The City in the Swamp (1983)
Graeme Davis (White Dwarf 37)
Lvl 5 – 7
An early AD&D effort from the creator of Warhammer Fantasy RPG. An almost perfectly average module, it makes zero errors but never excels in anything. The theme of the damn thing is Frogs.
A Grey Slaad was sent to assassinate an emperor and failed. A Death Slaad came and finished the job, THEN went after the Grey Slaad. The Grey Slaad has since retreated to live in a swamp, to be worshipped as a god by the monstrous frog-men that inhabit the ruins of their former empire. The party is contacted by the Death Slaad in disguise, and promised an obscene amount of wealth if they ‘accompany him.’ He then does the heavy lifting going ethereal and lurking until the PCs get embroiled with the Grey Slaad before attacking them. This takes up more then a page in this 4 page adventure.
The real meat and bones of the adventure is an all but empty hex-map with a gigantic wandering monster table that triggers every turn. That is not fun. Put some set piece encounters in there. Ahem. Let’s try again; the real meat and bones of the adventure is the fortress of the frogmen WITHIN the all but empty ruins filled with nothing but wandering monsters WITHIN the all but empty swamp filled with nothing but wandering monsters. There’s a minor possibility of getting captured by the Frog Men.
So Frog men in the ruins of their once great empire. Immediately reminiscent of Karl Edward Wagner’s Bloodstone. S&S-ey. Engimatic NPC, dubious trustworthiness. Ruins of a fallen empire. Should be good. But that’s only the outline.
This adventure is about what you would expect it to be. The Frogmen are new but have very little special abilities beyond the ole’ ‘stealthy in the swamp’ and ‘breathe underwater’ that you kind expect. The fortress is perfectly fine in terms of some barriacades/protection, nonlinear, there are basic precautions to sound the alarm via underwater tunnels. There’s the spawning pool that will have all the frog men there fight at +1 to protect their young, there’s giant toad pets and lo and behold the grey slaad has a retinue of bodyguards and high priests. A decent pile of treasure, all in one place, nowhere else. There are even generic prisoners to free (GM’s discretion on nature)
This is playable. Here is what is missing, in case you yourself want to make a humanoid lair that are not Orcs; Make distinct NPCs in the tribe (possibility of intrigue optional), THEN give them advanced fallback tactics (i.e. probably release some sort of gigantic blind albino alligator and if not then convincing reason why not) THEN add more ruses or ambiguity (i.e. the sub-chieftain croaks Welcome Friends we Only Want Peace Lay Down on the Altar to Receive Our Blessing), add little flavorful set pieces that have nothing to do with the strategic aspects of the scenario but instill the atmosphere (Giant Frog Statue), now add prisoners,
maybe definitely some of dubious trustworthiness. Bonus points if you can add some environmental features that influence how the PCs tackle the assault, like a chokepoint, a bridge, a pit etc. Now carefully conceal the treasure in those many set pieces instead of just dumping it in a pile. Throw in some encounters that might require deflection or trickery instead of brute force. Don’t have the Slaad wander around but have him be in some sort of inner sanctum, attended by brutal fanatical priests. Consider some sort of science fantasy element since you are going to pull a Bloodstone anyway (Maybe the Chief wields some sort of laser gun or there is an ancient 50s Robot). Or pull a Tsathogua and have an actual Frog God. Don’t pull a VtM and have the Death Slaad GMPC steal everyone’s thunder and then fuck off. Make it more dynamic. Maybe you are commissioned by the Death Slaad, and the Grey Slaad explains the situation and makes you a counter-offer?
Yeah yeah I know 4 pages is not a lot to work with. This works but so do a lot of things. Humanoid Lairs are not hard it’s just that there are so many and they have been done so well. **
Khazad Dum (1983)
Lewis Pulsipher (White Dwarf 38)
Lvl 2 – 8
An adventure to introduce players to AD&D by having them take on the role of the fellowship in the Mines of Moria. Not a bad idea. I like Lord of the Rings, and to most of the people reading this should be intimately familiar with the great movies, if not the books, but back in the 80s it would have been riding the tailend of a vast upsurge of popularity in a time when other major fantasy series were few and far in between. The idea to introduce new players to roleplaying by using familiar trappings is a solid one, in fact, it’s the reason D&D is so accessible to begin with.
The premise is that you start with your adventuring party, Gandalf as an 8th level cleric (someone has read the Silmarillion!) with a magic sword, a magic ring and his magic staff, Boromir and Aragorn as massively overpowered fighters without any sort of armor and Gimli and Legolas at a humble 4th level fighting men, with the hobbits tailing behind at 2nd level thief. There are some healing abilities for Aragorn, an assortment of spells for Gandalf, a horn for Boromir and magic swords for the Hobbits, and that’s about it.
This is a module somewhere between a board game and an actual rpg. The characters start at one end of the dungeon and the objective is to reach the other side of the (very nice), nonlinear map, filled with monsters, a smattering of traps, secret doors, and even the odd bit of treasure (Durin’s helm has been tastefully re-imagined as a Helm of Brilliance for example). The final few rooms have the iconic bridge over a bottomless abyss of fire and there’s even a Balrog somewhere that you really don’t want to fight.
You could use this. It is not a perfect representation of D&D but it deals with some of its core elements; there’s some exploration, traps, it is very combat heavy and there are some special monsters to give the players a taste of what they can expect (skeletons that animate when you fuck with something, wights immune to normal weapons, regenerating trolls) and the odd Gygax trick (magic mouth tells people to fuck off, magic floating bubble that explodes if you touch it). There’s pretty heavy artistic licence being taken with the source material but as a tool to introduce people to D&D that is forgiveable. Rooms are minimally keyed but this is understandable as the area is already going to be deeply embedded in the player’s unconsciousness. There’s actually some helpful advice on running the thing for novice players. I like a minor detail, that of magic items with powers that only manifest themselves when they are used. This really drives home a sense of discovery and wonder that is bread and butter in D&D.
There’s some gripes. All the subtle finishes of D&D, the searching for hidden treasure, the equipment-management, the wonders of the XP for gold system, the risk-reward mechanism, managing light sources, this is all brushed over or omitted. The result is something that has elements of but isn’t quite D&D as your uncle used to make it.
For absolute novices, this thing barely makes the cut. It’s 3 pages, you could run it pretty quickly if you’ve got the core rules somewhere, and the scenario is intuitively familiar, which is a huge bonus. Not brilliant by any means, but just good enough to be worth your time, and it helps that these sorts of things are a lot rarer. I don’t think Zoomers read a lot of books anymore but everyone will have seen the movies so you should be good until the inevitably godawful series comes out to cast a pall of confusion and loathing on the entire IP. If you are not using it for the exact purpose its been created for, there won’t be anything here you haven’t seen a thousand times before.