Spiral Isles

By Jere Hart, Shane Walshe
Stygian Studios
Dead PC's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 1 Comment

Gellarde Barrow

By Michael Moscrip
No Level Given

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 6 Comments

Halls of the Bonelord

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Reviews | 4 Comments

(5e) The Right to Arm Bugbears

Curtis Baum

AAW Games


Level 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in 5e | 10 Comments

Darkland Moors

By Jeff Dee
Levels 3-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in Reviews | 2 Comments

Island of Blight

By Thom Wilson
Throwi Games
Levels 3-5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JABA – Just ANother Boring Adventure.

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


Posted in Reviews | 9 Comments

(5e) Descent into Mirefen

By William Murakami-Brundage
Menagerie Press
Levels 5-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in 5e, Reviews | 4 Comments

The One-Hundred Clones of Timothy the Wise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 7 Comments

The Hole in the Oak

By Gavin Norman
Necrotic Gnome
Levels 1-2

A hole in an old oak tree leads characters down to a maze of twisting, root-riddled passageways, the chambers of an ancient wizard-complex, and the banks of an underground river where once a reptile cult built their temples.

This 32 page adventure describes a sixty room dungeon with a bit of a fanciful air to it. Pretty well organized, things to talk to, some interactivity, and decently evocative writing makes this one worth checking out.

Usability. Gavin has his format down. He’s used it several times now and he’s getting better at it. There’s no one right way to do things but he’s found a way that works for him and goes a long way to making the adventure usable. 

A room will have a name, like “55. Gnome Home II” This immediately orients the DM to the room and gets them thinking about that type of room. Bedroom. Kitchen. Hall of Portraits, etc. He then follows that with a series of bolded words/phrases, usually two or three words. The bolding helps the DM pick these things out, major features of the room. This is followed by a short little section of a few more words, two or three, in parens, providing just a little more information about those things. This is followed up by little arrows with bolded headings, expanding more on the features noted previously. So a bolded Cupboard (jumbled jars of fish and mushrooms) might also have a Searching the Cupboards: with a few words on one jar with something else in it. 

The only misstep with this is additional information for the room. Some rooms have MORE headings, in brown, matching the color of the rooms titles and therefore not standing out as a part of the same room. They note other major things in the room. So, room 40, Lizard Shrine, has Stone Blocks, Stench, and Muck & algea all bolded. West you hear crashing water and Movement in room (slipping) are the bolded followup up sections. And then there’s another “brown bolding” heading with “4 Giant Lizards” and a few paragraphs of stats. And then ANOTHER brown heading section on Lizard God Alter … and some more bolded follow-ups. And then ANOTHER brown heading section about skeletons/stats.

I think the intent is to look at the initial bolded section, and then scan the text for the MAJOR BROWN HEADINGS to give a basic description of the entire room. I think I understand it, but I don’t think the impact is as good as it could be. It’s not BAD, but there’s something off aboutit that could be better. Something ta the beginning about the major features, maybe, in the initial room bolded section, would have helped a lot, as would maybe using a different color, etc, for the major room headings. Still, that’s a “is not perfect” and not a “bad.”

The map, from a usability standpoint, is great. It’s clear, the numbers are in their own little colored boxes so they don’t blend in to the map. It’s full of details like slopes, ledges, pools, beds, and so on. It’s not a battle map, and it doesn’t attempt to show every feature of a room, but it does a great job of evoking the room. That’s great from both a usability standpoint and from an evocative/inspiring the DM standpoint. Some rooms get extra map notes, with a major feature in them like “Sheep Fauns” or “Root Faces.” There’s enough interconnectivity to make it an ok map … which should be expected once you hit the sixty room threshold. 

The dungeon is littered with unexplained things, for the DM to expand upon and use. An odd assortment of boots and gloves, and wooden chess pieces, all with no meaning or content but for the DM to supply. I get the intent but I’m not sure it supportable to the extent intended. One open-ended thing? Ok. But two feels like we were short-changed on some interactivity of dungeon-wide puzzle. 

And to add more to that … it feels like interactivity is a bit light. Or maybe I mean that it feels sometimes like the interactivity is more “Isn’t that weird?” sorts of things. Ed Greenwood museum adventures, or the Chess room on Dwimmermount level one. A room with something weird going on in it but without any other impact on the adventure. No resource to exploit or reason to really mess with the room. Some of that it ok in a dungeon, but most of the dungeon should contribute in some way to active play. And this adventure sometimes feels like it drifts too far in to museum territory. A lever that turns some statues nearby to gold but only for ten minutes. Uh. Ok. 

This also has perhaps a balance issue. Yes, I know, it’s old school and we don’t give a fuck about that. BUT, there is a “Levels 1-2” range recommended. For a seven ghoul encounter. Or multiple monsters only hit by magic/silver. Or the room with twenty evil traitorous gnomes. It feels like at levels 1-2 you’d be running away all the time, after each encounter. And yet level 3 seems a bit high also. I don’t know. It feels off. And so does the amount of loot. OSE is just B/X right? It feels very light in the cash and magic department. 

Still, this is a great adventure. A little fanciful, with Sheep-people walking upright in their tweeds, and talking trogs named Old Gregg, Nancy Fingers, and Tomfool right out of The Hobbit. It doesn’t get crazy in the fanciful area, but it does lean toward the troll/spider/goblin side of the Hobbit. Which I think is a magnificent genre and am well aware some people do not.

This is $7 at DriveThru, and easily worth that. The preview is nine pages and shows you about eleven encounters (in the back half of the preview). It’s worth taking a look at, even if you are not interested in the adventure, just to get a look at the formatting.  


Posted in Reviews, The Best | 5 Comments

(5e) The Feystone Shards

By Perry McKinley
Levels 5-8

The Heroes are tasked to find five fragments of a shattered Orb, once worshipped by a faction of Elves. The search will take the party to a haunted Citadel, as they seek the scattered remnants of the Feystone. From a city of Stone Golems, to an alchemist’s underground lair – the players will face obstacles and enemies that will challenge their very resolve.  The Heroes will need to discover the secrets of the bauble’s fey magic, finding the lost Elvin city where the Orb was once worshipped as a God. Join in the hunt for the Feystone Shards, and see if your characters are ready to transcend common Heroes…and become Legends.

This forty page adventure details about twenty regional locations, some of which expanded, in the parties hunt to find the five shards of an ancient artifact. (Yawn.) It’s a mess of an adventure, with no summaries, few DM aids, long read-aloud, confused DM text, abundant italics … and combat as interactivity.

Here’s your adventure highlight: “In one hand the bony fingers clutch a piece of parchment.” Most of the read-aloud is much more forced in its allusions. That’s not even proper read-aloud block, it exists as a stand-alone sentence.

“An elf faction” … and a cult, two famous and tired abstractions. A shattered artifact to be put back together, another great unused adventure idea. The text adds backstory but it does so with writing that abstracts the concepts. Rather than a backstory that comes alive and adds depth it abstracts. It’s an elf faction, which is how I might refer to it in an academic paper written three hundred years later. (Well, assuming I’m a human and not an elf.)  The challenge in writing is to add the specificity that will fire a DM’s imagination and let them run with the encounter concept without vomiting up an abundance of words that makes the makes the adventure less easy to use. And the allowed number is generally quite small. Good organization can increase that number, but it’s a non-trivial endeavor. The way NOT to do it is have you read-aloud say things like “Hezra tells the party that …” Third-person is no way to build a bridge.

The opening read-aloud is in third-person and is a column long. Other read-aloud spans paragraphs. Long sections of the text are in italics. Italics is hard to read. Players stop listening to read-aloud after a couple of sentences. What we have here is someone emulating other styles they’ve seen, not knowing that the other styles were terrible. It does try to highlight certain portions of the text to draw attention to it. That’s great. But it’s not enough.

(As an aside, the quest-giver offers you 500gp each for each shard of artifact. I’d go hire a village of around 500 people, for 1gp each, and collect 499gp*500 villagers in reward. But, I’m now a nice guy on the weekends so I won’t say that.)

One of the core issues with the adventure is the lack of context and summaries for the various areas. What we have is about twenty locations and about two sentences of that column-long read-aloud … with very little other context of summaries of what’s going on in the various encounter locations. You go in each blind, trying to figure out, with your players, what the fuck is going on. That works in something like G1, but not when the text expands out the way it does here. Without the context and summaries you’re blind as to whats going on and going to have a hell of time running the thing. This is one of the main issues that torpedoes this product. I mean, the rest of its mistakes are bad and would have kept me from giving this a good score, but the context/summaries issues just lowers from a middling value, like so many other adventure, to some place near the bottom of the barrell.  

It has all of the usual issues with a plot adventure. The quest giver is actually evil. (Wow! What a surprise!) and captured minions reveal nothing … otherwise you might find out the quest giver is evil. Of course, nothing much is done with the quest giver being evil, so, you know, no big loss there. Most of these things have some big reveal in the last room where the party is “betrayed” by “a friend” that everyone saw coming a mile down the road. This doesn’t even do that, never really mentioning it again.

There are many mistakes right out of basic editing “There appears to be little here” or “it appears to be two eagles facing each other.” Weasel words. 

Endless shitty rooms with nothing going on. Interactivity that is little more than combat. Pre-defined places on the map where the read-aloud says you have to camp and have a random encounter. One room has a dragon. In the middle of the text describing the treasure it also has a sentence describing the dragons reactions to the party. Seriously? Because that makes sense? Because if I’m the DM looking for how a monster reacts to the party then I should naturally assume its in the middle of the text describing the loot?

Look, I know all this shit are vanity projects. I know designers are people and they are excited to share. But Jesus H Fucking CHrist hire a fucking editor for your vanity project. And pay good money for a good editor. I know, it sounds weird. I want you to pay A LOT for a GOOD editor. I want you to agonize over every word. And then I want you to sell it as Pay What You Want. But in the end you can take some pride that you have made something available to folks that is really good. No designers are making any money off this shit (which is true enough) , so instead frame the issue of publishing a different way. Instead of trying to make money with people paying you why not instead take the position that YOU are going to pay money to put something great out for people to use? 

This is Pay What You Want at DMSGuild with a suggested price of $4. The preview is seven pages. Page one has the third-person column read-aloud and a bit blog of italics … along with some examples of highlighting. Go ahead and read that column of text … it’s the only context inthe entire adventure of where to go and what to do. The preview is good, the entire thing, in that it shows you what sort of text to expect from the adventure … all seven pages.


Posted in 5e, Reviews | 53 Comments