Pool of the Standing Stones (1978)
Bill Howard (White Dwarf Magazine)
Lvl 5 – 6
A 4-page dungeon from the dawn age. Early white dwarf has a reputation for being pretty good. Lichway was pretty damn good. This one falls more on the bizarre spectrum but there are a few noteworthy touches and charming ideosyncracies. Let us dig in.
The premise is fantastic but barely has anything to do with the adventure proper. A secluded little village near a major trade route is very lawful and good and is visited by a druid named Ash. He helps them out with the harvest until one day he hosts a celebration at a pool of standing stones erected by the first men that the villagers avoided out of habit, entangles them all and kidnaps some of their daughters. Turns out the village was too lawful and good and he took it upon himself to balance that out with some chaos and evil! After a troop of men at arms fails to return, the local lord throws up his hands and its up to the PCs to “solve the mystery and return any valuables to their owners.” Uh huh.
The adventure you get if you program a Google deepmind to create an adventure based on nothing but early dungeon magazine adventures, and you get a second Google deepmind to edit it and you feed it nothing but Venger Satanis modules.
First. Fuck the druid. He’s not really important, he immediately attacks you with his 7 dryads (with fire-hardened oakwood arrows, a detail that springs out and gives them +1 to hit) if you try to penetrate the hedge around the pool of standing stones (he lives in that hedge you see). From that point its one questionable secret entrance, behind an illusory pool, one fun encounter with talking doors (one exaggerates, the other tells the party what it thinks they want to hear) and then its straight into Fantasy Fucking Vietnam.
I’m of two minds about the illusion. The GM is instructed to simply omit descriptions like the wetness of objects inserted into the pool or the sound of water splashing up, so as to not immediately give away its illusory, but that might be subtle enough that clever players catch onto it.
Description is the usual nightmare. Positions, tactics, treasure and room contents are intermingled in a most unseemly fashion instead of sticking to their own designated areas where they may be carefully parsed with the end result that the entire entry, as well as the surrounding entries in some cases, must be studied before the room is grasped. This adventure is 4 pages. You CAN run it. Its just unpleasant.
I hoped you liked that sort of mythical beginning because the rest of the dungeon has nothing like that. Instead you get a weird, adversarial, sexually deviant dragrace  that is about as easy on your characters as a 100 m run across contested ground in Verdun circa 1915.
Before you even open the damn door the Hobgoblin guards are sniping you through arrow slits with poisoned blow guns, targeting lightly armed characters first. After that there is an intricate chain of retreats and alerts that goes 3 layers deep and continues across multiple encounters and will quickly involve the two human deviants that are in charge of this bizarre, purposeless structure under the ancient dolmens. One is an OCD necromancer that has sex with a toad in the hope she will turn it into a prince, the other an evil cleric in armor ‘forged which allows the molestation of females without removal.’ They use the secret passages, various painful death pits, teleporters and magic items to “fucking wreck the party’s shit” .
I’ve been known to defend the odd ultra lethal adventure if it has good variety, but Pool is simultaneously incredibly convoluted yet very straightforward. Pool is strangely captivating (one room has a floor that is fake, and is actually 20 feet of grey ooze, with a spider mural on the ceiling, the other has a real floor and a real spider on the ceiling) but the bulk of the dungeon is just hewing away at opponents, which, granted, are all out of nutso world. Even the human bandits all wear drag (as a ruse to get close to merchant caravans). Everything comes out of left field but as a result it’s very hard to use any sort of pattern recognition or intelligent tactics to anticipate the threats it throws at you.
There is a martial arts temple where 3 evil monks have been ‘practicing their moves on the maidens’ so after you fight them and maybe live all the ladies look pretty messed up with bruises, except for one, who has contracted lycanthropy and will attack later. An ogre servant in a mortuary drawer will attack unless the characters flatter him by complimenting him on his beautiful golden teeth. A psychotic alchemist will attack as a 18/00 str 7 HD monster if you mention any alchemy. The entire adventure is like this.
Sierra adventure game logic rears its head when you find a vase filled with dead mice alongside some treasure in the throne room (the floor is covered with black carpets, except for a 10’ pit filled with black pudding) where you fight a bone ‘demi-devil’ and his skeletal henchmen (he is playing knucklebones as you enter). You see after you find the secret door there is a giant treasure chest that is actually a mimic blocking the stairway further down. It’s MUCH too strong to fight. Hmn hmn.
And of course the treasure in this thing IS PERFECT. Keys in shoes, intelligent swords, proper concealment among mundane objects, a set of earrings that is found separately and yields more if both are uncovered, instrument dials in a laboratory made of gold and platinum, liquid that will convert silver to gold, a book with three symbols that you can draw on the wall, treasure that appears if you read aloud weird writing on the wall, an amulet that can get YOU summoned by a Bone Devil and a unique magic user create food spell that only creates rat-based cuisine that causes stomach cramps in humans but will allow the caster TO PACIFY ANY GOBLINS OR HOBGOBLINS IT IS OFFERED TO WHUT THAT IS GENIUS?!?.
Ultimately, Pool of the Standing Stones is not quite bad and certainly not boring but there is something about the metric tonne of fuck you adversarial dick encounters, the gleeful absence of any sort of organization or complex mechanisms, coupled with the wild, carefree abandon of any attempt at verisimilitude that doesn’t quite gel for me. Maybe it is a work of misunderstood genius. Maybe I can’t vibrate my molecules in the right way or maybe I just need to smoke more weed maaaaaan but I don’t think I am ready to do this to my players just yet.
Oh fuck. We (by which I mean someone else) need to make an Iron GM competition or something, with a roster filled with nothing but adventures like this. I am talking Unbalanced Dice Games, Jeff Dirke’s Monkey Business, Castle Greyhawk, Methbender Lotfp and whatever else doesn’t get picked when the coach makes you choose your own teams. That’s what I’d like to see.
 Literally in case of encounter 16
7 thoughts on “[Review] White Dwarf 12: Pool of the Standing Stones; Dawn Age Fragment”
Might want to fix the title or repost, I almost skipped this one because the “Actual Play” had me fooled, but the “white dwarf” intrigued me into clicking through to figure out what was going on.
I remember Dragon and Imagine Magazines being for the nice people, White Dwarf for the naughty. I’m glad I missed out on the above module. However, it
has to be said there are gems in the White Dwarf adventure collection. The Halls of Tizun Thane (WD18 and best adventures I) as a palate cleanser.
I accept. WD 18 it is!
Sounds perfectly normal and straightforward to me…
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Not much to say about me really.
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