Friday, June 14, 2024

The House of Pestilence (oh, and No Artpunk III) is Released!

Over a year from its original announcement, the No Artpunk III contest has finally borne fruit. The NAP III anthology is now available on at a PYWY price, suggested at $7. All proceeds go to the Dutch Het Aidsfonds charity. 

In addition to a rather star-studded list of contestants, including the first part of Gabor Csomos' upcoming Xantal of Dreams, Coldlight Press' Ben Gibson with the ambitious mass-combat dungeon Descent into the Cairn of Night, the redemption of ShocktoHP (the guy who did Wavestone Keep) in The Taking of Icewyrm Hold, Jonathan *sigh* Becker's revamp of Dragonlance in Dragon Wrack (created in just one month!), and the grand champion, the elusive C. Dantes and his #1 winner, The Ivory Islet (which I am currently reading, it is AMAZING!), you can also find, in pages 397-434, my own #2 submission. 

Available now for... free, if you want it. Designed to slot right into an AD&D 1e underworld campaign, an ad-hoc sequel to D3 fully detailing a rogue drow fortress and its environs, with a party of stout pregens, new magic items, and a couple of new monsters. No muss, no fuss, no art budget and no formatting magic, just badly hand-drawn maps and a word processor. Dear god, it's like actually being at my table!

Plus, you know, a baker's dozen other really good high-level adventures for various old-school systems and retroclones. At least one of which is much better than mine. They're also there. 

Variant cover by squeen

Monday, June 3, 2024

Village on the Borderlands Review: C'mon Man!

This is a review of Village on the Borderlands, a module by Dark Wizard Games' Mark Taormino. For those of you who, like me, missed the storm in a teakettle around this module, I will summarize. 

This was published around a year ago, and reviewed by Bryce in October. Bryce gave it a very bad and caustic review (though he seems to not have tagged it as an exceptionally bad module). The author found the review in mid-May of this year, and protested strenuously against the treatment of his work. Amid lengthy and combative arguments about the module and the fairness of the review, Taormino put his money where his mouth was and made a PDF copy of the module (the OSRIC version, we'll come back to this) freely available, so that Bryce's readers could see it for themselves and come to their own conclusions. 

This piqued my interest, and I decided to clear my mind of preconceptions and examine the module on its own, without the entitlement of a paying customer or the standards of a professional reviewer, just as a consumer. 

Let's not bury the lede, this is not a good module. After going through it, I am in close agreement with Bryce. By itself, that would not motivate me to break my little hiatus and post about it. But in the course of trying to read the module and seeing how fans defended it, I wound up reflecting and coming to some conclusions about the hobby. 

Since Mr. Taormino very publicly demanded that his critics should read the entire thing and give specific, constructive feedback, I will oblige. The first section of this post will go through my experience reading the module, how I feel as a consumer about that, and my feedback on improving. After that, I will expand on my personal reflections. 

The cover art. A bit stiff for my liking, but still decent

First Glance

To begin with, the module provides a level range, as well as crediting its profferader and playtesters. These are simple things, but worth noting for the number of published adventures that don't do it. There follows an outline of the adventure, which consists of a village and four small adventuring locations. In principle, a pretty solid structure for an introductory/base module. It further describes itself as a sandbox module, and sells itself on the 100 named NPCs it features. We'll come back to this. 

Aesthetically, everything about this module is emulating TSR products of the late '70s and early '80s, from the cover to the font (though a larger size), as well as the blue-and-white grid map and the black-and-white interior art. The interior art in particular has a kind of comic look to it, and frequently depicts both actual locations and adventurers doing adventuring. This is good, it gets me pumped to read on and run it. 

The problem, perhaps, is that the module emulates certain elements of those old TSR products without reflection, to its detriment. Once again, we'll come back to this. 


Here the actual content begins, with a list of four hooks and ten rumors, either true or false. This is also where my disappointment with the module begins. 

The hooks provided are bare and uninspired. 1 and 3 are hire hooks, neither of which mention any reward, and the objective for hook 3, the Ruby Mushrooms, do not appear in the adventure, though they might be mixed up with the Honeyspot Mushrooms found in the fourth scenario. Hook 2 isn't really a hook at all, just a description of the view which is repeated almost word-for-word later, in addition to dictating character thoughts. The most interesting is hook 4, which implies the PCs are murderhobos who killed a man to take his treasure map. 

The ten rumors also don't inspire. Though presented in quotation marks, none of these sound like rumors one would actually hear. For example, rumor 2, 
"A cursed werewolf stalks the Forest of the Fallen Oaks, preying on anyone who crosses its path and spreading a curse to those it attacks."
Maybe it's the participial phrase, but it's a sentence that sounds written rather than spoken, very official, no personal voice. Most of the hook are like this. There's also an element of over-explanation, whether true or false, like in rumor 9,
"There is an eccentric Drow Magic-User living in the Caverns of the Wicked Peaks. He controls strange fungi plants that attack intruders."
It just feels so dry, more like the GM's notes than anything somebody in the world would say. Why 'Magic-User', which is a game term, and not something that leaves a bit of mystery as to what the threat actually is? Why say 'He controls strange fungi plants that attack intruders' and not something more fantastical and evocative like 'the mushrooms and roots on the mountain rise up at his command'?

This is meant to be an introductory module! We should be more careful here to present and preserve mystery, fantasy, anticipation, and wonder, which these hooks and rumors do not provide. 

All together, both the hooks and the rumors would benefit from another couple of passes, especially in the prose. 

In addition, we are presented with wandering encounters for the wilderness region between the village and the adventure sites. It states that one should 'Use GMs discretion when to make a check for them' but I strenuously disagree. Not only does is this mentioned before there is any instruction as to what that check is (remember this is meant to be an introductory module, the description of a random encounter check comes 33 pages later, in the description of the first adventuring site) or what the likelihood of an encounter should be in the GM does choose to make a check. Now, I haven't read OSRIC, but 1e certainly doesn't put wilderness encounters at the same probability or frequency as encounters in a dungeon! Given that the module already presents a wilderness hex map, providing an actual encounter frequency would be desirable. 

I'm also rather confused by the encounters provided. There are four of them, all having the same likelihood, with stats but no other details, those being 1d10 bats, 1d4 bandits, 2d4 dire wolves, or 2d6 ogres. Now, 1e certainly isn't a stranger to overwhelming wilderness encounters, this being the edition of 3d10*10 orcs. But this does seem quite lopsided. In particular, even rolling the maximum 4 bandits is only a modest challenge to a 1st level party, and just one is nothing. Meanwhile, the considerably more powerful ogres and dire wolves travel in much larger groups. As others in the comments of the review pointed out, a single concealed ogre in T1 has slain no small number of players and entire parties over the years. 2d6 of them, even on the low end, is completely overwhelming for a party in the ranges this module claims to cover. Now, that could be acceptable if PCs have the ability to cut and run, or make reaction rolls to attempt something other than straightforward combat, or bribe the enemy, etc. And for all I know, that is what Taormino intends here. But given the way the rest of the module is presented, that seems unlikely. 

Also, and this is the nittiest of nitpicks, the text says to roll on the table below but it's not presented as a table, but a list. This is not a significant error, I'm just anal about these things. 

The Hamlet

Now we come to the Village of Taldren, or the Hamlet of Taldren, two names which are used interchangeably. Given the name, you would be forgiven for comparing this closely to the Keep on the Borderlands, but its actual design lineage comes much more clearly from T1 The Village of Hommlet and N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God

Another nitpick, this one actually relevant: map scales should be on the maps, not in the text. 

There follows a half-page-ish description of the town and some of its notable denizens. It's rather dry and generally on the vague and cliche side of things, without much to provoke the imagination. For instance, 
Many of the locals are involved in a religious group called the Order of the Sun which meets once a week on the Hill of the Standing Stones to the west for prayers and rituals. It is an ancient nomadic religion based on nature. The PCs may encounter folks wearing a necklace with the form of a sun with seven rays of light spreading outwards. 
There's something here, but the description feels like it stops just as it is building up to something interesting. A religion that does prayers and rituals at standing stones, with sun iconography, that is nomadic and based on nature. These aren't bad ideas by themselves, but they're not developed here or elsewhere in the module. 'Doing prayers and rituals at standing stones' is what you get when you want to say 'this is a druidic religion' without detailing anything. 

Now, this might be a point where Taormino says it's up the GM (and their famous discretion) to expand on it in their own way. And I'm certain I could. Play up the fact that this religion is both new and old, the subtle rewilding of the world, the slow return of chaos welcomed by the desperate villagers, how even the priest of the old (new) religion participates in the new rites. Maybe these rituals are offensive to the social norms of outsiders and are thus kept private, or perhaps the villagers are keen to convert outsiders and introduce them. Are they bloody, with animal sacrifices? Are bodies buried, or maybe burned, or are they exposed and left to be eaten by animals in the tradition of the foreigners from hard-earthed lands who originated the religion?

There's all sorts of interesting places one could take it... but you could say the same for absolutely any idea in any module. The job of the designer is to give their interpretation, to go beyond vague generalities about an 'ancient nomadic religion based on nature' and collapse them into a concrete vision which might inspire others and give them some new ideas to work with, or at least give the old cliches some texture and freshness. As it stands, this does not happen. We want the designer to present their vision, with enough wiggle room for the GM to make it their own. What we have here is a very, very basic outline which does not contribute to the creative process. 

I quite like this art, though I can't quite figure out which of the ten credited interior artists made it. It has a comic-book Saturday-morning adventure vibe to it, which I think is exactly right. 

In addition, there are places where I can't quite tell what the designer was going for, and it seems like two or more ideas were mashed together without much consideration. For example, in describing the villagers' attitude:
Despite their isolation, they are friendly but suspicious to outsiders (sic) because of the current raids. 
So we have a hamlet which is isolated, but is nevertheless friendly. We also have a hamlet which has become suspicious of outsiders because they are currently being raided by ogres. Both of these are solid ideas to start building on, but this mashup doesn't have space to breathe. It feels contrived, 'well despite being isolated they're quite friendly, except they're not because they're under attack.'

Also, the premise that this village is isolated makes no sense because this is a village of a hundred permanent residents and dozens of visitors each week. 10x as many people pass through the village every year than there are residents. This isn't an isolated village on the borderlands, it's a tourist trap: where are all these travelers going that they pass through Taldren?

I will also note, before getting into the key proper, that this village really doesn't feel like it's being raided by terrifying ogres. Not only are there a ton of people moving through, the residents are still living in their own homes, they haven't put up further defenses, there are no descriptions of what measures they might take to prevent themselves or their neighbors from being abducted in the night, no indication that the people are really suffering because they've been cut off from trade. It's a friendly little village that just so happens to be under attack by ogres, and the one doesn't really interface with the other, outside of token mentions of the militia. But we'll come back to this. 

We also get Random Village Events, ten of them, and by this point I'm afraid that my critique is going to repeat itself. 

Several do not engage the players so much as promise to annoy them, such as encounter 3,
A muddy farmer approaches the PCs and tells them his most prized pig has been lost since last night and asks if they have seen it. After about 1d4 minutes, the pig will show up covered in mud and manure then furiously shake itself off, splattering a huge mess all over the PCs! The farmer smiles and speaks, “Never mind... have a nice day!” then grabs the filthy animal with his bare arms and walks away with a big smile baby talking it, “Whos (sic) a good boy?”
I'm given to understand that this is an example of Taormino's sense of humor, which his fans know well. It's not working for me. I'll do my best not to let it bias the review further, but it's not doing any favors. 

Encounter 4 I actually quite like, bare-bones though it is. Some expression of community is good to see, as is the opportunity to do a good turn and get a good one back. But others are rather less endearing. 

Encounter 6, for example, has a fire start near the PCs, and they spot a scarred man running away. It leaves all other details up to the GM, including whether it was arson or not and whether this mysterious man (who is not one of the 100 named NPCs) is guilty. This is as vague as you can get, and it's really quite disappointing.

Another one, encounter 9, is... well...
A filthy, disgusting, smelly wandering beggar approaches the party coughing with his mouth open and asks them in Common for “alms for the poor and wretched.”
This just tells me we are firmly in cliche fantasy land, rather than a setting that is actually thought through. This is a village of 100 people. What kind of village, let alone one which is 'stable and prosperous'  and 'a close-knit community' leaves one of its own in a state like this? If this person isn't a resident of the village, where did they come from and why? Beggary is an urban phenomenon! 

This, along with everything I've mentioned up to now, really kills the notion that this village was imagined as a coherent setting. Instead, we find concepts piled on top of one another without care for whether they fit the setting described until now or effort to syncretize them. 

And now we can talk about the actual key. 

The Hamlet Key

We begin with lengthy read-aloud which tells the players what they do. This will continue to be the case for the rest of the module. 

Every key in the Hamlet (as well as every key in the following adventure sites, but we'll get to those later) begins with read-aloud, even those you wouldn't expect need it. 

I want to stress that even though the design philosophy Bryce and his fans champion tends to look very poorly on read-aloud, that does not mean it has no place and that it cannot be used well. Boxed text originates in tournament play, where fairness demands a complete and standardized description of each challenge. Outside of those constraints, boxed text may still be useful in providing a default description of an area, especially if it is complex or unusual. D3 Vault of the Drow, for example, features lengthy read-aloud at various points. It is, for my money, overwritten and one of the weakest parts of an otherwise great module, but given that it is trying to replicate the arcane style of the pulps and is describing a very unusual and evocative scene, it redeems itself. 

This does not apply to Village on the Borderlands. 

In addition to being overwritten, it tends to state what the characters do and feel. For example,
As you crest the top of the lush grassy hill, you come upon an awesome sight: seven large standing stones arranged in a circular pattern. The stones stand about ten feet tall with colorful flowers planted around their bases. Each monolith is spaced about seven feet apart. They seem to be ancient and weathered, as if they have been standing here for centuries. As you approach the circle, you notice that the ground within the very center of circle has been cleared of grass, forming a small firepit with various rocks. In the center of the firepit, there are cold burnt ashes. The air around the circle is thick with the sweet scent of flowers, and as you look around, you notice that pretty flowers in vibrant colors grow all over the area, adding to the serene and mysterious atmosphere.
That ‘as you approach’ is a nasty habit which is going to be popping up later in worse form. The ‘adding to the serene and mysterious atmosphere’ is another, telling the players what they or their characters should feel instead of letting the description stand by itself. 

Believe it or not, though, this is one of the better ones. The majority of the boxed texts, which make up at least a third of the key, describe mundane homes in completely unnecessary detail, such as in
Yet another small village house whose exterior appears to be made of the usual whitewashed wood with a thatched roof made of straw. A few small windows are on the front side. There is a garden with bright vegatables (sic) in the front yard around the pathway to the front door with a little dog running around barking. The woods can be seen nearby and behind the structure. The landscape is very green and fresh with the smell of pine.
If you're describing 'yet another' one of anything, it probably doesn't need to be in read-aloud. Unlike several other keyed houses, the key to this one does not tell us the dog's name. Very sad. 

Up to now, this is tedious and badly designed, but my dislike of the keying and formatting might not yet be clear. In that case, let me reproduce number 35 in full, including the bolding. 
As you approach this small house, the smell of ripe fish fills the air. The one-room cottage is built from driftwood and mud stone, with a thatched straw roof and a small chimney rising up. Nets and baskets hang from hooks outside the door, and a few traps are stacked in the corner. A small boat is pulled up on the shore nearby. 
This wonderful little shack is the home of Reginald and Celestine Barrington (AC: 10, MV: 120 ft (40 ft), HD: 1d4, HP: 4, #AT: 1, D: 1-2, AL: Neutral, Languages: Common, XP: 5) both human fisherman (sic). He wears a tattered shirt, wool pants and well-worn boots while she wears a raggedy brown dress with a faded apron, and her dirty blonde hair is tied back in a pony tail. They are both members of the militia and the Order of the Sun. They can sell fish and train the PCs in the arts of fishing for a reasonable price (GMs discretion). They are not interested in adventuring but will share a delicious fish dinner with the PCs over chatting about some local tall tales and rumors. The interior of the cottage is small and cluttered, with fishing nets hanging from the rafters and a faint smell of freshwater and fish. On the other side of the room, there is a small wooden table with two chairs, and a shelf filled with fishing tackle and other tools of the trade. On the walls, there are several old and faded nautical maps, depicting various waterways and the coastlines of different lands. A worn, yet comfortable, armchair sits in the corner next to a small fireplace, with a pile of logs stacked neatly next to it. The floor is made of rough-hewn wooden planks, worn smooth by years of use, with several colorful, braided rugs scattered about. In one corner, there is a small shelf where jars of preserved fish and vegetables are stored in dried form. On the walls, there are several mounted fish trophies of different sizes and colors, a testament to the owner’s skill in fishing. A small window on the far side of the room provides a view of the river outside. In the far corner a simple straw bed and a chest can be seen. There is a loose stone in the center of the chimney which hides a secret compartment holding: (1) Potion of Greater Healing, 305 cp, 76 ep, 55 gp and a piece
Let's take this apart piece by piece. First of all, outside of the split between boxed text and key, everything is in a single, big paragraph without breaks. Yes, this is what a lot of the older adventures did. No, it is not something you should imitate, because we are no longer trying to pack as much text as possible onto a page to minimize print costs (at least, not with this font size). 

A funky action shot reminiscent of the old Jeff Dee illustrations by... Jeff Dee. Holy shit, the actual guy worked on this. Good for him, get that bag as the kids say. 

Now you might be asking, 'Nick (have I ever mentioned my name on this blog? Might as well), you hack, how do you have the gall to correct other people's typos while accidentally bolding so much of the description and accidentally chopping off the end? Fie on you, I say!'

Fear not, gentle and most scrumptious reader, this is not my error. Cf p.22 of Village on the Borderlands, where you will see I replicated it perfectly. There is a massive block of bolded text that takes up a little over half of the key, and I truly have no idea what it's doing. There are other places in the module, such as at the start, where bolding is used in a sensible way, to highlight the names of people, places, and other items of interest. But here, and in many other places later on, it really is just a massive block, an eyesore that forces you to stop dead in your tracks while skimming, for no clear reason.

Nor, for that matter, did my finger slip while copying. The actual text at the bottom of p.22 ends with 'a piece' and the top of p.23 opens with a new key and boxed text. I suspect that someone was frustrated trying to get all the text from #35 to fit on the page and they just chopped the end off. Which would be horribly unprofessional, but seeing how cleanly it ends I have no better explanation. 

And of course, I shouldn't skip over the fact that this lengthy section of bolded keying, which screams out its importance to the skies, is used to describe the exact interior arrangement of the room! This isn't the only one like this, several of the keys do the same thing.  As bad as read-aloud often is, and the read-aloud in this adventure has real low points, the keying itself is often worse. 

Now, Taormino has previously criticized people for cherry-picking bad examples in his module, so I'll add just one two three more examples before I get back to critiquing the content rather than the formatting/presentation. 

Let's start with an excerpt from the key of #24. Bolding follows the original. 
If the PCs enter the small one-room masonry shop, the pungent smell of freshly cut stone fills the air. The room is cluttered with various tools, including chisels, hammers, and trowels. You notice a fireplace on one side of the room and a bedroll in the corner indicates that this space also serves as the mason’s living quarters. The walls are lined with various stone pieces, including bricks, slabs, and decorative carvings, and a large stonecutting table takes up most of the center of the room. In the corner of the room is a Sword +1, a Buckler +1 and behind one of the many brick piles is a small sack containing: 500 cp and a gem worth 25 gp. There is nothing else of value here.
Did you catch that? If you skipped over this one or skimmed it, go back and read it all, carefully. 

"You notice a fireplace..."

This is not read aloud. This is not in the bounds of the box. The key, out of nowhere, digresses from the standard third-person description into a second-person 'you notice', as if it was originally part of the read aloud. Frankly, if this was moved back into the read-aloud, I don't think I would have noticed anything amiss. Well, not more than usual. I really don't know how an error like this occurs and doesn't get caught in editing. 

Okay, maybe we need more examples. 

How about #5, the Mystic Camp. I won't reproduce this one in full or in part. Just go to the document, p.10, and read it yourself. 

It takes up a 1-and-a-quarter pages, of which the vast majority is read-aloud. Now, to give Taormino his due, he writes before the longest stretch of read aloud, in bold no less, that the GM should allow player interjection. Bravo! Three cheers for player agency!

Apologies, but I don't buy this. Writing a lengthy narration and giving the GM permission to deviate (as if they needed your permission) doesn't substitute for writing a usable, comprehensible key and supporting the GM's improvisation and reaction. That's just a cop-out. 

Okay, just one more example, #15 from the key to the Inn of the Whistling Pig. Please do me a favor and read this in its entirety. 
This is a 20 ft by 30 ft storage room packed to the brim with supplies. The walls are fixed with racks and cartons of different sizes, spilling over with covers, cloths, cooking wares, and different basics for the day to day activities. A stale smelling fragrance lingers palpably, with traces of moistness and the weak fragrance of flavors and spices. Heaps of kindling and coal are heaped in one corner, fit to be utilized in the different hearths all through the inn and tavern. Enormous sacks of grain and flour are stacked on top of each other, while barrels of beer and wine sit close by. The general environment is one of coordinated confusion, with all things where they ought to be, yet appearing to be marginally overpowering to the undeveloped eye. In spite of the messiness, Broom Helga and her staff appear to know precisely where everything is situated.
There is nothing of value here.
This is really, truly, the crème de la crème. You label and title a room, give it a lengthy read-aloud, and then the entirety of the key is 'There is nothing of value here.' This is like a post-modern critique of adventure keying. If Patrick Stuart had published this, I would say it was genius. 

But as it stands, I'm very sure this was not intentional. You have kindling, coal, grain, and flour, barrels of beer and wine. This takes place in a village where every house has hidden treasure for murderhobo PCs to find, so this clearly isn't some measure against players looting the inn. This is also a village which lists which villagers will sell you a half-pound of flour for 1 copper piece, yet somehow 'enormous sacks' of grain and flour are not items of value. Hell, extrapolating from DMG prices, it looks like a barrel of wine (just one!) might be plausibly valued at 1000ep (500gp). That's considerably better value for weight than the large stacks of copper spread throughout the adventure. 

And yet, because it's not coin, gems, or magic, it's not given a gp value. Because it's all in read-aloud, the GM doesn't have guidance on what the quantities are and will have difficulty referencing the description in play. So if you want to do something, anything, with the stockpile of goods here (such as, I don't know, sabotage them or steal them to give to the ogres, who have, you know, been raiding to steal supplies just like these), the format of the text and assumptions of the adventure will work directly against you. 

As the meme goes, 

Okay, deep breath. Let's discuss the actual content of the Hamlet. 

This is operating on the level of cliche, and I want to specify what I mean by that. Let's focus on the militia. This is explicitly a module about saving this village from various threats, so knowing what steps the villagers have already taken to defend themselves (and might take to defend themselves against the PCs if they start robbing the many thousands of gp in treasure in the basements of various houses) is relevant to the adventure. If you want these people to be sympathetic, to have the PCs want to help them, it's best to make them seem active, like they're struggling in the face of adversity and not just being passively victimized and in need to saving by outsiders. 

There is a militia. We know who is in the militia. We know who leads the militia. That's a good start. But our knowledge ends there. 

Does the militia patrol at night? During the day? Do they check in one everyone in town, or just one another? Excepting the few who have magical weapons, we have no indication of what arms and armor they have, whether they are in people's homes, or how long it takes to access them and get ready. Are they willing to risk their lives to protect the livestock and property the ogres are stealing? Do they worry that the raids will escalate to kidnapping? How do people who aren't members of the militia feel about it? How do militia members feel about non-members? How does anyone in this village feel that their leader, who also heads the militia, is a broken drunk who lost his paladin spellcasting (and, according to his statblock, all his levels) by joining the Order of the Sun?

Oh, wait, we do have an answer to that last question. Ahem. 
The locals are content with this arrangement, as it provides a stable and prosperous community in which they can live and work.
So to be clear, we have a stable and prosperous community with content villagers, where the villagers and the merchants support the rule of the militia leader, who is a broken drunk no better in combat than any of his subordinates and has failed to put a stop to raids by ogres and bandits stealing supplies and livestock, which nevertheless don't seem to have damaged the prosperity of the village in any material way. Maybe it's because he's the only non-bandit resident who actually owns a set of armor. 

Hopefully you can see what I mean now. There are a whole bunch of versions of the generic fantasy village in here, none of which are bad choices to use as the base, but instead of choosing one and developing it, or choosing a couple and finding interesting possibilities in the tension between them, they're just piled on top of one another without care. It's trying, at once, to be this nice cozy home base with nice neighbors who will tell you their pets' names, and also a remote village under threat from both bandits and horrible ogres which needs defending. It's under threat and needs saving, but there are nevertheless dozens of visitors every week and a huge, well-stocked inn that is more than capable of housing and feeding all of them. 

(And by 'huge' I mean the Inn of the Whistling Pig is mapped at a scale of 1 square to 10'—not that the scale is actually written on the map, you need to compare the room dimensions to the map—with a total square footage around 70,000. It's basically a mega-mansion. Forget 'biggest building in the hamlet', this is positively palatial. Also, the size of the Inn presented on its own map doesn't remotely match the size presented on the overall village map, which is supposed to be at a 1 square to 20' scale. I know this doesn't fit the flow of the argument, but I couldn't post without mentioning it.)

Some examples of what I mean by 'finding interesting possibilities in the tension': why do villagers allow a broken drunk to lead the militia? Maybe because he taught them all to fight! Maybe because, when he's not drunk, he still possesses a sound tactical mind. Maybe because, as last remaining knight of the former lord, he holds an unshakeable prestige and other villages/powers won't give Taldren any respect unless they have someone with that connection in charge. Maybe he isn't actually in charge at all, but the villagers let him believe he is because they feel bad for him and actually decide things on their own. 

Any one of these possibilities would add a neat complication that makes the world feel a bit more real, makes the characters seem like people and not cardboard cutouts, and gets the players thinking about the setting. Any of them could take the cliche and expand on it, give it texture, integrate it with other elements until the cliche melts away. 

But this does not occur. The author clearly has an impression that a militia is something that a village like this should have, that a former knight would be the kind of person to lead it, and so on, but none of this is detailed or actually integrated with the rest of the village or environment. The same goes for the Order of the Sun. 

RAGE RAGE RAGE RA- ahhh, soothing art.

This is a symptom of one of the remaining issues with the module more broadly, which is that it has a very strange relationship to detail. The detail of the village, and especially the NPCs, is a big selling point which gets repeated in comments and in positive reviews (but trust we will get back to those). 

Much of the detail is of the sort Joseph Manola calls 'the path of filler', details which don't actually tell you anything about the character. I cannot stress enough that the vast majority of these 100 NPCs have no detail other than eye color, hairstyle, and type of dress (usually 1 or 2 of these for each). Nor are these evocative which also double as indicators of character or roleplaying hints.
This is the home of Olaf and Winifred Masterson (AC: 10, MV: 120 ft (40 ft), HD: 1d4, HP: 4, #AT: 1, D: 1-2, AL: Neutral, Languages: Common, XP: 5) both human farmers. He is a weathered and hard-working man whose clothing consists of a sturdy shirt, trousers, and boots. His wild black hair and beard are unkempt. His wife Winifred has green eyes, hoop earrings and she wears clothing that is clean and tidy. They have six kids, (three boys and three girls)
Details like these are almost all we get (oh, and we get full stats in every key, despite almost all the NPCs being identically statted commoners). As a rule, more attention and care goes to describing the exact layout of their homes than who they are. Meanwhile, details about how people live, how they relate to one another, and how the current situation affects them, are scarce and haphazard. 

Here's my favorite example of the latter, from #23:
This is the workshop and residence of the local tailor, Margaret Tealeaf (AC: 10, MV: 120 ft (40 ft), HD: 1d4, HP: 4, #AT: 1, D: 1-2, AL: Neutral, Languages: Common, XP: 5). She is a female human middle-aged woman with a kind face and warm smile. Her black and gray hair is pulled back in a messy bun and there are pins and needles sticking out of it, and her eyes sparkle with intelligence and creativity. She can sew, fix (sic, my partner insists on the Oxford comma) or craft anything for the PCs that needs her services for a small price. Her husband was killed in a raid by bandits recently and now she lives here alone. Margaret is not in the militia but is a member of the Order of the Sun. She has a cat named Dukey sleeping on a straw bed.
After this, we go into a totally bolded description of the layout of her house. You'd think that someone whose spouse was murdered by bandits (RECENTLY! HE WAS MURDERED RECENTLY) would be taking some action as a result. Maybe joining the militia, or trying to reform it. Maybe she blames the militia's failures for her husband getting murdered. Maybe she's taking refuge in her faith, or in a crisis. Something. Anything! Some kind of relation to the other NPCs and the situation in the setting other than bare-bones faction membership and the name of her cat!

Overwhelmingly, the impression I get is very videogamey. NPCs are described in three ways: what they look like, what services they can provide to the PCs, and sometimes their mannerisms. With how prominent the NPCs are in the module's description, the interior home descriptions, and the occasional mention of what they will offer the PCs if they stay for tea, the module clearly expects the PCs to socialize with them, get to know them, become enamored with them. But this isn't actually supported. Beneath appearance, service (for most of them, nothing), and mannerism, there is barely a hint of character. On the off chance anyone actually tried getting to know, say, Trina the dwarf and her husband Boris, the task of bringing a character to life falls entirely on the GM. 

I want to clarify that the problem is not that these characters are cliche. While not good, especially in a published product, writing one-off characters as recognizable cliches is fine. They're quickly understood, digestible, and let the PCs quickly understand what they're about and how interactions are likely to go. 

The problem is that the vast majority of NPCs don't even rise to the level of cliche. The flirtatious farmgirl and her protective single father in house #4 get more personality than almost anyone else, and with that description you know everything they're about. In most cases, we don't even get this much. 

As a counter example, I would like to bring up Ptolus, which I used a few years back in my last 5e game. While I wouldn't call them stellar, there are many dozens of NPCs in that book. Here's one, Kaira Swanwing:
The best known knight is Kaira Swanwing. She is idealistic, generous, and kind. She harbors great ambition, but it is an ambition for her order, her religious faith, and the good of all people, not for herself. She is tall for a Shoal elf, and her hair is shimmering silver, as are her eyes. She keeps all her gear except her bracers and thoughtstone in her bag of holding, even her weapons.
See what I mean? Not breaking any new ground here, but I now have a basic idea of how to roleplay her. Through her faction allegiance (this faction actually gets some detail of its own) I can contextualize her and place her in a web of NPC relationships. I have a hint of some tension, some conflict, and how to integrate her into a campaign. That, in my opinion, is what makes for solid characters at the table. It doesn't matter if you spend many pages giving them a rich internal world, the players aren't going to see that: relationships with other NPCs, with the players and their goals, elevates a very simple description. 

Despite seeing little play at the table, I remembered Kaira Swanwing years later, because I knew her role in the campaign. I promise I will not remember *checks notes* Knute Aldermin within a few years. 

This is not good detail. These are not fleshed-out characters. This is a flood of inconsistent detail that could be generated off a random NPC trait table. If the price of making 100 named NPCs is that none of them are interesting, that is not a good deal. 

The descriptions of the Village make up the single largest part of the module, nearly 30 pages. I am confident this could be scaled down by a factor of 10 without losing the essence. The read-aloud and detail provided simply do not justify the length. Unless the adventure sites turn out to be amazing, this module fits firmly within Bryce's judgment. 

The Adventure Sites

I will not have very much to say beyond this point, since almost every problem I have with the adventure sites occurred in the Village first. Even so, I will comment on things that stood out to me as we go.

Hill Giant Cave

We now have a proper pace for random encounters, 1 in 6 every hour. Given the size of the dungeon, there is a good chance that a group, even one which is not especially efficient, would get through it all without any random encounters at all. 

Issues with the read-aloud grow. Previously, the read-aloud just described the overall look of a place, albeit at too much length, and things like the characters in a scene were in the key. But starting in room 1 of the first adventure site, the read-aloud is essential for understanding what is happening in a scene, it cannot be skipped. Namely, if you skip the read-aloud and try to run just from the key, there is a good chance it will trip you up and you will get confused about how many ogres there are. The text should not work against comprehension!

While I do like that you can recruit one of the ogres to your side, which can certainly help to make the following encounters easier, that doesn't change the fact that the read-aloud directly encourages railroading directly into combat in rooms 1, 8, and 12. Further, the order of keying is very odd: if you have to pass through room 13 to reach room 12, you should switch them around in the key. 

Bryce also had some complaints about the level of challenge, and I have to echo them. Involving creatures like ogres and hill giants at low levels needs to be done cautiously, with plenty of signposting and room for players to set the conditions of the conflict. And again, this isn't the only option for adventure, if payers willingly come to the hill giant lair without preparation and get stomped, that's partly on them. 

But maybe don't put this in front as the first adventure site, and don't railroad encounters into combat. In room 1, the read-aloud railroads them into a likely combat vs an ogre, room 8 railroads them into a combat with four ogres, and room 12 railroads them into a combat with a hill giant and 2-4 dire wolves (these are HD 3+3 dire wolves, to be precise). 

The adventure does list playtesters, but I'm a bit skeptical about that for a couple of reasons. In the absence of play reports, I'm inclined to think this section either wasn't playtested at the levels included, or featured a heavy dose of 'story' intervention to make it work. Second, the playtesters listed in the OSRIC version are the same ones listed in the preview of the 5e version, so I'm betting that, at best, only one of these version got any testing. Now, some people over on Rick Stump's discord suspected this was an ill-done 5e conversion to OSRIC, but I don't think that's the case: the preview for the 5e version shows the wilderness encounters, and those 2d6 ogres are still there, on average a CR 14 encounter. As bad as that is for a low-level OSRIC party, it might well be a harder stomp for a 5e party in the same range. While I can't quite figure out what happened here, it's not a good look either way. 

Not all of these are so bad. Sternholm Keep, for example, seems to fit the expected difficulty of 1st level adventuring much more closely, but even if you did everything else first and then came back for the giants, it still seems unlikely. 

Also, while I like the inclusion of secret doors, I feel they generally need some justification: if you're in a dungeon like Stonehell, find, put in all the secret doors you want, because it is already established to be a deathtrap maze created by a madman. But this is a natural cave system. How do these secret doors work? How do they open, how are they hidden? A cool answer to these questions can really elevate a room!

I should also point out the sheer length of the read-aloud. It takes up approximately half of the overall text for both the giant cave and Sternholm Keep. As before, it massively overstays its welcome, but this is something we have already addressed. 

Sternholm Keep

The introductory text for this section is a solid example of a missed opportunity. The backstory it describes is very basic, very rote, and just crying out for a little more detail, some verve, even a bit of purple prose.
Over the course of three short years he went mad, aged by 60 years and drove out the majority of the good people of his kingdom leaving him alone with just a few of his loyal soldiers who desperately tried to cure him but couldn’t. Over the course of several years he turned evil and hired master engineers from nearby lands to build traps all around the dungeon level in fear of his enemies trying to get him. Once all the traps were built around the dungeon level he swiftly killed all of them along with his remaining loyal supporters and soldiers except for one of his best knights, Sir Richard Dupre who realized the madness was not curable and escaped to tell the tale. Edmund sat in the throne room slowly going mad talking and arguing with himself then eventually dying alone right there still clutching the sword proudly in his right hand. 

Seriously? This is supposed to get me inspired, pumped, ready to run this adventure? No verve, no voice, no ambiance, just the most cookie-cutter description of 'paladin was corrupted and made a dungeon' imaginable. Taormino is an actor, I would have thought the presentation of this sort of thing is something he would at least put effort into. 

Forest of Fallen Oaks

This section concludes with a half-page-long read-aloud which dictates how the PCs find a creepy cemetery, go into the creepy cemetery, meet a ghost child, and then the read-aloud immediately breaks off with the GM rolling initiative as a 9HD shambling mound appears and attacks immediately. 

Once again, I very much doubt this was properly playtested. In all practicality, a scenario like this seems almost like a deliberate TPK, even assuming a level 3 party with all the magical gear found in the other adventure sites. 

Caverns of the Wicked Peaks

I'm gonna level with you, I completely gave up by this point. Didn't even read it. There's something about a drow wizard and his magic mushrooms. I do not expect it would be any different compared to the other sites. 


This brings us to the end of the Village on the Borderlands. As you can see, my opinion of the work steadily worsened after beginning. Halfway through the hamlet key, I continued reading only because I had decided I would write this blog post. After reading the Giant cave, I was completely checked out, and by the time I reached the Wicked Peaks I decided to skip it entirely. In the end, I was not able to meet Taormino's challenge of actually reading his 64-page module.

All these problems, not to mention that most of the people he challenged to read it dropped it entirely by page 10, are not, in Mark's words, 'laughable criticisms.' Though Bryce went into a lot less depth, I find that his impression of the module is generally accurate. 

Mark, if you're still reading, this might be the point to jump off. All the useful advice on how to improve is above. This is when I stop being constructive and start being rather unkind. 

All of the above is my opinion as a critic. How about my opinion as a consumer? 

The experience of reading this was not good. I anticipate the experience of using this at the table would also not be good. 

Even though this was free, I am still disappointed. Despite having access to this, I don't expect I will ever use it in play. Nor do I expect that I will ever run a scenario based on it, or referencing it. The time it would take to flesh this out and make it game-ready is considerable, and I see no benefit to using this as a base compared to homebrewing an idyllic border village from scratch. 

I will also note again, as we did at the top of this review, that the module does in fact credit a proofreader. Entirely aside from any faults of yours, Mark (if you're still reading), I hope you can accept that he did not do his job. 

There were a lot of complaints I left on the cutting room floor. A lot of typos. I tried to leave aside things like the sense of humor which I disliked, but which other people might have enjoyed. A lot of elements that seemed to be there for the players and not because it makes sense. I barely even mentioned the absurd treasure in the village itself, like how a 'poor laborer' has enough cash on hand to buy evrything on the inn's menu every day for the rest of his life and still have a mountain of gold, yet despite that still works, and he has a ring of telekinesis which he refuses to use to make his work easier. The biggest business in this town is probably money-changing. And why does a random villager have a scroll of protection vs petrification? 

What I criticized here, especially what I harped on at length, are those things which I believe to be straightforward errors and failures in design. That does not mean that everyone agrees, for example, that lengthy boxed text should be shortened or that railroading is bad. Clearly, there are people with considerable tolerance for both, which I do not share. Rather I believe that campaigns which don't have those errors, even if the players/GM don't have such high standards normally, are better than those that do. 

Hopefully, everyone agrees that typos are bad and worth fixing. I will note again, as we did at the top of this review, that the module does in fact credit a proofreader. Entirely aside from any faults of yours, Mark, I hope you can accept that he did not do his job. In the future, I hope you hold anyone you hire as an editor or proofreader to a higher standard. 

Clearly, not everyone agrees that lengthy boxed text is bad. I can give the standard reasons: it's less flexible, time-consuming to prepare and even more so to refine, and the experience of reading someone else's text doesn't prepare the GM to run an encounter as well as a proper key that they can grok and describe in their own words. 

The failures of the boxed text in this particular adventure deserve to be highlighted again: the extreme length of many boxed texts leads players to check out, it risks bypassing points where the players would like to act and instead forces them to be passive, makes decisions for them in both the actions and feelings of their characters, and in several places leads directly into risky combats which players would likely not want to prosecute if they could choose and negates mechanics like reaction rolls and surprise which give players the chance to choose their battles. 

And although I didn't discuss it above, the fact that this module gives very little attention to the possibilities that might arise from reaction rolls (neither these nor morale rolls are ever mentioned, though initiative and occasionally surprise are) communicates that this module is geared primarily towards combat and away from more varied interactions with potentially hostile encounters. With the full recognition that many people are fine with this kind of play, I am still going to insist that the latter kind is straightforwardly better. 

I also criticized this module a lot for what I consider to be a lack of care and imagination in actually constructing the setting and the scenarios within it. I am confident that these criticisms are valid, for all the reasons I have given above, and that they are relevant. Even if you're just going for beer-and-pretzels kick-the-door-down play, a world which is more carefully considered and makes sense improves the player experience. I am confident that this element of the module could have been substantially improved with just a couple of editing passes without having to dramatically change any of the scenarios. The same goes for the prose, which I find to be bland, but which could be greatly improved with relatively little effort. 

And of course, there is the art and cartography. Aside from the fact that the maps don't have scales on them, I have no criticisms there, and it's clear from other reviews that the quality of visuals is something fans loved and which elevated the module. 

However, I believe that visuals are not where the value of a module like this lies, and they should not be a major consideration in reviews. If your module can be turned into a minimally-formatted plain text document with maps drawn on graph paper and still be read and run enjoyably, you have a good module. If the module relies on its visuals to carry it, it is a bad module, period. 

And I can't let go of the element of nostalgia. I am a youngster who has been in the hobby for less than a decade, and have been properly running old school games for just about five years now. The yellow stripe does nothing for me. I recognize allusions to B2 and T1 and N1, but they don't make my heart flutter. The days before the old school was the old school are something I study from a distance, not something I look back on with any emotion at all, because I wasn't even born.

It's clear to me that this module is enjoyed primarily on the grounds of nice visuals and nostalgia. The commenters under Bryce's review stress the nice map, the art, the similarity to T1 and B2 and N1, instead of actually arguing that the issues raised in the review are not problematic.

In fact, I want to talk more about the critical reaction to the module, specifically from places that weren't tenfootpole. It might be easy to think that Taormino is an exception, and that his fans are just in ti for the nostalgia and art. But I want to stress that, to all appearances, some people are under the impression that this is actually a quality product. Here are some quotes from a positive review:
‘Not only has he done a wonderful job of tapping into the nostalgia and love for old school modules such as Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands, but is offering a unique adventure module in its own right that is not only packed with fun adventures but is surprisingly charming, with the warmth and care given to the NPCs of Taldren and the vibrant community that exists there.’ 
The example used to support this is the engagement on the random village events table. That was one I judged as merely 'least bad' and there are no further instances of what I would call a 'vibrant community' here. 
‘For those of you familiar with the classic module Village of Hommlet, the village map shown here and the map entries that follow have the look of that classic module.’ 
 Once again, the old-school 'look' without the creativity, good design, or care that made those old-school offerings worthwhile in the first place. Pure imitation, a cargo cult. 
‘In a module this complex...’ 
No. This module is not remotely complex, it is just extraneous detail piled high without interaction or integration. 
‘There is plenty of boxed text… for those new to DMing they will find such guidance helpful.’ 
No. This will actively teach them wrong. 
‘The descriptions here are pretty funny and Mark Taormino’s twisted sense of humor is on full display.’

 I beg to differ in calling it 'twisted'. More 'annoying' than anything else. 

‘Several classic-style encounters and traps’ 
I suppose this is why other parts of the TTRPG community think the OSR blindly worships the mediocrity of the past. 
‘Mark’s descriptions are frequently quite allurative (sic) and evocative’ 
Hard disagree. There is nothing evocative in 64 pages, and the prose is dull, not alluring. C.A. Smith this is not. 
‘There are also a ton of unique and fun ideas here. This 64-page module is packed with them, in fact.’
I suppose this is a subjective opinion, but I must express my complete (and hopefully, based on the review above) well-evidenced disagreement. I can see very little that is either unique or fun here, let alone both. 
‘Each of the four adventure locations offers unique gameplay…’ 
It is true: in some locations, you travel from room to room and get into railroaded combats, and inotehrs you travel between overland areas and get into railroaded combats. 
‘Certainly one of the more charming fantasy villages currently available’ 
No. Just no. There is no shortage of generic fantasy starting villages available, never mind that making your own is easy. This is not what I would call charming, nor anything of quality.

(I should also note, I found another video review that was a bit more mixed and claimed that issues like the prose were present in past Dark Wizard products, and that VotB was an improvement. I shudder to think how those other products must have read.)

This is why I give acerbic reviewers like Bryce and Prince credibility. Because I know they are actually capable of giving bad reviews when deserved, even if they don’t always hit. Reviewers like this, in contrast, display such low standards that I stand aghast at what they might fail to recommend. When this reviewer says that Village on the Borderlands ‘Certainly earns its spot to be among the better offerings available to us’ I feel like I’m being gaslit. 

My question to fans of Village on the Borderlands which have made it this far: are there modules you have bought/played which you recognize as being distinctly worse than this one? Is it the case that, in comparison to other products, it is genuinely superior?

Finally, I can't finish without addressing Mark's actual behavior in the comments to the original review. He came in with immense confidence, assuming Bryce just hadn't paid attention or hated it for no reason, and challenged people to read it and form their own opinions about it. I respect that. I also respect that he was mostly civil and, when issues like typos were pointed out, he acknowledged them and has stated he is working to fix them in a rerelease. All that is good. 

At the same time, this is someone who, in response to criticism, doubled down and demanded  his critics go through section by section and accused them of cherry-picking. Having gone though it myself, I can say with confidence they were not. This is someone who tried to respond by talking about how much money he made off of this product. This is someone who decried the review as invalid because Bryce skimmed it, as if this were a text which needed to be closely read in order to be understood. It is not. 

Based on his comments, Mark is still holding on to the idea that his product is good, that it is of sound quality, and in need only of polish around grammar and stats. To the contrary, it is fundamentally flawed, based on a poor relationship to detail and a lack of care in constructing the scenario. As if railroading is a measly thing and not a substantial issue, one which is bound to teach bad habits to any new GMs who have been recommended this as an introductory module by reviews like the one above. As if the prose is strong and vibrant, when it is weak and dull. 

This is a product where all the effort went into the wrong places if one wanted to create a strong module, one which would inspire, teach, provide a great deal of enjoyment. The text itself (and based on the preview alone, the conversion to 5e) did not get the attention it needed. Instead, effort went into the art and cartography, which though generally good was clearly meant to imitate the old school and leverage nostalgia as a selling point. I really don't have any respect for that. Maybe it was necessary to sell enough copies. The third-party RPG publishing space is flooded with products, the vast majority terrible shovelware which nevertheless sells, often on account of its art and maps (my previous discussions of MonkeyDM's work make this clear, 1, 2). I don't envy anyone trying to make money in this industry, which is why I remain an opinionated hobbyist. But... let me put it this way. 

When you're stuck in traffic, you don't notice how you are part of traffic. When you degrade the core of a module and focus on appearances in order to sell in a sea of shovelware, you are not fighting against the flood, you are contributing to it. 

Let's take one last example for contrast. Bryce seems to have picked up the $15 PDF via Drivethru, but Taormino's website sells a softcover+PDF copy for $40. 

By a very unfortunate coincidence, $40 is also the price, at present, of the hardcover+PDF of Castle Xyntillan. The module I shill for endlessly. Not only does it come in at over twice the total length of VotB, the contents of those pages are dense and of high quality, containing one of the best megadungeons this side of 1999, which provided me with nine months of extremely enjoyable DMing and taught me a great deal about good design. Unlike VoTB, Castle Xyntillan doesn't lean on nostalgia. Hell, the section on the mountain town of Tours-en-Savoy alone, coming in at just three pages, is a much better starting town than Taldren, with NPCs that actually have some character to them.

Not only was it playtested thoroughly with writeups of those playtests online, but people trying to gauge whether the product is good can look at play reports like, well, mine, and get a sense of how it plays. Has anyone played VotB? Has anyone had a good time with it? I can find plenty of pieces online about the kickstarter, but very little about playing the module itself. 

This may be perceived as an unfair comparison. There's a difference in cost of living between LA and Hungary, for certain, and that's going to impact prices. But that doesn't matter from the customer's perspective. 

It may also be said that I am unfair in comparing this to one of the best modules of its type published in recent memory. I would disagree. Lackadaisical reviews and critiques that can't bring themselves to properly denounce something bad have no credibility when it comes to praising things. If this stuff slides by unchallenged, we give up on improvement. 

Bluntly, I have spent more than ten-thousand words discussing this module, and virtually all of it has been about its failures. I do note hate for the sake of hate. I don't get my rocks off giving bad reviews. I was challenged to read this work and develop my own opinions about it, and have written them out as requested. If this module were not exactly as bad as Bryce said it was, I would not have been able to go on at such length. 

Final verdict: Village on the Borderlands demonstrates how a careless and shoddy imitation of the old greats can pass under the noses of many, with even the author fooled. Through its example, we are instructed to do better. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

House of Pestilence Playtest 2 Session 2: The Daemon You Know

In the last session, five mighty masters of the universe met in the drow citadel of Erelhei-Cinlu, traversed the underworld, and finally arrived at the threshold of the House of Pestilence, an exiled drow house turned to the worship of the daemon lord Anthraxus. They came into conflict with the House's guard dog, a wicked mage named Eastler and his umber hulks, and forced his surrender. The party seeks immortality, and it lies within the deepest recess of the House. Will they be able to make their way inside and find their quarry, or will they be forced to fight? Join them to find out...

The Party

Stribor, the Devil of Bukosevač, human bard 11 played by Cao Linh
    Helefres, Magician of the Far Shore, human mage 11
    Tork, the Tower and Key, ratling thief 12
Shirin the Wastrel Empress, human mage 12 played by Finn
    Sisiphre, Who Has Tempted Death, elven mage/thief 10/11
    Skour, Night's Justice, human assassin 11
Haught Taupik the Blood Sword Emperor, elven fighter/mage 7/11 played by Ali
    Aodhan the Reborn, human druid 12
    Soo Meri, Elder of the Moonstone Sect, human monk 10

Probably everyone


Purchased from the auction:
    Purple ioun stone (5000gp bought for 13000)
    Silver Serpent Armor (10000gp, brought for 14000)

Taken from the Umil-Da vault:
    Ring of protection +6
    22kgp in gems
    18k in platinum bars

The Game

On the second day...
  • Where last we left off, the party had arrived at the doorstep of House Umil-Da, fought its outer guardians, and reached a truce with the wicked wizard Eastler. In exchange for his advice in gaining the compound, they helped him fake his death and escape servitude, with both Celine and Liu Feng joining him in getting the hell out of dodge. 
  • Following Eastler's directions, the remaining party pressed forward through the winding tunnels and reached an ornate steel door bearing the image of a welcoming goat-headed daemon. They announced their presence, and the party's roguish members felt a prickling on the backs of their necks: they were being scried.
You again!
  • Pale mist filled the tunnel, and out of it stepped a fiery infernal steed bearing a rider clad in mail and bearing a wicked black lance. The party called to parley, and (primarily thanks to Stribor) managed to convince the drow warrior that they had been extorted by Eastler and fought back, but had no hostile intent against the House of Pestilence. By carefully avoiding (most) direct falsehoods, they secured safe passage within. 
  • Beyond the doors lay a great and high cavern lit by a globe of glowing ore hanging from its zenith, with great exotic gardens of violet grass and a high-walled fortress bathed in the perfume of night-blooming flowers. The party remained at the entrance for some time, gave the guards their expected 'gift' and took up the glowing-green cloaks of foreigners and their visitor passes. Soon, a drow servant named Malrux came to welcome and guide them. She pointed out the House's many delightful and gory features, and conducted them into the fortress proper. 
  • After leaving behind their riding lizards, the party came to a great marble altar of Anthraxus, before which guards, bugbears, and slaves alike prostrated. It became clear that the entire cavern was bathed in a foul aura which interfered with non-evil priests. The party did likewise, and were permitted to pass further inside. At the visitors quarters, they ran into one of Shirin's old rivals, the archmage Neroë and his two apprentices, Orbix and Snake-eye
  • After lobbing insults back and forth at one another, the mages depart for the bazaar, while the party accepts Malrux's hospitality and visits the menagerie: a great hemispherical pit in the ground riddled with caged exotic beasts, from albino lions to chimera, velociraptors and intelligent apes, even a colossal purple worm and a crippled hollyphant. 
  • They elected to visit the bazaar next, boiling over with all the most exotic merchandise purloined from realms infernal and supernal, but most intriguing was the auction house. Within, they found Neroë's apprentices, a pair of mind flayers, and a huge, drunk demon, all bidding on items presented by a night hag. The party outbid the mages for both a purple ioun stone prized by Shirin and a magical bracelet which could expand to cover the wearer's body in plate mail. They manipulated the mages into overbidding for a gem of true seeing, and afterwards spotted the apprentices worse for wear, likely paying the difference with magic items of their own, and noted that the mind flayers had certainly also been bidding up prices in exchange for a cut. 
The ultimate fashion accessory
  • After the auction went on hiatus, the party sent their sneakier hirelings to follow the other guests. Tork and Soo Meri followed the mid flayers to the gate of the compound's inner palace, where a high-ranking male drow with an acid-scarred face allowed the illithids entry. Sisiphre and Skour, meanwhile, followed the apprentices, though they split up on the way back to their quarters. Sisiphre followed Orbix to the drow servant quarters, where he was greeted by a pair of servant women. She was prepared to stop following when she heard a scream cut short, and sneaking invisibly into the quarters, spied the unconscious mage having a foot-long black centipede inserted up his nose: thereafter, the drow woke him up and told him in no uncertain terms that if he disobeyed the matriarch's commands, the centipede would melt his brain from the inside. 
  • After reporting back to the party, Shirin and Haught Taupik met Orbix on the path back to the visitor's quarters, and further blackmailed him into helping them get access to the inner palace. 

On the third day...
  • After recuperating somewhat, the party awoke early to view a sacrifice and celebration conducted by Thirza, the matriarch's eldest daughter and heir. They gained some insight into the feuding factions and royal family: the younger daughter Xalyth, a powerful warrior spurned for her inability to call upon infernal powers, the elder son Crovad, a great hunter who was evidently half drow and half something from the pit, and the matriarch's reclusive consort, the mage Iuzekar
  • After the gory sacrificial ceremony, the party was unexpectedly approached by Thirza herself, who engaged Stribor to come to a party in the palace and entertain the court with some songs. They enthusiastically agreed. 
  • After wandering around the gardens and visiting the bazaar again, 'evening' led them to the celebrations in the outlying manor of Knight-Commander Schezalle, the matriarch's second in command. After some verbal sparring, Stribor entertained the partygoers with two new songs of his own composition: 'The Devil Came Down to Umil-Da' and 'Hedge-Maze Improvisations.' Between Stribor's great skill and the magic of his golden fiddle, he was able to charm many of the guests including, by incredible luck, Knight-Commander Schezalle and Xalyth. Schezalle even offered him a pick from her curiosity cabinet: he picked a black dog statuette, which he found was a figurine of power.
Wrong one!

Stribor: Every devil needs his hound.
Shirin: That's not a saying. 
Stribor: It is if I make it one. 
  • As the party wound down, Haught-Taupik wound up n conversation with Xalyth and, remarking on their shared love of violence and greatswords, as well as their mutual frustration with cowardly scheming, enjoined a duel on the Umil-Da training grounds for the edification of the young drow soldiers. 
  • In the course of that duel, both opponents got a critical hit on their first attack, with Xalyth narrowly resisting the Bloodsword's lifestealing curse, and Haught-Taupik suffering under Xalyth's experienced feints. They called the duel after the first round, with HT and 5 hit points and Xalyth at 1(!). Both refused healing by the matriarch's handmaiden, and Haught Taupik snuck off to the bazaar to chug (suddenly overpriced) healing potions. 
  • At the same time, Shirin is secretly approached by Iuzekar, who asks to buy the purple ioun stone off of her in exchange for various treasures, including a selection from his research library. Though tempted and cautious of refusing a drow noble, Shirin finally declines.

On the fourth day...

  • The party fields invitations by both Thirza (inviting Stribor and Shirin) and Xalyth (inviting Haught Taupik) into the palace proper for private meetings. Thirza gives her guests the run of the place, taking them up to the little-trafficked second floor, where waits a tiny, cramped shrine. Stribor and Shirin stepped in at her urging, and her soon covered in crawling and flying pests of every kind. Then a flea crawled into their ears, and spoke directly into their eardrums with the tiny voice of a daemon lord: Anthraxus himself, offering the two of them power in exchange for serving him in mind, body, and soul. 
Most certainly a bad enough dude
  • At the same time, Haught Taupik was invited into Xalyth's private chambers, containing only basic amenities and a weapon and armor rack. But then the drow unveiled a hidden niche, filled with documents and plans, all plotting the assassination of Thirza. Xalyth offered Haught Taupik payment and great favor in exchange for helping her carry out this plan. 
  • When the two groups reconvened on the second floor, something had changed. Shirin had exited the shrine without any changes, but Stribor was... greater than he once was. At the same time, Thirza was bowing to him and accepting his orders. It turned out that, as part of converting to Anthraxus' servitude, Stribor had been offered power, wealth, and a boon of his choice. For that boon, he asked Anthraxus to give him authority over Thirza. Seeing the difference in power between these two servants, the daemon lord agreed. 
  • At the same time, Haught Taupik had accepted Xalyth's deal and the two were now acting in concert... only to find the situation had suddenly changed. 
  • Thirza summoned the matriarch, who looked at the bard that had taken away her heir with contempt, but with Anthraxus' order opened up the fortress' vault. Stribor took away a great deal of wealth and magic items, and had Thirza guide the group up to the (formerly) forbidden third floor. 
  • Thirza guided them past the many security mechanisms: a space-warping pillar guarded by a twelve-headed hydra, a demiplane of rot and pestilence, an illusory village guarded by dancing daemons, and then a hidden stairway descending for miles and opening into the peak of a ziggurat in a colorless world choked with thick, gray muck. 
  • At the center of the ziggurat was an egg-like stone, and sitting upon the stone was a scrawny, hairless man with a midnight-blue body and a massively oversized goat head: the Seed of Pestilence, the divine shard of Anthraxus taken sentience and form. As the party prepared to fight, they found that Stribor and Thirza did not join them: having vowed to serve Anthraxus in mind, body, and soul, he had brought the party here to feed the Seed. 
  • That was when Stribor got a nasty surprise: the Seed offered the other intruders a chance to join it, help it break out of this demiplane, and become its high priests once it attained its full power independent of its progenitor. 
  • And... that was when the session ended. Had we continued further, a showdown between Shirin, Haught Taupik, Xalyth, and the Seed vs Stribor and Thirza would have broken out. I expect that Stribor and Thirza would have lost, but the remaining party would probably still try to kill the Seed, and would likely lose. I'll never know for sure what would have happened, but the upcoming session will be a parallel-universe boss fight with the whole party to calibrate the difficulty/practicality of this encounter. 


With that, the main playtest of the House of Pestilence winds down, with another session to test out the final boss to come. Once again, I'm somewhat struck by how quickly it was possible to get to the end (though given how I expect the fight would go, it likely would not have been a victorious ending). Taking command of Thirza was an outcome I did not expect at all, but made sense in context; in fact, it worked even better than the players expected, since she is one of only three characters with the means to safely traverse the demiplane. 

One of my goals with House of Pestilence was to create an adventure location that, in addition to being a high-level one-shot (which is what these sessions tested), could also be integrated into a campaign world. Obviously, it's easiest to work it into the D3 underworld, the locations even have hex coordinates meant for that map, but you could also plop this down in the Forgotten Realms or any homebrew world that already has the drow in it. 

Despite being designed as a high level adventure, I think it also functions as a much lower level encounter if we assume different PC objectives. Evil characters in particular can interact with it as a refuge, as a source of great wealth and magic, or as scheming sometimes-allies. It can exercise influence upon an underworld campaign well before the players are powerful enough to defy it directly. 

To that end, the fact that playtesters didn't see much of the content and did sequence-breaking is not a downside. It tells me that the open-ended design is working and players were able to make plans within its structure. 

I am somewhat concerned about the very light loot the playtest groups recovered. Group 1 got almost nothing at all, and group 2 acquired what they did through (mostly) above-board means. Rest assured, there's a great deal of treasure in this module, but most of it is either concealed or out of the way. Groups like these, which were laser-focused on completing their respective objectives and on not offending their drow hosts, didn't go out of their way to find treasure. 

On reflection, I don't think this is much of a problem. The major prize at the end (as of the playtest 2 revision) is much bigger than almost any amount of xp if the GM actually runs with it, and has the potential to completely change the campaign. You know, I should probably add a warning about that up front. However, the fact that group 2 didn't pick up treasure on their way over meant that they couldn't buy very much at the bazaar or auction. Once again, I don't think this is much of a problem, at that point it's on them. Players who want treasure can definitely find treasure here.

The one thing I wanted to tets but didn't was the degenerative curse in the demiplane. The characters bypassed it thanks to Thirza, but as a result they didn't even know it was there. The version of this curse I wrote in the original submission was, on reflection, pretty much unusable, and I was hoping to figure out just how bad the revised version was, but no dice. 

Another possible weakness of the playtest was that I wasn't really using the document as a regular GM would at the table: with so many revisions, I've got the damn thing nearly memorized, and outside of the actual monster stats was able to mostly run from memory with the text as a prompt. A regular GM is going to be reading from the page and trying to construct an understanding of it mostly in the moment, and I wrote the text with that in mind, but this form of playtesting doesn't effectively test that. In particular, there were places where I knew the situation, but wanted to refer back to the exact phrasing I wrote down, and couldn't easily find it in my own text. Those parts have to be fixed in the last revision. Testing your own stuff is essential, getting someone else to test it goes the extra mile. In the future, I would like to go the extra mile. 


Thank you all for reading and coming on this journey with me! I'll be writing up a much shorter post about the final test combat we did a while back (this post has been heavily delayed, but I've now come into some free time) and within a couple of weeks we will be right back to our adventures in Cascabel! Until then, have an excellent week!