People send me stuff. Let's see what we got...
Tons of WOTC stuff. It's all so long...
"The Slaying Stone, an adventure for characters of 1st level" by Logan Bonner.
Oh let's rip this apart. Should kill and hour before lunchtime...
"Doesn't Railroad the Players"-somebody
"This module is different from the previous ones published by Wizards of the Coast. Up till now their modules were very linear, and the DM had to lead the players from one area to the next. This one presents an area that is more of a sandbox."-someone else
"The author of The Slaying Stone, Logan Bonner, has allowed plenty of room for improvisation by experienced players/DM's. For Novice DM's however, it may not be the easiest module to run, as it seems like it will require a lot of "thinking on your feet" and spontaneity. " -some total other person
Maybe it's not terrible? Is this possible?
Well it's the shortest, so we're doing it. It's this or the Psionic's Handbook.
Cover: The cover is typical anime-influenced-but-colored-by-a-mud-golem-and-detailed-enough-to-look-expensive-despite-a-total-lack-of-any-interesting-details-in-it WOTC product. It is truly the least awesome take on "fucking wardogs made of fucking metal" anyone has ever painted.
Art lesson for Ralph Horsley:
Let us discuss you no more.
Introduction, Background, Synopsis, and "Running this adventure" (and the credits) all fit on one page!!!!!!!!!!!
Reads like a shockingly efficient piece of work so far. No fan fiction at all! It realizes I don't need to know what the Empire of Nerath is! I am excited. However, a tocsin note is struck during the synopsis...
"After exploring several dead ends, the characters find the stone in the lair of a powerful brass dragon, and they must convince the dragon to relinquish the stone. The orcs appear again, ambushing the characters in order to steal the item."
So you must by definition explore several dead ends? And the orcs must show up at the end? You can't just notice they're following you and ace them early? Let's be fair and wait and see...
I am going to leave aside the obvious point that this is a first level adventure where you fight kobolds, goblins and orcs (oh, and a hobgoblin) and how that is and always will be a way of going "Hey, I know you're paying for this and all, but I'm not really trying here--or, if I am, I'm a very boring person" because:
-I bet someone told poor Logan Bonner he wouldn't get paid unless it had kobolds and goblins and orcs, and
-What the fuck did we expect?
Logan and/or WOTC overlords lose 20 points right off the bat for including this...
A cold wind whips sleet at you and...(blah blah 6 lines of this crap)...toward the safety of shelter.
To be fair, Goodman Games also loses it for having "read me" boxes all over its new Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures as does TSR for inventing "Read Me" boxes. Fuck all such boxes ever.
We lose another nigh-unavoidable-in-this-decadent-age 20 points for taking a whole page to say "the PCs fight some wolfs". However, once we grant that, the details of the encounter are not terrible: mud slows everyone to half speed, there's a bridge to cross to get to shelter, when PCs get close, someone goes "Hey, come to the tower," and lends a hand, and the wolves' tactics are good: they're hungry, so they're just aiming to knock over one PC, drag it off and eat it.
Oddity: Once past the wolves, the PCs get an infodump which is basically their mission briefing. Fair enough. But why did we get 7 lines of "Read me" text up there earlier the beginning basically to say "it was a dark and stormy night" yet the whole mission precis--which, detail-laden as it necessarily is, is one of the few things that actually might lend itself to pre-written speech ("Now, listen up 007, it's come to our attention that...")--in just 'DM-eyes' format? Odd.
If you're going to violate one of the most basic rules of DMing and fucking read text at me, then why not read text you might actually need notes for?
Basics: McGuffin. Map of possible locations. There's a ritual helping you find it--you can only use it 3 times.
2 bonus points for Logan B: there are 5 books of value in the town besides the mcguffin. If the PCs think to inquire, they can collect them for more xp, and the DM decides where these books are hidden. Mr Bonner loses points for not mentioning that the contents of said books can be generated using Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, available from Lamentations of the Flame Princess press for only 12 pounds 50 plus shipping act now get yours today!
What we got here so far as of page 5 is basically a nonlinear location-based adventure where instead of a dungeon we have a town overrun by goblins. Also: there is treasure other than what the quest-dispensing NPC knows about. So far neither railroad tracks nor creativity are visible.
Now we have a rundown of the major NPCs...
Note--never write like this: "Like his piercing stare, Vohx's heart is cold as ice." On top of the million ways reading that sentence makes you dumber, you are wasting space telling us (again) that the leader of the Severed Eyes Orc Clan is bad.
Pages 6 and 7.
Oh, I like this:
The characters can visit the parts of the town in the order they want, so they might end up exploring areas or talking to NPCs that aren't detailed here. If your players don't know what to do next, or if you're looking for something new to include, invent something that ties back to the plot themes listed below...
So there's the kind of things characters in the town might talk about. The possibility of convincing the kobolds to attack their oppressive goblin overlords is included, as are several possible alternate "plot-threads" that could come up. These are very much in the "my first adventure" vein, but none are terrible. But still, jesus, I sound like a kindergarten teacher "Hey, none of you ate your paste! Rock on!"
Map key notes:
-Monsters everywhere. Aside from the default low-end-of-the-humanoid-bell-curve already mentioned, this adventure also has a dragon in it. (You don't fight it.) On the one hand: monsters are cool. On the other hand: late-era D&D sort of has a tendency to go "Why have a corrupt monk when a bugbear and 2 nagas will do?" thing going on which sucks the scary right out of monsters. It's your first adventure ever, you meet a dragon. Maybe this is terrifying and so it works. Maybe this just gets you so used to talking to dragons that they are really nothing special forever after. Hard to say.
I wouldn't have put it past WOTC to have told Logan B "Oh, also, it has to have a dragon in it".
-The goblins in this town have a temple to their goblin god. It is not made weird or interesting. Calamitous missed opportunity on the level of the cover artist's metal-dogs' insufficient metalness.
-Missed Opportunity #3 (Minor) "5. LOOTING GROUNDS (TRADE DISTRICT)
From the ruins of smithies and vendors' stalls, the goblins and kobolds have scavenged every little scrap they could find."(That's it. Searching reveals nothing.)
-Missed Opportunity #4 (Major) "Goblin graffiti decorates the trunk." (No examples given.)
-Philosophical question suggested by Missed Opportunity #4: if WOTC is determined to use "official" versions of monsters in published products, why shy away from giving them a little detail, like they do with devils and demons? Because they need them to be generic enough to fit different GM's settings. So: a nether zone--they have to be standardized because D&D is now a brand, yet they can't be distinct because it also has to be generic. Really makes you wanna play Warhammer dunnit?
-Ummmm... "The goblins keep drakes, wolves, and other dangerous beasts in the stables the Kiris family once maintained." And that's it. Just a bunch of weird creatures here, move along... Ok, accepting the whole "yeah, D&D land is just wall-to-wall (standard) monsters" thing and moving on, are we seriously expecting the PCs to just leave the monsters alone? I'm not usually a guy to demand more stats from WOTC, but when my players decide to unlock the stables and send these drakes, wolves and undifferentiated teratofauna out into the village to act as a distraction while they hang out on the roof with crossbows I might kinda wanna know how many hit dice these things have. Is this a rare burst of efficient module design (hey, make it up yourself, DM) or WOTC just failing to realize PCs might do something other than use their Encounter Powers to move through Encounters in order to fulfill a Second Level Quest?
-mmmm... Brass Dragon lair dug into sandy soil. Brass dragon has already left scales, scorchmarks and clawmarks elsewhere. Yet "Unless the characters are searching for a lair, they need to succeed on a DC 20 passive Perception check to detect the lair's entrance." No footprints? No reference to the dragon covering its footprints? No reference to what, physically, you would be looking at with your "perception check"?
The Slaying Stone of Kiris Dahn cannot be sold. It's right there in the rules. Despite the fact that it can be used to kill anybody so long as they're in the town of Kiris Dahn, nobody wants to buy it, ever. That's so dumb. If you just had to limit the stone so nobody would get rich selling the instakill pill why not just say it's magically enchanted so it can't leave the town (it would also be a convenient way to explain why the NPCs are so sure it's there in the town somewhere).
More quasimandatory lameness. Getting into the goblin town (through the forest, over the river, or past the front gate) is described solely in terms of skill challenges. Now through the forest (sneak through trees without being seen) or over the river (swim the river and don't make a lot of noise or drown) this kinda makes sense and could be described in a similar way in a lot of games, but for the front gate this is bullshit. We need some goddamn guards with a goddamn guardhouse and the PCs need a goddamn plan to bluff past the goblins or jump over it and seriously if you can't make up a guard house stop writing modules and if you can't think of a plan to bluff or sneak your way past one, stop playing D&D. Completely fuck this abstract bullshit. This is the game. You are skipping playing the bestest parts of the game with your fucking skill challenge.
And if they don't recognize the opportunity for Complex Tactical Combat when you've got one PC over the wall, two PCs behind the wall, one on the roof, and one in the middle of the gatehouse pretending to be a goblin's granny when they are all discovered then, really, what is Type IV D&D for?
In the same vein, Encounter 3 is just a gross weird totally Type 4 shibboleth. It is basically trying to explain how--using skill challenges--the DM is supposed to describe getting around the town secretly and/or failing to do so. The basic idea--be subtle or end up in an encounter--is reasonable, but the lack of detail and the inability of the author to write (or be allowed to write) "Hope the PCs think up a clever plan using their real actual brains or they're toast" is depressing. And every noncombat problem that is described apparently has to include at least 3 examples of skill checks you could use to get past them. The space used to write out all this wonky skill challenge bullshit could've been used to have a "5o random get-past-the-goblins situations" table.
People who both run 4e and have functioning brain cells have all kinds of philosophical positions about how to make skill challenges not ungodly tedious exercises in rolling-where-thinking-should-be but one gets the definite sense here that pages and pages of design space have been given over to make the (narrow) mechanics fit the (complex) situation here.
Vault of the Drow would've been a novella if it'd been written this way. Thank god it wasn't: there's a bad elf on a giant lizard--figure a way past it, numbnut!
Note: Encounter 7 is entitled "Monsters and Manuals".
A weird thing: "This encounter can occur at the monster pens (area 7 on the Kiris Dahn map) or in some other location of your choosing." Wait but back when I was reading about area 7 it didn't direct me here...
This is a weird thing about this module: the whole thing is abstracted--we don't have the whole goblin town laid out (fair enough, it's big) yet WOTC D&D demands each encounter be attached to a place with a battlemat. (Why? They don't even sell minis anymore do they?) So we can't just have traditional "random encounters" where a group of monsters just appears whenever in certain areas, but they also don't seem to want to say "here's a map, this encounter happens when you go here to this place"--at least not consistently.
Instead they seem to be saying "this encounter happens here, this one happens here and the rest sort of just happen when you want them to if the PCs are in the kind of place where it might happen". While it's nice they're giving you options, it seems like kinda pointlessly adding an extra step for the DM and severing the (usually rather useful) connection between the map and the fights that are on it. At this point I'm honestly not sure what they're after--is the idea to put the "right" number of combats in front of the PCs before they get to the next plot point (if so, that's dumb)? (spoiler to the end of this read-through: it is.) All I can say for sure here is it's confusing and they probably could've explained/designed it a little clearer. There is no table or chart describing the connections between all the encounters and the applicable trigger actions.
Or, to put it another way: this is an awful lot of rules and pages (20) if they're just saying "Here's a bunch of monsters, have them fight the PCs whenever you want."
Encounter 10: Hideous endless skill-challenge-damaged description of how to do a role-playing encounter with a dragon. So many trees died so that your players wouldn't have to think or imagine, Hasbro. So many.
Obvious mistake: the Orcs trailing the PCs attack after the PCs get the stone. There should've been ways for the PCs to detect them all along. Definitely definitely.
PCs talk to person. Goblins interrupt to attack person who is actually ratman. Goblins attack ratman and PCs. Ratman attacks PCs.
Wait, why? Why wouldn't the ratman attack the goblins? Or at least both the goblins and the PCs? It's not explained. He's a monster on a battle grid. He doesn't need a reason.
"Scouts constantly monitor the area, so it's nearly impossible to sneak up on the mansion. That said, if the adventurers devise a clever plan to sneak in, run with it!"
(but, naturally, neither the area, the goblin's work schedule, nor the scouts are described--no matter how long you stake out the area or what you see them do, the foes will be in exactly the same place on the battlegrid) Hmmm...split personality much? It's like the Type IV people either wanna design a whole skill challenge or just say "fuck it". No in-between. Weird. It's like saying: "There's a wall here, it's this tall, and 2 guys standing here" and just let the GM figure out the rest isn't enough. And consequently the whole place is either totally overdescribed combats or underdescribed noncombats.
Here's what happens if you keep the magic stone instead of giving it to the NPCs...
"The two NPCs hire another group to take the slaying stone from the characters. Since the stone doesn't function outside Kiris Dahn, it's about as useful any other heavy rock."
Um, dude, again, if you can't think of what PCs could do with a magic item that can kill anyone as long as they lure the target to a certain place, you're hopeless. How awesome would your campaign be if the last thing your 25th level thief did is lure Tiamat back to the redneck goblin village where the campaign began, so many years ago...?
In other news: treasure parcel checklist: 4 magic items already. Ew.
Page 31 explains a lot...
"If the adventurers bypass encounters or if you plan to get them more XP over the course of this adventure, you can include some of the following encounters..."
This sentence explains a lot.
Ok, so the adventure is worth a certain amount of xp.
This is because the encounters (skill challenges and monsters together) are, combined, worth a certain amount of xp.
This means that if the PCs skip encounters they are expected to have the adventure is worth less xp. That's bad.
However clearly this adventure is supposed to have an "open" structure: enter from any of 3 directions, go to any of 3 places, muck about until you have enough clues to go where the mcguffin is.
It would, therefore, be easy to "skip" encounters.
So, two things have been done to fix this problem (a problem created by the module's rigid adherence to Type IV D&D's xp regime).
#1 "Bonus" encounters are stuck in in case the PCs skip planned ones.
#2 Half the encounters can just happen whenever the DM wants.
The overall effect is: no matter what path the PCs choose, and what tactics or strategy they choose, they will get in exactly the same number of fights with foes of exactly the same total strength.
So it's not a railroad but it is. Because although the PC's have choices, these choices have very little effect on what their experience is. The choosing is not part of a process of problem solving, it is a process of accidentally choosing Monster A over Monster B. At least as written.
The meaningful choices only happens during combat. What a rip. The whole point of trying to decide how to infiltrate a city is to avoid fighting--or at least to fight on your own terms--and almost nothing in the adventure supports that.
A whole level of play has been removed. One of the most interesting ones.
That having been said...
...you could easily ignore the xp system and just make this into a plausibly decent adventure. It's not the world's most ambitious or inventive adventure (fighting kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins and orcs to find a magic rock) but it is entirely devoid of bards, druids, gnomes, brain moles, owlbears, cave fishers and infantry mounted on gryphons so, aesthetically, it could be worse. TSR did worse a million times.
For the fuck of it--let's take a look at what would have to be done to turn this from a set of railroad cars into a genuine adventure (that is, a complex and multi-layered problem to be solved by humans with heads):
-Ok, the encounters would have to actually be fixed to locations on the map, or to a friction point system where failed skill challenges (or other displays of sneakiness ) would bring on specific encounters. (See how already this fucks with the program: this means you'll miss encounters and get less xp for doing the smart thing. If all PCs want is xp, you're screwed--they'll be stupid for the hell of it. Or you have to use a different xp system.)
-There should be more actual locations on the map, with multiple possible routes to the 3 objectives.
-Means of scouting the city should be better described. How hard is it to see what's going on? Once you're up there, can you plan a specific path through or do you just get bonuses to your various sneakiness rolls?
-Important buildings (gatehouse, hobgoblin's lair) should be given enough detail that the PCs could actually decide how they're attacking them. Even with the adventure written as-is, a PC should be able to climb up to the roof and ready a crossbow (or something worse) covering the front door while another PC rings the front doorbell. But how high's the roof? How climbable are the walls? Treat the environment like it's real.
-Specific encounters and/or locations should be seeded with specific clues pointing to the dragon with the mcguffin and the orcs that are shadowing the PCs.
-The actual location of the orcs shadowing the PCs at any given time should be nailed down, not left to "float" until after the PCs get the mcguffin.
That's a lot of work.
Ok, so what?
Pretty much all modules suck. And the whole idea of modules mostly sucks (write your own goddamn deathmaze, lazy ass). So why pick on this one?
Because it demonstrates even with an author with the best will in the world making a conscious effort not to write a railroad the basic requirements of new D&D push published modules in the more-sucking direction. Most of this is not your fault, Logan Bonner, it's the fault of the people who hired you to write this thing with your hands tied behind your back.
Type IV DMs can run whatever adventures they want (just like everybody else) but if they want to get them published they have a ton of hurdles to jump:
-The difficulty scale and brandification means standard versions of monsters have to appear. (Or else, presumably, versions specific to official brandified settings--equally a snore.)
-Brandification also (apparently) requires that every illustration has to look like an earth-tone claymation version of Warcraft trade dress.
-The xp system requires the adventure to contain a set series of linked encounters adding up to a predictable amount of xp given for encounters only--dramatically reducing the possible kinds of adventure formats.
-The abstract nature of this kind of "encounter chain" format means the physical world is abstracted so much you pretty much have to make up anything not nailed to the battlegrid. So what's the module for?
-The separation of encounters into "skill challenges" or "combat encounters" means a certain amount of space (usually a whole page) is given over to describing any possible friction between the PCs and the setting. Rather than describing everything a little and trusting the rules to explain the rest, everything's either described a fuckton or not at all.
-That plus all the graphic design padding means there's no room for stuff like what's in a goblin temple. (Either that or they hired an author who doesn't care what's in a goblin temple, in which case they suck forever hopelessly.)
-All of this put together means Type IV D&D modules are so stylized and so specific to their own system that they are what almost no other module is--almost useless for any system except the one it was designed for.
Anyway: unlike me, a lot of people interested in DIY RPGs learned a lot of what they know from modules. Apparently they learned a lot more from modules than I ever did because they managed to figure out how to DM anyway, and some are pretty good at it. I shudder to think what the new kids coming up are gonna do if they have to build everything they need to know about running a game from this crap.