Tomb of the Witch Queen, D&D adventure review

By Jon Paget
Jon Pagat Roleplay
Levels 1-12 (scales)

My New Years resolution is to only review good adventures! Let’s go! 🙂

News has got out about a tomb of unknown origin that has been found in the wilds. The explorer sent members of their expedition to alert the city authorities. That was two days ago, and there has been no sighting or word from them since.

This twelve page adventure features a dungeon with …, I don’t know, twelve rooms? There’s no maps, its detail is abstracted, and the text disorganized to a more unusual degree than most. Perhaps, as the poster says, the purpose of your life is to serve as an example to others?

This is my first review of the new year, because I write a couple of weeks in advance. There seems to be a dearth of true OSR material lately, and the ones on my list are over a hundred pages long, on average, which takes some intestinal fortitude to bite off. I’m working on the longer ones though. (I’m looking at you MontiDots …) Two adventures popped up on my radar though, and looked interesting for different reasons. It was either that, of a wild west adventure. Be thankful. Anyway, a quick glance at the DriveThru page of this and it looked like there was something going on. I was wrong. Very wrong. 

It’s easy to identify the WURST adventures. But, what lies in the middle? Or, rather, what lies between the worst adventures and the usual middling dreck that clogs up the 4’s and 5’s on a ten point scale? What does a 2-3 look like? It looks like this. It looks like something that clearly had a logical mind behind it but for which all the wrong choices were made. When made on purpose they can be the result of a creator vision, on the way to some place new. Or, you can make the wrong decisions because you don’t know better or because they are expedient. 

There’s no map to this. A couple of the rooms have simple colored boxes with some number labels in them, but, they do little, and don’t represent a map of the entire complex. This means that a significant portion of the text is taken up with the designer trying to describe, textually, where each room lies in relation to each other. Tried and Dies, says Indy. The text gets confusing, as you try to make out where each room lies and how they lie in relation to each other. And this text gets in the way of the text that actually DOES matter to the adventure, the text that describes and relates the room you are in. It obfuscates that text, making comprehension harder for the DM. All of which could be solved by including a simple dungeon map. If you don’t want to learn a dungeon mapping program then just hand draw something and take a photo with your phone. Dungeon maps exist for a reason. They convey information quickly and easily. I seldom think in black and white, in spite of my usual hyperbole to the contrary, but in this case THEY ARE THE CORRECT WAY TO PRESENT THE INFORMATION. You don’t NEED a map, for every place, but with ANY complexity at all you almost certainly do. Just use a fucking map people!

A substantial amount of the detail in this is abstracted. Abstraction is almost never the right thing to do in an adventure. A perfect example of this is the intro: “News has got out about a tomb of unknown origin that has been found in the wilds. The explorer sent members of their expedition to alert the city authorities. That was two days ago, and there has been no sighting or word from them since.” Note that news has got out. The City Authorities. The explorer. This extends to the fact based descriptions. “Two dead bodies” and “they belong to the previous expedition” is the extent of the description. The tomb belongs to a witch, a DC check tells us, bu no name of her or hint of her atrocities. A book with a bookmark on a table, with no hint of what it is. The key to a good description IS its specificity. It’s the soul of a narrative, after all. And it’s not verbosity that’s important. That’s a different trap. The key is to write a description that is specific, evocative, and short. None of which happens in this adventure in any area of it.

Including the area, the entire third level, in which the players make up challenges for each other. *groan*

Further, the rooms descriptions are not organized and coherent. In one place were told that mist from a teapot needs to be stopped. But, later, when we actually get the description for the teapot room, there’s no mist mentioned at all, coming from the teapot or not. In fact, the mist is NEVER mentioned, except that it needs to be stopped to avoid the “scares tactics” going on. A grate on the floor is never mentioned, until you make a good DC check. And DC checks. Ug. This is a classic example of how NOT to do them. A DC check allows the players to determine what’s going on, to find details, instead of the details just being in the room and the DM allowing them to be found, with the DC checks as a fall back. Just roll the fucking dice and concentrate on your fucking build so the DM can spoon feed you detail. I will allow that some misanthropic segment of society thinks that is a fun way to play D&D, I just don’t want any fucking thing to do with them and reject any sense that is anything cloe to mainstream desires. It’s fucking lame and empty.

The centerpiece of interactivity is a room with thirteen objects in it. Interacting with any of them will cause something negative to happen. There’s no treasure. No boons. No learning. Just if you fuck with anything then it’s save time. Ed Greenwood approves, but I do not.

This is $5 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Why would there be?

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10 Responses to Tomb of the Witch Queen, D&D adventure review

  1. Gus L. says:

    Maps are hard. 5E maps are supposeded to be digital water color top down art pieces. Real hard. I’m a fair cartographer, and I won’t/can’t paint a 5E map. When you don’t really use maps because there’s no spatial element to play, no time between keyed scenes/areas, no risk of encounters, no need to read the ecology, architecture or layout to determine the best path, why have a map? You wander in, pick an exit A or B, GM moves you to the next scene, you take a short rest, the torch does not burn down. Players drink two beers. Eventually there’s a boss fight.

    Space and time, and thus maps, aren’t really part of 5E play, judging them on the lack is like judging a classic dungeon for lacking ties to PC backstory, or an OSR adventure for being uncreative humanoid slaughter – it’s a bit unfair in that it fails to respect play-style.

    • MnkyBrs says:

      > 5E maps are supposed to be digital water color top down art pieces

      Who said this? I’m not sure why a 5e map has to be any certain way.

      • Gus L. says:

        Hyperbole and polemic are a common part of criticism. In this case while there is if course no formal rule about the nature of 5E maps, indeed no regulatory body exists, the culture of 5E design has rules, or at least conventions. WotC’s maps set the standard. There’s also evolution, particularly with Dyson coming on board, but the full color “battle map” style remains standard. It serves a purpose as well. In a system with little use for a map, the map as art offers more detail and aesthetic — the sort often omitted from 5E keys.

        • TJS says:

          Maps are obviously just as necessary for 5E as for any other games if you have dungeons connected by rooms in a certain order. If you have to use prose to describe how rooms are connected you need a map.

          • Gus L. says:

            Why? There’s no meaningful movement or turnkeeping in the majority of 5E design, while most ‘dungeons’ are linear set ups – series of encounters.

  2. Anonymous says:

    It’s nothing to do with the game design. You can make an argument that 5E adventures could be designed in such a way that they don’t need maps and can presented as a series of encounters*, but if you design your adventure as a series of connecting rooms so that to run the adventure as intended you need to know how to connect them then you need a map.

    *even then some kind of flowchart would be helpful.

  3. squeen says:

    The map helps the DM understand what is where—even if the players never need it.
    It’s good technical document practice — like tables and bullets. Maximally efficient information download.

    • Gus L says:

      All this is true, and it’s not to say that WotC style 5E adventures shouldn’t include maps, just that it’s not an essential part of the play style the way it is in classic editions. Since maps are a hard to produce element of an adventure, especially up to the level of polish in WotC adventures, it seems to be one a lot of 5E creators feel they can skip. I think that’s understandable. Maybe not wise, but understandable, and should be considered from the perspective of the intended playstyle not the critic’s preferred playstyle. That it’s such a common element of 5E adventure design practice also makes quite an illuminating statement about how these products are played and structured. Perhaps more like Trophy Dark, emphasizing evocative detail then the spatial concerns of OD&D?

      • Anonymous says:

        Story gamers say you can play OSR stuff with Trophy Gold.
        My take is ideas are ideas to convert. A lot of people use World of Dungeons to the same effect.
        Heck Arneson was the OG story gamer. Beat my opposed 2d6 role and tell me what happens.
        I Arneson will veto you if I don’t like it

        • Gus L says:

          Having recently watched Jason of Gauntlet doing actual plays of two of my B/X adventures in Trophy Gold I think it can convert fairly easily, but yes it is a conversion. Depending on how one plays it I suspect it’s more or less story v. classic play – but always more structure then Free Kreigspiel style play.

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