The Horror Sphere is a Dungeoncraft module written by Niccolo Estrella, Paul Gabat and Kristoff Alejo of the Greasy Snitches. It was designed for the Greasy Snitches’ Factions Reawakened (Harpers) series which premiered at Snitchfest.
This is part of a series of four modules, each of which involve the Harpers sending the party to spy on one of the other four factions, in this case, the Lord’s Alliance. I haven’t read or run any of the other three, so this review will just be evaluating this module without the context of the other three.
The module uses the I’d Like to Make a Return, Please seed. In this case, the party is returning the titular Horror Sphere, an orb that has something to do with the far realms. This takes them into a Lord’s Alliance research facility with sinister vibes.
It’s a combat heavy module, and I ran it for a party of six at Grex using my trusty dry erase map. My players had a good time, but is the module good? Here’s how I rate it:
With a minimum of two and maximum of four in two hours, this is a combat heavy module.
The encounters serve the theme of the module fairly well, pitting the PCs against aberrations, monstrosities, and other mainstays of cosmic/sci-fi horror. The designers have chosen monsters that are inherently interesting and added just enough wrinkles to make the two mandatory combats feel tactically satisfying.
Furthermore, combats feel properly balanced at the “average” party strength that AL adventures are optimized for. The combats take into account that this module lasts two hours and sets both on the slightly deadly side to compensate.
However, I have two complaints. Firstly, the designers seem to have neglected to describe the tactics the final encounter uses. Secondly and more significantly, adjustments for weaker parties seem lacking.
To be fair, the past few modules I’ve reviewed also have this problem, and I think this may be a systemic problem with Tier 1 Dungeoncrafts. When module designers have a centerpiece creature for a combat, it’s hard to figure out how to make the encounter easier while still retaining the same vibe. This is a problem if your monster can instantly kill a level 1 or 2 character in one round with the right rolls. Here’s a tip designers, if your monster is difficult because it has too much damage, lowering monster HP doesn’t help!
I don’t want to harp on this for too long, because this problem isn’t specific to just this module. That said, no module is reaching 5/5 without good advice for combat adjustments.
All in all, I think the combat in this module is mostly good and definitely enough to satisfy the battle-cravings of your players.
Exploration in this module comes in the form of Research Facility N-72, owned by the Lord’s Alliance but currently dealing with a containment breach.
Those of you familiar with my own modules know that I’m a fan of the SCP blend of cosmic/sci-fi horror and I’m glad another writer shares that. Or perhaps I’m just projecting here, because the resemblance is merely skin deep.
Apart from a single thematic trap and automatic doors, there’s really nothing mechanical about the exploration segment that evokes the sci-fi theme, nor for that matter, any theme at all. The whole dungeon is merely doors, corridors, and rooms that get you between encounters.
The only exploration in this module comes solely from room descriptions, and even those are rather cliché. Perhaps it’s due to my overexposure to the genre, but human experimentation, weird experiments, and minor body horror are tired fare for me.
There are two, perhaps three major social encounters in the module, but no social challenges.
Brightcandle Blackhound, the quest-giver NPC, is pretty entertaining to roleplay. Blackhound is definitely not three kobolds in a trenchcoat, a fact which my players found rather amusing. Although it’s a well-established trope, or perhaps because it is, this NPC works out well.
I can’t say the same for the other NPCs. One, a receptionist, is cute, but is otherwise an exposition dispenser and, as-written can only provide information listed in their description.
The other is a scientist and appears only after the final boss, and also serves mainly to dispense lore but ironically, as-written his interaction seems more linear and robotic than the receptionist who is a construct.
Their presence in the dungeon is flimsily justified, making the NPC feel like a last minute addition to explain the plot.
The module’s descriptions for each social encounter also happen to be made up of 90% quoted speech. I don’t know how to feel about that; on one hand, it helps establish a character’s diction which is helpful for roleplaying, on the other hand, it encourages reading directly off the script rather than letting a conversation happen. If it were me, I would keep NPC quotes to no more than a quarter of the module description.
Plot & Vibes (2/5)
I had high hopes for the module given its theme, but the execution is poor.
I can forgive the fetch-quest plot- the I’d Like to Make a Return, Please dungeoncraft seed basically requires it, and it’s only got two hours to convey itself.
There’s plenty of aspects of the plot that are just glossed over. How do the Harpers know what the artifact does if everyone who’s ever triggered it has died? Should you really be returning the artifact to a facility whose security and containment facilities have been compromised? Why exactly does the Lord’s Alliance have this facility in the first place? Be prepared to invent these details yourself.
What is explained is also puzzling. The aforementioned scientist NPC that’s there just to provide wholesale exposition only after the climax of the module feels terrible. Firstly, show don’t tell! Secondly, if your genre is horror, not everything needs to be explained, keeping certain things a mystery helps with the tension.
Essentially, things which should be explained aren’t, and things which shouldn’t be explained are.
In terms of vibes, the module hits some notes. The monsters are scary, the scenes which just threaten to send enemies at the party work fine too. The area descriptions are gory and occasionally ominous. The artifact’s “curse” is made threatening enough to feel scary without significantly draining resources. What it did do was solid-
It’s just that there’s a ton of missed opportunities. Horror seems to be more of an aesthetic here rather than the module’s actual genre which is a rather generic combat-dungeoncrawl. Maybe it’s my own fault for assuming the module’s genre then demanding it live up to it, but either way, I feel disappointed.
Legitimacy refers to the presentation of the product; aesthetics, production value, writing quality; things which are of value mostly to the DM reading it.
The layout of the module is good, it’s an aesthetic upgrade from the barebones template and it looks good. I like that they seem to have created a layout just for the event, that’s a good move. The designers do not abide by the standard layout, but their deviations are made with intention and for a purpose, even if I don’t always agree.
There seem to be a couple of custom graphics, mostly faction banners which could be reused between the four modules in the series, but the module is otherwise spartan. A bare-bones map is provided, it’s passable to be used in a VTT, but not up to my admittedly high standards.
The language is a tad awkward, and there are a few typos, but none are severe enough to prevent understanding.
Overall, I think the module looks more legit than most.
The Horror Sphere
Rating and Breakdown
Plot & Vibes: 2/5
If you wanted a two-hour combat grind, this module will certainly satisfy. If you wanted to run a horror module for your party, this is more of an high action-dungeoncrawl with a horror aesthetic, but it could certainly meet your criteria.
Personally, I want the modules I run to be more than just that. The module isn’t unplayable or anything, but there are gaps you need to plug, and for me, there are just too many gaps to plug for me to recommend.