The Secret of the Wood of Dark Bough

The Secret of the Wood of Dark Bough
Footprints 20
R. N. Bailey
Levels 3-5

… An angry mob rushed to arrest the suspected Ostenheim farmers. Eight men of that community were given a quick trial and found guilty. These men are now held in Alfandi. In five days’ time, they are to be executed for practicing black magic on their neighbors….

This 31 page adventure details a wilderness region, a small wilderness lair, and then a three level bullywug dungeon. It’s a real 1e dungeon, for better or ill, that is magazine formatted. So, you’ll get a kick in the balls trying to run it but it’s the real deal. A classic 1e adventure right out of 81.

ObInsult: Ah yes, the hardcore 1e gang. Where the height of game design and formatting was whatever Gary shit out in 1981. Alas, for us all, it was pretty good design …

So, the village of Bumfuck has had some crops fail. They blame the village of Asshattery and their black magic. They kidnap eight farmers from there and are executing them in a few days time. You learn of this and attempt mediation. In looking at the Bumfuck farms, you find some tracks, follow them in to the woods, find a siren in her lair and learn of a stolen magic cup, go back to town to confront the thief about the crop-withering cup only to learn that bullwugs in the swamp stole it … and set off to go get it back so as to provide an alternate theory and free the villagers. As a B/X five, I’d probably just kill everyone, but, we’re in “realistic” 1e land, so, we murder ourselves with labour (U1, biatches!) for 2000gp in treasure. Along the way we get a handful of farms to investigate, a handful of locations in the woods, a siren lair with a few roms, a swamp with a handful of locations, and a three level bullywug lair. 

There is a casual realism here that I greatly appreciate. The mob and fueding villages is very well done. Petty grievances, some jumping to conclusions about evidence, and so on make civil hands unclean. The villages, proper, are well done, with almost no shops. One has a Drink Hall instead f an inn, and you can all sleep in it for a cp. No private room bullshit here! The creatures, as enemies, and the locations extend this kind of realism. Not just things to stab, but also not a useless backstory and history garbage. 

This thing is TIGHT. I mentioned all of the locations, and, with that page count, you’ve got to expect that there’s a been tight job of writing/editing. You get a page of backstory, or so, but, other than that there’s almost no wasted space. None of this “appears to be” shit or integrated what used to be or motivations in the room descriptions. There are some spare words, you’re not getting a flavourless minimalism, but its realism without simulation and a focus on actual game play. Exactly the fuck the way an adventure should be written.

Interactivity here is … subtle. For the most part you’re following breadcrumbs, talking to folks, and stabbing things. Generally, the monsters know something and thus capturing and questioning works for the trail. There’s a shrine to maybe leave an offering in. Or, an underwater cave to discover and swim through. Mostly, this is going to be the party using all of their 1e abilities to overcome things that are at their level. We’re not talking an environment set up against the party, but rather a more natural, neutral environment, with the associated interactivity. 

Decent NPC’s, with their descriptions focused on play rather than backstory. A great little timeline of local events that take place, and where a roving band of miscreants is at any one time, for the party to perhaps stumble upon. The lack of an order of battle for the bullywugs, in their lair, is a somewhat obvious miss. I guess they get what they deserve then 😉

Right now out 1e friends are masturbating furiously over this. And they will continue to do so in spite of …

This is magazine formatted. Magazine formatting is something I discovered in my Dungeon Magazine odyssey. Basically, you’re getting two column, with some bolding. Overall the formatting options appear (for magazine reasons?) to be quite limited when things appear in that medium. This severely limits the possibilities for bringing clarity and scanability to an adventure … something high up on my list. (And, everyone else’s, since “they are hard to run” is the number one complaint, year after year, about prepublished adventures.) This seems to be a common problem. Or, at least, a refusal to deviate from a house style. That’s a miss. The long form paragraph is not the end all and be all of formatting. It can absolutely work, but, also, it is almost certainly not going to work if you don’t work the entries hard with editing and/or keep the entries short. And, all that 1e realism is NOT contributing to keeping the entries short.

We’ve traded evocative writing for gygaxian naturalism. Both can work, although I find High Gygaxian a little distant. The writing here, especially for the descriptions, can be very hit or miss for that reason. “Steady drips of water fall from the ceiling, a few inches of foamy water cover the floor, and flaky, white mold grows on the walls.” I find the overall effect here to be a bit distancing, or coldly written, but steady drips, format water, and flaky white mold are all hitting exactly what they should be. So, not rock star but also not bad at all. But then we get to “In the center of this cave sits a 3’x3’x3’ flat-topped chest of iron.” This is not exactly the best room description ever written. There’s this steady cadence, both in the descriptions and in the DM text, of 1e descriptive elements. Exact dimensions. And dear god, if I have to read “If there is a ranger or druid in the party then the tracks …” one more time I’m gonna have a head burst. “This cavern has a 15; high ceiling and a strong musty smell” is not going to do it for me. 

Which, again, leads to the primary interactivity in this adventure: fucking up dudes. Because, if you’re playing 1e like it’s 4e, then you’ve got enough information to fuck up the dudes present. 

Thus, it ain’t cutting it for me. I could debate the merits of high 1E for a long time. I believe, though, that if you are in to high 1E then I’ve already told you enough that you’re going to check this out. For everyone else … there are other fish in the sea.

Yo, free at Dragonsfoot. You should absolutely check out their magazine, Footprints, at least once in your life, if only to see how the other half lives.

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29 Responses to The Secret of the Wood of Dark Bough

  1. Gnarley Bones says:

    Look at that lovely. Not a single bullet point to be found; complete sentences galore. Good maps (great wilderness map, actually) not artificially confined to what a printer can fit on a page of an A4 digest. Specific PC level range provided, thught-out NPCs and decent gaming content that appears -doth mine eyes deceive me- to be playtested? Yep. This is rigged for win. A welcome respite from the Powerpoint-Presentation-of-a-Module rut that our hobby seems to stuck in. Well done, Mr. Bailey.

  2. Dave says:

    Not even a Regerts? But, from Bryce, that’s a positive review even without any tags. I’ll check it out.

  3. Anonymous says:

    This was published 9 years ago. Clearly adventure-writing have degraded since then. Bryce bears a big share of that blame.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Yep, 2023’s cutting edge adventure design principle as espoused by Necrotic Gnome and the OSE fandom (and Bryce) seems to be:

    Word, word (word*, word) word (word**).
    * Bullet point: players doing word to word* activate word.
    ** Bullet point: word** is a word; probing it with word causes word to word

    Most definitely not anything involving a full-formed sentence.

    • Anonymous says:

      Bryce and many more believe that an adventure is a technical document meant to help the dm run it. So yes, the ose style is a winner. And it only applies in dungeons. All the backstories, npc descriptions and so on are full sentence evocative. How is that a bad design?

      • Anonymous says:

        I love my bullet points as much as the next guy but the OSE format is almost subliterate. Everything feels flat, paper thing and devoid of substance. There must be a golden mean between giant unformatted paragraphs and bullet points of machine code.

      • Gnarley Bones says:

        For starters, the “ease of use” element of reviewing modules has subsumed all other elements. It’s become an entirely fictional conceit that a “good adventure” is one that a DM can just plop down at the table and run without reading it first. That doesn’t actually happen in real life. When you read something like this piece or Tomb of the Iron God or the Hyqueous Vaults, or even something more recent like The Waking of Willoughby Hall, is there any doubt that they are easily run – provided that a DM actually *prepare* for gaming, as DMs have all done since the very first game? Read G1, any problems at all? None. This PowerPoint format is a solution in search of a problem.

        OSE’s format, created by OSE’s creator Gavin Norman, was meant to provide a tightly organized module. And his works, Winter’s Daughter and the Incandescent Grottoes for example, they work brilliantly. And they work because after the now-hallmark OSE bulletpoints, the DM actually finds the meat of the encounter area.

        As we’ve repeatedly seen, there are authors merely aping his style and the PowerPoint/Bullet-Point is the *entirety* of the piece. This one organization element of Necrotic Gnome’s modules has devoured actual content.

        It’s more than Ok, indeed preferred, that an Author include whole sentences, paragraphs and whatever else is needed to convey the piece. Slavish adherence to the PowerPoint style results in *outlines,* not modules.

        • John says:

          If you’re running a classical sandbox with three dozen different dungeons and have no idea where the players might choose to go in a given session, you’ll find the exhortation to “actually *prepare* for gaming” unnecessarily condescending. I’m unfamiliar with OSE’s house format but G1 I would certainly convert to my own teletype-style of notes before placing it on a hex map. Choosing completely at random (I rolled a D20):

          “17. KITCHEN: This is a typical giant kitchen with counters along the walls, several tables, benches, a stool or two, and various items for cooking and baking (pots, kettles, bowls, knives, forks, spoons, ladles, spits, and so forth). There are 29 orc slaves about the place who will run away from any strong-looking party. The 5 giantess serving maids and 11 young ogre servants will also run, but they will call for help. (Assume all creatures herein have absolutely average hit points, the ogres having but 12 due to their age.) There is nothing of value. (See 18. below for further details of the items about the place.)”

          G1 is far better than most, but I dare you to tell me that’s an optimal room description.

          • Gnarley Bones says:

            Yep, that’s absolutely rigged for win.

            And, as you conceded that you are unfamiliar with the conceit that *everyone else here* is discussing, maybe you ought to bring yourself up to speed.

            What’s the worst that could happen, you might actually find yourself agreeing?

            Quelle horreur.

          • John says:

            I was addressing your comment specifically, not the discussion at large. If you don’t care to respond to nitpicking, that’s fine, but I ignore your attempt to blow me off by telling me to go read OSE.

          • Malrex of the Merciless Merchants says:

            17. KITCHEN: Several sweaty orcs and five giantess bark orders at one another while rummaging and dodging through hot stove tops, giant-sized counters, tables, benches, stools and various items for cooking.
            *The orcs and giantess run away from a strong-looking party, screaming for help (check Area #18 and #19 for response).
            *Despite knives (treat as daggers), there is nothing of value.
            This is not the best example, but the original is not rigged to win because it takes time to read the whole paragraph (that is inter-mingled with both player and DM info) AND there is a chance the DM reads everything contained in the paragraph which would break immersion and gain eyerolls from the players.. In my example, the DM can read the beginning—and while the Players process the info and decide on what to do, the DM can glance quickly at the bullet points to prepare for their actions so that overall it saves time or flows better.
            However, bullet point descriptions found in most OSE adventures (the first paragraph describing the room), I find dry and difficult to use and prefer full sentences (see above example). In my opinion, bullet points should only be used for DM notes and not in the description bit. I also respect those who are able to ad lib with just a few words but I am not that type of person. And also, I’m in the camp of if you agree to be a DM, then you should take responsibility to read over the sections/prepare before play rather than relying solely on a quick glance during play–it just creates a better gaming experience.

          • Anonymous says:

            ‘Classical sandbox with 3 dozen dungeons’

            Have you run a sandbox? What is the frequency of dungeons in a sandbox? How many hexes do you seperate those dungeons.

          • John says:

            @Anonymous Answering in order: yes; whatever you want it to be but for a large campaign typically enough that you can’t rely on staying familiar with every single dungeon; thirty four across a fifty by thirty three hex map in my campaign (so a separation of about seven hexes) but I would recommend considerably fewer hexes and fewer dungeons for anyone not comfortably experienced with the playstyle.

        • Bryce Lynch says:

          This is all correct. I might quibble somewhat at the leading Ease of Use comment, but otherwise spot on. There are many, many ways to reach San Jose. I do think that the house OSE style is slightly easier to gain good results from for a beginning writer. Which is five 9’s of adventure writers.

          An outline is not the problem. In fact, I think there’s a good concept in producing outlines that I’ve wanted to explore for awhile. But, I take your point.

          Also, can we continue to use the word slavish? I’m not sure about philistine either.

    • Concerned Citizen says:

      Bryce’s struggle against MUCHO TEXTO has achieved cartoonish, old-man-yells-at-cloud levels.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Return of the old grumpy ladies

  6. Anonymous says:

    I wonder what Bryce would rate something like B1 or B2 at this point.

    • Gnarley Bones says:

      Let him review G1. An actual working high-level module which virtually every writer since has fumbled with, with multiple levels, factions, Elder God weirdness, full descriptions and even an Easter egg (and great Trampier art!), all in 8 PAGES. EIGHT!

      There’s your Platonic ideal.

      Bring it, Bryce!

      • Bryce Lynch says:

        I love G1. You are absolutly right about the amount it delivers in the space it delivers. Off the top of my head; it might be the best of the old TSR stuff

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      My memory of B1 is less than B2, of course. But, not very highly. B2 lives on its reputation as the adventure that EVERYONE has played. The shared experiences that we will never regain as a hobby because of the freedom of choice that now exists. It does some very good things, but sacrifices a bit too much. We;ve grown since then

  7. Bothered About Dull Dungeons says:

    Novelty isn’t always good, neither is unthinking emulation of the past.

    Instead of deciding anything that uses bullet points is bad, so anything that uses a wall of text and the word dweomer must therefore be good try reading. Just read the adventure and think “how could this be better” and “what’s useful in this” without believing that it’s part of some Manichean struggle.

    • Manchean Operator says:

      I don’t think anyone has expressed anything like that sentiment though. Do you disagree the quality of modern OSR seems to be lesser then that of earlier material?

    • Gnarley Bones says:

      You’ve just invented the “wall of text.”

      It’s a free module. Take a gander. Would you have any difficulty *at all* in running it?

  8. Libra says:

    Greatly appreciate this review just to know the existence of Footprints–fun read!

  9. C’mon Bryce! Should we really quibble about Gygaxian prose whilst the corporate vultures circle us on all sides, and the Artpunkmen batter at the gates? If even OD&D and 1e can’t band together, what hope is left…….?

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