By Kelsey Dionne The Arcane Library Shadowdark RPG Level 1
Cursed knights channeling demonic power, mist-addled forests where witches and warlocks stalk the trees, and crumbling castles housing ancient, eldritch creatures!
This fourteen page digest adventure features 33 rooms in a classic exploratory dungeon crawl, with factions. It’s for the Shadowdark RPG, a 5e-type system that attempts, it seems, to bring some classical OSR sensibilities to the modern genre. It is one of the better modern “classical” dungeons.
This is a classically expiration type dungeon of Kelsey Dionnes Shadowdark RPG. I’m not going to comment on the RPG or its ability to retain the elements of classical play style that make exploration games fun. We’re just going to ask the usually OSR questions of if this is an interactive environment that could encourage fun gameplay.
And that it is! The map, with 33 areas, contains a variety of features, from chambers to cave and river section. It’s got some different monster zones going on, as well as some simple loops. We’re not talking full on megadungeon fill-the-page loops, but for a modern OSR design it’s pretty good. It notes monsters on the map for reaction purposes, has a decent order of battle for the factions within, and is both visually interesting AND easy to read for the DM. Good job!
The rooms follow a kind of bulleted bolded keyword format. You get a short little section at the top with some brief bolded keywords and some general descriptions that you might get at a first glance. Like “People: Group of short, tan-cloaked figures pacing around” And then those bolded keywords followed up on in bullets below with more information about them. It’s a decent format that runs from the general, what the DM needs to know first to relate to the players to the more specific when they make additional inquiries and thus scanning the text is easily accomplished.
Dungeons live and die by their interactivity though. We’ve seen a thousand different ways to make a boring dungeon. From empty chambers with nothing going on, to combat heavy hack fests, to Greenwoods Don’t Touch museums to absurd levels of “hidden depth.” You need a good mix of elements in the rooms in order for the players to get the full experience of a multi-layered environment. And this does that.
We’ve got several factions running around inside. You’ve got some corrupted family, former owners of the ruins above, as well as a newcomer group vying for control with the older group … both ostensibly worshipping the same entity. The entity that s found in the dungeon! So we’ve got the independent elements providing danger as well. And then we’ve got the newly intelligent mutated catfish running around … sometimes literally. All of these can be hostile or you could work out some kind of deal with them.
Mixed in to the social element are a decent number of traps, items that serve as puzzles, creature encounters that are not what they seem, hidden doors to find, and corpses to cut opwn … or, rather, TRY to cut open, to get the goodies within. There’s a dagger that does 1d100 damage to someone who picks it up … tlegraphed through the corpse on the floor holding it. Bane or Boon? Like the best elements, it could be both depending ont he context the players find it and use it in. The wanderers here are doing something. There’s a statue that you see, from an adjacent room, gliding across the floor. That turns out to be a gelatinous cube! I LOVE it when a classic monster is integrated in to the adventure in this way. That is EXACTLY the sort of thing I expect out of a designer. A pointer to make an encounter fresh and meaningful. An encounter that MAKES SENSE.
There are a few things that could be done better. Occasionally the layout format fails, with the wrong keyword bolded for easy scanning. IE: a glass bowl on a pillar of lumby stone is probably the pillar noticed first and not the glass bowl. There’s also an occasional weird word choice. “Wispy cracks” around a secret door threw me for a loop, until I figured out what was meant, how wispy was being used in this context. I’m supportive of the overloading of words and using them outside of their traditional contexts … but sometimes its non-intuitive.
There’s a decent attempt here to bring the various factions to life. The old manor family. The new cultist intruders, and the catfish. What you don’t get, though, is the idiosyncratic nature of the personages. Or, for that matter, very many personages in general. Most of them are generic “family members” and so on, with only the leaders getting some additional specificity. Thus the vibe is thrown off. They feel like generic baddies instead of, say, the depth of what Xyntillian delivered. It’s a challenge, no doubt, to bring this in a terse format, but when done it delivers a fully integrated vibe that is SO much more rewarding.
Finally, the descriptions themselves are a bit lacking. There is ABSOLUTELY an attempt here to bring the evocative writing. Reference the ‘wispy cracks’ above. The evocative nature of the writing is not quite where it could be. Admitidally, I think this IS the hardest part of writing … finding just exactly the right combination of words to deliver the maximum imaginative impact. It’s not that it’s bad, at all, but it does seem a little formulaic at times. I THINK it’s because there’s an attempt to provide an adjective/adverb in front of certain words. So, for example a “moldy scroll of charm person.” This is better than just a scroll of charm person, to be sure. But also, it seems a little like “I slapped an adjective in front of it.” There’s certainly a tradeoff here to providing a terse description. I might suggest that there is a spectrum in writing room descriptions evocatively. Adding an adjective or two can certainly brighten up a description and is FAR better than the generic descriptions that plague adventure writings. This is good. And then, beyond that, is an IMAGINING of the description. What does this moldy scroll actually look like? Can you write a description of it that conveys the essence of a moldy scroll … and not use a lot of words to do it? A more naturalistic style, we’ll call it. It’s a mix, or generic descriptions, dumping in an adjective or two, and communicating the core, that in a really good adventure comes naturally and are used in combination to provide a meaningful experience.
But, that’s like masters levels of bullshit coming from mouth today.
This is a good adventure. Have I called Kelsey Dionne Not a Fucking Idiot yet? If not, they are close to earning that moniker.
The rest of the zine has some devily in it, as well as a hex crawl that looks pretty interesting, in scanning it. Interesting as in the hex encounters seem to be loaded with potential energy. An orc village on silts that wants to trade for human meat to stave off an incursion … with “trade” perhaps being a loose word for “obtain”. 🙂 There’s some fucking roleplay potential in that ina hex crawl game!
The entire zine is $9 for the PDF over at The Arcane Library.
I’m glad Bryce reviewed this. I saw Kelsey’s video going over this adventure and it sounded AWESOME. After this review, it sounds like I must buy this.
FUVK YES KELSEY AND DUNGEON AGE SAVE US
KEEP ON ROCKING
Well done Kelsey! Do have a look at how Xyntillian gives character to its baddies as Bryce suggests. Well done again!
Oh wow, this is awesome! 😀 I’m really glad you overall liked it. Thank you for the spot-on insights, it’s all invaluable feedback!
Xyntillian is an NPC (and design) master class, I will definitely be going back and studying its lessons!
One thing I would love to see from you Kelsey is a one.page NPC flowchar!
Heck everyone really. Its a great idea almost nobody does.
X NPC hates y NPC because of tea but loves d NPC because of pancakes you know?
With lines connecting bubbles or faces
There will definitely be better NPC supporting material in the next thing I write in this format! 🙂
I ran into the printable page count limit on this one (68 pages) and so had to squeeze the material down to the last word (it shows in several places that Bryce very perceptively noticed). But it was a fantastic learning experience. Really puts “what to make room for” into sharp relief.
Next time: More page budget for adventure supporting material, and more room to give descriptions space to breathe. That moldy scroll of charm person deserved better, hehehe!
I honestly couldn’t pay people for better feedback, I appreciate all your eyes so much!
Kelsey! I love shadowdark and have 3 games under my bra with the quickstart rules and this dungeon
As its not released will you switch to a Shadowdark CC-BY license ala Rob?
Alex of campaign wiki also is going CC
Hey Alex! I’m really happy to hear you like Shadowdark! 🙂
I am indeed going to strip out OGL material and switch to a Creative Commons license. Still learning the ins and outs of what that all will need to look like, and I have some IP lawyer calls this week to give me some much-needed pro guidance. Even if OGL 1.0a survives, I don’t trust it anymore.
I’m hoping the game won’t need to be too greatly changed apart from some surface elements (clerics might have to become priests, for example). I’ll try to keep the news from my end regular as things develop!
Awesome to hear! Agreed on the trust lost.
Please reach out to others in the space too. Chris Gonnerman and Matt Finch and Rob at the blog above all have experience in this.
The BFRPG forms are all a buzz with creating a new version for CC.
Awesome! Thank you so much. Matt Finch in particular is someone who I was hoping would have some major insight… will also check with Chris G and Rob!
Well I am gonna ask
Please comment on the RPG or its ability to retain the elements of classical play style that make exploration games fun.