The Curse of Buckthorn Valley

By Jon Aspenheim
Random Table Games
Relics & Ruins
Level 1

People in Buckthorn Valley are randomly becoming mutated, transformig with demonic features. In order to stop this curse the adventurers have to explore a 3 level dungeon, meddle in kobold affairs, trek through a mushroom forest and face the God-Fish-Snake-Thing. All the while trying to not become mutated themselves. It won’t be an easy task, but someone has to put an end to – the Curse of Buckthorn Valley!

This 33 page adventure uses fourteen pages to describe three level of a dungeon with about thirty rooms. It’s pretty basic. Like, remember how some of those B/X adventures were almost childish? Language, etc? This does that. Writing is unfocused, but it has some decent evocative ideas … it just doesn’t do so well executing them. 

So, descriptions. Here’s The Mother of Vicious Spiders: “She’s large as a dog. Dark green with red stripes. Purple goo is dripping from her mouth.” Not so bad! A little simplistic, but its trying. Likewise an entrance covered by hanging moss or “Old wet stairs lead downwards. Descending the stairs feels like you’re walking forever before eventually reaching the bottom.” When the adventure is doing this like this then it’s doing a good job, or at least a decent one. Writing evocative descriptions takes practice, but you have to START with an idea in your mind, and the descriptions here show that the designer has that, at least in some cases. Execution could be better, but that’s just about universal.

Alas, those descriptions are the exception rather than the rule. Far too often the adventure engages in Used to Be’s.  This room used to be this thing but not it’s not. That adds nothing to the adventure. All it does is distract the DM from the important bits, y hiding them in these unimportant bits. Noone cares what he room used to be. What is it NOW? How does it contribute to play NOW? This is not, as I said, a victimless crime. All of these extra words hide the important stuff from the DM.

“The water appears to be blue-green.” No, it’s not. It’s blue-green. The water is blue-green. This appears stuff is just padding. Rays book on Editing covers these sorts of padding words quite well.

Linear map. Joy. 

Long italics sections that are, because they are in italics, hard to read. Joy.

But, it does have a decent wanderer chart. A shepard is convinced someone in the party owes him 2SP and won’t let it alone. That’s great! Other encounters show the same type if idiosyncrasy that is required, specificity that brings the encounter to life without dragging out the word out to something cumbersome. Another regional site is with bandits in a ruined tower. A suspicious village mayor wants them cleaned out. Except they are just lepers, not bandits, friendly and want to be left alone. Fun!

It’s got a good idea. This kind of failing valley because of a curse (unknown to everyone) water source. Mutants/lepers wandering around, not evil, but pariahs.  And then there’s the dungeon. It’s just basically an also-ran. Mostly very little interactivity with basic descriptions that tend to the “kiddie game” D&D B/X genre from the bad 80’s adventures.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The preview proper is 8 pages, but you can of course download the entire thing for free.

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

(5e) Murder on the Primewater Pleasure

By Liam Murphy
Self Published
Level 4

The characters recently did Gellan Primewater, a local merchant from the Town of Saltmarsh, a great service by recovering property deeds worth a large sum of money, that he had long thought lost. In return Gellan throws a party for them on his pleasure ship, the Primewater Pleasure. However, this weekend cruise is plunged into chaos when one of the guests is murdered. The party must dive in and find the murderer before the ship gets back to shore, and the murderer can escape.

This 38 page adventure details a murder mystery investigation aboard a small-ish ship. It understands how a murder investigation should go in D&D, but it fails somewhat in the presentation of the facts. Meaning it knows whats important but it doesn’t necessarily, yet, have the ability to implement it in the best way possible.

D&D Murder adventures have a rough go. D&D is built for exploration, so many divination spells are lower-levels to help the party with their explorations. They act as a tax, to keep your MU away from too many fireballs, in case that princes isn’t actually a princess. But Murder stories rely on a lack of information, something that the low level divination spells actively work against. Thus murder plots in D&D have to be very low level adventures, before the party generally has access to those spells, or have to go through a number of contortions … chief among which is the dreaded Ring of Mind Shielding. Basically, if you find yourself in a murder investigation you should just slaughter anyone wearing a magic ring. 

But … this adventure recognizes those issues. It states up front the issue. And it suggests some work around to the problems, including just letting the party do their thing instead of gimping them. It notes the DM must have the ability to jostle things around based on the parties actions, and so on. This is all great. It does smart things like putting all of the NPC’s up front in the adventure and describing them, then a brief overview of the ship, all before getting to the “plot” based/investigation portion of the adventure. It knows that in a murder adventure the NPC’s and the parties interaction with them tends to be the most important part of the adventure. It is, after all, generally a social adventure, muyrder investigations. 

After the little “plot” sections (which is really just the first-ish murder) then there’s a section that puts the various clues in their own bolded section. If the party wants to investigate X then it’s pretty easy to find tex text on X in that section. This is all great. There’s even a little mind-map-ish thing that shows the various relationships between all of the NPC’s. Liam has thought things through. They know whats important and whats not in a murder investigation and are working towards that end.

Working towards that end, not “succeeded.”

While the basics of the organization are well understand, IE: what NEEDS to be accomplished, the actual implementation of it is somewhat lacking. Let us take, for example, that NPC section. It spends a lot of time detailing the NPC’s. It’s got good section breaks on the various aspects of each individual, from Motivations to Means to Reasons to Be Nervous/Red Herrings, and so on. But then it has a section called Notes on Roleplaying.” This is the real meat and potatoes of the NPC, their quirks and how to play them. And it’s all kind of mixed in together in a paragraph. There is also, if you can believe it, too MUCH whitespace. A more compact format, easier to read at a glance, would have served the adventure far better and made things easier for the DM. That Mind-map? It’s really just the basics of the relationships. Bob is Franks butler. Tim is Joe’s cook. This is good, don’t get me wrong, but if some personality quirks were added, and/or motivations and/or means, and/or  … well, you get the picture … that one page mind-map would have then become a mini-reference sheet for the entire adventure, making running the social aspects much much easier. 

The plot portion and the ship description likewise have some issues. Using long paragraph forms to describe things, bolding, breaks, and more emphasis on the important things, bullets, and so on, would have helped the DM locate information much more readily than the stand paragraph prose format.

It does a great job though, on giving advice on how to handle ability checks. And the adventure itself is a reward for the party; its linked to the Ghosts of Saltmarsh book, and the boat trips might be thought of as a rich guy taking you out on his yacht to thank you for doing something for him in the Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign adventure. (And, I think, the adventure would have been better to have given that comparison up front. It IS the hook, but “day out on a rich guys yacht” and/or “three hour tour” would have put the party in a certain mindset that could have then ben upended with the murder mystery coming along). 

There are other weird things, like, in the end of one room description we’re told that this guest is the only one that doesn’t lock his cabin or trunk. Well, that sort of general information is not exactly something that belongs in one specific room, is it? 

Still, again, there’s an understanding of how things SHOULD go, so even if the implementation is not great the fact that it knows what it SHOULD be doing means that the basics are covered. And implementation takes practice. I’m sure the designer will only get better.

This is Pay What you Want at DMSGuild, with a suggested price of $1. It’s free, so essentially the entire thing is a preview, but the preview proper is 21 pages. This lets you see A LOT, including how the NPC’s are organized. That alone is a good thing to look at, to see how they were organized. You can see that the right concepts were understood but that the implementation was not quite up to perfection.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 16 Comments

The Hidden Necropolis

By Robert Nemeth
Caulbearer Press
Five Torches Deep/5e
Levels 3-5

Miners at a copper mine in the foothills of a large mountain range have discovered the remains of an ancient civilization and something more mysterious. A lone survivor of the mine arrives at the nearby town, but is delirious from his experience. Will the adventurers sent to unravel the mystery find out what dark fate has befallen the mine?

This forty page digest adventure uses about nineteen pages to describe a thirteen room dungeon. It is, essentially, combat, with a terrain obstacle or two. The descriptions are boring. The read-aloud fumbling. Today, only wishes are peces. WHich has nothing to do with the adventure.

There’s a weird thing with electronic adventures: page count tends to be meaningless. Your appendix can be as long as you want. You can include as much supporting material as you want. Without limitations, the DM should be more capability supported. And yet … it STILl remains that that a high page count to room number ratio means, almost always, that the adventure will be a poor one. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is some overemphasis on the NOT the adventure that is indicative? When effort is put in to places other than the adventure it can pad out the page count AND the adventure encounter, proper, suffer, if only from an academic standpoint. In the best case, the thirty extra hours you put in to the appendix could have been used to make the A adventure an A+ adventure, maybe. More typically, though, the adventure text is of rather poor quality and the investment in the appendix, etc, tends to indicate an over-investment in “other areas” … either the designer thinks the adventure proper is good enough or they think that the other material is just as good. None of which means you can’t have a decent appendix, or supporting material, but, rather, are you SURE that the core adventure is as good as it reasonably can be? Or, at least, you are at the point where the law of diminishing returns means that you are really not returning much? 

In any event, even in a digest adventure, where the page count ratios can be appropriately off, a high page count to low room number means something is wrong. And it’s wrong here. The rooms are a little padded out with “direction text”, telling us where every passage goes, what it looks like, how wide it is, and, generally, repeating the EXACT same information that is shown on the map. Yeah yeah, you like to know the room dimensions. But do you like to be told, in the DM text, where that south door goes, when a glance at the map shows that? “The closed door on the southern wall opens to a 20’ hallway and to a second door to the mess hall, area 3.” I don’t get it. But, more importantly, the rooms are boring, from both a descriptive standpoint and from an interactivity standpoint. More time investment required.

The rumors are good; they are in voice. The wanderers are good, they are generally doing something, like a river troll who lures the party with the sounds of a drowning child. (I saw another adventure use a will o’ the wisp like this once, I find both cases interesting.) This is though, just about the end of what the adventure does well. Sure, the bolding and bullet points of the text work well from an organization standpoint, but , all you get from that is something akin to a minimally keyed adventure: you can actually run it. 

The read-aloud is in italics. It gives masic, fact-based descriptions of the rooms and can, therefore, be long. Long read-aloud is bad enough but when combined with italics it then gets hard to read. Hard to Read violates Rule 1: be useful to the DM at the table. Further, the read-aloud tends to place the party ‘in’ the action. “You stand before …” or “You come across …” This is just fumbling writing. That is then combined with the poor descriptive text to create boring scenes. There’s no joy or mystery or wonder in those descriptions. “Large’ is used as an adjective. Why do this? Why use one of the most boring descriptive words ever? I guess “big” was unavailable? “Cavernous” “titanic” “colossal”, or something else, you get the idea. When the adventure DOES resort to better words we get text like “Blank eyes within a pale lifeless face stare in your direction [as they move to attack you.]” Blank eyes. Lifeless faces. Good! But it doesn’t fucking do this. That line is the rare exception. And don’t give that fucking “it makes the text too long” bullshit. It’s your job as the writer to make it usable (which usually means short) AND evocative. 

Ok, so, most room are full of “You enter and then … THEY ATTACK” nonsense. Stab stab stab. There are a couple of obstacles in a few rooms; a cave in, a pit/depression to negotiate, but interactivity is quite limited. Some room text has notes for the entire dungeon; the best example being one of the rooms telling the DM how to handle stuck doors in the dungeon. That would be better served in another part of the adventure, like, before the dungeon proper, maybe? Or, of course, we could always flip back to that page to figure out how to open a door … assuming we could remember the page. Sometimes it makes sense to put information inline … and sometimes it don’t. 

The dungeon/hook exists to lure in fresh adventurers to kill. *sigh* When did this become a thing? Is that really as original as a designer can get? 

“Modify the read aloud” says the read aloud notes “based on which entrance the party arrives from, east to west and so on.” Or, don’t buy/run the adventure. That’s another option. Ok, so, that’s mean. But I grow weary of Execution Not Meeting Vision. I’m being overly harsh on this one, it does use section breaks, bolding and bullets effectively. It has an idea. I’m just in a shitty mood today

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. You don’t get to see any of the encounter rooms, which is a miss. The preview should show you at least one room.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 10 Comments

Sea Caves of Doom

By James Abendroth
Black Guard Press
Level ?

Ruined lair of a bloodthirsty cult. Home to a pirate’s treasure. Anyone who dares explore these sea caves puts their life in Fate’s hands. Do your treasure hunters have what it takes to venture into the Sea Caves of Doom? Do they have what it takes to make it back out?

Look man, it’s in the OSR section DriveThru … what exactly am I supposed to do when indie games show up like that? I guess, maybe “Rooted in Trophy” or “A Trophy Incursion” is supposed to tell you what the system is? I guess I thought that was just the publishers “line” for these adventures. Meh.

This sixteen page adventure describes five rooms in a indie storygames system. At least I think it’s a story game. The system is in some $7 zine and the “adventure” has some notes that make it seem very scene based. That, plus, the sixteen pages for five rooms. Still, it has some decent ideas deriving, I think, from the story game concepts but relevant to evocative writing and interactive adventuring.

It’s a story game system and I don’t think I’m qualified to review a system that far away from B/X. And thus, how do I review this adventure, WHICH WAS IN THE FUCKING OSR SECTION OF DRIVETHRU!!!!   So … not super happy about that. I mean, I was looking for an OSR adventure to review. Is an indie game system an OSR adventure? Is it fucking compatiple IN ANY WAY with B/X? No? Not OSR sez I. Shouldn’t be in the OSR section sez I. Fucking rip off sez I. Not happy sez I. But, it’s got a few interesting things about it so I’m going to talk about that. If you like story games then, I don’t know, buy this? Most 3x/5x D&D is story game anyway, so scene based stuff isn’t really THAT far of a stretch. I suspect some enterprising young lad could convert this to a 5E adventure with various scenes, or at least “fake scenes” called “linear dungeon” pretty easily. Maybe I will? I don’t know, I’ll ad it to the fucking ToDo list.

Anyway, let’s look at room one. It starts as:

“Overview: The entrance to the sea caves is barely visible just above the waterline at the base of a crumbling seaside cliff. Large, jagged rocks thrust above the waves, hinting at even more flesh and boat rending stone below the surface.” Ok, that’s not a bad start, imagery wise. Barely visible just above a waterline on a crumbling seaside cliff? I’ll buy that. Up until this point it could almost be read-aloud but then switches to “The rocks attract fish trying to hide which attract seals which attract sharks, although the last don’t need such mundane reasons to haunt the area as ancient magics still linger and draw them close. The tide here is as vicious as the aquatic occupants and batter anything not accustomed to the currents against the rocks.” This is a switch to “explainer/god mode” description.From a design standpoint I suspect that, even in the story game system, one type or the other of description would be appropriate but not a mixture of both. But, let’s ignore that, and look at the scene the designer is trying to imagine.

Crumbling seaside cliffs. Seacaves barely visible above the waterline with water/wave lapping up against it. Jagged rocks in the water with seals on it … that alone would not be bad. Seeing seals, diving and eating fish, would normally be a good clue for the party to ask more questions … hinting at but not explicitly telling the party that there are seal predators on the loose. That’s exactly the kind of hint of a trap/monster that good adventures contain. It’s not exactly what the designer is doing here, with the mixed meta flat out stating sharks, but ignoring that then the “little vignette for the party to see” is pretty evocative. 

What follows is then a set of bullet points for “moments.” It feels like this means something in the system I know nothing about, but, let’s look at those moments anyway: “

• The entrance peeking above the surface for a moment before being submerged again.

• Water rushing toward the jagged, unyielding rocks.

• The boom of water violently smashing again stone.

• A triangular fin breaking the surface of the water nearby.

• Sea spray coating clothing and skin

You can see, from this, imagine if you will, a series of “events” in this room that are happening to the party. Or things for them to see. That lapping water at the cave entrance. A BOOM of water r someone getting splashed. As a series of little things the party could see or experience I’m a big fan of these moments. You can imagine what they might be like in a chasm room, or so on. A series of window dressing for the DM to toss in. Nice.

After this things get more boring with “props” just describing things in the room. Oyster shells on the jagged rocks a little rowboat, etc. Nothing much interesting there. Traps continues in the same vein, Sharks and Unpredictable currents. That’s ok, I guess, as an obstacle or challenge section for the room, but nothing that unusual. There’s a treasure section also, but, what I really want to focus on here are the descriptions of both the treasure and the monsters.

“An ancient amulet of a petrified sharks tooth the size of a dagger with the image of a single eye carved in to it.” Hey, that’s a pretty decent magic item description. Non traditional dagger. The single eye thing. Petrified. Nice! And then, for the monsters, a shark: “a stream-line fish as long as a man with sharp find and mouthful of jagged razor sharp teeth. A murderous hunger fills its otherwise dead, soulless eyes.” Good description! That’s full of shit I can steal as I describe combat with the shark to the party, from staring at it in its dead, soulless eyes, to the hunger thing, to the man-sized, to the jagged ror razor teeth. Those sorts of descriptions are very visceral and help me convey a vibe to the party. And that’s what the monster description is supposed to do. Nice!

So, as an adventure? Meh  … I don’t know. It’s for a story game I know nothing about. But I”M NOT HAPPY it’s in the OSR section. If you were looking for a B/X adventure then you just wasted your $3 … and no one feels good thinking they were tricked. 

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. You can see that first sea cave/shark encounter. I’d encourage you to check out the preview for that reason alone. You can see how the moments and shark description and actions could be used/stolen for some kind of system for a real OSR game.

Posted in Reviews | 7 Comments

Down and Out in Dredgeburg

By Skullfungus?
Self Published
World of Dungeons
Level: Any

Welcome to Dredgeburg! You have died and woken up in the city of Dredgeburg, a dark oasis of sorts, wedged in between the many hells of the Underworld. Dredgeburg is a massive city, located deep within the Underworld where it sits in the middle of a fetid swamp. It’s a strange and often dangerous place where anything can happen and where much adventure is to be had.

This twenty page supplement sets the scene for a wicked city and has a brief adventure generator. It’s flavorful, even if a little low on specifics and deserving of more “city” rather than “city generator.” 

I don’t know. I like city adventures. Some of the most funnest-est-est games I’ve run have been city campaigns. They are near and dear to my heart. The party has a connections to things, or builds one anyway. Recurring content. And all the wackiness that a big city can generate, fantasy world or no. “New Greyhawks hottest club is Bzoing-a-gong!” So, I’m reviewing this.

It’s got three sections. There’s a short section on how to make a character and level them. You can ignore this. It’s got another section that is a kind of adventure generator. Roll on a bunch of tables to get inspiration and use your brain to glue it all together. Then, the longest section at about half the book, describes the city proper. Let’s say, six districts. Each one with three or so NPC’s and two or so places. And then a long list of one sentences “scenes” that kind of describe the tone of the place. Drunk people outside of a trendy nightclub in the Throne district and and old blind woman smoking a pipe in a rocking chair in The Gutter. A mad scream in the distance, and then a laugh. And so on.

The NPC’s and businesses are both in the same format. A name, filled by a couple of adjectives/adverbs “Small Imp, Big Ambitions”. There is then a brief description, one sentence long  Wears oversized jumpsuit, breathe stinks of smoke, stubby tail wags when excited.” Then a Wnts section “Help with extending his drug running operation, “Just have to get rid of the competition” Then a small sentence on mannerisms. It works well for both the NPC’s and the businesses. It’s short enough to scan quickly and they are iconic and specific enough to cement them in your head. The last thing in each section is: Ask. This is supposed to be something the DM asks the players for each thing. For the imp it’s “What is something truly terrifying about him?” 

Clearly, this is story game related, where the players get some control over the situation. The “Ask” thing appears repeatedly in the adventure, in just about every section/specific part of it. It’s the only story game aspect and is easy enough to ignore if you want. It’s pretty innocuous though, and a decent way to get the players engaged more without handing over full control to them. Your mileage on this may vary.

So, that’s the town. About six quarters and two or three NPC’s and two or three places in each, along with a short list of 10-15 “vignette” things, like the old women in the chair smoking a pipe. The end of the booklet has a section on creating adventures. Let’s see, my adventure inspiration is “In the Judgement district, a retired pit fighter. My mission is to disguise, An expensive pet ot beast, there’s a hunger motivation, the complication is the target/client is missing, There’s a tower rooftop in the market district thats important, with the risk being high and the reward being a power relic or spellbook. Mist Tentacle is my two words for further inspiration. I’ll combine this with something from the Judgement district table, “Line of miserable people waiting to be processed.” Now … create an adventure from that! Seems do-able. 

As a city supplement and idea generator I don’t think that there’s anything necessarily wrong with it. The location impressions are specific and interesting, as are the sample NPC’s and buildings/businesses/events. The idea generator is good enough. Combined you could come up with some good ideas. And the setting, a city in hell, could certainly be replaced with any evil city, from the Draw Meznobalahblahblah to Iuz to whatever. 

Ultimately, your value here is going to be derived from how much you want to do yourself and be inspired vs how much you want spelled out for you ahead of time. Are you looking for a book of NPC’s, events, and places, or are you looking for something to help you inspire your own? This is inspiration. 

And now you know why I don’t review fluff products, in general. I don’t know how to review “inspiration” products. Yeah, it’s ok, if you’re in to that. Ok, MORE than ok, if you’re in to that. I think, though, this will take a place in my city toolkit. That’s the rough collection of just about every city/own supplement every published, with parts jerked out and combined, From The Butcher Baker Candlestick maker stuff to Lankhmar (multiple versions) to every other city supplement every published. What’s that orc bar again? The one with the troughs of slop? That one also.

This is $6.66 at Itch.

Posted in Reviews | 7 Comments

Bonepicker’s Tower

By WR Beatty
Rosethorn Publishing
Levels 2-4

They say the old baron went mad. They say he killed his lover. They say those ruins where once stood his opulent castle are haunted. Most people avoid the Broken Tower high on Eagle Peak, haunted or not. Bad things have happened up there. But some winged demon has been terrorizing Glynn Rock and something has to be done. They say the demon has been seen roosting on the crumbling crenelations of the Mad Baron’s Tower. And then there’s the bones…

This 34 page adventure describes a small region with about eleven locations and two small dungeons, including the titular one. Great interactivity and a relatively easy to scan format are augments by good treasure, magic, and decent descriptions. This entire thing FEELS like a place of mystery you want to explore.

The woodcutters boy is sick. You know this because there’s a merchant selling a magi dagger that he bought at a cut rate from the woodcutter. Get it? A round about hook. Nice! Or, Baron Wyrmslayer wants you to go kill the Bonepicker, the flying beast demon that lairs in the old ruined tower. Nice one that also. That drips with imagery … the flying wyvern lairing in the tower. Note how it’s not a Wyvern. It is, in fact THE BONEPICKER. Monsters gets names. That brings a mythic vibe. Also, the wyvern has pus nodules all over it because its suffering from a curse … the same one laying over the tower. The same one impacting the woodcutters son. A small village, not described much at all, just enough, with GREAT supporting in voice rumors, to give you what you need to run the adventure. A wilderness with eleven or so areas, a few decently expanded upon. There’s an ancient fey giant in the forest, dressed in bearskins and wearing a woven hat of leaves. There’s also that woodcutter, desperate for a cure for his son … and his QUITE alluring wife … give her a kiss? Ancient ruined gates stand in the wilderness. The Green Stone waits in the forest for the party. Then there’s that band of 64 gnoles, replete with human slaves, waiting to bring down the wrath of the gnoles on the villages in the area. And the goblin band. And that giant … he’s looking for the gnoles … him and his buddies got a score to settle. And, of course, then there’s those trees. The ones with circular areas of their bark removed. And some sigil cut in to them. Beyond, a dense green mist hangs in the forest. Uh … it’s a shortcut? This fucking things BRINGS IT. Augmented by EXCELLENT art choices (and you know how seldom I mention art …) all of those locations spring to mind instantly. Just the idea. Just the set up. Right outside of the village, right outside of the reach of civilization, just beyond the boundary of the forest … the world is magic again. The grass a little greener. Mist hangs in the vales. The sun shines a little brighter. Interconnected, fully realized (for whatever that means …) the place FEELS real like the MERP products felt like real places. This is a very, very good accomplishment.

Interactivity is high. From the wanderers, always up to something, to the various NPC’s to talk to and the things to play with and investigate. And it’s not just the same old same old shit either. A body at the bottom of a well, a bag of rocks tied to his waist.  The Black Pudding in this FEELS not like a black pudding but like a nameless horror of a blob. Ghosts and Spirits abound, looking for weal or woe. The BEST fucking doppleganger I have ever fucking seen in any fucking adventure. Why? Because the entire place FEELS real. You’re invested. Because this thing has that most elusive of design principles. That thing I seldom mention. DESIGN. 

And yet … I have three specific criticisms. 

First, the monsters are … weird? I mean, I like unique monsters. I love them, in fact. But in this case we get a monster name and no/little description … with “no” being the most common. Thus the Crawling Horrors, the Skin Spirits, the Hostile Spirit etc, get no description. This is a serious miss. Maybe they are the S&W book, and are just rethemed for copyright purposes, from OFFICIAL d&d? Or in some supplement? Or in a Rosethorn campaign guide? I don’t know. But, even if they were, cross-references would have been nice. I do like a description for a creature, like the Firbolg giant with the hat of woven leaves that I mentioned earlier. Even a brown bear, in context. This don’t do that. Again, open to being wrong, if these are in a book somewhere.

Descriptions are likewise somewhat lacking. “…ragged sheets of some translucent material hang from the wall […] Skin Spirits re-possess their physical remains and tear themselves from the hooks anchoring them to the ceiling.”  This is not a tour-de-force of evocative writing. Which is weird because the IDEAS in this are QUITE striking. They recall those ancestral/cultural memory imprints we all have, which should lead to STELLAR outcomes for the DM … but the descriptions just don’t make it there.  

Finally, there’s a format used. The designer notes that they are experimenting with a new format to help with scanability and usage at the table. Yeah! Groove On! I applaud you! They note they are trying something from Castle Thadrian for Engines & Empires. (A brief interweb perusal indicates this is a physical product from 2009, and I see no copies readily available to consult in my library in the Volcano Lair.) I assume, though, I get what’s been taken. Rooms start with a box of text divided in to at least two sections: First Impressions and What Happens. From there the rest of the room is described outside of the boxed text, in a more traditional format. I get what’s being tried here. The first part, in particular, of First Impressions, is more like what the party sees when they enter the room and the second What Happens, a summary of the rooms deal-e-o. I’m not sure though that the format used is more effective than a more traditional Summary Paragraph (with bolded words) and the bolded words followed up on in subsequent paragraphs. I said I’m Not Sure and I mean that. I’m not sure. It seems weaker in this particular implementation, but there could be other things going on and it could be tweaked, I think, to provide a decent organization system. More evocative writing and those bolded words in the First/What sections followed by those bolds being expanded upon, or something like that? I don’t know. I can say, though, that it doesn’t feel more effective or better in this implementation. 

The Crooked Dwarf is catatonic. If engaged in combat there is a 50% chance he will turn in to an albino fish for d4 rounds, otherwise he will fight with long sharp claws. In his mouth is a single gold tooth. Magic, of course, when placed in a toothless gap. Good stuff.

This is not a home run. More evocative descriptions may have made it so. But it is still a solid solid adventure. It is immersive and brings magical wonder, mystery, and a kind of realism … without becoming simulationist. Design is nailed. 

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is 18 pages, which is more than enough to get a good look at the wilderness and dungeon encounters and see how they are written and get a sense of the adventure. It’s a great preview.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 3, Reviews, The Best | 21 Comments

Escaping Edgewild

By Joseph Robert Lewis
Dungeon Age Adventures
Level 1

Last night you went out to do your chores, or run your errands. Maybe you went out for a drink? Or maybe you went out to slit a purse string, or a throat? But this morning, you wake up shackled in a dark, filthy prison cell surrounded by strangers. A man outside says you’ll be sold to a slaver in a few hours. And slaves don’t live long… So you’d better start making some friends, coming up with a plan, and trying to escape from Fort Edgewild!

This eighteen page adventure describes a jail break scenario with the party trying to break out. It has about seventeen locations, with good NPC’s, descriptions, and set ups, but lacks a little in the SOMETHING department. If I knew what SOMETHING was I’d have used that word instead. Otherwise, it’s good. I mean, except for the ennui I feel. Can you write a good adventure and  I still be full of ennui? Sure. why not, it’s 2020 and goes with the murder hornets.

You wake up shackled in a cell with six other people. Slavers will be here in four hours to buy you. Good luck! It’s a decent enough way to get a new group together, and as an alternative to a bar fight I’m ok with it. I’m usually quite negative about DM fiat types of things, like an adventure starting with you captured, etc, but at level one, to start a new game it’s a decent enough tohing to do. You gotta start with some pretext and putting the party together this way is fine.

Zo, task 1, get out of your shackles and out of the cell. There are some little tables to determine what you have in pockets (I got fingernail clippings!) and some notes about things you might find on the floor … only one of your hands being shackled to the wall. There’s also some extra NPC’s for the DM to scatter amongst the party to liven things up. Job one, use whats in your pockets and on the floor to think of as way to get out of your bonds and the cell.

As an aside, designer dude knows how to write a fucking NPC. Terse. Iconic. On the shit that matters. Emily is 25, curly brown hair, wild-eyed intense look. Cerlic of Gideon. PRO: Healing Magic. CON: Violent Zealot. Forcibly heals anyone/everyone. Nell, 30, red-hair, freckles, pale, depressed, hungover. Local addict. PRO: Medicine & Chemistry. CON: Severe depression. Same with the guards and all of the NPC’s in the adventure. You get these little snippets that make it easy for the DM grab on to them, remember them, and, better yet, add color to the adventure. WHich is what a fucking NPC should do. Otherwise, why do they exist? It’s not paragraph after paragraph. We don’t need to know Nells fucking life story. Just fucking addict part and the quirks she has. The rest comes to mind and we can make it up.  Perfect.

Ok, so, you’r eout of the cell and now you’re down in some “dungeon”/jail. Eight rooms. Full of loud things that might summon the guards, who come by every hour anyway to check on the prisoners. Some more makeshift stuff, a few weapons, and the parties gear, ultimately. And those other prisoners. Loudmoths … so I hoped you freed them too. But, they are a pain also. What to do, what to do? 

Then it’s out of the jail and in to a palisade compound, the other guards and other buildings, trying to escape from the inside, not be seen and have the wrath of the guards fall on you. 

Descriptions are short and evocative. It’s well organized and easy to locate information. 

But there’s something wrong in Muddville.

I don’t know what. This is an open-ended sandbox. The tools are there to run it as such. But, still, something is wrong. Too straight forward, maybe? That wouldn’t normally be an issue with me. Usually all you need to do is set up a decent situation (Which this is) and provide a decent environment (which this does) and then let the party fuck thing sup with their plans. I don’t know, maybe it’s the scope? The Fall of Whitechapel(?) did something similar, but that seemed more dynamic and interesting than this does. I think, maybe I’m feeling the constraints of size/length? It’s written for a single session, but … that can’t be it, can it? Maybe I wanted more? Well, yes, I feel like I’m wanting more, but … not in that way. I don’t know in what way. I’m left confused, something that rarely happens. 

So, hey, this is a decent adventure. For some reason it feels like something is missing. All I can point my finger at is interactivity; its what the party makes of it. Do they cause trouble, come up with a wacky plan, etc. 

I’m going to Regert this. But I feel wrong. I’m open to second opinions here. Buy it and tell me what I’m missing? Or, just check out the preview and do the same thing, the preview is long enough to get a sense, I think. But, you could also do worse things in life than throwing $2 at the Dungeon Age dude; he generally writes stellar shit. 

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is ten pages and shows you more than enough to make a good purchasing decision.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 1, No Regerts, Reviews | 18 Comments

The Endless Tunnels of Enlandin

By S. Ballard Poag
Low Levels

Does your group have the nerve to explore the endless tunnels of the mage Enlandin? Many have tried and all have failed.

This 21 page adventure contains a three level dungeon with about ninety rooms, using about sixteen pages to do so. A classic basic dungeon with a decent map, Poag has an ability to write a little vignette scene without verbally running over. When it does that, it’s good. When the monsters wait in the darkness to attack the person who opens the door … well, it’s not so good. I’d say it’s on the higher-end of being a typical B/X dungeon.

Let’s talk The Art of the Vignette. If we take the unhold Bryce trinity of Ease of Use, Evocative, and Interactivity then when their powers combine we get this little burst of energy jabbed in to the DM’s brain in a flash that reeks of potential energy. A kind of sparkle in the DMs eye, a gleeful internal cackling, all obtained in just the split second the DM glances down on the page. Is this good D&D? No, but it FACILITATES good D&D. The DM is now as ready as they can be, running a prepared adventure, to lead their players in to Good Times(™.) One sort of room/encounter type is the little room vignette. When Poag is ON IT he is writing good room vignettes. “The very pale body of a dead elf is in the middle of the room, dressed in chain mail with a sword and longbow. Only two arrows are left in the quiver. Two giant ticks are clinging to the ceiling above and will drop for a surprise attack.” Oh snap! Look at what Poag did! He creates little vignettes in just a few words that describe a situation. I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece by any means, but it does deliver in an above average way. A pale elf corpse in the middle of the room. The party investigate … down come the ticks! Oh! The DM is cackling gleefully and the party all say “Oh shit! Obviously!” That’s a good encounter. When the surprise hits and the party says “Of course!” then you know it’s good. Another room has a grim reaper statue, with scythe, in the middle of a room along with a headless corpse. We all know the deal and we all know that we all know the deal. It’s glee! Unadulterated glee! Poag can do this.  Even in a shitty “they attack!” room he can do this. Zombies come out of the darkness in a room to attack. That’s not exactly perfect, but even this shitty “they attack!” moment brings a little extra, with them coming out of the darkness. Your mind should fill in that picture and even with it being simple I’m excited to run it. Another room has a halfling with a crowbar in the middle of opening a chest … paralyzed, while three giant centipedes are about to/are eating him. Oh man! Stick that in your fucking hat! These are not rockstar descriptions but they are significantly above average. They describe a scene with energy waiting to happen. They have a few extra words that add description to the scene, flavour. And they do it without taking a fucking column of text to fucking do so. Combined with the decent maps, I’d give this adventure a solid C+/B- and a No Regerts.

Well, I mean, I WOULD, if it were consistent. But, for every room that’s a little vignette there is another that is a straight out They Attack! Worse, they are waiting in ambush. The eternal ambush room. Orcs with bows wait in the darkness at  the other of the room, eternally, for you to open the door. There are multiple, multiple examples of this. Yeah, D&D has combat. And there’s a place for ambushes. The tick room is good and is, essentially, a They Attack room. But creatures on guard waiting to attack when the door is opened? No, not so much. There’s a good way and bad way to handle it and this adventure does both, in about equal amounts, I’d say.

Combined with the book treasure (which may, also, be a little light … IDK, feels like it, I would have to add it up) and an interactivity that TENDS to combat, then I would give this one a pass, but it’s close. Pits lead to the second level. Rooms rotate and there are simple puzzles. But it doesn’t feel like it happens all that often. It feels more like a heavy They Attack dungeon with a mixture of better stuff thrown in. Or maybe a heavy Room Vignette dungeon with a whole lot of boring/typical thrown in? If/then statements abound, and the standard room format is the simple paragraph. A well written one, organized, and, by keeping it short it remains functional. It’s right on the edge. 

This is an early dungeon, from the 70’s, rewritten, I assume, in the modern day. As such, it shows both the good and bad. WHen its good then its short and terse and evocative and exciting all at the same time. And when its bad it looks like a bad minimal key expanded. I suspect that the interactivity lack is from the 70’s. What WAS interactivity in the 70’s? It was this. 

I’m a fan of this, as an artifact. I’m a fan of where this adventure was going and the potential it showed. But, in a world full of billions and billions of adventures, I would probably pass this up for that hits more regularly. Compared to most of the dreck that comes out, though, it’s great!

This is free over at Dragonsfoot.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 20 Comments

Darkness at Nekemte

By G. Hawkins
Self Published
Levels 5-6

Deep in the fetid swamp lies abandoned Nekemte, ancient serpent man city of the Jade Empire and home to the royal house of Nekemte – cruel, tyrannical sorcerers and practitioners of necromancy, corrupted cultists of Yul. The great swamp consumed Nekemte following the fall of the Jade Empire, its buildings crumbling and falling into decay. Throughout the centures, terror of the serpent man sorcery hung over the ruins, and shadowy creatures stalked the crumbling edifices at night, feeding on the warmth of the living. A party of looters recently dared the ruins and stole into the lower tombs where they unearthed the Arimax Stone, an artifact of great power, in the process unwittingly awakening an ancient, slumbering menace…

This 54 page adventure uses sixteen pages to describe about seventy locations in the ruins above a dungeon, as well as the dungeon below. Evocative. Good Organization. Interactive. This is a solid, solid adventure. Not necessarily breaking new ground, but a good, solid adventure is a rarity in and of itself and worth checking out.

I harp a lot on ease of use. The primary objection many people have to pre-written adventures is that they are hard to use, and therefore not worth the trouble of prepping and using them. In this sense, almost all adventures fail at that most basic of tasks: being of use for their primary purpose. There are a lot of ways that an adventure can fail in this regard, but, commonly, it has something to do with it being hard to scan at the table. When the party enters a room you want to be able to glance at the entry, for just a brief couple of seconds, and take in what you need to relate to them. This keeps the interactivity between the party and the DM high, since that’s the core of the game, and there are no lulls as the DM reads the room. Likewise, as they investigate things in the room it should be able for the DM to VERY quickly locate the thing and scan it, to run it. “Effective Writing” might be shorthand for this, but adventure writing is really technical writing, something most designers miss. Effective writing is GENERALLY terse and well organized. This adventure does that well.

The room headings are clear, using a nice bold font that, while not Time New Roman, are still easy to read. They provide some sort of room description through their name. Thus rooms are “20: The Pit” or “21: Broken Urns.” The DM is immediately oriented toward the room. The mind is now ready to run a pit room or a broken urn room, and receptive, oriented, toward the description to come. It then follows with ONE of the formats I think is the easiest for a designer to follow. There’s a brief overview of the room, with certain elements bolded in it. The overview is almost read-aloud, but not quite. Terse, just a few sentences. The bolded words are then followed up with in their own paragraphs, that start with those bolded words. It’s easy to scan and locate information. This is a relatively simple format to follow, and if a designer can manage it while keeping the writing terse then it’s pretty hard to screw up. It’s not the ONLY way to write a good room, but I do think it’s one of the simplest and easy to grasp.

Ok, so, I’m not writing this review in order. I just drank half a bottle of Japanese whiskey and stumbled down to the gas station to buy a chocolate ice cream cone, a bag of Ruffles, and a pack of menthol cigarettes (I don’t smoke.) Yeah, #LifeDuringWartime. Got a couple of sofas and sleep on the loveseat. Don’t even know my real name. It’s Fritz, by the way. Anyway. I regret not buying some 100% sugar candy. And I’m out of WHiskey now. Which means I have to drink that crap Blackberry wine from Ohio I forget to pawn off on Prince or TGI Fridays Mudslide mix from my kids room. I’d have some delivered but it would ake too long. Maybe Lyft?

 (<—–WOKE! Not using Uber!)

The writing is decently evocative. That Pit, I referenced earlier, is lost in darkness. The walls are rough AND hewn. Cool winds waft up. Deep charms bisects rooms. Air is hot and stale. Dude knows how to write a brief little evocative snippet that brings the rooms to life in the DMs head. The DM can the expand it; it comes to life in their head, an image formed, and their brain fills in the rest. Good writing. This is a non-trivial skill and it’s present here.

Likewise, interactivity. There are things to do. Coffins to open. Urns to mess with. Holes in the ceiling. Crevices to navigate, waterfalls, chains hanging from the ceiling. This is a real environment full of things to intrigue and mess with. This is one of the cores of any adventure, especially an exploratory one. And … there’s a timeline! The serpent men will be doing things out in the world if the party fuck around too much, and the environment arund the deungone changes. Nice!

This is supposed to be themed as “Serpent man” and that falls a bit flat. Oh, there are carvings of them, and undead ones, but it tends to come off more as a city of the dead, or mausoleum more than fetid jungles. This in spite of it taking place in a fetid swamp. It’s not bad, but I think maybe the designer missed what they were going for and instead hit the next target over over very well. I’m not even sure what “serpent man” means, not being in to that genre, but that’s not the vibe I get from this. It certainly DOES bring an ancient ruins/civilization theming though, so, no harm no foul.

So, WHAT IF I sold my house and moved in to the place that was closest to the gas station? I could stumble over and buy booze, Noble ROmans, DQ, and snacks at any time of the day of night. I wouldn’t even need a kitchen! HARC CORE! I WOULDNT EVEN NEED A BATHROOM! HARD CORE!

It also suffers some, in two ways, from a lack of overview. The swamp and ruins are just thrown out there without much introduction or an overview of them. Taking just a paragraph or two to describe the locale, an overview of the entire region, to place this in its context, would have been helpful. And, then there’s the above ground ruins. This suffers from the Vista Overview issue. Let us assume that you come to the top of a small rise and look down in to a valley on the other side. What do you see? What catches your eye as landmarks? A towering spire glowing green? A bonfire with figures dancing around it, scattered ruins throughout? Whenever the party see SOMETHING laid out in front of them it’s wise to provide a brief overview of the highlights, otherwise the DM is left digging through the encounters, before or during the session, trying to relate a general overview of the situation. This might go hand in hand with noting sounds and light on a map; what is obvious before you get to within 30 feet of it? The adventure has a room or two with loud sounds, or lit rooms and those could be better noted on the map to clue the DM in to things needed to be related to the party. 

Rock solid little adventure. If most adventures were this good then I wouldn’t be reviewing adventures. 

This is $7.50 at DriveThru. The preview is twelve pages and shows you several (above ground) encounters that are representative of the writing throughout. You can get a good idea of what you are buying, so, great preview!

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 5, Reviews, The Best | 11 Comments

Reaping at Rivers End

By Ben Barsh
Pacesetter Games & Simulations
Level 8!!!

The town of River’s End has always been a quiet sanctuary for those outcast by society. These exiles share one thing in common: wither rot. This disease relentlessly withers the body down to a corpse in a short period of time. However, with the help of magical healing properties provided by the Ravenscroft River and an advanced mage named Mortimer, the people of River’s End have been able to create a fruit called Dragonberry. This fruit stops this ailment from running its course. However, Mortimer has recently fled the town leaving nothing but an ominous note of revenge. Without him interacting with the crop and river, the upcoming Dragonberry harvest will be incomplete leaving the people to once again suffer the full consequences of their wither rot. It is up to you to help the vulnerable citizens before Mortimer and this malicious disease successfully destroys the respite of River’s End.

This 28 page adventure uses about eleven pages to describe a two level dungeon with about thirty rooms. The writing is verbose, dull, and there’s not much interactivity beyond stabbing shit. But, who am I to tell you what to like? 

So, this is one of those “it’s a trap I use to lure adventurers in!” dungeons. Not a super big fan of those. It seems like lazy design. Like, I can’t think of another reason for all of this shit to work together so I’m going to just say it was on purpose as a test, challenge, etc. In fact, let’s discuss free will for a minute.

The people in this village suffer from a disease. Every year a local wizard casts a spell which allows the villagers to grow a fruit that staves off the deadly disease for one year. This year the wizard got pissy and left the village. You’re sent to stop him/bring him back/blah blah blah. It’s a little vague. Anyway … do the villagers have the right to force the wizard to cast the spell and/or expect him to? He’s not getting paid, there’s no vow of eternal servitude, etc. Further, what is the wizards obligation, morally, to the villagers? If he can save the lives for 250 people is he then OBLIGATED to, morally? What if it took a year off of his life? Or just an hour off of his life? Does he, in fact, have ANY obligation AT ALL to the villagers? How about with regard to the spell? Is he obligated to share the spell even if he doesn’t cast it? What are the implications as the price of the spell approaches (calculus wise) “eternal indentured servitude?” Have you stopped beating your wife? How about you, Mr Adventurer, acting as the third party agent for the villagers in this scenario? As a  villager, you don’t hire a private army and not expect to use it for some killing. What’s the point of having a nuke if you don’t use it? 

Ok, so, none of this is actually a part of the adventure. I mean, the wizard can cast the spell and if he doesn’t then the villagers WILL die. Oh, and, conveniently, he IS a poly’d evil dragon playing “the long game”, so, being evil, you can just stab the shit out of him. Not a super fan or orc babies, but this one kind of interested me. Rather than a potential future represented by orc babies, this deals with the free will of someone when others will, ultimately die. I think the adventure would be better for having a “good” wizard in it, instead of an evil dragon, and then just let things play out. As a GM, you don’t make ANY moral judgements at all. No alignment BS at all, just let the players do what they will. Actually, I don’t mind orc babies either, as long as they are handled in exactly the same way. Who cares what choice you make … I mean, beyond yourself and how you just defined yourself? 

Long time readers know that when I go off on a tangent like this then it’s because there’s not much to say about the adventure. And there’s not. 

“A sudden and loud noise comes from the forest. The sound of uprooting trees fills the air. As you turn, you see two trees-like figures uproot and begin an attack!”

“Unlike most dragons, they create a complex lair strictly to watch wanderers or adventurers suffer inside.”

This campsite was set up by an adventurer a long time ago. He stumbled upon the cave and rushed in when the treants attacked him. However, he was wounded badly and bled out. Mortimer already took his belongings, so there is not much of value on his person.”

“The shark tooth necklace is a magical item created by Mortimer. However, he is just beginning to dabble in the creation of magic items. The necklace functions just as a ring of swimming.”

The descriptions, as noted in the examples above, are full of “you do this” and “you do that.,” They embed history and backstory in them, explaining why, padding out the text. Interactivity is quite low, beyond just They Attack!

This is just another of the sort of plot based adventures that contain muddled text that make it hard to run and have little to intrigue a party. And it’s all a test, to lure in adventurers. *sigh*

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is only four pages but it does a decent job of showing you the writing and encounter style used throughout, so, good preview.

Why are you still reading this blog? It’s as empty as this adventure.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 11 Comments