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Updated: 1 week 4 days ago

(5e) Krillo’s Tomb

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 11:14
By John Heffernan Island of Bees 5e Level 3

The adventurers are hired to enter into a catacomb to discover the treasures inside before a rival faction of thieves can get there first. Their employer, a goblin named Krillo, offers them all of the treasure that they find inside, and only asks to keep the relics and magic items. Can the heroes enter into Krillo’s Tomb and escape with their lives? There’s only one way to find out!

Yeah yeah, 5e on a Wednesday. My raging against the entropy is less successful than usual and I’m behind. I’ll do some OSR on Saturday.

I’m an open-minded person not an ossified old man. I’m an open-minded person not an ossified old man. I’m an open-minded person not an ossified old man.

This 34 page adventure has six “scenes” that compose the dungeon exploration. The core adventure is on about fourteen pages with the rest being pre-gens and a dwarven runic language treatise, as well as rules for a Stealth minigame. It’s not all together terrible for a newer game, but it is rather boring, with an emphasis on mechanics rather than en evocative environment. IF it were evocative then it would be a fairly normal 5e adventure. IE: straightforward.

Bob the goblin hires you, for 100gp, to go loot a tomb. He wants the magic and you keep the loot. Seems there’s a mercenary company of archeologists (!) on their way soon and he wants to loot the place before they arrive. He’ll give you 100 more gold if you do it non-violently! Yes, you have to stretch for the pretext. Yes, the nonviolence thing is fucking weird. Yes the tomb is strangely devoid of cash, you might get 300gp more in the tomb. For the sake of my own sanity I’m going to ignore all of that.

The scene thing is WEIRD. It’s like little set pieces. In scene one you are trying to sneak past the guards outside the tomb. There’s a little map with things to hide behind, and rules for sneaking and guards being on alert and spotting you. There are notes about the guards being helpful, and how they get annoyed and call for help. I’ve never played Metal Gear, but I suspect the designer has. This is straight out of “the stealth level’ in every video game every game that has one. It takes a page of text to describe the scene, ? to repeat the stealth rules in the appendix, ? to describe the general guard attitude, ? for the stat block, ? for the aftermath and seven sentences to describe where the seven guards are. Likewise for a mummy chase scene. It feels videogamey, with the blind mummy jumping from platform to platform and the party trying to be quiet. Not exactly a bad idea, but the focus on mechanics makes it feel like a videogame rather than a living breathing D&D adventure.

And it’s all written in this weirdly abstracted/generalized text style. “The north half of the left room has an altar in the center with an imprint of a laying dwarf carved in the center. Stone tables are covered with rolls of fresh bandages, and a series of empty clay jars. The roof is domed and covered with stone spikes that jet out.” Very fact based text. And that’s true of every encounter. In fact, A LOT of the encounters are like weird Grimtooth traps you’re trying to navigate, at least the Grimtooth “room” traps. Lots of elements and a convoluted mechanism.

Once of the scenes takes place between two other, when a door opens. While a big door opens a bunch of thieves come out from behind you and start blasting away at you. While the door opens. That’s the scene. Others are more like some weird Grimtooth room that you’re trying to navigate.

And then there’s the dwarf runes mini-game, with the party trying to decipher the runes in the tomb for clues. I’m not opposed to these sorts of things, in fact I think player puzzles can be fun. But this particular one seems more like the dwarven runic language being described and the party trying to figure out the entire thing. I could be wrong about this and it could be fine in AP.

As a Challenge Dungeon or tourney dungeon this might be ok. It’s hard to get past the focus on mechanics though. I wish it were more evocative. That might smooth over the mechanics and make it something to whip out for a D&D tourney.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggest price of $3. The preview is eight pages long and a good one, showing you the first three scenes. This includes the “sneak past the guards” scene, a “dungeon exploring” scene, and the thief/elf-bandit attack scene. Elf bandits attacking. Thematically, modern D&D is missing something.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Cult of the Blue Crab

Mon, 05/13/2019 - 11:17
By Rudolf St Germain Studio St Germain 5e/13th Age Levels 3-4

The small city of Shallow Bay is plagued by a gang of smugglers who sell contraband alcohol and luxury foods to the people. The mayor’s expensive lifestyle has depleted the city coffers and the head of the city guard orders his men to investigate the smugglers and put an end to their activities. Unbeknownst to most, the smugglers are a front for a radical chaotic water cult that wishes to sweep earth free of “the wicked”. The money made with the contraband is intended to buy better equipment and hire powerful allies for an expedition to the lost Temple of the Chaos Elemental. By awakening this ancient evil the cult can take the first steps towards their ultimate goal of destruction and mayhem.

This twenty page adventure, describes, in twelvish pages, some smugglers in a big fishing village and two small dungeons of about six rooms each. A competent but simple adventure, it struggles against its formatting choices and lack of specificity in detail. It’s easier to run than most modern dreck.

When is an adventure a sandbox and when is it just an outline? There’s some point of crossover where the DM is given enough information to improvise further and it’s a sandbox and some place else where the DM needs to add some substantial labour. This adventure is somewhere near the dividing line. You can take this, as written, and run it, with little to no more prep. Given that you can’t do that with most adventures today, this is a not insignificant accomplishment. It correctly provides an environment in which the party can have an adventure. A village. The local fence and a few other town personages. The smuggler base. The dungeon underneath. The OTHER dungeon the smugglers want to get to. The supply ship that drops off goods to smuggle. A rough timeline/events that can happen. Now … go run an adventure. You can do that with what’s written. You can’t do that with most adventures. Then again, it’s also VERY basic. Ask some questions, find the fence, pressure him, ambush smugglers, raid base. A pretty cut and dry adventure formula. If I were forced to choose all of the crappy Adventurers League, DMSguild, and others and their shitty formats, or the one used here, I’d have no problem choosing the format used here. It provides a high level overview of the situation and then answers some questions on how folks will react. I’ll take that ANY day over the overwritten garbage that passes for a modern adventure.

But, it’s also playing fast & free with the abstraction. The town is presented in paragraph form, single column paragraph form, on a page and a half. The event that caused the town to act against the smugglers was boat of tollkeepers getting sunk while they were trying to stop the smugglers. That’s as much detail as you get … besides the adventure noting that the party could follow up on that to determine how far out the smugglers are. Am I’m serious when I say I’m now summarizing what’s in the adventure. I’ve just told you everything it says about the situation in as many words as the adventure uses. Another two sentences about grieviing widows, the name of the boat, and some such would not be out of order for such an important event and potential plot point for the party to follow up on. I’m not looking for two pages, or even one, but SOMETHING about the event IS needed if this is going to be an adventure rather than an adventure outline.

It provides some decent support for escalating the situation, with the smugglers, but not really with the town. So while it tries to be a sandbox it does, by leaving out half the adventure, force a certain point of view: the adventure is with the smugglers and any potential complications with the town are not important. But the journey IS the destination in D&D. Just not in bad D&D …

On top of this is fumbling in several areas. It’s one column presentation is almost always a No No, because of well-known readability issues with that format. The town overviews rely on italics in the paragraph to pick out information; whitespace, bolding or bullets would be better. The cult leader is bad because she was raped as a young woman. It doesn’t dwell on her background, but it’s always weird when things like this are used and called out in otherwise generic-ish adventures. It’s weird tonal shift that doesn’t fit. A water elemental is “bound to her service with a collar. LAME. That’s explaining WHY and justifying things. She’s the leader of an evil water cult, of course she has a water elemental. Likewise the use of Sahuagin mercenaries. A tonal thing that doesn’t quite match with the water cult thing the adventure is trying to do. Sent by the evil water god? Sure. Sahuagun mercs though? That implies some setting that is off putting to me. As is the Satyr that acts as the local fence. Magical RenFaire. Bleech. And then, in this village of 600, five thugs are hired to kill the party. Hmmm, again, a tonal imbalance, I think.  The dungeons, the two of them, are more line “art project” one page dungeons, with some small text blocks pointing to rooms, rather than a traditional room/key format.

Take the usual 5e adventure and rip it apart and try to make it less of a railroad. Get rid of most of the text and just put inthe generic-ish essentials. You’d have this adventure. On one hand it kind of resembles the level/amount of detail I use in my home game; a list on a piece of paper with a few words each and some notes on a map. This takes those home notes and adds a few more words and formats it not as modern dreck but as a sandbox-ish adventure.

It’s going in the right direction. The adventure needs to make wiser formatting decisions and provide a little more detail in almost every area. Then you’d have a basic adventure like you might write up in 30 minutes for a home game/the usual 5e adventure. A little investigation, some sneaking, some hacking, some crazy plans, etc.

This is showing up a Monday because the blurb says it can be OSR, with some specific advice for 5e/13th Age. This means “statless, with stat suggestions for 5e/13th Age.” On the one hand I’m kind of intrigued to see that Generic/Universal label applied to modern games like 3e/5e, and games like 13th Age. On the other hand, I’m saddened to be tricked in to something with an OSR label. Sure, I guess, as a generic adventure, it could be OSR. In the same way that any adventure OUTLINE could be for any game.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $2. The preview is six pages and gives you a good idea of what you’re getting. The first few pages outline the town/cult, and then one of the locales, where the fence hides out, is presented. This gives you a good idea of the one-pager dungeons to come as well as the kind of abstracted/outline/sandbox that the adventure is. All you’re not seeing is the section on how the cults reacts to various events, etc. IE: a little guidance. A VERY little guidance. Which would be enough if the adventure was more sandbox and less outline.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) The Curse of Lost Memories

Sat, 05/11/2019 - 11:09
By Christophe Herrbach, Anthony Pacheco
Griffon Lore Games LLC
Level 1

Hey, quick reminder that I have a Patreon. It helps offset the costs of the website and buying adventures. Unlike some, I don’t accept adventures to review; I buy everything I review.


In the wealthy Kingdom of Lothmar, hardly anyone remembers the once-powerful Barony of Wailmoor that fell 150-years ago to a terrible demon invasion. But PCs have memories of events that precipitated the fall of Wailmoor, and these memories will haunt them until they travel to the lonely moor and solve the mysteries associated with an old, unstoppable curse. Can the PCs save their minds from going crazy “remembering” events they never lived? And who is the mysterious—creature—that haunts the moor and longs for the embrace of an archangel?

This 218 page adventure is modern storytelling to it’s dying breath. Setting new records in “obfuscation through expansive text”, it’s hard to make out what is going on because of the column long (at least) backstories for everybody and everything in the game world. This is not an adventure. It’s a novelization of an adventure.

Let us examine one of the core mechanics of the adventure: you cannot die. If you die you get rebirthed back at a tree in the central village, with all your stats lowered by one. You can’t go below 8. What, then, would be the purpose of this? Not even in death can you escape the plot of the designer. The plot will go on. And you will be a part of it. Death will not save you. You do get all your stat points back when you level. So, you know …

Clever monkeys will immediately recognize opportunity in this absurdist mechanic. Rebelling against the railroad and lack of agency, let us accept, and in acceptance of our fates find victory, just as in the mystery of the Blue City Lacuna. Take your whole party to stat 8. Charge each combat, doing whatever minimal damage. Finding whatever secrets. Learning the map. Die and reform a thousand times a day. Until, finally, the Storyteller relents and you can wander, freely. The presumption of resurrection abstracted in to a new mechanic. You walk about enchanted, in ecstasy, like the gods you saw dancing in your dreams. Freedom, terrible terrible freedom.

How anyone thought this was a good idea is beyond me. This is, truly, not D&D but a storyteller game. Not a story game. In those you have some control. This is a storyTELLER game. Your agency is near 0. The closest thing to a videogame I’ve seen, the endings may be different, at some point. But the cut scenes are meaningless. Just die and be reborn.

NPC’s get full page descriptions. Paragraphs on how they react at all three friendliness levels. Encounters for third level characters are CR 8 through CR12. Paragraphs of read aloud at every opportunity. The inn serving wenches are all 16-20 year old whores.

The first encounter is chapter one and takes up most of the first quarter of the book. Every NPC extremely detailed. Everything with a background. Names and ages. All to facilitate a forced on flashback. (DC 20 WIS save. If anyone one party member fails it then they all have the flashback.) If someone dies in this first encounter then a noble will step in and heal them. You will not deviate from the railroad.

How much of a railroad? There IS a correct way to complete the adventure. Kill someone? No xp. Convince the noble of your cause? Get 25xp. The designer has determined the correct course of action and you will follow it and only be rewarded at most if you do.

The maps are illegible. You can’t read the numbers or lettering on them. This, the most basic of functionality you need to provide to the DM. The ultimate reference page. Illegible. And this then is the mortal sin of this adventure: it ignores the DM. It doesn’t understand that rule 0, the reason for its existence, is to help the DM to run it at the table. The map is illegible. The text is SO overloaded with verbosity, everything with backstory, everything overly described, that there is no way on earth a DM can use it easily. Multiple readings. Notes. highlighter . Put in your own cross-references to other areas. Invest an absurd amount of work. Everything is so overly detailed that its all meaningless. Who the fuck cares about the tavern wenches or the soldiers? I mean, sure, a few words to give them some personality, three, four, but paragraph upon paragraph? Ages? The names of the soldiers dogs? Seriously? Why not also the names of their mothers, in case it comes up?

At one point it notes a road and mentions several times how hard it would be to get a wagon up it. Uh. Ok. Why? What’s with the wagon? Is that important? At another it offers that “if the party does not accept the trail through the maggot carpet …” uh … what offered trail? Was that mentioned?

If your still with me then your ears picked up at the maggot carpet thing. What’s so fucking bad about this adventure is that there is some good stuff hiding inside. A carpet of maggots and the bones of small creatures, writhing. Nice imagery! The fucking read-aloud is too long, but, still that good stuff! And all of the flashback memories are listed on one table, with triggers and what they impact. Great reference material! The wilderness section of the adventure has varied and interesting encounters, a little combat heavy, but still, leeches and crocs in a swamp, a dull blue glow from under the water if you detect magic …!  that’s great! Hidden treasure. At one point you can reach an overlook in the wilderness and the text summarizes what you can see. Perfect! So many adventures leave out “what I can see from a distance or upon approach.”

But the text, It’s a nightmare. Here’s one small snippet from one object in one room: “The desk does not have anything on it. This desk was used by Humbert, the tower guard as a station for when Silas was in the tower. He sat there, preventing visitors from entering the tower unannounced and providing security should someone try to break into the tower. After the last battle in the Barony, Humbert took everything that was his in the tower and left. He traveled to the Viscounty of Kandra where he died there, like many Wailmoor survivors.”

Note how NOTHING in this text applies to the adventure. Nothing. It’s so closely related to my platonic Dungeon Magazine “looted trophy room” description that it could BE the new platonic idea of bad adventure writing. What the fuck is the point? And it does this over and over and over again. Everything. Everything and Everyone. Mountains of backstory and motivations and details. More than any other adventure I’ve reviewed, it hides the adventure. More is not more, not when it gets in the way and obfuscates the adventure for the DM running it.  This is the writing of a wannabe novelist, not the technical writing of an adventure designer. You’re not writing to paint a rich picture of the world in all its glory. You’re writing for a DM running the thing at the table. Even if we accept the bullshit storytell play style, robbing the players of their agency, even if we accept that, the criticisms stand. It’s unusable without a hard core effort at note taking and highlighting that, essentially, negates the purpose of the text you’ve bought. We’re not supposed to be paying for the fucking backstory.

This nightmare PDF is 20 fucking dollars on DriveThru. 20. Fucking. Dollars. The preview is eleven pages long. Go ahead and read it. Read it all. It is COMPLETELY meaningless. It’s an example of the rich and detailed backstory for the village the PC’s start in. That plays such a small part in the adventure. It’s insanity. Utter insanity.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Magician’s House

Wed, 05/08/2019 - 23:14
By Ray Weidner
Self Published
Levels 1-3

The city of Blackrock is in peril! An army of shrieking demons marches inexorably closer, less than a week away from putting its people to the knife. The Duke puts out a call: brave and resourceful heroes are needed to recover the sacred words that will unleash the power of the Sealing Stone. Words that have passed beyond the world – and so these adventurers must pass beyond the world, into…The Magician’s House!

This 132 page adventure uses about seventy pages to describe a 25-ish “room” wizards house. There is little of the heightened reality that most DCC adventures have, making this a pretty straight forward conversion to your favorite gaming system. There is a depth to many of the  rooms that makes them seem more like mini-vignettes or set-pieces, without even really overreaching in to being jaded or expectating Yet Another Set Piece. Lots of minor polishing issues plague the adventure but it never really falls in to any major traps. I think it’s a delightful little romp through a gentleman magicians home.

What Ray has created here is a point crawl wizards house, thanks the extra-dimensional flavour afforded by being a wizard. You’re searching for either the wizard or some magic words, giving you drive to explore. The extra-dimensional aspects are leveraged in more than just “the dungeon layout is weird.” Mirrors transport you to mirror world. Or you can go to Faerie. Or the moon.  Speaking of faerie and mirrors, you might recognize some Norvel/Strange references. In fact, the baddies here are fey right out of that book, with the adventure leaning to that sort of fey.

The wizard in question is Mordank the Irregular. Tales are told of his feats … like when he saved the town from poisoned grain by summoning a huge army of rats to eat the grain. And who then died in the streets and stank forever. Mordank is my kind of wizard, both in holistic thinking and in being a weirdo.

There’s absolutely a Wizard House vibe this. There are some ruined houses in town with no real walls or doors. Except for one, which is the wizards doors. The backside looks like a normal door. That’s wizard shit. Weirdo servants? Wizard shit. Keeping fey captive? Wizards shit. Weird stuff to fuck with? Wizard shit. Mirrors you can walk through? Wizard shit. Thing place feels like a wizards house.

It helps that you can talk to just about anything. Slime creatures on the moon? They are actually guests of the wizard, nice people, and happy to talk if you don’t try to gak them at first sight. The servants? They talk … and try to get you to go back to the visitors lounge. The guards? Same thing. But their captain also needs some sneaky types to help him get back at the servants …  The fey king, and other fey? Sure, the kings hobbies are Games and Hating Mordank. There’s a great deal of interactivity. If I had a complaint in this area it might be that it could use a little more challenge. There’s that Ed Greenwood thing where you just walk around looking at weird shit. And in LOTFP fucking with anything is usually a bad idea. In a Gold=XP game the allure is usually loot, motivating you to fuck with stuff. In a one-shot (which is what this is oriented toward. More on that later.) or a story game then you motivation to fuck with shit has to be in service of the story. I’m not sure that comes through as well as it could. In some places it seems more like Greenwood interactivity. Not an obstacle, but an experience, and you can be left with the “just dont touch anything” mindset.

In THIS adventure the pregens provide some motivation in that area. They all have objectives ad “side quests” from their backstory. Discover the source of the wizards power and report back. Get cash. Spread the faith. Find a book in the library about a certain thing. Things to get you moving around the map, if this were a hexcrawl, beyond the simple main quest.

A high page count with low room count usually means word bloat. While this isn’t a masterpiece of editing, it doesn’t really have the problems associated with word bloat. Each room is contained on two or three pages. You get a little mini-map, an initial impression, and then a separate header and paragraph, etc, for each interesting thing in the First Impression description … or a feature inside of another feature, for example. This is then followed by an explicit stat block, a section on treasure, and then a note on exits. Whitespace and section headings a bullets are generous. Taken together this explains how the depth of the rooms are handled and how it gets past the word bloat issue. Ray thought about the issue and found a solution.

Well … most of a solution. At two pages per room I am ON. BOARD. with this format. Facing pages, open behind the screen, the entire room available at a glance with whitespace, headings, bullets providing me help to find things. At three I suddenly need to page flip. A third page containing just the stats and/or treasure/exits could be ok. A third page referenced during exceptions, like a fight breaking out or leaving the room. Then a page flip seems ok. But a third page, or more, to look up simple room stuff? At that point I begin to drag out my Everything is a Guideline mantra, and Too Much Devotion to a Things is Bad mantra. Messing with the margins, the whitespace, the font size, rethinking Major Headings vs Minor Headings, all all in game as things that could be sacrificed, temporarily at a minimum, on the altar of “all the main shit on two pages.”

That might be my major complaint and I think falls in to the realm of Polishing. In that same realm are a large number of other issues. Some more work on mirror world to handle the transition rooms better, those being necessarily more complex. A major NPC, the wizards drinking buddy, is lacking almost any detail at all. Like, what he knows about the house, the situation, etc. Some of the words from the First Impression features do not appear as section headings. Looking Glass in the impressions with Mirrors as a heading for more information. That’s a crude example, but gets the point across. Other places need someone to point out some flaws in the writing. A little model of the solar system is in one room. A party member can shrink and fly toward the planets … at 20’ per round. They are unrecoverable at 100’. I don’t really get this. The solar system toy, the shrinking, the distances, they don’t make sens to me together.

But, these are polish issues. There’s some very find magic rings with non-standard effects. A gem you can swallow (Hey hey hey! Dungeon of the Bear!) and great rumors. The wizard is built up exactly the way you’d want one to be … powerful and little bizarre without going full out gonzo or silly. The Gentlemen Fey thing goin on is just icing.

Good adventure. Lots of room for polishing. As a one-shot it supports the DM with pre-gens with motivations to help drive action beyond the main plot. I can handle something that needs more polishing; The Best doesn’t necessarily mean Perfect. This is a great first effort.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is 21 pages! You get to see several of the complete rooms, in their two to three page layout glory.

EDIT: I review above is the one I originally wrote. Ray had asked for feedback so I sent him the review and, between writing it Saturday and publishing it Wednesday, he released a second edition. It helps mitigate the gaps around the drinking buddy knowing the house, clarifies the solar system toy, and, notably, messed around with the layout of each room to try and get it to two facing pages OR move the reference material to end to get the core room on to the two facing pages. Now, if everyone else in the world listened to me this much then my entitlement issues would be resolved, although in the wrong manner.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Living Building

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 11:14
Derek Holland
Skirmisher Publishing
Mutant Future
Level ?

Just after dawn, a village scout dashed from the forest carrying a wondrous, and perhaps even terrifying, story of a huge, circular shell with a door, a massive coiled building that sprang up during the night. And it is still growing …

This 22 page supplement details “Living Buildings”, a kind of organic building type of the ancients. Most of it is given over to background information and how the buildings grow, live, die, and operate, but about six pages have some details on the various types of rooms you might find inside one of the complexes.

The first ten pages give background on the “architectural style.” The reasoning behind the buildings and how they work. This is in long form, paragraph style with few an occasional section heading. As a “toolkit”, or fluff, I guess this is ok. I don’t know. I don’t know nothing about fluff/toolkits.

The next six-ish pages are devoted to a random room generator. Things like “Power Room. Flowing through the piping and stored in large cylinders, highly volatile chemicals fill this room and any fire or explosion Detonates them. See Attacks for details.”

Look, I’m not good, at all, at reviewing things that are not adventures. After about 1500 adventure reviews I feel like I’m just starting to understand what makes them tick. But fluff books, or toolkits? I’ve no idea.

I’ll tell you though why I found the booklet unsatisfying. Although I think it has as much relevancy as getting advice from me on Latvian literature in the 13th century.

If you look at that power room description above, I’m not sure it inspires me to anything. It just sounds kind of a little generic. I’m not sure I could take that, riffing off of it, design six different power rooms on the fly that were interesting. I think I’d have to invest a substantial mental effort in doing so with what’s present. I think I want a fluff supplement to make me excited about things, inspired, ideas bursting from my head. I don’t get that from reading this. It reads dry and abstracted. Even the sample 2-page floorplan (it’s fourteen rooms small compared to the 25-ish to 440-ish the text notes these places to be) is unkeyed and, given the nautilus design, linear with each room having one door in and door out, to the next room.

When I’m looking at this sort of thing I want something less academic and more visceral. Something that I can riff of off and inspires me to create greatness. Colour.

Also, it didn’t have a 100-entry “random artifact table”, which, I believe, is required for every Gamma World adventure ever written.

But, I don’t know nothing. Attempts like this to break out of my Adventure Zone reveal that I should stay inside it, until I am done with my current projects.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Heroes of Baldur’s Gate

Sat, 05/04/2019 - 11:11
By James Ohlen, Jesse Sky
Self Published
Level 1

Hey, quick reminder that I have a Patreon. It helps offset the costs of the website and buying adventures. Unlike some, I don’t accept adventures to review; I buy everything I review.


The city of Baldur’s Gate is the pride of West Faerûn—a mercantile stronghold ruled by the famous Grand Dukes. One year ago, a powerful merchant leader named Sarevok nearly catapulted the city into war with the neighboring nation of Amn. This crisis was averted, and the remnants of the organization were scattered throughout the Sword Coast. Now, the city is threatened from within by agents of the nefarious Zhentarim, who seek to fill the power vacuum left behind in the wake of these events. Meanwhile, the Shadow Druids plot to destroy the city by performing terrible rituals, deep within the Cloakwood. Who will rise to oppose them?

This 162 page adventure (about half of which are “adventure” and half are appendices, etc) is set within the BG video games universe and includes all your favorite NPC’s from that series. It contains enough “free roaming” that MOST of it doesn’t feel like the typical plot-based railroad. Major portions “Feel” like the town exploration part of the BG videogame, which has good points (interesting stuff) and bad points (Let me just invite myself in …) It’s over-written and poorly designed for information transfer, as is usual for this type of adventure. It also has a TERRIBLE start.

Scene 1 – Quest Assignment. It’s in an inn. Full of soldiers to ensure everyone is good. And they take away everyone’s weapons upon entering. And tie spellcasters thumbs to their belts via string. Not the party. Everyone in the inn. Just to be clear: the designer has a story to tell and no “free will” from the party is gonna get in the way of that.

Scene 2 – You go to some gibberling mounds to rescue some incompetent Harpers SO. A forest area. Full of dirt mounds. Gibberling lairs. Four larger mounds, which could contain a body underneath (I guess we all know they are dormant and not dead. Anyway …) Digging up a mound requires stealth, and a roll. Noise triggers 3d4 gibberlings to burst forth from a mound. There are 250 mounds. Things could go very wrong as the party tried to find the missing person … but hey, don’t worry though! If the gibberlings awake then the NPC harper will IMMEDIATELY choose the correct mound his wife is under and untie her in a single round, screaming for everyone to run! Ought oh! Chase scene with gibberlings bursting out! Oh, no, don’t worry, they give up in 1d4 rounds. You get it right? There’s no adventure here. There’s suffering the plot and all the bullshit fake “tension” moments the designer has put in. But there’s no real tension because anything you do will be mitigated by the designer. They are trying to build tension through fake set-piece “tension scenes.” That’s not how it works. Consequence-free D&D is how boredom works though.

When you enter Baldurs Gate the read-aloud notes urchins grasping at coin purses and well-coordinated thugs skulking in alleys. Don’t worry though, this all just window-dressing, there are no actual thugs or urchins and no help for the DM if the party were to naturally follow up on those things mentioned in the read-aloud.

And the read-aloud IS extensive. It’s everywhere, long, monologue exposition. You will find no relief! No one listens past 2-3 sentences, remember? No, you don’t remember? That article WOTC posted? No? How about your own tables, the players it attentive while you read a page of read-aloud? Or they pull out their phones and/or daydream? That’s because it’s bad design and play.

Our city wanderer table is full of exciting things like “a cat is pursued by a pack of starving dogs” and other exciting encounters that are meaningless.

Things get better once the core of the adventure starts. There are 33 locations in town to explore. They have too much read-aloud and too much DM text, full of trivia and other meaningless information that doesn’t drive the adventure. This, of course, hides the real data in the location that the DM needs, like a brief personality, etc. But … it’s Baldurs Gate from the videogame. You explore the locations, from some initial clues, and widen your explorations of the other locations from the clues you uncover. This leads, probably, to the sewers  and tunnels. Sixty-ish locations under the town, leading to the basements of various buildings little mini-encounters/scenarios.

In this respect it’s the BG videogame. There’s a bunch of locations, you can wander in to them and find something happening. A little kid trapped in a cage in The Butchers meat market basement. A gambling ring with indigents facing off against gruesome challenges … that they are willing participants in, out of desperation for their circumstances. The world is brutal place. The interconnections and design, allowing the party to stumble on C which leads to D while trying to follow up A with B are done well. But it FEELS like a videogame. It feels like you are moving from A to B to C in the dungeons, busting in to basements to see what fresh hell is inside. Like you’re getting 100% by doing all the challenges in a videogame and/or exploring all of the areas. Will the party actually engage in this? Idk.

The “vignette” locations are good setups. Abstracted with detail more than I would like. Thugs guard basement doors to locations, instead of Pegleg Pete guarding the door. This abstraction garbage is a plague upon adventures. More words are not the solution but better words are. Trimming the trivia from the descriptions, read-aloud, and DM text and focusing on the evocative stuff relevant to actual play. This isn’t a call to minimalism. It’s not a call to describing everything. It’s a call to focus the writing efforts on what’s directly relevant and to make it evocative.

This thing has GREAT evocative monster art. I seldom mention art, because it’s so bad, but the monster art in this is top notch. Evocative. The rest os terrible, but the monster stuff is A+. It makes you FEEL the monster, and that’s what it should do to the DM, so they can better relate that vibe to the party. Everything should contribute to the DM running the adventure. Everything.

I’m also fond of some of the NPC descriptions. “Tharka (CG gnome acolyte) is an excitable young priest of Gond who is eager to impress Jaheira.” That’s a great description! It directly helps the DM both with her personality and what she does. It does it in one sentence. There’s not enough of this and the NPC summary sheet would better for it if if engaged in the same format/goals. Likewise, the rewards for accomplishing the quests are great. Medals, parades, people staring at you in disgust … there’s some effort made to make the players feels the consequences from the townfolk. Not enough story adventures do that. Of course, this relies, in no small part to the party following up on every quest lead they get, to solve not only the main quest but also the other two main side-quests.

There are also some epic backgrounds that the players can take at character creation. The Last Emperor, The Chosen One, etc. They DO feel epic, and yet not prescriptive, and the adventure text provides reference to how some of the locations in the adventure dovetail in to each individual one.

(And I would not that this is lacking in the main adventure. How the various quests interact with the locations and other locations is not detailed except through each individual location. This leaves you tracing breadcrumbs to understand how the adventure works. A little summary up front, with cross-references, would have gone a long way. As is, it FEEL like it’s randomly laid out and organized.)

I note also the maps are terrible. “Artistic”, they are hard to read. The map is a reference tool for the DM, first. If I can’t read the sewer map, or find the trails on the wilderness map, then you’ve done a bad job with the map.

So, lots of interesting things to stumble across. But abstracted text, and WAY too much of it to make running it at the table less than a huge effort. Lacks a GOOD summary, compounding an unfolding drama confused by too much text. The beginning, though, is DISASTROUSLY bad. Trimmed of about half its words, and being a little more specific and better summarized, it could be ok. Certainly, the originality and design is there, at least in most of the adventure, to a degree not usually seen in 5e adventures. The effort lacks the information-theory though. Improvements in that area could mean better things in the future.

This thing is $20 on DriveThru, for the PDF. The preview is garbage, showing you nothing of the actual adventure or encounters, which means you can’t make an informed purchasing decision. It’s a blind buy. This is why DriveThru needs a refund system.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Eyrie of the Dread Eye

Wed, 05/01/2019 - 11:18
By Courtney Campbell
Levels 6-8

… Now the Awakening is near, the Spheres are coming into alignment, and the Oculus is beginning to open. The dark power is reaching out and for the first time in an age the Eyrie of the Dread Eye is accessible again. As the Eye opens, reality itself comes under further and further  strain. And as rumors of a new valley containing an underground forgotten city filled with untold riches spread out from the Dark Wall, the Oculus continues to open ever wider.

This 59 page adventure describes a ruined city. There are about sixteen encounter areas prior to the city, and about eight “faction headquarters” in the city. This description, though, trivializes the emergent play sections of the city, a major part of the adventure, as well as the ever-present danger of the “minigames” that the locale proper provides. One of the better Lost Cities adventures, combined with a great example of pull-no-punches DM’ing that DOESN’T feel adversarial. Its complexity is its downfall and it could be organized better, going a little too far over the line of emergent play. But that don’t mean it ain’t a treasure, cause it is.

This isn’t a dungeon. It’s not even an adventure. It’s an adventure site location. The title, EofDE, makes it sound like a dungeon or adventure. It says “site-based adventure” somewhere in some description, but that shit gets thrown around like a marketing term. But this thing ain’t fucking around: it’s a site-based adventure location. And it’s gonna fuck up every party that meets it in a non-adversarial DM’ing manner, unless they are EXPERT players making multiple forays.

Rappan Athuk did something interesting: it highlighted threats outside of the dungeon. Bandit groups, with hundreds of members, preyed on you. This sort of thing is generally abstracted ot skipped over in adventures. What if, in X1, you came back to find your ship destroyed because it was continually attacked by large monster groups? And how many adventures deal with the consequences of the wandering monster table with respect to the hirelings & henchmen & horses you leave camped outside of the dungeon? This is an adventure for levels 6-8, which Courtney describes as “high level.” And that’s been my experience as well; Level 6+ B/X characters can be monsters. Lots of magic, both in spell and item form. A player with any sort of creativity can overcome A LOT. As a high-level adventure it does not abstract.

So you’ve got the 20 on a lost city rumored to be full of loot and off you head. Getting close you encounter the Argonath, in the form of a giant snake man statues, broken, behind it the path to the lost city. [IE: you are entering the mythic underworld and shit is about to get real.] From this point on wyverns are a constant threat. There’s a lot of wyverns in the cliffs and if you wipe them all out then more will show up eventually, in restocking the dungeon format. Thus we have an ever-present environmental danger to the party in the form of wyverns. Who are guaranteed to show up and assault stragglers and whenever the party is weakened or vulnerable. Like during a partial cave in. Or while climbing cliffs. And they HATE flyers. And thus the designer takes care of both “why fly spell doesn’t work” as well as causing trouble for Ye Olde high level party.

It’s a constant threat. Rappen kind of did something similar with that bandit/wilderness stuff, and a couple of adventures have tried to intimate something similar, but not like this. This is the sort of difficulty modifier that high level play should expect. It’s not those bullshit cold/heat/humidity rules that lots of “exotic” adventures turn to that cause so much logistical trouble and get in the way of fun. Of no, the party knows about this threat, will be aware of it, and will have to deal with it. They can always nuke the wyverns to buy some time (yeah! Party choice!) but they WILL come back.

It’s hard for me to write this review. I like to focus on the positives before moving to the negatives, but this adventure feels different. The encounters tend to be interactive. The boxed text, what there is, is short and evocative. But unlike most adventures, the traditional format is left behind. All adventures are emergent play adventures but this one is more so than others. Sandboxy? Emergent Play focused? Toolkit? There’s some element of truth to all of those descriptions, but never in a bad way. “Toolkit” doesn’t even go over the line the way it usually does.

There’s a cliff face 400’ with some caves/edifices that the party will confront after the giant snake-man statue. It has about eight locations, three of which lead to an dinner chamber which leads to the lost city. You need to get up the cliffside and explore the holes. Also, don’t forget the ever-present wyverns to deal with. Once inside the inner-chamber there are, again, about eight more things described, including the centerpiece giant multi-armed statue who’s hands/arms can act like an elevator. Cool! Then, you reach the lost city …

It’s large. It has several groups within it. There are eight locations described in about a half page to page each. There’s a wandering monster chart in which each monster is given a number of different things they could be doing/engaged in, as well as a “random ruins generator” for exploring the various ruined buildings around town.

You made it all the way to this point in the review. Do you know yet what the adventure is about? It’s about that last part, the random ruins. Courtney never explicitly states it, I think, but the goal of every page of this adventure is to focus on the play around the looting the ruins. Stealing every fucking thing you can. Explore every nook and loot every last dime. (ok, it could be “make a daring dash in and steal some shit without getting gacked, but it’s the same thing in my mind, just different degrees of willpower and success.) “Hey, giant lost city form a fallen civ full of gold and magic. Lots of monsters also. Want some loot/xp? Go get it!” That’s the adventure.

Now the wyverns make a lot more sense. Now the cliff makes more sense. It’s all there to make looting that fucking city more complicated.

The emergent play is looting the rando sites in the city. While dealing with the wanderers. While dealing with the factions inside the city. While dealing with getting it out/down the cliff. While dealing with those fucking wyverns outside.  

To a certain extent this is the same thing that happens in all OSR adventures. The difference is that those have a more finite environment, representing the dungeon, with an abstracted “outside.” This doesn’t. Hence the description of it being pull no punches DM’ing. The DM has set up a series of harsh game-world rules and put the potential of a FUCKTON of treasure in front of you. It’s up to you, high level adventurers, to figure out how to extract it, and to what degree.

Courtney understand this and the adventure is focused on it, almost every choice in the design being oriented towards that. But, given the rarity of this sort of thing and the degree to which Courtney is focused on it, it could have used a one paragraph designers note section explicitly stating that’s what it is and how it works together.

Fuck if I know what else to say about this. Good rumors, good wanderers doing things. The wanderers are also VERY opportunistic, almost every last one of them, picking off strays and wounded and running away. There’s a section in which you can encounter an NPC party, but you’re told to roll one up on your own; a half page of pre-rolled ones would have been nice.

There’s a couple of party gimps with spell levels and undead turning and scry scrolls. They mostly feel out of place. I get the undead thing, lost cities should have undead and undead should be a threat but high level clerics fuck off with undead. The options to just make them tougher seeming to be its own issue. I don’t understand the spell level gimps the other prohibition against scrying, it doesn’t make sense to me. Calling the main opponents “the optics” I guess you could make the case that it fits in that, as well as the usual pretext of “a place of great evil.” I’d probably just not mess with the spell levels or the scrying thing. The undead thing is a major old school issue, but again I’d probably just let it be without a gimp. The turn rules in older D&D need to be better without the BS in modern D&D. Then it becomes closer to a resource game mechanic.

I have trouble with one of the main maps, the cliff map. I can’t make out some of the features on it, or what they are supposed to represent. Stairs? Just art to spruce up the map? The “climb the cliffs” minigame also takes up a little more than column and could be better organized as well. It feels a little free-form and could use better organization, bolding, headings, etc. Climbing information feels buried in a wall of text of rules dictating climbing that seems hard to follow during play. The city map though, being isometric, is great, allowing the DM to describe landmarks seen at a distance, etc.

The factions are not what I would consider factions. They are more “the major people/organizations present in the city.” While not all hostile and the designer mentions to ensure reaction rolls and even hostile doesn’t mean combat, , they don’t seem to have needs & wants, at least in a traditional way that you can bargain with. Even the “enemy of my enemy” stuff is not really present. This is a miss. It doesn’t feel like there’s a place/way to find common ground, because they have no ground mentioned.

What is not said is that this adventure will dominate play for several months for expert PLAYERS. This isn’t a quick in and out, probabally. The party will go back, to a location 70 miles away, several times. They’ll get their asses kicked. They organize logistics. Hire mercenaries. Hunters to feed the merc. Elite guards to watch the loot they bring out and protect it from the mercs and hunters they brought out. There’s a “loot extraction logistics” mini-game implicit in this adventure, that will take a long time, game time, to execute. You could write a page or two of NPC’s and adventure/complications ideas and include it in this adventure and it would only make it stronger. (Good advice. Should have been done.)

This is a good example of high level play and one of the few “loot extraction” adventures written. It could be better with organization in several parts, and some summaries of how thing works, better faction play, and maybe some logistics help. But that don’t mean it’s not good enough to be centerpiece of a campaign for months.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview doesn’t work. Not that I think any preview of this could relate the adventure.


I see a 5e version is available. I have no idea how that would work in this environment.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Frozen Province

Mon, 04/29/2019 - 11:13
by Giuluano Roverato
Roll 4 Tarrasque
Level ?

An unnatural cold has taken hold of this land and refugees tell tales of both gold and horror. Will you loot the remnants of this once lush province or try to save it?

This is one of them there new fangled tri-fold adventure gimmicks. I was gonna ignore this development but a reader asked and I’m currently in a Regional Resources mood.  It’s got a weird vibe going, pseudo-japanese mixed with a weird non-Gross Carcosa thing that gives that odd vibe in the same way Dark Sun did. As a series of ideas it’s ok. As a framework for something like A Fiasco Playset, or the equivalent for light story gaming it’s ok.

There’s a village on the border of an ever-expanding freezing region. There are 8 locations in a region that’s 6 days travel by 6 days travel in size. It’s large to reinforce the cold damage and it’s sparse because it’s a tri-fold. Thus my pointer to more abstract-like games and/or using this to develop your own ideas/region.  

There’s a one-page village/NPC description and about one page of wandering monsters/exploration guidelines. Two pages of locations, including a map, and one page of magic items in addition to the cover make up the six tri-fold pages.

The encounters have a weird vibe to them, with that pseudo-japanese thing going on. Shitake soup, sakura trees, monkeys bathing a hot spring … one with a rifle. And there’s that weirdness I mentioned. Frozen monks, with centipedes that burst out of their eyeballs. A frozen giant carp with a human face. It’s brining the weird and generally interactive, although almost all of them have a significant slant towards combat. They are solid ideas though and deserve more than aa sentence on a pamphlet.  Come to think of it, they remind me a lot of the hex descriptions/encounters in the Wilderlands products, with perhaps a slightly more combat focus. Generally interactive or, maybe, it’s easy to craft something larger around them and you can see the energy in them. They do tend to a more abstract language style though and would be stronger if they used more specific words and/or colorful language. “Clearly overworked”, “a foreigner to these lands”, and so on. Some word choice changes would have done wonder to make things pop more.

As a format the tri-folds are probably less useful than one-pagers; the folding, detracts from space. Maybe there’s some usefulness in these sorts of things for more abstracted games. For this one, specifically, there’s interesting situations and writing but they are constrained by the limitations of the format.

This is $2 at DriveThru. You get a one page preview, which is half the product, and is nicely representative of the writing.


Also, Gus says we should be making everything free.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Harrowing Heights

Sat, 04/27/2019 - 11:13
Daniel McDonald, Sam McDonald, Pete Pinner
DeepDark Designs
Levels 1-3

A level 1-5 adventure module for 3-5 players and a game master that pitches the PCs against kobolds and drakes, with strong nordic-themes and a focus on overland travel.

More crap. I thought this one would be different. Five reviews. All five stars. A closer look reveals that all of the reviews are long and sing the praises of the product, list cons, and still give it five stars. Treachery?

It would match the other puffery. You’re partaking on a Grand Journey! Best of all the adventure is lovingly illustrated with art and cartography! No, that’s not best of all. This is 114 pages. Five or so scenes and a couple of overland journeys. How does it accomplish this? By perhaps the worst cases of hand holding I’ve ever seen.

NOTHING in this thing is simple. If you simply cut out all of the regional and cultural information (the vikings tolerate all religions and treat everyone as equals. Oh, my, that’s unusual. Never saw that coming. So, it’s a bunch of humans that wear furs and act just like every other D&D culture?) then you’d still be left with about fifty pages and about five scenes and a couple of overland journeys.

Hand holding. Conversational text. There’s SO fucking much of it. SO much that I can barely make heads or tails of the actual encounters. “The kobolds occupy the spaces indicated on the map, split their numbers however you like.” On and on and on it goes. The fucking thing can’t take a sentence to say something, it has to take a fucking paragraph.

At one point the jarl is presented as an NPC with a section on how to roleplay him. He’s a concerned father … so we need an extra couple of sentences to tell us what that heading means. He’s authoritarian, not draconian. So we need another two or three sentences to tell us what that means. It’s fucking stupid to the extreme how much this thing drags on.

Oh No, jalrs daughter hasn’t arrived! Go look at the ambush scene and fight some kobolds. Go back to town and talk to the Jarl. Wilderness journey to druid who knows where the kobold live. Kobolds destroyed a bridge, so talk to a nearby cartoony eccentric wizard. Talk/kill kobolds at their giant village and talk/kill the old lady behind it all.

You get to prove your worthiness to the druid before he helps you. Isn’t that original? Proving your worthiness. I mean, every shitty adventure on the face of the earth does this, so why not this one also?

The read-aloud is long, of course it is, and it tells you how you feel, because of course it does. “There’s a sinking feeling in your gut …”

If you kill the jarls guards at the viking settlement then you are recognized as brave and loyal men and not charged. Wereguild? No.

You see, the designer has a plot he wants to force down your fucking throat. Getting arrested isn’t in that plot so it doesn’t happen. Capture a kobold? Guess what, he doesn’t know where his lair is … because that would eliminate a couple of scenes to the adventure and we just can’t have that happening can we? And the viking theming is just pasted on in the loosest way possible, so no cultural stuff included. Just get on the railroad, do what your told while playing with your phones, and wait until four hours have passed so you can go home.

Unless you’re the DM. In which case you get to wade through all of this shitty shitty text. It fucking holds your hand in the text in every way imaginable, using the loosest of all conversational styles, but then says things like “there’s a 5% chance he possess a magic item.” or Suggestion- Put some debris on the map as difficult terrain to represent the looted wagon contents. Fucking really? Seriously? You can’t even set the fucking scene or rewards up for us? You can give us multiple sentences of backstory and explanation justifying everything that happens in every part of this adventure, but not that?  You know, of course, that the backstory is fucking useless and just gets in the way of the details that we need to run the adventure? That the loose conversational style is a disaster at the table, while you’re looking at the book trying to run the adventure?

“An Incentive. Depending on their motivations and personality traits, the PCs might already be moved by Dalla’s plight. Either way, Orm is prepared to offer them a tremendous reward for going above and beyond the call of duty.”

There is absolutely no understanding displayed AT ALL about what an adventure is or is meant to do or how it should. Or maybe there is and they just selected to do the opposite at every possible decision point.

Bad Adventure Design. Bad Adventure Formatting. Full of puffery. In retrospect, I should have known from the 5-star reviews. Why do people put up with this shit? Are there no standards at all left? “I tried” is worth five stars? I guess this is what people want. Paying $10 for a PDF that has almost no adventure in it and is padded out? I want to think that people just don’t know what good design is. That the consumer doesn’t so, so they put up with this garbage. That the designers don’t know and thus keeping churning out this same stuff over and over again.

This garbage is $10.50 at DriveThru.  The preview is eight pages and shows you nothing of the actual adventure, just the background garbage.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) The Tale of the Haunted Ravine

Wed, 04/24/2019 - 11:15
By Josh Dixon
Skullbox Games
Level ... ?

Wild necrotic magic, magical mutations, undead, lost souls, and demons all cloaked in a fog fog-choked landscape; forsaken by the gods and scarred by the battle fought here long ago. Will your adventurers survive and escape the Haunted Ravine? Or will they join the legions of cursed souls imprisoned in this corrupted land?

This 46 page adventure details a hexcrawl/point crawl in a haunted ravine with about 12 fixed encounters. Great imagery abounds, but it’s ruined by the simplistic combat/skill check attitude. It’s tries hard but lacks any but the most basic understanding of an adventure RPG.

I’m reviewing this today because it says its system neutral with few mechanics. Turns out that means “I’m 5e through and through but not using stat blocks.” Given the reliance on skill checks this is probably only a 5e/Pathfinder adventure. It also lacks a level range, which is weird given it DOES actually have specific 5e monsters listed, from Ghosts to Bodaks (so, probably level 1 … says the man disillusioned by 5e turning “big” monsters in to level 1 foes.) Anyway, I’m tricked in to buying it, which is never a good thing. Uncool start.

But, lets talks how good the imagery is before I start to rip on this. One o f the three Bryce pillars is evocative writing, and this has that. I want strong writing that creates a mental image for the DM that they can then translate to the players. This is, I think, one of the hardest parts of writing an adventure. You have to get the idea out of your head, down on paper, and in to the DM’s head in such as way that they can transmit the vibe to the party. This manages that quite well.

A ravine, full of dense fog. Necrotic energies making weird lighting effects making it hard to discern day from night. You can never get warm enough, a deep chill staying with you even when next to the fire. That’s a pretty decent vibe. It takes a paragraph in the adventure, which is not great, but the vibe is a good one. There are strange things that can happen to you in the fog. Like worms crawling and wiggling OUT of your face. Your hail falling out. Vomiting blood with little slug like creatures wiggling around in it. A tooth that falls out. Tears of blood welling up in your eyes every time you feel stressed or emotional. And on it goes. This shit is CREEP.

This kind of writing extends to most of the twelve fixed encounters. Steep black cliffs, the smell of decay, a low continuous moan of a wind, wind & snow swirling around a foreboding figure on spectral horseback at the entrance to the ravine … “Turn away. Turn back now. Only death await you here. All who pass these gates of the damned never return to the living. Turn back now before it is too late.” Luminous green glow drifts off of him like smoke. Dented armor and ragged cloak hang, with a grinning skull peering out from a rusted helm. A skeletal beast of a horse wrapped in shadows, the wounds it took in life showing up as gap in the darkness leaking luminous green glow drifting off like smoke.

Yeah, pretty fucking good. I’d be shitting myself if I were a player.

The problems, though, are many. The writing is in paragraph form, making it hard to pick things out of of. There’s little in the way of bolding, highlighting, whitespace, etc to call the DM’s attention to certain areas of the text. This forces a long read of the text in order to run the encounter. Inevitably, this results in the DM having to do it themselves with their own highlighter, and if you have to do that then why didn’t the designer do it for you or write/format it better in the first place? Maybe because they don’t recognize the problem since they wrote it? That’s my usual guess in these situations.

There’s also a question of motivation. Why would you enter here in the first place? It’s suggested that the ravine blocks the only path between point A and B that the characters need to travel from/to. Ok, sure, I guess so. That’s pretty weak. There’s little motivation. “Why the fuck are we subjecting ourselves to this? Why didn’t we fly/teleport/take a boat?” And while there’s always “for reasons” as an excuse, that’s pretty poor. A strong element of exploitation, goals, etc, a reason to risk your neck in this place, would have made this far stronger.

There’s also the very simplistic nature of the place. There’s a bunch of backstory but the encounters feel disconnected from each other. There doesn’t seem to be any themes/anything going on other than a bunch of people died here. This IS a background, and some related stuff, and some ghosts with different goals, but it’s all pretty weak and not tied together very well. It’s a pointcrawl with a distressing number of encounters being straight up combat (as per the skeletal horse dude guarding the entrance) or is some kind of skill check. In fact, there’s an entire table of “obstacles” which are nothing more than “something blocks your plath. Each of you make a skill check to bypass it.” In the text this is put as “You reach the edge of a frozen lake that stretches off into the fog as far as you can see. Do you try to cross the thin ice or do you turn back and find a new way?” On top of that there are “weird effects” that can happen to you that are just weird for the sake of weird, bearing no other relation to anything. It’s not constructed. It’s not designed. It doesn’t feel cohesive. Better, I think to have not included the tables and just made the weird & obstacles static but give them a strong relationship to each other. It just leaves a hollow feeling.

Long passages of text. A writing style in a weird CHoose Your Own Adventure voice “What do you do now?” is not really in anything that is read-aloud but exists all over the place in the text. Then there’s the stuff like treasure being weirdly absent, even when present. At one point you find bodies in the cliffside, their skin turned to gold and guts turned to jewels … but then hte value is never mentioned.

Take just that encounter, in a vacuum, and you can see how this is the classic sin of writing an adventure to be EXPERIENCED rather than an adventure to be INTERACTED with. Pointcrawl. Skill-check obstacles. Weird “you” writing style. When a D&D adventure is nothing more than skill checks and combats then we’ve lost something major from the play style.

There’s promise here, in the evocative vignettes, but the deeper design issues and lack of orientation towards play at the table makes it suffer, much.

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is two pages long. It shows you a random table of creatures and the first page of the obstacle table. If you squint hard you can extrapolate the “obstacle” writing style to the rest of the adventure, but it would have been far FAR better for the adventure to show an encounter or two, to better gie an ideal of what you are buying.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dire – Tomb of the Fallen

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 11:15
By Rodrigo Flores, Randy Musseau
Roan Studio
System Neutral/"OSR"
Levels 3-5

A desperate ghost, a plea for help, and a forgotten crypt filled with peril and plunder. This is a tale of past conflicts, where blood magic has left a foul and dire aftermath, and time is of the essence.

This 32 page adventure describes a fifteen room linear dungeon. Art & layout heavy, it looks good and is just garbage. Bad descriptions, failed novelist syndrome, linear and annoying, the “adventure” fails because of a lack of understanding of what an adventure should be, from formatting to design. Notable for the map giving me a headache.

Fifteen rooms in 32 pages isn’t QUITE as bad as it sounds, given the art heavy layout. WHile there is the occasional page of text, it’s much more common for art to take a half page or more, leaving but a short paragraph or two on the page. Which doesn’t excuse the product; there’s at least seven pages of intro and I’d say the adventure doesn’t actually start until page fifteen … and ends on page 21ish. We’re  not looking at a content-heavy product here, in spite of the 32 pages.

“Padded” is what I might say if I were polite, and “failed novelist syndrome” if I were being blunt. The first room description contains such gems as “One could feel the passage of time itself upon entering the tomb” and “[the air] which promises to become even more dank as the adventurers move forth.” and then ends with this beauty “This is the threshold to the Tomb of the Fallen; a place of legend, and a place of sorrow. With the entryway on their back, a single dark passage opens up ahead.”

And this ain’t even read-aloud. I get it. We’re trying for something mythic here. To leave impressions. But it’s trying to accomplish that task by loading up on the text. When you load up on the text you’re forcing the DM read the entire room. To stop the game and pause  everyone at the table and read the entire room. And then figure out how to relate it to the party. Room one has three paragraphs of text that don’t actually say much, but the DM must still waste a bunch of time. It’s no wonder there’s so many reports of people playing with their phones; they’re bored!

If this were a book then the passage would be ok. A small chamber carved out of solid rock. Two stone slabs lie in the middle. You feel the passage of time. Moss, grass, weed have crept in where sparse sunlight intrudes. Fresh outside air mixes with the foulness of the chamber.  There, I just used most of the same words the first room did but left out (most) of the garbage “novelist” text. The sense of the place is there. Sunlight streaming in, the last vestiges of the outside giving way to the rock.

I should also note that room one is one of the better room descriptions and most are not that good. There’s A LOT of explaining going on. Embedded backstory and justifications. Room two tells us “The water chamber is a large area that the Gnolls avoid due to the difficulty in getting across and the presence of some form of Water Elemental, that is continuously creating waves along the surface of the aquifer (underground lake).” IE: it adds little to no content to the adventure, instead justifying things and explaining backstory. Some relevant history where the gnolls don’t go in to the room … usually.

“Assuming the PC’s have an adequate source of light, a platform can be seen on the eastern side of the chamber, It’s easy to deduce that a passage extends northwest from there.“  Beyond the fact that this just describes the map, and the usual joke I’d make about quantum platforms, this is a classic example of those an if/then clause writing style. The description is muddying the waters between game play and location description. It lacks any kind of focus, and that’s icing on top of it repeating something that the map shows and needs more explanation. Further, it’s the most basic of information. It’s akin to typing “If the party has a light source then they can see the room floor to the extent their light allows them” in every single room.

The adventure engages in these activities over and over again, providing little in the way of interactivity, beyond gnolls that “being fierce warriors, attack on sight.”

On the subject of “annoying” … there’s an owl that you get to let rob your packs. Food, spell components, odd trinkets. “This is a great way to lighten the adventurers loads and make them more reliant on their surroundings & environment.” Master thieves, they pick pocket as 7th level thieves. If you act aggressive they behave as shriekers, attracting more monsters. If you kill one you get bad luck for d4+3 days. IE: the DM gets to fuck with you and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is bad Bad BAD. This is adversarial play. This is pixies who the DM doesn’t let you deal with. Suck it up and be fucked with and there’s nothing you can do. Uncool.

And on the same subject … the map. I don’t know WHAT is going on with it, but it hurts my head. It’s some kind of isometric thing and I swear to Vecna it’s got some weird Magic Eye thing going on. Every time I look at it it seems like it is upside down and I have to concentrate HARD to make my brain view it with the right perspective.

This is a mega-pass. Little real content and what there is hides.

This is PWYW at DriveThru with a suggested price of $3. There’s no preview.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Tides of Blood

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 11:15
Christopher Walz
Level 6

Menthias Dolgutha, a Coreanic priest in Mithril, has received a vision of the Silver Bastion, a fortress used by the knightly Order of Silver during the Divine War, rising from the Blood Sea. Searching Mithril’s libraries, the priest discovered the fortress was built before the titan Kadum was defeated and imprisoned at the depths of the sea. The Silver Bastion was overrun with titanspawn as the last remaining knights stayed behind, allowing others to retreat to the mainland. Menthias believes a Coreanic relic, the Brightshield, may still be hidden in the once-lost castle. Will your heroes be able to brave the dangers of the Blood Sea and contend with the Heartseekers of Kadum to wrest control over the powerful relic?

First, some secret shame. I have a Patreon! It’s got free adventures, commentary on adventure design, and random musings about RPG’s, etc. And, it does help me buy adventures to review. It’s at https://www.patreon.com/join/tenfootpole?

This 37 page adventure details a small over-ocean voyage and a ten room fortress. It’s nothing more than garbage combats. Encounter after encounter. Room after room. “Combat!” “Roll for init!” “They attack!” Oh, and the baddies? A cult. Wow. Really. A cult. How original. I wonder how long that took to come up with?

My plan was to check out some NON-Dmsguild content. To see who out there was raging against the dying of the light and jousting against the windmills of corporate licensing agreements. Don’t get off the boat man, don’t get off the boat …

This hunk of junk claims to have content supporting all three pillars of D&D play: social, exploration, and combat. I have no fucking idea what Social and Exploration mean in 5e circles these days, but if one were to take this adventure as canonical, not much. There’s not exploration to speak of, unless “I go in to the next room” means exploration. The social seems limited to … the quest giver? Some generic sailors on a ship you take? It’s all combat. Your quest-giver is interrupted by combat. “There’s bloodtained on the docks!” yeller a commoner. Uh huh. Blood tainted. Because people talk like that. Feels more like a”throw a combat in early” garbage advice being followed.

You sail to an island to follow up on the “a cleric hired us” hook. The DM rolls weather occasionally. “Players can think weather is boring, liven it up” says the adventure. Yes, that’s because simulationist shit is boring. I got four hours this week in between 60 hours of assistant crack-whore trainee work and you’r chukcing “light rain” at me, and taking up a significant page count doing so? Or, maybe, the forced combats twice a day. Once each twelve hours you have an encounter/are attacked on the seas. Joy. That seems like fun. Then you get to the island and have more “fun” fighting room after room of creatures/cultists.

This sort of stuff is soooooooo boring. Combat is boring. Tactics combat is boring. Yes, I know some people like this shit. 40k is thing. Descent & Gloomhaven is a thing (I’m playing Gloomhaven in … 90 minutes from now. Dr. Nick the DOOMSTALKER. And yes, I just spoiled the game.Mayor McDickCheese, aka Nico Crystalhead the Spellweaver was just the first to retire]

Spot distances on the boat are short. Like 30-60 feet. Wasn’t it like 320 yards in 1e/0e? That’s because there is no more Combat as War, it’s all Combat as Sport. God forbid you do anything but use your Encounter powers and roll to hit. Everything on earth sneaks on board your ship as a wandering encounter. You gotta make DC20 insight checks to figure out the evil cleric is evil. Solid silver doors are given no value and not one word about looting them. The adventure is rife with the words “at your discretion you can …” Yeah, no shit. Roleplaying advice for NPC’s is long and  boring, with bonds and ideas and flaws straight out of the book, still generic and boring.

The monsters are all Blood Sea Mutant Killer Whale and Heaker Cultists of titspan Krathas and shit like that. Look at that fucking intro text, that’s supposed to get you excited about the adventure. My eyes are rolling so much I can barely read it.

The entire adventure is nothing but aggressively generic and focused on combat. In an attempt to be non-generic it focuses on “bloodspaned mutants” and other language that is just a different dimension of generic. There’s no details to bring anything to life. There’s nothing visceral. Specificity is avoided. It’s all just generic heroic language.

Next time I’ll try harder to find something not in DMSGuild.

This is $4 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages long. The last two pages are not TOO far off from showing you what you get in the bulk of the adventure locations.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Beneath Dark Elms

Wed, 04/17/2019 - 11:11
By Scott Malthouse
Trollish Delver Games
Levels 1-3

Ever wish there was yet another vanity RPG forum where you could engage in Book Talk? Now there is!

Peachtree Village has a problem. The Horned Witch has taken the daughter of a local woodcutter. Now delvers must venture deep into The Black Crypt Forest to face an array of magical beings, both friends and foes.  Be warned, gentle player – things may not be as they seem. Why are there strange floating eyeballs following you around, for instance?

This twenty page adventure details a forest with fifteen locations. It’s got that T&T charm: a lot of non-standard fantasy mixed with just a little silliness. It’s also focused as all fuck; it’s hard to point to an extraneous word or phrase.

In THX1138 there’s a loudspeaker line in a “store”: “for your convenience, consumption has been standardized.” Fantasy RPG’s can sometimes feel like that, even Dark Sun or Eberron. The OD&D vibe harkens back to a slightly less sanitized vibe, getting closer to the folklore and grittier things. (At least the way I think of it.) And then there’s the Unbalanced Dice adventures, which feel like someone has never read fantasy before, not as gritty and with a little more lightness to it. That’s also how I think of T&T adventures, from Dungeon of the Bear forward. At least the ones that are not outright silly.

This adventure has that. There’s a bridge in the adventure with a pot next to it, asking for honey toll. Not paying it causes the hulking bee troll to appear on the other side. If you give the guy some honey you got from a nymph then he’s ECSTATIC and give you a magic item. Closer to a modern telling of a Grimm tale, a little less dark and light hearted but with a touch of the absurd.

One of the encounters in the forest, the first, is called The Decrepit Outpost. A single-room wooden shack with charred walls and a burned out roof. The air is thick with buzzing flies. A deer carcass lies in the centre of the room, it’s flanks torn off. Dried animal track leave toward a window. That’s the first two paragraphs, the “outside” being the first and the second being the inside/carcass. There’s also a broken desk with five golden arrows in it. They cause undead to explode. There’s a note “please ask me before taking – Helga.” That is the third paragraph. The fourth details the ghost ranger that raps on windows and causes chills. And animated the deer carcass if you don’t ask before taking the arrows. It’s simple. The first three paragraphs are almost verbatim from the adventure, so it’s VERY focused on actual play. It’s interactive. The magic item effects are described non-mechanically. What does “explode” mean? You’r the DM, go figure it he fuck out in actual play!

And it does this, encounter after encounter. The decrepit outpost. The honey bridge. The hermit house. The great web. It’s simple. It’s charming. It’s focused. It’s interactive. It concentrates on actual play.

There’s a witch you’re going after. The town rumors are “she decorates her house with the bones of the children she eats.” and “she dances naked with seven ghouls on a full moon.” and “she disguises herself and walks in the village to spy” and “you can only see her out of the corner of your eye.” And on it goes! They are great! It’s a fucking witch! It’s witch rumors in a hick village!

If I were looking for an introductory adventure for new players I might pick this one. It’s simple, charming, lighthearted, and focused.

It also comes across a bit like a funhouse in the wilderness. It’s a little disconnected, or maybe I mean it moves from encounter to encounter a little too easily and little too … jarringly? It’s a pointcrawl map. You enter the forest. You come across the decrepit outpost. You then hit the bee bridge. It’s feels like a pointcrawl funhouse and doesn’t have the cohesiveness that something like Ursine Dunes had. And I don’t mean funhouse in the way that a challenge dungeon like Sea Kings or Ghost Tower or White Plume does. But, it’s got that disconnected vibe that a set-piece after set-piece can have … even though I wouldn’t really call this set-pieces.

The spider queen has corrosive saliva that burns away one armor item if you don’t save. Holy fuck! Now THATS a fucking spider queen monster! She is as old as the forest, likes to bargain for more exotic food, and always keeps her word. Bam! I know her and can play her. Cordial, charming, and speaking in silky smooth tones.

Nymphs bargain for the parties hair and make a clone amalgamation from it. Grave robbers are looking for buddies to loot a vampire tomb. Reciting “Troll Maiden Troll maiden where art thou and thy wisdom” in a stone circle make the oracle appear.Fairy rings. Man beast cave. The spell tree. The black crypt. And, of course, the witches hut. And the trickster demon of entertainment and his eyeball cameras. It’s world is all heightened, because of the demon of entertainment. Whatever, get sillier at the end, I don’t care. It’s not Zap Paranoia, it’s lighthearted fun for beer & pretzels D&D. AKA: Tunnels & Trolls. The first heartbreaker wanted to be more accessible and to this day still brings the impish fun. DCC does this same sort of thing also, but on the Swords & Sorcery path. Successful because they capture and heighten certain fun aspects of the base game. Maybe not suitable for longer-term play, but certainly enough to have a fuck ton of fun with.

The map have numbers next to the location names, but the adventure text just uses the place names. Bad designer! Ise the numbers also! It makes it easier to find things.

This is good enough I’m going to pick up a couple more of Scott’s adventures and check them out. If he can keep firing like this, especially across genres/systems, then he’s AT LEAST a journeyman is a world of amateurs. At Least.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is a good one, with the last three pages showing you the first three encounters, which are representative of the style you’ll find in the rest.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

House of Illthrix

Wed, 04/10/2019 - 11:04
By David A Hill
Mothshade Concepts
Level: ?

First, some secret shame. I have a Patreon! It’s got free adventures, commentary on adventure design, and random musings about RPG’s, etc. And, it does help me buy adventures to review. It’s at https://www.patreon.com/join/tenfootpole?

llthrix was an evil genius that liked to kill adventurers. His dungeons and traps earned him a measure of infamy matched by few villains of the age. He’s dead now. But, you’ve found a way to his hidden lair – Illthrix’s own home. A place rumored to contain special trophies and treasures from the long career of the famed trapsmith. Illthrix wouldn’t bother to trap his own house, would he?

This 35 page adventure details the house of a master trap maker and wizard, with about thirty rooms. There’s some nice ideas in this, but it lacks any real keying, has long DM text, and I find the read-aloud off putting and uninspired. Warning: I’m not fond of these “challenge” dungeons.

Some years ago Bob the trap wizard made a bunch of trapped dungeons and invited adventurers to come explore them. The party has found a map to his actual house, so off they go.

The fun starts outside. There’s a tree next to the house and some clouds in the sky. Climbing the tree causes some of the limbs to catapult you to the ground. Also, the clouds can either descend like a cloudkill spell or just solidify and fall on you. That’s cute. When the adventure is good its got that kind of outside the box thinking. When it’s bad it’s got some Bad Grimtooth going on.

In multiple cases doors slam shut behind you and then something bad happens in the room. This happens in the read-aloud. The read-aloud says things like “the door closes behind you with a soft click” or some such. Other read-aloud causes you to click latches on doors, and other things that no sane minded adventurer would do if they knew this was a trap dungeon, or after the second trap in a row had been sprung. This sort of forced player movement is a bane and should not be done.

The traps are sometimes telegraphed. The read-aloud for the clouds notes that they are tinged with green and turquoise. The front door description notes that they are two doors, one with  un motif and one with a moon motif. It is from this that one is expected to know that the sun door is used during the day and the moon door and night, otherwise a fire or cold trap is triggered. Initially, you don’t know it’s a trap. Once you know it’s a trap dungeon then these little trap clues make more sense. I’m still a little … iffy? about them though. On the front doors, for example, my own style is to do something like mention charred grass or a bare patch or something like that. Thus while the trap CAUSE is the focus of these read-alouds I tend to go more with a trap EFFECT in my own DM’ing. In any event, basically anything mentioned in the read-aloud is a trap and just about every room has one.  

The map is hand drawn. I like hand drawn maps. You know what I like more? Legibility. The map is small with words outside the rooms pointing back to the room. Not ideal for quick comprehension. Further, the keying of the dungeon is done via words. So there’s a tiny box on the map and some words outside the map, proper, that say “Study” with a line pointing at the tiny room. Then in the text of the dungeon there’s a section heading called “Study”. No, that would be too simple. It goes further by having the section heading say “Beyond the metal door (study) or something like that. As a reviewer you see a lot of the same stuff over and over again, so seeing novel new ideas is a joy. But the designer can’t lose track, as they did here, of the purpose of the adventure being to help the DM run it. Getting cute with the room names and relying on a non-key to key your dungeon doesn’t do wonders in that category.

The read-aloud tends to be bland, with “small” things in rooms, and other plain adjectives and adverbs. In other cases the read-aloud leads the party down the wrong path, a critical error in a trap dungeon. One room specifically notes the stairs are not slick, although the air is a bit damp. The DM text then notes that the surfaces are damp. I get it, not slick doesn’t mean it’s not damp. But we’re splitting hairs a bit in actual play. Telling the party its not slick is almost certainly going to lead to them thinking “not damp”, which doesn’t help them when the damp ass grey ooze shows up. There’s this thing tha DM’s, and adventures, sometimes do when they want you to say the exact thing. “I check the door over for traps and unusual things” isn’t good enough, because the trap on the hinge and you didn’t say you were checking the hinge and so … This sort of pixel bitching is not cool. There are a few places in the adventure where this happens, like the ooze, but it feels more like it’s from unclear or confusing read-aloud then it is from a deliberate attempt to jerk the players around. In other places the read-aloud leaves out text … in one room there are three homunculus rooting around, but no mention in e read-aloud. Again, not cool.

But, then there’s clouds falling from the sky thing, or the catapult tree, things that new under the sun. There’s also a nice little scene with a will-o-the-wisp that’s “at rest”, looking like a silver dandelion puff. That’s great! When the adventure is doing these sorts of things its firing on target. But then it goes and puts in a long backstory and embeds important information about an NPC in it.

Or it does something like “not putting a level range on the adventure. I still don’t know. 6 Maybe?

Finally, I leave you, gentle readers, with this little snippet from the adventure. It’s been a hard haul to get some treasure, for a GOLD=XP game, and then you come upon this section. I don’t like this. I like my designer to put a lot of the work in. If I wanted to put the work in I’m do my own adventure.

“For treasure, the Referee may include specimens of valuable metal ore, or rough gemstone. Other possibilities include rare antivenins, a variety of large pearls of various sizes and hues (10-800 gp each), curative pastilles or elixirs, valuable pieces of amber (20-500 gp each), and alchemical powders that replicate the magical varieties of “dust.”

This is at DriveThru for $3. The preview is six pages. You can see the hand map on the second to last page and tree/clouds on the last page. None of it really gives a good idea of the actual rooms though, so a poor preview.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Shrine of Ptatallo

Mon, 04/08/2019 - 11:05
By Jay Libby
Dilly Green Brean Games
Swords & Wizardry
Levels 3-5

Half naked Hobbs, a mystic wizard and a shrine long since abandoned call players in the first Stairs of the Immortal: Swords & Wizardry adventure module The Shrine of Ptatallo!

This 23 page adventure is a linear mess in free verse form. I don’t even know what to call this style anymore. This is just a garbage linear “modern” adventure with the stats converted to S&W.

Look man, I know I can be a caricature of myself at times. Yeah, I have these things I like to say about criticizing the work not the author, giving feedback, writing a review so you can find it useful even if you don’t share my tastes, and then I show my ass by doing Reviews As Performance Art. But jesus H fucking christ man, it FEELS like adventure design is going backwards. My first exposure to the incomprehensible were the Willett/Bloodymage adventures, and it seems like the number of trusly shit-tastic things is getting more and more prevalent.

I went through this spate, in the early days, of reviewing a pile of things that were CLEARLY money grab conversions.  Slap a different game system on the cover and maybe half-ass a couple of stats and release it for thirteen different game systems. Mechanic confusion abounded, idiosyncratic parts of games were ignored (xp=gp, for example) and so on. I developed a strong hatred for the people involved in the money grabs. Sometimes you can see this spill over when I spit out the word “conversion” like it were venom. Perhaps unjustly at times.

Willett and Alfonso were different. Alfonso hadn’t played D&D in like twenty years and was just publishing to get titles under his name so a big publishing house would pick up his novels. Like the money-grabbers, his motives were less love of the game and more something else. Willett seemed like he NEEDED money, but seemed to have a love of the game that he just could not express and get down on paper in a logical way. I have a lot of sympathy for those folks. Getting a vision out of your head and down on paper in a way that makes it easy for someone else to pick up and run with is not a trivial task. And yet thousands of people manage to do it. Emulating, mostly, they get it out and down in a format that looks like it could work. And then there’s things like this adventure.

There’s this trend lately to publish an almost stream of consciousness adventure. An almost novelization. And I don’t mean fiction and I don’t mean the Paizo over-wordy bullshit. Imagine there were no maps and you were telling a story to a friend over a beer and you kept saying “and then we …” and “then I … “ and so on. Rapid fire. No pauses. Almost stream of consciousness but without as much randomness.

This seems to be format that people use when writing adventures. This is now the (fourth?) adventure in about a month or so that I’ve seen use it. I just don’t fucking get it. It’s completely confusing. You have to dig through paragraph after paragraph of data to get ahold of whats going on. The section breaks are few and far between. “The room to the right contains” and “the room to the left contains …” are the extent of the keying. Oh, wait, no, there’s also “the tunnel leads to another room that has a …” sort of thing. What kind of fucking thing is this? It’s like you just described a dungeon, room after room, in one big long section. There are paragraph breaks, but no section breaks to speak of. Some paragraph breaks are new rooms, Some are different things in the same room. How the fuck is this usable in any way? I don’t get where this is coming from but it needs to fucking stop. It’s bad enough that this adventure is completely linear, but this format, on top of it, does nothing but make my life harder at the table. How the fuck are you supposed to use this?

And the adventure is only about six actual pages long, everything else filler, fluff, and monster stats. How about some cash so you can level? Of course not.

Look, you gotta meet me halfway here. I’m happy to review new people. It’s hard as fuck to get any publicity in the DriveThru marketplace. But you need to do a little research and figure out for yourself a modicum of adventure design.

I present to you my new ratings scale, which I promise to promptly forget about as soon as I close my browser:

  • Not An Adventure
  • Stream of Consciousness Adventure
  • Emulating an Adventure format without knowing how it works
  • I know what I’m doing
  • I know what I’m doing and life has not crushed my soul

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. There is no preview.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(Pathfinder) The Book of Terniel

Sat, 04/06/2019 - 11:08
By Lucas Curell, Chance Kemp
Embers Design Studio
Level 1

Four factions struggle for the Book of Terniel, and in the middle of them: you! Choose a side or claim it for yourself.

This is easily one of the best Pathfinder adventures I’ve seen. It MIGHT be worth it to convert to Your Favorite Gaming system, be it 5e or OSR.

This 226 page adventure details the search for a missing book/artifact. Investigation, hex crawling, diplomacy and bluffing are all mixed in to provide what I would call A Real Adventure. There’s a lot going on in this and, while it provides good support information, it doesn’t quite provide enough to orient the DM easily.

An overview: you are in a village, investigate a missing book (with social, searching, and fighting.) It culminates with the party exploring a little mine and then it getting invaded by undead. Part two has the party doing a hexcrawl through a swamp to find the people who hit the mine before they did and who now have the book. Explore the swamp, talk to and kill people, and eventually find the lair of the “giants” who took the book. (Let’s call them “ogres.”) Part two is non-trivial and involves several humanoid village & towns in addition to the usual swamp stuff. Part three has the party in the ogre home, a huge place with multiple factions. Again, multiple social, exploration, and fighting possabilities.

Looking at that page count, I would have expected a lot of garbage detail and very little in the way of adventure. That’s not the case. There’s very little trivia and what there is presents well and doesn’t get in the way. I would have also expected a long appendix, as is usual. That ALSO is not the case. This thing is about 200 pages of actual adventure. At the end of it you are expected to be about level four, after starting at level one. I can EASILY anticipate this thing being the centerpoint of multiple months of gaming. For me that would be about twelve or so sessions. Again, this is the real deal.

Looking at the $10 price I groaned. We’ve been through this before, each of us. You pay $10 and get you a bunch of crap. And yet, I’m fond of saying that I’ll happily pay up to $50 or more for a good adventure. But we go in to this EXPECTING crap, and thus the groan. Such is the marketplace. This is worth it, easily. It does a lot of what the WOTC hardbacks are trying to do and for which only Strahd partially succeeded.

We start with a village, multiple NPC’s with short little descriptions. Several rumor tables. Talking to people yields clues on where to follow up, and maybe a side quest or two. Theoretically, this is what most adventures of this type do, so that description should be boring to you. And yet, this thing is complex. There’s a lot going on. It’s not just one throw off thing, but multiple avenues to follow up on. Likewise the swamp, with multiple areas in to gain clues and multiple paths to follow up on, with minor “quests” floating around also.

It’s able to do this well by organizing itself. Bullet points, white space, indents, colored boxes, bolding. The text is formatted to draw your eye to certain areas. There are summaries of what’s going on, of the different factions and their goals and what they want and what they will do. Oh, Oh! There are two evil factions after the book and you could ALLY with them! Your choice! I know, right?!?!?! The sidebars present extra information, trivia,or mechanically effects like what you find out for a local knowledge roll. There’s no pages of trivia mixed in. It gets in and gets out. Oh,oH! Stat blocks are NOT LONG. I know! Like, ¼ of a COLUMN!    Wtf!?! It’s like these dudes didn’t read the Pathfinder script and are actually thinking for themselves!

Here’s the description for the region the party is in, presented in a sidebar. Ready? “The countryside is quiet and serene, consisting of beautiful meadows and bubbling brooks interrupted here and there by small copses of trees. The journey should leave the PCs refreshed and comfortable.” Terse. Evocative. Provides you the exact information you need, no more, and lets you know exactly how to run the place and relate it to the players. Note how it does NOT drone on and on. That’s usual. Even in the main text the details tend to be terse.

A giant fly is “the size of a boar.” Ouch! I’ve not seen that description before, but it’s relatable. Of a misshaped giant with giant maggots in it’s rolls of fat, tossing them at the party. Visceral, in both example. A quasit has suggested dialog, both imperios or groveling, depending on the situation.There’s loot hidden in strange places with clues about to reward those who take just a little more time to follow up on details. Rewarding good gaming, imagine that!

This thing delivers a rich and complex environment, with the large fonts and varied formatting leading to the larger page count, instead of useless drivel. I could go on an on about how skill checks are used correctly, and so on (if you accept that a game has skill checks, and this being Pathfinder we’ll allow it.)

As is usual and expected, it’s not all good.

Rumors could use a little more “in voice” instead of raw facts. The hooks are terrible and probably would have been better to just not include them instead of the throw-away “guard”, “relative” stuff that is usual for garbage adventures. New magic items are overly sparse (but the few examples are pretty good.)  There are a few other minor things, like bullet point being out of order. (A good example is this cave with prisoners tied up in and two goblins. Neither appear high up in the description and only show later deeper in the bullet summary. Important/Obvious things should come first!) Related, there’s this wizards tower. And in some other place, the NPC descriptions, it relates a nosy neighbor the wizard has. But wouldn’t that have been relevant in the wizard location? To see a nosy neighbor hanging out of a window? Instead you have to remember that there’s a nosy neighbor and go look her up. These sorts of contextual references/cross-references are missing in lots of places in the more free-form play areas.

The major issue is … context? Relevance of information? I don’t know what to call it. This adventure has summaries. It does a great job with formatting, bolding, whitespace, callout boxes, sidebars, etc. (Well, for the most party anyway.) It even provides a kind of Big Picture overview. Of many of the areas/goings on. But it lacks a kind of medium level zoom/summary.

Town has some location descriptions, some NPC descriptions, a “scene” where you have dinner with the quest giver wizard, and so on. It’s even got little sections on how to follow-up, etc, on the various stuff, in places. What it lacks though is an overview of how this all works together. Normally that wouldn’t be an issue, but there’s enough going on in this that I think it’s necessary. Here’s how A relates to B relates to C. Yes, it IS possible to do it inline in the text (G1/Steading) but this adventure ain’t that one. There’s a lot more going on here. How do the various NPC’s and clues and locations interrelate? There’s an orientation missing. Same thing in the swamp for part two and the giant lair/town in part three. While the giants have a nice faction overview, how everything works together is missing and it’s too large/complex to hold in your head without it.

This means a read-through, probably multiple times, and notes and highlighter. Any time I’m REQUIRED to put in work to run the adventure I’m not happy. But this, as a kind of twelve session or so adventure, may be worth it. Individually the locations are ok and pretty easy to understand. I was also able to grok enough of the Whole Situation from the initial overview that I understand how the parts worked together … which helps with comprehension during the read-through which helps during the running of the game. But then in the middle zone, the big picture for the individual parts just wasn’t there.

But … this is easily one of the best, if not the best Pathfinder adventure I’ve seen. It tries hard to orient towards play. It avoids railroads. It’s much more than a hack. I’m having a hard time with the notes thing. If it weren’t for that I’d slap a Best on this. Given the general dreck in the Pathfinder world, I’m going to err on the side of Best, considering I consider a B, A, or Perfect to be The Best. This is good enough, if it were an OSR product. As a Pathfinder product its easily one of the best.

This is $10 on DriveThru. The preview is a good one. Pages 6&7 (in the book) give you an overview of the adventure. Pages 10&11 (in the book) show the bullets, whitespace, bolding, and sidebar usage. In fact, pages 10 onward give you a good idea of how the individual encounters/locations are presented.


Addenda: Evard says their follow-up products stink, being more typical Pathfinder. So, maybe be wary of your follow-on purchases with this publisher.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Winter’s Daughter

Wed, 04/03/2019 - 11:18
By Gavin Norman, Frederick Munch, Nicholas Montegriffo
Necrotic Gnome
Levels 1-3

The tomb of an ancient hero, lost in the tangled depths of the woods. A ring of standing stones, guarded by the sinister Drune cult. A fairy princess who watches with ageless patience from beyond the veil of the mortal. A forgotten treasure that holds the key to her heart.

This 32 (digest?) page adventure details a nineteen room dungeon with a heavy fey bend. Gavin experiments with formatting and has a decent number of interconnecting rooms and puzzles to explore. A solid journeyman effort, if a big page-heavy.

For (reasons) you are going in to an old knights tomb. Once there you probably get asked from someone inside to find and deliver a ring to a fairy princess. There’s about eight pages of overview and background that relates a fey/human war a few hundred years ago and a hero who banished the fairy ice king …and fey dude is looking for round 2. Thus a kind of fey-heavy background and location, with them being the more classical fey/fairies than the bullshit they turned in to in later D&D. Of the nineteen rooms about four are outside the heroes tomb, and about four more are in the land of faerie, leaving elevenish in the tomb, proper.

The adventure is pretty solid, content wise. Each room pretty much has something to fuck with, examine, investigate, puzzle over, and so on. Look at a mural to find a secret word, figure out what was dragged where from scrape marks on the floor. There’s a statue with a blindfold on you can take off. Skeletons float and dance together near the ceiling in one room. A mirror freezes you in place. Each room, just a little bit and a part of a larger whole. Cultists outside greet you warmly, thinking your appearance a boon, and their sacrifice happy to be one. Frost elf knights and nobility waiting for a wedding in faerie. There’s a little bit of interactivity in just about every room.

It’s also got a decent theming. Magic is glamour. The goblins are the “merchants” variety, and chasm leads not to death but a gentle float in to the realm of faerie. Gilded mirrors, and owls with violet eyes. Elven knights, ice wines, and foppish nobility. A troll in hessian garb that is of the “moss” variety rather than the carrot nose variety. This has that airy vibe that a good fey adventure does. Fey being who they are, Holy Water and sunlight works wonders in dispelling their glamours, a nice thematic touch.

The most noticeable feature though is going to be Gavins play at formatting. He’s trying something new, I think, and experimenting with a room format that allows one or two room per page. Large grey-boxed heading draw your attention to the major features of the room. Under those are key description words, bolded. WHITE MARBE STATUE. A fair maiden (long, flowing hair and robe, upon her brow a star) Beseeching silence (the statue is posed facing the stairs, with a finger raised to her lips) Blindfolded (a black cloth wrapped around the statues eyes, covering them) Round plinth (marble, 3’across, 1’high.) And then also some bullet points like *Removing the blindfold (the inside is embroidered with golden crucifixes) And then follows another grey boxed section for another feature of the room, the stairs down. It’s in interesting format and It works fairly well for drawing the eye and allowing for expanding detail as the players ask follow up questions and probe further.

The use of adjectives and adverbs is good. a candle is “thick” and slime is in “sheets.” Brass is tarnished, skeletons slowly waltz and speak in a “distant whisper.” This is the sort of verbiage I can get behind.

He goes further with leveraging the maps. There’s a little “mini-key” on them to help the DM during play and there’s no messing around with duplication …In one room there’s a chasm and, momentarily confused, I checked the map and yes, there was a chasm! Thus map features and whitespace are leveraged to provide still more resources to the DM during play.

I will say that the background is also done in bullet-point style and I’m not sure that works. I don’t think it’s reference material, during play, and perhaps, as an evocative piece, some freeform might have been better. Likewise there are bits and pieces that feel out of place and break immersion. The main quest item is a “ring of soul binding.” This links the ghostly knight to his fiancée, the fey princess. But, it’s described in the back as a normal magic item would be, even though it’s unlikely to ever be used as one, and in particular effects other than “destroy”, etc. Better, I think, to NOT explain the knight/princess magic and simply make them bound through their love and the betrothal ring. More explanation than that is not really needed and detracts from the mystery.

But, overall, a great effort. There’s thought here in how the thing is constructed and how it tries to orient itself to the DM’s use. A little slow, I think, or maybe, melancholic? It’s a perfectly adequate adventure and I’d not hesitate to drop it in a hex crawl or some other locale. and, of course, in Bryce-speak “perfectly adequate” means one of the The Best.

This is on DriveThru for $7. The preview is nine pages and gives you a great idea of what you’re buying. Check out those last four pages to view the format.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Devil of Murder Cliffs

Mon, 04/01/2019 - 11:33
By Casey Christofferson
Frog God Games
Levels 3-5

In the pale light of the witching hour when the moon shows off its twin horns,
Tis said that a devil rises from the deep with a murderous taste for the soul.
You will know ere he stalks for the crows love to talk
About how they have picked clean your bones.

Let’s see what the Frogs are up to these days!

This 39 page adventure details a small regional with a bandit camp, some gnolls, an inn, a druid, and some loggers. There’s a meta-plot thing going on where the inn, bandits, and a ghost have some stuff going on. It feels more like the outline of an adventure, with a lot of generic detail added to it. The emphasis on act 1 & 3 is too short, I think.

Part 1: You arrive at the inn. It’s about a page long and then the inn is described, room by room, up until about page 20. The inn room description is 9 pages long with the “mission introduction” contained on a 10th page. You get your mission: defeat the bandits &| druid. Part 2: the wilderness including the bandit camp, gnoll camps, druid, evil mountain altar, logging camps, etc. 6 pages, 8 with the wanderers. Part 3: After defeating the bandits/druid you come back for a feast. Then all hell breaks loose. 1 page.

This feels more like the outline of an adventure. Imagine I wrote a page of plot. Then I write the outline of some locations to go visit. Then I expanded those locations with a bunch of generic detail, over several pages. That’s what this feels like.

The introduction/hook is a couple of paragraphs about four bandits (1hd) attacking the inn, a lady inside yelling at the party to kill them, and then her asking the party to kill the bandits and their ally, the druid. It’s almost a throw-away. I guess it’s meant to be expanded by all of the context provided in the NPC backgrounds and situation overview that appear before this. It feels like a cumbersome way to handle things. Yes, all of the NPC’s in the inn kind of make sense, but the way the “plot” is condensed in to just a couple of paragraphs seems awkward. I think maybe it could have used a little less of NPC description up front and maybe a little more in the “welcome to the inn!” sections.

Likewise, the wilderness sections are weird. A wandering monster table followed by some wilderness locales. There’s a couple of gnoll lairs that expliplify this. Just six or so cave rooms, with some generic descriptions and generic gnolls. Leaders, wives, bodyguards, young … it could be the B2 cave. It feels flat, and somehow could be replaced with “gnoll lair with 6 rooms, 12 gnolls, a chief, 2 wives, 8 young, and 2 bodyguards. 300gp” It feels weird. There’s a lot of text but it doesn’t really DO anything.

Party 3 kind of exemplifies this. It’s about a page and deals with consequences. A dinner party, maybe escaped prisoners if the party captured any and then a hunt for them in the inn, and a ghost possessing people to cause trouble, and maybe an attack by gnolls and bandits on the inn, all at the same time. First: AWESOME! I fucking love chaos in an adventure, especially at the end. A billion things going on at once! Delicious!

But, more to my point, it’ feels weird. It’s almost like THIS is the actual adventure and everything else just led up to it. But it’s covered on one page. Suddenly, the EXTENSIVE room by room inn description makes sense. If the party is doing a hide & seek with the escape prisoners then you need a full map and room description. It’s still weird though … the extraneous detail of the inn. And, yes, the designer is right, the party is likely to explore and get in to trouble in part one, so a map kind of makes sense then also. But nine pages worth?

It’s all a kind of super-weird choice. There’s this evil mountain alter that has a magic item that will be pretty hard/impossible to recover, given the permutations and lack of hints. But then it once again becomes a focus in the end of party 3, when a ghost can possess someone there. Except they can do it in part one also.

There is something to this adventure, but the emphasis and the way ideas are presented is out of whack with the clarity. Specificity is missing, and instead we get this kind of outline format that’s then expanded upon with genericism. And then it’s WAY long while the more interesting sections are very short.

And then the treasure is quite light for S&W. The gnolls have 400gp. The bandits little more. What/how the bandit officers patrol is buried in the description of the officers tent instead of the camp overview. Information is misplaced and wrongly emphasized all over the place.

Again, the concepts are not bad, but it’s quite cumbersome. Well, the inn people are baddies who betray you, which triggers lifelong D&D trauma of always sleeping together in inns and never eating or drinking their food and never making friends/allies anywhere. The DM’s party in murder hobo survival is an important tale to tell.

This is $10 at DriveThru. There’s no preview. Sup with that froggies? How about letting us see what we’re buying ahead of time when you charge us $10?


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Horror at Havel’s Cross

Sat, 03/30/2019 - 23:15
By Richard Jansen-Parkes
Winghorn Press
Level 2

When a group of archaeologists put out a call for adventurers to help them escort a valuable artefact back to civilization, nobody expects anything out of the ordinary. However, our heroes have more than mere bandits to deal with at Havel’s Cross… Undead monsters roam the night and an ancient artefact stirs within a long forgotten temple. Getting to the bottom of the mystery will require a strong sword-arm and an even stronger stomach.

This six page adventure has three encounters. It’s free text format make it hard to use during play. Any detail is lost.

So, up front, I loathe the “archeology” thing in D&D. That implies a 19th century setting and I like my D&D less Victorian/Edwardian. Miners, lost kids, there’s lots of reason to have some people disappear and someone to want to find them.

Positives: It only uses the D&D basic rules. That’s a good approach. The basic rules are enough for most people to have and it would be great to have a rich amount of data to pull from. It also uses bullet points to convey information, particularly when you question someone. If Bob has some information for you then you can expect to find three or four bullets points, each with maybe a couple of sentence. The first few words of each sentence coney the subject of the bullet, so you can scan it easily enough to find what you need. Bullets: good. Putting the important stuff first so you can easily find which bullet is which: good. There’s also a section where a DC check on a dead horse (or inside an inn) can help inform you that there might be undead involved. That sort of thing is good. I quibble with putting it behind a DC check to begin with, but at least it’s not an empty check.

And on the bad side … garbage read aloud: it’s too long and it tends to try to tell the players what they feel, etc. On the DM text side I’m going to mention something else related: “It’s like staring in to a nightmare.” Uh huh. These are both symptoms of a large problem: the adventure tells instead of shows. “You feel scared” is telling. I’m not scared. At all. It’s lame and breaks immersion. But if you describe a scene and the players GET scared, or they think “man, that’s out of a nightmare!” then you have SHOWN. This is substantially more effective. And of course, no one pays attention after two read-aloud sentences.

Did I mention there’s a roll to continue? You need to roll a DC 12 in order to find a door in order to continue an adventure. Don’t put your adventure behind a DC check that the party can fail. Yes, every DM on earth is gonna hand wave it. That doesn’t mean you did right when writing it.

The major issue, though, is the organization.

This is now the second or third adventure that is organized in paragraph form. What I mean by that is, imagine you write out the adventure without any section heading, keyed room entries, and the like. Just one long document of text, only broken up by paragraphs. Then bold a word or two. That’s an extreme example, but it’s essentially what’s going on in this adventure, and the other few like it I’ve seen. Wherever this shit is coming from it needs to stop.

There’s no keyed map. It attempts to describe the map in the text. “There’s a chamber to the left” says some read aloud. Somewhere in the text that follow is a paragraph or two that describes the chamber to the left. There’s a window to look in, but you have to hunt the paragraph that tells you what you see. The complete and utter lack of effective organization is a major pain.

If I were forced to run this close to RAW then the adventure I would run is “Contacted to find a missing archeologist. Find a dead horse outside an inn. Dead people in the inn and some goblins/a hobgoblin. Go to the dig site and find temple with empty room, a room with some ghouls, and the final chamber.” I mean it, that’s what i would run, almost verbatim, that is contained in the adventure. I would supplement this with the bullet point data, because it’s easy to find, but that’s it. I’m not gonna take ten minutes to read the room, etc when the people show up to it. It’s more important to me that the players be engaged in the game then I run the adventure as written. That means that ALL that extra detail, beyond what I typed above. Is completely worthless and should never have been written/included. Unless, of course, it’s organized in such a way that I can find and reference it during play.

But as written, now, in the free-form text flow it uses? No fucking way. This is just some generic throw-away stuff that’s hard to use, and that’s not compelling enough for me to make an greater than usual effort.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Aldair’s Arboretum

Wed, 03/27/2019 - 11:17
(No designer listed)
Mesozoic Press
Levels 1-3

Explore an abandoned elf treehouse!

This eleven page adventure details a nine room elf treehouse that has some living plants. A conversion, it’s has good magic items, lack monetary treasure, and a has cumbersome writing style. Just more grist for the gristmill.

While walking through the forest (this is a drop in adventure) the party sees an area with larger undergrowth, wild, with trees 50% larger than normal. Investigating, they see “an usually shaped construction” up in the treetops, supported by three trees. Turns out it’s a big old elf treehouse.

The intro DM text does two things well: it brings a slight sense of wonder, with large berries, larger trees, etc, notifying the players that THIS IS AN ADVENTURE SITE. Same as the entrance to the mythic underworld, it denotes that things are going to get D&D around here. Second, it provides a hint of what’s to come. No one can encounter overgrown plants without getting their Round Up spells ready. Plant monsters ahead!

The magic treasure is also above average. A belt buckle, in the shape of leaves, that is a ring of protection. Herbicide. A couple of berry types. A broach in the shape of the leaf slows falls “to that of a falling leaf.” Good theming.

And … that’s it. It’s only been a couple of months but everything is rusted and ropes decayed. The “unusually shaped construction” in the trees is an abstraction, a conclusion. “Well, what’s it shaped like” says the players …”unusual” says the DM. Not cool.

Treasure is LIGHT. This is quite clearly a 5e conversion. Cash is meaningless is 5e. Cash is everything in B/X, it’s your XP. Sure enough, there’s a 5e version listed on DriveThru. These conversions Drive. Me. Nuts. It’s like you marketed a “Spooky CoC adventure!” and then filled it converted a normal d20 Espionage adventure. It’s fucking shitty. These games require cash to level and yet there is no cash. Meaning the designer has little understanding of how B/X actually works.

Tis the writing, though, that sucks most, as per usual. The rooms have exhaustive lists of contents. A walking stick, boots and cloak in the cloakroom adds nothing to the adventure. What it DOES do is subtract from the ability to run it. The text is written, one paragraph after another, each describing one thing in the room, with n intro/summary paragraph. His means that to run the room you have to read the ENTIRE entry. The characters walk in. “What do we see?” Well, hang on, let me read these five paragraphs so I can tell you. The only way this works is when you have a bit of summary as the first paragraph to orient you to what’s to come. Then, while the players are fucking about, you can scan the appropriate paragraph. This shit is KEY. And this thing don’t do that.

Paragraph one of room one tells us “Entryway: The slope leads up to a wooden platform that juts out from the main building. A large wooden trough stands in the north east corner used to collect rain water but it has become dark and stagnant with a film of slime across the top.”

  1. Good job using a room name, and bolding it. We now know all mundane features.
  2. We don’t need to know about the slope. It’s shown on the map and is mentioned in the intro text before the keyed entries begin. It’s just detracting from the important text.
  3. The trough text is overwrought. It’s “A trough with dark & stagnant rainwater, a film of slime across the top.” Done.
  4. There are four more paragraphs of this shit.

It’s a lot of filler text with very little content that either evocative or actually gameable. Two rooms with a couple of plant monsters in them does not an adventure make.

This is $1.50 at Drivethru. The preview is three pages long and shows you almost nothing. Just some shitty backstory and the parts of room one that I quoted above.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs