The Howling Caverns By Colin Le Sueur By Odin's Beard 5e Level 1
The hunched beast prowls the forest, sniffing at the still air. The roiling sky flashes and thunder breaks the silence. The time is near and the beast senses it. The monstrous form bounds toward the darkened village, a demonic howl in its throat… Shipwrecked on a perilous shore, a group of adventurers stumble into a blighted land and come face to face with a great black beast with a terrible curse. Can they unravel the mystery and solve the Barghest’s curse before it’s too late?
This 58 page ravenlofty/dread adventure details a small dungeon with about ten locations and some locations outside on the way to the dungeon. It is TERRIBLE. No, wait, that’s what Colin was AFRAID I’d say when he asked me to review it. It’s fairly well done with decent interactivity and good writing and layout. It builds tension. A better job with monster descriptions could be done as well as a few other nits. Impressive effort for a first offering and can easily trump a lot of WOTC/Paizo offerings.
The Mists! The Mists! Oops, no, not the mists this time. A shipwreck. A common trope that is overused as a railroad handwave, but fine for a campaign start, and this does look like the start of an adventure path-y sort of thing. Washed up on shore you find yourselves in a Ravenlofty type of land, full of ominous things and, as you find, ruled over by the vampire Strahd … err I mean Sylva. The setup here is a little rough; the adventure states that there is only one town in this land … and then as DM’s notes that its actually a ruined town covered by a glamour. This would seem to make follow up adventure in this land rough, but we’ll wait and see what happens before judging.
So, shipwrecked. A Barghest shows up on the cliffs and howls, curing the party to only 24 hours of life. Then the dead sailors come back to life and attack with the party then making their to town and learning more about the barghest and where it is located. A short journey overland ensues, with a small dungeon at the end.
58 pages for a ten room dungeon would normally be a cause for concern. In this case the ten room dungeon takes up about twenty pages, which would still raise eyebrows. It does, however, use the page count to its advantage. Little mini-maps of the rooms in question and some decent art related to the various room features take up some decent real estate, and then the formatting is generous in its use of whitespace, bullets, section breaks and headings. The result is one of those rare things: an expansive page count that’s not fluffed to fuck all with irrelevent trivia.
A small read-aloud section heads each section and then some bullets describing each feature. Following this are some bolded sections that describe features and give more details, such as mechanics and so on. At the end of each section are specific headings for exits, encounters, and treasure, further elaborating on details mentioned high up. If you are willing to accept the more verbose style of mechanics that 5e has then this format works fairly well to deliver results. You can find information easily, mechanics are easy to pick out, and it doesn’t focus on the trivia of the encounters, instead focusing on short bursts of descriptive text. The rooms, even the complex ones, tend to not overstay their welcome. Good indeed for a 58 page adventure with two pages per room, on average.
An example of the forethought comes right up front. The designer explains that if the room has magic, evil, or undead, something that the party might detect/be detecting for, its listed up front in parens. (Undead, Evil) and so on right at the start of the room description. This is great attention to detail, anticipating common issues at the table and providing a solution to assist the GM. “Yes, you detect evil.” can be offered instead of a “well, hang on, let me take a minute to read the description. Hmmm, no, I don’t think so.”
NPC’s are well described with short little bursts of detail, like a bartender who’s dirty shirt doesn’t cover his pot belly. Magic items get a little extra flair, like a blue scarf that makes undead appear human or human appear undead … with undead enemies not really focusing on them granting them a kind of limited invisibility. Nice! A new spell, Words Take Flight, causes words on a page to turn in to various birds and fly away to deliver messages. How wonderful! Just a simple sentence brings wonder back to a magic spell! The wandering encounters deliver a kind of creeping dread vibe. Zombies claw a tree with a hanged man in it. Or a dire wolf and wolf fight over a corpse. Mood is set. Players are on edge. Excellent!
I shall now nitpick this thing to death. Do not confuse this with I Loathe It.
There are some details that are missing. An alter has a journal on it with entries from several days ago. But nothing is offered about what it is/says? And, I must say, the use of a journal is generally bad form. It’s twin sister, Bad Guy Monologue, while not present here, is also bad. Some clues are a little … obvious. One of the dead skeleton sailors in the first encounter has a note about barghest details in his satchel. Hmmm … a little too “coincidental” for my tastes. Evil vampire chick engineered the characters shipwreck to have them kill the barghest. Ug, not my favorite trope, although the reasoning here, never stated but obvious, is a good one. The adventure gives some tips of barghest sightings, etc, to add more tension and these could be a little more up front in the text.
There are some formatting issues in places that are odd. Some offset information (which is used to good effect throughout the adventure) appears in the middle of text paragraphs sometimes, in a way that is jarring. And sometimes it’s not clear what a skill check is doing. Am I making a perception check to find the hidden panel or am I making the check to find the hidden path BEHIND the panel? This happens in multiple places. There’s also clases in the text descriptions. Can a road be both well-trodden (the road description) and unused? (the description of the road in the town’s entry) Another room mentions lit torches in the wall … in a room that hasn’t been entered for awhile. Magical? Something else? We’ll never know, they are not mentioned again. Just little discrepancies like that.
On some more non-nit-picky notes:
Wandering encounters/vignettes have a “better than average chance” of happening. I have no idea what that means. It’s followed by “or just place one that you like.” I’m usually against this sort of thing, if you’re going to do that then just make them a part of the adventure proper.
Room Names in the dungeon are fact based. The Wizards Library, and so on. I might instead suggest using a name title that conveys a more interesting vibe. Decrepit Library, or something like that. Same thing: it’s a library, but now we’re embedded some additional information in it. Now when the DM scans the room they are already thinking “decrepit” instead of the far more generic “wizards.”
The town, and the sailors from ship, could have both used a little more detail. A couple of sailor names, with personalities, to die horribly or get attached to before the shipwreck. Or, in town, just a tad more detail on a couple of villagers, etc. As is, the town is an Inn. There’s a ruined stable and ruined temple, but the only “real” place, lived in, is the inn. This leaves the DM to fill in the rest and a couple of a extra entries would have been some nice resource.
I guess my chief complaint might be with the monsters. There’s a decent pic or two that shows some of them, but I wish the descriptions of them were a little more evocative. Ghouls crawl out from under garbage piles, but the ghoul, proper, or vampire, or whatever, gets little in the way of detail/description. Given the atmosphere developed in the wanderers then it would have been nice to see this carry over to the monsters as well.
If you accept that 5e is a little more verbose and/or that this is for beginner DM’s, then you’ve got a solid adventure on your hands. It doesn’t PANDER to new DM’s but it also doesn’t handwave the way I can sometimes advocate for. And, in particular, it doesn’t really let its handholding get in the way of finding information or running a room. It supports the DM. The descriptions do feel a little flat at time, or, perhaps, a let down after the good atmosphere developed in the shipwreck, wanderers, town, priest, wilderness encounters. It FEELS to me like the format is somehow clashing with a more evocative picture being delivered. I’m not sure that’s it though. But, that’s just keeping it from being great instead of just good.
This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages and shows you several dungeon encounters. It’s a good preview and also gives you a good idea of the format used in the adventure, the writing style, and how they fit together.