Skull Mountain (2010)
Jeff “Bighara” Sparks (Faster Monkey Games)
At the risk of getting too meta, Skull Mountain is sort of retro-OSR, by which I mean that it was published in the dawn age of the movement, when the watchword not so much experimentation as it was Reaffirmation. How can a movement develop if it doesn’t know what it is about? There was a need for more DnD like the old DnD, and thus more DnD was produced.
Skull Mountain is based on a sample dungeon map in the 77′ Holmes Basic kit for Basic DnD called Stone Mountain which holds a lot of nostaligic potency for the old guard. Since I was not even born when this damn thing came out and I started my run of mostly module based sandboxing in Mystara using the Rules Cyclopedia of all things, I might be missing some crucial context that either elevates or lowers this work because of its relation to that venerable drawing. I can engage it only as it is, a retro-emulation of classic modules with 9 floors, a cult, evil lizardmen, lots of fuck-you traps and a dragon at the end. Nice.
For what its worth, the adventure notes it is very challenging (and it is not shitting you, this module it pretty brutal) and offers some ways of customizing it for lower level characters by replacing some of the enemies, removing others or nerfing the Dragons spellcasting ability. Basic but it is appreciated. Fuck that I say. Run this one either as a stand-alone or the culmination of a few Labyrinth Lord adventures as a final test to the character’s heroism, skill and balls.
The backstory is very long for a module of this type but all of it gets used to its credit. Long ago, a Black Dragon figured out it was actually way easier to trick humans into worshipping it as some foul deity and bringing it sacrifices then it was to actually do the work. A band of nearby bandits was successfully tricked into bringing gold and sacrifices to appease the dark god of the mountain, eventually going so far as to carve out a stone skull + temple complex in the volcano (Of course it has Lava!). The cult of the Obsidian Heart was born (nice classic name).
Unfortunately, the cult eventually got itself curbstomped by adventurers who earthquaked the place and killed the cult. Cue several centuries later, a band of bandits has taken up some of the Obsidian Heart’s practices and a Lizardman cult has arisen in the depths. The Cult is back in full force, the Lord’s son has been kidnapped AND IT IS TIME TO GET WRECKED SON!
The starting town of Wolford is briefly described (though not given any sort of map) in terms of a few major buildings, assets like an inn, a high level cleric and major NPCs (who are given levels and little else). You can already see the first inklings of Hard-mode Design. Towns are almost always safe zones but the Cult has a spy among the villagers, a 6th level Assassin. Yikes. There is relatively little in terms of characterization, with only the bare essentials being communicated. One point in the adventure’s favor is the inclusion of a persistent splinter group of bandits that can be allied with to take down the bandit turned cult leader Cooper. While it lacks the staying power of places like Hommlet or Shallotsville, the starting town has the bare basics covered.
After the town it’s straight to Skull Mountain, no wilderness map or other distractions. I mentioned Hommlet earlier and its not a terrible comparison; the entryway reminds me of the Gatehouse. The bandits are intelligent adversaries that have made preparations against assault. Expect alarms, traps, ambushes, murder holes, tactical retreats, false doors and all sorts of nastiness in case you try a direct assault. The adventure assumes you will advance cautiously and go in like a fantasy solid snake, and why the fuck not at this point? I mean your party is at least level 4, which means access to Invisibility, Sleep, Silence, Darkness, various Illusions, Hide in Shadows  and detection magic. You have almost no excuse to blunder into the dungeon unprepared at this point.
The first level is entered through the mouth of the skull, after which begins a true descent, with some truly awesome set-pieces later on, as the dungeon opens up. Each level is pretty small, with a handful of rooms per floor. After the entrance the games takes off the kid-gloves and throws a labyrinth of traps at you. Credit where it is due, while the tactics are good, your enemies are actually a lot weaker then you and NEED these tactics to threaten 4th levels. There’s some low key evil cult stuff too, like a cursed altar and an animated statue. The primary antagonist of the upper levels, Cooper, is a tough asshole with tactics reminiscent of Cook or Gygax’s baddies (Slave Lords is a good example). Villains never just attack, they always have an exit strategy and they do not fight fair. Great job on putting the cult’s vault here too, which both A) makes sense and B) is a nice way to parse the adventure and give the PCs a dopamine hit before you break out even more pain. (there was some fuckery with a secret door to the vault that did not really make any sense but otherwise the mapping is pretty solid and intelligible, little nodes with different passageways).
Right on cue, when the cult starts getting boring, the plot thickens! Lizardmen! Underground passageways! Partially buried catacombs. Bridges over lava. Ambush after checkpoint after ambush. The descent is a relentless ordeal and utterly merciless. There are multiple passageways (that are appropriately hard to find) but none really make it easier. I was impressed for the first time by a section that involves descending a vast stalactite and crossing a drawbridge across a chasm that is harsh, but never unfair. Sections feel like video game levels but have a verisimilitude to them that prevents you from losing your suspension of disbelief, for the most part.
The final section takes place on an island in an underground lake and is neat, though this is the first time the map actually lost me and I had to study it intently before I could figure out what was going on. The final showdown with the evil high priest and the dreaded Avatar, an evil Black Dragon, is utterly merciless and anyone unprepared for the power they will face is going to face a wipeout.
There is some bullshit that I disliked. There are a few instances of “magic switches” which always rub me the wrong way, like a passageway that will only open if you place a skull in the hand of a statue. I like my sorcery mysterious and not as a convenience. Treasure is pretty standard, with the odd new magic item (mask of terror) or new mundane item (caltrop rules for LL, nice) thrown in here and there. Mad props for actually giving the Dragon a Hoard that is appropriate to its age and strength, and additional props for making it damn hard to find.
Beyond the usual fare of bandits and lizardmen (with varied tactics to shake things up), there are some cave critters, a neat as fuck bone golem and of course, a fucking Black Dragon for a final boss. There is nothing radically new about the monster selection and even the new additions are pretty much an extension of the beaten path.
This is a pretty straightforward dungeoncrawler. Beyond a couple of prisoners you can free, there is not really a chance for faction play or trickery (unless you disguise yourself). The wonder of modules like Slumbering Ursine Dunes or the sprawling intricacy of something like Many Gates of the Gann is missing. It is strange it was made for Labyrinth Lord since it reminds me very strongly of a lesser AD&D module. It’s all by the book but it does a neat job of following that book.
This is textbook vanilla DnD, but its not generic to the point of being utterly boring. If you want vanilla DnD that feels like the olden days that you can just plunk down in any home-campaign and are looking for something that will finally put the fear of god back into your players then you can certainly do worse. I’d give a very hesitant, somewhat half-hearted thumbs up for Skull Mountain.
Whether it is worthy of the mighty legacy of Stone Mountain, other men may judge.
Bring extra character sheets and praise Kor the town cleric knows how to Raise dead. 6 out of 10.
 Hahaha just kidding even a 6th level thief has a 43% move silently chance which is fucking garbage. The Basic thief class is a terrible class for idiots and percentage point buy was a brilliant innovation in 2e. Dark Fantasy Basic by Eric Diaz had some sort of Hopeless Class but it was superfluous since the Hopeless already exists. It is called the Thief. It has d4 hit dice, 13% trap detection chance at first level and the only thing it does really well is climb walls. It is a testament to DnD’s genius that despite being the retard hard mode class, the Thief actually sees widespread use and everyone is glad if you pick one.