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The Crocodile’s Tear

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 11:07

By Geoff Gander
Expeditious Retreat Press
Levels 3-6

A wealthy patron is outfitting an expedition to sail to the mysterious southern continent. The goal of the expedition is none other than the legendary Crocodile’s Tear: a massive magical emerald! Many tales are told about the southern continent, most of which paint it as a disease-ridden jungle filled with hostile natives, reachable only by crossing a pirate- and monster-infested sea. As the port winds fade into the winds of the open sea, the sails of The Mermaid billow firmly. Will the player characters survive the voyage, and will they find more than they bargained for? Oh, and was it mentioned that that two other trips set out before this one only to be swallowed up by the dense jungle…

This thirteen page adventure has a 25 day sea voyage, a forty mile jungle trek, and then a nineteen room abandoned temple, all to recover a giant emerald. It’s sparse on content, with only a few encounters in each area and is pretty free with the generalizations, rather than the specifics that bring an adventure to life, where the inter-village politics are concerned. Considering the jungle is one third of the adventure…and there’s no wanderers for the jungle, AND the ocean voyage is parse, AND the first ten rooms of the nineteen room temple are devoid of t-birds for daddy to take away … it seems likely that the adventure was built around a single encounter, the last one.

The adventure essentially starts with the a sea journey of 25-ish days to the fetid “southern continent.” You have 5 encounters to pick from for wanderers: a pirate ship, a skeleton ship, a squid, a sea hydra and some flotsam … “The GM should decide whether there is anything of interest.” The reviewer already has. No. No there is not. This gets back to the old issue of value being provided. Is it enough for an adventure you buy to just list a monster encounter, in ultra-minimal keyed format? That is what this adventure is doing with the wandering monster table for a 25 day sea voyage. What value does this content add over the tables freely available, or included in the book? “Giant squid attacks” is not value.

Likewise the 40-mile steaming hike through the fetid jungle with hostile natives. Only in this case there’s no wandering monster table at all. Or much of an adventure, really. Just the description of a couple of tribes, one paragraph each, and a couple of village descriptions, only two of which are likely to be relevant to the adventure. They can be summed up as “friendly” and “hostile”, with no other interesting roleplay opportunities in them. There’s a little bit going on with a couple of other villages, but not much more than “they tolerate outsider better” or “they have pearls to trade”, and, they are unlikely to come up in play since you’ll have a guide to take you directly where you want to go.

The temple is partially submerged in a lake, which has some interesting aspects as you attempt to build a raft and get to it while avoiding the hostile natives in the nearby village that also fish in the lake. After that it’s in to the ziggurat. The first ten rooms are, essentially, empty. They might contain a minor treasure or two, but the only thing mildly interesting is a secret door to a hidden sub-level. Under that is five or encounters in a linear map. It is most likely here that the first monster will be encountered” 6 fungus men and a crocodile. Finding the emerald there’s a brief time travel scene where you fight an evil king and his warriors, with the fate of the emerald (full power magic item or just a ‘minor’ 1d6 healing a turn) being decided.

So, book wandering monsters in the sea. No wanderers, or encounters, in the jungle. Three in the temple (probably.) What, you might ask, is in the adventure.

The usual nonsense, I sez me. “The king used to use this room for …” and boring descriptions of boring filler rooms. Over and over. This room once contained a chapel. The old king spent much of his time here. The wall paintings have been defaced … but there’s no ‘adventure’ or clue related to that, so it’s just window dressing. This room once housed. It’s frustrated just how little content there is and how what little there is fails to drive action. Detail, without being related to driving the adventure, is worthless. Further, it tends to distract and get in the way. Are there exceptions? Sure. But that’s why they call them exceptions. For almost everyone writing an adventure that detail will be worthless, just filler words to pad the thing out so you can get your pay-per-word fulfilled.

It’s $14 for a 13 page PDF on DriveThru. The preview will show you the ocean voyage and the “background” to the jungle, and map illustrating why most of that background is useless.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #131

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 11:18

The Beasts of Aulbesmil
By Skip WIlliams
Level 3

Nice to see Dungeon back in the business of publishing crap. You’re in a village for some lame pretext (an old friend is gone. The church has asked you to investigate … or the baron hires you to find his kidnapped son because his men might be recognized, which is a decent hook.) People have disappeared. Everyone thinks the miller is evil and is behind things. If you go to the mill you are attacked by the evil wererat miller and his thugs. Orcs in the barons hunting cabin are in league with the miller and hold the son. So you show up, get a miller clue, and confront the bad guy in the first ten minutes? “You go to the grocery. Everyone gains two levels.” You do, however, get to learn ALL about how the wererat committed his thefts and murders. Useless information. History and backstory are so seldom of use. The fetish around novelization is depressing.

The Hateful Legacy
By Greg A. Vaughan
Level 12

This ‘Lost Valley’ adventure starts with an attack by an awakened dire ape ranger. And that, alone, was enough to let me know how this thing was going to go. A society of warrior ogres guards the entrance in some kind of watchtower at a chokepoint. (Which might actually have been interesting, but I can’t for the fucking life of me decipher the map. I THINK the entrance MIGHT be area 7, but that doesn’t make sense either … Anyway, it has two more set pieces after the first two and then you get to pick up a bunch of coins in treasure. Joy. The whole transition from adventure and wonder to set-pieces with columns of pages of tactics has been more than a little disappointing for me. The mania to constrain the DM with rules was not a good path.

The Prince of Redhand
By Jesse Decker
Level 15

And then there’s the eighth installment of Age of Worms. Only four more after this. This is meant to be a social adventure. You need to talk to an elf, and she lives in a bandit town. Once there your only opportunity to talk to her is at a dinner banquet. There is a small dragon lair some Ebon Triad nonsense to go kill, if the players insist on stabbing someone who’s not a commoner. Rather than integrating the social aspects in the adventure, or integrating them in to other episodes, they instead have “the musical episode”; disappointing. Getting through the front gate takes a page of text to say nothing important. One event is “you roll some dice and regardless of the results you get an invitation to the banquet.” Another one is “you go to the elf house and get turned away at the door.” Maybe six “events” before the banquet and maybe as many at the banquet proper. The banquet has a host of NPC’s, with appearances, personalities, goals and so on, but it’s all presented in giant text form … meaning you’ll need to take copious notes to run it. Tables. USE. A. FUCKING. TABLE. TO. SUMMARIZE. Ug. Anyway, the events are longer than they need to be, of course, and this being 3e they amount to little more than some skill rolls. That’s too bad. The end result is that the elf chick agrees to talk to yu in a couple of days … the next episode. The events here are little more than a railroad, both before and during the party. That’s too bad. There’s a nugget of interesting adventure here, with a social dinner party and wacky nobles from the capitol … fodder for a 1000 LARPs, but it’s awkward to run.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Secret Machines of the Star Spawn

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 11:09

By Mark Taormino
Maximum Mayhem Dungeons
Level 6-10

Locals have been hearing whispers of strange happenings around the Ancient Volcano. Rumors over the last several years of an unspeakable evil that has risen up inside. An evil that “fell from the stars”. There is something wicked and devilish going on inside. Highwaymen report of strange creatures, mechanical monsters, horrible beasts and “little green men” that are roaming the land. You and your stalwart adventurers have decided to take on the challenge of plundering the mountain for the treasure within! Oh and get to the bottom of these dastardly stories as well!

My life is a living hell. This 44 page “adventure” is a linear railroad with aliens and technology. It’s written like your 7th grade dungeon master created it: adversarial with lots of tits. I actually went and looked up the designer to make sure it wasn’t the FATAL guy. It’s not. But he did make $3k from the kickstarter for this, and $11k from his latest kickstarter. This piece of shit is the closest I’ve seen someone get to WG7. I often cite expectations, and have a strict taxonomy. Put another way, I don’t give a flying fuck what you publish but you damn well better do a good job disclosing what it is so we don’t have to buy your crap.

I am supposed to start off saying something nice. The highlights. I’m struggling. It’s got a decent number of new monsters, themed to the adventure, nicely illustrated, and most with some interesting themed effects. One of the aliens has a “brain freeze” power, for example. One or two of the room descriptions, in read-aloud, are not terrible. A few of the encounters have an interesting set up. There’s a robot head you can pick up who talks to you and can operate technology/explain things. You can find his body parts and rebuild him. A somewhat interesting little NPC, a fun little side-task to accomplish. That’s good. One or two of the rooms have a decent description, like the room walls made up of thousands of gears of different sizes and directions and speeds, with a large black lever in the middle of the room. Jokes on you though, that lever, and entire room, does nothing. It’s just there to fuck with the players. Most of the descriptions … functional? But they tend to digress to being overly descriptive and long. In other words, the first couple of sentences gives a plain fact-based description of the room “This is a huge two hundred foot wide cavernous volcano chamber. It is divided by a jagged chasm where lava now ows. It is about forty feet wide and the lava ows into the deep underground realms beyond the volcano depths.” Functional, but not necessarily exciting. But then it goes on to describe more and more and more instead of just stopping. And that room is one of the shortest descriptions. The read-aloud can go on for paragraphs. Or columns. Or, in the case of the introduction/background: pages. This overly prescriptive description issue is key indicator that things are not in Adventureville.

And well they are not. The start map is a single linear hallway with rooms either hanging off of it or the hallway running to the rooms. No choice or decisions. The rooms are even better. Every one of the starting rooms. Six of the first seven rooms have monsters that either attack immediately or attack within one round. This is not an unusual occurrence. You walk in to a room you can’ avoid and the monsters attack immediately. That’s not a D&D adventure, that’s a caricature of a D&D adventure. The room encounters support this. “As the players enter the room the door they came through disappears!” We all know why, right? Because the designer has some “clever” or “fun” encounter that he wants to force the players into.

There’a creature you fight, the Dungeon Breaker, that, as far as I can tell, is never described anywhere.

One room has a teleporter. Each character is required to use it to continue the adventure. There is either a 50% or a 75% chance it will malfunction, the adventure mentions both numbers. If it malfunctions there is a 3-in-8 chance of instant death and a 3-in-8 chance of facing a BIG monster by yourself, and a 1-in-8 chance of being replaced with an evil clone. Do I need to explain this?

Up until now it’s just a bad adventure. Too much read-aloud. Linear. Almost nothing besides straight up combat. You could mistake it for a bad 4e adventure (or pre-DCC RPG Goodman adventures …) or something created by a 12 year old jr high kid. But then that 12 year turned 13 and hit puberty. And inflicted himself on others. The issue is not the prurient humor, or the tit-heavy sexualized art. I like to think of them as an exponent. If a good adventure is a “1” and you get a point added every time you do something crappy, then loud belches and cheescake are en exponent. 1, squared is 1, still a good adventure. 5, squared, is 25. It’s the icing on the cake that sends you in to suger coma. “Chocolate Thunder” is a black woman with a large afro in a tiny bikini who yells “Watch it sucka!” Ain’t nothing wrong with any of that. Everyone should have the balls to pull off that kind of style. But when in this shitty adventure its clear what the intent it, and it’s not positive. Likewise the tit-heavy gypsies. Or the mind flayer grabbing a womans tits with its tentacles. Or “the fat princess”

The preview on DriveThru will show you the art sample, as well as give you a hint of the humor style in the start of the barons page and half read-aloud on the last page of the preview. I’d read that last page, just to lighten up your day.

$3k on Kickstarter. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce.
Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce.
Existence precedes essence, Bryce. Existence precedes essence, Bryce.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Guests for DInner

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 11:16

By Jon Aspeheim
Level 0-2

The ground collapsed and you fell into a cave, with no way of climbing up you have to find your way out through ancient catacombs. That would be bad enough even if the tunnels was not the home of demon worshiping cannibals, zombies and a mutated cat!

This short little ten page adventure has about eleven rooms of content on about five pages. It describes a small underground dungeon that is being used by a cannibal cult. It touches on some true gruesomeness that really brings home the evilness of the main villain. It’s also written in a mostly boring style that doesn’t really evoke the environment very well … at all. It’s pretty clear what the intent is, it just doesn’t get there.

While out in the woods, a sinkhole opens under you and you end up in a cavern, with no way back up. There’s a worked stone hallway leading out. Thus begins your adventure in to an Eli Roth movie. Walking around the complex you meet zombies, cultists, a prisoner, a demon statue with blood around its mouth, a pretty girl that’s been lobotomized, a villain that unfolds insectoid arms from his back, and a prisoner on a butcher table that’s had his arms and legs removed, having been eaten earlier.

You know, I’m a fan of showing instead of telling. If the adventure said “Lord Vazzo is evil” the players would hack him. A demon altar with blood on it? Ok, sure, he’s worshipping evil, but maybe it’s animal blood. They might let him off. Showing the players the girl he lobotomized and then showing them the prisoner they ate limbs off off, Cormac McCarthy-Road style, will REALLY cement Lord Vazzo’s sins in their psyche. This is an excellent, if gruesome, showing of evil instead of telling of evil. You don’t need to be gruesome, but it’s hard to argue that Lord Vazzo is evil after some encounters like this one has.

Vazzo is a non-standard villain, with insect legs that unfold from his back and a demon cat. Those touches are appreciated since they take what could otherwise be a boring old NPC evil bad guy and weird him up a bit. There’s also a prisoner to free and a demon state that you can pour blood in to the mouth of. Just enough to weird the place up a bit.

Unfortunately, the writing is not very strong. “Boring”, would be a better description, with only a few exceptions. The pool of water you fall in to at the start is “Really cold” and “very deep.” A table is described as being “a nice table.” Really, very, nice: these are not descriptive words. They are generic and don’t paint a good picture of the scene because of it. Ice cold. Bone chillingly cold, rattle your bones, bottomless, gleaming antique … these are all better descriptions than nice, very, and really … and I would continue to remind everyone that I SUCK at evocative descriptions.

While a scriptorium is “sparsely furnished with wooden benches and desks”, a good, terse description, others drone on and/or delve in to trivia useless to the room. “Some of the zombies Vazzo uses as patrolling guards are becoming too rotten and have left stinking trails in his library. He now keeps them locked up in here until he can decide what to do with them.” This tells us nothing except they are rotten, which could have been with a shorter and more evocative monster description. The descriptions are mostly boring, being medium-length descriptions that describe typical examples of a room of that type. Oh, look, a normal dining room. Noting the exceptions I mentioned, everything else is just flat and boring.

It does present some simple & short rules for Level-0 funnels for D&D, and a very small village description, four shops, with about one sentence each. A nice terse short village. A little short, but at least one of the descriptions has an interconnection to another shop. A couple of people in the dungeon have ties to the village; this should have been mentioned up higher so the party could encounter them before their horrifying reveal.

The two-page sample on DriveThrough will show you the very brief village and funnel rules, but unfortunately you don’t actually get a sample of the room encounter style.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #130

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 11:15

Within the Circle
By Sam Brown
Level 1

This short little adventure has a nice introduction and wilderness section combined with a rather disappointing little twelve room dungeon at the end. It’s meant to kick off a Yuan-ti themed campaign, I believe. The party, retainers of a Baron, have dinner with a man from a remote village. He tells of the village being poisoned, livestock killed, crops in disrepair, all from a goblin demanding tribute. Later, in private, the Baron tells the party the real mission: that he wants them to check out a depot nearby that he was tasked with burning down when young. He questions now, that he is wiser, how he has risen in power, and why. The villagers act like villagers, the goblin is dealt with, briefly, and information on his lair is the same as the depot, which can be learned from him or fro some ambushing lizardmen, who retreat in deference when they learn they made a mistake ambushing the party.

Up until this point the adventure is pretty good by Dungeon standards. Lots of words, and read-aloud, but the motivations make sense and nothing is really forced. Parts of what going on could have been emphasized more, with trivia deemphasized, but it’s there, somewhere in the text … and its not as bad as the usual Dungeon fair in terms of wordiness. It’s a nice little thing that doesn’t really force the players in to anything, after the initial hook .. and I can even forgive that seeing as this is meant to be a campaign kickoff.

The goblin lair has bad read-aloud and is more confusing than normal. It’s mostly linear, with a lot of background and history clogging up the text. In one room, the main entrance, there’s a trap with a bag of giant centipedes. I still have no idea which door, or side of the door, that trap is on. Most of the rooms FEEL boring, even though there are one or two goblins with some motivations other than “KILL!” A matron protects the young with a spear, warding the party away but not attacking until she is. Another goblin spies behind a table and then tries to run away. Again, very relatable motivations. The rooms, beyond the goblins, are just not very interesting. There IS a nicely integrated trap that is not meant to be a trap, and several clues as to what is going on.

Its’ decent, especially by Dungeon standards. It reminds me of something out of those more realistic settings, like Harn or the like, but with more monsters.

The Palace of Plenty
By Tito Leati
Level 10

This is an Oriental Adventures themed adventure, that seems to be derived from watching too many 1940’s and 50’s Japanese ghost story movies. Vague hooks and no wilderness journey has you in a legendary ruined paradise city. Which takes a DC 10 roll to know where it is. If you fail, there’s a map in a library. The icy ruined city is large and ruined and very sparsely keyed. After wandering about and finally figuring out where you go you get to a non-ruined place, through white fluttering butterflies, which has mostly empty rooms. This place has such exciting encounters as “Sentry Box: The entry box is unremarkable.” The whole thing is “icy ruined village theme and then ghost village theme” all with that sort haunting quietness that comes from older Japanese horror movies. It gives it a very “story game” feel. It’s also nigh incomprehensible as an adventure. Props for taking a chance. It was your editor’s job to tell you it didn’t work so well. A STRONG edit may give you a Mountain Witch-like adventure. It’s just trying too hard with too many words to be as effective as, say, Inn of Forgotten Heroes … hence the need for an edit.

The Spire of Long Shadows
By Jesse Decker
Level 13

Another in the Age of Worms adventure path. Get out your lozenges, this one is the exposition entry! Miles upon miles of read-aloud in order to relate reams of backstory to the party, either through a sage they meet or through visions they have. It starts with a meaningless combat right out of the bullshit “have a quick first encounter so the party can get some dice rolling” advice column. It then passes to a small city where the party cool their heels a bit, and then a visit to the sage who talks at them for hours (Real time.) teleport to a far away land has the party at the site of where Kyuss ascended to godhood, and a pyramid temple full of kyuss worms and room after room of guardians. These are spaced out with visions the party has about Kyuss and the prophecy of his return. There are about A MILLION of pages before you get to the temple. The rooms embed history … in a bad way. “This room represented Kyuss’ master over death …”, or “the stairs were destroyed in year blah blah blah by blah blah blah.” Meaningless trivia that does not contribute to the adventure. This “adventure” is just an excuse to talk at the party with monologues and put in some combats with worm-themed NPC’s. Boring.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

AA#28: Redtooth Ridge

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 11:21

By Joseph Browning
Expeditious Retreat Press
Level 1-3

he plain wooden cup the dryad Aralina needs for her great oak’s rebirth has been stolen by creeping foul things! Small, man-like, creatures with great heads assaulted her and, in the confusion, pick-pocketed the cup before fleeing towards Redtooth Ridge. Without her cup, her tree with die before it can reproduce and she will die with it. In her distress, she has offered a reward of a beautiful coral necklace in exchange for her plain wooden cup. The call has gone out and surely a party exists willing to assault Redtooth Ridge?

This thirteen page, sixtyish encounter, adventure details a small wooded ridge and the remains of several buildings on it, primarily an old manor. It has decent maps and most of the encounter feel more like little vignettes with some loose internal logic than they do the more typical isolated-encounters-in-a-ruined-place. It engages in “used to be” and obsesses on ranger and thief mechanics a bit too much, all of which tend to clog up the text more than it should. It doesn’t engage in much that is new but it does deal with goblins, ogres, stirge, zombies, green slime, and the rest in a way that appeals to my love of the classics. A decent little adventure doing decent little things.

This is a pretty classic site based adventure. There’s a small wooded plateau with two paths running up to it. On top is the ruined compound of an old manor estate, as well as a small cave serving as an ogre lair. The family mausoleum is in the plateau cliffs. There’s a small wandering monster table that generally has the creatures lairing on it, with their numbers being depleted as you kill the wanderers. Otherwise, the party is free to do what they will. Exactly the fuck the way these site-based adventures SHOULD be.

The estate is walled, with numerous ways through the walls. There’s an underground/basement area that runs between a couple of outbuildings, as well as a few structures with more than one story, giving the map a little bit of a vertical presence and some interest. The open-ended compound nature of the map, as well as the open nature of the plateau, and the non-linear nature of the basement and manor home maps work well with a site based adventure. There are a number of “hallways with doors off of it” on the map, but there’s enough variety in style that it doesn’t feel constraining or forced. An art piece showing the profile, or better shading of indoor and outdoor areas, would have been appreciated. In addition, some of the map features are missing. Large cracks you can crawl through, and so on, seem to not be on the map but rather in the room descriptions. That’s not good. It would have also been nice to have all the maps on one page, instead of having the text integrated around them, in order to photocopy them easier for hanging on Ye Olde Dm Screen. But this isn’t the end of the world and sweet jesus in heaven thank you for maps that are not throw-away linear plot shitfests. These maps provide options and mystery … which is what ALL maps should do.

The encounters in the adventure almost feel like little vignettes … in the positive connotation. The rooms sometimes feel like they have multiple things going on, and exist outside of the adventure proper. I’m straining a little in that statement, but they are certainly more … integrated? than most adventures. The bedroom feels like it has bedroom stuff. The kitchen feels like a kitchen, with kitchen stuff encounters. The library feels like a library with library-like stuff encounters. Enough of the rooms have encounters that relate to each other to even put together a little story. It all feels like it makes sense and is not arbitrary. There’s this internal logic.

While walking up the path to the top, you see an ogre in a good mood on a rock eating a mite and pestie. The ogre lair is up top and mites/pesties also lair up top. Further up, some goblins watch the ogre, trying to decide to attack. They also have some friends up top. The ogre, eating another creature, is a hint, and makes sense in the context of the adventure as well as providing some fun, since he doesn’t attack immediately and is eating somebody. It all works together. There’s another example of a ghost who hates her servants, and if she possesses someone will go open a secret door to the basement in order to punish/kill the servants … who just happen to be zombies .. including some child zombies. The rats in the library have chewed books, and pulled in bodies through a large crack in the wall. These are not gonzo or forced, but just all work together easily. That’s refreshing. Gonzo stands out, but making giants rats, or zombies, work in 2017 is not easy. We can debate on if you SHOULD include book monsters in an adventure, but for an adventure that DOES include book monsters, this one does a good job with it. It seems effortlessly constructed.

The writing style is not particularly evocative. At All. ‘Boring’ would be the word I would use. And while the rooms descriptions are not particularly extensive, I do think that they concentrate too much on the useless and trivia instead of creating an evocative impression. The Dining room description is a decent example: “Over two dozen reclining couches dot this two- story-tall room, along with eight square tables. The room opens up to the second level and a minstrel’s gallery is above and to the east. The owners of the Ivory House believed in reclined eating and all meals were served in this fashion.” Not exactly inspiring, and I can make a good case that the last sentence falls in to the “explaining history” category of Sin. Likewise, many comments about things like “this used to have thick iron doors, but they were consumer by a wandering rust monster” … which occurs more than once in the text. This is trivia.

Further, there is an extensive appeal to mechanics in places that I don’t think is warranted, even if we accept this is OSRIC/1E. This occurs most frequently with notes (paragraphs, I should say) that give exceptions for thieves and rangers. “If there is a thief sneaking in the party then blah blah blah bonus/penalty because blah blah blah.” For a cobblestone floor. Likewise rangers get extensive notes in places for tracking efforts. Condensing or trimming these would help keep the product focused. It IS packing almost sixty rooms in to nine pages, so it’s not like it’s the biggest sinner ever, but it does stand out. Maybe more so because of the more ho hum descriptions. This sort of exposition is also found in several creature encounters, with notes on tactics and the like that seem to pad things out more than they should be. The adventure pretext is also light, a dyrad having her wooden cup stolen, or simply “the lure of rumored treasure”, but, whatever, it’s a site-based adventure and those are FAR easier to motivate in to a game than the plot adventures. The magic is all book items with no descriptions, which is very disappointing.

This is a nice adventure. I will sometimes say that adventures are salvageable with a highlighter. This goes a step beyond that. No gonzo. No explosions. No set pieces. Just a solid little site that could use a little edit to make things a little more evocative. It’s also going to be a ROUGH time for Level 1 characters, unless they know what the fuck they are doing. The whole “12-18 ghouls” thing is rough, and easy to stumble in to.

The preview on DriveThrough shows you the ogre and goblin encounters on the path, so you can get a good look at both the positive aspects of the encounter and the relatively lengthy parts of the descriptions. Likewise, on the last page, you can see room 1, the outer wall of the compound. It also shows the nicely integrated nature of the encounters, with tracks and the like, as well as the relatively heavy description length for the same. The preview does a good job of letting you know what to expect.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Ruinous Palace of the Metegorgos

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 11:15

By Evey Lockhart
In Search of Games
Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Level 1-3

Why Go to the Ruinous Palace? 1. Old Gold to be Stolen from Old Places 2. Rumors of Supernatural Fecundity and Ruination. What wizard would not wish to study such?
3. Nearby communities are hemorrhaging Livestock. The Dragon learns to hunt and gather.
4. A forest Unmolested for centuries… could become a fortune in Timber.

This is a twenty one page adventure with about six encounters, centered around a small ruined structure with a mythic abomination in it. It’s themed after one of those Earth Mother things: a naked woman, full breasts, giving birth to abominations. It has a STRONG mythic vibe going on; this is not your boring Paizo D&D but rather recalls all of the countless years of myth and story that have floated around the world. This adventure probably skews closer to level two or three than level one, and features some mature themed monsters.

This adventure FEELS like you are going someplace DIFFERENT. You journey through a creepy forest, full of creepy sad zombies. The ruins in which the main adventure takes place almost certainly have a massive dragon curled around them, asleep. Both of those, together, help communicate to the party that they are leaving the mundane world of farmers and lords and entering a different kind of world, where the freaky deaky will be found. IE: the transition to The Mythic Underworld, for those of you versed in blog-o-sphere lore. It’s a very effective technique for helping to set a mood.

The forest journey begins the adventure. There is no hook, just the little publisher’s burb up in the first paragraph, to set help up the why’s of the party going there. It’s a creepy, wet, pine forest, with a heavy but sporadic mist. Scattered throughout are the Sad Zombies. Imagine a zombie in a misty pine forest, in the distance, wearing only a mitre hat. Or one sitting on the ground, crying. Or one chained a tree, with the tree having grown around them. There’s not really much to this, other than the atmosphere of the forest and the sad zombie wandering table. Still, the weirdness of the situation, with the atmosphere, is a great way to begin the mood setting. At the end of it you encounter the ruins, which almost certainly has a huge sleeping dragon wrapped around them, with scales of obsidian.

The dragon is 10HD. Just inside the door is a 2HD monster made up of light, only hit by magic, but captured by opaque surfaces … almost a puzzle in monster form. None of the creatures here are book monsters. The dragon with obsidian scales, the light monster, some shit creatures, the daughters of the woman that are half hippo, and the mother herself. The players won’t have any idea what’s up, the creatures are strongly themed but without mountains of words. It FEELS like something out of myth or folklore.

Well, maybe a Guillermo del Toro folklore. Shit monsters and an earth mother monster who gives birth to needle fish to attack you is a little … uh … repulsive? You’ve got some mature themed creatures and effects that are going where other adventures don’t. Like turning your genitals to stone. That section includes this gem: “septicemia kills more murderhobos a year than any other disease.” It all makes sense, in the adventure and doesn’t feel forced or, oh, included just for shock value. Even tangential sexual themes, like in this, are more than a little unusual.

There’s a fair amount of fluff/inspirational text in the adventure, but it’s almost always confined to a page by itself, in LARGE font. More artful than wordy. This is a great way to include this sort of meta-inspiration without clogging up the text that the DM needs to run at the table. Magical treasure is light, at none, with mundane treasure fitting in nicely but lacking really solid sticky descriptions.

The adventure has a habit of putting entrance/transition information one room ahead of where it should be. In a room at the bottom of stairs you get the stair description, instead of at the room at the top of the stairs. In the room behind the secret door you get the secret door description, instead of in the room that has the secret door. This, and the lack of more mythic treasure, is annoying.

But still, a nice decent adventure with a great vibe going on if you can get past the pussy monsters stuff. When you finish, I suspect your players will really think they’ve accomplished something, much in the same way that happens something in good DCC adventures.

There’s no real preview on DriveThru, unfortunatly.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #129

Sat, 04/08/2017 - 11:16

Murder in Oakbridge
By Uri Kurlianchik
Level 5

This is a murder mystery. Someone is killing people in Sharn. It tries to do the right thing. It’s organized in to locations, murder details, and other events. This is a good style for a murder mystery, recognizing that the locations are just a framework for the events to take place in. It’s got a nice NPC summary with names, roles, and rumors about them … but then leaves off their locations and their personalities. The murder events are laid out with details of the murder and then clues that can be found. There are a couple of false leads with events associated with them also. The general investigation/information you can find out, could be summarized, and a few more NPC’s could have been included, as well as a few window dressing events, like hysteria in the neighborhood, etc would have been nice. The hooks are not exactly original, but do have some nice quirks. “Seeing the first murder” hook has the body falling off a balcony and landing right in front of the party … an oldie but a goody. The other has the guard hiring the party to investigate. Always a lame hook, this is spiced up by having the sergeant being REALLY dumb. Like “beat things with a club” investigation-style dumb. The large amounts of worthless text and torturous writing style, which takes forever to get to the point, makes the thing hard to use. It’s highlighter and notebook time if you want to use it … but it IS salvageable if you want to put in the effort.

A Gathering of Winds
By Wolfgang Baur
Level 11

Oh god. I had manage to forget about these adventure paths. After a fight with a black dragon the characters explore a Tomb of Horrors style tomb. Too much backstory abounds and the usual mix of undead, golems, and bound guardians, along with tortured traps, is present. The map is a bit more interesting than most linear Tomb knockoffs. There are a couple of nice little encounters thrown in to the usual ToH garbage. There’s a living door/portal that can get AoO’s on people as they pass through. It gets a full 3e monster write up as a “ghoul”, because god forbid something not be explained, but it’s still a nice little encounter. There’s a cute Salamander noble, with the dialog “so sorry to be stabbing you in the vitals old chap, forced becaused of conjuration magic you know.” Finally, there’s both a true ghoul and a shadow spider that both have some personality. It’s the personality, and social aspects, of these encounters that bring them in ahead of the the usual Tomb of Horrors dreck. It’s also NOT afraid of handing out good magic items, with four or five being present, including a part of the rod of seven parts. I’m having trouble with the usual bits: the pay per word bloat, uninspiring descriptions, and ToH style, but maybe you won’t.

The Twisted Run
By Wil Upchurch
Level 17

Wanna be “famous?” Figure out high-level D&D. This shit fest is an excuse to put AC 41 & 200HP monsters in front of the party. A god tells the mayor trouble is coming, but he can’t be bothered to spare people to look in to it .. .and appeals to the party. So, shit hook. And you get to look forward to stat blocks pages that span one and a half pages. There’s no arc from low to medium to high. No advice for high that’s worthwhile, in a meaningful way. Domain gets you a little way there, but beyond that?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Ballad of Sally Anne

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 11:17

By Vance Atkins
Leicester’s Rambles
Low Levels

Two generations ago, a tragedy befell a wedding night. The groom was killed on the way to the wedding, leaving his grief-stricken bride to live out her days in heartbreak. Even after her death, she haunts her family home, seeking some sort of solace. The adventurers have arrived on the anniversary of the tragic night, where terrible forces bring devastation to the surrounding lands. Can the heroes enter the house and find a way to put an end to this annual horror?

This ten page adventure in a haunted house is a mashup of a bluegrass ballad, about a wedding widow, and a old house plan for a manor. There are about sixteen rooms scattered through about five pages, with the rest being overhead, introductions, licenses, etc. It’s got a decent, slow, haunted vibe going on but it’s handicapped by a loosely organized structure and a lack of focus for the room descriptions. With about sixteen rooms and about four monsters, with maybe four or five “other” encounters, there’s a slow burn thing going on. IE: Creepy adventure is creepy. It’s less D&D and more horror, lacking fantastic beasts, etc. That’s not a negative, but more of a setting-style, for those of you looking for a lower-fantasy adventure.

The backstory is relatively short and inoffensive, mostly because of the single column layout and the inclusion, taking up most of a page, of the inspirational bluegrass ballad. The map is a found object, a historical floorplan of a manor. It’s interesting, but also handicaps the adventure a bit. The key matrix is a mix of room names and numbers, all from the original map. By keeping the map ‘untouched’ you have to live with the original notations for doors, which look enough like windows to cause a bit of struggle to find them on the map. Other features, like ruined stairs and so on, rely on the text in the adventure to come across instead of being noted on a map. I can understand the allure of a found map, but it’s gotta be usable.

The stairs, in particular, annoy me. One stairway is gone, burned in a fire, we’re told a couple of times in a couple of places. That kind of makes sense since it’s not listed as stairs on the map … The front hall stairs, though … those are unusable also. They are collapsed and you need a grapple or something to make it up to the second level. But the stairs, unnumbered, look normal on the map. And the details of the stairs are only found in the text that introduces the second level. The collapsed stair thing is a nice obstacle, but the limitations of the found map shine through here. Instead of cueing the DM with a number on the stairs we instead rely on the DM reading an introductory paragraph.

I mentioned the writing style is unfocused. The first room, the courtyard, is six paragraphs long. One describes the various entrances to the home … I guess because of the map issues. Two delve, to various degrees in to “explaining why.” Adventures seldom, if ever, need to explain the why of things. It clogs things up. “The body of a ranger WHO ATTEMPTED TO PENETRATE THE GARDEN lies dessicated at the foot of one of the vines. (emphasis mine, of course.) The ‘why’ of the ranger is superfluous, it adds nothing to the play of the game. Likewise, earlier up, is this paragraph: “The rose vines have become imbued with chaos energy of the sorrow within the house. The vines are competitive and evenly spaced through the courtyard. Opportunists, they normally prey on birds, small animals, and whatever other unfortunate creature entered the courtyard due to the diminished soils and undead energies of the house.” We’ve already been told about the many small dead animals, earlier up. This paragraph does nothing but justify the existence of the vines. It’s explaining. Don’t explain. At best, one or two that intimate their sorrowful origin, if need be as flavor text, but an entire paragraph? It gets in the way of finding the information you DO need to run the courtyard. The adventure engages in this “explaining” and generally unfocused descriptions in most of the rooms.

It also does several things well. It provides hints, the rooms, in several places. One room has several animals in silk cocoons, for the observant, hinting at a spider. The courtyard, as mentioned, has several dessicated small animal bodies in it, hinting at the vampire vines. In another room you can see a peeling plaster ceiling with water stains, hinting at the weakened floor above.

Both this and U1/Saltmarsh have a nice creepy old house vibe. This one, actually BEING haunted, gets to stretch its legs a bit more than Saltmarsh. There are a couple of curses, including some nice creepy paintings and cursed treasures that appear as wealth to the players but black tar lumps to others, an unusual curse different from the usual pure mechanical effects most resort to. The ghost, proper, and her “curse removal” also has a nice folklore vibe going on.

I’m fond of these slow burn adventures. Or, maybe, I WANT to like these sorts of adventures. The idea of exploring an old haunted house appeals to me. I like the creepiness and build up. I’m not sure, though, it matches my play style. The slower place, and lack of “fantastic beasts” is going to appeal to some DM’s/campaigns more than others. Hmmm this is coming off more negative than I mean it to be. It’s a decent little adventure that needs a highlighter or a second version to tighten it up.

The last couple of pages on the DriveThru preview show you a couple of rooms, and is a good indication of what you are buying. Check it out:

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Beneath the Comet

Mon, 04/03/2017 - 11:11

By Benjamin Ball
North Wind Adventures
Level 6-9

For weeks the Comet has blazed in the sky above Hyperborea, inspiring widespread superstitious dread and fear of some star-borne contagion. Under the light of this harbinger from the Black Gulf, the PCs have come to Bogrest, following a magical treasure map that reveals great wealth buried in the Lonely Heath north of the village. Finding that treasure will be no simple matter, however, for Hyperborea is a weirder and deadlier place than ever beneath the Comet

This 48 page adventure details a small wilderness scrubland area ending with a thirteen room dungeon under a barrow mound. The dungeon reminds me of a more realistic version of White Plume Mountain. You explore, collect keys, and go face the final boss. The keyed encounters, both in the wilderness and dungeon, offer a nice variety of decent ideas. The AS&SH writing style, is, however, present and a major barrier to entry/use/enjoyment. Your mileage may vary.

The party has a magic treasure map, showing the way. Generally, to some ancient mound in a scrubland. There’s a village nearby. There are four encounter locations in the scrubland, along with the main mound proper. The village takes three pages (one of which is a map) to add nothing to the adventure except a small rumor table. With a two paragraph introduction that adds nothing to the table. I’m reminded of the rumor table in Gus L’s Prison of the Hated Pretender. It’s title bar was “What the scabrous yokels in that village of broken down huts are saying:” That does at least as good a job as the three pages spent in this adventure on the village. What, pray tell, is the appeal of the “what equipment is available” fetish? This adventure spends two paragraphs telling us what the party can and can’t buy. I don’t get the appeal. All those words don’t really add anything to the adventure. There IS a “villager quirk” table that is rather nice, quirks and/or strong personalities, something to remember them by, should be a required part of every social encounter.

As indicated in just about every other AS&SH review I’ve done, I’m NOT a fan of the writing style used. I don’t think this is personal preference, at least not in the way I use that phrase. In other words, there may be multiple ways to fulfill my review standards, some of which I may prefer over others. I don’t think this is a case of the AS&SH line using a different way to get to same goal, a way that I might not prefer (personal preferences.) I think I can make a case that the adventures obfuscate data for the DM and are not evocatively written. Which is a fancy way of saying that they almost always have great ideas, but you have to work hard to get at them.

Some wandering gargoyles have strange and unsettling necklaces. The DM is elsewhere offered the advice “If the PCs make some attempt to distract or deceive the super ape-men, the referee must determine the success of their endeavour.” And in another area “the party can wash the poison off with alcohol or some other like cleaning agent.” The later two examples are, I think, examples of being too prescriptive. Of course the DM has to determine success; the DM does that about at least a hundred times in every session of D&D. Likewise the cleaning off the poison. This is something that this adventure engages in time and time again. This sort of prescriptive text add very little to the game and I would argue it detracts far more than it adds, by making the text denser for no good reason, making it harder to use during play.

The gargoyle necklace is in a different category. “Strange and unsettling” are not good descriptions. Those words are conclusions. It’s an example of using a TELL word instead of a SHOW word … and you should always SHOW instead of tell. Use different words to show me the necklace, to describe it. Then, if you’ve done a good job, the party members will conclude “ooh, that’s strange and unsettling!” This adventure engages far too much in showing instead of telling and therefore the evocative nature doesn’t come through well.

I want to spend a little time talking about the wandering table in this adventure. There are two tables, once mundane and one more fantastic. If you roll a six on the mundane table you instead roll on the fantastic table. (Which means, BTW, that the Rust Monsters in encounter six will never show up. I’m sure that wasn’t intended.) The mundane wanderers attack immediately. That’s pretty boring, I prefer slightly more pretext be offered, but, whatever. The fantastic encounters are, almost all, window dressing encounters. You meet a ghost child. Be nice to it and maybe get a combat bonus. You meet a fortune teller. Be nice and maybe get a combat bonus. You meet an X, be nice and you’ll get a combat bonus. It’s a bit of a one-trick pony. Yeah, the window dressing stuff is kind of ok, but its detachment from the rest of the adventure leaves it FEELING like it’s detached. Some effort being made to tie these in to the main adventure text would have made them come off better, as well as varying the reward a bit more. The better ones are the ones that ARE attached to other encounters, like a driverless wagon and the ones that offer variety, like a new henchman/hireling. The others feel … too samey and too detached from whats going on. They don’t LEAD to anything.

The actual encounters are pretty decent. Several of the locations in the wilderness tie together and all of them are interesting. There are a lot of things to interact with, things to do. Crossing pits on edge ledges, dodging around on moving mosaics, a two-headed pterodactyl with the usual lying/truth problem, a dude straight out of folklore who you have to REALLY hack to death, a rival NPC party to mix things up, and a decent amount more. Essentially, you get about 20 interesting “rooms” for the party to interact. They do mostly fall in to the same category of a funhouse-ish light sort of challenge/puzzle, but it’s all interactive for the players to play with and figure out, rather than just simply riddles. Closer to chessboard challenges, but not as divorced from continuity as chessboard puzzles usually are. I really like them. Maybe a little more variety, but they are nice. Plus, the lich at the end has got a GREAT short little paragraph death scene that will really make the party think they’ve accomplished something.

It’s just too bad that those encounters are hidden behind all of that text. Up until this point I would have said that Talenian has a distinctive voice. But this being a different designer I now get to generalize to: AS&SH has a distinctive voice. And it’s one I really don’t like.

The dungeon storeroom begins: “The floor of this room is stacked with funerary offerings: decorative furniture, brightly dyed textiles, wicker baskets full of grain and fruit, myriad clay pots and bowls, small idols of forgotten Hyperborean gods, teak chests filled with parchment scrolls, and more. These mundane items are amazingly well preserved by the magic of this room, but they will crumble to dust if removed from it.” So, a funerary offering storeroom with stuff that crumbles? (It does then go on to have something interesting happen, but the distinctive writing style makes the room description take up a full page.)

The preview on DriveThru is pretty useless in telling you what you will get getting, although the “Authors Note” section on the last page hints at the tortured writing style to come:

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #128

Sat, 04/01/2017 - 11:15

Why keep on reviewing Dungeon? Because sometimes, when things are dark, you stumble on The One Ring.

By F. Wesley Schneider & James L. Sutter
Level 2

Danger: I LUV a good urban adventure. This is a DELIGHTFUL adventure! It’s a little mystery/guard mission in an old ladies house and is about 20 times more Ravenloft than almost all of the Ravenloft adventures. The Swan Street Slicer has escaped! On the way to jail, the mute halfling’s jailwagon was in an accident and he’s escaped! The guard is frantic, as is the entire town! Extra guards are everywhere! The party (hired? Hastily deputized?) is given the task of guarding the house of an old lady, her family having been one of the last victims. This is a nice hook. Hysteria in the city is fun, and its a good pretext as to why the guardsmen aren’t doing the guarding. They ARE, but EVERYONE/PLACE needs guards. It’s all hands on deck! So the party is in the old ladies house, guarding it/her and her daughter. The NPC’s in this are wonderful. A bitter old woman in a wheelchair. Her lovely daughter, no longer engaged since her fiance was murdered by the slicer. A halfing butler who is best described as ‘simple.’ Strong NPC personalities to interact with. Then there are the people who come to visit, PERFECTLY described. “Nina’s dim-witted but good-natured nephew.” or “a greasy but ambitious banker” and so on. In one fucking sentence for each NPC this adventure does what so many others can’t seem to do: focus on the NPC description on interactivity. Who the fuck cares what your special snowflakes eye color is? What we need to know is how to play them when the party comes to interact. There’s a great little table included for the old woman and her daugher on how the parties interactions with them will impact their attitudes/diplomacy checks. And, even better, the table notes WHERE YOU CAN FIND THINGS! Giving the daughter some letters from her dead fiance will give you some positive modifier, but the table also tells you that they are in room six! Oh the humanity! A writer who actually makes things easier for the DM! The NPC’s, the house, what’s actually going on, the window dressing, t all contributes to a wonderfully creepy vibe. As time passes the party will do that thing that brings joy to the hearts of players and DM’s. They’ll say something like “Ohhh! It’s her! I know it’s her! Ohhh! I know it!” This sort of build up, starting out slightly irregular and building until the party snap in to action, is wonderful. “Telegraphed” isn’t quite the right word, but the mix of horror, with the … levity? Anticipation? From the players is great. The maps are way too small, and you’re going to STILL need a highlighter for the rooms. They are shorter than usual for Dungeon, but still need a bit of help. That rarest of beasts: A Dungeon Magazine adventure Worth Checking Out.

The Champion’s Belt
By Tito Leati
Level 9

Another in the Age of Worms adventure path. I swear I’ve seen this adventure before … in Dark Sun form? You’re hired to participate in the cities gladiator games, a cover to investigate the tunnels below the arena. It’s the usual mess. Badly organized. Mountains and mountains of text spewed out all over the place that you have to wade through to get even the smallest semblance of how things are supposed to work. Anyway, four gladiator battles, some rooting around in the tunnels, hopefully the party finds and kills the stuff in the evil shrine before the final gladiator battle. If not, there’s a potential for thousands of wights to be turned loose on the city. THAT would be a cool thing to happen. It will be interesting to see if the next chapter of this adventure deals with that possibility. The adventure isn’t in and of itself, bad, but its very badly put together. It’s laid out in the usual encounter/key format but it’s NOT an encounter/key adventure, at least not most of it. It’s a social adventure with some investigation. You hang around. You meet people. You try and figure out how to get in to the secret tunnels, not be seen. Essentially, you want in to the Employee Only areas of the mall/football stadium, dodging employees, guards, etc. THEN you can explore and kill shit in the evil shrine. But its not laid out anyway near that to support it. Sure, you CAN run, if you dump a shit ton of work in to it. Even with the stupid fucking tactics-jerkoff-fest gladiator fights, this could have been a decent adventure, IS a decent adventure, if only you could pull the shit you need out of it in a way that makes sense for running the game. Most of the maps in this are small, and nigh unreadable, another stone against it.

The Fireplace Level
By Eric L. Boyd
Level 14

The finale of the three-part Vampires in Waterdeep adventure arc. Thank God. “The fissure opened up over six decades ago, in the Year of Catacombs (1308 DR). It’s just large enough to permit passage by a size Medium or smaller creature.” This is the kind of joy you are in for. And then … “In the Year of Catacombs (1308 DR), a purple worm passed through the Wormwrithings Portal (F2A) and appeared here. The damage might have been far worse is the temporal stasis trap in the hallway had not caught the gigantic worm at the locations marked F2B. Rge Company of Crazed Venturers stumbled upon the purple worm in the Year of the Gate (1341 DR). Calling on connections that Company member Nain and Savengriff had with the Blackstaff Tower, the Company managed to have the worm removed, after they transformed it in to solid silver with the help of a magic item. Khelben later cast gate seal on the portal ‘for the security of the city’ before departing.” That is but one part of the massive text in one hallway that has some stone damage in it. How the fuck does that enrich the adventure for the players? Actually, I’d much rather be playing THAT adventure than this one. Turning a purple worm to silver, looting it, all to get access to the dungeon its carcass is blocking, sounds like fun. But that’s not THIS adventure. There’a merman vampire, with a ridiculous picture. I don’t see how this is runnable in any manner other than worst caricature ever of a bad D&D game/DM. Go from room to room and kill shit. Joy. Oh Eric, I’m glad you finally escaped to a new job at the university. I just wish it were more memorable.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes

Wed, 03/29/2017 - 11:12

By Jeffrey Talanian
North Wind Adventures
Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea
Level 2-4

Somewhere in the depths of Diamond Desert lie the skeletal remains of Ymir’s Serpent, a legendary Viking longship. In days of yore, Sigtrygg Forkbeard led his company upriver, piercing the desert’s hostile heart. There the Vikings unearthed a lost mine brimming with green diamonds, but the River Æolus desiccated as the Serpent prepared for launch, and the ship was swallowed by the dunes. Forkbeard and his company were never seen again, but tales of a shimmering Viking ghost ship gliding over the dunes persist to this day.

This sixty page adventure takes the party through a border-village on through the desert to an old mine. There’s a nice variety of encounters, but the final dungeon skews hard to the “linear” side of things, in spite of the more open-ended border village and desert. It’s all wrapped in text that carries Talanian’s distinctive voice; a dream to some and a nightmare to others. There’s a real adventure here, along with a lot of Harn-like detail. Your tolerance to wading through the prose will determine your ability to run it.

The hook here is pretty lame: you’re hired by a wizard (“a male witch” the text kindly tells us) to take him to a lost mine of green diamonds, a a gemstone that can be rare and dangerous. What saves it is the NPC, the wizard in question. He’s got a pegleg and a distinctive arrogant/asshole/disdainful personality to go with it. That slowly changes as he closer to the mine. And his eyes glow. Green. Greener as you get closer. Nice NPC!

Off you go. You can stop off at a village on the edge of the desert to gain a level, from 2-3, under the pretext following up on a green diamond rumor. From there you trek through the desert, with a couple of distinctive encounters, until you read the mine … which is really quite a linear dungeon. The titular ghost ship is a rumor, and maybe flies around the desert a little at night if the wandering table turns it up.

The adventure here is a good one with a nice variety of encounters. The initial village adventure is a nice little social wandering that is well supported by the NPC’s in the village, with decent color. It’s supported by a nice little summary as well as a note of the key locations. There’s a nice rumor table as well, to add some local intrigues to the mix. It centers around a local scandal, with shades of Smeagel, brothers, wise-women, and a wildman. The more the party looks in to things the more color comes out and the more hints they get about what they are up against. The wildman lairs in an old temple. The entire section, from the village to the temple, is a nice, and colorful, little open-ended bit of adventuring.

From there the party ends up in the desert trekking to the old mine. There are a handful of places detailed as well as an “advanced” wandering monster table. Let’s hope that the party keeps their ules around to maybe feed to any purple worms that show up. A handful of small, but colorful, adventure sites are included, although I doubt most parties will encounter more than two or so. Still, they are quite nicely done. An old gem mine, dead atlanteans with a flamethrower, ant hills, and a giant spider are featured in one small encounter. In another the NPC wizard meets an old friend, a hermit. And almost certainly ends up blasting a hole in the dudes chest. Man, that NPC wizards is THE. SHIT. from an ‘adventure color’ standpoint. The gem mine, at the end, is more than a little linear and the ghost ship may not even show up. But still. Pools of water. Vermin, like Black Centipedes, slimes, a giant ape. Ancient technology. Its got lots of nice encounters down there.

Let’s address the gorilla in the room: Talanian’s voice. Jeffrey Talanian is one of the few (only?) people writing RPG supplements who, if formatted the same, you could tell who wrote the thing without their name being attached. Dude has a seriously idiosyncratic writing style. Grammer. Vocabulary. Detail. They add up to something more than the usual “technical writing” style that most designers use. It’s an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired. I admire that he has a distinctive voice. I just wish he tempered it more. “This natural cavern was worked to a gradient to accommodate the mining operations that took place here.” He means, of course, “the cave slopes.” I find his writing style exhausting, having to work through it to figure out what he’s trying to say. It’s like your car’s manual was written in the style of WIlliam Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land. On of the primary conceits of the tenfoopole is that the adventure is, first and foremost, a tool to be used for running a game at the table. It is, therefore, a piece of technical writing. A peculiar type in which artistic license MUST be taken with language in order to deliver terse and evocative bursts in to a DM’s brain. All perfectly organized. Dionysus and Apollo, together at last. Too often I feel like I’m fighting the text in this. His archaic style obfuscates rather than enables, and often to little evocative effect. “The dais is dominated by an eight-foot-tall, verdigris-encrusted bronze statue of a cobra set within a glyph-incised alcove.” I assert that description, in spite of the vocabulary and grammar choices, is boring. Boring in the way facts are boring. Yes, it tells us what’s there. But it doesn’t necessarily inspire us, the DM, to a great mental image.

Talanian also deals with ecology and this is where the Harn comparisons come in, or perhaps the MERP region supplements. The village the party stops at has a festival once a year, that’s fully detailed. Harvest times are detailed. One encounter in the desert, unlikely to happen, is with a field of cactus. Which have their flowering seasons detailed and the fauna attracted to them. “… and small bats pollinate the pink and white blossoms of the early Tempest [spring.]” Uh. Ok. The ecology here is rich, both in the desert encounters and in the others. But this isn’t a MERP regional module. It’s an adventure to be run at the table and EVERYTHING in the main text must contribute to that. There’s a place for extra detail. It’s called an appendix. Many designers could improve their products by putting the extra detail in an appendix and referring to the page in the text. The village, likewise, suffers from this ecology fetishment. The village lies down at the base of some hills/cliffs. Up top, scattered along the edge, are some totem poles. There is one off-hand remark about this mid-way through the village, in the description of one of the shopkeepers (ok, a monk sect.) Something along the lines of “they main the totems around the village.” You don’t really learn they are there until you go to the wilderness text, after the village. Sure would be nice if you knew about it immediately …so you could tell the party about it immediately. Instead it’s like you’re reading some weirdly laid out cultural reference tome of the village and have to be intimately familiar with everything before you can get the big picture. Not to appear to be harping, but the cactus field is an excellent short example.

I have one more general complaint that will make me sounds like a petty ass: the use of italics. I don’t know if it’s the font, the kerning, or what, but the italics in this makes my head hurt. All of the read-aloud, sometimes a couple of paragraphs worth at a time, and other special thing, like trease, are in this italics font. I LOATHE it. It’s almost like trying to read a small italics cursive font.I suspect it has something to do with the “main” font, and readability. Whatever it is, it drives me nutty.

You gotta dig out the information in this one. But if you do you’ll have a nice little adventure, with a decent amount of the human condition driving aspects of the secondary situations encounters. Which is both relatable and something not very many adventures do. The result is something that feels a little gamma world-ish. Several fantasy environments, from Tekumel to Blackmoor, have a kind of post-apoc vibe deep inside of them, even though they are fantasy games. This adventure fits that vibe.

The preview on DriveThru is worthless, showing you just the cover and title pages.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Ghost of Jack Cade on London Bridge

Mon, 03/27/2017 - 11:21

By Dominique Crouzet
Dice of Might Publishing
Dark Albion/OSR
Level 1

There’s a spooky ghost on London Bridge! Can the party help?

This is a 28 page investigation/social adventure in a pseudo-historical/fantasy urban locale: london bridge. It’s presented in a more sandboxy manner than the usual linear plots-based dreck. It describes what’s going on, the people involved, and the locations on the bridge, and then leaves the party to figure out what they want to want to do. This is all adjudicated by the DM using the materials presented in the text to roll with the punches and determine what happens based on the backgrounds & data presented. You know, D&D. Thus the adventure groks the overall goal/vision but falls down in the execution: I don’t think it’s laid out in a manner that helps the DM run it.

The setting is Dark Albion, a kind of pseudo-historical europe that will be familiar to those experienced with the same sort of thing in Lamentations of the Flame Princess. It’s a decent setting for a gritty urban adventure … gritty urban being a favorite genre of mine. As an introductory adventure it creates a nice hook: the party is, each individually, on their way to a pilgrimage in Canterbury, which traditionally starts in a chapel on the bridge. With a few days to kill because of a delay, the party sees a terrified woman rush in to their inn and corner a priest with tales of a ghost. As the only other people in the inn, he seeks the parties help. There’s enough extra to make it more than the usual empty adventure pretext.

The text gives a brief summary of what’s going on and then expands on each of the various aspects. There’s a little bit of history and then a description of the various main people in the set up. A brief description of how the ghost appears and what people do, a brief description of the major adventure locates, a brief description of some shops for the bridge. The adventure comes from how the party chooses to approach the hook. Go looking in to places? Asking questions? Hanging out to catch a sight of the ghost? Nothing is programmed in the adventure as a plot and all of the descriptions must then be used by the DM as a resource to respond to what the characters are doing. This is a great way to organize a more social/investigative adventure. There may be better ways, but if there are they don’t immediately spring to mind. There are some good businesses for an urban environment that will provide some nice GAMEABLE content for the party to have fun with as well some good loose-ends on where to take the party after the main adventure completes. The text is trying to provide a framework, resources if you will, for the DM to take the inciting event and then respond to what the players do. That’s exactly what this sort of adventure SHOULD do.

But, notice I said “trying to provide.” The gets itself in to trouble. There’s too much, even in this short adventure, to hold in your head. That means you have to refer to the adventure during the adventure. And the adventure doesn’t make it very easy to run at the table. The font is small, the data is organized in long paragraphs. Data is spread out throughout the book. When you do find a logical section then the data you need/want isn’t present. In one core building everyone inside gets their name stated in their little romo description. Except for the main guy, who owns the building. His name is in the intro section. One woman, a wealth of information, owns a shop. What kind of shop? Not stated.These are minor nits issues but lend to the general theme of the … unsuitability? of the text at the table.

This marries two concepts: background exposition and stickiness. I usually rail about excessive background information and I usually rail about encounters that are not tersely written. Except when the encounter is sticky. And except when the background information is relevant to actual play. (And not in some bullshit sophistry like ‘it MIGHT come up in play!’) In both cases we appeal to the general use: it can’t get in the way of actually running the game at the table. Stickiness helps there. In reusing my favorite example, you see the name “Old Bay’s Cave” and you know generally what’s inside and how to run the room without reading more. Stickiness and exposition can be exploited, together, by proving some summarized information. A good example is Maze of Blue Medusa. Each room gets a decent-sized write up. Let’s assume you read the room once, sometime before you actually run the game. If you never look at that information again you will, when running the game at the table, remember some amount of information about the room. One option is that you could run then run the room, from memory, without really doing much more than glancing down at the text. You would have some degree of success in running the room by using the text as inspiration, both from what you remember from reading the text beforehand and whatever you see in the glance at the big paragraphs. What Maze of the Blue Medusa does is then provide your failing memory further cues. It says “hey, here’s this picture on the map which is related to the room” … and you remember something more of the encounter from that cue. But, and more key, it also provides a little one or two sentence summary of the room. It is from that summary that most of your memory cues stem from. It has found a way to provide exposition on the room AND make the room usable at a glance in play while losing very little of their key nature. That is what this adventure, and many other adventures with dense text, sorely need.

That’s why I like summary information. Read the adventure once and then refer to the summary sheet to prompt your memory, with occasional glances at the text. That’s what this adventure needs. It needs a little timeline. It needs the NPC’s summarized with personalities (a stats sheet for enemies IS provided, which is QUITE welcomes! As would one for people/personalities since this is primarily a social adventure …) A timeline, a social summary, a location summary, all on two or three pages, would have made all of the rest of the exposition fall in to line and give the DM the tools they need. Instead you get to buy a highlighter and invest time in highlighting and making notes on a pad of paper.

It’s an ok adventure, it’s just hard to use in play. A little more personality for the NPC’s, a little more timeline. Some summaries. That would have turned it in to a good adventure.

The preview, on DriveThru, will give you a good idea of what to expect. The last couple of pages, in particular, show you what kind of descriptions you get for the locations, as well as the general timeline of the action (in text/paragrapgh form, rather than timeline form.) What’s you don’t get to see are the supplemental businesses on the bridge, in the back part of the book, which should add quite a bit to the adventure.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #127

Sat, 03/25/2017 - 11:15

Do you want something other than linear combat adventure? Then Dungeons & Dragons is not for you. After wading through all of these Dungeon Magazines, the Internet shift to the OSR makes complete sense.

Why are you still reading these “Reviews”?

The Hive
By Phillip Larwood
Level 5

Ant dwarf hybrids are featured in this linear hack-fest. Linear maps. Rooms with nothing more than combat. Go from room to room, with no choice, and masturbate to your min-max’d characters tactics. This “adventure” is just a simple wargame, and not a very good one. The word count is padded to shit and back.

The Hall of Harsh Reflections
By Jason Bulmahn
Level 7

Part blah blah blah of the Age of Worms adventure path. It’s hard to muster much enthusiasm for these. Gate guards abuse you, a couple of COMPLETELY telegraphed street encounters. A fight in a bar. Raid the doppelganger lair. Raid the mind flayers lair. “Oh no! The chimera in the parade has escaped!” Who cares. “Oh no! Combat in the bar!” Who cares. Some attempt is made, in the beginning to add a bit of variety. Wanderers include bandits, who flee when one of them is killed, and trolls, bitching about some adventurers that raided them. The corrupt gate guards exemplify things. They try to shake you down. They bake off if you insist on your innocence. What if you just kill the fuckers? Are you prepared to deal with that? I mean, the designer instigated the scenario and killing the asshats is certainly in the cards. Pages of text is used where a couple of sentences could suffice, especially for the shit that passes for “adventure” in this thing. The man behind the curtain is boring.

Blood of Malar
By Eric L. Boyd
Level 13

Vampires of Waterdeep, part two. This is a 36 room dungeon with a decent looping map. It’s at its worst when it’s engaging in Forgotten Realms simulationist/historically accurate fetishism, with mountains of text and long ineffective read-aloud. Lots of opportunity for useless background data “A year ago a destrachan crawled up from the underdark and fought some adventurers and died, resulting in this rubble filled room.” Note the contrast between this “explaining why” and Curse of the Shrine Goddess, where stars disappear from the sky with no explanation of why. One concentrates on play and creates fun. The other concentrates on some historical novelization of the adventure, and sucks shit. There’s some flying finger/hand monsters. Those are nice. The whole plot thing is is garbage, but can be easily ignored, thank god. Not odious, just not good.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Curse of the Shrine Goddess

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 11:17

By Oswald
Self Published
Level 1-3

A man built a temple to a woman who died. It became a shrine for those who lost a spouse too soon. Later. Much later. A young couple came. Their tribes warred so they could only marry in death. It was poison. Which angered her. They walk the temple ever since, cursed by a shrine spirit. She has a hatred of suicide only dead widows can know.

Heads Up: This adventure went through my Critique Partner service.

This is an eight page PWYW exploration adventure in a shrine/tomb that kind of channels the backstory of the Taj Mahal. It’s got great imagery and lots of little scenes that lend this wonderful vibe of mourning and loss to the various areas. There’s some great construction in this, making things work together to an overall effect. It’s dreamy, haunting, frightening, and does it all through interaction with the characters, forcing nothing on them. It tempts.

Eight pages with twelve rooms makes this a pretty focused adventure. A title page, a map page, a rumor/mechanics page, and then four pages of keyed encounters and one more half page describing a couple of more mechanical pieces. The adventure describes Coral Castle, an old shrine and temple. What do we know about it? Well “the superstitious lot of local muck dwellers have this to say about it …” says the intro to the rumor table. I’d like to note that one intro sentence provides more gameable inspiration about the local village than dozens of the throw-away villages I’ve seen. “Muck dwellers” … maybe on stilts, on the edge of a bog, muck, literally? Oh yeah. The rumors, twelve, add to the fun. They are written in a kind of folk manner, embedding some part of the teller in to their wording. Reading rumor nine “We were a proud people once …” it starts out. And you get, through it, a detailed image of the speaker in your mind. A mournful kind of person, maybe a bit in their cups, knowing what kind of people they once were and how they’ve fallen to what they are now. To be clear: there’s nothing more of the local village presented beyond this rumor table. And this adventure does not, in any way, need it.

The imagery in this adventure is great. Rot swollen door. Cherry blossom leaves fall in slight wind. Sky blue splotches of color bleeding through the coral wall. A bowl of rot. A floor dirt soaked and hardened with animal blood. But that’s only the static descriptions. The Crypt of Widowed Virgins, underground, as some water on the floor. Skeletons in the lower alcoves crawl through the water, making no ripples, attempting to drag players in to the lower alcoves and drown them. Nice stuff! Short. Strong imagery. Great play opportunities. In an alter room skeletons in frilly pastel trousers playing pipes and carrying a litter with a skeletal bride and fight the party to get her to the altar to marry. Strong use of language compliments the more dynamic room elements, that are themselves well done, to bring about this excellent picture built up in the DMs head.

I tend to harp on terse and evocative writing. I do this because boring and lengthy writing is a common problem in most adventures and making it terse and evocative is an easy contrast that can’t be confused. There are Other Ways though. You can write sticky. You can create a little element that, while longer, only needs to be read once in your lifetime and it will remain with you. Old Bay, the hill giant in the crab-men caves from Fight On #3 (itself one of the best dungeon levels ever) is one of those characters. Once read you will never forget the old crab-leg loving guy. Likewise there are at least three things described in this adventure, a little longer than normal, that you will only need to read once, maybe just referring back to stat at some point but never needing to come back for their character. You grok them. There are two lovers trapped inside the shrine, cursed. There is a maze that can appear between doorways and a “minotaur” in the maze. All three are sticky in the same way as old bay. The woman, Alaesis is determined. Steely eyed obsession. She refuses to feel despair. Aturio is panicked and worried, desperate for help. Knows he is hunted. Has died 86 times and is a broken man. The minotaur is their child (not A&A, but the Taj Mahal builder dude and his dead love) that was never conceived. Perfect-looking, 20, Strong, beautiful, intelligent, kingly. Never fails morals. He could have been anything. He would have been great. There’s more text for all three, but I’ve given you some of the highlights. VERY strong characterization for the DM to work with and expand upon, without having to refer back to multiple paragraphs of text.

There’s a great element of the weird in this. You can steal gems from the night sky mural on the roof of one of the rooms. “Afterward, looted stars no longer show at night. Ever.” Nice! Or w window you can crawl out of, in to the void you see through it, to see the UNDERSIDE of the castle … and the secret is holds. There’s no real attempt to explain this, or the stars, or other details. And there doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t fall in to the trap of trying to explain the WHY of the weird in a game where elves shoot fireballs. And yet it’s not arbitrary. There’s a story that can unfold, through the various rooms, if the party pays attention. They can figure out some of the secrets hidden away

The adventure relies on temptation for a lot of its action. There’s loot laying around. Looting, in what is essentially a large memorial crypt, while the deceased is present in spirit form, leads EXACTLY where you would expect it to. When you loot, or do other things to piss of the dead lady, some of the room ‘activate.’ IE: the cherry blossom trees in the garden have their leaves fall and blow … acid leaves that burn the skin. That crypt of widowed virgins? They’ve mostly got valuable wedding rings on … I love it when a adventure puts this sort of temptation in front of the players. Everyone knows something bad will happen. The players are making a deliberate and informed choice (implicitly informed, sometimes) and tus THEY control the action. And if it were playing I’d gleefully loot the place like a cackling madman. Consequences be damned, they only add to the fun!

It’s a good adventure. My critiques are nitpicks. Maybe a little more formatting for certain sections to make the Treasure and Activated sections stand out a bit more than they already do. There’s a maze mechanic that you have to read a couple of times to get ahold of it. If I were doing it I’d probably devote a sentence or two to the approach, to try and generate a mythic underworld transition and/or enhance the otherworldly aspect; maybe put it up high on a cliff with a narrow coral path and lots of mists and sea spray or something like that.

This was a solid adventure and the revisions to it have really kicked it up a notch. I think it compares favorably to the adventures Gus L does at Dungeon of Signs. Short/terse. Evocative. Punchy. Memorable. Not forced but presenting opportunities.

The preview on DriveThru is a little TOO good. It’s eight pages long. And the adventure is eight pages. Not cool if you believe people are jerks, but WONDERFUL for a Pay What You Want adventure. You’ll know EXACTLY what you are getting. Check out the last page for the minotaur description or page four for the Aturio & Alaesis description. Or the second to last page for both the wedding altar and crypt of widowed virgins.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Nevermore Mines

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 11:14

By Jon Bertani, Aaron Fairbrook, Mark McAllister
Merciless Merchants
For Gold & Glory/2e
Level 4-7

For generations, bards have enjoyed spinning the tale to honest folk and their children of the lost Nevermore Mines and the Master of Darkness that lies within them. They warn the children that if they misbehave, the Dark Master will come for them and take them away to be lost in the Mines forever. Most folk regard these stories as spirited attempts by bards to make some coin, but the town of Oakvale was just recently attacked by the nightmare from the tales. Will your group be brave enough to travel to the Nevermore Mines to discover and put to rest this great evil?

This 56 page adventure describes a two-level mine now being used as a lair by a devil, along with the wilderness environs around the lair. It’s a pretty classic environment, with an encounter mix that is a cut above the usual dreck. It’s also a classic “highlighter adventure”, being absolutely clogged with text. It’s clear a lot of effort went in to this, and unfortunate that its usability is hampered.

A devil possessed a miner long ago and is now trapped in the mine; warded from leaving. He’s accumulated some followers. There are a small selection of hooks to get the party in to the mine, most of which are the usual boring stuff. Our children are missing. Hired to go find something, and so on. But there’s also … you won the deed in a poker game! This, and the associated “found the deed” and “were granted the deed as a reward” are great examples of appealing to the players. “Well, I got this deed to a gold mine …” That’s the kind of very personal appeal to a player that I think makes a good adventure hook.

The wilderness area leading to the mine is about five miles long, with a couple of paths leading off of the main trail, and ten encounter areas scattered through the side trails. This is supported by a small wandering monster table that … is a little fun! An etting having an internal monologue that does not immediately attack, hobgoblins that don’t attack immediately … it’s amazing! A variety of encounter types from mundane, to mysterious, to social, to the usual monster attack. The variety is refreshing to see. Similarly, the wilderness encounters proper have a decent mix of variety to them. Several simple barrows to explore, an abandoned hut, a nice rock bridge to a werewolf lair, “the slime cave” (with weird mushrooms!) and a bog, complete with ghost children carving weird pumpkins to scare off the evil one and light the way for their parents to find them. Again, several non-violent encounters or encounters that let the party get themselves in to trouble (grave robbing the high priest? Ought oh …) The variety and mix is great, as well as the fact that there’s an actual REAL wilderness area offered .. even if it is a little simple, being paths through the mountains.

The main encounter location is a two-level mine with about twenty five rooms in total. The vibe inside is that of … surprise! a mine that has a devil inside! There’s a mix of natural type things (spiders, mine workings) with devil-like things such as heads hanging on hooks and so on. Generally each room has one encounter in it, and there’s some direction on how to respond to incursions … so more of a lair dungeon than an exploratory dungeon. That would usually mean that it skews heavily toward “this room has a guard monster that attacks you” but this adventure throws in a decent amount of encounters that don’t just feel like a slog. There are captives to rescue, dead children to find, a ghostly prisoner to “make friends with” … which is a banshee! It’s a nice little devil lair with a bunch of fucked-up monsters, not all of who like each other.

The primary sin is verbosity. The adventure confuses a long descriptions with a good description. Every single room/encounter gets two or three paragraphs of text. The text is a combination of fact based descriptions and history, neither of which I’m particularly fond of. The history is, generally, not needed in adventures and serves to only pad the adventure word count. Which makes it harder to find the information that you actually DO need to run the adventure. The “fact based description” ding sounds weird, I know. While not the worst, I think these sorts of fact-based descriptions come off, at best, flat and at worst trend to the “useless detail” end of the spectrum … which once again ends up clogging things up. The flatness comes from a communication style that is attempting to communicate too much. The designer needs to communicate a vibe, or feeling, to the DM, letting them fill in the rest. There’s a very long paragraph in one of the rooms of the slime caves. “A large hole in the ceiling on the east side of the chamber opens into the open sky above and light from the moon or sun is able to shine through the room.” I think we all get what the intent is. The designer clearly has a picture in their head and is trying to get that out to the DM. And yet “God rays stream in from a hole in the ceiling.” 10 words instead of 33 and, I think, a much better visual built up for the DM. I know it seems minor, but that first long paragraph has eight long sentences in it and it would be a BEAST to go through during play. Short. Punchy/Evocative. The last paragraph, of the same room, reads: “ Anyone entering the bubbling mud bath will find it very warm and comfortable. The basin is approximately four feet deep and three human sized characters can fit in it at once. Anyone spending an hour or more in the mud bath will heal twice the amount from their next resting for a full day.” Again, this could be shortened considerably, getting rid of useless wording and still delivering the intent, less prescriptively, in a more evocative manner.

The barrow mounds are good example. One of them has four of five “empty” rooms, all of which get relatively lengthy descriptions, about sixty words, to describe chambers that have nothing much going on in them. They are, at best, window dressing. A short, punchy description, would have communicated more for less and be easier to run during play.

There’s also this tendency to elaborate on the “why” of things. Backstory for monsters, usually. Tickles the evil clown (yes, I know. It’s ok, the entire adventure isn’t like that. A better word than “clown” should have been used.) has this buried in his backstory: “However, due to the Master’s experiments, Tickles can now regenerate like a troll and has special abilities.” You don’t need to explain WHY a monster can regen, unless you’re doing some kind of mythic thing. In fact, we probably don’t need Tickles backstory at all. He’s unlikely to engage in conversation the way the ghost children in the bog are (who DO talk to the party, and thus a little more can be justified.) Again, all of this is towards the singular end of making the room descriptions, the text the DM has to wade through to run the game at the table, useful AT THE TABLE. Hunting for information is a pain. Hence … a classic highlighter adventure. Flawed, but a highlighter helps a bit. If you have to use a highlighter then things could be better.

There are a few other nits as well. There are a few magic items worth paying attention to, but most are just book magic items or treasure with no attempt to make most of them more interesting. That’s too bad, because the ones that ARE new are pretty interesting. The maps are weird. A bright blue background was chosen for a couple of them, which seems really weird and I find distracting. But, there’s also some attempt to include more interesting detail on a few, like the slime cave. That map shows a nice blue river running through the cave and tries to communicate some information with more detail on the map. The whole thing is jammed with art .. of varying usefulness. Sometimes I like a good monster art piece, or room art piece, because they can communicate a vibe well. This one is hit and well. The pumpkin man comes across well, as a monster, as does the slime cave entrance on the same page. Quite a few of the others work less well. They come across as “generic imp” or “generic gargoyle.”

This is a decent little adventure that’s going to take a decent amount of highlighter work, and DM visualization and notes, to make work to the degree I expect.

You can find this on DriveThru. The last page of the preview shows a description for wilderness area #1. That’s a decent enough example of both good art (the standing stone picture does a good job communicating the vibe) and the verbose/fact-based descriptions.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #126

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 11:13

Encounter at Blackwall Keep
By Sean K Reynolds
Level 5

Part three of Age of Worms adventure path. The pretext is escorting a wizard to see his friend at a keep. Getting there, it’s under attack by lizardmen. Breaking the siege you go to their lair and kill lizardmen, along with their minion harpies, kobolds, and anything else they could throw in. Coming back to the keep they find a creature in the basement is active, killing some of the remaining soldiers. The wandering table, on the way to the keep, is a cut above. Only one fight is prescribed … and even then maybe not forced. They focus too much on mechanics instead of evocative travellers, but, at least it’s something. There is an INSANE amount of text in this adventure, from the read-aloud to the DM notes. And EVERYTHING is all mixed up, with no rhyme or reason as to how information is organized in the DMs sections. The amount of crud you have to wade through in order to pull out data is truly amazing.

The Clockwork Fortress
By Wolfgang Baur
Level 8

Clockwork dude contacts party to get them to clean out his mobile fortress, full of derro and chaos. It’s full of the usual “pad the word count by explaining things you don’t need to know” that makes wading through, and using, Dungeon adventures so hard. I’m reproducing one section at the end of the review as an example. There’s really not much to the adventure. Just rooms with monsters in it to fight, along with a few gear-based traps and obstacles. To its credit, there ARE a few things that are not hostile, in essence a second faction to the fortress. It’s too bad Baur stooped to something like this, I assume, to get paid.

Blood of Malar
By Eric L. Boyd
Level 13

“Vampires of Waterdeep, Part One” is how this is touted … Vampire lady shows up in a bar and proclaims a young nobleman the target of “the hunt”. A bunch of patrons transform in to werewolves (who are themselves vampires) Noble runs away, werewolf vampire people give chase. The party, for some reason, gives a shit? There’s some subterfuge, and a hidden goal, but it’s all buried in some Forgotten Realms simulationist exposition that borders on fetishism. Full of names that only a fuckwit obsessed with the forgotten realms could love. “Headmistress Dhusarra yr Fadila el Abhuk”, “Lord Orlpar Husteem”, “Noreyth Harpell”,

The Menagerie
By B. Matthew Conklin III
Level 6

Some monsters (cockatrice, darkmantle, rust monster, etc) have escaped inside a shop. Four rooms, a different monster fight in each room, designed to be chaotic. Rust monsters in the dark of the mantle, cockatrice/chickens in a room full of shelves, etc.

Example Time!
Here is one paragraph from the text of the Clockwork Fortress/Baur adventure. Note the extreme use of explaining WHY and HOW that add nothing to the adventure.

Creatures: The waters of the moat that surround the Clockwork Fortress are surprisingly warm, heated by the inner workings of the fortress furnace. A dozen killer frogs (originally taken from Blackmoor) dwell in these waters. The frogs generally prey on wildlife in the surrounding region, and of late have caught more than a few derro as well. Rather than exterminate the frogs, the derro decided to give them a wide berth, figuring that they’d add a welcome layer of security to their operation. The frogs don’t attack anyone who crosses the drawbridge, but anyone who approaches within 5 feet of the moat’s edge (or enters the water) attracts the attention of 1d4 frogs. Killer frogs are pony-sized amphibians with long needle-like teeth that protrude from their jaws even when they’re closed. They also have long hook-like talons on their webbed hands and feet. Killer frogs (12): hp 34 each; see appendix.

Do we care why the water are warm or where the frogs came from of why they are there? No. The entire thing would be improved by simply stating (and remember, I’m a suck -ass writer!)

1d4 killer frogs attack any near/in the water, except people crossing the bridge. They have long needle-like teeth protruding from their jaws and long hook-like talons on their webbed hands & feet.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Curse of Harken Hall

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 15:09

By Simon Todd
MontiDots Limited
Level 1

Clovis Harken, Lord of Highcliff Gard has but six months to live, at least if the family curse is anything to go by. His wife, Karlina is going frantic as he has forbidden any from investigating the curse. But he has gone on a hunting trip, and Karlina has sent word to the wayside Inn asking for investigators to explore a mysterious door hidden behind a mural in the oldest part of the manor. It’s easy money if it were but a simple coal store….

This thirty five page adventure details the dungeon behind a newly found secret door in the manor of a cursed lord. With twenty-one rooms over thirteen pages, the rooms are … expansivly encountered, with each rooms many features generally ALL having some sort of thing associated with them. It could use a hard organization overhaul to deal effectively with the organizational consequences of that dense content. It can also be a little bland in its treatment of treasure and goes overboard with DM advice and mixes setting data in through a repetition I found tedious. This adventure feels like … I don’t know. It feels like a good old-school basement adventure in which each room has a lot of stuff going on.

Every lord of the manor dies at forty, because of some curse you hear about from a bard. A summons to the manor from the lady reveals her husband is out hunting and will return in six hours. She wants you to explore a new secret door she found, thinking it may contain information on lifting the family curse. The house guards are loyal to her husband, who doesn’t want anyone poking around with the curse.

I described the rooms in the dungeon as expansive, or perhaps dense is a better word. The first room has maybe six different things going on. There are spiders in the ceiling joists, with big wiggling food sacks hanging. There’s a chest and a mound of burlap. There are banners under a sheet, and 7’ tall statue, along with a table and a rubbish/slurry pile near a locked door with an obvious key missing from the keyring next to the door. Don’t go poking in the rafters and the spiders keep to themselves, you may not even see them. Fuck with their food sacks and rats run out of the walls to investigate. The wet burlap has rats in it. The missing key is in the rubble at the foot of the door, along with some giant centipedes. And on and on it goes, to the tune of a page and a half. The writing is not exemplar in its use of terse & evocative language, but it’s not exactly full of garbage irrelevent history and backstory either. Well. Usually. It IS more verbose than I would prefer in places. “Inform the player that the spells are instantly readable by a magic user” is the advice when you find some scrolls in a chest. Or “A cleric, magic user or druid is able to identify the dried herbs as St. John’s Wort, a plant used as a ward against fae that can also be used as a bug repellent if burnt.” In the table description there’s “On the table are gauntlets and a battle axe with a leather cover.” and then “the battle axe is serviceable.” This sort of thing happens again and again. I’m not sure I would make the choices to include this information … but it’s also pretty hard to damn the product for it. Well, but for …

The density of the rooms, combined with the organizational style, makes the extraneous data stick out more than usual. There’s just SO MUCH that you start looking for ways to manage your way through it. More than the detail I think this is an impact of the style. The rooms almost always start off with a read-aloud. In the case of room one it’s two paragraphs long. It’s pretty fact based, which I generally rail against, but it also touches on nearly every thing in the room to investigate. If you believe that the DM should feed “follow up” hints to party, for them to inquire further about, then this is the read aloud for you! Here’s the read-aloud section for the spiders and cocoons: “The rafters, 10 feet above your head, are coated in cobwebs. There
are seven cocoons about two feet long at intervals dangling from the ceiling. They twitch erratically.” Other read-aloud bits mention the table, statue, sheet covering something, the doors, and so on. Actually, the cocoon read-aloud is not bad for evocative imagery, but the rest IS pretty fact based. The various sections are then bolded out in the text. IE: “The Table” is a bolded section heading, as is “The Banners” and “The Chest and Mound of Burlap” and “The Statue” and “The South Wall.” Note the disconnect between the section headings and the read-aloud. Banners? No banners mentioned in the read-aloud. They are under a sheet that IS mentioned. The South wall? That’s the door on the south wall. Then there’s an entire section of text after the read-aloud and before the first section heading which describe a pool of seeping water, a stairway, the wall symbols the walls are painted with, the cocoons and spiders. Then the monsters are bolded in the various section, in a slightly larger font. It really needs slightly better organization. Consistency in the section headings, the monsters maybe indented instead of bolding with larger font, and the section heading being consistent. I recall another product I just reviewed that had a kind of bullet point layout. That format, I think, would have worked wonders to help group and call out the content in this dungeon. None of which means it’s BAD, just that it could be better.

The whole thing FEELS like a classic dungeoncrawl, even if the map is really just a couple of rings of corridors/rooms. The content of the rooms leads to this exploratory vive that’s going on. You can interact with stuff. Search the garbage for a key. Peel back peeling paint to find a door. Fuck with the statue. It’s quite interactive and some rooms, like the first room, are bursting with interactivity. More than anything else it feels like those old 1e DMG example dungeon rooms, with the holes filled with wood, the trapdoor, and the stream with a skeleton and scroll case in it.

Loves of B2 will rejoice knowing that the manor gets a small write up also … along with its considerable treasure and magic items contents. Murder Hobos, Represent! The adventure does get a little heavy in places, especially prior to the dungeon proper, with setting data. It tells you about 200 times that demi-humans and humanoids are called Erle Folk, clerics are multi-religion, and MU’s can brew potions. Maybe it’s the repetition, but the setting info felt a little too much, even though it does have a kind of interesting Ars Magica/Harn-ish vibe to it. More fantasy than those two settings but still skewing more in that direction than most adventures do. The treasure is generally pretty good. The magic items skew towards the book variety but they do have some decent details, like a +1 dagger with an ivory handle with inlay in the form of a sinister faun. (Which fits in to the “alien fae” theming as well.)

The exploratory nature of the dungeon as well as the variety in non-standard encounters (floating skulls shooting magic missile! Trapped fae spirit!) makes this one of those rare cases where I think it’s worth pulling out the highlighter. My impossibly high standards do a disservice to these journeyman works. One day I should collect them all on a second page. In any event, this is good enough to make me want to see more from the publisher/designer. Expect to see some more in the near future.

You can find this on DriveThru, but we warned the preview is pretty useless in determining what’s up with the actual useful content. (Ha! A new area for me to bitch about! “The preview doesn’t show a useful page.”)

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Beast That Waits

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 11:19

By Curtis Lyon
Three Sages Games
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 1-3

Welcome to Graven, a quiet and peaceful little hamlet. Or is it? The Baron hasn’t come down from his keep in three years. Bandits and worse have been stalking the road. People have been disappearing down by the river. The mine has become unsafe since a recent earthquake… And something has started killing villagers in the night. There is a need for brave adventurers…

This is a 52 page region in trouble with various little things to do scattered throughout, and interconnected. It’s not really enough to call it a regional sandbox; more of a description of the lands around a village. It needs a little more ‘going on’ for the DM to throw in and suffers from a word count issue … but mostly because the sheer size of the product. IE: It’s more of a usability issue than a wall of text issue. It’s ALMOST where it needs to be to be a good product.

The “adventure” is really just a description of various locales around a village. The village proper is described, along with a dungeon and a barons keep and three or four wilderness regions. Supporting this is an appendix with a name generator, rumors, bestiary, and a couple of pages that offer solutions to the various more open-ended mysteries found in the village … larger mysteries than the ones explored in the adventure proper.

The wilderness sections are presented in about two pages each. A short paragraph overview and then a couple of wandering tables. There are no “set” encounters in the wilderness areas; everything is on the wandering table, which is an interesting idea I can kind of groove on, given the minor significance of the the locales on the table. The wandering tables are generally something like: “If you’re in the road in the forest”, with day & night options, and then also “if you strike out off the road in the forest”, with day and night tables. This is followed, mostly, by the stats of the creatures encountered, with little no extra context text. EXCEPT when there is. And then it goes on a paragraph. These are generally NPC encounters or some kind of encounter related to the various little things going on. “The Red Lady” in the woods is a ghost, with a little data on her (mostly things important to the game at the table!) At the end there’s a little section on “Clearing” the region. If you do certain things then the region becomes safer, here’s an XP bonus, and here’s how the impact on the regional/village. It’s a nice touch. It’s also the case that clearing a region generally requires some exploration of one of the OTHER regions. IE: the ghosts body is somewhere else. These little things are the primary points of the adventure. Hmmm, no, that didn’t come out well. Each one of those little things (a few per region, maybe six regions total) end up as a kind of To Do list for the adventurers, and that To Do is the primary adventure in this product. Arg! I still don’t think I said that well. I’ll table it. More on that point later.

The three major non-wilderness areas are the village proper, the old mines, and the barons keep. The later are both primary adventure locales, with above average maps (but not exploratory-dungeon type maps) having some elevation changes and other non-generic features. The keep is full of bandits … and maybe a werewolf, while the mines have gnolls and undead. There can be some social interaction in both areas, and MAYBE even some allies/faction play a bit with some evil folk. There’s not a lot, really only a couple of words for two people, if memory serves me right, but it’s there. While I’m on the social, let me say that this play is CRAWLING with potential hirelings. The village, the wilderness areas, and the keep … you could have a small army of followers. That’s a nice non-traditional resource and/or reward for the players, and goes a long way to showing that their actions have an actual impact.

I feel like I could write about two dozen pages more on this adventure, both positively and negatively. The villagers refer to the primary monster as “The Beast that waits” (although I’d shorten it the the beast), which is much better than “a couple of trolls been giving up trouble.” The brigands are part of a gang, with a name. There are tips about things the party will want, like silver weapons. The villagers, like the little adventures, have a few interconnections to other villagers. The “boss fight” in the mines is fucking ROUGH! The treasure is abstracted in some places and the magic items boring book shit. The imagery is sometimes useful (in the mines in particular) and mostly not. There needs to be some quick villager quirks/events to liven things up and get them going. I think though, I’m going to expand on only two more issues, both negative.

First, the adventure is a little … oh, I’ll say verbose. The issue is that the NPC’s all have personalities, goals, and descriptions, over a couple of paragraphs each, and they are all at the locations they are usually found at. I think this is a cumbersome way to present information FOR ACTUAL PLAY. Either keep the current descriptions and provide a 1-page summary of all of the NPC’s (“Farmer Ted: Short, limp. Hates his father. Loves his mother like norman bates. Location C16”) OR reworks the descriptions in to something that MUCH easier to scan during play. I don’t mind a paragraph or two for an NPC (when it’s full of gameable data) but I HAVE to have something to use at the table, and text paragraphs of NPC’s don’t fit the bill. That means a highlighter, at best. And Fuck You, how about you, the designer, highlight for me since I’m paying you? Hmmm, that came off a little strong for the degree of sin, but, the point remains.

Second, there is a REAL lack of motivation for the party. To be fair, the designer points this out as being key. The party MUST be engaged in the village. But the hooks provided (the most mundane of hooks at that) just get the party TO the village. Why they would want to get involved in ANYTHING is not covered at all. “Because”, I guess? This lack of motivation (other than the usual do-gooding …) Makes things rough. You could strike up a love interest, I guess. But what’s really missing is what the designer correctly points out in the notes in the appendix: why the fuck does the party care? There’s nothing present in the adventure to help on that one crucial point. Marrying them to the locations, literally, or perhaps figuratively, would be what’s needed. Maybe the king appoints the lands to THEM, or they are rightful heir, or some such. That would give them a reason to clean up this one horse region.

This is a decent little regional area and reminds me of Scourge of the Demon Wolf … except without the motivation events that Demon Wolf had. I was not expecting much and was pleasantly surprised with what I ended up with. A second edition, solving the problems, or perhaps two pages of free errata/expansion, would serve this product quite well. A few more events, a few more colorful villagers, a reference sheet of NPC’s, some better mundane & magical treasure, a reason for the season … this could be a great little product.

This is on drivethru. Check out the last page of the preview for a look at the wilderness format.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #125

Sat, 03/11/2017 - 12:15

There’s nothing to see here.
Save yourselves! Flee now!

The Three Faces of Evil
By Mike Mearls
Level 3

Part 2 of the Age of Worms adventure path. Surprise! There’s a religious cult! They don’t believe in desecrating any of the elements with the dead. They can’t be buried or burned. They can’t be, cast out to sea. Oops. No. Sorry. That’s a song lyric. This is a boring hack-fest; a Temple of Elemental Evil, light. Go in to some mines. The main room has three exits. Each exit has an evil temple complex. Kill everyone (Because … D&D?) Then fight the big demon that arises because you’ve killed everyone. There’s an order of battle/reaction notes for the temple, but, the pretext here is SO light. The rooms are nothing but combat and the reasons for killing everything are essentially nonexistent. Someone who knows, please tell me: is this really representative of the best of Mearls?

Pit of the Fire Lord
By Andy Collins & James Wyatt
Level 8

Part three, the final, of the Shards of Eberron arc. Fucking seriously? Five rooms of combat? I see that Dungeon has just given up trying. “Go fight through these five rooms. Because.” I am both excited and depressed at this new Dungeon style. Depressed at the lack of trying and excited because the “reviews” I provide are now much easier. But the reading of them is not …

Seekers of the Silver Forge
By Tim Hitchcock
Level 15

Dear Lord, why? An underwater adventure. As I read it, you need to make a saving throw every minute or take 2d6 damage, from pressure, and a save every ten minutes or take 1d6 from the cold, even if you can breathe water. Gill-men gith, undead gith, and saughaun are the three “Factions” in this adventure. You can talk to the gill-men gith and to stop the undead menace in the seas you need to wipe out the saughuan. It’s just fighting underwater, and little more beyond that.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs