By Michael LaBossiere Self Published 5e Levels 1-4
War is coming. Two nations have set aside their differences to fulfil their historical ambition: to reclaim a province lost long ago. As with any war, arms and armor are needed and who better to claim a long-lost armory stocked with Imperial equipment than the bold adventurers? Complicating the situation is the fact that the old armory is located near the ruins of the summer estate of Count Bekus, a necromancer who was killed, beheaded, burned and interred in a special vault so that he would not plague the world again.
This 37 page adventure details the exploration of a small ruined estate with about 21 locations. It’s abstracted to the point of almost being an adventure outline. Interactivity is generally limited to combat, and the writing is dull with meandering DM text.
Today I’m going to talk about direct and indirect illocutionary forces with regard to adventure design. Nah, I’m just fucking with you;, it’s The Cave, as per usual. Also, I’m supposed to be nicer in these weekend reviews since A) they tend to suck more and B) the designers tend to be full of enthusiasm from their 5-star drivethru reviews. That means I’ll cut out the The cave bullshit. Yes, that was all for your benefit. Go figure.
Let’s talk good things first. Note that the folk killed, beheaded, burned, and then interred the remains in a special sealed vault. Nice! The local lords generally don’t do enough patrolling of old ruins or tearing them down and digging them up/salting the earth. Just loke town councils INSIST on sewer systems. It’s good to see the local folk dealing with the necromancer effectively. Once the bad guy goes down, keep hacking and burn the body. Fire is man’s oldest friend, use it!
This blow-off comment about a line of flavour text in the into blurb concludes my discussion of the adventures good points.
I’m sure the designer here was, as is generally the case, excited about this effort. Enthusiasm does not a good adventure make. My belief is that designers don’t know what a good adventure looks like, a good published adventure anyway. They are flooded with bad examples, from WOTC, from PAIZO, through the marketplaces. These drown out any good examples that may be hiding. If everything gets 5-stars then how are you know what is good and not good? These people face an impossible challenge. Further, attempts to divine what makes an adventure good are marred by all of the bad advice. Be it well-meaning fuckwits on forums or freelance writers with a deadline, there’s almost nothing worthwhile. Well, almost nothing. Listen to voice saying Follow Me …
Evocative writing is hard. Interactivity, beyond combat, is not straightforward. (See, that’s me being nice.) That leaves us with Usability — Ye Olde Informatione Transfere. This is the basic point that the VAST majority of designers get wrong … before they even get to evocative writing or interactivity. They don’t know how to write an adventure so it can be used at the table. This is, at its most fundamental form, the purpose of an adventure. The DM uses the adventure at the table to run it for the players. The adventures primary purpose is that. The writing, layout, and so forth MUST be oriented towards that. And the vast majority of adventures don’t do that.
In this adventure that applies most directly to the hook. Bob the half-orc has a mission for you and his bard buddy has some information. This is all related in a page of information formatted as paragraphs. This is poor design. For this one scene you have to an entire page of words in your head. That’s foolish, right? You can’t remember that much. You’re gonna want to refer back to the text during play. This means scanning the text to find the thing you want. And yet the information is presented as a great text block with just a few paragraph breaks. Further, it’s generally formatted in PLOT style. First this happens then this then this then this. This is TERRIBLE. I often talk about bolding, whitspace, offset boxes, and bullets. I’m noting specific techniques toward a greater goal: Helping the DM run this section. The players want to know something and/or you need to respond. You glance down at the page. Can you locate the information you need in less than 3 seconds? [Whatever. An ‘instant’ amount of time that doesn’t delay the game and break flow.] The formatting and organization is critical to this … and its missing here.
Usually that’s a problem with rooms also. Over described and too prescriptive are the usual sins. This, though, is different. It feels like the encounters are more 4e. You get a large number of locations, lets say, 12, in the upper ruins. Really ruins, just some wall remnants. The keyed encounters takes … I don’t know, one column for 9 rooms … most of which is taken up by one room. Locations 4-8 are noted as “The once fine hamber hall and entrance are now but ruins.” How can this be?!?! Because there’s a little section before/after noting that there is at least one zombie in rooms 6,7,8,&9. (That’s you level scaling for you. Remember, this is plot D&D where the DM fudges everything and player agency is therefore nearly non-existent.) “Put in some stirges if you want.” Or, maybe, buy a well-crafted adventure if I want? Oops , sorry, I’m being nice today.
Anyway, it almost an outline, or 4e style. Here’s a bit fucking map with a lots of rooms. There’s an ooze in it roaming around. GO! It sets up a situation. IN some respects, this is a good concept, that IS how D&D should be. But it feels less like adventure and wonder and Free Play then it does “Here’s a TACTICAL situation. GO!” Hence the 4e comparison.
Column long stat blocks. A level range in the blurb that’s different than the one in the adventure. Which is all meaningless anyway since it’s all fudged with numerous implicit and explicit fudging advice to the DM. “Ghoul miners dug this tunnel.” Why do we need to know that? It doesn’t add anything to PLAYERS experience since it’s just DM knowledge. That’s bad. You’re wasting words. Words are supposed to help the DM with PLAYER action. I’m being hyperbolic here, since there’s room for a little of this, but, in general, words have to have GAMEABLE meaning … why is this relevant to the players? “This temple was constructed in order to conceal his true faith.” Well, maybe, but why does that matter? Constructs, who the party will never hear, mutter ”oh my look at the mess.” Sure, every once in awhile you can slip in something for the DM, but it doesn’t come off like that in this adventure.
This is Pay What You Want at DMSGuild, with a suggested price of $6. There’s no preview. Put in a fucking preview so we know in advance what we’re buying! Yeah, it’s a PWYW, so the entire thing is a preview. I think I’m terrified that some precedent is going to set and we’ll start down the slope of the form changing and thus all the shadows following suit. Ha! Did it again!
I leave you with this, a portion of a (potential) PC backstory, between the PC and someone who will eventually become the guard captain who gives the party the quest.
“Being at the front of the wagon, you could see the two orcs driving it. One looked back into the wagon, holding a crossbow at the ready. He was splattered with blood and seemed eager to spill more. The other orc looked different, quite like a human and there was something softer about his eyes. As he kept looking back at you and the others, even your young eyes could see the struggle going on in his soul.
As the wagon left the village, he let out a terrible howl and swung his axe clean through his fellow’s neck, showering you with blood. He turned and said “I can’t let you go through what my mother did. I’m going to save you all. Or we will die together! Hang on!” You were surprised you could understand him, then you realized he was speaking common.”
How many innocent people did he kill? How many fields burned? Plagues delivered? Atrocities committed? But, saving one child absolves him of his sins? Nah, I’m just fucking around. But, Tonal Mismatch much?