City of the Scorpion God

By Tuukka Tenhunen
Nuclear Saints
Fail Forward

Deep in a forsaken desert, weeks away from this life-giving river, lies a ruined city of yore. It was destroyed by our people in the ancient times, for the city was dedicated to a foul god of scorpions. Yet even after all these centuries, the scorpion cult persists. They hide in the deserts and plot doom to all civilization. Now they have struck our beautiful city and stolen my daughter. The cult will take her to their ruined city and sacrifice her to their false god under the next full moon!” “Go forth, bring back my daughter and I will pay you her weight in silver, this I vow in name of the Great Serpent
This 52 page story game adventure takes place in a ruined city with a small dungeon in it. It’s attempting to tell a story, with many encounters that would fit in well. What it does though is fail to recognize what it is, a story game, and model itself to that environment. Not understanding what the text is supposed to do is just a secondary sin in this one. Our story game friends deserve good adventures also. This isn’t one of them.

The kings daughter has been kidnapped and he send you in to the ruined city to save her, along with one of his servants (a pregen.) It seems the evil cult there wants to sacrifice her. But what we’ve really got is a ‘the dragon was the good guy’ thing going on. In reality, the chick is just a peasant and they ARE sacrificing her, but to keep the scorpion god locked away. The king, and his servant, want them NOT to, so the god will be summoned, being the REAL evil cultists. The trope here is not particularly well done, just a few throw away lines. I’m not morally opposed to it, or the intra-party conflict, in a story game, particularly a one shot for, say, a con. Games like the Mountain Witch and so on can thrive on this, contributing to the noir vibe, especially when pulled out in the last moments of the final encounter. Absolutely forbidden in a more traditional RPG, but we’re doing as the romans do and creating a story to talk about in a game like this one.

I really want to talk about three things here that I think are common to (every?) game type. The first is the arbitrary nature of dice rolls. Traditionally, rolling the dice was bad. It meant something bad could happen to your character. We try to convince the DM of the outcome and only then, if there’s risk, do we make a choice. Something like the wandering monster tables, arbitrary as all fuck, are a known risk that forces the party to confront a resource, time. The longer we fuck around the greater the likelyhood of finding out with that group of 1d4+1 owl bears. The worst/best example of this is the Wandering Damage table form an April Fools edition of Dragon. Just roll on the table and take an arbitrary amount of damage. There’s no player choice here. You simply accept the damage. You didn’t do anything, or take any risk, to potentially earn the damage. It removes the benefit of playing carefully and taking Push Your Luck decisions to earn rewards. And we see this show up in this adventure. In various encounters the party must roll on a table and something happens to them. THings like “take one wound” or some such. You are punished simply for playing the game. While I concede that there is some narrative benefit to, say, having a character with a gimpy ankle, the adventure removes the narrative element of that in the encounters. It just happens to you. Take a wound. Arbitrary should not happen in any game. It removes the agency of the players. There can be risk. Calculated risk. Burning spells to find out and improve odds. Careful planning. Zany plans. But simply saying “you take damage in an arbitrary way as a result of simply playing” does not really belong in a game. 

Secondly there’s a voice mismatch in the descriptive test used in the encounters. The adventure doesn’t really know who it is addressing. Is it directed at the players, ala read-aloud, or DM factual text, or DM inspirational text? The voice of the text provided is all over the place. This leads to hard cognitive switches. Our first encounter is with a nomad camp “Nearest point of interest to the entry point is a small desert nomad camp. Their typical tents, colorful and decorated by embroidery, flap in the wind. The camp seems abandoned, but the horrible stench surrounding the tents soon betrays the truth. It is the smell of carrion, there are many corpses around” Read aloud that over-reveals? Text for the DM in order to ad-lib the encounter? It’s a seeming mixture of the two. Another encounter ends with the text “How could such place exist middle of a terrible desert?” In appropriate for the DM and cumbersome if its meant to be read to the players. “Merciless sun scores the characters from the cloudless sky.” We’re getting purple here. II understand we’re going for that Howard vibe, but the text is leaning hard toward prose rather than understanding it’s a technical document meant to run a narrative game.

Finally, and most critically, is the nature of the encounters themselves. I talk sometimes about the encounters and format needing to match the goals of that part of the adventure. I usually talk about this in the context of a village or other social aspect of an adventure where both the type of information presented is different and the formatting/layout/etc are different in order to facilitate that sort of game play. Another example might be Mighty Deeds in DCC. If the room is four bare walls then there will be no swinging on chandeliers or dumping over cauldrons. If we’re working with a narrative adventure then I would expect the adventure to facilitate those narrative elements that the players must bring to the game themselves. And this don’t do that well. The core concepts are here. You can imagine the party sneaking through a dry riverbed, or trying to social their way past guards on a bridge. You can imagine a Howard story in which these things might be elements. But the execution of these elements is not very strong. They are very open ended, with little for the DM to riff off of. The tables driving things, where  there are some, don’t really give you enough to work with and certainly don’t give the players anything good to work with. It also confuses things by providing a general city map, as a traditional exploration game might, and then leaning very heavily on a narrative play style. The marriage here is not a good one.

You have to understand what you are designing for if you want a decent result.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $7. The preview is two pages and shows you nothing of interest to make a purchasing decision from.

Posted in Reviews | 1 Comment

The House under the Moondial

By Hexagnome
Self Published
Levels 3-4

There is a witch in the wilds, a goddess unremembered, and a madman. There is a circle of stone – who knows what lies beneath? The villagers are distraught: their children! replaced by fae! The villagers are distraught: who heeded their plea? Ravenous inquisitors, that’s who. Oh, and adventurers…

THis 100 page adventure setting details the goings on in and around a small village. It’s a little busy in places, but it certainly knows how to layer on situations and make them available for the DM. All of those “takes place in a small region” LotFP adventure want to be this adventure when they grow up and get off the meth.

The party wander in to a village and get asked for help, just as the village did a couple of hundred years ago Back then a Paladin helped them, St Elm. I wonder if the party might help, just like he did? Also, there’s a couple of (small) adventuring sites nearby to plunder. So, whatever your motives, there’s a reason to stick around. Why are they asked for help? The villagers think their children are being replaced by fey. Oh, and the next day a group from the inquisition wanders in to town, ready to investigate and do some burning. Seems like The Old Ways may be a little too prevalent in this here village. Which isn’t true. Well, anymore. It seems it USED to be true, which is part of the problem. Old blood pacts and so forth. The new priest is very upfront and helpful. And also unwittingly part of the problem. And those inquisitors? Kind of bandits on board to do some inquisiting, led by their VERY devout cardinal leader. Also, they are werewolves. The wise woman in the woods hut IS an outcast fey. But, also, kind of doing the right thing and keeping curse in check. Oh, but also she might cause the end of the village if things go badly and a rogue spell thats chasing her goes off. Also there’s a weird hermit that lives in a boat in a tree in the woods. How about those standing stones and whats under them? I have not covered, AT ALL, those fey in the fey world you can get to, which is large itself. This thing just keeps going and going and going. There are some fucking complications here. While there’s not a lot that is outright going to stab a party, like a typical dungeon, thereis A LOT to maneuver through.

Amd I ain’t even got to the village prepper yet. Location descriptions take about a column each, and are FULL of good shit. Breif little NPC descriptions that give a DM something to work with in a game.For the two women who bake the village bread:  “These two are always in a shouting match. Constable frowns a lot. Wystan’s in love with Aubrey Riesick (the only one with no clue about it).” That’s fucking great. For Mia Goth fans, some young chick married to an older farmer who has a bunch of kids: “Kerstina is a nervous wreck. She plans to poison Turner so his death looks like a drunkard’s misfortune, but lacks the herbalism skills. Unless she finds help, she’ll eventually snap and splinter his skull with a woodaxe” I’m in LUUUUUVVVV! THings that contribute to the plot at hand. Things to cause complications. Thigs to mix things up with the party. It’s all fucking magnificent! Oh, and it’s harvest time! So everyone is busy and worried. 

This is EXACTLY how you write one of these little village/small regional investigations. There is shit GOING. ON. They care about their harvest and their kids, who gives a fuck about that orc invasion on the other side of the kingdom?  They hate Mary cause shes was a cunt at the pie contest last year and is stuck up. Petty jealousies writ large. I fucking love this entire thing.

Well, ok, not the ENTIRE thing. 

Things start to get a little shaky in the Fey realm. A little too handwavey maybe? I do tend to the darker/more realistic side of folklore for my Fey and this trends a bit Alice/Pan (explicitly noted as inspirations in tone but not substance.) Maybe that Strange & Norell vibe, if a bit darker and less refined. But, also, I acknowledge that my preferred tone is not everyones. It just feels less solid when we get to those portions. 

The formatting can be a much in places. Hmmm, no, let me walk that back. I like the formatting and I think it does a good job. But there;s a little too much in places for things that I don’t think you always need. Color coding the map, for example. Putting the place names on the village map was a good idea but I’m not sure of the utility of the color coding. Nor, for example, the cause & effect chart … it just gets silly in its attempt to explain … which I think causes more confusion than it helps. I think the plot is straightforward, anyway. There’s also maybe a little too much extra in places, with mechanics. Almost mini-game like. Nor really procedurally general, but new procedures for doing things. Maybe pick one and go with it. Maybe two. 

I’m not too bent out of shape about any of those. Slightly more serious is the opposition forces in this adventure. You’re going to have to push the party a bit to get some outright conflict. There are some wanderers to kind of bring some action, but, for the most part, there are lots of provocations but not a lot of “you’re attacked!” You’re going to have to, say, use the inquisitors to, say, visibly ransack a house under the pretense of searching for heresy. And Maye have them visibly steal something. Or physically abuse someone or some such. You need to provoke the players and their characters, I think. And I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. This really helps with the slow burn investigation of the adventure. And, at what point do you feel justified stepping in. You gonna sit around and watch them finally burn people at the stake? This is a gasoline factory, but the DM is going to have to give the party opportunities to bring their fireworks in. Again, not bad, but its going to take a different sort of DM play to run a sandboxy little thing like this, keeping things on the razor edge of tension until it spills over to outright conflict and then filling in the details of what happens next, using the characters (in the town) that are in play. I’m a big big fan of this, if you can walk that line. In particular, there are LOTS of opportunities for the DM to motivate the PLAYERS, rather than their characters, from the inquisitors to that Mia Goth. And motivating the players is a sure fire way to win as a DM.

I think this is what you’re looking for in a sandbox and investigation. Lots going on. Lots of chances for provocations. Maybe a little wonky in the presentation here or there, but, fuck, I’ll take this over those shitty ones any day. Yeah yeah, maybe it’s got some third act issues in the fey realm. But the rest of it is very strong … IF you really get in there as the DM and drop some provocations on the party. And what kind of DM would you be if you didn’t, ahem, present the party with opportunities?

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages and does a great job of showing you what to expect. And page one is the Mia Goth chick!

Posted in Level 3, Reviews, The Best | 15 Comments

A Place That Was, Is and Will Be

By Tobias Helms & Tobias Heidemann
Pink Pony of Death
Levels 1-3

The wooden city of Narbassal burnt for three consecutive nights and days. Those who couldn’t escape or were spared from death were led into captivity. Man-eating aquatic ghouls (Pale Drowners) have emerged from the depths since then, swarming the partially submerged and charred remnants of the city to feast upon the bloated corpses of the vanquished. Narbassal is now veiled in silence, city of the dead a place that once was.

This 67 page adventure describes a treasure hunt adventure in a half-floating seaside city that has been ravaged/pillaged/burned. It is essentially just a collection of abstracted mini-games and ideas, and is light even at those standards. It needed more focus to turn it in to a more useful adventure.

The premise for this is kind of interesting. We’ve got this city, kind of a primitive Venice. Some rocky outcroppings and foundations from under the shallow water combine with some wrecked ships and flotsom to create a city centered around a kind of Mont-Saint-Michel. And in about seven days some dudes are gonna show up and  invade and pillage and burn it to the ground. Or, as the intro says, it burnt for three consecutive nights and days.” That’s rough. But then the aquatic ghouls show up and make things worse dragging off people, gnawing on them and so on. But … none of that has happened yet. We’ve got a chick, the nascent leader of the thieves guid, who is sick. Because she found a time travel device that will send her a few days in to the future. She’s been looting the city, in its burnt state. Want in on the action? Thus we have a scenario where you perhaps scout things in the non-destroyed city in the present and then go forward in to the future to loot. 

That’s a decent concept with some definite possibilities.  You wanna grab some loot? Groovy! Hey, let’s also throw in some moral and ethical situations surrounding survivors of the city and the invaders. Toss in some quandaries about the survivors, their militia, and balancing revenge vs looting vs relief. Toss in some ghouls erupting from underwater and dragging people down and/or feasting on them in the open. There are A LOT of things that could be going on here, from a lot of different angles. Shades of that magnificent DCO opening, eh? And we haven’t even mentioned the possibilities of the two time streams, present and future; think o the possibilities of that! Even if, I think, managing events in two times is quite hard for an adventure to do.

Worry not, though, gentle reader! For there is little of that depth here! Well, there is and there isn’t.  It’s a fucking mess. First, let’s cover Lotting the Future. The city has ten wards. In each ward you can make up to three looting checks, at like a 12, 15, and 18. If you pas the check then you get to roll on the loot table. That table has twelve entries on it, each unique enough that I doubt you could repeat. That’s the core mechanic of the adventure. Just roll some dice to loot. Lackluster, to say the least. 

The adventure is trying, I believe, to provide resources to make things more difficult on the characters while they do those looting rolls. So you might get a random encounter like “A knocking, and muffled screams can be heard from a capsized galley. 1d6 aquatic ghoul (see 1, p.55) approach the scene at the same time as the PCs.” That’s a pretty classic “someone is stuck” situation. Or, there’s another entry where the dead kings bastard son shows up, returned from patrol with a small group of men. Are you loyal to the new king or an allied to the enemy? Did I mention he’s a snotty sixteen year old? 

The present time doesn’t have a lot locations, but it does have some interesting little conflicts going on at those locations. A new stone bridge is being built and the Ferrymen don’t like it so they are secretly sabotaging it at night. Or a dead merchant is floating face down in one of his urine vats; a relative has hired two thugs to find who did it … and they are not being subtle. These are not really complications, per se, in the present, but they tend to fall in the “local color” category of gaming. It does go a long way to make the city feel alive, but, also, they feel disconnected from the players and their characters as well as the situation (or, soon to be situation) in the city. They needed to be tied more in to things relevant to play at the table, situations for the party to avoid, use, or be taken advantage of. There’s just little relevancy to them. 

There are a lot of tables in this one. We’re not quite at the level of procedural generation; that’s would be too much for this thing. It’s much much lighter in content. Let’s think 1-012 of any one thing. SO, roll on a table of ten entriess to give the players some destruction vibes. Oh, look, once again we get “From where you stand, you can see the burnt remains of Narbassal’s fleet out in the bay” Oh boy. This would have been much more effective if it used the space to provide some keywords that the DM could then riff on. Ships. Burnt. Burning. Intact. Something like that. Also, how many times can you find “The flayed corpse of king Vessalamchir of Narbassal.” Fuck me, and by the using the useless space taken up by the time line ” 23 years ago …” And the “blood sausage with barley porridge and lentil” ‘whats on the menu’ table, you’d have plenty of room. Twenty fucking entries of that shit. 

Which is not to say that all of the entries are bad. When the adventure tries it can bring it. One of the present day encounters could be “A grizzled posse of ghoul hunters (p. 57) on small barges ventures through the muddy underbelly of Narbassal. They are placing chunks of rotten meat as baits, and scan the underside of pile dwellings, and piers. They are armed with long spears, harpoons, and nets. The ghoul hunters have been offered good coin by the king and are ready to recruit new members” That’s got some good color to it! There’s another table for happens if there’s a time mishap. For the most part it’s abstracted nonsense written in the wrong tense, as read-aloud AND abstracted as one would for a DM. But there’s an entry where you go back to the start of life on the planet and see the primordial ooze. And life starts. And then the first action of the primordial ooze is to attack you! That’s fun. I chuckled. I love it.

And then it falls apart in other places. Remember that criticism, where Lucas said the Phantom Menace was for children … and then included a bunch of trade embargo and finance shit in it? Yeah, well, that same sort of contradiction is present here in many of the entires of the rumor table. They are overly … formal? They lack life and don’t communicate the vibe of the rumor. 

So, the looting portion is abstracted. And the additional content is all on tables to spice up portions between the looting. But it isn’t really written in such a way as to do that. Many of the situations are more of an Ongoing thing, but are written like it’s just another random wandering monster roll. More brief problem, or opportunities, should be populating those tables. And there should be a section on, say, faction play, running throughout the entires.  The portion in the present day needs strong influences to interact with the players characters in a meaningful way, either as obstacles or resources in the present to the future. 

The adventure present a lot, but not in a way that drives the adventure in a meaningful way

This is $3 at DriveThru.

Posted in Reviews | 6 Comments

The Chambers of Ohebis

By Rob Arcangeli
Gallant Knight Games
OSR/Riches & Ruins
Introductory Adventure

“Magical rings, a golden fleece, mystical lamps and dragon eggs. Someone is always after something to make their dreams come true and you are no different. As a group of adventurers, treasure hunters or grave robbers (delete as appropriate) you will, with the aid of dice, miniatures and imagination, delve deep into a dark dungeon in a quest, brought to life by your Referee, to find that object or pile of treasure that will let you retire in peace until the end of your days. That or it can be sold to pick up your last tavern bill…”

This sixteen page adventure features six linear rooms in a small “wizards home” dungeon. A substantial portion is commentary from the designer to the DM, with the rest being uninteresting descriptions, stabbing, and not much else in the way of interactivity.

It’s always a good sign when there’s no map. But I get ahead of myself. There’s no intro here, or background, just a three paragraph eread aloud that says you’re standing in front of a door on a hillside, the home to the wizard Ohebis, which no one has seen in awhile and is presumed dead. Get a looting partners And THEN there’s no map. Just an entry for “Front door” and then “entry hallway” and then “room one” and so on, up to room four. I guess I’ve never understood why people try to describe the dungeon instead of using words. I guess I’m going to bitch anyway about the lack of exploration options, so, providing a map would just set me off more. But it seems so low effort. The lack of a map, the linearity … it just screams that this is not something to spend time with, that someone didn’t really put much thought in to.

Oh, yeah, but there is a lot of DM advice. “Draw out the entrance and place the figures on the map.” I guess you’re just drawing a square? And there’s a decent amount of commentary like this. I mean, A LOT. “Just another room to keep the players on edge!” it tells us. There’s only six fucking rooms! What kind of edge are they supposed to be on? The first two rooms both have spring traps, again, just to keep the party on edge. Uh. Ok. Sure, it also points out that its a hint that there could be a trap further in. I DO like foreshadowing danger to the party and prompting them, through methods like this, to ask questions. And then when they fuck themselves over then its their own fault. But, man, there’s just A LOT of commentary that doesn’t really serve much of a purpose at all. 

You get a straightforward combat orr two. A trap. And that’s about it. There’s no real interactivity here. There’s no wonder. The text is images of words, not words, so I can’t copy/paste in any examples, but, seriously, the first combat room has read-aloud that has the figures turning toward the party and ending with “To Arms!” Seriously. 

There’s just nothing here. A Couple of encounters. That’s it. No evocative read-aloud. It’s just a waste of space. An introductory adventure should be exciting and full of wonder. Hooking the players with the majesty of a lifetime of experiences to come. This is more like the worst of those kiddie adventures T$R produced.

This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages and provides a good overview ofwhat you will be facing as a DM.

Posted in My Life is a Living Fucking Hell, Reviews | 2 Comments

Tomb of the Tin Templar

By Jospeh R. Lewis
Dungeon Age
Levels ... 2-3?

The ancient world of Harth withers beneath its dying sun… but it’s not dead yet. Face off against electric jellyfish, tinker gnomes, and the rusted corpse of the noble Sir Tristan, as well as a few other creatures that have clawed their way into this marvelous mechanical vault. Discover windup toys, clockwork companions, and baffling devices. Negotiate with the guards and intruders alike, using clever words or whatever sharp objects are close at hand!

This six page adventure presents a small tomb dungeon with ten rooms. There are some interesting encounters, although the primary writing lacks the verve of, perhaps, a more intensive effort in evocative descriptions.

This is a small tomb of a kind of mechanical/low-fantasy steampunk paladin. The timing in emphasized with gears and steam in a few places, as well as rusty wall panels and a small troop of tinker gnomes. While I usually LOATHE tinker gnomes I’m giving them a pass here since they are not high fantasy but rather more akin to gnomes working in a workshop. It’s interesting to me that this reimagining of the tinker gnome has hit. King to the reboot of the Bond franchise with Casino Royale, it’s stripped off the more egregious streampunky aspects and is only a little jarring to see. I’m not sure they completely mesh with the mechanical man motif we’ve got going on here, but, also, that may be because things are a little weak in that department. 

It just doesn’t seem to ‘hit’ as hard as previous Dungeon Age entries in that regard. I think it’s because of the writing. The descriptions here seem a bit … mechanistic, perhaps in a “insert adjective here” sort of manner. I look at a description like “Cluttered wooden tables fill the room. Four small people sit on tall stools, working diligently.” Or even a better one like “Stone stairs spiral down, and stop at a steamy abyss. Shining metal platforms float in the darkness. Tiny blue lights glimmer all around.” I’m not sure either of those, even the second one, really bring home a really great image in the DMs head. Stone Stairs. Spiral Down. Tiny blue lights. I admit that I did the same in some of my efforts, but, also, I think there’s another step here. I think it’s taking your reworked sentences and then trying to put them together in to a cohesive whole. Something like – Now that I’ve got a better description, what does this evoke and how I can further rewrite this to bring it in to something that’s alive. I’m not telling anyone how to do things, I’m just trying to describe how I think that descriptions are close to being pretty good but just seem to be lacking that extra little reimagining that cements them. 

And that, I think, is part of what makes the mechanistic nature of the tomb so … disconnected? It just doesn’t seem to come together in any way that would lead you in to a consistent theming, in all but a paper way. Some of this may, also, be contributed to by the lack of an introduction. The intro is literally “This is a (very) small templar tomb full of treasure and danger, easily run as a one-shot or dropped into a larger campaign setting.” I think, perhaps, an additional sentence or two of lore would have helped quite a bit to set the stage and frame the content that was to come. Without that we’re relying on the weight of the descriptions to carry the load by themselves, which is possible in some cases but not overly successful here.

There are, however, some decent little encounters and vignettes. The opening to the dungeon is a cave mouth with a huge bronze gear set in to the floor with three smaller silver spheres set in to it. Solving that puzzle causes it to open up, revealing a spiral staircase going down. I think that certainly qualifies as a great appeal to a trope that brings the game to life and creates moments of awe and wonder. 

For a small dungeon, there are a couple of other nice room challenges also. That steaming abyss with its floating silver platforms … there’s water underwear and you jump from platform to platform. There are glowing blue jellyfish in the air and water, as well as a sapphire on each floating platform. Removing the jewel means the platform falls. That should be fun, both in the initial challenge and in figuring out how to collect the jewels. Those sorts of “Free form” challenges are by far my favorite. A puzzle without a solution. Left to the party to come up with a plan. Which will no doubt go wrong. THAT is one of the hearts of a good D&D game.

The jellyfish, also, is kind of fun. Slow. Numerous. Put them in a jar to act as a torch for a few hours! That’s a nice little addition! And, on a critical hit, you get shocked and your hair turns white, with a DEX loss. Nice way to push a real world effect in to the realm of fantasy. Small changes, not the end of the word changes, but a fun way to engage in play. I’m not saying every monster has to have a critical hit impact, but it was cute to see here. 

Treasure is probably light for an OSE game. There’s also a nice little “Templar Sword” that can absorb or reflect lightning damage. That’s fun … and has no plusses. No more description than that, which I enjoy. I’m looking for, overall, inspiration and not a mechanistic heavy magic item. 

This is an ok little dungeon. I’m not mad at it. It suffers, as to most small dungeons, from their lack of depth, there’s just no room to allow the environment o breathe. Maybe a nice little sub-level for an existing dungeon? I’m gonna regret this one, even though I have some reservations.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 53 Comments

Through the Weirdwood

By Jonah Lemkins
Self Published
Levels ?

The Old North Road goes through the Weirdwood. It’s too far to go around it at this point. The barmaid at the last tavern said, “Only the strangest of folk go romping through that wood, and IF they come back, they wind up even stranger than before.” Best keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you — you wouldn’t want to end up weird.

This fourteen page hex adventure details seven hexes in each of two different woods settings. “Details” is a strong word for “nothing is really present except some ideas that the DM may or may not turn in to something.” This is not a hex crawl. It’s nothing at all.

There’s no real intro to this adventure. It’s just four bullet points that say you might be escorting a wagon or looking to harvest magical flora and fauna and the like. Nothing more than that. And then the hexes start. No movement rules. No hex size. I guess there is a small table, in the back, of twelve encounters you could have.  But no indication of frequency or anything like that. Meh. Then the hexes start.

Fourteen pages and fourteen hexes; one per page, right? Nope. Hex two is the Coalition of Cognisant Creatures. It consists of four bullet points that take up a very small portion of the page real estate. “Magic items & scrolls litter the underside of Zulie’s tower, and their magics leached into the water. Many nearby animals are now brightly colored, sentient, and some have minor powers. The herbivores and carnivores are starting to bicker .Plan to bring all animals here to drink and rule the Weirdwood, but are beset by the Boogeygourd” Ok man, Go!  You get to make something out of that. If you can. And most of the hexes are just like that one. Something weird going on that is described in a few bullet points. 

If I were to look at that encounter in the context of, say, City State, then I might not have an issue with it. There are, literally, hundreds of other encounters to be had and the overwhelming force of them means that no single encounter has to carry the weight of the adventure on its shoulders. But this isn’t City State. Or, really, any sort of hex crawl. The size, and some of the inter-related hexes, would seem to dictate that each of these encounters must stand on their more, more like an individual encounter in the modern day. If you’re gonna have three encounters in the adventure then they should each be a good one. And those four bullets are not an adventure to be made. 

Let us look at another one of these hexes: “ Campfires, tents, dancing cultists, & vast cabbage patch surround an enormous brainlike cabbage. The Gigacabbage might be an eldritch entity with mind control powers, an unthinking weed spreading cabbage growths like a cancer, or maybe a friendly forest spirit with much to teach. Cultists are friendly unless you diss cabbage. Will warn PCs about the heretical members of the Sect of Sauerkraut hiding in the woods nearby. The Sect of Sauerkraut aim to become as gods by fermenting and eating the entire Gigacabbage” So, yeah, we should talk about tone. If this were just tossed in to some far off hex then, cool cool, a one off sort of thing to have fun with. But the tone here is not inconsistent with the rest of the adventure hexes, and, in fact, might a little on te tamer side of weird in the Weirdwood, especially once the Fey side of the house shows up. I get that some people are going to be ok with this sort of tone. And I am, as well, in VERY small doses. But too many encounters of this type and we devolve in to silliness, which this adventure is. 

Teeny tiny hex descriptions of three or four bullets. They generally have little for the party to interact with. Or, rather, there is little reason for the party to interact with the people in a hex. Wander by the hex, look at the weird thing in it, and then move on to the next hex and do the same thing. The hexes don’t really have any reason, at all, to interact with them. They don’t mess with you. Or have wealth. It’s just another aimless museum tour adventure  where you star at things and then move on to the next room.

This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages. On the fourth page you get to see hex one, which is VERY atypical. Most are just a couple of bullet points.

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The God With No Name

Panayiotis Lines
Leyline Press
Level ? Mid?

You cannot touch their face and cannot touch their hair. Their voice sings in the wind of the valley and sobs at dawn. Once a vast primordial sea creature, the God with No Name slept and was buried under the salt and silt as the earth dried around it. As Dwarves came to mine the salt centuries later so too did they unearth the slumbering giant and it’s formless shadow child the void doppler. Still the pure and valuable salt lies here as temptation to any would would dare to venture so deep.

This twelve page adventure uses seven pages to describe about thirtish rooms in an old dwarf salt mine, that is actually a colossal living creature. It wants to be a kind of horror adventure, with a creature stalking you and stealing body parts from you. But it comes across as Yet Another Dull Dwarf Adventure. 

So, yeah, Dwarf salt mine. But, no rules or guidance on salt related shit happening to you. It’s actually the case that you are inside a giant creature. SO, heart, lungs, stomach, etc, will make up the theming of some of the rooms. Oooo, it’s the soul room and if you kill the soul node then a howl emanates throughout the tunnels … Stalking through the place is the void doppler. It’s a good pile, ala The Thing, that rips off your mouth, runs away, and then attaches the mouth to itself. Walla! Now it has a mouth! Repeat with other parts. Also, there’s a crazy elf in it, trapped in rubble, and three trolls upstairs, outside of the mine. That’s your enemy compliment. Look, i don’t need an adventure that has nothing but stabbin, but, also, an adventure that has little to no stabbin really needs to sell me on that conflict. I’m gonna need some tension there. If you’re leaning in to ANY trope, as the central theme of an adventure, to the exclusion of most of the elements of the others, then you really better be prepared to sell me that theme. A few hints. Some guidance. Are you only putting wandering monsters in and the whole adventure is about them? Then you better do something more than say “use the table from the book.” The concept, as always, is supporting the DM at the table … especially when so much of the adventure hangs off of one concept. Don’t have room? Add a page. Or, maybe rumours are not as important in this adventure? More than just saying “use hit and run tactics”, you need some atmosphere here.

And that is something that is lacking. Has there ever been a good dwarf dungeon? One that is atmospheric, I mean? Oh, boy, another colossal empty chamber. Unlike other offerings from Leyline, this one’s writing leaves a lot to be desired. “The main entrance to the mine is a simple wooden construct, dilapidated with age. It gapes jagged and open. There is a thin trace of void secretion around the edges of the entrance within the shadows.” That’s not exactly inspiring with regard to a mine entrance. “This area is blocked off with rubble” or “An excavated area of the tunnel.” There’s nothing here to bring forth ANY type of feeling or atmosphere, much less the sense of foreboding that one would want when being stalked by a solitary creature. “Crumbling statue of ancient dwarf king” or “heavy area of salt deposits.” Joy. I am inspired.

The map is trying a bit too hard to channel a real-world diagram. The core map is an ok affair, if, linear as a mine shaft might be, with small offshoots hanging off of it. But, also, there’s an attempt to make notations on the map, like handwritten things one might find on a real map. These DO NOT work AT ALL. They are small and scratchy and impossible to read with any clarity without trying hard. We have forgotten the first rule: it has to be legible. 

The descriptions here are quite weak. There is little atmosphere communicated. The challenge here is mostly one of the main creature, almost to the exclusion of all other play types/interactivity … but that sort play is not supported at all by the designer. And we combine that with more padding and empty words than Bastard King had, by far. 

This is, by far, the weakest entry I’ve seen from Leyline so far. Well, that’s only two, and the first one WAS quite good. It’s not like this is a piece of shit, it is, just, at best, Yet Another Throw Away Mediocre Adventure. And we don’t do those here.

This is $4 at DriveThru. There is no preview. For shame! Let us see what we are buying first!

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The Wizard’s Tower

By Robert Mills
Trebormills Games
d6? Levels ... Mid?

The situation in Greymarsh has become dire indeed, heroic individuals are needed to rise to the task of defending it. Villages in the Southlands have reported sighting hoards of undead, coming from out of the Deadwood. In addition there are also reports of roving patrols of goblins, orcs and bandits close to the Wizard’s tower. Bertrum Greymane the fifth hasn’t been heard from in two months. It is imperative that contact is re-established with the hermit-like mad mage. Find out what is going on with Bertrum and if he is alive make contact with him, then report back to Greyhold.

This 32 page adventure uses eight pages to describe about seventeen rooms in an underground complex. You’ll ‘enjoy’ stabbing things, stabbing things more in rooms with overly simplistic descriptions, but still padded out. Note that there is no Wizard’s Tower. Or really a hex crawl either?

Ok, undead, orcs and goblins are coming out of the Deadwood. That’s, oh, ten days horse ride away, thirty or so days on foot. Frank the Wizzo lives on the edge of the woods and no one has heard from him. Pretty please go check on him? Ok man, we got a hex crawl! A thirty day hex crawl as a part of the plot? Or a ten day hex crawl on horse? That’s a bit strange, given the urgency that is being communicated. But, sure, ok. 

Said hex crawl involves you rolling on wandering monster tables twice a day to have a potential encounters. That’s it. No hexes to explore. No sites to discover. ROll twice a day and have your wandering encounter. I don’t know that I would use the words hex crawl to describe that. I guess its technically accurate? Maybe? Maybe it’s just a Hex Travel adventure and Hex Crawl means what we traditionally think of it as? Anyway, lame, adds nothing, boring. The adventure suggests that perhaps as many three gaming sessions could be taken up with the journey to the wizards tower, as a hex crawl. Again, that’s not quite what I would expect?

Congrats! You’re now at the wizards tower! It’s being besieged by hundreds of orcs, goblins and undead. Eventually you will stumble across a magic telepathy session that tells you to go to some ruins and explore them. Thus, the adventure of The Wizards Tower is not actually IN the Wizards Tower. It’s in a dwarf ruin nearby. *sigh* 

Now we’ve got kind of an Indiana Jones scene, from Raiders, where the nazis are digging one desert site out and Dr Jones is going in to another site, the real one. Except the siegers are tunneling  in and the party has found the front doors, so to speak. Except there’s no real above ground portion to this, not the big mining operation for the siegers, or, really, any interesting details of the siege at all. Lame.

We now get to the dungeon. Inside we shall be dazzled by such descriptions as “The Orcs bypassed the sealed door by tunnelling into the chamber. Anyone discovering this tunnel will be faced by a picket guard of 2 goblins at the entrance, plus the individuals in room 5.”The Orcs bypassed the sealed door by tunnelling into the chamber. Anyone discovering this tunnel will be faced by a picket guard of 2 goblins at the entrance, plus the individuals in room 5.”In fact, almost every room has a “Bertram did this to room” section to it. FUll of padding and backstory and useless detail. “There is a sealed pit in this room (treat it as magically sealed by Bertrum, unless you have added your own extra tunnels, in which case it could connect to those)” or some padding like “Should the PC’s touch or pick up the treasure they risk angering the guardian of the tomb.” That’s a nothing statement. And that sort of padding is everywhere.

Interactivity involves stabbing things. Lots of things. I think there’s a spider you can talk to, but that’s about it. Just stab things. But, no real order of battle, of course. Maybe a note here or there that the dudes in room 5 are alerted, which is better than nothing I guess.

“A former council room for meetings between the Dwarven elders and visitors. Now used by Bertrum to store furniture and unimportant documents. The room is currently being ransacked by three goblins” That right there is what you are paying your money for. Three gaming session to get to that. You enjoy that right there.

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages and shows you nothing, thus, an ineffective preview.

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Bastard King of Thraxford Castle

By Panayiotis Lines & A. Lawlor
Leyline Press
Level ... 3?

Beware the Curse of Thraxford Castle my child. A Curse of rotted flesh borne from The Bastard King’s slaughter of his kin. As the dawn rises so do the dead, to danse macabre. Do not step within 1,000 paces of that accursed place lest ye suffer their fate.

This seven page adventure presents about eleven locations on the grounds/village of a small cursed keep as well as the eight or so rooms inside the keep as well. Decent descriptions and delightful situations combine to form exactly the sort of wonderful adventuring site you’d hope to find in a product this size.

I don’t know where to start! Let’s look at the second and third  sentences of the product. “From the horizon Thraxford Castle appears a ruin. Within 1,000 feet it begins to appear as it is. All currently within Thraxford Castle and it’s 1,000 foot perimeter are cursed, all who die or are present at dawn become cursed.” That’s pretty terrific, eh? No fucking around at all. You get that little marketing blurb from the product description, that is clearly some kind of old wives tale, and then the first sentence is just one line of BS explanation. Then that whole “appears as a ruin” thing. That’s what you want in an adventure! The entrance to the mythic underworld! This place is different. The rules are different. Prepare thyselves, players! And then that third sentence, which explains the curse. That’s it. No more. That’s all you need for it, really. Don’t die, don’t wait till dawn. It doesn’t belabor the point. It’s enough for the DM to run it and it explains what you’re about to find inside, a framing for whats to come. This adventure does a great job, over and over again, of  using just a few words to really get across the point of the concept at hand in few words. I might have stuck in “cock crows” instead of dawn, but, both work. This thing really does not fuck around, and it completely channels the way G1 just gives a short intro and then tells the story through the keys. After those first three sentences you get a short rumour table and then a note about the villagers (being undead) go about a mockery of their lives and interact with people mostly normally. And then the fucking keys start! G1 indeed! I’m not saying every fucking adventure can do things this way, sometimes you do need some context, but just about every one could learn a lesson from this one, and G1, about getting to the fucking point: the actual adventure. 

The map is a great little isometric thing, showing the village around the keep and some elevations. Nice terrain differences and good feature art to help the DM imagine the place. There’s a teeny tiny map of the keep and it’s eight rooms, proper, on the margin. I’m not the biggest fan of this size of map, but it works. BARELY. [old man grumble]

Let’s look at the description of a typical home in the village, shall we? “- An Undead family of 7 sit by a roaring hearth. The room is filled with acrid smoke. They pour a scuttle of dried human flesh upon the fire to stoke it, they seem to have harvested it from themselves.” Gah! That’s fucking freaky! Oh, how about this one then? “An Undead man sits upon a rocking chair cradling a swaddling bundle that occasionally lets out a gurgling noise. His body is covered in various bite mark” I’m cherry picking here, but those are fucking great. Terse and brings the horror of the situation tio light. No generic BS curses here; you’re feeling the impact of the thing. Those are from a table of six “rando huts” that you can roll on and are the highlights. A generic ghost or generic ghouls are also on the table, without the characteristic embellishment the adventure usually shows. 

The adventure has both a flair for a terse and evocative description as well as a penchant for presenting some kind of a situation. Yorrick the gate guard, easily fooled and beside a great bronze bell. A tongue nailed to the village palisade gate. The tongue being a part of the mayors body, which can be found scattered throughout the village; used in a stew and the torso as target practice. I wonder what happens when you reassemble it? And, guarding the drawbridge to the keep, proper, a wight in black armor, standing vigil. Nice tropey mctoperson there! The adventure hits and hits and hits in it’s little situations. Really nice job!

One final example. In a bedroom in the keep: “A small shrine to The Lord of Luminescence sits near a wash basin and mirror. The basin is full of blood. Staring into the mirror will materialise Agatha.” The basin/blood detail! And, Agatha, the banshee! Great way to bring her in! That’s what a fucking adventure should do! Just give the DM a little nudge 

You want some treasure? How about “1,380,000 cp, 55,003 sp, 65 ep, 2,017 gp, 13 pp.” Ha! The designer brought the noise on that one, eh? Mundane treasure is fine, if perhaps a little light, while magic treasure gives us “Saxon, a 1+ spear.” Not in any way living up to the standards of the rest of the adventure.

I really like this thing. DId I mention the undead botflys? BOTFLIES! Gross! 

Anyway, This is what you were looking for. When you are digging through adventure, browning, looking for something good, hoping to find that hidden gem. This is it. It does exactly what one would hope to find in a small digest adventure. THings like this are what made that format. While presented as an adventuring site (and it would be fine as that) I might drop it in as a cursed village a little off the beaten track and perhaps give the party a reason or two to go there throughout their lower level adventuring careers. This allows the introduction of the village over time and for the party, and DM, to revel in the place. Over time the larger situations are revealed and then, perhaps, the party does something about the bastard king and the curse? 

Really a great adventure for its size and its too bad its out of physical print.

This is $2 at DriveThru. There’s no real preview. But, also, it’s $2. Compare this to all of those $14 PDF”s of much longer products with FAR less content then this thing brings. 


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The Tower of the Elephant

By Luiz Eduardo Ricon
Hexplore Publishing
Levels 3-5

The shimmering shaft of the tower rose frostily in the stars. In the sunlight it shone so dazzlingly that few could bear its glare, and men said it was built of silver.

This 48 page adventure uses ten pages to describe about thirty rooms in the titular tower, the rest being devoted to the now public domain short story. It’s got some ok descriptions for various rooms, but the encounters are relatively prosaic, with substantial editing gaps throughout the rather short ten pages of the actual work. No Fantastic! for you today.

Sorry man, I’m unfamiliar with old fantasy novels. Or, most modern fantasy for that matter, beyond LotR and the Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn series. I’m a SciFI boy. But, on the plus side, you’ll get no glaze in my eyes from nostalgia. The intro to this says it’s inspired by the story but not a copy of it, so, we’ll review it like that: ignoring the story and just looking at the adventure, proper. All I got to go on is that tower scene in the Conan movie.

The map here is relatively simplistic. You get nine levels of a tower, with a couple of rooms per level. One level is underground. There’s supposed to be a couple of walled gardens around the tower, but we get no map of it. The map editing is sloppy, with no key numbers on the map beyond level one of the tower. Entrances are … weird? The map notes doors on levels one … and the key says they can’t be opened. Windows on level one are mentioned as well. But, the garden section notes only a tunnel from the basement and a balcony on the top floor, as well as “concealed windows” on level one. I don’t know how you conceal a large window, but, whatever. It’s sloppy work. You’re looking at one way up and one way down on most levels. Not exactly the most interesting for an exploration, but, alas, thus is the fate of all towers, it seems. 

Treasure, magic treasure anyway, is quite generic. +1 shield and +1 sword and 12k in gold in the main treasure chamber. You’ve got the black lotus/yellow lotus shit as well, so, I guess there’s that. This does not lend to the air of The Fantastic. It comes off as boring. The guards, as well, are kind of poorly done. There’s no real order of battle, beyond one section that notes a fleeing cook may summon some guards. There’s no real “infiltration” section in the walled gardens, beyond a note to roll for wandering guards. You do get to fight six 5HD lions, so, there’s that. Or, sneak by them, I guess? But, there’s not really any framing for that kind of play, at all. That’s a pretty major miss. And the editing throughout is sloppy, beyond the map/key numbers; referring to things on the wrong levels, for example. 

Descriptions are above average. We get a bar scene that is “flickering of candles, the PCs are surrounded by smoke, muffled laughter, scantily clad men and women servants, and the overpowering scent of ale, wine, and sweat.” That’s a decent visual for a bar. And then a “bloated man, flushed and sweaty, claps cheerfully …” along with his wicked grin and his “don’t be shy my lovelies!” This is the kind of writing I like to see. Terse and evocative. We get “crude moss-covered stairs going up” and “Dimly lit chamber, smell of blood and urine. Hooks and chains dangling on the walls. A bronze sarcophagus (S) covered in iron spikes standing in a corner.” I’m not sure how the main stairs are moss-covered, but whatever, it’s still a stairs description, and those almost never get one in an adventure. Dimly lit, smells of blood and urine, that’s pretty good. Above average, to be sure. It’s not always doing this well, but, generally, it does ok. Living up to Howard, no doubt?

The encounters, proper, though leave a lot to be desired. A ghoul in that torture chamber iron maiden, for example. Or a raving madman. No real monster descriptions are present, which is a major miss. And most of the combat encounters are just a sudden combat. There’s not much in the way of sneaking, or in puzzle solving. Maybe a trap here and there, but animated armor is not the end all and be all of an encounter. The monsters are mostly generic with no real descriptions and the on-combat stuff is a simple “drug gas” trap or something of the like. There’s no real sense of wonder in any of them. The final encounter, with some alien dude and a large gem is an exception, but also I assume this is from the story?

This is a simple tower map with rather normal and somewhat boring encounters. While the rooms are somewhat evocatively described, the encounters proper lack that thus come off as just another generic combat encounter. There’s not a lot of interactivity beyond combat and an occasional drug trap. Substantial editing issues and a lack of care in the final proof are quite evident; I can overlook a lot of that in an adventure but this one is a little too heavy in that area. The mundane treasure has an attempt made at a decent description, although the magic treasure is just generic. No real framing for play other than hacking. I’d skip it.

This is $8 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages. You get to see the opening bar scene. It really needed to include a tower level as well.

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