By David Maynard Maynard OSE Levels 3-5
Depending on who you ask, Gemeria was a hero, sorceress, illusionist, artificer, witch, artist, poet, trickster, seductress, or villain. She made her mark on history, becoming incorporated into children’s fables playing all of those roles. Her cryptic language of mystic glyphs is carved into the walls of every significant city and dungeon in the world. A century later, her secret lair has been discovered, potentially holding the key to her secrets. The race is on to decipher her code and profit off the knowledge and power contained in her home.
This 24 page adventure uses twelve pages to describe a 33 room dungeon with substantial puzzle-ish elements. Light on encounters but with factions, it presents a different, “longer” experience than most of us are going to be used to these days. I wish the grapes tasted like grapes, though.
Once you make it through the seemingly impossible gauntlet of Making The DM Not Want To Tear Their Eyes Out, what next? That elusive DESIGN criteria. This is what we have in Gemeria. An adventure that hits the marks on most points but fails, I think, in Design.
First, an overview. There’s a dungeon. The wizard who owned it is dead now. She’s famous for making painting and spray painting weird graffiti words on walls. There are two groups of NPC’s in the dungeon, vying for control: a band of humans on one side and then a band of monsters and bandits led by a wizard on the other. Those are going to be your three primary points of interactivity: deciphering a glyph code, figuring out how to use paintings as teleporters (and grabbing the paint needed to do it) and interacting with the two factions. That will be the main thrust of the review.
Beyond this we have a simple to follow writing style. Here’s the text for room one: “This room features a ragged, faded carpet spread over a perfectly flat stone floor. Light in this room (and the rest of the dungeon) radiates softly but evenly from ceiling tiles 20 feet high. A painting hangs on the left wall over the remains of a table that has been torn to splinters.” It’s relatively terse, easy to follow. Not exactly the most evocative but not odious either and it does try, with “splinters” and ragged and faded. The format then follows up with more details on the painting, highlighted in bold, with some cross references to where the painting leads to.
So far we’re batting a thousand. Descriptions are on the shorter side, easy to scan, good bolding and cross-references. Magic items have short little descriptions that are pretty good, along with some effect variety. “A golden goblet with glittering gems set into it that smell strongly of turpentine. Glyphs are carved into the bottom of the cup.” Or saying the command word for a magic sword, awakening it for a turn. They FEEL like OD&D items, and that’s a VERY good thing. A magic hatchet, not an axe. A world of mystery and wonder. The dungeon factions get decent easy to follow descriptions, some goals, have enough to them that you can run them easily with some variety, and there’s a timeline to help the DM advance the plot a bit for their impending clash. And the advice is generally good. The most iconic being “The temptation to have the players discover the glyph’s meaning organically through the cyphers might cause GM’s to disallow Read Language or Read Magic in this case. DO NOT DO THIS! Reward the player for their unorthodox spell investment!” Yes indeed! That’s old school.
“And, so, Bryce, what’s the issue?”
Well, I think maybe it’s the pacing. The map is pretty straightforward, essentially two halves of the dungeon, each half controlled by a faction. A main hallway connects them, as well as two “hidden’ paths. (I kind of like the map. Essentially very simple,. But with some variety in style that makes it seem more than it is.)
There is, essentially, nothing going on in this place.
All of the encounters will be with wanderers (slightly silly ones) or with the factions, with only a single area containing creatures otherwise. The factions, while well done, need a little more oomph to them. Some plotting. Some probing actions. A list of things to get them MOVING beyond the simple timer they have.
The puzzles are essentially the party figuring out the cypher and finding some painting to make magic painting portals work. And most of the paint shit is in one room at one end of the dungeon.
This makes for, I think, a very slow play experience. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Imagine a session, hyperbolically, in which the party only explore two rooms. And not in a 3e style, but in an OD&D style. We work all night on two puzzles. Again, thats hyperbolic, but, I think, puts you in the right frame of mind when I say a slow experience. Thoughtful, perhaps?
Again, encounter density is VERY light, relying mostly on wanderers. Factions, while not completely static, to tend in that direction far more than they do not. Puzzles are puzzly and, I think, a little location loaded. I don’t know. I could be wrong. It could play fine. But I’ve played enough to think that, perhaps, it won’t. I’m also in VERY dangerous reviewing territory right now because I’ve overlapping my own tastes. I think some options in playstyle in my dungeons, but one note dungeons turn me off and this is, I think, a little too slow paces for me.
But, also, this is not odious. The text is NOT hard to follow, it’s easy to follow. The writing could be a little more evocative, but, that fucking shit is hard to do and it’s not BAD in that department. I might label this a fine journeyman effort … if a little too focused on one playstyle.
This is $5 at DriveThru. There’s only a quick preview and no full sized one. Tsl tsk tsk. We need to see a few dungeon rooms to see if this is worth buying ahead of time.
“Read Magic” is unorthodox?
Hi Bryce thank you for the review! As mentioned on my Drivethru page, my Itch page has almost the complete adventure available to preview for free. I was not happy with the formatting that drivethru imposed when I attempted to post a full size preview there. It’s my intention to make the preview the whole adventure for my products, maybe I’ll start a thread in the forum to learn how best to format in Drivethru going forward.
My players had no lack of things to interact with and they could find a fight if they wanted one, so I felt comfortable with the encounter density. I think a lot of how it’s run is dependant on the dm making the factions come alive and keeping the players engaged, something easier for me to do since I created them. Maybe I didn’t do enough work to get that onto the page.
As it’s the first adventure I’ve published No Regerts was about the best I could hope for. I appreciate your guidance and look forward to putting that energy into my next adventure.
Great attitude. This was a very positive review, and a “No Regerts” is a fine distinction.
Good luck for the next one. I still remember one commentary from the 1980s that may be at the root cause of Bryce’s discomfort. The author used the situation of PCs in a dungeon opening a door and finding an ogre torturing a kobold. If the PCs simply close the door and walk away, what will they find when they come back to the same door a week later?
When they open it will they find the same scene (Implying everything ‘freezes’ outside the PCs line-of-sight.), or will the situation have changed to reflect what was observed earlier. It’s the difference between a static and a dynamic environment. As Bryce points out, the scenario tends towards the ‘static’ end of the spectrum.
Hey Bryce, I’d like to request a review of my first module “Scales of the Seafarers” for OSE. It’s up on Drive Thru. Thanks for all you do, and thanks for your time if you do end up taking a look at my module.