By Johnstone Metzger
Red Box Vancouver
Labyrinth Lord/Dungeon World
The Tellurine Monastery has a serious problem—a band of evil wizards have stolen their holiest relic, the helmet of Saint Anglard, and fled. The abbot believes they are hiding out in one of the region’s many caves, judging by the recent increase in weird occurrences. But can he find a group of adventurous mercenaries who won’t be distracted?
This is a 89 digest-page adventure describes an 11×12 area of hexes that take up 48 of the 89 pages. It describes a small borderlands region with some feature in each hex and a couple of over-arching plotlines going on throughout the region. The hexes need a little more action and the entire thing needs just a couple of more pages to summarize information for the DM.
Let us imagine you created a hex crawl. Then take two of those hexes and link them together and GREATLY expand the data for them, to ten pages or so each. You’d end up with something like this hex crawl. The idea is that there’s a monastery that has had a relic stolen. Some evil wizards who live in a cave did it. Both hexes have other things going on in them and impact a few other hexes. AND THEN THERE’S EVERYTHING ELSE GOING ON. Neighboring rules. The king’s men. Farmers. Wandering magical beasts of note, such as the dragon. The whole vibe here is of a lower-fantasy area and reminds me a lot of Zzarchovs stuff. This kind of harn-like peasant land that is then punctuated by a more folklor-ish type of magic and cult or witches, etc. It’s a style I can really groove on.
The adventure is serviceable, which is pretty high praise in Bryce-landia. I think it misses the mark in two or three areas and I’d like to spend a little time discussing those. Let us not take that to mean that this adventure is bad. It is not. It’s not a home run though and I’d like to discuss why.
One of my main conceits is that adventures should be targeted at the DM actually running them. I’m currently working on the position that is that quality that separates them from fluff. I like fluff, but a good deal of the blog, and the reviews, are essentially about play aids for the DM at the table, during the game. You can think of this, in shorthand, as “Why should I need to use a highlighter on the adventure or take notes ahead of time for use during play?” I expect information to be easy to find and easy to use AT THE TABLE.
This hex crawl has some issues in that area. I’ve mentioned the monastery, which is listed on the map, as well as the evil wizards. Both of these get a decent amount of text, up front, before the hex crawl, to orient the DM to them. Almost too much text, in the case of the monks. What the adventure is missing, most critically, is a brief overview of the REST of the hexes. There is clearly a couple of interrelated hexes subplots about neighboring noble lords. If the adventure had ONE more page that briefly oriented the DM to the interrelated hexes and/or subplots then you’d have a much stronger grasp and/or reference to running it at the table. “Uh, who’s our liege’s rival? Hang on, let me thumb through things until I find those other hexes …” This isn’t a general rule .In other words, not every hex with a relationship to another hex needs it spelled out ahead of time. But it’s very import when running social encounters that you have the context available for the people to relate information to party. The soldiers. The farmers. People you talk talk to will get asked questions by the party and when that happens you need a reference page you can turn to, and I’d rather the designer provided one than forcing me to take notes on the entire thing for use during play. It doesn’t need to be explicit, but needs to be enough that the local yokel can talk rumors and answer questions about the soldiers up the road.
In a similar vein, several of the hexes are missing some critical information that would help orient the DM during the game. There is a CLASSIC example of this very early in the hex descriptions. “In this hex there is evidence of the brown bear mentioned earlier.” I think you can see how this would be used during play. The party finds a kill, or tree damage and maybe that leads to trail that leads in the direction of … wait … which hex actually has the bear in it? Let me go digging through the book/hex descriptions. Oh, that hex. “It leads northeast.” Again, this is not an isolated incident. A few more monks, with quirks thrown in, and/or a time table. Better hex referencing. A general region overview. All of this could have been done quite briefly, and even still in the 89 pages if the evil monastery portion had been trimmed up a bit with a better edit. (The free text portions of the adventure can be quite conversational and wordy, to little effect.)
Second, I’d like to discuss the actual hex encounters, proper. I don’t review as many of these as I do other types of adventures, but I still have a definite opinion about what I’m looking for. I think sandboxes work best when the hexes have an “action” or “verb” slant to them. In other words, something needs to be going on in the hex, it needs to be full of potential energy for the party to release. At the other end of the spectrum might be a kind of tourism hex. “This hex has a tall tree in it.” or “This hex has a rock shaped like a duck.”
There’s certainly a place for tourism sites. “Meet me by the giant oak” or “I hid the body by the rock shaped like a duck.” They can easily serve clues and locales and meeting places, landmarks to get the party going to. But they don’t drive action. They are, at best, fluff, that the DM can use during the adventure. Driving the action falls to the verb hexes and all wilderness crawls need a decent number of those. The adventure has a fair number of verb hexes but could use more. It looks lopsided to the tourism side of the house and it needs to, I think, skew 50/50 or more towards the verb hexes.
A hex with a wolf in it means you can fight the wolf or run away from the wolf or avoid the wolf. A hex with a wolf in it that is guarding a bloody infant staked by a rope to the foot to a tree … that’s got something going on.
It’s a decent enough adventure, but will require some note taking.
This is available at DriveThru.
It got a fantastic title, though.