Thursday, February 29, 2024

Adventure Site Contest: Review #11 Lipply's Tavern




By: Gr├╝tzi

Ruleset: AD&D, bitch!

Recommended Levels: 4 to 6 characters of levels 2-4


The Gist: Allright, look.  If we're going to allow Germans into our contests then they can't have a page count, they have to be put on a word count, with a mandatory white space reserve, a no acronym rule, and whatever they turn in must be able to be run by an Italian in less than 60 minutes of table time.

This adventure location does to halflings what the Brothers Grimm did to children's stories.  It took the West 300 years to recover from that, mainly through the herculean efforts of Walt Disney (the man), and it might take the liquor stores in my area slightly longer to restock.  The entire thing is a cunning trap.  It starts with the color choices, proceeds to 335 words of general location conditions, gives you a random encounter table that varies the dice notation by area, and says "making a Ruckus" more often than Bob Eubanks used the phrase "making whoopee" in 21 years of hosting the Newlywed Game. You could trap the souls of chaotic creatures in this layout.  It displays system mastery akin to how Nurse Ratchet displayed a thorough understanding of how to keep mentally ill people calm.

It's a hyper-organized version of this, OK?


Interspersed in all the Teutonism is a wealth of excellent content.  I only have three months to get ready for North Texas RPG Con, so I'm just going to give you some nibbles.

  • The poor halfling son who doesn't know his furry-footed dearly departed father worshipped the devil
  • Orcs and spiders negotiating treaties of coexistence via shamanic spells, like that bumper sticker come to life
  • An e-girl who isn't going to leave until she gets what she came for, but cannot call the manager
  • With orcs on location I don't want to think about why the liquid in the tub is brown water, but if you're willing to fish around you can find a skeleton that had a platinum dental plan in life
  • OK, OK, the orcs are torturing gnomes, I guess they're not so bad
  • The most valuable single treasure in the entire place is nearly a metric tonne of sauerkraut that survived the fire, paired with rare cheese in the cellars

Monster Roster: Massive

Treasure: Also absolutely massive, with monetary and magic riches galore, although collection is in a state of double jeopardy as it's not only what percentage the party will find, but also the percentage of that percentage the DM will find in the text.

Do I think this will work: Yessss....in a similar fashion to how the owners manual of a 2004 BMW Series 5 works in helping you change the oil in your car.

Do I like it: I do, I love it, although unlike the other entries it makes me feel angry and unclean at the same time.

Nitpicks:  

You forgot to bold-italicize the word Ruckus on entry #3 on the random monster table, motherfucker.  What's another empty bottle of vodka on the top of the wastebin though.

Adventure Site Contest: Review #10 Legacy of the Black Mark


Legacy of the Black Mark

By: DangerIsReal (https://dangerisreal.blogspot.com/)

Ruleset: Swords and Wizardry

Recommended Levels: 4 to 6 characters of levels 2-3


The Gist: Deep in the mountains a lost entrance is found to its underworld, drawing treasure seekers who've not returned.  Ircana the Spider Sorceress is rumored buried within, but her degenerate morlock followers still roam this area.  Want to try your hand?

The adventure starts off with a good rumor table, which is always better than a bunch of hooks.  Since other treasure seekers already found out about it, the rumors (which are mostly true) are reasonable for stuff they'd talk about over drinks before setting out, if they'd done some due diligence first. If your players aren't interested in the rumors, no agency is lost.  Rumors for campaigns, hooks for one-shots.

You get a paragraph of general information regarding structure, decoration, condition, and climate up front, and a random encounter table with a handful of traditional monsters (with some cosmetic differences - the zombies are headless, etc.).  There isn't a morlock monster in AD&D; I looked through the two S&W versions I have and didn't see it there, but the monster is a humanoid archetype in its own right so DMs should have no issue with running it I don't think. 

Everything is clear and easy to read; the room numbers always showing inside a circle makes them pop and its easy to track back to your spot on the page when flipping back and forth to the map.

Then entry then describes the tomb/lair itself, leaving the in-between to the GM - which doesn't bother me a bit.  The in-between is what will vary from world to world anyway, and I'd rather get maximum word count on the location.  The entry down allows starting out near the middle of the map instead of on an edge - nice touch.

 Interesting stuff is available right off the get go: in the entry room there's a concealed alcove with some potion bottles; room 2 isn't necessarily the first path which will be chosen but its at least 50/50 and it presents a lot of interaction right off the gate. Players will get engaged quickly.  Players willing to play ball with evil can gain an attribute point and jump locations on the map (and back again) but the merely curious likely get nothing but pain.  It's possible to find and get what you came for almost immediately - which I really like as it keeps players guessing instead of presuming "goal" and "end" are always synonymous  But if you didn't play with evil prior to, you could become a pawn of evil during the encounter.  Enjoyable design.

Among the expected tomb-type rooms, you get neat encounters interspersed.  

  • A macabre room of severed heads on hanging chains conceals three vargouilles - nasty always, but especially at lower levels.    
  • the remains of previous treasure hunters are found in areas of subtle dangers - will the impulse to loot quickly bring these upon the party?
  • The morlocks offer a choice between possible cooperation or violence for a bit more treasure.
  • Another encounter room with a crab spider - am I the only one here who's never seen this monster printed anywhere?  It must be a B/X or other clone staple.

Really good little bit, it will play well, it's got its own creepy atmosphere, and is a solid example of How to Write Small.  Nothing here feels incomplete or cramped, it's instead a bite size chunk of a campaign world players will enjoy without it taking over game play for multiple sessions.  This is in type, if not specific construction necessarily, the sort of location treasure maps should lead to and so should be frequently experienced by your players in a campaign.  The tricks and traps are great too - kudos!

Monster Roster: spiders, zombies, vargouilles, a ghost that can seize your will and bend it to her own, centipedes - very satisfying roster.

Treasure: Treasure is nice - there's some magic items here for nearly every class, with the prize likely a suit of mithril chain mail+1 sized specifically for a dwarf.  The money treasure is spread out, so feeds the greed on a regular basis, and totals up to around 11K, give or take.  Players might not find all of it.  But for a low-level party, at least some will likely level after following rumors here.

Do I think this will work: Yes.

Do I like it: Also yes, a really nice job with this one.

Nitpicks: No nitpicks.

Adventure Site Contest: Review #9 Lair of the Grim Gasher Orcs



(Full map not shown)


By: Daniel Herz

Ruleset: B/X

Recommended Levels: 1-3


The Gist: It's a nicely done orc lair.

This is good vanilla.  You need orc lairs, they are what they are.  This one feels like an orc lair, and it feels like part of the world.  You get lots of little details players might latch on to for some idea they have, it's not "wonder" but it's attention-keeping and gives a path to player satisfaction from using the environment and circumstances to their own benefit.

The entire lair is coherent, easy to read, and tight.  There's zero need for the DM to try to anticipate exactly how the players will choose to tackle it because it's competent world building and complete as its own thing.  Since the DM knows who the orcs are, and what they're like, anything the players come up with makes an orcish reaction immediately come to mind.  And that's stress-free DMing; it's DMing out of a position of curiosity. This is why good vanilla can make great gaming.

nice touches:

  • note about ransom attempts ending badly thus preferring other uses for captives
  • sentry system is given
  • possibility of submittal (and conditions) mentioned
  • These orcs aren't hyper competent - they can ignore their dogs warnings, foul their well while collecting rainwater in barrels, can be fooled by disguises, will shoot arrows even if possibly killing their own, really only have one plan for invasion and fall apart if circumstances are different etc.
  • However neither are they hopelessly dumb - the make barricades for cover
  • The dogs might attack their owners, which players would find fun
  • a human boy who's got a touch of Stockholm syndrome
  • You get an expansion point if you want to add some more
  • A goblin slave, if freed, will spill the beans and also take out its frustrations on the corpse of its master
  • Doors that work differently get a note before they'll be interacted with, and another at the point of interaction - a DM isn't going to "whoops" these
  • It's possible to use the ventilation system to surprise orcs away from the main hall
  • The orc chief has a touch of OCD and arranges skulls in order of size


Monster Roster: It's almost entirely orcs, with the handful of dogs.  Assorted slaves or prisoners aren't significantly different from a roster standpoint.  This is fine for an orc lair.

Treasure: Also fine for a level 1-3 orc lair.  The chief has a potion (but might use it) and otherwise there's about 6,000 gp worth of various coin and jewelry/art objects.  Also a church bell (with no value given) that a DM could give a reward for if the players want to attempt taking it. 

Do I think this will work: Yes

Do I like it: Yes, seeing an orc lair executed like this immediately makes me want to play in this DM's campaign.  If you can do the basics like this, you're not relying on flashbangs to create fun.  I bet the wow stuff really sings.

Nitpicks: Mismatch in numbering fireplace rooms on map vs text numbering

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Adventure Site Contest: Review #8 The Glen of Shrikes


The Glen of Shrikes

By: GiantGoose

Ruleset: Unspecified, but looks like OD&D/AD&D mash up (?)

Recommended Levels: Unspecified, but I'd guess early mid-levels (4-6) if the party has six or more characters (including henches) and the DM wants some parity for the harder locations.  


The Gist: It looks like a forest hex set in the Wilderlands, with several bite-sized locations detailed having light connections; each stands alone and yet can build into at least some of the others.  GiantGoose also seems determined to use the psionic rules, as that rare power is heavily featured in this 6-mile hex, including at least one way for the players to become endowed! 

It starts off with the the general status around the hex so the DM has an overall picture, proceeds to a nicely put-together random encounter table that includes a few little dynamic details, and since it's fey of course one entry is a satyr-elf conference on inter-fey relations.  It then goes to give some motivations or desires for five of the persons or groups likely met, giving the DM a quick-hit on how to portray them if encountered.  This is all good stuff.

As this is wilderness exploration, you also get some info about what people can (or can't) see while they're traveling around.  Nice touch.

As for the specific hex encounters, you get:

  • a tree with a murderous bird that has some nice treasure bits on its prior victims
  • a bandit outpost that's willing to be bought off - an under-utilized encounter resolution today as compared to the early days (read the adventuring section of the PHB where players are told to always consider if it's better just to pay a toll than fight and burn resources)
  • a touch of weird, with a druid sage living in a tree with mental intelligent pears
  • the magic shop no party member will expect (technically not a "shop" but can trade)
  • guarded evil elven psi-mages floating in deep meditation, one-half of a group that corrupted long ago
  • a fountain with a twist - it's OD&D/Wilderlands...gotta have a fountain somewhere that functions like a chance card in monopoly.  The area inhabitants synergize nicely with it.
  • an obelisk giving hints and danger about secrets and conflicts mostly forgotten - the writing in here is really, really nice with each room/area having a distinct threatening feeling yet never swerving into D&D cliches

The writing here is just really good.  Descriptions paint a picture but stop just short of telling you what you feel about it.  When what you just read makes three or four different yet cool scenarios for what that will mean, or what will happen next, pop into your head that's the holy grail.  "Evocative" is now cliche and too often results in "overwrought".  Goose isn't trying to be evocative, he's deftly provocative; this is a higher form of D&D writing as it will:

  • help the DM run something they weren't thinking of before reading the product
  • less likely to be a mirror presentation of another DM's sessions running the same product
I use both styles; evocative has its times and places. There are encounters and locations where I am trying to convey a very specific mental image I'm seeing as I write it, evocatively.  This works better in dungeons, IMO, where connectivity is closer/denser and the reader seeing an author's mind's eye speeds up understanding how this piece affects other groups or areas when reading them in turn.  But instead of the dungeon apartments found underground, hexes have big beautiful yards separating neighbors and benefit more consistently from several possibilities and little mysteries. 

And for the love of a d20, will someone please play in a psionics campaign ran by this man?  He's jonesing for it.

Monster Roster:  It's varied and well put-together; monsters chosen are up and down the power range and fit into the terrain.  Some lesser-known or -used types were selected from supplementary or 3rd party sources and they fit will as deployed.

Treasure: Many of the encounters could produce magical treasures of low to medium power, and a few choice bits supporting future adventures (looking at you, tuning fork set to Limbo) are possible.  It's doubtful a party will gain all of them unless they're depopulating the hex down to bedrock, but you don't necessarily have to kill the current owner to benefit from an item.  Cash will look a little light in comparison to some other entries, but I think it's reasonable for exploration of a 6-mile hex.

Do I think this will work: Yes

Do I like it: Yes, I think these entries compare favorably with stuff like NOD.  

Nitpicks: Only a couple

  • the maps are essentially the opposite of loopty-doopty, but the locations are so simple it's a minor sin.  But if putting out more hexes, try to work in a location or three where the (non-hex) maps aren't quite that simple.  If you're not limited to 2 pages that's a great way to spend the extra space.
  • While it can be difficult to peg a wilderness hex for "levels", the rule system used should always be given.  If it is a mashup, that's fine to say also.

Adventure Site Contest: Review #7 Frostfire's Durance Vile




Frostfire's Durance Vile

By: Richard Sharpe (https://bloodortreasure.blogspot.com/ and https://preview.drivethrurpg.com/en/publisher/18526/Town--Down-Games)

Ruleset: B/X

Recommended Levels: for level 4-5 characters 

The Gist: The short and sweet intro says it all - a princess needs rescue, and a dragon stands in the way.  

I should make clear at the onset: I think this is a good bit of adventure.  A lot of the review is critical, but to take away that this is a bad offering would be incorrect. I think many players will enjoy it.  I really like the unique monster (the hellwing) that has a psionic attack.  All the details feel fantastical.  You get golems and fire ray-shooting gems, and dragons and a huge pile of treasure.  You've got all the environments - cave, water, verticality, ice, a manned fort, and secret passages.  It's got a lot going on. Stripe went all out on the art, this is clearly a labor of love. No one will be bored playing this adventure, provided the DM can understand the instructions.  

But I had a hard time with that; it might be the way I think doesn't sync up well with the way the author describes game info and others will have an easier time.

This location is intended for either one shots or campaign play, but I think it is inherently better for one shots without extensive reworking.  But I think similarly to the Fountain of Bec, it is a 10-page idea stuffed into a 2-page format.  Additionally, while the hook is very imaginative and flavorful - and will, I'm sure, be liked as a hook by many people who often or for a very long time, reviewed adventures - the hook also serves as an illustration why hooks are simply a bad concept which unfortunately became somehow a tradition in the wider hobby.  I'll discuss this a bit, although these shouldn't be held against the author as this adventure is far downstream from my holding these opinions.

First let's talk about how to match format to concept.  You want your writing to introduce yourself to the reader; you want the reader to gain value from having utilized your writing.  So it needs to make a good impression and follow through on promise.  The former gets the reader to the end, the latter makes them look up other stuff you've written.  

Consider your idea/concept a physical body; consider the format a set of clothing it will wear.  If you have a very big idea, presenting it in clothing several sizes too small makes both the idea and the format look something close to ridiculous.  Likewise, draping an outfit several sizes too large over a modest physique impresses no one.  Your readers will need both big and small pieces of content - and so, presumably, will you if you're running a campaign.  But if you tag your adventures as small when they're not, or vice-versa, the three-step process of read, use, and return for more likely does not happen.  Even if the ill-fitting idea is a good one. So it is important to develop talent in both sizes, rather than always trying to fit whatever idea you have at this moment into the situation at hand - whether for a contest, submission to spec, or for your own players.  

Being a good DM is to create in a manner recognizably from you and yet always, after Campaign Day 1, in a sense submitting to circumstances outside of your total control.  Where this dynamic is undeveloped, many tensions result between the game's premise (player agency) and an untamed muse.  The horse must be broken in order to serve. 

This is a pompous and longwinded way to say: when preparing a short, long-form ideas will come.  As soon as this is recognized write down enough to re-spark the process at a later time and try again if the first idea can't be pared down.

Now a word or twenty about hooks.  We've established I hate them, and that is because the very nature of a hook presumes a campaign does not exist.  For a hook to be able to slot in several campaigns at any moment, they must be so banal that they need not be repeated, or exist outside of perhaps a single book of hooks referenced by everyone.  "Suggested hooks would be #4, #12, and #21 from the Universal Book of Hooks."  People will waste a quarter- or half-column in a two page dungeon on shit that boil down to fifty ways to say "someone you've never met needs your help - if you want to play, say yes".  This is one-shot driven in a hobby engulfed in one-shot-itis.  

Or, we get very specific hooks which verge on preposterous when considered for use in a campaign.

The latter is what the issue is with the very flavorful, imaginative, and good hook given here.  It takes up most of page 1 - leaving no space for detailing the three other mapped approach locations (of which no more than two will be used, and possibly none).  It also requires the following to either be already true, or suddenly inserted, into an organic ongoing campaign:

  • An ongoing war
  • a journey which can be diverted without repercussion to whatever was the proximate cause to travel
  • the serendipitous choice to indulge at a whorehouse while on the way
  • recruiters who can draft involuntarily (because of the war) being in the whorehouse on the way
  • the recruiters being there because they hope to find someone who can rescue a princess everyone thinks is dead
  • They hope to do this in a whorehouse because they have no proof of a plot they've discovered in an undetailed way (the players won't ask how they learned this), and there's no time to get word to a king who won't believe them, so sitting in a roadside whorehouse looking for strangers is their sliver of hope
  • If you succeed, the reward of not being involuntarily drafted into the army will make you grateful to receive a fraction of the loot you'd gain undergoing a similar trial in any normal campaign circumstance
It makes for entertaining reading, and read-only consumers likely will applaud.  I wouldn't use this in a campaign in a million years.  I'm not going to insert that much chaos into my campaign to make a 2-page location fit, and so the 2-page location will sit unused until it fits by chance. Or it will be stripped for parts. But when running a one-shot, this works.  The players don't care - they're not going to use these characters again and never used them before. The war, and probably the "campaign world" itself, doesn't actually exist. The hook is instead a fake because - so the more colorful the better.

But I will hand it to the author...it's one hell of a fake because.  It will serve its purpose in spades, in one-shot OSR games.  

Now for the meat of the scenario proper.

The two recruiters offer up three possible means to access the cavern of the dragon below.  Unkeyed maps are provided for two of these: 
  1. the courtyard with one entrance (a well)
  2. the main keep interior which is just an intermediary path to the lower-level jail under the keep where an elevator is located
  3. the third entrance to the caverns isn't mapped so will need to be done either by theater of the mind or any outdoor map easily pulled off the internets showing a stream coming out of a low cave - for example, if you have the module Hyqueous Vaults, its outdoor map could easily be cropped and recycled for this purpose.
Once the activity moves into the lower caverns proper, there's stuff going on in almost every area.  Some sharp fights, dungeon tricks, environmental hazards - the players need to be on their toes.

You get 3 (or maybe 4) fights, and each are tough.  No pushover combats here.  All the language is written in high evocatarian, so the non-combat set pieces such as the orbs will firmly anchor in the imagination of the players when described.

But many of these areas have unclear text requiring puzzling out author intent.  

Interestingly, not all the entrances are equally favorable to the players.  If they follow the suggestion of looking for the orbs, taking either of the entrances beginning inside the keep likely means they'll need to face the golems twice unless they want to do some swimming and cliff-scaling (which they may prefer, if they've met them once already).  

And then, of course, at the end, you rescue the princess if you can beat the dragon and she knows all about the evil plans to do her in (presumably because the traitorous castellan just had to tell her all about it), so she'll make sure your party's actions here are properly understood as the heroism it is.  

Monster Roster: there's three monsters - the dragon, the new hellwings, and a couple of 16 HD rock golems that the party has to immediately run from at the suggested levels, if they want to be in fighting shape for the dragon.  

If the author has space to give the hellwing a bigger write up somewhere, I think that would be cool.  You get the info you need to run it, but knowing a bit more about it would make it easier to use outside of the adventure in other stuff.

Treasure: Presume the adventurers succeed - a frost brand sword and 50K in gold/gems would be a nice haul - depending upon what the "share" they get is.  If they can somehow manage to pull off getting the fire ray gems from the golems, that's a very nice couple of attacks they can use at range once per day, each.

Do I think this will work: Man this is kind of tough.  Some DMs will love this, others will be very frustrated by it.  The playtest, for instance, reportedly went really well.  I would categorize it like this:

There are two continuums I'm thinking of here. CAG-OSR is one continuum, and the Gygaxian Naturalism of G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief vs the funhouse dungeon of S2 White Plume Mountain is the other.  

  • If you love the sit-down-and-roll playstyle of the OSR (even if you want to import some CAG stuff into it) you will be more pleased with this adventure location as written
  • If you love the funhouse dungeon content of White Plume Mountain a little (or a lot) more than the Gygaxian naturalism of G1, you will be more pleased by this adventure location as written

Do I like it: I love the ideas and a lot of the areas as individual vignettes, but I don't like it as presented, in this two-page format. I suspect I would like it very much if it had room to breathe, the connective tissue didn't feel as if it were mostly cut for space, and it had a severe editing pass. Considered as a whole, the whole is less than the sum of its individual parts.

Nitpicks: 

  • Suggest listing where each entry method outputs into the cavern where the three options are listed under "The Plan".  E.g., add "see area 9" to the elevator bullet, etc
  • The map locations of the two suggested orbs are areas 2 and 6; the earlier prompt for the DM to have the recruiters suggest finding these before confronting the dragon says they're in areas 2 and 5.
  • I'm not at all clear if the description for area 1 means that the stream shown as flowing there curves north off-map (underground)?  Such that you could follow it to area 7 and bypass areas 2, 3, and 5?  
    • I don't understand how the water connects from area 7 to area 1, because I presume the water is flowing from area 12-ish to area 7...and then pools there.
  • Area 2 shows as +50 ft; area 4, beyond a 50 ft ledge also shows as +50 ft; there's nothing in area 3 connecting them to indicate a loss of elevation.  Is these altitudes absolute or relative to each other?  I.e., is area 4 another 50 feet higher than area 2 (+100 ft) or was there a big slope down in area 3?  I'm used to "+50" meaning absolute elevation similar to contour lines.  Not clear how they're used here.
  • Area 4 - Can any character of any STR open the 30 ft tall wooden door?  I presume yes, given no thresholds provided.  But since not opening them quickly is death by golem, if very strong or multiple PCs are required to push them open this would be good to note here.
  • Area 6 - if the PCs go to area 5 first and kill 4 hellwings there coming from area 6, does that mean the listed 4 hellwings are gone if this is explored after?  Or are there 4 more here?  I.e., some DMs will end up running 8 hellwings if both places are explored.
  • area 8 - I'm confused by what's going on here...is the incredible alpine mountain landscape described, something engraved on the doors?  or is the area beyond the doors just an alpine mountain landscape illusion hiding the mentioned sheer ledge (no fall distance given, btw, unless Area 10 is supposed to be "+0 ft" elevation), and opening/closing the doors dispels this illusion to show the normal cavern area that is actually in area 10?  What confuses me is the secret path from area 7 to area 10...which never interact with these doors, so what does taking that path produce?  An alpine mountain landscape that's actually someplace far away (or an illusion), or the described cavern in the area 10 text?
    • The doors seem to lead to something that either doesn't exist or is a portal to someplace far away.  There's just a lot going on here, and I'm not certain exactly which option is going on with the magic of the doors.
  • text for areas 10-12 are out of order and/or misnumbered.
  • No stats are given for the dragon!  Or the massive gem in its chest!  Players are going to key on that gem my man, and no DM wants to go looking up dragon age/HD by reverse-engineering it's length :)

Adventure Site Contest: Review #6 The Fountain of Bec



By: Stooshie & Stramash

Ruleset: Lab Lord (Advanced or Basic Versions)

Recommended Levels: Party of 3-5 of levels 4-7  LMAO

The Gist: You had some monastic nuns who were trad wives of their god, until the entire area was wrecked by raiders.  After several decades, the area has been lightly resettled but ominous trouble seems to be coming from the ruined monastery.  Clearly a job for our PCs!

So this is one of those pieces where the strength and weaknesses are uneven.  There's a lot of potential here - the strengths are very good, and the weaknesses are the type more experience and craft will shore up.

The ideas are very strong and flavorful.  If you can come up with great ideas, its easy to write stuff people want to run.  But the execution of these ideas is off.  They don't "fit"; they're too large for the piece and the maps chosen don't work with them very well (primarily the above-ground map).  A ruined monastic nunnery to adventure in leveraging a sacred theme and a neat minor relic to boot is a great location idea.  This is some great meat for a party with a paladin character, or even just the party cleric getting thrown a thematic bone.  I like this very much! 

I also like fitting in Fiend Folio monsters, I do love me some FF.

Pairing that with a simple square ruined fort map with two towers and an open courtyard is poor execution.  There's not a group of women in history, married to their lord or otherwise, that is going to set up shop in this location.  I feel like this pair of authors would be well served with one of them (or both) developing rudimentary mapping skills so that their great ideas aren't detracted by the map.  (Also, sisters of education, community health, and farming aren't likely to set up shop in the mountains, but I digress.)  It always hurts to see what could be a great adventure shoehorned into ill-fitting free/generator maps.

It also feels like the authors aren't intimately familiar with what the monsters chosen will do, on average, in a combat situation.  Especially when placed in environments that pose their own penalties on PCs (such as fighting in water).

But these are all things that come with experience.  And you only get experience by using over-ambitious ideas and seeing what happens.  

Ask my long-ago former players.  

Actually, take my word on it.  I think some of them might still be a little salty.

But man, like I said, the ideas and flavor are here in spades for a 2-page adventure location.  The main foes, the trolls, have a plan for conflict and aren't just "there".  The random room locations are nicely thought out so that the DM has something to work with if PCs leave and come back without having to think very hard about it.  (FYI - the two towers are structured to set up a killing field in front of the fort entrance...it feels like if this site were intended for a bit higher level PCs this could be utilized if the trolls put up log barricades and waited until the PCs were trying to negotiate that).  

You've got some verticality with the towers that both the trolls and the players can play with - at least the west tower - granting the trolls have the advantage there.

Once you get into the basement, the layout and details of the trolls fit well and will play well (although there are some non-troll nitpicks for the basement, below).

And putting a minor relic in brings a nearly abandoned aspect back into campaigns and worldbuilding.  Everyone remembers artifacts, but relics are where its at.  Artifacts are apocalypse fuel, relics are social fabric builders.  You don't have to have a 97th level cleric everywhere, you just need someone properly anointed pastoring a location blessed with a relic. MORE RELICS.

Overall, great job even if an uneven one.  Keep putting stuff out guys.  Play a lot.  We need more of this stuff, just match up the scope of the idea with the physical space!

Monster Roster: Trolls, a 10 HD giant 2-headed troll, death dogs, an invisible stalker, and some fucked up cthulian octopus with shadow powers (?).  I don't have LL so don't know the details on that one, but holy hell.

Treasure: There's some nice jewelry pieces so the party can grab around 10K in gold value...and did I mention the RELIC?  I can't remember if I mentioned the RELIC.

Do I think this will work: If you go into this adventure with five level 4 characters you're getting wrecked, even if you have some lower level henchman.  Two headed trolls, regular trolls, death dogs, and an extra-planar octopus aren't going to fall to your level 2 spells and fighters able to hit AC 0 on a 17 before you fall to them.

It definitely can work, but the DM needs to ignore the authors and peg it at a minimum of 40ish character levels, including at least two 6th level characters and ideally a level 7 spellcaster, primarily to handle the octopus and resolve the death dogs before those glass cannons do much damage and Pfizer half the party. Damage is going to occur here.  Healing will need to be more than a handful of CLW spells and maybe a potion or two.

Do I like it: Yes, it's broken as fuck but I like it.  I can fix her.

Nitpicks:  

1) I don't know if XP was downshifted for LL, but the death dog XP is light.

2) It feels like some early changes were missed in editing - after rolling to see exactly where the trolls are, we're then told later that there's a 1:6 and 2:6 chance of trolls in the round/west towers.  But I already know exactly where the trolls are...and the chances of trolls in those towers is much higher.

3) Pop the maps open in MS paint and put a compass rose on them. Rotating to match would be preferable, but that might require some photoshop chops.  At least a rose would allow orienting to it on the basement levels without having to mentally realign the two maps together based on the stairs when reading rooms with directional info.

4) If Remove Curse is required, that should be the minimum level for that ruleset (5th level in AD&D, not sure about LL) - or have one of the scrolls in area 9 contain a remove curse spell

5) Speaking of area 9, the general rule about water and absorbent treasure applies - if the scrolls are useable, all the rest of the documents in the room probably shouldn't be "sodden".

6) this might be a difference in LL, but in AD&D invisible stalkers are limited time servants to MUs (aerial servants are the clerical version, also "limited time, specific use" monsters)  - there are a bunch of "indefinite time" guardian monsters, however, so if running with AD&D I'd recommend switching one in for the invisible stalker. Also whether aerial servant or invisible stalker, both are air elementals so it's questionable if gas would hurt them (even though gas isn't strictly listed as an immunity - their being "snatch and grab" monsters instead of location monsters likely means interaction with gas wasn't considered much at the time). 


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Adventure Site Contest: Review #5 What Happened to Brother Eustice?



By: Vance Atkins of https://leicestersramble.blogspot.com/

Ruleset: ??

Recommended Levels: "low levels" - given the strength of the main monster, I'd say 3rd level is about right if the party is small.  Lower level adventurers in bigger parties will be able to take out the final boss(es) also, but they pack enough of a punch some fatalities would be likely.  Rolling a second one would increase the likelihood of fatalities by quite a bit.

The Gist: Straightforward rescue prompt that will result in the party exploring a small abandoned shrine/lair nearby having 9 rooms.  It's simple, it's got the little descriptive details that help a DM set the scene at the table, and it's doing a good job of hitting all the bases.

You've got an abandoned shrine.  It's got a trap, it's got appropriate dungeon dressing, it's got an environmental monster right off the bat to get some combat going early, and then the main monster at the end.  Oh, and you rescue the priest in the middle.  But otherwise there's not much going on in between the first and last rooms.

It won't disappoint anyone, and no one will remember it either.  I'd be happy to pull this out and run it for a lair.  I don't think I'd bother with using the hook.  The hook is fine in and of itself, this just doesn't feel like it needs one.  I think it works better if it's stumbled upon instead of being a party's intended destination.  

Monster Roster:  You get one random encounter on the way there with vanilla monsters, and then two other monsters in the lair: "crab spider" (undescribed) and a couple of chitin drakes.  I'm not familiar with either of these, but the chitin drake is sourced in the text and the monster entry is given.  I like the monster, it's a good selection.  

Treasure: Treasure is pretty light compared to entries we've seen so far (a few hundred gp worth of silver and gems/art, a potion of healing) but it's nine rooms a party will breeze through.  Putting one nifty minor magic item relating to trade (like an everfull purse) and another potion or two is warranted though. 

Do I think this will work: Yes

Do I like it: I'm OK with it.  It wouldn't take much to give it some pop.  It's Applebees D&D.

Nitpicks: 

1) pick/name a ruleset and a level range - this sort of ambiguity serves no purpose.  I'm guessing this is for OSE but I don't have a copy of OSE and didn't know where to look for "crab spiders" (I did a google search for the name paired with retroclone names but was still flooded with non-RPG search results of various spiders).

2) we don't need to know that snakes are slithering or skeletons are haunting on the RE table.  The OSR principle of "tell us what they're doing" on random encounter tables should either be carried to a useful conclusion or not begun.

3) in room 4, is one of the statues the goddess?  There are 2 statues, but then this extra goddess bit of detail. In  the text, the jackal statue is described in-between the mentions of the southern statue (naked lady) and the detail of the goddess, so it's not entirely clear the southern naked lady statue is a representation of this goddess - or whether the detail should be in the next room where the altars are.  Presume naked lady statue is of the goddess, although it wouldn't be typical for a deity statue to be located thus in an entryway niche, but if so - connect the two pieces of info together.

4) always, always say the scale of the map.  I'm guessing this is 5 ft per square but I don't know for sure.


Adventure Site Contest: Review #4 Etta Capp’s Cottage



By: Scott Marcley of thegloomyforest.blogspot.com

Ruleset: AD&D/OSRIC

Recommended Levels: 3-5 characters of 3rd to 5th level


The Gist: Crazy lady of the forest lives in spiderweb house that seems to have a pretty dark secret the author leaves entirely up to the DM's imagination.

This is a really tight lair that I'll plop down in a fey woods hexcrawl faster than Ye Olde Jeff writes adventures.  All the little details are great, work together, and will intrigue players as they go through it.  Poison is still a bitch at these levels, so tension will be high.  Some examples of what makes this next-level:

  • the spider web-cloth material itself can form a unique treasure of sorts for players who want to run with that detail, if they realize it
  • the location allows players a great deal of leeway in how they approach it - if they're willing to risk getting a bite they can make their own doors that last for a short time, but if they try to stand off and shoot their way through at reduced risk they're not going to get anywhere (and probably get buried in random encounters).  Just a neat balance/tactical choice.
  • The flavor details are creepy because they're seemingly mutually exclusive, yet internally coherent in isolation.  All the options to bridge the two sets of details together are really, really dark and yet something you'd totally think a hag would do, even if you don't know exactly how it happened.
  • The grand showdown is set up to be a heck of a fight for the party, given the difficulty they have with closing the distance.  And yet, if a party already has something like a potion of flying from previous adventures (and uses it here) it will feel like that usage tipped the scales in their favor - which is what magic items are supposed to feel like when used.  The use of verticality is nicely done.

Monster Roster: Spiders and ettercaps, but it all makes sense here and reinforces the theme.

Treasure: If players find everything, around 12,000 gp and a small number of magic items that are well-chosen for both the location and party levels.

Do I think this will work: Yes, this will work tremendously.

Do I like it: I love it

Nitpicks:  Very small nitpicks, and the total details involved would fill out more than two pages, but some light touches that could present interesting situations are:

1) An extra sentence giving how long spider silk armor/garments last, and what damages them, would be cool.  How much cloth to make them?  Also what characters might know it was usable this way (druid?), as I think the odds of players making the connection will be low.

2) In the cellar, show the tunnel walls (I presume the "tunnel" is interior and not exterior) and have the multitude of small spiders start sealing it off some number of rounds after the players go inside.

 3) Having one empty chair/setting in the dining room. What would they have to say if spoken with?  (I'm wondering - the author shouldn't feel obligated to define this last bit.  Nice touch with the family!)

4) Add "and assorted beasts" in Area E to prompt the DM with an answer if the players search the other 12 cocoons.

Adventure Site Contest: Review #3 Death Talon Lair



By: John Nash

Ruleset: B/X compatible

Recommended Levels: Level 3


The Gist: The reader isn't given a context for the location.  The title provides it is a lair, for "Death Talon", but until you get to the end of the piece you don't find out who or what Death Talon is.  

This piece highlights what I would consider the drawback of what has become known as the OSE style.  The DM is given staccato bursts of detail and no harmony between or connecting them.  DMs who never run anything close to what is written might not mind this; DMs interested in using 3PP material in order to import "not me" into their game worlds will need to infuse themselves back into the material in order to make it work.  If your players seize upon any of this detail, there's no 2nd layer for them to discover how or why unless you've provided it.  As written, it would essentially punish them for thinking it might matter because it's just wasting their time.

Spoiler - Death Talon is a young black dragon.  Almost certainly this lair wasn't constructed by the dragon, but taken over by it.  So what was it before he took it over?  There's undead, and coffins, and so was it some sort of tomb?  Perhaps.  OK, so if it was a tomb, why does half of it seem to portray a ruined trading outpost?  Good question.  Are the gnolls hanging out in one area lackeys of the dragon or are they just big balls gnolls who like to hang out near dragons they don't serve?  Insert GIF of "IDK kid" here.

Why do the undead vignettes seem to tie often into performative arts themes?  If they're protecting a former shrine to something named "Lumbricus - He who crawls beneath" those details aren't simply undefined, they're discordant.  

I would say that many of these individual pieces show something interesting, as individual pieces.  But I can't tell if that comes from the author, or some tables having a wide variety of possibilities.

Lastly, while we do enjoy dragon lairs and I commend the author for making one, a 5 HD dragon against a party of level 3 characters is a tough sell.  Unless the party can manage to do significant damage to it, its breath weapon should take out most of a 3rd level party in the first round - that's if they manage to avoid being level drained on the way there.

Monster Roster: The monster roster will present a variety of challenges - you have skeletons, zombies, wights, giant crabs, gnolls, a grey ooze, and green slime.  The roster itself is a good collection.

Treasure: 12,000 gp in monetary value, give or take, plus a couple of cursed magic items.  The gold is good but with the high level of challenge here for level 3 characters I'd recommend putting some magic in they can use to their benefit right away, as opposed to items that reduce their effectiveness.

Do I think this will work: Not really.  This is like pulling "BCFHUUV" from the bag in a game of scrabble.

Do I like it: Not as written.  I think any of the three or four themes present in this location could have been made into interesting coherent adventure sites if one had been chosen, though.

The map is also good. I'd likely use it differently, but as a widget necessary to adventuring, it is a good map.

Nitpicks:  Not enough here to nitpick really.  I would instead close with a thought exercise for the reader: surpluses of entirely incoherent detail given to another is worse than two or three details that play together; the latter helps another more, presents them with less overall work to finalize it, and is more likely to have them come back again if they need another piece of content.

But I would like to see something else from the author that feels like it is a fully realized expression of something Mr. Nash thinks is cool.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Adventure Site Contest: Review #2 The Tomb of Rassanotep








By: Jeff Simpson of Buddyscott Entertainment Group (Canada)

Ruleset: Seven Voyages of Zylarthen

Recommended Levels: for character levels 2-3


The Gist: Jeff gives us a quick hook/intro that presumes the party camps at a particular oasis in the desert - which, all things considered, is very likely to occur in desert exploration so a smorgasbord of hooks isn't really necessary.  Of course someone waking up in the morning to their partially sand-buried host's skeleton pointing in a particular direction is going to check it out.  This is a product for adventurers, not weenies.  The entire tomb shouldn't take more than an hour of play (if that) however.

Exploring in the pointed direction eventually leads to a cliff face with a tomb.  This area is the equivalent of a batting cage pitch straight up the middle that's intended to make it easy for a party to get solid contact.  While we all enjoy the novel and the innovative, the dirty secret of long-playing D&D campaigns is a lot of the weekly content looks just like this.  DM burnout happens when everything needs to be a "whoa" session, and player flaking comes from people unable to enjoy simple locations like these where there's a sense of satisfaction from finding something like this non-descript tomb, checking it out, pocketing some loot, and checking the next hex.  Marriage is not like a rom-com; campaigns aren't going to be an endless succession of G3s.  They're held together by people who enjoy gathering together, and there's going to be nights where this straightforward location is all most of the group can handle because everyone is tired, but no one wants to break the rhythm of meeting, bullshitting, having a beer, and playing some D&D.   

So as to area specifics, we have ten rooms that hit all the standard desert tomb tropes.  You have:

  • the secret-in-hieroglyphics that must be sussed to open the real entrance to the tomb
  • a simple hallway trap  
  • the long-dead skeleton (inanimate) with a document having basic location info
  • one dangerous automaton
  • a throne that's unwise to sit upon
  • the gratuitous flooded chamber containing the lootable corpse of some Satipo stand-in (probably)
  • The room with long-dead skeletons (animate) standing guard and ready to attack
  • fake treasure room serving as a decoy to the real treasure room
  • The tomb of the titular character, who will rise from the grave if its rest is disturbed.
You might pish-posh or be non-plussed.  I would ask you: how many times have you been to Waffle House and how long do you think it will be until you go there again?

There's a few imaginative flourishes - the inanimate skeleton homes several normal poisonous spiders that the DM can describe as spilling out of its cranial orifices and the hieroglyphic messages likely invite speculation. 

Monster Roster: The monsters are all mentioned above, there's nothing new or novel - well except perhaps the level-draining leeches?  7VoZ apparently doesn't mess around with its leeches.  I don't have a copy of the monster roster to check and see if that's vanilla or an upgrade.

Treasure: 7VoZ is on a silver standard, so for that system 7,100 sp in sellable treasure and a +1 sword (with other powers if the GM wishes to detail same) is very acceptable for a 10-room romp.  There's also a "bejewelled scepter and crook" with the body of Rassanotep, without any values listed.  So if a DM wants to up the reward ante those two pieces can be given any value felt appropriate.

Do I think this will work:  Yes, there's nothing complicated in here to fail.  But if you're looking for "whoa"-level creativity this won't scratch your itch.  It's designed to give people a reason to sit down and JUST PLAY, nothing more or less.  For contest purposes I would say this is less on the inspirational side and more on the grounding side for DMs still getting their feet behind the screen.

Do I like it: Yes, but I'm also confident that I can amplify the very simple play loop here during a session with my own DMing pizazz.  This site isn't going to make a DM more than they are without it, it would be the other way around.

Nitpicks:

1) Room 4 describes the cat-statue guardian as falsely-gilded so as to present as valuable, but since no one here (presumably) is a descendent of the tomb occupant it also will attack as soon as its location is entered.  A delayed attack when they leave the room (possibly after being put inside a sack or pack carried by a character) would allow all the detail to work together

2) Secret doors in rooms 3 and a secret corridor in between rooms 6 and 7 aren't mentioned in the description.  This might be because of space or perhaps they were missed in quickly putting together an entry.  But these would have been areas where more tropes could be detailed that would give the location an even stronger flavor.

3) There's no random encounters in the tomb - and its small enough this probably isn't needed - but the skeletons in area 7 could stand doubling in number with some activation written in that would send half of them on patrol, so that there's at least a minor element of passive danger

4) One trap is said to slice off a finger if it is triggered, reducing a character to the lesser of 15% of their hp or 5 hp total - whichever is less. 15% seems harsh for losing a finger, although perhaps this is some form of Canadian inside joke; I've still not watched Strange Brew so anything is possible.  But I'd probably change this to whichever is more, instead.

5) Since this is carried by being entirely straightforward and faithful to the tropes, putting the main tomb/sarcophagus so close to the entrance where it's likely to be found almost immediately deflates the rest of the content.  Lean into the tropes, make it only accessible by some winding secret hallway that begins somewhere far from the entrance.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Adventure Site Contest: Review #1 Olglias’s Folley

 Why does one keep an old blog around?  Because it might be needed someday.

Today is such a day.  Ben Gibson of Coldlight Press, author of the esteemed NAP module "Tower of the Time Master" has emceed an adventure site contest with a very respectable 18 entries, which I'm reviewing to provide feedback and highlight content fitting with the classic adventure gaming style of play.

The rules of the contest were two pages of space for writing the adventure site proper, the goal was to provide a location suitable for putting into a hex map for players to encounter and explore, taking up to perhaps a full session of game time but not much more than that (and possibly less).  

I'm pretty lax on process so my review order is alphabetical by file name as submitted, which may differ from the name of the entry proper - easier to keep track of progress down the folder.  

For review criteria, my main two are very simply: 1) do I think this will work in play as written or with very minimal customization, and 2) Do I like it?  #1 is much more important than #2, as there are many things that work quite well for other people but I wouldn't run myself because it zigs where I zag, and that's no penalty.  But it's also impossible to avoid whether you personally like something or not when reviewing it.  So if you've submitted something that I think will work at the table but that isn't quite my bag - that's nothing to be worried about at all.  If you like it and would run it, that's what matters, and also why I didn't come up with any bullet points of criteria to try and influence how people converse with their own muses.

And with those explanations out of the way, on to review #1 "Olglias’s Folley" 



By: Kevin Conyers of Flooded Realms Adventure Press

Ruleset: Old School Essentials Advanced

Recommended Levels: 7-9


The Gist: an odd couple consisting of a cloud giant and his human MU buddy set up a lair of sorts around a ravine-pond fed from magically translocated "water" - mostly normal-ish H2O of the variety Bobby Boucher could appreciate, but with some extra-planar sources possible as well.  What lives in the pond depends upon the liquid du jour, and so offers some encounter variety to go along with the fixed locations in the small lair map.

Both of the fishing buddies are no longer around to maintain their elaborate fishing hole; its decaying status quo can be explored (and looted) although in their absence some other dangers have moved in.  While its possible (unlikely, but possible) for the party to come to understand what became of the giant, the fate of the MU is incredibly unlikely to become known.  For most parties, both members of the odd couple will be hidden depth that never gets explained - which is fine, good even, for minor spots such as these.  We get along just fine in the world without ever knowing the "why" of circumstances around us, and our speculations are sometimes more entertaining than the truth.  If you desire players to understand a location's backstory however, you'll need to come up with something having more visible threads to pull on than the site text itself provides.

Monster Roster: a good mix is provided by the author of treasure, some vanilla monsters, and some specials.  If the players can rotate the pond water and want to go fishing for an extended period of time, they could hook some memorable fish stories of their own.  I suspect this part will also remain hidden depth, however, unless random rolls provide something that hooks the players into wanting to burn more time here.

Treasure: for the land portion, which is much more likely to be interacted with, there's some likely-to-be-found art objects and jewelry that most players, even at these levels, will consider worthwhile for what amounts to a quick exploration of a few rooms.  If they manage to unlock the hidden depth, better treasure awaits them including an insane "fishing pole" destined to become a cleric or druid's favorite weapon.  For the time investment, treasure is good.

Do I think this will work: a qualified yes.  It has a high floor - I don't think this will fail for any DM.  But the best parts of the module are a bit too clever in that the author puts a barrier between each instance of what unlocks the best parts of the module and players either obtaining the clue at all, or understanding those most likely to come into their hands. Something as simple as not having the human MU write his diary in "phonetic giant" could make the difference. I could see players saying "we'll put this in our backpack and get it translated later."  Once they do that, will they want to come all the way back here on the info its given them?  Maybe.  But maybe they'll have new fish to fry by then and it will go into the "if we're back that way again someday" pile.

Players simply don't have a great batting average at making non-intuitive connections in real time, if they don't know what they don't know.  A DM has to be a bit obvious with at least one instance where the players can understand this place is different than all the other more mundane hex locations even if they don't know why, yet.  Otherwise I think its quite likely a party trapes through this as another decaying hex-ruin with one obvious lair monster and associated treasure, quickly moving on oblivious to all of the gems the author's put in.  Is that a fail?  No, not by any means.  Most lairs are just like that.  But is it what the author and any DM excited by the contents is hoping for out of it?  Also likely no.

Do I like it: Yes, I think the imagination here is great and it's the sort of change-up pitch campaigns need periodically where everyone can just have some fun and some whimsy.  There's potential for player memories and stories here, especially players who enjoy fishing IRL.  It does a great job of being memorable without overstaying its welcome or trying to be more than it is.  A lot of DMs don't know when to stop writing, and Kevin puts the pen down at just the right moment.

Nitpicks: 

1) Underwater treasure hoards using the book rules (at least in AD&D) generally don't include scrolls, and this one has two.  Sure, you can handwaive in "water proof tubes" (not mentioned here specifically) but I think it's best to allow environment to dictate treasure types.

2) The crumbling bridge seems a tad arbitrary in how its set up and executed.  Something necessary in cause-and-effect - even if just something that makes sense in hindsight - is missing.

3) It's only the type of water that changes out magically (?) so I'm not sure why pond-floor monster hoards would switch in and out as the monster roster does.  This seems like a hole in the design (or perhaps just the text) that doesn't do anything good but has the potential to take players down theoretical rabbit holes for no payoff.

4) This isn't to Kevin per se as I'm picking at a bog standard gamer culture convention, but can we please retire the "surprisingly lifelike" description of petrified creatures?  If we want players to understand they're seeing some formerly live creature whose been petrified, then just decide that stone to flesh produces obviously not-statue statues and put that right into the description given to players - "the stone form of someone who's clearly been petrified by magic is 20 ft to your north".  Because "Gee that statue is surprisingly lifelike" and the ensuing entirely pointless verbal dance (that burns time for no useful reason) that occurs between player and DM is so, so tired.  This fools no one and serves zero purpose.

FWIW, IMC magical petrification produces a "statue" that looks entirely similar to normal statues and not distinctive in any way.  It's not amazingly lifelike, it's in whatever style of sculpture would be baseline common/normal in the culture and time of the person being petrified - whatever stylistic flourishes those may be, lifelike or very un-lifelike.