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

Idle Cartulary


2 thoughts on “Bathtub Review: Neverland

  1. Hmm, whenever I see a hexcrawl _without_ a summary of the factions & major NPCs up front I get grumpy, because it requires me to analyse everything in advance to extract interconnections & world-in-motion complications. Can you say more about why this “introduction of all the moving parts at once” fails? Is it too much detail up front? Or do we just have different taste in settings?


    1. Could be we have different tastes in settings. In this case, it’s too much detail up front for me, which is a challenge that larger hexcrawls need to consider a way to deal with, that smaller ones don’t. With three or four factions, it’s not challenging to remember who’s who. Perhaps this would have been more digestible for me if NPCs had been separated from the bestiary, for example?


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