Ten Foot Pole

Subscribe to Ten Foot Pole feed Ten Foot Pole
I bought this stuff and read it so you don't have to.
Updated: 7 hours 22 min ago

Broken God’s Pain

Mon, 05/29/2017 - 11:12

By ???
Unbalanced Dice Games

The Old God has awoken. He feels the pain of being broken and wants to be free again. He has cursed the party to find his body and make him whole again. They must venture into the caves and face foes who will thwart their every move. If the party has the wits and the will they will succeed. The Old God demands success!

This is a 64-page adventure in some caves with about sixty rooms in it. There is some pretext about an old god and a new god and worshippers, etc, but it’s really a funhouse dungeon with a large number of mini-areas with almost no relation to each other. Charming, a product of madness, youth, or a fantasy education that stopped at age twelve without any hint of Tolkien or D&D. Fantasy as written by Tom Sawyer. Overly written, no effort at layout, unrelated encounters … and the type of pure simple imagination that I’m not sure anyone is capable of once exposed to “mainstream” D&D. Troll? Art project? Youth? I have no idea.

There’s no layout to speak of. It’s all single column with a large font. Room names are bolded. Monster stats indented. A few pieces of art in a simple, charming/amateur style. The hook? You dream, and are transported at fantastic speed over the sea past seas monsters and ship to find yourself on a rocky shore next to a village with a voice having said “Come and find me.” The starter village is a mess, with events mixed in to keyed locations in a small eight keyed location that takes four or five pages to get through. They worship a sun god the priest knows nothing about, there are bat themed (The New God) hints all over the place and the people grow hostile when the Old God is mentioned. This is all crazy … except the village god setup IS a good one. The kids play “bat and mouse.” There’s an old bat mask in the church. People get angry at the talk of the old god. Eventually a girl leaders the party to the caves. Inside they get a vision/voice telling them to find the old gods eight parts and join them together. It’s completely obvious with no attempt really at a serious pretext. The old god/new god thing isn’t really going to come up again, except in the form of a few cultists you fight.

There’s nothing from the books in this. No treasure. No monsters. All fresh content. It reminds me, in a way, of the writing style of Tracia, Dungeon of the Bear, and of my favorite adventure The Upper Caves from Fight On! Magazine #2. Treasure? How about a cup that burns water like it’s a torch. A little doll the size of finger. Held in the palm of the hand, it does a little dance that heals 1d4 hp once a day. A green gauntlet that causes plants to wither. A stale loaf of bread whose crumb feed you for a day. A stick that turns in to a shovel and back when you will it. What the fuck? For real? A fake eye that glows red … if you stick it in an empty socket you get infravision. Almost all of them are non-mechanical; describing effects instead of the mechanics they produce. +1? That’s boring. I’ll take the fucking stick shovel ANY day over a +1 sword. It preserves a sense of wonder and mystery. There’s cursed armor in Upper Caves/Fight On #2 that shouts “Here I am! Here I am!” when you get close to undetected enemies. No mechanics. Just a description of what it does in plain english, just like in this adventure. The treasure is MAGNIFICENT!

The encounters proper, have little reason to them. Two or three rooms at a time might be related, like a trap that deposits you in to a room, or the three rooms related to shadows: in one you pass through a weird wall that mucks with your perceptions, in the second you fight some shadow monsters, in the third you’re offered the chance to rid yourself of your shadow. Or a vampire hunter which you meet in one room, see a group of slaughtered bodies in another one, and an empty vampire coffin in the third. The relationship between the rooms and the pretext, the old god and new one, isn’t clear at all … if it’s there at all. I get the feeling this is more a funhouse dungeon. Not with puzzle rooms, per se, but with a series of rooms that exist BECAUSE. Why is there a piece of the old god in a bird cage hanging from the ceiling? Because that’s cool. That room, the cage shocks you. If you break it to get at the part inside then you lay 1-2 normal chicken eggs every 12 hours for a week. When the hell was the last time you saw a curse like THAT in an adventure?

Here’s a section of text from the tempt in the caves. There are fourteen sentences in three paragraphs and these are the middle three sentences: “The men attack with their knives while the large manunbat shouts orders at them. When half the men have been killed it will reveal its true nature. The arms and legs will fall away and it will become man sized. It will remove its head to reveal that it is a plant skeleton that was wearing a costume.” They attack with knives. It shoults orders. It’s plant skeleton in a bat-beast costume. It’s a simple on-forced style of imagination that’s going on. And room after room after room delivers this style of imagination. A board/plank bridge that breaks under weight, of course! A crazy guy with one arm and leg that fires blow darts from a ledge and hits you with his crutch. A bald hermit sitting in a chair in a glass globe. Vignettes in a cave … it reminds me of one of those lost childhood adventures, with Pirates of the Caribbean and so on.

Based on my standards and continually harping on usability at the table, this is hard to recommend. Ignoring the hook/village, the encounters can be arbitrar at times, with a plank on the bridge breaking and the character left hanging. Or an earthquake sealing the party in. It’s text heavy, and the encounters CAN be inconsistent with many working better than others, but they ALL are imaginative.

It’s $4.50. The preview on DriveThru shows the table of content and the last page shows the “dream” hook. I wish it had also shown one of the encounters, so you’d know more of what you are getting in to with it.

Go buy it, if for no other reason that I have someone to talk about it with!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #136

Sat, 05/27/2017 - 11:13

Hey, I’m on vacation in California! I finally get to go to Death Valley!

Tensions RIsing
By Ryan Smalley
Level 4

An airship has crashed in a hollow mesa and you’re sent to get some papers from it. The mesa entrance splits and goes three directions. There are two factions, and some random monsters, in the mesa caves with goals ranging from “kill the other guys” to “fuck up that airship.” The airship captain lives and refuses to leave, repairing his shit, you all take off and have one last encounter as the two factions launch an attack as the ship takes off. The map is kind of “trident linear” and does a good job privind a path/ways to engage with the three factions. One factions betrays the party while the other … doesn’t? It’s unclear, based on the finale encounter. There’s nineteen rooms and the adventure sometimes manages to put four on a single page, a singular accomplishment for Dungeon Magazine! A shit ton of text is taken up with prescribed tactics with some “Mr Bob had intended to use this room for X but instead Y and Z” nonsense. The basic setup with wounded factions trying to off each other is a nice one. You could probably have a nice adventure on one page, or one sheet.

And Madness Followed
By Greg A. Vaughan
Level 10

Iconic setup. Iconic location. Iconic situation. Shitty padded text making it all hard to run. I REALLY want to like this one. Raiders appear when big storms arise, according to the shitty hooks provided/dying man in the caravan. Tracking them back (100 miles … uh … that’s a bit long ..) has a massive temple appearing out of thin air at the end of a valley during a storm. That’s suitably classic! Inside are some monsters, intelligent foes, and the raiders. IE: MAYBE some factions. At some point while exploring the temple the storm ends, the raiders come back, and the place disappears from the material plane. Killing the raider leader breaks the curse/solves all problems. The map is excellent and reminds me a bit of the garden level of barrier peaks, with its mixed indoor/outdoor space, balconies, and so on, along with a shit ton of roof entrances to the temple. The switch from “exploring the temple” to “being hunted inside by the raiders” is a nice switcheroo also, changing the tone. It also includes an explicit section about who will talk to you … although starting everyone as hostile and those creatures being displacer beasts and chokers (when the fuck did D Beasts become intelligent? Talking chokers were some underdark nonsense, I think?) will both make things a little harder. Paragraph read alouds and long unfocused DM text sections detract from getting use out of it. “The other six hold only the barest bits of bone and shreds of cloth. This displacer beasts that occupy this room licked the lacquer from the corpses like giant candies before consuming the bodies.” Great. Does the adventure take place while they are doing this? No? And they’ve completely consumed the bodies? So everything in the LONG background paragraph is irrelevant to the adventure, as well as those sentences? Perfect. Glad you were able to pad out your Pay Per Word score. This needs a complete edit with a magic DELETE key, then you’d have a decent adventure.

Gates of Oblivion
By Alec Austin
Level 18

There’s nothing to this. Go to a shadow plane, visit three clearings and have a fight at each. Then you go inside a monolith and have a bunch more fights. Then you have a boss fight so you can save the world from darkness. It looks like it’s just an excuse to have a bunch of nightshades/nightwalkers in an adventure. It’s just mini’s combat.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dread Machine

Wed, 05/24/2017 - 11:15

By Gus L.
Self Published
Labyrinth Lord
Level 3-6

This 52 page adventure describes a cavern and the machine at the heart of it, that can resurrect the dead. Three’s a small region presented around it, with the cavern locale having about five encounter areas, each with about five more keys, and then the main area with about twenty-one keys. Gus has a very descriptive and evocative writing style, although it gets verbose. The maps are cramped, but the entire thing is imaginative and full of interesting rooms to get in to trouble. He does a great job on imagination but this could use a good trim to make scanning/use at the table easy.

I sometimes talk about hooks appealing to players, and this adventure is a good example of that. Anything can be a quest, but if you can integrate your adventure in to what the PLAYERS want then they’ll be a lot more motivated to not jack around and be involved in the adventure. At some point resurrecting the dead is going to come up, either because of some plot of the characters or because one of them died. That’s where this adventure comes in to play: it features a giant machine rumored to bring back the dead. And it does! Instead of it being a screw job the party can instead find a machine that uses souls to bring the dead back to life. The ‘souls’ thing is going to limit it’s power, but even that opens up more hooks for the players. This is more than the usual fetch quest or hired by blah blah blah to do something. There’s personal interest at stake.

Gus does a good job with creating evocative environments with his writing, interesting things in the room/areas to interact with, and encounters in which there is potential energy. Farmers, hunting the party for a perceived slight, led by Pops Bonder. Zombies lurching hungrily, trailing eviscerated innards. A black pueblo under a curving cliff wall. A room braced with massive tree trunks waxed to a high sheen. An artificial wall covered in a maze of gears, pistons and metal plates. Gus presents a situation and dares you to go forward, giving the players a choice in their doom. An obvious blade trap over a door invites you to climb the wall and try to disarm it. A room has a whirling vortex of blue energy. A catwalk is covered with a slick oil … with a tantalizing view at the other end. The encounters invite the players in to them, almost daring them, tempting them.

The entire place feels coherent, alive. The farmers in the surrounding barren yellow plains make sense. The caves around the Dread Machine fit in with the farmers and the machine. The rooms of the machine are tied back with theming that’s obvious and not buried. The place feels different but not in a gonzo manner … at least until the machine proper is reached. The treasure, both mundane and magical, get just enough description to make interesting and more than throw-away items. A destroyed staff of the magi with some power remaining (inside a blast crater in the mud), a lump of golden metal (formerly a delicate thaumaturgical calculator), a gold ceremonial shark mask inlaid with mother of pearl.

The writing, colorful and evocative as it is, is also verbose. We’re not talking Dungeon Magazine standards, but it’s not uncommon for there to be two encounters per page, each being about half a page. There’s a header/summary at the start of each, so it’s not quite as bad as I imply, but it is still quite lengthy. The Secret Shrine has four paragraphs of text to describe a shrine with a treasure hidden in an idol. Two paragraphs paint a rich picture of the room while two more describe the hiding place and the treasure. “If the totem’s head, a twenty pound hollow ovoid of iron plate with indistinct features, is placed on the altar, the altar’s secret compartment slides open with a hissing gush of steam” That’s a great description. Or “Above the altar is a rough metal totem cobbled together from plates of black iron, welded and joined with thumb sized rivets.” Again, another great description. Almost EVERY sentence is a great description. But there are too many. It makes it hard to scan the text and find what you need to describe NOW.

There’s an attempt to mitigate this with a header section for each room. It describes the rooms appearance, smell, lighting, traps, treasure, and inhabitants in a little offset section. In theory this would be great. In practice … not so much. The summary attempts/descriptions are not particularly strong. “A dusty shrine to evil gods. Racks of skulls line the walls around crude totem and alter. Secret door on East wall to #3.” Both the initial “dusty shine” sentence and the “secret door” sentence are redundant. Instead telling us it’s a “crude black iron welded crude humanoid totem” and an “chromed sacrificial altar with pipes”, or something similar, would have helped. The players just walked in. What do I need NOW? Then the summary can kick in. And while they debate I can then scan the main text, which can call out important features with bold, or underline, or reformat so the more important sections are near the front of the sentence. That there fancy font don’t contribute to readability either.

The maps are a bit of a pain also. They range from half-page to third page creations. “The Black Pueblo” gets a little half-page isometric thing, trying to show the interior and exteriors of a location with ceiling access on moth rooms. The shading used to do that makes it seem a little busy. The map of the main location, a traditional map, has four levels snugged in to about a third of a page. It’s readable, but just, and a squinty chore that doesn’t exactly contribute to ease of use.

This is grade A highlighter fodder. It’s evocative. It’s got loads of interesting encounters. But it’s too verbose, which tends to hide what is going on in the rooms. The writing needs more focus on the editing side. I LUV those painting with a lot going on in them, every time you look you see something new. This adventure is like those paintings. Wondrous to enjoy, but if I tried to give you directions using the painting you’d get lost.

It’s free at Dungeon of Signs blog. Take a look at page eight for a nice wandering monster table, full of color. Pages eleven and eighteen have good sample maps to illustrate my points. The Secret Shrine room is on page twenty. Take a look at the summary section and then revel in the descriptions underneath.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Tall Witch

Mon, 05/22/2017 - 11:16

By David Pigndolli
Daimon Games
Level 1

It presents a classic adventure, with a mission assigned to the characters by the priest of a small village, and rumors of the coming awakening of the terrible Tall Witch.

This 26 page Pay What You Want “adventure” has five encounters, each with a witch, filling about twelves of its pages. The witches are interesting. The magic items are interesting. I just can’t get over the page count.This is wrong of me. It’s Pay WHat You Want.

Every 333 years a witch hatches fully grown from a giant egg near this certain village. The villagers then get terrorized. The time has come and the local priest has declared a big rock on the sea shore to be the egg. The party needs to go fuck it up. On the way there you either meet a young lady who’s mule is broken or a young lady drowning off the shore, if you approach by boat. You find the egg missing. On the way up the cliffs you meet three more young ladies, all witches.

The witches are fairly interesting. All dressed in strangely nice gowns … a tip off if ever there was one. The first pretending to be lost on the road, her mule having a broken leg nearby. SHe leads the party in to quicksand, the purple flower in her hair allowing her to walk on quicksand. The second pretends to be drowning near the shore, wearing a gown of sea algea. They come off as more sorceresses and have a fine OD&D feel; they’d fit in great in Isle of the Unknown with their weird powers and such. One, when she dies, leaves a pool of water that never dries up. Nice. Each witch encounter takes two to three pages to describe, with a generous margin, font, and random tables.

Treasure includes the aforementioned flower that lets you walk over quicksand, eggshell pieces that could allow you to teleport, and the bronze head of a child that talks to you and if you feed it blood can do more.

The location of the witches is the most confusing part. One on the road, one at the base of the cliff, and three more on the way up to the top of the cliff? This is more of a point-crawl/scene based adventure, but I found it impossible to visualize the witches in relation to each other. IN a 26 pages adventure you’d think that even a small ¼ page map could be included.

It’s hard to bitch too much about a PWYW. Yanking the witches and/or the village to dump in to something else would be nice; I do find the OD&D nature of the witches nice. Then again, this could easily be a 1-pager, or 1-page front & back, STILL be PWYW, and lose very little of its flavor

Is it your bag baby? Fuck it, It’s PWYW and I’ve paid a lot more for a lot less.
The preview on DriveThru is 26 pages long: the entire adventure. Page 7 has the “hook” with the village. Page 8 has the first witch and the first few paragraphs are worth looking over to get a feel for the “airiness” of the witches. The next page, none, gives a good example of the extra detail that bumps up the word count: tables for attack & disease.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #135

Sat, 05/20/2017 - 11:11

I have a headache and I twisted my neck last night. This issue isn’t helping.

Funeral Procession
By Mark A. Hart
Level 1

This is one of the stooopidiest things I’ve ever seen. You’r guarding a funeral procession. There’s a diversion. The hearse is diverted. The body in the hearse is replaced. The original is shrunk. A raven familiar flies away with it. The town is in an uproar because of it toso the watch can’t search for the famous escaped serial killer. How much fucking crap are you going to engage in to push forward your crappy plotline ‘story’? It gets better. The hearse drive is paid off and there’s a thug in the back of the hearse. In spite of all of the dire warnings the party gets i the hooks, about worries of the body being stolen, etc, I guess the party didn’t ride the hearse, burn the body in advance, drive the hearse, or anything else. I guess that don’t jive with the ‘story.’ At there are columns of read-aloud, long NPC motivations and backstories, and and it’s event based … For some reason the party cares and gets lead by the nose to a slaughterhouse stuffed full of baddies. The … passivity that a party would have to engage in in to not derail the adventure … I can‘t imagine.

That gives me a good idea. I should start a ‘DERAIL” events at the gaming cons. Take a linear adventure and the META rule is to derail it, while the DM tries to keep it on track. Or the DM rolls with it. “On track” makes it a fun contest but, of course, the DM always wins.

Chains of Blackmaw
By Nicolas Logue
Level 10

A mess of a prison break adventure. You’re hired t go to jail and watch the back of a new prisoner. Event-based, with long room/key and even longer NPC stat blocks and motivations. It needs a table summarizing the NPC’s, about 60% less text with the room keys, a table showing events and timelines. I can’t imagine the tenth level party who says “Yes! Let’s get rid of all our gear and go to jail for little to no reward!” Ok, fess, up, who has waded through all the text in this adventure to run it? What do you have to do to? How many pages of notes?

Dawn of a New Age
By Tito Leati
Level 20
Oh god … Age of Worms adventure path. At least it’s the last one: Kyuss shows up. You’ve got the Hand of Vecna. You’ve got two parts of the Rod of Seven Parts. You’re given a Sphere of Annihilation. You’re given three opportunities to undertake quests to weaken Kyuss before he shows up. He’s AC 59 and has 660 HP … a 3e Level 20 creature in all it’s unwieldy glory. Note that nothing you’ve done thus far will prevent Kyuss from arriving. That’s impossible. All you can do is kill him. As an exercise for the reader: Rewrite the entire Age of Worms adventure path to be a sandbox/regional thing using only 20% of the words. Your reward is a Cease & Desist.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Forgotten Fane of the Coiled Goddess

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 11:18

By Joseph D. Salvador
North Wind Adventures
Levels 5-7

More than a month ago, your party found itself in Port Zangerios, where you heard of an Esquimaux thief selling a treasure map. Low on wealth but high in courage, you sought him out. The man turned out to be a fearful ex-slave who had “acquired” the map from his Ixian master. The map is incomplete but shews the Isle of the Serpent in far-off Lemuria, where rests a fabulous treasure called the Feathered Crown of Nanasa (or so thought the Ixian). Pooling your money to purchase the unfinished map, you bought passage on an Amazonian trade ship. After passing through tempests and torrential rains that shimmered with auroral light, you have come to the great city of Jhaman Ket. Now you must seek out the location of the Isle of the Serpent.

This is a sixty page hexcrawl/lost temple adventure on a jungle island with dinosaurs. It has a short eight page section on Lemuria, ten pages of new monsters appendices, etc, and the main hex crawl and titular temple in thirty four pages. It follows an “expansive minimally keyed format”, falling in to some of the usual traps with expansive text. The snake temple map is interesting enough, looking like a “main hallway with room s off of it” design but offering multiple entrances and the “Conan hole” in the ceiling. It comes off as bland.

I won’t cover the Lemuria fluff. Fluff is fluff and you either like it or you don’t. It does an ok job describing the general region of Lemuria, politics, towns, etc. It tends to the historical and overly specific “Round shields of iron and bronze are both in use …” I like my fluff different, driving action and all full of mystery.

For the main adventure, comparisons to Isle of Dread are inevitable. Be they inspired by the same Appendix N texts or simply hitting on the same themes, Dread was the first hex crawl many saw, it was on a jungle island, and had a ruined temple. Combine those elements, as this adventure does, and Dread comparisons are inevitable. The island hex crawls are, essentially, the same. Dinos, jungle, etc. There’s no friendly villagers and the temple at the center of the island, on a plateau, is more organized and less abandoned. Otherwise, you hex crawl through the jungle, see dinos, and try to not die.

The wandering monsters are rolled once an hour on a d6, with a 1 indicating a monster. That’s four encounters a day, on average. Certainly not EVERYTHING is hostile, there are some herbivore dinos, for example, but the rate is high, it seems to me. The island IS only 3 miles across, with six hexes to the mile, so a party with their ass in gear should mitigate most of that. Camping is going to be a bitch though.

There are heat rules. I have an ancient enmity with environmental rules. They always sound great but they tend to be cumbersome in practice. In this, every two hours you need to make a CON text or be exhausted and rest an hour, if you are encumbered or wearing metal armor. That’s one way to get people out of their armor: tedium. I don’t disagree with the theming, just the tedium required to get to the end result. Which brings up an interesting point. Given the focus on the wanderers every hour, and the heat checks every two hours, it seems unusual that movement rates are not covered. Each hex being 275 yards, it seems natural that a movement rate chart would be included on, say, the island hex map. Movement, and what you can see from your hex, are key elements in a good hex crawl that are missing here.

I think we can all agree Dread was minimally keyed and tersely written, except perhaps for sections dealing the customs of the villagers. I think the adventure here is also minimally keyed, but in contrast to Dread it’s verbosely written. Common elements are expanded upon in at text style that emphasizes plain factual data. Some North Wind adventures have a very tortured writing style that feels forced. I’m a fan of esoteric words and larger vocabulary in adventures, but I’ve come to expect to see this implemented in a cumbersome way in the usual North Wind adventure. This one has the opposite problem. The descriptions are plain to the point of being a killjoy … but the text goes on forever. The wandering monster table is three and half pages long, each monster getting its own stat block and short description. “Weighing up to 500 pounds, these seven- foot-long chamæleonic amphibians catch prey with their sticky tongues and can swallow a full-grown man whole.” Uh huh. You mean exactly what’s included in the stat block below that description? Occasionally there is a bright point like “giant ticks drop from trees”, but it’s generally this kind of non-useful text. It doesn’t really drive the adventure anywhere.

Similarly, there is an emphasis, in places, on historic uses for rooms. “This room USED to be used for …” or “In antediluvian times there were runes here …” These don’t help. They instead obfuscate other words which MIGHT help run the adventure. Now. Right Now. What’s of use to a DM running a party in the room RIGHT. NOW. A room that says “Study: Sometimes Bob used to read books here.” is not useful. That’s what a study is, a place where you hang out and perform study-like activities. We know that from the room name.

The encounters can be LONG, to little effect. Room three of the temple is a normal guardroom. Nothing really special. Snake-man pictograms on the ceiling. The text is a column long. An intro paragraph telling us the room is 20×30 (which we know from the map) and it’s got a 15’ ceiling (irrelevant to the adventure and doesn’t really set a mood at all) and then three GIANT stat blocks that look like they came straight out of the bad old days of 3e and/or Pathfinder. It ends with another paragraph telling us where the exits lead to which, again, we already know from the map. A column of text. This sort of expansive use of text for “normal” things is perhaps the adventures greatest fault. The temple has interesting layout for what is, essentially, a linear hallway, but the emphasis is on the mundane instead of the unusual. There’s a giant jeweled idol in one area, the kind every adventurer dreams of prying the jeweled scales off of. We’re told that desecrating the idol should causes curses and misfortunes as the DM sees fit. But, THAT’S what the fuck we’re paying the designer for! We’re not paying to be told that a room is 30×20 feet. We can see that from the fucking map. We’re paying for the unusual, the interesting, the imaginative. A constructed world of interlocking parts. We’re not paying to be told to roll for our treasure or make out own snake-god themed curses. A cult village doesn’t need to have gonzo elements to be good. But it doesn’t need five pages, as this one does, if all you’re going to tell us is the mundane. Placing an emphasis on how the party will interact is where the effort should have been spent. Guards. Patrols. Things to thwart sneaking around. To get to the temple, and so on.

The preview, on DriveThru, is only four pages long. It doesn’t really show you anything of the text you’re likely to encounter in the adventure. That’s not a very effective preview. It does include the table of contents, which is helpful, such that it is.

I’m disappointed with this adventure. Thus far, I’m pretty sure that the best AS&SH adventure I’ve seen has been the Crypts & Things adventure Blood of the Dragon. If you know of a better one then stick it in the comments. I don’t feel like anything I’ve seen so far lives up to the potential of AS&SH and I’d like to make sure I’m giving it a fair shake.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Forge of Ilmarinen

Mon, 05/15/2017 - 11:17

By Jeremy Reaban
Self Published
Levels 5-7

Ilmarinen the Eternal Hammerer was once widely worshipped by primitive people, whom he taught how to work metal. But once they had his knowledge, his worship was largely forgotten and his temple declined and was of course overrun by monsters.

This sixteen page adventure in an old “smith god” complex has sixteen encounters spread out over four pages, with another for the map and the rest of the pages being appendix material in the rear: new monsters and magic items. It is mostly a hack with only a couple of exploratory items. Nice treasure and all new monsters make this smarter than your average bear. The text has a weird thing going on where it is both to the point and padded out … a seeming contradiction.

Too many magic swords? Come on down to Big Ilmarinen’s temple and we’ll take care of it for you! We’ll destroy two of your magic swords and channel the power in to a third! The +1 sword glut can be a common game problem for some. Combined with the lust over higher ‘pluses’, the existence of a place like this temple is almost a hook unto itself. It motivates the PLAYER rather than character … and those are the best hooks of all. The actual hooks are pretty shitty: stumble across it, hired to investigate, or hear a rumor about it. Ok, the second one isn’t that bad since its related to that quality of player power envy. Just dropping a rumor, or crafting some failed expedition or some such is a decent way of introducing the place. You’ll get little help from the adventure through; the entire introduction is a column. I love a terse introduction and this one has it. Three sentences on background, three on hooks, and a short section on general dungeon conditions before the adventure keys start at the top of the second column. Perfect for an adventure like this. I might have suggested tightening it up even more, cutting the lame hooks and hook intro paragraph, and using the space freed to add a bit of color to the “tavern rumor” hook. But, still, terse and doesn’t get in the way.

The encounters are almost all straightforward hacks. Enter a room. See a monster. It attacks. There’s a place for this, but the over reliance on it detracts from adventures. All but one of the non-trivial encounters is a hack. Had the rooms been layered a bit more it would have been much better. What I mean is having additional elements in a room. If the room has monster then maybe it also has trap. Or there’s something unrlated to the monster to investigate. Or the monster attacks WHEN you do something … like fucking with the hole its living in. There are skeletons on a table in this adventure. When you come in to the room the skeleton heads detach, flame on, and then attack. That sends the wrong message. If, instead, FUCKING with the skeletons caused their heads to fly off then you’re closer to room that works better. Better yet, if you put an obvious ruby in the skeletons mouth THEN you’ve got a great situation. The players want the ruby. EVERYONE knows what’s going to happen when they fuck with that ruby. They get to make the choice. A very tempting choice to push the shiny shiny red cherry button … Madcap plans are created. D&D happens.

The writing is also a bit weird. It’s pretty fact based, which is what I think I mean when I cite it as “straightforward.” But it’s also got a pretty loose writing style that I think detracts from the adventure. Room four notes that: (bolding mine)

“Along the eastern wall are a stack of twelve kegs, three rows of four each. The curious thing is that the kegs are made out of an unusual metal, not wood. Half of the kegs are empty. The others may be opened, and if so, out comes a very skunky beer, long past its prime.

Along the western wall are two crates, both made of wood. The southern crate is opened and inside is empty, save for some straw like material. The northern crate is unopened. If opened, it will reveal 8 smaller sealed cases, each containing 50 rolls of summer sausage (1 lb. each). Amazingly, it’s still edible.”

What this entry does is describe a typical storeroom. We all know what a typical storeroom looks like. There is no significance to the crates being on the western wall, or being made of wood. There is no significance to the southern crate being open. Looking at those first three sentences, if they were replaced with a different description, or did not exist at all, the adventure would be no different. I can make a halfway decent argument for the same being true of the first two sentences of the first paragraph. If the text were removed, and it has no impact on the adventure, then the text has no impact on the adventure and should not be there in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, there is ABSOLUTELY room for painting a vivid picture in the DM’s mind (in a terse way.) That’s a legit reason for text. But bare fact-based statements seldom accomplish that. I would argue that most of the room descriptions in the adventure fall in to that category.

I do want to note the treasure and monsters in this adventure. Both are excellent. Jeremy has created an all new slew of monsters, relying on nothing from the “normal” books. Long time readers will know I love this. I love it when a party encounters something that they have to struggle with. New monsters represent the unknown, mystery. The party doesn’t know what special attacks or defences they have. There is an element of fear. There’s a place for returning favorites, but almost nothing generates anxiety like meeting some beasty with unknown abilities. The treasure is also a cut above. Room one has a bag with a mitten, stained with blood, with a gold ring inside. A monocle with a crack in it. Green troll jerky wrapped in a dirty piece of cloth. These things tell a story; they make your mind tell a story. They make you want to know what happened. There’s an eye, ripped form a gnome, that you can use for true seeing. The amount of extra work to make something more interesting than “state: 100gp” or “sword+1” is pretty small and I wish more designers would add value that way.

There are a few other misses. Two statues grab people and go jump in to lava. Great encounter! But the text refers you to the magic pool room instead of the lava pit room. Not huge, but indicative of the need for a second read through.

It’s PWYW on DriveThru. The preview on DriveThru is a good one. You can see the treasure for room one at the top of page three. The storeroom text is on the same page. In fact, the entire adventure is available in the preview.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #134

Sat, 05/13/2017 - 11:15

Home Under the Range
By Michael Kortes
Level 3

A linear “underdark” escort adventure with a farcical pretext. The party is charged with herding giant beetles through the underdark from one location to another. Five encounters later they reach their destination, currently the site of a pitched battle. Along the way you meet stone giants bowling, and three ambushes, all the while trying to keep the loses of the beetles low. I’s linear, and essentially a series of set pieces with the generally hated “escort mission” ltag attached to it. And yet … I have a fondness for the absurd, or, maybe, the ALMOST absurd. This is running right up close to the line. Generally I like my DM pretexts normal and my players to do the wacky shit, like come up with plans that say “I have the perfect plan! First we need forty giant beetles …” Too much from the DM and the games in danger of Paranoia ZAP territory. But this one? I don’t know. Something may have triggered my Personal Preference O’Meter, or I’m in a weird mood today.

It does get in and out in only about twelve pages, with half page art/maps on most that’s not a bad page count by Dungeon standards. It also has a hook I like. 3e-era players are looking for masterwork weapons at low levels. Sending the players to the dwarf hold and herding the beetles is a nicely little integrated response to the players wants/needs. THIS is the way plot os developed in D&D. Not by the DM but in response to what the players want. “We need/want this thing.” Well Mr and/or Ms Player, you can go get it here … Player driven action. (Even if it does fall in to the “then why don’t the dwarves herd them” sin of “can’t be bothered.”

And Madness Followed
By Kevin Carter
Level 9

And then there’s the wrong way to do things. Like this. It’s a King in Yellow/Yellow Sign themed adventures, with a group of travelling bards performing the play and turning villages in to aberration-monster zones. You visit a village and get attacked by monsters. You visit a town where the town center has gone to hell. You visit a city where the play is being performed in a playhouse. End. It relies on the party being do gooders. It has a one-page description of a NPC that somehow you are supposed to absorb and run, full of the usual nonsense that doesn’t need to be there because it has no impact on the adventure.

There are a couple of nice spots. The middle combat, the town, has the town barricading off the town center, keeping the madnes-creatures trapped there. The whole “town in chaos”, barricades, zombie apoc thing is an appealing concept, although they don’t really do much with it here beyond hearing things beyond the barricade. Too much tell and not enough show.

The first encounter, the village, has a manor home you can search. This is an abstracted manor home search. Roll your search check and the DM will give you a piece of information. I’m interested in methods other than “room/key” format for other types of actions. Room/Key works great for exploration. The whole Mind-Map thing works great for social environments, as does presenting things in tabular form. The question of “are there other formats for other adventure types” is one I find interesting. Is there a better way to present investigations? The method in this adventure, a search check with the DM then feeding information, seems too abstracted. It reduces an “Ah Ha!” moment to a simple die roll. Room/Key format may be cumbersome for this sort of thing, but just listing the “important” rooms and what someone can find in it would seem to be both better than the die roll and the room/key. It preserves the player agency, eliminates the “all D&D elements are die rolls” nonsense, and can be relatively dense/terse in presentation.

FInally, the hooks fall in to two types, both of which I find interesting. In one the players are almost inquisitors for the church of St Cuthbert. That takes care of the “do gooder” motivation. The other two are variations on the “Dying fan gets to watch Star Wars early” theme. Please go find the players, my favorite, I want to see one last time before I die, blah blah blah. It’s stupid, but I would TOTALLY ham this up, with pajamas, posters, drinking cups, etc.

Into the Worm Crawl Fissure
By James Jacobs
Level 19

Age of Worms adventure path, the second to last one. The party wander around three adventure locations, then “explore” a Kyuss shrine and fight the Kyuss herald: the dragolich. There is something going on in this adventure, but man is it a mess. There’s supposed to be a ghost, split in to three parts I think, that you can reunite to get help against the dracolich. I’m pretty sure there’s a vision the party has when they arrive at the site, which leads them to the first part, which leads to the other two. Those are the three adventure locales you can explore. It’s presented on a kind of small regional map with nine locations on them. But only a couple are actually detailed. For example, there’s the lair of a dragon from the last adventure, almost certainly dead now (because of the players.) That’s all you get. Why include it? If you’re not going to to do anything with it then what does it add to the adventure? This being Pathfinder, errr, 3.5, the state blocks frequently stretch to a full page, Combine that with all the background nonsense and the “used to” and “like to relax here” sorts of stuff that creates the text overload and you’ve got a mess. Better yet, the locations on the map don’t actually relate to locations presented in the adventure. So the map is labeled 1 through 9. The overview location page is labeled 1 through 9. The ACTUAL adventure locales are Part 1, Part 2, and so on, and you only know which witch is which by reading DEEP in to the text. This would have been so much better if 90% of the text were trimmed. Would it be good? I don’t know. Kyuss worms. Pools of slime, Hydras & chimeras, crazy lich, friendly ghost … it’s got the basic elements. A special callout to the dracolich treasures. A little overly described in places, but a scandalous dress, a nice violin, a large drinking horn emblazoned with runes and carvings of dead dragons.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Fall of Whitecliff

Wed, 05/10/2017 - 16:16

By Ben Gibson
Coldlight Press
Level 1

Awakening in the dark with splitting headache, you hear the curses of other tight-packed prisoners. No screaming. Must not be in the deep dungeons, not yet. Damned castellan-he’s as paranoid as he is venial. Apparently his keep is hard to crack even when he’s gone. But you’re inside now. He’ll regret this, if you can slip out of this cage…

Heads Up: This adventure went through my Critique Partner service. I ended up with five pages of notes and 20-ish messages back and forth.

This is a 22 page series of linked one-page adventure, about nine in all. It describes a “starting play” campaign arc, taking the players from level one to four, by presenting the adventure as a regional area/sandbox area along with how the areas relate to the inciting event and the goals of the villain. Otherwise the party is driving the action. It’s written for Pathfinder and does a good job managing the more … bloated aspects of that system. Colorful, terse, dense .. this adventure shows how a series of one-pagers can be linked together in a regional area, much in the way Stonehell did for dungeon play. It’s good.

Stonehell took the one page dungeon and showed that how, by linking them together and supplementing it with a few pages of text, you could create an interesting megadungeon experience with a DM reference, the one-page dungeon proper, that was actually useful at the table. This adventure is doing something similar, but for a regional/sandbox sort of campaign arc. What if you sketched out a small region on a single notebook page. It’s got this cruel baron, a couple of nearby towns, a thing the evil baron wants in some caves, someone that hates the baron, and so on. Now, you take one page, for each of those concepts, and jot down some notes about it. That thing the evil baron wants? Maybe map the caves it’s in and key it. Two or three sentences about the thing he wants and why. Another page has the hideout of some rebel scum on it, opposing the baron, and it’s under siege by the baron’s troops. Now you’ve got a little region detailed. Just sketches, rough ideas, and so on.

That’s what this adventure does … except it expands the rough ideas and sketches in to a more coherent whole. There are two types of pages in the adventure. The first are the one-pagers. These feature a map, either a dungeon or small region, that take up about half the page. That map is supplemented by about a paragraph of introduction/overview and then the keys proper. Monster stats appear on the map ,with arrows pointing to where they are. Special treasure, situations, etc also appear on map, as well as few other miscellaneous notes. The second type of page is the “text page.” These generally occur after the one-pager and offer guidance on “what’s next.” Not that you’ve done/visited/looted/escape from blah blah blah, here’s what the party may be wanting to do next, and how that relates to the rest of the support material. Where Stonehell used the supplemental pages to help explain the level, the supplemental pages here help explain the implications of what just happen, in relation to the other things going on, and offers advice to the DM in how to react to various party actions/needs/wants etc. For example, after the first one-pager, it notes that the party may flee to the sea, in which case Smugglers Isles or Village Bellrock would be places to end up. Or you could head to the nearby village of Turten Cot .. and how the people along the way are likely to interact and so on. Oh, so they go to the village? From the text: “Upon reaching Turten’s Cot, the party finds the village in turmoil, looking for heroes or mercenaries to aid them in their troubles. See page 8.” It helps both the DM and the players put the larger puzzle together to get a smooth and coherent game.

The adventure does a good job putting data at the DM’s hand. The actual regional map contains page references so you know where to turn to. The maps generally have personalities embedded in them. The opening map is, as the intro text implies, a scenario having the level 1’s imprisoned in the keep and they need to escape. A small table, on the map page, lists the keep personalities. Guard: just working the shift, bored, tired, irate, homesick, cheerful, nervous.” Or a servant: “fearful, despairing, resentful” or a (potentially) helpful smuggler: “cocky, sarcastic, mercenary” Everything you need on one page to run a delightful and color adventure. Doors are “stout”, locks are “brittle”, rooms smell “fishy”, guards “unmotivated”. It does a great ob of just using a word or two to jazz up the scene and bring it to life.

The maps and encounters are varied. The initial map is an escape from the barons keep. Then there is a small regional map showing a hideout of a bandit/rebel … and the enemy troops surrounding him. There’s a small smuggler city and dungeon pit for a different faction working against the baron. A hidden place, the castle dungeons, a dwarf tribe that mostly about negotiations and roleplaying … until the baron’s troops maybe invade at the end if HIS envoy detects things are not going his way. An old barrow with an ancient secret that impacts the baron, and a two-level cave map for the party to have a climactic battle with the baron. There’s no railroad here, just options. Roleplay, fight, explore, sneak … it’s great! And it’s all supplemented by a colorful wandering monster and treasure table. Amy the desperate pregnant runaway from the castle. Awakened raven with info, willing to trade for shiny stuff. Dwarven poachers with a slain deer. A snake oil salesman .. selling actual snake oil. A nice mix of specifics done in a terse format. Perfect.

There’s a certain density to one-page adventures, and that’s present here. Stone hell had a pretty minimal key/dungeon it’s one pager, but it expanded that by providing two (or three?) pages of additional material before the map, providing some context and additional information on the features of the map. Traditional one-pagers, and I would include this adventure in that category, try to make the one-pager self-contained. There are supplemental pages here, but they are more related to linking the one-pagers together rather than providing additional content for the one-pager proper. It’s this density and … rigor in vision? that makes this both a boon and a bane. On the one hand you’ve got EVERYTHING on one page that you can run from. The benefits of that immense. On the other, but limiting yourself to that format you are creating a dense set of text that can sometimes get in the way. I think this adventure has taken it about as far as you can, as close to the line as possible, in loading up the page while still being useful and readable. The Pathfinder stat blocks, notorious for being long, have been condensed well and the more complex/named NPC’s get pulled out to a separate page where their full stat block glory can be expressed. (although Ben still manages five to a page, an accomplishment for Pathfinder.)

I like this adventure, both in its content and in the form its forging ahead in. This little regional sandbox sort of thing, with a natural arc, feels a little like it sits somewhere between a good hex crawl and a more traditional regional/sandbox adventure. Tersely written, evocative, adventure sites with a relationship to each other and some advice/notes for the DM to link it all together. The one-page nature means you can pick it up and run it almost immediately after buying it.

It’s Pay What You Want on DriveThru … and is worth more than the $2.25 of it’s current average contribution. And it’s not showing up in search. And the preview isn’t working. The first map, Escape from Whitecliff on page four, is a good example of the one-pager. Personalities in the lower right corner. Stats on the map. A nice intro paragraph describing the set up that is short and full of flavor to use at the table. The key has bolded “interesting things”, like people and monsters. Take a look at entry A & C “stout door with a brittle lock” and “sister, weeping, with servants nursing bruises and welts.” There’s a lot implied in that text. It’s good.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Along the Road of Tombs

Mon, 05/08/2017 - 11:15

By Gus L
Self Published
Swords & Wizardry
Level 2?

This free, 41 page dungeon adventure, with about 39 encounters, details four tomb-systems / lairs carved in to a huge mesa. It’s rife with factions, social play, weird shit, and has more than enough interesting stuff in it to keep a party busy for several sessions, including perhaps trips back at a later date, allies and so on. It reminds me much of B2 or Ironwood Gorge, a location to visit multiple times. The writing constructs a rich dreamlike tapestry of words in the various rooms in AS&SH style… and needs to be trimmed because it makes it impossible to find anything. It should be easy to drop in to almost any game. As long as you’ve got a printer and a highlighter.

The idea is that there’s a road out of the capitol, now seldom used, that has tombs all along it. There’s always been a bit of banditry, but things have picked up and the illegal folks in/near the city, running their craft through it, are feeling the pain. Rumors paint the center of the issue at The Red Mesa, a big tomb complex about a day away. The mesa is the center of the adventure. Carver all over with statues, tombs, etc, it houses four cave complexes, three of them connected in some way. There’s a small inn/waystop, a petty necromancers home, a sullen mythic tomb, and a group of hiding bandits. The innkeeps run a cannibal cult, the necromancer is dead of natural causes, the bandits only steal a little, unless threatened, and the one remaining ‘real’ tomb is mythic. In to this we chuck the party, probably acting as agents of the Matrons, a group of brothel owners who lair on the road near the city.

We learn almost all of this in the first page of the adventure. It delivers the background, the current situations, the factions and so on. It’s a great overview, full of flavor and supports the DM well in understanding the environment up front. It’s supported by three pages of rumors, one for talking to unsavory types, one for merchants, and one for the general populace. The rumors are excellent. Full of colorful characters and in-voice rumors. I often bitch about verbosity, and page bloat, in adventures (and will in this one also) but the rumors here are a good contra-example. Each rumor is almost a little mini-encounter, but it’s done in a way that organizes it easily and makes it easy to both run AND find. And that’s the key: usability by the DM. The goal is to support the DM and transfer data to them effectively during play. By placing the rumors in tables they can almost be eliminated from the word/page count of the adventure. Want a rumor? Here’s the table: run it. If this were integrated in to the text then you’d have to go digging. The organization/layout/presentation of the rumors supports the dm’s ability to run at the table.

The content itself is wonderful, and not just from the rumor table. A broken bureaucrat, ragged, his chains and badges ripped from his robes, tries to sell his worn sandals in an attempt to bribe his way back in to this job site. Strong stuff, flavor seeds laser delivered to your brain. A fallen titan, eternally sleeping ina cave-like chamber, awaiting a prayer to be said over him from the bloodline of forgotten emperors. An open pavilion on the top of mesa, surrounded by gold lettering, and the preserved naked body of a long dead general. The factions have notes on how they respond to intrusions, things they will try with the party, strong NPC personalities to use for the talking. And the talking isn’t just pretext; it’s real. There is real social interaction (probably) that makes this stuff useful and not just trivia. That could, through the party or the NPC’s, devolve in to combat, but it’s not the default. The rooms and encounters gets two or even three uses out of them. Friendly talk talk, the (probable) murder-hobo’ing, and then the exploration elements of tricks, traps, etc. It’s a well constructed and flavorful. Roads ‘debouch’ in to canals. It’s “… largely imperishable, with only mild crazing of its smooth bonewhite surface …” There’s an almost dreamlike quality to the language in places. It remind me some of the AS&SH use of language, except while I think Northwinds comes off cold I think this comes off dreamlike and mythic.

And, the language is also a problem. Or, rather, it’s one part of a problem with usability at the table. Taking a look at the (free) PDF, the first will become immediately obvious: the font. I don’t complain about this sort of thing much, except when it sticks out, and it sticks out here. Whatever font it is is a travesty in the eyes of readability. Old Man Lynch has trouble reading it and his eyes fight to easily make out the content. Not. Cool. Gus. Then we add in some formatting issues. Something has gone haywire in the formatting, or in my viewers display. Take for example the bottom of page 31. A normal 2 column layout somehow ‘breaks’ and the last two paragraphs, one in each column, belong “together” while the first column breaks above that last paragraph and continues on at the top of the second column. This whole section on page 31 & 32 seems out of whack. Finally there’s the writing proper. Gus’s dreamlike & mythic atmosphere is obtained, at times, by a writing style that degenerates in to walls of text in the various encounter rooms.

Room A1 of the feasthall, on page 12, is half a column long. The first paragraph is the front door. The second paragraph is the common room description. The third paragraph describes the employees, while the fourth details the sleeping & food arrangements. During play you’d be hunting for information, trying to figure out which information is where. Right off the bat, that last paragraph could have been a small table, or boxed off, instead of being in paragraph form. It’s reference data; pulling it out of “text form” doesn’t kill the vibe. Likewise the employee section. ‘Gear carried’ can be integrated in to NPC descriptions/stats and maybe employees boxed off or tabulated as well. These two changes make it 2 paragraphs to dig through instead of four. This is probably enough to get by. Another technique would be small section headings abiev the paragraphs, like Exterior, Interior, Employees, Prices. The technique isn’t important; the desire is to orient the DM to the text QUICKLY when they are scanning it during play.

Room C4, at the bottom right of page 28, is perhaps the best example of the strengths and weaknesses of the text in one place. “A chamber of torment for the souls of the one hundred and thirteen sorcerers slain by the ancient general, a testament to his power and alleged sainthood. The chamber is a cage of ancient wards and iron bars, containing a huge pile of petrified bones. One hundred and thirteen skulls hang from the ceiling in baskets of chain beyond the bars. A plinth, molded from the stone of the floor stands before the cage and proclaims “Look upon the bones of the fallen and ask how the great, the dread, the mighty and the powerful have come so low. I am the answer to that question, for my wrath carries all before it.” No signature is inscribed below this statement.” The first and last sentence are filler. Yes, they absolutely help work to strengthen the vibe … but only incrementally more than the core text of “113 skulls hanging from the ceiling in baskets of chains.” I note that there are two more paragraphs beyond this one.

There are some logic gaps in places that stand out a little more than the ones in B2 do. The necromancer has been dead awhile, people think he might be dead, but no one has gone over to his cave to look for him. Likewise the mythic tomb, and top of the mesa, are largely unexplored in spite of them being on a major road. The bandits are at least a little friendly with the necro, but haven’t walked round the corner to talk to him. Then again, the Caves of Chaos are two miles from the keep with a road going to them, so, you know …

The NPC descriptions are fully formed. These are fleshed out people in about three sentences each: descriptions, personality, history. I could quibble with some of the choices made, prefer the personalities up front instead of descriptions and bitch a bit about a sentence for character history, or things like The Boy hanging near Bruno but Bruno not saying The Boy is always near him … things that impact play.

The content of this adventure is good. It has strong imagery and imaginative encounters without the usual set-piece nonsense that modern adventures resort to. The one-pager about the road and the culture around it is great. The set ups are great … and probably a challenge for the party. I really like what’s going on. Its presentation, to the DM, is the major issue. The formatting, the extra language and that FUCKING FONT all work to help obfuscate. What’s that old saying about an artist knowing when to stop painting?

This is free, at Gus’ Dungeon Of Signs blog:

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #133

Sat, 05/06/2017 - 11:17

Chimes at Midnight
By Nicolas Logue
Level 5

I cannot stand this fucking adventure. It’s Shadowpunky Eberron, which is not my favorite genre, but the real reason is that the design SUCKS SHIT BALLS. It starts with the usual ‘lets build excitement with a starting combat’ bullshit common to these plot shitholes. Some prisoners, being paraded, escape. I guess the party is supposed to give a shit and stop them. Or Not, and just watch. Whatever. There’s some pretext about “investigating a theft”, but it ends with the villain just inviting the party to his house. There’s a big sidebar that says “in order to make the final two encounters of the adventure more exciting, it’s best if the party are racing against the clock …” Jesus fucking christ. NO ONE CARES. Rather than give us an adventure to run its just a bunch of plot bullshit. What’s the massive amount of text spent on? Here’s an example, a detailed account of how a trap works, that amounts to “explosion in 5 rounds”:

“A bell hung on a cord rings when the door to the office is opened. This cord runs through the ceiling of the office to the laboratory above, and activates two separate mechanisms when moved. The first releases the deadly acidic fire gar contained in the large steel tanks in the lab. The second mechanism sets a pendulum into motion with a tindertwig attached. The pendulum slowly picks up speed over the course of the next ten rounds before striking the twig on the wall of the tower and igniting the gas.”

Yeah, you got a brand, and can publish anything you want. It’s no wonder the magazine died. Blaming this shit on ‘electronic’ is BS, it just sucked because no one gave a shit to produce a decent magazine.

Ill Made Graves
By Kevin Carter
Level 7

This nordic adventure has a nice vibe going on, right out of the gate. There’s going to a funeral for a viking king, a big pyre. During it an evil dragon spirit is awakened and the party is charged with destroying its vessel, a tooth lodged in the dead kings bod, in the river of fire in the old dragons lair. This intro could be a shit fest, but it’s skilfully handed. The awakened dragon is really just a fear aura, causing chaos when there should be respect. The hooks to get the party there involve a dying, valiant exiled viking asking the party to return his helm to people, and thus stumbling on the funeral, or a country in the south sending the party as an embassy, along with a sizable funeral gift, as a sign of respect and to curry favor with the vikings. Sorry, Ice Barbarians. The entire intro makes sense, is not overblown, is still exciting and interesting. Plus, destroying the dragons spirit by transporting it to his former lair and chucking it in to lava is a nice appeal to both folklore, the embedded Tolkein, and that destroying artifacts table in the DMG. It FEELS right. The actual dragons lair is small, but has some nice elevation features. It’s a short adventure, but full of flavor. Crows in the caves, the dead dragons body, the shattered remains of the dead kings magic sword … It suffers from the word bloat common to Dungeon but, if you want something G.U.D. GOOD to steak from then this is IT.

Kings of the Rift
By Greg A. Vaughan
Level 18

Another issue, another Age of Worms; installment ten of twelve. This time you’re getting the phylactery of a dragon servant of Kyuss. It’s hidden in a city of giants currently besieged by dragons, also trying to get the phylactery. It starts with a DC 30 lore check … or you can just ask a sage, either way the information is fed to the players. The “besieged city” is handled pretty badly, even Hoard of Tiamat opening is better, and basically involves getting attacked by dragons of varying power any time you go anywhere. It ends with exploring mindlessly in rooms, killing people, and taking their stuff. Which is boring as fuck. Multiple 300+ and 400+ hit point fights. Lots of them. That’s fun, right? It basically ignores, or gives the barest pretext to, the most interesting part of the adventure, the political situation and factions within the besieged city. This adventure doesn’t know what it is, and it shows.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Snake’s Heart

Wed, 05/03/2017 - 11:13

By Brian ‘Fitz’ Fitzpatrick
Moebius Adventures
Mazes & Peril/S&W
Level 1-2

As our heroes head past the small village of Elhann, they find themselves drawn into a battle that could lead to the end of the world… A local bandit is kidnapping children from this and other villages – but why? Will our heroes get to the bottom of the mystery before it’s too late?

This 34 page adventure has five encounters related to cultists capturing children and taking them to their snake cult tower to sacrifice. It uses film narrative for introductions, is linear, repetitive, and makes me want to bang my head on my desk until I leave a bloody smear. It DOES make use of classic tropes, which I’m a sucker for, and has an interesting “event” table or two. That doesn’t make up for being linear, overwritten and pretentious.

The adventure opens with “Over Black: Drums beat in the distance, like the heartbeat of the land.” and then continues with a narrator voice over. Judging a book by its cover it bad. Throwing up in your mouth a little and pondering the ultimate meaning of a meaningless life and the existential paradox because of the first two sentences of an adventure seems, though, like a learned habit.

I want to repeat again: 34 pages. Five encounters (Seven if you count two interludes.) I recently looked over an eight page adventure that contained enough for about six sessions. A recent 24 page adventure I looked over had enough content for six months of play. This one has five encounters in 34 pages. You fight 6 bandits at a village. You get attacked on the road to the bandit tower. You get attacked going in the front door. Then you have a CHOICE! You can go to the basement full of crying children and kill some bandits OR go upstairs and kill some chanting cultists! Clearly, a sandbox adventure, obviously. 34 fucking pages. Nine fucking dollars. For that. Each encounter is two to three pages. For a fight with six bandits, which is what most of them are.

I will give the adventure one thing: for a linear plot shitfest it DOES inject some color. Each encounter has a small/short table of ten entries to spice things up. During the village attack you get such things as a bandit dumping a villager in a well, a child running from two bandits, setting a bandit on fire with hot coals, and so on. Likewise a table of things a crazy old man says, or things you overhear the bandits talking about. It’s all just window dressing though. Like those 2d fighting video games. There’s a background, people cheering, or cars racing by. But it doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t really contribute to the adventure. Yeah, its great to see a villager thrown down a well in a village attack. But devoting half a page to window dressing? Over and over again?

It does have a certain Conan appeal. Bandits putting kids in cages. A tower with cultists actually chanting and sacrifice children as the party appears. Nice. But it’s also VASTLY oversimplified and simultaneously wordy to the point of ridiculousness.

Clearly going for a cinematic vibe. Linear, film narrative at the start of each encounter. But there’s just NOTHING to this adventure to warrant it. This is entire adventure is ¼ column in better designed product.

The $9 PDF is on DriveThru. The preview shows you the table of contents. That should be illuminating in terms of content as see it has five encounters. Page two has that great “heartbeat of the land” narration, which you can expect more of at every encounter, setting the scene. The last page shows you page ONE of the two page first encounter. It just repeats the same stuff, including the bandit stat blocks.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Secrets of the Wyrwoode

Mon, 05/01/2017 - 11:14

By Luigi Castellani
Artikid Arts
Levels 5-7

The standing stones at the heart of the ancient forest known as the Wyrwoode once was the headquarter of a savage druid cult. But those barbaric days lie in the past. Or do they? Children are being kidnapped on new moon nights as fairy raiders from the old forest rampage throughout the Downs. Are you going to be the hero that brings peace to the duchy? Or are you going to use for evil the secrets discovered in the fairy realm on the Other Side?

This is a 48 page adventure in the woods with a fey theme. There’s an old wood with a few weird things in, but notably a ring of standing stones. On the new moon you can get to a shadow realm on the fey side, with a bunch of fey themed encounters. The encounters are trying, but the writing comes off as mechanical and bland. They also tend more toward the prescriptive side of the descriptive scale, meaning they tend to the long side of things. Cursive fonts on the maps are not a plus, nor are boring wanderers. The idea behind this is good, but the execution suffers much.

I’m fond of fey-themed adventure,good ones anyway, that come with a heavy dose of old folklore in them. The strengths of this adventure are when it’s channeling that sort of thing. Standing stone with portals to elf lands under a new moon, rivers to drink from, fairy/mushroom circles, a classic folklore ogre on a bridge, old barrow tombs and humans abducted by the fey, goblins as merchants and nixies in the water … and saintly bones that can be used as a ward against the fey. This has a smattering of each in it. Many, if not most, of the creatures have some ability to talk to the party. In the case of pixies you have to put up with them. In the case of others you have to beat them in to surrender or bribe them in to friendliness. Most have a smattering of what they know about nearby. This adds some length to those encounters but make no mistake: anything you can interact with other than stabbing, or who doesn’t just fight to the death, is a positive mark.

Many minimally keyed adventures have expansive text, and this is no different. By minimal keying I mean a rather simple set up. The text expands on that, but not really in a useful way. Generally this is by endlessly droning on about what the room used to be used for, or describing the room in minute detail … neither of which have much to do with the core concepts of the room and/or adventure. They describe the wrong things. This adventure doesn’t do that, but it does go down another minimal keying/expansive text route. An encounter with pixies is a page and a quarter. It’s the usual pixie encounter; they fuck with you. A quarter of the text is what they know about the other encounter locations. There’s a fairy ring that takes up some text, along with a random table. The rest is a “pixies fuck with you” text expanded to fill the space. Note that this isn’t example of how they fuck with you, it’s just the saying “there are pixies & they fuck with you” in eight different ways. Nothing specific. No examples. The ability to expand an encounter in this way is truly magnificent. A river crossing is half a page. An ogre on a bridge is TWO PAGES. One column to describe a wrestling match. One column to describe a riddle contest. A column about paying a toll. It’s prescriptive in that is describe a lot of IF-THEN and goes in to more detail than necessary on mechanics, and generic in that it tends to be mechanical in its descriptions. But each has a nugget and the nugget is good. Dozens of bare skulls or pale faces looking up at you from the depths of the river with a blank, dreamy stare. The ogre is a former king, enslaved by the elf fey. There’s just too much ADDITIONAL text, and that subtracts from the overall encounters rather than adding to it.

It has some decent magic items in it, like the bones of the saint that can be used to turn fey. That’s a nice old world vibe. It’s a location that you’re going to have to bring your own adventure to. There are some hooks offered, but they are not very interesting. The usual ‘someone got stolen by fairies’ stuff, and not very much more than what I just typed. You’re going to have to bring your own reasons for the party to get involved and dig in to the site. But even then, the adventure suffers. The old road reads directly to the standing stones. Most of the encounters are off to the side in the woods, but there’s not really much reason to go there, if any. Likewise on the other side the Court of Thorns castle is visible, meaning there’s really only one encounter that’s going to pop before then. It needs more interrelated things to get the party moving around between the encounters. A rumor in the castle, sending the party to the barrows, which send the party to … and so on. It’s not that I’m suggesting every adventure needs that narrative, but that this one lacks the motive to explore the obvious locations.

The middle section, in the Fey Castle, also suffers from a mismatch in genre. The adventure switches from an encounter-based one to a social one, as you interact with people in the court. But it’s still described in typical room/key format. It COULD turn in to a hack, but it almost certainly starts as a social adventure and that is just cumbersomely described in typical room/key style. It doesn’t help that many of the rooms have the same occupant types and they get a full stat block in each room, even though there is already a full stat block on the same page for the same set of creatures. This is a great example of where a reference sheet could have helped. Pulling out all of those stat blocks would have GREATLY reduced their number and page count, delivering an adventure that was easier to use at the table for the DM.

The preview on DriveThru is nine pages long. It doesn’t really show you anything though but the introductory text and a little background.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #132

Sat, 04/29/2017 - 11:15

Wingclipper’s Revenge
By Christopher Wissel
Level 4

There’s nothing to this “fey type” themed adventure. The party is assigned a mission, they take a linear path through a forest, having linear combat encounters, reach a destination and have more linear encounters. Everything attacks. It’s just all combat. You know how to detect when you are being tricked? The NPC doesn’t start combat immediately. That’s your clue that you should just stab the due in the eye socket. It’s got a gossamer bridge made of webbing crossing a river, and an old cart all viney and other interesting little snippets of scenery, but it ruins it by just sticking in a combat. The thinning forest gives way to a blasted region of swampland (ok start.) “This area may have once been a very mossy, wetland glen, full of sprites and darting creatures.” (the adventure tells us, boringly.) “A greasy smoke hangs over everything” (yeah! nice!) “the once-prevalent trees being hacked down.” (boo! conclusion!) There’s a wooden signpost with a pixie crucified on it. Ouch. Guess the DM fucked with PC one too many times, eh? But, this is a good example of the adventures encounters. A mixed description that does a halfway decent job setting up a vivid little scene. These are not uncommon. Nor are the “and then they attack” words that are attached to every encounter. It’s mini-combat with a little pretext wrapped around and nicer terrain than most mini-combat folks make an effort at.

Caverns of the Ooze Lord
By Campbell Penney
Level 8

Slime themed cult. IE: Jubilex. Poor Jubliex. A pretext brings you to a village. If you get them to talk to you then you learn strange things are going on. (Weird! In a D&D village?!?!) Poking about reveals a slime cult and pointers to a cave system nearby. The caves go hog wild with the slime theme. It’s a little one-note in the “the slime creature attacks” department, but it does have a few things like pits, slopes, and crystal walls, pools and the like that the previous adventure didn’t have. It aso takes two pages to describe the slime cult in the village, far too long for what you get/need. This being Dungeon the wordiness continues in the encounters. Here’s the DM notes for a room with four pools of slime in it: “Morbion created these four pools of olive slime by using stone shape to create two-foot-deep hollow depression in the floor. He then transplanted a batch of olive slime to each and has been cultivating the four over the past several days in an attempt to develop variant forms of the ooze. So far, his experiments have met with failure and he’s only grown four patches or ordinary olive slime.” So, basically, there’s four pools of slime in a Jubliex temple? Who woulda thunk it! A great example of padding your word count using backstory that has nothing to do with the adventure at the table.

The Library of Last Resort
By Nicolas Logue
Level 16

I always seem to forget that Dungeon has this Age of Worms things in it. Perhaps it’s all the rubbing alcohol I drink after reviewing each one. Something like two of two and a half pages of read-aloud relate some backstory and the next steps, which involve going to find a library to tell the party where an undead dragons soul is hidden. There are a couple of small encounters in the library ruins … including orcs you can talk to! Then it’s through a magic gate to talk to some druid asshats who make you “conduct the trials!” Three or four quests/combats on the island also have you meeting a dude sporting the Hand of Vecna. Score! That’s the hand and one of the parts of the Rod of Seven Parts, for those keeping score! Anyway, more plot combat, a dream sequence with still more plot combat, and you’re done. It’s all about following the line to the next place and having a fight. It’s remarkable the extent of the backstory provided to try and enable that.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Weird That Befell Drigbolton

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 11:14

By Greg Gorgonmilk & Gavin Norman
Necrotic Gnome Productions
Labyrinth Lord
Levels 3-5

Something fell. A sickly gloaming lit up the night like mock daylight, just for a moment, and then the hills trembled. Now, an alien entity lies brooding in a crater gouged out of the moor. Local folk are enraptured with the toothsome jelly exuded by this being, but are blind to the true nature of the events unfolding in their rustic little backwater.

This 63 page digest details a small region around the village of Drigbolten, and the events currently transpiring. There are about eleven locations detailed, about half of those have another dozen or so sub-locations. It’s laid out sandbox style, with a regional, a goal, and a timeline for what could happen independent of the party. It’s weird, has some good ideas, feeling a bit like a Lamentations adventure without the death metal flavor. It’s also got a rather ponderous writing style that turns sentences in to paragraphs and hides the important bits the DM wants.

I like an adventure with flavor you can hang your hat on. Something in the adventure that you see and say “Oh yeah, I’m gonna love running this!” There’s an element to both creativity and writing in that, both contributing towards the same goal. Getting the DM worked up and visualizing things in their head, easily, is no mean feat and critical to producing an adventure that the DM can use as a springboard to their own filling in of the details. This thing has more than few of those moments. Starting with the most obvious: the star jelly. When the party arrive they see the villagers slurping this stuff down. Adding it to their beer. Adding it to their bread. Eating it. Drinking it. They all think it’s mana from heaven. As you read this you just KNOW how things are going to know. You get that little gleam in your eye. The wonderful ways you’re going to present the villagers consuming it, their fervent belief in its mana-like nature … and the parties horror-filled reactions. It’s telegraphed, but in a good way. You’re building tension with the party in a communal way. You know what’s going to happen. THEY know what’s going to happen. The fun is getting there together … and they get to plan and plot and all the other things that lead to goofy plans going wrong. There’s another strong example in the Rooms of Repast. The villagers have a room in their homes where they keep their dead relatives and ritually/symbolically feed them, in an ancestor-worship like dealeo. So, DM’s of the world, which if you is NOT grinning ear to ear right now imagining presenting this to the party and then seeing their reactions? Giant meteor crater, lots of wealth from the ore scattered about, and some locals with strange ideas add up to everyone sharing the secret and reveling in it. I’ve presented the best examples but there are a few more at other locations.

Given how poorly it’s generally implemented, you’d think that a sandbox adventure was rocket science. It’s not. The designer here has all of the elements included that you need. There’s a region with a variety of locations, some detailed and some single encounter locations. There’s some NPC’s to interact with and be both foil and a driver of action. There’s a reason to get to the region and travel around in it, the hooks. And there’s a timeline. The timeline is, in this adventure, what is driving the action. Each day the villagers eat more star jelly and certain things happen to them (SURPRISE! Wait, no one was surprised?), with the timeline detailing those changes and events. Likewise a few other locations in the region have timelines. Things happen. Not in a railroad plot manner, but in the natural course of events if the players don’t intervene. This is ‘plot’ done right.

The adventure comes with three reference sheets. You can think of these as a one-page dungeon. It presents a map and then a small summary of each location, with the expanded text for each location being found the main booklet. Similar things were done in Stonehell and maze of the Blue Medusa and it’s a good concept. Read the text and then run the adventure from the summary, relying on your memory and the text in the summary queueing that, with some quick thumb-backs when needed. It’s not done to as great an effect here as I recall in other adventures. The descriptions for the various locations concentrate on the mundane rather than the interesting and gameable, almost as if it were a travelogue to be handed out to the players. The pond mentions good fishing, but not why. The entries are all missing that last little bit to get the adventure going. Each entry DOES have a page reference, to go to for the real encounter text, something that more adventures could do. (Well, not Stonehell or Blue Medusa, those pages are obvious due to proximity.) Some timeline summaries appear on the reference sheets also, but these probably could all been pulled off and put together with the other timelines on a single, separate reference sheet. “Home of Miglin the Goatkeep” doesn’t really help. Miglin needs his personality added, as well as the little tidbit that drives action around him.

There are some things to quibble with with the organization. An appendix could have used for things like the Star Jelly description, to find it more easily and get the data dumps out of the main text. The hooks are not the best, being of the “sent on a mission” variety. The whole “starmetal is valuable” thing could have been worked up a bit more, instead of just having it as a pretext for someone to hire the party and put them under geas. A “gold rush” timeline would have just added to the chaos.

The major problem, though, is the ponderous nature of the text. Everything is drawn out and written in an indirect style. Lots of modifying clauses at the beginning of sentences, with detail and repetition that goes on. Pike Pond, one of the minor locations, is a good example. There’s a brief three sentence introduction, that we might call the “normie” description. The village men really like to fish here, the fish are easily caught, and there are pike present also. But then there’s a half page more description to tell us this is all because of WIllow the water nymph, who mates with the men in the spring, and the plump fishes internal anatomy is distinctly human. The text is trying to be a little too clever and flowery. I love flavorful text and words, but the real skill is in doing it tersely.

I want to like this. It’s trying to do everything right and it’s got that kind of strong pretext/flavor that I like. Making this work will require a highlighter for the main text and using the reference sheets to take some serious notes on. Conceptually, it’s good, but it could lose half to a third of its pages/text to a STRONG edit and be MUCH better. Combine that with a little reorganization and a rework of the reference sheets and you’d have a good adventure that was easy to run at the table. As is, it’s a good adventure that’s not easy to run at the table.

The preview on DriveThru has six pages. Pages three through six cover the core background summary (glad to see that included!), the hooks, and a bit about the timeline. Those pages do a pretty good job of being representative of the writing style. The same sort of voice/style is used throughout. You should be able to see how they could be shortened up by half to a third and still retain the color and flavor, while bringing more focus to the text.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Crocodile’s Tear

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 11:07

By Geoff Gander
Expeditious Retreat Press
Levels 3-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #131

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 11:18

The Beasts of Aulbesmil
By Skip WIlliams
Level 3

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

The Hateful Legacy
By Greg A. Vaughan
Level 12

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

The Prince of Redhand
By Jesse Decker
Level 15

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

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Secret Machines of the Star Spawn

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 11:09

By Mark Taormino
Maximum Mayhem Dungeons
Level 6-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Guests for DInner

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 11:16

By Jon Aspeheim
Level 0-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Magazine #130

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 11:15

Within the Circle
By Sam Brown
Level 1

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

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

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

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

The Palace of Plenty
By Tito Leati
Level 10

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

The Spire of Long Shadows
By Jesse Decker
Level 13

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

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs