Australis Barrows – The Halls of Eternal Ice

By Robin Fjarem
Level ?

A bright red star has appeared in the sky. People call it the Evening Star. Ever since its arrival strange things have started to happen. Wild animals are going feral, odd abominations roam the lands, and there are even rumors that the dead wake up from their graves when the light from the crimson star shines. Odd creatures and cosmic mystery awaits in this adventure set in the frozen wastes of Australis!

This thirteen page dungeon adventure in the frozen Southlands wants to do good. It tries, and fails, at a new formatting style that, while interesting, is not followed through on enough to bring clarity and evocativeness, with little interactivity beyond combat.

This is, in essence, a four page adventure; about a page and a half of maps and about the number of keyed locations, around thirty. Thus while not a one-page dungeon (Which I shy away from reviewing these days because of their Performance Art nature) it is close to it in formatting. When limiting yourself to just a page of keys per map you really need to bring your A game to pack in the exploratory/interactive/evocative/formatting. And this adventure tries to do with a kind of “exploding detail” style format.

Room eight is detailed as:  

8. Natural Cave

Watermill wheel? [powers the sledge and bellows in (7), ?Waterfall [drops 10ft], ?Crates? [mining picks, nails, skillets], ?Secret door? [behind the crates, leads to (?16?)].

I’ve seen this style suggested in several forum threads and have even encountered it a time or two in past, to varying degrees of success. It’s meant to be easily scannable at the table, what with it’s bolding and the like. And, in theory, it brings several nice features. Note that the room is given a room title, in order to orient the DM to whats coming. Once reading “Natural Cave” your brain is ready to start the rest of the description from that standpoint. I think it could have included a better adjective/adverb in that title to overload it even more, and the concept is a good one even if it isn’t exactly implemented in the best way. Note also the bolding of the keywords. You get the major room elements front and center, easy to scan and pick out. The follow up information for each element, being included in braces immediately after the keyword, are also easy to pick out. This style can work. I don’t think it’s the easiest for a new designer to be successful with, but it can work.

I don’t think, though, that it works here. From a scanability standpoint, sure. But the rooms are dry, and thus from a evocative standpoint they tend to fail. A millstone, a waterfall and some crates. Not exactly the height of excitement. Rather than inspire the DM I am left feeling kind of *bleh*. Thus leg two, evocative writing, is left to suffer. Better use of that room title, better adjective and adverb selection, a real imagining of the scene in the room, that would have helped. Or maybe an intro sentence or two for the room, to bring the wonder and a better description, and then leave the existing description to help point the DM to the details. But it needs more. 

It’s generacially formatted, with no real stats, just noting how many of each monster and mentioning treasure such as “a few coins” or “1 diamond.” It does have stats in the back for OSR creatures, but the lack of a level range, and the generic nature of the adventure, is, I think, a detriment. From a usability standpoint, a good adventure is a good adventure and any DM can restat/convert a good adventure. Better, I think, to be specific in your system and not worry about explicit cross-system sales. But, I’m not a salesman, so what do I know? The abstraction of the treasure is annoying though, and I don’t think it needs to be done, even if it IS meant to be generic and converted to other systems. Be specific! Not wordy, but specific! Avoid the generic abstractions that seem dull and bring the specificity that makes the mind excited to run it!

The overland “map” is a hex map, with no scale. It’s hard to read, with the font color running in the background color. With no scale ever mentioned, and a hard to read labeling system, it’s more “Art” than map. Sad. The rest of the adventure is really just padding. A small town on one or two pages. A little background information. The monster stats. A few pages about ancient aliens. 

A more serious issue is the lack of motivation. The town is described, the situation is described, and then the dungeon is described. There is not really much of a way described, AT ALL, on how to transition from the town to the dungeon. Hints and rumors of its location? The mayor sending you there? The red star hanging over one spot? A red beacon shining up from the ground? None of it. And thus HOW the players learn of the dungeon is an issue. Maybe make the main dungeon the town graveyard and have the bodies coming back to life (as the star does) would solve the issue.  There’s also these notes where it says dead bodies, inside the tomb, come back to life “if the red star shines inside”, but I can’t figure out any way for that to happen. Maybe a language barrier issue from a non-native speaker? In other places it feels like it’s just a “bodies reanimate at night” sort of thing, but in others “if the star shines inside.” Weird.

So, it tried. A little lite on the non-combat interactivity. REALLY lite on evocative writing, a few missteps in legibility and cohesion, and support information that doesn’t really add a whole lot. Specificity, not abstraction, is needed. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1. Check out page eleven of the preview (book page ten) for the keys for one of the levels. The promise of the formatting choices can be seen, as well as the drier nature of the writing and the combat-focused interactivity.–The-Halls-of-Eternal-Ice?1892600

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10 Responses to Australis Barrows – The Halls of Eternal Ice

  1. Dave says:

    On system-neutral adventures – I’m at a point where I can convert just about any retroclone to my preferred one faster than I can go through and write in stats for a statless adventure. So systemless is a step backwards for me in usability. If you’re billing an adventure as OSR it’s worth thinking about picking one of the bigger clones and giving us stats.

    Separately, statless makes me wonder if it was even play-tested, or just written directly for publication. I’ve started to notice more adventures I suspect have never been playtested, and that vibe correlates highly with adventures I’m not impressed with and am unlikely to run.

    And unfortunately there’s a whole lot of system-neutral adventures out there, including even some I otherwise like. I don’t mean to pick on this one only.

    • OSR Fundamentalist says:

      The standard defense used by system-neutral apologists is that if you can’t/don’t want to stat everything then you’re a lazy and bad GM
      Which ignores the fact that modules and splats are supposed to provide with stats otherwise they’re just novels or novel pitches.

    • System-neutral adventures are also egregious because they leave a vital part of game design, the consideration of balance and the way mechanics and spells will interact with the created environment, entirely in the hands of the person who buys it. I can imagine system-neutral adventures being alright but I have never seen an example that actually impressed.

  2. squeen says:

    Some times (in other industries) cross-platform standards are developed. Could an edition-less stat standard ever exist? In so much that it’s primarily brief, but also easy to convert.

    • Chris Hall says:

      I think it would be pretty easy to come up with a general standard for old-school games. All I would need is armor class, hit dice, attacks/damage, and maybe movement. You could use numbers for hit dice and movement (120’/90’/60’/30′), and use comparable items to classify AC and damage. You can figure saving throws based on hit dice. Something like:

      AC: as Chain
      HD: 4+1
      AT/Dmg: (1) as two-handed/heavy weapon
      MV: 90′
      There’s an Ogre. For 5E or other modern systems, just double the hit points and weapon damage.

  3. Reason says:

    The formatting is a good idea- and just needs a few descriptors to bring it to life. The bonus of using that brief structure is you can easily jazz that room up by adding in one or two words to each feature.

    Creaking watermill (suggests it might be weak or dangerous)… gentle but slimy waterfall (only 10′)… driftwood crates… secret door- crate simply twists aside…

    It’s a good format imo. probably my preferred level of minimalism if added a few descriptors. Just the designer didn’t do a whole lot with the actual content.

  4. Gnarley Bones says:

    PC levels are a must. I’m taking a stand; no PC Levels, do not purchase.

  5. Monkey Bars says:

    The formatting reminds me of Tomb of the Black Sand.

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