(5e) Tides of Blood

Christopher Walz
Level 6

Menthias Dolgutha, a Coreanic priest in Mithril, has received a vision of the Silver Bastion, a fortress used by the knightly Order of Silver during the Divine War, rising from the Blood Sea. Searching Mithril’s libraries, the priest discovered the fortress was built before the titan Kadum was defeated and imprisoned at the depths of the sea. The Silver Bastion was overrun with titanspawn as the last remaining knights stayed behind, allowing others to retreat to the mainland. Menthias believes a Coreanic relic, the Brightshield, may still be hidden in the once-lost castle. Will your heroes be able to brave the dangers of the Blood Sea and contend with the Heartseekers of Kadum to wrest control over the powerful relic?

First, some secret shame. I have a Patreon! It’s got free adventures, commentary on adventure design, and random musings about RPG’s, etc. And, it does help me buy adventures to review. It’s at https://www.patreon.com/join/tenfootpole?

This 37 page adventure details a small over-ocean voyage and a ten room fortress. It’s nothing more than garbage combats. Encounter after encounter. Room after room. “Combat!” “Roll for init!” “They attack!” Oh, and the baddies? A cult. Wow. Really. A cult. How original. I wonder how long that took to come up with?

My plan was to check out some NON-Dmsguild content. To see who out there was raging against the dying of the light and jousting against the windmills of corporate licensing agreements. Don’t get off the boat man, don’t get off the boat …

This hunk of junk claims to have content supporting all three pillars of D&D play: social, exploration, and combat. I have no fucking idea what Social and Exploration mean in 5e circles these days, but if one were to take this adventure as canonical, not much. There’s not exploration to speak of, unless “I go in to the next room” means exploration. The social seems limited to … the quest giver? Some generic sailors on a ship you take? It’s all combat. Your quest-giver is interrupted by combat. “There’s bloodtained on the docks!” yeller a commoner. Uh huh. Blood tainted. Because people talk like that. Feels more like a”throw a combat in early” garbage advice being followed.

You sail to an island to follow up on the “a cleric hired us” hook. The DM rolls weather occasionally. “Players can think weather is boring, liven it up” says the adventure. Yes, that’s because simulationist shit is boring. I got four hours this week in between 60 hours of assistant crack-whore trainee work and you’r chukcing “light rain” at me, and taking up a significant page count doing so? Or, maybe, the forced combats twice a day. Once each twelve hours you have an encounter/are attacked on the seas. Joy. That seems like fun. Then you get to the island and have more “fun” fighting room after room of creatures/cultists.

This sort of stuff is soooooooo boring. Combat is boring. Tactics combat is boring. Yes, I know some people like this shit. 40k is thing. Descent & Gloomhaven is a thing (I’m playing Gloomhaven in … 90 minutes from now. Dr. Nick the DOOMSTALKER. And yes, I just spoiled the game.Mayor McDickCheese, aka Nico Crystalhead the Spellweaver was just the first to retire]

Spot distances on the boat are short. Like 30-60 feet. Wasn’t it like 320 yards in 1e/0e? That’s because there is no more Combat as War, it’s all Combat as Sport. God forbid you do anything but use your Encounter powers and roll to hit. Everything on earth sneaks on board your ship as a wandering encounter. You gotta make DC20 insight checks to figure out the evil cleric is evil. Solid silver doors are given no value and not one word about looting them. The adventure is rife with the words “at your discretion you can …” Yeah, no shit. Roleplaying advice for NPC’s is long and  boring, with bonds and ideas and flaws straight out of the book, still generic and boring.

The monsters are all Blood Sea Mutant Killer Whale and Heaker Cultists of titspan Krathas and shit like that. Look at that fucking intro text, that’s supposed to get you excited about the adventure. My eyes are rolling so much I can barely read it.

The entire adventure is nothing but aggressively generic and focused on combat. In an attempt to be non-generic it focuses on “bloodspaned mutants” and other language that is just a different dimension of generic. There’s no details to bring anything to life. There’s nothing visceral. Specificity is avoided. It’s all just generic heroic language.

Next time I’ll try harder to find something not in DMSGuild.

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages long. The last two pages are not TOO far off from showing you what you get in the bulk of the adventure locations.


Posted in 5e, Reviews | 4 Comments

Beneath Dark Elms

By Scott Malthouse
Trollish Delver Games
Levels 1-3

Ever wish there was yet another vanity RPG forum where you could engage in Book Talk? Now there is!

Peachtree Village has a problem. The Horned Witch has taken the daughter of a local woodcutter. Now delvers must venture deep into The Black Crypt Forest to face an array of magical beings, both friends and foes.  Be warned, gentle player – things may not be as they seem. Why are there strange floating eyeballs following you around, for instance?

This twenty page adventure details a forest with fifteen locations. It’s got that T&T charm: a lot of non-standard fantasy mixed with just a little silliness. It’s also focused as all fuck; it’s hard to point to an extraneous word or phrase.

In THX1138 there’s a loudspeaker line in a “store”: “for your convenience, consumption has been standardized.” Fantasy RPG’s can sometimes feel like that, even Dark Sun or Eberron. The OD&D vibe harkens back to a slightly less sanitized vibe, getting closer to the folklore and grittier things. (At least the way I think of it.) And then there’s the Unbalanced Dice adventures, which feel like someone has never read fantasy before, not as gritty and with a little more lightness to it. That’s also how I think of T&T adventures, from Dungeon of the Bear forward. At least the ones that are not outright silly.

This adventure has that. There’s a bridge in the adventure with a pot next to it, asking for honey toll. Not paying it causes the hulking bee troll to appear on the other side. If you give the guy some honey you got from a nymph then he’s ECSTATIC and give you a magic item. Closer to a modern telling of a Grimm tale, a little less dark and light hearted but with a touch of the absurd.

One of the encounters in the forest, the first, is called The Decrepit Outpost. A single-room wooden shack with charred walls and a burned out roof. The air is thick with buzzing flies. A deer carcass lies in the centre of the room, it’s flanks torn off. Dried animal track leave toward a window. That’s the first two paragraphs, the “outside” being the first and the second being the inside/carcass. There’s also a broken desk with five golden arrows in it. They cause undead to explode. There’s a note “please ask me before taking – Helga.” That is the third paragraph. The fourth details the ghost ranger that raps on windows and causes chills. And animated the deer carcass if you don’t ask before taking the arrows. It’s simple. The first three paragraphs are almost verbatim from the adventure, so it’s VERY focused on actual play. It’s interactive. The magic item effects are described non-mechanically. What does “explode” mean? You’r the DM, go figure it he fuck out in actual play!

And it does this, encounter after encounter. The decrepit outpost. The honey bridge. The hermit house. The great web. It’s simple. It’s charming. It’s focused. It’s interactive. It concentrates on actual play.

There’s a witch you’re going after. The town rumors are “she decorates her house with the bones of the children she eats.” and “she dances naked with seven ghouls on a full moon.” and “she disguises herself and walks in the village to spy” and “you can only see her out of the corner of your eye.” And on it goes! They are great! It’s a fucking witch! It’s witch rumors in a hick village!

If I were looking for an introductory adventure for new players I might pick this one. It’s simple, charming, lighthearted, and focused.

It also comes across a bit like a funhouse in the wilderness. It’s a little disconnected, or maybe I mean it moves from encounter to encounter a little too easily and little too … jarringly? It’s a pointcrawl map. You enter the forest. You come across the decrepit outpost. You then hit the bee bridge. It’s feels like a pointcrawl funhouse and doesn’t have the cohesiveness that something like Ursine Dunes had. And I don’t mean funhouse in the way that a challenge dungeon like Sea Kings or Ghost Tower or White Plume does. But, it’s got that disconnected vibe that a set-piece after set-piece can have … even though I wouldn’t really call this set-pieces.

The spider queen has corrosive saliva that burns away one armor item if you don’t save. Holy fuck! Now THATS a fucking spider queen monster! She is as old as the forest, likes to bargain for more exotic food, and always keeps her word. Bam! I know her and can play her. Cordial, charming, and speaking in silky smooth tones.

Nymphs bargain for the parties hair and make a clone amalgamation from it. Grave robbers are looking for buddies to loot a vampire tomb. Reciting “Troll Maiden Troll maiden where art thou and thy wisdom” in a stone circle make the oracle appear.Fairy rings. Man beast cave. The spell tree. The black crypt. And, of course, the witches hut. And the trickster demon of entertainment and his eyeball cameras. It’s world is all heightened, because of the demon of entertainment. Whatever, get sillier at the end, I don’t care. It’s not Zap Paranoia, it’s lighthearted fun for beer & pretzels D&D. AKA: Tunnels & Trolls. The first heartbreaker wanted to be more accessible and to this day still brings the impish fun. DCC does this same sort of thing also, but on the Swords & Sorcery path. Successful because they capture and heighten certain fun aspects of the base game. Maybe not suitable for longer-term play, but certainly enough to have a fuck ton of fun with.

The map have numbers next to the location names, but the adventure text just uses the place names. Bad designer! Ise the numbers also! It makes it easier to find things.

This is good enough I’m going to pick up a couple more of Scott’s adventures and check them out. If he can keep firing like this, especially across genres/systems, then he’s AT LEAST a journeyman is a world of amateurs. At Least.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is a good one, with the last three pages showing you the first three encounters, which are representative of the style you’ll find in the rest.


Posted in Reviews, The Best | 6 Comments

The Crypt of Baron Vraszek

By Kai Putz
Levels 2-4

Once again, a quick reminder of the Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/tenfootpole And the Forum: http://www.tenfootpole.org/forum/index.php

This is a place were a bitter vampire has holed up. He prepared for these crypts to be his lair and had the help of an accomplished warlock to secure the place. Many undead minions do his biding, and he is himself a force to be reckoned with.

This seventeen page adventure describes a fourteen room tomb/vampire lair in five pages, with the rest being supporting information. . More creepy than the Strahd adventures, it gets close to some decent historically accurate imagery. And it does this through an unfocused writing style. Classic highlighter fodder.

Yeah, I know, no one cares about the fucking hooks. But _I_ care about the hooks. AT least to the extent that they give the DM a springboard. Most of the hooks, which take up a full page in total, are pretty standard “Get hired by someone” hooks with little to recommend them. One, though, the first, is different. You’re hired to deliver a merchant’s daughter, riding in a wagon, to a cloister, where she is to spend the rest of her life. You hit “the weird village where people hang out garlic and fortify themselves at night” and, sure enough, she goes missing. You need a letter from the Mother Prior, telling the merchant that the girl arrived, in order to get paid. This had got a good Carpathian/middle-ages thing going on, from the escort/girl/cloister thing (and some implication of roleplay with her/plight) to the letter thing. Leveraging all of those villages in Vampire & Werewolf movies helps orient the DM as well. It’s a good example of getting just a LITTLE specific, in certain areas, to then allow the DM to riff and go from there.  

The map tries to be helpful. It notes a collapsed area, as well as an area where the parties light will attract attention from a nearby monster room. It’s going for a creepier theme than most tombs/undead adventures, and it leverages the art to decent effect. “The Hungry Dead” are more zombie like and there’s some decent art of rotting corpses, animated, that helps cement that vibe. Likewise there’s some skeleton guards that the art depicts in heavy cloaks, arrows sticking out. Not exactly Harryhousen skeletons, but a more formidable vibe comes from these dudes, and the art reflects that.  A really good job in tying the art to generate genre vibe, something unusual.

There’s some interesting magic items as well, like a heathen charm to “protect the soul using the journey to the afterlife”. It makes you the LAST person they choose to attack, which is a interesting little effect. AT the expense of 10% more XP to level. Ouch! But can also destroy undead in a funerary rite/place in mouth fashion. It suffers a bit from the description: “an intricate silver amulet on a tiny chain.”  The appeal to the real-world funerary rites, mouth amulets, and heathen fetishes is quite evocative. The description could use a word or two on design. Abstract wire? Intricate implies there’s something going on, but all we know is “amulet.” This sort of thing is not an isolated occurrence.

I can flog this out in to the general text as well. There’s a great vibe going on. The tomb of an old rural Carpathian? Absolutely! Battle murals with a knight in armor, christian imagery, it all comes together to paint an excellent picture of an old world vampire/knight surround by a christian mythos.

But man it makes you fight to get at it. Long sections of small italics have TERRIBLE readability. The room text is rich … and padded the fuck out. “The sourthern wall contains a secret door (to room 5)” [Yes, we know this form the map.] “that will automatically be found by those that inspect it (due to the wide gaps around it)” Nice “wide gaps”, but there’s a better way to get at this than the cumbersome first clause. “When enough force is applied, it will swing in to the corridor behind it.” Which doesn’t really matter in a meaningful way to the adventure at hand. It opens.

Another example: “A Magic-User may salvage some of the present stuff for his or her own laboratory. For this purpose (and only this one), items with a total value of 3d6 x50sp may be looted. Every 5+ rolled equals one additional item slot that will be occupied by this loot. If not the whole of “the useful stuff” is taken along, it will not be useful to the Magic- User at all.”  It’s long and cumbersome text, languidly taking it’s time to get where it’s going.

The mural room I liked so much takes three paragraphs to describe. “The western wall of this angular room shows a mural of a battle scene. It is much more recent than any of the other murals, more simple and less impressive.” That’s all padding. But then it follows: “The scene depicts a knight surrounded by twelve enemy soldiers who are either dead, mortally wounded or desperate in their fight against the seemingly supreme lone knight. The sky is filled with dark clouds, and seven strange and cheerful cherubim with black wings fly above the scene. The knight is the only combatant depicted in full armor, his great helmet features goat horns and a long beard protrudes from under it.” GREAT! And, is you WIS throw, the 12 soldiers are depictions of the apostles [called ‘saints’ by the author. They are a non-native english speaker, but do a great job. At least I think it should be apostles …] while the cherubs are depictions of the seven deadly sins. Nice! While I’m usually off put when adventures engages in non-gameable descriptions, creeping the fuck out of the players is an allowed activity, especially when you’re foreshadowing the villain.

It’s also got a problem with “explaining.” Dude teams up with an evil necromancer warlock, which is used to explain manoy of the tomb effects/objects/reasons. A magic mouth triggers a zombie hoard. That sort of “cause and effect using the rules” stuff that turns D&D in to a magical rube goldberg creation. Bleech! Disembodied voice cackling? Great! Magic mouth initiated? Meh … WHich then triggers something else? Bleech!

Our vampire, proper, is really “stats as a level 5 elf with these spells …” and the ability to teleport. I THOUGHT when looking at the level limit that the 2-3 range, with a vampire, was fucking nuts. But “stats as L5 elf” with a few doilies like “can drink blood” and “takes damage from sunlight”, etc, actually works out ok. I might quibble it’s “less fantastic”, but it solves the stat problem well enough.

So, a kind of quite, historical tomb raid in the historical medieval Capathains, is a good way to vibe on this one. Decent imagery, for a fake “historically accurate” vibe without it slipping in to simulationist territory. It keeps the LotFP genre/vibe well, without engaging in the torture porn that it can sometimes slip in to. I’m not sure I would run it without a highlighter … but your mileage may vary.

This is on DriveThru for $4. The preview is five pages. Page four, at the end, gets you the Convent hook, otherwise there’s nothing much of note in the preview and isn’t do a good job at all of showing you the room encounters/the adventure you are actually purchasing.


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(5e) Falls Keep

By Lloyd Metcalf
Fail Squad Games
Level 3

First, some secret shame. I have a Patreon! It’s got free adventures, commentary on adventure design, and random musings about RPG’s, etc. And, it does help me buy adventures to review. It’s at https://www.patreon.com/join/tenfootpole?

An old keep at the head of nearby falls fills the local tavern with rumors of the past lord of the land, Lord Venwexal. The purpose of his towers is the subject of wild speculation, late night tales, and rumors.  After the lord was removed from power by a revolt, some twisted sorcery took up residence, or so the tales say. The abandoned towers have certainly fallen to the wildlands, and few, if any, survive venturing anywhere near the falls. What is sure is that the stone buildings are not standing empty, and most can agree that some powerful magic is at the heart of the unusual keep.

This twelve page adventure describes a farm and a couple of small towers full of “cursed” people. The usual long read-aloud and DM text is married to their usual bride “it attacks!” Meh.

A couple of towers next to a river. About eleven rooms total between them. On the way to the river you pass a farm, with five locations, that has some cursed chickens running out to attack you, and then a couple of more encounters. It’s trying, but never really gets to where it needs to be.

One of the first locations, at the farm on the way to the tower, is an old well. The read-aloud mentions an old barn nearby, an overturned horse trough, and the well parts dismantled and strewn about. But the DM text then tells us that we MAY (DC 15 pass per) notice blood dripping from the branches of a tree near the well. “Two children of the farm have pulled a farmhand up into the branches and are slowly devouring the the remains.” I call a foul on this encounter, putting a tree dripping blood next to the well but not mentioning it in the readaloud. As written, it rewards a min/max development. Did you get your PER up to 15? No? Then you get surprise attacked! This isn’t D&D. I know, different strokes for different folks and all that shit. CharOp is a bane and should have never been associated with D&D. D&D is a back & forth between the players and the DM. The players digging in to the environment. Mentioning the well next to the tree invites the players to look up in the tree, the non-dumb ones anyway. Player skill is trained and rewarded. Interactivity between the DM and players is reinforced. AND the players get the joy of the “children devouring the remains” imagery.

Which, frankly, could be better. I like the farm children devouring thing, but a word or two about bloody grinning faces, missing jaws, pulling out entrails, etc could have much more reinforced that imagery. The “two children” DM text, above, is one of the stronger sections of the writing, with several other encounters having something close. A dead body leaning up against a door, and so on. In all cases though it comes through muddled and not emphasized or taken beyond a slightly genericism. Just pushing it a little further, rewording a bit, reworking the emphasis, would have turned these encounters in to something much much better. Over and over again this happens.

One encounter has four paragraphs of read-aloud followed by four paragraphs of DM text. I guess there are encounters, somewhere, that could justify this, but not routinely. It detracts from the adventure as a whole. Short. Encourage interactivity. Keep the DM text focused.

And then there’s the usual shit. I’m pretty sure everything in the adventure just attacks. This is boring. As with the children, you don’t get a chance to develop the encounter, or horror. It just turns in to hacking everything down. And if you’re gonna do that then why not just Burn It Down. Seriously, if everything is going to try and kill you then you’re an idiot for exploring, just burn it all. All in all, the occasional death of a kidnapped person is going to be ok when compared to all the good you’ve done in the world by stopping an ancient evil bent on world destruction each and every week.

I would note as well an example of gimping the players. There’s a door that must be opened by living flesh and you have to solve the puzzle lock. No Knock or other magical devices will get you through. IE: the designer wants a player to have his character risk losing a finger or two to get in, while solving the lock puzzle. Uncool. Is Wizzy McWizard prepares Knock for the day instead of Fireball then that should be their decision. Knock opens doors and bypasses this shit. That’s what it’s there for. “But, ma story!” Fuck that noise. Wizzy won’t be fireballing later on, they make a cost/benefit analysis and decided on Knock. (Smart Wizard, IMO.) But to then tell them “Nope, better just prepare combat spells.” is fcuking lame. And to make them lose it at that, when they cast it? Bad design. Bad DM’ing.

Petty Shit: There’s no level mentioned in the description, you have to open up the cover images to determine what level it is. Bad form old chap!

The art, at least one piece, almost works. It shows the falls and the two towers. A little close, with a bit of “down angle” to get the top of the falls might have been a better choice to get the “vibe” of the place. As is, it’s an ok art piece to enhance the adventure, which is rare enough.

This is $4 at DriveThru. There’s no fucking preview. *sigh* Looks like there’s a S&W conversion available also.


Posted in 5e, Reviews | 9 Comments

House of Illthrix

By David A Hill
Mothshade Concepts
Level: ?

First, some secret shame. I have a Patreon! It’s got free adventures, commentary on adventure design, and random musings about RPG’s, etc. And, it does help me buy adventures to review. It’s at https://www.patreon.com/join/tenfootpole?

llthrix was an evil genius that liked to kill adventurers. His dungeons and traps earned him a measure of infamy matched by few villains of the age. He’s dead now. But, you’ve found a way to his hidden lair – Illthrix’s own home. A place rumored to contain special trophies and treasures from the long career of the famed trapsmith. Illthrix wouldn’t bother to trap his own house, would he?

This 35 page adventure details the house of a master trap maker and wizard, with about thirty rooms. There’s some nice ideas in this, but it lacks any real keying, has long DM text, and I find the read-aloud off putting and uninspired. Warning: I’m not fond of these “challenge” dungeons.

Some years ago Bob the trap wizard made a bunch of trapped dungeons and invited adventurers to come explore them. The party has found a map to his actual house, so off they go.

The fun starts outside. There’s a tree next to the house and some clouds in the sky. Climbing the tree causes some of the limbs to catapult you to the ground. Also, the clouds can either descend like a cloudkill spell or just solidify and fall on you. That’s cute. When the adventure is good its got that kind of outside the box thinking. When it’s bad it’s got some Bad Grimtooth going on.

In multiple cases doors slam shut behind you and then something bad happens in the room. This happens in the read-aloud. The read-aloud says things like “the door closes behind you with a soft click” or some such. Other read-aloud causes you to click latches on doors, and other things that no sane minded adventurer would do if they knew this was a trap dungeon, or after the second trap in a row had been sprung. This sort of forced player movement is a bane and should not be done.

The traps are sometimes telegraphed. The read-aloud for the clouds notes that they are tinged with green and turquoise. The front door description notes that they are two doors, one with  un motif and one with a moon motif. It is from this that one is expected to know that the sun door is used during the day and the moon door and night, otherwise a fire or cold trap is triggered. Initially, you don’t know it’s a trap. Once you know it’s a trap dungeon then these little trap clues make more sense. I’m still a little … iffy? about them though. On the front doors, for example, my own style is to do something like mention charred grass or a bare patch or something like that. Thus while the trap CAUSE is the focus of these read-alouds I tend to go more with a trap EFFECT in my own DM’ing. In any event, basically anything mentioned in the read-aloud is a trap and just about every room has one.  

The map is hand drawn. I like hand drawn maps. You know what I like more? Legibility. The map is small with words outside the rooms pointing back to the room. Not ideal for quick comprehension. Further, the keying of the dungeon is done via words. So there’s a tiny box on the map and some words outside the map, proper, that say “Study” with a line pointing at the tiny room. Then in the text of the dungeon there’s a section heading called “Study”. No, that would be too simple. It goes further by having the section heading say “Beyond the metal door (study) or something like that. As a reviewer you see a lot of the same stuff over and over again, so seeing novel new ideas is a joy. But the designer can’t lose track, as they did here, of the purpose of the adventure being to help the DM run it. Getting cute with the room names and relying on a non-key to key your dungeon doesn’t do wonders in that category.

The read-aloud tends to be bland, with “small” things in rooms, and other plain adjectives and adverbs. In other cases the read-aloud leads the party down the wrong path, a critical error in a trap dungeon. One room specifically notes the stairs are not slick, although the air is a bit damp. The DM text then notes that the surfaces are damp. I get it, not slick doesn’t mean it’s not damp. But we’re splitting hairs a bit in actual play. Telling the party its not slick is almost certainly going to lead to them thinking “not damp”, which doesn’t help them when the damp ass grey ooze shows up. There’s this thing tha DM’s, and adventures, sometimes do when they want you to say the exact thing. “I check the door over for traps and unusual things” isn’t good enough, because the trap on the hinge and you didn’t say you were checking the hinge and so … This sort of pixel bitching is not cool. There are a few places in the adventure where this happens, like the ooze, but it feels more like it’s from unclear or confusing read-aloud then it is from a deliberate attempt to jerk the players around. In other places the read-aloud leaves out text … in one room there are three homunculus rooting around, but no mention in e read-aloud. Again, not cool.

But, then there’s clouds falling from the sky thing, or the catapult tree, things that new under the sun. There’s also a nice little scene with a will-o-the-wisp that’s “at rest”, looking like a silver dandelion puff. That’s great! When the adventure is doing these sorts of things its firing on target. But then it goes and puts in a long backstory and embeds important information about an NPC in it.

Or it does something like “not putting a level range on the adventure. I still don’t know. 6 Maybe?

Finally, I leave you, gentle readers, with this little snippet from the adventure. It’s been a hard haul to get some treasure, for a GOLD=XP game, and then you come upon this section. I don’t like this. I like my designer to put a lot of the work in. If I wanted to put the work in I’m do my own adventure.

“For treasure, the Referee may include specimens of valuable metal ore, or rough gemstone. Other possibilities include rare antivenins, a variety of large pearls of various sizes and hues (10-800 gp each), curative pastilles or elixirs, valuable pieces of amber (20-500 gp each), and alchemical powders that replicate the magical varieties of “dust.”

This is at DriveThru for $3. The preview is six pages. You can see the hand map on the second to last page and tree/clouds on the last page. None of it really gives a good idea of the actual rooms though, so a poor preview.


Posted in Reviews | 14 Comments

The Shrine of Ptatallo

By Jay Libby
Dilly Green Brean Games
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 3-5

Half naked Hobbs, a mystic wizard and a shrine long since abandoned call players in the first Stairs of the Immortal: Swords & Wizardry adventure module The Shrine of Ptatallo!

This 23 page adventure is a linear mess in free verse form. I don’t even know what to call this style anymore. This is just a garbage linear “modern” adventure with the stats converted to S&W.

Look man, I know I can be a caricature of myself at times. Yeah, I have these things I like to say about criticizing the work not the author, giving feedback, writing a review so you can find it useful even if you don’t share my tastes, and then I show my ass by doing Reviews As Performance Art. But jesus H fucking christ man, it FEELS like adventure design is going backwards. My first exposure to the incomprehensible were the Willett/Bloodymage adventures, and it seems like the number of trusly shit-tastic things is getting more and more prevalent.

I went through this spate, in the early days, of reviewing a pile of things that were CLEARLY money grab conversions.  Slap a different game system on the cover and maybe half-ass a couple of stats and release it for thirteen different game systems. Mechanic confusion abounded, idiosyncratic parts of games were ignored (xp=gp, for example) and so on. I developed a strong hatred for the people involved in the money grabs. Sometimes you can see this spill over when I spit out the word “conversion” like it were venom. Perhaps unjustly at times.

Willett and Alfonso were different. Alfonso hadn’t played D&D in like twenty years and was just publishing to get titles under his name so a big publishing house would pick up his novels. Like the money-grabbers, his motives were less love of the game and more something else. Willett seemed like he NEEDED money, but seemed to have a love of the game that he just could not express and get down on paper in a logical way. I have a lot of sympathy for those folks. Getting a vision out of your head and down on paper in a way that makes it easy for someone else to pick up and run with is not a trivial task. And yet thousands of people manage to do it. Emulating, mostly, they get it out and down in a format that looks like it could work. And then there’s things like this adventure.

There’s this trend lately to publish an almost stream of consciousness adventure. An almost novelization. And I don’t mean fiction and I don’t mean the Paizo over-wordy bullshit. Imagine there were no maps and you were telling a story to a friend over a beer and you kept saying “and then we …” and “then I … “ and so on. Rapid fire. No pauses. Almost stream of consciousness but without as much randomness.

This seems to be format that people use when writing adventures. This is now the (fourth?) adventure in about a month or so that I’ve seen use it. I just don’t fucking get it. It’s completely confusing. You have to dig through paragraph after paragraph of data to get ahold of whats going on. The section breaks are few and far between. “The room to the right contains” and “the room to the left contains …” are the extent of the keying. Oh, wait, no, there’s also “the tunnel leads to another room that has a …” sort of thing. What kind of fucking thing is this? It’s like you just described a dungeon, room after room, in one big long section. There are paragraph breaks, but no section breaks to speak of. Some paragraph breaks are new rooms, Some are different things in the same room. How the fuck is this usable in any way? I don’t get where this is coming from but it needs to fucking stop. It’s bad enough that this adventure is completely linear, but this format, on top of it, does nothing but make my life harder at the table. How the fuck are you supposed to use this?

And the adventure is only about six actual pages long, everything else filler, fluff, and monster stats. How about some cash so you can level? Of course not.

Look, you gotta meet me halfway here. I’m happy to review new people. It’s hard as fuck to get any publicity in the DriveThru marketplace. But you need to do a little research and figure out for yourself a modicum of adventure design.

I present to you my new ratings scale, which I promise to promptly forget about as soon as I close my browser:

  • Not An Adventure
  • Stream of Consciousness Adventure
  • Emulating an Adventure format without knowing how it works
  • I know what I’m doing
  • I know what I’m doing and life has not crushed my soul

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. There is no preview.


Posted in Do Not Buy Ever, Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 25 Comments

(Pathfinder) The Book of Terniel

By Lucas Curell, Chance Kemp
Embers Design Studio
Level 1

Four factions struggle for the Book of Terniel, and in the middle of them: you! Choose a side or claim it for yourself.

This is easily one of the best Pathfinder adventures I’ve seen. It MIGHT be worth it to convert to Your Favorite Gaming system, be it 5e or OSR.

This 226 page adventure details the search for a missing book/artifact. Investigation, hex crawling, diplomacy and bluffing are all mixed in to provide what I would call A Real Adventure. There’s a lot going on in this and, while it provides good support information, it doesn’t quite provide enough to orient the DM easily.

An overview: you are in a village, investigate a missing book (with social, searching, and fighting.) It culminates with the party exploring a little mine and then it getting invaded by undead. Part two has the party doing a hexcrawl through a swamp to find the people who hit the mine before they did and who now have the book. Explore the swamp, talk to and kill people, and eventually find the lair of the “giants” who took the book. (Let’s call them “ogres.”) Part two is non-trivial and involves several humanoid village & towns in addition to the usual swamp stuff. Part three has the party in the ogre home, a huge place with multiple factions. Again, multiple social, exploration, and fighting possabilities.

Looking at that page count, I would have expected a lot of garbage detail and very little in the way of adventure. That’s not the case. There’s very little trivia and what there is presents well and doesn’t get in the way. I would have also expected a long appendix, as is usual. That ALSO is not the case. This thing is about 200 pages of actual adventure. At the end of it you are expected to be about level four, after starting at level one. I can EASILY anticipate this thing being the centerpoint of multiple months of gaming. For me that would be about twelve or so sessions. Again, this is the real deal.

Looking at the $10 price I groaned. We’ve been through this before, each of us. You pay $10 and get you a bunch of crap. And yet, I’m fond of saying that I’ll happily pay up to $50 or more for a good adventure. But we go in to this EXPECTING crap, and thus the groan. Such is the marketplace. This is worth it, easily. It does a lot of what the WOTC hardbacks are trying to do and for which only Strahd partially succeeded.

We start with a village, multiple NPC’s with short little descriptions. Several rumor tables. Talking to people yields clues on where to follow up, and maybe a side quest or two. Theoretically, this is what most adventures of this type do, so that description should be boring to you. And yet, this thing is complex. There’s a lot going on. It’s not just one throw off thing, but multiple avenues to follow up on. Likewise the swamp, with multiple areas in to gain clues and multiple paths to follow up on, with minor “quests” floating around also.

It’s able to do this well by organizing itself. Bullet points, white space, indents, colored boxes, bolding. The text is formatted to draw your eye to certain areas. There are summaries of what’s going on, of the different factions and their goals and what they want and what they will do. Oh, Oh! There are two evil factions after the book and you could ALLY with them! Your choice! I know, right?!?!?! The sidebars present extra information, trivia,or mechanically effects like what you find out for a local knowledge roll. There’s no pages of trivia mixed in. It gets in and gets out. Oh,oH! Stat blocks are NOT LONG. I know! Like, ¼ of a COLUMN!    Wtf!?! It’s like these dudes didn’t read the Pathfinder script and are actually thinking for themselves!

Here’s the description for the region the party is in, presented in a sidebar. Ready? “The countryside is quiet and serene, consisting of beautiful meadows and bubbling brooks interrupted here and there by small copses of trees. The journey should leave the PCs refreshed and comfortable.” Terse. Evocative. Provides you the exact information you need, no more, and lets you know exactly how to run the place and relate it to the players. Note how it does NOT drone on and on. That’s usual. Even in the main text the details tend to be terse.

A giant fly is “the size of a boar.” Ouch! I’ve not seen that description before, but it’s relatable. Of a misshaped giant with giant maggots in it’s rolls of fat, tossing them at the party. Visceral, in both example. A quasit has suggested dialog, both imperios or groveling, depending on the situation.There’s loot hidden in strange places with clues about to reward those who take just a little more time to follow up on details. Rewarding good gaming, imagine that!

This thing delivers a rich and complex environment, with the large fonts and varied formatting leading to the larger page count, instead of useless drivel. I could go on an on about how skill checks are used correctly, and so on (if you accept that a game has skill checks, and this being Pathfinder we’ll allow it.)

As is usual and expected, it’s not all good.

Rumors could use a little more “in voice” instead of raw facts. The hooks are terrible and probably would have been better to just not include them instead of the throw-away “guard”, “relative” stuff that is usual for garbage adventures. New magic items are overly sparse (but the few examples are pretty good.)  There are a few other minor things, like bullet point being out of order. (A good example is this cave with prisoners tied up in and two goblins. Neither appear high up in the description and only show later deeper in the bullet summary. Important/Obvious things should come first!) Related, there’s this wizards tower. And in some other place, the NPC descriptions, it relates a nosy neighbor the wizard has. But wouldn’t that have been relevant in the wizard location? To see a nosy neighbor hanging out of a window? Instead you have to remember that there’s a nosy neighbor and go look her up. These sorts of contextual references/cross-references are missing in lots of places in the more free-form play areas.

The major issue is … context? Relevance of information? I don’t know what to call it. This adventure has summaries. It does a great job with formatting, bolding, whitespace, callout boxes, sidebars, etc. (Well, for the most party anyway.) It even provides a kind of Big Picture overview. Of many of the areas/goings on. But it lacks a kind of medium level zoom/summary.

Town has some location descriptions, some NPC descriptions, a “scene” where you have dinner with the quest giver wizard, and so on. It’s even got little sections on how to follow-up, etc, on the various stuff, in places. What it lacks though is an overview of how this all works together. Normally that wouldn’t be an issue, but there’s enough going on in this that I think it’s necessary. Here’s how A relates to B relates to C. Yes, it IS possible to do it inline in the text (G1/Steading) but this adventure ain’t that one. There’s a lot more going on here. How do the various NPC’s and clues and locations interrelate? There’s an orientation missing. Same thing in the swamp for part two and the giant lair/town in part three. While the giants have a nice faction overview, how everything works together is missing and it’s too large/complex to hold in your head without it.

This means a read-through, probably multiple times, and notes and highlighter. Any time I’m REQUIRED to put in work to run the adventure I’m not happy. But this, as a kind of twelve session or so adventure, may be worth it. Individually the locations are ok and pretty easy to understand. I was also able to grok enough of the Whole Situation from the initial overview that I understand how the parts worked together … which helps with comprehension during the read-through which helps during the running of the game. But then in the middle zone, the big picture for the individual parts just wasn’t there.

But … this is easily one of the best, if not the best Pathfinder adventure I’ve seen. It tries hard to orient towards play. It avoids railroads. It’s much more than a hack. I’m having a hard time with the notes thing. If it weren’t for that I’d slap a Best on this. Given the general dreck in the Pathfinder world, I’m going to err on the side of Best, considering I consider a B, A, or Perfect to be The Best. This is good enough, if it were an OSR product. As a Pathfinder product its easily one of the best.

This is $10 on DriveThru. The preview is a good one. Pages 6&7 (in the book) give you an overview of the adventure. Pages 10&11 (in the book) show the bullets, whitespace, bolding, and sidebar usage. In fact, pages 10 onward give you a good idea of how the individual encounters/locations are presented.


Addenda: Evard says their follow-up products stink, being more typical Pathfinder. So, maybe be wary of your follow-on purchases with this publisher.

Posted in Pathfinder, Reviews, The Best | 12 Comments

Winter’s Daughter

By Gavin Norman, Frederick Munch, Nicholas Montegriffo
Necrotic Gnome
Levels 1-3

The tomb of an ancient hero, lost in the tangled depths of the woods. A ring of standing stones, guarded by the sinister Drune cult. A fairy princess who watches with ageless patience from beyond the veil of the mortal. A forgotten treasure that holds the key to her heart.

This 32 (digest?) page adventure details a nineteen room dungeon with a heavy fey bend. Gavin experiments with formatting and has a decent number of interconnecting rooms and puzzles to explore. A solid journeyman effort, if a big page-heavy.

For (reasons) you are going in to an old knights tomb. Once there you probably get asked from someone inside to find and deliver a ring to a fairy princess. There’s about eight pages of overview and background that relates a fey/human war a few hundred years ago and a hero who banished the fairy ice king …and fey dude is looking for round 2. Thus a kind of fey-heavy background and location, with them being the more classical fey/fairies than the bullshit they turned in to in later D&D. Of the nineteen rooms about four are outside the heroes tomb, and about four more are in the land of faerie, leaving elevenish in the tomb, proper.

The adventure is pretty solid, content wise. Each room pretty much has something to fuck with, examine, investigate, puzzle over, and so on. Look at a mural to find a secret word, figure out what was dragged where from scrape marks on the floor. There’s a statue with a blindfold on you can take off. Skeletons float and dance together near the ceiling in one room. A mirror freezes you in place. Each room, just a little bit and a part of a larger whole. Cultists outside greet you warmly, thinking your appearance a boon, and their sacrifice happy to be one. Frost elf knights and nobility waiting for a wedding in faerie. There’s a little bit of interactivity in just about every room.

It’s also got a decent theming. Magic is glamour. The goblins are the “merchants” variety, and chasm leads not to death but a gentle float in to the realm of faerie. Gilded mirrors, and owls with violet eyes. Elven knights, ice wines, and foppish nobility. A troll in hessian garb that is of the “moss” variety rather than the carrot nose variety. This has that airy vibe that a good fey adventure does. Fey being who they are, Holy Water and sunlight works wonders in dispelling their glamours, a nice thematic touch.

The most noticeable feature though is going to be Gavins play at formatting. He’s trying something new, I think, and experimenting with a room format that allows one or two room per page. Large grey-boxed heading draw your attention to the major features of the room. Under those are key description words, bolded. WHITE MARBE STATUE. A fair maiden (long, flowing hair and robe, upon her brow a star) Beseeching silence (the statue is posed facing the stairs, with a finger raised to her lips) Blindfolded (a black cloth wrapped around the statues eyes, covering them) Round plinth (marble, 3’across, 1’high.) And then also some bullet points like *Removing the blindfold (the inside is embroidered with golden crucifixes) And then follows another grey boxed section for another feature of the room, the stairs down. It’s in interesting format and It works fairly well for drawing the eye and allowing for expanding detail as the players ask follow up questions and probe further.

The use of adjectives and adverbs is good. a candle is “thick” and slime is in “sheets.” Brass is tarnished, skeletons slowly waltz and speak in a “distant whisper.” This is the sort of verbiage I can get behind.

He goes further with leveraging the maps. There’s a little “mini-key” on them to help the DM during play and there’s no messing around with duplication …In one room there’s a chasm and, momentarily confused, I checked the map and yes, there was a chasm! Thus map features and whitespace are leveraged to provide still more resources to the DM during play.

I will say that the background is also done in bullet-point style and I’m not sure that works. I don’t think it’s reference material, during play, and perhaps, as an evocative piece, some freeform might have been better. Likewise there are bits and pieces that feel out of place and break immersion. The main quest item is a “ring of soul binding.” This links the ghostly knight to his fiancée, the fey princess. But, it’s described in the back as a normal magic item would be, even though it’s unlikely to ever be used as one, and in particular effects other than “destroy”, etc. Better, I think, to NOT explain the knight/princess magic and simply make them bound through their love and the betrothal ring. More explanation than that is not really needed and detracts from the mystery.

But, overall, a great effort. There’s thought here in how the thing is constructed and how it tries to orient itself to the DM’s use. A little slow, I think, or maybe, melancholic? It’s a perfectly adequate adventure and I’d not hesitate to drop it in a hex crawl or some other locale. and, of course, in Bryce-speak “perfectly adequate” means one of the The Best.

This is on DriveThru for $7. The preview is nine pages and gives you a great idea of what you’re buying. Check out those last four pages to view the format.


Posted in Level 1, Reviews, The Best | 71 Comments

The Devil of Murder Cliffs

By Casey Christofferson
Frog God Games
Levels 3-5

In the pale light of the witching hour when the moon shows off its twin horns,
Tis said that a devil rises from the deep with a murderous taste for the soul.
You will know ere he stalks for the crows love to talk
About how they have picked clean your bones.

Let’s see what the Frogs are up to these days!

This 39 page adventure details a small regional with a bandit camp, some gnolls, an inn, a druid, and some loggers. There’s a meta-plot thing going on where the inn, bandits, and a ghost have some stuff going on. It feels more like the outline of an adventure, with a lot of generic detail added to it. The emphasis on act 1 & 3 is too short, I think.

Part 1: You arrive at the inn. It’s about a page long and then the inn is described, room by room, up until about page 20. The inn room description is 9 pages long with the “mission introduction” contained on a 10th page. You get your mission: defeat the bandits &| druid. Part 2: the wilderness including the bandit camp, gnoll camps, druid, evil mountain altar, logging camps, etc. 6 pages, 8 with the wanderers. Part 3: After defeating the bandits/druid you come back for a feast. Then all hell breaks loose. 1 page.

This feels more like the outline of an adventure. Imagine I wrote a page of plot. Then I write the outline of some locations to go visit. Then I expanded those locations with a bunch of generic detail, over several pages. That’s what this feels like.

The introduction/hook is a couple of paragraphs about four bandits (1hd) attacking the inn, a lady inside yelling at the party to kill them, and then her asking the party to kill the bandits and their ally, the druid. It’s almost a throw-away. I guess it’s meant to be expanded by all of the context provided in the NPC backgrounds and situation overview that appear before this. It feels like a cumbersome way to handle things. Yes, all of the NPC’s in the inn kind of make sense, but the way the “plot” is condensed in to just a couple of paragraphs seems awkward. I think maybe it could have used a little less of NPC description up front and maybe a little more in the “welcome to the inn!” sections.

Likewise, the wilderness sections are weird. A wandering monster table followed by some wilderness locales. There’s a couple of gnoll lairs that expliplify this. Just six or so cave rooms, with some generic descriptions and generic gnolls. Leaders, wives, bodyguards, young … it could be the B2 cave. It feels flat, and somehow could be replaced with “gnoll lair with 6 rooms, 12 gnolls, a chief, 2 wives, 8 young, and 2 bodyguards. 300gp” It feels weird. There’s a lot of text but it doesn’t really DO anything.

Party 3 kind of exemplifies this. It’s about a page and deals with consequences. A dinner party, maybe escaped prisoners if the party captured any and then a hunt for them in the inn, and a ghost possessing people to cause trouble, and maybe an attack by gnolls and bandits on the inn, all at the same time. First: AWESOME! I fucking love chaos in an adventure, especially at the end. A billion things going on at once! Delicious!

But, more to my point, it’ feels weird. It’s almost like THIS is the actual adventure and everything else just led up to it. But it’s covered on one page. Suddenly, the EXTENSIVE room by room inn description makes sense. If the party is doing a hide & seek with the escape prisoners then you need a full map and room description. It’s still weird though … the extraneous detail of the inn. And, yes, the designer is right, the party is likely to explore and get in to trouble in part one, so a map kind of makes sense then also. But nine pages worth?

It’s all a kind of super-weird choice. There’s this evil mountain alter that has a magic item that will be pretty hard/impossible to recover, given the permutations and lack of hints. But then it once again becomes a focus in the end of party 3, when a ghost can possess someone there. Except they can do it in part one also.

There is something to this adventure, but the emphasis and the way ideas are presented is out of whack with the clarity. Specificity is missing, and instead we get this kind of outline format that’s then expanded upon with genericism. And then it’s WAY long while the more interesting sections are very short.

And then the treasure is quite light for S&W. The gnolls have 400gp. The bandits little more. What/how the bandit officers patrol is buried in the description of the officers tent instead of the camp overview. Information is misplaced and wrongly emphasized all over the place.

Again, the concepts are not bad, but it’s quite cumbersome. Well, the inn people are baddies who betray you, which triggers lifelong D&D trauma of always sleeping together in inns and never eating or drinking their food and never making friends/allies anywhere. The DM’s party in murder hobo survival is an important tale to tell.

This is $10 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Sup with that froggies? How about letting us see what we’re buying ahead of time when you charge us $10?


Posted in Reviews | 29 Comments

(5e) Horror at Havel’s Cross

By Richard Jansen-Parkes
Winghorn Press
Level 2

When a group of archaeologists put out a call for adventurers to help them escort a valuable artefact back to civilization, nobody expects anything out of the ordinary. However, our heroes have more than mere bandits to deal with at Havel’s Cross… Undead monsters roam the night and an ancient artefact stirs within a long forgotten temple. Getting to the bottom of the mystery will require a strong sword-arm and an even stronger stomach.

This six page adventure has three encounters. It’s free text format make it hard to use during play. Any detail is lost.

So, up front, I loathe the “archeology” thing in D&D. That implies a 19th century setting and I like my D&D less Victorian/Edwardian. Miners, lost kids, there’s lots of reason to have some people disappear and someone to want to find them.

Positives: It only uses the D&D basic rules. That’s a good approach. The basic rules are enough for most people to have and it would be great to have a rich amount of data to pull from. It also uses bullet points to convey information, particularly when you question someone. If Bob has some information for you then you can expect to find three or four bullets points, each with maybe a couple of sentence. The first few words of each sentence coney the subject of the bullet, so you can scan it easily enough to find what you need. Bullets: good. Putting the important stuff first so you can easily find which bullet is which: good. There’s also a section where a DC check on a dead horse (or inside an inn) can help inform you that there might be undead involved. That sort of thing is good. I quibble with putting it behind a DC check to begin with, but at least it’s not an empty check.

And on the bad side … garbage read aloud: it’s too long and it tends to try to tell the players what they feel, etc. On the DM text side I’m going to mention something else related: “It’s like staring in to a nightmare.” Uh huh. These are both symptoms of a large problem: the adventure tells instead of shows. “You feel scared” is telling. I’m not scared. At all. It’s lame and breaks immersion. But if you describe a scene and the players GET scared, or they think “man, that’s out of a nightmare!” then you have SHOWN. This is substantially more effective. And of course, no one pays attention after two read-aloud sentences.

Did I mention there’s a roll to continue? You need to roll a DC 12 in order to find a door in order to continue an adventure. Don’t put your adventure behind a DC check that the party can fail. Yes, every DM on earth is gonna hand wave it. That doesn’t mean you did right when writing it.

The major issue, though, is the organization.

This is now the second or third adventure that is organized in paragraph form. What I mean by that is, imagine you write out the adventure without any section heading, keyed room entries, and the like. Just one long document of text, only broken up by paragraphs. Then bold a word or two. That’s an extreme example, but it’s essentially what’s going on in this adventure, and the other few like it I’ve seen. Wherever this shit is coming from it needs to stop.

There’s no keyed map. It attempts to describe the map in the text. “There’s a chamber to the left” says some read aloud. Somewhere in the text that follow is a paragraph or two that describes the chamber to the left. There’s a window to look in, but you have to hunt the paragraph that tells you what you see. The complete and utter lack of effective organization is a major pain.

If I were forced to run this close to RAW then the adventure I would run is “Contacted to find a missing archeologist. Find a dead horse outside an inn. Dead people in the inn and some goblins/a hobgoblin. Go to the dig site and find temple with empty room, a room with some ghouls, and the final chamber.” I mean it, that’s what i would run, almost verbatim, that is contained in the adventure. I would supplement this with the bullet point data, because it’s easy to find, but that’s it. I’m not gonna take ten minutes to read the room, etc when the people show up to it. It’s more important to me that the players be engaged in the game then I run the adventure as written. That means that ALL that extra detail, beyond what I typed above. Is completely worthless and should never have been written/included. Unless, of course, it’s organized in such a way that I can find and reference it during play.

But as written, now, in the free-form text flow it uses? No fucking way. This is just some generic throw-away stuff that’s hard to use, and that’s not compelling enough for me to make an greater than usual effort.


Posted in 5e, Reviews | 18 Comments