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.
After reading the stellar trifold pamphlet adventure Break Their Pride by A Woman’s Hand a few weeks ago, I wanted to look at a few other short adventures to compare it to. A Simple Dungeon is 6 page module by Micah Anderson, which is laid out in the Bastards house minimalist style.
The first page is an abstract dungeon map (effectively a point crawl, using colours to differentiate secret or special passages), and it has a random d6 loot and omens, which are generic and not tied to specific encounters or treasure items (“Chittering”, “Spell”). I don’t see the point of these two tables in the slightest. The four hooks on the second page have some neat worldbuilding and are quite generic in a way that you could drop this into almost any campaign.
A small hex map with eight locations that are keyed in one to two sentences come up next. A few of these are excellent for one to two sentence prompts, the implied encounter just jumps off the page. Most of them don’t bring much to the table for me.
The rest of the module is the dungeon. These keys are two to four paragraphs. Compared to the rest of the module, these could probably be edited, although the layout makes them eminently readable. The location of the map on the inner cover makes it easy to find your way around. The minimal text successfully places tensions in the dungeon, between the troll, the goblins and the secret halfling, which is impressive given how few words are used and how small this module is.
I’d be remiss to not comment on the public domain art and the layout and typography, which is for the most part beautiful and very much my jam. I think the extra space helps the dungeon rooms be more digestible, and I don’t mind the minimalist mapping. I don’t think the hex map art really matches the hex descriptions, which would make it more helpful. Some of the typography choices don’t match with the others in my opinion. But it’s a good looking module overall.
I have mixed feelings about this module. It is nowhere near as exciting or evocative a module as Break Their Pride By A Woman’s Hand on the one hand, but as something to stick in a hex somewhere for a company to stumble upon it’s fine. Because of that, I can’t It’s probably a one-shot dungeon, so the mini-hex crawl seems like wasted space, especially given the dungeon key is much better than the hex key.
It reminds me, in a way, of the earliest TSR modules that I’ve read, things like B2. They are not very well written, but the minimalism becomes a canvas that all players can paint on with abandon. A Simple Dungeons style of minimalism is more flavourful than most of the early TSR modules, but it’s similarly just fine by its nature. There is much to be considered with regards to what it means to write a module well, because I don’t quite have a grasp at why A Simple Dungeon feels well-designed, well written (for the most part) and boring all at the same time, but it kind of does feel that way.
One criteria that has come up a few times in these bathtub reviews is concept density. This is not concept-dense: I could run the dungeon from memory right now, and I can remember the five or so cool ideas pretty easily to work into any location. Five or so cool idea isn’t that bad for a short module, but it’s also not that great. Break Their Pride By A Woman’s Hand also leaves a lot to the imagination of the GM, but contributes a lot of ideas that I couldn’t easily reproduce independently.
I think that the best of the writing in A Simple Dungeon is about as good as it gets: Flavourful, exciting encounters in two sentences is something to aspire to. I think Ram of Save vs TPK said once that a good location key should fit into a tweet and that’s A Simple Dungeon at it’s best. That’s my major takeaway: You can always afford to be more concise. Edit your descriptions down until you could spit them out when you’re chewing stones.
7th April, 2023