OSR Review: Starter Adventures

There seems to be a trend starting of Old School products advertising themselves for D&D 5E on DriveThruRPG despite the author spending no time to familiarise themselves with the 5E rules or, indeed, even offering any 5E-compatible rules. Starter Adventures, by Tim Shorts, is in that category. The rules are pure Swords & Wizardry, a variant of original D&D. Interestingly, it bears the copyright date of 2012, which is the effect of a very long writing process rather than when it actually was released. (December 2014 is the real release date).

“I’ve used the Swords & Wizardry Core Ruleset to develop these scenarios, but any GM worth his salt can adapt these to the system he prefers.”

The book apparently has two editors, although it manages to display a number of minor spelling and grammatical errors. The most amusing is in the table of contents, which gives us the spelling “Theif”. I expect this will likely get fixed one of these days.

Despite an unprepossessing cover, the interior art and maps are mostly well done and attractive; the layout of the book is also well done. It’s a 51-page PDF, including front and back covers, which is fairly substantial.

The first half of the book consists of sixteen very short adventures for a single player, designed to introduce the four basic classes.

“There are four scenarios for each basic class; cleric, fighter, magic-user and yes, I consider the thief a class.”

I chuckled a bit at that comment, for the original release of D&D did not include the thief. It’s a little reminder of how the game has changed over the years.

To give you an idea of the kind of adventure included in the book, one mission involves a cleric PC having to deal with two skeletons in a field. There’s not much to the actual mission – find the skeletons, then destroy them with holy water or weapons, although it’s a good opportunity to learn about the Turn Undead ability – but it’s made more interesting by attention being given to the villagers who need help and the priest who sends you on the mission in the first place.

The “Test of Faith” mission is particularly interesting. At the beginning of the mission, both the player and DM roll 1d4. If the numbers match, the DM describes the mission exactly to the player, and lets him choose the spell that will solve it. Otherwise, the player must go in blind (although hints might be given if the numbers were only 1 apart). It’s hard to know exactly what to make of this. Is it teaching the player that D&D is occasionally random? I’m put in mind of the solo gamebook, The Soulforge, which detailed Raistlin’s Test of High Sorcery. That book could be equally arbitrary despite, in theory, the clues being available to the player. (I also note that “Test of Faith” really is four missions in one…)

“The player should learn that his choice as a cleric will have an effect on the people he is choosing to serve. And that he is not just a fighting holy man, but a representative of his god.”

Overall, these short adventures are of variable quality. Some are quite interesting, others are rather perfunctory. Although each attempts to introduce key concepts to new players, they’re not always successful in that aim. I admire the concept more than the execution.

The next section describes the “Red Bear’s Tavern”, which is used in some of the adventures. It’s well-detailed, with a lot of hooks for further adventures. This takes up 11 pages.

The seventeenth adventure in the book is an 11-page adventure for a group of first-level characters. Here’s part of the introduction:

“This adventure is built for 1st level characters to kill whatever they want, destroy whatever they want and take whatever they want. There are points where talking might have a better result, but talking is overrated. GMs should use this adventure to teach the newbs the basic mechanics of the game. There is enough in here for each class to do. I should also add, if you haven’t guessed already, this adventure is snarky in writing tone. Oh, one more thing. Make sure they have backup characters. Just say’n.”

The adventure is set in a well-detailed dungeon. Despite the introduction, there are some good opportunities for role-playing, especially as the threats might well prove too much for a small party of characters – a 3rd-level fighter using a ring of invisibility is likely to kill one or more of the PCs, if not all of them. It’s not a great adventure, but it should provide a session’s worth of amusement.

The book ends with a number of new monsters and magic items. There’s nothing particularly special here, although I am very intrigued by the verm, “a large rat that somehow survived a lightning strike while in the sewers.” Given that lightning is not known for striking in the sewers, they would appear to be very rare indeed – unless you have a lot of lightning-bolt casting wizards wandering around the sewers!

Overall, Starter Adventures has some good ideas and, at times, lives up to or exceeds its promise. I think it’s more likely to be used as inspiration for adventures and encounters than as-is, but it does have some good moments. The biggest problem it has is likely to be the survivability of a single character in an adventure that features combat; there’s little margin for error. There’s the reason that solo players tend to take a lot of men-at-arms and henchmen on their adventures!

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