Monday, October 14, 2013

Grimmsgate - comments on a review

Bryce Lynch does awesome reviews, coming at things from some very particular angles that I almost universally agree with. In other words, most of what I write is written with (almost) the same goals that Bryce reads for.

He did a review of Grimmsgate, which is -- all in all -- a positive review ("better than 90% of the crap out there") but with some definite criticisms. Bryce's complete review is HERE. Since, as I said, Bryce and I agree on many of the standards for an adventure, here are my thoughts on the review:

By the way, I have cut lots of the review because I don't like it when people just reproduce someone else's work without giving anyone a reason to check out the other blog. It wouldn't be fair to Bryce if I reproduced the whole thing, so this is only a patchwork set of comments. Here we go:

"This is meant to be an introductory adventure. It has a starting home-base, a brief wilderness around it, and an adventure in an old temple to get the characters going.

Me: Keep on the Borderland is the model for Grimmsgate, because I think KotB nailed the elements that are needed for a good starting area.

"The ancient temple is … I don’t know, bland? It’s got it’s high points, for sure, but it’s not what I’ve come to expect from Finch. I’d call it an average effort (meaning it’s better than 90% of the crap produced) but I’ve got no time, space, or energy for average."

Me: I included this mainly because I quoted it above, so I wanted to include the qualifier as well. I actually get to Bryce's point later where he's more specific; this is in his intro to the review.

Bryce: The writing is a lot closer in style to Rappan Athuk than it is Tomb of the Iron God.

Me: I think that's true. I wrote several levels of Rappan Athuk, and from following that model I think I also wrote Grimmsgate from a particular writing perspective. Very accurate assessment. There's a bit more to it, though, based on the fact that -- even though I know it's going to be the exception rather than the rule -- I was writing for the younger reader, less experienced in playing RPG's. That affected the approach. Nevertheless, I'm willing to admit that Tomb of the Iron God (first level of it, at least) is probably better than Grimmsgate (other than the village -- I like the village).

Bryce: "The players somehow end up there. [the village]"

Me: I don't bother with the idea of not railroading the beginning of an introductory adventure (or even the start of a higher level campaign). The starting point can be arbitrary, IMO. My own Tomb of the Iron God campaign (experienced players) started with the characters naked next to a burning brothel, with the guards getting close and an arrest imminent. I don't like railroading once the campaign starts, but it might as well start interesting.

Which Bryce then nails:

"Some lame hooks are offered. The Priests of Law charge you with a holy quest to investigate … sorry, brb. Ok, back, had to go throw up."

 Me: Okay, the hooks are lame. In my defense, I needed some that would work with an introductory campaign, and this is an area where I was thinking about brand new players. But looking back at it, I think I used that as a crutch. Except the one mentioned below.

On the "abandoned house" hook, Bryce suggests:
"Maybe the players are a new knight or free farmers and are sent to the village … it becomes their holding in liege to their lord. That doesn’t suck nearly as much and would also seem to get the players MUCH more interested in the fate of the village. Might make a neato campaign. A mini-hex crawl."

Me: this was exactly what I had in mind with the "they are deeded an abandoned house" hook. I didn't want to make it a freehold for first level characters. Bryce earlier disagrees with the background idea that no lord would claim the land because it's too wild, but that's letting realism get in the way of gaming. The area is free, and the characters have a house in the village. I left it to the players to see the opportunity there. So I think Bryce is correct, but that he didn't notice that I actually did what he wanted, in a different way that meshes better with an intro module. :)

Bryce on the Village:
.... The bases are all covered: inn, smith, store, cleric too old to go adventuring but who has some good scrolls to use like raise dead."
 BUT he says,
"The village is plagued by read-aloud text that seems forced. “This is a well-tended stone building with a roof of wooden shingles. The sign over the door says The Hilltop Emporium.”

Me: While it's true that I could have just labeled each of these as "Farmhouse," and left the description to the DM, I wanted to give a beginner something to work with -- and also, I think this is a part of the "I just wrote lots of Rappan Athuk" hangover. I still can't decide if I agree with Bryce or not. I do remember writing these, and they were done fast, and they were done because some of the buildings had important descriptions and others didn't. So, many of these were done for consistency. So I think Bryce picked up on that, accurately. On the other hand, I think I was right to avoid, in a beginner adventure, an inconsistent approach (guaranteed that someone other than Bryce would decide it was an editing mistake or sloppy). Again, I can't decide if Bryce is right here or not.

... "the shopkeeper has delusion of grandeur. All of the little NPC’s running around have some nice personality to make them memorable without being over the top. The descriptions of the people are very well done, communicating themselves strongly in just a sentence or two. "
... "But then it’s wrapped inside of shit."

 Me: I think Bryce means the rest of the introductory material, based on paragraphs, maybe also the wilderness. I don't think he means the whole module, based on the "better than 90%" evaluation. :)

The complaint about the intro is that it's a block of read-aloud (18 lines). Here, in the general case, I totally agree with Bryce. Long read-aloud text is crappy. It directs the DM's attention away from the players, and turns good material into a dry recitation. 18 lines is about the outside limit of what I could possibly stomach. Probably less. So, why is it in there? It's because of that "Introductory Module" consideration, and I actually still agree with the way I did it. Let me just quote Bryce's discussion -- again, go to Bryce's blog, he is probably the best reviewer out there.

"Better to play out a little journey, not taking too long in it, and present the information in the read-aloud naturally. Because the information is GOOD. The characters pass weird shit on the road on the way. Bones in a circle around a human skull. A small red-stained wicker basket abandoned by the side of the road. A shallow unmarked grave. Some REALLY good creepy shit to sprinkle in an adventure to Pigstye. Ruined by being wrapped in a block of text."

Here's why I kept that in boxed text: it's once again because I was trying to get a very clear, firm "This is the Starting Point" beginning, precisely and uniquely because it's an intro. Bryce wants what I normally try to do: a sort of wishy-washy set of cues that can be picked up anywhere by the DM, like a string to wind and unwind, rather than what I did in Grimmsgate, which is more like a brass band with cymbals to mark the very official BEGINNING. I was following, although not blindly, the lead from Keep on the Borderland. Read-aloud text is normally, for me, the trade-off between making sure that I, as the DM, don't forget a key fact and have to backtrack (I have DM ADD because I get so excited when DMing) -- or on the other hand, the fact that more than 10 seconds of read-aloud is an excitement-killer. For the intro adventure, I opted for giving the crutch to the DM -- an experience DM can assimilate 18 lines and do it in his/her own words. A beginning DM might not know how to start at all. So I provided a start.

"The “Wilderness” map is small. It has four places of note on it. ... None of these encounters are fleshed out much at all, just a sentence or three. This leaves them pretty open to interpretation by the DM to flesh out for additional adventure. So, not really something appropriate to the adventure at hand. "

 Me: Not sure if this is a criticism or not, but it's an accurate description of what I wanted to do.

Bryce on the Temple:
It’s arrayed around a hill with multiple entrances, ala the Caves of Chaos. That’s great! It’s a thoughtful feature, especially the hidden entrance in the woods. The majority of the temple though, under the hill, is one LONG hallway with smaller hallways and rooms hanging off of it. It immediately smacks of ‘linear’ but is slightly more thoughtful than that … but not by much.

Me: Done on purpose. In retrospect it could have had more complexity, but I didn't want to add too much. There's Quasqueton and then there's the Caves of Chaos, as my favorite models for a starting adventure. I wanted to go with the Caves as a model for this one, and I have to admit that's partially dumbing down the challenge of exploring and the attendant risks. Skyrim was playing in the background in my house at the time, and I was really impressed with the graphics. I have a sneaking suspicion that the Skyrim aesthetic crept into the map. Not by much, and I still stand by the map, but Bryce definitely identified something that's going on, whether for good or ill. If I treated beginning players based on an assumption that they can't surmount Skyrim, then that's a weakness in the module. Not sure if that's actually the case or not.

"Lots of lame read-aloud text in the encounters, but not a lot of interesting things. There are a decent number of ‘flashback’ ghostly images showing the temples past. This ranks just slightly higher than ‘diary entries’ in my ‘things I loathe’ list."

Me: This is one of the reasons I like Bryce's reviews. On this point, I actually totally disagree with him on principle, however. Yes, there seem to be letters and visions in every module written by everyone for all time, and it's old. Nevertheless, I think it's absolutely key -- especially in a beginner's adventure (where the players are also less jaded with finding letters) -- that the players can discover bits and pieces of the backstory that might or might not have a bearing on the challenges they face. I know exactly where I get this opinion. I was caught up in D&D for all time by the bits and pieces in B1: In Search of the Unknown. Quasqueton. It's adventure-module magic for a beginning player, and there's none of this in the Caves of Chaos, so I put it into the Temple in Grimmsgate. Maybe it's a bit hokey, but if I were to re-read B1, so is a lot of the delivery system in Quasqueton as well. But as a beginning adventure, I KNOW that this stuff works because it worked on me. So on this point, even though Bryce and I agree on most ways to judge an adventure, I disagree here: I think this sort of thing is actually crucial.

Bryce likes some stuff:
 The art, which I seldom mention in reviews, does a great job at conveying the flavor of the cannibal-type monsters: gaunt, tall, horrific. The main villain is well atmosphered as well, with clouds of ash about his person, etc. Centipedes are described as bright green and shiny. Very nice imagery on the monsters. Well, SOME of the monsters. It’s inconsistent. Not all centipedes get that description, and the manes demons get none at all.

Me: Crap, the last comment is dead on target. I think that might have been time pressure on the final pass that I do (I call that last pass "surgery" because the whole book is open on the table for repairs and additions). That's not an excuse, if that's what happened. I do recall that in the middle of writing I got a bit stressed about the deadline, but I don't remember consciously rushing anything. Reading through, I'm not upset by the way this turned out, but Bryce is right on target -- not all the monster descriptions are consistent. (Although consistency alone isn't normally one of Bryce's complaints, so I think really what he's saying is that he wanted more of what he saw as good stuff, not consistency for consistency's sake).

"The treasure is a great disappointment. The gems are just “4 gems worth 100gp each” and the magic items are just generic “mace +1″ or “sword +1.” After reading an aside in the module about you can add flavor by creating your own monsters (the mole-men cannibals) to then encounter this blandness in magic items is a real shame."

Me: Completely Guilty. On this point I fucked up. Again, it may have been a rush at the end, although I really don't remember a rush. But once again, the way I do treasure is (with a few exceptions when I get an inspiration) to do generic coin-numbers and magic items to get a fix on how MUCH. And only then do I go in to make them more interesting, and it appears that I mostly missed that step. Unless I did it because it was an intro module, but I don't recall deciding to do that -- I think this is a plain screwup.

All in all, I think it was a good review in terms of pointing out places where I didn't really hit the mark, and Bryce also tended to like the parts where I thought I nailed the goal. And then the 2 places (intro text and flashbacks/letters) where we disagreed about what the goal should have been.

Thanks, Bryce!

Edit: As a current event, I should mention that Frog God Games has a Kickstarter going, for Sword of Air. Please visit!


  1. It was really interesting reading this point by point, and then reading Bryce's review. Felt like a conversation :)

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  3. Just discovering this thread almost a year after it was written: that was an excellent response to Bryce’s review. Pops to Mr. Finch. Totally makes me want to investigate his work and check it out. Anyone who can be that open to criticism is tops in my book.

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  6. Matt, I know you probably will never see this comment because the post is so old, but I wanted to give you some additional feedback on the module and help you absorb Bryce's review.

    First off, I am a huge fan of your work. It regularly ignites my passion for DMing. When I found Grimmsgate, I was excited to discover another published work of yours. I think what happened with Bryce (and then myself), was a shock of disappointment that Grimmsgate was workmanlike and not great. You have set a high-bar for yourself, and I couldn't help feeling that it fell below those standards.

    I was expecting your Village of Hommlet (which admittedly many new players found confusing, i.e. "I kill farmers?", while just as many others cherished), but instead got something closer to B2. B2 is classic, partly due to its own merits and in part because it came in the Basic Set and we all used it to learn the game. It also contained some of the seeds of the game's most over-used troupes: a disjointed dungeon crawl. You are 100% correct, what may seem passe to Bryce is fresh to the new (younger) player. Just ignore the jaded old fart on those points. :) But ultimately, B2 needs a lot of DM effort to make it come to life (or even make sense).

    Honestly, I think Bryce's disappointment that Grimmsgate was not another Finch masterpiece left a bad taste in his mouth so he went looking for something to pin it on---read-aloud text, etc. I strongly disagree with most of his specific complaints. They really seem to be scapegoats for that missing "je ne sais quoi" that he and I were both looking for and the work lacked (sorry!). If I were to try and put my finger on it, I would say Grimmsgate is just too damn short. I know you were trying to leave it open to interpretation, and avoid intimidating a fresh DM, but the module suffers for being inconsistent in it's approach. Either hold the new DM's hand, or don't. Half-way sucks.

    Please consider updating Grimmsgate. Fill it out some more. Expand the town a bit, and make the little side adventures compelling and complete. Don't hold back---do what you do best. Trust yourself and don't apologize for your style. The world loves it. I think your side-levels of Rappan Athuk are the best in the whole damn book. Also, don't shackle yourself with B2. The gaming world has had 30+ years to reflect on it's merits and shortcomings. Don't re-make B2, make a better (0e) one.

    Lastly, if I we you, I'd strategically consider making the PDF module free so that everyone runs it at least once by default when they are learning S&W. That way it teaches a whole new generation how to find the true spirit of S&W/D&D. Personally, I took many wrong turns before someone showed me a true path.

    I hope what I have said helps in some way.

  7. One more aside: was Grimmsgate play tested?

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