I was trying to jumpstart the review section on the Dragonsfoot Forums so decided to do a few reviews. I plan to do two more and will post them here.
The Secret of the Library By the Oliver Brothers Levels 5-10, 1st Edition D&D, 102 pgs.
“As you enjoy a mug of ale in the Pub of the Purple Worm, an exasperated young man enters the tavern and scans the room. Spying your group, he comes over and introduces himself as the city librarian. Upon cataloging some old volumes of ancient lore, he discovered a secret door. Too scared to enter the musty hallway, he tries to convince your party to investigate on the library’s behalf. Will the adventures take up the challenge? Who knows what lies waiting down the secret passage? Find out in this new AD&D module: The Secret of the Library.
I picked this adventure to review because I ran The Tavern of Daednu by the Oliver Brothers for my step-daughters and their cousins and we all enjoyed it. My review is strictly based off my opinion.
Synopsis: The party is asked to explore a discovered secret door in a library. The secret door leads to a wizard’s chamber. Long ago, the wizard fought a summoned balor, was shredded, and cast against a pile of books. The wizard’s body disappeared and articles of his clothing were separated into 12 books. Finding some clues, the characters touch a book and are transported away to a different world/dimension and/or situation. In order to find their way back to the library, they must retrieve the piece of wizard’s equipment. Each 'book' has its own unique challenges that need to be overcome to return back to the library.
The Bad: First off, the adventure starts off with a several page backstory that outlines…..everything. Everything is spelled out—how the building was built, by who, for how long, what the building is now, etc. I would have preferred to see a summarized 1 paragraph backstory. Most of the information would not be found out by the players, so I didn’t find it very useful. If the author wanted to include the whole story, they could put in the back as an appendix for DM’s who like to know all the history of the place (and some do)--but give me a summarized quick version so I can familiarize myself with it 30 seconds before I start rolling dice with my players.
This adventure is a 'sandboxed railroad'. The party can choose where to go by picking a book, but once there…they are railroaded into finding the wizard’s item in each particular book. There is no adventure hook or rumors to even start off the adventure…just a guy approaches you in a bar and tells you what’s up. Other adventure hooks potentially could have been a character knowing the wizard (lost uncle) and wanted to find answer to his disappearance or they needed to find a special book in the library and stumbled upon the secret door themselves or maybe hired to steal a specific book. Even in the writing about the librarian it states: “He has heard rumors that the library used to be a wizard’s mansion….” That’s a short cut. It takes out potential roleplay and interaction by the players with NPC's and townsmembers to find out their own information about the place. The party doesn't choose this adventure...the librarian chooses this adventure for the party.
There is A LOT of unneeded information in this module. It is not easy to scan and use during play. It tries to give some flavor, for example, knowing the background of how a tavern got its name, but it creates a situation where you would be constantly trying to go back and find the useful information that is happening DURING play. For example, the librarian freaking out about any type of fire as a light source (candles, torches, etc.) is GREAT and supports a DM to roleplay that out, but it doesn’t pop out at you during play…you have to wade through a thick paragraph to glean it or go back and highlight it--a designer's job should be to highlight important tools for DMs.
Some of the writing is not evocative and a bit bland…here are a few nitpicks:
“Stepping through the threshold, the player characters will see a large open room with 6 tables and chairs and on either end of the room are archways leading into the single level wings.”
1. Pretty bland. 2. I can see all that on the map already, why take up writing space?
“The trap door is a thick, heavy wooden door that measures 5' square and is 3' thick. It will be difficult to open it by pulling on the ring and trying to pry it open with some object (e.g., sword, pole, etc.) will not work due to the thickness of the trap door. This is the purpose of the iron ring. If any of the player characters look up, they will see a support beam across the end of the hallway that has a 1' gap between it and the ceiling. A rope can be thrown over the support beam and, using it as a pulley tied to the iron ring, the trap door can easily be removed.”
1. That’s a lot of reading to try and skim through! 2. Maybe just rougher notes: Thick, trap door with iron ring. Open Doors -10%. A rope used on ceiling beam can be used as a pulley to lift trap door easily.
There is several instances of writing that controls your character for you:
“As you gain your balance on the swinging rope bridge, a deafening explosion emanates from below your feet and from your right. The magma from the sea below has exploded upward in an explosive jet that mushrooms outward spilling in your direction.”
My question—what if my character is flying? The first part of the description would need to be changed. Don’t control people’s characters…this is littered all over the adventure.
“As you descend the last staircase, both a feeling of uneasiness comes over you and the coppery smell of blood and carnage reach your nostrils.”
Don’t tell me how my character feels—that’s a short-cut…describe the room in a way that makes the player feel uneasy. The smell of blood and carnage are good descriptors though.
“As you open the door, a surreal vision greets your eyes.”
This line is repeated constantly in one of the Books you enter. Repeat, repeat, and repeat…like the author was bored. I didn't open the door, I bashed it down to splinters....or I used a Passwall spell. What is this surreal vision?--focus on describing that...let me be the judge if its surreal or not.
Overall, I feel the writing could use a good edit as its long and clutters up the good bits. Every word should matter…don’t let unneeded words take up space. Bolding, bullet points, indents…something to break up the mountain of information would be an improvement.
Backing up with this-- the first description or read aloud is in italics which is a decent attempt to break up the sections but italics can be hard to read sometimes. The authors also bolded monsters and have Treasure: usually at the end of the room. This is all good, but with the lengthy paragraphs, some key descriptions should have been bolded or bullets used. I got a roomful of players staring at me—I don’t have time to read all this, please help me scan what I need to know! I don’t need to know the background info of why a compass is in the chest, or a dragon’s claw…the players won’t find out or probably won’t care…
The maps are decent, but every keyed encounter is right along the path that the party is supposed to follow—total railroad--this is mainly for the wilderness maps. Some of the dungeon maps are fantastic, with loops and different approaches to rooms.
My last biggest complaint….you enter a room, you get attacked. You enter a new area, you are attacked…attacked, attacked..attacked. When I saw some rare moments of interaction—a monster that talks first rather than fight…it was a breath of fresh air. Interaction besides fighting all the time, adds to the enjoyment of playing the game. There is a lot of hack and slash in here.
The Good: My god, these Oliver Brothers are very creative. The idea behind the adventure is fantastic. The adventure is quite an undertaking, going to the City of Brass, to deserts, to dark forests, to temples…even to an opera. 12 different, short adventures all packed into a combined big one.
The authors provided a short overview/summary of each book. This is a great step to helping out a DM. A page number for each starting point and the map would have been helpful here as well, but this design idea is solid.
There is cross referencing (see area #4) to help the DM be ready for things that may be coming. There is also excellent foreshadowing in a few sections—clues for what may be coming. For example, hearing a couple howls…eventually the characters may run into some hell hounds. Or seeing tracks of a creature in the mud. This type of writing can create anticipation and/or tension for players and keeps them on their toes.
The authors provided some tools for the DM to run with...i.e. What book subjects might be about, and other occurrences that can help a DM on the fly. In the very beginning of the adventure, the party stumbles upon a wizard locked door set by a level 24 mage….ooops..Guess adventure is over if the party doesn’t have a mage. But they correct that and provide a solution so that the adventure can continue. Again, good design. Always provide options.
The few interactions are great. A chair and lamp mimics that banter with one another?? This is awesome stuff. The authors provide example banter to help the DM.
Treasure is given some descriptions. Instead of just gems, we get zircons, tiger eye agates, onyx, etc. Serving utensils and other items that are worth something…”a jeweled broach of a pygmy holding a spear worth 300 gp.”—I like these little descriptions. All the magic items seem to be by the book, which can be a bit boring—I would have liked to see more new items—like the healing bed.
Some of the descriptions are pretty cool and set the scene. “Trees as black as night and leafless as if it were winter..” and “They are huge creatures, luminous, ghastly, and spectral, dreadful apparitions corresponding to the hell-hound of the legend, only this pack of hellhounds is very real.”
I think my favorite book was the City of Brass. There is great interaction with a djinn and an efreeti….factions and options. Alien vegetation that may hurt you or poison you….and yet gold coins are in their midst—will you chance it? A boatman that helps you cross a magma lake, with a steaming mephit laughing as the boat sinks when in the middle…There are some ideas and descriptions in this particular book that got my own creative juices flowing which I appreciate.
Not only are you going through a book to adventure, in some areas, you have to go through more little pocket dimensions. For example, to open a special door, you need to enter several pocket dimensions to retrieve a gem…this is all weird and cool stuff. An endless stream of swine creatures emerging from a pit…no way to fight them all…only a house offers safety. Now it sets a tone for the party to hurry to find the wizard’s item and bail before the swine find a way to enter….gives that tenseness. It’s great.
I’m a big fan of art…mainly black and white art. This product has more amateurish art compared to a professional, however it’s placed before each Book and it’s a helluva lot better than I can draw. I appreciated the efforts and wished there was a little more. I thought the few pieces of art were placed perfectly and attempted to show the ‘boss’ of each Book and each had their own sense of charm.
Overall: The adventure struggles with verbosity (much like this review) which strangles the great ideas that are littered throughout the adventure. A more structured design using bullet points, indents or maybe tables to help summarize important information for the DM to scan quickly would be welcome. I would also prefer less railroad and more sandbox, but that’s my playstyle. Populate those wilderness areas with other things going on--utilize the whole map!
The placement of mimics was a great idea, but I think even more examples of hints from them or in the library would be helpful to a DM—why would the party even care about going into the Books to find a piece of wizard’s clothing? Do they even know what will happen if they collect all 12 pieces? Maybe more clues on what types of items they are looking for would be key. Or maybe adventure hooks could be within the library--little hints about this wizard, incorporate some of that loooong backstory into things that characters could find and be able come up with their own conclusions. Give them a reason to want to fetch all 12 of these items.
This free, downloadable DF product is not a bad thing to have on your shelves as it can be utilized as a book of lairs. A DM can pull out a different scenario and throw it into their own campaign--but they might have to read/highlight/write notes about it first.
You can download it for free here: https://www.dragonsfoot.org/php4/archive.php?sectioninit=FE&fileid=416&watchfile=