By Istvan Boldog-Bernad First Hungarian d20 Society S&W Levels 1-2
Down below, beneath Cassidum’s stinking alleys and crumbling palaces, lie twisting passages and musty chambers with the secrets of the old days, and the subterranean dens of lowlife scum. But now, sordid disappearances haunt the Piazza dei Rospi, while the Literators’ Guild and Barbers’ Guild wage a bloody turf war for the surrounding streets. The key to these mysteries is a richly carved marble well decorated with the carvings of four ugly bullfrogs, whose depths hide things worse still. Some who descend shall win riches and battle-glory, while others will only find horrid death… down in The Well of Frogs!
This 36 page adventure features a dungeon, under the city streets, with about thirty-ish rooms and pretty good neighborhood descriptions upstairs. It’s idiosyncratic, exactly the way an OD&D adventure should be and hit every high point that you could want in an adventure. Clear and easy to read, evocative situations, and enough interactivity to choke even my absurd standards. One of the best to come out, not just in a long while but ever.
You all remember that I’m unnaturally fond of city adventures, right?
That, however, has absolutely no bearing on how I think about this adventure. Which is great. I know I’m supposed to fuck around and say that there’s not One Tru Way and different people can like different things and all that shit. But fuck that. There is a a Best Way and it’s what this thing does. And there is absolutely no fucking way on earth to describe what it is. Maybe the closest I can get is “situations with a sly wink” … and not overstaying their welcome with too much text. Not a pare word is in this thing. And not every room has the typical room description elements that I bitch about so much. But each and every fucking room is chock full of interest and shit, people, SITUATIONS to fuck with. And it’s all done with kind of sly wink that is just barely there. It’s fucking wonderful.
Up top we’ve got this vaguely italian-like plaza in the middle of a churning neighborhood. Smack in the middle is a well, with four giant stone frogs at the corners. The Well of Frogs. Surrounding it are the buildings, crammed up against each other, full of interesting people and things. The usual “bar in a fighting pit with secret entrance” to “whores who know things” and “drug dealers with a cheap fix” ad “street urchins. A nascent gang war is brooding, and every other fucking thing on the face of the city adventure earth is popped in to either the half dozen or so urban locales or the thirty entry wanderer table.
That fucking table is a thing of beauty. “Birte, a scantily clad elf woman, flees desperately from two burly men pursuing her. The slavers were about to sell the woman to a lustful local nobleman, but she managed to escape before arrival. Birte is looking for the port to somehow return to the Twelve Kingdoms in the far north” or “This cherubic young man has gotten lost, and introduces himself as Darius. He would like to return to the port area where he came from, but he is also looking for work – if he has met this helpful group of strangers, he might join up as a spearman for a little money. Shortly afterwards, he starts to murder them off one by one.” CAUSE HES A DOPPLEGANGER! Fucking excellent ganger placement! Note that are not just things. It’s not just two toughs, or a dude for hire. These are situations. You add the extra element and they turn in to something more. The chick, or the “slays you one by one” thing. Having someone you trust make an introduction makes a lot more sense, now, as a custom, doesn’t it? The dude is cherubic. The chic is scantily clad and desperately fleeing. Desperately. This is a textbook example of adding a choice adjective or adverb to help truly define something and bring it to life in the DMs head. Can you not run that? Does your mind not race with the possibilities of how to run it? Of her, being chase by two burly men, desperately fleeing? Their methodical pursuit? Look, I’m not saying there’s not a place for something just stabbing you, especially on a wanderer table. After all, it’s meant to keep you fucking going and to stop pissing about (you do know thats the purpose of one, right?) but man, I fucking love these. They are all I want in life.
The dungeon is vertical, in that the map is a cross-section instead of the usual top down view. It’s done well and helps contribute to that cramped city vibe that’s going on. Lots of verticality, lots of secrets. And, I think, folks are so used to a top down view that the short spans and more up.down in a side profile map helps restore that sense of newness and unease that should be at the heart of every dungeon adventure. Encounters are mostly human based, with a decent number of vermin and undead thrown in. Monsters tend to be more human centric as well, with a were showing up, for example. I love this.
And the encounters themselves? Those wonderful street wanderers are not the exception and the effort was not spent on them to the detriment to the main adventure. Oh no. It’s fucking great. Lots of people to talk to. Lot’s of things to fuck with. One of the hooks is an artiso kid going missing. He hung out with the urchins. If they trust you then they might tell you that they are getting kidnapped by “The Splinterer.” and the kid, who took his dads old sword, was giong to protect them from him. Until he went missing. He’s not in a crate in a room in the dungeon, with a few other kids in crates. Unless you tarry too long in which case he’s stew now. As the sly grin would imply, it’s a wererat behind it. This is what EVERY. OTHER. Wererat encounter ever is trying to do but the designer here just does it effortlessly. A situation. Cruelty and despair. Human hope. People not knowing what to do. It’s all tied up in this.
How about a trap? This is how you do a fucking door trap: “Messing with the door results in the reliefs spinning around, and emitting a green poison cloud from their froglike hindquarters. The cloud fills the whole lower area of the well. Anyone failing a save vs. poison shall die a horrible death within 1d4 rounds amidst terrible, croaking laughter and bodily convulsions” It’s not trap and door porn. It’s short and yet evocative. Not just poison gas but terrible croaking laughter (the door is frog themed) with body convulsions. Fucking yeah it is man!
I fucking love this adventure. The text for the situations and encounters tends to be on the short side, making it easy to scan. It is, I think, just on the edge of that standard, with the font size and single column digest nature being pushed about as far as I thin it could go. But, still, it achieves the end of being easy to understand and scan. Bullets and whitespace are used effectively. It almost doesn’t like there IS a format here, but there is one, it just falls in to the background and doesn’t beat you over the head with LOOK AT MY COOL FORMAT!
The only note I have is that the plaza, proper, could use perhaps a kind of overview. This is related to the concept I call the Vista Overlook. When entering the plaza for the first time you want a sense of what is going on, and I don’t think that’s present. Instead there’s just some keyed entries. This is a cumbersome way to handle a wide open area. There needs to be a little description, perhaps with some cross-refs, that gives a sense of the place and what is going on.
Truly a great adventure. It feels like an OD&D adventure. It feels like a city adventure. It feels like a place and it’s full, to the brim, with idiosyncratic things. Never going gonzo, ot’s just that sly grin to the writing style that brings the thing to life. Very nearly the platonic ideal of adventure writing.
This is $6.50 at DriveThru. The preview is the first eleven pages, so you get some of that excellent street wanderer table, but none of the rooms. A room entry would have been nice also, but the street table is a great indicator of the quality.