Review: Dungeons on a Dime 03 – Blood in the Water
In a time where most RPG content turns up as a formless PDF there’s something rather wonderful about flicking through the weighty pages of Dungeons on a Dime’s Blood in the Water. However, while it’s a beautiful little book supported with solid writing, a messy structure makes running the adventure a trickier task than you’d hope.
This is a shame, because the basic idea behind Dungeons on a Dime is really rather wonderful. The series of booklet-sized supplements designed to offer up open-ended adventures for D&D 5E and come packed with little maps, solid ink-drawings and some neat ideas. Though it’s available in digital formats, the zine-style physical copies are a genuine delight to handle and read through.
Blood in the Water is the latest issue in the series and concerns itself with a Rusalka, a water monster whose magical aura is causing real problems for the nearby town of Breznik. As the adventurers begin to investigate, though, they should soon be drawn into a decently plotted mystery involving stolen art, betrayal and murder.
Rather than a linear go-here-kill-that adventure, Blood in the Water is presented as a great big sandbox that the heroes can explore and investigate at their leisure. There’s a handful of hooks and a smattering of ideas to work with, but beyond that you’re left to play things out the way you want to.
Will the party wander down to the waterfront and smash the poor monster with a club, or will they end up avenging it and finding a peaceful solution that allows it to move on? Either approach is just as viable.
This kind of freeform adventure is always great fun to run and it’s not hard to see Blood in the Water working wonderfully for parties that enjoy their open-ended choices, but the nature of sandboxes is that they live and die by the quality of their structure. When players can go where they please and prod what they feel like, you really need to be able to leap to the right page or pluck out the correct detail at a moment’s notice.
Alas, this is where Blood in the Water suffers.
Devils & Details
Perhaps we can paint a picture of the problems with the fact that Blood in the Water’s 50-ish pages contain six separate chapters and nine different appendixes. Key bits of information are spread out through all of this and picking out an important detail when you’re at the table is incredibly tricky.
If you want to piece together the full backstory for the adventure, for example, you’ll need to flick your way between three different chapters.
When the time comes to run a fight on the first floor of an inn, one of the adventure’s two likely combat encounters, you’ll need to thread together information scattered throughout the chapter on the inn itself, the chapter about the NPC they’re likely to meet there, the appendix featuring the NPC’s stat block and the appendix that claims to detail the encounter.
A lot of the reason for this seems to be a love of detail. There is incredible depth to the characters and plenty of notes about what they might do in this scenario or that situation, and while it’s certainly interesting reading it stuffs the pages with details that are often a little pointless.
If you took a bandsaw to Blood in the Water and cut its wordcount in half, you would probably end up with something much more functional. The question then, is whether it would be the same if you made it that much slicker?
As things stand one of the lovely things about the Dungeons on a Dime series is that it’s something different – a more relaxed, hand-made island of craft sitting in a sea of adventures attempting to ape the D&D house style. I’m not sure I’d want to lose that.
However, a charming design doesn’t quite excuse how tricky the book is to use, and while I’d certainly be interested in taking a look at more Dungeons on a Dime they’re going to need to tighten things up if they want to get off their spot on the shelf and onto the gaming table.
Beautiful, creative and unwieldy. Buy it for a great piece of RPG content, not because you want a quick and easy adventure to run.