By Jonathan Rowe Fen Orc BlueHolme Level 2
- The haunted caves where Smugglers hide their contraband and the Undead Corsair whose tomb has been disturbed
- The Temple of the Rat God and the sinister secret society that has infiltrated the unsuspecting town above
- The ancient Pre-human City where a foolhardy Wizard unearthed something that destroyed his Tower, fifty years ago, and guarded by its own deadly occupants
This seventeen page adventure details level two of the Holmes sample dungeon and has 26-ish rooms. It doesn’t make me wish I was never born which, I guess, is a compliment? But it has some serious map issues and a genericism, combined with a lack of interactivity, that causes the finished thing to suffer.
Layout was in Word, I think, because it’s in docx format. It’s relatively complex though, so the designer must be quite proficient in Word. BUT … I almost didn’t open the document BECAUSE it was in docx. Don’t put your work in docx. Put it in PDF. Everytime I see a doc file I think “This is an attempt to infest my computer with malware.” There’s no wat around that; unless you’ve got a really good reason then put your work in PDF.
The dungeon map has three-ish zones and is one of the greatest disappointments I have ever seen. Not the map design, proper, it’s ok. Some details, not the worst layout possible, etc. But then it’s hand numbered. Or, well, lettered, since it follows the Holmes example of using letters instead of numbers. And the designer is using some kind of fancy fucking font, or added flair to the fucking letters or something. Little lines at the end of letter strokes, etc. I can’t read the fucking thing. Oh, I can make out a letter or three, but there are some that I just stare at and can’t figure out what the fuck room it’s supposed to be. It took me five minutes to find room ‘B’ on the map. It’s fucking bullshit. Is this really what you want my commentary on your work to involve? “The fucking thing isn’t legible; don’t buy it!”? No, of course not. Just fucking cut it out with the cutsy fonts, etc. If I can’t read the fucking thing then I’m going to fucking run it.
There’s a disconnect, also, between the text and the map. The text has some good ideas: sea caves, an underground water filled tunnel and so on. But it is displayed terribly on the map. The sea caves look like just normal dungeon rooms. The underground water tunnel is the same. You can’t tell there’s water, or that it’s a tunnel or anything else. Tunnel slopes and light are contained in the room descriptions. “Oops, that tunnel you just walked down was severely sloped. Sorry, guess I should have mentioned that sooner …” The logistics of the fucking map are TERRIBLE.
The read-aloud is … I don’t know. Generic? It overreavels, that’s for sure. Over and again it tells us things about the rooms that should be for the players to discover. “This room is storage for a pirates treasure.” or “This is a maze of caverns” or “The water extends under a wall down a long submerged tunnel.” How the fuck do the players know any of this? It’s for them to discover, as they interact with the environment with their characters. It’s quite bad. On top f it is the genercism. It’s like the read-aloud is a room note for the designer to expand upon rather than traditional read aloud. “This chamber contains only a deep pit. A prisoner at the bottom shouts and waves, desperate for you to throw him a rope to release him.” So, yeah, that’s iconic. But it doesn’t really have any life and it’s written in some kind of weird manner. I don’t know how to describe it, but I know it when I see it. Genetically iconic? Conclusions instead of environment descriptions? “This maze of caverns is made from an indestructible crystalline material that reflects light and images in dazzling kaleidoscopic confusion” It’s missing something. It’s like its abstract.
Interactivity is mostly fighting. There are some obstacles to overcome, the usual rope bridge over a chasm and the like. Every once in awhile there is a “solve a puzzle” or “bring item A to room b” type thing. It just isn’t very … exploratory? I mean, you do get to explore, but the amount and number of things you get to interact with, beyond combat, seems very limited.
I wouldn’t buy this. Which is good cause it’s free. But I wouldn’t run it either. There are far better choices that you don’t have to fight to use and are more interesting. Another vision unfullfilled.
This is free at DriveThru.
Thank you for reviewing this. I think the problem with the lettering is the tricky to read font, although I certainly prefer numbers for a map with a considerable number of locations. Lettering can work if there are a number of repeated features (such as dead ends): the Gold Mine in B10 Night’s Dark Terror is well served by this convention. I might be a little more generous with praise
e.g. for the brine zombies attacking the PCs underwater encounter, but I would concur with all
your main points: (i) the document format is awkward; (ii) surely waterlogged map areas should be
shaded blue; (iii) the read aloud reveals details that should be earnt by exploration; (iv) there are better vanilla adventures available e.g. the recently reviewed Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag.
I’m a bit confused by the docx comment. The version I got on Drivethru is a pdf.
Also, I don’t think there are any read aloud sections. The sentences you quoted are just from the room descriptions. To me they seem written similar to the original Zenopus dungeon, which describes the room for the DM without separating out “boxed text” from hidden material. Also similar to most old TSR modules like Keep on the Borderlands.
Following Bryce’s link, I get the unwieldy Word document version. The first paragraph of
many entries is in italics, with the subsequent material in regular font. It may be a fault of my computing facilities, which would give the lie to Arnie’s “old not obsolete” quip.
Given your expertise in this area, I will have to defer to your knowledge, but the version I have of the original sample dungeon does not have opening paragraphs in italics (which could be mistaken for read aloud), although it does have labelling by letters etc.
Looking at DrivethruRPG again, there are actually 4 different files available for download once the product is “purchased”: three pdfs (original, White Box version, version 1.2) and one docX.
I was looking at the original pdf when I made my comment yesterday, not realizing there was an updated version. However, on my computer at least, the italicized text is still only showing up in the Doc X version, and not in any of the pdfs.
Well, I submit this adventure for the “most generic adventure title ever” award (the prize of which is a hard slap to the hands and a stern lecture).
Well the original title was “Beneath the Tower” so they did jazz it up a bit. 😉
Well, it’s better than Subdomain of the Arcane Ramshackle Dwelling. Wait. Maybe it isn’t
I am getting an impression that this is a case of mistaking generic and unoriginal as being the same thing as classic and traditional. It seems like being bland is the goal, and that this somehow makes it good.
Hi folks: the author here. I came across your review. I’m not sure about the docx stuff (it’s all PDF as far as I can see but I’ll try to remove earlier iterations) but your comments on the font ring true. Obviously I can make out the letters fine because I chose the font but with fresh eyes I can see how unhelpful it is to new readers. A lot of the criticisms relate back to an attempt to make this dungeon an aesthetic successor to Eric Holmes’ 1977 dungeon, down to the map design and dungeon contents. By modern standards it will be pretty generic and the map simplistic. I’d like to think, not utterly generic: there’s the possibility of NPC interaction, traps and riddles, some lore, etc all in an Old School vibe. But that’s why the map isn’t helpfully embellished and the room descriptors don’t contain player POV read-aloud passages. This sort of deliberately retro approach will annoy as many people as it pleases, but it is deliberate rather than incompetent. Or at least, if it’s incompetent, it’s not incompetent in _that_ way. Anyway, long live independent reviewing.