(5e) Silent Screechers review

By Maximillian Hart
Levels 4-5

An ancient shrine in the center of a small jungle island is filled with small, lifelike statues and ape-like monsters. Dangerous fruit and a deadly fountain round out the perils in this short adventure for the world’s greatest roleplaying game!

This seven page adventure uses 2-3 pages to describe about six encounters on a small jungle island. It waffles between decent organization and evocative writing and the usual bland and unfocused writing that is the hallmark of most adventures. It gets closer than most though, leaving me hopeful for the future.

So, island, covered in jungle. From your ship you can see some ruins poking up through the jungle … as well as three wrecked ships on the beach. You stop and go check out the ships and ruins because that’s what we do on Wednesday nights. More seriously, the usual pretexts are included, from on the trail of an evil cult to some kind of treasure map. There’s a gap niche, I think, in adventure pretexts and complications. How does a ship and/or sea voyage actually work? Something that told you that would help you run and/or design adventures that include a sea voyage. Like, the ship needs to take on water and therefore stops at he island. Or, the mill has flour in the air that can explode. Interesting things, oriented at adventures, that matter in actual play and.or design. Anyway …

Having diverged once, let me diverge again. A 2-3 hour adventure? “Explore a forbidden jungle island”? World’s greatest roleplaying game? I guess the last is a reaction to the trademark stuff from Teh Hasborg? But, I would suggest there’s a slight disconnect in the marketing of “Explore a forbidden jungle island” and a 2-3 adventure, along with everything implied in “forbidden.” Marketing is marketing, but, still, it backfires when you get peoples expectations up and they go away disappointed. IE: the story of my reviewing life. Finally, 2-3 hours? Is four hours not the standard anymore? I’m being serious here, not a douchebag (for once.) I know that gaming store play has changed the culture a bit, but is the norm now 2-3 hours? This adventure, in particular, feels like it could have done better if it were a bit more open/larger/longer. You could get a 4 hour session out of this if the designer put in a little more work, and easily another session if the island were opened up a bit.

It is, essentially, a bunch of linear encounters. I’m no fool. I know that this is how people play D&D at home. But, as I mentioned above, it feels like this could have been more if it were opened up more and has a little more freedom. As written, you go down a jungle path, part some vines, and get attacked. There’s just a little too much linearity/”lack of pretext” in that for my tastes. 

Enough of my bitching though, let’s cover the good in this. And there is good! More than usual!

It’s sprinkled with little boxed sections, a sentence or two at most, that have designer notes, advice to the DM, and so on. This is great. It’s SO hard sometimes to try and figure out the vibe a designer meant. This sort of inspiration for the adventure, what I was going for, etc, is great. It’s boxed off, doesn’t get in the way, and can be full of advice to help the DM run the adventure. It FEELS like the designer is a part of the community, referencing online tools and the like, rather than just a pure simple “PAY ME! PAY ME NOW!”

The organization is a mixed bag. At times the adventure uses bullet points to convey information, and it does this relatively well. The wrecked ships, for example, just get a couple of passing lines in a bullet point in the beach section, telling you whats up with them. Not too much detail for an elements that doesn’t really drive the adventure. That’s great! (I might complain a bit, though, that while it’s not too much It might also not be enough. A ship name and or one or two sentences each, for the party, might have been in order. They are sure to search the ships and try to figure out what’s up with them? Especially since it’s the first thing they encounter? And maybe a missed opportunity for future adventure hooks, or petty rewards from brining back a sailors boots to his wife or some such? Yes, it can be hard finding the right balance. I am hartened (get it?! Get it?!) though that there’s not too much detail.) In other players the lack of formatting is telling. Monster and room information buried in paragraph text. The long-form paragraph is not the best wa for communicating some data. I’m thinking, specifically, of the text for the four or locations in the ruins, the shrine. 

I note also that sometime it feels like overview text is left out. There are fruit trees that play an important part of the adventure, but they are handled just as a bullet. A) Good! B) This could have been mentioned perhaps in a bit more detail in some kind of overview text. IE: “you see three ships and also some trees that seem to have fruit on them.” 

There’s good DM advice, as I mentioned, especially around tactics. Many designers can either leave this out or go full on tactics porn on the issue. Here it’s covered briefly and flavourfully. Apes, being the main enemy, get some flavour in their combat. They tear off huge chunks of bark ad throw it at the party! Flavour! A thing an apre would do! They hang upside down and swing from vines! Not just a throw-away monster, but it FEELS like an ape monster. Nicely done . Irrelevant background text is generally handled well, at least in the beginning, it being just afew words at the end of a scene surrounded by parens. It doesn’t get in the way, being both at the end and signaling to the DM via the parens. It’s also inconsistent at times, with other background information deeper in to the adventure not doing this and just appearing. “This ledge used to be.”

Evocative writing, like organization, is hit and miss. Bare masts rising up above the trees is a good bit. Other times it feels a bit on the blander side. Not full of “large statue” boring territory, but as if there were missed opportunities everywhere. There’s a room with an alter in it, a spider alter. But there are jewels in a loot pile. Better, i think, to put them in as a part of the spider alter? Who don’t like desecrating psider alters for jewels? It’s great imagery. Likewise, a folding boat doesn’t get a name or any details other than “it makes a loud clanging sound when unfolding” That’s good, but it’s also a missed opportunity, just like with the other magic items and most of the other descriptions, to add just a little more flavour with better word choices. 

A few rando notes: It comes with both a print-friendly version and a “pretty” version. Nicely done, keeping the greyscale background template off the printer friendly version. Also, the “pretty” version is laid out in such a way that the background imagery doesn’t interfere with the text that’s on top of it, something that more designers should pay attention to. It gets hard to read when your text runs in to the background imagery and you don’t also use a box, shading, etc. The monsters, listed in the appendix, could use a bit of description. As is we get some description in the adventure text proper “tall thin ape-like creature with long curved claws.” Not the most exciting description and, also, buried in the text of one room. A line or two in the general description/monster appendix would have been in order. (And a little more opportunity to be evocative also …) Finally, the map is very clean for ruins. Nice clean lines with 90 degree angles, etc. Black on white. Trust me, I feel your pain. Getting the fucking maps right, with all the shitty or complex mapping tools available, is a serious pain. So, while I won’t hold this against a designer I will say that’s it’s an opportunity to learn, grow, and do better. 

So, an ok adventure, better than most. Limited somewhat but it’s smaller size/shorter length. It doesn’t engage in excessive text sins, which makes the lack of organization tolerable, especially given the attempts to make things more scan-able for the DM. The mantras: better organization, tighter writing, more evocative writing. Once those basics are down you pass the first hurdle: not a fucking nightmare to run. This makes you better than 95% of other adventures and you can then concentrate on evocative writing, interactivity, and holistic design. A little more work to get over that first hurdle, I think. Still, I wouldn’t curse the world TOO much if this were dropped of fon my me five minutes before a AP con game started.

This is $3 at Drivethru. The preview is seven pages, showing you all of the pertinent parts of the adventure. Nice use of bullets in some places (the beach) and less other places (the shine rooms.) In fact, the bullets in the beach pretty much encapsulate everything about this, both from a positive quality (the mast/ship descriptions, bullets, high level/correct level overviews) and bad (ruins lack flavour, ships lack appropriate details.)


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

Temple of Asibare review

By Dave Tackett
Quasar Dragon games
Levels 2-4

Lying undisturbed for ages, this accursed tomb is discovered by the characters and a great evil is encountered. Will they survive this brush with darkness or will they become its latest victims. An OSR compatible module for any old school RPG or modern clone, The Temple/Tomb of Asibare is designed for character levels 2-4 or an especially harrowing first level.

This nineteen page adventure describes a twelve room temple/tomb with a vaguely middle eastern theme. Long read-aloud, mountains of backstory text in the rooms DM text, wall immune to everything but a Wish, this adventure has it all! Well, except treasure. So, not exactly an OSR adventure. More of a “Great example of how to not write an adventure” adventure. What RPG system is that? All of them Frank, all of them. Also, which one of you “gentle readers” suggested I review this? No christmas card for you this year!

Recall the new basic Bryce criteria for adventure success: Do I want to use my cheap yellow/beige mechanical pencil to stab my own eyes out when I try to run this? IE: is it bad? Evocative writing and interactivity might be “not boring” but making something not easy to use at the table easily earns you the BAD moniker. This is BAD.

You’re caravan guards. There’s a new building revealed out of the sand at an oasis you are stopped at. That night some other guards get killed. The next morning the caravan master asks you to take twelve(!) other guards and go inside to try and see what killed them. Ordered to your doom by those who control the means of production. Typical! And not even a bonus for your trouble!

The read-aloud in this adventure is BAD. It is LONG. Very long. Several reach a column in length. Read-aloud, is used, can’t be long. It has to be short. Why? Because people stop paying attention. You get a couple of sentences. 2, 3, maybe 4. No more. No one FUCKING CARES after that. They are here to play D&D not listen to DM monologues. No, listening to the DM is not the core D&D mechanic/loop. EVERY RPG thrives on the interactivity between the players and the DM. Back and forth. The DM presents. The players respond. The DM follows up. Then the players. And so it goes. Short. Bursty. Interactive. Long read-aloud breaks that cycle, people get bored, phones come out, and the DM wonders why no one is engaged.

The read-aloud in this adventure is BAD. It tells instead of showing.Instead of describing a locale, scene, event, it instead tells the players what their characters think and feel. “Every instinct tells you to run.” “By the flickering of your torchlight …” This is some hollow and false attempt to write an impactful encounter by making the players feel something. But it’s doing it by TELLING them instead of SHOWING them. You write a description that makes the payers feel a certain way, yo udon’t write a description that TELLS them tey feel a certain way. Besides, it’s also embedding actions in the read-aloud, assuming they are using torches, etc. This is never good. “You walk around the pyramid and see nothing”, again, in the read-aloud and again, assuming player actions and destroying the interactive loop of D&D. When you put extra descriptions in the read-aloud then you prevent the players from taking the actions with their characters. Instead of the read-aloud describing the first room and every detail of every aspect, instead the adventure should give a general overview and then allow the players have their characters investigate, with additional details coming out as they walk around and look at things. This preserves the interactivity loop.

The DM text in this adventure is BAD. Mountains and mountains of backstory in the rooms. This monster is here because of X, Y, and Z, which goes on for a paragraph. This is not what goes in to a D&D adventure. Or, to be more specific, this is not what should USUALLY go in to a D&D adventure. This sort of backstory, why the monster is there, why the trap was placed, what the room used to be used for, etc, is only of interest if it somehow drives the action of the adventure. The Why’s of things are less important than the current interactivity. The Why’s are for readers. The Why’s are a plot guide for  a series Tv writer. Interactivity is, instead, aimed at ACTUAL PLAY. That thing we’re supposed to be using this for? And the Why’s get in the way, clogging up the text, making it hard for the DM to find the information they do need during actual play. 

And then, at one point, you see a succubus in a circle. As a read-aloud, one of your twelve henchmen guar buddies walks over the circle and gets kissed out by her, drained. *sigh* I knew this was coming when I saw you had twelve buddies going with you. Not this, explicitly, but something like it. The NPC’s being dumb. 

There’s nothing to see here in this adventure. Just room after room of undead, etc, animating and attacking when you enter the room. All combat, no treasure is not exactly the crafty OSR play I am expecting.

Maybe my car will get hit by a truck today.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The preview is six pages and shows you the intro and several of the room keys. So, a good preview since it shows you some of the encounters, the core loop of the adventure, so to speak. Take a look at some of the read-aloud and bask in it.


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

Horror out of Hagsjaw review

By Levi Combs
Frog God Games
Levels 4-5

Travelers have long considered Hagsjaw a place to avoid. The town is known to outsiders by whispered tales of witches and strange doings in the old days. Once terrorized by a wretched coven of witches known as the Karnley Hags, the town was held in a grip of fear that saw its citizens oppressed and its children stolen. Anyone who dared oppose the hags was viciously murdered. When the witches were eventually overthrown and hanged in the town square, they muttered a unified curse with their last breaths, promising nothing less than misery and doom for all who remained in Hagsjaw. That was a century ago, and now Hagsjaw is little more than a forgotten watering hole. Time has not treated the decaying town or its folk kindly; it seems to die out more and more as each generation passes. The farms at the edge of town are empty of cattle and crops, the town’s buildings are crumbling, and even the sagging roofs of the abandoned, twin steeple church don’t look like they’ll hold up much longer. There’s little left to suggest that the town hadn’t withered away completely… until recently.

This 22 page investigation adventure is fairly straightforward and OOZES with flavour. Mostly horror/investigation, it’s basic form should translate easily to just about any genre, from CoC to Modern and maybe even to SciFi. The evocative writing is long and there’s significant room for improvement in that area.

Let’s start out with two important notes. First, I love decrepit towns and villages and adventures in them. Second, I think that adventures with a strong horror theme translate well to almost every genre and RPG system. If you’re allowed ANY supernatural in the system then horror is horror and good horror adventures tend to use simple non-genres specific creatures (ghosts, witches, etc) of which the theming is more important than the specific stats, and the themes tend to genre-hop well. 

Horror this is. The creatures you face are a blobby-like gelatinous human-ish creature … stat’d as a gibbering mouther. But because the emphasis is on the description rather than just saying “there’s a gibbering mouther in the church” it allows the creature to translate well. It’s a gelatinous blob/human/form creature first. This is EXCELLENT. The emphasis is on the creature and what the stats say is of secondary important. Flavour tends to always triumph over mechanics. This extends to the strange lights on the edge of the foggy forest … and a cliff. Will of the wisps. The use of generic “witches” and a witch coven in the backstory. That crosses genres well. They come back, as a kind of spirit of posession-ghost, taking over villagers and then charming more. That translates well. And then you have a mob of villagers, possessed, bribed, etc. Again, translates well. A straight up ghost? Yup, translate well. Maybe the only thing that doesn’t translate well is a halfling and a stayr. The halfling feeds you information because he was alive to see the witches hang, originally, a hundred or so years ago. Turn them in to an old man and shorten the time a bit and it works. The satyrs could just be degenerate villagers in the woods, ala HPL, and it wouldn’t loose anything. It might even work better, if The Old Gods didn’t play a part in your game world. Anyway, takaeway is that a well-written horror adventure relies on themes, like hanged witches, 3’s and the like, and this is a well written horror adventure. Not exactly scary, but you FEEL the creepiness viscerally.

And you feel it not only because of the well executed themes but also because the writing is evocative.  This great writing extends even to the hooks. Throw away hook. The worst ever. Caravan guard. Sent by the church, etc. But given fresh breathe by how they are written. The caravan guards? The first line is “Storm’s a comin’ … we better get off the road.” BAM! Instantly sets the tone, even before someone says “that place don’t nobody e’eer go.” Twist the language. Torture it. But communicate the FLAVOUR to the DM, and this does that. And it does it over and over and over again. Great, well written sentences. Great word choice that makes you FEEL the scene, and therefore be more likely to translate it to the players.

The writing here is very sticky. You remember the FEEL of the place. Which is good because it’s not organized very well. Details are buried in those evocative paragraphs. While they do a great job conveying a vibe that vibe is useless to the DM at the table running it if they can’t remember it. This is typically solved by writing text that’s easy to scan. But paragraphs don’t scan well without bolding, italics, bullets, whitespace, indents, etc. And this don’t do that. What is DOES do is bury information in weird places. The local farm has a great little thing about whipperwools. But that information, that there were hundreds, isn’t where you need it. The farm doesn’t tell you that, a person will tell you that. It needs to located someplace where it’s useful to the task at hand: an NPC communicating it. Otherwise it’s useless text that clogs up the DM’s ability to scan the text while running the game. And it’s TOO good to give up. This happens over and over again. Great NPC’s, over written, or, perhaps, not organized well enough to easily run them during play. (And the NPC’s are really really good. From the old coot to the rando’s you can throw in. Tropes, leveraged, are a good thing when done well.)

Treasure is light for a S&W game. But it’s also got versions for 5e and Pathfinder, so I suspect no one upped it for S&W. The Frogs could do a MUCH better job in that regard. It would help better communicate that they give a shit about S&W.  Although … layout seems cleaner and more modern than the Frog adventures I remember in the past, the memories anyway, so maybe they are stepping up their game? Anyway …

Let’s talk some magic treasure! How about this? “This silver ring is fashioned to look like monstrous, overlapping claws clutching each other in a circular pattern. Once each day, the

wearer can summon forth a swarm of disembodied, clawed hands that crawl over one creature  …” Great physical description (again that evocative writing) and effect (that then gets a mechanical description, but, at least it starts with the non-mechanical.) A certain potion is “horrible-smelling black ichor.” Good writing, even if “horrible smelling” is a conclusion that is telling instead of showing.

The adventure design relies on the party being nosy nellies. Or, ratherm a mob attacks them the first night and the party is expected to follow up on that if they have not followed up on things previously. There’s also a trip in to the woods which I don’t think is telegraphed as clearly as it could be. Essentially, half the adventure lies in the woods, or comes from it, and there’s not much i9n the way of pointing people to that as the next step. Easily solved by a DM dropping some hint in questioning, but, still, a slight weakness in the adventure there.

The whole things FEELS like someone who had never seen an RPG write an adventure and then stat’d it for the mechanics and that’s a VERY good thing. And I don’t mean the mechanics are wonky or don’t make sense, they do. I mean it feels like someone came up with ideas and then looked to see what the closest thing mechanically was to them. That’s a great way to design. It’s not a blob because it’s a gibbering mouther. It’s a gibbering mouther because it’s a blob. The church in town is boarded up and you have to break in. But it feels more like a real world imagining of a boarded up church you’re breaking in to then it does some kind of fantasy lockpick/knock kind of thing. The basement of a farmhouse is unnaturally cold. IN a supernatural adventure? Really? Yes, it has brown mold. Shit makes sense in this. You can telegraph it, it makes sense, layers still won’t get it, until AFTER The encounter, when they are kicking themselves. That’s good.

You probably can’t save the village from the decline it was going through. But, if you save the villagers then “They carry the names of these heroes with them as they tell tales around the campfire or trade news with those traveling through.” The actions have consequences and the parties fame will grow. That’s a good reward. 

So, overall, a great adventure. I’d recommend this if it were organized a bit better. As written, it is highlighter and note taking fodder to run it. It’s the designer’s job to ensure I don’t have to do that. Design is good. Evocative is good. Interactivity is good enough. But it needs better organization. And I got No Regerts saying that.

Also, there’s no level designation anywhere on the cover or product description. That’s a MAJOR fail by the publisher.

This is $8 at DriveThru. The preview is only four pages and doesn’t show you ANYTHING of the adventure except the background. That’s a shitty preview. A couple of town entries, or a page of encounters is what should be in the preview, to let the buy know what kind of writing to expect.


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

(5e) Cha’alt

By: Venger As’nas Satanis
Kort'thalis Publishing
5e? Sure, whatever Venger ...
Level: Meaningless! Fuck your rules!

Cha’alt is the beast of a book (218 pages) I’ve been working on for the past year.  It’s a ruined world focusing on a couple of introductory dungeons before getting to the main event – the megadungeon known as The Black Pyramid.   The Black Pyramid is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Unique design, purpose, feel, magic items, NPCs, monsters, factions, motives, agendas, strangeness, the works! There’s a decent amount of setting detail besides dungeoncrawling – space opera bar, domed city, mutants, weird ass elves, desert pirates, a city ruled by a gargantuan purple demon-worm, and much more!

This 218p book is part setting and part 111 room dungeon. It’s Venger doing what Venger does, in terms of creativity, and Venger Under Control when it comes to his worst qualities (writing too much, for example.) As written, the setting is better than the main adventure, The Black Pyramid dungeon. You could tweak it and make it better. Then it would be one of the best Rifts hexcrawls ever.

So, two books in one. The first chunk is a description of the world the Black Pyramid dungeon sits in, as well as a couple of smaller dungeon. Those two mini-dungeons are perhaps representative of some of Vengers worse work. Linear-ish, and maybe starting off by nuking your L1 characters with a fireball from a 7HD invisible wizard in the first room. But, let’s ignore those two efforts.

The game world is a mashup of every post-apoc trope ever. Independent city states. Giant mecha city. Domed city. Roving tribes of primitive wastelanders. Giant sandworms. Cthulhu shit and cultists. Galactic Star Empires. Heavy Metal. You name it and Venger threw it in. Dune-like Spice fracking, methcrystals, and even sex panther cologne from the Anchorman movies. El Senor Venger Assman don’t know know restraint, and that’s a good thing for something like that. So, take about half of those RIfts supplements books, distill them down to about a column each, and call that your game world. Groovy. Best Rifts/Gamma World setting ever. I remember some blog that had something like a UFP Starship crew messing around on Carcosa. It reminds me a lot of that, except you’re not the starship crew. Probably. I call this a Yul Brenner. And it’s a decent Yul Brenner. Enough detail in those columns to inspire the DM, which is what fluff should do. Basically, while exploring the main event (The Black Pyramid) the party might need something/want to do something outside of the dungeon and that’s where this support material comes in.  Healing, complications for the DM to throw in, get a replacement arm that’s robotic from the robo-surgeon in the domed cities, or sell your chthonic artifact. That’s the real purpose of this section, which lasts about half the book. Like I said, I’m kinder these days about background fluff. 

And then there’s Maud. I mean, The Black Pyramid. This is the focus of the book and the reason you bought it. This is an absurdist funhouse dungeon with no pretext to it. Blue Medusa may be the closest analogy. A bunch of vignettes, a set piece in each room, described and the players encountering it. Blue Medusa, though, had some internal logic. There was some pretext. Some of the rooms worked together. It kind of made sense.

Not this. “Funhouse Dungeon” is thrown around a lot. I suggest that we are all individuals, err, I mean hyperbolics, at least in this area. The Black Pyramid has no logic at all behind it. Imagine an army of 10,000 men in a 10×10 room. And 18 Cthulhus in the next room with 12 Abolethethsin a desert room in the door on the other side. I’m not a simulationist. Food, water, bathrooms, neighbors … I don’t think I’m really hung up on that shit. But here Venger pushes past any semblance of suspension of disbelief. Suspending your suspension of disbelief, as it were. One room has a movie theater, with patrons. How did they get there? What do the people next door think? Travel rights? Nothing matters. It just is. Run it. The Peewee’s Playhouse room? Just run it. Any of a hundred other joke rooms? Just run it.

This then is your main qualification for wanting this, at least to run. Do you want to run a game like that? A game in which nothing matters? I realize that statement could be taken as me poking fun, or being negative, but I’m not being that when I say it. Do you want to run a funhouse? A REAL funhouse? Then this is for you.

It’s got an index. The rooms are fairly well organized, maybe tending to the lengthier side of things in places, but not terrible in that regard.  Something is going on in each, in some fashion, so it’s not the expanded minimalism that others engage in. It’s ok. I’m too traumatized, still to this day, by WG7. I can’t enjoy a real funhouse dungeon. 

But …

Listen to the Voice saying Follow Me …

Venger ‘The AssMan’ Satan has missed a real opportunity with Chaalt. Or, maybe, that opportunity still exists. This COULD be the greatest Rifts/Gamma World adventure to ever exist. EVAR. Both of those have a serious fanbase behind them and neither has anything like “Anything Good” to support them. Of course you can’t call it for Rifts cause Kevin will sue the fusk out of you.

But …

If you take The Black Pyramid, each of its little vignettes, and instead give it room to breathe … you turn it in to a HexCrawl! The most bestest post-apoc hexcrawl evar! Then it has room. The pretext is handled almost automatically. The fucking dungeon is really a pointcrawl anyway, this one in particular. Venger’s got some pretext “connecting tubes’ thing to connect his little vignettes in extradimensional space, but why not instead just go all in and make it a hexcrawl, turning each room in to a hex? You spend, what, two months rearranging the rooms a bit to make a bit more sense and fitting them in to the most minimal pretext and logic possible. This, then, would be a chance for Venger to go mainstream. Capture all of that Rifts/Dark Sun/Gamma World/Eberron demand. 

This funhouse would work that way. The pretext is easy. It’s a hexcrawl, that’s how people got there. A little bit more work, a couple of months, rewriting and rearranging. Then it’s yours Venger! All of the success ever in the world! But you gotta put in a little extra work to turn it in a hexcrawl is a little pretext. I suspect, though, Venger is morally opposed to that though.

This is $20 at DriveThru. The preview is the first 32 pages. As such you get to see the Gamma World like game world. It would have been better to also include a few pages of actual encounters in the pyramid, maybe one of its maps also, so people knew just how funhouse and pointcrawl they were buying.


Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 2, Reviews | 21 Comments

Black Pudding #6 / Underground Down below

J.V. West
Random Order Creations
Levels 3-6

Black Pudding #6 is a zine and I’m reviewing the eight pagepointcrawl adventure “Underground Down Below”, with map by Evlyn Moreau. It’s got 36 encounters described over eight pages, if you count the one page map. Imagine a REALLY large cavern with mesa’s and stuff in it. That’s this. IE: an underground valley hemmed in on all sides with some plateaus in it. It;s very imaginative. And it lacks inciting incidents.

Have you ever been to an art forward gaming con? I have. They’re great! I’m thinking specifically of Con on the Cob. Art people are relaxed, not up their own asses, and know how to have fun and know how to run a game. The afterhours DCC games at GenCon are another great example of this as the ZZ Top gang run for fun. This has that kind of vibe. Mostly. But it’s lacking that certain motivating aspect that drives the adventure forward. It feels more like an Ed Greenwood adventure where there’s lots of interesting shit going on, that you CAN interact with, but why would you? 

The map depicts a kind of isometric view of a large underground cave. Very big. Lots of shit going on on what is, essentially an “art map” rather than your usual gaming map. Nothing wrong with that, I love me some on map detail. There’s no scale but it is, essentially, a pointcrawl. I don’t know, maybe the cavern is lit by purple or green light or something, so the party can see points in the distance to travel to. That’s not mentioned but would work. I’m a big fan of “the party sees something interesting” so that they can then decide to travel to it. The isometric view (is that the right word? I think I’ve used it in this context since that DL1 map) does a good job of showing elevation and the map is chock full of little drawings (it’s an art map, remember) that allows the Dm to describe vague half-seen shapes in the (I’ve now added) pale green light. I see the back half of a shadowy colossal stone head up ahead in the pale green light? Let’s go there! This kind of “expansive view in the distance” is invaluable, for those situations in which it’s warranted. For these “I can see a lot so what do I see?” sorts of situations i love a map like this or a brief overview text in the adventure to help orient the players. This does that well.

The little vignettes are pretty imaginative, some interconnected and some not. The first location is a dozen little people washing and feeding and worshipping a giant fire beetle and her three dog sized babies. Her poo glows. Or giant centipede people. Or a cave mouth with teeth that can bite you. Giant demon statues that spit out gems. Giant people buried in rock. Hmmm, come to think of it, there ARE a lot of giant rock people/buried/made of stone elements in the adventure. Whatever, who doesn’t like a giant cracked egg with something squirming inside of it? Or a village that sacrifices every ninth baby to the giant squid monster in the lake and drain their old people of blood to make protein cakes? 

But, they lack a certain something and I’m not sure I can fully describe what. It feels a little like one of those Ed Greenwood adventures where you can look but if you touch you die. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to interact with the various locales other than, maybe, the innate desire of the party to fuck with shit.  Village of stoic philosophy dwarves. Uh. Ok. And? The priestess lives inside that teeth cave? Ok. So? 

There’s a hint, here or there, of something for the party to be driving towards. A 20,000p diamond and an unguarded, but cursed, ancient red dragon hoard. Ok, so, maybe that’s what the party is here looking for? But, still, why am I interacting with the dwarves again? Just like a Greenwood adventure, there’s as much trouble for the party as they make for themselves. (I played with Jim Ward once and his adventure felt the same way. Just don’t fuck with shit. Maybe fun for a one shot you are ok with dying in 90 minutes in to a four hour game, but hard to sustain.)

There are little “hit point tracker” bubbles after each creature and I can’t help but wonder what if those were not there and instead there was just one more sentence? Something to drive the action forward? 

What this needs is just a little more for each encounter. Maybe. Or maybe some kind of global overview and/or “what everyone knows and who likes/hates who and what they want” or something like that. There’s no background or intro at all to this, just a few tables scattered in the adventure. “How did we get here?” “a wizard did it”.or  “You fell through a hole” and so on. 

You could steal a lot from this adventure. Do you want to steal? By which I mean, are you looking for inspiration? That sounds an awful lot like “Adventures for Reading” to me. But, there’s also room in life for Art, right? Is this just art? Art that you’re inspired by? To run a great game? Isn’t that what I implore designers to do? But … is that art? Can it be art AND a good adventure? Sure. But is this everything it could be for the DM? Not without a shock rope attached.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. There’s no preview, but, hey, you can download it for free, so the entire zine if the preview.


Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments

The Chalice of Blood

By Megan Irving
Aegis Studios
Levels 5-6

A group of Ragnar cultists have found a magical relic, a chalice that can never be filled, and are using it to lure treasure hunters and adventurers to their lair. Foolish adventurers who take the bait and come to the lair are hunted by the monsters guarding the chalice, and are then sacrificed to Ragnar. Leftover bodies are then given to the wyvern lurking in the cavern’s depths. […] The chalice is a magical artifact – when liquid is poured into it, it vanishes. If the command word is spoken while tipping the chalice, any stored liquid pours freely out of it. Unfortunately, it’s currently full of blood, and nobody knows the command word.

This twelve page adventure contains a small twelve page dungeon described in about four or five pages. It’s doing several nice little things throughout to create an interesting environment, from the map to the encounters. Decent enough for a little dungeon.

“Cultists. Ug!” I thought to myself. But, wait, Bryce, don’t you like human enemies? Yeah, but why the fuck are they are always cultists? But, what if they had a slightly different twist? And thus Megan wrote this adventure.

The cultists here are craven little shits. To quote “Overall, the cultists prefer not to fight. Instead, they beg for mercy and give the adventurers as much information as they want.” Also, it gets the adventurers to go deeper in where they’ll get killed, solving their problem. But, still, there are cultists begging for mercy all over the place, hiding under their desks, pleading, acting badass and then collapsing at the first sign of blood. It’s cute. I like it. It adds a good roleplay element to the adventure and dungeon could just about always always use some of that. After all, you can always stab them later.

Speaking of, there are several decent little roleplay things going on. The guards outside, if approached, ask the party to leave. And then they stab the shit out of the party if they do so, but, hey, are you seriously trusting two bugbear guards? Inside there are some crmag slaves too talk to. One little room has a guard room of slaves sitting around a campfire. I imagine they do everything possible to NOT see the party. That could be quite fun. It’s nice to see this in the adventure. Not comic elements but elements that get the party ENGAGED in the adventure rather than just another room of things to kill and loot. 

The map makes an extra effort. Differing levels, flowstone stairs, tunnels, different elevations, even a simple loop or two. And … it’s got monsters marked on it! Just a simple icon to show which rooms have monsters, so you can react them as appropriate to combat next door. And, speaking of, there are roaming patrols and a simple order of battle for the place. Nothing too complex, easily implemented, and just enough to add some realism without it being simulationist. 

This sort of extra little design is present in a couple of areas also. The wilderness encounters, on the way to the dungeon, stand out. This part is handled in some very short text. It tells that that the party passes through three general types of terrain and they will have a wandering encounter in each … and then a four entry table is provided … not all of which has to be combat depending on how the party handles this. The terrain and journey proper is handled through some overview text, such as “The Plains: Where many of their previous adventures have likely taken place – a vast plain of small hills and brush. At first glance, it seems empty, but behind every bush or hill is something strange – two goblin scouts working on a trap, a ruined village full of undead villagers, bandits arguing with younger adventurers.” That’s it. I must say that if you are not going to have a full on wilderness part to your adventure then the format here is quite nice. Some little comments for the DM to add a little extra flavour to the parties adventure if they want to and a wandering table that recognizes the linearity/quantum aspects of the adventure type. There’s no disconnect here of having a twenty entry table over two pages of which nineteen will never get used. Given the design choices made the degree of text makes sense. And I don’t even mean that in a backhanded compliment way. I think it’s a fine way to handle an overland if you don’t want to include a full on one. It’s good.

Magic items are nice also. The one that stands out is a little bone circlet fetish, near ogres. It lets you cast darkness once a day and recharges at midnight. Nice theming there, both with the crude construction bone fetish thing tie in to the ogres and to the darkness recharging at midnight. Another example is some cromags having a rough stone circlet amulet things with a hole in the center for a thong. The magic items kind of theme in well with where you find them and what they do. And they do it without droning on for a paragraph. And since I’m on rewards I’ll mention a “conclusion” award. If the party frees the cromag slaves then they will spread the word and in some hour of need a mighty cromag warrior will show up to help the party. That’s the kind of end of adventure boon I can get behind. It fits in well, is non-mechanical (ug: gold rewards at the end) and it doesn’t enforce morality so much as kind of deal in consequences for actions. There’s no promise, but good returns on itself. A good boon reward. 

The descriptions of the encounters are generally ok, or at least start ok. Nice and brief, flavourful. The DM text (ok, it’s all DM text, but, rather, the “further details” text) does get a little wonky. It looks like Aegis has some kind of house publishing style that is bolding certain things, like “2 potions of healing”, IE: the common magic item bolding format. Better, I think to bold keywords in a section/paragraph to let the DM know what that little blob of text is about then to bold something meaningless like treasure. This might be the major fault of the adventure, as well, perhaps, as being a bit of a reach of having cultists, bugbears, ogres, cromags, and a wyvern all running around in a 12 room dungeon. IE: the pretext could be just a bit better. But … we’re now pretty much in the realm of that elusive fourth pillar of adventures: holistic design.

Decent little adventure. I would not think shitty thoughts if I were asked at the last minute to run it at a con. The … pretext? Around the mixed monsters is a little light and the DM text a bit wonky in places, and that’s making me ask the question about regerts. This adventure isn’t life changing but it is a solid one. Again, I wouldn’t bitch if I had to run it. That means The best, I think.

This is $2 at DriveThru. There’ no preview. PUT IN A PREVIEW!!!


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

(5e AL) Where the Dead Wait

By James Introcaso
Self Published
Level 3

On their way back to Salvation, the adventurers are ambushed by a large force of undead and forced to seek shelter in a ruined cottage. As the dead close in from all sides, the survivors turn to the Oracle of War for a lifeline. Only this time, things don’t play out as expected….

Oh Adventurers League, never change!

This 28 page adventure is the usual “Night of the Living Dead” scenario, with undead attacking you while you are trapped in a house. Bad novel writing abounds and there is woefully little advice for handling the fortifying and undead assaults. It’s only got about ten pages of actual content, the rest being AL padding. A railroad from start to finish, choke down the crap you’re being fed you AL suckers!

I find myself really looking forward to the newspaper included in each adventure! I love how it sets a great vibe for the greater world. There’s very much a frontier/Deadwood (HBO series) thing going on, if all you ever did was read the newspapers in these adventures. Pretty cool, even with the basic typo’s. There’s also a reference sheet included for the NPC’s in the adventure. 

Annnnddddd…. That’s the last kind thing I’m going to say about this adventure.

This is a hack railroad of an adventure. Not a hack because it’s a railroad, a hack because the designer doesn’t know how to write an adventure. That’s pretty common, very few designers DO know how to write an adventure. So, a hack AND a railroad. Let me count the ways …

The hints are there in the marketing intro “things don’t play out as expected …” This is your first hint that you will not be playing a D&D tonight, you will instead be playing a railroad and be expected to do exactly as the designer intends. Other hints of this include: “The story thus far …” and “Kalli also stars in this adventure …” Let’s add insult to injury. As undead show up on the horizon the scav gang you rescued in the last adventure heads to the house. YOU WILL FOLLOW THE PLOT. THE PLOT SAYS YOU DEFEND THE HOUSE BECAUSE THE DESIGNER THOUGHT THAT WOULD BE COOL SO YOU WILL DO IT AND WE WILL MAKE SURE OF IT BY HAVING THE NPCS GO THERE. EAT YOUR CRAP!

Look, I’m not an asshole. Well, maybe, but I’m not hating on this for no reason. I understand that there are certain assumptions that must be made if you are going to write a ten-adventure arc, or whatever, especially given what I assume to be an assumption that the gaming group will change every week because of musical RPG tables at gaming stores and cons. Yes, I accept that. I object to the ham handed and railroady way this adventure is written. The NPC’s from the last adventure are alive again, except the one that the plot decided might die. That’s bad. The way the adventure is written, to dictate that the party WILL go to the house, implies rather heavily that the designer thought that would be cool so that’s what is going to happen. It’s the pinnacle of bad design: the designer thought it would be cool so it’s going to happen. This stands in contrast to emergent play, that special something that makes D&D special. But you don’t get that.

In fact, the party is punished for not following the script. If you don’t hang out in the little house then you are attacked by all undead at the same time, instead of facing them in waves. Fuck. You. That’s adversarial DM’ing. You’re changing the rules to punish the players if they don’t follow the little plot you’re masturbating to. Bad bad bad design. Oh, until the end, of course. Then you have the option of running away, thrown in as an afterthought. Basically, you take 10HP and get to run away. Yeah! I do that.

The writing is hackneyed. “A few moments later …” or “Th dead want you to join them …” or “They dies in the last war and yet …” or, how about the initial read aloud that has the other scav gang dragging your artifact through the mud? No, no they fucking do not. They don’t get anywhere near MY artifact! (OUR artifact. THE artifact, says Piter.) The writing tells you what you see, feel, and think. It’s fucking lame. It’s TELLING you instead of SHOWING you, and thats the definition of bad writing. 

But, it’s AL, so you get told that “If you gain a level you MUST tick the box on the adventurers record sheet showing that you have gained a level.” Great. This is the kind of padded shit that makes up the bulk of all AL adventures. Recall, this is a 28 page adventure with about ten pages of actual content, for $5. That everyone is going to buy. Nice work if you can get it. It smacks of that Adam Sandler rotating cast of friends that get fat paychecks for doing nothing. But, hey, at least EVERY. SINGLE. FUCKING. TIME. a door or furniture is mentioned it tells us that it takes no damage from psychic or poison damage. Seriously? Is AL D&D THAT pedantic? “Well, the adventure doesn’t say that the boulder doesn’t take poison damage, so I guess it’s ok.” My objection here is that they waste time on this shit instead of on actual content. 

Let’s take that NPC reference sheet. Instead of personality we get things like “Kalli belongs to the grey dogs” … just like she has in the last two adventures. Or, Sprocket, another NPC, having no personality at all on the reference sheet. What do you think the purpose of the sheet is? It gives the DM one place to look for how to run the NPC. This don’t do that. It’s a bad reference sheet. And it wastes an entire page with like five rows of a table. How about you overload that sheet of paper and put a few other reference things on it, like that “environment” shit for the house, how it’s dusky and full of leaves and dirt? Then it would always be at my fingertips, ready for me to add flavour? No? You’re just going through the motions? Ok …

But, again, the major failing is in the lack of supporting the DM. The adventure spends massive amounts of time on combat but, as in the last one in this series, seems to avoid any DM advice in the rest of the adventure. Coming down the chimney is mentioned off hand, but that’s essentially the only thing you get for advice in running this. Moving the furniture, it’s impacts on blocks doors and windows? Absolutely NOTHING. But you’ll drone on about the combat. Is that all D&D is? 4e mini battles? No, there are other pillars of play but you don’t know how to write for that?

There are a couple of climaxes in the adventure. First you are, of course, betrayed by the people you saved from certain death. The adventure justifies this by making them all “Alignment Neutral.” Fucking lame. Second, there’s supposed to be this thing you can do to make all of the undeads heads explode, but only in at the appointed time, after you’ve been betrayed! The clue says you must destroy the five undead focuses. What are they? No idea. 

Oh, it’s the things in the house that are one note? There are multiple features that, if damaged, spew blood everywhere and cause everyone to make a save vs Madness. I guess you discover them during the house exploration. But, all of the house exploration results in these kind of “Take Damage!” traps. No warning, just “did you pay your skill tax and min/max your character build” tax traps. Spew blood. Save vs madness. But, don’t worry! If the madness effect is too serious the DM is encouraged to roll again or use something less serious. So, don’t use the madness table then? It’s, ultimately, a pushback against exploring the house. 

This is bad writing on top of bad design. I make no judgements on the designers ability to write a blog piece, or world build, or run a podcast network, but they have no ability to write a coherent adventure that is useful to the DM at the table. But, hey, they managed to make it on to the writers circuit for this series, so, I guess it’s like a guaranteed $15,000 for every one they write! 

Eat your crap plebs. You wanna play AL? Your DM has to suffer through this.

This is $5 at DMsguild. There’s no preview, so you can’t tell what you are buying before hand and I can’t point you to specific pages to show off the examples of bad writing and design. 

I will, however, make a point here. If you have fun with this adventure it is because of the DM and not because of the designer. The purpose of an adventure is to help the DM run it and this fails at that. 


Posted in 5e, Adventurers League, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 11 Comments

Lair of the Shorlee Wyrm

By James & Robyn George
Olde House Rules
Lower Levels

Years ago, a dragon was slain in the Shorlee hills, or so said the one surviving warrior who made it back, only to succumb to his wounds before the morning came.  But the attacks ended, so it must have been true. Dead men tell no tales, and the lone warrior died before revealing the location of the beast’s lair. Who knows what riches it held; who can guess what treasures lay unguarded for the taking?  There is an old saying in Shorlee: riches lie not for long, and who knows what dangers – and rewards – await those brave enough to go in search of them, for the site of the old lair is forgotten no longer. Its long-sought depths await the plundering hand of adventurers seeking their glory – or doom.

This 32 page adventure features a two level dungeon with about fifty rooms. It starts with some strong “rural rea-life slain dragon” theming, and then devolves in to mostly a hack. The mystery and wonder of the place peter out after 40% or so, and it reveals itself to be seemingly random, not continuing the initial strong theming. And it’s long-winded for it’s hacking, a quarter page for encounters is the norm with half page/one column not being unusual for “the usual hacking.”

There’s a land right out of Harn, a quiet rural land with a scowling local steward serving his absent lord. A hundred years ago a dragon terrorized the lands and was slain by seven 2nd sons, only the last returning, to local sainthood as The Seventh Man, before perishing from his wounds. The lair was not found. Except now a local shephard found a bunch of coins by a hole in the ground newly opened up from the recent rains and flooding. With looting the lair threaten the lucrative local pilgrim trade?  Strong stuff and a solid planting of the seeds of local legend in a Harn-like land. This is all handled in a several bpage background & overview section. Very light on details and keeping things high level, it provides a pretty solid footing for interpreting what is to come.

And what is to come starts strong. A hole in the ground, opened up next to a tall oak tree (mythic underworld entrance!) with a few coins scattered around. And then a cave, full of massive mushrooms growing in it! Solid entrance. The caves continue. A skeleton half under rubble, a torn bag of coins. A cave with statues … and and a basilisk. There’s a strong low-fantasy, or, maybe, classic fantasy vibe going on.

But this soon devolves. Kobolds show up. In a dormitory with beds. Cultists, replete with suiside herbs stored in their cheeks. (What about Frank? He’s just here to hang out with the guys and play cards and get away from his wife. Now everyone is like Chew these Herbs If We Get Caught … And Keep Them In Your mouth At All Times! And no hint of this cult in the town/village overview section? For Shame!) The patterns become obvious after awhile. Enter a room, hidden monsters attack. There’s a weird thing to look at a time or two, like dragon eggs, broken, with small child skeletons inside of them (and a mute little girl you find the caves …)but for the most part this is just a hack.

And the designer seems strangely interested in keeping any advantage from the party.  The little girl refuses to help the party in any way. The cultists all commit suicide ratherthan be meaningfully questioned. The rings of undead control only work for the cultists. The skull from which gold coins flow (Cool!) is verboten for Lawful characters. It’s all a little forced, IMO, with a touch here and there of enforced morality. A character of Lawful alignment means dumb and unable to have fun, evidentally. Better to leave this stuff out

It is a sign though of one of the major problems with the adventure: the length of the rooms. Even the most simple room goes on for a quarter page, half a column, with longer rooms taking up at least a column. There’s this conversational style and a huge amount of DM asides mixed in with the rooms. I’m not a monster, a sly aside, with a wink, to the DM now and again if a fun little bit. But it becomes prescriptive when the rooms are full of it and you have to wade through all of this DM minutia to get to the important bits of the room … like how many creatures there are and IF there are creatures in the room. And this is an actual problem in several of rooms, the inability to quickly tell how many and of what there are. 

For awhile I’ve had four pillars of judgment. Ease of Use at the Table, Evocative Writing, Interactivity, and the elusive Supreme-Court-Porn of  ‘Design.’ I’ve toyed with the ideas that there is this kind of sliding spectrum of each and at some level they produce something that is worth your time to use. I think, now, though that I’m thinking of it wrong. The overwhelming feedback from most folks, when you talk about adventures, is how they don’t use them because they are hard to use. And they’re right. This points to the Ease of Use pillar. I suspect that there’s actually this hurdle in Ease of Use. The number one priority is to make it easy to use. Because if you don’t then no fucking person is going to use the fucking thing. It doesn’t have to be perfect in this regard, but you have to get over some hurdle. Just make it not torturous to use. Then if you can hit the bare minimum in terms of evocative writing and interactivity then you get a Recommendation. Maybe not even that, maybe you don’t even have to make it an interesting adventure with the writing or interactivity. Just make the fucking thing not a chore so it can actualy be used to play the game. That makes you a Journeyman. Anything at all in the other areas makes you a Master. There’s, how’s that for the setting the baf impossible fucking low and still seeing 90% of the designers not be able to meet it? (These rules only apply to MOSTLY everyone. Jabberwocky’s Wake still gets a pass from me.) Yeah, it’s really taken me ten years to come up with that. Go figure.

It’s short on treasure for an OSR game full of death and hacking. 10,000cp and 5,000sp might be realistic but not level-able. 

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. The preview is two pages and shows you only the setting background. It’s decent read, to get the vibe of the place, but a shitty ass preview since it shows you nothing of the encounters you’ll be purchasing/using. Previews need to give you a sample of what you’re buying. 


Posted in Reviews | 8 Comments

Ragged Hollow Nightmare

By Joseph Lewis
Dungeon Age Adventures
OSR (&5e!)
Levels 1-4

Yesterday, young Tobias went to investigate an old tomb by himself. Everyone told him it was a bad idea. Everyone was right. Today, you and your companions awaken to a town in chaos. Why is the temple sealed behind a divine shield? Why are children and worshipers trapped within? How do we get inside? What did Tobias do?!

Quick reminder. There’s a Patreon button off to the right. It helps me buy these adventures, uh, so, uh, you don’t have to? But if you donate then you are, also, buying them? Hmmm, I should work on the marketing related to this. One day …

This forty page adventure is PACKED FUCKING FULL. It has a small town/village, about a dozen little mini-adventures, and a temple, sealed off by the powers of good, with about forty rooms in it. There’s good layout, evocative writing, and things to talk to in, what turns out to be, a nightmare madhouse of a temple. Non-combat/NPC interactivity may be a bit low, and the level range may be off also.

You wake up one morning to find the neighbors all rushing towards the temple in town. Seems it’s now surrounded by a strange golden glow and no one can get in or out. The clerics offered free schooling, so, you know, the villagers kids are inside. So, could you, you know …? Also, as one hook explicitly points out “… which is full of rare books, valuable religious art, and magic items!” Yup! Sore would be happy to help! Only one problem … getting past the magical golden force field. Fortunately, the bell tower, 60’ above, it sticking out beyond it. Alas, there is no way to get to it.

This then is what sets this adventure apart. To get to the site, sitting right next to you, you have to find a way in. There are a few items scattered around the surrounding countryside that could help. But it’s not really pointed out anywhere at the start. Talking to people in town will get you some adventure hooks, from the vermind basement to the poison well to the witch that lives in the woods outside of town. There are, I don’t know, a dozen or so of these? Talking to the townspeople might give you three or four, but those lead to others which can lead to others. The formulae might be: the mundane quest in tow leads to something fantastic, which leads to something even more so. The poison well has a mutant frog-man with open sores in it, laying injured. He cna plead for his life, telling the party of a haunted house nearby with a pair of metal jumping shoes. Ah ha! A way up to the tower! And thus it goes.

From a design standpoint this is one of the few misses in this adventure. It feels like there’s a time crunch, to get inside the temple and save people, and it is perhaps a bit non-intuitive that you need to run around the countryside to get in. It’s natural to talk to the townfolk to see what they know, in order to get in, but “clean out my basement” or “the well is poisoned” seems like things to NOT pursue, although The Witch outside of town is a rather obvious follow up in looking for help to get in.

(I might note, as well, that this adventure comes with both 5e & OSR versions. OSR healing being what it is, having substantial adventures before the “main” temple adventure is likely to result in drained HP, and days of recovery time. Perhaps some fun to be had there with nagging villagers, worried about their children, while the party recover from their wounds. Again, a bit of a system/tonal variance in the OSR/5e, but neither this or the “countryside” thing is enough to worry too much about. It’s noff, not a deal breaker.)

The town is nicely done, terse, brief hits of shopkeeper personalities. A little note on “what they know”, IE: the actual play stuff. It’s organized well, with bolded heading and doesn’t go on and on about extraneous details. Really well formatted. In fact, the entire adventure is well formatted and organized. It’s easy to find information and it writing is tight and evocative. A “a town, a main 40-room adventure, and a dozen side quests in 40 pages” would imply. Top notch. It’s three column layout but feels clean and modern without using an avant garde layout, and doesn’t feel cramped at all the way three column can. 

I don’t know what else to say. It’s fucking great? A barrow with a hag eating people. An old woman in the woods who people say is a witch. And bakes cookies. And is a witch. But a nice one. A fey goblin market full of shuckers AND chock full of minor magic, like apples and dolls and their ilk. The town is full of events, at night, the stuff of nightmares, since they ARE nightmares. But it doesn’t FEEL like one of those terrible consequence-free “it was all a dream” adventures. Or even a dream adventure at all. It feels like the real-world, but twisted, but not so much as to stretch disbelief. Well, until you get inside the temple. Then things start to spiral a bit … “An exploded pig lies screaming on the floor. A silver key glint in its mouth.” A) Uh, oooo, that’s disturbing! B) A golden key in it’s mouth?! Sweet! Temptation! I love temptation in an adventure! It’s what D&D is all about!

I would note a few other nits. While the adventure does have some cross-reference, a few more could have been in order. I’m thinking specifically oft he section where it mentions the three items that can help the party get up in to the tower … those could have used some cross-references. There’s also a bit of an issue with what the party sees. It’s natural for the party to explore the outside of the dome, to look in, to see what they can see. There’s no overview of what the party can see, even though there ARE outside areas. This means the DM needs to dig through the adventure for those sections and, kind of ignore the upper levels and the like. A nice overview of “what walking around the place shows you” was in order. Likewise, windows and the people inside? No one at the windows screaming for help, or vignettes of horror? Finally, I would be a bit worried about the party focusing on getting in rather than pursuing the mini-adventures. Like I said, they are behind some barriers and “lets get 100’ of rope and string up a pully system” is, I think, something my party would turn to first rather than a quest for a quest for a quest. That may be an actual play thing, but some guidance in that area would have been nice.

Still, overall, a GREAT adventure. Even the magic broom has a personality!  Great new creatures, good new magic items. The oSR version might be a little light on loot and a little off in level range, but this thing if chock full of flavor and and is easy to use. The nits are easy to overcome. 

Dungeon Age Adventures is one of those publishers/designers to keep an eye on. 

This is $5 at DriveThru, and comes with an OSR version and a 5e version. The preview is fifteen pages and shows you the town, rumors, the layout and design choices, the way it organizes data, and a couple of the side quests. If I were being a hard ass I might have also like to see one page of the encounters of the main temple/adventure to get an idea of what “core encounters” look like also, but, still, good preview.


Posted in Level 2, Reviews, The Best | 7 Comments

Ruins of the Grendleroot – 5e D&D Adventure Review

By Michael E. Shea
Sly Flourish
Levels 1-5

For a thousand thousand years, an ancient entity has been trapped in the heart of a mountain formed from rock not of this world. Over eons, creatures both monstrous and intelligent have explored the endless tunnels, caverns, and chambers of Blackclaw, answering the call of the mysterious entity buried within it. Over long centuries, hundreds of lairs, cities, keeps, prisons, and tombs were established within the mountain, but even those centuries of exploration did not uncover all its secrets. Then, two centuries ago, the entity now known as the Grendleroot awoke. Indestructible black spires shot through the rock of the mountain like the roots of a deadly weed, shattering civilizations, burying cities, and exposing caverns long lost. Today, adventurers residing in Deepdelver’s Enclave explore these lost ruins once again. They seek fellow adventurers brave enough to answer the call of Blackclaw, and to seek the mysteries of the Grendleroot.

This 172 page book is a collection of ten single-session dungeon adventures (taking up about a hundred and ten pages) set inside of a giant hollowed out mountain, Moria-style.  The adventures are ok, but long read-aloud, abstracted descriptions, and unfocused DM text leads to a product that has ok design but terrible usability. 

So, big hollow mountain full of tunnels, Moria-style, with a rich history. Abandoned due to REASONS. There’s a small village inside in a big chamber, the only settlement, that caters to explorers and serves as homebase. It may cater to explorers, but the party will be going on missions. Mission after mission after mission, instead of exploring. The way the adventures are oriented, the party is really just a set of troubleshooters for the village, dealing with the absurdity that Friend Computer, errr, the villagers, encounter week to week. 

The situations tend to have a slight sense of absurdism to them, just enough to cause the party to do a “Jesus H Fucking Christ … “ as they learn the details. Little Timmy talks to an invisible friend in ancient elvish? Seriously? You thought that was ok? And they disappeared at an ancient temple during Wee Delvers Week? What the fuck is wrong with you people?” Thye absurdism doesn’t go past the set ups, so they work out pretty good. It’s obvious what the adventure is, and slightly amusing without TRYING to be amusing. 

The advenuring environments tend to be small, as you would expect from a two to four hour adventure. Still, not badly done for being small. The first, for example, features a small tower on the outskirts of “town” that only has about six rooms in it … and yet there are three entrances, from the front doors to climbing to the roof to going in through a stream in a cellar. The encounter rooms, also, tend to have several things going on in them, from creatures to things to explore and mess with, in each room. And it tends to do it in a naturalistic way that doesn’t feel forced. Thus the adventuring environment is a rich one to explore. Rewards tend to be nice also, like … that tower in the first adventure! Now you have a home base! And if you rescued someone inside instead of killing them then you might have a caretaker also, grateful for your help in their rescue! And … you might even get a spectre as a butler! Again, rewards to no just hacking him down. And, besides, having a spectral butler is pretty cool. Oh, and a gargoyle doorman. Rich rewards that are not just cash. Thumbs Up!

The setups and situations are nice. But I am not nice.

The adventure is bloated to all fuck all. My position on bloat has softened in recent years. Whereas before I fucking hated it, I now tolerate it as long as it doesn’t get inthe way. I still think there’s some value prop that is miscommunicated in a 200 page adventure that has 150 pages of fluff and fifty of adventure, but, that’s a different problem. The only problem with bloat and backstory is when it gets in the way of running the adventure … as it does here. Now, to be sure, the vast majority of bloat & backstory in this (let’s call it “the setting guide”) is reserved for some chapters that you can easily skip and/or pluck out if they offend thee. And then there’s the embedded backstory in the encounters. This is the real issue with bloat in this, beyond value-prop expectations issues. Background in the encounter gets in the DM’s way of scanning the encounter to run it at the table. Moving it to the end, or beginning, or some other place where the trivia can be ignored and/or referenced at leisure if the way to handle it if the designer believes they simply must include it. 

And then there’s the read-aloud. LONG read-aloud. In italics. In RED italics. My eyes just glaze over at this shit. Long sections of italics, meaning more than a phrase, are functionally illegible. Eyestrain galore! Oh, you can read it, you just don’t want to struggle to. And then, to ALSO put it in a red font? Was the inset box AND the italics not enough to denote it was read-aloud? It also needed a red font to make it even harder to read? WTF Flourish? 

And then there’s the abstraction. Specificity is the soul of narrative. If I rail against bloat I also must rail against abstraction. Targeted specificity is what the word budget SHOULD be spent on. Yet time and again it abstracts. The players recognize carvings of ancient gods. WHICH ancient god? Detharaxis, Reaver of Blood? No, just ancient gods. B O R I N G. Don’t fucking abstract!

The RE is also too expressive. It  gives away all of the details of the rooms too soon.  Writing in read-aloud is described as elvish. Or as religious iconography. Of other details in the read aloud. This helps destroy the back and forth between the players and the DM which is the soul of RPG’s. This interactivity between the DM and their players. There are things carved on it. That leads the players to say “what kind of things.” Or even that there’s just an alter, which causes them to examine it, which causes the DM to mention the writing, which causes them to examine it. Back and forth. But if you put all the fucking details inthe read-aloud then that can’t happen, can it? And the read-aloud is WAAAAAAYYYYY too long. Paragraphs, or columns in some places. Two to three sentences, that’s all you get. 

“Time has not been kind to …” NO! NOT IN THE READ ALOUD! NO FLOWERY SHIT IN THE READ ALOUD! Besides, that’s a conclusion. Don’t put in conclusions. That is, again, an abstraction. Instead write a description (or read-aloud) that makes the players THINK that time has not been kind to this room. SHOW don’t TELL. 

And then there’s the weird absences. If the room has creatures then it’s almost uniformly NOT mentioned in the read aloud, in spite of “is there something about to kill me? Being perhaps the most important thing that the DM can initially mention to the players. It’s fucking weird. Instead it’s all buried deeper down in the DM text. 

Oh, the DM text, terrible in it’s lack of focus. The rooms start with a little brief “important things” keywords, but then those same keywords, the important shit in the room, tends to be buried in the DM text. Room two has statues and mosaics in it, but without bolding in the statues and mosaics paragraphs you’re left to hunt for which Witch is which. Not cool. The DM text is, essentially, completely unfocused. 

I can go on on, covering design decisions, like “how do I know there’s a second path to the temple?” or “You need to use six charges from the wand to solve the adventure but it only has seven charges … why not instead of two encounters each requiring three charges instead they require two, or one? This seems like a design trap and a pushback AGAINST players using the treasure they find … what if the DM has a special use for it somewhere and we need it? Not good D&D. 

So, some journeyman ideas and effort but ruined by being essentially unusable at the table. Let’s hope that improves in the future.

This is $15 at DriveThru. The preview is eleven pages. You get to see the entirety of the first adventure “Starson Tower.” This is great,as it gives an exact idea of the quality of what you are purchasing. Great preview. A brief perusal will also show the red offset long italics read-aloud. Room two is a great example of most of the issues the adventure has with read-aloud and DM text.


Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 27 Comments