Dungeon Magazine #128

Why keep on reviewing Dungeon? Because sometimes, when things are dark, you stumble on The One Ring.

By F. Wesley Schneider & James L. Sutter
Level 2

Danger: I LUV a good urban adventure. This is a DELIGHTFUL adventure! It’s a little mystery/guard mission in an old ladies house and is about 20 times more Ravenloft than almost all of the Ravenloft adventures. The Swan Street Slicer has escaped! On the way to jail, the mute halfling’s jailwagon was in an accident and he’s escaped! The guard is frantic, as is the entire town! Extra guards are everywhere! The party (hired? Hastily deputized?) is given the task of guarding the house of an old lady, her family having been one of the last victims. This is a nice hook. Hysteria in the city is fun, and its a good pretext as to why the guardsmen aren’t doing the guarding. They ARE, but EVERYONE/PLACE needs guards. It’s all hands on deck! So the party is in the old ladies house, guarding it/her and her daughter. The NPC’s in this are wonderful. A bitter old woman in a wheelchair. Her lovely daughter, no longer engaged since her fiance was murdered by the slicer. A halfing butler who is best described as ‘simple.’ Strong NPC personalities to interact with. Then there are the people who come to visit, PERFECTLY described. “Nina’s dim-witted but good-natured nephew.” or “a greasy but ambitious banker” and so on. In one fucking sentence for each NPC this adventure does what so many others can’t seem to do: focus on the NPC description on interactivity. Who the fuck cares what your special snowflakes eye color is? What we need to know is how to play them when the party comes to interact. There’s a great little table included for the old woman and her daugher on how the parties interactions with them will impact their attitudes/diplomacy checks. And, even better, the table notes WHERE YOU CAN FIND THINGS! Giving the daughter some letters from her dead fiance will give you some positive modifier, but the table also tells you that they are in room six! Oh the humanity! A writer who actually makes things easier for the DM! The NPC’s, the house, what’s actually going on, the window dressing, t all contributes to a wonderfully creepy vibe. As time passes the party will do that thing that brings joy to the hearts of players and DM’s. They’ll say something like “Ohhh! It’s her! I know it’s her! Ohhh! I know it!” This sort of build up, starting out slightly irregular and building until the party snap in to action, is wonderful. “Telegraphed” isn’t quite the right word, but the mix of horror, with the … levity? Anticipation? From the players is great. The maps are way too small, and you’re going to STILL need a highlighter for the rooms. They are shorter than usual for Dungeon, but still need a bit of help. That rarest of beasts: A Dungeon Magazine adventure Worth Checking Out.

The Champion’s Belt
By Tito Leati
Level 9

Another in the Age of Worms adventure path. I swear I’ve seen this adventure before … in Dark Sun form? You’re hired to participate in the cities gladiator games, a cover to investigate the tunnels below the arena. It’s the usual mess. Badly organized. Mountains and mountains of text spewed out all over the place that you have to wade through to get even the smallest semblance of how things are supposed to work. Anyway, four gladiator battles, some rooting around in the tunnels, hopefully the party finds and kills the stuff in the evil shrine before the final gladiator battle. If not, there’s a potential for thousands of wights to be turned loose on the city. THAT would be a cool thing to happen. It will be interesting to see if the next chapter of this adventure deals with that possibility. The adventure isn’t in and of itself, bad, but its very badly put together. It’s laid out in the usual encounter/key format but it’s NOT an encounter/key adventure, at least not most of it. It’s a social adventure with some investigation. You hang around. You meet people. You try and figure out how to get in to the secret tunnels, not be seen. Essentially, you want in to the Employee Only areas of the mall/football stadium, dodging employees, guards, etc. THEN you can explore and kill shit in the evil shrine. But its not laid out anyway near that to support it. Sure, you CAN run, if you dump a shit ton of work in to it. Even with the stupid fucking tactics-jerkoff-fest gladiator fights, this could have been a decent adventure, IS a decent adventure, if only you could pull the shit you need out of it in a way that makes sense for running the game. Most of the maps in this are small, and nigh unreadable, another stone against it.

The Fireplace Level
By Eric L. Boyd
Level 14

The finale of the three-part Vampires in Waterdeep adventure arc. Thank God. “The fissure opened up over six decades ago, in the Year of Catacombs (1308 DR). It’s just large enough to permit passage by a size Medium or smaller creature.” This is the kind of joy you are in for. And then … “In the Year of Catacombs (1308 DR), a purple worm passed through the Wormwrithings Portal (F2A) and appeared here. The damage might have been far worse is the temporal stasis trap in the hallway had not caught the gigantic worm at the locations marked F2B. Rge Company of Crazed Venturers stumbled upon the purple worm in the Year of the Gate (1341 DR). Calling on connections that Company member Nain and Savengriff had with the Blackstaff Tower, the Company managed to have the worm removed, after they transformed it in to solid silver with the help of a magic item. Khelben later cast gate seal on the portal ‘for the security of the city’ before departing.” That is but one part of the massive text in one hallway that has some stone damage in it. How the fuck does that enrich the adventure for the players? Actually, I’d much rather be playing THAT adventure than this one. Turning a purple worm to silver, looting it, all to get access to the dungeon its carcass is blocking, sounds like fun. But that’s not THIS adventure. There’a merman vampire, with a ridiculous picture. I don’t see how this is runnable in any manner other than worst caricature ever of a bad D&D game/DM. Go from room to room and kill shit. Joy. Oh Eric, I’m glad you finally escaped to a new job at the university. I just wish it were more memorable.

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14 Responses to Dungeon Magazine #128

  1. Yora says:

    The weirdest thing about Paizo adventures always is that they use some medieval props to write adventures set in the 1920s or 1940s. Prisoner transports? Traffic accidents? That goes hand in hand with their love for mental institutions and university sponsored expeditions.
    Which unfortunately makes them completely unusable for me in the rare cases where they are decent. They are based on starting assumptions that require a 20th century society.

    • Gus L says:

      It’s in 90’s D&D as well and I feel like it’s maybe a computer JRPG thing – the creation of a positivist technocratic and juridical world with the trappings of magic and highly ordered faux medievalism.

      I think it’s sort of the same way that nuns (of the Crystal Dragon Jesus) in Japanese media are a juxtaposition of contemporary Shinto shrine keepers (part-time job for good hearted high school kids?) rather then religious dedicants who have renounced public life for a cloistered existence of spirituality and service, with catholic drag/trappings to make the media feel exotic/medieval/European. Piazo style (or 4E/5E D&D house style) is all about setting aside the elements of medievalism like mud, serfdom, cities as mortality sinks, flea borne plague, and flagellant religious pilgrims in favor of something that make the world easy to connect to/make assumptions about but still provides simulationist detail for ‘that sort of player’. On the positive side it’s “Let’s get to the orc hole with minimal thought and setting for A LINEAR COMABT BASED ADVENTURE!” but on the other had it drains every bit of weirdness, wonder and evocative detail out of things.

      Forgotten Realms first rulebook (one of the most frustratingly useless setting books ever) claims the setting is high medieval but includes printing and other modern elements to make things easier because it doesn’t really want to be high medieval – it wants the disordered fragmented city-state polities combined with technology and a science of magic that make rigorous systematization and convenience a thing so players can know how everything works – cities can have sewers or streetlights (but no chemistry because no guns) and magic item shoppes.

      It really irks me, but I will stop this pointless rant now. Forgotten Realms is the worst.

  2. Baldo says:

    “Most of the maps (…) are small, and nigh unreadable”, it’s true, but don’t forget Paizo released art and maps on the net as free downloads.
    The maps for issue #128 are here: https://paizo.com/dungeonissues/128/DA128_Supplement_HR.pdf

    • Commodore says:

      Oh snap. Those supplements have all of the maps of Mystery bs West as well? Very very hit-or-miss Adventures but I adored the paizo era Maps of Mystery.

  3. Mimir says:

    But… wouldn’t stumbling on the One Ring only make it worse?

  4. Kent says:

    Why won’t you review the adventure from an obscure magazine I sent you ?

    The Beholder Contracts.

    I didn’t write it.

  5. Buzzclaw says:

    As bad as FR gets with the obsessive dating and timelines, I think Dragonlance is worse in that regard. It’s possible to handwave FR’s metaplot and say, swap Xvim in a mid-90s module for Bane or any other LE god but DL’s metaplot is so thick that it’s difficult to alter. I think you’d actually need to read all the novels to understand what the hell’s going on in Krynn.

  6. ifryt says:

    Thanks, Bryce, for the recommendation. Today I ran the “Stand-In” and it was really great – creepy, mysterious and funny interactions with NPCs.

  7. Curtis Bennett says:

    Gonna have to take issue with your review of “Shut-In”. It reads well, yes, but have you ever ran it? It’s a terrible, terrible mess. I tried running it recently, and it has plot-holes in it the size of a city bus.

    Firstly, Lady Velaluna wouldn’t want the PCs there. She’s working with the Swan-Street Slicer (SSS) after all. She wouldn’t want anyone interfering with her plans. So, in my mind, she’d actively work to get anyone OUT of her house. Secondly, the party is tasked with guarding her and her estate – not scouring it for clues, or trying to piece together the family’s past. In reality, they would just take shifts guarding outside, or guarding near her room, or whatever – not rummaging through stuff when people aren’t looking. There’s no backstory reason for them to do that. The towns guard need to pay the PCs a stipend to guard them, not just a flat fee. And they need to give them more background on Peck – that he’s taken to kidnapping, and that he’s been doing a lot of breaking and entering. That kind of forces the “we need to stay near you, and inside the house” part of the problem. In my game, I also mentioned a sizable reward for the capture of Peck, at least a small incentive for them to actually care about tracking him down.

    Also, the map is super problematic. There’s no indication of which direction the stairs head, and it’s not clear how to access the attic. There’s also a phantom room between rooms 10 and 11 that has no description or explanation.

    The crux of the module appears to be this whole diplomatic game between Ceseli and Velaluna in order to gain some insights into the mystery going on. My players had ZERO interest in diplomacy, and more or less tried to stay out of the family’s hair (as one would expect to happen in reality) and also the whole mechanic behind this thing doesn’t work in 5th edition, and is very 3.5-specific with all the various modifiers being applied here. In the end, I just had the players hear whining behind a wall in the basement, and they used a cantrip (move earth) to dig their way through, and then they were able to complete it. By then, half my players basically quit (it was play-by-post) because they spent a RL month doing nothing because half the party was sleeping and two others finished it basically on their own. Terrible, terrible module. Big thumbs down for me.

    • The Middle Finger Of Vecna says:

      Maybe you should have run it using 3.5 then. Complaining that part of the module didn’t work because you were using the wrong rule set doesn’t seem like adequate justification for declaring it bad.

      However, this brings up a valid point about some modules reading well and playing poorly, or vice versa. Anyone who reads Bryce’s reviews has to decide for themselves whether or not any particular adventure works for their game and at their table. As someone who has read these reviews for years now, the review is a good starting point for deciding if you want to use it or not. It shouldn’t be the end point. I’ve seen highly rated adventures here that I’d never run and low rated ones that I would run.

  8. Ken McKinney says:

    It’s strange seeing reviews so many years later, but I really enjoyed running The Champion’s Belt when it came out and so did my players. It DID end with the city being overrun by wights , which was awesome. The maps themselves are small because the mapped area is quite large, which I prefer — I hate maps which seem arbitrarily contrived to fit on a sheet of graph paper or a printed page. In fact, the maps were one of my favorite things about the adventure. As someone pointed out above, the maps were (and probably still are) also available as free downloads, so the DM was free to zoom in as required.

    I get what you’re saying about the amount of work required by the DM to do the adventure justice. This was very standard for the time, and certainly an area where things have improved in the last two decades.

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