Naked Dragon’s Lair, D&D adventure review

By Mike Mylar
Legendary Games
Level 6

Rumors spread of a mysterious group at the top of Mukkiya Mountain paying high bounties for live halflings—not just gold coins but even items imbued with magic. Raiders far and wide have started abducting whole settlements of smallfolk yet the village of Stillwater is trying to stand up to these foul kidnappers, seeking out hardened protectors to defend them. Whatever side the adventurers take brings them to the mountain but ascending it is no simple matter and the party must bypass the baring horde, climb the Cliffs of Madness, cross the territory of a dreaded ayutam, or maneuver up the Spiked Slopes. When they reach their destination the PCs discover the truth behind the halfling bounty and face perhaps the mightiest creature they’ve ever seen!

This 26 page adventure uses about three pages to describe a five room dragon lair. It hints at some interesting design decisions, perhaps by accident, and at least doesn’t enforce morality on the party. Poor quality, but interesting to me for the points it brings up.

Halfling village leader spies on you and tests you to see if you are good people. If so, she has you brought to the village to protect it from raiders abducting them. If not then a raider contacts you offering you gold for bringing in halflings. Either way, you either track captured halflings ot bring your own captives up a deathtrap mountain (conveniently ignoring how OTHER raiders get up the mountain) to a cave where someone buys them. A poly’d dragon. Fight fight fight. 

Good things: The lack of enforced morality is nice. The adventure is clearly written for the party to be heroes, but it doesn’t ignore the alternative … and doesn’t just give a one sentence throw-away line about it either. Allowing for the party to be creative in their play, and supporting that, is a Good Thing(™.) The mountain has four paths up, each with a different challenge. A horde of beasts on one slope, a long mega monster on another, a treacherous climb on another, and a path full of super sharp rocks on another. This COULD have been iconic, and I like the concept of giving the party an actual choice in how to play things out instead of railroading them up only one path. There are, also, little bullet points at the end of each location section. These are one sentence things about the environment description for the DM to emphasize during that section. Easy to find, and easy to understand with strong themes. I sometimes note that these sort of “always on” things could be put on a map border, as an aid for the DM remembering them. In this case there is not map and so putting them at the bottom (or top, or whatever) and bulleting them serves the same purpose. 

The whole thing ALMOST (with some major major major fucking caveats) comes across as an adventure outline. An adventure outline at almost EXACTLY the right level for detail to let the DM fill in and expand upon things. It’s a little loose, the bullets add to that vibe. Kind of sandboxy in way. Well, not really, in practice here, but I can see how with some major effort it could get closer to that … and you’d have something terse and evocative to run.

Just to be clear: that’s not what this is. 

This is just, mostly, the usually 5e poor quality stuff. It’s listed in the OSR section but has nothing related to the OSR in it, so I’m unclear what the fuck is up with that. Just more marketing bullshit, I guess.

The descriptions of the “Scenes” are long and stuffed full of mechanics and “then this happens and then this happens and then this happens” with little to no thought given to organizing it for ease of play at the table. 

It includes one of my favorite things: the roll to continue. If you want to go on the adventure you better make a DC13 check to notice the X, or else you don’t get to continue on! Related to this is another thing this adventure does over and over again: hide interesting things behind DC checks. As an example, you have to make a trivial DC check to find a notice on a rock wall describing the payment for halflings. Why do this? Why hide something like that from the party? It amps up tension and realizes the threat, but, somehow, this isn’t worth noting to the party? Not every fucking thing in an adventure has to be behind a DC check. Use the checks to learn MORE about something. Don’t lose a good foreshadowing/tension builder because of a DC check. Those blog articles (Alexandrian?) on “how to actually use skills in 5e” should be in the next version of the PHB/DMG.

Oh, oh, did I mention that the halfling village raids happen every d4 raids … and three have to happen before the elder sends you to the mountain? Who the fuck is hanging around that long? And there’s NO content to help support a length of stay of even one day. 

Congrats. You killed the dragon. You get a piece of raw mana, 120gp, 400sp, and one uncommon magic item. Fuck. You. Talk about sucking the joy out of the game. 

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages long. It shows you the “test” as well as the halfling village and raiders attack. I’m not sure any amount of pages, other then the entire thing, could fully explain the format and how it works.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 7 Comments

Whispers in the Blood Mire, D&D adventure review

By Daniel Mark
Little Maker Press
Level 1

For generations, the small village of Edgemere has held a tenuous balance with the Blood Mire. Children grew up knowing the folk tales and warnings about wandering out past the walls alone or at night, about a temple that used to be but had long since been swallowed by the Mire, and the strange and lonely family that had come to build a mansion in the Mire and then disappeared. No one knows what happened to the family, the lights just went out in the Mire one day and that was that.? Fifty years later, the lights are said to be on in the house once more and a strangeness like none have seen before has settling over the area. More are reporting hearing whispers and cries in the Mire late at night and seeing dancing lights when the moon is at its fullest. No one in the village dares enter the Mire in these strange times but now the children are starting to go missing. Grieving families are convinced that it is the lost children that they hear whispering in the Mire. Others believe it’s something much worse. ?

This 51 page adventure describes a multi-level manor home in a swamp. It’s trying, with good interactivity and an attempt at good formatting and evocative descriptions. This is marred, though, by room/key numbering that doesn’t match up and some more minor issues that I’ll give too much emphasis to in the review. I’ll probably regert it  without the room/key numbering issue. Tegal continues to haunt the hobby, for good and ill.

This is supposed to be a gothic horror type thing in a swamp/moor. It tells us as much and you can see where it is trying to go in this direction, sometimes to great effect and generally to lesser. I’m going to pick this thing apart on some fine points, but let’s remember that I think this adventure is generally quite a bit above average. It’s trying hard to make things easy on the DM, using bullet points and so on. (Maybe too much so; there seems to be a new trend to ONLY use bullet points for encounters. That’s not a terrible decision, but I think that a traditional sentence format, with bullets for emphasis, does make more sense, generally.) Writing is generally above average and you can, in places, get some really good mental imagery from places described in just a brief sentence or so. This IS the goal of the Evocative pillar. The ability to shove a strong image in to the DMs head so that they can take the room and run with it using their own imagination. More on that in a bit. I’m going to handwave the interactivity here and just say that it meets my needs. There are some things labeled “Factions” that, while not a traditional faction play that I think of, are more like “motivations of the groups” and can provide some strong roleplay possibilities … even with the blood tree that animates children’s bodies. And this is done in a reasonable way, for all groups, that make sense. I wouldn’t call it a traditional faction element, like is fund in a large underground dungeon, but , close enough. It’s talking an negotiating notes. This sort of talky talky play is combined with traditional puzzles, statues, OBVIOUS TRAPS and so on to give an environment that has more than just killing in it. The way a D&D adventure should be. 

It’s doing another quite interesting thing also. There’s a small village, briefly described to good effect, generally. Then there’s a very short overland thing, to the manor home. But the faction homes of two groups are then described, on about one page each. Even though they are not located on the map. There are way, it would seem, in the manor home, to contact at least one of them (which could lead to the second) if not both. This is quite interesting. It has these two groups, also involved in the backstory, that you MAY not interact with, but there are a couple of ties and it IS possible. And then it spares two pages to give you more on those. Given the propensity of players to break the game, this was a great choice. There’s MORE to explore, interact with, etc, you just have to go looking, and the adventure is there to support the DM in this, but doesn’t over-emphasize it. I might make a comparison to the “After the adventure is over” section of some adventures, noting the implications of the choices the characters made in the particular adventure. It’s supporting the world outside the adventure proper, but not going on and on. It’s a good thing.

The evocative writing is ALMOST good enough for me, and probably good enough for most people. The town, for example, has some shops which are sparsely described. We get a note tat the blacksmiths daughter is missing. Or the general store persons niece is missing. From this we can infer a roleplay style, but the NPC tude, proper, is missing. Just a word or two more would have been appreciated. Distraught. Sullen. Resigned. Something. 

Another example of this are the various room descriptions. They are generally anchored to a concept but, I feel, need just a little bit more to make it over the hump the Best Of land. The Wine Room: “ A small narrow room dominated by wine shelves on either side except for the door on the far end of the western wall.” Lets’ ignore the second clause, with the door, since it just repeats information from the map. (Yes, I know some of you like this. You’re wrong. Words are precious resources. To reuse my analogy, it is POSSIBLE that a story in the Paris Review is not depressing, but we all know that’s not true. Academically it might be possible to include, but in practice it’s an example of the weak writing skills of a designer, not understanding the purpose of the room description or how to use it. Also, Fuck You, I’m right. 🙂

Anyway, “a small narrow room dominated by wine shelves.” Not bad. I get an image. It could be better. Towering wine shelves would evoke something better in my mind. Rickety wine shelves would both evoke something AND provide some implied potential energy, even if not another word was mentioned, mechanically, about collapse. Many adventures could benefit from taking another look at their nouns and verbs and seeing if they can add an adjective/adverb to them to evoke a better mental image, or imply some action/leverage some potential energy. I don’t say that this should be done for EVERY noun (well, ok, I think, yes, you should slave away over every noun and try to add some, at least to see what the impact would be, even if you decide to NOT include it) … if that’s done then you’re in the opposite territory where its obvious that this done mechanically and with rigor. Rigor is good … a vision if good … but you need to know when to bend it/break it/diverge. It’s in SERVICE of something and that end goal can never be lost sight of.

There are other descriptive gaps also. One faction has a holy symbol left behind at one encounter. “Their religious symbol is laying …” is all we get. I odn’t believe it is ever described, anywhere in the adventure, and even if it were it should have still been included in that sentence/section.

It does a good job with a Flesh Golem, the most Frankensteiny version I’ve seen in an adventure thus far, I believe.  And that’s GOOD! These things SHOULD be brought to life and not just monster stat blocks. It also, as a house, presents doors and windows to explore and balconies to break in from. Well, mentions them in the text anyway if not on the map. I suspect that, as a newer designer, there were map program issues and a learning curve there that has not yet been overcome. Still; some thought was given.

This thing is also NOT for level 1’s. It’s full of groups of 3HD and 4HD monsters, even mobs of 4d4 .5 HD monsters. I’m all for unbalanced encounters, but this one is a little rough for me. I like the concept of running away and coming back and exploring the factions, etc, but, still, those are some rough encounters. And a lot of them.

Really though, while the writing is above average I’m not willing to put it in the Best category. And It’s going to miss a Regert because of … map/key issues. There are multiple instances in the adventure where the text is referring to, I think, the wrong room. Hidden passages that end up … in which room? It’s never mentioned, and happens several times in the adventure. Stairs going … where? Who knows. Traps doors going to … who knows. And references to other rooms that just seem to be wrong. IE: refer to room #3. Or refer to room #11. Except it seems that those cross-references are wrong and they actually mean different rooms. This is super frustrating. Yes, you can fix it. No, I’m not going to put in the effort to fix it. I’m going to pick something else to play.

There are times in this in which the gothic horror is thick. Children in nightclothes at the edge of a clearing, staring at you. How can you get more gothic that that? Even the village and the boardwalk out of town, walled off, with a arcing bridge. Never really described but implied through text and maps and art. But, more practice is needed to bring this thing together, and at a minimum, not referring to one of the largest rooms on the map, the wine cellar, as “small.” 😉 Or surfaces mentioned as gleaming and then described as dusty. Logic issue. The whispers in the blood mire are not emphasized enough to fully realize the gothic, although it gets close.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview shows thirteen pages. You get to see the factions and the town, but not the actual encounters. That’s a miss, Bob. We needed to see a couple of the actual encounters in the house. Still, if you read the preview that IS offered, at least up to and including the town, you get a great idea of how the gothic atmosphere is both present/implied and also JUST missing the mark.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 3 Comments

Abnu’s Children, D&D adventure review

By David Henley
David Henley Productions
Level ?

Here are some tags/keywords to get your imagination going. Fugitive Heretics, Cursed worshippers, Ancient shrine, Jungle, Dust, cobwebs, and artifacts Abnu’s Children is written for Agoth-Agog a new campaign setting in development by David Henley Productions. It is a short dungeon crawl in the classic style and playable with any game system. “Beware the children of Abnu, for they bear his curse…”

This seventeen page adventure describes an eight-ish room abandoned shrine with some cultists in it. It explores an interesting concept in presenting the rooms, but fails by being generic, abstracted, and not really having anything other than combat.

This thing had me worked up, in a good way, at first. It presented an old shine off the beaten track. Jungle to be hacked through to get there. Cursed people in the woods hanging around outside, looking for salvation at the shrine, harrying the party to protect what they see as the salvation to their curse. This is all done in very quick hit sentences. “Vine choked paths leading to and around the area”, for example. Then it follows that up with a format that has the room diagram at the top of the page, followed by some bullets, and then a heading for Objective or Threats. One room per page can be an interesting way to present encounters, with lots of room for clear formatting, etc.

Except the adventure falls down at nearly every opportunity. Starting with the map. It’s unnumbered. The designer tells us that: “Locations aren’t numbered so that there isn’t a feeling of the right path.” Uh huh. Except there is very clearly an entrance, and many, may adventures use a numbered key and don’t have a right path. What this does is cause the DM to have to annotate everything to get a numbered/keyed entry. THis is NOT ease of use. THis makes things substantially harder to run at the table as you dig through the adventure pages looking for the little picture that matches the room on the larger map. Just number the fucking thing. Sure, there ARE cases where room/key isn’t appropriate. This ain’t it.

The room text is … vague? Inaccurate? Lacking? Padding? “”This room is empty except for …” or “In fact this is a …” This sor of text does nothing but pad out the text. It needs to be tighter. Ray’s books addresses this in some detail. Then some of the room descriptions are inaccurate. The first room is listed as 10×15, when in fact it’s not, it’s larger, according to the map, if we use standard 5’ or 10’ squares. 

More importantly though, the rooms lack specificity. The descriptions are abstracted and use inconsistent words. There’s a wood carving in a room. The text then refers to a statue. This is not conducive to scanning the text and had me scratching my head for a bit. Did I miss something? No, they are one and the same. In another room it mentions that the rooms objective is to descend the crumbling stairs. Except there are no stairs? In the room or on the map? No. That wood carving, it’s just a wood carving. A statue. Of a young man, Anu. What position? Anything notable? Anything specific AT ALL? No. Just description after description of this abstracted text. Specificity is a good thing. It anchors the mind and in doing so it lets the mind run wild. But no.

This extends to what little (non-combat) interactivity there is in the adventure. To open a door make three arcane checks. Weeeee! It turns out the answer IS on the character sheet after all.

Threats are usually monsters, and not listed in the room description. SO a room full of heretics gets a boring old description and then, later on, maybe on the next page, it mentions Heretics under threats. (Yes, it’s not ACTUALLY one page per room. Which turns the format from promising to TERRIBLE.) People? In the temple? I guess there’s an order or battle or how they react to the party? No. Not present.

“What you came for is behind this door.” Sigh. No real treasure to speak of. Not real magic. No real loot. Are you sure this is an OSR adventure? Margins are wide, room names are generic. There was A LOT of room here to add flavour without expanding page count or expanding the text to an unusable extent. 

“Objective: Explore the room.” That’s original. I thought that was USUALLY the objective? A salve to format is never a good idea. 

It’s too bad. The initial overview had me worked up and excited. But the execution shows all of the classic signs of generic OSR content and writing that plagues the marketplace.

This is $8 at DriveThru. The preview is seven pages. You get to see the overview, that got me excited, on page five and then two rooms, showing the general layout/style of writing. So, at least in that regard, it’s a good preview.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 8 Comments

Kraken Corpse Delve, D&D adventure review

By Joseph Robert Lewis
Dungeon Age Adventures
Levels 1-3

Everyone says the world is dying. Today you meet a stranger who has already seen it happen. She has traveled back through time to save the world…but only if you can save her! An eldritch woman from the future begs you to save her from her sister, who wants to drag her back to her own time. To close the time portal, you must climb down through the buried corpse of a kraken. The prize? A giant diamond worth 10,000 GP…if you can pull it out of the portal!

This 28 page adventure features a dungeon in a fossilized kraken with about 22 or so rooms. It has a kind of airy, dreamlike thing going on. Mythic, but not in an epic way, you feel like you’re somewhere else. Excellent writing, interactivity, and all the rest combine to create something that you’re excited to run and share with your players. Dungeon Age seldom disappoints.

What is “good”? This is one of those things I like, even in real life, that drives the people around me crazy. See a movie with the girlfriend and she asks “Did you like it?” and I respond “What does like mean?” … in all seriousness. This thing, though, is clearly good … whatever that means. 😉

It has this kind of mythic, airy feel. Almost dreamlike. Not EPIC, although the set up could be construed as that. Not a dream, but this otherworldliness feeling even though it is, essentially, a dungeon.   It’s a combination of the elements used and the style in which they are presented that deliver on it all.

A cracked mud flat. Delicate blue flowers with tiny red crabs, a tower leaning dangerously askew. Three huge grey tendrils wrap around it. A flash of blue light from an upper window, whisps of violet smoke, a woman shouting in anger. This is the opening scene. The ground floor, a cloud of violet smoke, a dream-fox, barking at you to not interfere as it climbs a stone tentacle to the upper floor. Blue light flickers, the ceiling booms, dusts rains down on you. A weird woman, tale, golden, with small tentacle begs for your help. Her world, the future is ending, and she needs you to close the portal below, wedged open by a diamond as big as your head, to keep her sister from hunting her down while she tries to save her own future. WHich, the adventure notes, doesn’t matter. Dreamy. Ethereal. You KNOW shit is going down. And yet, the stakes are minor, it’s impossibly far in the future. You’re not actually saving the world, not in the way trope fiction would have you. 

The format is three column, about one column per room. A small read-aloud, easy to grok, a quick hit of a few sentences, quite evocative. Words are underlined and then those words have their details explained in bolded bullets below. It’s easy to scan. And, in the less is more category, the imagery is strong Strong STRONG. You KNOW these places. These things. 

Creatures are well described, interesting, with interesting new effects. The dream fox, when it dies, looks you in the eyes and describes the time (soon) and place (aweful) of your death. [DM Note: this is always false.] Oh, but what a wonderful effect for the party to deal with!

Magic is new and interesting. The Remora’s Necklace is a seahorse pendant and makes you invulnerable whenever you are asleep. The drowning flare is a candle that only works underwater and goes out when removed from it.  Described. Interesting effects. Described in terms of what they do, not in terms of mechanics. The way a fucking magic item should be! Mundane treasure is prevalent and hard to remove, but maybe the logistics benefit organizing a way to get all of those pearls, or obsidian …

“Knowledge, wealth, power!” whisperers her sister … ready to give you a Wish if you will just bring her sister to her … there’s no right answers in this adventure. It just IS. Oozing with evocative descriptions. A format that makes it trivial to run … I dare say without even reading it (which, while not a requirement, is testament to how clear it is.) People to talk to. Things to do. Creatures to hack. Temptations to explore. 

I’m flaming out on this review, the way I always do when something is really good. This is really good. 

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is sixteen pages, showing you everything to need to see to make a buy decision. And, it’s only $2? Pffft.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews, The Best | 19 Comments

Hope Cross Village, D&D adventure review

By WR Beatty
Rosethorn Publishing
Levels 1-3 (in a pigs eye!)

First there was that storm. Old Gorby says he ain’t never seen such a fuss kicked up, and he’s near a hundred years old. So many lightning strikes, trees burning in the woods for days. If it hadn’t been for all the rain that came, sure there’d be no Hope Cross left today. Then the sheep ran off, and that’s ain’t supposed to even be possible, what with the Witchwoman’s charm at the Shearing Shed. Then that… stranger came to town. Said he was looking for something in the darkness. Came at full noon, he did. Probably mad. No one was unhappy to see him leave. And now Adam Shepherd is missing.

This 39 page adventure features a small village, its surrounding region/hex, and a twenty one page dungeon described in about six pages. It could be thought of as a home base, or a lot of supporting information for the adventure, proper. There’s also little way in hell this is for firsties. The adventure is fine, and the rest a little wordy. One of the weaker Rosethorns, but still pretty decent.

What this adventure is is A LOT of supporting material for a small dungeon. There’s a hole in the ground with an evil dude in it. It’s near a village. So we get the village described. And the region around the village also … because you’re likely to end up both in the village and in the region around the village as you go exploring for Alan Shepherd. (Who is, indeed, a Shepherd.) Along the way you get some NPC’s described, businesses, and a few local monsters … most of whom are just fey or neutral and not really hostile.  There’s a secret or two to be discovered, but nothing very interesting. 

I can go a couple of ways on this. First, having the surrounding region to explore and follow up on is a great thing. Actual overland exploring (with decent wanderers tables, as are present here) is great. Walk around, see the sights, talk to people, get some clues. It’s good. The entries are just about the right length to support this “here’s a big place with a general overview of it” type of description. The town … well, it’s got some local color, well described, if a bit lengthy for the amount of actual play you’ll get from it. A little too MERP’y for “Your standard middle cl.ass inn”, for example. But, when it’s hitting, it’s hitting well. For example, Gire’s Tavern is “a hole in the wall, a large taproom with dirty rushes and stinky dogs on the floor, rodents running freely, and flies buzzing all around. Drinks are cheap and watered down, the atmosphere is smoky, food is suspect. Still, Gire’s is the place that the farmers, herdsmen and fishermen congregate so on most nights the main room is full.” Good job for three sentences. The wide number of locations in town and the region to explore/that are describes reflects that appeal to naturalism and the parties propensity to explore more than hard core game content. Descriptions are kept high level, for example with the local worthies manor, when appropriate. And, like that famous Keep, there’s more loot to be had by hitting the pixies/tax collector/worthy than in the dungeon proper.

The dungeon rooms have a fair degree of interactivity with things to break in to, look at, play with, and explore … at least for a 21 room dungeon. It’s got a potential ally in it, as well as being STUFFED FUCKING FULL of 3HD, 4HD, and more, creatures. A few Shadows, in particular, come to mind. And a saving throw every round or be compelled to be drawn to the mini-boss fight room of the Avatar of Darkness, in total darkness, in which people with a CON <13 don’t get to act at all. The Rosethrown Highlands series reminds me, in more than one way, or Kramers Bone Hilt, including how fucking tough they are. Multiple visits and using strategy instead of tactics is likely to win the day. And that regional format/expanded town certainly supports a multiple visit playstyle. Still, levels 1-3? Maybe 3-4 or 2-4 with a good party.

From memory, this feels more expansive than I recall Rosethorn adventures of this size. The surrounding countryside, specifically. And yet it also feels a little looser than I recall from the products. The writing not as tight. The entries a little longer, or less specific and less evocative. On a ten point scale, Rosethron seems to hit between a 6 and an 8 most times. I’m going to slap this one down in a 7, putting it in the Regerts category.

This is $3 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Naughty naughty WR!

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 2, No Regerts, Reviews | 8 Comments

The Last Barrow, D&D adventure review

By Mark Smylie
Aegis & Gorgon

In ages long past someone built a barrow for a prince, and laid him to rest–or so they thought. The bodies of his wife and a few of his descendants found their way there as well before the barrow fell into disuse and was in time forgotten. And now, perhaps, after centuries have slipped by, the hour may have arrived for the prince to return, and with him relics of great power.

This 104 page adventure (plus handouts!) features an eight page barrow. Great art and style. A rich tapestry of an environment. Lacking in usability. The page count isn’t as bad as it first seems.

Ok, up front, I like barrows. One of my dreams is to spend a year in Great Britain and Ireland travelling around, collecting the keys from local vicars, and exploring barrows. 

But, first, the page count in this thing. Normally 108 pages for eight rooms would seem to be an issue. The last fifty pages of this are mechanics for the various game systems: Artesia, 5e, and Runquest. This means that the main text description avoids those things and a room that “makes you uneasy” in the adventure is then detailed, in the various systems in the back half, with the specific game mechanics in each system. Thus you’re getting one generic text description and then three more specific sections of the system-specific mechanics for the system. Further, it does have a short lead in with hooks, and wilderness travel, and the area outside of the barrow, before the dungeon proper starts. And then, the entire thing has what one might call a “luxurious” layout style, full of art and page design. The actual backstory/extraneous shit is kept to just a couple of pages, with a bit more sprinkled in to the rooms. So, overall, not as bad as would first be indicated. Pruned back to just “generic + 5e”, and the layout condensed, it might be a 30 pager, which isn’t so bad for something taking the holistic approach to the adventure with good hooks, wilderness travel, etc.

The details here are great. Or, rather, the specificity. Specificity, without verbosity, gives the DM something to work with. They can take the imagination seed and run with it. And it’s here, a lot. From the hooks, to the people you meet on the road. Omens to happens, ocular visions, and wildflowers atop the barrow have purposes, as well as the magic effects of menhir circle … and maybe you meet someone up there also who is doing something. (That table, in particular, feels wasted. Why offer a dozen choices when only one will maybe happen? The others are, essentially, wasted effort. But, that’s a larger design issue.) The art style lends itself well to the adventure, with great illustrations of the various things you find, and handouts for the players, etc, to get you in to luxurious barrow mood. “Players in fantasy RPGs rarely seem to need a reason to send their characters off to disturb the graves of the dead …” the hook section tells us. Indeed! And this sly little witt is present here and there in the adventure.

Luxurious. To a fault.

For the thing has issues, both with its chosen style and writing decisions. First, the “system localization” doesn’t work well, I think. You are, essentially, flipping to two different sections of the text, the generic description portion and then your system of choice portion, forty pages later, to find the stats, mechanics, etc, of the room. It’s not that it goes overboard on the mechanics, it doesn’t, but just that the section is a long way away. You could take notes, I guess, or print out a second version to consult during the game? But it feels clunky to keep flipping back to reference the mechanic effects. And the stats are, essentially, not present, at least for 5e. For a given monster it will have a decent paragraph or two to read/consult and buried in it are things like “stat it like a GHOST or a WIGHT” … sans stats. So now I’ve got a third book to whip out and consult, assuming I put in the effort up front to prep it correctly. It feels HEAVY to prep.

And the text. For all of it’s pretty layouts it does little to organize the actual room data. Instead you get these LONG paragraphs full of richness … that it hard to scan during play. This is exacerbated by a fancy font choice that makes comprehension even harder.

This is a GREAT fantasy barrow, fully supported as a complete adventure, including follow ups after the adventure is over.But it just doesn’t feel like its usable. A great coffee table adventure to gawk at, but not to run.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is a good one. From it you can see the richness of the layout style and art choices. Care was taken to ensure that the font color didn’t clash with the background color. But note, also, the fancy font choices, italic old-timey, for certain of the descriptions. And note also the Longish paragraphs for the descriptions that bury what the DM need to run it in the hard to scan text.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 7 Comments

Journey to the Inside Out, D&D adventure review

By Christian Toft Madsen
Levels 2-4

Beneath our feet is the mythological hollow world – a realm of dense jungles, putrid swamps and rugged mountains. Here a brave party will struggle for survival as they seek to fathom the unseen expanse and to prevent a once defeated god to rise again.

This adventure describes a kind of Lost World, the hollow inside of the planet. This does this primarily by describing some “story point” locations, tied together in a loose series of events, thus providing examples of the location types and how they can used to build a narrative larger than the individual points. It hits all of the major design points, but I can’t help but think it comes off as a little dry … and I’m not really sure why. It reminds me, in many  ways, of Valley of the Five Fires, by LeBlanc. For better & worse.

Ok, so, Lost World. The world Inside of Our World. The party finds a diary, it tells of a mysterious tower that is a gateway to another world … with caves full of gems. The tower is actually a boring machine with enough juice, unknown by the party, to make one trip to what turns out to be the hollow inside of the planet. (I’ve got a long standing hatred of diaries in adventures, but, not as hooks. My hatred is reserved for their use as Monologue/Explanation and not as a treasure map/hook.) 

This is, in fact, the first four or so story points. The way this works is that the adventure presents something and then says “hey, and this is how you can string it together to make a longer narrative.” So, you need to get the party to the inside, right? So, here’s a boring machine and here’s how could work (oh no! It runs out of magic crystals and we need to find more to get home!) to string it together with the other elements. So, there are, like, five human villages scattered around about a 200mile on a side area. You get a map and a description of a village, and then some notes that, when the party arrives in the machine up through the ground, they see the smoking ruin of a human village. And, oh yeah, a couple of survivors and some tracks relate that the evil cavemen raided them and took their chief and slaves back with them to some horrible fate. Magic Crystals? Yeah, we know some rumors about that … and how it fits in with the cavemen … So you get the core element, and then an instance of how it could be used to strung together. Likewise the evil caveman village example, or the lizardman lair, or the evil bat-people lair. Both generic and, at the same time, how they could be localized to a narrative. And while the human village does explicitly contain text about “if this is a the burned out village then this is the other description …” this is the only location that does that. The others are just presented as is. 

I find it interesting because it can both be used as a kind of hex crawl (albeit with not so many locations) and used like a hex crawl, kind of riffing on whats going on and localing on an ass needed basis, and also giving example of how that could be done … resulting in what is a self contained adventure as usable as nearly any other well designed product. So it’s both a resource for a lost world game and a specific adventure in the game. Nifty.

This is doing a lot right. It has notes about how to get replacement PC’s in if people die. It’s using bullets and quick hit descriptions. It’s got a format that uses about ?’rds of the page for descriptions and then a second column, taking up ? or the page, that has reference material like wandering monster tables, monster stats, little art bits, etc. That’s a great way to integrate more reference and support information. It’s god monster summary sheets to work from, and, in general it hitting the points it needs to in order to be usable and useful by the DM. And it is NOT fucking around with padded text. It moves through things pretty rapidly while still have some in-depth information … but the movement of summary information to the sidebars means that it moves rapidly from one location to another with extra text there.

It’s also got a couple of problems. The regional map is a pain in the ass. It tries to locate human, caveman, and bat people villages on the map but the icons are hard to find. They don’t stand out and, in fact, I simply could not find the bat people locale. But, as a 12-mile resource for a hex crawl from locale to locale? Great. Better icons. Some village names maybe. Perhaps a little note on how to cross the sea, since the map is divided by a sea and the impression I get is that the villages DO NOT sail. Treasure is also a little on thin side (unless you collect it all, I’m guessing) and bookish. A potion of healing. A ring of invisibility. Little to no localization.

And this is maybe the worse part of the adventure/location. It feels dry. Very workmanlike. It’s trying. For example, Bottomless pit get the description “? Circular pit stretching down into darkness.? Cold air and howling sound from the pit.” Well, ok, I guess I get it. It’s not the worst. But it’s not exactly screaming “evocative” either. And this is the same for all of the encounters. A substantial amount of art is from Lost World source material and I don’t think it lends itself to firing the imagination as it once did, at least for me. And thus I find it also pulling things down in my head also. (Which is interesting, because I find Clarke’s stuff super bad assly evocative, so it’s not ALL older art that drags on me.) Anyway, I think evocative writing is one of the hardest parts of adventure writing, so it’s not exactly a crime against man that its not super great. It just takes practice and the designer clearly knows what they are trying to do, even if they don’t reach my own standards yet in that area.

I would note, also, that the interactivity is non-exploratory D&D. It’s not the usual dungeons with things to play with. It’s more of a John Carter thing. You go some place, talk to people and make friends, make plans, expedition somewhere else. Fight the beast people through some sneaky plan and/or get ambushed by them, rescue some people, maybe fuck with some giant idol. Which, I might note, is the more open ended hex crawl nature of D&D than the traditional exploratory/puzzle/play with shit game. I like that style … I usually use it as filler in between the exploratory game sessions. (Filler doesn’t give it justice. It’s great and one of the pillars of a good campaign, I think.) What the fucks that blogs name? The one with the starship people visiting D&D worlds? Planet Algol? Carcosa? Fuck, someone told me, and I read a few more session reports and forgot it again. I suck. Anyway, Valley of the Five Fires, from LeBlanc, comes to mind as a similar adventure with similar pluses and downsides. 

I’m gonna regret this. It will be fine for a lot of people.

This is $4 at DriveThru. Preview is ten pages. You get to see an overview of the Lost World, which takes about a page, and a good wanderer chart. A few encounter descriptions would have enhanced the preview immensely. As is, you get to see very little which would let you judge the writing quality of the actual adventure content.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 5 Comments

Thieves’ Guild Built in the Subterranean Ruin of [Insert Generic Anthropomorphic Urban Rodent God Of Your Choice]’s Temple

By Billy Longino
U.H.H.H. Games
Level ...?

Yeah, that’s the title of this thing. And kudos to the designer for using it frequently and consistently throughout the product. I recognize greatness of vision when I see it.

Welcome to the Thieves’ Guild! Things are not going so well. The thieves are incompetent and prone to in-fighting. The guild has become more like your local underworld supermarket than the den of intrigue and villainy you’d expect. So, obviously, it’d be a lot of fun to explore. Inside, you’ll find a decently fleshed-out adventure site for your would-be heroes and/or ne’er-do-wells to infiltrate, pillage, or die horrible deaths in. Also included are a handful of silly NPCs for use in your city campaign. And there’s ratmen. (Actually, I checked… There’s no ratmen. Sorry. They’re all dead before the PCs arrive.) This product is designed using all of the amateurish art, poorly considered humorous prose, and difficult-to-read (and use at the table) layout you’ve come to expect from a classic DIY adventure!

This 32 page digest adventure describes a dungeon with about forty rooms, a former ratman temple complex in the sewers that is now a thieves guild complex. It’s got a lighthearted beer & pretzels/DCC vibe going on, but gets thick in places and a little too loose with the facts and formatting for ease of use.

The designer states it’s a joke adventure. That the layout is half-assed. That the art is crap. That they have completely ignored any ease-of-use approach. Meh. Looks pretty much ok to me. Better than most adventures. And the encounter areas to have a certain panache to them; you know, as a DM, where to hang the adventures hat in the room. This is the same way as in the better DCC adventures … which is not too surprising since the designer has some credits listed in Gongfarmers Almanac. Furthering this evidence is the map. It’s an excellent piece of work, with a lot of interesting playable detail. Done by the designer it shows an art flair, that flair so common to the DCC house organs, and perhaps a designer that bends more toward art than writing or design. Which I tend to find attractive in an adventure. Art-centric projects tend to have a stronger vision and rely less on mechanics and more in inspiration, IMO. (And, one of my favorite cons, Con On The Cob, is an artist centric gaming con.)

There’s a pretty strong vision for almost every room and most wandering monster/event encounters. The former ratman temple (from the PHB cover) that’s now a brothel. Great unique magic items and NPC’s. These things have character. They give the DM inspiration to work with and from. Top shelf ideas abound in each room or NPC. This is augmented by a formatting style that, while it relies on paragraphs, uses bolding in them to call the DM’s attention. So in the sentence “Loos stones hide a treasure behind them” the words “Loose Stones” might be bolded, to help call attention to it as a separate thing in the room. It’s totally a workable style and I’ve seen a couple of good adventures use it. It gets to the core concept of making the adventure easy on the DM to run (in spite of the designers warnings to the contrary.) Room names help orient the DM to the content even before the text arrives in the paragraph, giving us an idea of where to go and how to properly receive the detail to come. And there’s a little humor embedded for the DM “Ratmen, were-rats, ratty human priests, and layfolk” describes one event encounter with a group coming to take back their temple. And that’s a theme here, a certain meta-ness for the DM, exploiting every trope for amusement. One section, on a ghost, gives his backstory and then says “or you could just use a standard book ghost and not an interesting one.” This designer gets it. Put something the fuck interesting in! And they do, over and over again.

But all is not well in art land. 

While the designer rails against brevity and so on, in their adventure overview, or, perhaps, chides and acknowledges they didn’t engage in it, that’s still no excuse For Their Sins.

“This passage was once …” happens over and over again in the text, telling us what the room was, or what a person once did … that has no impact on the adventure. The Bolding gets out of hand in places, with a couple of rooms having nearly 50% of their text bolded. That ghost history? A long section of text in italics. “This door leads to room i …” just as the map says it does. There’s enough of this that it almost seems on purpose, like a bad adventure design contest entry. And rooms are sometimes a little TOO loosy goosy on things, like numbers appearing, or even if there IS a creature in the room. If you mention a creature in bold, but don’t stat it, is it there? What if its in a forest and claps one hand while falling? Another two fucking hours in editing would have solved all of these problems, I think. Unless, I mean, the designer made a piece of performance art and then offered it up for sale in the adventure section of DriveThru. But they wouldn’t do that, would they? I mean, that’s not cool if they did. 

A larger issue is the adventure proper. While the individual elements are great I think it lacks a bit, holistically. It’s a thieves guild, underground. Do you explore it? Do you hack it down and loot shit? Are you there to make contacts, to fence something or some such? Its focus is more on that last part, making contacts. As a place to hack and slash, or visit, the orientation of the rooms and content is less effective. And, I wonder if the selected room/key format might better be left off if its more of a Thieves Guild resource guide than an adventure? I suppose by using room/key you get to use it for all three purposes, with the entire package not really being optimized for any of the three. But I can’t help but think it lacks on exploration or exploitation and is far too oriented towards “lets fence this and find a hooker.” I’m not sure there’s an answer to this. It FEELS off though, maybe because of using room/key for this. But, again, serving no master it could be of use to all three.

So, it has decent ideas. It does an ok job of communicating them. It needed another couple of hours of hard editing. And it needs more focus on what it wants to be. Because, in spite of what the designer says, it’s not a joke adventure or ignoring good design principals. So, Fuck You, to get a No Regerts.

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. It shows you the wandering table and several rooms. Including some NPC’s. It does a GREAT job of showing you the type of content to expect. From the snarky writing, to the ease of use bolding, to the stronger ideas for each room. Note rooms A1 and B, for example of the loosy goosy style that could be better.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 9 Comments

The Lost Halls of Scarnascis, DCC adventure review

By Christophor Rick, Michael Spredemann
2 Old Guys Games
Level 2

A magical map, a solemn pact, and the halls of a lost civiliation. Could these be the fabled lands of Scarnascis? The legendary civilization that incurred the wrath of The Lords of Order? Legends say that as punishment, the ground opened and swallowed its major cities, including its capital, thus ending a  protracted civil war and restoring order from the chaos. What wondrous treasures could be had within? Can you stay on the path of Order and reach the precious treasures that surely await?

This 22 page adventure has a five room dungeon described in five pages. 

“Hey, that’s not much of a summary Bryce.” Yes. Yes it is. Anyone with any knowledge at all is going to read that sentence and see two problems. First, 22 pages for a five room dungeon. Second, five rooms in five pages. These two items state mountains about the adventure and it’s completely obvious to everyone that knows ANYTHING about adventure and an absolutely meaningless statement if you don’t know anything. And, like all good trueisms, is not actually true. Sure, The Paris Review COULD publish an uplifting story, but we all know that’s not the case. And, a five room/five page/22 page dungeon COULD be good. But we all know it’s not. The page count ration, 22 to five, indicates that the emphasis is on things other than the adventure at the table. Effort was spent fucking with the other shit instead of the shit tha tthe adventureres would be directly interacting with. Yeah, sure, state blocks, new monsters, new treasure. Doesn’t matter. The effort is misplaced and misplaced effort almost always means that the actual product, the adventure the players will be in, was given short shrift. Now, add on the One room per page page count. This indicates that the dungeon is over-explained. Too much emphasis is being given to detail and not enough to leveraging the DM as a tool. Can you do a room per page and have a good adventure? Sure.; I’ve seen more than a few. But it’s usually not the case. And it’s not the case here. 

The map does have some little annotations on it for traps. That’s great! You can see at a glance where things are from just looking at the map and consult the reference guide, the adventure text proper. Good job. 

But the room read-aloud is in italics, and therefore hard to read, as all long chunks of italics are. Further, the read-aloud is both confusing and incomplete. “The room appears empty” is followed by a list of things in the room, like a blue crystal throne and corpse on the floor. Or, you’re told that your at the top of a long cliff … with a cave going in to it. Huh? 

And the DM text is LONG, as the room count implies. It’s trap/door porn, with the (extensive) traps being poured over in detail, taking up large sections of the page to explain the mechanics of them. Clarity is missing in the text, one room describing a pole in the center of the room and two holes … suddenly telling the DM that the staff puzzle is … wait, what? There’s a staff puzzle?

And there are hallway and door traps. Without warning. These generally suck. The designer notes that one, on stairs, made playtesters angry. No shit. You arbitrarily told them they died. The RA, or the DM text, should be hinting at traps, to give the players queues to search, poke, etc. Just putting a fucking trap in the middle of the hallyway/door, etc does nothing but slow the game down. “We always search everything” is what invariably comes out of the parties mouths next. Resulting in a lot of rolls. And an arbitrary trap spring anyway when the party fails one. Just roll some fucking dice at the start and tell people they are dead before they play the adventure; it will save time and result in a more enjoyable experience for everyone. 

There’s nothing here. Some DCC fights in otherwise empty rooms. (This is the DCC equivalent of not putting in enough gold to get XP from in a Gold=XP game. The Fighter needs some shit in the room to do Mighty Deeds with.) Walk in a room. Maybe get in a fight. Get a couple of hidden traps sprung on you. Go in to the next room and face other arbitrary things. 

WHich is too bad. The blue crystal throne, a flooding room, a room full of wind coming up from a giant pit to fly over … these are good concepts. They are just poorly implemented, not described in a very interesting way … and, ultimately, a bad value.

This is $6 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. There should be a preview of a few dungeon rooms so we, the purchasers, can get an idea if it is something we’d like to buy before throwing our money away. There IS a layout JPG inline to the adventure description page, which shows some section breaks, but you can’t really see what is going on with the text or tell how bad the writing is. (Or, good, but that’s  not the case here.)

Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments

First Level Dungeons, D&D adventure review

By Dan Smith, Steven Kenson, Dave Woodrum, Dante Parti-Smith, Adam Steele, Anthony Constantino
Smif Ink Games
Level 1?

A compendium of OTR compatable adventures that can be used as a connected campaign or dropped into your existing campaign as one off adventures.

This 41 digest page compilation contains twelve dungeons by a mix of designers. They are roughly interconnected through some pretexts but are different enough, in theme and style, that they can also easily be standalone entries. With a mixed group of designers and, it seems, no storing editor, it is no surprise that the quality ranges from “bad” to “Shows some promise …”

I suspect these compilation products sell well but get played minimally. They seem to offer value but my own experiences with them is that their quality is all over the place, based on the designer for the particular section you’re on. Even with a very strong guiding hand (Fullteron on Hyquatious Vaults comes to mind… ) it can be jarring to see writing styles and/or quality change. And the editing hand on this one is not very strong, exacerbating the problem.

First a few general comments. The stronger entries here are from Dan Smith and Dave Woodrum, both of whom I gather from the intro are more established designers. It shows. Their entries, while flawed, show some clear indication of understanding certain design principles. I’m going to cover some of their entries in this volume, and make some generalized comments about the rest. 

The font, layout and such reminds me of a GURPS supplement and, I think, Dan Smith may be the one responsible, as the project guide. His name sounds familiar and it may be that he did a portrait of me for one of the GURPS books back in the 90’s. The fontis a chunky one with, essentially, BOLD always on. This is not the best for legibility purposes. I find it tiring on the eyes and not a quick read. It’s not exactly unreadable, but its getting awfully close to the line of “too much effort to bother.” There seems to be this desire to apply a house style to products when, in fact, just picking a very legible font is almost always the right way to go; house style can be implemented in other ways. 

The levels are VERY loosely interconnected. Essentially you get a in and an out for each other and maybe a note that this level level can be connected to the one above it. Thematically they tend to be worlds apart. We get a tavern and some jail cells, a cult HQ, a pill bug/harpy cave level, a mushroom forest, a strange cult city/lair, and so on. Even then, the first six or so dungeons are more closely connected than the last few, which explicitly say things like “a set of caves off of a trade route” or some such. The product has no table of contents or summary to orient a DM to the dungeons within; you just get to wade in and see if the theming matches what you want. They tend to all have a full page map and then between one to three pages to describe fifteen-ish rooms in the dungeon, plus or minus a few rooms, depending on the level. For a product claiming to be OSR, treasure, meaning Gold=XP, is EXTREMELY light. Enough so that they might as well have put none in. Each dungeon gets a little summary paragraph, describing whats going on, right after its map, and maybe some environment notes about light, smells, etc. These are great, and do exactly what they should: provide some overall atmosphere and give the DM a summary as to what is going on. I still think atmosphere should be on an “always on” page, like the map, but, whatever. They tried.

Dans first entry, The High Priestess Tavern, is one of the stronger examples. It doesn’t really start strong though, with a minimal pretext. Basically someones son has gone missing and you’re sent to the tavern to find them. In there you get in a bar fight and are captured, or find your way, to the basement jail cells. That’s about as much pretext as you get, a sentence or two, and then it’s GO TIME! Things improve in usability and style after this. We get a note that the tavern environment is “heavy mead/body odor, dusty floor, 60% light” which is enough to start placing an image in the DMs mind that can be expanded upon Other rooms gives us notes, at the very beginning of “(lit)”, letting us know an important environment condition. There are a good detail or two being present, like certain people in the bar having a right hand that is stained red. Descriptions are short, with the fifteen or so rooms all being described on two pages. Loud and boisterous guards, a drunk dwarf, a barkeep who wont leave the bar. A few personalities for the prisoners would have been nice, and kicking up the descriptive text another notch to be more evocative would also be in order (with adding substantially more words, of course.)

Woodrums first entry, as an example of his work, differs quite a bit. We get about another sentence of description per room and the evocative nature of the text is quite a bit weaker. But the interactivity does get quite a bit more. There are frescoes to look at and get clues from, magic pools, and the monsters tend to be engaged in something, like alchemical researchers shoving a boulder aside. The “scene” setups are quite good, even if the descriptions could use some work.

The other designers are far weaker. The dungeons tend to be just hacks, with things to kill (and the trap quivelant) and little else except, maybe, an environment thing like a river or something. “As you enter this room, it appears to be nothing more than an empty dirt filled room.” The “as you enter” implies a kind of hybrid read-aloud format, but the “As you enter” shows the weakness in writing, as does the “appears” stuff. Another designer has room after room of descriptions like “This area contains fungus nutritious to the monsters.” … a dazzling example of how abstracted descriptions ruin a dungeon. Still another likes to tell us what a room USED to be used for, or using meandering writing styles to get to the point. 

Of special note here is Adam Steele. This appears to be his first and only entry in to designing something. He’s written a trog-cavern level which could appear as a short dungeon In Fight On! And not be too out of place. “A cascade of ledgers, papers and scrolls is strewn about, along with body parts and blood.” Nice! And he’s got the style of the little scene/vignette thing that WOodburn does in place also, with a trog impaled on a spear in the wall, or another having a tasty snack with some slaves. Still a little loose on the writing, especially the longer and more complex rooms (which I suspect suffer also from the Dan Smith bold/font style which obfuscates monsters stats and makes everything run together instead of the stats being a kind of aside.)

These are all, essentially two to three page dungeons, with one page being the map. They suffer from that. One pagers don’t have enough room to breathe. It would have been better to include fewer dungeons but give the ones that are included more room. I’m no stranger to stunt writing a dungeon, and little good comes from the final product, except, perhaps, in the mind of the designer, as a tool to learn focus. 

I’m not a big fan of compilations. As I said, the quality tends to be all over the place. And, I never feel like I do the review justice. Should I write fifteen separate reviews for what are, essentially, fifteen one page dungeons? (Ok, one page of description and one page of map.) QUality tends to be all over the place, as it is in this one. This needed some more conceptual work, a better layout, an summary/table of contents, and stronger editor control over the content. “No! Do it again!”

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages and shows you the first dungeon, the Tavern and jail cells underneath. It is one of the better ones in the compilation … so judge the book accordingly.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 3 Comments