Review: Dungeon Mastering’s Humble Beginnings


Reviewing never changes.

Sometimes it is difficult to turn down something free, no matter how much you want to. That Pandora’s box of ‘free’ might either contain bejeweled treasure or an awkward situation. I for one, unless it is conditional, will always accept free. Sometimes, like now, I may regret it, because it means that I have to review it, to perhaps spare another soul my existential pain. This time around, it is Dungeon Mastering’s “Humble Beginnings” which is an apt title for the adventure that might be an April Fool’s Joke, had it not been delivered in July. Unless some bizarre new tradition has placed even more hollow analogues of our holidays within July, I’m pretty sure this is not a joke, however funny.

Dungeon Mastering is a web site about RPGs and I know it better for its blog, such as it is. I have to admit that I was never the biggest fan of the web site’s content prior to its bid towards monetization, and that the DM Tools were rather good, but some other ideas of theirs have been a bit suspect. I did not unsubscribe mostly because I am very lazy, so every once in a while I’d receive an email with some new service Dungeon Mastering was offering. Today I received an email containing a free adventure as a sample of their new “Adventure Club” which for 15 dollars a month or so would promise to deliver “top notch, high quality content.” A video from a certain Mr. Brian accompanied the offer, which I didn’t have the patience to actually watch to completion.

Twenty megabytes later there was only silence.

Dungeon Mastering touted the 106 pages of content in the module. After reading it, seems like it isn’t a particularly difficult milestone to achieve when your single column text is mangled so badly that it cries out to the reader for release that it cannot have. The black text on dark gray-brown background is suggestive of the author’s desire to rob you of your sight, or perhaps an ode to 5-times zoom. The layout is meant to be suggestive of a mysterious tatty old eldritch tome with rough brown binding and moldy pages and it is as ugly as Double Rainbows are intense.

So intense.

I’m not an Adobe master here. Getting Adobe Indesign to do more than make colorful boxes and getting Adobe Acrobat to design bookmarks is to me like the mysteries of the Solar Wind are to astrophysicists. I have yet to unlock the esoteric might of these programs, but that is why I don’t actually attempt to sell anything and I also don’t put together samples that are supposed to used to judge the quality of future releases.

On page 26, a humorous anomaly occurs in which three lines into a new page, total emptiness follows. An encore performance occurs on page 43, where two lines into the page it cuts off and then the next page is an illustration and finally we finish the sentence on page 45. Nine tenths of a page become devoid of content in the midst of a sentence, which continues later like a mugger who decides to move on up by also burgling your apartment. These are not the only formatting bungles one can find. Careful exploration of this PDF is a magical mystery tour of formatting delights. Alarmingly yellow boxes for example are supposed to contain helpful tips for the dungeon master. Without judging the actual quality of these tips, I can say the boxes are unhelpful because I can’t read them. The text is crammed together without spaces between words. It is a literally brick to brick wall of text. Only punctuation manages to make a crack in this armor of unreadability.

The stat blocks are my favorite. Centered upon the pages of single-column text are the stat blocks, which do a perfectly good job of padding out the page count. Other things such as tables of randomized insults also help reach that lofty hundred-page goal.

But as I said before, who am I to judge a layout? The content, on the other hand, is only partially depressing because it is mostly hilarious. The adventure begins with very little background as the PCs have been hired to take medicines to some town. On the way to the town the PCs encounter graverobbers. This encounter manages to consume 5 pages on absolutely nothing. The grave robbers contain a boring array of powers that deal pitiable damage. The entire encounter is a laughable exercise in padding, particularly because two of the stat blocks are nearly-identical minions, the only difference being that one of them deals less damage with the exact same attacks.

After this five minute exercise in walloping near-harmless civilians, the players discover that the graverobbers were exhuming plague victims to bring to the priests in town. When the players get to town and give the priests the medicine, they make a perfunctory effort to mix them and give it to a sick woman. When the medicine fails to immediately cure the woman, the priest gives up saying the plague is unnatural and the medicines won’t work. Splendid. If the players are utter douchebags and refuse to part with the medicine unless given goodies, they’ll be given a magical bowl up front that pops food three times a day. The bowl has no item level and grants a bonus to an esoteric concept of “saves” which from the 3.5ism I guess must either be saving throws or 4e defenses.

The adventure then takes a turn for the worse as it basically starts to center on beating up children and old ladies. On the next page, a stat block for a feeble old lady is given. She is a level 1 minion with negative attack bonus who does 1 damage. This was totally necessary, you see. The players stumble upon a kid who tells them that an old lady nearby needs some work done. When the PCs attempt to talk to the lady, they are immediately and unavoidably robbed of everything they own by a mob of children. Everything they own save for things they were holding is stolen from them. No way to avoid it. Hooray.

The PCs can chase after one of the dopier kids for information, which triggers a rooftop chase skill challenge where each round you have to roll exactly what it wants you to as the kid, Baggs, tries to lose you on the town ceilings. Baggs also gets a minion stat block just in case your PCs want to murder him too. If the challenge fails then Baggs will evade them by jumping down chimneys. Baggs will also jump down a chimney if you do anything but what the skill challenge tells you to do. “Any attempt to follow the boy after this point will meet with failure,” says the adventure. The skill challenge, despite being heavily railroaded as to how you can go about it, has three outcomes. You can catch the kid, you can lose the kid and IF you lose the kid there’s two different ways to continue from there.

The module urges you to put on your best cockney accent, because it’s time for the really bad dialog show at the gray box theater. After you’ve pressed the boy for information and jacked his magic amulet (which also has no item level) he tells you that there’s this guy named “Papa” who has a fort somewhere and that’s who all the kids report to.

If you fail to catch Baggs and thus do not get to delight in your GM’s best cockney accent just yet, you can go bother the old lady for information, and then bother her nephew Bucky for information. If you do this wrong (by killing the old lady), you have to fight Bucky and a bunch of gangsters. Bucky is an utter loser, but the gangsters can knock you prone and daze you (save ends) as a standard action at will. This means that this encounter is instead of a boring and unsatisfying massacre on your part, going to be a boring, grindy mess on the GM’s part. If the gangsters don’t use their power to constantly knock you prone and daze you until you save every single round, their other choice is their weak basic attacks. One way or another you’re told to go to Butcher’s shop after.

No, really. You’re going to go to the Butcher’s shop, because no matter what happens, short of you actually catching Baggs and going straight to punch Papa in the groin, you will walk past the butcher shop. It will happen. There, a crazy mob of people are harassing the butcher because they think he somehow stole all of their cats to cut up for meat. The butcher tells them that you, the party, were the ones who stole the cats. Enraged by the loss of their feline friends, a boring fight ensues against 12 minions and 4 brutes who might as well be minions. Like most of the battles in this module, the only thing the enemies can do here is to use their basic attack every round. They have no other effective tactics to pursue, and the case of this encounter, they don’t even have weak auxiliary powers like being able to shift 1 square as a minor action. No, only basic attacks. Hooray.

This is the rest of this module.

After that mess, you have to convince the guards that you didn’t do anything to the town’s cats. The guards then hilariously admit that they saw kids making off with the cats earlier. The guards haven’t done anything about the kids because the kids have rich parents that let them run amok and will take the guard’s jobs if they harass them. So it’s up to you and your party to massacre all the children. BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD, KHORNE.

Whatever way you find out about the little hellions, you then go to some warehouses by the docks to beat them up. “This will progress in a fairly linear fashion,” says the adventure. On the way to the docks the PCs see a guard chasing a kid, but can’t do anything about it because it’s just window dressing. The PCs then run into a bunch of Home Alone style traps and kill a bunch of dogs the kids set on them. After the dogs, you crawl through this tiny tunnel in which you cannot use weapons in, and when you stick your head out the other end, a kid starts smacking you in the face with a hammer until you grab him or intimidate him. The kid is a level 1 minion and his mallet attacks do 2 damage.

The next encounter is a bunch of kids throwing down beehives at you which erupt into bee swarms. There are four bee swarms to take care of then. As with the rest of this module, there are no frills. These bees are a run of the mill swarm. After this you slog through a few more home alone traps, including boxes falling on you and an axe hacking you. These are really the only marginally interesting thing in this entire module.

“DM Tips: TheD20systemlicenseforbidsadventuresfromutilizing excessivegoreindescriptions. Thatdoesn’tapplytoyou.”

Thank you, module.

The next fight is against 16 cats. Can you guess what kind of stats the cats have? Well you’re wrong. They’re level 1 minions who deal 2 damage with their sole power, a basic attack. Can you feel the excitement from these top notch, high quality encounters?

The climactic battle with Papa is just as farcical as every other battle in this module. Papa is an older boy who bosses around the smaller boys, or maybe he’s a creepy pedophile, I honestly can’t tell from the illustration. You can avoid having to kill Papa and the kids, all of whom are pathetic enemies who can only do 1 damage fist basic attacks (despite Papa having a sword in the illustration), through the use of diplomacy. Harming the kids is a bad idea as established, but this module sucks, so I would just rip them to pieces, and then rip the guards to pieces, because they’re probably also level 1 minions with low damage attacks. Then I would try to turn all of them into an altar for a daemon.

The last thirty pages or so are appendices with random personalities for NPCs, random things about the town, random descriptions and other random things. There’s also an appendix solely to prevent the players from taking my Khornite solution and murdering everybody. The town guards are actually level 3 soldiers, with a level 5 and a level 6 on the way, and if you harass enough people there’s a subsystem of “marks” against you that will bring the law down upon you, including angry mobs and such. Great.

If You Enjoy This Adventure and Would Like More of Them, Please Visit our Adventure Club Page, And Sign Up. It’s SUPER CHEAP, and We’ll Send You a High Quality Adventure Just Like This One Each Month!

Thank you, module.

So this is perhaps the worst module that’s come out for 4e. The plot, such as it is, becomes on gigantic punishment for the PCs after the next, which they must endure solemnly because creatures 5 levels higher than them will be there to enforce the railroad if they step out of line and kill every terrible NPC they are presented with. The battles are overall unimpressive, with none of the creatures having any tactical maneuvers that would result in a more exciting or dynamic combat. When the module tries to add depth to the battles it dips into the “screw you, player” pile by implementing things like at will save ends dazed and prone attacks by four creatures at once.

Now, I might understand why most of this module is composed of boring battles against uninteresting low damage creatures. It’s probably because all your junk was stolen. Now, the problem with that line of thinking is that you’re a level 1 character. You’ve not yet had a chance to amass ANY magical item that your class revolves around. So the Fighter can pick up anything and bash someone’s skull with it, and implement-users will not care one bit about losing their stuff. There’s no stuff to lose except camping equipment and mundane weapons and implements you don’t really need. The bunches of townspeople you beat up have clubs you can steal if you need weapons. Clubs are plenty for the encounters you’ll be facing here, particularly with an implement user nearby. If your party has a level 1 wizard, psion or sorcerer you will emasculate this module.

Overall I think if this reflects the quality of the adventure club modules, I will not be subscribing to it. I wasn’t ever going to in the first place, but now I have a reason why.

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Categories: D&D 4e, Humor, News, Products, RPG | 27 Comments

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27 thoughts on “Review: Dungeon Mastering’s Humble Beginnings

  1. Trabant

    I like the idea of setting up a sacrificial chamber in the Home Alone place, you could tastefully arrange everyone’s bones around the magically kept alive remains of the master pedo in the middle

    also you need a tasteful rug for this sort of thing, trust me

  2. ysqure3

    This is all the more incongruous when you realize that this Home Alone bullshit is taking place in the dung ages of Points of Light. From page eight: Many have woodshingled roofs crudely patched where the shingles have fallen, and the streets are dirty with refuse from man and horse alike. And yet despite the grinding poverty of this town, the kids have the time to build elaborate traps that dump cats all over adventurers and run around smacking chumps in the face with hammers.

    One mechanical thing that annoyed me was the game’s constant insistence that offensive non-martial attacks were special. Like, there’s this magic amulet that you nick from some stupid kid, and it can absorb any non-martial attack of level two or lower. And when you’re chasing the kid across the rooftops, if you attack him with a non-martial power, he’ll dive down a chimney. I don’t know if this was written before stuff like Shadow, Primal, and Psionic came out, but there are a lot of non-martial power sources that aren’t laser beams and missile hell, which is how the adventure characterizes the stuff that the amulet absorbs and the kid gets freaked out by. Very weird.

    Anyway, a further piece of nonsense: On page six there’s this ridiculously bright red box with white text that reads

    Red boxes denote things which are important if you wish to use this adventure as part of an overall campaign. These are things which tie all the adventures together. They may seem trivial at first, but they will be important later on.

    Now, aside from the sketchy promise of stupid Rowlingesque puzzlebox narrative construction, and aside from the shockingly awful graphic design here, the most notable thing is that these glorious hundred and six pages contain absolutely no red boxes aside from the one I just cited above. Presumably they realized that nobody would use a stupid adventure like “PCs deliver medicines, get all their stuff stolen by cheeky urchins, fight through Home Alone to win it all back” to kick off an epic ten-level campaign.

  3. ysqure3

    I was also really charmed by the fact that the starving dogs and the dozen-odd cats all had Wisdom scores of 13, whereas the human widow has a Wisdom of 10. It’s like…wait, what?

  4. Haha oh god, I completely forgot to mention those stupid amulets in all the excitement. It’s basically the module’s way of enforcing nonviolence against the stupid little brats. Every single little loser kid has one of those amulets, so the only way to kill them short of spamming magic until they run out of charges (which you can do but is even more horribly tedious than normal) is to bash them with weapons until they’re pudding.

    Edit: Closer inspection reveals that the amulets only trigger on a “hit.” Therefore things like Cloud of Daggers and other damage zones would still be able to massacre the kids. Rolling with da wizards y’all.

  5. ysqure3

    The swarm encounters are hilariously easy if your party includes one of the six classes with an at-will that does Area or Close damage, because the swarms are Vulnerable 5 to that damage…and only have 20 HP to begin with. Those classes, looking only at PHB1/2/3 and Martial/Divine/Arcane/Primal/Martial 2, are Wizard Sorceror Druid Invoker Monk Psion. It seems pretty likely that a party might include one of them, although on the other hand it seems like this adventure was written for a bunch of martial beatsticks, since all they ever fight are martial beatsticks.

  6. So, what you’re saying is – you liked it?

  7. The opposite of that. Though I am a masochist.

  8. It appears we have the final nail in the coffin. R.I.P. DungeonMastering. From the ENnie Award to THIS. *sigh* :-(

  9. It is kinda sad. On the upside, there are few deaths more glorious than ones I might deal. On the up upside, if I killed them, can I get their ENnie as loot? I want an ENnie because awards are physical affirmations of my worth.

  10. “We’re going to launch a new project to have top-notch adventures every month… but I’m selling the site after this month.” Man. At least this review entertained me.

  11. Dungeon Mastering wants to hide its shame and we can’t have that.

    ~love from Anonymous

  12. “Blood for the blood god Khorne!” – that part is when I officially cracked up, thanks Wyatt!

  13. Wonderfully-written review, I quite enjoyed it.

  14. I’m simultaneously glad and sad that I’m not the only one who thought they were steadily rocketing downhill after Yax left. There were a lot of unfinished projects, the editing was nonexistant… It’s too bad.

  15. joeskythedungeonbrawler


  16. I don’t understand how someone could put their name on that as a final product and try to tout it as a “high quality adventure.” I really don’t. I would be ashamed to have that out there with my name on it – the author needs a lesson in encounter design and the production team needs a lesson in picking the right mix of font, background texture, and layout spacing to make a readable product.

    So sad. It was a once great site and now it’s trying to sell us this crap?

  17. shitty…

  18. aberranthivemind

    I dunno Wyatt, I’ve only just skimmed through the module for the last 15 minutes and it looks decent. At the least, not half as bad as you make it out to be. The font choices and colors definitely need some work, but there are some interesting bits I’ve spotted here and there.

    The Appendix section in itself is useful for not only beginners, but as generic material for any game really. Appendix D looks like some sort of GTA inspired mechanic for dealing with fucktard murderous pcs(we’ve all experienced them in one game or another, admit it). The random descriptions and personalities are helpful.

    I’m not big on balancing shit like it’s a tea party and everyone get’s a cookie, it’s not really my thing. Other then the shitty maps, and overly colorful layout, wasted space in presentation(It looks like the module would be a better fit if condensed into a sleek 16-24 page adventure) it looks like a half decent module.

  19. @Aberrant: I will let your comment speak for itself.

    Just so you know, I’d be more than happy to review any TOP NOTCH EXCITING HIGH QUALITY adventures you design by not “balancing shit like it’s a tea party.”

    Or maybe you’re joking. I would hope.

  20. I certainly like the idea of the adventure- in theory, it’d be like Hommlet, where there’s a small village with small time stuff going on that the heroes can get into. But making it into a railroad defeats the point of the adventure, whereas non-challenging fights against non-combatants defeats the point of 4e and shows a distinct lack of experience with the system, or at least an unawareness of how most people (including the designers and developers) play. The books are quite clear that non-combatants like old ladies don’t need stats.

    It sounds like it could have been at least marginally improved by making most of the fights into skill challenges… “avoid a huge pile of cats” sounds like a good one to me.

    So in summary:
    * Making more unique, site and character based adventures away from a dungeon crawl = good!
    * Trying to make said adventure without understanding how the rules work = bad!

  21. Well put.

  22. ysqure3

    The problem isn’t just that the combat is a series of five fights versus minions with nothing but basic attacks, followed by one fight against a bunch of identical swarms, followed by one last fight against a bunch of minions. I mean, yes, okay, that’s awful, that’s terrible encounter design, and it shows they weren’t even remotely interested in crafting interesting combat sequences. That’s kind of forgivable, since it shows people still want to develop for 4e without it being all about what fights you can get into.

    Of course, they still included all these boring trivial combat sequences, and they still puffed out the page count with the stat blocks, tactical maps, tactics blocks, and so forth. So, you lose points there.

    The real problem is that everything in this adventure is trivial and stupid. The hook is right about KotS level dumb. “Your party has just finished doing a fetch quest to get into town” is right up there with “Your party is randomly ambushed by kobolds on your way into some random town” as far as unmotivated scenes go. The problem is that Keep on the Shadowfell actually does a better job convincing you that its events are important.

    Humble Beginnings, as I pointed out, positions itself as though it’s part of a series of adventure modules designed to take your characters from level one to ten. They promised little notes that would tie HB to these other adventures, and delivered none of them. The thing is, it really is impossible to tie this meaningfully into any other adventures, because nothing happened.

    The adventure consists of your party completing a fetch quest that was assigned and performed off-camera, only to realize that the stuff you fetched doesn’t work. You get a reward anyway, but then it’s all stolen from you. You run around talking to doofy NPCs, chasing down kids with Cockney accents, and wandering through the kids’ big underground fortress filled with Home Alone traps. At the end of all this, you’ve managed to…uh, well, you managed to get all the stuff you got stolen back, along with one or two of those magic amulets that are useless against anything but PCs and a +1 weapon.

    Notice anything? You don’t solve any problems (oh, wait, you solve the mystery of Where Did The Cats Go? and Where Did The Guards’ Helmets Go?), you didn’t discover any new problems, you didn’t defeat any noteworthy enemies, you didn’t advance meaningfully at all. I said earlier that it looks like they didn’t really care about the combat encounters, but it also looks like they didn’t care about the plot, because the adventure reads like “Uh okay here’s some hijinks and XP fountains to tide you over to second level.”

    The only way I could see you liking this is if somehow you’re charmed by the town, where “adorable” urchins run amok causing low-key mischief and the adventurers have to deal with them. You’d have to like that basic idea an awful lot, because its actual implementation has ended up daft. Your only social encounters are with morons, your only combat encounters are against little tiny blobs of HP with little tiny basic attacks (and, occasionally, at-will (save ends) daze), there’s no exploration, there’s just a bunch of dumb encounters.

    But it seems you actually ARE impressed with the setting of this village, Aberrant Hivemind, you like the random conversations and observations and characters. To me they seem banal and poorly-thought-out, just like everything else in the module.

    And the “If Your Players Go Berserk” system is really useless. If you’re too dumb to figure out “If they do enough bad stuff, the town hates them and big guards force them in line” on your own, you’re probably too dumb to implement Appendix D anyway. It’s a useless little subsystem that wraps an ancient solution to the problem of PC psychopathy in a cursory GTA framework. For some reason.

  23. Wonderful review. Sadly, I’ve never heard of the site until today though. Wish I’d seen it in it’s prime.

  24. aberranthivemind


  25. … and today Dungeon Mastering has officially come off my subscription list. How sad.

  26. Marcus

    Nice review. I’ve only skimmed the pdf on the day they released it and deleted it immediatelly because it just looked so awful.

    Cheers, Marcus

  27. Pingback: Publishers Must Engage Their Tribes or Get Left At The Bus Stop | Nevermet Press

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