By Thom Wilson ThrowiGames Five Torches Deep Levels 7-9
The Death Downs is a vast burial mound of noble families and great warriors. Characters will discover great riches and wealth if they can survive the burial ground’s traps and evil undead.
This 55 page adventure details nineteen burial mounds with about four rooms each, and one larger mound with about thirteen rooms. There are occasional bursts of interesting interactivity, but, the overly rigid formatting and lack of evocative writing really drags the entire thing down.
Bree & the Barrows Downs hangs heavy over the hobby. In my youth it entranced me, mostly for the treasure I think. Because the actual product was lacking with little more than the usual great maps and the laundry list of treasure items. This doesn’t stray much from that formula, although the entries take up a lot more space and there actually are a few points of interactivity.
Nineteen burial mounds, in a misty and swampy valley. You get no map of the valley, or the general mound arrangement; the adventure just launches in to the keyed locations for each of the mounds and provides a little map at the start of each one. Each one has between two and four rooms, with the last mound having thirteen.
The highlight of this adventure, appearing infrequently, is the interactive elements. One room has a shallow empty pool basin with whispering voices circling around it when you get close. Runes on the bottom, spoken outloud, cause it to fill with what is a healing potion. And placing something in the dry pool otherwise causes a shadow serpent to appear. That’s great design! Weal and Woe! A hint of the arcane and supernatural! Another has a statue with a slow petrification gaze. Behind it, at the head, is a jar full of grey goo … that can be used like a petrification potion; it has been powering the statue. I’m not always a big fan of “things that make logical sense”, like a potion powering a statue, but sympathetic magic is a big turn on for me and if handled well, like it is here, then it makes for a great interactive element. When the adventure is engaging in acts like this then it’s doing a great job. Of course not every room is expected to be fun and games, and the rooms here are sparsely populated throughout the mounds. The highly interactive ones, I mean. There is the usual assortment of creatures and traps as well thrown in, of the more mundane variety. I’ve always wondered about undead in these high level adventures. Do we make every creature a Vampire-class monster so as to manage the turning issue? Maybe Five Torches handles it differently? Whatever. Decent interactivity, although perhaps a little sparse, a problem exacerbated, I think, by the “individual mounds” format.
One of my two major malfunctions with this adventure is the formatting selected. It is an extremely rigid system. While I do prefer a good format, I also want it tuned to the adventure, with a willingness to break the rules of the formatting when needed in service to the adventure digestibility. In this one I can get what the designer was going for, but I don’t think what was intended is what comes across at all.
First, we’ve got a little italics to start the room, usually a short sentence. As far as I can tell, this serves no porpoise (Thanks autocorrect, I will be spelling porpoise that way from now on!) at all. Room one area one says “A prominent tomb far enough away from the corruption to be unaffected by the infection…for now.” Great! So … absolutely no value to the adventure at all? Dead weight. Filler. This is followed by GM notes. This tends to be still more useless background information, like “The challenging locked door (DC 15) has yet to be opened by previous explorers.” or “a 1 in 10 chance that the dead here have been corrupted and reanimate.” So, the presence of more background fluff should be an obvious NoNo by now. We also see an example here of the misuse of randomness. Just make it full of undead or not. You need to actually DESIGN the adventure and make the various parts work with each other, not just rely on randomness for the adventure.
Ok, so, two sections in to a room description and it’s still not very good. We then get a Quick View section. Alright! I’m on board! Except, it overexplains. “Diamond tiara lies on a partial skull.” Hmmm, no, that’s detailed view, the next section. For quick view it should be a glint of light from the head or something. Detailed view tells us … Skeletal female form and the exact value of all of the treasure goods found on the body. Then we get smell “Slight acidic aroma” This should probably be in the quick view, but, it does foreshadow a trap, which is good. Then we get a secrets section, which is normally telling us about a secret nice to be found, and then a Traps section saying something like “Acide cloud erupts if the tiara is moved”
The overall effect is disconnected. No notation in the tiara section that it is trapped. Different elements and aspects of various room features are scattered across a column of text, causing the DM to need to reference multiple sections during an initial action. I mean, I get what the designer is trying to do, but it just doesn’t work out right here. The italics and GM notes are mostly useless. The Quick View should be First Impressions and contain the (obvious) sensory data. The Detailed view should follow up on individual objects. And a separate trap section is fine, for detailed information on traps, but, I have to ask: why? Why are the taps so complex that you feel you need to almost a third of a page to describe a simple “pick up tiara trigger acide cloud” trap? It’s trap & door porn all over again, with overly mechanistic details.
Combined with this, or perhaps because of it, is the somewhat drab nature of the descriptions. I thought things were going to be coo. A sunlit valley, full of mist, a marshland in it, a dry spot in the middle covered with mounds, others flooded in the marsh … That’s pretty good! But the actual rooms are bogged down by that format and come across lame. “Most of thi tomb has collapsed.” Rectangular room with massive wall tapestries. Central stone slab covered in bones and rotten silk fabric. Meh. And., there’s no follow up on the tapestries. We get over-explained quick views that have very little in the way of painting an evocative setting.It don’t feel like a dry & dusty tomb.
Did I mention there’s a tomb devoted to dead circus performers? I will never fucking understand this obsession with the circus/carnival.
One room tells us it is very well lit with chanting. It’s about 30 feet from the entrance. That’s something you want to mention in the entrance, not in the room in question. You want to tell the party that when they can sense it. This happens repeatedly in the adventure. I will not cover in detail the room that says the walls had portraits that are now missing. *sigh*
Whatever this adventure has going on for it it is obfuscated behind mounds and mounds of detritus.
This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is about twelve pages and shows a lot of room descriptions, so it’s a good preview.