The Vault of Larin Karr

By W.D.B. Kenower
Necromancer Press
3e
Levels 4-9

Hunt for a Legendary Treasure. Deep beneath a peaceful valley lies the vault of the legendary drow adventurer, Larin Karr. Rumors claim that Larin Karr vanished long ago, but his vast treasure acquired from years of plundering hordes in the Underdark still remains. Can you find and loot the impenetrable vault?

This 114 page adventure features a small valley with numerous towns and adventuring sites, with the titular vault (25ish rooms) being the capstone. The adventure is designed well, a rarity in D&D, and the designer understands D&D. It’s the real deal D&D sandbox, with a major fucking caveat. A product of its time, and as such is not much more than a curiosity.

I own a Nissan Frontier truck, for off road camping. (#vanlife bitches!) The gold standard in this space is the Toyota Tacoma. I like to say that the Frontier is 10% more reliable than the Tacoma, costs 30% less than the Tacoma, and has 5% of the aftermarket parts of the Tacoma. Somewhere, a Nissan engineer designed the engine bay. He spent four years on it, fitting everything in it perfectly with no space to spare. This saved the company $.000001 cents per unit manufactured. And then I come along and want to add a fuse for a winch. Is the Frontier designed well? Absolutely! Is it a royal pain the fucking ass to work with? Absolutely.

And thus, Larin Karr. 

This is a real deal sandbox adventure. Things are interconnected. People are interesting. The locations are well done. There is a complexity here, in design, in interconnectedness. In morality and the situations going on. This IS a real sandbox adventure, designed well. IN THE LAND OF 3E WHERE SHADOWS LIE. For it is devoid of what is needed to make it runnable at the table. And, thus, I will never run it. Every adventure ever made in the history of mankind is now available. Why oh why should one put up with this adventure, and, I will assert in the following text, its nigh impossibility to run, when you could choose from half a dozen others that do the same thing and ARE easy to run? Why choose to suffer? Because Larin Karr is THAT much better than the other? No, it’s not. It’s good, but, once you reach those lofty heights, of being “good”, nothing s going to rock you harder than the others. This relegates Larin Karr to a curious place. A thing to be studied, to learn both how to write an adventure and how to not write an adventure. 

Larin Karr has an interconnectedness. Things in one place impact and/or have a relationship with things in another place. This is not “go collect the three gemstones scattered throughout the valley” (although this is present) but more the nature of how the real world works. The local lord, near one settlement, has a younger brother who runs one of the other three settlements. And a cousin who is mayor of the third. Family ties. Makes sense right? And the mayor is really self-appointed and hates his cousin and wants to overthrow him. Also, hes hired a gnoll in the forest to do that. Also the gnoll is now blackmailing the “mayor.” Also, both of them know some things about other things. You go places, you learn things, you talk to people, you return to places to follow up. On a decently fucking sized overland map with five mile hexes that is at least 27×40 … with about half of it directly relevant to the adventure. 

Further, note in those examples how things seem natural. They make sense. The infighting amongst relatives is common in history and fiction. The blackmail? Makes sense. The local lord is just a kid, barely 20. FABULOUSLY wealthy, and trying to appear not so because its so out of place here. The best of everything. Trying to do a good job. He comes to power and finds some records that this old abandoned ruined keep nearby actually belongs to him. So he sends out some party members to go take his keep back! That makes sense. Hes digging through shit, does not understand the full context, comes across shit, claims what is his. 

In other places we get a different kind of naturalism. An old orc burial site, underground. Floor dotted with totems, skulls on spears, necklaces of fangs draped over skeletons. Much debris scattered about, broken pieces of armour and shields, bits of leather, rusted lamps. A discarded cape in a corner. FUCK YOU! You just got eaten by the cape! A cloaker! It makes sense. It fits in well. The designer understands the scene, the orc burel ground. He understand what belongs there. It’s not some case of mechanics first, but, rather, what makes sense … ok, now lets fit it in to the rules. Which is the fuck how this shit should be. Things feel right. The interactivity is natural. 

“Two rusted portcullises stand half-raised at either end of this corridor. The dull ends of the grates descend to within 2 feet of the floor. Small or Tiny creatures may pass beneath the grate without difficulty; Medium-sized creatures must take a moveequivalent action to crawl beneath the portcullis; Large or bigger creatures require a successful Escape Artist check (OC 15) to negotiate the narrow space. Either portcullis may be raised entirely with a successful Strength check (OC 20), which breaks the raising and lowering mechanism. Once raised, a portcullis drops to the ground upon its release; future attempts to open it require no Strength check.”

So, that portcullis. Half opened. People squeezing through it. The mechanism breaking. That is exactly how a portcullis encounter should be. It’s not just a simple binary condition of open or closed, raised or lowered. 

And herein we also see that Larin Karr has a problem. A serious fucking problem. It’s a 3e adventure from the time of 3e. Usability, essentially, does not exist. 

That cloaker encounter I’m so fond of? Well, after that broken lamp sentence we get “One piece of trash, a discarded cape in the northeast cornet, is something far more sinister. The cape is, in fact, a cloaker, which lies curled in the corner of the save waiting for unsuspecting passers-by. “ This is, in no way shape or form, taking in to account that the DM has to run this room. Oh, the encounter is, but the writing for the DM is NOT. That fucking thing is padded to hell and back, a conversational style that does nothing to make it easy to scan. Quite the opposite, in fact. We see this all over the place in the this adventure. “A2: Rough Tunnel – Though poorly constructed and low (6 feet high), this tunnel nonetheless provides safe passage to and from areas A3 and A5.” Repeating what the map says. Telling us that, in fact, the kitchen is a kitchen. Poorly constructed and low is great. The rest … no. 

But, these are rather simplistic examples. The heart of Larin Karr is not, I would argue, the “dungeons.” There are a few of them, each with a handful of rooms (the titular vault having around 26, I think?) The heart of the adventure is the situations going on in the valley. The situations amongst people/places, and this, I think, is handled quite poorly. 

Oh, the DESIGN is great, but how its presented to the DM is terrible. 

Lord Kyle’s Manor is a location, in the first town area. This is where you get the description  not only of the manor, but of Lord Kyle. Which takes about a column. Which is about three DENSE paragraphs. The fucking paragraghs are great. The description is solid, in the first paragraph.; And the “Developments” in the next two, have some solid information. But, digging through a column of text, DENSE text, that is almost wall of text, to grab the information you need? Absolutely the fuck not! And yet, it’s got fucking gold in it! Nice commentary on other NPC’s and leading conversation … it lends to a natural development with him. And a great situation to resolve in the ruined keep, and how it comes to be, but, again, it’s fucking buried. 

And this is the way of this. It’s a continuation of the bad olf 2e formatting, the formatting from Dungeon. The long text paragraph, with little else to break up the words. TO call attention to things. To highlight sections. 

And this is BAD. Because of the density of material, it’s particularly bad in this adventure. It’s complex. And it’s hard to find and dig out. And I’m not GOING to dig it out. Maybe you want you run your highlighter dry, and make margin notes, and create summary sheets for yourself. I’ve got better things to do.

And, so, Larin Karr. An excellent adventure that is saddled with the Style At The Time. You can see how Necromancer built their reputation from things like this. It’s refreshing to see it, and especially so, I suspect, in the era of 2e/3e adventures, to see a real adventure pop up. The din of excitement around it makes sense. But, it’s not 2002. 

Larin Karr and Thracia fit much the same role. Very good adventures. Classics. But products of their time. And, because of that, they are little more these days but interesting curiosities. Less so Thracia, whos terseness it benefits from, from something to buy and examine. Something to learn from. Rare examples of actual well done adventures … and with fatal flaws to also learn from. 

You wanna run this? Good luck. You want to learn from it? Good choice. That’s right. Not The Best. Not Regerting this decision at all. Larin Karr deserves better. It deserves a refresh, like Thracia deserves one.

This is $11 at DriveThru. The preview is only three pages,and thus hardly a preview at all, certainly not enough to make an enformed decision about eh product from it before you buy it. But, also, the formatting, the tight text, almost reaching wall of text proportions? This is Larin Karr.

https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/894/The-Vault-of-Larin-Karr?1892600

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21 Responses to The Vault of Larin Karr

  1. Melan says:

    Curious position, because this adventure saw a whole lot of play from a whole lot of people. The presentation may not be 100% up to modern standards (some of which is useful, and some of which now verges on dogma), but I don’t remember anyone having problem with it at the time of its publication (there is a 2009 review discussing presentation at https://grumblingrognard.blogspot.com/2009/01/review-vault-of-larin-karr.html and you can check out its discussion forums on the archived Necro boards: https://www.tapatalk.com/groups/necromancergames/vault-of-larin-karr-f44/index-s100.html The issue just doesn’t come up, and this adventure was PLAYED.

    Perhaps our tastes have evolved since 2002. Or perhaps our brains got scrambled by electronic gizmos and social media dopamine, and it only took 20 years to forget how to read actual books. Anyway, we really differ on this one. If you don’t have a copy, grab one, this is one of the high points of adventure writing.

    • Ken McKinney says:

      I agree with you. This is one ot the best 3E modules, written by one of the best 3E authors.
      I get that it could be better with better formatting, but that just isn’t so important to me. Formatting can’t make a good adventure great, or an average average good. All it can do is make a great adventure perfect. And I just don’t demand perfection.
      This review reminds me of Bryce’s Arden Vul review, which IMO is way better than he acknowledged.
      Bryce’s differing opinion (this is just a guess) may come down to how he prepares for and runs adventures. When I am DMing a published adventure, I have already read the whole thing cover to cover, generally more than once, unless it’s something really huge. I have _definitely_ read the level I expect the players to reach several times before the session. Often, I’ve made 3×5 index cards of the monsters to flip through in initiative. The modern formatting stuff just isn’t as necessary for me because I’m not trying to understand the room for the first time in the moment as we play; I already knew what was in that room (and the 5 surrounding it) before the PCs got there. I can see how someone who didn’t do that level of preparation might need a terser, better organized presentation, and I acknowledge such a presentation is superior choice, but I’ll take a brillantly written, poorly organized adventure over a well organized, average adventure any day.

    • Jason Bradley Thompson says:

      I haven’t read this module, so I don’t know how I’d rate it, but I kinda agree with what you’re saying here, Melan.. Bryce’s advice on paring back useless text and generally writing better is SO GREAT. (Bryce, are you an English teacher in real life??) But some OSR games’ decision to put everything in bullet-point format with bolds & stuff just leaves me cold. I just can’t easily read and parse writing like that, it just doesn’t flow as well as sentences and paragraphs. Game writing should be fun to read on its own, beyond just taking the form of notes for the DM to use at the table. I think there’s a sweet spot somewhere in between.

      • Anonymous says:

        When you think about it, the idea of inventing a new form of writing more efficient than standard grammatical English is incredibly arrogant, even by OSR standards

    • Glenn Robinson says:

      Any older module I play that I own in pdf form I convert to a word document and edit out as much as I can. Whether it’s Sailors on the Starless Sea, the Sentinel, B1-4, or Thracia. As much as I enjoy the older modules, I find a lot of the old writing frustrating, awkward, or tedious. The content however, I love.

      Room 33 (CoT)
      The box is protected or more correctly
      “haunted” by a spectral, disembodied mouthful of sharp teeth. The mouth will bite any hand that
      is thrust into the box (it is invisible) and then appear for 3 melee rounds, darting in and about
      biting at will. If not destroyed in the initial encounter the creature will disappear, to reappear 5 – 10
      rounds later. It will gain 4 hit points each time it disappears and instead of biting for 1- 4 points of
      damage it will bite for 1 – 6. Then, when it appears a third time (with an additional 4 hit points),
      it will bite for 1 – 8 points of damage and so on. It will continue to attack in this fashion (appearing
      every 5- 10 turns and attacking for 1-3 melee rounds, then disappearing for another 5 – 10 rounds)
      until it is destroyed or the treasure it was guarding is discarded.
      Disembodied Mouth: AC: 0, Move: 24, HD: Variable, but starts at 3, then goes up 1 each time
      it reappears, Weapon: Bite, Damage: Variable, starts at 1 -4, but each time it reappears it goes to the
      next larger dice size. Once d20 is reached the next attack will be at ld20 + ld4, and so on, HP:
      Variable, but starts at 8 hit points and goes up by 4 hit points each time it reappears.
      The Disembodied Mouth is an enchanted creature and may be defended against with Protection from Evil. A Dispel Magic spell will destroy it, however, it is allowed a saving throw. It can not be
      charmed or slept. The creature will attack the first time for three melee rounds and then disappear
      for 5 – 1 0 turns, reappearing and attacking for 1 – 3 melee rounds then disappear again and so on. If
      not destroyed soon, it gets very nasty, very quickly.

      33
      Each locked box is protected by an invisible, disembodied mouthful of sharp teeth. The mouth bites any hand thrust into the box (1d4 hp of damage), becoming visible for 3 rounds when it does so, darting about and biting at will. If not destroyed, the mouth disappears and reappears 5 – 10 rounds later.
      Each time it reappears, it gains 4hp, and its bite goes up to the next dice size in damage. Once 1d20 is reached, the next attack is at 1d20 + 1d4, and so on.
      2It attacks in this fashion until destroyed or the treasure it is guarding is discarded. If not destroyed soon, it gets very nasty, very quickly.
      Disembodied Mouth: AC: 0 [19], MV: 24, HD: Starts at 3, Weapon: bite, Att: Starts at 1d4, HP: Variable, but starts at 8 hp and goes up by 4 hp each time it reappears.
      • Repelled by Protection from Evil.
      • Can be destroyed by Dispel Magic (it is allowed a saving throw).
      • Unaffected by Charm or Sleep spells.

  2. Melan says:

    (Reposted with links removed, since they apparently get caught in automoderation)

    Curious position, because this adventure saw a whole lot of play from a whole lot of people. The presentation may not be 100% up to modern standards (some of which is useful, and some of which now verges on dogma), but I don’t remember anyone having problem with it at the time of its publication (there is a 2009 review discussing presentation at The Grumblin’ Grognard blog, and you can check out its discussion forums on the archived Necro boards where people posted their practical experiences with the scenario. The issue just doesn’t come up, and this adventure was PLAYED.

    Perhaps our tastes have evolved since 2002. Or perhaps our brains got scrambled by electronic gizmos and social media dopamine, and it only took 20 years to forget how to read actual books. Anyway, we really differ on this one. If you don’t have a copy, grab one, this is one of the high points of adventure writing.

    • Kent says:

      == Curious position

      What do you mean? His excuse for avoiding text that a child can’t read is that he wants to play what is written instantly at the gametable. But he never plays the adventures he reviews.

      Since in addition to *not running what he reads* he can find nothing better to read than random D&D pdfs, in fact he is a perfect candidate for adventures which are *not* meant to be played but are inspiring or instructional. But this he rages against.

      The explanation for the morons who read this blog is that he can’t read.

  3. Actually there is a fan made refresh of Thracia. I’m not part of it but it’s an helpfull document to run the adventure.
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1D_IlhVeDuXyLn5sLxYCZTEskxDWLRFY5iolZnNjr4Z8/edit#

  4. Gnarley Bones says:

    114 pages! We hates oversized modules! We hates it forever!

    • Melan says:

      It is not really oversized, since it contains a whole valley with several interconnected adventure sites AND an underworld section AND more dungeons in that underworld. You could probably cut it down to 60-70 pages with rigorous editing, but it is by no means a small thing.

      • Gnarley Bones says:

        Night’s Dark Terror is 64 pages and it’s a damn fine, large piece with multiple sites over a vast gaming area. That’s about my tolerance.

        • Gnarley Bones says:

          [Hit enter too soon.]

          Unencumbered by printing costs (and firm-handed editors!), the world of pdfs has, all too often in my opinion allowed for product bloat. I don’t have time or inclination to plow through a would-be-fantasy-novel-turned-module nor a this-should-really-have-been-three-modules module. Perhaps this is actually fluff-free. My $.02 as a DM who purchases gaming material:

          Page count factors into my purchasing decision.

          • Bucaramanga says:

            Old School Bloat: Pay-per-word and constraints of the printed page.

            New School Bloat: No pay-per-word and no constraints.

            Both result in logorrhea for vastly different reasons.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is a great module, well worth the DM’s work. W.D.B. Kenower also wrote The Lost City of Barakus, another great adventure that stood the test of time. FGG has confirmed that The Vault of Larin Karr will be re-released, although no date has been given. They will probably update it for 5E and OSE.

    Caverns of Thracia have been acquired by Goodman Games, and will soon receive their OAR treatments. That means we’ll get oversized books and greatly expanded adventure. We will see how their OAR Dark Tower goes.

  6. Alex says:

    It’d be interesting to compare how much gameable content you get here vs. other recent Bests of similar page count, such as Saint of Bruckstadt and Peril in Olden Wood. If this is so overwritten surely it offers far fewer hours of play.

    • Chimeric says:

      Not necessarily – the use of white space and formatting choices to aid the DM may lead to comparable page count “bloat” without offering significantly more actual game content.

      I don’t have Saint of Bruckstadt or Peril in Olden Wood, but I do have Larin Karr and the dissent here is interesting. My impression was that I liked it, but that I’d basically have to reformat the entire adventure to get it into a state I’d be willing to run it, and while I’ve done that for other adventures before there are a lot to choose from so this particular one has stayed in my library. I agree with Bryce that there are other adventures of equal quality that don’t take up so many hours of my free time.

  7. Evard's Small Tentacle says:

    I find both this and Barakus does take hours with a highlighter to run. There is no way either can be done with minimal prep. This could be a feature or a detraction depending on the audience.

    I find Nights Dark Terror, mentioned up thread, to be eminently more readable and runnable right off the bat, as a good counterpoint of the “2e” bloatness that permeates a lot of modules.

  8. Dave says:

    A question for everyone: would you prefer using the adventure as a template to make your own Larin Karr, or if you’re thinking of that would it then be worth your while to highlighter/rewrite it?

    In my golden youth I found adventure prep to be not unpleasant, sometimes even very mildly enjoyable. So in that sense I wouldn’t mind it.

    It’s particularly unsuitable if I’m just looking for a dungeon or a mission to place in my own campaign though. That’s when I come down on Bryce’s side on highlighter work. And it sounds like Larin Karr is what I would now consider a short mini-campaign rather than a drop-in adventure. Different times though.

    What I really hate more now is 3e statblocks. I found one of my old noteooks some years later and swore never again. Weirdly though this one sounds like something I will check out.

  9. Evard’s Small Tentacle says:

    One of the best GMs i play with runs huge modules and literally does spend more than 20 hours, reading, highlighting, note taking and more in preparing for one session. i absolutely find no joy in doing that. I think it is a personal style? The best fun I have had is cracking open against the giants for an hour or two and just running the thing based on what my mind has connected.

  10. Benjamin Breeg says:

    Speaking of “little more than curiosities”, ladies and gentlemen, Bryce Lynch!!

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