AA#40: The Horror of Merehurst

Joseph Browning
Expeditious Retreat Press
Level 1

The island of Merehurst was once a bustling center for trade. But this was not to last, for in one single deadly night sixty years ago all the people and the animals of the town died – collapsing where they stood. The neighboring villagers of Coombe claimed that the miners dug too deeply into Ynyswel and the spirit of the isle was offended. The island gained a fearsome reputation and only the bravest would dare set foot upon its forested grounds. Yesterday strange lights were seen in the sky over the island and Ynyswel started smoking. The villagers can wait no longer. Brave adventurers must be found who are willing to investigate the Isle of Merehurst to either appease or oppose what lies behind the latest mysterious activities.

This seventeen page adventure describe about 45 locations on a small island: an abandoned village, farmstead, and mine. It’s got a creepy ass vibe and does a great job creating an exploratory environment. If his editor had cut half the words instead of over-explaining it would be a great, solid first level adventure. Oh, wait, it looks like he wrote it AND edited it …

THis thing sets itself up as creepy as fuck. The background information is all mysterious. An entire village dying overnight on the island. Strange lights on the island that can be seen from the shore. No word from the loner family living on the island … it’s a nice erie set up. It’s strengthened by a wandering table that has a fair amount of creepy and weird happenings on it to help with the mood. Crawling hands, dripping blood, a flopping fish far from the water. With a decent DM the party will be shitting itself in no time. In this respect the tension built is kind of wasted on the “normal” wanderers, especially the undead. It feels like that would break tension. But that’s an actual play thing ands easily adjusted in play … more of an academic point of debate I guess I’m asserting? Anyway, it’s got a great creepy vibe n the environment and nice encounters to support it like undead children and the like. I seldom mention art, but in this case the undead kids, creeping eyeballs, and “map art” is all top notch and does a wonderful job contributing the overall vibe of the adventure. That’s exactly what art SHOULD do in a product, and does not in most cases.

The encounters are a great mix of the mundane and the dead. There’s a substantial set of ruins in the village and plenty of room for that giant tick in the overgrown collapsed building, as well as the half-dead. There’s even some room to talk to a few things. It’s not packed to the gills with combat with, again, reinforces that creepiness.

The writing is, again, the downside. It’s not overly evocative, for all of the attempts at creepiness. Dripping blood is not quite as good as oozing blood, which is an issue here; it is solidly in the “workmanlike” category of descriptions. A little more time spent agonizing over word choice would have gone a long way here.

As would, as I said earlier, an editor to challenge on the writing. That assumes an editor would, and I don’t think they do much anymore. Copyediting and other simple suggestions? Writers need challenged. Every sentence, if not word, should contribute, and that doesn’t happen here. A storage room description tells us “As the mine expanded more storage was needed and this part of the new stone building was set aside for that purpose.” It is almost NEVER The case that explaining WHY is useful, and that drops even more when you talk about usage and history and “used to be.” That sentence doesn’t help. It doesn’t help me run the room. In fact, it detracts from it. As I look at the entry while running the adventure I have to wade through it before I get to the actual room description that I need to run the room. This adventure does that over and over again. Stirges are nocturnal hunters who travel in to the northeast when the sun descends — —they’ve learned to avoid the ruins of the city as several of them have recently been killed by the various predators within. What’s the point of that? It has no bearing on the room. If the party is here at sunset do you think I’m going to suddenly remember this detail and make the stirge fly out? If you WANT me to do that then you need a section in the front on day/night changes that will prompt me. No, this is more explaining. It’s fleshing out a world in a kind of computer RPG manner. Richly describing things that will almost certainly never happen. If I was playing Fallout and say some batlike oobs fly out of some ruined building at sunset it would get my attention … but, again, that’s not what is happening here.

Treasure does “spill from pouches” at times, but it’s mostly the usual assortment of +1 swords. Again, workmanlike.

This is $14 at DriveThru. The preview doesn’t seem to work?https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/234226/Advanced-Adventures-40-The-Horror-of-Merehurst?affiliate_id=1892600

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8 Responses to AA#40: The Horror of Merehurst

  1. Avi says:

    Preview now working and price is now 7$ for the PDF

  2. squeen says:

    I think Bryce’s delineation of “usable at the table” versus “computer RPG-like” is close to the heart of the conundrum of product design these days. How to add depth without clutter.

    I find it a fascinating idea to have (the appearance of) “infinite detail” available to your players if they choose to dig deeper, research a topic, or or explore off in an uncharted direction. Layers to the onion. Typically, this forces an Improvisational Moment from the DM—with mixed results. Random tables can only get you so far without feeling…well…random.

    What would good product design look like? Perhaps one that:

    a) gives immediate/prominent access to the most significant, game relevant, and immediately noticeable data. The “play-ability at the table” test.
    b) has an (unobtrusive) secondary layer of “this used to be…” historical backdrop (baggage)
    c) possibly also includes some colourful IF-THEN scenarios on how to respond to certain player actions (without taking up too much space).

    We (all) don’t precisely know what this uber-module looks like. But, by following Bryce’s blog, we are all sniffing around for clues, and hoping the hobby will have a collective revelation. A literal “game changer” we can all emulate.

    In some ways, computers are better suited for storing a lot of information and only presenting you with what you need, when you need it—via database look-up. Computer-assisted DM-ing probably makes a certain amount of sense, but personally I reject that outright—preferring the unencumbered pen-and-paper approach. (It’s OD&D after all).

    What Bryce suggests is that with a minimal “seeding” a good DM can substitute for a deluge of information with on-the-spot creativity or just general “common sense” knowledge (e.g. “what’s in a kitchen”). But, I believe this has always been the Achilles-heel of D&D—it takes a great DM to make for a great experience—and that’s not something you can just put in a box and mass-market. Most people are average by definition (except at Lake Wobegon—which incidentally was very close to Lake Geneva).

    In short, a good adventure product is designed to elevate the DM from okay-to-good, or good-to-great. But how?

    Please keep searching Bryce. We’re all interested in whatever you uncover.

    • Edgewise says:

      The master class in usability and multiple levels of detail is Maze of the Blue Medusa. You might ant to check that out. I personally think those historical details are extraneous – I have a lot more faith in my improvisory abilities and a lot less faith in my players giving a shit. Also, I have no love for the if/then approach to describing things. It offers no guidance on how to handle what my players inevitably end up doing.

      • squeen says:

        I do own Maze of the Blue Medusa, and I think you are right in that it manages to tersely convey a number of complex relationships and historical info. I also liked the “What so-and-so wants” and “What so-and-so doesn’t want” mechanic. I think it influenced the same in Hot Springs Island. In that sense it’s a win for OSR. I would be very interested to hear from folks who have used it “at the table” on how well it works. At first blush, I didn’t think I had the necessary “artist’s swagger” to pull it off. My brain just doesn’t work that way. However, that didn’t stop me from recognizing it as a fantastic creation—true art.

        On the topic of historical detail—I agree it can be VERY, VERY bad. Duke Perfect-hair, son of Perfect-hair…blah, blah, blah. Failed novelist stuff. But I do like the idea of there being (useful) discoverable history that may be orthogonal/unrelated to the adventure, but still interesting in a sandbox setting. Endless distractions. Too many threads to pursue them all. Things that connect the characters in odd ways. Order and Chaos playing there inscrutable cosmic chess game with the various pawns.

        Here’s an example: The reason that there exist unclaimed magic items in the world is because nobody alive knows where they are. They might be nifty, but non-essential. Lost things truly “hidden in dark recesses”. Digging into historical detail might be the only way (beyond blind luck) for getting clues on where to search or what the heck might have caused something 100+ years ago. I love the idea of hard-to-get-to places that anyone sane would avoid—but that the DM has “ready to go”. It makes the world seem less concocted to me. Just a little name-dropping—nothing to get in the way of the action. Just a bit of bait to see if the players bite.

        I do get your point about players not caring, but I’ve seen this weird thing happen in an extended campaign: the players seem to act differently when they return to a setting, versus when they are initially exposed to it. At first they just take it all in—the DM might even think they are totally oblivious/blase—but later, if/when they return, they start manipulating the environment a bit more (after the initial shock and terror wears off and they’ve picked up a few levels). I’ve been surprised more than a few time on what they latch on to—that’s the best part of being a DM (in my opinion): not knowing where the game will go.

        I just want there to be something to build-on if things take an unexpected turn. Otherwise, it can be tempting to try and rail-road the action into a direction that’s already “fleshed out”.

        I am far less married to the if-then format and have never really used it per se.

        • Edgewise says:

          That’s a good point about how things change in the course of a campaign. And I 100% agree that I like there to be locations of all levels of difficulty from the start…anything else starts to feel very solipsistic in the context of a campaign. I’ve heard a lot of GMs say they will stealthily use the theories of their players to fill out content, but I’d be pretty annoyed if I thought my GM was pulling that on me.

    • Von Allan says:

      “Please keep searching Bryce. We’re all interested in whatever you uncover.”

      Bryce already has. It’s right here: https://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?p=2773

      • squeen says:

        Yes. But that’s the best-so-far; not necessarily the-best-there-ever-will-ever-be. It’s a classic best, not a Galilean inversion.

        If it’s “humas vs. the computers”—us peeps need an edge.

  3. Josh Rodman says:

    I think Merehurst isn’t too bad. Sure it has some information that doesn’t help you but it manages to stay moderately terse and moderately focused. I may excise some of the more boring encounters and I’ve had to modify all the magic loot to be interesting. My PDF is hecka annotated.

    I think the mine portion doesn’t exactly carry the mood as well as it could. I’m not sure how to improve that but I have a few days to figure it out.

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