The Land is the Monster. Vortex Isles. Buy ads to hone your message.

In this newsletter, I explore monsters that look like landmasses, highlight a swashbuckling 5e zine, and talk about paid ads.

One of my favourite things is when a group of adventurers realizes that the land is the monster. I was reminded of this when I was browsing the monster collection on Questiary and came across the Barrow Wretch.

Shared with permission from Questiary

Their decision to give this thing the ability to curl up into a ball and race after you is particularly devious. Usually, these monsters-as-landmass have one weakness: being slow. Adventurers are left with just enough time to escape before they are consumed. But the Barrow Wretch can simply curl up into a ball then double its movement speed. Terrifying!

I'll share two other examples from classic stories of monsters that hide as part of the landscape.


Excerpt from Novus Bestiary:

There is a story told in all lands throughout all history about an island which is the back of an enormous beast. In Greek, the beast is named Aspidochelone, which translates to “asp-turtle”, with Asp meaning shield. We have a clear description of the beast’s appearance and intentions from the Physiologus of Alexandria:

“the great sea-monster which is often unwillingly met, terrible and cruel-hearted to seafarers, yea, to everyman; this swimmer of the ocean-streams is known as the asp-turtle. His appearance is like that of a rough boulder, as if there were tossing by the shore a great ocean-reedbank begirt with sand-dunes, so that seamen imagine they are gazing upon an island…”

In Middle-Earth the beast is known as Fastitocalon. The famous adventurer-sailor Sinbad encounters the beast in his first voyage and knows it by the name Zaratan. St. Brendan survives an encounter with the beast and calls it Jasconius which is the same name used by the Planeswalkers.

The Exogorth (ie. The Space Slug)

Princess Leia: "The cave is collapsing!"
Han Solo: "This is no cave."

This journey into the belly of the beast first appeared in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. It's another classic mythological reference taken from Jonah and the Whale.

Every time I watch the scene, I smile. Watching realization dawning on Han's face, the mad scramble to escape, the realization that the "cave" they are hiding in is an unimaginably large monster... it's great stuff.

Check out this Fandom wiki for way too much information on the Exogorth, such as their fission-based reproductive mechanisms, or their rivalry with colossal wasps.

Highlight: Vortex Isles

Vortex Isles by Jim Hall for 5e and Cairn.
Get Vortex Isles and other Zines on the Brooklet Games Patreon.

This month I want to highlight Vortex Isles adventure by Brooklet Games. Brooklet Games produces TTRPG zines for 5e and Cairn on their Patreon. The wildly coloured layouts are really fun to look at and the simple layouts make the content a pleasure to run with.

An enormous, ever-swirling whirlpool traps the Vortex Isles, which spiral inside. These islands are the last refuge of pirates, bootleggers, and other scoundrels fleeing the prying eyes of the law. Only the brave—or reckless—settle on the deepest islands.

My favourite part of this zine is the simple ship mechanics. The setting can only be navigated with a ship, so it's fitting that the ships become a part of the game mechanics. Deteriorating hull strength adds tension and a timer to the experience - perfect for selling the feeling of a wild ocean vortex.

Stealing a ship, or convincing its captain, is the only way for the party to get around. Each ship has a hull strength indicating the number of extreme situations the ship can handle. If the hull strength is reduced to 0 the ship breaks, spilling all aboard into the water. A shipwright can restore a ship to its full strength.

Hack: Buy ads to hone your message

Paying for ads on platforms like Facebook does not work for many businesses. For paid ads to work, you need to make sure that the amount you spend to acquire a customer is lower than the amount you make from that customer.

The math is rough for low-cost products. Many of the indie RPG creations I write about here fall into this category. For example, if I am selling a 5e adventure for $4, but it takes me $40 worth of ad spending to get someone to actually click the ad and purchase it, then I've just lost $36. Sadly, this is the most common scenario.

So here's the hack: spend money on paid ads but change your goal from selling to learning. Modern ad platforms, like the one on Facebook, allow you to show different text and images very easily. You can put together a small budget - $60 or less is usually enough - and launch an ad with different messages. You can then look at what got clicks to figure out what message resonates the most, and bring those learnings to all your other marketing efforts.

Example: The Fishfolk in the Swamp for 5e

Let's say I'm selling a 5th edition adventure that is based in a swamp ruled by fishfolk. I'd start by thinking up 3 - 5 different potential selling points.

  1. Save $2 on this swampy-fishpunk adventure for 5th edition! (Focus on saving money)
  2. The swamp holds many secrets. Will you survive them? (Focus on building intrigue)
  3. Fishfolk have infested the swamps! Use unique tables to generate your own species. (Focus on unique fishfolk mechanic)

I'd then spend $20 - $60 to post the ad with all three messages. After a few thousand impressions, let's say that message #1 got the best click-through rate. Now I've learned something. I would rework my messages in other places to emphasize a time-limited deal and consider launching more discount offers to sell the adventure.

Here's the ad dashboard from Facebook. You can see here that message 1 is emerging as the clear winner.

The knowledge gained from small experiments like this pays itself back if you are willing to put in the work!

Note: If you decide to try this, be sure to learn the basics of Facebook advertising first. You'll want to know about audience targeting and what some of the acronyms mean. If you have questions, feel free to email me!

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