The Hole in the Oak

By Gavin Norman
Necrotic Gnome
Levels 1-2

A hole in an old oak tree leads characters down to a maze of twisting, root-riddled passageways, the chambers of an ancient wizard-complex, and the banks of an underground river where once a reptile cult built their temples.

This 32 page adventure describes a sixty room dungeon with a bit of a fanciful air to it. Pretty well organized, things to talk to, some interactivity, and decently evocative writing makes this one worth checking out.

Usability. Gavin has his format down. He’s used it several times now and he’s getting better at it. There’s no one right way to do things but he’s found a way that works for him and goes a long way to making the adventure usable. 

A room will have a name, like “55. Gnome Home II” This immediately orients the DM to the room and gets them thinking about that type of room. Bedroom. Kitchen. Hall of Portraits, etc. He then follows that with a series of bolded words/phrases, usually two or three words. The bolding helps the DM pick these things out, major features of the room. This is followed by a short little section of a few more words, two or three, in parens, providing just a little more information about those things. This is followed up by little arrows with bolded headings, expanding more on the features noted previously. So a bolded Cupboard (jumbled jars of fish and mushrooms) might also have a Searching the Cupboards: with a few words on one jar with something else in it. 

The only misstep with this is additional information for the room. Some rooms have MORE headings, in brown, matching the color of the rooms titles and therefore not standing out as a part of the same room. They note other major things in the room. So, room 40, Lizard Shrine, has Stone Blocks, Stench, and Muck & algea all bolded. West you hear crashing water and Movement in room (slipping) are the bolded followup up sections. And then there’s another “brown bolding” heading with “4 Giant Lizards” and a few paragraphs of stats. And then ANOTHER brown heading section on Lizard God Alter … and some more bolded follow-ups. And then ANOTHER brown heading section about skeletons/stats.

I think the intent is to look at the initial bolded section, and then scan the text for the MAJOR BROWN HEADINGS to give a basic description of the entire room. I think I understand it, but I don’t think the impact is as good as it could be. It’s not BAD, but there’s something off aboutit that could be better. Something ta the beginning about the major features, maybe, in the initial room bolded section, would have helped a lot, as would maybe using a different color, etc, for the major room headings. Still, that’s a “is not perfect” and not a “bad.”

The map, from a usability standpoint, is great. It’s clear, the numbers are in their own little colored boxes so they don’t blend in to the map. It’s full of details like slopes, ledges, pools, beds, and so on. It’s not a battle map, and it doesn’t attempt to show every feature of a room, but it does a great job of evoking the room. That’s great from both a usability standpoint and from an evocative/inspiring the DM standpoint. Some rooms get extra map notes, with a major feature in them like “Sheep Fauns” or “Root Faces.” There’s enough interconnectivity to make it an ok map … which should be expected once you hit the sixty room threshold. 

The dungeon is littered with unexplained things, for the DM to expand upon and use. An odd assortment of boots and gloves, and wooden chess pieces, all with no meaning or content but for the DM to supply. I get the intent but I’m not sure it supportable to the extent intended. One open-ended thing? Ok. But two feels like we were short-changed on some interactivity of dungeon-wide puzzle. 

And to add more to that … it feels like interactivity is a bit light. Or maybe I mean that it feels sometimes like the interactivity is more “Isn’t that weird?” sorts of things. Ed Greenwood museum adventures, or the Chess room on Dwimmermount level one. A room with something weird going on in it but without any other impact on the adventure. No resource to exploit or reason to really mess with the room. Some of that it ok in a dungeon, but most of the dungeon should contribute in some way to active play. And this adventure sometimes feels like it drifts too far in to museum territory. A lever that turns some statues nearby to gold but only for ten minutes. Uh. Ok. 

This also has perhaps a balance issue. Yes, I know, it’s old school and we don’t give a fuck about that. BUT, there is a “Levels 1-2” range recommended. For a seven ghoul encounter. Or multiple monsters only hit by magic/silver. Or the room with twenty evil traitorous gnomes. It feels like at levels 1-2 you’d be running away all the time, after each encounter. And yet level 3 seems a bit high also. I don’t know. It feels off. And so does the amount of loot. OSE is just B/X right? It feels very light in the cash and magic department. 

Still, this is a great adventure. A little fanciful, with Sheep-people walking upright in their tweeds, and talking trogs named Old Gregg, Nancy Fingers, and Tomfool right out of The Hobbit. It doesn’t get crazy in the fanciful area, but it does lean toward the troll/spider/goblin side of the Hobbit. Which I think is a magnificent genre and am well aware some people do not.

This is $7 at DriveThru, and easily worth that. The preview is nine pages and shows you about eleven encounters (in the back half of the preview). It’s worth taking a look at, even if you are not interested in the adventure, just to get a look at the formatting.

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12 Responses to The Hole in the Oak

  1. Ynas Midgard says:

    The basic formula for presenting information is right, but there are some rough edges (like having to scan the entire page instead just the parts in bold, for instance).

    As for treasure, not including the coins carried by the gnomes, there’s roughly 13550.49 gold pieces worth of coins and whatnot down there (plus the dagger, the sword, the spell book, the arrows, the chainmail, the shield, and various minor items of magical nature). It’s not that bad, but there certainly could’ve been larger treasure hauls – y’know, the stuff that makes you come back for more.

    Maybe Winter’s Daughter spoiled me, but I was missing the depth in this one – especially if the party doesn’t check out the Root Faces in time (the info they potentially give out is invaluable).

    Still, The Hole in the Oak + Demonspore seems like a perfect combo…

  2. Reese Laundry says:

    Great, fair review and good feedback for Necrotic Gnome. Two positive reviews from you Bryce? You old softie, you! The only thing I’d add is that unlike Winter’s Daughter, this is meant to be an introductory module for use with OSE, so some of the extraneous things just included to “play with” are likely to encourage that sort of thing among new players & DMs. The overall theme isn’t as tightly focused because of how it’s meant to be used and by who. Now I need to look at Demonspore…

  3. Gnarley Bones says:

    Necrotic Gnome offerings are consistently great.

  4. squeen says:

    I really liked Demonspore. If this is anything like that, I’m sold.

  5. Gavin Norman says:

    Thanks for the review Bryce! That’s great feedback on the formatting of the sub-headings within each area description. I’m now wracking my brains trying to figure out a better way to do that…

    • Matt Price says:

      Just finished reading my copy myself and ran into the same issue. I think you could fix this without really any need to change the layout – just make the big sub-headings black instead of brown. The brown is a subtle clue for my brain that it’s a new section.

  6. Richard Sharpe says:

    Ever wondered what an adventure or dungeon written by someone who regularly reads would look like?

    Boy, this must be it! 😉

  7. Kelly says:

    Some of the museum oddities/distractions would keep my party engaged for hours. I had better be prepared to reward their efforts with something!

  8. squeen says:

    I guess I’ll a simulationist at heart. I have a tendency to like things to just “be” in a logical sense, and not strictly utilitarian one (i.e. functionally aimed at the PC). Weird locations that don’t give a fig about the party or game-balance.

    For example: a tomb that’s really difficult to get in to is “why” it hasn’t been looted long ago by your Average Joe. It’s then up to the players to be “above average” (at least as compared to the locals) in some fashion. Inventive/resource-rich.

    That’s probably poor Game Design. I feel like there is pressure to spoon-feed the players a success mechanic, or else risk a game-night of frustration.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Ran this for two players a while back. Over all I would have loved it had it been fleshed out more in particular some explanation for the chess pieces that are found, nothing is mentioned of these further so I made them summable automaton one time use magic items, and the extra tunnels on the far eastern side of the map which yes is for the DM to expand on the dungeon. It was fun and had my players going wtf a few times but I felt as though the fey strangeness of the place could have been cranked up just slightly. Still after seeing some of the weird things inside the oak it definitely left my players paranoid and scared them more than once into passing up certain rooms and chances to get further loots. My favorite part of this whole adventure sums up in one word: Gnomes. Absolutely worth the purchase and glad I made the choice when I did the BX Essentials Kickstarter.

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