A Plague of Rats

By GM Jeremy
TWK Live
OSE
Level 1

In the bustling port city of Vystaanzport, where ships arrive with goods from distant lands, a peculiar disturbance has emerged. Reports speak of rats swarming the docks, threatening the flow of trade and commerce. The city officials, desperate to maintain order, have put out a call for capable individuals to address the vermin infestation. Unbeknownst to the party, this seemingly routine task will be the first thread in a much larger tapestry woven by unseen hands.

This seventeen page adventure presents a seven room dungeon with a four encounters above ground, all related to killing rat swarms. And Giants rats. Ans a rat queen. It is closest in form jotting down notes on a piece of paper, with the expertise of a grade schooler.

It’s single column. There’s no real distinction between when read-aloud starts and when it stops. It just sort of all runs together, and one paragraph break suddenly turns in to DM text again. Not to mention the intro read-aloud text being Looooong, diverting players focus from paying attention. And it’s full of second person narrative, YOU step off the boat. YOU see a so and so. 

This is your first impressions of the adventure. The long read-aloud literally has you stepping off your boat on to the dock and seeing a sign on the tavern door advertising work. Well, after you “sense the urgency in the air.” Dude walks in after you, the harbourmaster, and tells you he’s got a rat problem on the docks and go fix it. This is, all, oh, a page of single column read-aloud to do all of this, all on monologue form. Then the adventure IMMEDIATELY shifts to DM text, with no change in font, or shading, or section heading. This is a portent of things to come. I’m trying not to be too hard on this, since there is a sense of … naivete on the part of the designer. They DID just type up their notes in a single column google doc and slap a nice cover on it. Or that’s how it seems anyway, and there’s something charming about that. But, also, this is not something you want to get mixed up in.

Ok, time to head to to docs! We get a little section that says encounters one through three on the docs is with one rat swarm, two rat swarms, and then two rat swarms. And then we get some read-aloud that is to be used for all three of these encounters. Including a dock worked stumbling backward in surprise. (I’d think I was GroundHog Day’ing if this happened to me in D&D …) There’s not other text here, just a short bit of read-aloud used for all three of the encounters, exactly the same. No DM text. And just that little “Encounter 1 – 1 rat swarm” note before the read aloud. So, yeah. 

You find a chewed sewer grate and go in. And thus starts the seven room sewer adventure. “Descending into the depths of the sewers, a rusty ladder leads down into a dimly lit tunnel. The air is thick with the stench of decay, and the sound of dripping water echoes off the damp walls.” The second sentence isn’t so bad. Maybe a little purple, but it’s heart is in the right place. And the first one is passive, putting the active clause second. Never a good idea. We’re not writing a novel here.  But, then, also, we get descriptions like “At the heart of the sewers lies a foul-smelling cesspit, its depths obscured by darkness and filth.” Maybe too many fantasy novels. Adventure writing is technical writing and has a different set of rules for how to present information. 

Anyway, inside the sewers you will not challenges except fighting rats. Rat swarms. Giants rats. A rat queen. And it looks very much like a 5e conversion, give you fight, like 2 giants rats,  five rats swarms and a rat queen in the final room. Oh, Oh! And you find a journal! It seems like it’s been forever since I’ve seen a crappy crappy journal included in an adventure that explains everything going on. Oh, those were the days … but, also, don’t put that sort of exposition in an adventure it’s better for it to come out through some natural gameplay. 

It’s interesting that this is an OSE adventure, with an OSE-like cover. That would imply the designer has seen a published adventure before writing this one. And, yet, almost everything in this would seem to imply that is NOT the case. The number of very, very basic mistakes here is quite surprising. More coherent than the Bloody Mage, and with no ill intent in their heart … but still not worth checking out, at all, in any way.

This is $1 at DriveThru.The preview is all seventeen pages. So, good on em, mate!

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/479601/beneath-the-grey-veil-1-a-plague-of-rats?1892600

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22 Responses to A Plague of Rats

  1. Anonymous says:

    So the minute they get off the ship the player characters are identified as “adventurers”, which in this land means common pest exterminators? An adventure in boredom. Rats and rat swarms get old quickly. I can’t see any player volunteering for this mission. Would anyone have ever read “The Hobbit”or any Conan short story if it started this lame? So you’re an adventurer, Conan, we got a rat problem for you to handle in the sewers! Worth a prize of 20 gps! Can you imagine Gandalf telling Bilbo that he needs a rat catcher to go on a fabulous adventure in the city sewer? Yeah, I think I’d stop reading. Even at level 1 there has to be an adventure worth risking life for.

  2. Pliny the Ill says:

    The OSE/BX rat swarm and giant rat both have several unique attributes: they live among the undead, they may be summoned by wererats, their bites can infect a victim with a deadly disease, they attack in water without a penalty, and they fear fire.

    I looked over this module and there are no undead or wererats. There is nothing about the disease ability (make it more dangerous or provide a cure for the players to seek out?). There are no waterlogged chambers to give the rats a home turf advantage, nor is there magical darkness or dripping water to put out fires. Basically, the author has written a module about fighting rats and has not engaged with the OSE rat statblock in any meaningful way.

    I think there’s a good module to be written about fighting rats underground (Stephen King’s Graveyard Shift is a great horror story) but this is pest extermination work that doesn’t engage with the system it’s written for. Lame.

  3. Bucaramanga says:

    Rats In A Cellar? Sewers? OSE? Level 1? AI art? There are at least five Soviet Union-sized red flags in the first couple pages alone.

  4. chainsaw says:

    Using basic low-level monsters like slimes, insects, rats, goblins, skeletons, zombies, thieves, etc in their typical lairs can work perfectly fine and even be great. I think the inevitable overabundance of low-level adventures naturally leads to disproportionately more *bad* low-level adventures, which has given these standard monsters a bad rap. Nothing at all inherently wrong with rats in a cellar, goblins in a hole, skeletons in a tomb, etc.

    • Anonymous says:

      Now if the level 1 players started as caravan guards making deliveries to a warehouse with rats in the cellar, a hole taken over by goblins, a tomb haunted by skeletons and zombies, and ambushed by bandits along the way, then maybe there is an interesting adventure in that. But honestly, it lacks any creativity other than finding a way to pack tired cliches together.

      • chainsaw says:

        To be clear, I’m not defending the module reviewed here or even saying that basic monsters as the focus of a low-level module is easy to do well… simply saying that it can be done well, which doesn’t seem too controversial. Does anyone think Melan, Hawk, Guy Fullerton, austinjimm, etc would fail to make it fun? Pretty sure they could. So, it’s a function of design skill, in my opinion.

  5. Gus L. says:

    I see 10ft pole remains unchanged. At least this sounds like real human produced stuff.

    I wonder why people write these kind of cliched adventures: The sewer adventure (with rats), the ruined dwarf hold/mine, the orc hole, wizardry tower, tomb of symmetry etc..
    A) Do they think it’s what the market wants? What adventures are supposed to be like?
    B) Do they think it will be easier? Write a rats in the basement adventure first then move on to something better?
    C) Are they convinced that they will do it better? That they can tweak it a little bit to make THE rat adventure?
    D) Is it an overwhelming desire to produce an adventure and a lack of creativity (meaning mostly an unwillingness to read Wikipedia in this case)?

    What drives the endless parade of these things?
    This is followed shortly by “How would my table react to a rat adventure?”
    Then “Should I write a rat adventure…”

    • Ralph says:

      That’s an interesting question.

      • Ralph says:

        [Sorry, shouldn’t have pressed enter there.]

        I think it’s because aspiring module designers need something to hold on to. You don’t have to start from nothing; a wizard’s tower or rat extermination or village with a problem immediately gives you a framework in which you can work things out. And of course there are a lot more aspiring/new module designers than veterans.

        Following a series of ‘village in problem’ type modules I recently worked my way through Zjewyinns Fall by Huso. Inspiring stuff: low-level adventurers travel into the Astral, to a string of glass domes filled with lethal time-themed stuff (flowing sand, hourglasses), weird monsters and automaton guardians, time and magic work differently, a lich on a throne, and did I mention naked women throwing exploding hourglasses at you? This is exciting work of an experienced designer, but not everybody can come up with this stuff from scratch.

        Not that I’m defending the current work; I would only pick up a rat extermination module if Bryce would claim it’s the best ever.

    • Prince says:

      [10ftpole remains unchanged]
      Relevant, prolific, well read, uncensored, courageous, energetic, terse, successful.

      [Reasons]
      It does not take a great deal of imagination to suppose that if a game has at its heart orcs, wizards, priests, undead and so on that the natural move will be to make an adventure that has something to do with that. Whether they should do so as beginners is contentious. I think the artpunk/NSR movement has more or less demonstrated that on average, nonconventional work by degenerate ignoramuses is as useful as traditional work, that is to say, not much. The solution is more practice either way.

      Should people write Rat adventures is a different question then should people write rat adventures and put them up for sale. If you get into a game but you find yourself turned off by most of its core material and premises the solution is very often going to be to either find another game or make your own. But writing a good orc hole adventure in 2024 is going to be a problem of diminishing returns because there will be so many examples already.

      I think it would be fun to close off with a little industry scoop; Alex Macris, the guy you and your pals accuse of being a nazi (evidence pending) and tried to destroy, has recently completed the ACKs II KS with over 300k. That means that bones is not the only thing you have underperformed at.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m of the Gary Gygax camp, originally believing that customers don’t want to purchase adventures because they can make their own instead. I think Gygax was thinking of generic adventures as this one. Not worth buying and easy to create yourself. It’s pretentious for designers to publish generic orc holes, etc. and think they are doing the RPG community a favor. There is really no need to publish another 17 to 30 page OSE rehash of B2 or T1 or any sample dungeon in any rulebook. (For example, I remember when every new DM was creating a troll chieftain and thinking it was creative. Why? Because there were so many low level orc and goblin holes/chieftains. Does anyone need to buy a troll hole now?). I’m glad the designers enjoy D&D, but the ease of modern publishing floods the market with basically useless material from both amateur and professional publishers.

  6. Olle Skogren says:

    Fafhard and the Gray Mouser had not one but two exciting and brutal S&S rat adventures! But they had intrigue, antagonists with agency, fantastical locales and situations. I can write a better rat adventure in 5 minutes in the space of this comment:
    – Rats plague the city, what else is new? But the rat catchers have fled after rat swarms have targeted their homes and killed their colleagues. The rats also murder other people, or steal coins and jewels.
    – Investigation either figuring out the common thread of the victims (opposed to rats, rivals of the villain), or simply following rats to their lairs, reveals a grain warehouse overrun with rat swarms and inhabited by a Pied Piper type character.
    – Resolution can be bringing justice to this character, burning down the warehouse (risk of spreading to adjacent buildings if you don’t pull them down first or water them), negotiating a truce with him becoming a permanent criminal overlord type with the PCs as his secret lieutenants.

    • Reason says:

      @Olle- nice!

    • DP says:

      “A guy is controlling a bunch of rats” still borders on the generic, a bit.

      “The rats are actually villagers”… now *there’s* a rat adventure with a twist!

      Or maybe “the rats are ghosts seeking revenge for exterminators/cat-ownership”. That could work too.

    • markus_cz says:

      Is there actually a good rat adventure, though? Ideally Lankhmar-style with intelligent rats under a city? I’m actually running DCC Lankhmar right now, and my players have taken interest into the rats of the undercity – they even have the shrinking potions.

      There are some rat adventures in AD&D Lankhar but they’re absolutely dreadful and contain no salvageable parts.

      I guess good skaven adventures from WFRP might work too but I bet there are none in existence.

      What is a rat lover to do?

      • Shuffling Wombat says:

        You might try Terror in Talabheim (official) and There are No Such Things as Skaven (fan adventure), both for 2e WFRP.
        A couple of good 1e WFRP adventures where skaven play a significant (but not starring) role are Grapes of Wrath (original version) and Lichemaster.
        There is also Pickpocket Press’s Blight over Brynderwold: skratt are essentially skaven.

      • Gnarley Bones says:

        As a kid, I made up a module that culminated in the cartoon in the DMG with the at deity, using the DDG Newhon Rat God as the BBG. Unfortunately, I had to use wererats because Skaven hadn’t been invented yet.

        I’d be on-board with both skaven and a decent rat adventure for AD&D, but … both giant rats and rat swarms are pretty stereotypical and over-used low-level threats. It would take some effort to make them new, scary and cool again.

      • Malrex says:

        Perhaps another Wavestone Keep type adventure contest involving rats?

  7. Max Z says:

    > The air is thick with the stench of decay, and the sound of dripping water echoes off the damp walls.” The second sentence isn’t so bad. Maybe a little purple, but it’s heart is in the right place. And the first one is passive, putting the active clause second.

    Lol, I shit you not, a year ago I was using ChatGPT to make some room descriptions for one of OSRIC sewers adventures (AA25, Beneath the Heart of Empire) and this is the _exact_ phrase the AI was giving me for some corridor. Basically, if the prompts are all the same, the results will be almost or exactly the same.

    • Max Z says:

      I bet that’s also where the abundance of second person comes too – ChatGPT does it by default unless you tell it “not to describe my actions”.

  8. Anonymous says:

    As I think Prince has remarked on a number of occasions, the flood of poorly executed (even basically ill-conceived) low-level scenarios appears to arise in part from lack of the expertise acquired in longer term play to higher levels.

    There’s an additional hindrance in shortage of inspirational material. Ever since the 1981 ‘BX’ edition of D&D was released, I’ve appreciated it as a fine distillation and judicious revision of the commonly used parts of the original set and Supplement I. However, the recent situation of ‘retoclones’ of BX being by far the most prominent expression of the OSR yields a paucity of resources — compared with the full scope of either OD&D or AD&D — that becomes especially profound at higher levels (but may also give one importantly less to start with in creating fresh permutations at low levels).

    The “usual suspects” can I believe be wrought into interesting scenarios. Familiarity with what’s been done before — not only in old modules, but in the source material from which D&D arose — can be an asset. Writers not acquainted with Burroughs, Howard, Lovecraft, Merritt, Moore, Smith, et al, can hardly see further for standing on the shoulders of giants.

    Likewise, mere shallow copying of Gygax and company is likely to be but poor imitation. As Picasso said, “good artists borrow; great artists steal” (the difference being digestion, making something one’s own to the extent of putting one’s own distinctive mark on it).

    The recognized classics are mostly so widely available in their own right, as well as many times already imitated, as to set a high bar for yet another revisitation of their premises to be worthwhile.

    Choosing to focus on a particular kind of monster, such as “goblins/orcs in a hole,” giant rats, nigh-mindless undead or (at high enough level) vampires, calls for leaning into that choice with an especially engaging twist. Likewise in movies, there are a few “zombie apocalypse” or “psycho slasher” productions that stand out from the horde.

    One might actually do better, with a low-level scenario, to start with an idea requiring only normal human conflicts. Then, when considering the addition of fantastic elements, ask the question, “What does this bring?” The answer ought ideally to include a host of ramifications that are intriguing not merely as flavor but also as engaging problems to challenge the players’ creativity.

    The environment in which a monster is operating can go a significant way in leveraging what makes that creature distinctive, both in tone and in tactical challenges.

    The narrow focus needs to justify itself, not come off as an arbitrary choice in which any number of alternatives would have served as well — or, more probably, as poorly in a mediocre run of the mill contrivance.

  9. Phillip A Hessel says:

    Sorry; Anonymous above was me, in the comment starting, “ As I think Prince has remarked …”

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