5E Adventure Review: If Looks Could Kill

Dan Coleman’s Dungeons on Demand series has produced a good number of excellent dungeons for DMs to use and players to enjoy. He is currently running a Kickstarter for the third volume of the series, and has sent me one of its five adventures to (p)review. If Looks Could Kill is an adventure for 6th-level characters and presents a single dungeon stocked with monsters, traps, tricks and treasure.

The chief villain of the adventure is a queen who has been cursed with the form of a medusa. She brought the curse down on herself and quite likes her new form, so the adventurers aren’t there to save her. Instead, they’re possibly there to stop the cult she’s gathering around her, or to rescue one deluded fool who now serves her, depending on the adventure hook you choose.

The adventure is set several decades after the queen’s kingdom fell into ruin. The queen has only recently revealed that she is still alive, and is attempting to gather followers by promising them immortality. The queen, however, is more than a little deranged and occasionally culls (rewards) her cultists by giving them what they seek – immortality as a statue. Not exactly what they intended, but probably what they deserved!

The adventurers enter her ruined castle as the cult is going through a power-struggle, due to their previous leader being “rewarded” by the queen. There’s a loose structure here that allows the players to gain the “help” of one of the contenders by eliminating his rivals; he’ll then guide them through to the queen while offering a commentary on the sights the players encounter. The commentary is glorious: upon seeing his petrified fellow cultists, he’s overwhelmed by the generosity the queen has shown in commissioning such memorials to her favoured, rather than realising the truth of what’s going on. I’d consider it something of a disappointment not to use it, but not all parties will form the alliance.

The number of cultists in the keep is quite low: I count about 20. Other foes for the party are provided by having monsters wander in, or by having the cultists keep them as pets. Isn’t it every cultist’s dream to have a pair of phase spiders as pets? A few traps and tricks round out the dungeon, and provide plenty of entertainment for the players and DM.

One of the tricks – a gallery that has a secret door that only opens if the right paintings are placed on the hooks – manages to both be a really fun feature for the players to discover, whilst also making me wonder why it exists. Who builds such a feature into a palace? It’s something that very much evokes the early days of D&D, where the standard explanation was “a mad wizard built it”. (See both Undermountain and Castle Greyhawk). It’s fun. It doesn’t make much sense.

The castle is ruined and some of its connecting passages and hallways no longer exist, thus requiring a detour through caves and along the mountainside to reach the queen’s chambers. I like the feeling of decrepitude this conveys, but the dungeon may be a little too linear, with little opportunity for players to change the order of encounters.

The adventure is nicely presented. Each area gets one or two pages describing it, in a similar manner to that seen in the “Delve” format of 4E’s releases. Whilst that format limited the range of adventures that could be released, for a dungeon like this one, it’s an excellent way of presenting the information needed by the DM. The maps are clear, with icons representing items of interest. Each area description, per the Delve format, shows a small map of the room being explored.

This isn’t the strongest of the Dungeons on Demand, although it’s still an entertaining dungeon. It has some great ideas underpinning it, and some memorable individual encounters. However, the linear nature of the dungeon and the uselessness of the cult members makes it less gripping that it could be. I like that the queen’s self-destructive and narcissistic nature is ruining her ability to take back her lands, but it does so at the cost of negating the cult’s threat. If there were more cult members, this wouldn’t be such an issue, but as it stands, the queen is likely to petrify all her followers fairly soon and return to being forgotten. You should have fun with it, but don’t think too much about some of the details.

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