[5e] Modrons, Mephits, & Mayhem

By Tim Bannock
Self Published
Levels 5-8

It is primarily set in a modron-designed research facility that has been abandoned by its creators but retains guardians that are still active. Additionally, two groups have broken into the facility with their own goals in mind; the githyanki and their red dragon cohort are antagonistic and provide the main source of combat in this adventure, while a modron traveling with a few mephits may prove friendly although ultimately troublesome.

This seventy page adventure describes a three-level modron lab with about sixty rooms total. Only thirty or so pages are devoted to the dungeon, with the rest being appendices for monster stats, maps, etc, and it manages about four rooms per page when it is being terse and the rooms are simple. While for 5e, t’s trying to bring in elements of older play, with factions, better (non-linear) maps, interactivity and a generally slower/more exploratory environment. It’s trying to be organized, and succeeds admirably on several points, but the bulk of the text had readability issues, in both clarity and verbosity, which detract from the more interesting room elements which don’t come across well because of it.

A village water supply, from a river, has dwindled to nothing and you go up river to find out what happened. Discovering the water trickling from a (long-existing) dam you explore it to discover some other factions, friend and foe, inside. At heart, this is an exploratory dungeon crawl with another enemy faction (and the dungeon faction proper) already inside, and some allies to potentially recruit. Both the initial village, and another along the way, serve as rumor sources to collect information before venturing in. The NPC’s are all gathered in a small section, with personalities, that makes wading through their (longer) descriptions later a lot more tolerable. In addition, the information you can gather is separated out nicely in bullet-form faction, making it easy for the DM to locate and scan. It’s a great formatting decision.

The maps are decent and the three-level dungeon does a pretty good job of feeling like a lab to explore, without going full on gonzo nutso scifi. There are lots of levers, dials, viewscreens, and so on to play with. Command words to guardians with clues left about, prisoners to rescue to join forces with, simple room puzzles and interactivity. There are things to figure out and use to your own advantage when exploring/interacting. The core concept of the dungeon is a good one and the rooms, while not standouts, hit that bar of “good enough” in terms of variety and interactivity.

The adventure falls down, though, in the actual descriptions used to explain the rooms. They are long. They concentrate on irrelevant things. They try to explain WHY things are. In essence, the descriptions tend to focus on the irrelevent parts of a room, which obfuscates the more relevant portions. What follows is a lack of clarity and a hinderance to scanning the room and running it effectively.
Room D1-2, on page 13, the first level, is a good example. The first paragraph is all background, what USED to happen in this room. “The river originally flowed from X to X and then to Z but is now dry.” and so on. It tells us nothing new and adds nothing to the room. What USED to happen is irrelevant unless it impacts the party NOW … and ancient history seldom does.

The second paragraph tells us the evil faction came through here, heard a command word, and used it, thus the automated defences are still intact. The adventure falls in to this trap, explaining WHY, in a lot of rooms. There’s a decanter of endless water, held by an iron golem, who says the command word over and over again, in order to get a stream of water. It’s currently disabled, hence no water stream. There’s a trap here. The rules, those three books, they are for the players. There’s not a single word in any of them that binds a DM. You don’t need to use the rules to explain or build an effect. It happens because MAGIC. There’s no reason for a decanter until you want the party to steal it (which they will.) A water nymph pieced by a spear that bleeds water, or any of literally a ZILLION other things could create water. Dead unicorn heads, or horns, whatever. There’s never a reason to explain WHY. (Or, almost never, anyway.) All of that just clogs up the room, detracting the really important stuff: the evocative descriptions and DM notes. It’s hard to scan during play with this much text involved.

The read aloud tells us the pool is 40 feet deep. It’s only 20 foot full. It’s 15’ wide and 20’ deep. Steps lead up 5 feet. These are not evocative descriptions. The text should get a vibe across to the DM, so they can enhance it and get it to the players. Steel-walled, a deep clear pool with a catwalk over it. A gleaming glass tube coming from the ceiling and ending in the water. Present a vibe. The map can handle the dimensions.

And there’s another issue: cross-room issues. There’s another room nearby that causes things to happen when you step on the catwalk. But you don’t know that until you get to that room. Likewise, there’s a room nearby (the one with the decanter in it) that is at the end of a long hallway that’s patrolled, with a faction guardroom down near the other end. But you don’t know that until you get to the faction control room. “Uh, sorry, hang on guys, it looks like that hallway is actually patrolled, the one you came down.” Ideally, you integrate this sort of stuff either in to the map (the patrolled hallway) or reference it in another room. “If you step on the catwalk see room 1-3.” or some such. You need a pointer. Otherwise you’re forcing the DM to be INTIMATELY familiar with it or scribble on the map, make notes, etc. And that’s not the DM’s job. That’s the designers job.

I don’t want to come off too harsh. For a 5e exploratory dungeon, this thing is headed in the right direction. It’s got a nice order of battle for creatures in the dungeon, doesn’t have more than sentence or so on monster tactics, and uses bullet points pretty effectively in room descriptions. What is really needs is a stronger focus on the CORE of the rooms. The evocative nature. The text should be terse, but not minimalist. Every line should help the DM run the room. A BIG edit for verbosity and more evocative descriptions (not longer, more evocative) would do wonders for this and turn it in to a really good 5e exploratory dungeon.

It’s $5 on DMsguild.

There’s a free preview of ALL of level 1. Check out the last page & last column to see room 2/2a, with its backstory and explaining why. The entirety of 2/2A, that is seen here, could be shortened to maybe three sentences and be just as, if not more, useful to the DM running it.

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8 Responses to [5e] Modrons, Mephits, & Mayhem

  1. Aaron Fairbrook says:

    Hey Bryce…thanks for doing reviews.
    I (still) disagree with your comment “There’s never a reason to explain WHY.” I can see your point about clogging up the adventure with words that can’t be used NOW,…but I still will defend the ‘why’ as stuff you can use later—you can get more mileage out of the adventure with the ‘why’.

    I only looked over the preview of this adventure. An example of ‘why’ from the preview: D1-1 Lower Entrance on pg. 7 of the preview, it states “There was once a huge, steel door, but that has been ripped off (by the red dragon Fyngalaxus) and tossed aside.” I’m trying to be careful here as I don’t want to put words in your mouth (so correct me if I’m wrong)–but I’m assuming that you would think that it doesn’t matter if a red dragon named Fyngalaxus ripped off the steel door because it has nothing to do with the NOW of the adventure. As a DM though, I love that stuff. This makes my brain start working on next steps or developing an extra encounter with this red dragon, or maybe I can use that information to upgrade my descriptions of the door if it examined more closely by the party (claw marks have ripped through parts of the steel….).

    The “it’s magic” comment…agree that it’s good to be more creative for the why (continuous flowing water–impaled water nymph bleeding water is great!) but should never be used as a reason to the players…I just feel that’s being a lazy DM and would receive several eyerolls if I just said, hey…’it’s magic’ when they are trying to figure something out. Having a few notes of the ‘why’ is helpful–why is the nymph continually bleeding water, shouldn’t it of ran out of ‘blood’ by now? So now I have a cool situation (bleeding water nymph creating a continuous flow of water) that is ruined by having a lame reason of why the nymph is still pumping out water ‘because it’s magic’. Or if I have to think up a reason on they fly….which could inadvertently lead to a imbalanced magic item (not necessarily for this example). Again–knowing a little ‘why’ is a good tool for the DM and I feel should be important in any adventure.
    Maybe just a difference in gaming styles or maybe I just have annoying players that like to poke and prod everything and want to know the WHY of everything. And for that reason, I like knowing the ‘why’…….although, I do agree with you, that I don’t need 1-3 paragraphs explaining the why to me…”(by the red dragon, Fyngalaxus)” is sufficient.

    • I agree that Why’s sometimes serve a useful purpose. But authors / editors ought to be mindful about how & where to deliver those Why’s, to not degrade of at-the-table use of the area keys. Concise backstory, removed from the area keys, can solve this, giving details (or impressions) of history, factions, whatever.

      • Aaron Fairbrook says:

        I know Bryce suggested appendixes to me awhile back as well that could serve the same purpose–but then you have the potential problem of flipping back and forth through pages (if using the Why is your playstyle).
        I agree wholeheartedly with your point though about a concise backstory.
        And looking at the example Bryce gave with the history of the river used to going from X to X now goes to X to Z or whatever—I agree that sort of history is not needed UNLESS the party can do something (pull a lever) to make the river go back to X to X or if its important enough, to be included in the backstory. But with the history of the dragon ripping down the door, just a few words…I like that fluff/flavor/detail–whatever you want to call it. It might be so minor that it wouldn’t be appropriate in a backstory. I like it for magic items as well. Just my opinion.

        • Bryce Lynch says:

          Correct. It’s generally bad, and often overused, but there are always exceptions.

          The same with the explaining WHY. “its magic!” is never a justified excuse, but really shorthand for “you don’t need to construct a rube goldburg machine of existing rules in order to make water bubble up from the ground.

  2. Bigby's Affirmative Consent Lubed Fist says:

    The author would seem to be courting a cease-and-desist from Wizbro by using Githyanki, which despite having a name stolen from GRRM, are ‘product identity’, thus not covered by the OGL.

    • Aaron Fairbrook says:

      I think they can use githyanki, beholders, and anything else they want if they are in the DMsGuild. DMsGuild rules are different than the OGL. If the author was not in the DMsGuild, then you would be correct.

      • timbannock says:

        ^That’s correct. It’s a DMsGuild product, so it can make use of the entirety of D&D lore (with some restrictions on setting).

  3. timbannock says:

    Thanks very much for the review, Bryce! I really appreciate the feedback, and your notes on the text will definitely inform revisions to this adventure and my future ones!


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