Review: Uncaged, Volume 1

Uncaged

Cover Artwork by Samantha Darcy

Uncaged, Volume 1 is ambitious, imperfect, and inspiring.

I’ve been awaiting this anthology since Ashley Warren posted a call for contributors on Twitter last year. Uncaged is a collection of myth- and folklore-themed one-shot adventures written for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition which subvert tropes around female mythological creatures and monsters and reinvent classical female archetypes. Each adventure is intended to be played in 1-5 hours.

Uncaged, Volume 1 is the first of four releases and it does not disappoint. The 25 modules in the collection are mostly for Tiers 1 and 2, but there are a few Tier 3 and one Tier 4 module as well. The narratives range from small town investigations to epic combat in the afterlife, from ancient mythological conflicts to spooky, cryptic fairy tales. Some of the adventures are sparse, while others are densely packed with information; most are a mere seven pages long.

There are minor grammatical and formatting issues and some modules feel much more polished than others, but the overall quality and value of the collection outweigh these concerns. The artwork is stunning and the layout is stylized and clean. I’m always seeking modules that emphasize roleplay, investigation, and exploration as much as combat and this collection fits the bill.

Some of the narratives are open-ended, allowing PCs to drive them in various directions, while others feel like short stories to be shared at the gaming table. Though my reaction to each adventure varies – and is based on my own preferences and biases – I would highly recommend purchasing the collection. Given the extent and the overall quality of the content, I have no regrets over the $14.95 price tag.

Since I haven’t yet run any of these adventures, my reviews below are based on readings alone. Starred* titles are my personal favorites, which I hope to run for my players within the next few months. I also hope to post extended reviews for any adventure I do run, along with some long overdue posts about past adventures I ran and loved. I’m getting there, it’s just…life!

THIS POST CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS. If any of my players (or anyone who is knowingly going to play through these adventures) are reading this, I advise you to stop here. Don’t ruin the surprises, however small they may be.

TIER 1 ADVENTURES

Maid in Waterdeep by Bianca Bickford (Level 1)
The first adventure in this collection is based on such an iconic story (The Little Mermaid), I might have a hard time fitting it into a regular campaign. Instead, I’d like to run it as a one-shot and play up the setting and mood. It’s rooted in Waterdeep, though, which could also make it a fun side quest if you – like me – are running Dragon Heist.  I like the guidelines for social encounter outcomes, adjustments for young players, and the adventure’s emphasis on player agency and choice. Maid in Waterdeep has a chase scene, a possible Zhentarim hook, a clear map, and suggestions for non-combat rewards. There’s a lot of room for flexibility on top of a strong background narrative. This is a story everyone knows, with fun new twists!

* Cry of the Sea by Alicia Furness (Levels 1-3)
Cry of the Sea has a fantastic blend of investigation, exploration, role-playing, and combat. The narrative centers around sirens and issues of ecofeminism and sexism. I love adventures that offer multiple paths and choices, and this adventure has a plethora of meaningful choices. PCs can select one of two NPC guides, and each choice comes with pros and cons. The descriptions and terrain are vibrant and one terrain feature in particular is sure to delight players! There is a puzzle, a great list of ocean bay random encounters, and multiple endings based on a significant ethical choice at the end. To be honest, this adventure left me feeling unsettled, a testament to the craft of the story and its stakes. I wouldn’t throw this at a totally new group of players, but I very much look forward to running it.

From the Forest They Fled by Alison Huang (Levels 1-3)
This adventure revolves around a dryad, a forest, and a local village. It’s grounded in a scientific principle about a certain type of tree, which sets my nerd heart aflame. The party travels into the forest and encounters some aggressive plants; these plants seem bit out of place to me. Yet the trek into the forest and the resulting narrative are gripping. Succinct, lovely boxed descriptions and a beautiful story make From the Forest They Fled a pleasure to read. The final conflict includes detailed tactics, the conclusion is open-ended, NPC reactions are realistic, and players are rewarded for gathering information and questioning their perceptions, something I always look for in modules. Huang states her preference for non-violent narratives and it shows in this adventure. The possibility of violence exists but is not inevitable. Also, there’s a chance to be gifted a cool fey magic item. Give me that sweet fey treasure!

* Lai of the Sea Hag by Maryska Connolly (Levels 2-3)
This one just feels so classic and hits all the right notes for me when it comes to an urban adventure: a seaside port, a seedy thieves’ guild, political intrigue, a noble family with a secret, street performers, a criminal chase, a break-in! Encounters with key NPCs are framed in terms of how aggressive or diplomatic the PCs are. The conflict centers around a villain with believable motivations who deserves to be fleshed out a bit more. Lai of the Sea Hag has many possible resolutions, limited only by player creativity. Were I to run this one, I’d try to ensure there was a bard in the party. To me, this is a bard’s dream, with so many opportunities for charm, sweet talk, and performance, a wealth of NPCs to interact with, and such a good story to uncover. I’d give the villain more depth and add to her backstory; there’s room aplenty for that.

The Weeping Woman by Kristina Sisto Kindel (Level 2)
The Weeping Woman is based on the Mexican folk tale of La Llorona. I adore the writing in this module; the descriptions are evocative and atmospheric. The mood should be set for this story – dim lights, candles, etc. – which features missing children, a darkened forest, a hut filled with haunted items, an island full of dolls (based on a real place), and a dark, creepy cave. This adventure reads more like a gorgeous short story than a module to me, with fewer opportunities for player agency than most of the others in the collection. A few moments feel underdeveloped and there is a lack of roleplaying guidance for certain NPCs. This has superb writing and an intriguing story, but might require additional prep work for DMs who wish to pull the adventurers in as active participants. I could see myself running this around Halloween, when we’re all eager for a scary story.

* Lost Children, Found Family by Catherine Evans (Levels 2-3)
This adventure revolves around a lamia – half woman, half lion – who lairs in a temple with a scrying pool and who is “collecting” followers. It’s political and set in the desert, featuring elements my group rarely gets to encounter: camels, jackalweres, extreme heat, sandstorms. Concise but helpful NPC traits are given to aid in roleplaying and one NPC in particular will use a variety of methods to either help or hinder the party, depending on their actions and motives. The final conflict is likely to end in party surrender and ideally leads to the PCs engaging in a lively council debate with a mechanic called Resolution Points! Lost Children, Found Family has an exciting setting and it forces the PCs to take a political side, which has the potential to lead to future hooks. The author wanted an adventure that did not end in combat, and I think that aim will be accomplished.

A Wild Hunt by Kat Kruger (Level 2)
I live in Korea, so I may be biased. But this dark, creepy horror module – based on a Korean folktale about a kumiho, a demonic nine-tailed fox – contains a lot of things that tickle my fancy. It’s investigative, it has a fun twist, and it places the party in imminent danger likely to elude less observant PCs (and players). This one has the potential to turn into a classic hook, line, and sinker, which always makes for a rousing one-shot. Reference to a cool and often underutilized deity and detailed guidance on the adventure’s aftermath make me want to run this one for my group some time. It could easily be inserted as a side quest during a forest trek. The PCs see a sign posted by a reclusive monk…do they follow the sign and investigate?

Death’s Agents by D. B. Donlon (Levels 2-4)
Death’s Agents didn’t speak to me as much as the others, likely due to my lack of familiarity with the Greek myth from which it comes. The story centers around furies, Greek goddesses of vengeance. I could see this working well in a campaign steeped in mythology and history; it would get PCs involved in the affairs of the gods early on, which could be fun to work with. There’s a cursed item – always enjoyable – though I wanted a bit more explanation and description of the item. I like the author’s suggestion to utilize Morale and wish it were referenced for new DMs only familiar with D&D 5E. Overall, I think this adventure could use some additional development to make it easier for a DM to absorb and run. That, or it simply went over my head.

* The Tale of Sepha and Ade by Kelly Dayton (Level 3)
A twist on the myth of Hades & Persephone, this adventure has a simple story with a variety of possible conclusions. The Tale of Sepha and Ade involves drow and plays on widespread expectations about the drow race. I appreciate the amount of NPC roleplaying guidance given as well as the emphasis on party choices. This is primarily an investigative adventure – my favorite kind! – and PCs dictate the course of their investigations. There is a delightful random table with clues to be discovered and the adventure can conclude in many possible ways. But my favorite detail is that the author incorporates a doppelganger in a highly interesting way. Depending on what the PCs decide to do, this adventure could have meaningful long-term implications on a campaign. One of my favorites in the collection!

The Banshee’s Tale by Annabeth Lennon (Levels 3-5)
This classic crypt crawl may be the most combat-heavy adventure in the anthology. The party is hired to delve into the catacombs beneath a noble family’s castle and end up uncovering the family’s dark secrets. As they explore, they repeatedly encounter a banshee, who warns them to leave the castle and doles out information about the family history. The party must fight various types of undead, put a wraith to rest, and decide whether or not to tell the heads of house about their family’s dark origins. The Banshee’s Tale is well-organized, has a simple but interesting backstory, and involves classic themes that most DMs and parties will likely grab onto. Who doesn’t love ghosts and crypts and fiendish pacts?

* Swamped by Jessica Ross (Levels 3-5)
Women are disappearing into the swamp and returning enchanted; the former mayor is in a coma; everybody knows not to enter the swamp…until the adventurers come along, that is. This module feels very alive, partly due to Ross’s deft exposition of local legend. The writing is well-organized and includes “What the DM knows” sections, helpful reminders of background details inserted at key moments. PCs are rewarded for prosocial behavior, so much so that I worry the ending might be anti-climactic if the players choose not to go in fighting. After all the investigating, I doubt my players would. Swamped features a villain who is so justified in her actions, it’s hard to actually see her as a villain. That’s the point, of course. But if I ran this, I think I’d make the fabled swamp feel more dangerous, adding more scariness to the encounters and spooking the players a bit. The variety of possible endings and their long-term consequences are marvelous. I’ll definitely be running this one soon.

The Demon’s Heart by Masha Lepire (Levels 3-5)
The Demon’s Heart has a compelling backstory involving fiends, deception, and family rivalry. The narrative centers around a succubus, given a unique narrative twist. Party members are drawn into a dark scheme through classic trickery and deceit and the lies come off as believable; after all, they contain kernels of the truth. This adventure is a scant four pages (shorter than the others) and as a result, it feels incomplete. The main confrontation occurs in a burial chamber and there are no obstacles standing in the party’s way; they simply arrive. Were I to run this, I’d want to prepare some encounters and develop the setting more. I generally prefer a little more detail in a pre-written module. That being said, it feels like the start of something cool and with a fiendish warlock in my party, I may have a way to fit it into my current campaign.

Lost Gods by Natalie Wallace (Levels 3-5)
This is another adventure, like Swamped, in which it’s very possible that an epic final combat will be entirely circumvented. However, there’s a clever conundrum at its conclusion: even if the players avoid fighting the monster, can they avoid inciting an angry mob or a slew of casualties? In Lost Gods, a village worships an unwilling idol who is not what they believe she is. The PCs come upon some spectres, but when I run this module, I might add some varied obstacles or encounters. The core narrative plays on assumptions we all have about a very iconic monster, assumptions which – as the author points out – may lead to rash decision-making by the players. I see a great “DM Gotcha!” moment in my future. Wallace describes this adventure as a play on the Prime Directive from Star Trek and that adds up. Nerd meter activated!

* The Secret of Shadow Grove by Lynne M. Meyer (Level 4)
At ten pages, this is one of the longer adventures in the anthology and not without reason: it is utterly packed with well-developed NPCs, tactics, backstories, and possible outcomes. The players arrive in a small town with a dark secret: a night hag called “Mother.” This rich, fast-paced, investigative adventure subverts expectations about a classic monster, who – in this case – comes with a collection of followers, minions, and enemies with which the DM can insert challenge and intrigue. Player agency is emphasized as the rich narrative keeps on moving; players must choose a side. There is a nice map and a very well-laid out location in which most of the action takes place. The Secret of Shadow Grove is a dream come true for DMs – like me – who love mystery, ethical quandaries, and a plethora of NPCs. This one is complex and might be better saved for DMs and players who have a bit of experience.

TIER 2 ADVENTURES

Shadows and Talons by Mellanie Black (Levels 5-6)
“The Harpy is never named in the Monster Manual,” writes Black, “but we know the name of the man who spurned her. This robs the Harpy of her agency, and her identity outside of her relationship with a man; two wrongs I seek to put right in this alternate telling.” Shadows and Talons is unapologetically revisionist. Part investigation, part diplomacy and/or combat (depending on how the party decides to react), action may move in a few different directions, but all roads lead to the heart of the story: the origin of the harpies and the lie told about it. This module offers excellent advice on NPC interactions, pacing, and skill checks. A random encounter table is divided into three clear sections – Obstacles, Check, Reward – a structure that I haven’t seen before but which I like very much. Three possible conclusions help the DM respond to party choices. I could see introducing this adventure to instill a sense of questioning within my group, particularly when it comes to the game world’s institutions and authorities.

* The Guardian of the Forest by Awkward Bard (Levels 5-8)
This may be my favorite adventure in the anthology and I’ve already posted a hook to it on my D&D group’s contract board. Its swampy setting – “a place where the veil between planes grows thin” – is rich and layered with a thoughtful ecology of its own. There’s not so much an ethical dilemma here, but a highly engaging backstory with multiple monsters, all of whom have relatable motivations. This module has a planar portal, a corrupted temple, a “gentle giant” with whom the party can ally themselves, a puzzle, a nice treasure hoard, a cool random table of charms, and an epic final combat with detailed tactics, a unique and exciting source of power, and a scaling guide. Unlike some other adventures in the collection which would benefit from a bit more editing and development, The Guardian of the Forest is impeccably polished. A top-notch adventure!

A Family Reunion by Jessica Marcrum (Level 7)
You know the opening of Ocean’s Eleven when they get the team back together? Take that, add The Royal Tenenbaums – only these highly gifted, royal siblings happen to be monsters – place them in a folklore setting, and you might end up with something akin to this eccentric, roleplay-heavy romp. The adventurers are hired by a powerful yuan-ti queen to gather up her five children after she receives a terrible vision of their impending deaths. The party travels about, contending with political conflict, family drama, a military coup, a jackalwere assassin, and various whimsies. In the background, a war is brewing, one of many aspects which make this an excellent module around which to build a campaign. I love the way A Family Reunion humanizes its monstrous NPCs, each of whom has unique idiosyncrasies and agendas. There’s a plethora of guidance on plot progression and attention to details I would likely overlook. Roleplay-heavy, eccentric groups will enjoy this fast-paced, quirky, open-world adventure.

Maidens of the Weave by Emily Smith (Level 7)
Set in the Underdark, Maidens of the Weave has a great backstory, interesting lore and ecology, and a surprise turn of events wherein a splinter group initiates a coup against a secret society of driders. The PCs are sent on a search and rescue mission and encounter a number of well-crafted clues. There is some lovely writing here, setting the mood for the action which takes place primarily in a haunted duergar mineshaft in the Underdark (cool, right?). The PCs meet an NPC who will eventually turn against the others. I found myself wishing for subtle hints about what’s to come. As written, everyone is surprised when the violent coup erupts during an important drider ritual. But what if the PCs were to figure it out and find themselves planning a stealthy counter-attack? I think that’d be even more epic and fun. Regardless, this module has cool mechanics, a cool magic item, and a fun, political twist. Mostly, it’s a great narrative waiting to be discovered.

Appalling Morass by Ma’at Crook (Level 8)
This colorful adventure is descriptive, dense, and adaptable to various play styles. Crook includes beautiful descriptions of NPC appearances and personalities and kicks the story off with an immediate conflict. The PCs are forced to choose a side; yet unless they are blatant hack-and-slashers, I see no way they will not align themselves with the “monsters” of this story, a whimsical coven of hags. As is often true to life, the real monster is the one that hides in plain sight. This story pulses with character, from the hags and their home to the woodland creatures and magic items. Appalling Morass is unabashedly critical of real-world stereotypes, turning those stereotypes on their heads. Estimated playtimes and NPC quotes serve as useful aids for the DM. The biggest downside to this adventure is its organization. It’s packed with helpful information, but that information proves difficult to keep track of. Various endings and story rewards are thoughtfully considered, but tracking the progression of the plot might prove a challenge without reorganizing the adventure before running it.

Heart of the Goddess by Elise Cretel (Level 10)
Heart of the Goddess is another highly mythological adventure, this one rooted in Egyptian mythology. Author notes provide a thorough introduction for DMs less familiar with the narratives and key figures. In this adventure, the PCs are drawn into a strange, mysterious temple and inevitably become involved in an epic conflict between deities in the afterlife. There is a lake of fire, hungry jackals, fire-breathing snakes, and a multitude of things stranger still. The writing is lovely, the descriptions detailed, and there are a number of interesting puzzles. This is one of the more explorative adventures in the anthology. Evil party members will experience more hardship than the others. Though the PCs are more observers than active participants, it’s a lovely and strange ride they’ll take. Atmospheric, evocative, and enjoyably weird.

Lauma by Johanna Taylor (CR 6)
This is not a module but a monster variant: Lauma, a forest hag. Uncaged presents a number of spins on the hag archetype and this one is well-developed and properly creepy. Lauma targets children and small-sized adventurers (gnomes, halflings, goblins), kidnapping them and keeping them forever in her home filled with child-sized skeletons and other unsettling items. Her lore is tragic, painting the picture of a once kind and giving figure twisted by the hatred and scorn of others. I’d love to fit her into a forest trek some time soon. My core party is level six, after all…

TIER 3 ADVENTURES

Galateya’s Will by Luciella Elisabeth Scarlett (Levels 10-12)
A twist on the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, this adventure has an eerie Stepford Wives feel. A necromancer is creating golems infused with the spirits of dead women in an attempt to create the perfect beauty. The party comes upon an angel sent by the goddess Sune to bring the necromancer to justice. They make their way to a palace to find more than twenty of the necromancer’s “dolls” containing the spirits of the women the wizard has killed and experimented on. It’s gruesome and I’m glad the author recommends using safety tools (lines and veils, x and o cards, etc). Heavy on roleplaying and investigation, Galateya’s Will includes an epic final confrontation. If the party succeeds in taking down the necromancer, a pretty good treasure hoard is in store. But what I’m most moved by is the ethical dilemma presented to the group: how should they respond to these “beautiful monsters?”

* Legend of the White Snake by Lysa Chen (Levels 11-16)
A brief but marvelous module, Legend of the White Snake accomplishes a lot within its scant five pages. Impeccably written and designed, it is based on the ancient Chinese legend of Lady White Snake, which has been told and retold in different ways over the centuries. Like the legend it’s based on, this adventure is multi-faceted. The party arrives in a village and begins to hear rumors about “Lady White,” a local woman who recently went missing. Everyone in the village has a different tale to tell, so who should they believe? The adventure hooks are simple and effective, the ending is wide open, and crucial information is organized into handy tables: General Features (weather, light, smells, sounds), NPC Personality Quirks, and Rumors. The most exciting table, however, is the one used by the DM to choose who the adventure’s antagonist will be! Each potential villain is highly developed and interesting, and the true culprit will be revealed in the conclusion at which point it will be up to the PCs to decide how to respond. This was wonderful to read, as I’m sure it will be to run. I truly can’t wait.

Madness of the Valkyries by Asa Wheatley (Level 12)
DMs using the Norse pantheon in their campaigns could take advantage of this module centered around the iconic valkyries. Like Shadows and Talons, this is an adventure about correcting false narratives, in this case the lies Odin spread about the Valkyries. There are two major NPCs of note: Odin (disguised as The Stranger) and Skuld (the last Valkyrie). The PCs have accepted the task of finding and destroying Skuld and make their way through a ruined town and up a mountain, arriving at a crumbling great hall. The hall contains several puzzles meant to subtly reveal the true story of the Valkyries and the party must solve the puzzles before arriving at the final showdown with Skuld. This adventure has very lengthy boxed text descriptions and I found myself getting lost in the words. I wish there were more for the PCs to interact with. But a battle with a Valkyrie atop a mountain 5,000 feet above sea level? That’s pretty badass.

Ghastly Grins by Judy Black (Levels 13-15)
Perhaps partly due to my Irish heritage, I adore anything fey-related and (apart from hags) Ghastly Grins is one of the few fey-centered adventures in the anthology; it’s based on an Irish myth of the Dullahan (headless rider). The party must help stop this creature, who has been summoned against her will by a local political figure and attacked various townspeople. The PCs investigate the attacks, interview the newly elected mayor, fight some ghasts, encounter a spooky Jack o’Lantern, talk to a warlock. The real monster is not who we were led to believe it was. This adventure feels unfinished, and seems to suffer from the constraints of the page count; two whole pages are taken up with monster stats, leaving less room for other crucial aspects. Key information is well-organized, but details and flavor are sometimes lacking. However, the final combat encounter is exciting and there is a legendary weapon in store for victorious PCs. I like the two possible endings, which depend on whether the PCs kill the monster(s) or not. A nice story underpins this well-written adventure, I just wish there were a bit more to it.

TIER 4 ADVENTURE

* The Tale of Two Sphinxes by Jessica L. Washburn (Levels 17-20)
Is this an adventure for D&D 5E? Yes. But The Tale of Two Sphinxes is also an exquisite exploration of the stages of grief and trauma. Players are wise to take their time in this 5 room puzzle lest they summon a more challenging confrontation at its conclusion and – worse – miss the point altogether. This module has a tragic backstory, clever and engaging puzzles, an extremely powerful magical artifact, and well-crafted mechanics. But as someone who has experienced trauma and hardship, I believe the strength of this adventure is in the minor details which make up the rooms of the lone desert temple wherein lies Asmuzi the gynosphinx and the treasure she protects. This is the stuff of poetry, translated to the gaming table. Author’s notes reveal that writing this adventure was a highly personal endeavor and it shows; Washburn’s heart is written all over these brief pages. If I never run this module – teach me how to get my players up to level 17, oh wise ones – I will still have been touched by the thoughtfulness of the storytelling and the emotional power of this brilliant piece of work.

A final note…

Uncaged, Volume 1 is not just a collection of entertaining modules, though it is certainly that. It is also a reflection of the many forms a game of Dungeons and Dragons can take.

We all have stories to tell.

This anthology inspires me to get to work on my own adventures. It offers a plethora of story inspiration, formatting ideas, new ways of thinking about characters and narratives, and perhaps most importantly, an invitation. An invitation to start sharing our own perspectives within this vast, diverse community of people who all love make-believe and rolling dice and connecting with others around a shared passion. This collection signals an important shift in the world of gaming, which is expanding to include voices and perspectives previously left unheard.

I cannot wait for Volume 2.

 

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