By The Bugbear Brothers
The Bugbear Brothers
The bastion of the North, Xaefen Keep, has succumbed to darkness. Recently, there have been whispers of forbidden psionics that have taken root in the citadel. It is feared that this vile new craft is being used to torture the minds of young squires and madden them, thereby undercutting the Crown’s power. The renowned knight, Ervin Greystyle, also known as ‘The Axe’, has recently ventured North in order to investigate these troubling rumours. It has been several weeks since Ervin’s last correspondence, and he was due to return many days ago. The last letter Ervin wrote to the Crown contained a cryptic, macabre reference to a ‘gluttonous baron’ and his ‘mage juicer’, who reportedly dwelt in the lower crypts of the Keep. A reward of 500 gold pieces has been issued by the Crown to any who would confirm or refute the ravings contained within Greystyle’s last correspondence. There isn’t much time left now…
This 28 page adventure details a ten room dungeon in about nine pages. It’s got some good ideas and tries to be original in both treasure and descriptions. It also drones on too long in it’s read-aloud and DM text and is constrained by it’s smaller size. It’s notable for what it could have been.
This thing is so un-generic. It’s not using the generic fantasy tropes that are seen everywhere. It adds more detail to just about everything. It edges over in to Eberron territory, probably. There’s a fat cannibal baron. There’s a wizard addicted to potions. The local villagers are afraid of the Wendigos that plague their village at night, gaunt figures with decayed deer heads. They are engaged in pacifism, led by their local priest, in the hopes their god will save them. There’s a magic item that consists of a pair of of sow’s ears. And another that consists of a ghouls finger. And a pool of water around a column that if full of cloudy eyeballs, floating. It has a hut, underwater, of translucent glass, held down by “thick black tendrils and vibrant green roots protruding from the sea floor.”
And that’s only a sample. The environments here ARE interesting. They are new places with new things that the party has likely never encountered before, like the pool of eyes. The magic items are unique and well described. Mechanics are not overly emphasized in magic … that ghoul finger wants to return to its shelf … at a speed of 60’ and push 300#. Hmmm, now can I, as a player, exploit THAT? And that’s a good item.
Haunting choir music, a woven meditation carpet, the scent of rot permeating your nostrils. Thick hemp straps. Note the use of adjectives and adverbs, the way these things are described. Not large or big or small or red. This is excellent use of language in order to add more to a description, to paint a vivid picture for the DM. “One of these paintings is molding and teeming with cream coloured maggots-some in the midst of hatching, others fully grown-chewing at its outer edges.” Sweet! Oh, did I fail to mention the cariboo skulls lined with nails that some prisoners affix to their own skulls in their madness… the faux-wendigos? This is good shit. It’s not all great, there’s are some “large” room contents and the like, but it’s got it where it counts.
What its also got is a case of Mouth Runneth Over syndrome. The read-aloud is long. The DM text is long. And long for interesting reasons.
It’s not the usual irrelevant bullshit detail. There’s a thing that 5e adventures sometimes do where the read-aloud fully describes the room. If there’s a bookshelf with an interesting book on it, in a hyperbolic example, the initial read-aloud describes the bookshelf, the book, and also tell you what the books contents are. In other words it assumes a certain amount of follow-up and just infor-dumps the entire thing up front.The first room, that one with eyeballs, is a good example. The entire first paragraph does NOT describe the first room of the dungeon. It’ describes the ruins outside that you come upon. Oops, guess that should maybe be in a separate section, to make it easier to find, etc? Then it tells us of a room dominated by an obelisk. And it describes in detail the damage to the obelisk. ANd then the moat around it, filled with clounded eyeballs, with irises of various colours. From their state of decay it’s clear they’ve been here some time. The description goes on about some murals, but lets pause and just examine that obelisk and moat descriptions. The damage detail would be perfect for a follow-up in the DM section, as would the eyeballs, cloudy, and iris details. By NOT infor-dumping you encourage back and forth between the players and the DM. They ask about the pillar, you reply it looks damaged, They examine more closely. You describe more. (Someone, somewhere wrote an article/blog on this that was very good, but I can’t recall it.) The moat. I look at it, it’s full of something. I go over and look closer. Eyes. Ewwww! I look at the eyes, they are cloudy … with scintillating irises. Ewww!
The adventure also engages in a lot of if/then clauses in the DM text. IF the players do this THEN this happens. Ray’s book on editing covers this, and other common writing issues, pretty well. These sorts of writing mistakes are common in this adventures and the designers would have benefited greatly by Ray’s book. The DM text proper is also lengthy for other reasons, mostly through some sloppy writing that takes a more conversational tone. That style is ok in places, all work and no conversational asides make DM Bryce a dull DM, but when it goes excessive it make the DM text long. And long DM text is hard to reference during play.
There are also other missed opportunities. The village nearby, with the “Wendigo” problem, is given very little attention. Serving as a base and intro to the adventure it could have used quite a bit more. And better organization than a simple paragraph dump of information. It’s got good roots but needs more to bring it alive. A missed opportunity. Likewise … and I think I realize the gravity of what I’m about to say, this thing is constrained by size. Expanding it, a bit better design and integration of the areas, and you would have something that people would talk about the way they talk about Thracia. No, it’s not Thracia, not close, but it had that potential.
On the nitpicky front, it’s got a random Big Bay Guy location chart. I don’t get why people do that, for multiple play throughs? In this case it can be a little justified since there’s a kind of map puzzle in one room that can show you locations … and creatures moving about in the place adds some life to the place. Generally though … it’s something that raises my eyebrows as a sign of ill things to come.
It’s also got this weird System-less thing going on. It lists itself as generic/agnostic and OSR. And then mentioned exhaustion checks. And advantage. And lists DC’s for stat checks. That’s 5e. But is it, really? I suspect it’s just the designers home system which is a mash up of many things. The DC stats checks will wrankle the hard core OSR crowd, but it’s all easily ignored/converted on the fly by even an ok DM.
And there’s no level range on the cover or in the product description, you have the buy the damn thing first to learn it’s levels 3-5. Not cool.
Nonstandard. Imaginative. Some decently evocative writing. But suffers greatly from Too Many Words. And, a couple of large missed opportunities. And sup with that title? It feels randomly generated.
This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1.50. The preview is four pages and shows you nothing. Bad preview! Suck! Show us a room! Give us a sample of what we’re actually buying! Oh course, in this case it’s Pay What You Want, so you can get the entire thing, but, still.