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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14 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.

  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.)

  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.

  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.

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