Dungeon Magazine 152 – The Last Breaths of Ashenport

The Last Breaths of Ashenport
by Ari Marmell
Level 6

A special request for a Dungeon 152 review!

This 44 page adventure is the standard Call of Cthulhu scenario, except written for 3e (3.5?)  You’re in an Innsmouth, it’s cut off, freaky shit goes down, you raid the church and then you raid the sea caves. I’ve played and run enough to these that I know how it’s supposed to go down, and you can see the basic outline and what the designer wants to do, but the scenario doesn’t accomplish it.

I like CoC. I think CoC is great. Non delta-green versions of CoC are the perfect one shot/con game. What I do NOT think, though, is that investigation adventures are meant for D&D. D&D has the Divination problem. The players can and will cast Detect Evil/Locate Object, etc. This is because D&D is not an investigation game. D&D is a dungeon exploration game. The spell lists are crafted for a party raiding a dungeon and finding a princess and wanting to know if they are gonna get a kiss and kingdom as a reward or a level drain for their problems. And for every Detect Evil you memorize that’s one less Fireball to toss out. It’s a give and take and resource management game. And I don’t really give a flying fuck how YOU play D&D. That’s irrelevant. The Spell Lists are created for this type of play. It’s built in to the game and WILL be built in to the game until someone reworks the fucking spell lists. 

Until this happens the only possible solution is to gimp the fucking party. I still remember being stone’d by a Medusa who the adventure said was evil “but not enough to register on the spell …” Uh huh. And in this adventure there is a vague evil detected in the village but nothing specific. Because two evil altars are masking the fact that everyone in the village is an evil Dagon cultist. Combine this with the standard “You are trapped in the village by a raging storm” mechanic. I know, I know, it’s a standard trope for these things. Or, rather, it’s a standard fucking trope for a game in which you are normal people facing the terrible unknown. I can teleport without error and he regularly communes with his god and rides the sun chariot around the night sky with him. We don’t get trapped in villages. It’s trying to force a scenario type in to a game that doesn’t support it. Just like you don’t explore dungeons in CoC, you don’t investigate in D&D. That’s not how the game was built.

Ok, so, that’s out of the way. Let’s say something nice. There’s a paragraph of advice up front that is extremely useful advice to the DM: “When describing them [ed: the fish-men], however, don’t use either of those terms. In context of the adventure, they’re not “pseudonatural kuo-toa”; they’re fish-men of Dagon. It may sound like a minor point, but the proper use—and, just as important, the careful avoidance—of particular terms can go a long way toward making the PCs, and indeed the players, feel like they’re truly facing the unknown.” No truer words. This gets to a core point: making the party afraid. You don’t tell them they face a troll. You describe the troll. You don’t say “dragon”, you describe it. You describe eyestalks popping up out of a bit, not say the word “beholder.” The specific advice given is different (they are fish men, not kua-toa) but the concept is in the same neighborhood. Don’t remove the mystery and fear from the game by naming the thing.

There’s also a pretty good in-voice bit from an NPC. If you question a rando townsperson about an inn, when you first arrive in town, you get this little gem: “Might meet you there later to hoist a tankard or two; gods know I’ll not be doing much else ’til the sky stops weepin’.” Pretty good! An NPC acting like a normal person for once! The adventure also let’s you roll, after 24 hours, to determine that the weather is not normal. A nice naturalistic way; it takes time. 

We are now done being nice.

The standard long read-aloud. The read-aloud is in italics, making it hard to read. Nothing new there. The read-aloud has a lot of “you’s” scattered in it: “their eyes glare at you in hatred” and so on. It does solve the “long stat block/enoucnter” issue by removing all encounters and placing them in the rear of the adventure. So a room might say “run encounter ‘from the sea on page 24 now.’” 

The adventure does two things majorly wrong, which would be wrong even in a CoC game. First, it relies A LOT on questioning captives. It fully expects you to knock people out and question them so you can find the next breadcrumb location. Not cool. And if this doesn’t happen then the NPC’s in the inn, the other travelers, will spoon feed info to you. “It looks like everyone is going to the church!” or some such. SO much so that at one point it advises to give the party a story award if you DONT have to have the NPCs do this.  This Adventure Plot extends in to other areas as well; when the party is magic’d to walk in to the sea to drown themselves, if they all fail their save, then an NPC in the inn will save them. IE: This is all just window dressing. It’s meant to be exciting, but not dangerous. You don’t actually have agency and there are not actually any consequences to your actions. Not cool.

It’s also using a standard room/key format for the town. The mayor is in the town hall. The sheriff is in the sheriffs office and so on. But, this isn’t how an adventure gets run. They shouldn’t just be sitting there, waiting for the party. The sheriff is a small town bully. He should be out, harassing the party around town, having goons do things and like. His entry even says this. But, his description is just hidden there, in the sheriffs office entry. There should be a section, up front, describing events and actions and things to happen in the town. The towns vibe. It’s a dynamic, fluid place … or, at least, it should be. This is not an exploratory dungeon. This is a social investigation adventure. Room/key isn’t the right way to present this information in order for the DM to be able to run a smooth and fluid game in which that asshole small town sheriff is out causing trouble. It just comes across as a throw away comment, and too much is left fo rthe DM to infer. The DM is not supported.

I can see exactly HOW this is supposed to be run. I can get the vibe the designer is going for. It’s not the utter garbage that most Dungeon adventures are. But it’s also no where near runnable in order to get the full experience that I think the designer was going for.

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15 Responses to Dungeon Magazine 152 – The Last Breaths of Ashenport

  1. Knutz Deep says:

    Wow! I guess the trauma from your previous excursion into Dungeon has worn off? Never expected to see you touch one again, even with a 10 foot pole. I am flabbergasted.

  2. Gnarley Bones says:

    Know alignment is a second level spell.

    And the reason that investigation adventures never work.

    • SolCannibal says:

      Having the cultists – or even the power behind them – be neutral and have some weird but kind of sensible motive for their shenanigans could work.

      But yeah, just that already borders somewhat in weaseling words to get around same base assumptions baked in the system.

      Like, how you even do a “kind of lovecraftian uncaring mysterious cosmos” sort of vibe where priests with the actual capacity of communing with their gods are one of the starting player options? That on itself bring assertions to the table that run counter to such a style of play – at least without A LOT of thought going into the adventure and its setting, possibly to the point of making it not very appropriate to your average D&D world.

      Definitely more of a OGL-derived settings or systems territory in general, i’d guess.

      • Gnarley Bones says:

        Agreed, much like straight-up horror games are more difficult in D&D where one can FIREBALL a vampire, LOCATE OBJECT the cursed idol or straight-up DESTROY the undead fiend with a flourish of the PC’s holy symbol.

        Murder mysteries are so much more difficult in AD&D, and almost always require nerfing of some kind, in which case the adventure is being intentionally written around the rules. With higher-level scenarios, the nerfing has to increase exponentially. How is one to get around commune? 😉

  3. PrinceofNothing says:

    You are going to do the 3.5 and…4e modules?

    Deus Vult indeed.

  4. Seneca says:

    My experience is that murder mysteries are quite feasible in all versions of D&D and do not necessarily require gimping of spells/abilities. However like many other adventure types, they are level limited. They’re more Harry Dresden than Hercule Poirot but that’s D&D for you.

    As to the first, divinations impact how you have to write and run mysteries but they don’t have to ruin them. Detect evil is the most common complaint but it doesn’t have to be a “solve the mystery” unless you want it to be. In Greyhawk or Chicago, you might expect 20-40% of any given group of people to be evil, but that doesn’t mean the union thug/crooked building inspector is the one who did it. (2nd edition’s “immediate evil intent” was an attempt to work around this but actually is more useful than detect alignment for certain types of mysteries–such as a protection mission where you have to stop the assassination rather than solve it after the fact). Speak with Dead makes more of a difference but if well done, it’s a way to get more info (whether that is “dark skinned male with curly hair who speaks Baklunish” or “the suspect knows enough about magic to cut out the victim’s tongue–we’re not dealing with amateurs here.”) rather than an “I win” button.

    As to the level limit, mysteries change with the advent of speak with dead and then change again at higher levels when more powerful divinations become available. By level 13+, characters should be trying to unravel the schemes of rulers and demon lords not solve murders in the foreign quarter of Greyhawk. But mysteries are hardly the only adventure impacted by that dynamic. Caravan guards is a perfectly fine (if a bit boring) hook at level 1 but by the time characters hit level 4 or higher, it’s time for them to grow into a different role.

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      Seneca for the win! perhaps, it appears to be easier to write a bad mystery in D&D than a good one … at least in comparison to the standard exploratory adventure?

      I forgive you for being a stoic.

    • Shuffling Wombat says:

      There is also the question of what constitutes acceptable proof, and this must surely depend on who is being accused and who is the accuser.
      “And having heard the word of my god, I cleaved the head off the miscreant with a righteous blow. In accordance with my honourable profession, I proceeded to loot the manor house.”
      “So you are guilty of brigandage and the murder of the Lord Egbert?”
      I agree that mysteries need to be adapted for D+D; maybe it is more like Columbo. I think most magistrates would want witness testimony or physical proof, otherwise it would be fun times for illusionists.

  5. libracomment says:

    Seems like there are good gimps and bad gimps. Alignment uncertain Medusa that is legitimately confused about life, good gimp. Stating alignment is uncertain to avoid spell effects, bad gimp.

    Also, in a world where every 1st level MU schmuck can detect evil, wouldn’t you expect evil doers would look for lots of ways to mask their evil doing? Especially prized objects magically hidden to prevent easy locating?

    I think gimping is part of D&D, it’s just how it comes across in play, overuse, etc. (rust monster?–I think you mean gimp monster).

  6. Seneca says:

    Definitely there are good gimps and bad gimps. I think the key difference is whether the gimps allow the system to work as intended or not. So, for example, evil cleric cult leader casts undetectable alignment every day so that no wandering paladins find him (rule of thumb in 3.x/pathfinder, the guy who radiates moderate evil could be… the 8th level captain of the guard who secretly likes to torture prisoners who die “resisting arrest,” Lord Robilar, an ancient red dragon, some kind of weak vampire spawn… Or the third level evil cleric you’re looking for. Do you want to smite and find out which?) Good gimp. But the alignment confused assassin who doesn’t become evil till he actually pulls the trigger? Bad gimp–unless maybe he approaches the PC cleric for counsel about doing something he knows is wrong… And the PC has a chance to talk him into doing the right thing.

    As for easy to write bad mystery adventures, I think there’s something to that. First, I think mysteries are hard to write in general because a good mystery needs to make sense but not be obvious. In an RPG, you also need to be able to support lots of different ways to arrive at the end result too because no two parties are going to approach it the same way. (And it STILL can’t be obvious). Pulling that off requires a lot of thought and may be beyond the abilities of someone who’s perfectly capable of making a cave map and putting the right number of orcs in each room. But I think the tradition of adventure writing doesn’t help. A keyed map and encounters plus maybe an order of battle and some short evocative descriptions can work well for an exploratory adventure and people have been using that format successfully with tweaks here and there for forty years. You can screw it up, but the tools are there. I don’t think anyone has found a format that is nearly as effective for mysteries or investigations. Some people and companies try to shoehorn it into the map+key formula too and it’s just not well suited to running investigations. So not only are they inherently difficult, the nature of RPGs makes it more challenging and writers are mostly trying to develop the tools to write a good investigation from scratch.

    • Gnarley Bones says:

      When it comes to nerfing spells, I think the issue is this: Does the nerf effectively eliminate the spell? If detect evil no longer works as written because of the nerf, then detect evil is no longer a real spell anymore; it’s irretrievably nerfed.

      As a adjunct to this, while there certainly are “one-off” items/tricks that can temporarily nerf a spell (like, say, for the duration of a murder mystery scenario, as an example), if the spell at issue doesn’t actually work *when the party really needs it,* that generally rubs me the wrong way. Nerfing must be used lightly and judiciously.

      • Shuffling Wombat says:

        I’d agree with this, but some consideration should be given to how acceptable it is to cast spells on the general populace; I’d say you’d need some sort of authorisation/reasonable cause.
        Perhaps it is worth noting how far murder mystery stories are from real life crime; it doesn’t stop me enjoying an Agatha Christie novel.

        • Gnarley Bones says:

          I don’t disagree in concept, but imposing an in-game-world requirement on the one spell the party *really needs* is, itself, a nerf.

  7. Beoric says:

    Damn, this one’s on me, and when I mentioned it in passing I intended to give it another read before I actually asked you to review it.

    I will say that when I read it several years ago, it was the 4e version, and 4e has next to no effective divination magic, and little effective teleportation magic, so no gimps are required.

    I remember that what I liked about it at the time was that it had an honest to gods map that allowed you to move in any direction within the town, and that the encounters and events (or at least some of them, I don’t remember exactly) could occur out of order and may even have been avoidable. Moreover, you are not trapped, strictly speaking; the obstacles to leave the area are not insurmountable. It seemed like an easy environment to colour outside the lines.

    Now I am going to have to look at the 4e version and see how it differs. I know it does not contain the non-divination gimp, and apparently unlike the original it expressly allows for the PCs to fail to learn anything from the townsfolk or cultists (in which case I guess it turns into survival horror). On the down side, it contains the hated skill challenge mechanic – which I’m pretty sure that was a WotC mandated inclusion in every 4e adventure – although this is one of the better efforts of the mechanic.

    The formatting issues are an issue, but I have always thought this one was salvagable without too much effort, and worth salvaging.

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