By Jacob Fleming Gelatinous Cubism OSE Low Levels (ha!) to Mid Levels.
In the desolate and forbidding canyon lands, Hurloror Canyon is home to only the bravest and most hardy. The road that leads through it is the only way to navigate this dangerous wilderness. Travelers and merchants alike must face the canyon so that trade and commerce between city states can carry on. Much depends on the road remaining open and unimpeded. Fort Davelmag, the only safe refuge in the canyonlands, stands as a beacon for weary travelers and a testament to the will of the lawful. Once a military fortification built to hold off the advancing forces of chaos, now a way station for merchants and caravans, with a small detachment loyal to the crown stationed here. Now the residents of the Fort face a far more devious threat than the harsh environment or hungry beasts. Through the Valley of the Manticore has players traverse winding sandstone slot-canyons and explore natural cave systems rumored to contain hidden relics of immense value and magical power. Sooner or later they may realize that they are mere pawns in a game being played by an unnaturally intelligent monster. They will need cunning as well as strength in order to overcome this bizarre and terrifying tale.
This 48 page digest adventure, not really a hex crawl, contains a small region, a kind of valley in the desert, with a few small dungeons and a few quests in a trading post related to them. It’s formatted rather well, generally, and is trying to be interactive in places, but comes off a bit bland, which i snot helped by the minimalist descriptive style.I don’t hate it, and it’s intriguing in some ways … but not enough to run it.
Hex map, six mile hexes, with the map being six hexes wide and four tall. There is a town, a small desert watch/caravan stop, described as well as four dungeons, ranging from four to sixteen rooms. The dungeon maps are rather simple and the hex map has some roads through it, with the dungeons hanging off the road … with a couple of exceptions. Two two not on side roads consist of “head up in to the hills and figure out why the spring aint flowing anymore” and “follow the manticore back to its lair.” I mention this because this is listed as a hexcrawl when, in fact, it’s just a small region. All of the dungeons are related to subplots going on in the fort.
The forts your home base. The militia at the fort are on edge; a manticore has shown up and ate two of them. And, also, Frank the guard killed one of the caravan people stopping for reupply, they are pissed and not leaving until justice is done .. and he claims he don’t remember doing it though he obviously did. Also, the forts water supply is drying up. Also, the caravan leader wants a tomb robbed. Also, some other merchants kids went off to rob a different tomb.
Formatting is good. You get a little description for each room and some indents and bolding to help call out some special features that appear lower down in the text. Essentially, it’s paragraph form, if the paragraph is short and references other information well. And has appropriate cross-references. There’s an exception to two the formatting being well done … the overview of the fort, for example, is essentially all paragraph and could have done with some indents/bullets/bolding, etc to help call out the more important pieces. But, overall, not bad at all and fits the needs.
Interactivity is ok. Meh, better than ok, I guess. Each dungeon has a couple of traps and a secret or two to explore. Teleporter, Well of Souls, etc. There’s an altar in one that you have to make a sacrifice at in order to open a secret door. The advice given is to be generous in how you treat the word “sacrifice.” I can handle that, and prefer things that way … let the DM interpret the player intentions. Money, a dead body, spilt blood, whatever. It’s the intention that counts 🙂 I guess I’m unhappy with the interactivity because of the lack of depth here. It’s all pretty self-contained and, given the small size of the dungeons, theres only so much room to get your interactivity on.
The real issue with this thing is that its a minimally keyed adventure. A minimal key that LOOKS like more than that.
The entries FEEL like they have some weight to them. About six per page, or so, in two column digest format should be ok. And they are all a couple of paragraphs long with some bullets following for more information on specific room details/secrets. That should be cool, right?
But it’s not.
Let’s take a look at a couple of entries, shall we? “Giant Scorpions [incline state block] are kept here as pets. The floors here are slick with rotting blood and scattered with bones.” or “a group of gnolls [stat block] are eating meat from a recent hunt around a fire.”
You see, now, I hope and pray, what I mean by a minimalistic description. These are about at the level of the more interesting B2 description, with orcs shooting dice. And while that level of description is better than just “5 gnolls”, it’s not by much. Especially in 2022. When looking at these descriptions it/s pretty obvious what the issue is: conclusions. “Are kept here as pets” is a meaningless statement. It attempts to explain why there are scorpions here. As does “From a recent hunt” in the gnoll description. Descriptions which draw conclusions, explain history, and meaningless backstory are not good descriptions. Good descriptions actually DESCRIBE. What, about the room and scorpions, would make a player say “oh, they are pets!” That should be the description. Put them on chains. Put a collar on them. Something. The same with the gnolls. Put a carcass, hung upside down with an arrow in it, in the room, with maybe something fun done with the guts. “Ah!” the players says “they have just killed it on a hunt!” It is the job of the designer to bring the environment to life and inspire the DM so they can do as much for the players. And this don’t do that. Again and again it don’t do that. Again and again it is a minimalistic description that, in some cases, somehow takes up A LOT of space.
“The door to this room is trapped. If triggered there is a poison needle that will stab whoever tripped it. However the poison used on the needle is from one of the scorpions kept in room 3 and is not a lethal dose. [Poison effects follow]” This is all garbage. It is all meaningless. It is all padding. It is built up justification. It’s a door with a poison needle trap [poison effects.] Done. IF triggered … really, IF? We don’t do if’s when writing.
It does this over and over again. Padding to no effect. Minimalist descriptions. The adventure LOOKS good. The formatting is nice. The art is nice. It’s on the right track to providing a little sandboxy region to have some fun in. But, it’s weak. Very much so. Writing good descriptions is hard. I think it’s the hardest part. I don’t hate this, but, I’d pick something better.
Oh, shit, I do want to mention, though, that this has some great monster selection. A roper shows up at an interesting time. The use of a scorpionoids, a black pudding, akrell. The fucking manticore itself in an arid environment. Really good monster selection here.
This is $10 at DriveThru. No preview because it’s broken. 🙁
Is it me or is this thing a poster child for OSE in general? Great formatting, great layout, cutesy artstyle. Threadbare substance. Novice level understanding of how to make a good adventure.
I fear that the bullet-point format is moving toward what Bryce would have once described as an “outline of an adventure.”
Having said that, “Giant Scorpions [incline state block] are kept here as pets. The floors here are slick with rotting blood and scattered with bones.” or “a group of gnolls [stat block] are eating meat from a recent hunt around a fire.” are perfectly fine. Not every encounter area has to be an entire page.
While I agree with you those are fine short entries, but I think Bryce was using them to articulate a way to write the same scenario, but to evoke imagery in the player’s minds.
Bryce has given this same advice many several times, but in this review, he really puts it together nicely, I think:
“When looking at these descriptions it/s pretty obvious what the issue is: conclusions. “Are kept here as pets” is a meaningless statement. It attempts to explain why there are scorpions here. As does “From a recent hunt” in the gnoll description. Descriptions which draw conclusions, explain history, and meaningless backstory are not good descriptions.
Good descriptions actually DESCRIBE. What, about the room and scorpions, would make a player say “oh, they are pets!” That should be the description. Put them on chains. Put a collar on them. Something. The same with the gnolls. Put a carcass, hung upside down with an arrow in it, in the room, with maybe something fun done with the guts. “Ah!” the players says “they have just killed it on a hunt!” It is the job of the designer to bring the environment to life and inspire the DM so they can do as much for the players.”
It’s writing 1 oh 1: show don’t tell.
E.g scorpions in chains or saddled shows us they are pets. Instead author tells us.
Showing is harder than telling. It adds another step beyond the initial idea, “wouldn’t it be a cool twist if the scorpions were pets” and requires you to think about how to show that without literally just telling the players.
The third and better step is to make it _interactive_, what can the scorpions DO that shows you they are pets? Maybe they escape through a doggy door or can be summoned by a whistle. Maybe if you ring the gong in room x they arrive expecting dinner?
When you have a cool idea, the hard thinking is in implementing those other two steps.
I really wish the author would collaborate with someone who does good interactive dungeons. I backed his last Kickstarter because I do like the format, art, and overland content, and he I likes this Manticore more than Silver Axe, so I hope the next one will actually be truly good. I am probably not smart.
I really wish the [professional] would collaborate with someone who does [essential part of product]. I [paid for an earlier product] because I do like the [superfluous, surface level detail], so I hope the next one will actually be truly good. I am probably not smart.
You are most certainly correct on that last part.
Reponding to someone correctly pointing out that you are a shallow bovine moron tempted by surface polish and layout with a tiny quip does not diminish its observable reality.
That is a lot of words to say, “I am a massive asshole.”
‘Comes off a bit bland, which I snot…’
Bryce, never change, I love you!
This sounds like something I’d actually get a kick out of, sometimes a good skeleton to flesh out is what you need and this has solid bones. Unfortunately, $10 seems a bit steep for something that I’d use as an outline, not a meaty full course.
Yeah, $10 is a tough price point. That’s “Stonehell.” That’s “The Palace of Unquiet Repose.”
Stonehell is outstanding achievement and should be required reading for anyone who would try to write a mega dungeon and even more so for the sandbox authors!
To be fair, and as much as I wish it were otherwise, “The Palace of Unquiet Repose” is *unusually* excellent for the $10 price point.
Was waiting for this review and was rooting for the author because he seems to have the art and formatting down, disappointing that it still fell a little short. I know people like the authors adventures because it is “vanilla” but it just seems like there are better options.
I feel like the author is one writing class away from greatness or perhaps even a real life spelunking adventure to spark the creative juices. Third time may be the charm.
It doesn’t sound to me that the bullet points are the issue, or the art, or the layout – it’s very easy to blame a work’s difficulties on its outward appearance, but except in really specific cases these aren’t likely to make an adventure fail (though it doesn’t sound like this one fails). It seems clear where Bryce’s complaints stem from – a certain blandness and minimalism that still manages to have more padding then substance.
Bullet points are a shibboleth. Winter’s Daughter and Hall of the Blood King both get Bryce’s approval despite the use of bullet points keying. The first could be ascribed to Gavin Norman’s own skill with his preferred method, but the second is someone else’s work. It’s work to make bullet point style of keys good, just like any other style. Style alone doesn’t determine is something will be good or bad though and at least with art, if it’s good it’s likely to help fill in gaps in description.
I’ve been picking up adventures at a fairly steady clip lately. The format of Winter’s Daughter/Grotto is being aped by OSE products and it is leading to outline-styled scenarios. It’s an odd trend.
I get it, I don’t 100% love it myself, but I understand it works well enough, and it’s the OSE house style. OSE published products generally do it well I’ve thought, but obviously that doesn’t mean everyone can. Like any trend a lot of people trying to follow it won’t understand it or do the best job.
Good bullet points manages a very clean key that’s easy to take in at a glance and still has more room for details then the old “thick minimalism” of something like G1, but it’s more white space on a page then I like. Also like minimalism generally I don’t know it always gets enough information and detail, plus I don’t think it’s great for every style of adventure — but I like verbose description (within reason, not 90’s Dungeon or anything) so that all may just be personal.
There’s “buy a smaller car to reduce weight” and then there’s “remove the wheels to reduce weight” and we shouldn’t call these the same thing.
I think both Winter’s Daughter (which I think is the first appearance of that format, but quite frankly I should look back at Norman’s Wormskin scenarios and the Weird that Befell Drigbolton to confirm) and Grottos use the format well, although it can be jarring at first glance. It’s funny you refer to G1 as, in my opinion (and including G3), that mix of terse yet evocative writing remains the Platonic Ideal (never forget that G1 has two dungeon levels, factions, personalities, the Weird, wandering monsters and a wonderful “What’s in the giant’s bag?” table; it’s legitimately for high-level play, yet clocks in at 8 pages (and not White Dwarf 8-point font 8 pages)).
When done well, as Norman does, it can quickly provide information in easy-to-see chunks. When done poorly, I think it’s *less* descriptive in some cases. I think the author can spare a few complete sentences to describe the room. I’m only noting that I’m seeing this become, at least in OSE products, THE format to be followed and, when done improperly, the result is the very kind of module that’s not a module – it’s an outline. I, for one, pick up modules because while I do write modules, I don’t have a lot of time and I’m a naturally slow writer, therefore it’s a slog. I’m not leaving my group to twiddle their thumbs or play Magic; I need scenarios that I can run. I don’t want to buy- and won’t intentionally buy- “adventure seeds” that I then have to fill out.
I mentioned G1, because I also think it’s likely Gygax’s best adventure/one of the best early adventures, and it represents both a successful stylistic experiment and highlights Gygax at his best. He could fit a complex situation with interesting evocative bits into a very few lines. It’s a style that’s not my preference, but he’s damn good at it — most imitators aren’t. I’m also not sure his aesthetics hold up after 40 years of being absolutely pummeled to death, but as an adventure G1 is solid as hell.
I’m certainly not going to disagree that bullet points can fail, but I think done right they aren’t simply an outline. Like most design choices they are fit for certain things, with advantages and disadvantages and only work if the designer knows why and how to use them.
The issue with the adventure here, if we take Bryce at his word, would remain in what I’m that Gygax style I’m calling Thick Minimalism. The issue is useless padding: unknowable past events, clumsy phrasing, a lack of descriptive detail that the referee can latch onto to visualize the space.
I tend to think this fault may stem from writing things up from/as home adventure notes?
When you write your own adventure (heck I usually just scribble cryptic things on a map) you’re likely to have it all in your head, you’ve visualized it as you thought through the space.
When you write for publication you need to give the referee reading it tools to visualize it themselves. I think details, colors and esoteric words that make the reader pause and think a bit work, but that’s another issue. However the designer does it writing for others has to spark imagination rather act as a sort of memory cue for “pre-sparked” stuff that exists in the designers head.
I agree G1 is an excellent adventure: clear map, interesting tactical possibilities, covers much in 8 pages (in part by leaning on the Monster Manual). But was Gygax the only author able to effectively use this format? I offer The Pod-Caverns of Sinister Shroom as a counterexample.
Regarding “OSE House Style”, I like Brad Kerr’s use of the couple of extra sentences that inspire the referee, see for example Hideous Daylight. Otherwise there is a danger of not giving enough detail (either tactical or descriptive) to make your centrepieces work.
Are these the only possible styles one might use? Of course not. There could be an interesting discussion of Peril in Olden Wood when Bryce completes his review. Not only a strong adventure, but beautifully organised and laid out.
Having said all that, I’m for substance over style. Give me a manuscript brim full of good ideas and playable material with fine maps (e.g. Melonath Falls) over a well presented but essentially empty offering.
It’s become an indicator for a deeper underlying problem. There is, Winter’s Daughter exempted (Halls of the Blood King was clumsy and crude and was simply aping Bryce’s standards without understanding them), a lack of craftsmanship, depth and understanding to a lot of these new modules that stems from inexperience on the one hand, and lack of theoretical and thematic foundation on the other. What are hit points, what is a campaign supposed to look like, what is adventuring based on? This has been lost in a telephone-game stretching back half a century.
Worse, the benchmark has shifted so that this surface level presentation, utility, art and layout becomes the focus of the work. No one has ever claimed that better presentation will make a work worse, but for want of anything better, presentation and art has become the primary outlet. Reviews (exempting Bryce) rave about how useful something is because there is no frame of reference to even evaluate the content. Something vestigial to the actual playing of the game has become paramount.
I want to live in a world where something has the density of something like Melonath Falls, written with the evocative prose of Patrick Stuart and embellished by Chris Cold. But unless people are aiming for the absolute stars, that is not happening. So instead we get the embellishment sort of, and the evocative prose, well, we get chopped up machine-language trash, and the density is largely stripped out to accommodate the new format. We are lucky if we get mediocrity. The Utility Standard has become a yoke.
If you aspire to cultural criticism you should be able to envision and articulate an ideal for new material and that ideal should be prescriptive. Instead you throw, not undeserved, but misguided, punches at something like Dwarrow Deep for being stuck in the past, while having to play bullet catcher for all manner of modern modules of abysmal quality because they are in your circles. Not an enviable fate.
Forgive the comment section mugging, PoN–any timeframe for a sequel to The Palace of Unquiet Repose?
Bryce’s reviews are bland and highly predictable but assholes usually are
Perhaps you should find a zestier category of assholes from which to sample flavors.
but then I wouldn’t get so entertained by his bullshit reviews fueled by his ego. I am waiting for Bryce to actually write a worthwhile adventure since he is a self-appointed expert on this subject
Where in your shitty module that Bryce’s with his review that hurted your ego so much, son? Grow a pair and do better work next time.
My asshole is pretty predictable but it’s never bland.