|Well, Well, Well!|
by Jon Bertani
Published by The Merciless Merchants
Hello, and welcome to part one of **THE RECKONING**, wherein entries of the infamous No Artpunk Contest are taken to task. This promises to be both a treat and a challenge, as the competing entries were written with an intent that is close to my heart: to prove, once again, that the power of old-school gaming is found in a fine balance between finely honed and practical design principles, and a strong imagination. That is to say, it is craft before it is art, and this craft can be learned, practiced, and mastered. The following reviews will therefore look not for basic competence – it is assumed that the contest participants would not trip over their own shoelaces or faint at the sight of their own blood – but excellence. The reviews will follow a random order, and they will be shorter than Prince’s original pieces. One adventure, the contest winning Caught in the Web of Past and Present, shall be excluded for two reasons: one, the author plays at my table (and I have previously played in his one-offs); and two, I am going to republish it in an updated edition. With that aside, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!
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With a title like that, The Well promises something like a dungeon with an evil well, or an evil well that is a dungeon. Surprisingly, the well part is a remarkably small slice of a mixed-profile adventure doubling as the beginnings of a mini-setting. The module gives you the golden combination: a home base in the form of a small frontier town; a mountainous wilderness area; and a dungeon to top it off. This is surprisingly generous from a module written to contest specifications (20 pages max), and broadens its scope to more than mere adventure site. There is a broader context, there are leads to the main attraction, and there are possible links to further adventures (although this latter part is weakly developed).
Let us start with the strong Hook: one of the party members inherits a farmstead. Obviously, this thing will be way more trouble than it is worth, but what player would not jump at the chance to be a Property Owner and important Local Player? It is a little sprinkling of magic. The farmstead, in turn, is found up in the mountains, on the frontier beyond a final town. This small setting is displayed on a good map; done in pencil, and immediately captivating with both its displayed features and blank spaces. What’s the deal with the druids? Do the other farmsteads experience trouble? What’s up that valley? There is instant adventure potential here. Once you are finished with this adventure, the farmstead, the town, and the extended wilderness should generate at least a few more sessions of play, perhaps an adventure arc before you move on to greener pastures. This is not in the module, but it is implied by the module, and that is no small thing: “creativity multiplier” is what a “module” in the original sense ought to aspire to.
The town, High River, is decently outlined in about three pages (including a rumour table). It is probably too much for this adventure, but very useful for the mini-campaign part. We are introduced to a frontier settlement that’s rough and currently down on its luck, ruled by a decrepit Lord Esserick and not quite able to control everything in the surrounding area. It is a nest of Law, but the mudcore kind, with frontier justice, a brothel as one of the main places to see, and brawl-happy violent assholes for residents. It is perhaps a little too heavy on the scene-setting and not sufficiently strong in actually being an adventure platform. In fact, one of the interesting conflicts to be had (what if the players get on the bad side of the mysterious, slightly sinister druids who seem to be at home here) is handwaved away with no druid stats provided, while the brothel’s madame and bouncer are gleefully statted. Still, it does establish a place; northern vanilla with plenty of hops, wood shavings, and a dash of mud.
And here we come to the dungeon, the module’s centrepiece, a flawed gem. It works on the level of presenting a place with a “presence”, and a place with decent options for combat and – in a limited fashion – even tense diplomacy. It works as an abandoned dwarf shrine befouled by the presence of brigands. There is strong imagery here, effectively presented in a direct, GM-friendly manner. “The water splashes and burbles over colourful rocks within the stream bed.” “An orchard of apple trees grow along the stream, having gone wild quite some time ago. The tree branches bend heavily, burdened with fruit.” “A triangular fire pit burns with low oddly coloured flames. The flickering flames reveal an arc of runes upon the wall (…).” You can feel it, touch it, smell it. Good. There is some exploration off the beaten path – a clear pool of water with a side encounter. There is a mystery – the shrine, with its insight into the dwarven psyche (“Be thee not of the Folk then let thee suffer in all that thee do.”) and a multi-layered puzzle to reach the sealed section with the true prizes (this is where the titular Well makes its appearance). And the confrontation with the brigands is a very nicely set up, multi-layered combat encounter with reinforcements, flanking, back attacks, and sufficient carnage to serve as a trial by fire for a beginning party, the crucible in which weakness is burned away and true steel is tempered. I shed a few manly tears just thinking about it. Verily! That was well done.
Nevertheless, it is still a modest monster lair at the end of a rather linear overland trek of telegraphed breadcrumbs. It is a cruelly good illusion, but it is an illusion nevertheless. On an individual room-by-room level, it is strong; but the structure is weak, and nowhere it is weaker than where it truly matters. Not because it does not have “muh loops”, but because it is a choreographed ride and not dungeon exploration, even if it is moody and knows how to make you scream during the plunge. Even the optional side areas are too small. This is the same problem seen in Temple of 1000 Swords; a module that would need more space to breathe. Perhaps a few sideshows, perhaps just more generous empty space, both inside and outside the main attraction. And it is definitely poor in treasure. It is even poor in treasure by the standards of treasure-light games (say, the better sort of 3e/5e campaign), and definitely by old-school terms, where GP is the spice that makes XP go up. I like it as an aesthetic, but it requires fixing from a gameplay perspective. It would not be too difficult, but it stands out.
Ultimately, the adventure is stronger in its implications, as a mini-setting you can expand on and turn into your own, than in the core element, what is sometimes actually there. (Although, again, what is present is definitely well done). There were contest limitations (length, for one), but one cannot help but immediately demand “MORE!” The writing could be one notch tighter, although we can’t complain: the text is clean and precise, packing a surprisingly decent amount of material into the page limit, while maintaining the gameplay/flavour balance. Still, the correct verdict can only be: “Nice. Very nice. This is quite good for a start. Now let us see the full adventure.”
This module credits its playtesters. Excellent!
Rating: *** / *****