by Nick Smith Black Arts 5e Levels 4+
On a misty hill, far from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, lies the blasted ruins of a long-forgotten Convent. A village living under the shadow of the darkened moon. An Innkeeper’s daughter and her fiancé missing. The PCs are asked for help. Have the tentacles of an ancient, long-banished heresy resurfaced, to glide silently through the Convent’s moss-covered stones?
This pleasant surprise is a 44 page adventure detailing a three level ruin with about sixty rooms in about twenty pages. It does a decent job being spooky, evocative, and interactive. While it could be organized better it’s much better than most. It’s not great, but it’s better than most.
Check out that cover! Not the usual garbage soft-genero-fantasy cover here! Striking and sets the mood well. My only comment would be that the impact from the lit window is distracted by the white text of the adventure name. The window ends up being almost unnoticeable. Too much emphasis there, though, and the players will probably fixate on it. But … Did you need to put the adventure name, descriptions, edition number, mature audience warning, and publisher on the cover? Not to be too big of an ass here, but … this is a PDF only product. While you might want those things on the cover if this were to be sold in a traditional game store … is it necessary for something that will only exist as a filename? Or, even if it’s a boutique printing, like Lulu, folks have already selected the adventure, you don’t need to convince them. The DriveThru blurb text in the description does all the work that the cover text usually did. Not that I really give a shit but it points out of the possibilities that exist for a product as PDF only, or boutique print only. If you’re gonna go out of your way to have such striking imagery on your cover then why muddy your vision? Anyway, this is the height of nitpicking from me, and a terribly shitty way to start a review of a decent product.
This adventure does a lot things right. Maybe not to the full extent it could, but it hits a number of points high enough. It’s specific in its descriptions. It provides evocative text. It has a fair amount of interactivity, and it’s usable enough at the table … with a few notable exceptions.
You arrive at an inn. The reticent villagers eventually tell the party their plight. The party trapses off to find the innkeepers lost kid & fiance … even though everyone else in the inn thinks they just ran off together. As they get close to the ruins they catch a glimpse of them in the moonlight, an eerie light in a high window, and hear a bell tolling in the distance. Coming over the last hill they see the convent fully. Not intact with the eerie window light as you first saw. No, just a ruin with most walls less than chest height.
Reticent villagers. Most of them think the couple ran off. They don’t want to help the innkeeper search anymore. Pretty believable in context. It’s a lie, of course. The innkeeper doesn’t have a daughter and the inn regulars do this to send selected travelers to the cult in the ruins. The regular villagers are scared as all fuck. The bell the party hears is the innkeeper ringing the village bell to warn the cult people are coming. (And it’s spooky as all fuck also, in context.) Moonlight, mist, darkness, ruins, a lonesome bell. The brief glimpse of the convent, which then is ruins in full vision, is a great introduction to the Mythic Underworld concept. You Are About To Enter Someplace Else. Beware! And then, when you get back out of the convent, you get to deal with the 0-level NE villagers who tricked you there. Hapless evil fuckwits, noncombatants who put up no struggle. What cha gonna do with them orc babies? There’s not a direct advice on this, but it’s mentioned and, in context, its done well. It’s a consequence to the adventure and that always makes them feel more immersive.
In the ruins there’s the old office of the old mother superior. There’s a hidden compartment. It has some old parchment, the mummified hand of a child, and weird little figurine. Something to find. Something creepy. A pedestal with a moon phase puzzle, simple, just match it to the current phase of the moon shining overhead. Things to open, as simple as that, interactivity is obtained. The cultists have a brief mention of some order of battle/responses, as well as the briefest of tactics advice (fake surrenders, etc.) Just enough to help the DM out without it droning on and on and on. The maps are well done for being relatively low room counts, there’s a side view present, and the mundane treasure is well described. Crystal decanters with perfume. A silver covered mask with moonstone inlay. (Theme!) But I didn’t notice much in the way of magical treasure beyond simple book potions. (But they are, at least, in green and red bottles. Again the extra word of specificity helps immensely ground imagination enough to let it soar.)
The NPC’s in the inn, at the start, have short little descriptions, just a couple of words on appearance and maybe a sentence or phrase on what they think happened. Not a life fucking story, but information directly relted to the fucking adventure at hand. Imagine that! Likewise, what they have to relate to the party is presented in bullet form, easy to find and relate by the DM. This is all great.
Let me now skip mentioning other good details and shift to what could be better, because I am never satisfied.
The first level is mostly ruins. Chest high walls AT MOST. This brings up the Lord Of All I Survey issue. When the players can view an area at a distance and take it in then there should be some notes about what they see. Notable features, etc. The alternative is the DM scrambling through a dozen room descriptions or more trying to figure out what they see, in response to that question. When the players can see a lot then the designer should help the DM with the notable features they see. A pool of water NE, Stairs in the left center, etc. I THINK the map covers most of this, but it could do a better job showing the elevation change (implied by stairs) between the two halves of the ruins … an important detail for some secret doors and potential multi-level combat that is going to take place. I should also not that most of the adventure takes place behind the aforementioned secret door. That’s generally a No No. Putting your adventure behind something that the party can fail at (finding a secret door and/or solving a puzzle in this case) means we have to cheat to keep playing. Better to do something else to hide the doors. (ALthough, the issue is somewhat mitigated in this case because there are two possibilities, finding the door and just solving the moon phase puzzle, but, still.) It does something similar in another place in the adventure, putting a body behind a secret door and then stating the DM should fudge it since its important for the party to find the body. Well .. then why’s it behind a secret door then?
Read aloud gets long in places. This is almost always because the read-aloud is including follow-up information. The text tells you that you find, among other things, a small figurine. And then it goes on to fully describe it. That lengthens the read-aloud and REMOVES interactivity. A key part of D&D is the back and forth between the players and the DM. Describing the figuring in the DM text keeps that back and forth and shortens the read-aloud. And, again, read-aloud isn’t always bad but long read-aloud IS always bad. People pull out their phones and attentions wander. Monologues are not engagement.
There are a couple of other issues also. The cultists inside really need a small section on what they know, etc, oto handle the inevitable torture/speak with dead that happens when players capture/interogate prisoners. And the stat blocks, especially for the cult, get long. Condensing the stat block is an age-old problem … but important to solve nonetheless.
The most serious issue is, though, the general style used to format the room entries. There’s a small section at the rear which describes this. It’s trying to use background coloring and other offset words to highlight and bring attention to section breaks and so on. It doesn’t really work at all for any room that has more than a little complexity to it. Room nine on the second level is the perfect example of this. Long read-aloud. Multiple read-aloud sections. Plain text breaking it up with words like “a normal perception roll reveals” before more read-aloud. A whole lot of conditionals for things the party might look at that are, esentially, headers for read-aloud. It tries to break this up with line breaks. So, previous read-aloud ends. Empty line. Plain text that says something like “the open coffin:” then another empty line. Then the read- aloud for the open coffin. Better, I think, to eliminate the additional empty line. That makes the read-aloud belong to the text more, instead of it just being a page of paragraphs and sentences broken up by empty lines. The background-colored sections then intrude also in to this mix … without much reason. Why do the Iron Doors to room 14 get background text but the open coffin doesn’t? The format doesn’t work.
5e reviews are a pain. Do I grade on a curve? There’s so little decent for 5e that I want to. In the end I shall not! And I regert that decision not!
This is $5 at DriveThru.The preview is four pages. It gives you four pages of the actual adventure, so it’s a good preview, giving you an idea of what to expect with your purchase. You can see room nine of level one in the preview. It’s a good example of how the format, which works ok elsewhere, tends to break down on the more complex rooms.