[Review] White Dwarf 34 – Trouble at Embertrees (AD&D); Technical Write-Off

[Adventure]
Trouble at Embertrees (1982)

Paul Vernon (White Dwarf 34)
Lvl 1 – 2

White Dwarf Magazine, Issue 34: Amazon.com: Books


A thorough reading by the DM is necessary before play begins. With those ominous words Trouble at Embertrees heralds in what might very well be the densest 5 pages in rpg history. Forget reading through it, the only way you are going to scratch the surface of Trouble of Embertrees is by spraying it with a flame-thrower, dissecting the remains, and then writing a thesis-dissertation about it. It mentions notes, and that’s what this feels like, someone’s notes.

Everything about this adventure is fucking dense, and loaded with detail, not always non-gameable. The party gets hired by Tomkin Not, master woodcarver, to put an end to some pretty worrying reports from the village of Embertrees, the only site where the mystical Embertree wood is cut. There’s also a rival merchant that want to send in mercenaries to clear up the problems and use that as an excuse to appoint his catspaw within the village as chieftain so he can get the wood for himself, while also using trappers to set monsters out near the village perimeter, there’s an evil temple to some NE deity inhabited by a Half-Orc assassin/cleric and a black priest custom class from WD 22, there’s a villager running around with a mind-control creature, some ulterior motives/petty grievances and giant ants. For levels 1-2.

It reminds me of Village of Hommlet. There’s a tiny village built near the site of an ancient evil but the village is more than it seems. There’s a whole elaborate backstory about the death of a previous evil baroness to give the place some color, complete with a little festival, but the real meat and potatoes will be figuring out the myriad threats that plague the village from the some-times conflicting accounts that are described under the locals. The inhabitants are pretty rough folk, hunters, farmers, some widows that ‘serve’ the hunters, a village idiot, a pregnant daughter that will try to pin it on one of the PCs it’s alright. There’s little details. One guys has a sleep scroll for the village defence, there’s a guy whose been at the temple but he’s been tortured to the point of insanity, one guy is in on a smuggling ring, there’s a visiting assassin etc.. This section is DENSE, 29 entries for the village. It feels like a real place but its almost impossible to extricate all of the detail from the text.

The lack of centralization of all the rumors and the frequent cross-referencing means that it is very difficult for the GM to piece out what is actually going on. You are basically going to have to make a cheatsheet, if not an elaborate chronology to figure out all of the events that have been transpiring. It doesn’t help these are scattered across the text, to the point where you will have cross-referencing far into the last rooms of the Temple Key. There’s a visitor table, a village event table, a nested village encounter table that requires you to come up with things like False or True accusations or Events off the fly, meaning you will need to have ready knowledge of the NPCs and their occupations/schemes in order to improvise. AND there’s a weekly schedule of things like Market Day or The Saturday Evening Dance. I think this is what is known as Harn-levels of detail.

Monsters are pretty good. Not faction play exactly but the dungeon standard of well fleshed out lairs, everything is doing something, little details that leap out at the player. Zombies and skeletons in the barracks section of the temple of Pellarn are wearing faded silk dresses. Animating statues in the temple. The outside is a hex-map with trails, rivers, lairs and the valley of Embertrees. There’s a secret way of harvesting the trees that only a few know, otherwise they unleash fire seeds that burn the characters, and ignite other trees. There’s about a zillion monsters from Fiend Folio, White Dwarf issues that you haven’t heard of like brothers of the pine (some sort of druidical undead things), sheet ghouls, argorian wormkin, firesnakes etc. etc. It’s nuts. This is interspersed with off-beat choices like War-horse skeletons or custom-bred giant ants.

The dungeon proper has its share of tricks and traps, some of which I still don’t fully get, like a teleportation trap. There’s pit traps that you can disable by twisting the heads of statues, an animated idol of Pellarn that demands a child-sacrifice or else it animates and fights the PCs. AC -3 5 HD for a level 1-2 party? Acid-spitting sheet ghouls in your pit trap. Trouble at Embertrees gives zero fucks. Secret doors galore. Nice treasure too, including some evil tomes on creating Brothers of the Pine, tracts to boost an Assasin’s assassination skill. Evil temples don’t have to be clichéd. There’s actually a second entrance too, with tracks leading to it, that I found on my 3rd readthrough.

Dungeon descriptions are also occasionally plagued with information that really should be elsewhere. Explanations and rationales of why what NPC is where, or how the half-orc assassin killed the Old High Priest, or long descriptions of how a person the PCs are supposed to find (a boy) came to be in a certain area. That information might be useful to the GM to make sense of things but putting it in the room key doesn’t work and actually hinders quick referencing of information.

It’s an interesting conceit. A wilderness adventure/village intrigue type of deal that only after considerable forays and investigation leads to the dungeon-crawling part of the adventure, and that one likely to be lethal. Hidden-threats abound. I don’t know how a 1-2 level party, even with henchmen, is going to make it through, certainly not unscathed, but with clever play and some luck, who knows.

If someone would take the time to render this in useable form it would easily be a ***, probably a ****. A caves of chaos/village of hommlet style operation, a little homebase for the PCs where there is lots of different stuff going on and the PCs gradually have to piece together what the deal is here. But the effort would be herculean. You would have to really pore over the text, note all the different events, establish a rough timeline, then make a cheatsheet of the NPCs with all the info they have, then note the two factions and figure out what exactly they want and who in the village is involved. And THEN you add a cheatsheet with all the different monsters from White Dwarf articles that you would have to absorb and render easily digestible. As is **.  


26 thoughts on “[Review] White Dwarf 34 – Trouble at Embertrees (AD&D); Technical Write-Off

  1. Eagle eyes and a helm of understanding are needed for this one. I think your review is very fair: there is an excellent adventure to be extracted, but what a cost in referee preparation. If Bryce isn’t nice to you, tell him that you have discovered an excellent new format for immediate gaming at the table, and send over Embertrees.
    This module has a reputation, and earlier articles by the same author in White Dwarf concerning cities, towns and villages in a campaign setting even more so.
    Paul Vernon also wrote the legendary Starstone. Copies are as rare as rings of three wishes and go for about the same price.

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    1. That’s a level of rpg-archeology I have not quite ascended too, and I fear the returns diminish fearfully as one digs deeper into such primordeal layers. Rob Kuntz’s the Stalk for 250 dollars at the Aceum already fills me with existential dread. Ah to have the Deluxe Edition of Palace attain such boreal heights…

      Your knowledge of ancient rpgs is impressive. It would be cool to talk but I fear our neighbours would call the police for fear of the cacophony of ‘aktually’s’ and autistic screeching that is the lingua franca of such conversations.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think you have entirely the right attitude. The really expensive stuff is for the collectors, not the players. And there is plenty of great classic material that is relatively cheap, along with some exciting new stuff. I’ve seen scans of Up the Garden Path and Seren Ironhand, and wouldn’t touch them at their current prices (in the unlikely event of finding a copy), despite the top class authors (Graeme Morris and Tom Moldvay respectively).
        I do actually own a copy of Starstone. Who needs two kidneys?

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      2. WTF? Is the stalk going for $250? I have a copy I picked up at NTRPGCon a few years ago – the content is ok, it has curiosity value, but nobody is going to exit a play session of the stalk exclaiming how great their evening was compared to other D&D games in their rear view mirror

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      3. I’m trying to figure out what an rpg product I’d pay 250 for would look like and it would have to be a lifetime investment honestly, a game so perfect and vast I could spend the next 10 years exploring all its myriad permutations. But that game already exists and is called Stars Without Number and I don’t think the complete library quite amounts to 250,-

        That reminds me to get myself a copy of Xyntillian before its out of print.

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  2. None of these are getting very high marks…

    Is it just that they are dated and the older conventions do not lead to gameable usable material for the table?

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    1. I think the marking is about on par, maybe even a bit higher then average. So far we’ve had one *****, which I give out very rarely if at all, a **** for Lichway, some ***s which are basically sound adventures, and a lot of missed potential because of the format. White Dwarf has produced few real stinker as of yet. Granted there are the mini-adventures that are basically just glorified monster manual entries but I don’t count those as they are dull.

      I think compared to something like Role Aids or even Dungeon Mag, they are pretty good, downright impressive for the small page count. I’d say 1982 White Dwarf had a pretty good grasp of conventions that do generate interesting adventures if you discount the format.

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  3. If it’s a four-star adventure, you should rate it four stars. Rating it two stars groups it with the other two stars, and now it will never be found by people scanning your archive for four and five star warnings. Rather than lowering the score, your ample warning in the review that it will require a lot of prep is all that’s needed. Love the site, by the way!

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    1. Thank you and welcome! I disagree, as my scale takes useability into account already. I think I gave…Return to the Tomb of Horrors? a four star rating, and that one definitely requires some prep. Here…it’s like with Operation Counterstrike. If you’d want to actually run this you’d have to virtually rewrite the adventure, collect all te monsters from the articles, make an NPC motivation cheatsheet, read it a couple of times until you ‘get’ it etc. etc. etc. That’s all work. You can put the same amount of effort into any ** adventure and polish it up until its good enough to run, tighten the encounters, add some parts. I don’t think it makes sense to rate on some sort of abstract theoretical max potential scale unless you are actually dealing with something that is so powerful and innovative putting that effort in still provides a unique or superior experience. Embertrees is good but so are fifteen million other adventures. Does it have to be high prep? The answer is no, most of this stuff can be made comprehensible fairly easily. Thus I bust it down.

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  4. Couldn’t the GM just read all of it, get inspired, and then run the adventure from memory with text as notes for creating spontaneous encounters? That’s how I’d run it. No herculean effort needed.

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    1. Right I respect the two star. If you have to work way hard to use it how is it four star.

      Thats which we go to adventures.

      As Verg notes, its easier to make your own version than run it as is.

      Imagine all the work people do to use RAW (if that even exists) 5e adventure blot books.

      The effort of prep needed matters

      Paul Out

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    2. I think you could do it like that but I don’t know how good the end result would be. Part of the strengths of this adventure is in the excessive detail, the references, all the shit going on, the mystery, which makes sense if it is tight but might seem illogical if events contradict eachother or fall apart etc. etc. For something that runs mostly on atmosphere like DCO or Operation Counterstrike that might be a hell of an approach, it might even be better. I know for a fact you run a pretty tight game, so who knows, maybe you’d do it justice. I like improvisation as much as the next guy, I mean I had to when the PCs took 10 days riding back and getting a res after the damn cave bear killed off their top guy, but I’m pretty autistic when it comes to running prepared games.

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    3. I think Venger’s on the money here. And I have to say, when I was 15 we ran all these old White Dwarf modules during school lunchbreak for each other, including this one, which I remember with great fondness. I played a druid in it and I can assure you none of us spent hours on prep time.

      Maybe we’ve just gotten soft in our old age and expect everything to be like Gavin Norman laid it out? That’s just not what adventures were written like back then.

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      1. I mean, design is important. I value how things look on the page. Adventures that are made to be easy to run are worth more than walls of text.

        Additionally, my current style of D&D has nothing to do with deep investigation. 90-minute games twice a month via Roll20 means arcade-mode or nothing.

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      2. ‘That is how it was back then,’ fails to account for A) Most of the other WD adventures, that get along fine, B) I give ratings based on what works and what doesn’t, based on my own experience. I give a little slack for the old stuff to account for the decreasing literacy of the gaming public but a bloated text now is not that different from bloated text then. I’m glad your gaming group did things quickly in the old days but it doesn’t really change the fact that Embertrees has problems when it comes to letting you know what its about, putting all its info in the right places, having clear text that can be parsed during play, figuring out what info the GM needs to know to use the scenario properly and what can be omitted etc. etc. On that level, Embertrees I find Embertrees lacking when compared to other scenarios of comparable quality but vastly improved useability.

        Welcome to Age of Dusk btw!

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  5. The Lichway is truly awesome though. Be interested to hear what you make of the upcoming 6 part city adventure which followed on from Paul Vernon’s city builder articles.

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  6. Agree with all that’s been said. I love this adventure. I’ve run it at least 3 times over the years. There is just so much detail crammed into those pages. One day I will get round to picking it apart and putting it back together in a more DM-friendly format.

    I actually had a copy of Starstone. I picked it up at Gen Con UK circa the early 90s for about 5 quid. I then sold it around 10 years ago on ebay because I never ever thought I would play D&D again. Huge mistake!

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    1. You’d be doing the OSR a service I think. In my dreams there is a whole compendium of old modules, restored to the latest standards of useability. I wasn’t aware Embertrees had a prequel. It will be impossible to find but I’ll keep my eyes open. Welcome to AoD!

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      1. My understanding is that heroic efforts have been made to reprint the Paul Vernon articles, Embertrees, Starstone, and an unpublished sequel, Ristenby Town. In the words of Unforgiven, details should be left to those who were actually in the Blue Bottle Saloon in Wichita Grodog is your man.

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      2. Peter Regan made extensive efforts to get the rights to revisit and reprint the Halls of Tizun Thane and the Lichway from the estate of Albie Fiore but got nowhere. Sadly.

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  7. Btw the super tough animated statue only moves at one quarter normal speed and strikes last so can be avoided. I too didn’t quite get the teleport trap- I turned it into an earth Elemental bound to prevent non worshippers from entering by warping the ground as they walked. The party bargained withit, and lured the statue into smashing the fountain which lifted the enchantment. The Elemental dragged the statue down into the ground and the tremors caused by their battle started a general collapse. When the party hurried into the lava room they witnessed the end of the battle, a melting, statue (think T1000) dripping lava and finally succumbing, leaving just a scrabbling hand which they kicked back into the pool, followed by a thumbs up from the Elemental, as he returned to his own plane.

    I agree it’s a lot of work to get on top of the material, but if you make it a base for the players the support provided by the dense back stories is great.

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  8. re: reprinting Starstone (and Embertrees; Ristenby was never fully-developed, as I recall): I’ve been in sporadic contact with Paul Vernon for years, and would still love to reprint Starstone, et al, but he’s a documentary filmmaker and a pretty busy guy, so the project sits on the back burner of “Someday” for another decade, alas 😉

    Allan.

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