Date of Expiration

By Graphite Prime
Graphite Prime Studios
Levels 4-7

You have never seen a dungeon like this before! What happens when crazed mechanical beings from the future arrive on your fantasy world?

This 108 page adventure uses about sixty or so pages to describe a futuristic hellhole of a tower with about 45 rooms. Uninteresting descriptive/layout format complements the nature of the site and while descriptive text is low word count, it complements the art well. 

Occasionally someone with attempt to write an adventure on a trash world. You know, the entire planet is a dumping ground and there are weird holes and tunnels everywhere littered with refuse, made up of refuse. Or, there was HoL, proper, or every those tunnel scenes of sewers in The Matrix or the alien warrens in Aliens. You get this idea of a chaotic area that you are picking your way through, uncertain exactly what is going on, surrounded by an alien environment. I’ve never seen this described very well. It seems to be a relatively popular area to explore, but the nature of the environment makes it difficult to convey the vibe in anything other than a visual format. Hence the HR Geiger stuff, the Matrix tunnels, and so on, doing so well to inspire. This adventure, also, relies on an art style to help convey the vibe, much more so than the words alone. 

We’re up in the land of the ice and snow from the midnight sun with the blah blah blah. I’ve actually got Burn It Down on heavy, loud repeat right now, but, you get the idea: the frozen north, barren but mountainous and rugged. Rumors of strange things to the further north, from the last friendly fort, and strange creatures. You hex crawl north Miss Tessbacher, through 28 or so possible hexes, one to two hexes a day. Until you see, nestled in a valley of ice and snow, a rusted iron contraption, made of up rivets and pipes, draped with golden cables and wires. 900 feet high and 700 feet wide. Yup. We’re there kids, Wally World awaits! That is unmisfuckingstackably the place you want to go to. It cannot be recognized as anything other than a place of wonder. You. Have. Arrived. 

Let’s imagine a government research lab, say Black Mesa. You’ve got the scientists, the staff and receptionists, the janitors and food service people, some soldiers, a few, ahum, “men of vision” and so on. Now, lets take the whole place, complex and all, and transport it so fucking far back in to the past that time looses its meaning. But, those Men of Vision are on a mission. But, the working dudes? Hey man, they didn’t sign up for this shit. Thus you have some human foibles mixed in to an otherwise focused “mission.” That’s what’s going on here. Except, the people transported back are cyborgs from so far in the future they no longer know that humans WERE their ancestors and they don’t resemble the cyborgs you know and love from movies and Tv. They are more like a loose collection of wire, like a pile of cassette or VCR tape, on the floor, that can pull itself in to different forms. They can’t really do that, but, imagine the pool of wirre HAD given itself a vaguely (and I emphasize vaguely …) humanoid form. A little insane, on a missione, some occasional moments of relatability … all while they harvest people and animals for experiments. Some are hostile, some curious (and therefore probably hostile in a “vivisection” kind of way …) and some are drunk or apathetic or resigned to melancholy. In short, NOT a monolithic enemy.

We must now discuss the map. And art style. And formatting choice. And evocative writing. Because, they are all one and the same here. Or, perhaps, working towards the same end, intrinsically linked. 

There is an overview map, a big map showing the entire layout. And then that map is broken up in two four smaller “quadrant” maps, to help make things more manageable. But, the individual rooms? They EACH get their own map. Imagine a drawing of a room, in the center of a page. Scattered around it are small blocks of text with lines pointing to various parts of the map. If there’s a pit then there’s a small block of text describing it and then a line pointing to the pit on the map. You’re with me so far, right? Three, maybe four features per room.

And by “room” I mean “this part of the big ass complex weird and confusing complex.” There is SUBSTANTIAL verticality to this, with virtually every “room” having three of four vertical components separated by small “flat” sections. And it’s all this weird post-industrial/hyper-technology setting. 

With a black and white art style that that is a signature of Graphite Prime. I wouldn’t want to draw comparisons, but ,those of you unfamiliar may think of Scrap and the “less is more” ambiguity that the black & white styles of both artists convey. (It is gauche to compare one artists style to another? I feel like I ned to do SOMETHING to give the gentle readership some basis to visualize …) It leaves significant room for the imagination to fill in the gaps, while still inspiring that imagination to actually do so. And the the words are rather utilitarian, the complementary art, IN YOUR FUCKING FACE on every page, does wonders to fill the gap. This is what passes for one feature of one “room”: “Floor Hatch: Locked. Opening this hatch unleashes a swarm of hundreds of time-bombs. They are

about the size of small cherries and aim to fly down one’s throat” Complimenting this is the actual room art, showing the hatch in the floor and the space underneath. 

I might complain the the “always on” features of the rooms could be further front and center. There is a monster ref sheet, it could have gone there. Or on the big map, or quadrant map, or even on the “common features” map page. At best you get “is consistently lit by industrial lighting that creates a gold/rust colored glow. Otherwise, the Structure looks like it was crafted from Iron.” A little more in the “general inspiration” category would have done well. I don’t now. Oil? Something. 

Complementing the dungeon proper is the hex crawl, which can almost be run with the mini-descriptions on the hex crawl map, the expanded text later on almost not needed. Wanderers for the hex crawl and for the dungeon are both great, with good actionable things going on, from weird and bizarre to deadly. And, the dungeon isn’t just a killer, there are boons to be found throughtout, wandering adventure parties, a dryad, pixies needing to be freed, and a whole fuck ton of “loot” to get way with.

There’s a techno element to this adventure, but, it’s not really science fiction. I mean, not in the way most of these “lets put in some science shit” usually are. The creatures and environment is from so far in the future that it essentially almost never comes up in play. I mean, you can tell, immediately, this is tech shit, but this is not the relatable tech from Barrier Peaks. This is almost at the point of Tech As Magic … except it’s not quite there … there’s a bare recognition of relatability that keeps it meaningful, from going off the deep end of the magic pretext. 

I’d run THE FUCK out of this. Best.

This is $8 at DriveThru. The preview is elevent pages, with the last few being “rooms.” I’d recommend taking a look, both to get familiar with the art style and if this formatting style works for you. I think it works GREAT for this kind of “indescribable” environment.

Posted in Level 5, Reviews, The Best | 9 Comments

Death Ship of the Roach Princess

By Matt Finch
Frog God Games
Levels 1-3

A mysterious ship in the city’s harbor holds terrifying secrets … and the characters are trapped on board! This plane-shifting, roach-infested, puzzle-laden adventure offers fabulous riches, but also offer a fate worse than death.

This 34 page adventure uses fifteen pages to describe fifteen or so relatively complex locations on a ship that is also an interdimensional nexus. It plays with a couple of D&D concepts, and shows an understanding of the player motivation. It is also plagued by the Frogs house style which does absolutely nothing to help the understanding of the adventure or running of the game. At least they got the right cover on this one.

So, listening to my critics, I spent more than 30 minutes this morning picking out a new adventure to review. SOME readers seem to think that its my lack of research that leads me to the issues I have with quality. “What did you expect, Bryce?” is a common refrain. We shall see, in this mornings experiments, gentle readers! I dig in and passed Morg Borg after Troika adventure, with appealing descriptions and covers and previews that indicated they were probably the usual crap. Multiple Starry Knight, Filbar, Joseph Mohr, and more. Pamphlet dungeons, two page dungeons, four page dungeons. All passed by. I skipped Frog God dungeons. “This time it’s gonna be different!” I told myself. Then I spotted something that looked interesting, clicked on it … and immediately saw it was Frog God. I went back. Then, it struck me. It had Finch’s name on it! I went back. Yup. Matt Finch. Someone who knows what the fuck they are doing. Perhaps, gentle reader, he can overcome the apathy of the publisher to deliver something quality?

If you played the first adventure in the series then you See a Ship In The Harbour to investigate, or if not you hear from another sailor about a large crate of gold rowed over yesterday … and it’s assumed to want to loot it. You row over to the ship to find it essentially empty, except for a few notable items. First, there are a fuck ton of roaches on the ship, more than usual, by  lot. Not monster swarm territory, but, still, a FUCK TON. Second, There’s a bunch of dudes in the rowers hold whose hands are melted in to the oars. They saw you’re trapped here, just like they are. Seems like you’re in a Zeno’s Paradox situation if you try to leave, oh, and also, you’ve got about three days to escape the ship before you melt in also. Finally, that big pile of crates in the corner? It’s in the shape of a spiral making a portal to someplace else, and each one has some gold ingots in it. That’s the first six rooms “of the ship.”

Thus Finch turns on its head a trope of D&D. Two, actually, and he states this up front in his designers notes. You get the treasure FIRST, but you need to get out with the treasure, you need to escape. This pushes you in to exploration. And this is the second trope: the escape adventure. Generally this starts with the party being prisoners, etc, or some other hackneyed idea. This, though, turns that on its head. Rather than a punishment escape, as most of these adventure types are, this adventure is a reward escape: you’ve already got the gold, essentially. Your motivations are different and therefore the vibe is different. And … there’s the three day timer at the end hanging over you. (I have a hard time seeing that as an issue. Maybe its an explicit pushback against sleeping for spells after every encounter, for OSR, 5e, or Pathfinder?)

You then go through the spiral crates and find extradimensional spaces, with more spiral places to explore. These places you find tend to be a large cavern or mini-complex of rooms, generally with a couple of other spiral exits. You encounter roach monsters, cultists, and some sphere of annihilation-like traps while searching for the command words that will let you bring the ship back to reality … at least enough to escape with the gold.

It’s imaginative and interesting. The roach element could have been played up more in the rooms. As it stands there are a couple of roach swarm monsters and a note for the DM to emphasize the roaches in their description. More support could have been included for that statement. It feels like, otherwise, its just going to get lost the way so many other environmental issues get lost in a game. 

There’s also a bit of exposition dump in the adventure. The doomed oarsmen, up front, explaining things, is the first big dump. I get it, you need to explain the whole trapped/doomed fate thing, but it feels a bit much. And then I’m thinking of the “Memory roach brains” locale, with more exposition dump. Two very big dumps that, I believe, could have been spread out a bit more. I know WHY they are there: you’ve got to get the party headed towards their goals … or even know that there is a goal to head to, but they come across as exposition and/or monologue.

And then there’s the Frogs format. They never met a Wall Of Text that they didn’t love. With a small font. It feels like they are trying some techniques to get past this. There are a coupe of instances of bullet points, particularly when someone has information to relate. There’s also an attempt to divide the larger areas up in to smaller sections. Think a big cave with a general overview description that hints at other parts of the cave … like murals on the north wall or inky blackness on the west well … with those two areas both getting their own descriptions. This FEELS like an attempt to break the rooms up in to more manageable sections … while still working within the confirms of the selected format. That’s laudable. And it still doesn’t work very well. A stronger/any attempt to explain the overall “flow” of the adventure would have been helpful also. There are multiple command words that do different things found in different areas with different impacts. It’s not OVERLY complex, but its also not immediately intuitive … the way gibberish words can tend to be. A little extra help in this section would have been useful. 

So, Finch knows what he’s doing. It’s not just a hack and there’s shit to fuck with and, if run properly, a decently fucked up vibe. But I don’t think it supports the DM very well to do that, and you’ll need a fucking highlighter, again.

This is $11 at DriveThru. I enjoy the Frogs hubris. You might take a look at the last page of the six page preview to see if the formatting style fits your needs. It doesn’t mine; it feels like work.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 11 Comments

The Hamlet of Volage

By Joseph Bloch
BRW Games
Adventures Dark and Deep
Levels 1-3

The peaceful hamlet of Volage is beset by evil. Nestled on the edge of the High Vale in the shadow of the great Sesve Forest, the farmers and artisans of this small community have reported inexplicable happenings; cattle suffering from strange murrains, mysterious fires that seemingly start from nothing, crops rotting in the fields before they can be harvested, and more besides. There are whispers of witchcraft about. You and your companions have heard of these troubles and journeyed thither to root out the cause of these evils an bring peace and plenty back to the sleepy village.

This sixteen page adventure has a good idea but features a village in which nothing happens. Oh, it’s SUPPOSED to be about a shadow war between two different coven of witches, but how the fuck the party arrives at this is beyond my comprehension. I do know, though, that the local lumber yard specializes in making ax handles. Joy. 

Consider the humble witchfinder. Arriving at a village, using harsh questioning techniques, maybe just burning all of the village women at the stake just to be sure. After this adventure I feel a certain understanding for how they came to that. I’m not excusing it, but, I believe I can now offer at least an explanation of how they got that point in their lives. And knowing is half the battle. COOOBRA!

The party of level ones (for, this is a level one adventure, as plainly stated in the text, in spite of it saying levels one to three on the cover) arrives at the village. You heard there was witchcraft here and you’re here to sort it out, being that kind of people, I guess. There’s no local lord to take care of it, so, I guess no one is paying their taxes. Seems like some enterprising and belligerent local worthy should look in to changing that situation. But, we’re not playing with the morality of the time, we’re playing with the bougie morality of the modern era. So, you’re here, says the intro, to stop dem witches!

Why? No one in the village is asking. No one outside the village is asking. Meh, whatever.

We then get a listing of some of the buildings in the village. Nineteen. The tavern, some farms, the lumberyard. At this point I want to say that absolutely none of these buildings have nothing going on. That’s wrong, but it’s also right. There’s a burned out farm with a ghost in it. He wants his barn to finish being built, seeing as it wasn’t completed before he died. And about half the houses have a witch in it. This is explained in a format something like “Frank, Marthy and their kids Mary and Sue. Mary and Sue are witches of the Broken Claw coven.” That’s what you get. Run the fucking adventure, chump! That’s what I mean by nothing actually going on. There’s a shine in the forest where one of the covens has rituals. You’re somehow supposed to find out that there’s a coven of witches in the village and find out that’s where they do things. But there is NOTHING in the fucking village to support this. 

Which, again, isn’t exactly true. There’s a rumor table. One of them says something about people going in to the forest at night to that old shrine. Another has Mary & Sue sneaking off to the forest at night sometimes to meet boys. Out of twenty rumors. That’s it. Oh, there are woodsmen in the village. You could question them, I guess, if there’s anything out in the woods. That’s kind of rando, and they don’t talk to outsiders, but, I guess you could do that But, not with the elves, strangely. The group of elves who visit are even more insular than the woodsmen. 

A minor complaint: the witch coven is led by a 4th level cleric and 6th level cleric. I guess that’s cool for level ones to combat? Along the same lines, fuck, everyone and their brother in this is weird. The elves are insular, but there’s a friendly centaur merchant? Everyone in the village has some kind of magic item or is, like Level four? What up with that? The drunk dude in the tavern is a level 4 barbarian with 35 HP! 

But, back to the main point of bitch: NOTHING. IS. GOING. ON.

You get a series of up front things. A family was killed six months ago. Some cattle and sheep were slaughtered. All of the cats in the village died one morning. Rats ate all the grain in a dudes silo. The miller got sick and took a month to recover. This is ALL the secret war, but, there is NOTHING to support ANY of this. Do the two fucking covens know each other exist? Who knows. I guess it’s implied they do? What do the individual members know? Those locations have NO details about the events that took place. Just the shit I already types is relayed again. “All my grain was eaten by rats,” How the fuck do you run something from that? There are no village personalities. No inciting events. No conspiracies. No plots. Absolutely NO potential energy.

This is not how you write one of these things. These things should be like a gas factory, with open vats and barrels of gas. Lit by candles. With cookfires everywhere. That’s what the fucking village should be like. You look at it and you say “Oh, yeah, thats not good …” And then the traveling demo team for the local fireworks manufacturer shows up. The Party. “Hello sir and/or madam, please allow us to demonstrate our MR SPARKY”

You want things going on. You want potential energy. You want relationships between the villagers, some related to the situation and some not. You want things going on. You want the villagers to be super tense and on edge. You want suspicion falling on the lumberjacks. You want the elves to a serious contender of suspicion, by the villagers and party. You wants the fucking to be up to things. You want the sites of the former action to have a clue or something about who was behind it. You want a good innocent victim witch burning while screaming curses. You want this place HOPPING with potential energy. You want the fucking Montagues and Capulets going at it in a cold war in the village while all of this is going on. Ok, so, maybe not all that. But you want a SITUATION. 

But what you get, here, are boring facts. There’s nothing to riff one. “Mary & Sue are witches.” Well, great. There’s NO Dm support at all in this adventure. “You should heighten paranoia and foreboding among the party,” GREAT! Yes, you should! But the adventure offers absolutely NO support for this beyond “make the players make random saving throws.” Ug! 

What we DO get is loads and loads and loads of useless information that, I suppose, is supposed to fire our imagination. Like the lumberyard specializes in ax handles and pieces of furniture. Uh … Or that the blacksmith spends most of their time shoeing horses and making nails. Or that Franks cattle barn is only open for lodging in the summer months since in the winter he keeps his cattle in there. This is TEXTBOOK example of How To Not Write. This might all be true. It might all be accurate. But it does NOTHING for the adventure. And, yet, the designer spent time writing those words INSTEAD of putting in the potential energy and situations that would have led to a good adventure. 

And don’t give me any of that Bryce only wants nonstop fireworks” shit. No, I don’t. I’m fucking useing hyperbole. But there has to be fucking SOMETHING going the fuck on in the fucking village so you can go get killed by those level 4/Level 6 clerics at the forest fucking shrine. 

We are, however, told, that “Most of the inhabitants are of Aeridian extraction with a bit of Zhul, most of the families originally hailing from Furyondor, and a few from Velhana and Perrengaard.” But, they all get along now. How nice! 

A hidden witch war in a village in trysts, love affairs, rivalries, shit simmering under the surface. That could have been good. Instead we get the winter farming rules of Frank the herder with “Mary & Sue are witches of the Cloven Claw.” 

Fun fact: I get Joseph Bloch and Joseph Mohr confused. They are the same person, in my head. They are not. Bloch at least knows what roleplaying is. Doesn’t support the DM at all, but, knows what roleplaying games ARE.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is three pages, one of which is fucking cover. How the fuck does that help me make a purchasing decision? Especially since I can already see in the product listing? The last page describes the woodsmen. It is, I think, some of the more useful information in the adventure. Which is not to say it IS useful, but at least there’s SOMETHING.–The-Hamlet-of-Volage?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 11 Comments

Wild Men in Casimir’s Mill

By Ben Gibson
Coldlight Press
Levels 1-3

Bigfoot is coming out of the woods… The harvest season is come. It should be a time of sweat and singing and joy. But howls sound at night, and the old folks whisper about the Wild Ones, who chatter amidst the trees and dance on the roof at night. Rocks fly at merchants, and on nearby paths lie smashed and twisted household gods.The Wild Men have come to Casmir’s Mill, and each night they draw nearer.

This 22 page adventure presents an ongoing situation in the domain of a small manor lord. An investigation and exploration, feature a bunch of bigfoot monsters, it has enough elements of chaos to really bring the noise. Ben makes you work for it though, it being dense for the number of pages and written at a “game notes” level, for the most part.

This is a good example of an adventure situation with a lot going on. We’ve got a village that needs to bring their grain to the mill before it rots. But, the local “wild men” aka bigfoots are attacking people on the roads and generally harassing people. This just started. Mixed up in this we’ve got a negligent manor lord and The Old Region, a snake cult, being practiced in secret … with some human sacrifice and a summoning adding gas to the fire. Hired killers, mob justice and the ilk round out the potential energy. THis is the way things should be. You want the DMto have a lot of tools at their disposal. If the party hangs out at night, watching, you want them to see things. You want a feel that things are going on outside of the parties direct involvement, that the villagers, etc, have agency also. 

There’s a density here that folks familiar with this designer’s style will recognize. It’s written in such a way as to convey a kind of DMs notes, or designers notes, or something, about a situation. A general overview of what’s going on, with specifics mentioned, but all meant to be guidelines to help the DM react to the machinations of the players. It’s high level notes on how to run the situation rather than notes on how to run an individual encounter. Taken as a hole, you get DM guidance. 

That doesn’t tell yo ushit, does it? Basically, you’re going to have to read the adventure, memorize and/orr highlight it. For example, there’s the grain deliveries from the outlying villages that serve as one of the primary hooks. It’s only mentioned briefly, as well as the villagers generally not helping unless the party REALLY win them over. These are brief notes, maybe a sentence each. And, then, notes in the stable and local manor about getting horses … and the difficulty in doing so, in order to pull the grain carts. Having to get horses is never mentioned. The carts lack of horses isn’t mentioned. It’s only by recalling the stable entries that you can put 2 and 2 together. Or the ladies of the village, following the old ways in their snake cult. They are going to sacrifice some missing orphans. But, there’s not much at all about the cult or how they act, other than “on day blah they do they sacrifice and the giant snake shows up.” 

So … bad or good to do things this way?

Well … not great. Or, at least, not great the way this is implemented. As written, the adventure is mixing in the action with the keyed entries of the village, and in the free text descriptions of the countryside, etc. So, hunting for what potentially triggers mob justice is not going to the easiest thing … and is scattered throughout the text at that. This is the old Keyed Location issue. Somethings, a traditional room/key format is good. If you’re exploring, or some such, the format works fine. But, in a more free-flowing environment, the traditional room/key format doesn’t work. You need a way to organize the text in such a way that the natural flow of the adventure is leveraged. So, it’s not “this is what causes mob justice” (probably, anyway) but rather “”Everyone hates the party” or “After the widow rants about cats.” IE: the DM is scanning the text to find out what happens/how to support the shit that just went down, and the text needs to be organized to support that.

Let’s look, specifically, at one entry in the village. This isn’t a perfect example, since my assertion is that a decent amount of the issue comes from the free text general overviews, but, it’s going to have to do.

4. Mad Etta’s Hut: Rumored consort of devils and eater of babies, the sweet and slightly dotty “mad” Etta is hospitable and pleasant to anyone who shows up on her doorstep. Her modest little home smells strange from tinctures and potions she is always brewing for sale, and if she sees someone wearing flowers, she will invite them to stay with her as long as they want. She is chatty about everything except for the wild men; she has watched some of the wild men children and her home is protected by the adult wild men.”

As a DM, what can you do with this? Will you remember, when the inn/tavern, to drop hints about Etta and her baby eating? Will you run a random street encounter where the party see a dotting old woman? Or, tell the party of that strange house in the distance covered in flower garlands? How will you use the children & protection thing in the game? It’s a BUNCH of ideas. The ideas are decent to good. But they are not useful being located in the description of her home. You need something that leads the party TO her home. That street encounter. The rumors of baby eating. Given the lack of that support, explicitly, it is left as an exercise to the DM to remember to use this information, which means highlighters and notes.

And this does a middling job of that. There is a rather explicit box about “what is everyone in the village hates the party”, but, the mob justice, events, and so on, as essentially scattered through the keys. No real guidance on the cult, although, as a DM, I’m inspired .. if I could remember to do it. Bolding of key concepts is desperately needed. 

This is a fun idea. I like the nature of it. I like the scope of it. I like the way Ben sets up the situation and timeline and lets the cards fall. 

Ben has a style, by now, a house style, or writing adventures. And it kind of works. I mean, it works GREAT sometimes and less well in other situations. And in this case its working less well. Not terrible, but this is definitely a “needs highlighter and notes” adventure.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The preview is six pages and the last three give you a great idea of what to expect.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 3 Comments

Alabaster Alcazar of the Earth Genies

By Rob Couture
Self Published
Level 13ish

Wherein our adventurers seek out the Topaz of Earthly Perfection reputed to be held within a mountainside palace.

This twenty page adventure describes a fifteen room palace wherein reside four earth genies, and an artifact, the topaz mentioned in the teaser. It has some boring descriptions, although it is trying, and suffers from High Level Adventure Syndrome, wherein super powerful creatures are left mostly to the DM to run without guidance.

There’s no adventure intro, or hook, or anything. It’s assumed that the party is here for the jewelso all we get is “here’s the palace”, which is totally fine & dandy. There is some VERY brief guidance on this being a hack, or caper, or social adventure. And by guidance, I mean that a sidebar says it can be played in any of those ways. Which is true; our genie buds, and in turn their pals, are smarties and like to talk and have reasons to receive guests at their palace. But, advice is generally not present in running the adventure as one of these type, except for a brief mention in each room that the NPC/monster may receive guests or “is suspicious of them.” That’s not really support. It is, for all real purposes, just a typical room/key dungeon but with no “immediately hostile” encounters … until the party start their murdering.

And this lack of support extends to two other areas that I think are critical, especially for high level adventures. First, no order of battle. The genies, fallen deva, dragon, mind flayer, drow, and other superty duperty smarties are sometimes noted as “calling for reinforcements”, but that’s the extent of the battle plan. I’m not a big fan of in-depth tactics, but, a little guidance for the DM to help them run the inevitable “plan goes to hell and fire rains down” situation is appreciated. 

It’s also the case that these folks don’t really get any advice in running them, in combat. Now, I’m not talking about detailed tactics. I hate detailed tactics. But, these are high level creatures with A LOT of powers. A few words of advice, up front, on some typical plans, would seem to be in order. It doesn’t have to be long but a few words of advice would seem to be in order, if only to get the full value out of the creatures who have such control over the earth. And, “will passwall away” is not really substantial. Again, not a lot needed, but SOMETHING. Demons, Devils, genie, all powerful creatures with a lot of spell-like abilities could use a few words in adventures when they come up.

The descriptions in this adventure are an issue. Well, not more than most adventures, but, the designer, here, actually tried. And failed. But, they tried, I’ll put in more effort than usual in describing them. 

This is a palace. We might think of it as an opulent, or perhaps elegant palace. Imagine walking in to one of those “palaces turned museum” in europe and then trying to write a description that communicates the opulence of what you experience. Hard, right? Right. The designer is trying, hard. They give a little read-aloud section in each room (and each room has its own page, sometimes two, keeping the page turning to a minimum.) Well, usually short read-aloud. Some rooms have three to four sentences (yeah!) and some have a lot more, approaching a quarter of a page. And, this is in an attempt to mention everything in the room in a way that will be evocative. 

Which generally fails. It’s quite hard to convey the feel of a room by using more detail. I get it. You want people to enter and be WOW’d! But, more doesn’t help with that. Less, is how you achieve that. You want to communicate impressions, first impressions, anyway, and then use the DM text to follow up on that to provide more detail. That’s not a universal rule, but, in an overstuffed environment, its probably good advice. 

Further, the read-aloud over describes. Again, I think this is in an attempt to really WOW the players and stun them with the environment. But, it also kills the back and forth between player and DM that is so essential in an RPG. You don’t really want to tell the party that there is a large (boring word!) gilded chandelier adorned with large (boring word!) crystal shards. Not in the read aloud. You want to leave the impression of opulence, maybe mention A chandelier, and then, in the DM text, note it. Especially if the feature is interactive or important to the room. The read-aloud noting that a fresco is of “a princely genie riding a winged serpent” is too much info. Maybe “A yellowish fresco” is more appropriate. 

Treasure is quite light for an adventure this high level. Magic items are all boring book things. “Rope of entanglement.” Great. Consider me awed. Well, there is an artifact, but, hey, more please?

It does a couple of nice things. It notes window locations up front, for non-front-door parties. It also puts a scale to things that is generally unusual. Almost everything in the adventure is BIG, seven to ten feet tall. And it puts levers and buttons and secret door mechanisms up high and does other things communicate the scale well. It’s not quite overwhelmingly, Id’ still say its done a little too subtly, but, again, it is trying more than most adventures. 

When buying this I thought it would either be great or a shitshow. Turns out it is neither. The designer tried, more than usual. The descriptions are a little boring and over described. It could use a little more guidance for the DM, and treasure is boring also. But, it’s also A LOT closer to being a high level adventure than most of the ones I see, with no gimping, and correctly noting the social element. One more page of advice and some tough editing off the descriptions and an overhaul of the treasure would turn this in to a decent high level adventure. 

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. The last page shows you room one, to give you an idea of the writing style and layout. It’s a good overview of what to expect.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 6 Comments

The Church of the Unknown God

By Marcus Lock
Parts Per Million
Worlds Without Number
Levels 5-7

[No marketing blurb, anywhere, not even inside. I never thought I would  miss marketing so much!]

This 45 page adventure details a couple of levels in an abandoned church with about twenty locations. It’s a fucking boring hack-fest with norhing else going on. Until the end, when it is boring & confusing. 

So (don’t start sentences with ‘so’), the local innkeep hires you to go clear out a church from undead because it is bad for business. Or, some locals saw some undead near the church, could you pretty please go kill them? Oh, also, three people have disappeared lately. People might want that problem solved. These hooks telegraph what is to come: boring shit that makes no sense. Being hired is boring. It’s one of the laziest hooks possible. And by the innkeeper, who thinks the undead in the church are bad for business? Seriously? Is that the world we adventure in? I can, perhaps, forgive the “three people missing” thing, out of ignorance. But, a tight-knit community and three people go missing? That’s a fucking angry mob in the making to solve that problem. 

Oh, also, that church? The one that everyone is like “go kill the undead there?” Yeah, it’s 24 miles away. Like, who actually gives a fuck if its 24 miles away? Do you even know what is going on there? At this point it should be clear that other in the intro makes any sense. I guess it doesn’t need to. Hooks are not really needed anyway, and, we’re all here to play D&D tonight. But … man, it just puts a bee in my bonnet to see crap.

Ok, we’re at the church now. We’ve made it through a lot of interesting wandering monster encounters like “Small pack predator” or “large herd beast.” It is, at this point, that my addled memory kicks in. I remember hating something recently that did the same thing. Just a shitty copy/paste from a book with no localization. No DM support at all beyond “generic stat block.” It’s like you included “Put a monster in.” Whatever.

The church! The church is a shit show. Every room generally has two things in it. First, there will be some zombies. They will attack immediately. The text says so in every room. This is what this adventure is. It is ALL that this adventure is. You go in a room and some zombies attack you immediately. Is that D&D to you? Do you want to roleplay? DO you want to investigate things and poke at things? Not in this adventure. Not in this adventure buddy! You’ll go in a room, stab some shit, and then go in the next room to do it all over again. There’s nothing beyond this. Oh, wait, no, I forgot. In one room you can hear some splashing in the next room. Of the zombies waiting to attack you. That’s it.

Nearly every single room also says “Beyond that the room is empty.” Well no shit. That’s generally why room descriptions have an end. This is nothing but padding. It serves no purpose in the adventure. And, speaking of padding, the undead, EVERY undead, says the same thing. “They don’t need to eat or drink or breathe” and so on. Like, a copy/paste straight out of a book of monsters. It’s unbelievable to me. 

You find a 9” statue of a semi-clad woman at one point. There’s no further description or value to the statue.

In the crypt of the “mysterious lady”, who is mentioned several times in several rooms, we get the following description of her “Standing to one side is a sentient carcass.” That’s it. That’s your evocative writing for this adventure. Some description, huh?

And then, things change.

By this time you have made it though 20 rooms of generic zombie undead and a couple of “shades.” or “sentient carcasses.” Now, you go through a secret door and enter a modern office complex. With desks, chairs, monitors, keyboards, mice, and overhead lighting. I have NO fucking idea how this fits in. There’s no hint before. There’s no hint in the room descriptions. It’s just a set of modern office rooms connected to the basement of a crypt of a church. But it’s still got weirdly pseudo-fantasy undead? “Standing 10’ in front of the door is an armoured figure. If the party approaches it will draw its sword, ready its shield and prepare to attack.” Uh, so … ok. You can find some keycards to open a couple of doors, and some rad suits to protect you from radiation in a room. And a radioactive sword in the final room. No, I have no fucking idea. I have no fucking idea. There’s nothing to hint at what is going on. It’s just what it is.

So, shitty shitty adventure with little in the way of explanation. Little to no evocative writing. Monsters that attack immediately. A random office complex attached to the basement crypts of an abandoned church. And a lot of padding and copy/paste shit. 

Someone put some thought in to this. They made maps. They did layout. They made a semi-realistic church. But it’s nothing more than combat with descriptions that convey no sense of locations, or creatures. I’m at a loss. It’s like a very words warhammer minis game.

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview does not work.–A-Worlds-Without-Number-Compatible-Adventure?1892600

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Daughter of the Dead King

By Jesse Davenport & Matthew Neff
The Strange Domain
Level 1?

Evil has descended on the sinking village of Myre. As deaths and disappearances increase, whispers of demon possession spread and townsfolk eye their neighbors with growing fear. At the heart of this nightmare is a mysterious young woman, desperate to dispatch this evil before it is too late. Will you be the saviors of Myre, or just more bodies lost in the bog?

This 36 page adventure is going for a creepy/spooky vibe as it describes a few NPC locations in town and a swamp and abandoned city. It’s abstracted content, for the most part, but it generally works … if you’re in to that sort of thing. I think it could use more structure and be longer.

This is a rough one to describe. It has content, and that content tends to the evocative side of the spectrum, but it’s structure is more story gamey … without going fully over that side of the game/not-game line. 

You’re on your way to town when you have an encounter with a spooky ghost lady, pointing to the town. It’s described well, in that it lends to a spooky vibe. Coming to the town you see a funeral procession being led by a young acolyte. Turns out its the high priestess … the same one that sent a letter to the baron asking for help, which got the party involved. Asking around town or talking to the acolyte gets you the same info: a demon haunts the village and someone is dying each night. Seems each night someone gets possessed and tries to kill the acolyte. She tells you its a demon and she can put it to rest if prayers are said in the old church in the city in the swamp. You could also learn that and old hermit, in a different swamp, has a spirit box that can put the demon to rest. There are a few NPC’s (miller, shopkeep, merchant, mayor, blacksmith, innkeep) but, it’s pretty likely that the players just talk to the acolyte, I suspect. 

You go through the swamp, having a number of random encounters, and then enter the lost city, which is also abstracted in to a couple of random encounters. 

These encounters probably make up the bulk of the adventure. It’s of the “roll x times and/or have six encounters and then you find the destination you were looking for” sort of mechanic. And this is, primarily, why I say that this leans heavily to the story game/plot side of the D&D adventure line. It’s not my favorite mechanic as I think it tends to remove the agency from the players. It’s more “ok, time to have an encounter” sort of thing, which gives the party little control. Environmental hazards and creepy non-dangerous things are heavily weighted on the table, so it’s not all combat. 

In the church in the city you find a bunch of dead people, 20, who attack only if you fuck with them, a fresh body on the alter, and a yawning portal behind it to the Upside Down. There you can (or have the acolyte) say some prayers, or use the hermits demon box, or just stab, the evil demon thing. Adventure over.

The demon thing is described as “Only a glimmer, like the shards of a shattered mirror, betray this near invisible death. Its voice is like acid in the ears.”Ok, so, creepy words, for sure. And, probably more than enough to run an evocative encounter. Most of the descriptions are like this, hinting rather than saying. I don’t hate the descriptions, but I do think they are getting close to that. Essentially, you can take “evocative” too far. This doesn’t do that, but it does get close enough that, combined with the abstracted travel, I start to raise my eyebrows. It never goes fully in to that territory though. 

It’s a pretty short adventure. 

An unusual amount of real estate is spent on the town. The NPC’s, rumors, and someone dying every night. It’s well supported, with a great little “how the villagers react to stress” table, as well as a paranoia mechanic for the villagers as the deaths increase. If they do. Like I said, one death a night and the path forward seems pretty clear to me: talk to the acolyte immediately and go to the church in the lost city in the swamp. It’s not that the village is bad, it’s actually very well supported, especially for an adventure brining the creepy vibe. It’s just not clear to me that it’s going to get much use. A nice snag though for another creepy village you’re running. Who’s not up for an impromptu wedding because of all the grief in the village? 

Items are good also. The hermit has some magic beans (bring on the folklore!) that when you plant them in a corpse grow a vine with weird fruit. That turn out to be healing items. That’s probably the most involved item, but, a broken silver dagger rumored to have slain a werewolf might give you a reason to visit the blacksmith,  and so on. There’s a non-traditional aspect to them that I dig a lot. 

So, creepy vibe. Nice advice to create creepy villagers when they are possessed. Nice village, if no reason to fuck around there. Abstracted randomness, misplaces, on the journey through the swamp and in to the city. (I’ve said this before and will not doubt harp on it in the future: why are you inserting randomness randomly? Just create some fucking encounters, fully fleshed out things, and insert them.) . The backstory is overwrought, takes up too much space, and is essentially irrelevant. 

Short and creepy. Maybe, 2 hours of content? It’s interesting, as a design type. It’s use of abstraction and weirdly descriptive/abstracted text to create a spooky vibe is interesting. Academically interesting. To me. It needs to be tightened up and expanded in to a full adventure.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is the full thing. Yeah! You CAN make an informed decision. I’d check it out, even if you are not interested. Check out the “Grim Tidings” table for the village, or the intro scene with the ghost lady, pages 11 and 13.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 8 Comments

The Haunting of the Inn

By Don MacVittie
Hellebarde Games
C&C, OSRIC, 5e
Levels 4-8

When all you want is a drink at the inn, perhaps a warm bed for the night, of course it has been taken over by unspeakable horrors! If you’re going to get an ale and a room, you’ll have to brave the stench coming from the front door, and figure out what went wrong.

This twelve page adventure uses three pages to describe 24 rooms in an inn. It wants to be body horror. It is, though, just a monster zoo with the usual issues. Inn of Lost Heroes it ain’t. 

I’m in the mood for something new & delightful! Let’s see …  Multiple Mauseritter adventures. Darkmaster adventure. Morg Borg adventure. Surrealist RPG written by an AI … Halloween adventure it is! While I’m not the biggest fan of holiday adventures, halloween gets a special hall pass cause SPOOKY.

What we have here, though, is an absolute fucking mess of an adventure. 

It WANTS to be spooky. It WANTS to be atmospheric. It WANTS to be body horror. But it doesn’t do anything to facilitate any of that beyond the basic aspects of “oh, look, a gibbering mouther!”

The first issue is the town itself. There isn’t one. There’s no real hook, or town, or anything. And that’s ok, not every adventure needs a town or a town element. But what there is are little bits of the town, scattered throughout, in the various “marketing blurbs.”  The DriveThru description is quoted above. The front cover description has the staff & patrons turned in to horrifying monsters … and the locals only caring that all the ale comes form the inn, so, you know … could you please? The first page has different teaser line from the town, and a little bit of “shutters baning and miasma smells coming out of the front door” thing. Then the first real page of the adventure has a fog rolling out of the doors and more rotting meat miasma. There’s a further line deep in about what everyone in town knows. The BACK cover blurb has the constable saying things like people that go in don’t come out. Get it? It’s all scattered, not in one place, no way to reference it in a meaningful way during play. So, there kind of IS a town element, but no way to get anything out of it. 

And the map. Ug, the map. There is only one set of doors, I guess, in to the inn. And no windows on the first floor, even though the text references there are some? But the second floor is showing explicitly? And no real interior doors on the first floor? Just walls? The map here is “color” and I’m guessing comes from some app. Better to have an actual functional map, in black & white or even hand drawn, than a color map with features … that you can’t make or use.

Let’s see, inside the inn you get to make, if you are playing non-5e, a Save vs magic EVERY TURN or turn in to a monster. You need to miss two to complete the transformation. EVERY TURN. A save vs magic. Fuck me man! Clearly, someone doesn’t play old school and this is just a bad conversion attempt. 

And then the atmosphere. Or lack thereof. We get one line, one sentence, that says “Be atmospheric. The rhythmic chopping coming from the kitchen, the squeak of rats from the nursery, the claws scraping wood coming from the common room” That’s it. A well written adventure would have supported the DM in this regard. Noted this in each room, or in the previous room. Stuck in atmospheric details in the various rooms. Summarized them on a chart. SOMETHING. Nope. One line telling you to do it. Well, no shit. 

And then there’s the body horror. Or lack thereof. The people in the inn are supposed to have been turned in to horrible monsters. Grey Ooze, Cubes, gibbering mouther, zombies, and some other stuff. Mostly bestial and/or abominations. But you don’t actually get anything to support the body horror aspect. “Frank was turned in to a gibbering mouther” is about as much as you get. No description at all. Nothing to support the horror. What happens, then, is thar the entire place just feels like am monster zoo. Go in a room. Fight monster. Go in another room. Fight a different weird monster. 

And the rooms, proper, don’t get any support either. There’s no horror, or destruction in them. There are hardly any descriptions. An occasional “this room is destroyed” comment, but that’s it. Nothing to support the horror, or body horror. 

But what there is has a lot of … backstory! “Servant Bunkroom: This is where the servants normally sleep. They were all working hard when the trouble started, but three ran back into here when all the chaos broke out. As they ran, they transformed into Zombies.” So, that could be shortened to “Servant Bunkroom: 3 Zombies.” Everything else is padding. Instead of padding it could be a description of the zombies, or of the room, or SOMETHING to support the actual play of the adventure. And room after room after room does this. A boring description full of backstory not supporting the horror elements of the game. 

You  can’t just say that there’s a gibbering mouther in a room and call that horror. You can’t just say “create a spooky vibe.” Of course you should be doing these things. It’s the job of the designer to help the DM pull it off. 

This is $2 at DriveThru. There is no preview.

Posted in Reviews | 11 Comments

Eye of the Storm

By Joseph Mohr
Old School Role Playing
Levels 3-5

The sleepy little coastal village of Sea Mist has a problem. A ship bringing important goods to the village is overdue. A major storm hit the coast earlier in the week and the village elders wonder weather the ship wrecked on the dangerous rocks nearby. But something far more sinister has occurred.

This eighteen page adventure uses five single-column pages to describe twenty rooms in a wrecked ship. It is lacking anything interesting. It has no joy. It is misery.

An isolated village of a hundred people are waiting on a ship to arrive. It is overdue. Could you go a couple of miles up the coast to find it, pretty please? Why are you in an isolated village? Who knows. Why do you do this? Because that’s D&D tonight. Why haven’t the COASTAL villagers gone two miles up the coast to see? Who knows. Well, no, actually, I do know. Because the designer is lazy.

It’s like there’s no effort at all anymore. A Dyson map. Some public domain art, Single column text done in Word or Google Docs. Monsters? Some mermen, a water spider and a sea lion. Challenges? None, other than combat. Role playing? None. Interactivity? None. The wonder and joy of D&D? None. 

A ship. The top level/deck is empty, but for some subtle signs of combat and a spider. The second level has more signs of combat, a sea lion, and some prisoners who tell you it was … MERMEN! The lower level has twelve mermen, who almost certainly all show up in a pitched battle, leaving the rest of the lower level nothing but a “what loot do we find?” interrogation of the DM. B O R I N G. 

Also, no storm in this. No eye of the storm. Nothing.

“Cargo Doors – When cargo was brought aboard it was dropped through these grated doors
to be brought below. These doors appear to have been forced open by someone as one of
the doors hangs downward.”

That’s a room description. Here’s another:

“A single water spider has decided to make a nest in this cabin. This is the rarer sea water
variety. Although the spider enjoys proximity to water it still needs air to live. It uses this
space as it’s home now but hunts down below on the second level.”

Expanded minimalism. They both say almost nothing at all. The spider entry, for sure, says nothing, while the cargo doors has the signs of being forced. Which, of course, os abstracted text. Don’t say signs of being forced. Describe what the fucking things look like.

But, that would take effort. And effort, clearly, was not involved in this. I dub thee “Rip off” with the honour of receiving the coveted Bryce “You get a 1 out of 10” award,.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $3.

Posted in Do Not Buy Ever, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 7 Comments

The Child Thieves

By R.J. Thompson
Appendix N Entertainment
Levels 3-5

Several years ago a piper happened along the poorest district of the city during the midst of the plague of rats and with his magic flute rid the people of the rats. Every year since the rats have come again, and so has the piper. In recent years the price of his services has risen, but the money of the poor has not. This year they could not pay. The angered piper left the district, cursing its residents. The next morning the people woke and found the beds of their children empty. Large rat-like tracks were found in the district leading from the homes of the missing children to the storm drains. With so little to offer for the return of their children, will the people find anyone to attempt a rescue?

This 27 page adventures uses nine pages to describe two levels of a sewer system with 22 rooms. It’s heavily rat themed, in terms of monsters. Lots of rats, giant rats, and were-rats. Surprise! It’s a daily non-offensive thing, doing nothing really interesting or overly bad. I guess it’s boring? Sure. It’s boring. 

Oh, the jaded reviewer, pity him! Dwelling in his pile of shit. Eating his pile of shit. Seeing the same thing time and again. Oh, why can’t his icy heart appreciate the thing for what it is, now, in this moment, and not make the comparisons to all of the joys of the part, president, and possible futures to come? Because I don’t want to run a boring game, that’s why.

There is a joy to D&D. In it’s best moments a mirthful glee to the situations the party find themselves in. The world is straight man to the characters, but you need to give the party something to work with. You need someone asking who’s on first base. That’s the adventure. And an adventure without those opportunities gives us less room to create that unbridled glee that is D&D. 

So, rats in a sewer. A million billion adventures written about rats in the sewer. And, here’s another Rats In The Sewer adventure. Of course, there’s wererats involved. No doubt there is some portion of my literary education that is missing, that which will make all D&D designers obsessions with wererats make sense. So, the towns kids are missing and the tracks lead to the sewers. The same sewers that, yearly, a horde of rats come out of. *sigh*, ok, let’s go down in to the sewer. Why is there a sewer? Who knows. Is there any “sewer” like things in the swerve, like grates to the above? No. There’s some water 3’ deep. 

And a lot of rats. A LOT of rats. Like, encounters with 50 of them. And then giant rats swarming out of holes in the walls. And the required wererats, who never alert anyone else and just wait in the rooms to die. There is, in the back, an art piece I thought was cool. It had a sewer place and some wererats in combat and one of them was holding a revolved at the ready! Cool! Then I saw I misread the art piece and it wasn’t a revolver. *SADZ*

Map has some water on it. Map has some loops. It’s not a bad map for what it is. I mean, it’s not good either. One room mentions a pile of dung sticking out of the water, and that’s not on the map, so, you don’t get major room features like that. Or, only rarely do you get them. 

There’s a water valve puzzle, because all sewers have those. Like, I don’t know, twelve possible combinations? Including them drying out a room that you already have to be standing in in order to get the treasure in that room. So, leave someone behind in that room while you go elsewhere to work the vales. There’s no real indication of what the valves do, other than going back to look at all the rooms to see what happens after each time you make a change. This seems tedious to me? Like something I would handwave. 

I don’t know. At one point a trap drops a bunch of staves on the floor, which has a sticks to snakes spell on it. I can’t stand this kind of rube goldberg type traps. Just fucking drop some god damn viers on the party. Like a carboard box full of them. Why the shit with the staves and “the floor has the spell on it?” 

I’m just bored. Bored of going in to room after room and fighting rats. What’s in this room¿ Oh, more rats. Nice. Said no one ever. Maybe two thousand copper coins also? 

There’s a kind of D&D drudgery here. An ennui, as an adventurer, that makes you wonder why you are doing it all. I mean, yeah, saving kids. That’s a reason, right? I mean, the parents didn’t even try to save them, so, youknow, if they don’t give a shit … And, you know, infant mortality rate in towns was pretty high already. I guess we’re going down in to the sewers, again, because we want to hang out with our friends tonight and play D&D. But, really, what’s the difference? Sitting home alone. Playing boring D&D with friends. Same thing.

No, I’m not a member of the cult of the new. And no, I’m not overly attracted to gonzo. And no, I’m not a jaded reviewer. I just have absolutely no interest in things like this. Things that all fight Fight FIGHT. Yeah, there’s a time and place for combat, Mr 4e, but it’s not all the fucking time. There need to be evocative places of wonder to explore. And the descriptions of the sewers don’t bring the filth required to qualify as a place of wonder. Or even a place of Mild Interest. There is essentially no interactivity, other than the valve puzzle and talking to a giant turtle. The designer has also “Made the adventure replayable” by giving you five different locations the children could be. Seriously? Who the fuck does that? Replay an adventure like this? 

It does, to its credit, do an ok job with mundane treasure. Holden bracelets with opals, a silver tiara, a gold pendant in the shape of an oak leaf. Note that is my threshold. It takes almost nothing to impress me and yet here we are. Again. “Silver tiara” gets a nod from me. It also has some little rule about rumors, where a 13 WIS, and a divine background, lets you know which “cult” rumors are false/true, etc, and something similar for INT. Pretty common sense stuff ,but nice to see it called out. 

So, it’s an adventure. I guess you could run it. If you had nothing better to do with your life. Like watch the paint peel or take up coke or shitty Italian aperitifs. Want an adventure? Here’s one. God, nothing about this would make me come back again to a DM who ran a session like this. Is this really how people play D&D?

Gavin’s OSE has now ARRIVED; the market is flooded.

This is $5 at DriveThru. Two ratings, both five stars. The preview is six pages. Only the last one is any good, showing you the first five rooms. Oh, and the fourth one has that rumor shit on it, if you want to see that mini-rule.–S1?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 8 Comments