark or of some strange underworld godling of hunger that has devoured its own name is up to you as the GM. It is assumed that the existence and rites of the chapel are known to at least a few dwellers of the Veins in the wider area, and that those in the know make regular “pilgrimages” to the chapel (for the sake of survival).

This seventeen page adventure describes an eight room cave complex. Veins of the Earth style with living darkness and the more realistic cave system descriptions, etc are all present. While it is deep and rich, I would make the case that it’s not very interactive and suffers quite a bit from a writing style that’s not conducive to actually running it.

The caves here modeled after the Veins style. The darkness is alive and it takes time to go from point A to B, up and down, with it abstracted in to a pointcrawl. That’s all fine and it’s good to see something coming out in this style. The darkness description is contained in one small paragraph near the beginning, in italics. I think at this point it’s clear I don’t like long italics blocks. A few words, ok, but more than a sentence is hard to read. Further, the darkness, tactile, smell-o-vision atmosphere is supposed to be ever present. I would have like to have seen it front & center in everything. There’s a little border design on every page … I can’t help but think that putting the general atmosphere in that border, or a border of keywords, would have been much more effective in helping the DM integrate it in to all aspects of the adventure. Or, maybe just on the page that has the abstracted map? When running a game you need certain things at your fingertips almost all of the time, the map being one of those. Putting other “general need” reference information on it makes sense. As does something like a border, etc. Both make the information readily at hand for the DM to use, prompting their memory and cueing them to make use of the extra.

The various encounters are interesting, in a way, and interactive in the sense that if you fuck with things then things will happen. The text is deep and rich, conveying a layered approach. It’s rich and deep enough that it’s hard to convey. I get the same vibe as I do when reading William Hope Hodgson or the knocks off stories. Airy, deep, mysterious. The keywords there would be “when I read it.” In the realm of “RPG Adventure as a Lit thing tending to being read more  than played as a substitute for people tired of Drizzel Durden Genre Fiction” then this thing out-Paizo’s a Paizo “adventure.”

That, of course, is not a compliment. I’ll take a Hodgson vibe all day long, but I won’t read it at the table. The thing is DENSE, with about a page per room description in places. Multiple paragraphs, not much in the way of whitespace organization beyond a simple paragraph break and just a little italics. Headings, indents, other techniques used to draw attention, group information, and the like are few and far between or not present at all. This leads you to long silences to read the room and try to hold it in your head. Craig the dwarf dropped to his death as he tried to climb the shaft. His corpse lies at the bottom of it. The preamble adds nothing to actual play but a lot to the Paizo-nature.

Kent would argue that one buys an adventure, studies it, takes notes, and spends many hours in preparation. And, yes, you could do that. But that’s not where I’m coming from. I think, that in 2019, we can expect more from the shit we spend out money on (or time, an even more valuable resource.) I expect us to have learned something about design in the last fifty years of D&D publishing. I expect the designer to add value that way. There’s always a role for something fabulously imaginative that eschews organization. A product that you must study to use serves as fluff, inspiration, or possibly as a cornerstone to many many sessions. But why not both? Is that concept really so foreign?

I would argue, as well, that while the encounters in this are interactive they are not the right kind of interactive. In a lot of (older?) Greenwood adventures it can feel like you are touring a museum. Raggi-land punishes mercilessly if you interact. Kuntz can hide things so deep you can’t find them. In all cases you can interact. Good interaction drives the adventure. It gives you reason to interact. There’s a flower. Eat it and some weird thing that you could never anticipate will happen. Well … why would I eat it in the first place? Because I have death wish? At higher levels maybe a little more of this can excused; the party has enough divination magic that they should know better/in advance. But what of the rest of us? Why the fuck would I ever eat from the flower? I didn’t make level 4 by eating strange shit FOR NO REASON. Likewise, a weird old man with little memory, in a cave. Uh, ok. And? It comes off as weird for the sake of weird, with no force or lure to interact.

I want to be delicate in these next comments. I’m pretty sure this is an English as a Second Language adventure. And that’s great. I love adventures from outside the english-speaking world. The various takes on things, influenced by their own cultures, Scandinavian, French, Asian, are all great and I would hate for this comment to be viewed as a pushback. And lord knows their english is better than any language I know. I tend to overlook a lot of minor things, but when it starts to interfere with comprehension then it’s a problem. A quick read-through by a native english speaker, with a highlighter, could have perhaps focused the designers attention on certain areas that could use a second look. It’s a relatively minor thing in this, but it does stick out a little more than some of the French or Scandinavian stuff I’ve seen. Not a full on editor, just a pass off to friend with a request to highlight the more awkward sentences/phrases.

And there’s no level present? On the cover or the DriveThru description or in the description?

Imaginative, the bones of something good, but the “good” interactivity is lacking, with little drive to explore (almost no treasure at all) and risk, combined with a somewhat “normal” writing style in paragraph form that hides information from scanning and location during play.

This is Pay What You Want at Drivethru with a suggested price of $2.50. It’s PWYW, so you, in a sense, get the preview for free. But, it also provides the ENTIRE thing as a preview, for free. I’ve seen a couple of products lately do this and I’ll on board for it to be a trend in 2019 and beyond. There’s so much shit on DriveThru that a requirement to post the entire thing in the preview would also be a blessing.


Posted in Reviews | 14 Comments

Off Track: The Uncharted Swamp

By Brian Cooper
Off Track Games
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 1-5

From the blurb:

This adventure aims to solve the problem of dealing with random overland movement through a swamp by offering the referee a really really good random encounter table that doesn’t feel random, but instead hangs together in a meaningful way.  In addition to true “wanderers,” it also describes a few lairs whose location is not pre-determined, but fixed in the course of play.

This forty page thing is wandering monster table meant to be used in a swamp. Which blurs the lines between wandering monster table and a hex crawl, which is why I’m reviewing it. Is a hex crawl an adventure? After looking at this, I don’t know. Brian asked me to review this, luring me in the promise of “something new under the sun”, a sure fire way to hook any reviewer. I’m going to talk about the tables, proper, near the end, but first I’m going to talk about play aids, adventures, and things in between.

So, you’ve got his description, above. This is a wandering monster table for a swamp. Each of the entries has four possibilities: day & night and a “hint” of the encounter followed by the encounter. Many of the table entries are linked even beyond that, such as multiple table entries or different types of frog-licking drug addicts, and the frogs proper, and so on. Each entry takes about a page to describe the four possible encounters for that one line item: day hint, night hint, day encounter, night encounter. There’s also a couple of “lairs” that one of the encounters could lead you back to, for example if the druggies invite back to their base.

Let’s say I make a map and key it, randomly from the 1e DMG, minimally. “12 skeletons” type shit. Is that an adventure? For the purposes of this argument we’re going to not quibble and say Yes … although we may come to different conclusions by the end. What if I put a lot of work in to it, and, while the random rolls inspired me, it eventually gets a lot added by me and there’s additional context and the entries kind of work together? Sure. that’s easily an adventure. What if I don’t key it. What if I instead provide a wandering monster table and tell you to key the rooms as the characters enter it? Hmm … I’m getting suspicious it’s not really an adventure … maybe a toolkit? Let’s say I add a table of monster motivations and/or I make the ability to roll on the 1e DMG tables a lot easier during play … adventure then? Probably still a toolkit?

What about a hex crawl, given the same scenarios? I just provide a map and a wandering monster table to populate it. Is it an adventure? What if the wandering monster table works together REALLY well, with additional context, etc? How’s that differ from a traditional hex crawl, which, if memory serves, was pretty minimally described (from Wilderlands1 memory.) What if Wilderlands1 didn’t have a map, but had all of those entries on a table to roll when you enter a hex? Maybe with a blank map added?

I’m not sure I know what the answer is, but I think there’s a nugget of pure truth hiding somewhere in all of that, and, if understood, would provide some guidance to adventure design. The map, the “minimal” encounter, the extra context for an encounter, the encounters working together, stuff done ahead of time … some mix of those makes something an adventure rather than a play aid. And if it is a play aid that’s close to the line then maybe that has value as an adventure also? And so far over the line you’re just mechanics at that point?

This has no map. It has a series of swamp encounters that can be random and are interrelated, both to the other entries in the table and to “themselves” via the hint/day/night mechanic. This strikes me as both an alternative format to a hexcrawl and an alternative format to a wandering monster table. So it could be a … true(?) DM aid, in that its a wandering monster table, or something close to an adventure, depending on your view of hex crawls like Wilderlands. As something different, in concept, the possibilities are intriguing.

The product, proper, has issues. First, it’s 40 pages long for a ten entry wandering monster table.  That, alone, pushes it in to Hex Crawl territory and away from Wandering Monster Table, at least in how this product instantiates the concept. The entries have a lot of italics, which I find hard to read during play. The writing is a little loose, if a lot of if/then statements. Most of the encounters are more prescriptive than … open ended? “When the men are within 30 yards they spot the party, point at them excitedly, and greet them” There’s another part of this that says that if a druggie is deprived of his frog he will get aggressive, at first half-jokingly, but soon violently. That’s good detail, especially the second part, but I think, somehow, I’m looking for something a little more … abstracted? They are happy jovial, excited, willing to share … but turn to violence if separated from their frogs. I willing admit my second phrase doesn’t capture the designers. I’m also willing to admit that the text Brian provided DOES capture the spirit of what I’ve (re)written, but I think maybe the paragraph presentation muddles and diffuses some of the impact of the writing and scene.

So, as a hex crawl, it’s ok to good but a little hard to pull the details of an encounter out of it. If it were condensed to a minimal number of pages (6?) without loosing much flavor, you’d have a different thing, a kind of “tailored wandering monster table” that I think could be a product type in and of itself. Value-Add Wanderers table?

It’s Pay what You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $0. I’d check it out, even if you don’t want it as an adventure. It’s an interesting concept, raises questions to think about, and may spur additional things to riff off of.


Posted in Reviews | 13 Comments

(5e) The Great Assault

Geeks Next Door
Level 7

Just outside the Lonely Desert, on the edge of civilized lands stands a massive 200 ft., black cube known as The Brick. Glyphs and symbols adorn the brick, etched into its impossibly hardened sides in an ancient forgotten language. Some say the brick is the doorway between the living and the dead. Some say it is a gateway to another plane. Still others claim that the brick is the foundation for the entire world, and discovering its secrets will unlock the keys to the multiverse. […] What secrets does The Brick hold? What treasure might be uncovered within its black sides? Gather your companions, grip your holy symbols, and bring light into true darkness as you come face to face with the mysteries of The Brick.

Uh … ok.

This 31 page adventure is part eight of a twelve part series. It has the party making some skill checks and then fighting four cultists. The setting is ok? It tries to have flavor? It fails on … adventure?

So, giant square building in plain, glowing runes on it, undead swarm out every night returning by morning. Town nearby, full of holy orders, dedicated to understand the structure. Party has been in town for seven adventures and this is the eighth. Once a year the town assaults the buildings, killing undead and keeping them at back while scholars study the building. The party joins the scholars, makes some skill checks to figure out the building, and then gets attacked by four cultists. Oh, and there’s a party in town the night before so you can engage in some stuff like turkey eating contests and the ilk.

IF you’re ok with the magical society/ren-faire shit then the setting is ok. The whole undead magnet/building thing, with glowing runes, is cool. Once you put a town nearby, full of clerics that train on undead, it starts to get weird. There’s a Romero thing going on where the people in town go to the walls to watch the undead swarm out every night. Surreal. And the leader of the assault (of 2000 people/knights!) rides an armored giant boar. Like I said, it takes some getting used to. The flavor is more “dumb D&D magical society” than it is weird OD&D undead magnet or surreal town watching the wall. It’s like it’s almost doing something interesting but is afraid to go there.

Oh, did I mention that in this town FULL of holy orders and scholars that specialize in the undead, that the mayor is a disguised lich? Yeah, with a mind shielding … how did you know? The inability to do something good matches my own.

Oh! Oh! You gain a level! Yup, you get enough xp to level, says the adventure. In fact, you level after every one of these, or so says the introduction. Doesn’t that match that Mearls statement that the party should level after each nights play? 5e is a story game. If it’s a good 5e you throw in some tactical combat that you can lose. If it’s a bad 5e then you can’t lose.

So, lets see, story game, four combats and some skill checks, a bunch of magic items that give you mechanical ability score bumps (weirdly a lot of them?) , boring rumors, town map doesn’t tell you what the buildings actually are just business names, shop descriptions with trivia instead of gameable data (she buried her husband instead of burning him … uh … so what?) super long flavor text and a lot of it, used as act transitions … the laundry list of bad shit goes on and on.

The 4e skill check part is so mechanical that, at one point, the cult attacks between success four and five of the run.

But, the setting is kind of interesting, and the concept of it being a central point of the campaign is kind of intriguing. It gathers all the NPC’s together on one page, and gives you another page of randos to spice up town life, and tries to summarize them in just a few words: 31/F/Hu/Shy & Nice. Not great, but the thought behind it is the right one.

It’s REALLY fucking hard to get past the lack of content and story-based structure. Yo already have all the flavor text you need if you want to steal the idea, from reading the intro blurb and the review. Although, the thing IS free. There’s just nothing much to salve in this beyond the “town near a weird building that attracts undead” conceit.

And you didn’t stick the fucking party level on the cover or in the description. How do I know what level this is for before I buy it?

This is Free at DriveThru.


Posted in 5e, Reviews | 4 Comments

The Dog That Would Not Bark

By Jonathan Hicks
Farsight Games
Swords & Wizardry
Level: Who the fuck knows?

When a dog comes running to the players looking for attention, what dangers will they be led to?

This six page adventure has one encounter, with five ghouls. My life is a living hell.

I’m interested, lately, in lower page count adventures. In contrast to the overwritten stuff that seems to dominate the market these days I was thinking about the opposite end of the spectrum. What was G1, like, eight pages or something? And it’s one of the best things written. [And, yes Kent, it violates several of the things I judge on and could be written better.] I’ve been a little intrigued lately by the idea of a lower page count adventure with a higher density of rooms. Alongside that is some thinking about pricing and inflation, again influenced by G1. If you got something really good in six pages, or adequate, what’s a fair price for that? Ain’t nobody gonna make any money doing this shit, so it’s a kind of academic question at this point, but interesting nonetheless. Finally, just how hard is it to make an adventure for publication? How much effort is it to get something short, dense, and at least adequate in a form that other people can use?

With this in mind I selected the Dog That Would Not Bark for a review. Six pages fits the model of what I’m looking for! And $1! Alas, it’s actually a six page Sidetrek featuring one encounter. The blurb says it’s an “adventure.” It’s not an adventure, it’s an encounter. The blurb has no level listed. Five ghouls … what is that, level 2 or 3?

An agitated dog runs up barking, making no sound. He wants you to follow him to a ruin nearby. Inside are five ghouls about to eat two little kids. ADVENTURE! Wonder! VALUE! Population: you.

Six pages for this shit. Oh! Oh! “If the party did well then you can put a magic item in the treasure by rolling on the table in the core book.” This is how you write an adventure?

Yeah, the soundless bark is interesting. As is the ghouls about to eat the kids. And the kids say the dog is actually their uncle turned in to a dog by a wizard.  But come on man, six pages? Seriously? There are dungeon with fifty or sixty rooms that come in six pages. That pack this much adventure in to a decent percentage of their rooms.

What a world. What a world. Time to try and find another example to support my thesis and ignore this ever existed. Sometimes science is about conviction.

This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview is but two page long. If it were longer you’d know how much “value” you were getting and not buy it. The second page is representative of the adventure. Lots of whitespace with a couple sentences of text.


Posted in Reviews | 22 Comments

The Mountain Tollkeep

By Peter Lattimore
Garblag Games

High on a mountain side where the pass skirts the flank of a massive peak sit two towers standing proud against the sky. Between them a thick wall and portcullis bar the path of anyone seeking to sneak from one land to another, for whatever purpose. The walls of this structure have witnessed many things: diplomatic envoys hell-bent on trade deals, generals on horseback with declarations of war, displaced peasantfolk hammering on it’s gates with malnourished hands.

This ten page “locale” is not an adventure. It describes a location, barely. Two towers with a wall running between them, closing off a mountain pass between two countries. It is devoid of any but the most basic location information.

Not an adventure. It is basically a map and then some text describing the map in a VERY basic way. Like, the map shows murder holes and the text says “there are murder holes on the wall”, or the map has two rooms on a floor labeled “bunkrooms” and the text of the product says “there are two bunkrooms on this floor.” IE: the text almost always adds nothing to the map and, while it doesn’t describe room dimensions, it does essentially the same thing with everything on the map EXCEPT room dimensions.

There are no NPC’s. There’s no garrison commander, or drunk soldiers, or anything like that. When it mentions people, and it seldom does, it mentions them in the most generic way possible. “The commander might …”

And it’s full of “might.” It contains useful advice like “you can change the walls from stone to something else to fit your campaign better” or “defenders are most likely to be seen on the walls”, or, in a hook “we’ll leave the blackmail option up to you.” So, basically, this product is a one page map expanded to ten pages with almost nothing else.

And even the map suffers. The two towers are called Falcon and Eerie, but the maps generally don’t note which tower is which.

I bought this on DriveThru and was gonna print it out, but it says i can’t reproduce it in ANY way unless I contact the designer, and I can’t find contact information for them. Yes, I’m being an ass.

There’s nothing here. I’d say it’s not even a location, but rather just a map.

This is available on DriveThru for $2. There’s no preview, otherwise you might know beforehand what you’re buying.


Posted in Reviews | 18 Comments

(5e) Embrace

By Richard Iorio
Rogue Games Inc
Levels 8-9

Embrace is a voyage into the heart of an evil plot. Something strange is happening, and long-held beliefs are being perverted to fit another’s evil ways. How the characters accomplish their task and handle the looming crisis, is another matter all together…

This 46 page adventure is the typical Lovecraft Call of Cthulhu adventure converted to 5e. Actually, it appears to have been written for Sword, Shield & Spell and converted to 5e. But the publisher also sells the Colonial Gothic RPG game, which appears to be CoC in colonial america … and if you think “What if HPL wrote his stories set in colonial america?” and then converted it to 5e then you’d have this adventure. Everything about this is CoC. The pacing is HPL CoC pacing and the writing is straight out of every CoC adventure ever written. IE: bad.

Some woman’s husband has disappeared and not been seen for two months. Seems he was a university professor specializing in religion and went to some village to look in to something, not being seen since. The party is hired to find him. Sound familiar? Like every HPL story ever? When you think of D&D do you think of university professors? This thing is full of stuff like that. “Coach inns” abound, and some of the art looks more like a colonial american inn than D&D … Anyway …

The usual has happened. A cultist came in, took over the local religion disguised as a druid, and then converted people to Shub worship. There’s a strong wicker man/creepy village thing going on, down to the artwork showing a burning wicker man, along with the usual “everyone in the village is cultist”, people staring at you, the local sheriff is in on it, etc. If you’ve played any Call of Cthulhu game, ever, or read a rural New England HPL story then you know what the adventure is.  Wander around investigating, locals rise up, and then confront the EHP.

So, long read-alouds. We know that’s bad and why it’s bad. No one pays attention after three sentences. Then there is MOUNTAINS of DM text. But it’s CoC Dm text style, which means it’s written as a “first x and then Y and then z  happens” which is impossible to follow and run at the table. You can’t scan it. Bullet points and/or white space formatting is in painfully short supply. You can’t find shit, it’s all buried.

NPC descriptions are long and written in the same style. We’re not reading a novel. We’re trying to run something at the table. The writing and formatting needs to be oriented towards that. If all the other Call of Cthulhu adventures jumped off a bridge would you also? Bandit stats, in 5e, are a column long. How ever did older games manage with inline stats? Oh, the horror of recognizing what’s important in the game and it’s not stats, The Horror!

At the start of the game the party gets a letter the missing guy received. It’s signed W. The DM text tells us the wife “probably doesn’t know who W is …” How does that help us run the game?  The inexplicable nature of that line boggles me to no end and is representative of the complete lack of understanding of what an adventure is and how to write one. “I had an idea and I threw a bunch of text down on a page in a roughly linear manner” is no way to run a railroad/write an adventure.

Also, there’s no indication what level this adventure is for on the DriveThru page or on the adventure cover. Bad publisher! Bad! How the fuck am I supposed to know if I should buy it for my group of Level 1’s? Oh, I should just buy it? Oh, you didn’t think of thigns like that. See, get my point, YOU WERE NOT THINKING ABOUT THE NEEDS OF THE DM WHEN YOU WROTE IT.

It’s a CoC adventure. It’s another point in my favor that Horror  translates well between all settings, from SciFi to Fantasy to 1920’s. It’s not bad, at its core, but it’s just the usual CoC tropes, handed down from HPL himself.

Also, I now associate the 5e brand (and Pathfinder, for that matter) with suckage. When I get ready to go buy one I ask myself “I wonder just how bad this one will be …” I’m guessing that’s not the image that WOTC & Paizo are trying for. Mixing official shit with homebrew in the storefront was a bad idea, as was allowing the cross-branding. Hey WOTC, when you finally get that 10 picture movie deal done (You belong to Hasbro for cross-branding purposes. That’s it. And we all know it’s mostly or MtG) I’m going to think “I wonder how bad this one will suck?” because of your paper publishing strategy has led me that way. That’s what you were going for, right?

This is $8 at DriveThru. The preview is perfectly representative of the paragraphs long writing style that you’ll find in the adventure. So, good preview in that you tells you what to expect: a disorganized mess.


Posted in 5e, Reviews | 13 Comments

Trollback Keep

By John Bertani & Aaron Fairbrook
Merciless Merchants
Gold & Glory/2e
Levels 4-7

The Crimson Legion has gained a foothold in the Dragonback Mountains. Having taken over Trollback Keep, they’ve gathered wealth, power and now seek to expand their territory. Villages of man and gnome have been sacked or enslaved. And now the Crimson Legion may be close to discovering the lost Shrine of Deralugos. Lord Brie and his men are busy fighting the raiding bands that are ravaging the area. He’s offering gold and glory to those who can find the source of this incursion and help put a stop to it!

This 34 page adventure details a couple of dungeons and wilderness encounters in a small region. The humanoids have a keep they are launching raids from, and there’s a gnome shrine and dungeon also. It’s a good well-rounded environment with lots of opportunities to get in to trouble … exactly what D&D should be.

Well, it looks like SOMEONE has been paying attention. The wanderers in this are doing things, like orcs congratulating themselves over an elk they’ve downed. AND there’s a reference sheet of monster stats/locations. AND the there’s some cross-referencing of information. AND most of the information is related in bullet form. AND there’s some new monsters and magic items. The astute among you will recognize these as all things I bitch about. That having been removed, I will have to find to find new things in this to bitch about. 🙂

I REALLY like the dungeon map in this. Laid out around a river, it has elevation changes, stuff carved out, the water can be used as a bypass, there are islands, same level stairs, features on the map. The river naturally divides the place in to some little sub-areas. It’s visually interesting with lots of features for the party to explore.

It brings some faction play and interactivity to the table. Gnomes can be added to the parties forces, and they can clue you in to some barbarians nearby who might want to ally … but they don’t like the gnomes. There’s a captured giant to free and the various humanoids in the keep could be turned on one another. It’s a complex social environment and that’s great interactivity. Beyond that the dungeons proper have interactivity, like a corrupted fountain that, if cleaned u p, comes to life for a moment and blesses the party. Part of the place is a gnome temple, which is an excuse for a few funhouse elements, like the boulder roll halfpipe from Dragon’s lair. They don’t come off as odious gnome tricks at all, which is an achievement in itself.

The area keys start with a nice little description. A recently gutted and oozing elk carcass hangs from a tree near a cauldron next to a pile of crushed goblin corpses. An especially warty and fat orcs stirs the cauldron occasionally. Good imagery.

Some of the descriptions get long. Some of the bullets get long. As length increases the ability to scan drops off. It doesn’t delve in to the history of a place, or trivia, but lets say instead there’s a wealth of pertinent information presented. There’s some correct balance here and, while its not bad, it strays a little close to the “too much” line at times. A lot of times. Because of that you don’t get the sense from the text that it’s easy to scan and run. I’m not saying its NOT, I’m saying you don’t get that sense. Looking at it you might sigh, but it IS well organized.

Well, mostly. There’s a thing where they put the monsters at the end of the encounter, bolded, at the same indent level (or, rather, a lack of indent) as the room key proper. This can make it seem like the monster is crowding the next room and lack a kind of intuitive layout. Page ten room 2&3, I’m looking at you in particular.

Also, the art choices are a bit weird. It’s not clear why you might choose to include a generic barbarian pic over a pic of the new translucent snail people who you can talk to. Likewise, a pic of the main keep could have been nice.

And that last point is related to the largest miss in this. There’s a part of this adventure that MIGHT be: gather some NPC people and siege/invade/sneak in to the keep to kill the humanoids. That could have been handled better. An iso view of the main keep, and a littlre more attention to “things high nearby that let you look down in to the keep” or other elements that support a base assault would have been welcomes. There’s a kind of order of battle and some day night notes in places, as well as guards and alarms, but I think that needs to come as part of a package. More variety in the keep yard to hide behind/use in combat. More features in the area around the keep. Some more notes on NPC tactics, etc. [Fair warning: Far Cry 1 is in my top 5 list and I loved the open-ended nature of the base assaults there. And I loved playing Danger International and the base assaults we did in that. So … yeah, I love base assaults and have lots of thoughts on them.]

But … this isn’t a bad adventure. It’s a good one. It’s organized ok, and has interactivity and dynamism to it. I’m fond of the emergent play origin story of the adventure also (I rolled three monster checks in a row and wanted to piece them together in a larger picture.) Man, I’m not gushing, am I? It IS good, just pushing the boundaries of thick a bit and the layout/summaries/bullets, while helpful, could use some tweaking to make the points come across better. I’d say MM have just about cracked the code of producing good shit on a schedule.

This is available for $5 on DriveThru. Easily worth that. The preview is 8 pages. Pages 5 & 6 of the adventure show the orc camp/chef I talked about, and more of the preview shows you the writing typical of what the adventure is.


Posted in Reviews, The Best | 15 Comments

B2.5 Caves of the Unknown

By Charley Phipps, Thom Wilson, Mike Badolato
ThrowiGames & NTRPGCon
Levels 2-4

This 28 page adventure details the Daves of the Unknown dungeon from B2/Keep on the Borderlands, that was initially left blank for the DM to populate. It has about 44 encounters in the main Caves of the Unknown area, and expands the Lizardman mound and a couple of wilderness areas. This adventure provides an answer to the question: can you be both minimally keyed and wordy?

I picked this up at NTRPGcon. After writing this review I discovered that it appears to be physical copies only … and those copies are hard to come by. Oops. Sorry, I don’t usually do that. It looks like BadMike sells them in this storefront. Uh, I mean … SUCK IT FOOLS! I HAVE SOMETHING YOU CANT HAVE! Bwahahahahaha! Until I sell of my collection again. But first I have to rebuy it. Anyway …

Three authors and three separate sections: Charley with the Caves, Thom with the additional Lizardman mount and Mike with the three supplemental “one room” caves.

The second two are easy: they are too long. Column long rooms in the lizard mound and page and column long descriptions of a grizzly bear cave are too much for me, given the basic nature of the encounters.

The Caves of Unknown have more meat to them. And thus more sins. The writing style in all three is quite loosy goosy. Almost stream of consciousness. There’s a lot of padding, and I note in particular the Quantum nature of it. “IF the characters search the [x] then they find …” Or a room “appears to have once been …” This is not effective or efficient writing of descriptions. Ray goes over this in his Writing with Style booklet for RPG writers.

The padding is strong with this one and the loose style does not help scannability. The dungeon is pretty close to Vanilla and minimally keyed, which makes the “four to six rooms per page” stand out, even with the larger font size. There’s a snake under the rocks near the secret door. Further, there’s context involved in the descriptions which often clogs things up. We learn that the lost Thouls get their water from the room with the harpy, sneaking by her while shes asleep. Of course, they attack immediately, so this is a just an appeal to ecology. And explaining of WHY something is. The Thouls must have a water source! The bugbears are working for someone!  And so on. D&D seldom needs a WHY.

Otherwise, it’s pretty vanilla. Skeletons wear amulets to make them harder to turn. [Not one of Gygax’s great moments, and certainly not something to emulate.] Ghouls jump out of sarcophaguses when opened. Treasure is generic book items … and I’m sure B/X got its kiddie reputation based on the preponderance (exclusive) use of book monsters and magic items. They’re generic at this point.

And yet, there are hilights. A burned body on the floor … except for his robe, one of fire resistance. The naked woman in the forest ISNT a nymph, but a werewolf, looking not to kill but to infect others to grow a pack. A decent map, with underground river and several different encounter areas/themes … even if 85% of the dungeon does lie behind an easily missed secret door. Seriously … do no clues at all for that door? That seems a bit rough. I mean, the tossing a 44 room dungeon after room five seems a bit much.

It’s just another dungeon. And that can be ok, but it should be easier to use. Also, I’m not sure I like inline stat blocks combined with fat fonts. Putting them at the end of the room would have made scanning the room easier, I think?

Anyway, how would you, the reader, know? You’re not gonna see a copy of this. 🙂

Posted in Reviews | 50 Comments

(SciFi) Hard Light

By Kevin Crawford
Sine Nomine Publishing
Stars Without Number
Levels 1-3

Hard Light takes a band of young adventurers to a system blazing with the murderous light of a red giant star. The hard-bitten novium miners of the Brightside mining station maintain the only outpost of civilization in a system filled with lethal light and stellar outlaws on the run. Will the players find the riches of the ancient asteroid sky tombs and their alien makers, or will they fall prey to the seething rebellion that boils beneath Brightside Station’s steel skin?

This 38 page adventure describes a spacestation and the small system of asteroids in system. It has three Space Asteroid dungeons and a system to create more: the aline Sky Tombs. It’s got a great core concept with strong social dynamics, but man it is THICK and DENSE with text. Like, “study it every day for a couple of hours in order ro run it” levels of density.

Let’s start off with me saying I don’t know nothing about SciFi gaming. I mean, I love it. I played Traveller with a group that consisted of me and five Astrophysics PhD’s. Nothing like sitting bored for an hour while they argued the laser distance inside a dyson sphere. Oh, Colonel Gil Richter, how I miss thee … Anyway. I love SciFi and have no idea how to run it. It seems to me like it starts out at level 32 with the characters as gods. [Seems like I should do something with that. Maybe on my Patreon?] And I don’t know anything about Stars Without Number. I missed that part of the cycle. And I’m late to the SWN/Hard Light party. Like … ten years late? But people asked and besides, it’s a good test to see if my conceits hold up across genres.

So, Keep on the Borderlands. Take the keep. Make it more interesting by adding two major subplots and maybe six minor ones. Then describe three of the caves of chaos and put in a generator to help the DM make more. That’s this adventure.

The dungeons are the Sky Tombs, some burial/pilgrimage places for some aliens that are in an asteroid belt. You get three described, one of which is full of pirates. Another one is pretty much fully abandoned and the third in the middle of an alien standoff. Three types of dungeons which we might call social, ruin, and normal-OSR-fireworks-factory-storing-gasoline. All three have completely different vibes. While remaining true to their vibes I might characterize each as a slow burn. Each one has a few things going on in it with a decent number of “empty rooms that have something in them but it’s really an empty room” to spread out the action. I’m sure that in play it will scare the shit out of the players and in to their characters pants. Not so much from a horror standpoint but from the tension and unknown. Maybe a little slow compared to most adventures, but you gotta have space to build tension. And this does that.

The station, proper, is a powderkeg. Loans, miners, admins staff, crooked staff, pirates showing up, tense work environment, DANGEROUS work environment. And a couple of major subplots with embezzlement, resentment, and revolution. And then a lot of interpersonal dynamics with people hating each other or secretly in love. It’s a great place and feels alive. It’s better than 99% of the starting village stuff I see, at least, and it’s all because of the downtime/social subplot stuff. And the hooks, several presented, make sense. Yeah, they are caravan guards in one, err, security staff on a supply ship, but it fits in well and each tends to tie the party in to a major NPC, with favors and resentments abounding in them. They all have some good roleplay in them. “Yeah, I owe you $8k? Well, I don’t have it on hand, you see. It’s gonna take me a few days to dig it up and right now I’m totally preoccupied with the water situation …” The entire section on the hooks and subplots is a great example of to bring your stuff to life.

But …

Man, this thing is THICK. DENSE. HEAVY. Words after words after words. I’m sure this all makes sense to Kevin, since he write it, but the thing is going to take several read-throughs, at least, with a highlighter and pencil notes in order to make it runnable on the fly in a meaningful way. Sure, You can run it out of the box easily enough, in a superficial way. It you print out the NPC summary sheet (Great job! And it’s all on one page!) the party could arrive from one of the hooks, run a couple of roleplays from the sheet, then send them off to a dungeon to explore. And you’d be losing a lot that the social aspect of the station has to offer, and will fumble through details like life support, blackmarket, etc. Then you’d hit the dungeons, which you prepared ahead of time, right? Or if using one of the three, you’ve highlighted it ahead of time?

Because man those things are thick also. The third one, the more “typical” OSR dungeon is written in a terser format and is easier to run with only a single pass. The second, the “ruin” is thick and dense with room effects. The first, the pirate den … man I don’t know. It’s clearly got a social aspect to it, and also a “clear them out” aspect to it, but it’s written like the second and the social elements are not supported very well at all. It doesn’t make it easy in supporting the DM in helping the party get in to trouble/have complications. Other nits abound, like an order of battle for the dungeons with smarties in them, and quibbles like warnings in trap rooms, etc.

But the text density, man. I don’t want to come off like an asshole (too late! Ten years too late …) but man, I don’t know. Normally I’d suggest bolding, whitespace work, insets, summaries and the ilk. But it’s SciFi. You HAVE to address air. You HAVE to address “lets just blow it up” and you HAVE to address vac suits. It comes up every time. Maybe level one SciFi is easier to write, and level four SciFi is where it gets harder.

The room keys need a major overhaul. The station needs a major overhaul. There need to be more summaries. Things need to be easier to locate (radiation, vac, blowing it up) and easier to scan (room keys.)

It seems to me that this is a great fucking place, but I have NO idea how I would get it in to runnable format at the table. I mentioned highlighter and pencil, but I’m not even sure that could get it in to a form that would it justice. And justice it deserves. It’s coming in just under No Regerts and is close to that mythical line of something really cool that is hard to use that you find at the used book booth.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages and is a pretty good representation of the adventure. I would prefer a page of dungeon also, or maybe the hooks page, but check out those five pages. If you can make it through it in a single pass and hold the information in your head for a week then you should have no problem running it.


Posted in Reviews, SciFi | 6 Comments