By Nova Yttrium Self Published Shadowdark Levels 1-3
In this adventure, the PCs are hired to find the missing daughter Kyla of a wealthy merchant that has been kidnapped by acolytes of a cult that recently plagues the land and abducts women and men alike. The Cult of Ankh-Ra, as they call themselves, is trying to revive the forgotten goddess Ankh-Ra by sacrificing humans and performing an ancient ritual that they found on an old scroll in a former temple of Ankh-Ra that lies in ruins nowadays. Once the PCs reach the temple, they witness the result of the ritual: The soul of Ankh-Ra has been resurrected and takes possession of Kyla’s body. She then uses her magical powers to transport her temple from one thousand years ago into the current time along with all creatures that lived in her temple all those years ago. Can the PCs stop Ankh-Ra, banish her soul and rescue Kyla from the grasp of the cultists? [Ed: One hopes not …]
This nineteen page digest adventure uses about eight pages to describe about thirty rooms. It’s one step removed from minimally keyed. So, you know, at least it’s overwritten. It also lacks just about everything that actually brings a D&D adventure to life.
There is one nice thing. You enter a room, a guard shouts that he’s willing to die for his god and pulls a lever, locking the doors and causing the ceiling to lower, classic trap style. Ten rounds to get out, with a dude in the room. Nice twist.
Frank the merchant hires you to go get his daughter back, who was abducted for sacrifice “a few days ago.” Nice job Frank. You’re father of the year for that one. You approach the ruined temple the cult uses and there’s a flash of light and the temple repairs itself. Looks like In Media Res is the new hotness. Anyway, there’s no pretext before the actual room keys. Yeah, there’s eleven pages of intro, but none of it is about Frank, the abduction, the journey to the temple or anything else. It’s just mostly creature stat blocks, up front instead of behind in an appendix. Not that there has to be more. But, you know, an order of battle for the temple would have been nice, instead of everyone just staying in their rooms and ying, the way they do. Or, even, sticking monsters on the map for reaction purposes. Whatever.
Here’s a kitchen: “This big kitchen spans the whole room and is used to prepare various meals for the entire temple.” Yes, kitchens usually look like a kitchen. I would want to know if it ididn’t, and don’t want to know if it does. How about a dorm? “More than 20 simple beds are in this room.” Now, why would you say that? Why would you say “More than 20?” 6000 beds? 21 beds? Presumably the DM should know? No? It’s not important? Then why the fuck mention it? And why put it in such imprecise language for the DM? “The pit is more than 10 feet deep.” Uh huh. In other places guards “performing an obscure ritual”. Or “One giant scorpion is being trained by a jackal guard.”
This is just minimal keying. It’s one step removed from just listing “1 scorpion, 1 jackal guard.” There’s no value in that. There’s no language being used to bring the environment to life. To create a dynamic situation to be excited about. There’s no thrill. There’s jus a grind. One room after the next.
The resurrected queen, Ankh-Ra, is in Kyla’s body at the end. Dressed in yellow and blue silks and covered head to toe in jewelry. Which is some nice imagery. That’s what you do to your sacrificial victim to bring back your god. But, once you gack her, that’s it. We never learn anything about the jewelry. You see, it doesn’t matter. There was no thought about this. Fuck D&D. And so it goes, even with the puzzles. “Give your goddess an offering and bow down or face her wrath! Also, put it in the bowl, at least 10cp worth, preferably in cash. No checks. ApplePay accepted. Exchange rate set by the latest edition of The Times.”
Oh, hey, did I mention there’s not actually a cult? They don’t appear. Just the guards and shit, transported from back in time. This is just more garbage being churned out.
I’m done with Shadowdark for awhile. To my readers great joy and mine own further cynicism.
This is $3 at DriveThru. Preview is six pages. You get to see nine rooms at the end of it, so, decent preview.
The age of crappy Mörk Borg shovelware is over. The age of crappy Shadowdark shovelware is beginning.
Looks like cruft’s back on the menu boys!
DTRPG is a cess pool. The age of shovelware (for any system) is far from over.
Will Knave modules also end up on the cruft menu?
If the ratio of trash to treasure holds true across the board, then count on it!
I must admit the cover and title were enough to clue me in that this would not be good. Maybe the cult is the Shadowdark fans themselves?
The real cult is the friends we made along the way.
About 25% of the cover is “Designed for Shadowdark!” Impressive considering about 50% of the cover is just black. Combined with shitty throw-away AI art, it’s like the author was intentionally going for a most-generic-module-of-all-time look.
Like, the cover just *screams* “I made this as fast as I could so I could shovel it out like chum.”
‘Frank the merchant hires you to go get his daughter back, who was abducted for sacrifice “a few days ago.”’
LOL damn…I thought I tend to procrastinate on household chores!
One can argue that the system is new and that’s why everyone tries to shove products out, and that’s why the bad quality. But maybe also some systems are unfriendly to adventure writing, even though they may be good to play at the table. Why is every zweihander, MB, shadowdark adventure bad? I’m certain certain people enjoy playing these systems, but perhaps they don’t translate good at writing.
Out of the 7 Shadowdark adventures Bryce has reviewed on here, 2 of them got The Best. But they were both written by the game’s designer. She doesn’t publish on DTRPG, and the other writer who is doing good work for the game (Sersa Victory) doesn’t, either.
But yeah, being the new hotness + open license invites shovelware. That’s all Bryce is going to find on DTRPG.
I will say that I haven’t published any new for-sale material on DriveThru for years (only free stuff). That’s not a comment on the quality of the material there, just a business decision. Their royalty cut is too high, IMO.
I don’t know if that’s a developing trend some publishers are moving toward for similar reasons. Sersa Victory only publishes on itch.io and Lulu as far as I know. (Also, agreed, I think his Shadowdark adventures are excellent! “Shrine of the Jaguar Princess” is my favorite.)
I think this is a topic worthy of more discussion. If you run a “stripped out B/X” system, is enough left to support sophisticated gameplay? One criterion would be has that system produced worthwhile adventure modules: in the case of MB, the answer would seem to be no, but people are welcome to supply counterexamples. (Such a system could still work for a supplement that tends to the generic.)
Zweihander is in a different category, being (essentially) a (bloated) clone of 2E Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP): its introductory adventures (A Bitter Harvest, There’s Something About Marie) were 2E WFRP fan adventures. Escape the Noose is a possible exception, but the quality of adventures has not matched the (best) entrants of the 2E WFRP fan contests. (You can find many of these at the “It always rains in Nuln” site.) A variety of possible approaches is to be preferred for a WFRP scenario, with a clever trick (potentially) shifting the odds in the PCs’ favour. (See “The Bigger They Are”.)
Bummer! I hope this was some valuable insight for the writer on how to improve the work. Anyone who’s gotten better at their craft has gone through it, and Bryce’s insight is a valuable thing.
There is no magic system that makes someone a better or worse writer. I’m just glad to see people trying, and stepping into the OSR if they haven’t previously.
I hope one of the next things I can tackle for this new group of writers is adventure design guidance à la Bryce’s Basics!
Bryce’s standards can improve a writer, but a recurring element seems to be that they are not a replacement for experience. Even in the case of people blatantly imitating his standards (such as, for example, Diogo Noguiera), the work is rife with beginner mistakes that come from a lack of genuine understanding. The best way to get good at writing adventures is to run them. That means that with a new system it takes time to figure out what works and what does not, even if there is a limited amount of portability between systems.
Compare Labyrinth Lord to OSE, the system is identical, yet the adventure quality has degraded substantially. Compare the sprawling megadungeons of that age with the low-level super-adventure time slumming of today. Is it because people are getting brain-damaged from playing Tomb of the Serpent King? Or is it just that they are new and they never settle on a single system long enough to get gud.
Imagine a similar process with a system that is substantially different. Can all the knowledge be transferred. How long does it take to figure out the differences. The answer is zero years because these mayfly systems get picked up, everyone gives raving reviews to it on reddit and they are discarded within two years.
Whilst I agree with the general point being made, I think a little more precision is needed when discussing OSE: after all, Peril in Olden Wood is written for OSE. and there is a version of The Palace of Unquiet Repose in that system; both are top class. Perhaps we should be talking about those adventures presented in the more minimalist format, with bullet points and short/half sentences. And yet even in that format Gavin Norman and Brad Kerr can do great things (although the latter sometimes allows himself an extra descriptive sentence).
As things stand at the moment, few people have played the full “Shadowdark as it is meant to be” system. However I think a minimum requirement is making the “lights out countdown to disaster” meaningful, and that entails a dungeon ripe for exploration, with a (nonlinear) map with a decent number of rooms to facilitate that. The dungeon in the Quickstart Set looks like it qualifies. The carousing table seems an excellent option for what you might do with excess gold (which you tend to get in B/X after a few levels), enabling emergent play, and making up a bespoke version for your setting might be a good idea. And I could see conversions of the likes of B4 The Lost City and Melan’s Vaults of Volokarnos working well: faction play and sharing of resources could be fun.
In this temple the “Shrine” (room 6) is accessible only via the kitchen or bunkroom/bedroom (rooms 4&5). Somebody help this cult with floor planning.
In “Well and Snakes” (room 7) there are no snakes mentioned.
In room 8: “Sparkling Potions: Three sparkling potions on a shelf: a yellow one, a green one, a black one.” In one sentence you say “sparkling potions” twice and “a [color] one” three times — in place of usable info like potion names or player clues.
So to help the guy out, in almost the same word count if the potions were fiery breath, gaseous form and healing you could instead…
Three sparkling potions on a shelf. Black, tar-like [smells burnt], Yellow- swirling almost gaseous, Green- flecks like tea [invigorating aroma].