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: 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

Idle Cartulary