By Simon Forster Sky Full of Dust Generic/Universal
The Spire. A towering edifice a mile high and nearly a third wide at its base. This conical spike pierces the fertile soil of a small valley, standing before a narrow pass that cuts through the Perilous Mountains. From a distance the Spire is as black as night, but upon close inspection it is made of dark volcanic glass, seamless. Openings lead inside, to dark levels that rise high, stretching from its Roots and the obsidian tunnels that criss- cross underground, to an interior garden and woodland. Higher still are levels where water is collected from rainfall, feeding a waterfall that waters the woods inside; excess rainfall cascades down the sides of the Spire, pooling around its base to form a small lake and a river that flows down through a gully below.
How much work you gonna put in to using something you buy?
This 168 page adventure locale used a triple-column layout to describe a small adventurers town and great Spire that rises above it, full of dungeon levels. About twelves levels and about nine or so rooms per level, the overview and town finish on page 41 with the rest being all dungeon descriptions; there are no appendices. Rich, complex, and imaginative it is also maddingly frustrating and inconsistent. Generic/universal means no stats or gp values and the map/key layout is one of the worst I have ever seen. As a source of inspiration it’s great. As a usable tool, well, not so much?
If I wanted to write an adventure usable for all systems, and went in with the knowledge that you’d have to spend some time valuing treasure and stating creatures, then you’d have this adventure. It’s creative, imaginative, full of exploration and interactivity. Mystery abounds, some explained and some not. Rich with an abundance of ideas and a complex social environment it is wonderful in concept and great in execution … if you’re looking for a general regional reference/fluff/inspiration. As a device at the table not so much. Which is a euphemism. Usability-wise some parts of this are as bad, while those same areas, maps for instance, or ok in other areas.
Ok, massive obsidian spire, with some dungeon levels. Around it is a town, built up from adventurer support. It’s got three churches more friendly than frenemies. It’s got bandit gangs, pickpocket gangs, smuggler gangs, merchant guilds, cults and more. It has A LOT going on. The perfect adventurers town. Party shows up, goes in to the dungeon, and as they come out to rest, etc, little sub-plots and other individuals show up. People met in the dungeon have connections outside of it. Want to get your hands on X? Then go see Bob over in the shantytown. The town is built around interactivity with the party. It concentrates on things that the party will want to, or may want to, interact with. And then it adds some relationships and complications to those things. And thus adventures outside the dungeon are born, sub plots, complications, fun. It’s fucking great. I could go on and on about the peculiarities of the churches, people, and places. They are rich, easy to grasp, and focused on players interactivity. Exactly as things should be. Events and personalities abound.
The dungeon levels are themed and are similar to the town. They are oriented towards actual play and interactivity. There are social opportunities aplenty. Rich encounters with exploration elements emphasized. Things to mess with. Places to loot. Creatures to talk to. Problems to solve. This is exactly the sort of thing you want in an adventure. Exactly.
Well, except for the usability. That sucks. A lot.
Simon had some usability ideas. First, two-page spreads. Facings pages for each room, a map and a descr, with maybe some going a little over for supplemental information. Great idea! He is also using mini-maps, so each room has a little inset map showing where it is on the big map. OMG this sucks. A lot. A lot alot. What’s missing are numberers. So the “big” level map, which doesn’t really take up the entire page, just has a layout, no numbers or anything. To find an individual room you have to flip through the pages until you find the mini-map with the correct shading that tells you that’s the room the party has just come upon. Mini-maps and shading that are pretty hard to make out at a glance. I could excuse the lack of scale & size, but, taken as a whole, it comes off as artistic inspiration of a level/room rather than a key piece of the usability puzzle, which it should be. And those individual maps are not always easy to understand. There’s one “The Den” that still makes no sense to me, I can’t figure out how the multiple rooms shown fit together and how they fit on the main map. It’s gotta be dumbly obvious and it’s not close to that.
Bolding is weird in places, not bolding something important but rather a kind of “I always bold the name ‘Church of Bob’” The Restless Dead left this chamber years ago, the text tells us in one room. Restless Dead, the faction name, is bolded. Other places need cross-references, to lead the DM to the locations mentioned in the hint, etc.
The room text varies between good and poor. One room will go on a meandering description of history and have no real solid room descriptions or they’ll be mixed in. Another will be rock solid in terms of general overview and then paragraphs with follow-up information, making providing an overview and then following up with the players quite easy. Still others lie n the middle, unfocused in their individual writings and organization but full of rich information.
The “main entrance’ to the spire is buried in text about halfway through the book, seemingly at random. Find the right level that leads to the outside. Then find the right room on that level. Then the preamble to that room has the entrance description text, before you get to the “entrance room.” It’s as if it was written in a vacuum.
Little quests and other tasks are sprinkled throughout the dungeon. “The Church of Bob might ask you to do xxxx” says the text of a room that has xxx in it. Wouldn’t this be more appropriate in the Church of Bob text, or on a quests summary sheet? While there may be a lot fo connections and relationships the ability to to put it at the DM’s fingertips is just not there.
It’s generic. That means no monster stats and little in the way of GP values. What is a “Rain God?” That’s up to you, there’s not even an appendix to give a little overview, it’s all inline text and even that is sparse to nonexistent. Simon does have a few appendices on his blog, including a monster one, to help support this stuff. I have to wonder though if it would not have been a good idea to have a “localizer” page included for, say Gold=XP systems and so on.
And then … it switches. There will be a level with numbers that’s easy to follow. Or a level that has the room text laid out perfectly. And then it will switch back on a different level. It’s frustrating.
As is, this requires extensive highlights, note taking, study, and localization. You’ll have to be an expert on how each level works (Maestro, I’m looking at you) to run the level. That’s not great design or even good design for usability. Imaginative? Rich? Complex? Interactiv? All yes.
The PDF is $13 at DriveThru. The preview is twelve pages long. It isn’t really representative of the dungeon levels, but in reading through it you do get a good sense of the “adventurers town” and a hint of the factions and richness contained in it. You have to squint, but you can extend that richness to the dungeon as well … though I think the dungeon levels bear little resemblance to the town stuff in terms of usability, etc.
Based on a comment on the store page, it seems the author plans on posting ACKS stats for this module eventually at his website: http://www.theskyfullofdust.co.uk
So… 12 levels in a mile high structure? That’s a lot of unused space.
Yes, yes it is.Makes getting to the higher levels kinda tricky too.
Thanks for the review, Bryce, even if it wasn’t a glowing report. But, this is why I like your reviews, you tell it like it is. The Spire was an experiment, which didn’t work as well as I’d imagined. It also took so long to finish that I was losing interest in the end, and didn’t give it a final polish. I’ve learnt a lot since then, and I fully expect to go back to this one day (after I’ve got a bunch of other stuff out of the way) and see if I can improve it.
I have put some notes on my website, but they’re not as detailed as I originally planned.
I’m going to think of this as a challenge, and bring out a new edition, with better maps and more table-friendly. A free PDF update for all, and if anyone bought the hard copy, I’ll throw in a discount to cover all but the print cost too.
Hopefully my next adventure (due out soon) will be an improvement, although I suspect you’ll find something that needs fixing 🙂
But I really do appreciate the reviews you do, especially for my own work, as it provides excellent feedback.
A first class response, sir! Bravo.
I agree with Squeen, your response is admirable. I hope your improvements come to fruition.
Thanks Bryce, I was curious what you’d think.
I don’t rate it’s overall usability as low as our host does, though there is room for improvement. Generic/statless is my biggest complaint. Stats for almost any random version of D&D would be easier to convert to another version than statting up from descriptions alone.
Despite all that it’s still worth checking out for a dungeon map/layout that’s not like all the others. The village would make an excellent home base for a lot of cmmpaigns, with the only risk being the whole mile high Spire right outside town might overshadow other hooks. And the undead having their own motivations and sometimes being able to talk is a nice change from mindless zombies and skeletons. It sounds simple enough in hindsight, but then… I wasn’t doing it before, and neither were most adventure writers.
Good review. Good responses in the comments. The sort of info I check this blog out for. Sounds interesting so might check it out at a later time especially if it has been updated.