Acid Metal Howl: A Dungeon Age Adventure (5e and OSR versions)
Acid Metal Howl (5e and OSR versions), set in the Dungeon Age setting (easy to drag and drop into any other world) is presented for two systems: OSR, and 5e. Before you have the impulse to groan, wait a second: We don’t get one of these annoying, jumbled messes; the low price of admission actually includes two versions, one for OSR, and one for 5e, so you can just print the version you want. Kudos for that.
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue due to me receiving a printout of the adventure.
Both versions come with okay b/w-maps, but we do not get unlabeled versions for VTT-use, and the maps lack grid and scale, which does limit their utility. The module comes with read-aloud text and pretty clever information design – I’ll comment on the latter more below. The read-aloud text is well-written and atmospheric. Structurally, this is a sandbox module that depicts a desert city that long remained dormant, and now has different factions in it; the module manages to evoke a sense of genuine jamais-vu: If I had to describe this and its atmosphere, I’d call it an almost Dark Souls-like sense of antiquity and mystery coupled with aesthetics that reminded me of some of my favorite stoner doom metal bands. That’s the soundtrack I heard in my head when reading this. I’d also ask you to read the entirety of the review, because this’ll be a polarizing one, and I’m extremely torn on it.
Also very important to note, and something I structurally love: This module sports A TON of interactivity. There is a huge amount of stuff and things for the party to actually *do*. So that’s a huge plus.
The OSR-version does not adhere to a specific system, which isn’t ideal, but as far as system-agnostic OSR goes, it does a solid job: The book states HP, HD, gives AC as an equivalent of e.g. unarmored or plate, and attacks list an ascending attack value plus damage, with saves given as analogues to e.g. fighter 5. The module assumes differentiated saves, you know, like save vs. poison, but adapting it to a single-save system is very much possible without much hassle. The OSR version clocks in at 41 pages, with 37 pages of content. For OSR-games, the module is just noted to be for mid-level parties; I’d adjust that to state that mid-to-high-level works best; at e.g. level 5, this’ll be one brutal module.
The D&D 5e version clocks in at 48 pages, with 44 pages of content left; the increase in length is obviously due to the extended length that 5e’s stats etc. require. The 5e-version is billed at intended for levels 5–8, and it can be solved at this level; it is a difficult module, and certainly can be called “old-school” regarding its difficulty; personally, I enjoy that.
Now, there is one pretty big strike against the 5e-version, and that would be the integrity of the rules and statblocks. On the plus-side, we get the proper ability scores listed, and all that is required for the stats to be sued? All of that’s here. However, the stats cheat in some ways. For example, the HP-values don’t list the formulae used to calculate them, and since the creatures also don’t list their challenge, the whole mechanical aspect becomes pretty obscured.
This is in as far relevant, as the builds for the creatures are, no two ways around that, wrong in quite a number of ways. This is never as bad as I’ve seen, though. To make that explicitly clear: The author does know 5e and hasn’t just written one of these aggravating pseudo-5e-supplements. The majority of aspects of statblocks? They’re actually correct. Yet, there are hiccups in most of them. To give you some examples:
For one, no 5e-critter usually nets 2,000 XP. Challenge 5 = 1,800 XP, Challenge 6 = 2,300 XP. And yet, e.g. the dwarf miner herein notes 2,000 XP. While we’re on this creature: The dwarf miner is listed as having a Strength saving throw of +7, a Dexterity saving throw of +5, and a Constitution saving throw of +6. Due to the missing information on challenge, determining the proficiency bonus is a bit opaque, but it is clear that +3 is the intended value. Why? Because that checks out with the attack values and the Strength saving throw. (The fellow has Strength 19 (+4), Dexterity 16 (+3), and Constitution 17 (+3).) This, however, does mean that the Dexterity saving throw is incorrect, and should be +6. When one takes a look at the listed skills, Athletics +10 and Intimidation +5, the build gets it right: Double proficiency + Strength modifier = +10 for the fellow, and the same goes for the saving throw DC of one of the attacks. Said miner is also missing the senses line, when dwarves definitely have darkvision, and thus leaving out the line can’t be just explained away with “only listing relevant information.” Passive Perception is also sometimes incorrect: The fleshflood (NOT a typo!) has, for example, a -4 Wisdom modifier, but still passive Perception 10, and it doesn’t have proficiency in Wisdom (Perception). The most likely proficiency bonus would be +3 for the creature, which’d mean passive Perception 9, Perception -1 for a proficient creature. On the other hand, the attack value and escape DC? Correct!
How the jaghul, with a Dexterity of 15 (+2) can have Stealth +3, is beyond me; pretty sure that should be +4, based on the irregular XP value, which places the critter below challenge 4, and thus, at proficiency bonus +2…something the author got perfectly right when it comes to the attack values. Contrast that with e.g. the statblocks for a NPC, where saves and skills are perfectly correct.
On the formal level, creature feature names and action names are only bolded, not bolded and in italics; while e.g. Melee Weapon Attack is properly italicized and the attack sequence correct, Hit, oddly, is not set in italics. The damage values caused by creatures also do not list average values. These are quality of life aspects for the consumer, but I personally can live without them. However, as noted above, this tendency also has some glitches as a consequence that are, well, not
Spells are not properly set in italics, okay, that’s not pleasant, but cosmetic. But spellcasting fails to specify the spellcasting ability score used by the NPC, and also fails to list spell save DC and spell attack bonus. That sort of thing compromises function. I do not have an issue with statblocks only listing relevant aspects; but I couldn’t help but feel that the decision to do so here has engendered a rather wide variety of glitches in the critters that the author would have been more likely to catch if he adhered to the default presentation for the stats. This also extends to magic items, and their rules-language. To give you an example from the adamantine shield: “Enemy must make a DC 13 CON save or be blinded by this shiny shield until the end of their next turn.” Okay, how does that work? Does it work at range? Only in melee? Shouldn’t this require a bonus action or reaction on behalf of the wielder? Adamantine helmet lists that the wearer is immune to psychic damage and head injuries. Okay, what is a head injury? No, I’m serious. Would e.g. a mind flayer’s Tentacles attack be a head injury? I think now, because they can do damage otherwise with them, but then again, this sets up Extract Brain, so it is a head injury? And that’s why concise rules-language is important. Items also do not come with the customary ubiquity-rating, or information on whether they require attunement. We have items like Ketil’s Adamantine Cuirass, which is a breastplate that nets AC 19 for 7,000 gp. Another charm protects from stinging insects (okay, does that keep them away, or just prevent damage?), and “grants resistance to all poisons.” Does this mean resistance to poison damage? What about the poisoned condition? No clue. Again, this is why rules-language is important. In OSR, does that mean one is immune to poisons? Or a bonus to saving throws? Because, you know, resistance is not a rules concept in the classic sense in most OSR-games? No clue.
And it’s puzzling, because the module per se does an excellent, and I mean EXCELLENT job, in both iterations, when it comes to presenting information in a way that’s useful to the GM…which does include highlighting spell references. These are title case, bolded and set in italics in the module text (when 5e’s standard would just be italics), but I can live with that, as it makes sense from a house style perspective. DCs, whether checks or saves, are bolded in adventure text, and key terms for each location are bolded and underlined: When you read “…flowering vines…” in the well-written read-aloud sections, you can look at the bullet point list below the readaloud text, and immediately skip to the bolded header for the Flowering vines-section that starts the information for this aspect. This is AWESOME. You also tend to have all relevant information for a keyed location on one page. So yeah, in the “comfort-to-run”-department, this module is top-tier…once you have fixed the statblocks in the 5e-version/adjusted them in the OSR-version to your system of choice, that is. So yeah, top tier in information design, subpar at best when it comes to the actual integrity of the rules that one requires to run the module…not, let us talk about the actual module’s content.
The following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs/referees around? Great! Deep within the desert, the sheltered city of Yumar, nestled among sheltered cliffs, thrived – and then it happened: The earth was torn asunder and spat acid, and among the earthen poisonous bile, a mysterious metal sphere was catapulted into the air by geysers of poisonous corrosion. The light of the sun, reflected off the sphere, proceeded to set the city ablaze. The city’s people diverted water to thin the pools, built a roof over the sphere…but alas, it was too late. The city of Yumar died the obscure death that only settlements can, falling into a semi-mythological half-existence, as its reputation was, unsurprisingly, a teeny tiny bit tarnished.
Now, a team of dwarves has found their way into the city, mining the metal sphere for its mighty adamantine, while three nuns, adherents of Zerah, the angel of chaos and change, have taken up their silent vigil…and they are not happy with the dwarves. Of course, a desert city of ruins was also a hide-out of thieves…but said thieves now hear a voice in their head, and the voice tells them to repent; they are days from starvation, and pretty repentant…or so it sure seems.
The regions in the city come with a ton of notes on rumors, random encounters, small treasure, little pieces of flavor such as a barely audible giggling, and when run, manages to evoke an atmosphere so dense and unique, so suffused with wonder, it’s a marvelous and unmitigated joy. Encounters presented differentiate between night and day, and there is a ton of environmental stuff, unique mundane treasure (like a glass butterfly and the like), and the hazards? They are neat. That murky water? First, it’s poison damage from the fumes; then it’s acid damage from touch/immersion, and then, if you’re still alive, you’ll have to content with silver leeches in the acid, which’ll have a blast eating you. And yes, these acid-leeches can make you into a leech-walker. The NPC write-ups, with their bolded key-words like Wants or Plans also adhere to this level of detail and play.
But the level of detail is not what sets this apart for me. It’s how…magical this is. Like the Dark Souls games, this module emphasizes attentive players, and it is suffused with lore; it is indirect storytelling, and it is awesome. There, for example, are nightmares…and one of them may have the party meet a strange woman…and touching her? Well, that’ll be one mutation for you, gratis, no save. And yes, in this instance, I’m very much fine with there not being a save. Actions and consequences, right? There are several belltowers throughout the city as well; there are ghoulish jackalfolk…and there is the gilded shrine. There is magical ink that can provide similarly magic, but chaotic tattoos…did I mention the spiral tower with its swirling rainbow lights? The collapsible hand glider that provides unreliable flight? Well, in a book with this sort of equipment, we also get aerial encounters. Not even kidding you. I love that sort of thing. I would love it even more if that sort of transportation was required to access some places, but that’s just me nagging at a very high level.
That being said, as a whole? As a whole, I adore this. And fyi: The sphere contains a herald-level powerful angel-being that is all about change for change’s sake, whether good or bad. A bit like old “Bald Anders” from German folklore—which btw. translates to “Soon Other/Different”. She was scheduled to be unleashed ages prior, but wasn’t…well, that may well change due to the party’s meddling. And, well, even in dreams touching her can mutate you. So…yeah. This’ll be interesting times for the party…
If this wasn’t abundantly clear by now: I genuinely LOVE this module. I think it is inspiring in just the right ways. It can be run as written, but everything about it makes those GM-neurons fire and elaborate upon what’s here. Did I mention the geckos?
Editing is good on a formal level. On a rules-language level, it’s bad. Not atrocious, but not at a level where I can call it even okay. There are plenty of glitches that compromise the functionality of rules-relevant aspects, errors in the math, etc. It can still be run as written if you play loose and fast with rules and don’t care too much about consistence or balance, but as far as I’m concerned, this is borderline functional at best, with pretty severe creaking in the mechanics-department…at least for 5e. For the OSR-version, we have the usual issue of needing to adjust the material to a specific system and reevaluating balance etc., and the rules-language also has hiccups in components like magic items. Formatting, on one hand, does a ton right: Read-aloud text is clearly set apart, the pdf uses bolding to structure information flow exceedingly well, and as far as that is concerned? Great! Then again, there are a few instances where things that should be bold due to the house style aren’t, and e.g. formatting of spells, magic items etc. deviates needlessly from the defaults and compromises the integrity of the content. This also extends to deviations from 5e-defaults that compromise rules integrity or slightly diminish the direct utility at the table.
Layout adheres to an efficient 2-column color-standard with a white background: printer-friendly, and unlike many color pdfs, the book loses nothing of its ease of navigation when printed out in b/w. Kudos for that, but there is generous white space here, also due to how the module tries to have relevant information for a locale on one page. The pdfs come with massive, nested bookmarks for easy and comfortable navigation. The cartography is solid, but the lack of scale and grid, and the lack of player-friendly versions of the maps would be another comfort-detriment.
Oh boy. Joseph Robert Lewis is an exceptional talent when it comes to adventure writing. I genuinely mean it. This reminded me, in price, in ambition, in vision and what a single person can accomplish, of talents like the legendary Richard Develyn, whose 4-Dollar-Dungeons are some of the best modules ever written for PFRPG. (And beyond; seriously, each of his modules is worth the asking price, even if you’re playing totally different systems.)
What I’m trying to say is, that this module is serious “Best of”-material…or rather, it would be. I adore this. As a person, this module blew me away. It scratched the right itch. It inspired me. It’s AWESOME. But it also made me yell at my screen and at my printout more times than I care to count. Because this is so close to excellence. It’s not that the author can’t do the math. There are plenty of examples where math checks out in 5e.
In many ways, the issues with the details in the design-parts is less pronounced in the OSR-version, which only has a couple of hiccups in the items. On the downside, I actually prefer the 5e-version, warts and all. Why? Because of the sheer density of stuff that is rules-relevant, that has genuine effects…that sort of thing just works better in D&D 5e, because OSR tends to solve a lot more via narrative/cosmetics.
And here I am. I’m looking at a book that is absolutely fantastic and inspired, dirt-cheap for what it offers…and I can’t sing the praises that I so desperately want to sing, even though the book is *so close* to actual greatness, to “best of” hall-of-fame-levels awesome.
Were I the soulless mechanics-review-bot that some seem to think I am, and rate this solely on the virtues of its mechanics, this wouldn’t get past the 2.5 stars, rounded down, for 5e. For the OSR-version, I’d probably settle on something in the vicinity of 4.5 stars. However, if one does take the time to go through the 5e-iteration and fixes it/polishes it, one has a genuine masterpiece.
So, how in all 9 hells am I supposed to rate this? This does deserve a pummeling for its shortcomings (including the map situation), and I can’t just ignore the serious issues herein. But neither can I bring myself to put this even remotely close to the, at best, 3 stars that the module would deserve from a technical point of view. The situation becomes even more complicated, because I have to settle on one single verdict for the D&D 5e and OSR versions. The OSR-version is, craftsmanship-wise, more refined…but it also loses a bit of the artistry that make the 5e-version shine so brightly.
In the end, my official final verdict will be 3.5 stars, rounded up, and this is one of the exceedingly rare books that gets my seal of approval, in spite of its glaring flaws. It is INSPIRING in just the right ways, and it served as a great reminder why reviewing can be so fulfilling. Now I genuinely hope the author manages to iron out these last hiccups regarding rules and formatting, and we’ll have one true master right there.
If you’re like me and want your modules precise and proper before running it, expect to invest a few hours fixing stats, items, etc. If that bothers you and you’re not willing to invest that time, then consider this to be closer to 3 stars; conversely, if your group plays fast and loose with the rules, or if you want to convert this anyways, then consider this to be closer to 5 stars.