(5e) Gone Child, D&D adventure review

By John Walts
Dark Eagle Games
Level 3

A young girl has been abducted and the heroes join a posse to hunt the orcs who did it. But they face several terrible temptations while rescuing her.

This eight page adventure details elevent linear plot encounters in about three pages. It’s abstracted text, with lots of hemming and hawing in an attempt to not give details. The moral quandary is not really that tempting.

And the moral quandary is why I’m reviewing this. “Several temptations …” is something that caught my attention, in the marketing blurb. The deliciousness of temptation, the tension of making decisions, is one of the best parts of a RPG. I was hoping to see something that would really make the party sit up and take notice and really cause a quandry. One one hand you’ve got a hag who wants to keep the abducted little girl she is raising. You’ve also got an orc warlord that just wants the party to go away … that you are supposed to be killing to appease the hag. In both cases you’ve got an evil NPC asking the party to not interfere, and offering something in return. In theory, this is a great set up. I always like to say that you can resort to stabbing a monster at any time, but a little roleplaying first makes the encounter all the better (in general.) And this adventure is going down that path. But in both instances the offered temptation is not really enough to make it worth the party selling out. Save a little girl or get a chest with some furs and wine in it from the orc warlord? This being 5e, monetary rewards are kind of meaningless anyway, since they don’t lead to XP and they tend to be rather small … maybe 1500 gp worth in this case. The hags offer is a little better, she’ll add 50% to your lifespan if you just go away and leave her the girl. Both, though, are kind of abstracted rewards (because of the cash situation in 5e.) One day the hag will eat the girl, when she grows old and dies. Is leaving her worth the 50% more lifespan? These rewards are not enough. Sure, the DM can modify and/or it could be situational, the party might NEED that 50%, but in general the selling point of the adventure, the quandry, is not really a temptation at all. Even _I_ would go all Righteous Justification on those two, and I love me some NE playstyle. 

The adventure, proper, is abstracted in a way that is not good. The designer notes this up front, saying that he prefers a more outline style of style instead of spelling everything out. In general, I would agree. The overwritten text of adventures is a thing of legend, and pushing back against that is laudable. But the designer goes too far in to the abstracted format. There is a mob of peasants forming to go get the girl, and a sheriff leading them, but the mob is entirely abstracted and the sheriff all but so. No real names, personalities, or flavour to help the DM out and add tension and memorable moments to the game. Now, I’m NOTT calling for overwritten text, but specificity is needed to ground a DM and get them headed in the right direction, a shove as it were, and that’s just not present here. That mob would have been a great place to have a paragraph or a few sentences on, but nothing. And this is a pattern that repats over and over again.

Up to and including the lack of maps. I don’t need a map, and certainly not a tactical one, but the text is confusing when it describes the battle environments and a map, even a simple line drawing, would have cleared that up easily. Further, it would have added, hopefully, some tactical options in places like two guard dogs outside of the hags home.

I’m quite disappointed with the complete lack of any meaningful description. The hag, the orc camp, the mob, nothing is covered in any way to lead the DM to a good encounter. There needs to be something, not a lot, but something, to spark those DM juices. Just saying “its a giant hag” is boring as hell. Generic. 

[I will note without further comment the designers comments that this should be a storytelling game, and the DM’s goal being to elicit emotions and entertain the players, as well as noting tha the classic “5 room dungeon” format was used..]

It’s a generic outline of a linear adventure without tension. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1. The preview is five pages and you get a good idea of the adventure from it, since it shows all of the encounters. There is one good moment, in a text box, but the rest of the genericism should be self evident from it.


Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 1 Comment

(5E) The Secrets of Skyhorn Lighthouse, D&D adventure review

By Kelsey Dionne
Self Published
Level 5

Rumors of a rampaging sea monster have ground shipping traffic to a halt in the harbor. The characters discover that the Jade Lion has gone missing near Skyhorn Lighthouse and learn they must brave the open seas and cutthroat enemies in order to save the crew from a murky fate!

This 24 page adventure features around eight “one page each” scene based encounters. It’s a great example of forum plus function and what can be achieved when a designer has a vision and doesn’t go in to autopilot mode. The choices made in the design make sense given the assumptions and should work out well in play. Kelsey Dionne joins that rare group of designers who have earned the description “Not a fucking idiot.” 

I believe that old school D&D, exploratory D&D, provides a substantially different experience, and a superior experience, than alternative forms of D&D. Those other forms are closer, I think, to story based indie-rpg’s. I also recognize that story based D&D has been around since about 1978 and became the dominant form around 3 or so, I’d guess, and is the way the vast majority of people play D&D and have fun with it. (and by “D&D, i mean “fantasy role playing”) And since drinking beer, eating pretzels and having fun with friends while escaping the crushing ennui of life IS the main point of ALL D&D, I’ll take it. 

The point of all of that is that modern fantasy RPG’s are DIFFERENT THINGS. Different things require different formats to support their different assumptions. In a social adventure it doesn’t make sense to have a room/key format since it’s not an exploratory adventure … it’s a social adventure. And yet, most adventures don’t recognize that they are writing for different assumptions. They stubbornly stick to the old formats that were optimized for other assumptions, if they put any thought in to it at all. But not Kelsey. Kelsey has put some thought in to what’s trying to be accomplished and has made decisions about the adventure, formatting, etc, that directly support those assumptions. And does a good fucking job at it as well.

Modern fantasy RPG’s are essentially scene based RPG’s. The adventure is designed around that. You get a page of overview/summary, describing how the adventure is going to unfold. This primes the DM for what is to come, generally a necessary step to fully leveraging the DM as a resource to expand your adventure and their brain to accept the coming information. Then there’s a page of hooks/little scenes. Then there are eight pages that describe, one page each, the eight scenes in the adventure. A few pages of maps and appendices round things out. Eight pages. One per scene. You read the overview. Great. You’re set now to run the adventure. The players do a couple of shots each and grab their 40’s/Mad Dog to sit down. The DM runs the hooks from the hooks page.  The adventure starts. The DM uses one page per scene to run the games. Everything they need is on that page. Its available there, at a glance. It’s laid out with bullet points and offset text, with good bolding. It’s easy to scan and run the scene, embellishing as necessary. There’s a little text in a couple of bullets, maybe two, that give an atmosphere or physical description of the scene. It makes sense and the DM can build from it. NPC’s are easy to locate. They have a six word appearance, a six word mannerism and a six word secret and are easy to grok and run at a glance. The secret might actually lead to interesting play, in some situations. So far so good, right? Scene based, once scene per page. Not exactly an innovation, either, but when taken together the start to formulate the basis of that modern D&D assumption. Then, Kelsey adds “Dramatic Question.” This is an explicit section. This is what the scene is about. This is what is going on. “Can you X?” And then, the scene ends with a transition. Again, another explicit section that tells the DM what to do when the dramatic question is answered. “Ascend the stairs from the island docks to the lighthouse.” for example. It makes sense. The four elements, all taken together, with the formatting/style choices … this is a great format for most adventures being published. It works. It’s immediately obvious it works. It’s immediately obvious that most adventure should be written this way, regardless of system, if it’s not exploratory D&D. I won’t say it’s the ONLY way, but it should be obvious to every designer that this format is a good one and easy to mimic in their own adventures. 99% of DMsGuild and DriveThru adventures should be formatting this way, designed this way.

And yet, there’s room for improvement.

Kelsey includes a section of the adventure in which the design choices made, the formatting choices, etc, are justified. It’s sad that has to be done, but, whatever. In it it is noted that the DM is to embellish the descriptions. That’s correct. A good adventure inspires the DM with the physical description. The DM then takes that and embellishes that as they see fit and/or where the game goes. (In contrast to the standard overwritten and long description. No, this is not a case of personal preference, unless you prefer eating garbage.) But, this requires a strong inspiration from the designer. Kelsey does a good job with this, certainly above average, but could do better. The first scene, on the docks, has a two bullet description, the faint glimmer of a lighthouse on a small island a few miles out to sea, and the docks choked with ships, quiet compared with the normal bustle of activity. I’ll take this any day of the week over the overwritten garbage that is choking the hobby. And, you can even see signs of good writing. Docks CHOKED with ships. That’s good imagery. And I get where the lighthouse thing is going. Both, however, are not given room to breathe and even, I would assert, are reigned in. A SMALL island. Small is a boring word. That whole second clause deflates the first one, the glimmering. A second sentence should puff it up more, instead of bringing it down using “small” and “a few miles out.”  Likewise the ship description. The choking bit is GREAT. Perfect imagery. But then it is reigned back in with “quiet compared to …” IE: boring. Drunken sailors, dice games, or even unearthly quiet, maybe … either would have heightened the description instead of “normalizing” it with “its quieter than normal.” I find this common in the adventure … most of the text is spot on but the scene overviews, the location description where the scene takes place, gets short shrifted. It’s not given the room to breathe it should, and in some cases I’d suggest that iconic “views” that should be in the adventure are not present at all in a meaningful  way  … the lighthouse and island in particular. 

But … it’s a good adventure. A water elemental “coughs up” treasure when killed. (Nice solution to a treasure problem in the ocean … and a good word choice.) The monster descriptions START with the physical description, what is most relevant to the DM when running the game. There’s a monster reference in the form of “combat cards” for the DM to use to run the fights. I could bitch more about interactivity beyond “talking and fighting” and more about a certain magic item that is key to the adventure and yet unlootable … but thats nitpicking compared to the rest. It’s a good adventure and Kelsey Dionne is NOT a fucking idiot. That means that until a Kelsey work is bastardized by a third party publisher, you can trust future work from this designer. Man, I really have a hard time saying something is good, don’t I? It is, of course, one of the Best, but, also, ther Not A Fucking Idiot means that you can probabally buy Kelsey’s stuff in the future and know its good. As with Chainsaw’s works, when a publisher is involved things might change, but self-published by Kelsey should be a sign of quality.
This is Pay What You Want over at DMsguild with a suggested price of $0. Nineteen fucktards gave it three stars, three gave it two stars and one gave is one star. Well, fuck those asshats. 


Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 5, Reviews, The Best | 18 Comments

Perpetual Temple of the Pale Falcon, D&D adventure review

By Sean Smith
Self Published
Levels 1-2

Rampaging hordes of goblinoids have been laying siege to follies and keeps in the outer regions of the duchy. The palace mage Xi’Gag has formed a plan to blunt the assault, but is missing a key item of power – the time record, which lies ensconced in the mysterious Temple of the Pale Falcon. You have been conscripted to join a party tasked with its recovery.

This four page dungeon adventure features three levels and about thirty rooms. It’s a tight package, easy to run, with some interesting choices to be made by the party and situations. I hesitate to say this for fear of what the future holds, but, the designer seems to understand how D&D is played. Alas, it tends to the “too terse” side of the spectrum, but better there than the alternative.

“YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF [THE] TIME RECORD IS NOT [TAKEN]!” states the first line of the publishers blurb on DriveThru. Ought oh! Sez I, someones got a bug up their ass! This train wreck should be fun … but, wait, no! This is something else! Not a monument to some fantasy heartbreaker regarding the correct use of TIME by the DM, but, rather, some designer poking the fun at an oft-quoted Gygax admonishment. Someone knows what they are doing.

How do I know this? “Doos are stuck 1-in-6.” Bam! Done. Moving on. “Areas 1-6, floors are marble flagstone throughout” Bam! Done! “Roll encounters each turn 1-in-12, or whenever the party makes a racket. 1-4 of whichever creatures are closest will investigate.” Bacm! Done! That fucking shit it T I G H T! Not a lot of bullshit. Just focused directions to the DM. Pertinent information. Information you need to run the thing. A simple mechanic for wanderers that it is easy to handle and makes sense. Nice!

The second level of this complex is time locked. Some rooms are in a kind of stasis. If you touch something in the room with something organic then they room “comes to life”, unfrozen from time. It’s a short, sweet mechanical description, two sentences. Perfect. And those rooms that are time locked? Stuffed FUCKING FULL of treasure and creatures. An ogre wearing three fantastic rings. Some hobgoblins around a chest with 4000gp. Ghouls, one wearing  diadem. This is CLASSIC D&D push your luck, in a gold=xp game. You want the loot. The loot is XP. You’re drooling for it. Do you dare? What zany scheme do you dream up for a massive first strike on the occupants? Again, this shows an understanding of the heart of D&D and the scenarios in play contribute to that. 

But …

It’s got some issues and they almost entirely stem, I think, from the chosen format. It looks to me like the adventure was limited to four pages as a kind of design choice. And it is here that nuance in critique must take place. If I were judging adventures that could only be four pages long then I’d give this one great marks. It’s stuffed full for four pages, not wasting time on bullshit. It uses its four pages very well.  But … only four pages? Clearly an artificial design choice. (I know, from my artificial “two page/six page” Black Maw project.) Because of this there are constraints, I assume, in making the adventure better. The place is a temple, with one antechamber outside, but there’s no real description of it. Most of the rooms are lacking a real visceral description. About the best of the descriptions might be something like this: “Every ten foot section of the west and east walls feature a shallow niche. ?1-6 skeletons remain in these niches, each wielding a scythe and wearing a cowl.” The scythe and cowl are nice details. The niches with scythe & cowl conjure up some decent imagery. But, while above average, not really as visceral as it could be. “Crypt: 1-6 ghouls sit cross-legged. One ghouls wears a diadem worth 900gp.” That description can be better. But, probably not in a dungeon with thirty rooms in four pages. (Although, about half a page is blank and the fourth page is just a “players map” type thing.) There are other weird little things also, like descriptions from level to another or one room to another not lining up. Maybe we can point to the “out of time” effect, but “the hole has a ladder” seems like a simple thing to put in on the top room as well as bottom room. 

I like where this thing is going. The designer knows what they are doing. Sure, the thing is a little TOO terse, and could have made better use of the page count they DID have, with the player map and half blank page, but better too terse than too verbose … as long as its not minimally keyed. I can run this. It’s easy. Almost no prep required. Sure, the map is a pain, but maps are always a pain. You have to learn mapping software to make a decent one, or scrawl legible to hand draw one, so features, like “hole in the middle of the floor:” don’t always make it in, or, “caverns” show up as perfect round circles.  

A decent attempt though. Better descriptions without greatly adding to the word count of the rooms. Spend some time making a slightly better map. A little more context, but not much more. It FEELS a little procedurally generated and could use more cohesion. But, not a bad effort.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is all four pages, so, good preview! Take a look at it; it’s just a hair short of me recommending it but I’m sure many folks will love it.


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

The Cook at the Crossroads, adventure review

By Jason Duff
Earl of Fife Games
Mork Borg

You find yourself at a quaint and idyllic inn. The sights and smells are all perfect to rest your weary bones. But the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as your sixth-sense tells you something is wrong. 

This thirteen page digest adventure involves one scene in an inn. It’s not organized in any meaningful way and I find it hard to believe that you can get two to three hours of play time, as advertised out of it. Sure, spend your money on it. Whatever.

You come across a quaint idyllic country inn. (Danger Wil Robinson! Danger!) The family is super nice and the rabbit pie is great and it’s very comfortable. (Danger danger! High Voltage!)  When you go to sleep you find rocks in your bed that say “In the barn.” In the barn you find a bunny pen. Make a save and you see them as trussed up humans yelling for help. An illusion fey then attacks you. Everything else is “how to get the party to the barn if they don’t go there.” 

I don’t know. What do you want me to say here? You want me to talk about encounter density? The idea that you can have one idea and stretch it out to a large number of pages in order to justify some arbitrary price? “Oooo! High page count! It must be worth it!” When in reality a high page count causes me to think nothing other than “How the fuck will this one be padded out?” Those little two page thingies maybe a something I avoid but at least they are not padding out to an excessive amount.

Play time? Two to three hours? Seriously? To stop by the inn and go to the barn? I often use the phrase “sit at the table, bored” to describe my interest in plot based scenarios. It’s no wonder people pull out cell phones if this is the degree of engagement expected. 

So, you’ve got this one combat, I guess. Certainly D&D is MUCH more than combat, but let’s talk about this one. How can you make combat interesting? You could make it some kind of cat and mouse thing. Use the environment, Night of the Living Dead style, to fend off a creature. Or you could go the way this adventure does and just say that the thing attacks. No real advice on using the illusion powers it has. No real tactical options since there’s no maps and nothing given on anything to make the scenario more interesting. Just make your save and see the fluffy bunnies and get attacked. 

The writing style/organization? Just paragraph after paragraph with “first this happens and then this happens” with some major bolded words every couple of pages as a section heading to provide an option for the players not going to the barn, sleeping, whatever they do to NOT go to the barn. Paragraph after paragraph is no way to write an adventure. If you find yourself, in encounter areas, writing multiple paragraphs to describe something, or the course of the adventure, then you’ve made some kind of terrible mistake. Paragraph style is useful to orient the DM the first time the adventure is read through by the DM. After that first time, while the adventure is being run at the table, this sort of “just a plain paragraph, once after another” is the worst way possible to orient information. Bold a few words. Better section  headings. Use of whitespace to organize. Maybe bullets. SOMETHING. Nope. 

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is five pages. The last page of the preview, and maybe the one before it, are good examples of the writing style you will find throughout. Is that’s what you want your adventure to be, have at thee. I think it stinks. It’s also not obvious, from the preview, that this IS the adventure and that’s the style used throughout, without having seen the entire adventure. So, poor preview. 


Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | Leave a comment

Belly of the Beast, adventure review

By Paul Elkmann, Geoff Dale
Spellbook Games
Portal to Adventure
Levels 1-2

[…] Adventurers have been captured and are dropped into an underground area housing a fearsome beast, their heads covered and their hands bound. A secret ally has hidden equipment in the dungeon, if Adventurers can find it, and there are means to escape.  The Adventurers start with nothing so they have to think creatively about both weapons and tactics. […]

This eighteen page adventure contains a five level dungeon with about 77 rooms. While it is is more interactive than the usual fare, at least of late, its text is devoted to mechanics over description and I suspect it is a son of a bitch in the difficulty department.

There is a subgenre of adventures where the party gets chucked in to the dungeon, at first level, without any equipment. This is one of those. And the adventure is interesting to me because its text serves as classic example of several problem areas with writing adventures.

First, there is the issue of making rolls to do common things. A classic example is the making of a skill roll to, say, walk down a hallway. In this adventure you get make a saving throw roll to stand up when you fall down. Yes, the second thing in the adventure is a saving throw roll to stand up. You get chucked in to the dungeon and make a save or take 1d3 damage. (If Portal to Adventure is an actual oD&D clone then ¾ of the party is now dead …) and then you have to make another one when you try to stand up. In another place you have to make a saving throw to remove the spear from a statues hands. No trap. Nothing bad happens. You just need to make the roll in order to actually remove the spear. I recall many, many advice columns and articles, in the 3e era, trying to convince DM’s that the party didn’t need to actually make a roll to do common things like ride a horse normally, and so on. I guess it didn’t take. I’ve never really understood this, or the counter-advice columns that encouraged DM’s to “get the party rolling some dice early in the session.” There’s this kind of meaningless dice rolling that goes on in adventures that just doesn’t make sense to me. Why roll the dice to get some boring bit of info? To stand up? To get the key bit of info? We know the DM is going to fudge anyway, so why does it exist? I always imagine the probability where no one makes their roll and, while the entire party having survived the fall, can’t make a common roll to stand up and spend the rest of the adventure wriggling around like fish on the floor. Ah, Good Times, Good times … so, prepare yourself for an endless number of meaningless dice rolls in this adventure.

And then there’s traps. Lots of traps. LOTS of traps. None with any warning. This highlights two problems. The first is the way “hidden” traps slow down the game. If the trap has no warning for a clever player to pick up on then the traps springs and players dies/take damage/etc. Players then begin searching for traps. Making roll after roll after roll after roll after roll. It becomes tedious. It slows the game down. A random pit trap in the middle of a hallway is almost always bad design. The second issue is that aforementioned “lack of clue.” When the DM drops a hint, of, say, a discolored floor, then the smart party will follow up, investigate, and discover the trap. It’s interactive. The party and DM are going back and forth. That’s D&D. Without warning of trap the DM simply calls to the players to make a save and take damage. Mindless dice rolling. Bad D&D.

There are other things wrong with this. Light not mentioned on the map, or in big rooms that you can see from far away. Mislabeled map, etc. But, the room writing style is worth considering as a good example of a style gone bad.

Ok, out of the way up front, any writing style can be good as long as it makes it easy for the DM to effectively locate/scan for information. A small subgenre of room descriptions are “Sticky”, like Old Bay in Fight On!, and don’t need much scanning. With that in mind, I’m now going to talk about a specific bad style. Or, at least, an instance that is bad of a neutral writing style.

This style might be given an example of “This is the first thing in the room. This is everything about the first thing in the room. This is the second thing in the room. This is everything about the second thing in the room. This is the third thing in the room. This is everything about the third thing in the room. (and so on.)”

This style can make scanning the room difficult. The party walks in. What do they see? Room nine, in this adventure, is a great example. It has two paragraphs, spread across two pages (which is, in and of itself, a bad layout thing. Guy Fullerton has a great write up on why in his series of layout articles.) 

9. Brick Walkway. The flooring here is brick with a 10 FT-diameter white stone cicle in the floor surrounding a lion’s head. There are dark red smears on the floor at the south end. A 3-ft brick wall is along the east side with a 15 FT drop from the top to the sany area to the east. A fresco inlaid in the west wall depicts two Manticores fighting in a clearing of a palm jungle. A lit oil lamp is attached to the [page break] west wall by a brass bracket. Two ordinary human-sizex skeleton are on the floor (three large bones can be used as 1d3 clubs) with gnaw marks. [Then the second paragraph.]

Skeletons last. But that’s likely to be the FIRST thing the party cares about. You, the DM, are digging through this text trying to describe the room to the party when they come upon it. You don’t know it’s lit till near the end. The skeletons (and arguably the light) are the first things the party will want to know about. You have to dig and dig and dig to find the things needed. Better keyword bolding would have helped the DM pick out information, or better use of white space/breaks, or a different style altogether. For beginner writers I think it’s easier to use a style that gives a general overview up front, without a lot of detail and then follows up, with bolded keywords and the like, with more information about the items. “You see a lit room with frescoes on the wall and floor, a low brick wall, and two skeletons near it.” The party can then follow up with questions about the lighting, skeletons, frescoes, wall, etc. Interactivity between the party and DM. The soul of D&D. 

Anyway, this thing DOES have a decent number of things to play with in it. Statues with heads to lift off, quicksand to play with, and not TOO many creatures, maybe a dozen encounters total? The writing in the rooms is confused, the adventure is probably too difficult for Level 1’s, especially when they can’t retreat (but I’m judging it by B/X standards, not by the standards of the system it’s written for, even though it implies its OD&D like.) And, the writing style is a little boring, using boring words and devoting the bulk of description to facts and mechanics rather than interesting descriptions. Evocative, terse, well organized, interactive. That’s what an adventure should be. Better than the overwritten modern stuff, but “at least its not over written” is not exactly high praise.

This is $1 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Adventures should have previews, showing some rooms, so we know what to expect before we buy things. 


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

Neverland, a Fantasy Role-playing Setting, review

By Andrew Kolb
Andrew McMeel Publishing

EXPLORE THE ISLE OF MISCHIEF & MYSTERY: Many have heard of the island of Neverland. Stories of pirates, mermaids and Peter Pan are told by parents around the world to send their children off to a happy, dreaming sleep. But, it’s been a long time since the Darlings first flew to Neverland and a new story is about to be told. Your own.

This 171 page booklet details the island of Neverland, from Peter Pan, and it’s 26 hexes, politics, and creatures. Pretty strong usability support a deadly, yet recognizably whimsical/twisted place. It falls down on both evocative descriptions and Adventure Motivation, the later of which is essentially handed by an adventure generator. I think I’m terrible at reviewing campaign settings, but, really, if its organized as a hex crawl then what’s the difference? If I wanted to run a darker Peter Pan themed game then this is worthwhile with substantially more usability than your typical fluff-based campaign setting.

Not that there’s anything wrong with fluff. I like it too, but I don’t think it’s very reviewable. Thus the focus on this thing as a hex crawl. And, in fact, it’s organized as a hex crawl, making it substantially more usable than most settings. It has about 26 hexes, all with something going on in them, and about half or so with some kind of dungeon/lair in it. The last forty or so pages of this book are fiction, so you’re getting about 140 pages of actual content, most of which are new monsters. 

The very first content page of the book gives a general overview of what’s going on in Neverland, organized by the group/faction. This is GREAT. It’s a large book, with a lot going on. Having a one page summary orients the DM to what’s going on and gets their framing together. Now, when they look over a hex that talk about spiders they have more context in to which to place the information; their allies, enemies, goals, etc. Providing context, up front, is a great tool to get the DM s mind in the right place for the follow up information to come. Disney does it with their line queues. You could even think of the “room name” or a keyed encounter doing the same thing. 11 (text) or 11: Library or 11: Spooky Library or 11: Gloom-filled Library might be thought of as various ways to present a key to a DM, with, as it should be obvious, degrees of orienting the DM to the coming content. 

The hexes themselves are laid out one to a page. You get a short little description of a couple of paragraphs, few sentences, a map showing it in context to other hexes, a little isometric art view, and note of some window dressing of what happens in the hext during the twice a day “the chimes” go off, as well as about four or five tables to generate content for the hex. Hex travel time is covered up front, each hex being 2 miles, taking four hours to cross as dense jungle … which solves most of the problems of “what can i see in the next hex.” Encounters can be dense, with things generally rolled once an hour or so in a hex, with some significant variation to that timeline through a specific mechanic mentioned. Still, good service of hex travel and encounter generation.

The creatures have a good lore section each, mostly just a tacked on sentence, that is GREAT! Undead dwarves need to be turned face down to keep them from re-rising, for example. This sort of brief hit specificity is present all throughout the setting. Oracular portents, etc, get the same treatment. It’s consistently done at a pretty high level and that creates a campaign setting that FEELS like a place, because of the specificity, but doesn’t feel overwhelming to run … for the most part. The setting comes alive and you are, I think, excited to run it with the possibilities. And the darker twists, like what actually happens to the kids that come to neverland, are generally present throughout, making this a good setting for role-playing. 

There are alwo, however, numerous misses in the adventure/hex crawl. Cross-references are non-existent. This means that when a hex encounter tells you that you find the dungeon/lair in that hex then you must then dig through the book to find the page it is on. SOME of that can be handled by the Table of Contents, but a simple cross-ref would have worked better. Plus, “the farmer” and “the gatehouse keeper” seems like they could an explicitly cross-ref, given their lack of inclusion in the ToC, yes? Not the end of the world, but not great.

Monsters/creatures, also get some piss poor descriptions. For all their great “one sentence lore” inclusion they essentially have no descriptions at all. Maybe a brief illustration, but the first line of nearly every monster entry in every product should be some visceral description for the DM to use on the players, or inspire the DM when the players encounter the creature. Not here; there’s essentially none. And that lack of evocative description spills over in to the locations, encounters, etc. While the general setting details are present for how Neverland works, the locations themselves are presented in a very fact-based manner [using bullets, so the information is quite easy to find in most cases. This thing is, but for the cross-references, a triumph of organization and ease of use.] But facts themselves do not inspire.

And, of course, it’s really a setting, so there are no real adventures. There’s a table for generating some ideas, as well as another one with about twenty more specific ideas. But, it feels … empty? As if everyone in Neverland is simply repeating the same things and going through the motions. Go find X for Y, or keep an eye on Z and report back to A. The lack of specificity in the room keys is also an explicitly decision the designer made and I don’t think a good one. 

And then there’s the supplemental tables. These are wedged in to the back section of the book, but not the VERY end of the book. AT the very end they would have been easy to flip to and find, in a print version. And some, like, what is the creature in the hex doing and why, are critically important to locate quickly during the game. These sorts of tables should be at the end, beginning, middle … someplace they are easy to locate during play.

Finally, the notion of themes. Going Home, What it Means, Parents. Themes from Peter Pan, the book. This is mentioned in one brief paragraph at the beginning. This could have been strengthened quite a bit with some examples, or, even, examples in the individual NC”s, creatures, or hexes/locations. That would have made the thing MUCH stronger and, even, I think, solved some of the “what do we do now” syndrome that the generic adventure generator tries to solve.

I don’t usually review settings, but, this is more hex crawl with a strong setting element, some hybrid of the two, perhaps. More cohesive than a normal hex crawl but less specific in the actual adventure possabilities. It’s a great work and, brining your own ideas for adventure, could be the basis for a great campaign. But, as a stand alone resource for a hex crawl it leaves too much to be desired. 

The pdf is $20 at DriveThru. The preview is ten pages. You get to see the overview page I like, as well as some of the specifics of the island and that should be enough to give you a general idea of the flavour and writing style. Alas, the hex formats and dungeons differ greatly, and the preview would benefit by showing a page each of those instead of, say, the title page of the book. 


Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 3 Comments

JN2: Monkey Isle, D&D adventure review

By J.D. Neal
Self Published
Levels 4-6

Rising out of the vast emptiness of the blue ocean is a lush green island filled with ancient beasts and scattered strange ruins waiting to be explored.

This 54 page hex-crawl adventure uses about thirty pages to clone the Isle of Dread, but without the kelpies/kelies/whatever-they-are-called. Instead you get monkey people. It’s from 2015 and it FEELS like an old OSR adventure, with generic encounters and long writing. 

It’s Dread. It’s a primitive island off the sea paths. There are some good villages and a bad village. Dinosaurs, etc. You wander around the island, I guess looking for loot? It’s a classic older hex crawl. By which I mean: not very good.

You need a couple of things for a hex crawl to work well. First, the players needs to be motivated to explore. Why are they crawling? Are there rumors? Are they trying to accomplish something, looking for something, etc? You need a purpose. This don’t have that. Basically, you sail around the island and the DM might tell you that you see a path, or mountains, or something. Maybe you will go explore. Maybe not, I guess. You can also trek overland, but, again, why? Rumors of gold. Rumors of temple (which usually have gold …) Rumors of Magic, Rumors of SOMETHING are needed to get the party moving. That’s not here. The most you get is is in the hook: you capture some pirates, they have old gold and said they got it from an old temple on the island. That’s not much to go on.

There’s also little in the way of hex crawling rules present. (My apologies if this is in the BFRPG book.) Travel speeds, noted on the map? No. How far can you see/what can you see, to draw the curious eye and lead the party to another place? Nope. And, even if they WERE in the BFRPG book, putting the tables on the mps here would help the DM run it , as a kind of reference sheet. Vision, especially, is important in a hex crawl. You want to lure the party, and give them motivations for moving and going places, by what they see in the distance, with the map set up to encourage some of that.

And then there’s the encounters. There’s a wanderer table that is essentially 100 entries from a monster manual. Just list about a hundred entries and put them on a table. Everything from intelligent humanoids to, of course, a heavy dino  population. They don’t do anything, so no help in running the encounters. AND they are pretty frequent; roll a d6 six times a day and encounter on a 1 … that’s gonna chew up an old style D&D-healing party with low HP. And the island encounters proper, about twenty of them, read more like decent wandering monster encounters. They go a little something like: “ANT MOUND: Rising out of the grass is a huge ant mound. The ants will appear 1d6 at a time if it is disturbed. Inside the mound are 1,500 gp in nuggets. Each nugget has been molded into the rough shape of a humanoid insect.” Pretty brief encounter, but with little to recommend it … unless it were a wandering monster encounter. And a decent portion of the normal encounters are just monsters attacking you. It’s weird. Again, more like real encounters than a hex crawl encounter. (Not the review of Isle of the Unknown for a more detailed analysis of what makes a good hex crawl encounter.)

Twenty island encounters, but about nine villages (a couple of evil ones) and ten or so ocean encounters and about seven temple complexes/lairs with about a dozen rooms each. And all described in a pretty basic way. There IS decent interactivity in the temples complexes, more than a just fighting, and there ARE some roleplay opportunities in the villages. Certainly, the villagers are generally better than the long drawn out Dread ones. These are shorter. Both products, though, could have used some village personalities and some intrigue to get things going a little better.

The island is PACKED with humanoids. Besides the human villages (8?) there are also intelligent ape villages, pygmy villages, lizardmen, trogs, cavemen, evil elves, orcs … and just about every other intelligent humanoid possible in a monster manual. And the island is relatively small. Where teh fuck do all these people hang out? Better, I think, to have more repetition in the humanoids and make the island feel less like a humanoid zoo.

It’s a very basic adventure, like the kind you might from the early days of the OSR. When encounters were generic and descriptions abstracted … and yet there was some knowledge of the interactive portions of the game. 

There’s still not a good Dread adventure, IMO.

The PDF is free at the BFRPG site. 

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

Pretty Little Lairs: The Squid God of Wraith Isle, D&D adventure review

By Randy Musseau
Roan Studios
Levels 2-5

Player Characters are hired to retrieve a sample of water from a long-sealed temple atop an island peak. The coastline around the island is the domain of vile fish-folk known as Skulp, and the temple holds secrets best left unopened.

I loaded sixteen tons and what did I get?

This 48 page adventure describes an island with about ten locations, several of which are caves with about ten or locations also. It manages, in 48 pages, to do almost nothing. Abstracted, generic text full of stabbing with little in the way of specificity to fire the soul. Or clues to solve the mystery of the island.

I hate adventures like this. Someone clearly poured some effort in to this, and they came away with something that is boring. And these things are hard to review. How does one effectively communicate the absence of something? In a world in which people talk about Liking What You Like, a reviewer is always challenged to communicate WHY the choices made are substandard. About now someone always pops up and says everything is subjective. Which, I guess it is. But we can also judge things by how the majority of people will accept something. No doubt someone thinks that the Garfield movie is a cinematic masterpiece and Barry Lyndon is crap and they are always happy to chime in. But, with analysis, we can go deeper than “Well, _I_ liked it.” But you have to say why.

Generic Sucks. Abstraction Sucks. They provide nothing for the DM’s mind to latch on to. A well written adventure will cause the DM to be excited about the various elements. They will spring to life in their mind. Andthe DM, with a fuller picture in their head, will better communicate it to their players. Jabbing an idea in to the DM’s head. Brining it to life. This is the essence of the Evocative Writing pillar I harp about. It’s hard. But without it you get:

C. Main Chamber. A large circular cavern divided by a 2 feet (.6 m) high natural stone wall. Beyond the wall are tunnels to the left and right.

Stunning, isn’t it? Is your soul alive now? Are you excited to run Main Chamber? Another room, the Skulp (Kuo Toa) leaders chamber has a small fortune in pearls, coral, and jade. That’s the sum total of the room description. The rest of the key tells us he’s larger than a normal Skulp, making him the default leader, and he’s been in this role for several months. Exciting, isn’t it? He’s not even located in this room. *sigh* How about another room with a “large rock formation.” And yet, these rooms are LONG. They drone on an on with backstory and generic, abstracted descriptions of things using boring words like “large” and “big.” Thirty some pages of this (the rest being maps) and almost not actual detail at all. Detail doesn’t have to be long, but it has to be specific. Ditch most of the backstory. Sacrifice the words that tell the DM what the map already shows. Delete most explanations of HOW and WHY, because they don’t contribute to actual play. Use that freed up word count, or fewer, to add some detail. Maybe an iridescent mane on the leader? Or the rock formation made of skulls,some still dripping with viscera? Hanging tree roots, ala 13th Warrior, are always a good way to spice up a cave. Specific instead of abstracted. 

“The alchemist” hires you to bring back some water from the temple. I’m prone is hyperbole, but you get NOTHING on the alchemist. No name. No quirks. No real reward even. This adventure confuses “written for any system” for “needs to be generic” and that’s simply not the case.

The map is a disaster. It shows keys for areas three and four, but they are not mentioned in the text. Maybe it’s the Skulp lair? Who know. 

Encounter two is a stone path up the mountain. The crazy priest has left skeletons on it in several places to guard it. That’s it. That’s all you get. This is what $5 gets you on DriveThru. 

And the encounters are almost all combat. Just go in a cave and stab some stuff. Repeat. That’s not exciting or fun. That’s not exploration. That’s not social. That’s killing your players by boredom. Roll the dice. YAWN. Did we win D&D yet? 

The key to the magically sealed temple is in the Skulp lair, which, I think, is not easily found. There are no hints to this. Just follow the linear path up the mountain and, I guess, come back down again? 

48 pages of this. (ok, 35 or so.) This is nothing. NOTHING. There’s nothing to this. It’s like an algorithm wrote this using a boring thesaurus. “Possible encounters along the way will also add to the dangers of the mission.” But, it’s not going to run. Because any sane person, buying this, is going to bit file it and turn to something else. 

Yet more grist for the DriveThru mill. Yet more cynicism for buyers and dreamers. 

I got a rock.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages. It shows you none of the encounters, so it’s a shitty shitty preview. You need to know what you’re buying, that’s the purpose of the preview. HOWEVER, the generic writing present in the preview is present throughout, even though the preview pages are some of the best of the adventure. Joy.


Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 22 Comments

Australis Barrows – The Halls of Eternal Ice

By Robin Fjarem
Level ?

A bright red star has appeared in the sky. People call it the Evening Star. Ever since its arrival strange things have started to happen. Wild animals are going feral, odd abominations roam the lands, and there are even rumors that the dead wake up from their graves when the light from the crimson star shines. Odd creatures and cosmic mystery awaits in this adventure set in the frozen wastes of Australis!

This thirteen page dungeon adventure in the frozen Southlands wants to do good. It tries, and fails, at a new formatting style that, while interesting, is not followed through on enough to bring clarity and evocativeness, with little interactivity beyond combat.

This is, in essence, a four page adventure; about a page and a half of maps and about the number of keyed locations, around thirty. Thus while not a one-page dungeon (Which I shy away from reviewing these days because of their Performance Art nature) it is close to it in formatting. When limiting yourself to just a page of keys per map you really need to bring your A game to pack in the exploratory/interactive/evocative/formatting. And this adventure tries to do with a kind of “exploding detail” style format.

Room eight is detailed as:  

8. Natural Cave

Watermill wheel? [powers the sledge and bellows in (7), ?Waterfall [drops 10ft], ?Crates? [mining picks, nails, skillets], ?Secret door? [behind the crates, leads to (?16?)].

I’ve seen this style suggested in several forum threads and have even encountered it a time or two in past, to varying degrees of success. It’s meant to be easily scannable at the table, what with it’s bolding and the like. And, in theory, it brings several nice features. Note that the room is given a room title, in order to orient the DM to whats coming. Once reading “Natural Cave” your brain is ready to start the rest of the description from that standpoint. I think it could have included a better adjective/adverb in that title to overload it even more, and the concept is a good one even if it isn’t exactly implemented in the best way. Note also the bolding of the keywords. You get the major room elements front and center, easy to scan and pick out. The follow up information for each element, being included in braces immediately after the keyword, are also easy to pick out. This style can work. I don’t think it’s the easiest for a new designer to be successful with, but it can work.

I don’t think, though, that it works here. From a scanability standpoint, sure. But the rooms are dry, and thus from a evocative standpoint they tend to fail. A millstone, a waterfall and some crates. Not exactly the height of excitement. Rather than inspire the DM I am left feeling kind of *bleh*. Thus leg two, evocative writing, is left to suffer. Better use of that room title, better adjective and adverb selection, a real imagining of the scene in the room, that would have helped. Or maybe an intro sentence or two for the room, to bring the wonder and a better description, and then leave the existing description to help point the DM to the details. But it needs more. 

It’s generacially formatted, with no real stats, just noting how many of each monster and mentioning treasure such as “a few coins” or “1 diamond.” It does have stats in the back for OSR creatures, but the lack of a level range, and the generic nature of the adventure, is, I think, a detriment. From a usability standpoint, a good adventure is a good adventure and any DM can restat/convert a good adventure. Better, I think, to be specific in your system and not worry about explicit cross-system sales. But, I’m not a salesman, so what do I know? The abstraction of the treasure is annoying though, and I don’t think it needs to be done, even if it IS meant to be generic and converted to other systems. Be specific! Not wordy, but specific! Avoid the generic abstractions that seem dull and bring the specificity that makes the mind excited to run it!

The overland “map” is a hex map, with no scale. It’s hard to read, with the font color running in the background color. With no scale ever mentioned, and a hard to read labeling system, it’s more “Art” than map. Sad. The rest of the adventure is really just padding. A small town on one or two pages. A little background information. The monster stats. A few pages about ancient aliens. 

A more serious issue is the lack of motivation. The town is described, the situation is described, and then the dungeon is described. There is not really much of a way described, AT ALL, on how to transition from the town to the dungeon. Hints and rumors of its location? The mayor sending you there? The red star hanging over one spot? A red beacon shining up from the ground? None of it. And thus HOW the players learn of the dungeon is an issue. Maybe make the main dungeon the town graveyard and have the bodies coming back to life (as the star does) would solve the issue.  There’s also these notes where it says dead bodies, inside the tomb, come back to life “if the red star shines inside”, but I can’t figure out any way for that to happen. Maybe a language barrier issue from a non-native speaker? In other places it feels like it’s just a “bodies reanimate at night” sort of thing, but in others “if the star shines inside.” Weird.

So, it tried. A little lite on the non-combat interactivity. REALLY lite on evocative writing, a few missteps in legibility and cohesion, and support information that doesn’t really add a whole lot. Specificity, not abstraction, is needed. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1. Check out page eleven of the preview (book page ten) for the keys for one of the levels. The promise of the formatting choices can be seen, as well as the drier nature of the writing and the combat-focused interactivity.


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

The Crypt in Cadaver Canyon (DCC D&D adventure review)

By Mark Bishop
Purple Sorcerer Games
Level 2

The Crypt in Cadaver Canyon is a 2nd Level Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure that challenges adventurers to save a hidden desert city (along with its cursed inhabitants) from the wrath of a devious and chaotic god. Its pages are packed with dangerous environments, exotic threats, and a world-shaking finale with thousands of lives on the line!

This 87 page linear DCC adventure contains eleven rooms, of which about eight or so will be experienced. Bursts of flavour, and penchant for dreaming up a weird situation, abound in this adventure, in spite of the rather uninspiring writing and formatting. And the design. The simplistic design. The page count isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.

Weight divide “D&D” in to two categories of play: exploratory and plot. Older style D&D would be firmly in the exploratory camp, with its gold=xp mechanic. Modern D&D, and the wya most D&D has been played from the late 70’s (I’d guess) follows a more simple “here are a few encounters for tonight” sort of methodology, following a simple A to B to C kind of line. I’m not a fan of it, I think you sit around bored, but I recognize that many people seem to enjoy this way to spend the finite number of seconds until they no longer exist. If we accept that, then we must judge these things by “it’s not an exploratory dungeon” standard. And it’s certainly the case that the vast majority of adventures, and especially DCC one’s with their 3.0/3.5 roots, fall in to that camp. (Which, generally , is why I no longer review them. But, whatever, I’m nothing if not a hypocrite.)

There’s this cliff city. When they execute criminals they then toss their bodies in the river, that quickly runs underground, a symbolic and literal transition to the underworld. Oh, also, they made a pact with a minor god and it’s about to fire & brimstone come true in the destruction of their city unless they can sacrifice someone with a special birthmark before midnight. Also, the last person with that birthmark was executed two months ago and the sent sent down the river, in a clerical mistake. Please, sirs, could you go down the underground river and get the body for us? We’ll then resurrect it and sacrifice it before midnight.

Greenfield thinking! Outside the box! I love it! That’s a DCC thing if I’ve ever heard it! The designer has these sorts of little flavourful ideas over and over again in the adventure. At one point, if you fail a save, you see an eye on your arm and in a round of insanity try to gnaw it off for 1d6 damage. Noice! These little flavourful bits and setups are scattered throughout the adventure and denote a great talent for specificity and the grounding it can bring to a game. Brief, quick hits of detail, that really bring the noise in terms of something for the DM to run with at the table. It’s great!

I mean, it’s great when it happens. Which is not often enough.

For, in spite of these brief flashes of brilliance, the adventure is saddled with more than its fair share of garbage. And while it looks ok on the surface, I believe it is saddled with bad decisions and design.

Looking at the page count we get 87 pages for eleven rooms. Not as bad as it first seems, it’s a digest product. Plus,27 of those pages are handouts, pics for the party to look at, monster standees, etc. And, it does have a decent amount of art. Plus, the background, appendix stuff is well regulated to places that it doesn’t get in the way of running the actual adventure, it true is supplemental. Still, you’re not getting sixty pages of adventure, you’re getting thirty, for eleven rooms.

And, you’re not going to run all eleven, probably. The map is essentially linear with a couple of “forks in the road”, both of which tend to lead to the same place. You can have the left encounter or the right encounter, but you’re going to have the encounter after that. A literal DIsney boat ride, in this case. 

Did I mention the read-aloud? It’s in italics. I know, you’re tired of hearing me bitch about it. And I’m tired of seeing it. Italics is hard to read in long sections, as the page long or half page long read-alouds here are. Put it in a shaded box, or a box, or something else. 

Related to this is one of the openers, a meeting with the town council, in which 13 of them all give a several sentence long soliloquy. Seriously? Some party is going to sit there and listen to the DM read two pages of text? No one is going to break in? No one is going to pull out a phone? This betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of how a D&D game is run. There’s no “Q&A faq”, it’s just a lot of read-aloud. 

This lack of understanding goes further, to the encounters. They are simplistic. To an extreme.

Encounter one: make a saving throw or take damage. Seriously, that’s the encounter. Your boat floats down the underground river. There are eyeballs carved in to the top of the walls, all along the river. They cause you to make a save or take damage. (The aforementioned “gnaw part of your arm off for a round”) Another encounter may be just having a fight. There’s little investigation. Little poking or prodding or getting yourself in to trouble BY CHOICE. Those little moments of brilliance, such as the very flavourful rumor table, don’t make up for what is otherwise just a linear adventure of saves and fights. And while an actual puzzle does show up, involving primary colors (great job on it!) it’s an exception, not a rule. 

Great specificity, in places, without overstaying the text welcome. Great “vision” of things. But poor execution, both in terms of the evocative writing, the encounter design, choice, and clarity in formatting. Clearly, there’s potential here and I’ve love to see more of it, but it needs some experience.

This is $7 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages, and worthless. It shows you nothing. It should show you one or two encounters, some pretext, a mix of things, so you know what you’re buying. I don’t give a fuck abvout the handouts, art and such. The purpose of the preview should be giving me enough information to determine if I want to buy it. This fails at that.


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