Garden of Bones

By Diego Nogueira & Guiseppe Rotondo
Gold & Glory
Non-novice Adventurers

The Garden of Bones was created by a powerful necromancer to be given as a present to a love interest of theirs. Once the gift was rejected, the necromancer turned the garden into a place of nightmares and horrific creations they built to externalize their frustration. It fell into obscurity after the ages passed away, and it became a myth. Now, a scholar with sinister interests has located a map they believe to lead to this mythical garden and desires to be taken there to admire the garden and possibly collect the legendary Ghost Lotus.

This 24 page digest “adventure” is just a series of random room rolls. It has a touch, here and there of evocative writing, but overall fails to deliver any meaningful interactivity from it’s poor encounters and descriptions. 

Gold & Glory is a Savage Worlds D&D-like adaption. It’s well disclosed on the product, so no hints of deception in the marketing. The blurb for the game says it delivers an OSR-like D&D experience. Does it?

Well, maybe? I don’t know. The adventure certainly doesn’t.

It’s another in a long line of rando adventures. There’s no map, you just roll for a new location every time you enter someplace. And “entering someplace” means “walking through a wall of fog that surrounds the current area you are in.” Of course, everything changes behind you. And, of course, this means that the exit is not fixed. The DM needs to roll a 20 on the random room table and then an exit appears. And when you leave that area, not going through the exit, the exit disappears, because the place changes all behind you. 

This is lame. I have no idea why designers think this is fun. It’s not delivering the exploratory element of OSR D&D. It’s delivering a “suffer through the random rolls” element. Just sit there, bored, with no control over your own fate, until the DM rolls a 20. That’s fun, right? You need some direction over your own fate in order to create tension. Do you continue or not? Are we pressing our luck? Delicious tension … absent from these random things.

The random rooms are, for the most part, not interactive and just window dressing. “A crushed skeleton under very thick dark vines.” reads one entry. “A 3 feet tall fanged skull with a small fire burning inside.” reads another. That’s the entirety of the encounter. A few years ago I made an observation that helped ruin the DisneyWorld magic for me. You sit down on something and it moves through a track and you look at little vignettes. This is the same thing. Walk in, look at something spooooooky, but there’s nothing really to do so you move on to the next vignette. Unless there’s a wandering monster. I guess you roll for one of those in each room also. 

You roll a d20. If you get a 2-10 then there’s a wandering element present. If it’s a 5-9 then it’s a creature. Why leave out the 1? Why put the monsters in the middle? Why not have it be 1-5 are monsters and 6-10 are “some other freaky thing?” I don’t know. Maybe a 1 means something special in the game? You got me. It’s a bizarre fucking way to organize things though.

The rumors are not in voice, which is lame, and you have to succeed on a roll to get one. I’m not a fan of hiding fun behind a roll. Just give the party a rumor. It’s fun. There ARE some more powerful rumors present, generally on the separate “i go to the library to research” table. That’s ok. Maybe a roll that’s modified by a skill check success level would have been better. Roll a d6 and 7-8 are the really good ones, that you get to by adding a +3 from reading a book? 

The descriptions are meh. At least they tend to be quite short. Too short. Monsters, in particular, you get bad descriptions for. “Half undead cultists” is a conclusion not a description. There’s just nothing about them, physically, to help bring home the mystery, wonder, and horror to a party encountering them. AGain, not an argument for a much longer description, but rather a much better one. I don’t care about the origin or backstory, what’s important NOW is what the party experiences. Perhaps the best example of this is a bone spider that shoots sticky blood from it’s mouth. That’s decent. The rest, though, are meh.

The general description of the garden is ok. “… extensive valley hidden by deserted rocky hills in a cold, mountainous region. The ground is completely covered by loose bones that rattle when walked upon …”  But then, of course, we’re told later, far deeper on the page that the place is covered with a constant greenish cold fog. That should have gone up with the general description of the valley. As you crest the hill, what do you see? You look down upon a valley. What do you see? You get an expansive overview of the area … and the general description should cover not, not put the fog in the “Walls” section. Yeah, it’s serving the purpose of a wall, but the party should be told about the fog initially, and for ease of use that should go up with the general description. 

So, it’s a wander around bored adventure, experiencing random things and maybe, occasionally, one of the unique encounters to interact with, until you find the flower you’re looking for. Then wander around some more until the DM rolls a 20. How about, insead, I roll a d6? On a 1 you find the flower on a 6 you find the exit. On any other roll I just roll again? That’s a fun night of role-playing, right?

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages. You get to see the two rumor tables. Suck ass preview. It should show up a wandering monster page and/or an encounter page. We need to be able to actually see the content we’re paying for, not the supporting material or title page nonsense. Bad preview.

Posted in Reviews | 5 Comments

Valor in the Prison of Despair

By John Josten
Board Enterprises
Levels 5-6

Deep underground there is a prison where they keep some of the most terrifying monsters found in all of fantasy.  But these are predators, not prey.  How to keep them fed?  That answer is far worse than you have already imagined.  Are you ready to take on but prisoners and jailors?  If not, could it mean the end to the city?

This 76 page adventure uses about 24 pages to describe a one hundred room dungeon. Kind of. It’s basically just shit to stab and VERY long room DM notes. A textbook heartbreaker.

Look, no one is born with some kind of innate ability to know how to write an adventure. Adventure writing is technical writing of a special sort and it’s foolish to think that, BAM, right out of the gate, you’ll write a good one. Yeah, yo know where this review is going, don’t you?

I tend to focus on three main pillars of writing: interactivity, ease of use, and evocative writing, while bringing in that Special Sauce, Design, on occasion. All of these areas require some understanding of the purpose of an adventure (to be run at the table) and take some skill to pull off. None of them are gating conditions, but, in general, I’m much less forgiving if an adventure is easy to use (“it didn’t make me want to stab my eyes out”.) 

The chief complaint of adventures is that they are hard to use and require too much prep. This generally gets to the length of the text and in the encounters and how it is organized. This adventure gets it wrong in almost every way. It takes 1.5 pages, for example, to describe the gates in the dungeon: open, closed, controlled, and destroyed. One and a half pages. It goes in to detail not only on the description of the gates but also on the DM mechanics of opening a gate. This is crazy. I’m not messing with that. It’s too much to hold in your head and too long to easily reference, especially as presented in the text. 

The text relies a great deal on read-aloud. In italics. I will continue to harp on this point: long sections of italics, especially in a small font, are hard to read. If your own personal experience is not enough to convince you (after all, Mr. D, a demon might be deceiving you …) then there have been numerous academic studies stating the same thing. And yet the text here relies on LONG sections of it, in a small font. Essentially, th read-aloud. My eyes glaze over. I hate it. 

And then there’s the room text proper, mostly DM notes, that drone on and on about trivia. This room used to be. How the room is currently used but there is no one in this empty room to use it that way. The room “appears” to be something. It’s crazy how much of these rooms are padded out with text that makes no sense in the adventure. The designer is confusing text length, and a fully fleshed out description/purpose of the dungeon, with it being a “good” room/adventure. The purpose of the adventure is not an academic paper on the lifestyle of the dungeon inhabitants. It’s to run a great game at the table. In this regard, more is not More, More is Less. It makes the text long and hard to scan during play. It pulls the DM out during long pauses. The padding out of ineffective text, like “appears to be … “ just adds to the problem. Rooms that are a column or longer are not unusual. “It currently has no one in it.” Well no shit; the adventure tells us when there is. 

And, what is Interactivity? Is it stabbing shit? Is combat the only purpose of D&D, especially older D&D without its tactics porn to keep it company? To its credit the adventure does several factions and prisoners to talk to, but that’s only one part of good interactivity. There is no exploratory elements, no mystery, no wonder. No statues to fuck with and buttons to push. No fruit trees to poison yourself with. The resources to interact with, and perhaps exploit, are just not present. There’s a mini-game where you could avoid the big wandering monster boss in each section of the dungeon, but that’s not real great either. Room after room of boring and boring stabbing. 

Finally there’s the hardest thing, Evocative Writing. Good writing is hard, I will admit, and takes practice. “A huge ugly earthworm appears.”  Huge is a boring word. Ugly is a conclusion. Nothing make up good evocative writing. Use your thesaurus. Show, don’t tell. Agonize over your words to come up with a great, but terse, description. In fact, the earthworm is the exception, most monsters don’t even get descriptions in their entries, their appendix being just culture and history shit, boring to the players about to stab it. “The walls of the chamber are fairly smooth.” “There appears to be no one in this chamber.” A bizarre creature with huge legs. The entries do not come alive.

The designer clearly had a vision, witness all of the extra pages that describe background and how to play Old School. But they failed in their execution, byt a long margin. I would call this almost the textbook example of how to write an ineffective adventure. “Don’t do anything this adventure does.”

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages. You get to see the background and none of the room entries. Not a good preview; the preview should dhow s some of the actual encounters. That’s the purpose, to see if what the designer has written is worth our time. And, in spite of it being stat’d for OSR play, it does not tell us the level range before buying it. The level range is buried somewhere in the mountains of text inside of the adventure. I weep for the future.–Game-Masters-edition?term=valor+prison?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 12 Comments

Of the Rakuli

By Simon Miles
Dunromin University Press

[…] These days there are few that have ever heard of the Great Old Ones, fewer still that have heard of the Rakuli.  Learned scribes argue over the legitimacy of any trace of their ancient culture.  Their artistic relics and magical items are often misappropriated by lesser species.  They have passed into the mists of irrelevance. So what were they?  What happened to them?

And why are adventurers returning from the deep Darkworld telling tales of powerful entities and carrying strange and powerful items they have stolen from these new foes?

This 52 page supplement is not an adventure. It just details the history and culture of some evil ancient race. 

Note that it is in the Adventure section of DriveThru. Note that the blurb talks about adventurers returning. Note that the blurb says “there are adventure hooks …” implying that there is an adventure. 

There is not any sort of adventure in this. 

I am NOT amused.

I am VERY MUCH not amused.

This is an ongoing issue with DriveThru. Not only is poetic license taken with putting non-D&D in the OSR category, but the publishers/designers seem to revel in placing non-adventures in the adventure category. I’m guessing this is some kind of cross-listing ploy, in order to maximize the visibility of a product?

Whatever it is, it sucks. Now I’m stuck with this thing. Frankly, I’m surprised this doesn’t happen to me more often, given the frequency with which I buy. I guess I’m getting better at figuring out from the descriptions that things are not D&D and/or not adventures/cross-posted crap. (And to be clear, it’s crap because of the trickery, regardless of the quality.) It seems amazing to me that you can’t actually buy what you intend to buy anymore. I ordered a power supply for my kids computer last night … and the same thing popped up. Right size? Right rating? Right format? Who knows.

I’m convinced that the key is a generous return policy. In this case it’s Pay What You Want, but I wish DriveThru had a more substantial return policy.

This is Pay What you Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $4.

Posted in Reviews | 6 Comments

A Shadow Over the Greatwood

By WR Beatty
Rosethrorn Publishing
Levels 5-7

Trouble is brewing in the Rosewood Highlands. Wild Animals, usually timid and shy around the encroaching wave of human civilization, have become very hostile, attacking with no provocation whatsoever. More concerning is the fact that predators and prey are running in packs together. To top it all off, Old Joby swears he was some kind of beast-man up north of Gabon’s Ridge… and then he says a cougar was talking to the other day and then it exploded! (Of course, Old Joby is drunk a lot…)

This one hundred page sandbox region is stuffed full of interesting things, in a lower fantasy setting environment. Interesting areas and some above average writing combined with an organizational style that is not too bad, to create one of the more interesting sandboxes I’ve seen. Almost like a MERP region, but without the stuffiness and with actual adventure.

First off, I’m used to seeing large page counts padded out with appendices that are sometimes larger than the actual adventure. No so here. You’re getting at least seventy pages of locations and people, with the last thirty pages being monster descriptions, detailed new magic items descriptions, a monster summary sheet, and maps. This, alone, is refreshing. And then you get to the sandbox.

This region has some things going on. Chiefly there’s the animal isse, mentioned in the introduction blurb. But, along with that, are wise women, hags, a bear herder, caves, towers, dungeons, a couple of civilized area (with their own things going on) and the list goes on and on and on. 

The entire region feels ALIVE and REAL. There’s just enough specificity to breathe life in to things and make them seem that way without it going too overboard on the text length, bogging down the DMs ability to run the game. There’s a hill, and the locals in the village tend to give directions according to the hill. “Stay to the right of the Old Nob …” or “Through the swamp side of the Old Nob …” The villagers are common folk, and say common folk things, and get riled up in common folk ways. Argumentative meetings, Ghost Hill, hills barren of vegetation, hills that the locals claim they see spirits dancing on sometimes … Let’s talk the criminals to the bog mother and have her deal with them. Fancy some stewed potatoes deary? It’s hard to describe just how interesting this place is, and its those little details that both make it interesting and breathe life in to the setting. Not stodgy. Not bogged down. Life.

Rumors are in voice. Wanderers are doing things. There’s a little chart on who you might find in an abandoned house and what they might be doing. You can talk to people, and monsters, and maybe remove a thorn from one or two of their sides. Goblins are sheltered, unknowingly by the villagers, by a priest in the church. It’s fucking DENSE, man. Almost every single area, almost every single room/encounter, has something to bring it to life. 

Villager descriptions are brief, about one line or two. Locations don’t get bogged down in too much detail and generally have some interesting writing going on, evocative sentences and details. There are some order of battle notes for certain areas and monsters, where appropriate. There are a fair number of cross-references to keep the DM from hunting too much. 

It could probably do with a few more cross-references though. And some of the monsters could use some evocative descriptions, instead of just SPirit Goblins or The White Ghu, and undead knight. I didn’t really see distance notes, or a distance key on the hex map. 

And it’s big. Really big. Seventy or so pages crammed full. There’s a lot to pour over here. I’m not sure “study” is the right word; I do think you could almost run this without a read-over first, but pouring over it a bit WILL result in a more rewarding experience, I’m sure. But unique magic items, mostly unique monsters, and a place that feels ALIVE, even at first glance of the text, is something that you just don’t run across every day. Sure, the text could use a little work, pruning it back a bit would make it have even more clarity, but it’s not BAD in that regard, just not perfect. This one os worth the extra effort.

You could buy this and run the HELL out of it for many MANY sessions, and for only … $4? Uh, fuck yes, please!

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is ten pages. You get to see some of the village some of the wanderers, some of the regional encounters, and all of the other text in the adventure is similar, so it’s a good preview in that you get a good idea of what you are buying first.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 5, Reviews, The Best | 3 Comments

Desert Ange Fiasco

By Joseph Robert Lewis
Dungeon Age Adventures
Levels 1-3

Today an enchanted flying ship, the Desert Angel, will attempt to cross the uncharted Great Sand Sea. The Vahid Trading Company has convinced enough merchants to fill its hold with silks and spices, as well as some other strange odds and ends.  But Master Vahid is very worried about the safety of his new ship and crew, as well as the cargo. He is looking for trustworthy mercenaries to provide security on the Desert Angel’s maiden voyage. Payment upon (safe) arrival!

This 25 page adventure is a delightful little railroad as you cross the desert on the trans-desert flying ship route. It has about fifteen locations/events to experience. Well organized, well written, interesting encounters that, for being arrayed like a railroad, give the party as much freedom as possible under the circumstances. A fun little romp.

So, camel caravans no longer! The first flying transport ship is ready to sail across the desert in record time, three days instead of three weeks and three times the cargo! And it needs some mercenaries to ensure it makes it and the cargo stays safe. Enter our level one caravan guards. Now, this is a caravan assignment I can get behind! It’s not just that it’s fantastic, but that it FEELS like something that will appeal to the players. I’d play it up all Trip to the Moon style, or at least the Tonight, Tonight version of it. A brass band playing. The mayor and town worthies in their finery. Dudes holding ropes to keep it down, banners and pennants, a key to the city presentation … that should appeal to the party! It is on donkey kong!

The adventure is laid out with a brief (very brief) description of the ship and a very simple sailing system; roll a d6 and add/subtract a few modifiers. Captain Alive? +1. Quartermaster alive? +1. Ship damaged? -1. Pretty easy. Then comes a few NPC’s. Captain, crew, merchants. Just a little note on their appearance and another on their mannerisms, in a format that’s quite to easy to follow and scan. If they have a secret then there’s a bolded SECRET section. Quite nice format and the NPC descriptions are interesting, evocative, and easy (and fun!) to imagine. And, really nice use of triple column layout. It gives lots of room, is easy to scan in the font size used. Good use of breaks, bullets, whitespace, sections … JRL has this format thing down. I’m not saying that this is the ONLY way to format an adventure, or even the BEST way, but it certainly does what it needs to do. Good job JRL!

The ship is sailing across the desert to another city, so, it’s a railroad. Kind of. The captain mostly listens to the party and what they want to do. So the party, or a sailor, will generally see something from the ship and then they can decide if they want to stop the ship or not. There are a few events and/or “random” encounters for the ship as well, but, for the most part, the party gets to decide if they want to stop at the huge pyramid made of solid gold. So, as much freedom as possible given that it’s a journey from point A to B. 

Speaking of that pyramid … it’s got a mummy inside. The walking, talking kind. And, she doesn’t fuck the party over unless they steal or lie. Nice lady, except for the dessication. The party can actually recruit her to join the ship; she’s interested in seeing the world. Another stop has an old hermit lady who wears a mask. She can cast warp wood at will, which can repair the ship. Yeah! She worships an elder abomination … but isn’t fussy/forceful about it. Wanna learn more? That mask hides a mouth full of tentacles; you’ll need a kiss. So … she’s a little crazy, but not in an evil way. And that comes across in an easy way, without mountains and mountains of text. 

Descriptions are great, short, terse and evocative. There’s a decent amount of interactivity, mostly from character interactions on the ship and some puzzle type things (like a laser trap in the pyramid … solved, in one way, by fucking with the white crystal at the top of the pyramid, for example.) 

It may be a bit heavy on the die rolls are times … or, maybe, it just seems that way. There are a lot of sailing checks to be made, to avoid hazards, and so on, and that can feel a little heavy sometimes. 

Otherwise, this is a nice solid little adventure. It’s as close to pick and play/zero prep as I think you can get. A quick scan of the intro page and you’re off! It’s a credit to the organization and writing abilities of its designer.

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is twelve pages and shows you the ship, the NPC section, and several of the encounters. I encourage you to check out the NPC’s on page 9 of the preview and the Day 1 section, with two encounters, on the next page. They are a great example of the formatting and writing style used throughout. Nicely done.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 1, Reviews, The Best | 3 Comments

The Lie of Destiny

By Denver Cheney
Self Published
Level ?

In The Lie of Destiny, an adventure for the Modulus system, your players get to kick in the door on some cultists and piece together the clues for a chance to save the Great Library from being burned! Pursue the fleeing cultists down back alleys and capture them before they make their escape to the Howling Sea aboard a stolen ship! This adventure drops your players in the thick of an important quest as agents for the Crown. While the enemies are weak, they are numerous and have paranoia on their side. Your players will have to be decisive, clever, and good at working together to achieve complete victory in this scenario.

This 12 page adventure is actually just a series of linked combats for your combat-oriented RPG of choice. 

This isn’t an OSR adventure, but it does say up from it’s for Modulus, and it in the Other category on DriveThru. It also says “adaptable for any age of sail game”, so that’s why I’m reviewing it. And, by Age of Sail, it means “Any game that can have a boat in it.”

There is a very popular mini’s game by Games WOrkshop. It’s just minis combat. What if you took that, or something like that, and had a little minis battle scenario. Then at the end you added some statement like “you find a clue that they are also headed to the library!” Then you’d have a series of minis combats interlinked by some VERY light roleplay-y elements. That’s what this is. It reminds me of those interlinked scenarios from Star Fleet Battles, another minis game. Thus you have a “campaign” defined by “ a series of interlinked combats.” Essentially 4e, if the roleplay elements were even lighter in 4e. (It’s always a good day when you can work in a 4e slam.)

There’s some background, but mostly on the game world. You’re agents for the EMpire and you’ve tracked the cultists to their lair. That’s how it starts. The pretext here is VERY light, starting, essentially, outside the shop the cultists use. The actual scene is described in half a column, so, two scenes per page. There are hints to the DM for reinforcements and the cultists running away to warn others, but that’s about it. Interactivity is limited to “looking for clues after the combat is done” or “stop the cultists from burning a paper during the combat” and the ilk. This really is just a series of four combats. 

The clues after the combat are meant to be the pretext to get you to the next scene, but they are VERY light. One cultists had ink stained hands. There are old books around. There are books marked off of a list. A scholar outfit is in the closet. THis means, of course, that the next scene/combat is in the Great Library. 

I would suggest that this isn’t a roleplaying adventure. It’s just a mini;s combat thing. Maybe that’s what the Modulus RPG is, just a combat game. Which is ok .. except when advertised, perhaps, as “compatible with any age of sail RPG.” There’s no real scene. No real interactivity byond combat. Just one combat followed by a teleport to the next combat scene. “You’re in the library. The cutists drop a lantern to start burning books!”

So, 4e was too heavy on the roleplaying front? Just want to stab some shit? This is the adventure for you. 

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. The preview is only two pages and just shows the intro text. It would have been better if it had shown an actual encounter, then you could have made a better decision on if the adventure was something or a type you’re interested in.–A-Modulus-Adventure?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 15 Comments

The Witch Shack

By Mark Hess
Self Published
Level 2? 3? Not listed ...

They told you the place was haunted, but you just had to go in anyway.

This sixteen page “adventure” describes 30 random rooms in an extra-dimensional shack. That’s all it does. While it occasionally has some good ideas, it lacks interesting interactivity, consistently good descriptions, purpose, and treasure. Nope.

When this thing is good it’s quite good. The initial description of the Witch Shack, in the opening words of the adventure, are: “The Witch Shack is an adventure location that may be encountered anywhere, in any patch of woods, across a lonely field, on the far edge of some small town or village. It always appears as a rotting, falling down wooden shack. Made of old gray boards, the roof is collapsing and one side is already crumbled, allowing easy entrance.

It is always considered bad ground. No curious children play here, no young lovers seeking privacy, no rambling vagabonds looking for shelter. All kinds of ghost stories will be attributed to the Shack, someone was murdered there and it’s haunted; a witch once lived there and it’s cursed; etc.” That’s pretty good. And there are occasional other sections of text that are quite evocative, as that section is. But, the vast vast majority of the text isn’t.

And it has some decent ideas also. One of the rooms is: “Rusty Cages. Here is a large room like a barn loft, with cages hanging from the rafters. The cages contain children, some healthy, some starving. Some are dead, and of those some are dry skeletons.” That’s not bad, as an idea. It’s pretty classic folklore. The description isn’t really very good, but the concept is a decent one. Likewise a room bisected with a deep crevasse, spanned by an enormous spider web made of flayed human corpses. Oof! And the, there’s the spider: “A cursed child stalks the web as if he had Spider Climb, as the characters enter they see the boy vomit on a chunk of meat and then slurp it up as it dissolves. The child also has mandibles and four extra appendages hanging from his sides, limp and useless things.” That’s a great concept and not a half bad description either! When the adventure is doing this then it’s doing a pretty decent job. 

But, ultimately, it doesn’t do this, at least consistently. First, the adventure design is a cop out. You enter a room (with a decent description at that: “The main room is sparse, with only a small wooden table, a chair and a cold, crumbling fireplace. The roof sags heavily, the windows are boarded up and the floor is covered in layers of ancient dust. [p] From the main room a hallway leads into the shadows.”) But, then, you’re in a maze of hallways and doors. Every time you open one, even the same one, the DM rolls a d30 to determine what’s behind it. L.A.M.E. Just put in a fucking map, man. What do you gain from this kind of nonsense, besides the scorn of the payers as they roll their fucking eyes. This shit is a cop out. It’s like someone wrote “30 ideas for a room” and then wrapped it in a pretext to bring it in to play. Not. Cool. And, of course, you just can’t go back. You have to search for the exit. Each failed search roll means weird time has passed on the outside, potentially sending you in to the far future, or trapping you in the house forever. Ok, War Game, I guess the only way to win, in this adventure that punishes you and doesn’t have treasure, is to not play and instead stay home that night from the game. Is that what makes D&D fun? Staying home? Pretentious wank fest of a concept. 

And most of the rooms are NOT up to the quality of the ones I cited earlier. “A corpse, someone from the local village who has recently gone missing.” Well, gee, that’s exciting. Maybe some details on state and condition? No? Just gonna leave it abstracted like it is? “Your own childhood fears!” *sigh*, enough said on that one, although, I’d like to see the DM handle my eternal search for meaning in a world devoid of it while battling the ennui that results from it. 

Anyway, there’s a witch in the witch house. A classic crone with a hairy mole on her sagging nose, as per her description. That’s it. Then the stat block starts. I guess she attacks. As does the White Wolf in the cold room. A does the snack man in the snake man room. Just a brief description of the monster, not the scene, and the implication that they attack, without any roleplay notes or anything else. Boring as all fuck.

This thing is an empty shell. It’s an empty pretext with a few good room concepts and a few good room descriptions, but with nothing to hold it all together, and not enough of either good concepts or well executed rooms to make it remotely worthwhile. The rooms are passive, with no potential energy. TOo many of the descriptions are abstracted instead of specific. While it does a good job remaining terse, it does not do so in a good way. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1. The preview don’t work, and there’s no level range given. Naughty naughty! I don’t like either of those!

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 3 Comments

Adventures in Midshire

By James Embry
Self Published
Raven in the Scythe

Monsters lurk in the wilderness, mysterious caves hold unknown treasure to be found, and restless spirits haunt an abandoned manor house.  It looks like Midshire is in need of adventurers.

This 72 page adventure uses about thirty pages to describe four small “adventures”. Oof, does it have issues. 

First, it’s not OSR. It’s in the OSR section of DriveThru but it for some homebrew system. It looks vaguely D&D fantasy, but with different stats, combat, etc. Who knows why. Anyway, not a good start. But, I’m going to review it anyway for it is a good example of how to not do things with adventures.

Note the large page count, but, the adventure page count is rather short. That’s normally a sign something is wrong. This IS a regional type thing, with a town, etc, so we can make allowances for that, but it still is off. This indicates some sort of overinvestment in something other than usability/interactivity at the table. Only what the players will experience, and little else, is what an adventure supplement should generally be about.

In this case we have a small town at the beginning of the book. It is full of extensive price lists. The shop descriptions contain such descriptions as “A baker is someone who bakes bread into various forms such as loafs or even sweet pastries.” So …. Yeah. A chair is something you sit in. This s the definition of padded. I’m not sure what is going on here. A brief look at the RPG system seems to indicate its not explicitly targeted at children, which might be one reason to do this. Another might be some kind of misguided format that the designer feels they must stick to. There might be a Ghjsdfiuyd in town, and even old hands might not know what kind of shop that is, so, we get a little description, which is fine. But then, because we think we need to do that with EVERY entry, we get in to the padded text situation where we’re told what a baker is. This is of pandering to the lowest common denominator, or slavish devotion to a format is NOT OK. Designers need to leverage the DM at the table instead of pandering to them. This format countries with the wandering monsters “This is an encounter with a Black Bear” or in the dungeons “This room is a Kitchen.”, describing what we already know about things, padding them out.

Our four adventures consist of Rats in the Basement, Basilisk on the Prowl, A two level cave system, and a hunted mansion. None are good.

Rats takes about a column to describe. There are rats. The map of the basement just shows a map with things like “4 rats” labeled in the rooms. A text description notes two rooms have boxes and the retreating rats flee to the “7 rats’ room. Oof. Just fucking number it. Put in a room description. Try to do SOMETHING along the lines of evocative writing and interactivity other than combat? Cause that’s all this is: a video game grind quest of just killing rats. I can’t think of anything worse. Maybe if it were an old ladies house, maybe.

The Basilisk is, hmmm. Strange. People don’t really care that it eats their livestock, but, her, it would nice if this dangerous creature was taken care of. It’s this weirdly abstracted and generic description of things, the situation. It lives in a cave. Up a cliff. That requires an acrobatics roll to get to. How the fuck does IT get in to the cave? I’m not a super stickler for realism, I think it’s usually not appropriate. An appearance of realism, a grounding in it, sure, but I don’t care about the monster having access to fresh water” and so on. But sticking your monster in a cave up on a cliff, a monster that doesn’t fly? It’s just … like no one was putting two and two together. And the cave system … it’s full of slimes and fish people. Well, three of the rooms. I guess the basilisk doesn’t care? And the fish people don’t care about the basilisk? It’s just weird. And the text goes on and on for no real purpose. Room two in the cave take sup a quarter a page to tell us there are bats in a room with a wooden box. It’s just … I don’t know. Strange, how abstracted, padded, and generic it is. SImple, and not in a good way.

The haunted mansion just has super long room descriptions and little else, relying on wandering rolls for “atmosphere.” A column. A quarter page. To describe … nothing.

There’s very little evocative writing. There’s almost no interactivity beyond pure combat “the attack as soon as the party enters the room.” The encounters, proper, fully describe one thing before moving on to a another, making it difficult to summarize the room quickly. 

This one just makes no sense at all. I mean, sure, you can figure out the adventure. But, the choices made for how to get there. I guess it’s better than being incomprehensible?

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. It shows you a few pages of the town. “This is the bakery. They make bread.” A preview needs to show some of the adventure, so the purchaser can get an idea of what they are buying before they buy. This don’t do that.

Posted in Reviews | 1 Comment

The Curse of Buckthorn Valley

By Jon Aspenheim
Random Table Games
Relics & Ruins
Level 1

People in Buckthorn Valley are randomly becoming mutated, transformig with demonic features. In order to stop this curse the adventurers have to explore a 3 level dungeon, meddle in kobold affairs, trek through a mushroom forest and face the God-Fish-Snake-Thing. All the while trying to not become mutated themselves. It won’t be an easy task, but someone has to put an end to – the Curse of Buckthorn Valley!

This 33 page adventure uses fourteen pages to describe three level of a dungeon with about thirty rooms. It’s pretty basic. Like, remember how some of those B/X adventures were almost childish? Language, etc? This does that. Writing is unfocused, but it has some decent evocative ideas … it just doesn’t do so well executing them. 

So, descriptions. Here’s The Mother of Vicious Spiders: “She’s large as a dog. Dark green with red stripes. Purple goo is dripping from her mouth.” Not so bad! A little simplistic, but its trying. Likewise an entrance covered by hanging moss or “Old wet stairs lead downwards. Descending the stairs feels like you’re walking forever before eventually reaching the bottom.” When the adventure is doing this like this then it’s doing a good job, or at least a decent one. Writing evocative descriptions takes practice, but you have to START with an idea in your mind, and the descriptions here show that the designer has that, at least in some cases. Execution could be better, but that’s just about universal.

Alas, those descriptions are the exception rather than the rule. Far too often the adventure engages in Used to Be’s.  This room used to be this thing but not it’s not. That adds nothing to the adventure. All it does is distract the DM from the important bits, y hiding them in these unimportant bits. Noone cares what he room used to be. What is it NOW? How does it contribute to play NOW? This is not, as I said, a victimless crime. All of these extra words hide the important stuff from the DM.

“The water appears to be blue-green.” No, it’s not. It’s blue-green. The water is blue-green. This appears stuff is just padding. Rays book on Editing covers these sorts of padding words quite well.

Linear map. Joy. 

Long italics sections that are, because they are in italics, hard to read. Joy.

But, it does have a decent wanderer chart. A shepard is convinced someone in the party owes him 2SP and won’t let it alone. That’s great! Other encounters show the same type if idiosyncrasy that is required, specificity that brings the encounter to life without dragging out the word out to something cumbersome. Another regional site is with bandits in a ruined tower. A suspicious village mayor wants them cleaned out. Except they are just lepers, not bandits, friendly and want to be left alone. Fun!

It’s got a good idea. This kind of failing valley because of a curse (unknown to everyone) water source. Mutants/lepers wandering around, not evil, but pariahs.  And then there’s the dungeon. It’s just basically an also-ran. Mostly very little interactivity with basic descriptions that tend to the “kiddie game” D&D B/X genre from the bad 80’s adventures.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The preview proper is 8 pages, but you can of course download the entire thing for free.

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

(5e) Murder on the Primewater Pleasure

By Liam Murphy
Self Published
Level 4

The characters recently did Gellan Primewater, a local merchant from the Town of Saltmarsh, a great service by recovering property deeds worth a large sum of money, that he had long thought lost. In return Gellan throws a party for them on his pleasure ship, the Primewater Pleasure. However, this weekend cruise is plunged into chaos when one of the guests is murdered. The party must dive in and find the murderer before the ship gets back to shore, and the murderer can escape.

This 38 page adventure details a murder mystery investigation aboard a small-ish ship. It understands how a murder investigation should go in D&D, but it fails somewhat in the presentation of the facts. Meaning it knows whats important but it doesn’t necessarily, yet, have the ability to implement it in the best way possible.

D&D Murder adventures have a rough go. D&D is built for exploration, so many divination spells are lower-levels to help the party with their explorations. They act as a tax, to keep your MU away from too many fireballs, in case that princes isn’t actually a princess. But Murder stories rely on a lack of information, something that the low level divination spells actively work against. Thus murder plots in D&D have to be very low level adventures, before the party generally has access to those spells, or have to go through a number of contortions … chief among which is the dreaded Ring of Mind Shielding. Basically, if you find yourself in a murder investigation you should just slaughter anyone wearing a magic ring. 

But … this adventure recognizes those issues. It states up front the issue. And it suggests some work around to the problems, including just letting the party do their thing instead of gimping them. It notes the DM must have the ability to jostle things around based on the parties actions, and so on. This is all great. It does smart things like putting all of the NPC’s up front in the adventure and describing them, then a brief overview of the ship, all before getting to the “plot” based/investigation portion of the adventure. It knows that in a murder adventure the NPC’s and the parties interaction with them tends to be the most important part of the adventure. It is, after all, generally a social adventure, muyrder investigations. 

After the little “plot” sections (which is really just the first-ish murder) then there’s a section that puts the various clues in their own bolded section. If the party wants to investigate X then it’s pretty easy to find tex text on X in that section. This is all great. There’s even a little mind-map-ish thing that shows the various relationships between all of the NPC’s. Liam has thought things through. They know whats important and whats not in a murder investigation and are working towards that end.

Working towards that end, not “succeeded.”

While the basics of the organization are well understand, IE: what NEEDS to be accomplished, the actual implementation of it is somewhat lacking. Let us take, for example, that NPC section. It spends a lot of time detailing the NPC’s. It’s got good section breaks on the various aspects of each individual, from Motivations to Means to Reasons to Be Nervous/Red Herrings, and so on. But then it has a section called Notes on Roleplaying.” This is the real meat and potatoes of the NPC, their quirks and how to play them. And it’s all kind of mixed in together in a paragraph. There is also, if you can believe it, too MUCH whitespace. A more compact format, easier to read at a glance, would have served the adventure far better and made things easier for the DM. That Mind-map? It’s really just the basics of the relationships. Bob is Franks butler. Tim is Joe’s cook. This is good, don’t get me wrong, but if some personality quirks were added, and/or motivations and/or means, and/or  … well, you get the picture … that one page mind-map would have then become a mini-reference sheet for the entire adventure, making running the social aspects much much easier. 

The plot portion and the ship description likewise have some issues. Using long paragraph forms to describe things, bolding, breaks, and more emphasis on the important things, bullets, and so on, would have helped the DM locate information much more readily than the stand paragraph prose format.

It does a great job though, on giving advice on how to handle ability checks. And the adventure itself is a reward for the party; its linked to the Ghosts of Saltmarsh book, and the boat trips might be thought of as a rich guy taking you out on his yacht to thank you for doing something for him in the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign adventure. (And, I think, the adventure would have been better to have given that comparison up front. It IS the hook, but “day out on a rich guys yacht” and/or “three hour tour” would have put the party in a certain mindset that could have then ben upended with the murder mystery coming along). 

There are other weird things, like, in the end of one room description we’re told that this guest is the only one that doesn’t lock his cabin or trunk. Well, that sort of general information is not exactly something that belongs in one specific room, is it? 

Still, again, there’s an understanding of how things SHOULD go, so even if the implementation is not great the fact that it knows what it SHOULD be doing means that the basics are covered. And implementation takes practice. I’m sure the designer will only get better.

This is Pay What you Want at DMSGuild, with a suggested price of $1. It’s free, so essentially the entire thing is a preview, but the preview proper is 21 pages. This lets you see A LOT, including how the NPC’s are organized. That alone is a good thing to look at, to see how they were organized. You can see that the right concepts were understood but that the implementation was not quite up to perfection.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 16 Comments