Broken Bastion, D&D adventure review

By Gus L
Ratking Productions
OSR/“the wayward offspring of older editions of the first roleplaying game and easily converted to retro-clones such as OSE”
Level 3

A derelict spire stands landmark on the Crystal Frontier’s Northern border. Glassy pink masonry shattered, pillars tumbled, and the entire edifice driven into the earth – an arrow from beyond the fixed stars. Ignored as too small and inaccessible by the larger bands of Gem Robbers, perhaps there’s still treasures beneath the Broken Bastion’s ruin? GAZE upon arcane works of the Empyreans! FLY from the ominous tread of their War Automata! SALVAGE wonders from beyond the terrestrial sphere!

This fifteen page adventure features a fourteen room dungeon with a substantial “learning” aspect to it. It’s a nice adventure, evocative and interactive, with some map & wall of text issues … unusual for Gus.

He explains that this is a bit of a departure and more of a “classic” dungeon, sans factions, etc. In essence, perhaps, a tomb dungeon, with some vermin and undead and the like prowling about along with traps, etc. All set in his Crystal Frontiers thing hes doing. He keeps it fresh and interesting, and, offers advice to GM’s and designers.

This advice is a major part of the adventure and, I suspect, makes up half to a third of the word count. In it, a kind of designers notes and DMs advice rolled in to one, he offers the rationale and intent behind several of the encounters as well as some suggestions on how to run them. In this way you might think of this as filling much the same role as Skerp-a-lurk-ding-dongs Serpent Kings (all of which makes a lot more sense if you imagine I’ve been listening to a Kasabian and MIA mashup, Galanga, for three days now. ‘Purple Haze, Seek a looka ding dong, lazy days, skerp a looka ding dong!) 

So, the very first encounter area is the front door. Sealed shut. Impossible to open. Well, unless you have a knock spell. Then it pops right open. The commentary from Gus notes the role of Blockades on an adventure (roll to continue) and how the intent here is to learn the power of the utility Spell. All that shit that is not combat (or, IMO, divination, which fits another purpose, I think) and how they let you break the rules of the game to come to creative solutions to problems. Some of which Gus states and some of which I’m filling in with. 🙂 He does over this sort of advice in room after room. One room notes that the Glass Spider monsters in it serve more as a trap than they do a standard combat encounter and explains that role and how it works. Good advice for DM’s and designers alike, and lessons for players to learn.

One of the major lessons, therein, is the timer. Walking around the place is a combat robot with 10HD. FAR too strong of an opponent for the party to handle face on. Gus goes in to detail on how the robot is more of a puzzle than a combat encounter. How avoiding it and play cat and mouse, and sneaking about, are the aspects that the robot encourages. He tells the DM how to handle it and how to present it to the players. I’ve talked in the past about the 20HD orc. In a group of five orcs you have one with 20HD. He looks just like all of others. This is not a fair encounter. There’s no way for the party to understand that they face something other than a combat encounter. Gus goes in to that and describes techniques to communicate its power. “Each step echoing and shaking like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park.” This, along with other techniques, helps communicate the nature of the encounter to the party and suggests that, perhaps, face on is not the correct approach. 

Gus does most things right, filling the place with interesting treasures and loot. He uses a “intro paragraph” format with bolded keywords that then get little break out sections of their own. This format is generally easy to scan and locate information. There’s good interactivity in both the traditional and nontraditional puzzles and traps and buttons to push. It’s not just all hacking.

There are some things that feel wrong though, which is unusual for a Gus adventure.

The first is the map. A key component of the adventure is avoiding the stalking war machine. I would suggest though that the map here is not as clear as it could be. It feels cramped to look at an pick transition details (doors, up & down stairs and grav tubes) out of. I’m not really sure what’s going on. Some combination of the selected style, the scale, and the color choices maybe? I might note, as well, if the font choices are going to be an ongoing thing, I might look in to some changes for the 4’s and 9’s; the 4’s look like 9’s and I don’t like spending my limited mental resources on cognatizing such  things. I can nitpick a few other issues as well, such as the lack of a good description of the glass spiders and lith wights. 

The much more serious issue, though, is a kind of wall of text issue. I’m not sure what is going on here, but I know it’s there. Gus is using a triple column approach and the intro/bullet format is a good one, time tested. The default “download” format is a double page layout, so there’s A LOT of text up on the screen. Triple columns. Magenta highlighted boxes. A smaller font? The eye wanders. It glazes over. So, while the individual elements are well done, the total effect is one of TOO MUCH! TOO MUCH! CAN NOT PROCESS TOO MUCH TEXT! I think this is interesting because I don’t recall seeing an adventure before that is well organized in which this happens. But, then again, there is the triple column text and the double page layouts. Thus, printed, maybe it’s NOT an issue? I don’t know. A weird combination of the double pages, triple columns, font size, and color scheme? Something is going on.

But, still, a fine interactive adventure. I’m going to err on the side of Regrets here, mainly because I think if its printed out its better, if for comprehension is not for my color toner cartridges. (I’m pretty sure my color laser uses the EAXCT cartridge colors Gus is using.)

This is $2 at DriveThru.The preview is all eight double pages. A great preview, and show you all of the content you ned to see, and perhaps hints at the wall of text issue? I don’t even know what to call it.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/340122/Broken-Bastion?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 3, No Regerts, Reviews | 2 Comments

Halls of the Blood King, D&D adventure review

By Diogo Nogueira
Necrotic Gnome
OSE
Levels 3-5

With the rising of the Blood Moon, the accursed abode of the Blood King returns to this world. The lord of all vampires comes to claim the blood that is owed to him. His halls contain treasures and secrets that would make any ambitious adventurer abandon reason and caution to seek them out. Will you risk your soul for gold and glory in the Halls of the Blood King?

This 56 page adventure details about a forty page manor home of an interdimensional vampire king. Good formatting, stuff to do, and some decent imagery lead to mountains of fun for every blood bag that dares enter! 

So, vampire king lives in this little manor home and pops around the multiverse, demanding tribute from all the vampires on the world he lands in, before moving to the next. Things are going great! Well, except for the blood spiders that have gained an intelligence and have their own mock court. But they are fun to watch. Oh, and that vampire hunter living inside, plagued by the morally questionable stuff they’ve done. But, hey, they are fun to watch and torment also! (How fucking ennui is that! “Yeah, I keep a psycho around and, yeah,. They sometimes kill people. It keeps things interesting around here …”) And, then, there’s the alien fungi in the basement. Bu, it’s fun to experiment on. Hope it doesn’t get out of hand and destroy all life on the world. And, of course, then there’s hidden rebellion within the home, the princess wanting to go her own way, with her followers. Then there’s the visitors, a motley crue of vampires, people pretending to be vampires, people studying vampires, and the list goes on. Minor players, but they all have goals and personalities and can be leveraged. Mom is upstairs. She wants to be reunited with her vampire king son. She’s a banshee now. Is he REALLY her son, like she says? What happens when you introduce the two? Or, hey, that mirror upstairs? The one that the vampire king put all of the kind parts of his soul in to? What happens, do you think, when he looks in to THAT mirror? And then there’s the little scale model of a solar system. With a sun. And little planets. That are actually planets full of living people, just very tiny. Also, fuckng with it could create a black hole that sucks everything in in a 30’ radius. Also, that black hole could swallow up the vampire kings heart, that he keeps stored nearby in a safe place. 

From that we can gather more than a couple of type of interactivity. We’ve got some traditional faction play. Then we’ve got some good NPC’s thrown in, both with their own explicit interactions with the adventure (mom, the mirror) and some opportunities to non-specifically exploit (the guests come to visit.) These three type of people could all be leveraged by the party, or use the party to their own ends, or just eat/kill the party. Then we have more traditional environmental interactivity, with the solar system, cause and effect, and some flaws, like the heart, hanging around. Wanderers are doing something. The guard barracks has one thrall who is reading a love letter from home and has ALMOST broken out of his thralldom. Shit is going DOWN in this place. All we need now is a dumpster fire full of gasoline to be wheeled about!

It’s clearly been designed for ease of use at the table. I don’t know if it’s Gavin (publisher) Diogo (writer) or Geist/Crader/Urbanek (Editing) but it feels like someone actually gave a shit when putting this together. The map is interesting, easy to read, contains notes like locked doors, and has rooms with monsters clearly marked on it with their names. The map, a handy reference sheet of vampire traits/abilities, and the wanderers table are right up front, the first three pages of the adventure, so as to act as an easy to locate reference for the DM. There’s a decent and yet short summary of whats going on in side the manor, as well as a little section on expanding things and consequences. All of this is fucking greta. A poster child for how to do things. There’s even a summary of all the treasure in the adventure, added up, where it is, and then how hard it is to loot it. There’s a little timeline with a couple of entries to keep the party moving. The room entires, proper, have bolded keywords, followed up with more keywords in a less-is-more type room description. There are bullets to describe things to follow up with. Monsters and NPC’s have short and sweet keyword descriptions. Some things have explicit notes on how they react (Desires blood!) and what to do. The sections expanded upon are not formulaic, but rather situational. IE: not every room has an explicit Lighting section. Or every monster an Appeasement section. 

Looking at a monster description we get this for the Shadow Hounds: Dark as the night (reflects no light). A face that is largely its maw and small red eyes (can swallow a head). Long and tall but very lean (as if stretched). That will also actr a good example of a room description. Imagine room features as the bolded words and follow up/enhancement information as the stuff in the parens. It’s great. It leaves dark corners in your brain that it works quickly and efficiently to fill in. This sort of format is, as I’ve mentioned a few times now, one of my favorites. I think it’s one of the easiest for a beginner to use effectively. It’s by no means the ONLY way to do things, but it is an effective and I think easy to grasp way that necessarily keeps the verbosity to a minimum.  There’s so much more. Notes on windows and balconies and using them. The art in this is pretty well matched, pulling off the interdimensional vampire stuff decently well, and add to the descriptive text, especially for the monsters.

A few notes. 

The adventure notes that “Many vampires are within.” Yeah, no fucking shit man! Level 3 my ass. This are not fake vampires but the real fucking deal. I’m not even sure Level 5’s would fare well. I like an unbalanced situation, it forces the party to approach things obliquely. I THINK things are handled well here. The wanderers are not 7HD vamps but guards, spiders, and the like. The one wandering vampire encounter is with some dinner guests looking for the dining room, something that can clearly be a social encounter. But man, that dining room! Thats the Steading feast hall on steroids!

More importantly though …

There’s something missing. A vibe? A feeling? A joie de viv? Something like IMAGINED rather than designed. But none of that is fair, for it it IS designed then designed in a way to put the imaginative forward. This is not a hack job of an adventure. It was tuned and tweaked and sweated over and that effort shows, easily. But it just feels like there’s something lacking. I don’t know what. Maybe it’s the timer, with the place disappearing in ten hours. Or the party hooks being a bit weak (It appears, go inside and X!) It’s context, and then moving the parts around to more relate to that context? This is a very, very good adventure and yet I’m struggling. The lack of whatever it is I can’t name would in NO way keep me from running this. It’s better than 99% of the adventures out there, easily. I dn’t know, someone will tell me and then I’ll know, I guess. It’s not something that one can put their finger on, or even recognize, I think, easily. Most people won’t care, and that’s fine, because this is a good adventure.

This is $7.50 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages and shows you some interesting pages, to be sure, but none of the actual location pages. Bad Gnome! No mushrooms for you tonight!

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/348880/Halls-of-the-Blood-King?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 4, Reviews, The Best | 33 Comments

Assault on Mistrunner Village, D&D adventure review

By Ben Gibson
Coldlight Press
OSR/5e/Pathfinder
Level 2

The thunder of the falls is nearly deafening; the mist is nearly blinding. Even so, your mules seem cheerful as they pick their way up the narrow stone path. Another turn around the canyon, and before you stretch the great Mistrun Falls. It’s a breathtaking sight. But out of the houses’ windows, there is smoke curling. And over the roar of the falls suddenly you hear screams.

This 46 page adventure features about four pages detailing around twenty or so locations in a cliffside village with a thundering waterfall in it, that has been attacked by bandits. It is, essentially, a two-page adventure with a lot of stuff like battle maps, pre-gens, paper minis and the like. It uses its single page of room descriptions as well as is possible given that limitation, fighting above its weight class.

While strolling about on your way to somewhere you come across a small village of a few houses, built up the cliffside on either side of a waterfall, it splitting the cliffside village in half. “How quaint!” you say to each other. As you get closer some dudes on the right hand side start taking pot shots at you will some bows, while a door at the base on the left side opens with some villagers urging the characters to get inside with them before they get shot. The village is vertical, so stairs, or one sort or another, lead up from the ceiling of one room to the floor of another, with two bridges across to the other side. Lurking in the various rooms are things to discover, but, this is primarily an assault mission with perhaps some stealth. As the first room tells us: “This humid little room is packed with mules, women, and children, they would flee if they could but the archers stop them. Weeping, some of the adults beg the players for help.”

And that room description is a pretty good example of what this an above average adventure, even given it’s “one map page and one page of room keys” design. Humid. Little. Packed with bodies of mules, women, and children. No doubt very loud, chaotic, and smelly, is what that description says to me, as the DM. That’s what happens when you’ve written a good description. The DMs mind leads to other things. Implications are explored. The brain fills things in. The description is more than the sum of the words presented on the page. You automatically fill things in. Less is more. Plus, it’s easier to scan and run at the table! Amazing! The NPC descriptions are the same, using that little “three keywords” trick I like so much (sometimes two keywords.) Villagers are scared, Angry. Elder Folga is despairing, confused and resigned. Elder Wystle is Gruff, ashamed, and aggressive. You get a sense on how to run them, and run them WELL, with just a couple of words. No need for an entire paragraph to have to dig the fuck through while running it at the table. It’s all you need, right there. And it’s oriented towards play. Not just some bullshit words, but words that will lead to interesting play. Again, the DM’s mind leaps to fill in things and contort it to make some play.

The rooms here are not dungeon rooms. There are not really puzzles to solve. This is an assault on the bandits and maybe some stealth thrown in. The room descriptions support this. In one room there’s some bandits, keeping watch over the cliffside. But … there’s a wounded warrior from the village, hiding in a pile of blankets. You can imagine the party, a fight breaking out, the wounded warrior grabbing a bandit leg, or stabbing one, at some moment. SO the rooms are designed to kind of support this sort of assault style play, adding some freshness to what could otherwise become monotonous combat.

Oh, and then there’s village Elder FuckWit. He’s gone in to the cave, tha the waterfall comes out of, to summon the villages protectors to kill the bandits. Stone guardian statues. These have stats as gargoyles WHICH MAKES PERFECT SENSE! So, crazy old village dude goes off to summon mythical protectors, who ALSO end up showing up at opportune (inopportune?) times to kill everyone in sight and are especially fond of knocking people off of precarious spots and down the thundering waterfall, bandit, player, and villager alike. Nice touch with this part. 

The map here is interesting, with its verticality. That does, however, create a some issues with comprehension. There are some parts of the design that are tough to figure out where things lead. Stairs up and down are generally ok, but there are little rooms on the map art that are not obvious which they are, in the 2d, or where a certain area leads on the leads art rendering on the “normal” 2d map. And that mouth of the Waterfall. Oof!

That’s pretty light criticism though.

It’s an adventure designed around a single session. A single session of an RPG probably takes just a couple of pages to describe. MOST adventures drag that out to a bajillion pages of content. Ben focuses in. You get a couple of pages (one of maps, one of keyed locations) with a coupe of support pages like background and notes. That’s about the right size for a single session in what is a pretty much straight forward assault with some sneaking about between assaults. A one night assault adventure? Yeah, it should be short. And it is. I might suggest that the product description could be oriented a little more towards “four pages of adventure and a lot of pregens, maps, etc”, while emphasizing the “ready to run!” aspect, but, yeah, this is what you need for an adventure.I might call it a very journeyman effort. Not gonna be flashy, but gonna get the job done.

This is Pay What you Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1. The preview shows you the four pages of actual adventure content, so its a good preview. Take a look at that map and those keys. Nice job with them, eh?


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/237442/One-Session-Kit-K2-Assault-on-Mistrunner-Village?1892600

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 2 Comments

The Waking of Willowby Hall, Dungeons and dragons adventure review

By Ben Milton
Questing Beast Games
Knave/OSR
Level 3

The manor of Willowby Hall is under siege by a giant, enraged at the theft of his magical goose. The band of thieves has taken shelter within the manor’s crumbling walls, cowering with their ill-gotten poultry as the building shakes itself apart. But something else is stirring. The giant’s rampage is slowly awakening a Death Knight from its black slumber, and once it rises it will call on the bones of the manor’s old residents to drive out the intruders. Will the party loot the manor of its ancient relics, or succumb to the blades of its skeletal guardians? Who will make off with the goose and its golden eggs? Will anyone survive the giant’s onslaught? The only way to find out…is to play.

This 32 page adventure features about thirty one rooms in a fanciful haunted two level manor home. With a rampaging cloud giant outside. It’s a classic situation dungeon. You think up some situation, then dump the party in to it and giggle as all hell breaks loose as they try to loot the fuck out of everything and not get themselves killed. Ben is not just “Not a fucking idiot” but actually knows what the fuck he is doing, and it shows.

It looks like this is a part of Zinequest 2, from Kickstarter, and ran in February of 2020 for two weeks, making about $13k. Delivery was promised in December 2020 and appears to have dropped in February of 2021. At first I was like “Man! $14k in two weeks! Sweet sweet lucre! If I could do one of these every two months then …” and then, after looking at the dates, I was like “oh man, the fucking stress! Dude must have been sick with it!” The results, though, are clearly with it.

Three adventurers break in to a cloud giants cloudy home and steal his goose, rumored to lay golden eggs, and run off, being chased by the giant. He’s grabbed the locals town bell from their church and is using it like a flail. The adventurers have run in to an old abandoned manor home, rumored to be haunted. Thus far we have: angry cloud giant in a silk dressing robe with a bell flair, nutso adventuring party, haunted manor, and Mildred the horrible magical goose. That’s a GREAT mix of shit going on and the fucking adventure hasn’t even started yet! Ben does this in just a couple of intro paragraphs and it sets the tone for whats to come.

This has a fanciful tone to it and is alluded to in that intro. The cloud giant with the goose that MIGHT lay golden eggs. He’s in a dressing gown. His name is Tom, a very respectful name for a giant and sometimes for trolls. That, alone, would bring the fanciful air of the folk tale to the adventure (which I have a well known LUV for.) Midred is the perfect name for the goose and making her a horrible wretch, who honks, bites, and runs away, is perfect for this adventure! Our adventurers that stole her are Helmut Halfsword, Lisbet Grund and Apocalypse Ann the magic user. Perfect names for this sort of adventure (And an art style that complements perfectly.) But, this is no kiddie game. While it makes allusions to folklore and has a lot of very relatable things because of that, this is not a kiddie adventure. Castle Xyntillan has  fun and fanciful air to it, a lightheartedness. If that’s one end of the spectrum and Shadowbrook Manor is the other end then this is somewhere in the middle. Not humorous, but a kind of setting up the environment for things to take a turn. I’m a big fan of D&D play with that tone. (I might note, also, that if this were for 1st levels then it would be the perfect intro dungeon for brand new players introduction to D&D. It’s accessible. Hmmm, maybe you can do it at level 3 also, it just makes them less squishy, which might be good for noobs, but not so much shit on the characters sheet as to overwhelm them?)

You get VTT maps. The inside cover has a layout of the map, along with notes around the edges for DM’s quick reference. Perfect. The room format has a brief sentence, with bolded words, with bullets and indents providing “i look closer” information. Perfect format. I could write a lot more about this. I don’t know, maybe I should. Whatever. I like the format. Basically, you get a one sentence intro, with a bolded word. It will have some bullets, indents under it. Then another paragraph with another bolded word or two, and some indents/bullets under it. Scanning the room, as a DM, is trivial. Reading the room to the players is easy, you’re just noting the first sentence above each bulleted section. Little mini-maps dot the pages, to give context for where the party is and whats inn the next room over. 

Ben has, it appears, taken the “no room keys” gauntlet. I have vented repeatedly in the past about adventures with no rooms keys. They try to describe using just text. Or, they put the room in some non-alpha format with no actual room keys. Ben also has no room keys. There are no numbers on the map and the room names, while on the mpa, are not in alpha order. But, wait, there’s more!

He DOES have rooms keys. They are page numbers. Breakfast Room P. 24. Music Room P18. With a big giant Breakfast Room on page 24 to help the DM locate it. Thus the index serves as the room key. Clever boy.

There are ghosts. They want things. The NPC party is running around. The giants bell is slowly “waking up” the haunted manor. The giant serves as a focus to keep the party on the move as he looks in windows and reaches and swings his bell flail … the related waking up also serving as a timer for the party. Thus there is motivation for the party to move their asses in and around the manor. 

Descriptions and great. A harpsichord says “Playing anything else causes thousands of harmless black spiders to swarm out over the PC’s hands. Save or scream in terror until removed.” A scream, of course, causing a wandering monster check. As does that horrible magical honking from the goose. There is A LOT to do in this adventure. Buttons to push, so to speak, and things to interact with, flee from, and leverage to your own ends. 

Great fucking adventure. Knave. Youtube channel. Phat kickstarter loot. Good adventure. Beautiful spouse. House in Malibu. But, alas, no cabal membership.

This is $7.50 at DriveThru. The preview is thirteen pages and shows you nearly all of the adventure. Great preview. Check out that preview even if you don’t buy it. You can see the format he’s used, both in the map and the keys, and get a sense of the interactivity.  


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/348439/The-Waking-of-Willowby-Hall?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 3, Reviews, The Best | 16 Comments

Dread Tower, D&D adventure review

By Horos
Self Published
MSX, FMX, Moments, B/X, BECMI, Rules Cyclopedia, AD&D, 5e, DCC, OSR, and other major OSR rulesets!

Enter the Dread Tower, a gate to the underground fortress of Bhaligund, one of Skandir’s most treacherous sons. Fight deadly creatures or be clever and try to run away from them. Find secret passages, remove traps, solve puzzles, and overcome obstacles that will challenge your players’ skills.

This eight page adventure uses three pages to describe six rooms in a dungeon. It is the pinnacle of design … if design is defined as abstracted descriptions and mythical but irrelevant backstory.

Yeah! You made a thing! Congratulations! I sincerely mean that. It takes a lot to overcome your own self-loathing as a creative and produce content for others. And, you put some nifty art in it; nice cover. The actual adventure, though, needs some serious work and I might say that it exemplifies perfectly several points of designing for publication. 

“Roll 1d6 to find out why you are at this place” the adventure tells us. “This place” being some frozen tundra at the base of some mountains. You could be lost explorers, or giant hunters on the trail of giants, or survivors of a massacre. I’m not sure what the point of this is, or why it’s random? The descriptions are only a few more words than I’ve typed and leave the DM with nothing to build a pretext upon. Any why random? That doesn’t make any sense at all, except in some spring of OSR “random tables” design elements. This is not how you use randomness in an adventure.

Our first encounter is with four vordaks guarding the tower. What’s a vordak? I don’t know. We’re not told. I’m willing to overlook this, a bit, in case they are in some kind of monster manual or setting guide. But, there’s also no description of them. Four vordaks, in rusty armor with rusty weapons. “You meet four things to fight. Roll for initiative.” *sigh* And the rusty stuff? That strikes me as an attempt to prevent/nerf looting the bodies in an adventure that is otherwise pretty devoid of treasure. A ruby worth 500 silver pieces is in the adventure … but it explodes for 6d6 damage if you remove it, so … no, that’s not actually treasure. 

The design is full of backstory. In the armory you can find Khez’s dagger. There’s no description of the dagger. Just a dagger. But, we do get a backstory for it! “Khez was a murderer from Zimbar who was unsuccessful in trying to loot the tower with her comrades.” Kind of interesting, actually. So is “Here, the traitor sentinels who allowed the wandering sorceress to enter Bhaligund’s fortress were imprisoned.” Nifty! Of course, the party has no way to know this and it has no impact on the adventure at all. They are just “Now, these creatures are just six skeletons and four corpses that stand up to attack intruders.” Great.Not even an interesting description … again.

But, let us find an interesting description! Romo three tells us that “A huge horrible aberration is hidden in this deep pit. It attacks with its powerful tentacles any creature that tries to cross the room.” So, pit, tentacles come out of it. Can you get by the pit? Is there a ledge? Do the tentacles or beast get a description to help the DM out? No. Nothing at all other than the description I just pasted in above. 

And so it goes. Nifty little name drops with no descriptions of substance to fire the imagination. And no, the art doesn’t fill in. They seem to just be random pieces. There’s something that looks like a squid, a little piece. Maybe that’s the tentacle monster? 

You have to create interactivity in your adventure. You have to have things for the party to explore and fuck with. You have to create interesting description. They don’t have to be long. They don’t have to be verbose. But you have to have SOMETHING other than “you are now fighting four creatures.”

This is $2 on itch.io. This being itch, there is no preview. I can haz sad face? 🙁

https://horoscopezine.itch.io/dread-tower

Posted in Do Not Buy Ever, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 2 Comments

The Shifting Sands, D&D adventure review

By Joseph Mohr
Old School Role Playing
OSRIC
Levels 5-7

The desert sands of the Jural Empire are a dangerous place to visit. The sands are deep and are constantly in motion. Recently a sand storm uncovered an ancient pyramid that may be a thousand years old or more. It is believed that this may be the tomb of Emperor Nkuku who was a rich and powerful ruler long ago. What dangers and treasures might be discovered?

This 38 page adventure uses about sixteen pages to describe about eighty rooms in a five level pyramid. It is exactly what you would expect if I said “minimally keyed pyramid adventure.” It’s 5:43 am and I just put some Beam in my coffee, leftover from my weekend 44 cup coffeehouse adventure, to combat the ennui I now feel. 

I don’t understand minimally keyed adventures. Obviously. It SEEMS like someone has put a lot of effort in to this. I mean, it’s almost forty pages. There are dyson maps. Someone typed the entire thing up. There is some amount of effort that goes in to something like this. Some major effort, I’m guessing. And yet, it just feels … empty? Hollow? Like, what’s the point? 

Here’s the wandering monster table:

1. 1-4 Mummies

2. Dun Pudding

3. 1-4 Mummies

4. Dust Devil

5. 1-4 Mummies

6. 1-4 Mummies led by a Priest of Raal

Are you inspired, now, as a DM to run an awesome game? Is this something better than you could have written on your own? Does your mind leap at the possibilities of a table with “1-4 Mummies” appearing repeatedly on it? Are you excitedly planning how to introduce those mummies to your party? 

“This area is empty except for a trail of very old wrappings. They nearly crumble at the touch.” The trail doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just window dressing.

“This area has three guards standing upright against the north wall. Two hold a weapons. The third does not need weapons. All are zombies but each is a monster zombie of a different type of creature”

“All along this large hallway are murals depicting the god Raal and the Emperor Nkuku. Scenes of great battles seem to dominate the work.”

“The hallway is dark. The walls, floor and ceiling are made from sand stone. The desert wind can be heard whistling in the halls.”

“Pedestal – Resting upon a pedestal here is a golden crown. The crown is adorned with sapphires, fire opals and emeralds. It is worth as much as 25000 gold pieces”

“The doors to this room are locked. This is Nkuku’s work shop. He does experimental research here and is working on creating a new type of golem. Parts of this creature standing upright in the room. Right now it only consists of a torso and a pair of leg bones. What kind of golem is being created is a mystery as it looks like none the adventurers have ever seen or heard of. On a small table here is a large tome. It is a Manual of Animation”

The fucking experimental workshop of an undead pharoah. “Parts of this creature standing upright in the room, a torso and pair of leg bones.” I guess I should be happy that I got “leg bones” instead of “legs.” 

I don’t really know how to describe something like this. Let’s say you went to the grocery. You see a 6” by 6” by 1” lump of grey color in plastic wrap. It’s labeled “meat.” It’s $3. What exactly is the point of such a thing? It’s not for date night. I mean, I hope your date has more self-respect than to date you if you prepare something like that. And it’s not for you to eat, I hope. I don’t want to come off elitist, but, there’s more to life than Krusty Brand Imitation Gruel. 

Everything is just so … bland. Why would you select something like this to fill your evening of gaming with? Are you proving how macho you are? Are you distinguishing yourself from those upstart kids with their spires of iron and crystal? Under what circumstances do you see something like this and get excited about it?

It’s a recently uncovered pyramid. It will be covered by sand again in 2d6 days. Is there a point to that? Thinking about that artificial timer, does it actually work in a case like this? I get it, its supposed to represent the shifting sands of the desert … but in an actual game? Is it going to come up?

It’s a hundred miles from nearest town, the text tells us. It’s only one mile from the nearest oasis. It takes five days to travel there. I guess that’s from the nearest town? Is that right? A hundred miles in fives days in the desert? The green smoke that the interior text tells us rises from the top of the pyramid … it’s not mentioned anywhere else in the adventure when you approach it. 

I don’t understand these things. It feels like work. It feels like drudgery. It feels like mechanically chewing some grey “meat” without regard to enjoyment. 

This is NT going to help the DM run a good game. Sure, it’s terse Mr Bathwater, but where’s the baby?

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $3. The preview is six pages, with the last page showing you the first two rooms. Rejoice in the preview of a minimally keyed adventure.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/346792/The-Shifting-Sands?1892600

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

Sulphur & Snuff, D&D adventure review

By Rook
Self Published
OSR
Levels 1-3

A wicked theatre, a blue-skinned vizier, an imprisoned demon, evil noblemen and lots of torture, mutilation and cannibalism (and more within!). Sulphur and Snuff – A Devilish Performance  …

This eleven page landscape adventure features about twenty rooms in a debauched theater in a city. It successfully creates the debauched theater environment, but, is more locale than adventure. A certain degree of motivation is missing.

The closest analog I have for this adventures design is the one page dungeon contest. If you took a bunch of the better one page dungeons and strung them together in to one project then you’d have something like this. One page dungeons are interesting because of how they force the designer in to new and more interesting choices and really focus the efforts. And they suck because they are artificially limited by what you can fit on one page … and they can slip, far too easily, in to pretentiousness over delivering the goods. You have things like Stonhell or The Fall of WhiteCliff which take one pages and fit them together to form something more. This adventure is like that.

You get a one page overview map and a page or so of overview information integrated in to it, along with a page or so of “what does eating a demon organ do to you?”, “things people are talking about” and random people walking around the theater tables, etc, as well as monster stats all located in the rear. Then you get little mini-maps, each with three or four locations on them, blown up, with the text for the locations on the page surround it. The map, proper, has some color on it, noting doorway types, as well as some icons in the room, Blue Medusa style, to help trigger the DM in to what is in the room and how to run it, as well as what might be in the next room and splashing over in to this one. It’s an effective layout style for this sort of thing.

The rooms, themselves are written fairly well, both in terms of evocative writing that helps the room/situation spring to mind as well as presenting situations that are going to be interesting to interact with. The situations are familiar enough that the DM can grasp them, or, perhaps, the writing is good enough that the situations SEEM familiar enough to grasp and run with them … which would be either good writing or good design or both. Outside the theater, for example, we get a throng of locals fended off by two theatre guards in half plate. Prove your worth to get by them; 25gp. Or, the first real room, the foyer. Dimly lit, deep red carpets stretching out over the floor, walls lined with dripping black wax candles, a woman with a noble accent heard arguing with a clerk in a barred window, another guard trying and failing to hide a large streak of blood on the floor. You know this. You know these situations. Either because they are familiar to you or because the writing has CAUSED them to become familiar to you, you know them. They are inside of your head. You know how to run them. You know the attitudes to take. And if you know this then you can relate it to the players. And that is the entire fucking point of the entire exercise. Decent writings, good situations, they combine to form something greater than the sum of their parts. 

Blah blah blah blah blah blah. There’s more of the same. A pusher in the alley, bored and jaded nobility. Secret torture club. A demon on stage in a magic circle that is also being tortured for the delight of the social circle milling about in the main theater.

There are some challenges here though.
First, your gonna need a place to set this that has a fuck ton of jaded nobles. This place is stuffed like Biohock is full of rich assholes. But while BioSHock could put all the assholes in the world in their libertarian utopia, you’ve only got one city/kingdom to work with here. 

Second, there is some issue with the point of the adventure, and I think the designer recognizes it. They talk about it being a heist, a kidnapping rescue, etc, and not a dungeoncrawl break down the door, kill, loot, repeat adventure. But, then, we get to the SUPPORT of those other play styles. Lets say you wander about until you find the torture room or the treasury. Ok. The entire thing is written in a kind of a non-committal style, at least with regard to how things can/should go down. We get a very neutral description of a place with few comments on what can happen when the party fucks up or how to support those heist/rescue play styles. There are no real personalities to the NPC’s, or many “named” NPC’s, for that matter. The reaction to violence is given about three words … there’s just not enough here to support play beyond “go in to room and look around a have some fun isolated in this room.” It needs more … interconnectedness. 

“A languid, alabaster noblewoman reclines in a basin of blood. It seeps onto the floor as she

rises to meet the players. She is the Baroness Melvelia. She is a detached gossip and for d4 HP worth of fresh blood she will answer one question the PC’s might have about the adventure. She apathetically and effectively knows everything and will answer truthfully.” Well, Hello there! …. in my best Jerry Lewis … “Hey Laaaaaady!” How much do you really want to get your questions answered? Man, do you invite a woman like this to your parties? I mean, she’s interesting to have around, but you’ve got to get those blood stains out of the carpet and the apathy … ug, what a let down when you’ve got the tunes pumping!

This is free at the designers blog. I’d check it out.

http://foreignplanets.blogspot.com/2021/02/sulphur-and-snuff-horror-dungeon.html

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 4 Comments

The Spire of Quetzel, Forbidden Lands adventure anthology

By Chris McDowall, Patrick Stuart, Ben Milton, Karl Stjernberg
Free league Publishing
Forbidden Lands

Wind dies. Pale grass grows in spirals. Lichen forms blurred iridescent sigils on cracked stone. Black trees curl their trunks and crook their branches as if bowing. The Spire is driven through the skin of the world like a pin through curling paper. With every step toward the tower, it writhes and warps like a hallucination. It seems infinitely tall, like something in a dream. There is one silver door, marked with a pavonated eye in iridescent blue and green.

Forbidden Lands is some Modipheus RPG that tries to emulate OSR play, I think. I don’t know. What I do know is that they snagged a lot of Name Brand designers to write a volume of adventures for their game. That’s one way to get a decent base of adventures for your new game!

I don’t usually review anthology stuff, collections of adventures from many designers. I never feel like I give any one adventure enough attention and so I do a disservice to them all. In addition, you’ve got the issue of “How Much Did The Publisher Fuck With Their Creations” to deal with. But, I think I’ve found a new work method that might help me do better reviews of these anthology things. So, off we go!

Adventure 1 – The Spire of Quetzel – Patrick Stuart

This thing is 23 pages long and describes about ten locations in about eight pages, with the rest being monster descriptions,  events, etc. Locations can be a bit of a misnomer; while some of the keyed locations are “normal” rooms, as one expects, others are more situations. “You are in a huge maze” or “you are in a huge greenhouse.” Patrick is a very good writer and uses language quite effectively to paint dreamlike images for the DM that I find quite evocative. His situation/encounters are also highly interactive. This feels like a process done right: imagined and then put down with mechanics as an afterthought, instead of mechanics driving the system. “I need a CR5 encounter” is the bane of adventure design.

Looking at those last two senses of the introduction gives a good summary of the descriptive style “With every step toward the tower, it writhes and warps like a hallucination. It seems infinitely tall, like something in a dream. There is one silver door, marked with a pavonated eye in iridescent blue and green.” This is an adventuring site, no doubt about it! This is what you yearn for! Adventure awaits! Not just some bullshit dry location, but someplace WONDROUS. And an eye, pavonated like a peacock feather. Note the relationship to the queens name: Quetzal. And then, the first encounter, a couple of bird creatures, peacocks crossed with archaeopteryx and Birds of Paradise. Demons. I, dummy that I am, still did not get it. Not until I saw an art piece. They are Vrocks. This is a strength is a good designer and Patrick does it wonderfully. Not just a Vrock.  Not just a bird demon. No, he creates a description that causes you to totally rethink your preconceived notions of what a Vrock is. Turcotte did this with his devils and undead in his Jarls adventures on Dragonsfoot. It’s not a class of creature. It’s not a demon, or a vrock, or a bird demon. It’s not some genetic classification of monster. These are Grumis and Nachtrapp, weird creepy intelligent old men in brilliant giant peacock bird-creature form. Through specificity the soul of an encounter is gained.

Those demons also highlight the interactivity of the adventure. They guard a staircase. (Specifically, a spire of gilded bone leading up, with a keening wind echoing down and a pale light gleaming from above, with long-dead bodies strewn across the floor and hung like pennants on the walls. Tell me you can’t see that in your head are not excited to run it!) Anyway, those bird demons. They guard it, but they don’t want to. You cna talk to them. There are a lit of bulleted talking points for them, making them easy to run. They have a neato little entry describing their personalities, voices of hoarse whispers laughter of a goat coughing, non stop talking from them, the tone never changing, speaking as if discussing a minor poet in a library, no matter the intensity of the situation, never verbally upset. That’s a fucking NPC you can run!

There’s this kind of art nouveau quality to the descriptions, and they extend to the magic items, like The Feathered Blade: a dagger, it’s handle of lapis lazuli, carved in the shape of an eyes, it’s blade one metallic silver feather. If you wound a flying creature with it then it steals the ability to fly from it and grants it to you for a day. Neato! Fuck your “there’s a +1 dagger here.” 

On the negative side, there’s quite a bit of long italics sections, generally for the room overviews. I assume this was the publisher “helping.” M<aybe some house style? It sucks because it’s hard to read long sections of italics. The monsters also appear in the end of the adventure. Generally, I’d be ok with this, but, given that they are so unique, with their personalities built in, you really need them “in” the room page to be able to run the adventure well without page flipping or some such. The formatting feels … I don’t know … normal? SOme of the rooms, particularly the “situation” rooms, are complicated and the text is pushing the limits by what can be accomplished for easy running in a “normal” paragraph layout style. (I wonder if this is digest form? Maybe that’s a contributor also?) It all feels very awkward. THis is exacerbated by some mistakes in the layout with line spacing and paragraphs and mushing things together so they appear to be a part of a subheading rather than, for example, general notes on a location. It feels like the vodka soda of layouts. Basic.

The Bright Vault – Chris McDowall

This sixteen page adventure describes a 24 room dungeon with three monsters in it. It’s high concept and empty and the kind of adventure that makes me feel like I’ve wasted my life when played.

Which is, perhaps, a bit harsh, but true. There is some sharp dividing line for me in adventures. Well, at least one anyway. On one side you have these sorts of exploratory adventures. There are things to do and places to go and loot to steal. It feels like you have a purpose in being there, if only to snag some phat loot. We might also include many plot adventures in this category, seeing as you have something to do in them. And then you’ve got the other side of the line. The museum adventure. You go some place and look around. It doesn’t feel like there’s much else to do in the adventure, or, rather, there’s not much purpose in doing anything. These feel, I don’t know, pretentious? Empty? Hollow? Like, what the fuck is the point of this place? There were a couple of adventures in Raggis Grand Adventure Plan that fit in to this, as well as some Ed Greenwood adventures and a host of indie game adventures. And, this one.

So, 24 room dungeon. It has three demon spawn siblings in it. There’s a bodyless aura-thing protector spirit there interacting with you also. One room is a treasure vault, but the aura-thing will only let you take one item. That’s the adventure. Three child-like demon-spawn, mostly innocent in nature, and an aura-spirit that lies to you and them to keep them inside the place. I guess you can kill the demon spawn, but why? Why even go in? Why even interact with anything? 

A lot of rooms are empty, or might as well be. You go in a room and the aura-spirit says “this room is blah blah blah” and then uses the [mural, fire, whatever] to test the party and question them and find out more about them. Ug. At least, the first third of the rooms has specific cues for te aura to talk to the party, I guess because there are “Faces” on the doors to allow for that. But, given that the aura is meant to tempt and lie, especially to the spawn, then it seems … disconnected? 

So, central conceit: poor.

And then there’s room descriptions like “A large wicker basket fills the room, thinly lined with straw.” and “A dusty library filled with even more dusty books.” Masterpieces of evocative writing, to be sure. This is augmented by one of my favorite design choices: I couldn’t be bothered. “Roll 2d4 precious treasures and 1d6 valuable treasures to be placed here.” *sigh* Just put the fucking god damned things in man! The randomness doesn’t nothing to enhance the adventure and all you’re doing is shoving more work off on to the DM. 

The Hexenwald – Ben Milton

This eleven page “adventure” is less adventure and more “five witches in the forest you can talk to.” As such, there’s little to say about it as an adventure.

Bens writing is inconsistent, with some stellar descriptions like “The path north into the Hexenwald ends at a wide pond, buzzing with insects and covered in green scum.” Buzzing insects and green scum add a lot to the visuals of that description. In other places though we get things like “A wooden hut stands on stilts in the middle of a wide still pond.” The vodka soda of descriptions for a witches hut.

The witches themselves get about a column or so of description each, with their personalities and their relationships to the others. Frankly, this is a textbooks example of how something like a mind map could be useful for showing complex interpersonal relationships at a glance. Otherwise, you’ll be digging through the text trying to ferret out their relationships to each other. 

There is a little section at the end that relates events and/or quests that the withes can give the party, mostly against another of the five witches. This, then, could be thought of as the adventure. Here are some places. Here are some people. Here are some things that could happen. I get it, and it’s one way to do it, but I think that the adventure aspects could have been done better and have been brought to the forefront. 

There are some decent ideas, generally one per witch, in this. A hut full of lit candles everywhere, with runs inscribed glowing on them. Put one out and a smoke servant appears. Nice!

Graveyard of Thunder – Karl Stjernberg

This thirteen page adventure details a small eleven encounter cave with The Last Thunder Lizard in it, dying. IE: elephant graveyard/whatever that episode of the D&D cartoon was. Along the way you get a lizardman Last Guardian Of The Caves and an orc chief looking for the Phat Loot. Some nice elements here.

Big field. Mesahill in the middle. Lightning striking all around a a section of it, centered on the hill. I’m in, cause if that ain’t a great big pointy arrow I don’t know what is! And, that’s a strength of this adventure: bringing the wonder and some situations that are interesting without being explicit set pieces. Beyond the lightning field, I’d like to call out a couple of notable standouts.

Encounter one is outside the cave/hill, and, infant, outside the lightning field proper. Some tents just outside of it, with Mr. Orcy McOrcerson camped out, with his men. He heard about this place and wants the loot. He will tail the party, and/or “lead” and expedition the way Kuz did in to the Tomb of Horrors. The orcs hosw up a few more times in the caves, as warning corpses or abandoned scouts. However, they are really a missed opportunity. There was a chance here for an obsessed orc leader, KHAN!!!-style wanting to get in and squandering his meager resources of bodies. Instead we just get a couple of words on them and no real sense of how they could be used to better effect than they are. 

There’s also, in more than one place/manner, some good tension building. In one place you find a body with dart in its neck … a good clue for the party AND building tension for whats to come. In another there’s this cast off line (two, I think, in separate places) about hissing in the darkness to scare off adventurers. Again, the hissing is a missed opportunity and the ability to leverage that in to a full on tension building adventure is missing.

The whole things comes off as a very journeyman effort. Good usability, like moving from the general description in the read aloud to the specific in the DM text, is done well. But in other places there are large gaps, like the absolute lack of any monster descriptions. Instead we get their history and backstory, when we should be getting a decent little one or two line description by which to make the party shit themselves.

Summary

Anthologies are a mixed bag. They seem like a good thing, but seldom are, due to inconsistency in either writing, design, or tone. There’s some House Style bullshit going on, like the italics for read aloud and shoving the monster stats, etc in the rear of the adventure. A little too rigid if you ask me. And you are, since you’re reading this. Still at $10, you might get a good adventure out of it.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages and show you fuck ll, except for the last page, which is the first location key for Patricks adventure. From it you can glean the encounter/formatting style. Very poor preview.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/258599/Forbidden-Lands-The-Spire-of-Quetzel?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 13 Comments

Star Spire and The Bruja, The Beast, and The Barrow, dungeons & dragons adventure reviews

By Gus L
Ratking Productions
B/X
Levels 1-2

1. The desert night is shattered by the fall of a crystal shard, a sky tomb filled with treasures from beyond the fixed stars and ready to plunder. 2. Curse and disease are endemic ailments of the adventuring life, and finding reliable treatment is never an easy task in the wastelands of the Crystal Frontier, but Marble Eye, the witch of Pickbone Mound is said to have the panacea for everything.  He’ll take all your hard earned plunder, but like all witches the canny old bale worker would rather make a deal and there’s something in the tombs beneath his cursed hut that needs attention.

These two adventures have seven pages total, five of which are the adventures proper. One is set in a crashed crystal meteor, an exploration adventure, and the other in a barrow tomb, given the task to bring a pig to a certain room in it by a wizard you seek a boon from. They are evocatively imagined, interactive, and close enough on usability to meet the needs of something that is only 2-3 pages long. IMAGINED rather than plodded, I would summarize.

I’m trying to not review short one to three page things; they just don’t seem to hit very often and make too many sacrifices. But, there are exceptions, and, by combining two from the same designer then there are some interesting things to say about what’s going on. And there’s are interesting.

Gus isn’t fucking around. There’s a cover and then a short sentence or two of background and then the room keys, spread out over the remaining pages. No real filler, except for some artwork that is stylized and interesting. (As an aside: … and, interesting color choices also. The art style and color choices certainly work together well to create something different without falling over the edge to pretentious.) 

The intros here are short but imply things. The things implied are further adventure and how to integrate it in to your campaign. Recognizing the limitations of the page count, the intro does double duty, setting up the adventure in such a way that the DM can expand on it. “Across the dizzying gulfs you watch it fall, a streak of burning pink that blots the fixed star and drowns the nebula of the night in its blaze. The impact echoes, only a few miles to the east, a cacophony that banishes sleep, and now at dawn you stand above the crater which cracks and pops as the sand cools to crazed glass around a bent spire of tomb crystal, ready for the plunder.”  Flowery language aside (this is the intro/background/inspiration section, and that’s all there is, where it is generally allowed) you can see how you, as the DM, might integrate this event in to your campaign. And so it is with the second adventure also. These very brief set ups with things implied for the DM to integrate them in to the game. No pages and pages and pages of backstory. “Hey, here’s this thing. And here, be inspired to integrate it in to your game.” That’s the way you do a fucking background!

Both adventures have around eight encounter locations in them, and both have a couple of encounters “outside” the dungeon before you get to the “inside” portions. In the Star Spire it is a group of bandits who ride up and then the burning sands and getting in to the thing. In the Barrow/Brujah, it is the wizards hut, and his yard/fence. Both serve as a kind of front yard to the adventure, and things that can hang on and provide more than a brief hit for the actual encounter. “The Innocents”, a group of big, dumb farm boys led by Bruno, a scruffy veteran brigand, “friends” of Graf  the duelist, just having arrived on lathered horses. Greedy and murderous, but cowards. Perfect! Perfect! The party has to deal with them before they go in. Maybe they are still there when they come out, weakened. And, then, note the name drop of Graf … a hook to integrate in to a follow up game. The adventure just drops this shit in over and over again, allowing the DM to build it in to more than the words on the page. That’s good design.

And note the writing. Lathered horses. Big dumb farm boys. Streaks of BURNING pink and a cacophony of sound. Sand cooling to crazed glass. This is good writing. The scenes spring to mind. You can immediately both imagine it … and, there are great black chunks in your imagining that your mind races to fill in. And it doesn’t feel fake. It doesn’t feel like someone just said “let me open the thesaurus and fill in an [adjective/adverb] before each noun.” They feel IMAGINED rather than workmanlike. And the adventure delivers on this time and again.

Let’s look at how Gus handles magic items. “A gleaming copper spear”, engraved with its name Biter. Sweet! A brief description but one that stands out in a sea of “+1 sword” magic items. You WANT to know more about it. It strikes as a magical weapon, but is cursed to inflict damage to the wilder on a fumble … and maybe kill them if thrown. Cursed backbiter! Essentially, the one from the 1DMG, but brought to life! Another one “drinks the blood of those it stabs”. It’s +1 and gives the wielder 1hp. That one line though, “drinks the blood of those it stabs”! … that gives the DM something to work with! Short, but leads to more. This Is The Way. That Vampire Doctor Spam man approves! 

The adventures, proper, are quite good. There are things to steal, pry out of walls, people to talk to and make deals with and, of course, horrible monsters with GREAT descriptions. 

There are a couple of areas that could be better. In places the map legends run in to the “hard to read” territory. Black text on a dried blood oval, while evocative, is just a few shades too far over the line for my eyes. And the text is pushing the limits of use in places. The descriptions ARE short, they have to be since the entire thing is only a few pages long They are using a paragraph style with bolded keywords. They start off well, with obvious things first and more full descriptions kind of mixed in. A mural with horses, for example, to give my synopsis of a much better written description. This allows the DM to say “there’s a mural on the walls” and then follow up with what’s on it when the players start investigating. There’s a limit to how much you can do with this style and still have it be easily usable during play. I’m not saying the descriptions are over the line, but, they are getting a bit close. Triple column, some fancy fonts for room numbers … the eyes start to wander. I suspect that the lengths here are just about as far as this style of organization can take an adventure. More and you need to switch and/or stick in some extra helping boxes, etc, to make things clearer.

GREAT fucking adventure for only a dollar. I wish more adventures were like this. If things were at least this good then I wouldn’t be reviewing adventures. Imaginate the fuck out of it, indeed!

These are $1 each at DriveThru. The preview shows you everything, so you can see what you are getting in to. Perfect.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/340873/The-Bruja-The-Beast-and-The-Barrow?manufacturers_id=18552?1892600

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/340123/Star-Spire?manufacturers_id=18552?1892600

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, The Best | 20 Comments

Maize & Monsters, Dungeons and Dragons adventure review

By Tom Knauss
Frog God Games
S&W
Levels 4-6

Maize and Monsters is an adventure, that exposes the adventurers to the grim reality that time sometimes exacerbates old wounds rather than healing them. A recent murder in the village of Pilhua proves to be far more than a simple crime of passion as the seeds for this killing were sown during a previous, unsolved mystery that still haunts some residents within the settlement. The characters must wade through a list of suspects and motives that lead them to discover the ugly truth about a heinous crime that spawned a greater evil than even its perpetrators could ever imagine.

This 27 page adventure uses about fourteen ages to describe an investigation, a couple of combats, and a small corn maze in a mesoamerican village. There is SOMETHING going on, but it is hidden behind so much Wall of Text as to be nigh incomprehensible. Combined with some “Now It Is Fight Time” logic, it screams j’accuse! at the Frogs. 

Good stuff: there’s a lot going on. Two dudes kill their skeezy drug peddler and bury him in a cornfield. Two teens, making, out see it, and get killed also. One Year Later (a magic number, to be sure, and thus I approve) you get an evil corn stalk monster killing someone in the night. That dudes wife is a little skeezy … a red herring. You get a widow making monsters attacking the mayor for not trying hard enough to find the murderers. You get the dead dealer causing problems as a wight, the two kids turning a corn field in to an evil corn maze … a fuck ton going on here. I’m not entirely sure it all fits together well, due to issues explained later, but it COULD. And an adventure with a lot going on can be a GREAT adventure. 

It also separates out just about every NPC you could talk to in their own little box, and tried to use some bullets or italics to draw attention to different facts and so on. Likewise, there’s an adventure synopsis right up front to help the DM get oriented … and without it I’d be even more lost than I already am. So, it’s got a good basic outline, and knows what to do. It just fails in doing any of it.

First, this is a Frog God adventure. That means that it is a disaster. While an “editor” is attached, it’s clear that person did close to nothing. There’ no level range on the cover or in the product description. They did nothing to catch the inconsistencies in format (more on that later) or evidently made any effort at all to clarify text. The Frogs are, as with nearly all multi-author publishers, incompetent. Your mileage with a multi-author publisher is going to come from the designer, with the publisher only detracting from value as a product. For the DESIGNER it probably means a wider audience, since there’s some staying power and name recognition in the publishers name. For the consumer, though, you’re only going to get the designers vision fucked with at worst and unguided at best. The larger the publisher the more evident the issue, it seems. We’d all like to THINK they provide value. But, the designers name holds more value, ultimately. And fifteen fucking dollers for a PDF? The chutzpah! (Thanks Paranoia! I owe my vocab to you and the orphan example!) 

The mesoamerican setting doesn’t help. Adding to the confusion is the proper noun and vocabulary issue. This isn’t unique to this adventure, but can be found in the bullshit proper names in Forgotten Realms or in Vengers Apostrophe-land setting. If you have to put the translation next to the noun, every time, in order for someone to follow the adventure then you’ve failed. It’s not that Different is Bad, but rather that you have to recognize that you’ve got a job to do to help people along, so the burden on design and organization is even greater. Further, there’s no real cultural issues in this adventure. There’s nothing to say “this is a mesoamerican adventure” other than the usage of the proper nouns and different weapon nakes, etc. 

The NPC’s are a nightmare to follow and therefore run. The entire first section is supposed to be talking with people to investigate the village issues. Each NPC gets a couple of paragraphs, at least, of small dense text follow by wither italics or bullet points. The italics is better done. A keyword or two in italics “Her affairs” followed by information she relates. This is good! Well, not the multi-paragraph intro. That’s terrible to scan and comprehend, but the italics keyword with follow up information is great! Other NPC’s though, get a bullet break out. With no keywords. Both formats are, inexplicably, used, with the bullets being far weaker because of the lack of a heading to let you know what that bullet is about.

And the wall of text. Oh my sweet Jesus, the wall of text. Small font, tight,  and MOUNTAINS of it with only paragraph breaks. This combined with the lack of a good “flow” in the adventure, particularly the investigation part, leads to you both WANTING to know what’s going on and how to run it as well as wanting to stab your own eyes out. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to follow. Information is hidden in there, information you need, but you’re not going to find it without taking multiple minutes to read it … while at the table.

And then there’s the D&D part. Or, rather, I should say, what modern designers seem to think of as the D&D part: the fighting. “NOW IT IS TIME TO HAVE AN ENCOUNTER SO YOU FIGHT NOW” Or , maybe it’s a Frog’s thing. I don’t know. It sucks. You’re doing this investigation. It’s got this creepy cornfield. There’s this element of horror implied. And then “Three zombies walk out of the cornfield and attack.” That’s it. That’s how the primary motivators of the adventure show up. “Animated goll corpses loiter” is the read-aloud, I think. Specifically “The stench of death accompanies a withering, desiccated corpse wielding a vicious macuahuitl wrapped in leathery, decaying flesh in its bony hands. A team of animated gnoll corpses loiter around him as the obviously undead abomination shambles forward to slay the living and add its victims to its swelling ranks.” This is supposed to be a highlight. No creepy village vibe at night. No slowly increasing terror. No. Just they walk out of the cornfield and attack. It’s fucking lame. It takes all of the atmosphere and just fucking tanks it. Huts ablaze? Shows everywhere? Screams? No. They just walk out and attack the party. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Frogs are a rip off. I like reviewing new designers, but, fuck man. I guess, maybe, I expect more from a publisher? I don’t know why. I already know most adventure are crap. (By definition? If all adventures were The Best, would standards then be raised to make 90% of The Best crap? Hmmmm…)

Reviews of longer and multi-designer products coming soon … I think I’ve found a way to make them work.

This is $15 at DriveThru. The previews is three pages, showing you only one page of text, which is just background text. Shitty shitty preview. 


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/344314/Maize-and-Monsters-SW?1892600

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