Burn After Reviewing

I said something on Twitter yesterday that sparked some debate – and, twitter being twitter, I didn’t quite get the full message of it across, so I’m posting it here as well. This post, because it feeds into a current debate, is going out on Patreon and the public blog at the same time – don’t worry, Patreons, you’ll be getting more early access content soon!

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about putting reviews on here – at the start, they were really a way to muse on one-shots with a clear framework – but I can’t deny they’re popular. Even looking at 2021’s stats, my 6th highest hit was for a review posted in, er, 2020. There’s a D&D effect in that, too – but it’s the same whenever I post one. They are also relatively easy to write, because I’ve never been too thorough in them – certainly easier than writing an adventure or a set of advice on a specific game – and always get a fair number of hits straightaway.

That said, this isn’t a review site. First up, I only ever review things I like – I’ve no interest in being a critic, and there’s enough good stuff out there that I don’t feel the need to talk about the bad. I’ve received exactly one review copy of anything in my life – and I’ve not reviewed it yet. I’ve stuck reviews into a format that is deliberately incomplete – I’m interested in what I’d do with the product as a one-shot, not covering all the content but a broad-brush impression. So after some thinking, I’m changing how review posts work on Burn After Running.

After Play Only

Film critic Barry Norman, who used to watch the films before he reviewed them

Henceforth, I’m only going to post ‘reviews’ of products I’ve played (as a GM or player). Most of my reviews have been like this anyway (for example, this one of Agon) but a fair few haven’t (see Ravnica, Theros, or Starfinder – although I’ve since played all three of those products). I’m going to try and put some focus on the play experience – what could be gleaned from the game that was surprising even after a read-through, which will of course cover some – but not all – of the content of the product.

But I’ll also be looking at how I ran it, or how it felt as a player. Where I’ve written a one-shot for the game, I’ll share that one-shot. If it’s a published adventure, I usually write up notes as part of my prep, and if you’re a Patreon, you’re welcome to get access to those as well on request. If I twisted some rules or encounters around, I’ll put that in as well. 

This also means some completeness (well, even more) will be sacrificed. If you want a thorough review of the content of the book, informed by years of gaming experience and from a thorough read-through, these won’t be it. Instead I’d direct you to Reviews from R’luyeh if you want words, or Bud’s RPG Review if Youtube is your bag – other content creators are available too.

Does This Mean Less Reviews?

Food critic Jay Rayner, who generally eats the food at the restaurant before he reviews it

Well, no. I think a consequence of this is that when I’ve run something, I’ll most likely (assuming it wasn’t a disaster) put up a post about it. In essence I’ll be merging the “Review” posts and the “How to run X” posts, which will hopefully make it a bit easier to cover more games here.

So, for example, I’m nearing completion of the ‘prelude’ to Shadows Over Bogenhafen with my regular group, so expect a write-up of Mistaken Identity soon – there’s some really clever stuff in the design of this adventure that I didn’t realise until I saw it at the table, and I have made a few significant changes as well. 

I’ve run through all of Vaesen’s A Wicked Secret series of mysteries, and I have strong views on which of them make great (and not so great) candidates for running. I’ve got con games of Masks and Hearts of Wulin coming up this weekend, and I expect to share notes and thoughts on those as well – Masks in particular I’m trying a double-table crossover campaign, so we’ll see how that plays out!

Can You Review After A One-Shot?

Yes. While some games might really sing in a longer-form game, so much more is revealed even from 2 hours at the table, that you can see how that would roll out. Some of these will be one-shot reviews – this still lets me comment on the important bit, which is what I changed and what I would change in the future.

On that note, I’ve not run nearly enough one-shots yet – we seem, though, to be moving out of the liminal post-pandemic zone into one where people might actually meet up and play games more, so expect more to come. If you’re a Patron and would like a one-shot of something I’ve talked about, message me and we’ll try to sort something out!

Rime of the Frostmaiden – Prelude One-Shot: Into the Snow

I’m running D&D again. This time, I’ve got hold of a crew of 4 players, a mixture of veterans and newcomers, to run through Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. I’ll be blogging here about how I’m adapting it, tweaking it, and approaches to it (worth noting if you’re interested that Sly Flourish has already done a great job of this here – I’m not going to duplicate his work!)

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

One of my players is brand new to roleplaying. So, instead of expecting him to dive into character creation and commit to a long campaign, I thought I’d run a one-shot with pregens to set the scene. This is set in Ten Towns, in the same place as the game, foreshadows some of the content, and gets everyone on the same page about tone. It’s an idea I’ve heard Simon Burley, esteemed designer of Golden Heroes, talk about as his default campaign starter (he calls it a “Session Minus One”) and I’ve never done it before. 

It’s first level, to keep everything simple, and is a fairly linear progression, although all of the encounters have a few ways to resolve them. Most of the opposition arrives in waves, which is a good trick for balancing 1st level fights – they can be really swingy when one blow can knock out a player or opponent, so having not everyone attack at once means you can adjust the level of challenge on the fly a bit. It’s balanced for 3 1st level PCs – just add or subtract bandits or undead if you have more or fewer.

It went great – and we’re now one session into the actual campaign! In a couple of months I hope to follow this up with a ‘review’ of the first chapter, Ten Towns, based on actual play. Inspired by Fear of a Black Dragon, I’m trying to limit my reviews to products or adventures I’ve actually played or run, because I think this is most useful – although I appreciate not all reviewers can do this, and if everyone did there wouldn’t be many reviews around! There’s a place for reviews-after-reading as well, they just do different things.

But, I digress. Here is the adventure, presented exactly as my prep notes looked for it – let me know if you use it here or on Twitter @milnermaths !

Into the Snow

A Rime of the Frostmaiden prelude adventure (3 x 1st level PCs)

You live in the far north, beyond the Spine of the World, in the desolate icy realms of Ten-Towns. For the past two years, Icewind Dale has been stuck in an endless winter – every night, strange lights appear, and every night lasts forever as the sun fails to rise. Trapped forever in glacial ice, you eke out a precarious living.

As we open we see you trudge across an open snowfield, a heavily laden sled pulled by two huskies, Gore and Chew. It’s three hours since you set off from Easthaven, one of the more prosperous towns, and you carry on your sled beer, mead, and supplies for Caer Dineval. Caer Dineval has been without beer for two weeks now – you can’t imagine their pain.

  • Describe your character – what are they carrying, how are they walking alongside the sled

But the going has been hard. 9 hours this would normally take, but the snow has come in and you fear a blizzard is coming. As you cross an ice floe, you notice the dogs startle – and the wind threatens to tip your sled over.

  • Ask the PCs what they are doing to prevent the tip. Generally it might be a Survival (Wisdom) check, but they could use other skills as well. At least half (rounded down) need to make it – if they fail, they are overwhelmed when the raiders attack and suffer disadvantage on Initiative checks

Scene 1 – Raiders in the Ice

Out of the snow and ice appear shadows, and the barking of dogs – you are under attack!

There are 4 raiders (bandits), but only 2 attack – and 2 rough huskies (mastiffs). As they fight, each round they see the snow get thicker – and as they flee / are defeated, they notice the sled has been raided.

0 failures – they have grabbed some of the supplies, and a prized bottle of Calishite brandy, charged with delivery to the Caer Dineval castle by your patron

1 failure – as above, but a couple of barrels of mead have gone as well

2 failures – all the supplies are taken

3 failures – one of the huskies has been dragged off as well

As the storm momentarily clears, they can attempt to make sense and give chase.

A Survival (Wisdom) check DC 15 will reveal that the storm is only briefly abated, and they had better follow the tracks now – they lead towards some rough hills which might also offer some shelter

A History or Investigation DC 11 check shows the men to be natives of Icewind Dale, clad in rough winter clothes – accustomed to living in the wilds, but not themselves Rheged Nomads

Scene 2 – The Chwingas

As they follow the tracks, they make their way towards the hills. Strange black crystals occasionally jut from the horizon – DC 15 Arcana to reveal it is Chardalyn, a magical material found only in Icewind Dale.

But the storm gets worse. Ask for DC 10 Survival checks to avoid becoming Exhausted – and then DC 10 Perception to notice a shelter ahead. 

A group of 6-inch-tall animated dolls, about 5 of them, are dancing around a fire

DC 15 Arcana or History to reveal these are Chwingas – tiny fey folk who can be helpful if charmed.

They mimic the characters, then ask them to dance – an appropriate skill check must be made (at DC 12) to receive a charm from each of them.

They award these charms in order: Charm of Vitality Charm of Heroism Charm of Bounty

The PCs can rest while the storm rages around them, and when it passes there are no signs of tracks. The Chwingas, however, can indicate the way their raiders went – up a narrow path to a hill cave

Scene 3 – The Hill Cave

With the mastiffs caged up outside, they can see the tiny cave as they approach – a group Stealth check DC 10 is enough to gain entry. They see the 4 raiders, and a teenaged girl, Varana. She is clad in wispy clothes despite the biting cold and seeks no trouble.

They can try and recapture their stuff, and this is an easy fight – the bandits will only fight to ⅓ of their hp – so 3 hp or less- before surrendering. Then, they tell them the story

Varana was a sacrifice, one of the lottery chosen by the Children of Auril, a cult who seek to end the endless night. She escaped, with her friends, three months ago. They move around a lot, looking for shelter. She clearly has some sort of magical power – as if the frost won’t touch her as she has escaped the Frostmaiden’s clutches – so she protects her friends.

They cover their tracks with the blizzards that follow Varana around… the PCs didn’t leave any tracks here, did they? (At that, they hear the howl of the dogs from outside, and a splash of blood – and the cult death squad attacks)

The cult death squad is an instrument of icy doom – a goliath zombie and a pair of skeletons crash through, while another 4 skeletons attack the following round

As they defeat (or are defeated by) the death squad, they find Varana is gone. They can trudge back to Caer Dineval with their recovered loot.

Prep Techniques: Boss Monster Examples

Here, I talked about building scenarios around antagonists. I’m going to give a couple of examples of that sort of prep, as scenario sketches. I’d want a bit more personalisation if I was going to run these myself, but I would probably do that while loading up Roll20 for them.

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!


3rd level is the sweet spot for a lot of 5e D&D play, but it can be tricky to fit in a big damn hero encounter to it – so here’s one. A quick check of Xanathar’s suggests that 4 x level 3 characters should be soloing a CR 3 legendary monster, so let’s start with Pitgurat as a CR 2 Eye of Gruumsh and level him up using Matt Colville’s Villain Actions – making hit CR 2 legendary, but he won’t be encountered alone. He’s looking for sacrifices to complete some big evil ritual to bring ruin to the human settlement, and he’s enlisted the help of the thieve’s guild to help him – which is probably how the PCs learn of his schemes.

Here’s his boss profile

Name: Pitgurat the Blade, orc ritualist and cult leader

Goal & why the PCs care: His ritual will spread Gruumsh’s corruption and destroy the town of Greendale.

Secret weakness: He has a terrible rage when slighted, and will stop at nothing to pursue imagined slights (to tie this down as an actual weakness, this means that if the PCs can spread the word about him, he’ll track them down himself – meaning they can face him on his terms, instead of in his caves with hordes of cultists.

Description: An ambitious Eye of Gruumsh, Pitgurat’s war chief and lover was killed by adventurers from the town of Greendale three years ago. Since then, he’s gathered what’s left of the tribe, and enlisted the help of some humans, to try and enact a ritual to destroy Greendale forever. 

Lieutenants (1-3): Althadore the sly, leader of the thieves’ guild – knows Pitgurat’s weakness, and has been kept in the dark about the wholescale destruction of the town – he just wants the town council disposed of and Greendale corrupted (he’s a bandit captain in terms of stats); Yaradoth, Pitgurat’s lieutenant – a towering, one-eyed Orog who’s fiercely defensive of Pitgurat.

Mid-range Antagonists: Orcs, of course – most of Pitgurat’s tribe bear significant scars and injuries from the adventurer’s attacks. 

Minions: The thieve’s guild, human bandits, have thrown in their lot with Pitgurat as well. The orcs keep some goblin servants around too, to do their dirty work and help with Pitgurat’s rituals

Locations: The sprawling warehouses of the thieves guild, converted to a makeshift altar of Gruumsh as a show of faith with Pitgurat; the dark forests around Greendale where sacrifices for the ritual are abducted from merchants and traders; the orc caves, with a central ritual chamber.

Potential non-combat challenges: Opening scene – Althadore’s men try and burn down a tavern with the PCs in it to deter any interference. Navigating the trap-filled orc caves (I’d run this as a skill challenge / montage thing, not doing individual trap nonsense).

Star Trek Adventures – Captain Gazzad of the “Orion Space Navy”

Let’s go for a change of setting now, with an orion pirate and trickster suitable for an original series-era game of Trek. He’s set a planet up as a trap for the next Federation starship of do-gooders to arrive, with the aim of capturing a Constitution-class vessel (the PCs’ own).

Here’s his boss profile:

Name: Captain Ullad Gazzad, orion pirate and trickster

Goal & why the PCs care: To capture a Federation starship

Secret weakness: Gazzad is a sucker for a pretty face. He’s set up the resort on this planet to be the ideal retreat for a Federation captain, but it’s a little too sleazy for starfleet.

Description: Gazzad has rebuilt the settlement of Novaris on Erickron IV as the ideal pleasure planet, and presented himself as a prophet and wanderer. His crew are concealed among the staff of the resort, and he has sent an SOS – they’ve discovered volcanic activity in the caves around the resort, and need it to be made safe – or them evacuated. Of course, he’s faked the volcanic signals, and plans to trap the Captain and senior crew down there and then take over the starship.

Lieutenants: Bazzal Thor is an allied b, who’s got a cruiser in a nearby orbit for when the Captain is dealt with. He trusts Gazzad little, but knows a good scam when he sees one. Litoral is a native of Erickron IV who’s in on the deal – he presents Gazzad as his brother (a tricorder scan reveals this is unlikely) to allay any suspicions.

Mid-range Antagonists: The crew of Thor’s vessel – who try to beam aboard as a boarding action. Gazzad has several Orion crewmembers around Novaris who will help him, too.

Minions: The volcanic activity in the mines is fake, but the Erickronian Tunnel Worms – six foot long carnivorous scavengers – are very real, and will attack when the PCs are trying to escape the caves and race to their ship.

Locations: In orbit around Erickron, where sensors are weakened due to the planet’s unusual geology; the resort of Novaris, where Orions have set up the natives to provide the ultimate shore leave; the caves near Novaris, with passages rigged to blow and dangerous tunnel worms.

Potential non-combat challenges: Investigate and find out that the resort is full of Orions; navigate and escape the caves; the likely finale of starship combat with the Orion cruiser isn’t exactly non-combat, but it’s at a different scale so we’ll include it.

So, two examples of boss monster prep in action. Let me know if you’ve used the technique – or one like it – yourself.