The Death Downs

By Thom Wilson
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.

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11 Responses to The Death Downs

  1. Stripe says:

    “Do we make every creature a Vampire-class monster so as to manage the turning issue?”

    There are so many of these “issues” with D&D (B/X, BECMI, RC) game mechanics.

    One of the precepts of OSR, I understand, is “The answer is not on the character sheet.”

    So many *first level* spells are simply “win buttons” a majority of the time.

    My first-level groups regularly encounter solo 6-8 HD monsters. An 8 HD hill giant, for example, has a 50/50 chance against a “save or you’re done” Light spell to the eyes. (Save vs. Spells for 8-12 HD is 10 on a 20-sided.)

    A *Light* spell; good for providing a candle (not even a torch) for navigation in the dark . . . or defeating a 7 HD wyvern.

    Charm, Light, Sleep, and turning are infamous for *replacing player creativity and cunning* with *a dice roll.*

    At the same time, we as GMs don’t want to nerf powers. That’s regularly decried on this blog.

    But, are we giving out rings of Spell Turning to NPCs because that came from our imaginations, or because we don’t want the PCs to simply and easily circumvent or even take control of them with a class power on their character sheet? Are we designing from our *imaginations in our minds* or against *rules in a book?*

    This isn’t Obi-Wan saying “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”. This isn’t a problem of another OSR precept, “It’s the players’ story, not the GM’s.” It’s about creating interesting and exciting challenges, encounters, scenarios and personalities for an OSR style of game play.

    Sorry, I’m just ranting!

    Last session had a solo troll get taken out by Light and the session before that had a solo hill giant with similar result. The solo wyvern in the session before that made its save, luckily. The troll and the hill giant were just fine—I wrote both with Light in mind—but the wyvern scenario is in jeopardy from Light and I’ve not yet thought of a subtle, appropriate way around it without contriving rules-circumventing window dressing (e.g., wearing a ring of Spell Turning or whatever as a nose-piercing—cool, maybe, but it’s ultimately there because of rules in a book, not imagination in my mind).

    • Jacob72 says:

      Please keep ranting, you were heading somewhere interesting.

      On the Wyvern problem:
      (1) give it two heads
      (2) sunglasses
      (3) mirrored eyes which reflect back on the caster.

      In case (3) a darkness spell would still work.

  2. John Paquette says:

    Stripe, I think that you’re overstating your case a bit. I don’t know BECMI, but in 1E (the game that I do know) a hill giant also has a 50% chance to save vs. a light spell, but if he fails he’s not helpless. He’s merely attacking at -4, and due to a good chance to hit, and good damage potential, he’s still pretty deadly to low level characters. Charm person does nothing to a giant or troll, and even if a foe can be charmed he just regards the spell caster as a buddy – not necessarily the caster’s friends friends. Sleep is great on low-level things, but useless against powerful creatures, and can be counteracted by numbers.

  3. ficedula says:

    Yeah, spells like Sleep and Light are *good* but not so powerful they just entirely unbalance things. Turn Undead in early editions kind of was though – IIRC, there’s nothing to stop a cleric spamming it indefinitely, which really can let them sail through an undead-infested dungeon far, far more easily than a non-cleric party could.

    Even if you’re not a 5E fan, I do think the way it deals with Turn Undead is considerably better than the older editions. In brief: Clerics can Channel Divinity X times between rests, and generally they have *two* ways to use it: Turn Undead, and some other power thematically related to the deity they worship. Also, Turn Undead has a good-but-not-gigantic radius it affects around the cleric.

    This serves a couple of purposes:
    -In adventures with no undead, the cleric doesn’t have an entirely void power that serves no purpose whatsoever; it has an alternate use (that’s not the same for every cleric, either, so it serves another way to make them feel a bit distinct from “oh-a-cleric-the-turn-undead-and-heal-machine”)
    -In adventures that *do* have undead the cleric gets to use their anti-undead power and feel like it’s their turn to do something super useful
    -…but they can’t turn undead an infinite number of times. So if 8 skeletons attack your mid level party … then, yeah, the cleric can probably just disintegrate them, but do you want to use one of your limited uses? If you do, then great – this encounter may become trivial, but maybe you’ll regret it 3 rooms from now when you run into that high level undead! And even if you do, are you going to charge forwards into the middle of all the enemies to try get as many as possible within the area of effect?

    The end result is that adventures that are full of undead don’t have to pull cheesy solutions to gimp turn undead (or risk parties with clerics steamrolling it) – because turn undead isn’t a spam-forever undead destroying power, it’s a resource management problem just like casting spells (do I use it for this, or that? Blow it early and risk not having it later, or try and hold off using it up, take some damage, and then realise next turn, shit, I really am going to have to use it anyway but now I’m worse off than if I’d used it first thing?)

    If I ever run a 1E or 2E game, something along these lines feels a lot better than the classic Turn Undead.

    • Anonymous says:

      >Limited Turn undead goes back to D20.
      >>Spells turning the tide of batte are a feature not a bug.
      >>>Complications or nasty surpises that force the party to innovate under pressure or deviate from a routine are a feature not a bug.
      >>>>Learn before you criticize

  4. Dave says:

    Mages having encounter-enders they have to ration is a positive. If you fix every spell so it’s all perfectly balanced, the d4 hd, no armor mage no longer makes any sense at all.

    I do intend to slightly nerf turn undead next time I start a new campaign. I’ve considered LotFP’ “it’s a 1st level cleric spell” solution, but I think Barrowmaze’s “die roll gets harder by 1 each time is sufficient.

    Encounters do get tricky as players level up. It’s on the GM though to be playing the same game as the players. A leveled party probably has henchmen, wardogs, flaming oil, consumable magic. A high level monster might have goblin lackeys, tamed worgs, a weaponized special like a rust monster, know and use the local hazards like pit traps and molds. Humanoid spellcasters and tougher leaders are statted in lair writeups but not in wandering monster charts, but really can still be used. Or if nothing else, roll two encounters and combine.

    You can say that’s not in the book, and you just want to run what’s in the book. The problem with that is the book alone doesn’t seem to be the totality of how the game was originally run. It was riffed off in play, or extended further in campaign prep. It’s a variant of the minimally keyed problem – if you slavishly run only what’s keyed you’re not running it as intended.

  5. Dave says:

    What’s a shame is I really like modules that are easy to drop in to a standard, vanilla fantasy game. So I’ve got a soft spot for things like this, or the old Tower, Tomb, Temple format. Review darlings like Weird That Befell Drigbolton for one example are a lot harder to pull off the shelf and drop into an ongoing campaign. And they’re usually not really good enough to build a campaign around just to run them.

    It’d still be nice if the basics were well executed though. It sounds like this might be salvageable for my purposes. Maybe combine the best rooms into a smaller number of narrows. But that’s into highlighter territory, and I do share the critique of that.

  6. Brian Oldfield says:

    I’m happy to see a higher level 5TD adventure, as it’s my house system. Hopefully Thom Wilson can refine their style and make something evocative and easy to use.

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