Fight On! #14 – Citadel of the Dark Trolls

Citadel of the Dark Trolls
Lee Barber

This is level 9 of the community Fight On Megadungeon The Darkness Beneath. It has nine locales in a large cavern system, with each of them expanded upon in to a number of keyed entries. Deep in its own mythology, it rivals the Ghoul Kingdom. And has no idea how to organize itself for play at the table. Ultimately, a disappointment.

Some of the upper levels of Darkness Beneath rank among my best of all time, including what I think of as THE best of all time, Level one. It’s simple, terse, non-standard and creates child-like wonder. I would argue that the Citadel of the Dark Trolls is has the most expectations of all the levels presented. That “dungeon map” that rides along with every Darkness Beneath level has had it staring us in the face for many years. Yeah, it’s not the LAST level, the Tomb of the Dark Lord remains there as desert, but Citadel has the kick ass name and the teaser right from level one, with the great doors on the underground highway. Lee has written something that lives up to the expectations set. It’s deep and rich and full of that hinted at mystery and mythology that Kingdom of the Ghouls (Baur) also did so well. You get a real sense for the place, and it’s not generic AT ALL. I have an issue with expectations and you can see that in many of my reviews. It’s not my most charming quality. But this dungeon met my expectations. It FEELS like the Citadel of the Dark Trolls.

The caverns have about nine major locales. These are large open areas and  the like, on a grand scale ala Descent in to the Depths of the Earth. Not really a hex crawl, but there’s a sense of large space/distance here. It’s a nod to the ecology and the “kingdom” of the dark trolls. Each locale is expanded upon, some more than others. There are fully keyed out locations, like the citadel proper, and then other locations that get more than a nod, like the troll “farmlands.” The hand-waving gets a little deep at the some places, like the farmlands/supporting “countryside” but it’s at a level that is about appropriate for something like this. It’s enough to give the DM something to work with, as a sideline if the party should flee there, for example, but I think also recognizes that this is not a 90 page supplement but rather one article/dungeon in a magazine with about 20 other articles in it also.

I’m going to concentrate on three points to the review, two minor and one major. First, I quibble with the overview map & key. Oh, did I say key? I mean, it doesn’t actually have a key. The “big map” has a hex-like map of nine locations, each with a number and a little embedded “#1 is the gatehouse” chart on the map. And then the main text has GATEHOUSE instead of “#1- Gatehouse.”I’ve seen a couple of adventures do this lately and I’m not sure where it’s coming from. (Since this was written a few years, I guess from this?) There’s this reliance on textual headers to convey location information. I don’t get it. How does that make it clearer? Maybe if magazine page numbers were on the chart also or something. But forcing me to fig through the text to find a one line offset entry for “GATEHOUSE” is not the way to earn “I am the friend to the DM” points.

Secondly, the linkages to the other levels seems a bit light. As an example, the gatehouse notes that the guards will let you through with a legitimate reason. Three are listed: legitimate bounty, an identifying item/pass, or you want to fight in the pit games. I know, all too well, how hard it is to link up a deeper level to an earlier one when you’re writing it at different times, and yet that’s the challenge to overcome.

Both of those are symptoms of a larger problem, the need to think about how the adventure will be run and orienting the writing and layout towards that. For example, on of the rooms at the gatehouse tells us what happens if people fly over the gatehouse. It’s the room with the giant ballista in it. Ok, that makes sense, in a way. But … isn’t it more likely that the party will just fly over the gatehouse and the DM will be left digging through the adventure looking at keys, ALL of the keys, to see what happens then? Why would you not put this information “up front” outside of the keys? That’s where the information is likely to be needed. Buried in room 23 of 76 would wouldn’t have a note about what happens if the party doesn’t visit the dungeon, would you?

But, the major issue is that I like to think this level is incomprehensible. Each and every room is so THICK and DENSE that you can’t make out what is going on and how it relates to the issue/room at hand. Rooms are a third of a column, or a column. Paragraph breaks are few and far between. I’m looking at room 2 of the gatehouse right now. It’s about half a column of text without bolding or paragraph breaks. There are long digressions in the rooms of things like:

“Skaemir was returned to the Citadel by posturing goblins, his lacerated flesh sliding from exposed bone. To chastise the troll nobles, Gorangol kept the Prince’s equipment, ate his Blood Thump, and demanded that a week-long party for her wild goblins be held at Dagendreng Hold, free of charge. While recovering, the angry Prince learned that the Shamans blamed an outbreak of disease on his combined failures to uphold prophecy.”

Uh, ok. I guess so. Is the middle of a room description the best place to put that fluff?

And fluff it is. Fluff after fluff after fluff. That section comes from a column and a half that describes fighting styles and other information. WITH ONE PARAGRAPH BREAK.That’s what this level is. It’s a fluff regional setting book. I don’t review those. Since fluff is solely inspiration, and I think that’s totally subjective (or, maybe, I don’t know how to review subjective shit) I don’t review fluff. I like it, and don’t mean fluff in a derogatory term, but it’s not an adventure.

This is 27 pages of fluff masquerading as an adventure. Ye Olde Pushbacke &| guidance seems to have been missing.

It’s fucking cool, but I’m currently running a game, not reading the background guide for a Tv series writer.

This is $8 on Lulu.

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11 Responses to Fight On! #14 – Citadel of the Dark Trolls

  1. squeen says:

    I bought it when Ola Jostein Jørgensen suggested it. Thought the scope was really impressive. I like where OSR content is going—beyond lairs and modules, it has really opened up into larger sandboxes of play. This product is ambitious!

    However, as Byrce points out, it’s probably too difficult for play as written. In OD&D pulp fiction drove the imagination of the DM who then used it to flesh out the written sketch of an adventure in an improvisational manner. The prose-like background does help the DM if he/she first reads the adventure as a novel, but then “clogs the arteries” of play. It’s a bit of a conundrum that the OSR hasn’t quite worked its way through yet. Bryce’s point from the previous review is a good one: it’s Technical Writing. Tough stuff.

    Thanks again. Collectively, this blog is the search-engine of OSR modules.

  2. Clear and to the point, as always. I swear I’ve learned more about both DM’ing and writing adventures from reading tenfootpole than any other single resource I can think of.

  3. in praise of garbage persons says:

    writing a usable adventure is not rocket science and there are many good summaries of best practices all over the web. there are no barriers to entry in the market, though, so it gets flooded with garbage. bryce’s real use is that he’s willing to walk around in the garbage all day.

  4. Oh man that brings back memories of drawing the side view of Darkness Beneath

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      Did you do that? I LUV that drawing! I can never remember the name of the Brackenfells, though. I always think of it as The Bleakmarsh. It’s a fixture in every game I run, DB or not!

      • Robert Conley says:

        Thanks, it was fun drawing a side profile. I need to look over my Fight Ons sometime and see if I can draw a version with some more little pictures. At the time I drew I think only one or two levels were out.

        As an easter egg I always try to include that profile of a eagle soaring when I draw a side profile.

  5. Handy Haversack says:

    No one has ever extracted the Darkness Beneath levels from Fight On! and published separately, right?

  6. Gus L. says:

    Well the name suggests it’s a very OSR product…

  7. labsenpai says:

    After more than 5 years, I’m shocked to see FO14 and my second Darkness Beneath level get a review. I’ll admit to dense, 1st edition writing, although the formatting within the magazine pages was the work of editor Calithena. My original text, with breaks and text bolding, was left only partially intact. Placement of maps and other information was also not under my control. A major decision of mine was to treat the Citadel as a “sub-area” of another level called the Deep Caves, detailed in FO 12. The introduction to the Trolls was there, but not detailed. Since the Trolls are the overlords of surrounding levels, their participation in the adventure is often elsewhere. The digression passage is technically part of a monster background, and in one of the areas where all such major-domos are encountered. If I could have one wish granted, it is that all the authors of DB could meet and redesign it.

  8. Von Allan says:

    Hey Bryce,

    I don’t think that is necessarily correct. Why? Because I don’t think Alex Schroeder’s level (“Caverns of Slime” or Level 13) ever saw print. Alex noted this at https://alexschroeder.ch/wiki/2012-11-26_Caverns_of_Slime and posted the entire thing at https://alexschroeder.ch/wiki/Caverns_of_Slime

    There’s some discussion on the OD&D Discussion forums about this at http://odd74.proboards.com/thread/13298/random-announcement

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