Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers

By Malrex
The Merciless merchants
Levels 5-8

A new trade route is being sought through the Dalgarian Canyonlands, pass the friendly Kharazan, Village of Plenty. But the last two expeditions have never returned and the merchants are getting anxious for the new route, causing bags of gold to exchange hands. Meanwhile, the ancient portal, the Maw of Ghormaug, has opened once more and invaders, ‘bone men’, are beginning to take over territory. No one is safe. Left unchecked, these lands are destined for horror and ruin, unless a brave party steps up to the challenge.

This thirty page adventure presents a small jungle canyon, full of trees and swamp, with various encounters orbiting around a cult of neanderthals with a bone/skull motif. The overall vibe of the valley is there, with things fitting together well, but the individual encounters seem off. Weaker descriptions and encounters that feel less like situations. 

We’ve got this jungle canyon. Merchant dudes want to chart a course through it to open up a new trade path. Off you go to figure out why the last expedition didn’t return. Inaside we find a host of little mythic like encounters, strong on player cultural memory. And the bone toilers. These are primitive men that like to dress in boine armor, etc. And sometimes their taller leaders ride animated skeletons of dinosaurs and shit like that. So, lots of bone monsters and bone motifs and skulls hanging around. Turns out they are from another dimension, the gate is in the bottom of their cave lair in their fort, and there’s a … bone devil inside! So, not too bad in the It All Makes Sense Now Of Course school of player thought.

Malrex does a decent job here, as I mentioned, of putting in some iconic encounters. We’ve got a mad hermit in a hut who knows just about everything. We’ve got a hooded woman living in a cave, wary at first but also having information to trade for magic items. Also, hey, don’t piss her off maybe … what are all of those statues in the nearby jungle about? And then theres the … spirit? We likes walking out of a copse of trees in his spotlessly white robe and pointing, ominously, to a better path for the party to take. A Duskwalker … enemy of the bone toilers! Also, this one is missing his heart. A village, the former inhabitants of the valley, now massacred. Undead wander, a pyramid of corpses in the center. And, of course, The Looters. Not adventurers. Not bandits. Looters. Great word choice. They are in over their heads and want to get out. And some of them are missing. And their little band is about to be torn apart by some internal strife. Really kind of iconic little things. Oracular medusa? Sign me up!

Maps are not the greatest. We’ve gt a small wilderness area map. The scale is 10 feet, but that can’t be right. That would put most of the encounters within about sixty feet of another one. That just doesn’t make sense for the vibe of the text, which implies a large canyon with jungle and swampy water. The wilderness has several small “dungeons” hanging off ot it. A ruined village, a couple of cave complexes, and the main bone-dudes fort and the caves/hellmouth underneath. This sort of wilderness with smaller dungeons is intriguing and I like the concept a lot, just not at the scale presented here. And the maps, of the dungeons, are not the greatest. A little blurry and not the most complex things ever, but still better than square rooms connected by lines.

The descriptive text can be maddening. Overall, i think it’s not great. Not, perhaps the weakest, but it tends to avoid the evocative text that some of the Malrex product produces. Things are a bit better with the dungeon entrances. Here’s “Sheeting water and mist drench everything at the bottom of the roaring waterfall. Two rivulets enter a cave mouth, making a set of eroded stairs slippery as they lead to darkness.” That’s one of the entrances and it’s not too bad as a forbidding entrance to something. But they fall off from there. 

The dungeon rooms, in particular, tend to the hack side, especially in the bone fortress caves. It’s stuffed full and a raid/stealth/assault is going to the word of the day, even for characters of this level. “1d6 bone dwellers join the fray every 1d4 rounds.” Ouch! And those dudes are 4HD. A tough fight to get out. And the designer recognizes this aspect of th adventure and provides a rough timetable of events, for the day, for the fortress, to assist the DM in players planning an assault. 

Good magic items here, and some really good descriptions, in places, as well as challenges. “Corpses cover the stairs leading up to the 6’ high platform. The corpses create a ‘ramp’ surrounding the entire temple, so characters need to climb over the corpses to reach the top” That’s a nice little thing.Or “Characters who touch the orb have their eyes roll up, showing only the whites of the eyes.” That’s a great little effect to help the DM out. 

But then, in other places, things fall flat. And that is the overall effect, I think. Not to say that it’s BAD, but just that so many opportunities are missed. In one case you’ve got a room with some beetles eating an alligator corpse. But, also, not mentioned till the end are three skeletons of a dead party lying in a heap on the north wall. THis could go two ways. Take a chance to kill the beetles .. for no reason? On the hope that there’s treasure? Or lure the party in by hinting at the bodies, giving them a reason to push their luck? I think those sorts of things are delicious so I’m readily in the second camp.

I want to also mention an art piece, of a ghast. Of a child. It’s well done and communicates the horror, I think. But the descriptions of the monsters don’t follow through, in most cases. We do get some pot-bellied ghasts at one point, but even that description falls a little flat, and it’s one of the rare examples. 

Don’t think I’m too down on this. It’s doing some nice things. But it doesn’t hit as hard as some of the other Malrex adventures. The concept is good and the overall vibe of the setting is good also. And some of the descriptions and encounters and situations. But It just doesn’t reach those heights that we all know Malrex is capable of.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is fourteen pages, more than enough to get a sense of the place and the writing style and the encounter style.


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11 Responses to Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers

  1. Sevenbastard says:

    @bryce the main title of the post has the name of the adventure wrong. Normally typos are part of the fun, but this one is going to make Google searching for this review later much tougher.

    Maybe this is one Malrex will take a second pass at and update?

  2. Beoric says:

    Malrex now being judged against the benchmark set by Malrex.

  3. Shuffling Wombat says:

    Some of the tables (encounters, rumours) have rather small print; more recent Merciless Merchant publications have better layout. However I like this one: a background plot that the PCs can interact with as they wish; varied encounter locations; well designed magic items. And the main area cannot be tackled with a frontal assault; infiltration, with disguises both mundane and magical, will be in order.
    Maybe if/when Part 2 is available there will be a resurgence in interest. But Malrex has a number of exciting projects in production.

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