Review: The Dolorous Skull
The Dolorous Skull is a 24-page adventure for Cairn created for the 2023 A Town, A Forest, A Dungeon Jam.
In Short: This adventure shines in the creativity and flavor of the creatures to be encountered throughout, and it has an interesting premise. Its minor failings are in a lack of detail in places and the organization of the document.
Adventure Summary: A town is being repeatedly overrun by a horde of undead who, surprisingly, seem only interested in going about their normal lives in the village, but they are terrifying the villagers nonetheless. Unlike the town, the forest is full of dangerous creatures, which shift based on the ringing of a strange bell deep in the woods. Exploration leads to mysterious underground facilities created in ancient times to showcase oddities in a zoo/museum setting. A wizard deep in these facilities is the source of the issues in the area and needs to be dealt with.
What I Liked: First and foremost, the creatures throughout the adventure are unique and dripping with flavor. I love the panglebear (a combination pangolin, eagle, and bear) and the Amphisbaena (a cunning snake with two heads) as just two examples among the 26 or so to be found in its pages. I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the "Wandering Monster Table," an animated monstrous table that can cause a double-take when skimming through the pages.
I personally like the theme of the dungeon as a kind of ancient high-tech facility. It has the oddities intended to be on display, as well as the strangeness of quasi-medieval adventurers encountering a scene that would be familiar to us today, such as a punch-card operated time clock. I could see how this might be a bit too far for some tables, but I love it.
The dynamism of a shifting set of creatures in the woods based on the progress of the wizard through his rituals is also great. The wizard as a "villain" is good as well, with the trouble caused by his good intentions leading to potentially interesting choices for the party.
The art, collages of public domain images, is also very well executed and looks great. I particularly like the cover which, through convergent evolution or something floating around in the air, looks very much like the cover of my own jam entry, but with a cooler looking skull—this is not sarcasm, and we've discussed on the Cairn Discord how we both came up with these covers independently, which I find supremely funny.
What I Didn't Like: There's only a few things I'd like to see different about this. For one, I think the forest could use more defined locations for exploration. As it is, only two discrete locations are defined, and it would be up to the warden to flesh things out more to give players time to explore and interact with the dynamic encounter tables for the forest area, which are great and deserve more time.
In the dungeon, I'd like to see an actual wandering monsters table in addition to the comical one. The dungeon reads as a bit static with all the rooms as more-or-less isolated set pieces, but it would be an easy fix with a few creatures wandering around.
Most importantly to me, I think this adventure would benefit greatly from an adventure summary at the beginning and a reorganization of some content. There are things like the importance of whether or not the bell has recently rung that are mentioned early on but not truly explained until the final pages of the document. Specifically for the wizard's ritual and the bell, I think I would want to change the procedure for when the bell is rung to tie in to the clock of standard exploration procedures rather than a literal time-of-day clock, as at least I personally don't track things down to the hour.