RPG Review: To Undo the Glue by Alex Niederberger

Welcome back to our series of reviews of some of the works from the Fall 2020 RPG Writer Workshop. Each review will be followed with a brief chat with its author(s) where we will be delving a bit deeper into some of the aspects that most intrigued me. Every two days there will be a new review and mini-interview out, so keep tuned to discover some of the amazing things that these bright new authors are coming up with.

Spoiler warning: It is simply not practical to review a product without mentioning anything about it. I have attempted to remain vague where possible, however I can not guarantee that you will not learn something about the adventure by reading this review

Declaration of interest: This article includes affiliate links.

Cover image of To Undo the Glue by Alex Niederberger. The cover is designed in the style of a stained glass window. A woman is at the center, with images abover her in circles of: two hands clutched together, a cat, a bottle of liquid, ropes, flames, a mirror, and a face. To the left of the woman is another window with flames and chains on it. To the right is a third and final window with ropes on it.
Cover image of To Undo the Glue by Alex Niederberger

To Undo the Glue by Alex Niederberger

An adventure for D&D5e, included in RPG Writer Workshop bundle 1.

CW: Abusive relationships

Review

To Undo the Glue is practically a metaphor for the subjects that it treats: love and relationships. It’s a light hearted adventure on its surface, which masks the deeper and more troubling elements hidden within from outside observation. The plot as announced is simple, meaning that the players should be able to understand their objective clearly. However, there are several layers that can be used at the DMs discretion to add extra depth, depending on the tone that they wish to give the adventure. The goal is clear: a local noble has managed to get their hands stuck together and needs the party to find a source of the wish spell to get them unglued. Rumour has it that a nearby church has a djinn that might be able to help out. The bulk of the adventure is therefore centred around the exploration of this church, trying to find out if the rumours are true and gain the help of the djinn, which may lead to them uncovering other secrets.

The adventure is quite open in its flow. Each area of the church is described, with it’s NPCs, dangers, hidden objects and all that you need to run it, and the characters are free to explore it as they see fit. This empowers the players, but also places a lot of the story progression on their shoulders. It is up to them to put together the different pieces of the puzzle, and understand the different relationships and plots. There is some leeway provided with the main plot of finding and freeing the djinn, with various substitutes for the puzzle provided, and a few extra clues that they can pick up, which should help the DM move the story forward if things start to get bogged down.

There is also a very intricate and more subtle subplot which runs through the adventure. This is about saving Donia, the most obvious opposition, from her current abusive relationship, and by doing so gaining a valuable ally. Unravelling this plot requires your players paying careful attention to what is happening and picking up on the clues that aren’t quite as spelled out as those of the main plot. This serves to reward the players for thorough investigation, but also plays into the more meta theme of the story, where the abuse can be easily ignored despite the fact that the clues are there.

There are also a lot of elements to like beyond the story itself. Stat blocks are integrated as needed into the adventure, as well as being in an annex at the end. The art style with the stained glass aesthetic is just beautiful, and there is even a playlist with custom music to set the ambiance. Combat is limited, but what there is is well executed, and the addition of wandering encounters that fit within the story rather than just a random encounter table is an excellent addition that I wish we would see more of. The overall quality of the adventure is just really high, and my only real complaints are that the DMs map is slightly hard to read in some areas and that there’s no description of Sune, which are really minor problems overall.

This is an adventure that won’t be to every groups tastes. While it can be played as a quite light hearted and jokey investigation, it requires patience and careful investigation to get everything out of it. This is the sort of adventure that pushes forward what we expect from RPG narrative. The author has taken risks here, and when you take risks then not everything is perfect, but that doesn’t stop To Undo the Glue being an amazing scenario. In optimal circumstances this is a deep and thought provoking story, while under normal conditions it’s still a fun and breezy story with a well thought out investigation segment.

Behind the Screens

Hello Alex, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. The first lines of your adventure is a quote from Sourcery by Pratchett about love and, at it’s core, this is an adventure about love, in its best and worst forms. This is an interesting change compared to most scenarios that focus on conflict. Was this a conscious choice that you made when setting out to write the adventure, or did it develop organically?

A while back I saw the sovereign glue item in a book and thought it was the funniest thing and the initial conceit and title immediately sprung to mind. As I began to flesh it out, the relationship between Beni and Beatrice naturally came to a forefront. That’s when I made the conscious choice to frame the rest of the adventure around relationships, and the rest spiralled out of that.

There are very much two levels in the adventure. The first, most evident one, is the happy, slightly goofy, main plot about finding a way to un-glue a noble’s hands. The B plot however is about an abusive relationship between a succubus and a chain devil. There’s going to be a lot to unpack here, but I’d like to start about why you wanted to explore abusive relationships through the medium of TTRPGs? How did you approach such a sensitive subject?

The abusive relationship came as a result of the general theming of the adventure, which admittedly does serve as a really stark contrast to the goofier parts of the adventure. I think collaborative storytelling is an intriguing medium and experiments within it are important. Official D&D adventures and even a lot of 3rd party adventures have interesting thematic content but I think they often fail to actively engage with and dig into those themes. It’s either that or the 109th white dude’s shitty take on racism. The more in-depth, respectful explorations of unique topics (with personal experience or heavy sensitivity readings) the better in my opinion.

In terms of how to approach it in a sensitive manner, that’s much more difficult, especially since Donia – a victim of abuse – begins (and possibly ends) the adventure as an antagonist. While personal experience was part of sensitivity, feedback from playtesters and editors and the tweaks that resulted were integral. The biggest changes were adding more environmental hints of Donia’s goodness and struggles, making it nearly impossible for her to be killed in the adventure, and some of the extra notes in the Conclusions chapter.

Digging more into the relationship itself, I’m a big fan of using “monsters” as possible allies and NPCs. Donia is a succubus but who could become a valuable, almost essential, ally. Why choose a succubus, rather than say a human cultist, to be the main antagonist?

Part of it was definitely the desire to have more interesting, complex monsters. The succubi/incubi are interesting in a lot of ways, especially mechanically, but it too often gets reduced to weird at-the-table titillation. So I thought of ways those mechanics could be put to use and the idea of manipulation through religious ideologies came to mind.

This entire secondary plot line is all quite subtle, the clues can be quite easily missed and indeed seem hidden under the surface. Was this a sort of meta-commentary about how abusive relationships can be hidden in plain sight, under a relatively thin mask, and that we ignore them more than we should?

I like that reading, haha. After my playtesters went through the adventure, some of them commented that they felt somewhat directionless for how they might help Donia. The more game-y Donia’s Salvation parts were an attempt to flesh out her more and provide more direct things the players might grab onto when confronting her directly. The idea of a gamified solution to an abusive relationship felt uncomfortable, so I wanted to make them as smooth a part of the world as possible. The end goal is that they’d only be obvious to the DM, and the players wouldn’t feel like they’re collection keys to get the good ending or whatever. This probably isn’t a perfect solution, but that’s why the clues could reasonably be completely missed.

As well as the subject of abusive relationships, there is another emotional subplot which is very much about grief. I really like reinterpreting gods by taking their portfolio and looking at it in another way. Here you’ve reinterpreted Shar as overcoming loss and working through grief, breaking through their more generally evil connotations. What was the thought process behind this?

So the Church of Sune dungeon was designed to focus on exploration and discovery in a number of ways. I think the best dungeons teach you how to interact with them, so I wanted to make it obvious there were layers of secrecy and antagonism. I thought these nested understandings of the church would be a good way to get characters interested in really digging into the environment. The re-examination of Shar fit into that well, allowed for another good story with Heroic, and is a new exploration of her as a religious figure. I’ve always found denominations within larger religions really interesting and even within that how different people approach spirituality: another thing that can be explored easily in D&D settings.

Ok, this interview might have been a bit ”heavier” than some of the others we’ve done so far, so it seems fitting to try and end on a more positive note. At the end of the adventure, there is an appendix with a soundtrack to accompany the various parts of the adventure, with music that you’ve made yourself. This is just immensely cool and it’s so thematic. Have you always been musically minded? Do you intend to keep doing this in the future?

Yeah, I’m finishing up a Master’s of Music in Composition this year! I learn a lot about contemporary classical composition in the program, but I’ve also been interested in more popular genres, especially soundtrack work. Writing soundtracks for my D&D games has always been a fun part of it, and I figured it’d be fun to do so for my published adventures as well. I imagine I’ll mostly keep doing this, although the soundtracks for my first three adventures have been very long so far and I don’t know how sustainable it is in the long run. I’ve also got plans for a sort of spiritual successor to To Undo the Glue that’s much more music-focused so look out for that sometime in the distant future!

Is there anything else that you would like to add before we finish ?

Thanks for giving me this opportunity! I’d really just like to thank all the wonderful folks who helped make this adventure come to life, especially Eli Depper who created all the wonderful artwork for the adventure. It was such a fun adventure to write and has been a long time coming and I hope it helps lead to fun sessions and people pushing TTRPGs further!

Thank you again, and I hope that we get to see many more adventures from you in the future!

You can find the adventure on the DMsGuild here, and more work by Alex here. You can also follow them on Twitter.

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

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