Bathtub Review: Aberrant Reflections

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

Aberrant Reflections is a fully illustrated 38 page dungeon module by Direct Sun. It bills itself as a “puzzle dungeon”, and it more than lives up to its name, more closely resembling a dungeon from the Legend of Zelda than any other module I’ve read.

It’s a smart move to pick a gimmick for the whole dungeon, and open with explaining the gimmick to the GM and suggesting how to adjudicate edge cases. An example of an edge case is given from playtesting, which I really liked. I imagine it would be challenging to use a gimmick strong enough to sustain a complete, if small, dungeon.

Aside from that, it opens with a timeline (not strictly necessary, but it’s standard on modules these days), a page of special items and how they can be used, and eight creatures and NPCs. Four of the items are involved in solving puzzles, although you may not discover them all. There’s a jarring moment here where text is purple with no explanation, and it’s purpose gets explained a few pages later.

The symbols and colour coding occur as part of the key and maps, which covers most of the book. Most rooms are one to a page, include art of the room or a map cutout if it’s important to understanding the room, and has text for both the “real” room and the one in the alternate “abberant” universe. I usually don’t like wordy entries, but I forgive it in this case because they’re doubling up on rooms every entry and using art to assist with understanding.

The writing is functional, but has a lot of nice worldbuilding touches such as “Selling the painting will draw the ire of its previous owner— Captain Rosewell of the Martel adventuring company.” I don’t mind the workmanlike writing here, because it’s important to understand the pieces of the puzzle, although I’d love to see the gap being bridged more effectively between great prose and practical puzzle communication.

Layout is consistent and clear. There’s a lot of solid line art here with purple highlights by Del Teigeler Jacob Fleming, Luke Broderick and Kiril Tchangov, all of whom have harmonious styles. Typefacing is readable. None of this is flashy, but it all feels very classic dungeon sensibility while also modernising the messes that were classic dungeons in reality.

The puzzles themselves are very central to the dungeon, and I’d recommend being sure that your friends are keen to solve puzzles. I like them a lot. I don’t think they’re too difficult, they lend themselves to creative solutions, and in the hands of a good GM, they’ll be a great time. There’s also the evil lurking on the other side, placing time pressure on many of the puzzles completion in a satisfying way.

Finally, I like the use of the inside cover pages for wandering monsters and the map of the dungeon. Great for usability and also they’re great quality. The map is annotated, and if you knew the module well you could probably run the adventure from it, and if you don’t it still makes it very easy to find relevant other locations and items. The wandering monsters table includes stat blocks, and includes checklists for encountering the same characters multiple times for different events.

Overall, this is a very solid dungeon, and I’d recommend it for the right group. My criticisms are mainly things holding it back from being great, and I suspect were conscious decisions made for functional and pragmatic reasons that make sense in the context of the module and don’t detract from its usability. It’s easier to criticise my favourite type of middle that reaches for the stars and fail, than this more modest dungeon that nails most of what it attempts.

An excellent dungeon to drop into your campaign.

8th June, 2023

Idle Cartulary


The Bridewell Bestiary

There are about 40 monsters in Bridewell. I’m going to playtest in Trophy Gold, maybe Into the Odd, two systems that are easy to stat for, so here is a dual bestiary. This is why I wrote the other week. I’ll write about ten at a time, I suppose. Content Warning: Horror, implied abuse, murder.

Khumush-spawn. Magist-experiments, serpentine, winged, undying, rotting. TG. Endurance: 6. Weaknesses: Sunlight, kindness. Habits: Starved, curious, friendly or guarding. Defences. Freeze-constrict, lightning-bite. ITO. HP 4. Armour 0. STR . 10 DEX 13. WIL 5. Attacks: Lightning-bite 1d6. Can constrict as a serpent, 1d4/turn blizzard.

Corpse-knight. Cursed Knights Belour, soul-trapped in mummified husks. TG. Endurance 7. Weaknesses: Holiness, self-doubt. Hulking, whiplike, crawling, falling apart, cruel, pragmatic, rough. Defences. Already dead. Random blizzard–dragon power. ITO. HP 6. Armour 2. STR 15. DEX 8. WIL 12. Attacks: Axe 1d8. Blizzard-dragon powers: 1. Blizzard-breath; 2. Lightning-eyes; 3. Icy-ground; 4. Wings; 5. Avalanche-strength; 6. Snow-blind.

Magist. Long-dead, brain-rotted arcane laboratorians. TG. Endurance 7. Weaknesses: Not-gods, confusion. Skittering, snake-spined, bone-spurred or oozing tar. Defences: Already dead. Just One Savage Spell. ITO. HP 6. Armour 0. STR 8. DEX 12. WIL 16. Attacks: Just One Savage Spell. 1. Blood Blast; 2. Explode Flesh; 3. Rot Eyes; 4. Were-Mega-Mantis; 5. Bone-whip; 6. Melt.

Mourning Ghost. Beautiful but beaten. TG. Endurance 8. Weaknesses: Light, kindness. Angry, weeping, screeching, clawing, clinging. Terrible, painful song. ITO. HP 8. Armour 1. STR 8. DEX 16. WIL 14. Attacks: Song 1d6, pain-wracking, WILL save for half.

Rook Swarm. Black, screaming, tiny blades, tiny picks. TG. Endurance 3. Weakness: Fire. Vengeful, Feeding, Cleaning, Swarming, Dropping. Envelop, Swoop. ITO. HP 1. Armour 0. STR 10. DEX 18. WIL 6. Attacks: 1d6 claws and beaks. Separate: Impair attacks against the swarm.

Possessing Ghost. Rabid, animal, grimace-sneer-roar. TG. Endurance 8. Weaknesses: Holiness. Habits Vengeance, sedition, seduction. Defences Possession, Devour, Shred. ITO. HP 5. Armour 0. STR 15. DEX 15. WIL 10. Attacks: Teeth 1d6, Possession on failed WIL save.

Skeletal Lamtern-Bearer. Haggard, calcified arm, lantern both glowing and not. TG. Endurance. 5 Weakness: Fulfilment. Habits Single-minded, forgetful, blameful, suspicious, grandiose. Defences. Charge. Alight. Reveal. ITO. HP 4. Armour 2. STR 15. DEX 10. WIL 10. Attacks: Sword d8. Charge d10 and crush.

Shambling Corpse. Dead. Barely holding it together. Travel in packs. Souls? TG. Endurance 3. Weakness Dismemberment. Habits Groping, teaching, bursting from earth, concealing, surprising. Defences Soul-stealing, infectious. ITO. HP 1. Armour 0. STR 12. DEX 8. WIL 8. Attacks: Bite 1d6. Soul-steal or rotting infection on failed CON save.

Ghost-light. Levitate candle-flame, balefully gazing. TG. Endurance 4. Weakness Intangible. Habits Luring, singing, giggling, running, stomping. Defences Intangible, ghost-burning. ITO. HP 3. Armour 1. STR 7. DEX 13. WIL 13. Attacks: Ghost-fire 1d6. Intangible: Magic or holiness to injure.

Mummified corpse-parts. Leathery, flapping, slapping. TG. Endurance 3. Weakness Water. Habits: Guardians of Holy Places, come in groups. Defences. Wrestle, restrain, steal weapon. ITO. HP 1. Armour 1. STR 12. DEX 8. WIL 8. Attacks: Body-slam 1d6. Restrain on failed STR save. Steal weapon on failed DEX save.

There! My first few creatures, some exciting, some prototypical.

4th June, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Playtest Report – Bridewell Session 3

My Bridewell playtest campaign continued today with Marcia and Alex joining. It was a longer session as I’m out of hospital. We’re playing in my own hack of Trophy Gold. There will be Bridewell spoilers, but if you’re a part of the playtest, you can definitely read this.

Erstwhile the disaster girlfriend joined Ursaline the bear-priestess. They picked up choosing to pursue to thread of finding a holy relic (“part of a god”) in order to save the relic stolen from the Vineyard of Our Lady of Perpetual Light by the Penny Dreadfuls of The Abbey of Saint Angelus.

Erstwhile disguised herself as a scholar to persuade Sigfiend and Orto to allow them entry to the library. With Orto escorting them, they browsed the library, eventually discovering a forbidden book that required both charm and slight of hand to access too (and Orto’s suspicions now lay on Erstwhile, having been revealed she cannot read or speak a language she indicated she could). The forbidden book maid reference to a cult of Knights Belour and their associate Magists being involved in dark magics involving chained or hostage gods.

Ursaline interrogated Veaceslav, secret druid for information, leveraging the multiple favours he owes them. He indicated these Knights Belour were in the very south of the valley of Bridewell centuries ago, but knew very little else. He indicated it would be a great evil to use the bodies of any of the gods of the valley – Padru, Groaming or Khumush – in such a ritual.

Ursaline and Erstwhile, taking the road and choosing (out of character) to bypass many sites for the sake of the session, travelled for a number of days to arrive in Ravensbourne, a small town which strangely feels as if it is not of the same dismal cut as the rest of the valley. Here, flowers bloom, birds sing, and grass is green, although the people of Ravensbourne act as though all is more as it seems than you’d expect. Visiting the fairly empty tavern, they persuade the innkeeper Erik the vibes in his inn are off, ply a local – Alexi – whose grandsons fled for Dimmness-town leaving him with nobody to look after the rookery – for information, and gain the interest of two robed strangers who let slip they have a map leading to the ruins of a Casa Belour that they intend to visit soon. They ignore a suggestion to talk to the Burgomaster of the town. Planning to beat the strangers to Casa Belour, they depart post-haste.

Casa Belour is a fortified manse in a field of artificial black thorns, hidden behind a cleft in the mountains. The only place in this region that does not seem merry and bright, it clearly is the site of an ancient battle, and is crumbling and vine-choked. Within, they spied and avoided praying corpse-knights, flying death-serpents, and plotting undead tacticians, before engaging in a long conversation with the gay commander of the Knights Belour, stuck in his office planning a battle for centuries. With the knowledge of his true love clouding his awakening, they stole his papers and his amulet, which they used to open a secret door in the statue of the Warden of the Forsaken, an unknown god, in the great hall. Screams could be heard from a nearby room as they climbed down into the basement, and here they faced two long-dead, bored and surprised magists in a vestibule, and could hear nearby the groaning of something vast in a twisted and dark laboratory.

I feel like there was less happening this session despite its length, mainly because a lot of the dungeon crawl at the end was starting and stopping, and avoiding encounters, much of which was breezed over in the summary. I’m not a fan of “door to the left or two the right” in dungeons, so I basically gave them a free peek through every door, so they had full information for the most part about the room ahead so they could choose whether to engage. This potentially backfired, as the two felt they were not well positioned to fight the dreadful horrors that lay within this castle. The map I used for this dungeon was experimental in the sense that I didn’t complete it, which I think was not successful in the way that these players wanted to tackle the dungeon. I think that map will need revisions. That said, I think certain success in this first Bridewell dungeon crawl so far.

Marcia at last twigged to the fact that the Bridewell mists are a variety of Nick’s Flux Space when the map they gained allowed them direct access to the Casa Belour. I think this tied together why I’ve set up the mists the way they are, and I wonder if the rules to this simplified flux should be explicit or if I should let that gleam happen in future player’s eyes too.

Some great pleasures are coming from the success in the module’s capacity to face out of sequence play. Not once so far has the approach of the players been the anticipated route by the module, but each time that has yielded fun and unique results. In this session, the sequence-breaking meant they had key information for a character (the death-knight commander) that otherwise would have been a significant foe, to render him instead lovesick and open to plying with charm. This is a single sentence in his description which I honestly put there for the sake of the GM, but ended up playing a key role in the outcome of this particular session.

I’m really enjoying running Bridewell, but I’m starting to see that the structure and writing here is sound (although I’d love to test out a few more locations), and the real question is whether or not the writing and structure holds up to other GMs playing and reading it. Now there’s tension between whether I cease my playtest earlier (even though there’s a lot of fun to be had), or whether I cease after a few more sessions and then let the beta phase of playtesting (“Do other GMs like this too?”) begin.

Bathtub Review: The Big Squirm

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

The Big Squirm is an 80 page, fully illustrated mystery for Troika! by Luke Gearing. I backed it on Kickstarter. It is a complicated module to wrap my head around, being an investigation with randomly generated clues. First up: Impeccable art by Andrew Walter and very suave type facing. Honestly the cover doesn’t do the interior justice. Just lovely to look at, with very few missteps in layout.

One of my favourite illustrations, by Andrew Walter, from the Big Squirm

It opens uniquely: A description of the state of the city and the stat blocks of two feature creatures, before the contents page. I like this as an opening, to be honest, and am of two minds because if I wasn’t reading a .pdf, I might have just skipped the stuff before the contents page? Like, there isn’t usually anything useful there.

Information here is disseminated to rival investigators after four days, which serves to even the playing field and put some fuel on the fire, as the enemy can easily catch up and interfere with your plans. The d66 information generator is cool, and would make sure scenes aren’t replicated across play throughs. I’m always a bit suspicious that a table that should be rolled in advance should be a table at all, though.

There are six competing investigators, and the author really leans into the strengths of Troika to make them memorable, terse, easy to run characters. This is gold.

The “Interested Parties” are the factions, and these are fun and weird as Troika! factions should be, excellent ease of use and interest. They’re just funny, too: “At the height of the speculation, the Left Yellow Gang began crafting harmless imitation worms. These sold well…”, then: “Goals: Shift a bunch of papier-mâché.” Some layout decisions I wouldn’t have made, put similar information in different page positions across spreads for three of the spreads (just switch the art positions for consistency!).

The locations section is anchored around a spectacular and functional map. The location summaries suffer from something that is a peeve of mine — the largest location at twenty pages comes up first, the smaller ones (between one and seven pages) come after. I find that approach a little overwhelming and it makes the latter areas underwhelming. The best of these are pithy and witty, (“The concierge is a dog with very, very long legs, wearing its hat at a rakish angle. She doesn’t appear on any salary records, but no-one has yet been able to remove the hat”, and the worst are unnecessarily verbose. The latter would benefit from either an edit or shudder dot points. There is a single page with four locations on it, and each of those nails it. The longest location feels like it may be the main adventure location, a major heist, which is not the vibe I expected until I arrived at that location in the book, and could use stronger telegraphing. I did miss the minor telegraph on my first read through: A footnote in the information table suggests the presence of a complex location.

I’m very torn on this module all together. On one hand, the vibes are impeccable, and it’s lovely to utilise a system like Troika! for an investigative module like this. The best investigation module in my opinion is Witchburner, but it’s a much tougher module to engage with than this.

On the other hand, while The Big Squirm offers more replay value, I think (not having run both) it would be the more challenging module to run. This is mainly due to the information economy and the random information generation systems. The latter can be ironed out easily, though. I think it’s hard to gauge whether the information economy would have value except table to table, and whether it would achieve its intended effect for your table specifically.

I came up against information design concerns reading Witchburner, but it was easy enough to reframe the module to find a good approach. The Big Squirm feels more traditional in its location-based structure, and hence it’s much harder to simplify your approach or reframe information to similar effect.

Why am I struggling? I think, after a week’s pause, another bath, and a re-read, it’s because the Big Squirm is two things: An investigation and a sandbox. I don’t think it manages to square the circle. If I approach it as an investigation, I want a summary of the mystery as a GM. I want a final confrontation with the Weaver. But, this module also wants freedom at all points in between, which causes problems with my capacity to prepare. And what’s more challenging, Troika! as a system encourages more chaos! I honestly have no idea which direction this adventure would take, and that’s after two read throughs.

There’s so many great things about the Big Squirm, and it really showcases well a fantastic writer working in a comedic mode. It’s interesting and lighthearted. It’s an investigation. It’s really a unique module with a lot to offer. It’s hard not to recommend it, despite my concerns about managing all the complex information in the module, which would probably require a lot of preparation for a GM like me. So, the Big Squirm: Recommended.

31st May, 2023

Idle Cartulary

How To Write an Interesting Encounter

This is an expanded transcript of a tweet thread, because Ty rightly recommended it belonged here. I’d recommend checking the thread out, if it exists, it’s full of great stuff!

Somebody asked me deep in the above thread what I thought made an interesting encounter, and while I don’t have typical taste, this is what I’m aiming for: Unique silhouette, ambiguity, relationship, potential conflict. Here’s a dirty example of an encounter after my style:

Gorgonzola-and-dirt boy Jaime, broken legged on the road. He is a were-rat, and a gang of his siblings scavenge nearby, looking for easy meals.

Unique Silhouette

I want every character to be memorable. Players mightn’t remember their name, but they remember their smell, where they were, something about them. To do that, I use weird descriptions, like “gorgonzola and dirt” or “a bow drained of all tension”. These descriptions aren’t intended to be read-aloud text, they’re meant to evoke something in the GM’s mind so they can provide a banging description of their own.


I don’t want everyone to interpret my encounter the same, so they’re tainted by unreliable narrators: Is their leg broken? Are they at risk from were-rats, too? I don’t want a GM to labour over these, just go with their gut, differently from the next GM who reads it.


Characters should connect to either other characters in the encounter or even better, characters somewhere else. Sure, Jaime’s a were-rat, but also the Blacksmith’s son. Check the blacksmith’s entry, and you find out that there’s a reward out for his rescue. But does he want to be rescued? Is the blacksmith a good dad? More relationships, more drama, more difficult decisions, more fun.

Potential Conflict

There should be multiple conflict sources, here between PCs and boy, boy and were-rats, and were-rats and PCs. More the better! Add the blacksmith! Conflict between boy and blacksmith, blacksmith and were-rats, and blacksmith and PCs if they decide not to side with him? Make it possible to take any side! Magnify the potential for conflict!


I want them to be brief. If I can make it a paragraph good. Three sentences, better. One sentence, great. A lot of the examples in the thread fit whole implied background situations into a tweet: More bang for your word-buck is always better!

Hope that helps with my perspective! Notice that it doesn’t include potential outcomes or what tests to perform. Don’t waste precious space with stat blocks (they’re in the manual) or with DCs (there aren’t many options) or telling people what skill to use to figure out the boy is lying (again, there aren’t many options). I like to assume that the GM, who is not an idiot, can figure that stuff out. This is the YNAI principle I wrote about earlier this week.

Instead, give them the red barrel, they choose where to throw it!

30th May, 2023

Idle Cartulary

The You’re Not An Idiot Principle

One of my guiding principles in Bridewell is “The reader is not an idiot”. What do I mean by this?

I’m assuming that someone reading my (independently published, single-creator, idiosyncratic horror sandbox influenced by haiku, 17th century literature, and queer rage) setting sandbox has come to it with the wherewithal to figure out how to use basic tools and like, run a sandbox.

Here’s an example of where I am treating the reader as not an idiot.

Major arcana lists of characters, locations, artefacts, moods, moments and events are on the inside front cover, as are lists for each suit.

I don’t need to tell you how to use this, whether to use them, or when to use them. Here’s an example of where, in the book I’m running Bridewell in, it does not follow the YNAI Principle.

Say how you’re trying to weaken the monster, then make a Risk Roll as normal. If your roll succeeds (highest die of 4, 5, or 6), you reduce the monster’s Endurance by 1.

Noting here that it both says “make Risk Roll as normal” and then redefines “succeeds”. The reader, here, is an idiot.

Now, to be clear, redundancy is not a waste of time, it’s a choice. In this set of combat rules for Trophy Gold, one could make the argument that this multiple redundancy helps make the text more play-friendly. I would disagree with you as I think the Trophy Gold combat rules are a trainwreck holding a gold shipment. But the choice to ignore the YNAI Principle here is intentional and I think pretty valid.

In Bridewell, I’m making the YNAI Principle a driving force, not because it’s necessarily the better solution to every situation, but because I have a sense of the soul of Bridewell and that soul is lean. The contrast between Bridewells leanness and short-form-poetry roots and the purple, dare I say pulpiness of its gothic roots is one of the most interesting things for me to see emerging out of writing Bridewell.

The YNAI Principle, then, is a way of my maximising leanness. What rules can I elide in favour of rulings? What concepts can I imply without saying? How can I induce the reader to know what to do and to imagine what is there? My answer is the YNAI Principle.

I think potentially the YNAI Principle is a good lens through which to view certain texts, although I haven’t really used it before Bridewell. To be entirely honest, it was something I realised I was saying to myself as I was figuring out the voice of Bridewell, “No, delete that, the reader isn’t an idiot”. I’ll see if it is useful in the future.

27th May, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Playtest Report – Bridewell Session 2

My Bridewell playtest campaign continued today with Marcia, Sandro, and with Zedeck joining. It was a shorter session because I was running it from in hospital! We’re playing in my own hack of Trophy Gold. There will be Bridewell spoilers, but if you’re a part of the playtest, you can definitely read this.

Vero the Ratcatcher and her small fierce attack-dog joined Ursaline the bear-priestess, and Ferdrek, the disgraced noble. They picked up where they left off, headi mg back into the mists on the trail of the kidnapping wolves.

They found a massive she-wolf, exerting dominance over a pack of wolves, and followed them at a distance to Cairn Tor, a hill with a wicker-man type effigy at its peak and catacombs at its base. Investigating the catacombs, Ferdrek met a hazy entity with angry eyes and an axe that dripped blood, who threatened him initially, but joined them to drive the druids and wolves from his resting place. He named himself Shukrul.

The company chose to investigate the effigy first, and revealed the site of a massive druidic ritual, ready to be performed come through right astrological moment. The effigy was not just an image, but a cage, for a massive, bellowing creature. Hesitantly, Ferdrek began to use his sword to hack away at the effigy, attempting to free the creature, but they were cornered by Kori, a man with wolves teeth, and four angry wolves with thorns in their flesh and moss-thickened fur.

After Vero angered them (“Why are we bargaining with kidnappers?!”) a fight ensued, resulting in four unconscious wolves and one tied up man, who was unwilling to provide information (and happy to sacrifice his pack) until his own body was threatened. He revealed some information: That he was doing this for the good of his pack, that the High Druid was involved in their association, and that the effigy would “Birth Sigvatibog”. They beheaded him, cowing his pack, who fled as his body grew into a savage thorned plant-thing, which the company burned.

They company freed the creature in the cage, who they now suspected was Padru, spirit of the forest. A massive, red-panda-like entity of autumn colours, she gave Ferdrek a blessing (who knows what?) and answered some of Vero’s questions in an onslaught of emotions and impressions: The druids we’re misguided and well-meaning children, the High Druid was deceiving them; the ritual would have turned her into another, more violent, cruel entity; the children are trapped below. Vero, wanting to stay in contact with the forest-god, asked where she could find Padru again — she pointed far south, to the woods of the Valley, the Crosswood. Then, she departed, ambling through the boughs without them stirring.

The company burnt the effigy and destroyed the ritual site, and then went into the catacombs, finding that Shukrul had fought against the wolves there, who had fled or died. He offered Vero the Bloodsoaked Ax, who accepted it, in thanks. They rescued thr two children from cells behind a well-used arena. They lit a fire in the forest, made them food, and played games with them, before returning them home.

The Burgomaster Ionus offered them gold as reward, but they declined and asked instead for food and board, which was eagerly accepted. After the towns’ celebrations, they cornered Veaceslav, who was mortified and disbelieving regarding their claims — indeed, it seems the druids were deceived, but by whom, and for what purpose?

We chose to end the session there.

This was a much shorter, more directed session, with less mystery than the last, but it seemed like everyone enjoyed the pace. There were also two combats! Though brief ones, and plenty of ruin dealt. Combat with my revisions definitely runs smoother than earlier Trophy Gold combats.

Interestingly, this entire plot was closed without an entire location and faction being involved, and without much of a hitch (other than Vero exclaiming “what kind of wolves are these”, something explained by the fact that they’re corrupted ones, and the “good” wolves have been entirely unencountered). There will be some consequences to this plot being closed early, that will be interesting to see what comes about.

I was surprised that the encounter with Padru went so well, but the feedback was resoundingly positive as both tonal relief and as an example of horror source and insight into the past of the valley, which was all excellent feedback.

I was really happy with the character descriptions here; they’re one or two sentences only, and gave me plenty of sauce for the unexpectedly prolongues encounters with Veaceslav and with Kori. I think the random encounter with the giant she-wolf probably needs to go, although perhaps that was my mistake, rendering her as a member of Kori’s pack. Too many wolves, I think, and an odd random one probably needs to go. In a module of this complexity, that’s one level of complexity that isn’t necessary.

I still am surprised by the density and complexity of the religious aspects of Bridewell, which weren’t intentional at all but seem to be becoming increasingly important to the characters, especially now that they have met one of the gods in question. If they’d asked questions differently, she’d have granted them a quest, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t seek her aid later in the campaign if we manage to continue running.

Overall, another successful session and playtest, and I’m glad it sustained a more directed session than the last.

25th May, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Bathtub Review: Witchburner

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

Witchburner is a seventy-seven page module, written, illustrate and laid out by Luka Rejec. It’s an entirely system agnostic adventure, hinging on investigation and social interaction rather than exploration and combat. I’d be remiss not to mention Luka’s art; it’s varies between exceptional and functional but it’s never bad and always supports the vibe, which is key for this particular, tragic module.

I’ve written before that I’m not a fan of block prose fiction in my roleplaying modules, and Luka falls into this pit consistently here and in other modules. Here, especially in the introductory pages, my primary problem is that it interferes with my eyes finding the information it wants to figure out how the adventure gets started. I’m impatient you see, I want to know the crux immediately. The intent, I think, is to read the first two sections, “The Town”, and “The Offer” at the table, a kind of ultimate setting of vibes for what is a grim module with challenging themes. You could definitely use the prose introduction here as a campaign pitch. But I’ve already bought the book, so I’m sold on the concept – please, start with the bang.

Luka then opens with addressing the elephant in the room: There are thirty characters in the town, any of which could be the witch, all of which have clues that point to them, and if the witch is not found, in thirty days a doom will come. This is complicated, and so Luka opens with a time tracker and an attitude tracker, and a bunch of pages of rules and tables to help navigate this complex space. There are only about four pages of rules, and about ten pages of additional tables and advice, but gosh it feels like a lot as you read it. On the other hand, with the caveat of photocopying a few handouts, I definitely think that this module is playable directly from the book. It’s designed to be, with success.

In terms of getting playing, the main barrier on the end of the GM is wrapping my head around the rules, how to bring the witch to trial, thresholds and things like that. For me, that required taking some notes and underlining some parts of the book. This is because the rules are very specific to the setting, so those rules are peppered with information about the world, and they get hidden by it to a degree. This I suspect would fade into the background once you’d played a few sessions and the players were bringing witches to trial, but for me, it’s a speed bump. At the player end, there’s a very clear single hook, but no right way (in fact, only wrong ways) to pursue finding the witch. A clue-like handout is provided to help the players puzzle things out. Getting buy-in is probably as simple as reading that introductory prose and saying “yes or no?”, and no further decisions need to be made. I like that a lot, compared to other good modules which have no clear on-ramp at all.

The Calamities is a calendar of everything that goes wrong over the month that the players are investigating the witch, and hence new clues that help or hinder the players in finding the witch. These are fun and illustrative and escalate nicely. It adds significant pressure, especially to the timekeeping. I’ll remark here upon the ambience and quality of Luka’s writing. I would be tempted to read directly from the text each new scene: “Sky like bruised peaches”, “throw salt and ash into the Whitewater to spare themselves from the witches flood”, “a love potion (barely works)”. In a module that really asks a lot of vibes, the writing elevates it immensely.

The meat of the module is the People of Bridge. Thirty people, an entire page each. I automatically see this and think, no way in hell am I going to be able to run this. But I think that in reading the entries (which include things like their home, household, family, friends, secrets, caves, treasures), it might be best to visualise this town as a dungeon consisting of thirty rooms, where you don’t need intimate familiarity with each room, but where each room contains a unique puzzle. It’s good to read over the whole dungeon beforehand – you need a grasp on the geography – but that’s enough.

The problem, though, is that Luka falls back into the prose pitfall here; for the Doctor’s Husband forever, of their three quarters of a page (the other quarter being illustration), one quarter is a prose introduction. I’m not going to want to read through that, and it doesn’t appear intended to be read-aloud text. Does it add something? Yes, it does. Maybe for someone other than me, it increases the memorability of the character, but for me, it wrenches me trying to dodge the prose as a run the character. I think different formatting decisions would have helped me here; Luka uses the colour red, italics and bolding, but not to the best effect for readability. Using red instead to identify key concepts (rather than the first few words of a page) to help me pick them out at the table, would go a long way in eliminating this problem.

Spoiler alert for this paragraph and the next.

Continue reading “Bathtub Review: Witchburner”

Monsters in Trophy Gold

Trophy Gold monsters really have only one stat: Endurance. Endurance is between 2 and 12, and players pool their efforts and take the two best results to equal to or beat the endurance to defeat the monster.

The problem is, I’m not really sure how to set Endurance.

From my experience, it’s hard to get a party of 4 treasure-hunters to all contribute to combat due to risk of ruin. However, if we know weaknesses or have relevant skills (usually likely in a party of 4), we’re not likely to contribute only 1 dice. So, dice numbers tend to be lower, but greater than 1.

Endurance on left, number of dice rolled at top. Percentage of rolling equal to or greater than endurance.

What does this mean? Endurance of 4 or less is virtually impossible not to beat in 1 combat roll with just 1 or 2 treasure hunters participating. Endurance of 5 to 7 will require 1 or 2 combat rolls or an additional treasure hunter. An additional treasure hunter is required to see off an Endurance of 8 to 9 in 1 or 2 combat rolls. An Endurance of 10 to 12 is likely to take 5 to 9 combat rolls.

Probabilities quickly shift in favour of the treasure-hunters, if they team up: If we assume all four treasure-hunters contribute 1.5 dice each, only Endurance of 11 to 12 are a challenge, and then still with only 2 to 4 combat rolls.

Ok, so let’s translate this to something practical:

  • Endurance of 2–4: Goblin-like creatures. Only dangerous in numbers. Giant rats, bandits. ~25–100 XP, 1 HD.
  • Endurance of 5–6: Orc-like creatures. Sturdy and deadly foes, impossible to fight off in numbers. Warriors, dire wolves. In OSE, 100–250 XP, 4HD.
  • Endurance of 7-8. Bear-like creature. Dangerous, but defeats me. Trolls, Wyverns. In OSE, ~300–800 XP, 6HD.
  • Endurance of 9–10: Giant-like creature. Extremely dangerous. Spectres, fire-elementals. In OSE, ~1000–1250 XP, 8HD.
  • Endurance of 11–12. Tyrannosaurus -like creatures. Do not approach. Vampires, hydras. ~1500 XP, 8 HD.
  • Endurance of 13+. Dragon-like creature. Liches and death knights . Need preparation to defeat. ~2500 XP, 10 HD.

This is for my purposes; technically orcs are weaker than this but I like strong orcs so it works for me. Replace with bugbears or ogres if you wish. Most importantly, it’s a very steep curve. The only challenging creatures in TG will be boss monsters. Trophy Gold is designed for singular unique, boss-foes.

Anyway this is cool and useful.

20th May, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Playtest Report – Bridewell Session 1

I thought people may enjoy a Bridewell playtest report. I started my playtest campaign with Marcia and Sandro yesterday. We’re playing in a modified version of Trophy Gold, the rules of which I’ve posted bitwise here. There will be spoilers for the events in the session, and hence some for Bridewell, but no spoilers outside of the session. If you’re a part of the playtest, you can definitely read this.

We have two characters in the company. Ursaline is a wild woman bear-priestess, travelling with Ferdrek, a disgraced noble in shining armour, seeking to redeem his family’s name. This session they took a shortcut through the abandoned valley of Bridewell, only to find it wasn’t abandoned at all.

I asked Marcia and Sandro if it was ok if they started at Angel Gate, because this was the secondary starting location initially, but I’m considering making it the primary starting location, and I want to give it a test drive to see if the company is adequately lured to the south. They broke down the cherubic gates as night fell, and found a settlement – Chamouny – grown around an Abbey, which they visited in the hope of finding rest. The gatekeeper mentioned missing children when asked about the wolf-scratches on the gates, and mentioned that you could get lost in the mists if you didn’t stick to the road. Ferdrek doesn’t believe in such folktales.

The inn, the Knight & Blizzard, was run by three frantic teenagers, and there the Burgomaster of the village offered them reward to either help refresh the village’s supply of wine (“Our Lady of Perpetual Light hasn’t been sending the shipments, and we’re drying up”) or to help find two children, missing the past week, attributed to prowling wolves. One of the children’s great-grandfathers, Veaceslav, was present, drinking in the inn, and directed them back to his farm (“we farm sprouts, it’s the manse out the gates and to the east”).

The company decided to ignore the winery and investigate the missing children. They sought out family, and looked for tracks in the frozen ground, drinking mushroom tea, and headed into the mists, following the tracks, although it seemed they were circling and changing direction strangely, especially when compared to Ferdrek’s compass bearings.

Travel in Bridewell is unique. The mists are a curse, and so when you travel in them, unless you know where you’re going, and where you are coming from, the location you end up in is entirely random, and you run a 25% risk of a random encounter. If you stick to the roads, you’re limited to visiting the next location along the way, but all the encounters lie off the road, and you’ll only encounter omens inviting you to leave it. In this case, the company drew an omen and the location they drew just happened to be the next location along the road.

They heard chanting and saw a faint glow in the forest away from the tracks. Knowing that they wouldn’t be able to find the tracks again, they investigated the chanting, finding a group of naked folk wearing wooden masks carved with patterns, sacrificing a goat to some unusually healthy looking trees. They recognised one of these people by the elderly body: Veaceslav. They followed him, called him out, before encountering wolves and fleeing back to his home. They promised to keep his druidic secret, learnt a little about the forest spirit Padru, and then went back into the mists, following the tracks once more.

This time they emerged from the mists at Our Lady of Perpetual Light, the vineyard that has not been delivering wine. Violet balls of light hovered above the grapes, but many were extinguished and the vines there were wilted and dying. On investigation, barefooted tracks of small men or large children were found by the edges of the vineyard that had no light, but the investigations awoke a flock of ravens that came to defend the vineyard. Ferdrek broke up the flock with grease and the heat from the violet lights, but not before awaking the inhabitants of the vineyard.

A whole household emerged, in bedclothes and cloaks with deadly weapons. Sweet talking allowed them to persuade the patriarch of the family, Davian, to ask them to find a religious relic (which he was suspiciously cagey in describing) that had been stolen not too long since. Davian attributes the footprints to this theft, and also the ailing vines, and offered a large reward. Ursaline queried the matriarch of the family about her religion (“Who’s this Lady of Perpetual Light”), and got a strange and cryptic response; a young member of the household wanted nothing to do with the strangers but was over ruled sullenly. Ferdrek, getting cocky, angered the matriarch and saw a vision of an attacking raven, before they left to carry on their investigation in the mists.

This time they drew the exact location the footprints were supposed to be leading to (10% chance of that happening), so I allowed to tracking to be effective. Ursaline, realising something was stranged, began to examine the mists and realised they were indeed cursed, finding unrecognisable glyphs in the mist-forms, although they dissipated when she saw them. They arrived at the abbey they’d seen earlier, but a back entrance. It was morning, now, and so they decided the front entrance would be more effective an approach, and met here the guardsmen, monks Zigfiend and Orto, who were welcoming and bored. Ursaline asked questions about the strange religions she was seeing evidence of – the forest spirits, this saint, this Lady (“she’s older than these frivolous forest spirits”) – so Zigfiend invited them to visit their theological questions upon the Father.

The Father was a very tall, incredibly hunched person, androgynous and beautiful of face. They placed the book they were reading closed on the table, and welcomed the company. They were happy to answer any questions about theology, but became cagey when Ferdrek accused them of being involved in the theft due to the tracks they’d followed. Before Father Autoriel had the opportunity to answer, though, a beautiful woman interrupted, asking the Father a question about a book she had been reading. She was a pleasant, kind, and thoughtful girl. Ursaline noticed surgical scars on her wrists and body, well-hidden beneath makeup and clothing (she spent a hunt token on this). At this point, Ferdrek pocketed the book (this being something that happened retroactively when they burnt hunt tokens after leaving the abbey), and then the Father asked them to leave, insisting that the abbey had nothing to do with the kidnapping of any children.

Ferdrek persuaded Zigfiend and Orto to play tarocchini with him, and Ursaline wondered the grounds unsupervised, looking for the back entrance. She found an infirmary with surgical tools, and vents that lead down to a bath-house, in which were discarded limbs and wild and angry corpse-creatures she fled back up the vents to escape. She fled to Ferdrek just as he clumsily failed to persuade Zigfiend and Orto to admit wrongdoing, and they asked him to leave.

As they left, they read the book, piecing together that in order to create life, part of a god, still living, must be incorporated into the creations body. Thinking that this must be the stolen relic, they realise that they must choose: Do they sacrifice the young woman, Atanasia’s life, for the gold promised by Davian and the winery? Or do they sacrifice the livelihoods of the winery to save this woman, potentially brought to life by nefarious and evil means, who may not want to be saved?

We chose to end the session there.

I thought the session was a little slow-paced, but looking back at the recap, actually a lot happened. I needn’t have worried. With my revised combat rules, the combat with the flock of rooks went smoothly, too. The goal-setting revisions worked very well, particularly because the hunt token exchanges pushed the story forward rather than ended a field of inquiry. The mists weren’t immediately clear to the players, and the interactions between the mists and tracking was fuzzy for me, something I’ll revise in the text. The fact that they were trapped in the valley wasn’t immediately clear either, something that I’ll revise in the text. I noticed a few things that needed fleshing out – particularly a few of the characters in the Abbey needed more improvisation than I’d intended. I’ll make quick work of that.

I was concerned that the multitude of relationships and plot lines would be too much, but Marcia and Sandro reassured me that it felt mysterious and not overwhelming. I didn’t intend for three separate religions to be introduced in one session, as the druids were a random encounter and I’d assumed that “Our Lady of Perpetual Light” would be encountered in the context of the Abbey or other churches dedicated to saints, and so that the players would assume she were related and that it wouldn’t be revealed it were not until much later. But this ended up being a boon, as Ursaline was instantly interested in this conflict between religions (which is very much implied in the text, but came quickly text in play).

Sandro fed back that his favourite moment was when he realised that there might be a character they knew in the random encounter, rather than just random cultists. This was a meta moment, as he knew that I’d been revising a lot of my random encounters to incorporate existing characters, but he said it was magical. The challenge, then, is how do we communicate to players who don’t follow this blog or who don’t talk to me about the module, that these cultists are real people that they may have met before, and that’s why they’re masked?

Overall, it was a very successful session and a very successful playtest. I’m happy with myself!

19th May, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Bathtub Review: The Isle

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

The Isle is seventy five page module for the Vanilla Game by Luke Gearing, a dungeon crawl beneath an isolated island monastery. The Isle is a beautiful piece of writing, both in terms of individual pieces of prose and of structure and incorporation of the dungeon as a way to add intrigue and interest to the writing and the adventure. Layout and art choices have been made with this in mind: Minimal, in order to draw attention to the writing as the main star.

The minimalist layout, I think, is successful. Smartly, the single column layout is not full page width, making it easy to read, and headings are consistent and clear. Italics have one use case, and they’re also indented in that use case. Things known before entering a room are marked with a symbol.

The minimalist mapping, in my opinion, is not so successful. A lot of page flipping is required even for the simple map of the island. The dungeon maps try to preserve space and distance, but without much success. The written entries seem to acknowledge this failure as they describe all exits and entries and where they lead to (this is what italics are used for). There are five maps, which might be a reason for the choice not to place them on the endpapers where references belong, but the minimalist nature of the maps means more flipping between pages and less clear information design. If a map exists, let it add value. These maps could remain minimalist and incorporate room names, exits and probably the brief information communicated by the symbol, and I wouldn’t mind having to find the maps so much. As is, I’m going to have to print off the maps and write on them to use them.

Luke Gearings writing in this hews traditional (“every 2d6 minutes, 1d6 sea-things appear”) in places, but more often hews poetic (“the trunk almost perpendicular to the ground, like a dog about to pounce”), or evocative (“the sound of wet, fleshy movement”) in a way that behooves the dungeon setting he’s writing for. It’s really inspiring stuff, both as a writer and a game master.

One writing choice that made me think deeply, was the overground location that I quoted earlier, an ancient thorny tree. The monks use this tree for fish hooks and needles, but aside from that this tree has no purpose, or as I often describe it, it is a passive site. I am curious the purpose of passive sites in modules such as the Isle. This is not a traditional dungeon in the style of Palace of the Silver Princess; empty rooms (or in this case empty above ground spaces) do not behoove progress through it. It is a narrative journey, and one theory of design of location is the red barrel theory, which dictates that locations, factions, people should all be prepared to explode. This Auld Tree, is not prepped to explode, its thorns are not essential for the progress of the story, it simply is. I am accepting of the beauty of stories existing in isolation, for those isolated stories bring a sense of place to the world. But this tree is a story in isolation from a people, and perhaps simply speaks to the inhospitability of the Isle. I’m on the fence regarding the value and purpose of such a location, and as such I think I’ll seek out further examples in other modules to flesh out my opinion on such.

The structure in this is novelistic, and I’ve never read a module quite like it. The writing foreshadows elegantly, draws you forward. It’s a module that wants to be read, as well as run. I find this quite inspiring, but I’ve thought about the structure here for some time, and realise that it’s leaning into the relative linearity of the dungeon to allow it to tell stories as part of the location keys and bestiary entries: There are places where you can sequence break here (one of the very first above surface locations is a sequence break), but it’s a dungeon and hence the assumption that there is a next in sequence gives rise to an opportunity to tell stories in a way that I haven’t seen in a module before. Can stories be told in this way in a non-linear sandbox? I suspect with less cohesiveness, yes. Or perhaps small stories could similarly be placed in separate locations around the sandbox, where progression might be more linear. A sandbox is an opportunity for a different type of story, but the one told here is elegant and impressive.

Interestingly, one elegant thing about the Isle is that it provides subtle, narrative on-and off-ramps within the location entry texts. Three reasons and ways to get onto the island, and a interesting consequences and outcomes to completing the adventure (my favourite “ — cities burn for months hence”). But while these exist, the primary lack of scaffolding here is why would we enter the dungeon? The dungeon isn’t known to exist, except by the monks (this is clear) and the monks don’t wish anyone to enter it (also clear) and while they are gullible, there appears to be no incentive to trick them presented in the world. The iron-claddedness of this flaw needs to be weakened when I run it.

The Isle is, to me, a groundbreaking dungeon crawl, largely because of Luke Gearing’s writing and attention to detail and structure. Some of the experiments with layout and mapping are less successful, but I don’t think that detracts from the value of running and reading this module. I strongly recommend it, if you’re partial to Luke’s historical faux-celtic oeuvre such as Wolves Upon the Coast which, to be honest, this would slip straight into.

16th May, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Combat in Trophy Gold

Combat in Trophy Gold is a mess, as written in the book. I suspect it’s just badly written, not badly designed. I’m going to decipher it, hack it if necessary.

Say how you expose yourself to injury, then roll your weak point. If, during combat, any dark die is equal to your weak point, take ruin or mark armour.

This rule makes combat less dangerous, than hunt or risk. I like this.


If you don’t participate in the attack , you can weaken the monster!

Instead saying how you’re trying to weaken the monster, then making a Risk Roll. If you are using a ranged weapon, add a light die. On a success, reduce endurance by 1. If you are using a ritual, reduce endurance by 2 on a 6.

For each light die that comes up a 1, 2, or 3, mark a slot of ammunition. If you are using a ritual, on any result of 1, 2 or 3 you also suffer exhaustion, magical backlash, a monster attack, or something else that prevents you from engaging in the Combat Roll for the rest of the combat.

Moved to the front, because it happens before the attack, and moved the ranged and ritual rules here where they belong. I don’t love tree messiness of the rituals rules, but magic should be messier.


All remaining treasure-hunters declare together what weapons you are using, and roll a dark die for each character involved in the attack. Add a light die if you have relevant skills, equipment, or are taking advantage of the environment, or monster weaknesses. If you are using a ritual as a weapon, make a Risk Roll before using your Ritual this way, unless you can justify why it is risk free to use a ritual in combat.

If the total of the two highest dark dice is equal to or higher than the Endurance of the monster, it is defeated in the manner y’all describe.

If it is not defeated, you may now continue the attack, adding one more dark die and re-roll all the dark dice. You may keep trying again, adding a dark die and re-rolling until you defeat the monster, or until all treasure-hunters give up the fight or die.

Changed perspective on rituals here, so it’s not just GM fiat. Playing on the table, all light dice are weak points. But I play online, so that’s redundant. Add a light dice for any advantages seems more intuitive, although it’s probably on average stronger, despite it being potentially much more powerful in rules as written (as all treasure-hunters could stack three out of four advantages individually, technically, each reducing endurance once, for a potential reduction from 12 to 2 in a group of 3).


Endurance is between 2 and 12. Increase if the monster is particularly tough, if there are multiple monsters present, or if you are at a disadvantage.

If Endurance is less than the number of dark dice, automatically win. If the Endurance is above 12 due to numbers or disadvantages tell the treasure-hunters they must retract or find an advantage.

I don’t like fiddling with endurance, but can see that it mechanises overwhelming odds and keeps light and dark dice to specific roles. I removed half the fiddling earlier, but don’t see a better solution to this half of the fiddling.


After taking ruin, if you wants your treasure-hunter to retreat, do so by handing your Weak Point to another player. They now suffer if either their original Weak Point number or the new number comes up during a re-roll of the dark dice.

Retreating as a group from an incomplete fight may trigger Risk Rolls or other consequences.

So that’s my version of Trophy Gold combat. Pretty similar, but reorganised so it makes more sense to me. Possibilities in favour of the treasure-hunters, but away from optimisation. I’d love to hear your thoughts?

13th May, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Only two or three things

Just today, Luke wrote about NPCs:

When writing NPCs, you can communicate 2 or 3 things, or 4 related things.

Anything more than that, and you’re either going to be ignored by the person running the game, they’re going to change it, as is the nature of translation, or they’ll be checking your notes so often that they do a worse job of running the game than if they’d just winged it.

I agree wholeheartedly, which is why none of my NPCs in Bridewell are more than a few sentences.

Grandmother Poppia. Squinting, sun-pruned. Whip-tongued. Won’t let a bass word be said about her grandson Marco or Parson Creori.

I feel this way about most information in a module, though. A dungeon room can only be 2 or 3 concepts, plus a relationship. A location can only be 2 or 3 things, plus a relationship.

Mess-kitchen. Empty, rattling, pots stained red and black. Hearth-chimney leading to the formal office. Territorial bone-snake nests in the soot.

A creature can only be 2 or 3 concepts, plus a relationship.

I think you can sub a concept out for a relationship, but you still max out at 3 to 4 total things.

Bone-snake. Chalky ground-eel. Bony paralysing spines. Loves wet and dark, hates company.

I think this solidifies something I’m critiquing in Bathtub Reviews but not doing an excellent job of identifying with clarity:

The best writing for a module takes 3 or 4 key pieces of information, compresses it into a minimum of words, and does so using information I couldn’t have thought of myself.

That’s what I’m aspiring to.

11th May, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Bathtub Review: Beast of Borgenwold

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

The Beast of Borgenwold is a 60 page, fully illustrated module for OSR by Harry Menear. A town is plagued by an undead creature, and it can only be ended by venturing into the tomb where it was spawned.

The GM summary could was a bit much for me, two pages when just the timeline was sufficient. The hooks were complex, but tie directly into major NPCs in a specific way which would balance the loss of space, except two of the hooks of the four provided are similar in nature, so really there are three hooks to one page. It wouldn’t matter in a longer list, but in such a short one, the concept density is very dilute in these wordy hooks. There’s a 2d6 encounter table, which is interestingly structured. Half are beast omens, and the two most common are really one-off encounters. This encounter table would be better off unweighted or with different weightings. The stat block for the Beast takes two pages, largely because of layout. I was disappointed to see that it’s a monster manual entry, rather than a unique creature, given it’s the namesake of the module.

Two out of eight rumours don’t appear to lead anywhere, the rest to various NPCs. One of those NPCs feels like a waste, as you’d head to the inn anyway. I’d prefer all rumours to yield some kind of fruit, even if they aren’t the fruit the PCs are looking for.

The next fifteen pages are character write ups, which tend towards too long and wordy for me, and the layout is challenging on my eyes. The villager and hunter generators are excellent, but needed to be laid out in one spread instead of multiple. Not particularly usable at all. The characters themselves are interesting, unique, have competing goals, it’s pretty fun.

There’s a surprising amount of repetition in this, and I’m not sure it’s to the texts benefit. I noticed it in the goblin section, but flicking back and forwards there’s a fair bit. It means the information is always in the place you need, but it also increases the amount of text on each page, which makes it harder to read for me. I think in this case, in a fairly simple module without too many moving parts, I’d lean towards preferring more efficient words than redundancy.

I adore the concept of the god-goblin cult, but it’s not really fleshed out enough — why would the PCs want to engage with them? What reasons do they have to engage with the PCs? It’s a fun diversion, but hardly tied into everything else, until you get to the dungeon — which contains a bunch more information on the One True Goblin. Weird to split it up, especially without page references.

The dungeon itself has a stellar map, and it’s mostly keyed 1 room for a page. It’s a bit wordy for my liking, and given how generous with space the early layout is, they could have been more generous here for usability. I like the rooms individually a lot, though.

The layout on this whole book is striking, but not functional. Headings are inconsistently placed, making it hard to differentiate and find information. I deplore the font choices for readability, and choices are made to the extreme deficit of usability. It’s striking and atmospheric, but it’s not worth the loss, for me.

My main takeaway is that little things impact usability a lot — this book looks great, but is hard to digest and for me to run. It’s well written, with cool ideas that probably could have fit well in a book half the size, and in this case that would have been a better module. Great ideas left disconnected from the flesh or scattered so things can get missed easily.

That said, the story it tells us a cute, fantasy story with some interesting horror twists. The vibe of the art and layout renders it more horror than it actually is; really you could drop Borgenwold into any fantasy sandbox and have a fun little adventure. It’d be welcome in my campaign.

9th May 2023

Idle Cartulary

Bridewell’s Annotated Appendix N

Influences for Bridewell and my work in general are often distant, vague and sparse. My brain works in impressions, absorbs the shape of a concept which is then brought to bear without reference to the concept itself. So the concept of an Appendix N for it feels odd, but may have value anyway.


Thematically, Bridewell is Gothic Horror. So, I read mainly gothic horror classics, although I’m influenced by other types of horror as well. I’ll mention the stuff that wasn’t well-known to me, rather than just talk about things everyone has read like Poe, Stoker and Shelley. I should also note: I’m not a great reader, so I listened to all of these in audiobook format. There were a bunch of books I wanted to read that I couldn’t because of audiobook availability, particularly gothic horror outside of Europe and North America.

  • Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu. Not only the first vampire novel but the first lesbian vampire novel, this is a vampire who is emotionally entwined in the other characters lives in a way Dracula was not. Obviously I named the main character of Bridewell, another lesbian vampire after her.
  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. A well written, engaging tale, combines fantasy elements and horror elements in a compelling way. Directly inspired my leaning into the more fantastic elements of D&D in Bridewell.
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, honestly a terrible book to listen to as an audiobook, but whose structure directly informed the structure I used in Bridewell, where individual units of story could be nested into each other and seed future units. It’s well worth reading if you want something intricate and creepy.
  • The Monk by Matthew Lewis is proper horror, and inspired the Bridewell-wide recreational activity of making deals with devils or other powers and regretting it in horrifying fashion, either through the devil’s actions, or through the slippery slope the devils requests put you on.
  • Demiurge by Michael Shea and Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff are two contemporary takes on the cosmic horror that Lovecraft looms over. That directly inspired me with engaging prose and varying personalities interacting with ineffable powers.

I never studied art or literature, but I am a giant nerd, so some non-fiction inspired me as well:

  • My Words to Víctor Frankenstein Above The Village of Chamounix by Susan Stryker is the definitive comment on queer rage, and much of it is echoed throughout Bridewell, but most notably “a monster with a life and will of its own is a principal source of horror”. Also, I named a town after this essay.
  • Shakespeare and the Gothic Strain by Linda Charnes, a long critique of book of Shakespeare scholarship that included such gems as “the gothic invokes it’s own special brand of dread: of something or someone already “in the house” as it were […] issuing audible but indecipherable commands”. It’s really broad in scope, and pointed me to a bunch of other fun literature, including the book it critiques (“night as a counterrealm that privileges imagination, irrationality, wildness and disobedience”; “there is still a strangeness that radiates from the gothic”, and a few other books (Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian and Nina Auerbach’s Our Vampires, Ourselves).


Inspired by Haiku, Hyungga and Shijo, short-form Japanese and Korean poetry, rather than classic module writing or horror poetry, I adopted some of techniques used by them in my prose — things like shorter entries than typical modules, entry series, minimising articles and prepositions, local contrasts for humour, horror and memorability. I’m by no means well-read nor do I read in Korean or Japanese, but nevertheless the influence is there. Here are some examples if you want to see the connections more clearly:

  • Haiku, Kobayashi Issa translated by Haas
  • Hyungga, translates in A History of Korean Literature edited by P.H. Lee
  • Shijo, The Crane in the Clouds by Sung-il Lee.

Art, Movies, Videogames and Music

I don’t know, mostly I was inspired by written texts, rather than audiovisual ones, but the sounds and images in my mind were influenced by these.

  • The Wild Tarot by Kim Kranz. They’re just really good cards, and the accompanying book along with WTF is Tarot by Barbara Wintner really got me into tarot and how I might use them to run a sandbox.
  • Hellboy by Mike Mignola. Really I wanted a Mike Mignola tarot for Bridewell, but I’m not sure anyone could afford that.
  • The Deranged Cousins by Edward Gorey. But more generally his art is very creepy in the way I imagine a lot of my secondary characters like the gromlyms, penny dreadfuls, and adamant brood to be.
  • Return of the Obra Dinn. Babes, you may not have noticed but Bridewell is in black and white, and it has a rocking classical soundtrack.
  • Crimson Peak and The Wolfman have impeccable Victorian gothic vibes that informed my images of Dimmness, Raven’s Gate and Saint Angelus.
  • The Witch and the Lighthouse have a meaningless, ineffable horror to them that are reflected in a number of the stories.
  • Spirited Away, Totoro and Oni all present a romantic, complex picture of a particular type of Shintoism that inspired one family of gods that can be found in Bridewell.
  • Dracula (1931). See if you can find the Hamlet-by-way-of-Renfield reference when you read Bridewell. There are a lot of low-key references to classic horror movies in here in the form of quotes and wordplays, it would be a fun game for a horror fan. Most of them are “sufficiently odd to be noticeable but insufficiently elaborated to be fully meaningful” as Peter Hutchins wrote disparagingly in “Theatres of Blood: Shakespeare and the Horror Film”.
  • Philip Glass’ Dracula soundtrack feels like early to mid career Glass in the best way, and played a lot while I was writing. This really feels like the actual soundtrack for the valley itself, even though soundtracks for the above movies were looping as well.
  • Sonatas & Romanian Folk Dances by Bela Bartok also has impeccable Brightcastle vibes, and I imagined a Bridgerton-esque transformation of pop songs into these styles for the parties there.

Oh ha ha Modules

Some are obvious, some are not. The three Ravenloft modules are obviously inspirations: Bridewell started and remains a response to how much the Curse of Strahd, like most Fifth Edition modules, sucks.

  • The Dark Tower of Calibar by Michael Ashton and Lee Sperry from Dungeon Magazine #1, is simply the worst vampire adventure ever written, and really made me think about what a good vampire villain should be like. Then, I wrote Carmilla Teroare to subvert that.
  • The Palace of the Silver Princess by Jean Wells is for me the prototypical dungeon and informs my writing and understanding more than other early dungeons like B2 do.
  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God by Douglas Niles and Witchburner by Luka Rejec do villages well in two different styles, both of which influenced the social and geographical graphs in Bridewell.
  • A Thousand, Thousand Islands by Zedeck Siew and Munkao and The Isle by Luke Gearing made me realise that I’m not the only person interested in innovative approaches to text in traditional fantasy adventure games, and that projects like Bridewell and Ludicrous Compendium weren’t a huge waste of time.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning that every single Bathtub Review and hence every single one of those adventures contributed to my approach to Bridewell, particularly with regards to consistency across the book and clarity for what the sections were meant to achieve. If you want to look at some great modules, read these reviews! They’re good (in my opinion)!

So, that’s my Appendix N more or less. I’ll no doubt add to it as I read more or remember things on conversation with people. I haven’t finished my reading for Bridewell, and I’ve only finished writing my first draft.

6th May, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Trophy Freed

So, I’ve finished writing the main text of Bridewell, with only the maps to go. I’ll do another editing pass to my satisfaction, and then I’ll want to playtest it with myself as GM. I’ve been playing mainly Trophy Gold lately, and I’m really enjoying it as a system. Trophy Dark has a free SRD – check it out!

Trophy Gold

Trophy feels mismatched to a module like Bridewell, because in Bridewell the company and the PCs are intrinsically self-directed, and Trophy Gold is story-directed by means of free meta-game information and set adventure goals. On reading, though, I think that mismatch was overstated in my mind compared to Trophy Golds’s rules. I’d already started thinking about it, though, so here are my changes:

  1. Replace drive with Why do I want to get back home? And modify your choice from the list accordingly.
  2. Burdens are reduced to 1 when you arrive in Bridewell. You can take on new burdens in Bridewell and your burdens return to you if you escape.
  3. Choose a class, if you wish.
    • Fighter. Purchase armour with gold rather than burdens. Do not take a burden for armour at first level.
    • Magic-user. Purchase rituals with gold rather than burden.
    • Priest. Take Channel, Hospitality or Heal at character creation. Do not increase your ruin for this ritual.
    • Thief. Do not choose a ritual at character creation. Choose a skill related to thievery in addition to your other skills (for example obfuscation, traps, trickery, stealth). Do not increase your burden for this skill.
  4. A new spell, Heal. Heal another of their an injury in exchange for equal injury.
  5. Exchange 1 hunt token for an asset worth 1 bag of silver.
  6. Exchange 3 hunt tokens to achieve a goal or learn a secret.

And that’s it. Less changes than I honestly expected. My reasoning behind these changes:

  1. You’re driven to escape not entirely by gold in Bridewell, so I don’t want a burden-heavy group on the outset
  2. Because initially everyone has the same drive (escape), it becomes a why for similar characterisation purposes.
  3. I like character classes. This version is just a free thing, and having more things to play with is fun in Trophy Gold.
  4. Priests need a Heal spell, but there’s a reason Trophy Gold didn’t have one in the first place. I thought this was a reasonable trade-off, effectively exchanging conditions or ruin.
  5. In Bridewell, assets (things you can use) are as important as gold, and they don’t take up your backpack space. “Bag of silver” is just the Bridewell unit of money.
  6. There are no set goals, so goals will be set ad hoc and as a group. This is rules as written in Trophy Gold actually, but in practice it tends to just be “can I skip to the next set please”.
  7. Secrets are an addition, because I think that in a campaign, secrets are treasure.

I think Bridewell should be playable in anything from Trophy to OSE to Fifth Edition, but admittedly one advantage to Trophy is that I don’t really have to stat anything in advance, although I’ll probably do it retrospectively so that I can include it in an informal “Do you want to run Bridewell in Trophy Gold?” Bestiary.

So, any thoughts about my minimal Trophy hack?

5th May 2023,

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Addition: Changed the fighter a and wizard class concepts. Here are the originals:

  • Fighter. Do not choose a ritual in character creation. Choose a skill related to fighting in addition to your others skills (for example strength, hunting, intimidation, tactics). Do not increase your burden for this skill.
  • Magic-user. Take Bolt, Ward or Mirage at character creation. Do not increase your ruin for this ritual.

Bathtub Review: The Drain

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

The Drain is a sixteen page Mothership module by Ian Yusem designed to act as a funnel for character generation. It’s fully illustrated in Mothership house style, and I think I backed it for a zinequest one year maybe? I spoil the ending for this one, fyi.

Mothership doesn’t have rules for level zero PCs, so the first page is rules to cover this. It includes some interesting and appreciated additions, such as “allow swarming to overcome odds”, as well as a table of items and criminal convictions to ascertain why you’ve been sent to the hellhole that is the Drain.

The setting is a failed colony ship where inhabitants have turned to a crazed religion as their crops fail and the people starve. The PCs have been drafted to recover the source of a transmission deep within the colony. Warships battle around the colony, perhaps because of this transmission, perhaps for other reasons — it wasn’t clear to me.

The colony (“The Wheel”) is loosely mapped into zones which are broken into sections, effectively a point crawl. The distances don’t quite make sense to me, as it specifies 2500 acres of farmland but the most you’ll travel for is 1 hour to cover the diameter of the colony. I think this undermines the scale of the colony on one hand, but also I don’t want to spend hours travelling, so perhaps we need a smaller station? The abstract nature of the map also impacts descriptions, with secret passages, blockages not being represented on the map, and hence being hidden in block text. The point crawl doesn’t actually show the lines between points clearly.

Randomisers worked into the locations are often wasted space, in my opinion, but here they support replayability when there’s a decent chance that characters won’t survive the first attempt. Initial descriptions are short and excellent, although sometimes poorly ordered. Dot points are standard here, if that’s your jam. It works well enough for me, but writing is concise enough it’s hardly necessary.

This module leans heavily into body horror in a lot of the encounters and descriptions, which is 100% my jam but you mileage may vary. They do include a content warning at the beginning of the module. For a funnel adventure, the climax is likely to change the entire campaign permanently, which means by signing up to this funnel, you’re commuting to exploring the impact of a demon invasion into your sci-fi world.

Two pages of enemies come next; the descriptions are one or two sentences and very evocative, although the more complex stat blocks detract from this a little. A page of loot generators is flavourful in the sense that it’s awfully nihilistic.

This module is pretty great in the specifics — descriptions, themes, mechanics — but is compromised by not using visual information as a communication strategy, particularly in the map, which probably would have been better represented as a diagram or an actual map. The ending makes for a permanent campaign direction, which is not usually something I’d find ideal in a funnel.

My takeaways are that visual information needs to be functional and pretty, and that I wish I could write terse beautiful description as well as Ian Yusem. I probably wouldn’t run this without reading the sequel adventure, as apparently it explores the consequences of the ending in a bit more detail, but it’s still good on its own.

2nd May, 2023

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Dungeons without borders

In Bridewell, there two traditional dungeons that are challenges to the principles guiding Bridewell. A traditionally keyed large dungeon, ones that have practical, common-sense usages, and lots of “37. Empty room.” does not fit with Bridewell’s sensibilities. But also, the orcs need a place to toilet, right? Just because it’s gothic doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to make sense.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, which is part of the reason the maps for Bridewell are the last items to complete. And because of that, I’ve written these dungeons very differently than I’ve ever written a dungeon before, because I usually design dungeons around the map. These dungeons have been keyed (albeit with some sense in my head of the layout of the dungeon) before the maps have even been started.

But I’ve left out the keys for empty rooms and the like, because I don’t have a map yet, and also because they’re empty rooms. And I’ve been expecting to draw a traditional dungeon map and just leave the unkeyed rooms empty. But then I remembered this:

From B3: Palace of the Silver Princess

“To expand the dungeon, the DM need but open up the blocked passageways”. And I wondered, hey, what if I just put doors where unkeyed dungeon areas were? What if I keyed only the bits I cared about, and let the DM open up those blocked passageways if they wished, or handwave them if they wished?

My first thought was that just days ago I complained about a module in a Bathtub Review for doing precisely that thing. What’s the point of a module that terms the GM to make up the dungeon map?

But nevertheless, empty rooms are contrary to what I’m trying to achieve in my writing. What about a random empty room generator? I put 14 potential empty rooms in my dungeon, I give each four permutations, and when the company stumbles into an empty room, bam! There’s a lavatory full of grasping arms. But they can be ignored if you wish, Trophy style, and I can maintain Bridewell’s trademark dense, punchy style.

For Bridewell, it’d look something like this. Draw minor arcana for an empty room. Suit indicates Cups – Overflowing; Wands – Creating; Swords – Violence; Coins – Precious.

  1. Mess hall
  2. Barracks
  3. Chapel
  4. Gymnasium
  5. Bath
  6. Cistern
  7. Armoury
  8. Pantry
  9. Privy
  10. Salon
  11. Kitchen
  12. Classroom
  13. Library
  14. Oubliette

The question really is, whether this is an interesting solution, springboarding off one of the oldest texts in the games history, or if it’s just a bad idea?

I probably won’t know until I try. I’ll report back.

2nd May, 2023,

Idle Cartulary

Bathtub Review: Neverland

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

Neverland is a one hundred and thirty five page hex crawl based on the stories of Peter Pan, written and illustrated by Andrew Kolb. I purchased it about three years ago and ran it in Dungeon World, although it’s written for Fifth Edition. It is the first large module that I ever ran directly from the book without copious preparatory re-writing. I adored it at the time as one of the best modules I’d run, and I decided to bathtub review it because I’m curious to see if I still feel it holds up in my esteem, especially with the recent release of a spiritual sequel, Oz, which I’ll be getting in July.

When I say one hundred and thirty five pages, really there’s an additional thirty pages on top of that of short stories and concept art, which strikes me strongly as self-indulgent. The book structure itself is (roughly) ten pages of rules, forty pages of NPCs and bestiary, twenty-five pages of hex fills, ten pages of fairy-land, thirty-five pages of location maps and keys relating back to the hex fills, and ten or so pages of random tables. Given the book is large, I’ll break it down by section.

The rules section seems half superfluous and half Andrew’s House Rules. Fifth edition doesn’t have good travel rules, and I don’t mind these very simple ones. The island changes and morphs over 24 hours, which is a neat way to keep a smallish hexcrawl interesting. Lots of rules like chase sequences and scavenging just seem unnecessary. This section is just overwritten and unnecessary and doesn’t put me in a place where I’m excited to run the expensive book I’ve just purchased.

The section supposed to summarise the adventure is here too, and the problem here is that there’s a lot going on and it all appears to be happening everywhere at once. This means that you’re given the strong impression immediately that you need to be all over the actions of fifteen separate factions, which is an immediate turn off for me, who has no doubt forgotten the first faction by the time she has read the last one. Such a large book should have a lot of moving parts, the problem here is that they’re all introduced at once, rather than by region or by hex or location.

This same problem continues with the heavily structured “Cast” section. It’s a combination NPC and bestiary. I like the terseness of the bestiary sections — a beast gets a paragraph of description and a huge fifth edition stat block. NPCs get fifth edition Trauts, Ideals, Bonds and Flaws, a structure I don’t find awfully useful. I dislike how I have to navigate the whole bestiary to get a sense for major characters at play and their drives, but in play it’s a convenient glossary for the most part. I don’t love it but it works, for a module that’s intended to be a lot of combat and shenanigans.

The hex fill section has a fairly useless quick reference, two versions of the map (one not illustrated and in tiny font), and then single-page hex fills with zoomed in maps, short summaries, special time-related events, random exploration table, and a fairly complex multi-roll encounter table. There’s a tiny useless map that shows (kind of) which hexes are adjacent, but doesn’t tell you more than that hexes number well.

The meat here is the random encounter table, where between one and four random encounters will occur in each hex, or every four hours. There are something like a hundred possible encounter combinations from the encounter table, which tells us a lot about how this is expected to be played: An encounter-heavy exploration crawl, heavily incentivising avoiding overground travel using shortcuts like flying, magic lost boy trees and mermaid whirlpools. There is a loot table in the appendix, but clearly loot associated with these random encounters is an afterthought.

Fairyland is a strange, brief, fascinating, plot essential afterthought. The fairies are elevated, they have a bunch of interesting rules and they steal children. Travel is random and kind of weirdly over complicated. You have to do significant preparation, which is contrary to the apparent intent of the rest of the book. I like it but the thirty wasted pages in this book would have been better just giving me more locations so I don’t have to write it myself.

The maps in resources are incomplete. The advice is to pre-plan where NPCs are, what they’re doing, and why, and in my opinion this is what the book is for. Maps vary a lot — some are minimally keyed (“Tools Storage: Spare equipment and weapons kept here”, all abstract and not particularly useful as visual aids. Some are traditionally keyed (“100’ room, lake of acid of varying levels”). There’s good variety (even one location with randomly generated d100 rooms). And the art is all pretty cute. I like it. It’s just that key and art together don’t add up to locations that feel compelling or consistent.

The random tables are great. Interesting where they need to be interesting, functional when they need to be functional. I especially like the rumour table which allows the GM to decide what’s true or not — honestly one of the most promising and interesting pieces of writing in the book.

Overall, I think this was less compelling on this read through than I found it a few years ago when I ran it. The structure makes a lot of it easy to run, but hard to wrap your head around initially. There’s no on-ramp like starting locations and hooks are delegated to an appendix rather than the front of the book. The writing is workmanlike, and not particularly evocative, although there are a lot of concepts that are evocative and exciting to engage with. I personally would prefer evocative writing, because (for example) I have to wrap my head around Kolbs rules for shooting stars rather than be inspired by his writing about shooting stars — you may well feel that this low-density developed concept approach is better suited to the way you run or enjoy your games.

More disappointing is the lack of consistency with the low-preparation design. A clear selling point and goal of this book is its capacity to pick up and run, but the location keys and the entire fairyland section runs contrary to this design goal. Given there was a bunch of wasted pages at the end of this book spent on fiction and concept art, I don’t feel like this particular design flaw is justified.

I really like the design intentions and goals, and there’s a lot to learn from the directed layout choices and structural decisions. I’m excited to get my hands on Oz, to see whether Kolb has learnt from and refined his intentions here. I just wish that those intentions were consistently applied throughout this book.

It’s a long book to read through with a lot of rules-active moving parts, and you’ll need to do some legwork to get up and running, but if you avoid fairyland or are happy to spend a fair bit of time preparing it in advance, there’s a lot of fun adventuring and faction play in this module. It’s pretty cheap on Amazon right now, if you’re at all interested you should probably check it out.

29th April, 2023

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Bathtub Review: Tomb of the Swine Prophet

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this as a critique from the perspective of me, playing, and designing modules myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

Continuing my series of tiny modules, Tomb of the Swine Prophet is a four page generic OSR dungeon module by Nate Treme, where one of those four pages is the title page.

The title page has a blurb which doubles as a hook, as well as foreshadows your foe in the dungeon. The second page contains the map and key to a ten room dungeon with five empty rooms. The best of the keys are one-sentence wonders, the others are all good and interesting rooms.

The third page is a twenty item random encounter table you roll any time you enter one of the five empty rooms. These double as randomly populating these rooms with furnishings, reveal the factions movements, and introduce saltwater-themed creatures and traps into the dungeon. The keys aren’t as good as the rooms, but they’re all interesting. The final page is twelve once sentence unique treasures and stats for the three creatures found in the dungeon. Succinct and interesting.

Overall, Tomb of the Swine Prophet is a fun, characterful dungeon that I’d enjoy throwing into any ocean-faring campaign or near any coastal town for a one-shot detour. In comparison to other small modules I’ve read, it isn’t as dense or exciting as Break Their Pride, but it’s more flavourful and evocative and easier to use than A Simple Dungeon, but perhaps more importantly the flavour is more to my taste.

23rd April , 2023

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