She who is a fortress in Dark Water, adventure review

By Phillip Loe
Chaptain Ahab's Leg
Levels 5-10

Persevering through years of sweat and failure, Mother Cordelia Giovanni of the Ignacian Monastic Order finally succeeded in her great work—the creation of a human baby whose spine, once the baby matured to adulthood, could open the lock of the massive black codex said to have been written by St. Ignacio himself in the age of mysteries.

This sixteen page adventure details an eighteen room temple full of lizardpeople and another eight or locations in the wilderness. There’s a kind of energy wrapped up in many of th encounters, inside and outside the temple, that speak to the creativity of the designer and good writing. It’s marred by several minor issues that most people would overlook but annoy the fuck out out of me because I can see th epotential in the adventure without them.

“Show, don’t tell” is common writing advice and “I grew a baby to extract its spine to use as a key” is a pretty fucking good job at showing rather than telling the nature of ol Mother Cordelia. The baby was given to a monk who is raising him in a village, to get him away from her, and she now lives in the swamps nearby, the local crazy wise woman. The party stumbles upon the village, burning, after a raid, the monk dying the church. Seems the boy was stolen by lizardmen.

Here there be commentary from yours. This is a fairly good intro. What the village is lacking is a sentence or two on the destruction, to bring it home viscerally to the party. It DOES have some dead villagers with “oiltoads” still in their mouths. (They charm you to make you eat them, they being poison, you die. Pretty fucking sweet monster and visuals!) Further, the adventure has a timer, 24 hours. After that a DIFFERENT crazy dude extracts the boys spine and uses it as a key to summon The Evil One (She who is a fortress in Dark Water, in this case.) But you don’t know there’s a timer. Timers like this generally work best when the party knows they are on one. These things are missing from the village, although, it does mention that from the highest points  in the village you can see a couple of things in the pointcrawl swamp thats the next step. That’s good design!

The wanderers both in the swamps and dungeon are good, if a little too frequent. One check every turn in the temple and one every 15 minutes in the swamp (it’s a pointcrawl, so one check every “move” to a new location.) A pit extreme for an OSR limited resources game, I think. Then again at level 10 … 10, is that right? That’s pretty fucking powerful in B/X. 

Treasure is a mixed bag, speaking of levels. The loot here is pretty non-existent, even for a group of level 1’s. Magic items range from +1 swords to a pair of toad statues that turn to life when you squeeze them and spit poison for you, etc. This is very strange to me. On the one hand you’ve got these great magic items, clearly unique, not really described in mechanical terms at all. And then you’ve got just generic book treasure thrown in (maybe more book than unique, not a lot of either for the level range.) The designer clearly has the ability to make interesting treasure, they should have followed through on that.

OOB for the main temple full of ilzardmen is lacking, except for a brief note about the guards outside. The map is CLOSE to being illegible. It’s hand drawn, which I’m fine with, but then artistic flairs are added, which reduces legability, as do the rather small and thick penciled number keying. And there are no windows on the map, in spire of one room having a giant window being its main feature. There’s not overview of the temple from the outside, what it looks like, beyond “The temple was once a magnificent testament to the god of the marshland, a god of death, purification, and rebirth. Neglect has turned it into a ruin.” This is a great example of a worthless description. It says nothing meaningful for the game at hand. There’s a guard tower, that you have to dig for to find and remember as the party approaches, not obvious at all.

Further rooms sometimes lead with the wrong information, like saying there’s a broken alter in a room whos walls are covered by giant red tick marks. The boy, strapped in to a machine that is extracting his spine, is not really mentioned at all beyond those words, or how to get him out of the machine, etc, except that in doing so you will probably kill him. 

And yet, this will receive a No Regerts. Because it IS creative.

Those frogs statues for example. Or white pillar emerging from a brackish pool in the swamp, the spawning ground of the oil toads! With a mummified body in the water at the base of the pillar, his face having the same features as the oiltoads … and having teethe that have turned to diamonds! The counting room, with its tick marks crude on the walls. Or, pit traps outside the village, dug by the lizardpeople to keep the villagers from escaping … a few of which have villagers in them, impaled on spikes. One of which is still alive with a broken foot, willing to lend a hand as they can. A giant stained glass window with light streaming through it that deals damage to the non pure of heart. A room nearby with a heavy cloak in it. A mural elsewhere in the temple showing an offering being made under the window. A hint! This is interactivity. This is design. The offering is made under the window, in the mural, but needs to be made at the alter in the (essentially) same room, so it’s not even spoon feeding the party. 

Creativity abounds in this effort. It just needs more of it, as well as some adjustments to real world running the adventure by someone who didn’t run it. Things, like the start in the village, are clumsy, overlooked, out of order, and so on. But there’s some good stuff in this. Smarter than your average bear Boo Boo.

This is free at the designers blog:

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5 Responses to She who is a fortress in Dark Water, adventure review

  1. Anonymous says:

    This sounds awesome! I cant wait to see what the author does next.
    Sounds like they got it! Information design word ordering and more show don’t tell and they are on track!

    Thanks Bryce this js great feedback for them

  2. Phillip Loe says:

    I’m honored by the review, Bryce 🙂 The feedback is extremely helpful–whenever I write anything, not just adventures, I try to keep you as the guiding voice in my head. I still have a lot to learn about writing, and this review has redoubled my will to write more. I will definitely keep your advice in mind for the next adventure!

  3. Man this is wholesome. You needed the win.

  4. Evan Rinehart says:

    For the uninitiated, OOB stands for Order of Battle. Which is some sort of guidance to the DM on how enemies in the area would react to an attack by the players. Ideally this would be something more sophisticated than wait in their rooms for the players to show up when it’s obvious they are already slaughtering their comrades.

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