In preparation for a revision review of a well known OSR classic, I figured I’d do my due diligence and review one of the more memorable adventures of the famed White Dwarf magazine, once a cornucopia of articles for anything from Gamma World to Judge Dredd, now an empty husk animated by the fell will of Ian Livingstone.
This issue begins with Ian rightfully excoriating the pedantic gatekeeping centred around realism that infested early magazines and gave birth to voluminous torrents of pedantic subsystems serving only the masturbatory urges of droves of early 80s super nerds. ‘There are an estimated 100,000 D&D players around the world and methods of play are bound to differ. Gary Gygax has always stated that D&D is a game and should, therefore, be enjoyable and fun. But he has never stated that the game should be played in one particular way – it is entirely up to the players.’ God speed Ian, but you can absolutely play DnD wrong.
There’s an article on the incorporation of experience rules in classic Traveller but if you are one of those rare few souls that still have not switched to Stars Without Number you are either playing one of the countless varieties of Traveller that does incorporate an XP system, have figured this one out for yourself, are perfectly happy without XP or have already read this article.
White Dwarf also hosted the Fiend Factory articles that would be half-heartedly distilled into the uneven Fiend Folio, without a doubt the worst monstrous manual in the 1e era and it’s not hard to see why. The monsters in WD are created and judged only with playability in mind. They are discussed in terms of what rules or abilities they add to DnD’s enemy roster and exist devoid of reasons or natural evolution. Taking considerations of gameplay into account is fine, but without at least a pretense at versimilitude or a nod to the body of fantasy that inspired it or any sort of thematic coherence, DnD becomes a simulated holocaust of the fantasies of the mentally handicapped. The Half-spirit Nasnas is pretty cool though.
The Lichway (1978)
I think the most famous of WD’s contributions to early DnD modules and its not hard to see why. A mere 4 pages, Lichway packs a hell of a punch and illustrates quite clearly the awesome power of a good map as a means of creating an engaging and multi-faceted adventure and how a few short descriptions can bring an adventure to life in the mind of the GM.
The Lichway is the burial place of the Sandlanders, who valued possessions above all else and interred them in their tomb, and set their dead to guard them. Eventually driven off by invading Lizardmen, the Sandlanders have abandoned their tomb. “Since that distant day the lichway has lain undisturbed and has yet to yield the deadmen’s wealth.” You tell em Fiore! A mere two paragraphs, and already the site is tied into a plausible history that can easily be integrated into one’s campaign setting. It’s not Shakespeare but it delivers an initial spark. Generic but with hints of…atmosphere?
4 rumors, no table, of the great wealth of the Sandlanders and several adventuring persons of dubious character preceding the party, and we are immediately off.
The central conceit of Lichway is that it is a trap. Before you cry foul! I would remind the audience that the concept of dashing heroes delving too deep and digging up more then they bargained for is a time-honoured S&S trope, appearing in Leiber’s The Sunken Land, Smith’s The Weird of Avoosl Wuttoqquan, Howard’s The Skull of Silence and virtually every tale of H.P. Lovecraft ever written. It is just that the trap must be interesting and some chance of survival, or means of bypassing the trap, remote though it may be, must be provided.
The trap in lichway consists of hundreds of skeletons, kept in deathless sleep by the omnipresent song of the Sussurus, a bizarre plant-like monster in a cage. Underneath the cage is the treasure of the Sandlanders! BULLSHIT, I hear you shout! But Lichway telegraphs this effect in advance by littering some sleeping zombies and ghouls in the dungeon. You can in fact realize something weird is going on. In fact there are some NPCs in this dungeon that know of the effect. You might avoid it altogether, and the adventure foreshadows that some bad shit might go down…it’s subtle but it will have your PCs slam their foreheads when several hundred skeletons stumble out of their tombs.
This is compounded brilliantly by the map, a sort of triangular spiral of increasingly narrow proportions with side-passageways, secret doors, switches that can serve to seal characters inside, other means of escape that may be discovered and so on. There is a smattering of vermin, evil humanoids (Xvarts snickering over a tome of Embarassing Facts About Halfings) and colorful NPCs. A terrible fighter pretending to be a wizard! The languourous, water-pipe smoking Dark Odo and her retinue of charmed monsters and slovenly adventurers. There’s subtle touches that give this adventure that OD&D charm, its never forced, all the monsters feel like they belong there, even if some of them are from prior issues of WD. It is easy to envision a scenario where both parties must contend with the escaping skeletons, and equally easy to expect a savage melee.
Room descriptions are relatively short but given in thick indigestible blocks of text. Use a highlighter or make notes if you run this. The treasure is all subtly placed (gemstones sewn into coverlets), and replete with charming magic items like a mace that can turn into a snake or an enchanted blade with a cursed stone in a hidden compartment. Little charming detail that make you go all…daw shucks. The atmosphere is generic DnD…but in a charming way, still connected to the vast, sprawling fantasy world described in the MM, not overly codified but wondrous and vibrant. A big fuck you is that the great treasure of the Sandlander’s is left to the GM’s discretion. It’s your whore mother sucking cocks in hell!
Lichway is a magical product from a different time and space, and contains in its 4 pages depths and permutations that you’d be stressed to find in most 20 page adventures today. Subtle finishing touches, like including in a hidden underwater passage a means of escape as well as a bull-roarer to drive off the Sussurus and thus complete the adventure without triggering the trap, make this one a class fucking act in my book. Lichway Roxx. A masterclass of short form dungeon design ****
George Scott has an article where he sends in ideas for a trap. “This kind of trap involves setting up a situation where the players will probably perform a rescue that will result in
another fight when they are least prepared. For example, a beautiful Chaotic/Evil female is kept in a drugged sleep in a bed-chamber by another chaotic MU and, if rescued, will eventually attack her rescuers.” GEE THANX GEORGE. Ian Livingstone follows with a d100 table of useless items meant to waste player’s time. Several advertisements later, we can at long last be free.
Death Frost Doom. Prepare thy anus. I have come for thee agayne!