The Basilisk (review)

By Louis Kahn
Starry Knight Press
Levels 6-8




This 32 page adventure describes about twenty rooms in a six-level wizards tower, all with a “turned to stone” theme. It’s just combat, and hard to read.

What IS an adventure? Yeah, you know its a good review when I start with shit like that. 

If I buy a laptop and open up the box to find two pieces of cardboard hinge taped together then you can expect I’m not going to be happy. Yeah, it’s a laptop, you say (as the seller) but I didn’t say it was a GOOD laptop. Or, maybe you say it’s a prototype laptop. Or, maybe you actually believe it’s a laptop. If I manage to get Windows 10 running on an 8086 with a 80×40 resolution, is it still a laptop, even if it takes two weeks to boot up? If you advertise it in the Laptops section of Amazon, do you implicitly make promises? 

I don’t assert these are easy questions. Is something like The Habitation of the Stone Giant Lord an adventure? A “retro” product? An art/design heavy product? I would assert that these things are not laptops, or adventures. They are something else. Art, maybe? But I don’t think the primary usage of them is as an adventure meant to be run at a table. At some point a product gets close enough to the line that we have to start asking ourselves “but is it just a BAD adventure?” Pathfinder adventures might traditionally fall in to this category. If I make the adventure fun to read but hard to use at the table did I cross the line in to Not An Adventure or is it just A Bad Adventure?

This thing emulates a typewritten adventure from the 70’s. It uses a typewriter font, full of weird kerning, misplaced keys, and sloppy and light ink. Bolding is not really bold. Legibility is sacrificed to the gods of aesthetic, something that the “I emulated the old T$R style!” and something that out Art Punk friends fall in to. I suspect no ones goal is to produce something unusable … or maybe I hope that, but at some point the appeal of authenticity of the style sacrifices enough legibility that the product is no longer useful as an adventure, or even a bad adventure. It stops becoming an adventure and becomes a curiosity or an art piece. And yet it is still listed in the laptop section of Amazon.

A discussion in a similar vein might take place over what it means to be an OSR adventure, or a 5e adventure, or some such. If you are writing for a Gold=XP game system and the GOLD is light to non-existent, is it really an OSR adventure? Or does it just have OSR stats? Or is it just a BAD OSR adventure, or at least one with bad OSR qualities? If my Boot Hill adventure takes place in space with everyone being surgeons on a spaceship is it still a Bot Hill adventure? Even if I just take a normal Traveller adventure and change “Traveller” to “Boot Hill” on the cover? (Your homework assignment class, is to describe why Ulysses is literature and not Performance Art.) 

Do I really have the high standards that others seem to think I have? Is it so much to ask, in a sea of crap, that something be easy to use at the table? Particularly when the chief complaint against pre-written adventure is that they are impossible to use and take too much prep? Usability is not the only thing. Something like Thracia can be good and still sacrifice usability. But, fuck man, how many things arise to the level of Thracia? A sea scallop, cooked for ten minutes on a side, is no longer a sea scallop, I assert. And yet we gulp them down and shout “Delicious!” when WoTC and Paizo serve them to us.

Nineteen rooms in ten pages. The map is very small, being a Dyson affair that the designer did not format correctly for the adventure. They just dropped the PDF?JPG in, so all six levels take up about half a page instead of them being arranged on a page, blown up, and easy to read. Legibility. Hard to read. 

Typewriter font. Hard to read. Weird kerning. Faux ink ink and heavy ink. Hard to distinguish bolding. And, generally, hard on the eyes to read.

LONG descriptions. They can be a column long. Little bolding, no real use of section headings or other organization techniques to help scan the text. Just long paragraphs of data dumped at you. The descriptions are full of what the room was used for in the past and who lived in it and other details that just get in the way and clog up the ability to scan the text effectively.

Weird organization at that. The path to the first room/entrance/outside is described in the room one text. Order of battle stuff is described in the room with the responding creature and not the room when the response should occur, required you to be a precog to know what is responding. IF the adventure do X THEN Y will occur, a kind of quantum writing style that is just padding and and further obfuscates the text.

And, it’s really just a hack, with little to no interactivity beyond combat with a theme of monsters turning you to stone. Little to no treasure, at least level appropriate treasure. Two pages of backstory. There’s just nothing here but padding and stabbing.

Which is too bad. The designer has flashes, sometimes. In the hook a merchant can, if initially refused, debase themselves in front of the party at the inn common room, getting down on their knees and begging. That’s good! But that sort of thing is missing from the general room descriptions. It’s just expanded minimalism in the rooms, rather than useful detail.

Yeah! You did it! You successfully emulated a bad adventure from the 70’s! Well, except, they never had as much text as this one does. Not An Adventure. Just some curiosity masquerading as an adventure.

This is $7.50 at DriveThru. There’s no real preview, just the mii “quick” preview. People, put in a real preview. Let us see what we are buying BEFORE we buy it.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 14 Comments

Cascadia Caverns

By Frank Schmidt
Adventures in Filbar
Level 4

After starting your adventuring careers, you arrive in Runnymede a small village. A man in the center of the community is spouting something and you quickly discovered a child has gone missing. The citizens are reluctant to send the city watch out and that gives you the opening you to jumpstart your careers!

This nineteen page adventure features fourteen rooms in a cave full of goblins. Big fan of stabbing goblins with low-effort editing? Look no further!

Small village outlying farm is burned down and a young girl kidnapped. Rather than mob up or use their militia the villagers instead hire the party to go kill a bunch of humanoids in a cave and save the girl. The first adventure I ever provided feedback on, prior to publishing, had some kids disappearing in a house and the families mobbed up outside, refusing the house. I pointed out this was rather unlikelyBut, it’s  a D&D adventure and we’re ignoring logic today, so …. (Although, I will point out that the books Town and Fief are a pretty good look at life during the village time period. It provides a lot of good background for running adventures and, while relatively expensive at $20/pop, they are a good read. For example, the townsfolk in this adventure would NOT turn to strangers to help. You need someone to vouch for you. Anyway, segway, I guess …)

The writing here is long winded, in single column format. Lots of “you sneak down the hallway” and other first person narration in what I assume is the read-aloud portions of each room.

“After another hour of trudging through the dark forest you reach the other side. Staying close to the river has allowed you to stay on tracks and intermittent signs of passage have been spotted including several blood smears on trees. It is apparent that someone or something had been seriously injured. Breaking into a meadow you hear the crashing of water as the river goes over a cliff and deposits into a lake. Noises are heard near the edge of the forest on the far side of a meadow!”

That’s just one example. It’s trying to provide, obviously, that “movie camera” experience and thus, like all adventures that try to do that, fails at both doing it and in being an adventure in which the characters have agency.

It’s full of passive perception checks and short & long rests. Make a DC12 vs DEX or take 2d6 damage. (In the OSR, seriously?) One place lists the adventure for level four but the text continually implies that it’’s a level one adventure. IE: this is a conversion. The extremely light treasure, for a level one, is a telling sign. For level 4’s it is criminal.

The text is confusing and I still can’t make out how certain places are supposed to be laid out and experienced. Most rooms just have a few goblins in them for you to stab. There IS an order of battle in places, but that’s about the last good thing I have to say. Oh, and he map, a digital one, is somehow blurry. How the fuck does THAT happen?

This is $3 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Otherwise you’d never buy it.–Cascadia-Caverns?1892600

Posted in Do Not Buy Ever, Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Reviews | 11 Comments

A Wizard (review)

By Donovan Caldwell
Self Published
Mid Levels?

A Wizard, mad with power, has terrorized the charming hamlet of Canny before escaping to his Tower on the Hill. The heroes must find him and stop him, before his curses descend upon every hapless citizen!

This 68 page digest adventure uses half its pages to describe a wizards tower in a body horror/horror genre type environment, like some cross between The Thing and Alien. Good descriptions, a little arbitrary in places, and, as with most horror, could cross genres pretty well to any type of RPG you’d like. As written, it would be a good horror one-shot, which would circumvent the arbitrary nature and complete lack of loot.

There’s a wanted poster in the general store and a vivisected cow in the bakers barn. 40gp if you deal with that wizard that lives in a tower up on the hill. This is the end of the theming, after this it’s all weird body horror stuff right out of The Thing and Alien. The tower is fibrous, and there’s lots of goo and sticky web-like stuff. As such this adventure can cross genre lines pretty easily. There’s nothing really that ties it to fantasy. Call of Cthulhu, or any other modern game, could use this just as easily as long as you’re willing to have some kind of vaguely alien-like fibrous body horror like stuff in your game. Horror adventures tend to do that easily, or, at least, good ones do that easily. I would call this one a decent horror adventure, at least for a one shot.

And why is that? There’s a 25 room wizard tower on several levels, which would tend to be a normal wizard tower exploration thing for fantasy games. Wizard Towers have to FEEL different, in the same way that an undersea adventure or a cloud castle adventure environment should feel different. Good ones do and bad ones just feel like yet another series or boring old rooms. This one brings the weird-ass environment one would expect from a wizards tower, but also brings a decent amount of arbitrary happenings that do not lend themselves to OSR gaming, or, at least, campaign play. Unless you’re in one of those fucked up LotFP games that I strongly doubt exist in real life due to THEIR arbitrary nature.

So, a couple of examples. “If a character is ever alone in a room with the wizard, he picks them off. Describe something running at them very fast, being yanked up into the ceiling, dragged through a vent, etc. Then move on. There is no need to worry about them anymore.” You made it to seventh level, eh? Well, kiss it goodbye sucker. In another case there’s a door that, when opened, has acid flooding out of it. As written, these are arbitrary, in particular the first. You could ignore it, as the DM, but then you’re losing the effectiveness of the technique.  There’s no in between, you die or you don’t. For your mid-level character. Even as a one-shot this seems like a bad idea. “Uh, I guess you get to sit out for the next three and half hours …” NPC’s are the usual method of telegraphing this shit, but I find even that a bit Deus Ex, unless it happens, like IMMEDIATELY, and is almost telegraphed. And the door, I supposed, could be written off as a trapped door, but it’s not really written like that. And good traps tend to be telegraphed through description for clever players to pick up on … although, again, at higher levels it can be expected that the party needs to burn some spells to protect themselves and non-telegraphed traps DO start to get a pass. Otherwise the wizard is nothing but lightning bolts and the cleric nothing but heals. All of this tends to lead me to put this in the One Shot category, based on the arbitrary nature of some effects combined with the high-level of it. 

Oh, and there’s no treasure. Uh … none of at all I think, except for that 40gp reward at the beginning. And I’m including magic items in this. Someone might get a parasite caterpillar that lets you see invisible and kills you if you remove it from your brain. That’s kind of cool. But that’s also about it. You won’t be levelling from this death trap. 

The very brief town section gets great NPC descriptions (kind, speaks slowly spectacles) or (rugged, charming, eternal stubble.) Likewise the town is well described in just a few short sentences. Flowers, everywhere, of every kind, coating the green hills and walking paths and trails. Comforting smells of steak, apple pie or cheesy omelettes. Children playing the streets. That’s nice imagery. The tower, proper, follows through on this. “Spacious dim, sweet scent like cotton candy. Sticky floors make a smacking sound as walked on. The walls are of a fiberours quality with circles and spirals. It does this over and over again, for each room. They are easy to scan and flavorful. The rooms are organized well and easy to scan and locate information. (Even though the exit situation is a bit OVER explained, taking up half the room entry in some cases.) 

Maps are shitty art-house stuff. Hard to read, with level interconnections not the best explained. I don’t like to work hard to read the map. Legibility is a thing. Yeah, I know, fancy fonts and arty maps make you C0ol! But if I can’t read it, or struggle to read it, then I ain’t gonna run it and you fail at priority one: usable at the table. Don’t fucking fail at priority one!

 I haven’t really mentioned the body horror elements. The thing is gory being being … I don’t know … explicit? Spider things erupt from peoples mouths. Bellies bulge as people melt from the inside and other bodies explode ala that Monty Python Wafer-Thin Mint scene. It’s as tastefully done as it can be while still retaining the body horror element in full effect. Really nice job on the horror elements and the descriptive language here.

This is $8 at There’s a nine page free preview available to download. It shows you the small town and the first two rooms. That’s enough, you get a good idea of what to expect from the writing and the rooms from that preview, which is what a preview should do. LESS COOL IS THE LACK OF A FUCKING LEVEL RANGE! Put one in.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, No Regerts, Reviews | 15 Comments

(Cthulhu) Forgotten Duty

By Paul Baldowski
Just Crunch Games
The Cthulhu Hack

A visit to the University of Navarra—located in Pamplona, Spain—in search of a rare book—the chronicles of a monk who claimed to have witnessed visions of other worlds—leads to a grim investigation.

This 35 page adventure uses about eighteen pages to describe some skill rolls, err, I mean, “investigation” and a small manor home. It’s a special kind of mess, wherein it is absolutely clear in the way it puts good text in the wrong places. It’s like someone did an Excel pivot table on the adventure.

After D&D, CoC (pronounced ‘Cock.’ You will now never unsee that & You’re Welcome!)  is my second most played game. I know the score, you hit the local newspaper office, the library, and keep ten gallons of gas in the back of your pinto. I assume The Cthulhu Hack is much the same. But I don’t know, so, take that as it is given.

You’re in town looking for a book at a museum. They loaned it to some count dude up on the hill. Turns out he’s been “alive” for 2000 years and is going to use the book to complete his ritual in two days time. Who coulda figured?

Also, like, EVERYONE in Pamplona is mind-controlled by the insect inside the dude. Ok, not everyone, but, ANYTHING that needs explained in the adventure is explained by “blah blah blah insect mind controlled them to get it to happen blah blah blah.” Including the dude at the museum who tells you the count has the book? Why does the mind-controlled dude tell you this? Why, the count likes to lure people to him, of course! Ug! This smacks of the “I cast two dozen wishes to make the dungeon immune to your passwall spells!” sort of thing. There’s a combination of Deus Ex and nonsense throw-away explanation that makes the whole thing VERY eye-rolly., It’s a pretty low-effort explanation on the designers part.

The investigation part is first up in every Cthulhu adventure, followed by the sneaking in, followed up the Fucking Up And Body Count portion. The investigation here is both poor and MAY be influenced by the system, The Cthulhu Hack, which I know nothing bout. This is where the first of those Pivot Table things comes in to play. The information is organized by “SKILL CHECK TYPE” in bold, followed by the information, which may have the source of the information buried in it. A false example might be “LIBRARY USE: You find an article at the newspaper office about the count.” This IMPLIES that what matters is making the skill check. That the player will say “I want to use Library Use to find out some information about the adventure.” This smacks of the 4e Skill Challenge nonsense. That ain’t the way I rodeo. You can rodeo any way you want, but I’m gonna tell everyone else that your way SUX. You go to the fucking newspaper office and talk to the dude behind the desk and get access to the michofiche/archives and THEN you roll your fucking skill check. You fucking roleplay. So, either, A) The Cthulhu Hack don’t do that and you just roll the fucking dice until you succeed or B) The Cthulhu Hack don’t do that but this designer does that with their games. Which suck. Or C) The designer plays the game the right way but really fucked up in how they wrote down each and every one of the skill checks. Normally, I’d say it was C) that happened, but, again, I don’t know Cthulhu Hack. In any event, this weird fucking way or relating information through skill checks is what is always used. And it sux. 

It does the SAME FUCKING THING with the NPC’s and the locations. AT one point you find an abandoned car. It tells you that the partially melted keys for the car are in the fire pit, a different location. But the fire pit don’t tell you that. Or Some locked chest freezer in the basement that tells you the keys are up in the office, but the office doesn’t mention the fucking keys. What the fuck kind of organization is that? Some kind of system where you have to look through EVERY FUCKING PAGE of the adventure in order to determine what is in a room? Is there an NPC in the room? I don’t know, I had better go check the NPC section and read through each of their descriptions to figure out if they hang out in Office … and all of the locations to see if there is anything else in the office important. It’s Nucking Futz! 

So, a dumb Deus Ex kind of plot and an organization THAT FUCKING DEFIES LOGIC … along with a dubious method of investigating via skill checks. NPC’s and events just kind of tossed out there without much more than a single sentence of support from the text. But, I mean, otherwise it’s perfectly legible. 🙂

This is $4.50 at DriveThru. There’s no preview, SUCK IT SUCKER! Bwa hahahahaha! I’ve got your $5 now! Man, put in a fucking preview next time.

Posted in Reviews | 4 Comments

Marsh Goons review

By Joe Banner, John Gregory
Technical Grimoire Games
Tunnel Goons
Level ?

A Tabletop RPG mud-crawl adventure.

This 32 page thing is not an adventure. It’s more of a region. Except it’s not. It’s more of an I Had Some Ideas For A Region And Here They Are. The digest doesn’t really even get to the region until maybe page 25. It describes some factions, in too many words, and describes a couple of locations using abstracted/generalized text, and then puts seven locations in the swamp in two pages and gives you five ideas for things that might happen. Maybe. It’s somehow related to the Bone Marshes.

Maybe this IS the Bone Marshes, after the situation in that volume is resolved? I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m greatly disappointed. The first 25 or so pages are really just some rules and/or rules adjustments for a 2d6 based system. It does introduce an interesting mechanic, the Mud Die. Playing the swamp gets you muddy. When you’re muddy you roll the roll die and that’s how many slots of gear are now taken up by mud until you clean off. That’s interesting and simple. It’s one of the hallmarks of both the OSR and the adjacent systems that they play with the more tedious aspects of the game. Inventory/weight is a critical component of old school, but tracking weight and encumbrance is a major pain given the GP system. How many GP is a pike, again? The revolution in systems like the LotFP “just write it down” slot system, and other techniques for torch and arrow inventory in other systems allow the core of the resource mechanic to be maintained while reducing the Papers & Paychecks bookkeeping mechanic.

But everything else … ug!

Faction descriptions take up about two pages each in a long text format that will make finding personalities, goals, and resources for each faction relatively impossible to find. Highlighter and notes. Highlighter and notes are the only way to solve this. In which case why didn’t the designer do this in the first place? Make it easier to find this information? Because they don’t know good design and are overly familiar with their own works, and thus don’t recognize the issue? People HATE pre-written adventures, and for good reason: they tend to be terrible to use. And if people are not using your adventure then you’ve failed at task one for a designer.

The wandering table is nothing but a list of creatures, they don’t do anything, which is a pain. Include a little extra to make life easier for the DM. Give them DM something to spring off of! Likewise the monster descriptions. “Flying scavengers operating in groups of two or three that prey on the weak and vulnerable”, so says the Marsh Vulture. That’s NOT a creature description. The sea-bear is as close as the adventure gets to describing a monster: huge, semi-hairess. The soul of evocative writing, that! “Zombie-like creatures with leech heads.” Well, ok, getting closer. But these don’t convey much if any useful descriptive detail to the DM. 

The location descriptions for two of the main locations come without maps. Just text descriptions, which almost always SUCK donkey balls and they do in this. “There is a guard room with blue eyed simians” buried in one paragraph. How many? Meh, not told. Maybe that’s a feature of the system? I don’t know. But I do know that abandoning the traditional room/key format, for the exploration element of an adventure, is drought with peril. The actual swamp locations are seven, contained on two digest pages. And they are very abstracted and general. Nothing very specific, just as with the creature descriptions. Augmenting this is five ideas of things that could happen in the swamp. It’s all very “maybe this and maybe that” without much specificity to help a DM along. 

It’s not an adventure. It’s not even a region to have an adventure in. It’s more of “here are some ideas that you could use to creature your own adventure.” And, I would suggest, it’s not even very good at that, not being bold enough to actually present ideas but just the META of ideas.

Nothing to see here folks. Move along. Move along.

This is $5 at DriveThru. And there’s no preview. Because why would there be a preview to see in advance what you are buying?

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

Sinister Red

By Rudy Mangual
Rudy Riot
Level 2?

A portal leads to a wet, red world. A world of bloat. A world drowned by excess.  A world of perpetual torment. And a world of unimaginable treasure. The wicked baron bade you fetch him this treasure. “Though the portal or to the gallows.” The choice was simple. And so you tumble through a gash in the sky, falling towards a sea, sinister red.

This 32 page digest sized adventure is a point crawl with about 28 locations. It’s got an interesting idea, but flames out with encounters that are too similar to each other. But it’s pretty easy to use and decently evocative. There’s just not enough interactivity. Because I’m a jaded dilettante who lounges about all day in my saffron dressing gown while reading Against Nature. But maybe you like collecting the red key fetch quests and stabbing things more than I? Philistine

Huh. Well, there’s something you don’t see every day. Imagine that …

Let’s take the B Movie Planet of Blood. Or, that sci-fi story about a planet of vampires and the last man alive on a spaceship. Now, let’s make that vampire planet an ACTUAL planet of blood. Why? Cause a young kid with a djinni lamp, of course! That’s the adventure. You get transported to this other planet, in the middle of the sea. You see, the sea was turned in to blood by this kid via a wish and an asshole djinni. Then the blood all congealed. Yuck! You want off the planet? Get three to the capitol city, spared the worse of the sea/blood/congealed stuff. Visit the Vampire Queen and get sent in to The Tower, where time has stopped before her kiddo can ask for this third wish, the one that will make the world disappear. So, it’s a point crawl on the surface of a congealed blood sea until the linear portion at then end. You meet the local (all vampires, essentially) do some minor fetch quests and stab things. Meh.

Yeah, vampires. A whole planet of them. But they are really not. It’s more of a blood themed people who drink blood rather than the full fledged D&D vampire of old. There are a couple, but, for the most part, you face 1 and 2HD enemies with a 4HD boss or some 6 or 7HD NPC vampires to talk to. Mostly its just theming. Gorger vampires, one too fat to fit up some stairs, dudes covered in blood, blah blah blah blood blah blah blah. I think it’s well done. 

One site per page with decent headings, bullets, building, whitespace and indents keeps thing easy to scan. NPC’s and monsters get short bursty little descriptions like “charming, vain, distracted” and/or “Tall, slender, royal robes. Suave but menacing.” It’s not overstaying its welcome and is giving the DM what they need to run the NPC and/or encounter. Good job. Likewise the monster  description dne other location descriptions are short and punchy. It’s using italics for the descriptions but its limiting it to one or two sentences, which is fine for legibility. Leveraging the “Read” and “blood” themes it does a good job using a few words to describe a location and then giving the DM more evocative notes, terse, to allow them to add more as they see fit. Which is exactly what the fuck an adventure desginer should be doing with their description and DM notes.

But the interactivity. Man. 

Frank wants an X, go get it for him and he’ll give you the Jade Monkey. Or some clothes to make you look like vampires, or something. Not that it will really matter, you’re gonna get captured in the capitol city anyway. So, stab someone or do the 7HD dude a favor because they can’t do the thing themselves for REASONS. It’s not that this is BAD< but you recognize the patterns after awhile. I kind of like the little vignettes. A stopped coach, slurping sounds from inside, a vampire sucking on the two passengers. They are well described and come to life. But its too much of the same for me.

I don’t know. I mean, it’s ok, and I’m gonna do a No Regerts on this, but its also kind of meh because of the interactivity. Does a fetch quest or stabby stabby turn in to an ok thing, or an adventure full of them turn in to an ok adventure, if there’s no real interactivity beyond that? I mean, you can talk to some people, but it doesn’t feel like it’s to any end that is meaningful, you still gonna end up at the end doing the same thing no matter your choices. 

This isn’t bad. It’s a fantastic location for D&D that some people are going to bitch at for being Too Far Out There. But D&D should have crystal forests and rainbow bridges and cloud cities … and planets of vampires with congealed blood seas. God effort here, nicely done, but I think it’s limited by its pointcrawl nature. Which makes me want to go back and look at those other pointcrawls I liked and see if they are the same and if maybe I’ve changed my mind over time.

This is $5 at DriveThru. There’s no fucking level listed. PUT IN A FUCKING LEVEL RANGE IN THE AD COPY. I don’t know why I get so pissy about that. Anyway, the preview is six pages and you get to see the first encounter. That encounter, but the lead in, should be enough for you to make a good determination of if you’ll like it or not. You can see the organization and examples of the (evocative) writing style and get an idea of the combats, all from that lead in and first encounter.

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

The Face of the Temptress

By Brian C Rideout
Deathtrap Games
Labyrinth Lord
Any Level

Twenty Seven Hundred years ago Bassanta was a sorceress of incredible beauty – and subtlety. She was a temptress, blackmailer, influence peddler, and rumour longer. On her whim simple soldiers could rise to riches or power, businesses could grow or crumble, and people could die. She was called “The Whisper-Queen of Lantash.” And the known world feared her… …but Lantash is gone and forgotten. It’s people dust and bones in buried ruins. Her great power: less than a footnote in history. The great and terrible Whisper Queen died in the same disaster as thousands of her country-folk. The gods of Lantash, in their cold wisdom saw that the Hell she had earned would be not nearly as cruel as allowing Bassanta to linger on the mortal plane and see how little her Empire came to.

This thirteen page non-traditional “adventure” is a series of events tied to a cursed magic item. It’s an interesting concept, tying the temptation to possession by an entity and combining that with “meta-events” that occur during downtime. It would be stronger with some retheming sections and by placing important information outside of the event text rather than burying facts in the events. Still, an interesting look at how to handle a cursed magic item.

The party find a magic item and the entity in it slowly tempts the wearer to accept more and more powers, slowly taking control of the player character as they do so. Thus the adventure is actually just a cursed magic item and some some events to drop in around the curse, most of which involve some sort of dream-sequence with the entity until there’s some final confrontation. As such I might call this less of an adventure and more of a seven page description of a cursed item.

It’s heart is in the right place; trying to add depth to a depth to a cursed item and trying to make a possession by an entity more interesting than kind of immediate “you failed your save” event. In this is harkens back to the 1E DMG artifacts, that, I believe, had some note about more powers of the devices becoming evident over time. That’s great! The magic item then becomes less about a simple mechanical advantage and integrates itself in to the parties life and can in turn become the subject of adventure, both to unlock its powers and perhaps to break some curse on it. I’ll take depth, especially in an area that is essentially unexplored like cursed magic items. The way it handles possession is also interesting, presenting it as a series of temptations, things the players want and that they push their luck, essentially making a choice to accept more power knowing that there is almost certainly some price. Push Your Luck is a key element of old school gaming and integrating the mechanic this way is great. (And, to a lesser extent, all cursed items. It’s a +5 sword, but it also requires X to use it … where X is something less than “the blood of innocents” … something on the edge of the players being willing to do.

As implemented, it’s a little weak in this case. It’s mostly CHA based bonuses, with some dream/sleep effect to unlock as well. These are less likely to appeal to players and it’s also got a strong “beauty” component, targeting itself to female characters. You want to be a pretty girl, right? So, in theming it can be a little weak (although that theming is pretty well done IF you want to be a pretty girl) and I’m not sure the mechanical bonuses are enough to overcome in the innate paranoia of the players. The designer acknowledges this, and notes that all eleven events are unlikely to happen due to player paranoia. So, as implemented, the the concept is a little weak in this case.

It also notes, in passing, that the adventure can be rethemed. This isn’t really handled except as an off hand remark. The entire text would be stronger if it gave some advice on retheming to other environments than “pretty girl.” A page or half page on this would be great, although once exposed to the core concept in the text it would be pretty easy to work up something yourself. It’s not exactly a template, but it’s pretty easy to see how you could use it as one. 

I’m less thrilled about the way important information is mixed in to the event text. At the end of an event there may be a note about what to do if the players suspect something, or work against it, etc. These sections would be better if pulled out of the main event text and placed at the front of rear of the event section; making a DM hunt for something is never a good idea, especially when the designer acknowledges that this is just a guideline and things may jump around a bit as the party questions the temptations/entity.

So, good idea but not the strongest implementation. Both the theme “pretty girl” and the power power levels involved are not exactly enough, I think. Further, it could be organized better to provide advice to the DM and handle retheming better. It does have a good write up on the possession entity and what it wants/doesn’t want, which is always a good way to handle an NPC and give advice to the DM on how to handle them.

It’s mere existence, and reading it, can generate a lot of ideas for the DM and as a kind of oblique guide to cursed artifacts its interesting in that respect. It’s not the Be All book for the subject, and is weaker because of its omissions in that area, but if you have some interest in that area (and you should) it’s worth checking out to get some ideas … which is a rare thing indeed for me to say. 

This is Pay What you Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $1.

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

Beneath the Ruined Wizard’s Tower

By Jonathan Rowe
Fen Orc
Level 2
  • The haunted caves where Smugglers hide their contraband and the Undead Corsair whose tomb has been disturbed
  • The Temple of the Rat God and the sinister secret society that has infiltrated the unsuspecting town above
  • The ancient Pre-human City where a foolhardy Wizard unearthed something that destroyed his Tower, fifty years ago, and guarded by its own deadly occupants

This seventeen page adventure details level two of the Holmes sample dungeon and has 26-ish rooms. It doesn’t make me wish I was never born which, I guess, is a compliment? But it has some serious map issues and a genericism, combined with a lack of interactivity, that causes the finished thing to suffer. 

Layout was in Word, I think, because it’s in docx format. It’s relatively complex though, so the designer must be quite proficient in Word. BUT … I almost didn’t open the document BECAUSE it was in docx. Don’t put your work in docx. Put it in PDF. Everytime I see a doc file I think “This is an attempt to infest my computer with malware.” There’s no wat around that; unless you’ve got a really good reason then put your work in PDF.

The dungeon map has three-ish zones and is one of the greatest disappointments I have ever seen. Not the map design, proper, it’s ok. Some details, not the worst layout possible, etc. But then it’s hand numbered. Or, well, lettered, since it follows the Holmes example of using letters instead of numbers. And the designer is using some kind of fancy fucking font, or added flair to the fucking letters or something. Little lines at the end of letter strokes, etc. I can’t read the fucking thing. Oh, I can make out a letter or three, but there are some that I just stare at and can’t figure out what the fuck room it’s supposed to be. It took me five minutes to find room ‘B’ on the map. It’s fucking bullshit. Is this really what you want my commentary on your work to involve? “The fucking thing isn’t legible; don’t buy it!”? No, of course not. Just fucking cut it out with the cutsy fonts, etc. If I can’t read the fucking thing then I’m going to fucking run it. 

There’s a disconnect, also, between the text and the map. The text has some good ideas: sea caves, an underground water filled tunnel and so on. But it is displayed terribly on the map. The sea caves look like just normal dungeon rooms. The underground water tunnel is the same. You can’t tell there’s water, or that it’s a tunnel or anything else. Tunnel slopes and light are contained in the room descriptions. “Oops, that tunnel you just walked down was severely sloped. Sorry, guess I should have mentioned that sooner …” The logistics of the fucking map are TERRIBLE. 

The read-aloud is … I don’t know. Generic? It overreavels, that’s for sure. Over and again it tells us things about the rooms that should be for the players to discover. “This room is storage for a pirates treasure.” or “This is a maze of caverns” or “The water extends under a wall down a long submerged tunnel.” How the fuck do the players know any of this? It’s for them to discover, as they interact with the environment with their characters. It’s quite bad. On top f it is the genercism. It’s like the read-aloud is a room note for the designer to expand upon rather than traditional read aloud. “This chamber contains only a deep pit. A prisoner at the bottom shouts and waves, desperate for you to throw him a rope to release him.” So, yeah, that’s iconic. But it doesn’t really have any life and it’s written in some kind of weird manner. I don’t know how to describe it, but I know it when I see it. Genetically iconic? Conclusions instead of environment descriptions? “This maze of caverns is made from an indestructible crystalline material that reflects light and images in dazzling kaleidoscopic confusion” It’s missing something. It’s like its abstract. 

Interactivity is mostly fighting. There are some obstacles to overcome, the usual rope bridge over a chasm and the like. Every once in awhile there is a “solve a puzzle” or “bring item A to room b” type thing. It just isn’t very … exploratory? I mean, you do get to explore, but the amount and number of things you get to interact with, beyond combat, seems very limited.

I wouldn’t buy this. Which is good cause it’s free. But I wouldn’t run it either. There are far better choices that you don’t have to fight to use and are more interesting. Another vision unfullfilled.

This is free at DriveThru.

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

Keys of the Apocalypse 1 – Pestilence

By Jay Parker
Dilly Green Bean Games
S&W (Modern)
Levels 6-10

First play as Red Ops as they head to an island off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine to retrieve a Senator’s wife and daughter after contact with the island is lost. But a looming hurricane is making things tricky and a missing Coast Guard cutter is drawing unwanted attention. Not only has that, but something biblical has occurred that will change the world forever…

This 49 page adventure contains brief rules for modern S&W play as well as “three” adventures, only one of which is relevant, and is ten pages. The other two are a solo mission and a Blay as the Bad Guys thing. The “Real” adventure does a good job portraying a survival horror base raid, but it completely marred by the walls of text and lack of any coherent method for organizing the text. And it fucks with the characters too much, even for a one-shot with included pre-gens, which this has.

In high school I played a lot of Danger International. It was/is a low-powered/normal person version of the Champions using the HERO system rules. Spies, special ops, commandos; a kind of James Bond type game that usually had a kind of investigation ending with a commando type raid on the evil bad guy base. This fits in to that genre. While this adventure seems to communicate post-apoc from its marketing, it’s actually more of a Delta Green type type affair with the party being a kind of investigation and special missions type unit set in the modern day. This book uses S&W for it’s system, with first eighteen or so pages having some rule adjustments and character classes, followed by a “normal” adventure, then a solo mission and another niche one that I won’t cover; just the “Real” on in this review … and I’m not covering the rules either. As a result there’s only about ten pages to the “core” adventure. 

Sentaos wife and daughter are missing on a island that has a medical facility they were visiting, no contact, multiple previous teams sent in not responding, and so now it’s the party of pre-gens turns (or, make you own, but pre-gens are provided.) Of course, there’s been a virus outbreak and there are zombies, something that any self-respecting group should immediately pick up once “medical facility” and “no contact are mentioned.” As a result this is a kind of Resident Evil or Silent Hill type survival horror mission.

These things live or die by the vibe they create, and this one does a pretty decent job. Abandoned ship in the harbour, bloody handprints, an abandoned dingy floating, pouring rain, hearing a crying baby, figures seen alone out in the rain … it does a great job of including the kind of slow build/burn environment, building dread and tension in the adventure. It’s not an adventure for the light of day, but uses the typical genre elements or body fluids and dread to do a great job building tension.

The evocative writing lends to this. Sounds of a crying baby building tension, and pale people soaked in rain with a dead eyed stare, holding a pistol loosely in one hand. When the adventure knows it’s trying to build dread it does a great job of presenting a situation that does that. 

But when it’s not trying it is REALLY not trying. “This is a refrigerated lab that is empty.” Well, ok. I guess I can’t ding it for overwriting most of the room descriptions and descriptions for “empty” rooms/ But there are opportunities lost to provide the DM with just a little more information to help them build a scene. Giant tanks, or freezers with cold air mist escaping from the lids, a fog covered room from the mist, and so on, would have helped. I’m not saying every room has to have something in it, but helping the DM out to create an evocative setting is a part of the designers job, and this doesn’t really do that with the environment. When it’s got something to say, when it decides to put something IN the room then it brings the noise, but otherwise it doesn’t really try. Again, not every room needs to be a tour d’force, but I do expect SOMETHING to bring the room to life. There’s a place for an empty room, but the empty room has to be something also, at least in an adventure like this one. 

The major, MAJOR problem though is the wall of text that it brings to the table. The opening intro must be three or more pages of exposition text mixed in with directives to the DM. It’s hard to tell what is what. There’s nothing to catch the eye. There is very little organization, use of whitespace, bolding, headings, etc in order to make it easy for the DM to find information and make it easier to assimilate and run. It’s more of a first this happens and then this and then this and then this … and thats hard to run. This sort of thing continues in the “interesting” rooms as well. There are times to switch formats, and certainly I’m not calling for every room to look like a “good” dungeon room, organization wise, but when you are doing a complex room, or a room with something in it, it requires the designer to put some effort in to make the room easy to run. This don’t do that. 

There are some “gotcha” things as well. The crying baby is a zombie like thing and if you kil it then you release a plague on the world. But there’s no hint that’s the case. And there are sometimes bodies on the floor. They don’t rise up zombie style (well, some do, but not the ones I’m thinking of …) If you get too close to the bodies on the floor then you die, instantly. It’s the arbitrary nature of the scene that makes it problematic, even for a one-shot. By doing what the party normally does, go in rooms, they die instantly without warning. 

It also uses randomness in a weird way. Encountering the abandoned dongy in the harbor only happens on a 1 in 6 chance. Why? This is an encounter to build dread. Why would you make it unlikely to happen? You’re fighting the very nature of the adventure type with this behavior. In other places there is a chance for a random encounter. I’m not talking wandering monsters, those are always ok for driving an adventure forward, time-wise. I’m talking “if you leave the room then there’s a 1 in 6 chance of the following fully described scene to take place.” And the scene takes a page, or half a page to describe and, again, builds horror. This doesn’t make sense in a survival horror genre. Again, I’m not talking wandering monsters, I’m talking fully fleshed out scene. That should be included. There is no principal of old school gaming here; you’re doing a different genre, survival horror instead of exploration, and the tropes and standards for it are different. There may be some things to borrow from exploration adventures but random scenes isn’t one of them. Programmed is ok; it’s not a railroad, it’s part of the room. 

I’d say this is essentially unusable because of the wall of text/organization issues. I can’t say I’m surprised, for all the trouble with OSR adventures not knowing how to do it I’d say that other genres have much MUCH more issues with this. Refer to just adopt every Call of Cthulhu adventure ever written. And that’s too bad. The scenes are good, in a little “standard zombie medical lab on an isolated island” kind of way. It’s what you would expect, but it knows how to do survival horror. It just doesn’t know how to present the adventure in a wy that a DM can actually run it. 

This is $1.50 at DriveThru. There is no meaningful preview, just the usual “thumbnail” one. It needs to show some text of the actual adventure to give people an idea of what they are buying before they buy it, $1.50 or no.

Posted in Reviews | 8 Comments

Tomb of the Frost-Walker

By Nickolas Zachary Brown
Five Cataclysms

There is but one mountain in these lands for which the frost never abates. Even in the height of Summer, when crops wilt in the heat, this peak continue to emanate a chill wind. There is a cave in the mountain, its crystalline walls and floors white with frost, with corpses of long dead things encased in the ice.  Legend has it that a terrible evil is sealed there, an evil that would encase the world in ice.  Where he walks, the forest follows.

This eleven page adventure features a sixteen page dungeon with a “cold” theme. Decent monsters, magic, treasure, and interactivity results in a pretty good environment to adventure in, even though it feels a bit flat, perhaps from the (otherwise excellent) formatting.

This is a pretty classic exploration/interactivity dungeon with lots and lots of cold themed monsters and room, as the name would imply. Almost every room has something to fuck with, with a decent amount having a pretty good haul of treasure. And consequences for careless adventuring. Murals abound. In one room there is one with a dude having three bodies impaled on his spear. Paint the mural with, conveniently provided by a pool, blood results in him stepping out of the mural, bodies still wiggling, impaled on his spear, allowing you to step in to the mural to retrieve the red box inside. Phat L00T! Damaging the mural, though, pisses him off and out he comes. There are obelisks with runs, gemstones on pillars to loot, and icy caskets that can be caused to shatter, releasing their occupants. A frozen fog room with frozen bodies embedded in the fog and box, and a GIANT FACE from which a cold wind blows … Most of the rooms are self-contained, with a few having the de rigueur “need a gemstone found elsewhere” to unlock some effect, or messing with one thing in a room causing a impact somewhere else in the dungeon. Oh, and you’re not going to get too handsy in the dungeon, are you? I mean, you wouldn’t want to release the titular 20HD avatar of the frost god in your search for loot and mindless destroying things/interacting with them. Can & Should are two different words. Great interactivity, if it does get a little heavy on the mural usage in places.

Creatures are great, from ice motes that, essentially, suicide in to the players, with 1 HP each, to a giant hand that erupts from the icy floor to pull someone under. There’s an undead warrior DRAPED in expensive jewelry armed with a flint sword and cold black eyes. Ice wraiths compliment the load out, along with an occasional yeti lazing about, sleeping, not wishing to be woken up. They are all well described, visceral in their description, and those descriptions and stats easily provided in each room for the DM to bring them to life. Treasure tends to be unique, from a weird flaming sword to an ice chalice that lets you breathe frost … with a side effect or two thrown in. The amount of monetary loot seems about right for a Gold=XP game.

Descriptions are short and too the point, with a hint of evocative writing, essentially describing some iconic locations that are easily groked, with the right words generally used in the right places to bring them to life. “Stairs lead to a raised platform against the far wall, whereupon is a large door of pure white ice. The door glimmers with magic. In each corner of the room is an icy stone circle. There is an enormous yeti sprawled across the stairs, fast asleep and snoring loudly. It wears a blue metal helmet.” Bolded words get their own little break out paragraph, with more information on the item, allowing the DM to quickly and easily find the follow up information they need. “A grand casket of ice is embedded in the far wall, flanked on either side by 2 Onyx Obelisks. Each of the obelisks are inscribed with a single rune.” The formatting is great and it’s easy to scan. The evocativeness is … I don’t know. It’s there but I feel like it doesn’t do as good a job as it could in conveying the otherness of the locations. It’s certainly better than most adventures that use many, many more words. It’s concentrating on the right things, but it doesn’t feel like the designer agonized other every description to bring them fully to life. Which is good for the designers mental health, but, I like to really FEEL each room through its description. Again, it’s not bad, and better than most, but it is the area I might recommend them to work on in future projects. 

And that may be because this thing is very close, I think, to being very VERY good. As is, I’d have no problem running it and I think you could probably almost pick ip up and run it without reading, or even scanning, it first. That’s a great accomplishment, especially with all the new monsters, items, and interactivity present. A little work on those descriptions, to take them from Good to FUCKING MAGNIFICENT and you’d have an eleven page adventure that people drooled over, that still fit the traditional mode & form of a “normal” D&D adventure. 

I’m a fan of this, and with work, I could be the biggest fan.

This is $2 at Drivethru. The level range “mid” is only on the cover. The preview is six pages. The last page shows the first three rooms of the dungeon and is pretty accurate as to the content, format, etc you will be purchasing, so good preview in that regard. You also get to the lead-in, anderers, etc, which is, essentially ALL of the non-encounter pages. It does a good job of keeping the extraneous bullshit to a minimum.

Posted in Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Review, Level 4, Reviews, The Best | 5 Comments