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


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

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”

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

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

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

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

Idle Cartulary

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

Idle Cartulary

Bathtub Review: A Spy in the House of Eth

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.

A Spy in the House of Eth is a sixty page module by Zedeck Siew for Best Left Buried. Full disclosure: Zedeck and I were talking on discord, and this module came up, so he comped me a copy.

I’ll come right out and say the layout and typography doesn’t do this module any favours, for me at least. Formatting varies a lot within the text, intended to make things easier to read, but is a bit much and results in a less legible text. Certainly, the Best Left Buried boxed stat blocks could be a quarter of the size or even just bracketed, and it would make for easier reading. In this module, it feels like combat will play a relatively lower role in the proceedings and it gets more attention than it deserves. The bigger problem is the heading size and typeface choices, which make it genuinely difficult to identify and read subject changes. I struggled moving through the text in a way that I didn’t need to, especially as there is a lack of front-ended structural guidance aside from the map and the identification of the four major points of interest at the top of the table of contents.

The writing itself, however is firing on all cylinders with regards to imagination, evocativeness and terseness. There’s very little here that I’d come up with myself (Dugong-folk with Man ‘o War slaves), and they are brief and specific enough that my imagination immediately snowballs into asking “What’s next?”. This level of imagination continues throughout the book; the value of sixty pages of surprises can’t be overstated. This is the kind of writing where I want to keep quoting the best bits. Especially appreciated are the many, “oh, and —” surprises, where an already interesting idea is given depth and life in a later table or entry (kingfishers laying eggs, for those in the know).

Document structure is an ongoing challenge I think when writing sandboxes and hexcrawls. There’s a threefold difficulty here: This is a play-space intended to thrive when play is undirected, so there is no true beginning, no true ending, and must be left open for various approaches. So, where do you start?

Zedeck’s answer here is to detail the various factions that inhabit the world, and then follow up with the locations. I think this is a reasonable approach. Most authors would decide to place NPCs in an appendix, but these are interesting and exciting foundations for a campaign and fronting them is a great idea to hook you. I’d be interested to know his reasoning behind the order of the locations displayed in the book, because to me this is where the scaffolding falls down. As a GM wanting to run this sandbox, the most logical place to start it isn’t in the northeastern wilderness of the map where the fourth point of interest is, but rather at the major port in the southwest which is proximate to two points of interest. What is happening with Weiren Oils is interesting, but it’s not the first interesting thing the PCs are likely to encounter. Encounters and connections are well indicated with page references, however, which makes it much easier to navigate.

What would I change? Firstly, while I appreciate the subtlety of the gradually unraveling mysteries, a summary page would be appreciated, given you need to get a decent chunk of the way into the book before even meeting a spy. Secondly, more direction for where and when to start or hook the party would be beneficial, given the structure implies a northeastern route, but the southwestern one makes more sense but also puts you in the path of greater danger. In every new location, there’s a list of “What is here?”. If these lists were cherry-picked out and placed next to or on the map, I think the connections and goals of the locations be easier to run.

An example of the document structure betraying its own intentions is the placement of a key, ever-evolving hell-pollutant on page fifty-five. A very brief rule is here that describes how the greed-driven colonisation of hell has caused hell to seep into our reality, destroying and replacing what is there. This is one of two major storylines reflecting the overall themes of the piece, but I’ve already read much of the book without consideration of it. Better placed forward, or summarised early.

The spiel on the back of the book doesn’t do a great job of selling what’s in the book in my opinion; it’s a bit vague regarding the specifics of what you’re exploring the hexcrawl for; these specifics are interesting though, but they’re really well buried in implication within the module. I think that the fact that this is set in a colonised land, features hellish pollutions destroying the environment caused by the invaders, features slaves in an uprising against their owners, and that the players are asked to pick sides, places this module in a unique position that isn’t well stated outside the text itself. It’s a message that took 60 pages to communicate and would take many sessions to play through, but probably needs to be summarised for the sake of selling to the table and for ease of play.

Overall, Spy in the House of Eth is a powerhouse of evocative writing and conceptual density, hamstrung by a lack of scaffolding to step into the world and to navigate it. If you’re happy to expect to read sixty pages closely and take notes to run it (let’s face it, plenty of modules ask more, I’m a harsh critic), this is one of the better longer modules I’ve read, and I’d recommend it.

16th April, 2023

Idle Cartulary

Bathtub Review: You Got A Job On The Garbage Barge

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

Idle Cartulary

Bathtub Review: A Simple Dungeon

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

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Bathtub Review: Break Their Pride By A Woman’s Hand

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.

Break Their Pride By A Woman’s Hand is a free trifold pamphlet module by Dan D. It is a point crawl through a city recently sacked by an invading army, who brings their god with them to desecrate enemy temples.

This module is rad, although I’m not sure the trifold format behooves it. A number of mechanisms are at play that didn’t become clear to me immediately, but it’s short and concise enough that reading the whole module isn’t a chore at all.

There are a few mechanics here, and a detailed final reckoning that to a degree makes the module goal-oriented. The subtitle, “Attack and Dethrone God”, is probably a better name than the apocryphal reference of the actual title, with regards to clearly identifying the goal of the module. The actual title implies a lot of unstated intent — namely that the PCs are likely citizens of the city, that the two titular women are likely to redeem the city.

Most of the fourteen points of interest are one paragraph plus a number of bullet points, where bullet points specifically refer to dynamic aspects such as NPCs or clarifying options. Two NPCs are their own “points of interest”, and the invading God’s rules are split across sections which I don’t adore. There is a map with multiple options for entry and exit from all points of interest, and which you can use to track the invading gods movement.

The naming conventions have old-testament bronze-aged vibes, and honestly I think the module should’ve leant into that more by naming more of the NPCs, or away from that (“The God”, “The City”, “The Invading Forces”) instead of going half way there.

Overall, I think this is one of the strongest short adventures I’ve read. It’s concept dense, memorable, easy to run and interesting, with clear vectors for the PCs affecting the outcomes both at a micro and a macro level. Great if you want to write a dense pamphlet module and need to see what it looks like as a one-shot or to kick off a sandbox bronze age campaign.

4th April, 2023

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Bathtub Review: What We Give To Alien Gods

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.

I have backed a lot of Mothership modules on Kickstarter. The system is neat, easy to learn and to play, and attracts a lot of talent. I wish I played more Mothership, and I’m excited to see a lot of the various expansions to it into campaign play. Lone Archivist wrote What We Give To Alien Gods, a 72 page module, with additional art by Chris Cold and Vil, which I have to say I was attracted to by it’s strong cosmic horror vibes, something somewhat unique among takes on Mothership horror.

Cover art for What We Give For Alien Gods

Main negative out of the way out the gate: the information design leaves a lot to be desired. It doesn’t open with a summary or where to start, but rather opens with a safety, loot, special rules and xenolinguistics, a lot of which might be best in an appendix. On the first page of the adventure itself, it centres a derelict ship, which is plot-central but whose story is located in an appendix. I found it hard to intuit what would be where, I found myself expending energy on unimportant information before important information, and in a 72 page document this all could have been a lot more usable and digestible for me.

The “How to use this module” section is, I think, a bit excessive, but the safety section is fantastic, as is the section entitled lore as loot. Then we have another section on rules regarding relating to gods and xenolinguistics, which provides two frameworks for interesting, unique puzzles. For me, I prefer modules having a bit more of a kick off the bat, and I don’t love spending fifteen pages before it’s clear what the module is about. The “At A Glance” section should have been up front for me.

Act 1 is an unnecessary and incomplete two page hex crawl; this references the derelict ship that is featured throughout the module, but has no page reference and whose information is all the way on page 52 (there’s a page reference in Act 2 though).

Act 2 through 4 are the temple itself, an encounter with a trapped god, and the escape from the aftermath. Major character Dr Grahm is introduced through a random location generator with no page reference. The keyed locations are unmapped. The doors are mainly teleportation portals, but the lack of maps becomes a usability problem for me when hallways appear between rooms, or they start floating in relation to each other but it isn’t marked out in the text. The use of codes for me is a solution to a usability problem that isn’t there: I’d forget them during play and I wouldn’t were it spelled out. The entries are quite long, consistently longer than I’d prefer – two thirds of an A5 page for the most part. I can’t say having an extra sentence or two would effect the amount of text on the page by much. The final twenty or so pages of the module are what I’ll call appendixes – major NPCs, items, randomisers and some lore handouts.

Most of the content here though, is eerie, weird, puzzling and eventually very unsettling or outright horrifying, as you progress through the four “levels” available (sequence breaking is possible, particularly if the players solve the linguistics puzzles quickly). The linguistic puzzles and the gradual and directed exposition makes for a very slow and deliberate kind of play which is very unique. Good horror content here, and successful at a kind of cosmic horror that Mothership doesn’t usually excel at. Really, really good stuff, and I’d love to run this adventure.

Ok, there was a lot of criticism there, and I need to be up front, What We Give To Alien Gods is in an unenviable position: It’s much better designed than a lot of published modules, especially much better than most anything by the bigger publishers. But it’s also a Mothership module, and Mothership and it’s core modules have set very high standards for information design and usability. Some lessons here on information design could have been learnt from some of the better Mothership modules, in my opinion, but the content is exceptional if you’re looking for what’s on the box: Cosmic horror.

My main design takeaways from all the criticism is that a module needs to display information in the order it is read and used at the table, excepting only when it’s clearly referenced. You need to leverage your random tables so that they do double or triple duty of reducing the size of your keys. And most importantly here, the inclusion of a lot of very interesting puzzle content served to stodge the text up. Perhaps the puzzles could have been relegated to an appendix altogether, making them more optional (they’re a huge part of this adventure if you’re not good at or interested in linguistics) and also pulling them out of the main text.

An excellent, unique adventure, marred by poor information design and excessive keying. If you’re happy to put a bit of work into preparing it, I’d recommend it if you want slow-paced cosmic horror in your Mothership game.

29th March, 2023

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Bathtub Review: The Thawing Kingdom

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 Thawing Kingdom is a setting zine by Rowan Algoet (aka Bottomless Sarcophagus) I think I backed it for a zinequest one year? I have quite specific desires in something that calls itself a setting: It needs enough dynamite that if I drop PCs into it, things will start happening immediately. I’m not really someone who cares to read a lot of lore or background history unless it impacts the actions of the PCs and the world in the here-and-now.

The first page of this, the introduction, is a short story. It’s good, I just really don’t think stories have a place in settings. I think the important parts of this story could have been encapsulated in a sentence or three, or perhaps even in description elsewhere. I can see some very cool stuff here, if they were to appear as entries in tables later: A maze made of the bodies of frozen queens; A shrivelled heart that traps a monster from outside of time.

The next section covers folk who live here. There’s a good table of 20 backgrounds, and a lot of interesting world building buried in prose. After that, a section on the nature of the ice that is thawing and beasts and places associated with it; again, excellent world-building buried in prose. Another section on the very cool, god-slaying tech-bro kingdom to the south (more on this place than on the titular kingdom, actually). This whole section – the first 16 pages of the zine.

Then it gets good, dense with ideas: Lists. The major locations really deserves to be detailed further; the minor locations all have probabilities associated with them and I wish these had been substantiated a bit. Mysterious treasures couldn’t be more perfect.

I have very mixed feelings on Thawing Kingdoms, because it is very idea-dense, but half of it is presented in a way that makes it very challenging for me to use without a lot of work converting half of it to something more practicable. There are three main things I’m taking away from it: Firstly, the history and world-building is best buried in tables and lists. Putting it in prose encourages wordiness, but most of this cool stuff could be reduced to a d10 list and that could be distributed throughout the setting so that things could be gradually learnt through play. Secondly, it’s pretty important for me to have some more detailed locations, because while the paragraph-long locations are excellent, I’d prefer those, and a few page-long ones, instead of those, plus sentence-long ones. Finally, I can’t process longer prose well in the context of role-playing games. Shorter prose, broken up, works well. Page-long isn’t processable – I’d have to write a lot of notes, or more likely, I’d have to rewrite the first half of this to make it work for me, and that would be better some by the author and worked into the rest of the book.

The concept here: Of a kingdom recovering from a cursed sleep, full of the evil and dangerous remnants of that curse, is so incredibly good, and the content here is so incredibly good, but for me it’s marred by format, and diluted by the very cool adjacent kingdom, which detracted from the focus on the primary subject (although it deserves its own zine, in my opinion).

Anyway, this setting zine is full of amazing ideas and you could do far worse than using the content in your campaign. The formatting doesn’t work for me, but I couldn’t rate the content highly enough.

27th March, 2023

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Bathtub Review: A Night at the Tavern

Bathtub Reviews are an excuse for me to read modules a little more closely, but I’m doing this for my own edification: Whether I’d choose to play them, if I’d need to modify them significantly to run them, and whether I’d adopt some of the modules approaches when writing myself. They’re stream of consciousness and unedited harsh critiques on usually excellent modules. I’m writing them on my phone in the bath.

A Night at the Tavern is a four page system-agnostic module by Sandy Pug Games, with art by Beowulf and Raul Volpato. I backed it on Kickstarter. Each page details an hour of a night at Zar’s tavern, The Soggy Dog, using a “mood” summary, NPC summaries (there are 12, some with different descriptions in different hours), and an isometric map of the tavern showing where each character is and who they’re with.

The pixel art maps and character art are excellent, and leverage the simplicity of the character designs to make it fairly clear who is in what room and what they’re doing. Pages 2 and 3 are darker and have some particle effects on them, and a broader range of character designs and colour choices might have made it easier to use. On the other hand, the maps are a very clever way of utilising art to facilitate running a social location, and they work most of the time.

All of the characters appear to be monsters in Zar’s tavern, and the first hour is getting to know these monsters, despite the fact that a party of adventurers is coming to ransack the place. The character descriptions on page one do an great job of world-building the fantasy world from the perspective of work-a-day monsters without exposition, and don’t fall into the Name/Look/Agenda trap of feeling similar and blurring together. Tension builds in the second hour, with the arrival of some thugs pretending to be adventurers, an assassin, and a cultist, all arriving to complicate matters. In the third act, these new arrivals act on their intentions (it is implied, at least, by the missing sprites and descriptions that something happened in the interim). The fourth page implies the arrival of the adventurers and the summoning of a world-destroying demon.

This is excellently written, the concept is very interesting, and I don’t think I could bring it to my table, except perhaps as a one-shot. The world is too specific and different from most fantasy worlds to be a drop-in module (although it’s fun and interesting and something more comprehensive that explored A Night At The Tavern’s world would be cool). It’s not intuitive to me who the players in this scenario would be, as the entire tavern is self-sustaining and the agendas of the NPCs are entirely internal and secret. As a one-shot, I could probably run this as a free-form, mystery module where each player takes one of the characters already in the tavern? Frustratingly, some of the major events are elided by the time skips between hours, resulting in my having to figure out who the ‘collateral damage’ was by flipping back and forth through pages two and three. These elisions happen throughout the document – for example, the tavern’s name is the Soggy Dog, but I only know that from the summary, not from the module itself.

However, I almost certainly think they design is really useful for party scenes in RPGs. Using a small map with multiple rooms, easily identifiable sprites that move between rooms according to time or event, to help to run something like this, and changing moods and timed events, are all very cool approaches to writing a locked party scene for any adventure. It’s well written and attempts valiantly to incorporate its lore and worldbuilding into as few words as possible, unfortunately not achieving its goals. I’d certainly recommend checking it out if you’re interested in innovative approaches to module design, even if I don’t think the execution lives up to the potential of the concept. I could totally see these methods and approaches utilised again, they just need refining.

24th March, 2023

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