[Review] The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga (2e); Wheels within Wheels

[Adventure]
The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga (1995)
Lisa Smedman (TSR)
Level 7 – 20

And we are back at it. After a harrowing descent into White Wolf Hell that cost me 35 sanity points, 2 experience levels, 3 points of permanent constitution and infected me with rabies, I stand before you a defeated man. My last few dives into old DnD met with decidedly mixed results. Between shitty Role Aids products, execrable 147-page White Wolf novels and bittersweet Avalanche historical adventures, I needed a balm, a soothing caress of the soul. Enter Lisa Smedman, Canuck muse to wounded gamers the world over, to set me back on the right path. With a High level adventure no less!

Smedman, also known for writing the most rpg novel-tie ins ever, two of which I actually read (but who I can sadly only vaguely remember, it was the War of the Spiderqueen series I think) penned down one of the most wondrous and exciting dungeon delves into a wizard’s domain I have ever had the pleasure of reading, for which I thank you. Between this and Cordell’s work on the Monstrous Arcana series, I am starting to suspect that despite all its flaws, TSR had some serious talent at its disposal during its heydays.

The adventure concerns the sudden arrival of Baba Yaga and her legendary Dancing Hut, first described in the OD&D Eldritch Wizardy supplement as far back as 1976, the Hut has reappeared in various editions throughout DnD’s lifetime. It is a part of obscure DnD nerdlore that has now been codified into an adventure that lives up to its legend in every respect. As soon as the hut, a great wooden shack perched on giant chicken legs, arrives on the plane somewhere in the heart of a deep forest, animals flee in a five mile radius, great thunderclouds emerge in the wake of her flight by cauldron and time itself twists and convulses! Serious magical shit is afoot!

This adventure is an almost perfect mixture between folklore, DnD and gonzo and I love it, it reminds me of Castle Gargantua. It all starts with Baba Yaga herself. An ancient withered crone of demi-godlike ability, who flies around in a magical cauldron and erases her traces with a broom, who feeds on the spirits of the dead, who bargains for young maidens to serve her for 2 years, who knows all but each question will cost you 1-10 years of your youth, who seeks to trap Death itself to be forever beyond its reach. Throughout the adventure, Baba Yaga remains an aloof, lurking in the background but observing every room in her 4-dimensional hut through a thousand mirrors (or animals that have one eye replaced with a glass bead). While she is evil, she is also sly and can be bargained with. Her power, which dwarfs that of a Tarrasque, makes it very unlikely the PCs can destroy her, though the adventure certainly does not forbid you from trying. Fortunately for the PCs, the adventure gives you several other possible reasons for venturing into the dreaded Hut of Baba Yaga. Good hooks too, anything from investigating the freak weather to finding some poor girl whose dick stepmother sold her to Baba Yaga (classic).

Okay, so the hut proper is incredibly well done and just exemplifies the type of ‘hidden depth’ that makes DnD the fun-filled wonder-palace of the imagination that exists today. It has what is probably the most interesting map design I have ever seen, BAR NONE. It’s all in about the presentation. The cabin just squats there, in the centre of the woods, surrounded by an 160 foot radius fence made of human bones. As you approach, trembling in anticipation like a cuck, or more likely remote viewing the place through your crystal ball, then exhuming a nearby graveyard for an army of disposable soldiers before sending an Aerial Servant to check out the Hut and report back because you are at least level 7 and therefore FUCKING FIERCE, the Fence animates to become Necrophidici! Once you finally approach the cabin IT RISES ON ITS GIANT CHICKEN LEGS AND PROCEEDS TO KICK THE SHIT OUT OF YOU UNTIL YOU HIT IT HARD ENOUGH TO GET IT BELOW 0 HP, after which you have some time to move into the cabin before its legs regenerate.

After that disturbing mixture of weird and sinister we get…a seemingly normal cabin. They foreshadow it beautifully. A welcome to those who seek knowledge and a dire warning against those who seek riches is written above the door…in cyrillic[1]!  A secret trap door leads down to an attic, to a cavern below the attic to an entrance to a vast 4 dimensional non-euclidean maze of chambers that is the true interior of the Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga! As you explore this maze-like environment you find clues written on the walls left by Questrix the Illusionist (another prisoner of Baba Yaga) as well as the OPTION of talking to many of the servants, guardians and prisoners of Baba Yaga.
There is a SECOND level of the same size folded ATOP the first level, but it can only be accessed through certain doors IF you use a CERTAIN sequence of knocks before you enter. The sequence IS the same but the order is different depending on from what room you access the place. Normally this would be too cryptic and the clues are difficult to find but there are ways of getting the information from prisoners or servants of Baba Yaga so puzzling is not a necessity. Nevertheless, what an awesome surprise.
It’s like the end of one of those Mega Man games where the enemy is not Doctor Wiley and you take him out and you figure out IT WAS DOCTOR WILEY ALL ALONG AND YOU GET AN ALL NEW SECTION OF THE GAME. Now imagine you go through that and you discover that there is a level ABOVE the 2nd level. You find partial blueprints, notes on augmenting certain high level spells, maps of rooms that are not on the map. You can’t find the control room to Baba Yaga’s hut, and no amount of knocks will cause any doors to open differently. You did remember certain cryptic riddles on some doors of the SECOND LEVEL.

The rooms themselves are fucking amazing. They contain everything you would expect from a millennia-old plane-travelling folkloric witch. Bizarre prisons, rooms with stuffed animals (that are actually vampires), infinite treasure vaults protected by fearsome enchantments, an armory with weaponry both ancient and modern protected by the ghost of a cyborg commando, a tunnel leading into your own intestine, gateways into other planes, a miniscule Tokyo plagued by a giant lizard (Yes Really!). Meddling with the tools of a batshit evil demi-god witch can get you fucked good and proper but there is some awesome magical shit to be found.

Speaking of which, the magical shit! Smedman did a terrific job of portraying the interior of an extradimensional wizards tower. Rooms are simultaneously challenging obstacles to overcome, wondrous locations to explore and they all have some sort of purpose. Guest quarters, magical prismatic healing factory, magic laboratories full of tea that replicates various potion effects. Paintings that turn into a clone of you and then step out and attempt murder (or convincing the party that THEY are the real one) The fucking works. Sometimes items will instead be taken from 2e’s Tome of Magic or be a shield with a medusa face that functions as a platemail of fear and so on. You find a staff of power on a repair bench. Do you feel lucky punk?
I have not even gotten into the Flowers of Transformation or similar wondrous artifacts. A point of criticism is that at times valuable objects are described but not statted out as being worth X amount of gold pieces, though I feel this is part of 2e’s general focus on adventuring and killing as a main source of XP, with loot being largely secondary. The warning on the cabin is well stated. Looting in this game is likely to get you fucked up by Baba Yaga and her various defensive measures, servants and spells. If you enjoy playing games where you loot things and make lots of cash, this is not the adventure for you (though you might be able to glean some amazing magical treasures from the truck-load of powerful adversaries scattered about).

While I am on the subject. The creatures! Unless the party is smart and disables Baba Yaga’s scrying mirrors, veils itself against divination or uses one of the many other countermeasures that are available to high level NPCs, Baba Yaga is very likely to detect them early on. How she responds exactly is mostly left up the GM, though there are a few locations she will defend with her servants if they are directly molested (say, her pantry). And what servants they are! Anything from talking magical animals to Pit Fiends [2]! to strange fossilized skeletons can be found. This adventure doesn’t use all unique monsters and its monster selection is at least semi coherent (undead, outsiders and talking animals) but so many of its monsters are either customized (golems with glass eyes, fossilized skeletons, frog-like quasits with bizarre glass eyes etc.) or written with a personality and a goal.
I am amazed how many encounters are described in such a fashion as to open up an opportunity for faction play. Baba Yaga’s cat might reveal secrets about reaching the inner levels if you treat her nicely, the Pit Fiends are kind of resentful of serving her and are not 100% opposed to the idea of working together etc. etc. There is a great balance here. There are no random encounters in the Hut but Baba Yaga has a finite number of minions she can dispatch should the PCs come close to ransacking her shit, and thus the GM is given room to improvise. The genius thing is that it is in fact POSSIBLE To at least temporarily bypass this scrying if you discover it is going on. Incidentally, did I mention the imprisonment chamber with the bound Minor Deaths or the former Duergar servant turned Broken Ones that feeds silver shavings to Baba Yaga’s stable of Nightmares?

The module is not without its flaws. The first, and largest is the pitfall all too many high level adventures fall prey to which is GIMPING THE PLAYERS. One might even go so far as to state that the entire purpose of Planar adventures is to put PCs in surroundings where they are no longer the top dog and the rules of the world are different then the ones they are used too. This module does that HARD. Scrying inside the Hut? You are fucked. Area of effect enchantments? The hut eats them and flings them back whenever it desires. Teleportation/plane travel? Seperate demiplanes bitch! That last one is circumvented by having the Pit Fiends (that use teleportation) wear a strange bronzed chicken amulet. The amulet doesn’t register as magical (because of some reversed Nystul Aura bullshit) so the PCs would have no reason to suspect it does anything like allow people to teleport within the hut. While there is some small element of fairness and challenge to it, it always strikes me as kind of lazy. I understand that without these restrictions most games of high level Dnd would degenerate into Wizard-powered pre-cognitive rocket-launcher tag but either write better or make the adventure lower level.

Is it deadly? Yes. Is it at times, merciless and unfair? Yes but almost never without subtly telegraphing the death traps in advance, by which I mean both the actual traps and the far more potent traps Baba Yaga has crafted to trap DEATH. The most ridiculously powerful are the three rooms adjacent to the highest room, which is Baba Yaga’s Control Room. The ONLY way to get inside is if you overhear BABA YAGA HERSELF use it when she goes in and out of the thing. No one else knows it. Man if people didn’t have legend lore or fucking wish or Nine bazillion other divination spells I’d be pissed, but then again the upper level is noted as suitable for characters 18+ which is fucking madness but whatever. What’s more is that as written there is no reason your characters couldn’t just go in at low level, do their quest thing, banter some with Baba Yaga, and return to stop her plan to fuck up death.

Really the only other problem is that while Baba Yaga’s goal is pretty clear and some time is spent on explaining the temporary ramifications of her success, there is a weird sort of anticlimax to the whole thing and it serves more as a pretense for the adventure location, not as an event that will take place as the PCs explore the hut. On the other hand, its nice to see 2e without the burdens of having an unfolding story and just giving you a location with awesome shit to explore, which is 99.9999% of this thing.

As a last recommendation, take at least 2 wizards and a lot of backup scrolls before you tackle this thing. If you do though and your players are the inquisitive, smart sort, you might find yourself with planar epic adventure THAT IS ACTUALLY SATISFYING the likes of which the world has never seen.

Pros: High Level Gonzo Folkloric Multiplanar Cabin Exploration the likes the world has never seen before. Wheels within Wheels. A laugh! A tear! Death! Come one Come All!

Cons: Yet another high level adventure where some monsters are just buffed and the players are gimped to level the playing field a bit. Who even plays till 13th level? Might be a bit too cryptic for the more happy go lucky players (I have those too, they have a lot of fun never reaching beyond level 5 before they fuck up and die). Fucking 20ish pages on what type of magic is restricted in the hut.

Though I imagine it’s several orders of magnitude more lucrative, it’s a shame Smedman did fantasy novels when this module shows she can write/design a damn good module if she wants too [3]. Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga is an absolutely wonderous take on the old wizard’s tower trope and packs more creative punch in a few rooms then I have seen in entire campaigns. I cant imagine it’s for everyone but this is one of the most creative, deep and well designed adventures I have seen in a long time 8.5 out of 10.

[1] Cyrillic is the russian alphabet, appropriate because Baba Yaga is drawn from Russian Folklore.
[2] Pretty much the most nightmarishly powerful creature short of a Duke of Hell or Demon Prince the hosts of the outer planes can throw at you, Pit Fiends are an absolute nightmare to encounter. This adventure has 4.
[3] The only other modules I can find are Ravenloft modules which (perhaps appropriately) fills me with no small amount of foreboding.

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2 thoughts on “[Review] The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga (2e); Wheels within Wheels

  1. I haven’t read the 2e separate publication, but had always assumed that it was based in whole or in part upon Roger Moore’s “The Dancing Hut” from Dragon #83 (March 1984), and it sounds like it’s not. I’ll have to give this a closer look, thanks!

    Allan.

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    1. Hi Allan, long time no speakee. The adventure even goes so far as to give an explanation for why it differs so much from the hut described in Dragon 83, citing some sort of Quantum-Leap Eternal Champion-esque mechanism whereby both Baba Yaga and the Hut are different in each reality. After perusal, I think its fair to say Smedman was inspired by Dragon 83, but definitely improved upon the work.

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