2020/01/02

OSR: Trilemma Adventures Vol. 1 Review

This review covers all the adventures in Michael Prescott's Trilemma Vol. 1 Compendium (print, PDF). All but two of the adventures are also available for free here, though the ones in the Compendium have been revised and updated.

Full Disclosure
I wrote one of the adventures in the Compendium. Every so often I get a small royalty cheque for it. Michael was great to work with and the Trilemma adventures are an enormously valuable resource. I stuck most of them into my UVG GM-facing maps. This review therefore has an enormous positive bias.

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 have run a fair number of these adventures in one form or another.

The Adventures

I'm going to review all 49 adventures first. They're the most important part of the book in my opinion. There's a summary at the end. All titles link to their associated blogpost and free PDF.

Criteria
I wrote about my standards for one-page dungeons in this article. In brief:
  • Does the art and/or map complement the text?
  • How is the information presented?
  • Are the tone and theme consistent?
  • Is there tension?
  • Is the dungeon better than something I could improvise?
For the Trilemma adventures, the maps usually complement the text and the results are almost always better than something I could improvise.

However, tension, tone, and presentation vary widely. I've also focused on immediate usability in my reviews. How hard is it for the average GM to grab one of these dungeons and use it?

A module rated "Good" is immediately useful without question or adaptation. A module I've rated "Mid-Tier" is usable, but requires a bit more effort or a few tweaks. A module I've rated "Poor" is not something I'd go out of my way to use, though it might have specific applications or cool ideas. The results might seem harsh or even glib, but I feel like it's important to separate the adventures in some way. Just saying "they're all great" doesn't help anyone.

Lots of people have said they really enjoyed reading the Trilemma compendium. That's great. I don't care about how enjoyable these adventures are to read or how many exciting ideas come burbling into my brain. That's not, in my view, what they're for. They're tools for use at the table, and that's how I've reviewed them.

I'm also ignoring any additional context provided by Michael's blog or the rest of the book. The adventures are reviewed purely on the text on the page.

Stellarium of the Vinteralf

Dungeon. Mid-Tier: solid but not amazing. Saved by excellent treasure and gimmicks.


Side Note: Dungeons as a Mystery
Some dungeons start off by not explaining what’s going on. Room 1 implies something; room 20 resolve that tension. This is simultaneously cool and frustrating. It’s cool because it makes the dungeons interesting to read. It’s frustrating because you need to read the whole dungeon thoroughly before use.

In Stellarium of the Vinteralf, the last sentence on pg. 1 is, “The Vinteralf hacked their way to the hot spring cavern under the ice to avoid the attentions of the Wyrm Jokun.”

This is the first time the dungeon mentions a wyrm. It’s a bit like that old joke about a GM who describes a room in great detail, then goes “and there’s a red dragon in the middle. Roll for initiative.”

A  reader is incentivized to keep reading to solve the mysteries raised in the text, but this isn’t very useful at the table. I don’t care that wolves in this valley live on rats and hares. I do care that there’s a giant adventurer-eating Wyrm somewhere in this dungeon. That’s worth prepping. More info on how to run the firebreathing Wyrm, less trivia.
 
Written in collaboration with Michael Atlin.
 

Steeps of the Ur-Menig

Dungeon. Poor: no draw, minimal treasure, very convoluted map with no payoff. Not all cool ideas make good dungeons.

It might be best to have players map this dungeon as a series of points with lines connecting them rather than a traditional grid. The mix of horizontal and vertical space means neither a top-down grid and a side-view cutaway will work.


Side Note: Hidden Information Puzzles
Sometimes, module designers forget that the players don’t have all the information.

GM: You encounter the Obelisk of Grune. It is an inert stone 20' tall.
Book: The Obelisk of Grune produces gallons of pure gold if the blood of an albino duck is rubbed on its surface. The only person who knows this is Sir Alfred Mooseblaster, who died 300 years ago on another continent.
Players: Neat. We move on.
GM: Not going to... oh, I don't know, rub some duck blood on it?
Players: Why would we do that?

Cool ideas without hooks ("Why should we care? What can we do with this?") or with hidden information ("How in the world would we have figured that out?") are often useless. Take this example from this adventure:
7. Musical Geode
This bowl-shaped chamber is lined with enormous crystals, in purplish and blue hues, some twice the size of a person.

If struck with a hard object, the crystals ring with clear tones of surpassing beauty. Given time to learn the layout of the geode, it is possible to play music here, perhaps by throwing coins.

Anyone who hears such a piece gains telepathy with all fellow listeners. This first manifests as babbling voices in the head, but it can be controlled fairly easily. The range is limited to sixty paces.
There’s no incentive for PCs to strike the crystals with hard objects. If they do, there’s no incentive to try to play music. There are no puzzles elsewhere in the dungeon that seem like they might be unlocked by a musical geode.
Once every seven years, [the oak tree] will answer one question asked of it, with the full knowledge of the gods.
If players can’t find information, that information might as well not exist.

The hermit in room 8 isn’t named. The Trilemma adventures are usually pretty good about names, but sometimes there are gaps. I understand that overloading a module with proper nouns can be foolish, but if you’re going to put someone to talk to in a room, make it easy for the GM to run them. “What’s your name?” “Uh... Dieotte Pepsi”. 
 

A Litany in Scratches

Dungeon. Poor: almost an antidungeon. There is no treasure here. You are likely to die. You should have stayed away.

The Trilemma adventures are usually pretty good about cutting irrelevant details, but some still creep in.
The ground-floor kitchens contain bare stone ovens.
Chekov’s ovens. It's possible to make ovens interesting, but not in this dungeon.

There's a vampire bush. How does it work? It desiccates birds (and dogfolk?). The roots are specifically noted as immobile; is the rest mobile? Vampire bush mechanisms are vaguely noted in area B, but not detailed. Throughout, danger is implied, not stated. Setting the vampire tree on fire (a sensible plan) ruins the creepy reveal (and treasure) in area M later.
 



Tannòch Rest-of-Kings

Dungeon. Mid-Tier: short, solid, and designed for players.

Better hooks than most Trilemma adventures (ogres ate some nuns, go sort it out.) Both the map and the name feel punchier. There’s still a Chekov’s Oven or two, but the description is generally pretty good. Treasure is excellent. There are still quite a few hidden information puzzles (the Oak, the bone devils, the whole nature of the site), but it’s not critical.
 



The Cage of Serimet

Diplomatic Adventure Location. Poor: chaotic design, no hook.

The standard reaction to this adventure is “Well, this looks like something that isn’t our problem.” It’s easy to add hooks, but most of them tend towards “go here and talk to the wizard.” And that’s not really a hook. That’s a side-quest or an intermediate step.

The order the information is presented in is deeply frustrating. The module tells you what happens if you eat the magic sand (why would anyone eat the magic sand?) before it tells you there’s a giant gorgon in the area.

It took me four readthroughs to figure out why Yorta, the prisoner, is a prisoner at all. He’s got an astral walking pool. Visitors come regularly (there’s a table!). The reason is hidden in the last paragraph of ” Fane of the Protector” on the second page. This is surprisingly critical information. Disrupt the ritual once and Yorta knows something is up; disrupt it permanently and he’s free. Both are possible to do accidentally.

The suggested random encounters are incredibly deadly. There’s no real treasure. Most of the information is hidden. Most of the cool interactions require PCs to do nonsensical things.
 

The Raid Mirror

Large Wilderness Location. Poor: low conceptual density, cross-reference issues.

Again, there’s a mystery. What is the Raid Mirror? It’s introduced in the title and the first few paragraphs, there’s no Raid Mirror section in the text. The intro tells you to check pg. 130 for “Bim’s Mirror”, but pg. 130 has text for “al Bim’s Mirror”.

That’s... poor design. There’s no reason that item couldn’t be moved to the same page as the rest of the text. There’s plenty of text to cut.

Conceptual density starts off low. Stryggal, as an enemy, has a lot going on. His activities are very standard. “Orc warlord has a teleport mirror” sums up most of this adventure. The map is handy, the rise to power is handy, but it’s a mini-novel. It’s just a bunch of stuff happening without PC intervention. The text notes that the text is what happens when the PCs don’t intervene, but it also feels a bit self-indulgent.

Yes, I know that it’s similar to the Innovations in Magical Industrial Revolution, but it’s slightly more character-focused, there’s only one track, and the world doesn’t really change with each increment.
 



Circle of Wolves

Wilderness Location.  Mid-Tier: good hook, good layout, but a few practical issues.

There’s a werewolf problem and tracks to this location. Go sort it out. The module tells you what’s going on in the intro... mostly. A section on a named NPC tells you what they know and don’t know. Werewolves, with a twist! But your sensible precautions help. Hints that actually lead somewhere.

However, there is a risk.
GM: There’s a werewolf problem. Tracks lead to the old mound. Go solve it.
Players: Sure. Oh look, a fissure. Oh look, bowls full of something floating in the lava. I bet those are the source of all the trouble. Let’s throw rocks at them until they spill.
GM:  Great. Some spirits come out and fly away. Adventure is over.
It’s not a huge issue, but if your module has a big red “end the adventure” button, expect players to press it without reading the warning labels. The results in this module affect someone else far, far away... or might start the apocalypse. Either way, not great.
  


Though Flesh Be Vast

Dungeon. Poor: no hook, no reward, no context.

No intro at all. Again with the mystery! Who wants to jump down thirty feet into a reeking pool full of fish? Not the adventurers. The lure for this adventure should be very good, but nothing is presented in the text.

It’s a very confusing adventure. Why are we here? What’s going on? Who are these people? Lots of factions, some interesting traps, and some neat mechanics, but it feels flat and dull.

It’d bolt very well onto Veins of the Earth, but for non-cave adventures, I think most parties will take one look at it and go “nah.” Limited retreat lines. Not even a hint of a reward. Lots and lots of potential enemies, all adapted to their environment.
 

The Coming of Sorg

Adventure Location. Good: superb hook, factions, nice map.

Cults are usually something to be stopped before they complete their summoning ritual. This adventure covers what happens after a summoning ritual. God turned up and he’s just a big fat slob. Cool traps.

More critically, it’s the first location with broad generic D&D applicability. The PCs were supposed to stop an evil cult but decided to futz around and do side quests instead. The cult succeeded. This is the result.
 

The Necromancer’s Wish

Dungeon. Poor: chaotic layout, hidden information, difficult to adjudicate effects.

Two made-up words in the introductory paragraph. Not a good sign. Using words without providing context clues isn’t actually introducing anything. It’s just moving the mystery forward in the text.

The headings in the text don’t line up with the rooms on the map, making navigation difficult. The dungeon’s gimmick could potentially be difficult to adjudicate. A lot of information is hidden. There are too many ideas crammed into this space and not enough context to run it well.
 

The Extent of Gamandes

Large Wilderness Location. Mid-Tier: a pocket plane with some neat ideas but no tension.

Can a 2-page hexcrawl work? Probably not.  It’s a neat idea, but it’s a static environment. Pocket planes often feel like they don’t matter. All locations are evocative and gameable information is provided, but there’s no energy or urgency here.



The Unmended Way

Adventure Location. Mid-Tier: good map, interesting concept, but it’s a cutscene.

There are giants. They force you to make tea. You can’t bring in weapons. There are rumours provided in the adventure, but most of them relate to other adventures. Less useful as a standalone dungeon. It’s an interesting concept for a story or a mystery, but as an adventure location? There’s nothing to do. It’s just a static, sad, interesting story.
Side Note: What Do The PCs Do?
Always ask this question while writing setting or adventure ideas. What do the PCs do? If you can’t answer that question, your idea should be a novel or a poster or a set of playing cards. I don’t care about things that happened a thousand years ago or the secret motivations of unknown people. Focus on the here and now. How do the PCs access this information? How do they interact with the world?


The Task of Zeichus

Dungeon. Good. Simple, generic, and well organized.

Written in collaboration with Michael Atlin. I’m a big fan of generic dungeons. This is a perfect “Generic Decadent Immortal Noble Manor”. It’s got all the tropes you’d expect and a few bonus ones. The doors to the interior are magically barred. A little more information on how to open them might be handy. Otherwise, the adventure ends in the vestibule. Similarly, a table of loot, art, NPC names, and NPC quirks would be a useful addition.
 

In the Care of Bones

Adventure Location. Mid-Tier: great concept and NPCs, no hook or urgency.

Written in collaboration with Sean Winslow. A cool place to find, but not an adventure. There’s no treasure, no real reward for exploring or figuring things out. It’s just a neat shrine where some delightful spiders live. There’s a lot of backstory, but some of it is possible to figure out by experimentation or testing. I’m rating this higher than I normally would just because the core conceit is excellent. It’s an eerie little location to drop onto a map, but it’s still mostly a story in dungeon form.
 

The Lantern of Wyv

Dungeon. Good: excellent concept, plenty of tools, good layout.

For once, this dungeon answers a GM’s questions in the order that it raises them. What’s this? How do we get there? What are the dangers? Who built it? Etc. No real mystery, just a convenient high-level heist. How do we get past the wyverns, get into the Lantern, and use its powers for our benefit?

Outside of environmental dangers, the Lantern is actually a bit underwhelming. It’s also quite powerful. With reliable (on a typical PC timescale) healing and movement, it’s a political world-altering catastrophe waiting to happen. Splendid.
 

House of the Tyrant

City. Mid-Tier: difficult concept, good tools, neat details.

Can a 3-page city work? Maybe, but not in this format. It’s a damn close thing. There are a lot of levels to the city, both geographically and politically. Fun factions, but like many cities laid out in this format, a GM needs to keep the whole thing in their brain at once. Some of the tools and tables help, but it’s not really a pick-up-and-play module. Writing a city is hard. There’s always a sense the GM has missed something vital that’ll ruin a later section. Copious highlighting and notes, plus a few very thorough readthroughs, will help.

Menaka is the first very powerful creatures in the compendium. He absorbs spells, has a thick hide flies, and can teleport into the future. It’s still possible to fight him though.

The easily detected magical aura of Cicollus (3rd page) probably should be mentioned earlier in the text. Order of information: obvious leagues-distant stuff first, detail and trivia later.
 

The Haunting of Hainsley Hall

Adventure Location. Mid-Tier: specialized application, interesting concept.

I wrote this one, so obviously it’s perfect in every way, right? Wrong.


Originally, I’d contacted Michael to commission the art for this dungeon, or at least to get rates. He liked the idea so much he flipped it around; I ended up with a cheque, he ended up with the dungeon.

The tone doesn’t quite fit the rest of the book. It’s a very, very perfunctory adventure that relies heavily on the GM to set the tone and generate interesting encounters. Still, it’s only one page, it’s got a twist, it’s got some useful tools, and it works pretty well as a “generic haunted house”.
 

The Full-Dark Stone

Dungeon. Good: evocative, simple, and compact.

One of my favourite Trilemma adventures, and a solid recommendation for a one-shot intro dungeon. There’s a big magic rock, an NPC who could be an ally or an enemy, some skeletons, some unique treasure, and plenty of places for a GM to improvise. I’d suggesting improving the random effects of touching or fiddling with the stone.
 

The Oracle’s Decree

Dungeon. Good: short, clear layout, interesting interactions.

Written in collaboration with Michael Atlin. Finding an oracle, expert, or sage is a traditional part of D&D games. Here this could be a “generic sage habitat”, but the sage being a fake diminishes its utility. Still, both as a bestiary and as a small dungeon, it’s pretty good. Dying of thirst is a real risk, without too many ways to get around it. Everything seems to be designed to defeat even a well-equipped party.
 

Three for the Grave

Dungeon. Good: excellent hooks, neat concept, disappointing map.

Good introduction, good hooks. Cultists and/or cursed bears are up to some weird shit. Go kill ‘em. There’s an unsubtle demon, weird negotiations, and useful tables. It’s a good low-level adventure (aside from the bears, but you can always run from bears). I was hoping this map would be redrawn for the Kickstarter, but alas.
 

A Clutch of Shadows

Adventure Location. Poor: good setting material but a flat area.

Written in collaboration with Michael Atlin. Some of the adventure is gated behind a secret door (with no clues on how to open it). The rest is just a bunch of NPCs and details with very few ways to interact with the secrets. It fills a gap in the Trilemma storyline, but it’s not much of an adventure. This adventure is Patreon/Kickstarter/Compenium exclusive.
 

The Chains of Heaven

Dungeon. Mid-Tier: good treasure, neat scenario, no tension.

It’s a tower with a cult. Get their stuff. There are a few twists, but the actual adventure is fairly thin. There’s a lot of lore, a lot of interesting items, and some cool ideas, but once again it feels like those ideas are mostly for the GM or reader.
 

The Motes of Eternity

Adventure Location. Mid-Tier: excellent horror dungeon but no incentive to explore.

Once again, the parts of this scenario are not linked by any strong motivation. In a typical dungeon, greed (via careful hints of treasure) lures adventurers deeper. There are factions, but no real reason to do anything they ask. It’s another flat scenario.
Side Note: Words Mean Things
In this adventure "Motes" actually mean "possessed humanoid semi-intelligent lemurs and reptiles". The word "mote" doesn't bring that to mind. A floating speck of dust, a fleck of magical light, a will-o-the-wisp, yes, but not a lemur.

Choosing correctly evocative words, especially in short dungeons, is critical.
  

The Sky-Blind Spire

Dungeon. Good: excellent gimmick, solvable puzzles, factions.

A puzzle that practically begs to be solved, and shows the players how to solve it as they progress. Factions with a plan. Great treasure. A fun map. One of the best scenarios in the book.
 

Lenses of Heaven

Adventure Location. Mid-Tier: cool concept, slots into a game, but rather complicated.

Teleportation has gone wrong. Use this scenario. It’s a town-dungeon-puzzle. Lots of new made-up words, but it’s good science fantasy nonsense. There’s an entire city outside this adventure, and ending up there – for supplies, for allies, for information – is entirely plausible. The paragraph of information given in this one-page dungeon isn’t really enough.
 

The Roots of Ambition

Large Wilderness Location. Good: excellent factions, clear incentives, solvable mysteries.

A much better wilderness location. Less going on. A few clearly differentiated factions, a memorable map, and some treasure that doesn’t require the GM to adjust the entire universe.
 

Lair of the Lantern Worm

Dungeon. Mid-Tier: good map, very complicated concept.

Another very powerful monster. The titular Lantern Worm has the power to rewind time (it’s a bit confusing as to how this works, but effectively, it can always restore from a save point 1d20 minutes in the past). It’s a cool idea, but time travel is very tricky to implement in RPGs at the best of times. This isn’t it. It’s a self-contained mystery that seems to resist PC interaction.
Side Note: Set Pieces
Some adventures should feel like carefully balanced pieces just waiting for a breath of wind (or the PCs) to send everything spiraling into chaos. Some adventures should feel like long-dormant areas slowly being uncovered. But some Trilemma adventures, particularly ones with really cunning gimmicks, often feel like balanced and stable scenarios. The following things are happening; if the PCs show up and start meddling, the following things will continue to happen. The elegance of the idea takes precedent over making a good game.
 

The Cleft of Five Worlds

City. Poor: murky city, lots of fiction, few tools.

In a 2-page city, a timeline of past events is not useful. This is setting material, not an adventure location. It’s backstory and fiction.
-510: Using Varnan mercenaries and many hired Jorn, the Seree seize the island from the Murkers and found Sar Dural as the site to build the White Tower.
This is probably very interesting if you know what all those made-up words mean, but if you don’t and you’re just looking for a drop-in city or some sort of adventure, flip on. I’m not sure what this city is for.
 

The Call of the Light

Dungeon. Good: solid hooks, good treasure, some traps.

There’s a weird tower full of loot. Want to get rich? The introduction is a bit wordy, but the dungeon itself, though short, is very neat. It’s an automaton lure. Wizards in the party might get dragged into the trap. Most of the danger is self-inflicted; meddle with stuff and it’s likely to bite you, which isn’t ideal for D&D.
 

Veil of the Once-Queen

Adventure Location. Mid-Tier: generic fey nonsense. Somewhat linear.

Generic fey nonsense indeed. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s fairly well executed. It’s a pity that the layout seems to encourage a very strict path through the adventure. You meet X, he takes you to Y, Z happens, etc.
 

The Moon is a Mirror

Dungeon. Poor: antidungeon with a terrifying boss.

It’s a cool concept; a shrine to every faith. In practice, it’s full of anti-treasure and traps. The Moon Baby is the dungeon’s big monster. It can’t be killed. Normal weapons turn to rainwater and it reflects all magic (sometimes at the target). Its attacks ignore armour. It’s backed up by incredibly strong heavily armoured brass soldiers. Oh, and its kiss teleports a target to the moon and summons a loyal doppelganger.

Yeesh. It’s a mess. Reach the end of the dungeon and just die. No information is provided on how to fight this thing or what its weaknesses might be. Damaging its reflection in the water would make sense thematically, but it’s not in the text. Apparently in a playtest Michael’s players killed it using a unique item from another location. That doesn’t bode well for the “testing” part of playtesting.

0/10, probably my least favorite adventure in the book. Use this dungeon as a cautionary tale on the value of critical playtesting. Just because you’ve got a great idea doesn’t mean that idea will be fun in play; just because your group overcame an obstacle doesn't mean most groups will.
 

No God But Dissolution

Dungeon. Poor: overwrought backstory, hidden information, no incentives.

Written by Evey Lockheart. If your dungeon’s backstory says “Of course, nobody knows any of this.” then it’s time to rethink your backstory. You’ve just wasted my time. I am not here to read a novel. I am here to examine a tool used to create a story. Tell me information the players can access and drop the rest.

The interesting parts of this dungeon are all gated behind hidden information. How does anyone figure this stuff out? They don’t. It’s a giant “guess what the GM is thinking” puzzle.
Side Note: Tone and Theme
Sometimes, authors slips into anachronistic informality. The dungeon is supposed to be tragic but there’s an array of “dayglo polygonal tiles”. Something to avoid, I think. Tone should be consistent; DayGlo (R) is not.
 

The Mermaids’ Knot

Dungeon. Poor: another incredibly deadly monster.

The setup is good. The hooks are useful. There are lots of tools that make the village portion easy to run. There are excellent horror elements.

But it’s all brought crashing down by a nigh-unfightable monster at the end of the dungeon. To get to this monster, you need to get past (and probably fight) three other deadly monsters: two spellcasting mermaids and a hypnosis-hydra. All three coordinate and will show up if a fight starts. The dungeon is underwater. You can breathe the special water and it doubles healing rates, but it’s still water. Flames burn but without heat. Starting a new fire is impossible.

The main monster, if you get past the mermaids and the hydra, is a highly intelligent swam of insects.

He comes to pieces when you fight him, but he can reassemble at will. Like Bubuliga, he can knit flesh at will, but his chimeromancy is so great that flesh responds to his directions at 20 paces’ distance. He can sew shut mouths and eyes on sight.

The party is 20 paces (100’) away from this guy. He seals the Fighter’s mouth and nose shut. The Fighter is suffocating. The Wizard goes to help cut the Fighter’s mouth open with a dagger (dealing damage). The Thief throws a dagger at the bad insect swarm person, but it does nothing because a) it’s underwater, thrown weapons are slow and b) it’s a swarm. Next round, the monster fuses the wizard’s hand to the fighter’s face.

Classic methods of killing an insect swarm won’t work because it’s underwater. Burning oil? Nope. Explosions? Good luck. And there’s minimal treasure. As a diplomatic adventure, this location could work, but if someone takes exception to being kidnapped and turned into a cricket-parasite there’s going to be a fight.
 

Basilica of the Leper Messiah

Dungeon. Good: clear summary, actual tension, factions.

A series of cool ideas, linked together in a sensible gameable framework. Evocative detail that isn’t hidden behind made-up words or GM-only secrets. A genuine sense of tension and growing danger. The colour-token-caste system is a bit convoluted on a first readthrough, but it works. This is one of my favorite adventures in the book.
 

The Shattered Gate

Dungeon. Poor: too much hidden information.

Written in collaboration with Sean Winslow. “Something weird buried underground” is a classic hook, and it works here, but all the interesting stuff is gated behind a series of secret doors and secret words. Who knows this? Nobody. Etc. It’s another “guess what the GM is thinking” puzzle. Too many secrets. Too much information that’s just for the GM.
 

The City of the Carreg

City. Mid-Tier: evocative and simple.
A better city than some of the others in this book. I’m not sure how useful it is in other settings, but the map is clear, there’s slightly less going on. Some of the tables feel like filler, which is not great in a 3-page city. Still, the city feels more immediately useful than the others in the book.
 

Midden of the Deep

Dungeon. Good: simple, fun treasure, excellent environment.

There’s a proper lure (in the form of treasure hints at the start). Get the PCs interested with a few scraps of melted gold, lure them deeper, and see what happens. The monsters are briefly and evocatively described.
 

Sirens of Blood and Sea

Dungeon. Good: good treasure, interesting enemies with simple notes, and broad hooks.

Written by Kira Magrann. A generic siren lair or sea-cave dungeon. Perfect. Great 3D aspect helps with group tactics (who holds the winch, how can we escape, etc). The monsters are, in a sense, a trap; kill them and either very bad or very interesting things happen. Excellent folkloric feel.
 

Mulciber’s Flute

Large Wilderness Location. Poor: excellent flavour, but a story instead of a dungeon.

Do you need a “generic hell”? Mulciber’s Flue might be for you. It’s a neat idea but it’s not exactly gameable. Expanding the idea to a full book or ‘zine would feel strange. It’s wonderfully evocative and deeply unsettling, but I’m not sure it’s fit for purpose. It feels like a nightmare written down. Unkillable enemies, unexplained powers, an oppressive sense of despair... is this really one-page dungeon material?
 

Can’t Sleep—Clowns Will Eat Me

Adventure Location. Mid-Tier: good tension, clear goals, difficult core concept.

Written by Stephanie Bryant. “Hallucinations come to life” is a hard prompt for a GM to follow. There’s some support in the text, but the adventure really expects a GM to run with the concept.  Ironically, the theme and time period of this adventure match The Haunting of Hainsley Hall, but very little else in the book.
 

The God Unmoving

Adventure Location. Mid-Tier: static location, fun flavour, interesting NPCs and treasure.

Despite its solid format and excellent map, this town feels very flat and static. There’s no tension. There are a few uses for the town (allies were captured, you were shipwrecked, you need to steal an item, etc.), but the text doesn’t really seem to support any of them. It’s like the town is described in the absence of a RPG context. Lots of detail to help the GM run the town, but no clear reason to run the town. I’ve used it twice now and both times it didn’t feel right.
 

Do It for the Beast

Dungeon. Good: strong theme, great treasure, immediate utility.

A generic cult lair. Lots of strong unique magic. The difficulty of this dungeon really depends on how the GM runs the Eight Powers. Great creepy details. Multistage boss fights.  The information on the Guardian is repeated twice (once in the Guardian Cave, once in a section called The Guardian). Handy, but possibly not ideal for a 2-page dungeon. Otherwise, this is just about a perfect adventure.
 

His Eternal Progress

Random Encounter / Dungeon. Good: fun ideas, unique twists, designed for adventurers.

A random encounter that’s also a miniature dungeon. More purple prose than most of the Trilemma adventures, but it’s worth it. The adventure also seems to incorporate common adventurer tactics (fire). It’s worth putting on a random encounter table or sending a party to “fix” before it reaches a settlement.
 

The Sorcerer’s Feast

Dungeon. Good: few threats, but a well-executed map.

A generic abandoned wizard mansion. Nice. The main danger comes from the random encounter tables and messing with the interesting treasure. Not much else to say; the dungeon works, the layout is clear, and there’s relatively little hidden information.
 

The Man From Before

Dungeon. Mid-Tier: some hidden information, stable equilibrium.

This dungeon is on the verge of being Good, but it still feels like a perfect stable scenario running in the background. There are hooks for PC involvement and plenty to be gained, but, once again, it feels like it was mostly written for readers and not for GMs.
 

The Wagoner’s Table

Random Encounter. Mid-Tier: evocative and fun, but requires adaptation and prep work.

A neat idea for an adventuring hub, safe location, or quest site, but I’m not really looking for those in a one-page dungeon. It’s well designed but lacks a few bits of information. Instead of telling us details about the kitchen and (useless?) flour mill, a table of guests would have been ideal.
 

The Raindrinkers

Random Encounter / Culture. Poor: fluff without context.

Written by Tim Groth. Five NPCs, lots of details, but no tension or reason to use them. It’s pure fluff and novel-style information, precisely the opposite of what I want in a one-page dungeon. As part of a larger adventure it could work, but it’s a strange outlier in this book.
 

The Mouth of Spring

Dungeon. Poor: strange setup, unavoidable traps, little reward.

First, adventurers have to wait for several hours while the dungeon drains. Second, there’s no indication draining is complete (other than circling around to check the Mouth). Third, sensible parties will want to ensure the entrance and drain plug are well guarded. Otherwise, the two NPCs could easily wipe out the party by flooding the caverns behind them. All minor choices, but they add up to a dungeon that’s inconvenient to GM.

This also seems like a dungeon full of disconnected ideas. There’s a room that makes your clothes dance. Neat, but... what? In the middle of a flooded cave complex? Most Trilemma adventures have a sort of naturalistic feel to them. This feels like something from Tegel Manor. Like House of the Tyrant, the dungeon can be felt from “leagues away”, but this information is on the second page. Some treasure, but protected by vicious and very difficult to disarm traps.
 

Into the Silent Temple

Dungeon. Poor: too deeply connected to other modules for ease of use.

This dungeon is a sort of “greatest hits” medley of Trilemma lore. Adapting Trilemma-specific terms to a generic setting is usually fairly easy, but this dungeon contains so many, and they’re so thoroughly linked, that it doesn’t seem worth it. If you really liked the details in the other modules, this one is a hub connecting them or a recap of separate elements. If you didn’t pay attention, it’s nigh incomprehensible. This adventure is Patreon/Kickstarter/Compenium exclusive.

Summary

Some themes crop up in several Trilemma adventures. I couldn't help but chart them. It's not a criticism, it's just for my own amusement.

Dungeon Rating Hermits Rivers Hunger
1 Stellarium of the Vinteralf Mid-Tier
x x
2 Steeps of the Ur-Meg Poor x

3 A Litany in Scratches Poor
x
4 Tannoch Rest-of-Kings Mid-Tier


5 Cage of Serimet Poor


6 The Raid Mirror Poor
x
7 Circle of Wolves Mid-Tier x x
8 Though Flesh be Vast Poor x x x
9 The Coming of Sorg Good
x
10 The Necromancer’s Wish Poor


11 The Extent of Gamandes Mid-Tier


12 The Unmended Way Mid-Tier


13 The Task of Zeichus Good


14 In the Care of Bones Mid-Tier


15 The Lantern of Wyv Good x

16 House of the Tyrant Mid-Tier


17 The Haunting of Hainsley Hall Mid-Tier x

18 The Full-Dark Stone Good


19 The Oracle’s Decree Good x

20 Three for the Grave Good
x x
21 A Clutch of Shadows Poor


22 The Chains of Heaven Mid-Tier


23 The Motes of Eternity Mid-Tier
x
24 The Sky-Blind Spire Good


25 The Lenses of Heaven Mid-Tier


26 The Roots of Ambition Good
x
27 Lair of the Lantern Worm Mid-Tier x x
28 The Cleft of Five Worlds Poor
x
29 The Call of the Light Good x

30 Veil of the Once-Queen Mid-Tier


31 The Moon is a Mirror Poor


32 No God But Dissolution Poor


33 The Mermaids’ Knot Poor


34 Basilica of the Leper Messiah Good


35 The Shattered Gate Poor


36 The City of the Carreg Mid-Tier

x
37 Midden of the Deep Good


38 Sirens of Blood and Sea Good

x
39 Mulciber’s Flute Poor

x
40 Can’t Sleep—Clowns Will Eat Me Mid-Tier


41 The God Unmoving Mid-Tier


42 Do It for the Beast Good
x
43 His Eternal Progress Good


44 The Sorcerer’s Feast Good


45 The Man From Before Mid-Tier
x
46 The Wagoner’s Table Mid-Tier

x
47 The Raindrinkers Poor


48 The Mouth of Spring Poor
x
49 Into the Silent Temple Poor



15/49 adventures (31%) were rated Good.

18/49 adventures (37%) were rated Mid-Tier.
16/49 adventures (33%) were rated Poor.



Dungeon Rating
9 The Coming of Sorg Good
13 The Task of Zeichus Good
15 The Lantern of Wyv Good
18 The Full-Dark Stone Good
19 The Oracle’s Decree Good
20 Three for the Grave Good
24 The Sky-Blind Spire Good
26 The Roots of Ambition Good
29 The Call of the Light Good
34 Basilica of the Leper Messiah Good
37 Midden of the Deep Good
38 Sirens of Blood and Sea Good
42 Do It for the Beast Good
43 His Eternal Progress Good
44 The Sorcerer’s Feast Good
1 Stellarium of the Vinteralf Mid-Tier
4 Tannoch Rest-of-Kings Mid-Tier
7 Circle of Wolves Mid-Tier
11 The Extent of Gamandes Mid-Tier
12 The Unmended Way Mid-Tier
14 In the Care of Bones Mid-Tier
16 House of the Tyrant Mid-Tier
17 The Haunting of Hainsley Hall Mid-Tier
22 The Chains of Heaven Mid-Tier
23 The Motes of Eternity Mid-Tier
25 The Lenses of Heaven Mid-Tier
27 Lair of the Lantern Worm Mid-Tier
30 Veil of the Once-Queen Mid-Tier
36 The City of the Carreg Mid-Tier
40 Can’t Sleep—Clowns Will Eat Me Mid-Tier
41 The God Unmoving Mid-Tier
45 The Man From Before Mid-Tier
46 The Wagoner’s Table Mid-Tier
2 Steeps of the Ur-Meg Poor
3 A Litany in Scratches Poor
5 Cage of Serimet Poor
6 The Raid Mirror Poor
8 Though Flesh be Vast Poor
10 The Necromancer’s Wish Poor
21 A Clutch of Shadows Poor
28 The Cleft of Five Worlds Poor
31 The Moon is a Mirror Poor
32 No God But Dissolution Poor
33 The Mermaids’ Knot Poor
35 The Shattered Gate Poor
39 Mulciber’s Flute Poor
47 The Raindrinkers Poor
48 The Mouth of Spring Poor
49 Into the Silent Temple Poor




Other Sections

The Adventure Compendium is more than just a book of adventures. It's got other tools as well.
 

Bestiary

A list of monsters from the adventures. The bestiary text rarely adds much to an adventure. Unique monsters are described in nearly identical words. Common monsters aren't given additional tools or hints. Sometimes, specific adventures are referenced. Other times, the text is generic.

It's a neat section and it does fill in a few blanks, but I feel like it's a poor tool compared to the adventures.
 

Rarities

A list of treasures. Again, these are mostly taken directly from the adventures. Unique items are mixed in with relatively mundane cultual artifacts. Without tables, cross-references, or other tools, I'm not sure how this section is meant to be used. The information doesn't supplment the adventures, so even if a GM flips to this section they're unlikely to be rewarded. What's this for?
 

History of the Tisthmus

This is the lore section, and it's pretty decent. I'd suggest starting here before reading the adventures. The worldbuilding helps make the adventures more comprehensible and easier to adapt to existing settings. There's a gazeteer with maps. I just skimmed this section, as it's not really what I signed up for.
 

Rumours and Hooks

The hooks on pg. 156 often feel less like hooks and more like extra context or setting tidbits. A hook is sharp; these sometimes feel dull. Many adventures come with their own tables of hooks and hints. There’s lots of specific information, but no sense that these were tested against the general and generic group. Some are good, but the sheer number provided drowns out good ones with irrelevant ones, making the tool less useful.

Index

Hooray! An index. And it's very complete.
  

Patreon and Kickstarter Backer Pages.

I'm going to be blunt. Stop doing this. It’s 2020. A big block of names is a pain to format, you need to check to see if people want their names included or not, and it’s a waste of paper and shipping cost. If you back a book on Kickstarter, your thanks is the book (on time, on budget, and in good quality), and perhaps a polite and thankful update from the creators. If you want to see your name in print, print it yourself.
 

Final Notes

Trilemma Strengths

  • A huge number of excellent adventures in a consistent setting.
  • Blend of great maps and fun scenarios.
  • Free (or reasonably priced for a compendium).
  • Maps, text, and art are usually released under CC-BY-NC 4.0. If you don't like an adventure, Michael's given you all the tools you need to fix it.

Trilemma Weaknesses

  • Some dungeons are presented as mysteries to be uncovered by the reader rather than tools to be used by the GM.
  • Some dungeons lack urgency, tension, or hooks.
  • Some dungeons feel like beautiflly balanced set pieces, designed to be read and amired but not played.
  • Occasional signs of format lock. Ideas that would be better served by a different format are forced into the small-page dungeon mould.
  • The density of the Trilemma/Tristhmus setting sometimes bogs down the adventures. The creator of a setting always knows what's going on; making sure new readers can access the information without getting lost in endless made-up words and cross-refences is a tricky task. If you live in a world long enough, you forget what it looks like from the outside.

Conclusion

The Trilemma adventures are one of the most valuable resources this community has. Use them. Evaluate them. If you disagree with how I've listed or interpreted an adventure, great! Write your own review or hack the adventure into a new setting or format. Consider buying a fancy hardcover and impressing all your friends or supporting Michael on Patreon.

7 comments:

  1. Great post! Thank you!
    I backed the Trilemma KS, and I really tried to use materials from it as much as possible. I had some good games but also had problems with implementing some dungeons. Your guide will be useful for finding the good stuff. :)

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  2. We have very similar tastes in these adventures. I have the original PDFs, which I find more useful than a printed book because I can print them off as individual sheets and highlight key details. I also typically annotate them in red pen or sharpie with additional treasure or hooks. My ideal use for most of them is as minor adventure locations in a hexcrawl - there's enough good ones for 10ish minor locations plus another 10-15 that you can make work if you stitch them together with your own quest line to motivate the PCs. Overall, it's a tremendous body of work.

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  3. Hard disagree on a couple of these. I appreciate your thoroughness and I agree on several counts (information that the players can never reasonably discover serves little purpose) but maybe we have different ideas about what makes a good hook. For me and my tables, treasure is often the least concern. Gaining power/learning secrets/witnessing wonders by finding things or talking to people that only exist in a particular place is usually what it boils down to. Why are the PCs here specifically? That's context dependent and usually extremely easy for me to come up with. What interesting things will they find when they get here? That is harder to spin up at the drop of a hat, and it's what these adventures largely do well in my opinion.

    Specific adventures with awesome interactions that you were meh on and I will now present cherry-picked gripes about:

    The Cage of Serimet
    -This adventure is likely not about treasure (freeing Yorta or even just gaining an audience with him to learn what he knows seem like obvious hooks since he is "a master of journeying and summoning"), but even if that's all you care about, it says "His apartments are stuffed with luxuries from impossible places". How does that equal, in your words, "there's no real treasure"?

    The Extent of Gamandes
    -You said this adventure has "some neat ideas but no tension." This adventure was one of the ones I was most excited about initially, since my players are forever attempting to abuse portals/teleportation/astral travel, and having a back pocket answer for what happens when it goes wrong beyond "you die" really adds depth and, well, adventure! The adventure says as much in the "How To Reach The Extent" section. Having the party try and figure out exactly where the hell they ended up and how to escape the plane seems like good tension and great use of a session to me. There's even a possible answer right in the text, since the players could teleport back to the primary plane using Gamandes' head in Ostium Tremens.

    Mulciber's Flute
    -Practically worth it for the imagery alone, but if you need a hook beyond the many other reason's someone might visit hell, two present themselves implicitly in the adventure. One, find and rescue the paladin Tar Semminus (even if he doesn't want to be rescued). Perhaps the king or master of his order has decided he is needed back. And two, move hell! The whole idea of this adventure is that hell is some roving place that sucks dry places it resides beneath. A desperate mission to enter hell and figure out how to banish it sounds like plenty of dramatic tension to me.

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    Replies
    1. Sorry for the delayed reply!

      -The Cage of Serimet
      "His apartments are stuffed with luxuries from impossible places" is not treasure. It's work for the GM. A d6 table of luxuries from impossible places, or even a few lines, or even a gp value, would help immensely. Right now it's just an idea, not a tool.

      -The Extent of Gamandes
      Maybe, but it still feels kind of flat. I can see people getting more use out of it as a plane-puzzle-prison, but I'm not convinced it won't lead to frustrated or bored players.

      -Mulciber's Flute
      I'm not evaluating modules based on imagery, but on gameability. Imagery is great but I didn't buy this book just to read it.

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  4. Also, I just checked and the back of the compendium has a table of hooks (along with rumors and lore) for every adventure. You note this in the review but maybe you aren't realizing that only the rightmost column are hooks? There's three for each adventure. The ones on the left and in the middle seem like "tidbits" because they are rumors and lore respectively. The black heading at the top of each page of the chart indicates this.

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    Replies
    1. "Hooks" is a broad term to me, I suppose. Rumours and lore are subcategories of hooks.

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  5. This makes me wish PDF wasn't the default format for RPG publishing. I'd love to go through the ones you rated poor, see if I agree fully, and then attempt a rewrite. As it is I'd have to either import into a bitmap editor and blank out the text and re-write probably everything, or see if there's some PDF exploder software out there.

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