Sparkless – 5e In-depth commentary

By Aviad Tal
Beyond the Screen
Level 1

“I am sorry child. The world is unfair. You are not like the rest of them. And you never will be.”   Sparkless is a 5E adventure set in a world of spirits and filled with exploration, conflict and magic. This adventure is designed for characters of 1st level and should provide enough content for two or three game sessions. In this supplement, you will find everything you need to take your players on a dangerous journey through mist-covered swamps to unearth forgotten knowledge and save a lost child. 

This twenty page adventure details a trip through the swamps and in to a short linear dungeon to search for a kidnaped child. It has a nugget of something good and some relatable situations, which is a surprise, but is nigh unrunnable for the garbage padding of the DM text and cringey read-aloud.

Full disclosure: when you put “set in a world of spirits and filled with exploration, conflict and magic” then I’m predisposed to hate your adventure. I found, however, that the issue with this are more the mechanics of presentation rather than creativity, and thus I’m going to make more than a token effort with this one. 

This adventure is doing more than a few things right, or, perhaps, is looking at things through fresh eyes while hiding behind the tired old tropes of old. One of its strengths is the relatableabilty of whats going on. Things Make Sense. That is a harder thing to do than it would appear, in adventure writing. Tolkein, and fifty years of bad adventures, have tainted us all. But there’s a way of presenting information to the player, situations, in which they become more immersed in the game world rather than eye rolling as another old trope appears. What would happen if a dude really did kidnap a kid? Those things appear in this adventure and because of that the party will have a much stronger connection to what is going on. I can’t say enough how important this is to these sorts of “plot” based adventures. If we accept that they are going to exist then we must judge them by what they should be in order to accomplish what they want to. And this brings the relatability, in many way, to the situations.

A child born listless and not crying. A travelling healer comes through and can cure him. The worried family is full of anxious relief. Then the next morning a single witness saw the man rowing a boat across the river towards the swamp on the other site, having kidnapped the child. Fucking perfect! The fathers brother, his uncle, gets together a group of men and they pursue. Because that’s what your fucking uncle. He gets together a group of his buddies and locals and they go after the guy. The local “tavern” has people murmuring about the event. That’s how you learn the rumors, about Milo the grandon who saw the guy in the boat, and a fishman bitching about the guy stealing his boat. Gossip. People talking. Not forced. It makes sense. (Also, you learn that the lizardmen are cannibals from the fisherman, something that comes up later.)

And, those lizardmen. You come across their camp. They’ve captured the uncle and his group and ate one of them in front of the others. Fucking. Cannibals! Fuck! Yeah! That’s how you use a fucking a humanoid in an adventure! They are THE OTHER. Not in a xenophobic way but in a THEY ARE GOING TO FUCKING EAT YOU IN FRONT OF YOUR FRIENDS way. Savage! 

A fisherman rows you across the lake for free if you tell him you’re going after the kid. Because thats what you fucking do. Dad is full of self-hatred over what happened to his kid. Because thats what happens. Old beams hold up a ceiling slab, a trap, a classic trap! And on top if a gelatinous cube, because THATS WHERE OOZES HANG OUT, IN TIGHT SPACES. It maks sense. Both the trap and the ooze. This adventure was IMAGINED and then put down on paper. There’s no mistaking it. One of the treasures ia platinum encased elven skull. Because thats the treasure that a fucking wizard has in his old lab. Things fit. At the parents hovel a girl teases a boy with a big brown toad. That’s the kind of specific detail that adventures thrive on! Simple, evocative, relatable, effective.

The issues with this are three fold: bad read-aloud, verbose DM text, and missed opportunities.

Read aloud can be LOOONG. Multiple paragraphs. This is bad. You want to get in and get out in read-aloud, three, maybe four sentences. Much more and you start to lose the players attention as they listen to the DM drone on. Further, it’s done in that weird (second-person?) style. “As you tread on the soft earth” You spot a dozen fishing boats. And, worst of all, finishing with “What do you do” and so on. This is the sign of a fiction writer. Rather than addressing the characters directly you want read aloud to relate a general situation that the players can then follow up on with their own questions, enabling the back and forth between player and DM that is the heart of an RPG experience. It’s not a novel. It’s not a third grade choose your own adventure “Do you go down path A or path B?” Overly flowery text is a TRY HARD situation, to boot.

The more serious issue though, and what makes this adventure something I would NEVER turn to, is the lengthy DM text. Adventures are meant to be run at the table and for that to happen it must be easily scannable, the DM must be able to quickly locate the information they need in just split seconds. This adventure relies on the tried and tru customs of padding out the information with useless test, getting too specific with mechanics clogging up the text, and relating information in paragraph form. TO be fair, when you encounter someone you can question it does then switch to information in bullet form, which is great. Thats exactly the sort of thing you want to do. It’s easy to find what you need. You want to do something to the same effect for the other information, for NPC descriptions, and general situations. Not necessarily bullets, but making the information easy to scan and find. A lot of “conversatiuonal” writing, padding to no effect, gets in the way of this. Combined with multi-paragraph text for traps and encounters, its hard to scan. To be fair, almost every adventure is written this way, I suspect there is a template people follow and they look at what other adventures, bad adventures unknown to them, have done. You don’t need a fucking pargraph overly explained for a slab trap.

I would finish up with missed opportunities. Multiple times in the adventure there are things that happen that should get MORE, or be better. The village i supposed to be superstitious, but, while this is a key point in the adventure, its not really brought home in any way other than saying “the villagers are superstitious” But the man kidnapped the (soulless) child because of this. He pleads with the party to let him keep the child, on this basis. But its never driven home in the adventure. The lizardmen are great, but then there are kobolds in the dungeon, where the party goes to look for a soul for the boy. These come off as just generic monsters. There’s nothing to bring this home. Again, generic monster is what most adventure do but the designer clearly has potential, as the lizardmen point out, and brining this theming to the kobolds, something to tie them to alienness, would help cement this adventure as a good one. The village rescue party is not really mentioned much, if the party question the village about it, and they just come off as a little generic. In the end, the village gives a celebration in the parties honor, which is GREAT, but, again, a few specifics would really bring this home. The specificity and reliability that the designer brings to parts of the adventure are not followed through on. This would turn a soso adventure in to a great one if followed through on, and the world needs more great adventures and a fuck ton fewer As Expected ones. 

(Also, the art is generic and the maps, while VTT ones are present (GREAT!) are lacking. These are both HARD things to do, so I’m not dinging it for them, but its another are to improve upon, although the text should come first.)

I may spend the rest of the week picking this one apart, bit by bit. We’ll see.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is the usual generic “first seven pages” thing. You can get a sense of the designers strengths from it, as well as the weaknesses in presentation. That’s good, but it should also show a few encounters. Maybe a page of dungeon rooms, to give a prospective buyer an idea of the kind of encounters and writing style to expect.


Art/Cover – The art is all pretty generic stuff. I’m not going to blame someone for this, but, I would note that it does little to bring home the specific situations in the adventure. It doesn’t help communicate the cannibal scene, for example, or depict a kidnapped kid in a boat or distraught parents. Ideally, art brings more to the adventure than just a way to break up space. I know, art is mucho subjective, so regardless of style, it doesn’t bring MORE to the adventure, to help with clarity or evocativeness. Generally I see art as an extra credit thing, except maybe in the cases of a hard to understand physical layout where it might be needed to add clarity to the environment. EG: isometric view of hill giant steading.

Introduction – There’s no need for this, it’s just padding. It doesn’t actually say anything. It seems minor, but if the designer spent ANY effort on this at all then they should have spent that effort in betterring the actual adventure. IE: I would be unlikely to mention this if the rest of the adventure were good.

Background – This could be condensed substantially. While the motivations are appropriate to include, there is a lot of padding that makes this feel like a ovelization. So while the baddie fearing for the parents reaction is good, a few days slater, promised to heal, wake up and so on is meaningless. Consense it. It’s not BAD, but it could be better.

Overview – Ok, but I would be a little more specific. Right now its just abstracted. I might mention some proper names in part 1, for example, so that when the DM sees them in the text they know to pay attention. This section, as well as the background, is meant to preload the DMs head so that their framing is ready to accept information. “Kobolds struggle with problems of their own” is an example of this. Be more specific so we’re ready to grok the info when we arrive at it. “Wheather the characters choose to …” is a great example of the conversation padding present throughout. Less flowery useless padding text.

Hooks – Pretty lame. Hired is boring. Relations are lame and why PC’s are hobos, so their relatives arent used to torment them. As it stands this is just boilerplate text. Any of these COULD be ok, tropes are tropes for a reason, but need a few specifics to cement them if you’re going this way.

Part 1 – Murkwater  – The first sentence is pure padding, offering nothing. The second hints at the village being cramped, and with drying racks. This is good in concept but the writing could be much stronger to bring this feeling home and cement it. A few extra words (and I do mean “a few” and rewording it, removing the first sentence and using that space, perhaps, to cement this vibe, would be in order. The second paragraph again starts with a useless sentence and again follows it up with something good, and that is important to the adventure as a whole: they are very superstitious. I might instead remove this entire second paragraph and instead use a sidebar, the way you did with the Spirits on the previous page, to list some vignettes, examples, etc. It doesnt have to be full on witchburning, but you really want to cement in the players minds that while the people are good, they will absolutely kill a kid that doesn’t have a soul. 

The read aloud is trying. Remove all references to “you.” Idon’t tread on soft earth, my character floats above the ground. It comes off as trying to hard to impart something. Describe it without “you” and character actions. Front load the good stuff. In the second paragraph you should lead with the mist, not the dozen boats, Leading with the boats cements the and then the effect of the mist is lost. Leading with the mist and then the boats gives us a misty environment with half seen boats while leading with the boats gives us solid boats in our mind, the mist a forgotten afterthought. “One struyctre looms over the rest” is again trying too hard. “A looming ramshackle wooden building” or some such would be better. Note the effect is much more pronounced in imparting the vibe. And no What do you do stuff. Ug. No YOU. Creaking pathways are good, but not under your feet. Thats something that can come through in the general description, that they creek and sway.

The DM text that follows has one good sentence, the first one. The goal is to investigate the village and learn abot the kidnapping. Good, you told the DM the purpose of this section. Be direct when giving the DM information. The rest is useless padding, including “i this part of the adventure.” Of course the noteworthy descriptions follow. That’s what they do, theres no need to say that.

The Hags Foot Tavern – No YOU, reword it. Emphasize the trinkets, lead with that. The door chime doesn’t really add much, if you can find a way to do it without a YOU then its ok. Are the stairs important to mention? “The last paragraph is very weak. Reword. Huddled groups, staring for a long time at the players, thats good. Having a meal and quietly conversing doesn’t really say anything important AND its not evocative enough for scenery purposes. 

The DM text is hard. You’re trying to a few things, none done well. The scene setting of the has foot, the preoccupation of the villagers with the situation, dont like troublemakers (which is better than adventurers. Mercenaries is even better) and Talk to Vranics. The Hags foot is too muddled, it needs grokking quicker, and the other details are buried. Bullets, or even selected bolding, would make this easier, or something like that. You want to convey gruff preoccupied villagers, the next breadcrumb, and the evo scene. The hags food thing is EXACTLY what I’m talking about when I say specificity trumps detail. 

Rumors: The first paragraph is padding. Milo’s thing is too fact based, with no personality. The fisherman is pretty good, he has personality, I know how to run this in an interesting way because of it. Sasha is really good. I’m a bit perturbed, I think these work better with an NPC personality and information, bulleted for example, to convey, in response to party questions. The direct quote thing works better, I think, for overhearing things at another table, for example. But, it’s a minor point because these are both brief enough to not matter. “What does he look like” is a natural question, and not be found here, or in the description of Leszek in the appendix, you have to hunt for it. Again, a sidebar, or putting a BRIEF description in the appendix description would be in order, so the DM can reference it quickly.

The Hovel – No YOU!!!! Low deck mud porch is a good idea, but could be described better. The garlic charm is good, and maybe thrown in another to cement the superstition? The crates add little, the way they are currently described. Not “You notice” but “Two small children sit on the deck, with the girl holding a fat brown toad with both hands, repelling the disgusted boy with it” or some such. A quiver hit. More direct. The toad thing is GREAT, good specificity and relatable.

Point towards the door/reside within the hovel are redundant, you don’t need both. The mess inside and cramped space isn’t emphasized enough. The couples states are good, but should be condensed and easier to find, maybe a sidebar. (As a note, both sidebars so far, the Spirits and Sparkless, contribute little to the adventure. They could be in the appendix with sidebars replaced with useful information for running the adventure AT THE TABLE) Motivations of the parents are great, and relatable. The questions bullet points are great, they make it easy to find information. As before, there are two schools of my thinking here, do you keep the facts as facts (as you have here) and augment it with the couples (EASY TO FIND!!!!) personalities, to bring it to life, or do you embed some of the couples personalities in the facts? I might walk the line and insert a few extra words in the facts list to bring them more to life, much in the same way that I appreciate rumors being less fact and more “in voice.” You’re gonna face the Leszak issue again, what does he look like, where does he live, etc. Same for the search party. Good motivations/relatable with the uncle. That could all use a bit more. 

Quest – Maybe not so explicit? Whatever, him pulling the party aside and grimly stating it, while his wife weeps or is stoic, would work better. The whole Katarina/Rodovan, her pinning her hopes on him, etc, could be done better … because it’s good.

Investigating – The first section is just padding. The out of place flowers wont be a god clue unless you make the description of the hove make them seem really out of place, which it doesn’t currently do. The investigation is, in general, very weak. There are no real consequences to this, positive or negative. Maybe if he went to light a cable, later in the adventure, when the party meets hims, or some such. I’m not sure its worth including if its not very impactful to the adventure (the investigation, that is)

Whats Next? – The fisher thing is good. An extremely basic map, showing the village in relation to the swamp, would be good. SOMETHING to point the party the right direction other than “he took a boat over the river”, like channelling them in the right direction. An abandoned boat and light path on the other side, a VERY crude pier on the other side, SOMETHING.

Part 2 – Ug, this is a mess, talk about wall of text! The first sentence is good, the second say-nothing padding, and the second paragraph should be part of the first.

Travel in the Swamp – Everything is padding until Tiny Motes. Serpentine islands doesn’t really stand out, and I think you want to emphasize the tangle of trees and bushes more. In fact, the three descriptive sentence (Tony motes, Rainbow, Serpentine) come off weird worded and non-evocative, maybe turn them around Fireflies dance in the air <blah> pool of deep water <blah> and so on, to put the main subject first? As written this doesn’t come off as very concrete or evocative, even though the wors are very much trying. Maybe bullet out the survival rules. You’re transition from evocative description to Mechanics of Play, so making it easier to find would be in order. Or maybe another offset box/table, etc. “Consult the wilderness table” is redundant. We all know to do that. The “normalls the characters” sentence should be up with the rolls section, keep the rules tightly together and consendde things down; there’s FAR too many words for the mechanics involved, its not easy t grok at a glance.

The encounters are not very good. The stirge are ok, and the concept of injured ghouls is good, but you should concentrate more in what they doing/how they encounter the party/a description, etc, rather than the reason behind why they are here. That’s useless backstory and you want to enable play at the table more directly. It should be obvious how to do this with the stirge, ghouls and alligator, the vines, ug, idk how how you convey that. The cockatrice “not normally on their diet” is padding, but the hint of aggression is good. I think youre DC 1 check here is a roll to win thing, but I get what you are doing. Try to turn these in to little potential energy vignettes.

Lizardfolk – The first paragraph is useless. The second could be ended with “and are currently held captive by them” and that’s it. Read-aloud – No “as you tread” nonsense, and don’t include the “as if something was dragged along.”  Thats something for the players to discover as they investigate it and go back and forth with the DM, the heart of D&D. It should be obvious by now, but, no What Do You Do CYOA text.

The FIrst paragraph of DM text is ok, You could use some highlighting but, whatever. I might mention rippling water in the RA, to give a clue to the lizardfolk for smarties in the party who pay attention. That’s a better way than letting a min/max’d character sheet dictate outcomes. That last paragraph can be condensed greatly to “if the party skips it killed, blah blah blah” 

The LizardFolk Camp – I  might move the “if they follow” stuff to the previous section, and, not include “if they follow” but rather state that The trail leads to the camp.

Read-aloud – The smell of smoke hanging in the air os overly flowery and smacks of failed novelist syndrome. Just note there is the smell of smoke in the air. No “you reach the outskirts, just a couple of huts surrounded by a wooden stake palisade, with the glow of a lrge campfire in the middle. And don’t say that there are three humans. Geez … again, let the party inquire and sneak about to find this out. Don’t reveal everything in the read-aloud. You want to hint at things, at best. And don’t use the word lizardfolk to describe them. Actually describe them. Let the party draw their own conclusions, otherwise you’re’ turning mystery in to the mundane. “Oh, it’s page 123 of the MM2.” 

The capture sidebar text is long. The bullets are good but everything above the 0hp thing is padding. That last sentence is redundant also, since it copies the one before it.

The first paragraph , with the numbers, is very bad and conversational and redundant, just note the How many there are and where they are. Why did you give the guy a name? Is the party going to learn it? No, they are just going to stab him ,right? Just note where they are … meaning that the first sentence is redundant. The second paragraph is ok but the third is full of conditionals and redundant with the second sentence. The last paragraph/sentence is good, but, again, that group needs some character. Name, two words of personality or something. Rather than having them all anxious to get back, some other motivations could be nice, like hacking up the dead lizardfolk, or wanting to go with the party. At least the uncle, who presumably still wants to find his brothers kid? That last section on “if the camp was cleared” is ok, I guess. I might just note what they are worried about and let the DM handle it instead of giving full on advice on they do this and then they do this, like its written. Again, the trauma part  is good, but without personality, and more interesting consequences, it’s de rigueur generic D&D, and you;ve proven you’re better than that.

Treasure – First sentence is just pure padding. Why do you feel the need to explain and justify everything? Just note whats there. Whats the horn carved with/in the shape of? Ideally, it makes the PLAYERS say “cool!” and want to keep it/use it. Note how you did with the chalice, the horn needs the same treatment, not just “carved.” Instead of your generic art I might have put in a picture of the chalice; climbing snakes is better than nothing but maybe something like you drink from snakes mouths, or something like that. For extra credit, put both in the appendix with a one or two sentence note on who they belonged to and how that can lead to more adventure. 

Leszek’s Hut – The first sentenc is padding. The second is ok and the third again is padding. Generally, from now on, consider me complaining about any use of “You” in your read-aloud. The knee deep mud is good, but inappropriate because your’re using it in the failed novelist sense. Move it somewhere else, the lizardfold or the dungeon maybe. A faint light barely cuts through the mist blah blah blah. And none of that illuminated by the hearth that burns within. Its overly flowery and the party doesn’t know that from outside. 

You don’t need this mental alarm stuff, you don’t need to justify things. Just note that when they approach the door creaks open and he says “blah blah blah”

None of this remains open and inviting stuff. Of course it remains open, just like the characters continue to breathe. The description is here, buried in the text where the DM will never find it. Either sidebar it somewhere int he adventure or put it in his description in the appendix; either way it will be easier to find. It’s kind of a generic description, which is ok I guess. The eye thing is good. FIlled with herbs and baubles is a fact based description, not an evocative one, it should be better and give some sort of impression. Lots of herbs hanging from the ceiling to dry, baubles (be more specific) everywhere, etc. The fire/hearth/warm thing is not good, but itself, maybe note a cheery fire burns lighting the herbs hanging from the ceiling,e tc. The crib/bed thing is a good concept but poorly described. Why make a DC check here? Just to make the party roll dice. Make the kid obviously sick, and not sick, or ill, but listless and pale. Sick and ill are abstracted terms, put in something concrete to bring home the illness. Listless and palid, for example, or something like that. Let the players then draw the conclusion that the kid s sick.

Roleplaying Leszek – Noone cares about his backstory. What we care about is how to run him right now. That means that virtually everything up to the bullets should be cut. He deciated his life to service to others is ok, as is studying the spirits, but, they should really be focused on the interaction with the players. How do these things cause him to interact with them? THATS what important, how they lead to play at the table, not his general lifestory. He’s also pretty generic, there are no real personality tips to him at all. Bitter? Caring? A doormat? Give him some character. Lezsek wants to sentence is ok, but you don’t need the second sentence, the last one before the bullets. Again, the bullets are fact based, and ok, but it would be better if his personality was somehow inserted in to them. 

Quest – Uh … what doesn’t HE do that? Because the kids in danger? That’s a PERFECT example of how you should embed his personality in the bullets. It comes off as boring as currently described. The staff treasure would be more interesting if it were telegraphed, like, its constantly dripping icicles as he holds it or something. Something to make the party go OOOOO! COOL! I WANT IT!!!! And THEN he offers it to them. 

Fighting Leszek – LAME! If they kill him they kill him. Why are you dictating what the party should and should not be able to do? Just make him a dude and let the party kill him/take the kid if they want. He’s explained the situation, the party gets to make an informed decision, not be railroaded in to something tha the designer thinks should happen because they didn’t play his adventure the way he wanted them to. Just put in the conclusions part what the repercussions are. Fuck it, just make him level 1, or 0-level. Making him an uber-mench takes away the parties freedom of choice. And that is the worst sin possible for a designer.

Leszeks Secret – Ok, not bad, but, impossible to grok. Shorten this, bullet or bold it. The truly cares for thing is good, it might stop me from killing him if I learned he was hiding something, as the roll would indicate. Why is he being evasive? Just have him lie. This entire section needs to be shortened A LOT. Further, by including this, you are setting him up for a confrontation with the party. One which you explicitly rule out in his FIghting section. Which is it? I like the idea of him insisting, but if you make him L1 or L0 then its a much more interesting situation. The party CAN use force … will they? Or will they take a harder path?

Whats Next – The Even if stuff could be condensed a lot and easier to scan. There is a lot of information here and it doesn’t scan easily. It’s padded out and could be handled much better.

Part 3 Zevak’s Sanctum – Padding until you tell us the kobolds live here. Three of the items sentence … is probably not needed/can be condensed. The items needs a cross-reference to the room number they are in. “Found in the hoard of the kobold queen” is not needed. The wonder/wrath/valor thing is ok, as an introduction to what is coming (just like mentioning the kobolds.) “Character holding” needs to be called out more. Bolded words, bullet, offset box, something. Your “break the object” is a bit wrong; they have to be close to the kid, right? Who is back at the hut, right? So if I break it in the dungeon I skip to the conclusion also? IE: you don’t need this sentence at all.

General Features – Light would be better shown by some shading on the map. I might move the “collapsed/stone/earth” bit to a note on the map itself, so the DM is always reminded of it. Same with the doors. “Iron handles and hinges” is good. I might mentioned rust also. I’m looting those crystals; how much are they worth and how many are there? IE: put the important evocative stuff ad notes on the map page so the DM is always looking at them. The rest, the floor, the light, etc … not really interesting. I’m not even sure why you mentioned it. Because that’s what other dungeons did? It’s its not important, and it’s not evocative … then why are you wasting the DM cognitive space with it?

The Map – Maps, like art, are hard. I’m going to be critical here, but, almost everyone gets a pass on maps as long as they are basically legible. That said, learning to map well, like complimentary art, can add a lot. The map squares are essentially illegible, which is ok, since this is more “relation to each other” rather than “exploratory” map. Most of the details ate too small to make out, but the numbers are clear. The red used for the T really hurts my eyes and makes me strain, even though I know they are there. Annoying, I guess? Although I’m not sure your details would add a lot? It’s trying to be evocative, but isn’t really doing that. I appreciate the include of the blanks/VTT stuff, a great nod to usability/catering to the DM/purchasers ease of use. The reason you included those maps is the exact same reason for all of these other changes – to make it more useful for the DM. I’m not even sure you need that map in the adventure (see room 2 being split over two pages.)

Dungeon Design – 

  1. The RA description is not evocative at all. Don’t say the fountain is empty, let the party ask and the DM tell them. You don’t want to discourage the back and forth between player and DM by over revealing in the RA. Noting the beams/ceiling is a good hint for the players to follow up to look for the trap. It’s also REALLY obvious. Ideally your hint/description is not that obvious, but, better this than not doing it. You put a T on the map. You tell us the hallway has a trap placed by the kobolds (who cares they were the ones that put it here, anyway?) And THEN you have the boiled pressure plate thing … maybe yo don’t need to tell us three times that there is atrap? IE: cut the “hallway contains a trap” sentence. And you don’t need to tell us that the map shows us where, that’s obvious. Two sentences describing the trap is a bit much. “10 food long slides” is iverexplaining it. It’s a Beams, holding up a slab, thats good. I might say stout beams holding the thing square slab. IE: descriptive but not the over explaining thing you have. Your next paragraph, about detecting it, is good. Good play notes, but way too long, which means I both like it and don’t like it. Work at condensing the text while not loosing the specificity for actual play at the table.

The cube thing is GREAT. Of course cubes live up there! The various bones and whole kobold skeleton is good, you should emphasize that more, the “apart from” thing minimizes it. 

  1. You don’t need to note the doors/exits in RA, the map shows the DM that. You note statues and furniture in the RA, but not in the DM text. Players will want to investigate them. A sentence or two would be appropriate. You note that the kobolds will ALERT the others, but then you put that in the DEVELOPMENT section. Maybe change it to ALERT, with the ALERT bolded up above. One part reference the other with the same keywords bolded. It’s also a lot of words to say that. Work on cutting it down. Dusty floors mean the players will want to follow the tracks, but you provide no guidance. Cut the dust or provide the guidance. Filing centipedes is good. “Mechanism” is boring though, a big spring, or something. See how “a mechanism flings” and “a coiled spring flings” is about the number number of words but one is generic and one specific? Always shoot for specific, and you can see also that it doesn’t really take a lot more words to be specific. Me, i’d also mention IN THE FACE, because its more fun that way. 🙂  I both love and hat the PER roll to detect the trap. The effect, something is moving inside, is good. But it feels like a roll to win. If they search, or look closely, I’d let them roll. Or, even if they just took more than one look at it, ie, they spent some time doing it. So…where do the stairs go? The Development is good (a little sly humor like “elected a few seconds ago” is a good thing for the DM) , but …   You’re misusing the kobolds, I think? Unlike the great cannibal lizardmen, these have no real personality or anything going for them. Comic relief? I thought goblins played that role? ANyway, I’m open to different interpretations, and know tastes vary. I just can’t help think that, tonally, you’re off base here. Monstrous cannibal lizardmen .. and comic relief kobolds? I love being able to talk to monsters in the dungeon, but, I don’t know, this just seems like the kobolds are all wrong. Wheres those bullets for what he does and knows? You include that all other times you talk to someone. I might stick a bolded “Tactics” or something in front of that last paragraph. Also, this is minor, but, bad form splitting rooms across a page turn. 
  1. You’re overexplaining again with where the two side passages lead before the party gets there to look in to it. Light has a radius, right? That’s a lot of words for the blade trap. Reduce/condense. In OD&D a trap was like six words long, AT MOST. I’m not saying you have to do that, but three pargrapghs is a tad excessive here. 
  1. In exploratory D&D empty rooms, like this one, serve a purpose. This is not exploratory D&D, this is plot D&D. So why do you have this room? Because the kobolds need food? Thats lame. Stick something interesting it, or something evocative, or I guess just leave it te way it is Boring and serving no purpose. Also, its a pretty nondescript descriptions. How about livening it up a bit if you’re going to keep it? Mushroom rooms are a stable of D&D. FUll of magic and wonder. Or, like this one, boring.
  1. Can be convinced is pretty lame. By what, food, money? Welcomes you, no YOU and no Welcomes you. I might also have some smoke coming out from under the door/peephole, since presumably they dont have ventilation. I’m not one for sumulationsit stuff, but a smokey room could be interesting, in visibility and effects. Dash is lame, stampede, etc, is better, Give some vision to your descriptions. This whole thing is pretty boring, for what should be something interesting. A few words about the kobolds, lizardmen, or baby would be in order also, on the different possibilities. Something 
  1. Pretty bland, overall, with little joy in the queen or the encounter. The orb needs to have a visible spirit moving around inside of it, that would be a nice temptation for the party to see beforehand, either to kill her or do the quest. The painting is boring, the treasure boring. The Developments and Secret tunnel are too wordy … This is one of the most generic rooms in the adventure. Diaries are boring. It’s the example of telling instead of showing. Ideally, this information is conveyed through play.
  1. Blood and rotted meat is good, i might even make the floor slick with congealed blood. “A variety of …” is generic abstracted text and not the specificity you’ve brought to other places. This is a great place to have a mimic, good placement. The creature section is a little long. “The kobolds hunt” is unneeded backstory. This all FEELS a little too organized for kobolds. I
  1. Meh, I might mention wasp hives or something like that instead of a crate full of insects. Being more specific. This “insert your own dungeon” stuff was common in older adventures. I don’t see it adding much here, and “where did the kobolds come from” is not a problem that needs a solution. Note that unlike the other rooms, like the mimic room of the slab trap, you’ve not done much with the trap here. A crate, appearing out of nowhere. It doesn’t all fit in together.
  1. “Armoured figure” is generic and boring. Gothic? Something is needed. FAR too many words in the creature section. Why limit this to the diary readers? Make it glow a little, people love figuring out things, it makes them feel smart. 
  1. “Contraptions” is abstracted. It comes off as just generic room lab description instead of a place of wonder. You’ve hidden the scale key behind a roll, why do this? Why not let the party just figure it out. The pathways paragraph is not needed at all. The vault section is WAY too long. “Aside from the …” is conversational, to be cut. “If you attempt” is conditional, reword it without the conditional. The elven skull is good and the sagger description not bad. 

Conclusion – In general, I like conclusions. Followups help show the consequences of the parties actions and provide for great campaign immersion. The roll with advantage thing is good.  I think you need a little more on the Great Celebration, really bringing home the parties status as local worthies at least for the next month or so. Some notes about the kobolds, lizardfolk, and baby/family also, noting the various outcomes. Do this with an eye towards the party. How will THEY experience the impacts, even second hand, or hear the news? 

Treasure – Boring descriptions and too much emphasis on mechanics. “Green aluminum orb” is a boring description. The dagger has no description. The staff has no description. These are all just boring character buffs. They bring no wonder to the game. Instead they concentrate on mechanics, the most boring part. Better description, something that makes the PLAYER want it, and fewer mechanics. Don’t describe effects in terms of mechanics. I know, it sounds weird, but its better to allow some interpretation. 

Monsters – (I assume these are all copied straight from the book, and thus the sins are the originals books and not yours? These almost universally lack a description, fun initial attacks, and rely far too much on justifications and backstory, which are useless at the table.)

Vine – Again, a non-complementary art piece for the Vine. “Hangs on tree branches.” This needs a better description, something to bring it to life, and something better than “grabs you with vines” for the initial attack. 

Leszek – See notes throughout about description and personality. What IS resent here is all useless backstory. No need for the justification, just get in to what imp[acts at the table.

Kobolds – “Tactics & cunning!” This is in direct opposition to the comic relief way they are being used in the adventure. And, no description.

Animated Knights – No description

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 14 Comments

Nod 36 – Halfling Civil War!

By John M. Stater
Self Published

This first issue of NOD for 2021 visits a land of halflings torn by civil war, introduces you to the halfling saints, and brings you Table Top Soccer.

This 95 page magazine uses about 75 pages to describe a hex crawl in the lands of the halflings, currently waging a civil war, along with a few of the borderlands nearby. It’s a great setting, a real D&D supplement, and I have no fucking idea how to use it. 

A disclaimer: I like to think I understand how a few things work. Not just pushing the button, but understanding how the burron works, what it does, why you would do it, and the deeper implications of pushing The Big Red Button. But I don’t know SHIT about about some of my favorite things, like running sci-fi adventures and … hex crawls. I don’t understand how to run them and thus I am only conjecturing.

So, a HUGE fuckign hex map. HUGE. 74 pages of hex descriptions, four or five to a page, a paragraph or two each. That a METRIC TON of hexes to explore and of things going on in the halfling lands. Oh, and their borders, the barbarians (Fuck them! Also, I just finally got Civ6, so I’m currently in a Fuck The Barbs! mood) that prowl them, and so on. There’s so much going on that I have trouble wrapping my head around it. More on that later.

I’m starting to see some patterns in things. We’ve got halfling places, usually involved in their civil war, which comes off as mostly gentle with threats of violence. Then you’ve strongholds, places where some powerful NPC hangs out with their band of supporters. THis might be a master thief and their hobgoblin minions in the mountain complex, or the nomad barbarian encampment fishing on the river, or any of a dozen different examples. Then you’ve got the intelligent monster encounter. Cloud giants playing in a stream, hill giants charging a 5cp toll to cross a flooded area, cyclopeans working in underground caves. These can be kind of good (rough house bully cloud giants, who are still good guys) to neutral (cyclopean forgers) to bad guys (gnoll raiders) … all of whom are generally presented in a such a way that makes talking a least a possibility. You’ve also got beasts, both magical and mundane, in hexes, as well a decent number of nymph, dryad, pixie, nature spirit encounters. And you’ve also got freaky deaky shit, like an endless series of short cliffs to climb, or historical landmarks like a monolith with carvings about some historical event. And a smattering of “realistic” gonzo, like a crashed jetpack and a teleportation platform to an alien Predator ship. It’s packed full, and, I’d guess only one in six hexes is described. 

It’s fascinating. I love  it. Well, as a travelogue, like a Lonely Planet guide. As a D&D thing? Well …

I don’t know how to run a hex crawl. I’ve been collecting links on my forum for a future book on how to write and run a hex crawl, but that doesn’t mean I understand it yet. It feels like there are three ways. First, it’s an adventure. You wander from place to place, there are little hooks and things in one hex that lead to another hex. Second, it could be a setting. It’s just a place and you have “normal” adventures in it that the DM comes up with and/or inserts. The hexes are just local color for the DM to use as fodder while traveling or downtime. Third might be Wanderers, where the party literally just wanders from hex to hex getting in to trouble as the DM riffs. This last one strikes me as having even more motivational issues for players than a normal D&D party or megadungeon. Maybe there’s some other way to run a hex crawl. I don’t know.

How does Nod 36 stand in relation to these three ways? If you just want to wander, without context or continuity, then you’re ok. Have at thee. 

As an Adventure, I think this is lacking. The linkages between hexes are few and far between. There is an occasional cross-reference, but they are few and far between, not because Stater is a hack but more because there are NOT linkages. One place doesn’t really lead to another. (With a few notable exceptions, like the jetpack hex and transporter pad hex, for example. Trace the trajectory of the pack to find the pad.) Also, there’s the setting issue.

As a Setting it would be great, but you’d need to put in a lot of work, or, I would anyway, to get a really top quality experience. This would apply also to the thing as an Adventure, since the Adventure would take place in the setting. The thing lacks overview. While there is a general discussion of the history (Fascinating! And it makes sense! I’ll gush on this later) and political climate, its just general. The very first hex has a hag, mostly harmless, that is the stuff of boogyman tales in surrounding villages. But you have to read the hex to know that. And then make a note somewhere, or remember, to include it while you are running the villages. Or the barbarians and the Crazy Guy leader of one tribe, or another having a big Holy Mammoth celebration gathering.  You WANT to drop these things in to a game. To get the party going. To add context. To add continuity. Same with the civil war and whats going on. It’s written and presented as a Wanderer style, where you just trip over things.

IF you put the work in, and takes notes, and put together those things, digging through a couple of hundred hex descriptions, political trees, local color and so on, and then make a bunch of notes, flowcharts and reference sheets (of which this has none) then you would have a MAGNIFICENT setting. So much so that, if those were present, we could all have a great time buying this and running a HUGE D&D-spehere game, a shared experience for all online players. I mean it, this is a GREAT setting. Easily housing an entire campaign. If you can figure out how to use it. I’m excited and apathetic at the same time. I have a million things to do, would I ever find time to put in the work to use this? 

I doubt it. But it would be SO rewarding if I did. No, no Best or Regerts, because I don’t know what the fuck I am doing or how to review it. I REALLY like it. I just don’t know what the fuck it is or how to use it and maybe I just like it as a travelogue … which makes me nervous that I like it as a READER, something I LOATHE.

This is $4 at DriveThru. You will never find a better bargain than an issue of Nod. And it has a real cover also, with real cover art! Nice! The preview is just the first few pages though, and shows you nothing of the writing style of the hexes you’ll encounter. A page or so of them would have been nice, in order to make a buying decision of what you are actually purchasing the product for.

Great backstory, and short, about Powerful Ancient Elves, raising the lands to get rid of the locath, ancient towers and ruins, ild elves as the remains of religious sects and wood elves as those that found refuge in hunting lodged thousands of years ago when the elf god punished all elves. Nice Age of Magic thing without getting too detailed. Makes sense.

Posted in Reviews | 28 Comments

Dead Flood of Dwfn Eir-Gron

By Stephen Yeardley, Thilo Graf
AAW Games
Levels 7-8

When a sacred dweorg festival is raided by the drow, with hundreds slain and even more enslaved, abducted, and turned into undead servitors, a deity weeps. When the divine tear becomes a flood that puts to rest the undead, the party has the chance to follow the legion of living dead on sturdy dwarven kayaks through the caverns, riding the Dead Flood of Dwfn Eir-Grøn. The undead and their drow masters are stranded, briefly, but can the party prevail against a sheer endless legion of the living dead, punish the drow and rescue the few hardy survivors that remain?

This two page adventure is actually one battle. I know, I know. So let’s talk about it. That, not this, I mean.

I remain interested in shorter adventures. I think there is a lot of potential in them. They are not overstaying their welcome and the shorter format should enforce a kind of discipline on the designer. Let us not forget that G1 was only a few pages long! Further, modern adventures flow a different way than classic OSR ones. Gone are the exploratory elements, and, therefore I assert, the longer page count that even G1 has. You should be able to, I think, create a modern “plot” adventure, with just a few encounters, in just a small handful of pages. Imagine that, a hook, investigation, and your 5 page lair dungeon all in just a few pages. Form + Function, recognizing that 5e/3e/Pathfinder are different than a OSR exploratory thing. I’m interested in such things and thus I torment myself looking in to them. 

Thus, looking at a 2-page 5e adventure, you can see how my rosey worldview worked. Decent production values, a couple of pages, sure, I can imagine a possible world in which this is a good adventure! (Wasn’t there a system of D&D where you could worship an idea rather than a god? A possible worlds paladin – In some possible world, this action is good! *smite*) 

It is not good. It is a “4e adventure.” Meaning it is not an adventure at all. It’s a fucking Warhammer game.

I fucking HATE warhammer games. If you want to play mini’s combat then go fucking play warhammer, or blah blah blah one of the fucking clones. Or make the fucking advernture for 4e, the officially recognized “i don’t want to play D&D I want to play minis combat” version of D&D. It sucks the fucking soul out of D&D. 

You’ve got this map. It’s, maybe, 20 squares by 30 squares. Underground, I guess, in caves, with a bunch of water scattered around in it, representing a river. There are five encounters. SE, SW, NE, NW, and center. Original design, isn’t it? Like, no effort at all?  You enter on kayaks on the western side, driven by dwarf commoners. Otherwise someone might have to drive the kayak and not get their AOO, or their 5’ step or whatever. At each encounter is one bad guy. They don’t help each other or interact in any way, in spite of being, I don’t know, less than 80’ from each other? You know the deal before I even write it. “I’m a 8th level drawven gravesmiter assassin with beads of force and a penchant for my description revolving entirely around my battle tactics.” There is NOTHING to this adventure EXCEPT the battlefield notes and the opponents. NOTHING. Pure fucking fantasy battle mastabutory wankfest. Mini-dungeon my ass.

The backstory is lame; I know, fluff is subjective, but, when did the drow become masters of the undead? I guess theming doesn’t mean anything anymore. You’re just looking for a villain of CR9, or whatever, and Drow came up. 

This adventure does ONE thing interesting. Every square on the map, except the water ones, every single square, has a zombie in it. Ostensibly you are trying to save them by pushing them in to the river, which is actually a flood caused by a gods tear, which acts as a gentle repose spell, which lays the (dwarf) zombie to rest, which is the goal of mission, to “save” as many dwarves as possible. I mean, it’s Warhammer, but it is an interesting battlefield thing. 

It took two people to write this thing. Instead of a long backstory, instead of a quarter page of artwork, but not write an actual adventure? Why advertise it as an adventure when you could advertise it as “four hours of nonstop hacking zombie action in the style of your least favorite 4e adventures!” 

Oh, and that river, the one that acts as a gentle response spell? That, my friends, is a classic example of “explaining why.” It’s a gods tear, you don’t need to have a book fucking explanation for why. It kills the magic. It kills the mystery of it all. Wonder is no more. Another example has the drow using three different book poisons on the dwarves, so as to, I assumer per game rules, give them all three levels of exhaustion. I fucking hate this book shit. Infinite possibilities and and we get a 4e battle with book explanation for wondrous things.

This is $1 at DriveThru.

Speaking of DriveThru, let’s look at how much life sucks by examining the Rule Systems=OSR, Product Type= NonCore, Adventures. 

Adventure of the Week – Just a plot hook, it looks like.

Dead Girls in Sarkash Forest – Emmy Allen thing. Looks like a digest procedural thing, and, being for Mork Borg, has the required “I used an “interesting” giant font. I may end up reviewing this.

Geppetto’s Folly – A filbar thing, so, you know, not going to be good.

Casa Matildo – In spanish. Good for them. But not fodder for me.

Some one page dungeon, but in Russian.

MAPS YOUR PARTY WILL DIE FOR 2 – I assume not actually an adventure

Dungeon Crawl Solo – Ug. Solo.

Another Voxelhouse in Spanish. I might have to learn spanish. HOLA. BUEON GIORNO

“Adventure of the week”, one in French and one in ENglish, both just plot ideas.

Some kind of zine, collected from someones blog

Zero level players guide from Starry Knight. Bun me 293 times, shame on you

A one page Mork Borg adventure

14 Zweihander “adventures.”

So, maybe, one thing to look at, the Emmy Allen thing. And this is a good week. 90% of “adventures” are not actually adventures and 90% of the ones that are are total crap.

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 20 Comments

Trash Planet Epsilon 5

By Olobosk
Swordfish Islands
Electric Bastionland-like thing
RPG/Adventure/One shot

Is a random word generator likely to produce as good a play as Hamlet?. 

A trash planet. A sphere of coagulated space junk. Layers upon layers of generational garbage piled up on itself thousands of times over. Rumours run wild around the nearby sectors and beyond that invaluable treasures lie beneath the trash heaps of Epsilon 5.

This 28 page thing is both an RPG and an set of rules to procedurally generate an adventure environment. If you can accept “procedurally generated” then it does a decent job. I cannot, and therefore his review will almost immediately go off on a tangent.

It’s a floating ball of trash the size of a planet, with corp cargo ships dropping off more all the time. There are simple RPG mechanics attached (based on Electric Bastionland, the product says) and a few pages devoted to procedurally generating an adventure environment, with 24 locations and some treasures and creatures, for the pregens to explore. 

There’s a location naame, a few evocative words, and then a sentence or two of DM notes. So, for Acid Lake we get (formatting removed): Bubbling, Glowing Green-Yellow, Smells Sour Flotsam rafts of jumbled junk drift on the surface. d4 DAMAGE per turn to any organic matter submerged within. We’ll roll a creature and a treasure and then it’s up to the DM to make something of it. Monsters are suitably described, so, for the Virtual Shades we get “Neon blue, two-dimensional amorphous hologram, flickering and distorting as it moves.” Again, a decent description, focusing not on their backstory but on how the party will interact and experience when they encounter them. Which is what the fuck a monster description should the fuck do. Ok, and there’s a single Neo-Rose as a treasure “A genetic accident, suited only to growing in the unique trash riddled soil of EPSILON 5. Its pungent odour, reminiscent of rose and paint stripper, never fades even when picked.” So, as a DM, maybe, there’s this acid lake and some rickety platforms on it and the party sees the middle one has this single neo-rose on it and the lake is full of these Victorian holograms out boating. Oops, I’m getting ahead of myself. The locations take up three pages, the creatures about four, and about the same for the treasure. The restis a map, location tracker, die drop thingy (*sigh*) and some basic mechanics/rules. The takeaway here is that the creature descriptions, and variety, is good (although a little swede to the robot/mechanical side of things, ala Tomb Adventures being one-note stuffed full of undead.) The location descriptions vary from pretty interesting (a village made up of clones of one woman! Acid Lake!) to Mega-corp shipwreck and dirtyy needle dumping ground. Which offer less of an environment to explore and more “here is hazard while you having a fight” sort of location, out of 4e. 

And now, we necessarily diverge in to our tangent: the convention game. The One shot. From OSR convention competition adventures to the CoC one shot to things like these, unique little games with little adventures attached. This is a genre unto itself. Sure, you can turn it in to a campaign, but its not really suited for that.  Sure, it could be used as a night or two of adventuring for a Traveller game or some such. But it will suffer from the same problems.

For both, I find the adventure lacking. 

There’s really a lack of motivation here. It’s just a place to dive for trash treasure, with little holding the adventure together beyond that. I’m not saying it needs a plot, but there is nothing really here other than the procedurally generated stuff, and that hits the same nerve that many people complain about megadungeon play: why? Because it’s what we’re doing tonight, do you want to play or not? IE: you need a motivation for your character. But, in these one-shot and/or convention games, you need more than that. Or, rather, more than that helps a lot. I mean, I’m still there to waste four hours having fun, but a little assist from the designer, beyond the pregens, helps. You need something to kick things off, or a goal, and that’s just not present.

And then of course there’s the fact that it’s procedurally generated. I don’t know who started this trend. It needs to stop. Procedurally generated dungeons don’t work. They cannot wor, by their very definition. There is no way that you can have a satisfying experience RIGHT NOW AT THE TABLE with some ad-hoc dice rolls, at least in comparison to an adventure location that has been designed, agonized over, and fits in well with the surrounding location, all thanks to the designer. Is this just emulation of what others have done? Are people afraid of actually designing a room/dungeon? I mean, what if the designer had rolled on their own tables, taken inspiration from the results, and then crafted the results, after hours of work, in to a more coherent experience? Do you really want to assert that would not be the better play experience? 

What’s the downside? It’s not random? So what. It’s a one-shot fucking around game. A location that is likely to never be revisited again, either in a campaign or as a one short fucking around game or at a convention. Why the fuck do you care about it being an adventure generator? Why not make something really good instead? Because, of course, an adventure is different than “a tool to help inspire you to write your own adventure.” Why … we’re not saying that’s what this is, are we? That would mean it has misrepresented itself, and we all know how I feel about being cheated. 

So, ok writing, good monsters. As an idea generator it may be ok. As an adventure I think it fails at its “most likely to be a one shot” genre experience. Or, rather, succeeds more than the usual procedural adventures do but still fails in the quality of the overall experience. 

This is $5 at itch.

Posted in Reviews | 2 Comments

Castle Roan

By Chantel Jones
Self Published
Levels 1-3

In this adventure, the heroes face a group of Daragons to save the Kind and his family! [sp]

This 23 page adventure features a three level (plus basement!) dungeon with about seventy rooms. It’s minimally-keyed, and shows a shocking lack of care, to a degree that is new even to me. It’s in the running for the worst I’ve ever reviewed.

What if I open a restaurant. In the back I microwave frozen burritos that I buy for 30 cents each from ALDI. I don’t do this because I am trolling. I do this because I think that this is good food and it’s how you run a restaurant. As a stranger, you come in and order a burrito. It is as you would except given its a 30 cent microwave burrito from ALDI. That I charge $10 for. What is the social contract between you and I? As a friend/family, we might be supportive. As a stranger, what are your obligations to me, both directly when speaking to me and indirectly when talk to another about your experience in Sheboygan Japanese Cuisine, which features microwaved burritos from ALDI? Asking for a friend … 

There is a seemingly lack of care to this adventure which is bad enough that I thought this might be an art project. Note the misspellings in the publisher’s blurb. “The heros” and “Daragons” and “the Kind”. (that’s the king, and dragons.) The pregen characters spread across multiple pages, as it page breaks were inserted randomly, some starting on the same page another ends on, thus complicating printing them out to hand out to players. The stat blocks are walls of text, with weird indents. Randomly scattered through the text, and I do mean randomly, there are paragraphs of monsters labeled “Encounter 1”, with a stat block for, say 28 goblins. Just here and there, insperspaced between the room encounters which are labeled “room 1” “room 2” and so on. Not to worry though, the actual stats blocks are missing for some creatures. Two column text from word perfect just drifts on to a new page instead of being formatted in to something decent. 

Challenge wise, this adventure for levels 1-3, we get encounters with kobolds, goblins, elves, a room with 100 skeletons, a  6HD weretiger, a 10HD hydra, and a room with a 7HD white dragon, a 10HD blue dragon and an 11HD red dragon. You and me both buddy; I certainly have no fucking clue, especially given you need the rod in that room to save the Kind and his family. 

It’s minimally keyed. “This room is empty.” or “Giant Rats, No Appearing:15 (stat block)” or “This is the throne room.” That’s it. Those are your descriptions. “On the south of the room are a bed and two nightstands.” Minimal keyed. Laundry list contents not related to the adventure. Interactivity like a room with fifteen pools each of which does something ala B1. Rooms stuffed full of treasure, coin and especially high level magic items. And no, nothing is gong to stave off that weretiger, hydra, or dragons, so don’t get any ideas that it is on purpose.

This may come as a shocking surprise, but I would never want to discourage anyone from writing an adventure. You have to write to get better. My angst stems from my entitlement issues, and expectations. (Hmmm, can you have entitlement issues as a consumer, or is that not allowed and/or encouraged as a consumer in a market economy?) But Jesus H Fucking Christ man, don’t you, as a producer, have some obligation to the rest of us to produce something that you actually give a fucking shit about? Don’t you have some social obligation to the rest of us suckers to know what the fuck a restaurant actually is before you open one? 

This could be a product from the early days of gaming. A map, filling all spaces with weird mazes and such like that famous Greyhawk map photo. Minimally keyed encounters ala Vampire Queen. A typesetting nightmare like Walking Wet and other manually set adventure products. 

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages. Go stare in to the abyss for a bit by looking at it.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 25 Comments

Wizard’s Vengeance

By Filip Gruszcyzynski
Self Published
All Levels

The wizard is dead – burnt at the stake by a menacing witch hunter. His tower is unguarded and ripe for plunder. Gold, artifacts and magic can be yours, if you act swiftly. But will you be able to get away with the loot? For even in death the wizard will exact his vengeance!

This 36 page adventure describes a wizards tower with ten levels and 25 rooms. A slower adventure, and quite similar to Tower of the Stargazer in its pacing. It feels less dry than Stargazer but still suffers, I think, from the “Tower is Empty” issue. Lower levels will do a hit and run loot job while higher levels will clear the place, hence the “All Levels” range. I think that’s pretty interesting; particularly completing an adventure.

Local wizard gets himself burned at the stake and the party stumble upon it right after it has happened. The pyre is still smoldering and the witch hunter is going to the dudes tower in the morning to burn it as well. Until then .. there’s no one at home and the tower is no doubt, stuffed full of loot. 

The adventure has two timers and that’s the first one. If you can get out of the tower before the (8th level cleric) witchhunter and her minions arrive you get to keep all the loot. If not then you get to keep only the monetary loot and not the magical stuff, it being heretical. Or, she just burns you and you get to keep nothing. The “short window of opportunity” is a classic of adventure design, be it looting a manor lords home, a wizards tower, so Speculos’s Lair. There’s a second timer as well: the wizard laid a curse, as all good witches do when being burnt at the stake. Every hour all the animals in a circle around the tower die and come back as undead, humans excepted, doubling each hour until it reaches 32 kilometers. (There’s a helpful regional map showing areas of interest, as well as a handy dandy “what happens after the adventure” to help the DM run the after effects on the local towns, etc.) The party MIGHT know this beforehand, but it’s unlikely. Only the mayor knows, of those outside of the tower. So while this MIGHT be a second timer, it’s actually more of a plot device. There’s a devil inside in a magic circle, if someone willingly sacrifices themselves to it then the curse it lifted. Oh, also, if you sacrifice an unwilling person to it then you gain 1000xp each time. 

Holy fuck. That’s a situation! You can use it to bargain with the witch hunter, and she will sacrifice herself to stop the undead plague. You can go all evil and sacrifice people to get your XP. It’s fucking brilliant! Good setup, and, more than just treasure, it can drive action and is a temptation for the party to boot! A nicely done gizmo.

This is certainly one of the better parts of the adventure but there is a certain design aesthetic being followed that is above average. In one instance there’s a hallway with an electrified floor, blocking access to other rooms. If you look around the corner of the doorway in to the hallway then you can see a pile of dead rats at the end … giving you a clue that something is amiss in the hallway. A decent trap, a decent clue, and a decent “normal” situation to present to a party. Altogether good design. There are a few other interesting situations as well, such as playing a chess game with what turns out to be a devil (classic devil stuff!), a library of books, balconies to climb up on to, and NPC’s to free in the cells below. 

There’s also a sly little humor added to the text which appeals to me a great deal. “[the wizard]  realized early on that sooner or later some of the common folks might come up with a catchy slogan like “Burn the witch!”” or a rumor that he organizes orgies with demons of both sexes … unfortunately untrue, the rumor table tells us. And even the devil who is pleasantly and cordial, while trapped in his summoning circle, to any adventurers he meets — no point discouraging potential customers, the text tells us. These are excellent little touches that, while directed more as commentary to the DM, also serve to add a certain framing the text, one for the DM to then leverage and bring even more to life. They are never more than a word or two (unfortunately untrue, no point in discouraging potential customers, etc) and don’t show up excessively in the adventure. Well done framing to the DM disguised as commentary to the DM.

The town NPC’s, the mayor, priest and barkeep (IE: just the most common people the party is likely to interact with) are decently done, and shorty, with a personal quirk to bring them home to the DM to roleplay. Likewise the NPC’s in the adventure, from a servant who nervously cleans things as a coping mechanism, to traumatized captives who heard a cellmate being devoured alive by undead rats. 

Magical items are suitable unique, like a portrait with the wizards name written on the back. If you write YOUR name on the back then YOU get to use the magic portrait to look through its eyes. Looking through a pictures eyes is a classic, and Writing Your Name clearly has historical symbolism. This is good use of that deep cultural innate knowing that we all have.

A few notes …

In several places in the tower we learn that someone does something when they hear something in a different room. For example, I am in a room and there is an antechamber. If you make noise in the anterchamber then I call out. Should that fact be in the antechamber or in my room? I think it should be be in the room where the effect happens, the antechamber. This adventure puts that information in the NPCs rooms … which is usually then missed by the DM.

The map has about two tower floors per page, in the center, and then some columns on either side with room summaries. This is a nice approach (as if all of the formatting decisions mad ein the adventure; nothing particularly special but very usable) but the descriptions tend to be quite short and lacking flavor. They are meant to kep the DM to what the encounter is. There is A LOT of extra whitespace available and i think it could have been used better to bring more to those short little description than they do. Why leave the extra space just hanging out?

There’s a LOTFP Fuck You here and there, like catching the 90% death bubonic plague in one room, with a save every turn you spend in the room. That’s not telegraphed very well. I’m not strictly opposed to this since there’s a book that describes infection disease research in the room, but, it is tending to a direction I don’t like. 

The descriptions themselves, of both the rooms and the creatures, could be a lot better. It’s not that they are bad. They are not overly long, or flowery, or Try Harding. They are not even particularly bland (with notable exceptions.) They just are not spectacular. I’m a firm believer that a decent adventure (defined as : I don’t want to stab my eyes out and fill me with ennui) can be made by just about anyone by following a few simple rules. The hardest part to get over the Decent hump in to Good territory is knowledge of design through interesting situations, etc, and evocative writing. The writing, particular, is a learned skill and hard work. If there’s a formula to it I don’t know it. The creature descriptions and the rooms both suffer from this, the creature descriptions more so. 

So, ok little adventure. A little on the slow side, as Stargazer was, but with more going on than in Stargazer 

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages and shows you a few rooms. More than enough information to get a good feel for the adventure, so a good preview.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 18 Comments

The Mad Alchemist

By Valleria Studios
Valleria Studios
Level 6

Oakheart, a once vital trading post, has been struck by a mysterious disease. Over the past month, Lord Ulric Von Vymarc, townmaster of Oakheart, has set out his men to look for the source of the disease and a cure to put a stop to the disaster. Yet they’ve failed to find any clue to what this might be. As the weeks passed, more people got infected to the point where most of the shops had to close. The town’s guard is undermanned as they’re falling ill themselves.Ships are starting to avoid the town, as rumors about a disease are starting to spread. More importantly, The Feast Of The Stars is approaching. This would be a major source of income for the people, as many from all over the land come here to pay their respects to the gods, feast and spend many of their valuables.  The town is already accommodating the first of many visitors to come. Yet most of them leave once they find out about Oakheart’s situation. Lord Ulric has sent out letters to renowned adventurers across Valleria to assist in this serious matter.

This 28 page adventure details a short little investigation in to a virus(!) and about eighteen rooms in the mad alchemist’s lair. It has some sparks of interesting encounters when it comes to the creatures, although the puzzles are a bit on the nose for my tastes. Still, for what it is it’s an above average adventure that shops promise, particularly in regard to creativity and formatting.

I was full prepared to hate this. $17 for a PDF is the reason I picked it up. Then, it’s got the generic title. The generic trope of an alchemist as an enemy. It’s 5e, and then there’s the trade dress. None of these give a favorable first impression. Generic background, generic “you can adapt this to your world!” information, padding to page six, and, at a quick glance, read-aloud that tends to three-four paragraphs long talking up a quarter to two-thirds of a page. These are all the symptoms of a bad adventure. And yet … it’s not really. Plus, there’s enough going on here to actually write a real review for a change

This is a virus adventure, with people in the town getting sick. I’m surprised that, given the pandemic, we’ve not seen more of these. You’re hired by courier, taking a ten day boat trip to the plague town to meet with the Lord Mayor. The ‘hired’ trope is not particularly well done, although there is a full page “fancy font” letter you can hand out. I love those. Props are a lost art and letter handouts are one of the last remaining. Anyway, it’s a little easy to get a plague town, breaking the immersion a bit and, most of all, a lost opportunity for some roleplaying efforts and scenes to set a mood. The “hired by the town” trope is boring as well, especially when just a hand wave as it is here. But, whatever, we’re playing D&D tonight. (And, I will leave unmentioned, the fact that the party arrives by ship in ten days and later walks only half a day to find the cause of the infection. Ug! Immersion again!)

It is, at this point, that things start to get better. A check-in line at the town, a sickly gnome at a desk wearing a mask, coughing in to it. A tavern with a sign that has a cat head sticking out of a caldron “The Boiled Cat.” Things are starting to look up! Further, the innkeep has a nice section called “What the innkeeper knows” laid out in an offset box with bullets. Nice! This trend continues for others people that the party are likely to talk to, at least within the bounds of the investigation play.

Let’s return, though, to The Boiled Cat. This simple thing, the naming of a tavern, is a degree of interesting content that is not usually seen in adventures, let alone 5e adventures. Not generic. It’s specific and not abstracted. This continues in other areas of the adventure. A delivery boy brings you supplies that you request, and he might keep some of it or charge more, etc, because his family is hurting. Again, an interesting interaction that can lead to more, either sympathy or annoyance with the boy. A young guard, Tim, worried about supporting his family, wanting work, wanting to not get sick or get them sick, torn between these things. This is not your usual generic shit, and, I think, works well because it effectively channels real world things in a way that still makes the game fun. It makes sense AND adds to experience in a fun way. The party can relate. 

The dungeon encounters are likewise interesting. Gibbering Mouthers as a failed experiment? Perfect! And they slither under doors! Even better, a fresh take! A grey ooze that looks like a rock. A treasure chest in a cell … that turns out to be a mimic. These all make sense as failed experiments, they surprise and delight and, for whatever reason, they are interesting takes on them. The party hearing a “slosh slosh” as a mouther stalks them on the ceiling. Specificity. Brief points of which shine like binding light in bringing an adventure to life. A flesh golem shoults “Freeeedoooommmm!” Every time it attacks. Great thing added to the encounter, you can imagine a tortured soul doing that. Also, it’s a clue that “Liberty” is the answer to the puzzle lock in the next room. Clever monkey. That’s good design. 

There are substantial downsides though.

I mentioned the long read-aloud, never a good thing. A substantial amount of information is communicated through diaries. This is almost always a bad decision, an easy crutch. THings are better when they are communicated more naturally, and, no, I don’t mean through the villain monologue. There should be more than enough possabilities, in an eighteen room lair, to get across the points made in the diaries. 

The plague is not very visceral. Like I said, its easy to get to town. There are not a lot of plague vignettes. There should be some cross-references, both from the lord mayor and the innkeeper, for plague information, so the DM can find that information easily when the party inevitable asks about it. Some of the plague victims in the infirmary have different symptoms than others. This would normally lead to follow up investigations for them … which are not provided at all. No, you get everything you need from the mayor int he first meeting. “My alchimist friend disappeared on Blood Cove a few days ago.” Uh huh. That’s the next step, allowing the party to skip the infirmary altogether. The town, the plague, the infirmary, they are all non-existent as far as the adventure is concerned, which is too bad, a serious lost opportunity. And only a Greater Restoration spell can cure people. There goes all the benefits of living in a magical ren faire world. 

The puzzles in the dungeon, though, are a low point. These are all pretty on the nose. A combination lock made of letters, level puzzle, and so on. The clues, likewise, are on the nose, with bits of paper left around with things like “CIRCLE = GOOD GOOD GOOD” and so on. Yeah, it serves a purpose, but its also about the easiest way possible to relate the clue and they show none of the creativity, either in the puzzle or the clues, tha the better encounters and NPC do. 

To finish up I’ll saw that the map tries to be artistic and it fails at that. Maps are hard, I get it. A simpler map would have been clearer. Or, at least a different color choice for the backgrounds which reproduce more clearly. There is a cute little art piece, masquerading as a town map, that I think gives the town a nice vibe though. It’s numbers, but I think it’s more art than map, unlike the lair proper. 

Not a bad effort for someone with no credits to their name! I’d run this before I ran a lot of other things, $17 or no.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $17. You can grab the entire things, obviously, but the preview is 20 pages also, giving you a good idea of what you are about to purchase.

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

The Valley of the Lost

By Allen Farr
Winterblight's Challenge
A Weariness in Soul

Seemingly created by mad gods, the Valley of the Lost has been reshaped as if all creation has been allowed to run amok. Will you succumb to the toxicity of the Path of Madness or meet your end in the darkness of the Path of Shadows? Perhaps the guardians of the Path of Light will be your undoing or will you wander endlessly on the Path of the Lost until you meet your demise? These are the dangers that must be endured to reach the Ascent of Kings and discover the Valley of the Lost.

I’m on a roll baby! 

This eleven page thing is nothing. It’s a setting guide, with little specifics, for a tv show. It’s a work of fiction aimed at a DM, to inspire them to create a game to run. It’s masquerading as an adventure, with a hex map, when it is, in fact, just an idea. “You could do something having to with many worlds.” ARG!

I find products like this frustrating. One the one hand, there is certainly a role for fluff books, books which inspire the DM or detail a background, or some such that a DM can expand upon. On the other hand, I seldom wan any fucking thing to do with them, especially when I’m looking for “an adventure.” The hex map here might fool you … there is no adventure here and it’s just generalized background and a few ideas. “There could be dinosaur people. You should make your own.”

There’s a long backstory about an evil wizard and summoning a nexus of worlds. This has almost nothing to do with this location. Any “possible worlds” isn’t really handled at all. I guess you could use it as an explanation for the various magical effects in the valley, but this ain’t Rifts, our Incredible Journey or anything like that. The only possible worlds is the background mentioning “a nexus of possible worlds.” And that’s the problem with this entire product.

It says things and doesn’t follow through. There could be dinosaur people and they should have different unique attacks. Go create them.” Uh … ok. It’s a nexus of worlds … with nothing related to a nexus of worlds. It has a pretty nice hex map full of features, icons, and the like. With no legend, disnace markings and NONE of the features detailed. Just little red dots on the maps. Not even a one sentence of them. Nothing. It’s like the map doesn’t exist at all for the purposes of the products.

Which isn’t exactly true. There are a number of passes in to the valley. “The path of Light/Darkness/Madness/Lost.” Each has some special effect and is shown on the map as a lightly fitted line. “You go could go mad on the paths of madness. The party should roll a save and the DM should come up with a suitable madness.” This is the extent of the detail in the adventure.

Like I said, I guess if you wanted fluff you could buy this. There’s even a product category on DriveThru called “Setting Guides.” Note that this is a completely separate category than “Adventures.” 

I’m so sick of this shit. 

“The GM should use the Places of Creation to come up with unique creatures, or even have the player characters undergo some kind of transition, perhaps gaining a new power or some deformity that hinders them.”

At one point there’s a page of gothic bold font, representing a journal entry, to describe a location. It is hard to read, meant only for the DM to inspire them. This is indicative of the entire product. A complete misunderstanding of what it should be doing. 

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview, of course, doesn’t work.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 7 Comments

The Plebeian #1 – The Lost Necklace

Tony Garcia
Levels 2-4

Rumors that a necklace with magical powers was stolen by a group of thieves and taken to the sewers of Crinsomwater. Brother Frederick of the Order of Worshipers of Transformed Lead is giving 400 gold pieces to recover this artifact.

This is the first issue of a bi-weekly (!) seven page zine, which uses six pages to describe an adventure: The Lost Necklace. It has eleven rooms in a sewer system and uses two pages to describe them. “Describe” being used in a loose manner of the word. Lacking meaningful content, this is a “get the red key to open the red door” adventure.

You got the picture from the intro: magic necklace stone. Party hired to go to the sewers to find it.

The town here has 920 residents, fourteen towers and a rather extensive city sewer system, since the eleven rooms here are in the sewers and are described as just a small part of them. And by “sewer system” I mean “a couple of descriptions mention the smell of shit but otherwise they are just normal old dungeon rooms.” A depressingly large number of rooms, almost half?, contain the line “roll for a random encounter in this room”, just as a nother room states that there are 1d6 zombies and another states to roll for a random treasure.

I have to ask: why do this? What value does a random roll add to the adventure? In the case of a wandering monster its obvious: this is a push your luck mechanic. Some items might have a random effect, that makes sense also. But why make a static encounter random? Why not, as a designer, create a treasure to be placed in the dungeon instead of relying on a roll on a book table? Isn’t that what we’re paying for, the designers creativity? The improper usage of randomness in old school adventures is an article tat needs to be written. I’ll make a mental note to do it and promptly forget.

The adventure is padded out. “If the group decides to attack then combat must be started, the adventure tells us. Well, yes, that is how things work. “You can investigate this room or continue through the door”, the read-aloud tells us in many of the rooms. Well, again, yes, that is how D&D works. These sorts of things just pad out the word count of an adventure, or, more precisely, steal words that could otherwise contribute to an evocative adventure. The adventure, of course has the obligatory paragraph of “This is set in our game world but as the DM you can adapt it your game world.” I should hope this is obvious to everyone. Again, empty content that could be used for ADVENTURE! How much effort was spent on these parts, the padding, the de rigueur, the randomness, when that effort could have been spent on the actual adventure?

In the sewers you come to a door with a skull lock. You need to find the skull key to open the skull lock and find the cross key to open the cross lock, later.*sigh*. Find the red key for the red door was a trope from long ago computer rpg’s. Actually, this feels more like a choose your own adventure, but whatever. It’s extremely simplistic design. We never do find out what the magic necklace does that you are sent to get; its just referred to as a magic necklace. 

The town is called Crimsonwater. This is because when it rains the ground looks like blood, thanks to the mud. THIS is a good detail. It’s not just dropped in the bs backstory/background and not emphasized through play in any way, at least not in a way that te DM could integrate it well, but this is the kind of specificity that brings an adventure to life. 

It is the sole example.

Keeping up any kind of publishing schedule every other week is going to be a full time job. I wish the designers well; if they can do it then they should let me know how so I can also.

This review is now being cut short because Prince Vultan, who is never more than a foot away from me all day every day, is incessantly pawing at my leg, telling me it’s time to pet him and brush him.  How can ignore someone telling them to love them?

This is Pay What You Want at Drivethru with a suggested price of $1. The preview shows you the entire adventure, so it’s a good preview, telling you exactly the type of content you’ll be getting so you can know before you buy.

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

A Wintry Death

Jason Duff
Earl of Fife Games
What's a level?

Our stores were empty and game was scarce. We pushed out further and further to find anything to fill our bellies. My family was starving and I knew it would not be long before the end. I hope I am not too late.

This 25 page adventure presents six VERY short scenes for the PC’s to encounter in the snow. The lack of actual content serves to demonstrate why we can’t have nice things.

I was reading about a guy who was visiting Zimbabwe. Everyone was super happy, in spite of the deteriorating state of things. Someone explained it to him: in Zimbabwe you don’t expect to find butter in the grocery store. When you do find it, you’re very happy. In the developed world you expect butter in the grocery store, so when you don’t find it you are unhappy. All I want is, to all day long, walk about enchanted, in ecstasy, like the gods I saw dancing in my dreams. Which model to you think _I_ fall in to?

There are six winter themed scenarios in this, and I use the term ‘scenario’ loosely. Maybe you cross a frozen lake and there are some fish in the lake that break through the ice to attack you. That’s one. It takes two pages. Another is that maybe you are caught in an avalanche; make a DEX check to avoid it. Again, another couple of pages. Or, you camp someplace and a Yet is there also. A couple of pages. I think you get where I’m going with this. What if every room in the kobolds lair in Borderlands were two pages long and didn’t really have any more content than they already do in B2? Ta da! Download burn it and ship it to Kansas and clean up with that filthy lucre!

This stuff takes place in “The Forever Winter” which sounds cool but isn’t really explored at all except for a couple of environmental rules. Each “scene” starts with four or five italics paragraphs, for the DM, to set the mood, kind of in a “characters journal” kind of voice. Meh. It does nothing. In one of the lengthier scenes, in a town, we are told “At least one person had survived this place and got out alive. The GM should consider who it might have been” … even though this has absolutely no bearing on the adventure at all. 

Design is terrible, with forced things all over place. “Make an int check to know what the undead dude said. If you fail and try to leave then you will get attacked. Too bad for not understanding the language and answering the riddle he is asking you.” Or you are “attacked” by red mist when leaving town. Make a DEX roll or take damage. Gee! Fun! 

A spectre comes from the rafters in a church. “These are some sort of insects have hid here and have been eating the interior wood.” I have no idea what that means. The spectrers are insects? Or they have been eating the rafters like insects? Again, it has no impact, so I’m confused. 

“Those that do not understand what is being said.” one of the complete sentences in the adventure tells us. Yeah. No shit. That’s why we use editors. Oh, wait, there was an editor on this. I have no idea.

How do you review something like this? How do you review an “Adventure” where the simplest thing takes two pages. When there is no meaningful content, and it’s just abstracted ideas, concepts that the DM might expand on, with no real assistance to the DM to do so? 

The grocery is out of butter again. In spite of knowing better, I still can’t get used to it.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages. You can see the “crossing the lake” encounter at the end of it, as well as the start of one of the longer scenes, the village. They represent the design and writing perfectly, so, good preview.–Adventure-for-OldSchool-Essentials?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 9 Comments