Somewhere in Frostreave… “Ever since we left that so-called town at the edge of the land of eternal ice, I’ve been freezing my butts off! And no trace of that were-whatever-thing we’re supposed to hunt down. Our best scout, Halross, says she’s been passing here, into this valley, but I get a bad feeling from all this silence, frost and snow. It’s empty here. No animals. No tracks. No nothing, but ice and snow. It’s not natural… And now we’re stuck in this cave. The blizzard has lasted two days now, and our supplies are almost gone. Hell, I’d give a sack of gold for a cold ale and a hot wench in my lap right now. I can smell the fear of the others – die of starvation or disgust here, or freeze to death out there. And some other not so pleasant smells too… Some choice, huh? Maybe we can roast that gnome’s pony? Would have been nice with some food now… Or, we just roast the gnome… Everyone’s on the edge. No sign of the blizzard waning either. I reckon someone will snap soon… Well, not me. Guess it’s time we get moving…”
This is a short fifteen room tomb complex, mostly linear, in the frozen north. It’s got some decently unique monsters and magic, but it resembles some cross between Tomb of Horrors and Grimtooth more than a dungeon adventure. The adversarial vibe from Tomb of Horrors is present here as well, and it’s something I’ve always had a hard time getting into.
It starts off well enough: “General feel: Dark, cold. Everything is covered in a thin layer of frost. Not disturbed for ages. Faint smell of decay in the stale air. All areas are either cut out of the bedrock or natural caves. The doors are made of hard wood and locked or barred. All scribblings are in an archaic form of Old Elvish.“ That’s some pretty good inspirational text. It sets mood in a very good way. You can build off of that, getting into the right frame of mind to expand the room descriptions. Then it immediately drops off at the first room. About a half page of text to describe a cave with a body in it and a secret door in the back wall. And it’s not good description either. It has advice like “(easy perception roll)” and “Close to the corpse there’s a small triangular opening in the stone wall, leading into the depths of the rock. (average perception roll)” It goes on. A lot. This is a really great example of an unfocused writing style. It’s very conversational. It’s trying to provide atmosphere, and rules, and facts, and inspiration, but it’s not really doing much of any of that very well. Spurious text like “close to the corpse” doesn’t really give us anything to work with, it’s more like a boring fact. “Embedded in its bloody hand” does a much better job, if it is even required. The description is more like a stream of consciousness outpouring from the writer. It’s a decent start, for a first draft, but needs a polish to focus the writing, to dig into what’s important and improve it and drop the rest. Most of the rooms in the adventure are like that.
The grimtooth/Tomb of Horrors vibe turns me off also. It’s a pretty strong reaction from me, and I’m sure I’m prejudiced against this sort of dungeon. A pool of water in a natural cave that’s actually acid, or a sodium ball that drops into a pool of water to explode. Lots of levers to pull to make certain things happen. I like all of these elements, separately, but when put together in a “Challenge” style tomb I start to react badly. I think it’s the whole “the dungeon builder/wizard wants to test you” thing that I loathe, and this resembles that if you squint enough.
The dungeon is pretty linear. The map looks like a Logos-style map, but is’ pretty linear with a couple of offshoot corridors with more empty rooms and “challenges.” It’s not really large enough to stretch your legs in or to get that feeling of dread from not knowing what’s down the road not taken.
It does a decent job with the monsters and the treasure. It’s new monsters and treasure, which is always nice to see. The descriptions are a bit wanting though. “As normal skeletons, but armed with norse weapons.” Not exactly inspiring. Spectral skeletons dripping with ectoplasm (a different monster) is a bit better.
The ending has the undead king arise, 10 turns later, and begin to summon an army of the dead. The beginning has the party find a cross that is used as a kind of key to open some of the doors/traps in the complex. Both of those elements are pretty decent. It’s the middle that suffers a lot. The conversational style leads to the lack of focus in the descriptions, resulting in boring instead of inspiring.