Thursday, June 27, 2013

Reviews: Hall of Bones, MCMLXXV

In the past month, I've gone from owning zero Frog God products to having two of their introductory adventures - I received MCMLXXV (hereafter 1975) in a swag bag at NTRPGCon, and - perhaps like you - I grabbed a copy of Hall of Bones on Free RPG Day.  Since I'm on a bit of a review kick, I thought I should talk about these two products in tandem, because they have a lot in common; I regret that I don't have a copy of Grimmsgate, Frog God's third intro module.  Possible content spoilers for both adventures follow.

An introductory adventure is a low-level adventure, but it has extra requirements.  After all, the expectation is that this product could be the first adventure somebody runs or plays in, and for all we know it might be their first roleplaying experience to boot.  Things need to be fairly basic - but "basic" is not equivalent to "vanilla", and I think that's where both these adventures fall a bit short.

1975: contains precisely zero badass energy dudes.

1975 and Hall of Bones, both by Bill Webb, start identically with an "Old School Primer" about playstyle, xp, henchmen, and so forth, which serves as a good intro for people only familiar with more 'modern' forms of D&D.  Hall of Bones has a short rules overview for Swords & Wizardry at the very beginning, which is nice and potentially turns the module into a quickstart, as there are pregenerated characters at the very back.  In both cases, there's some wasted space at the end of the introductions which could've been filled with evocative art from the Frog God vaults, or with more information or something.  The inclusion of quickstart rules and pregens puts Hall of Bones in the lead here, as far as intro matter goes.

Let's get to the meat of the two adventures.  In 1975, the adventurers are presumed to be following a treasure map down into a valley.  Random encounters are provided for traversing the valley; some of them are standard, like bandits, wolves, or a caravan, but others are more interesting - a falling meteorite (along with notes on harvesting the strange ore within), a crazy person, and an ankheg.  (Did ankhegs always have a whoopass 5d6 breath weapon?  Seems harsh for an introductory adventure, but hey...)  Further sets of random encounters for the forest and the swamp include spiders, kobolds, an owlbear, some grey ooze, the always-awesome giant beaver, etc.  Oh, and did I mention the black dragon?  Yeah, it can spit acid for 18 points of damage, so...  Maybe they're trying to tell us that life in S&W is sometimes lethal and you get your face melted off by a subadult dragon that hides under the water.  Some keyed encounters follow, including more bandits, an ogre and his pet bear, rats, spiders, snakes, goblins, shriekers, crocodilesand - inexplicably awesome relative to the rest of these creatures - a leprechaun.  Finally, the treasure map leads to a small cave complex which contains several nasty traps, a cockatrice, and, potentially a vrock.  I'll say that again: a vrock.  If it's any consolation, the treasure at the end is considerable for first-level PCs.

Hall of Bones: does indeed contain skeletons.

Meanwhile, over in the Hall of Bones, we have a shorter adventure (due to the wise inclusion of the quickstart material) focused tightly on the eponymous small dungeon - no wilderness here.  Within the dungeon, the PCs will be grappling with spiders, ghouls, some pretty cool purple moss, rats, and a shrieker.  The boss of the dungeon is a variant undead called a bone cobbler which commands some skeletons; the cobbler guards a very interesting piece of magic treasure, and this room is therefore the best bit of the micro-dungeon.  I'm not sure why Hall of Bones includes a full-page map of the ruined village above the dungeon without saying anything interesting about the village itself.  The pregens at the back are nicely illustrated, but with a lot of negative space.  I understand that you're intended to photocopy them and hand out the PCs to your players, but these could've been half-page character sheets.

Basically the pattern is "vanilla but functional low-level encounters, spiced up with wet-your-pants stuff".  I mentioned the vrock, right?  1975 has some nice random encounters.  Both modules fall on the bland side.  Now, I'm not saying these should've been gonzo or really "out there" or anything.  But you can present an interesting, evocative low-level adventure without doing the "goblins, spiders, and rats" thing.  Nary an NPC to be seen except the two (different) "madmen" in 1975.  If an adventure is to be introductory, I think it better serves the customer - and the hobby - if it really grabs people with exciting concepts.  Imagine two groups of new players, each playing through one of these modules, conversing a couple of years later about their first forays into Swords & Wizardry...  "Yeah, we played that intro adventure with the spiders and rats."  I understand that there's something to be said for replicating "our" early D&D experiences (many of which featured spiders and rats), but...I think I would have been more excited about an introductory adventure that got players excited (directly) about Rappan Athuk or the Slumbering Tsar or something, or which was a direct drop-in to the Hexcrawl Chronicles or Stoneheart Valley.  Come on, Frog God, pimp your stuff in a way that upsells me.

Of the two, I would easily say 1975 is the better acquisition - it's longer and contains some wilderness encounters.  1975 is currently available from Frog God;  Hall of Bones will be available on 1 July (as is standard for Free RPG Day products), but it'll be $4.99 in pdf.  That's a mistake; Frog God would do well to put Hall of Bones up as a downloadable freebie quickstart; I think it would serve in that role better than as a for-money product.  I like the folks at Frog God, especially after having met (and played with, and smoked cigarettes with) several of them at NTRPGCon, and I'd love to see them do really well; intro adventures can be a delicate thing.


  1. Hmm, this post neatly sums up the two reasons why I'm not into Frog God stuff.

  2. Are there would be GMs that really need help designing a small tomb surrounded by swamp and then populating with beast straight off a table? Why do people write this stale stuff when everyone I see on blogs and g+ is so much more interesting?

  3. Frog God generally strikes me as way overpriced, which is okay, because I have never been tempted to buy any of it, anyway.
    However, that said, aren't there like a million free intro adventures out there in the 'sphere and at places like DF? One wonders why anyone would produce such a thing at this point, much less try to get money for it.

  4. @Gus - well, keep in mind that a very newbie DM might feel like they need help designing _anything_, but I understand what you're saying.

    @Aos - There's a lot of stuff out there. A high-production-value introductory adventure, like a Player's Handbook or a Basic Box, has to serve some kind of loss leader function, I think.

    Frog God's bailiwick is premium hardcovers aimed at a bit of a higher-end market, it seems. I'll be curious to see what they do to roll out their Lost Lands setting (which incorporates all their big products thus far) in the next year or so. Will next year's Free RPG Day product be an intro to that setting? No idea.