By Gabor Lux First Hungarian d20 Society OSRIC Levels 5-7
- From Beneath the Glacier: Venture into the ice caves underneath a melting glacier, and discover the source of the nighttime raids on the mountain valleys. Dungeon module for 5th to 7th level characters, 21 keyed loations.
- The Hecatomb of Morthevole: Morthevole has skeletons in the basement, and he needs to have them cleared out. Fun side job soon turns into horrible slaughterfest. Mini-dungeon for 2nd to 4th level adventurers (or plucky first-levelers!), 12 keyed locations.
- The Tomb of Ali Shulwar: An article presenting one of the major Underworld complexes beneath the City of Vultures. Two entrance levels, three main levels and multiple sub-levels, from the hideouts of fantastic conspiracies to locked-away secrets and an enchanted forest beneath the face of the earth! 4th to 6th level (mostly), 66 keyed areas.
This 44 page zine features three dungeons and a smattering of other interesting information. I’m just going to review the Glacier adventure, but the other two are similar in style. The maps are cramped, but otherwise it’s another fine job of writing and interactivity from Melan.
Melan does these little zines pretty regularly. They each contain an adventure or two and a number of background articles. Published as a zine, physically, they tend to be available as a PDF after a bit, with a PDF thrown in if you purchase the physical copy. They feature high quality content, as one would expect from someone who has his shit together, like he does. I tend to skip over them when doing reviews, which is totally uncool of me, because they have a known quality of being good: you don’t need me to tell you that, Melans work is an auto-buy. But I had a specific request for this one, so I’m reviewing the adventure that was requested: From Beneath the Glacier.
Outlying homesteads are being massacred and water is running off the glacier; it’s melting and, evidently, something frozen inside has woken up. This is indeed true. Trogs and Cavemen are thawing out, the way they only do in D&D, and waging war against each other … the cavemen generally on the losing side. Thus what you have here are an adventure of caves, ice, slushy cold water, and dudes and things half frozen in ice.
The designer has a way, with words, formatting, and interactivity, that few others can compare to. I generally recommend that new designers use a style that is more rigid than the one used here. I think the more rigid style helps with the formatting and focuses the attention on what’s important in the adventure, allowing the designer to really get a good view of what they are doing … with an eye towards editing it to making it better. But that’s not the only way. There is no “only way.” You can generally write a good adventure using any style, as long you pay attention to to the goal: usable at the table. Some may be easier for people struggling to learn the skill … but once you’ve mastered what matters then you can generally do what you want, as Melan does here.
The encounter areas are generally laid out in a paragraph format, usually one per room with a second or so in some cases. In cases like this it’s critically important the writing remains focused; no weasel words, no backstory, nothing to get in the way of the DM scanning the room. And that’s what is going on here. The writing is TIGHT. This is combined with a bolded word or phrase in places to highlight to the DM important features, drawing their eye to it.
This is then combined with evocative writing, showing an ability to paint a picture for the DM, inserting the vignette in to heads with a minimum of words and maximum of effect. And then, of course, there’s what’s actually going on in the room, the interactivity.
Putting it together we get something like
1. Gorge: The mountain river rushes through a gap between tall cliffsides; great boulders and broken pines offer a way to climb upwards through the cascades. Caught among the rocks the purifying body of a troglodyte still holds an elk’s jawbone and a flint-tipped javelin. […] (it then goes on for one more sentence, noting a secret trail leading up to the cliffs.)
Note how the first word is bolded,the room name, and how it orients the DM to the encounter. It is a gorge. You’ve now got that framing in your head. Then comes one sentence, with a few words, that both offers an evocative description of the scene. Rushing mountain river. Great boulders. Broken Pines. Nothing is “big” or “large.” The trog body doesn’t hold a bone, it’s an elk jawbone. A bone would be abstraction, this is specificity, using just one more word to evoke the primitive nature of the humanoid. Further cliffs are jagged. A dazzling ice plain. A spacious low-ceilinged ice cavern bisected by a CHURNING river. You’ve got a thesaurus. Imagine the scene and use it and then agonize over the editing to create an effective, low word count description.
The adventure does this over and over and over again, as do the other adventures in this zine. Short, terse descriptions, just a sentence or so, that use language to put an image effectively in to the DMs head, allowing them to then add to and expand it.
Mechanics are not harped on. They are present, inline to the things they refer to, but they don’t overstay their welcome. A secret trail found 1:6 or 1:3 by rangers or druids.
Interactivity is great. Tings frozen in the ice lure the adventurers to fuck with them, rewarding or creating additional hazards/encounters.
I want to call attention to the way he handled magic items also. Many adventures drone and on in describing their magic items. They destroy any mystery of the thing by going in to too much detail on the mechanics of them. A brass Jug of plentiful water is described as “This jug can pour an unlimited quantity of water at a leisurely pace. The flow persists until the jug is stoppered. That’s it. No going on an on about daily limits or flow rates. It’s leisurely. Interpret it as you will, you, after all, are the DM.
My only criticism of the adventure would be the maps. In support of interactive and exploratory play they are great. Feature, height, tunnels running under things, sinkholes, boulders, rubble, etc. Lots to keep the party interested. No, the issue is the legibility. They are hand drawn little scrawls, limited by the digest sized pages of the zine. It’s not that you CAN’T read them, but rather that they don’t easily show detail as you need them, because of the size and cramped nature of them. The Glacier map is actually the best of the three, in terms of legibility, and even that has some substantial issues. It must be a pain, balancing how much effort to put in to them, especially for a quick and dirty zine. I don’t have an answer, because something like CC3+ has its own issues to contend with, but some extra effort in this are would pay off in terms of legibility.
This is a bargain of a product at twice the price. Easily one of The Best.
This is $6 at DriveThru. Note how the descriptions show you the level range and how many encounter areas you are getting. The preview, at ten pages, shows you sixteen of the glacier rooms as well as the map. It’s a great preview.