The Warrens of Zagash

By Keith Sloan
Levels 6-8

[…] A recently acquired treasure map points to an ancient dwarven tunnel complex. Could this be the place? Are these the dangerous halls that were once the home for a dwarven cult worshipping an entity they called the Earth Dragon?

This sixteen page adventure details a two level dungeon with about a hundred rooms. Themed to “evil dwarf cult” it comes across as stoic and stuffy. Writing is typical for XRP, being denser than it needs to be for whatever reasons. And treasure is generally boring old book stuff, although a dwarven ring of power is present. Weaker than Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords.

Dwarf themed areas have some major hurdles to overcome. Given the stoic stereotype, an area trying to evoke a dwarf theme tends to come across stoic. Imagine, for example, exploring the one hundred room dungeon of the cult of nothing … which contains 99 rooms that are empty and dusty, each in their own way. Maybe the cult of nothing wasn’t a good choice for a dungeon, for while an excellent designer can evoke the cults asthetic it’s not wise to do so since it’s boring as all fuck. While that’s a hyperbolic example, the same issue exists in this adventure.

The chambers come across as empty. The creatures a mix of undead dwarves and “stone guardian” statues with a few others tossed in. A lot of empty rooms with dust. Geometric designs and feelings of uneasiness in a alot of/most temple rooms. So, yes, excellent ability to invoke evil stoic dwarf cult. Maybe not a good choice though. Another room with geometric designs. Hmmm. Another temple room where we feel uneasy. Hmmm.

Combine this with OSRIC being OSRIC. Another _2 dagger. Another potion of x, another +1 sword. Another boring old gold bowl worth x amount. It’s flat. It’s abstracted. It’s generic. Not vanilla. Generic. Is that really a design ethos to embrace? To be generic? Abstracted descriptions? 

This is then combined with the abstracted writing style. GREATER TOMB: This room is filled with 30 low biers each containing the long desiccated body of a dwarf, among the leaders of this cult.” Not exactly awe-inspiring or evocative. Just facts. And then the writing is muddled up with ineffective phrasing and techniques. There’s a lot of “What appears to be …” and “… but it is simply a painting”  (Another person needing Ray’s books on editing) Geometric carving after geometric carving. And I really mean “geometric carving.” That’s the text used. A little more theming would be in order. 

Speaking of. “Stone statue attacks” will be a common DM phrase. Other than that, there are some undead dwarves and just a small smattering of something else. This is the “tomb” problem. Tomb adventures require a tomb layout and some guardians that are, all, essentially the sam. Abandoned dwarf cult halls means some undead dwarves and stone statues and maybe a few vermin with little else. It’s hard to justify more in these circumstances … but the end goal is a fun adventure, right, not an accurate one? Only enough simulation to be in service of fun, not the end all be all?

I will say it’s nice to see a dwarf ring of power, good effects and bad effects both present. There’s also a nice wasting curse that, if you choose to die rather than submit to the god (who’s causing you worship him or else waste away) then you get to heal fully when you would die. That’s good design. Keith can design well, but the writing is flat and the setting boring, with to many stone statues and chilling room effects. Too much abstraction.

I shall also mention my new pet peeve: if you’re going to tell me about constant dungeon effects then it needs to go on the map, or someplace else that it’s always available to me. 

How much of this is Keith’s writing style is Keiths, How much is OSRIC-enforced genericism, How much is the selected locale, and How much is XRP’s style bringing to the table? Yes, it’s 100 room dungeon in the old style. Yes, it has a theme and executes it. But that doesn’t mean it was the right decision.

This is $14 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Naughty Joe! Go stick in a preview!

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

(5e) Blacksmith’s Folly

By Brett Bloczynski
Encoded Designs
Low levels

… With this hope Marion searched the dusty library in her home and found the long-forgotten diaries of Samuel. Marion learned that Samuel did indeed imprison a Lamplighter with the intention of forcing it to grant him a wish. Unfortunately, the final pages of the journal were blank, and Marion never learned if Samuel got his wish fulfilled. Grief-stricken Marion, however, is certain it happened. It must have happened. She would MAKE it happen… and her daughter would live again.

This twenty digest page city adventure is a short investigation in to a murder and a couple of combats along the way. Simple, but with some unexpected flavor, it does an ok job with a short one-night adventure format. A little more work on it and it could be a decent short little adventure. Also, remember, I like adventures. 

I was predisposed to not like this adventure. It’s got a project manager attached. And two art directors, and someone in charge of development. I see that and I think “ought oh!” Further, it’s about a woman trying to bring her kid back. That’s another warning sign: treating your D&D game with modern morality. What was the child mortality rate back then? Like 30%-50%, I think? Actually, that gives me an idea. People MOB the party for cash and raise dead. The entire campaign. Talk about high level world problems! Actually, that doesn’t sound like fun for more than a session or two. But, anyway, predisposed thanks to the marketing and the ilk to not like it.

But imagine my surprise! The woman “Once the work was done, Marion drugged Horace, chained him to his anvil, and cut off his hands while collecting his blood in a copper

bowl. Horace died as a result of this process.” Well no fucking shit he died! Brutal! That was unexpected! And then the city portion comes in to play “The Griffins were called and, after a hasty investigation, labeled the tragedy as a “robbery gone wrong.” WooHoo! Police procedural callback where they are all incompetent! God I love city adventures!

So, that got me interested in this adventure in a hurry …

In short, you’re at a wake for the dead smith. There are some people to talk to. You investigate his shop, find some clues, go to the womans house, and find her in the basement torturing a lamplighter to get a wish to bring her kid back to life. Along the way are some shadows to fight, attracted to the evil. (The lamplights are some kind of a Charon-like entity/group, I gather. No much info on them, I assume it’s in some setting book. A couple of words on adapting this adventure to a non-lamplighter world, or a bit more info would have useful for those of us blind buying without the setting book.)

The Lamplighter is weird and cool. It’s a mystery Charlie Brown! She’s torturing this THING for a wish. They are some kind of weird hive mind entity that lights the lamps I guess. But the imagery … There’s only one lamp lit on the characters street, in front of the smiths, with a lamplighter solo in front of it/under it. It talks in archaic form. At the end a bunch fo them gather in a circle around the building and take the woman away to deal with. Creepy fucking imagery! Good Job! And an excellent example of why less is more when it comes to mystery. Explaining things ruins the magic. 

The NPC’s in the tavern/wake are presented on pne page per, with personalities and quirks easily summarized at top and clue/info to relate in bullet form. This makes it pretty easy to run them. Likewise the clues in the two other locations (the smithy, womans house) and other important points are also bullet related. 

The shadows, a “normal” book monster, are handled … ok. A little creepy, but it could have been handled better with their sliding under doors, attacks, etc. There’s been a small attempt at more flavour, but more in this area would have really heightened the adventure. 

On the down side …

The location descriptions don’t work well. Yes, the clue data is done well, but the general descriptions, etc. are not done very well. I feel like this a formatting/[resentatin decision, since the floors of the buildings ares summarized. That might be an ok way to do it but I would suggest it wad not done very well. It’s not easy to scan at the table and relate. Somehow concentrating more on the environs and less on the commentary, while keeping the flavour, is needed.

A lot of information is also presented in italics. I like to beat this point to death, but let me try again: large sections of italics are not easy to read. More than a word or two is bad. You need to find another way. Shaded background, something, but don’t use italics for large sections of text: it’s hard to read and makes eyes tired. Some brief research indicates that this is a well known fact in the editing/typeface world. 

It’s also the case that the digest format is a little limiting in this case. One page per NPC in the tavern meet & greet is ok, but the ability to summarize them on a one page would have been even better. Digest is a fine format … but not for all adventures. If you need to REFERENCE things then digest can be challenging and requires some extra effort to help usability at the table.

Finally, and I can’t believe I’m saying this … some of the descriptions are not adequate and don’t have enough detail. Quick! Think of a forge! Because that’s the description of the Forge area of the blacksmiths shop. IE: it’s a forge. That’s about it. Now … how many of you thought about a quenching bucket/tub? I didn’t, and was surprised to find one in the text. Likewise the coals. Yes, in retrospect, once mentioned, they are obvious. But when the party first comes in and I describe it … I didn’t think of either and the text doesn’t mention it … the description overview is non-traditional and therefore leaves that out in it’s more “overview than description” format. Normally, I would suggest that a bedroom or kitchen doesn’t need a contents list. And that remains true. But if an element is a key point of an adventure then it should be mentioned. And both the tub and coals are key points in this. Key elements should be noted previously. 

But, hey, still a workable adventure and much  better than almost every other 5e adventure I’ve seen! Good Job! And I applaud the designer for avoiding the DMs Guild nonsense!

This is $3 at DriveThru.The preview is the first four pages. The last two kind of give you an idea of the organization of the text with bullets, heading, indents and the like. Including a page that shows an encounter would have been much better, but the preview DOES give you an idea of what to expect.

Posted in 5e, No Regerts, Reviews | 4 Comments

The Trials of a Young Wizard

By Simon Miles
Dunromin University press
Level 1

Fresh-faced and more than a little hung-over our newly graduated mage of the great Dunromin College of Magic and his friends step into the tea-room next to the Porter’s Lodge and ask for something for a headache. Within minutes they find themselves accosted by the smiling figure of Malcolm Darkstar, Bursar of the College and owner of the tea-rooms, keen to ask them a favour…

This 48 page book has three adventures: a small kobold lair, a fetch quest in a dead wizards manor home, and a side-quest burning farmstead/argument with a doppleganger spouse. It makes some attempts at verisimilitude but fails in being usable, as it asserts it wants to be. Or even interesting.

Three little adventures for level one’s in OSRIC. There’s not much going on in these. There are, though, a lot of words. There are page long room encounters. There are LOOOOONG sections of read-aloud. There’s an attempt to use bolding to highlight keywords and phrases in the long text but it largely misses its mark, being the wrong words bolded to to get the flavor of an encounter. It largely shows an unfamiliarity with better formatting techniques like bullets and indentations. This isn’t a one-size fits all, an adventure should not be all bullets and indents, but a mix of text, bullets, indents, and bolding usually does a better job than just one of those techniques alone. Further, when bolding and text are used by themselves then it becomes critical to keep the text short, use para breaks appropriately, and bold the right things. And none of that is done here. The net impact is a kind text wall that resists scanning. And if you can’t scan the text easily then you can’t run the adventure easily. 

There’s also this kind of mania for physical descriptions. Read-aloud and DM text both are pretty specific. 8’ high, 4’ wide, 5’ long passage, and so forth. Does that matter to the players? Short and stumpy, or other flavour text, would be better. This mania for EXACT dimensions, especially in read-aloud, drives me nuts. 

Dungeon trappings are buried in text instead of on the (linear) maps. (Well, the kobold map at least is linear.) Embedding the smells and noises on the mpa, for example, keeps them fresh in front of the DM’s eyes, helping them add flavor to the game as they are running it. Remember: the published adventure is supposed to be a play aid for the DM, helping them run it. 

There’s also a weird tone in this. King Modred and Lord Darkstar. The text refers to a bizarre land, and the whole “beginning wizard” thing makes me think of some juvenile audience … but then there’s murdered kids in a house on fire and other darker things. It’s got a weird tone. And almost no loot for a 1e adventure that, by definition, requires hold to get XP to level. There’s some handwaving about doing this on purpose, but by doing so you’re destroying one of the key posts of the game. 

This makes me think, for all the world, that the designer is VERY new to this. They have a vision in their head. It makes sense to them, and they try to put it down on paper. But, that’s not the goal. The goal is to get it in to the running DM’s head so they can run it during actual play. What makes sense to the designer, who is intimately familiar with their own work, doesn’t to someone who has to slog through all of the text text to get out the good bits.

And the good bits are few and far between. This is mostly kobolds and goblins and the like, with snare traps and other relatively boring things. There’s a ncie order of battle for monsters in how they react, but, like everything else, it’s too long and too prescriptive. Evocative is not prescriptive. 

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $4. The preview is the entire thing, at 48 pages. Yeah!  Try pages five, six, and seven as the overland/intro and tell me you can run that easily. Or pages eight, nine and ten for approaching the kobold lair. It’s just little to no organization at all except paragraph this and then paragraph that happens.

Happy Fucking New Year. What a way to start it.

Posted in Reviews | 3 Comments

The Lost Treasure of Atlantis

By Chainsaw
North Wind Adventures
Levels 6-8

In the far reaches of Hyperborea’s Crab Archipelago lies a small, mountainous island known as Crystal Point. Passing sailors recently have witnessed a crimson glow in Crystal Point’s waters and beams of russet light shining up from its steep cliffs. Too, unusually frequent lightning storms in the area have torn the sky in blinding flashes, shattering the air with their awesome sound. The seedy wharf taverns of Khromarium and elsewhere buzz with these strange tales—some even speculate that Crystal Point may hold the lost treasure of Atlantis! 

This 68 pages adventure OOZES with flavour. Primarily a “dungeon” of tunnels & caves, it also includes an island exploration to get there and little social adventure in an “evil” village to learn of the island. It, finally, lives up to the promises made of AS&SH. Flavour & interactivity abounds … diminished only by the layout (and editing?)  choices made. Buy More. Buy More Now, and Be Happy!

I was not looking forward to this review. I’m off, and lazy when I’m off work. And it’s an AS&SH adventure, and I’m not fond of those. And a 68 page slog through crap is no fun AT ALL when you have holiday things to do. But wait … what’s this? Talanian didn’t write this? Chainsaw did?Hmmm, He’s on my internal mental list as “Not a complete fucking idiot.” (And to be clear, this ranks right below “Bryce is fanboy Of” … there’s a big gap there that explains many things about me psychologically speaking.) To my delight Chainsaw has finally produced an AS*SH adventure that FEELS like a pulp adventure. It’s full of flavour and action and interactivity and is evocative as all fuck. 

A zombie has a map tattooed on his back, or a toothless sailor with glinting eyes grins and shows you a platinum coin, or a noble “of little renown” has gone missing. Even my own fucked up summaries of the hooks communicates some of the awesome of these hooks. Not long, but PACKED with flavour. 

And this continues in every part of the adventure. Onboard ship to get an island there’s wandering monsters, of course. I often lament “they attack!” encounters … but these are different. They have flavour. “A group drifts into the party’s path and crawls hand

over hand up their ship’s sides.” or “Giant tentacles burst from the water,

attempting to rip the party’s ship to pieces.” This communicates the encounter vibe well. One short sentence and the DM has something to work with. Evocative writing is important in an adventure, especially these days. Most of us have packed lives. By writing evocatively the designer communicates tone, tenor, flavour of an encounter directly to the DM’s brain, and then the DM can take over and build upon it. Encounter after encounter after encounter does this.

The very first location is an “evil” village. The people paint themselves red, like crabs. It’s full of crab parts. The blacksmith has a birth defect that looks like a crab hand. They keep slaves. They have two dudes in hanging iron cages …errr … one, the other, his brother, was burnt to death in his cage. There’s … oh fuck, why am I even trying. This is place is PACKED. Several subplots in just the opening village. The dude in the cage, another brother trying to free him, the village elders hiding a crab conspiracy (duh …) and a villanous merchant, a … it’s just fucking packed! And the island is also … including a mi-go automaton with rudimentary intelligence that has broken free and is repeating why me WHY ME” over and over again. Fucking Flavour. And, it should be obvious by now: Fucking Interactivity. More than just combat. Telegraphing. Plans to be made. Plots to be foiled. ADVENTURE!

And, as per usual, it’s fucked over by the layout and editing. There ARE cross–references, and bolding, and some indents, all of which make things easier to find. There’s also the usual mania found in all Northwind adventures to laying out every word in a paragraph style. I don’t know if it’s in the designers manuscript or not. But I do know that the editor and “development person” should have done something about it no matter who did it. Unless they did it. In which case BAD! YOU’RE BAD PEOPLE! You can’t just bury information in a quarter page paragraph of small font type. I’m scanning the page, looking for the encounter description. I can’t read a column before relating it to my players. Get it? Do you get it? No? You don’t get it? That’s why it continues to show up in adventure after adventure? Look, I’m not saying you have to sell your soul down the river. What I AM saying is that you need to find another layout and editing style that both works for the “Howard wrote this a hundred years ago and look out layout looks like that!” and “usability at the table for quick scanning.” Do some work and find something that works for you from now on. And keep publishing from people like Chainsaw that know how to write.

I can poke some more holes in this. A reference sheet for NPC’s in the village. A kind of “overview look” for the large open vistas, like when you enter the village, see the island, etc. Landmarks, first things you see, etc. 

Chainsaw writes viscerally. You FEEL the encounter, NPC, etc. 

Plus, there’s a Lightning Reactor in this adventure. With levers you can pull. FUCK! YES!

This is a great place to adventure and a great adventure module. 

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is broken! Fix the preview!

Posted in Level 6, Reviews, The Best | 13 Comments

(5e) Depths of Felk Mor

By Roderick Waibel
Sacrosanct Games
Levels 1-10

Normally a time of year for celebration of the harvests, there is a tangible pall over the keep.  People are on edge, and a level of inherent distrust seems to be festering underneath weak smiles and cordial habitual greetings.  It seems as though the harvest celebration is happening out of routine, rather than genuine excitement. It is as if somehow the people are trying to use it as a way to get their minds off the pervasive sense of dread that is brought with each wave of fog. The circumstances that brought you to the keep are varied, but one thing is for certain: something is amiss.

This 236 page adventure uses about a hundred pages to describe a multi-level underground caves/tunnel/dungeon with about 250 rooms. Maddingly, it develops well but it missing in a kind of overview to get the DM oriented to it. Combined with a casual writing style, you can tell its got some interesting things going on but the amount of work required to massage it in to playable form would be substantial. 

Multiple levels of a single mega-dungeon here, with a very brief regional map. The adventure is, though, in the dungeon. It starts with some ant tunnels. They take up a pretty substantial part of the adventure, about fifty of the 250 or so rooms. Then it leads to some intermediate caverns, and then a large underground cave with several subterranean races living in it. It ends up with a more traditional dungeon down there, in a tomb with some cutists, etc. 

The ant tunnels and upper levels are relatively interesting from a ,,, developing story? standpoint. You get this initial impression and then there are little hints of things going on that develop in to more. It has a kind of developing horror present in it. It also reminds me of the Buggems lair in Legion of Gold, and, Gamma World My Favoritests, I am perhaps biased.

Things tend to go downhill after that. The underground community section has five factions present, but while each get a decently extensive write up I don’t feel like it lives up to its potential in any way. And the final dungeon levels, in  a temple, etc, do bring back more interesting ideas again but … it just feels off.

The thing is not organized well. For such a large adventure, 250 rooms and level one through ten and 260 pages, it feels … sparse? Almost half the pages are appendix but it’s really lacking in organizational, or summarizing data that could help orient the DM to the play of the thing. A few overviews would have been in order, and the ones that are present could be much better. The humanoid settlements get a page of so write up each with their motivations but then revert to traditional room key. And the write-ups are not really in a manner that help you use them. It’s more of a style guide that one could then use to develop DM aides and text for running an adventure. The lore guide full of background data that helps you write the actual play guide, so to speak. Oh! I like that analogy! And it works so well for so many descriptive errors in an adventure. “This room used to be …” Hey! That goes in the lore guide that the adventure writer uses to write the adventure! Not in the adventure proper! And this adventure does that a lot, with used to be’s and this is that way because Y …  That sort of tex almost never contributes to the actual play of the adventure and gets in the way of the DM running it.

Descriptions also feel sloppy. One that sticks out, aboveground, is with some caravan ruins. A short description of a ruined wagon, torns pits of cloth, destroyed goods. Then the DM text mentions, in an off hand way, the survivors relating … whit, what? Survivors? And also that the ants rendered people … ants did this? It’s as if the writer knows what they want, what they have in mind, but they don’t get it down on the paper in a way that orients the DM to the actual play. Information is not well organized. The focus is not on the core of a room but rather tangential room details. Muddied descriptions. And then, when the text gets LOOOONG, and it does get column-length or longer in places, it becomes nigh impossible to discern playability. 

I note as well that this thing could use a lot more cross-references. There’s a bunch of mini-plots present but no help for the DM about where to find out more. You’ve got a missing relative? Better read all 250 pages to find out their name; it’s buried in there somewhere! Some cross-references would have helped a lot. It aso uses room name description “Laboratory” and so on, but also mixes in commentary “Looks like a hot time!” or something like that. You can totally do things this way … but given the weakness of the room descriptions and DM text then an evocative room description would have helped orient the DM to the room in a much better way. 

There’s also some weirdness in the communities giant cavern that is strains disbelief. The entire thing in on a piece of graph paper with 1 square equaling 300 feet. Those are pretty tight confins for five factions plus some wilderness. And there’s this 1 kilometer zone around each community where you encounter those inhabitants … which means around three-ish squares in the middle of the map where you DON’T have those encounters. It feels really small for what it is. And then there is some conflicting information about one of them, with mi-gos servants collecting sacrifices/slaves .. .but they also can be befriended? That doesn’t have to be impossible, but it feels more like an error than a possibility. 

Megadungeons are difficult beasts. They require some special organization to help the DM run these large and complex environments. Combined with the casual writing style in this it comes out as a product in which individual zones (of which there are a lot. yeah!) and rooms have pretty good ideas that hit over and over again, but they don’t fit well for the DM to run at the table.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is fifteen pages. Page eleven of the preview/page sixteen of the book shows you the Abandoned Camp encounters with the survivors/ants thing I referenced earlier, for you to draw your own conclusions. Read the last three or four pages of the preview to get a sense of the writing style. It’s an ok preview, but would have been better also showing some dungeon pages.

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 8 Comments

The Fires of Mount Surtur

By Grant Hoeflinger
Mad martian Games
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 3-5

Welcome to Mount Surtur. Once home of the evil fire giant lord Hadel, now said to be an empty tomb over a long dormant volcano. But evil omens predict danger and treasure within. Something evil is stirring, and something foul lurks within. Can you survive the Fires of Mount Surtur?

This eighty page adventure features a three-ish level dungeon with about sixty rooms. If someone were to ask me “what does the usual bad adventure look like?” then I would point at this adventure. Extensive useless backstory, embedded history in rooms, read-aloud that is too long, and almost nothing more than hacking down monsters and “the usual” traps that take too much text to describe. 

Many bad aventures share the same bad traits. A group of these tend to fall together and create what I like to call “the usual bad adventure.” A typical complaint of published adventures i that they are hard to use in play; it takes a lot of prep work and notes to make them playable and understandable. They are too long and hard to use at the table. Many MANY adventures fall in to this category, so many that I would group them as “the usual.” 

The traits that make this happen are pretty well known at this point (which would beg the question: why the fuck do writers still do it?) Read-aloud. Read-aloud has been a discussion since the early days. There’s nothing inherently WRONG with read-aloud … except for the fact that it’s implemented incorrectly in about 99% of adventures that use it. This adventure illustrates that fact. Read-aloud here is long. Multiple paragraphs in many rooms and a paragraph in most. People don’t listen to long read-aloud. Do you know why players are not their phone? Because you’re monologuing in a game that should be about interactivity between players and DM. You get two, maybe three sentences of read-aloud before players stop listening to you. It’s a fact; WOTC did an informal experiment/observation at a GenCon and reported on it. (I think it’s linked in my review standards page … although the fuckers seem to move the article location every few years in order to break my link. grrr…) Your read aloud, if you use it, needs to be short and evocative. 

You know what it DOESN’T need to do? It doesn’t need to tell players what they think. And it doesn’t need to force the players actions. “You feel cold as you …” No, I don’t. “As you pull aside the curtain …” No, I didn’t, I used Wizard Eye. “You feel like … “ No, I don’t feel. Stop fucking telling me what my character does, feels, thinks. The point of this is write so that I, the players, DO feel cold, gloomy, etc. Don’t fucking TELL, instead SHOW. This adventure TELLS over and over again in it’s read aloud. Long read-aloud. TELL read-aloud. BAD ADVENTURE WRITING.

Then comes the DM text, another staple of the usual bad adventure. The players enter the room. Th DM reads the three paragraphs of read-aloud. The players are already on their phones. Then the DM looks down and starts to read the column or page long room description. Several minutes later the DM find two players on the XBOX. Well no shit. The DM text CANNOT be long. Or, rather, it can be, but it has to be organized in such a way that the DM doesn’t have to read the entire thing in order to run the room. “The usual” bad adventures pad out their DM text. They tell the DM what the room used to be used for. What the architects name was. The meal he had on a Tuesday three hundred years ago. In short, the room description is padded out with trivia that doesn’t matter RIGHT NOW. The purpose of the adventure is not to have a fully fleshed out history that makes sense. The purpose is for the party to adventure in it. SOME detail can contribute to that, but there’s a difference, it has to be relevant to the adventure at play. The only fucking reason we care about the original use of the room is if it impacts play now IN A SERIOUS MANNER. Now look, I’mnot talking about sticking a line that says “Former bedroom.” Sure, as a DM i can then stick in some torn up bedclothes or something. Fine. I’m talking about multiple sentences describing the former use of the room, or other useless trivia. 

This adventure does all of that and I consider it unrunnable because of that.

But, let’s say it DIDN’T do that …

It’s still a bad adventure. Almost every encounter is a hack. Just jump in to combat, many of them triggered from the read-aloud. That’s not interactivity. Throwing in a couple of traps is not interactivity. D&D is not about getting in to fights. Fight after fight after fight after fight after fight. That’s not fun. Opening an iron maiden. Fucking with a glowing pool. That’s fun. But that interactivity is almost universally NOT present in this adventure. This is a stereotypical D&D adventure: killing things. D&D was never about that, but that’s what this is about.

Other issues: there’s a shaft straight down on the first level to a pool of lava deep in the heart of the complex. You can see a small island.  You can’t climb the sides because its obsidian smooth. Ok. Fine. And what if I fly? There’s no consideration of other methods of descent. Rope anyone? How long is it down? Where does it go? Nope. Not here. All of those monsters, almost all of them intelligent and a part of a tribe, with the different ribes working together … how do they react to incurions? You’ll never know … no advice given to the DM on helping them run this. AND NO FUCKING LEVEL IN ThE PRoDUCT DeSCRIPTION ON DRIVETHRU. PUT IN T A FUCKING LEVELS DESCRIPTION!

I could go on. Twenty pages of front-loaded backstory. Three pages to have the village chief assign the mission. No use of ANY formatting to help the DM. 

Platonically bad adventure.

This is $10 at DriveThru … and made $3k on a kickstarter! I swear, I should just grab another alias and crank out bad shit for kickstarter. Anyway, the preview is six pages. You get to see five ages of essentially empty pages, title pages, etc, and one page (of many) of backstory. So, it’s a useless preview, giving you no idea what the adventure is actually like. 

Life is pain.

Posted in Reviews | 25 Comments

Misthollow Castle Review

By R. P. Davis
Aegis Studios
Levels 5-10

Standing on a lonely, bare mound in the bottom of a dell full of swirling fog, a castle from the time of the Schism crumbles, forgotten. Inside, treasures—and terror—await. A writ of salvage has been posted in Chandra’s Haven: 500 gold coins to the brave adventurers who find Misthollow Castle and secure it for Salamon Castos, a wealthy merchant. Castos claims to be the scion of the noble family which ruled Misthollow and built the castle generations ago. Castos grudgingly agrees to allow the characters to keep whatever they find in securing the castle, though he insists on right of first refusal on anything of value.

This nine page adventure details a small four level castle haunted by a ghost. There might be ten rooms, maybe. No room key, muddled descriptions because of that … and a forced adventuring environment. Lame-o McLamersons!

O&O does this thing where there are writs of recovery and salvage titles sold to abandoned spaces. It’s a pretty nice “abandoned world in the midst of recovery thing. That’s just about where the nice stops in this adventure.

It’s got a great opening read-aloud, just about the only read-aloud in the adventure. A wooden sign in the shape of a hand, fog, a scream … perfectly tropy! “The light is failing, and the air grows cold. Tendrils of fog wrap around your feet. At the side of the road is an ancient sign on which is lettered “Misthollow”. One end of the sign is carved into a hand, index finger pointing deeper into the fog. That way, the fog thick- ens as the old road slopes downward. Suddenly, from somewhere ahead, you hear a blood-curdling scream.” Hey! That’s great!

But the map has no key. It’s a little dyson affair with about ten rooms across three aboveground levels and one basement level. There’s great room descriptions like “Dining Room (square tower)” and “Spiral Staircase (NW corner).” Man, just put some numbers on the map! This whole “explain the layout of the adventure through text” is complete bullshit. New rule! Doing that, in appropriately, gets you A Wurst EvAR tag. 

Approaching the castle, if you roll a 1 on a d6 you get to see a flicking green light in the upper tower window. Creepy! And maybe not seen because of the ‘1’ thing. Why would you do this? Why would you force a roll for the adventure to be creepy and create atmosphere? There’s no mechanical advantage to knowing or not knowing, it’s all atmosphere. Why fight ensuring the party is creeped out? 

This continues with the general features of the castle The unused rooms, the creepy cobwebs, the dusty crates … this should have gone on the map page so the DM can keep the atmosphere forward while the party is adventuring. 

Oh! Oh! When you go in the castle the door slams shut and locks! Magic won’t open the doors! There are no windows on the first floor! Axes bounce off of the door! Again, why? What does that do? Make it a first level adventure if you want to create that atmosphere. Also … I wonder if the windows on the second floor act the same way?

Anyway, there’s a ghost, some wights and a The Dark Man in the castle to all kill. The descriptions are not that good, at all, beyond that read-aloud. The stream of consciousness paragraphs provide little rhyme or reason as to organization to help you run the adventure.   

Wurst EvaR!

This is $1.25 at DriveThru. The preview is two pages and shows you nothing of the adventure. Bad preview! Bad Designer! Bad Publisher! Mad world …

Posted in Reviews, The Worst EVAR? | 4 Comments

(5e) Sickness of the Gnarley Forest

Frogsama’s Greyhawk Adventures Blog
Level 2

A new lumberyard was established in the Gnarley Forest, but the morale of the workers is low because of recent attacks by orcish raider. The party is hired to protect the workers and kill the attacking orcs

This 45 page adventure details a few encounters as the party attempts to protect a lumberjack camp from raiding orcs. The first in an adventure path leveraging Greyawk, it drops in Melf, G1, and other references to a living Greyhawk world. It is cumbersome at times, with misses in organization and reference material, but the basic set up and delivery, the concepts behind the adventure, are pretty nice. 

The party overhear a conversation in a bar with a lumberjack telling a merchant that he better fix the problem. This leads the party to the lumberjack camp that is eventually attacked by orcs. Questioning, or tracking them back to their camp reveals most are afflicted by a plague and the party finds a village of zombies being used by a disease-cult for training. 

The designer, on their blog, states that they think that 5e is the best for story driven games and, I think, they might be right. At least close enough that argument is just splitting hairs. It is no surprise then that this adventure is chapter one in a campaign arc and is story driven. What’s interesting to me is how there has been a more than passing attempt to write a story based adventure that is not a railroad. There IS a kind of natural progression to things that flows from it, but there are also alternatives and advice for the DM for parties taking different paths, in most cases. This sets it apart from most of these sorts of adventures, in a good way. Things do get harder, I think, once the party is deeper in to the adventure, in later chapters. If this more open-ended approach can be kept then the designer will have solved that age-old “story without railroad in an AP” quandary. Future entries will tell. 

The adventure relies on challenges and encounters that are not combat, or, at least, a mix of them. I can think of two combat encounters, both more … open-ended things, and several more that are not. That’s a decent variety and I, as always, appreciate both the more opended-ended nature of the combat encounters and in having non-combat ones as well. What you get are maybe three types, in total. 

First, the combats, which tend to be on a larger open-ended village/compound style map. The first is the party reacting to an orc raid while the second is an assault on a village by the party. The second, in particular, is the kind of encounter that I love: a wacky plan. It being an open-ended assault, launched by the party, there is an opportunity for the party to come up with a plan on what to do. Which will, in my experience, inevitably be dumb and not go off well and lead to WONDERFUL things happenning during the game. This sort of player-driven activity is at the heart of good D&D. 

Second, there are some potential combat situations that are telegraphed as “you’d be dumb to do that.” In one case the party sees a field of zombies that they need to get through, ala a walking dead mega-hoard. This is set up very similar to a 4e skill challenge … maybe a little too mechanistic for my tastes (which was always the problem with most 4e skill challenges) but the variety here, and intensity, of getting past the hoard should indeed be a memorable experience, I’ll give the designer that. Another encounter, with a camp full of orcs with stomach viruses, come off in a similar way except without the skill checks. It’s pretty obvious that the party is out of their league and that telegraphing leads to solutions other than combat.

Finally, the third sort of encounter, again with a couple of them present, is more window-dressing. These are NPC encounters on the road, or a brief stop by a castle being built on the way to the camp, or the initial lumberjack camp interaction. The party is essentially just meeting people and experiencing the world around them. This last category goes in to the worldbuilding category, as it tries to bring some holistic world to the party, give them a feel that things are going on around them, and introduces some history, like refugees from the G series adventures. I can absolutely see where this is going and we’ll have to see if full advantage is taken of this in other entries to follow-up on things like the castle being built, etc.

It’s going a couple of other interesting things as well. One of the few skill checks (outside of the skill challenge anyway) is a medicine roll while looking at a plague victim. It’s got a low initial value and there are various levels of success that reveal some interesting things about the plague that add to the story, up to and including “its clearly man made.”  The skill check for the zombie hoard also has an interesting fail condition: an orc scout gets eaten. He led you there, showed you, most likely, and tying the characters fuck up rolls to a negative for the party, and taking care of an NPC while at it, IS in fact, and interesting story development. It’ has a slight mechanistic component, you no longer have an ally, and a strong story component; nicely done. It’s also got decent DM advice in places, like “well, the dudes you are talking with should know the answer, I’ll look it up and get back to later with it.” … specifically acknowledging that there’s no shame in this. And he’s right.

And there are some substantial misses here as well.

The maps are ALMOST great. Note that two of the combat encounters are, essentially, wide open village-y battles, with a third being an orc camp with a social element. The maps for all three locations fit an interesting scale. They are not battle maps, and they are not “countryside” maps. They tend to show the village and just a hint of trees/features beyond them. The scale of these maps is just a bit claustrophobic for me, for this type of encounter. The maps do show things like huts, hay bales, etc, to hide behind and so forth. That’s great, it’s what they should show, larger features, for these sorts of Wacky Plan sorts of encounters. I wish though that it showed just a little bit more beyond the village edge proper. The ability to come in, find a rise or hill, or some larger trees nearby, etc, would have helped with the lead in. It does do this, to a certain extent, but it needs just a little more to be truly effective.

There are some occasional text inconsistencies, like in the number of elves present in a certain encounter: three or four? This is related to the need for a decent edit. These editing issues present themselves in several areas. There are simple misspellings, as well as awkward phrasings here and there throughout the text. More importantly, certain elements are “missed.” For example, some names, generally bolded in the text, are not, making it harder to find them. In other areas the names of important NPC”s are missing altogether, or, if included, are in the appendix in the monster stats sections rather than in the text you’re running from.

Other text is … disorganized? Sometimes it appears that text appears out of order. A message arrives for the party while they are at a camp … but this section is AFTER they have moved on from the camp. In other areas important information is depeper in the text then it should be. The zombie encounter spends a lot of time talking about zombies and the environment, in general, before getting to there being dozens of zombies present. There’s a generally expected arrangement of facts that one would expect and the organization of parts of the adventure doesn’t seem to follow that. So while it MAY be present, it’s not where you expect it to be. 

But, whatever, that’s a practice thing, mostly. You write, you learn, you think about it, you go back and eit again with fresh eyes. As a plot based adventure that’s more open-ended than most, it’s decent. But more bullets,etc and less paragraphs for relaying important information!

This is free on the designers blog:

Posted in 5e, Reviews | 19 Comments

Wherein Evil Lies – The Black Chapel

Richard J Leblanc
New Big Dragon Games
OSR Stuff
Levels 3-5

The Black Chapel adventure

Lemures have begun to emerge from the small shrine known simply as the Black Chapel. Surely, some sort of evil has been set upon the world and must be stopped before it’s too late!

This is a digest sized zine with 47 pages that focuses on evil type things. It includes an eleven page dungeon adventure with about thirty rooms in an evil chapel of hell. It’s a fun little interactive and evocative place that could use some trimming of superfluous information and phrasing. Which means it’s good but not great.

The zine, proper, has some new classes, spells, monsters/undead, and a few (great) tables in the back on Quirks when you become unhinged, methods of sacrifice, and evil hooks … like “local river turns to blood.” Sweet! I approve! But the focus of this review is on the adventure, The Black Chapel.

There are a couple of rooms above ground and quite a few more, thirty or so, below ground in the main chapel proper. The blurb about lemures, while true, is just some bs; there’s no real reason or hook beyond a “farmers have 10kgp” … I’d instead use a few of the evil hooks from the last page of the zine, drop them in to my campaign over time, and eventually lead the party here. It’s just a place.

Interactivity here is good. “Delicious”, I might even add. There is a lot for the party to play with, from unholy water fonts, to holes to put your fingers in. One room is a hallway with statues. They have names. There are two empty pedestals with the names “self.” It’s pretty obvious you should get up on the pedestal IN THE EVIL TEMPLE and say your name … IN THE EVIL HELLSPAWN TEMPLE. Do you wanna do it? Huh? Wanna say your true name in the evil temple to hell? That is fucking wonderful. It’s that’s delight of both the players and the DM kind of knowing what is going to happen … a situation telegraphed, and a challenge accepted by the players. It’s wonderful and this adventure has several of those moments. 

Even better … nothing bad happens when you say your name. In fact, a secret door opens! This follows the rules that you can’t fuck over the players time and again and still expect them to swallow the bait. You have to have some bad with the good and this adventure includes that. Interactivity is high and really good.

Magic and treasure are pretty good as well, usually with an evil bend that is not TOO evil. Loose 1HD and gain a point of STR. A ring of summoning hell hounds … that attack everyone except the summoner. Choices to be made and magic items, with flaws, to leverage results in players making choices about risks to take and that kind of tension is fun in an RPG. The items in this, beyond being unique items, offer those choices in many cases. 

Description are decently evocative. You really get the sense of a forbidding black chapel to evil. Black granite baptismial fonts of unholy water. Hauntingly-beautiful frescoes of cult members in loin cloths who are self-flagellating. The smell of oil permeating rooms. There’s a good effort here to up the descriptive game. And, as mentioned, it all works together to build this feeling of dread.

And it goes overboard in places. “the scent of burnt hair sneaks past the nostrils and into the mind.” Ok buddy, we’re pushing flowery prose more than a bit with that one. I get the idea, which is good, but I also cringe a little a it. I’ll take that, though, over another “large chest” and bother boring descriptive words that make it in to the text. Or phrases like “It appears to be …” and other padding. This is another case where Ray’s editing/style guide for RPG’s would have been useful.

There’s also a large number of asides and purpose/historical notes in the text that only serve to pad it out. “(once Master of Malbolge, but now exiled from the Nine Hells)” and “(and was likely carved when Moloch held higher standing)” and so on. Purpose, history, asides … you can get away with an occasional one but paying in too many makes the text harder to read.

This combines with a certain tendency in Leblanc’s writing to focus a bit much on the physicality and mechanics of things. A pedestal 1 foot wide and 3 feet tall … or a text description of the length and direction of a hallway, that copies what is already present on the map. Combine with the other issues and the room descriptions can be pulled to the mundane instead of the wonderfully evocative. 

But … it’s still a decent adventure. And, overall, the zine proper is worth it just to steal some of those tables!

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru.

Posted in No Regerts, Reviews | 5 Comments

The Vaults of Obryn Sapravda

By Steve Wachs
Red Pub Games
Levels 4-6

… But now the long lost abode of Obryn Sapravda has been found!  Your band of brave adventurers has been hired to explore their depths, and learn the fate of the legendary mage.  Your mission is frought with secrecy and intrigue. Can you unravel all the mysteries of The Vaults of Obryn Sapravda?

This 111 page dungeon adventure uses 54 pages to describe  a few dozen rooms spread across four or five levels. Interesting interactivity and some decent magic items are present, but the entire adventure is done in the verbose tactical style of 4e, this being a 4e conversion, that makes it very hard for me to imagine being playable without substantial effort on the DM’s part. And is almost universal that “requires substantial effort on the DM’s part” ain’t an adventure I’m gonna recommend. 

In ten-is years of reviews I’ve come to recognize certain styles of adventures. One may be the overly verbose style of the Dungeon Magazine era. Another is the indie no room numbers” stye, and another the scene-based style. 4e adventures tended to have their own style as well. The rooms tended to be more like areas and encounters were set pieces. There was an emphasis on terrain, and these set pieces would run to several pages in the adventure. Maps emphasized the battle map nature of the game. (All of which emphasized the tactical mini’s approach 4e seemed to encourage, but, whatever, I’m not here to slam 4e yet again. But … Fuck 4e and “tactical miniatures” rpg’s!) This adventure is a conversion from 4e and thus has all of that.

Given my “Fuck 4e!” comments you may be surprised to learn that I don’t hate this adventure. Well, ok, I don’t LIKE it, but I don’t LOATHE it either. 

There are common elements shared between 4e and a more freeform experience that are positive. The emphasis on terrain, for example. While 4e inevitably emphasized the movement/combat tactics issues, in a mechanical way, with terrain, it’s also the case that varied terrain in a room or dungeon is a great thing. Shelves, precipices, sam-level stairs, muddy areas … those add to the varied environment. 

Further, this adventure has things that the usual 4e adventure did not. Multiple levels are present here, around five or so, I think. Non-standard magic items are present, and the one that do tend to book are offered smoe variety, like a bronze-headed +1 mace. A little extra description can go a long way to make the boring +1 weapon better. Mechanics are, I think, one of the worst magical effects, but by beefing up the description you can still have something interesting. And this adventure does that with all of it’s magic items, at a minimum, and puts in some others, beyond book items.

More than this though, it is the adventures emphasis on interactivity that sets it apart from just about every other 4e adventure … and most OSR adventures as well. 

Interactivity is fairly high in this, even without the “set piece” like combat rooms. As a kind of platonic example, you can find a scroll in one room under a false floor. In another room is a statue in the middle of a basin, the basin filled with sludge and goop … the kind no sane adventurer fucks with. Fucking with the statue results in some bubbles in the sludge … you can get it to move, revealing a hold underneath, and a magic rope that the statue will hope in it’s hands … it’s will respond to some commands to lower/raise people in to the hole. This is the sort of interactivity that makes dungeons comes alive. Potential danger, explorations, discovery, and wonder. That’s D&D.

But … this thing has deal breakers.

First, there’s no map. The last fifty of so pages are full of battlemaps, and each room has it’s own little reference map, but there’s no single unified map. This makes understanding how things fit together quite rough. You have to rely on the notes for each room to understand tat exit hole A goes to entry hole B in room B4. This is CRAZY. Given the length I can’t understand why an overview map wasn’t included. The overall impact is a significant contribution to these feeling like individual isolated set-piece encounters instead of an integrated adventure.

Second are the entries proper, and their length. We’re talking four pages for a room, in some cases. Tactics notes. Read aloud. Multiple read-alouds. Overly details dimensions. Its hard to actually understand how the room is supposed to work b ecause there is soooo much spread out over sooo many pages.

A Trap! The chance you trigger it is 100- 1% for each point of dex -40% if you have infravision. Just a quick little calculation!

This text is dense and detailed, waaaayyyyy too detailed for each room. Exactly as one would expect from a 4e adventure.

And, at the end, you get up to 1500 XP as story rewards. I can haz sadz. 🙁

I understand this was all the norm in 4e. That doesn’t make it right then, or now, even though this ia 4e conversion. What it DOES do though it give me hope that the designer will get better in organizing their material and concentrating on the proper aspects of the adventure. Like I said, the interactivity is there. Some of the imagery, also, like the bubbling from escaping air under a sludge pool. What e needs to learn to do is delete about 75% of his writing. 

This is $7 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. The last two pages begint to describe the dungeon and show you the first (small) and room and begin to show the next room, which is MULTIPLE pages long … but you just get to see the first. Note the emphasis on the physicality of locations, where things are and how big they are.

Posted in Reviews | 10 Comments