I downloaded this module out of a sense of pure bloody+mindedness. It's author was treated in a way that made me so angry that I had to do something to give him a boost.
The Abandoned Estate of Moonweaver Hall is a module for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons published on DM's Guild. It is the first effort for the author, and met with a very cold reception. The kind that made me genuinely angry.
He was attacked on Twitter by a mob of DM's Guild creators who identified themselves as "professional game designers" who lambasted him for taking eyes away from their products. They implied that DM's Guild was an exclusive community for professionals, and new "hobbyists" were hurting their sales.
He was also attacked for using A.I. generated cover art. For which he was told he was unethical and competing unfairly.
I'm going to start by saying that nobody gets to identify themselves as a "professional" just for being on DM's Guild. It is a community content marketplace for anyone who wants to share their products. I don't care if you kickstarted it for $15,000 and hired a half dozen artists while you created it. You've chosen to put yourself on equal footing by using that marketplace with guys who are just sharing the adventures they wrote at home. That's your problem, not theirs.
Given that you are writing adventure modules for a hobby game, using "hobbyist" as a derogatory term is revolting to me. As is holding yourself to a higher standard thanks to the technology you've got available to you, when the original D&D was nothing but a bunch of hobbyist kids making up new rules to wargames and publishing them with art that was half traced out of comic books. Get over yourself.
The whole thing smacks of an inferiority complex, as if his attackers didn't think they could compete, and so felt entitled to tell their alleged competition to take a hike, rather than hoping their product to do better because it was better produced.
Their attacks on him based on using AI art are more complicated, but given that it's the same people, they smack of disingenuousness.
I'm not going to get into the whole AI thing in detail. Actual ethical concerns over the theft of intellectual property are legitimate for some AIs and their algorithms. That's a case-by-case assessment that needs to be made. But the rest?
AI is a destructive technology that is making it harder to make a living as an artist, which is already an undervalued profession. If artists charged what they were worth, it would become a serious barrier to entry into fields like role-playing games where the budget is painfully low. The Indie scene wouldn't be nearly as rich if artists were paid what they were worth. Or, like me, everyone will be doing all their own art and using a mountain of stock art.
Art, as an expression of the human soul, also can't truly be reproduced by an artificial intelligence. at least not one at the current level of technology. AI is a pail, lifeless imitation of a spiritual human process.
Those last two factors should lead us to seeing AI art as distasteful, but not necessarily unethical. Using it isn't unethical unless he hasn't researched his algorithm of choice to make sure it was ethically sourcing its images. What he committed wasn't a breach of ethics, but a gaffe Much like buying cheap gray market knockoff machine parts or clothing. It's rude, And it's fine to suggest that perhaps he wants to pick a different cover. It's not fine to call him a villain for using it.
The way I figure it, this is a terrible experience and it could to deprive us of another Creator who wants to get stuff out there for us. So, as my readers have been so generous purchasing my books lately, I decided to share a little of my good fortune by buying his module and give him some legitimate, well intended feedback from someone who just wants to see him make his best possible creation.
So let's talk about the module.
The fact of the matter is, there's not a lot there. The Abandoned the Estate of Moonweaver Hall looks great on its marketing copy. It has a great premise, but it is very bare bones. As it is designed to take characters from first to second level, there is a very small number of encounters.
The premise is that the player characters are hired to run off a small gang of thieves who've taken up residence in an abandoned estate at the edge of town. They are suspected of having recently stolen a large number of paintings from the collection of a city councilman. Is gives the pcs a couple of opportunities for different treasure rewards based on how well they handle things.
What I loved
Slight Gonzo Element
While the adventure is mostly a short crawl through a ruined manor house that includes several bandit encounters, ending in an encounter with a bandit captain and some dogs, there's just enough silliness to make it stand out.
Namely, the leader of the gang is a grizzled ex-pirate Beaver-folk character who, despite being three and a half feet tall has the other members of the gang terrified, and heaps abuse upon them.
Unique Magic Items
The adventure module includes a couple of unique and creative magic items. These are all in the same vein as the first level magic items described in xanathar's Guide to Everything. The magic is extremely minor, but there to enrich treasure hordes. They include a vase that keeps any cut planting it alive, and a lucky horseshoe that cast a long-lasting version of the guidance cantrip once per day per person.
Unique magic items are a definite plus in my book.
A group of thieves take up residence in a rundown and shunned house, letting them operate inside the town, but in a location where they're not likely to be pursued.
Unable to spare the manpower, the town guard hire some freelancers to clear them out.
Solid Presentation of NPCs
One of the first NPCs of the player characters will encounter is a sleeping Thief who is on his own. He will surrender, and happily give up information to save his own hide. That kind of NPC is always welcome in my book.
The gang leader is comically abusive in the note you find from her, and actually terrifying in combat with her two mastiffs.
Descriptions of the locations are simple, straightforward, and easy to follow.
While it is brief, the note posted by half tail gives her a lot of personality. These could easily become a gag if scattered about the estate. Give her a snarky and abusive voice to enrich the character.
(As a rule, it pays not to make player characters role for things you want them to find. Instead, simply note that the note will be found if the players search the furniture.)
The author changed the cover to use public domain imagery. I appreciate that. He should make sure to change the credit section at the end of the book to represent that.
I'm going to break from my normal neutral voice here and offer the advice if I are giving it directly to the author. I see this is an opportunity to do some mentoring. And I feel a personal touch will make it more helpful.
Lean Into Your Premise
This module is pitched as a story about tracking down thieves in a place the locals considered haunted, and that has dark secrets.
Moonweaver Hall itself needs to be developed. After all, it is what the module is named after. What happened here? Why is it abandoned? Why are the locals afraid of it?
Giving Moonweaver Hall a deep dark history, and letting the player characters discover it through some horrible set pieces in various locations would be ideal. You could have a dark altar, a book of evil spells, a haunted room, or something monstrous chained up in the basement to hint at why people are afraid of moonweaver hall.
You could also build this up with a mix of true and false rumors on a table. Gathering information results in random rolls on the table. This is an old trope of modules that has disappeared from D&D, but is most useful.
Smart players might also check city archives, for which they might be rewarded with a map and some hint says to how to find the dark secret to the house.
Alternatively, the reasons for the abandonment of the house might be the dull, and exaggerated. But, in that case, the thieves could be scooby-dooing the house with tricks or can tricks too keep people away.
Ad this is a Manor house, some leftover richesse is not a bad idea, either. A few silver candlesticks, china plates, or real silver cutlery would make good loot. This would give you a reason to detail a few extra empty rooms, and make the place feel more like a Manor house. Adding in a few things like brown mold too increase the hazard of the place wouldn't be amiss.
Detail your NPCs
Three of the thieves are named and have motivations. There are others who are simply listed as Bandits in the locations where they are found. Given how lightweight this adventure is, giving each bandit hey background or personality is appropriate. I might consider the MAP method described in issue zero of D12 Monthly as a tool.
Likewise, I might give a reason for Half-tail to surrender, or way she might be recruited as a henchman or otherwise persuaded not to fight.
Given how obedient the dogs are to half-tail according to her note, it might be a good idea to make it difficult for the PCS to befriend or calm them without magic or Ranger and Druid skills.
Be Wary of Writing First level Adventures
First level, especially in 5th edition, sets the tone for a whole campaign. DMs are not as likely to purchase adventures for first level, unless they are part of a larger campaign module that lasts until at least fourth.
A second or third level adventure would have given you more room to add a few extra encounters.
Inline Your Stat Blocks
Most of your NPCs are using a standard stat block from the Monster Manual. While you can be pretty sure that most groups will have it, it makes it way easier for the GM if each creature's stat block is put at the end of the entry in a compressed format.
Likewise, as you used a custom race, give us the short version in a sidebar. That way we don't have to grab a separate document.
In a couple of places, I nearly missed the presence of valuable materia, because the information doesn't stand out in the area descriptions. If there are monsters in your room description, try to put them at the end of the description, and put them in bold face.
Include Your Map
I really appreciate the fact that the map for The Abandoned Estate of Moonweaver Hall is included as a pair of separate pdfs. But, smaller embedded versions that we can reference in the book cuts down on flipping between windows.
While including your stat blocks, bold-facing important details, and including your maps are things that I would consider must-haves for a good module, there are a few things you could do that I feel could enhance it and make it stand out.
- Instead of visual descriptions, just give a couple of keywords that describe the room for a GM to jump off with.
- Include a tiny excerpt map with your current location highlighted.
- Where possible give things in point form.
- Use the aforementioned map system for describing NPCs.
- Give us distinct subsections for monsters, traps, treasures.
Anything that makes it easier for DMs to use it at the table would be a bonus.
I am going to recommend sitting down and reading the module The Hole in the Oak by Gavin Norman. You might not be into OSR games, but I think you'll find his design to be a great exemplar of how to present your information.
This is a band of thieves. As thieves are generally good at traps, why not have them set a couple of them, even if they're just things to make a racket and alert them?
For the sake of argument, I put together a mock-up of a page of this module redone in the style of many modern OSR ones, emphasizing ease of use at the table:
I wouldn't say this is the exact format you should use. But it gives you an example of a tighter module design.
Telegraph the Dogs Further
The dogs should probably bark and be heard if the player characters are getting close to Half-Tail's lair. Spoor might give a clue in the yard.
Skip the Opening Description
The very first page of the module proper includes a description of the morning that the characters find themselves in. It doesn't add anything to the module.
If you are going to describe the town, be sure to do so in a way that is evocative of the tone that you want to set for the module. The smell of fish at the docks, run down buildings, and suspicious guards would do a better job of invoking the ruination of the manor, and the crime riddled state of the city. You want to make sure everything you include works to your theme.
Wandering Monsters Table
Traditionally, D&D modules included a wandering monster table. This is become less common in 5th edition, but given the fact that the player characters are trying to stealthfully sneak up on a group of thieves, including a chance of one of the dogs, a thief, a giant centipede or similar environment, or the spirit of someone who was involved in the tragedy that left that manner a shunned place all could make the adventure more tense.
Throw in a few more hooks, to give GM's additional ways they might include the player characters.
For a first time effort, I think that The Abandoned Estate of Moonweaver Hall has potential. There's good ideas, well thought out encounters, interesting npcs, and some great original content such as a set of tools, and some unique magic items.
What it needs more than anything else is a little filling in and some neatening of the presentation. This module, given a little TLC could really stand out.
And that is why I have decided to offer this constructive criticism. I want to encourage everyone to get involved in this hobby. I don't see anyone as competition. I see them as enriching our game. And we should all help every time we see someone new trying, rather than tearing them down.