By Michael E. Shea Sly Flourish 5e Levels 1-5
For a thousand thousand years, an ancient entity has been trapped in the heart of a mountain formed from rock not of this world. Over eons, creatures both monstrous and intelligent have explored the endless tunnels, caverns, and chambers of Blackclaw, answering the call of the mysterious entity buried within it. Over long centuries, hundreds of lairs, cities, keeps, prisons, and tombs were established within the mountain, but even those centuries of exploration did not uncover all its secrets. Then, two centuries ago, the entity now known as the Grendleroot awoke. Indestructible black spires shot through the rock of the mountain like the roots of a deadly weed, shattering civilizations, burying cities, and exposing caverns long lost. Today, adventurers residing in Deepdelver’s Enclave explore these lost ruins once again. They seek fellow adventurers brave enough to answer the call of Blackclaw, and to seek the mysteries of the Grendleroot.
This 172 page book is a collection of ten single-session dungeon adventures (taking up about a hundred and ten pages) set inside of a giant hollowed out mountain, Moria-style. The adventures are ok, but long read-aloud, abstracted descriptions, and unfocused DM text leads to a product that has ok design but terrible usability.
So, big hollow mountain full of tunnels, Moria-style, with a rich history. Abandoned due to REASONS. There’s a small village inside in a big chamber, the only settlement, that caters to explorers and serves as homebase. It may cater to explorers, but the party will be going on missions. Mission after mission after mission, instead of exploring. The way the adventures are oriented, the party is really just a set of troubleshooters for the village, dealing with the absurdity that Friend Computer, errr, the villagers, encounter week to week.
The situations tend to have a slight sense of absurdism to them, just enough to cause the party to do a “Jesus H Fucking Christ … “ as they learn the details. Little Timmy talks to an invisible friend in ancient elvish? Seriously? You thought that was ok? And they disappeared at an ancient temple during Wee Delvers Week? What the fuck is wrong with you people?” Thye absurdism doesn’t go past the set ups, so they work out pretty good. It’s obvious what the adventure is, and slightly amusing without TRYING to be amusing.
The advenuring environments tend to be small, as you would expect from a two to four hour adventure. Still, not badly done for being small. The first, for example, features a small tower on the outskirts of “town” that only has about six rooms in it … and yet there are three entrances, from the front doors to climbing to the roof to going in through a stream in a cellar. The encounter rooms, also, tend to have several things going on in them, from creatures to things to explore and mess with, in each room. And it tends to do it in a naturalistic way that doesn’t feel forced. Thus the adventuring environment is a rich one to explore. Rewards tend to be nice also, like … that tower in the first adventure! Now you have a home base! And if you rescued someone inside instead of killing them then you might have a caretaker also, grateful for your help in their rescue! And … you might even get a spectre as a butler! Again, rewards to no just hacking him down. And, besides, having a spectral butler is pretty cool. Oh, and a gargoyle doorman. Rich rewards that are not just cash. Thumbs Up!
The setups and situations are nice. But I am not nice.
The adventure is bloated to all fuck all. My position on bloat has softened in recent years. Whereas before I fucking hated it, I now tolerate it as long as it doesn’t get inthe way. I still think there’s some value prop that is miscommunicated in a 200 page adventure that has 150 pages of fluff and fifty of adventure, but, that’s a different problem. The only problem with bloat and backstory is when it gets in the way of running the adventure … as it does here. Now, to be sure, the vast majority of bloat & backstory in this (let’s call it “the setting guide”) is reserved for some chapters that you can easily skip and/or pluck out if they offend thee. And then there’s the embedded backstory in the encounters. This is the real issue with bloat in this, beyond value-prop expectations issues. Background in the encounter gets in the DM’s way of scanning the encounter to run it at the table. Moving it to the end, or beginning, or some other place where the trivia can be ignored and/or referenced at leisure if the way to handle it if the designer believes they simply must include it.
And then there’s the read-aloud. LONG read-aloud. In italics. In RED italics. My eyes just glaze over at this shit. Long sections of italics, meaning more than a phrase, are functionally illegible. Eyestrain galore! Oh, you can read it, you just don’t want to struggle to. And then, to ALSO put it in a red font? Was the inset box AND the italics not enough to denote it was read-aloud? It also needed a red font to make it even harder to read? WTF Flourish?
And then there’s the abstraction. Specificity is the soul of narrative. If I rail against bloat I also must rail against abstraction. Targeted specificity is what the word budget SHOULD be spent on. Yet time and again it abstracts. The players recognize carvings of ancient gods. WHICH ancient god? Detharaxis, Reaver of Blood? No, just ancient gods. B O R I N G. Don’t fucking abstract!
The RE is also too expressive. It gives away all of the details of the rooms too soon. Writing in read-aloud is described as elvish. Or as religious iconography. Of other details in the read aloud. This helps destroy the back and forth between the players and the DM which is the soul of RPG’s. This interactivity between the DM and their players. There are things carved on it. That leads the players to say “what kind of things.” Or even that there’s just an alter, which causes them to examine it, which causes the DM to mention the writing, which causes them to examine it. Back and forth. But if you put all the fucking details inthe read-aloud then that can’t happen, can it? And the read-aloud is WAAAAAAYYYYY too long. Paragraphs, or columns in some places. Two to three sentences, that’s all you get.
“Time has not been kind to …” NO! NOT IN THE READ ALOUD! NO FLOWERY SHIT IN THE READ ALOUD! Besides, that’s a conclusion. Don’t put in conclusions. That is, again, an abstraction. Instead write a description (or read-aloud) that makes the players THINK that time has not been kind to this room. SHOW don’t TELL.
And then there’s the weird absences. If the room has creatures then it’s almost uniformly NOT mentioned in the read aloud, in spite of “is there something about to kill me? Being perhaps the most important thing that the DM can initially mention to the players. It’s fucking weird. Instead it’s all buried deeper down in the DM text.
Oh, the DM text, terrible in it’s lack of focus. The rooms start with a little brief “important things” keywords, but then those same keywords, the important shit in the room, tends to be buried in the DM text. Room two has statues and mosaics in it, but without bolding in the statues and mosaics paragraphs you’re left to hunt for which Witch is which. Not cool. The DM text is, essentially, completely unfocused.
I can go on on, covering design decisions, like “how do I know there’s a second path to the temple?” or “You need to use six charges from the wand to solve the adventure but it only has seven charges … why not instead of two encounters each requiring three charges instead they require two, or one? This seems like a design trap and a pushback AGAINST players using the treasure they find … what if the DM has a special use for it somewhere and we need it? Not good D&D.
So, some journeyman ideas and effort but ruined by being essentially unusable at the table. Let’s hope that improves in the future.
This is $15 at DriveThru. The preview is eleven pages. You get to see the entirety of the first adventure “Starson Tower.” This is great,as it gives an exact idea of the quality of what you are purchasing. Great preview. A brief perusal will also show the red offset long italics read-aloud. Room two is a great example of most of the issues the adventure has with read-aloud and DM text.