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