[Review] The Shattered Circle (2e); Signature Cordell

The Shattered Circle (1998)
Bruce Cordell (TSR)
Levels 1 – 3

Shattered Circle

A belated happy kingsday to everyone! By popular demand and in honor of his majesty King Willem van Oranje and my beloved Netherlands I am proud to present you with another review of late TSR Bruce Cordell.

The Shattered Circle is easy to review because it represents a sort of average Cordell module, containing all the elements of nonlinear dungeon, lovecraftian horror, magitech complex, creepy humanoids, videogamey trappings, evil badmen in search of super powerful rocks and a bossfight where you have to smash some other object to get at the Big Bad that make up the majority of Cordell modules. If you liked any of the Illithid or Sahuagin adventures, chances are you will like the shit out of this one.

Shattered Circle is a delightful lovecraftian antidote to the dreaded onslaught of high fantasy that came to predominate early 2e but it also represents a point in time when DnD became increasingly self-referential. No longer content with ripping off old S&S novels, it shifted the focus to exploring and codifying its own cobbled together mythology with mixed results. I kind of dig modules that expand upon certain rare monstrosities but at the same time if you are new to the game and don’t give a shit about the lore a lot of the impact behind modules like these is just lost. For what it is worth, even if you have never heard of the Underdark, Drow and other shit, you can definetely still enjoy this module.

Shattered Circle begins pretty inauspiciously, which I appreciate. A shepherd has gone missing near a circle of standing stones. The PCs set out to find him. Two of the hooks are decent. One of the PCs is a relative or the party dog has gone missing (awwwww). The last one is fucking ridiculous; a 100 gp reward if you find the missing shepherd. Whaaaat?!? Are we supposed to believe a family of shepherds can pony up enough money to feed a thousand people with a good quality meal? Fucking DnDconomics.

One of the standing stones has fallen down, revealing a stairway that leads DEEP into the earth. After they find the shepherd dead in the first pit trap (or maybe they won’t), it’s dungeon exploration time.

The complex is BIG, both in terms of size and number of rooms. The first level represents the long-buried abode of some proto-elf sorcerer now inhabited by Chitines [1], the second level is a massive cave underneath the complex that now holds a globular Chitine city  and the third is yet another even more inner sanctum where the eldritch reality warping power of the Foundingstone has begun to manifest itself properly. The complex overall is at least somewhat nonlinear, with multiple stairways to the second level as well as the odd secret door. This nonlinearity is somewhat curtailed by Magic Super Doors that only open if you get the Quest Object Thing from some dude or the MAGIC WORD OF QUEST from some other place or whathaveyou, forcing you to backtrack to get some item or password that will allow you to progress, an irritating conceit.
The third level is pretty linear, and forces you pretty much explore the entire complex to press three switches in order to gain entrance to the sanctum, where you will presumably have some sort of final showdown with the boss. I am a huge stickler for verisimilitude and I can’t abide this sort of shit in my games since it almost always breaks my immersion. I have the same problem with pit traps that reset because of “the eldritch power of the Founding Stone” and a convoluted protection for an artifact that involves you having to solve a riddle or fight some zombies. If I want that shit in my game I will start up Final Fantasy. I don’t mind riddles but they must make sense IN CONTEXT. On the plus side, a part of the dungeon is flooded, and the adventure doesn’t give you any bullshit water breathing powers to compensate, trusting on you to figure shit out for yourself. Ah Cordell, I cannot stay mad.

The module suffers from two other congential defects that are quite common for the children of the 2e era. Excessive descriptive verbosity coupled with an almost autistic tendency to explain everything in an effort to make sense. Expect a lot of descriptions about rooms that once where a guardpost or storeroom and now contain very little but debris. On the plus side, a lot of information, some of it very useful, some of it merely flavorful (but not terrible), can be gleaned from faded inscriptions in the Language Primeval in certain areas, which I rather appreciate since it adds to the whole Distant Antiquity thing this module seems to be going for. At least I’ll get some use out of that History non-weapon proficiency I sunk those slots into.

This module is starting to sound like a piece of shit and it really isn’t. First up! The roleplaying! There are two groups of Chitines in the complex (the cavern has a fissure deeper into the underdark to explain how they and other inhabitants got there), one a city group, the other a group of outcasts who have fled the city for fear of the increasingly bizarre phenomena that began appearing when their chieftain, Caullum, secluded himself within the Inner Sanctum with his new shiny magical rock that he found. The module hands out rewards for making friends with some of the Chitines to the point where I feel it comes short of forcing a particular style of play, and you actually get penalized for murdering all the Spider Children if you are good-aligned, which is nonsense that I hate. My paladin should be allowed to murder as many spider people as he wants because spider people do not have human souls and are born chaotic evil goddammit.

Fuck what else? Shit gets more complicated by the appearance of two Drow Bounty Hunters sent out to find the escaped slaves (boy I hope you like handing out super powerful magic items and then having those items turn to dust once they hit sunlight) along with their bizarre spider-themed minions (Phantom Spiders and the gruesome webbirds). Interactions with intelligent antagonists are always far more interesting then a mere slaughterfest and I am pleased that roleplaying or negotiation makes an appearance in this adventure. It is even possible to ally with the Drow for a short time, and to its credit the module doesn’t try to push the negotiation on you. You can actually attempt to slaughter the Drow on sight (good luck 1st level PCs!) and they too will assume hostility from silly surfacers. And my favorite, you can rescue an alcoholic deepgnome thief that drinks 200 proof rotgut and has an obsession with knives from a giant Catfish. Yes. Yes that is in there.

The monster section of the adventure is pretty strong in general, and I appreciate the off-beat enemy selection. Whenever you encounter the Chitine they are always doing something (mining, foraging etc. etc.), making the place feel alive. The Foundingstone summons nightmare monsters from its epochs of memory that get increasingly ancient and unnerving as you descend. Velociraptors [2], Axebeaks [3], hideous frog people that never really existed and the shoggoth-like Gibbering Mouthers and Whisperers, supplemented by the odd undead creature here and there. Several times the PCs will encounter monsters that are likely too formidable, forcing them to flee or avoid them in some other fashion, and to its credit the adventure does a pretty good job of telegraphing these in advance. It also builds up the weirdness as you descend, with bizarre frog-raptor hybrids starting to appear. In an abandoned salt mine you can encounter a bizarre salt mummy in a very well set up horror encounter. Its all very off beat, weird, creative and I dig it. It reminds me as much of the stranger Elric stories as it does Lovecraft and that is EXACTLY what DnD should feel like.

The random encounters are included almost as an afterthought. They are just the creatures from various rooms in the complex, with not a single sentence to spice them up. A shame.

Some of the unique NPCs are great too, though you will probably end up chopping them up before they get to do much roleplying. A four armed Chitine fanatic who awaits his masters return, a meazel trapper with a garrote with boots of speed who tries to pick off the party one by one, the horrifically twisted guardian spirit of the sanctum and of course the villainous Caullum himself.
I appreciate a good villainous last speech of “JOIN ME AND WE CAN RULE THE WORLD TOGETHER” while it is pretty obvious that there is some bad news bears stuff going on. The hint on what to do during the final battle is pretty cryptic and I am concerned slow [4] PCs might just end up trying to beat up Caullum while he regenerates 3 hp per round from the eldritch power of the Foundingstone. The stone itself is indestructible, so how do you stop him?

There are a surprising amount of pit traps in Shattered Circle and the placement thereof is going to slow down the game beyond the extent of the traps themselves. Pit traps in random hallways are not cool Cordell. That means your PCs are either going to end up 10-foot poling through the complex or they are just going to take it. Same with poisoned needle traps on random doors. At least Cordell has the decency to make the venom do damage instead of kill instantly. Some traps are admittedly well done. An inscription above a doorway stating “Let the Respectful Enter Here” followed by a Scythe trap at head height. That’s damn good.

The resolution of the entire scenario is handled in an intelligent fashion and you could probably get a session’s worth of roleplaying out of figuring out how to contain the stone. The Foundingstone is, after all, a primordial object that predates the gods themselves and cannot really be destroyed. It loses its power if it is buried under rubble (for some reason). You can’t simply throw it under a pile of rock and hope no one finds it. The overall description of the Foundingstone is pretty good actually. You really get a sense of eldritch horror akin to that of the Bloodstone from Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane and Cordell avoids the cardinal sin of wanting to explain too much.

The treasure is excellent as is no more then standard for a Bruce Cordell adventure. Even relatively mundane items like an ancient shield are described in such a way that they are interesting and make sense in context. A bizarre ice-blade that increases in power as the wielder levels up (that one is never going to get sold), a dragon-tooth weapon, nonmagical swords of strange super alloys, dust of animate object, a magic harp that allows you to talk to the dead, wine that functions as a potion of heroism etc. etc. And once again, like a neck-bearded Zorro, Cordell delivers his signature “weird potions that can be meddled with for random effects” that he learned in adventure-writing-school. This adventure might be a bit too heavy on the magic items for some GMs, but its nowhere near uncommon for a Basic or 1e module.

Pros: Good balance of magic items, monsters, atmosphere, exploration, combat and negotiation. Genuinely evokes the sense of wonder that was at times missing in later DnD modules. Glorious weirdness.

Cons: Long-ass descriptions make the text hard to assimilate. Video-gamey elements break immersion at times. Fucking pit traps.

Overall, you could do a lot worse then Shattered Circle to introduce a group of players to Dnd. The recommendation to allow level ups if the party returns to town is virtually a necessity if you start everyone on level one. SC is not Cordell’s best work and it suffers from video-game esque tropes in some places but overall its a very solid, imaginative and interesting module and for 36 pages it packs a lot of punch. 7.5 out of 10.

[1] In what I think might be a first appearance in a module, the Chitine are a race of spider people bred by the Drow as slaves.
[2] Technically Deinonychoi, a large variant of Velociraptor that resembles the ones in Jurassic Park and thus known in popular culture. An actual Velociraptor is about the size of a large dog.
[3] Phororacos or Terrorbird if you want to get technical. An extinct species of flightless bird that existed on earth millions of years ago. Not fictional.
[4] I.E the mentally handicapped, former 4e players, feminists etc. etc.

4 thoughts on “[Review] The Shattered Circle (2e); Signature Cordell

  1. Chitine – a chagmat (Dragon #63) by another name. Don’t know why they changed the name, as they must have had license to use them. I guess it’s possble that the original Chagmat module was a Dragon Mag competition entry and the author retained his rights over the content; would have to go back to see.

    Found the adventure and, at first glance, it looks pretty solid (other than being pit trap-heavy and some of the monsters being rather dull.) The lower section map threw me off for a while, being labeled a second “Upper Zone Map”, but that’s forgivable. Funny that the adventure still has much of an old school feel, whereas when compared to contemporary Dungeon Mag entries (issues 75+) you can see some differences in style. They hadn’t yet gone to the dreadful video game-like computer generated maps, but 3E was just around the corner.

    I’d encourage you to post more of these “relevant 2E adventure” reviews!


  2. Looked it over.

    Not bad, but more suitable for being beefed up and and made into a way-spot in a party’s descent into the underdark (modify the upper zone map, make a greater connection with the drow, etc.) So, it could be turned into part of Dragonfoot’s Mapping the Underdark collaborative effort (https://www.dragonsfoot.org/forums/viewtopic.php?f=42&t=18908), or something of that nature. Beef it up and swap suitable subsurface creatures (grell, morlocks, etc.) for the historical surface creatures that appear and you have a nice side adventure for mid-level characters. The Icerazor sword is original, but definitely more suited for characters of significantly higher levels.

    Thanks for calling attention to this one!


    1. [Chitine]

      Interesting. Perhaps because name Chitine is more evocative of spiders and thus carries more meaning or weight, I dunno. Maybe Cordell disagreed with minor things and wanted to set his own stamp on the monster for the purpose of his adventure.


      Maybe. I guess that could be a flaw of this place too. Part of the Underdark’s Charm was that it was essentially a setting based version of a new dungeon level. After you are so badass that only unrealistic or exceptional places can still pose a challenge to you, you travel to a place where the average lethality of the inhabitants is much higher. It’s like the Hollow Earth or the Outer Planes if you think about it really. Cordell just decides to skip the whole ‘establish the world with small scale cool stuff’ and goes straight for the shiniest, most high concept shit he can find.


      I will. I am considering covering Skills & Tactics but it would have to be a multi-part review because of its density. I of course encourage anyone to browse the review section and check out my reviews of Role Aids, 2e and the odd 1e or judges guild module. My focus is OSR stuff but I am finding this delve into history very rewarding as bit of variety. Cordell and Cook are interesting because they were such important figures in building 3e, and though they effectively erased the last vestiges of oldskool Dnd in that attempt, both are undeniably talented and creative game designers.

      [Pit traps]

      Pit trap in random hallways are the GM equivalent to being level drained. Your game is now permanently hampered and everything will not proceed about 30% slower unless you intervene and actively forbid your players to do it as long as you promise to never put traps in such places again.

      [Ice Razor]

      It’s only marginally stronger then a +1 longsword at 1-4th level, I think it’s perfectly suitable treasure for a successfull dungeon haul, the only truly overpowered thing about it is that you will never give it up since it scales with the wielder.


      No problem. Hope you get a lot of fun out of it!


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