Review: Complex of Zombies

I was asked to review Dream Machine Productions‘ mini-adventure, The Complex of Zombies.

Biases

Here are some things you should know about me, to better understand my review.

  • I’ve known the author of the product (Justin Alexander) off and on for years in rec.games.frp.dnd. As far as I can tell, we have pretty similar game and design philosophies. We don’t always agree, but we don’t often disagree.
  • I was comped this module for review purposes.
  • I would not have bought this module myself — no fault of the module content or quality, I just don’t use them very often in my campaign and probably wouldn’t even have looked at it beyond identifying it was a module. I usually find it easier and less work to create my own scenarios than try to integrate something someone else wrote.
  • I tinker. I can’t stop myself. Since the release of 3e in 2000, I have bought some 15 shelf-feet of d20-related material, and downloaded supplements enough to make up another eight to ten feet of material if I printed them out. I have found one, and only one, supplement that I have read and thought simply “yes, this will fit nicely” (Faeries by Bastion Press (now DragonWing Games), for those who are curious). As such, you can expect that I’ll find things I will change or would have done differently.
  • I very much appreciate simplicity. I’m a professional software developer, and have learned that keeping things as simple as possible (but no simpler) is almost always better.
  • I play with a couple of fairly different groups. One is online in IRC, and contains a moderate range of experience. The other is offline and has an even greater range of experience, including a couple of seasoned powergamers and a pair of preteens (10 and 9 years old, very new to RPGs at all; my son and the son of one of the other players). This will likely color my interpretation of things.

The Review

I’ll start by saying that overall I like this adventure. I don’t think I would have written one quite like this, but if I were pressed for time before a session I’d be willing to use this pretty much as written.

This is partly because the scenario involves several elements that fit very nicely into background I have already established for my campaign. The bits that don’t obviously fit, by and large don’t contradict anything (the cabal of wizards mentioned in the backstory don’t match anything I’ve written for my campaign, but there are lots of places such a group could exist that haven’t been written about).

I will try to have as little spoiler material as possible, by speaking in abstractions. I expect the details won’t matter much for reviewing purposes, but could spoil things for players who read this review.

Description

A small complex, long ago lost and forgotten, has been found and opened. As the title suggests, there are undead present, but they are not the standard zombies.

This is a fairly short module, a 20-page PDF (16 pages of which are ‘real content’, the rest being used up by front and back covers, title page, and OGL). I estimate that as written, my offline group could chew through it in a single session, my online group could make their way through it in two (“not as goal-oriented”, let’s say, and shorter sessions).

The adventure is designed for a party of four third-level adventurers.

What I Did Not Like

Very few things, really, and they’re minor issues at worst.

  • Physically, the front and back covers are printer-unfriendly, having a huge amount of black that would chew up toner (or worse, ink) at a ferocious rate. Easily enough avoided, I just don’t print the covers.
  • The backstory has a few bits that didn’t seem to make sense to me. Nothing insurmountable, just a mild “that doesn’t seem to fit” feeling. Since backstory for a module should almost always be adjusted to suit the campaign the module’s going to be played in, this would be picked up and fixed at that time. A minor disconnect, in my mind, but easily fixed.
  • A personal matter, I don’t usually like symmetry in adventure maps. This one is top-bottom symmetry rather than left-right, so it’s not as obvious, but it’s still there. Of course, this module takes place in a fragment of a larger complex (making it easier for the DM to integrate into something else), so there may be only ‘local symmetry’. In context there might not be any whatsoever.

I was tempted to leave this out because it’s most likely a simple oversight or typographical error, but for the sake of completeness I include the one error I think I found.

The save DC of a new creature’s supernatural ability is 13, when I’m pretty sure it should be 14 (Charisma-based effect, Cha 16 and 2 HD). I expect this is a typographical error — Justin’s usually very good about getting these things right.

What I Did Like

This is a longer list, and more significant.

  • The map for this module is a simple black and white line drawing. Printer-friendly, conveys the information needed, and clean. As pretty as the maps are in many ‘modern modules’, I find that the graphics-heavy maps don’t work well for me (suck down toner (or ink, if I print in color), and can often be hard to read after printing because of density and grey levels — pale grey and pale green, while pretty on the screen and when printed in color, look a lot alike when printed in black and white).
  • The backstory is short and fairly simple. There is a lot in the backstory, it could inspire me to include the group and events described, but is not so large that it would be hard to tweak to fit existing campaign information or throw away together. Since I usually see backstory as an optional suggestion, barring a few crucial points, I think he hit a good balance here.
  • Involves an element that directly fits my campaign cosmology and makes this place rather more than it would seem in most campaigns.
  • Introduces a new type of undead, something I always try to do in my campaign. Undead are generally ‘semi-unique’ in my campaign — there may be more than one of a particular type, but each type is usually found in only one area. Introducing a new type of undead fits that rather well.
  • Introduces a new magic item (always a nice thing to see; I can only stand so many ‘standard items’).
  • Includes plot hooks and suggestions for how to place the adventure. Most adventures I’ve read have a fairly obvious way to make them happen and put them in a campaign, but this one offers several options for each. None of them strike me as awe-inspiring, but I think a couple are idea-inspiring. At least, I probably wouldn’t have thought of doing those things without prompting… and I can see how to spin those ideas into larger story arcs.

What Would Have Made It Better

I can think of a few things that would have made this product better.

Add EL information to the encounters. I wouldn’t call the lack of this information a problem, it’s easy enough to determine what the encounter ELs are, but having them is a convenience I appreciate.

There is a feature in the dungeon that has an effect within a 100 foot radius. I can count to 20 as well as the next guy, but marking the squares affected (perhaps lightly shade them) would make it easier to use. It would also answer my question about whether the effect penetrates walls (given the nature of the effect I can see it doing so, but there is no explicit indication either way).

Include the description of all monsters, even those from the Revised System Resource Document. Almost all of the encounters in this module are with monsters introduced in the module; adding another page or two for those from the Revised System Resource Document would make this module stand alone without the MM. This would make it more convenient, I think.

Changing some of the fonts used. For the most part they’re just fine, the only bit I didn’t care much for is that italics were used in the box text. The box text already stands out — it’s in a box, remember — so using a harder-to-read font to make it stand out more isn’t required.

Conclusion

There are a few — very few — things that turned me off a bit… but they’re minor, and would likely be corrected anyway in tweaking this module to suit my campaign. The good stuff suits me rather well, and would make it worth the effort to use. I can see a few ways to make it a little easier to use, but nothing big.

This is pretty much what I look for in a module, on those occasions I want one.

  • short
  • simple and generic enough I can play it more or less as-is
  • the backstory is abstract enough to be easily adapted, detailed enough to use as-is if it doesn’t contradict anything, and interesting enough that I’d be tempted to expand on it and add that to my campaign

I’d said earlier that I would not have bought this module. That’s still true, because I probably wouldn’t have noticed it on the shelf (because I don’t look at the modules section in my FLGS). If I were aware of it and was looking for a quick little adventure to drop into my game, I’d be happy to scoop this up, tweak the backstory a bit, and drop it straight into my game.

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