By Marcos Lopez Self-published 5e Level 4
The Orb of Goodbyes is a magical item blessed with the power to extract and erase memories from a willing creature’s mind. When a Waterdeep lieutenant retires from military service, she seeks the Orb to forget a dangerous memory. Those who help procure the Orb from an enchanted cave discover the secrets behind this magical artifact and unearth its hidden memories. The adventurers may then decide whether to deliver the Orb and help the veteran find peace, or use the item themselves to release burdens from their past.
This twelve page adventure has a small cave dungeon with seven rooms and three encounters, using four pages to do so. It’s neither as pretentious or as padded as the blurb or page count would indicate, and does a good job with specifics … when it goes there …
I’ve gotten a series of requests for 5e reviews lately. I don’t mind, and, in fact, am pleased that the 5e crowd is paying more attention to adventure design. But, also, I may have discovered why. This adventure is the designers first that they’ve ever written. Yeah! And, it comes from the Storyteller Collectives ‘Write Your First Adventure’ Workshop series. Ok, so, first, I throw up in my mouth a little every time I hear the word Storyteller, but, it probably comes the cynicism embedded in GenX. Who am I to shit on the younger generations Shining City On A Hill? Anyway, Marcos, congrats on your first adventure. Now, let’s rip it to shreds.
The adventure is not as pretentious as it might seems. “Unearth a haunting memory and discover the power to forget …)” says the marketing blurb on the cover. That really is the worst of it, by far. Reading that primes me to hate something, with memories of every edgelord adventure ever flooding back to me. But, it’s not that bad and it treads lightly on those issues … just barely enough to evoke a hint of it but not wallowing in it Well, ok, no I lied, it does get pretty close to the eye-rolling line with “two soldiers who have a memory from their past that they want to forget.” Again, hints of the edgelord, right? And it’s certainly true that my midwestern D&D values tell me that if you feel compelled to put a trigger warning on something then you probably shouldn’t be using that idea. Except … in this case the retired soldiers want to forget where they buried an evil amulet to no one can scry them and learn its location. It’s not actual trauma as much as its something more mundane. But that’s not what you thought, was it? Two soldiers, forgetting a memory? Yeah, we all know what the fuck that implies. And thus, a trigger warning … and some (brief) suggestions in the appendix on how to massage things to change the soldiers to something else. The inclusion of the soldiers brings to the forefront what that IMPLIES, but the adventure never goes there … leaving the vibe but thats it. It’s an interesting design decision (assuming it was one.)
The cave involves three memories from people who have used the orb … and one of them is a sad one. Young gnome sits on the edge of a forest stream crying, waiting for er friend to join her … who never did. Holy fuckballs, sad! The gnome needs the parties help deciding what to do, continue her journey alone, go home, or something else. Is a lost child a bad adventure design choice? No, it’s a trope. But here the similar scene is being framed and presented in the context of a memory someone wanted to forget … with all the baggage it implies. This should cement the power of framing a scene in every readers mind … it’s a very powerful technique.
Now, I’m not suggesting that watching Precious is a fun time, but, I think we can allow just a little real feels in our game. I’m sure this is an interesting moment when groups encounter it … and its probably on the edge of the line, about to cross over to indie game nonsense, But, not over it, and bringing more to the table than the usual low-effort fantasy trope crap.
The designer also has a talent for an imagined scene OUTSIDE of the generic trope. There’s a tendency to just say “The village is having a celebration!” and leave it at that. Abstracted. Terrible design and writing. But here the designer does a little father. The town square is a dirt lot. The locals are having a community potluck, wooden tables and rough benches, a dancefloor, a handful of ok music performers. That FEELS like a real community event, doesn’t it? A little shitty, a pitch in, people just doing their best. And the stables, overflowing with horses and empty farmers wagons parked outside every which way. Or locals confusing the Orb of Goodbyes with the Goblet of Goobyes, a local everclear shot from the tavern. A rock wall with graffiti with people signing their name outside of the cave … a local custom. This shit makes sense. It FEELS natural, as if it were imagined first and THEN someone stuck the fantasy on it. It even makes an attempt at supporting the DM in some interesting ways (beyond the trigger rethemes) If the party tries to get the old soldiers to come with them it has some advice for the DM on how to counter it … but also doesn’t explicitly forbid it and supports the DM a bit if THEY do get the soldiers help. That’s what supporting the fucking DM is all about. Or, some advice on how to handle a party that is overly suspicious of the mayor. A common theme in a village, and helps to handle players like me who stab the most obvious NPC first and lets Pelor sort out the damage.
But were also facing a new designer here, and it shows.
There are lazy contrivances used in multiple ways. You can’t exit a room in the cave until you “finish” the memory, being blocked by an invisible barrier. Invisible barriers are lazy and nearly as bad as “the doors slam shut and lock when you enter the room.” Similarly, once you complete the cave the entire places swells up with water and forces everyone in the cave out from the torrential flood. Uh huh. To be fair, it’s handled fairly well, but the whole “closing time” thing is something I’m over.
We’ve got three “memory” scenes in the cave, all of which must be completed. There’s the one I mentioned, the sad gnome one. Then there’s the “where we buried the amulet” plot hook one. (Which, gives the location of the amulet to the party … a floor up idea for DMs who want to use it) That leaves one more … a simple Yeti attack. When you’ve only got three encounters you need them to stick and while two do this third one does NOT, being a simple combat. I’m not necessarily asking for more edgelord stuff, but something more than a simple combat.
There’s also LONG NPC descriptions, the in standard 5e format that make them impossible to scan quickly and water down the personalities of the people involved. And then … the read-aloud.
The read-aloud is bad. It summarizes. It abstracts. “But, amid the festivities for the arrival of Brigita – it becomes obvious a mild disagreement is escalating between her and the retiring Townmaster, Anton Astorio. Both Brigita and Anton make an effort to smile and continue with the occasion, but perceptive people notice the friction growing.” This isn’t what you want to be doing. This is TELLING us what is going on. You want to SHOW it. You want to show a disagreement. You want to show the escalation. In this case, rather than read-aloud, perhaps through vignettes for the DM to drop in … which could be spaced in with some local color events form the yokals, to help the DM bring THAT part of the adventure to life more. “Once inside of the cave” says the read-aloud. Nope. You almost NEVER want to imply action in a read-aloud, at least not on the parties part. You want descriptions, not conversational writing. Ad meaningless skill checks to find the cave in the first placE? We won’t even talk about the useless rolling stuff, or the repetition in the background information which, while brief, still annoys the fuck out of me.
This is $2 at DriveThru. I’m willing to throw up in my mouth less when I hear the word Storyteller if their workshop continues to churn out new designers like this. Certainly not great, but showing some potential that is more than the usual DriveThru/DMSGuild drivel.