Dungeon Magazine #18

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These early Dungeons seem rife with the Wall of Text issue. Far, far too many times the wall of text doesn’t add anything useful to help the DM run the adventure and is simply useless background and history. This ends up being distracting and makes it harder to find the important bits during the game. There seems to be this mania to describe ancient history and provide explanations as to WHY something is going on. LONG explanations. Explaining something kills the mystery & wonder.
Irongard
Ed Greenwood
AD&D
Levels 1-3

This is a short five room exploration of a wizards lair. It starts by doing everything wrong that I loathe in an adventure hook: a railroad hook. While walking through a marketplace the group sees a wizard sitting on a backpack. Then he just disappears, leaving his pack behind. If the characters mess with the pack then the wizard reappears, accuses them of looting his pack, and curses them. If the party doesn’t mess with the pack then the wizards reappears and curses them. If the characters attack him … well … he has 80 bajillion protection spells cast. and if brought to 6hp or less he instantly teleports away, and, if the DM wants, all attacks against him have no effect. It seems like this goes on and on and on. What’s the point of this? Why all of the justification for protecting the wizard when, in fact, you just end up saying “nah, you can’t kill him.” It’s a lame railroad hook and it’s a lame “DM fiat” wizard.

The adventure, proper, isn’t bad. It does have the usual “WAYYYYYY too much text to describe something simple” problem. What it does have is a lot of unique little items and decent little scenarios. I am a big big fan of the vibe that OD&D brings. There’s a certain mystery and wonder that I associate with (a good) OD&D adventure. It’s almost like you travel back in time to the first time you’ve ever played D&D .What’s that?!! A secret door behind a staircase?! A monster!!!! What’s it doing! EEEK! Things that are NOT from the books, magic items and monsters mostly, help deliver that vibe. This adventure does that. There are, to be sure, monsters and magic items from the books but also more than few that are not. Healing potions that make you glow blue. A staff with feather fall and light powers, and a 1 helm that face plate that phases in. These are good items, at least compared to the normal book items that infect these early Dungeon Magazines. Magic items should communicate wonder and mystery, not be a victorian-era listing of predictably catalogued powers. This adventure tries. There’s also some decent imagery in the adventure. A great statue marks the entrance, with a stone slab to be shoved aside. There’s a skeleton on a throne … there’s flying daggers and stirge in a box. I know! I know! It sounds hackneyed! They are, instead, classics, and I love the classics. The difference is that Greenwood provides enough visual imagery in his writing that the scene comes alive in your mind. The descriptions appeal to all of that deep down buried memory in your mind and dredges it up. The scene comes alive in your mind and you start to fill in detail yourself. THAT’S what an adventure description should do. It’s taken a little description and made it possible for you, the DM, to expand on it and riff off of it and, in turn, communicate the awesome to the players. This does that.

This is a short adventure with too much text to do what it tries to do, as was the style at the time. Greenwood does a good job on the rooms and most of the treasures.
Whitelake Mine
Willie Walsh
AD&D
Levels 2-4

This is a hunting expedition in a lake to kill a giant pike that ends with an attack on a marrow lair. The gnomes are mining gemstones on the lake floor with a diving bell, the pike recently showed up and the group is hired to get rid of it. In spite of a large amount of text the gnomes and their village are not really described in any meaningful way. There’s no magic, no mystery, no alien culture, no cute little customs. Just a couple of names and some throw-away text. It doesn’t help that there’s a gnomish inventor involved and I LOATHE LOATHE LOATHE that trope. There’s just not enough interesting detail about the gnomes to help a DM bring them alive. The lake has a similar problem. While it’s supposed to be the central focus of the adventure, with the characters given a full week to explore and solve the problem of the pike, there’s just no detail about the lake at all. There’s a throw-away wandering monster table that adds nothing to the adventure at all. The lake portion, along with the map provided, is completely useless, it adds noting beyond the central pretext for the adventure. The marrow lair isn’t too terrible, with livestock grazing and mushroom rooms, and dung buckets … but it feels like a lair for a group of LAND ogres, not aquatic ogres. There’s a couple of pools of water in the cave, but that’s really the only aquatic call out. The ogres are given names, and personalities, but their personalities are just ‘kill everyone’ and they are given no pretext to interact with the party. That’s a sad waste.

There’s nothing here to help the DM run a gnome adventure. Or a lake adventure. Or a marrow adventure. Or any monsters or treasures that are not just straight out of the book. For all its size its bland and lacks detail … which seems to the the style of the time.
Tallow’s Deep
Steve Gilbert & Bill Slavicek
AD&D
Levels 4-7

This is a 35 room adventure through a goblin lair. Miners broke through to the goblin caves, got slaughtered, and a guard party has disappeared. The party is sent in to deal with the puny goblins. The twist is that these goblins are played intelligently, in both tactics and in lair defense/traps. This turns in to a Tucker’s Kobolds type of adventure, with a scattering of Grimtooth and a finale battle with 85 goblins in the common room. A decent amount of the page text is given over to goblin hit-and-run tactics and several of the rooms have a third dimension to them. Both of these are fine additions and something I wish more designers would do. The goblins have a reaction matrix, with who responds where under what conditions and how the lair changes when it’s on alert. The third dimension, through ledges, two story rooms, sme-level stairs, and the like, offers both tactical options to the characters and the goblins as well as providing the confusion, or, perhaps, lack of certainty, that I find is critical for keeping players in the dark. Players want to stamp out all uncertainty and weird mapping works against that, thus contributing to the apprehension that is so critical to setting mood. This is a tactical adventure, and little else. There’s not much to investigate, and not much unusual of different about the lair (except for the traps) except for an encounter or two at the beginning with some random monsters that have been thrown in. This is much more of a ‘realistic’ goblin lair, and will be extremely deadly if the party is not prepared for that. Some of the traps seem a little forced, aka: The Grimtooth Factor, but are not beyond the realm of possibility for creatures defending their home. Dropping giant centipedes on the characters heads through holes in the ceiling, for example, and similar use of dungeon pests, appeals to me, as does the use of the goblins breaking a dam to flood the party out. This should have a very claustrophobic feel, just as Balin’s Tomb does in Fellowship, and even goes so far as to include rhythmic drumming. This one is all about that feel of a slog through vietnam war claustrophobia.

 

Crocodile Tears
Marcus L. Rowland
AD&D OA
Levels 4-6

I like OA adventures. I can’t stand the game but I love the adventures; the talking animals and demons and celestial bureaucracy stuff has such a fairy tale feel to it … and I LOVE a fairy tale feel. It works directly against the typical BE A HERO/BOOK-STANDARD D&D vibe from the time period. This adventure has the party venturing in to a cursed village to win a bet. Along the way they run in to a variety of situations right out folklore, all with the usual (WONDERFUL) OA vibe. I even like the hooks and I almost NEVER like the hooks in adventures. In this one there’s a great two-fer offered in which the characters are tasked by their lord to keep their eyes & ears open for unusual things in the province since there are rumors of rebellion afoot. OR the party could be from a neighboring province and keeping their eyes & ears open for THAT lord, looking for signs of weakness to he can invade. For some reason these just strike me as excellent hooks. It’s a decent pretext for the party being together, being in the area, and investigating things, all without the entire set up being too forced. Anyway, the group meets a couple of asshole in a inn, neer-do-weels pretending to be travelers. But, rather than just being of your usual D&D-adventure murderous types, they are just jerks to the party, and after introducing the concept of a cursed village nearby, bet the characters they won’t go. Honor and cold hard ch’ien are at stake AND the party is supposed to be looking in to freaky shit in the province. Multiple pretexts! Not the best of hooks, those appeal directly to the players rather than the characters, but still very good. There’s a little sub-plot about everyone finding someone to hold the stakes while the party goes off to bring back the signboard of the inn in the cursed village. (I LOVE the bit about the signpost. It’s so simple and just feels right as the way to prove you’ve been somewhere.)

There are five or so encounters on the way to the cursed village, but only two are really meaningful. They do pack a punch though. One is a peasant woman who warns the party to danger ahead … who is actually a ghost … but not a malicious one … unless the party are jerkfaces. That’s a very fairy tale thing to do. Similarly, there’s a gorge with a cut rope bridge, forcing the party to go over a ford at the base, where a kappa lives. A kappa that loves cucumber. This is one of those great talking animal encounters straight out of folklore. Be nice, put up with it and flatter it and offer it gifts and get off free. Be a jerkface and face the monsters wrath. This is how almost EVERY intelligent creature encounter should be in D&D. The cursed village has more good encounters, from a trapped baby tako caught in a bear trap to old mud-covered buildings and dead samurai with warnings, and, of course, the giant crocodiles of the adventure title. The final battle with the crocs could use a little more detail and a little more set-piece build up. The village is decently described but not generally in a way that assist in running a “the party is fighting a giant croc that is crashing through and demolishing buildings” kind of way.

The OA adventures in Dungeon have been a high-point for me, generally successfully delivering that folklore/fairy tale/non-standard feel that I prefer in my D&D.

 

Chadrather’s Bane
AD&D
Paul Hancock
Levels 4-6

This is a wilderness/area adventure while the party is shrunk down to 1/50th their normal size. Unlike most Dungeon fair this is not a plat based or linear-ish dungeon crawl but rather a far more open sandboxy style location that can be dropped in … in spite of the central concept of “shrunken party.” While its certainly possible to drop in almost any adventure to any game, this adventure, and the subgenre it belongs to, do it much much better. It’s closer to having a small region described, with lots going on in it, than a single location. It’s this concept of “lots of things going on around this place” that gives the place the air of realism and open-ended play that I so very much enjoy. I believe the old word, since co-opted, is “module.”

The adventure revolves around an out of the way wayhouse and its surrounding plot of land. Everyone who stays n the area more than 30 minutes get shrunken down. There’s a massively long and convoluted (five or six pages) backstory and explanation of the shrinking effect, which really just boils down to “the group is short now. So is a lot of their stuff.” The absurdly long introduction, background, history, and shrinking details can scare you off but you should stick with it, the adventure get good. This mania for describing things and making them make sense is something I don’t understand. I get the suspension of disbelief thing; too much and or breaking the rules you’ve laid down make the players roll their eyes. This is something else though that seems very common from the 80’s onward: some manic desire to explain WHY. You don’t need to explain why. You’re the DM. It works that way because of magic. Elves walk around and fart fireballs. You don’t need to explain, as this adventure does, that a living force surrounds everyone and rubs off on their gear and that all that stuff gets shrunk down but not other living stuff because blah blah blah … just let it go man. You’re not being arbitrary by saying “a magic item in the fountain shrink people and their stuff.” That’s all you need.

Anyway, there are 20 or so locations described in various degrees of details, some with a dozen or so more rooms/places described in them. IE: The giant rat tunnels is one of the 20 and the tunnels might consists of a dozen or so more chambers The net effect is the building up of a kind of miniature world (get it! get it! MINIATURE! I MADE A FUNNY) of locations to visit, each with something going on. Faction. Play. Or, rather, something that could be faction play with a little work. Essentially there’s a big boss man running a little kingdom and then there are a bunch of other groups kind of hanging around the edges of the kingdom, and then several other locations to visit. You end up getting this kind of Flash Gordon/Mongo vibe, with a bunch of little kingdoms either ignored or loosely allied with Ming, but no one really happy but Ming … and Ming has his own plans. All of these groups provides a possibility for a depth of play rarely seen in Dungeon. Little of this is explicitly called out in the adventure, nor is the drone of that old favorite “they attack immediately” appealed to … too much anyway. Instead you have goblin tribes, wild elves, halfling villages, the big bads Bartertown-lite, and several other groups and NPC about in the area of the inn & gardens. I would have preferred it if a little more emphasis had been given to the social aspects/possibilities, but for the time period I think this is a home run in the “social adventure that is not some lame forced masquerade ball” genre.

I could go on at length. Goblin rapelling down form the rafters on ropes. Giants cracks in the floor under which live huge rats. A hidden staircase carved in to a table leg. A 200 foot tall fountain … jerkface gnomes, a grape press for making wine … the miniature world element is not lost nor is it overplayed. If you were looking for some inspiration and maybe a little project, I would suggest this one.

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6 Responses to Dungeon Magazine #18

  1. Nexusphere says:

    My current theory is tha many players are autism spectrum, meaning it is _very important_ that things “make sense”.

    I imagine that any adventure they published that didn’t have that explanation would cause them to get many letters. Have you been reading the letters column?

  2. I don’t know why, but I didn’t collect Dungeon Magazine when it came out UNTIL this issue. I purchased it for Chadranther’s Bane, a great adventure and one I hope to run again. I used the “Irongard” scenario to launch a long-long campaign (and thus ignoring the hook as I mentioned before).

  3. Anonymous says:

    Well reviewed. Please keep them coming.

  4. As Gnarley said, with nearly any Greenwood adventure (which are usually pretty good) just ignore the overlong and detailed backstory and hooks and railroads and just use the meat of the adventure as written. I’ve used Ironguard a couple times as a stand-alone wilderness encounter and it has been a favorite.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I understand your issue with railroading the adventurers, however, these are only short adventures, designed for the magazine. There are practical reasons for this, such as only being allotted so many pages in a magazine. These are not designed to be sandbox adventures. I am more than certain that Ed Greenwood is capable of writing something which you wouldn’t find so limiting.

  6. -C says:

    The fact that they are short and space limited makes it more absurd for writers to spend time explaining reasons behind things and ways to force the players on the adventure.

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