[Review] Borshak’s Lair (OD&D 3PP); The Rolls Royce of Orc Lairs

Borshak’s Lair (1976)

Paul Jaquays & Mark Hendriks (Judges Guild)
Lvl 1 (yeah right!)

In the throes of pestilence, with the snot dribbling down my nose and my B/X game temporarily forestalled, I might as well tempt fate and attempt a review of another fine entry in the Dungeoneer compendium. hoping St. Jaquays will see fit to rid me from this infernal contagion {update: my prayers have been answered within a day}. We know how it goes: The page count is low, the formatting is primordial, the creative energies are like miniature suns barely contained by the subtle arts of the module-mancer. The magician Jaquays writes:

This small dungeon. known as “Borshak’s Lair” should be a welcome sight to those of you who have complained that the previous adventures were all too high level to be properly enjoyed. This particular game is a first level or thereabouts adventure. Hopefully magic will be balanced enough in
it for everyone’s tastes. Although there are not an over-abundance of traps, the liberal use of magic should make things interesting.

Which might conceal either a coquettish knowing wink, or Jaquays ran his games like an absolute demon, probably the latter. I should probably remember that OD&D is a comparatively low-powered format when providing a level estimate compared to AD&D, although the addition of the Greyhawk expanded ability scores makes exceptional characters slightly stronger then their B/X counterparts. There are references to the use of standard random encounter tables in the text, implying the level 1 Dungeon tables should be used, for which the Lair, an intricate chinese finger puzzle of 31 rooms, interlinked by secret doors, teleporters, stairs and vertical shafts, is about just large enough.

Look at this beauty

That’s 21, I repeat 21 secret doors in this 31 room dungeon. It is noticeable that the existence of many of these hidden portals can be inferred in subtle ways. The orc’s knowledge of their existence, if applicable, is marked, suggesting that clever players might take and interrogate prisoners, there are synergies in the design that can prompt exploration in a certain direction, and of course the age-old trick of careful mapping rather then banging their heads against the wall in a desperate bid to discover the entire place. There is genius in the design as the dungeon is going to become gradually revealed as players are funneled back to earlier locations. The encounters and traps are wild but the pacing of the dungeon is likely to go from initially rapid to more methodical, as the myriad secret entrances are gradually revealed.

The premise is still redolent with 1970s devil-may-care metahumor but is more coherent then prior entries. The tomb of Lord Helmdar was once inhabited by the fiendish Wizard Tim the Moon-slayer [1], who expanded the complex with various tunnels and chambers but did not enter the final resting place. His final fate is unknown. Now the tomb is occupied by Borshak the Chieftain, the Orc Wizard, and their Orc, Goblin and Ogre buddies. Yeah!

I was kind of cheating when I called this the best Orc pit ever because it is more of a hybrid of Tomb and Orc Pit, with the Tomb part being the stronger. This is certainly not to say there are not things to like about the humanoid segment. Minor hints of possible faction play are hinted at by having the various humanoids dislike eachother to the point where they will not serve guard duty with any but their own kind, and the hidden location of the chieftain and his pet warlock makes for an engaging bit of mystery. There is not much in the way of higher organization, but notes on the relationship between the orcs and Kobolds/Goblins, as well as hints that the Orcs might be amendable to serve in exchange for coin are very welcome.

Borshak’s lair presents a challenge to the reviewer because unlike its many counterparts it has A LOT going on. From the little non-standard tweaks of a magic weapon wielding lvl 4 Orc fighter and his Orc MU, or myriad use of concealing curtains, bar traps, pit traps, teleporters and secret doors to the absolute insanity of a room that traps you inside with a gigantic disco ball and subjects you to various spells before teleporting you away it all fits together like frenetic lunatic clockwork. Skeletons covered with phantasmal force spells to make them appear like demons. The way the adventure rewards you if you cut through the impenetrable magic cloth and try making it into a poncho. A room with a pedestal guarded by constantly duplicating skeletons. The highly dubious use of magic mouths to cast other spells when the players pass it. There are of course animating statues or statues to interact with that hold either beneficial or detrimental effects.

Like Mordekainen’s Adventure that followed it, Borshak’s lair is fond of throwing punches out of left field. Two of its traps involve teleporting you into situations where you are trapped and must escape quickly. You encounter two skeletons in plate guarding a weird pedestal but the skeletons split into twos if they are not obliterated with a single blow. You thought all lvl 1 adventures could do was throw giant rats and bandits at you? What about Ochre Jellies and Gelatinous Cubes? What about a Spectre? What about TWO Spectres? What about a 4th level MU with dozens of spells on his scrolls, one of which is level 7? Completely 0 fucks given. If you ask Borshak’s Lair what the risk/reward ratio is the answer is YES.

Treasure is also insane, but for an adventure that you are likely to spend some time exploring and that is highly lethal, this is no more then appropriate. Tens of thousands of gp’s worth…but it is always well concealed or protected. Nothing is given away. A great hoard holds over 50.000 gp worth of treasure but most groups will never find it. A similar one is placed in an obscure area that MIGHT be found, but its guarded by a Mummy. In this level 1 adventure. Dozens and dozens of scrolls. Magic items are abundant but always well guarded, most groups are likely to walk away with a handful of +1 items and some scrolls, but the most powerful weapons that can be found in the damn tomb are worthy of legendary heroes. The sentient blade Heatcleaver, bane of fierty creatures, is among the kingly but highly unlikely rewards for any low level party with the cast iron stones to both locate AND fight past the spectral guardians of Helmwar’s Tomb. There is the occasional playful innovation on the procedures outlined in the little brown books. Whoever heard of an intelligent -2 sword for example? Or a loud-mouthed protective amulet called Fred.

Borshak’s lair is a 1st level adventure on coke, but there is a very precise intelligence controlling the seeming wild abandon. It would be the easiest thing in the world to stuff a tomb full of high level monsters and either create an unescapable death trap or a campaign breaking Monty Haul dungeon. Borshak’s Lair does neither: The challenges are laired atop of each other, the initial areas of the dungeon are places of relative safety, and both the threats AND the kingly reward is buried off the beaten path and must be unearthed by craft and daring. Jaquays is a mad, mad poet injecting this simple orcs-in-a-tomb with a Wagnerian vibrancy that is intoxicating. Play this with 8 players, take henchmen, and heave away with lunatic abandon. Pile up your bodies and form ramparts, that the greatest among you may ascend to boreal heights. Ave Jaquays, hungry god of delvers.

“Look at us! We are not out of breath, our hearts are not in the least tired. For they are nourished by fire, hatred and speed! Does this surprise you? it is because you do not even remember being alive! Standing on the world’s summit, we launch once more our challenge to the stars!”


[1] A reference to Monty Python surely?


4 thoughts on “[Review] Borshak’s Lair (OD&D 3PP); The Rolls Royce of Orc Lairs

  1. The dial is turned up to 11 for this one. And have you ever seen so many magic-user scrolls? Too wild for me to give it five stars, but there is a undeniable joie de vivre (possibly short-lived for the party).
    You might see the excellent Vaults of Volokarnos, from Echoes of Fomalhaut #9, as an homage to this. (Homage in the best traditions, that is taking inspiration from the original but with new twists, doing its own thing.)
    The grand death or glory battles for big prizes was a feature of the early introductory modules (such as Lichway, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, T1 Village of Hommlet amongst others).


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