by Jim Baney and John Feldman
for Knightvision Games
Secrets to all things lie in the heart of Bitter Root Mountain … and the only thing between you and its secrets is an army of orcs, a horde of undead creatures, and a secret cult that will turn your blood cold … Dare ye enter?
I’m conflicted about this module. It starts pretty strong but finishes pretty … average? Not average in the mediocre way that many people accept as average but average in a much more complicated way. It has new monsters, some interesting traps, a great beginning, a sandboxy wilderness … and a lot of uninteresting dungeon with a lot of problems for me. I’m pretty sure that this is the first part of a megadungeon, so the good, and potentially the bad, could build on the groundwork laid here.
The hook is not very interesting; just another hired job to go find an old widows husband, a retired adventurer. (I like to replace ‘adventurer’ with ‘mercenary’ when I see it; it tends to make things much more palatable for me.) The surrounding parts of the town ARE interesting though. There’s a bar full of old mercenaries fiercely protective of their own. It’s a great source of hirelings, rumors, and a band of thugs that the PC’s could potentially take advantage of. There’s also a ‘preacher’ with a band of thugs who have been running a confidence scan on the old woman, bilking her out of money in exchange for finding her husband. Now they are getting ready to take her home from her, the reason she contacts the PC. The decaying home has a few secrets of its own. She’s made friends with some pixies … or is she just crazy? And there’s a gremlin living in her husbands workshop; a creature her husband befriended and feels guilty about his disappearance. This is a great combination of characters and hooks. It should really help to bring the town to life for the party and make it more than just a place to resupply. There is also an area with a steampunk feel to it that was a bit of a turn off. I hate tinker gnomes and that crap has no place AS AN ORGANIZED GENRE in my rpg. One or two items, like laser pistols, is fine, but any HINT of anything related to tinker gnomes needs to be PUT DOWN HARD. In this case the infestation is limited to the workshop of the disappeared guy.
Between the town and the dungeon are patrols and lots of wilderness. There are several regions detailed on the hex map, each with their own wandering monster tables and each with their own little story to tell. The patrols are going to try and run the party off, unless they’ve obtained letters of introduction, another nice little hook to get the players moving about and talking to people. Ancient battlefields, gnome villages, and other areas are all briefly described. The end result of all of this is a nice cast for a village/town and surrounding wilderness environs … just the thing you need for an ongoing megadungeon. The wilderness doesn’t quite have the charm that I’m usually after but it’s a solid effort for a generic fantasy environment with a few good details.
And then there’s the dungeon. It has about 50 rooms on the first level and about 25 on the second, with the first being worked stone and the second caves/mine tunnels. There are a couple of loops present but for the most part it’s just a star/hub arrangement. I prefer a cramped map with lots of loops in it. It allows monsters to head the party off at the pass, to set up ambushes, and for the party to do the same, and potentially avoid encounters they don’t want to face. Those maps encourage a more creative and explorative type of play. These maps encourage slogging through the dungeon, opening door after door, and killing what’s inside.
That’s what’s going to happen. Open door. Kill Monster. Continue down hallway to next door. Repeat. The problem here is that there’s not enough variety in the dungeon. The monsters attack immediately. They don’t do anything other than attack. They hang around all day in their dungeon room waiting for someone to come kill them. They aren’t even doing in their rooms most of the time; they just stand there, weapon in hand, waiting for their door to open. There are a great variety of humanoids in the dungeon and I found this puzzling also. I generally prefer that humans/bandits/brigands/etc are used instead of humanoids (so as to not water down the word ‘monster’ and make the vil more palpable) but I’m not completely opposed to orcs and their ilk. But why mix things up? Goblins, orc, hobgoblins, morlocks, kobolds … and not whole tribes either. THAT would have been interesting as the party potentially tried to play one group off of another. Nope, just a room with 4 kobolds in it, or a singular room with 2 morlocks in it. Uh … Did the designer need a 2HD orc? Then just make a 2HD orc. Why mix things up? At the end of the dungeon the party will finally meet the evil masterminds and bring their reign of evil to an end! Uh … what? Yup, Lareth shows up again. You remember Lareth, right? He was in T1/Hommlet. The party goes off to explore a random ruined fortress and in the last room finds the evil high priest Lareth. It turns out he’s behind all of the evil in the region and is running most of the monsters in the dungeon. His discovery is a complete surprise. Most people hack him down immediately and never know what’s going on. Same thing here. At the end of this dungeon the party runs in to some evil cultists who are behind all of the … well, I’m sure they are up to no good in some way. Because there is no build up there is also no dramatic tension or release as the party discovers and battles them. No worrying when they might show up, no horror at the evidence of their evil. Just a couple of dudes in a dungeon room for the party to hack. The dungeon is not great but neither is it completely boring either …
The designer makes some decent inroads in a few areas. The dungeon features a number of door traps. My favorite is a knocker ring held in place by a mouth, which comes alive and bites the hand that knocks. Now that’s cool! Unfortunately there’s not lot of that kind of encounter. There’s also a decent amount of new magical items to be discovered. A hat that holds torches, or a wind-up mouse, for example. I found these excellent and very inventive. They are also almost exclusively found unguarded at the beginning of the adventure, in the old woman’s house. This somewhat dampens the wonder effect I want the players to get when they discover something totally new. There’s also a decent amount of variety in the mundane treasure. Everyone has a small amount of coin on them or some unique treasure/jewelry. ANYTHING done to turn a generic monster in to something more specific is welcome. There’s also a great number of new and interesting monsters present. Book magic items and book monsters tend to lend a feel of … the mundane? to an adventure. New magic items and new monsters bring a freshness to it. What’s the monster do? Can we even damage it? Bring out the silver! Crap, didn’t work! ARG! What’s it doing! KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!! That’s what you want in a monster encounter. Terror. Fear. The Unknown. There’s a wonderful variety of them in this module … they are just mixed in with the crappy humanoids. 🙁
This is available on DriveThru.