Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Flying Dice — Mother's Malady

Lineart of a doorway carved into a mountainside. It resembles a fantasy dwarf's face, with helm and whiskers. A crumbling stair leads up to the entrance from some place below. The title text "Mother's Malady" is written vertically to one side.


Mother's Malady was the first thing that caught my attention scrolling through DTRPG's "Newest" category. As of writing this critique I have read it, but not played it.

The one-page format scratches an artistic itch for me. Limitation is always fertile ground for creativity, and specifically limiting the size of a work of art does much to make it approachable. I mean that both from the perspective of a reader and potential player as well as from that of the artist. One-page adventures are great for experimenting with an uncertain new idea, or an unfamiliar discipline. As with any artistic experiment it must then be asked: did the idea work out? How could the unfamiliar discipline be improved on next time?

Layout is perhaps a peculiar place to start, but unfortunately it stands out. It's one of those things no one notices except when it's done poorly. There's clearly thought and creativity behind the way the text and art were arranged. For example, the stairs cutting a line between two area descriptions looks great. The issue is an accumulation of little things that would have been simple to fix. The spot where the white background for the text wasn't spaced properly, so the map overlaps with a word. The rumor table that's completely disconnected from the paragraph which leads up to it. The excessive amount of white space that could have been put to better use. The single block of text, out of about 10, which is Justified, and has a line so dense with words they may as well not have any spaces between them at all. This stuff makes the adventure more frustrating to read than it ought to be, but adventures do not sink or swim on the quality of their layout.

The illustration of the dungeon entrance (visible in a squished form on the store page) is pure classic D&D of the best sort. The stairs rising up from the forest to tower above the treeline gets my imagination pumping. Their crumbling, gappy depiction also handily illustrates the dungeon's primary environmental hazard in a way that genuinely aids the text. The map is serviceably illustrated, but the arrangement of the spaces could have used a second pass. It irks me that the way the entrance is depicted on the map doesn't line up with the way its depicted in the art. Once inside the dungeon players are quickly funneled into a short series of linear encounters. The dungeon would have been improved significantly if the cliff-side opening meant to serve as an escape route were visible from the stairs that lead to the main entrance. Most players would avoid this difficult climb when there's a much easier path available, but clearly presenting it as an option would do a lot to make the dungeon feel less constrained. Plus if some party did opt for the cliff-side opening that would open the adventure up to the sorts of unexpected situations that make running D&D a fun pastime.

The "Deer peeplz," note which serves as the adventure hook legitimately charms me. Mother's Malady is generally pretty charming. If I were to sit down and run this I can guarantee we'd have a fun few hours of D&D. I'd enjoy describing that big looming staircase and performing as the kobolds. My players would enjoy the humor in the adventure's twist, then they'd probably try to get away with all of the treasure instead of the pittance the kobolds are willing to pay. Best of all, I wouldn't have needed to do any prep work for those fun few hours, and on that level the adventure does its job as well as any other adventure I've read. Hell, it does its job better than a lot of prestigious, award-winning adventures I've read. But there's also nothing here I might not have come up with myself if I decided to improvise a classic D&D adventure on the fly.

I think the whole of Mother's Malady is best summed up by a comparison of its two random tables. The first is a d10 table of room descriptions, used when the players are navigating through the first half of the dungeon. It reads like a general-purpose table rather than something written for a specific dungeon. The entries are terse to the point of being enigmatic, despite the fact that there's enough errant white space there that each entry could more than double in length without any issue. On the other hand there's this d6 table of Mother's treasures which are mostly evocative as heck. Boots with symbols of the elements on the soles set my referee's brain in motion in a way that "swarm of bats" does not. Which is to say, there's clearly potential and passion mixed up in this adventure, but a little more work would have done a lot of good.

Mother's Malady was authored and illustrated by Brett Sullivan, with additional work from James Hanna and Isaac Warren. It is available as a PDF from itch.io or DriveThruRPG for $1.00. 

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