Truelife Gift

Christopher Lyons
Big Budgie Press
Levels 3-4

This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!

Beware the fruit of the Truelife Tree! A fearsome pleasure barge laden with terrible cargo floats and lists, its passengers numb to the wide world outside. Sinister magic permeates the ancient timbers and tiles, ensorcelling all would- be treasure-seekers and scavengers.

This six page adventure features four partial ship decks full of weirdos and loot. A little bit of a museum trip combined with a casual looting give rise to the question: what challenge, Horatio?

So you’ve got this giant ship. The top deck contains The Tree Of Life, with fruit that convey immortality … if you stay on the ship. The ship breaks in two, etc, and the back half, with the tree, winds up on a beach, side profile showing. On board are four levels, including the top deck with the tree. Various rooms contain treasure and some wacky NPC’s. 

My issues here are many and varied. 

First, the map. We’ve got four different little maps, one of each ship level, but with no real keying or notations on it. Various rooms are labeled, in the text but not on the map as “Rathgars Room” and “Study”, but that’s all you get. I am not amused. I don’t like the cognitive burned of looking at the  map, and the textual description of a room, and then trying to place it on the map. And, inevitably, making notes on the map to do what the designer should have done. 

The challenges faced by the party in this adventure include three electric eels. That’s it. Seriously. Ok, ok, no, I’m not being fair. I’m in a pissy mood this morning. There’s also a wandering monster table. That includes a crab swarm and some lizardmen raiders. 

Other than this, the main challenge is not getting caught. The barge has some wacky rich folk onboard, who are immortal, right out of the City of Rapture playbook. The notes say that they are 20-24 of them, with about four being named and having personalities like “wont anyone think of the children” and “that shirt is soo last season.” So, good, decent, short NPC descriptions then, at least for those four. The other 20-24 don’t show up again in any mention except in the Roleplaying the Passengers section. Basically, they don’t do shit except be annoying, unless the party harm the tree of life or try to steal shit, in which case they attack. Also, they are immortal and regen, the only way to stop them being throwing them off the boat in which case they turn in to dust. 

So, you wander around the boat, looting shit until you get caught and then chucking a body off the boat, I guess? Also, no real stats for the passengers.

The rooms themselves are decently described, just as the NPC’s are. A short little couple of sentences up top to orient, that could double as read-aloud, and then some bullets underneat with some bolding to help draw the DMs attention. They run a little longish, but, that’s mostly because each of the items in the room get a couple of sentences, in bullet form, and there are four or more things in a room to describe in more detail … usually some sort of trease. A treasure map, an old book, a chest, a person, etc. 

So, what’s the deal here?  I think I’m objecting to the NC heavy adventure without a heavy NPC focus, along with the unused page count. A column of additional NPC’s would have been nice, and then some more intrigue … granted that’s hard to do with the limited room count available. AT most, one of the NOC’s wants to perform in front of the other ship passengers and get applause. We need more along that line, a more involved situation, and some reason why everyone just doesn’t gak the party when they start stealing. 

I want to be supportive of this adventure, but, It’s just not hitting for me. Is it a loot? A social adventure? It’s not a crawl. It’ doesn’t seem to know really what it wants to be, and thus the text is having trouble concentrating on those elements.

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Coquina Keep of Clown-nihilation

Adam Hawkins
Self Published
Levels 3-5

This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!

The CKC is a magical coquina stone tower that floats along the sea coast on a wide barge occasionally making land fall. Sometimes it will randomly teleport unexpectedly across the sea or inland, such as appearing in the street in front of the Cs favorite inn. It was made by yet another mad wizard known as the Keepmaster for no particular purpose by to terrorize coastal communities with an invasion of lizard folk clowns when it washes ashore.

The rest of you are L 0 S E R S! Adam C Hawkins understood the assignment when I announced the contest. You see, the rest of you submitted an entry based on my direct illocutionary force. Adam, though, understood the indirect illocutionary force, what I meant. So confident was he that he included his address, for the inevitable mail containing the prize. He knew that I would have to review the reviews, or at least read them all. And, thus, he created something that he would then force me to read … and took the opportunity to torture me. Adam truly understands the masochism inherent in the tenfootpole outlook on life. He wrote a jokey clown adventure. 

Five pages. Nine rooms on a three level tower. Ignoring the intro, the real fun starts with the wandering monster table. Flying Baseball Bats. Crabby Old Men. Lizard Folk Clowns. What’s a flying baseball bat? I have no idea. Or, for that matter, I have no idea what a lizard folk clown is, there’s no description of either of them. The crabby old men, though, Do get a description. “What are you doing out  here? Stay out of our keep! Respect your elders!” In my hubris, I would like to think that these are a homage to me. Also, I didn’t get the play on words, at first, with the bats. I though they were baseballs bats, like the club. Now I think they are baseballs with wings. Modern lit is great, we are told, because of the different interpretations once can have of the same text, so, you know, Joyce and the Coquina are the same. You think I’m kidding but I’m not. I’m serious. Only Joyce got the suckers to buy in. 🙂

Room One! Assorted dead ocean fish (grouper, mahi-mahi, tun, sailfish, nursing sharks, eels, etc) are hanging on lines from the rafters of this room. They are hung individuals, tightly together, and at different heights, blocking vision across the room. They can be parted like walking through a beaded curtain.” Well, fuck. That’s not so bad. I mean, nice imagery there! I get it! And, it’s gonna fuck up the party; they are gonna get scared and probably fuck shit up! Also, there’s three jellyfish in there, so, nice integration of a “trap” in to the environment. It feels right. 

Okay! I’m in the groove! Let’s see … room two is … a magic shop. Room three is a snack room with a magic popcorn machine. Room four has meditating clowns asking “What is the perfect number?”  Room five has … a clown car full of lizard man clowns. Room six is a naked teleporter room. Ok, I got it. 

Also, I feel seen. The final boss is a wizard who wear the Talon of Weknaw Jr, his right thumbs replaced with a birds leg and talon and that holds ap uslating black pearl of doom that he throws at people, Sphere of Annihilation style. Everyone does know, byt now, that I immediately cut off my own hand, as a player character, and pluck out my eye at the first sign I may have found any part of the terrible twosome right? And, I mean, who DOESN’T lust after the Sphere?

Alas, Adam, your descriptions for the rooms need some more work!

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The Frost Spire

Jacob Hurst
Self Published
Level 3

This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!

Long ago, when the world was new an elf king was banished from his kingdom and tossed into the sea. His hatred was so great, and so cold that it froze the water into a tall spire and he was cursed to drift forever bringing Winter to the world. But sometimes, he hungers for the blood of bad children. And on nights, when the fog is thick, and the ice piles up in jagged sheets upon the shore, he sends his wives to steal away crying babies, and the kinds of children that fight and do not do what they’re told. So beware sweet voices in the fog, and stay close to the fire, or you might be carried off, howling to the frost spire.

Well, Fuck you all, Picasso entered the jr high Art Fair. 

This ten page adventure features nine rooms in a tower off the coast. This one has a fey theme, with the Winter King abducting children. The use of language and image is masterful, with the entire thing only have a few minor flaws. Great job of channeling that Fey energy.

As i sit here, drinking too much, smoking too much, fucking too much, and not paying enough attention to work, family, or other trivialities, preparing for another sybratic weekend, I ask myself, well, where does that highway go to? My god, what have I done? Not yet halfway through, I think … and to stumble upon this!

I want you to reread that intro blurb again. “He sends his wives to steal away crying babies …” What an interesting framing for the elf king, banished and cursed to forever bring winter to the world. That just FEELS right, doesn’t it? The wives thing? I mean, the entire intro is written like it’s a REAL thing, like it IS a fairytale, or some Hollywood hacks spent 5 mil to write up the intro scrawl for a movie. It’s real fucking writing! I botch, a lot, about failed author writing. Inserting flowery phrases and hack fantasy phrases in to an adventure, in to the fiction piece, the intro, the read-aloud and DM text. There’s a time and place for that shit, and the fucking marketing blurb is ABSOLUTLY the place. This is the place to get inspired. To set the framing in the DMs head. To preload that frontal cortex for that stimuli to come. Mythic. Folklore. A fairytale to come. Who’s ready for some fey action?

And Lo, this is not the end! For while the flowery shit comes to an end, the great writing does not. But it shifts, to where it needs to be, to DM focused to run the game. And every paragraph, almost every sentence, has something REALLY great in it! “Large, impossibly fast growing holly sprouts outside the home of any child marked by the Winter Court, and in the fall and winter it hangs heavy with berries of crimson so deep they’re almost purple.” Hanging heavy. Berries of crimson. No, not flowery shit, but great imagery! And so it goes, on and on and on again. Line after line. 

Concept after concept. For if the writing lacks then the IDEAS it communicates does not! “On the first night fog rolls in thick and cold and does not leave” That’s some fucking omen level shit right there man! “A village near the sea.” The populace is completely shellshocked. Last night, 10 children vanished. Women are weeping inconsolably. Men are burning a huge pile of holly bushes in the town square.” I can run that fucking shit! I know what to do with that! I need no more! That’s what I fucking want! Inspiration! A scene, set, and primed, ready for me to go. Fuck you and your pages long village description; all I need is that short paragraph. There are nice little other hook-ish things, like a troll bargaining for his life, selling out the Winter King because he didn’t give him the children he was primoosed for dinne. Or a hedge witch who has figured out the holly bush thing, but no more, and is hounded by villagers and the local lord. Or a harpy, flying flowy overhead, struggling with a heavy lumpy sack, thes pounds of crying children clearly coming from it, heading towards a distant bank of heavy fog. Yeah man! Adventure Fucking Time!

Following that are a hort series of encounters the DM can insert in to the fog. “A father (Dylan) walks alone in a heavy fur coat, carrying a sword and lantern. His boots ripped and he can’t feel his feet anymore, but his daughter has been taken and his wife died in childbirth,” Uh huh. Thta’s kind of fucking grim. A merchant and a keg of ale, a woulded elf surrounded by wolves. The fucking shit is GREAT. It cCOMPLETEELY sets the tone for whats to come, setting the players minds to the correct framing for the content its to receive. A couple of adventures have done this, providing some context for the tower vibe to come, and I think they’ve all made good choices in trying to do so. It really does help!

The ice tower has a couple of approaches to it, none easy, a few easily seen, blue lights coming from a cave with a dark fog rolling out of it. The entrances, obvious, are not easily gained and there’s no provision to make it easy. You’re level fucking three poindexter, figure it out. 

Inside the encounters and imagery continue to be great, but transition to the Room Format that Jacob uses. A room title, a short sentence, some bolded keywords about major elements and a few words in parens to describe them, followed by some DM text. I like this format, terse and scannable. It’s the les sis more approach, just highlighting the important bits to get you in the mood and the important elements for the adventure and letting the DMs imagination do the rest, leveraging it for the players benefit. I will not, that, it seems a little less effective here. Something to do with the layout, perhaps? It’s still good, I think, but it is taking me just a little more time to figure things out and get the big picture Maybe another edit? Idk.

Inside the interactivity is strong. A thick blue bonfire, burning bones, a sword in the middle of it, bones in piles in the room, dancing rainbows on the ceiling from refracted light. The environments are magical, fey0like, from ice cave to forest walkway. A sleeping polas bear cuddles a skeleton wearing an ornate helmet of bright bronze with a plume of red horsehair. Shiny! Who wants to risk being eaten for it?! I fucking love push your luck shit. 

And the NPC’s, well, there are a couple of things to just hack, but, also, the ones you can talk to? How about a witch inside challenging you: “And just what will you do good adventurer? Return this babe to a hard life in a rundown hut of frozen dirt? A forgotten 5th or 7th child? Please, tell me again how untrained magic users benefit these lands?”Nice job witch lady! You’re making a compelling case! Akso, the winter king could be your patron and provide a moving base of operations “if they have a certain level of … ambivalence.” Ha! I fucking love it! Of course, the true answer is “Who appointed you CPS bitch?” STAB STAB STAB. But, of course, the truer answer is XP XP XP. 🙂   Still, great job making the PLAYERS lives a little bit harder. I love that tone. Have the gobbo beg for mercy and then stab the fuckers when they do it. 

I’m not really communicating the interior vibe, but, it includes staring too long at ice sheets, seeing long dead relatives. (not dead, LONG dead. The overloading of the phrasing brings so much more to the imagery!) And the, staring longer, having your own looks transformed to look like those long dead relatives. Because that’s what SHOULD happen in this circumstance, right? I mean, it FEELS right. And that’s what this does, over and over again. The encounters, the writing, it all FEELS right.

Yo, you need one paragraph on how the enemies react. Also, harpies? I mean, yeah, ok, But, like, emphasize the frozen wife aspect more so they are not genero?

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Dread Tide Tower

An unrelated internet photo
Steve Williams
Levels 3-4

This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!

Okeydoke. We’ve got a seven page adventure featuring a six level tower is about nine rooms that is … hmmm, very similar to Wavestone Keep in concept. That’s interesting 🙂  Some padding in this one, with some basic lizard man killing and a few features, like dropping chandeliers. It looks like this is the designers first adventure, and they usually play with their son … so let’s be mean to them to assuage our own feelings of inadequacy! Also, I’ve been sick now for 24 hours in a fetal position on the floor with food poisoning .. my hearts not in this one. 

This is a pretty basic tower raid with lizardmen in the tower, brightened up by from horrific imagery and a few romo features. It’s interesting, i think, that I tend to gravitate towards good imagery being the horrific. It seems earlier to write the gore aspects of a description then it is something beatific or mundane. (Austere dwarven temples doing so unintentionally …) But, for whatever reason, it does seem so. And the designer here does a decent job. Bloody rage covering a body of a villager, its abdomen and chest hollow out, gnawed to the bone. The bodies of villagers hanging on meat hooks upside down, their throats slit. A pile of bloody rags next to a kitchen bench. These elements come before you even meet the lizardmen in the tower, providing a great reason to hack the fuckers down. Motivating the players, as opposed to their characters, are a good thing and some evidence bestial humanoids do the trick. No abstracted generalities here. You FEEL it, even though much of it is implied in these early rooms. We move on to the first lizardman encounter, with a villager tied to a door, having javelins thrown at the by the lizardmen in the room, for sport. (Which might end up being “blood runs after the door” after hearing some thumping sounds, if you go in the towers front door instead of through the basement cave. Again, good hints of whats to come.) Javelins hitting with meaty thuds, and their wrists nailed to the door, their head hanging down. Nice! The payoff is “Staring blanky into space, a severed head has been cracked open like a boiled egg and a long-handled spoon juts out of it” in a dining room. Yup! It brings the viscereality. Which is what it SHOULD be doing. When I talk about using humanoids effectively (my preference for bandits instead of stand-in humanoids) this is what I’m talking about. There’s a brutality here that quickly indicates what the score is and why you’re hacking who you’re hacking I approve! The imagery isn’t always this good, but when it does hit it hits at 100%. 

The designer does a good job also indicating whats in the next room, hinting at torch light or sounds or smells. But, I want to talk about some “environment” things that they also throw in. Combat after combat can be boring, but the designer sets up spme situations to bring some interest to it. Most obviously, this is a great chandelier in a room that can be dropped on people beflow it if  you cut the cord (which, conveniently, is right next to the top of the stairs yu come up.) Similarly there is a dumbwaiter that the party could use, or a smaller member anyway, that could set up an interesting scene with one halfling/dwarf and five lizardmen and I can just envision some screams to be lowered, etc. 

There are, though decent number of things to be improved upon. 

The thing was thrown together fast, which is ok, but, the map is a little small and could have been blown up a bit more to make it more readable. The treasure seems quite light for a Gold=XP game, and an old spellbook is in a secret language that the party can’t read. Boo! Boo I say, Sir! Give’em a spellbook!

More, though, is the language and text. There’s some padding here, with a lot of “appears to be” thrown in. Read-aloud can get long in places and borders on being a bit flowery. Primarily, though, its long through overshare, telling us that barrels are water barrels and vegetables are rotting. Save this for the DM notes, so the players can investigate. I note, also, that certain sections could be rearranged to better effect. The chandelier handle perhaps appearing closer to the top of the entry, since the party will see it quickly, than the bottom of the room description. And the light, which appears on the bottom consistently, perhaps moving up in the description to enter quickly in to the DM’s head. The rooms FEEL long, with regard to the text, but, also, I can’t fault the DM text too much. It’s generally well laid out and the paragraphs focus on the elements they need to. And, the sentrysystem, the order of battle, isn’t laid out very well, with a gog appearing deep in the text and no real notes on how the tower responds to a pitched battle thats sure to develop. 

I might call this almost a journeyman effort. Journeyman being Bryce codeword for “everything should be at least this good.” So, this gets close, I think, Yeah, it’s a tower raid, but, the bestial nature of the humanoids is well done and the extra environment elements do a bit to bring some novelty to a fight. A good strong edit and hard work on the text could do it well, and, maybe, something more. It just feels a little “one trick” and like the tower could use one more feature in it to bring it more fully to life and/or make it even more interesting or throw another wrench in to things, a complication.

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The Flute of Sailroc Edifice

By Cat Or Bat
Self Published
Level 3

This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!

Characters obtain a magical flute that causes a tower to sail on a rocky island from the ocean. There is a lot of filthy lucre inside, but much of it is bulky, brittle, puzzling, or dangerous. When the tower starts sailing off, the player characters will need to devise a plan to get the treasure out before the tower leaves for good.

This ten page adventure details a tower with about seven floors. You’ve got about 30 minutes to loot it before it disappears out to sea, making this a kind-of race against time. It’s using an interesting tabular/spreadsheet format, which, I think, is busy for the intended effect. Nice encounters, although a little light. Or, maybe, light until you get yourself killed in one.

You find a sea cave and inside the cave a dead guy on a cot with a key around his neck. Under the bed is a locked chest. Inside a flute. Playing the flute makes a tall tower ZOOM out from the sea and arrive off shore. What magical wonder await inside? The murals on the cave wall imply TREASURE!!!! Ok, so no, they don’t imply treasure … THEY OUTRIGHT SHOW MOUNTAINS OF TREASURE INSIDE!!!

You see the tower arrive, row over to the small island and see a tower. There’s a front door and a ladder up the side to the top. Some interesting design choices then come in to play. Each level of the tower has, essentially, one room, Maybe a couple of things going on in the room, but, one room. If you climb the ladder and start from the room, going down, then you probably pick up a lot of loot risk free. Or, potentially pick up a lot of loot? A lot of the loot is big and/or fragile, which begs the question on how you’re getting the loot out of the tower and back to shore in order to claim it. (This is make more sense in a moment.) So, starting from the top leads to to some encounters that are essentially loot encounters with some minor inconveniences. There are some EXTREMELY fragile undead in one room, crawling around on the floor, but wearing very expensive clothes. You can undress them to get the loot, and, they probably die as you do so. Because they are so fragile. Or you can be super careful, taking, like, 30 minutes to disrobe one of them. “Spare us, we’re brittle!” they call out. Nice! The level underneath that one has a big table, chairs, a cabinet, and so on. Large items hard to loot. 

Most of the encounters are quite survivable for a group of level 3’s, with no real combat challenges. Until the basement. When you reach the basement you probably get fucked up. There’s a 10HD sleeping dude in there and a treasure hoard. Which are mimics. Which encountering probably wakes up the ravenous giant dude who then almost certainly fucks your world up. Did you push too far? Then you’re dead instead of looting. 

There’s another mechanism going on here as well: after thirty minutes of game time the tower heads back out to sea. Rapidly. So, you’re either in for it and along for the ride in a tower full of loot and no way to recover it, probably, or you’ve got thirty minutes to grab as much loot as possible. Thus, if you started at the top, and, given about fifteen minutes per floor, you probably miss the giant if you work your way down methodically. If you star at the front doow and go down you could be dead. If you work your way up you don’t make it to the top. And in BOTH cases, the secret treasure room is in the MIDDLE floor, which you don’t reach in thirty minutes by starting from either the top or the bottom. This means substantially different outcomes depending on the choices made. Nice! 

Or, nice in theory. As implemented, I have some issues. 

I’m not sure I’m down with the way the thing is implemented. As it stands you’re basically just making a random choice: do I start at ethe top or with the door in front? I guess it could be argued that “were going in through the roof!” people are smarter than “front door” players, but, I think it would be far better if there were some trade off for the players to make an informed decision about. Randomness is not agency. I’m making too much of this, already, because, hey, player choose Left or Right for their characters in a dungeon hallway all the time, but, here, somehow, it feels different. 

Related to this is the timer. If it is even a timer? You’ve got thirty minutes, which means you can basically examine about two floors, according to the adventure text. (Unless you undress one of those zombies of course … and assuming you don’t examine the roof very closely and burn fifteen minutes up there …) I’m not sure you’re making a choice here about what to do? If the ceiling is collapsing then you know you are pushing your luck with grab at the treasure pile you tale. But, here, you don’t really know that the tower is going away and thus you don’t know to go deeper, or skim the surface, or whatever. It’s gonna just appear that the tower now starts moving. Which, ok, sure, you don’t need to telegraph everything to the players. But, in this case, it seems appropriate. Unless, of course, you want the party stranded in the middle of the ocean. Then you’e got all the time in the world to loot the place, or get killed by the dude in the basement, before the DM tosses in a boat for the party to evac on. It just seems weird to me to have a timer on the adventure and not COMMUNICATE the timer, or at least hint at it. 

And, then, the format is a little … interesting.

You get a little intro section, a couple of sentences, and then a three column thing. What you first see, then what that this is upon infestation, and then what it really s, which is essentially the DM play notes. Sounds pretty familiar, right? But, imagine instead I did this in a spreadsheet, with three columns, and then combined the columns for that intro section? It’s a little disconnected … it just doesn’t enter my brain well. And, then, there’s ALOT of formatting of fonts. Blue text, bolded text, red text, underlines, italics. I know, I avocate for this stuff, but, also, moderation is a thing. I find this sometimes, in adventures. People come up with a format and follow it religiously. “I’m going to note the light in every room. And the smell. And the condition of the door, and …”  The goalie not the format. The goal is an understandable adventure. It can be tempting to think that by rigorously following a format you can make something better. But, no, ultimately everything must serve the ultimate purpose and things can go too far and loop around the otherside of comprehension, becoming more difficult. 

So, encounters? Interesting. The concept is decent also, or, perhaps I mean the design choices of “choose your entry and difficulty” being so intentionally made in the design. I’m not sure, though, tha I could run this well, given the format and may want a little more in the form of a “room introduction”/overview in a format like this.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1.

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Wyvern’s Roost

By Richard Sharpe
Self Published
Level 1

This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!

This eighteen page DIGEST adventure contains about nine or so rooms/encounters in it. A delightful romp in a simple lighthouse, its got some decent imagery and nice interactivity. A B/X adventure, in the most laudable sense of the phrase. It could also use a bit of a rewrite with the way it formats its entries to put important things first.

This is a retheme from another adventure, a bandit tower. But, instead of bandits we’re rethemed to pirates and a lighthouse … and it works well! A dude in town says he’s looking for wyvern eggs and there’s a tower nearby. You get there, avoid getting eaten outside, negotiate a troll cave, cross a rope bridge, make it up the tower to the nest at the top. What’s notable, here, is this being a Level 1 adventure with a Wyvern, a Troll, a and a Vampire … with only the Wyvern being an outright obstacle. And that leads to a wonderful tone, the kind most of us enjoy, where you’re not just hacking shit down but, rather, scheming and talking to the people inside.

The people inside who wear obvious keys around their necks for that big fat treasure chest sitting in the room. And have big fat ruby rings and earrings on, obviously worth a lot of money. Everyone should know by now that my favorite game as a DM is “how close can I get to luring the party in to attacking the actual Keep in B2?” … and other related issues. I love a friendly NPC with “next level loot here!” signs hanging around their necks! Especially when they are overpowered like the ones here are. 

The interactivity here is pretty good. We’ve got the obvious NPC’s to talk to, and the overall “grab the loot/push your luck but the wyvern is probably not a fight” thing going on. Nice traps, a rope bridge, and a decent secrets layout is all pretty good. 

Writing can be quite evocative in this. The troll’s goblin buddy is “Her erratic personality will rapidly shift back and forth from screaming rage at the troll for suggesting they eat their nice visitors to simpering, handsy doting on any adventurer who doesn’t violently recoil from her reach, and she is persistent. She only sometimes licks her toothy chops when looking at tasty exposed people flesh.” and “Chains the size of a person’s arm encircle the riveted, black iron coffin and run through its four handles. There is a sliding shutter door at the corpse’s eye level.” Not bad at all! NPC’s are well described and memorable without being over the top. Folk in the local tavern have rumors and are for hire. Rooms have decent, and short, descriptions to relate to players. A one-eyed troll with an acid-melted face is a win

Other things are great also. There’s a small amount of cat & mouse with the wyvern, in a throw-away statement, as the party approach the tower. Good non-linear entry in to the tower. NPC’s in town are good, as are the rumors. The various magic items are solid, including a hood that “A thin layer of elven cadaver skin is stitched inside like a lining. It’s peeling and flaking off the back of the mask. One time only, the wearer can transform into any person’s form whose facial skin is stitched into it.” Sweet! That’s what I want! To wear someone else’s face, literally and figuratively! 

Also, though, there’s the formatting …

There are a couple of things going on here that kind of rub me the wrong way. First are the room summaries. I feel like these happen BEFORE The encounter, before the read-aloud. And they get a little long. They are NOT done consistently, which is not what I’m bithcing about, but, also, they seem to be long and just appear. I’m on board with a general overview of how things are supposed to work inthe tower, etc, but, also, you can do it shorter and/or not include it at all in a short adventure and the let the adventure encounter keys speak for themselves. 

Then, also, some of the descriptions are a little cumbersome in how they are laid out. Like, that coffin description, with the chains. I think the subject, the coffin, probably needs to come first and then the chains. Unless the chains are just SO FUCKING HUGE as to the most obvious part of the room, then the coffin is. By getting all fancy with the description writing you’ve put the coffin in the secondary place in the description. First things first in descriptions. 

And, look, I get it that digest is a format near and dear to many of our hearts. I don’t thin it works well for a lot of text. More reference? Sure. More text/paragraph based? I don’t think so.

But, I’m just fucking quibbling. What this is is a great example of a B/X type adventure that is short. It feels like a good adventure, and like a good BX adventure.

(Richard, I declare you Not The Winner THusfar, thus making it irrelevant for me to judge if the page count, in digest form, qualifies.)

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Julius Wavestone Keeps on Killing!

By Nicolas Roman
Self Published
Levels 1-2

Yeah, it’s another entry without a cover, so you get some Et Tu Brute.

This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!

Highborn serial slayer Julius Wavestone has fled civilization and taken refuge in a hidden sea cove! Hunt him down and claim the bounty, if you can defeat his supernatural allies. Else your lifeless bodies shall feed the waves, the ides, and the seal itself

This three page adventure features nine rooms in a sea cave featuring some sea/water themed encounters. It’s got terse writing, some evocative things going on, and a decent degree of imagination that many adventures lack. It is everything that those twelve page shitfests want to, or should, be: a baseline adventure. It could also add a sentence or two to most of the rooms and maybe a little preamble section. I appreciate the low page count, but, also, do what you can to beef up other areas, maybe?

Ok, so, I’m at about the midpoint of reviewing the entries to this contest. They have all been pretty good so far, but, also, I’m at the point where I’m saying “Man, another entry?!” So, yeah, Fuck Me. 🙂 But, also, it was an absolute DELIGHT to come across this one! The title is magnificent and is everything I ever needed in life to perk me back up and keep me charged up! Julies Wavestone Keeps on Killing! Fuck yeah he does man! Fuck yeah!

The conceit here is that Julies Wavestone is a nobleman and serial killer/psyco killer. His dad, the marquis, wants him back, dead or alive. Love it! Dad loans you the families demonic seal(!) to help you out. The seal likes to make bargains: answer his riddle and he coughs up a magic item. Fumble the answer and the 8HD demon seal eats you. Ouchies! Personally, I might make the deals he does a little more flexible than just coughing up magic items, and maybe include a few more riddles than the three offered up. After al, you’ve got the page count. I might also have included something besides stats for the seal: a description and some mannerisms, since he’s going to be going along for the ride. 

And, speaking of Wishes being Fishes, the beginning is a little abrupt. Basically, there’s a sentence saying he’ll give you title to a village for doing the job, and that’s it. I might give him a mannerism, maybe two sentences about the village. (I love the party getting a village title at level 1-2 … think of all the hooks that provides!) And, more importantly, some lead-in to Julius. Some rumors. Some examples of his killing. Something to really bring home that title to the adventure. Again, you’ve got the page count. And it doesn’t have to be long and involved. Maybe just an outline, a paragraph or two, some bullet point ideas of his misdeeds. In the last adventure I reviewed there were great omens leading up to the the keep adventure that were quite brief. Something like that, but with Julius, or maybe even a little more. 

Our encounters here are … a bit unique. By which I mean they have a shade of set pieces to them. Which, again, I guess I shouldn’t complain about. I mean, I gave people nine fucking rooms, I should expect them to make them memorable. And, besides, I’m not even sure it’s fair to call them set piecy. But, they certainly are the fuck memorable! Maybe that’s what I mean? Which is a good thing? I don’t know. I dig them. Encounter one is with a swarm of piranha trying to eat your oars and rowboat. Who the fuck doesn’t love piranha? Same with spiders; spiders need to seem like the things you find in bed at night and not “the monster from the monster manual.” Piranha! And, we’ve got some notes about dumping rations in the water to satiate them. No word, though, about how many rations a body counts for …  Other memorable encounters involves a pit full of giant crabs with a ledge around it, the crabs battling and cannibalizing each other, or, an upside down pirate ship replete with the required skeletal crew … who are willing to make a deal! A little more personality here might have helped this entry, but I’ll take it.

Writing is decent, if a bit TOO short. “Millennia of shifting tides have painted striated bands of color on the cavern walls. The splintered remains of a rowboat lie at the cave mouth.” and 

“A narrow walkway winds around a circular pit filled with hundreds of mutant rainbow crabs battling and cannibalizing one another, their opalescent carapaces reflecting and intensifying light.”  Both of these are pretty decent. I might have done something a little more with the rowboat description, but, overall, pretty good, I just think that, instead of this one sentence description, the designer could have thrown in a second sentence and still been ok. The page count is low AND the descriptions are already very terse, another line in each room would have been ok. Still, “Slimy black cave slugs lap at milky-silver liquid trickling down the tunnel” does bring the D&D!

Our capstone entry, with Julies, is a little brief also, for something like this. Basically just a fight. I think I would have enjoyed a little more foreshadowing, or something a little more involved from Julius. 

Still, overall a pretty fucking decent effort and better than the vast majority of S&W stuff I’ve reviewed!

Also, the only other work by this designer is a book about Centipedes. Because he just really likes centipedes and thinks that the books don’t do them justice. All right man, I can get the fuck behind that! Rock on with you and your centipedes!

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Kallista’s Floating Keep

By Artem Serebrennikov
Self Published
Level 5

Again, the image has nothing to do with the adventure. I just google searched on floating keep and “keep floating” popped up and I liked it.

This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!

Fear the mists, fear the tides, fear the seagull’s call! A sea witch from a bygone age has returned to exact revenge, her floating keep spelling doom for surface dwellers!

This eight page nine room adventure features an “under da sea!” theme, without actually being under the sea. It’s got some nice imagery in places, and great use of integrating magic items and creatures i nto the design in a natural way. It’s also a little fun-housey, but, not bad for a 5e adventure.

So, get this … stop me if you’re heard this one before … there’s this fishing village and dark mists have moved in , the fish have dried up and bad shit is going down!I kid, but, that’s what we’ve signed up for here. There are rumors that a dead sea hag has returned and the party is rowing out to her keep in the mists to stop her. Along the way, in a very early paragraph on the first page we get this gem “During the journey, the PCs encounter foreboding omens (a lone albatross with a broken wing moaning Kallista’s name, shapes of enormous fish appearing and vanishing underwater, seas turning blood-red, etc.).” Uh … fuck yeah man! That’s some good shit, the use of “etc” aside. I wish more adventures would do this, insert omens and “the land has turned against itself” type of shit. Too many times the party just walks up to the dungeon. No! The world is WRONG and only some fucking idiots (IE: the party) goes out to meet it. Gold, glory, whatever … normal folk heed the warnings. This kind of thing sets the mood. What was it, the latest Witcher PC game, that had that tree full of corpses hanging in it? That set the fucking mood. Andm a lone albatross with a broken wing (nice classical callback!) does the same thing. Before the party gets to the main event you want the fuckers quaking a bit. The entrance to the mythic underworld, in action! Set the fucking mood, just like Artem did with an almost throw-away paragraph. 

This “typical” 5e adventure has a few things going for it that set it above, better than the usual 5e adventure. The keep itself is made up of everflowing black water. That’s cool! And in one of the early rooms you get Fourteen human skeletons in tattered sailors clothing, cutlasses tucked in their belts, suspended on ropes tied around their necks with placards on them saying “PIRATE.” Uh, yeas, thank you! They are, clearly, gonna be skeletons that attack the party. But it’s not just throw away bones that assemble themselves. The callback to hanging pirates, replete with placard, a few extra details, this nails the scene! Oh, and, there’s a skull sittong on a chest in the middle of them, complete with eyepatch. Noice! That’s whatthe fuck a pirate lair looks like man! 

And, that skull? It’s a “flaming skull” from the 5e monster manual. That’s good. Note here that the skeletons and the skull FEEL like the monsters that they are. It’s not just throwing in a flaming skull as an enemy, but, the party gets to “see” them first, and then they turn in to what you KNOW they will be. The flaming skull feels natural, just as the pirate skeletons do. This designer does this repeatedly in this adventure. It’s a good skill to have, turning what would otherwise be just a “12 skeletons” from the monster manual in to MORE than just the manual states. It’s almost like the designer decided what to have in the room and THEN went looking for stats for me. Imagine first THEN find some way to make it gameable.

And, then, there’s the magic items. There’s a golden scimitar/cuttlass, which makes perfect sense in this room. (it lets you float on water and does extra damage to water type creatures.” And, that pirate skull with the eyepatch? The eyepatch is magical, acting as goggles of the night. Not goggles. An eyepatch. On a pirate, who always wear eyepatches. It FITS. It’s good retheme. Later on there’s the hag who is clothed in anemones. Which, when/if you defeat her act as a robe of scintillating colours. Perfect! It takes a natural element of the adventure, for this encounter, and turns it in to something in the book. If you’re gonna use a book item then this rethemeing is the way to go!

The pirate skeleton room is kind of funhousey, right? Well, how about “dozens of oysters nested in its niches. They open and close rhythmically to the sounds of calypso, produced by a tin pan and drumsticks, hovering in the air and playing seemingly by themselves. Thirteen enormous crabs are gamboling in a round dance around the Instrument.” Ok, so, i can’t argue that this is bad imagery. It’s pretty cool. But it is most definitely funhousey, as is the room full of mounted fish on the wall with a sign saying “Plant a kiss on your favorite hanging fish and see what happens.” Uh, ok sure. I shall admit that funhouse designs are not my favrote, and yet, this thing does them in an almost OD&D/Tunnels & Trolls style, and there’s a charm in that. Ot just the same old boring heroic battle bullshit, but, having a little (or a lot) of fun. Tonally, it’s not my thing, but I bet a lot of 5e players would eat this fucking shit up. 

The formatting here is one of the weaker parts of the adventure. I don’t want to go too far down this road, but, it’s a simple paragraph format with some boldings and italics in it. It’s getting a little wall of texty, or, tending in that direction without fully going over the edge. I’m sure it was probably just some two column format in a word processor, and, for that, it’s decent. But, it could benefit form breaking things up a bit more. 

And the interactivity, well … ok, so, yes, there’s interactivity, but it feels set-piecy (or funhousy, I guess) if you know whatI mean. There’s a lot of springing to life when you enter or touch something and that’s a cumbersome way of doing things. 

Overall, though, I would not be upset to play in this in a con, or even run it if it were dropped in my lap with 5 minutes till the game starts. 

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Posted in 5e, Reviews | 5 Comments

Palace on the Pink Waves

By Michael H
Self Published / (@the_fun_cube on twitter)

This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!

Lament the Wine Sea, with its pitiless tides and fearsome depths! Forlorn castaways are drawn to a lonesome island where lords and beggars alike scrounge to make the most of their terrible, drunken fate.

This eight page adventure details a seven room “palace” floating on a pile of jetsam in the middle of a bottle of giant wine. Yup, you read that right. It’s creative and well formatted enough to run … although not maximally so. I’d run the fucking place!

This one is weird, in the grand tradition of fantastic locations. Bottle City? The L:iving Room? How about a pocket dimension that is literally a giant half-filled bottle of rose wine. Floating in the middle of it is a pile of jetsam with a “palace” made of jetsam. On the shores of the tiny jetsam island, barely large enough to contain the palace, are a few fellow refugees that have been here awhile. All transported, as you were, by drinking a magic bottle of win. The palace is currently occupied by homunculi, in a kind of manic micky mouse sorcerer’s apprentice style of crazy going on inside. Wine dark sea, indeed!

This thing has got the right amount of crazy for me. Not gonzo, but fantastic and filled with that wonderful variety of nutso NPC’s that can truly bring a D&D game to life. We start with the hook, the way the party gets transported: a magical wine bottle that sends you there when you drink. With great advice like “don’t include it in a hoard, no sane adventurer drinks shit from a hoard. Instead, when they come back to the inn to celebrate, have the innkeep go in to his celler and produce the bottle of his finest wine. Excellent! (And, it translates well in to the other NPC”s the party members will meet. All of them also transported by a bottle of wine, some
Gifted” it by others …”) Whoever drank it ends up being plopped downin to the ocean, along with everything withing 10 feet of them, including party members who didn’t drink and what will become the jetsam of the Wine Sea. Clever eh, how it all works together to feed the core elements of t he adventure? That’s pretty fucking well constructed. 

You see the island and swim towards itm being greeted by the NPCs huddled on its shores. There’s a great reference sheet, a page long, tha details them, their story, what they know, want, etc. It’s a great fucking resource and puts to shame those teeny tony NPC reference sheets from other adventures that provide minimal, and useless information. Everyone is a little drunk in the Wine Sea, since the sea provides nourishment. There’s sober sam, who ISNT drunk, and is dying because of it. There’s hobgoblins and goblins, relatively friendly by blamed for everything by everyone else. Lizardmen nobles, and another faction of artisans. Some humans round thingsout … and the mer-folk who are the bogeymen of the wine sea, attacking rafts, etc. And then there’s the palace, made up of ramshackle refuse … and currently being occupied by some crazed homunculi.

Inside we’ve got more NPC’s, and a variety of situations to get involved in. Rooms are a couple of pargarpghs long, in general, with good bolding to call attention to important features and descriptions. “The wrecked remains of a communal tavle, cabinets of domestic supplies (dining sets, games, books, etc) and beds for lizardmen nobles” read one bolded entry. “ The homunculi are going absolutely apeshit on the place.” Reads the next line. Nice! I can picture that! “If they spot the party they shriek like a dying cat and attack.” Like a dying cat. Again, something you can recognixze and work with. 

The adventure does this, room after room. Providing brief little snippets of description, situations to be resolved, and well though out descriptions that paint vidi pictures. Exactly what it should do. Eventually it ends up with the chief instigator being found, and, perhaps, a way out of the bottle dimension being discovered … through a journey down in a diving bell to … the cork. 🙂

There’s more I could comment, on, Good treasure, described just enough and imaginative (and, including a double barrelled shotgun … something near and dear to my adventuring heart. Worry not gentle readers, this is not a gonzo adventure or full of lazer zappers.) 

The basics of the adventure are pretty simple, the homunculi in the palace. The NPC’s, while vivid and fun, seem to play a much lesser degree of involvement then I perhaps implied they do. It’s not that that is bad, but, perhaps, it’s a lost opportunity. A little more in this area could have been welcome, a little more intrigue and so on. Oh, they are set up, in the NPC’s, for some involvement with each other but the general situation with the palace takeover seems almost to override this. Somehow involving them more, without it being forced or being contrived, could have added another dimension to the adventure. I imagine it is imagined to be run that way, it’s just not as well communicated through the text as it could be … even though, again, I believe its implied. 

A great fun little environment to drop in to your game!

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Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, The Best | 35 Comments

Surgerock Vault

By Malrex
The Merciless Merchants
Levels 7-9

This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!

The very oceans and seas tremble in fear of the floating rock that parts its waves, traveling to destinations only the gods know. The pock marked monstrosity defies sinking as it roams the sea, it’s cargo a mystery. What deadly mysteries reside within this strange floating rock?

This ten page adventure features about nine rooms in a  keep that floats among the waves … housing a powerful magic item. It’s got interesting things going on, decent formatting and a descriptions that don’t suck. I struggle with the confines of the contest.

This time it’s not a keep floating along and disgorging raiders on the villagers but rather a keep floating along the waves – ready for someone to plunder! There’s no real hook or anything else, nor does there need to be one, it’s just a place, fantastic, and ready to be fucked with.

Malrex does a couple of good things here that is relatively rare in an adventure. FIrst, he(?) has a formatting style that mostly disappears in to the background. It doesn’t standout as a formatting style, is what I mean. The rooms are easy to read, scan, and run but it doesn’t FEEL like Malrex is trying hard to make them that way, or that there IS a format to the rooms. There most definitely IS one though. Rooms start with an intro paragraph, describing the most obvious things in the rooms, ready to be paraphrased and expanded upon by the DM. This is the key to this kind of formatting. It doesn’t FEEL like anything special is going on with the formatting. The initial paragraph outlines everything major in the room. You can riff off of it. There’s just enough information to relay to the party. It doesn’t overshare and the descriptions are at least a little evocative, sometimes with a keyword bolded. What follows then id a series of bullets describing the major things going on in the room. This is easy to scan and locate follow up information. The whole thing just works well.

The other thing done really well is the .. theming? of the encounters. Not really set pieces, but, anchor items in the rooms/scenarios which everything tends to revolve around. You have this major thing and the room builds around it. And they tend to be pretty iconic, at least at this level. The entrance to the keep is described as: “Thousands of skeletons of different races (mostly lizardman) scramble forever towards a rune-carved portcullis archway that borders a tall entry that punches its way through the rock” Fuck! Yes! I’m pretty sure this isn’t a literal scrabble, but rather more scree-pile-ish, but, still, either way, works for me! Also, pulsing runes on the massive doorway and a gong that sounds as you approach … the doors opening automagically? That’s a fucking entrance!

What follows is a series of rooms that range from more set-piecey (a stone giant and basilik throw statue heads at the party in an arens-like place) to less so (an ancient stone giant is fishing, and thats all he really cares about. Kobold vermin parly for boons, a chimera with a personality. These are highlights, with minotaurs in a maze-like area and cave bears being more “normal” encounters. There’s nothing like having the bloody head of a lizardman thrown at you to start an encounter off right! There’s good specificity here, anchoring scene elements and then allowing the DM to further riff on them. Exactly the way things should be. And a surprise or two thrown in, like a doppelganger that might actually trick the party without it being a total gimpfest.

Writing is evocative enough. This is, I think, the hardest part of adventure writing, creating an evocative description. Formatting is just a science, and encounters are something that, hopefully, rely on your imagination and it not being crushed out of you. But, crafting an evocative description is art and requires a lot of work. It’s ok here, not boring, but, still could use work to more fully bring things alive and avoid phrasing like “the thirsty sand absorbs the blood.” That’s a bit flowery, Mal. 🙂 It DOES communicate the vibe of the sand, so, good job with that. Maybe I should accept the groan I uttered when reading it and move on, enjoying the vibe alone?

I’ve got a criticism, and its related, I think, to the level range. It’s not balance related but rather my usual complaint in this area: does the adventure/scope match the level range? I wouldn’t say this is a railroad, but, the design of the levels means that you WILL be going from top to bottom and ending the adventure in the final room. It FEELS constrained, especially given the scope and level range. Then again, I’m the asshole that dictated the number of rooms and page count limit, so, you know, fuck me for imposing it. And, Mal does the best theu can, repeating “room 5”, a kobold lair, a few times in order to beef up the number of rooms on the map if not in the key. Still, it feels a little constrained and therefore more crafted-as-a-DnD-adventure than a natural place. Such is life, I guess.

This is Pay What You Want over at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $1.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, The Best | 5 Comments