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.
You Got A Job On The Garbage Barge (hereon simply Garbage Barge) is a 64 page module by Amanda Lee Franck. I call it a module, but it’s kind of a setting masquerading as a module? I might have backed it on Kickstarter, I can’t remember. I’m a big fan of some of the luminaries involved, I’m in a discord and have played games with some of them. It’s fully illustrated with generic OSR stats.
Garbage Barge’s setting is pretty unique; it is kind of inconsistently maybe early 20th century technology? It certainly is a setting for a micro-campaign I suspect, as chances are it wouldn’t fit very well into many existing campaigns unless the garbage barge itself was re-framed as some kind of interdimensional entity that didn’t belong there, and appears in cities at random, as it traverses the grand totality of rivers trawling for garbage. But, from the tangent I just went on, it’s definitely an evocative unique setting, and because it’s vague and wide-spread, it isn’t too challenging to add to or incorporate more into. It mightn’t be perfect for every campaign, but it probably is an excellent launching pad for a campaign.
It opens with an excellent map of the Garbage Barge, and I suspect this map inspired the contents rather than the other way around. Travel is primarily by magical pneumatic tube, effectively rendering it a point crawl. It’s not outright stated, but I think that it’d be best run as if it were a subway, i.e. with signage or by using a subway map maker. This is all very neat. I suspect the map inspired the contents because the keyed locations range from a number of pages to a single sentence.
These keyed locations have some pretty gutsy sentences though, they’re very concept dense although they are not very encounter dense. It feels like I’d spend most of my time just hanging out with the people I bump into randomly, even the ones that are interesting, weird or magical. The first true hostile encounter doesn’t give much in the way of characterisation, which is disappointing. Further in, there are a few given more interesting levers to pull: Clams who want dental work, for example, or a snake needing friendship but somewhat toxic in its methods. The locations take up the first twenty or so pages (or so? I haven’t located the last two yet). The non-combat, non-specific encounters, however, are just gold, and it’s gold overall.
The next fifteen pages are people and creatures that inhabit the garbage barge. Lots of stat blocks, these people are meant to be fought it seems. These are all weird and dirty people and I like them all, but there’s little reference to them in the locations, and little reason to incorporate them with a few specific exceptions; I like the content but I want more support in using them. There is a random encounter table in an appendix, which has page references and incorporates all of these (but not, it seems, the appendix creatures), but it’s kind of hidden and I feel should be a little more front-loaded.
There are a few short modules now, the first a small dungeon. The rooms in this dungeons each get three or four times as much space as the garbage barge locations itself, which honestly makes me reel with uncertainty regarding what the hell this actually is. The maps are excellent, though, clarifying the space very well while keeping the sketchy aesthetic of the art. The second is a character heavy dive into the depths of the garbage, which is weird and excellent, but very dense and wordy and I would have to copy and paste it and make it into bullet points and break it up for more space and relevance in order to run it.
There is an appendix on garbage smells and an appendix on trash searching, which includes what appears to be a 5e bard subclass and a bunch of smell-related people and creatures. These are nice additions. I probably won’t use any of the smell stuff, because it isn’t referenced by the random encounter table or any of the rest of the book and also I wouldn’t run this (well, anything given the choice) in 5e.
Overall, this is weird and flawed but very engaging. As a module or setting, it feels a little directionless. Perhaps this is a symptom of Kickstarter stretch goals resulting in a number of long digressions by guest creators, all of which are pretty great individually but all of which stand out from the ‘natural’ text. But there are also some design issues, like, this could do with a ‘Mothership’ pass in terms of putting the random encounter table at the front, talking about what happens when travelling the subway, things like that. There’s nothing wrong with a product that is simply there to kindle your imagination, but I distinctly do not feel like that is what this module is trying to be, and it needs a little more structure and infill to do what it wants.
And then, to contradict myself, would I want to sully a product that’s evocative as this with rules? Like, probably not. I’m currently very intentionally writing a socio-gothic micro-setting, and I really hate putting rules in it. But some of the things Garbage Barge needs isn’t just rules (although subway guidance would help), but also filling in gaps in the world that are necessary, such as the subway, or putting the evocative and interesting people and creatures into places in the world rather than just saying they exist. I like this a lot, and I think I couldn’t run it even if I tried. I guess my takeaway learning from reading this, is that even if I choose to write system-agnostic and evocatively, I still need to consider scaffolding the writing more than I’d like from a purely creative perspective.
11th April, 2023