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(5e) Silent Screechers review

Sat, 03/07/2020 - 12:18
By Maximillian Hart Self-published 5e Levels 4-5

An ancient shrine in the center of a small jungle island is filled with small, lifelike statues and ape-like monsters. Dangerous fruit and a deadly fountain round out the perils in this short adventure for the world’s greatest roleplaying game!

This seven page adventure uses 2-3 pages to describe about six encounters on a small jungle island. It waffles between decent organization and evocative writing and the usual bland and unfocused writing that is the hallmark of most adventures. It gets closer than most though, leaving me hopeful for the future.

So, island, covered in jungle. From your ship you can see some ruins poking up through the jungle … as well as three wrecked ships on the beach. You stop and go check out the ships and ruins because that’s what we do on Wednesday nights. More seriously, the usual pretexts are included, from on the trail of an evil cult to some kind of treasure map. There’s a gap niche, I think, in adventure pretexts and complications. How does a ship and/or sea voyage actually work? Something that told you that would help you run and/or design adventures that include a sea voyage. Like, the ship needs to take on water and therefore stops at he island. Or, the mill has flour in the air that can explode. Interesting things, oriented at adventures, that matter in actual play and.or design. Anyway …

Having diverged once, let me diverge again. A 2-3 hour adventure? “Explore a forbidden jungle island”? World’s greatest roleplaying game? I guess the last is a reaction to the trademark stuff from Teh Hasborg? But, I would suggest there’s a slight disconnect in the marketing of “Explore a forbidden jungle island” and a 2-3 adventure, along with everything implied in “forbidden.” Marketing is marketing, but, still, it backfires when you get peoples expectations up and they go away disappointed. IE: the story of my reviewing life. Finally, 2-3 hours? Is four hours not the standard anymore? I’m being serious here, not a douchebag (for once.) I know that gaming store play has changed the culture a bit, but is the norm now 2-3 hours? This adventure, in particular, feels like it could have done better if it were a bit more open/larger/longer. You could get a 4 hour session out of this if the designer put in a little more work, and easily another session if the island were opened up a bit.

It is, essentially, a bunch of linear encounters. I’m no fool. I know that this is how people play D&D at home. But, as I mentioned above, it feels like this could have been more if it were opened up more and has a little more freedom. As written, you go down a jungle path, part some vines, and get attacked. There’s just a little too much linearity/”lack of pretext” in that for my tastes. 

Enough of my bitching though, let’s cover the good in this. And there is good! More than usual!

It’s sprinkled with little boxed sections, a sentence or two at most, that have designer notes, advice to the DM, and so on. This is great. It’s SO hard sometimes to try and figure out the vibe a designer meant. This sort of inspiration for the adventure, what I was going for, etc, is great. It’s boxed off, doesn’t get in the way, and can be full of advice to help the DM run the adventure. It FEELS like the designer is a part of the community, referencing online tools and the like, rather than just a pure simple “PAY ME! PAY ME NOW!”

The organization is a mixed bag. At times the adventure uses bullet points to convey information, and it does this relatively well. The wrecked ships, for example, just get a couple of passing lines in a bullet point in the beach section, telling you whats up with them. Not too much detail for an elements that doesn’t really drive the adventure. That’s great! (I might complain a bit, though, that while it’s not too much It might also not be enough. A ship name and or one or two sentences each, for the party, might have been in order. They are sure to search the ships and try to figure out what’s up with them? Especially since it’s the first thing they encounter? And maybe a missed opportunity for future adventure hooks, or petty rewards from brining back a sailors boots to his wife or some such? Yes, it can be hard finding the right balance. I am hartened (get it?! Get it?!) though that there’s not too much detail.) In other players the lack of formatting is telling. Monster and room information buried in paragraph text. The long-form paragraph is not the best wa for communicating some data. I’m thinking, specifically, of the text for the four or locations in the ruins, the shrine. 

I note also that sometime it feels like overview text is left out. There are fruit trees that play an important part of the adventure, but they are handled just as a bullet. A) Good! B) This could have been mentioned perhaps in a bit more detail in some kind of overview text. IE: “you see three ships and also some trees that seem to have fruit on them.” 

There’s good DM advice, as I mentioned, especially around tactics. Many designers can either leave this out or go full on tactics porn on the issue. Here it’s covered briefly and flavourfully. Apes, being the main enemy, get some flavour in their combat. They tear off huge chunks of bark ad throw it at the party! Flavour! A thing an apre would do! They hang upside down and swing from vines! Not just a throw-away monster, but it FEELS like an ape monster. Nicely done . Irrelevant background text is generally handled well, at least in the beginning, it being just afew words at the end of a scene surrounded by parens. It doesn’t get in the way, being both at the end and signaling to the DM via the parens. It’s also inconsistent at times, with other background information deeper in to the adventure not doing this and just appearing. “This ledge used to be.”

Evocative writing, like organization, is hit and miss. Bare masts rising up above the trees is a good bit. Other times it feels a bit on the blander side. Not full of “large statue” boring territory, but as if there were missed opportunities everywhere. There’s a room with an alter in it, a spider alter. But there are jewels in a loot pile. Better, i think, to put them in as a part of the spider alter? Who don’t like desecrating psider alters for jewels? It’s great imagery. Likewise, a folding boat doesn’t get a name or any details other than “it makes a loud clanging sound when unfolding” That’s good, but it’s also a missed opportunity, just like with the other magic items and most of the other descriptions, to add just a little more flavour with better word choices. 

A few rando notes: It comes with both a print-friendly version and a “pretty” version. Nicely done, keeping the greyscale background template off the printer friendly version. Also, the “pretty” version is laid out in such a way that the background imagery doesn’t interfere with the text that’s on top of it, something that more designers should pay attention to. It gets hard to read when your text runs in to the background imagery and you don’t also use a box, shading, etc. The monsters, listed in the appendix, could use a bit of description. As is we get some description in the adventure text proper “tall thin ape-like creature with long curved claws.” Not the most exciting description and, also, buried in the text of one room. A line or two in the general description/monster appendix would have been in order. (And a little more opportunity to be evocative also …) Finally, the map is very clean for ruins. Nice clean lines with 90 degree angles, etc. Black on white. Trust me, I feel your pain. Getting the fucking maps right, with all the shitty or complex mapping tools available, is a serious pain. So, while I won’t hold this against a designer I will say that’s it’s an opportunity to learn, grow, and do better. 

So, an ok adventure, better than most. Limited somewhat but it’s smaller size/shorter length. It doesn’t engage in excessive text sins, which makes the lack of organization tolerable, especially given the attempts to make things more scan-able for the DM. The mantras: better organization, tighter writing, more evocative writing. Once those basics are down you pass the first hurdle: not a fucking nightmare to run. This makes you better than 95% of other adventures and you can then concentrate on evocative writing, interactivity, and holistic design. A little more work to get over that first hurdle, I think. Still, I wouldn’t curse the world TOO much if this were dropped of fon my me five minutes before a AP con game started.

This is $3 at Drivethru. The preview is seven pages, showing you all of the pertinent parts of the adventure. Nice use of bullets in some places (the beach) and less other places (the shine rooms.) In fact, the bullets in the beach pretty much encapsulate everything about this, both from a positive quality (the mast/ship descriptions, bullets, high level/correct level overviews) and bad (ruins lack flavour, ships lack appropriate details.)

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/304309/Silent-Screechers?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Temple of Asibare review

Wed, 03/04/2020 - 12:17
By Dave Tackett Quasar Dragon games OSR Levels 2-4

Lying undisturbed for ages, this accursed tomb is discovered by the characters and a great evil is encountered. Will they survive this brush with darkness or will they become its latest victims. An OSR compatible module for any old school RPG or modern clone, The Temple/Tomb of Asibare is designed for character levels 2-4 or an especially harrowing first level.

This nineteen page adventure describes a twelve room temple/tomb with a vaguely middle eastern theme. Long read-aloud, mountains of backstory text in the rooms DM text, wall immune to everything but a Wish, this adventure has it all! Well, except treasure. So, not exactly an OSR adventure. More of a “Great example of how to not write an adventure” adventure. What RPG system is that? All of them Frank, all of them. Also, which one of you “gentle readers” suggested I review this? No christmas card for you this year!

Recall the new basic Bryce criteria for adventure success: Do I want to use my cheap yellow/beige mechanical pencil to stab my own eyes out when I try to run this? IE: is it bad? Evocative writing and interactivity might be “not boring” but making something not easy to use at the table easily earns you the BAD moniker. This is BAD.

You’re caravan guards. There’s a new building revealed out of the sand at an oasis you are stopped at. That night some other guards get killed. The next morning the caravan master asks you to take twelve(!) other guards and go inside to try and see what killed them. Ordered to your doom by those who control the means of production. Typical! And not even a bonus for your trouble!

The read-aloud in this adventure is BAD. It is LONG. Very long. Several reach a column in length. Read-aloud, is used, can’t be long. It has to be short. Why? Because people stop paying attention. You get a couple of sentences. 2, 3, maybe 4. No more. No one FUCKING CARES after that. They are here to play D&D not listen to DM monologues. No, listening to the DM is not the core D&D mechanic/loop. EVERY RPG thrives on the interactivity between the players and the DM. Back and forth. The DM presents. The players respond. The DM follows up. Then the players. And so it goes. Short. Bursty. Interactive. Long read-aloud breaks that cycle, people get bored, phones come out, and the DM wonders why no one is engaged.

The read-aloud in this adventure is BAD. It tells instead of showing.Instead of describing a locale, scene, event, it instead tells the players what their characters think and feel. “Every instinct tells you to run.” “By the flickering of your torchlight …” This is some hollow and false attempt to write an impactful encounter by making the players feel something. But it’s doing it by TELLING them instead of SHOWING them. You write a description that makes the payers feel a certain way, yo udon’t write a description that TELLS them tey feel a certain way. Besides, it’s also embedding actions in the read-aloud, assuming they are using torches, etc. This is never good. “You walk around the pyramid and see nothing”, again, in the read-aloud and again, assuming player actions and destroying the interactive loop of D&D. When you put extra descriptions in the read-aloud then you prevent the players from taking the actions with their characters. Instead of the read-aloud describing the first room and every detail of every aspect, instead the adventure should give a general overview and then allow the players have their characters investigate, with additional details coming out as they walk around and look at things. This preserves the interactivity loop.

The DM text in this adventure is BAD. Mountains and mountains of backstory in the rooms. This monster is here because of X, Y, and Z, which goes on for a paragraph. This is not what goes in to a D&D adventure. Or, to be more specific, this is not what should USUALLY go in to a D&D adventure. This sort of backstory, why the monster is there, why the trap was placed, what the room used to be used for, etc, is only of interest if it somehow drives the action of the adventure. The Why’s of things are less important than the current interactivity. The Why’s are for readers. The Why’s are a plot guide for  a series Tv writer. Interactivity is, instead, aimed at ACTUAL PLAY. That thing we’re supposed to be using this for? And the Why’s get in the way, clogging up the text, making it hard for the DM to find the information they do need during actual play. 

And then, at one point, you see a succubus in a circle. As a read-aloud, one of your twelve henchmen guar buddies walks over the circle and gets kissed out by her, drained. *sigh* I knew this was coming when I saw you had twelve buddies going with you. Not this, explicitly, but something like it. The NPC’s being dumb. 

There’s nothing to see here in this adventure. Just room after room of undead, etc, animating and attacking when you enter the room. All combat, no treasure is not exactly the crafty OSR play I am expecting.

Maybe my car will get hit by a truck today.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The preview is six pages and shows you the intro and several of the room keys. So, a good preview since it shows you some of the encounters, the core loop of the adventure, so to speak. Take a look at some of the read-aloud and bask in it.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/138888/FM2-The-Temple-of-Asibare?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Horror out of Hagsjaw review

Mon, 03/02/2020 - 12:11
By Levi Combs Frog God Games S&W Levels 4-5

Travelers have long considered Hagsjaw a place to avoid. The town is known to outsiders by whispered tales of witches and strange doings in the old days. Once terrorized by a wretched coven of witches known as the Karnley Hags, the town was held in a grip of fear that saw its citizens oppressed and its children stolen. Anyone who dared oppose the hags was viciously murdered. When the witches were eventually overthrown and hanged in the town square, they muttered a unified curse with their last breaths, promising nothing less than misery and doom for all who remained in Hagsjaw. That was a century ago, and now Hagsjaw is little more than a forgotten watering hole. Time has not treated the decaying town or its folk kindly; it seems to die out more and more as each generation passes. The farms at the edge of town are empty of cattle and crops, the town’s buildings are crumbling, and even the sagging roofs of the abandoned, twin steeple church don’t look like they’ll hold up much longer. There’s little left to suggest that the town hadn’t withered away completely… until recently.

This 22 page investigation adventure is fairly straightforward and OOZES with flavour. Mostly horror/investigation, it’s basic form should translate easily to just about any genre, from CoC to Modern and maybe even to SciFi. The evocative writing is long and there’s significant room for improvement in that area.

Let’s start out with two important notes. First, I love decrepit towns and villages and adventures in them. Second, I think that adventures with a strong horror theme translate well to almost every genre and RPG system. If you’re allowed ANY supernatural in the system then horror is horror and good horror adventures tend to use simple non-genres specific creatures (ghosts, witches, etc) of which the theming is more important than the specific stats, and the themes tend to genre-hop well. 

Horror this is. The creatures you face are a blobby-like gelatinous human-ish creature … stat’d as a gibbering mouther. But because the emphasis is on the description rather than just saying “there’s a gibbering mouther in the church” it allows the creature to translate well. It’s a gelatinous blob/human/form creature first. This is EXCELLENT. The emphasis is on the creature and what the stats say is of secondary important. Flavour tends to always triumph over mechanics. This extends to the strange lights on the edge of the foggy forest … and a cliff. Will of the wisps. The use of generic “witches” and a witch coven in the backstory. That crosses genres well. They come back, as a kind of spirit of posession-ghost, taking over villagers and then charming more. That translates well. And then you have a mob of villagers, possessed, bribed, etc. Again, translates well. A straight up ghost? Yup, translate well. Maybe the only thing that doesn’t translate well is a halfling and a stayr. The halfling feeds you information because he was alive to see the witches hang, originally, a hundred or so years ago. Turn them in to an old man and shorten the time a bit and it works. The satyrs could just be degenerate villagers in the woods, ala HPL, and it wouldn’t loose anything. It might even work better, if The Old Gods didn’t play a part in your game world. Anyway, takaeway is that a well-written horror adventure relies on themes, like hanged witches, 3’s and the like, and this is a well written horror adventure. Not exactly scary, but you FEEL the creepiness viscerally.

And you feel it not only because of the well executed themes but also because the writing is evocative.  This great writing extends even to the hooks. Throw away hook. The worst ever. Caravan guard. Sent by the church, etc. But given fresh breathe by how they are written. The caravan guards? The first line is “Storm’s a comin’ … we better get off the road.” BAM! Instantly sets the tone, even before someone says “that place don’t nobody e’eer go.” Twist the language. Torture it. But communicate the FLAVOUR to the DM, and this does that. And it does it over and over and over again. Great, well written sentences. Great word choice that makes you FEEL the scene, and therefore be more likely to translate it to the players.

The writing here is very sticky. You remember the FEEL of the place. Which is good because it’s not organized very well. Details are buried in those evocative paragraphs. While they do a great job conveying a vibe that vibe is useless to the DM at the table running it if they can’t remember it. This is typically solved by writing text that’s easy to scan. But paragraphs don’t scan well without bolding, italics, bullets, whitespace, indents, etc. And this don’t do that. What is DOES do is bury information in weird places. The local farm has a great little thing about whipperwools. But that information, that there were hundreds, isn’t where you need it. The farm doesn’t tell you that, a person will tell you that. It needs to located someplace where it’s useful to the task at hand: an NPC communicating it. Otherwise it’s useless text that clogs up the DM’s ability to scan the text while running the game. And it’s TOO good to give up. This happens over and over again. Great NPC’s, over written, or, perhaps, not organized well enough to easily run them during play. (And the NPC’s are really really good. From the old coot to the rando’s you can throw in. Tropes, leveraged, are a good thing when done well.)

Treasure is light for a S&W game. But it’s also got versions for 5e and Pathfinder, so I suspect no one upped it for S&W. The Frogs could do a MUCH better job in that regard. It would help better communicate that they give a shit about S&W.  Although … layout seems cleaner and more modern than the Frog adventures I remember in the past, the memories anyway, so maybe they are stepping up their game? Anyway …

Let’s talk some magic treasure! How about this? “This silver ring is fashioned to look like monstrous, overlapping claws clutching each other in a circular pattern. Once each day, the

wearer can summon forth a swarm of disembodied, clawed hands that crawl over one creature  …” Great physical description (again that evocative writing) and effect (that then gets a mechanical description, but, at least it starts with the non-mechanical.) A certain potion is “horrible-smelling black ichor.” Good writing, even if “horrible smelling” is a conclusion that is telling instead of showing.

The adventure design relies on the party being nosy nellies. Or, ratherm a mob attacks them the first night and the party is expected to follow up on that if they have not followed up on things previously. There’s also a trip in to the woods which I don’t think is telegraphed as clearly as it could be. Essentially, half the adventure lies in the woods, or comes from it, and there’s not much i9n the way of pointing people to that as the next step. Easily solved by a DM dropping some hint in questioning, but, still, a slight weakness in the adventure there.

The whole things FEELS like someone who had never seen an RPG write an adventure and then stat’d it for the mechanics and that’s a VERY good thing. And I don’t mean the mechanics are wonky or don’t make sense, they do. I mean it feels like someone came up with ideas and then looked to see what the closest thing mechanically was to them. That’s a great way to design. It’s not a blob because it’s a gibbering mouther. It’s a gibbering mouther because it’s a blob. The church in town is boarded up and you have to break in. But it feels more like a real world imagining of a boarded up church you’re breaking in to then it does some kind of fantasy lockpick/knock kind of thing. The basement of a farmhouse is unnaturally cold. IN a supernatural adventure? Really? Yes, it has brown mold. Shit makes sense in this. You can telegraph it, it makes sense, layers still won’t get it, until AFTER The encounter, when they are kicking themselves. That’s good.

You probably can’t save the village from the decline it was going through. But, if you save the villagers then “They carry the names of these heroes with them as they tell tales around the campfire or trade news with those traveling through.” The actions have consequences and the parties fame will grow. That’s a good reward. 

So, overall, a great adventure. I’d recommend this if it were organized a bit better. As written, it is highlighter and note taking fodder to run it. It’s the designer’s job to ensure I don’t have to do that. Design is good. Evocative is good. Interactivity is good enough. But it needs better organization. And I got No Regerts saying that.

Also, there’s no level designation anywhere on the cover or product description. That’s a MAJOR fail by the publisher.

This is $8 at DriveThru. The preview is only four pages and doesn’t show you ANYTHING of the adventure except the background. That’s a shitty preview. A couple of town entries, or a page of encounters is what should be in the preview, to let the buy know what kind of writing to expect.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/303758/The-Horror-out-of-Hagsjaw–Swords–Wizardry?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Cha’alt

Sat, 02/29/2020 - 12:11
By: Venger As’nas Satanis Kort'thalis Publishing 5e? Sure, whatever Venger ... Level: Meaningless! Fuck your rules!

Cha’alt is the beast of a book (218 pages) I’ve been working on for the past year.  It’s a ruined world focusing on a couple of introductory dungeons before getting to the main event – the megadungeon known as The Black Pyramid.   The Black Pyramid is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Unique design, purpose, feel, magic items, NPCs, monsters, factions, motives, agendas, strangeness, the works! There’s a decent amount of setting detail besides dungeoncrawling – space opera bar, domed city, mutants, weird ass elves, desert pirates, a city ruled by a gargantuan purple demon-worm, and much more!

This 218p book is part setting and part 111 room dungeon. It’s Venger doing what Venger does, in terms of creativity, and Venger Under Control when it comes to his worst qualities (writing too much, for example.) As written, the setting is better than the main adventure, The Black Pyramid dungeon. You could tweak it and make it better. Then it would be one of the best Rifts hexcrawls ever.

So, two books in one. The first chunk is a description of the world the Black Pyramid dungeon sits in, as well as a couple of smaller dungeon. Those two mini-dungeons are perhaps representative of some of Vengers worse work. Linear-ish, and maybe starting off by nuking your L1 characters with a fireball from a 7HD invisible wizard in the first room. But, let’s ignore those two efforts.

The game world is a mashup of every post-apoc trope ever. Independent city states. Giant mecha city. Domed city. Roving tribes of primitive wastelanders. Giant sandworms. Cthulhu shit and cultists. Galactic Star Empires. Heavy Metal. You name it and Venger threw it in. Dune-like Spice fracking, methcrystals, and even sex panther cologne from the Anchorman movies. El Senor Venger Assman don’t know know restraint, and that’s a good thing for something like that. So, take about half of those RIfts supplements books, distill them down to about a column each, and call that your game world. Groovy. Best Rifts/Gamma World setting ever. I remember some blog that had something like a UFP Starship crew messing around on Carcosa. It reminds me a lot of that, except you’re not the starship crew. Probably. I call this a Yul Brenner. And it’s a decent Yul Brenner. Enough detail in those columns to inspire the DM, which is what fluff should do. Basically, while exploring the main event (The Black Pyramid) the party might need something/want to do something outside of the dungeon and that’s where this support material comes in.  Healing, complications for the DM to throw in, get a replacement arm that’s robotic from the robo-surgeon in the domed cities, or sell your chthonic artifact. That’s the real purpose of this section, which lasts about half the book. Like I said, I’m kinder these days about background fluff. 

And then there’s Maud. I mean, The Black Pyramid. This is the focus of the book and the reason you bought it. This is an absurdist funhouse dungeon with no pretext to it. Blue Medusa may be the closest analogy. A bunch of vignettes, a set piece in each room, described and the players encountering it. Blue Medusa, though, had some internal logic. There was some pretext. Some of the rooms worked together. It kind of made sense.

Not this. “Funhouse Dungeon” is thrown around a lot. I suggest that we are all individuals, err, I mean hyperbolics, at least in this area. The Black Pyramid has no logic at all behind it. Imagine an army of 10,000 men in a 10×10 room. And 18 Cthulhus in the next room with 12 Abolethethsin a desert room in the door on the other side. I’m not a simulationist. Food, water, bathrooms, neighbors … I don’t think I’m really hung up on that shit. But here Venger pushes past any semblance of suspension of disbelief. Suspending your suspension of disbelief, as it were. One room has a movie theater, with patrons. How did they get there? What do the people next door think? Travel rights? Nothing matters. It just is. Run it. The Peewee’s Playhouse room? Just run it. Any of a hundred other joke rooms? Just run it.

This then is your main qualification for wanting this, at least to run. Do you want to run a game like that? A game in which nothing matters? I realize that statement could be taken as me poking fun, or being negative, but I’m not being that when I say it. Do you want to run a funhouse? A REAL funhouse? Then this is for you.

It’s got an index. The rooms are fairly well organized, maybe tending to the lengthier side of things in places, but not terrible in that regard.  Something is going on in each, in some fashion, so it’s not the expanded minimalism that others engage in. It’s ok. I’m too traumatized, still to this day, by WG7. I can’t enjoy a real funhouse dungeon. 

But …

Listen to the Voice saying Follow Me …

Venger ‘The AssMan’ Satan has missed a real opportunity with Chaalt. Or, maybe, that opportunity still exists. This COULD be the greatest Rifts/Gamma World adventure to ever exist. EVAR. Both of those have a serious fanbase behind them and neither has anything like “Anything Good” to support them. Of course you can’t call it for Rifts cause Kevin will sue the fusk out of you.

But …

If you take The Black Pyramid, each of its little vignettes, and instead give it room to breathe … you turn it in to a HexCrawl! The most bestest post-apoc hexcrawl evar! Then it has room. The pretext is handled almost automatically. The fucking dungeon is really a pointcrawl anyway, this one in particular. Venger’s got some pretext “connecting tubes’ thing to connect his little vignettes in extradimensional space, but why not instead just go all in and make it a hexcrawl, turning each room in to a hex? You spend, what, two months rearranging the rooms a bit to make a bit more sense and fitting them in to the most minimal pretext and logic possible. This, then, would be a chance for Venger to go mainstream. Capture all of that Rifts/Dark Sun/Gamma World/Eberron demand. 

This funhouse would work that way. The pretext is easy. It’s a hexcrawl, that’s how people got there. A little bit more work, a couple of months, rewriting and rearranging. Then it’s yours Venger! All of the success ever in the world! But you gotta put in a little extra work to turn it in a hexcrawl is a little pretext. I suspect, though, Venger is morally opposed to that though.

This is $20 at DriveThru. The preview is the first 32 pages. As such you get to see the Gamma World like game world. It would have been better to also include a few pages of actual encounters in the pyramid, maybe one of its maps also, so people knew just how funhouse and pointcrawl they were buying.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/284600/Chaalt?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Black Pudding #6 / Underground Down below

Wed, 02/26/2020 - 12:14
J.V. West Random Order Creations OSR Levels 3-6

Black Pudding #6 is a zine and I’m reviewing the eight pagepointcrawl adventure “Underground Down Below”, with map by Evlyn Moreau. It’s got 36 encounters described over eight pages, if you count the one page map. Imagine a REALLY large cavern with mesa’s and stuff in it. That’s this. IE: an underground valley hemmed in on all sides with some plateaus in it. It;s very imaginative. And it lacks inciting incidents.

Have you ever been to an art forward gaming con? I have. They’re great! I’m thinking specifically of Con on the Cob. Art people are relaxed, not up their own asses, and know how to have fun and know how to run a game. The afterhours DCC games at GenCon are another great example of this as the ZZ Top gang run for fun. This has that kind of vibe. Mostly. But it’s lacking that certain motivating aspect that drives the adventure forward. It feels more like an Ed Greenwood adventure where there’s lots of interesting shit going on, that you CAN interact with, but why would you? 

The map depicts a kind of isometric view of a large underground cave. Very big. Lots of shit going on on what is, essentially an “art map” rather than your usual gaming map. Nothing wrong with that, I love me some on map detail. There’s no scale but it is, essentially, a pointcrawl. I don’t know, maybe the cavern is lit by purple or green light or something, so the party can see points in the distance to travel to. That’s not mentioned but would work. I’m a big fan of “the party sees something interesting” so that they can then decide to travel to it. The isometric view (is that the right word? I think I’ve used it in this context since that DL1 map) does a good job of showing elevation and the map is chock full of little drawings (it’s an art map, remember) that allows the Dm to describe vague half-seen shapes in the (I’ve now added) pale green light. I see the back half of a shadowy colossal stone head up ahead in the pale green light? Let’s go there! This kind of “expansive view in the distance” is invaluable, for those situations in which it’s warranted. For these “I can see a lot so what do I see?” sorts of situations i love a map like this or a brief overview text in the adventure to help orient the players. This does that well.

The little vignettes are pretty imaginative, some interconnected and some not. The first location is a dozen little people washing and feeding and worshipping a giant fire beetle and her three dog sized babies. Her poo glows. Or giant centipede people. Or a cave mouth with teeth that can bite you. Giant demon statues that spit out gems. Giant people buried in rock. Hmmm, come to think of it, there ARE a lot of giant rock people/buried/made of stone elements in the adventure. Whatever, who doesn’t like a giant cracked egg with something squirming inside of it? Or a village that sacrifices every ninth baby to the giant squid monster in the lake and drain their old people of blood to make protein cakes? 

But, they lack a certain something and I’m not sure I can fully describe what. It feels a little like one of those Ed Greenwood adventures where you can look but if you touch you die. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to interact with the various locales other than, maybe, the innate desire of the party to fuck with shit.  Village of stoic philosophy dwarves. Uh. Ok. And? The priestess lives inside that teeth cave? Ok. So? 

There’s a hint, here or there, of something for the party to be driving towards. A 20,000p diamond and an unguarded, but cursed, ancient red dragon hoard. Ok, so, maybe that’s what the party is here looking for? But, still, why am I interacting with the dwarves again? Just like a Greenwood adventure, there’s as much trouble for the party as they make for themselves. (I played with Jim Ward once and his adventure felt the same way. Just don’t fuck with shit. Maybe fun for a one shot you are ok with dying in 90 minutes in to a four hour game, but hard to sustain.)

There are little “hit point tracker” bubbles after each creature and I can’t help but wonder what if those were not there and instead there was just one more sentence? Something to drive the action forward? 

What this needs is just a little more for each encounter. Maybe. Or maybe some kind of global overview and/or “what everyone knows and who likes/hates who and what they want” or something like that. There’s no background or intro at all to this, just a few tables scattered in the adventure. “How did we get here?” “a wizard did it”.or  “You fell through a hole” and so on. 

You could steal a lot from this adventure. Do you want to steal? By which I mean, are you looking for inspiration? That sounds an awful lot like “Adventures for Reading” to me. But, there’s also room in life for Art, right? Is this just art? Art that you’re inspired by? To run a great game? Isn’t that what I implore designers to do? But … is that art? Can it be art AND a good adventure? Sure. But is this everything it could be for the DM? Not without a shock rope attached.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. There’s no preview, but, hey, you can download it for free, so the entire zine if the preview.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/303613/Black-Pudding-6?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Chalice of Blood

Mon, 02/24/2020 - 12:11
By Megan Irving Aegis Studios BGRPG Levels 5-6

A group of Ragnar cultists have found a magical relic, a chalice that can never be filled, and are using it to lure treasure hunters and adventurers to their lair. Foolish adventurers who take the bait and come to the lair are hunted by the monsters guarding the chalice, and are then sacrificed to Ragnar. Leftover bodies are then given to the wyvern lurking in the cavern’s depths. […] The chalice is a magical artifact – when liquid is poured into it, it vanishes. If the command word is spoken while tipping the chalice, any stored liquid pours freely out of it. Unfortunately, it’s currently full of blood, and nobody knows the command word.

This twelve page adventure contains a small twelve page dungeon described in about four or five pages. It’s doing several nice little things throughout to create an interesting environment, from the map to the encounters. Decent enough for a little dungeon.

“Cultists. Ug!” I thought to myself. But, wait, Bryce, don’t you like human enemies? Yeah, but why the fuck are they are always cultists? But, what if they had a slightly different twist? And thus Megan wrote this adventure.

The cultists here are craven little shits. To quote “Overall, the cultists prefer not to fight. Instead, they beg for mercy and give the adventurers as much information as they want.” Also, it gets the adventurers to go deeper in where they’ll get killed, solving their problem. But, still, there are cultists begging for mercy all over the place, hiding under their desks, pleading, acting badass and then collapsing at the first sign of blood. It’s cute. I like it. It adds a good roleplay element to the adventure and dungeon could just about always always use some of that. After all, you can always stab them later.

Speaking of, there are several decent little roleplay things going on. The guards outside, if approached, ask the party to leave. And then they stab the shit out of the party if they do so, but, hey, are you seriously trusting two bugbear guards? Inside there are some crmag slaves too talk to. One little room has a guard room of slaves sitting around a campfire. I imagine they do everything possible to NOT see the party. That could be quite fun. It’s nice to see this in the adventure. Not comic elements but elements that get the party ENGAGED in the adventure rather than just another room of things to kill and loot. 

The map makes an extra effort. Differing levels, flowstone stairs, tunnels, different elevations, even a simple loop or two. And … it’s got monsters marked on it! Just a simple icon to show which rooms have monsters, so you can react them as appropriate to combat next door. And, speaking of, there are roaming patrols and a simple order of battle for the place. Nothing too complex, easily implemented, and just enough to add some realism without it being simulationist. 

This sort of extra little design is present in a couple of areas also. The wilderness encounters, on the way to the dungeon, stand out. This part is handled in some very short text. It tells that that the party passes through three general types of terrain and they will have a wandering encounter in each … and then a four entry table is provided … not all of which has to be combat depending on how the party handles this. The terrain and journey proper is handled through some overview text, such as “The Plains: Where many of their previous adventures have likely taken place – a vast plain of small hills and brush. At first glance, it seems empty, but behind every bush or hill is something strange – two goblin scouts working on a trap, a ruined village full of undead villagers, bandits arguing with younger adventurers.” That’s it. I must say that if you are not going to have a full on wilderness part to your adventure then the format here is quite nice. Some little comments for the DM to add a little extra flavour to the parties adventure if they want to and a wandering table that recognizes the linearity/quantum aspects of the adventure type. There’s no disconnect here of having a twenty entry table over two pages of which nineteen will never get used. Given the design choices made the degree of text makes sense. And I don’t even mean that in a backhanded compliment way. I think it’s a fine way to handle an overland if you don’t want to include a full on one. It’s good.

Magic items are nice also. The one that stands out is a little bone circlet fetish, near ogres. It lets you cast darkness once a day and recharges at midnight. Nice theming there, both with the crude construction bone fetish thing tie in to the ogres and to the darkness recharging at midnight. Another example is some cromags having a rough stone circlet amulet things with a hole in the center for a thong. The magic items kind of theme in well with where you find them and what they do. And they do it without droning on for a paragraph. And since I’m on rewards I’ll mention a “conclusion” award. If the party frees the cromag slaves then they will spread the word and in some hour of need a mighty cromag warrior will show up to help the party. That’s the kind of end of adventure boon I can get behind. It fits in well, is non-mechanical (ug: gold rewards at the end) and it doesn’t enforce morality so much as kind of deal in consequences for actions. There’s no promise, but good returns on itself. A good boon reward. 

The descriptions of the encounters are generally ok, or at least start ok. Nice and brief, flavourful. The DM text (ok, it’s all DM text, but, rather, the “further details” text) does get a little wonky. It looks like Aegis has some kind of house publishing style that is bolding certain things, like “2 potions of healing”, IE: the common magic item bolding format. Better, I think to bold keywords in a section/paragraph to let the DM know what that little blob of text is about then to bold something meaningless like treasure. This might be the major fault of the adventure, as well, perhaps, as being a bit of a reach of having cultists, bugbears, ogres, cromags, and a wyvern all running around in a 12 room dungeon. IE: the pretext could be just a bit better. But … we’re now pretty much in the realm of that elusive fourth pillar of adventures: holistic design.

Decent little adventure. I would not think shitty thoughts if I were asked at the last minute to run it at a con. The … pretext? Around the mixed monsters is a little light and the DM text a bit wonky in places, and that’s making me ask the question about regerts. This adventure isn’t life changing but it is a solid one. Again, I wouldn’t bitch if I had to run it. That means The best, I think.

This is $2 at DriveThru. There’ no preview. PUT IN A PREVIEW!!!

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/302576/The-Chalice-of-Blood?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e AL) Where the Dead Wait

Sat, 02/22/2020 - 12:39
By James Introcaso Self Published 5e Level 3

On their way back to Salvation, the adventurers are ambushed by a large force of undead and forced to seek shelter in a ruined cottage. As the dead close in from all sides, the survivors turn to the Oracle of War for a lifeline. Only this time, things don’t play out as expected….

Oh Adventurers League, never change!

This 28 page adventure is the usual “Night of the Living Dead” scenario, with undead attacking you while you are trapped in a house. Bad novel writing abounds and there is woefully little advice for handling the fortifying and undead assaults. It’s only got about ten pages of actual content, the rest being AL padding. A railroad from start to finish, choke down the crap you’re being fed you AL suckers!

I find myself really looking forward to the newspaper included in each adventure! I love how it sets a great vibe for the greater world. There’s very much a frontier/Deadwood (HBO series) thing going on, if all you ever did was read the newspapers in these adventures. Pretty cool, even with the basic typo’s. There’s also a reference sheet included for the NPC’s in the adventure. 

Annnnddddd…. That’s the last kind thing I’m going to say about this adventure.

This is a hack railroad of an adventure. Not a hack because it’s a railroad, a hack because the designer doesn’t know how to write an adventure. That’s pretty common, very few designers DO know how to write an adventure. So, a hack AND a railroad. Let me count the ways …

The hints are there in the marketing intro “things don’t play out as expected …” This is your first hint that you will not be playing a D&D tonight, you will instead be playing a railroad and be expected to do exactly as the designer intends. Other hints of this include: “The story thus far …” and “Kalli also stars in this adventure …” Let’s add insult to injury. As undead show up on the horizon the scav gang you rescued in the last adventure heads to the house. YOU WILL FOLLOW THE PLOT. THE PLOT SAYS YOU DEFEND THE HOUSE BECAUSE THE DESIGNER THOUGHT THAT WOULD BE COOL SO YOU WILL DO IT AND WE WILL MAKE SURE OF IT BY HAVING THE NPCS GO THERE. EAT YOUR CRAP!

Look, I’m not an asshole. Well, maybe, but I’m not hating on this for no reason. I understand that there are certain assumptions that must be made if you are going to write a ten-adventure arc, or whatever, especially given what I assume to be an assumption that the gaming group will change every week because of musical RPG tables at gaming stores and cons. Yes, I accept that. I object to the ham handed and railroady way this adventure is written. The NPC’s from the last adventure are alive again, except the one that the plot decided might die. That’s bad. The way the adventure is written, to dictate that the party WILL go to the house, implies rather heavily that the designer thought that would be cool so that’s what is going to happen. It’s the pinnacle of bad design: the designer thought it would be cool so it’s going to happen. This stands in contrast to emergent play, that special something that makes D&D special. But you don’t get that.

In fact, the party is punished for not following the script. If you don’t hang out in the little house then you are attacked by all undead at the same time, instead of facing them in waves. Fuck. You. That’s adversarial DM’ing. You’re changing the rules to punish the players if they don’t follow the little plot you’re masturbating to. Bad bad bad design. Oh, until the end, of course. Then you have the option of running away, thrown in as an afterthought. Basically, you take 10HP and get to run away. Yeah! I do that.

The writing is hackneyed. “A few moments later …” or “Th dead want you to join them …” or “They dies in the last war and yet …” or, how about the initial read aloud that has the other scav gang dragging your artifact through the mud? No, no they fucking do not. They don’t get anywhere near MY artifact! (OUR artifact. THE artifact, says Piter.) The writing tells you what you see, feel, and think. It’s fucking lame. It’s TELLING you instead of SHOWING you, and thats the definition of bad writing. 

But, it’s AL, so you get told that “If you gain a level you MUST tick the box on the adventurers record sheet showing that you have gained a level.” Great. This is the kind of padded shit that makes up the bulk of all AL adventures. Recall, this is a 28 page adventure with about ten pages of actual content, for $5. That everyone is going to buy. Nice work if you can get it. It smacks of that Adam Sandler rotating cast of friends that get fat paychecks for doing nothing. But, hey, at least EVERY. SINGLE. FUCKING. TIME. a door or furniture is mentioned it tells us that it takes no damage from psychic or poison damage. Seriously? Is AL D&D THAT pedantic? “Well, the adventure doesn’t say that the boulder doesn’t take poison damage, so I guess it’s ok.” My objection here is that they waste time on this shit instead of on actual content. 

Let’s take that NPC reference sheet. Instead of personality we get things like “Kalli belongs to the grey dogs” … just like she has in the last two adventures. Or, Sprocket, another NPC, having no personality at all on the reference sheet. What do you think the purpose of the sheet is? It gives the DM one place to look for how to run the NPC. This don’t do that. It’s a bad reference sheet. And it wastes an entire page with like five rows of a table. How about you overload that sheet of paper and put a few other reference things on it, like that “environment” shit for the house, how it’s dusky and full of leaves and dirt? Then it would always be at my fingertips, ready for me to add flavour? No? You’re just going through the motions? Ok …

But, again, the major failing is in the lack of supporting the DM. The adventure spends massive amounts of time on combat but, as in the last one in this series, seems to avoid any DM advice in the rest of the adventure. Coming down the chimney is mentioned off hand, but that’s essentially the only thing you get for advice in running this. Moving the furniture, it’s impacts on blocks doors and windows? Absolutely NOTHING. But you’ll drone on about the combat. Is that all D&D is? 4e mini battles? No, there are other pillars of play but you don’t know how to write for that?

There are a couple of climaxes in the adventure. First you are, of course, betrayed by the people you saved from certain death. The adventure justifies this by making them all “Alignment Neutral.” Fucking lame. Second, there’s supposed to be this thing you can do to make all of the undeads heads explode, but only in at the appointed time, after you’ve been betrayed! The clue says you must destroy the five undead focuses. What are they? No idea. 

Oh, it’s the things in the house that are one note? There are multiple features that, if damaged, spew blood everywhere and cause everyone to make a save vs Madness. I guess you discover them during the house exploration. But, all of the house exploration results in these kind of “Take Damage!” traps. No warning, just “did you pay your skill tax and min/max your character build” tax traps. Spew blood. Save vs madness. But, don’t worry! If the madness effect is too serious the DM is encouraged to roll again or use something less serious. So, don’t use the madness table then? It’s, ultimately, a pushback against exploring the house. 

This is bad writing on top of bad design. I make no judgements on the designers ability to write a blog piece, or world build, or run a podcast network, but they have no ability to write a coherent adventure that is useful to the DM at the table. But, hey, they managed to make it on to the writers circuit for this series, so, I guess it’s like a guaranteed $15,000 for every one they write! 

Eat your crap plebs. You wanna play AL? Your DM has to suffer through this.

This is $5 at DMsguild. There’s no preview, so you can’t tell what you are buying before hand and I can’t point you to specific pages to show off the examples of bad writing and design. 

I will, however, make a point here. If you have fun with this adventure it is because of the DM and not because of the designer. The purpose of an adventure is to help the DM run it and this fails at that. 

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/302373/EB03-Where-the-Dead-Wait?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Lair of the Shorlee Wyrm

Wed, 02/19/2020 - 12:35
By James & Robyn George Olde House Rules OSR Lower Levels

Years ago, a dragon was slain in the Shorlee hills, or so said the one surviving warrior who made it back, only to succumb to his wounds before the morning came.  But the attacks ended, so it must have been true. Dead men tell no tales, and the lone warrior died before revealing the location of the beast’s lair. Who knows what riches it held; who can guess what treasures lay unguarded for the taking?  There is an old saying in Shorlee: riches lie not for long, and who knows what dangers – and rewards – await those brave enough to go in search of them, for the site of the old lair is forgotten no longer. Its long-sought depths await the plundering hand of adventurers seeking their glory – or doom.

This 32 page adventure features a two level dungeon with about fifty rooms. It starts with some strong “rural rea-life slain dragon” theming, and then devolves in to mostly a hack. The mystery and wonder of the place peter out after 40% or so, and it reveals itself to be seemingly random, not continuing the initial strong theming. And it’s long-winded for it’s hacking, a quarter page for encounters is the norm with half page/one column not being unusual for “the usual hacking.”

There’s a land right out of Harn, a quiet rural land with a scowling local steward serving his absent lord. A hundred years ago a dragon terrorized the lands and was slain by seven 2nd sons, only the last returning, to local sainthood as The Seventh Man, before perishing from his wounds. The lair was not found. Except now a local shephard found a bunch of coins by a hole in the ground newly opened up from the recent rains and flooding. With looting the lair threaten the lucrative local pilgrim trade?  Strong stuff and a solid planting of the seeds of local legend in a Harn-like land. This is all handled in a several bpage background & overview section. Very light on details and keeping things high level, it provides a pretty solid footing for interpreting what is to come.

And what is to come starts strong. A hole in the ground, opened up next to a tall oak tree (mythic underworld entrance!) with a few coins scattered around. And then a cave, full of massive mushrooms growing in it! Solid entrance. The caves continue. A skeleton half under rubble, a torn bag of coins. A cave with statues … and and a basilisk. There’s a strong low-fantasy, or, maybe, classic fantasy vibe going on.

But this soon devolves. Kobolds show up. In a dormitory with beds. Cultists, replete with suiside herbs stored in their cheeks. (What about Frank? He’s just here to hang out with the guys and play cards and get away from his wife. Now everyone is like Chew these Herbs If We Get Caught … And Keep Them In Your mouth At All Times! And no hint of this cult in the town/village overview section? For Shame!) The patterns become obvious after awhile. Enter a room, hidden monsters attack. There’s a weird thing to look at a time or two, like dragon eggs, broken, with small child skeletons inside of them (and a mute little girl you find the caves …)but for the most part this is just a hack.

And the designer seems strangely interested in keeping any advantage from the party.  The little girl refuses to help the party in any way. The cultists all commit suicide ratherthan be meaningfully questioned. The rings of undead control only work for the cultists. The skull from which gold coins flow (Cool!) is verboten for Lawful characters. It’s all a little forced, IMO, with a touch here and there of enforced morality. A character of Lawful alignment means dumb and unable to have fun, evidentally. Better to leave this stuff out

It is a sign though of one of the major problems with the adventure: the length of the rooms. Even the most simple room goes on for a quarter page, half a column, with longer rooms taking up at least a column. There’s this conversational style and a huge amount of DM asides mixed in with the rooms. I’m not a monster, a sly aside, with a wink, to the DM now and again if a fun little bit. But it becomes prescriptive when the rooms are full of it and you have to wade through all of this DM minutia to get to the important bits of the room … like how many creatures there are and IF there are creatures in the room. And this is an actual problem in several of rooms, the inability to quickly tell how many and of what there are. 

For awhile I’ve had four pillars of judgment. Ease of Use at the Table, Evocative Writing, Interactivity, and the elusive Supreme-Court-Porn of  ‘Design.’ I’ve toyed with the ideas that there is this kind of sliding spectrum of each and at some level they produce something that is worth your time to use. I think, now, though that I’m thinking of it wrong. The overwhelming feedback from most folks, when you talk about adventures, is how they don’t use them because they are hard to use. And they’re right. This points to the Ease of Use pillar. I suspect that there’s actually this hurdle in Ease of Use. The number one priority is to make it easy to use. Because if you don’t then no fucking person is going to use the fucking thing. It doesn’t have to be perfect in this regard, but you have to get over some hurdle. Just make it not torturous to use. Then if you can hit the bare minimum in terms of evocative writing and interactivity then you get a Recommendation. Maybe not even that, maybe you don’t even have to make it an interesting adventure with the writing or interactivity. Just make the fucking thing not a chore so it can actualy be used to play the game. That makes you a Journeyman. Anything at all in the other areas makes you a Master. There’s, how’s that for the setting the baf impossible fucking low and still seeing 90% of the designers not be able to meet it? (These rules only apply to MOSTLY everyone. Jabberwocky’s Wake still gets a pass from me.) Yeah, it’s really taken me ten years to come up with that. Go figure.

It’s short on treasure for an OSR game full of death and hacking. 10,000cp and 5,000sp might be realistic but not level-able. 

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. The preview is two pages and shows you only the setting background. It’s decent read, to get the vibe of the place, but a shitty ass preview since it shows you nothing of the encounters you’ll be purchasing/using. Previews need to give you a sample of what you’re buying. 

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/300851/A20-Lair-of-the-Shorlee-Wyrm?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Ragged Hollow Nightmare

Mon, 02/17/2020 - 12:32
By Joseph Lewis Dungeon Age Adventures OSR (&5e!) Levels 1-4

Yesterday, young Tobias went to investigate an old tomb by himself. Everyone told him it was a bad idea. Everyone was right. Today, you and your companions awaken to a town in chaos. Why is the temple sealed behind a divine shield? Why are children and worshipers trapped within? How do we get inside? What did Tobias do?!

Quick reminder. There’s a Patreon button off to the right. It helps me buy these adventures, uh, so, uh, you don’t have to? But if you donate then you are, also, buying them? Hmmm, I should work on the marketing related to this. One day …

This forty page adventure is PACKED FUCKING FULL. It has a small town/village, about a dozen little mini-adventures, and a temple, sealed off by the powers of good, with about forty rooms in it. There’s good layout, evocative writing, and things to talk to in, what turns out to be, a nightmare madhouse of a temple. Non-combat/NPC interactivity may be a bit low, and the level range may be off also.

You wake up one morning to find the neighbors all rushing towards the temple in town. Seems it’s now surrounded by a strange golden glow and no one can get in or out. The clerics offered free schooling, so, you know, the villagers kids are inside. So, could you, you know …? Also, as one hook explicitly points out “… which is full of rare books, valuable religious art, and magic items!” Yup! Sore would be happy to help! Only one problem … getting past the magical golden force field. Fortunately, the bell tower, 60’ above, it sticking out beyond it. Alas, there is no way to get to it.

This then is what sets this adventure apart. To get to the site, sitting right next to you, you have to find a way in. There are a few items scattered around the surrounding countryside that could help. But it’s not really pointed out anywhere at the start. Talking to people in town will get you some adventure hooks, from the vermind basement to the poison well to the witch that lives in the woods outside of town. There are, I don’t know, a dozen or so of these? Talking to the townspeople might give you three or four, but those lead to others which can lead to others. The formulae might be: the mundane quest in tow leads to something fantastic, which leads to something even more so. The poison well has a mutant frog-man with open sores in it, laying injured. He cna plead for his life, telling the party of a haunted house nearby with a pair of metal jumping shoes. Ah ha! A way up to the tower! And thus it goes.

From a design standpoint this is one of the few misses in this adventure. It feels like there’s a time crunch, to get inside the temple and save people, and it is perhaps a bit non-intuitive that you need to run around the countryside to get in. It’s natural to talk to the townfolk to see what they know, in order to get in, but “clean out my basement” or “the well is poisoned” seems like things to NOT pursue, although The Witch outside of town is a rather obvious follow up in looking for help to get in.

(I might note, as well, that this adventure comes with both 5e & OSR versions. OSR healing being what it is, having substantial adventures before the “main” temple adventure is likely to result in drained HP, and days of recovery time. Perhaps some fun to be had there with nagging villagers, worried about their children, while the party recover from their wounds. Again, a bit of a system/tonal variance in the OSR/5e, but neither this or the “countryside” thing is enough to worry too much about. It’s noff, not a deal breaker.)

The town is nicely done, terse, brief hits of shopkeeper personalities. A little note on “what they know”, IE: the actual play stuff. It’s organized well, with bolded heading and doesn’t go on and on about extraneous details. Really well formatted. In fact, the entire adventure is well formatted and organized. It’s easy to find information and it writing is tight and evocative. A “a town, a main 40-room adventure, and a dozen side quests in 40 pages” would imply. Top notch. It’s three column layout but feels clean and modern without using an avant garde layout, and doesn’t feel cramped at all the way three column can. 

I don’t know what else to say. It’s fucking great? A barrow with a hag eating people. An old woman in the woods who people say is a witch. And bakes cookies. And is a witch. But a nice one. A fey goblin market full of shuckers AND chock full of minor magic, like apples and dolls and their ilk. The town is full of events, at night, the stuff of nightmares, since they ARE nightmares. But it doesn’t FEEL like one of those terrible consequence-free “it was all a dream” adventures. Or even a dream adventure at all. It feels like the real-world, but twisted, but not so much as to stretch disbelief. Well, until you get inside the temple. Then things start to spiral a bit … “An exploded pig lies screaming on the floor. A silver key glint in its mouth.” A) Uh, oooo, that’s disturbing! B) A golden key in it’s mouth?! Sweet! Temptation! I love temptation in an adventure! It’s what D&D is all about!

I would note a few other nits. While the adventure does have some cross-reference, a few more could have been in order. I’m thinking specifically oft he section where it mentions the three items that can help the party get up in to the tower … those could have used some cross-references. There’s also a bit of an issue with what the party sees. It’s natural for the party to explore the outside of the dome, to look in, to see what they can see. There’s no overview of what the party can see, even though there ARE outside areas. This means the DM needs to dig through the adventure for those sections and, kind of ignore the upper levels and the like. A nice overview of “what walking around the place shows you” was in order. Likewise, windows and the people inside? No one at the windows screaming for help, or vignettes of horror? Finally, I would be a bit worried about the party focusing on getting in rather than pursuing the mini-adventures. Like I said, they are behind some barriers and “lets get 100’ of rope and string up a pully system” is, I think, something my party would turn to first rather than a quest for a quest for a quest. That may be an actual play thing, but some guidance in that area would have been nice.

Still, overall, a GREAT adventure. Even the magic broom has a personality!  Great new creatures, good new magic items. The oSR version might be a little light on loot and a little off in level range, but this thing if chock full of flavor and and is easy to use. The nits are easy to overcome. 

Dungeon Age Adventures is one of those publishers/designers to keep an eye on. 

This is $5 at DriveThru, and comes with an OSR version and a 5e version. The preview is fifteen pages and shows you the town, rumors, the layout and design choices, the way it organizes data, and a couple of the side quests. If I were being a hard ass I might have also like to see one page of the encounters of the main temple/adventure to get an idea of what “core encounters” look like also, but, still, good preview.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/301207/Ragged-Hollow-Nightmare-A-Dungeon-Age-Adventure-5e-and-OSR-versions?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Ruins of the Grendleroot – 5e D&D Adventure Review

Sat, 02/15/2020 - 12:11
By Michael E. Shea Sly Flourish 5e Levels 1-5

For a thousand thousand years, an ancient entity has been trapped in the heart of a mountain formed from rock not of this world. Over eons, creatures both monstrous and intelligent have explored the endless tunnels, caverns, and chambers of Blackclaw, answering the call of the mysterious entity buried within it. Over long centuries, hundreds of lairs, cities, keeps, prisons, and tombs were established within the mountain, but even those centuries of exploration did not uncover all its secrets. Then, two centuries ago, the entity now known as the Grendleroot awoke. Indestructible black spires shot through the rock of the mountain like the roots of a deadly weed, shattering civilizations, burying cities, and exposing caverns long lost. Today, adventurers residing in Deepdelver’s Enclave explore these lost ruins once again. They seek fellow adventurers brave enough to answer the call of Blackclaw, and to seek the mysteries of the Grendleroot.

This 172 page book is a collection of ten single-session dungeon adventures (taking up about a hundred and ten pages) set inside of a giant hollowed out mountain, Moria-style.  The adventures are ok, but long read-aloud, abstracted descriptions, and unfocused DM text leads to a product that has ok design but terrible usability. 

So, big hollow mountain full of tunnels, Moria-style, with a rich history. Abandoned due to REASONS. There’s a small village inside in a big chamber, the only settlement, that caters to explorers and serves as homebase. It may cater to explorers, but the party will be going on missions. Mission after mission after mission, instead of exploring. The way the adventures are oriented, the party is really just a set of troubleshooters for the village, dealing with the absurdity that Friend Computer, errr, the villagers, encounter week to week. 

The situations tend to have a slight sense of absurdism to them, just enough to cause the party to do a “Jesus H Fucking Christ … “ as they learn the details. Little Timmy talks to an invisible friend in ancient elvish? Seriously? You thought that was ok? And they disappeared at an ancient temple during Wee Delvers Week? What the fuck is wrong with you people?” Thye absurdism doesn’t go past the set ups, so they work out pretty good. It’s obvious what the adventure is, and slightly amusing without TRYING to be amusing. 

The advenuring environments tend to be small, as you would expect from a two to four hour adventure. Still, not badly done for being small. The first, for example, features a small tower on the outskirts of “town” that only has about six rooms in it … and yet there are three entrances, from the front doors to climbing to the roof to going in through a stream in a cellar. The encounter rooms, also, tend to have several things going on in them, from creatures to things to explore and mess with, in each room. And it tends to do it in a naturalistic way that doesn’t feel forced. Thus the adventuring environment is a rich one to explore. Rewards tend to be nice also, like … that tower in the first adventure! Now you have a home base! And if you rescued someone inside instead of killing them then you might have a caretaker also, grateful for your help in their rescue! And … you might even get a spectre as a butler! Again, rewards to no just hacking him down. And, besides, having a spectral butler is pretty cool. Oh, and a gargoyle doorman. Rich rewards that are not just cash. Thumbs Up!

The setups and situations are nice. But I am not nice.

The adventure is bloated to all fuck all. My position on bloat has softened in recent years. Whereas before I fucking hated it, I now tolerate it as long as it doesn’t get inthe way. I still think there’s some value prop that is miscommunicated in a 200 page adventure that has 150 pages of fluff and fifty of adventure, but, that’s a different problem. The only problem with bloat and backstory is when it gets in the way of running the adventure … as it does here. Now, to be sure, the vast majority of bloat & backstory in this (let’s call it “the setting guide”) is reserved for some chapters that you can easily skip and/or pluck out if they offend thee. And then there’s the embedded backstory in the encounters. This is the real issue with bloat in this, beyond value-prop expectations issues. Background in the encounter gets in the DM’s way of scanning the encounter to run it at the table. Moving it to the end, or beginning, or some other place where the trivia can be ignored and/or referenced at leisure if the way to handle it if the designer believes they simply must include it. 

And then there’s the read-aloud. LONG read-aloud. In italics. In RED italics. My eyes just glaze over at this shit. Long sections of italics, meaning more than a phrase, are functionally illegible. Eyestrain galore! Oh, you can read it, you just don’t want to struggle to. And then, to ALSO put it in a red font? Was the inset box AND the italics not enough to denote it was read-aloud? It also needed a red font to make it even harder to read? WTF Flourish? 

And then there’s the abstraction. Specificity is the soul of narrative. If I rail against bloat I also must rail against abstraction. Targeted specificity is what the word budget SHOULD be spent on. Yet time and again it abstracts. The players recognize carvings of ancient gods. WHICH ancient god? Detharaxis, Reaver of Blood? No, just ancient gods. B O R I N G. Don’t fucking abstract!

The RE is also too expressive. It  gives away all of the details of the rooms too soon.  Writing in read-aloud is described as elvish. Or as religious iconography. Of other details in the read aloud. This helps destroy the back and forth between the players and the DM which is the soul of RPG’s. This interactivity between the DM and their players. There are things carved on it. That leads the players to say “what kind of things.” Or even that there’s just an alter, which causes them to examine it, which causes the DM to mention the writing, which causes them to examine it. Back and forth. But if you put all the fucking details inthe read-aloud then that can’t happen, can it? And the read-aloud is WAAAAAAYYYYY too long. Paragraphs, or columns in some places. Two to three sentences, that’s all you get. 

“Time has not been kind to …” NO! NOT IN THE READ ALOUD! NO FLOWERY SHIT IN THE READ ALOUD! Besides, that’s a conclusion. Don’t put in conclusions. That is, again, an abstraction. Instead write a description (or read-aloud) that makes the players THINK that time has not been kind to this room. SHOW don’t TELL. 

And then there’s the weird absences. If the room has creatures then it’s almost uniformly NOT mentioned in the read aloud, in spite of “is there something about to kill me? Being perhaps the most important thing that the DM can initially mention to the players. It’s fucking weird. Instead it’s all buried deeper down in the DM text. 

Oh, the DM text, terrible in it’s lack of focus. The rooms start with a little brief “important things” keywords, but then those same keywords, the important shit in the room, tends to be buried in the DM text. Room two has statues and mosaics in it, but without bolding in the statues and mosaics paragraphs you’re left to hunt for which Witch is which. Not cool. The DM text is, essentially, completely unfocused. 

I can go on on, covering design decisions, like “how do I know there’s a second path to the temple?” or “You need to use six charges from the wand to solve the adventure but it only has seven charges … why not instead of two encounters each requiring three charges instead they require two, or one? This seems like a design trap and a pushback AGAINST players using the treasure they find … what if the DM has a special use for it somewhere and we need it? Not good D&D. 

So, some journeyman ideas and effort but ruined by being essentially unusable at the table. Let’s hope that improves in the future.

This is $15 at DriveThru. The preview is eleven pages. You get to see the entirety of the first adventure “Starson Tower.” This is great,as it gives an exact idea of the quality of what you are purchasing. Great preview. A brief perusal will also show the red offset long italics read-aloud. Room two is a great example of most of the issues the adventure has with read-aloud and DM text.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/296843/Fantastic-Adventures-Ruins-of-the-Grendleroot-for-5e?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Mike’s Dungeons

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 12:11
Geoffrey McKinney Self-published B/X Levels 1-10

I took my DeLorean time machine back to 1983. I saw there four middle-school boys playing Dungeons & Dragons, and Mike was the name of the DM. I managed to steal Mike’s dungeons and bring them back to 2020. I stole them fair and square, and now you can buy them. Mike did all the work, so we can be lazy.

This 158 page adventure describes a 72 level dungeon. It lies somewhere between “minimally keyed” and “just a bit more than minimally keyed.” And I do mean Just A Bit More. Is minimal keying good enough these days?

So …. Good effort. 72 dungeon levels. Hand drawn maps of about a dozen rooms per level. The rooms are all described on one page, in clean easy to read font with margins. The dungeon map is on the other page, making it a “lay open” book affair. I, also, use 3-rings at home, but rings instead of a folder. It’s a good format for actualling running things. You can flip around easily, fold it back to back, lay it open on facing pages, and find the front and back easily for additional quick-access reference material. 

Geoffrey doesn’t do any of that. It’s just a map and a one-page key, per level, with a singal page of DM background information on page one describing how undead turn as two levels harder and how all Chaotics in the temple levels of the dungeon get a 1 point armor class bonus when attacked by Lawfulls. 

The writing style is one that Geoffrey has used before, such as in Isle of the Unknown. It’s minimally keyed, and, while he doesn’t say it, it looks like he’s using the charts from B/X to roll the encounters on, about one per room. Thus the first level has about fourteen rooms and twelve of them have a creature to slay in it. The thirteenth is the entrance cave mouth and the fourteenth a room with a trick. Stuffed full of creatures!

And minimally keyed. Which I seem to think is important since I seem to be beating that point to death in this review, name dropping it all over the place. The encounters on level one include:

2 chaotic warriors in plate mail with shields and swords.  

Giant orange centipedes crawl in and out of a worthless red glass urn, and they will not attack unless disturbed.  

1 giant yellow scorpion cannot move unless the 319 gp scattered on the floor near the scorpion is touched. 

2 gray oozes are in this cold, damp, and humid chamber  

An 11-headed hydra lairs here. Each of its 22 eyes is an amethyst worth 100 gp  

I’m not summarizing; this is all the text there is for those various rooms. I don’t think I’m cherry picking either, this is fairly representative for the vast vast majority of rooms. It’s very similar to Isle of the Unknown. In both cases it looks like a random generator was used to crete a keying and then an adjective was added, usually a color adjective. Yellow scorpion. Orange centipede.

Which is not to say that the entries are all bad. Crawling in and out of a glass urn is not bad, as ia hydra with amethyst eyes. In both cases it engages the risk/reward mechanism of the party, tempting them to recover loot, present with the hydra and not with the urns.   

And to be fair there are sometimes longer entries. But they are not common. Here’s one in which the creatures will talk to you:

The 9 wereboars here are preyed upon by the cyclops (room B). They will seek an alliance against their hated enemy: “Help us kill him, and you can keep all his gold.”

Your experiences here are going to be related to your tolerance of minimally keying. I don’t have any tolerance for it. There are mountains and mountains of random creature generators online these days to roll up your own dungeon. The level theming is pretty non-existent, except for a an Evil Temple theme which runs through some of the levels. (Portions of a dozen or sixteen levels?) It’s just a novelty, like the Habitation of the Stone Giant Lord art project from a few years back. I’m glad he wrote this, it’s fun to see, but that’s all.

This is $4 at DriveThru. The entire thing is available for preview, all 158 pages. Kudos for McKinney for doing this. Every product should be like this, or, close enough to it that you can get a real sense of what you are buying before you pay for it.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/295151/Mikes-Dungeons?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Where There’s a Will, OSR Adventure Review

Mon, 02/10/2020 - 12:25
By Jacob W. Michaels Raging Swan Press OSR Level ... ?

Standing on a dingy side street in Low City the Scythe has a reputation as a place for hard drinking and its entertainers. Nights at the Scythe are rarely boring—particularly when the legendary halfling bard, Dricolen Nimblefinger, is playing

Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

Why yes, El Senor Lydon, Johnny Feelgood, Liz and I do THE THE FUCKING TIME. (Hmmm, looking this up, the lyric is “Johnny Light on.” I think it’s better as “Johnny Lydon.” Kind of a Peaches “My Chrissy behind is fine all of the tie” Chrissy Hynde kind of thing. That fucking earworm has been out of my head for a week now and I just put it back in. Great.)

This thirteen page adventure details … I don’t know … some vignettes in a town? It’s supposed to be a roleplaying adventure, uh, I mean “eventure”, but in reality it’s just some one of those hooks from a “101  hooks for your party!” products that’s been expanded in to thirteen pages. Just the hook. JUST. THE. HOOK.

Town adventures are one of my favorite things and this product line seems to be trying to do two things. First, no combat, andsecpnd  shit that happens in town during downtime, returning,etc. Not bad, especially the second. Shit going on in town helps cement the characters and who they are, with the players flexing themselves a bit and all them zany human relations. Plus, players seems to have more restraint that usual, not ALWAYS picking the “stabby stabby” solution. SO, good ideas! Town! Yeah!

And very VERY poorly executed.

This isn’t an adventure. It’s not even an adventure outline. It is, I don’t know, a hook? Imagine one of those “100 hooks” products and one line in it is “In town, get part of a map to a pirates treasure during a dead pirate captains wake.” That’s this adventure.

You’re in town, somewhere. You hear bells ringing. A notorious pirate captain is dead. You go see his body strung up at a town gate and met some other pirate captains. You go to a bar and the reading of the will, along with other pirates, and a bunch of map pieces get tossed out. That’s your adventure!

And it’s not even properly supported. There are a bunch of tables at the beginning to add local color to the town: rumors, street scenes, gossip and the like. They tend to be well done, although the street scene tables could be more oriented toward the pirate captain being dead instead of the usual “beggar with his bowl” shit. But, that’s the good part. It’s full of things like “the pirate tell tall tales” … without anything to get the DM started. It’s critically important in these situations to give the DM something to work with. Not a novel, a few words, maybe one sentence. Just enough to get going. But this don’t do that. And this happens repeatedly. There are these little two or three sentence paragraph that describe these HUGE scenes, like the stringing up and viewing of the body at the the gates. I finally figured out that these little things ARE the “adventure.” These two or three little sentences in their little scenes scattered around the test are what is supposed to occupy the players and their characters. But it’s unsupported. 

It THINKS it’s supporting them though. We get full write ups on six pirates including their history, and other details that mean little to the adventure. MAYBE, in an ongoing campaign, this kind of extra detail is worthwhile, and this IS meant to be a town thing, so, recurring. And there IS a decadent dive bar full of twisty passages, etc, that is more a “city bar location fluff” than “adventure location.”

So what you’ve got here is a fluff product that says it’s an adventure and is TRYING to be an adventure but succeeds in only being fluff. Don’t get me wrong, I like fluff. Inspiration is good. But it’s not an adventure. 

This is just an outline. And an outline of a hook, at that, that lasts thirteen pages. 

*bleech*

This is $3.50 at DriveThru. To its credit, the preview shows you the entire product. CHeck out page seven of the preview/five of the book. This is the “Traitors Gate” hanging scene. That column of text is all you get (!) to run it. A column should be more than enough … but this column tells you nothing pertinent to running this as a scene/encounter.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/300608/Where-Theres-a-Will-OSR?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) The Song of the Sun Queens

Sat, 02/08/2020 - 12:11
By Shane Ivey Arc Dream Publishing 5e Level 2

The adventurers have journeyed uncounted miles to the vast plains of the Sunlands. A merchant in a faraway city told them that a great treasure rests in an ancient, cursed ruin called Juakufa. Where can the ruin be found? What is the nature of the supposed curse? What dangers lurk along the way? What are the Hyena Giants? And what were the mysterious Not Heres? The adventurers may learn all that from the people who abandoned Juakufa long ago. But first, they must survive being guests of the Sun Queens.

An average rating of 4.5 on DriveThru?!? You just KNOW this one is going to be good!

This forty page adventure uses about twenty pages to describe, I don’t know, six encounters? Maybe? The rest is appendix and pregens. It’s got an Africa theme. It’s a fucking mess of a mess, almost incoherent in how the adventure is laid out.  

So, Africa theme. They ride around zebras. No joke. They hunt ostriches. They all get together to sing and dance for your entertainment. Yes. That’s right. No joke. Also, the friendly queen in the adventure wants to have sex with you since you’re an exotic foreigner. And she claws your back “during an intimate moment.” So, creepy African stereotypes and creepy sex shit. A perfect combo for your lighthearted D&D game. [For what it’s worth the African guy here at work says that the African version of “Everyone in Africa rides zebras” is that the streets are made of gold in the US. Immediately upon residence you become rich.] Ok, weirdo shit out of the way, there’s more than enough disgust with this adventure outside of these elements in order to call it bad, so, non-issue. [Oooo, what if it WAS a really well written adventure/good adventure, but was FULL of creeper stuff? What then? “The Supreme Court does not deal with hypotheticals, Sir!”]]

There’s some “you heard about a ruined city full of treasure” thing, but the adventure starts with the party on the plains of Africa and in the court of these two queens. Kind of. It’s hard to say. It’s ala a mess. There’s some description of the queens and their court and how they hate each other, and then an ostrich hunt. There’s no real “Arrival” or anything. It’s just got background on the “the Sunlands” and then launches in to “The Ostrich hunt” where your on the plains with the queens and a bunch of africans hunting ostriches. It’s jarring. There’s no pretext at all. Just: hey! Here’s scene one of the adventure and it’s not an introduction!” 

Another example of this sort of “things not said” issue follows immediately. The hunt is attacked. Now, the party is out riding zebras catching ostriches or out int the field kind of “beating” to drive them. The hunt is then attacked, the ostriches anyway, but some, I don’t know, bird monster things. But the SCENE is an advisor running up to the queen saying that the hunt has been attacked by some Ghjkdfgdfhgdef. Whatever, some foreign word that the adventure keeps dropping the fuck in because it thinks that I, the DM, wants to keep track of this shit in my head. That shit is for the players, not the DM. Anyway, the dude is yelling that a Ghdkfghdk is attacking the hunt. The hunt that is RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU.  That YOU ARE A PART OF. Do you now see it? The queen responds: “is it a HKDJHDDD?” No, bitch, it’s right there, look! Does it look like a Hhdjfhjdkfd?” Ok, so, not fair to the queen, it’s not her fault, it’s the designer and editors fault. It’s their weird kind of disconnect where it almost seems like two different people worked on this and a third blindly put it together without marrying the two writers content. And the fucking adventure does this REPEATIDLY. It’s a basic continuity issue. 

Good news though, you do get XP is you are good-aligned and save someone in the hunt. Yeah for enforced morality by the DM! I guess if you want to play D&D then you’ll play the fucking game the way this designer wants you to and FUCK YOU PLAYER if you deviate? 

There’s more singing and dancing by the happy africans and then the queen sleeps with the exotic foreigners.

You go visit a few villages. The locals sing and dance for you and tell you that you should leave all your gear with them since you are going to die anyway when you get to the ruined city.

The adventure is linear, with  a brief walk up a mesa, getting attacked by gnolls. Err, giant hyena people. The maps all fucked up and doesn’t show the encounters in the right place, one of them being off to the side. I guess no one cared to fix that mistake? Up top there’s a fortress. I GUESS that’s the ruined city you were looking for? It’s never mentioned that it is? Or that it’s your destination? I thought it was just a side trek, but no, it’s the object of your quest. Inside is a ruined keep with about, I don’t know, 25 rooms? Al are unnumbered, undescribed except for four. Three of those are just some dream sequence stuff where you hear a voice in your head and maybe a will o wisp does a hit and run. The last room has a devil in it for you to kill. Yeah! You freed the land from the curse and laid some ancestors to rest so they can be reincarnated as elephants! You get 120gp in coins and two objects worth a total of 65gp! I guess it was worth that ten day journey to get here. Plus that trip to Africa. How long was that boat journey here, and how much did it cost?

Anticlimactic bullshit, that’s what this is.

This thing has a couple of decent ideas. A ruined land/forbidden zone under a curse is a classic trope. WIll o’the wisps representing the souls of dead people is nice, as is their nature of just being on the outskirts of the scene/vision in the ruined fortress. All but one leave you alone, and he’s a bad guy/traitor, or, was, in real life.  A devil on a throne in the middle of te ruined fortress, sending you dream visions in your head, taunting you, while these dead people wisps float on the periphery, in a ruined and blasted Forbidden Zone? That’s great! 

It’s just terrible as implemented. It’s linear, essentially an empty adventure, ham handed in its culture use, and an INCOHERENT MESS when it comes to scene transitions. And I haven’t even mentioned it’s reliance on the “long text paragraph” to relate information; perhaps the most common sin in all 5e adventures.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is four pages long, but only shows about two pages of text. You do get to see the intro. Literally “you journeyed here and are at the court.” And you get to see the transition to the ostrich hunt. So, VERY representative of the writing you’ll get.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/283114/The-Song-of-the-Sun-Queens-5e?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Flying Fortress of the Celestial Order

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 12:11
By Radulf St. Germain Studio St. Germain OSR? Generic? 5e? "Lower Levels"

The  city of  Shallow Bay  is preparing for  the greatest social  event of the year when  an eagerly-expected shipment of ball gowns goes missing. Rumors abound of goblins gathering in large gangs to cut off all commerce to the city. While  all seems like a routine job for adventurers there are hints of some sinister ancient evil pulling the strings in the background. Can the party save the Day of the Revered Ancestors and what will they find as they  become embroiled deeper and deeper into the machinations of the mysterious Celestial Order?

This 29 page adventure has a loose plot to it combined with a sandboxy format. Probably meant  for 5e, it’s presented without stats. Dripping with the kind of flavour I wish all adventures had, this things fatal flaw is its organization, an arrow that has taken down many a sandboxy adventure. I started to ask myself, during this review, “Man, is it worth it to highlight this thing and create some reference sheets?” That’s a good sign.

This thing has style! The city it is set in was founded by a Lich, overthrown many many years ago, with his phylactery rumored to still be around. The hook is a shipment of ball gowns in a caravan that gets raided … what will the local fops wear to the Day of the Revered Ancestors ball? (A little Lexx mixed up in your fantasy, maybe?) The elemental earth cult? It’s not an earth cult. It’s not THE cult of elemental earth. It’s called The Shallow Grave Consortium … and the leader sleeps in a barrow. The local bar, the Drunken Sailor, is known for its knife fights and shady dealings. The local guy who informally heads up the fisherman in town is not opposed to organizing a beating for those who show disrespect. There’s a flying fortress with a giant brass flywheel on it (it’s the air cult, chill out) and it’s been grounded, anchored via … a literal giant anchor with a huge fish … sculpture? swallowing it. And that’s not even described, it’s just shown in a little sketch drawing. Time and time again this thing hits with the sort of specificity that makes an adventure feel ALIVE. Fuck the generic Earth Cults and long live the Shallow Grave Consortium!

Over and over again. The NPC’s are given brief little bursts of flavour that a DM can hang their hat on. The cult leader is highly dramatic and listens to an invisible advisor. The raven spy looks down on beings who cannot fly. (Get it?! Get it?!)  People are described as corpulent, or noble matrons, or the Pointy Hat goblin tribe who wears … Wear huge pointy helmets and sport huge mustaches. They have no real boss.” The flesh golem that shows up is not a Frankenstein’s Monster, or even a Frankensteins Monster monster Frankenstein, but in the form of a giant snake. A noble matron thinks the mayor is a vain idiot. It goes on and on and on. The adventure elements are strong. It’s something that the DM can work with … if it does, at times, trend a bit to the absurdit side of the line, hopping over a time or two but not taking up full residency. 

It’s also trying to help the DM out. There’s a one page cheat sheet that describes the adventure. There’s a flowchart of events, since this is ultimately a sandbox plot of the villains trying to do something more than linear adventure. It even has notes on the flowchart of what happens if the current “activity” is foiled by the party. There’s DM advice in places, like suggesting fires in the windmill used to grind flour may result in an explosion. There’s even a couple of pages of tables at the end full of charts that can be used to create flavourful little houses in town, full of secrets and plots and the like. 

But, it’s TRYING to help the DM, and not actually doing so. The cheat sheet only really makes sense after going through the adventure the first time, so it doesn’t orient as much as summarize. The flowchart may be the best part, but the section headings it refers to could be labeled/organized stronger. For it’s attempts at helping it’s still kind of a glorious mess.

There’s a lot of repetition of information, and meaningless information at that. It’s using a kind of free text/paragraph format, with certain words in italics to draw the eye. That’s not the strongest way to organize, especially given the amount of extraneous text in the adventure. There’s a decent number of NPC’s, and some kind of summary sheet would have useful to help the DM during play. I don’t know how to say this and get it to come across right. The section headings and extraneous text weaken the adventure to the point where it’s kind of hard to figure out how to run it and what’s going on, and that’s with the flowchart and cheatsheet. This is a sandbox sort of issue, in general; finding a way to organize the material for quick reference during play in an unorganized play style is no small feat. 

This thing drips with flavor. It references some princes of the Apocalypse creatures, and is a better PotA chapter than a real PotA chapter. I’m keeping it as “generic” since it’s stateless, and the only stat reference is to reference some 5e monsters in the end in order to localize it. I might suggest the same for some LabLord creatures as well; it would be a helpful touch. Treasure, is, of course, light given the generic/5e flavour.

So is it worth it? Not to me. There’s just a bit too much effort in pulling things together. I will say though that St. Germain has their shit together with respect to flavour and “arc without having a plot.” You might even say there’s a nod to Rients with a flying fortress showing up to raid the town. Some serious work in massaging the text in to a format to make it more easily runnable at the table would marry that to the flavour and make it something decent to run.  I do, though, look forward to seeing future efforts by this designer to see if they can figure things out.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The preview is four pages. It gives you an overview of some of the factions, actors, and locations. For this sort of sanboxy sort of adventure it’s an appropriate preview, showing you the sort of information transfer, flavour, and organization you can expect. Take a look at it and note both the flavour and the extraneous text and how it’s not exactly the best at declaring where you are and what’s important.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/300908/Flying-Fortress-of-the-Celestial-Order?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

An Easy Task

Mon, 02/03/2020 - 12:11
By FEI Games Inc FEI Games B/X Levels 3-5

A group of minotaurs have moved into the area. A farmer spotted them at the ruins down the road and now the locals want them gone.

I don’t know man. Really, I don’t. I apologize.

This seven page adventure is actually a (very small) one page dungeon with four rooms. It features fourteen minotaurs and fourteen dire wolves. It is minimally keyed ala Palace of the Vampire Queen. Uh, it has 4000cp of treasure. I don’t know what to say. It’s one of the worst?

Seven pages for this. One title page. One page with the adventure on it. One page with the stats for the two monsters. One page to note 4000cp in treasure. Two pages of license and one blank page. I am an optimist. Really, I am. The wurstest pessimists are always the most idealistic optimists. I WANT to believe that a short adventure can be good. There are some! I promise! But not this one.

Ok, a hunter sees some minotaurs at a ruin down the road, goes to the inn, and insists the party take care of it free of charge since they’ve been staying in the area. Of course, they can keep any treasure they find. This is the hook. It appears on the one adventure page. It preceded by a section telling us that the minotaurs have moved in to the ruin because they had good luck with their last raid. I guess that’s the background. The last two sentences is the wilderness adventure: the hunter takes them to the ruin but will not fight. The five-ish sentences that make up those three things take up half the page. The one one page that has the entire adventure. I question if that was the best way to spend the word budget allocated to this title …

It’s minimally keyed. “Room 1) 5 minotaurs.” That’s it. Nothing else. There are four rooms, all minimally keyed. The map is a small plus sign; one central room up high with three other rooms connected to it in the cardinal directions. Each room has a bunch of minotaurs and/or dire wolves in it. There is an order of battle! One of te minotaurs will ring the gong in the central room, summoning all of the minotaurs ot the battle, if, I guess, they didn’t already hear it, being 20’ away from it and all that.

Fourteen 6HD minotaurs at … third level? Fifth Level? And that’s doesn’t even include the fourteen 4HD dire wolves that are also included. A combat. Just a hack. Nothing else to this. 

The treasure is 4000cp. Seriously. And 500sp. A jewelry worth 30gp. 2 potions. “Various mundane items worth 700gp.” Ok, so, realistic, I guess? Oh, oh, and, of course, “the DM can also place any other treasure they would like.” Yeah, no shit? Can I, the DM, also breathe while running this? And speak? Just last night I was just writing an article about this”feature” of adventures. How they put in this “add an encounter of your choice” or “include any treasure you want.” Surprise surprise surprise, I see another example of it this morning. 

What’s the count at? I don’t know.

A one page adventure listing itself at seven pages. Because it is seven pages: one page of adventure and six of fluff. A hack a thon in B/X, where Hack a thons are essentially insta-death, so, no basic understanding of the game system. Also illustrated by having the third to fifth level adventure having fourteen 6HD monsters and fourteen 4 HD monsters. That will, essentialy, attack en masse. Also no understanding of how gold=xp work, since 4000cp ain’t gonna cut it for leveling purposes. That’s where most of the XP comes from in basic and it ain’t present here, especially at this risk level. Minimal keying, bringing nothing to the adventure. A hook relying on the party to be Goodies. A map small enough that order of battle doesn’t matter.

No exploration. No wonder. No joy. This is a 4e adventure pretending to be B/X.

This is $2 on DriveThru. Being one of the worst, it of course has a three star rating on DriveThru. Because reasons. You cannot, in any way shape or form, trust the ratings on Drivethru. There the weirdo page-flip preview instead of a full size one. If you squint hard you can see the map and the minimal keying next to it. That’s the adventure. The entire thing.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/300205/An-Easy-Task-An-OSR-B-X-Fantasy-Rule-System-Game-Scenario?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) The Secret of Cedar Peak

Sat, 02/01/2020 - 12:16
By Hein Ragas Capybarbarian 5e Level 1

Kingshold is a sleepy garrison town at the edge of the kingdom. Bertu Arnels, the respected herbalist in town, sent out an expedition to Cedar Peak Forest, about a day’s travel across the border, to look for useful herbs. When the expedition does not return, she seeks adventurers to investigate and make the forest safe for herb picking. Will you travel to the base camp, and discover the truth behind the horrifying Secret of Cedar Peak?

This 27 page adventure details a small seven room cave and a couple of outdoor encounters using about eleven pages to do so. Straightforward hack/explore of the usual “figure out what is going on, sneak around, kill shit” variety, it uses a good room format to support its weaker evocative and and interactive elements. Continuity problems stand out. With work this could be on the duller side of “ok.”

There’s this thing I like to call “Pretending to be an adult.” This is where you ape the behaviours you’e seen or heard about, thinking that’s the “right thing to do.” Without understanding though, it appears to be just going through the motions. What if you have good ideas, though, or at least not bad ones? Then it’s surrounded by this ape’ing. And thus, this adventure.

This is not a bad adventure, or a good one for that matter, in its core concepts. The party is hired to find some people who have disappeared, an herbalist expedition. Investigating, they visit a small village, “explore a forest”, find some caves, and kill the thing in the cave. I might call this “the usual layout for a plot based adventure.” Hired, investigate, village, wilderness, lair dungeon. To generalize, interactivity in these affairs is usually limited to a little sneaking around to get in to the dungeon and some roleplay in the village. And thus it is with this adventure as well. The usual beats happen. Interactivity is low, with a little roleplaynig and maybe sneaking up on a guard post being non-hack highlights.This doesn’t have to be a bad thing in the plot-based world. Yes, it’s a bit formulaic, and I’d like to see better, but reality is that most plot-based games and adventures follow this formula. They almost all need to up the interactivity element, but, if they can solve the ease of use problem then you’d have a great sea of Marginally Useful Generic Adventures … instead of  the great sea of crap we have today.

This adventure DOES try to excel and rise above the usual dross, and it largely succeeds. Yes, the villagers are in on it, they are always in on it, but at least these villagers have some self-loathing. And, if confronted by the party, they attack the party. But, it’s not a combat! The advice is to let the party slaughter them as the villagers die to the last. Oh, and what do you do with the three young children left behind? I was surprised, and delighted, to see the designer breaking out of the usual formula. And, if the party comes back to the village after defeating the cave monster (assuming they did not confront the villagers beforehand …) they will either find the village burned down (if they were warned by an escapee) or the villagers will throw a huge party, their relief at the end of The Situation, being palpable. Also, the party gets out of hand, there’s a fire that burns everything down, and the villagers disappear. Weird to end all plots threads on this point, but whatever, they all work as a real conclusion in one way or another. Both the village slaughter and the party/burndown show that a little extra thought has gone in to this adventure. And you can tell. 

The singular enumerated village encounter, with the smith, shows signs of life also. Is reactions make sense. Further, there’s a nice little bit of formatting with bolded heading and short little sentences that relate his responses to common questions. A similar format is followed by the room entries in the dungeon, with a short read-aloud followed by some bolded heading that have more information for certain things on the read-aloud. This sort of formatting makes it easy to locate information, allows for easy scanning, and therefore ease of use at the table. All nicely done. 

There’s some X-card warnings up front, for, I think, a little kid who survived an abduction. His mom might get eaten in front of the party by the cave monster. There are a couple of possible “gruesome” little vignettes with the kids mother/family being eaten. (As an aside, aren’t we ALL responsible for the X card shit, because we didn’t push back on the edgelords hard enough when they did their edgy shit? Or do we blame it on the indie RPG and their Psychological Growth RPG’s?) Again, a nice little element to heighten the horror. SHOW don’t TELL. And this shows. He’s not an evil monster because the villagers, or diary, says so. He’s evil because he calls people “meat” in conversations with them (Objectification! The true definition of evil!) and gruesomely eats still living people. No fucking moral quandryies there. I presume he won’t be arrested with non-lethal combat?

This is not, however, a good adventure. 

Read alouds tends to the dull side with boring words like “large cave” and other such descriptions abounding. There’s a two paragraph section on spotting a wagon. And two paragraphs up front on “roleplaying” that seems to have nothing to do with roleplaying. The start town gets one and half pages of description in spite of it having nothing to distinguish itself from every other generic border town.We do get a paragrapgh, multiple in fact, on the entire life fucking history of the person who hires them, including her life as an apprentice. All of this padding takes seven pages before the hook shows up. IE: it’s padded to all fuck out. 

This also shows up in long DM notes section. Rather than emulating the bolded section heading style, perhaps augmented by bullets, whitespace, tables, etc, it instead relies, as per usual for these sorts of adventures, on the long multi paragraph exposition, a nightmare to dig through at the table. It repeats information, telling us the same information about the “telepathic” monster over and over again. Offering justifications for people’s behaviour, or why cultists believe what they do. This is all padding. 

Worse are the basic editing/continuity issues. The blacksmith can show up one point “with the little girl in tow.” This being the first time the little girl is mentioned, I have to wonder “Huh?” Or Telling the MD that by now the party has had a few encounters with the cultists … when in fact they’ve probably had none at all. Other misses include room descriptions that don’t actually mention what the room is (the Chapel being a major offender here … just mentioning a few details and nothing much chapel like in the RA) or burying monster entries in the DM text instead of the RA. You have to tell the players the obvious/important things first, and ten bloodthirsty cultists seems like an important room detail to me. 

Or maybe not. “The rest of the cultists are found here in this room. “How many is that exactly? We don’t know. The Rest. But there’s no number to begin with. Other examples include the monsters being buried in the last sentence of a text entry, or things like that, things that make the DM hunt for the information instead of ordering the information in a logical manner that’s easy to use at the table. This is not a Nit. These are core usability issues when the text runs long, as it does in this. 

And, ultimately, the party never does really find evidence of the people they sent to go looking for. I guess you can make an assumption, but dropping a few details in a room about bodies or gear would have seemed appropriate. Combine all of this with what is an abstracted “forest/wilderness exploration” section and this is worth a pass. It’s got some ok elements that do try to elevate and show more talent than is usual in these things, but it needs to stop pretending to be grown up and learn how to relate information other than in long-form paragraph form. And write descriptions that are more evocative (while staying terse!) and look for opportunities for more interactivity. 

This is $5 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Put in a preview! And make it a good one that shows us a bit of the dungeon encounters and a bit of the wilderness ones (if there actually were any instead of a handwave …) a bit of social. Let us know what we are buying!

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/299279/The-Secret-of-Cedar-Peak?1892600

As an aside. This takes place in a sleepy frontier town. Are there such things? Or are all frontier towns bustling affairs with people going out to homestead and seek their fortunes? And the guards don’t give a shit because it’s outside the border of the kingdom, the kingdom ending, evidently, right outside the gates. A) these people deserve what will inevitably happen to them. You keep problems from becoming End Of The World by taking care of them early. Besides, they threaten your tax base, even if they are outside your border, proper. A border that doesn’t exist since there’s no else who owns the land out there. So why didn’t the lord claim it anyway?

Also, I’d totally have some tourist traps. “Come see the egge of the World!” and a Four Corners type monument. Tours, An official “kingdom border” line. Trinket shops. The whole nine yards. Why yes, I did just take a road trip last weekend in which I passed many roadside attractions, why do you ask?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

At the High Point Inn

Wed, 01/29/2020 - 12:11
By Bill Reich Self-Published OSR Level 1

This fourteen page adventure is set in an inn. There’s a fight, I think, that happens? In the inn? More than that I’m not sure. I’m not even sure what system this is for. It’s very hard to figure out what is supposed to happen.

As best as I can tell, you go to an inn to stay the night, someone hires you, or tries to, for protection. AT some point during the night three dwarves staying in the inn star a fight. Or kill the guy? Or something? It’s never really stated. This is really as close as the adventure gets: “If Barnart Hartwell is alone in the Taproom, the dwarfs prevent him from sounding an alarm that might warn other inn residents. Barnart may survive an attack by these ruthless, practiced fighters.” So ….

This IS, I think, all there is of the adventure. Arrive at inns common rooms. Maybe get hired. Hear and/or engage in a fight with three dwarves.

And now on to the system. It’s listed as OSR and the cover states OSR/D20 systems. But then it talks about air, body, and power magic. That’s not OSR/d20? And a point of magic protection and two points of undead protection? That’s not D&D? Or d20? Mineral fiber and plat over fiber? Is that some system? It’s got AC, HD, and HP, as well as a single “Save” number. Weapons are d4/d8. Spells include some recognizable ones and “Darkness Globe,” I have no fucking clue what system this is for. Money is in $, 80$ and such. No clue.

The first two or three pages are oriented at the players, I think. I think it might be read-aloud. I think. It’s not formatted like that. But it does use language “Upon entering the taproom you recognize …” and other first person kind of text that seems oriented toward telling the party what they see, feel, think or do. The lack of … understanding? Formatting? Provided to differentiate the text is one problem and text that IS read-aloud that tells the party what they think or feel is another common mistake. There’s also this weird abstraction of detail that’s present. Or time dilation? “Table H is the rowdiest table in the room, what with three dwarfs playing cards and drinking by-the- mug lite. Later, as they switch to a by-the-pitcher dark brew, the table quickly fills with bronze coins. You hope that they are not mean-spirited when drunk.”  Note not only the “You hope …” text but also the “Laster, as they switch to … “ text. Rather than playing EITHER section out in the game both are summarized. The You Hope portion should be something that the players actually feel, rather than being told that they feel. The “Later …” section should come through roleplaying. Instead it’s this weird time compression. And almost all of the first few pages are like this, the text weirdly summarizing things and telling the party what they think … without any regard to the formatting. It’s almost like there should be a boxed about the first two pages of text, to indicate read-aloud.

Later, during the night, “Any PCs in the corridor come to the aid of Hobson and Bifur.” Uh, no I don’t …

There are some timelines present, and some NPC’s, as well as a summary sheet of a BUNCH of NPC’s. I THINK the party is supposed to talk to people and that there are supposed to be differing alliances from the NPC’s and the party talking to them is supposed to do something, like make the fight larger? But that’s conjecture, there’s nothing like that. I’m just guessing because there are a lot of NPC’s presented and some kind of political overview about internal and external dwarf factions. I have no idea about the timeline. Someone takes a bath at 3am? Is that relevant for some reason? The action happens before then, pretty sure, based on the timeline. 

So, the system seems all over th place. The text is all over the place. I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen in this “sandbox” expect for a fight … lethal, non, no clue. It seems like the NPC’s and timeline should interact with everything somehow, but it’s not clear how. 

This is $.5 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. Pages two and three are that weird maybe read-aloud? Page six has an adventure overview section that details the action? I think? Based on this can you run the adventure? Because the other other pages don’t really help much more. At all.


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/300900/OSR-At-the-High-Point-Inn?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Lizardmen of Illzathatch

Mon, 01/27/2020 - 12:11
By Shane Ward 3Toadstools Labyrinth Lord Level 3

The green dragon Illzathatch has been dispatched by local heroes “The Shields of Atreu”, thus ending his reign of terror across the countryside.  Only one problem remains, the adventuring party left to raid the lair of the dragon, they have not been seen since.

This thirteen page adventure, from 2014,  features a small fourteen room dungeon described in five pages, the rest being advertising, licensing, etc. The map bears little relation to the text, and the encounters a bit sparse. It’s a straightforward dungeon with a few twists but not much that’s memorable.

The dungeon here is pretty straightforward, just a few rooms and just a short description for each, about four per page. The encounters tend toward being interactive, more so than combat anyway. A dwarf drinking, who’s actually someone else. Bandits and lizardmen fighting each other. Other lizardmen, no longer slaves of the slain dragon, gaming and drinking. These are highlights of the adventures; little encounters that are more than just a monster or a trap that springs. This is a strength of the adventure: the encounters, the monster ones anyway, are generally not just hacks.Except when they are, like a giant snake that barely fits in a room that has a chest in it. Obviously a hack, and not much player choice in that, since the party don’t see the chest AND snake. Seeing the chest and CHOOSING to fight the snake to get it is a much different affair than opening a door and having a snake attack the party … and then finding a chest.  Does everyone understand why? In the first case it’s a player choice. The chest is the temptation, the bait, to get the party to engage with someone they know they should not. In the second it’s a “It Attacks when you open the door” case, with the chest then treasure. The first requires a layer choice while the second does not. Certainly, not every encounter needs to involve choice like this, but player choice and interactivity are SUPPOSED to be a hallmark of our hobby. Can anyone argue, without resorting to corner cases, that’s not true?

The map is simple, and a mess. While it has same-level stairs and tunnels that run under/over some of the rooms and hallways (great additions to a map that use it leverage even more interactivity and mystery out of a DM tool) it also bears little relation to the text. Some of the text refers to rooms having doors. Some of the text does not. None of the rooms on the map have doors. The room text describes each room; this room is 20×30, for example. Except on the map it’s not 20×30 it is instead 50×60. Weird features on the map are not explained, hallways that go nowhere or look to go elsewhere. 

There a bit too much emphasis on GotCha! Traps. A trap in the middle of the hallway, tis happens several time. Or, you’re walking down the hallway and the DM asks for magic saves from everyone. First, these arbitrary traps create paranoid players. Instead of playing the game they are busy trying to not get fucked over by the DM. They search every 10 square for a trap, for example. D&D becomes a slow grind instead of being full of wonder. The traps have little in the way telegraphing them, nothing in most cases. Thus it’s completely arbitrary.  Arbitrary is seldom good, especially at this level. Little clues like mentioning dust, cracks on the walls, blood, etc, are a way to the DM to drop hints that are then expanded upon if the party follows up with more examination. Otherwise it’s the old “Yup, you all missed your save, you were disintegrated when you entered the empty room. New characters!” There might be some role for this as the party gets to higher levels and they should be using their spells and research to find out more about the dungeon, but at lower levels especially you might as well just roll a d6 at the start of each adventure for each character and on a one or two they just die. ITS THE SAME THING. It’s arbitrary. It doesn’t matter if it’s a trap they can’t see/don’t have a chance of detecting or a BLATANT roll by the DM, abstracted. Both are equally bad. If you roll a save you detect a strong odor. How about instead the DM somehow mentions an odor that, if followed up on, is chlorine? Interactivity vs arbitrary.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of … $0! The preview is five pages and shows you most of the rooms, so good preview from that standpoint. Note the writing style and in particular the disconnect between the map and the text. 


https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/140087/The-Lizardmen-of-Illzathatch?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Voice in the Machine

Sat, 01/25/2020 - 12:07
By Will Doyle Self Published 5e Level 2

The brokers of Salvation pay good coin for artifacts scavenged from the haunted battlefields of the Mournland. In this nest of cutthroats, daring explorers gather to carve their destinies from the ruins of Cyre. The adventurers head deep into the Mournland to rescue a missing salvage team. In the heat of battle, they unearth a strange device from the ruins: the Oracle of War. This machine knows all the secrets they need to overcome their enemies—if only the adventurers can figure out how to operate it!

This 32 page adventure has the party exploring an old marketplace to rescue another salvage crew. The big payoff, half the adventure, is a handwaved open tactics sandbox. Poorly implemented, as usual, and as usual, you can see where it WANTED to go and those ideas are quite good. I look forward to the day they actually deliver. If it ever comes.

Right off, let me say that this series as won me over to the Eberron setting. I don’t think I ever understood it before but now I see promise. A STALKER (or Stalker) like experience in a post-apoc setting. These are all things that speak to my soul. There’s been this little newspaper handout in each adventure thus far that has some colorful little things in it, adds for leaving your will to the war orphans, notes that the last group to explore was drown in a pool of living mercury … the whole series has these little things it drops in that adds a lot of brief color. It’s doing some other interesting things as well, like placing good effects from mournlands travel hazards in a table with bad effects also. I’m a big fan of mixing in good effects with bad ones on choices the players make: how else will they ever  be convinced to eat the glowing tree fruit if ALL glowing tree fruit fucks them up? It’s mis-implemented here, on a table of “what happens if you fail your survival check”, but, still, their hearts are in the right places.

Speaking of, the thing has a lot of ok ideas that are mis-implemented. It REALLY like to abstract descriptions. “In here, the town’s brokers do business from behind armored counters.” Well, that’s fucking boring. This was a perfect opportunity to describe a Thunderdome like weapons check, or something else, and instead it’s all “behind armoured counters.” B O R I N G. Because it’s an abstracted description. Specificity is the soul of narrative. Instead we get words wasted on “The Salvage Market is a dirt-floored warehouse built from scorched wood planks scavenged from the Mournland. The room reeks of dust, sweat, and oil.” Dirt floored? Great. Scorched wood? Great. Dust, sweat, oil? Great (I maybe would have thrown in “sweltering” also) “scavenged from the Mournland”? Who gives a fuck?Do they have twisted faces and scream? Otherwise who cares? Better to stick in a couple of more words and/ore rewrite the last sentence to describe someone behind an armoured counter. Now, I’m being pretty specific in this one example but the adventure does this abstraction over and over again. “Leaving Salvation, you’re soon swallowed by the fogbanks that encircle the ruined nation of Cyre.” I thought it had a bunch of faces that were screaming and buildings collapsing and other freaky deaky shit? “Fogbank” ain’t that. The writing does this over and over and over again, taking an idea that should be cool and then abstracting it to boring placeholder drivil. 

You travel eighty boring miles in to find the other crew (proving once again why adventurers never have love interests, family, or friends: the DM will use them against you.) Once again THE FANTASTIC is reduced to boring. Once there you see a marketplace where the other crew was and you explore it. You find the crew, they are under siege by a raiding force … and then the raiders allies show up. The party is supposed to use the marketplace things they’ve found/been informed of against the LARGE raider force in order to escape with the other crew.

I have about ten thousand VERY valid critiques of this, the main part of the adventure. 

The map is linear. It’s unclear if it’s buried or not? Or what the roof situation is? This is important because the party will face a VERY large number of raiders and be given advice on how to deal with them, using elements found in the marketplace. But how do you GET to those elements in a linear map? And who the fuck doesn’t use rooftops to travel when you can? What’s interesting is that the adventure DOES provide some DM guidance on several points, like using mending on a torn and faded map that is found. But on other topics, like the roof, and others, its as if there WAS no playtest feedback. How many raiders spill out when they all show up? A dozen? A hundred? This is an obvious question and is left for the DM to dig through to discover. If you have to take notes, or highlights, then the adventure was not written well.

A lookout hides in place and tries to get to their buddies if he sees the party … but there’s no way (linear, remember) for them to do this without the party seeing. An elf hologram has it’s “stuck in a loop” saying related as “stuck in a loop”, destroying the joy by summarizing a conclusion rather than letting the players do so. The marketplace encounters are all a little samey-samey, with animated brooms, animated armor, animated rugs, animated … you get the idea. (And, maintenance bots in the shape of brooms? Unless these are Mickey references I think you can do better than this. Or a fucking suit of armorfor that matter. THEME the monsters. Trashbots, use stats of animated broom, for example. Mannequin, as animated armor, for example. That’s what you’re being paid for, after all. To add color.) 

The last section of the adventure, where the massive raider force shows up, is terrible. It takes up, like a page of text, if you delete the unique magic item (that gives the party advice on how to use the marketplace.) No advice to the DM on how to run this part, which should take up half the time. The most complex part. Where are the raiders. What are they doing. How does the linear map and advice mesh together with the raiders. Where’s the fucking giant hole they smashed in to the wall?  The idea here, using the marketplace against the raiders, is a good one. The cat and mouse, the hidden goals of finding other missing scavengers, roaming raiders. It’s a classic trope. But instead the adventure is padded out with useless repetition and padded entries instead of helping the DM run the more complex part of it. 

STOP FUCKING ABSTRACTING THE THE FUCKING SPECIFICS!! YOU ARE DESTROYING THE FAVOR AND TURNING THE FANTASTIC IN TO THE BORING!!

This is $5 at DMSGuild. The preview is four pages. It is completely fucking worthless, showing you nothing of what you are buying. It’s all just Adventurers League padding. The preview needs to show us something of what we’re actually buying. An encounter, the encounter writing styles, etc.


https://www.dmsguild.com/product/299680/EB02-Voice-in-the-Machine?1892600

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Castle Xyntillan review

Wed, 01/22/2020 - 12:11
By Gabor Lux E.M.D.T. S&W Levels 1-6

The immense, rambling complex of Castle Xyntillan has stood in its mountain valley for many years. Built over several generations, it has now been deserted by its former owners, and left to time and the elements. However, that is not the end of the story, for Xyntillan’s fabulous treasures and Machiavellian deathtraps continue to fascinate the fortune-seekers of a dozen lands – and never mind the ghost stories!

Non. Fucking. Stop. Buy more. 

Buy more now. Buy more, and be happy.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree – – Legendary was the Xanadu where Kubla Khan decreed his stately pleasure dome. Today, almost as legendary is Florida’s Xyntillan, world’s largest private pleasure ground. Here, on the mountain valley, a private mountain was commissioned and successfully built. One hundred thousand trees, twenty thousand tons of marble are the ingredients of Xyntillan’s mountain. Contents of Xyntillan’s palace: paintings, pictures, statues, the very stones of many another palace. A collection of everything. So big it can never be catalogued or appraised. Enough for ten museums – the loot of the world. Xyntillan’s livestock: the fowl of the air, the fish of the sea, the beast of the field and jungle. Two of each, the biggest private zoo since Noah. Like the Pharaohs, Xyntillans’s landlords leaves many stones to mark his grave. Since the pyramids, Xyntillan is the costliest monument a man has built to himself…

This 132 page hardback adventure, an homage to Tegal, I don’t know know, fuck it, 350 rooms? In a castle, mansion, just like Tegal. Full of family members, paintings on the walls, a map reminiscent of Tegal … it shows what good writing and design actually ARE. Magnificent in its achievements, Charles Dexter Lux has created something very rare and wonderful. 

Sometimes publishers will respin a classic. They will rewrite Borderlands, or create new levels or caves or areas for it. They will update a classic adventure for fifth edition, or third, or whatever. I always look forward to these. And they all suck, disappointing me to no end. Inevitably the update is to add A LOT more words to existing entries and pad them out with trivia, what the butler ate for supper two weeks ago and the exhaustive contents of the kitchen cabinets. Maybe three paragraphs of tactics for some encounter. 

Xyntillan is not that. Xyntillan is the real deal. 

A respin of the Tegal Manor concept, it takes a sprawling manor home filled with the crazy Tegal/Amber family members that occupy it, as well as their paintings. Tegal fell in to the minimal keying side of the genre, just a step beyond “only a monster listing.” Xyntillan takes inspiration from Tegal and then expands the text to EXACTLY THE RIGHT AMOUNT. Both have a certain OD&D charm to the encounters, with Tegal being so because of the minimalism and Xyntillan having it because Melan understands adventure design and his soul evidently not (yet?) having been crushed by modern life. 

The encounters are reminiscent of Tegal, but not one for one respins. Tegal has a room where a screaming woman runs across a room every four turns. That’s the extent of the entry. Xyntillan has a room where a screaming mortally wounded woman in white runs across the room (33% chance), stumbling before she reaches the NW corner. And this is after a two sentence description of the potting room. And before a few sentences describing what happens when you dig in the NW corner. Evocative of, but expanded to the correct degree.

Expanded to the correct degree? Indeed. We’re looking for an encounter description that inspires the DM, the implants a seed idea in their head that will grow and allow the DM to fully visualize the room and riff on it as they describe and run it for their players. Writing that inspires the DM to greatness. And, writing that does it in a split second. And I mean a second. The DM glances down at the page, takes a second to read the entry, look up and runs the room. A second. Maybe two. The DM’s job is not reading the adventure at the table, it’s interacting with the players. The DM glances at and scans a room entry and then runs it. While the players are fumbling about with that to do, etc, the DM is glancing/scanning a bit more, in another couple of seconds. Not minutes. Not 30 seconds. A few, less than five or so. (I should time this one day …) So the job of the text is to give the DM the mental picture that inspires them to run a magnificent encounter and to do it in mere seconds. Evocative and terse, is generally the technique. 

And Gabor Lux does it magnificently. The text is the correct length. You get the overview of the room. Then you get indents and bullets to highlight important aspects of the room that the players may follow up on. The rooms have titles to orient the DM. Monster stats are brief and at the end of the room for easy reference during play, almost Ready Ref sheet style. (Although, perhaps not quite as stark as the Ref sheets, thankfully.) It’s cross-referenced, so if there’s a quest, or an object of a quest, for example, it tells you where to find more information. Bolding is used appropriately to highlight important features and call the DM’s attention to them, sometimes with further follow up text again, indented, bulleted.) The text manages around eight or so entries to the page, with wide margins, with the generous formatting contributing immensely to usability by the DM at the table. 

Encounters are wonderful. Skeleton guardsmen sing and tall tall tales in their barracks. The kitchen knives fly at the party … once. Statues mock the party, or give them a level boost. An unseen hand stays a killing blow, if the party restores a statue. A body buried under a gazebo on a small hill in the center of a pond. A horseshoe in the stables that, if found, gives you a good luck effect. These are things you fucking expect to happen, which make them wonderful. A horseshoe giving luck? Of course it does! That’s what SHOULD happen when you find a horseshoe. Of course the skeleton guardsmen sing and boast. Of course there are phantom steeds in the stables. Duh? WTF? Aren’t we playing D&D? Of course the iron stove in the kitchen closes, biting you in half, if you look inside. It makes PERFECT sense. Tropes are good for a reason and when done right they really shine, acting as cultural clues to the metagaming player. Which is exactly what the fuck they should be doing in order to stay alive in this place. 

Oh, what else? The wanderers are easy to find, in the back of the book. The little town presented as a home base has EXACTLY enough detail to fulfill its purpose. It’s a home base to make forays from. It details a couple of bars, etc to recruit henchmen and stay at to recover. A cleric to heal. Some secret police. Wait, what?! Yes, a couple of subplots in the town. But no more! It concentrates on the details and flavour that are useful IN PLAY. And only the important stuff that inspires, not boring old lists of prices, etc., or Yet Another Description Of a Jovial Barman. The maps are great, Conley does a great job of making something reminiscent of Tegal but much more useful, with little side notes on the maps about webs in the hallways, lighting, sound, refuse on the floors, etc. A perfect tool to assist in both usability and creating an evocative environment. Treasure is magnificent. Ocacular brains in jars, unique magic swords. A whole host of things both mundane and magic to keep the party busy and for them to leverage. Notes on how the family in the castle react to intruders. It’s all great. And presented in pretty much the perfect amount of detail. And monsters? How about “The Blind Beast of Xyntillian.” That’s fucking right! No generic-o “animated statue” crap in this adventure! I got a name baby! New rules./clarifications are present for morale, hiring, fleeing the dungeon … things very pertinent to actual play. It’s perfect.

There’s an occasional miss. Every once in awhile there’s a bit of information that you wish were present. The most notable, for me, is the roof/window/vista-view situation. Only a sucker goes in through the door. A couple of words on the exterior entrance situation, and overview if you would, would have been nice. And, also, a little description of Xyntillian when seen from approach. This is clearly a tie in to the roof/window/door commentary, giving the party notable landmarks to seek out (a dome, etc) and/or holes to poke their heads in to. “Where are the doors?” the party asks. One can intuit a great deal from the maps, especially major border landmarks like doors and side towers, but the dome, interior towers and courtyards are less clear without intense study … the kind I don’t like to do during play. 

But, magnificent! Ye Olde Kente once said that Thracia was the only adventure you ever needed. He was, I think, correct, at least in general. This however IS the only adventure you ever need. You could run a party through this for YEARS, with more than enough information present to riff on. A perfect OD&D product, with whimsy and wonder without going off in to Funhouse territory. I got this last night, stayed up all night reading and re-reading, write this the next morning, and will be adding it to my “No Prep” Dungeonland game tonight. 

This is good. 

This is available at his storefront: for $40 for a Print+PDF copy. $40 is a FUCKING STEAL! G1, at 8 pages, would be $20 in todays cash. $40 for this this is a BARGAIN! But it also costs $22 to ship to the US so, even at $62 it’s a bargain. (Mother fuck! Seriously? $22 to ship it? I don’t doubt this is the actual cost; my own experiences with international shipping have been price gougy also. You can ship a boatload, literally, of stuff from Asia to the US for nothing but the worldwide national post office conspiracy bends you the fuck over and makes you take it!) 

There’s a sample layout on MEGA, if you want a preview: https://mega.nz/#!dwIkXYiJ!4lZA2ar0h5RhKM7n7Z9U0ACJqPkJStmF0wnCB7U8HYQ

But why not go ahead and just buy it? Because you hate quality? Seriously? You’re on the fence about one of the five best adventures ever written? Why, because it’s $60, shipped? I’ve had lunch for one that is more than $60. It’s not worth a lunch to you? Really?

https://emdt.bigcartel.com/product/castle-xyntillan

Gabor Lux also has some philosophical statements about adventuring and how they apply to Xyntillan on his blog. They are useful to understand the concepts behind Xyntillan.

https://beyondfomalhaut.blogspot.com/2019/11/news-castle-xyntillan-announcement-and.html

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