By Jon Marr
Purple Sorcerer Games
Dungeon Crawl Classics
Level 0 Funnel
The Great City is old and faded, a pale reflection of its former glory. Life is a challenge for most, but for the weak and unconnected, the city is a place of unrelenting hardship harboring neither hope nor promise of escape. With one exception: the Sunken City. Most find death in the crumbling ruins that stretch beyond sight into the mists; once rich districts now claimed by swamp and dark denizens. But for the desperate few, the ruins offer treasures the Great City denies them: fortune, glory, and a fighting chance!
This seventeen page funnel has about thirteen to twenty encounters areas and a small starting locale. It has a writing style that, while not terse, does an excellent job of communicating the flavor of the encounter. This is combined with a layout style that makes the mechanics of areas easy to find. There’s a good mix of encounter types, from mundane to undead to weird, with a couple of the encounters being truly excellent pieces of design. I dub thee “Easy to Run!” … if a bit bland in some of the corners.
The publisher’s blurb does a decent job of introducing the scene: a great city, overtaken by the swamp. On it’s edge is a small settlement from which scum (IE: adventurers) set forth. Condemned criminals seeking pardon, apprentices, etc, all form up small bands and head off. It’s an environment that appeals to me, the small insular murder hobo community with its own culture. Purple Jon does a good job here of communicating the culture of the place and it’s the first example of a descriptive style that’s rare … and very good.
I’m fond of quoting a section from Spawning Grounds of the Crab-Men, a room that has an ld retired hill giant named Old Bay. He’ll pay for dead crabs and his cave smells of butter. The room is a couple of paragraphs long but if you read it ONCE then you’ve got the vibe and can run it from memory. It’s sticky. I talk a lot about terseness in descriptive style, all for the purpose of helping the DM run the thing at the table. The ying to that yang is sticky. You don’t have to be terse if you can be sticky. That’s dangerous territory though since EVERYTHING is likely to be sticky to the designer. But when it happens it’s great to behold. This adventure is sticky.
The little outpost of murder hobos can be read once. The little section on the approach to the sunken city, with six or seven locales, can be read once. The four or so outside encounters can be read once. The main aboveground encounter can be read once. It all stays with you, at least enough so that when you look at the map you can recall it. This is all supported by the layout and formatting which makes it easy to find the mechanical bits. “Oh yeah, that’s the room with the tentacles that do weird stuff … “ and in the text the bullet format and bolding makes finding that “weird stuff” trivial to locate. The writing did an excellent job of giving me the vibe while the layout & formatting did an excellent job of making the mechanics & specifics easy to find. IE: It supported the DM, exactly what it’s supposed to do.
I want to focus on one encounter as an example of good encounter design. It’s one of the best in the adventure and I think many could learn from it. There’s a grotto underground. The witter glitters with glowing scarlet crayfish (window dressing.) There’s an island out in the middle … with something sparkling on it. You see a massive shadow swim under the water. TEXTBOOK tease. Everybody, from the DM to the players, knows that fucking water is a deathtrap … and yet … what’s that sparkle? It’s the kind of shit that makes players eyes light up. Wacky plans ensue. D&D is played. The treasure is a real treasure, not a rip off DM screw job. There are some things around … stalactites, giant braziers that could be boats … This is GREAT design and, again, once read it stays you and the mechanics of the treasure and monster and so on are easy to pull out of the (column) of text.
That room does something else, it provides some unexplained stuff, a mystery, about the monster. This happens routinely in the adventure; things are introduced that have a mystery to them. A giant ‘Warden’ who stalks the entry. A demon in a pillar that teleports. It’s not missing information, its writing in such a way that DOESN’T explain, but at best just hints at, letting the DM run with things and expand as need be. This is the kind of writing that fires the imagination.
The maps are clear with just enough art to contribute to helping the DM recall the rooms. There’s even a cross-section or two to help the DM understand some elevation elements … Excellent! But, alas, all is not well in Sunken City-ville.
Some of the encounters are a bit … mundane. Possemmen are great! Armadillo-cros are great! Yet Another Skeleton Encounter is less than stellar, as is “Generic Slime creatures.” This isn’t much of a condemnatio; most adventures have some rooms that are weaker than others. It’s just that the more mundane rooms could have been kicked up a bit, perhaps with more environmental/room details to make the encounters a bit more fun. There’s also a bit of a screw-job encounter, an arena the characters are forced in to and then a dungeon/hole they must enter to escape the certain death in it. It’s got a lot going on in it, with lightning walls, ghosts, spikes, death traps, and so on, but it FEELS forced. DCC published adventures can tend to the linear side of the spectrum but generally don’t feel forced. The arena encounter in this does.
This is $5 ar DriveThru. The preview is four pages and shows off the writing for the like murder bobo-ville and the general locales on the way to the sunken city. It does a good job showing off the “sticky” writing style. I challenge you to read those four pages and then look at the map and start running the game in your head. Should be trivial. It’s a travesty it took me this long to review a Purple Sorcerer adventure.https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/102457/Perils-of-the-Sunken-City-DCC-RPG?affiliate_id=1892600
I think I played this a few times with a good GM and it worked quite well. We didn’t find the boring/mundane parts and the GM gave the whole thing the Southern Gothic/Swamp People vibe that possummen demand. Also he knew a fair bit about possums and could do a great possum man hissing voice. I think fondly of this adventure but the dungeon portions were less exciting/evocative then the outdoors even with a good GM.
Thank you for the thoughtful review. Perils was the first adventure I published, and I’m still very fond of it. (One interesting note: speaking to the mystery of how readers will react, I’ve had two requests from DM’s for a follow up adventure based just on the singing slimes! As you’ve noted, if we provide just enough detail to fire up the reader’s imagination, that’s when the fun starts).
Perils is one of my fave adventures ever
Bryce needs to Patreon this site up. I’d pay for him to plow through both 4e Dungeon AND Paizo’s modules & Adventure Paths.
His Dungeon recaps are weekly fare for me.
Agreed, although I don’t think you could pay him enough to review the Scales of War. But if he reviewed everything in Dungeon but that I think he could stay sane.
My $.02: Agree on all but the subject matter…I personally don’t care about 4e anything or PF.
That’s fair and they’re not systems I prefer either, but Bryce’s equally valid position is that the ideas, map, rooms/ npc’s/locales/rumours and unique spells/monsters/items are all the parts that you are really paying someone for (the parts that require imagination/time and should be more satisfying than what can be rolled on a random table, or for purists, to at least have done the brain-work & joined the dots in the fantastical ways that an inspired interpretation of random tables allows).
The monsters and stat blocks/rules you can just run according to whatever ruleset you enjoy. It won’t really matter either way if you do a skill check, an ability check or wing it off a great description or a bonus combo derived from xyzzy. If you’ve played a fair bit of D&D you can just eyeball a monster & get the idea (ok, basic bandit, might as well be a brigand, an orc or a Wazeely Uplifted from the Base Elve- Stock) & note what is interesting about it & run from that.
I think it’s a mature & refreshing attitude instead of just rejecting things out of hand because of a dogmatic position on the right or wrong set of rules. Certainly allows for a broader church of Bryce 😉
Yes, as long as the bones are good. Three linearly connected rooms each filled with a setpiece battle specifically designed to feature 4E’s boardgame grid-mechanics may not be salvagable.
I actually find most 4e-era modules to be easier to salvage than 3e. They are just as likely to be linear hackfests, but once the designers figured out the layout it became relatively easy to separate the wheat from the chaff. And not all of them are linear hackfests.
Full disclosure: although I started playing in ’79, I run 4e games now – because the way WotC presented the game is not the way it has to be run, even if you don’t change a single rule.
I expect I’m not the only 4e gamer who reads this website, but who’s going to admit to playing 4e on an OSR blog?
I don’t really have anything against PF as a system – it’s not my choice, but it doesn’t seem terrible, either (4e is another matter…). But the communities and marketing for these systems attract published content that I have no interest in. Feel free to disagree, but I did say it was my $.02.
Good god! Out of all the editions of D&D/AD&D you have to choose from, and Pathfinder, and clones, and other systems, why in the name of all that is holy would ANYONE actually play 4e? It truly boggles my mind. Yes, I know, “because they enjoy it” That sentiment is equally as mind boggling.