Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag

By Dave Bezio
Dave Bezio's Grey Area Games
Levels 1-3

The dilapidated keep on a windswept cliff has long been shunned by the local…so of course, that’s where you are headed!  Uncover secrets and explore the unknown as you attempt to rescue 3 helpless maidens.

This forty page adventure details a dungeon with seven levels and 135 rooms. A good attention to the basics keeps this from running away with itself. It does tend to the “plain” side of the house, though, in terms of writing.

First, do no harm. Is that were the mantra of adventure writers then we’d all be in much better shape as a hobbyist looking at products for our use. This adventure gets that right. It’s not stellar, but, it also doesn’t fuck up. And “Not A Fuck Up” is a pretty good place to be.

This adventure is doing everything at an … acceptable? Level. It has a small village with terse little descriptions that are littered with potentially interesting things and brief little snippets of NPC’s that a DM can take and run with. It’s got a rumor table and henchmen table, as well as some small wilderness wandering monster tables that embed a bit of detail. None of this is bad. None of this is overwritten. It not exactly forthcoming in providing detail that excites the DM, but its doing a great job of batting average, over and over and over again. In practice this looks like “The smith Bjorg is a crotchety loner who has noticed that the McDugals have been acting a bit funny since marrying the 3 old crones from outside the village.” We get a smith. He’s crotchety and a loner. His name is Bjorg. All of those are things the DM can work with. And then get a little bit of intrigue with the 3 old crones comment. This isn’t fuckign rocket science. Bezio knows that less is better than more and he uses the less to great effect, empowering these short little descriptions with what both the DM needs to run the NPC and to empower some action further on … and note it’s done by having the villagers have relationships with each other. One mentions the other.

The rooms are much the same. They tend to be very basic and just a little bit above minimalism. This isn’t the minimalism of the Vampire Queen or that of expanded minimalism but rather that of some of the beter adventures that use minimalism. Just like with the smith description, the rooms provide JUST a little more than minimal, and not in the “expanded minimalism” manner. It’s not droning on about some backstory. What there is is embedded in the room description much in the same way Gygax did in his better writing. The story builds as the adventure unfolds through the room descriptions.

And getting to that, there’s an interconnected nature to the rooms. While the levels have themes (kobolds, goblins, wizard, temple, etc) they also have a interconnected nature. Clues for one area in another. The map has a cross-section and several levels have multiple entrances/exits. You can bypass levels and there are hidden levels with good map detail. Some levels open up and others tend to only have ten or so rooms. You can get yourself in to trouble by going deeper and skipping levels. This is a part of what I mean by “design” when I use that term specifically as the seldom-mentioned fourth-pillar, alongside interactivity, evocative writing, and ease of use.

Speaking of evocative writing … well, this don’t do that. “A chipped statue of a maiden stands in one corner of this room (worthless.) Ok, so, it’s short and easy to scan. That’s good. But it’s not exactly making me excited about running the room. Ratlings play a game involving human teeth and a sharp stick. This gets to the better part of the description in the B2 Keep on the Borderlands, where orcs shoot dice. But the adventure is almost never rising beyond that. A storeroom with empty barrels and smashed crates. Book treasure. 3 tapestries (100gp each.)  These are all very basic details. 

Art is charming as are names for folk like Pepsy Tallfeller the halfling and Erikk the Crass the dwarf. There are good level overviews.

I can quibble with other details in this adventure. Creature reactions for a level are in their room rather than the (summary) overviews of the levels. Not ideal. A room or two has some background information first, prior to the meat of the room, increasing scanning time.

There is design here. That is good. But I don’t see myself excited to run this the way I am other adventures. The rooms don’t fill me with glee. This isn’t about rooms being exciting set pieces but rather the writing being such that I WANT to run the room, tha the description springs to mind and my brain takes over and runs with it, filling in the details. Others will no doubt disagree, but, in spire of the design present, I’m going to regret this. Stronger descriptions, without many more words, would easily bump this for me in to something of the Best. It’s 2020; we can do better than the best of the stuff stuff. (Although this blog seems to prove, day in and day out, that, no, most people can’t get even close to the best of the old quality.)

This is $3 at DriveThru. The preview is eight pages. You get to see the village description, rumors, level overviews and wilderness wanderer tables. That’s a decent selection. It would have been better, though, to also include a page or so of dungeon descriptions. The title page/intro pages do little to add to the value of the preview but a few pages of dungeon rooms would.

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16 Responses to Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag

  1. Ron says:

    They must’ve seen the review, the PDF is now $1.99 – smart. Looks good Bryce.

  2. Shuffling Wombat says:

    Melan has also reviewed this: he liked it.

  3. squeen says:

    “It’s 2020; we can do better than the best of the stuff stuff. ”

    Ain’t that the truth brother!

    I bought this after Melan’s review and liked it’s broad simplicity. I’m glad Bryce reviewed it too, and totally agree with his assessment that it sits right on the edge of being great—needing just a bit “more” to push it over the edge.

    In some sense, it also reminds me of “Hole In The Oak”. Both are terse, with the latter getting somewhat closer to the ideal in terms of evocative/detailed content, but also being smaller in scope.

    What’s so alluring to me about this product is the notion of a short-but-sweet combination of a town/wilderness/multi-level dungeon is a tidy package. I think that’s why B2 kept creeping into Bryce’s review. As the quote above says, I think if this had come out in 1979 we’d all be very excited…but we now live in a post Arden Vul age where feats of published-scale are less impressive.

    Blah blah blah. I’m starting to sound like a pompous art-critic.

  4. Dragonsdoom says:

    “Art is charming as are names for folk like Pepsy Tallfeller the halfling and Erikk the Crass the dwarf.”

    That wouldn’t happen to be Erikk ‘the Crass’ Tenkar, proprietor of Tenkar’s Tavern, would it? 😉

  5. The Dungeon Analphabet says:

    It’s 2020 but this adventure seems to be from 2013. That’s the copyright year on the first page.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Totally agree on the No Regrets. I love how this is a category. So much of the internet is this is the best thing EVAR vs. this thing sucks.

    Criticism is nothing without nuance. Sticking this is in a hex thank you sir! No regrets about that. Would love to see more from this author, they know whats up.

  7. Bigby's Affirmative Consent Lubed Fist says:

    Art is charming as are names for folk like Pepsy Tallfeller the halfling and Erikk the Crass the dwarf.

    I, for one, am glad to know that Bored of the Rings is on somebody’s personal ‘Appendix N’.

  8. Shuffling Wombat says:

    Having read this now, I think this is a good review, although I would be more positive. Some more exciting treasure, especially unique magic items, would be an improvement. But otherwise this is strong module, with chances for exploration, negotiation and puzzle-solving as well as massacring everything in sight. An effort has been made to ring the changes, for example the maidens are in different locations and in different states of distress.

  9. Chris Hall says:

    Thanks for reviewing this. I really like this one. I agree it’s more on the bog-standard/vanilla side of things, but I tend to forgive adventures for being a little dry or personality-free compared to more gonzo kinds of things. I don’t need very much flavor to get me excited to run an adventure. I think the main hurdle with some of the more static room descriptions is a lack of good verbs. However, you could say this of most room descriptions. My approach is to try to present each room as if the PCs were catching somebody in the act of something. I would put this alongside something like Gunderholfen as far as a well-presented, easy to use module that doesn’t stray too far from standard D&D, but still has some interesting bits. It would make for some fun, light sessions of Whitebox and I don’t know that I expect it to be anything more than that.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Terse, straightforward and easy to use vanilla dungeon = sold. Great stuff, I’d actually play this and after having read through it, I’m confident I could just throw this in anywhere, anytime with next to zero/minimal prep. I’ll take terse and easy to use over ‘evocative’ any day, especially the type of ‘evocativeness’ which only emerges in the DM’s mind when they are reading it and the players have no idea how ‘profound’ something is during actual play.

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