DMs Guild Review: Mini-Dungeons #1: Caves

A press copy of Mini-Dungeons #1: Caves was provided for the purposes of this review.

Designed by: Phil Beckwith and Chris Bissette
Published by: P.B. Publishing

dms guildA mini-dungeon fills the gap between a one or two-room single encounter cave and a sprawling dungeon that contains a dozen or more areas. The 3-in-1 mini-dungeon compilation, “Mini-Dungeons #1: Caves,” contains three such in-between dungeons of about half a dozen rooms each, co-designed by Chris Bissette of Loot the Room and Phil Beckwith of P.B. Publishing.

“Mini-Dungeons #1: Caves” includes a short, overarching narrative to tie all three previously released dungeons together, should you want to add them all at once. This pseudo-campaign adds a single NPC captive orc who motivates the PCs to travel from the first dungeon to the second, while their overall goal is to reach the third dungeon, along with some random encounters on the way.

It’s a weak thread as these dungeons were not initially designed to have anything to do with each other. Otherwise you can drop thesm anywhere you’d like your players to encounter a self-contained, combat-heavy side quest.

I’ll go over each dungeon separately but in general the first dungeon is designed for a level 2-5 party (Tier 1), while the other two are higher level and range from level 5 to 8 (Tier 2). Each one is designed as a one-shot with play times of only a few hours, though in my experience any combat-heavy scenarios always take significantly longer to play.

Mini-Dungeon 1: Lizardfolk Tunnels

If you have read my review of “Struggle in Three Horn Valley” you may recognize the Lizardfolk Tunnels, as it’s included as one of the possible encounters in that adventure. It ends up as the weakest dungeon here, which is more a testament to how great the other two dungeons are.

dms guildThe story hook presents the PCs with a woman whose husband has been recently murdered by lizardfolk. Her two children have been dragged off to the nearby caves. She is having a remarkably awful day, but hopefully the stalwart PCs can salvage some of it.

The Lizardfolk Tunnels are a standard cave dungeon with not much going for it. It features, you guessed it, lizardfolk. Near the entrance the PCs can rescue one of the kids from a sacrificial altar, then proceed room-to-room battling lizards until they reach the arena at the bottom. There they find the other captive kid and a lizard king boss fight.

It’s not a horrible design but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it, nor are there any notable traps, secrets, or environmental hazards. An overhang with a giant eagle nest has potential interest, but the PCs aren’t meant to actually interact with it at all.

The map itself is drawn in an isometric or cut-away style. While I do like this art style it’s not usable in virtual tabletops like Roll20, forcing me to rebuild a top-down battle map.

Mini-Dungeon 2: The Cavern of One-Eye

A cave filled with orcs isn’t usually the most compelling dungeon design, but The Cavern of One-Eye does some really fun things in its design, including poisonous rooms, multiple secret paths and ledges, an alarm system, and rescuing a potential cyclops ally!

The inciting story hook is almost the exact same as the Lizardfolk Tunnels. The PCs meet a bedraggled merchant outside the caves. His caravan has been ransacked, his goods stolen, and his body guard taken captive. Into the caves we go!

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The orc-filled caves present some fun challenges and silly role-playing opportunities right from the beginning. Two-headed Ettins can always be a lot of fun for a DM to role-play, and one can be found at the entrance (arguing with itself, naturally) with another deeper towards the back.

The PCs should notice a goblin on a ledge next to an alarm system that’s strung throughout the caves. The PCs have a chance to catch the goblin unawares and prevent a horde of orcs from descending upon them.

The cave has a central path that branches off into multiple rooms, giving the party several choices on how to tackle the dungeon. They won’t be able to miss the poisonous, disease-filled sick room with an orc Hand of Yurtus. The Cavern of One-Eye effectively uses the additional orc statblocks from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. If you don’t own that supplement sourcebook it wouldn’t be difficult to simply design your own orc variants.

The first two side rooms contain secret passageways that lead deeper into the cave complex, letting the PCs scout ahead, spy on foes, and plan their next moves. I love this design as it gives as many options as possible to a well-organized party.

The final room reveals the fun twist – the merchant’s bodyguard is a god damn cyclops! The party can calm him down and free him, resulting in a really fun, powerful ally in the final battle.

The final boss orc is actually asleep in the back, which may make the final battle a bit too easy depending on how cautious your players are. But it’s also a neat chance to reward a more stealthy and planned approach.

The map itself looks great, with a top-down design I can easily slot into Roll20. It’s also a very roomy cave, which makes sense given it is a home to ettins, and that orcs were able to drag a captured cyclops inside. Big thumbs up to making an otherwise standard orc cave a lot of fun.

Mini-Dungeon 3: The Lair of Frostingbite

The third mini-dungeon is a combination mine shaft and white dragon lair, which is pretty damn cool. Though it’s a bit trickier to drop anywhere in a campaign as it requires a snowy mountainous region on the outside.

The story hook is a little different and slightly less heroic. The local town’s shepard pleads with the heroes to investigate his missing livestock. The PCs follow the tracks that lead into an old abandoned mine shaft in the mountains.

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The mine shaft is a fantastic idea for a mini-dungeon. After an initial corridor of pit traps and ambushing kobolds, the party comes across two mine carts that lead into darkness, high above a sprawling cavern.

Special rules are given for operating and running the mine craft ride: the party and kobolds roll for initiative, and the cart travels 50 feet to the east on Initiative roll 20. Every round or so the DM (or a player) rolls a d4 to consult what terrible hazard occurs, from hitting stalactites to possibly getting knocked out of the cart by a flurry of bats.

About halfway along the ride the north track splits off into a dead end that careens into darkness. The PCs have to quickly pull a lever as they speed by or risk a memorable 60-ft crash into the depths!

I love this gauntlet of challenges and skill checks, and using nearby kobold archers as more of a trap hazard rather than a standard fight. If (hopefully when!) anyone falls into the pit below they’re swarmed by quaggoths in the dark.

When they reach the end the PCs find the remains of the farmer’s livestock, which is being fed to the young white dragon by the sycophantic kobolds. Then they have to ascend mine shafts while the kobolds hurl offal at them, ha! I love that all these hazards and challenges make the otherwise forgettable kobold a complete pain in the ass for the PCs to deal with.

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One last hazard remains: walking along a narrow icy path to the dragon’s lair. There’s a lot of potential falling damage as any PC who fails the saving throw slides back to the front.

The final room provides a climactic boss battle against the young white dragon. I love that the adventure includes tips for running the white dragon Frostingbite, right down to her round-to-round actions. She uses her flight to flit in and out of the cavern to get surprise advantage on her attacks, which is not something I would have otherwise considered.

Like the Cavern of One-Eye, The Lair of Frostingbite is designed in a functional top-down grid style, though for some reason it lacks a gridless version of the map. But I love the use of numerous traps, hazards, and elevation in creating a challenging little journey to battle a dragon.

Pros:

  • The Cavern of One-Eye and The Lair of Frostingbite are fantastic, well-designed mini-dungeons with usable maps.
  • The Cavern of One-Eye: The secret passages and captured cyclops ally give PCs lots of fun choices to make, rewarding stealth and tactics.
  • The Lair of Frostingbite: The mine shaft presents a unique round-by-round challenge filled with skill checks, saving throws, and memorable danger.
  • Each hostile encounter includes notes on adjusting the difficulty for three different level ranges in an easy-to-read sidebar.
  • Fantastic monster art throughout the adventure.

Cons:

  • The Lizardfolk Tunnels is a fairly boring, standard room-to-room cave design.
  • The Lizardfolk Tunnels map is isometric, and not usable in virtual tabletops like Roll20.
  • The overarching narrative that links all three dungeons is weak at best, mostly just adding a series of random encounters between dungeons.

The Verdict: The first cave dungeon is standard at best but the other two are well-designed mini-dungeons that provide plenty of fun challenges.

A press copy of Mini-Dungeons #1: Caves was provided for the purposes of this review.

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DMs Guild Review: Minotaur’s Bargain

A press copy of Minotaur’s Bargain was provided for the purposes of this review.

Designed by: JVC Perry and Phil Beckwith
Published by: P.B. Publishing

DMs GuildMinotaurs are usually depicted as just another monster, one that happens to be found in mazes and labyrinths thanks to Greek Mythology. Fantasy author Richard A. Knaak transformed the horned humanoids into a rich culture within the Dragonlance universe, one that I gobbled up back in high school and college.

Minotaur’s Bargain” runs with that same concept of Minotaurs as a tribal warrior culture, not unlike the orcs of Warcraft. It’s a neat idea but the adventure somewhat squanders potential role-playing interactions in favor of a standard deathtrap dungeon.

The adventure is a mini-dungeon crawl designed for a party of 5th level characters, with a suggested play time of 3-4 hours. It’s relatively tiny compared to P.B. Publishing’s other material, running at only 12 pages not including maps and statblocks.

The adventure hook has your player characters arriving at a Minotaur settlement to seek a potential alliance. The Minotaurs only respect strength, however, and no matter how negotiations go, the PCs are thrown into the arena.

The PCs have a chance to role-play with the powerful Minotaur leader, but the result is the same regardless. Given the title of the adventure and the fantastic Foreward by Knaak himself, I was expecting a much more story-heavy adventure. Instead after that initial confrontation, the PCs are dropped into a dungeon full of fairly standard traps.

The arena is divided up into four separate challenge rooms that must be overcome before the fifth and final challenge (a big boss fight) opens up. It feels very video game-y, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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In the initial room the PCs are told to bring only one item with them – including clothing, armor, or arcane foci! Most PCs are going to balk at this, and there are rules and notes for anyone who wants to try and smuggle in more items (um, where exactly are they hiding them??). I’m always leery of taking away power or agency from my players. Stripping them of beloved loot makes everything in the dungeon much deadlier than normal.

A potential Minotaur ally named Partheos can be found at the entrance. I enjoy when the DM gets to add an ally to the party, often serving as an organic way of imparting information or narration to the players. But Partheos is written as more of a brief font of information for the challenges ahead. He is young and cowardly which could have some interesting repercussions, though the notes on roleplaying him are minimal.

The four challenge rooms can be tackled in any order. There’s a decent variety here but nothing particularly awe-inspiring. It probably doesn’t help that I’m still pawing through the insanity of deathtrap dungeon design that is the Tomb of the Nine Gods from “Tomb of Annihilation.”

Areas contain the standard array of dungeon traps, including ground spikes, spinning scythes, pressure plates with wall darts, and a 60 ft pool with a Darkness spell. The goal in each room is to simply pull a lever. I don’t see why any spellcaster with the Mage Hand cantrip and/or 3rd level spells like Fly, Alter Self, and Gaseous Form couldn’t complete most rooms without breaking a sweat.

There’s not a lot of combat. The spike trap room can potentially include some random beasts, while the scythe/wall dart room has a unique orc variant called a Gladiator. The final battle is against a crazy powerful CR 8 Minotaur boss with legendary actions!

The most interesting feature the dungeon offers is in integrating the arena crowd. You’re not in some underground tomb – you’re in a gauntlet-style arena with a cheering (or jeering) crowd all around you. If the PCs perform honorable deeds or heroic actions (or roll a crit), the crowd will cheer, resulting in either Inspiration, or throwing out useful items like a Potion of Healing.

On the flip side if the heroes act cowardly or the crowd notices their smuggled items, the fickle crowd will hurl rocks at them, making attack rolls and dealing damage. This is a great feature that really drives home the fact that the PCs are proving themselves in an arena instead of crawling through just another dungeon.

Since the PCs are supposed to prove themselves, the outcome can vary depending on their actions. Even if they fail and wipe (that last boss fight looks scary considering the PCs are near-naked and probably quite wounded) they could be revived and exonerated for a job well done, completing the mission and securing the Minotaurs’ help.

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The adventure includes a full map of the arena, with seven separate room images and one big dungeon map that connects them. The pictures look really great in an isometric style, but unfortunately that style isn’t really usable in a virtual tabletop like Roll20. You could still use the pictures as handouts, but you’d have to rebuild the dungeon. Thankfully it’s not very big or complex.

For a one-shot deathtrap dungeon “Minotaur’s Bargain” is serviceable, offering some interesting challenges and a neat feature with the arena crowd. But it’s quite short, and doesn’t fully utilize the Minotaurs themselves (there’s not even a maze!). The adventure is designed as part one of a trilogy of adventures on the DMs Guild, and I’m hoping the others do a better job of exploring Minotaurs from a more interesting role-playing and political perspective.

Pros:

  • The arena crowd is a neat feature with well-integrated mechanics.
  • Particularly amazing art on the cover and throughout the adventure. The isometric maps are also lovely.
  • Spiffy Foreward by fantasy author and Minotaur scribe Richard A. Knaak.

Cons:

  • Role-playing is limited to the very beginning, and the PCs are thrown into the arena regardless.
  • Challenge difficulty feels artificially enhanced due to stripping the PCs.
  • The traps and levers seem particularly susceptible to PC spellcasters.
  • Isometric maps aren’t really compatible with virtual tabletops like Roll20.

The Verdict: Minotaur’s Bargain offers some neat features in its deathtrap dungeon but fails to utilize minotaurs in a meaningful way.

A press copy of Minotaur’s Bargain was provided for the purposes of this review.

DMs Guild Review: Struggle in Three Horn Valley

A press copy of Struggle in Three Horn Valley was provided for the purposes of this review.

Designed by: Phil Beckwith
Published by: P.B. Publishing

d&dDinosaurs and D&D are all the rage right now thanks to “Tomb of Annihilation,” the current ongoing story-line and campaign adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. “Struggle in Three Horn Valley” provides even more lost island dino goodness, beginning with a shipwreck and ending in a full-blown Dino-Riders war zone.

“Struggle in Three Horn Valley” is a lost island adventure designed for a party of 3rd to 4th level characters. It’s about 40 pages long with a suggested play time of six hours. It’s set on an uncharted island called Selu, home to tribal warriors, dinosaurs, lizardfolk, and pirates. Continue reading “DMs Guild Review: Struggle in Three Horn Valley”

DMs Guild Review: Something Smells Fishy

A press copy of Something Smells Fishy was provided for the purposes of this review.

Designed by: Phil Beckwith
Published by: P.B. Publishing

d&d“Something Smells Fishy” is a murder mystery adventure designed for players of 2nd – 4th level. It takes place in and around the small fishing town of Lartan near Waterdeep, though you could drop it into any coastal town, and concerns a missing shipment of fish that soon becomes deadly.

It’s 30 pages long, with a suggested runtime of 8 hours, and provides DM and player maps of both the town of Lartan and a mini cave-dungeon that represents the action-packed climax.

The story is divided up into four parts, which are supposed to take place over the course of two days. It’s heavily railroaded and designed to give players both clues and misdirection regarding a case of missing shipments of fish, the town’s primary export.

The DM will need to become familiar with several important NPCs, whom the PCs are designed to confront and interrogate at multiple times throughout the story. It’s a very role-playing heavy adventure with a simple but fun mystery plot and easy-to-run enemies and locations, making it a nice low-level, light combat adventure. Continue reading “DMs Guild Review: Something Smells Fishy”

D&D 5E “The Haunt” Recap

A one-shot Halloween adventure in a spooky haunted mansion with secret passages, ghostly visions, and deadly swimming pools.

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It’s bonus D&D week! In a nod to Halloween I temporarily took over the DM reigns to host an extra horror-themed one-shot adventure this week, using our pre-built characters from previous one-shots.

Welcome to the “The Haunt!”

I used a one-shot adventure from the DM’s Guild called “The Haunt,” by P.B. Publishing. I built the entire two-story mansion from scratch in Roll20, and also needed to make several adjustments for both time and difficulty.

While I wanted a horror one-shot to be challenging, the original adventure was written for a party of 4th-5th level, whereas the PCs we were using were only going to be 3rd level.

Our cast (all 3rd level):

  • Gramosk, half-orc barbarian
  • Falafel, half-elf bard
  • Filkur, gnome druid
  • Scarlet O’Fair, human paladin
  • Zinli, gnome rogue

Furthermore I needed to run the whole thing in a single evening, which for us is ideally around three hours. We skipped some fights and a few rooms and still took an additional 40 minutes but we got it all in and had a great time. Continue reading “D&D 5E “The Haunt” Recap”