2019/09/12

OSR: Review: Demon Collective Vol. 1

The Demon Collective: Volume 1 is a kickstartered collection of 4 horror modules.

53 pages, black and white. Writing by Camilla Greer, Mabel Harper, Comrade Pollux, and David Shugars. Art by Lauren Bryce. Maps by Shay and Odysseus Jones. Editing by FM Geist. The PDF is $8 via DriveThruRPG or Exalted Funeral. The physical version is $15 via Exalted Funeral.

Full Disclosure
I've worked with David Shugars on every major project I've published so this review has an enormous positive bias.

And because I'm fussy, peevish, and peculiar, this review also has an enormous negative bias. I usually review books by listing problems or issues and then saying "but it's still very good." This review is no different. You've been warned.

I also haven't playtested any of the adventures in the book.

The PDF
The PDF is optimized, as usual for David's work. Art, maps, and text are on separate layers. Everything is bookmarked and interlinked. The fonts are exuberant but tasteful. If you want to see good layout in action, check out this PDF.

The adventures are short, so my standards for one-page dungeons apply. A dumbwaiter pitch is an elevator pitch but... dumber.

Night School - Camilla Greer

Dumbwaiter Pitch: Evil cultists moved into an old manor. They're kidnapping children.

How is the information presented?
The format appeals immediately. Premise (5 sentences). A bit of location background. 1d6 hooks, 1d6 rumours, and then the main adventure. It's a great way to organize information for a short dungeon. No boxed text, no unnecessary backstory. In fact, perhaps just a bit too little backstory.

The module also doesn't tell you what's going on immediately. The "plot" is revealed as you read it. This isn't my preference. It lets the author build tension and interest, but it also means key information is hidden; the whole thing requires a second reading to make sure the GM caught got everything.

There's a reluctance, especially in horror modules, to put all the cards on the table. The big reveal (what Mother McGregor is really putting in her pies, what the devil-crocodile really wants, etc.) is hidden in a room or in some boxed text in the last quarter of the module. It's a fine technique, but it can leave the reader frustrated when mysteries they expected to be resolved... aren't. Night School has a few unresolved mysteries.

Are the tone and theme consistent?
The module could be played a few ways. The default seems to be dark humour. It's gauche to plug your own work in a review, but I think this module would serve as a great prequel or sequel to Magical Murder Mansion, replacing Hubert Nibsley with Lord Stodore or vice-versa.

Does the art and/or map complement the text?
Yes. The map is excellent. The art is decent.

Is there tension?
Yes, but perhaps not as much as there could be. "These assholes are kidnapping and mutilating children" is about as direct an invitation to massacre all enemies as you're likely to get in D&D. There are factions (two), but one is a bit strange and, unless carefully presented by the GM, not an obvious ally.

There's also no obvious reason not to massacre everyone, especially once the alarm is raised. The direct approach is rewarded; other approaches seem to be possible but unlikely.

Is the dungeon better than something I could improvise?
Yes. The monsters are good, the spells are GLOG-y (which has pros and cons). It's a solid little module.

Final Notes
A solid and eerie dungeon full of strange magic. Before running it, I'd make a table of student quirks and names, and a prompt page of student rambles or the contents of mangled books.



She's Not Dead, She's Asleep - Mabel Harper

Dumbwaiter Pitch:  There's a tomb. There are rumours of great treasure inside. The locals fear the tomb. Want to get rich or die trying?

How is the information presented?
A brief introduction, then a very nice table of patrons and rumours combined. But the text goes straight from rumours to room 1. No exterior setup, no doorway to the surface, no sense of an environment. It's not a grievous sin and it's easy enough to improvise, but if there's a tomb in a forbidden forest, complete with background and NPCs... there should at least be one line about finding or opening the tomb.

The dungeon has a Dread-like jenga gimmick. Dread isn't cited; should it be? It's an interesting twist, but anecdotally, a standard Jenga tower takes between 25 and 35 pulls to collapse.

Activity  - Pull
Forcing open a stuck door or sarcophagus - 1
Loud impacts (dropping something heavy, falling, etc.) - 1
Talking-voice conversations - 1 per participant
Running - 1 per 5' travelled
Combat - 1 per combatant per round
Screaming, shouting, etc. - 1 per utterance
Most rooms also have an activity, trap, or item that requires a pull. Some rooms double the pulls from noise (so presumably, all the activities listed above). Ideally, the Jenga tower tension mechanism would discourage foolish interactions and reward clever interactions, but the pulls in the text seem to just target interactions.

How far will the PCs get before the tower collapses? Not far, I think. 5 PCs in combat for 5 rounds, plus a scream or a dropped item. How'd this work in playtesting?

Information is presented clearly, from most important to least important. Tools and items are coded. Minimaps are provided (perhaps unnecessarily; some are just one room). They layout is clean and usable.

The first room contains 500 HD 2 mummies. They're not active until the Jenga tower falls but when it does, the tomb's only exit is blocked by a deadly heap. They'll swarm the dungeon, the forest, and anywhere else. Interacting with stuff is the core of old-school games. Sure, a huge tangle of ropes and mummies looks like a trap but touching it has a 1-in-6 chance of causing a potentially fatal landslide. Etc. The last room contains 100,000gp but good luck getting it out (or past the 4 5HD vampires that shoot Save-or-turn-to-stone beams...).

Are the tone and theme consistent?
The rumours feel a bit too detailed and too video-game-like. So does the dungeon; precarious structures sit undisturbed, things seem to be linked in a funhouse random way. But the general room and monster descriptions are vivid and crisp. Monster design is often interesting. The death conditions for vampires are nicely folkloric, even if no mechanism exists to discover them.

Does the art and/or map complement the text?
The map is good, but the unnecessarily crosshatched background makes it difficult to take in at a glance. It also doesn't quite fit tonally with the rest of the text. I can't explain why. It's nicely jacquayed though. The art is good, especially the mummy tangle.

Is there tension?
Sort of. "How are we going to die horribly?" is a kind of tension. But for me, horror dungeons require a sense of connection. While each room in this dungeon is horrifying they're often disconnected. There's no sense of discovery or rolling to find out. The result, thanks to the Jenga tower, is inevitable messy death for everyone. Each room presents a new scene, a new chance for the GM to break out the purple prose. Then there's a deadly encounter or trap.

Is the dungeon better than something I could improvise?
Yes, particularly the loot tables at the end, the monster descriptions, and some of the flavour.

Final Notes

This is a Lamentation-style antidungeon, in the vein of Death Frost Doom. Everything is trying to kill you. Most treasure is cursed. Searching is deadly. Some rooms are rated R. You should have stayed away.

It's a genre and style I don't enjoy (if you didn't guess that from the review). If you do, I suspect this dungeon will fit your needs nicely.

Bad Faith - Comrade Pollux

Dumbwaiter Pitch: Evil cultists moved into an old temple. They're kidnapping villagers.

How is the information presented?
Once again, a brief premise, then a superbly eccentric rumour table. The adventure tells you the twist right from the start. Spells and items stand out. Information is usually presented from most to least important. Stats are provided between room text, instead of at a bestiary at the end. It works.

The adventure is linear, but it feels like there would be many ways to accomplish the end goal, and the author's provided tools to enable many strategies.

Are the tone and theme consistent?
Humorous through and through, with a pleasant touch of bleakness and a few well-turned phrases. There are some dark cartoonish moments (an NPC "produces a human-sized meat grinder hidden within the shadows.", a cultist wields a chainsaw and appears to be wearing blue jeans in the art, etc.). It might go a bit too far into parody in places, but it's still solid.

The author has anticipated standard PC actions; selling scrap metal for profit, asking questions, poking things with sticks. Whenever the GM looks for help, help is, for the most part, swiftly provided.

There are no factions, but there's good guidance on duping or negotiating with the cultists, based either on playtesting experience or a solid sense of how games work. On lower levels, most encounters are pure combat, but at least the fights feel interesting and dynamic.

The lower level feels a bit pointless; as far as I can tell, the way to progress is to go back the way you came, and there's no way to tell if you've "completed" all the rooms in the labyrinth. It's a disadvantage of the abstract exploration system.

Does the art and/or map compliment the text?
I like the style of the main map. It's clean and crisp. The meaning of some parts is a bit confusing without the text; it's more of a diagram than a map. Some of the minimaps have rotated versions of the main map. Bent my brain for a few minutes until I figured it out. Not the best plan, but given the diagrammatic nature of the map it's fine.

The art's a lot of fun.


Is there tension?
Yes. The hook is basic, but the twist is inventive and will lead to some "Ooooh, so that's why..." moments. There's a sense of joyful exploration; even if the party dies to a giant slinky it'll probably be fun getting there. But, as I pointed out above, I'm worried the exploration will wear thin, or the PCs will spend hours searching rooms trying to find a non-existent way forward or a bit of lore instead of doubling back to the surface and advancing the plot.

Is the dungeon better than something I could improvise?
Yes. There's good value for money here.

Final Notes
A very solid gore-funhouse let down slightly by linearity and odd mapping choices.

Hush - David Shugars

Dumbwaiter Pitch: There's an abandoned dwarven library. There are rumours of great treasure inside. Want to get rich or die trying?

How is the information presented?
A brief premise, then both a rumour table and a "How do the PCs Learn of the Library?" table. The second table is very clever. There's a giant Basilisk in the library with a tail swipe and a two-turn petrifying gaze attack. I wonder where David got that idea from? Hrm? HRM? (not serious).

The layout is clean but odd. Premise, rumours, hooks. Very sensible. Rules for the basilisk. Then, a treasure table, then rules for silent movement, then general ambiance, then a table of books. Another monster. A bit of dungeon history and loot. More rules and then the dungeon itself.

Ideally, a dungeon's layout should feel... alphabetized. Or if not alphabetized, then semi-intuitive, like a kitchen. If you wander into someone's kitchen and need to find a whisk, you're not likely to check the refrigerator. There are hidden layout rules, and one of them is flip forward. If page 2 prompts the GM to look up rules for a Bloated Trombonist, there's this vague sense they should either be on page 2 or a later page. Unspoken left-to-right progression.

But running this dungeon, the GM will need to flip backwards and forwards a great deal, without any clear signposts of where to find information. Did the Random Encounter Table go before or after the grubs? Where are those rules on noise again? Next to light rules? Nope, must be somewhere else. Etc.

Given my druthers (or some scissors and glue), I'd rearrange it to:

Introduction
-Premise
-How did the PCs Learn of the Library?
-Rumours

General Rules (things the GM needs to keep in their mind at all times while running the dungeon, ideally on one page or a 2-page spread at most).
-Slabs (not book table)
-Shadows
-Silence

Dungeon
-Map
-Key
Monsters
-Random Encounters
-Basilisk

-Pale Grubs

Treasure

-The Brimbrander Group

-Book Table (repeat condensed Slab notes)
-Treasure Table
Are the tone and theme consistent?
Yes. There are some delightfully visceral descriptions. Fear of the dark + some body horror + a sense of unnatural space. It's not humorous, but it's not a bleak march towards inevitable death either. The central conceit (a magically silenced library) is used to create a very tense scenario.

Does the art and/or map compliment the text?
I like the map. It's in a similar style to Bad Faith, but an actual map instead of a diagram. It looks like there's enough space to include both room names and room numbers, but only numbers are listed.

There's also an absolutely adorable picture of a knight cuddling a hatchling basilisk. It doesn't really fit the tone but its so gosh darn cute.

Is there tension?
This really depends on why the PCs are in the dungeon, but yes, I think so. Without the silence or the shadows, it'd be dull, but the combination should make for a very interesting adventure. The author also provides some helpful ways to increase tension via the random encounter table and resource depletion.

Is the dungeon better than something I could improvise?
Yes, absolutely.

Final Notes
Hush is the only dungeon in the book that genuinely gave me a shiver while reading it. While I'd be happy to run Night School or Bad Faith (She's Not Dead, She's Asleep, as stated above, really isn't my style), Hush is the dungeon I'd look forward to with the most gleeful anticipation. It's got gravitas.

Conclusion

As I said in the intro, despite the nitpicking it's still a very good set of modules. I've gone into far too much detail while reviewing to make notes for myself, so I can skim this article and see best practices while working on future modules.

If you're a new writer looking to try your hand at dungeon writing and layout, the Demon Collective is well worth a read. The adventure formats are miles ahead of many products. Text is universally crisp and concise. For the most part, information is presented for use at the table.

4 comments:

  1. Great review, really helpful insight. Was wondering what you meant by "the spells are GLOG-y?" Like, what makes a GLOG spell a typical GLOG spell? Cheers

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They use the same [dice] and [sum] variable as standard GLOG spells. There are rules for converting them to standard leveled spells.

      Delete
    2. Right, got you. Thanks for the reply.

      Delete
  2. Great review, decided to pick up the physical copy, sounds like some good bits in there I can pull from.

    ReplyDelete