The Bone Alchemist

By Gaz Bowerbank
Self Published
Levels 1-3

A missing prince, nefarious magical goings on and fantastical beasts combine for a thrilling adventure taking characters from 1st level through to 3rd. What starts as an innocuous pub brawl soon becomes an exciting adventure encountering all manner of creatures: living, dead and undead, before a showdown in a dark magician’s lair.

This 22 page “arabian nights” adventure (although easily rethemed to a traditional environment, IMO) has five main parts, two with mini-dungeons and most with more than one thing going at the same time. Delightful specificity and evocative writing help stave off the negatives of the formatting used. This designer gets the highest praise Bryce can muster in his life, even if the adventure does not: Gaz Bowerbank Is Not A Complete Fucking Idiot. I don’t know who suggested I review this, but, Good Job!

The spoiled young Prince Asshat is missing in Agraba and the party is on his tail, eventually finding him in the company of Lareth the beautiful. This takes place over five chapters, which really means five major locations with, maybe, a couple of things going on in each location. So, more than the usual scene based adventure, there is more depth to the locations and they are presented in a looser fashion than the typical scene based adventure would have them. Guidelines for the DM combined with GREAT specificity to help inspire them to run the game. 

And GREAT I do mean. The designer has a knack for using the right words to really make you excited about running the game. The writing immediately makes you understand what is going on and gets you going to run it. That’s a special gift, and, I think, the absolute hardest skill to learn in adventure writing. And the designer does this over and over and over again, in every paragraph.

For example, we get a little summary paragraph for each major NPC, supported by a few lines of “in character” voice dialog/quote. Prince Asshats quote is “Mother, am I not the wisest ruler that will ever be? Indeed it must be so! Then instruct my people that from now on camels are illegal, they’re too ugly for this land.” A boy of nie glorious summers, were told, dressed in the finest silks favouring cloth-of-gold, dabbed with fine perfume and smelling AMAZING. You know this kid. Instantly. You know how to run him. And EVery. Single. NPC. gets the same treatment. Not as tropy as the kid, but you still instantly recognize them and can run them, well, quickly and memorably. 

The local gang in the first location, the bar? “The Talons are a swaggering bunch of villains, whose own estimation of themselves far exceeds their capabilities. This doesn’t prevent them from gaining even more bravado by drinking heavily and loudly proclaiming their purported excellence to all and sundry. Dressed in various loose-fitting garments and adorned with tattoos and cheap jewelry leaning heavily into the bird of prey motif, they are hard to miss.” Fuck! Yeah! I can run that! 

Even better, the designer has included a little table, one for each of the major chapters, to spice some things up with local colour. For the bar, in chapter one, during the fight, there’s a table called “Events at Initiative 0”, which includes a Talon doing their signature move, diving from a table/bar/balcony all bird of prey style yelling Caw-cawwww! Yes, please, more sir! May I have another? The whole fucking bar is like that. Little words and phrases dropped, line after line, that build on each other to provide this rich environment that is GAME FOCUSED. The bazaar, chapter two,has a little table of words in the bazaar you seeing doing things. Let’s see, human, peddler, singing to, tabaxi,gang member. Go!  Feels like an extortion thing, “Dance, parder!” to me! 

The designer does this time and time again. The specificity, while providing guidelines to the DM on how to run the place. And to a degree much much higher than the usual adventure, 5e or no. And that is what, primarily, I’m basing my “Not A Complete Fucking Idiot” praise on. Zombie? No. Giant goat, rotting, with half its face missing? Yes!

Now let’s talk about what doesn’t work, big and small. And the big is a BIG one. 

There’s a wall of text thing going on in the descriptions. And I don’t mean a traditional wall of text, but, rather, paragraphs so dense and dripping with flavour that they can’t be consulted quickly. There’s SO much good stuff that it’s hard to pick something out to focus on, as a DM. Remember, what we’re getting here are very specific general impression information, supported by things like those tables offering specificity. So, guidelines to help run a situation, loaded with great detail, rather than the usual hand holding railroady stuff present in most of the DMsGuild adventures. In this situation you need to be able to have the stuff at your fingertips, ready to go to drop in. And that ain’t this. We get the traditional “words in a paragraph” format to dig through, meaning you need time to absorb it at the start of the situation, and fight through it to reference it during the situation. No bueno. My standard response here is “bullet points”, but I don’t mean bullet points when I say that. What I mean is “Some way to highlight information and make it easier to pick and reference during the actual running of the game.” Different word/sentence breaks, whitespace, bullets, tables, bolding, etc, whatever. This is a big deal in this adventure. Margin notes and a highlighter would help. The greatness is there, but not readily available. And that extends to the NPC descriptions I noted earlier.

I could bitch about lots of small things. A little intro to the situation could be useful; most are pretty easily understood eventually after a first read-through, but a little more emphasis up front on how the party got here and where they are possibly going in the various outcomes could be useful to help framing in the DMs mind, getting them pre-loaded to accept the information thats about to be presented to them.

There’s some hook-like information, one for each 5e character background. I like this idea, in concept, but as implemented here its probably the weakest part of anything in the adventure. It comes off as generic, having none of the characteristics of the specificity that make everything else in this adventure great. This is the Folk Hero hook: “As much as the people honour their royal family, they love nothing more than the tale of someone from humble birth who rises to the occasion and saves the day or raises themselves up. Ehsan knows the power of a good story as much as the next person, and actively seeks those with that special something to be part of his schemes, so he can tell tales of how he “discovered” them.”   That’s just generic shit, and, if there were a second designer listed I’d suggest this entire section was written by someone else, it’s so out of place/character with the rest of the writing in the adventure. The follow-ups at the end are also pretty generic and uninteresting and the maps … well, the maps are interesting. The room keys and a little sentence to summarize the room encounter are provided on the map, off to the side of the rooms with an arrow pointing to the actual room, for example. I don’t get this. Well, I do, I guess, at least for the summary. But again, they have none of the characteristic wit and evocative nature of the rest of the writing and do little to jog the memory, which I assume is what they are meant to do? And off to the side? Maybe for Fog Of War/VTT purposes? IN which case why not just provide VTT maps? I appreciate the exploration of new ground, or attempt to, in presentation, but I don’t think this works. 

But, great little adventure. A little rando in stringing things together. “Bar fight, marketplace questioning, dead kraken on beach/scavs, Dragon Turtle Village, and then Big Bad Guy We’ve Never Met Before on the Island. But, good specificity, and some notes and highlighting would do wonders. Or, I mean, the designer doing their job and doing it for us. 🙂

This is $5 at DMsGuild. The preview is five pages. You get to see the NPC descriptions and the first page of the start of the adventure/bar fight. Note the abruptness of the start and the great scene.

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8 Responses to The Bone Alchemist

  1. Stripe says:

    I’d love a little “fair-use” screen shot of the maps showing what you mean.

  2. whereismywizardhat says:

    My god, Bryce liked a 5e module. The world must be ending

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