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Updated: 4 weeks 12 hours ago

Fight On! #14 – Citadel of the Dark Trolls

Mon, 02/25/2019 - 12:11
Citadel of the Dark Trolls
Lee Barber

This is level 9 of the community Fight On Megadungeon The Darkness Beneath. It has nine locales in a large cavern system, with each of them expanded upon in to a number of keyed entries. Deep in its own mythology, it rivals the Ghoul Kingdom. And has no idea how to organize itself for play at the table. Ultimately, a disappointment.

Some of the upper levels of Darkness Beneath rank among my best of all time, including what I think of as THE best of all time, Level one. It’s simple, terse, non-standard and creates child-like wonder. I would argue that the Citadel of the Dark Trolls is has the most expectations of all the levels presented. That “dungeon map” that rides along with every Darkness Beneath level has had it staring us in the face for many years. Yeah, it’s not the LAST level, the Tomb of the Dark Lord remains there as desert, but Citadel has the kick ass name and the teaser right from level one, with the great doors on the underground highway. Lee has written something that lives up to the expectations set. It’s deep and rich and full of that hinted at mystery and mythology that Kingdom of the Ghouls (Baur) also did so well. You get a real sense for the place, and it’s not generic AT ALL. I have an issue with expectations and you can see that in many of my reviews. It’s not my most charming quality. But this dungeon met my expectations. It FEELS like the Citadel of the Dark Trolls.

The caverns have about nine major locales. These are large open areas and  the like, on a grand scale ala Descent in to the Depths of the Earth. Not really a hex crawl, but there’s a sense of large space/distance here. It’s a nod to the ecology and the “kingdom” of the dark trolls. Each locale is expanded upon, some more than others. There are fully keyed out locations, like the citadel proper, and then other locations that get more than a nod, like the troll “farmlands.” The hand-waving gets a little deep at the some places, like the farmlands/supporting “countryside” but it’s at a level that is about appropriate for something like this. It’s enough to give the DM something to work with, as a sideline if the party should flee there, for example, but I think also recognizes that this is not a 90 page supplement but rather one article/dungeon in a magazine with about 20 other articles in it also.

I’m going to concentrate on three points to the review, two minor and one major. First, I quibble with the overview map & key. Oh, did I say key? I mean, it doesn’t actually have a key. The “big map” has a hex-like map of nine locations, each with a number and a little embedded “#1 is the gatehouse” chart on the map. And then the main text has GATEHOUSE instead of “#1- Gatehouse.”I’ve seen a couple of adventures do this lately and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. (Since this was written a few years, I guess from this?) There’s this reliance on textual headers to convey location information. I don’t get it. How does that make it clearer? Maybe if magazine page numbers were on the chart also or something. But forcing me to fig through the text to find a one line offset entry for “GATEHOUSE” is not the way to earn “I am the friend to the DM” points.

Secondly, the linkages to the other levels seems a bit light. As an example, the gatehouse notes that the guards will let you through with a legitimate reason. Three are listed: legitimate bounty, an identifying item/pass, or you want to fight in the pit games. I know, all too well, how hard it is to link up a deeper level to an earlier one when you’re writing it at different times, and yet that’s the challenge to overcome.

Both of those are symptoms of a larger problem, the need to think about how the adventure will be run and orienting the writing and layout towards that. For example, on of the rooms at the gatehouse tells us what happens if people fly over the gatehouse. It’s the room with the giant ballista in it. Ok, that makes sense, in a way. But … isn’t it more likely that the party will just fly over the gatehouse and the DM will be left digging through the adventure looking at keys, ALL of the keys, to see what happens then? Why would you not put this information “up front” outside of the keys? That’s where the information is likely to be needed. Buried in room 23 of 76 would wouldn’t have a note about what happens if the party doesn’t visit the dungeon, would you?

But, the major issue is that I like to think this level is incomprehensible. Each and every room is so THICK and DENSE that you can’t make out what is going on and how it relates to the issue/room at hand. Rooms are a third of a column, or a column. Paragraph breaks are few and far between. I’m looking at room 2 of the gatehouse right now. It’s about half a column of text without bolding or paragraph breaks. There are long digressions in the rooms of things like:

“Skaemir was returned to the Citadel by posturing goblins, his lacerated flesh sliding from exposed bone. To chastise the troll nobles, Gorangol kept the Prince’s equipment, ate his Blood Thump, and demanded that a week-long party for her wild goblins be held at Dagendreng Hold, free of charge. While recovering, the angry Prince learned that the Shamans blamed an outbreak of disease on his combined failures to uphold prophecy.”

Uh, ok. I guess so. Is the middle of a room description the best place to put that fluff?

And fluff it is. Fluff after fluff after fluff. That section comes from a column and a half that describes fighting styles and other information. WITH ONE PARAGRAPH BREAK.That’s what this level is. It’s a fluff regional setting book. I don’t review those. Since fluff is solely inspiration, and I think that’s totally subjective (or, maybe, I don’t know how to review subjective shit) I don’t review fluff. I like it, and don’t mean fluff in a derogatory term, but it’s not an adventure.

This is 27 pages of fluff masquerading as an adventure. Ye Olde Pushbacke &| guidance seems to have been missing.

It’s fucking cool, but I’m currently running a game, not reading the background guide for a Tv series writer.

This is $8 on Lulu.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Sleeping Giant Mountain

Sat, 02/23/2019 - 12:11
By Ashley Warren Self Published 5e Level3

A recent archaeological expedition in Icewind Dale has uncovered a remarkable discovery: the Spine of the World mountain range is, in fact, the actual spine of a great giant.  The discovery confirms an ancient legend, that giants as tall as mountains once roamed the Forgotten Realms.
Lead archaeologist Silja Stengravar knows the truth. Centuries ago, a lich, threatened by the giants’ ancient elemental power, banished their race to an abandoned planet known as Kaiva. The lich was defeated, but its curse remains, protected by its minions in the heart of Garagai Mountain. Held captive to the curse, the giants are suspended in time, unable to roam free and claim Kaiva as their own.  Silja’s discovery has summoned the portal to Kaiva. Will adventurers brave the perilous journey through the hostile and awe-inspiring planet to destroy the curse and reawaken the giants?

This seventeen page adventure has about six pages of actual content. Laid out in three scenes, the party travels through a hollow mountain, that is actually a giant, kills some shit, and then runs away as the giant they are inside of starts to move again. Ignoring the scene-based structure and the “archeology” bullshit, the organization of the adventure is a nightmare. It could be worse, but the lack of content and the free-flow organizational style hide a simple linear adventure.  

First, nice cover! That’s the kind of place adventurers should be dying to go to! The touch of the fantastic this brings to the adventure is wonderful. Of course, the players don’t actually get to see that, since the place is supposed to look like a mountain and not a giant. Or … does it? The advice to the DM is to do whatever you want, make it look like a mountain or like a giant like the cover shows.

This then is our first major point of divergence: the role of story & the DM. This adventure is firmly on the side of “DM as storyteller.” Want it to be a mountain? Make it a mountain. How long should the players have once the mountain/giant wakes up in order to escape from it? It’s up to the DM, as they control the pacing. Should the players be trapped on the other planet if they fail? It’s up to the DM since they control things. Somewhere around 2e the game shifted. Instead of an emergent story that develops around the party the style changed to the DM as storyteller. I find this hollow. In it lies a thousand sins. The players no longer have agency in their own action. The rules won’t let you die anymore and neither will the DM because their “story” has something going on. The baddie must escape. The artifact must trigger. Blach. So what? Someone dies and they make another character. They don’t escape and they get to have adventures on another planet. Or they have an entire campaign inside a giant. Or any of a thousand other possibilities. But it’s the players who have the action token and not the DM. This whole DM as Storyteller thing has Giovanni Chronicles in it. A hollow & empty style of play that can never be meaningful because there was never anything at risk or any chance to change the world in anyway. The plot says that at level 20 the evil god gets summoned, so whatever you do is meaningless. It’s going to happen 19 adventures from now. Just pull out your phone and play some Bubble Bobble.

So, this adventure is a part of a playstyle I abhor, and can make a logical well reasoned argument as to why it’s bad. Let’s accept for the moment that someone responds with the No-Accounting-For-Taste “But That’s the Way I Like To Play.” What then?

Then we fall back to Ye Olde Rule-e One-e: the only purpose of the adventure is to help the DM run it at the table. Does this do that in any meaningful way? No.

The data is laid out in some weird paragraph form. Inside of each “scene “are some bolded subheadings. Each subheading with have a couple of paragraphs and the various encounters are laid out in that text. There is no real organization other than “if you read the entire thing from start to finish then you will see the order of things as thing one comes before thing 2 or thing 3 in the text of the paragraph.” This is terrible, and is now the second or third time I’ve seen it. I don’t get it AT ALL. What’s the point of this? Is room/key now not being done at all? Is it impossible to just bullet point out important information, or number it, or do ANYTHING other than just list it in paragraph form? Again, the DM is scanning the adventure text at the table. They need to location the information quickly. Burying it in a paragraph is not the way you do that.

There’s a couple of inset boxes early on, when the “archeologist” is talking to the party. (This i, I think, the only time inset data is used. Or anything other than just paragraph data transfer.) The first is some … flavor text(?) about the archeologist. The second is a point of data about a curse. The inset about the curse it good. If I’m the DM, looking at that page, I can immediately find the curse data. But the archeologist flavor text? What’s the point of that? Their personality & looks are would have been much better served to have been highlighted instead of being buried in the sentence data in the paragraph before the insets.

I can quibble with the other choices. An archeologist wants your help. Why? Why not a wizard? Do we have to live in a world with archeologists and museums and shit? Why not embrace the fantasy? Easy enough to fix, they’re a wizard now. But there’s other things. There’s some note about how killing a wolf is an evil act if it hasn’t attacked yet. And it then attacks. What? Hang on there. Uh, no, it’s not an evil act. You mean it’s an evil act the way YOU play D&D. In my world it’s not. This kind of DM enforced morality garbage is a blight on the game.

This is a low page count low content adventure. It is no way lives up to the cover, even given the “run away to escape the giant” gimmick ending.

The designer runs an RPG Writers Workshop and appears to be an author. The content of the workshop appears to be of two types. The first section appears to be things you might see in any writers workshop. Storyboard, moodlists, outlining, creating villains, NPC’s, etc. The second part is about layout, editing, publishing, etc.

I haven’t gone through this workshop, but the agenda leave me with a raised eyebrow. Adventure writing is not similar to story writing AT ALL. Adventure writing is technical writing. You are trying to transfer information out of the designers head and on to paper in such a way that it enters the DM’s head that they can use it to run the adventure. All in about the three seconds you get when they glance down at the page. I don’t see that in this workshop. Joyce may have been a great writer but if they wrote a D&D adventure in the style of Wake then it would be a disaster. First, technical writing. Then evocative writing detailing interactive encounters with the POTENTIAL for combat. D&D is about interactivity and too many designers confuse combat for interactivity.

It is my great hope that the great masses of humanity who know only the WOTC/Paizo echo chambers do one day get exposed to the better writing & formats os the inside & OSR scene. There are certainly a huge pile of garbage in that community also, but they seem to be more actively thinking about these things, and experimenting with formats, etc, than the WOTC/Paizo crowd. The major publishers are really doing a disservice to everyone by not caring about information theory in their own products. People see it from the the official publishers and think that’s the right way to do it. There’s no right way. Some are easier than others, but there are many paths to good design. The WOTC/Paizo garbage is not it though. These designers get all these 5-star reviews and accolades, never knowing what’s over the next hill

This is Pay What You Want at DMSGuild with a suggested price of $1.

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/232047/Sleeping-Giant-Mountain?affiliate_id=1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Throne of the Gods

Wed, 02/20/2019 - 12:11
By Joseph Mohr 1e Levels 15+

Rumors have reached the adventurers about the recent discovery of the legendary Throne of the Gods. This epic level journey will take the adventurers to places of unimaginable danger. But the adventurers may not be the only ones seeking this artifact.

This 34 page adventure describes a two level dungeon with about thirty rooms that has the Throne of the Gods at the End. Or, as the cover states: “The THrone of the Gods.” It is basically just a series of fights. Monster Zoo, with padded writing.

What is a D&D adventure? A series of challenges to overcome? But if that model is adhered to too strictly, ot literally, you can get a flat adventure. Just a series of rooms with monsters in them. Or a series of puzzle traps. Or a series of riddles. Or … Whatever. It’s hard to argue that those elements are not a part of D&D adventures but when the D&D adventure starts from that framework I think you get substandard work.

And that’s the case with this adventure. It doesn’t feel like a real place. It doesn’t feel like it started out as caves, or a throne room, or whatever. It feels like it started out as a series of challenges to be overcome. Room after room of high HD monsters. Roc’s. Mind Flayers. Beholders. Dragon Turtle. Devils. Titan. NPC Parties. It’s a monster zoo of high HD enemies.

The designer does say that high level adventures are hard, and I would agree. I’m not sure anyone has cracked that nut. It’s certainly one of the largest unsolved issues in D&D. A dungeon full of monsters to hack doesn’t do it.

To it’s credit it doesn’t gimp the party. But it’s really just room after room of monsters to cut down with a couple of dead-ends or a puzzle/evil alter or two. It feels more like a 4e adventure with its focus on combat.

And then there’s Maude. Err, the text. ¾ of a column to describe a dead body. Padding the text with phrases like “Should anyone climb up the statue and inspect the mouth of it they may find a …” or “Should you use divine magic then you learn [something irrelevent.]” Or telling us, at a certain pit, that a Monk may be able to reduce their falling damage through the use of one of their powers. Well, yes. Why tell us that? Do you also explain how to use Thac0 in every combat, noting it was optional in 1e? Or how MU’s cast spells?

This is available, freely, at Dragonsfoot.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Beast of Briar Creek

Mon, 02/18/2019 - 12:12
By J
New Realms Publishing
Labyrinth Lord
Level 1

On a mission to request aid from the Enchanter Tyrion, your band of volunteers will be traveling along the Weatherstone Road. A well traveled route, there are few travelers on the road now and what you do find isn’t friendly. And then there is the lurking menace, the monster that has come to dominate the fears of travelers and locals alike, the Beast of Briar Creek.

This seven page adventure has two encounters in it, in a linear format. You walk up a road rom your village to a wizards tower. Get attacked on the road. Visit an inn, maybe. Maybe get attacked. By kobolds. Cross a bridge with a monster under it. End.

So, it has read-aloud and the read-aloud is short. It’s not the best read-aloud, but it doesn’t suffer from things like describing room dimensions or other problems. And it is clearly making an effort to paint a decent picture.

The DM text after the read-aloud tries to describe a situation for the DM. It has a paragraph or so of things like a mud-bogged road, and so on, and then says something like brown blobs attack from the trees. If I squint hard I can maybe see what the designer was going for. What is comes across as is “you’re on a muddy road and some blob monsters come out of the woods and attack.” I think though the designer may have been trying for something else. Let’s say that instead of free-form text the DM text was a list of bullets. The first one said. Something like “the road bogs down in mug, travel is quartered. Shoes get stuck in it and come off feet. People slip.” and then another one that said something like “2/3d across the valley blob monsters come out.” or something like that, or more. Then you’ve got a little scene. The DM is going back and forth with the players. The mud is reinforced. They are trying to avoid it, or keep their shoes on, or wipe the mud off when slipped. Maybe even some muddy puddles that LOOK like the blob monsters. Now you’ve got a little more than “you are walking down the muddy road and get attacked.” Certainly the text doesn’t preclude the little extras I mentioned, but it relies on the DM to add it. The bullets, extra detail, etc instead give a clearer picture to the DM of the environment and encourage further play without necessarily being prescriptive. Which is assisting the DM in running it at the table.

A lot of the intro text is abstracted. The weather is foul. The crops are rotting. The water has gone bad in places. Rumors of monsters in the night. Village elders held a meeting. This is all abstracted. Old man Crawford’s well went bad his plow ox died after drinking it. 3 weeks of rain and the fields are waterlogged. Old Man Martin is again going to the wizard for help but Crawford is distraught and wants his help, gummit! This cements things in a way that abstracted text can never. There’s buy in.

Finally, lets talk price. I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I think I’ve mentioned it before. This is $2 for seven pages (which includes the cover and legal statement.) There are five encounters, one of which is just a “leaving the village” read aloud and one of which is just “visit an inn.” Further, a third one might not happen if you skip the inn, do it right. Is it worth $2? G1 is a good adventure, is 8 pages, and was $17.50 in 2019 dollars. And yet I see people bitch about $2 adventures that have 50 rooms in them in a good dungeon level format in 6 pages. There is a bias, I think, against short page counts. We expect shit to be padded to hell so we don’t accept a short $2 adventure. Which means it has to be padded to hell to justify a page count to justify the $2. That’s not cool. Cool things can be short. I will say again, I wish DriveThru had a no questions asked return policy.  

This is available on DriveThru for $2. There’s no preview. Otherwise you wouldn’t buy it?

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/266680/An-Evenings-Adventure-1-The-Beast-of-Briar-Creek?affiliate_id=1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Blood on the Snow

Sat, 02/16/2019 - 12:13
By Curt Carbonell Self-published 5e Levels 5-8

It’s the dead of winter in the High North. People are going missing, rumors abound of savage creatures in the wilderness, and the outpost town of Jotnar’s Folly is teetering on the brink of starvation. You must travel to the frozen foothills of the Spine of the World and put a stop to whatever is causing this suffering. Will you be able to survive the freezing temperatures, solve the mystery, and defeat the threat in time to save the town from certain destruction?

This 22 page adventure has the party trekking through bitter cold (environmental hazards) and meeting some gnolls before hacking a frost giant and his pet remorhaz. Pruning back the writing and some tweaks to the organization/support information would go a long way to making this an inoffensive adventure. At its heart it’s just a boring old set-piece battle with the added complication of a gnoll parlay.

Set in a far northern town, the children don’t drink lemonade but they do get hacked down. You pick up a couple of quests in town, go to a farmstead to find some dead bodies, find some gnolls at a campsite that you might be able to roleplay with, and then fight a frost giant and his pet.

This adventure tries hard. You can see the designer trying to do the right thing and then kind of leaving out what they needed to succeed. I’m going to assume it’s because of a lack of exposure to good design principles.

The adventure is set in the frozen north and the environment is supposed to be a big part of the adventure. There’s a little section at the beginning on sights and sounds that tries to help the DM introduce some atmosphere. Crunching snow, glare off the snow, etc. It’s got some nice ideas in it. But, what the adventure needs, is reinforcement of those ideas. Including that section in front kind of sets the DM’s mood while they are doing their initial read through, setting up the lens by which the further encounters can be viewed through. The encounters, proper, though need this data reinforced. The data should be repeated, not word for word but elements of it, in the various encounters. When you reach the ruined homestead a few words, under the title, like [crunchy snow, glare off the featureless plain] would have done wonders to help the DM set the mood WHILE RUNNING IT. Remember, the adventure needs to be focused on running it at the table. So while the initial sights & sounds are ok, the DM needs that brief environmental data reinforced in the actual encounter that they are looking at. The DM’s attention is drawn a hundred different way while running the game, helping them recall is a good thing. But, you have to do it without getting in the way. Hence the suggestion of the “feelings” under the encounter title.

Likewise the adventure tries to set up a situation where travel between the various encounter sites has an element of the environment in it. Face a blizzard or hide in a cave? Go over a frozen lake or maybe go the other way to have a monster encounter? These little things have a number of problems. First, the table they are presented on only has three options, driven by a survival check. Given the multiple travel options it’s certainly possible that the same one could happen more than once. It would have been better to tweak this in to something else, like removing the check. This ISN’T messing with player agency because of my second point. It’s not always obvious what the consequences of the players decisions will be. For the decision to be meaningful the players must understand the nature of the decisions they are making. Going over the lack will reduce time but it looks treacherous. The other direction looks safer but maybe has monster spoor. Or you can see a blizzard in the distance, or something like that. They need to know that the blizzard is coming and/or that it will delay them. Otherwise the choice is random and you take the players agency away, things just happen to them. The adventure is not necessarily doing this on purpose but it doesn’t make it clear. Finally, the linkages between the hazards are weak. It mentions, for example in the “Rock and Hard Place” line on the survival table that the party might have to survive the weather and then has a section about a column away called Surviving the Weather. That’s generic, and could apply to the entire adventure when it’s MEANT to apply to this one line on the survival table. Rock & A hard place on the table could be called “Blizzard or Yeti?” and the blizzard referred to as “Event: Blizzard” or something like that. By being cute with the names you make the comprehension harder for the DM.

Read aloud is contained to just one entry per “major section” but can be long, and, as long time readers know long read-aloud, being more than 2-3 sentences are bad. Instead, rely on bullet points or other techniques to rely information to the DM so they can easily find it and convey it. Further, flowery read-aloud is almost always bad, in general, and is in this adventure as well. “Arrows stick out of the snow like frozen flowers.” is not good writing. Evocative writing is a good thing to strive for but metaphor is almost always a bad idea. In my experience it almost always comes off as groan & eye-rolling worthy.

It’s handles survival mostly through the 5e exhaustion check mechanism. This is a decent way to include it but not focus on the tedium of outdoor survival, like so many adventures do in the heat or cold. It would have been better, though, to include a brief summary of the exhaustion rules and maybe some modifiers, etc, in the adventure, maybe on the last page or something, to make the DM’s referencing it during play easy to find. I don’t want to go hunting in the PHB or leave the page open in the hardback during play. Remember, the designer should be focused on helping the DM run the adventure during play at the table.

But, to that end, a little travel table is provided between sites showing distances and typical number-of-days travel time. That’s the kind of helpful data I’m looking for, so well done!

It’s got a couple of other nice things it’s trying to do also. The mayor is being blackmailed by a protection racket, leading to some of the hooks, and provides better depth than usual to what would normally be a throw-away hook. That’s great. It’s exactly what I’m talking about when I ask people to think about their hooks just a little more He needs the lost protection money back, and it also leads to potential further adventure at the end of the adventure. Likewise, there’s a cowardly sheriff, a hero in his own tale, that has caused some trouble. This is a non-trivial element of the adventure, as he has killed a gnoll and they can be, potentially, allies of the party if the sheriff and gnoll tension can come to a end. The sheriff thinks he did the right thing. The gnolls are pissed he killed one of them. They are not necessarily hostile but potentially hostile. That can be a good encounter, with no enforced right or wrong to it. [The gnolls come off a little too do-gooder for me, like humans wearing gnoll costumes. There could be some more nuance there but its painfully easy to see where the designer is going.] The entire idea of the sheriff and gnoll group, with factions in the gnolls, is a great idea. It just needed some more work.

Folks will recall that Rients suggests shaking up the campaign, and the giant could very well fuck up the town. That could be GREAT!

It also tries to do something interesting with hooks. Four locations are described in town, each with a hook related to the adventure. This goes a long way to the concept of leaving out the shit don’t matter. Four ways in to the adventure, or further nuance to it, and thus four locations described in the town. That’s focus. The NPC’s are left to the appendix to describe, and I’d prefer a couple of keywords in the description to riff off of, but, at least they are short-ish.

The DM text tends to the medium and unfocused side of the spectrum, needing more whitespace/bullets/pruning back to enable focus on what matters when running it. Finally, it’s got a trigger warning at the start noting that some innocent people get killed as a part of the adventure. Uh … Seriously? If anything I’d say it doesn’t go far enough in this area. Showing why a bad guy is evil, instead of telling us, is a key way to motivate the party. I’m not looking for graphic depictions, but the current descriptions are abstracted enough that they don’t bring anything/much to the table.

Finally, This is really just a three encounter adventure. Go to homestead and find some bodies and the sheriff. Go to campsite and find more bodies and the gnolls and hack them and/or roleplay. Go find frost giant and his pet and kill them. Three encounters in 22 pages, for $4, is not exactly “Participation Award” worthy. Yeah yeah, environmental encounters between the main ones. Whatever. I don’t wandering monsters in OSR adventures and I’m not counting Wandering Environment encounters here. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that, if you hack the gnolls down, there’s any way to figure out there’s a giant involved or where he’s going. It’s assumed, I guess, that the gnoll roleplay works out. Strengthening the “ought oh! The giants the bad guy!” part could be better. Or, maybe not, and you just let the giant fuck up the town. But that smacks of the designer saying “you better talk to the gnolls or else!” and that’s NOT good design.

For 5e it’s decent. But most 5e adventures are dreck. If instead its looked on as the initial effort of a first-time designer then there’s maybe a little hope in the future that they improve and bring us good things in their coming products.

It looks like this was produced from an RPG writers workshop the designer attended. I can’t say that it was perfect, but this one did come out better than most first time efforts. Maybe next week we’ll take a look at the workshop runners adventures. In any event, I do hope a lot of these 5e/Pathfinder designers expand their horizons and get out of their echo chambers. There is so much GREAT design work going on outside of the mainstream, and so little within 5e/Pathfinder. Broadening their perspectives would be great for these folks, if they can buck the emulation echo chamber trends.

This is $4 at DMSguild. The preview a good one, eight pages. You get to see the town and how the plot hooks are integrated in to the locations. You get to see the first two encounters (most of them anyway) and their read-aloud. The lack of NPC personality (it being relegated to an appendix) and the more conversation style of DM text that comes off as unfocused and hiding the details the DM needs.

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/266134/Blood-on-the-Snow?affiliate_id=1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Witchburner

Wed, 02/13/2019 - 13:12
By Luka Rejec Hydra Cooperative OSR

… It’s an intimate, tragic adventure of witch hunting in a town huddled between rivers and mountains and forests one wet and cold October.

Warning: This adventure gets up close to a line I’m uncomfortable with in adventures. You should keep that in mind as you read my skepticism’s.

This 68 page “adventure” describes the NPC’s in a small town and wraps some rules around for garnering support from the locals to burn people as witches. Some reference sheets are provided to help the DM with the social situation, and it is CERTAINLY a well-charged situation in which to throw some PC gas … but I’m having my doubts as to the “Adventure” nature of this thing, as well as playability. In the end, I’ve decided it’s an adventure, and a cute idea, and some decent NPC’s, but it doesn’t all come together.

Ye Olde town council hires the party to find the witch in their town. If you can do it in less than a month then you get the cash. There are some mini-mechanics provided on convincing the town council that the accused is a witch, and some around the town folks growing to love, or hate, the party. There are thirty main NPC’s provided, each with a quirk or secret or two, and each generally with a small group of others in the household, also with a quirk or so. There are reference sheets for tracking the love/hate thing, and mini-rules for mob justice.

It is a social adventure. Each of the thirty days in the month has some little small event, like townsperson x tells the party townsperson Y was a witch when they were younger, etc. This is also augmented by some kind of calamity, some witchsign like stillborn cattle (and generally much weirder) that whips up the locals a bit more. Too harsh with the locals and they start to fear you. Too many fear you and a mob forms to burn the party as witches, the tables turned.

It’s a decent set up. The locals are in witch fear fever. Everyone has something to hide. The mini-rules handle the extra new situations well. The calamities and rumors on each day keep the action moving. And in to all this you add a WHOLE bunch of gas in the form of the party and wait for the shit to go down. It’s all very loose, almost a framework for an adventure rather than adventure. That’s both a strength and a weakness.

There’s no actual plot, other than what naturally develops during play. That’s because there is no actual witch … the locals are just all spun up because of some coincidences. But … no one knows that. The coincidences are not explained. The locations and events precipitating things are not touched on AT ALL. So, the pumpkin that spills teeth when cut in to? Only mentioned in passing once, in as much detail as I just typed. Or the fish that turned up dead with a handprint on them? Again, no more explanation AT ALL than I just provided. It’s literally all just rumors and people with something to hide. There’s strength to that, it recognizes that all you really need is a volatile situation and adding the party can turn it in to an adventure. On the downside … well, it  feels plotless. The lack of explanation for the “bait” that starts everything is totally up to the DM. And not explicitly so, just implicitly.

It’s also the case that the party will need to frame someone to get the money … and/or save themselves from the mob. Or, they can just rob people.

The lack of the precipitating events, and of a plot, does leave things feeling a bit hollow. It’s all just fucking around. You could just as easily take People of Pembrocktonshire, or any other NPC book and say “they all live in the same village. The party is hired to find the village witch, but there isn’t one.” Same adventure, essentially.

It’s heart is in the right place. It tries to provide reference sheets, etc. The entire thing needs A LOT more cross-referencing. Every time it uses the words The Mayor it also need to put “(p39)” right after it … and do the same for all NPC’s. You gotta help the DM out … especially when things are as loosy goosy as this. People affiliations, like Councilor, Cult, Lodge could also be better noted in more locations. There’s also about a column of “background story” for each of the main NPC’s. They do a good job of communicating flavor, but are useless in play. I also think they are useless in play if you skip them … there’s no way you can hold 30 NPC’s in your head.  This seems much more aimed at people just reading the adventure rather than running it. Still, skip it and your ok.

It’s all a bit too aimless for my tastes. The secrets are not explicit, or damning, in most cases. “I can tell wwhat’s wrong with someone when I touch them.” Ok, sure. I  guess so. It needs a little more push in the PC direction and just a little more pretext at the beginning, I think. Yeah, there’s a rule on how to actually put a witch in the adventure. But, it’s just random.

Luka has done something different and I applaud that. It FEELS a lot like that movie The Witch … except for the ending of course.

And therein ends the review I wrote four months ago, when this thing first came out. I have NO idea how I didn’t post it then. In fact, I trashed it. I went through this morning to buy it and DriveThru said I owned it. A search in my Google Drive showed a doc in trashcan. Restoring it got me the review above. Fuck if I know man.

In rereading the adventure and the review I think I should add a few words. You can see me struggling with the open-ended nature of the adventure. Or, maybe, The Adventure As Theater. The Red Herring Adventure. Or maybe The Adventure As Journey Rather Than Destination. This is perhaps best exemplified in my disgust with most “it was all a dream” adventures, or adventures that, by fiat, remove consequences. “All the dead PC’s return to life. Yeah!” This adventure isn’t that, but the commonality is, I think, Theater. Let’s say the DM wings it one night because they have no adventure prepared. They make someone stare at the party when they enter the tavern. The guy follows them in and they see him stare at them some more. Nothing is actually going on, the party just catches the guy looking a bit. The party reacts, and the DM follows the natural consequences. This adventure is closer to that setup and you can see me struggling in my review. There is no witch. The phenomena is unexplained. And yet we continue to live our lives and have an adventure, placing meaning. [Life is, of course, without meaning. You can’t give it meaning. You must live it anyway, recognizing the absurdity.] This adventure gets up close to a line I’m uncomfortable with in adventures.

If you can accept the nature of the adventure then this is not a bad adventure. In fact, it’s a pretty decent adventure that could be better with a little work. It’s certainly one of the Best, if you’re not an overly-analyzing git like myself.

Also, Luka tells me that the Funeral Edition has some worksheets that make it easier to run. Luka is smart, so I suspect the new worksheets remove some of my troubles with keeping track of the mechanical systems, etc.

This is $13 at DriveThru. There’s a free version available.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/256916/Witchburner?affiliate_id=1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

What Ho, Frog Demons!

Mon, 02/11/2019 - 12:07
By Chris Kutalik, Luka Rejec Hydra Cooperative Labyrinth Lord Levels 2-4

Weighing in at 112 pages of pure Slavic/Vancian/Moorcockian acid fantasy, What Ho, Frog Demons is the fourth stand-alone, mini-sandbox adventure in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes series. Fever-Dreaming Marlinko was an experiment in reforming the city setting book: sloughing off the tedious bits and cranking up the most adventurable qualities. What Ho, Frog Demons is a similar experiment: what happens when you rev up a regional setting book really high for pure play at the table.

This is a 112 page regional setting, with hex crawl, a small-ish dungeon and a village adventure. Regional, as in it links up the previous three titles in the series with the region surrounding them. It’s at its best when it’s focusing on its core mission of “pure play at the table.” It drifts off in to Isle of the Unknown encounters at points, providing just window dressing instead of interactivity, in contrast to its Pure Play mission statement. It also revels in its text too much, generating some wordiness that detracts from scanability.

When this is good it’s quite good and when it loses focus it drifts off in to focusing on the trees instead of the forest. Great in-voice rumors and maybe a bit light on treasure for gold=xp games, there’s a good focus here on play at the table, as one would hope when the designers state it in the products mission statement. The hireling who eventually steals, the horse buyer who doesn’t really care where the horses come from, a slave trader of dubious quality, a grove of weird fruit that can heal you. The region generally delivers encounters that have some memorable quirk as well as a good degree of interactivity. In many of these cases there’s this Potential Energy thing that I sometimes talk about. A kind of tension inherent in the encounter that can drive to interactivity with the players. They WANT to do something with it. Interact, talk, loot, whatever. That is key to a good adventure and this has that. Usually.

Some drift in to Isle of the Unknown territory in which things simply EXIST, without that energy to drive action. At one point there’s a great bronze arm laying in the countryside with a family of talking badgers living in it. Ok. And? There’s nothing more. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a short two-line description, like this one has, but I’m generally looking for that tension/potential energy in an encounter and this one doesn’t have that. There’s a place for empty rooms in a dungeon and I’m sure a place for a friendly group of talking badgers, but by giving them something they want, ot have, then we prompt a bit more interactivity. The adventure isn’t full of these, most of the encounters ARE interactive, which makes the non-interactive ones stand out more.

Tonally, the adventure stands out also. It drifts in to the silly side of things a bit too readily. I’m a big fan of the Rients Stooopid play style, but I get quite nervous the more silly/stupid elements are introduced. In Actual Play I’ve got little trouble Going There, but my tolerance for it, in written form, is greatly diminished. A little goes a long way when baking it in. There’s some need to maintain the facade of Serious Elf Game or else I tend to lose interest. So, some=ok and there’s a line. Do robo dwarf monsters with chainsaw hands cross the line? How about monsters yelling out that they have a fabulous deal on a timeshare for you? The Hydras have cranked it up to twelve with these when eleven was more my style. Monsters calling out about hidden treasure, etc, in order to lure the party? Check. Monsters offering Bay Lake Tower rental point deals on a timeshare colet? Good concept poorly related, I think. I recall some Level 5 Robin Hood adventures in Dungeon, or some Magical Levant adventures. Turning it up to twelve narrows the use cases and endangers dismissal instead of riffing.

The writing and language used in the encounters revels in itself. Layered, dense in its imagery. And if I’m going to knock Talanian for the readability in his High Gygaxian then I should also knock the Hydras for their layered opium. The writing can reach points where the density fights immediate comprehension. Recall, I want to read this once and then scan the entry while running it at the table. The lushness of the text fights against that in some cases in the exact way that High Gygaxian can.

Cholly the Cursed Halfling is an example of this. Here’s (most) of his entry:

After donning a woefully cursed helmet, this diminutive Black Hobbit began roving the land in search of a place to wreak his darkest fantasies of violence. The awful fetid heart of the Frog Demon Temple seemed like a sound spot to enact such dire plans (plus it got him away from all those irritating Chaos Party membership drives). Rather than attacking on sight, Cholly will wait until PCs are involved in something distracting before sneaking in from the sides and attempting to target the most vulnerable members of the group, either with standard weapons or his four bombs (hand-sized stereotypical black spherical bombs with sizzling fuse).

Cholly wears a gleaming helmet with two grotesquely-oversized horns spiraling upwards. The helmet is actually a particularly annoying minor frog-demon, so reviled in demondom for his frequent and tediously predictable rage-quits, that he has been permanently bound into the item-form known as the Birse-Helm of Mnuch’s Extreme Vexation. The helmet provides infravision out to 60’ while worn, and allows the wearer to deal an additional 1d6 damage on a charge. Unfortunately, it also causes a deep and furious insecurity in its wearer. Any suggestion or attempt to remove the helmet will cause the wearer to respond with a (quite literal) homicidal rage for 1-8 rounds. The helmet may only be removed with Remove Curse or the death of the wearer.

Note the first two sentences in particular, and the second sentence of the second paragraph. Yes, it’s lush and layered and deep. And dances in to excess and backstory … which is NOT “pure play at the table.”

The first adventure, the Frog Demon temple, is advertised a lower-level Tomb of Horrors, and it is. Complete with a statue on a pedestal with a spell on it to make it impossible to lasso, etc, and special giant frogs trained to hide under the water. That sort of thing is absolutely in the vein of a bad Tomb of Horrors adventures. Beets for the Beet God involves a cult takeover of a village/region, etc, and is more open-ended. The Village Generator, Rural Carousing and other info in the appendices are quite nice and accentuate the setting well.

Completionists who own the other three books will want this one. I would not suggest this as the first exposure to the series. Ursine remains a great introduction and Marlinko the best of the four, with Eld being the perfect follow-up to both/either. The rest of us, well, we have hard decisions to make. The book is interesting and creative. Most of the wandering encounters are good and great many of the locales are good also, with the specificity needed to fire the DM’s imagination … if a little muted in total length.

It’s weird. I think the encounters, for their actual length, are not more content than the one or two sentences found in Wilderlands. Or that’s the impression I have anyway. In contrast my memories of the other three books ar that they are more pamphlets, instead of the 112 pages of this, and choked full. A testament, perhaps, to the overall quality of those other three.

It’s lush. It’s interesting. And it strays in to ‘12’ territory where ‘11’ would have done.

This is available for $12 at DriveThru. The preview shows you good rumor table and then shows you the Weighty Conversations rumor table, with lengthier descriptions. The last page shows two hexes. The first is irrelevant, since its the Misty Isles. The second though is a decent enough example of what a hex contains in What Ho.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/257155/What-Ho-Frog-Demons?affiliate_id=1892600

I spell checked this one, but, I refuse to type “in to” as “into.” It found nothing else. So … “tongue stuck out.”

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Death in the Wood

Sat, 02/09/2019 - 12:17
by Jonathan Garland Self Published 5e Level 1

The Bell Wood has always been rumored to be a dangerous place, full of strange creatures and odd happenings. Timber from the wood is highly sought after for its reputed magical properties, so brave foresters sometimes dare the wood to harvest trees to finance their futures. But this time, people are dying. Loggers are vanishing, their mutilated bodies recovered from the undergrowth hours or days later. What has changed in the wood? Can anyone solve the mystery? And can they survive the investigation?

This twelve page adventure has the party looking for a womans missing lumberjack boyfriend while avoiding a cursed wood that is killing people. Not exactly a railroad, not exactly terse, both an outline and prescriptive. It’s a mass of contradictions and I suspect that, with a little work, the style it uses would be ok. If you think a four-hour adventure should be contained in four pages. Still, not odious, which is a compliment.

Let us imagine a barren desert with no features at all. It is rocky and hard to walk across. Right down the middle of it is a narrow path clear of rocks, easy to walk on, with water fountains every 3 miles. Do you have free will in this situation? If I write an adventure that does not force you to take the path, but doesn’t really support you in taking another path and make the easy path REALLY obvious, then what? That’s what this adventure is.

Show up in town. See a woman in a bar pissed off that he boyfriend is still missing after two months and learn of a series of murders in the woods. Then a barfight breaks out with lumberjacks, the guard shows up and arrests the party. Yeah, ok, you MIGHT be able to avoid the fight, but its supposed to happen. And the adventure specifically points out you could escape arrest, and to let the party if they do. (Imagine, having to write those words in an adventure, What a World! What a World!)

This thing telegraphs in every sense of the word except actually handing the party a piece of paper saying “MANFRED DID IT.” In the first place, the bar, you learn he used to date the Erin, the woman with the missing boyfriend. And in the second place, the jail, you learn he has a history of violence. He proudly shows you his axe with a notch in it (that later matches the notch in the boyfriends skull.) A sprite in the woods says “You big people always killing each other.” This is a railroad in every sense of the word even if it doesn’t use DM Fiat to keep things on track. Or, maybe, it’s so simplistic to be confused with one? Anyway.

It features trig blights and Galafanakis evil tree thing. What’s up with this shit? It seems half the 5e adventures I see have them in it? Are they the new kobolds?

“You killed someone last night” says the sheriff “Deaths, even in self-defence, are unacceptable. Get out of town.” Yeah? How about I stab you in throat 157 times? Seriously? We’re supposed to stand there and get slaughtered? Oh, they weren’t going to kill us? You can see the future now? You look like the sheriff and not a mother fucking sorcorer, sorry to mistake you. You know, it occurs to me that I may have a problem with authority figures in elf games.  Or, as I would say “so called authority figures.”

There’s long read-aloud at the beginning of each location and you would not be wrong if you made comparisons to a scene-based adventure format. The read-aloud tends to be describing a social interaction though, as if you just walked up on something happening. It’s also pretty well written, which I don’t think I’ve said more than three or four times?  It does a good job of communicating the social vibe going on. It’s still too long and the players are almost certainly going to be playing with their phones, but it’s not the overwritten fantasy drivil that is present in most read aloud. What’s that thing they say about character-driven movies?

I could also point out that the loggers in camp seem willing to talk to the party even if the party killed a few of them in the bar … at least I don’t thin I saw a few words of warning otherwise. It also commits the sin of “throw a few more blights at the party if they try to take more than a short rest.” Uh, No. We don’t play adversarially in D&D and the DM isn’t telling a story. Who cares if they rest?

I’m coming off negative here, but I want to mention more than a couple of posativies. It IS based around the relationships of people, which is a good thing, and relatable. Simplistic, but still, it comes through well. Information tat tha party can learn is relayed in bullet points so it’s easy to find. Further, the locations/scenes are set up in a way that adds just a little more. In the section on the logging camp it notes that the loggers, wagon driver, or cook knows the following … That’s the first time the cook and wagon driver are mentioned. It’s not much, but it adds just a little more detail to the camp other than “just loggers” and that’s the sort of thing a DM’s brain need to remind them to paint a full picture instead of a boring one. It does this in multiple scenes/locations.

This thing is simplistic but easy to follow for the most part. (There is some “paragraph” information presented that could be organized better.) It’s based around people, the bullets convey information well. It’s not really interactive, in any sense other than “talk to people a lot” and seems to rely on the “opening fight” crap advice that should have never been published. But, I would not stab my eyes out if handed this and asked to run it. High praise! (For new readers, yes, that actually IS high praise.)

I don’t know about the read aloud. Some of it is ok here AND its longer than it should be. Too bad. Yeah, I know you have to make things REALLY obvious in investigations, but, man, this is WAY obvious. From the first location/scene.

This is Pay What You Want at DMSguild with a suggested price of … $0! People who pay $0 are jerks, even if that is the suggested price. Give the dude a dollar, at least!

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/195963/Death-in-the-Wood

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Judgement of Rad

Wed, 02/06/2019 - 12:17
Emanuele Betti Self-Published Basic D&D Levels 3-5

Things not always go the way they are supposed to. It’s not uncommon that an adventure, especially in a long campaign, can be greatly derailed due to a player who has got no experience, does not think an action enough or just screws things up for the fun of it. Whenever this kind of things happen, the Master must find a way to fix the situation and give the characters a way out of their trouble, and a second chance to succeed.

This eighteen page adventure details a twenty room dungeon and is to be used at some point in the game when your characters are jailed. Decent interactivity in the dungeon is marred by bad read-aloud and writing style issues. Good concept poorly executed.

This is an english as a second language adventure, from the Italian I believe. There are some grammar and wording issues in it, but all of my commentary disregards this. The issues are not with the translation, I think.

I have a soft spot for “special use” adventure. Use this adventure when someone dies, or use this one when someone is in jail, like this adventure. Yeah, there are some level variability issues, but I think the concepts they present are an interesting genre of adventure that is not well explored. You pull this one out when the party is in jail for a serious offense.

The conceit is that there’s a legal loophole: the party can submit themselves to the Judgement of Rad. The relatives of the victims get to set a quest and the party, given one light source and one normal weapon each, must complete the quest. If they succeed then Rad has clearly indicated that the parties motives were pure. If they fail, well, they were just gonna be killed anyway so no great loss. In this instance the relatives send the party down to a dungeon/well that has a great jewel, to be obtained for the relatives, that will likely kill the party anyway, so a win-win for the kinfolk.

The dungeon proper has a cursed monster, with the (cursed) jewel in its chest that moves around in a preset course, it changing rooms when the party does, as a kind of monster hunt gimmick. It’s a decent idea, and, maybe could have been supported a bit better by noting its path on the map instead of in text in the adventure. You know how I love to leverage a map to overload information for the DM.

The undead in the dungeon, previously killed by the monster/jewel, try to rip the hearts out of characters and eat it when they down a party member, since they had their own hearts done so. That’s a good detail. Breaking up the “i hit you/you hit me” stuff in D&D is almost always a good thing and I wish more adventures would give their monsters a little more character.

The rooms, proper, have some decent interactivity. There’s a crude shrine that will summon a ghost if you pray at it. Some toads hide under a bridge, and there’s a dead body under the water you can dive for … with hidden loot! I don’t talk about it much, but this sort of interactivity is, I think, what makes a good D&D adventure good. The play athe table stuff and the evocative environments are key components that, for me, must each not suck too much. If they are ok, or good, then the D&D adventure can go forward. But the interactivity of the adventure is what’s going to turn a middling adventure in to a great one, providing elements for the party to interact with.

This adventure pays little attention to those first two points. There are multiple points in the adventure with page long read-alouds. That’s hard to handle. Room that say things like “The room seems empty” in the read aloud … and then the DM notes tells us it’s empty. Things should never SEEM or APPEAR TO BE, they just are. Those weasel words just pad out an adventure. In places the read-aloud jumps the gun. It tells you almost everything you need to know about the room. The body is dried out, its missing its heart, etc, etc. The read aloud, if used, should be the initial impression. When the players go examine the thing THEN the DM can follow up with “the body is dried out” or “the heart is missing.” This back and forth between the party and the DM is a critical part of the D&D experience and when you put everything in the read-aloud you negate that core experience. Let the players DO something. Again, interactivity, back and forth between the players and the DM.

The entire preamble is about the prison and justice system. This is mostly specific to Galantri and is the usual “held in lead lined cells” sort of thing. Just removing it all would have been better. It also adds two other prisoners to the party … for seemingly no reason. I thought they would betray the party, but, no, in a refreshing change of pace they are just NPC’s. I have NO idea why they are there … although I do admit a couple of desperate prisoners trying to glomp on to the parties potential release is a nice effect. They just need a little more personality.

The entire writing style could use more whitespace formatting, bullets, etc, to make wading through the DM text easier. As is, it’s just not worth it to me to wade through the text to get the adventure out of it.

This is free on Pandius. And thanks to Dreams/Mythic Fantasy for turning me on to the Pandius site!

http://pandius.com/AX01_The_Judgement_of_Rad.pdf

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) The Shadow over Dunsmore Point

Sat, 02/02/2019 - 12:19
By John R. Davis Self Published 5e Level 1

Well, fuck me. I just bought and reviewed Moans of the Dead again. And almost bought Fungus Forest again. Looks like something is up at DriveThru.

This 68 page adventure is more of a small regional setting/sandbox than the typical 5e fare. Centered around a village, there are a variety of plots and several dungeon locations to explore. This is a notch above the usual fare, being crafted and more open-ended than I used to seeing in 5e adventures. That’s a pleasant surprise, and I was going through it I found myself rooting for it. Alas, the issues with organization, summaries, and wall of text are too much more me to even have No Regerts

Pretext pretext pretext, the characters are in a village. Therein they learn about several things going on, maybe get asked to do a few things, and the longer they stay the more happens. This is both because of the timeline of events and the picking up of more rumors, etc. Pretext pretext pretext, relatives, and the usual assortment of crappy hooks. But … got a military or mason background? You’ve been tasked with surveying the old lighthouse by some officials and picking up whatever supplies are left. Nice! The regional government actually doing something with the tax dollars for once!  And maybe it gives the party a little authority also … that hook has legs!

It’s a sandbox, just a village with several locations around it that the players will learn of, and several plots to uncover as they learn more about the life and history of the village. There’s a short little timeline to note events that may happen and a little DM checklist to note all of the various interesting things that the party could learn about / get wrapped up in. Like … 18 different things! Explore the Ruined Fort. Explore the town and notice that there are a lot of ‘twins.’ And so on. The timeline is good. The DM overview list is a good idea. The entire sandbox thing it’s got going on is GREAT. Some of the NPC’s are described in like, three words each, attributes they have like  young, full of enthusiasm, inexperienced, and so on. It tries to use bolding and bullet points in places and, generally, rooms/descriptions don’t overstay their welcome.

So, it’s trying. And it’s trying REAL hard. It knows what it SHOULD do. It just can’t figure out how to do it.

There’s a short table that tells us how many residents, workers, and adults are in each location in the village. Ok …. Is that relevant, beyond mere trivia? So while the idea of presenting the information in a table is great, it’s not really relevant to the adventure to have it at all.

The map of the village is numbered. But, in my experience, that’s not how PC’s explore a village. They don’t go up to a building and say “ok, what’s next door to this building?” They say things like “I want to find the inn”, or the tailor, or the general store, or whatever. But the village buildings are numbered. You have to go digging though the text to find the [general store] and then find the number and then go look at the map.

With a few notable exceptions (the inn, I’m looking at you) the village locations are pretty focused. Just what you need to know to run it and just what relevant to the adventure at hand with little to no trivia. But … inexplicably there’s read aloud for each location. Dry, boring, read aloud that doesn’t really add anything to the adventure. I guess the designer thought they needed read aloud for each?

The timeline, and indeed much of the text, doesn’t cross reference information. So that little DM checklist I mentioned? It doesn’t really point the DM to any place to learn more about the twin situation. Or the page number of the old fort. Or lighthouse. You have to go digging through the text again. If you reference something then provide a number or page cross-reference so the DM can orient themselves.

And this brings up the overall sitch. I’m not really sure what is going on in the village. All of those 18 things … I’m not sure how they work together (or don’t.) There’s no real overview or summary. That DM checklist could have done the heavy lifting if it had pointed the DM to places to learn more. Instead you have to pretty much read and re-read the adventure until you’re as familiar as the designer. Not cool.

Some information is provided in terse bullet form. Other places the bullets are long. Other places REALLY needed to be broken up in to bullets. The initial caravan trip in to town, wna dhwt athe PC”s know, is a great example of this. Everything is buried in various paragraphs. If it had been bulleted out it would have been easier to scan and find, especially in relation to PC inquiries.

Which brings me, again, to the lack of cross-reference. The Reeve says something to the effect, at one point “i don’t know, I wasn’t reeve then.” This begs the question: who was Reeve so we can go annoy them? Nope, nothing provided for the DM, even though this is the most natural follow up question of all.

Some of the maps are small and hard to read. The read-aloud, besides being generic bad, does things like “The stonework looks recently damaged.” No! No! No! That’s not something you tell the party when the walk in the room. That’s something you tell them when they investigate. The back and forth between DM and PC is a key part of D&D, the interactivity. By saying things like “You look under the table and see a box” in the read-aloud you are taking that away, and this adventure does that repeatedly.

The wanderers do things. It’s a real sandbox location. It tries, hard. It doesn’t commit the sins that most 5e adventure do. But, it’s like the designer hasn’t seen these writing techniques in practice, or is somehow focused on the wrong things. The mere fact that it’s a non-trivial sandbox, for 5e, get’s it a long way up the rankings, in my books, but I just can’t bring myself to push it over the edge in to Regerts. The lack of summary/orientations, and a slipping in to a kind of wall of text writing style obfuscates the adventure enough that it makes be not WANT to read it. And that makes me a little sad because I can tell there’s something here.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is 15 pages, although it doesn’t really show you the heart of the adventure, only the (mostly) useless preamble stuff. The lower left side of page ten has the caravan intro, and you can see how it could be better organized as bullets, etc. Page eleven has the timeline, and you can see how cross-references to pages would have helped immensely in following things. Thirteen is the village map .. needing some named in addition to numbers, maybe? Fourteen are some in-voice rumors that are pretty good, while the last page, fifteen, has a good example of bulleted information on the right and left columns, including that DM Overview that is SORELY in need of cross-references to solve the summary/orientation/overview issue.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/264028/The-Shadow-Over-Dunsmore-Point?affiliate_id=162942

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Keep of the Broken Saint

Wed, 01/30/2019 - 12:15
By WR Beatty
Rosethrone Publishing
Swords & Wizardry Levels
8-10

Only vague rumors speak of the ancient Keep of the Broken Saint. Divination fails to reveal anything useful, prayers and powerful magics continue to falter. Yet the rumors insist the place is real and that the Broken Saint has the keys to immortality. Even if the shadows of rumors that make their rounds are not true, surely a ruin that has been lost for generations holds secrets and treasures.

This forty page adventure has about sixty rooms in a keep and dungeon. It has a certain feel, like that of a pseudo-historical saint magical resting place? A non-simulationist version of that, anyway, which is a good thing. Room after room delivers the interactivity. It still needs help in the comprehension category, using some passive voice and layout/writing decisions that do not always lead to good results.

The vibe here is interesting. You know how harn has this kind of realistic vibe thing going on? Let’s start with that. Then add in to it a Saint. Let’s also add the Saints ruined keep. Now, turn the keep in to a mythic place that goes beyond Harn, turning each room in to more of a traditional “fantasy things actually happen”  place that Harn doesn’t usually have … but still root it in this kind of pseudo-historical draping, without it fetishizing simulationast or history. That’s this. A ruined multi-level keep of a saint with a couple of tower outbuildings and dungeon levels. With “realistic” historical keep maps that still remember they are used for D&D. Harn and/or Ars Magica, but with actual stuff going on in each room, and thus firmly interactive D&D.

Level 8-10 in S&W is pretty kick ass, and about as close to high level play as I’ve seen. The adventure doesn’t gimp the characters and allows them to use their powers. The various things in the keep (a lot of undead, it’s a broken saint after all) have a decent “talk to the guy in the underworld” kind of thing going on where they interact with you. Bow to you. Ask you questions to pass. Defer to characters in certain conditions. Can get laid to rest and/or not. To this we add some bird people, roosting in historical nesting ground and some enemies of theirs that have taken over.

I’ve mentioned some of the interactivity, undead to question and the bird people and other things you can talk to. There’s also lamps to light, chains to break, fountains to drink from, and so on. Interactivity, I think, is the third leg to a D&D adventure being “good”, once you get past scannable and evocative environments. IE: Can I find the information I need, is the place described well, and is there something to do?

Wanderers are doing things. There’s a monster summary sheet. There are some cross-references. Some of the magical items are new. The hooks are not throwaways. It’s all got some decent bones behind it.

I can take exception to a few things. First, the monsters are not really described. One area has “4 Host of the Broken Saint Archers.” There are stats, in the summary sheet, but no real description. I have no idea what it is, or any of the other stuff, for that matter. There are 46 different monsters on that summary sheet. I suspect that some simplification would have helped a bit and allowed for some extra space to describe a few of them in an appendix.

The formatting does good things in places. Large black banned herald the arrival of a new room, with a place name, so the section breaks are easy to find. There’s lots of white space in rooms. Maybe too much. They come off a bit … large? The information tends to be spread out. The first paragraph deals with things in the first thing, the second with the second thing and so on. This causes you to have to paragraph jump, taking the first line from each, when looking at a new encounter the party has. The writing, proper, isn’t exactly prescriptive, but it tends in that direction, which causes things to be a bit more lengthy than they could be. Together this all causes the rooms to be a little more confusing/wall of text/spread out/harder to grok then I think they could be. It’s not terrible, but it’s not exactly “easy.”

Maybe a little bit more of an overview is needed as well. At level 8-10 the party can command some pretty decent spells for finding things. “Where’s the broken saint” and “where that immortality staff”, and things like that, could use a bit of help in the text to help facilitate.

But, all in all, GREAT mythic vibe to the place. I’m not sure the treasure is all there for some levels 8-10 peeps, but fuck it, it’s a nice adventure.

This is $5 at DriveThru. Page four and five of the preview has a look in to the hooks, while page six goes over a few higher-level ideas/effects of the Broken Saint proper. Both are nice. The last two pages show the first six encounters. Note the disconnected paragraphs in room five and the more “movie watching” encounter in room six. Room two and three show a good example of both interactivity and the more … expansive layout/writing style that I think could be tightened up.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/256798/The-Keep-of-the-Broken-Saint?affiliate_id=162942

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon of Crows 2 – Avatar of Yog Sutekhis

Mon, 01/28/2019 - 12:12
By Daniel J. Bishop Crowking Press Labyrinth Lord Levels 2-3?

“This is the second installment of the Dungeon of Crows. This area includes some nods to HP Lovecraft, a group of brigands, and some other fun stuff. It is fewer areas than the first (29-52), but has a higher page count because the areas take more write-up.”

This is the second installment of a megadungeon … and the project stopped at this “level.” Here’s the link to the first review; the issues and features are essentially the same. There’s about 25 rooms in this installment.

Dungeon of Crows – The First 28 Rooms

So, really overwritten, way too much text for each room. Same read-aloud issues with a focus on dimensions, etc. And still the same great interactivity/depth to each room.

But first, a note about room relationships.

This adventure has several places where details in a room are important to know about BEFORE someone reaches the room. One room notes that the corridor leading up to this has blackened bones in it. Another notes sentries that should be visible from the hallway/approach, or light sources that should be visible. Another notes that the trogs in the room investigate noises in a nearby room … that comes before the trog room. In each of these cases there are details that the DM need to know BEFORE the party reaches the room. There are several way to accomplish this. In the “room before the trogs” you could put a note, stating that the trogs are alerted, etc. You could note light effects on the map, or sentry locations, etc. Or note in the room before it that you see light ot a sentry or something. I’m a big fan of map detail for hints/clues to the DM, but there are lots of techniques. But you need to do SOMETHING. “Oh, yeah, there a massively loud rock concert going on” is not something you want to tell the players for the room with the connecting door.

And, a note about grouping areas. This installment starts with a couple of rooms left over form the goblin dungeon in the first installment. It’s separate from the rest of the area discussed in this level. It really would have been better to keep those in the first installment. As is, they are clearly out of place, thematically AND in relation to the other rooms on the map.

On to the good.

It still does a decent job cross-referencing rooms from other rooms, notable examples excepted. But, as a main focus, it feels like each room was really thought about and there’s some great interactivity in the rooms. In rooms near the stairs to Level two there are notes that wanderer encounters have a chance of coming from that table instead of the Level one table. The designer looked at the map and that made sense so they put it in. There’s another room with some methane gas … and your torches/flames turn blue when you enter it. Little hints of what’s to come for those paying attention. A pit has a flooded bottom, it can extinguish your lights like torches and lanterns … and has an entrance to sublevel 1a (not included.) Wanna worship at the evil alter instead of tearing it up? There’s a little sidebar about the players becoming worshippers! It also does a great job with masses of enemies. There’s a room full of spiders. 38 of them, but only a 2 in 6 chance they will come down from their webs and attack … but they go in to a feeding frenzy if someone is bit and all 38 mob someone. Great!

So, yes, it does have fourteen line empty room descriptions. If this could be pruned WAY back, so it was easy to use at the table, it would be a great little adventure. As is, amnay of the encounters are great, full of ideas and interactivity and thoughtfulness that doesn’t seem generic.

This is Pay What You Want with a suggested price of $2 at DriveThru. The preview is only one page, the cover, and therefore obviously shows you nothing of what you’re buying.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/135230/The-Dungeon-of-Crows-2–Avatar-of-Yog-Sutekhis?affiliate_id=162942

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Temple of the Opal Goddess

Sat, 01/26/2019 - 12:18
By Micah Watt
Pyromaniac Press
5e
Levels 5-8

A noble scion and his retinue from Baldur’s Gate left on an adventure amid much fanfare. That was two weeks ago. Rumours in the taverns suggest only a single soldier returned, bearing grievous wounds and a ransom demand. Is this a simple case of misadventure, or are darker conspiracies afoot? Can you locate and rescue the nobleman, or will you fall victim to the malevolent powers stirring deep within the Temple of the Opal Goddess?

This 44 page adventure contains 36 rooms spread out over about 25 pages. A small multi-level temple, with orcs upstairs and weird shit down, it is a rescue mission that clumsy pushes to investigate beyond the rescue. It has a couple of nice features, like an order of battle and thing-in-a-well, but is a awash with text and formatting issues that make it unbearably. Compared to the usual 5e fare: it’s better than most of the dreck and might be ok if it were cleaned up.

Some nobleman on an archeology expedition gets captured by orcs and you’re offered 1000gp to rescue him, and his retainers if they are convenient. I’m not big on “mission” hooks, but this one does bring a little more. The orcs have sent a ransom note, demanding 10,000gp and 100 battleaxes, the little bit extra about paying for the retainers return and orc ear bounties … not magnificent but better than the usual “if  you want to play D&D tonight then do it” that passes for a hook in most adventures. I will say though that a bit of the hook is buried in the background text. The TWO PAGES of background text. I don’t read background text over about one paragraph. I don’t care about your rich detailed tapestry of a backstory. I’m interested in running an adventure tonight. Include if it you must but it’s a failing to force the reading of the backstory. The rest of the adventure should stand alone, without NEEDING to reference the backstory. The hook almost does this. There’s enough that you could probably wing it, but it would have been nice for it to be a bit more explicit. “Antivar’s expedition was well known … “ well, ok, from that I can deduce it is the usual archeology nonsense.

It claims to be a dungeoncrawl but is actually a base assault/rescue, and I wish it would have left out the “dungeonrawl” part on the blurb; one of my MAJOR issues is with failed expectations. Butm as a base assault, it does an ok job. There’s a little section of “what you can see from a distance”, something that a lot of adventures with an outdoor element leave out. The temple/base, proper, has multiple entrances to scout out. There’s a giant bell on top, obvious to all. These are the elements that can help bring a game to life. The party will come up with some plan, using a side entrance, silencing the bell, etc … and then they will execute it and it will go to shit. Fun will then ensue. Tension. Drama. Things going to hell. That’s a major part of D&D and the base assault element in this adventure, including a section on how the orcs react, is built to help encourage this. It’s got all the elements and pretty much does them right. A few more words about “reaching the bell “or reactions to noise in the next room, etc, might have been in order, but it does actually know what it needs to do to enable this style of play and for the most part does it.

The wanderers are good, if long, since they are doing something while out wandering, and some of the weird encounters on the dungeon level of the temple are good, like a snake that lives in a well, half-asleep, that you can wake up. This is good … but better if the party KNOWS there’s a snake in the well that can wake up. Tension. Lareth the Beautiful syndrome. Anticipation. For that to work you gotta know its there, Lareth.

Also, there’s an awakened peach tree in the wanderer list. Nice. He’ll give you a peach if you are nice to him. It’s a normal peach. But … what if it were a GREAT peach? Like +2  stat, permanent, or 5d6 healing or something. Think of all the ripe, delicious, mouth-watering opportunities for roleplaying that would bring to life …

It has some basic formatting issues. First, it uses italics in the read aloud. Bad. Wrong. Italics is hard to read in long patches, like paragraph long read-aloud. It tries, in places, to bold enemies on the DM text of rooms but that also largely fails. The font used doesn’t seem to have that much of a difference between bold and not-bold, and thus the bolding does not stick out as well as it should. Those are largely simplistic issues, though.

It’s verbose. WAY verbose. The usual culprits: flowery text and things relevant to the adventure. Room 1, a bridge over a moat to the temple, had read aloud ending with “You can hear the lapping of the lake …” NO KISSING! Wait, no, I mean, the urge to include this stuff must be fought. Sometimes people confuse this and think I’m asking for facts only. No, there’s a place on the spectrum between facts and flowery and that’s where text should hit. It needs to be enough to inspire the DM, put an image in their head, without engaging in bad WOTC novel writing techniques. Besides, I’m sure the designer knew about the two-sentence read-aloud rule, so I’m curious why they included more? Oh, what? You mean they were unaware of the article WOTC wrote on how people don’t listen to read-aloud after two-three sentences? Hmmm…

Likewise, the DM text. Column long rooms. Full of things that are useless. Recall ye olde bridge-e room?  The first two sentences of the DM text are “The bridge is exactly what is seems. It was crafted in ancient times and remains sturdy to this day.” Taken to the logical extreme, would you expect to include those two sentences, it is exactly what it appears to be and this is why”, in your description of every object in the adventure? No, obviously not. Then why do it here? This is useless padding of the text. More is not more. More is less. You see, while running the game I, the DM, have to read this room in about half a second and communicate to the players what they see, what it going on, etc. All of the nonsense irrelevant stuff included slows me down and keeps me from finding the information I need. DM text needs to be scannable and somewhat evocative. I might say that the description needs to tend towards evocative more than facts and the DM text needs to tend more towards facts instead of evocative, but neither to an extreme. (And, in fact, it may be an academic difference for most designers. Just pulling back from their extreme verbosity/facts/novelist stuff may be enough to salvage most adventures, since minimalism, the other bad extreme, is seldom seen these days.)

Room 21, first line of DM text: “This exit predates the occupying orcs, and while Velkesh wanted
this security threat walled up, Suthrain talked Grushnak into leaving it as an option (ostensibly for his favoured consort.”

Room 22, first line of DM text: “This is the quintessential ‘savage tribe king’ chamber, and while
Grushnak actually enjoys it, it is as much a work of appearance and perception as personal taste.”

These add nothing to the adventure. The adventure is not supposed to paint a rich tapestry. It’s supposed to be a piece technical writing meant to help the DM run it at the table. And not in some abstract more is more way. Technical writing first and THEN make the first part of each encounter evocative, before shifting to more mundane matters, like the DM text.

Courtney recently did a blog post over at Hack & Slash which talks a little about this sort of thing, in comparison to G1. I like G1, I think it may be the best of the original publishing time period. I’m not encouraging people to write like G1, while scannable and “inline adventure” it also makes you work too hard for Evocative. It’s 2019. We can do better than G1 while learning from what G1 did well. Learn the principles that Courtney is talking about rather than taking away that “the adventure must be like G1.”

http://hackslashmaster.blogspot.com/2019/01/on-gygax-design-iv.html

This is $3 at DMSGuild. The preview is 11 pages. Pages 4,5 show you the hook. I encourage you to just read it and see if you could start the adventure from it. Maybe. Pages 7 and 8 show you the wanderers and foreshadow a bit, the text length issues to come. The last two pages show the approach/order of battle stuff, as well as the room one Bridge encounter I talked about. Note the text length, and how it could be much shorter and scannable.

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/217584/Temple-of-the-Opal-Goddess?affiliate_id=162942?

(Also, S3 is my nostalgic favorite. I’m flying home for a week, so, with luck, I’m at Winter War RIGHT NOW playing it.)

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon of Crows – The First 28 Rooms

Wed, 01/23/2019 - 07:13
by Daniel J Bishop
Crowking Press
Labyrinth Lord
Level 1

Within you will find what remains of the Skullheap Goblins, a few vermin known and surprising, a mysterious rhizomatic growth, and the blue and red goop PCs will surely interact with.

This adventure describes the first 28 rooms of 170 rooms on the first level of a megadungeon. Column long, or longer room descriptions, One and two paragraph read-alouds … There’s something here, but you gotta fight for your right to party. Maybe just try the next house over where you have to struggle much less?

I was super excited when this popped up on Jeremy’s OSRNEWS blog. A megadungeon that I missed! I got over my excitement fast. Like, “room 1” fast. Jeremy pointed out that megadungeon plans frequently fizzle, and I would agree with him as to a reason when looking at this … the text is LONG. That’s gotta be burden.

There’s a great map here, hand drawn, with 186 or so encounters on that TINY squared graph paper. It looks like there might be another level under this one. This adventure describes the first 28 rooms on that map. The map alone is worth the $2 PWYW. (Hey, pay the suggested price you cheap asses! Who the fuck pays nothing? View the suggestion as the floor, not the ceiling! Why are you making these designers lives harder?)

There’s an adventure here. The first 28 rooms have an old goblin tribe, now massacred, so the rooms are full of bodies and blood and spooky things. It keeps up the tradition of the first-ish part of a megadungeon having this vibe of ruination and desolation. [Speaking of Desolation: Hobbit cartoon Smaug – the platonic dragon?] I like the encounters, at their core. The room ideas are good ones. Hints of what took place for the players to piece together … players LUV that shit. Strong vermin infestations with a skeleton thrown in. There’s even a hint in one place to other encounters and areas of the dungeon. Clues and foreshadowing are good, they build anticipation and mystery.

But, man, the thing is so completely overwritten that it’s no wonder the project fizzled out. The read-aloud is at least a long paragraph per room, and sometimes more than one(!) The DM notes fill out a column of text, or more. The usual suspects are at play. Room dimensions. Text telling you how you feel. History lessons in rooms things of no import to the NOW. Stuff that should be follow-up embedded in the read-aloud. In the throne room we’re told, in the read aloud, that the skeleton of the goblin chief “He was as big as a human.” That is absolutely a detail for the DM notes, not the read-aloud. This is a game of interactivity between the players and DM. When they go over and look at the skeleton on the throne THEN you tell them he was as big as a human. You reward curiosity and interactivity. This writing comes off as flowery.

There’s good and bad detail. Take, for example, this description of a treasure: “Within this hidden niche is a silver necklace upon which green beryl gems are strung, the whole worth 1,500 gp, and known as the Necklace of Gahwynna, for it was made by the dwarves of the Grey Hills for the bride of the Lost Lord of the Hopmarch some 250 years ago.” Take a moment and ask yourself why the above detail is good. Really consider the issue. No, really, do it. I’ll wait for you.

The treasure is 1500gp, a not insubstantial sum. Some PC is gonna wear that necklace, or sell it. Thus the treasure is, essentially, serving the same purpose as a treasure map. It’s a hook to more adventure. It can cause a complication in another game. Someone notices, knows the history, turns in the party, or it gets them in good with a noble, or the dwarves. The necklace detail serves to expand play and interactivity. That stands in contrast to useless detail about the past which serves no purpose other than paint a rich picture of history. Perfect. That goes in the writer’s guide to your campaign, but not in the adventure.

This is Pay What You Want, with a suggested price of $2, at DriveThru. The full size preview is 404’ing out, but the flash preview gives you a good idea of the map. Like I said, the $2 is worth it just for that.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/133541/The-Dungeon-of-Crows–First-28-Rooms?affiliate_id=162942

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dragonsfoot #24 – The Ruins of the River Gate

Mon, 01/21/2019 - 09:17

Andrew Hamilton Dragonsfoot AD&D/OSRIC Levels 3-6

This is one adventure in the latest issue, #24, of Footprints, released by the Dragonsfoot community.

This is a nine page adventure with about 43 rooms over several smaller levels. Featuring the ruins of some towers next to a river, and the dungeons underneath, it does a good job actually feeling like a ruin. Workmanlike, its writing could be more evocative and it relies a bit too much on history and explaining, but still manages to present a relatively terse and scannable room descriptions.

This does a good job feeling like ruins. Vermin, ooze, rubble. There’s a (sery simple) ruined tower on each shore, each with a cellar underneath and then a hidden dungeon level that connects the two. Much in the same way the gatehouse in Stonehell or some of the ruin in MERP felt, this does a good job conveying a ruined feeling.

The writing is serviceable. Note that I find about 70%-80% of adventures NOT serviceable, so,  Good Job! It does a decent job using whitespace, bolding and formatting to call attention to and separate information chunks. This, combined with a writing style that is on the terser side of the house, make the adventure easy to scan and therefore use at the table. You can FIND things.

It engages in some activities that makes sense. Destroy the evil mural or defile the evil alter and gain some XP. There are game world meme’s that make sense and this is one of them.  It also does a decent job with some of the wanderers. A grey ooze wanders one level, and rather than a traditional table you roll to see if it’s in the room you just entered. Likewise one partially flooded level has giant leeches in it and the wanderer check determines if one has found you. It makes sense, and both contribute to the ruin-like vibe of the place. The rumors are also a cut above normal. They have a little context in them, and are tied in to the place in a way that makes them feel natural. Not quite in voice (Boo! Boo I say Sir!) they still are a little bit more interesting than the usual and show some work has been put in to them.

Also, I’m never satisfied, so now is the time on Sprockets when I pick it apart.

There’s a host of small issues. It might just be my eyes this morning, but the maps seem blurry, maybe made worse by their small size. Also, in quite an annoying fashion, DOWN stairs are noted on the map but not the up stairs. Yes, I think it’s always the first roo on that level that has the stairs, but it’s still a interesting choice to not put it on the map. The Leech wanderers turn up on a 1 in 20 checked each turn. My, that’s a lot of rolling! I wonder why this was chosen over a 1 in 10 every two turns? IN the past frequent wanderer rolling has seemed fiddly and cumbersome to me. I think “every turn” also paradoxically, is LESS interesting than every two turns. Every 2 feels like the party pushing their luck to stay inside, while every turn becomes routine, maybe?

The text chooses to engage in some history and justifying, which stands out because of the otherwise terse nature. I stuck some example down at the end of this review. These add little to nothing to the adventure.

The room with the big baddie and his minions is also interesting. It states that he goes to investigate disturbances on the level. I might have instead placed that text as a kind of preamble to the level, or in the first room, so the DM was sure to see it immediately.

I’d like to focus on two things though. First, the order that information appears. One room in particular made me think of this. It’s ruined, a little flooded. “Olive slime has established itself here. Looking like scum on the water …” This appears a few sentences in to the description. In cases like this I much prefer to see a general description of the room, including scum on the water, up high/first in the room description, and then following that a little blurb about the scum actually being two patches of Olive slime. This organizes the information better for the DM during play.

Second, and my major issue, is the workmanlike descriptions, which I’m using a little negatively here to describe a lack of evocative descriptions. Room 33 is the evil chapel and room 34 a throne room, and yet both have very little in the way of description other than the room title. A profane alter with 3’ of water in the room. The throne room is a little better with a water logged and rotting throne sitting on a dias, painted gold. Profane is a conclusion; the designer should show, not tell, something that makes the DM/players think “wow, that’s profane!” It is this lack of evocative descriptions that really keeps my opinion of this restrained. Again, evocative descriptions don’t have to be long, just a few words or a sentence that paints a picture for the DM.

The Footprints magazine is free, at Dragonsfoot:

https://www.dragonsfoot.org/ft/

“There is nothing of value here, adventurers having searched the wreckage and carried off every copper piece long ago.”

Hidden by a bandit that laired here a few years back,

8. Empty Room
This room is completely empty.

PCs may be alarmed by the presence of the fungi, but it is normal, harmless, and serves as food for rats.

The Lord of the River Gate used to sit in audience here, pronouncing sentences on captives.

Rats and other vermin got to the supplies that were stored here centuries ago.

The water in this room (3’ deep) is inhabited by an evil spirit: a young woman that was hiding when the elementals flooded the dungeon. Once a plaything of the Lord of the River Gate, she now manifests as a water weird and exacts vengeance upon any living creature that chances upon the room.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Quest for the Demon Slayer

Sat, 01/19/2019 - 19:17
by Ed Shatto Self Published 5e Levels 3-5

For levels 3-5. This is the first of four modules in a series. In this module we learn of an impending demon war, and go in search of a magical sword. Full of battles, riddles and puzzles.

Hey, it’s Saturday, that means non-OSR stuff, in general. I’m going to try something new and repeat myself more/rehash old dead topics, since they will be less familiar to the 5e crowd. We’ll see how long this lasts.

This 31 page adventure features a twenty room nearly entirely “text/challenge” dungeon. It is, essentially, just a series of linear combats interspaced with linear riddles. I’m at a loss to find something positive to say. I guess … it’s coherent?

We start with a two page backstory. Yes, I’m kinder about those things these days (unless important things are in it) but in this case it’s a taste of what’s to come. The 2 and half page read-aloud that begins the adventure. Yup. 2.5 pages. Players don’t listen to long backstory. Did you know that WOTC did an informal study and found that players stop listening two to three sentences in to read-aloud? That’s a lot less than 2.5 pages. It is far FAR better to provide a few keywords that describe the personality and then do something like bullet-point paraphrase the salient issues. Then the DM can do a little more back and forth with the players and it comes across more natural and is interactive. D&D is supposed to be interactive, between the players and the DM. A long monologue has NO place in D&D.

It takes a week for the party to sail to some old ruins, wherein they are looking for a sword. The sea voyage has four entries. “Pirate, mermen, dinosaur, sahuagin.” Just a 1-4 and those four names, nothing else. It’s up to the designer to add value to the adventure in order to assist the DM in running it. “THEY ATTACK” is boring. The pirates need some character, the sahuagin some mechanism of attack. Each entry deserves a few words, no more than a sentence, to give the encounter some character. Then the DM has something to work with during the game.

Arriving at the ruined city the party is presented with a map. The only encounter is the tower at the center. What happens if you search? Do you have random encounters? Is there ANY guidelines for the ruined city at all? No. “The party should go to the tower, it is the next stop,” Linear adventure design is BAD adventure design.

The rooms in the tower either have a monster that attacks or a fey that gives you a riddle/challenge. This is what I would expect from this, and it is boring. Again, D&D is an interactive game. You need to give the party something to do besides fight. And no, solving a riddle aint it. The purpose of the room is not to have a combat or to solve a riddle. That’s the height of bad design. Something else should be going on, something more, and the combat and/or riddle should be a part of that, but not the sole reason for the room existing.

The final room is the old “12 foot pit and 11.5 foot board” thing, and you’re not allowed to bring anything in to the room, says the fey who meets you outside, because the door won’t open otherwise. IE: do what the designer says you should do and don’t be original. Look at the D&D spell list. Imagine the very first time, back in 1971, that a player encountered the 12 foot/11,5 foot thing. Look at the spell list. Know why dimension door exists? So the players could skip that puzzle. At the cost of a spell splot, a precious resource. Someone at the table said “fuck this shit, I’m researching a new spell: dimension door” and thus it became part of the list. When there is only one solution allowed then the players are not playing D&D, they are just doing what the designer/DM wants.

And, and that book title trap? I couldn’t read it on my copy of the adventure. Since the titles only exist in the picture I can’t really figure it out. Was it meant to be a handout?

Also, there’s a line in the backstory about a wizard who attempts to control an archdemon. It goes something like “Only a fool would attempt to control such a Being…” Hey! Yo! Prejudicial much? You never hear about all of the time a wizard controlling an archdemon turns out well, only the bad stuff. I think our nameless narrator suffers from a lack of archwizard vision!

You don’t want to get anywhere near this adventure.

This is $2.50 at DMSGuild. The preview is six pages. You get to the the two page backstory and the 2.5 page read-aloud, and that most excellent wandering monster table. The preview should show you a couple of rooms/encounters, so you can get a feel for the types of writing and encounters to be expected in the product.

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/264023/Quest-for-the-Demon-Slayer?affiliate_id=162942

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Things Lost to Time

Wed, 01/16/2019 - 07:11
By James Andrews Stormforge Productions LotFP/OSR Levels 1-3

Deep in a mine is an ancient vessel. Something so ancient, it sunk under the stone like mud. A vessel alien to this world, yet here longer than most of human history. Can the players harvest its strange technological bits before being disintegrated by deadly lasers? Or will they be enslaved by the odd pink aliens which have been unleashed on the world?

This 22 page adventure details a 22 room spaceship buried in a mine. The miners are now undead cyber-zombies, the aliens floating balls of tentacles, and there’s a crazed robot to avoid. But, treasure is abstracted, the rooms all need a second pass for logic and to clean up unneeded text. Still, there’s a good cat and mouse idea here.

The (rather loose) hook has some miners having disappeared and not come back, except for one with tales of a metal demon and hellfire. The actual mines are quite small, just a couple of room, before the spaceship begins. It’s a collection of obvious obstacles, like a laser screen doorway to be crawled between, alien tentacle blobs, abstracted treasure, and a killer robot to be avoided.

The patrol bot is the most interesting part. It roams about the hallways, on a loop. If it catches someone it most likely kills them, then takes them to medbay to convert to a cyber zombie. There are guidelines for hiding form it, how hard is searches, vents on the map to crawl through to avoid it, and how it escalates its searches over time in response to interactions with the party. It’s an interesting aspect of the adventure to put on some pressure AND it supports the DM with the maps, guidelines, etc to help them accomplish it.

The rest of the adventure is uninspiring.

There are annotations missing form the map. The robot does something at points A and B, but they are not on the map. Some of the traps are Bad Traps. While searching the lockers in a room one explodes and you take damage. It’s kind of the same as a rando pit in a corridor … just take damage and move on with the adventure. There’s no interactivity with that.

Each room starts with a DM overview and then some bad read-aloud. The overviews are mostly not needed at ALL . The room titled “4. Medical Room” tells us that “this room is the equivalent of an alien medical bay.” Well, yes, could have guessed that. It’s almost all unneeded text. The read aloud if overblown imagery at times, and leaves out details at others. It’s not really evocative at all. The med bay, for example, have absolutely no mention of creatures, until you get far down in the room description where it say “Creatures: 4 cyber-zombies.” Wouldn’t that be mentioned in the read aloud? What are they doing? Just standing there? Do they attack? Whatever the designer was going for doesn’t really come across.

For those in search of tech, you shall despair. It’s all abstracted in to “bits” worth 1sp each.

It comes off as just a generic, abstracted spaceship. IN fact, the surviving miner even calls it a ship. I managed to run S3 once for three sessions and the party still hadn’t figured out it was a ship. This aint that, and not even a glowing red laser fence can save it.

This is free at DriveThru. There’s no preview (although I guess you don’t need one if its free) and the level isn’t included in the text description, although it is on the cover if you blow it up to look at.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/262967/The-Things-Lost-to-Time

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Treachery Isle

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 07:16

By Kingtycoon Methuselah
Game of the North
OSR (LotFP?)
Level 4-5?

Nothing is what it seems and no one can be trusted on Cormorant Isle!  And yet you find that you must rely on dangerous strangers if you hope to leave the Isle alive.  Who are these tricksters and what is the secret that they will kill to keep hidden?

This 73 page adventure contains about ten adventure locales on an shipwreck island, each with about ten or so locations. Imaginative, this thing is VERY hard to decipher. Fonts, layout, rules, phrasing … I actually had a very real headache after the first two pages. I’m going to count this one as a ‘Failure to Review’ … I just don’t think I got it.

I usually review an electronic copy. This one I had to resort to printing out, which yields something a little easier on the eyes. As I noted, it gives me a headache. The format is three-column. The read-aloud font is a kind of dark magenta or brown, with a grey background, in italics.  There are weird section breaks that are not obvious. You’ll be reading a paragraph and the words will just stop mid-sentence. That’s your clue that the section below is a major new section break and you should continue reading from the top of the next column to finish the paragraph you are in … an invisible section break. Except when there actually IS a formatting error and the paragraph just ends WITHOUT it continuing in another column. “The heretic has “ … clearly is meant to convey something, but it just stops right there. The tables presented look like screenshots, with a font, background, color that over the line on readability. You CAN make it out, but for your eye health you should not.  This 24 pages of the adventure, proper, actually failed to print the first time I tried. There is something STRANGE going on, none of which lends a hand to comprehension … at the table or not.

The game system is … not mentioned? “OSR.” A scale walls test is mentioned as a “d6 scale walls test.” Like, that’s the check, as in game system, or you need to make d6 attempts at a check? Other sections reference Search result 1, search result 2, search result 3, and so on.  I have no idea. Things kind of LOOK like D&D. Each NPC and creature gets their own full page character sheet (with something called “Primary Mode” with a symbol in it?) and a “Phys/Men” trail score … but it also has HP, AC, HD, Mv, Init and so on. I just … I don’t know …

The writing is … abstracted? Obtuse? Both? Your ship needs provisions, there’s an island ahead. Through the spyglass you see a battle taking place on the beach. Three ships are burning. You see the last combatant drowning the second to last under the waves.

Huh? Battle between who? The people on the ship? There’s no detail, in the read-aloud or DM notes, of what the fuck just happened, or enough context to infer. This lack of context to infer what is going on is a major, major issue throughout the adventure.

This is in spite of a summary, which comes at the end of the keyed encounters on page 25 or so, that tells the referee what is going on. I note that reading that summary sheds VERY little light on the goings on.

Did I mention that there’s an Exquisite Corpse label on a Lulu product? My eyebrows are raised.

“But Bryce, you haven’t actually reviewed the adventure yet!” Correct. There’s a witch, riding a giant sword, over a beach throwing fireballs to set ships on fire. There’s an illusion of a bonfire. It’s also a teleporter to other, REAL fires. Uh, there are knights, and places, and some Lashan, and a witch and … I have no fucking clue what is going on in this adventure.

I fail. The weekend is coming. I’m going to try again.

Ok, weekend over. Tuesday now. I’ve been through the adventure three more times and feel that I now grasp it, although I’m not sure enough to run it.

Your ship needs provisions so you land on the island, seeing the end of a battle of knights, one drowning another in the surf. Landing, there’s recruitment attempt by the knight to his cause. His group (they have a camp farther in) is here to find and rescue a woman, kept by another group of knights. There’s a small castle that you and they can rush. (From this point out they serve as a kind of greek chorus, getting killed, etc as you explore the island.) You could, also, join up with the other group of knights or do something else … at least that’s what the text tells us, although its not exactly well supported. Somewhere in this the islands witch shows up and burns down your ship, trapping you. From the castle, ruined and full of bodies, you see a tower. Exploring the tower lets you see four other areas, each with some tie to an element. Getting through those MIGHT get off the island. Along the way is a kind of animalistic dragon with mimcry in a lava cave, some leshen, children in masks (another chous, or a sorts, maybe) the witch, and so on.

It’s got strong allegorical ties then most adventures (ie: >0) and some great language in it. Buried behind text that is THICK to get through. A highlighter won’t work in this one.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $7. The preview is six pages. The last four pages show the first encounter sections. I encourage you to TRY and read page three.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/256600/The-Tricks-of-Treachery-Isle

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Crimson Harvest

Sat, 01/12/2019 - 19:19
By Andy Tam Self Published 5e Level 4

… The agricultural exports that once brought it wealth and decadence has since all but withered to naught. A group of intrepid adventurers has taken on the task the escort a vital cache of grains to the ailing town, but what seem to be a simple run-of-the-mill escort job takes a sinister turn for the worse. Ultimately embroiling all involved into a spiral of decay and madness…

This 58 page adventure features a cult in a village and about sixty locations in the manor home/dungeon.There are hints of an adventure in this, but it’s written like a linear plot based thing rather than a normal adventure. The benefit of the doubt would seem to indicate a lack of understanding of how to design a non-linear adventure.

Digging around on DMGuild, I was struck that everything there is either A) not an adventure, B) Some AL nonsense, C) Connected to the latest book. I went out of my way to find something relatively independent and came to this. The baddie here is a Warlock, in service to her patron. Nice! Reminds me of the days when druids were baddies. There’s also a civil war going on, with the village in question being majorly impacted. Muddy fields, bodies face down in the dirt, spilled blood, starving and desperate people … that’s pretty cool. I mean, it’s just gonna be used as a throwaway once this adventure is over, but what if it weren’t? Nice campaign regional.

This thing also tries. It’s got an encounter on the way to the village with an old woman trader doing some profiteering, a source of information, who also steals from the party at night. And it tries to add atmosphere, mostly by having a section at the start called “Atmosphere” with some bullet point ideas. And the entire concept of a village, starving during a civil war making civil hands unclean, desperate people, bodies down in the mud, a good ol’ hanging tree ala Witcher 3 (who also tried and failed at wartime) … ah, warms my DM heart. As does a certain brevity in combat encounters; only a few sentences each, on average!

Oh, and then there’s this bit right up near the top of the adventure, one of the few few words …

“Crimson Harvest is a dark fantasy story presented in the form of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure …”

Ok, no, it’s not as bad as those words would imply. But, man, seeing that can cause your heart to shudder.

The hook has the baddies luring the party to town. Lure adventure suck. They are right up there with Challenge/Test adventures. Then the guy who hires you will commit suicide rather than be captured, if you attack him. This is not going well. Really? He kills himself? He’s bought in that deep? And still passes for normal, enough to put one over on the party? Just let the fucking party capture him, who cares? Besides, the hooks are all lame anyway. Hired or assigned a mission or Yet Another Missing Loved One. My next PC is going to home from an extended close-knit family of about 600 relatives, just to mock all these lame ass Loved One hooks.

The read aloud is extensive. Extensive read-aloud should never be included. Can I say that categorically? Are there exceptions? I don’t know. But it’s close enough to the truth to say it categorically. Plus, it waxes poetic and flowery and presumes to tell you your character’s actions and feelings. Find some vials? The read aloud tells you open them and sniff. Uh huh.

And that atmosphere that I mentioned had bullets? It’s mostly generalized and abstracted, giving you little concrete or inspiring to work with.

But that’s all minor nits compared to the major failures, on two key points. First, it fails utterly in some pretty basic design issues. Like it wants to split the party. This is a fucking disaster for DM’s, because it ALWAYS leaves a group of your players bored and disengaged. The only way this works is if have the ability to regroup almost immediately, and that don’t happen here. It also REALLY hates maps. Which is to say it loves them too much, in the wrong way. Clearly someone put some effort in to making battlemaps for everything, nice and colorful and detailed. But the main DM map is a zoomed out version, hard to read. And basic information like “how many villagers attack the party in the tavern?” are left unanswered because the information is not in the text OR on the map, as the adventure indicates it should be. So you can’t run it, by design, unless you use the battle maps which tell you the enemy count and location … and then the information isn’t on the maps? And, if it IS there, and I missed it, then it’s not clear enough. There’s this weird abstraction of detail, like in a tower with a boy. There’s no map, I think, but the locations are numbered like there is one. But they are weird, like #1 is  painting and #2 are the aforementioned glass vials and #3 is a chest, like there’s a map somewhere of a big room with numbers on it. Feel free to stretch your legs and try new things in design, but you should also make sure they work.

The second major issues is the entire adventure. Or, rather, how it designed. It’s clear that the designer is going for a kind of open ended sort of thing, something akin to a sandbox/independent location that the party find themselves in. But I don’t think they know how to do it.

There’s a strong bend to the writing that is linear and plot based. This then this and then this … not quite that but about as close and you can without having scenes. The militia, as cult members, are stationed outside the manor home to keep the party out. There’s a strong element of capturing the party or directing them to certain hidden entrances. If this adventure is The Wicker Man then everyone in the village is right on the edge of clubbing the party over the head. It doesn’t come off as much as a village with a problem but rather a kind of armed camp ready to assault the party, turning the adventure in to a hack fest almost immediately. The maps have a strong linear dungeon bend to them rather than presenting the place as a “normal” manor house. Look, I hate simulationist stuff as much as I hate linear stuff, but this is clearly close to the plot side of the spectrum, too much for its own good.

Getting out of the 5e echo chamber and seeing examples of good adventures would go a long way to helping the designers next effort. Pruning back the prescriptive writing elements and either returning to traditional map/key or putting more work in to the color battle maps actually helping the DM.

This is $3 at DMsguild. There’s no preview. Andy, go create a preview that shows a few encounters so people know what they are buying!

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/263425/Crimson-Harvest

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Behind the Walls

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 07:14
  • By John Large
  • Monkeyblood Design
  • Swords & Wizardry
  • Levels 1-4

Ebeneezer Garbett, a local farmer from the mushroom-filled valley village of Otterdale, returned to the hamlet with tales of riches he had found. Now, no-one has seen him since, and he villagers are becoming ill with a strange fungal infection.

This 49 page adventure has the party getting to trouble with a fungus creature in a small village. A good overview and some evocative writing is buried in text that could use some better organization to tighten up the important bits to make them stand out. A nice open-ended adventure, small, but with repercussions ala LotFP.

John hangs out at reddicediaries, his blog, and published Murder Knights of Corvendark, a nice weird little adventure that needed a bit more. This adventure feels smaller and more intimate, in spite of the page count. Set in his Miderlands, a kind of England-ish setting, this one one is right on the border with his version of Scotland. Some farmer found some Goman gold after some heavy rain, now he’s disappeared, people are dying from a sickness, and an adventuring company (! Not adventurers! A company! I love the nod to mercenary that makes this more dirt-farmer than the magical ren-faire connotations that Adventurer has!) that looked in to the coins has disappeared.

Certain elements of this harken back to The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with a fungus creature, interconnected colony creatures, and some explicit notes to make it more Pod Person like. It’s not overdone and it related to Thing and Body Snatchers in the way that they are folklore; not really gonzo explicit but more remembrances of a theme that influences how you, as DM or player, relate to the content. That’s the kind of stuff I like, the leveraging of other themes or content to bring more than the writing itself does.

The ending of this has, probably, the giant fungus creature dragging itself up from its small underground vault and heading toward the village, probably caused by or at least witnessed by the party. This feels like an adventure climax without it feeling forced, and it a kind of gentler LotFP apocalyptic ending if the creature escapes. This harkens back to Rients and his Broodmother advice or really fucking up your campaign world, and the explicit advice (in a paragraph) handles the guidelines on the greater world well if the party Oops it up. Plague masks, movements of people to drier areas less likely to fungus up … it’s good imagery.

And there’s a decent amount of good imagery in this combined with JUST enough nods to realism that it feels real, without slipping in to simulationist nonsense. The rumor tables are in voice, which adds richness to the NPC’s. There’s a feast getting ready to go off in the village, in celebration of the new found wealth flowing in from the farmer and adventuring company. A locale of humid mists, lanterns during the day, a valley alive with encounters. Tendrils growing through a door to the creature on the other side and ancient metal weapons missing their wood … it having been absorbed by the fungus creature. A little adventure overview in the beginning kind of ties everything together and orients the D on what’s to come. The fungus creature has bits of bone, gold, skulls, etc visible on its surface as it attacks while its minions try to infect rather than kill. A richness of detail in combat AND outside of combat.

But …

The art and maps, while well done from an imagery standpoint, suffer from usability issues .. .mainly the numbered locations fading in to the map. Pretty map, but I don’t want to fight it to find the numbers.

I can also complain about several smaller things. A location, seen from far off, isn’t really dealt with until you’re right up on it. ANY time the party is outside the designer needs to pay attention to what they see in the distance. It’s that Fallout 4 thin of seeing a red glow in the night that draws you to go explore there. “Oh, uh, yeah, I know it’s night and everything, but, everything is on fire.” Well, how about telling us that as we approach  instead of hiding it in the room 3 description? [That’s not an example from this adventure. In this one I’m talking about a prominent jagged outcropping that isn’t dealt with, well, from a visibility standpoint until your on top of it.] Further, the main farmstead is covered in two separate description locations in different parts of the book, NPC cross-references are haphazard, at best, and an NPC summary sheet, with location, personality, sickness, etc, is sorely missing. The investigation portion is largely social, and social adventures need different resources than room/key exploration adventure sections. The wanderers could really use some personality also. They are a cut above minimal, but not by much. A little personality in the NPC or situations would bring them to life.

It’s also very weird that the fungus is mentioned, in one place, as being highly flammable, but fire is not mentioned as a weapon against the fungus creature or its minions.

The major flaw, though, and what keeps this from a Best Of list, is the mixing of interesting details in to long text blocks. There are some great details in this but they are lost in the text presented. The descriptions and flavor are rich and, while not Failed Novelist long, picking up the pertinent details out of the text blocks is is not easy. The mist in the valley. The mold and mushrooms everywhere. The lamps lit in the day … these deserve bullet points or bolding in their paragraphs. The idea is that the DM reads it once before play and then, during play their attention is drawn to the bullets or bolding and they say “oh, yeah, that thing …” and they include it in their description to the players. This happens over and over again. I would say that it has the scenes set well, for the initial read through, but doesn’t support the DM well, at all, during actual play. Bolding, bullets, summary sheets. What do I, the DM, need RIGHT NOW as I’m running it, and can I find it easy?

This is $5 at DriveThru. The only preview is a “Quick” one, meaning you don’t get a chance to see the content at all, just a hint of the (quite nice) layout. [And rare shout out by me to the person who did the interior layout and art. I know nothing about thatshit, but it looks nice.]

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/261303/Behind-The-Walls

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

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