The Ruin in the Savage Wastes

By Connor McCloskey
Black Gamberson
Level 1

10 years ago, a catastrophic earthquake struck a stoic keep on the borderlands of human civilization. Three days later, the keep was attacked from within. How, no one knows. The few survivors say that daemon men from under the ground breached from within the fortress itself, and butchered all who stood against them, leaving the heroic Castellan and his guard unable to mount an effective defense.  A decade later, the eldest brother of the Castellan is to be named a Baron, and has sent out a decree; Anyone who can bring him his fallen brother’s sword in one month’s time will receive 200 Silver, and a hectare of land in his Barony.

This eight page dungeon presents two levels of a certain ruined Keep in a Borderlands location. Great evocative writing, good formatting, and enough interactivity at level one to not make me mad. It also gets purple in places and could use a little more focus when it comes to the monster descriptions. 

This is a duel version adventure, for OSE and Shadowdark. And while duel stated would normally indicate something bad, and while I have been on a poor run with Shadowdark, it is also true that the better Shadowdark adventures DO in fact channel a decent OSR vibe. This is also the first adventure by a new designer. And it’s got three stars on DriveThru. New rule: five star drivethru products and three star products are actually pretty ok. Seriously, whoever gave this tree stars is a fuck. Sure, in some perfect world then this might be a perfectly average adventure. But that’s a world in which 95% of shit don’t suck. 

So, ye olde keep is hit by an earthquake and then some grimlocks tunnel up from below and wipe everyone out. Not grimlocks, in name, but they are grimlocks. Primitive humans, they eat your adrenal glands. What’s that western movie, the one with the grimlock cannibals? Bone Hatchet or something like that? Yeah, that’s what we’ve got here. Some sub-human cannibals. 

And let me tell you, dude brings the vibe for that. “The sound of a rabbit screaming a

death curdle. The Ruk beyond break off its legs at the small joints and drink it’s terrified blood.” Ouchies! This sort of thing is done a couple of times. It does a decent job of communicating the vibe without explicitly appealing to gire. It also, I think, would motivate the players. And player motivation is THE BEST way to get the people at the table engaged. In one room we’ve got a bandit, quietly weeping, hanging from a pillar in chains: “Significant amount of face (including eyes) and chunks of legs and hands eaten. Wants only to die. Begs. Name is Marsor. Asks that Hana in Last Tree be told that he loved her dearly but never said. If Hana is with the expedition she will weep heartily for him, say sweet goodbyes, and end him herself. “ Yeah, it’s kind of tropey. But, tropes exist because they are good when done well, and I think this is done well. It’s visceral, again without, IMO, being gory. There’s this appeal to human emotion also, real human things, which helps ground it. That’s some grim fucking shit right there, even without your (potential) hireling doing her thing. Fuck those dudes! Time to homo sapien those shits! Note also, that this is not drug out in a paragraph or two. It gets in, stabs you in the liver and gets out again. That’s how you fucking do it!

There are spots where the writing is quite good. Look, we’re not talking Paris Review, but, also, this is a fucking D&D adventure, so almost anyuthing not cringy will work. There’s a little village, the new last outpost of civilization, included. The village of Last Tree. It has the last living real oak tree before things turn to scrub oaks. The village overview ends with “the tree died last year.” Sweeeett!

The inn gets the following description. I’m also including the first potential hireling:: “Hot meals, warm ale, cool stone floor, ice cold bar wench. A beautiful stone fireplace; not used. Cheap board (3 GP) and drink (3 SP), expensive food (3 GP). Thugs for Hire (Bandit stats): Half a share of treasure. Tinal -Neutral-Tattooed, slaps back, in deep gambling debt. RP: Untrustworthy Jason Mamoa.” Terse. Good description. For both the inn and the NPC. Gives us a vibe and lets the DM run with it. That’s what the fuck a good description should do. Nary a wasted word. And just about every single description in this adventure is done that way. Written to give a good vibe in a minimal amount of words. Formatting contributes pretty well to this. Bolding, bullets, whitespace all combine for something that is pretty easy to read. Not quite rock star levels but still really really good without falling in to the OSE minimalism format. 

A few notes. There is an overland portion that is rather week. Kind of like a six hex hex crawl. It’s doing nothing. And, it has a rift that could be confused for the valley in B2. The Unfathomable Crevasse. It’s directly between the ruins and the town, so it invites exploration … with none really given or much of a description. The entire overland is much like that and is not effective.

The text gets quite purple in places. The fortress to the north looms dejectedly. Or, a wall that looms above the ruins of the keep, silent, fuming, mourning despair. Uh huh. I’m down for some looming but not the mourning and fuming and dejectedly shit is a little much. I get it, we’re trying to inject that despair and forlorn vibe. But that ain’t it.

There’s also an issue with the monsters. We’ve got a wight, some “spirits” and the Rak baddies. The wight, the former Castellan, could use a good solid description. He’s gonna maybe be a central part of the adventure. (Note, he’s not really focused on in the adventure, but, his presence is there and he can be used to advantage or encountered as a baddie … good focus there without going on and on.) Same for the Rak. Bring those evocative descriptions to them. And, there’s a decent number of “spirits” in the adventure. Some are just apparitions, but some, it seems, are hostile. Telling which is which is not always easy. And, I assume that “spirit” is a creature in the OSE manual? This could be done much better.

Finally, you’re there to get the Castellans old sword. A symbol of power for the new baron. You’re returning it to a priest.wise woman in the town, the representative of the baron. When you get back to town with the sword and go see her she MIGHT be a little off. Cause she’s an imposter now, her body buried under the floorboards. “This person is an impostor, a Cultist of Ramlaat, whose influence grows in the region.” Noice! Good complication when returning to town for something that most folk would just write off as a pretext. 

Really good effort here. I might point to some order of battle issues, the overland, a little sparseness in the interactivity as reason to go No Regerts. Soe may be due to the size, or lack thereof, of the adventure. But, really, quite good. 

This is free at DriveThru.

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21 Responses to The Ruin in the Savage Wastes

  1. Connor McCloskey says:

    Fuck Yeah, decades more to come.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I don’t mind AI cover art, but that’s not a very good piece – it could have used a few more iterative generation steps.

  3. Commodore says:

    That’s a very good gimmick, “let’s visit the keep in B2 after it has fallen” is a fun thought. Suspect this is another of those Shadowdark Game Jam products…marketing aside, my impression of Shadowdark is that it’s a perfectly cromulent retroclone that has a hit/miss rate no worse than most OSR systems.

  4. Gnarley Bones says:

    No playtesters noted, which accounts for 1st level characters going up against wights and such (note for the Author – you get that amounts to the wight probably killing 1 PC a round, right?).

    The cursing and forced edgelordiness curdles it for me; *almost* salvaged by the direction that “If you fufge rolls, you are not allowed to run this adventure.”

    • Connor McCloskey says:

      I will absolutely consider your balance note in the future, Gnarley. 120 (40) PCs “going up against” a 90 (30) wight for no benefit would be a poor choice in my opinion, but that’s really on the players to decide. The only forced encounter with him is his appearance when they have their quarry (his sword) and are already on their way out the door.

      I’ll give you the Scorpions 150 (50) could be overtuned, but they can be mostly avoided by listening to rumors in town (stay South), crossing the empty drawbridge gap to avoid the attention of the one below, and have a 50% chance of stopping for dropped food. The only real time they would be a threat the party can’t avoid would be as a wandering overland encounter (1/6) with an average start distance of 140 yards, which a party with ranged accoutrement should be able to handle while falling back if need be, and still with a chance of food halting it.

      The only deadly creature that must be engaged is the Hunt Leader, but the entire dungeon around him (and the one above him) is ripe for traps/ collapses/ ambushes/ choke points/ infighting, and the Ruk take their prisoners alive (a chance for rescue or escape later).

      With 4 PCs and 3 Henchmen available for hire, I don’t think any of these are outside of reasonable to overcome/avoid, and I think all are significantly signposted. I mainly checked my expectations against the optional “Balancing Encounters” table in the Rules Cyclopedia and used that to guide me.

      But with all that waffling said, I understand your point and I will keep it in mind on my next project, thanks for taking a look.

      • Handy Haversack says:

        Well, I’m starting a new campaign on Sunday after, erm, a series of unfortunate (mainly demon-based) events. Going to work this one into the starting rumors.

        • Connor McCloskey says:

          That is SO cool to hear, thank you. If they bite the hook I’d love to hear of any hang-ups or QoL improvements you run into that you think would have been helpful done differently. Good luck with the new campaign

      • Gnarley Bones says:

        Not sure what those numbers mean, but in B/X, the 1st level cleric can’t turn the wight, who can only be hit by magic weapons the 1st level PCs don’t yet have, and every successful strike by the wight kills a PC (who, then, rises as a wight).

        • Anonymous says:

          Wights are fine. I use one or two (even mummies – who are actually better for this) fairly regularly as the monster that teaches the lesson “Don’t fight that and if you must be smart!”

          Depending on the stat-block (and here OSE makes an error I think) wights are immune to normal weapons. Rough. Silver weapons and magic missile work fine. In B/X oil bombs also work (OSE insists that they can only be harmed by silver or magic weapons – which seems an error, because if read literally it implies spell immunity as well, and no, you can fireball the wight.)

          The thing is wights have 3HD, an avg of 12 or 13 hp – a number of silver dagger stabs, but a few well placed oil bombs, three to five silver arrows or less is someone gives them the magic missile. This is just to say that – yes a first level party can beat a lone wight in a stand up fight.

          Wights though are slow. You “kite the wight” to use the parlance of MMOs. This is why silver arrows exist. Worst comes to worst run away. if you are encumbered with treasure the wight eats you, a lesson in avarice. If the wight presumably goes back to its stinking hole and complains about kids these days.

          As people in the OSR are so fond of saying “this isn’t 5E, not every fight is one you can win”. Except you still usually can as long as you do something besides rushing straight at the monster screaming and waving a sword. throwing six wights at a level one party, still not cool, unless they are chatty.

        • Connor McCloskey says:

          Apologies, I should have been more clear, those numbers are their B/X speed. The characters should be faster than the Wight unless burdened, so should be able to outrun it when it materializes to attack when they are leaving with the sword. That is the only time it forces engagement, other than that it is a random encounter they should again be able to get/stay away from.

      • Soren Andersen says:

        I’m going to check this one out. The price is right. Thanks for bringing this one to light, Bryce. Connor, regarding balance, maybe it works just fine. Mind you we haven’t played it yet so who am I to say. However, as described by Bryce, the adventure has an air of dread, which includes the wight, especially when faced by first level characters. The wight also makes sense for the scenario.

        For anyone new to OSR style games and Shadowdark, there is a different concept of “balanced”encounters. Dropping characters abruptly into a pit of acid with no chance of survival is unbalanced. Surrounding 1st characters with one hundred archers under cover whose only role is shoot to kill, no negotiations, etc is unbalanced. But a wight vs a party of 1st levels? Just flee, and if they must get past the wight to get the sword, flee first and hatch a plan to out smart or out maneuver the wight. Or maybe negotiate or bluff.

        On paper, direct combat between a party of 1st levels and a wight will nearly always end in a TPK. OSR is not about what’s on a paper character sheet. It’s about what’s in the player’s brain to creatively problem solve. If problem solving results in a character dying or a TPK, well that’s part of the game too.
        This feels very different from 5th edition D&D adventures with the character (what is on the character sheet) being more important to game mechanics than the player. I’m not saying either style is better. Both can be fun in their own way. I prefer OSR.

  5. Reason says:

    Why hung up on the Wight- the creator has outlined the careful consideration it was given and how it is used in the module. From the review it sounds like you can 50/50 deal with the wight as a non combat (“we’re here to help your brother”?).

    You also don’t have to stab things. In a ruined castle there should be ways to lure it into a pit, drop a net on it, seal it in a tomb, barrel of flaming oil etc etc.

    _Many_ wights would be a killer. A lone creature is quite vulnerable to all those tricks.

    PS. The film is Bone Tomahawk and it’s really, really good. the bad dudes are PERFECT for D&D baddies- they are the ultimate show don’t tell.

  6. Handy Haversack says:

    I do remember a couple of campaigns ago when a party of 1st-levels tangled with a wight and used a combination of rope to entangle it and get it strung up and then eventually fire to deal with it. Forced some creative problem solving when they realized they could not affect it with weapons. I was proud of them.

    FWIW. But unbalanced is the name of the game!

    • Reason says:

      Had something similar with a merrow troll random enc on a river barge with some level 1’s.

      Using the cargo nets and crane bought them enough time to figure out what killed it.

      I don’t know about OSE but in many older D&D editions creatures of 4HD+ can still dmg wights, lycranthropes etc (which was also interpreted as also falls from great height- it ain’t the fall that kills ya, it’s the giant earth you hit-, huge boulders, flaming oil etc).

      You just need a DM who rules “yes” to good ideas.

  7. Shuffling Wombat says:

    This has a number of good features, and is worth a look. I’d side with Gnarley Bones regarding dangerous monsters: the Hunt-Leader, Wight and Giant Scorpions are all very tough for fragile level 1 OSE characters. (The author has addressed the last in his comments, and I would add Sleep as the most likely counter, a more likely spell for a level one magic-user or elf.) For me, the “it’s time to run” calculation should be based on depleted resources rather than a monster which is too tough at full party strength. (This sort of encounter probably works better using Shadowdark rules.) I wouldn’t allow flaming oil to damage a wight: magical and mundane fire are different. Maybe a better solution would be to let the Baron’s agent issue a couple of silver weapons at the start of the adventure.
    A couple more things:
    (i) The “Donjon of the Ruk” is rather linear, especially given the locked northern door in area 7;
    (ii) Treasure appears in a few huge chunks (e.g. gold necklace worth 2400gp), I’d prefer to see a hoard where transporting the treasure is itself a challenge.
    Overall a good effort.

  8. Handy Haversack says:

    So this was the rumor my players picked up on for our new campaign after an unfortunate TPK. Gold and land too hard to resist!

    I found the overland section worked a little better in practice than I feared from Bryce’s review — though having that many hexes maybe isn’t necessary. They heard it was safer to pass to the right of the Crevasse, so that’s what they did. I maybe should have expanded the random encounter table a little for this section, but it was still fine. The Foreboding effects worked well — that molted giant scorpion had them freaked. The cairns of the lizard people are also a cool thing. Lizard people already factored in the campaign set-up and the rumors table, so this meshed nicely with what I had going on. I agree with Bryce that if the entire hex map is there, some more interactivity in each hex would have been fine. Otherwise, just use a couple of linear encounters or expand the random table to embrace the locations in the hexes instead of making them specifically tied to hexes.

    They *did* encounter the scorpion under the bridge and made short work of it — mainly because I am a member of the Order of the D30, and they were so freaked out by the molted skin from earlier that they immediately blew a D30 on a damage roll against the scorpion and rolled well on it.

    As for the Keep … honestly, I found it a little *underpowered*. Now, this might be because I’m running AS&SH and most of the group was playing fighters, who get double attacks against 1HD creatures, which with weapon mastery comes out to 3/1. I probably should have made the Ruk 1+2 HD or something, but it was fine. Or perhaps the set encounters in the Donjon could be with 4 instead of 2 Ruk. Just that a party is going to gang up hard on isolated or paired enemies.

    Which is what happened with the Castellan! Yes, they lost a character. But by that time they had the magic sword — and fire! Fire is a great thing to use against creatures that need magic or silver *weapons*. Fire and a D30 took out the Castellan.

    They sussed out the impostor for Sister Mariel. (I made it a doppelganger and also gave it dust of sleepiness, but two of them made their saves and were able to take it out.) Now they are debating over e-mail whether they hang on to the sword or claim their reward.

    My players loved some of the descriptions, and eventually I’d indicate when I was quoting directly instead of riffing because they appreciated the well-turned phrases. They also loved the hirelings available at the Wise Axe — this despite my being so poorly connected to pop culture that I had only a vague idea of who the personalities were in the RP guidance. They found it pretty hilarious. And when Hana charged right past the Hunt Leader to take out Brad Pitt (but half-eaten), they were totally caught up in the moment.

    So, all in all, a really nice intro adventure for a new campaign. It has laid a couple of seeds for further troubles (the sword, the lizard people), got some entertaining NPCs in the mix, and is modular enough to fit into the corner of the world I’m developing here.

    No ragerts indeed!

    • Shuffling Wombat says:

      So the adventure is perfectly well balanced as long as you use a different system to that for which it was designed.

      • Handy Haversack says:

        Really? A more typical use case is to use only the system written on the cover? I had thought the point of modules was modularity.

        • Shuffling Wombat says:

          The version of the adventure under discussion is for OSE. Your play account is for a different system, where the characters are more powerful at first level. So it is not a counterargument to the module being on the tough side for 4 first level OSE characters. You are also ruling that mundane fire damages the wight. The OSE description is “Only harmed by silver weapons or magic”.
          As I said above, I like the adventure.

    • Connor McCloskey says:

      This was so wonderful to read, thank you so much for trying it out, and thank you for circling back to give the update! This is the first time I’ve ever read an account of someone running something I’ve made, and it is a surreal and deeply satisfying and exciting feeling. I’m glad it went well, and thank you so much for sharing.

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