The Tomb of Harven Half-Skull

By Joseph Bloch
BRW Games
Levels 3-4

A hundred years ago, the pirate king Harven Half-Skull was buried with his ill-gotten booty in a secret tomb. Your band of adventurers have a map that claims to show the final resting place of the pirate king, and you’re off to claim his loot. But the dead do not rest easy…

This ten page tomb dungeon has twenty two rooms in three pages, and features undead and water themes, it being the tomb off a pirate king. Workmanlike in its design and presentation, it does a good job of emulating the style of the early AD&D adventures: short rooms with not much fucking around in the writing.

The pyramid tomb is a favorite of designers. Except this time it’s not a pyramid but a sea cave And it’s not egyptian but a pirate. But, still, tomb with undead, traps and some loot.

This adventure emulates the style of the older AD&D adventure, G1, S1, and so on. The descriptions are workmanlike and to the point. The rooms are not too complicated, te writing not that inspired, and everything with a briske style.Room six tells us “There is a colony of green slime on the ceiling at this point.” and that’s it. The underground river tells us that “This is a fresh-water river that flows into the sea a half-mile northeast of the tomb. Except in areas #7, #10, and #16-19, there is no air above the surface; the river completely fills the tunnels. It has a slow current moving from the southwest to the northeast.” I don’t know how to label this style. It’s not exactly fact-based, I tend to use that (negatively) for styles that emphasize things like “the statue sits on a dias 6.3cm high with a diameter of 2.6 meters.” It’s not expanded minimalism either; that’s reserved for people who offer too many mundane details in their room descriptions. This is, insead, a kind of, oh, I don’t know, baseline room description? It tends to the terse style, concentrates on what you need to run the room, mostly, and doesn’t tend to embellish much at all.

It is that lack of embellishment that I have problems with. Adventure writing is such a tightrope. There are so many ways to go wrong. The adventure does nothing wrong (mostly). It also does nothing to recommend itself. This style, and thus this adventure, does nothing to make me want to run it. It comes off ass … dry? Dry isn’t right, that’s a different design sin. I just don’t care about it. This is clearly not a disaster, I don’t feel cheated (as I usually do when I’m spouting profanity.) My expectations have not been crushed. I just don’t care about running this. I know there’s a segment out there that worships early T$R adventures and like this style. I don’t get it. It seems like nostalgia worship to me. I don’t need laser pistols, gonzo elements or grim dark to make me like something, but you gotta have SOMETHING … and that’s what this lacks. Something to make you want to run it.

I can quibble with some of the choices made. That green slime encounter is nothing special AT ALL. I’d like to see it kicked up a bit, a little more evocative, better word choices. Certain rooms (Fresco Room, I’m looking at you. You too Shrine Room) could use another pass at the editing to tighten up the descriptions. They either get too wordy or they don’t put the most important things near the top of the description. [Things the DM needs first go high in the description and expanded details go lower.] I don’t see an editor attached. If that’s the case then Joe did a decent job by himself, and clearly has some vision of what he wants, but lacks the outside eyeballs and detachment that a good editor can provide. Not that there are many good editors, so I’m speaking academically of course.

It’s pretty clear Joe understands how certain D&D elements work. There is a chamber you can only get to by following the (completely submerged) underground river … with a shelf high up with a body and a magic item. In another area there are keys hanging underneath a bridge the party crosses over. Rewarding exploration and people that go a little bit farther is good design. Likewise, he’s got a golden crown with jewels with magic powers … and has an EGO/is intelligent … and a bit evil. This is a great item. First, it;s the kind of thing that the part will keep and adds to the fun of future adventures as someone wears it around all the time, in town, in the tavern etc. Second, it’s intelligent, which again gives you more hooks in the future to play with. Third, its evil and so the party has some FUN moral issues to sort out. Arguing about orc babies is not fun. What to do with a SLIGHTLY evil magic item IS fun. Or maybe that’s just my obsession is the Eye and Hand.

I will say that there is something weird going on with the undead; I don’t think they are a challenge? This is for Adventures Dark and Deep, which I’m going to assume is an AD&D clone and follows AD&D turning. This is also for levels 3-4 … and has more than a few challenges with skeletons in it. Don’t they turn on like a … 4 or something, or auto-turn? That’s not really an encounter at all … but maybe its supposed to be that way? Turning undead in D&D doesn’t work, I think. Even at low levels skeletons are not a threat if you have a cleric. That’s too bad. They are a classic monster and deserve more love. Even Gygax knew they were broken, with his +1 amulets in the Borderlands.

Anyway, hey Joe, time to return from your vaudeville show. Now that you can emulate old D&D you might try kicking things up a bit. Kick up those rooms descriptions a notch or two. No need for more words, generally, just better word choice. That green slime encounter, for example. A little more evocative to make people excited to run it .. .by which I mean putting a strong image in to their heads.

This is $2.50 at DriveThru. The preview is one page and show you the first eight or so rooms. Which is exactly what a preview SHOULD do, giving you the ability to understand what you’re actually buying. You can check out the Fresco room, room three, to see what I mean about the need to tighten up the writing in places, and the rest of the rooms show the workmanlike writing style.

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15 Responses to The Tomb of Harven Half-Skull

  1. YouDontMessWithTheJeff says:

    Count me as one who likes old TSR modules emulation so I’ll give this one a look. Yeah, it’s part nostalgia, I can admit that but as long as it’s well done, it fits a need/desire for me. I also enjoy the more gonzo stuff too. Different strokes….

  2. Gus L says:

    I find making the basic undead the ‘Wight’ or as I like to call then ‘Revenant’ while reserving skeletons for trap like purposes (pit of 100 skeletons, room piled with bones that arise if you mess wth something, as an obstacle/puzzle) gives the unliving a bit more ompf. Of course who follow their own advice?

  3. That is the biggest quandary when designing undead-heavy dungeons. The Turn tables are brutally pro-cleric. 😉

  4. Melan says:

    The turning tables were probably designed when most D&D games were still on the low levels. If your advancement scheme is a pyramid (ha!) with a lot of first-levelers dropping dead to support the increasingly fewer higher-level PCs standing on the growing mound of corpses, the tables are fair.

    We played in an E6-style OD&D campaign that lasted two years and did this (in an undead-infested magical castle, too), and it worked. But with AD&D and its power/level boost, the balance is off, and you need to get increasingly tricky with encounter design.

  5. Shuffling Wombat says:

    One possibility is to have the undead attack from several different directions at once, although PCs might thwart this with an intelligent formation. However why not have skeletons come burrowing out
    of the floor/walls, in the midst of the party.

    • Mixed undead types are the secret; by rule turn attempts affect the weakest sorts first.

      • Shuffling Wombat says:

        That is certainly a good idea for making the “boss undead” a challenge (as Gus L also notes below). I would always rule the weakest undead are turned first, but I think some of the TSR D+D rule sets are clearer than others that this is the intention.

  6. Ya, I’m struggling right now with skeletons and turning for an adventure I got cooked up. It makes sense that skeletons are there…but not much of an encounter for levels 5-8…but at the same time, I don’t want to completely gimp the cleric’s powers/abilities because that’s uncool. But after reading some of these comments, like Shuffling Wombat’s above…maybe it’s ok if a battle with skeletons isn’t challenging–instead, maybe the encounter is designed to set a tone. Skeletons climbing out of the walls and floor is pretty cool and if done right, may still have players on the edge of their seats for the creepy factor.

    • Shuffling Wombat says:

      My (possibly imperfect) understanding of turning undead in TSR D+D is that the cleric “needs to perform a Hammer House of Horror Peter Cushing action”, that is strongly present a holy symbol as an attack. It makes sense for such an attack to be in a limited arc, certainly no more than, say, 120 degrees. Now attacks from all directions are more dangerous: can the fighters keep the undead away from the magic-users and thieves until the cleric has a chance to turn undead that are initially behind him/her?
      There are also some differences in the exact rules for turning whether you are playing Holmes, Moldvay, Cook, Mentzer, IE or 2E. The same is probably true for retroclones. (I only have Labyrinth Lord of these.)

    • Shuffling Wombat says:

      A few more thoughts: (i) you might use the Lichway/Death Frost Doom device of non-attacking skeletons all lined up that animate in large numbers if the PCs take certain actions; (ii) the Crypt of Morgrath has some good ideas for using undead, particularly bone arrows which grow into razortooth skeletons if they miss; (iii) Barrowmaze has some nice variant undead.

  7. Gus L. says:

    The other thing to remember about classic turning is that intelligent and semi-intelligent undead can likely (really the rules are a bit vague) use weaker undead to hide behind. A cleric’s turning will target the weakest dead first, and it generally has some upper limit to the numbers it can turn/destroy. A smart vampire (or specter – even a wight or ghoul) might keep a mess of skeletons or zombies about just do the human wave thing and take any turning attempts.

    The undead are also strategically terrifying. The dead don’t creath or get bored – skeletons can hide in a river crossing for years, a trap set by a necromancer at every stream in his domain to tear up invader’s horses. The drowned dead of my Apollyon setting enjoy using undead shark heads as a trap – just dump several of the things on anyone coming through a door. Ghoul packs don’t sleep and can yip and circle out of arrow range until thier victim’s sleep. A skeleton army can outmarch a human one mercilessly. Tactically this stuff works as well – the undead can hide really well – the smart ones are really likely to get surprise – incorporeal dead don’t need to stay and fight, they can just drift through a wall, attack and drift back. A wizard with darkness can make a light eating section of hallway filled with skeletons that attack, or even trigger other traps against the blind who attempt to walk through.

    If as the GM you imagine yourself as a very angry, very bored (presumably) 1,000 year old wight king trying to protect your barrow the damn thing turns into Tomb of Horrors pretty quick.

    • Heh, either that…or the wight king leaves the door open and invites people to come in and destroy him already because he is so bored!! OMG please…I’m right here!! But with your example..ya..there might even be some crushed bones and whatnot with traps being experimented, etc. Good stuff!

  8. Edgewise says:

    I think the Lamentations rules have an easy fix: make Turn Undead into a spell. Or at least have the cleric expend spell slots to cast it.

  9. allan grohe says:

    If you don’t like the baseline turning chances too heavily-favoring the cleric (particularly at higher levels), then the alternate turning progression outlined in the DMG on page 76 is worth checking-out.

    Jeff over on Knights & Knaves did a nice layout for it in the DMG fonts/style @ (it was part of some extended discussion around alterate turning rules @


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