Valor in the Prison of Despair

By John Josten
Board Enterprises
Levels 5-6

Deep underground there is a prison where they keep some of the most terrifying monsters found in all of fantasy.  But these are predators, not prey.  How to keep them fed?  That answer is far worse than you have already imagined.  Are you ready to take on but prisoners and jailors?  If not, could it mean the end to the city?

This 76 page adventure uses about 24 pages to describe a one hundred room dungeon. Kind of. It’s basically just shit to stab and VERY long room DM notes. A textbook heartbreaker.

Look, no one is born with some kind of innate ability to know how to write an adventure. Adventure writing is technical writing of a special sort and it’s foolish to think that, BAM, right out of the gate, you’ll write a good one. Yeah, yo know where this review is going, don’t you?

I tend to focus on three main pillars of writing: interactivity, ease of use, and evocative writing, while bringing in that Special Sauce, Design, on occasion. All of these areas require some understanding of the purpose of an adventure (to be run at the table) and take some skill to pull off. None of them are gating conditions, but, in general, I’m much less forgiving if an adventure is easy to use (“it didn’t make me want to stab my eyes out”.) 

The chief complaint of adventures is that they are hard to use and require too much prep. This generally gets to the length of the text and in the encounters and how it is organized. This adventure gets it wrong in almost every way. It takes 1.5 pages, for example, to describe the gates in the dungeon: open, closed, controlled, and destroyed. One and a half pages. It goes in to detail not only on the description of the gates but also on the DM mechanics of opening a gate. This is crazy. I’m not messing with that. It’s too much to hold in your head and too long to easily reference, especially as presented in the text. 

The text relies a great deal on read-aloud. In italics. I will continue to harp on this point: long sections of italics, especially in a small font, are hard to read. If your own personal experience is not enough to convince you (after all, Mr. D, a demon might be deceiving you …) then there have been numerous academic studies stating the same thing. And yet the text here relies on LONG sections of it, in a small font. Essentially, th read-aloud. My eyes glaze over. I hate it. 

And then there’s the room text proper, mostly DM notes, that drone on and on about trivia. This room used to be. How the room is currently used but there is no one in this empty room to use it that way. The room “appears” to be something. It’s crazy how much of these rooms are padded out with text that makes no sense in the adventure. The designer is confusing text length, and a fully fleshed out description/purpose of the dungeon, with it being a “good” room/adventure. The purpose of the adventure is not an academic paper on the lifestyle of the dungeon inhabitants. It’s to run a great game at the table. In this regard, more is not More, More is Less. It makes the text long and hard to scan during play. It pulls the DM out during long pauses. The padding out of ineffective text, like “appears to be … “ just adds to the problem. Rooms that are a column or longer are not unusual. “It currently has no one in it.” Well no shit; the adventure tells us when there is. 

And, what is Interactivity? Is it stabbing shit? Is combat the only purpose of D&D, especially older D&D without its tactics porn to keep it company? To its credit the adventure does several factions and prisoners to talk to, but that’s only one part of good interactivity. There is no exploratory elements, no mystery, no wonder. No statues to fuck with and buttons to push. No fruit trees to poison yourself with. The resources to interact with, and perhaps exploit, are just not present. There’s a mini-game where you could avoid the big wandering monster boss in each section of the dungeon, but that’s not real great either. Room after room of boring and boring stabbing. 

Finally there’s the hardest thing, Evocative Writing. Good writing is hard, I will admit, and takes practice. “A huge ugly earthworm appears.”  Huge is a boring word. Ugly is a conclusion. Nothing make up good evocative writing. Use your thesaurus. Show, don’t tell. Agonize over your words to come up with a great, but terse, description. In fact, the earthworm is the exception, most monsters don’t even get descriptions in their entries, their appendix being just culture and history shit, boring to the players about to stab it. “The walls of the chamber are fairly smooth.” “There appears to be no one in this chamber.” A bizarre creature with huge legs. The entries do not come alive.

The designer clearly had a vision, witness all of the extra pages that describe background and how to play Old School. But they failed in their execution, byt a long margin. I would call this almost the textbook example of how to write an ineffective adventure. “Don’t do anything this adventure does.”

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages. You get to see the background and none of the room entries. Not a good preview; the preview should dhow s some of the actual encounters. That’s the purpose, to see if what the designer has written is worth our time. And, in spite of it being stat’d for OSR play, it does not tell us the level range before buying it. The level range is buried somewhere in the mountains of text inside of the adventure. I weep for the future.–Game-Masters-edition?term=valor+prison?1892600

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12 Responses to Valor in the Prison of Despair

  1. Anonymous says:

    “None of them are gating conditions, but, in general, I’m much less forgiving if an adventure is easy to use”
    More forgiving, maybe?

  2. grodog says:

    Looks like Board Enterprises is the classic publisher from the early 1990s, still kicking!:


  3. Jonathan Becker says:

    Are those wemics on the cover? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an adventure with a wemic. I’m not even sure I’m remembering the name of that monster correctly.

    Man, Bryce, I feel like I’ve read a lot of these critiques before, word-for-word. Do adventure writers read your reviews? Do people learn? I mean, some must, right? A lot, surely…you have a reputation! Why do they not learn? Your three pillars (usability, interactivity, evocative writing) aren’t unreasonable…well, being “evocative” might be tough to come by for a person who doesn’t have a degree in English or creative writing or a background as a professional writer. But, then, maybe such people should be extra vigilant (or think twice!) before writing an adventure for publication?

    What IS an adventure writer? You ask sometimes what is an adventure, but I want to go to the source…who’s this person who thinks their adventures are SO AWESOME that they want to publish it for THE WHOLE WORLD (or the whole internet anyway)? Who is this person that feels their time and effort is deserving of remuneration and monetary reward? What gives them the right to do so? What gives them the gall?

    I don’t begrudge folks finding ways to express themselves creatively. On the contrary, I think every human on this planet is desperately in need of finding constructive ways to express themselves creatively and I encourage them to do so! But, man, write a blog or something (that has adventures and adventure ideas! or cool pieces or art! or maps! or something!). Don’t just fill the marketplace with…

    You know what, who am *I* to say that. I guess I’m the asshole here. And I feel like I’ve written much of this same post before (either in comments or on my own blog). Except for that first part about wemics. That’s definitely new.

    • Anonymous says:

      Stop gatekeeping.

      • Jonathan Becker says:

        No YOU shut up, anonymous.

        • Anonymous says:

          You are the reason the OSR has a bad reputation. Let people create things and allow them to ask for a price they find adequate. Anything else is oppressive.

          • Anonymous says:

            I don’t hate the discussion here, I just don’t dig the how. The tone seems a bit harsh. Please don’t give Annons bad names

          • Jonathan Becker says:

            Um…*I* am “the reason the OSR has a bad reputation?” That’s actually rather flattering hyperbole. I had no idea I was such an influence…here I thought the only person I was damaging was myself with my self-disparaging comment.

            Let me say, for the record, that I apologize for my oppression. Also I apologize to the OSR for ruining its reputation. Sorry about that. As the designated face of the OSR I should know better: next time, I’ll be sure to post my comments anonymously, like an asshole.

  4. Reason says:

    There’s a fair amount of writers who seem to read these, and even leave a comment on the feedback in here. Some take the advice & try to develop their writing, some state the case for why they do things X way instead of Bryce way- which is great, at least they are really thinking about their choices.

    I’d wager there’s an equal amount of writers who check out the review quietly but prefer not to engage with internet banter or “critiquing the critic” & take what’s helpful, leave the rest & just quietly go about doing what they enjoy.

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