By Josh Dixon
Level ... ?
Wild necrotic magic, magical mutations, undead, lost souls, and demons all cloaked in a fog fog-choked landscape; forsaken by the gods and scarred by the battle fought here long ago. Will your adventurers survive and escape the Haunted Ravine? Or will they join the legions of cursed souls imprisoned in this corrupted land?
This 46 page adventure details a hexcrawl/point crawl in a haunted ravine with about 12 fixed encounters. Great imagery abounds, but it’s ruined by the simplistic combat/skill check attitude. It’s tries hard but lacks any but the most basic understanding of an adventure RPG.
I’m reviewing this today because it says its system neutral with few mechanics. Turns out that means “I’m 5e through and through but not using stat blocks.” Given the reliance on skill checks this is probably only a 5e/Pathfinder adventure. It also lacks a level range, which is weird given it DOES actually have specific 5e monsters listed, from Ghosts to Bodaks (so, probably level 1 … says the man disillusioned by 5e turning “big” monsters in to level 1 foes.) Anyway, I’m tricked in to buying it, which is never a good thing. Uncool start.
But, lets talks how good the imagery is before I start to rip on this. One o f the three Bryce pillars is evocative writing, and this has that. I want strong writing that creates a mental image for the DM that they can then translate to the players. This is, I think, one of the hardest parts of writing an adventure. You have to get the idea out of your head, down on paper, and in to the DM’s head in such as way that they can transmit the vibe to the party. This manages that quite well.
A ravine, full of dense fog. Necrotic energies making weird lighting effects making it hard to discern day from night. You can never get warm enough, a deep chill staying with you even when next to the fire. That’s a pretty decent vibe. It takes a paragraph in the adventure, which is not great, but the vibe is a good one. There are strange things that can happen to you in the fog. Like worms crawling and wiggling OUT of your face. Your hail falling out. Vomiting blood with little slug like creatures wiggling around in it. A tooth that falls out. Tears of blood welling up in your eyes every time you feel stressed or emotional. And on it goes. This shit is CREEP.
This kind of writing extends to most of the twelve fixed encounters. Steep black cliffs, the smell of decay, a low continuous moan of a wind, wind & snow swirling around a foreboding figure on spectral horseback at the entrance to the ravine … “Turn away. Turn back now. Only death await you here. All who pass these gates of the damned never return to the living. Turn back now before it is too late.” Luminous green glow drifts off of him like smoke. Dented armor and ragged cloak hang, with a grinning skull peering out from a rusted helm. A skeletal beast of a horse wrapped in shadows, the wounds it took in life showing up as gap in the darkness leaking luminous green glow drifting off like smoke.
Yeah, pretty fucking good. I’d be shitting myself if I were a player.
The problems, though, are many. The writing is in paragraph form, making it hard to pick things out of of. There’s little in the way of bolding, highlighting, whitespace, etc to call the DM’s attention to certain areas of the text. This forces a long read of the text in order to run the encounter. Inevitably, this results in the DM having to do it themselves with their own highlighter, and if you have to do that then why didn’t the designer do it for you or write/format it better in the first place? Maybe because they don’t recognize the problem since they wrote it? That’s my usual guess in these situations.
There’s also a question of motivation. Why would you enter here in the first place? It’s suggested that the ravine blocks the only path between point A and B that the characters need to travel from/to. Ok, sure, I guess so. That’s pretty weak. There’s little motivation. “Why the fuck are we subjecting ourselves to this? Why didn’t we fly/teleport/take a boat?” And while there’s always “for reasons” as an excuse, that’s pretty poor. A strong element of exploitation, goals, etc, a reason to risk your neck in this place, would have made this far stronger.
There’s also the very simplistic nature of the place. There’s a bunch of backstory but the encounters feel disconnected from each other. There doesn’t seem to be any themes/anything going on other than a bunch of people died here. This IS a background, and some related stuff, and some ghosts with different goals, but it’s all pretty weak and not tied together very well. It’s a pointcrawl with a distressing number of encounters being straight up combat (as per the skeletal horse dude guarding the entrance) or is some kind of skill check. In fact, there’s an entire table of “obstacles” which are nothing more than “something blocks your plath. Each of you make a skill check to bypass it.” In the text this is put as “You reach the edge of a frozen lake that stretches off into the fog as far as you can see. Do you try to cross the thin ice or do you turn back and find a new way?” On top of that there are “weird effects” that can happen to you that are just weird for the sake of weird, bearing no other relation to anything. It’s not constructed. It’s not designed. It doesn’t feel cohesive. Better, I think to have not included the tables and just made the weird & obstacles static but give them a strong relationship to each other. It just leaves a hollow feeling.
Long passages of text. A writing style in a weird CHoose Your Own Adventure voice “What do you do now?” is not really in anything that is read-aloud but exists all over the place in the text. Then there’s the stuff like treasure being weirdly absent, even when present. At one point you find bodies in the cliffside, their skin turned to gold and guts turned to jewels … but then hte value is never mentioned.
Take just that encounter, in a vacuum, and you can see how this is the classic sin of writing an adventure to be EXPERIENCED rather than an adventure to be INTERACTED with. Pointcrawl. Skill-check obstacles. Weird “you” writing style. When a D&D adventure is nothing more than skill checks and combats then we’ve lost something major from the play style.
There’s promise here, in the evocative vignettes, but the deeper design issues and lack of orientation towards play at the table makes it suffer, much.
This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is two pages long. It shows you a random table of creatures and the first page of the obstacle table. If you squint hard you can extrapolate the “obstacle” writing style to the rest of the adventure, but it would have been far FAR better for the adventure to show an encounter or two, to better gie an ideal of what you are buying.