The Brazen Bull, D&D adventure review

By Jeffrey P. Talanian
North Wind Adventures
AS&SH
Levels 1-2

Whilst traversing one of the seedier neighbourhoods of Khromarium, your party are solicited by a greasy-haired Pict. He offers to sell you a sheaf of magical lotus that allows one to see the future or to brew potions that empower the imbiber with sorcery. He beckons you to follow him into a dilapidated building….

This is an anthology of three adventures, onlyone of which I’m reviewing because it was specifically requested: The Brazen Bull. It’s full of flavour, which is somewhat unusual for North Wind, but it continues to use tortured language to describe encounters, which is a hindrance to running it. But, seriously, major bonus points for writing something with some interesting situations. Anyway, it’s about thirteen pages long with about 24 rooms.

You know that old hook of the dude with the treasure map in a tavern, who is selling the map?

A little generic, and abstracted. Dull around the edges and without flavour. But … what if he was an obvious meth addict, for obvious reasons? Selling his parents laptop. Who’s an accountant. Or manages Fort Knox, or something like that. Suddenly, things take on a much different flavour. It springs to life. That’s what this thing does, spring to life. 

It could be the same hook; some lotus addict approaches the party, telling them them they escaped from a cult with a lot of gold and jewels laying around, and they’ll let them know where, for some cash … and/or lotus … are you carrying? 

This transitions in to the first encounter, a run down crack house with four skeezy dudes in it sitting in a loose circle. One, in a loincloth is kind of waving a knife over his head slowly, saying “i told you so” over and over again, mumbling. Another one is face down in his own vomit, another one is obviously stoned out of his mind, and another, it turns out, is dead.

What the fuck has happened to Jeff Talalnian? This shit is actually good! And it does this over and over again, delivering interesting little situations. A bunch of bodies, some still alive, hung on meat hooks, being drained. Multiple “zones” in the dungeon, which doubles as a druggie flop house and cult temple and an old crypt and some vermind tunnels also … don’t get lost trying to score your fix! Really some top notch situations being presented. Which is unusual. Finally, a shrieker that makes sense! Decent elevations show on the map and a map that makes the dungeon more interesting than normal! 

North Wind Adventures pretty much have universally suffered from two major problems. First, they use this tortured writing style (more on that later) and second they are boring. A perfect example is this adventure anthology. The first adventure is one I’ve reviewed before “Rats in the Walls.” IE: one of the most boring adventures ever published. Some dude has rats in his basement and you spend the adventure going in to boring old basement rooms and killing giant rats. That’s LITERALLY a meme of bad D&D, and it was at least fifteen years ago. But … this ain’t boring. Not at all! The vermind encounters FEEL like good vermin encounters that would be in a place like this. The cultists feel like cultists. The druggies FEEL like druggies. You know, implicitly, how to run these encounters. Once you read them they spring to life in your mind and you can call on all of your years of experiences to add to and expand them. That’s what a good encounter should do; it should leverage the DM to expand and add to the encounter. It should inspire them to greatness. And this does that. Good encounter concepts and decent specificity to bring them life in a way that inspires.

I say decent because this is, after all, still a North Wind adventure. It suffers from what all North WInd adventures suffer from: a writing style straight out of HP Lovecraft. The words are oblique and the sentence structure tortured. Where Gygax might thrown in a word or two here r there of High Gygaxian language use, Talanian lets his freak flag fly and stuffs the adventure full of  it. And then fucks with subject/verb and drops in a shit ton of asides just to make things more oblique. This is bad writing.

What?! Say it isn’t so! But it is. This isn’t a novel to be read for enjoyment. This is Ulysses or The Fall of America. Stream of Consciousness as a writing style has no place in an adventure. You have to fight it to run it. This isn’t Stream of Consciousness, I just say that for effect. Hyperbolically, we should be able to recognize that a D&D adventure written in iambic pentameter might suffer from some usability issues. What if, though, we wrote an adventure that emulated the writing style of Arthur Machen or Lovecraft? Tortured word choice and sentence structure? No, the adventure would suffer just as much. But that’s what this adventure does and that’s what all North Wind adventures do. It’s the house style. It seems counter-intuitive to me to have a house style that obfuscates instead of enlightens, but, there it is. That’s what the North Wind house style is. 

It’s FUCKING TERRIBLE.

If the goal is to emulate Lovecraft, then, congratulations, you did it! You have mechanically emulated the style of a writer. But, wait … is that the goal of an adventure? Isn’t an adventure supposed to be run at the table? Isn’t that its purpose? To help the DM run it? So selecting a house style that purposefully makes that hader would then be … THE. WRONG. FUCKING. DECISION.

I get it. Someone, somewhere, thinks it’s not that bad. They think that it doesn’t interfere. Some fucking moron somewhere on the internet is even now arguing that they like it and that it helps them and that it’s the best way to write it .. because it’s the internet and that always happens on the internet. But it’s not. It’s a terrible way to format things. 

So, for $10 you get one of the most boring adventures ever written, some unknown adventure, and this little adventure which has some interesting situations and is quite visceral, the way that North Wind adventures typically TRY to be but generally fail at. But, if suffers, as always, by the tortured house style. 

This is $10 at DriveThru. There’s no preview because FUCK YOU, that’s why. PPut in a preview so we know what our $10 is getting us?

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/265542/Rats-in-the-Walls-and-Other-Perils?1892600

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17 Responses to The Brazen Bull, D&D adventure review

  1. Anonymous says:

    I can’t tell if this is a good review or bad! 🙂 But I am a fan of Jeff’s stuff.
    But honestly what got me was “a shrieker encounter that makes sense”!

    • Reason says:

      This is “interesting adventure that pushes Bryce’s buttons”. If you like Jeff’s stuff, you’ll like this -is my conclusion. I did read “Rats in the Walls” once & came to the same conclusion, I could see it was _trying_ to be atmospheric but there was just nothing interesting for the characters to ultimately do. It actually really pissed me off it was so empty.

      The Sightless Serpent by these guys I like. Although I had it at the table 3 times before actually getting to run it as the written hook is so bad my players ran a mile from it. Needed a few seeds elsewhere before they’d go near it.

      This one sounds cool. I’ll probably check it out. NW Adventures need a careful read through in my experience but are brief enough to make it worthwhile. Just short of the kind of bloat that would turn me off & since I like their setting/genre vibe it works for me.

  2. Ron says:

    I can’t tell if this is a good review or bad! 🙂 But I am a fan of Jeff’s stuff.
    But honestly what got me was “a shrieker encounter that makes sense”!

  3. Malrex says:

    “What the fuck has happened to Jeff Talalnian? This shit is actually good!” and “You know, implicitly, how to run these encounters. Once you read them they spring to life in your mind and you can call on all of your years of experiences to add to and expand them. That’s what a good encounter should do; it should leverage the DM to expand and add to the encounter. It should inspire them to greatness. And this does that.”

    The author of Brazen Bull looks to be from Chainsaw. Not surprised that its a good adventure.

  4. Chainsaw says:

    The Brazen Bull was my contribution to this city-trio module. Thanks for the feedback!

  5. Landifarne says:

    Although it’s not a huge adventure [probably 3 sessions], Brazen Bull alone is worth much more than $10 and was the reason why I purchased this anthology.

    Chainsaw is too modest to plug his forthcoming adventure…it’ll be an auto-buy.

  6. squeen says:

    Whoot! Whoot! Chainsaw. Looking forward to your next one.

  7. Hawk says:

    More Chainsaw to come? Nice!

  8. Shuffling Wombat says:

    Rats in the Walls is much more interesting than just killing the giant rat colony in Granny Crotchety’s larder for 100 silvers. Not vintage, but a perfectly playable themed dungeon. The Lamia’s Heart is a heist: there is an appropriate level of detail, although the information might be organised more happily, fundamental facts are buried in the room keys. There are a couple of surprises that smart/observant PCs might anticipate. The Brazen Bull is my favourite of the three: it is replete with stylish touches such as captives hanging from meat hooks, blood splatters indicating a fearsome opponent, vile creatures with gruesome attacks (whip-like intestines!). It also has the most interesting map. Other excellent features have been noted by Bryce. Add me to the list of people looking forward to Chainsaw’s next publication.

  9. Chainsaw says:

    Thanks for the encouraging words, everyone. My next effort, LAKE OF FIRE, will be a campaign-starter, complete with a small regional map, base town, five small dungeons (scale of Brazen Bull) and one large dungeon (scale of Atlantis). It will be independent and statted for OSRIC, rather than AS&SH, but I hope you will still give it a look. Should be good!

    • Evard’s Small Tentacle says:

      Definitely a buy! Curious, for North Wind, is the overwritten writing style part of their style guide requirement?

      • Chainsaw says:

        Thanks, EST. My preference is for simple, but evocative writing and keys that prioritize data efficiently, so I think you will like LAKE OF FIRE.

      • Landifarne says:

        My understanding is that Talanian and his editors alter the writing style significantly. I don’t have nearly as much issue with it as Bryce, but it often makes for fairly awkward reading…

    • Philipp says:

      Sounds absolutely great! Is there a publishing date that you target?

      • Chainsaw says:

        Thanks, Philipp. I had originally planned for March 2021, but COVID-19 threw me some curveballs, so probably more like late 2021 now. Peter Mullen’s busy at work on a *sick* cover as we speak though. It’ll be cool.

  10. Philipp says:

    I can‘t wait!

  11. Handy Haversack says:

    I wrote up a whole system of lotus addiction and its levels and effects and ran Brazen Bull as a 0-level funnel, with each player starting with 3-6 Petalheads who are lured into the tenement to score. That worked really well, and one of the antagonists survived to be at least a minor figure in the campaign.

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