By G. Hawkins Self-published OSRIC Levels 1-10+
Gunderholfen… Ancient, abandoned dwarf hold, battleground of arch-liches, cultist base, wizards’ playground, heroes’ bane and treasure-seekers’ tomb. Gunderholfen is a classic, old school exploratory sandbox-style mega-dungeon consisting of ten levels, a mini-campaign setting and one demi-plane.
This is a 420 page megadungeon with 930 locations, ten levels, and numerous sub-levels. About half the page count deails rooms, seven or so we page, while the rest is supporting information like maps, a town, NPC’s, wanderers, etc. Your satisfaction with this is going to best translate with how you feel about B2’s minimal Caves of Chaos descriptions. If you liked that then you’ll like this.
Let’s talk about those chaos caves a bit. From a usability standpoint, Gygax keeps the text pretty tight. The text is one step beyond minimalism. A monster, their tactics, and a treasure. There is generally a short one or two sentences of room description beyond that for most rooms and they tend to be plain. “The room is carpeted, has tapestries on the walls and battered but still serviceable furniture and a cot.” or maybe “There are two cots, a bench, a stool, and a large box (filled with soiled clothing) in the room.” Interactivity involves some implied social bargaining, pit traps, pressure plates for the most part. I’m sure nostalgia clouds me somewhat, but I think B2 is one of the better classic adventures. Not great, but not odious and the text doesn’t get in the way.
The same sort of things are to be found in this adventure. A focus on the monsters and their tactics. A little more explicit social in the dungeons. For the most part a light touch on interactivity with exploratory elements. Short and “normal” descriptions. B2 comes off as combat heavy and so does this.
Let’s look at one of the descriptions: “11. Kitchen (i) A blazing fireplace stands against the north wall while a large grate in the floor occupies the north- west corner. Kobolds are placing mushrooms and dead rats into a huge iron pot in the fireplace.” Two sentences. A ‘blazing’ fireplace but also a ‘large’ grate showing both the use of more colorful language and generic words (large, old, big, red, small, etc.) This is the way of the room description for this adventure, a sentence or two that are not overly evocative. Serviceable. Another room tells us that “This room is lavishly furnished with expensive pillows and silk blankets.”
In addition to a small room description there is also generally a monster stat block and a section on their tactics that tend to take up most of the text for a room. This will also contain some reaction text, like running to room X to get help and so on.
Interactivity tends to the pressure plate kind. A pressure plate opens a hole in a wall. Search a pit to find a ruby. Pull a lever to open/close/disarm something. There are some notes here an there about parlay. I’d say it’s sparsely interactive with more interesting exploratory elements even rarer. And that matches my memory of B2 pretty well also.
It makes a good college try of supporting the DM. The short room descriptions, and explicit easily read monster tactics offset with stat blocks makes scanning the room easy. It does a good job providing some supplemental information, like multiple NPC parties to encounter in the dungeon. Other rooms contains important DM details like, in a room with a rope bridge: “The bridge can be cut through in two rounds.” IE: text oriented towards supporting the DM during play. There are a multitude of rumors and side-quests to pick up in town to add some extra depth to play. Wandering events in town are interesting enough. “A group of beggars flees through the street pursued by a City Watch patrol and an angry noble yelling ‘get that filth away from my daughter’” Likewise, rooms note if they are illuminated or not with a small (i) after their name.
All the writing, editing, maps and art are done by the designer. That’s quite a feat! The writing is not bad, neither absolute minimalism or overblow/overwrought. The editing and layout are not bad either. Layout and formatting change as needed by the situation. The art is even above average and quite charming. At one point I was thinking “this needs an side-view” and there, on the next page, was a side-view illustration instantly cementing what the text was trying to describe. No serious mistakes are made. For a one-man show that’s a great accomplishment!
The maps here tend to the smaller side of things. Maybe thirty-ish rooms per map. It’s hard to provide a good exploratory environment with a small map, with exploration being a key element for megadungeons. Rappen Athuk can be like this at times, as is Black Maw. It’s not a deal breaker, but more commentary on the difficulty of exploration play style elements on a constrained map. I will note, though, the light situation. While the room text notes the illumination level of each room, the map does not. I think that’s a missed opportunity. Being able to tell the party what they see down three corridors, by looking at a “light” nortation on a map instead of running back to look up multiple rooms in the text, would have been a good extra use of the map. Like, noise, etc … if its obvious ahead of time then the map is a good place to help out with that. [Edit: It was pointed out I was wrong about the light. It IS on the map, and on the legend also. I tend to not look at legends, and it IS a little non-obvious on the maps, but once you “get it” it’s easily spotted and not an issue. IE: it’s only an issue for idiots who don’t look at the legend.]
The levels are themed and some come across better than other. Level 6, with a wizard lab, picks up a bit and things do tend to get weirder and more complex as you go deeper than this level. There’s also some individual designer voice in places with several items giving bonuses by also negative reaction rolls for looking like a pansy, or another item with Flatulent Fury. A little authorial voice can add to the flavour of an adventure, helping it stand out from the crowd and have its own voice. Even if its crude.
Overall, tending to the plain and combat heavy side of the spectrum. But it’s not a total hack and it’s not Vampire Queen minimalistic. Or even B2 minimalistic.
And thus I’m back around again to B2. If you liked 2 then you’ll probably like this. If you don’t like B2 then you probably won’t like this. RLM was reviewing Gidzilla and Dark Phoenix. They noted that they were ok movies, but there didn’t seem to be room anymore for ok movies. Given something like this adventure I can understand where they are coming from. This isn’t a bad adventure. In fact, from one person, I’d say it’s a major accomplishment in their life and a credit to them for seeing it through as well as they did. I note, also, the use by RLM of “room.” There’s no room anymore. And therein is the issue. Just about every adventure ever published is now available to everyone. And then there are dozens more a week being published. In that environment, if even a small percentage are good then there’s little room for ok materials. I might choose Rappen for a megadungeon, if I was only buying one. But this is also better than Stone Thief or the draft or Autarch version of Dwimmermount because of tersity and exploration. Adding this to a game is going to be similar to adding Stonehell, but with a smaller map. I’m having trouble getting excited about it and recommending it, but its clearly not terrible either, making it better than 95% of adventure written. I would probably insert it in to “DungeonLand” campaign as yet another megadungeon alongside DB, RA, SH, and BM.
So, a B2 megadungeon. Is that what you are looking for?
This is $10 at DriveThru. The preview is 18 pages with the last five or so showing you the first rooms in the dungeon. They are fairly typical for most dungeon rooms so you’ll be able to get a good idea what to expect from the preview. There’s a separate link on DriveThru for the maps if you want to preview them.