Puzzles, and the solving of them, is an overlooked aspect of dungeon design. With the focus on memorable locals and strange monsters, the idea that D&D should encourage problem-solving has taken something of a back seat. The Tomb of Crossed Words (ToCW) is therefore a welcome addition to the growing number of community-created 5e products. However, it is not perfect and when ToCW falls short, it spoils what should be a fantastic offering.
The setup is simple. Hired by Brother Connor, the PCs are tasked with exploring a long-lost dungeon where brains not brawn is the key to success. The Brother is generous. Along with the offer of a hefty bag of gold, he allows the party first dibs on whatever treasure they find. Armed with a map (unsupplied by the module but not really needed) and a poem giving insight into what lays ahead, the party sets off.
The module's introduction is quite right: players who do not enjoy puzzles will loathe the tomb. While progress can be obtained at the end of a sword, doing so ruins what ToCW is trying to achieve. Those who make the effort, however, should enjoy themselves with even gaining entrance to the tomb itself possibly stumping a few players. The PCs do get some help in the form of spells to allow them to communicate with their patron but the DM isn't offered any advice on what the clues might be. This unfortunately does run the risk of the DM being too helpful and removing the challenge.
While the puzzles themselves are - thankfully - clear enough, the layout of the module is a struggle with even location numbering unclear. Numbers tucked away in corridor or room corners suggest that's the area of interest instead of covering the whole section. Additionally, should the PCs go one way instead of another they could meet the Big Bad much sooner than intended. The lack of an additional challenge or locked door - or even the redesign of the dungeon to bury the final location deeper within - would go a long way to encouraging further exploration. True, in many adventures the key to successfully navigating a dungeon hinges on making the right choice but rarely does it happen so early.
The map of the dungeon needs work and it seems traditional D&D cartography has been eschewed. While the map is usable, doors are little more than back lines slightly thicker than the grid, and the inclusion of an encircled star (usually denoting a magic circle) to represent a desk is confusing.
The confusion is not limited to the map. Secret doors are marked but the room descriptions give no indication how the PCs might spot them. There’s no cross-referencing of locations so the DM will need to look very hard to know where keys are hidden. If the players don't know there's a secret door to be opened they probably won't go looking for a way to do so.
The map should also include where exactly the puzzle is located in each area. One area has three skeletons blocking the exit but no clue as to where they stand is provided. Given that puzzles only work if the person posing them to the players is crystal clear themselves, it's an annoying oversight.
There are NPCs to interact with but they seem to be of little consequence. This is a shame and a missed opportunity for sidequests. One creature guards a room full of scrolls and books (unreadable until the Big Bad is defeated) but doesn't give any idea what the books contain even when that is achieved. Are they full of plot hooks or even cursed? The PCs - and DM for that matter - will never know. Furthermore, while the monk states he's happy for the PCs to keep whatever magical items they find, the module doesn't provide any. While at 3rd level they probably shouldn't expect many, if the offer is made it should be fulfilled.
This is an adventure where player handouts are essential as well as illustrations. With riddles the DM’s voice will tire quickly and many locations within the dungeon would be greatly enhanced with visual clues. It's these small omissions (because that's really what they are) that makes ToCW so frustrating. It has the potential of becoming an absolute gem, possibly even a classic, but it falls just short in too many places to become anymore more than a great, if weakly executed, idea.
DMs hoping to run this as a self-contained module or fully-fleshed adventure will be disappointed - as will the players. Despite its low page count, ToCW cannot be purchased and ran as presented, or at least not to satisfaction. However, if treated as a source of puzzles a DM can include within a larger, more traditional dungeon with added hack-and-slash, it's a good option. Alternatively, DMs will need to spend the time filling in the gaps as needed. Ultimately, ToCW is something to build upon rather than be run "as is" - both by the purchasing DM and the original writers.
[3 of 5 Stars!]