Alphinius Goo Gooey Cube LLC 5e Level 1
The Darkest Dream begins the epic tale of a group of Hanataz youth who are charged with working security for the last Carnivalle of the season. The Hanataz are the Traveling Folk of the world of Zyathé and are an ostracized people due to the many Blood-Touched membevrs of their troupes. But while the Traveling Folk are not welcome in most towns and villages, the shows they put on are enjoyed by many. However, this is no ordinary Carnivalle. Horrid and vile schemes are afoot. An ancient foe plots deadly revenge. A group of organized criminals looks to frame the Hanataz for murder. And, nearby, creatures from the Dark Below plan an attack on the camp. Beyond this, it is Darktide’s Eve, which is a time of fearful and evil portents. Can you and your friends overcome the many dangers set against you, protect the troupe, and solve the mystery of the Darkest Dream? If you don’t. Many will die. Including those you love.
It’s not a railroad, but it’s mostly unusable, or, maybe odious to use.
At GenCon I stopped by a booth doing 5e Adventures, Gooey, and they were giving out free download coupons for a large boxed set adventure. It turns out that it is free to download for everyone. What caught my attention was the guy pitched it as a play aid to DM’s and usable, making design choices like a lay flat spiral adventure book and so on. And thus, this review.
It comes with a seven page info dump booklet for the players on the background of the setting, their carnival-folk home & setting. A twelve page philosophy/house rules booklet. A 74 page reference book with monster stats, optional encounters and so on. Seventy pages of handouts. An 82 page “items” booklet (representing about 41 cards to hand out), 51 pages of pregens, 22 pages of reward cards (about 11 2-sided cards), a 4-page NPC reference sheet (Yeah!) and the 64 page adventure book.
You’re part of a travelling carnival group. The junior members of a rather large (by usual RPG conventions) troupe. The adventure is built around the last day of the carnival near a town before the troupe moves on to another site. The parties job is to roam the grounds watching out for trouble. There is essentially one encounter, the last one, where some kids get abducted. The rest of the adventure is wandering around the carnivals fifteen locations, each with a little encounter, and some additional optional encounters thrown in from the DM reference book. Almost like wanderers, but not quite. Thus it’s not REALLY a railroad, but not quite an adventure either. More of an “experience.” This is, I guess, a compliment. At the very least, the adventure structure is not confusing and not a railroad which makes it better than the vast majority of adventures floating around for 5e.
“Experience” is not my thing. I’m also capable of understanding that other people like other things. I’m going to address the “experience” aspect of the adventure a bit and then move on to more universal themes, like usability, and why this adventure is bad even for those looking for an Experience.
The adventure goes to great lengths to remind you it is epic. And a story. To experience. It is CONSTANT in reminding you of that, as if in justifying itself. I would suggest that this is the wrong approach. The adventure is unlikely to convince the non-story crowd and the story crowd don’t need convinced. It wants to provide you an immersive experience, it says so several times. But what is an experience? If the DM says you’re the Chosen One and you can’t die in the campaign and the DM tells a story, ala Giovanni Chronicles, then did you have an experience? Experiences come through play, it comes through the emergent opportunities that arise during play. There must be SOME pretext and/or structure to frame things but the experience comes through the parties actions during play. It does NOT come from the story the DM is telling. That is weaksauce. And yet, that is the way the vast majority of players have learned to play D&D. The sins of the 90’s continue to haunt us.
Experiences usually come with plot armor and its present here. The pre-gens are tough. There’s advice on not killing the party (in 5e, imagine …) and instructions to run things tough … but also on how to not kill the party. The contradictions are ripe and they all stem from The Story.
And yet … this thing doesn’t fuck around in that area. It goes on and on and on about plot, experience, not killing, being tough, and so on. But then the adventure is actually nothing like that. The adventure does that over and over and over again. I read the adventure last, concentrating on the supplemental materials first and, based on the text in those, I was prepared to rip this thing to shreds. Not killing. Plot. Story. Experience. But that’s not actually what the adventure is. It’s fucking around for awhile to root the party in the campaign and then an encounter. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The booklet tells you that you cant just peruse a Gooey Cube adventure and be ready to run a game. But that’s not true either. This isn’t complex at all. I might suggest that there is one thing missing/keeping you from doing just that: what the locals know. If there were, like, six bullet points on the Old Well and the Sinkhole Ruins, concentrating on what the locals/carnival folk know, then this would be runnable almost out of the box. NPC’s have summaries. The encounters are cross-referenced. It’s fifteen locations, some NPC’s, and some random social-ish encounters. You could probably figure out what the locals know and make notes from the extensive backstory present. But I don’t make notes, that’s the designers job. When the party finds the old well or the sinkhole then they are likely to grab someone and ask questions … consulting twelve pages of backstory scattered around the various books is not going to be a simple task.
This adventure does a dozen different things wrong. The NPC portraits have full paragraphs on the back instead of being scannable. Skill rolls are perfunctory or poorly handled … but then again almost every adventure does that and I’m not ready to fight THAT battle yet. A door regens 20hp/round to keep the party from bashing it down cause it’s not story time yet! The lay-flat book does not make up for these. (And, as an aside, just like Ravenloft, this uses gypsies reskinned. I don’t understand why people do that. The adventure does give a one sentence inspired/bigotry note on the credits page, but, still, better I think not to go near the subject at all.)
But none of this is the major problem with the adventure. The major problem is the complete lack of understanding on how to format an encounter. Ok, ok, combats are cross-referenced to the DM reference booklet so full stats, etc, are not in the main adventure text. That’s a plus. But the rest of the encounters are terrible. Not in their interactive element but in their formatting/presentation.
The read-aloud is long and usually has multiple paragraphs. It can frequently end with “What do you do?” The DM text is is conversational rather than presented in a reference format, making finding things difficult. Section breaks are largely not present in any meaningful way. Read aloud frequently tells you what you think and do. Clearly this is an attempt to provide a richer experience but this technique, in particular, just communicates a railroad novelization.
Looking at the very first area in the carnival: “Area A – Main Food & Drinks Wagons”, a nice bold section heading. A read-aloud then follows. It says there’s a Wagon of Smile and a Wagon of Tastes and 4-5 people in line and some enticing spicy aroma from Sunnessy’s. The DM text then tells us that the PC’s know they can get something to eat from Sunnessy’s wagon and something to drink by going to the Wagon of Smiles. It then tells us that if the party goes to the back of Leena’s wagon then (mor read-aloud and DM text for her wagon.)
The issue, here, is the lack of consistency. The adventure is mixing wagon names (taste/smiles) with names (Leena/Sunnessy.) And this is on top of read-aloud which is FAR too long. And the “if you go to Leena wagon” has no section break at all, or subtitle, it just launches in to more read-aloud for her wagon. This the effect is a long multi-page string of text, lengthy sections bolded for read-aloud, and no real ability to quickly locate which sections of text are relevant to the situation the party is in … forcing the DM to waste time and hunt the information down. This is not usability; it’s the opposite.
The adventure is trying desperately to create an immersive experience with ethe read-aloud but it instead comes off forced. Here’s but two sentences in an overly long section: “But of greater interest to you is that she also pours the sweet libations that she and Stoof so expertly dis- till. You can see Leena – her face just above the counter on the wagon-side – grumbling as she pays out to a local for winning an arm-wrestling match.” Clearly more appropriate to a bad fantasy novel than an adventure. The read-aloud is trying present vignettes, little scenes, full of color and life … which run them in three or four paragraph length. This is not the way to accomplish this. At one point, in front of a (seven?) page read-aloud then DM advice is “If yours is the type of group that doesn’t like ‘story time’ …” No one likes story time. Yes, thats the background data to be handed out beforehand, but, no one likes a three paragraph read-aloud. This is not the way you accomplish the immersive experience.
Trim the read-aloud. A lot. Format the DM sections so information is easier to find. Trim WAY back on the useless DM advice like “you can vary the length of the people standing in line if the party comes back later …” Put in a summary of what the locals know about the area, somewhere.
Finally, the adventure feels like a series of encounters. Given the locations and the “wandering” encounters, it feels more like little self-contained items. Instead, integrating some of the encounters together in a suggested format would have been a good idea. Hints and foreshadowing. The guy with the eye-patch? Imagine a chart that has little hints and stuff as an aid to the DM, so the party catches sight of things before the main event happens. A sort of timeline of the optional events, or, rather, hints and foreshadows of the optional events, with the location events worked in, to give a more organic feel to the entire adventure.
A timeline isn’t a railroad. It throws out hooks, right and left, giving the party options. It creates a depth to the carnival that individual encounters can never have, no matter how much read-aloud there is. THAT’S what is going to create an immersive experience.
I applaud the goal of usability and immersion. Usability is more than a four-page reference sheet with 50 NPC’s on it. Immersion is not read-aloud. Trivial DM asides are not useful information.