Adventure Review: Withering Woods

“Withering Woods” is a D&D 5e adventure module for low-level characters written by Þorsteinn Mar Gunnlaugsson for Swedish game publisher, Riotminds. Part of their new Fantasy Adventure Series, it was included in their Kickstarter for Into the Wild, a wilderness exploration supplement for 5e. Based upon their current DriveThruRPG offerings, I would imagine this will eventually be available for purchase there. It may still be available for late pledges here.

Here’s my non-spoiler review (more for GMs later!). I really enjoyed reading Withering Woods and could see myself running the adventure with some modifications. The module focuses on the village of Shallowford, surrounded on all sides by a majestic wood called the Cobweb Forest (not foreboding at all!). Shallowford is a haven for rangers, druids, and wilderness adventurers of all sorts. As players get to know the NPCs in town, they soon learn of strange events that may (or may not) be connected. The investigation begins…and will inevitably lead into the depths of the forest.

The NPCs are engaging and well-developed, perhaps sometimes over-developed. As a DM, I’d need to jot down some bullet points on personality, motive, and such, simply because there’s so much prose. There are some truly creative and unique encounter opportunities in the book, especially at its climax. In my opinion, there are some real gems in here that players would remember for years to come. Now, I can’t review this module without talking about their use of AI in their art. Riotminds says very explicitly in the front of the book that they use AI:

I will leave to you the ethical issues that are clearly raised, when it comes to generative art. However, I will say that I find the AI-generated art distracting in this book. Why? When I look at the NPC portraits in particular, it looks like a mish-mash of actors that I recognize. Even the larger environmental pictures have that haunting, “Man, I recognize that” sort of feel. In contrast, the pencil sketches that are clearly original are fantastic! I really wish they had stuck to those.

But, again, while I really enjoyed the module, my biggest complaint is this: there’s no map of Cobweb Forest. It’s literally surrounding Shallowford on all sides, yet we don’t get a map of it. If I’m going to run this module, I will most certainly have to draw a sketch/map myself. That just seems like a remarkable oversight. On page 32, you get a text description of the forest and its main trails. But the DM must deduce from that the layout. My honest hope is that the good folks of Riotminds made a mistake, will read this, and put the map back in!

All in all, I found this a really great read. I find it engaging and plan to at least use large chunks of it, if not run the whole thing. Who would this adventure module appeal to? Play groups that…

  • Enjoy wilderness adventures
  • Enjoy mysteries and investigation
  • Enjoy modules with a village situated near an exploration area (cf. Phandelver, Hommlet, Keep on the Borderlands)
  • Want to use the Into the Wild supplement

If this doesn’t describe your group, you probably won’t be into this module. I, however, am obsessed with these kinds of adventures…and I Kickstarted Into the Wild. So it’s right up my alley. But before I conclude, let me give some specific tips for you Dungeon Masters!

SPOILER ALERT – Do not read further, unless you are a Game Master

Now I mentioned earlier that there are some modifications I would want to make, if I ran this module. Let me mention those briefly:

Once players have done enough trust-building quests in the village, they have to go out into the woods. Cobweb Forest has three main trails: the Hunter’s Trail, the Eastern Trail, and the Steep Trail. I really enjoy how the trails are set up. There are encounters that trigger after the players have been on the trail for certain amounts of time, which gives a sense of progress and an unfolding mystery. I’m a big fan of that. Occasionally, the encounters can feel a little same-y, probably because they’re all happening in the same locale. So I might swap out or re-skin a couple enemies along the way.

At the conclusion of each trail, there is an artifact that players need to obtain in order to gain access to the final boss. But here’s the problem: players don’t know that. Frankly, as a reader, I didn’t know that until I got to the final chapter. This raises a big question: why would my players explore every trail to the very end, unless they had some hint or idea toward that ends…especially when each trail takes four days to clear? There would need to be some plot hook or reveal that drove the players to seek out those artifacts.

That brings me to a concern with the conclusion of the Steep Trail. There you find the most developed dungeon in the entire book. But–get this–the boss of the dungeon is two rooms away from the entrance! The players could, in theory, enter, defeat the boss, get the artifact, and leave without actually exploring the dungeon. If I were going to run it, that boss would definitely be moved elsewhere so that some dungeoneering actually occurs.

My final adaptation concerns a key NPC in the village, who may have connections to the larger nefarious plot. I have read their backstory at least three times. And, for the life of me, I cannot deduce why in the world they would work in league with the Big Bad. Their story reads as a classically Good character, apparently either Neutral or Chaotic Good. But the Big Bad is clearly not Good, it just doesn’t make sense that they would partner together. I would either have to seriously change that NPC or create some sort of believable blackmail situation. I agree with Riotminds’ authors that this should be a good surprise for players. But my players would immediately ask, “Wait, why was he working with the bad guy?”

Hopefully these suggestions will help any DMs out there, who are interested in running Withering Woods. I don’t feel that these flaws are fatal, by any stretch. It’s a really fun story with a fun plot, engaging characters, and some great wilderness adventuring. I hope that Riotminds will release it for a broader audience, because I think folks would enjoy running it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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