By Curtis Lyon
Three Sages Games
When a chance encounter on the road turns out to have a more nefarious story behind it than meets the eye, you’ve got Gobs o’ Trouble! Are you up to the challenge?
This twelve page adventure describes, like, I don’t know, three encounters? I can pick out something nice here or there, in twelve pages, but it’s still twelve pages for three encounters.
Am I up for the challenge? Well, I don’t know. Well, I do know; probably not. I mean, sure, I’ll match the energy at the table, but, a short con game with three encounters? I mean, probably no. What are the odds tha the DM and the adventure are going to be ok? I mean, it’s mostly the DM, right? Still, I mean, no.
We’re starting out strong with that cover! Not my style, but, hey dud is carrying a human head tied to his saddle, so, Rock On! No level range anywhere on the cover, or in the production description. So, Fuuuuuuuccccckkkkkk Yoooooooou number one.
Title page, and other filler. Let’s see … oh, a disclaimer! “This book uses the supernatural for settings, characters, and themes. All mystical and supernatural elements are fiction and intended for entertainment purposes only. Reader discretion is advised.” So, you know, I almost didn’t make it to the adventure, having been advised that I may not be able to handle it. This fucking disclaimer … look, I’m not against trigger warnings for some serious shit, but you start slapping them on with “Warning: D&D adventure may contain a D&D adventure” then I start my eye rolls.
We start by meeting a farm family on the road, who had obviously had the shit kicked out of them. Bleeding, dirty, exhausted, etc. Mom, holding a pitchfork, calls out “Well met travelers! Do you have any medical supplies?” I love to trot out possible worlds theory, and I’m going to do it again here. In NO possible world does this fucking happen. It’s just forced dialog. “Medical supplies?” seriously? No, it’s some kind of wary hesitancy, a plea for help, screaming and crying kids. Fucking make it viscereal man, not some abstracted and distant vignette that is a mockery of true emotion.
Whatever, I guess I knock adventures these days for not bringing forth true emotion. Meh. Also, it lasts a fucking page. Tofucking tell us that goblins raided their farm and took it over. They held them off and killed a few, so, you know, a party of threes should be able to handle it, I guess. Also, if you kill the family you earn the enmity of the gods. You get no reward, but do get 300xp for helping them. So, you know, that’s worth it. I mentioned the enforced morality, right? Always good to see in adventure. How about we get the quest and then ALSO kill the family? How very Russian!
Off to the farm where you fight some goblin. On no map. No tactical fun. Just kill twelve goblins. I mean, still takes a fucking page to put twelve goblins on the farm. *sigh*. No real treasure here either, but there is a magic sword, with inscription! “Lemja: To strike and maim.” Hey, that’s nice! . You can track them back to their lair, since they got no loot. I can tell this is gonna be an XP poor adventure …
Tracking them back you see some tromped down vegetation. You get attacked by an eight headed hydra. !!!!!! That will wake you the fuck up in the morning! Do do get 3k in gold from this, in its lair, which contains a single good line, where the loot is “mixed in with the remains of
its victims (mostly in the form of bones).” Nice there!
On we go to the goblin source, a cave with two hobgoblins outside. They fight to the death, as do all hobgoblins, the adventure notes, so, you know, no morale checks here. No map of the cave, or anything really, just that there is a cave, two stand outside and that there are eight total with a magic portal inside. It, also, has a nice line “The rotting corpses of a dozen Goblins litter the surrounding area.” Otherwise, just another page to describe something useless.
There’s nothing here but text. Three encounters in twelve pages? Even at a page per I don’t see how you got to twelve? And, no tactical maps, as one might expect in such a short adventure. (I don’t love tactical mas, but I can see how sneaking up on a farm and taking out sentries, etc, could be a little mini-adventure in and of itself.) There’s a line or three, here, that shows that the designer is not devoid of imagination. The tromped down hydra vegetation, the sword, the bodies outside the lair. But there’s just NOTHING HERE. I don’t give a fuck that it’s labeled a short adventure. This is not that.
This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview is two pages and shows the title page. Woo Hoo! That’s certainly enough to tell if you want to buy the adventure. You can read that disclaimer through!
It’s only going to get worse
You know what they say about not judging a book by its cover? Lies!
A lot of great modules have barely any production values, or feature some kind of chicken scratches (apologies to Scrap Princess), but all the modules with this early computer gen cover design are terrible, and always have been.
Five star review! Copper best seller!
Clearly, I have a lot to learn about the publishing business…
Bryce you never reviewed Tabors city called Balkin!
At the least it will cheer you up ?
Bryce you never reviewed Tabors city called Balkin!
At the least it will cheer you up ?
As the recent module contest demonstrated, it’s just not *that difficult* to put a decent adventure together – even a short, eight-page, one. It isn’t. We had some fan-tastic first-time authors.
It does, however, require a working knowledge of the game. Sometimes I wonder how these quasi-adventures come to be. Surely, these authors have read other modules? Run one? … at least *played* in one?
No maps? WTF kind of D&D is this?
Could this be the platonic ideal of a brain-dead and mundane “orcs (ok, goblins) in a hole” lo-level adventure?
Also, will we be getting an “orcs in a hole” contest?
I bet if we get another contest, Bryce makes it a broad category so we don’t get 30 “Fishmen in a floating tower” or whatever theme that he has to review and we have to read. Haha!
So I’m am absolutely not going to defend this adventure or this style of adventure … but … presumably someone put TIME into this. Maybe not as much time as many adventure designers, but at least several, maybe even 20 or more actual human hours. I can’t see anyone doing that out of anything other then that they get some kind of joy out of writing elfgame stuff. Presumably also playing games? Money alone would suggest panhandling as a more lucrative pastime.
If this was written by a person who likes games, and wants to write adventures, why does it struggle this mcuh? I know why it fails at a technical level, it’s written for S&W – an OSR era retroclone, but appears to be designed as a series of 5E style scene based encounters. The writer isn’t entirely locked into the 5E paradigm though, because a hydra doesn’t sound like a balanced encounter. They have absorbed at least one vague idea of what classic adventure design involves – the possibility of asymmetrical encounters. What happened to the rest – like maps?
I don’t blame this designer though. Why are the disparate communities of what was once the OSR so bad at propagating play style and design knowledge? Obviously neither post-1980’s graphic design or mechanical & tonal fidelity to the implied setting of TSR’s D&D will do the work on their own. What might encourage people who lack knowledge but have desire and 10 – 40 hours to actually write a decent exploration adventure?
What might help resolve this issue?
Maybe if people would start (or try) reading again. Books, words, blogs, etc.
No, pithy social media scrawls don’t count.
I don’t know if the person who wrote (designed? apply loosely) this adventure “loves elf-games” or not. Maybe? Probably? But it would appear pretty clear that whoever wrote the thing could probably stand to read more. Read the instructions of the game for which they’re writing. Read classic adventure modules. Read blogs (like this one!) that explain the do’s and don’t’s of adventure writing/design. Read books on technical writing. Read good fiction. Read history. Read…well, just read.
Game books (like published adventures) are a literary medium. Study of the medium requires both practice and research/learning. The practice of writing is in the writing: good. The research of writing is in reading. Without a foundational knowledge base, the practice is going to be shit.
People need to read more.
The answer to propagating knowledge of proper adventure design should begin at actual play/community level and move from that foundation. It is regrettable places what should be places of common discourse like the OSR discord engage in heavy handed censorship and exercise extreme prejudice against oldschoolers based on matters that are peripheral to gaming.
There are healthier communities like the Aaron the pedantic Discord, where there is a broad spread of experience, from recent converts straight from 5e to oldschoolers that have been playing AD&D for 20 years. The result is a spirited exchange of ideas and perspectives, a broad range of opinions, and more importantly, games being run weekly by individuals of various experience levels.
The formulation of theoretical methods can be a useful tool in guiding experimentation but it is the experimentation and the constant ensuing feedback that is the most salient. Ultimately D&D is something that must be experienced as well as taught. It is an observable fact that for every ‘Jaqueying the Dungeon’ there are a thousand posts on theory that are diverting as fodder for discussion but that have no lasting impact.
Try the OSR Pick-Up Games Discord server as well. Very active, relaxed, chill community. Multiple weekly games. Contests. Cool people.
In addition, there is a notion, poorly understood by its detractors, that fealty to the original format of the game endows the adventure with a type of mystical potency that will allow it to succeed where bold innovation will fail. Nothing could be further from the truth.
There is something to be said, however, for using not only the mechanics of the original game but importing a great deal of its components, it’s library of spells, monsters, items and so on as well. Not only are these ‘proven’, in the sense that they have often stood the test of time and have proved subjects of fascination for multiple generations of gamers, there is an intricate arms race between the three, designed not from the top but grown over years of playtesting, that is inherent to the potency of the game. Specifically, countless spells and items exist solely to deal with certain monster attributes and vice versa. Disdaining to use these elements risks invalidating great swathes of the game. New retroclones often lack this refinement and are too often abandoned before any revision or refinement can take place.
It is certainly possible that a wholly original catalogue may be established from the ground up with every bit as much complexity, richness and variety as the original game, but this requires both talent, understanding and extreme persistence, a rare confluence of skills. So unless one is M.A.R. Barker, Oakes Spalding or whoever did the Nightmares Below retroclone, there is a real risk of regression.
It’s the OSR trifecta, modules, campaign worlds, rulesets. We need good modules but every designer seems to want to show off their campaign world () and the tweaks to the rules that they’ve come up with to make their campaign worlds come to life (oh yay! another retroclone!). I understand the motivation. We’re PROUD of our campaign worlds. But no one else cares! The only campaign worlds that really took off were Greyhawk (by EGG so duh!), Forgotten Realms (Ed Greenwood was very good at creating intriguing fluff for Dragon magazine, so TSR had a built-in audience when they bought it from him), and maybe some of the hexcrawl worlds here and there (like Nod). Most of the other campaign worlds that have come out over the years are largely forgotten.
There are no excuses left anymore. Anyone capable of uploading their work to DTRPG can read all the same blog posts that I have (well, except for the blogs that were deleted cause of the Nazis under the bed…). Start somewhere and click around for a few months. It’s just not that fucking hard – if one cares enough to learn.
People do realise this is not a recent offering from a neophyte? The same author had previously written the much better and more substantial “The Beast that Waits”, which has been reviewed here and was awarded “No Regerts”. I’d view this as a (rushed out?) sidequest (that doesn’t add much).
Authors do visit this blog, note the criticisms in the spirit of wanting to improve, and receive nods of approval in the comments. To JB’s sage advice, I would add playtest your work (and play good modules). Superior work abounds in the OSR, just check the “The Best” and “No Regerts” lists. It is the official 5e offerings that deserve the tagline “I know you’ve seen this idea before, but have you ever seen it done this badly?”
Playtest, playtest, playtest! There simply is no substitute.
As with anything else, as PoN mentions above, there’s also no substitute to actually reading and -this is key- running good modules, to learn what works and, perhaps more importantly, HOW it works.
I really feel that an “Appendix N” should be compiled of the most-influential and damn fine modules.
I’d LIKE to agree with folks that actually playing (and playtesting) adventures…or the game, in general…would be advantageous to producing superior adventures. Unfortunately, I think there are a LOT of folks out there who have a very POOR or INCOMPLETE idea of how to actually play D&D. And I mean that in ANY edition, not just 5E with its laissez-faire, company-promoted “Hey-do-what-you-want-it’s-all-good-and-‘fantasy’-just-please-give-us-your-money” attitude.
That’s why I propose reading as a first step.
I would not be surprised to find that Mr. Lyon play-tested his product and/or plays D&D (of some stripe) on a regular basis. Unfortunately there’s D&D and then there’s…mm…a lot of other stuff calling itself D&D. This is not a new phenomenon, by the way. People have been making of D&D “what they will” since the advent of the hobby.
I grant that the rules can be a hazardous wasteland to navigate across MOST editions, but they are the beginning instruction that any would-be designer has to read to have a firm foundation prior to beginning. After that, it would behoove the would-be adventure-maker to read the words of folks who’ve got a lot of experience (possibly DECADES with regard to editions 0 through 3rd) making the game actually work. THEN play the game, reading the Works of The Masters (both literature and adventure module) on the side as supplementary research material.
After THAT you can pen your for-sale text, play-test it, tweak/edit it, and sell it to the general public.
It really doesn’t have to be this hard…or this sloppy. But, hey, I understand laziness. I’m lazy, too. ‘Course, I try not to put my lazy efforts on the internet for sale.
This I agree with – the fetishization of play or reading the old books as a cure for bad adventure design is a 1/2-assed justification. The people writing bad adventures do play, likely more then most old grogs that only get out to North Texas RPG con these days. I suspect many of them have read the books as well.
It’s not even new. The Hickmans certainly read AD&D and played more then any of us ever will … and yet. Reading the books and playing with others who are steeped in the same contemporary gaming culture of 5E doesn’t seem to get people that far – you get questions like “How do I make my OC using the OD&D rules?” It’s not an unwillingness to learn, it’s just a mountain of bad habits. In my last home game playtesting Crystal Frontier stuff I had 3 recent 5 players – they’d been at it for three years before they talked to a work friend who I run for. It took three sessions for them to grasp that trying to go one on one with an owlbear, even for a round, was a bad idea. This is after warning about system from me and other players. The basic concepts of older games and the way they structure play are very very different in contemporary systems and there doesn’t seem to be a sense that they are a difference preference around rules, but that 5E’s conventions are RPGs. It’s a hard thing to break through.
The primary means of propagating D&D play style these days is stuff like Critical Roll, so trying to badger and cajole folks at the local game shop into playing OD&D as a pedagogical exercise, even if it works, is not going to inspire a huge number of folks. Most of the people who like Critical Roll won’t ever want to run a procedural dungeon crawl – they want a supers game with fantasy bits glued on. Fine, I played a lot of Champions in 1987. It was fun.
However, there’s people like the author of this Gob adventure who despite an obvious interest in classic style, and certainly the aesthetic trappings, just don’t seem to get it. Obviously scattered blog posts, many going dark or turning into dead links as the internet rushes headlong, privacy regulations change every month, and blogger is a dead product, are insufficient. The cryptic utterances of Gygax (and he has some good ones — but they take some hunting for) or Moldvay’s attempt to offer simple rules with simple explanations aren’t enough either. I can’t ask someone to spend 10 years in study before they publish something – this is a hobby not a doctorate.
I’m not saying I have an answer but I know it’s not being mired in nostalgia, weird worshipful nonsense about the old ways of …1976, and telling people to Git Gud. There’s gotta be a better way.
Curious reasoning. I’ll repeat with more detail: the very good The Beast That Waits was added to the DriveThruRPG catalogue on 23/8/14, before Gobs o’ Trouble on 13/5/15. As well as “No Regerts” from Bryce, The Beast That Waits has three actual reviews on DriveThru, one of which is substantial. If I do have a criticism it would be that the NPCs are workmanlike rather than inspired, although nothing is as bad as the clunky dialogue that Bryce notes above. The theory that Beast That Waits was carefully prepared using actual table play and that Gobs o’ Trouble was a rushed sequel, without proper testing, trying to capitalise on the success of the former, is much better fit to the facts.
Tracy Hickman’s work is strong on ideas, but sometimes weak on mechanics. I take it you have studied I3 Pharaoh and I6 Ravenloft? In the former there are 4HD dervishes with less than 4hp, and in the latter you can randomly encounter 6 spectres in the castle. Any competent playtesters would have picked this up.
The way one gets better at most activities in life is by practice, preferably with people more knowledgeable than oneself. Aaron the Pedantic seems a very nice fellow, and I’m sure people would be made welcome on his Discord. The play reports Prince posts indicate initial blunders then considerable improvement in playing skill, as well as much enjoyment. If players like Prince’s Keep on the Borderlands game, they might be ready to run the likes of Ironwood Gorge for themselves.
Another possibility is using programmed paragraph solo adventures as teaching tools, both for neophyte referees as well as players. Grave of the Green Flame (see Bryce’s review) is a good one, with Into the Unknown (also from Pacesetter Games) decent. For the former I’d let two characters attempt it (with another rolling for the monsters). Really good solos for D+D are a bit thin on the ground, but happily some top class efforts by David Pulver for The Fantasy Trip are being translated for OSE.
I also enjoyed a large amount of Champions back in the day. Knockback may be the single greatest gam mechanic yet invented.
FYI> DTRPG is tightening down on things and yes you will be seeing more disclaimers and warning labels for what appears to be ludicrous reasons so the publisher and/or their works won’t get taken down or even banned. You better get used to it!