By Peter Mullen No Artpunk #3 AD& Levels 4-6
The wanted Poster hung outside the Village trading post and fish market door by the town deputy confirms the identity of that bearded Vagabond you saw rowing into the Sea Cave just south of town four days ago. More importantly, it states that Darvel the Dashing is worth 5000 GP* Dead or Alive!
This fourteen page dungeon has about 43 rooms in a vaguely sea save environment. A straightup dungeon with no pretense, it’s encounters go the extra mile to add just that little bit more that keeps the entries short but with extra flavour. And a delightfully painful map to use with no real evocative descriptions. A dungeons dungeon.
Man, the map on this one. It’s wonderful and painful at the same time. Some kind of hand-drawn isometric that looks machine drawn. Like some mobius puzzle full of rooms, halls, and rivers. And then with light pencil marks on it to indicate the room numbers, barely visible. And then it looks like someone took a photo of it on their phone, after folding it up like a real map, so creases added to it. (Which are actually the pages … it’s done over eight 11×8 pages and “taped” together, it looks like.) It’s fucking great. Lots of branches, lots of variety in elevation and terrain. And I have no fucking idea at all how you would EVER be able to look at it during play. Formatting it single column, which, while I’m not a fan of, the shorter entries for the room keys keeps thing generally manageable … although double column still would have worked better. (You can read some scholarly articles about the eye traveling longer distances over single column and its impacts.) And the rooms descriptions, in terms of evocative writing, are generally not present. “This larger cave has a stalagmite and stalactite curtain wall to the south end.” It basically has very little to no descriptions of the actual room environments. You’re on your own buddy.
But the rest is pretty chill.
Ain’t a lot of fucking around with this one. It’s just a dungeon and it stays focused on being a dungeon, to its credit. We get a page of complications, in the form of others also entering the dungeon for various reasons … including some suspect potential hirelings. And then there’s a page or so of wanderers to keep you on your toes, The stirge sit on stalactites, the fire beetles eat algae form the walls. It’s not much, but its doing ok in my book. Maybe a bit heavy on the “lying in wait” for some entries, but it’s got that few extra words to help get the DM juices going during the wanderer encounter. Which is what the extra on the wanderers table should be doing. It doesn’t need a paragraph, just like in this adventure you just need a couple of extra words. The mermen-like dudes are cautiously exploring the dry caves in their bubble helmets. Great!
The actual encounters here are pretty focused. You get maybe two or three sentences per encounter, for the most part, with a few going on for a paragraph or so.
What sets this apart though it the extra bit that is added on to each encounter. There’s this larger for the bugbears. “The sub-chief and two helpers are selecting a barrel of ale to roll out to their crew.” Or, on a ledge of stone gargoyles, if you drop them in to the water they r-hydrate to be the mermen-like dudes they always were. A room has a giant stone face in it, a shadow hiding the nostril to stalk the party until they are weakened. And, if you crawl through a nose, being the correct size to do so, you get somewhere else. It’s just that little bit more to an otherwise mostly minimally keyed (or minimally adjacent) adventure. It is, essentially, the same thing Gygax did in his better moments in B2 and G1. The orcs playing knucklebones or the Bree-yark shit. Just a little bit more to help get the DM going for the encounter. It adds a whole lotta life, beyond a true minimally keying, without having to go on and on and on. It sets up a SITUATION, which is so much better than an encounter, without it being a set piece. And that’s what you want. A situation that you can grok quickly during play. You can glance at the text to run the room immediately AND it inspires you to run something fun. When it’s done well, anyway.
The longer encounters tend to have someone or something you can talk to, hence their longer nature. An ogre running a rat kabob thing, grilling them. And he does a good job! Or a leprechaun running a con, the way leprechauns should. And, a talking spider, willing to let go with some of his information, the sly old devil. You didn’t REALLY need that halfling that’s with you, did you?
This is a straight up dungeon. It would not be out of place as a level in The Darkness Beneath, as one of the better levels. And I don’t know how I can give higher praise than comparing someone to David Bowman. Yeah, yeah, the room descriptions are lacking, in their evocative nature, making this essentially a B2-like thing. And I might like a little bit more both with monster descriptions (again evocative) and treasure detail. But you can’t fault this thing for giving you that old school dungeon flavour … something that it, strangely, missing from the VAST majority of old school adventures. Which is as true today as it has been since the late 1e days.
I can’t best this, especially with the map, but the fucking thing is close.