The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords

By Keith Sloan
Expeditious Retreat Press
Levels 6-8

More than a century ago, the evil Sea Lords ruled this region. They were cruel men, devil-worshippers who practiced vile rites and were the terror of folk across the seas. But, like most tyrants, they were at last thrown down, their strong places sacked and destroyed. Now, they are little more than a name of fear and loathing. Little of them remains, but sometimes an isolated hold or other location is discovered, most filled with plunder from decades of their reign of terror. Your party has acquired a treasure map purporting to show the location of one of the Sea Lords old holds. While most were sacked and plundered long ago, this one seems to have been missed. With luck, perhaps some of their vast treasure remains for the taking!

This nineteen page adventure contains a two level dungeon with about 120 rooms, at a density of about eleven to a page. It is, essentially, a minimally keyed affair with brief expansion of details in areas. “Book Standard”, where that is defined as the usual monsters and +1 shields, expanded with a few new ones in each category. These sorts of adventures always make me dream of what might have been.

This adventure forces a key question in a way that few others do: where is the minimalist line located? Let’s say I create an interesting interactive environment, but use language that only a first grader could understand … is that a good adventure? (And I don’t mean that as an insult, but rather to illustrate clearly what I’m going for here.) Plain language, tersly delivered. 

We can see in this some of my key design points. Terse generally means it’s easier for the DM to run. Great! Interactive means there are things for the party to play with. Great! Appealing to the lowest common denominator in language use? Well, there goes the Evocative pillar out the window. 

But this isn’t just a list of random die roll monsters thrown on to a map. There’s design here, hence the interactivity. Pits that lead to elsewhere, dangerous traps. Factions in the dungeon. A great map with multiple levels and areas. It works and fits together well.

Keith must be the perfect writer for XRP; their styles seem to marry well. The minimalism in the writing tends to be a “feature” of many (most?) XRP adventures. I clearly don’t get what Keith and Joe are trying to do. Or maybe I do and I just strongly disagree with it. Strongly. 

I would, an do, assert that the purpose of the adventure is aid the DM in running it. A key portion of that is jamming an idea in to a DM’s head. Stabbing in an idea. Making the DM grok it at a fundamental level. The DM can then riff on it, expand it, and fill in the edges of it. They then bring it alive to the party as the idea runs wild in their mind. That requires decent writing. “This tomb contains eight rough- carved stone biers, upon each of which rests a sea wight.” That does not bring the room alive for me. It’s not bad, and it’s certainly not being TOO verbose, which is the more common problem. But it doesn’t make me excited about running this room. It feels like a slog to do this, room after room, for a hundred rooms. I want something just a little more colorful. Just a handful, five or six, extra words to bring the place alive. This seems like it is fact based. “There are X things here on Y objects.” I think I want something almost like impressions. Fuzzy descriptions. Some balance where the important parts are preserved (eight sea wights) but there’s some impression delivered that fills my mind with mystery and wonder and it races to fill it in and imagine it. This ain’t that. At all.

There are other touches, though, that are great. You can pick up “hangers on” spirits that follow you around and, of course, too many is a bad thing. The map is great, with multiple entrances and areas and loops. The faction concept is always good, although it could be better implemented here with goals, reactions, and orders of battle. There are a few things, outside of the factions to talk to, and while “betrayal” is too common, at least some will just run away with the loot instead of killing you. 

There are some general atmosphere notes up front: “The air throughout is cold, damp, and smells strongly of the sea in the worst sense, with a heavy smell of briny rot throughout.” This would have been great added to a map, to always keep it fresh in the DMs mind to add to rooms and hallways. And a wandering chart noting that a monster appears from a nearby room is good also … but that requires to DM to them go hunting for a nearby room. 

Indicative of the language issues are two common things: a large wooden chest and the Room Titles. “The liches Lair”, while factually correct, conveys little of the atmosphere that I think a good description should contain. And using the words large, small, red, black, and so on should, generally, be minimized. There are better words to use than “large wooden chest” that would have conveyed a more evocative environment.

This is $14 at DriveThru. For $14? No. But, let’s say it was ALWAYS on sale for $7? Well, no, not unless you’ve got a hard on for this minimalism. AndI know some of you do. The preview is four pages. The last two show you the first level map (great map!) and the first eleven rooms. Good preview. It’s indicative of the writing you’ll find within.

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20 Responses to The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords

  1. Chris Hall says:

    For me, a great map with a well-considered ecology/environment goes a long way. The neutrality of the presentation leaves some “style holes” for me to creatively fill, but I’m pretty comfortable doing that on the spot. That said, your points are well-taken. The writing could be tightened up and a unique (perhaps non-mechanical) feature could be given to each to make them stand out. The sea wight example above could read: “Eight sea wights rest atop rough-hewn stone biers.” That fixes the passivity of the language. Now a small detail could be added to give it some flavor. It doesn’t have to even be that special. “They lie with eyes bugged out and mouths agape.” Or, “Each clutches a relic from childhood: a doll, a toy boat, an infant’s baptismal gown, etc.” Or, “They rise jerkily in a stiff dance.” Basically something to set these wights apart from any others the PCs might have encountered. You might argue that’s writers job, which is a fair point. I think some resent that imposition of flavor on the description. It’s easier to add flavor that fits your taste than it is to remove something that doesn’t and add something new. I may be generalizing here, but I think much of XRP’s audience (I own a couple of the modules) may find the gonzo-isms of a lot of OSR modules over-the-top and too corny for their sensibilities. In other words, they’d rather season to taste themselves.

    • Chris Hall says:

      To be clear, I don’t mind the author doing the flavor work for me. I like a little sugar in my cereal. I just don’t mind if it’s not there too much if everything else is solid.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yeah, the comment about flavor text struck me as off-kilter. Clear evocation of an image in the DMs head so he can then go on to relay that information to his players is key; ultimately, unless it’s boxed read-aloud, the DM is going to have to translate the module text into something the players can digest – flowery prose designed to send the DM down a rabbit hole of imagination runs kind of counter to that, especially when the more “stilted” writers insist on using obscure language that requires busting out Ye Olde Dictionary, 1300s Edition.

      “Not enough evocative descriptions” strikes me more as the complaint of someone reading the module, rather than someone running the module where the goal is quick information transfer with zero ambiguity. The premise of the adventure is to spark the imaginations of the players, after all, not the DM (if a DM genuinely wanted to be inspired while they played, they wouldn’t run a pre-made module where everything is laid out prescriptively in advance).

      If read-aloud is flat, that’s a sin – that shit needs to get the players’ minds going; that’s its whole job. If DM-only text is flat, that’s just following basic technical writing practices and streamlining the communication process.

  2. The Middle Finger of Vecna says:

    Oh well, I thought this one would come across better for Bryce. Sloan is one of the better XRP designers as far as I’m concerned.

  3. EOTB says:

    I played the adventure through and it was an absolute blast from the player’s side of the table. I understand the concept that plating differentiates restaurants when all other things are equal, and I don’t disagree with it, but that’s not the RPG module world we live in. It’s a sea of samey-samey templates that don’t play as well as they read, even if they don’t read particularly well.

    I suspect if a DM ran this module for ten tables, none of whom read the text and so have no criteria for that aspect, it would get a very high % of “fresh” ratings.

  4. Malrex says:

    I agree, having evocative descriptions/awesome wordsmithing is great and when done right can be magical, but I also hate when I’m skimming an adventure DURING play– “da fuck?! hang on guys, I need to look up this fancy descriptive word because I have no idea wtf it means..” I prefer a balance with a lean towards descriptions that are clear and understandable rather than vocabulary that is unknown to me or my players.

    The next sentence after the stats for those wights..”….look of drowned corpses with eyes lit by a hellish green fire.” Some stuff to work with…but yeah, I can agree with what you are saying–Manipulate the order of the paragraph’s sentences or combine some of them and maybe it wouldn’t be so matter of fact or dry…but I found this adventure completely usable. Great map, great art, good use of bolding, some cool new magic items…I could see myself running this adventure over some others.

    • ericscheid says:

      Speaking of fancy words: a ‘bier’ is a movable frame on which a coffin or a corpse is placed before burial or cremation or on which they are carried to the grave.

      I’d be surprised if they were made of stone, rough-carved or no.

      Now cue the DM thinking a bier is more solid and immovable, and being that one player with the fancy edumacation wanting to “knock over their bier”. Alternatively, be that PC that jumps on top of the “solid platform” bier for a better angle and being told to roll dex as it collapses.

  5. Melan says:

    This is one of the adventures where my opinion differs substantially from that of Bryce – I think this is an “iconic” adventure, in that it perfectly occupies a niche the same way Keep on the Borderlands is the go-to “frontier outpost with nearby humanoid lair” module. It has a broad utility few modules offer. You are correct to point out that the individual entries are on the short side, but the dungeon has tremendous variety that should come alive over a full expedition (an example where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts). I wish I could run this one, and I would have integrated it into my campaign if it didn’t arrive too late for that to happen.

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      Where “substantially” means you gave it an eight and I give a six. 🙂

      It has great interactivity, the map is great, and the usability is high. But, also, I think your comparison to B2 is good. Even without nostalgia and the shared experience of forty years of players hitting it, B2 is pretty good adventure. But, in 2019 would I rate it rate a Best/an eight? I don’t think so. I’d probably rank it about where Sea Lords is. As the platonic example of what XRP is doing it’s a ten though; it emulates (and not in the negative connotation) old style perfectly.

      I think I pointed out the line of minimalism in my review. How much evocative writing do you need in 2019 to get over the line from minimalism to put you in to REALLY GREAT territory? I wish they would try a little harder in that area. But then again, they wouldn’t be emulating the classic style of the old stuff then.

      I don’t think I touched on ‘design’ in my review, and that is something this does fairly well. It’s that certain something that Gann has that I seldom cover in my reviews because the bar is so low. This certainly has a crafted/design element to it that most do not.

      • Bryce Lynch says:

        Fuck, also it was great seeing you in Ohio a couple of weeks ago. When Prince gets back we’ll do that triple post we talked about doing. (Assuming your back home now.)

    • IstvanB says:

      In the meantime Melan has fulfilled his wish and ran this in two sessions/expeditions at December 2021, as part of his Twelve Kingdoms campaign in which I am playing.

      This Scenario was designed for “6-10 players of levels 6-8”; we were only a group of 4-5 of levels 4-6, but our specific goal was a rescue mission, so we had the chance to accomplish it with much stealth and as few confrontations as was absolutely necessary.

      Two of five characters got killed during the first expedition, including the tank-troublemaker (a relief in a sense).
      Only four of us dared a second expedition (the KIA tank-troublemaker’s player took insult and quit the whole campaign, the other KIA’s player rolled a new character of lvl 4), and pooling all our resources into winning a key confrontation we were succesful with the rescue and promptly left the whole area.

      SRY for skipping on the details, but No Spoilers [tm] (c) (R).

      • Melan says:

        Indeed! I can now confirm my points about the module’s excellence through the authority of actual play. It flows very well, it allows for players to confront its challenges multiple interesting ways, and it offers a whole lot of interesting encounters which combine into a greater whole. It is not a minimalist affair – there is a whole lot of substance in there that comes alive as the smaller components come together at the gam table. To also note a very brycian area, it is also pleasantly easy to reference and run (this is not always the case with AD&D adventures).

        Would recommend again. This is good stuff.

  6. Sean says:

    Outside of Pod Caverns and Barrow Mounds, what are some of everyone’s favorite Advanced Adventures? I was following them for awhile, but lost track somewhere around #30.

    • Dave says:

      I like the Chasm of the Damned just for the canyon layout. It’s more of a drop-in vanilla adventure than something Bryce would rave about.

      If you like Pod Caverns look for Matt Finch’s other adventures, not all are in the AA line.

      I see Bryce rated The Barrow Mound of Gravemoor highly, I missed that one somehow.

      I haven’t followed the line as closely as maybe I should. They’re on mission in terms of being more true to the 80’s AD&D style than the trvu OSR westmark style. But I got a bundle of them somehow, sometime I’ll have to sit down and read more.

    • Keith Hann says:

      I’ve run this one and quite like it, and I’ve also had success with Chasm of the Damned. Curse of the Witch Head has come out well too, but in part that’s because of some larger actions that aren’t in the adventure and so I’m hesitant to say someone would also definitely have a good experience.

  7. Sean says:

    Finally got around to reading this one. I found it a frustrating adventure because there is so much to like in it, but I would never run it “as is” and will need to spend a fair amount of time fleshing it out and fixing the flaws. I think with another set of creative eyes and some additional playtesting it could have been great. Still, definitely better than most. No Regerts from me, for what that’s worth.

  8. Johnny says:

    I recently had the opportunity to play this one, and also read it after realizing it was already within the collection of XRP modules that I own. Having played the module and now read the module, I think the review fails to mention the module’s numerous strengths in a way that fully expresses how well designed it is.
    1. Sloan provides numerous suggestions throughout the module that indicate how the DM should effectively handle mechanics and situations within the module. He is mindful of the ambiguity that occurs by outside readers and facts that module creators take for granted.
    2. I wholly disagree that Sloan is engaging in some kind of minimalism. This is mere framing. I could just as easily frame this as Sloan’s use of economy of language and not overbearing with unnecessary detail that the DM will come up with on their own anyway. Sloan decides to make the trade off of providing detail over flavor. In addition, there is still plenty of flavor to be had in the introduction and the consistent theme of the module.
    3. The module has an incredible number of meaningful choices for the players to make and it is truly one of those modules where any given playthrough different groups of players will never be the same. Look at all the options for infiltration and exfiltration. It’s actually impressive. We have true asymmetry of approach operating here.
    4. Going back to point #1, Sloan clearly indicates his intent to an outside reader as to why each element in the module exists, and there is no point at which I am left wondering why it is there.
    5. Each of the factions and sections of the dungeon are able to interact, influence, and have resources that affect or impact each other. We don’t have some kind of scenario where there were 3 separate dungeons designed apart from each other that are compartmentalized.

    Sloan has created an adventure that is pregnant with opportunity and possibilities for player agency and DM creativity, and not in the bad kind of way due a lack of attention or absence.

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