Saturday, December 19, 2009


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 --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: —."

Seriously, WoTC?

How about:

"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.


Unknown said...

Having done a handful of the maps for (including the aforementioned fungus forest) I personally can't wait for that project to take on more life. It will be a tremendous resource when all the level maps are there and keyed.

Sorry you just waded through all the WotC free adventures, those are painful. Beyond painful, really, as you so eloquently point out, they are wonders in saying very little in a lot of high-production value printed words.

Adam Dickstein said...

Its posts like this that make me glad I don't run medieval fantasy very often. A pox on WotC if for no other reason then their continuing lack of creativity.

Unknown said...

Yes this is the standard 3.5 stuff WotC came up with and distributed for free back in the day, although i think i might get hated, whipped and flamed for this i think the 4E stuff is actually better, it describes the crunch and everything in a neat short fashion, gives you a general idea of the setting and then lets you run free with it (in other words tells you enough to give a good description but not enough to make it a 3 page description of the chamber pot)

crowking said...

Pull out the pencil and paper just draw up some new maps were the girls haven't explore and sandbox it. Also, you have the advantage of knowing none of them have ever experienced classic modules such as Tomb of Horrors, White Plum Mountain or in Search of the Unknown( which are all free D/L's from WOTC) So maybe tweak them a bit to your liking and have fun. Just make sure there's something for KK's Barbarian to kill. LoL!

Zak Sabbath said...


I write my own stuff and convert old classics all the time, but at the moment I'm making a multi-city, continent-sized mega-sandbox that I do not have time to write every inch of so I am trying to employ some labor-saving devices.

That's the point of this exercise.

Blair said...

""Fang, Beak, and Claw involves an evil druid of Malar, his cronies, and a tamed owlbear. "
Oh go fuck yourself."
Haha, YES!!

"but at the moment I'm making a multi-city, continent-sized mega-sandbox"
Perhaps you could Sun Tzu it and break it up into manageable sized chunks before detailing them one-by-one?

Zak Sabbath said...

I want the girls to have the option of going ANYWHERE on the map and having something elaborate and internally consistent already be there.

Obviously, I am only doing one part at a time. I can;t imagine how you;d do it any other way. Who writes two adventure locations simultaneously? Ettins?

Anonymous said...

I think you may have mentioned them before, but I recommend the compendium of the one page dungeon contest entries and winners. They were made for the old school type games but are system neutral and can be used for most anything.

Zak Sabbath said...

I knew about it and totally forgot about it. Thanks.

and I run shit very old school.

crowking said...

I believe ( at least for myself) the trick is not getting bogged down with writing tons of pages but just starting off with a title, a few notes and maybe a crude map. Starting this way helps to get my subconscious flowing. Afterall, Castle Greyhawk wasn't made in a day ;-)

Here's an example of something I made up right this moment. Hope this helps.

Title: Tower of the Medusa

Dungeon Notes:

* ten levels. First three are full of traps.

* all the guardians of the medusa have all their eyes plucked out and replaced with gold coins with her likeness.

* 9th level of the tower is full of webs and is home to a giant undead black widow ( it has moon stones for eyes)

* the top floor is the Medusas layer. It looks like a grotto. complete with exotic plants ( many poisonous) and statues of those she has killed.

*Her " bed" is comprised of four men ( all stoned by her) kneeling down holding her mattress. A large viper sleeps within the bedding.

* she is 15 level Illusionist and a 5'th level Bard. She sings like an angel. Her favorite food is elf hearts ( watch out KK!)


thekelvingreen said...

I assume that the naga has a pack strapped to his head because he, you know, has no hands to carry stuff. So who the heck strapped it there in the first place? Is he the victim of some cruel prank? Is that why he's so angry?

John B said...

I have done the exact same thing and wasted my time at WotC. Unless we're in bizarro world and the word adventure actually means "boring encounter" and somehow boring encounters are awesome... no, I'm pretty sure that WotC just doesn't know what the term adventure actually means.

Dragonsfoot is always a good place for maps. I don't really like the adventures that much but I have repurposed several of their maps for my campaigns. I have often found that a good map and a little improvisation have gone a long way when it comes to filling in dead space in a campaign world.

Zak Sabbath said...


yeah, i know all about that. do you read this blog?

this is a post about pre-made things to fill in the grey area, not about how to write one myself from scratch. i already know how to do that.

nextautumn said...

I know you're probably looking for free, easy to get/download stuff - and I've only been reading the blog for a few months now so I'm not sure where you stand on everything - but there were 3 2nd ed. boxed sets for the Realms (easy or no conversion necessary) that were good and would fill up A LOT of space and leave room for you to get creative with it:
1.Ruins of Undermountain
2.Ruins of Myth Drannor
3.Ruins of Zhentil Keep
The first edition FR books detailing geographic locales like the Moonshae Islands, the Anauroch desert, the Great Glacier, etc. are also pretty useful and interesting. I pick this stuff up at used bookstores for a couple bucks each all the time. Also, even though I'm sure you already know about it, the latest version of the Castle of the Mad Archmage from the Greyhawk Grognard just went up - free. Hope this helps. Game on.

Knightsky said...

I don't know if it's exactly what you're looking for, but you may want to take a look at the Paratime Design Cartography page:

Lots of cool dungeon maps there to yoink for your own purposes.

Kent said...

A sandbox of cities for those girls? Hmmm. What about an innovation like a *Libido* stat that the girls could exquisitely exploit to bribe their way out of danger. Special powers for Libido 16,17,18 might include Detect Prude or Turn Neurotic. Ladies with high *Libido* would be permitted to fight in lingerie and very high heels confounding monsters with their own carnivorous lust. Give girls what they want, I say.

Zak Sabbath said...

autumn--thanks, could happen

i found a useful map there, thanks.

the ones with high libido in lingerie and high heels are harmless. it's the ones without a high libido that still insist on wearing lingerie and high heels that you gotta watch out for.

crowking said...

Just trying to help Zak. Go on and type stuff in. I'm sure you'll find something to your liking.

Zak Sabbath said...

now THAT is useful.

I knew i was browbeating you for a reason.

crowking said...

Well bro, I hope you don't do it often. Otherwise, someone could go to ( flame) war with you, which means your going to stop posting and were all gonna miss hearing about your games!

Anyway, I'm glade you like it. There's some pretty good stuff over there if you look around...

Munin said...

Towns of the Outland by Midkemia Press is available and free - 5 towns stocked and ready to be hacked

Two city maps here: by Mike St-Pierre

Over on StoryGames we created this town

the pdf is here:

mordicai said...

I gotta say; I'm down with some of WotC published books-- plenty of solid content & worldbuilding-- but a lot of the sundry was just BLAH.

Ragnorakk said...

I'll second the Midkemia Press suggestion

Zak Sabbath said...

Ara and Ragnorakk--
yeah, those look useful.

Erin Smale said...

Thanks, Zak. You have succinctly captured every reason why I have no desire to play any current or near-current incarnation of D&D. Though, I seem to recall TSR's campaign to be creative for us back in 2nd Ed. days, when they published a book for everything you couldn't think of yourself and a table on each page to generate it randomly. I still have my copy of the Complete Drunken Peasant's handbook lovingly shrinkwrapped...Thanks again for the write-up!

SirAllen said...

Again, not free but fairly easy to obtain through creative downloading are the Book of Lairs I and II for 1E. I have used many of these, and they are each a page or two with pretty rich descriptions of why the monsters are there.

Kent said...

Zak S. For sure brother. Damn straight.

Anonymous said...

Zak, THANK YOU for articulating my feelings about Wotc products for years. Fucking-a, a fanny pack!

I'm friends with a regular Wotc freelancer, and I absolutely cringe whenever he (and anyone else) use the terms "crunch/fluff". You know why that free stuff has no soul? Because some designer came up with some "cool" crunch--I know, orcs that make things catch on fire! And dressed it up in some fluff--err, LAVA ORCS!

Nobody likes fluff. Because it's fluff. There's nothing there.

Except that marshmallow fluff. That stuff is okay.

Delta said...

Now THIS is a great post. Bravo.

Ryu Long said...

To each game and group their own, I say. I love to read about how your game and world are made of the stuff of fairy tales (Grimm style, rather than modern day style, but fairy tales nonetheless), but I wouldn't play those games. Not to say I wouldn't want to, but at the end of the day I can only play so often and that's not the game I want to play most of the time.

I just wrote a post myself about how vampires work in my world on a biological scale, because eventually 'wizard did it' is a cop out to me.

Of course, in the end, WotC doesn't operate like a DM, they operate like a company. They have people hovering over them, insulting their manhood because DnD doesn't make as much money as 'World of Warcraft' and 'Magic the Gathering'. It sucks, it's bullshit, which is why they have the job of churning out numbers and balance so we GMs can do the fun stuff. Remember, you have sex for a living, yet a couple blogs before this one described it as a job where you have to answer tedious questions... That should be a pretty good metaphor for what it means to be a corporate stooge in America.

Zak Sabbath said...

I have no idea what you're talking about