Wednesday, March 3, 2021

5e Adventure Review: Ship of the Damned

You know what this blog doesn't do? Reviews!

And fair enough that I don't write reviews. I have no taste! I've run, what, one reasonably long campaign, a few short, aborted campaigns, and some one-shots? And I've hardly read any modules or published adventures at all! Really, who would take my recommendations on this front seriously?

The realization struck me as I was halfway through writing this review that in such scenarios, recommendations and the qualifications to provide them are moot. The subject under discussion today is plainly of poor quality. Nobody would purchase it on my say-so. No, what the blog-reading audience wants is blood. The grasping, thirsting audience may only be sated by my ripping into a work and finding new, verbose ways to trash it. How else could Bryce maintain such a readership when the bulk of his reviews are of poor products? 

That must be it. He and I are of the blood, love and rhetoric school. We can praise a work by contrasting it to worse works it outshines, and we can muster up terrific rhetoric in the process of destroying others, and we can do all three, together or in sequence. But we can never do without the blood.

Ship of the Damned
By MonkeyDM
Art by Limithron
6th level
A horrific terror on the high seas has been ravaging ports and settlements, leaving few survivors to tell the tale. Now its up to you to hunt down and take out Captain Catacomb, the feared Pirate Vampire behind it all.
This 11-page adventure bills itself as a Halloween one-shot, and describes the cursed ship of a vampire pirate, with a handful of combats and traps. I received it as a gift from one of my players, and figured that trying to ape Bryce's schtick would be a valuable exercise in blogging. 

Note that this is a Roll20 adventure. As in, I have to go into Roll20, start a new game, add it in, and then I can actually read the damn thing. Now, it is available as a free PDF (listed as "Free Vampirate Adventure") although you have to track it down on Reddit. But even that's not the whole story, as the free PDF is missing sections C and D! I shall limit myself (mostly) to commenting on and quoting from what is freely available. 

Underlines are mine, bold are in the original adventure. 

Where do we start? With a single, unevocative hook which mentions neither reward nor motivation! Of course! This wouldn't be a 5e adventure without that!

Okay, okay, but that's standard. What is there that might be unusual?

For one, several typographical errors on the first page (which as I read ahead, do not abate), and the insistence on listing multiple monsters with their singular name. Sometimes skills within parentheses are capitalized (as they should be, below) but usually aren't, and parenthetical asides are capitalized when they shouldn't be. Text that should be in quotes is presented plainly. The author visibly screws up the markup at one point. 

Some of this is fixed in the Roll20 version, but hardly all of it. If I looked at both side by side, might I notice unique errors in each?

I know that must sound intensely petty, but my stint as a copyeditor for my school paper trained me to see this shit, and ingrained in me good habits. In the process of trying to make my own adventure, I strove to remove every extraneous word. It taught me how hard adventure writing really is. And then … this. 
A successful DC 15 Wisdom (Perception) check will reveal to the players that, half-translucent below then(sic) (In area B.1) are 3 ghostly pirate(sic), which seem oblivious to their presence if they didn't trigger the trap in area A.3.
Well, are they oblivious or not? There's a lot of seeming in this adventure, objects which seem to stare at you, rooms in which only death and decay seem to exist. Just as often, skill checks reveal things. It seems (aha! There it is!) to be a writing tic. 

There's off-putting parenthetical intrusions into the text, such as insisting that the poop deck is the historically accurate name, and offhandedly saying a lizardman NPC is cute. I haven't seen anything like it before (again, not much said there) and I don't like it, but could be passed off as an element of authorial voice, and I can conceive of a reader who would think, "Why yes, that lizardman is cute!" It's just not me. 

Here's some of the read-aloud.
"As you look around, the world seems to have fallen to silence, not a single soul is seen around you, the deck is completely empty. You see ropes, barrels, ladders and sails, but no one to man them. When you listen, only the murmur of the waves and the wind can be heard. Behind you is what you reckon to be the helm and captain's cabin, in front of you the bow of the deck but the way there seems covered by a thick green fog."
Not the longest I've ever seen by far, but it's befuddling. Doubt is inserted into what should be plainly visible features of the environment. More galling, it's a bad habit of narration I'm guilty of, and which I deliberately tried to cut down on in CX. Yet here it is enshrined in the read-aloud
If the players climb up there, the bat-dragon figurehead will look at them during their climb up. Once up there, one could swear that it winks.
What do you mean "if?" The players are already climbing or else I wouldn't be referencing that section of the text. Again, more seeming. It feels as though the author is embarrassed at including weird elements and tries to distance themselves, as though, when the party is assaulting the ghost ship of a vampirate captain, I want to leave them in any suspense about whether the masthead is animate. Of course it is! Why cheapen the moment with qualifications?
After the battle, as the chaos clears, the players find a small book, laying on the desk it's written in Common with really poor grammar.
A wonderful addition to the literary genre of "phrases which describe the work itself." And what boldness with which the frame after combat is forcefully shifted to exposition (pointless, natch)!
In the closet, fancy noble clothes can be found, as well as a more relaxed bed robe with little cute skulls embroidered on it, on the etiquette on the back is written To Captain Catacomb, from Mama, with love. 
In the latrines, well you'll find what you normally find in latrines, feel free to lengthen or shorten your description with that information.
That's a keyed room! No, actually, that's two keyed rooms on the map, listed under a single entry. Why separate them out? Why not merge them into the larger room they're a part of? More to the point, why is the Captain's Cabin split across multiple keys, some of which aren't separated by doors, while two subrooms, which are separated by doors, are crammed together while having separate keys? 

Why are the little skulls described as "cute" when that should be a conclusion the players come to, rather than being prescribed by the GM text? Why does that description violate the ordering of adjectives, a grammatical rule which every English speaker learns subconsciously? It's [quality] [size] [noun], not [size] [quality] [noun]. 

And why the latrine description? I'm not asking why about any aspect of it, or why it does something, but why of the thing itself. Is this a sick joke? It's self-consciously pointless text used to describe a latrine. Is this an Infinite Jest-esque prank at my expense? Will MonkeyDM's perverted genius become clear only with repeated readings?

Is this an ESL author? I suppose that would explain some of the errors, but hardly all of them, and it would double my recommendation to get a damn editor. At least get a native speaker to look it over. People will copyedit for free! Hell, I will copyedit for free. I've done it before. I'll make a pledge. If you read this post and contact me, whether via comment or Discord, to copyedit your work, I'll take you up, so long as it's not too long. 

[At this point in the writing process I took a chill pill and returned to the topic at hand]

In fact, there seems to be a deliberate effort to inflate the number of keyed rooms. When I first counted up the rooms by my typical method (skip to the end of each section, take the last room number and add them all together) I was quite impressed by the ratio of rooms to pages. Not so. 

Rooms B10-B20 are all under the same key! A central room and ten bedrooms adjacent, eight of which are occupied by sleeping monsters. There's nothing unique about any of them, no indication which monsters inhabit which, just numbers on a map!

Bryce has described similar phenomena in the past, but I didn't fully understand his meaning. The keying process is nigh-vestigial in places! The rooms have numbers, but in many cases the transitions between them aren't clearly demarcated, or there is no reason to key them separately! It's the structure of a keyed dungeon, applied blindly and purposelessly!
E.1. Dungeon
This are(sic) contains 1d4 commoners in various states on health. They are all suffer from 3 or 4 levels of exhaustion. Their cells can be unlocked with a DC 15 Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check, or using the key that Captain Catacomb has.
Thee or four levels of exhaustion? Could the author not make up his mind? Unless the commoners are getting into combat, there isn't a meaningful difference, so just pick one! The key that Captain Catacomb has? Why not "Captain Catacomb's key?" It's even alliterative! Does the 5e crowd simply lack the instinct to cut down on unnecessary words?

Only the vaguest possible attempt to describe the prisoners' state, and no effort at all in describing the dungeon of a vampire pirate. Are you shitting me? Of all the times to add exactly no flavor, you choose now?

Oh, and it just gets better, here's the read-aloud in the next room.
A literal sea of bones has formed from the countless corpses that Catacomb has desecrated over the years. This area is constituted of bloody femurs, broken skulls, shattered spines and more. Enough to constitute an anatomical course. On top of the massive pile of Bones stands Captain Catacomb, and next to him a large, bone white Umbral Skullbearer.
It goes on for another paragraph after that, initiating the final combat without so much as a villain monologue. Also, the captain's pet monster is described as an Umbral Skullbearer here, but as a Gleaming Skullbearer everywhere else, and Reddit assures me those are two monsters which fight very differently. 

A literal sea of bones? You know what, if there had been even a token environmental effect from fighting atop a pile of bones, I would accept that wholeheartedly. But no. Not even difficult terrain!

It just keeps going! The key cross-references to itself! The room text instructs the GM to congratulate the players for stopping the vile experiments of Ghostbeard. Ghostbeard! A name which appears nowhere else in the adventure, which I can only guess is another name for the vampire captain that got missed in editing. And the portrait of the vampire captain shows him clean-shaven!

The treasure? 2300gp, a rare magic item and a very rare magic item. Not only no flavor, but not even any particular items!

The ship's curse prevents characters from taking long rests, though the GM may "wave(sic) this restriction" if they wish. Is there any penalty for spamming short rests? Nope! There are no wanderers, or any indication that the monsters leave their respective closets. The captain just waits at the bottom of the ship, not doing anything in particular, and attacks immediately. There are no opportunities for negotiation (except for a trivial instance with some hags in the paid version). Imagine leading a mutiny of the undead crew against the captain that holds their souls captive. That would be cool! But no, you just go from room to room, slaying whatever is within until you reach the boss. 

Was this adventure playtested at all? There are no playtesters credited, but they usually aren't so that tells me nothing. Personally, I doubt it. If the author didn't even get a second pair of eyes to fix the spelling and grammar, I don't think anyone ran through this. 

Is there anything it does well? It makes use of inline statblocks (given this is 5e, they take up between a quarter and a half of the page, but still). It bolds skill checks, which makes it easier to skim. WOTC's own Rime of the Frostmaiden doesn't do that. 

And the art is … well, here it's nothing to write home about, but the artist's other work is filled with naval and island maps I quite like, and may use. 

Most of the adventure is available for free, so I guess that counts as a preview? Roll20 doesn't have that though. Actually, I don't think Roll20 has any kind of rating system. Yet this author's work is prominently displayed on the front page of the marketplace! Why? A cursory glance at the author's other work shows it to be of the same quality. 

Is this why Bryce is so cynical? If I keep down this path, will I too become cranky and turn off spellcheck on my blog?

You can read the free version here

Should I give this a rating? Given my general lack of perspective, I don't think it really makes sense. Eh, whatever.

DAH VURST!1!!!1!