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Updated: 2 weeks 3 days ago

Island of Blight

Mon, 09/02/2019 - 11:15
By Thom Wilson Throwi Games 1e/5e Levels 3-5

The Red Priests of the Snake God suffered a crushing blow to their plans when they failed to take the small town of Thuil. Reeling from their defeat, they have returned to the deep jungles of Nolgur-Wul to regroup. The human villages outside the jungles know that it is only a matter of time before the Red Priests and their minions return. Now is the time to take the fight to them, deep within the jungles! The characters are urged to delve into the depths of Nolgur-Wul to track the Red Priests back to their clandestine temple where it is said a serpent queen, maiden of the Snake God himself, leads the growing cult. On the trail of the fleeing Red Priests, the adventurers find that a mysterious blight has recently begun to destroy the western jungles, villages, and all life within. What starts as a quick investigation becomes an unusual and deadly puzzle. More importantly, is this blight the Snake God’s doing or something completely separate?

This 28 page adventure describes a little overland journey and about forty indoor locations in three locations on a small island. Generic writing, generalized abstractions. In short: it’s boring.

Ok, so, there’s a bunch of vegetation dying in an ever increasing area. You find some abandoned villages, maybe. You find an island with some ruined buildings on it. There’s a bunch of notes and zombies scattered around. In the basement in a machine that’s generating the blight and the notes, deciphered correctly, help you set the levers to turn it off.

It’s got some monsters reference sheets. It’s got some cross-references. Ultimately though it’s boring. There’s a kind of generalized abstractaction that ribs the adventure of anything interesting. Instead, there’s an emphasis on history and explaining why the way things are. “This rock is here because someone kicked it down the stairs three hundred years ago.” That sort of thing does not create interesting play opportunities. That sort of thing does not inspire the DM to run a fantastic room or encounter. It’s boring.

“Wonderfully decorated doors lead to areas B8 and B10”, the text tells us. The second part is clearly just telling us what we can see from the map. The first part “wonderfully decorated” is a great example of that abstraction. It’s a conclusion someone might draw rather than what someone might observe. This is TELLING instead of SHOWING. Lapis & amber inlaid bronze doors with minurettes and palms … that’s showing instead of telling. That text inspires the DM and then leverages the DM to add more while the previous text instead burdens the DM to come up with it all from scratch. 

The text must inspire the DM, that’s what I generally mean when I’m talking about evocative text. Text that shows instead of tells. Text that enables the DM to add more rather than requires them to add more.

On top of this the text is padded out with trivia. A secret door is easy to find because it was left partially open when some residents of the temple fled from a blah blah blah. Or, “This escape passage provided Kahleemar with a way to leave his bedchamber quickly or hide from unwanted visitors. The escape tunnel is completely dark” Well that’s all fucking great. By which of course I mean, completely useless at a gaming table. There’s no furniture because cultists stole it. A rich and deep history of a location is not the same as a location that’s evocative, interactive, and easy to use. It’s maddening to see all of the trivia included while being faced with the abstracted descriptions. 

And then the monsters and other important facts are buried deep in room text. First things first: it’s there’s a giant flaming eye of sauron (lower case) in the middle of the fucking room then fucking lead with that in your description. THATS what is going to stand out. Burying it in the second paragraph is dumb. “Oh, uh, sorry gang, there’s actually a giant flaming sauron eye in the room” or a long pregnant pause while you read three paragraphs of room text in order to give a description to the players? Neither you say? Damn fucking right. Obvious things should come first. 

Oh, I could go on and on. Maybe five or six thousand in treasure for a 1e adventure at levels 3-5? This is a do-gooder adventure, light on treasure. The villages you find along the way are boring abstractions. There are lots and lots and LOTS of notes lying around fr the party to find, in order to solve the final puzzle. The titular blighted island has three primary exploration areas on it … and the main one comes before the two minor ones. There’s not real explanation of the slight spread or “the blight line”, crossing over it, etc. Just a note, buried in a later sidebar, on how to apply disease rolls. 

JABA – Just ANother Boring Adventure.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview iw four pages. It shows you four pages of a monster reference sheet. This is a bad preview. Show us some room encounters for Vecna’s sake so we know the quality of the writing we’re fucking buying!


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Descent into Mirefen

Sat, 08/31/2019 - 11:15
By William Murakami-Brundage Menagerie Press 5e Levels 5-7

Within Mirefen’s bog is a ruined temple. This edifice is now home to a tribe of toad folk, who have defiled the holy site with strange effigies to their squat, bestial gods. Can the adventurers wrest magic and treasure from the swamp?

This 44 page adventure details a not-bullywug tribe in some swamp ruins and is a kind of base assault on a 35-ish room area. They’ve got a magic gem and someone with ill-intent wants it. The intent, outline, and framing of this are good with the execution sucking. The usual poor read-aloud and trivia DM text is to blame. There are some nits also but, this ain’t no railroad. 

Toak people in a swamp live in some ruins. In the ruins is also a magic gem that they like a lot. In town you meet a drunk guy in a bar who is supposed to guide a diplomatic mission to the toad-people pretty soon, when the mission arrives in a day or so. The mission wants to bring the toad-people under their allied umbrella and get the gem. Their from a god of strength and war, all Might Makes Right. The guide is LE and it’s pretty strongly implied the mission is also. It’s all “no hesitation in destroying people who disrespect them”, as well as the tribe etc.

The tone is interesting for 5e. Usually it’ raving maniacal evil cultists and the like. You can negotiate with the drunk guy and join up with the mission. And while they have evil alignment it’s not really displayed much more than any PC party would be. “Yeah, we’re going to these ruins full of bullwugs to get a magic gem … they better not try and stop us.” It’s a much better approach and it open up the adventure to a lot more possibilities.

And that’s what I mean by the framing, outline, and intent of the adventure. It takes a more neutral approach to the design. That drunk guy? The LE guide? You can pickpocket him. You can break in to his room at night. You can join up with him, either for realisies or as a deception. The high paladin that leads the mission? Essentially the same thing. She’ll bring the party along as she negotiates … and potentially slaughters, the toad people. And they might even be good allies that don’t backstab the party if the bullywugs ambush the mission. Or you can try and beat the mission to the ruins. And then you could try and fool the toad-people. Open. Ended. It is SO much more fucking refreshing to see an adventure written this way. There are suggestions on how to handle common things that might happen, the various situations, and that’s exactly what an adventure should do: support the DM

So, an adventure written in an open-ended way that doesn’t force the party down a narrow path. Great! There’s even a kind of reaction matrix for the village on what they do when folks attack.

There could be another table, I think, noting day/night cycle movements and so on, to help support a stakeout and stealth mission, but I’ll take what I can.

On the downside, well, there’s a lot. 

Most importantly, the designer doesn’t know how to write an encounter decently. Read-aloud, while generally the correct length (thank Vecna …) is the same boring generic stuff that appears in every adventure. It’s not evocative at all. Although, interesting enough, each major area (the swamp, the ruins, the dungeon) has a little section that describes conditions and those ARE evocative. Rank sweat, herbal smoke and old ale. Yum!

DM text also has the usual issues. It’s conversational, writing in a style that is more at home in a novelization (without the purple prose) then it is to what the DM text should be: a reference document. As always, this makes scanning for information hard.  There’s also a substantial number of suggested skill checks that are essentially meaningless to the adventure. “Make a DC 15 to figure out this meaningless trivia!” 

I might note also that I mentioned a base assault in the intro paragraph. There’s not much weird in this, or things to play with, but there is a lot of combat. It’s not entirely devoid of more interesting options, there’s an alter here or there, but it generally restricts itself to “boring old base” more than crumbling ruins to explore and get in trouble with. Of course, stealth, combat, and talking to the toad-people are all included, but some other things would have been good idea. In particular, a more complex map, for better sneaking/pushing ruins over on people.

The “evil” mission is also a little generic. The members don’t really ge personalities or quirks at all. A few of those, even if just for the leadership, would have made a roleplay with them as allies more interesting. Imagine hooking up with them in town and watching their movements. That’s all for the DM. 

 And it’s gone ape-fucking shit with the name. Sha Halthas, Mirefen, Shigguk village, Dhrnu alliance, Dannt and Besharas. At least it not that 20-sylabyl Forgotten Realms shit or Venger’s can’t-hav’e-to’o-man’y-apostriphe’s. Seriously, make the adventure approachable. 

Finally, just some weird shit left out. The starting town is known for its fine almost-magical horsies that they sell. But there are no horsie details. Uncool dude. There’s also a potential wandering encounter with a black dragon, flying overhead and not fucking with the party unless they fuck with it. My OSR mind immediatly went to “Fuck that magic gem. Let’s follow it to the lair! Dragon Hoard!” Ok, so that last one is not really related to the adventure. 

If the designer can get their writing game pumped up then maybe future projects will be worthwhile. It’s gonna take a lot of a delete key, though, and some agonzining writing.

This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is ten pages. Good try, but it doesn’t actually show you any of the encounter writing. A decent preview should show some of that. The ninth page does show some of that “atmosphere” text block that I think is a little better than most of the writing.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Corrupted Jungle

Mon, 08/19/2019 - 11:15
By Peter Rudin-Byrgess Self-published Zweihander / ROlemaster

The action starts with the wrecking of the Wight’s Shadow. With the characters washed up on the beach they have many adventures before them and will face many horrors in a strange land of jungle, witchcraft and mutated monsters. … The adventure should cumulate in a confrontation with a Defiler who has returned to her homeland to exact her revenge and destroy her own people who drove her away centuries before.

This fifteen page adventure gives a general overview of three or four locations on an island you’re shipwrecked on. “Abstracted outline with weirdly specific mechanic details” would be how I’d describe it. 

Let’s say I write an adventure. Your ship runs aground on an island, and the crew turn to zombies to attack you. There’s four locations on the island. One is a ruined city full of religious cultists who are friendly but really want you to, voluntarily, sacrifice yourself in the volcano. There’s another set of ruins with some carnivorous apes in it. There’s a third set with an evil necromancer, who is going to wipe out the cultist village. 

That’s it. That’s the adventure content. That’s what you’re getting here, except in 15 pages. There is barely anything more specific than what I write above. Is that an adventure? It’s more of a setup, and certainly could be used like a sandbox, I suppose. But it’s just an outline. Or, even less than outline. 

The rest of the pages are taken up with wall of text descriptions of what happens in each area. The necromancers history takes nearly a column. There’s a bunch of trivia for the carnivorous apes. There’s a detailed description of how the cult leads (willing) sacrifices up to the volcano to sacrifice them … and the skill checks needed to escape. It’s all one great big giant block of text. There MIGHT be paragraph breaks, but everything is left justified so you can’t tell where a paragraph starts, just where the last one ends, I guess? It’s just a continual list of what is, essentially, if/then statements. If the party defeats x then Y. if the apes spot the characters then Z. If you defeat D then J. All back to back in that weird left-justified format.

There no main map, just a text description. You see some paths going in to the jungle, some pyramids and ziggurats over the trees. From this the DM is left to figure out which one is the “Jungle Settlement”, the “Pyramid Settlement” and the “Ziggurat”.  I find this lack of even the most basic cross-referencing maddenning. If you say that there are jungle paths and then the next section is Jungle Settlement, how am I to figure out that A leads to B? Call it Jungle Paths or something else obvious. Or, better fucking yet, use a fucking kay & fucking map! That’s what they exist the fuck to do! 

I can’t fucking stand it when I have to fight the text. When people leave shit out like a map and key. When they seem to be purposefully obtuse. The fucking left-justified wall of text shit. There is no way in hell this was ever given to anyone to look at before publication. … I find it impossible to believe that even the most kind of reviewers would overlook this shit.

This is, inexplicably, $3 on DriveThru. The preview is six pages. The shipwreck is on page four while the cult settlement is on page six. Both to a fine job of exemplifying the “content” you’ll be getting. 


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Darkest Dream

Sat, 08/17/2019 - 11:08
Alphinius Goo Gooey Cube LLC 5e Level 1

The Darkest Dream begins the epic tale of a group of Hanataz youth who are charged with working security for the last Carnivalle of the season. The Hanataz are the Traveling Folk of the world of Zyathé and are an ostracized people due to the many Blood-Touched membevrs of their troupes. But while the Traveling Folk are not welcome in most towns and villages, the shows they put on are enjoyed by many. However, this is no ordinary Carnivalle. Horrid and vile schemes are afoot. An ancient foe plots deadly revenge. A group of organized criminals looks to frame the Hanataz for murder. And, nearby, creatures from the Dark Below plan an attack on the camp. Beyond this, it is Darktide’s Eve, which is a time of fearful and evil portents. Can you and your friends overcome the many dangers set against you, protect the troupe, and solve the mystery of the Darkest Dream? If you don’t. Many will die. Including those you love.

It’s not a railroad, but it’s mostly unusable, or, maybe odious to use. 

At GenCon I stopped by a booth doing 5e Adventures, Gooey, and they were giving out free download coupons for a large boxed set adventure. It turns out that it is free to download for everyone. What caught my attention was the guy pitched it as a play aid to DM’s and usable, making design choices like a lay flat spiral adventure book and so on. And thus, this review.

It comes with a seven page info dump booklet for the players on the background of the setting, their carnival-folk home & setting. A twelve page philosophy/house rules booklet. A 74 page reference book with monster stats, optional encounters and so on. Seventy pages of handouts. An 82 page “items” booklet (representing about 41 cards to hand out), 51 pages of pregens, 22 pages of reward cards (about 11 2-sided cards), a 4-page NPC reference sheet (Yeah!) and the 64 page adventure book. 

You’re part of a travelling carnival group. The junior members of a rather large (by usual RPG conventions) troupe. The adventure is built around the last day of the carnival near a town before the troupe moves on to another site. The parties job is to roam the grounds watching out for trouble. There is essentially one encounter, the last one, where some kids get abducted. The rest of the adventure is wandering around the carnivals fifteen locations, each with a little encounter, and some additional optional encounters thrown in from the DM reference book. Almost like wanderers, but not quite. Thus it’s not REALLY a railroad, but not quite an adventure either. More of an “experience.” This is, I guess, a compliment. At the very least, the adventure structure is not confusing and not a railroad which makes it better than the vast majority of adventures floating around for 5e. 

“Experience” is not my thing. I’m also capable of understanding that other people like other things. I’m going to address the “experience” aspect of the adventure a bit and then move on to more universal themes, like usability, and why this adventure is bad even for those looking for an Experience.

The adventure goes to great lengths to remind you it is epic. And a story. To experience. It is CONSTANT in reminding you of that, as if in justifying itself. I would suggest that this is the wrong approach. The adventure is unlikely to convince the non-story crowd and the story crowd don’t need convinced. It wants to provide you an immersive experience, it says so several times. But what is an experience? If the DM says you’re the Chosen One and you can’t die in the campaign and the DM tells a story, ala Giovanni Chronicles, then did you have an experience? Experiences come through play, it comes through the emergent opportunities that arise during play. There must be SOME pretext and/or structure to frame things but the experience comes through the parties actions during play. It does NOT come from the story the DM is telling. That is weaksauce. And yet, that is the way the vast majority of players have learned to play D&D. The sins of the 90’s continue to haunt us. 

Experiences usually come with plot armor and its present here. The pre-gens are tough. There’s advice on not killing the party (in 5e, imagine …) and instructions to run things tough … but also on how to not kill the party. The contradictions are ripe and they all stem from The Story. 

And yet … this thing doesn’t fuck around in that area. It goes on and on and on about plot, experience, not killing, being tough, and so on. But then the adventure is actually nothing like that. The adventure does that over and over and over again. I read the adventure last, concentrating on the supplemental materials first and, based on the text in those, I was prepared to rip this thing to shreds. Not killing. Plot. Story. Experience. But that’s not actually what the adventure is. It’s fucking around for awhile to root the party in the campaign and then an encounter. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. The booklet tells you that you cant just peruse a Gooey Cube adventure and be ready to run a game. But that’s not true either. This isn’t complex at all. I might suggest that there is one thing missing/keeping you from doing just that: what the locals know. If there were, like, six bullet points on the Old Well and the Sinkhole Ruins, concentrating on what the locals/carnival folk know, then this would be runnable almost out of the box. NPC’s have summaries. The encounters are cross-referenced. It’s fifteen locations, some NPC’s, and some random social-ish encounters. You could probably figure out what the locals know and make notes from the extensive backstory present. But I don’t make notes, that’s the designers job. When the party finds the old well or the sinkhole then they are likely to grab someone and ask questions … consulting twelve pages of backstory scattered around the various books is not going to be a simple task. 

This adventure does a dozen different things wrong. The NPC portraits have full paragraphs on the back instead of being scannable.  Skill rolls are perfunctory or poorly handled … but then again almost every adventure does that and I’m not ready to fight THAT battle yet. A door regens 20hp/round to keep the party from bashing it down cause it’s not story time yet! The lay-flat book does not make up for these. (And, as an aside, just like Ravenloft, this uses gypsies reskinned. I don’t understand why people do that. The adventure does give a one sentence inspired/bigotry note on the credits page, but, still, better I think not to go near the subject at all.) 

But none of this is the major problem with the adventure. The major problem is the complete lack of understanding on how to format an encounter. Ok, ok, combats are cross-referenced to the DM reference booklet so full stats, etc, are not in the main adventure text. That’s a plus. But the rest of the encounters are terrible. Not in their interactive element but in their formatting/presentation.

The read-aloud is long and usually has multiple paragraphs. It can frequently end with “What do you do?” The DM text is is conversational rather than presented in a reference format, making finding things difficult. Section breaks are largely not present in any meaningful way. Read aloud frequently tells you what you think and do. Clearly this is an attempt to provide a richer experience but this technique, in particular, just communicates a railroad novelization. 

Looking at the very first area in the carnival: “Area A – Main Food & Drinks Wagons”, a nice bold section heading. A read-aloud then follows. It says there’s a Wagon of Smile and a Wagon of Tastes and 4-5 people in line and some enticing spicy aroma from Sunnessy’s. The DM text then tells us that the PC’s know they can get something to eat from Sunnessy’s wagon and something to drink by going to the Wagon of Smiles. It then tells us that if the party goes to the back of Leena’s wagon then (mor read-aloud and DM text for her wagon.) 

The issue, here, is the lack of consistency. The adventure is mixing wagon names (taste/smiles) with names (Leena/Sunnessy.) And this is on top of read-aloud which is FAR too long. And the “if you go to Leena wagon” has no section break at all, or subtitle, it just launches in to more read-aloud for her wagon. This the effect is a long multi-page string of text, lengthy sections bolded for read-aloud, and no real ability to quickly locate which sections of text are relevant to the situation the party is in … forcing the DM to waste time and hunt the information down. This is not usability; it’s the opposite.

The adventure is trying desperately to create an immersive experience with ethe read-aloud but it instead comes off forced. Here’s but two sentences in an overly long section: “But of greater interest to you is that she also pours the sweet libations that she and Stoof so expertly dis- till. You can see Leena – her face just above the counter on the wagon-side – grumbling as she pays out to a local for winning an arm-wrestling match.” Clearly more appropriate to a bad fantasy novel than an adventure. The read-aloud is trying present vignettes, little scenes, full of color and life … which run them in three or four paragraph length. This is not the way to accomplish this. At one point, in front of a (seven?) page read-aloud then DM advice is “If yours is the type of group that doesn’t like ‘story time’ …”  No one likes story time. Yes, thats the background data to be handed out beforehand, but, no one likes a three paragraph read-aloud. This is not the way you accomplish the immersive experience.

Trim the read-aloud. A lot. Format the DM sections so information is easier to find. Trim WAY back on the useless DM advice like “you can vary the length of the people standing in line if the party comes back later …” Put in a summary of what the locals know about the area, somewhere. 

Finally, the adventure feels like a series of encounters. Given the locations and the “wandering” encounters, it feels more like little self-contained items. Instead, integrating some of the encounters together in a suggested format would have been a good idea. Hints and foreshadowing. The guy with the eye-patch? Imagine a chart that has little hints and stuff as an aid to the DM, so the party catches sight of things before the main event happens. A sort of timeline of the optional events, or, rather, hints and foreshadows of the optional events, with the location events worked in, to give a more organic feel to the entire adventure.

A timeline isn’t a railroad. It throws out hooks, right and left, giving the party options. It creates a depth to the carnival that individual encounters can never have, no matter how much read-aloud there is. THAT’S what is going to create an immersive experience.  

 I applaud the goal of usability and immersion. Usability is more than a four-page reference sheet with 50 NPC’s on it. Immersion is not read-aloud. Trivial DM asides are not useful information. 

The Darkest Dream – Chapter One of the Red Star Rising Campaign
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Temple of the Harpies

Wed, 08/14/2019 - 11:13
By Morten Greis Aegis Studios B/X Levels 2-3

A small child has been stolen from their parents, and the adventurers must find their way to the temple not just to gain riches and uncover secrets of the past, but also to save the child. During the exploration of the ruin, the characters may unleash an army of undead, whom they must contend with.

This fourteen page adventure describes a ruined midwife temple with twelve rooms in about six pages. Decently organized, evocative writing, interactive … it manages it all before throwing in a bunch of room history to muddy things up. This needed a hard edit and it didn’t get it. Still, it’s ok.

There’s this concept of unique monsters that is not usually touched upon. You’re not fighting A troll, you’re fighting THE troll. It elevates the monster back to mythic status. This adventure has a bit of that going on … you’re fighting the first harpy. In the place where was cursed to be one: the temple to a midwife of which she was in charge. And she now steals babies to turn them in to harpies. That’s a fucking story. It makes sense, and when things makes sense you can build on them. It’s not followed through on much; there’s a village nearby that knows there’s a harpy there, so the whole mythic angle kind of falls off … but still, harpy stealing babies is great.

The adventure pays attention to things the DM needs to know. The entry for “outside the temple” has a little section on what the party finds out if they scope out the ruins for awhile. Perfect! That’s something parties do and the adventure gives you some advice on what they see. Two sentences. It also notes obvious ruins entrances. Again, perfect; that’s the question people ask and the adventure helps the DM answer it. This sort of thing continues in the adventure. One room has notes about attracting the attention of creatures in the next room, with notes about how they react. It’s got a cross-reference to point the DM at the relevant section. 

It’s not that adventures need a “view from outside the ruins” or notes on what the party sees if they stake the place out, or notes on reactions of nearby creatures. Not per se. What’s notable is that IN THESE SITUATIONS IN THIS ADVENTURE the DM could use some extra guidance/help and the designer recognized this and provided it. Yeah, these specific examples are going to fit a lot of adventures, but the general rule is the important one, not the specific one. The creatures that you could conceivable talk to, by parlay or torture, have a little sentence or two on what they know. Again, just what the haggard DM ordered. 

Interactivity is good. Exploring, talking to ghosts, interrogating kobolds. And even, potentially, bargaining with the harpy for the most recently kidnapped baby. Secret doors need things to be opened. A room causes you to cry tears of holy water. You can swamp a statue baby for a real one. For only twelve rooms it’s pretty good.

And the writing it pretty decent also. Leaves blown in to the corners of rooms. A stench of wet dirt. Low mists with gravestones peeking out. “None of the skeletons have any skulls.” It’s primarily from the read-aloud, which is kept short. It feels a little forced at times but I’m going to attribute that to perhaps some second-language issues. (And to be clear, the english here is excellent, perhaps just missing some of the nuance that a REALLY talented writer could bring.) 

The read-aloud generally refers to things in the DM’s text. The DM’s text has paragraph breaks with holding to draw the eye to the appropriate section “The Items on the floor” section has the details on … the items seen on the floor from the read-aloud. The writing does tend to be a bit long but the combination of the read-aloud referring to the bolded section that follow, with the use of whitespace makes it all pretty easy to find what you need in a hurry. 

This is an O&O adventure, which I THINK is based off of B/X. If it’s gold=xp then the gold is a quite light.

I mentioned that the writing can be long. THis is generally because of the rooms history. “Originally this room was a blah blah blah” says the paragraph that drones on for four sentences. I don’t care why the roof is destroyed, be it time or siege. I don’t care that visitors nevers went to this room, only midwives. This doesn’t matter to the adventure. Or, rather, I only care about those details in as much as they relate to the party exploring. Crumbling roofs are great. How they got that way is useless trivia that gets in the way of quickly scanning the text to find what you need to run the room. Unless, of course, it has some bearing on the adventure. Some DIRECT bearing on the adventure. Not a “might be nice” detail. Not a “depth and richness for the DM.” There’s a place for that, but not two cousins removed. 

Decent adventure which would be made better by the delete key. I don’t see an editor listed, but, that probably wouldn’t have made a difference anyway, so oh well.

This is $2 at DriveThru. The preview is only three pages. The last page shows you the “outside” text and the beginning of the first room. The read-aloud is not the bets in the adventure (it’s one of the poorer examples), but the DM text and attention section are good examples of what’s to be found deeper in. Another page of “real” text would have been appreciated.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Chaos Triads

Mon, 08/12/2019 - 11:22
By Steven Marsh Steve Jackson Games The Fantasy Trip "Starting Characters"

A dying heir, an abandoned mine, and a closely-held secret figure into this gamemastered adventure for The Fantasy Trip, as a group of heroes set forth on a mission of mercy. But they are not the first to take on this quest, and the actions of their predecessors will bring them up against the edge of Chaos itself. Can they survive an encounter with the Chaostained?

Hey. a bunch of Fantasy Trip aventures showed up on DriveThru! Let’s review one!

This thirteen page adventure is a linear series of combats divided by a couple of puzzles for eleven-ish encounters total. It shows signs of life during the alloted “roleplay” sections but its clear this is a tactical minis combat game with some bits around it. And a badly formatted one at that. Surprise.

The little prince has a poison dart in his neck, full of chaos magick, that can’t be removed. Granny wants you to get the Chaos Orb from a nearby mine; it will draw out the chaos from the dart and make it safe to remove. You’re adventuring company number three to take up the task …

Not a bad hook. Certainly with slightly more nuance and realistic motivations than most. And that’s a theme with this adventure, it generally makes a bit of an appeal that’s just a bit more than usual. Grannys advisors privately tell you they don’t expect you to succeed, but enough of an effort must be made to make her mourning easier. The second adventuring party is a scan, taking the money, running, and turning back to their usual banditry ways. Just a little bit more makes the usual fantasy throw-away tropes just a little more interesting for the party to play with. 

The Chaos monsters in the adventure gets some good random effects; one good and one bad each. They attract objects so missile weapons are easier to hit this one, and that one can rewind time. In addition there’s some decent examples of freaky behavior as the party gets closer to the orb, birds flying without flapping their wings and a list of other effects. This gets to the matter of making things interesting for the party and supporting the DM. Not just “weird things happen” but also a short list to use or inspire the DM to greater heights. Which is what the adventure should be doing.

It’s also just a linear combat adventure with little thought to the DM actually running it.

For all the world this reminds e of a 4e adventure. Or, maybe, one of those Starfleet Battles Campaigns. A bunch of tactical mini’s combat strung together with some pretext in between them. I know little of Fantast Trip, It’s clear that hex-based tactics is a big part of it. Enter room. Monster. Some other weird combat effect (ala 4e complications) and then combat.

In between this are a couple of room that could be considered puzzles. A room fills with water, or a robot-man guardian asks a riddle. Or a LARGE number of rats run past you … not attacking. But it feels weird. It feels like “THIS. IS. THE. COMBAT. ROOM. LET. US. HAVE. COMBAT.” The puzzles, weird shit are better, but it feels obvious what;s a puzzle and whats combat. And that’s never good.

SJ Games has done no favors in the editing department. Long sections of text rarely broken up with bullets, bolding, and other techniques to draw the eyes. The rumors section is all written in paragraph form, making glancing and absorbing difficult. And the actual encounters … Five paragraphs for some rats running past you. The second room has twelve paragraphs. This thing is bloated to all fuck, strecthing out what would normally be a quite short adventure indeed. The bloat makes it hard to find things. 

This resembles more of a funhouse dungeon: some 4e tactics rooms spaced out by some puzzle rooms. There’s a bear in one room … because bear. 

 This is $5 at DriveThru. There is no preview. Hey! Big timey publisher! How about throwing the consumer a bone and putting in a preview so we get a chance to see a bit of what we’re buying before we throw away our money?


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Wizard’s Marbles

Sat, 08/10/2019 - 11:42
By Danita  Rambo A Dash of Adventure 5e Level 5

A story of forgetfulness and secrets for 4-6 adventure-seeking characters at 5th level. This self-contained story runs around 3 to 5 hours.

It’s been awhile since I trotted out The Worst EVAR tag, hasn’t it? I guess, all things considered, I get what I deserve. I mean, I throw myself in to these things without any consideration for the signs. Look at that mights description. All of two sentences. (But at least Danita but the level range in there, something that a lot of people, strangely, do not do.) Two reviewsa three-star and a two star. What the fuck does it take to get a three star review on DriveThru? EVERYTHING gets five fucking stars on that site. Well, except, what, Mines, Claws, Princesses? Didn’t that get a shitty review or two? So, see, there’s precedent; asshat fuckwits give good things lowball ratings on DriveThru … so this could be a case of that. Except it’s not. Sometimes a cigar is a cigar. 

This twenty page adventure has four rooms/scenes. In lear order, of course, because story and plot are everything. 

Except …. When is a twenty page adventure not a twenty page adventure? Well, there’s the cover and title page, so that’s now eighteen pages. And the last six pages are absolutely blank. Completely. We’re now at twelve pages. Then there’s the two page irrelevant backstory. That’s ten pages left. Then there’s that two page appendix and a one page journal entry at the back. That’s seven pages. Then there’s one page on how to run the adventure, so now we’re at six pages of content for four rooms. Better than twenty pages for four rooms I guess. Fucking shit is misleading as all fuck. Steading was what, eight pages? For a bazillion encounters WITH an embedded story?

How do you feel about read aloud? How do you feel about A PAGE of read aloud? It describes you approaching a wizards tower, going in, up the stars and in to another room. How’s that for player agency? Not even a pretext of player agency here, just DM plot. At the end of the page long read-aloud you’re told that players can use a Detect Magic spell to see a glow as from the school of transmutation. It’s meaningless, of course, and has no impact on the adventure at ALL, so of fucking course we have to be told about it.

Fucking trivia. This thing is FULL of trivia. Room contents exhaustively catalogued and described. Does it matter? Will the party interact with it in a key way in the adventure? No? THEN DON.T PUT THE FUCKING DETAILS IN. Imagine an encounter in a kitchen. Do you, as the designer, need to put in every detail of the kitchen and exhaustive list all of the contents? No. We all know what a kitchen is. We can make shit up and fill in. That’s one of the jobs of the DM. And more is not better. It’s less. It detracts from the DM’s ability to find the PERTINENT information in the adventure rather than the trivia in the adventure. Scannability at the table is a critical criteria and these trivia details only detract from that.

There’s Roll to Continue moments, where you can’t continue the adventure without making skill checks. This is dumb. Every DM ends up fudging these rolls so the adventure can go on, so, why put them in? Are we just not expected to do anything? It’s far better to have consequences as a part of a roll, rather than making them a block, or, even better than that DONT HAVE A FUCKING ROLL. Why are they rolling? Because that’s what you do in D&D, roll dice?  Because that’s the convention you’ve learned? The BAD convention you’ve learned? 

There’s a riddle presented that’s never explained. One NPC says “idhssattiea” to another. It’s a key point in the adventure. It’s never explained. I still have no idea. 

In every scene, because that’s what this, a scene based plot fest, you get a little thing like that. Solve the riddle. Get multiple chances. If you do you get a marble. If you don’t you don’t get the marble. In both cases, you go to the next scene. Finally, at the end, you fight a mind worm (It’s all fake! You’re in someone’s memories. Yeah you! You’re impotent to impact certain things! Fun!) 

“Once you feel the party has asked enough or gotten enough background out of the room, then continue on. A glowing archway opens and you see a black space…” That’s not design. 

This adventure is crap. It’s also a classic case of good intentions not playing out. People don’t set out to write bad things. They have, I’m sure, an exciting idea floating around in their head. But it doesn’t come out right. Can you just write, stream of consciously, throwing words down on a page with little order or thought and have a good adventure? Fuck no. And it doesn’t help that the vast majority of examples people have to turn to are shitty as all fuck. Usable/Scannable at the table. Evocative Writing. Interactivity. How many adventures, the 70’s till now, manage to use push those three sliders far enough to the Good side to produce a decent adventure? And people are supposed to know what Good is, to emulate, when the big publishers just don’t give a fuck and toss out more dreck for the masses to gobble up?

A template with colorful borders and nice cover do not an adventure make. I’ll take a single column black on white adventure with some usability over gloss any day. Concentrate on the writing. On the usability. On the interactivity. Put all of your effort there. Then spend a minuscule amount of time on the gloss. Once you’ve got the basics down you can expand and make your gloss better.

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru with a suggested price of $3. The preview is six pages. The last page shows you the first room and is EXCELLENT indication of what’s to come. 


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Shrine of the Wolf Maidens

Wed, 08/07/2019 - 11:24
By Catherine Evans Aegis Studios B/X Levels 2-3

An adventurer named Jorasco Vinn was commissioned by Madeina Ilrekar, a prosperous merchant from the town of Dela’s Tor, to explore a certain area of the Untamed Gauntlet for signs of precious metals worth mining. All he found was an old shrine to a minor local deity whose name is long forgotten. Now Madeina’s daughter Silvega has gone missing and there is no sign of Jorasco. Madeina has put two and two together and made five: she believes he has kidnapped Silvega and stolen her away to this ancient shrine… where human sacrifice was routinely practiced.

This ten page adventure, with about four actual content pages, details about six linear encounter areas in a small shrine. It’s ok, nothing special. 

There’s just not much here to review. Six-ish encounters is not much at all. Meet some centaurs in the woods and talk to them. Then go through a linear five room shrine dungeon and fight some wolves and then a proto-werewolf. 

Read aloud is about four sentences per encounter. Your quest-giver has her information laid out in bullet points. The dungeon is linear and the two combats are, obviously, forced. Usually not a good thing in an OSR adventure. 

I like the O&L setting of writs of exploration and reconquering the frontier … but that’s a setting thing. 

There’s a random trap in a hallway and I’m almost never fond of that. “If the thief detects traps …” I think this slows down play. Either the thief is continually checking/rolling/asking or they will be after a rando hallway trap. The thief mechanics for hallway traps just don’t work.

I will say, though, that’s a cypher puzzle that done well. It’s just a simple letter substitution, but it’s left to the players, with a good hint, to solve as opposed to their characters. Stuck? Some int/skill checks will have the DM giving you some hints at certain levels. Don’t want to bother? Bashing the door down is covered as an option. Can’t succeed on your bash? Then the DM is instructed to just provide some damage as the door falls down to the parties attempts. THis isn’t the same old roll to continue the adventure nonsense. It’s a player puzzle, which is great, with options to bypass it, which is also great. It goes on a little long, but clearly shows a greater knowledge of design.

Can you have a B/X dungeon with five rooms? I guess so. But then it feels more like a “plot” adventure from 3e/5e. Linear. Forced fights. But then the chosen format would get long, at almost a page per room any real length would be hard to manage. 

I guess a “its ok” means I don’t hate it, but there’s just not much to it. 

This is $2 on DriveThru. The preview is three pages. The last page shows you the (probable) non-combat centaur encounter. Longish, but ok I guess?


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Banshee’s Tower

Mon, 08/05/2019 - 11:28
By Joseph Mohr Old School Roleplaying OSRIC Levels 6-8

Travelers have complained recently about hearing strange noises and seeing strange things at an abandoned elven tower on the outskirts of the great forest. Some of these travelers have even reported deaths among their companions from mere firght at what they have seen or heard at the tower. Legends about this tower are that it once belonged to a banished elven princess. The elves of the woods sieged this tower several hundred years ago. Few humans remember the reasons why, But a few bards mention a legendary harp made of solid gold once owned by the princess. And it is said to have incredible magical powers…..

This thirty page single-column adventure details a ruined tower & dungeon with about 27 rooms scattered over four levels. Minimally keyed but with extensive, non-intentional, padding, it had my teeth grinding the entire time. 

One of my first college classes was a public speaking one. They used the gimmick of recording your talk for you to review later. Once I heard all of my Ummm, Ahhh, You Know pauses I was fixed for life; I almost never do that anymore in any form of speaking. I’m going to do something similar to that in this review.

“2. Guard Post

This was once a guard post. Men were stationed here to guard the room. They guarded it well. There is refuse from the guards beds on the floor. The guards items no longer remain but the guards do. 12 Wights (former guards)”

Ok, got it? Repetition. Yeahs, it’s also a terrible description with the past referenced, trivia and puts the most obvious things at the end. Hopefully you now cannot unsee these things. Now let’s look at a more subtle example from this adventure. 

“16. Guard Post

This was once a guard post and barracks. Bedding is strewn about the place and water has pooled up in the southern portion of the room. The most trusted and loyal of Shandalar Raloqen’s soldiers are still guarding this room.”

No? Not convinced? How about the potomac example of a bad room description, from that Dungeon Magazine adventure. Remember it? A long room description describing the contents in all its glory, only to end with “but that was all looted long ago and none of it remains.” 

And from the adventure “This room was once the armory for the tower. This area clearly saw some battle as a large section of the north wall has been caved in. The source of this collapse is still found in the room. A large boulder once fired by a trebuchet sits in the center of the floor.

This area has many thick webs all across the room. Glints of metal can be seen from racks along the south wall.”

This thing does this over and over and over and over again. It feels like every single room is in this form. This was X. But it now Y. And this things in the room was once A. It is now B.

“Where a gate house once stood there is nothing but emptiness. The two structures beside the opening clearly were designed to threaten anyone entering from this point. There are arrow slits still visible from both sides of this entrance. The gates have rotted away. The roof above this area has fallen in. Bits of rubble scattered in this area suggest that this was once a well guarded part of the fortress.”

“Defenders of the tower used this fortified area to fire arrows at attackers. Arrow slits point in three directions. Now all that remains here are arrowheads stacked near the wall. These were once attached to arrows and were in barrels for the defenders use. Those wooden arrows and barrels have disappeared over time but the arrowheads remain.”

These things are empty. They are nothing. Nothing but padding around rubble. 

There’s a statue. It’s noted as not having any magical properties. Well of fucking course not. That’s the usual state of the fucking world. No, wait, I’m upset. I’m upset that all of those arrowheads, rubble, boulders, rotter gates and so on ALSO don’t tell me that they have no magical properties. Do they or don’t they?

Dead Elf Chick/Banshee’s name is/was Shandalar Raloqen. That name appears no less than than 35 times in 30 pages and twenty times in the 27 rooms of the dungeon. “This was Shandalar Raloqen’s cup. Shandalar Raloqen drank from it. Because Shandalar Raloqen needed water to live.” No, that’s not in the text, but it COULD be. 

This is padded all to hell and is a perfect example of why one needs an editor. But then again, everyone here knows that, having long suffered my “I don’t give a fuck” typo style

On the plus side there’s a curse scroll that turns you in to a puddle of water and you drain away in the floor cracks. Dig it! Also, it’s on Shandalar Raloqen desk, next to a Candle of Insanity. Why did she, in life, keep that on her desk? Meh. Also, I wonder if that desk is magical …

Ultra minimally keyed and padded, unintentionally I think, out to fill word count and page count.

This is Pay What You Want on DriveThru with a suggested price of $2.50. The preview is six pages long and shows you nothing of the adventure except a wandering monster chart (full of bats & rats! For levels 6-8! Simulation is boring) and the lame-o backstory of Shandalar Raloqen.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Everyone Plows the Graveyard Farm

Sat, 08/03/2019 - 11:20
By Remley Farr Self-Published 5e Levels 1-3

Giant bugs have ravaged the farming town of Castillo, and as society crumbles, warring factions rise from the rubble. Can the PC’s navigate this new society well enough to find an altruistic solution, or will they choose a side and determine who will rule the dead-littered town?

This 42 page sandbox adventure details the situation in a small rural community, around ten major locations, beset by trouble and warring factions. The situation is great. It’s put together well in a neutral sandbox manner and does a great job outlining the various factions and locations, supporting it all with good tables. It lacks a bit of independent action by the factions, but is otherwise a good adventure.

42 pages, at triple column, with at least thirty detailing actual locales, etc? Only the last ten pages left to monsters, tables, etc? This thing is STUFFED FULL and I love it. I don’t even know where to begin. Giant bugs overrunning a small rural community. Asshole taking advantage of the economic trouble by buying up land and becoming that is almost a bandit king over town and the surrounding community. Insular halfling-led island that resembles a fortified town from The Walking Dead. A doomsday cult out in the open running around burning shit down and recruiting troubled folk down on their luck. Big game hunters from distant lands, here to hunt eh giant bugs. With some getting hired out from time to time for protection, etc work. A GIANT ant colony with an intelligent queen. A colossal behemoth of a scorpion beyond the parties abilities. A couple of loners hanging out by themselves, all with major personality issues. This thing has a SHIT TON going on. It’s a great way to deal with a sandbox … lots going on, a field full of open gas tanks with the party there setting off fireworks in the middle of it. What I’m saying is that this has enough for a DM to work with. That’s rare. Usually there’s just one or two things on in an adventure. A good sandbox though generally has A LOT going on. And this is a good sandbox.

A couple of the hooks are more than the usual fare … and come straight out of a Segio Leone western, with the party getting hired by one of the factions to do something for them, getting caught up in what’s going on. The slumlord is even called Don Diego. 

We get a nice faction overview laid out on a few pages, one per column, with art, a little write-up, and then a section on likes, dislikes, goals and the like that’s organized, bolded, and easy readable at a glance. Perfect for a DM at the table. Maybe a one-page summary would have been nice, with everything on one page, but it’s good enough. They are all colorful and therefore memorable, which means well done.

The central mechanism is a one page regional map. It has each of the major locations on it, which roughly correspond to one per faction … about ten in all … some actual factions and some just loose individuals with their own goals, etc. There’s a little text bubble on the map that gives about a one sentence description of the place. It works well. In fact, I REALLY love the map as the kind of central index of the adventure, the one thing at the center of all of the organization, and the text bubbles help a lot with that. I will note, though, that the map is crying out for some color. Something Harn-like, or a little lighter, showing elevations, waterways, etc would really bring it to life. It could also use some page references in those text bubbles … which page of the adventure has the details of that site. It’s not a deal-breaker, for other reasons, but it would have been a nice touch.

Each of the sites is contained on ABOUT one page, maybe a few more for some of the very major locations. Good section heading breaks combined with generally short text and bolding makes it easy to scan. It’s basically an outline of a location, with a little map, major features, things going on and so on. From that, almost note-like format, the DM runs the location/situation. It works really well for an adventure like this.

There’s some great tables for generating a servant or mercenary. Wandering monsters/encounters are up to something. There are some cross-references present. Support for generating random farmhouses and what happened there/their occupants. It really supports the DM well. 

I’d say there are three things in the adventure that don’t work well. The first is the lack of a … zoom out? Each section/locale needs just one more little paragraph describing how things work together. Maybe two sentences more. Watermill’s survivalist outpost at night, lit by their frequent fires, and so on. An initial paragraph that maybe references the other bolded sections for more detail.

Zooming out even further the same could be said for the entire adventure. Each of the locales feels static. What’s its missing is a timeline of events. The wanderers tables, etc give a little burst of energy to various things, but it doesn’t feel holistic. While the factions have goals, etc, they don’t materialize in terms of actions. A general outline of some daily things to stir things up and keep them moving would have helped a lot with this. While the adventure notes “warring factions” that doesn’t really come across. It doesn’t need to go full on Mortiston on it, but a little would help a lot.

The weirdest thing is maybe the slumlords mansion. It’s room/key format, with 31 or so room on a couple of levels. It also lacks a guard schedule, or a kind of overview, events, etc that would add some life to it. It’s a mix of “assaulting the mansion” oriented text and of “interacting with the folk inside” text. Maybe that the Fistfull of Dollars things, where the location gets used for both. It’s a little TOO open-ended though. 

But, that doesn’t make this not one of The Best, cause it is. 

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages. You get to see the faction text, the one page regional overview, and one of the random tables, a random farmhouse generator. That first page of text “Page 1” could be thought of representative of the entire text. Note how it covers many topics in one page, high level but still focused on adventure.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Temple of the Blood Moth

Wed, 07/31/2019 - 11:13
By Jacob Butcher Abrasax Press OSR/5e Levels 3-5

A science-fantasy horror dungeon for Old School versions of Dungeons & Dragons. You stare into the face of planetary death. Fight or drown.

What’s that little Timmy? Lassie is trapped in the well? Errr, I mean, people are bitching that a 24 page adventure is $8 without a preview? Well, obviously then, I have no common sense and will buy it.

This 24 page digest-sized adventure details four levels of a cult temple over about six pages, with about 31 rooms total .. and a few extra unnumbered/empty rooms thrown in on the map. Resembling those Psychedelic Fantasy adventures, it is ripe with unique monsters and treasure. Combined with evocative writing, it makes a great OD&D weird-ass adventure … without, I think, going in to gonzo territory. It’s a good adventure.

The writing here is short and bursting with evocative bits. “1: Sun-Lit Chapel. Rows of pews. Tall stained glass windows depict the Sun-God and moths at each stage of their life-cycle. Yarrow Bren the cultist can be found praying to the Blood Moth for power, offering everflowing blood in return.” That is a rock fucking solid description. 1. Sun-Lit Chapel. Not Room 1. Not Room 1 Chapel. It gives the room a name, Chapel, and then also adds a descriptor word to it, Sun-Lit. Thus, immediately, we get the sense of this room. It doesn’t do this consistently, for every  Feeding Pit there are three Courtyards, Shrines, and Stairwells, but when it does it it’s great. Note also the brief flashes of evocative imagery. Rows of pews. Tall stained glass. Combined with the Sun-Lit we get a perfect mental image of the chapel. Sun streaming in through those tall stained glass windows, rows of pews with a solitary figure praying at one end. That is EXACTLY what evocative writing should do. The creature in the room is doing something, praying, with aspects of his personality and additional “action” relayed in his request and offering. This is exactly the sort of writing that I’m looking for. It makes an impact. “Cistern: Unlit torch sconces. Vaulted brick ceilings. Filled to your shins with dark, lukewarm water.” Nice.

And it does it while also being terse. That’s not a requirement, but it IS generally an easier way to make an adventure usable at the table. The longer the writing then the more thought has to go in to editing, layout, and the use of whitespace and organization to make it scannable at the table. Or you can just keep the writing terse. Both work. 

It’s full of creepy imagery, like a stained glass porthole in the floor, heavy leaden glass, almost covered in dirt … and you can see something moving on the other side. Nice. 

Magic treasure is unique. It’s all new and weird … like “pearl snails” that turn blood in to water over an hour. And then there’s more conventional magic treasure also, like arrows and needle knives. But no generic +1 swords, thank Vecna. Imagine that, a designer adding original content to their game. Almost like value .. hmmm.. May be something in that … Anyway, monsters are unique also, which I always like. Keeps the players guessing. I should note that the conversion notes from OSR to 5e are essentially “find a similar monster and stat it that way.” A little loose for many in the 5e crowd, but ok in my book … mostly because I’d just do it on the fly.

Wanderers table has then engaged in some activity and is arranged progressively, with deeper levels getting a d8, d10, d12 wanderer die all on the same table, reusing the lower level entries while adding new entries. I’ve always loved the elegance of that mechanic, when it’s appropriate to use it, like it is here. AT least one of the hooks is ok, with the party sent to find/kill/etc someone in a village … only to find everyone has disappeared. It’s not ground-breaking, but it adds a complication to an otherwise generic quest.

It could be better. Monetary treasure is VERY light for an OSR game. Gold=XP and there ain’t no coin XP to speak of in here, which is a hyperbolic way of saying treasure or the non-magical variety is VERY light indeed. There’s a stinker here and there in the room descriptions. Room 28: Golden Altar is described as “he High Priest performs rituals and sacrifices here in order to progress the eventual coming of the BLOOD MOTH.” Well, ok, that’s a mega-lame description, especially in light of the others present in the adventure. There’s also a place or two where sound or light should have been noted on the map or in other room descriptions. In one area, in particular, a giant larvae bashes itself against the door. That’s something you need to know BEFOE The party reaches the room, to communicate to the party in previous rooms or as they approach. Sometimes its important to know things before people reach an area. That can be done in the text or much more elegantly via the map for sound/light, etc. 

This is a good adventure. Creepy. Evocative. Usable. A great journeyman adventure for whipping out to play. The way EVERY adventure should be.

This is $8 at DriveThru. This appears to be a part of the ZineQuest Kickstarter thing, with the designer having a blog, Flowers for the Titan Corpse. It appears to have some ties to the art side of the RPG world, with a Thank You to the Fall 2018 Simulation Art class. No doubt the designer labours under the impression that people should get paid for their work. Of course, writing is even less appreciated than art, the barrier being far lower. The resulting flooded marketplace makes it challenging to price anything above $0. For self-published work a PWYW structure may be best, reserving payment to work-for-hire. I’d pay $8 for this, knowing what I know now. But a $8 blind buy is a thing indeed, given that at least 99% of everything on DriveThru is crap. I’d guess the price is related to the kickstarter pledges. But, anyway, no preview.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Lost Valley of Kishar

Mon, 07/29/2019 - 11:25
By Gabor Csomos First Hungarian D20 Society OSRIC Levels 6-8

Somewhere, only a few days’ travel from a busy trade route, there lies a valley surrounded by untamed wilderness. It is surrounded by cliffs forming the shape a ring, unnaturally steep and tall, as if they had been wrought by human hand. No one remembers who had originally erected the ruins standing within the valley, and who had nurtured the wondrous tree which had once drawn pilgrims from distant lands. Kishar’s priestesses have been long forgotten – but the tree’s blessed radiance persists. As if under an odd compulsion, all manner of beasts have been drawn to the valley, and in time, there emerged others. Those who came from far beyond human imagination, and were already here before the first priestesses…

This 36 page adventure details a lost valley with about 28 locations laid out in about 22 pages or so. Each of the major points is a little situation to overcome or exploit, with most having a relationship to one or two others. It tries to organize well, considering it’s single column, but some disjointed text causes an occasional forced error, ala older Judges Guild.

Ok, big crater, 8 miles in diameter. Covered in jungle. You’ve got tarzan in there with his winged apes, a tribe of people friendly to him, a tribe of hostile goat people, tombs of ancient heroes, a hag kidnapper, a crashed spaceship being exploited by said hag, a “dead” lich, a neutralish-ish death knight-ish guy, the tree of life, underground tunnels, rivers, Skull Tower, a rampaging monster ala tarrasque, and two T-rexes guarding an entry cave to get in. Oh, and some flying monsters hanging around the edge of the crater to make like rough on folk getting in/out. That’s a fuck ton going on. 

Each is presented in maybe a quarter to a third of a page. A brief description of what’s going on, how they react, what they want, and so on. Just enough to layout the basics of the group with the rest left up to the DM to react to when the party starts to screw around with things/people. It’s a good way to do things in a big sandbox-y like environment. And, like I said, each site generally has some sort of connection to two or three others, getting the party moving around the valley and encountering other groups.

Our wanderers, inside and out, add to the fun. Outside the valley we get a kind of tension building exercise, finding relics of past depredations. Inside the valley are things to attract the party and get them interested in the encounter, sights and sounds of creatures about. 

I need to be a tad delicate with my next criticism, but I’m not going to, instead leaving that to every reader to NOT misinterpret. This is both clearly not a English-As-A-First-Language product AND perfectly good english. Ninety-five percent of the text would be indistinguishable from an English-native text. I admire our non-English friends and their ability to produce works in English better than most English-native works. Further, I love seeing non-North American/British works. I love the different take on things. But … in this case, that extra 5% is a little jarring. It’s not unbearable and not incomprehensible, but it does cause some non-trivial efforts to understand. It’s more ‘unusual phrasing’ than it is “wrong.’ 

In this case, though, the unusual/strained phrasing helps fight against the chosen format. We’ve got a one-column text, which is itself a little straining, and then on top of that a kind of terse description of the area, maybe with a paragraph break or two. As the rooms get to be more complex, and the text grows, that strained phrasing, in places, make the grokking more difficult then I would be comfortable with. I might liken it to an older Judges Guild product, like Dark Tower. You have to fight the text a little to get the big picture of whats going on and that makes immediate understanding suffer. But, in both cases, the content is worth it.

There’s also a misplaced detail or two. I thinking of some tracks that show up in various places, mentioned in the valley introduction and haphazardly referenced in the later text. There’s also a “valley overview” description included in encounter 5 “Vantage Point”, which doesn’t make sense to me why that isn’t possible from other locations around the rim. It’s these little notes and, almost, asides, in which could be moved around or organized a little better.

Still, it’s a pretty good lost valley adventure. Lots going on. The setups are understandable, easy for the DM to grok. They interact with each other. It’s got a lot of tough shit running around to overcome. (And may be a little light on the treasure for a 1E game …) It’s also taken the single-column format about as far as it can go. I don’t think you could make some of the encounters any longer and preserve usability. 

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is ten pages. The last page shows one of the valley encounters. If you take that, as well as maybe “the ring of rocks” section at the end of preview page eight, then you’ll get an idea of the writing style. I don’t think it can be taken any further.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Acid Metal Howl

Sat, 07/27/2019 - 11:18

By Joseph Lewis

Dungeon Ages Adventures


Levels 5-8

In the deep desert lies the dead city of Yumar, the source of countless bizarre rumors. Was it destroyed by a demonic metal sphere? Did it sink into a pit of acid? Were its people transformed into cursed beasts? Is it ruled by vicious thieves or mad nuns? In fact, the only thing stranger than what happened to Yumar a century ago is what will happen a few days from now…

This 48 page adventure details a lost desert city with about nine-ish adventuring sites, from small to large. It’s laid out and organized well, easy to scan … and has The Sandbox Problem. Still, great for 5e.

48 pages for nine locations seems a bit long, even if some of the locations are little mini-sites. Worry not. The fonts and whitespace are generous with this one. Locations are nicely organized with relevant data grouped together and page breaks used to separate things when appropriate. Laid out in front of you, it’s easy to maneuver through the text and find the information you are looking for, from locations, to motivations and personalities, to area descriptions. From a usability standpoint this does well. I’m not sure the format is one to take as platonic, for usability, nut Joseph had an idea of what he wanted to do for this adventure and the format works with it well. There are many paths to get to usability.

Bullets, whitespace, numbered lists, offset boxes, page and section breaks all play a part. But then … I wouldn’t be Bryce if I were ever happy with something. The adventure falls down some on what I might call cross-references. Usually I use this to refer to literal cross-references. A key containing a little (room #7) or a locked door with a (key: room 5) next to it. If information is LIKELY to be important to the DM then a little pointed to where it is is a nice addition. These sorts of cross-references do occur in at least one part of the adventure (DM text next to a locked door noting the key location) but they could be a little strong in other areas. Further, there’s a need in another way: what people know. There are a few factions running around the ruins. At least two would like you take care of the others. But … it is then natural to ask some questions. You want us to kill/drive off the nuns? Why? What do you know about them? Etc. There’s not much guidance in that area. A cross-reference to the nuns, or a summary of what they know/relate would have helped out there. Nightmares? Sleeping? Where’s that nightmare table again? These are small-ish things but they seperate a really great adventure from merely a good one. 

The major issue with the adventure though, is The Sandbox Problem. IE: why do the players care? In an older D&D it might be just for the loot, for XP. In modern versions though there tend to need to be other motivations to gain XP. The hooks presented lead the party to know ABOUT the city but not to give them motivation to go there, other than pure curiosity. Exploration is valid, if your group is in to that, but rumors of loot, faction motivations that tip the party off to it, and so on, would drive things forward a bit more. The city feels a bit passive because of that. It COULD serve as a site for the DM to insert their own goal, a book, bell, candle or some other mcguffin. But, still, it feels like the factions, while not friends, are more passive. More dynacism to drive things forward toward something would have been appreciated.

Interactivity is good, there are lots to see and do if the party is so motivated. Obvious flesh-to-stone people are depressed, if save, for the same reasons as that TNG cryo-sleep episode. A dancing gecko as treasure? Count me in!

Yeah, I’ve got some complaints. A better “view” of the elevation issues would have been nice. Wanderers seem heavy on slogs up the cliffside to the top by foot or fly spell. But, read-aloud mentions things to follow up on. One of the first is an acrid smell … which you can follow to a location. You can see sites in the distance and trek towards this, this is explicitly mentioned. I love that. At one point you can force your way in to vault via lockpick instead of the keys … which causes a treasure golem to appear. My apprehension at gimping player abilities (lock pick) is not quite as strong at higher levels as stronger divination and bypass magic is available. Or, maybe, it is but there’s example of GOOD challenges vs BAD gimping.

This is a decent adventure. A little focus in the future on evocative descriptions, without growing longer, and some solutions to ever-present Sandbox Motivation issue would knock this over the top. As is, inserting a little player motivation, like a staff they are after, etc, solves the motivation problem. While this may hover between No Regerts and Best, it’s 5e and I’m happy to see a decent 5e product.

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is 25 pages(!) Page 8 has a good “vision” overview and is a good preview, generally, of the formatting that the adventure uses. Overall it’s an excellent preview of what you are buying, from a writing and organization standpoint.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Towering Temple

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 11:11
by Don MacVittie Hellebarde Games Castles & Crusades Levels 2-3

The temple of Anu-Hittain sits atop an unnamed mesa in the desert and welcomes all who visit. But the gates are closed and smoke is pouring from the temple high above. Can you discover what has happened?

This 23 page adventure details a temple with about three levels and about forty rooms … in about nine pages. It’s not terrible. The designer does a decent job with the read-aloud and the DMs text doesn’t generally overstay its welcome. The writing needs to be more evocative and the interactivity tends to the combat side of the house … or things that lead to combat. It reminds me a lot of the mid to late 1e era before the T$R text ran out of control. 

See that cover? It’s got little to do with the adventure; the entrance is at the base of the mesa and there’s no signs that the mesa is a temple except fot the entryway and some glass windows a little ways up. So, bad cover. 

With that out of the way, this isn’t bad. It’s not particularly good either, except in the way it generally keeps itself from being bad. The read-aloud tends to the short side of things. In and out. It also tends to mention features in the room for the party to investigate. A pile of crates mory decayed than the rest, or a pile of jewels in a fountain. This leads the party, naturally, to those locations and the encounter to follow: centipedes or water snakes. This is good. A good encounter is D&D results from a kind of back and forth between the players and the DM. The DM describes someplace generally. The players follow up on the details the DM mentions as the DM mentions moe specifics of the things they follow up on. It’s a social game, a back and forth. A writing style that encourages that sort of player/DM interactivity is to be appreciated. If the read-aloud mentions a body next to a door then the players investigate, notice burn marks, and maybe now know something more about the door. 

It does fall down a bit though in being evocative. Hallways are “long” and marble is “grey” or “white.” That’s not particularly evocative. English is a rich language and substituting other adjectives/adverbs for long, grey, white, large, big, small, etc can bring along an entire host of benefits. Richer words can bring an overloaded context with them, a richer meaning. Scrubbing out the boring words and replacing them, or a word or two extra (no more) more really kick up the read-aloud to another level and make the environments much more evocative.

You can see this in other areas as well. I hesitate to call this dullness, but its a kind of abstraction of detail that leads to a kind of bland flavour. “There are four statues of Doorne” (a desert god) or “there’s a statue of a woman.” These are kind of generic. The players are sure to ask what they look like. Providing two or three extra words for each of those major objects, in order to enrich them, in turn enriches the entire room and brings it more alive for the DM and for the players and they both benefit. The DM now has a richer view of the room and can ad-lib better, while the players have a more memorable experience from the read-aloud and then also from a more inspired DM. 

There’s an aside or two to the DM in the adventure which are appealing. In one case a zombie in the next room can rush to the aid of another room. “Well, rush as fast as a Zombie can.” Likewise, selling a looted idol is referred to as “Faithful of Doorne will not take the theft of this idol well.” These are nice notes that help convey moods and scenes to the DM without a lot of text.

Of course, Room 10 doesn’t tell us that the zombie from room 9 will come in help. That’s in room 9. Which is useless in room 10 because I’m not looking at the text for two rooms at the same time, am I? This is a common mistake that designers make, this kind of idea that the DM is going to hold the entire adventure in their head at once. Or, you need to read through and take notes … in which case why didn’t the designer make things clearer in the first place? 

There are some other gaps here. There’s some flinds you can talk to, but there’s no real notes on what they know or even any overview of the situation (in the beginning of the adventure) for the DM to paraphrase. Again, read and take notes and/or hold it all in your head. The DMs text also can get long in places. It generally does a good job of keeping it short and in using paragraph breaks and whitespace to organize its information well. It falls does though, usually, in trap rooms. It gets a bit pedantic in describing things which turns the DMS text in to a quarter page or more of text. Tighter editing and less prescriptive text would be the key here, perhaps with some use of bolding. 

It can revel a bit much in the history and former uses of places, which is NOT good DM text. It’s doesn’t do this enough to really make it hard to run, and usually only in rooms with nothing else going on. Still, its padding. I’ve included a couple of example of this at the end. They don’t really add anything to the adventure in terms of players interactivity. History and background rarely do. When they do then I’m ok with their inclusion, but otherwise they just tend to distract and make it harder to find the DMs text that you need to run the room.

I sorely wish that the interactivity were a bit better. It feels like most of it is related to combat. An alter, an opened sarcophagus. A disturbed corpse. A giant idol. The amount of screwing around with stuff that leads to something other than combat is rather rare. That leads to situations where the party is loathe to interact, which is ENTIRELY the wrong lesson to teach. Let’s not view this an extremist position, of course interactivity leading to combat is ok. But there needs to be some that doesn’t also. 

So, It’s ok. Not great. More interactivity, pruning back some of that DM text, more evocative writing. All of that would pop it up a notch or two. Still, not bad. But, in 2019, with the embarrassment of riches in adventures, is there room for Not Bad?

This is $6 at DriveThru. The preview is great at six pages, showing you about fifteen rooms. You can get an idea of the read-aloud, the nature of it and if its good enough for you. The good and bad things the DMs text does. It’s a good preview.


“It is the custom of this temple that each person, before heading down one of the adjoining halls, wash their feet in this pool. That was before the attack arose.”

“This is the embalming area. This lower level of the temple has most recently been dedicated to caring for the dead, and this room is where bodies were prepared for funeral. Sallim, with the help of his water priests, turned the embalmers’ equipment upon them while they were still alive. Then the priests raised them as Ghouls for reasons that Sallim did not understand.”

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Rising Tides

Mon, 07/22/2019 - 11:14
by Phil Beckwith & Micah Watl Rex Draconic RPG 5e Level 1

This 87 page adventure details around sixteen overland encounters/events in about fifty pages. Purple prose read-aloud combined with bad editing and layout contribute to a meh adventure being untunable in anything other than a mechanical fashion. Which is too bad because it tries to do a few interesting things to help the DM.

The adventure core is straighforward. The party travels north via ship or caravan, in a crew-like fashion, having a couple of encounters. You encounters a raided village and then a village under attack. What falls out of this is emoting similar to a 4e adventure. You have combat encounters, do some skill checks, and talk to a few people. Err … I mean “have role-play encounters.” The emphasis here is not really on the situations presented but rather the mechanics around what is going on. Perform a stealth check to escape the situation! If half the party succeeds then …    They feel like set-piece situations, or maybe “now is the time when you have an adventure” rather than a more nuanced style which presents a situation and lets the party explore it. Oh, sure, there are notes to let the party do that, and the solution guides in each sub-section say something like “or other options the party comes up with”, but the emphasis is on the mechanics. Not that I’m altogether against the basic idea, just the way it’s presented here. A few lines of text, bolded, etc, to hep the DM with situations that arise is a core part of an adventure should do in some cases. But this thing has that same 4e style in doing it that boils it down to the mechanics, and not in a good way. 

I imagine that something like a flowchart was used to develop this adventure. A leads to B or leads to C if they do X. And under each “encounter” there’s a little mini-chart listing the party options and what to do based on the circumstances. In theory that’s not bad. But at some point it is taken to an extreme and it looses its identity outside of what it presents, mechanically, up to and including the encounters themselves. It FEELS like a series of events with a flowchart behind it and constrained options for the party. And that’s not a good thing. Read the read-aloud then select option A, B, or C as your reaction. Then go to the next encounter. A flowchart adventure where the boxes are all event driven. This reduction D&D to the mechanics was one of the major issues I had with 4e adventures. It sucked the very life out of the game. 

So much of this feels like a solo adventure, or a scripted computer RPG. This includes the purple prose that makes up the read-aloud. I was worried that this was just the novel author (this is licensed off of a fantasy novel series) but no, it’s just the the style chosen by this writing team. It feels like “now os the time to read the read-aloud.” And while it offers advice to summarize in your voice if it makes you feel better, it’s also the case the the text is not laid out in any way to make that happen.

Now is the time where I trot out my oft-referenced (by me anyway) appeals to usability. When running a published adventure and you encounter a scene that is two pages long, or more, how do you run that at at the table? Do you pause your game and take five to ten minutes to read it over again? Maybe hoping that you don’t forget anything? You can’t hold it all in your head. This is why I care so much about usability. You pause the game for less than five seconds, grab what you need from the text and keep going. As the text gets longer and longer that becomes more and more difficult to do. Terseness in writing, stripping out the padding, bolding, whitespace, tables, bullets, these are all critically important to drawing the DMs attention to important things in the text, making it easy for them to find what they need and keep going. “Uh, hang on, let me check …” while you hunt through the text to find the thing you’re looking for is no way to run a railroad, so to speak. And this adventure has WAY too much padded text and information coxed in to the free-text paragraphs. It does try to use bolding, whitespace and bullets to help call out important details, but it’s not enough. While THOSE sections are easy to find, it still pads them out with useless, conversational style text. “If the party decides to fight the monster then … ” This all gets in the way and distracts the DM from the really important stuff going on. At one point some read-aloud notes that the party can see people waving at them from the beach … and then hides the peoples fates inside of a paragraph. There’s far far too much “and then happens and then this happens and then this happens”, events takes place in the paragraph text. Note the situation. Give the DM the facts in an easily digestible format and them move on. 

At one point some NPC’s are mentioned, if the party gets hauled off to jail. They have goals, ideas, and backgrounds straight out the PHB, and formatted as such. Long sections of text “Ideal: I am honest to those around me” or “Flaw: I can’t help by drink far too much ….” this isn’t how you do this. Short, terse, easy to digest. Drunkkard. Done. 
It does have a nice little overview map. A little half page map with the sea journey and caravan route outlined, as well as the other parts of the adventure, with the encounters on it, hex distance, travel time, color-coded by which chapter its in and so on. It’s a useful piece to get an idea of how things are to run. 

The writers, I’d guess, are responsible for the purple prose. The editor should have trimmed the fat in the DM text in a MAJOR way. The layout person used one of those atrocious modern formats that makes it impossible to find section breaks, there being section breaks everywhere. Too clever for its own good. I don’t know, maybe the editor felt like they couldn’t push back, or they were just copy-editing. More than anything else the field needs good editors to push back on the overwrought DM text that plagues modern adventures. The delete key can go further, in making an adventure runnable, then any other tool. 

There’s more of this type of text then there is useful information: “The characters have the following choices, though you should reward creativity where it is plausible. They can: ” 

This is $13 at DriveThru. Yes, $13. Maybe it’s the license? Or all that value obtained from outsourced art, layout, editing, maps? Anyway, the preview is 20 pages. Page 11 has that little encounter mini-map that I liked. Page 12-on shows you the actual adventure encounters, with page 18 showing the NPC “bonds, flaws” NPC’s. The last page of the preview is GREAT for getting an idea of the 4e/set-piece style of writing. Read-aloud. Player choices. Combat.


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) The Sunken Village of Little Corth

Sat, 07/20/2019 - 11:19
By Dylan Hyatt Self Published 5e Level 2

The PCs travel across a necrotic marsh (the Grey Creeping) to a sunken village where, upon being transported back 2000 years into the past, they must prevent a necromancer freeing Orcus (demon prince of Undeath) from the imprisoning veils of the spirit plane. If only it was as simple as that, for the PCs must also contend with deactivating a giant mechanical orrery, and be sharp enough to realise that the useful items that helped them survive the Grey Creeoing must be found and placed for their ‘future-past’ selves.

This forty page linear adventure has some time travel elements mixed in to its twenty or so linear locations. Tedious read-aloud and lengthy DMs notes do little to mitigate the linear nature. You end up Bill & Ted’ing help for yourself.  Oh, for what might have been …

A zombie shephard and a zombie sheepdog herd zombie sheep at the party in encounter one. This reminds me a lot of a zombie walk, where it seems all zombies were people scuba diving, playing golf or the like. In any event, anything to make monsters less generic is ok in my book. “Zombie” is generic but flesh-eating shepherd and dog/sheep, while a little abrud, fits the bull of non-generic. The skeleton jugglers, fire-breathers and acrobats that show up start to go overboard though in to farce territory.

The art here is nice also. I’m a big big fan of DIY stuff. Sure, pro stuff can be nice, but ANYTHING that’s not generic filler gets my seal of approval. Plus, the idea of a low-barrier-to-entry is appealing to me. Just draw something. And just put down words. You’ll get better and shouldn’t let assholes like me or self-confidence issues be a barrier to creating. I’d like to note, also, that I’m ignoring this advice with regard to my own perfectionism in writing. 

But enough! Let us talk about linear adventures.

I get that people play this way. I find it so hollow. It FEELS like there’s this thing called D&D where people get together with their friends and a linear adventure full of read-aloud and combat and they have a good time. Because it’s a social activity with their friends. That’s what D&D is. To them. And they’re right that there IS a social aspect with their friends that makes D&D fun. But I imagine some overlapping circles right out of set theory. There’s this OTHER thing people call D&D. It contains all of those social/friends aspects. And more. A linear play style, heavy on combat, can fulfill the Just Fucking Around style of play but not the second type. A much more fulfilling type. It’s sometimes briefly glimpsed in the Linear Friend game, and people know it’s magnificent, but it’s not really present in their games. It can’t be, because it requires the interactive play style that just can’t be accomplished with the Linear Friends style. And thus these linear adventures, travelling from a to b to c, will always be at a disadvantage. They might be ok, but it’s hard for me to believe that they will ever be truly great. I’m trying to keep an open mind here, since we can’t Black Swan these puppies. But I’ve got a healthy dose of skepticism. Far better, I would suggest, to write something a bit more open-ended to allow for more opportunities of interactive/player agency D&D. But, of course, most people don’t know what that looks like, having never encountered a product of that type. When all you know of Italian food is Chef Boyardee then it’s no surprise that’s what you crank out.

The read-aloud is an ever present threat, columns and paragraphs droning on and adding nothing substantial to the adventure. Overly long and not really adding anything in the way of either evocative descriptions or meaningful facts … just the usual droning obviousness. 

The DMs text is frightful, with lots of history, asides, and explanations mixed in. This makes it hard to find pertinent information. That most common of DM text problems: confusing trivia with content. Yes, many things COULD be useful to the DM, but liming the writing helps the DM locate information faster during play. Too much text is the most common problem these days. Put it in an appendix if you have to tell me who Horn is or Orcus’ history; that’s not something to put in the main body. One room takes five pages to describe. This is a sure sign that you’ve done something wrong.

The Bill & Ted “give aid to your past lives self” may be hackney but it’s still fun. The time travel elements ARE fun; players love figuring shit out, even simple shit. It works. It’s just surrounded by so much dross as to make the adventure un-runable. I’m not fucking using a highlighter. I’m not fucking taking notes. I’m not going to fight the adventure in order to be able to run it. Es, I’m being hyperbolic for the sake of making the point but the truth is in there: it’s the designers fucking job.

This is $3 at DMSGuild. The preview is nine pages. You get to see the extensive read-aloud, saying nothing, and the two-page zombie attack on pages 5 & 6 of the preview. Page eight of the preview/encounter five gives you a good idea of a typical non-combat encounter and the joy of the DMs text. So, good preview in that respect …


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs


Wed, 07/17/2019 - 11:17
By Greg Gillespie Self-published Labyrinth Lord Levels 1-

Local villagers call for aid! An eerie green light appeared atop the Dwimmerhorn Mountain. The light came from HighFell – the ruins of an ancient wizard school. The infernal blaze grew until a great explosion rocked the mountain. Like a massive floating island, HighFell pulled away from the mountaintop and now slowly drfits across The Great Salt Reach. What happened to HighFell? Why does it float errily across the landscape? Are you brave (or foolish) enough to explore the ruins of HighFell: The drifting Dungeon?

This 248 page “lost valley” adventure location details twenty wizard towers, ten dungeons, and a small overland region in about 120 pages. Lots of interactivity and a mix of every element that D&D contains are surrounded by text that is just a step beyond minimalism. It’s good.

There’s this Land of Wizards on this mountaintop. A bunch of wizard towers, buildings, etc. The wizards generally move on/out and the one day the wizardland rips off the top of the mountain and starts floating through the sky over a little region. When it reaches a certain boundary it teleports back to the far side of the region and drifts over it again. That was awhile ago, now the top of the mountain still floats across the sky, but the plateau is mostly ruins … except for all those wizard towers sticking up …

Got it? Big regional map. Over it a small “lost valley” floats. Your party gets it ass to mars and loots all of the wizard school remains they can. Most of the wizard towers are level 1-3, with some 3-5 and 5-7 thrown in. They tend to have about twenty or so rooms on several basic levels above ground. About half the wizard towers have dungeons under them with about sixty or so rooms. And then the plateau has wandering monsters in its 300’ wide hex-full-of-rando-ruins-in-between-the-wizard-towers. And sometimes instead of teleports to the “upwind” side of the regional map, when it reaches the “downwind” side it will instead teleport in to an elemental plane or a demi-plane for a day or so, mixing up the rando encounters with some of THOSE inhabitants. 

Interactivity is high. These being wizard towers, etc there is a lot of shit to fuck with. Force fields, constructs, levels, and buttons. A corpse on the ground, wiggling a bit? Wonder what’s going on there? And I fucking LOVE IT when the party is presented with things to wonder about, even something as simple as a wiggling corpse on the ground. Things to do beyond hacking! Some light factions with some agendas, especially as higher-level play is reached. Challenges here go up to level 9 or so, I’d guess? 

The overland map is full of landmarks, things to see in the distance to draw your eye towards travel there. There’s a little illustration book with an illustration of each wizards tower WHICH I FUCKING LOVE! Greg usually has some new mechanic/feature for his dungeons. In this one its a bunch of Wizard Hats and and a system for looting books and spell components, with an extensive table of book titles provided to add detail. He’s got a little section covering all of the various ways folks can get up to the floating plateau, from potions, to spells, to mounts, to teleport, etc. This anticipates a need of the DM and takes care of it … providing them the information they need during play. Exactly what a designer should be doing. 

Who’s a jerkfaced jerk? That’s right! Me! And now let the bloodletting and wailing begin!

The hooks and rumors section are mostly perfunctory to get the party TO the region to see the floating place. It doesn’t feel integrated at all, and while a homebase town is provided it, again, doesn’t feel integrated in to the adventure. Sure, there are some ties between the town and plateau, but other data, that the party is likely to want to search for an find answers to, is not really present. The main content is the plateau and the towers/dungeons. 

Cross-references are few and far between and there’s not really a way for the party to NOT get in to trouble with the higher-level towers early on. The lower level ones are generally visible and near the edge, but you could walk in to something dangerous. Which is ok, but putting the level ranges on the Wizard reference sheet would have helped the DM guide the players a bit by dropping hints rather than hiding the level ranges in the main body of text. I just penciled mine in on the map, which does what I need it to do.

Rooms descriptions are a hair above minimal. “The hallway is empty with the exception of some

rubble debris and leaves blown in from outside.” Ok, blowing leaves. I can work with that a little. Another room says “Two partially-destroyed beds and a wooden box sit against the eastern wall. There is nothing of value.” The rooms are easy to scan and run because of this, but also come across as more than slightly generic. Giving each room a title like “Destroyed Bedroom” or “Once opulent bedroom” or something may have helped with this. Further, I noted a lot of “this room was”, “this room has” and so on in the adventure text. It’s like there’s no context assumed. Yeah, it’s a room. This just pads out the text and I think I recognize, in my own writing a weakness in this sort of description. A kind of passivity in the text.

It makes repeated but infrequent references to both Barrowmaze and Arachia for certain monsters and/or rules, so be aware of that. It’s not really anything important that can’t be handwaved though.

Random tables. Weird ass sky-lost-valley adventuring site. Hexes. Towers. Dungeons. Interactivity. Terseness. Some social. Rival parties. Elemental planes. A homebase. New magic items (to go with the boatload of generic book ones) and new monsters. This adventure takes just about every element D&D has that makes it good and exercises it a bit. Better bring a lot of food, torches and hench with you when you make it up top to the plateau … you probably gonna be there a bit and need to manage your resources …

If I were running this I’d make some generous printouts. One for the new monsters. One for the wanderers and demi-plane stuff. Print out the “plateau wind drift” paragraph and attach it to my chart. I don’t see a lot of need to make notes or highlight text, but rather print out stuff already there for “situational” references. I’ll happily add this to my dungeonland campaign, and pay the cash for the PDF. My biggest complaint is that I’d prefer just two-three more words per description, for some evocativeness. This is a great example of how the D&D elements work together to create emergent play in a non-linear fashion. 

This is $35 at DriveThru. That’s for the PDF. There’s no preview and Greg explains why in the DriveThru description. But, still, a link to another preview in the DriveThru description would have been nice. $35 is a bit much for a PDF blind buy. 


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) The Tower of Tharikthiril

Sat, 07/13/2019 - 11:13
By Devin Cutler Self Published 5e Level 3

The evil wizard Tharikthiril was defeated by the dwarves years ago. But why then are the groundlings becoming numerous around his ruined tower? And what are those strange lights seen in the distance coming from the direction of his tower? Has the wizard somehow cheated death and risen again?

This 31 page adventure describes an evil wizards (former) tower with about fifty rooms described in fourteen pages. It can get lengthy at times, in DM text and read-aloud, but tends to keep things reasonable. What is suffers from, more than anything, is being boring. It tries, but beyond monsters and lengthy traps it has little to offer. 

This wizards tower, errr, former wizards tower, has a large ground floor of 33 locations and then a couple of very small tower levels and a couple of very small dungeon levels. Running around inside are some vermin, goblins and corrupted dwarf-mutations, and an evil wizard with a few abominations. 

Traps are sprinkled throughout, each taking up far more space than they should with multiple skill/stat checks referenced. There’s a few attempts at a weird effect or two in a couple of the rooms.

Unlike most adventures, this thing takes a good running start at an evocative writing style. One room has it’s corner collapsed with rubble strewn down the mountainside. A mosaic purposefully pried up in one hallway. A room choked with stone from the ceiling, mud, water, dung, all forming a thick goop with the skeleton of a small humanoid lying atop it, gibbets of meat still on its bones. We can argue about the use of small and goop, but gibbets of meat still upon its bones, and the image of the skeleton in the much room, if a good one. It’s a nice lure to bring the party in. In general the adventure does a pretty good job of getting in and out with its read-aloud while providing the correct degree of specificity to be evocative when mixed with its colorful use of adjectives and adverbs. It’s not exactly The Best but it is CLEARLY a cut above the fact based descriptions that permeate adventures. A little scrubbing or agonizing editing and it could have possibly been really a standout in that area.

It does fall down on interactivity though. The adventure interprets this as monsters and traps and therefore it falls in to a rut of combat and traps. There ARE a few rooms where you can speak to a demon lord via a circle, and so on, but, especially on the homes main floor, it needs some more interactivity. For every small skeleton luring you in to combat there are 12 rooms that are far FAR more mundane. It doesn’t have to be a funhouse but interactivity needs to be more than combat and traps. Especially when those traps are nearly never telegraphed. Bad!

And then it goes and gives a full page of read-aloud monologue at the start, as a hook. Or gives you a page of text for a room with a quasit in it. These are extreme examples, but its clear that restraint failed in several other rooms as well. Long read and short DM text is usually a key that something fucked up. Short initial read-aloud, and an exploding format of the DM providing more and more detail as the players investigate would resolve this. Experiences are consistent, at least initial ones, with the DM consulting for more as needed. 

It’s also clear that, for most of the adventure, an order of battle is missing. With a couple of groups of at least semi-intelligent humanoids I would expect a few notes on how they respond to intruders or summon help, etc. 

And then for every good room description we get history and backstory embedded in the DM text, adding noting to the adventure but getting in the way.

Not doing much good. Dipping in to the bad on occasion but not living there. Is that enough to recommend an adventure? No, but it’s enough to not hate it. For its faults, this thing is better than most published 5e adventures. What’s heartening is that I think usability and interactivity are more easily learned than evocative writing. It’s possible that this designer may get things together and figure out the interactivity and usability elements while kicking up their evocative writing another notch. There’s just too much decent content available go lower than “Decent.”

This is Pay What You Want at DriveThru, with a suggested price of $2. The preview is quite poor, showing you that page long read-aloud in the hook and nothing of the actual rooms/encounters. Thus you have little idea of what to expect when you buy the thing. 


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Bone Marshes

Wed, 07/10/2019 - 11:11
By David Schriduan Technical Grimoire Games Knave

We need your help! The marshes are burning, and we don’t know why!

This 48 page hexcrawl has 25 hexes. [Hex size defined as “four hours to cross] It falls in to the “Real deal” category of adventures. Not mini-dungeon, but fully formed with lots going on. It makes some non-intuitive choices but it’s easy enough to use once you’ve got the hang of it. Chok full of adventure.

You find some magic flyers saying the swamps are on fire and some mage needs help. The mage has a mission for you: charting a path through the swamp for her supply caravan to reach her base. After that she another mission, and then another. These come with handy dandy tracking sheets and notes on modifications on how to turn each in to one-shot. The above references two themes: an impishness and a nod to usability. 

There’s a tone present which isn’t gonzo and isn’t deadly serious 1e AD&D and isn’t humor. It’s a slightly bizarre character thing, drifting toward ren-faire but never actually getting close. There’s some tech present in the swamp, at the heart of mystery in fact, but its not a gonzo adventure. It’s more subtle. There’s no real humor, but there are non-serious moments. These are almost entirely in the form of the NPC’s. They are not humorous, but they do have strong character. A guy who like to see things burn. Sages who like their comfort. And the primary quest-giver, a mage with a lot of money, not much sense, a childlike wonder, and who is looking to make a name for herself. Further in the swamp are memgomanicial bandit kings and some swamp-creatures with a trial separation going on. They don’t go over the top, or least not enough to make the adventure a farce. They do provide strong elements to hang your DM hat on and provide engaging play for the party. Which is what it’s about.

There’s also an emphasis on usability. I noted the handouts for the three missions, which double as a kind of note-pad, etc for the party. The character sheets also have some nods to usability for a “you got mud on you” mechanic. The hexes are noted in a format to help aid the DM, as is some underground/flooded tunnel notes. The descriptions make good use of bolding and summaries, whitespace, bullets, and terse evocative setting descriptions. It’s clear that usability was a major design consideration, and it pays off.

There’s a lot to do and interact with in the swamp. Fighting, fire fighting, NPC’s to talk to do, schemes to plot, places to explore and so on. It’s a small hex crawl done right. There’s some over-arching goals for the party and a canvas full of things waiting to happen for the adventure to develop as the party tries to achieve their goals. It’s a great example of both plot and sandbox mixing in the correct proportions to achieve some directed purpose without dictating which way things should go. 

And it’s not without its flaws. For all its attempts at usability a few fall short. 

The adventure makes an effort at cross-references, they appear in more than a few places. It also doesn’t always use time when it should. There are five gizmos scattered about the swamp that play a major part in the adventure … but there’s no unified place where they are all mentioned. Other elements, mentioned in passing as goals or so on, also do not get a cross-reference. Where was that swamp-throne again? 

The swamp map is a little non-intuitive as well, at first glance. The hexes are numbered A through R. Then the hex descriptions start. It took me more than a few minutes to recognize that the hexes were keyed by the encounter name. “Archies Camp” is hex A. “Queens House” is hex Q, and so on. I get it, once I figured it out, but I’m still not sure it makes the layout/design more intuitive. It also moves from one area to the next a little more fluidly then is helpful. In particular the indoor and underground sections for the main encounter areas end up being less intuitive then they could be if done in a more traditional format.It’s not BAD, exactly, but it does require more work than usual to figure out how things relate to each other.

Finally, there’s the fire aspect. This is the pretext for the entire adventure: the swamp is on fire and the mage wants to put it out. Mechanically, this is covered. There are rules for fire fighting, damage and the like. Easy to find, laid out, and understandable. Then there are tactical level fire issues: many random encounters and a few fixed ones have fire elements to them. Hexes tell yo uwhat they look like before and fires in them. But it feels like there’s a gap when it comes to, oh, let’s call is Strategic fire management. Let’s start with something very basic: where are the fires? Having spent a couple of hours with this adventure I can only tell you one hex. If you levitate up, or fly, or somehow get high up and look out … where are the fires? Where is the smoke coming from? There’s not help in this area. [Further, in retrospect, I don’t think fires exist, except in isolated circumstances and that one hex. I think they mostly come up through play and random encounters. The feeling of “smoke and small fires everywhere” doesn’t really come through for me. This may be a play thing though.]

But, these are minor nits and generally easily addressed. Monsters are freaky and get good descriptions. Hex/item descriptions are evocative and terse and the text easy to scan. It’s just how it all fits together that could be better. Still, easily one of the best. A “real” adventure, and there’s not many of those out there,

This is $10 at DriveThru, and worth it. The preview is fifteen pages. You get to see a DM overview of one of the “plot quests”, laid out nicely. You also get some bestiary pages, showing off their descriptions and freakiness. Preview page 10 and onward shows you sample hex encounter descriptions, with wanderers and the main layout/descriptions for hexes. It’s a good preview. 


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

(5e) Deception at Undervine

Mon, 07/08/2019 - 11:12
By Perry McKinley Self Published 5e Levels 1-4

The PCs will need to investigate the town of Undervine, carefully examining the various personalities there. They will travel to the Muckfoot Bog, the Shadytree Woods, and the nearby Caverns of Undervine. the players will face obstacles and enemies that will challenge their very resolve, until they discover the true evil behind the murders at Undervine.

This seventeen page adventure details a ten location town, a sixteen location manor, and a 6 location cave. You wander about and poke your noses around and kill some shit. There’s a lot of explaining, history, backstory, and read-aloud … very little of which contributes to the adventure. It’s almost certainly completely mis-labeled in terms of level. It’s a mess. And this review is going to be a mess also. Because Reasons.

Yeah, ok, I fucked up. I saw the cover and “Forgotten Realms” and thought I was buying OSR. It’s DMSGuild so it’s 5e. Not that there are any stats provided in the adventure. Not that it matter anyway; the opponents include a Gibbering Mouther, three wights, a basilisk, and an ancient legendary werewolf. At level one? Yes, at level one. I tend to give encounter balance a pass in many of my reviews. A little plus/minus here or there doesn’t matter. Running away is a thing, as is Combat as War. But in a plot-heavy adventure, or linear one, then my eyebrows raise a little. If you HAVE to do an encounter then things need to a little more in line. I guess “have to do” is all relative anyway, you can always just leave the town to its fate. Still, man, 3 wights? A Werewolf? A fucking basilisk? The power curve on 5e changed, but this is silly!

This thing engages in Why Bother syndrome. This is when the designer tells the DM that they can do whatever they want. This does that over and over again. On the way to the town in question “The DM can decide whether to challenge the PCs with an encounter, pass, or roll on the encounter table below.” Or, maybe you’d like some “Once the party moves on, the DM will need to decide if the story has progressed enough for the final conflict with the Werewolf.” Oh, joy. So things just happen because the DM wills it for the sake of the plot and story. This is BAD FUCKING DESIGN. Look, to a certain extent this shit happens in every D&D adventure and in every D&D game. Yeah, the DM drives things from a certain point of view. But in good design its in reaction to the players characters and their actions. In bad D&D it’s because the plot demands it or through DM fiat. Toss an extra clue in somewhere, or clarify things when the players misunderstand or are talking themselves in to a corner? Ok, no problem. Throwing baddies at the party until they reach ability exhaustion for the sake of the plot? That’s bad design. We’re paying for content, well written and designed content. 

The usual long read-aloud is present. I roll my eyes every time. There are walls of DM text with little breaks, dictating the history of rooms, reasons why X is Y, and so on. Bob used to take his meals in this room but he hasn’t been going down to eat lately, having lost his appetite. Uh. Ok.So? Is that meaningful to the adventure in ANY way? No? THEN WHY THE FUCK DID YOU WRITE THE WORDS?

Perhaps my favorite part is the hook at the beginning. A storyteller in an inn relates the tale of the town. He won’t tell the party his name. Outside, if followed, he disappears in a fog. He can’t be fought or killed. He’s some kind of ghost thing for absolutely no reason at all. He just is. If it were a storyteller named Bob that you could stab, would it make any difference? Does the presence of short little DungeonMaster in his red robes add anything to this adventure?  Or is it just more of the DM fucking with the players for no reason at all?

On the plus side the Lynch brothers (the wights) were hung in the village and there’s a frozen fountain the village, covered in snow. Cleaning off the snow reveals a body frozen in the water. That’s nice imagery, and easily the best idea in the entire adventure.

This is Pay What You Want at DMSGuild, with a suggested price of $2. The preview is six pages. It is an accurate and true representation of the adventure in all its glory. From the writing, the read-aloud, and DM text to the muddled confusion of how everything works together. 


Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs