Wednesday, February 28, 2024

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

Frostfire's Durance Vile

By: Richard Sharpe ( and

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'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.


  • 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 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 :)

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