The Sepulchre of Seven

By Hex A.G. Nome
Hexagnome
OSE
Levels 5-7

Long ago a half-elf, half deer-centaur named Jayne led a small guerilla band against the armies of an evil fae witch. They prevailed at terrible cost.Over centuries, the Church erased all memory of Jayne’s fae nature. Monsters moved into her hideout-turned-sepulchre, still haunted by Jayne’s enemies and companions, and a ghost longing to complete his vengeance…

This 68 page digest adventure features a two level dungeon with about forty rooms. And a metric FUCK TON of shit going on. Multiple zones, subplots, mysteries, a variety of things to do. It is CRAMMED. Could use a little more focus on consistent evocative descriptions, and it’s going to take some study cause it ain’t holding your hand. But, if you have to study, make for an interesting dungeon … and this one’s interesting.

Well, it’s got the fucking marketing down, that’s for sure, at least as far as the cover is concerned. Striking, isn’t it? It stands out in the sea of generic samey style that seems to be the goto these days. I say it in my feed and was like “Uh, Fuck Yeah, I want that.” Excited from the moment of purchase, that’s what I like!

The dungeon is the former base and now tomb of mythic figure of yore. Her legend is now corrupted and transformed, much in the same way that christiantity houses some pagan beliefs. There’s something there, some borrowed, something new, something blue. The locals will tell you tales about their local patron saint, each with some truth in them. Slotting in to this same section are the hooks, two of which stand out to me both escort jobs. One, a priest charged with cleaning and blessing the derelict sanctuary, and the other escorting a 17 year old “chosen one” in to the place. It gives it a kind of Dragonslayer vibe, I think. There’s no real detail to either, and a little personality and/or guidance, maybe one sentence more or two, for each, would have gone a long way. And that’s going to be a theme of this review. Most of the rooms could use a sentence, maybe two, more. 

So, great maps, lots of variety in them. Same level stairs, grottos, rivers, features on the maps. Clean and easy to read, monsters noted n the map for reaction purposes. Even a side view to help you see how things go together. The maps come from two different good designers, and then this designer has further modified them to fit their usability needs. VERY good job. These are REAL fucking dungeon maps, none of the half-efforrts that are so commonly seen these days. Not necessarily exploration maps, with their loops and such, but then again this is a tomb dungeon. The PDF comes hyperlinked and with cross-references in rooms to help you locate information.

And I don’t really, historically, like tomb dungeons. I, traditionally, find their maps too limiting (not this one!) and the encounters are a little boring and staid. They never feel like tombs. And when they do it feels a little static. But not here.

What we have going on here are a number of zones. We’ve got the kobolds in the entry zone. We’ve trolls down below near the underground river (multiple ways in to this dungeon for clever players!.) We’ve got some border zones with vermin. We’ve got a variety of tombs, with their intelligent undead spirits, and workshop areas. And the land of the fae, breaking in to places. Different feelings to the zones, different vibes. From the (potential) war zone with the kobolds to the more methodical negotiation with some intelligent undead, to more traditional exploration elements avoiding the typical dungeon vermin. And it’s through this zone play that a variety of play styles come in to play, keeping the adventuring elements fresh and less stale than a typical tomb adventure. 

Descriptions, when they happen, are quite good. Here’s a description of an amber golem: “Carved in pale translucent blue amber, the lean, 5′ tall, 2-tons snow leopard radiates softly from within. Bronze teeth and claws shine with the promise of death. Liquid gold cat-eyes cast puzzling, hopeful inquiries.” Note how it concentrates on things relevant to play, its appearance and mannerisms. Maybe a little flowery in places but those bits don’t overstay their welcome and could be argued lead to a better conceptual understanding of the beast, by the DM. The designer manages to do these descriptions time and time again … when it comes to creatures.

Room descriptions are done in a kind of evocative keyword/bullet point style, with section headings augmenting this. So the initial description might be: Well (rumbling water far below) 7 Arrow Slits, Larger than life statues (statue description) Lancet Arch door. And then some major sections headings for Kobolds, 7 Crude Arrow Slits, North Door, and Well, each with some bullet point descriptions and mechanics. This style, done well, ranks high on my Favorite Styles list. . It scans easily and short, punchy descriptions can work well. 

When done well.

Ok, so, I’ve not alluded three separate times to issues with the adventure. I’m going to cover them now, but, I’m also going to say that I like this adventure. You’re going to have to study it to use it, and it could be better, as I’m about to detail, but I think it’s worth it. 

There are three points I’d like to address. The first is hand holding. Just how much detail do you provide for the DM, as the designer? How explicit must you be, how much do you have to spell out for them? There is some happy medium between minimal keying and WallOfText four page room descriptions. Something like B2, or G1, can do a decent amount of story-telling and explaining through the use of the room keys. The story of the place comes to reveal itself over time, through the room keys. Alliances, slave rebellions, faction tension and so on. But those are, essentially, room keys one step removed from minimal keying. As your rooms get more complex and more is going on it gets harder to tell that story through the keys. You begin to need to be more explicit. You need a summary of what’s going on. That could be What’s going on in the dungeon, or in this zone of the dungeon, or, what’s going on in this room. Ideally, you, the DM, glance at things and know what’s going on. More complexity, though, requires more explanation. And this adventure could sorely use one more sentence, maybe two, for most of its rooms and Major Things.

Those creature descriptions that are so good are essentially the only place you’re going to see words strung together like that. Those escort folks needed a couple more sentences to bring them alive. Likewise, the rooms here, need a sentence or two more … as does the entire dungeon. If there were a few words, a paragraph, up front describing how the dungeon, factions, etc, worked, it would reduce the cognitive load of figuring it out. Yes, it’s present. But you need to read and understand everything to get it … and a little front-loading of the information would have made it easier to receive and grok. Same with the rooms. With some study you can figure out what is going on and how to run the thing. A sentence or two more would have helped with NPC reactions, and an overall “vibe” to the room.

Because as it stands, the rooms come off a little … staid? A little flat? The descriptions anyway. They don’t feel like a cohesive whole, working together, to create a vibe. A couple of evocative sentences up front, might have solved that. Or, a lot of agonizing work on the specific words selected to describe the various elements that are present. Right now it comes off more fact based than evocative, and I find that the keyword thing works better when it comes off as evocative instead. 

So, it’s complex. And requires study and thinking to figure out how things run. And some time thinking about the rooms to summon up a suitable imagery to go with them. I’ve been known to really slam an adventure for such things. Generally, this is when I feel the adventures so derivative and offers nothing interesting in play. If you’re going to charge me $50 for a grilled cheese it better be a really fucking good grilled chese. But then, sometimes, you get something like this. Sure, there are flaws, but, overall interactivity is good enough that the effort you put in to running it will pay off. And in spite of me saying that, after a couple of read-through, I’m STILL not sure how the damned/skulls/number of them work. Ug!

It’s a real dungeon. And those are few and far between.

It’s free at DriveThru. And the entire thing is available as a preview. AND they’ve posted some sample pages. Check out that gorgeous fucking map! Check it out. Page 22 of the preview/16 of the book is a good one to look at for the format/style used.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/366868/The-Sepulchre-of-Seven?manufacturers_id=20057?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews, The Best | 1 Comment

Lost Throne of Talukeld the Broken

By R.P. Davis
Kabouter Games
5e
Levels 2-4

Talukeld the Broken was a leader of a great horde of warriors who swept in from the West, conquering the Known World. It is said that his throne, made from the bones of his enemies, has manifested numerous magical powers. […]  The King gives the adventurers an ancient, crude map showing the way to Talukeld’s Tomb. No one has been there in generations, so nobody knows what dangers might be encountered along the journey, nor what they might find in the tomb once they arrive. The map has a curious symbol in one corner: a clenched fist holding a short, broad-bladed spear…

This ten page adventure describes, I don’t know, three rooms? It’s trying to do “epic” at level 2, without much in the way of evocative writing … or encounters. And I mean “encounters at all”, which are woefully few. Also, remember, I write these summations, such that it is, AFTER I write the review.

I am an ass. Let’s get that out of the way. Fortunately for everyone else, I know I am an ass and keep it in check in public. In private though … Every time I go in to these things I’m full of joyous anticipation. What wonders shall we see today? There, just over the next hill, is that shining city on a hill under a blue sky. But, at the same time, I am an experienced traveler on this road. The search of meaning in an existence inherently devoid of it can leave one that way. So, now that the initial “Wonder & Joy” has happened I can look at the product description. And see it is 5e and ten pages and a conversion from some other system. This leads to the weary traveller making judgements before cracking the electronic spine: cover page, title page a couple of pages of “epic” backstory and overview, a couple of pages of appendices, lets say three of them, and a credits page. That’s eight pages. In a ten  page adventure. The finally two pages will be the actual adventure and contain … three rooms Yes, i predict three rooms. And there will be undead and animated statues. This then is the prediction of Bryce! 

Epic backstory and setup, eppic backstory, epic setup, army of giants about to pour down on King Asshats kingdom, he sends you get the Bone Throne from some dudes tomb so they can turn the tide of the impending invasion. It’s two weeks away. No word on why no one has done this before. Maybe the giant army plans better and has better leaders than Good King Asshat? Anyway, “no one has been to the omb in generations, and who know what dangers might be encountered along the way?!” says the teaser. This translates to a road running right up to essentially the front of the tomb and, the best part, the journey to the tomb being abstracted to just “make a skill check,” This represents all of the dangers you may have encountered on the way to the tomb. And no resting to regain the abstracted damage you take! If you do then you might not make it back in time to save the kingdom! I mean, there’s no real time table. So … 

Let’s see, let’s do a breakdown of the encounters in this adventure. The skil check on the way to the tomb. Two stone statue guardians at the front door that you can bypass. (Ha! I knew it!) A puzzle in the first room. Then a trapped hallway. Then the main room (Ha! Three rooms! I knew it!) with some cultists you can  bypass. Then a skill check to remove the throne from the tomb. Then a skill check to get the throne back home “losing one day for each failed check, This means that they arrive in the nick of time to save the kingdom from the giants!” *sigh* Look man, I’m all for bypassing encounters. And I certainly don’t think that fighting it the core of D&D. But, hey, how about some tension? A trap that needs a passive perception of 14 to see? Don’t blind people in 5e have a PP of 14? The two bypasses are good, and good design, but there is no inherent danger or tension in any of these encounters. I think I would fall asleep playing this. Yeah, convincing the undead cultists that you need the throne is a good idea. And tricking the statues is a good idea. And then what? It’s not that combat is NEEDED but rather that there must be some kind of tension in an adventure. And this one don’t have that. 

It does have a locked door that knock can’t open, a part of that first rooms puzzle. Bad design, again. The designer has dictated that THIS IS HOW YOU PLAY MY ADVENTURE, and you have no choice but to experience it in the way they want you to. In reality, a wizard memorizing knock no longer has Sleep. The party has made a choice. We will bypass X and potentially make Y harder .This is a meaningful choice. This is agency. Not of which exists when you gimp the party. 

I don’t know what else. There’s a suit of gilded armor that is sure to have the party asking “how much is it it worth” that is never mentioned again. We’re told, as the DM, to make an encounter “frightening” … without any guidance. That’s the goal of the designer. It is to write a description, setting a scene, which will make the players and/or DM think “this is frightening!” You don’t tell, you show. 

Oh, and, the descriptions, boring and poor as they are, lacking any evocative writing, come ass backwards. In one case I’m thinking of, the road to the temple is described AFTER The entrance to the temple is described. It should be obvious why that is bad. It should be, but I know it’s not. 

And yet, I am too full of ennui to elaborate. I’m going to go sulk the rest of the day until tomorrow, when shall return to me dreams of gilded houses in the sky.

This is $4 at DriveThru. You get all ten pages in the preview. Enjoy that.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/367915/Lost-Throne-of-Talukeld-the-Broken–Fifth-Edition?1892600

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 15 Comments

What Lies Below

By Thom Wilson
ThrowiGames
Five Torches Deep
Level 1

What Lies Below takes characters into a druid’s tomb below a rotten stump. The characters will quickly find that the druids buried within dabbled in magic and enchantments well outside their traditional schools.

This eight page adventure features an eleven room druid lair under a tree stump using five pages. Interactivity is rather basic. I’m going to spend most of the review talking about the ThrowiGames Sensory Descriptive Style format, and it’s failings, and what it means for writing a good description and organizing information for the DM to use.

So, lair under a tree stump. Some earthen cave-type rooms with a few undead and a spider in it.Interactivity is spares, and you’re gonna have to take my word on that, as I want to talk about Evocative Writing and Formatting. In this case, the interrelation between the two. This is the format used in the adventure for rooms. Other rooms mauve have other sense also, like “Taste” or “Sense” or “Exits.”

<pre>

Area 1: Tree Stump Entrance

A chain around the base of the rotting tree stump drops into a dark hole below.

GM Notes: Although rusty, the chain can support up to 500 pounds of weight.

Quick View: Wide, rotten, hollow stump. 

Detailed View: Rusty, thick-linked chain. Various animal footprints around the hole.

Listen: Air whistles up through the hole below the stump.

Smell: Rotting tree and vegetation.

Secrets: The hole is discovered with a DC 9 check. Exits: A hole below the stump drops over 40 feet.

</pre>

What we have is an attempt to well describe the room. Laudable, especially bringing in other senses, however I would argue that the formatting fails and that because of that the Evocative nature of the room also fails. Looking at the very first sentence, the chain around the base of the rotting stump … what’s the purpose of that line? Is it read-aloud? If so it may be TOO terse, ignoring such great features as the air whistling up, which should be obvious, and the rotting vegetation line. Is it a general overview of the room for the DMs needs? Then why the extra lines for the whistling and the rotting? 

There’s a Quick view section … how does this differ from the initial opening line? What is it adding that the opening line isn’t? Just repeating data, in the same way that the “Exits” portion is? Listening and Smelling are relatively specific actions. Further, both, in this rooms case, help set the general mood of the room and you, generally, want the players exposed to that mood initially, rather than making them “tease it out” of the DM. (With exceptions for things like a Revelation.) Further, the format, separated on different lines, with things breaking up the relevant sections from each other, takes more time to scan over and grok. When giving the initial room description you’re reading the room title, the initial italics line, the quick view, the listen, the smell, the exits, and probably the GM notes and secrets, all in order to synthesize the description in to something to relate to the players. 

This gets to the issue of being limited by a format instead of being enabled by it. I’ve almost always encountered this in adventure that, as this one does, explicitly has heading information for a variety of topics. Exits, smells, tastes, sounds, door construction material/DC, light in the room, and so on. I get where they are going with this. Light, in particular, is an easy thing to relate to, as something that we generally want to know. But what happens is that these rigorous formats begin to take over. They become the focus rather than the room and the DM running it, being the focus, even though they are supposed to be enabling that. In the end we see that the rigorous adoption and devotion to the format creates a room description that is less useful than the sum of its parts. Whatever effect a dotting hole in the ground, a rotting tree stump, wind whistling through the hole, might have had, it’s lost when you separate them out like this.I strongly believe that there is no one true way to write a description, but I do know that this isn’t it.

Also, when you approach the tree stump, entrance to the druid lair, you are attacked by four halfling thieves, life-long “Protectors of the Druids Lair.” WTF is up with this? Is has absolutely no theming with the rest of the dungeon, in any way. Another party, or bandits camped above, or something would have fit in better and made mode sense.

This is $1 at DriveThru. El Senor Preview is four pages, more than enough to get a sense of the room encounters, for format and interactivity.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/368106/What-Lies-Below?1892600

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

Arrowroot

By N. Masyk
Monkey's Paw Games
OSR
Level ?

“Hail, Agkaman! Hail, the conquering hero! Hail, slayer of accursed serpents! A giant is he; panoply of burnished gold, so heavy that three men together would be buried by the immensity of its weight! A warrior is he; his sword so broad that held aloft it blots out both suns! Hail, the Agkaman, who scoured these lands of the hated snake-kin and took from them their glittering hoard, now the wealth and power of Evech! Hail, the Satrap! Hail the Golden King!”

*Sigh*

This nineteen page digest “adventure” contains a two page dungeon with ten rooms and some fluff for a city and the surrounding hexes. It falls in to the category of “Yet another inspiration product masquerading as an adventure.” There’s not much here more than picking a Dungeon Dozen table or two. Excellent marketing here. Nice cover and a teaser description that draws me in and hooks me for $5. 

So, some city, with four surrounding hexes. One of the hexes gets the description “River; once clear and cool, winding lazily through the lowlands. Now, dammed near to the fortress to provide better irrigation for Agkaman’s crops. Frequently patrolled by riders.” The others are like that. Ok, get inspired and run your game! The city gets the same amount of detail, for this is just a collection of tables with no real meat anywhere. The two page dungeon (one for the map and one for the ten encounters) falls in to the “more of the same” category for descriptions. A symmetrical map (Ug! Fuck that shit!) and then descriptions like “Entry Hall: d6 gold-armoured knights patrol here at all hours.” or “Wine cellar: Den of the elusive wine vampire.” There’s nothing fucking here. The encounters show promise, in the abstract, but without fleshing them out and making them work together it’s just the results of a random computerized encounter table. “Hey, here’s four words about something freaky.” 

I shall, however, use this as an example of of gameable content for about half the table entries Do have some sort of gameable content … if they were present somewhere else and strung together in a meaningful way. Maybe a third of the tables in this are more than just trivia.

Trivia vs gameable content. What is that? I’m sure we’ve all encountered long and detailed descriptions of a vendors physical appearance and their backstory. This is almost always trivia. Having blue or green eyes is unlikely to drive any meaningful interaction in the game. Gameable content, though, will lead to something in the game. It doesn’t have to be something serious, but it will be something that sticks more than green/blue eyes. 

Let’s look at the wanderers table in this, which might more accurately be called the “Hirelings” table. We get a sentence for appearance. Ok. We get a sentence for equipment. Ok. And then we get the zinger, something that solidifies the NPC. “Haunted by the memories of a past life.” or “Hunting a vampire that slew their mentor” or “Blames the gods for every misfortune.” This is the sort of specificity that really can bring a game alive. 

The wandering creature table has hunters tracking a herd for three days, or nomads contemptuous of roof-dwellers. While interesting, they don’t actually LEAD to anything other than a conversation. We’re at a kind of middle-ground. While the NPC details spices them up, the encounter detail needs to drive TOWARDS something. It needs potential energy. Treasure falls in to the same category as the NPC’s. It exists and a purpose in the game (for the hirelinings, stabbing shit) and the extra spice can be more static. “Pristine serpent scale, solid gold & incredibly heavy.” or “Gilded canopic jars, filled to the brim with naphtha.” One merchant in town is an alive merchant … with nothing else, while a Traveller is looking for a fight and doesn’t care with who. You can feel the energy in one and know how to use it, while the other just IS. What’s the point of the olive merchant? Why write it up? It’s not adding anything to the game. 

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is fifteen pages. It’s enough to get a sense of the mixed-bag of content. Just know that it’s ALL like that. 


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/366779/Arrowroot?1892600

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

La Danse Macabre

By Michael Gagnon
Self Published
For Coin & Blood
Levels 2-4

Dark things stir under our feet. Creatures born of vile necromancy or dark will. The undead rise from their grave in “La Danse Macabre” an unofficial adventure module for “For Coin & Blood” and other OSR products.

This eleven page adventure, with an interesting cover to lure me in, features a five room dungeon in a graveyard. There are a few interesting concepts involved, but, in the end, it’s just Yet Another Poorly Implemented Concept with The Usual Language & Formatting Issues, to disappear in to the ether.

So, the worlds got some intelligent undead in it, and, they are offered as a player class: The Wretched. Well, more intelligent undead than usual, this is an attempt to give skeletons from Danse Macabre type vibes. It is written as a confusing mess of if this then that, with long conversational style, stretching to a page and half for one of the rooms. Helping this along is a left justified paragraph formatting, ensuring that it will be difficult to understand where one paragraph ends and a new concept begins and contributing to a Wall of Text type feel. No bueno. Mixed in to this is an attempt at an evocative description or two; a muddy graveyard covered in half-buried bones is one of the highlights, described in as many words as I just used. So, conversational style, a lot of if/then and then statements, some attempts at evocative phrases that get lost in the larger formatting issues. Repeated information, such as unlit sconces … that it then tells us that the party can light. This mashup of a description of a place and the actions a party might take in that place … which usually ends up creating a mess in the text, as it does here.

It wants to create this very political environment. You learn about a powerful & rich widow who has hired some mers to clean out her family graveyard of undead so she can bury her dead husband in two days time. It wants you to talk to her, and spends some time describing how the party could sabotage the mercs before they head out to do the same job. In the graveyard crypt you get a little vignette of a skeleton dude in robes giving a sermon, who is interested, perhaps, in getting the parties help for his quest to turn all ife in unlife … allowing the party to ally with him and his minions against he mercs and/or the widow when she shows up in two days time. (Fun fat: if you do this, he gives you a skeleton dude as a retainer! Nice reward that.) SO it wants this tripod with the widow, the mercs, and the skeleton dude. None of which is explored much, but ALL of which is covered with a lot of “if you do this then they will do that” type of statements, along with direct statement to the DM in many places about things the party could do, like “they could blackmail the widow with this information” and so on. But it’s all mixed in, it’s all a mess as presented.

The actual dungeon is not much to speak of. A few undead skeletons. Some lackluster rooms to poke in, not very well described. There’s just not much to do. A few combats with skeletons. Maybe talk to the main skeleton guy, maybe. The IDEA is that this is a dynamic environment, with the tripod, but that doesn’t come across and isn’t well supported for that.

(There may be some English As A Second Language issues in this, but I don’t think they cause any major issues, or minor ones even, other than noticing some phrasing issues.)

This is 5.50 at DriveThru, with no preview.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/368732/La-Danse-Macabre-Adventure-and-Class-module?1892600

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The Light of Hope

By Andrew Sammler
Self Published
5e
Level 8

With the continual darkness still overhead, adventurers embark on a journey to deliver Good Mead supplies to some of the Ten-Towns to lighten the mood and allow people to blow off steam. On the journey, the characters will be providing joy, light, hope, celebrations, competition, honey wine, and baked goods.

This 35 page adventure uses about fifteen pages to describe a couple of combats (three?) and a few skill challenges, the rest of the page count being the appendix monster stats. It strikes me as a 4e AL adventure: a pretext and then a [fight or skill challenge.] With logical inconsistencies that tear at suspension of disbelief, I guess it’s fine if all you want to do is roll-play.

Your level eight characters get to escort a wagon full of mead barrels to two towns. Escort mission. Of beer. As level eight’s. It’s not magic beer or anything. It’s just mead. Because the two towns haven’t had any for awhile and it will make them happy. I don’t know man, maybe it’s a thing in this setting that level eights deliver beer. Oh, and the quest giver is an asshole, f you ask questions he starts to get rude and impatient and berate you. I’ve never understood this. “Ok, fuckface, how about you deliver your own beer? Maybe you haul it in your asshole since I’m about to start shoving these barrels up yours!” Yes, I do want to play D&D tonight, why do you ask? Ok, yes, I suck it up “we will deliver your beer Mr ungrateful asswipe. Please, pretty please, allow me to go on this adventure and play D&D tonight.” 

On the way to the first town a blizzard starts. This if course means that you are about to be ambushed. And you are, by undead. Who form ranks with the rear rank shooting arrows at your mead barrels while the front rank protects them. I must say, this pretty much robs the undead of any wonder or mystery, treating them like the robots in the prequels. Nothing really undead about them, they just act like die rollers, which is what everyone in this adventure is. Flavorless die rolling. Oh, and, there’s a dude sneaking up behind you. Afterwards you can track him. Even though there’s a blizzard. I don’t know. Hang on, I’ve got a call from my wife, I have to go home. What? Why, yes, I am divorced for a couple of years now. Oh, I misspoke, I meant to say it’s a spam call and I can keep playing D&D.

When you get to both towns you are given some busy work. “Were gonna have a party tonight, I need your help.” Trovus suggests that first thing in the morning the characters clean up and prepare the warehouse space for the battle of wits tomorrow, which would include dusting, straightening tables, lighting the torches, preparing the dragonchess sets, etc. Slow news day I guess. Then starts the party and our friendly D&D players get to make a series of skill checks. Want to play dragonchess? Make a series of skill checks. Want to do the riddle contest? Make some skill checks. Want to participate in the handstand contest? Make some skill checks. 

The issue is not the festival. This sort of party participation shit has been around forever. The issue us the abstraction of the game. There is NO detail to the contests. Just make some skill checks. No “And Frenkie performs the Rubinate hook moving his platinum dragon to Huma-well 4!” No drama or local colour. No favour of any type. Just make some skill checks. This is the worst sort of things. Roll dice. *YAWN* 

Oh! Oh! I forgot! The dude who sabotages your mead barrels in the ambush? If captured, he won’t give up his employer. Because, I guess, “sabotaging some mead barrels” is the crime of the century even when compared to the fire & toture that the party will bring down on him. Th real reason is, of course, tha the designer wants to have a climactic battle with the bad bad, complete with reveal, at he end of the adventure and finding out sooner would spoil that. 

Did I mention that there’s an assassin in a little hut you visit, trying to kill the person inside, and the MASSIVE FORCE OF UNDEAD waits out back, because, that’s what you do as the big bad; when you have a massive force of undead 10’ away from your victim you instead send one lowly human to do the job. For that matter, the entire adventure revolves around a necromancer wanting to make the town unhappy, and thus sabotaging the mead delivery. A necromancer that seemingly has a bajillion undead at their disposal. Why not just fucking kill people and burn their crops, houses etc? Why fuck around with “sabotage the beer delivery?” 

Because that’s the adventure. A pretext. Written for the wrong level. A pretext. An excuse to roll a bunch of dice in combats that make little sense. A pretext to have some abstracted skill challenges. It reminds me, for all the world, of those terrible 4e RPGA games I used to play up at Winter Fantasy in Fort Wayne.

Sure, it’s formatted nicely enough. But at some point you have to recognize that you’re playing Warhammer and not D&D. What does it even mean anymore to say “I like playing D&D? What does that mean?

It’s 11:11am and it’s time to drink.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is fourteen pages; more than enough to get a sense of the writing style, formatting, and what you are buying.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/368489/DCPoATLOH01-The-Light-of-Hope?1892600

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 29 Comments

The Hidden Necropolis

By Robert Nemeth
Caulbearer Press
Five Torches Deep/5e
Levels 3-5

Miners at a copper mine in the foothills of a large mountain range have discovered the remains of an ancient civilization and something more mysterious. A lone survivor of the mine arrives at the nearby town, but is delirious from his experience. Will the adventurers sent to unravel the mystery find out what dark fate has befallen the mine?

This forty page digest adventure uses eighteen pages to describe a mine dungeon with thirteen rooms. Long read-aloud and a “encounter room and stab” design mentality combine with an overly focused attention to mechanics to detract from any sort of an interesting environment. 

The mine here is just a couple of room leading up to an underground pit mine about 90’x90’ that, evidently, had about fifty miners working it, given that there seems to be about fifty miner zombies scattered throughout the dungeon. Zombies, and everything else in the adventure, do one thing in this adventure: as soon as you enter the room they shuffle forward to attack you. Or, in the immortal words of the overly-flowery read-aloud “they seek to extract your essence.” And, don’t get your hopes up, there’s nothing special about having your essence extracted. No brain eating or black clouds coming from their mouths or parasitic finger thingies. They just attack with pickaxes. Enter a room, get attacked. Enter another room, get attacked. Maybe make some kind of dex check to climb up something or open something. Or, some kind of int check to find out something meaningless. What was that version of Doom where you basically just entered a room and the doors slammed and creatures appeared? Like a hundred little set pieces. Except these are not set pieces. We all bring a part of of us to what we review and I’m not afraid to say that I find this the most boring type of D&D to D&D. I know, I know, some people like 4e and minis combat. This isn’t that, but it FEELS like that. There’s no real tension in the encounters. No “I wonder what will happen if we open the coffin” or “Oooo, I know this is a bad idea but I’m going to do it anyway!” It feels mechanistic.

And this feeling is probably enhanced by the focus on mechanics in the adventure. The DM text really likes describing mechanics. In detail. And I’m not talking trap & door porn, where the mechanics of the trap are given too much detail. No, this game mechanics detail. Like let’s write a long paragraph on how to walk down the corridor and all the checks one has to make and then the checks after the checks. And then the checks are the parts of the DM text that are highlighted, to call out the 5e specific rules for that system. This draws your eye to them, even if you’re not playing 5e, making it harder to grok the mechanics and other text as a whole. 

And let’s talk read-aloud. The read-aloud that makes just about every read-aloud mistake that can be made. It’s long, violating the 3-4 sentence guideline. People don’t listen to long read-aloud. Their attention wanders. They pull out their phones. They don’t care anymore. It’s in italics. Long sections of italics are harder to read and comprehend. And, it’s in a weird fucking italics font, making it all the harder to deal with. It uses phrases like “appears to be” and concentrates on a second-person perspective, saying things like “You can see some tracks off to the left” instead of “There are tracks off to the left.” When read-aloud is a quarter of a page or longer, there’s an issue. It’s focusing too much on exact specifics, where the doors are, for example, instead of giving the impression of the room for the party to follow up on with questions to the DM. 

Oh, let’s see, what else. The local garrison is too busy with road patrols to go check out the Serpent Men reports. The serpent man portions of the dungeon are rather drab, meant to be enhanced by a “general dungeon features” section earlier in the book, which will no doubt be forgotten and dropped during play. Doors have not been used in quite some time and thus are harder to open, in spite of the zombification event just happening. Zombies at the entrance don’t show up to ambush the party unless the party miss their perception check. I have no idea how that works. 

The titular necropolis is one room, has two animated stone statues, and a gold scepter. Talk about a let down …

The wandering monster tables are by far the most interesting part of the adventure. A pair of ogres with a halfling in a sack over their back, harpies who want just one person to bring back to the nest to feed on, a face-saving bandit with an ostentatious name, Stirge who attack pc’s with BO, a troll who lures PC’s with the sounds of a drowning child. That shit is good. 

Production values on this one are high. But, in terms of design, it gets almost everything wrong … unless you just want to fight shit and exploration, role-play, wonder and joy are just a sideline to you.

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages, only the first of which shows you one encounter, the first one. It’s a decent example of what to expect, just assume that everything else is more badder than this.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/322266/The-Hidden-Necropolis?1892600

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

The Witch of Underwillow

By Merric Blackman
Self Published
5e
Levels 1-3

Save a kidnapped child! The villagers fear the forest, and rightly so. When wolves drag a child into the forest, there is only one option: find brave adventurers to follow the wolves and save the child! However, are there things the villagers aren’t telling the adventurers? What dark fate awaits them when they face the Witch of Underwillow?

This eight page adventure features six encounters on the trail of a baby stolen by a witch, with a nominal Ravenloft setting. Decent creepy and writing, along with DM text that that is to the point, helps make this a solid adventure, although featuring a few odious concepts and “extensions” that are, at best, half-hearted. A straightforward one session stab and grab. Merric has a solid head but can stumble on delivery, and this is no exception.

First, competent adventure. The read-aloud, while trending to the longer side of the three-four sentence rule, is fairly evocative and concentrates on the important shit. Hearing that a baby went missing while mom was hanging laundry, the RA for the house covers a fallen-down house in three sentences, and then the backyard with laundry line and overturned baby basket in two, finishing with “A dark forest runs along the edge of the yard.” You get the three main things: the house, the laundry/basket/yard, and the forest. Plus, the imagery of the laundry line, overturned basket and dark forest beyond summons up on not images on dingo got my baby, by The Witch movie as well. This sort of eerie farmhouse/woods thing that only a melancholy Sunday afternoon mood at dusk can match. And Merric does this sort of thing time after time in the adventure. The red-aloud is decent and focuses on what it needs to. The images painted tend toward the eerie, and the supporting DM text is generally to the point, focusing on the important aspects of the adventure, abstracting where necessary. The interior of the house gets two sentences, with a third on the “twist”, in a separate paragraph. And, the major topics are generally kept in separate paragraphs, to help locate information better. I would prefer a bolded word or two to help focus attention to the correct paragraph further, but, whatever. 

I should also cover the use of themes and cultural heritage. Good adventures can leverage that shared culture we all have to bring more to the adventure than the words otherwise could. That laundry line, basket, and woods, for example, leveraging all the media we’ve seen of those situations. The mother is actually “simple” and a bit insane … because the baby is a doll … bringing in the horror aspect to the game (this being a Ravenloft adventure.)The witch lives in the required tree root ceiling house, right out of 13th Warrior, and her door has a golden keyhole … which should be immediately bringing up folklore vibes. Not to mention a witch stealing babies and wolves in the forest. The use of this in the adventure leverages MORE, and that’s a GREAT thing.

And then he goes and mucks it up by relying on the worst tropes of adventures.

You see, the witch has  “decided to lure the adventurers to her lair, weaken them with some tests, and finally kill them herself (if the tests don’t do it first).” This is lame. Luring adventurers and testing them. A thousand thousand bad adventures have this premise. It’s the “I couldn’t think of anything more interesting” premise. Merric goes on to say that “In my campaign, her motivations were never revealed, as the characters killed her before she could even negotiate with them – the perils of trigger-happy players.” Yeah, play stupid games and win stupid prizes. I would re-frame “trigger-happy” as “smart.” But, whatever. The fruit of the poison tree is that the innkeep is instructed by the witch to hire to the party. This, alone, is no great sin. After all, up till now we could just ignore all this “test” and “hire” bullshit and just run a nice “evil baby stealing witch” adventure. But then we face an issue, and, I’m sure, the reason for the nonsense: I presume everyone knows that the womans baby is not a baby. Thus, including one feature, a desire to have a doll of a crazy-woman stolen instead of a real baby, leads to the sins piling up. Now, to be fair, you do get a few words of advice on the players detecting the deception and the innkeep breaknig down, fearful for his family, and ratting on the witch. But …

The trend continues. The door with the golden lock can’t be Knock’d. Yes, I fucking know that Knock fucks things up. Yes, I know that the witch wants the party to complete her “tests” first and knock bypasses that. Themes the breaks. You want to play D&D then you don’t get to gimp the fucking players. Don’t want Knock to fuck things up? Play a game not meant for dungeon-delving and one more suited for horror. I’m not morally opposed to The Oracle living on top of a mountain, or requiring the golden fleece before helping, but too much of it breaks the immersive nature and brings on the eye rolling. 

On top of that, the “combat” encounters feel like tack ons. On the way through the first you get to fight wolves. Ok. Sure, they live in the forest and you DO get a nice “glowing red eyes in the shadows” bit. But then, on the way out after fucking her up, you also get another wolf, a dire wolf blocking your path. The pretext is that its either her boon pact entity taking revenge on the party or a rival of hers throwing some shit at the party. In reality it’s a “I feel like I need another encounter” encounter. It feels like a tack on and doesn’t fit in. Yes, it IS the third wolf encounter in the adventure and three is a magic number, but it also feels like Merric got lazy with it. 

So, a workmanlike effort by Merric. Decent concept, but could have used a little more thinking in a couple of the concepts behind it and a few of the encounters. And the options for “She Is a Good Witch”, etc, in the appendix, don’t really expand those options in any meaningful or interesting way. It’s an ok adventure, decently evocative, better than most, but a little … uninteresting?

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/191665/The-Witch-of-Underwillow?1892600

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 5 Comments

The Fight Job

By imnotsupposedtogetjigsinit
Self Published
B/X
Level ?

A minor crime boss has recruited the PCs to sabotage the championship fight. She has thousand of gold pieces on the long-shot challenger and promises a hefty payday to the gang if they can succeed. The PCs know where the champion will be but he’s wily. And dangerous. Time is short. Can the PCs keep their cool when the chips are down?

This fourteen page new-school adventure is about the parties attempt to sabotage a pit fighter before his next big fight. Hand reference material and a sandboxy attitude go a long way in to making this a more open form adventure, but it also feels … empty? It could be just me (I was in a bad bike accident yesterday) but it feels a little too … open. Or, maybe, it feels al little too easy, and relies too much on the DM to come up with challenges for the party.

So, new school adventure, meaning digest, two column, clean formatting, and a little more attention paid to headers and layout. You might think of an art punk layout aesthetic, but not pushed as far as those usually are … making this more usable. Major topics generally get a page devoted to them (sometimes two) which makes finding the NPC reference, or the locations, fairly easy. NPC’s on a page, map on a page, Street Urchins on a page, schedule on a page.

And there is a schedule. You’re hired to nerf a pit fighter, to put the fix in for a gambler. They are paying you 10,000 gp(!) The gambler got their hands on the fighters schedule, so you’re supposed to disrupt them, not actually kill them, since that would call off the fight. You get a handy dandy timer support, a pie chart with 4 15-minute pieces per hour, with travelling between locations taking 30 minutes and most major actions taking 15 minutes. It’s a good thing to support the DM with, both in the form of the guideline and in the reference material provided to help track the time. There’s some little table that tracks the parties success and gives the pit fighter a chance of success based on how much the party disrupts him. He’s going five places and nerfing him four times will give him a 0-in6 chance of winning, with the odds going up by 1 each time he gets a buff in. It’s a cute mini-game, although, the party has no chance of knowing how well they are doing. This is No Bueno. I mean, there’s some appeal in the party not knowing how much they need to do to nerf the guy to be successful, but for the players, they need some idea of if they should push their luck. Do we do X, which seems risky, or not? How does this decision dynamic change if you know the odds are 1 in 6? Or if the odds are 5 in 6? Or if you don’t know the odds at all? Generally, these sorts of things go better, in terms of a fun game full of tension, if the party can make a meaningful decision … and not knowing doesn’t really help that much at all.

The adventure is advertised as for most old-school games, and, is fairly generically stated in terms of a B/X mindset. But the game world does diverge from what I might call the usual B/X assumptions. This is more a 5e land. A druid sits in the gym ready to perform rituals for the fighter. The guard sergeants have Bolas Of Command, and the fighters trainer has a wand of magic missiles and the fighter himself wearing an anti-magic belt. You’re in magical ren-faire land. Nothing wrong with that … if that’s what you expect. I suspect that orienting this towards smaller niche systems, such as Troika or Mork Borg, or the 5e/Pathfinder crowd, would do a better job setting expectations.

But, let’s get to the heart of it … and I don’t mean the marker stalls selling tenfootpole’s as the cheapest thing. 🙂 The thing is a sandboxy thing. For better and worse.

You’ve got the lineline, and tools to track it. You’ve got some NPC reference. You’ve got a brief description of his entourage. You’ve got the town layout, and one to two page descriptions of the locations. You’ve got your mission, now go! Hell, the designer even gives you a little writeup on the marketplace, town guard, and street urchins, supporting the DM in their play. This is all great, and is exactly what the designer should be doing. And the locations generally support the play at that site. For example, the pit fighter goes to the swamp to meditate before the fight. And one of the (four) location is “The Screaming Crans eggs”; eggs/nest of a crane whose eggs  “Scream” when hatching, or are just cracked. Or the smithy, where dude has his silvered arms and hands recounted, with the moulds and silver polish present. One could imagine itching powder of some sort making it in to the mix, yes? This is good.

But … The Worthy Adversary, whatever that should turn out to be, is not covered very well. We get the set up, the location, why the dude is going there and some hints about what the party could do … but not really any challenges to get in the way.  The smithy wallows in his home, absorbed in his whiskey and pancakes, when not working. That’s all we get as any sort of a challenge. Is he working? Customers or apprentices? Does ANYTHING represent a challenge or an obstacle to the parties monkey wrenches? The gym where he works out doesn’t let you in unless you are member … and provisionel/new members must be sponsored. That’s all we get. Clearly this is leading somewhere. You can see where it wants to go. But there’s nothing in the individual encounter locations to support the play at that location, beyond a single single set up for a situation. 

Now, clearly, people are going to have different opinions on things like this. Some will be ok with this open framework of an adventure and some will want just a little more support for the DMin these situations that the adventure goes out outfits way to set up. I fall in to the second camp. It needs just a little more. I understand the desire t fit a locale in to one or two pages. The ideological purity of that design decision. But it can’t come at the detriment to supporting play. Another page each would have done the trick, I think.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The preview shows you the entire adventure.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/366643/The-Fight-Job?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 16 Comments

Temple of 1000 Swords

By Brad Kerr
Swordlords Publishing
OSE
Level 3

An ancient temple to the forgotten god of swords lies hidden behind a waterfall. Great piles of swords choke its halls and spill out into nearby streams and waterways. What strangeness still treads and what swords will you draw in the Temple of 1000 Swords?

This 25 page adventure describes a slightly absurdist eighteen room dungeon with … a sword theme. I mean, SERIOUSLY sword-themed. Interesting encounters and good formatting compliment a utilitarian writing style 

Oh, and it has carnivorous duck-people in it. I did mention slightly absurdist, right? And the giant duck-person egg? And rooms FILLED with rusting swords, streams clogged with them, a gelatinous cube choked full of them. I mean, this thing takes swords to 11, even providing a d100 table of interesting swords you can find and some guidelines on how to keep things interesting should the party decide to “mine” the dungeon for swords. 

Complimenting this is a slightly devil-may-care attitude of the NPC’s in places. The jovial god of swords, a mermaid queen ready for marrying, and not particularly attached to the magic sword she’s carrying. Oh, didn’t I mention the merfolk? Blood enemies of the duck people? And their genocidal war between each other that takes place in the halls? Like I said, slightly absurdist … but never really going over the edge, IMO, and everything following logically (well, D&D logic …) from the initial setup. And I do love me some slightly absurdit D&D.

And there’s always the allure of the sword. Of the MAGIC sword. Nothing like “you see a faintly glowing sword” to get the parties attention and push them in to the encounter they just KNOW is going to be a problem. Why fuck with that giant tower of swords in danger of collapsing, with weirdo sand people forming and dissolving underneath it? Because there’s a glowing sword up in it. Mermaid chick got a glowing sword? Let’s see what she has to say … Sounds like my kind of guy! This is an excellent example of luring the PLAYERS in. There’s always some kind of power fantasy behind every player … even if I have to extend that to “fulfilling my bullshit character arc that no one cares about except me.” And, appeals to THAT are going to be the most successful appeals you can make as a DM/designer. Motivating the PLAYERS to Push The Big Red Button turns the encounter, or adventure, in a gleeful exploration of the roleplaying world, instead of the It’s What My Character Would Do drudgery.

There’s a stream of water that you have to travel up … choked by swords! Also, there’s a pit under it, full of pointy swords. Also, All the swords make the pit malfunction 3-in-6. You gotta admire the dedication to the sword theme here. Oh, look, a dude stuck to thew all, through the heart, with a glowing sword. And still alive. Of course he’s a vampire. Of COURSE he promises not to kill you if you release him. And, in a surprise twist, he doesn’t! Of course, he WILL cause future problems throughout the land, that the party will just KNOW they started. I fucking love it! That’s how you do an encounter! This is an excellent example, as well, of making the characters actions have consequences and further enhancing the game world by it. It’s not exactly a punishment, or a reward … or, maybe, it’s both at the same time. Good adventures that kind of follow on possibilities and this one delivers. 

The writing here is more utilitarian than I would prefer to see, both in the overview text and in the DM text. “Vaulted ceilings, doric pillars, the echoing sounds of water. A massive statue of an armored god looms from the northern wall. A sword- choked stream flows from the east. A dark hallway leads west.” Certainly, this isn’t minimally keyed, and it’s not boring writing either. But, if I had a complaint with this adventure, it’s that those descriptions could use a little more polish to bring them to life more in the DM’s head. Not so much more words but polishing up what’s there. Or, the DMs text which reads “A pile of fine swords is placed before the statue as an offering. Two of them glow faintly in the dark (blades 2 and 9 of the nine). An enormous gem (1000 GP) is embedded in the statue’s forehead; it’s a treacherous climb to reach it (Strength check).” Again, certainly not overwritten, and only slightly underwritten, I’d suggest. Not enough to impact the play of the adventure, but, more effort in this area would really turning this thing from a fine journeyman adventure in a masterful shooting star of one. 

I could go on and on about this thing. An excellent curse/geas provided by the God Of Swords (who can do a wish for you …), the fetal duckling horror that emerges from the giant duck egg. (Of course that’s what happens! OF COURSE! And that’s the sign of a good encounter, when everyone says “OF COURSE!”) VTT maps provided, a very god intro summary of what’s going on. This thing is is ready to go.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is seventeen pages, showing more than a few of the encounters. This is a good preview, showing the intro, as well as the encounters. I’d check out the first page of encounters to get an idea if you’d like this. 


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/360211/Temple-of-1000-Swords?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 3, Reviews, The Best | 4 Comments