Tranzar’s Redoubt

By Joe Johnston II
Taskboy Games
Labyrinth Lord
Level 4-6

Every fool knows that a cornered conjurer is a most dangerous foe. But a truly wise wizard will always have a fallback plan to use when victory eludes him. A secret place cached with treasure, filled with monsters and guarded by dweomercraft most subtle is the defeated magician’s best friend. It is also a juicy plum for professional adventurers. Care to take a bite?

This 44 page digest adventure describes a twenty room dungeon in about twenty pages, with the rest being monsters, magic items, preg-gens, etc. It’s mostly a linear dungeon with a few branching rooms. I’d call this a funhouse dungeon, with iconic adventure tropes appearing in many of the rooms. It’s got some layout issues, gets long/redundant in places, and generally has bits and pieces of decent descriptions. If the layout/map/etc issues were resolved then I’d say this is one good edit away from being a pretty decent funhouse adventure.

Fair warning: I have a fondness for the classics. Waterfalls need a cave behind them, etc, and this adventure has that in spades. There’s a room with statues that ask riddles. There’s a dragon on a treasure pile that you can talk to. There are damsels on a rock in an underground lake. There’s an etting in a room with three magic fountains. A large mushroom forms a mouth to issue a warning. At times this is a like a who’s who of classic D&D room types.

The rooms have some decent imagery associated with them. A door with an evil fetish of chicken bones, feathers, and a ruddy brown stain. Nice! Odious vines. Statues illuminated with blue light from within. A statue face on a wall of a desiccated zombie with a mouth distorted into a rictus of hunger. These are pretty good descriptions. They get an image across to the DM immediately and these sorts of descriptions are not uncommon in the adventure. “Large” pods is not very descriptive. A common issue with much adventure writing is resorting to these common adjectives and adverbs. Large and big are both boring words. EVen if you don’t go full on Jabberwocky there’s always a thesaurus.

But these descriptions also tend to be buried in the text. “Stairs descend for about 20’ into a 40’ passageway ending in a door. The door is locked. Normal lock picking rules apply.” I wonder if normal combat rules also apply in combat? And it’s somewhat remiss to not tell us that normal gravity rules apply? It’s IS useful to know the room dimensions, since, you know, they are also right there on the map that we just looked at to get the room numbers, etc. You know, the central piece of information for all DM’s that’s almost always the centerpiece of the reference material they use. Oh, wait …. NOT useful. That’s right. REDUNDANT. It’s this redundancy, on both counts, that drives me crazy, especially with an adventure like this that is close to being acceptable.

The number one rule in adventures, published ones anyway, is that they are technical document, a reference for the DM. The implications of that statement will vary based on the type of adventure what section of the adventure, but it always needs to be on the designer’s mind. For room keys there needs to (ALMOST always) be a focus. What’s the DM need to know first? Usually this is the description; the short and evocative text that shoves an idea seed in to the DM’s head where it can grow and flourish and they can then ad-lib and fill in for the rest of the room. It’s. Not. The. Fucking. Room. Dimensions. First, it’s on the map. The map that’s almost always in front of the DM. No, putting it in the key is not good. More is not better. It distracts from the DMs attention. Suddenly there is trivia, useless information, that I must dig through in order to get to the stuff I NEED to run the room. I’m hot on overloading the map with detail because of this; it’s always there and can support a lot of the mundane needs of the DM without detracting from the evocative part of the room. Give me a terse and evocative room description then another paragraph of a couple of sentences that follows up on it. You don’t need tons of mechanics. You don’t need to spell everything out. You’ve got a DM there. Allude to things. Give the DM room to blossom.

I’m being overly harsh on Joe, the designer. This isn’t garbage, he does have some good descriptions and room ideas (and good magic items, for that matter), it’s just clogged up with the mistakes I’ve seen hundreds of times before. The difference here is that those adventures generally had few redeeming qualities, unlike some of Joes descriptions and room ideas. I feel like Joe is close. Take a room. Work it. Rewrite it. Focus. Have the magic click.

I’m also more than a little annoyed that the map is split over two pages in the (middle) of the book. I don’t know, I guess it’s digest sized and that takes some allowance, but I find those hard to read, and reference in play, and print out/photocopy for my DM screen. No, I don’t have solution. I’m just a jerk that way.

This is $2 on DriveThru. The preview is six pages, but it’s all intro stuff. I wish these previews would more often show you an example of the technical writing.

Finally, there’s a thread over at RPGGEEK where they are building a community dungeon. I’ve been critiquing their rooms. One of them, username=PurpleBrocoli, had a kind of meandering writing style that they cleaned up quite a bit and turned in something that meets my approval. Several others are rewriting their rooms also, and I do in to detail on most of the rooms, noting the trivia and so on.

Fuck if I know how to direct link to Purple rooms …

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10 Responses to Tranzar’s Redoubt

  1. This may be your most positive review to date!

    I actually don’t mind room dimensions in the key if it’s something brief like “20 x 30”. Just avoid wordiness.

  2. Dave R says:

    And yet, is not putting room dimensions in the description a way to prevent page flipping? Otherwise you have to look at the map every damn time, and probably count squares. And dimensions actually matter if players are mapping, which in old school play they probably.

  3. Rob P says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter. Bryce, I get that it’s frustrating to see the points you made so often ignored – you bring valid observations to the table, and your suggestions are sound. That being said, you can’t beat your head whenever your “rules of good design” get violated… as popular as the blog may be, not everyone agrees, adheres, or is even aware of your design philosophy.

    These days I’m beginning to see a lot of your reviews more colored by your own personal idiosyncratic hang-ups rather than objective design principles. The room dimension thing, while bothersome to you, probably doesn’t bother most people. I personally find it handy to have t right there on the same entry I’m already reading, even though I also have a map handy. Verbosity of the entries is another one, coming up in almost all your reviews, but I imagine are generally ignored or un-cumbersome to most other DMs. Same goes for read-aloud, or lengthy backgrounds, or non-pertinent information, or book magic items… these aren’t “design flaws”, but rather “Bryce flaws”. Not to say you don’t have a point about why those things suck, but there are other people who can make points about why they don’t suck too, so maybe keep things less subjective? I know, personal reviews are the definition of subjective, but it seems like you’re aiming this blog towards a style-guide of sorts (which is fine), but keep in mind that an objective mindset would go a long way towards not pulling your own hair out every time you read a Dungeon Magazine.

    Concrete, concise points outlining the reasons that something is objectively bad will go further towards making your case than focusing on the same nitty-gritty issues that you don’t like to see. I’ve seen you review a few modules this way, and it’s been really helpful to read those reviews. Less helpful are the reviews where you talk for three paragraphs about how you hate that the designer devoted four paragraphs to a seemingly irrelevant backstory… we know that already, you’ve made your case about it. You ought to be taking your own advice – dock it a point in one sentence and move on.

    No disrespect, big fan of your work. I’ve literally read every review on here. Just highlighting a potential issue going forward is all. I know it’s often a thankless task, so keep it up.

    • Von Allan says:

      Rob, you noted that “…room dimension thing, while bothersome to you, probably doesn’t bother most people. I personally find it handy to have t right there on the same entry I’m already reading, even though I also have a map handy. Verbosity of the entries is another one, coming up in almost all your reviews, but I imagine are generally ignored or un-cumbersome to most other DMs. Same goes for read-aloud, or lengthy backgrounds, or non-pertinent information, or book magic items… these aren’t “design flaws”, but rather “Bryce flaws”.

      Actually, I’m going to disagree with you here (shocking, I know). And this is fresh in my mind as my wife and I just ran GRAVE OF THE GREEN FLAME this past Sunday (Bryce: thanks for mentioning a while back!) as a “duo solo” module (i.e.: no DM, but we each took two first level characters and ran them through it together). Verbosity of entries was a major problem for us along with a lack of clarity in general. At one point, I was trying to track down some key information in a block of text and I could…not…find…it. Scanning, scanning, couldn’t see it. Couldn’t find it. Argh! I had to pass the module over to my wife and she finally tracked down the piece of info. Simply bolding or otherwise highlighting key text would have helped immensely.

      FLAME also has a lot of read-aloud text, partially because of the solo nature of the module, but I believe that it could have been cut down. I did the read-aloud and man, it was ok-ish, but a lot of it was very clunky at the table. And I think it’s far to say that FLAME is better than most. For the most part, it’s a no-prep module that you can run immediately. Plus it’s fun! But I think it could have been better organized, more intuitive and easy to use.

      While there’s certainly an argument that some design choices are aesthetic (hell, it’s design, right?), a lot of what Bryce talks about ARE design flaws and not just “Bryce flaws.” It seems almost counter-intuitive; when you give a module a read BEFORE you play it, you think you’ll understand or remember everything. Then you’re at the table, running it, and you partially remember something…and you start to scan, trying to find the reference. And you can’t. It’s incredibly annoying.

      Anything that makes finding key information fast and fires the imagination at the same time is gold.

  4. Bryce Lynch says:

    Ah, WTF man! My comment got lost!


    Errr, I mean: there is some amount of truth in what you say.

    You are absolutely correct about the writing/design abilities of others vs the beaten in standards I’ve been commenting on. I understand it, so why don’t others? Well, because they haven’t spent 1000+ review beating the concepts in to themselves.

    If you view the blog as my personal journal then that point, as well as the one about idiosyncratic issues, becomes clearer. I see something and then suddenly I see the same thing everywhere, getting on a months long kick in which I reinforce the concept over and over again … until moving on to another whipping boy point.

    And you’re wrong room dimensions, as is the previous poster. I’m not saying its a universal concept and that they are ALWAYS wrong to put in a room, but I do think it works counter to effective DM scanning, getting an evocative vibe across, and duplicates data from the map … generally. From this standpoint it run counter to the information transfer goals that should guide the writing.

    I shant argue with the rest of your very fine points, except to point out that MAN, this shit can wear on you; an explanation rather than an excuse.

    I should get off my ass and finish my book.

    • Rob P says:

      “I do think it works counter to effective DM scanning, getting an evocative vibe across, and duplicates data from the map … generally”

      See, here’s the great contradiction – as a DM, when I’m describing the room to my players, I like to look in one spot to find what I need. If the room dimensions are listed with the room description, I can kill two birds with one stone.

      I know where you’re coming from on this – you think because the information is available elsewhere, that adding it to description is just redundant clutter. HOWEVER, room dimension size is a really small thing to add. No DM is going to claim they have to “sift through too much information” if there’s a short “30′ x 25′” blurb in there. Dimensions are probably the shortest possible piece of information that can be conveyed in D&D writing.

      I just fail to see how not having a summary Encounter Index or not having all your stat blocks neatly combined into an annex can be a deal-breaker in your reviews, yet rolling room dimensions into the description is a bad thing? Just seems like a really small thing to nitpick, especially since the two things are related (room size fits in with room description, seeing as you are DESCRIBING the SIZE of the room).

      So I say to you sir, that I believe you to be wrong on this point.

      I should get off my ass and finish writing that adventure module too though.

  5. Edgewise says:

    I don’t care about room dimensions, either, but that’s just because they don’t take up a lot of space. If an adventure is already far too verbose, then something like that can stick out like a sore thumb. Generally speaking, though, I think that Bryce is absolutely right about the general issue of excess verbosity.

    I ran a few adventures at Gen Con this weekend, and it makes a huge difference if it’s easy to find the part that you’re looking for on a moment’s notice. Having to pick your way through two pages of text when you’re under pressure to keep up a breezy pace is agonizing. It’s all about table-readiness. Verbosity is great (up to a point) when I’m reading at my leisure, but terrible at the table, which is why something like Maze of the Blue Medusa worked so well.

    RPG authors are notorious for falling in love with their own purple prose. But adventure descriptions are not at all like novels. Rather, the adventures themselves are the novels, and the players do a lot of the writing.

  6. Melan says:

    There *is* existing good practice for room dimensions, and it was established by Judges Guild almost immediately after D&D was published. You can put them in your room entries like…
    A1. 50’x70’x40′ H Butler Bertalan, Balrog Ghost, politely asks to take wraps – indignantly leaves through wall if refused. Three mouldering corpses by outside door.
    (The H stands for Height)

    Or you can put them on your maps next to the rooms in a small font. It is simple and useful. Presenting numerical information or statistics in a descriptive fashion, however, is a waste of space and brainpower. You don’t write “Five orcs, first level, with an AC of seven, damage one to six and one to eight Hp each, playing cards” You could, but there is no reason why you should.

  7. I suspect most authors don’t write the module first and then run the dungeon second. They run the dungeon first and then write the module second. If they did the former, they might change how they write on successive dungeons. But even that strategy fails (to a degree, anyway) because an author has so much of the invented dungeon in their head; the author wouldn’t need use the written word as much as someone else would. Plus, write-then-run probably isn’t practical for most people.

    I suspect most authors run very few dungeons authored by others. That would help too.

    I have a feeling most authors who do run other author’s dungeons, don’t feel Bryce’s pain points much.

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