Delve of the Handsome Repeater

By Brine
Beasts & Barrows
"Low Levels"

A face protrudes from the ground; an ancient giant, buried to the chin and left for dead. Volcanic rocks drape the mound, giving the appearance of jagged tufts of sable hair. An agape cave mouth emits whispered echos from below. Locals avoid this place. They call it “The Handsome Repeater”. An ageless subject of rumor and superstition; its origins long since forgotten. Lately… creatures have been breaking free from its eerie depths.

This eighteen page adventure describes an eleven room mostly linear cave dungeon. It has some classical (as in Greek) themes and features Tricks more than monsters. But what there is can be quite interesting. It makes no sense, but, I’m intrigued, as a mini-dungeon that pops up in, for example, a hex crawl.

This is a mostly empty dungeon with a few things to poke at. But, it does, at points, have a kind of mythic feel. A lonesome, despondent vibe is present … made all the worse by the lack of creatures in the dungeon and/or the way the wanderers behave. It is this vibe that I want to explore first.

Read that marketing intro again. A giant face, mouth agape as if screaming, covered in volcanic rock. Did you rock form around it or did the was it carved, or did the creature melt in? Who knows. But, the design is certainly … weird? Mythic? You know you are somewhere else. Then, the dungeon itself has a lonesome feel to it. It DOES have references to Echo and Narcissus in it, which help contribute, and a lack of creatures, which helps contribute to this vibe. And, then … there’s the monsters. There are none. I mean, Echo appears in one room. That’s the extent of the creatures. Everything else is handled by wanderer rolls. “When the DM sees fit and/or the paty tarry too much.” I’m not a fan of that mechanic. It’s arbitrary, and not in the good way that wanderers are supposed to drive the game forward and provide a time pressure element. It’s just “fuck you, have a wanderer now.”

Having said that … oh what wanderers there are! I often talk about the wanderers needing to DO something. How they should not exist to only attack. They need something to spur the encounter on, to inspire the DM. These wanderers do NOT follow my advice. Or, maybe they do, but in an unusual way. They make noise. Scary noises. Thus the wanderer table has a monster name and the noise they make. I am a GREAT man of foreshadowing in an adventure. This usually comes in the form of avoiding Lareth the Beautiful syndrome. Other adventures sometimes leave clues around, like monster spoor on the ground. This is closer to that. What you get is something like “mortal bellow and the abrasive sound of metal on stone, dragging.” Let’s say the DM works that in a bit, dropping it around. Then, the players will be SHITTING themselves in fear. And the best D&D moments impact the players instead of their characters. When the actual minotaur shows up dragging its axe, then the players will all immediately GET IT, which is a great moment, they love figuring things out, and feel foolish for not getting it, and get to reap the rewards of their fear. Or, how about deafening screams and the flapping of heavy wings? The stench of rancid meat and sticky slitherings? It does a great job providing some meat to the encounter beforehand. The pre-ride line at DIsney, so to speak. 

Other than this, the adventure can be a hit and miss at times. The local village is only described in one word “shantytown” with “Dewy Churls” being used to describe the occupants. The’s probably all you need for an adventure like this. The rumors from the churls are an interesting lot. They range from the usual/generally poor of “echos from the delve curse all who hear them” ro “its the home of a beautiful naked angel “ and/or “the face is devilishly handsome … these are the real rumors that would flying around. Boobs! I can get behind the others. The echos, the “gateway to hell” and so on. I can wrk with them, but they don’t resonate like “naked chicks” do, when delivered by the local worthies. 

Encounter descriptions are clean. Mini-maps are provided on facing pages to hep the DM orient. Encounter descriptions are short-ish, less than a page, with generous bullets and descriptions that focus on the task at hand with little in the way or irrelevant detail to clog the works up. Bolding and brief italics are used to good effect. A very journeyman effort, providing good support for DM scanning.

The encounters are kind of puzzly. A pool of water that reflects things … your own image stepping out to kill you. But, not really evil … it can join the party! Thats something you don’t often see. The mirrored pool of narcissus acts as a gateway to another room, as well. A cup of poison in a silent room lets you speak if you want to take the poison of the people talking. Subtly there, eh? A maze of rooms, represented by just rolling random dice until you “win” the maze .Yeah … so … that’s not good. Basically the party just roll a die and waste time, with no modifiers to help or puzzle to solve, until they roll 50% enough times. Not cool. 

Oh! Oh! One more thing! That entrance to the mythic underworld? The mouth hole of the cave (literally …) with stairs in the back? It has a fesco on the back wall. Of a beautiful boy. A serene scene. That someone has crudely drawn a dick on. Oh, the locals! That’s exactly what WOULD happen in a dungeon entrance like this and I love this dungeon for putting that in. 🙂

So, a lonesome kind of dungeon. A few puzzle rooms. An overreliance on wanderers … whose effect/impact could have been achieved a different way. It’s just a little too quiet in this place for a “normal” game, I think. But, as a small dungeon in a hex in a hex-crawl I think it could work 

This is Pay What You Want on Itch, with a suggested price of $4.20. Which, I guess is funny. 🙂

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

Roseate Growth

By Jordan Boschman
System Neutral
"Low Levels"

A labor dispute at a valuable mine reveals the horrors that preceded it. The fossils of a little-understood ancient plant, glowing the color of a dragon’s fruit, are crushed to a fine powder and diluted into a rare, luxurious, and intoxicating spice with unknown consequences. A monastery of a small but influential religious order harbors a dark secret. A hapless group of adventurers will face the potentially far-reaching implications of these intersecting arcs and decide what will remain hidden and the shape of the conflict to come.

This 35 page digest adventure features a dungeon with around 24 rooms with a mine/monastery/StrangerThings theme. And none of the themes really comes through very well. I get what the designer was going for, but it don’t come easily.

So, there’s this mine. The people running the mine are all CompanyTown/ HearstFromDeadWood, forcing miners to work to extract some fossils, that they then powder and sell as a drug. There’s also some kind of monastery with monks. I think it’s in the mine? It’s not clear at all. Or, maybe, I mean to say tha the mine is in the monastery? The “monastery” section is absolutely there. As are the Aliens caves beyond the monastery, full of UpsideDown monsters. The idea here is that you get involved in the miner dispute thing, then transition to finding the overrun monastery, then transition in to the Aliens caves. 

This is all, I think, because of the map. The map starts with caves, transitions in to some worked halls, and then transitions again in to caves/tunnels. So to make the map work you’ve got a mine (I think?) and then the monastery and then the caves beyond it. 

But the mine thing never really comes through. There’s actually a trigger warning in this for “Anti-labour massacre.” But, there’s not really any support for that. The whole thing is supposed to revolve around the miner thing. The hooks begin it, with people pooling money, the poor and underclass, to get the party find their loved ones. Or mine guards pooling money to get the parties help with the anti-labour thing. It’s actually decent, the extra few sentences for wach, fleshing out something. The asshole want to hire you because they are being pushed too much and need one little thing done … 

But the support for the miner part ends there, at the hooks. There’s no local company town, or anything about the guards or the put upon workers or their families. There’s nothing to bring this aspect home and make it visceral and make the party care. It’s just “hey,. Here’s the dungeon now,” A dungeon with no real mine, in spite of it being centered around a mining dispute. There’s no real signs of mining and nothing to bring that home. TO the extent that I’m not even sure this is MEANT to be the mine; it may actually be meant to be elsewhere and this, this dungeon, is just meant to be another location. Needless to say, not supporting yor core premise, either on the map or in town/setup, isn’t a good thing. The other two sections don’t feel right either. Like, why is the monastery being caves? Or why are the caves behind it attached? It’s too small. Everything is too small. There’s no room to breathe. But, I guess it matches the mixed-up map (a decent one from Dyson that I think I’ve seen before) so … lets shove stuff in until it works?

The format is trying. It’s basically just paragraphs of text, with a bolded word ot phrase here or there to call it out. But the wrong stuff is bolded. It leaves things out. It bolds that the entrance room is dark … instead of bolding that you can see a light up ahead. It doesn’t bold a bridge you can see ahead. It’s trying to keep things in their own paragraph and use the bold to call attention to it, but,  it’s not really formatted to work that way well and instead you just get a lot of text that you still have to dig through.

It IS trying though. A stairwell choked with bodies has some good imagery in this. But, the alien nature of the tunnels beyond the monastery, or the monastery being overrun doesn’t really come through in the descriptions at all. The focus is in the wrong areas, in the text descriptions, now being evocative or painting the picture of what horrors are unfolding. There’s potential in it, even given the confusion, but it just doesn’t deliver on the core concepts.

This is $6.50 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages, with the last two showing the format for a couple of room, so, decent preview.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 1 Comment

Asymmetric Monastery of the Deranged Berserkers

By Dan Collins, Paul Siegel
Wandering DMs
Level ... 4?

Dan and Paul. the Wandering DMs, set themselves up with the challenge of stocking an entire dungeon in under two hours on their weekly live stream. What you see here is the output – a one page dungeon style adventure through an ancient monestary that has been long neglected and ravaged by nature. It features a sentient extraplanar ooze and a group of deranged warriors who worship it as their slimy overlord!

This four page adventure is actually a “two page’ dungeon with twelve rooms. An exercise in creating a dungeon in an hour, it comes off better than most dungeons, but, mostly, because they are forced to keep things terse and tight. I scoff at the methodology used and the results obtained.

By now we should all be aware that I love people who play with design ideas. Challenging the hows and whys of established design theory and process is always an interesting idea. Sometimes it will work and you’ll gain new insight in to D&D and how it works. And sometimes it doesn’t work. I’m always interested in the new ideas and always ready to tell someone that I appreciate their attempt, but, No. 

A few years ago I got seriously disgusted with the overwrought crp that was coming out. “How hard is it, really, to write an adventure for publication?” I asked myself. So, Criag Pike set out to test that. The goal was to write an adventure in an hour. I created four or five levels of a megadungeon, and, by the end, was doing thirty or so rooms in about ninety minutes. So, not hard. Along come these two dudes, who have a YouTube channel, and they want to design a dungeon on their channel in about an hour. Ok, sure, gimmick for the channel. But, also, buys in to the Bryce core conceit – That this shit ain’t hard and all the crap adventures coming out is because people are fucking idiots who don’t spend any time at all trying to figure out what makes a good adventure.

We’ve got a dyson map, twelve rooms, better than his usual small maps. An underground river runs through the middle of the map, allowing for a few hidden places and some multiple paths to rooms on the other side of the river.

The first issue is the selected format: the one page dungeon. Or, two page dungeon, for this, since the map is on one page and the twelve keys on another, along with a small art piece. This is a bad idea. One page dungeons. Bad idea. The original idea was that the constraint, in the contest, would invite innovation and keep things tight. Which it does. But it also limits the possibilities, especially in true one page design format. I have to ask, why are you limiting yourself to just one page of keys? What if you ran over in to a second page? Is it the end of the fucking world? No? Then why? I get that the format can help to force a terse keying, which is great, but, there are other ways to do this as well.

Looking at the adventure we get a shitty little wandering monster table. Six entries, not doing anything, just lists of monsters. And, while evocative of the monsters in the keyed descriptions, it comes off flat and boring. Have them doing something! Just another couple of words that amount to something other than laying in wait to attack.

The encounters are the real issue though. They run a huge variety of quality. We get a door to the room being boarded up with to giant lizards inside. The boarding up is ok, but there’s nothing more to this, a symptom of the format. We also get four berserkers camped out roasting a giant beetle legs over an open flame next to the underground river. That’s great! A near perfect example of a terse key. Maybe another environmental thing, like smokey room or something, but still very good. Compare that to “Supply closet breached by 3 giant ants.” Just like the boarded up door, it’s boring. Describe the situation, the breach, the moment the party comes in. There’s enough space for this, even in the selected format. One room has prisoners bound ready for sacrifice … one on a +3 shield soaked in flammable oil. Nice!

The adventure does a decent job of telegraphing encounters. In two situations, in particular, there are hints of whats to come. A room with rubble in it betrays an unstable ceiling, while an oily sheen on water hints at the bombardier beatles lurking overhead. Great examples of including a small detail that an observant party can take advantage of … and that cause a careless one to say “oh fuck! Oh course” once they are screwed over. 

I’m not the end all and be all of design advice, but I do think that the one page format, or even the two page format used here, is empty for anything other than performance art purposes. A page for a map, maybe two more for keys, a page of monster stats to get them out of the main text (and the space they therefore take up in it) and a page of intro/wanderers/extra stuff seems to me to be just about the perfect format for a “small” dungeon. You get the tightness that you need to retain focus, but still are not all that limited. 

As a website gimmick, and the first of one also, I can see the value in this … if I squint hard. But, just a little more thought would do this right and produce something good instead of just performance art.

This is $1 at DriveThru. There’s no level range listed anywhere (Bad!) and the preview is too short to get a sense of what’s up. No bueno.–Asymmetric-Monastery-of-the-Deranged-Berserkers?1892600

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

Beyond the Burning Teeth

By Amanda P
Hopeful Weird Wonder
"Low Levels"

Don’t get excited. The Burning Teeth are a mountain range.

A charismatic exiled warrior lord Dakon Lazard drove his followers to an ancient warrior temple in the Burning Teeth mountains, looking for redemption at any cost. It has been a month since any of the warriors have come from their vault. Villagers have begun to go missing, merchants are losing trade goods, and the earth rumbles more furiously than ever. Explore the volcanic mountains and discover what has happened below in the Sunken Grave.

This thirty page adventure describes a 21 room dungeon with a boring disposition. Devoid of most evocative writing, or interactive elements, and slightly generic in the way that system-neutral things can be. I should have gone with the four page two hour dungeon instead.

You get three things here. First, a small town. You get descriptions like “Respite has had to be relatively self sufficient as a border town. As you wander, you can find carpenter’s shops, cobblers, and any other craftspeople you might find in a small village.” So, you know, totally worth the page count to describe a generic small town. Unless you are doing something memorable then there’s not much reason to spend a whole lot of time on the town. The best of the town entries is “Two large, homely men play cards at a table while the other two guards on duty whisper to themselves as you approach, eyes grim and deadly serious.” Note the difference between that description and the previous one I pasted in (which, was another location, as generic as it seemed …) In the guard one you have something going on. They are playing cards. They are glaring. They excuse danger. This is specific information. And in the world of evocative writing specificity rules. Not detailed, but specific. 

Part two is a kind of wilderness journey, I guess? There’s a watchtower on a hill and a side-view map showing a cavern system with around eight rooms. The rooms get descriptions like “The Cavernous Descent is a dank hole with a hidden ladder under a wooden trapdoor.” or “The Fountain of Ignus. A heavy door (locked) leads to an ancient shrine to a forgotten fire deity. A place for dreadful healing, soothsayers and curious sights.” Completely abstracted text. I’m not sure why the designer even bothered? This is not the second adventure I’ve seen recently that has a cavern system as a “front door” to the main dungeon. It’s not a bad idea, but, why provide these descriptions, abstracted as they are? There’s nothing here. Or, perhaps, you’re putting work on to the DM? I don’t understand AT ALL why this section exists.

Finally you’ve got the dungeon proper. The rooms are formatted in a bullet point kind of system, maybe four or so per room sometimes. But, they aren’t really in an order that makes sense. One room starts by telling us that a plaque hangs over the door to the next room. Then it tells us that door is broken and hanging from its hinges. THEN it tells us the room is full of pipes and shower heads pumping out hot steam. With acrid simple and burning cinders. Uh … Hello! Burying the lead! Finally, it tells us that thee is a great eye carved in to the door. Which door I don’t know. The one in to the room? That would make sense in the other room though, the one that leads here? It’s all just blasted out, without any consideration as to what he DM needs when.

But, mostly, there’s a sense that things just don’t work together. One rooms description is “The air singes your lungs and the hair on your arms. Sweat pools on your palms. The steps were carved long ago by a workman’s pickaxe and chisel.” So the workmans pickaxe thing is all padding, but the environmental stuff isn’t. Excet, it really has no purpose. It’s not like the next room is the furnace room or anything. It’s all just window dressing. 

And EVERY room feels like this. Like they are just window dressing. Like nothing in the rooms matters. One tells us that “In the Drywell: a 40’ pit. At the bottom, skeletons forever longing for their lost loved ones or raging at having been deceived.” So, ok. And? I mean, that’s fine, as a kind of side note to a room, but as the whole thing for the room? And for EVERY room to have this sort of window dressing and little else? 

This extends to a “random effects” table. It’s just a table full of things that can happen to you in certain rooms. Like, now you glow green. Great! Why? Because the dungeon is evil. Uh, ok. I guess I’m corrupt now? But it’s all just window dressing. No good or ill effects, really. Grow a small antenna on your head that has no impact. Sure, whatever. Next room?

A room with a bridge, over bubbling acid, is written as the most boring thing in the world. The entirety of the description is “The collapsing bridge. Above the bubbling sulfur boiling acidic water. SUpports one person at a time. You get scalded every turn you are in the water if you all in. A set of bronze armor likes at the bottom of the lake”  The armor thing is good, but, otherwise … thats taking an exciting room concept and making it in to nothing. 

This is $5 at DriveThru, The preview is eleven pages, but it’s the first eleven, so you don’t actually get to see any of the content you are paying for, preventing you from making an informed decision.
Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 4 Comments

Dungeon Magazine 152 – The Last Breaths of Ashenport

The Last Breaths of Ashenport
by Ari Marmell
Level 6

A special request for a Dungeon 152 review!

This 44 page adventure is the standard Call of Cthulhu scenario, except written for 3e (3.5?)  You’re in an Innsmouth, it’s cut off, freaky shit goes down, you raid the church and then you raid the sea caves. I’ve played and run enough to these that I know how it’s supposed to go down, and you can see the basic outline and what the designer wants to do, but the scenario doesn’t accomplish it.

I like CoC. I think CoC is great. Non delta-green versions of CoC are the perfect one shot/con game. What I do NOT think, though, is that investigation adventures are meant for D&D. D&D has the Divination problem. The players can and will cast Detect Evil/Locate Object, etc. This is because D&D is not an investigation game. D&D is a dungeon exploration game. The spell lists are crafted for a party raiding a dungeon and finding a princess and wanting to know if they are gonna get a kiss and kingdom as a reward or a level drain for their problems. And for every Detect Evil you memorize that’s one less Fireball to toss out. It’s a give and take and resource management game. And I don’t really give a flying fuck how YOU play D&D. That’s irrelevant. The Spell Lists are created for this type of play. It’s built in to the game and WILL be built in to the game until someone reworks the fucking spell lists. 

Until this happens the only possible solution is to gimp the fucking party. I still remember being stone’d by a Medusa who the adventure said was evil “but not enough to register on the spell …” Uh huh. And in this adventure there is a vague evil detected in the village but nothing specific. Because two evil altars are masking the fact that everyone in the village is an evil Dagon cultist. Combine this with the standard “You are trapped in the village by a raging storm” mechanic. I know, I know, it’s a standard trope for these things. Or, rather, it’s a standard fucking trope for a game in which you are normal people facing the terrible unknown. I can teleport without error and he regularly communes with his god and rides the sun chariot around the night sky with him. We don’t get trapped in villages. It’s trying to force a scenario type in to a game that doesn’t support it. Just like you don’t explore dungeons in CoC, you don’t investigate in D&D. That’s not how the game was built.

Ok, so, that’s out of the way. Let’s say something nice. There’s a paragraph of advice up front that is extremely useful advice to the DM: “When describing them [ed: the fish-men], however, don’t use either of those terms. In context of the adventure, they’re not “pseudonatural kuo-toa”; they’re fish-men of Dagon. It may sound like a minor point, but the proper use—and, just as important, the careful avoidance—of particular terms can go a long way toward making the PCs, and indeed the players, feel like they’re truly facing the unknown.” No truer words. This gets to a core point: making the party afraid. You don’t tell them they face a troll. You describe the troll. You don’t say “dragon”, you describe it. You describe eyestalks popping up out of a bit, not say the word “beholder.” The specific advice given is different (they are fish men, not kua-toa) but the concept is in the same neighborhood. Don’t remove the mystery and fear from the game by naming the thing.

There’s also a pretty good in-voice bit from an NPC. If you question a rando townsperson about an inn, when you first arrive in town, you get this little gem: “Might meet you there later to hoist a tankard or two; gods know I’ll not be doing much else ’til the sky stops weepin’.” Pretty good! An NPC acting like a normal person for once! The adventure also let’s you roll, after 24 hours, to determine that the weather is not normal. A nice naturalistic way; it takes time. 

We are now done being nice.

The standard long read-aloud. The read-aloud is in italics, making it hard to read. Nothing new there. The read-aloud has a lot of “you’s” scattered in it: “their eyes glare at you in hatred” and so on. It does solve the “long stat block/enoucnter” issue by removing all encounters and placing them in the rear of the adventure. So a room might say “run encounter ‘from the sea on page 24 now.’” 

The adventure does two things majorly wrong, which would be wrong even in a CoC game. First, it relies A LOT on questioning captives. It fully expects you to knock people out and question them so you can find the next breadcrumb location. Not cool. And if this doesn’t happen then the NPC’s in the inn, the other travelers, will spoon feed info to you. “It looks like everyone is going to the church!” or some such. SO much so that at one point it advises to give the party a story award if you DONT have to have the NPCs do this.  This Adventure Plot extends in to other areas as well; when the party is magic’d to walk in to the sea to drown themselves, if they all fail their save, then an NPC in the inn will save them. IE: This is all just window dressing. It’s meant to be exciting, but not dangerous. You don’t actually have agency and there are not actually any consequences to your actions. Not cool.

It’s also using a standard room/key format for the town. The mayor is in the town hall. The sheriff is in the sheriffs office and so on. But, this isn’t how an adventure gets run. They shouldn’t just be sitting there, waiting for the party. The sheriff is a small town bully. He should be out, harassing the party around town, having goons do things and like. His entry even says this. But, his description is just hidden there, in the sheriffs office entry. There should be a section, up front, describing events and actions and things to happen in the town. The towns vibe. It’s a dynamic, fluid place … or, at least, it should be. This is not an exploratory dungeon. This is a social investigation adventure. Room/key isn’t the right way to present this information in order for the DM to be able to run a smooth and fluid game in which that asshole small town sheriff is out causing trouble. It just comes across as a throw away comment, and too much is left fo rthe DM to infer. The DM is not supported.

I can see exactly HOW this is supposed to be run. I can get the vibe the designer is going for. It’s not the utter garbage that most Dungeon adventures are. But it’s also no where near runnable in order to get the full experience that I think the designer was going for.

Posted in Dungeon Magazine, Reviews | 15 Comments

Fractious Mayhem at Melonath Falls (No ArtPunk #8)

Number seven(?) in an eight-part series. 

This is a compilation of the best eight entries from Prince’s recent No ArtPunk contest. Basically, you had to use published monsters, magic items, etc, with one unique allowance allowed in each category. Settle in, I’m reviewing one adventure at a time. Also, I admit that an orgy of women, wine, bread, circuses, and self-absorbed loathing kept me from reading Prince’s commentary earlier. So I’m going in to this blind. Let’s see what “winning” entries look like, shall we?

Fractious Mayhem at Melonath Falls
Trent Smith
levels 3-5

This eighteen page adventure features four interconnecting cave systems around a waterfall with about forty or so rooms. A monster lair assault ala B2. It’s dense. It makes no apologies. 

Throw a dude a fucking bone Trent. Ok, so, let’s say your write the amazing adventure ever published. But you did it exclusively in iambic pentameter, in Inuit. And when people are like “Dude, can I get a version I can run?” you take a brief moment to glance at them and say quietly “fuck you.”

This is not the worlds greatest adventure. There is no explicit “fuck you” in it by the author. What it is, though, is a good adventure that is plagued by usability issues. And while I can’t be certain, it seems logical to assume that Trent knows about usability issues and has made a conscious choice to not worry too much about them.

This all means that I’m not running this adventure. Hey, this bottle of wine rates a 96 on Wine Review and costs $900/bottle. Or you can have this bottle that rates a 95 and runs $3 at Aldi. Look, that’s not a perfect analogy but you get where I’m going: why put up with X when I can have Y that is almost the same thing? Every adventure ever written is now available to a DM. This isn’t an appeal to the massive production values of the overly laid out monstrosities that haunt certain segments of the hobby. But, presumably, we share out works with others because we’d like them to get some use out of it. If they aren’t going to use it then what’s the purpose? Creation for the sake of creation? Sure. But that’s not an adventure. That’s a personal art project. It’s 2022. It’s time to beef up our formatting/layout/usability skills … just a little. I’m a firm believer that you can get to about 80% in about a week. Spend a week for a big step up.

It should be obvious where this review is going. I like this adventure. It’s a more intelligent B2, with a lot more depth to it. Four interconnecting cave systems with multiple paths through it. The maps have a good deal of variety and depth to them, loops, multiple paths, halls running over or under others. And the verticality of the waterfall itself. 

We’ve got a pretty traditionally lair complex. You’ve got the beast caves, made up of bullywugs and giant catfish/frogs/etc. You’ve got the rando monster cave ala the Owlbear in B2. Hook horrors in a cave cut off from the rest of the system. Then you’ve got the Xvart lair, with a fully fledged Xvart society. Women, kids, MU’s, stevedores, etc.

Who are gonna FUCK. YOUR. SHIT. UP. They busting out of secret doors. They got an order of battle. They ain’t taking no shit from the party. It’s quite the complex environment, replete with wererats doing their conspiracy shit, prisoners, and the like. 

And it’s all wrapped up in what is essentially a wall of text. I’m looking, right now, at a full colum of small text that describes the secret room of the wererat boss. It’s furnished with a bed, lounging chair, brazier, desk, rug, and chest, the text tells us. And then a LONG paragraph about how the assassins guild views him. And then one that starts by telling us that thened, chair rug and brazier are remarkable, though the rug has a resale value of 500gp, it’s encumbrance value. And on and on and on it goes. 

What we have here is minimalistic descriptions. The classic minimal description. Bed, rug, chair, brazier. But then, when something IS remarkable, then EVERYTHING about it needs to come out. Rooms are large, chambers are empty. Descriptions aer not evocative. But the entire thing is DESIGNED. This IS a xvart cave lair. The descriptions are not laundrylists of room contents. It’s not expanded minimalism. It’s a weird mix of minimalism and then picking a topic in the room and expanding on it, hidden depth style. 

It’s fookin DESNSE. And you’re not gonna get ANY help from the designer in running it. It is what it is and you’ll gonna have to live with it. Take it apart. Highlight the fuck out of it. Take copious notes. 

And I don’t do that anymore. That’s not what an adventure is to me. I’ll pick something else, equally good or better, that is easier for me to run.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $10. Proceeds are going to the Autism Research Institute.

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

Vault of the Warlord (No Artpunk #7?)

Number seven(?) in an eight-part series. 

This is a compilation of the best eight entries from Prince’s recent No ArtPunk contest. Basically, you had to use published monsters, magic items, etc, with one unique allowance allowed in each category. Settle in, I’m reviewing one adventure at a time. Also, I admit that an orgy of women, wine, bread, circuses, and self-absorbed loathing kept me from reading Prince’s commentary earlier. So I’m going in to this blind. Let’s see what “winning” entries look like, shall we?

Vault of the Warlord
By Justin Todd
Levels 1-3

This twenty page adventure features a dungeon with thirty rooms as well as a nearby town and wilderness area. It’s got a Deathtrap vibe, but not an unfair one. A good example of pushing your luck, over and over again. Smart play yields rewards. It’s also a little light on the evocative text.

What a strange little adventure. Strange in a good way. It feels like one of those dungeons of old. Multiple entrances ,lots of whit to fuck with. Almost verging on a funhouse vibe, but never crossing the line in that territory. I can see analogies to Tomb of Horrors, without as much Deathtrap. 

We get a small town nearby. A temple the party can take over and get worshippers, a wise woman and her witch sister. A thief to fence shit … that may screw the party over. And the local lord who “will house & feed a man, provided he submits to bathing.” Specificity. That’s what he town has. Little details like that the DM can riff off of. Just enough description to run it and riff. Which is the way I like things in town. The town provides rumors to a cursed dungeon, and off to th wilderness the party goes. To find a number of interesting encounters, from a bandit gang, to Karl the Ogre … who is a troll cursed to not harm men except in self defense. A tribe of giant beavers has build a great dam … and underneath is the dungeon. If you get them to drain the lake, or do it against their will, you will get a new dungeon enctrance. One of several scattered throughout the region, from traditional entrances to others like the beaver lake or one guarded by Karl. It all kind of works together. There’s a kind of mellow vibe to the writing, but the encounters make sense and have just enough detail to generally bring them to life, with a few exceptions.

The dungeon proper is basically a giant room with several doors off of it, and several side corridors with rooms off of them. It’s an interesting design, and reminds me a bit of Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure. There are flooded areas and partially flooded areas … or maybe not depending on your beaver damn experiences …

 Formatting is good and easy to use and scan. The encounters are interactive. Some sodium bricks for your flooded water journey. Or finding a coffin with a staked vampire in it … and some magical swords at his side. What to do what to do? The pushing your luck thing. You know what’s gonna happen. Nother vampire has stakes through her eyes and is weakened … a continual threat. A ceiling held up by an immovable rod. You want the rob, don’t you? Treasure can be generous … but it’s always got something going on, like the vampire, or the ceiling, or swords that are catatonic until something else happens. You’re gonna have to work for shit. It’s the Hidden Depth that is sometimes talked about … but not the depth that is esoterically twelve layers deep. It’s accessible and approachable by the party.

It is the writing that I’d like to comment most on. It’s terse. Maybe too much so. The situations are interesting, and they work together to give you a good sense of the place, but the individual encounters can lack quite a bit. 

“There is an enormous set of Drums of Panic stored here.” Well, ok. Not much really interesting or evocative about that description is there? Either for the room or for the drums? Or, maybe something like “This area contain the ruined bodies of several cultists, with only tatterred robes and skeletal or desiccated remains.” That’s in a room with the title “Profane Temple.’ You need to run with that. Or “hundreds of corpses are piled & stacked here …” These are not bad words in and of themself (though I could take exception to the “this area contains …” padding) but there is just nothing more beyond that. I could use just a sentence more, on the context the object is in, and maybe a descriptive word or two more for the object itself. 

Oh, and some rooms have something that could be considered either read-aloud or a DM overview. It’s cringe. “The air is stale & fetid. Too-cold water laps the knees. Death visited this place.” Uh huh. That’s a little fantasy novelist try-hard. There ARE zombies under that water, which is a classic encounter, and one of them has a jewel in its gut. Yeah for gutting monsters like I am 13YO again! So, great encounters, but the writing needs to be bumped up a notch.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $10. Proceeds are going to the Autism Research Institute.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts | 1 Comment

City of Bats

Number six(?) in an eight-part series. 

This is a compilation of the best eight entries from Prince’s recent No ArtPunk contest. Basically, you had to use published monsters, magic items, etc, with one unique allowance allowed in each category. Settle in, I’m reviewing one adventure at a time. Also, I admit that an orgy of women, wine, bread, circuses, and self-absorbed loathing kept me from reading Prince’s commentary earlier. So I’m going in to this blind. Let’s see what “winning” entries look like, shall we?

City Of Bats
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 4-6

This eighteen page adventure details two levels of a dungeon with about fifty rooms. Excellent maps, a delightful interactivity, and a casual depth to the encounters makes this one a great thing to pull out at the table.

This is the kind of adventure you hope to run across. Some person sitting in their basement cranking out rocking good adventures with no effort. That’s what this feels like. Like someone just sat down and said “I’m writing an adventure for tonight” and just cranked it out in a hour or so. I don’t know that it took an hour, but it feels that way. Not in a rushed way. But in a kind of naturalistic way. No pretension. Handwrought skills. Just gonna draw a map and then type out some keys.

The maps. The maps are GREAT! They are just two, one for the upper level “Cave of Mists” and then a second for the “City of Bats”, that the cave of mists acts as the Door to the Mythic Underworld for. Just a piece of graph paper and a pencil and some person cranking it out. It feels … right? It feels like there’s some room to breathe in here. I mean, it’s still just a couple of small maps, with sixteen rooms on the first level, but the interconnecting hallways, secrets, branching rooms and loops make it all feel right. Level two continues the themes, with rivers, statues, pools, rooms withing rooms. These are excellent maps that looks like someone just sat down and cranked it out in a few minutes … cranked out an excellent map, that is.

The dungeon keys are interesting.You get mossy floored caves, misty caves, bat guano and fluttering bats. Everything is going on swingingly. Keys are short and sweet, generally, with things like “A group of nine man-sized wooden sculptures depicting twisted half-man half-animal hybrids stand in a circle. The sculptures are coated in bat guano and other filth.” Ok, no problemo! I can get behind that! And then you reach the lizardmen. The first solid stake in the ground.

“Five Lizardmen stand guard in this cave. When first encountered they will be roasting skewered cave locusts over a small fire and gambling for jade beads. Light and noise coming down the tunnel will alert them, and one of their number will immediately go to warn the rest of the tribe at area 10.”

They are doing something in their room. Theres an interesting scene being painted for the DM in the a few words, but a few words that paint a great image. There’s a reaction … (and later an order of battle for the lizardmen.) The next room is their lair. “The cavern is illuminated by yellowish light cast by giant fireflies held in reed cages. It is home to a small tribe of Lizardmen who dwell in the side-caverns. The tribe’s warriors, clad in crude hides and smeared with black warpaint, will swarm out of their holes and attempt to encircle the party, baring their fangs and hitting their weapons on the stones.” Alright! Swarming out! Baring fangs! Hitting weapons! Primitive posturing! I can get behind that! That’s what fucking lizardmen do! And then, maybe, you meet the idol they call their god. The one that booms at you for tribute. And then, if pushed, gives up and is like “Hey, alright man, chill. Yeah yeah, I’m not an idol, I just pretend to be one cause it’s an easy life.” WTF?!?! It’s fucking magnificent. It doesn’t use the words I did, it makes sense in context. It’s brilliant.

And that’s what this adventure does. It just throws these simple little things at you. They seem simple. But they also seem RIGHT. They seem both classic and fresh all at the same time. It’s got a basic D&D flair to it. Not the kiddie D&D basic, but the OD&D basic, the kind of weird, brought to life, without being gonzo. The cave behind the waterfall, symbolically, again and again and again.

I could go on and on. Great treasure. Splashes of greatness there. A room with giant flies in it … big ones. And then a Chasme flies out. Fuck yeah man! Cause that’s how an encounter like that goes down! It’s all so very NATURAL. It FEELS right.

I do have a complaint. It’s in single column. If this were double column it would be less stressful on the eyes/cognition to scan. I know, I know, that’s the most trivial of things. But it’s also true. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t run it. You absofckinglootly should run this. It’s awesome, in the same way as that first level of Darkness Beneath is awesome.

That’s two great adventures in this volumen, so far, making this the buy of the year at $10.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $10. Proceeds are going to the Autism Research Institute. A subtle dig?

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

Dust & Stars (No Artpunk #5? #6? idk)

Number SOMETHING in an eight-part series. 

This is a compilation of the best eight entries from Prince’s recent No ArtPunk contest. Basically, you had to use published monsters, magic items, etc, with one unique allowance allowed in each category. Settle in, I’m reviewing one adventure at a time. Also, I admit that an orgy of women, wine, bread, circuses, and self-absorbed loathing kept me from reading Prince’s commentary earlier. So I’m going in to this blind. Let’s see what “winning” entries look like, shall we?

Dust & Stars
Levels 9-12

This twenty pages adventure describes a tower with about thirty locations. It’s got a cohesive backstory that makes you want to know more and does a good job placing monsters in an intelligent fashion in a high level adventure. It’s also single column and could use an edit.

The Space|Time War. The fleets of the Eternal Empire. The Star Pump. Cosmo-port. A dying god. A river of dust, fine as silt. Celestial Cult. That’s how you write a fucking backstory man! Taking up most of a page, it offers no real explanations of what the fuck is going on but you just star at it, trying to take it all in, wanting to know more. It’s exactly the kind of “Don’t Explain Things” that I’m talking about when I mention that topic. It makes the mind race!

If you say the name of the tower, outloud, then something weird happens. Why the fuck doesn’t this happen in more adventures? Especially high level ones? Because of COURSE thats what happens when you say the name of something powerful outside. ANother room in the tower has a creatures name on a door “Frank may not pass!” Of course! These elements FEEL right. A trapped man turns in to a bodak. An elemental, over time, turns in to a mud pool … which is handled like a black pudding. Because that’s how to handle this shit. It is an imagining of the environment FIRST, and then an attempt to figure out the D&D mechanics shit later. This is the cure of the sad old tropey D&D. The D&D that only uses the book shit. Or, rather, uses it first/. “I need a EL12 encounter. I can use four of creature X. They are in the room. Yeah! Next room!” No! From the books came evil in to the world! Or, rather, STARTING with the books brings evil in the world. And not in that Good Way that we all secretly look forward to. The books are the death of imagination. They allow for someone to not try at all. But, this adventure (and, it could be argued, the entire contest) is push-back against that. You start by imagining a thing and then you find something in the book to make it D&D-able. Or, at least, you snake it SEEM thats what happened. 

A tower full of high level enemies, traditionally a monster-zoo type situation. This solves that, a bit, with solid reasoning behind things, that doesn’t overstay its welcome. One sentence on why creature X is here. A little relationship chart to show who they like and hwho they don’t for a little extra talky talky fun. 

The format is single column and the editing could use another pass. It’s approaches wall of text territory, and the language use needs to be tightened up for scanning.  “An iron cage once existed, covering the walk from the entrance door to the spiral staircase. It is rusty, broken and destroyed.” Once existed it the key here. And, while it seems like such a simple thing, not something to worry about, it’s the repetition of the concept that drags things down. A rusty, broken, destroyed iron cage covers the walk from the door to the spiral staircase.

I’m a big fan of this, in concept. This is one of oldest of the old adventures that you have to dig through and grok and work on to get in to your brain. I also suspect this is a side-effect of all high level adventures. They are complex. Given that complexity more time needs to be spent to ensure that they are clear. And this needs that. Taken out of single column, put in two, some sidebars, better formatting of the text, cleaning up the text with some editing, and so on.

But, still, a good example of how to write a high level adventure and make it challenging without simply resorting to writing a low level adventure with high level creatures in it.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $10. Proceeds are going to the Autism Research Institute. A subtle dig?

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 6 Comments

Caught in the Webs of Past and Present – (No ArtPunk #5?)

Number two in an eight-part series. 

This is a compilation of the best eight entries from Prince’s recent No ArtPunk contest. Basically, you had to use published monsters, magic items, etc, with one unique allowance allowed in each category. Settle in, I’m reviewing one adventure at a time. Also, I admit that an orgy of women, wine, bread, circuses, and self-absorbed loathing kept me from reading Prince’s commentary earlier. So I’m going in to this blind. Let’s see what “winning” entries look like, shall we?

Caught in the Webs of Past and Present
Gabor Csomos
Levels 4-6

This eighteen page adventure contains a two level ruined elven palace with about forty rooms. It’s got great evocative writing, knows how to write a room description for play at the table, and does a great job using basic and standard creatures and tropes to fresh effect. It is what we in the biz like to call “a good adventure.” 

A good adventure. What is that? Full of gonzo and breaking new ground? No, not at all. It doesn’t have to be that at all. I see a lot of adventures, ince I review a lot of adventures. There’s a common complaint, in reviewer culture, that reviewers only like the new and fresh. That’s not true. Reviewers, of all types, are not addicted to new and fresh. What they want is to see something REALIZED. A concept, fleshed out, and brought to life. Sometimes this is new and unique content. But it doesn’t have to be, and, in fact, it may be easier to NOT be new and fresh. I lament, frequently, the post-Tolkein age of fantasy where all fantasy looks generically the same. But at the same time I love the more folklore based stuff. It FEELS right, in a way that generic fantasy tropes do not. The issue is not it being folklore or trophy. The issues is someone realizing the vision. And Gabor Csomos realizes their vision. (Apologies to all of my non-English readers. Gabor has some of freaky foreign accent things in their name, the kind that scares Americans, and I’m too lazy to figure out how to make it work on my keyboard. So, please insert of random accent marks and pretend I’m not a lazy shit.)

There’s some elven ruins nearby. A part of adventurers chased a monster in them. They didn’t come out. A small series of hooks plays on this. Maybe they were your buds, and there’s thing where they came to aid a few times or buddied up to you in the bar, and now you kind of feel obligated to save them? GREAT hook, the kind of integrates in to the campaign through play, rather than “your mom got kidnapped” sort of BS. A hook that appeals to the PLAYERS. Or, the Iron Tyrant, an enemy of that party, wantsyou to go find their bodies/any survivors so they can properly punish them with a limetime of torture. Sweet! Those are some fucking hooks man! Great examples of a short, one or two sentence hook, that brings SO much more life to the adventure than the usual generic shit.

Our wanderers include an evil NPC party (Yeah! Gutboy parties are used nearly enough!) a troll, collecting stones to build a new bridge nearby, and a ghost who sometimes stares at you from a distance and sometimes tries to kill you. It’s name, in the statblock? The Strangling Ghost. FUCK YEAH! That’s how you add color to an adventure. Not ghost. Any fucking adventure can have a fucking ghost. STRANGLING ghost. One extra fucking word. Just one, and it brings that fucking dumb ass wandering monster encounter to life in a way that most designers could never even dream of. One fucking word. The RIGHT fucking word. That’s the key to this shit. Terse, evocative. It feels right. A troll with a bridge? Duh, right, exactly. How the fuck do you think bridges get byult in fantasy worlds? By trolls, of course!  Duh! It feels the fuck right, right? He’s not at his bridge though, that’s the trope. He’s building it, a little twist. Perfect.

“If you want to be a gladiator then act like a gladiator” says the OD&D advice for responding to player who want to be a gladiator. New D&D would have a bunch ofmechanicssurrounding it. OD&D says “act like one.” The vargouille on the wandering table. You know, the head/neck/spine/inestines monster? It’s elves. Or, rather, “the flying angry heads … of what used to be elves.” Because its an ancient elven ruin that’s been cursed, that’s why! No need for special rules or new monsters. Just theme the fucking perfectly and move the fuck on. 

Look, I can go on and on and on on this adventure. A staff floating in water with a clear blue gem on top. That’s a fucking magic item. You all know its a fucking magic item. How? Cause its fucking cool. It’s a cool fucking way to find something. It summons the cultural memory. And you’re right, it is a magic item. It’s a staff of fucking power with fifty fucking charges! Ex-fucking-caliber man! Fucking Epic!

The entrance to the complex are come vine covered columns with statues in them, and a saying. You are entering a new place. The mythic underworld. The body of a dead adventurer is full of wasp larvea inside. Gross! And exactly what SHOULD happen in a room with giant wasps in it. A risty metal statue stands outside of a rearing horse. Ispective characters may notice the ground aroun it frozen. Brown Mold! BECAUSE THaTS THE FUCK HOW IT WORKS! This is fucking perfect. You see the description, you don’t think brown mold, and then after you fuck up you’re like “fuck! Yes! It was obvious!”  And it’s just vanilla shit from the book. Valinna and generic are not the same, as this adventure points out time and again.

Formatting it good. The descriptions reveal enough to the party to follow up on and bolded keywords guide the DM to those elements. Traps are foreshadowed. There’s a fucking EVIL ass arena that stalks the party. It all makes perfect sense. The encounters FEEL fresh even though they are only book items. An alter to evil has a pentagram drawn in blood with a goat skull. BECAUSE THATS WHAT ALTERS TO EVIL LOOK LIKE!!! 

This adventure, alone, is worth the pice of adventure to the No Artpunk book.

A good adventure. Using only book items. Not the best adventure ever written. Not gonzo. Not special. Just a rock fucking solid examples of what a good adventure fod D&D looks like. Would that every adventure be like this!

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $10. Proceeds are going to the Autism Research Institute. A subtle dig?

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews, The Best | 22 Comments