Longwinter

By Luka Rejec
WTF Studio
OSR? Generic/Universal?

The snows are alive. A soft, cold spirit courses through them. Her lace threads the world; watching, drinking, listening, stroking, soothing, killing. Her touch is soft and icy. She is Winterwhite, the daughter of the Waterdrinker and the Northwind, and she is a terrible god. An avatar of ice and hunger, of visions and death.

This 114 page ‘sandbox’ is an empty shell. Devoid of almost anything useful to a DM, it is one idea that is not fleshed out in any meaningful way for play. All concept and no delivery. I am not the fuck amused.

Didn’t Luka write something that I liked? I think so? This thing though, has issues. While it advertises itself as a kind of sandbox, it might be more correct to say that it’s got some ideas that you can dump in to game. There is a small isolated valley in the mountains. A few generations back some settlers came there and found people already there, a rougher folk. They were attacked and driven back to a cave, where they made a sacrifice to the spirit of winter. As long as they do this continually then everything is ok. Recently, the ruler skipped a sacrifice. The setting starts in the fall, goes through winter, and then spring never comes … unless a sacrifice is offered. Winter will last a year. Dumped in to this are some factions. The aristos/rulers of the valley, the first settlers lurking in their hamlets, some werewolf like people with some undead at their call, and The Old Architects that are a kind of mythic people asleep and perhaps waking up. While the Baronials get a few more words, you now know just about as much as I do about these groups. There is really no description of them beyond that. There is a nice little table, for each, though that describes some portents and events that can happen as each faction waxes or wanes. These are nice little guidelines to show their power and drop in to a game. 

And drop in to a game you will. This is meant as the backdrop for a different game, I think. These are events and factions to interact with as you run your normal game in the valley, is what I get the sense of. As strict time records are being kept, winter approaches and things happen as a faction gans or loses power. This is the strongest part of the book. As, oh, eight to ten pages, it provides a good backdrop of things that could happen in the homebases. This kind of thing is great in a setting; as a guideline for making your world more interesting and providing some downtime activities that may lead to more.

A huge portion of the book is devoted to escaping the valley. A mechanism is described using a standard deck of cards, with each suit representing something, like mountains or rivers, and higher values representing more danger. Potentially. These are not actually encounters as much as they are ideas. For example “A stumbling man in a heavy parka and bespoke city shoes is making for the valley. His marten fur cap smells strongly of pomade. Despite the stubble on his cheeks, his curled moustaches still follow the last Eastern City fashions. He keeps mumbling about a hotel in Pey Holzey. His watch is a jewelled TPK Scheephouse with seven complications. “ Is someone you might meet. I’m not sure there is much to do there. Make an ally … during your minigame on the way out of the valley? Or, your ropes get frayed and you have disadvantage on all climbing checks until they are repaired. There is a lack of a situation in most of these encounters. I don’t see the adventure. 

The settlements and people are not described. The factions are not described. There are not really guidelines for adding some verve to things. This is barest of frameworks for a setting. The portents and events like things on the timelines are good, but the supplement could be JUST that and you would not lose anything for your game .. because there’s nothing else to this. 

And then we combine that with something like “They are the oppressed whose yearning for freedom and dignity has become a thing of twisted envy, hatred, despair, greed, longing, hunger, loathing, self-destruction mixed with unrequited love—the anti-eros, the thanatos that comes forth in this long dark” Uh huh. That’s inappropriate for anything other than a political pamphlet. And then, at the end, we have the ever popular eye rolling “narrate your ending” piece “A gruelling escape leaves the heroes scarred and hurt. What nightmares of Winterwhite plague your dreams? Why do you feel like something darker stirred beneath the ice? How do you cope with your trauma? Were there many you betrayed on the way? Why will nobody believe you, when you talk of ice ghouls?” I know, I know, this is personal taste. But, also, effort when in to those things, effort that could have been spent on developing the valley and providing more situations to occur within the setting. 

I am not amused. 

This is $13 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. You get a chance to se ethe winter spirit table of waxes and wanes. A view of a card result would have been ice as well, although nothing is going to prepare you for the lack of a framing to have a game in.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/339587/longwinter-referee-s-book?1892600

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Grandpappy Cromdar’s Whizbang Zoo!

By David Lewis Johnson
Self Published
OSR
Levels 1-5

Who is Grandpappy Cromdar? Grandpappy Cromdar is a battle hardened warrior, a seasoned monster rancher, a salty landlubber, a prancing princess, a slap-happy crazy old coot. Where decent, respectable fighting men might opt to establish a stronghold or build a trade empire, Grandpappy juked left and went with “Converting a dungeon in to a family friendly zoo”. He is me. He is you.

This 52 page adventure uses about eighteen pages to describe about a hundred rooms on three levels. Minimal descriptions, a zany premise, and ‘Cromdar is a pervert’ tone are off putting and better found in a Gamma World adventure. The map can’t save this one.

Hang in there man. Remember S3? Remember that wilderness level with observation overlooks and attached maintenance? That was great! So this could be great also! It’s not, but, that’s not the point. It COULD have been great! And thusly are Bryce’s dreams made.

Comdar was an adventurer. He retired and started a zoo in a dungeon and sells tickets. THe dungeon is. I guess, perfect for his zoo. Anyway, things are bad inside, with the creatures out of their cages and running amok. There’s no real hook beyond “go inside and have fun” so don’t start looking for one in an adventure with a sex swing and Asteroids game in it. 

The map is decent and shares similarities with the S3 Levels. You’ve got the main level, with some admin offices and empty cages as well as a wide open wilderness area with a lake. The level under that has more maintenances and such, with some under da sea detail. The level above is the “sky” with some offices, zipline platform, sex dirigible, the top of a volcano and so on. The traditional room/key dungeon areas can be a little linear in places, but, then again, a hallway is linear, and zoos funnel people in directions. I’m not mad at the map, or the ziplines and personal submarines that make exploration fun. 

But I am mad at the lack of overview text for the vistas. At certain points you get to stand on a platform and survey your surroundings. To look out and take in the majesty of the wilderness. There is no text to help the DM with that. A volcano, an airship, ziplines, a waterfall, and so on. Nothing of the sort here. Which means, as a DM, you left searching through the text looking at a lot of keys, flipping back and forth, trying to put one together during play. This is, obviously, from a lack of playtesting; it would be impossible to escape that without the issue having come up. 

The monsters here are all new, with not even an intellect devourer making an appearance. And they are a bizarre bunch. This contributes to the Gamma World vibe much more than to the D&D vibe, with them being intelligent and having chimeratic features. I love it when a new monsters description starts with “this is a strange and bizarre creature.” Yup, they all are man, they all are. 

The room descriptions are just about as basic as you can get and not be Vampire Queen. Basic, but with a few details, at least one of which will be “look at me ma! Aren’t I zany?!” The first Aid Station tells us that there is: “An examination table occupies the northeast corner of the this room. An emergency aid kit sites undisturbed on a counter next to a wash basin. Bags of syringe-filled biohazard bags have been stacked against the west wall.” The detail here, of the description, is quite basic. The table is NE. A wash basin, and so on. There’s nothing really evocative about it at all, just a basic factual description. Not good. The table and wash basin, fo example, serve no purpose, in terms of adventure, in the room. We could assume them , or not, and the adventure would go right along without an issue. We know that a bedroom has a bed in it. And this will be the norm in this adventure. A very minimal description is basic facts in it and nothing evocative, with something “wacky” in it. lIke a wall full of syringe bags. Or a sex swings. Or the monsters playing soccer with a head. 

Interactivity is almost nonexistent beyond stabbing things. Yes, you can zipline or use a submarine. We might, though, call these “using the stairs.” Beyond this very basic level of interactivity you will not find a lot to fuck around with. Go some place, have a wacky encounter with a deadly monster, and then go to the next place. You will not be encountering treasure in this adventure. 

Someone had an idea. They stated it for the OSR instead of Gamma World. But, even as a Gamma World adventure it would be lacking, with exploration elements minimal and interactivity close to non-existent. And, of course, adventures that try to be zany never work. In the future, I hope I die before I wake.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages and shows you nothing but the intro. Good luck with that. It needs to show actual encounter pages.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/134672/grandpappy-cromdar-s-whizbang-zoo?1892600

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Black Blade of the Demon King

By Ahimsa Kerp, Wind Lothamer
Knight Owl Publishing
LorFP
Levels 1-3 (Ouchies!)

Buried for 10000 years beneath a mountain of black obsidian, a sword of unfathomable power has just awakened. Now, in a desperate race against time and the elements you must try to reach it before its former master returns from his astral prison.

This 112 page adventure uses five pages to detail a dungeon with about nineteen rooms. I know that would normally mean I’m a poopy butt head in the review. And the dungeon IS a bit small. But this absolutely has a mythic feel to it, and the lead in to the dungeon helps with that. I’m not thrilled with many aspects of this adventure, but it also manages to deliver an interesting vibe.

This thing DRIPS atmosphere with every pore of its being. And that is how it manages a five page dungeon in a way that makes me not bitch about page count. When you get a town or a wilderness section to an adventure they usually are almost stand alone things. The town is a jumping off point and resupply base. The wilderness is a place to have wanderers to keep the party from tarrying. Maybe they both have a few things going just to keep things interesting, which is a nice touch when it happens in an adventure. This thing, however, is doing something rarer, but not unheard of; the town and wilderness are parts of the adventure proper. What happens in town helps build the theming and atmosphere of the adventure, as does the wilderness journey. It’s not that they are all driving the plot. Some of the encounters in town and the wilderness do, but, overall, they build on the tone and help immerse the party, and thus the players, in to the situation going on. And, thusly, once you get to the dungeon, proper, you are primed to accept the situation within with the context of what came before. This is not a new thing in adventure design, but doing it as well as it’s done here is not such a common thing.

So, you’ve got your +5 Bastard Sword that kills (save vs death) on a hit. This is a real deal thing of power. It’s the kind of thing that you wish the sword of kas was. And along with that comes a curse and an effect, after a certain number of people are killed then the demon king finds its way back to this plane of existence. Ouchies!  It’s sending out some dreams to people and they are migrating to the uttermost noth (3 hours of daylight a day!) and trying to find it … as it calls out to them. Booatloads of the people, daily. And thus we come to the town.

The town, sprung up serve these masses. A wretched cold place full of doomed adventurers, all being inexorably drawn and summoned to the place where the sword lies, yearning to be discovered and wielded. In to this we ass the church of law. This is LotFP, so absolute Law is as bad as chaos. They’d love to sacrifice you, and show up from time to time as randos, or foes. And then we’ve got four special NPC’s. A Paladin type, an anti-paladin type, and a rando. Butm, they are not set in stone. There are about five different options, included in the rear of the volume, to use for each one of these roles. Pick one out and insert them in. And they each are iconic. Really really well done NPC’s that can serve as a patron or a foe. And just weird. They range from your traditional fighter, with some theming to make them GREAT, or some really weirdo people. Very strong NPC’s. And a major part of the adventure is the parties encounters with them. In fact, you have five days to find the sword and after that there’s a chance each that that one of THEM find the sword. Or, you could be their hireling. Or they could be an enemy, one way or another. It’s a great little thing

Supplementing this as great rumors and encounters within the city proper. “Rollo the Thin is an adventurer who arrived three days ago. His party was attacked by a party of rival Blade Seekers upon leaving Støvring and only he survived. He is cut up to pieces and is dying in the Støvring Inn.” Nice one, that! Dying in the Inn. Prob the one the party is staying in. DId I mention the obsidian cliffs and the meteors? No? A giant, 20 feet tall (5hd. Nice!) attacks the town at one point. Or, maybe does, if the party is smart. Or a norseman insults them to a challenge … and both could result in the party gaining weird powers, perhaps by drinking a little giant blood? Fucking wonderful man! You get this sense of it being packed, and desperation, and its temporary nature. It’s great

And then the wilderness journey. Through the madman running a windmill. And on to some place to stay for the night. How about “This is a small hamlet, half-buried in snow. It is abandoned, filled with an eerie cold wind, but proves to be safe. If searched it has been largely picked clean but a large goat skull sitting in a circle of ash is found behind one of the Houses.” Abandoned. Eerie cold. Half buried. The ashes and goat skull thing. Yeah, no problem, let’s sleep here tonight …There’s this sense of dread. Building over time. Augmented by mini-game rules on the cold and corruption. It’s wearing you down. Finally you come out of a mountain to see obelisks in a rough circle, a tunnel leading down in the middle of them. The dungeon entrance. Again, everything that comes before places this in context and you feel the weight of the place. It’s earned. And the adventure does this so well. It’s not just a rando dungeon disconnected from its environment. 

The dungeon proper. It’s got a decent layout and, maybe only a handful of actual combat encounters. The encounters have a … I don’t know. I guess a funhousy feel to them? Or, somehow, mythic? But I think I’m overusing that word. It’s hard to describe. One room has a pool of water in it. A room of ceramic white tile in a pattern. And then, “The Nykkjen forms in 2 rounds in water, appearing as a white horse, and lashes out. “ So, a monster. But the form it selects is a fucking horse? Fuck yeah man! This is some early T&T shit! And, then too “If a piece of metal, like a needle or something iron, is thrown into the water the Nykkjen will cease to exist.” I mean, you see it too, right? Neither of those things is something that the modern deriguour of adventures is going to do. 

Treasure is lame. Except for the blade an quest items. Take that horsey room “4d6x20 gold, 3d6 precious gems, a pair of beautiful necklaces, and a magic helmet of water breathing, is a large goat skull with obsidian eyes and obsidian horns. It is cold and smells of the void.” We’re not winning me over with that. 

And the descriptions are generally not winning any time soon either. While the weight of the encounters is magnificent, this is done to the detriment of the descriptions. Again, for the horsey “This chamber features a large pool, about half the size of the room, surrounded by lovely ceramic tiles in cascading geometric patterns. The water is clear and shallow (about 1.5 meters deep at the center) and several gems, jewels, and coins glitter provocatively at its bottom” LARGE pool. Lovely is a conclusion. Clear and shallow is good, as is provocatively. But the overall effect is just not there. Or, for the first room “An icy, slippery hallway that leads down into the dungeon. An empty, howling wind fills the air” Empty howling wind is great. IN another room were told “Upon entering this barren stone chamber the characters will see, in the center of the room …” That’s pretty fucking terrible padding. Evocative writing, not padded out, and not including meaningless backstory (outside of the dungeon) is not the writers strongpoints.

Nor is, necessarily, the formatting of information. Again, a lack of focus. While things don’t necessarily run on TOO long, no one is doing anything to help you out here in the way of formatting things. It is the stickiness of the descriptions, here, that hold, not the ability to scan. Which is ok, but, also, not ok. You can’t count on that. 

I could, I think, go on and on about this. It’s fascinating. Much of it, in my journey, elicits a scowl. And yet it’s clear that the sum is greater than the parts. The wilderness and town, because of their more events driven nature, in particular suffers from some focus, and those descriptions in the dungeon are winning no awards. But man, it’s also a pretty sweet little fucking ride. And I have no idea how to rate it. This may be one of those super rare cases where it’s worth it to pull out your highlighter and jot notes. But, man, it’s riding the fucking edge. I could regert this, but, take your Best and fly off in to your owl sunset. 

This is $12 at DriveThu. The preview is six pages and crap, the first six, showing you nothing of the adventure. 

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/235400/black-blade-of-the-demon-king?1892600

Posted in Level 1, Reviews, The Best | 14 Comments

Blue Alley

By Alan Patrick & M.T. Black
Self Published
5e
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.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/252855/blue-alley?1892600

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 31 Comments

Barkeep on the Borderlands

By W. F. Smith
Prismatic Wasteland
OSE
Levels ... ?

The Keep once loomed on the margins of civilization. It is now the center of culture and commerce.

 Each year, the Keep celebrates the Raves of Chaos to commemorate the brave heroes who gave their lives to rid the nearby caves of vile monsters. Their sacrifice cleared the way for the Keep to expand to its current size and scale, the envy of all humankind. The Monarch drained the royal coffers to pay for a powerful antidote, but it never reached their lips. The caravaners say it must have gotten mixed up in the deliveries to the Keep’s many pubs. Despite their illness, the Monarch was able to muster the energy to order the execution of every caravaner, ale draper, ale tunner and ale taster in the Keep.

This sixty page presents twenty bars with the barest of framings for an adventure. The bars are magnificent, in a gonzo sort of way, with tropes galore and a decent homage to The Keep. But the thing is without enough direction to form an adventure with, in any but the barest of definitions of that word.

The Keep is now all grown up. The city is massive now and the lands civilized. You’ve got to think of this like a mashup of Ankh-Morpork with a healthy dose of all of the humanoids inhabiting it. It channels  that magical ren–faire vibe and humanoids vibe without going over the edge in forced happy land where everyone gets along that those settings do famously badly. Instead there is a healthy dose of cynicism here that colours everything. And the setting is pushed in to something akin to gonzo, but fantasy themed. No one is going to bat an eye at a tower with some long hair hanging out and a wheel spinning gold. Not fairy-tale, this is firmly rooted in fantasy. It’s just that everything is in this. 

First, a brief divergence in to character creation. I mention it only because it is mostly just character backgrounds on a table to roll on But very solid one. The Orphaned Heir starts with a mansion and a set of black leather armor. If you can’t do something with that, in a one-shot, then you don’t deserve to play D&D. “My parents are dead!” That’s a hilight, but most of them are quite solid as well. And that’s what you need for one shot backgrounds, something for a player to riff off of without telling them how to play their character.

The Cult of Chaos is now reformed, in to the Church of Chis, or, as the adventure states “Formerly the “Cult of Evil Chaos,” the Church has made efforts to rebrand, pivoting to a less overtly sinister image.” And therein we get a taste of the tone that is prevalent throughout. The adventurers that cleared the caves are called murderers, but, also, with regard to the goblins “But the Goblins rarely make the same mistake more than a few dozen times.” And, they are in fact up to evil. As is the cult. I mean church. The skewering goes both ways, as if the Lazy Lich finally realized that hippies ARE actually mean people. The museum keep is referred to as a repository of revisionist history, but the old woman who runs the candy and gingerbread themed dive bar in the woods IS up to some shit also. There are no good guys in this respun Keep setting, and that’s something I can get completely behind as a setting for an adventure.

The dude in charge has been poisoned. He’s going to die within days. The antidote has been misplaced … in a bar shipment someone thinks. And thus folks are looking for it. It’s moving around to different bars, according to a timeline and a series of unfortunate events. During this the annual Rave on the Borderlands is happening. A drunken festival, arranged by the Church of Chaos once a year, in which laws are relaxed. This comes with themed days, laid out like a typical Caves expedition in order of the humanoids, with Gnoll Caves day being having to defeat someone in a fight to get cooked meat, else it’s raw meat for you! It’s a cute mechanism to add some theming to the days in front of the party. It pushes things JUST far enough to maintain some semblance of order while still being strongly themed. Alongside this is an heir to throne looking for the antidote also (or creating his own) and some elections for parliament happening. And this is set inside the expanded keep, grown well past its walls, to encompass the old town, the forest that cant be cut down, the swamps now home to factories, and so on. Good sub-region theming. Zones in the dungeon, yeah?

The bars are the highlight here. Each has quite a short description that is then enhanced by a patrons table and some things that can happen there. Here’s the description for the first one, Granny’s Cottage: “Over the river and through the woods, there is a quaint dive bar. Its walls are gingerbread, and its windows are crystallized sugar. The crone that runs it is in constant good cheer. Pay no mind to the pitch-black smoke billowing from its chimney.” That’s a great description. Note the last line, which is evocative and leads you to a conclusion but doesn’t detail it. That’s exactly what a good description is made of. Your mind fills things in and it leaves the door open for a variety of outcomes. It’s quite short, but sets the scene well. As for granny, proper: “Granny appears as a beautiful maiden each day at sunrise. By noon, she appears as a plump matron. She is a wrinkled crone by sunset. Beginning each midnight, Granny’s skin grows green and her nose sprouts warts” That’s something you can work with as well. Something solid to use. One of the patrons is “A child who was lost in the woods until Granny found them. Now they can stay up as late as they want and eat lots of candy!” Again, short, evocative, and can lead to a variety of outcomes. A witch, or just a nice old lady? Either is possible. And so it goes, from themed drinks, to what is Granny doing, to the various events/situations within the bar. Who’s up to sample the Poison Applitini cocktail?

There are two sins with this adventure. The first is the events within the bars. They lack the driving force of an actual adventure. FOr example, iN grannys “The Woodcutter whittles on their cabin’s porch. Due to a curse, they cannot leave the woods until the Keep’s walls fall down.” WHich is nice, but it doesn’t lead to anything. It’s just a thing that happens. Something weird. Window dressing. And this is the same for almost everything in the events/situations/sidetrecks in the adventure. They are just a decent wandering monster table, meaning not really related to the adventure as a whole. 

And then there’s the adventure proper. You wander about, from bar to bar, looking for where the antidote is today, hoping to stumble across it. There’s not much to lead you to where you should be. Not in the bars. Not in the little events, or the mini-games like the election or goblin subterfuge. As much as I like “A giant spider offers to host a luncheon. Over tea, they lament that passersby keep chucking garbage into their web.” It doesn’t really lead you anywhere. You gotta have something here for the party to latch on to and follow up on and so. Otherwise it’s just a drunken bar crawl. 

And as a drunken bar crawl it’s fucking fantastic. Some of the best fantasy taverns around for window dressing. A great Dungeon Dozen for bars. Farce. Absurdity. But as an adventure? I think not.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. It’s an assortment of rules (drinking) and the first pages of Granny’s. So, a decent preview, even if you don’t get to see the “Adventure” proper. 

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/429877/barkeep-on-the-borderlands?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 1 Comment

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

Posted in Reviews | 23 Comments

A Traveler’s Guide to the Echelon Forest

By David Lombardo
AwkwardTutrle
Generic/Universal

The Echelon Forest stretches a great distance, making it an awkward obstacle to bypass without crossing through it. Attempts to pave roadways through the woods have always met with failure, sometimes violently, so the crossing is usually reserved for small parties or individuals. It is a strange, isolated place. Alive in more ways than could be usually said for a forest. Within the woods time flows and weather changes at their own pace, and in their own ways. Although largely boreal, It is not restricted to a single clime’s plants and animals. Crossing need not be hazardous, the forest is not malicious, but it is also not entirely safe. Granting the forest its rightful respect is recommended to any who wish to cross quickly and unharmed

This 32 page adventure is not an adventure. An adventure has to have something happen. It is the D&D version of a walking simulator. 

I shall elaborate. I’m not a grumpy old man. I know, I know. But you’re wrong. I have an issue with expectations. I get excited and then am crushed by disappointment. That’s different than being a grumpy old man. My other hobbies tend to be full of old men. And they are grumpy. They hate everything new. They hate that the world has passed them by and that people seem to no longer jump to obey when they open their mouths and have dared to have other opinions. I think the kiddos are great. Life, and change, are a delight. I am, though, somewhat mystified at times. I get, for example, that some people don’t want to play a game and would rather have an experience instead. Engage in an activity, so to speak. It’s not for me and I will be happy to tell you a hundred reasons why I think it sucks shit, but I understand that they can exist and people can like it. And then it gets pushed to the logical extreme and I just am completely lost. I can no longer understand any appeal at all. “We’re all gonna sit here and stare at the blank wall, quietly and awake, for eight hours.” Uh. Ok. And thus we come to today’s adventure: a walking simulator. 

This is a generator for a forest adventure. You do a die drop to create the paths and then roll on some tables to determine which of the points in the booklet to populate where, with the  middle of the forest all being the Heart Tree. I’m going to ignore the die drop portion of this, since it’s just used to determine the map. After that you use the points in the booklet to populate the map. And this is the only reason I’m reviewing this, because there were points. It was not advertised as a generator but rather a way to organize the points provided. 

The first signs of trouble were in the introductory pages. “There are no combat encounters here, and no explicit challenges or puzzles. Just the forest, the strange things within, and the changing weather.” Yup. The designer just told us that there is no content in this adventure. And that checks out. A pair of eagles make their nest in the crook of a large tree. A bearcave,, 50% it’s empty. A lean-to, a simple structure constructed of local materials. Signs of a campfire inside but otherwise uninhabited. Those are three of the points you could encounter. And I’m not really cherry picking nor am I giving a summary of the encounter. Those ARE the descriptions of the encounters. That’s it. That’s all you get. There’s nothing else. No generator for whats there or anything like that. Oh, no, you get a generator for the season and the weather. Hot dry and full of life, says the summer generator. Great. 

As the designer told us, there are no challenges here. Or even any encounters, I would assert. Just an idea for something. No real descriptions. No evocative writing. No interactivity OF .ANY. KIND. Nothing. 

What, then, is an adventure? “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.” says the arch-heretic of joy, Websters. Unusual? Maybe? Exciting? That’s not this adventure. Is a walking simulator a game? It shares a medium with games. But, without challenge, is it? (WHich, I note, is the same question often asked of the story game people.)

There is no game here. Not even close. There are no challenges, explicitly. There is no evocative writing or anything to bring the unusual to life. There is barely the unusual, or, rather, barely the outline of the unusual. 

This is $5 at DriveThru. There is no preview. 

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/480881/a-traveler-s-guide-to-the-echelon-forest?1892600

Largshire

I also checked out Largshire. This is a village supplement with seventeen locations in about 31 pages. It is massively overwritten, although there is an attempt to include a plot element in each locales as well as a secret. It just came off a boring though. Your village supplement is in another castle, Mario.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/451450/largshire?1892600

Posted in My Life is a Living Fucking Hell, Reviews | 2 Comments

Faces of Clay

By James S. Austin
Tacitus Publishing
OSE
Level 9

After a house fire tragically took the lives of a young family, their farm found itself left to the devices of the pasture’s fae inhabitants, a band of ruddy brownies. The capricious creatures quickly deduced that absent their human counterparts, the morning deliveries of cream would cease. After a heartfelt moment of loss, they realized that the cow penned in the barn afforded the answer to their problem. Making a new home in the barn’s hayloft, the brownies settled in and learned to utilize the farm’s clay golem. The creature now handles the manual chores and keeps out intruders while they enjoy their sudden good fortune, rubbing their swollen bellies.


This seventeen page adventure has one encounter. A new record in shovelware, I do believe! Yesirree! Seventeen pages! And one whole encounter in that! We’re lucky, I guess, it’s not forty.


There’s an abandoned farmhouse. It’s got a barn. There’s a paragraph of read-aloud that describes the farmhouse, and nothing more. There’s nothing that describes the fame, as a whole. There is, though, separate read-aloud for if you’re looking at the east or west side of the barn. So here’s that. I guess. I mean, it’s not really all that different and contributes nothing to the game. So.


What am I supposed to do here? What am I supposed to review? You fight one clay golem and, like, eight brownies. Maybe. If you don’t roleplay it out. That’s it. You go in to the barn and see a bunch of clay masks hanging from the ceiling. That’s a nice touch. And if you fight the brownies they could, at some point, let loose some chickens to run around at your feet. Yeah! That’s it.


You can roleplay your way out of this, making friends with the brownies. The golem only gets involved if you fight the brownies. Otherwise, you just listen to a WHOLE lots of read-aloud text, in italics of course.


I’m not fucking around here. There’s nothing in this. A level nine adventure with a clay golem. That’s it. “The first and second-floor ceilings are ribbed with arches to handle the heavier snowfalls during winter.” Woooa! The height of play, that little bit of description! TO keep the winter snowfall off the roof! I mean, it’s not winter, so.


I don’t know what to say here. The barn, outside and in, has over a page of read-aloud. None of which is very pertinent to the encounter. None of which is very evocative. The DM text tells us, like eight different times, that the brownies made/make the clay masks. What do you do here? How do you review this? “It sure does have a lots of skill checks to role play with those brownies!” You walk in, look at a mask scene, the brownies fuck with you, and maybe fight and maybe talk to them. That’s, what, two sentences in another adventure? Maybe three? What am I supposed to review? Every word written? “Well, I don’t know, maybe use the subjunctive clause here …”


One encounter. One. Maybe. Seventeen pages. The effort here is astounding. Theoden, King, what is man to do with such cruel fate? Courage Merry! Courage for our friends!


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

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/481752/faces-of-clay-ose?1892600

Belvedere’s Books of Unusual Encounters

I also checked this out. It has 300 little encounter ideas. Each is about a paragraph long, so about two or three per page. The unusual part holds true. One of them has a religious procession chanting and ringing bells, with a ten year old boy being carried around who never ages. He’s a doppelganger who fund a good gig. Or the village where everyone ends every sentence with “Long live Duke Fluxion, long may his kind and benevolent rule guide and protect us all!” No sir, nothing unusual there. Slightly absurdist, or in some cases heightened reality, but not really over the top. I liked it enough to save it as a resource for my game.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/344388/belvedere-s-book-of-unusual-encounters?1892600

Posted in My Life is a Living Fucking Hell, Reviews | 13 Comments

The Curse of the Swamp

1st Adventures
1e
Levels 3-5

At the heart of the swamp lies the accursed tower, housing the dark artifact. Adventurers brave enough to journey into this cursed domain must confront the unholy alliance between the Sea Hag, the Wight, and the artifact itself. Their mission is to fight the encroaching darkness, unravel the artifact’s secrets, and free the land from its malevolent fate.

This thirty page adventure purports to be 1e, but is clearly solidly in the 5e era. Purple prose, long read-aloud, and a very combat oriented adventure without the horror one would like to see. Mechanistic, without the glee of D&D.

I like the artwork for the hag in the swamp on the cover. Very evocative!

And now, on to the problems!

It’s obvious that this is, at a minimum, using the 5e templates. And it’s loaded with skill checks. I’m not saying it’s a conversion, but, certainly, it’s borrowing heavily from 5e mechanics. And how much can you borrow before you are a 1e adventure in name only?

We’ve got hooks! Presented on a random table. *sigh* and none of them are anything to look at. The standard please help me stuff, very abstract, in about one sentence. Which is too bad. The core setup with an undead elf noble in a ruined tower in the swamp and a hag running around the swamp corrupting things and luring in people to feed the evil in the tower. Which, I think, leads to a good hook. If she’s got a radius then the next eclipse, or something, could widen that for a bit, threatening the town/village/whatever. I like that “tied to the land” thing better and it plays off off the two roles the two main baddies are supposed to have. I say supposed to, because the hag is hanging out in the tower also. Bleach! Another missed opportunity. 

Let’s see here, the synopsis says that the baddies will be “capturing the group of adventurers and throwing them into a nightmarish world of unimaginable dangers.” Well great. It’s one of THOSE adventures. And, I think I can imagine a great deal. 

The purple prose is not going to get much better. At one point a chick “turns towards you, revealing a countenance of beauty and an intense gaze that seems to transcend time.” Meh. This goes hand in hand with some DM advice that goes something like “The ambush is flawlessly executed, leaving the characters trapped and overwhelmed by the sheer force of the monsters. There is no chance of escape, and the adventurers will be captured and taken to The Lair of the Sea Hag, where they will confront the next stage of their perilous journey.”  Perilous text, am I right?! ?! WHyis no one laughing? Oh well. 

Also, that lair of the hag is a small hut in the swamp with no hag in it. You’re tied up with no gear. *sigh* I don’t even know what the point of this is. The opening scene is the ambush, on a coast road, where overwhelming forces capture you and stick you there for you to escape. It’s clearly fucking plot. And not the good plot, but the bad kind of play. No bueno.

Lots of read aloud here. Lots. Lengthy. WIth such phrases as “As you venture in to the atrium …” and “Suddenly, in the distance, you hear the desperate cry of a woman in distress!” I hate this shit. I want the woman crying distress, not the fucking read-aloud TELLING me she is crying in distress. At another point we’re told someone is undead. At another point the read-aloud tells us that the Wight lifts the mask to its face. Or that he lists a black skull mask to his face, a cursed artifact that emanates a palpable malevolence. Nope. Absolutely not. You’re telling people things. You want to SHOW people things.We want them to feel it, visceral. Not be told it.

Oh, and there’s several zombie encounters. At levels 3-5. Go figure. Five is an auto turn? And three is, what, a five or six? 

Nothing to see. Move along, move along. 

This is $7 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. Enjoy them hooks and that overwhelming ambush where they capture the party … for no reason.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/457631/the-curse-of-the-swamp-1e?1892600

Tanners Crossing

I also checked out Tanners Crossing, in an attempt to get my Wishlist down to zero. It has fifty bland places in a small village, that are described in a boring conversational style that is padded out, as well as a table or random travelers “Frank is looking for a wife”, thieves, wagon contents, and boring rumors. This was not the village supplement of my hopes and dreams.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/385494/tanner-s-crossing?1892600

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The Slithering River

Sebastian Grabne
Dawnfist Games
Generic/Universal

The adventure takes place in the Viper Vale Delta where a tribe of lizardmen have stolen the sacred Singing Stone from Lushwater Village. Villagers fear the wrath of the river god and urges anyone to recover the stone. Meanwhile, the lizardmen are fighting for their lives against a family of giant toads. How will the characters solve the issues along the Slithering River?

This eighteen page adventure presents a small temple with twelve rooms. Pedestrian but not offensive, I’m bored to tears by it. “Of course it was Bryce; it’s a generic/universal adventure!” Well fuck you Mr Hot Shot sane and stable reader … I thought this one was different. 

The lizardmen steal the Singing Stone from the village. The villagers want their stone back. It turns out that the lizardmen are using it to protect themselves from some giant frogs that have just moved in. (I guess lizardmen are pussies now.) They live in a ruined temple in the jungle. Some chick in town offers to guide you there. But, first, the giant albino croc in the swamps is sick and you need to help it. Or, another dude in the tavern wants you to kill it. Oh, and the towns mill has a ghost in it; Mayor Useless would like you to do something about that.

In this review I am going to do nothing but bitch about this adventure. 

The three miniquests included, with the croc and the mill, are perfunctory. You get one column of bullet points for each that outlines the adventure. For the mill, this amounts to the banshee inside asking the party to bring her the dude in town that jilted her in to suicide and then she kills him when they do and she goes away. And the mayor is ok with this. There are, I think, like six bullets that describe this, with no real detail of an adventure at all. I would hesitate to even call this an outline, more of just an idea. No real depth, or anything approaching that at all. Is the dude a bad person, a good person, there’s a complication? Nothing like that. The croc thing provides a boon if you save the croc; then the treehugger who hired you guides you through the swamp and you could avoid a random encounter or so on the way to the lizardman temple. But that’s really it; there’s no real information to run an adventure in either of the mini’s.

The adventure has its heart in the right place, in general, but falls down in most respects when it gets to the specifics. We note, for example, that the handful of NPC’s are being written in a rather terse format. Our treehugging tracker, for example is described as a happy go lucky tracker who knows the jungle well, with a quirk that there is life in everything, even rocks. Great quirk. And the happy go lucky part also. Perhaps not quite as effective as the “three keywords” descriptions that i revel in, but you can see that the designer kind of knows what to do here, even if they are fumbling a bit.

And the descriptions are trying also. “A stilted village that straddles the Slithering River, its halves connected by a swaying bridge. A symphony of bird calls and rushing water fills the air, while wood smoke fills the nostrils” That’s not a bad start. But, also, that’s ALL there is. There’s nothing really to solidify this village over any of the others. (Callback to that kilted lover, perhaps?) There’s an offhand mention of mosquitoes in the swamp, but that’s it. This is a far cry from the kind of evocative setting that really gives the DM something to work with as they ad-lib in things. 

And, once you reach the temple, we get descriptions that are things like “A large hall with exist in all directions” which both uses a boring word, large, and tells us what the map already tells us. Or “The room appears to be an old storage room.” Again, not really great. Appears to be is just padding and we should e working towards a description in which the players think “ah, an old storage room!” rather than outright telling them this. Another room has graffiti on the wall that says “I’ve solved it! You need different blood in each goblet!” Good job putting a clue elsewhere in the dungeon, but a little too on the nose. 

And it has fallen in to the trap of bullet point mania. ALL of the descriptions come in the form of bullet points. When everything is one thing then nothing stands point, if you get my meaning. Bullet points accentuate information, but shouldn’t really be the primary form of communication. Otherwise, how, again, do you know what to focus on?

The adventure is not as bad as most generical/universals, but that’s a long way from good. While the designer is on the right track in many areas, it still comes off as an effort with a lot problems.

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. You can see the village, NPC’s, and mini-adventures that I spoke of. A page showing a couple of room keys would have been nice as well.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/en/product/477597/the-slithering-river?1892600

Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments