Maize & Monsters, Dungeons and Dragons adventure review

By Tom Knauss
Frog God Games
Levels 4-6

Maize and Monsters is an adventure, that exposes the adventurers to the grim reality that time sometimes exacerbates old wounds rather than healing them. A recent murder in the village of Pilhua proves to be far more than a simple crime of passion as the seeds for this killing were sown during a previous, unsolved mystery that still haunts some residents within the settlement. The characters must wade through a list of suspects and motives that lead them to discover the ugly truth about a heinous crime that spawned a greater evil than even its perpetrators could ever imagine.

This 27 page adventure uses about fourteen ages to describe an investigation, a couple of combats, and a small corn maze in a mesoamerican village. There is SOMETHING going on, but it is hidden behind so much Wall of Text as to be nigh incomprehensible. Combined with some “Now It Is Fight Time” logic, it screams j’accuse! at the Frogs. 

Good stuff: there’s a lot going on. Two dudes kill their skeezy drug peddler and bury him in a cornfield. Two teens, making, out see it, and get killed also. One Year Later (a magic number, to be sure, and thus I approve) you get an evil corn stalk monster killing someone in the night. That dudes wife is a little skeezy … a red herring. You get a widow making monsters attacking the mayor for not trying hard enough to find the murderers. You get the dead dealer causing problems as a wight, the two kids turning a corn field in to an evil corn maze … a fuck ton going on here. I’m not entirely sure it all fits together well, due to issues explained later, but it COULD. And an adventure with a lot going on can be a GREAT adventure. 

It also separates out just about every NPC you could talk to in their own little box, and tried to use some bullets or italics to draw attention to different facts and so on. Likewise, there’s an adventure synopsis right up front to help the DM get oriented … and without it I’d be even more lost than I already am. So, it’s got a good basic outline, and knows what to do. It just fails in doing any of it.

First, this is a Frog God adventure. That means that it is a disaster. While an “editor” is attached, it’s clear that person did close to nothing. There’ no level range on the cover or in the product description. They did nothing to catch the inconsistencies in format (more on that later) or evidently made any effort at all to clarify text. The Frogs are, as with nearly all multi-author publishers, incompetent. Your mileage with a multi-author publisher is going to come from the designer, with the publisher only detracting from value as a product. For the DESIGNER it probably means a wider audience, since there’s some staying power and name recognition in the publishers name. For the consumer, though, you’re only going to get the designers vision fucked with at worst and unguided at best. The larger the publisher the more evident the issue, it seems. We’d all like to THINK they provide value. But, the designers name holds more value, ultimately. And fifteen fucking dollers for a PDF? The chutzpah! (Thanks Paranoia! I owe my vocab to you and the orphan example!) 

The mesoamerican setting doesn’t help. Adding to the confusion is the proper noun and vocabulary issue. This isn’t unique to this adventure, but can be found in the bullshit proper names in Forgotten Realms or in Vengers Apostrophe-land setting. If you have to put the translation next to the noun, every time, in order for someone to follow the adventure then you’ve failed. It’s not that Different is Bad, but rather that you have to recognize that you’ve got a job to do to help people along, so the burden on design and organization is even greater. Further, there’s no real cultural issues in this adventure. There’s nothing to say “this is a mesoamerican adventure” other than the usage of the proper nouns and different weapon nakes, etc. 

The NPC’s are a nightmare to follow and therefore run. The entire first section is supposed to be talking with people to investigate the village issues. Each NPC gets a couple of paragraphs, at least, of small dense text follow by wither italics or bullet points. The italics is better done. A keyword or two in italics “Her affairs” followed by information she relates. This is good! Well, not the multi-paragraph intro. That’s terrible to scan and comprehend, but the italics keyword with follow up information is great! Other NPC’s though, get a bullet break out. With no keywords. Both formats are, inexplicably, used, with the bullets being far weaker because of the lack of a heading to let you know what that bullet is about.

And the wall of text. Oh my sweet Jesus, the wall of text. Small font, tight,  and MOUNTAINS of it with only paragraph breaks. This combined with the lack of a good “flow” in the adventure, particularly the investigation part, leads to you both WANTING to know what’s going on and how to run it as well as wanting to stab your own eyes out. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to follow. Information is hidden in there, information you need, but you’re not going to find it without taking multiple minutes to read it … while at the table.

And then there’s the D&D part. Or, rather, I should say, what modern designers seem to think of as the D&D part: the fighting. “NOW IT IS TIME TO HAVE AN ENCOUNTER SO YOU FIGHT NOW” Or , maybe it’s a Frog’s thing. I don’t know. It sucks. You’re doing this investigation. It’s got this creepy cornfield. There’s this element of horror implied. And then “Three zombies walk out of the cornfield and attack.” That’s it. That’s how the primary motivators of the adventure show up. “Animated goll corpses loiter” is the read-aloud, I think. Specifically “The stench of death accompanies a withering, desiccated corpse wielding a vicious macuahuitl wrapped in leathery, decaying flesh in its bony hands. A team of animated gnoll corpses loiter around him as the obviously undead abomination shambles forward to slay the living and add its victims to its swelling ranks.” This is supposed to be a highlight. No creepy village vibe at night. No slowly increasing terror. No. Just they walk out of the cornfield and attack. It’s fucking lame. It takes all of the atmosphere and just fucking tanks it. Huts ablaze? Shows everywhere? Screams? No. They just walk out and attack the party. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Frogs are a rip off. I like reviewing new designers, but, fuck man. I guess, maybe, I expect more from a publisher? I don’t know why. I already know most adventure are crap. (By definition? If all adventures were The Best, would standards then be raised to make 90% of The Best crap? Hmmmm…)

Reviews of longer and multi-designer products coming soon … I think I’ve found a way to make them work.

This is $15 at DriveThru. The previews is three pages, showing you only one page of text, which is just background text. Shitty shitty preview.

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

Zaratazarat’s Manse, D&D adventure review

By Nobboc
The Merry Mushmen
Levels 1-2

Zaratazarat is a mage of dubious reputation and average power. He lives a solitary life in the Fevoriz Marshes, inside a bleak rocky hill he made his abode in. Zaratazarat spent most of his life constructing a summoning platform named Ragga Gyxy’s Random Encounter Table after his inventor. The wizard was going to raise an army of monsters for his own nefarious purpose. He recently completed the construction and was ready to welcome (and bind to his service) the first summoned monsters. But when the fist d4+2 goblins appeared, the overwhelmingly enthusiastic wizard stammered… The goblins knocked him out, argued for a while about what to do with him, and finally left him when an angry ogre appeared on the Table. Since then, Zaratazarat has been hiding and trying to survive in his own lair. The Table is regularly spitting out monsters: most of them try to escape and run back home, or take the opportunity to loot or eat whatever they can…

This ten page adventure features a 24 room dungeon a two story wizards tower. Good formatting and interesting situations aboud, with the evocative writing suffering a bit. Still, I’ll take it over overwritten every day of the week.

What we’re looking at here is a kind of offset two column production. One column takes up about two thirds of the page, the right side, and contains the room key information. The left column, making up about a third of the page, contains the monster stats for the areas on the right. The monsters stats are in a lighter font that could, frankly be in a bit darker font, but its good enough. The keyed locations follow a decent layout formatting. The rooms tend to start with a brief descriptor like “crammed storeroom” or “cluttered library.” I like this sort of overloaded room title stuff. It orients the DM immediately to the type of room to come and puts them in the right frame of mind to receive the description information following. You’re already thinking about a cluttered library and imagining it when you start to scan the description and I believe that helps to leverage the description to more than it is. This is followed by a short description and then a little table of who’s in the room. Basically, you roll a d6 on a little two or three line table to see whats going on in the room. Monster names are bolded to help you scan quickly. This is followed by a little section of “follow up” information. A series of underlined words like “Books – Mundane topics. And then a description of them with more information for the DM. or “Gems – 1 hour of work. 40gp of gems per worker.” Gems (or books) having been mentioned in the room description. IE: it goes from general room description in the intro to a well laid out and easily scannable DM text information section. It’s easy to scan and well laid out, a terse format that can work well and works well here. 

The room contents are interesting and interactive. They fall in to two general type: stuff in the room and who’s in the room. The stuff are things like gemstones in the walls to pry out (noisily, one presumes …) and books to read and search, lab gear, boxes to open, etc. The WHO, from the tables are always little vignettes, terse described. Giant rats nibbling on a barely alive goblin. A dwarf slowly crawling towards you, covered in green slime. A Bugbear with his head stuffed in a keg of honey or a jolly dwarf stocking up on booze. Little situations built in to the rooms. Treasure tends to be unique magic items ( a pipe that lights on command!) or things like silver nail clippers. IE: something different and special on both counts.

You also get a little timeline for exploring the tower, just a way to push things forward in town if the party dallies a long time over multiple days. Town, pepper, has a few businesses detailed, mostly the sheriff and the tavern, to bring if to life with some terse and interesting descriptions. They are memorable places and NPC’s, and don’t overstay their welcomes. Just a brief hit that is memorable enough for the DM to expand upon. The map is clear and easily read, with atmospheric notes written on it to remind the DM. The color coding of some of the locked doors could be a little more noticeable at a glance, but it’s still mostly ok.

It’s a good little adventure that, every once in awhile, slips beyond suspension of disbelief … like the town ritual of the old and sick voluntarily going out to the dock to be eaten by a giant tentacle in the lake as the rest of the town looks on and cheers. Yeah, it’s a fun little thing, but it’s also pushing things just a little too far in to gonzo territory. I guess a wizard with a summoning portal might already be there, but, it seems just a little out of place. I guess I would keep it in the product, since its easy enough to ignore and DOES add local color for those who care. It just sticks out, tonaly.

So, decent adventure.

But …

The encounter descriptions are not a home run. “Comfortable Lounge” has the following description for the room. “4 comfy armchairs. Floating silver bowl. Circular rug.” This isn’t bad, especially in light of the “comfortable lounge” preamble, which places the descriptive words in context, adding an implicit “comfortable” and “lounge” framing to all of them. But, also, not going out of its way to be very evocative. In the austere waiting hall we get “Greenish marble column in the centre, 8 chairs, coat and hat rack.” So, very workmanlike. Very austere, if you will, descriptive text. Andrew Eldritch and I want More. So while the encounters have have something in them interactive to build upon, the framing for the DM is, I would say, rather weak. More than the non-existent that you get from  most adventures, even the overwritten ones, but lacking still.

Really good effort here and the only weak part is, I think, the hardest part of adventure writing: the evocative writing.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggest price of $1. There’s no full size preview. This makes me sad. 🙁

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 9 Comments

Down and Out in a Schleswig Sanatorium, Mork Borg adventure review

By Rugose Kohn
Self Published
OSR/Mork Borg
Level 1?

The Schleswig Sanatorium; home to members of the criminally insane, the disturbed, and the wretched of Schleswig. King Fathmu is fond of stocking its beds with rivals, family members, and rival family members. A place of utter despair, anyone unlucky enough to find themselves a guest, the gods have certainly deserted them. The outside is unassuming enough. A three story brick building. Leaded windows with ornate wrought iron bars. A stout solid-wood door. The inside is another matter entirely. Recently the staff has all been murdered by a patient gone rogue. That suits the King’s ends well enough, so no one has bothered to check on things recently.  That brings us to you. What exactly ARE you doing here? 11 pages of mayhem to help you figure it all out…

This fourteen page adventure is for Mork Borg. That’s all you really need to know. 

Well, I didn’t shoot a man in Reno just to see him die, but I did buy this when I saw it pop in my feed … and that it was for Mork Borg. “What a train wreck this will be!” I thought. I was not disappointed. Mork Borg. Mork Borg is that neighbor you have in your lower middle class neighborhood, the one that is a working artist. Nice guy, sits in their garage all day painting/using their pneumatic hammer to sculpt stone statues out of giant limestone blocks. Clearly gonna die of heart disease in a few years. But, hey, cool dude! It feels like DCC and Mork Borg are kissing cousins. Where DCC is very artist forward across most aspects of the game ecosystem, it still has a nice retirement fund socked away. Mork Borg feels like its artist led and it blew its retirement fund on hookers & blow … not for it, but for a community project. I love our art punk friends. I just wish to fuck they would follow through. And that is the problem here.

This is fourteen pages. fourteen digest pages, so they are small. Last page and first two are the cover nonsense stuff. That leaves us thirteen. One for the map. That’s twelve. Five pages for the monsters stats/appendix, about one per page. Three pages of hooks and random tables. That leave us three for the actual adventure. About eleven rooms. So we aee, already, that the content to bullshit ratio is skewed. Yes, digital pages are free and so it should mean that you can pump out as many appendix pages as you want. In theory. In practice, a low adventure to bullshit ratio means the content is generally lacking. 

We get a point crawl map here for the hospital. Each room, laid out in effective bullet point manner, generally has a few patients in it as well as a gruesomely killed staff member. That’s about it. One room has a washing machine monster. Another has a dude trying to sacrifice a small child, that might open a portal to the land of the dead. Oh, and the records room has d3 scrolls in it. You can now run the adventure because that’s all there is.

It’s using random tables to generate dormitory rooms and the patients. What they are doing and how crazy they are. This is, I think, a bad use of tables. “Tables are retro man! They are cool!” Yes, both are true, and tables can be put to good use. But, not for generating static content. Just create the damn rooms and stick them in. There’s no reason here for the rooms and patients to be random other than because the designer thought a table would be cool. It’s not. It’s lame when they are used like this.

The hooks are the usual nonsense. You woke up here. You are hired to go find someone. You heard there is treasure in the basement. Nothing of consequence, no specificity to hang your hat on.

The gruesomeness here is the selling point. “Edgy, man!” Dude with a table leg stuck through his head. Dead orderlies with their intestines intertwined. Patient hacking a dead orderly in to mincemeat long after they are dead. The specificity is good here even if it is tropy.

The main issue is … so what? The adventure doesn’t really have a purpose. “Go find treasure” or “Get my kid/your friend/whoever out” Meh. You walk in to a room, see crazy people, not the person you are looking for, and go to the next room. Nothing really interesting happens … aside from the crazy people interactions. And they don’t really have a purpose behind them. Not a part of the whole, so to speak, and so they are trivialities. I guess you’re meant to stumble on the Land of the Dead thing and do something about it. Yawn. Ok. I guess so. Why, again? It just feels empty. There’s nothing in it for the party, either in terms of loot or … development? It’s just some task to mindlessly perform. 

Someone had an idea. They write up a bunch of content around a washing machine monster and the land of the dead stuff in an insane asylum. But it never went beyond that initial concept. It was never fleshed out in a whole idea, put together, in a meaningful way. Oh, the adventure is coherent, all right. Most art punk stuff is. But it doesn’t FIT. It’s like the last step, the context for the players, if never completed. 

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is three pages. You get to see the map (note the stairs up/down label paradox), the intro, and the edgy “what are the patients doing” table. A page of encounters would have been nice also.

Finally, a note about hypocrisy. We are all hypocrites. You cannot survive in the world without being one. Our designer notes “While I support making this your own at the table, don’t use this content for racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or discriminatory games of any kind. I ain’t down with that.” Then, proceeding to make an adventure that leverages caricatures of mental illness? Touché sir! I salute you! Still, better than that adventure with the halfling plantation owners and the “indentured servants.”

Speaking of hypocrites, I’m now attending several old man meetups, in a socially distanced manner of course. Full of old white dudes, just like me! My new t-short came in today, that I’m wearing to all of our future “JACKED UP TRUCCCKKKSSS!!” and HAMM meetups:

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 89 Comments

Tower to the Abyss, Dungeons & Dragons adventure review

By Tyler Lee
Self published
Level 3

Players take on the roll of adventurers hired by the nearby village to investigate the recent disapearances and monster sightings around the nearby military outpost. Reckless magical research has thrown Kalem’s Tower into chaos as demons and devils pour out from the abyss. Players must use their wits, their skills, and every magical item at their disposal to survive the tower and close the portal to the chaotic hellscape.

This thiry page adventure adventure uses ten pages to describe a wizards tower with, I don’t know, twenty rooms? It’s the usual 5e fare; I’m only reviewing it because someone requested it.

Some VERY VERY BAD PERSON asked that I review this. I had turned a corner. No longer reviewing 5e shovelware. Just reviewing OSR and DCC shovelware. I was there man! Happy! And then someone says “Hey, it’s just one drink man.” … that’s how EVerything’s Gone Green (Cicada Mix) gets put on repeat for four or five days. Seems like I’ve been here before.

In this adventure you start at Level 3. By the end you are level 8. In, I don’t know, three hours or so? Mearls once said that people should level, like, every session. I got his logic in what he was saying for that playstyle, but this seems fucking excessive. You reach level four after fighting like four bandits and two imps. Yeah! Level!

The things a mess. A month ago people in the village stopped hearing from the tower nearby that guards their village. It’s mile away. A FUCKING MILE AWAY. No one has gone there for a month. It’s mile away. What the fuck man? I get it, it’s just the fucking fluff, but, still, put some fucking effort in! 

Besides which this whole “we haven’t heard from X in awhile, go investigate” is the new fucking caravan guards. It’s fucking everywhere. Jesus H Fucking Christ make a fucking effort people! At least the caravan guard thing was just to get to the village and then you could go fuck up the dungeon. This whole “go investigate” shit is boring.  I’m hesitant to assign blame, but this whole thing FEELS like a computer RPG close. Questgiver tells you to go do something and then you collect the keys (literally in this case) to close the portals, fighting the bosses as you go. This is just about the lowest effort you canmake in designing an adventure. I don’t know, maybe one of those fucking Trtaining Grounds adventure also. I loaaaathe life. This is how NE starts out. Every NE lich you meet was a fucking optimist worn down by life.

To get to the tower you need to wander through the forest. There’s a map, but as far as I can tell  there is not path/road, etc. Or hexes, etc. Just numbers thrown out in the “map.” The first is with some dead villagers in the forest. Dead bodies. Except you have to roll to see/find them. What the fuck is the point of this? Why would you hide this content? The entire encounter is meant to foreshadow, to raise tension, to put a feeling in to the players. But not if you don’t make the skill check! You just wander on by if you don’t, missing all of that. BAD DESIGN. The entire fucking point is to make things serious to the players, to let them know what is goingon, to set the scene for THE FEELS later. But not if you don’t make your fucking roll. I fucking swear. It’s the same with spotting some dretch on a ridgeline. The fucking purpose is to scare the fuckers … to what end does NOT scaring the fuckers work? 

There’s an encounter with bandits. The leader pretends to be camping waiting for friends. Then 1d6 bandits walk out of the woods and attack. It takes two fucking paragrapghs to describe this. Two. For something that is, literally, “she pretends to be camping and waiting for her friends.” That’s what, ten words? THATS THE FUCKING ADVENTURE! That’s the part you should be spending your fucking word count on. But no, not here. 

Ok, so, you can go to the courtyard to start the adventure or to the battlements to start the adventure. You’re never given the choice. I guess you just wander to one or the other. Again, bad design. CHoices only matter is they are meaningful and the players know they are making them. Then they can be DELICIOUS. But if you DONT KNOW you are making the choice then its the same as not having a choice. 

I don’t know. The read-aloud runs in to the DM text. Or it’s not boxed properly, only partially boxed. Whatever the cause, there is read-aloud masquerading as DM text or DM text in the voice of read-aloud. “People here would do the player harm …” I think you mean the characters. 

The actual text of the adventure is just paragraph after paragraph of infor dump with little fucking formatting. IE: the WOTC way. You can’t follow it, it’s hard to scan and look things up, it’s full of extraneous things. The usual bad writing. In the actual tower you get to fight monsters to get the keys to unlock the next section to fight more monsters to get the yellow key so you can unlock the yellow door and fight more monsters to get the red key to …. You get it. 

Who the fuck wanted me to review this?

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages and doesn’t really show you any of the adventure, just the summary. You do get to see, on the last page, an example of the read-aloud and DM text in the same voice. Weird. Formatting fuck up, I guess? Not proof read?

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 7 Comments

The Laboratory of Melifex the Mad, DCC adventure review

By Stuart C Killian
FSH Professional Ltd.
Level 2

The city of Pinecliffe has tolerated the presence of Melifex the Mage for years, but his corruption and increasingly unusual experiments eventually had him driven out of town and to a secluded tower on the ridge overlooking the city. Now, no one has heard from Melifex “the Mad” for two months, and the city is becoming worried. Did Melifex die from his corruption or has he unleashed a sinister force that could destroy the land! Answers, adventure, and priceless magical treasure await the party brave enough to find out.

This thirty seven page adventure uses twelve pages to describe an eight room dungeon. It makes me loathe my life. 

This is my usual “oh my god why do I do this. Hey, I’ve got a Pateron, why not drop me some cash so my life can be a little less meaningless and I can buy some whiskey and cigars.” section.

“Hey, Bryce, you should review more DCC adventures!” they said cheerfully. “That 5e stuff is garbage” they said. “I can sometimes salvage stuff from DCC adventures” they said. Yeah. You people know who you are. I’m looking at you. Glaring, actually. 

“You know, they’re right!” I said to myself. I was just talking to someone about how I’m a sucker for marketing, reveling in it. Swallowing wholesale the constructed reality I quickly assemble in order to justify the asserted reality that the marketing vomits up. I mean, I basically sopped reviewing DCC because they *tend* to be linear. Look, I know this is the way people play D&D. I’m ok with people playing D&D like that. They’ve been playing stuff like this, in home games, forever. Very loose plot, a little lair dungeon. Since the 80’s at least. *I* think it can be a substandard experience to a more free form game, but, I’m not gonna shit on someone elses fun. I mean, drinking pretzels and eating beer with a little escapism is the ultimate point of it all, right? I do, however, find the more free form stuff more satisfying, and encourage people to go down that path when they are ready and want to. But, I digress. I stopped reviewing DCC because the adventures were linear. “Hypocrite!” my own inner judge says. “5e adventures tend to be linear as all fuck and you review them all the fucking time!” Hmmm, inner judge is correct. A little brutal in its assessments sometimes, but ultimately correct. And, these other folks want me to review more DCC. I DO like DCC. I think it’s the perfect system for that linear beer & pretzels D&D experience that 99% of the people on the planet want. It encourages the stupid shit happening at the table that makes for an enjoyable time and the inevoatable boring-to-everyone-else “let me tell you what happened last night at D&D!” stories. So. More DCC reviews.

Yeah, yeah, I’m getting to the review. 

And, you know, I AM a sucker for small press and indie works. It’s the romantic idealist in me. A small designer, slaving away, creating an uncompromising product that adheres to their own vision. None of this corporate garbage. None of this publishing guidelines. None of this THE MAN telling you what to do and the money men ruining Don Quixote! Hmmm, I may be projecting there. 

Oh course, none of this is true. Well, ok, it COULD be true and there are examples of it being true. In reality its just someone sitting around pounding out something. Hopefully because they are excited about it and not because of money. I WANT them to be excited and to share their vision with us. I want to be excited with them.

Instead I get The Laboratory of Melifex the Mad.

So, I’m trying to cut 80/20 aluminum for my truck camper build. And I’m programming my Baofeng, amused at the antics of the virtual Hardees coffee club on the airwaves. Maybe I should do forty spanish lessons today instead of twenty? That would let me put off writing about Melifex some more. Downtown, the Air War over Hanoi is a nightmare. I could read those rules. And there’s always Federation and Empire. Maybe a computer game? Hitman 3? Dark Souls? Nuclear Throne or Crossroads inn? Crusader Kings? WW2 squad tactics running on WIn95? Staring out the window drooling mindlessly for hours on end? ANYTHING to keep from writing this “review.” 

That’s what this did to me. ALl I want to do is ANYTHING other than write this review. It’s just another crap product. It doesn’t matter if it’s DCC, or 5e, or OSR. It’s just another crap product. And I get to find something to say about it. I could rant at it. Let The Feels out all stream of consciousness style. But it has sapped all of my energy. My will to live. And yet, I must. I must, I must. I must increase my bust. And, I can’t do what what I really want. I really just want to say “it sucks.” A two word review and leave it at that and move the fuck on with my life. But oh no, mr inner judge is back. “You need to write more asshole. Writing more is training. Also, you feel obligated to [I fucking HATE feeling obligated] This is only review this product is likely to get. The designer deserves some feedback. What the fuck, you have something actually MEANINGUL to do? You know that’s not true, Mr Camus.” And do, instead, I go to the store and make Rio Grande Egg Puffs so I don’t have to say the same shit I always say. [Whipping meringue and deep frying at 7am in the morning for breakfast is not something I can get into.  The onion & adobo sauce is great but, again, not something to be cooking this early. Tomorrow I’ll be making home made cottage cheese on the stove for breakfast, because I never learn.]

The read aloud is in italics. There are COLUMNS of it. Routinely, column of read aloud. Now I get to explain why both of those are bad. For, like, the three thousandth time. But it doesn’t matter. THIS designer hasn’t read those three thousand explanations. This is the first time they are reading about it. AAnd, no, I won’t take a shortcut and link to  an article explaining why. That is pragmatism and pragmatism seldom leads to anything interesting. Ug, there’s mr inner judge again, noting that this Life Less Ordinary shit is what leads to this and mr I don’t define myself with labels, aren’t you just doing that with your turn left when everyone else turns right identity? Self reinforcing bullshit.

So, italics are bad because they are hard to read. Long sections of italics I mean. And read-aloud should be kept to a couple of sentences, if you choose to use it. Players generally don’t pay attention after that. There have been a couple of studies on both topics, so it’s not me spouting off. 

The adventure is clearly meant to go a certain way. You have the plot imagioned in your head and, the final fight/encounter with the dragon, reinforces that. You have these cool moments in your head, both with the setup and with the conclusion of the adventure. That is wrong. This indicates an over-investment in the adventure on your part. You’re trying to force outcomes. Instead of this just write it in such a way that an adventure can flow from it, rather than trying to force an outcome to the adventure that you think will be cool, or result in a cool moment, etc. The DM text is too long also. It shouldn’t take a column to explain a room. You don’t need to tell us that the +1 Gallant Longsword is described later on in the adventure in the appendix. You don’t need to tell us that the +1 shield is undamaged. That’s like saying that the air in your house right now is breathable. Yes, of course, we assume that. This pads out your word count and a padded DM text makes it harder for the DM to find the information that IS important to running the room. 

That’s enough. That’s all I can muster. The usual stuff. My will to live is gone. I’m off to take twenty spanish lessons and a couple of HAM practice tests. I will now be flooded with messages from HAMs telling me that my Baofeng sucks and I should …. You should prepare yourselves, though, as I will then thoroughly, and quite undeservedly, destroy you with Socratic methods around Use Cases. If I’m bored and drunk. Or, I will politely ask for more information and engage you in conversation. Am I just humoring you to be polite, or am I actually interested? Can both be true at the same time? Everyone is self-centered. It is the acknowledgement of that basic fact and the attempt to move beyond it that defines not being self-centered, not actually not being self-centered. At least, that’s the lies I’m framing for myself to live with my hypocrisy today.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. There are no encounters shown, so It’s a bad preview. You do get to see some of the italics read-aloud, and DM text, so, just pretend that all of the pages for the preview are the text for one of the rooms. That’s hyperbolic, but it will still leave you will the feelings of …despair? Ennui? Resignment? That I got from the room encounters.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 20 Comments

The Inverted Pyramid, D&D adventure review

By Gustavo Tertoleone
Black Dog
Level ?

The Inverted Pyramid, a dungeon located in Thebes, Egypt. The place was built as a gigantic tomb to hide secrets and technologies from the Ancient race who had enslaved humanity millenia ago.

This 35 page adventure uses nineteen pages to detail a four level twenty room egyptian themed dungeon … with grey alien/ancient astronaut themes. It’s definitely not dry, with decent, if predictable, interactivity. Language use and organization though suffer. 

This could be thought of as just another egyptian temple themed adventure. But, then, there’s the grey aliens aspect to it. That makes things … strange. Interactivity in this one tends to the better side of the spectrum and that is, in part, thanks to the presence of the alien theming. There are alien devices and pools and statues to mess with, things to open up and puzzles to solve. Oh so many puzzles to solve.

That is a good thing and a bad thing. These sorts of tomb adventure, especially egyptian ones, seem to be trap and puzzle heavy and this one is no exception. Most traps are hallway ones, which I have an aversion to. I think they slow down the game. But, whatever, you’re free to your own (wrong) opinion. But, when too many puzzles and traps are in an adventure then I think the adventure suffers. “Oh, it’s one of THOSE adventures …” IN particular, there are riddle puzzles in this thing. Riddle puzzles that I would say are out of place and break the tone of the adventure. It makes it seem more like a published adventure than an adventure locale to explore. The very first room is a  door with a picture of Ra and Amon on it. Where their staves meet there is an indentation. There is a riddle present. “Feed me and I live. water me and I die. what am I”. You put some fire in the alcove, 5th element style, and the doors open. It’s not bad. But, also, it IS bad. The riddle explicit aspect, here and in other places, is more in place in a fun house dungeon rather than … whatever this is. It’s the explicitness of it. The funhouse nature and the mismatch in tones.

But in other places things fit in well, well, as well as a spaceship egyptian themed adventure can. Pools to play with. A monster, a kind of mashup of body parts from different creatures (what’s that called again?) is in a room. It has a monstrous number of hit points. The wall of the room are covered with tiny little bits of papyrus, with writing on them. Hitting the monster causes some of the runes to flash or glow. It’s a puzzle that just LOOKS like a fight!

There was a little intro that was nice also, describing (if it can be called that) the area above the dungeon. It’s devoid of physical description, but it does have some notes about potentially putting in bandits or grave robbers or something. Which got me thinking. What about grave robbers. Kind of friendly. Kind of rivals. More opportunistic than anything else. That could have been a fun little thing to have. 

Other areas have a room with mummies hung upside down, hung in chains. Freeing them causes them to return to life … rejuvenate, and potentially be longer term campaign enemies. Nice! Likewise a room full of mummies. Just normal ummies. But you FEEL like they are all watching you as you move about. Paranoia! I love it!

But …

The writing can be, let us say, overwrought. 

“The forgotten chambers resting below the desert were kept in the dark for millennia, glancing the light only when groups of brave thieves dared to enter this place in search for treasures.” Is this Poe, or a Hammer production of Poe? Likewise “so macabre that any heart will start racing as soon as the characters’ eyes meet the gaze of the monster.” Uh huh. Padding. Commentary. Writing for the DM as reader rather than the DM as DM.

In other places the writing can be downright confusing, like “[the dungeon is] accessed by moving the three main stone pillars in the center of the ruins closer to each other, uniting them as one single pillar.” You move a pillar? That’s all there is, no map, no better description. I’m not really sure what I should be putting in there. In other places there’s a kind of shorthand used that does the DM no favors “This room has the exactly same details as the room 9 and its entrance can be found in the exact same way, “ 

These issues hint at the issue of organization of the text which, as is usual, is present. It looks like this is a English as a Second Language design, but, I don’t really think that’s the cause of the confusion. The designer is imagining the fuck out of things, they just don’t know how to get it down on paper correctly and are, in places, a little too hackney for the adventures own good.

Also, you can get five spaceships, that fully recharge in sunlight and shoot 3 times a round for 2d10 damage and move at 300 miles per hour and … you get the idea. 

This is $5 at DriveThru.The preview is four pages, all actual dungeon rooms. That’s great! Good preview!  That first page of it is a good example of the rather lengthy DM text that is all over the adventure.–Adventure-1?1892600

The same designer has a zine: “Vomitations of the Grotesque Princess is an infamous zine from Brazil” says the author. It is 11 pages, costs $5, and its lead article is “A Brief Text on Existentialism.” I admire this persons moxie!

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Barrow of Sorn, D&D adventure review

By Mason Waaler
Self Published
Levels 1-2

The final resting place of Sorn is a crumbling ruin; a barrow mound of piled stone and dirt. A forgotten tomb from a previous age. Locals are wary of it, their dreams haunted by a stone coffin and a skeletal king.

This twelve page adventure features a twenty room “tomb” dungeon. It’s got some decent writing in it which takes more of the more tried & true tropes and uses them in a decent way.It fumbles about from time to time but is, generally, a decent tomb dungeon. I generally start with the positive, but I’d like to start with the negatives on this one, understanding, that, I’m going to give this one a light recommendation. 

The read-aloud is in italics. I LOATHE long sections of italics. It’s hard to read. Also, I’m not sure it’s read-aloud. It’s formatted kind of like it’s read-aloud, but it might just be a DM overview of the room. I say this because many rooms start with “Dry, Cold, dusty” or “Empty & Cold” or some other really brief hit of an idea. This makes sense for DM information and is a little weird for read-aloud. So, I’m gonna call this “Read-aloud”, for convenience purposes, but I’m pretty sure it’s just an overview of the scene aimed at the DM.

So, anyway, italics. It also seems to be trying too hard in places. “Chiseled ruins mar the floor …” Ok, so, yeah, mar is a word and it is better than nothing. “Three pillars guiard the western wall and three guard the eastern.” Yeah, I get it. I get what the designer is trying to do, and I’m happy they are trying. I do, however, take exception with the specific word choices. It doesn’t look effortless. It instead looks contrived. “Loom over the western wall” or “tower” or something else would have probably been a better choice. This is a common problem in this adventure. Yeah, I’m a fucking asshole. But, it is absolutely coming across as contrived rather than evocativly imagined.  On the right track though, absolutely. DM text can also get a bit long in places and has bouts of “[the skeletons] are implacable, unfeeling, and dedi? cated in a way only the dead can be.” Which, to be fair, is true and cool, but I’m not sure adds a lot. An off hand comment here and there is fine though.

On the plus side, it gets most things right. For example, wanderers are doing something. A spider is dragging a corpse along in a web. A red wraith weeps smoke. Similarly, the monsters themselves get great little descriptions. A wraith made of crimson smoke and a shadowed cowl. Gleaming green-black glaives. Howling, whirling and quick. Or skeletons with red script spiraling across their brows. Spiraling, isn’t that a great word?And crimson? In contrast to the “Read aloud” the monster descriptions are great and don’t seem forced at all. And, the magic items are sufficiently different to be interesting!

Other details are great as well. Those dreams of a skeletal lord in a casket? The local “wearily remark …” when questioned. It’s fucking great! You IMMEDIATELY get the sense that they have lived through this shit forever and are both tired of it and tired of explaining it to n00bs. The crypt proper? It belongs to the King of Ghosts, from when the Last Lich ruled the world. Nifty mythology! Barely glowing runes CRACK when you kill something like skeletal guards, providing a nice cause/effect thing for the party to observe. Wraiths flows from ruins. A mosaic on a wall has an eye made of an emerald … with a button behind it. It’s this kind of stuff that really marks some high points of the adventure. Parts of it make sense and FEEL imagined rather than constructed. And that’s a sign of good design. Likewise the sulky ghost who refuses to talk to you if you break in to the room where his body is stored … that you should do in order to free his soul. (For certain definitions of “should.”) 

There’s a little too much “emerging from hidden alcoves” in parts of the adventure. There’s also some conclusions thrown about instead of descriptions, like a mural depicting a wight beheading a kneeling man. This should be a description, not a conclusion. 

A decent adventure. It’s not going to win any awards, I don’t think, but it does bring a certain competence to the table. There are things to improve upon, but there usually are. 

This s $1 at DriveThru. The preview is the entire thing, so, Nice Preview! You get to know exactly the sort of content you are buying! Check out the new magic items on the last page, like The Wraithstone. Or, check out page six of the preview, the first page of keyed entries, for a sample of the room. Nice job!

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 1, No Regerts, Reviews | Leave a comment

The Palace of Unquiet Repose, D&D adventure review

By Prince of Nothing
The Merciless Merchants
Labyrinth Lord, OSR, etc
Levels 3-5

Uyu-Yadmogh. Prince of Princes. Archmage. Devourer of Children. Under the earth he built himself a palace in which he could abide eternity. Now he is only half-remembered legend. The ground trembles, the earth is split asunder. In the sunken depths of the earth, the Palace awaits. An adventure for those who dare.

This 50 page adventure details a funerary complex dungeon, and the ruined city and environs around it. It is rare to encounter something that FEELS like it should. This FEELS like the funerary complex of a mighty evil magical empire. It oozes a kind of baroque evil. And it’s not just stuffed full of undead. They are there, but it doesn’t FEEL like this is an adventure full of undead. It feels … mythic? Nice job.

Tomb of Horrors delivered a trap filled vaguely vanilla dungeon with a demi-lich at the end to stab. The mausoleum in Rappan Athuk wanted to deliver a mournful kind of place that served as the threshold for parties to enter the Dungeon of Graves. Various other dungeons have tried, and generally failed, to evoke a kind of quiet horror that comes from graveyards. Many adventures speak of long-dead empires of evil magic users and attempt to transport you there, in spirit, through the dungeon that is related to them. This, though, does a great job of conveying the vibe that those adventures are trying for. This is this sense, in almost every encounter, that this place IS the legacy of a long dead empire of evil magic. The sense of dread is never very fall way. A sense of the cyclopean. Of ennui. Of forgotten things. It’s all in there.

A statuary garden on the shores of a mist-covered lake of mercury, great figures with great urns, as if they are pouring things out of them, in a semi-circle. Anointing yourself with dist from the urns makes things happens … Baroque armor, inhabited by te souls of long-dead generals. “Two chimeras of god, scorpion and lion carved from gleaming black stone flank the stair entrance of this oppressive shrine. Five statues bearing great urns upon their shoulders surround a circular podium. A hundred carved faces stare dolorously from walls of ash-grey stone.” Holy fuck, what the fuck did your party just sign themselves up for!

[Special note: the art in this compliments the text very well, helping to convey the atmosphere and tone of the locations. Perfect!]

Back in town, before the adventure, youtube a host of NPC’s you can hire, each with memorable quirks. Some of the hooks are decent, like a sage who “offers his weight in gold and three of his daughters to anyone who can bring him the grimoire of Uyu-Yadmogh.” I’m generally not a fan of “someone hired you” but I am a fan of weights of gold and three of his daughters, as well as bounty hunters, mercenaries pursuing jobs. 

“The dusk stalkers prowl the wastes, leaving behind no trace, shrieking for blood and souls.” one of the monster descriptions tells us. From that the mind races. You can imagine an encounter. The creatures howling in the distance, building tension in the party. Keeping them on edge. And that’s what so much of this adventure does. It builds tension through it’s art, use of writing, and interactive encounters. A room has a basin on the opposite wall. The basin is obviously full of gold coins. The walls of the room are decorated with carvings f faces, all of their mouths open. Oh come on, EVERYONE knows that will happen! And that’s what makes this a great encounter. It’s a classic, lure, trap, mouths pouring forth something. 

Factions run through the ruins around the ancient tomb. They are in conflict with each other. They might be in conflict with the party. Some of the factions have internal rifts within them that can be exploited. That’s the way you do a faction. Give them a goal, give them relationships with those both internal and external to the faction, and then let the party stumble and bumble their way through things. 

I can’t say enough about the writing, the sense of baroque dread. You come upon a camp. There are bodies laying down in a circle, as if asleep. Their throats slit, no sign of violence otherwise. Forboding. 

And the sense … the head of the dead god of dreams mumbles almost incoherent prophecy. The demi-god of strength is chained to a throne with an adamantine chain, roaming in search of killing you. He, and a mist that animates the dead, roam about, always serving as an adversary to be avoided by the party. Something to use cunning to avoid, overcome, or use to your advantage.

Captain Sarakur, leader of a faction of warriors without peer “… cares nothing for his men and doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice them if it means survival or reaching the palace.” Sweet! Khabareth Who Comes Before “attempts to seduce one of the PCs with the aim of feeding him to The Wolf of Final Night.” How the fuck can you not love that? The specificity! The detail! And yet it’s done without droning on and on and on. The imagination runs wild with these half fainted things!

At one point there’s this bit of treasure “a tarnished silver circlet shaped like a snake devouring its own tail with an empty eye socket.” Wanna wear it? Normally I’d jump at the chance to do so, but after being in this place a little … you’re scared to! Not because magic items are death to touch, the mistake so many adventures make, but because of the atmosphere of dread and foreboding that relentlessly works upon you!

Formatting it great. Cross references, bolded keywords followed up with indents and bullets to explain more of those topics. It gets a little long in places, but this is because the rooms are stuffed full of things. It never feels like too much to run, although it feels like its close … which is probably a good thing.

Great formatting. Great writing. Great encounters. Great world building. Great adventure. Easily on the The Best.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages and shows you one of the cave complex entrances to the valley/cave that the Palace resides in. As such it’s a good introduction to the writing style, formatting, and interactivity of the adventure. Good preview, although, I might put the level range in the product description addition to on the cover.

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

Dread on Demon Crown Hill, DCC adventure review

By Michael Curtis
Goodman Games
Level 2

Long ago, Frygorix of the Thousand Lies, a foul demon, ruled with fear from atop a lonely tor, spreading death and plague across the land. Two brave siblings, one bearing an enchanted shield of great power, challenged the demon, vowing to slay it and free the land. In their climactic battle, black towers of six-sided stone arose from the hilltop, an eerie outcropping called the Demon Crown by some. Stories hold that the shield lies untouched within the Demon Crown, but who knows what else might dwell within those weird, dark pillars of unearthly rock?

This twenty page digest adventure details a dungeon with about thirteen rooms in it. Workmanlike, it feels constructed rather than imagined. 

You hear about a magic shield in a cliffside area similar to the Devils Postpile/Giants Causeway, etc. IE: a bunch of hexagon stone “tubes” all mashed together. You wander about inside of them until you fight a demon and some rock monsters. 

Goodman does a good job with their DriveThru descriptions, noting page count, levels, and so on. Further, they don’t fuck around in the adventure with a long boring backstory and a lot of meaningless drivel about making it your own game, how to roll dice, etc. It is, essentially, unpadded. Just like that short and sweet into to G1, there IS a little backstory, but it’s not excessive and it doesn’t get in the way of running the adventure.

Curtis understands the genre and his events and scenes fit in well stylistically. At one point you (could be) meeting with a trog queen sitting on a throne of skulls. The skulls speak in unison and translate her speech to common. There are multiple classic elements there, from the throne of skulls to them speaking in unison to the translation. In other places a sword can be imbued with the spirit of a long dead warrior. Things are embedded in walls (which seems to be a favorite of Curtis …) and sometimes pull themselves free. The elements are there.

But, I also find Curtis to be one of the more inconsistent DCC writers. While he understands the material, whatever it is, is doesn’t always get translated on to the page well. Some adventures, like the Chained Coffin, really translate the style well from Curtis, to the page, and back to the DM. Others don’t. Still others feel more constructed than imagined. And that’s the case with this one.

It feels more like a series a rooms each with something in them. It doesn’t feel like a whole but rather separate parts. The setting location should be fantastic, but it comes off as a little dry and boring, not interesting to explore. (Which could be writing or the design, this is the old “the dwarves are stoic builders” trap; they then come off as boring Brutalist. Looking good from the outside, but that’s all they got.)

Woven bags, not of human skin but just woven. Rock monsters pulling themselves out of the rock walls … who just do slam attacks. That’s boring. (As opposed to the fire harpies in another area that breathe fire gouts. That’s cool!) There’s just not a lot going on, and that leads to a kind of matter of fact nature of the rooms and their contents. Not exactly bad, but not really something to recommend it either. Also ran, as it were.

Dovetailing in to this are the Mighty Deeds. You need an interesting room to do these well. Something to work with. The brutalist architecture just doesn’t really you with anything much to work with. It’s an empty room. Try and do something.

One of the weaker, but not the weakest, of the Curtis adventures. 

This is $7 at DriveThru. The preview is three pages. You DO get a chance to see some of the adventure. Note the boring rock people art, and the last page of the preview, with its read-aloud and descriptive text.

Bonus blog feature: Tower of the Hanged Men. This is a one pager that uses the art on the map to good effect. It’s a hard adventure to puzzle out, but, it DOES use the map art to help augment the adventure text to bring more than the sum of its parts to the adventure. Looks like maybe there’s some English as a Second Language issues. Remember one page designers … you also get the back of that page, if it’s printed two-sided!

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

Shadow of the Beakmen, DCC adventure review

By Harley Stroh
Goodman Games
Level 1

Towering obelisks stab the sky. Monstrous knights with blazing lances prowl the night. Huts burn, and entire villages are taken as slaves to be fed darksome pits. The cries of terror and panic give the horrors a name: the Beakmen have come. But you are no mere peasant or serf, cowering the in the dark. You and your companions are reavers, with bloodied blades and spells wrenched from the dreams of demons. You stride through chaos while others flee, turning your steps towards the great stone obelisk, the source of the beakmen and their alien magics.  Whether for the cause of justice or merely to acquire these strange blazing weapons for you own, tonight there shall be an accounting: a blazing brand thrust into The Shadow of the Beakmen.

Well, Harley know how to write a fucking adventure!

This sixteen page adventure details about twelve encounters, mostly inside a beastman obelisk. Evocative & interactive, the adventure does a great job creating a feel in the DM that they can then translate to the players. 

Harley knows how to write an adventure, both from an interactivity and from an evocative standpoint. Let’s look at the opening encounter: “A hellish light fills the night, as one of the huts is set aflame. Moments later, a silhouette staggers free of the smoke and fog, stumbling towards you through the mud.” Ok, so, hellish is a conclusion, but, note the scene it paints. Smoke. Fog. Stumbling. Silhouette. Aflame, with the strong strong smell of smoke that work evokes. Mud. That’s how you write a fucking description folks. And, the action implied. The potential energy. There’s no “What do you do?” explicitly stated because it just hangs there, looming over you. AIII!!! WHAT TO DO?!!? WHAT TO DO??!!? A shadowy figure stumbling out of a flaming hut. That’s a fucking classic and this encounter brings it. There’s this hanging moment. What do you do? That’s the soul of adventure. It puts the party in a situation and then begs for them to do something without actually begging. A little on the nose, for an example, but that’s why it makes a good example. 🙂 Harley is able to do this time and time again. He sets the mood and imbues it with potential energy. 

Another encounter has the party seeing a short dude with a huge bulbous head. And 23 Beakmen. The numbers here are SO overwhelming. It’s not a fight, it’s a puzzle in the guise of a fight. Defeating the boss man leaves the minions helpless. More evidence? When you save that dude running out of the hut (assuming you do …) then he will become your Man at Arms. Fuck. Yeah! That’s a reward! That’s gratitude! That’s the sort of Actual Play character and game development that makes a campaign meaningful and personal to everyone involved. Doesn’t treat you like shit. Doesn’t ignore you. Rewards you with service. Gold is fleeting. Service? The players will remember that scene every time they interact with him. There’s this section, at the beginning, where you are moving through a village under attack by the Beakmen and their knights riding crocodiles (!) (Hmmm, Trog Knights on their lizard mounts from Darkness Beneath?) There’s a little table to help simulate the chaos of an ongoing attack through a village. It’s great! It’s exactly the sort of little idiosyncratic thing that a DM needs to help run this section … and so Harley provides it.  Monsters get little flash cards with their stats on the back … more of that DCC specialness from Goodman Games! The map of the dungeon isn’t exactly linear, with a couple of choices to be made; it’s just enough that you get to pick your poison when exploring, while still heading towards your final destination room.

And sometimes that specialness gets in the way. The formatting could be better in places. Longer sections of italics don’t work well; they should use some other formatting technique that is easier on the eyes. Likewise they use an incomplete formatting style for the rooms. Treasure and monsters get offset by bolded headings, but the sun-sections of the rooms do not, causing you have to hunt for information as you run it. They could do better in that area.

Still, though, an excellent little DCC adventure and it does a great job recreating a kind of atmosphere thanks to the interactivity and writing of Stroh. 

“The wide-mouthed, oval chamber is lit by a luminescent pool of glowing slime. Partially submerged in the ooze are dozens of large white sacs, seemingly spun from light. A low, dull hum can be heard, vibrating in your bones and the walls and floor.”

This is $6 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Boo! BooI say Sir! Boo!

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 1, Reviews, The Best | 4 Comments