Thursday, 9 February 2023

[REVIEW] Winter in Bugtown

Currently Smoking:
Pill Bug Pipeweed
Winter in Bugtown (2022)

by J. Colussy-Estes

Published by Noisms Games

Low levels

Enjoy being lost In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard? If so, this new zine/anthology edited and published by David McGrogan might be of interest. The following reviews will focus on the adventures in the recently published first issue. As the call for papers (appropriate, as the book looks and feels like a scholarly journal) specified, submissions would be expected to be between 2000 and 10,000 words, and they tend to be on the brief side. This is both an opportunity and a hazard. Constraints can encourage efficient writing, but they may also limit the scope and complexity of an adventure. It is a fine balance to walk. Appropriately, some of these reviews will also be on the short side. It is a fine balance to walk.

* * *

Winter in Bugtown is a scenario describing an underground city of whimsical bug people, half Derinkuyu and half ant farm. Under the surface world of a podunk fantasy setting lie tunnel systems of jaded insect aristocrats, giant pill bug racing, a hive of brain bees, and a dormant swarm of undead locusts kept at bay – so far, most of the time – by the machinations of mothman necromancers. This is as high-concept as it gets, and the question that comes up with these things is always “Creative idea, but does it work?” As it tends to be with these projects, it doesn’t. That’s the summary.

However, to defeat the bug, we must first understand the bug. What makes modules like this stumble? Being an undisciplined thought experiment with little concern for functionality is the main reason. The scenario is not a working adventure: it is a very broad-strokes, high-level overview of one with a few random tables to recreate the underground city of Ghir Oom. This worked fairly well in The Cerulean Valley, where similar elements were used in the construction of a small sandbox setting, with a very good understanding of how to help run a mini-campaign in it. Winter in Bugtown is neither proper setting nor proper module, but a hybrid which does not play to the strengths of either, while being too much of both.

Six-Zone Dungeon

Ghir Oom lies below a dungeon below a ruined temple, which receives a four-line overview and a table of hints that lead further below, but the dungeon is otherwise left undescribed – as are the nearby Duskfire Woods, for which the scenario offers a table of eight adventure hooks without useful resolution. The bug city proper consists of six loosely sketched zones, all of which are surrounded by tunnels and sub-complexes of things that don’t receive useful attention either. Some of this is mitigated by semi-useful random tables: there is one for weird finds which run the gamut from spider dolls to a maggot mask that does 2d6 Hp damage as it affixes itself to the face. The “What Can I do With This Dead Bug?” has tasting notes for texture and flavour (if you really wish to eat the bugs), salvageable bits, and valuable body parts (if you really wish to get rich selling bug ovaries/testes).

There are ideas which play well on disgust and the natural human loathing for bugs, such as a maggot nursery of docile surface creatures serving as a host to a new generation of giant wasp maggots, or a gross hive of brain bees. The mothman necromancers are properly creepy and mysterious, with a “dungeon under the dungeon under the dungeon” trick that always works well. This is well done. However, you can’t paper over the fact that this is a slightly souped-up six-zone dungeon, where you can’t actually do much. The conflicts being described are sufficiently specific to strike a spark, but it turns out the bug people, for all their oddball whimsy, don’t actually have interesting conflicts going on. Plipple, a mantis shepherd child, is bored, and likes to spend time in the mantis nursery. Fellefe, a mothwoman necromancer, is compensated for maintaining the warm light of the bug marketplace, but tires of the responsibility. Narqua, another mothwoman necromancer, is fed rotting fruits by a zombie goblin, and keeps a zombie raven she calls “Baby” and strokes mindlessly while speaking. It turns out the bug city is just modern Seattle, which makes this more of a horror scenario than you might first think.

The aesthetics are way past the shark-jumping point. In the 2000s dungeonpunk era, it would be a half-fiend wereshark wielding a spiked chain – no, TWO spiked chains! Here, it is encounters like “A palanquin carrying a group of four mothmen passes by, carried on the backs of four zombie bears. Fine spidersilks hide the faces of those inside.”, and “Bing Fifty-One – Mitefolk locust trainer who smokes a pipe and is missing a middle arm.” When you already have a basic premise with a bug city and mothman necromancers, you need to be careful not to push it from highly weird into the ridiculous, lest it become a circus freakshow. Well, that did not work out so well here. Worse, it is a banal circus freakshow. The whimsy becomes grating, and ends up twee and powerless, a safe and pastel-coloured fantasy.

The problems mount as you go into the details. Not only does the general framework not work, many of the individual bits and pieces don’t work either. You can see this in random encounters with a “captured adventuring party, stripped and caged, starving”, who inexplicably and suicidally “take the first opportunity to attack and steal their rescuers’ belongings” if freed. Why would they ever do this, considering the encounter is assigned to an area far underground, where there are hordes of bug people between these rescued fools and the safety of the surface world? The adventurers are not described beyond the superficial idea kernel. We don’t know their capabilities, numbers, or any other distinguishing characteristic which may help us run the encounter, as stupid as it is. On another occasion, an encounter which can occur in any region of Ghir Oom (1:6 probability) sprays the party with pheromones which makes all encountered insects and insectoids attack violently on sight, completely upending the social/interaction element of the scenario in one swoop that the players may never even realise the reasons for. We also get stuff like a “mothman necromancer seen in the near distance”, who raises an arm, points and vanishes, placing a curse on a random party member which can only be lifted by killing this specific mothman. That is not how D&D, and specifically old-school D&D works: we have combat rules and PC abilities to determine whether the event can actually happen this way, and remove curse spells that can counteract similar afflictions. This is a nitpick, but it reveals the underlying problem: this is not adventure gaming, but attempts at crafting “story” at the expense of player agency. The encounters are a mess. The zone descriptions are a mess. The aesthetics are a mess. It is all a mess.

Winter in Bugtown is a perfect example of a module where the ideas are all it can offer, and the execution is a disappointment. The wild stuff – the parts that are imaginative in their own way – is not really so remarkable when there is an entire design movement doing the same kind of stuff, and the novelty wears off. You start to lose interest in the eccentric flourishes and the quirky oddball bugmen, and come away disappointed because there is no solid structure underneath. More than that, the deeper you look into the module, the sloppier it gets and the more practical issues emerge. If this was an orcs-in-a-hole dungeon, its deficiencies would be plain to see. As is, the veneer of colourful paint serves as a temporary distraction. However, the substance remains weak: this is just a mishmash of underdeveloped high-fructose ideas in a confused structure that’s neither setting nor module, and does not work as either.

No playtesters are credited in this adventure.

Rating: * / *****

You will be eaten by the bugs,
and you will be happy.


  1. What too much Hollowknight does to a MF.

    1. The sad thing is, Hollow Knight offered actual gameable structure with its Metroid-esque exploration and interlooping maps. Also it had atmosphere in spades. Hollow Knight could be an awesome TTRPG if converted carefully and with attention.

  2. These sideway dungeons look like the all-purpose anthills, bug lairs and whatnot we (me and my brothers) used to draw around age 7. They had guard posts, treasure chambers, throne halls and basically everything you see in a mundane dungeon, even EMPTY ROOMS! Way ahead of our time, as usual.

    1. My first RPG experience ever was a sideways pyramid dungeon, and a fairly complex one at that with elaborate spatial and environmental puzzles. We played nameless archaeologists out to recover the treasures. That was around 1990, so way before its time too.

      It is actually quite natural to develop in this direction, since Egyptian tombs are natural dungeons (exploration + treasure + traps + mummies), and they are depicted as a side-cut. A lot of caves, too.

  3. I love side views of dungeons but in a published product IMO they are not a good replacement for a top view map. The loss of the horizontal dimension is not worth the tradeoff. The best dungeons incorporate a side view map as an addition to regular maps, not instead of them.

    1. This is a style that has limitations and advantages. It flattens terrain into a single plane a bit more than top-down dungeons, so I agree with you there. However, it allows for a lot of interesting verticality as a trade-off. In a lot of cases, they are just done badly: too small, not enough interesting stuff. That does not mean they cannot be used for good purposes. I believe this field has just not been sufficiently explored. If you look at, for instance, Graphite Prime's modules, he uses them to construct very interesting, large-scale modules where the format plays to its natural strengths. Jeff Rients' Wessex sidecut level would probably have been a formative vertical dungeon, but it was never released.

      I have had some experience running these, and they are one format that work, mainly for small- and medium-scale dungeons. However, the main dungeon in our Thisium campaign was a sideways affair, and it was quite extensive. Not megadungeon-calibre, but sufficient to be one of the campaign's tentpoles.

  4. "On another occasion, an encounter which can occur in any region of Ghir Oom (1:6 probability) sprays the party with pheromones which makes all encountered insects and insectoids..." Ooh, interesting, this form of communication is rarely considered! What effect does it have, do the characters seem like children, or queens, food or maybe mates? "...attack violently on sight" Serves me right for getting my hopes up.

    1. Yeah, it is under-used, even though it could be an intriguing challenge if properly implemented in the module. It does have one good thing I forgot to mention in the review: the bugs can just crawl on the walls and ceilings, granting them mobility not accessible to the characters, and letting them move between levels via great vertical shafts. This is a good idea, although again, more could have been done with it than using it as a throw-away line.