What Lies Below

By Thom Wilson
Five Torches Deep
Level 1

What Lies Below takes characters into a druid’s tomb below a rotten stump. The characters will quickly find that the druids buried within dabbled in magic and enchantments well outside their traditional schools.

This eight page adventure features an eleven room druid lair under a tree stump using five pages. Interactivity is rather basic. I’m going to spend most of the review talking about the ThrowiGames Sensory Descriptive Style format, and it’s failings, and what it means for writing a good description and organizing information for the DM to use.

So, lair under a tree stump. Some earthen cave-type rooms with a few undead and a spider in it.Interactivity is spares, and you’re gonna have to take my word on that, as I want to talk about Evocative Writing and Formatting. In this case, the interrelation between the two. This is the format used in the adventure for rooms. Other rooms mauve have other sense also, like “Taste” or “Sense” or “Exits.”


Area 1: Tree Stump Entrance

A chain around the base of the rotting tree stump drops into a dark hole below.

GM Notes: Although rusty, the chain can support up to 500 pounds of weight.

Quick View: Wide, rotten, hollow stump. 

Detailed View: Rusty, thick-linked chain. Various animal footprints around the hole.

Listen: Air whistles up through the hole below the stump.

Smell: Rotting tree and vegetation.

Secrets: The hole is discovered with a DC 9 check. Exits: A hole below the stump drops over 40 feet.


What we have is an attempt to well describe the room. Laudable, especially bringing in other senses, however I would argue that the formatting fails and that because of that the Evocative nature of the room also fails. Looking at the very first sentence, the chain around the base of the rotting stump … what’s the purpose of that line? Is it read-aloud? If so it may be TOO terse, ignoring such great features as the air whistling up, which should be obvious, and the rotting vegetation line. Is it a general overview of the room for the DMs needs? Then why the extra lines for the whistling and the rotting? 

There’s a Quick view section … how does this differ from the initial opening line? What is it adding that the opening line isn’t? Just repeating data, in the same way that the “Exits” portion is? Listening and Smelling are relatively specific actions. Further, both, in this rooms case, help set the general mood of the room and you, generally, want the players exposed to that mood initially, rather than making them “tease it out” of the DM. (With exceptions for things like a Revelation.) Further, the format, separated on different lines, with things breaking up the relevant sections from each other, takes more time to scan over and grok. When giving the initial room description you’re reading the room title, the initial italics line, the quick view, the listen, the smell, the exits, and probably the GM notes and secrets, all in order to synthesize the description in to something to relate to the players. 

This gets to the issue of being limited by a format instead of being enabled by it. I’ve almost always encountered this in adventure that, as this one does, explicitly has heading information for a variety of topics. Exits, smells, tastes, sounds, door construction material/DC, light in the room, and so on. I get where they are going with this. Light, in particular, is an easy thing to relate to, as something that we generally want to know. But what happens is that these rigorous formats begin to take over. They become the focus rather than the room and the DM running it, being the focus, even though they are supposed to be enabling that. In the end we see that the rigorous adoption and devotion to the format creates a room description that is less useful than the sum of its parts. Whatever effect a dotting hole in the ground, a rotting tree stump, wind whistling through the hole, might have had, it’s lost when you separate them out like this.I strongly believe that there is no one true way to write a description, but I do know that this isn’t it.

Also, when you approach the tree stump, entrance to the druid lair, you are attacked by four halfling thieves, life-long “Protectors of the Druids Lair.” WTF is up with this? Is has absolutely no theming with the rest of the dungeon, in any way. Another party, or bandits camped above, or something would have fit in better and made mode sense.

This is $1 at DriveThru. El Senor Preview is four pages, more than enough to get a sense of the room encounters, for format and interactivity.


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5 Responses to What Lies Below

  1. Stripe says:

    I’m shocked! You didn’t even mention that you literally have to make a check to go on the adventure!

    There’s a stump with a thick chain around it going down into a hole that whistles—but you have to make a “DC 9 check” to “discover” it. Haha!

    How a skill check is used in the OSR:

    “[Mount Saint-Mikkel] does two interesting things. First, it occasionally handles a skill check well. In one notable example, you find a cave if you are following footsteps … OR you can make a PER check if you are not. That’s how you handle a skill check in the OSR. If you search you find the fucking trap, otherwise you fling yourself to the fickle hand of fate.”

  2. Jacob72 says:

    I think that what you’ve written here is one of your best pieces of advice. Make sure that you achieve the end goal of being evocative and helpful as quickly as possible. The designer had a clear vision and feel to what he was trying to express but became trapped by the format.

    I wonder if the author used a database or spreadsheet when preparing this? A hard structure allows data manipulation and acts as a checklist for verifying completeness, but it’s not useful in the finished article.

  3. Malrex of the Merciless Merchants says:

    Bryce nails it here! I was hoping for a little more on the review of the overall adventure, but this section is great advice. I appreciate what the author was trying to do here–to tease things out, but it actually creates a disservice to the GM. It becomes jarring, instead of smooth–completely agree with Bryce’s assessment with the example, but I see potential for this author!

    Combine Area 1, Quick View, Detailed View, Smells, and Listen sections into a evocative descriptive paragraph (no longer than 3 sentences) for the description of the area. Then the GM notes and secrets (maybe in bullet points). Instead of trying to tease things out, bold things as it relates to GM notes and/or secrets for easy scanning. For example, adding the ‘rusty’ description to the ‘chain’ could of deleted half of the ‘detailed’ section to make things more terse. Bold the word ‘chain’ in the description, then bold it in the GM notes to say it can hold 500 lbs., etc. Easier to scan, encourages interaction between player and GM.

    The designer also seemed to limit themselves to the stock art–I’m a victim of this too.

    Halfling protectors? (because there is a cool pic by Dean Spencer)–ok!! use it, but make it fit better with your writing/descriptions. Have some clues within about these halfling protectors–how they were friends to the druid or something that ties them in better in the overall adventure. Or, are there really animal tracks around the stump in the beginning–or are they small booted feet of halflings for a foreshadow effect? Are they really defending this place? Or are they more concerned about what’s going on within? (I’m assuming undead druids but haven’t read it)–or they trying to loot it? Regardless, an opportunity for a more roleplay encounter here, rather than a fight that may not make much sense or feel out of place.

    Plus, a missed opportunity here—bandits/humans–they can be boring…another party–more interesting…but halflings?? bring in the culture/fluff to make it a unique encounter. This encounter falls flat…jazz it up if it really needs to be halflings. Why is it halflings (besides an art piece)?–did the druid help tame mounts for the halflings? Is one charmed by the druid? give it more flavor so that halflings make sense.

    Some tweaking on format and organization, could make this cool.

  4. 3llense'g says:

    It’s the order of information that bothers me. The hole and the chain are each mentioned 3 separate times, before we find out at the end that it’s all SECRET and the players need to roll to notice either. It again reminds me of “And in the middle of the room you see… absolutely nothing!”

  5. Roger GS says:

    Yes, the ideal is First Look prose or bullet points, then for each feature, its details upon closer inspection and interaction. In this format these things are pointlessly divided, which permits blunders like the hole being SECRET (how the hell do you not notice a chain dropping straight down into a hole in the ground?).

    I can see the sensory categories being useful as reminders when writing the adventure, kind of a template, but separating them out for use in play is not the way to go. Like, when writing the first look and each feature the design template might have columns that make you think about visual senses, non-visual senses, and interaction, so you make sure to sprinkle some of each at each point of interest.

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