In my recent quest to find free locations to plunk down in the game world in case the girls go someplace unexpected, I have gone and done the strangest thing: I'm actually looking at WoTC's published materials.
(And yes, I know about http://www.megadungeon.net/ --but it's mostly blank maps so far. And a fungus forest.)
I went and looked at the old 3.5 free adventure archive.
Skipping the first two, which are just re-hashes of old suff, I first went through all the descriptions and eliminated the obvious total-failures:
"Fang, Beak, and Claw involves an evil druid of Malar, his cronies, and a tamed owlbear. "
Oh go fuck yourself.
That eliminated about a third of them. Also out were murder mysteries, since we need locations here, not suspects.
Then I actually started looking at the adventures themselves...
So, ok, I understand the economic need to pad out products you put between hard covers, but these are free and yet we still get...
"Trap: The ice is brittle in this area, and unwary characters
might fall into the lake when the ice breaks away
Brittle Ice Trap: CR 5, location trigger, no reset,
DC 20 Reflex save avoids, Search DC 20; Disable
Device DC —. Market Price: —."
"Brittle ice. DC 20 to find or avoid."
If you can't figure out that a sheet of melting ice and a patch of frozen sea beneath it is not a practical thing to try to re-sell, you probably should not be running a game of anything.
Monsters are worse--it takes half a page for them to do stat-blocks for monsters--that's longer than the stats in the monster manual. And really, this seems like maybe a nitpick but it isn't because this goes to a core of the whole thing--there's remarkably little here except the idiot-proof padding. Which might be a metaphor for the whole logorrheac WoTC-D&D experience.
What's left in most of the adventures when you take the fat padded walls away is a handful of monsters in a place. And not like an exciting place, but like: "The orcs are holed up in a barn. Two are behind the hay bale. One is out chopping wood." If it's a high-level adventure, then it'll be Bloodfrenzy Meatlicker Orcs, but they'll still be in a barn. That--plus some scared villagers telling you there are some orcs in a barn, and exhaustive descriptions of the armor class and feat list for each hay bale--is the whole adventure. Ten pages to tell me that. Which isn't even "Something I could have thought of myself" it's the minimum level of elements you have to achieve even to be playing the game at all. It's like someone telling you they have a great idea for a bike and it's that it should have two wheels and pedals and should be painted a color. Ah, but did you expect the color to be eggplant? Um, maybe...
Some may say I'm looking for old-school love in all the wrong places, but, seriously, I feel like any DM of any age with any play style would find a lot of these adventures insulting. I don't need a professional writer to put together a monster from the manual and a map from the WoTC Generic-Map-A-Week site and have a bartender point the PCs toward the result.
But, hey, you get what you pay for. Maybe the designers didn't want to blow their wads thinking up elaborate stuff for a bunch of freeloaders.
But there's a way worse problem--stuff like this really just breaks my heart, because there's no excuse for it...
"Puhrjan: Spirit naga... Treasure: Puhrjan carries his magic items with him, in a small pack strapped behind his head."
So this mysterious being from the mists of eastern legend carries all his stuff in a fucking fanny-pack? Really? And he also is teamed up with a couple will-o'-wisps who set a rope trap for people. And in another adventure there's a hag and a barghest who move into a lighthouse because they're trying to rent it out to pirates.
Where's the fucking magic? Where's the incomprehensible wonder? Since when do nagas need fanny-packs? And how would they get into them anyway?
I can see maybe a sort of Warhammer-esque chutzpah to making these mythic terrors go around and pay taxes and take out the trash like everybody else, but in Warhammer the naga would have a squid-slime grenade strapped to its back or something--some outrageous new brand of wondrous weird to replace the wondrous weird you just removed by implying a naga would ever need to strap anything to anything else.
This is endemic. Half the spells in these adventures are just ability-buffs or things that do straight (fire, acid, cold) damage, the items are just seamlessly-efficient-tech-in-magic-clothing, every unusual thing has a name and a stat and a brand new book you can buy that lets your PC have it. And...
Ok, I've run out of steam on this issue. They're dull and hurt my brain and I wasted a lot of time and it's all my fault, that's all.
For the record, of the 65 adventures there, I found three containing usable material: the one with the dwarf tower is complex enough make a decent half-session-long tactical bash, the one with the naga has (and basically is) a slightly novel trap, and the drow one has an unusually creepy encounter.
Now there's way more free adventures out there. Including some on this list from Dragonsfoot. Anybody read those, specifically? I want to know whether I'd have to be a masochist to go through them too.
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