Vault of the Warlord
0e (or Basic/AD&D)
Lvl 1 – 3
Another entry in the ‘could just be published for money for sheer production value alone’ listings. An entry by what I perceive to be a recent convert to the OSR but certainly a bright one. The choice to go for 0e reveals a disdain for convention and a willingness to experiment, as we shall soon discover.
28-rooms, a township and an outdoor area. The gods are generous on this day. The Warlord, half-divine by the sorcery of his evil father, terrorized all of the known world before he was put down and imprisoned within a tomb, that his evil may never rise again. That his followers would never find it, the true vault was hidden away in another plane. FOR LEVELS 1-3?!? Someone has a case of Halls of the Blood King syndrome.
Maybe one of the most useful modules in the contest? Neat notes on the assumptions so the conversion between 0e and 1e (which IS non-trivial) may proceed smoothly. Pre-mades in the back (with a single useful line of elaboration i.e. ‘bastard child’ or ‘knows Cordelia’, procedures for running it as a 4-hour one-shot, and some helpful ‘tools’ in case the PCs start to dally. Focused on Actual Play. Some notes near the end that help you understand the meaning behind it. I love it. Modern module technology.
The writing is not minimalist but somehow reminds me of 0e. Very utilitarian, stripped of embellishment. Hints of flavor, set in an area reminiscent of Colorado or some other Northern State of America. Logging camps, fishermen and no high level cleric in the town.
The landscape around the Lake is littered with pine wood cottages. Lumber is exported, taken down the road & loaded onto ferries. There is a giant beaver dam, tolerated due to the abundance of wildlife & fishing opportunities of an expanded lake. The town is just a few buildings inside a low stone wall. Visitors check weapons at the Gatehouse. The manor will have basic supplies for purchase at a 50% markup, & a blacksmith.
It’s good to see that some tricks have either been discovered independently or some knowledge has been absorbed from the classics, in this case T1. The town has functional notes (i.e. you can sleep in the stables for 1 sp/day OR in the manor for 10 gp/day but heal at twice the rate, buy Potions of Curing and Alchemist Fire from the local Sage  and gather various rumors) but also some complications in the form of a Thieves Guild deserter, a secretive Order of monastic guardians that are willing to use force to prevent the True Vault from being opened and various other town personages. Pretty good. Bonus points for the occasional concealed strongbox with gold pieces, or the ability to rouse the town garrison against a nearby bandit camp. You see these interactive hints throughout the module, and they feel like they would come about as a result of things the PCs tried, or perhaps Vault is extremely good at predicting player actions, either way, well done.
The area of Pine Lake is given a wilderness map, excellent!, with an obvious gripe being the lack of a scale, though to its credit, Vault specifies the travel time between the Vault and the Town, allowing one to make a rough approximation and use the random encounter tables. I am thrilled at the amount of different entrances into the Vault proper and their method of concealment. There are no less than 5 entrances, one of which is underwater, one extremely well concealed (though there are several characters who know of its location), one in a ruined tower, in the back of a troll cave, or blocked. They are neither insultingly easy to find, nor monstrously cryptic, so well done. The module also avoids the mistake of making every area a potential entrance to the Vault or linking it. A lesson of B2? There’s a bandit camp, a ruined tower haunted by a Spectre at night (rawcks!), a Giant Beaver Dam, some hills etc. It feels like the wilderness you imagine when you read the Monster Manual Wilderland Encounter Tables for the first time.
Woods encounters can be very tough on the unlucky. 1d6+2 bandits for a party of five + a few henchmen is fine, but 1d2 Owlbears might turn into a few casualties. I dig the use of Giant Beavers, particularly since they can be negotiated with to possibly dismantle their dam and thereby lower the water level so you can enter the dungeon easily (which will also lower it in the dungeon proper!). Some of the encounters, like The White Tree and the Gravestone of John the Adventurer, seem like they would be more fitting as locations, but I can understand tying them into the random encounter table so as to simulate stumbling upon them while wandering the woods. Still, 1 in 36 is still very large when it comes to finding a gravestone in a dense forest around a lake, but this is a minor gripe. Standout encounter is Joe the Ogre, a Troll that has been geased into guarding the trapdoor entrance to the Dungeon, and only harming men in self-defence. Nice job.
The Vault proper is an interesting, and probably lethal affair. Strong influence of Tomb of Horrors, partly underwater (I am sensing a recurring theme in this series), locked, stuck, wizardlocked, illusionary and secret doors galore. The true vault proper is placed outside of space and time and can only be revealed once a Dimensional Piercer Item is used in one specific area and its bizarre guardian defeated. As far as tombs go, it’s a fine entry, I would have enjoyed a map key that indicated which areas of the map were under water. The encounters have the wild feel of pre-1e, semi-funhouse, dark but at times slyly tongue in cheek. Animating statues bursting out of walls, an Asian Vampire Prince, an Illusion of a grotesquely muscular man with tiny faerie wings (The Singularity). I am also slightly confused how it flows, but if I understand correctly from 20 onwards all vaults are connected so you either enter from 20 or from 26 by way of the secret tunnels. There’s not much in the way of interconnectivity to the various challenges but that is par for the course for this format. The mimic I think would have made more sense if it was placed in some sort of bottleneck location, but the ability to befriend it and maybe transport it validates it.
One can spot the influence of modern OSR. The trend of using monsters that were significantly more powerful than the party and must be circumnavigated in some other way is a recurring, even defining feature of Vault of the Warlord. This is a module for characters 1-3 that has a 15 HD Black Pudding, An avoidable Spectre, a basilisk, a 30 ft long Zombified Crocodile that is stuck in the geometry of the level, a mimic room, a Blind Vampire and, what the hell, a fucking 14 HD Vampire Lord that you might actually get killed by if you are retarded enough to unstake it.
I dig this style. The module is constantly offering you rope to hang yourself with. ‘Not today,’ says you.
‘Are you sure?’ says the module. ‘I put 115 gold bars each worth 500 gp in this room, completely unguarded!,’ replies Vault of the Warlord.
‘Yes,’ I sigh. ‘I am sure.’
‘Why not take one or two?’ says Vault. ‘It’s free!’
‘No I am going to pass on it this time thank you.’
‘What about this immovable rod holding up a giant crushing ceiling 30 cm from the floor? Or this room with a beautiful gold-plated treasure chest in the centre?’
But it doesn’t suffer from Ed Greenwood Night in the Museum ‘Here is a cool wizard place full of cool wizard shit now TOUCH NOTHING OR DIE’. You are not disincentivized from interaction, though towards the end the module does start breaking out the scumbag death traps. I caught myself nodding approvingly. A carpet with a green devil face on it, behind which is purple glowing doorway in the middle of the room. A secret door that opens into a vast area with a 15 HD Black Pudding. A pit trap with room on the sides, but the pit trap is illusory and the sides are actually spring-loaded traps . It’s not pure traps either, this is only the gauntlet in the last section, the preceding section is more akin to traditional dungeoncrawling fare, with more specials or weird curve-balls. There’s innovations like the random encounters no longer occurring if you have taken care of the cause of the disturbance, like, say, a huge pile of wandering dead in a defiled shrine.
Treasure is good. Not overly elaborate, but not stale either. Something like this is on par.
At the workbench, there is 600gp worth of glassware and the keys to Area 12. Additionally, there are 2x Potions of Healing (yellow), 2x Potion of Water Breathing (blue), 1x Flasks of Alchemist’s Fire (clear), & two “platinum” bricks… easily “worth” 2,000gp each.” Each brick is pure sodium, a soft metal which reacts explosively with water. The only warning is six seconds of smoking before the sodium explodes for 3d6 points of damage.
Surprising, occasionally hidden, a few odd cursed items thrown here and there to keep players on their toes. Do I even go into different petrified segments of a Saint that you can recover and somehow re-assemble to restore a 9th level cleric to the town church? What of the final reveal, the true vault, with a fight followed by a Cursed Hellsword of Death that is definitely not Stormbringer that might cause the Warlord to be reborn? Do I go into the option of introducing a good and an evil dragon that want to either destroy or use the Blade? What about throwing a Lawful NPC party in there?
Very ambitious take on the standard Tomb format. Good, maybe Great Stone-Age DnD, and good on you for having the confidence to crank up the lethality in a (mostly) controlled way. There’s an unbelievably balanced mixture of combat, exploration and occasionally rewarding social encounters. I don’t know what I think about bandits knowing the entrance to the tomb and just wandering around in there, there’s some minor editorial mistakes and the potion-seller opens the yawning portals to Hell but other than that this is an incredibly strong entry for a beginner and even if I don’t choose it you should publish it. There might be some soft booing from the fantasy snobs (i.e. me) that it’s a bit gamey or that the scale is off for 1-3 level characters but as a whole this entry is strong, surprising and fun. A good illustration that rules or procedures CAN in fact be selectively broken as long as one is aware of them. In this case the various high level threats are used with precision and restraint . It really feels like Justin cut the brakes and pushed the pedal until it was all the way down and it shows. Great work man.
 This of course is a big faux-pas that merits instant death, although 100 gp per potion and a maximum of 2 potions per day at least limits the horror somewhat
 I am sure this trend of having encounters that must be avoided, tricked or defeated via a special tactic and are a net loss to fight directly existed before, in, say, City of Skulls, D3 or arguably Khartoebah in B10 but I feel its use has become more prominent in the OSR. By way of Lotfp? Repeat offenders DCO, God that Crawls, DFD and of course Palace of Unquiet Repose.
 That one HAS to be either straight from Tomb of Horrors or Grimtooth. The damage for the Spear trap in the next room omitted btw
 Last example. Basilisk room. FUCKING DICK MOVE. But!!! You just see a room with a bunch of statues (half submerged), with a burrow in one wall. Only if you WAIT AROUND, you hear skittering, and THEN you get to face the Basilisk. Control.