The Witch of Underwillow

By Merric Blackman
Self Published
Levels 1-3

Save a kidnapped child! The villagers fear the forest, and rightly so. When wolves drag a child into the forest, there is only one option: find brave adventurers to follow the wolves and save the child! However, are there things the villagers aren’t telling the adventurers? What dark fate awaits them when they face the Witch of Underwillow?

This eight page adventure features six encounters on the trail of a baby stolen by a witch, with a nominal Ravenloft setting. Decent creepy and writing, along with DM text that that is to the point, helps make this a solid adventure, although featuring a few odious concepts and “extensions” that are, at best, half-hearted. A straightforward one session stab and grab. Merric has a solid head but can stumble on delivery, and this is no exception.

First, competent adventure. The read-aloud, while trending to the longer side of the three-four sentence rule, is fairly evocative and concentrates on the important shit. Hearing that a baby went missing while mom was hanging laundry, the RA for the house covers a fallen-down house in three sentences, and then the backyard with laundry line and overturned baby basket in two, finishing with “A dark forest runs along the edge of the yard.” You get the three main things: the house, the laundry/basket/yard, and the forest. Plus, the imagery of the laundry line, overturned basket and dark forest beyond summons up on not images on dingo got my baby, by The Witch movie as well. This sort of eerie farmhouse/woods thing that only a melancholy Sunday afternoon mood at dusk can match. And Merric does this sort of thing time after time in the adventure. The red-aloud is decent and focuses on what it needs to. The images painted tend toward the eerie, and the supporting DM text is generally to the point, focusing on the important aspects of the adventure, abstracting where necessary. The interior of the house gets two sentences, with a third on the “twist”, in a separate paragraph. And, the major topics are generally kept in separate paragraphs, to help locate information better. I would prefer a bolded word or two to help focus attention to the correct paragraph further, but, whatever. 

I should also cover the use of themes and cultural heritage. Good adventures can leverage that shared culture we all have to bring more to the adventure than the words otherwise could. That laundry line, basket, and woods, for example, leveraging all the media we’ve seen of those situations. The mother is actually “simple” and a bit insane … because the baby is a doll … bringing in the horror aspect to the game (this being a Ravenloft adventure.)The witch lives in the required tree root ceiling house, right out of 13th Warrior, and her door has a golden keyhole … which should be immediately bringing up folklore vibes. Not to mention a witch stealing babies and wolves in the forest. The use of this in the adventure leverages MORE, and that’s a GREAT thing.

And then he goes and mucks it up by relying on the worst tropes of adventures.

You see, the witch has  “decided to lure the adventurers to her lair, weaken them with some tests, and finally kill them herself (if the tests don’t do it first).” This is lame. Luring adventurers and testing them. A thousand thousand bad adventures have this premise. It’s the “I couldn’t think of anything more interesting” premise. Merric goes on to say that “In my campaign, her motivations were never revealed, as the characters killed her before she could even negotiate with them – the perils of trigger-happy players.” Yeah, play stupid games and win stupid prizes. I would re-frame “trigger-happy” as “smart.” But, whatever. The fruit of the poison tree is that the innkeep is instructed by the witch to hire to the party. This, alone, is no great sin. After all, up till now we could just ignore all this “test” and “hire” bullshit and just run a nice “evil baby stealing witch” adventure. But then we face an issue, and, I’m sure, the reason for the nonsense: I presume everyone knows that the womans baby is not a baby. Thus, including one feature, a desire to have a doll of a crazy-woman stolen instead of a real baby, leads to the sins piling up. Now, to be fair, you do get a few words of advice on the players detecting the deception and the innkeep breaknig down, fearful for his family, and ratting on the witch. But …

The trend continues. The door with the golden lock can’t be Knock’d. Yes, I fucking know that Knock fucks things up. Yes, I know that the witch wants the party to complete her “tests” first and knock bypasses that. Themes the breaks. You want to play D&D then you don’t get to gimp the fucking players. Don’t want Knock to fuck things up? Play a game not meant for dungeon-delving and one more suited for horror. I’m not morally opposed to The Oracle living on top of a mountain, or requiring the golden fleece before helping, but too much of it breaks the immersive nature and brings on the eye rolling. 

On top of that, the “combat” encounters feel like tack ons. On the way through the first you get to fight wolves. Ok. Sure, they live in the forest and you DO get a nice “glowing red eyes in the shadows” bit. But then, on the way out after fucking her up, you also get another wolf, a dire wolf blocking your path. The pretext is that its either her boon pact entity taking revenge on the party or a rival of hers throwing some shit at the party. In reality it’s a “I feel like I need another encounter” encounter. It feels like a tack on and doesn’t fit in. Yes, it IS the third wolf encounter in the adventure and three is a magic number, but it also feels like Merric got lazy with it. 

So, a workmanlike effort by Merric. Decent concept, but could have used a little more thinking in a couple of the concepts behind it and a few of the encounters. And the options for “She Is a Good Witch”, etc, in the appendix, don’t really expand those options in any meaningful or interesting way. It’s an ok adventure, decently evocative, better than most, but a little … uninteresting?

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5 Responses to The Witch of Underwillow

  1. Jonathan Becker says:

    Wait, this gets a “no regerts?” For a lure/test/stupid adventure? Huh?

    RE Knock Spells

    Um…I don’t play 5E, but is this a common spell for a party of levels 1-3 to even have in their repertoire? In my old edition games, that’d be a bit unusual for sure.

    • Reason says:

      Not that common but only because Mages get thwarted by bullshit DM fiat whenever they try to use it.

      Common enough utility spell in older editions I guess, depending on party roles. 5E? no idea.

    • Anonymous says:

      Knock is a 2nd level spell, so could be available to any Wiz/Sorc/Bard. The spell only unlocks one device though, so the solution is for the witch to put two locks on the door.

  2. Jonathan Becker says:

    Hmm…looking at Bryce’s only other review for Merric Blackman, I see some similarities:

    “Merric’s writing is good, even most of his read-aloud…Tis is quite strong writing.”

    “And then he goes and FUCKS IT UP.”

    “There’s some gimpy shit in the adventure.”

    “Nice imagery. Brings the horror. Needs to be written for a fucking adult instead of ESL sixth graders.”


  3. 3llense'g says:

    “Themes the breaks.” Exactly! Don’t put a theme in if you can’t handle the players breaking it!

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