Belly of the Beast, adventure review

By Paul Elkmann, Geoff Dale
Spellbook Games
Portal to Adventure
Levels 1-2

[…] Adventurers have been captured and are dropped into an underground area housing a fearsome beast, their heads covered and their hands bound. A secret ally has hidden equipment in the dungeon, if Adventurers can find it, and there are means to escape.  The Adventurers start with nothing so they have to think creatively about both weapons and tactics. […]

This eighteen page adventure contains a five level dungeon with about 77 rooms. While it is is more interactive than the usual fare, at least of late, its text is devoted to mechanics over description and I suspect it is a son of a bitch in the difficulty department.

There is a subgenre of adventures where the party gets chucked in to the dungeon, at first level, without any equipment. This is one of those. And the adventure is interesting to me because its text serves as classic example of several problem areas with writing adventures.

First, there is the issue of making rolls to do common things. A classic example is the making of a skill roll to, say, walk down a hallway. In this adventure you get make a saving throw roll to stand up when you fall down. Yes, the second thing in the adventure is a saving throw roll to stand up. You get chucked in to the dungeon and make a save or take 1d3 damage. (If Portal to Adventure is an actual oD&D clone then ¾ of the party is now dead …) and then you have to make another one when you try to stand up. In another place you have to make a saving throw to remove the spear from a statues hands. No trap. Nothing bad happens. You just need to make the roll in order to actually remove the spear. I recall many, many advice columns and articles, in the 3e era, trying to convince DM’s that the party didn’t need to actually make a roll to do common things like ride a horse normally, and so on. I guess it didn’t take. I’ve never really understood this, or the counter-advice columns that encouraged DM’s to “get the party rolling some dice early in the session.” There’s this kind of meaningless dice rolling that goes on in adventures that just doesn’t make sense to me. Why roll the dice to get some boring bit of info? To stand up? To get the key bit of info? We know the DM is going to fudge anyway, so why does it exist? I always imagine the probability where no one makes their roll and, while the entire party having survived the fall, can’t make a common roll to stand up and spend the rest of the adventure wriggling around like fish on the floor. Ah, Good Times, Good times … so, prepare yourself for an endless number of meaningless dice rolls in this adventure.

And then there’s traps. Lots of traps. LOTS of traps. None with any warning. This highlights two problems. The first is the way “hidden” traps slow down the game. If the trap has no warning for a clever player to pick up on then the traps springs and players dies/take damage/etc. Players then begin searching for traps. Making roll after roll after roll after roll after roll. It becomes tedious. It slows the game down. A random pit trap in the middle of a hallway is almost always bad design. The second issue is that aforementioned “lack of clue.” When the DM drops a hint, of, say, a discolored floor, then the smart party will follow up, investigate, and discover the trap. It’s interactive. The party and DM are going back and forth. That’s D&D. Without warning of trap the DM simply calls to the players to make a save and take damage. Mindless dice rolling. Bad D&D.

There are other things wrong with this. Light not mentioned on the map, or in big rooms that you can see from far away. Mislabeled map, etc. But, the room writing style is worth considering as a good example of a style gone bad.

Ok, out of the way up front, any writing style can be good as long as it makes it easy for the DM to effectively locate/scan for information. A small subgenre of room descriptions are “Sticky”, like Old Bay in Fight On!, and don’t need much scanning. With that in mind, I’m now going to talk about a specific bad style. Or, at least, an instance that is bad of a neutral writing style.

This style might be given an example of “This is the first thing in the room. This is everything about the first thing in the room. This is the second thing in the room. This is everything about the second thing in the room. This is the third thing in the room. This is everything about the third thing in the room. (and so on.)”

This style can make scanning the room difficult. The party walks in. What do they see? Room nine, in this adventure, is a great example. It has two paragraphs, spread across two pages (which is, in and of itself, a bad layout thing. Guy Fullerton has a great write up on why in his series of layout articles.) 

9. Brick Walkway. The flooring here is brick with a 10 FT-diameter white stone cicle in the floor surrounding a lion’s head. There are dark red smears on the floor at the south end. A 3-ft brick wall is along the east side with a 15 FT drop from the top to the sany area to the east. A fresco inlaid in the west wall depicts two Manticores fighting in a clearing of a palm jungle. A lit oil lamp is attached to the [page break] west wall by a brass bracket. Two ordinary human-sizex skeleton are on the floor (three large bones can be used as 1d3 clubs) with gnaw marks. [Then the second paragraph.]

Skeletons last. But that’s likely to be the FIRST thing the party cares about. You, the DM, are digging through this text trying to describe the room to the party when they come upon it. You don’t know it’s lit till near the end. The skeletons (and arguably the light) are the first things the party will want to know about. You have to dig and dig and dig to find the things needed. Better keyword bolding would have helped the DM pick out information, or better use of white space/breaks, or a different style altogether. For beginner writers I think it’s easier to use a style that gives a general overview up front, without a lot of detail and then follows up, with bolded keywords and the like, with more information about the items. “You see a lit room with frescoes on the wall and floor, a low brick wall, and two skeletons near it.” The party can then follow up with questions about the lighting, skeletons, frescoes, wall, etc. Interactivity between the party and DM. The soul of D&D. 

Anyway, this thing DOES have a decent number of things to play with in it. Statues with heads to lift off, quicksand to play with, and not TOO many creatures, maybe a dozen encounters total? The writing in the rooms is confused, the adventure is probably too difficult for Level 1’s, especially when they can’t retreat (but I’m judging it by B/X standards, not by the standards of the system it’s written for, even though it implies its OD&D like.) And, the writing style is a little boring, using boring words and devoting the bulk of description to facts and mechanics rather than interesting descriptions. Evocative, terse, well organized, interactive. That’s what an adventure should be. Better than the overwritten modern stuff, but “at least its not over written” is not exactly high praise.

This is $1 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Adventures should have previews, showing some rooms, so we know what to expect before we buy things. 

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/329159/Belly-of-the-Beast?1892600

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Neverland, a Fantasy Role-playing Setting, review

By Andrew Kolb
Andrew McMeel Publishing
5e

EXPLORE THE ISLE OF MISCHIEF & MYSTERY: Many have heard of the island of Neverland. Stories of pirates, mermaids and Peter Pan are told by parents around the world to send their children off to a happy, dreaming sleep. But, it’s been a long time since the Darlings first flew to Neverland and a new story is about to be told. Your own.

This 171 page booklet details the island of Neverland, from Peter Pan, and it’s 26 hexes, politics, and creatures. Pretty strong usability support a deadly, yet recognizably whimsical/twisted place. It falls down on both evocative descriptions and Adventure Motivation, the later of which is essentially handed by an adventure generator. I think I’m terrible at reviewing campaign settings, but, really, if its organized as a hex crawl then what’s the difference? If I wanted to run a darker Peter Pan themed game then this is worthwhile with substantially more usability than your typical fluff-based campaign setting.

Not that there’s anything wrong with fluff. I like it too, but I don’t think it’s very reviewable. Thus the focus on this thing as a hex crawl. And, in fact, it’s organized as a hex crawl, making it substantially more usable than most settings. It has about 26 hexes, all with something going on in them, and about half or so with some kind of dungeon/lair in it. The last forty or so pages of this book are fiction, so you’re getting about 140 pages of actual content, most of which are new monsters. 

The very first content page of the book gives a general overview of what’s going on in Neverland, organized by the group/faction. This is GREAT. It’s a large book, with a lot going on. Having a one page summary orients the DM to what’s going on and gets their framing together. Now, when they look over a hex that talk about spiders they have more context in to which to place the information; their allies, enemies, goals, etc. Providing context, up front, is a great tool to get the DM s mind in the right place for the follow up information to come. Disney does it with their line queues. You could even think of the “room name” or a keyed encounter doing the same thing. 11 (text) or 11: Library or 11: Spooky Library or 11: Gloom-filled Library might be thought of as various ways to present a key to a DM, with, as it should be obvious, degrees of orienting the DM to the coming content. 

The hexes themselves are laid out one to a page. You get a short little description of a couple of paragraphs, few sentences, a map showing it in context to other hexes, a little isometric art view, and note of some window dressing of what happens in the hext during the twice a day “the chimes” go off, as well as about four or five tables to generate content for the hex. Hex travel time is covered up front, each hex being 2 miles, taking four hours to cross as dense jungle … which solves most of the problems of “what can i see in the next hex.” Encounters can be dense, with things generally rolled once an hour or so in a hex, with some significant variation to that timeline through a specific mechanic mentioned. Still, good service of hex travel and encounter generation.

The creatures have a good lore section each, mostly just a tacked on sentence, that is GREAT! Undead dwarves need to be turned face down to keep them from re-rising, for example. This sort of brief hit specificity is present all throughout the setting. Oracular portents, etc, get the same treatment. It’s consistently done at a pretty high level and that creates a campaign setting that FEELS like a place, because of the specificity, but doesn’t feel overwhelming to run … for the most part. The setting comes alive and you are, I think, excited to run it with the possibilities. And the darker twists, like what actually happens to the kids that come to neverland, are generally present throughout, making this a good setting for role-playing. 

There are alwo, however, numerous misses in the adventure/hex crawl. Cross-references are non-existent. This means that when a hex encounter tells you that you find the dungeon/lair in that hex then you must then dig through the book to find the page it is on. SOME of that can be handled by the Table of Contents, but a simple cross-ref would have worked better. Plus, “the farmer” and “the gatehouse keeper” seems like they could an explicitly cross-ref, given their lack of inclusion in the ToC, yes? Not the end of the world, but not great.

Monsters/creatures, also get some piss poor descriptions. For all their great “one sentence lore” inclusion they essentially have no descriptions at all. Maybe a brief illustration, but the first line of nearly every monster entry in every product should be some visceral description for the DM to use on the players, or inspire the DM when the players encounter the creature. Not here; there’s essentially none. And that lack of evocative description spills over in to the locations, encounters, etc. While the general setting details are present for how Neverland works, the locations themselves are presented in a very fact-based manner [using bullets, so the information is quite easy to find in most cases. This thing is, but for the cross-references, a triumph of organization and ease of use.] But facts themselves do not inspire.

And, of course, it’s really a setting, so there are no real adventures. There’s a table for generating some ideas, as well as another one with about twenty more specific ideas. But, it feels … empty? As if everyone in Neverland is simply repeating the same things and going through the motions. Go find X for Y, or keep an eye on Z and report back to A. The lack of specificity in the room keys is also an explicitly decision the designer made and I don’t think a good one. 

And then there’s the supplemental tables. These are wedged in to the back section of the book, but not the VERY end of the book. AT the very end they would have been easy to flip to and find, in a print version. And some, like, what is the creature in the hex doing and why, are critically important to locate quickly during the game. These sorts of tables should be at the end, beginning, middle … someplace they are easy to locate during play.

Finally, the notion of themes. Going Home, What it Means, Parents. Themes from Peter Pan, the book. This is mentioned in one brief paragraph at the beginning. This could have been strengthened quite a bit with some examples, or, even, examples in the individual NC”s, creatures, or hexes/locations. That would have made the thing MUCH stronger and, even, I think, solved some of the “what do we do now” syndrome that the generic adventure generator tries to solve.

I don’t usually review settings, but, this is more hex crawl with a strong setting element, some hybrid of the two, perhaps. More cohesive than a normal hex crawl but less specific in the actual adventure possabilities. It’s a great work and, brining your own ideas for adventure, could be the basis for a great campaign. But, as a stand alone resource for a hex crawl it leaves too much to be desired. 

The pdf is $20 at DriveThru. The preview is ten pages. You get to see the overview page I like, as well as some of the specifics of the island and that should be enough to give you a general idea of the flavour and writing style. Alas, the hex formats and dungeons differ greatly, and the preview would benefit by showing a page each of those instead of, say, the title page of the book. 

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/331102/Neverland-A-Fantasy-RolePlaying-Setting?1892600

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 2 Comments

JN2: Monkey Isle, D&D adventure review

By J.D. Neal
Self Published
BFRPG
Levels 4-6

Rising out of the vast emptiness of the blue ocean is a lush green island filled with ancient beasts and scattered strange ruins waiting to be explored.

This 54 page hex-crawl adventure uses about thirty pages to clone the Isle of Dread, but without the kelpies/kelies/whatever-they-are-called. Instead you get monkey people. It’s from 2015 and it FEELS like an old OSR adventure, with generic encounters and long writing. 

It’s Dread. It’s a primitive island off the sea paths. There are some good villages and a bad village. Dinosaurs, etc. You wander around the island, I guess looking for loot? It’s a classic older hex crawl. By which I mean: not very good.

You need a couple of things for a hex crawl to work well. First, the players needs to be motivated to explore. Why are they crawling? Are there rumors? Are they trying to accomplish something, looking for something, etc? You need a purpose. This don’t have that. Basically, you sail around the island and the DM might tell you that you see a path, or mountains, or something. Maybe you will go explore. Maybe not, I guess. You can also trek overland, but, again, why? Rumors of gold. Rumors of temple (which usually have gold …) Rumors of Magic, Rumors of SOMETHING are needed to get the party moving. That’s not here. The most you get is is in the hook: you capture some pirates, they have old gold and said they got it from an old temple on the island. That’s not much to go on.

There’s also little in the way of hex crawling rules present. (My apologies if this is in the BFRPG book.) Travel speeds, noted on the map? No. How far can you see/what can you see, to draw the curious eye and lead the party to another place? Nope. And, even if they WERE in the BFRPG book, putting the tables on the mps here would help the DM run it , as a kind of reference sheet. Vision, especially, is important in a hex crawl. You want to lure the party, and give them motivations for moving and going places, by what they see in the distance, with the map set up to encourage some of that.

And then there’s the encounters. There’s a wanderer table that is essentially 100 entries from a monster manual. Just list about a hundred entries and put them on a table. Everything from intelligent humanoids to, of course, a heavy dino  population. They don’t do anything, so no help in running the encounters. AND they are pretty frequent; roll a d6 six times a day and encounter on a 1 … that’s gonna chew up an old style D&D-healing party with low HP. And the island encounters proper, about twenty of them, read more like decent wandering monster encounters. They go a little something like: “ANT MOUND: Rising out of the grass is a huge ant mound. The ants will appear 1d6 at a time if it is disturbed. Inside the mound are 1,500 gp in nuggets. Each nugget has been molded into the rough shape of a humanoid insect.” Pretty brief encounter, but with little to recommend it … unless it were a wandering monster encounter. And a decent portion of the normal encounters are just monsters attacking you. It’s weird. Again, more like real encounters than a hex crawl encounter. (Not the review of Isle of the Unknown for a more detailed analysis of what makes a good hex crawl encounter.)

Twenty island encounters, but about nine villages (a couple of evil ones) and ten or so ocean encounters and about seven temple complexes/lairs with about a dozen rooms each. And all described in a pretty basic way. There IS decent interactivity in the temples complexes, more than a just fighting, and there ARE some roleplay opportunities in the villages. Certainly, the villagers are generally better than the long drawn out Dread ones. These are shorter. Both products, though, could have used some village personalities and some intrigue to get things going a little better.

The island is PACKED with humanoids. Besides the human villages (8?) there are also intelligent ape villages, pygmy villages, lizardmen, trogs, cavemen, evil elves, orcs … and just about every other intelligent humanoid possible in a monster manual. And the island is relatively small. Where teh fuck do all these people hang out? Better, I think, to have more repetition in the humanoids and make the island feel less like a humanoid zoo.

It’s a very basic adventure, like the kind you might from the early days of the OSR. When encounters were generic and descriptions abstracted … and yet there was some knowledge of the interactive portions of the game. 

There’s still not a good Dread adventure, IMO.

The PDF is free at the BFRPG site. 

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 9 Comments

Pretty Little Lairs: The Squid God of Wraith Isle, D&D adventure review

By Randy Musseau
Roan Studios
OSRIC
Levels 2-5

Player Characters are hired to retrieve a sample of water from a long-sealed temple atop an island peak. The coastline around the island is the domain of vile fish-folk known as Skulp, and the temple holds secrets best left unopened.

I loaded sixteen tons and what did I get?

This 48 page adventure describes an island with about ten locations, several of which are caves with about ten or locations also. It manages, in 48 pages, to do almost nothing. Abstracted, generic text full of stabbing with little in the way of specificity to fire the soul. Or clues to solve the mystery of the island.

I hate adventures like this. Someone clearly poured some effort in to this, and they came away with something that is boring. And these things are hard to review. How does one effectively communicate the absence of something? In a world in which people talk about Liking What You Like, a reviewer is always challenged to communicate WHY the choices made are substandard. About now someone always pops up and says everything is subjective. Which, I guess it is. But we can also judge things by how the majority of people will accept something. No doubt someone thinks that the Garfield movie is a cinematic masterpiece and Barry Lyndon is crap and they are always happy to chime in. But, with analysis, we can go deeper than “Well, _I_ liked it.” But you have to say why.

Generic Sucks. Abstraction Sucks. They provide nothing for the DM’s mind to latch on to. A well written adventure will cause the DM to be excited about the various elements. They will spring to life in their mind. Andthe DM, with a fuller picture in their head, will better communicate it to their players. Jabbing an idea in to the DM’s head. Brining it to life. This is the essence of the Evocative Writing pillar I harp about. It’s hard. But without it you get:

C. Main Chamber. A large circular cavern divided by a 2 feet (.6 m) high natural stone wall. Beyond the wall are tunnels to the left and right.

Stunning, isn’t it? Is your soul alive now? Are you excited to run Main Chamber? Another room, the Skulp (Kuo Toa) leaders chamber has a small fortune in pearls, coral, and jade. That’s the sum total of the room description. The rest of the key tells us he’s larger than a normal Skulp, making him the default leader, and he’s been in this role for several months. Exciting, isn’t it? He’s not even located in this room. *sigh* How about another room with a “large rock formation.” And yet, these rooms are LONG. They drone on an on with backstory and generic, abstracted descriptions of things using boring words like “large” and “big.” Thirty some pages of this (the rest being maps) and almost not actual detail at all. Detail doesn’t have to be long, but it has to be specific. Ditch most of the backstory. Sacrifice the words that tell the DM what the map already shows. Delete most explanations of HOW and WHY, because they don’t contribute to actual play. Use that freed up word count, or fewer, to add some detail. Maybe an iridescent mane on the leader? Or the rock formation made of skulls,some still dripping with viscera? Hanging tree roots, ala 13th Warrior, are always a good way to spice up a cave. Specific instead of abstracted. 

“The alchemist” hires you to bring back some water from the temple. I’m prone is hyperbole, but you get NOTHING on the alchemist. No name. No quirks. No real reward even. This adventure confuses “written for any system” for “needs to be generic” and that’s simply not the case.

The map is a disaster. It shows keys for areas three and four, but they are not mentioned in the text. Maybe it’s the Skulp lair? Who know. 

Encounter two is a stone path up the mountain. The crazy priest has left skeletons on it in several places to guard it. That’s it. That’s all you get. This is what $5 gets you on DriveThru. 

And the encounters are almost all combat. Just go in a cave and stab some stuff. Repeat. That’s not exciting or fun. That’s not exploration. That’s not social. That’s killing your players by boredom. Roll the dice. YAWN. Did we win D&D yet? 

The key to the magically sealed temple is in the Skulp lair, which, I think, is not easily found. There are no hints to this. Just follow the linear path up the mountain and, I guess, come back down again? 

48 pages of this. (ok, 35 or so.) This is nothing. NOTHING. There’s nothing to this. It’s like an algorithm wrote this using a boring thesaurus. “Possible encounters along the way will also add to the dangers of the mission.” But, it’s not going to run. Because any sane person, buying this, is going to bit file it and turn to something else. 

Yet more grist for the DriveThru mill. Yet more cynicism for buyers and dreamers. 

I got a rock.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages. It shows you none of the encounters, so it’s a shitty shitty preview. You need to know what you’re buying, that’s the purpose of the preview. HOWEVER, the generic writing present in the preview is present throughout, even though the preview pages are some of the best of the adventure. Joy.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/331164/Pretty-Little-Lairs–The-Squid-God-of-Wraith-Isle?1892600

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

Australis Barrows – The Halls of Eternal Ice

By Robin Fjarem
lalath
OSR/Generic
Level ?

A bright red star has appeared in the sky. People call it the Evening Star. Ever since its arrival strange things have started to happen. Wild animals are going feral, odd abominations roam the lands, and there are even rumors that the dead wake up from their graves when the light from the crimson star shines. Odd creatures and cosmic mystery awaits in this adventure set in the frozen wastes of Australis!

This thirteen page dungeon adventure in the frozen Southlands wants to do good. It tries, and fails, at a new formatting style that, while interesting, is not followed through on enough to bring clarity and evocativeness, with little interactivity beyond combat.

This is, in essence, a four page adventure; about a page and a half of maps and about the number of keyed locations, around thirty. Thus while not a one-page dungeon (Which I shy away from reviewing these days because of their Performance Art nature) it is close to it in formatting. When limiting yourself to just a page of keys per map you really need to bring your A game to pack in the exploratory/interactive/evocative/formatting. And this adventure tries to do with a kind of “exploding detail” style format.

Room eight is detailed as:  

8. Natural Cave

Watermill wheel? [powers the sledge and bellows in (7), ?Waterfall [drops 10ft], ?Crates? [mining picks, nails, skillets], ?Secret door? [behind the crates, leads to (?16?)].

I’ve seen this style suggested in several forum threads and have even encountered it a time or two in past, to varying degrees of success. It’s meant to be easily scannable at the table, what with it’s bolding and the like. And, in theory, it brings several nice features. Note that the room is given a room title, in order to orient the DM to whats coming. Once reading “Natural Cave” your brain is ready to start the rest of the description from that standpoint. I think it could have included a better adjective/adverb in that title to overload it even more, and the concept is a good one even if it isn’t exactly implemented in the best way. Note also the bolding of the keywords. You get the major room elements front and center, easy to scan and pick out. The follow up information for each element, being included in braces immediately after the keyword, are also easy to pick out. This style can work. I don’t think it’s the easiest for a new designer to be successful with, but it can work.

I don’t think, though, that it works here. From a scanability standpoint, sure. But the rooms are dry, and thus from a evocative standpoint they tend to fail. A millstone, a waterfall and some crates. Not exactly the height of excitement. Rather than inspire the DM I am left feeling kind of *bleh*. Thus leg two, evocative writing, is left to suffer. Better use of that room title, better adjective and adverb selection, a real imagining of the scene in the room, that would have helped. Or maybe an intro sentence or two for the room, to bring the wonder and a better description, and then leave the existing description to help point the DM to the details. But it needs more. 

It’s generacially formatted, with no real stats, just noting how many of each monster and mentioning treasure such as “a few coins” or “1 diamond.” It does have stats in the back for OSR creatures, but the lack of a level range, and the generic nature of the adventure, is, I think, a detriment. From a usability standpoint, a good adventure is a good adventure and any DM can restat/convert a good adventure. Better, I think, to be specific in your system and not worry about explicit cross-system sales. But, I’m not a salesman, so what do I know? The abstraction of the treasure is annoying though, and I don’t think it needs to be done, even if it IS meant to be generic and converted to other systems. Be specific! Not wordy, but specific! Avoid the generic abstractions that seem dull and bring the specificity that makes the mind excited to run it!

The overland “map” is a hex map, with no scale. It’s hard to read, with the font color running in the background color. With no scale ever mentioned, and a hard to read labeling system, it’s more “Art” than map. Sad. The rest of the adventure is really just padding. A small town on one or two pages. A little background information. The monster stats. A few pages about ancient aliens. 

A more serious issue is the lack of motivation. The town is described, the situation is described, and then the dungeon is described. There is not really much of a way described, AT ALL, on how to transition from the town to the dungeon. Hints and rumors of its location? The mayor sending you there? The red star hanging over one spot? A red beacon shining up from the ground? None of it. And thus HOW the players learn of the dungeon is an issue. Maybe make the main dungeon the town graveyard and have the bodies coming back to life (as the star does) would solve the issue.  There’s also these notes where it says dead bodies, inside the tomb, come back to life “if the red star shines inside”, but I can’t figure out any way for that to happen. Maybe a language barrier issue from a non-native speaker? In other places it feels like it’s just a “bodies reanimate at night” sort of thing, but in others “if the star shines inside.” Weird.

So, it tried. A little lite on the non-combat interactivity. REALLY lite on evocative writing, a few missteps in legibility and cohesion, and support information that doesn’t really add a whole lot. Specificity, not abstraction, is needed. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1. Check out page eleven of the preview (book page ten) for the keys for one of the levels. The promise of the formatting choices can be seen, as well as the drier nature of the writing and the combat-focused interactivity.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/330917/Australis-Barrows–The-Halls-of-Eternal-Ice?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 10 Comments

The Crypt in Cadaver Canyon (DCC D&D adventure review)

By Mark Bishop
Purple Sorcerer Games
DCC
Level 2

The Crypt in Cadaver Canyon is a 2nd Level Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure that challenges adventurers to save a hidden desert city (along with its cursed inhabitants) from the wrath of a devious and chaotic god. Its pages are packed with dangerous environments, exotic threats, and a world-shaking finale with thousands of lives on the line!

This 87 page linear DCC adventure contains eleven rooms, of which about eight or so will be experienced. Bursts of flavour, and penchant for dreaming up a weird situation, abound in this adventure, in spite of the rather uninspiring writing and formatting. And the design. The simplistic design. The page count isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

Weight divide “D&D” in to two categories of play: exploratory and plot. Older style D&D would be firmly in the exploratory camp, with its gold=xp mechanic. Modern D&D, and the wya most D&D has been played from the late 70’s (I’d guess) follows a more simple “here are a few encounters for tonight” sort of methodology, following a simple A to B to C kind of line. I’m not a fan of it, I think you sit around bored, but I recognize that many people seem to enjoy this way to spend the finite number of seconds until they no longer exist. If we accept that, then we must judge these things by “it’s not an exploratory dungeon” standard. And it’s certainly the case that the vast majority of adventures, and especially DCC one’s with their 3.0/3.5 roots, fall in to that camp. (Which, generally , is why I no longer review them. But, whatever, I’m nothing if not a hypocrite.)

There’s this cliff city. When they execute criminals they then toss their bodies in the river, that quickly runs underground, a symbolic and literal transition to the underworld. Oh, also, they made a pact with a minor god and it’s about to fire & brimstone come true in the destruction of their city unless they can sacrifice someone with a special birthmark before midnight. Also, the last person with that birthmark was executed two months ago and the sent sent down the river, in a clerical mistake. Please, sirs, could you go down the underground river and get the body for us? We’ll then resurrect it and sacrifice it before midnight.

Greenfield thinking! Outside the box! I love it! That’s a DCC thing if I’ve ever heard it! The designer has these sorts of little flavourful ideas over and over again in the adventure. At one point, if you fail a save, you see an eye on your arm and in a round of insanity try to gnaw it off for 1d6 damage. Noice! These little flavourful bits and setups are scattered throughout the adventure and denote a great talent for specificity and the grounding it can bring to a game. Brief, quick hits of detail, that really bring the noise in terms of something for the DM to run with at the table. It’s great!

I mean, it’s great when it happens. Which is not often enough.

For, in spite of these brief flashes of brilliance, the adventure is saddled with more than its fair share of garbage. And while it looks ok on the surface, I believe it is saddled with bad decisions and design.

Looking at the page count we get 87 pages for eleven rooms. Not as bad as it first seems, it’s a digest product. Plus,27 of those pages are handouts, pics for the party to look at, monster standees, etc. And, it does have a decent amount of art. Plus, the background, appendix stuff is well regulated to places that it doesn’t get in the way of running the actual adventure, it true is supplemental. Still, you’re not getting sixty pages of adventure, you’re getting thirty, for eleven rooms.

And, you’re not going to run all eleven, probably. The map is essentially linear with a couple of “forks in the road”, both of which tend to lead to the same place. You can have the left encounter or the right encounter, but you’re going to have the encounter after that. A literal DIsney boat ride, in this case. 

Did I mention the read-aloud? It’s in italics. I know, you’re tired of hearing me bitch about it. And I’m tired of seeing it. Italics is hard to read in long sections, as the page long or half page long read-alouds here are. Put it in a shaded box, or a box, or something else. 

Related to this is one of the openers, a meeting with the town council, in which 13 of them all give a several sentence long soliloquy. Seriously? Some party is going to sit there and listen to the DM read two pages of text? No one is going to break in? No one is going to pull out a phone? This betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of how a D&D game is run. There’s no “Q&A faq”, it’s just a lot of read-aloud. 

This lack of understanding goes further, to the encounters. They are simplistic. To an extreme.

Encounter one: make a saving throw or take damage. Seriously, that’s the encounter. Your boat floats down the underground river. There are eyeballs carved in to the top of the walls, all along the river. They cause you to make a save or take damage. (The aforementioned “gnaw part of your arm off for a round”) Another encounter may be just having a fight. There’s little investigation. Little poking or prodding or getting yourself in to trouble BY CHOICE. Those little moments of brilliance, such as the very flavourful rumor table, don’t make up for what is otherwise just a linear adventure of saves and fights. And while an actual puzzle does show up, involving primary colors (great job on it!) it’s an exception, not a rule. 

Great specificity, in places, without overstaying the text welcome. Great “vision” of things. But poor execution, both in terms of the evocative writing, the encounter design, choice, and clarity in formatting. Clearly, there’s potential here and I’ve love to see more of it, but it needs some experience.

This is $7 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages, and worthless. It shows you nothing. It should show you one or two encounters, some pretext, a mix of things, so you know what you’re buying. I don’t give a fuck abvout the handouts, art and such. The purpose of the preview should be giving me enough information to determine if I want to buy it. This fails at that.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/278808/The-Crypt-in-Cadaver-Canyon-DCC?1892600

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

The Maze

By M.A. Bastarrachea Magnani
Axo Stories
OSR/5e/Pathfinder
Level ?

The Maze is a flexible, 464-page mega-adventure that easily adapts to OSRs, dungeon crawls, and any d20 system.

This 464 page thing is a setting and adventure generator. Not an adventure. 

Do you like Kingdom Death? Did you like The Maze Runner? Do I have good news for you!

You can now own this thing in order to play a Kingdom Death/Maze Runner mashup! It’s a campaign setting. You wake up in an underground room and some dudes take you to this bonfire with an old elf who explains shit to you. You can make dives in to the mazes rooms and come back with resources so everyone can live while trying to find pieces of The Ultimate Weapon (thats a setting thing, not my hyperbole.) Every time you leave a room you gain a level, until you’re level 12. Then you have to defeat a boss monster to gain a level. The book has new monsters, magic items, rules for resources and running the “bonfire” home base, and a generator/guidelines for creating your own set piece rooms. A decent number of the rooms come out The Cube movies, or their kin, while others re just massive abstractions. New classes, etc. It’s all in here. Each session the party explores a room, deals with the thing, and comes back to the bonfire to level and fully heal. 

There’s some guidelines for converting the stats to 5e or Pathfinder, but nothing for the OSR. And that’s all a stretch anyway, because what this is is a heartbreaker. Someone wanted to write that Kingdom Death/Maze Runner world and published it as an adventure, slapping it in the adventure setting, writing a marketing blurb that it was a mega-adventure, and putting 5e/Pathfinder/OSR on it so it wouldn’t be touched by the “heartbreaker” kiss of death. 

I am clearly not amused by my purchase.

I will, however, go through the process of making a room, just to fill a word count. 

Youroll seven times. First, the room. There are 100 of them. (The Create a Room section takes about a hundred pages, with the other 300 being background/resource/campaign data.) Let’s say we get Deep Tombs. What follows is a page of text that generically describes this locale. Colossal chambers that some believe are buried deep inside the maze. They were carved by blah blah blah. Several levels connected by black stais. Endless rows of crypts and coffins, made of black Marble or Granite with dwarf skeletons inside laying dormant. You roll for the number of levels, how may d100 skeletons there are, get a sentence on looting steel skeleton armor and a % chance to get part of the ultimate weapon. The second roll is conditions, so maybe a necromantic mist inside this “chamber”, or some other party or its raining or something. Then you roll for the number of exits, how long until an ext door appears, some loot and who’s in there and if there are any “mimic” monsters. From this the DM can prep some adventure ahead of time to run. Oh, also, there’s a 1% chance you just die in each room generated. Yeah!

Look, I don’t know. Maybe this is fine as a campaign setting. If I were looking for Kingdom Death/Maze Runner then maybe it’s an ok thing, with its resource rules, etc. But that’s NOT what I was looking for. I was looking for an adventure. Not an adventure generator, and a generic one at that. And one that isn’t even 5e/Pathfinder/OSR at that. Is that what you want? Great. I didn’t want that. This “Adventure” is why we can’t have nice things. 

This is $20 for the PDF at DriveThru. Whatever. I don’t even care anymore.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/320918/The-Maze?1892600

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Fermentvm Nigrvm Dei Sepvlti, D&D adventure review

By Gord Sellar
LotFP
LotFP
Level: ?

You know well the modest inn that stands outside the abbey wall: you’ve guzzled those blessed beers in its taproom, counted ill-gotten coins in its rooms, tossed and turned through nightmares aplenty in its beds. But nothing can prepare you for the horrors that await when, late one night, you wake to find the church engulfed in flames, its bloodied brothers slaughtering one another, its steeple-bell above tolling for the dead, the dying, and for mercy from heaven above…

This 104 page digest adventure details about sixty locations inside of a burning abbey that houses a beer-making operation. It goes a little “bolded word” happy, and, I think, largely fails at its central premise: the exploration of an abbey on fire anc controlled by pod-people. 

When I look at an RPG adventure to review and see it has over a hundred page, I usually groan. Or sigh. Depends on the mood. While there is some allowance made for digest-sized adventures, it is almost always the case that a long adventure is not a goo adventure. Exceptions abound, of course, but, generally, if it takes you over a hundred pages for a simple adventure then there’s some issues present.

Weirdly, this adventure mostly does not have those issues, which surprised me. There IS quite a bit of supplemental information, but it usually doesn’t get in the way of the adventure proper. Yanking it all out there might be about thirty or forty pages of actual adventure. The rest are a bunch of “handout” cards about stages of infections from a fungus, monster stats and descriptions, magic item descriptions, history and so on. Like I said, it generally doesn’t get in the way.

The creator encounters, both wanderers and static, are better than the usual “three orcs waiting in a room to get killed.” The wanderers are doing something and have interesting effects that are situational. Some crazed horses trailing harnesses have a chance of tripping up the characters with their harnesses, for example. Or infected pigs vomiting black bile. In addition there is an ACTUAL TABLE that can be used to give the wanderer just a little more character, be they a normal person, an infected person, or an animal. I appreciate the help; the DM needs just a little push in the right direction to bring an wanderer to life and the table helps with that. The static encounters are decent as well. A body, twitching still, hanging from a rope from the bell tower. Now there’s a classic! People hide behind barrels. Cultits, woudded, argue amongst themselves on the next course of action. These encounters are flavourful and make sense. They are recognizable and relatable and therefore easily expanded upon from the DM to bring them to life without being hackneyed tropes. 

There are maps in the first few pages of the book. With a key. And basic description of the room type. And a cross-reference to the page number! And then followed by the wanderer table, to make it easy to find during play; that’s the kind of thinking that goes a long way towards usability. A physical volume should take adventure of those first few (and last few) pages to provide quick reference material (and, in some cases, the middle, if staple bound.) Nice job.

There are a few specific instances of the adventure doing things wrong, and one flaw that, I think, makes the adventure not worth pursuing. 

It makes a few oversights in usability. It scatters information, like locked doors, through intro texts and then leaves those locked doors out of the room description of the rooms they appear in. If the front door is locked, do you put that in the overview, a few pages ahead of time, or do you put that in the room that contains the front door? It also buries the lead in many rooms. A room with loud noises, arguing, or fire & smoke, has that buried later in the text instead of front and center where the DM can easily note it as the party approaches the room (or, noted on the map, for ease of reference.) This is a FREQUENT issue, especially given the chaotic state the abbey is supposed to be in. (More on that in a bit.) The adventure can also be a bit arbitrary at times, and/or rough in the way that LorFP adventures are famous for. You get to make a save vs magic every hour you are inside the abbey, at a cumulative -1, or get infected/more infected (along with other things, like eating and drinking fungus stuff.) This is rough, and means that the party is mostly fucked, in the way tha most LoTFP adventures are. While easily ignored, I don’t think there s a good alternative. It’s easy to be brutal, as this adventure is, but harder to get a good “lingering infection” vibe going without it feeling punitive. That would require some stellar design work and I don’t think the brutal version, used here, manages that. There are also a few rooms that I think could use some better work in them. A good example is a burning kitchen. There’s a barrel of brined pork about to explode with a +10% chance each turn. That’s about the extent of the room description, or at least as it relates to the barrel. A few exploded barrels, or some smaller effects, would have gone a long way to reducing the arbitrary nature of the barrel and provided thinking players a clue as to the dangers ahead. This happens in most of the “trap” rooms in the adventure. It does a pretty shitty job of the “vista overview” issue. Tell me the monastery is burning, or the fields smoking, in the overview os I can relate that to the players, not in the individual descriptions! When surveying a large area you need a good overview. 

The real issue, though, is the core conceit of the adventure. It’s supposed to be a chaotic environment, the scene of a mini civil war, burning, chaos. It doesn’t feel that way though. It’s more “oh, yeah, also this room is on fine” sort of thing. People hiding, rooms on fire, various bodies … but it doesn’t FEEL that way in the text. It’s communicated more as just another exploratory adventure. There are hints, here and there, bells rining, shoults of fighting, but those mainly occur in the marketing text of the adventure and not int he relevant sections. It feels more like a site a week or ten days later than it does fifteen minutes after the action stopped/started. 

I’d call this a middling effort. It has some highlighting to help call attention to things, but it too frequently used and (AC, highlighted?) and also is weird about it, highlighting weird choices when more effective ones are present in the same description. A little verbose, but the highlighting helps a lot to focus attention. It’s not BAD, per se, but it’s not overly GOOD either, given its inability to bring the fire and chaos to life. Which means its better than most crap being published.

Forgiving the (IMO, overly) verbose supplemental material, it does an ok job organizing information and presenting some interesting situations (even though the main brewery section is a disaster and does NOT encourage the cat and mouse play in a factory environment that it is going for) This is on the edge for me, between regretting it and skipping it. I’m going to pass, but your standards may be lower than mine.

This is $15 at DriveThru. There’s no preview and no level range given. For fifteen fucking dollars for a PDF, how about a fuicking preview Raggi? And a level range recommendation? 

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/320333/Fermentvm-Nigrvm-Dei-Sepvlti?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 7 Comments

Worm Witch: The Life and Death of Belinda Blood, review

By Wind Lothamer & Ahimsa Kerp
Knight Owl Publishing
OSR
Level ?

An in-depth look at the once-peaceful Isle of Annalida, now subject to a brutal occupation.

This 66 page regional setting has about thirty pages devoted to locations on an island and the rest of the pages devoted to new classes, spells, and monsters. It depicts a “normal” worm island that is being invaded by the Meat Lord. Gonzo beyond gonzo, but not nearly as gonzo as Chaos Gods Come to Meatlandia, the core setting this booklet is a supplement to.

Look, because someone commented that they wanted a review of it, alright? 

First, a couple of warnings. I don’t do setting reviews. I don’t really know what makes a good setting. This is a setting supplement. So I’m going to fumble through the review. Second, this thing is gonzo. I mean, this thing out Gamma Worlds Gamma World and out Rifts Rifts. And this is a relatively “normal” part of Meatlandia, not the REALLY crazy stuff from Chaos Gods. So, if you’re in to a setting that features maggots, giant worms, meat men and meat mechs then forge on. 

The digest booklet details an island off the coast of Meatlandia that is relatively normal, as far as things go in this fucked up world. Still a fuck ton of worms, and its being invaded by the Meat Lord. The ladder of the islands resistance may or may not be dead. You get twenty or so locations “described” as well as some monster stats, new spells (lots of worm magic!) and a couple of new classes … that can be summarized as “Worm Druid” and “Worm Ranger.” Imagine a pastoral land with rangers and druids, but theme them to worms, and then have that land invaded by MeatMen and technology. You’ve got the setting. Yeah. Moving on.

The twenty or so locations generally get one of sometimes two digest pages to describe them. Maybe a little in-voice “diary entry” to give some flavour text and then a little overview. The background of the location, what happened, what the place is like, maybe something going on. A couple of paragraphs. For the “Blood Lake” entry you get a paragraph describing a battle that happened there, and thus why it is called blood lake. Then one with a sentence of description and a rumor about bathing nude in the lake. Then a paragraph about a rumor about a woman ta the lake. Then one about the woman. There is also most of a column with some (FUCKING ITALICS!!!!) flavour text … that is also offset in a grey box. So, box, different background color AND italics. Three ways to denote it is something else. Finally, there is a little table on what happens if you immerse yourself in the blood lake. (This would normally be a wandering monster table.)

It’s ok, I guess. There’s some overall theming of a resistance movement and the invaders … mostly the resistance movement. It’s not a hex crawl, or adventure, but a regional setting. 

As presented it’s pretty open ended and I can’t help but think that it would be better with just a little more specificity embedded in it. A short timeline might have been interesting, detailing future events of the invaders and resistance. That would turn this in to more of a campaign setting and allow the DM to more easily integrate the characters. It also feels like the thing has more of a bend towards the resistance than the Meat Lord; there’s not a lot about the Meat Lords plans or armies, mostly patrol stuff.

It’s also lacking a certain specificity … and weird specific in other places and generic in other places. A wandering table might just have stats for a Lamia. Or it might say that you find a big pile of pineapples which have a copper talisman underneath. The pile? Specific. The Talisman? Generic & abstracted. Or, you run across a group of rangers embroiled in their own troubles. What are they? Not listed. A small inline d4 table would have been great, in this instance, adding flavour and allowing the DM to then riff on it. Sure, you can make this shit up, but the purpose of these supplements is to help and inspire the DM and a little more help is in order, I think. 

Overall, the setting is flavourful as fuck. The locations, less so. I’m not sure the text, as written, is very strong. The IDEAS are, and the overall concept is definitely striking. But the actual location entries could be much stronger. It’s dipping too much, I think, in to irrelevance. Maybe a bit too much in the history of a location. Maybe the “diary entry” space could be reclaimed for text that makes the entry more effective. A little more specificity and a little more in the way of turning this little region in to a campaign. For $12? Meh, I’ll pass.

This is $12 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages and is a shitty shitty preview. It’s just the first eight pages, most of which is just title page, blank page stuff. The preview should show a couple of the actual locations, maybe a page of class/spells and/or monsters. Really give us an idea of what to expect when we buy it.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/299441/Worm-Witch-The-Life-and-Death-of-Belinda-Blood?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Brazen Bull, D&D adventure review

By Jeffrey P. Talanian
North Wind Adventures
AS&SH
Levels 1-2

Whilst traversing one of the seedier neighbourhoods of Khromarium, your party are solicited by a greasy-haired Pict. He offers to sell you a sheaf of magical lotus that allows one to see the future or to brew potions that empower the imbiber with sorcery. He beckons you to follow him into a dilapidated building….

This is an anthology of three adventures, onlyone of which I’m reviewing because it was specifically requested: The Brazen Bull. It’s full of flavour, which is somewhat unusual for North Wind, but it continues to use tortured language to describe encounters, which is a hindrance to running it. But, seriously, major bonus points for writing something with some interesting situations. Anyway, it’s about thirteen pages long with about 24 rooms.

You know that old hook of the dude with the treasure map in a tavern, who is selling the map?

A little generic, and abstracted. Dull around the edges and without flavour. But … what if he was an obvious meth addict, for obvious reasons? Selling his parents laptop. Who’s an accountant. Or manages Fort Knox, or something like that. Suddenly, things take on a much different flavour. It springs to life. That’s what this thing does, spring to life. 

It could be the same hook; some lotus addict approaches the party, telling them them they escaped from a cult with a lot of gold and jewels laying around, and they’ll let them know where, for some cash … and/or lotus … are you carrying? 

This transitions in to the first encounter, a run down crack house with four skeezy dudes in it sitting in a loose circle. One, in a loincloth is kind of waving a knife over his head slowly, saying “i told you so” over and over again, mumbling. Another one is face down in his own vomit, another one is obviously stoned out of his mind, and another, it turns out, is dead.

What the fuck has happened to Jeff Talalnian? This shit is actually good! And it does this over and over again, delivering interesting little situations. A bunch of bodies, some still alive, hung on meat hooks, being drained. Multiple “zones” in the dungeon, which doubles as a druggie flop house and cult temple and an old crypt and some vermind tunnels also … don’t get lost trying to score your fix! Really some top notch situations being presented. Which is unusual. Finally, a shrieker that makes sense! Decent elevations show on the map and a map that makes the dungeon more interesting than normal! 

North Wind Adventures pretty much have universally suffered from two major problems. First, they use this tortured writing style (more on that later) and second they are boring. A perfect example is this adventure anthology. The first adventure is one I’ve reviewed before “Rats in the Walls.” IE: one of the most boring adventures ever published. Some dude has rats in his basement and you spend the adventure going in to boring old basement rooms and killing giant rats. That’s LITERALLY a meme of bad D&D, and it was at least fifteen years ago. But … this ain’t boring. Not at all! The vermind encounters FEEL like good vermin encounters that would be in a place like this. The cultists feel like cultists. The druggies FEEL like druggies. You know, implicitly, how to run these encounters. Once you read them they spring to life in your mind and you can call on all of your years of experiences to add to and expand them. That’s what a good encounter should do; it should leverage the DM to expand and add to the encounter. It should inspire them to greatness. And this does that. Good encounter concepts and decent specificity to bring them life in a way that inspires.

I say decent because this is, after all, still a North Wind adventure. It suffers from what all North WInd adventures suffer from: a writing style straight out of HP Lovecraft. The words are oblique and the sentence structure tortured. Where Gygax might thrown in a word or two here r there of High Gygaxian language use, Talanian lets his freak flag fly and stuffs the adventure full of  it. And then fucks with subject/verb and drops in a shit ton of asides just to make things more oblique. This is bad writing.

What?! Say it isn’t so! But it is. This isn’t a novel to be read for enjoyment. This is Ulysses or The Fall of America. Stream of Consciousness as a writing style has no place in an adventure. You have to fight it to run it. This isn’t Stream of Consciousness, I just say that for effect. Hyperbolically, we should be able to recognize that a D&D adventure written in iambic pentameter might suffer from some usability issues. What if, though, we wrote an adventure that emulated the writing style of Arthur Machen or Lovecraft? Tortured word choice and sentence structure? No, the adventure would suffer just as much. But that’s what this adventure does and that’s what all North Wind adventures do. It’s the house style. It seems counter-intuitive to me to have a house style that obfuscates instead of enlightens, but, there it is. That’s what the North Wind house style is. 

It’s FUCKING TERRIBLE.

If the goal is to emulate Lovecraft, then, congratulations, you did it! You have mechanically emulated the style of a writer. But, wait … is that the goal of an adventure? Isn’t an adventure supposed to be run at the table? Isn’t that its purpose? To help the DM run it? So selecting a house style that purposefully makes that hader would then be … THE. WRONG. FUCKING. DECISION.

I get it. Someone, somewhere, thinks it’s not that bad. They think that it doesn’t interfere. Some fucking moron somewhere on the internet is even now arguing that they like it and that it helps them and that it’s the best way to write it .. because it’s the internet and that always happens on the internet. But it’s not. It’s a terrible way to format things. 

So, for $10 you get one of the most boring adventures ever written, some unknown adventure, and this little adventure which has some interesting situations and is quite visceral, the way that North Wind adventures typically TRY to be but generally fail at. But, if suffers, as always, by the tortured house style. 

This is $10 at DriveThru. There’s no preview because FUCK YOU, that’s why. PPut in a preview so we know what our $10 is getting us?

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/265542/Rats-in-the-Walls-and-Other-Perils?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 17 Comments