Thursday, November 25, 2021

REVIEW - Trilemma Adventures Compendium: a friend in need...

Trilemma Adventures Compendium
by Michael Prescott & others
published by Trilemma Adventures
print & pdf here

One-page dungeons. We know them, we have mixed feelings on them. The contest has been around for over a decade, producing mostly unplayable garbage and a few nice-looking maps (which are also unplayable). Can the format be done well?

Since 2014, Michael Prescott has been creating one- and two-page dungeons, beautifully rendered with his own black & white drawings. All of these adventures are up on his blog in pdf format FOR FREE[1]. In 2019, he launched a kickstarter to release them in a hardcover collection. In my usual fashion I totally missed backing it, but managed to buy one of the surplus copies after the campaign finished. Now that I've had a chance to run a handful I can offer a decent review.

Firstly this is a lovely volume. Heavy-duty covers with a great texture like a nice old book (what is this material called?). I don't fear the consequences of stuffing this in my bag to bring it to game night. Silver foil text, one of those soft red fabric bookmarks, nice thick glossy paper. Every spread has beautiful isometric maps and illustrations by Prescott or occasionally a guest artist. All the artwork fits together remarkably well, the book has a consistent look throughout. Formatting and layout are simple and well done, using bolding and a bit of colour to highlight relevant details. The whole aesthetic is simple & clear, distinctive while focusing on readability.

"Okay so far" you ask, "but you did say system neutral one-page dungeons? Can these be any good?"
To be fair: six are actually a single page [2], most are two pages and a handful are three or four. 

What these adventures do very well is present interesting & imaginative situations. A disused healing shrine inhabited by giant spiders who are curious about humans. An evil wizard imprisoned by an aging, weakened order of knights, desperate to recruit new members. A ruined tower that grants wishes using a complicated ritual of numbered rooms. Almost every adventure has a weird & cool premise (sometimes excessively so - we will return to this idea later). They are poised on the edge, ready for the PCs to show up and knock things around. Prescott consistently creates these dynamic areas, packed with potential energy for adventure. They jump into the reader's mind, leaving him with that familiar but elusive "I can't wait to run this!" feeling.

There are no +1 swords or giant rats. Almost everything is new and strange. The adventures are written with a certain type of OSR mentality the reader will probably recognize - a B/Xian perspective familiar if you read blogs like Goblin Punch, Against the Wicked City & similar. I would say in terms of pure creativity, Trilemma is up there with the most interesting material I've seen from this corner of OSRdom.

The adventures are of course small, and this is a problem - the largest about 20ish keyed areas, and most hover around 6-10. This limits the scope of action. You can't have much of a dungeon-crawling experience here. This is one of the key complaints with one-page dungeons. Although Prescott's are some of the best in the format, they contain more potential adventure than they do adventure - the DM must still provide a fair bit of the latter. It might be better to view most as detailed hexcrawl locations, dungeon sublevels or even just adventure seeds.

Although they make for minimal dungeoncrawling or exploratory experiences in themselves, these adventures serve well - at least they have in my games. Because they are so dense with ideas, they colour the campaign world around them. I ran The Moon is a Mirror for my group over the course of two sessions, but it sent the campaign in a completely new direction - we are still dealing with the effects a year or so later. This is exactly the kind of thing I crave as a DM, don't you?

Fuck man, The Cleft of Five Worlds could be a two-page brief for an entire underdark campaign setting! Each paragraph is like a hex description of a dungeon I want to play in and it's tied together with a bit of history and overarching relationships. Of course if you wanted to run it, all your work is still in front of you. Ultimately, the Trilemma Compendium gives the lie to the idea that one-page dungeons are something you just 'pick up and play' - I have never been able to do that with these adventures.

The monsters are quite a highlight. There are five or six standard "by the book" monsters but everything else is new and almost all are great: the implacable Brass Soldiers, bloodthirsty Chitin Drakes, Cave Stitchers, Lantern Worms, Moon Babies and tons more. Some are a new spin on and old concept, like the Avatar of Suvuvena (basically a CIFAL from the Fiend Folio). Some new humanoid races are included like the Dradkin (kinda sorta like dark elves), the Heelan (reptilian desert-dwellers) and several more. All the monsters fit together remarkably well, combining into a whole bestiary with a unified tone and feel. You could pick and choose, but looking at them all gives the reader a clear impression of the Trilemma world.

This is expanded upon in the appendices, which develop a setting for all the adventures to live in. Sections for monster descriptions (no statistics, but more detail on ecology, special abilities & such), magic items, maps, history and a guide to the Trilemma world.

The world guide is hard to read. The relentless newness of everything, which works fantastically in a one-pager (since I'm looking for a density of ideas) actually works against the Compendium here. It is hard to grasp because there are so few familiar touchstones to latch onto. It washes over the reader in an undifferentiated stream. Or at least it did for me - maybe I just have trouble with all the names.

The Trilemma world would also require a great deal of DM work to use. For instance, I cannot find a scale on the world map! I wonder if it would have been better to leave it as something just implied by the adventures themselves? I have my suspicions, but would love to know for sure whether I'm seeing Prescott's home game world or something he created after the fact to tie his adventures together.

The section on hooks, rumours & lore is great. Every adventure gets a set of 9 rumours and it all goes in a huge d1000 table. The table format is probably unnecessary - I assume you are going to hand-pick which of these adventures you're using - but the rumours and lore themselves are good, and I like that Prescott considered this element.

The system-neutral thing might turn some people off, but Prescott has your back, kinda - after the Kickstarter, he published a bestiary book providing monster stats for B/X which covers most of the creatures you will encounter in the Compendium adventures. Of course if you're playing B/X, you can probably eyeball stats for most of these guys - but it never hurts to have another monster book, and most of them are really cool anyway. Get it in pdf if you want to save money.

How to use this?

I recommend picking out a handful of adventures you like. Use some as hexcrawl locations, dropping them into your campaign map exactly as-is. Use your favourites as more significant locations: put some work into expanding them, add some more rooms based on the existing themes or graft them on to an existing location. Connect them to other areas of your game world. Maybe the reason I like this book so much is that it fits quite well into how I create my own campaigns. I don't mind that these adventures are small, really - what I crave is density of ideas, and the Trilemma Compendium has that in spades.

There are 49 adventures in this book. I would use all but a handful based on merit alone. I have run three so far in my home games, and placed ten or twelve more around my campaign setting. I look forward to the players finding them!

You could use this as an entire Trilemma Campaign. It would have a very specific flavour - short dungeons, lots of hopping around. I think it would suit a certain type of player group. It would lack the depth and exploratory elements of classic play without extensive additional work.

The Good: Gorgeous production, lovely artwork, highly imaginative, a new & distinctive flavour of D&D. Sweet monsters and magic items. Plenty of interactivity. Huge ideas-to-page-count ratio. The best tiny adventures you're likely to find. It has provided me hours of fun and I anticipate more of the same.

The Bad: Familiar one-pager flaws: limited scope, require DM investment & energy to fully realize. The gazetteer section is of limited utility. Filthy system-neutrality. Too strange to use all the time.

6/10 Minions of Sorg

The book has an extensive credits section, including playtesters.


[1] - Rendering my review somewhat pointless. Just go look and see if you like them. 

[2] - I'm just going to say 'one-pagers' for the duration of this review, to save space.


  1. I have written 3 of these locations into my current campaign. The players have not visited them yet ... but they have heard rumors. All of them involve the Heelan, which are an excellent foil for desert lizardfolk -- there is a lizardfolk PC whose culture represents a less extreme attitude to the low-moisture lifestyle, but even he has been brought up on warnings of not becoming too attached to water, lest one become a slimy and detestable "phib"!

    1. Yes, awesome! That's what I'm talking about. The Heelan adventures are really good. Lair of the Lantern Worm, yikes.