The Mad Alchemist

By Valleria Studios
Valleria Studios
Level 6

Oakheart, a once vital trading post, has been struck by a mysterious disease. Over the past month, Lord Ulric Von Vymarc, townmaster of Oakheart, has set out his men to look for the source of the disease and a cure to put a stop to the disaster. Yet they’ve failed to find any clue to what this might be. As the weeks passed, more people got infected to the point where most of the shops had to close. The town’s guard is undermanned as they’re falling ill themselves.Ships are starting to avoid the town, as rumors about a disease are starting to spread. More importantly, The Feast Of The Stars is approaching. This would be a major source of income for the people, as many from all over the land come here to pay their respects to the gods, feast and spend many of their valuables.  The town is already accommodating the first of many visitors to come. Yet most of them leave once they find out about Oakheart’s situation. Lord Ulric has sent out letters to renowned adventurers across Valleria to assist in this serious matter.

This 28 page adventure details a short little investigation in to a virus(!) and about eighteen rooms in the mad alchemist’s lair. It has some sparks of interesting encounters when it comes to the creatures, although the puzzles are a bit on the nose for my tastes. Still, for what it is it’s an above average adventure that shops promise, particularly in regard to creativity and formatting.

I was full prepared to hate this. $17 for a PDF is the reason I picked it up. Then, it’s got the generic title. The generic trope of an alchemist as an enemy. It’s 5e, and then there’s the trade dress. None of these give a favorable first impression. Generic background, generic “you can adapt this to your world!” information, padding to page six, and, at a quick glance, read-aloud that tends to three-four paragraphs long talking up a quarter to two-thirds of a page. These are all the symptoms of a bad adventure. And yet … it’s not really. Plus, there’s enough going on here to actually write a real review for a change

This is a virus adventure, with people in the town getting sick. I’m surprised that, given the pandemic, we’ve not seen more of these. You’re hired by courier, taking a ten day boat trip to the plague town to meet with the Lord Mayor. The ‘hired’ trope is not particularly well done, although there is a full page “fancy font” letter you can hand out. I love those. Props are a lost art and letter handouts are one of the last remaining. Anyway, it’s a little easy to get a plague town, breaking the immersion a bit and, most of all, a lost opportunity for some roleplaying efforts and scenes to set a mood. The “hired by the town” trope is boring as well, especially when just a hand wave as it is here. But, whatever, we’re playing D&D tonight. (And, I will leave unmentioned, the fact that the party arrives by ship in ten days and later walks only half a day to find the cause of the infection. Ug! Immersion again!)

It is, at this point, that things start to get better. A check-in line at the town, a sickly gnome at a desk wearing a mask, coughing in to it. A tavern with a sign that has a cat head sticking out of a caldron “The Boiled Cat.” Things are starting to look up! Further, the innkeep has a nice section called “What the innkeeper knows” laid out in an offset box with bullets. Nice! This trend continues for others people that the party are likely to talk to, at least within the bounds of the investigation play.

Let’s return, though, to The Boiled Cat. This simple thing, the naming of a tavern, is a degree of interesting content that is not usually seen in adventures, let alone 5e adventures. Not generic. It’s specific and not abstracted. This continues in other areas of the adventure. A delivery boy brings you supplies that you request, and he might keep some of it or charge more, etc, because his family is hurting. Again, an interesting interaction that can lead to more, either sympathy or annoyance with the boy. A young guard, Tim, worried about supporting his family, wanting work, wanting to not get sick or get them sick, torn between these things. This is not your usual generic shit, and, I think, works well because it effectively channels real world things in a way that still makes the game fun. It makes sense AND adds to experience in a fun way. The party can relate. 

The dungeon encounters are likewise interesting. Gibbering Mouthers as a failed experiment? Perfect! And they slither under doors! Even better, a fresh take! A grey ooze that looks like a rock. A treasure chest in a cell … that turns out to be a mimic. These all make sense as failed experiments, they surprise and delight and, for whatever reason, they are interesting takes on them. The party hearing a “slosh slosh” as a mouther stalks them on the ceiling. Specificity. Brief points of which shine like binding light in bringing an adventure to life. A flesh golem shoults “Freeeedoooommmm!” Every time it attacks. Great thing added to the encounter, you can imagine a tortured soul doing that. Also, it’s a clue that “Liberty” is the answer to the puzzle lock in the next room. Clever monkey. That’s good design. 

There are substantial downsides though.

I mentioned the long read-aloud, never a good thing. A substantial amount of information is communicated through diaries. This is almost always a bad decision, an easy crutch. THings are better when they are communicated more naturally, and, no, I don’t mean through the villain monologue. There should be more than enough possabilities, in an eighteen room lair, to get across the points made in the diaries. 

The plague is not very visceral. Like I said, its easy to get to town. There are not a lot of plague vignettes. There should be some cross-references, both from the lord mayor and the innkeeper, for plague information, so the DM can find that information easily when the party inevitable asks about it. Some of the plague victims in the infirmary have different symptoms than others. This would normally lead to follow up investigations for them … which are not provided at all. No, you get everything you need from the mayor int he first meeting. “My alchimist friend disappeared on Blood Cove a few days ago.” Uh huh. That’s the next step, allowing the party to skip the infirmary altogether. The town, the plague, the infirmary, they are all non-existent as far as the adventure is concerned, which is too bad, a serious lost opportunity. And only a Greater Restoration spell can cure people. There goes all the benefits of living in a magical ren faire world. 

The puzzles in the dungeon, though, are a low point. These are all pretty on the nose. A combination lock made of letters, level puzzle, and so on. The clues, likewise, are on the nose, with bits of paper left around with things like “CIRCLE = GOOD GOOD GOOD” and so on. Yeah, it serves a purpose, but its also about the easiest way possible to relate the clue and they show none of the creativity, either in the puzzle or the clues, tha the better encounters and NPC do. 

To finish up I’ll saw that the map tries to be artistic and it fails at that. Maps are hard, I get it. A simpler map would have been clearer. Or, at least a different color choice for the backgrounds which reproduce more clearly. There is a cute little art piece, masquerading as a town map, that I think gives the town a nice vibe though. It’s numbers, but I think it’s more art than map, unlike the lair proper. 

Not a bad effort for someone with no credits to their name! I’d run this before I ran a lot of other things, $17 or no.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $17. You can grab the entire things, obviously, but the preview is 20 pages also, giving you a good idea of what you are about to purchase.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 10 Comments

The Valley of the Lost

By Allen Farr
Winterblight's Challenge
A Weariness in Soul

Seemingly created by mad gods, the Valley of the Lost has been reshaped as if all creation has been allowed to run amok. Will you succumb to the toxicity of the Path of Madness or meet your end in the darkness of the Path of Shadows? Perhaps the guardians of the Path of Light will be your undoing or will you wander endlessly on the Path of the Lost until you meet your demise? These are the dangers that must be endured to reach the Ascent of Kings and discover the Valley of the Lost.

I’m on a roll baby! 

This eleven page thing is nothing. It’s a setting guide, with little specifics, for a tv show. It’s a work of fiction aimed at a DM, to inspire them to create a game to run. It’s masquerading as an adventure, with a hex map, when it is, in fact, just an idea. “You could do something having to with many worlds.” ARG!

I find products like this frustrating. One the one hand, there is certainly a role for fluff books, books which inspire the DM or detail a background, or some such that a DM can expand upon. On the other hand, I seldom wan any fucking thing to do with them, especially when I’m looking for “an adventure.” The hex map here might fool you … there is no adventure here and it’s just generalized background and a few ideas. “There could be dinosaur people. You should make your own.”

There’s a long backstory about an evil wizard and summoning a nexus of worlds. This has almost nothing to do with this location. Any “possible worlds” isn’t really handled at all. I guess you could use it as an explanation for the various magical effects in the valley, but this ain’t Rifts, our Incredible Journey or anything like that. The only possible worlds is the background mentioning “a nexus of possible worlds.” And that’s the problem with this entire product.

It says things and doesn’t follow through. There could be dinosaur people and they should have different unique attacks. Go create them.” Uh … ok. It’s a nexus of worlds … with nothing related to a nexus of worlds. It has a pretty nice hex map full of features, icons, and the like. With no legend, disnace markings and NONE of the features detailed. Just little red dots on the maps. Not even a one sentence of them. Nothing. It’s like the map doesn’t exist at all for the purposes of the products.

Which isn’t exactly true. There are a number of passes in to the valley. “The path of Light/Darkness/Madness/Lost.” Each has some special effect and is shown on the map as a lightly fitted line. “You go could go mad on the paths of madness. The party should roll a save and the DM should come up with a suitable madness.” This is the extent of the detail in the adventure.

Like I said, I guess if you wanted fluff you could buy this. There’s even a product category on DriveThru called “Setting Guides.” Note that this is a completely separate category than “Adventures.” 

I’m so sick of this shit. 

“The GM should use the Places of Creation to come up with unique creatures, or even have the player characters undergo some kind of transition, perhaps gaining a new power or some deformity that hinders them.”

At one point there’s a page of gothic bold font, representing a journal entry, to describe a location. It is hard to read, meant only for the DM to inspire them. This is indicative of the entire product. A complete misunderstanding of what it should be doing. 

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview, of course, doesn’t work.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 6 Comments

The Plebeian #1 – The Lost Necklace

Tony Garcia
Levels 2-4

Rumors that a necklace with magical powers was stolen by a group of thieves and taken to the sewers of Crinsomwater. Brother Frederick of the Order of Worshipers of Transformed Lead is giving 400 gold pieces to recover this artifact.

This is the first issue of a bi-weekly (!) seven page zine, which uses six pages to describe an adventure: The Lost Necklace. It has eleven rooms in a sewer system and uses two pages to describe them. “Describe” being used in a loose manner of the word. Lacking meaningful content, this is a “get the red key to open the red door” adventure.

You got the picture from the intro: magic necklace stone. Party hired to go to the sewers to find it.

The town here has 920 residents, fourteen towers and a rather extensive city sewer system, since the eleven rooms here are in the sewers and are described as just a small part of them. And by “sewer system” I mean “a couple of descriptions mention the smell of shit but otherwise they are just normal old dungeon rooms.” A depressingly large number of rooms, almost half?, contain the line “roll for a random encounter in this room”, just as a nother room states that there are 1d6 zombies and another states to roll for a random treasure.

I have to ask: why do this? What value does a random roll add to the adventure? In the case of a wandering monster its obvious: this is a push your luck mechanic. Some items might have a random effect, that makes sense also. But why make a static encounter random? Why not, as a designer, create a treasure to be placed in the dungeon instead of relying on a roll on a book table? Isn’t that what we’re paying for, the designers creativity? The improper usage of randomness in old school adventures is an article tat needs to be written. I’ll make a mental note to do it and promptly forget.

The adventure is padded out. “If the group decides to attack then combat must be started, the adventure tells us. Well, yes, that is how things work. “You can investigate this room or continue through the door”, the read-aloud tells us in many of the rooms. Well, again, yes, that is how D&D works. These sorts of things just pad out the word count of an adventure, or, more precisely, steal words that could otherwise contribute to an evocative adventure. The adventure, of course has the obligatory paragraph of “This is set in our game world but as the DM you can adapt it your game world.” I should hope this is obvious to everyone. Again, empty content that could be used for ADVENTURE! How much effort was spent on these parts, the padding, the de rigueur, the randomness, when that effort could have been spent on the actual adventure?

In the sewers you come to a door with a skull lock. You need to find the skull key to open the skull lock and find the cross key to open the cross lock, later.*sigh*. Find the red key for the red door was a trope from long ago computer rpg’s. Actually, this feels more like a choose your own adventure, but whatever. It’s extremely simplistic design. We never do find out what the magic necklace does that you are sent to get; its just referred to as a magic necklace. 

The town is called Crimsonwater. This is because when it rains the ground looks like blood, thanks to the mud. THIS is a good detail. It’s not just dropped in the bs backstory/background and not emphasized through play in any way, at least not in a way that te DM could integrate it well, but this is the kind of specificity that brings an adventure to life. 

It is the sole example.

Keeping up any kind of publishing schedule every other week is going to be a full time job. I wish the designers well; if they can do it then they should let me know how so I can also.

This review is now being cut short because Prince Vultan, who is never more than a foot away from me all day every day, is incessantly pawing at my leg, telling me it’s time to pet him and brush him.  How can ignore someone telling them to love them?

This is Pay What You Want at Drivethru with a suggested price of $1. The preview shows you the entire adventure, so it’s a good preview, telling you exactly the type of content you’ll be getting so you can know before you buy.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 10 Comments

A Wintry Death

Jason Duff
Earl of Fife Games
What's a level?

Our stores were empty and game was scarce. We pushed out further and further to find anything to fill our bellies. My family was starving and I knew it would not be long before the end. I hope I am not too late.

This 25 page adventure presents six VERY short scenes for the PC’s to encounter in the snow. The lack of actual content serves to demonstrate why we can’t have nice things.

I was reading about a guy who was visiting Zimbabwe. Everyone was super happy, in spite of the deteriorating state of things. Someone explained it to him: in Zimbabwe you don’t expect to find butter in the grocery store. When you do find it, you’re very happy. In the developed world you expect butter in the grocery store, so when you don’t find it you are unhappy. All I want is, to all day long, walk about enchanted, in ecstasy, like the gods I saw dancing in my dreams. Which model to you think _I_ fall in to?

There are six winter themed scenarios in this, and I use the term ‘scenario’ loosely. Maybe you cross a frozen lake and there are some fish in the lake that break through the ice to attack you. That’s one. It takes two pages. Another is that maybe you are caught in an avalanche; make a DEX check to avoid it. Again, another couple of pages. Or, you camp someplace and a Yet is there also. A couple of pages. I think you get where I’m going with this. What if every room in the kobolds lair in Borderlands were two pages long and didn’t really have any more content than they already do in B2? Ta da! Download burn it and ship it to Kansas and clean up with that filthy lucre!

This stuff takes place in “The Forever Winter” which sounds cool but isn’t really explored at all except for a couple of environmental rules. Each “scene” starts with four or five italics paragraphs, for the DM, to set the mood, kind of in a “characters journal” kind of voice. Meh. It does nothing. In one of the lengthier scenes, in a town, we are told “At least one person had survived this place and got out alive. The GM should consider who it might have been” … even though this has absolutely no bearing on the adventure at all. 

Design is terrible, with forced things all over place. “Make an int check to know what the undead dude said. If you fail and try to leave then you will get attacked. Too bad for not understanding the language and answering the riddle he is asking you.” Or you are “attacked” by red mist when leaving town. Make a DEX roll or take damage. Gee! Fun! 

A spectre comes from the rafters in a church. “These are some sort of insects have hid here and have been eating the interior wood.” I have no idea what that means. The spectrers are insects? Or they have been eating the rafters like insects? Again, it has no impact, so I’m confused. 

“Those that do not understand what is being said.” one of the complete sentences in the adventure tells us. Yeah. No shit. That’s why we use editors. Oh, wait, there was an editor on this. I have no idea.

How do you review something like this? How do you review an “Adventure” where the simplest thing takes two pages. When there is no meaningful content, and it’s just abstracted ideas, concepts that the DM might expand on, with no real assistance to the DM to do so? 

The grocery is out of butter again. In spite of knowing better, I still can’t get used to it.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages. You can see the “crossing the lake” encounter at the end of it, as well as the start of one of the longer scenes, the village. They represent the design and writing perfectly, so, good preview.–Adventure-for-OldSchool-Essentials?1892600

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

She who is a fortress in Dark Water, adventure review

By Phillip Loe
Chaptain Ahab's Leg
Levels 5-10

Persevering through years of sweat and failure, Mother Cordelia Giovanni of the Ignacian Monastic Order finally succeeded in her great work—the creation of a human baby whose spine, once the baby matured to adulthood, could open the lock of the massive black codex said to have been written by St. Ignacio himself in the age of mysteries.

This sixteen page adventure details an eighteen room temple full of lizardpeople and another eight or locations in the wilderness. There’s a kind of energy wrapped up in many of th encounters, inside and outside the temple, that speak to the creativity of the designer and good writing. It’s marred by several minor issues that most people would overlook but annoy the fuck out out of me because I can see th epotential in the adventure without them.

“Show, don’t tell” is common writing advice and “I grew a baby to extract its spine to use as a key” is a pretty fucking good job at showing rather than telling the nature of ol Mother Cordelia. The baby was given to a monk who is raising him in a village, to get him away from her, and she now lives in the swamps nearby, the local crazy wise woman. The party stumbles upon the village, burning, after a raid, the monk dying the church. Seems the boy was stolen by lizardmen.

Here there be commentary from yours. This is a fairly good intro. What the village is lacking is a sentence or two on the destruction, to bring it home viscerally to the party. It DOES have some dead villagers with “oiltoads” still in their mouths. (They charm you to make you eat them, they being poison, you die. Pretty fucking sweet monster and visuals!) Further, the adventure has a timer, 24 hours. After that a DIFFERENT crazy dude extracts the boys spine and uses it as a key to summon The Evil One (She who is a fortress in Dark Water, in this case.) But you don’t know there’s a timer. Timers like this generally work best when the party knows they are on one. These things are missing from the village, although, it does mention that from the highest points  in the village you can see a couple of things in the pointcrawl swamp thats the next step. That’s good design!

The wanderers both in the swamps and dungeon are good, if a little too frequent. One check every turn in the temple and one every 15 minutes in the swamp (it’s a pointcrawl, so one check every “move” to a new location.) A pit extreme for an OSR limited resources game, I think. Then again at level 10 … 10, is that right? That’s pretty fucking powerful in B/X. 

Treasure is a mixed bag, speaking of levels. The loot here is pretty non-existent, even for a group of level 1’s. Magic items range from +1 swords to a pair of toad statues that turn to life when you squeeze them and spit poison for you, etc. This is very strange to me. On the one hand you’ve got these great magic items, clearly unique, not really described in mechanical terms at all. And then you’ve got just generic book treasure thrown in (maybe more book than unique, not a lot of either for the level range.) The designer clearly has the ability to make interesting treasure, they should have followed through on that.

OOB for the main temple full of ilzardmen is lacking, except for a brief note about the guards outside. The map is CLOSE to being illegible. It’s hand drawn, which I’m fine with, but then artistic flairs are added, which reduces legability, as do the rather small and thick penciled number keying. And there are no windows on the map, in spire of one room having a giant window being its main feature. There’s not overview of the temple from the outside, what it looks like, beyond “The temple was once a magnificent testament to the god of the marshland, a god of death, purification, and rebirth. Neglect has turned it into a ruin.” This is a great example of a worthless description. It says nothing meaningful for the game at hand. There’s a guard tower, that you have to dig for to find and remember as the party approaches, not obvious at all.

Further rooms sometimes lead with the wrong information, like saying there’s a broken alter in a room whos walls are covered by giant red tick marks. The boy, strapped in to a machine that is extracting his spine, is not really mentioned at all beyond those words, or how to get him out of the machine, etc, except that in doing so you will probably kill him. 

And yet, this will receive a No Regerts. Because it IS creative.

Those frogs statues for example. Or white pillar emerging from a brackish pool in the swamp, the spawning ground of the oil toads! With a mummified body in the water at the base of the pillar, his face having the same features as the oiltoads … and having teethe that have turned to diamonds! The counting room, with its tick marks crude on the walls. Or, pit traps outside the village, dug by the lizardpeople to keep the villagers from escaping … a few of which have villagers in them, impaled on spikes. One of which is still alive with a broken foot, willing to lend a hand as they can. A giant stained glass window with light streaming through it that deals damage to the non pure of heart. A room nearby with a heavy cloak in it. A mural elsewhere in the temple showing an offering being made under the window. A hint! This is interactivity. This is design. The offering is made under the window, in the mural, but needs to be made at the alter in the (essentially) same room, so it’s not even spoon feeding the party. 

Creativity abounds in this effort. It just needs more of it, as well as some adjustments to real world running the adventure by someone who didn’t run it. Things, like the start in the village, are clumsy, overlooked, out of order, and so on. But there’s some good stuff in this. Smarter than your average bear Boo Boo.

This is free at the designers blog:

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 5 Comments

Tomb of the Twilight Queen, 5e adventure review

By M.T. Black
M.T. Black Games
Level 3

Centuries ago, the Twilight Queen reigned over the most powerful empire in the world. But her realm now lies in ruins, her people are scattered, and her remains are buried in a grand tomb full of deadly traps and marvelous secrets. A renowned scholar has hired you to enter the tomb in search of a fabled artifact, but you will need all of your courage and ingenuity to survive…

This 45 page digest adventure features a twenty room tomb dungeon, using thirty pages to do so. It’s format is fine, for comprehension, but it lacks significant exploratory elements. In the end, tomb adventure is A Tomb Adventure.

Tomb adventures are not my favorite, and this is a tomb adventure. I find that they tend toward the linear and are rather confined in what they do, being “tomb guards” and “traps” with maybe a magical transporter or some such thrown in. This all seems very limiting to me, for an interesting play experience. Or, I might say, it’s the ultimate evolution of plot as adventure. You’re here. Do the adventure. So, I think tomb adventures are hard to pull off right, and this adventure is no exception to that thinking.

Tonally, its got 5e down flat. You’re hired by “a goblin scholar called Dr. Otho Ambitriax, who studies ancient history at a local university called the Academy of Systematic Wisdom.” Yup, that’s 5e all right. It’s easy enough to ignore these elements, which I find off-putting, but I know some people like them. I will say, to his credit, on the boat trip to the tomb, that “Otho secures a private cabin for himself but consigns the characters to steerage. He is astonished if they expect anything better.” That’s a very nice detail, and the kind of thing I’m looking for in an adventure. Brief, and so full of promise. And it also represents a lot of what this adventure is missing. There’s little of that specificity and more “set piece” design.

Let’s diverge for a bit and talk hooks. You’re hired. It’s one of the most common hooks, especially in modern RPG play. I find that fascinating. A few years ago when YA dystopian was all the rage in movies, books, and TV, I found the same trend. You were born special. You are the chosen one. The ancients gave you this information. I get the underlying themes of youth wanting to be more, especially in their formative years. But you know what? D&D wizards rock. No “I made a pact with a devil” shit. No “I was born special” sorcerer shit. No. Wizards embody the midwestern work ethic. They rip knowledge from the fabric of the universe through hard work. The lack of motivation in “you’re hired” hooks is striking. It’s an easy hook to throw in, which is why I presume so many designers use it. But, don’t you want to pursue your own goals, as a character, rather than being yet another middle class wage slave in whatever fantasy world you are playing in? And no, I don’t think it’s generational or a problem with Deh Yoots these days. I think it’s just laziness.

The format here is fine. It starts with some short boxed text. Sunken floors covered in mist, domed chambers covered in painted gold coins with yellow silk rope hanging down. These are not bad descriptions, at all. I would suggest that they feel CONSTRUCTED, as if a lot of work went in to them to make them what they are. That’s a good thing. It’s better, far better, than the usual garbage we get in adventures. I also think that there is a step beyond this. It does feel constructed rather than … I don’t know. Imagined? It doesn’t feel … easy. I think writing a good room description is the hardest skill to acquire, and it takes a lot of practice and effort to do it right. This does it right. Noiw, it’s time to make it better. 

You get some bolded bullet points following the read aboud, one for each major thing mentioned in the read aloof, so, the ceiling and rope in the domed room. Then there’s some major section headings for treasures and traps and monsters. Up until now the descriptions were doing fine. Good format. The “trap” section even works. It’s less useful, though to have major sections, when appropriate as this does, that mentions a monster and treasure. It feels like following a paint a by numbers set. A different format for those elements, just integrated in to normal text, would have probably worked better. And, again, better than most.

I could quibble with a lot of things here. The 5e-ness of a bandit who drinks a potion of invisibility when the party approaches, and the game world that implies. How a hot and smoky room should really be mentioned BEFORE you get to that room, to provide a lead in. A bandit wears slippers of spider climbing, but its in treasure section so is probably missed during the combat, for all it would add. A ghast wears a ring jumping. This smacks of Explaining Why and Justifying, something that has little place in D&D. Just give them kangaroo legs or make the fucker leap without any obvious signs. Or, fuck it, all ghasts now leap. Done.

There’s also scratch marks on the floor hinting at a secret door, which are the sorts of hints that should be in an adventure, especially at this level. And, inscriptions on the walls of one room can stop the attacks in the room. I’m not sure how often people decipher wall inscriptions during combat, but, hey, it’s the sort of thing I appreciate in an adventure. [Also, the statue lightning trap has no warning. There should be burn marks or ozone smells in the air.]

It’s all just a little … tomb adventure. As a tomb adventure it is a fine tomb adventure. It’s just not very interesting because its a tomb adventure. If you want a tomb adventure then you should buy this one. “Excellent traps and interesting fights” says a pull quote. Yup. De rigeur D&D. I find little joy though. Maybe that’s my problem?

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is nineteen pages, which is more than enough to get a taste of what you are buying. And, $3? At a good price also.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 30 Comments

The Goblins Lair

By Tony Garcia
Levels 1-3

Constant attacks have been carried out in the forest region near Holyrock. The small town of Taveiro Village was raided by a group of Goblins that are plundering the agricultural region near the city. There is suspicion that there is a lair of these beings near the village, but so far, no one has been able to find the place. The mayor of the city is hiring adventurers to discover and eliminate this band of Goblins. It offers a big reward, in addition to allowing the booty found with these beings to own the heroes. Are you ready for the challenge?

This ten page adventure uses one page to describe a seven room linear goblins cave. 

The sheet with the map on it has a monster reference stats also. This is great, you’ve got all the reference material you need on one sheet. Also, the entrance to the goblin cave is covered by a bush, with a wooden ladder descending six feet in to the darkness. That’s cute. Like every waterfall having a cave behind it. And six feet under? Why … that’s refreshing! And speaking of waterfalls, the latrine has a gem in it! Nice!

Otherwise this is an unremarkable adventure. 

The goblins caves are separated by about ten or twenty feet of hallway, and there’s no order of battle, they all just die in their rooms. Their very very linear rooms … just one hall after another until the boss goblin at the end. Most rooms don’t even have stuff in them, like that gem in the latrine. Instead the DM is instructed to roll a d6 and on a 5 or 6 there’s a gem in the latrine. In other rooms there might be 50gp if the DM rolls a 5 or 6. This is NOT how randomness is used in adventures. It does nothing for the adventure. Just put the fucking shit in. Or, the “roll once for each player on the treasure table in the book” note. Nope. Not gonna do it. That’s the designers job. To not just roll on the table in the book but to put something fresh and interesting in the adventure. That’s the literal job of the designer. Otherwise you’re just doing what I’m doing, narrating something.

The “investigation” piece is similar. Searching a farmhouse you could find AN ENCOUNTER (never detailed) or footsteps to track to a forest. Inside you could find GOBLINS, or a dead body or a dying goblin (the later two never details) all on a random roll. And, then, confusingly, there is another random table for exploring the forest.

The “adventure” is doing everything wrong. I’m sure the designer is full of enthusiasm but the results don’t match their vision. By a long shot. No evocative descriptions. No interactivity. Linear design. There’s just nothing here. 

I need some fucking joy in my D&D life and game night is two days away. Ug!

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1. The preview is six pages, you can see the entire adventure. Enjoy that one page of room keys and that one page of investigations. They should point you in the right direction …

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 9 Comments

The Heart of the Misty Island

By Rodrigo Oliveira
O Mochileiro
Shard Swords & Sinister Spells
"Try to survive"

A long time ago, an ancient civilization inhabited the world. Nothing is known about them, except for the ancient scriptures that they left. They used an ancestral dialect, which was forgotten, along with themselves. Some powerful wizards who researched ancient knowledge, know how to speak and read this language, because they believe that they possessed enormous magical knowledge.  Popular belief says that this civilization ceased to exist overnight, simply disappearing. No one knows how, no one knows why.  Many believe that this civilization was transported to another dimension by means of very powerful magic, and whoever manages to find out how to find it, will probably have access to all this knowledge, in addition to countless riches.

This 38 page adventure to a misty island has about ten pages of content that describes the trip and the natives, sacrificing people, on the island. It’s a simple oneshot that lacks much in the way of adventure due to its flowchart like plot.

This is using a flowchart like mechanism to run the adventure. If you stay on the ship then go to scene STAY or if you explore the island go to scene EXPLORE If you try to escape the prison cell go to scene BREAKOUT, or go to scene SACRIFICE if you stay in the cell. There’s maybe ten or so scenes, most of them take about a third of a page to describe, with the rest of the single-column page being devoted to giant art pieces from what looks like old word masters. 

You start on the ship, on the voyage which, I must say, has some interesting rumors Things like a map hidden in the library or the captain alone on the deck muttering to himself. These are great because they spark roleplaying on the ship. The party searches the library or watches/interacts with the captain. If only … the crew and passengers had anything to them. No names or personalities, just the number noted, so nothing here to help actually run the adventure.

The ship runs ashore in a mist on an island and this is where the flowchart like scenes start. Some of them can be quite railroady like “If the characters are in the AMBUSH scene, everything happens very fast, they will be strongly hit and passed out before they even understand what is going on.” So … ok. Why do this? There are plenty of other scenes that don’t do this but just have notes about the natives capturing the characters … so why force it in one particular scene? This sort of removal of player agency is never a good thing (outside of a hook, sometimes.)

The height of evocative writing is in the sentence “On the island’s soil there are trails made by different creatures, some of them can be known by the characters, like giant spider, giant centipedes.” There’s clearly a second language issue here, but I don’t really care about the awkward phrasing, Mr. Jefferson. What’s more to the point is the straight forward fact based writing that carries little to spark the imagination and wonder of the DM, the thing that an adventure lives and dies on. You just wander from scene to scene, fight natives, fall in a pit, and eventually arrive at a sacrifice ceremony where, maybe, an alien magician shows up.

It’s all just more than a bit boring. I’m sure it doesn’t match the vision the designer had, but there were, as is usual, issues in communicating that vision to the purchaser. It’s a few steps above a Steve WIllet adventure.

This is $10 at DriveThru. There is no preview, which would have clued the buyer in to what they were thinking about purchasing.

Posted in Reviews | 8 Comments

Castle of Mirror, 5e adventure review

Runehammer Games
5e/"OSR" (not really OSR)
"Mid Levels"

 The sinister influence of an ageless dragon is plagueing the Westlands with vampiric evil. Can the heroes confront these undying dooms, and solve the riddle of the magic mirrors?

This 39 page adventure describes a castle with a fuck ton of rooms. It’s doing it in a new manner and I can’t, for the life of me, decipher how this thing is supposed to be run. It looks like it’s mostly combat with a lot of abstracted detail, to the point of being an outline. Which doesn’t have to be bad, but in this case is.

Most people run a sort of plot-based game, especially in 5e, and I’m always interested in how those adventures could be done better, to more align with their style  without throwing out the important parts of the game. This adventure is trying something new towards that, but it just doesn’t come off right, for with a traditional exploration game or a more common plot-based one with light exploration.

As best as I can figure out, each major part of the castle is called a “scene.” It’s not like you’d think, based on that word. It’s more like a zone in a dungeon, an area. Each “scene” then has “zones” in it, which you could think of as unnumbered, but labeled, rooms in which something could occur. When you move between castle “scenes” (which are just major parts of the castle) you make a kind of survival roll for the transition, with a failure indicating an encounter before transition and a success meaning you simply transition, with the whole thing being narrated as a montaage. Each scene has about 3-5 zones, just labels like “Causeway, Gatehouse, Crumpled Gate, Battlement, Interior Court”, for example, for the “Main Gate” scene. There are bulleted notes (Yeah) in each scene about “action.” There are about three major areas in this (we’ll call them “levels”) with about eight or so scenes per level. I have absolutely NO fucking clue how the action is supposed to fit in. Are these the things that happen if you fail a survival check? Or they happen in each zone? How do you move between zones? The maps are, essentially, abstracted, although they look like maps, so it’s not real clear how you move from zone to zone or transition to a new scene, or know that you COULD transition to a new scene. Maybe the action happens throughout the scene, with zones just there as “fluff” for the DM to narrate as the action takes place? I have no fucking clue. There’s a supplement, called “5e Hard Mode” that is a separate product that maybe goes in to more detail. In any event, there’s an overview in this on how the scenes and zones are supposed to work, but it still isn’t clear, so that could be improved.  

It’s also not real clear to me that there’s much more than fighting in this. The “Action” notes are GREATLY abstracted, to the point of it being almost an outline, in spite of the scenes being about a column each.  At one point one early room tells us “The machine can be used to glean all kinds of secrets about the castle.” Uh … like what? How does this all fit together? There’s o real summary, or overview. There’s no understanding of why the gate guards attack you but then there are miners in one room that will help you. There’s no order of battle for responses, or even, I can’t tell, if there should be one. 

There is a section early on about themes in the adventure to get the DM to use while describing. Many worlds, vampires, and a dragon. But it’s not really themes, as I would think of them, more “this is in the castle.” There is a dragon under the castle. Uh, ok, great? How does that theming work? There’s nothing here to suggest how to do it, or how to frame it, and it’s described as a fact about the castle rather than a theme. 

There’s a bright spot or two in the town description, with some of the NPC’s having the right kind of description. One dude always seems to be relieving himself outside. ANother is a group of loyalist troops looking for a reason. Those are GREAT NPC’s, they provide a lot for a DM to work with. You instantly know how to run them. To my surprise, about half of them were decent like that, so the designer clearly has some idea of how to write something good, even if the rooms/scenes/zones themselves are a fucking mess. There’s also a hook or two that is more than a little interesting. 

I think I get what the designer was trying to do. Major areas with common elements, and then some sub-elements in ear areas, the rooms. Some things that could happen there. I get it, and I think it has potential as a good format for these sorts of games. As implemented, though, it’s a disaster. There’ nore real anchoring concepts. No real anchoring interactivity (although there does seem to be more than a few role playing encounters, or potential ones, to the designers credit.) The amount of interactivity beyond that is lacking. There’s no real summary of how things fit together, or are supposed to work, as in how the castle and its various groups function. It TOO devoted to the bullet point to convey information, and each scene needs a little overview for the DM, rather than everything laid out in bullets. And the Magic Mirrors? The thing that is supposed to be a major element of the adventure? That’s a WHOLE confusing mess. 

The format here is more than half done. The designer is one to something. It needs more work though, on communicating the ideas to someone OTHER than the designer. 

This is $3.50 at DriveThru. The same is ten pages, with the last two showing four of the zones. I strongly encourage you to check out the preview and those two pages. It’s interesting. The one that makes the most sense is the last, the watch tower. From that you can get, I think, the best idea of how things are supposed to play out.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 13 Comments

Rangers of Arkwood, adventure review

By Matt Kline
Creation's Edge Games
Levels 4-6

For years, a benevolent group of hunters stalked the trails of Arkwood, keeping the forest clear of dangerous creatures. Now however the group has vanished, and some very concerned people want you to find out why.

This sixteen page adventure features a manor with thirteen rooms. It harkens back to the early days of the OSR craze, with abstracted details, laundry list contents, and implausible contorted situations. A real classic!

The backstory has a ranger being attacked by phase spiders and creating The Rangers of Arkwood to protect the forest. He will get no prize for originality. Three rangers fight werewolves and are nonchalant about it in the backstory …. Which is itself weird. This is not the low fantasy of dreams but the high fantasy of RenFaire D&D. The only interesting thing in the lead up is the party being offered 3k cash by the Bards guild to find out why the rangers aren’t active anymore … because without them there’s no new songs. I guess it pays well to be a bard? Then some holy sisters show up to offer the party 2k to find out what happened to them. That’s the end of it, but I’d push this to absurdity if I were running it, having the local lord, the MU’s guild, the assassins and thieves, the executioners, the alewives, the gravediggers, and some kid with a mangy dog all show up to offer the party cash. Cause I’m a little fuck sometime.s

You wander around the forest rolling wandering monster checks until ten hours have passed, meaning you encounter, on average, eight wandering monsters. Seems high, but, no one is going to do that anyway, so we’ll just ignore it also.

You finally ind the rangers fortress and a brave badger man confronts you. He tells you they are all werewolves now and here, wouldn’t you like some potions that turn your weapons silver? This is my life. This is what D&D is, to a large portion of the population. This smells a lot like the designers own PC.

Inside the rooms are stuffed with werewolves. They won’t have names. They don’t react to sounds of combat in adjoining rooms. They just sit in their rooms and get killed, I guess. Long the way you get long descriptions of rooms that amount to nothing. A cloakroom takes up a quarter of page, listing how its used in detail, only to tell us it now only has a quiver of arrows on a hook.

It’s full of “this room was once.” that are meaningless to the adventure.
It’s full of laundry lists of rooms contents that are trivial and meaningless.

It has no joy. It’s just a hackfest. 

No names. No relationships. No factions. No interactivity. No interpersonal struggle. Nothing.

Just a minimally keyed adventure full of werewolves that has been expanded with trivia and padding.

The end has a bright point. There’s a list of further things that could happen, which is a bit interesting. If you took money from the halfling cook werewolves, and killed them, then they haunt you. Likewise bards follow the party around making fun of the party. Or telling how the rangers had to save THEM from werewolves. This is no way to run a railroad. This is the way you compel the party to slaughter NPC’s. Which, to be clear, I’m ok with both as a player and a DM, when this kind of shit is pulled. For a simple laugh? Ok. To build up the party and have fun WITH them? Ok. For punitive measures? No. Adversarial DM’ing with your 30/30/30 Gish Orphan Protectors is fucking lame. 

This is a throwback product to the early days of the OSR, where people just wrote the same stuff as always and stated it for OSR play. There’s nothing here.

This is $1.50 at DriveThru. There is no preview.–Wizardry-MiniDungeon?1892600

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