Blue Alley

By Alan Patrick & M.T. Black
Self Published
Levels 1-4

Blue Alley lies hidden in the heart of Waterdeep. Built by a secretive wizard, it is a magic maze full of tricks, traps, strange monsters, and rich treasure. Countless adventurers have ventured inside to test their bravery and skill, yet few have returned. And now it is your turn…

This seventeen page adventure uses about seven pages to describe seventeen rooms in a Challenge dungeon. You already know what that means, I hope. 

What?! You don’t know what that means? It’s a genre of dungeon in which someone constructs a dungeon to challenge the party, or test them, or some such nonsense. You have to “prove yourself worthy” or some other related thing. They are lazy. A challenge dungeon and a funhouse dungeon are essentially the same thing, except the funhouse dungeon doesn’t try to layer eighteen layers of justification on top of the dungeon in order to explain why things are the way they are. But where a funhouse allows you to suspend disbelief, the explanations in a challenge dungeon just make one groan. It’s a desire to put challenge after challenge in front of the party, without any reasoning behind it, that sets a challenge dungeon apart. There is no ecosystem. There is no neutral ground. There is an adversary that designed something to fuck you over. It’s fucking lame. 

Our dungeon here is an alley in waterdeep. Just an alley. That’s the corridors. The doors represent entries in to buildings. The alley is windowless, the text tells us. And thus we see the laziness. What about the roofline? Or, the buildings around the rooms? I got a crowbar and fuck you if I’m going in through the door if I don’t have to. Those things will get you killed! I don’t mean to harp on this as a minor detail, but, handholds and windows and such, for any tower, would be something of import to note and a decent dungeon of, say, said tower, would have some roof detail and perhaps multiple points of entry and/or rewards for those players thinking outside the box. But not here. You are going to do what the designer told you to do and encounter their dungeon the way that they want you to.

Descriptions are … practically nonexistent?  Which is par for the course in a challenge dungeon. After all, you’re solving a puzzle not having an experience. So we get super functional but non-evocative descriptions like “In the center of this small 10 foot by 10 foot room is a crossbow mounted on a tripod. The string on the crossbow has long since snapped, leaving the single silver bolt unfired. Inscribed on the west wall are the words, “CAN DO” Also, you are over revealing in the text, with the snapped storing and maybe even the silver bolt. We save follow up detail for the players to discover as their character investigate. The back and forth between the players and the DM is one of the most important loops in any RPG. And a decent part of that is eliminated when you overreveal in read-aloud. Beyond that, the description has nothing evocative in it at all. You are not here for an experience. Or immersion. You are here to solve a puzzle. Make your INT check. 

Let’s look at a typical room. “a magic mouth opens at the top of stairs and says “Laughter is the best medicine. MAKE ME LAUGH!” Allow the characters to roleplay a bit, and if you deem their comments or antics humorous the magic mouth looses a stone-shaking uproarious laugh and intones a command word “ And thus we see the horrors. A magic mouth. A command word spoken by it. This is the product of someone who can’t think beyond “someone has to say a command word for something to happen!” 

Did I mention that many of the rooms start with “This area has the following features: “ No? I did now? How about the “fetch the silver key to open the silver door” type retrievals? No? I did now? 

Nothing to see here. Move along. Move along. And this is what you get when I work my way through the list of things I’ve not reviewed yet. Dear god, one day this will be over and I can go back to reviewing things that might be good. 

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages with no rooms shown. Not a good preview.

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31 Responses to Blue Alley

  1. AB Andy says:

    Really sorry Bryce, that was me who requested it. My buddies wanted a one-shot 5e between longer adventures and I found it, with its 4,7/5 out of 300 reviews. Good I didn’t buy it immediately and requested a review first. Well, good for me at least. sorry again.

  2. Bucaramanga says:

    >>>Dear god, one day this will be over and I can go back to reviewing things that might be good.

    Good? Most of the old-school stuff you’ve reviewed out of your own free will over the last few weeks have been abysmal dreck.

  3. Gnarley Bones says:

    Dragon Mag #64 (1982) had “The Assassin’s Run” in it; it was a gauntlet the Guild had new recruits run through to test their mettle. Sounds light years beyond this.

  4. Nonnymouse says:

    This is one of the best, most coherent reviews. Excellent zingers while also hitting and reminding readers on what your core tenants are. 10/10.

    The best.

  5. The Middle Finger Of Vecna says:

    Anything 5e on DMs Guild must be taken with a huge grain (boulder actually) of salt.

    • AB Andy says:

      I mean, look. People try to, at some level, imitate the publisher for whose product they want to publish. When I write an adventure to be published for OSE, I will choose to write it as Gavin does. When I used to write for 5e, I thought the “correct” way was to do so the way they do it. With 5 paragraphs per room, long read-aloud, etc.
      If 5e is your system of choice, and Styxhaven, Tiamat and Frost maiden is what you read, then this is what you think adventure writing is.

      That’s why the 5e adventures that stand out are the ones that try to do it differently. See Tomb of the Black Sand as an example.

  6. chainsaw says:

    Maybe the real treasure was keeping any friends you invited to play?

    Just a thought.

  7. Anonymous says:

    1) it’s for 5e
    2) it’s on the DMs Guild
    3) it drinks the kool-aid with the tag “world’s greatest roleplaying game”

    That’s 3 strikes. Some things you really can judge by its cover.

    • Knutz Deep says:

      Although I don’t play and likely would never play 5e, Bryce has reviewed some adventures written for the system that seem okay. As far as DM’s Guild stuff, nearly all of it is produced for a group of gamers that have very different expectations of RPGs than I do and those of us not interested in the current version. Coupling that with the mechanics and play style that goes along with 5e is a hard pass for me. I have faith that there are writers out there who can do 5e in a style that’s more faithful to TSR versions of the game and/or clones of such but they are the vast minority. If modern D&D players want a certain style of game that 5e encourages and caters to, who am I to object. They can play their game and I’ll play mine

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m all for enjoying my games and letting them enjoy their games (or burn out trying, as statistics and anecdotes seem to suggest happens at a non-insignificant rate).

        But they’re the ones repeating the tagline, “the world’s greatest role-playing game.” Just sayin’.

        • Anonymous says:

          “World’s Greatest Roleplaying game” is a term used by all things published under the OGL, because “D&D” is a trademark and can’t be used by third parties.

    • Anonymous says:

      Fair enough, but “worlds greatest roleplaying game” is frequently used by publishers because they aren’t allowed to say “for Dungeons and Dragons” without infringing copyright.

      • Bryce Lynch says:

        This is what, an OGL limitation? I pretty sur eyou can say “Compatible with Dungeons & Dragons” or some such, under US trademark law. Or am I remembering something else?

        • Anonymous says:

          Yes it is very clearly stipulated in the OGL that you cannot use any WotC trademarks, “Dungeons & Dragons”/”D&D” included. Can’t even say “Dungeon Master” or “DM”, which is why “GM” gets thrown around so much as a replacement term.

        • Anonymous says:

          It’s bullshit, but that’s the position. There was even litigation back in the day with TSR suing Mayfair Games for saying “for D&D”.

      • Anonymous says:

        Can’t they say something like “for 5e” or something like that? It’s a lot less cringy than this line that most who have played more than 1 game system will recognize as bonkers.

  8. Dave says:

    I assumed it was bad from the cover alone.

  9. Prince says:

    Cover breaks the fucking site too. Whew!

  10. Melan says:

    This is surprisingly familiar, since it is just like a whole lot of RPGA tournament modules from the 1990s (and presumably the 1980s). Same setup, same encounter style, same lack of concern for players thinking even a little bit laterally, and the exact same wooden delivery. A very lukewarm form of competitive D&D that started on a high note with Tsojcanth, White Plume Mountain and the Giants series, and devolved into a pitiful lump of primordial ooze begging random people to put it out of its misery.

  11. Pliny the Ill says:

    Least inspiring module title since “Journey to the Rock”

  12. EB says:

    I always see this one as a top seller on DMs Guild and MT Black as the author, assumed it would be a good one. Thanks for the review, not really into fun house adventures.

  13. Phillip A Hessel says:

    Not using a trademark without permission IS an OGL restriction. I don’t know whether the OGL is even applicable to 5E, which might entail another license. Accepting the terms of the contract is enough more protection from Hasbro’s lawyers for creators/entrepreneurs who are themselves lawyers to have assessed it as worthwhile.

  14. Phillip A Hessel says:

    I not only have an abiding affection for White Plume Mountain, but continue to see puzzles and tricks — albeit normally not so densely packed — as a lot more important to my conception of the dungeon game than they are in the paradigm focusing on combats and injurious traps.

    A linear gauntlet is to my mind something to place where players have a choice to avoid it, or to back out. The ‘challenge’ conceit can help serve that, but the premise need not (and ought not) be overwrought. As with other touches, it’s a question of payoff versus investment of time.

    What IS needful, for players ready to enjoy this kind of thing if done well, is sufficiently interesting choices to make within the set pieces themselves. Some players like something that initially appears as random as a slot machine, but even they want further engagement to discover a pattern enabling development of strategy.

    Again, if there’s a clearly optimal solution then the puzzle should not impose itself longer than solving it requires. If it’s more properly a game, meaning there are always live choices that are non-trivial, then it can warrant more time.

    A diverse array of challenges is preferable. What makes a gauntlet dubious is its forcing of players to deal with a given set of things in a set order. That easily results in players’ objective being to unlock the way out of a situation they find tiresome. A D&D adventure can evoke many responses, but boredom ought never to be among them (except perhaps as a very brief interlude of something unsuited to a given player’s fancy).

  15. MTB says:

    Alan and I wrote this over a weekend to accompany the release of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. It is based on an old Ed Greenwood dungeon from the 2E era, and I always saw it very much as a funhouse dungeon, with lots of gonzo little tricks. White Plume Mountain was an influence, and there is at least one encounter I lifted wholesale from that venerable module.

    It was always written to be compatible with Adventurers League, which is why there is a bit of boilerplate (stuff like “This room has the following features”). But otherwise I thought we kept it pretty tight – 28 rooms described in 8 pages, with lots of art and white space. There’s no boxed text either, which is unusual for these sorts of adventures.

    The map is a little more complex than Bryce makes it seem. Here’s a 3D render of it that someone did:

    I’ll admit I’ve been surprised at the response this little dungeon has garnered over the years. It’s now sold well over 5,000 copies and has a rating of 94% from over 300 reviews. Most people find it to be a fun and silly afternoon’s play, and a good way to break up a more serious campaign.


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