The Beloved Underbelly, D&D adventure review

By Philippe Ricard
Self Published
"Low Levels"

[…] this zine details the tunnels and sewers beneath a dystopian fantasy city, full of beekeepers and taxidermists and pigs and sorcerers.

This 24 page “Adventure” details an underworld/under the city environment with a five factions and eleven locations. It is both trying too hard and not producing enough, although it goes through the motions quite well. It is probably not an adventure. Or even a city supplement. More of an idea, communicated over drinks at a bar.

A repressive city (described in two sentences) houses a seedy underbelly in the underverse underneath. Not really sewers, but interconnected locales frequented by seedy types and their factions to get things done and advance their nefarious plans. In to this we throw the PCs and watch the ensuing hilarity. 

Alas, all is not well though. For while this has the elements of decent supplement, they are not tied together or, I think, useful in a way that the supplement can be meaningful. 

Our underworld of the city has five factions. Taxidermists. Beekeepers. Wild Hogs. Bees. Wizards in to platonic shapes. Just from this you can see where this supplement is going. PoMo, or, as Mo would say: Weird for the sake of being weird.  On top of this you get a kind of vibe coming off of the Matrix#2, with this confluence of weird individuals (like The Architect and Merovingian) represented by The Tax Collector or The Sorcerer Supreme,  and then mash that up with Victorian Noblemen and maybe the seedy underbelly stuff from that recent Sean Bean Frankenstein series. And, I must admit, I find that kind of seedy theming quite interesting and playable. Well, if we warp Taxidermists in to “Body Snatchers” and manage the leap in believability that Bee Keepers are a credible faction.

In spite of having factions, and monster reference sheet, and mind maps for faction relations, and terse and evocative setting locales … the place doesn’t work.

There’s no real adventure, or treasure, for a short game and it’s not big enough/oriented correctly to be a support system for a larger multi-month support location for your parties locale town. You only get eleven locations, plus a few more rando places to stumble upon. And these locations tend to be iconic, like The Courts, The Bridge, The Black Market, and so on. These are roughly described, outlined I might say, to give impressions of a much larger world and their place in it. Not a place you hack, loot, and move on. Iconic locations would then imply, I think, that this is meant to be a supplement to your normal city. A place the party can visit time and again for info, supplies, rumors, etc. And yet, this seems too small to support that. The map is an abstracted pointcrawl, which it kind of a definitive guide to travel. If you want to go to B then leave in the east hallway from location A. It seems too small and cramped to serve as a major support for five factions the base of an entire city.

And, getting past the beekeepers again, I don’t see the purpose this fills. Too small and iconic to be an adventure, but too cramped and … knowable? To be the support for a major campaign in the city above. The factions have very basic goals but nothing to really fire the imagination. Dont get eaten. Get more pigs, and so on. They are more long term instead of the short to medium term specificity that could fire off as hooks for party shenanigans.

It tells us early on that: “The PCs are the flame to the fuse, and it remains to be seen whether they survive the explosion which will invariably ensue. Whenever possible, ask yourself what consequences arise from the PCs’ actions—“who will this piss off?” This is great advice, and a great attitude. But it just doesn’t follow through with enough specificity on the ground. More like general guidelines than an adventure, but too cramped and not enough intrigue to support longer play. 

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages. You get to see the intro, Tax Collector dude, and four of the factions. From this you need to intuit that, while flavourful, it is more of an idea that you could ten create content around using these elements, then it is a support for adventure.

Posted in Reviews | 1 Comment

The Bloody Engines of the Dinosaur-Men, D&D adventure review

By Brian C. Rideout
Deathtrap Games
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 3-5

What makes the screams echoing down from Eira Peak? After the recent avalanche that forced the people of Eirata to file their homes, many went missing. If they were killed by the falling ice, where are the bodies? Who are the veiled merchants selling exotic meats and fruit on the northern roads? And what are the strange many-horned “dragons” devouring trees and melons at terrific rates in the Salka Marsh?

This 28 page single column adventure features a thirteen room dungeon with dinosaur men and some steampunk technology. It’s heart is in the right place, but it’s emphasis on mechanics and excessive read-aloud, along with some production issues, makes “not as bad as most” a compliment only on the tenfootpole.

Not much lead in here. There’s a short history lesson and then a rumor table, with each entry on the table being expanded upon by a paragraph or so. One rumor has a body washed up from the river, taken to a local sage. There’s about a paragraph for the sage explaining what he knows. Likewise for the other rumors; about a paragraph each to handle it, as the DM, which is a fine way to transition from “hook thing” to “and here’s the dungeon!”

The dungeon is a steampunk slaughterhouse run by the dino-men, for turning people and herd dinos in to meat. They are armed with muskets and tentacle grenades and a mortar, and the steampunk devices serve as the main puzzles in the adventure. Turning vales to increase or decrease the pressure from boilers, lava tubes, the front door, and so on. These things are generally handled with a “make an int check” roll. This is NOT my favorite way to handle puzzles. I think it emphasizes the character sheet instead of the players and their interactions with the DM. The adventure would be strong with far fewer of them and more or a “figure out the puzzle” thing. As is, it’s essentially just an abstracted roll. If you want to lower the pressure then make a roll, and so on. 

The map, though, is isometric, with some catwalks and garbage chutes. The varied elevation is always a good sign in an adventure, and there is even a note or two about high heat on the map. Nothing about light or noise, which would have also been helpful, but at least there’s high heat. There’s a back door in to the dungeon, but no notes about it at all, so … who knows.

There are other weird little things missing from the adventure. Room one should have a Location A and B noted, according to the text, but it’s not present on the map. There’s also Some read-aloud in places that doesn’t match the style of the other read-aloud. One NPC gets extensive notes about what they want/don’t want (which is great!) but all of the other prisoners are just “prisoner”, without names, races, wants, or anything else. (Ok, there’s one other one, an old woman, without the explicit wants/dont wants), but it’s weird to see the various ways this was implemented. One fleshed out. An old woman whos not. And then just “prisoners.” for the rest. There are also notes in the adventure about a “flood” in the complex, or creating one, anyway, but it’s never really clear how this happens. Multiple rooms makes reference to it, but I guess, maybe, it has to do with an exploding boiler in one room? As a central element of the adventure, the flooding is not really handled well, or comprehensibly, at all.

Read aloud is longish, in italics, and contains too much detail, telling the players things they should not know unless they examine the room in depth. The DM text is longish as well, with more of a focus on mechanics, clogging up the text and making it longer than it needs to be … and thus harder to run, not easier. Treasure is abstracted in places in to “4 rarified fossils” and the like. Better to be explicit in the treasure, noting what they are of, or how big they are, or they are azure, or something, to give them meaning other than an abstracted “2ooogp.”

But, the multi-level environment is interesting. There’s potential in the puzzle-like steampunk environment. The prisoners could have added additional depth, as could the timer of the flooding/exploding boiler. It’s going in the right direction and, I think, at least a better exploratory/assault environment than most adventures like this. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1.50. The preview is six pages. You get to see the iso map, and room one. A better preview would have shown another room, I think, although you do get to see the minimalist hook investigation text. Not exactly great, but, again, going in the right direction.

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

The Thief King’s Vault, D&D adventure review

By Tim Hitchcock
Frog God Games
Level 5

It has long been said there no thieves in the city of Caltoshar. At night, one can safely walk the streets, and a few worry about locking their doors. Yet one would be foolish to believe Caltoshar is without a criminal element, for there are thieves aplenty if one knows where to look. The best advice would be for you to assuage you curiosity with such matters, and enjoy Caltoshar for what it appears to be. You’re probably not one to take wise counsel, though.

This twenty page adventure uses eleven pages to describe a couple of lead in scenes and an eighteen page dungeon. A thief/trap/tomb dungeon. The signature Frog style is prevalent, delivering the usual mediocre product. 

The Frogs are famous for not giving a damn about their editing. In this adventure we get: “[…] attempts to open them. must saving throw 18points of also anc (see below) hidden […]” I don’t know what the fuck it means either. But, whatever; they will keep throwing these scraps to the crowds and the crowds will keep lapping it up like mothers milk. It’s 2020 and there is no right, no wrong, no up or down, yes or no. Just a whole bunch of rap, flowing freely. As usual.

Scene 1: You get invited t a winery and asked to go steal a little idol from a merchant. Scene 2 you obtain said idlo. Scene 3: Returning to hi, dude you hired is killed by thugs. Scene 4: Walk five days through the wilderness. Scene 5: an eighteen room trap dungeon. These can serve us by framing some discussions about design.

Scene two has the party trying to obtain a small idol from a merchant. He lives above his shp on the second floor, keeps his windows locked, and has two small dogs. This is handled fairly well in two (longish) paragraphs. It doesn’t drone on and on. You can sneak in, feed the dogs, charge in and kill the dude, whatever. It’s ALMOST an afterthought. By which I mean “not overwritten at all.” You need some details, about the locked windows, second floor, neighbors, the dogs, but the rest is just left to the DM to run. They way it should be. I can quibble on word choice and criticize on flavour, but it is, essentially, done correctly.

Scene three has the party returning to the dude that hired them, presumably with the idol from scene two. They find his tied up in the middle of the room, a pool of blood under him. Surprise! There are six thieves in the room, staging a coup against the dude, the current guildmaster.It’s fairly easy to see what was being tried for here. A coup, the underlings grabbing power for themselves, etc. But, it comes off as just another generic D&D fight. “Thugs”, not names, showing up for the first time in the adventure. No hint of dissension prior. The imagery here is not quite hitting the mark. We get hints, with the dude croaking “its a trap!” if ungagged before the ambush is sprung, but it’s just that, hints of what could have been, missing the details and design that could have turned “six thugs attacking” in to something with more resonance. It is at the end of this scene that we’re told what’s inside the idol … which should have been mentioned in scene two, when the party first picked it up. 

Scene four is a joke. A short little multi-day wilderness journey, with two wandering monster tables. The read-aloud covers all five days. And then there are wandering monster tables for The Plains and The Hills, with no guidance on when to use which, or what frequency, or anything. I guess it’s the day three foothills the read-aloud mentions? It’s just an afterthought, and not in a good way. In a “no one cared enough to actually proofread this adventure” way.

Scene five. An eighteen room dungeon. This is, essentially, negotiating one trap after another. The read-aloud reveals too much detail about the rooms, killing the back and forth between the party and the DM. It also contains no hint of the traps to come other than “there are doors.” It just uses the “throw everything in one paragraph” Frog style which, I think, is fairly typical for the industry. Or, what I think of typical anyway. It sucks for running it. When you get to the end you are met by some people who offer you 200gp for all of the treasure you’ve found. There are no stats for them in case you don’t want to hand it over, though it’s implied they are powerful. 

Who really cares? These are not, I suspect, meant to be run. They are just churned out for the 5e crowd to make a buck and then converted to the OSR for a little more cash to grab. Who the fuck cares about quality? It’s not like any of this was surprise. “Vault of the Thief King” by Frog God Games tells you everything you need to know.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is three pages, the first three pages, so you get to the see the title page and the adventure hook. Nothing at all to help you make a purchasing decision. Shitty shitty low-effort preview.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 14 Comments

(5e) Ravenloft: Prey of the Black Wolf, D&D adventure review

By Christopher Moneymaker
Self Published
Level 3

A killer stalks the night and must be caught before he kills again!

This 176(!) page adventure is rough. I mean REALLY rough. It’s nigh incomprehensible rough. Like “You can’t actually read it in order to run it’ rough. I THINK it’s just a simple linear plot thing. I think.

Of the 176 pages about a hundred of them belong to an appendix, character sheets, and so on. There might be ten or so pages of intro/table of contents also, leaving about sixty or so pages of actual content. Incomprehensible content.

I harp on legibility issues from time to time. If I had to point to one adventure to illustrate my point then it would be this one. It’s a nightmare to try to understand. First, it’s in single-column format. Single column is generally bad. Your eyes have a long way to travel across the page, causing you to lose track of where you are. It makes the physical act of reading text quite fatiguing. In formats like digest sized adventures then this isn’t such an issue, your eyes don’t have as far to travel. In a full letter size, though, it’s bad. It’s true! There are scientific studies! 

On top of this, and perhaps more importantly for this adventure, it’s using a funky font. Basically, it’s a kind of gothic font with cap letter oversized, lots of little flourishes and stroke marks on lowercase letters, and it’s all in a heavy bold. This is NOT legible. Not even close. You have to work, work very hard indeed, to just engage in the act of reading the text. Scanning would be impossible for mortal man. It’s seriously almost impossible to read. On top of all of this are the maps, which looks like they came from an EGA/VGA computer game. Dense with color and thick with (more) weird font choices, they are, almost all of them, not going to be possible to figure out without a lot of work.

This is all a problem. A BIG problem. Like, the biggest problem I’ve ever seen in all of my D&D reviews. You’re fighting the actual legibility of the text the entire way. So much so that I feel guilty with this review, because I don’t think I’ve given it a fair shake with the content. I’ve tried to wade through it twice and while I think I’ve done a decent job, I can’t help but think I’m not getting the full picture. Did I mention the large block of red front on a beige background? THis thing is ROUGH to wade through.

Combined with this are LONG sections of traditional paragraph text. LONG sections. It’s all laid out in a if you ask about this then they say that format, with an emphasis on minute, light how far someones’s tunic comes down to the ground. It’s just impossible to find ANYTHING in this text.

But, at its core, it’s just walking around a village talking to some NPC”s and a few wilderness encounters and a small lair map. For 176 pages. 

This is CRAZY. I mean, you could not point to a better example of the issues of legibility in adventures. Yeah, I’ve said almost nothing about the adventure. While some investigation and NPC talking to is a great idea, you first have to make the adventure legible, and this ain’t that.

This is $15 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages and shows you nothing of the adventure, which a preview should actually do. Open it up and scroll to the last page of it. That big text blob at the bottom? That’s an example of what the ENTIRE adventure is like. And is one of the more comprehensible sections of text.

Posted in 5e, Do Not Buy Ever, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 15 Comments

In the Shadow of the City-God, D&D adventure review

By Istvan Boldog-Bernad
First Hungarian d20 Society
Levels 3-4

Mur’s fortunes have been built on tear salt, and merchants from distant lands travel to the city for this healing elixir. There are two tear salt springs in town, owned by two rival patrician families: the Falconi and the Capullo. Mur’s laws forbid open conflict, and like most crimes against citizens, the punishment for breaking the peace is severe: live entombment within the living city’s ever-growing walls! Nevertheless, cloak-and-dagger intrigue always claims new victims, and discord between the two families has now escalated into almost open warfare after the elderly Ercol Falconi’s young wife has disappeared. Time is ticking away, and only a bold company of outsiders can resolve the feuds and discover the masterminds behind it all… under the watchful eyes of the City-God!

This 32 page adventure details intrigue, Fair Verona style, in a small city. Two great houses avoid open warfare, with the party mixing things up, perhaps going all Yojimbo. There’s too much to keep straight, though, without a scorecard, and it could use a little more intrigue to mix things up. It’s a pretty cool little setting, even if I do think it’s a lot of work to run.

 You’ve got a setting and you’ve got shit going on in that setting. And then you’ve got three dungeons related to the adventure. (And, also, a separate wilderness adventure that I’m ignoring for this review.) The setting here, the city, is flavourful, with enough detail to make it spring to life in the DM’s mind, easing their ability to run it and make up new stuff. The Shit Going On in the setting is … plentiful, to say the least. You’ve got a fuck ton of people running around with differeing motivations, generally acting in opposition to another group. IE: a fuck tun of faction play.

The city, proper, is pretty interesting. Worshipped as a god, they bury people in the walls of their houses. Alive, if they are criminals. They export some magic vials of water (actually tears of a crying titan …) and, like the cities of old, foreigners have essentially no rights in the city. 

To this lets add two factions, the Gold and Blue, based around two old families that have a stranglehold on the potion business, being the only two (legit) providers. (See that throwaway word? Legit? There’s one throwaway line in the city description that mentions imposters and crooks and fake potions … and like all good one-liners it provides ample inspiration for a DM to expand the adventure. It’s not just some shitty window dressing, its a line that directly contributes to further adventures and complications … the way these things should!)

Ok, then You’ve got their own personal guards, the Blue and the Gold. Then you’ve got the commoner filled Greys, the city guard, who take advantage of foreigners. The lesser criminal elements, always willing to place the blame on foreigners (IE: the party.) Oh, and the two great houses in Verona like to use outsiders since they can’t openly go to war and they are essentially disposable. Let’s see, you’ve got an independent wizard upset that the local library has burned down and is interested in bringing people to justice over it. You’ve got a beggar king with a secret to hide. You’ve got a ½ orc with plans to score ig at the expense of a family. And then you’ve got the main plot, with the child bride of one of the families gone missing and rumors abound, with Fake News, on who did it. And then you’ve got the beggar king, with his own secrets, and desiring to Bring The Noise and destroy the city. And then a couple of other independent places, like The Hotel out of John Wick, this time a small neutral ground inn for merchants. There, I think I got about ?’rds of the shit going on. This is my kind of place! A fuck ton going on and two seperate timers, unknown to the party, driving the action, before two different people end up dead … one with normal consequences and one with apocalyptic consequences. FUCK! I forgot the cult. And the thieves guild. Anyway, a shit ton going on. This is totally my bag baby and I luv it! This is the fucking way you create a setting!

The dungeons, three of them, do a pretty good job also. Hands reaching out from walls, ghouls bursting through them, weird lifelike mouths, statues that are guresomly real, cannibals, and a shit ton more, all described and brought to life with a minimum of text. I could, mayhem use just another sentence, since a lot tend to be one sentence long, but the core concepts are good ones and the brief descriptions do a job job lodging them in your brain, which is what they should do. Nice writing, but could be better.

But, alas, all is not well. There are four things that spring to mind, in this adventure, that do not sit well with me. 

The first is, I think, a subset of a larger problem. The city wanderer table is about half boring. Meaning about the encounters are just “merchants” or “Bandits” or some such, with nothing more. The other half might have a sentence of something like “Rakes who like to humiliate foreigners, especially in front of a crowd.” Devoting a page, or even doing an inline table, to spicing these up would have gone a long way to giving the DM a springboard to launch an encounter from.

And this “springboard”, or lack thereof, is the larger issue I find in this adventure. The city setting is interesting. The factions and all the shit going on is great. There are good hooks that abound. One of the first is from a relative of the missing girl, “find her … or avenge her!” (As an aside, this Realpolitik/Men Of Power thing is a theme in this adventure and I LUV it!) Fuck yeah man, Permission to Stab received and understood! But, there is some level between the down and gritty detail and the high level faction plans. SOme way to ge the party involved more, after the mission brief, some way to get them in to the thick of things. This is, I think, sorely missing from the adventure. The middle is missing. It didn’t have to be much, maybe a sentence here and there, but active party involvement seems to be missing.

On top of this, or, perhaps, as a symptom, the thing feels more like an overview or guidelines than an adventure. I understand that, when writing a Tv Show, there is some document produced that has all of the backstory of each character and the places. This FEELS like that. Not in the amount of extraneous detail (that is thankfully not present) but rather as a kind of “high level briefing document.” That can be ok, for a setting, but as a part of a city, to run an adventure in? It leaves more than little to be desired. The various locales are both thick with information (dense, maybe?) and high level guidelines. I LIKE guidelines, but, somehow, here, it feels off?

Finally, and most importantly, this thing needs a fucking scorecard. There are SO many people, and SO much going on, with their funny fucking names, that its hard to keep things straight. I’m not sure, after two read throughs, whos up to what and why, if you mentioned a name to me. A summary sheet of this shit would have been VERY helpful to run the adventure/city from. A necessity, infact. 

I’m ending this review early to go pass out. It’s the day after election, I’ve been ignoring all of the news channels and instead drinking. 

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages. The writing style, used in the preview, is the one used throughout. A better preview would have a page of dungeon encounters and perhaps a page of the city locations as well.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 8 Comments

The Headless Haunting of Berengar Manor

By Timothy Lanz
Adventure On
DCC Levels 1-2

Dark rumors have been whispered in the village for years of the vile deeds of Berengar the Brutal and his wife Ra’za’zsu the Cruel. Their manor, now long abandoned, still haunts the nightmares of those who worked there in their youth. When two of Berengar’s fromer servants go missing and their grandson seeks help in finding them, will your adventurers be ready?

This sixteen page adventure details a haunted house, With serious Wall of Text issues. So much so that it is nigh unreadable, let alone playable. Oh, Wall of Text, how I have missed thee!

I had been not reviewing DCC adventures of late. There tends to be more linearity in them, not in terms of plot, like a 5e adventure, but in terms of dungeon design. This one seemed to be different, with a haunted house to explore, and who doesn’t love Tegal/Saltmarsh? To its credit it does present a short section outside of the house, with the grounds and a few outbuildings to explore, as well as a house that, while small, is not linear. Small sections of text also give an overview of the house and grounds, as seen by the party, which is good to see.

That is all.

While there are small vignettes that are fun to explore (the old “skeleton laying under a broken rafter with an overturned chair nearby” gag) the thing is plagued by A LOT of text issues that add up to a horrible horrible wall of text.

There’s A LOT of read-aloud for rooms. Multiple multiple sentences that kind of cause the eyes to glaze over; I can’t think that I’d be patient as a player, listening to it or recalling what been said. The read-aloud is also in italics, which causes my eyes, as the DM, to glaze over and lose track of where I am. Then the read-aloud gives too much information. Small details, like the hasp of a chest being broken, destroying that back and forth interactivity that should exist between a DM and their players. So, too much read-aloud for the players, badly formatted for them DM, and the read-aloud gives away too much information … with it sometimes slipping in to first-person also  “you clean away the …”

And then there’s the DM text. There’s A LOT of it. Again, your eyes get lost because it has very little formatting to help you run it. And mixed in is TONS of backstory about what rooms used to be used for, what happened in them, why something is there, and so on. A LOT of it. SO  much so that the DM text ALSO turns in to a Wall of Text. 

It’s a pretty simple “kill the monsters” adventure, with a few things to figure out, as the players, but it is COMPLETELY unusable, as a throwback to the late 80’s or 90’s style. And EVERYTHING is exacerbated by the smaller font used. 

This is $5 at DriveThru. The pview is only four page, and only shows you a little of one encounter. You do get to see the font size, some read-aloud, and IMMEDIATELY see the wall of text issues in the intro. But, a few more encounters would have been better in the preview.

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

Xanadu, D&D adventure review

By Vasili Kaliman
Singing Flame
Levels 2-3

A cult in the temple of Xanadu has opened a portal to another dimension. It was activated by adjusting the hands of three pendulum clocks in a particular sequence. Once the veil of reality was ruptured between this world and another, The Tooth Fairy stepped through, a winged creature from a dimension made of sweet stuff. The Tooth Fairy slaughtered everyone in the temple for their teeth, which she extracted and ate like candy. Rumors are circulating about unusual happening involving the temple, many are concerned. The Tooth Fairy is currently in her dimension, her appetite is ravenous, waiting to be summoned again. Rewards and riches may await those who venture forth to explore the temple, or dare to perform the ritual!

This forty page adventure features a one level dungeon with about 33 rooms described in about 23 digest pages. Good interactivity is complimented by good layout and organization to create an environment that is easy to run and fun to play in, with a hefty complement of Creepy Shit thrown in. 

It’s digest and it’s full of hipster 8-bit art, as a throw back to the early era of computer rpg games. It’s also a good adventure.

Interactivity is a hard beast. I comment frequently that it’s one of the three main pillars of a good adventure. There’s two sorts of interactivity in an adventure. The first is the back and forth between the party and the DM. This is the soul of every RPG; the art of the DM providing information and the party following up. Adventure text can support this. But I’m usually using the term interactivity in terms of Things To Do in the dungeon. Stabbing people. That’s pretty much a given. I like stabbing people, but that can’t be the totality of the dungeon, otherwise it’s just a tactical minis game … which could be fine if you’re in to Warhammer, but this is an RPG. You can talk to people before you stab them. I always like that. It’s not always required but it does provide a few more opportunities for the players to exploit the monster and the monster to exploit the player before (potential) stabbing starts. But then, what’s next? Traps, maybe? Puzzles? Yes to both! You want things in the dungeon for the party to mess with. This creates a risk/reward structure and delicious delicious tension as the party, hopefully, sits on the edge of their seats waiting for a result to their actions, with shouts of glee when things go well and groans of despair when they don’t. 

How about a statue holding a bowl? With gemstone eyeballs Obs, you want to put something IN the bowl! Also, the statue is carved from compressed human teeth. Hmmm, I wonder what goes in the bowl? That’s good interactivity. Secrets to discover! Hints in a mosaic that reveal deeper truths further inside the dungeon! A chess game to play! You need this sort of stuff in your dungeon. I don’t care if it’s 5e, Pathfinder, Warhammer, or something else, you need things for the party to play with and explore. And this adventure has that. Not quite every rooms, but enough stuff in the dungeon that you feel engaged as a player.

It’s also using one of my favorite style for laying out/organizing rooms. [Standard disclaimer: this is not the ONLY way to do a good job, but I do think it’s an intuitive way to do it for a new designer.] The first paragraph of each room generally provides a quick little overview of what the party sees, with certain keywords bolded, like “wall paintings”, “dead bodies” “candles” and the like. There are then bolded section headings for each of those points, with the details of them under each section. Thus the DM can easily locate the overview to relate to the players and then find the follow information instantly. I’m a fan. The Hall of Everlasting Light has the general description: “Pillars, running down center. Wall paintings throughout. Candles, high up on walls, regular intervals, piercing blue flame. Dead bodies, 2d4 of them, randomly distributed around room. Smells fragrant, like fresh air.” It’s a nice job.

Most of the decisions made in this adventure by the designer are great ones. Monsters are new, and creepy, to keep the players on their toes. The map is a good one (although light sources could be shown …) there is a good overview of the adventures, themes notes, major enemies, what the party can accomplish in terms of mysteries to solve. There’s a little map overview key … I like it a lot. 

The descriptions could be punchier. The “Wall Paintings” above, reads “Full-body portraits of multiple races, including beings not of this world, all wearing red robes, emblazoned with the cult symbol.” Not exactly the punchiest of descriptions, and tending to the abstract side of the spectrum. A good evocative description, kept short, is a hard skill though, and one of the hardest to master, I think, after imaginative interactivity. The outside of the temple doesn’t really get a description, for those would be “use the back door” crowds. 

And, there are a lot of If/Then statements. This is a writing style that just clogs up writing. “IF a read magic spell is cast ..” “is something is put in the bowl …” or “if a search for traps is made …” This is actually a stylistic choice made by the designer, so it’s not just poor writing, as it usually is. Actions are preceded by an IF as a formatting decision, consistent throughout. I don’t think it’s good. I think it adds words to read and parse while you are digging through content, but, hey, that’s just me. The reviewer.

Still, even with some weakness in the descriptive text, it’s a great adventure. Lots oto explore, Easy to run. Really good interactivity (OOOO! Glass coffin!”) and just a tough of gruesomeness (teeth related, generally) to keep the theming together and let you know they ARE baddies for a reason.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is fourteen pages. You only get to see the first two rooms, since it’s the first fourteen pages. I would have preferred a couple of more rooms to look at as well, but you can get a good idea of the writing style, layout, interactivity, and so on from the preview, so it’s a decent preview.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 2, Reviews, The Best | 9 Comments

Keep at Blood Red Falls, D&D adventure review

By Victor Dorso
Angry Dwarf Games
Levels 5-7

[…]  In recent times, the clans have closed the mines due to a lack of demand for ore. The closing of the mine had reached the ears of the dreaded Spriggan Chief, who for years has terrorized the countryside by raiding and slaughtering villages.  The vile warlord has taken over the keep, enslaved the village of Blood Red Falls and nearby settlements, forcing the inhabitants into slavery, and also put a strangling hold on all rivers traffic by enforcing punitive taxes on anyone wanting to pass by. Due to these action, All the inhabitants opposed to the brutal leader have banded together to offer a large reward for the capture of Bloodaxe, dead or alive. 

This 56 page single column adventure features two towers, each with five levels, and about a hundred and fifty rooms. It’s minimally keyed and is nothing but stabbing.

Ah, the noble commando raid. Go to place X and kill Frank. Also, the place is stuffed with monsters. G1 did a great job with it, creating a dynamic environment with a minimal amount of superfluous text to create one of the best modules ever. This ain’t G1.

Revel in the majesty of: “1 – Spriggan archers are in this room hp 24 armed with Short bow and short sword. Sleeping in a bunk”  or perhaps your party should turn their attention to this little gem of a room: “This room has a desk near the door, a bed on the far wall and a table with 4 chairs in the center.” No? Then how about: “This room is empty but obviously inhabited by the piles of straw & furs on the floor .”!  This is the splendor of our achievement! Call in the airstrike with a poisoned kiss …

I’m not really cherry picking that much. The vast vast majority of the rooms in this adventure will be presented in this very boring manner. Minimally keyed, or, perhaps, one breath beyond it. Gnolls play a game at a table. What kind of game? Not mentioned because the description is abstracted. Not knucklebones. Not Papers & Paychecks. Just “a game.”

The encounters in an adventure are the heart and soul of it (generally.) It is what the DM uses to bring the game to life. As such it is the designers job to provide the DM with something to work with. SOmething more than “1 gnoll asleep.” It IS the DMs job to bring the adventure to life, but it’s the designers job to give the DM something to work with to do that. Imagine a dungeon that just had the monsters randomly rolled. Room 1- 3 kobolds. Room 2- 4 orcs. Etc. If I publish this is it valid to, upon pushback from the suckers, claim that it is the DMs job to bring it to life? And yet, we seem to accept this. I have no idea why.

The rest of the commando raid aspect fails as well. There’s no real overall map, just the cover painting, to give you an idea of how things are laid out for an assault. There’s a village on the other side of the river, somewhere, but fuck if I know how it relates to the tower, there’s no map and the text is unclear. If the baddies see the party they ring a bell and the whole fortress comes alive, but no details beyond that of an order of battle, or de escalation, or anything related to cat and mouse. 

The first four pages are read-aloud to set the scenario up.

There are long LONG blocks of italics to dig through.

Most of the text is written in a “if the party searches then they find …” or “If you search the cage then …”

And, ultimately, it’s just an adventure full of stabbing things. A minimally keyed stabbing things. 

Prisoners, with names? Bah! Better to just let there be a fuck ton of whitespace after the prisoner entry rather than give a name or personality.

This is clearly someone’s labour of love. They had a vision in their head of how to run it, what it looks like, and they love it and want to share it everyone else. I admire that. But the designer has no idea how to actually write an adventure for OTHERS to use.

This is $25 at DriveThru. The preview is the first six pages. As such you get to see the read-aloud to start the adventure and that’s it. The preview should show some of the actual encounters, so we can judge if we want to buy the adventure. Further, the level range is only on the cover, it should be the marketing blurb also.

I have resorted to drinking bourbon now. God how I hate bourbon …

Posted in Do Not Buy Ever, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 6 Comments

(5e) Gone Child, D&D adventure review

By John Walts
Dark Eagle Games
Level 3

A young girl has been abducted and the heroes join a posse to hunt the orcs who did it. But they face several terrible temptations while rescuing her.

This eight page adventure details elevent linear plot encounters in about three pages. It’s abstracted text, with lots of hemming and hawing in an attempt to not give details. The moral quandary is not really that tempting.

And the moral quandary is why I’m reviewing this. “Several temptations …” is something that caught my attention, in the marketing blurb. The deliciousness of temptation, the tension of making decisions, is one of the best parts of a RPG. I was hoping to see something that would really make the party sit up and take notice and really cause a quandry. One one hand you’ve got a hag who wants to keep the abducted little girl she is raising. You’ve also got an orc warlord that just wants the party to go away … that you are supposed to be killing to appease the hag. In both cases you’ve got an evil NPC asking the party to not interfere, and offering something in return. In theory, this is a great set up. I always like to say that you can resort to stabbing a monster at any time, but a little roleplaying first makes the encounter all the better (in general.) And this adventure is going down that path. But in both instances the offered temptation is not really enough to make it worth the party selling out. Save a little girl or get a chest with some furs and wine in it from the orc warlord? This being 5e, monetary rewards are kind of meaningless anyway, since they don’t lead to XP and they tend to be rather small … maybe 1500 gp worth in this case. The hags offer is a little better, she’ll add 50% to your lifespan if you just go away and leave her the girl. Both, though, are kind of abstracted rewards (because of the cash situation in 5e.) One day the hag will eat the girl, when she grows old and dies. Is leaving her worth the 50% more lifespan? These rewards are not enough. Sure, the DM can modify and/or it could be situational, the party might NEED that 50%, but in general the selling point of the adventure, the quandry, is not really a temptation at all. Even _I_ would go all Righteous Justification on those two, and I love me some NE playstyle. 

The adventure, proper, is abstracted in a way that is not good. The designer notes this up front, saying that he prefers a more outline style of style instead of spelling everything out. In general, I would agree. The overwritten text of adventures is a thing of legend, and pushing back against that is laudable. But the designer goes too far in to the abstracted format. There is a mob of peasants forming to go get the girl, and a sheriff leading them, but the mob is entirely abstracted and the sheriff all but so. No real names, personalities, or flavour to help the DM out and add tension and memorable moments to the game. Now, I’m NOTT calling for overwritten text, but specificity is needed to ground a DM and get them headed in the right direction, a shove as it were, and that’s just not present here. That mob would have been a great place to have a paragraph or a few sentences on, but nothing. And this is a pattern that repats over and over again.

Up to and including the lack of maps. I don’t need a map, and certainly not a tactical one, but the text is confusing when it describes the battle environments and a map, even a simple line drawing, would have cleared that up easily. Further, it would have added, hopefully, some tactical options in places like two guard dogs outside of the hags home.

I’m quite disappointed with the complete lack of any meaningful description. The hag, the orc camp, the mob, nothing is covered in any way to lead the DM to a good encounter. There needs to be something, not a lot, but something, to spark those DM juices. Just saying “its a giant hag” is boring as hell. Generic. 

[I will note without further comment the designers comments that this should be a storytelling game, and the DM’s goal being to elicit emotions and entertain the players, as well as noting tha the classic “5 room dungeon” format was used..]

It’s a generic outline of a linear adventure without tension. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1. The preview is five pages and you get a good idea of the adventure from it, since it shows all of the encounters. There is one good moment, in a text box, but the rest of the genericism should be self evident from it.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | Leave a comment

(5E) The Secrets of Skyhorn Lighthouse, D&D adventure review

By Kelsey Dionne
Self Published
Level 5

Rumors of a rampaging sea monster have ground shipping traffic to a halt in the harbor. The characters discover that the Jade Lion has gone missing near Skyhorn Lighthouse and learn they must brave the open seas and cutthroat enemies in order to save the crew from a murky fate!

This 24 page adventure features around eight “one page each” scene based encounters. It’s a great example of forum plus function and what can be achieved when a designer has a vision and doesn’t go in to autopilot mode. The choices made in the design make sense given the assumptions and should work out well in play. Kelsey Dionne joins that rare group of designers who have earned the description “Not a fucking idiot.” 

I believe that old school D&D, exploratory D&D, provides a substantially different experience, and a superior experience, than alternative forms of D&D. Those other forms are closer, I think, to story based indie-rpg’s. I also recognize that story based D&D has been around since about 1978 and became the dominant form around 3 or so, I’d guess, and is the way the vast majority of people play D&D and have fun with it. (and by “D&D, i mean “fantasy role playing”) And since drinking beer, eating pretzels and having fun with friends while escaping the crushing ennui of life IS the main point of ALL D&D, I’ll take it. 

The point of all of that is that modern fantasy RPG’s are DIFFERENT THINGS. Different things require different formats to support their different assumptions. In a social adventure it doesn’t make sense to have a room/key format since it’s not an exploratory adventure … it’s a social adventure. And yet, most adventures don’t recognize that they are writing for different assumptions. They stubbornly stick to the old formats that were optimized for other assumptions, if they put any thought in to it at all. But not Kelsey. Kelsey has put some thought in to what’s trying to be accomplished and has made decisions about the adventure, formatting, etc, that directly support those assumptions. And does a good fucking job at it as well.

Modern fantasy RPG’s are essentially scene based RPG’s. The adventure is designed around that. You get a page of overview/summary, describing how the adventure is going to unfold. This primes the DM for what is to come, generally a necessary step to fully leveraging the DM as a resource to expand your adventure and their brain to accept the coming information. Then there’s a page of hooks/little scenes. Then there are eight pages that describe, one page each, the eight scenes in the adventure. A few pages of maps and appendices round things out. Eight pages. One per scene. You read the overview. Great. You’re set now to run the adventure. The players do a couple of shots each and grab their 40’s/Mad Dog to sit down. The DM runs the hooks from the hooks page.  The adventure starts. The DM uses one page per scene to run the games. Everything they need is on that page. Its available there, at a glance. It’s laid out with bullet points and offset text, with good bolding. It’s easy to scan and run the scene, embellishing as necessary. There’s a little text in a couple of bullets, maybe two, that give an atmosphere or physical description of the scene. It makes sense and the DM can build from it. NPC’s are easy to locate. They have a six word appearance, a six word mannerism and a six word secret and are easy to grok and run at a glance. The secret might actually lead to interesting play, in some situations. So far so good, right? Scene based, once scene per page. Not exactly an innovation, either, but when taken together the start to formulate the basis of that modern D&D assumption. Then, Kelsey adds “Dramatic Question.” This is an explicit section. This is what the scene is about. This is what is going on. “Can you X?” And then, the scene ends with a transition. Again, another explicit section that tells the DM what to do when the dramatic question is answered. “Ascend the stairs from the island docks to the lighthouse.” for example. It makes sense. The four elements, all taken together, with the formatting/style choices … this is a great format for most adventures being published. It works. It’s immediately obvious it works. It’s immediately obvious that most adventure should be written this way, regardless of system, if it’s not exploratory D&D. I won’t say it’s the ONLY way, but it should be obvious to every designer that this format is a good one and easy to mimic in their own adventures. 99% of DMsGuild and DriveThru adventures should be formatting this way, designed this way.

And yet, there’s room for improvement.

Kelsey includes a section of the adventure in which the design choices made, the formatting choices, etc, are justified. It’s sad that has to be done, but, whatever. In it it is noted that the DM is to embellish the descriptions. That’s correct. A good adventure inspires the DM with the physical description. The DM then takes that and embellishes that as they see fit and/or where the game goes. (In contrast to the standard overwritten and long description. No, this is not a case of personal preference, unless you prefer eating garbage.) But, this requires a strong inspiration from the designer. Kelsey does a good job with this, certainly above average, but could do better. The first scene, on the docks, has a two bullet description, the faint glimmer of a lighthouse on a small island a few miles out to sea, and the docks choked with ships, quiet compared with the normal bustle of activity. I’ll take this any day of the week over the overwritten garbage that is choking the hobby. And, you can even see signs of good writing. Docks CHOKED with ships. That’s good imagery. And I get where the lighthouse thing is going. Both, however, are not given room to breathe and even, I would assert, are reigned in. A SMALL island. Small is a boring word. That whole second clause deflates the first one, the glimmering. A second sentence should puff it up more, instead of bringing it down using “small” and “a few miles out.”  Likewise the ship description. The choking bit is GREAT. Perfect imagery. But then it is reigned back in with “quiet compared to …” IE: boring. Drunken sailors, dice games, or even unearthly quiet, maybe … either would have heightened the description instead of “normalizing” it with “its quieter than normal.” I find this common in the adventure … most of the text is spot on but the scene overviews, the location description where the scene takes place, gets short shrifted. It’s not given the room to breathe it should, and in some cases I’d suggest that iconic “views” that should be in the adventure are not present at all in a meaningful  way  … the lighthouse and island in particular. 

But … it’s a good adventure. A water elemental “coughs up” treasure when killed. (Nice solution to a treasure problem in the ocean … and a good word choice.) The monster descriptions START with the physical description, what is most relevant to the DM when running the game. There’s a monster reference in the form of “combat cards” for the DM to use to run the fights. I could bitch more about interactivity beyond “talking and fighting” and more about a certain magic item that is key to the adventure and yet unlootable … but thats nitpicking compared to the rest. It’s a good adventure and Kelsey Dionne is NOT a fucking idiot. That means that until a Kelsey work is bastardized by a third party publisher, you can trust future work from this designer. Man, I really have a hard time saying something is good, don’t I? It is, of course, one of the Best, but, also, ther Not A Fucking Idiot means that you can probabally buy Kelsey’s stuff in the future and know its good. As with Chainsaw’s works, when a publisher is involved things might change, but self-published by Kelsey should be a sign of quality.
This is Pay What You Want over at DMsguild with a suggested price of $0. Nineteen fucktards gave it three stars, three gave it two stars and one gave is one star. Well, fuck those asshats.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 5, Reviews, The Best | 18 Comments