D1 Into the Depths of the Earth (1978)
E.G.G. Gygax (TSR Games)
Lvl 9 – 10
In G3 you discovered that beyond the highest mountain tops, beyond the realms of Fire Giant Kings that make slaves of all the most fearsome of the world’s monsters, lies a subterrene realm of wonder and horror the likes of which has never been seen. In D1 you venture into that realm, for the first time.
The Underdark. Subject of a thousand terrible supplements, and yet, for all the milking and profiteering that has been done over the long decades, the wonder of the Underdark can never truly be extinguished. A place that seamlessly combines the alien biology of early modern hollow earth stories with a sense of timeless almost lovecraftian evil of the ancient S&S tales. It is Journey to the Centre of the Earth as envisioned by William Hope Hodginson. With one series of 3 short modules, Gygax did the groundwork for the most iconic and memorable bits of lore for DnD ever made.
Reviewing D1 requires some finesse because it does indeed lay the groundwork for its successors and therefore cannot fully be viewed as a module in its own right, leading to a payoff that is described in subsequent modules. It is almost inconceivable to run it as a separate module. In that light will it be judged. It is good, but much more open-ended then previous Gygax modules, deigning to deliver a mere handful of caves in a vast, labyrinthine cavernous maze that stretches on for miles and can be expanded upon indefinitely. It is also a bit of a monster hotel in the vein of Lower G3 or Upper G2, its map areas gorgeously mapped complex caves filled with sixteen different varieties of creature that, by and large, will probably attack, but CAN often be dealt with via trickery or some form of ruse.
We begin where we left off, in the caverns beneath G3, where beyond the lava flow, a tunnels lead perilously downward into the earth. This is the framework that Patrick Stuart sought to expand upon and sandbox in his laudably ambitious but ultimately flawed Veins of the Earth, to devise a mechanism to generate these veins in a manner that is easy to replicate. The different tunnels are not merely for show, providing different degrees of risk and allowing one to use strategic intelligence to bypass known checkpoints. D1 conveys the sensation of simultaneously exploring an unknown world and invading a hostile realm. Down main alleyways, Drow merchants, slaves, patrols and their manifold servitor races rule. In the less frequented and more narrow tunnels, all manner of horrors are readily encountered. These are the encounter tables out of nightmare. Liches, Illithid, Beholders and Umber hulks await in the dimly glowing tunnels of the abyss.
Rules are suitably brutal. Movement speed is curtailed, miles per day, each mile travelled incurring the risk of encountering a formidable predator. There are hazards that are easily navigable but that become instantly lethal if they are forgotten or the party is thrown in disarray. Chasms can cause instant death if players do not rope up. Teleportation of more then a mile soon becomes impossible because of some subterrene magnetic influence. The darkness is not total, with patches of eerie phosphorescence caused by lichens and swarms of fire beetles breaking up the monotony, but in all probability you will be carrying an astounding amount of light sources on any venture, and know that no place within the Underdark is entirely free from danger.
Reading through this overview, which is stronger then the subsequent Warrens of the Troglodytes, reminds me just how POWERFUL Gary Gygax DnD really is. With but a few complex tables, an entire subterranean realm is given life. Systems are unrolled to generate entire wagon trains of lizard-riding Drow, garbed in radiation-infused mail, with different coteries of slaves and brutal servitor races to provide for a whole gamut of challenges. Always the adage of a cunning and ferocious foe is kept in the back of the head, and I would be astonished indeed if parties can play through D1 without ever attempting some more subtle way of approaching the Vault of the Drow, be it disguise, negotiation, or sneaky back-rank checkmating one’s way into it. The subtle references to broaches in the varied treasures of the Drow allude to methods of identification beyond the mere visible, and the sign language and alien culture of the Drow provides a barrier all of its own.
The one omission, the one regretful absence in this fantastical night-haunted realm of horror and blind-cave bats is that it is relatively empty. The number of encounters that are plotted out can be counted on one hand. Some system to rapidly stock the various caverns connected through myriad passageways would have been of immense use, and evaluated the work from the merely excellent the halls of Valhalla. Indeed, even to this day, the fool proof method of generating the infinite Underdark Sandbox has yet to be found, though rest assured, if some brave man would attempt it, it would have to be stocked with the Veins of the Earth bestiary. Some additional hexes would be filled in D2 and D3 respectively, but for the most part, the suffering GM is on his own. If you made it this far, you will achieve wonders. The Islands of the Sunless Sea, a tantalizing area in the corner of one map, would remain a place of dim imaginings until, presumably, someone tackled it in Night Below. To an audience, unpolluted by cheap genre fiction, and with a fertile mind, a bonfire of the imagination is set alight. But there are few such left in this fallen age.
The module stipulates that it is a challenge for 7 to 9 characters of levels 9 of above average ability and this is no idle warning. The initial checkpoint sets the tone immediately. 26 enemies with spell-like abilities, combined group tactics, unique magic items, spells, magic resistance, sleep poison, its completely fucking nuts. The capabilities of both GM and player are immediately put to the ultimate test. Second encounter, were-rats and illithid BAM, mind-blast, rat-aids, there’s a chance to rescue a prisoner so the encounter is dynamic and might yield much intel for the players but putting it together is a bitch because the GM doesn’t really know what to tell and what to omit, killing the illithid has positive diplomatic implications as the two underground civilizations are waging a tentative war of infiltration and espionage. Treasure at this point is good to the point where it is no longer worth remarking on because it has been perfected to the level of a machine. New magic items, Lurker Cloaks, Death lances, unique glass globes of irritating faerie fire gas, a drow priestess riding a nightmare.
The Warrens of the Troglodytes proper suffers from the monster hotel problem of G3’s lower level but even here one cannot quickly dismiss the skillfull hand of the true master. What would be a brainless hackfest becomes a complicated tactical challenge, with a network of sentries, pack lizards that react to a goad but will attack otherwise. Every time I am ready to dismiss this section I go back and there is some subtle detail, some interplay of map and encounter that I have overlooked. There’s different tribes of humanoids spread throughout the room, allies of the Drow, Trolls, Troglodytes, Bugbears, rudimentary tactics abound. The map is a thing of beauty, with chokepoints, branching paths, cull-de sacs and thoroughfares. In the periphery, terrible monsters lurk to snare the unwary. Points for putting a 20th level Lich behind illusions that only attacks if you find him, and even more points for including a weird pool that either rarifies or erases precious gemstones.
D1 lays the groundwork for something immense and potent, open-ended, where man is but an intruder among greater, older powers. At the same time, because of the nature of its subject matter, it can only hint at the immensity, size and night-haunted darkness, but hint it does, and mightily so. The dungeon area at the end is ironically its weakest part, adhering to Gygax’s own dungeon design principles with metronomic precision but lacking something of the thematic focus of the G series, or the lovecraftian eeriness of G3. A monster hotel, a very good monster hotel, with a brilliant map and good tactics and treasure, but monster hotel it remains, a mere prelude to something greater deeper down.
I am, frankly, astounded at the variety and the ideas present in some of these older adventures. A diet of new adventures has left me weak. A lot of the newer stuff seems simple or one-note in comparison. D1 bombards you with the implications of an entire subterranean nether realm and feels like its 20 pages barely scratch the surface of its potential. Definitely something that will require putting some time and effort in, and I would be interested in someone doing a Veins/D1 mashup, perhaps the highest tribute that could be given to both, but the result should guarantee an almost unforgetteable experience, complete with wagon trains of donkeys, captured rider lizards, stolen armor, and murder in secluded tunnels.
The Jermelaine, a troglodytic race of nether goblins, is a particularly vicious and cowardly form of nuisance that can be encountered in the side-branches of this nether hell, and kudos to Gygax for not hitting us immediately with some sort of DBZ-style super-super predator. It is made abundantly clear that the Drow rule this domain, and woe to any who would contest their dominion in the main thoroughfares.
What terrors, slumbering and ancient, ever hungry, await in the distant caverns, deep below the main thoroughfares, forgotten even by the ageless lords of the midnight realm, well…that will have to be discovered.
**** but probably more if you look at the entire series. Stay tuned.