The Mad Alchemist

By Valleria Studios
Valleria Studios
Level 6

Oakheart, a once vital trading post, has been struck by a mysterious disease. Over the past month, Lord Ulric Von Vymarc, townmaster of Oakheart, has set out his men to look for the source of the disease and a cure to put a stop to the disaster. Yet they’ve failed to find any clue to what this might be. As the weeks passed, more people got infected to the point where most of the shops had to close. The town’s guard is undermanned as they’re falling ill themselves.Ships are starting to avoid the town, as rumors about a disease are starting to spread. More importantly, The Feast Of The Stars is approaching. This would be a major source of income for the people, as many from all over the land come here to pay their respects to the gods, feast and spend many of their valuables.  The town is already accommodating the first of many visitors to come. Yet most of them leave once they find out about Oakheart’s situation. Lord Ulric has sent out letters to renowned adventurers across Valleria to assist in this serious matter.

This 28 page adventure details a short little investigation in to a virus(!) and about eighteen rooms in the mad alchemist’s lair. It has some sparks of interesting encounters when it comes to the creatures, although the puzzles are a bit on the nose for my tastes. Still, for what it is it’s an above average adventure that shops promise, particularly in regard to creativity and formatting.

I was full prepared to hate this. $17 for a PDF is the reason I picked it up. Then, it’s got the generic title. The generic trope of an alchemist as an enemy. It’s 5e, and then there’s the trade dress. None of these give a favorable first impression. Generic background, generic “you can adapt this to your world!” information, padding to page six, and, at a quick glance, read-aloud that tends to three-four paragraphs long talking up a quarter to two-thirds of a page. These are all the symptoms of a bad adventure. And yet … it’s not really. Plus, there’s enough going on here to actually write a real review for a change

This is a virus adventure, with people in the town getting sick. I’m surprised that, given the pandemic, we’ve not seen more of these. You’re hired by courier, taking a ten day boat trip to the plague town to meet with the Lord Mayor. The ‘hired’ trope is not particularly well done, although there is a full page “fancy font” letter you can hand out. I love those. Props are a lost art and letter handouts are one of the last remaining. Anyway, it’s a little easy to get a plague town, breaking the immersion a bit and, most of all, a lost opportunity for some roleplaying efforts and scenes to set a mood. The “hired by the town” trope is boring as well, especially when just a hand wave as it is here. But, whatever, we’re playing D&D tonight. (And, I will leave unmentioned, the fact that the party arrives by ship in ten days and later walks only half a day to find the cause of the infection. Ug! Immersion again!)

It is, at this point, that things start to get better. A check-in line at the town, a sickly gnome at a desk wearing a mask, coughing in to it. A tavern with a sign that has a cat head sticking out of a caldron “The Boiled Cat.” Things are starting to look up! Further, the innkeep has a nice section called “What the innkeeper knows” laid out in an offset box with bullets. Nice! This trend continues for others people that the party are likely to talk to, at least within the bounds of the investigation play.

Let’s return, though, to The Boiled Cat. This simple thing, the naming of a tavern, is a degree of interesting content that is not usually seen in adventures, let alone 5e adventures. Not generic. It’s specific and not abstracted. This continues in other areas of the adventure. A delivery boy brings you supplies that you request, and he might keep some of it or charge more, etc, because his family is hurting. Again, an interesting interaction that can lead to more, either sympathy or annoyance with the boy. A young guard, Tim, worried about supporting his family, wanting work, wanting to not get sick or get them sick, torn between these things. This is not your usual generic shit, and, I think, works well because it effectively channels real world things in a way that still makes the game fun. It makes sense AND adds to experience in a fun way. The party can relate. 

The dungeon encounters are likewise interesting. Gibbering Mouthers as a failed experiment? Perfect! And they slither under doors! Even better, a fresh take! A grey ooze that looks like a rock. A treasure chest in a cell … that turns out to be a mimic. These all make sense as failed experiments, they surprise and delight and, for whatever reason, they are interesting takes on them. The party hearing a “slosh slosh” as a mouther stalks them on the ceiling. Specificity. Brief points of which shine like binding light in bringing an adventure to life. A flesh golem shoults “Freeeedoooommmm!” Every time it attacks. Great thing added to the encounter, you can imagine a tortured soul doing that. Also, it’s a clue that “Liberty” is the answer to the puzzle lock in the next room. Clever monkey. That’s good design. 

There are substantial downsides though.

I mentioned the long read-aloud, never a good thing. A substantial amount of information is communicated through diaries. This is almost always a bad decision, an easy crutch. THings are better when they are communicated more naturally, and, no, I don’t mean through the villain monologue. There should be more than enough possabilities, in an eighteen room lair, to get across the points made in the diaries. 

The plague is not very visceral. Like I said, its easy to get to town. There are not a lot of plague vignettes. There should be some cross-references, both from the lord mayor and the innkeeper, for plague information, so the DM can find that information easily when the party inevitable asks about it. Some of the plague victims in the infirmary have different symptoms than others. This would normally lead to follow up investigations for them … which are not provided at all. No, you get everything you need from the mayor int he first meeting. “My alchimist friend disappeared on Blood Cove a few days ago.” Uh huh. That’s the next step, allowing the party to skip the infirmary altogether. The town, the plague, the infirmary, they are all non-existent as far as the adventure is concerned, which is too bad, a serious lost opportunity. And only a Greater Restoration spell can cure people. There goes all the benefits of living in a magical ren faire world. 

The puzzles in the dungeon, though, are a low point. These are all pretty on the nose. A combination lock made of letters, level puzzle, and so on. The clues, likewise, are on the nose, with bits of paper left around with things like “CIRCLE = GOOD GOOD GOOD” and so on. Yeah, it serves a purpose, but its also about the easiest way possible to relate the clue and they show none of the creativity, either in the puzzle or the clues, tha the better encounters and NPC do. 

To finish up I’ll saw that the map tries to be artistic and it fails at that. Maps are hard, I get it. A simpler map would have been clearer. Or, at least a different color choice for the backgrounds which reproduce more clearly. There is a cute little art piece, masquerading as a town map, that I think gives the town a nice vibe though. It’s numbers, but I think it’s more art than map, unlike the lair proper. 

Not a bad effort for someone with no credits to their name! I’d run this before I ran a lot of other things, $17 or no.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $17. You can grab the entire things, obviously, but the preview is 20 pages also, giving you a good idea of what you are about to purchase.

This entry was posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Mad Alchemist

  1. Hakdov says:

    $17 for a 28 page pdf is insanely expensive. pass

  2. not anonymous but no cute name either says:

    Lets see. We’ve been living with a pandemic for over a year now and as an escape, lets play a D&D adventure with a virus ravaging a town. Gee, can we also play a D&D game where I go to work every day, get gas, go to the supermarket, pay my taxes, get a colonoscopy, eat dinner, and watch some TV? Sign me up!

    • nerrrval says:

      People process things in different ways. I used to run Top Secret at the height of the cold war, and most of my mission ideas came from watching the evening news. It was nicer to think about current events as adventure fodder rather than wondering if Reagan’s cowboy diplomacy was going to push us into WWIII (though then I guess I could’ve watched the news for Gamma World adventure ideas…).

      • not anonymous but no cute name either says:

        Yeah, but that makes sense for a Top Secret game. I might use old westerns as inspiration for a Boot Hill campaign or gangster movies or the Untouchables for a Gangbusters game. Haven’t we had enough covid to last a lifetime? Enough already

    • Anonymous says:

      You’re no hero . . .
      You’re quarantined, you’re stir-crazy, you haven’t got laid in a month, and you’ve cleared you’re netflix backlog . . . It’s time to hit the streets.

      Quarantine Crawl Classics
      A new adventure from the creator of Concentration Camp Crawl Classics
      Coming Fall 2021

  3. Anonymous says:

    Keep going author! Sounds like you have promise

  4. Jeff V says:

    I’m a big fan of unusual names for taverns. Names usually have a story behind them, so if you can get the PCs to ask “why is it called that?” you can give them some setting information in-character. I also like taverns that have one name on the sign, but pretty much everybody calls it something else (and I know of a few places like that in the real world). Pretty much guaranteed to generate some player interest.

  5. Jonathan Becker says:

    Yeah, I’m not TERRIBLY surprised that we haven’t seen more pandemic-inspired stuff because, really, isn’t it too soon? People ARE still dying, after all. People are still getting sick, still going to the hospital, still dealing with dead friends and relatives, etc.

    I’ve got a B/X supplement based on the old Realms of Chaos books that’s nearly ready for publication (still waiting on a couple pieces of art), and I’M worried it won’t go over well at all with all the “plague god” stuff in it…and I finished the text for thing in 2019 or thereabouts (artists take a while…). Never mind the adventure I was writing that showcases a disease-infested Keep on the Borderlands…

    No, man…it’s just feels too soon for this type of stuff.

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