AA #42 – Dead in the Water

By Lang Waters
Expeditious Retreat Press
Levels 3-5

You crack your eyes open, surprised to be alive after the sudden storm. What was it that woke you? The hot sun? The stillness ringing in your ears? Bruised, you disentangle yourself from rope and debris on the deck and pull yourself up on the rail. You peer out across a sailor’s nightmare—a sea of glass. Not a ripple in the water as far as the eye can see. Not a whisper of wind touches the sails. You’ve heard stories of ships becalmed for weeks, throwing horses overboard to lighten the load and conserve water. You remember stories of starvation and cannibalism. You see other ships in the distance listing, torn and low in the water. Old. Dead. And you are too…dead, in the water.

This sixteen page adventure details a ship graveyard political situation, with several factions. Becalmed, the party needs to find a way out. It’s an interesting environment with plenty going on. It also suffers from layout and editing issues that make extensive prep a requirement.

After a storm the party is trapped in a ship graveyard, an area becalmed. Six-ish fellow ships are there also, in various conditions. One has four survivors, desperate for food, water, and escape. There’s also a “sand-man” in a steamship scooting about the area salvaging parts, and an evil sorceress (as Hag) who wants the sand-man dead and causes the storms/becalming. Finally, there a tribe of locath unda da sea who want to be mostly left alone. Oh, and the hags lacedons swim around in packs in certain areas. And the other ships are essentially mini-dungeons full of resources and hazards. And under the sea is giant octopus, ruined city, an abysmal depth with a ship about to slide in to it, and a few other goodies. Finally, there’s a timeline to drive some action.

You get all that going on? That’s how you write a fucking adventure. LOT’S going on. Factions. Motivations. Timeline. Timer (food/water in this case.) The motivations make sense, they appeal to understanding. The survivors sometime eat each other, dicing to see who goes next, but they collect their skulls with a solemn promise to bury them on land … desperate people doing desperate things to survive … but bound to each other. At the heart of this adventure is a great concept with lots of stellar components.

That are poorly organized.

If you are going to run this effectively then you are going to have to read it multiple times, spend some time with a highlighter and take a lots of notes. I don’t believe that I, as a consumer, should have to do that. That’s the job of the designer. If you, as a designer, choose to not do that then I’m likely to spend my lucre/time with something that does. There are about a billion adventures available these days and I don’t need to settle. That comes off a little harsh, as if I’m directing it at Lang personally; I’m speaking generally about the hurdle the designer my pass these days.

NPC descriptions are long, one taking up a column. In that specific case it turns in to a wall of text, everything running together with little to no whitespace or bolding to help. A couple of locations, such as the locath camp,. Are presented as a numbered site locale … room/key format is great for exploratory dungeons but too strong of adherence to that format, in EVERY situation, is not called for.

On and on the text goes, adhering to editing value that cause spells and magic items to be bolded but not important facts. Long long text blocks in Ye Olde Fonte Style that all runs together. This does NOT fall in to the sin of being an Adventure Novelization, the way many adventures do. It does, however, lean that way. And that MUST be the case when you emphasize long text blocks over usability at the table.

The ship description for The Intrepid mentions a room 7 … that doesn’t exist on the map. There’s a journal on a body, and the last entry is about a mummy returning at night. And then there’s stats for a mummy in the text. Uh, so, I do what’s in the journal text?

This needed a completely different layout and style. The factions laid out better. Summaries. The ships in a format that doesn’t rely as heavily on room/key for EVERYTHING. It has a good idea but my days of beating my head against an adventure wall in order to get it in to runnable shape are over. I wonder if, in this case, it was playtested by someone other than the designer and/or what the notes were?


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4 Responses to AA #42 – Dead in the Water

  1. squeen says:

    The concept is SO GOOD! Find myself wishing this was a master-class.

  2. Ron says:

    You’ve like Lang’s ideas and adventures in the past too, though not his organization. 🙂
    Sounds like a “highlighter and notes” worthy adventure though.

  3. Shuffling Wombat says:

    Presumably the party needs to include a cleric who can pray for Create Food and Water? That could create an interesting dynamic with the other groups. (There was a similar idea in UK6 All that Glitters.) Some water breathing magic would also be a good idea.
    Your comments about organisation are very fair, and I wish more adventures had a one page summary that indicated key elements of what is going on and how things might unfold (without turning into a failed novel). However if offered a choice between high quality of the idea and excellent organisation, I’d opt for the idea.

  4. BACLF says:

    I’m looking askance at the level range. As Shuffling Wombat notes, water breathing magic would be needed for any meaningful underwater adventuring, unless a lot of handwaving takes place. I think a similar low level range hampered the denouement of the Saltmarsh modules. Why even bother writing a marine adventure for such low level characters?

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