Crypt of the Mellified Mage – Part 1

By Fiona Geist
Free League Publishing
Forbidden Lands

This eighty page booklet has four adventures from four well known designers. I’m going to review this one differently, doing one review post per adventure, in an attempt to give their fair due, something that I think is missing in my previous anthology reviews.

It’s hard to review anthology adventures because you’re dealing with different authors with different strengths. On top of that, you have the publisher, who inevitably has their own house style guide. It’s hard, therefore, to attribute any aspect of an adventure. Was it the designer making the choice, or the publisher, or an editor, or a layout person? And thus we have this thing. A series of adventures that share some similarities that we’ll attribute not to the designers but to SOMEONE ELSE. For example, the house style guide says “Read aloud is in italics” so all of the read-aloud is in italics. Multiple sentences in italics in this one, making them hard to read. And a weird font on top of that, exacerbating the problem of quickly and easily absorbing the information. This, alone, makes me groan as I struggle with the read-aloud. Maps for the adventures are buried in some random location in the adventure, making referencing them during play difficult. I generally print them out for my screen, so not a huge deal, but it goes to show that shortcuts were made on the usability of the adventures at the table. An afterthought. We do get, however, a nice isometric view of each map that adds quite a bit to their nature, making them evocative and easy to read and bringing life to an aspect of an adventure that is generally just a simple drawing. Very nice

Crypt of the Mellified Mage (Geist)

Our first adventure is a 35 room dungeon, a tomb like thing themed to the “honey wizard” that is buried there. Bees and honey and wax, Oh My! It runs roughly eighteen pages, with two of them being a fine isometric map and a small amount of artwork. 

“The Honied Catacomb gestates beneath the earth like a pustule waiting to burst.” Is the first actual non-italic line of the adventure, and serves as a good summary of what’s to come: some decent ideas with perhaps a bit too much Try Hard with the verbiage. The alternative being what it is, I’ll take the Try Hard every time, but Geist walks a fine line here, getting things right a decent amount and dancing over the line in to inflated prose enough that I worry about my already poor eyesight. That balance, however, comes with time and practice and things are moving in the right direction with Geist.

The first age or two is background and summary and, frankly, one of the poorest sections of the adventure. A summary is a good thing for an adventure, telling us how things will go and how things work together. But in this instance is a worded mess. There’s a rough paragraph that is trying to describe a village on top of the dungeon that is a complete disaster, not being clear and something I missed entirely in the first reading. Abstracted to “insular and weird”, it provides no real benefit to the adventure. Nors does anything else in these two pages, except for a note that there are three entrances and the air inside thick with loamy and faintly spiced sweetness. This then is the gameable results of two pages of hard fought words, the rest being not coherent enough, in organization or sentence structure (and I thought I was paren happy!) to hack through.

The map is a great one through. Spread over two pages we get a kind of 3d view of the system. It really comes alive in this format. I can’t say it’s to the benefit of anything, mechanically, the way it is say in DL1, but It brings the place to life in a way that few maps do. Streams, same-level stairs, columns and alters, you get a great sense of the place. It’s a delight to see and has more variety than the usual old boring  tomb or temple map. 

Geist is a good designer and decent writer, and that shows up, in both ways, in the adventure. There is a general level of over-reveal in thread-aloud that works against the player-DM interactivity of slow discovery that should be a hallmark of adventures. A sample (italics) of a longer read-aloud says “A small idol of a bee made of expertly worked topaz and onyx sits atop a massive, papery bee- hive.”

This one line, pulled from a longer section, is indicative of the small issues that combine to less than stellar effect. We get the generic word “small”, with over reveals of detail in the read-aloud telling us it’s a bee, it’s expertly worked, what it’s made of , and the papery nature of the beehive. Ideally this would be a more general, but still evocative description of a gleaming point of something or some such on a beehive, leaving the details for the party to discover as they interact with the room. In other places we also get a kind of abstracted text in places, described conclusions and telling instead of showing, such as rooms “echoing dramatically.”

But, Geist knows their stuff. We get great bursts of imagery like a visiting “yokel armed with a handaxe and a disproportionate amount of self esteem.” That’s great imagery and you know immediately how to run the encounter. That sort of description is worth its weight in gold. I would hold that sentence up against any other ever written in adventures design as an example of writing looks like when its at its best. Short and punches WAY above its weight class. There is also a decent amount of interactivity that goes beyond the usual staid traps and tricks, like a throne that tilts backpack when you sit in it spilling the person in to deeper part of the dungeon God, I love the classics when they are well done!

If I was not full of ennui right now (My bottle of Chartreuse was $70. $70! Can you believe it?! Why, when I was a wee lad of 19 it was only $20.)I would pick the FUCK apart the text of this adventure. Like “6. Embalming Room. A room for the preparation and mummification of corpses.” Well no fucking shit, you told us twice. Plus, you don’t tell the fucking players its an embalmbing room, you DESCRIBE an embalmbing room. This thing needed a fucking editor. I see from the credit that the CEO of Free League edited it. Well, I see your problem right there. 

This thing is hard. The rooms are good. The writing has points where its REALLY good. I mean, fuck, a room stuffed FULL of beehives with the droning an bees? Fuck yeah man! But the house style, and shitty editing detract a great deal from it. Yeah, ok, so, I’d pick this over 90% of the adventures published. But I also wouldn’t look forward to running it, because of the layout/style issues. 

I can see parallels here to North Wind. 

This is $10 at DriveThru.

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8 Responses to Crypt of the Mellified Mage – Part 1

  1. Commodore says:

    Sounds like a pretty well designed product, over all. Better than the baseline example in the Forbidden Lands core rulebook, at least. Strange to see a dungeon in what I think of as the quintessential wilderness adventuring ruleset. Good for Free League.

  2. squeen says:

    Wish the preview had the great map.

  3. markuscz says:

    The Forbidden Lands house style is atrocious. Typically, a single thing is described on several places (first the hook at the beginning, later the location, later the NPCs, later their actions), requiring MASSIVE page-flipping. If there is a social element – some NPCs wanting something or planning to do something – it’s all over the place. What’s worse, they’re obviously doing this on purpose.

    • markuscz says:

      The other, connected, issue is that sometimes they feel underdeveloped. Example: there is a location, several NPC and one traitor who assumed the identity of one of the other NPCs. “You decide whom he murdered and taken the identity of!” Gee… thanks! And then I have to think of all the clues and consequences myself. The choice changes everything drastically – that’s the designer’s work. I’m the one who’s supposed to do this? Not impressed.

      Shame really, because their writers tend to have some great ideas. They’re just a bit misguided as to what constitutes a good gameable adventure.

      • Bryce Lynch says:

        Yeah, this is going to be touched on a lot more in the next three reviews.

        • Evard’s Small Tentacle says:

          The issue w all Free League stuff. Some great adventure concepts collapsing on itself due to weird structure and half baked development. It’s a shame because some have potential to be classics in the intersection of plot based/location based adventures.

  4. Ray Weidner says:

    I think the FL House Style works better with the Raven’s Purge campaign (incidentally that name now reminds me of the subtitle from Mythic Quest). The Forbidden Lands is definitely oriented more towards hexcrawling than dungeon crawling, and all their locations (and those lovely, lovely maps) are more suited for it. In many of those vignettes, you could easily give your players an unkeyed version of the same map you’re looking at. I LOVE being able to do that. I did the same thing with my group when we ran through the Necropolis of the Palace of Unquiet Repose.

    • Raven’s purge suffers from the same issues as well- lack of cohesive overview and structure, disconnectedness which makes it hard to create linkage and lack of clarity between locations and plot.

      The less said about the entire Symbaroum the better…it’s like the entire line is covered with verbal diarrhea and vomit.

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