Dead Arising

By Don MacVitte
Hellebarde Games
Castles & Crusades
Levels 1-3

Yellin Bislama has committed horrifying crimes. He has admitted to leaving children in the desert, staked down. He has confessed to impaling people… And much more. The Mayor has asked you to escort him to Sand Guard, where the army will take him for trial.

This 31 page desert-ish adventure details the parties attempts to relieve a fifty-ish room fort under siege, followed by a zombie “invasion.” It knows what it wants to be but it just can’t get anywhere close to getting there. It feels like there’s an idea here but it doesn’t actually showed up formed enough for good supportive GM content … for most of the usual reasons.

Ok, so you’re escorting dude to another town for his crimes. Along the way, or at the town, you discover he’s faking it: he confessed as a distraction. The town you’re taking him to has been put to the sword and the keep has been invaded. The party “explores” the first level, fighting the dervish invaders, relieving the elfish guards on the second and third levels, and finding out that the basement has a tomb in that the dervishes has opened … releasing a bunch of zombies.

So, desperate battle inside a fortress, bodies and combat everywhere, partial zombie invasion … that’s the kind of chaos I like! Factions, excitement, confusion! But that’s not what happens here.

There’s a small overland section as the party travels to the fort. There are three wandering encounters a day, fights, as well as some pre-planned encounters (fights) along the route … which takes a day on horse and two on foot. That’s a lot of combat. There are two non-combat encounters that run far too long and explain ancient history and trivia.

Getting close, you see a burned and sacked town and the fortress, its gates battered down. And thus out comes the map. The map that someone forgot to put any doors on the rooms, so they are all walled off. *sigh*

The rooms are full of trivia. How people died. What the rooms were used for. All of the banal descriptive stuff that never leads anywhere in an adventure, only taking up word count. The hallways are either in pristine condition (no fighting evidently having taken place in them) or have descriptions found in other rooms. “Oh, wait wait, that hallway you walked down was full of blood!” Not. Good. The elf guards who you’re relieving? No consequences at all. Not a thank you, or how they generally react, or a commanders conference, or a reward. Likewise the dervish invaders have no order of battle, just waiting in their rooms to get killed. And the zombies are nicely contained in their underground tomb, with room after room containing “zombie guards” of one type or anything. 

An “adventure” that is nothing more than room after room of dervishes and zombies to fight. Throwing the party in to an event is a good idea, but then its not followed up on. It feels static and overly concerned with trivia. And at the end, after a column-long trap with an 87,000 granite block, you get 100sp and 127gp. I guess this is a “story award” adventure then … with no guidance on that?

This depressing adventure s $6 at DriveThru. (I’m not allowed to bitch about cost since I just gave an impassioned plea on a work Slack channel for quality over price in a post-consumer society.) The preview is six pages. The last page shows you a good example of the room descriptions … their trivia and the length they go to to describe nothing interactive.

Posted in Reviews | 1 Comment

The Corrupted Jungle

By Peter Rudin-Byrgess
Zweihander / ROlemaster

The action starts with the wrecking of the Wight’s Shadow. With the characters washed up on the beach they have many adventures before them and will face many horrors in a strange land of jungle, witchcraft and mutated monsters. … The adventure should cumulate in a confrontation with a Defiler who has returned to her homeland to exact her revenge and destroy her own people who drove her away centuries before.

This fifteen page adventure gives a general overview of three or four locations on an island you’re shipwrecked on. “Abstracted outline with weirdly specific mechanic details” would be how I’d describe it. 

Let’s say I write an adventure. Your ship runs aground on an island, and the crew turn to zombies to attack you. There’s four locations on the island. One is a ruined city full of religious cultists who are friendly but really want you to, voluntarily, sacrifice yourself in the volcano. There’s another set of ruins with some carnivorous apes in it. There’s a third set with an evil necromancer, who is going to wipe out the cultist village. 

That’s it. That’s the adventure content. That’s what you’re getting here, except in 15 pages. There is barely anything more specific than what I write above. Is that an adventure? It’s more of a setup, and certainly could be used like a sandbox, I suppose. But it’s just an outline. Or, even less than outline. 

The rest of the pages are taken up with wall of text descriptions of what happens in each area. The necromancers history takes nearly a column. There’s a bunch of trivia for the carnivorous apes. There’s a detailed description of how the cult leads (willing) sacrifices up to the volcano to sacrifice them … and the skill checks needed to escape. It’s all one great big giant block of text. There MIGHT be paragraph breaks, but everything is left justified so you can’t tell where a paragraph starts, just where the last one ends, I guess? It’s just a continual list of what is, essentially, if/then statements. If the party defeats x then Y. if the apes spot the characters then Z. If you defeat D then J. All back to back in that weird left-justified format.

There no main map, just a text description. You see some paths going in to the jungle, some pyramids and ziggurats over the trees. From this the DM is left to figure out which one is the “Jungle Settlement”, the “Pyramid Settlement” and the “Ziggurat”.  I find this lack of even the most basic cross-referencing maddenning. If you say that there are jungle paths and then the next section is Jungle Settlement, how am I to figure out that A leads to B? Call it Jungle Paths or something else obvious. Or, better fucking yet, use a fucking kay & fucking map! That’s what they exist the fuck to do! 

I can’t fucking stand it when I have to fight the text. When people leave shit out like a map and key. When they seem to be purposefully obtuse. The fucking left-justified wall of text shit. There is no way in hell this was ever given to anyone to look at before publication. … I find it impossible to believe that even the most kind of reviewers would overlook this shit.

This is, inexplicably, $3 on DriveThru. The preview is six pages. The shipwreck is on page four while the cult settlement is on page six. Both to a fine job of exemplifying the “content” you’ll be getting.–Adventure-Compilation-for-ZweihanderRPG?1892600

Posted in Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 2 Comments

(5e) Darkest Dream

Alphinius Goo
Gooey Cube LLC
Level 1

The Darkest Dream begins the epic tale of a group of Hanataz youth who are charged with working security for the last Carnivalle of the season. The Hanataz are the Traveling Folk of the world of Zyathé and are an ostracized people due to the many Blood-Touched membevrs of their troupes. But while the Traveling Folk are not welcome in most towns and villages, the shows they put on are enjoyed by many. However, this is no ordinary Carnivalle. Horrid and vile schemes are afoot. An ancient foe plots deadly revenge. A group of organized criminals looks to frame the Hanataz for murder. And, nearby, creatures from the Dark Below plan an attack on the camp. Beyond this, it is Darktide’s Eve, which is a time of fearful and evil portents. Can you and your friends overcome the many dangers set against you, protect the troupe, and solve the mystery of the Darkest Dream? If you don’t. Many will die. Including those you love.

It’s not a railroad, but it’s mostly unusable, or, maybe odious to use. 

At GenCon I stopped by a booth doing 5e Adventures, Gooey, and they were giving out free download coupons for a large boxed set adventure. It turns out that it is free to download for everyone. What caught my attention was the guy pitched it as a play aid to DM’s and usable, making design choices like a lay flat spiral adventure book and so on. And thus, this review.

It comes with a seven page info dump booklet for the players on the background of the setting, their carnival-folk home & setting. A twelve page philosophy/house rules booklet. A 74 page reference book with monster stats, optional encounters and so on. Seventy pages of handouts. An 82 page “items” booklet (representing about 41 cards to hand out), 51 pages of pregens, 22 pages of reward cards (about 11 2-sided cards), a 4-page NPC reference sheet (Yeah!) and the 64 page adventure book. 

You’re part of a travelling carnival group. The junior members of a rather large (by usual RPG conventions) troupe. The adventure is built around the last day of the carnival near a town before the troupe moves on to another site. The parties job is to roam the grounds watching out for trouble. There is essentially one encounter, the last one, where some kids get abducted. The rest of the adventure is wandering around the carnivals fifteen locations, each with a little encounter, and some additional optional encounters thrown in from the DM reference book. Almost like wanderers, but not quite. Thus it’s not REALLY a railroad, but not quite an adventure either. More of an “experience.” This is, I guess, a compliment. At the very least, the adventure structure is not confusing and not a railroad which makes it better than the vast majority of adventures floating around for 5e. 

“Experience” is not my thing. I’m also capable of understanding that other people like other things. I’m going to address the “experience” aspect of the adventure a bit and then move on to more universal themes, like usability, and why this adventure is bad even for those looking for an Experience.

The adventure goes to great lengths to remind you it is epic. And a story. To experience. It is CONSTANT in reminding you of that, as if in justifying itself. I would suggest that this is the wrong approach. The adventure is unlikely to convince the non-story crowd and the story crowd don’t need convinced. It wants to provide you an immersive experience, it says so several times. But what is an experience? If the DM says you’re the Chosen One and you can’t die in the campaign and the DM tells a story, ala Giovanni Chronicles, then did you have an experience? Experiences come through play, it comes through the emergent opportunities that arise during play. There must be SOME pretext and/or structure to frame things but the experience comes through the parties actions during play. It does NOT come from the story the DM is telling. That is weaksauce. And yet, that is the way the vast majority of players have learned to play D&D. The sins of the 90’s continue to haunt us. 

Experiences usually come with plot armor and its present here. The pre-gens are tough. There’s advice on not killing the party (in 5e, imagine …) and instructions to run things tough … but also on how to not kill the party. The contradictions are ripe and they all stem from The Story. 

And yet … this thing doesn’t fuck around in that area. It goes on and on and on about plot, experience, not killing, being tough, and so on. But then the adventure is actually nothing like that. The adventure does that over and over and over again. I read the adventure last, concentrating on the supplemental materials first and, based on the text in those, I was prepared to rip this thing to shreds. Not killing. Plot. Story. Experience. But that’s not actually what the adventure is. It’s fucking around for awhile to root the party in the campaign and then an encounter. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The booklet tells you that you cant just peruse a Gooey Cube adventure and be ready to run a game. But that’s not true either. This isn’t complex at all. I might suggest that there is one thing missing/keeping you from doing just that: what the locals know. If there were, like, six bullet points on the Old Well and the Sinkhole Ruins, concentrating on what the locals/carnival folk know, then this would be runnable almost out of the box. NPC’s have summaries. The encounters are cross-referenced. It’s fifteen locations, some NPC’s, and some random social-ish encounters. You could probably figure out what the locals know and make notes from the extensive backstory present. But I don’t make notes, that’s the designers job. When the party finds the old well or the sinkhole then they are likely to grab someone and ask questions … consulting twelve pages of backstory scattered around the various books is not going to be a simple task. 

This adventure does a dozen different things wrong. The NPC portraits have full paragraphs on the back instead of being scannable.  Skill rolls are perfunctory or poorly handled … but then again almost every adventure does that and I’m not ready to fight THAT battle yet. A door regens 20hp/round to keep the party from bashing it down cause it’s not story time yet! The lay-flat book does not make up for these. (And, as an aside, just like Ravenloft, this uses gypsies reskinned. I don’t understand why people do that. The adventure does give a one sentence inspired/bigotry note on the credits page, but, still, better I think not to go near the subject at all.) 

But none of this is the major problem with the adventure. The major problem is the complete lack of understanding on how to format an encounter. Ok, ok, combats are cross-referenced to the DM reference booklet so full stats, etc, are not in the main adventure text. That’s a plus. But the rest of the encounters are terrible. Not in their interactive element but in their formatting/presentation.

The read-aloud is long and usually has multiple paragraphs. It can frequently end with “What do you do?” The DM text is is conversational rather than presented in a reference format, making finding things difficult. Section breaks are largely not present in any meaningful way. Read aloud frequently tells you what you think and do. Clearly this is an attempt to provide a richer experience but this technique, in particular, just communicates a railroad novelization. 

Looking at the very first area in the carnival: “Area A – Main Food & Drinks Wagons”, a nice bold section heading. A read-aloud then follows. It says there’s a Wagon of Smile and a Wagon of Tastes and 4-5 people in line and some enticing spicy aroma from Sunnessy’s. The DM text then tells us that the PC’s know they can get something to eat from Sunnessy’s wagon and something to drink by going to the Wagon of Smiles. It then tells us that if the party goes to the back of Leena’s wagon then (mor read-aloud and DM text for her wagon.) 

The issue, here, is the lack of consistency. The adventure is mixing wagon names (taste/smiles) with names (Leena/Sunnessy.) And this is on top of read-aloud which is FAR too long. And the “if you go to Leena wagon” has no section break at all, or subtitle, it just launches in to more read-aloud for her wagon. This the effect is a long multi-page string of text, lengthy sections bolded for read-aloud, and no real ability to quickly locate which sections of text are relevant to the situation the party is in … forcing the DM to waste time and hunt the information down. This is not usability; it’s the opposite.

The adventure is trying desperately to create an immersive experience with ethe read-aloud but it instead comes off forced. Here’s but two sentences in an overly long section: “But of greater interest to you is that she also pours the sweet libations that she and Stoof so expertly dis- till. You can see Leena – her face just above the counter on the wagon-side – grumbling as she pays out to a local for winning an arm-wrestling match.” Clearly more appropriate to a bad fantasy novel than an adventure. The read-aloud is trying present vignettes, little scenes, full of color and life … which run them in three or four paragraph length. This is not the way to accomplish this. At one point, in front of a (seven?) page read-aloud then DM advice is “If yours is the type of group that doesn’t like ‘story time’ …”  No one likes story time. Yes, thats the background data to be handed out beforehand, but, no one likes a three paragraph read-aloud. This is not the way you accomplish the immersive experience.

Trim the read-aloud. A lot. Format the DM sections so information is easier to find. Trim WAY back on the useless DM advice like “you can vary the length of the people standing in line if the party comes back later …” Put in a summary of what the locals know about the area, somewhere. 

Finally, the adventure feels like a series of encounters. Given the locations and the “wandering” encounters, it feels more like little self-contained items. Instead, integrating some of the encounters together in a suggested format would have been a good idea. Hints and foreshadowing. The guy with the eye-patch? Imagine a chart that has little hints and stuff as an aid to the DM, so the party catches sight of things before the main event happens. A sort of timeline of the optional events, or, rather, hints and foreshadows of the optional events, with the location events worked in, to give a more organic feel to the entire adventure.

A timeline isn’t a railroad. It throws out hooks, right and left, giving the party options. It creates a depth to the carnival that individual encounters can never have, no matter how much read-aloud there is. THAT’S what is going to create an immersive experience.  

 I applaud the goal of usability and immersion. Usability is more than a four-page reference sheet with 50 NPC’s on it. Immersion is not read-aloud. Trivial DM asides are not useful information. 

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 19 Comments

Temple of the Harpies

By Morten Greis
Aegis Studios
Levels 2-3

A small child has been stolen from their parents, and the adventurers must find their way to the temple not just to gain riches and uncover secrets of the past, but also to save the child. During the exploration of the ruin, the characters may unleash an army of undead, whom they must contend with.

This fourteen page adventure describes a ruined midwife temple with twelve rooms in about six pages. Decently organized, evocative writing, interactive … it manages it all before throwing in a bunch of room history to muddy things up. This needed a hard edit and it didn’t get it. Still, it’s ok.

There’s this concept of unique monsters that is not usually touched upon. You’re not fighting A troll, you’re fighting THE troll. It elevates the monster back to mythic status. This adventure has a bit of that going on … you’re fighting the first harpy. In the place where was cursed to be one: the temple to a midwife of which she was in charge. And she now steals babies to turn them in to harpies. That’s a fucking story. It makes sense, and when things makes sense you can build on them. It’s not followed through on much; there’s a village nearby that knows there’s a harpy there, so the whole mythic angle kind of falls off … but still, harpy stealing babies is great.

The adventure pays attention to things the DM needs to know. The entry for “outside the temple” has a little section on what the party finds out if they scope out the ruins for awhile. Perfect! That’s something parties do and the adventure gives you some advice on what they see. Two sentences. It also notes obvious ruins entrances. Again, perfect; that’s the question people ask and the adventure helps the DM answer it. This sort of thing continues in the adventure. One room has notes about attracting the attention of creatures in the next room, with notes about how they react. It’s got a cross-reference to point the DM at the relevant section. 

It’s not that adventures need a “view from outside the ruins” or notes on what the party sees if they stake the place out, or notes on reactions of nearby creatures. Not per se. What’s notable is that IN THESE SITUATIONS IN THIS ADVENTURE the DM could use some extra guidance/help and the designer recognized this and provided it. Yeah, these specific examples are going to fit a lot of adventures, but the general rule is the important one, not the specific one. The creatures that you could conceivable talk to, by parlay or torture, have a little sentence or two on what they know. Again, just what the haggard DM ordered. 

Interactivity is good. Exploring, talking to ghosts, interrogating kobolds. And even, potentially, bargaining with the harpy for the most recently kidnapped baby. Secret doors need things to be opened. A room causes you to cry tears of holy water. You can swamp a statue baby for a real one. For only twelve rooms it’s pretty good.

And the writing it pretty decent also. Leaves blown in to the corners of rooms. A stench of wet dirt. Low mists with gravestones peeking out. “None of the skeletons have any skulls.” It’s primarily from the read-aloud, which is kept short. It feels a little forced at times but I’m going to attribute that to perhaps some second-language issues. (And to be clear, the english here is excellent, perhaps just missing some of the nuance that a REALLY talented writer could bring.) 

The read-aloud generally refers to things in the DM’s text. The DM’s text has paragraph breaks with holding to draw the eye to the appropriate section “The Items on the floor” section has the details on … the items seen on the floor from the read-aloud. The writing does tend to be a bit long but the combination of the read-aloud referring to the bolded section that follow, with the use of whitespace makes it all pretty easy to find what you need in a hurry. 

This is an O&O adventure, which I THINK is based off of B/X. If it’s gold=xp then the gold is a quite light.

I mentioned that the writing can be long. THis is generally because of the rooms history. “Originally this room was a blah blah blah” says the paragraph that drones on for four sentences. I don’t care why the roof is destroyed, be it time or siege. I don’t care that visitors nevers went to this room, only midwives. This doesn’t matter to the adventure. Or, rather, I only care about those details in as much as they relate to the party exploring. Crumbling roofs are great. How they got that way is useless trivia that gets in the way of quickly scanning the text to find what you need to run the room. Unless, of course, it has some bearing on the adventure. Some DIRECT bearing on the adventure. Not a “might be nice” detail. Not a “depth and richness for the DM.” There’s a place for that, but not two cousins removed. 

Decent adventure which would be made better by the delete key. I don’t see an editor listed, but, that probably wouldn’t have made a difference anyway, so oh well.

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is only three pages. The last page shows you the “outside” text and the beginning of the first room. The read-aloud is not the bets in the adventure (it’s one of the poorer examples), but the DM text and attention section are good examples of what’s to be found deeper in. Another page of “real” text would have been appreciated.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 12 Comments

The Chaos Triads

By Steven Marsh
Steve Jackson Games
The Fantasy Trip
"Starting Characters"

A dying heir, an abandoned mine, and a closely-held secret figure into this gamemastered adventure for The Fantasy Trip, as a group of heroes set forth on a mission of mercy. But they are not the first to take on this quest, and the actions of their predecessors will bring them up against the edge of Chaos itself. Can they survive an encounter with the Chaostained?

Hey. a bunch of Fantasy Trip aventures showed up on DriveThru! Let’s review one!

This thirteen page adventure is a linear series of combats divided by a couple of puzzles for eleven-ish encounters total. It shows signs of life during the alloted “roleplay” sections but its clear this is a tactical minis combat game with some bits around it. And a badly formatted one at that. Surprise.

The little prince has a poison dart in his neck, full of chaos magick, that can’t be removed. Granny wants you to get the Chaos Orb from a nearby mine; it will draw out the chaos from the dart and make it safe to remove. You’re adventuring company number three to take up the task …

Not a bad hook. Certainly with slightly more nuance and realistic motivations than most. And that’s a theme with this adventure, it generally makes a bit of an appeal that’s just a bit more than usual. Grannys advisors privately tell you they don’t expect you to succeed, but enough of an effort must be made to make her mourning easier. The second adventuring party is a scan, taking the money, running, and turning back to their usual banditry ways. Just a little bit more makes the usual fantasy throw-away tropes just a little more interesting for the party to play with. 

The Chaos monsters in the adventure gets some good random effects; one good and one bad each. They attract objects so missile weapons are easier to hit this one, and that one can rewind time. In addition there’s some decent examples of freaky behavior as the party gets closer to the orb, birds flying without flapping their wings and a list of other effects. This gets to the matter of making things interesting for the party and supporting the DM. Not just “weird things happen” but also a short list to use or inspire the DM to greater heights. Which is what the adventure should be doing.

It’s also just a linear combat adventure with little thought to the DM actually running it.

For all the world this reminds e of a 4e adventure. Or, maybe, one of those Starfleet Battles Campaigns. A bunch of tactical mini’s combat strung together with some pretext in between them. I know little of Fantast Trip, It’s clear that hex-based tactics is a big part of it. Enter room. Monster. Some other weird combat effect (ala 4e complications) and then combat.

In between this are a couple of room that could be considered puzzles. A room fills with water, or a robot-man guardian asks a riddle. Or a LARGE number of rats run past you … not attacking. But it feels weird. It feels like “THIS. IS. THE. COMBAT. ROOM. LET. US. HAVE. COMBAT.” The puzzles, weird shit are better, but it feels obvious what;s a puzzle and whats combat. And that’s never good.

SJ Games has done no favors in the editing department. Long sections of text rarely broken up with bullets, bolding, and other techniques to draw the eyes. The rumors section is all written in paragraph form, making glancing and absorbing difficult. And the actual encounters … Five paragraphs for some rats running past you. The second room has twelve paragraphs. This thing is bloated to all fuck, strecthing out what would normally be a quite short adventure indeed. The bloat makes it hard to find things. 

This resembles more of a funhouse dungeon: some 4e tactics rooms spaced out by some puzzle rooms. There’s a bear in one room … because bear. 

 This is $5 at DriveThru. There is no preview. Hey! Big timey publisher! How about throwing the consumer a bone and putting in a preview so we get a chance to see a bit of what we’re buying before we throw away our money?

Posted in Reviews | 1 Comment

The Wizard’s Marbles

By Danita  Rambo
A Dash of Adventure
Level 5

A story of forgetfulness and secrets for 4-6 adventure-seeking characters at 5th level. This self-contained story runs around 3 to 5 hours.

It’s been awhile since I trotted out The Worst EVAR tag, hasn’t it? I guess, all things considered, I get what I deserve. I mean, I throw myself in to these things without any consideration for the signs. Look at that mights description. All of two sentences. (But at least Danita but the level range in there, something that a lot of people, strangely, do not do.) Two reviewsa three-star and a two star. What the fuck does it take to get a three star review on DriveThru? EVERYTHING gets five fucking stars on that site. Well, except, what, Mines, Claws, Princesses? Didn’t that get a shitty review or two? So, see, there’s precedent; asshat fuckwits give good things lowball ratings on DriveThru … so this could be a case of that. Except it’s not. Sometimes a cigar is a cigar. 

This twenty page adventure has four rooms/scenes. In lear order, of course, because story and plot are everything. 

Except …. When is a twenty page adventure not a twenty page adventure? Well, there’s the cover and title page, so that’s now eighteen pages. And the last six pages are absolutely blank. Completely. We’re now at twelve pages. Then there’s the two page irrelevant backstory. That’s ten pages left. Then there’s that two page appendix and a one page journal entry at the back. That’s seven pages. Then there’s one page on how to run the adventure, so now we’re at six pages of content for four rooms. Better than twenty pages for four rooms I guess. Fucking shit is misleading as all fuck. Steading was what, eight pages? For a bazillion encounters WITH an embedded story?

How do you feel about read aloud? How do you feel about A PAGE of read aloud? It describes you approaching a wizards tower, going in, up the stars and in to another room. How’s that for player agency? Not even a pretext of player agency here, just DM plot. At the end of the page long read-aloud you’re told that players can use a Detect Magic spell to see a glow as from the school of transmutation. It’s meaningless, of course, and has no impact on the adventure at ALL, so of fucking course we have to be told about it.

Fucking trivia. This thing is FULL of trivia. Room contents exhaustively catalogued and described. Does it matter? Will the party interact with it in a key way in the adventure? No? THEN DON.T PUT THE FUCKING DETAILS IN. Imagine an encounter in a kitchen. Do you, as the designer, need to put in every detail of the kitchen and exhaustive list all of the contents? No. We all know what a kitchen is. We can make shit up and fill in. That’s one of the jobs of the DM. And more is not better. It’s less. It detracts from the DM’s ability to find the PERTINENT information in the adventure rather than the trivia in the adventure. Scannability at the table is a critical criteria and these trivia details only detract from that.

There’s Roll to Continue moments, where you can’t continue the adventure without making skill checks. This is dumb. Every DM ends up fudging these rolls so the adventure can go on, so, why put them in? Are we just not expected to do anything? It’s far better to have consequences as a part of a roll, rather than making them a block, or, even better than that DONT HAVE A FUCKING ROLL. Why are they rolling? Because that’s what you do in D&D, roll dice?  Because that’s the convention you’ve learned? The BAD convention you’ve learned? 

There’s a riddle presented that’s never explained. One NPC says “idhssattiea” to another. It’s a key point in the adventure. It’s never explained. I still have no idea. 

In every scene, because that’s what this, a scene based plot fest, you get a little thing like that. Solve the riddle. Get multiple chances. If you do you get a marble. If you don’t you don’t get the marble. In both cases, you go to the next scene. Finally, at the end, you fight a mind worm (It’s all fake! You’re in someone’s memories. Yeah you! You’re impotent to impact certain things! Fun!) 

“Once you feel the party has asked enough or gotten enough background out of the room, then continue on. A glowing archway opens and you see a black space…” That’s not design. 

This adventure is crap. It’s also a classic case of good intentions not playing out. People don’t set out to write bad things. They have, I’m sure, an exciting idea floating around in their head. But it doesn’t come out right. Can you just write, stream of consciously, throwing words down on a page with little order or thought and have a good adventure? Fuck no. And it doesn’t help that the vast majority of examples people have to turn to are shitty as all fuck. Usable/Scannable at the table. Evocative Writing. Interactivity. How many adventures, the 70’s till now, manage to use push those three sliders far enough to the Good side to produce a decent adventure? And people are supposed to know what Good is, to emulate, when the big publishers just don’t give a fuck and toss out more dreck for the masses to gobble up?

A template with colorful borders and nice cover do not an adventure make. I’ll take a single column black on white adventure with some usability over gloss any day. Concentrate on the writing. On the usability. On the interactivity. Put all of your effort there. Then spend a minuscule amount of time on the gloss. Once you’ve got the basics down you can expand and make your gloss better.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $3. The preview is six pages. The last page shows you the first room and is EXCELLENT indication of what’s to come.

Posted in 5e, Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 6 Comments

Shrine of the Wolf Maidens

By Catherine Evans
Aegis Studios
Levels 2-3

An adventurer named Jorasco Vinn was commissioned by Madeina Ilrekar, a prosperous merchant from the town of Dela’s Tor, to explore a certain area of the Untamed Gauntlet for signs of precious metals worth mining. All he found was an old shrine to a minor local deity whose name is long forgotten. Now Madeina’s daughter Silvega has gone missing and there is no sign of Jorasco. Madeina has put two and two together and made five: she believes he has kidnapped Silvega and stolen her away to this ancient shrine… where human sacrifice was routinely practiced.

This ten page adventure, with about four actual content pages, details about six linear encounter areas in a small shrine. It’s ok, nothing special. 

There’s just not much here to review. Six-ish encounters is not much at all. Meet some centaurs in the woods and talk to them. Then go through a linear five room shrine dungeon and fight some wolves and then a proto-werewolf. 

Read aloud is about four sentences per encounter. Your quest-giver has her information laid out in bullet points. The dungeon is linear and the two combats are, obviously, forced. Usually not a good thing in an OSR adventure. 

I like the O&L setting of writs of exploration and reconquering the frontier … but that’s a setting thing. 

There’s a random trap in a hallway and I’m almost never fond of that. “If the thief detects traps …” I think this slows down play. Either the thief is continually checking/rolling/asking or they will be after a rando hallway trap. The thief mechanics for hallway traps just don’t work.

I will say, though, that’s a cypher puzzle that done well. It’s just a simple letter substitution, but it’s left to the players, with a good hint, to solve as opposed to their characters. Stuck? Some int/skill checks will have the DM giving you some hints at certain levels. Don’t want to bother? Bashing the door down is covered as an option. Can’t succeed on your bash? Then the DM is instructed to just provide some damage as the door falls down to the parties attempts. THis isn’t the same old roll to continue the adventure nonsense. It’s a player puzzle, which is great, with options to bypass it, which is also great. It goes on a little long, but clearly shows a greater knowledge of design.

Can you have a B/X dungeon with five rooms? I guess so. But then it feels more like a “plot” adventure from 3e/5e. Linear. Forced fights. But then the chosen format would get long, at almost a page per room any real length would be hard to manage. 

I guess a “its ok” means I don’t hate it, but there’s just not much to it. 

This is $2 on DriveThru. The preview is three pages. The last page shows you the (probable) non-combat centaur encounter. Longish, but ok I guess?

Posted in Reviews | 8 Comments

The Banshee’s Tower

By Joseph Mohr
Old School Roleplaying
Levels 6-8

Travelers have complained recently about hearing strange noises and seeing strange things at an abandoned elven tower on the outskirts of the great forest. Some of these travelers have even reported deaths among their companions from mere firght at what they have seen or heard at the tower. Legends about this tower are that it once belonged to a banished elven princess. The elves of the woods sieged this tower several hundred years ago. Few humans remember the reasons why, But a few bards mention a legendary harp made of solid gold once owned by the princess. And it is said to have incredible magical powers…..

This thirty page single-column adventure details a ruined tower & dungeon with about 27 rooms scattered over four levels. Minimally keyed but with extensive, non-intentional, padding, it had my teeth grinding the entire time. 

One of my first college classes was a public speaking one. They used the gimmick of recording your talk for you to review later. Once I heard all of my Ummm, Ahhh, You Know pauses I was fixed for life; I almost never do that anymore in any form of speaking. I’m going to do something similar to that in this review.

“2. Guard Post

This was once a guard post. Men were stationed here to guard the room. They guarded it well. There is refuse from the guards beds on the floor. The guards items no longer remain but the guards do. 12 Wights (former guards)”

Ok, got it? Repetition. Yeahs, it’s also a terrible description with the past referenced, trivia and puts the most obvious things at the end. Hopefully you now cannot unsee these things. Now let’s look at a more subtle example from this adventure. 

“16. Guard Post

This was once a guard post and barracks. Bedding is strewn about the place and water has pooled up in the southern portion of the room. The most trusted and loyal of Shandalar Raloqen’s soldiers are still guarding this room.”

No? Not convinced? How about the potomac example of a bad room description, from that Dungeon Magazine adventure. Remember it? A long room description describing the contents in all its glory, only to end with “but that was all looted long ago and none of it remains.” 

And from the adventure “This room was once the armory for the tower. This area clearly saw some battle as a large section of the north wall has been caved in. The source of this collapse is still found in the room. A large boulder once fired by a trebuchet sits in the center of the floor.

This area has many thick webs all across the room. Glints of metal can be seen from racks along the south wall.”

This thing does this over and over and over and over again. It feels like every single room is in this form. This was X. But it now Y. And this things in the room was once A. It is now B.

“Where a gate house once stood there is nothing but emptiness. The two structures beside the opening clearly were designed to threaten anyone entering from this point. There are arrow slits still visible from both sides of this entrance. The gates have rotted away. The roof above this area has fallen in. Bits of rubble scattered in this area suggest that this was once a well guarded part of the fortress.”

“Defenders of the tower used this fortified area to fire arrows at attackers. Arrow slits point in three directions. Now all that remains here are arrowheads stacked near the wall. These were once attached to arrows and were in barrels for the defenders use. Those wooden arrows and barrels have disappeared over time but the arrowheads remain.”

These things are empty. They are nothing. Nothing but padding around rubble. 

There’s a statue. It’s noted as not having any magical properties. Well of fucking course not. That’s the usual state of the fucking world. No, wait, I’m upset. I’m upset that all of those arrowheads, rubble, boulders, rotter gates and so on ALSO don’t tell me that they have no magical properties. Do they or don’t they?

Dead Elf Chick/Banshee’s name is/was Shandalar Raloqen. That name appears no less than than 35 times in 30 pages and twenty times in the 27 rooms of the dungeon. “This was Shandalar Raloqen’s cup. Shandalar Raloqen drank from it. Because Shandalar Raloqen needed water to live.” No, that’s not in the text, but it COULD be. 

This is padded all to hell and is a perfect example of why one needs an editor. But then again, everyone here knows that, having long suffered my “I don’t give a fuck” typo style

On the plus side there’s a curse scroll that turns you in to a puddle of water and you drain away in the floor cracks. Dig it! Also, it’s on Shandalar Raloqen desk, next to a Candle of Insanity. Why did she, in life, keep that on her desk? Meh. Also, I wonder if that desk is magical …

Ultra minimally keyed and padded, unintentionally I think, out to fill word count and page count.

This is Pay What You Want on DriveThru with a suggested price of $2.50. The preview is six pages long and shows you nothing of the adventure except a wandering monster chart (full of bats & rats! For levels 6-8! Simulation is boring) and the lame-o backstory of Shandalar Raloqen.

Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments

(5e) Everyone Plows the Graveyard Farm

By Remley Farr
Levels 1-3

Giant bugs have ravaged the farming town of Castillo, and as society crumbles, warring factions rise from the rubble. Can the PC’s navigate this new society well enough to find an altruistic solution, or will they choose a side and determine who will rule the dead-littered town?

This 42 page sandbox adventure details the situation in a small rural community, around ten major locations, beset by trouble and warring factions. The situation is great. It’s put together well in a neutral sandbox manner and does a great job outlining the various factions and locations, supporting it all with good tables. It lacks a bit of independent action by the factions, but is otherwise a good adventure.

42 pages, at triple column, with at least thirty detailing actual locales, etc? Only the last ten pages left to monsters, tables, etc? This thing is STUFFED FULL and I love it. I don’t even know where to begin. Giant bugs overrunning a small rural community. Asshole taking advantage of the economic trouble by buying up land and becoming that is almost a bandit king over town and the surrounding community. Insular halfling-led island that resembles a fortified town from The Walking Dead. A doomsday cult out in the open running around burning shit down and recruiting troubled folk down on their luck. Big game hunters from distant lands, here to hunt eh giant bugs. With some getting hired out from time to time for protection, etc work. A GIANT ant colony with an intelligent queen. A colossal behemoth of a scorpion beyond the parties abilities. A couple of loners hanging out by themselves, all with major personality issues. This thing has a SHIT TON going on. It’s a great way to deal with a sandbox … lots going on, a field full of open gas tanks with the party there setting off fireworks in the middle of it. What I’m saying is that this has enough for a DM to work with. That’s rare. Usually there’s just one or two things on in an adventure. A good sandbox though generally has A LOT going on. And this is a good sandbox.

A couple of the hooks are more than the usual fare … and come straight out of a Segio Leone western, with the party getting hired by one of the factions to do something for them, getting caught up in what’s going on. The slumlord is even called Don Diego. 

We get a nice faction overview laid out on a few pages, one per column, with art, a little write-up, and then a section on likes, dislikes, goals and the like that’s organized, bolded, and easy readable at a glance. Perfect for a DM at the table. Maybe a one-page summary would have been nice, with everything on one page, but it’s good enough. They are all colorful and therefore memorable, which means well done.

The central mechanism is a one page regional map. It has each of the major locations on it, which roughly correspond to one per faction … about ten in all … some actual factions and some just loose individuals with their own goals, etc. There’s a little text bubble on the map that gives about a one sentence description of the place. It works well. In fact, I REALLY love the map as the kind of central index of the adventure, the one thing at the center of all of the organization, and the text bubbles help a lot with that. I will note, though, that the map is crying out for some color. Something Harn-like, or a little lighter, showing elevations, waterways, etc would really bring it to life. It could also use some page references in those text bubbles … which page of the adventure has the details of that site. It’s not a deal-breaker, for other reasons, but it would have been a nice touch.

Each of the sites is contained on ABOUT one page, maybe a few more for some of the very major locations. Good section heading breaks combined with generally short text and bolding makes it easy to scan. It’s basically an outline of a location, with a little map, major features, things going on and so on. From that, almost note-like format, the DM runs the location/situation. It works really well for an adventure like this.

There’s some great tables for generating a servant or mercenary. Wandering monsters/encounters are up to something. There are some cross-references present. Support for generating random farmhouses and what happened there/their occupants. It really supports the DM well. 

I’d say there are three things in the adventure that don’t work well. The first is the lack of a … zoom out? Each section/locale needs just one more little paragraph describing how things work together. Maybe two sentences more. Watermill’s survivalist outpost at night, lit by their frequent fires, and so on. An initial paragraph that maybe references the other bolded sections for more detail.

Zooming out even further the same could be said for the entire adventure. Each of the locales feels static. What’s its missing is a timeline of events. The wanderers tables, etc give a little burst of energy to various things, but it doesn’t feel holistic. While the factions have goals, etc, they don’t materialize in terms of actions. A general outline of some daily things to stir things up and keep them moving would have helped a lot with this. While the adventure notes “warring factions” that doesn’t really come across. It doesn’t need to go full on Mortiston on it, but a little would help a lot.

The weirdest thing is maybe the slumlords mansion. It’s room/key format, with 31 or so room on a couple of levels. It also lacks a guard schedule, or a kind of overview, events, etc that would add some life to it. It’s a mix of “assaulting the mansion” oriented text and of “interacting with the folk inside” text. Maybe that the Fistfull of Dollars things, where the location gets used for both. It’s a little TOO open-ended though. 

But, that doesn’t make this not one of The Best, cause it is. 

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages. You get to see the faction text, the one page regional overview, and one of the random tables, a random farmhouse generator. That first page of text “Page 1” could be thought of representative of the entire text. Note how it covers many topics in one page, high level but still focused on adventure.

Posted in 5e, Reviews, The Best | 5 Comments

The Temple of the Blood Moth

By Jacob Butcher
Abrasax Press
Levels 3-5

A science-fantasy horror dungeon for Old School versions of Dungeons & Dragons. You stare into the face of planetary death. Fight or drown.

What’s that little Timmy? Lassie is trapped in the well? Errr, I mean, people are bitching that a 24 page adventure is $8 without a preview? Well, obviously then, I have no common sense and will buy it.

This 24 page digest-sized adventure details four levels of a cult temple over about six pages, with about 31 rooms total .. and a few extra unnumbered/empty rooms thrown in on the map. Resembling those Psychedelic Fantasy adventures, it is ripe with unique monsters and treasure. Combined with evocative writing, it makes a great OD&D weird-ass adventure … without, I think, going in to gonzo territory. It’s a good adventure.

The writing here is short and bursting with evocative bits. “1: Sun-Lit Chapel. Rows of pews. Tall stained glass windows depict the Sun-God and moths at each stage of their life-cycle. Yarrow Bren the cultist can be found praying to the Blood Moth for power, offering everflowing blood in return.” That is a rock fucking solid description. 1. Sun-Lit Chapel. Not Room 1. Not Room 1 Chapel. It gives the room a name, Chapel, and then also adds a descriptor word to it, Sun-Lit. Thus, immediately, we get the sense of this room. It doesn’t do this consistently, for every  Feeding Pit there are three Courtyards, Shrines, and Stairwells, but when it does it it’s great. Note also the brief flashes of evocative imagery. Rows of pews. Tall stained glass. Combined with the Sun-Lit we get a perfect mental image of the chapel. Sun streaming in through those tall stained glass windows, rows of pews with a solitary figure praying at one end. That is EXACTLY what evocative writing should do. The creature in the room is doing something, praying, with aspects of his personality and additional “action” relayed in his request and offering. This is exactly the sort of writing that I’m looking for. It makes an impact. “Cistern: Unlit torch sconces. Vaulted brick ceilings. Filled to your shins with dark, lukewarm water.” Nice.

And it does it while also being terse. That’s not a requirement, but it IS generally an easier way to make an adventure usable at the table. The longer the writing then the more thought has to go in to editing, layout, and the use of whitespace and organization to make it scannable at the table. Or you can just keep the writing terse. Both work. 

It’s full of creepy imagery, like a stained glass porthole in the floor, heavy leaden glass, almost covered in dirt … and you can see something moving on the other side. Nice. 

Magic treasure is unique. It’s all new and weird … like “pearl snails” that turn blood in to water over an hour. And then there’s more conventional magic treasure also, like arrows and needle knives. But no generic +1 swords, thank Vecna. Imagine that, a designer adding original content to their game. Almost like value .. hmmm.. May be something in that … Anyway, monsters are unique also, which I always like. Keeps the players guessing. I should note that the conversion notes from OSR to 5e are essentially “find a similar monster and stat it that way.” A little loose for many in the 5e crowd, but ok in my book … mostly because I’d just do it on the fly.

Wanderers table has then engaged in some activity and is arranged progressively, with deeper levels getting a d8, d10, d12 wanderer die all on the same table, reusing the lower level entries while adding new entries. I’ve always loved the elegance of that mechanic, when it’s appropriate to use it, like it is here. AT least one of the hooks is ok, with the party sent to find/kill/etc someone in a village … only to find everyone has disappeared. It’s not ground-breaking, but it adds a complication to an otherwise generic quest.

It could be better. Monetary treasure is VERY light for an OSR game. Gold=XP and there ain’t no coin XP to speak of in here, which is a hyperbolic way of saying treasure or the non-magical variety is VERY light indeed. There’s a stinker here and there in the room descriptions. Room 28: Golden Altar is described as “he High Priest performs rituals and sacrifices here in order to progress the eventual coming of the BLOOD MOTH.” Well, ok, that’s a mega-lame description, especially in light of the others present in the adventure. There’s also a place or two where sound or light should have been noted on the map or in other room descriptions. In one area, in particular, a giant larvae bashes itself against the door. That’s something you need to know BEFOE The party reaches the room, to communicate to the party in previous rooms or as they approach. Sometimes its important to know things before people reach an area. That can be done in the text or much more elegantly via the map for sound/light, etc. 

This is a good adventure. Creepy. Evocative. Usable. A great journeyman adventure for whipping out to play. The way EVERY adventure should be.

This is $8 at DriveThru. This appears to be a part of the ZineQuest Kickstarter thing, with the designer having a blog, Flowers for the Titan Corpse. It appears to have some ties to the art side of the RPG world, with a Thank You to the Fall 2018 Simulation Art class. No doubt the designer labours under the impression that people should get paid for their work. Of course, writing is even less appreciated than art, the barrier being far lower. The resulting flooded marketplace makes it challenging to price anything above $0. For self-published work a PWYW structure may be best, reserving payment to work-for-hire. I’d pay $8 for this, knowing what I know now. But a $8 blind buy is a thing indeed, given that at least 99% of everything on DriveThru is crap. I’d guess the price is related to the kickstarter pledges. But, anyway, no preview.

Posted in Reviews, The Best | 44 Comments