[AD&D] Review: Black Blade: The Secret of Smuggler's Cov
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Post Posted: Tue Jun 23, 2009 11:41 pm 
 

This week, I received an email that contained a review of Black Blade Publishing's release of First Edition Dungeon Crawls: The Secret of Smuggler's Cove. The review was written by Alphonso Warden, a modern-day RPG author and self-described grognard.  Alphonso has several OSRIC adventures published (by both Expeditious Retreat Press and Brave Hafling Publications) and is a fan of the early editions of D&D.

Alphonso has no formal affiliation with Black Blade Publishing at the present time, and the review was unsolicited, though I did provide him with a copy of the adventure at no cost.  He has granted permission for the posting of this review as I see fit.

---
Jon Hershberger
Black Blade Publishing
June 23, 2009

-----------------------------------------------------

Review of 1st Edition Dungeon Crawl: The Secret of Smuggler's Cove published by Black Blade Publishing:

I. Production Values:

I don't know about the rest of you, but the aesthetics of the classic 1st Editon modules and supplements were what originally drew me to role-playing games. The artwork at the time was a wonderful blend of that appearing in 1960's comic books and the pulp magazines of the 1920-30's. I am pleased to report that the artwork in The Secret of Smuggler's Cove is no different. The font chosen and the monochrome cover illustration is very similar to that of the modules produced by a certain RPG company we all knew and loved in the late seventies/early eighties. And then there is the interior artwork, which is crisp, vivid, and of a nice size. One particular interior image is especially impressive, being as it spills onto two pages of the module and is surrounded by text on the outside edges of both pages. The rest of the artwork is equally impressive, ranging from quarter-page to half-page sizes. Most importantly, each piece of artwork is drawn specifically from the module and can serve as effective handouts the gamemaster can show his players to set the scene.

The typesetting and manufacture of the module simply blew me away. Physically, the module appears to have been printed by a traditional off-set printer on high quality printing plates. The text and illustrations are extremely crisp and not the least bit pixellated. And then there are the magnificent dual cardstock covers that are not attached to the booklet in the classic style. The front cover is laminated on one side to increase its durability and is composed of heavy cardstock like the modules we loved from the late 1970's/early 1980's. Better yet, all of the maps from the module are printed on the inner side of the outer cover and on both sides of the inner cover, and in classic blue ink no less by noted old school cartographer Andreas Claren. Also, the paper chosen for the booklet is very very thick and is sure to stand up to years of abuse.

II.1st Edition Conversion:

I must say that I am heartily pleased that the module's conversion from 3.5 D&D/d20 gaming mechanics to that of 1st Edition is virtually perfect. I was especially pleased that the converter chose to adopt the classic parenthetical style of statistic blocks in which such are inserted directly into the running text of the encounter and not at the end as is in vogue today. Such an approach brings a smile to this old grognard who was playing during the RPG Golden Age. The statistical detail itself is equal to that appearing in the 1st Edition adventure modules produced in the early 1980's. In other words, special attacks and defenses are not explained in detail, with only the primary attacks, armor class, hit dice/level, hit points, and movement rate, etc. listed, which is how I prefer my gaming mechanics. I was also pleased that the leader-type NPCs and monsters in the adventure were often times more powerful than normal, with increased hit dice/level, damage potential, etc. I know some purists will say that such is not in keeping with the 1st Edition rules and is more in league with 3.5 Edition rules in which monster advancement is the norm. Personally, I feel that this perception is false, for many of the classic adventures produced in the seventies and early eighties often featured upgraded/modified common monsters, even those designed by the legendary Gary Gygax.  

I am heartily impressed that I failed to notice any major conversion mistakes in the module. About the only thing that comes to mind is that one of the monsters appearing in the adventure, green slime, deals Constitution ability damage. I am assuming that such is a carryover from the 3.5 version of the adventure, but being as I am not overly familiar with such I can't say for sure. Of course, in 1st Edition a green slime attacks by coating its victim in slime and transforming him or her into one of its brethren.

The only other thing I noted was that some non-combat oriented challenges were not given definite resolution mechanics. For example, in a few places in the adventure the author indicates that PCs making noise might alert the monsters in the surrounding room to their presence. However, no specific percentage chance or ability check is mentioned to indicate such. In the defense of the converter, however, I must mention that the 1st Edition rules do not provide rules for such challenges either. Perhaps the converter chose to honor this 1st Edition tradition by allowing the gamemaster to employ whatever task resolution mechanic is common in his or her campaign.

The only other conversion mistake I noticed was that one of the minor monsters is not statted out, with only its hit points being listed. Being as the monster is simply a large scorpion, a common monster listed in various 1st Edition creature collections, I don't see this as much of an issue.

III. Storyline/Gaming Content:

Let me say that the storyline of the adventure is extremely engaging. It has a nice piratical theme to it which is quite reminiscent of the weird nautical yarns of the late 19th century/early 20th century. Specifically, the themes in the adventure reminded me of the writings of the legendary William Hope Hodgeson, a personal favorite. Like in Hodgeson's stories, the adventure module is rife with spectral undead and elder ichthoid horrors from the briny deep. Very atmospheric. The adventure also reminds me of a series of 1st Edition piratical adventures produced in the United Kindgom in the early eighties, specifically the first and second modules in the 3-part series. Fortunately, however, the author of The Secret of Smuggler's Cove chose not to adopt a Scooby Doo approach like the designers of the aforementioned series in which all of the ghosts and monsters are merely humans in disguise playing pranks. In The Secret of Smuggler's Cove, the demons, undead, and terrors from the deep are all too real and the module is better for it.

Being as I don't want to give away the plot of the adventure in my review, spoiling the module for both gamemasters wishing to run it and players desiring their gamemasters to run them through it, I will only vaguely describe the major themes present. The adventure basically revolves around the PCs trying to stop a band of pirate smugglers that have been plaguing a coastal village. As the module developes, the PCs learn that the pirates are aligned, albeit shakily, with an ages-old evil. The adventure itself consists of a series of mini-dungeons. The PCs during the course of the adventure are given a chance to investigate a ruined lighthouse suspected of being haunted, to explore the crumbling manor house alongside it, and to make their descent into the sea cave network running beneath the coastal village. All of the maps and the encounters they are keyed to are very atmospheric and logical, making gamemastering the adventure a smooth, stress-free affair.

IV. Overall Impressions:

I must say that were I to rate this module on a scale of 1-10, I would give it a 9.5. The only reason I wouldn't give it a perfect score is that I would have preferred some additional detail with regard to non-combat task resolution. The adventure reads, plays, and looks just like the classic 1st Edition adventures we all grew up on. I feel that this module is truly a return to the glory days of gaming, and I eagerly look forward to future releases by Black Blade Publishing.

Reviewed by Alphonso Warden



  

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Post Posted: Wed Jun 24, 2009 12:14 am 
 

It's funny. Isn't this the same DCC that was first converted to C&C? Must be something about that one... makes people 'feel' old school or something.


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Post Posted: Wed Jun 24, 2009 4:56 am 
 

serleran wrote:It's funny. Isn't this the same DCC that was first converted to C&C? Must be something about that one... makes people 'feel' old school or something.


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Post Posted: Wed Jun 24, 2009 8:08 am 
 

serleran wrote:It's funny. Isn't this the same DCC that was first converted to C&C? Must be something about that one... makes people 'feel' old school or something.


The feel, setting and plot is very reminiscent of the classic U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (with slight strains of U2 thrown in the mix).  However, rather than being just a take-off or re-hash it is quite original in several ways. It was no surprise to find out from TacoJon at the NTRPG Con that author Chris Doyle is a big fan of 1E and old school dungeons.

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Post Posted: Wed Jun 24, 2009 8:34 am 
 

Badmike wrote:
The feel, setting and plot is very reminiscent of the classic U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (with slight strains of U2 thrown in the mix).  However, rather than being just a take-off or re-hash it is quite original in several ways. It was no surprise to find out from TacoJon at the NTRPG Con that author Chris Doyle is a big fan of 1E and old school dungeons.

Mike B.


I read the module within days of the convention and I thought it was excellent. Read like any 1e module. Too much like a particular 1e module to be honest...

I have to say I thought I was reading a "revised" version of U1. Mike is being very politically correct in using the word reminiscent to describe the module. More like damn near exact copy comes to mind for me. When I first started reading the thing, I actually started to flip through the book to find some sort of credit page for U1.

Now I am not trying to slight the module in the least. Black Blade did an awesome job with it. Production, Art and Cartography are awesome. Taco and Gro deserve a great deal of credit. I can say the module was worth every dime. Buy one!


And I could've bought these damn modules off the 1$ rack!!!

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Post Posted: Sat Jul 04, 2009 11:55 am 
 

Many thanks to TacoJon for the copies of The Secret of Smuggler's Cover.  I am thoroughly enjoying the old school feel and am looking forward to future modules.

So what's the next release?  Any previews or special GenCon releases? :)


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Post Posted: Sun Jul 05, 2009 6:50 am 
 

smarmy1 wrote:Many thanks to TacoJon for the copies of The Secret of Smuggler's Cover.  I am thoroughly enjoying the old school feel and am looking forward to future modules.

So what's the next release?  Any previews or special GenCon releases? :)



Thanks for the order and the kudos, Ryan.  I hadn't ever read the U series, but I had the opportunity to play through U1 with a group of old friends a couple of years ago and had a blast with it.  Smuggler's hit on a lot of those same themes and the conversion worked pretty well as there weren't very many odd-ball 3.x race/class combos to deal with.  

The next release is DCC #32 The Golden Palace of Zahadran.  It's a high level adventure (levels 14-16) with heavy desert and middle-eastern themes.  I don't have any previews yet, alas, but work is already underay.

Release date is still in flux, thought we might (say again, might) have it for Gen Con 09.  I've been pretty bogged down with order fulfillment on the first release until this past week, so we're in the hole a bit for making Gen Con.  But we'll see how the next few days go.

Jon



  


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Post Posted: Thu Jul 09, 2009 1:26 am 
 

And, in writing a dissenting opinion, DMPrata took us to task on several points.  Here's a link to the review at Dragonsfoot

http://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewt ... 38&t=36990

and here's a repost of David's full review:

I know I'm going to be pilloried, but I have to give a dissenting opinion here. I've been biting my tongue since I received my copy a couple of weeks ago, not wanting to cast aspersion on Allan, Jon, et al, but I just can't do it anymore. I was very disappointed with this module. As I've made no secret of elsewhere on these fora, The Secret of Smuggler's Cove is the one DCC that I found to be worth purchasing. After reviewing several of those modules, DCC #7 seemed to be the easiest to convert to 1E, with the fewest distasteful 3E-isms. So, I do own the original d20 version of this module, as well as Rich Franks' 1E conversion document, freely available on Goodman Games' website. Ownership of the two foregoing items makes Black Blade's $16 cover price a superfluous expense, in my opinion. I'll tackle the above review point by point, keeping the same format for my rebuttal. There will be spoilers.

I. Production Values:

I agree with most of Alphonso's points in this respect. The artwork, typesetting, and layout definitely evoke the feel of those old-school modules we all know and love. My one beef is the laminated outer cover; while this may have sounded like a good idea, my copy has been curling outwards, such that the module now refuses to stay closed. Still, this is a durable, attractive product, which would otherwise justify the higher-than-average cover price.

II. 1st Edition Conversion:

Here's where it falls apart for me. I don't think the conversion was "virtually perfect". Alphonso points out the green slime causing CON damage, clearly a d20 artifact. Here are some others:


* Bandit fighters are inexplicably listed as having 2nd-level thieving abilities. (Are they really all dual-classed thief//fighters?)
* I don't mind the "mama" giant rat with 4 HD, but why do all the giant rats have to be 2-HD creatures? That's four times the size of normal giant rats, with no explanation.
* "New" monsters (actually standard d20 monsters that have been converted) are presented with little to no explanation. There should have been an appendix to explain what an allip is, or what a darkmantle is, if this were truly meant to be a stand-alone 1E product. How exactly does the allip's WIS drain work?
* Similarly, "new" magic items and spells are introduced that don't really need to be, in my opinion. Deathward, as a 1st-level spell, seems superior to the 3rd-level spell negative plane protection. Why is this new spell even presented? It's not essential to the adventure. Do the antagonists really need those potions of bear's endurance?

The above two points lead me to a third related issue, which is my biggest complaint. It seems the editorial team, whether intentionally or not, took the path of least resistance in converting the 3E monsters to fit the 1E rule set. 3E modules typically contain a good deal of tactical information for each creature encountered (which is a good thing). It appears, though, that the authors were more willing to change the 1E rules to fit the original monsters' tactics than vice versa. Rather than coming up with new tactics for a standard harpy, they created a "new" harpy that could do the same things as the 3E classed harpy.

In the single most absurd example of the above problem, here's a breakdown of the treatment of one major antagonist from edition to edition:

* Original 3E module: gnome wizard/rogue mounted on a giant weasel (or maybe a badger — I don't recall)
* Rich Franks' 1E conversion: half-elf MU/thief, sans giant weasel
* Black Blade's 1E conversion: dual-classed 4' tall human MU//thief mounted on a giant weasel
Yes, the image of a gnome riding a giant weasel into combat is pretty iconic, but I don't think it's iconic enough to strain credulity in such a ridiculous manner as to make the gnome a 4' tall dual-classed human with white hair and a beard. Make him a gnome illusionist/thief (and get rid of the wizard locked doors), or go the half-elf route and ditch the weasel.

III. Storyline/Gaming Content:

I mostly agree with Alphonso here; unfortunately, the credit for the story doesn't go to Black Blade, who merely adapted the original Goodman Games adventure. Here again, I feel that ownership of DCC #7 plus the free conversion document makes the Black Blade release irrelevant. A problem with the original that Black Blade inherited is that the compass points on the maps don't seem correct. Taken as presented, with north being the top of each map, the path from the front gate leads to the back of the manor house (which faces south), not to the front door. Also, the lighthouse lies to the northwest of the manor house on the surface, yet the underground passage connecting the two runs east from the manor house.

IV. Overall Impressions:

I can't say for sure how I would review this module if I had no knowledge of the original. It seems that this product is neither fully a stand-alone adventure nor fully a companion piece. In some places, familiarity with the 3E version seems required (to have any clue what an allip is, for instance); in others, the same familiarity breeds contempt (such as in the conversion of Erol the gnome).

When I told a friend that I'd ordered this from Black Blade, he asked me if I'd be putting my Goodman Games copy on eBay. In my final analysis, I'm much more likely to run the original with the free conversion document than I am to run the Black Blade version. It pained me to type this review, because I respect Allan, Jon, and Andreas. I wish I had something better to say, guys. I don't buy a whole lot of new gaming products, but I made an exception for this one because I was excited about the launch of this line. I hope they get better (and I'll help if I can).

###


I think it's safe to say that we've got the full spectrum of opinions covered in these two reviews!   :lol:



  

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Post Posted: Thu Jul 09, 2009 7:24 pm 
 

The author above has a blind spot caused by 3rd Edition thinking.

In AD&D, there was no need to explain why a monster was tougher or had a certain power.  Only in 3rd Edition is everything required to have an explanation or some sort of equation to support it.  

In AD&D you can mess with any facet of the game you want to without tearing down some other part of the rules.  Not so in 3rd Edition, where the players will actually argue with the DM about whether or not a certain monster is "legal," and they would be right.  8O

For instance, in the sewers under Verbosh, by Judges Guild, there is a 26 hit point giant rat lurking about.  The explanation for this monster rat might be a typo involving a a missing comma, but it doesn't matter.  Our DM had this beastie break down a door to get at us and there was no time for whining.

The idea that the author needs an "explanation" for why NPC's can do this or that...or why a monster does this or that damage...or why it has extra hit dice or whatever.......that is 3rd Edition thinking.


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Post Posted: Thu Jul 09, 2009 9:39 pm 
 

FormCritic wrote:The idea that the author needs an "explanation" for why NPC's can do this or that...or why a monster does this or that damage...or why it has extra hit dice or whatever.......that is 3rd Edition thinking.

Hell, I can't figure out the motives/reasoning/thought processes of anyone in the real world (including myself).  Explaining the motivations of fantasy character or monster is beyond me.  :)

  

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Post Posted: Thu Jul 09, 2009 10:46 pm 
 

FormCritic wrote:The author above has a blind spot caused by 3rd Edition thinking.

In AD&D, there was no need to explain why a monster was tougher or had a certain power.  Only in 3rd Edition is everything required to have an explanation or some sort of equation to support it.  

In AD&D you can mess with any facet of the game you want to without tearing down some other part of the rules.  Not so in 3rd Edition, where the players will actually argue with the DM about whether or not a certain monster is "legal," and they would be right.  8O

For instance, in the sewers under Verbosh, by Judges Guild, there is a 26 hit point giant rat lurking about.  The explanation for this monster rat might be a typo involving a a missing comma, but it doesn't matter.  Our DM had this beastie break down a door to get at us and there was no time for whining.

The idea that the author needs an "explanation" for why NPC's can do this or that...or why a monster does this or that damage...or why it has extra hit dice or whatever.......that is 3rd Edition thinking.


Exactly what I thought after reading the review, Mark.  Geez, kids nowadays..want everything explained out in power point presentations...sheesh.  What is wrong with adventures having guidelines and suggestions in lieu of explaining everything in painstaking detail.

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Post Posted: Thu Jul 09, 2009 10:54 pm 
 

It goes back to the elegant simplicity of the early D&D series like G1-3.
The explanations and descriptions were sparse and everybody that ran it or played it experienced it in slightly different ways.
As far as I am concerned a role playing session should be an interactive story and not a number crunching exercise.  :)

(by the way Jon, I received the copy that you mailed to me and enjoyed the read...now if I can only find a group to run it for).


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Post Posted: Thu Jul 09, 2009 11:35 pm 
 

Having been playing in exTSR's Empyrea campaign -- and I can't think of what would be more 1st edition iconic than that -- I can tell you that almost none of Frank's monsters are by-the-book.  We've had zombies wrapped up like mummies (zummies?  mombies?), carrion crawlers of twice normal size, displacer beasts that don't just displace but also blink, and so on . . . .  Why?  Because Frank's the DM, and that's the way it is.

The beauty of AD&D is that the DM -- or the module designer -- can play around with anything, change things at will, all so long as it is in service to crafting an interesting story.

How many times has Tim reminded us that they aren't supposed to be "rules", they're just guidelines.


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Post Posted: Thu Jul 09, 2009 11:36 pm 
 

Kudos to Jon for posting a critical review.  I was unaware of the Goodman Games 1E conversion documents and will look them up this weekend; however, this will in no way keep me from purchasing future Black Blade Publishing releases.  I think the conversion was excellent and I enjoy a professionally printed copy.

Having no real experience with 3rd edition game play/rule sets, I can not adequately address the pros/cons of 3e modules vs 1e modules; however, the few pieces I have read tend to be overwritten and over-determined.  My preference is for a module framework as in B1 where the story is an interesting outline or minimal at best and the remainder is to be fleshed out by a DM.  I enjoying adding my own bit of creativity and mystery to the worlds the various authors have provided.  If I want my players to understand, rationalize, and even expect/anticipate certain encounters or monsters, I will play the modules by the book.  Now to add to the overall mystical world and keep the parties on their toes, pumping up giant rats or meeting bandits that can't be easily pigeonholed is no big deal... Giant rats can be vicious.  Who knows how they got so large?  Perhaps they feasted on the corpse of a magic-user who had recently consumed a growth potion (or an Olympic athlete pumped on 'roids ;))  Plus bandits with thieving abilites...Keep the party guessing and never, ever underestimate any creature you meet. Period.

So I guess I see your points but tend to have a different gaming philosophy as far as how the conversion to 1e was handled.  Thanks for the review.


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Post Posted: Fri Jul 10, 2009 2:20 am 
 

Bracton wrote: We've had zombies wrapped up like mummies (zummies?)  mombies.


I believe our British friends refer to them as Mummzies.


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Post Posted: Fri Jul 10, 2009 2:24 am 
 

smarmy1 wrote:Plus bandits with thieving abilites...


I believe it's in Dragon #63...the bandit NPC class...with thieving abilities.

Someone check me on the #.  

A chaotic mix of house, magazine and supplement rules?   How much more 1st Edition can you get?


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Post Posted: Fri Jul 10, 2009 2:44 am 
 

I havent played anything other than 1st ed, but 3.* strikes me as a good game for the 'rules lawyers' who were often referred to all those years ago when contesting how strong the wind would be when opening a dungeon corridor room! :)
its a game, a damn good game with 'rules' that should act as guidelines, not as gospel, I feel.. I like the sound of Mummzies, might use that! :)


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Post Posted: Fri Jul 10, 2009 5:30 pm 
 

ashmire13 wrote:I havent played anything other than 1st ed, but 3.* strikes me as a good game for the 'rules lawyers' who were often referred to all those years ago when contesting how strong the wind would be when opening a dungeon corridor room! :)
its a game, a damn good game with 'rules' that should act as guidelines, not as gospel, I feel.. I like the sound of Mummzies, might use that! :)


3rd Edition is actually an anti-rules lawyer game.  

It incorporates one million and a half sensible house rules.  All of the legal arguments that used to flare up in AD&D are settled by official court decisions and everything is a technical term.

The downside is that there are one million and a half sensible rules that cannot possibly be memorized and everything is a technical term. There has to be sort of a cooperative rules reading effort between DM and players.  

If you pull out one rule and don't use it you generally cause a domino effect of rules failures.

So, in 3rd edition you cannot just say, "Seven kobolds run in.  They have battleaxes that do d8 damage and they are wearing plate mail and they have two hit dice and they have mastered the feats swack attack* and dumpster dive.*"

The players will respond that kobolds have a base move of 20' in plate armor and can only charge 40' and therefore could not reach them to attack....and that kobolds are small creatures so their battleaxes can only do d6 damage...and that kobold advancement is by character class, not hit dice...and that since they are therefore only second level warriors they cannot possibly have two feats such as swack attack* and dumpster dive.*

Of course, the DM is free to create second level fighter kobolds and give them great axes and insist that their plate armor is mithril and that as second level fighters they started with a bonus feat at first level....but all of that is work for the DM.

Or, the DM could just say, "Shut up, it's my world."  The players who think in 1st Edition mode will say, "OK," and the ones who have only played 3rd Edition will display 3rd Edition thinking....like in the review above.

*I just made up these feats.


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Post Posted: Fri Jul 10, 2009 7:01 pm 
 

Yeah but no DM would tell the players those stats.  So when they attack they can only assume those are more powerful Kobolds.

I'd think you may want to stay away from Pathfinder RPG, because they've added to and changed some of the 3.5 rules.

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Post Posted: Tue Jul 14, 2009 4:38 am 
 

Jon, Allan, and the whole team at Black Blade Publishing, congratulations for producing a wonderful module. :D

As others have mentioned, the production values are outstanding:  the mono cover and the blue and white maps had me smiling before I read the adventure.

Unlike the negative review above, I was thrilled by the lack of stat blocks, and didn't blink once throughout the entire module.  Story, not stats, should drive the adventure, and the lack of burdensome, extraneous material was refreshing.

What makes an AD&D module wonderful is that it leaves enough blank canvas--a rough sketch--for the DM to play around and add their personal touch.  This inherent flexibility is why AD&D modules are so fondly remembered and played repeatedly.  Moreover, if the adventure is good, the DM is creating and adding to the adventure as he reads:  I found myself brimming with ideas.  

The ability to inspire creativity is the sign of a very good module, and Black Blade's, The Secret of Smuggler's Cove, checks every box.  I could run or play this module tomorrow with little or no time to prepare and have a blast. 8)

I'm looking forward to Black Blade's release of DCC #32 The Golden Palace of Zahadran, and everything else that follows.  Keep up the excellent work and, once again, congratulations!  

Thanks for sending my copies tacojon, they arrived in perfect condition.

Best,

Paul


Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day, and for once I'm inclined to believe...we are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell.

  
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