(5E) The Secrets of Skyhorn Lighthouse, D&D adventure review

By Kelsey Dionne
Self Published
Level 5

Rumors of a rampaging sea monster have ground shipping traffic to a halt in the harbor. The characters discover that the Jade Lion has gone missing near Skyhorn Lighthouse and learn they must brave the open seas and cutthroat enemies in order to save the crew from a murky fate!

This 24 page adventure features around eight “one page each” scene based encounters. It’s a great example of forum plus function and what can be achieved when a designer has a vision and doesn’t go in to autopilot mode. The choices made in the design make sense given the assumptions and should work out well in play. Kelsey Dionne joins that rare group of designers who have earned the description “Not a fucking idiot.” 

I believe that old school D&D, exploratory D&D, provides a substantially different experience, and a superior experience, than alternative forms of D&D. Those other forms are closer, I think, to story based indie-rpg’s. I also recognize that story based D&D has been around since about 1978 and became the dominant form around 3 or so, I’d guess, and is the way the vast majority of people play D&D and have fun with it. (and by “D&D, i mean “fantasy role playing”) And since drinking beer, eating pretzels and having fun with friends while escaping the crushing ennui of life IS the main point of ALL D&D, I’ll take it. 

The point of all of that is that modern fantasy RPG’s are DIFFERENT THINGS. Different things require different formats to support their different assumptions. In a social adventure it doesn’t make sense to have a room/key format since it’s not an exploratory adventure … it’s a social adventure. And yet, most adventures don’t recognize that they are writing for different assumptions. They stubbornly stick to the old formats that were optimized for other assumptions, if they put any thought in to it at all. But not Kelsey. Kelsey has put some thought in to what’s trying to be accomplished and has made decisions about the adventure, formatting, etc, that directly support those assumptions. And does a good fucking job at it as well.

Modern fantasy RPG’s are essentially scene based RPG’s. The adventure is designed around that. You get a page of overview/summary, describing how the adventure is going to unfold. This primes the DM for what is to come, generally a necessary step to fully leveraging the DM as a resource to expand your adventure and their brain to accept the coming information. Then there’s a page of hooks/little scenes. Then there are eight pages that describe, one page each, the eight scenes in the adventure. A few pages of maps and appendices round things out. Eight pages. One per scene. You read the overview. Great. You’re set now to run the adventure. The players do a couple of shots each and grab their 40’s/Mad Dog to sit down. The DM runs the hooks from the hooks page.  The adventure starts. The DM uses one page per scene to run the games. Everything they need is on that page. Its available there, at a glance. It’s laid out with bullet points and offset text, with good bolding. It’s easy to scan and run the scene, embellishing as necessary. There’s a little text in a couple of bullets, maybe two, that give an atmosphere or physical description of the scene. It makes sense and the DM can build from it. NPC’s are easy to locate. They have a six word appearance, a six word mannerism and a six word secret and are easy to grok and run at a glance. The secret might actually lead to interesting play, in some situations. So far so good, right? Scene based, once scene per page. Not exactly an innovation, either, but when taken together the start to formulate the basis of that modern D&D assumption. Then, Kelsey adds “Dramatic Question.” This is an explicit section. This is what the scene is about. This is what is going on. “Can you X?” And then, the scene ends with a transition. Again, another explicit section that tells the DM what to do when the dramatic question is answered. “Ascend the stairs from the island docks to the lighthouse.” for example. It makes sense. The four elements, all taken together, with the formatting/style choices … this is a great format for most adventures being published. It works. It’s immediately obvious it works. It’s immediately obvious that most adventure should be written this way, regardless of system, if it’s not exploratory D&D. I won’t say it’s the ONLY way, but it should be obvious to every designer that this format is a good one and easy to mimic in their own adventures. 99% of DMsGuild and DriveThru adventures should be formatting this way, designed this way.

And yet, there’s room for improvement.

Kelsey includes a section of the adventure in which the design choices made, the formatting choices, etc, are justified. It’s sad that has to be done, but, whatever. In it it is noted that the DM is to embellish the descriptions. That’s correct. A good adventure inspires the DM with the physical description. The DM then takes that and embellishes that as they see fit and/or where the game goes. (In contrast to the standard overwritten and long description. No, this is not a case of personal preference, unless you prefer eating garbage.) But, this requires a strong inspiration from the designer. Kelsey does a good job with this, certainly above average, but could do better. The first scene, on the docks, has a two bullet description, the faint glimmer of a lighthouse on a small island a few miles out to sea, and the docks choked with ships, quiet compared with the normal bustle of activity. I’ll take this any day of the week over the overwritten garbage that is choking the hobby. And, you can even see signs of good writing. Docks CHOKED with ships. That’s good imagery. And I get where the lighthouse thing is going. Both, however, are not given room to breathe and even, I would assert, are reigned in. A SMALL island. Small is a boring word. That whole second clause deflates the first one, the glimmering. A second sentence should puff it up more, instead of bringing it down using “small” and “a few miles out.”  Likewise the ship description. The choking bit is GREAT. Perfect imagery. But then it is reigned back in with “quiet compared to …” IE: boring. Drunken sailors, dice games, or even unearthly quiet, maybe … either would have heightened the description instead of “normalizing” it with “its quieter than normal.” I find this common in the adventure … most of the text is spot on but the scene overviews, the location description where the scene takes place, gets short shrifted. It’s not given the room to breathe it should, and in some cases I’d suggest that iconic “views” that should be in the adventure are not present at all in a meaningful  way  … the lighthouse and island in particular. 

But … it’s a good adventure. A water elemental “coughs up” treasure when killed. (Nice solution to a treasure problem in the ocean … and a good word choice.) The monster descriptions START with the physical description, what is most relevant to the DM when running the game. There’s a monster reference in the form of “combat cards” for the DM to use to run the fights. I could bitch more about interactivity beyond “talking and fighting” and more about a certain magic item that is key to the adventure and yet unlootable … but thats nitpicking compared to the rest. It’s a good adventure and Kelsey Dionne is NOT a fucking idiot. That means that until a Kelsey work is bastardized by a third party publisher, you can trust future work from this designer. Man, I really have a hard time saying something is good, don’t I? It is, of course, one of the Best, but, also, ther Not A Fucking Idiot means that you can probabally buy Kelsey’s stuff in the future and know its good. As with Chainsaw’s works, when a publisher is involved things might change, but self-published by Kelsey should be a sign of quality.
This is Pay What You Want over at DMsguild with a suggested price of $0. Nineteen fucktards gave it three stars, three gave it two stars and one gave is one star. Well, fuck those asshats. 


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19 Responses to (5E) The Secrets of Skyhorn Lighthouse, D&D adventure review

  1. Hector Frankenthal says:

    A solid review. However, I have to disagree with the criticism of using the word “small” to describe the island. This is standard geographical English (“just a small town girl” etc.). “Little island”? No, doesn’t work. “Wee island”? Nope. “Petite island”? Absolutely not. Yeah, describing a room or cavern as “small” (or “large,” etc.) is boring and the oppostive of evocative. But people have a learned appreciation for the hierarchy of sizes for settlements, islands, valleys, etc. Perhaps the point is the setting is a small, non-descript island community now thrust into notoriety by the arrival of an aggressive sea monster (uhhh, “Jaws,” anyone?).

    • Reason says:

      lonely island

      swell battered island
      (implies size through emphasising vulnerability, in this case to the elements)

      an island small enough from here to disappear behind a decent swell

      So you can imply size more colourfully first up to paint the scene- if players ask about the size, small, you can probably sail around it in an hour etc.

      • Hector Frankenthal says:

        Yes, you could do that.

        My quibble here is with his criticism of Kelsey Dionne’s sentence “Skyhorn Lighthouse’s faint glimmer is visible on a small island a few miles out to sea.” One of my major takeways of Bryce’s posts is that “small” or “large” when describing rooms is boring and therefore bad, but I think that geographical features are a different beast.

        For descriptive purposes, “a small island a few miles out to sea” is fine, to the point, and the players can then ask “how small is it?” With “a lonely island a few miles out to sea” the smart asses that I used to play with would probably ask “oh, why is it lonely?” (“Because it’s a small island a few miles out to sea!”)

        • Stripe says:

          Not to be pedantic, but I agree, Hector. His lordship can sometimes be too hard on “large” and “small.” Not always—and I wouldn’t dare go so far as to say *often*—but *sometimes.*

          Occasionally, writers intentionally don’t use an evocative word because they don’t want to draw attention to that certain aspect of whatever they are describing.

          While both of Reason’s suggestions of “lonely” or “swell-battered” are much more evocative, neither replace “small” because neither are indicative of the island’s physical dimensions; large islands can be both.

          Looking through the thesaurus for “small:”

          Cramped? Not if it isn’t crowded. Miniature? No—it could imply it’s a smaller version of a particular, larger island. Miniscule? Nope. Narrow? Not quite; large islands can be narrow. Paltry? Nah. Slight? Huh-uh. Petite? Not for an island. Humble? Fine for a town, not so much for an island. Puny? Perhaps—better for a runt. Teeny? Not for me.

          Small. Small was the right word.

          Nothing is to say this isn’t an excellent review as always.

          • Bryce Lynch says:

            Fallibility?! *clutch pearls*

          • I did go around and around about that “small,” and it was a trickier one. I almost said “the size of a football field,” but an anachronism didn’t feel right, either. I try to avoid those, perhaps needlessly, because they just sound strange in a fantastical setting…

            But! Even if “small” might have been the best word in that instance, Bryce is right that the descriptions needed more oomph as a whole. This was actually the first adventure I published, and I was experimenting with how informational and clear a description should be at the cost of flourish. Bryce quickly spotted that tradeoff (I wouldn’t expect any less from him), and I completely agree with his assessment — it’s not the right balance.

            Some of my later work aims at being more evocative, with varying degrees of success, and it’s better for that effort.

            I’ve completely avoided appearing in the comments of anyone evaluating my work, whether good or bad (except once to refute a ridiculous accusation of plagiarism, grrrr!). Nobody benefits from creators crowing over their good reviews and biting back on their bad ones. However, I lurk like crazy here because this is where the best feedback lives. Excessive coffee has given me bravery. So, I must say: Thank you to Bryce and the Ten Foot Pole community for taking the time to to scope out my stuff and give truly helpful critique! It strongly shapes what I do. Your thoughts are all appreciated, positive and negative.

            Case in point: The ideas shared here have inspired me to work on a high-level adventure that’s an attempt at very exploration-driven crawling for 5E (a system that sometimes seemed designed to fight that effort). The challenge to try writing it comes straight from the heart of this blog. Can 5E be molded into different style? Can *I* do something in a different style than my usual? Only way to know is to try. I secretly think blaming 5E as a system is actually just an excuse.

            I’m even planning to sneak this adventure into a collection with three others that emphasize other styles of play — styles of play that I’m grateful Bryce took the time to acknowledge and consider in this review. Hopefully whatever I come up with widens my and the 5E community’s design ethos. Moonshot attempt!

            I fully expect Bryce to annihilate something I’ve written some day. Even Saint Harley Stroh, to whom I pray each night, hasn’t escaped fair critique. But having a couple good reviews from Bryce, plus the illustrious Not A Fucking Idiot title, have helped me zero in on What To Keep Doing. So I will. And hopefully better each time!


  2. Laeral says:

    That’s two for two on “The Best” ratings for Dionne. Normally this sort of thing isn’t my style, but with the lockdown on I think I’ll pick up some of her oneshots for online play.

    I’d be interested to hear what you make of “The Fires of Iskh”, a 20th level(!) adventure.

  3. squeen says:

    I’m interested in see it her format lends itself to city-play—which can also be less exploitative.
    Nice review Bryce (yah old softy).

  4. Anonymous says:

    This one.came.out like 3 years ago? If she is this good I would be into reviews of more of her work.

    Has her style or info.design improved?

    What makes her so good and how can we learn from.it?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Kelsey you are more than welcome here! Please make the next big WoTC book. Alothough I feet like many Indy directors, the studio/ Hasbro system makes artists worse so I am torn.

    Regardless keep up the great work. As you noted with Harley not escaping critism, who cares IMO?
    Its like the movie hannibal, even an artists failures are interesting failures and I will take that any day! Please become the future of 5e adventure design

    You are here to make games at the table better and I AM HERE FOR IT

    • It’s great to be so welcomed and supported, thank you! 🙂

      Gosh, if WotC ever asked me to write anything for them, I’m not sure what I would do. I think it might actually be really bad for me, haha! They’d have to promise to let me do whatever I wanted, and you know the chances of THAT happening.

      Ah, coffee! I’ll take a delicious aeropress brew any day, but I don’t happen to have one (add that to list of wants). I’m actually an espresso junkie and can pull halfway decent shots after much laborious dialing-in! But my foamed milk art is a disaster. I’ve learned I can draw a Christmas tree by trying to draw a heart, so… holiday themed art is accidentally here!

      • Anonymous says:

        Cool Cool!
        I find a french press makes great frothed milk, pro tip!
        I will have to buy a bunch of your stuff so hopefully it can pay for it after the DMsGuild DTRPG cuts.

        A lot of RPG authors are talking about itch.io but its tricky because the audience is video games, hopefully that will change over time with Blades in the Dark and Ultraviolent Grasslands. Maybe Yoon Suin 2

        • The Arcane Library says:

          That’s a great tip for frothed milk. Definitely going to try that out! 😀

          And oh gosh hahahaha! If you pick up any of my work, I pledge to put the proceeds toward more coffee gear. I myself am delighted at this excuse. We all win!

          I’ll scope out itch.io for sure, didn’t realize there TTRPGs were blossoming up on there. But it makes sense given the way Twitch has gone with TTRPGs, too. Wherever there are video games, there will be dice rollers!

          • Anonymous says:

            I would sell on both places, long term its solid and if anyone goes itch to buy you get more of the sale in pocket, sucks you cant lower the price on itch to incentivize (Have to keep the price the same on both)

  6. Anonymous says:

    Also you said coffee? Do you aeropress Kelsey?
    Filtered water, fresh grinds and water a bit off boil.
    Lets go

  7. Anonymous says:

    Requesting the sequel. Its called The Corruption of Skyhorn Lighthouse.

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