Sunday, 14 October 2018

[Review] The City That Dripped Blood

The cover promised me a huge ass dinosaur,
but all I got was a 3 HD giant lizard.
The City That Dripped Blood is the result of a crowdfunding campaign started by Frog God Games this August. You would think there is nothing new under the sun, but that's far from true: this time the campaign wasn't on Kickstarter, but on indiegogo, and it wasn't gathering funds to release another massive tome, but to publish a short module - the first product of a four part series. Badass title, a premise reminiscent of R. E. Howard's Red Nails, and an initiative worth supporting - needless to say I threw some money at them without thinking. Things started to look even brighter as the updates came in: not only did Frog God Games get the talented Michael Syrigos to do the cover, but they also managed to finish the book early: instead of January the pdf arrived early October. The review will be about the Swords & Wizardry edition.

The City That Dripped Blood is a 23 pages long adventure. The cover is a sight to behold, an astonishing piece that effectively evokes the classic howardian sword & sorcery feel using a style similar to Frank Frazetta's. The interior is full color, with solid illustrations, an abstract city map, and a page of uninspired dungeon maps. Layout follows the usual two-column Frog God Games template. At first glance everything appeared nice and dandy, but once I started reading the book thoroughly, issues began to surface.

I was startled for a second when the back cover told me that this is a 5e adventure for 4th-level characters. I had to double check if I got the correct edition. Such mistakes are not surprising from Frog God Games - just ask someone with the S&W version of Stoneheart Valley about the Pathfinder logo under the sticker. Nevermind, I don't make a big fuss about honest mistakes. On the other hand, my pulse swiftly rised when I reached pages 2 and 3. The City That Dripped Blood became the first book that pissed me off with its Table of Contents. Not only it is a waste of valuable space that could have been used for content, but it is so useless and uninformative, we wouldn't have lost anything if it was left out. Thank you very much Frog God Games, but I can figure out by myself that the adventure begins at the beginning of the book, and the Legal Appendix nobody reads is in the back. At least the digital version is properly bookmarked.

Why even bother?
The adventure was written for a group of 4-6 characters of levels 4-5. Extraplanar vulture-men called skelzis became vampiric thanks to the magical blood orchid, and with the help of their weredactyl servants rule over the forgotten desert city of Temelpa. The population consists of humans, who wear masks to show their place in the rigid caste system, and halfling slaves, who worship a helpful aranea. Instead of burial or funerary pyres the residents practice a ritualized form of cannibalism. Hiding in the city live a small number of outcasts, who no longer believe the skelzi propaganda. The outcats want to topple their oppressors, but are unprepared and unequipped to do so.

While the backdrop is amazing, and full of potential, the adventure begins with a hook as tired as possible: an army of gnolls attacks a caravan, and chases the party into the ruins of Temelpa. If you don't like it, you get three other options, but they aren't much better either (fetch quest, delivery quest, original hook expanded). No matter which one you choose, the gnolls will appear, and surround the city to keep the adventurers within. Needless to say the monsters stay out of the range of missile weapons and spells, and conveniently stay until the DM wants them to stay. Blockade is a cheap and ineffective way to keep the PCs from leaving the area. If the players can kill something you can rest assured they will try to do it. It's an army of gnolls? Don't worry, the players will have a plan, and waste an entire session on executing it. Second, why would an army of gnolls besiege a whole city for 4-6 escapees? Even a magical sandstorm that lasts for days would have had been a better choice, especially if you connect it in some way to the skelzis.

After the hook the module introduces the factions and important NPCs, giving the reader a good overview about what's going on in the city. The events are next, beginning with garbage exhaustion rules and an NPC meant to railroad the PCs if needed, then moving unto the mildly interesting funeral procession, and finally explaining in great length the interaction with the guards and skelzis. Short summary of the latter: no matter what the PCs do or who they are, the rulers are absolute bastards, and will do everything to enslave them, or throw them into the arena, or eat them. These are explained in long paragraphs, without any kind of highlighting or bullet points that would make it easier to scan the text and find at first glance what you are looking for. Among the walls of text there is a detail I found amusing: the Crimson Guards are totally incompetent in handling unusual situations. Meeting people without masks, or getting the wrong answer to a ritual question can lead to confusion and guards running to their superiors for advice.

Those threes and fours are all feeding and
sleeping chambers. So exciting!
Next are the district descriptions, a crucial part of any location-based adventure. Unfortunately they get around half page. No, not per district, all in all. The book presents only the two dungeons, the Crimson Ziggurat and the Ziggurat of the Dead in details, the remaining locations get a few paragraphs of trivia each. As for the ziggurats, they are as bland as their maps. Together they have 26 keyed areas, and more than half of them are generic rooms with nothing interesting going on in them. The rest isn't that exciting either. There are barely any meaningful encounters, and the dungeons lack traps, objects to interact with, puzzles. Even the treasure is abysmal! Almost all the loot is sitting in a single chamber in form of a decanter of endless water, a +1 spear, a scroll of protection from evil, a gem worth 625gp, three items of jewelry worth 115gp, 160gp, and 380gp, 2600gp, 1560sp, and 1080cp. I had to check again if I bought the 5e version by accident... In old-school D&D you get most of your XP for the treasure you retrieve. The module was written for a party of 4-6 level 4-5 adventurers. The swag above is maybe enough for a thief to get from level 4 to 5, and they advance super fast compared to other classes. The magic items are as boring and useless as it can get. In the city of vampire vultures is a +1 spear really the best magic weapon the author could come up with? Also, a rule of thumb: if you want to run a desert adventure, don't hand out a decanter of endless water to the party, otherwise it will turn into a trivial trip.

Beside the above treasure hunters can loot 50-200gp more by following the good old cliché of prying out the gemstone eyes of an idol. There is a 4 in 6 chance for the barbed devil living inside to manifest. I wonder why not 6 in 6. Don't rob the players from their actions having consequences. The idol's description is a short, but good example of my issues with the writing: fillers.

"The idol is similar to those venerated by any of the many gluttony cults: a rotund humanoid with exaggerated mouth and teeth, tiny eyes, shrunken limbs, and a swollen belly. The necklaces and crown adorning it are made from linked fingerbones, teeth, short ribs, and other small bones from humans and halflings. The whole thing is about 4ft tall."

No need to pad the text with generalization about other gluttony cults, because it's irrelevant concerning this statue, and it might not be true. What if a gluttony cult follows a bulimiac god who teaches to visit the vomitorium after every meal so you can keep eating? I'm also surprised when authors use weak words like "thing" casually in a published book. The idol's description can be easily shortened into the following, without losing any flavor:

"The 4ft tall idol depicts a rotund humanoid with exaggerated mouth and teeth, tiny eyes, shrunken limbs, and a swollen belly. Its crown and necklaces are made from linked fingerbones, teeth, short ribs, and other small bones."

Weredactyls? Always two there are; no more, no less.
Probably the result of the D&D5e CR calculations.
The module ends with appendices. Appendix 1 contains random encounter tables. They are just dull lists of monsters and quantity - 8 centipedes, 2 skelzis and 2 weredactyls, 2d4 halflings, and so on. Expanding the entries into a whole sentence would have livened them up and could help a lot in turning Temelpa into a living, breathing environment. 8 centipedes are crawling on the corpse of a halfling outcast who is holding a scroll in his hand. 2 skelzis are trying to capture 2 weredactyls that went feral after being in pterodactyl form for too long. 2d4 halflings are climbing down into the cellar hastily while the shouts of the Crimson Guard echo through the alley. Such details can be inspiring and expand the adventure.

Appendix 2 has the three new monsters entries: Fuulagh the Blood Orchid Savant, skelzi, and weredactyl. All three of them are imaginative creatures with an interesting symbiotic relationship between them. The skeksis... err, I mean skelzis are conquerors from another plane, and were turned vampiric (but nut undead) by the blood orchid. The weredactyls are their stupid servants, who the skelzis have to keep an eye on, for if they spend too much time in pterodactyl form they go feral and have to be retrained from scractch. The latter is a detail I would love to see abused by players, and turned against the skelzis!

The book ends with a legal appendix, and an empty page.

The City That Dripped Blood is not the kickass mix of city and dungeon crawl I expected. While the background and factions have enough detail to work from, the environment is seriously lacking, either because the information is close to zero (districts), or because of the content's weakness (ziggurats). Cutting the filler text, better organization, more interesting dungeon rooms, more exciting loot, and spending the two empty pages on giving the districts some character would turn The City That Dripped Blood from another shovelware adventure into an excellent one. Unfortunately that work is left to the buyer. But hey, at least the cover is nice!

Tl;dr: Beautiful cover, kickass premise, lackluster implementation. You can buy it on the official Frog God Games website.


  1. What a waste of a great cover. Thanks for your review!

  2. Yes, disappointing. It is a great cover.

  3. Nice review. I was pretty disappointed as well.