The Witch of Underwillow

By Merric Blackman
Self Published
Levels 1-3

Save a kidnapped child! The villagers fear the forest, and rightly so. When wolves drag a child into the forest, there is only one option: find brave adventurers to follow the wolves and save the child! However, are there things the villagers aren’t telling the adventurers? What dark fate awaits them when they face the Witch of Underwillow?

This eight page adventure features six encounters on the trail of a baby stolen by a witch, with a nominal Ravenloft setting. Decent creepy and writing, along with DM text that that is to the point, helps make this a solid adventure, although featuring a few odious concepts and “extensions” that are, at best, half-hearted. A straightforward one session stab and grab. Merric has a solid head but can stumble on delivery, and this is no exception.

First, competent adventure. The read-aloud, while trending to the longer side of the three-four sentence rule, is fairly evocative and concentrates on the important shit. Hearing that a baby went missing while mom was hanging laundry, the RA for the house covers a fallen-down house in three sentences, and then the backyard with laundry line and overturned baby basket in two, finishing with “A dark forest runs along the edge of the yard.” You get the three main things: the house, the laundry/basket/yard, and the forest. Plus, the imagery of the laundry line, overturned basket and dark forest beyond summons up on not images on dingo got my baby, by The Witch movie as well. This sort of eerie farmhouse/woods thing that only a melancholy Sunday afternoon mood at dusk can match. And Merric does this sort of thing time after time in the adventure. The red-aloud is decent and focuses on what it needs to. The images painted tend toward the eerie, and the supporting DM text is generally to the point, focusing on the important aspects of the adventure, abstracting where necessary. The interior of the house gets two sentences, with a third on the “twist”, in a separate paragraph. And, the major topics are generally kept in separate paragraphs, to help locate information better. I would prefer a bolded word or two to help focus attention to the correct paragraph further, but, whatever. 

I should also cover the use of themes and cultural heritage. Good adventures can leverage that shared culture we all have to bring more to the adventure than the words otherwise could. That laundry line, basket, and woods, for example, leveraging all the media we’ve seen of those situations. The mother is actually “simple” and a bit insane … because the baby is a doll … bringing in the horror aspect to the game (this being a Ravenloft adventure.)The witch lives in the required tree root ceiling house, right out of 13th Warrior, and her door has a golden keyhole … which should be immediately bringing up folklore vibes. Not to mention a witch stealing babies and wolves in the forest. The use of this in the adventure leverages MORE, and that’s a GREAT thing.

And then he goes and mucks it up by relying on the worst tropes of adventures.

You see, the witch has  “decided to lure the adventurers to her lair, weaken them with some tests, and finally kill them herself (if the tests don’t do it first).” This is lame. Luring adventurers and testing them. A thousand thousand bad adventures have this premise. It’s the “I couldn’t think of anything more interesting” premise. Merric goes on to say that “In my campaign, her motivations were never revealed, as the characters killed her before she could even negotiate with them – the perils of trigger-happy players.” Yeah, play stupid games and win stupid prizes. I would re-frame “trigger-happy” as “smart.” But, whatever. The fruit of the poison tree is that the innkeep is instructed by the witch to hire to the party. This, alone, is no great sin. After all, up till now we could just ignore all this “test” and “hire” bullshit and just run a nice “evil baby stealing witch” adventure. But then we face an issue, and, I’m sure, the reason for the nonsense: I presume everyone knows that the womans baby is not a baby. Thus, including one feature, a desire to have a doll of a crazy-woman stolen instead of a real baby, leads to the sins piling up. Now, to be fair, you do get a few words of advice on the players detecting the deception and the innkeep breaknig down, fearful for his family, and ratting on the witch. But …

The trend continues. The door with the golden lock can’t be Knock’d. Yes, I fucking know that Knock fucks things up. Yes, I know that the witch wants the party to complete her “tests” first and knock bypasses that. Themes the breaks. You want to play D&D then you don’t get to gimp the fucking players. Don’t want Knock to fuck things up? Play a game not meant for dungeon-delving and one more suited for horror. I’m not morally opposed to The Oracle living on top of a mountain, or requiring the golden fleece before helping, but too much of it breaks the immersive nature and brings on the eye rolling. 

On top of that, the “combat” encounters feel like tack ons. On the way through the first you get to fight wolves. Ok. Sure, they live in the forest and you DO get a nice “glowing red eyes in the shadows” bit. But then, on the way out after fucking her up, you also get another wolf, a dire wolf blocking your path. The pretext is that its either her boon pact entity taking revenge on the party or a rival of hers throwing some shit at the party. In reality it’s a “I feel like I need another encounter” encounter. It feels like a tack on and doesn’t fit in. Yes, it IS the third wolf encounter in the adventure and three is a magic number, but it also feels like Merric got lazy with it. 

So, a workmanlike effort by Merric. Decent concept, but could have used a little more thinking in a couple of the concepts behind it and a few of the encounters. And the options for “She Is a Good Witch”, etc, in the appendix, don’t really expand those options in any meaningful or interesting way. It’s an ok adventure, decently evocative, better than most, but a little … uninteresting?

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

The Fight Job

By imnotsupposedtogetjigsinit
Self Published
Level ?

A minor crime boss has recruited the PCs to sabotage the championship fight. She has thousand of gold pieces on the long-shot challenger and promises a hefty payday to the gang if they can succeed. The PCs know where the champion will be but he’s wily. And dangerous. Time is short. Can the PCs keep their cool when the chips are down?

This fourteen page new-school adventure is about the parties attempt to sabotage a pit fighter before his next big fight. Hand reference material and a sandboxy attitude go a long way in to making this a more open form adventure, but it also feels … empty? It could be just me (I was in a bad bike accident yesterday) but it feels a little too … open. Or, maybe, it feels al little too easy, and relies too much on the DM to come up with challenges for the party.

So, new school adventure, meaning digest, two column, clean formatting, and a little more attention paid to headers and layout. You might think of an art punk layout aesthetic, but not pushed as far as those usually are … making this more usable. Major topics generally get a page devoted to them (sometimes two) which makes finding the NPC reference, or the locations, fairly easy. NPC’s on a page, map on a page, Street Urchins on a page, schedule on a page.

And there is a schedule. You’re hired to nerf a pit fighter, to put the fix in for a gambler. They are paying you 10,000 gp(!) The gambler got their hands on the fighters schedule, so you’re supposed to disrupt them, not actually kill them, since that would call off the fight. You get a handy dandy timer support, a pie chart with 4 15-minute pieces per hour, with travelling between locations taking 30 minutes and most major actions taking 15 minutes. It’s a good thing to support the DM with, both in the form of the guideline and in the reference material provided to help track the time. There’s some little table that tracks the parties success and gives the pit fighter a chance of success based on how much the party disrupts him. He’s going five places and nerfing him four times will give him a 0-in6 chance of winning, with the odds going up by 1 each time he gets a buff in. It’s a cute mini-game, although, the party has no chance of knowing how well they are doing. This is No Bueno. I mean, there’s some appeal in the party not knowing how much they need to do to nerf the guy to be successful, but for the players, they need some idea of if they should push their luck. Do we do X, which seems risky, or not? How does this decision dynamic change if you know the odds are 1 in 6? Or if the odds are 5 in 6? Or if you don’t know the odds at all? Generally, these sorts of things go better, in terms of a fun game full of tension, if the party can make a meaningful decision … and not knowing doesn’t really help that much at all.

The adventure is advertised as for most old-school games, and, is fairly generically stated in terms of a B/X mindset. But the game world does diverge from what I might call the usual B/X assumptions. This is more a 5e land. A druid sits in the gym ready to perform rituals for the fighter. The guard sergeants have Bolas Of Command, and the fighters trainer has a wand of magic missiles and the fighter himself wearing an anti-magic belt. You’re in magical ren-faire land. Nothing wrong with that … if that’s what you expect. I suspect that orienting this towards smaller niche systems, such as Troika or Mork Borg, or the 5e/Pathfinder crowd, would do a better job setting expectations.

But, let’s get to the heart of it … and I don’t mean the marker stalls selling tenfootpole’s as the cheapest thing. 🙂 The thing is a sandboxy thing. For better and worse.

You’ve got the lineline, and tools to track it. You’ve got some NPC reference. You’ve got a brief description of his entourage. You’ve got the town layout, and one to two page descriptions of the locations. You’ve got your mission, now go! Hell, the designer even gives you a little writeup on the marketplace, town guard, and street urchins, supporting the DM in their play. This is all great, and is exactly what the designer should be doing. And the locations generally support the play at that site. For example, the pit fighter goes to the swamp to meditate before the fight. And one of the (four) location is “The Screaming Crans eggs”; eggs/nest of a crane whose eggs  “Scream” when hatching, or are just cracked. Or the smithy, where dude has his silvered arms and hands recounted, with the moulds and silver polish present. One could imagine itching powder of some sort making it in to the mix, yes? This is good.

But … The Worthy Adversary, whatever that should turn out to be, is not covered very well. We get the set up, the location, why the dude is going there and some hints about what the party could do … but not really any challenges to get in the way.  The smithy wallows in his home, absorbed in his whiskey and pancakes, when not working. That’s all we get as any sort of a challenge. Is he working? Customers or apprentices? Does ANYTHING represent a challenge or an obstacle to the parties monkey wrenches? The gym where he works out doesn’t let you in unless you are member … and provisionel/new members must be sponsored. That’s all we get. Clearly this is leading somewhere. You can see where it wants to go. But there’s nothing in the individual encounter locations to support the play at that location, beyond a single single set up for a situation. 

Now, clearly, people are going to have different opinions on things like this. Some will be ok with this open framework of an adventure and some will want just a little more support for the DMin these situations that the adventure goes out outfits way to set up. I fall in to the second camp. It needs just a little more. I understand the desire t fit a locale in to one or two pages. The ideological purity of that design decision. But it can’t come at the detriment to supporting play. Another page each would have done the trick, I think.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The preview shows you the entire adventure.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 16 Comments

Temple of 1000 Swords

By Brad Kerr
Swordlords Publishing
Level 3

An ancient temple to the forgotten god of swords lies hidden behind a waterfall. Great piles of swords choke its halls and spill out into nearby streams and waterways. What strangeness still treads and what swords will you draw in the Temple of 1000 Swords?

This 25 page adventure describes a slightly absurdist eighteen room dungeon with … a sword theme. I mean, SERIOUSLY sword-themed. Interesting encounters and good formatting compliment a utilitarian writing style 

Oh, and it has carnivorous duck-people in it. I did mention slightly absurdist, right? And the giant duck-person egg? And rooms FILLED with rusting swords, streams clogged with them, a gelatinous cube choked full of them. I mean, this thing takes swords to 11, even providing a d100 table of interesting swords you can find and some guidelines on how to keep things interesting should the party decide to “mine” the dungeon for swords. 

Complimenting this is a slightly devil-may-care attitude of the NPC’s in places. The jovial god of swords, a mermaid queen ready for marrying, and not particularly attached to the magic sword she’s carrying. Oh, didn’t I mention the merfolk? Blood enemies of the duck people? And their genocidal war between each other that takes place in the halls? Like I said, slightly absurdist … but never really going over the edge, IMO, and everything following logically (well, D&D logic …) from the initial setup. And I do love me some slightly absurdit D&D.

And there’s always the allure of the sword. Of the MAGIC sword. Nothing like “you see a faintly glowing sword” to get the parties attention and push them in to the encounter they just KNOW is going to be a problem. Why fuck with that giant tower of swords in danger of collapsing, with weirdo sand people forming and dissolving underneath it? Because there’s a glowing sword up in it. Mermaid chick got a glowing sword? Let’s see what she has to say … Sounds like my kind of guy! This is an excellent example of luring the PLAYERS in. There’s always some kind of power fantasy behind every player … even if I have to extend that to “fulfilling my bullshit character arc that no one cares about except me.” And, appeals to THAT are going to be the most successful appeals you can make as a DM/designer. Motivating the PLAYERS to Push The Big Red Button turns the encounter, or adventure, in a gleeful exploration of the roleplaying world, instead of the It’s What My Character Would Do drudgery.

There’s a stream of water that you have to travel up … choked by swords! Also, there’s a pit under it, full of pointy swords. Also, All the swords make the pit malfunction 3-in-6. You gotta admire the dedication to the sword theme here. Oh, look, a dude stuck to thew all, through the heart, with a glowing sword. And still alive. Of course he’s a vampire. Of COURSE he promises not to kill you if you release him. And, in a surprise twist, he doesn’t! Of course, he WILL cause future problems throughout the land, that the party will just KNOW they started. I fucking love it! That’s how you do an encounter! This is an excellent example, as well, of making the characters actions have consequences and further enhancing the game world by it. It’s not exactly a punishment, or a reward … or, maybe, it’s both at the same time. Good adventures that kind of follow on possibilities and this one delivers. 

The writing here is more utilitarian than I would prefer to see, both in the overview text and in the DM text. “Vaulted ceilings, doric pillars, the echoing sounds of water. A massive statue of an armored god looms from the northern wall. A sword- choked stream flows from the east. A dark hallway leads west.” Certainly, this isn’t minimally keyed, and it’s not boring writing either. But, if I had a complaint with this adventure, it’s that those descriptions could use a little more polish to bring them to life more in the DM’s head. Not so much more words but polishing up what’s there. Or, the DMs text which reads “A pile of fine swords is placed before the statue as an offering. Two of them glow faintly in the dark (blades 2 and 9 of the nine). An enormous gem (1000 GP) is embedded in the statue’s forehead; it’s a treacherous climb to reach it (Strength check).” Again, certainly not overwritten, and only slightly underwritten, I’d suggest. Not enough to impact the play of the adventure, but, more effort in this area would really turning this thing from a fine journeyman adventure in a masterful shooting star of one. 

I could go on and on about this thing. An excellent curse/geas provided by the God Of Swords (who can do a wish for you …), the fetal duckling horror that emerges from the giant duck egg. (Of course that’s what happens! OF COURSE! And that’s the sign of a good encounter, when everyone says “OF COURSE!”) VTT maps provided, a very god intro summary of what’s going on. This thing is is ready to go.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is seventeen pages, showing more than a few of the encounters. This is a good preview, showing the intro, as well as the encounters. I’d check out the first page of encounters to get an idea if you’d like this.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 3, Reviews, The Best | 4 Comments

Off The Books

By Dana Floberg
Self Published
Level 5

A magical mishap occurs when a handful of freshmen enchantment students cast a modified version of the awaken spell on a fantasy epic in the university library, and now characters are leaping off the page – literally! As heroes, villains, and damsels come to life, the librarians need someone to restore narrative order to the unruly tales. But as the lines between fiction and reality blur, some of the characters begin to suspect their stories are cages they’d rather not return to at all.

This 19 page adventure details a few encounters in a library with fiction characters from books. It has a certain funhouse design aesthetic. The core encounters have interesting fundamentals, but lack in their implementation, both mechanically and in terms of presentation.

Our exploration of The Storyteller Collective Workshop continues, I assume, since this adventure thanks those folks. As with previous entries, there are some decent foundational ideas marred by a lack of experience. But, again with this one, that’s what being a first time writer is all about. 

We are once again in the default 5e setting of magical RenFairre, with this time the issue being in a large library. It seems that characters are coming out of storybooks and appearing in the real world. Someone has to get in there and, literally, close the books. I think I remember a Dungeon adventure like this? And, certainly, a room or two in old FunHouse dungeons. This, also, has a bit of the funhouse vibe to it, with contrived situations from fiction being the reason for the season. If you’re gonna have a RenFairre world then you’re going to have libraries, and they are going to have issues. Not my thing, but certainly A LOT of other peoples thing. Our hooks are short: maybe you’re here to research something and need to solve the situation efore you can, or, a buddy caused the problem and begs you to help out so they won’t get expelled. The first is the standard “I placed the McGuffin here” that can be relied upon in any adventure while the second at least has a sheepish student begging for help, both better than being hired. 

Chick from a romance novel gets out and starts reading her own book, bringing the villain and hero in to the world … and some self-awareness on her part. You go from room to room (about seven in total) encountering some situation, resolve it, and move on, until you close the last book in the last room and deal with the fallout of nulling out, or not, someones existence by closing the book on them.  Along the way you pick up a side-kick or two and deal with the asshole good guy from the novel.

The strength here is in the room encounters and the hints of personality that come with them. A troll asking a riddle, a wishing well that knows the absolute truth about the universe that you can use as a lie detector, a toad needing to be kissed that can gets larger each time … and can be used to solve a puzzle, or a band of merry pirates and their White Whale they hunt. Good concepts, solid and recognizable and good pretty for the cultural memories that can bring more to an encounter from the players and DMs own backgrounds. And a little extra here and there, n the way of words, a sly recognition or the tropes. Our pirates “Like many fictional pirates, they don’t actually do a lot of murder or pillaging, but they are extremely cool.” So, conceptually some good ideas with some hints of personality that’s unusual in a 5e adventure. Someone’s soul hasn’t yet died from writing. 

Fear not, gentle designer, the ennui will come. Until then, let me help you with the self-doubt …

The biggest issue here is one of parties ability to impact the adventure. Yes, the old Quantum Ogre and his pal the {fuck, I’ve been driking and can’t remember the name. The party has the ability to make meaningful decisions and their actions are not irrelevant. What the fuck is that called again?] So, major issue.

We need to deal with the doors unlocking when you defeat a monster. This means one thing: YOU WILL FACE MY ENCOUNTER THE WAY I ENVISIONED AND FUCK YOU FOR TRYING TO AVOID IT. Perhaps a little overly harse, especially for a new designer, but the ability for the party to use their own wit and abilities to avoid/overcome something is a key point in roleplaying. This shows up in myriad different ways in the adventure, including monsters that spor you as soon as you enter the room, Ye Olde Door Unlocyky, a disguised baddie who has no sign of ill intent on you Detect Deceit roll, and, worst of all … the goody goody guy who has been brought back to life if you kill him too soon by Sir Not Appearing In This Movie. I know, I know, you want to set up a cool moment. You want him showing up in the final battle. But you don’t get to write cool moments, as a designer. Oh, you get to POTENTIALLY set them up. But this isn’t the designers story and it’s not the DMs story. It’s the fucking players story. We do not take away their [fuck! Whats the word?]  As a designer I appreciate some tips on what to do if that happens (WHEN, if I’m playing) but you can’t rob the players. 

There are a host of other issues also. The NPC’s descriptions oculd be better, and come off as a wall of text. They need some trimming and more bolding/underlining, etc, to make it easy to scan their personality traits during play. Likewise, I get that they should be turned up to 11 (as advised by the adventure) but that doesn’t really come through. A few hints in that area could be appreciated. Supporting the DM in their efforts. Wall of text, in fact, comes up several places, most notably in three “interlude” rooms, one of which the party will experience, that come come off as three giants hunks of text that is hard to sort through. I could bitch about the other two unused rooms as well .. might as well quantum that n a plot based adventure like this, otherwise its wasted content. If I COULD explore it, and don’t, then its not wanted. If Im explicitly forbidden to explore ? of it then its wasted. And then there’s the “place what you want’ treasure list. Sure, you get to select from the appendix, but, that’s a cop out. Decide it and put it in. That lets you have puzzles that leverage those items later.

And then there’s a couple of things that just DO. NOT. WORK. There’s a polymorphed cat in the beginning that gets too many words and feels like a pet NPC from a DM campaign, the extra adding nothing to the adventure and the DM being explicitly told “but all this backstory is irrelevant since the party wont be able to grok it out.” Outhgt oh! No good that! Mildly related is the “take a bunch of damage each round while trying to solve a riddle” room. But you get to save for half! Again, this feels contrived, and not in a fun-house manner. No matter what you do you take damage. And no, “the trolls gets to decide who is attacked by the flying books” is not a solution to that issue.

Exposition Dump Wolf is out of plac3 and whatever the designer was going for just doesn’t come through with it. (And, I should not, nor tdo the hero, villain, or self-aware woman. I get where you want to go with this but it just doesn’t come through at all. You need to support the DM more in this.) 

And then there’s the final mechanic: getting pulled in to the books. Not only can characters come out but the party can get sucked IN to a book. But, as implemented, this is weak sauce. It feel like the parties actions have no consequences. It’s just a save DC that gets harder and harder, and doesn’t really have consequence since they can be sucked out again and there’s not really anything in the adventure to support whats IN the books they sucked in to. 

And, peaking of supporting the DM, the final battle has some storybook characters showing up … “Whatever the DM likes.” NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You, the designer, get to decide that. You get to pull in some appropriate things and make them relevant and support the DM in their usage. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but thats the value add that you are adding as the designer.

So, some decent ideas in the puzzles and set up, but not really supported well either for the DM or in the formatting of the text. But, it also doesn’t want me to drink until I’m blackout drunk.

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

The Orb of Goodbyes

By Marcos Lopez
Level 4

The Orb of Goodbyes is a magical item blessed with the power to extract and erase memories from a willing creature’s mind. When a Waterdeep lieutenant retires from military service, she seeks the Orb to forget a dangerous memory. Those who help procure the Orb from an enchanted cave discover the secrets behind this magical artifact and unearth its hidden memories.  The adventurers may then decide whether to deliver the Orb and help the veteran find peace, or use the item themselves to release burdens from their past.

This twelve page adventure has a small cave dungeon with seven rooms and three encounters, using four pages to do so. It’s neither as pretentious or as padded as the blurb or page count would indicate, and does a good job with specifics … when it goes there …

I’ve gotten a series of requests for 5e reviews lately. I don’t mind, and, in fact, am pleased that the 5e crowd is paying more attention to adventure design. But, also, I may have discovered why. This adventure is the designers first that they’ve ever written. Yeah! And, it comes from the Storyteller Collectives ‘Write Your First Adventure’ Workshop series. Ok, so, first, I throw up in my mouth a little every time I hear the word Storyteller, but, it probably comes the cynicism embedded in GenX. Who am I to shit on the younger generations Shining City On A Hill? Anyway, Marcos, congrats on your first adventure. Now, let’s rip it to shreds.

The adventure is not as pretentious as it might seems. “Unearth a haunting memory and discover the power to forget …)” says the marketing blurb on the cover. That really is the worst of it, by far. Reading that primes me to hate something, with memories of every edgelord adventure ever flooding back to me. But, it’s not that bad and it treads lightly on those issues … just barely enough to evoke a hint of it but not wallowing in it Well, ok, no I lied, it does get pretty close to the eye-rolling line with “two soldiers who have a memory from their past that they want to forget.” Again, hints of the edgelord, right? And it’s certainly true that my midwestern D&D values tell me that if you feel compelled to put a trigger warning on something then you probably shouldn’t be using that idea. Except … in this case the retired soldiers want to forget where they buried an evil amulet to no one can scry them and learn its location. It’s not actual trauma as much as its something more mundane. But that’s not what you thought, was it? Two soldiers, forgetting a memory? Yeah, we all know what the fuck that implies. And thus, a trigger warning … and some (brief) suggestions in the appendix on how to massage things to change the soldiers to something else. The inclusion of the soldiers brings to the forefront what that IMPLIES, but the adventure never goes there … leaving the vibe but thats it. It’s an interesting design decision (assuming it was one.) 

The cave involves three memories from people who have used the orb … and one of them is a sad one.  Young gnome sits on the edge of a forest stream crying, waiting for er friend to join her … who never did. Holy fuckballs, sad! The gnome needs the parties help deciding what to do, continue her journey alone, go home, or something else. Is a lost child a bad adventure design choice? No, it’s a trope. But here the similar scene is being framed and presented in the context of a memory someone wanted to forget … with all the baggage it implies. This should cement the power of framing a scene in every readers mind … it’s a very powerful technique. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that watching Precious is a fun time, but, I think we can allow just a little real feels in our game. I’m sure this is an interesting moment when groups encounter it … and its probably on the edge of the line, about to cross over to indie game nonsense, But, not over it, and bringing more to the table than the usual low-effort fantasy trope crap.

The designer also has a talent for an imagined scene OUTSIDE of the generic trope. There’s a tendency to just say “The village is having a celebration!” and leave it at that. Abstracted. Terrible design and writing. But here the designer does a little father. The town square is a dirt lot. The locals are having a community potluck, wooden tables and rough benches, a dancefloor, a handful of ok music performers. That FEELS like a real community event, doesn’t it? A little shitty, a pitch in, people just doing their best. And the stables, overflowing with horses and empty farmers wagons parked outside every which way. Or locals confusing the Orb of Goodbyes with the Goblet of Goobyes, a local everclear shot from the tavern. A rock wall with graffiti with people signing their name outside of the cave … a local custom. This shit makes sense.  It FEELS natural, as if it were imagined first and THEN someone stuck the fantasy on it. It even makes an attempt at supporting the DM in some interesting ways (beyond the trigger rethemes) If the party tries to get the old soldiers to come with them it has some advice for the DM on how to counter it … but also doesn’t explicitly forbid it and supports the DM a bit if THEY do get the soldiers help. That’s what supporting the fucking DM is all about. Or, some advice on how to handle a party that is overly suspicious of the mayor. A common theme in a village, and helps to handle players like me who stab the most obvious NPC first and lets Pelor sort out the damage. 

But were also facing a new designer here, and it shows.

There are lazy contrivances used in multiple ways. You can’t exit a room in the cave until you “finish” the memory, being blocked by an invisible barrier. Invisible barriers are lazy and nearly as bad as “the doors slam shut and lock when you enter the room.” Similarly, once you complete the cave the entire places swells up with water and forces everyone in the cave out from the torrential flood. Uh huh. To be fair, it’s handled fairly well, but the whole “closing time” thing is something I’m over. 

We’ve got three “memory” scenes in the cave, all of which must be completed. There’s the one I mentioned, the sad gnome one. Then there’s the “where we buried the amulet” plot hook one. (Which, gives the location of the amulet to the party … a floor up idea for DMs who want to use it) That leaves one more … a simple Yeti attack. When you’ve only got three encounters you need them to stick and while two do this third one does NOT, being a simple combat. I’m not necessarily asking for more edgelord stuff, but something more than a simple combat. 

There’s also LONG NPC descriptions, the in standard 5e format that make them impossible to scan quickly and water down the personalities of the people involved. And then … the read-aloud. 

The read-aloud is bad. It summarizes. It abstracts. “But, amid the festivities for the arrival of Brigita – it becomes obvious a mild disagreement is escalating between her and the retiring Townmaster, Anton Astorio. Both Brigita and Anton make an effort to smile and continue with the occasion, but perceptive people notice the friction growing.” This isn’t what you want to be doing. This is TELLING us what is going on. You want to SHOW it. You want to show a disagreement. You want to show the escalation. In this case, rather than read-aloud, perhaps through vignettes for the DM to drop in … which could be spaced in with some local color events form the yokals, to help the DM bring THAT part of the adventure to life more. “Once inside of the cave” says the read-aloud. Nope. You almost NEVER want to imply action in a read-aloud, at least not on the parties part. You want descriptions, not conversational writing. Ad meaningless skill checks to find the cave in the first placE? We won’t even talk about the useless rolling stuff, or the repetition in the background information which, while brief, still annoys the fuck out of me.

This is $2 at DriveThru. I’m willing to throw up in my mouth less when I hear the word Storyteller if their workshop continues to churn out new designers like this. Certainly not great, but showing some potential that is more than the usual DriveThru/DMSGuild drivel.

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

The Bone Alchemist

By Gaz Bowerbank
Self Published
Levels 1-3

A missing prince, nefarious magical goings on and fantastical beasts combine for a thrilling adventure taking characters from 1st level through to 3rd. What starts as an innocuous pub brawl soon becomes an exciting adventure encountering all manner of creatures: living, dead and undead, before a showdown in a dark magician’s lair.

This 22 page “arabian nights” adventure (although easily rethemed to a traditional environment, IMO) has five main parts, two with mini-dungeons and most with more than one thing going at the same time. Delightful specificity and evocative writing help stave off the negatives of the formatting used. This designer gets the highest praise Bryce can muster in his life, even if the adventure does not: Gaz Bowerbank Is Not A Complete Fucking Idiot. I don’t know who suggested I review this, but, Good Job!

The spoiled young Prince Asshat is missing in Agraba and the party is on his tail, eventually finding him in the company of Lareth the beautiful. This takes place over five chapters, which really means five major locations with, maybe, a couple of things going on in each location. So, more than the usual scene based adventure, there is more depth to the locations and they are presented in a looser fashion than the typical scene based adventure would have them. Guidelines for the DM combined with GREAT specificity to help inspire them to run the game. 

And GREAT I do mean. The designer has a knack for using the right words to really make you excited about running the game. The writing immediately makes you understand what is going on and gets you going to run it. That’s a special gift, and, I think, the absolute hardest skill to learn in adventure writing. And the designer does this over and over and over again, in every paragraph.

For example, we get a little summary paragraph for each major NPC, supported by a few lines of “in character” voice dialog/quote. Prince Asshats quote is “Mother, am I not the wisest ruler that will ever be? Indeed it must be so! Then instruct my people that from now on camels are illegal, they’re too ugly for this land.” A boy of nie glorious summers, were told, dressed in the finest silks favouring cloth-of-gold, dabbed with fine perfume and smelling AMAZING. You know this kid. Instantly. You know how to run him. And EVery. Single. NPC. gets the same treatment. Not as tropy as the kid, but you still instantly recognize them and can run them, well, quickly and memorably. 

The local gang in the first location, the bar? “The Talons are a swaggering bunch of villains, whose own estimation of themselves far exceeds their capabilities. This doesn’t prevent them from gaining even more bravado by drinking heavily and loudly proclaiming their purported excellence to all and sundry. Dressed in various loose-fitting garments and adorned with tattoos and cheap jewelry leaning heavily into the bird of prey motif, they are hard to miss.” Fuck! Yeah! I can run that! 

Even better, the designer has included a little table, one for each of the major chapters, to spice some things up with local colour. For the bar, in chapter one, during the fight, there’s a table called “Events at Initiative 0”, which includes a Talon doing their signature move, diving from a table/bar/balcony all bird of prey style yelling Caw-cawwww! Yes, please, more sir! May I have another? The whole fucking bar is like that. Little words and phrases dropped, line after line, that build on each other to provide this rich environment that is GAME FOCUSED. The bazaar, chapter two,has a little table of words in the bazaar you seeing doing things. Let’s see, human, peddler, singing to, tabaxi,gang member. Go!  Feels like an extortion thing, “Dance, parder!” to me! 

The designer does this time and time again. The specificity, while providing guidelines to the DM on how to run the place. And to a degree much much higher than the usual adventure, 5e or no. And that is what, primarily, I’m basing my “Not A Complete Fucking Idiot” praise on. Zombie? No. Giant goat, rotting, with half its face missing? Yes!

Now let’s talk about what doesn’t work, big and small. And the big is a BIG one. 

There’s a wall of text thing going on in the descriptions. And I don’t mean a traditional wall of text, but, rather, paragraphs so dense and dripping with flavour that they can’t be consulted quickly. There’s SO much good stuff that it’s hard to pick something out to focus on, as a DM. Remember, what we’re getting here are very specific general impression information, supported by things like those tables offering specificity. So, guidelines to help run a situation, loaded with great detail, rather than the usual hand holding railroady stuff present in most of the DMsGuild adventures. In this situation you need to be able to have the stuff at your fingertips, ready to go to drop in. And that ain’t this. We get the traditional “words in a paragraph” format to dig through, meaning you need time to absorb it at the start of the situation, and fight through it to reference it during the situation. No bueno. My standard response here is “bullet points”, but I don’t mean bullet points when I say that. What I mean is “Some way to highlight information and make it easier to pick and reference during the actual running of the game.” Different word/sentence breaks, whitespace, bullets, tables, bolding, etc, whatever. This is a big deal in this adventure. Margin notes and a highlighter would help. The greatness is there, but not readily available. And that extends to the NPC descriptions I noted earlier.

I could bitch about lots of small things. A little intro to the situation could be useful; most are pretty easily understood eventually after a first read-through, but a little more emphasis up front on how the party got here and where they are possibly going in the various outcomes could be useful to help framing in the DMs mind, getting them pre-loaded to accept the information thats about to be presented to them.

There’s some hook-like information, one for each 5e character background. I like this idea, in concept, but as implemented here its probably the weakest part of anything in the adventure. It comes off as generic, having none of the characteristics of the specificity that make everything else in this adventure great. This is the Folk Hero hook: “As much as the people honour their royal family, they love nothing more than the tale of someone from humble birth who rises to the occasion and saves the day or raises themselves up. Ehsan knows the power of a good story as much as the next person, and actively seeks those with that special something to be part of his schemes, so he can tell tales of how he “discovered” them.”   That’s just generic shit, and, if there were a second designer listed I’d suggest this entire section was written by someone else, it’s so out of place/character with the rest of the writing in the adventure. The follow-ups at the end are also pretty generic and uninteresting and the maps … well, the maps are interesting. The room keys and a little sentence to summarize the room encounter are provided on the map, off to the side of the rooms with an arrow pointing to the actual room, for example. I don’t get this. Well, I do, I guess, at least for the summary. But again, they have none of the characteristic wit and evocative nature of the rest of the writing and do little to jog the memory, which I assume is what they are meant to do? And off to the side? Maybe for Fog Of War/VTT purposes? IN which case why not just provide VTT maps? I appreciate the exploration of new ground, or attempt to, in presentation, but I don’t think this works. 

But, great little adventure. A little rando in stringing things together. “Bar fight, marketplace questioning, dead kraken on beach/scavs, Dragon Turtle Village, and then Big Bad Guy We’ve Never Met Before on the Island. But, good specificity, and some notes and highlighting would do wonders. Or, I mean, the designer doing their job and doing it for us. 🙂

This is $5 at DMsGuild. The preview is five pages. You get to see the NPC descriptions and the first page of the start of the adventure/bar fight. Note the abruptness of the start and the great scene.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews, The Best | 8 Comments

The Pit

By Tony Garcia & Simon Barns
Levels 1-3

The famed archaeologist Jonas “Greytooth” Walker discovered a strange pit upon an expedition to the Dead City. A spiral staircase descended into this pit, leading to a series of rooms carved from the rock. Each room lay behind a closed door and their mysteries have not been unveiled. The entrance is marked by a large portal made of black basalt. There is a belief that this underground complex may hide information about the mythical city of Xumoria, which is rumored to be located on the Isle of the Ancients. There are inscriptions at this site indicating the presence of an ancient wizard named Arne “Sacre” Nissen, a well-known Xumorian scholar and great explorer of Artrusia. Adventurers seeking the entrance got and haven’t returned yet. Exploratory expeditions are leaving Crimsonwater, heading for The Dead City. Dare you go down into The Pit?

This thirty page adventure uses five pages to describe seven rooms. This was someone’s dream.

So, what’s on the other 27 pages? An overview of the game world … presumably duplicating the information found  in the publisher’s “World of Altrusia” game book. It contains such exciting information as “The Human Empire” and “The Orc Kingdom.” Majesty & Wonder this is not.

We get a one page overview of a starting town. It has little detail but the usual generic fantasy stuff. The town of 920 people does, though, have a sewer. So, you know, it’s cool. It also has The Shady Orc, a tavern. Or, rather, one of the locations of a chain of taverns found all over the world. And another tavern that is known for its wild boar stew. Do you think wild boar comes in often enough to support that as a main menu item? Or, maybe, it’s just domestic pig relabeled as wild boar and sold to the owner? 

Anyway. You find some flyers for someone at th tavern wanting to hire adventurers and everyone in town is buzzing about the new dungeon and there are adventurers everywhere. And in the tavern you are going to its stuffed full of adventurers. And when you ask after the dude from the flyer the bartender is like “Why do you want to talk to him?” Dude! For the same fucking reason the last two hundred people in here wanted to talk to him … the fucking flyer! Anyway, that all happens in a read-aloud that is like a page and a half long. So, fuck you wanting to play D&D; this is a four-hour one-man show mashing up Moby Dick and heorin addicition. 

Dude pays you 3000gp to go to the dungeon a week away and find a map inside that tells you how to get to the megadungeon. You walk for seven days and have wandering encounters with 1d6 bears, ghosts, hill giants, a mummy, all on the wanderer table. A little aggressive for level 1’s? Whatever. You get to the ruins. “Signs direct you The Pits entrance” says the read-aloud. Really? Signs? And this isn’t farce? No, it’s not farce.

You are now at the adventure. Seven rooms, one of which is empty, is five pages. Multi-paragragh read-aloud. Doors that don’t open until you kill the monsters in the room. Find the moon key to open the moon door, the star key to open the star door, the heart key to open the heart door. The read-aloud over-explains, saying things like there are a half dozen bodies on the floor. The DM text says very informative things like “The room is trapped. This can be detected and disarmed by a thief (if there is one in the party.)”  IF the players open the chest THEN they find rotting food.

The forest encounter, in the place from the cover, the main seven room dungeon, starts with “You descend the stairs and reach a room that is set with a floor of pale stone tiles.” Does that match the sense of wonder from the cover illustration? No? How about the fight with a single skeleton inside the room? You know, after you faced a hill giant/1d6 bears/ghost/mummy in the wilderness, potentially? 

A dream to some. A nightmare to others. Who the fuck asked me to review this?

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $3. There’s no preview link, but there are several sample pages. You get to see the first room in the seven room dungeon. The writing is all like that.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 18 Comments

The Siege of Timberhollow

By Craig Patterson
Momentous Malice Productions
Level 2

The frontier village of Timberhollow is the kind of place no one had ever heard of until its fortunes took a turn for the worse. The timber and pelts which formerly flowed out of Timberhollow to the markets in the nearest towns have ceased delivery, and rumor spread by travellers is that the woods surrounding the village have become haunted by a pack of especially savage wolves – wolves who attack anyone trying to enter or leave the village. The villagers must be starting to get desperate – and the merchants who once sold their goods in the neighboring larger settlements are beginning to worry that their business has dried up for good. The call has gone out for capable adventurers – whether for gold, glory, or charity – to investigate and save Timberhollow. Little do those adventurers know that there are even more sinister forces at work in Timberhollow than rumor would suggest.

Thise eleven page adventure uses five pages to describe a werewolf in a village and the dumb-ass druid trying to stop it. It’s a short thing that is trying to bring in some roleplaying and more complex environment than usual for this sort of one night adventure. When it’s being specific it’s good and could use a little more build up and some additional clarity in its NPC relationships. And A Wall of Text overhaul. And, I believe, it’s on the list because of a request from its designer. 

Sometimes you can tell what a designer is going for, even if they can’t communicate it well. That’s the case with this adventure. You can tell the designer was going for this isolated in the woods village thing, paranoid villagers, a kind of claustrophobic feeling, no one knowing whats really going on, people afraid, and so on. That comes though, no necessarily primarily because of the writing, especially, but because of the elements layered on top of each other. You get that the designer wants that, they just can’t yet write/layout well enough to communicate that in a way that really supports the DM.

So, the town of Timberhollow is cut off. No pelts or timber coming out. No merchants going in. Viscous pack of wolves killing everything that moves in the forest and on the road that cuts through it to the village. This initial set up is, potentially, supported in two ways: the hooks and the journey to the village. 

We get five hooks. A group of merchants hire you to restore the flow of goods. The Church of the Goddess of Commerce hires you. You’ve got a friend in the village. An innkeeper hires you to check on his friend. These are each presented in about as many words as I’ve typed here, and as generic and throw-away as I’ve typed here. Yes, I know, hooks don’t matter. But when they ARE included I feel the need to comment, and, a good hook that is present is a bonus to the adventure. But these four, they are just generic hooks. With no real meat on them, or specificity to help bring them alive. But, there are hints, here and there. “By any means” is tacked on to the merchants hook. And, the extreme genericism of the Church of the Goddess of Commerce makes me want to play that abstraction to the extremes, for laughs. Finally, the last hook, a druid circle hires you  to dispel a rumor that an evil druid is behind the attacks …and quietly eliminate them if there IS a druid behind it. It’s the “quietly eliminate” that, like the “by any means” that starts to work on the DMs imagination. Its these sorts of things that start to lead the DM down a path. Rather than five aggressively generic hooks it would have been better to take one hook, say the merchants or the druids, and use the space to bring it alive with a little more specificity. Play up the “by any means” or the Shadow Merchants Council or the weirdness of the druid circle, etc. Better to do one thing well than five things terribly.

Then there’s the “1 to 2 days travel” to the village, through the forest. I’m sure you can see the issue with putting “ 1to 2” in the travel times. But, anway, you get four possible encounters to help foreshadow the situation, with a suggestion that the DM include one of them. First off, great idea. Use the travel through the forest as foreshadowing to set a mood. Play up the oppressiveness and claustrophobia of a thick forest. Get the players in the mood and jumpy. But, this is essentially unsupported. There’s a table of four possible encounters and just the words “As they travel they could encounter any of the following.” I might suggest that, in an adventure of this type, this section could have beenbetter supported. A little more in the way if the encounters, and the journey, words playing up the environment and the vibe and so on. Of the four encounters we get an abandoned wagon with corpses of humans and horses, bearing signs of wolf attack. That’s pretty good! And one about mysterious symbols carved in a tree, Abyssal or druidic, vague and ominous. A good idea, used to good effect in Blair Witch, but it could have used a few examples of that vague wording. The tree’d commoner and a simple “ambushed by 6 wolves” is less interesting. So, you can get the idea of what the designer wanted, but it’s not quite there.

This continues in the village. We get the following text upon arrival: “Their arrival is not only a special occasion, but a marvelous sign of hope to the beleaguered villagers, and they beg the player characters for reassurance that their ordeal is nearly over. All villagers whom the party encounters try to usher them on to the village inn, where a hasty gathering of the village council is about to take place.” Aggressively abstracted, no specifics. This is a key part. The village is isolated, the people scared, but little beyond abstraction. And no real overview of the village, of the weirdo house with all the wood carvings outside, or the junkyard, or the ostentatious church. We’re left to the individual descriptions of those locations to learn those things. 

There’s supposed to be relationships among the people in the village. SOme people hate others, others are in love, but, while these are explicitly stated, you need a vignette or two to make them come alive. A on-abstracted vignette. At a town council meeting we get a flew words about how two people shout at each other or another two have an awkward conversation, but without anything supporting it for the DM to riff on. Instead we get a village that approaches Wall of Text territory, with lots of words (in a small font) that don’t really deliver much. Again, you get where things SHOULD be going but its not really supported well. And, I think, the NPC situation is complex enough, with enough weirdo names, to need a dedicated reference for them. 

The village map could use a little more detail, some rises or piles of timber or some such, to make the village investigations more interesting. The Lord of The Hunt angle could be played up a lot more, for feelings of dread. There’s not actually much of a “timber” vibe, or forest vibe going on. Someone in the town meeting says “last full moon” which should set off all of the alarm bells … I’d leave that bit out. The druid is referred to as a a druid instead of a weirdo horned head/antler dude. One guy in the village is very friendly, which of course means the party should stab him immediately because he’s the bad guy. And, again, you don’t get much to help support you, as the DM, in making him friendly to the party. Other than “hes friendly and helpful to the party.” And there’s no real siege going on, at least not one that will be visceral to the players.

Ultimately the adventure is short and straightforward. Travel to the village. Sit in on the council meeting. Go in to the forest to confront the druid. Come back to the village to find a murder and kidnapped villager. Follow tracks to abandoned cabin and save victim. Folow tracks to church and kill werewolf (At level 2?! I have some mental block that doesn’t allow me to understand 5e power levels).

So what we have is an adventure that knows what it wants to do but is too bogged down in the mundane and in aggressive abstraction instead of specificity. I think it’s about the right length for one of these typical plot-based things, and shows some promise that many of them do not (they being by far the most common type of adventure in the modern era.) I don’t think it’s as bad as the 3 stars out of 5 at DriveThru would imply. I suspect the Wall of Text issue/font has a lot to do with that rating, but the padding and lack of specificity and support for key elements of the adventure are what is mostly interesting to me. A hard tune up would make this shine to a journeyman level.

This is $5 at DMsGuild. The preview is two pages and gives you a good idea of what to expect. The formatting/wall issues, and the journey through the forest and some of the town buildings.

Posted in 5e, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 8 Comments

In the Shadow of Tower Silveraxe

By Jacob Fleming
Gelatinous Cubism
Low to mid levels

There could be several reasons to seek adventure in the Gemthrone Wilderness. It is a region that is the subject of speculation on cold nights in the glow of a tavern hearth. Some may talk of the magnificent treasures that have laid untouched for centuries in dark dungeons, just waiting to be pilfered—which is, almost without fail, followed by another who interjects with the dangers of such notions, were such legends even to be believed.  There are, however, those that do believe such tales— grizzled adventurers that know there is always some truth to even the most unbelievable stories. One just has to know what rumors to listen for…

This 64 page adventure uses about forty pages to describe a wilderness region with around five settlements and nine dungeons. It’s a real adventure, with linkages between places and one thing leading to another. The writing is concise, but could be punchier. Overall, a nice effort. And I’m pretty sure that “low levels” doesn’t mean “first level”, there’s some rough shit in the wilderness.

So, a wilderness region. About 50 miles on side. Big scary forest in the middle. It’s got this Tower of the Ancients in the middle of it. A human village, an elf village, a dwarf village, and a cyclops village scattered around the map. Also, some weirdo statues on the roads/trails here and there and a couple of dungeon, most of which are triggered through a quest given by someone or a treasure map you find that leads you there. The DM’s map is a nice little topo like thing showing all of the features, dungeons, roads, statues and hill contours that I think adds a lot to overland travel and the DMs ability to describe what the party sees when they crest a hill, etc. Nicely evocative and useful at the same time. If you just wander around the road for a few days you’ll find all of the locations (except one) except for the ones in the scary forest … cause there ain’t no roads there, fool! 

The settlements are pretty brief, a couple of pages, and mostly mundane location descriptions with some rumors or a hook or two to get the party moving to an adventure site. Dwarflandia has a theater troupe that is absolutely terrible … but no one wants to admit it for fear of being thought uncouth and not “getting it.” That’s good specificity. Or, their local tradition of “the airing of grievance” after the Sunday sermon. When the adventure is dropping these little tidbits in then it is bringing the locations alive. When it’s just saying someplace has an inn, or smith, or an “eccentric” gem merchant, well, that’s not really saying anything at all, is it? Generally I prefer either no detail at all in these situations, just like “Gem merchant” or for the adventure to say “Gem Merchant who has replaced his eyes with emeralds” or some such. Go one way or another, but don’t describe the mundane and boring.

The various dungeons scattered around have around ten to twenty rooms each. The formatting is clear and easy to follow with good cross-references when needed. Descriptions don’t overstay their welcome … but neither do they tend to bring any sort of evocativeness or quirkiness to the rooms. “A large room with 4 doors and a round 10’ pool in the middle. The pool is purely decorative. Treasure: In the fountain is a heart-shaped locket with some dwarven runes etched in to it.” This isn’t winning any awards for inspiration, particularly given that it’s the room, and item, that the party has been looking for. This is the extent of the rooms description. Large. Pool/fountain, not really evocatively described in any way. If the room descriptions were punched up, without adding substantially to the word count, then this would be a real winner.

There’s some additional rules for hunting, and the weather could certainly add a little variety to the travel through the wilderness. The wanderer table is fairly generic, and brief at only twelve entries and fairly generic like “1d6 hobgoblins” and the like. Given the size of the region, and the probability for revisiting locations (because of mysteries, linkages, etc) travel is likely to be extensive and thus wanderers as well. While the weather table should help, a little more effort on the wanderers, and making them less generic and more linked to the locations, would have gone a long way. 

Still, there’s a lot to do here. A lot of places to explore. Explicit quests given “go find my locket” and others discovered by the party “A map to loot!” Places to just stumble upon. Puzzles to discover and decipher. A little bit, just a little, of faction play. (Which, also, could have been stronger.) It does feel a little static at times … as if the dungeons and settlements only exist in their own encounter keys and not interfering or being related to others … even though there ARE explicitly links to other places. Perhaps, I mean it doesn’t feel dynamic?

Anyway, these are small complaints. I’m sure many DM’s will get a lot of out of this, a lot more than most adventures these days and I’m happy to see these larger regional locales appearing. They bring a lot to the table in terms of party immersion and continuity. 

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is only six pages and doesn’t show you anything interesting. Just some brief background stuff. The topo map, or a location key or settlement would have been better to include in the preview so we could all get a sense of the core writing.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 6 Comments

The Feast on Titanhead

By Brayden Doomscribe Turenne
Games Omnivorous
LotFP? CoC? Meh, It's horror, and horror tends to translate well when well done

“Doomscribe delivers a heavy-metal, grind-core interpretation of the Manifestus Omnivorous, coated in weird-horror. One that speaks both to Lovecraft fans and those of movies like Saw. There is a big bad MONSTER that players will most likely not defeat. The LOCATION is the head of that very monster. And everything seems to be there to DEVOUR something. Includes psychotic outbreaks, naked people popping their eyes out, grotesque masses of fungi and engines of growth/rebirth that reshape humans into abnormal masses of skin and soft-tissue.”

This 28 page adventure describe twelve rooms in a colossal titan skull. Body Horror/The Thing/Stranger Things beasties abound in an adventure that brings the horror, but not necessarily the “skull”, and, as always, begs the question “Why bother going there?”

So, mountain, with a giant partially exposed skull on it. And I mean GIANT partially exposed skull. For some fucked up reason you’re going in there. The adventure suggests you’re hired to go in. Or you’re going in to find a friend that disappeared inside. Or, you’re just walking down the road and see it, and, of course, go take a looky loo. I know, I know, people say hooks don’t matter. I generally agree. Except when they ARE included. If you’re going to put a hook in then make it a decent hook. Or a supported hook. Or a relatable hook. And not just a couple of throwaway lines of text.

This mentions it’s set in “Europe”, but that doesn’t really impact the adventure in any way. There’s mention of leather armor, and one mention of explosives being used previously on the mountain to expose more of the skull, but both of those points are trivial to setting this wherever, in whatever game, although Europe+Leather generally means the default LotFP setting, but, as most horror adventures are, this could be used almost in any genre at any time. I only mention this in the context of Why? As in “Why the fuck are exploring this shithole of a place?”

The age old question. A giant skull halfway up the side of the mountain? FUCK Yeah I’m in! Let’s go? Same skull, but filled with weird pulsating fungus and hybrid creatures with giant toothy gaping maws stretching too wide? I’m getting the fuck out of Dodge! So, why explore? There’s no real promise of treasure, and a lot of promises delivered on of weird body horror shit.  There’s some kind of CoC do-gooder gotta stop the evil impulse, I guess. But, even then, dumping the place full of gas or explosive laced animals seems to be a better idea than slogging through each room. If you aint gotta, then nuking the site from orbit is always the correct PC answer. 

So, yeah, body horror. Naked people inside who have torn out their own eyeballs. Or, in the words of the designer “They’re each covered in blood, with many wounds along their bodies. As they move closer, you can see that their own eyes have been gouged out. They walk blindly, yet sniff the rank air like dogs, jerking their heads abruptly at their surroundings.They moan and weep pathetically as they scratch and bite themselves bloody like animals. The walls are scrawled with scribblings in blood and shit. One of them, a woman, is in the process of digging out their own eyes from their sockets. A large mound of brain matter resides on the opposite wall. A single man lies half sunken into it, writhing as though in ecstasy.” So … yeah. I said body horror, right? This is good writing. It certainly paints  very visceral picture and, also, does a good job SHOWING up a monster instead of just TELLING us its a monster. The writing is, overall, pretty strongly evocative. It dances over the line to pretentious read-aloud sometimes, but the DM text is pretty strong overall. “His head is half caved in, exposing part of his brain. His eyes are blood red and wide with shock. A PC may notice that the visible portion of Elijah’s brain looks wrong and that his skin is discolored in a sickly green.” Yeah, that dude is pretty fucked up. Probably no reason to waste a cure light on that guy. A lot of adventures TELL you that someone is too far gone to use cure light on, but this one does a good job SHOWING you. The rooms have a little interactivity, mostly shit like the pineal gland psychic blasting you, or a magnetic trap room, etc. Just a light amount for what is, at the end, just a small dungeon.

It is doing a few “interesting” things with mechanics. Every 20 minutes of real time everyone gets to make a save. If you have you have a vision and get a little crazier. After missing five save you attack another party member three times without them getting a defence … you’re just too fast! One more fail and you’re an insane NPC. So, about two hours, I’d say, before the whole party is a TPK because of the adventure mechanics. I get the need for a timer Mr “just fill the entire place with gasoline”, but I’m not sure this is the right way to do it. Also, every time you fail you have a vision which are mostly just variations on “empty blackness” and have NOTHING to do with advancing the adventure. That’s too bad, abd a very big missed opportunity. “You open your eyes to find yourself submerged in a sea of unknown substance, of a color that you cannot describe. You breathe the liquid as though it were air.” Sure, whatever. 

There’s also a place or two with things … muddled? The first room, the entrance socket, has a horse monster, complete with gaping maw, coming out of it. It’s written in such a way that it’s clearly meant to be the parties first encounter with the weird monsters. But, then, they also show up on the “journey up the mountainside” wandering hazard table … which will blunt this initial encounter with them. Weird things like that, like a little more thought needed to go in to things.

Oh, and the dude at the end, because there’s also a boss at the end, has “a ridiculous amount of HP” and if killed turns in to a baby monster with only 1HP but you need a nat 20 to hit. So … playing with mechanics a lot. That’s not bad, in general, but perhaps implements a little ham-fisted in this one.

And, you don’t get bonus points for using a fucking font that I have to literally copy/paste in a notepad app in order to tell what the fuck the writing was supposed to be. If you make “Sepulchral” illegible that’s on you. You have to be able to actually sit on it if it’s a chair and you have to actually be able to read the words if it’s meant to be read. I just don’t fucking get why that’s hard to understand.

So, lots and lots of body horror. Not so badly done and one of the better examples of it. Suffers from the “Why the fuck bother at all?” problem common to so many LotFP adventures. A little one note, and  all of the horror essentially starts in room one and doesn’t let up or change., which doesn’t help much. Death Frost Doom had old Zeke and his warning and then the cabin to warm the party up, and this needed something like that to ramp things up. One of the better body horror adventures, in terms of evocative writing, though.

This is $7 at DriveThru. The preview is nine pages and none of those nine really give you a good impression of the actual adventures writing. It’s better than the intro/background garbage that appears in the preview. So, bad preview that should have shown us a room or two anyway.

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