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Dwellers of the Forbidden City

Classic D&D adventure module review

Dwellers of the Forbidden City, by David Cook – Advanced D&D, 1981

An adventure for character levels 4-7

28 pages plus the separate cover with a map of the Forbidden City on the inside faces. The adventure covers 13 areas of the city, each consisting of from one to a dozen encounter areas. There are seven maps from a quarter page size showing small locations to a full page showing small, but long locations. None of the maps are full dungeons, but are rather just lairs with several areas or long passages with several areas along. The main map, though, on the inside of the covers shows the whole of the city from a 45 degree height. They city is in a valley surrounded by very high cliffs, so it is essentially a self contained environment with many encounter zones (which are shown in the other maps).

At the back of the module are four pages of new monsters: the first D&D appearances of the aboleth, mongrelman, tasloi, and yuan ti; and reprints of two creatures from the AD&D1 Fiend Folio: the pan lung dragon and yellow musk creeper. The last page has 20 pre-generated characters.

Parts of this adventure were used in a major tournament, but this version has been expanded considerably for use in a general campaign. The tournament parts are the entrances to the city: underground passages through guards and monsters. But these entrances are not the only way for campaign PCs to get into the city, and the module explains the monsters and difficulties for going over and down the cliff faces.

The city is basically a monster-filled ruins, with no organization or single control. Different sections of the city are “owned” by different species and factions, but there is nothing like a city civilization. It’s all pure chaos, and walking the crumbled city streets is like walking down a dungeon corridor—wandering monsters will attack you (and each other).

Only 13 areas are detailed in any way, so most of the city is assumed to be empty buildings prowled by wandering monsters. With a creative DM, spending time fleshing out the rest of the city, this could be a campaign setting to occupy PCs for several levels. Without fleshing out the “empty” parts of the city, still, the PCs could spend a few weeks exploring, fighting, and dealing with the various creatures of the city (all of which are wicked and vicious). Near the end of the module is a two-page section on “The Forbidden City In Campaign Play.” This gives hooks and ideas for expanding the adventure. This module does not need the DM to expand on it, but the setting concept just begs for it.

The initial adventure hook to start the adventure is a basic “find the bandits and gain their treasure,” but in the chaos of the location, it would be easy for a party of PCs to forget that and end up expanding their mission to any number of objectives. I’m not sure if the official adventure hook can even really be solved in any certain way. Because the setting is so big, and everywhere so dangerous, and getting into and out of the city so difficult, it could just turn into a survival adventure where the PCs have to worry about food, water, and attrition of comrades.

This adventure is a big concept, and it gives enough content to satisfy, but it is also wide open for industrious DMs to expand upon.


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Slave Pits of the Undercity

Classic D&D adventure module review

Slave Pits of the Undercity, by David Cook – Advanced D&D, 1980

An adventure for character levels 4-7

24 pages plus the separate cover with maps on the inside faces. The adventure has over 40 numbered areas on two dungeon levels, and there are two new monsters: the aspis (humanoid insects) and the giant sundew (monster plant).

This module was originally written as a tournament adventure, and there are several pages of information on running it as a tournament adventure, including 2 pages for the tournament Player Characters, a page on tournament scoring, and 2 pages for the tournament versions of the maps. There are also notes in the first pages and throughout the main text on how to handle the encounters in a tournament game. Its origin as a tournament adventure is the biggest problem with this module.

The concept for the module works fine as a general campaign adventure, but there was no rewriting to make the overall setting work in a logical way for campaign play. The author added more rooms and encounters, between and around the limited tournament encounter areas, but they don’t work together in any logical way.

The adventure setting is a ruined temple being used as a slave depot in the middle of a monster-controlled city. The biggest omission is any information on the city itself. All the text gives a DM is:

Highport was once a human city, but the land and town have been overrun by humanoids — orcs, goblins, kobolds, ogres, and gnolls. Looted, burned, and ill-kept, the city has become a base for human outcasts wishing to deal with these unsavory creatures.

This description does serve to stir the imagination, but really, this setting needs more than just two sentences. This city sounds like a whole campaign setting for adventure, but the text only offers it as a vague backdrop for the dungeon adventure.

But even the dungeon setting, itself, is given only a vague description, with the maps showing only part of the ruined temple. The maps, and the room and encounter text, only show and describe the main temple proper and the underground passages around part of the city’s sewer system. The maps and text suggest much more beyond what is shown and explained, but it is up to the DM to figure out and detail.

Most tournament modules were designed for a party to just be at the first encounter area and to work their way through the dungeon in a set time limit, and this is acceptable for a tournament game. But for campaign play, most Player Character parties don’t just magically appear in front of the dungeon, and they don’t complete the whole thing in one day of adventure. Campaign parties have to get to the location, and probably will have to pull out of the dungeon to rest and recuperate at least once during the adventure. This module gives no information or guidance on the greater setting of the dungeon. This gives details on just two parts of a larger location in the middle of a monster city. It’s like the module author said, “Here’s two levels of a bigger location set in the middle of a monster town. You can create the rest of the location and the town.”

The dungeon levels and rooms and encounters just fail in overall unity. Some of the individual areas and encounters are quite interesting and challenging, but when looked at as parts of the greater whole they are supposed to be, they have no logic or sense. The overall structure is supposed to be a slaver fort, where slave buyers come to look at and purchase slaves. But when you look at the layout, you see that there are no safe routes through the fortress. There are monsters and traps everywhere, such that it is impossible for the inhabitants (guard patrols, slave chain gangs, and legitimate [evil] visitors) to actually get around the place.

Wild ghouls, wights, and even basilisks wander the same halls (as wandering monsters) as orc guards and slavers. (There’s a 4th-level cleric and a 6th-level cleric in the fortress, but there’s no information or indication that they control the undead.)

Ruin Encounter Table (roll d6)
Encounter occurs 1 in 6 (d6), check each turn.
1.-2. Orcs (special); see below
3. 1-2 Basilisks
4. 2-8 Ghouls
5. Wight
6. Slavers (special); see below

And then some of the area encounters, though interestingly set up, make no sense as a part of the overall fortress. Taken as separate, set piece challenges, some of the encounters are fun and clever, but they just boggle the mind when you consider them in total.

I’m sure that tournament players don’t have time or the inclination to think about the fortress as a whole, because they are just playing to see how far they can get through the challenges faster than other teams. But in a normal game, campaign experience, players will notice the stupidity of having encounters grouped in illogical ways.

I ran this adventure twice, a few years apart, and both times, with different groups, the players started noticing the wonkiness of the dungeon setting. They started asking questions of the fortress denizens, and since the module text gives no help in this regard, I was at a loss to have the NPCs answer the questions. I mean, questions to orc guards as simple as, “How did you get into this room?” and “How do we get to the slave pens?” left me looking at the map and text with a dumb look on my face.

As a whole, this adventure module is bad. The various room encounters read like they were written by different people with no concept of what the next room was, or what the overall environment was. A pure hack-and-slash group of players, who don’t think of the adventure beyond the room they are currently attacking may not cause any problems for a DM. But a group of players who put any thought into their infiltration plans, or try to conceptualize the overall layout of the fortress, or try to question the denizens of the place will cause a DM a bunch of headaches.

You could probably mine this module for cool individual encounters to pull out and drop into other adventures, but don’t try to run this as a logical, unified setting. It’s like a bunch of random room encounters thrown together and connected with five-feet-wide corridors.


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The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh

Classic D&D adventure module review

The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, by Dave J. Browne with Don Turnbull – Advanced D&D, 1981

An adventure for character levels 1-3

32 pages plus the separate tri-fold cover with maps on the inside faces and the third panel of the outside face. (1 blank page backing player handout illustrations.) The adventure has 30 numbered areas in the mansion, and 17 numbered areas on the ship.

This was the premiere module from the United Kingdom, and the preface mentions, as a light warning, that American readers will probably notice the “slightly different flavour.”

The first four pages introduce the module, mention the town of Saltmarsh, tell the legend of the haunted mansion, and explain the overall plot and story for the adventure. Unlike other adventures of the time period with a town name in the title, this module does not detail the main town. The section on the town merely gives an overview and tells the DM to create any necessary details, including the names and occupations of the Town Council and other prominent citizens, any inn and/or tavern, and the place(s) of worship. The only details given are the population, “about 2,000,” and its coordinate location on the World of Greyhawk map.

The plot for this adventure revolves around a supposedly haunted mansion on a cliff near the town. The text gives several plot hooks to get the PCs to investigate the mansion. Once the PCs investigate, they should discover a smuggling operation working out of the basement with its small sea caves complex. When the PCs defeat the smugglers, they will then need to prepare to capture the smugglers’ ship when it arrives.

The mansion is not actually haunted, but is dilapidated enough to have a few dangerous spots that act essentially as traps. There are several giant vermin encounters in the mansion, and in a change of the AD&D paradigm, the vermin don’t have deadly poisonous bites. The authors made the spider and centipede bites debilitating instead of killing.

This module has boxed text to be read to the Players, and the room information is broken up into readable paragraphs. This helps tremendously compared to other modules of this era with dense paragraphs and no text boxes.

All the monsters are listed in the “old school” stat block style: (AC 8; HD 1+1; hp 7 each, #AT 1; D 1 hit point plus poison).

The only non-critter encounter in the house proper is with a tied up self-admitted thief. This Ned Shakeshaft is actually an assassin placed in the mansion to foil the PCs’ investigation. The encounter is set up such that Ned has what seems like a good story for his presence, but the story is flawed just enough that proper scrutiny will reveal a clue to actually push the PCs further in their investigation.

If the PCs make it to the secret areas of the basement of the mansion, they will find obvious evidence that the house is not vacant. The cavern areas are full of smugglers and some humanoid thugs. This part of the adventure in the mansion can and probably will be a series of combats, hopefully ending in the defeat of the land-based element of the smuggler operation. With the evidence found and deciphered from the mansion investigation, the PCs will need to plan an assault on the smuggler ship.

The ship part of this adventure can go in two completely different ways: It can be a stealth operation – sneaking up on the ship, slipping on board, quietly taking out guards, etc. Or it can be a straight-up boarding assault – storm the railings, hack and slash the defenders, etc. The module is written with the assumption that the PCs at least try the stealthy approach first, although a mass melee on the decks may result from mistakes or bad luck.

Once the smugglers are defeated and the ship taken, there is more mystery and intrigue to discover: what the smugglers are actually smuggling, and to whom. This sets up the plot hook for the next adventure module in this series, Danger at Dunwater.

Overall, this adventure is not a mindless hack-and-slash affair. It is a mystery story punctuated with interesting combat scenarios. There are intriguing plot points throughout the adventure, and the whole operation is full of great role playing opportunities. Impatient, strictly kick-in-the-door types may not appreciate this adventure, but there are enough of most gaming style elements here to satisfy most gamer types. This module is truly one of the greatest adventures ever created. It has story, role playing opportunities, and plenty of grand, interesting combat.


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The Village of Hommlet

Classic D&D adventure module review

The Village of Hommlet, by Gary Gygax – Advanced D&D, 1979, 1981

Introductory to novice level.

24 pages plus the separate cover with maps on the inside faces. (3 blank pages backing maps.) The adventure has 35 numbered areas.

The first thing you notice about this book is the dense text. Each page is two columns, with small margins, and long paragraphs. There’s a lot of text in this book.

The first page is the background for Hommlet and the starting set up for the party entering the area. Hommlet has quite the storied history, being the closest normal town to the Temple of Elemental Evil. The next half page is notes to the Dungeon Master (DM) on running this adventure.

The area here, as well as that of the Temple (contained in a separate module), was developed in order to smoothly integrate players with and without experience in the Greyhawk Campaign into a scenario related to the “old timers” only by relative proximity.

[The actual Temple of Elemental Evil module wouldn’t be published for another 6 years, in 1985, as the first “super module.” That module would include this adventure, republished.]

The biggest chunk of text in this book is the building by building key to the village: eight and a half pages covering 33 numbered areas of mostly mundane buildings and village folk.

6. HOUSE WITH LEATHER HIDE TACKED TO THE FRONT DOOR: This is the home and business of the village leatherworker (0 level militiaman, leather armor, shield, sling, hand axe; 4 hit points). With him live his wife, her brother (a simpleton who does not bear arms), and 3 children of whom the eldest is a 12 year old boy (0 level militiaman, leather jack, buckler, sling, dagger; 2 hit points). The leather-worker is a jack-of-all-trades, being shoe and bootmaker, cobbler, saddler, harnessmaker, and even fashioning leather garments and armor, the latter requiring some time and a number of fittings and boiling. He is not interested in any sort of adventuring. Sewn into an old horse collar are 27 g.p. and 40 e.p. as well as a silver necklace worth 400 g.p.

17. MODEST COTTAGE: A potter is busily engaged in the manufacture of various sorts of dishes and vessels, although most of his work goes to passing merchants or the trader. He has a variety of earthenware bottles and flasks available for sale. The potter (0 level militiaman, padded armor, shield, glaive; 3 hit points), his wife, and four children (two boys are 0 level militiamen, padded armor, crossbow, spear; 4 and 2 hit points respectively) all work in the business. A crock in the well holds 27 g.p., 40 s.p., and 6 10 g.p. gems. They are of the faithful of St. Cuthbert.

[Bolding above as it appears in the book.]

I cannot see a true need for the amount of detail such mundane villagers receive. A few of the villagers are agents of one side or the other in the Good and Evil contest, and the text explains them in as much detail as the normal folk. Only a handful of the NPCs, those with levels in a class, are given names in the text.

There is a lot of coin and magic treasure in this town. The detail and highlighting of these items, as well as the combat stats of every able-bodied male in the village, suggests perhaps the author expected the Player Characters (PCs) to explore the homes and businesses as they would a dungeon. I can’t believe that was actually the intention, but the information on the village buildings looks exactly what you normally find in a dungeon write up (including the dungeon at the end of this book).

A few of the buildings are detailed down to the rooms inside, even with full maps: The Inn of the Welcome Wench tavern (3 floors), the Traders’ Establishment, the Church of St. Cuthbert (3 floors), and the Guard Tower (7 floors). There’s no set adventure to be had in these locales, so scaled maps seem unnecessary. I guess they could be useful for first-time DMs to see what a tavern or church in a D&D world would look like, but I would think illustrations would be better than combat grid maps.

The map on the inside of the book cover shows the entire village at 110 feet to the inch scale. The individual building maps cover pages 17 – 22 (one sided pages).

For the village of Hommlet, there’s a great deal of individual building and person detail. The adventure site, The Ruins of the Moathouse, located 3 miles from the village, covers pages 12 – 16, with the two-level map on pages 23 and 24.

The ruined moathouse “was once the outpost of the Temple of Elemental Evil,” and its ground level is now occupied only by some vermin and a small group of human brigands. The wandering monster encounters are:

2-8 giant rats (see #13., below)
Scraping noise (materials shifting)
Giant tick overhead (see #16. below)
Squeaking and rustling (rats in the floor below)
2-5 brigands (reinforcements for #7., below)
Footsteps (trick of echoes – party’s own)

The dungeon level of the moathouse is the true place of Evil in hiding. An ogre, some zombies, gnolls, bugbears, ghouls, and a sizable group of evil soldiers for the Temple of Elemental Evil are all lead by Lareth the Beautiful, “the dark hope of chaotic evil”.

The PCs could become heroes for rooting out and destroying this small bastion of dangerous villains. They could also come out quite wealthy.

The text of this adventure is dense, with most of the areas written in single paragraphs. There’s no boxed text to read aloud to the Players, so the DM has to read the information carefully before the game session, and probably make notes and highlight information to run the encounters. As evidenced here and in other adventure modules, this author tends to write encounter information in a stream of consciousness style—description, monsters, and treasure are in a single long paragraph for each encounter area, with no set organization.

All the monsters are listed in a modified “old school” stat block style: (H.P.: 21): AC 5; HD 5 +1; Move 9″; 1 attack using bardiche for 2-8 +5 (7-13) hit points of damage.

The adventure is simple and straight-forward enough for novice players wanting to explore a dungeon and fight evil monsters and men, but the opposition in the dungeon is pretty numerous and strong for a party of 1st-level PCs. Even if the adventurers are themselves numerous (the text does not state how many PCs the adventure design expects), they’ll have to be tactically savvy with a mind to retreat when necessary, if they hope to survive this dungeon delve.

Overall, this book spends many pages and much detail on the mundane villagers of Hommlet compared to the adventure. But, the book is titled The Village of Hommlet, so it is actually giving the DM what it advertises. This book is a village, home base source book with a small adventure appended to the end rather than an adventure module.


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