Sparkless – 5e In-depth commentary

By Aviad Tal
Beyond the Screen
5e
Level 1

“I am sorry child. The world is unfair. You are not like the rest of them. And you never will be.”   Sparkless is a 5E adventure set in a world of spirits and filled with exploration, conflict and magic. This adventure is designed for characters of 1st level and should provide enough content for two or three game sessions. In this supplement, you will find everything you need to take your players on a dangerous journey through mist-covered swamps to unearth forgotten knowledge and save a lost child. 

This twenty page adventure details a trip through the swamps and in to a short linear dungeon to search for a kidnaped child. It has a nugget of something good and some relatable situations, which is a surprise, but is nigh unrunnable for the garbage padding of the DM text and cringey read-aloud.

Full disclosure: when you put “set in a world of spirits and filled with exploration, conflict and magic” then I’m predisposed to hate your adventure. I found, however, that the issue with this are more the mechanics of presentation rather than creativity, and thus I’m going to make more than a token effort with this one. 

This adventure is doing more than a few things right, or, perhaps, is looking at things through fresh eyes while hiding behind the tired old tropes of old. One of its strengths is the relatableabilty of whats going on. Things Make Sense. That is a harder thing to do than it would appear, in adventure writing. Tolkein, and fifty years of bad adventures, have tainted us all. But there’s a way of presenting information to the player, situations, in which they become more immersed in the game world rather than eye rolling as another old trope appears. What would happen if a dude really did kidnap a kid? Those things appear in this adventure and because of that the party will have a much stronger connection to what is going on. I can’t say enough how important this is to these sorts of “plot” based adventures. If we accept that they are going to exist then we must judge them by what they should be in order to accomplish what they want to. And this brings the relatability, in many way, to the situations.

A child born listless and not crying. A travelling healer comes through and can cure him. The worried family is full of anxious relief. Then the next morning a single witness saw the man rowing a boat across the river towards the swamp on the other site, having kidnapped the child. Fucking perfect! The fathers brother, his uncle, gets together a group of men and they pursue. Because that’s what your fucking uncle. He gets together a group of his buddies and locals and they go after the guy. The local “tavern” has people murmuring about the event. That’s how you learn the rumors, about Milo the grandon who saw the guy in the boat, and a fishman bitching about the guy stealing his boat. Gossip. People talking. Not forced. It makes sense. (Also, you learn that the lizardmen are cannibals from the fisherman, something that comes up later.)

And, those lizardmen. You come across their camp. They’ve captured the uncle and his group and ate one of them in front of the others. Fucking. Cannibals! Fuck! Yeah! That’s how you use a fucking a humanoid in an adventure! They are THE OTHER. Not in a xenophobic way but in a THEY ARE GOING TO FUCKING EAT YOU IN FRONT OF YOUR FRIENDS way. Savage! 

A fisherman rows you across the lake for free if you tell him you’re going after the kid. Because thats what you fucking do. Dad is full of self-hatred over what happened to his kid. Because thats what happens. Old beams hold up a ceiling slab, a trap, a classic trap! And on top if a gelatinous cube, because THATS WHERE OOZES HANG OUT, IN TIGHT SPACES. It maks sense. Both the trap and the ooze. This adventure was IMAGINED and then put down on paper. There’s no mistaking it. One of the treasures ia platinum encased elven skull. Because thats the treasure that a fucking wizard has in his old lab. Things fit. At the parents hovel a girl teases a boy with a big brown toad. That’s the kind of specific detail that adventures thrive on! Simple, evocative, relatable, effective.

The issues with this are three fold: bad read-aloud, verbose DM text, and missed opportunities.

Read aloud can be LOOONG. Multiple paragraphs. This is bad. You want to get in and get out in read-aloud, three, maybe four sentences. Much more and you start to lose the players attention as they listen to the DM drone on. Further, it’s done in that weird (second-person?) style. “As you tread on the soft earth” You spot a dozen fishing boats. And, worst of all, finishing with “What do you do” and so on. This is the sign of a fiction writer. Rather than addressing the characters directly you want read aloud to relate a general situation that the players can then follow up on with their own questions, enabling the back and forth between player and DM that is the heart of an RPG experience. It’s not a novel. It’s not a third grade choose your own adventure “Do you go down path A or path B?” Overly flowery text is a TRY HARD situation, to boot.

The more serious issue though, and what makes this adventure something I would NEVER turn to, is the lengthy DM text. Adventures are meant to be run at the table and for that to happen it must be easily scannable, the DM must be able to quickly locate the information they need in just split seconds. This adventure relies on the tried and tru customs of padding out the information with useless test, getting too specific with mechanics clogging up the text, and relating information in paragraph form. TO be fair, when you encounter someone you can question it does then switch to information in bullet form, which is great. Thats exactly the sort of thing you want to do. It’s easy to find what you need. You want to do something to the same effect for the other information, for NPC descriptions, and general situations. Not necessarily bullets, but making the information easy to scan and find. A lot of “conversatiuonal” writing, padding to no effect, gets in the way of this. Combined with multi-paragraph text for traps and encounters, its hard to scan. To be fair, almost every adventure is written this way, I suspect there is a template people follow and they look at what other adventures, bad adventures unknown to them, have done. You don’t need a fucking pargraph overly explained for a slab trap.

I would finish up with missed opportunities. Multiple times in the adventure there are things that happen that should get MORE, or be better. The village i supposed to be superstitious, but, while this is a key point in the adventure, its not really brought home in any way other than saying “the villagers are superstitious” But the man kidnapped the (soulless) child because of this. He pleads with the party to let him keep the child, on this basis. But its never driven home in the adventure. The lizardmen are great, but then there are kobolds in the dungeon, where the party goes to look for a soul for the boy. These come off as just generic monsters. There’s nothing to bring this home. Again, generic monster is what most adventure do but the designer clearly has potential, as the lizardmen point out, and brining this theming to the kobolds, something to tie them to alienness, would help cement this adventure as a good one. The village rescue party is not really mentioned much, if the party question the village about it, and they just come off as a little generic. In the end, the village gives a celebration in the parties honor, which is GREAT, but, again, a few specifics would really bring this home. The specificity and reliability that the designer brings to parts of the adventure are not followed through on. This would turn a soso adventure in to a great one if followed through on, and the world needs more great adventures and a fuck ton fewer As Expected ones. 

(Also, the art is generic and the maps, while VTT ones are present (GREAT!) are lacking. These are both HARD things to do, so I’m not dinging it for them, but its another are to improve upon, although the text should come first.)

I may spend the rest of the week picking this one apart, bit by bit. We’ll see.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is the usual generic “first seven pages” thing. You can get a sense of the designers strengths from it, as well as the weaknesses in presentation. That’s good, but it should also show a few encounters. Maybe a page of dungeon rooms, to give a prospective buyer an idea of the kind of encounters and writing style to expect.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/357132/Sparkless?1892600

Notes:

Art/Cover – The art is all pretty generic stuff. I’m not going to blame someone for this, but, I would note that it does little to bring home the specific situations in the adventure. It doesn’t help communicate the cannibal scene, for example, or depict a kidnapped kid in a boat or distraught parents. Ideally, art brings more to the adventure than just a way to break up space. I know, art is mucho subjective, so regardless of style, it doesn’t bring MORE to the adventure, to help with clarity or evocativeness. Generally I see art as an extra credit thing, except maybe in the cases of a hard to understand physical layout where it might be needed to add clarity to the environment. EG: isometric view of hill giant steading.

Introduction – There’s no need for this, it’s just padding. It doesn’t actually say anything. It seems minor, but if the designer spent ANY effort on this at all then they should have spent that effort in betterring the actual adventure. IE: I would be unlikely to mention this if the rest of the adventure were good.

Background – This could be condensed substantially. While the motivations are appropriate to include, there is a lot of padding that makes this feel like a ovelization. So while the baddie fearing for the parents reaction is good, a few days slater, promised to heal, wake up and so on is meaningless. Consense it. It’s not BAD, but it could be better.

Overview – Ok, but I would be a little more specific. Right now its just abstracted. I might mention some proper names in part 1, for example, so that when the DM sees them in the text they know to pay attention. This section, as well as the background, is meant to preload the DMs head so that their framing is ready to accept information. “Kobolds struggle with problems of their own” is an example of this. Be more specific so we’re ready to grok the info when we arrive at it. “Wheather the characters choose to …” is a great example of the conversation padding present throughout. Less flowery useless padding text.

Hooks – Pretty lame. Hired is boring. Relations are lame and why PC’s are hobos, so their relatives arent used to torment them. As it stands this is just boilerplate text. Any of these COULD be ok, tropes are tropes for a reason, but need a few specifics to cement them if you’re going this way.

Part 1 – Murkwater  – The first sentence is pure padding, offering nothing. The second hints at the village being cramped, and with drying racks. This is good in concept but the writing could be much stronger to bring this feeling home and cement it. A few extra words (and I do mean “a few” and rewording it, removing the first sentence and using that space, perhaps, to cement this vibe, would be in order. The second paragraph again starts with a useless sentence and again follows it up with something good, and that is important to the adventure as a whole: they are very superstitious. I might instead remove this entire second paragraph and instead use a sidebar, the way you did with the Spirits on the previous page, to list some vignettes, examples, etc. It doesnt have to be full on witchburning, but you really want to cement in the players minds that while the people are good, they will absolutely kill a kid that doesn’t have a soul. 

The read aloud is trying. Remove all references to “you.” Idon’t tread on soft earth, my character floats above the ground. It comes off as trying to hard to impart something. Describe it without “you” and character actions. Front load the good stuff. In the second paragraph you should lead with the mist, not the dozen boats, Leading with the boats cements the and then the effect of the mist is lost. Leading with the mist and then the boats gives us a misty environment with half seen boats while leading with the boats gives us solid boats in our mind, the mist a forgotten afterthought. “One struyctre looms over the rest” is again trying too hard. “A looming ramshackle wooden building” or some such would be better. Note the effect is much more pronounced in imparting the vibe. And no What do you do stuff. Ug. No YOU. Creaking pathways are good, but not under your feet. Thats something that can come through in the general description, that they creek and sway.

The DM text that follows has one good sentence, the first one. The goal is to investigate the village and learn abot the kidnapping. Good, you told the DM the purpose of this section. Be direct when giving the DM information. The rest is useless padding, including “i this part of the adventure.” Of course the noteworthy descriptions follow. That’s what they do, theres no need to say that.

The Hags Foot Tavern – No YOU, reword it. Emphasize the trinkets, lead with that. The door chime doesn’t really add much, if you can find a way to do it without a YOU then its ok. Are the stairs important to mention? “The last paragraph is very weak. Reword. Huddled groups, staring for a long time at the players, thats good. Having a meal and quietly conversing doesn’t really say anything important AND its not evocative enough for scenery purposes. 

The DM text is hard. You’re trying to a few things, none done well. The scene setting of the has foot, the preoccupation of the villagers with the situation, dont like troublemakers (which is better than adventurers. Mercenaries is even better) and Talk to Vranics. The Hags foot is too muddled, it needs grokking quicker, and the other details are buried. Bullets, or even selected bolding, would make this easier, or something like that. You want to convey gruff preoccupied villagers, the next breadcrumb, and the evo scene. The hags food thing is EXACTLY what I’m talking about when I say specificity trumps detail. 

Rumors: The first paragraph is padding. Milo’s thing is too fact based, with no personality. The fisherman is pretty good, he has personality, I know how to run this in an interesting way because of it. Sasha is really good. I’m a bit perturbed, I think these work better with an NPC personality and information, bulleted for example, to convey, in response to party questions. The direct quote thing works better, I think, for overhearing things at another table, for example. But, it’s a minor point because these are both brief enough to not matter. “What does he look like” is a natural question, and not be found here, or in the description of Leszek in the appendix, you have to hunt for it. Again, a sidebar, or putting a BRIEF description in the appendix description would be in order, so the DM can reference it quickly.

The Hovel – No YOU!!!! Low deck mud porch is a good idea, but could be described better. The garlic charm is good, and maybe thrown in another to cement the superstition? The crates add little, the way they are currently described. Not “You notice” but “Two small children sit on the deck, with the girl holding a fat brown toad with both hands, repelling the disgusted boy with it” or some such. A quiver hit. More direct. The toad thing is GREAT, good specificity and relatable.

Point towards the door/reside within the hovel are redundant, you don’t need both. The mess inside and cramped space isn’t emphasized enough. The couples states are good, but should be condensed and easier to find, maybe a sidebar. (As a note, both sidebars so far, the Spirits and Sparkless, contribute little to the adventure. They could be in the appendix with sidebars replaced with useful information for running the adventure AT THE TABLE) Motivations of the parents are great, and relatable. The questions bullet points are great, they make it easy to find information. As before, there are two schools of my thinking here, do you keep the facts as facts (as you have here) and augment it with the couples (EASY TO FIND!!!!) personalities, to bring it to life, or do you embed some of the couples personalities in the facts? I might walk the line and insert a few extra words in the facts list to bring them more to life, much in the same way that I appreciate rumors being less fact and more “in voice.” You’re gonna face the Leszak issue again, what does he look like, where does he live, etc. Same for the search party. Good motivations/relatable with the uncle. That could all use a bit more. 

Quest – Maybe not so explicit? Whatever, him pulling the party aside and grimly stating it, while his wife weeps or is stoic, would work better. The whole Katarina/Rodovan, her pinning her hopes on him, etc, could be done better … because it’s good.

Investigating – The first section is just padding. The out of place flowers wont be a god clue unless you make the description of the hove make them seem really out of place, which it doesn’t currently do. The investigation is, in general, very weak. There are no real consequences to this, positive or negative. Maybe if he went to light a cable, later in the adventure, when the party meets hims, or some such. I’m not sure its worth including if its not very impactful to the adventure (the investigation, that is)

Whats Next? – The fisher thing is good. An extremely basic map, showing the village in relation to the swamp, would be good. SOMETHING to point the party the right direction other than “he took a boat over the river”, like channelling them in the right direction. An abandoned boat and light path on the other side, a VERY crude pier on the other side, SOMETHING.

Part 2 – Ug, this is a mess, talk about wall of text! The first sentence is good, the second say-nothing padding, and the second paragraph should be part of the first.

Travel in the Swamp – Everything is padding until Tiny Motes. Serpentine islands doesn’t really stand out, and I think you want to emphasize the tangle of trees and bushes more. In fact, the three descriptive sentence (Tony motes, Rainbow, Serpentine) come off weird worded and non-evocative, maybe turn them around Fireflies dance in the air <blah> pool of deep water <blah> and so on, to put the main subject first? As written this doesn’t come off as very concrete or evocative, even though the wors are very much trying. Maybe bullet out the survival rules. You’re transition from evocative description to Mechanics of Play, so making it easier to find would be in order. Or maybe another offset box/table, etc. “Consult the wilderness table” is redundant. We all know to do that. The “normalls the characters” sentence should be up with the rolls section, keep the rules tightly together and consendde things down; there’s FAR too many words for the mechanics involved, its not easy t grok at a glance.

The encounters are not very good. The stirge are ok, and the concept of injured ghouls is good, but you should concentrate more in what they doing/how they encounter the party/a description, etc, rather than the reason behind why they are here. That’s useless backstory and you want to enable play at the table more directly. It should be obvious how to do this with the stirge, ghouls and alligator, the vines, ug, idk how how you convey that. The cockatrice “not normally on their diet” is padding, but the hint of aggression is good. I think youre DC 1 check here is a roll to win thing, but I get what you are doing. Try to turn these in to little potential energy vignettes.

Lizardfolk – The first paragraph is useless. The second could be ended with “and are currently held captive by them” and that’s it. Read-aloud – No “as you tread” nonsense, and don’t include the “as if something was dragged along.”  Thats something for the players to discover as they investigate it and go back and forth with the DM, the heart of D&D. It should be obvious by now, but, no What Do You Do CYOA text.

The FIrst paragraph of DM text is ok, You could use some highlighting but, whatever. I might mention rippling water in the RA, to give a clue to the lizardfolk for smarties in the party who pay attention. That’s a better way than letting a min/max’d character sheet dictate outcomes. That last paragraph can be condensed greatly to “if the party skips it killed, blah blah blah” 

The LizardFolk Camp – I  might move the “if they follow” stuff to the previous section, and, not include “if they follow” but rather state that The trail leads to the camp.

Read-aloud – The smell of smoke hanging in the air os overly flowery and smacks of failed novelist syndrome. Just note there is the smell of smoke in the air. No “you reach the outskirts, just a couple of huts surrounded by a wooden stake palisade, with the glow of a lrge campfire in the middle. And don’t say that there are three humans. Geez … again, let the party inquire and sneak about to find this out. Don’t reveal everything in the read-aloud. You want to hint at things, at best. And don’t use the word lizardfolk to describe them. Actually describe them. Let the party draw their own conclusions, otherwise you’re’ turning mystery in to the mundane. “Oh, it’s page 123 of the MM2.” 

The capture sidebar text is long. The bullets are good but everything above the 0hp thing is padding. That last sentence is redundant also, since it copies the one before it.

The first paragraph , with the numbers, is very bad and conversational and redundant, just note the How many there are and where they are. Why did you give the guy a name? Is the party going to learn it? No, they are just going to stab him ,right? Just note where they are … meaning that the first sentence is redundant. The second paragraph is ok but the third is full of conditionals and redundant with the second sentence. The last paragraph/sentence is good, but, again, that group needs some character. Name, two words of personality or something. Rather than having them all anxious to get back, some other motivations could be nice, like hacking up the dead lizardfolk, or wanting to go with the party. At least the uncle, who presumably still wants to find his brothers kid? That last section on “if the camp was cleared” is ok, I guess. I might just note what they are worried about and let the DM handle it instead of giving full on advice on they do this and then they do this, like its written. Again, the trauma part  is good, but without personality, and more interesting consequences, it’s de rigueur generic D&D, and you;ve proven you’re better than that.

Treasure – First sentence is just pure padding. Why do you feel the need to explain and justify everything? Just note whats there. Whats the horn carved with/in the shape of? Ideally, it makes the PLAYERS say “cool!” and want to keep it/use it. Note how you did with the chalice, the horn needs the same treatment, not just “carved.” Instead of your generic art I might have put in a picture of the chalice; climbing snakes is better than nothing but maybe something like you drink from snakes mouths, or something like that. For extra credit, put both in the appendix with a one or two sentence note on who they belonged to and how that can lead to more adventure. 

Leszek’s Hut – The first sentenc is padding. The second is ok and the third again is padding. Generally, from now on, consider me complaining about any use of “You” in your read-aloud. The knee deep mud is good, but inappropriate because your’re using it in the failed novelist sense. Move it somewhere else, the lizardfold or the dungeon maybe. A faint light barely cuts through the mist blah blah blah. And none of that illuminated by the hearth that burns within. Its overly flowery and the party doesn’t know that from outside. 

You don’t need this mental alarm stuff, you don’t need to justify things. Just note that when they approach the door creaks open and he says “blah blah blah”

None of this remains open and inviting stuff. Of course it remains open, just like the characters continue to breathe. The description is here, buried in the text where the DM will never find it. Either sidebar it somewhere int he adventure or put it in his description in the appendix; either way it will be easier to find. It’s kind of a generic description, which is ok I guess. The eye thing is good. FIlled with herbs and baubles is a fact based description, not an evocative one, it should be better and give some sort of impression. Lots of herbs hanging from the ceiling to dry, baubles (be more specific) everywhere, etc. The fire/hearth/warm thing is not good, but itself, maybe note a cheery fire burns lighting the herbs hanging from the ceiling,e tc. The crib/bed thing is a good concept but poorly described. Why make a DC check here? Just to make the party roll dice. Make the kid obviously sick, and not sick, or ill, but listless and pale. Sick and ill are abstracted terms, put in something concrete to bring home the illness. Listless and palid, for example, or something like that. Let the players then draw the conclusion that the kid s sick.

Roleplaying Leszek – Noone cares about his backstory. What we care about is how to run him right now. That means that virtually everything up to the bullets should be cut. He deciated his life to service to others is ok, as is studying the spirits, but, they should really be focused on the interaction with the players. How do these things cause him to interact with them? THATS what important, how they lead to play at the table, not his general lifestory. He’s also pretty generic, there are no real personality tips to him at all. Bitter? Caring? A doormat? Give him some character. Lezsek wants to sentence is ok, but you don’t need the second sentence, the last one before the bullets. Again, the bullets are fact based, and ok, but it would be better if his personality was somehow inserted in to them. 

Quest – Uh … what doesn’t HE do that? Because the kids in danger? That’s a PERFECT example of how you should embed his personality in the bullets. It comes off as boring as currently described. The staff treasure would be more interesting if it were telegraphed, like, its constantly dripping icicles as he holds it or something. Something to make the party go OOOOO! COOL! I WANT IT!!!! And THEN he offers it to them. 

Fighting Leszek – LAME! If they kill him they kill him. Why are you dictating what the party should and should not be able to do? Just make him a dude and let the party kill him/take the kid if they want. He’s explained the situation, the party gets to make an informed decision, not be railroaded in to something tha the designer thinks should happen because they didn’t play his adventure the way he wanted them to. Just put in the conclusions part what the repercussions are. Fuck it, just make him level 1, or 0-level. Making him an uber-mench takes away the parties freedom of choice. And that is the worst sin possible for a designer.

Leszeks Secret – Ok, not bad, but, impossible to grok. Shorten this, bullet or bold it. The truly cares for thing is good, it might stop me from killing him if I learned he was hiding something, as the roll would indicate. Why is he being evasive? Just have him lie. This entire section needs to be shortened A LOT. Further, by including this, you are setting him up for a confrontation with the party. One which you explicitly rule out in his FIghting section. Which is it? I like the idea of him insisting, but if you make him L1 or L0 then its a much more interesting situation. The party CAN use force … will they? Or will they take a harder path?

Whats Next – The Even if stuff could be condensed a lot and easier to scan. There is a lot of information here and it doesn’t scan easily. It’s padded out and could be handled much better.

Part 3 Zevak’s Sanctum – Padding until you tell us the kobolds live here. Three of the items sentence … is probably not needed/can be condensed. The items needs a cross-reference to the room number they are in. “Found in the hoard of the kobold queen” is not needed. The wonder/wrath/valor thing is ok, as an introduction to what is coming (just like mentioning the kobolds.) “Character holding” needs to be called out more. Bolded words, bullet, offset box, something. Your “break the object” is a bit wrong; they have to be close to the kid, right? Who is back at the hut, right? So if I break it in the dungeon I skip to the conclusion also? IE: you don’t need this sentence at all.

General Features – Light would be better shown by some shading on the map. I might move the “collapsed/stone/earth” bit to a note on the map itself, so the DM is always reminded of it. Same with the doors. “Iron handles and hinges” is good. I might mentioned rust also. I’m looting those crystals; how much are they worth and how many are there? IE: put the important evocative stuff ad notes on the map page so the DM is always looking at them. The rest, the floor, the light, etc … not really interesting. I’m not even sure why you mentioned it. Because that’s what other dungeons did? It’s its not important, and it’s not evocative … then why are you wasting the DM cognitive space with it?

The Map – Maps, like art, are hard. I’m going to be critical here, but, almost everyone gets a pass on maps as long as they are basically legible. That said, learning to map well, like complimentary art, can add a lot. The map squares are essentially illegible, which is ok, since this is more “relation to each other” rather than “exploratory” map. Most of the details ate too small to make out, but the numbers are clear. The red used for the T really hurts my eyes and makes me strain, even though I know they are there. Annoying, I guess? Although I’m not sure your details would add a lot? It’s trying to be evocative, but isn’t really doing that. I appreciate the include of the blanks/VTT stuff, a great nod to usability/catering to the DM/purchasers ease of use. The reason you included those maps is the exact same reason for all of these other changes – to make it more useful for the DM. I’m not even sure you need that map in the adventure (see room 2 being split over two pages.)

Dungeon Design – 

  1. The RA description is not evocative at all. Don’t say the fountain is empty, let the party ask and the DM tell them. You don’t want to discourage the back and forth between player and DM by over revealing in the RA. Noting the beams/ceiling is a good hint for the players to follow up to look for the trap. It’s also REALLY obvious. Ideally your hint/description is not that obvious, but, better this than not doing it. You put a T on the map. You tell us the hallway has a trap placed by the kobolds (who cares they were the ones that put it here, anyway?) And THEN you have the boiled pressure plate thing … maybe yo don’t need to tell us three times that there is atrap? IE: cut the “hallway contains a trap” sentence. And you don’t need to tell us that the map shows us where, that’s obvious. Two sentences describing the trap is a bit much. “10 food long slides” is iverexplaining it. It’s a Beams, holding up a slab, thats good. I might say stout beams holding the thing square slab. IE: descriptive but not the over explaining thing you have. Your next paragraph, about detecting it, is good. Good play notes, but way too long, which means I both like it and don’t like it. Work at condensing the text while not loosing the specificity for actual play at the table.

The cube thing is GREAT. Of course cubes live up there! The various bones and whole kobold skeleton is good, you should emphasize that more, the “apart from” thing minimizes it. 

  1. You don’t need to note the doors/exits in RA, the map shows the DM that. You note statues and furniture in the RA, but not in the DM text. Players will want to investigate them. A sentence or two would be appropriate. You note that the kobolds will ALERT the others, but then you put that in the DEVELOPMENT section. Maybe change it to ALERT, with the ALERT bolded up above. One part reference the other with the same keywords bolded. It’s also a lot of words to say that. Work on cutting it down. Dusty floors mean the players will want to follow the tracks, but you provide no guidance. Cut the dust or provide the guidance. Filing centipedes is good. “Mechanism” is boring though, a big spring, or something. See how “a mechanism flings” and “a coiled spring flings” is about the number number of words but one is generic and one specific? Always shoot for specific, and you can see also that it doesn’t really take a lot more words to be specific. Me, i’d also mention IN THE FACE, because its more fun that way. 🙂  I both love and hat the PER roll to detect the trap. The effect, something is moving inside, is good. But it feels like a roll to win. If they search, or look closely, I’d let them roll. Or, even if they just took more than one look at it, ie, they spent some time doing it. So…where do the stairs go? The Development is good (a little sly humor like “elected a few seconds ago” is a good thing for the DM) , but …   You’re misusing the kobolds, I think? Unlike the great cannibal lizardmen, these have no real personality or anything going for them. Comic relief? I thought goblins played that role? ANyway, I’m open to different interpretations, and know tastes vary. I just can’t help think that, tonally, you’re off base here. Monstrous cannibal lizardmen .. and comic relief kobolds? I love being able to talk to monsters in the dungeon, but, I don’t know, this just seems like the kobolds are all wrong. Wheres those bullets for what he does and knows? You include that all other times you talk to someone. I might stick a bolded “Tactics” or something in front of that last paragraph. Also, this is minor, but, bad form splitting rooms across a page turn. 
  1. You’re overexplaining again with where the two side passages lead before the party gets there to look in to it. Light has a radius, right? That’s a lot of words for the blade trap. Reduce/condense. In OD&D a trap was like six words long, AT MOST. I’m not saying you have to do that, but three pargrapghs is a tad excessive here. 
  1. In exploratory D&D empty rooms, like this one, serve a purpose. This is not exploratory D&D, this is plot D&D. So why do you have this room? Because the kobolds need food? Thats lame. Stick something interesting it, or something evocative, or I guess just leave it te way it is Boring and serving no purpose. Also, its a pretty nondescript descriptions. How about livening it up a bit if you’re going to keep it? Mushroom rooms are a stable of D&D. FUll of magic and wonder. Or, like this one, boring.
  1. Can be convinced is pretty lame. By what, food, money? Welcomes you, no YOU and no Welcomes you. I might also have some smoke coming out from under the door/peephole, since presumably they dont have ventilation. I’m not one for sumulationsit stuff, but a smokey room could be interesting, in visibility and effects. Dash is lame, stampede, etc, is better, Give some vision to your descriptions. This whole thing is pretty boring, for what should be something interesting. A few words about the kobolds, lizardmen, or baby would be in order also, on the different possibilities. Something 
  1. Pretty bland, overall, with little joy in the queen or the encounter. The orb needs to have a visible spirit moving around inside of it, that would be a nice temptation for the party to see beforehand, either to kill her or do the quest. The painting is boring, the treasure boring. The Developments and Secret tunnel are too wordy … This is one of the most generic rooms in the adventure. Diaries are boring. It’s the example of telling instead of showing. Ideally, this information is conveyed through play.
  1. Blood and rotted meat is good, i might even make the floor slick with congealed blood. “A variety of …” is generic abstracted text and not the specificity you’ve brought to other places. This is a great place to have a mimic, good placement. The creature section is a little long. “The kobolds hunt” is unneeded backstory. This all FEELS a little too organized for kobolds. I
  1. Meh, I might mention wasp hives or something like that instead of a crate full of insects. Being more specific. This “insert your own dungeon” stuff was common in older adventures. I don’t see it adding much here, and “where did the kobolds come from” is not a problem that needs a solution. Note that unlike the other rooms, like the mimic room of the slab trap, you’ve not done much with the trap here. A crate, appearing out of nowhere. It doesn’t all fit in together.
  1. “Armoured figure” is generic and boring. Gothic? Something is needed. FAR too many words in the creature section. Why limit this to the diary readers? Make it glow a little, people love figuring out things, it makes them feel smart. 
  1. “Contraptions” is abstracted. It comes off as just generic room lab description instead of a place of wonder. You’ve hidden the scale key behind a roll, why do this? Why not let the party just figure it out. The pathways paragraph is not needed at all. The vault section is WAY too long. “Aside from the …” is conversational, to be cut. “If you attempt” is conditional, reword it without the conditional. The elven skull is good and the sagger description not bad. 

Conclusion – In general, I like conclusions. Followups help show the consequences of the parties actions and provide for great campaign immersion. The roll with advantage thing is good.  I think you need a little more on the Great Celebration, really bringing home the parties status as local worthies at least for the next month or so. Some notes about the kobolds, lizardfolk, and baby/family also, noting the various outcomes. Do this with an eye towards the party. How will THEY experience the impacts, even second hand, or hear the news? 

Treasure – Boring descriptions and too much emphasis on mechanics. “Green aluminum orb” is a boring description. The dagger has no description. The staff has no description. These are all just boring character buffs. They bring no wonder to the game. Instead they concentrate on mechanics, the most boring part. Better description, something that makes the PLAYER want it, and fewer mechanics. Don’t describe effects in terms of mechanics. I know, it sounds weird, but its better to allow some interpretation. 

Monsters – (I assume these are all copied straight from the book, and thus the sins are the originals books and not yours? These almost universally lack a description, fun initial attacks, and rely far too much on justifications and backstory, which are useless at the table.)

Vine – Again, a non-complementary art piece for the Vine. “Hangs on tree branches.” This needs a better description, something to bring it to life, and something better than “grabs you with vines” for the initial attack. 

Leszek – See notes throughout about description and personality. What IS resent here is all useless backstory. No need for the justification, just get in to what imp[acts at the table.

Kobolds – “Tactics & cunning!” This is in direct opposition to the comic relief way they are being used in the adventure. And, no description.

Animated Knights – No description

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14 Responses to Sparkless – 5e In-depth commentary

  1. Damn, entering the waxing moon phase. They got a good cover though.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Imagine reading this as the author

    YOU GOT THE TOOLS NOW CREATE GOOD STUFF

    I m watching your next move

    LETS DO THIS

  3. Gnarley Bones says:

    Such an evocative cover. Someone’s back. The tension, the symbolism. You can almost spell it.

    You … hired an artist with *actual* ability, and this is what you asked them to make?

  4. Stripe says:

    Bryce, is this what you offer as an editing service?

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      This is a stripped down version of the editing service. Which I stopped doing because at $20-$20/page it just wasn’t tenable. At that price, for designers, and at a cheaper price, for me.

  5. Anonymous says:

    >blaming Tolkien for bad fantasy
    Finna cringe over here

  6. Jonathan Becker says:

    Is it funny that I initially thought the title of this was “Sparkles?”

    I like your editing notes, Bryce…I’m tempted to purchase the thing myself, just to rewrite it using your advice (as a mental/writing exercise, mind you…nothing more). If only it wasn’t 5E…though I suppose converting it would just be part of the “exercise.”

    $10 huh? I’ll think about it.

  7. Mattie Omega says:

    Man I think you are WAY too harsh in the way you criticize this adventure! Most of the points you make are valid but holy cow the aggression and condescension dripping from your voice would discourage many emerging adventure writers from trying again.

    You acknowledge that this writer does a lot of things really well but then completely shit on things you also acknowledge as relatively standard. This is the first time I’ve found your blog but if this is how you write all of your reviews I wonder what your motivation is because it certainly isn’t to inspire more people to write unique adventures, it’s to make those creators feel bad about work they are proud of.

    • Reason says:

      I’d say it’s more frustration at the endless dross being churned out as adventures that make the same mistakes we’ve been seeing for decades now, instead of improving as a format & helping DM’s out… the formula is lazy, it can be improved. Some people are doing it.

      When you put work out there & sell it, it becomes subject to discussion & review.

    • First Time Commenter says:

      I have literally read one post, have admittedly no idea what the context is, have been in this hobby for a month and agree that your points are all valid. However your use of beligerent language has frightened and outraged me and you must therefore change it immediately.

    • Alex says:

      “I wonder what your motivation is”

      Uh…how about providing guidance to consumers so they can make better decisions about what to spend their time/money on? That’s typically the primary purpose of reviews.

    • squeen says:

      Mattie you are offering up a “mom’s defense” of this product, but it’s really not necessary. Bryce is not picking on your child, he’s just doing his job. This is the same criteria he applies over and over to every product. He has a unique and valuable viewpoint that’s applied fairly across the board.

      What’s more, this review got the deluxe treatment—the kind of feedback Bryce used to charge $200-$300 for—for FREE!

      Rather than be defense, use the valuable critical feedback to your advantage.

      Bryce is your best friend BECAUSE he doesn’t pull his punch the way your pals and relatives might. He gain nothing from being mean…which he isn’t. But he is blunt, which we all appreciate because time is precious.

  8. Bigby's Affirmative Consent Lubed Fist says:

    Bryce, I’ve got a totes het mancrush on ya (well, maybe 98% het), but you conflated ‘cannibal’ with ‘anthropophage’. Cannibalistic lizardmen would eat other lizardmen.

    Yeah, this is one of the few things that triggers me.

    • Reason says:

      Now I’ve got the adventure all backwards, I’d assumed Bryce was correct & theyw ere eating cultists who identified as lizard folk. (and it’s- folk, they)

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