The Book and The Spring

By Christopher Letzelter
Anachronistes Press
Levels 4-7

PC’s get more than they bargained for when they undertake a quest to destroy a recently-captured tome of black magic. Standing in their way are an unforgiving desert, a cursed and ruined city, an ancient tomb, and a dried-up spring. Oh, and lots of unexpected foes and tricky situations, of course.

This 52 page adventure is a Real Deal lost city adventure, with over 350 rooms, primarily in two large multi-level dungeons. It is also, I think, nigh-unrunnable without devoting a couple of weeks, or months, of your life to it, illustrating just about every surface-level bad design decision possible. A major, major overhaul of this would turn it in to a classic of the genre.

The parties intro to this is much in the same format as G1; the armies of light have been going at it against the Evil Dudes and a group have returned with an evil artifact, a book that is indestructible. While everyone else is off waging war against the moat house and temple, the party is given the task of destroying the book, which the seers say can be done in a lost city out in the desert. 

A lost city with the tomb of an evil king (multi level dungeon) guarding by some good pilgrims, fending off incursions of an evil cult who are lairing in the palace of the evil wizard (multi-level dungeon) with some outbuildings to explore, an underground passage out StoneSky, and a couple of independent entities in the ruins, like a dragon and lamia … as well as the usual hangers on of vermin, undead, deserters and so on. The two major dungeons have over 150 rooms each, meaning we get about eight rooms per page … in an adventure that is pretty much, front to back, nothing but encounter keys with only a little front and back padding. It’s got some light Sumerian theming, which drew me to it in the first place. (Fun fact: in a con game, revealing you have a brand of Gilgamesh means you always get to play Gilgamesh!) 

In a world of mini-adventure and four-hour complete games, this is a complex adventure. This is more of an expedition, and a hard one at that, more akin to Gaxmoor or other products. You’re gonna need to bring everything with you and plan to stay for a few weeks, I suspect. Cause this place is FUCKING HARD. While the majority of the human factions are 1HD fighters (yeah! Great to see that!) there are a wide variety of 4 and 5hd monsters, numerous, along with hard traps and the like that are going to make multiple forays in to plays a necessity. And then, of course, the factions may hit you back while you camp. Or that dragon may come by for a snack. (Ok, dragonne, close enough.) Wanderers, while tending to be generic desert encounters, are checked twice a day and twice at night … which may give enough time for some recovery.  While I usually prefer my wanderers with a little more life in them, somehow the generic desert stuff like pit vipers, dust storms and nomads, seems to work well in this environment. I think it’s the slower/longer playstyle with established party camps that can lead to better emergent play opportunities. I understand shorter self-contained adventures are the norm these days, but this shows one of the strengths of a longer game … and, in contrast, what you need to do in a shorter game in order to help recreate that emergent vibe the longer ones help foster naturally.

This thing is a mess, from a layout and writing viewpoint.

Read-aloud can be a quarter of page long, and in italics, leading to both usability issues for the DM and “another droning room description” for the players. It can be sprinkled with overly dramatic language like “you feel tiny, helpless, and uneasy, as if someone or something is watching you.” … which commits the sin of telling instead of showing. Ideally you want to write a description that makes the players think they are tiny, helpless and uneasy, instead of telling them they are … and “you” is almost never appropriate in read-aloud because of this. It further dips in to simulationist territory with a lot of exact dimension and detail in the read-aloud, instead of leaving that for the party themselves to discover and thereby contributing to tearing down that key game element: the interactivity between players and DM as they explore and discover. “Two open portals beckon in the north edifice.” *eyeroll*

It engages in that favorite device of the hard adventure: gimping the players. No divination spells, creatures turn as two levels higher, and so on. The party has earned their abilities and they should be able to use them as such. Figure out another way or accept that for every divination spell cast to gain an edge there is a fireball not being cast. It also engages in something more natural. The heat causes issues for fighters in full armor. “This module will be that much more enjoyable for the players if you enforce these armor penalties.” Well … not in my experience. I get it. It’s trying for a naturalistic nerf and there’s a little simulationst thing going on here also. But, simulationism is only good in as much as it helps with the suspension of disbelief. And while I’m generally supportive of these more natural ways to nerf a party (the wizards tower is on top of a 1000’ high tree, fly if you can …) I don’t think I have ever seen heat or cold handled in an adventure in a way that is both not cumbersome and fun. It has always come across as punishment for playing the adventure. And in a level 4-7 adventure that is already quite hard? It just seems grueling, the party are no demi-god levels of powerful yet. Fuck, they might not even have fireball.

It does also engage in some other questionable design decisions, like a sepia snake sigil. Well done, there’s a cobra drawing on the wall so its not a throw away, I still raise my eyebrows at anything that seems like it’s trying to use the rules to create a in-game effect, rube goldberg style. (That’s a normal noun now, right? I mean, you don’t have to use it like a proper name? xerox VS Xerox?) And, of course, the required “you can’t open the door until you defeat the monster nonsense. I can think of one random monster encounter in the desert, with vultures, in which if you kill a vulture you are cursed. Just out of the blue. Step on a crack and break your mothers back. If you’re going to do this sort of thing then you need some hints or some way to telegraph it, or make it a conscious choice. LOTS of vultures around, you’re starving, and you know that they are sacred to Old Asshole the Very Active God of Punishing People Who Fuck With His Sacred Animals. Otherwise, this is just an arbitrary negative consequence … again, punished for playing the game.

DM text is long and confused as well. There’s a mix of in-line stats and stat blocks. While I’m not religious about either, I do find that the inline stats in this adventure just make things all the harder to scan. It could be the formatting selected and/or fonts and bolding, parens, etc. It seems to break over multiple lines, three or so, which causes you to lose what’s going on in the room. Then there’s the embedded history and backstory of the room. One room with gnolls, states “Their previous employers were more interested in building a temple stronghold and magical gain; this group is seeking a greater financial reward, and will fight heartily to keep the little bit they’ve plundered and stolen . One of the gnolls has just recently been grabbed and eaten by the inhab- itant of 12.” Well, ok, that adds nothing to the encounter at all. But that sort of thing does make digging through a simple gnoll encounter in to a pain in the ass to scan. And while treasure gets a good treatment, it tends to be ALL treasure that gets this. Even coins. Like CP and SP. “each gnoll has pouches or folds holding …” and “that is valued at …” and tons of other padding that does nothing for the comprehension of the adventure. Nothing positive that is. Ug, and we get LONG empty room descriptions. Simulationist again, above playability. “If anyone ventures past the entrance with a light they will see …” Uh huh. Just describe the fucking room man. This turns a nice and interesting little jaunt through the desert around the walls of the city, filled with sinkholes, in to a painful affair you have to fight through in order to run it. 

A disturbing number of encounters, the vast majority I’d say, do something like “they will have just spotted the characters” or they surprise the characters. Or they are waiting for the characters or something like that. And this leads to the bigger picture.

This place is too complex with no help for the DM to figure it out. There are NO summaries of what’s going oin in these place. Order of battle is mixed in to room descriptions tens of encounters away. “Frank will gather his friends in #21 if he hears sounds of battle in room 2 and will respond by …” ARRGGG!! This goes in room 2, or up front as a general reference! You can’t fucking run someonething like this. In these hundreds of rooms bases/lairs/dungeons, you need a summary of what’s going on, where things are, how things might go and so on. Given the amount of padding, figuring it out for yourself is going to take a hard core week with a highlight and a fresh notebook. 

And, frankly, I’m not going to fucking do that. I’m not going to buy an adventure and then burn an absurd amount of prep time in order to run it. Sure, big adventures DO need some prep time. But not this much man. I like the maps, clean and interesting. The adventuring environment is at least as interesting as most adventures and more so generally. But the usability and evocative writing here is just terrible. Yes, evocative writing is hard, I will give you that. 

Still, I’m so close to giving this No Regerts. A real deal lost city adventure, an expedition that feels titanic and varied. But fuck, it needs a COMPLETE overhaul in its writings and presentation. 

This is $9 at DriveThru. It’s sold in a weird way, with the encounters in one PDF and you have to buy a separate product to get the maps and wanderer tables, appendices, etc. SO you HAVE to have both of them to run this. And yet they are sold as two separate products. LAME! And, the preview doesn’t work. *sigh*–Encounters–Sourcebook?1892600

Blah blah blah blah reviewing everything on my wishlist as a pretext to not actually write the main book blah blah blah balh

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4 Responses to The Book and The Spring

  1. Shuffling Wombat says:

    Are the PCs encouraged to hire a guide/buy a map from the locals before setting out in the desert? There is a chance to drop “killing vultures is bad luck” into the conversation.
    Do you think it is unfair that spells/magic items work differently in the abyss? And if not, might that not also be extended to prime material places of great evil? And that is before you consider that mighty sorcerers from the past had the chance to cast (limited) wishes, defensive spells etc. Players should be encouraged to develop a new set of tricks from time to time.
    Sounds like an interesting product. Does it have any playtest/campaign notes?

  2. Jonathan Becker says:

    Too bad about the execution. It does sound both interesting AND unusable.

    Have to say that I *really* dig the cover. Very, very nice.

  3. K9ine99 says:

    You seem like you almost dig it, but I’m not sure why based on the review.

    • Knutz Deep says:

      It’s clear he likes the concept but not the execution at all. I find a product like this intriguing because the content seems good. It just seems like from a usability standpoint the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.

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