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Updated: 1 week 2 days ago

Tower of the Black Sorcorers

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 11:16

By R. Nelson Bailey
Dungeoneers Guild Games
Level 5-8

The cabal of sorcerers has dwelled with their baleful tower for hundreds of years. Now something evil stirs in the town of Bal-Curz — strange happenings of malefic magics and persons disappearing in the night. The fearful townsfolk whisper that its source stems from the Black Tower. Possibly a few bold heroes could investigate the tower to uncover its secrets and put an end to this unseen terror?

This 27 page adventure describes a 27 room tower of evil wizards and its single dungeon underneath. The usual wizard stuff, like libraries and summoning rooms. It’s quite verbose, at about two rooms per page. It’s not worth it to dig through it all, even if it does contain some depth and freaky monsters.

This is offered as plotless, meaning it is offered as location rather than tying it to the end destination of a kidnapping plot, for example. Why the party is going in is up to the DM. There are a few ideas mentioned, most of which are the usual throwaways. A foot-race to win the hand of the lord mayors daughter, and the last temple in town are both more interesting options for getting the party involved, if the DM needs help. The few extra details present in each help elevate them above the usual “help us!” throwaways.

The original monsters, and their art, are good. A human torso with the arms and legs replaced by spider legs, but ending in uman hands … freaky deaky! And with art to match! Likewise the adventure presents a bit of an order of battle, noting responses to incursions in the tower. Other than this you’ll find the usual stuff. Cells with prisoners, summoning circles, libraries, etc.

The major, major detractor though is the length of the actual locations. These things are taking up about over half a page each, and of a smaller font at that. It has to have a seperate section, for each room, noting illumination. Then it goes in to detail about what the kitchen looks like. Then it may have a section on tactics. And then maybe there’s some backstory embedded in the location, telling us WHY. All with a penchant for overly flowery text in a conversational writing style.

This doesn’t work. I’m not going to suggest “adventure to be read not played” but it is leaning in that direction. You can’t run an adventure, at the table, trying to dig through all that text. What do the players see? Who knows … you have to dig through a half page of text to find out. “Oh, uh, wait, it turns out that there’s a guy in here and he’s attacking you.” Indeed.

We know what a kitchen looks like. A kitchen location in an adventure needs to only describe what is relevant to the adventure. If the chimney is a way in, or has a treasure hidden in it, for example. Telling us their is a carving block is worthless, unless it’s got the head wizards noggiin on it. All this extra text does is pad the word count and clog us the bowels of the text. Likewise tactics. Long tactics sections are boring and useless and generally a sign that the designer is overly invested in their creation.

And as for backstory, here’s what makes up ?’s of the entry for a cell with a bodak in it:” The bodak is the former master of the tower before Basharn rose to power. It seems that Basharn inadvertently gave the wizard the wrong information concerning a specific layer of the Abyss he intended to travel to. There the pure evil of the Abyss transformed him into a dreaded bo- dak. Basharn then summoned his former master back from the Abyss to employ him as a servant. However, the bodak remains rebellious, not yet submitting to the magic-user’s will.” What then, does this add to the adventurer that just death saved? That most certainly DOES smack of novel writing!

The tactics section for a wizards starts with “In the event of intruders in the complex …” This is a classic IF/THEN writing style. IF the party opens the door to the room THEN they see … Padding. That’s all it is. A conversational style of writing. The room IS, just say so.

This is just an overly described tower stuffed full of low-level wizards and creatures. It hints of better things with a map of underground tunnels and spider/man slaves, but can’t deliver.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages long. The fourth page shows you some of the example plots tha DM could develop, and I suggest reading number four for an idea of what a short “summary plot idea” might look like in an adventure. Otherwise, the writing style of the locations is not really shown.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) The Chapel on the Cliffs

Sat, 04/14/2018 - 11:15

By Joseph Crawford
Goblin Stone
Level 3

It’s been fifty years since the curse struck Kennmouth. Since then, few have dared brave the dangers of the abandoned village. Even fewer came back in one piece. Kathryn Reed has her eyes set on the fishery waters of Kennmouth Bay, but she needs adventurers foolish enough to lift the dark curse. Will you be the heroes who finally rid Kennmouth of its denizens?

Hey! It doesn’t suck!

This 38 page adventure details a cursed village, empty by day and patrolled by undead at night. Sandboxy, not a railroad, and rewarding thoughtful exploration, it’s organized well and has great imagery. I am not mad as this adventure. (It also comes with a 25 page supplement that scales the adventure to various levels and has full monster stats.)

This adventure is focused. It knows what it wants to do and it’s focused on doing that and little else. The setting is a ruined village. While a village map is provided, the only structures described are those related to the adventure. You can pick up a rumor about a witch being hanged at a tree, so the tree is described. There’s a lighthouse that, if you climb, you can see a couple of new locations to go look in to. The carpenters shop has tools and supplies to fortify a house (against undead attack at night) so it get a few words.

The details provided all directly relate to how the party interacts with the world. It’s like the thing was playtested and additional detail provided based on those playtests. Hmmm, need chase rules and/or skeleton siege rules. Hmmm, players want supplies to barricade themselves. Better put some help in for the dm.

It’s got more than once path to look in to. There’s an (obvious) green glow coming from a chapel on the cliff at night. There’s rumors about a hung witch. There’s obviously some ancient barrow-mound shit going on. Not exactly false trails, since they can contribute to things going on in the village also. Clue trails that lead to other things, in other words. This thing is DESIGNED, something few adventures seem to be.

Ghost ships, erie green glows from the cliffside chapel, the entire concept of a cursed/haunted village, disturbed graves, skeletons clawing their way out, a pale thin woman trapped in a sea cave … this thing also brings the evocative. It does a great job of creative a vivid picture with only a few words.

Which is not to say this is a terse adventure. It has something else going on. The page count is a bit up there. Some of that is related to the formatting. It uses sections titles, formatting, and whitespace to good effect, but that also contributes to the length. As does the anticipation of the needs the characters might have; that DM advice takes up space. The text can get long in a few sections and a little bolding would have helped. I’m thinking of the Green Mold curse, which gets a column of text. You’ll need to dig through it to find the mechanics for when the party encounters it. The NPC’s also tend to get an opening paragraph description that’s a bit conversations. A little bolding, to call out their main traits, would have helped with scanning during play. It DOES make good use of bullet points, and in spite of my nits IS organized well.

The hook is also a little … 5e. It’s oriented around a businesswoman wanting the party to look in to things for her so she can used the cursed villages harbour. How pedestrian. There’s a lot of rumors and information to follow up on in the nearby village by the mundanity of the hook is lame. A curse/haunted village nearby, with rumors about it in town, and maybe some related small hooks (which are interconnected with the businesswoman) might have been a more natural fit. But … there is a lot of rumor and information in the nearby town and it’s done well. The italic text, used for read-aloud, in an offset color, doesn’t work well for me, i find the italics and color chosen hard to read.

This is a decent adventure that rewards some thoughtful play. Looking around. Paying attention. NOT rushing in to things. Running away. Rushing headlong will get you murderized by 120 skeletons. Nice. I approve. I could/would run this and not be mad. A few better choices in formatting and editing would have pushed this in to my Best Of category. But, it’s also easily one of the best, if not the best 5e adventure I’ve seen.

This is $5 on DriveThru, with print versions available. The preview is 13 pages, a third of the adventure. The lighthouse, rowan tree, and smithy are on the last two pages and give you a good idea of the town locations and writing style. Page 11 shows some of the helpful DM advice, in the form of simple timekeeping tasks (for sunset when the skeletons arise.)

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Exfiltrators

Wed, 04/11/2018 - 11:14

God is dead and everything is sex.

By Lance Hawvermale
Hawvermale Paper & Pen
Levels 5-7

One of the doomed souls within Velgate Prison is innocent, but the only way to free him is to infiltrate the prison. And if that task isn’t difficult enough, what’s far more challenging is getting out.

This 42 page adventure is a prison break in an inescapable panopticon prison. The designer has no idea how to format an adventure. It has wall of text, mixes important data at random in to random bots of text, stacks the cards against the party, and, to top it off, the product description is inaccurate.

I once had a boss who was the most incompetent person I’d ever seen. I mean truly a fuckwit. He stayed on the job two years. The lesson learned is that you don’t have to be good at your job. You have to be good at GETTING a job. This adventure raised $2000 on kickstarter, with 100 backers. Any of you creators struggling with the quality of your product, the crippling self-doubt that comes from creating, need to learn a lesson from this product. Marketing baby, who gives a fuck about quality.

The ‘quality’ in question? It’s a mess. I don’t even know where to start. Room four of the prison describes the control room. That’s where we learn that the prison has only twelve guards. Because, obviously, if you needed that information you would not look in the “prison overview” section but rather in the control room entry. Clearly.

This club has everything. The hooks are mixed in to the long background text. Page long NPC’s.

This kind of shit happens over and over again. Worse, the descriptions for EVERYTHING are long and full of fiction writing. “This room is the prisons dark heart.” *yawn* How about justifying itself? “The door has been reinforced by strips of laminated horn so that any check to open it is at -4.” *yawn* People don’t hear the door chime/doorbell, but they always hear the door being broken down.

Speaking of … The prison is a panopticon. The party is searched and everyone disabled and scanned by magic. The ambush has illusions, a spellcaster wearing a ring of inviso, massmorph attackers, and other gimps. The walls take a 50% penalty to climb. It just goes on and on and on. You WILL play the adventure the way the designer intended! He’s going to be sure of that …

The opening ambush is three pages long. A column of tactics. Long NPC stat blocks. The entire thing feels more like a late 3.5 adventure than an OSR one. “You see what appears to be a weary traveller.” That is both a common way to write and a shitty one. Wasn’t there a good blog post about “appears” somewhere?

Finally, and just to show how petty I am, you don’t break in to free an innocent. You get captured. The entire blurb is wrong.

Abort! Danger! Abort!
This is just badly written and designed dreck. I will again use the most stinging rebuke I know of: Why would you attach your name to this?

This is $7 on DriveThru. The end of the review shows you the three page ambush and half of a LONG NPC description.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Gardens of Ynn

Mon, 04/09/2018 - 11:13

By Emmy Allen
Dying Stylishly Games
Level 3-5

The Gardens of Ynn is a point-crawl adventure set in an ever-shifting extradimensional garden. Each expedition generates its route as it explores, resulting in new vistas being unlocked with every visit.

This 79 page product is a method for generating freaky garden locations/pointcrawls in a an alternate “garden dimension.” Evocative writing helps lend a hand to the sunny just-a-little-bit-off character that lends an almost dreamy air to the locations. The gothic horror of a brightly lit victorian garden is fully on display. It also could do with some bolding, tighter writing for the DM mechanics, some cross-referencing, and, ultimately, is not an adventure but rather a location generator.

I’m having a hard time describing the environments this creates. I keep falling back to the “brightly lit gothic horror of VIctorian gardens” that I used in my summary. This thing does a great job of communicating that vibe. Not the full on gonzo of the more recent Alice movies, but rather the cartoon and/or the original Alice stories. Just a little off. And just a little creepy because of that. It’s a nice vibe, different, and certainly one of the most well-done in this genre.

This is a combination of the encounters and the writing. The locations are random, a combination of a location and a detail about it. The Wood – of Dead Birds. The glass-roofed cemetery. A smouldering hothouse. The combinations that are generated seem to work well together and being to spark your thinking when you roll them. Each has a small evocative description. “Fruit trees spaced out every few yards, coppiced so their branches start five feet above the ground. Trunks now gnarled and grizzled with age, branches extending into a tangled canopy that ends fifty feet up.” or “Steel frameworks hold up a tangle of overgrown vines, producing dappled shade beneath them.” or “The ground is littered with dead birds, as if they dropped out of the sky suddenly. Brightly coloured, their feather’ all broken and bedraggled.” To this might be added an event, or creature, or treasure, again, almost all of them with a terse and evocative description. From there is up’s to the DM to figure out why the formal orchard, littered with dead birds, has a treasure of gold coins in a wooden box, with the praying mantis creature wandering about. It all kind of works, for the almost dream-like, or slightly fever-induced, environment.

In all, about fifteen pages are devoted to each section; bestiary, locations, details, rando tables to spice things up, etc. One nice feature is that the main tables needed to generate a location are all grouped next to each other on adjacent pages. They could have used a cross-reference to the specific page number the text description appears on, in order to make the DM’s life a little easier.

There’s DM text for each entry also, and this is where things start to break down. It can get long, especially as the rooms get freakier the deeper you go in to the endless garden. Bolding, better use of whitespace, a tighter edit, would have all made a difference here.

The issue is, of course, running it at the table. You have a roll on the location table, and the details table. And maybe an event or creature. And then maybe looking up each of those entries (remember, no cross-references to page numbers on the tables), and then grokking the descriptions of each. And then tearing through the DM text, which can be a full page long for the more complex locations. It produces interesting results, but I have my doubts about running it at the table without longish pauses. I’d be interested in knowing about that aspect if anyone runs this.

It does so much right to creature the atmosphere. From the entryway being a chalk drawn door on a garden wall to various rumor-hooks about old books, half-remembered tales and the like. Higher numbers on the tables allow for d12 dice rolls when things are calm and d20’s when things get freaky, and so on, which is a nice duel-use feature.

But, it also is JUST a collection of tables. There’s nothing to put things together for a narrative. Something feels off about it. I was thinking about that, comparing it to my favorite adventure, from Fight On, the Upper Caves. That adventure is just some simple rooms. It has a couple of tough monsters, but no ‘Boss of the Level” or other overarching goal. It’s just an explore/loot adventure. That should be what this one is also, but they feel different from each other. Maybe it is the theming of certain sections in the Upper Caves that makes it feel different? I don’t know. The random treasure seems light for a gold-xp game, so maybe not “loot it.” At best, it seems like you could use this by placing another location or person/knowledge somewhere deep in it and make it a stepping stone for the party to get at their prize.

This is $3 on DriveThru. The preview shows you some of the intro text about the gardens and then the core tables for generating locations.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Oracle of Basylthor

Sat, 03/31/2018 - 11:17

By Walter J. Jones Jr.
New Realms Publishing

Your boots scrape off the bloodstained flagstones as you step into hall. Fluted columns rise to support a arched ceiling lost in the shadows. A scrape of leather on stone and a jangle of mail echoes off the walls as a mail-clad skeleton steps out from behind a column.

Well, fuck me. NOT an adventure. Not in my taxonomy.

This fifteen page “Adventure” is organized around a deck of cards. You print out a deck of locations, a deck of encounters, and a deck of treasures. You draw a room, roll for an encounter, and maybe a treasure. After experiencing about eight rooms you get to the boss, a harpy, and finish up the adventure. It’s straightforward, generic, and solo capable.

None locations. “Empty shelves line the walls and broken crates and tattered sacks litter the floor of this room.” or “Broken shelves and crates and toppled weapons racks litter the floor of this dusty room.” None monsters. Nine treasures.

Now that I have seen the adventure then the description makes sense. It says there are none cards of each. What I failed to comprehend, from the description, is that this is the ENTIRE adventure. A card driven “walk in to room, killa thing, move to next room” until you reach your eight room goal.

Man, I gotta pay more attention when buying.

NOT an adventure.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is three pages and doesn’t really inform you that you are buying just a couple of card decks.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Rando Stuff I bought three weeks ago

Wed, 03/28/2018 - 11:13

There’s trouble right here in Bryce City my friend. Boring details aside, that means I ended up buying about $40 of stuff from my DriveThru wishlist. They don’t fit the adventure category, which is why some of them have been hanging out for awhile now on the list. Dungeon Lord and Wormskin were a part of that buy. Here’s the stuff that doesn’t qualify as an adventure. I promise to not do this very often and staff focused on adventures.

The Dungeon of Doom
This was promised to be a live action LARP set up as a dungeon delve. I guess it IS that. There are seventeen scenes. At one point The Dread Gazebo attacks. The party has to choose a character to die. Also, another character becomes wounded. Also, someone can get a treasure. I kind of get what they are going for, but the LARP’ing possibilities seem REALLY limited. “Choose someone to die” isn’t really my kind LARP’ing. (I think I have a write up of my kind of LARP’ing over at Fortress Ameritrash.) Anyway, most of the scenes are like the one above, choose someone to die, someone gets wounded, gain a treasure.

B/X Essentials – Core Rules
I grabbed the txt version of this for free. I think the formatted version is cheap, like $1 or so. I like B/X, it’s my favorite rules. This is ok, but not enough to make me switch from my copy of B/X and my Ruffians & Reprobates rules (on my google drive.) Beyond the formatting, I just don’t need the rules anymore. I don’t care about swimming or gale rules or boarding vessels. That’s what Rulings not Rules is for.

Fantastic Exciting Imaginative – Volume Two
I have no idea how two got on my list when I don’t have one. This is aimed at Holmes and it has a hardcore OD&D bend. And while I like the B/X rulebook I like the OD&D vibe. Unique spekks, magic items and monsters, which remind me a bit of the same sort of vibe that the items, spells,and monsters from Fight On! had. Fight On being one of the best magazines, ever, of course. Unique items with character. No Sword +1 to be found at all!

I recognize Desboroughs name, but I don’t recall what he’s done? He says he’s edgy and people don’t like him? Anyway, i this … adventure? You play as pigs in a slaughterhouse. You’ve got special abilities and are trying to escape. The map is random and made up of various slaughterhouse rooms and “monsters” from the people who work there. The room descriptions are quite evocative. The Freezer room is “Blinding white. Slick footing. Breath makes little, puffing clouds. It’s winter in a room. Icicles hanging down and frozen corpses swinging from hooks or sitting in blocks of ice all around.” A little grim for my tastes, but very well written and immersive!

Homeward Bound – Simple Rules for Player Owned Base
This is more of a “regional setting if you own a manor” than it is a guide for manors. Note the singular. It’s actually ONE base. 27 pages to describe the interior of one manor and the cost to upgrade it. Some shit that can happen/hooks. Methinks someone didn’t read HarnManor … the closest village is a two hour walk away. Lots of potential hooks and things going on nearby are the highlight here. So while HarnManor and the 1e DMG (and almost every other supplement dealing with domains) are better at the mechanics, this one has a decent regional setting and/or plots to then go forward with. That part could be a decent resource if you were interested in a “we own a manor” campaign. This grows on me a bit every time I read it.

The Eternal Rest
An inn in an old mortuary, staffed by skeletons. Creepy mortuary setting. Suitably macabre special dinks. You can even sell your body to him (when you die) for use as a servant in the inn for free drinks. Some plot devices are included for the DM to expand upon. But it takes 19 pages to decribe the place and you now know enough, from my review, to run it better than the book describes.

Town of Split Stone
50 pages to describe a town … with a name for all 600+ people in it. The descriptions concentrate on the people and their lives. What they are up to and so forth. Tat’s the correct approach, although it goes in to far greater detail than need be. Woven throughout the town are five little intrigues, detailed in the potential plots section in the back. It’s well written, in that it concentrates on the people a lot more than the buildings, but has so much detail it feels like a research book that a tv series is going to be built around. “The historical village of Blandmire.” WAY too much to be useful at a table.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Inferno: Oasis of Koessa

Mon, 03/26/2018 - 11:17

By Paul Elkmann/Geoffrey O. Dale
Spellbook Games
1e/Portal to Adventure
Level 10+

“Oasis of Koessa is an adventure set on the Seventh Circle of Hell, the Desert of Fire, can be used as a projection of Hell into the Material Plane, or it can be used as an enchanted location in any remote hot desert. It can represent any of nine Oases found in the Desert of Fire. The Oasis is a dangerous and challenging location suitable for challenging higher-level Adventurers. The non-linear location contains eight significant structures which can be explored in any order, each with different challenges and opportunities. The centerpieces are the two large Pyramids and the dungeon inside a Sphinx statue.”

This 69 page adventure describes an oasis on the seventh circle of hell. It’s packed full of mummies and their minions. Like the blurb says, three dungeons, and extensive at that. It’s also a pretty textbook example of the mechanics of writing getting in the way the adventure. Wall of text. Detailed room descriptions. Hordes of creatures stuffed in rooms. It burdens my soul just thinking about it.

I am NOT in the mood for this thing this morning.

Let’s talk room descriptions. What’s the goal? As always: helping the DM at the table. More specifically, picking out the important stuff in the room and describing it in a way that the flavor is communicated by the text from the designer to the DM’s head … who can then attempt to send it on to the players. How does one accomplish this? There are several possible paths. One path which is NOT useful is the one that FAR too many adventures fall in to: describing the room in excruciating detail.

We the room it titled “Kitchen” then the DM can fill in the details; we know what a kitchen looks like. Maybe the room is titled “Clean Kitchen” or “Greasy Kitchen” or something else. The designer is leveraging the DM in communicating the vibe. They are then free to add to description things like “The master key is inside a loose chimney stone.” or “The grease makes the floor slippery and the rusty knife collection is stored on the low, open shelves …” The descriptions focus both on the evocative, to communicate the vibe well to the DM, as well as the mechanics of things actually useful to the adventurers.

Revisiting our kitchen example, lets follow where the contra example takes us. If we exhaustive list he contexts of the kitchen then what does that get us? Seven bowls, Six spoons (one bent), a 10’ by 11’ work surface with a knife cut in the upper right hand corner 1 foot from the left edge running parallel to the lower edge. Unless those elements are relevant to the adventure then they do nothing but clog up the text and distract the DM from from the evocative nature of the room and the mechanics of the party interaction with it. The seven bowls could be a clue … in which case it IS relevant to the adventure, if the party needs to know/would be helpful to know there are seven people using bowls.

Besides this exhaustive listing of room contents there is also the “where does the door go” commentary. “The archway to the west goes room 14, the kitchen.” Well, yes, that is what the map indicates ,,, s why does the text tell us that also?

This, along with poor formatting choices, can lead to wall of text issues. All of the text just runs together, visually, and your eyes glaze over.

Here’s an example of the text from room three of the funerary temple. This is one paragraph of six, with the entire thing taking up over a page of text.

“The room has arches to the Embalming Room, the Wrapping Room, and to the Entry Curtain. An 8 FT by 5 FT mahogany table on the western side of the room supports a large bright blue wooden sarcophagus which is sealed with a line of lead solder (requires a knife/scraper). A 50 inch bronze gong hangs in a black wood frame to the left of the table with a hook for the 30 inch clapper; sounding the gong has no immediate impact. Two 7 FT by 4 FT black granite altars are along the east wall, separated by 10 FT. An 8 FT diameter silver spider with 8000 GP diamond eyes is mounted on the north wall in front of one altar; an 8 FT di- ameter gold ram’s head with 12,500 GP ruby eyes and 14,000 GP ivory horns is mounted on the south wall. A 12 FT diameter circular brown-and-orange carpet is between the altars. Lit golden lanterns are to the north and south walls, spaced 5 FT apart.”

Are the dimensions of the table relevant? Is the spacing of the lanterns relevant? The size of the gong? I would assert that most of the text description is irrelevant, and that which IS relevant is boring. “A silver spider with diamond eyes” barely makes the grade.

And remember, that’s one paragraph of six. The adventure engages in this over and over again. Everything is just beaten to death, and then to a pulp. Seldom have I cared less about what I’m reading. Useless detail without writing to inspire.

This is $4 on DriveThru. The preview is about six pages and the last few give you an idea of what to expect in terms of writing. It’s not actual rooms, but it is indicative.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Dusty Door

Sat, 03/24/2018 - 11:14

By Shane Ward
3 Toadstools
Level 3

Halfway between here and there is a small roadside Inn. A weather worn wooden sign stands outside of the door “Adventurers wanted, apply within”. Weary from the road, you stand outside the Inn, smoke rises from the chimney promising a warm evening. The inside of the Inn is small and cozy, a set of stairs lead up to much needed beds. The small bar is decorated with old suits of rusted armour, a bookshelf with musty tomes and a large map of the countryside. The bar is empty save for a small gnome who is fast asleep at a table, smoke curls from his pipe.

I continue to be out of sorts. I’m hoping to settle back down come April.

This twelve page adventure details a ten room dungeon using five pages. It has a throwback quality, with room nearly its own little isolated thing. Not really evocative writing, but the DM text doesn’t overstay its welcome and the basic/nostalgia factor is high with this one.

Goblins hoot and holler while whipping prisoners chained to a wall. Smoke pours from under a doorway with figures inside dancing around a glowing orb. An old crone sites near a pool of bubbling black water. Zombies stand knee deep in purpleish slime tearing a body apart to feast upon. A troll slumbers in front of a door, with a large brass key around his neck. A stone well filled with black liquid sits under a terrifying mural drawn in feces and blood.

You know, I said the writing wasn’t evocative but the encounters sure as hell are. Just about each of the ten rooms features a little vignette, described in a sentence or two. These are basic encounters; they feel like bookcases that turn to reveal a secret passage or Harryhausen skeletons. Basic but iconic. That’s the main appeal of this adventure. There’s a charm to these encounters. Almost randomly strewn together, that just lends to the overall effect of mystery.

WTF is going on here? The gnome locks you in his basement after luring you there with rumors of treasure. Inside if a demon that trades the gnome longevity potions in return of victims willingly entering the dungeon.

Curses, weird potions, new magic items, +1 swords … the adventure has what you would expect from a basic Holmes adventure. The encounters capture the weird charm and iconic non-Tolkein/non-high adventure vibe from the early dungeoneering days. It’s easily worth $1 if you are in to such things, and could serve as a nostalgic one-shot.

This is PWYW at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $1. The preview contains the entire twelve pages of the adventure.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Red Prophet Rises

Wed, 03/21/2018 - 11:13

By Malrex & PrinceofNothing
Merciless Merchants
Levels 3-5

Trouble stirs in the Borderlands. Khazra, Red Prophet of the Bull God, has united the fractious People of the Bull and proclaimed the promised time is nigh. The Bull God demands blood! Fanatics raid the outlying villages, farmsteads and towns for sacrifices. None are safe! Unbeknownst to Khazra, a power older than man stirs under the earth, fed by the blood of sacrifice. Can a band of unlikely heroes prevail where all before them have failed? Are they brave enough to face not just the minions of the Red Prophet, but the eldritch terror of the Obelisk that Thirsts? The land will suffer terrors lost to time–unless heroes step up and answer the call! A module for 3-6 characters of levels 3-5.

I’ve had a rough couple of months. I was happy to run across this adventure and bumped it up in the appearance queue, so things may appear out of order over the next couple of weeks. Just imagine this review appears a week from now.

This 39 page adventure details a canyon and its caves (43 rooms over two levels) that inhabited by a blood-sacrifice cult. With shadows of both the warrior cult from Conan and the enemy from 13th Warrior with a little Zardoz tossed in, it provides a great dynamic environment that has its own thing going on aside from the parties involvement … up to and including “the cult all end up killing themselves by accident.” The environment starts off “mundane” and then gets freakier as the party gets in to the heart of the caves. Well organized and evocative, this is the kind of environment you want to run.

I’m terrible at reviewing good adventures. I never know where to start. I guess can being with the writing.

The writing is evocative without being verbose. At one point there’s a captive centaur forced to fight an opponent to the death. He continues trampling his opponent on the ground “long after the cheers of the crowd have ceased.” Recall, this is a warrior blood cult. Ouch! That’s the kind of writing you get. In this adventure. It doesn’t drone on and on with endless descriptions of room contents or wether the doorway is eight foot tall or nine foot tall. Instead the writing conveys the SENSE of he place. And because it does it can leverage every life experience the DM has had to allow them to fill in the blanks. The horrified onlookers. A blood warrior, sullen with his jaw hanging open, averting his eyes from the massacre. A guy a little too much in to it. All of that can brought by DM to expand the locale as needed, reacting to the players. Good location descriptions don’t describe an locale, but rather the SENSE of the locale. ““Rough-looking men interrupt gulps of ale and bites of charred rabbit with rambunctious laughter around a sizable fire pit.” Indeed!

That same writing then turns around and uses white space, bolding and bullet points to great effect to organize the text. A small text paragraph to convey the sense and then bullets to expand the mechanical aspects. This allows the DM to scan the text quickly and effectively to locate the information they need to run the adventure. The dichotomy of adventure writing is that you get to ignore ALL sense of grammar and style in order to convey the sense of the place … but it has to be perfectly organized to allow the DM to easily run it at the table. This adventure does that.

There’s a nice little time table presented that shows what’s going on at the camp when. Locations have brief notes related to the time table that don’t get in the way. There’s an order of battle for some rooms. “The guards in room 5 might hear a prolonged combat …” or … “If an alarm is raised then …” There’s a summary sheet of monster stats so you’ll have them all at your fingertips when running this. It’s almost as if the designers *gasp* oriented the text so it would be useful to a DM running it at the table! Oh the Humanity!

The rumor table is in voice for the beleaguered people whispering tales of the raiding warriors. The entire place is written as a neutral living environment, a module, not necessarily entirely dependent on the PC”s actions. Up to the point that their blood sacrifices finally work, they raise a god, and it slaughters all of them and eventually maybe blots out the sun. The wanderers chart has a couple of allies and/or prisoners on it. (Even if “33% chance every 10 minutes” seems a little frequent …) The map has some loops in it and feels like caves in a canyon. (Or at least a fantasy version thereof.) The magic items are new and interesting.

There’s mount presented for a Paladin (that’s one of the potential hooks) that FEELS like a paladin’s mount. Aeyron, grandon of the King of Horses! Fuck yeah man! Now THAT’S a paladin’s mount!

Little rattlesnakes. Giant snakes/ Cauldrons of boiling blood. Death match games. It’s conan turned up to 11.

There’s even a faction! (Well, besides the prisoners, allies you might meet.) The old shaman doesn’t like the turn the tribe has taken and may recruit the party. This part could be handled a little better … maybe one paragraph on an outline of plan, but I still appreciate having what there is.

Likewise the hooks are essentially non-existent. A little more guidance in getting the party involved would have been nice. As is, the mount or maybe hearing some rumors of a blood cult or raided villages is all there is … and the later is a little weak unless you’re running HEROES. It is 2e, so maybe that’s ok.

Obviously, I like this. As you get in to the caves in the canyon you start to encounter freakier and freakier stuff. STarting with just camped out tribesmen in the canyon and then pentagrams, black obelisks, and cauldrons of blood inside. This is a place, not a railroad. It is that rare of things: A Good Adventure.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. Page two shows some order of battle/alarms, as well as ath rumors table. The wandering chart and cave map are also included and shows the potential depth the adventure can generate. The last couple of pages are some of the locations, and give you a good look at the location writing and organization. A great preview.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Ruined Abbey of St Clewd

Mon, 03/19/2018 - 11:19

The Ruined Abbey of St Clewd
Gavin Norman & Greg Gorgonmilk
Necrotic Gnome

I ended up with another magazine adventure to review, Wormskin #3. This twelve digest page adventure describes the surface level of a ruined abbey in the Dolmenwood. (The entire issue, and I suspect magazine, is devoted to the Dolmenwood setting.) Clearly written, and also clearly limited by its “just the surface ruins” approach. There’s not much content, which forces one to ask some hard questions. It’s also spooky as all fuck.

Let’s talk about “spooky as fuck” first. I seem to remember an old 3e SRD monster book called something like Nightmares & Dreams. It was full of horror themed monsters and did a great job bringing the creepiness to life. This does the same thing with one of its principal encounters. The Gloom is an undead creature formed from a bunch of dead crows. It collects things, like teeth or corneas. It’s a kind of tall skinny man in finery. Offering candy to children. Or encaged in an iron tree cage being freed by dumb kids. You can run in to some kids in this adventure, maybe playing in a very old graveyard. A graveyard with a bunch of open graves, freshly dug up. And the kids all have dirty hands … seems they’re charmed and have been stealing teeth for the Gloom. I’m just a hack reviewer and can’t get CLOSE to the creep that the adventure brings with regard to the Gloom or the children. It’s really well done.

I might also comment that the writing here is very clear. I’m been trying to figure out why and I can’t really put my finger on it. Maybe because it goes from “what the party sees first” to the general to the specific. It tends to focus on stuff that the party will be interested in, and thus directly on play at table rather than trivia (with a single fucking notable exception.) An evocative sentence that you might use when the party first shows up. A line of DM text explaining things. Another line of trap/damage/search mechanics. That’s what the entries all feel like … but I’m not actually sure that’s what’s going on. Whatever. I find the writing style quite effective.

The adventure also devotes 2.5 pages, a huge amount for a 12 page adventure (20%?) to a series of seven murals in the ruined church. It goes in to detail on each. Except for one, the last one, I can find no reason why it does this. It just seems to be trivia, and is completely different from the writing in the rest of the adventure, which is quite focused on actual play. Maybe it bears fruit in the next issue, which describes the underground level?

The whole thing comes off as a bit sparse. Oh, sure the Gloom/children thing is GREAT, but the rest of the level is essentially non-existent. A couple of different ways to find stairs down is about it, except for one hidden treasure. Everything is looted. The murals thing is a big miss, again, unless it pays off in the next dungeon level. Six locations, with two of them having four or five sub-locations. It seems a little sparse. IDK.

As a horror themed stand alone this should work. I’m just having problems reconciling the sparseness with my classical view of an “adventure.” It may be the episodic/zine nature just didn’t work well here and you need the second level for things to click. Or maybe I’m being nice,

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview shows nothing of the adventure,

Here’s the text from location #2, Graveyard. Something about this turns me off at first glance … the length, one paragraph, no bolding I’m pretty sure. But then, reading it … it seems perfectly suited to run. What the players see. What happens when they follow up. Mechanics. GREAT text organization.

“Crumbling stone walls — now sprawling with ivy and buckled by the intruding roots of looming yew and holly trees — surround the abbey’s graveyard, wherein lie the remains of several hundred monks of the lower orders (the more senior monastics were interred in the crypt beneath the chapel).A thorough inspection of the dates of the graves reveals that no one has been buried here during the last 350 years. It is also noticeable that many of the graves are in the process of being carelessly dug up. There is a 2 in 6 chance of one or more of the children described in area 3b being present in the graveyard during the day.”

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Tomb of Dagobert

Sat, 03/17/2018 - 11:17

The Tomb of Dagobert
by Matthew Evans
Mithgarthr Entertainment
Levels 2-3

This five page adventure, with two “real pages, is a very simple nine room tomb complex stuffer full of undead. The terse writing style and ok hook are to be commended, but the writing is not evocative. It’s too simple to offer any value.

Skeletons. Zombies Ghouls. A spectre. A mummy. And then a bandit king when you come out. This seems a touch rough for 2nd level characters, in a linear dungeon. I don’t play a lot of 5e so maybe I’m wrong. Most tomb maps bother me anyway, because they tend to be simple. But when you combine it with a bunch of enemies you need to hack past it tends to bum me out. There’s no skill, and not much fun, in slogging through a linear map full of forced combats.

The writing is terse, for 5e anyway, and simple. Five zombies clamber out of their coffins. A brazier flares up when you enter the room, but gives no heat. Really just a couple of sentences per room. Two to four per room should be enough for some rooms, and this adventure does that. But it doesn’t really do it very well. The writing is not evocative. The hi light of the adventure is: “A brazier in the center of this room flares up when the PCs pass through the arch. The flames are magical and put off no heat.” It’s the highlight because it uses the word flares. The rest of the writing is short and fact based … which is better than long wall of text but still not in the “good” category.

I want to bitch about about the encounters proper. They pretty simple combats or “put the key n the hole” tile situations. Again, the brazier is the exception. But something rubs me wrong about it. I think it may be written in a “look at this weird thing!” manner. Interactivity, and the ability to exploit the dungeon, is a key feature of a good adventure I’m not sure this does that. I think maybe I’m looking for the writing to be oriented more toward the party. Can you burn shit with that brazier, even though it has no heat? Steal the heatless fire? It just seems written in a manner that makes it more “look at the mural on the wall.” than “and now you can exploit something.” Window dressing has very little place in my D&D. Interactivity is better.

The last encounter has a trapdoor that leads to the main treasure chamber, we’re told. We’re also told that it’s inaccessible because of a cave in. Uncool. Players, in search of treasure, will go to great lengths. Either the treasure chamber should have been listed or the trapdoor/reference not put in or some guidance given. “one month to dig out,” Otherwise this is trivia, and, again, there’s not much room for trivia in my D&D adventures. The writing has to be directed to actual play at hand. Otherwise it gets in the way of the DM running it.

I will note that the hook has the players coming across a bandit in a crow’s cage hanging at a crossroads, who offers the players treasure map for his freedom. Nice job with that. It’s not the usual hook dreck. Treasure maps are fun. Crows cages are fun. Bandit lords are fun. The quandary is fun, as long as the DM doesn’t punish the players for their choices. He’s gonna die anyway, seems like a quick death is better than a slow one …

This is supposed to be something that you pull out when the players go the “wrong/‘ direction and you need a quick adventure. If the writing communicated the environment better (WITHOUT a higher word count) then it might fulfill its stated purpose, even if it were simple. As is, anyone could come up with the adventure. There’s nothing very interesting except the hook. I like the terse writing, but its also gotta deliver the goods. It don’t.

This is $2 at DriveThru.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dungeon Lord – The First Issue

Wed, 03/14/2018 - 11:19

By: Various
Death Machine Press
Level – Various

This is a 28 page zine with a kick ass cover. It has three dungeons in it, as was published in 2014. Good ol’ Bryce, always on the ball. I don’t seek out magazines/zines magazines, but the cover lured me in. I wonder why the adventurer is naked? THis claims DCC, but I think most of the issue has a great OD&D thing going on.

Calcified Caves of the Slime Yeti – Ron Yonts
And another anomaly: a one pager. Again, I don’t usually review these. I like a good one-pages, but the amount of content usually strains my ability to say something interesting about it in a review. This cave system is both wt and dry and features some sloping caverns and holes in the ceiling to get to other area, as well as a river to explore other areas and other terrain effects. That variety is a very good thing, bringing out the exploratory nature of D&D and offering combat options. Note also that it’s not a river. It’s an ICY river. And it’s not a yeti it’s a SLIME yeit, and not caves but CALCIFIED caves. It’s a simple trick but it helps amp up the imagery. This continues with a dried streambed, dry corpses, stirge husks, and dangling buckets. This isn’t stated and the fifteen room adventure has three monsters, in addition to the wanderers, but mixed in are traps and magic pools and the like. I think it’s an excellent example of a one-pager and much much better than most of the adventures I review. I’ll take this as a Lair or Side Trek any day of the week.

The Caves of the Sacred Seven =
This is a thirty room cave complex roughly divided in three sections: cavemen, reptile men, and prehistory … with a map that could easily be easier on the eyes, As you get deeper in freaky things start happening in the corridors (a d30 table) as you experience all the weirdness of the underworld. The rules are all wrong and every perversion is justified when adventurers journey to the mythic underworld, Aisha. The encounters are decent, with some willing to talk and/or trade, and a bit of silliness mixed in. Ooze pits mutate you, and egg incubation chambers await. The text style is very “wal lof paragraph.” The incubation chambers starts with “This chamber appears to be a sort of nesting area for reptilians with many eggs …” Yes … that’s why the room title is “Incubation Chamber.” The text also spends a decent amount of time describing the physical logistics of rooms “the north path runs along the edge of the lake” and so on, as well as delving in to generic descriptions like “This large chamber …” Focused writing with a strong edit would shorten the rooms and make them more scannable at the table and make this an ok adventure.

Tomb of Zarfulgar the Lost
The last entry has a linear map that spells out “ABQ Zine Fest 2014,” so it’s a bit of a funhouse adventure. It’s fifteen rooms, in a tortuous typeface. A gnome with a big treasure sack that grows sharp teeth and tries to eat the adventurers. A room full of friendly clones of the wizard in question, with one doppleganger. Buzz saw blade corridors and creatures made of light that bludgeon you to death with their shoes. It’s a decent funhouse that is a pain to run because of the typeface and wall of text paragraph style. Too bad, it looks fun.

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview only shows you the one-pager, with the other five preview pages being table of contents, etc. Bad zone writers!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Orb of Undying Discord

Mon, 03/12/2018 - 11:15

By Ian McGarty
Silver Bulettes
Swords & Wizardry
Level 2-3

Can you brave the dangers and outsmart the puzzles to obtain the Orb of Undying Discord?

This eleven page adventure in a small seven room dungeon answers the question put forth above with a resounding “No.” Simple puzzles combine with IMPOSSIBLE combats and drab read aloud.

See that level range? 2-3? Uh huh. How does a 6HD iron golem with AC18 strike you? No? How about a 9HD chimera? Or a 7HD priest with twelve 2HD acolytes? All in the same seven rooms. I don’t want to come across as some kind balance freak, but there’s a limit. There’s no fucking way this was playested. I like unbalanced encounters, but usually you make them a little social, or put allies nearby, or there are some things in the dungeon to take advantage of to give you a leg up. A simple “challenge dungeon” is enemies this tough for a level 2 S&W party is just WAY too much.

And that’s what this is, a simple challenge dungeon. A dyrad has you do some tasks (fighting, of course) for her so she will make the door magically appear. Inside you solve some simple puzzles and face monsters you have to kill in order to move on. This is, by far, not my favorite style of adventure. I find the style seems to tend toward linear and limiting.

The writing is uninspired. A “large room” has a “large stone” in it. Large is a boring word. The goal of this part of the writing is to be inspiring and evocative and ‘large’ don’t cut it. Room descriptions are full of “this 20’ square room” and things like that … facts conveyed by the map that distract from what should be evocative descriptions.

There’s almost no background. I know I bitch about too much background, but there’s too little in this adventure. It’s the third in a series that can be ‘run in any order’, which I suspect is the issue. While you are walking down the road a monk runs out with a scroll case to tell you where the orb of undying is. That’s your background. Why you want it, what it does, etc is not covered at all … I guess it’s in one of the other adventures. This weirdness in the basics of the design continues with one of the room descriptions appearing ABOVE the room number. There’s a basic inattention to some core items.

A half page is devoted to a nearby city. It’s useless. Just generic detail. It has a temple that sometimes sells potions and a mercantile. I have now provided as much detail as the adventure does, with as much evocativeness.

This fails on several basic points, from the descriptions to the challenges to the basics of putting an adventure together.

This is $4 on DriveThru. The preview shows you the town text and some wandering monster tables. “They attack!”

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Santa Fe Starport

Wed, 03/07/2018 - 12:09

By Venger Satanis
Kort’thalis Publishing
Alpha Blue/Generic

This 34 page “adventure” is actually a regional setting with a few event ideas. On a ruined earth the starport in Santa Fe still exists,hence the post-apoc and Alpha Blue/spaceships crossover. It’s got the jr high sex stuff that is becoming synonymous with Vengers style.

I love Gamma World. It’s my favorite child. I have a framed poster of the Warden hanging proudly in my dining room. I wear my Warden command bracelet every day to work. Every Christmas I ask for more post-apoc/generation ship fiction. I STILL think I remember a Tv version of Orphans of the Sky, even though I can find no google hint of it/Universe.

This setting is about 50 years after the disaster. Nukes, radiation, cthulhu monsters, it’s all in here. New Albuquerque is a mutant hanting function city that embraces aliens. Miles to the south, through the wasteland, is the Santa Fe Starport, a working starport. In between are gangs (theming ala The Warriors), warring robot factions, Wizard towers, and a sunken Statue of Liberty. (Because Venger.)

There’s not really an adventure here. The major parts of the region are described each in a paragraph or two. There are a few more words for New Albuquerque and also the starport. There are some events/plots mentioned in the starport, like a sex android revolution, security checkpoints, violent candy, and a “Deal” for smuggling turquoise.

A cult leader, skull face, is referenced several times in the supplement. There’s one throw-away line in the adventure about him launching an assault on the starport.

There’s a gamma world-ish random loot table. I love those things. There’s also a mutant power table in which almost every power involves bodily fluids and sex organs. (I think it’s clear by now that I’m from the midwest, and a bit of the ultra-violence is ok but not boobies.) There’s a strong sex/sleaze theme, which I assume comes from its Alpha Blue heritage.

It’s not an adventure. At best it’s a regional setting with a bunch of ideas that you could use to string a couple of adventure ideas together and add some complications from some other details.

The contention between regional setting and adventure/events/complications makes the organization a bit iffy. Things tend to be scattered around a bit, except for “the region” in the front section and “the starport” in the rear section. When not describing “penis shooting cum facial tattoos” the writing is fairly good. Enough detail (reference facial tattoo above) to bring the specific imagery without the useless garbage that weighs an adventure down in wall of text.

But it’s missing a strong Adventure element, and thus it goes in to my “regional setting with some things to do” category rather than my “adventure in a region” category. Too generalized for my tastes.

This is $6.66 (because Venger … can one roll one’s eyes AND appreciate the devotion to the theme?) at DriveThru. The preview is six pages. You can see the loot table (with entry number one being the required stop sign shield) and the last page being the mutation table that focuses on sex organs.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The City of Talos

Mon, 03/05/2018 - 12:12

By L. Kevin Watson
Fat Goblin Games
Levels 8-10

Talos, a city of legend, focus of tales dating back to the First Age of Man—exotic and forbidden. Buried deep in the Formene, this lone gem of the subterranean realms has legends as tall as the mountains under which it lies. Scholars and sages know more: it is the capital of the Elven race of the subterranean realms, sealed off from the surface world, supported by smaller towns, trading nexuses, and the wealth of knowledge accumulated by the Formene Elves who ward it.

This 37 page adventure collection contains thirteen adventures, eas about two pages long, supplemented by a separate 33 page booklet describing a lost city of elves. It is, at best, an adventure outline and at worst incoherent in many places. Badly bolded, wall of text, generic locations and almost NO context for the adventures.

It’s really hard to describe just how disconnected these adventures are. U guess, in some way, they all relate in some manner to the city of elves. An alternate way to gain entrance, go on missions for them … but then also some REALLY tangential ones. Things like “the party may encounter some of these magic gems and follow up on where to mine them.” Furhter, the actual connection to the city, or maybe the context of the adventures, is almost non-existent.

The first adventure is representatives. Two pages. The first column is a detailed wall of text on meeting an elf and getting assigned the mission. Approached by a halfling. DIrections to a grove. Given a bird call. Details on the journey like “The two-hour walk is uneventful. The characters find the grove with little difficulty.” are rife, along with all the ways the elf will just leave the grove without contacting the party. (I guess that means the rest of the book is useless, since they now cant get entrance to the city the book is arranged around?)

The backgrounds are full of this of micro-level detail, but there’s almost no context. The halfing says an elf wants to meet you. The elf says his wants wants to use the party to arrange contact with the greater world. Why the party gives a shit, the mythic nature of the city, the rewards … all of that is missing. It’s like there’s a paragraph or two missing.

Then the DM text starts in. In contrast to the micr-detail of the background the locations are abstracted to a large degree. Here’s one: “6, 7—Purification Rooms—Up the stairs from the Outer Chapel, these rooms are lit by ever-burning braziers like Area 5 and contain two large, dormant, incense burners near the door on the far end of the room. These rooms might have been used to inhale heady incense before proceeding deeper into the temple.”

Two rooms with one description (the dreaded “reflected layout” for a temple!) and not evocative at all. It’s not that I want a paragraph, but the contract to the detail of the background is stark. Then, the location numbers are bolded and so are the words “For the GM.” Well, it’s all fo rhe GM, since it’s not read-aloud, and bolding of those words, in addition to the location numbers, makes picking out text hard.

The adventures, on two pages each, are all very abstracted. There are cultists around the temple. There are some priests inside the temple. There’s an evil book in room eleven.

There’s just nothing to this. The adventures are generic, with overly detailed introductions and overly-abstracted content.. The context is non-existent and the formatting difficult to follow.It’s almost a Books of Lairs set up, but without even that much coherence.

This is $13 at DriveThru. The third page of the preview starts the first adventure. It’s a great representation of the content you get. Note the left hand column and the detail and then the location descriptions on the right hand side. Weird as all hell.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Mission to Thay: Nethwatch Keep

Sat, 03/03/2018 - 12:13

By Jon Gilliam
Self Published
Level 12-15

Here is the Episode 8 that Rise of Tiamat should have contained! Thay in all it’s horrid and far-reaching power and might. A society dark, alien, at odds with itself, and at the boiling point of explosion.

This 130 page adventure (in five parts, with part five being an appendix) offers an alternative to chapter 8 of Hoard of the Dragon Queen/Rise of Tiamat, but could also stand alone. While the original chapter 8 was just some general throw away content, this is specific, evocative, and, more than ANY product I can recall, revels in flavor of Forgotten Realms. Look, I’m not an expert in FR, but I do know every adventure I’ve seen is generic and lacks flavor. All of the designers seem to think that stupid 50 character-long names are what “flavor” is. That’s not flavor. THIS adventure is flavor. It brings home the evil of Thay, and will no doubt focus the PLAYERS angers, without going off the deep end in to being puerile or vile, at least according to my midwestern tastes. It’s got some issues with being … long? Whatever, while it does a decent job with organizen & reference sheets it’s also going to take some work to prep. It’s ALMOST worth it to me … and since I have high standards … maybe it’s worth it to you.

There’s some pretext to make this fit in to Hoard/Rise. You go to Thay to see what the contact has to say about the Cult. It’s pretty generic in Hoard/Rise. Not so here. There’s one little slave boy in a keep of undead (intelligent & not) who complains of a monster under his bed. Gladiator games are held, with the winners taken to be euthanized and turned in to an undead army. There are zombie infant submission baskets hanging from the ceiling. The “slaves as chattel for necromancers” is just on the edge on being uncomfortable. It’s enough to make the PLAYERS hate Thay, but not so much to generally evoke real-world darkness too hard. At one point you have a dinner with a dragonborn tribe which plays out a little like the Riker dinner with the Klingons. This place FEELS different. It’s not a hand wave. In one of the official adventure, Into the Abyss maybe, the drow guards had “sleeping pallets.” I bitched that it was lame and didn’t conjure an alien culture. Not so here! This place is alive, both with “evil culture”, “evil necromancer culture” and “nonhuman tibres culture.” That’s REALLY good.

There’s a “best way” through the adventure, but it’s not exactly linear. The designer outlines alternatives and flowcharts out the adventure so you can help understand how the locations work together. There’s an explicit section at the end of each to show you what could come next, both from the hints in the location and in things characters might do like “what if they lead a slave rebellion?” and stuff like that. That’s good for these mutliepart things. Both where the adventure naturally leads and how to handle the players choosing other options. I was struck by the hook here also. The inciting event is the kidnapping of a wizard you need to talk to. I was fully expecting a railroad and the wizard to get kidnapped no matter what. I guess that’s ok, I’ve come to accept that the hook is allowed a little more of a railroad. But, NO! In this adventure can you save the victim and there are still ways the adventure can go forward! A delightful surprise!
The NPC”s are well done. They get little offset boxes with a few words describing their physical/personality attributes. Short, evocative, and focused on helping the DM run them. That section is followed by a few bullet points that describe their goals. “Get more Druge. Find some kids to kidnap.” and so on. It’s an effective way to communicate an NPC to the DM effectively.

There are a decent number of non-standard magic items also, which I love. A book that can copy pages if left on top of another over night. A pair of balls that will gently “tug” towards the location of the other one. Not just boring old mechanical attributes but DESCRIPTIONS of effects. Perfect.

The maps are also quite interesting, at least a few for the major locations. They show a scene and can be used as a battle map, but then there’s a second, for the DM, with notations all over it. They describe what’s on the map, almost like a one page dungeon. It’s a great example of leveraging the map for communicating additional information to the DM beyond “key number.”

They are also great reference sheets for rumors (divided by the type of person, like slave or wizard) and for some of the more complicated spell-casters. Good choices.

But …. It’s also got some pretty serious issues.

First, it needs a better summary. There is some long text, that I might say is background, but a small section laying out how the entire thing works together would have been VERY helpful. There are a few sections that try to do something like this but they are all either WAY too specific (the backgrounds) or very general (the flowcharts.) There needs to be something in the middle. AT one point there’s a village where people are sometimes VERY clearly compelled to say things (I love that telegraphed stuff) but you could EASILY miss the reason why. That’s the sort of thing for a general summary. The “one page outline” does a decent job but is missing some important things and still doesn’t feel like an “overview.”

More importantly, I find the text … conversational. The What’s Next and NPC sections are GREAT, as are the reference sheets, notations for rumors, etc. But the adventure falls down over the core text. One of the first sections is when the party teleports to Thay and are greeted by their hostess. There are three paragraphs of text, longish even, taking up a column, that describes the scene. How they are greeted, by who, what they do, etc. The paragraph format, or maybe the “long text paragraph” format doesn’t really work here. Scenes run in to other scenes or other text descriptions without much delineation. More whitespace, bolding, bullets, etc would help A LOT. It’s this, far and away, which drags the adventure down from the lofty heights it achieves in other areas.

Like I said, it’s VERY flavorful, and probably the best FR thing I’ve seen. I love the NPC’s and it would work as both a standalone and as a replacement for chapter 8. But you’re going to need time to prep it and a highlighter. It’s VERY hard for me to recommend it based on that. Better summaries and a reworking of the DM text/scenes would make this magnificent.

This is $5 at dmsguild.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Kidnap the Archpriest

Wed, 02/28/2018 - 12:11

By Skerples
Self Published
Low Levels

The Archpriest, leader of the Church, has defied a summons to the Immortal Capital. You have been chosen to retrieve the recalcitrant pontiff.

Disclosure: This went through my content partner service.

This 54 page adventure has the party coming up with a plan to … kidnap the archpriest from his holy chapel. It’s all based around NPC’s, devising a plan, diplomacy, sneaking, bribery … all of the things that make up a great social adventure in a city. (And, fair warning, I LUV city adventures.) Good timeline reference materials compliment great NPC descriptions and useful advice to support the DM in a sandbox manner. A little intimidating in length, it supports the DM well.

That teaser is short & to the point, isn’t it? Almost the entirety of this adventure could be described as short and to the point, in spite of its fifty or so pages. Most location, except for the main castle, get about one small paragraph of descriptions. The streets are narrow, maze-like and crowded. Perfect! Just enough to communicate the flavor … and then that’s supported by a random encounter table for day & evening. Likewise the river, and other important locations/sites the party will need. Do you need to know the price of a bowl of stew in order to kidnap the archpriest? If so then it’s in here (it’s not.) It focuses like a laser on supporting the main mission of the adventure. And as it does so it manages to communicate more flavor in each little section than was in the total of a mainstream product like Hoard/Rise.

The prologue serves as the hook. Here’s what the guy tells you: “His Dread Majesty Gulfrey II, ruler of the Immortal Capital, heir to the Immortal Empire, is troubled. The Archpriest, His Holiness Thomas I, has recently defied a summons to the Capital. While the dignity of the Archpriest, and his authority in spiritual matters, is not in doubt, His Dread Majesty has some… questions. Doubts, even, regarding the Archpriest’s recent publications.” And then it ends with “You can handle this discreetly, can’t you?

Great flavor, and reminds me a lot of the city administrator in Going Postal.

The NPC’s are well done also. A small little section for each, noting appearance, voice, wants, morality, intelligence and stats. Only the important stuff to help the DM run them and none of the trivia found with most NPC descriptions. Exactly what you need to run them and make them memorable.

Want more? There’s great advice. Getting the characters involved. How to orient the adventure for higher magic environments. GREAT advice in playing fair as the DM: there should not be surprises; the players should be able to figure things out. How to communicate tension and violence for the palace guard. There’s a page or so that covers advice for common things, like climbing the walls, bribing the guards, stuff the archpriest in a barrel for a trip down the river, and so on. The designer anticipates what the DM needs and provides it.

Almost everything is oriented toward the scenario at hand. The rumors, locations to be described, the river and street encounters, even the room descriptions of the castle. What can I steal, where can I hide, is the door locked, whos in the room and when, what are the vices of the NPC’s to be exploited … what you need to run an infiltration and social adventure.

The rumor table is cross-referenced. There’s a timeline breakout for each major area noting where NPC’s are and what major events are going on. There’s a sideview of the castle showing windows and noting locations. The treasure is great and oriented toward the environment. Who wants a blank letter of excommunication! Or red gloves, impervious to all damage?

Lookin at just one place, an inn. We get the owner, his wife (who wants sex & excitement, sort of) and is creating on her husaband with a chandler and sneaks in her window every night. He’s a little dumb and looks JUST like Cardinal Delver … and delivers candles each day to the castle … In this one little section, with three brief NPC descriptions, you have leverage over the innkeeper, his wife and her lover and can now blackmail to encourage them in to plots. You can use the chandler to impersonate the cardinal, or to get in to the castle, or blackmail the cardinal. It’s ters and full of multiple possibilities all oriented to the task at hand. And that’s what you want.

A good solid city sandbox adventure.

This is $5 on DriveThru. The preview is seven pages. How Can I Help, on page 3, gives you a good idea of the advice and tone of the adventure. The next page of the preview is the prologue, dripping with cold-hearted flavor, with the next page giving an example of the NPC format (although its three of the more boring/remote ones)

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Isle of Klamacki

Sat, 02/24/2018 - 12:14

By Jay Kemberling & Joel Logan
A Hole in the Ground Terrain & Games
Leven 1

They have all been convicted of various crimes. Let your players come up with what they were rightly or wrongly convicted of. They are told they must keep a lighthouse lit for the next five years upon the island as their punishment. A supply ship will come every six months to bring them provisions for the lighthouse. They are told to stay within the walls guarding the lighthouse and not to venture onto the island for great evil awaits them there.

This seventeen page adventure has the characters stuck on an island. Two individuals offer them an escape, if they kill the other person. It’s quite long for what it is, offering really just two encounter areas. It’s a good idea, easy to read and run, but needs to be fleshed out more.; it seems too small/lite.

I reviewed a different adventure in this series and wasn’t very impressed. The folks there suggested I look at this one, one of their favorites. I can see why. It’s quite different in tone and organization from that earlier offerings. The background is short, only about two paragraphs, and describes lovers cursed, and that one must die to break the curse. Nice classic set up. As the intro implies, the party starts on the island. Being PC’s they will no doubt explore where told not to, and this encounter one or both of the NPC’s and be offered an opportunity to escape if only they would kill the other, freeing the NPC from the curse. A melancholy affair, I salute the adventure for getting in and out fast with background and the classic trope.

The unique magic items are ok, with unique effects but somewhat generic descriptions. A line of “WoW” would go a long way there. It adventure also does a decent job of making Question & Answer time easier for the DM. For each of the three main NPC’s (two accursed lovers and a lighthouse keeper) we get a small section description questions the party might ask and their response. It’s easy to pick things out, even though it is in “read aloud” format. The read-aloud doesn’t really add anything, and therefore it could have been in “DM text” format, saving considerably on space.

It also provides some guidance with common PC activities. Want to build a weapon? Or hunt? The adventure provides some short guidelines, as well as one or two obvious gimme’s for PC’s, like “A dwarf will recognize the stonework as elven.” THis is good adventure design: anticipating the most frequent issues the DM will have to face and addressing it.

It’s short, with only two real encounters: each of the former lovers. You may visit each multiple times, but it’s just those two. Other than the length and weakness of writing (which I’ll get to shortly) this is the primary issue with the adventure. It’s more of a side trek, in Dungeon Magazine terms. In fact, I’d say it could EASILY be a one-page dungeon and loose very little.

There ARE some long read-alouds. Again, you get three sentences, at most. More than that and people stop paying attention. Don’t believe me? Go find the WOTC article on the subject. It’s linked in my “Review Standards” page.

I would note also that he writing addresses the characters directly, which is never a good idea. This is done, generally, to build tension and communicate flavor and I think it’s a TERRIBLE way to accomplish that. “In your weakened condition …” or “You make your way to the center of the bottom level …” Nope. Do not. I hug the wall, like I always do, awaiting DM treachery. These attempts at first person writing don’t get the party in the mood, they do the opposite in yanking them out of it.

The read-aloud is also abstracted. “The lighthouse looks old.” That’s a conclusion, it’s abstracted from something. Better to write and describe the lighthouse in such a way that the listener/reader comes the conclusion it’s old. AGain, I’m not looking a novel here, just a short replacement sentence that communicates the vibe that the lighthouse is old, for example.

There’s a moral issue in this adventure, and those are always hard in D&D. It’s supposed to be a fun game; there are indie games available for exploring your childhood traumas. Two accursed lovers. Both want you to kill the other. Both offer you an escape from the island if you help them. No one really evil. That makes the choice hard. A little more in the “Chris was obviously evil, at least at one time” category, or a clear third option (there is one of those, but it’s not exactly clear to the party, I think) could help the designer out of that bind.

I wouldn’t say this is a good adventure, it’s a tad short and the writing a bit long. But it’s not exactly a bad adventure either. Given my recent 5e reviews that alone is a compliment. A one-page version of this would be a nice thing to experiment with. The vibe reminds me a bit of the Metagorgos adventure I reviewed … in the last year? I don’t feel ripped off, and while I think the themes interesting, there’s not enough to capture go forward with running it, I think. But … I’m also interested enough in the publisher to check out some of their other offerings.

This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview is only two pages, with the second page showing you that short little background at the end of it. A third page, showing an encounter, would have been helpful from a “make a purchasing decision” standpoint. http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/225869/Off-the-Beaten-Path-Vol-I-The-Isle-of-Klamacki

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Revelry in Northgate

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 12:16

By Stephen J. Grodzicki
Low Fantasy Gaming
Level 2?

Lady Hargraves, a prestigious noblewoman and infamous socialite, has a desperate mission for the party: her husband Lord Hargraves is on a drinking binge once again, and she wants him returned home, in one piece, ASAP.

This eleven page adventure has the party searching about town for a nobleman on a bender. A random street encounter table, a selection of a dozen bars, and a finale bar provide the setting. Labeled a “Framework”, I would instead say it embodies the spirit of old school design, in both it’s focus on the adventure at hand and, well, Framework design. And while I can admire the concept I can also say that I don’t think it succeeds. The bars are connected as well as they could be, the outcome seems a bit random, and the street encounters seem more like window dressing. And, for the record, I LUV city adventures.

Rereading the hook, which I supplied as the publishers adventure description up there in the first paragraph, perfectly orients you to the adventure. It’s terse and relatable and I, the DM, know what to expect.

What follows is about a page of additional background to expand on it, something akin to the “first encounter” with her ladyship. Laid out over multiple paragraphs it could have done with some bolding of certain lines to make them stand out. Things like “Hargrave’s carousings tend to involve punching out other lords, setting stables on fire, emptying his gold purse in some of the less reputable “dancing” houses …”, or perhaps the finders fee/reward and so on. It’s also a bit sparse on a personality for her ladyship, and give that most of a page is devoted to this section it seems like that should be included.

The street encounters take up a little over one page next. I like the idea but not the execution. The encounters here tend to window dressing. “Etched into the floor of this tiled courtyard is an awe inspiring landscape (preserved elven relic): a clifftop overlooking the sea, with a pterodactyl rider fending off a pair of giant dragonflies.” And? This reminds me of the Isle of the Unknown encounters, where stuff just shows up, without any potential energy. Almost all of the street encounters lack this sort of energy, and I don’t believe any of them is actually related to the adventure at hand. Hmmm, maybe one, a curfew suddenly being declared. Otherwise they seem too tangential to provide the DM anything to work with to springboard off of. They need just a little more and/or a rewording.

At some point in the night you have an encounter with the secret police/palace guards. I don’t see it leading to anything other than combat 80% of the time. And yet there are no consequences for killing them. That seems unusual. It’s also a bit strange that their background and history are included in the main text, clogging it up, instead of in an appendix. I like my text focused on the adventure at hand with background data in an appendix where I can easily ignore it while running at the table.

The pub crawl to find Hargrave is, essentially, random. Roll a d12. If you get a 12 you’re at the bar where he is. If you get a 10 you’re at a bar that has a real clue to his location. Everything else is either some small little action and/or rpg element or a dead end clue. I’m not morally opposed to this style (yet, anyway.) But I am highly suspicious. In D&D the destination is meaningless and it’s the journey that counts. This FEELS like the party has little control over their own fate in finding him. Perhaps I’m too gun shy because of all of the linear adventures I’ve reviewed. It SEEMs like the bar crawl should be an ok idea, but it looks an awful lot like this other stuff I’ve seen that really sucks …

In conjunction with this is a kind of timer. Your reward is based on her ladyship not being too embarrassed by her husbands drunken antics. For every hour the party takes the DM rolls on the drunken antics table. But, recall, finding him is almost entirely out of the players hands, random. I might instead marry the concept to something like Short Rests, or whatever is analogous in the system this is being run in. If you “waste time” then an antic happens, where waste time is rest, conduct a ritual, go seek healing, etc. That would put the outcomes a little more in the players hands. Now their decisions to get in to fights/avoid them (wasting HP resources that need healing, etc) impact the outcome.

I like the concept/style/design principals of these adventure frameworks, even if this one was not stellar, and may check out a few more. Although … I could swear I’ve seen one of these before somewhere.

This is $1 at DriveThru. The preview is only two pages long, with only one page of real content, the background page.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Dark Tower of Arcma

Mon, 02/19/2018 - 12:14

by Joseph A. Mohr
Expeditious Retreat Press
Levels 6-10

For many years now the locals around the village of Dunmoth have spoken only in whispers about the strange goings on in the Wild Woods around the village. Tales of a dark tower that appears in the night and then disappears again by day have been passed along for generations in the village. Strange creatures have been seen around this tower the like of which have never been seen or even heard of before. Creatures that appear almost to be some kind of monstrous combination of some of the most hideous and horrifying creatures known are claimed to have been seen near this tower. Rumors of the tower’s return have circulated, and a hearty band of adventures has left to explore the dread place. The question remains if they can return, however…

This sixteen page adventure describes a wizards tower with about fifty rooms; four tower levels and three dungeons. The tower levels are just one big open room each but the dungeon levels are small fifteen room-ish affairs. This leans towards funhouse a little, with certain rooms having encounters that make little sense in context, but that probably doesn’t matter; it’s D&D after all. Decent new magic items do not make up for the long paragraph writing style employed. It’s got a bit of the set-piece thing going on (again, the funhouse aspect), but getting past that I’d say the effort lacks a strong edit to impose good style.

The tower appears during the full moon and disappears when the first hint of moon appears in the sky. Inside are … challenges. In one tower level room you have to answer a riddle of a demon appears to attack. Another room is pretty explicit: a skull says something like “who accepts my challenge?” Doing so teleports you to a single combat chamber and you fight a monster. Long ago a player in a game made an adventure I played in. You spun the wheel from the game life and either got a treasure or fought a monster. That was the entirety of the adventure. While I appreciate them making an effort, the Judge in me raises an eyebrow, especially in a commercial product like this one. Surely there are better ways?

Likewise there’s another room where you answer a riddle and in return all of the suits of armor in the big tower room burn to ashes and a magic ring appears. Sooo …. As the owner of the tower I must say that I have chosen a rather strange jewelry box, what with the riddle and the burning down and the devotion of an entire level of my tower to such a lock. Again this points to the funhouse like aspect to the design. Rooms appear not because they make sense, or because they were crafted to work together, but rather because the designer had an idea they wanted to use and just put it in. I think maybe just a LITTLE more pretext is called for … or else go the other direction entirely and make it the Mad Jesters dungeon.

The room descriptions are LONG, three paragraph affairs with little formatting to them or attempts to call out special data via bolding, etc. This forces you to keep your head down, reading the entry and continually look at it. That’s not a DM style I can be supportive of. I want to have my head up, looking at the players, interacting with them, taking quick glances down. This is the “scanning method” that I mention so frequently. Reading the room is for the first time read through 45 minutes before players show up, not for running it at the table. These long writing styles with little formatting do not lend themselves to the scanning style. I don’t know, maybe I’m alone. I don’t see how it’s possible to be an effective DM while continually looking down and reading instead of interacting with the players.

At times we get long descriptions of normal things, like what an alchemist’s lab looks like. These sorts of laundry lists (or maybe Doomsday Book) of room contents are lame and do nothing to support an adventure. If you don’t know what’s in a bedroom or kitchen by now then it’s not the designers job to fix you.

Some of the magic items are just book things, but others are more interesting. A ring of Murder os made of congealed and hardened blood. Cool! Exactly the sort of specificity I am looking for, and it took almost no extra space to describe.

This stands in contrast to the new monsters. I generally like new monsters, they keep the party guessing. It’s also important to write the entries effectivly. The first line of the “Broken Ones” is that “these creatures are the sad objects of Arcmas experimentation.” Should that REALLY be the first sentence? Is that what the DM needs when they flip to this entry after a wanderer is called for? Description first, call out notable features, etc. The bullshit flavor text backstory can be shoved in later on. Further, I don’t thin the entries support the DM well. The Broken Ones are supposed to be human animal hybrids, all different, but that’s all we’re told. No table to help us out, or example given. That’s a MAJOR miss to helping the DM create an evocative atmosphere.

This is $14 at DriveThru. The preview is six pages long and shows you a lot of the adventure style. Levels two and three of the tower appear on page three of the preview and show you the funhouse riddle rooms. Virtually any room in the last half of the preview, the dungeon rooms, will illustrate the longish writing style.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs