Kelsey Dionne The Arcane Library Shadowdark RPG Level 3
This is an entry in my Wavestone Keep adventure design contest. Which I held to combat the crushing ennui I feel when reviewing too many bad adventures in a row. The challenge was to write and short adventure, eight pages, inspired by the concept and marketing tagline of the Wavestone Keep adventure. Now, to combat my crushing boredom, and the perfectionism which prevents me from working on larger projects, I’m going to review the entries!
Fear the silence, the water, the dark stone itself! Deep within the sweltering jungle, a monolith of black basalt floats upon an undulating lake hidden in a cave. They say inhuman howls emanate from it on moonless nights… and that the fat gems and coins of a lost society lie inside for the taking!
This two page adventure features a nine room antediluvian step pyramid with a great chthonic vibe going on. Terse, obviously, and with evocative text, it does a great job bringing the weirdness vibe that Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun wanted to. It does feel a bit small and constrained at times, but, then again, the asshat who created the contest kind of dictated that. But, I can’t help thinking …
I think certain vibes are harder to evoke than others. I think I’ve talked in the past about how disappointed I am with cloud castles and undersea palaces, how they don’t really bring that kind of energy that you want from the location. Creating a kind of antediluvian atmosphere, a chthonic vibe, is hard also, I think. You want, I think, to channel the alien spaceship from Alien. Quiet, imposing, large, and weird. I’m often impressed by scenes of gore, a designed ability to create these kind of shock and horror from the gore of devoured villagers and the like, but creating evocative writing not related to that seems far more uncommon … an industry where evocative writing is already exceedingly rar.
This one, though, is an exception. I think Kelsey does a great job of bringing the vibe she intends to. This starts with a statue. The pyramid sits inside a cave, in a grotto. To get in to it you need to go through a waterfall. Underwater, at the cave mouth, is the statue of a woman with raised arms, made of cracked malachite. A blank mask covers her face with wormy tendrils peeking around from behind it. This isn’t the greatest description ever, but, it does START the players don’t the path of the weirdness. It’s an introduction. From there we get a cave, vast, thick with stalactites, a translucent green lake with a black ziggurat rising from the lapping water. Not water. LAPPING water. Good imagery. It’s active, not just static. Broad steps ascend to an open archway at the top lined with smooth malachite swrwming with hundreds of trolibye fossils. We’re getting close to the good stuff! Out first “Real” room is “Wet. Echoing silence. Black stone walls with a few glossy, horse-sized ammonite fossils. Grey slugs in floor puddles that writhe away from light” Ok, man, we’re in the shit now! Wet. Echoing. Silence. Grey slugs in puddles. That’s fucking guuuuuud! Another room has muted sound, as it underwater, with light refracting oddly. Perfect! Faint sloshing in another. You get the sense of this ANCIENT place, and the tentacles and nautilus theming works really well to help communicate that in addition to the writing.
Interactivity here is pretty good, for such a small size. We’ve got grates with water coming out of them, the waterfall proper, an underwater tunnel, communing with statues of gods (Fun fact: make a DC15 WIS save after or walk to the next room and attempt to drown yourself in the pool for 2d4 rounds. Because that’s hw the fuck communing with our antediluvian friends work, of course! I love it!) And, Kelsey slaps in a magic item that has both good and bad effects: among other things, you stop aging (of course!) but, also your skull turns in to a nautilus shape over 2d10 days. Doh! But, hey, you can commune with the nautiloid mother and speak primordial and breathe water! I’ll take it! Really great magic item; I love the way it can integrate in to a game and brings he bad with the good.
A lot of other things are right also. Monsters are noted on the map and the trap description are terse. “Trap: Two trilobites are worn to a shine. Pushing them deactivates trap for 5 rounds. Pressure on fourth step down turns stairs into ramp. DC 15 DEX or slide into 20’ deep trapdoor pit at bottom (2d6).” Look, one line of mechanics! Yeah! Why people write multiple paragraphs on traps is beyond me. The final room also has a “normal’ D&D monster that makes perfect sense in this setting. I love it. Guess. What’s the best monster here, for a fucking boss fight? Ready? A fucking Mind Flayer! Errr, sorry, Brain Flayer. Perfect! Not the effete asshats of later editions of D&D, but an antediluvian horror! “Clax’uul meditates on malachite dais behind velvet curtain. Piles of perforated skulls. Blank mask covers face, purple skin taut over spiral-shaped cranium.”
On the down side, it feels small. Or, rather, things are compact, the rooms close together. Because that was the contest, I guess. It just FEELS like more could have been done. Like, monster stats on a third page. But, also, mucho respect for bringing this in at two pages. It’s a great adventure for that page count, especially considering one is mostly a map.
I’d fucking lvoe to run this thing for a 5e game! (Yeah, this is for Shadowdark, a 5e-ish game that brings the OSR to 5e. I don’t know anything about it, sorry, but, given what I’m seeing here, and know about Kelsey’s other adventures, I suspect it does a good job. Someone should check it out and let us know if we can get the normies to play OSR by saying we’re doing Shadowdark.)
You can snag a copy here: