Harrowings #03 – Muspelhell

By Aaron Cordiale, Jodie Brandt, Derek Bizier, Alex T., Ian Rollins, Kevin Miner, Benjamin Croft, Drew Cochran
Level 5?

The ancient cairns of the old kingdoms have beeninfested with malign powers – demons, trolls, creatures of fire. Onar the Spelunker has returned with dark news… “A door, wide and burning, has been opened to Muspelheim. I saw faces within it, terrible faces speaking of.. Invasion. The Sons of Surtr quake beneath our humble homes – they mean to sack our realm, and set up camp here – to strike Midgard without notice!

This 115 page digest uses about 77 pages to describe a three level dungeon with about 46 rooms. If you want to do a hipster dwarf-based LOTR-type quest/play DCC then this is for you. If you want to play D&D then maybe look elsewhere.

There is a nigh infinite variety of RPG available to folks today. You can play any type of game you want. The problem is knowing what you want and finding it. (Actually, it’s probably finding a few other people available at the same date/time every week, but that’s the META.) I play mudcore. You play gonzo. If we all call ourselves an OSE adventure then how to find what we each want? I don’t know … the marketing? But, it always lies.

If DCC isn’t metal enough for you then welcome to Muspelhell. It goes out of its way to be metal, without being edgy. Which is something, I guess. You’re a heavily dwarf-based party escorting a giant iron door on the back of an eight legged mule. You’re taking it down to the depths of a dwarf city to close off a passage to EvilLandia. So, like, epic quest shit. I know, it doesn’t really sound like that. But if you keep a kind of Epic Quest mindset when looking at this then it makes a lot more sense. Cause as a dungeon it sucks eight-legged donkey balls.

One of the first rooms is the Tomb of Eternal Remembrance. It’s got some dwarf heroes lying in state. The core description tells us “The party passes through a long colonnade (row of columns) into a vast cavern lit by glimmering torches. The honor guards therein are clad in black armor, so that at a distance, the torches seem to float by themselves.” So, not the best description ever, but, I think I get it. You’ve got some people visiting paying respects, putting stones on graves. This is a two page room, and there’s not much more to it. As you pass through a guard coming off duty offers to sell you an ancient artifact. And, now, there ISN’T anything else at all. Loot the graves? No guidance. Guards? No guidance. Regular folk? No guidance. How about that artifact? NO GUIDANCE. 

And, thusly, with each room. What you are getting is the idea for a room. In spite of the entries averaging two pages each, you’re not going to get anything to bring the room to life. You’ve got some concepts floating around without the specifics needed to bring them to life. And I don’t mean room contents. You’ve got none of the text required to help inspire the DM to run the room and nothing of the specifics to help support the DM. 

What you have is conceptual room after conceptual encounter. You’re going to wander around down in here like you’re Odysseus. “Some sirens sign to people” or “You meet a cyclops” But, stretch it out to two pages for no reason. I mean, obviously, the designers tried to do more, hence the two pages, but their supporting information sucks ass and is useless. This is just normal hipster zine content. If it were rewritten as “Maybe the party has an encounter with an ff duty dwarven guard selling an artifact” then it would be more recognizable as such.

I note that, in issue two of the zine (this is issue three), the following was used as a marketing line “Harrowings: The Exalted Hours hopes to explore the liminal space of Twilight and see what passages open before us between the light and dark.” Uh huh. 

Conceptually, I think this thing works. If you can imagine a DCC convention game in which the DM waves their hands around in the air a lot and rolls dice and shouts and shit happens. That’s what this is. Maybe you enter a room full of mushroom gardens and here the effects of four of them. Run that. 

What’s your reaction to that? “Maybe you enter a room full of mushroom gardens and here the effects of four of them.” If that’s all you have to run a room. And you’re a band of, I don’t know, twelve dwarves with an eight legged mule carrying a giant metal door on its back. I don’t see how there’s anything more than that in this adventure. The number of times the adventure says “Or, you can annihilate the party”, leaves no other interpretation. 

I understand that people play d&d differently. Folks are looking for different things. I have a very hard time understanding that anyone is going to run this, complete it, and be happy with it. Two pages of text, per room, to dig through to run the room. It’s not formatted in a way to scan it. It’s too long to be that conceptual DCC thing and too non-specific to be a traditional supplement. It is, I think, in the end just another failed vision of what fun is. I wish more people would succeed. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $10. Three stars on DriveThru. Who’s mead did the designers shit in to earn that?


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25 Responses to Harrowings #03 – Muspelhell

  1. Edgewise says:

    Look, I appreciate that people had a hard time getting the gang together during the pandemic, so I understood the influx of products that enabled solo play, even if it’s something I would never do. But when I see a product in 2023 labeled “Compatible for Solo RPG Gameplay!”, I gotta roll my eyes. Are people doing that? If so…whyyyy? I’ll play a CRPG, and under certain circumstances, I might be persuaded to play a gamebook. But I just don’t get the concept of solo RPG gaming.

  2. Anonymous says:

    8 negative reviews in a row. Think we’ll hit 10?

  3. Gnarley Bones says:

    “You’re a heavily dwarf-based party escorting a giant iron door on the back of an eight legged mule. You’re taking it down to the depths of a dwarf city to close off a passage to EvilLandia'”

    OK. See, that kicks every kind of ass. How does one come up with *that* idea and then fall short?

    • Handy Haversack says:

      Ideas are like assholes. Everyone has dozens of them. Execution is key. And, clearly, actually having an understanding of what people need to have in front of them at the table in order to bring them from the wilds of trying to run a game on no sleep and with a messy hangover (I, er, assume this is how everyone else is on game day) into the brilliant light of that idea.

      • Melan says:

        The entire “OSR” is inundated with high-concept, low-effort material. Wild ideas are floated and not followed through decently. Promises are made about fantastic realms of wild imagination, and the end result is a disappointing mess hammered into structures which do not deliver on either the scope or complexity implied by the premise. At this time, a grand promise should only makes us suspicious.

        Even from the outset, a lot of the structures being used would never work to deliver – for example, you can’t have a meaningfully complex adventure in a six-room dungeon, or if the encounter design does not offer the potential for interaction and player agency. The know-how is out there, it is easily found and learned, but it is not happening.

        A lot of these people are promising to fly, and they can’t even walk. They are offering to sell a six-course gourmet meal, but can’t even make you a decent ham sandwich. Their efforts are perhaps considerable, but they are also wasted, because they don’t know the basics of their craft.

        That craft should be the focus of the old-schoolers who actually matter. Because let’s be honest: a lot of of the “OSR” doesn’t.

        • AB Andy says:

          You are a good example. Your adventures are always good, so I have to ask. Except talent and passion, what is your methodology? Back and forth between writing/reading/editing, write the whole thing once and then read/edit, etc? Or am i overthinking it, and all one needs is adequate playtesting and an ability to realize that a section of what he wrote is crap and delete it or rewrite it?

          • Melan says:

            Playtesting and the ability to revise and reedit materials is a good skill to develop. Looking at things from a “how this would look if I were a stranger reading this” is also grand. I have a sort of looping approach where I return to things in multiple rounds of editing until they are satisfying. Nothing is ever perfect, but you can get a few steps closer.

            The best advice, though, is found in good materials you like, and especially those you have used successfully. How did those people do it? What can you learn from their presentation, design tricks, and approach? There is a ton of actual good practice out there, and none of it is high theory. Imitate, then innovate!

          • Chainsaw says:

            A disciplined write, edit, test, re-write, re-edit, re-test pattern can really help. I find that a first draft ends up written more for me as I think through everything in a room. Once it all gets out, then it needs to be pared back to what’s essential for use and then re-ordered. I think too often authors publish what amounts to their room-brain storming.

          • Chainsaw says:

            Work-in-progress red flag: This room used to be…

          • Malrex Morlassian says:

            I know this was directed towards Melan, but here is my 2 cents that no one asked for. I like to be in ‘the zone’ and bust out an adventure with 100% focus. Usually this takes place after a month of 2 of thinking about it while going through the day to day of life with zero writing–maybe just a rough map. So when I sit down ready to rock, I finish the map, then go full bore on the writing, skipping rooms I haven’t thought about to get all my general ideas down. I usually have about 80% of the adventure in my head before I write it. While writing, sometimes this changes the map or some of my initial ideas–the map is a great tool for the beginning in my opinion. Then Ill put writing aside and think about factions, new monsters, traps, new magic items, or activity within the dungeon if I haven’t already and flesh that out.

            I actually try NOT to read too much of others, in fact I’ve stopped reading other people’s work except for a select few that I personally enjoy (hi Melan, Hawk, Chainsaw, Huso, Rosethorn, and a few others)…I don’t like tarnishing or having similar ideas of others with my own. I get my inspiration more from art–which I feel is an important tool/aspect of adventure creation.

            If I’m working on an underwater adventure, I don’t try to use sahaugin or sharks as I think that’s done to death from the old modules of TSR, etc–so why not something different–some sort of jellyfish thing like in Ascent of the Leviathan? I challenge my partners to try and change things up if I’m apart of a project, for example if they want to do another goblin cave…..I think its important to TRY to do something different–even if its just a 8 legged donkey.

            Then I go and work on something completely different (either editing or working on a new project) and bust that out….then I go back to the original with ‘fresher eyes’ and take another pass through to try to trim it all down, make things interesting, and TRY to have evocative writing which I struggle with. Then I send it to a buddy to edit or look over…then re-edit, then try to play test it (God bless my players).

            But AB Andy–one good skill is to be able to kill your baby–scrap an idea if it doesn’t work. Know when it’s more hindrance than benefit. Never force an idea–people will pick up on it if it doesn’t work.

            Finally, Bryce’s blog is great to learn from…but also utilize his forum. Throw some ideas out and you usually get some decent feedback from some of the people there. Just don’t bring up paladins…

          • AB Andy says:

            @Malrex oh it was directed on anyone who makes good adventures, really. No worries and thanks a lot for the reply. Really good insight from both of you. I basically follow the same principle of back and forth write and edit as Melan now that I have no patreon. Been writing a hexcrawl for the past year that is close to a last edit, so… we’ll see if endless hours of reading through the forum and comments brought something.

            Just yesterday I was reading a hex content that I had written months ago. And I thought it was utter crap. Too vague, no interactivity. Got a rewrite. It’s just that, at some point one has to feel satisfied with the result and leave it as is. Otherwise you go into endless remakes. As Melan says, nothing can be absolutely perfect.

  4. AB Andy says:

    These reviews are the hardest for me to read. The designer obviously tried. They had an idea, cool or hipster… whatever, and tried to bring it to a book. It doesn’t look like a cash grab and probably took them quite a few evenings to complete. They just seem to not know how to express their ideas into a readable, playable format. Which also brings the question, do designers nowadays lurk forums like yours, or read books about adventure writing, or do they just wing it as they think is best, trying to innovate and messing up instead?

    • Bailey says:

      Many of them imitate the big players’ published adventures. 5e Adventurers League in particular has much to answer for, but WotC and Pathfinder’s longer adventures aren’t great either. They know every adventure gets read more than it gets played, and either try to straddle the line or simply write for the larger market.

    • Gus L says:

      I think there’s two possibilities.

      A) It just didn’t set, like making a souffle. It happens, it’s sad.

      The only solution for a designer is to both playtest it yourself and get other people to playtest – because the design always knows how to run their own thing – so when you run it it’s easy to spot small stuff but — but only someone else will find big structural issues. Spot the issues, delete sections, add sections, rewrite and just edit.

      B) The designer has no idea what they were doing. Either there’s no understanding of the play style one is writing for (like me trying to write a story game scenario – it sucked) or the designer knows the style, but lack skills — dungeons are actually tricky to design for publication. The only reason I still read Bryce every now and then (despite the festering cesspool of commentators here – and a hearty fuck you very much to all of you, I’m sure it’s mutual) is because he’s trying in his way to give people information about how to make their adventures work. It’s something I wish more people did, offering advice and constructive ideas to new writers on how to make their dungeons work. It doesn’t help that the first impulse right now seems to be to sell something one makes (but then how else do you get eyes on it?), which discourages critical reviews, taking the time to improve things, and friendly feedback – but in an ideal world…

      Dwarf’s carrying a big ass door down to the cursed deeps seems very cool – also like it would need solid encumbrance rules and maybe some sort of dwarfy subsystems. I don’t like Dwarfs in fantasy, they remind me too much of the smell at Barleywine festival, but I can it being fun to really amp the dwarfy up. I’m rooting for the remake.

      • Anonymous says:

        I tried reading this comment but I had to tap out halfway through from sheer ennui. Do you get paid by the word?

      • Anonymous says:

        I think they are the minority Gus. Most here and generally around the OSR communities would agree that your content is good. They just like to tease you. Not that you seem to care, anyway.

      • Rary's Unfortunate Consequences says:

        There’s never been a problem with Gus’s adventures, in fact they are good, but with his behavior, which is evil. He is content to paint the comments here with the same broad brush he did Dragonfoot when he called them an alt-right dogwhistiling nazi site in 2016, and he will enthusiastically support deplatforming activities against anyone peripherally associated with dissidents. He quit his blog for two years, citing OSR nazis he has yet to name, but he snuck back and is now up to his same old tricks.

        You can police a hobby by content and strive for excellence, or you can try to police it ideologically and strive for conformity. Gus has made his choice, he is simply unwilling to live with the consequences.

        The dunning-kruger, the flounces, the interminable prattle, that’s all icing on the cake.

      • Gnarley Bones says:

        I think you’re right.

        Playtest, playtest, playtest.

        It might just be the most important part of the process. Adventures simply aren’t intended to be read; they are meant to be played.

  5. Roger GS says:

    I’d figure that most creators lack the time, effort, or connections to do two important things:

    1. Run the adventure themselves to test whether the adventure works as conceived.
    2. Give the adventure to an independent party to test whether the adventure works as written.

    You can substitute 2 up to a point with a very strong understanding of presentation theory, but the actual testing is still going to strengthen the product immensely.

    • Bailey says:

      The lack of #1 bothers me even more than the lack of #2. 2 would be professional, sure, but not doing 1 goes past unprofessional and into a middle finger to the purchaser. It should be well within any GM’s capacity to run it as a one-shot at least once, especially in the age of discord. Ideally run it even in the development stage, not only at the very end as a form of proof-reading.

      But people want to “write” adventures, and it shows. Written (only) adventures are generally bad, it’s just a question of how bad they are.

      • Malrex Morlassian says:

        Is there a good place to find people willing to playtest? I dont use discord or online play. I’m more interested in a stranger running it than myself running my own material–because I can gloss over errors or adapt easily. Ive asked on Dragonsfoot and got 1-2 volunteers, but then they never ran it, so waited about a year for nothing. I can continue to run my stuff with my players of 20+ years, but I think better feedback would be from strangers. Can someone start a list or email me your interest at TheMercilessMerchants at gmail.com. Thanks.

        • AB Andy says:

          I have the exactly same peoblem Malrex. My group… I know what they want, they know how I DM, and at the end of the day it’s tough to criticize friends. Strangers it had to be. Would be so cool to have a list as you say. It doesn’t even have to be a full adventure. Like a session of 10-20 rooms from a dungeon for overall feedback on the theme and style of writing is better than nothing.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “Cause as a dungeon it sucks eight-legged donkey balls.”

    Chuckle and I stop reading there. Thanks Bryce 🙂

  7. Vorshal says:

    The guy riding the donkey is named Dee. Because he’s a dwarf which begins either the letter “D”. It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact he is now a henceforth known as Dee-rider.

  8. Hey y’all! Drew here, thanks for this article! I think all the critiques listed are valid – we could have had this sent through another run of editing and refined the text into points instead of paragraphs.

    Thanks for the article! We’re taking notes & will do better next time.

    You can still download the adventure for free in most places, including our mailing list!

    Have a great day! MUSPEL JA

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