The Hole in the Oak (2019)
Gavin Norman (Necrotic Gnome)
I need a palette cleanser after braving such soaring heights as Caverns of Thracia. The Hole in the Oak by Gavin Norman is a widely popular flagship adventure for Old School essentials and was included in the april kickstarter. I have seen it recommended as a good starting adventure and while I agree that it is quite good, it is not without its flaws.
Underneath a great tree stump is ‘a section of the Mythical Underworld’, a dungeon complex once held by an order of rangers and their lizardman foes, now inhabited by evil gnomes, troglodytes and all manner of mysterious undead. Backstory or premise is sparse, more implied then mentioned outright. You are here because that’s the adventure we are running tonight, also treasure? Enter the PCs.
Hole in the Oak is high in charm, low in versimilitude, something closer to the wild days of OD&D then the more restrained, coherent era of AD&D. The adventure is more concerned with properly adhering to dungeon crawling procedures then any sort of fantastical emulation, and the result is something that is highly playable and might offer occasional delight but has the feel of an episode of Rick & Morty. It feels almost impressionistic at times, it out and out tells you to make up some details about certain elements of the dungeon if it catches the PCs attention. Various factions inhabit the dungeon and have complicated relationships but the place is really a bit too cramped to accommodate 5 disparate groups living 20 feet away from eachother. There is a sort of hyper-realism that might delight some and turn off others. Polite tea-drinking cannibal goat-men, chaotic gnomes worshipping a blood-drinking tree-stump demi-god, fire beetles locked in a mating dance, a mutated ogre, a weird technological control room and a vast bronze idol in an inexplicable jungle area guarded by anthropophagic babies.
The map is good and highly legible. Branching passageways, secret rooms that may be discerned by diligent mapping, an investigative 6th sense or homing in on odd details and there are even occasional quasi-natural hazards like slippery floors, grasping roots, bats and an underground river to top it off. 60 encounters total, with an encounter density that is closer to 1 in 2 rooms then the usual 1 in 3. The underground river provides a possible route to further dungeon levels, which is appreciated.
Rumors are decent but not spectacular, serving more as hooks then actionable information for the party to act upon. Random encounters are half monsters and half weird stuff, but I appreciate that nearly all the monsters encountered are from distinct areas in the map and can be depleted, a rare bit of versimilitude that is probably necessary.
Encounters cover a broad spectrum of interaction and avoid the mistake of including only combat. Most intelligent opponents at least pretend to be friendly, ghouls might pretend to be dead and then leap up and ambush the party, you stumble upon a sleeping, mutated ogre and his cages full of mutants, a wizard skulks about in the dark and the shrine to a reptile god is lazily guarded by 4 6 HD tuatara’s. The aforementioned faction play means you might get some actual use out of the reaction table for once. The one thing that is notably missing is an order of battle or intelligent tactics for something like the Evil Gnomes, which would have helped considering they occupy 10 of the 60 rooms and are quite numerous and well organized. I would have liked to see maybe a prisoner you can free? Henchmen are always in short supply in oldschool games.
Despite its cartoonish trappings Hole in the Oak does not fuck around. Well-telegraphed haymakers alternate with occasionally brutal encounters. A secret tomb with a wight, a trapped chest with flesh-melting gas, a 4th level wizard with a sleep spell, a mind-controlling evil tree-stump; encounters that are deadly if engaged without caution. A lot of beginner adventures check their blows too often and end up becoming boring. Hole in the Oak seems like it would be dangerous but exciting, the right balance. Good set ups too; You see a jungle room, with a great bronze statue of a smiling fat man, with a platinum chalice standing on a pedestal in a circle of sunlight. Yeah you are going to get fucked up if you try to grab that. Or one where you stare into a mirror and you see the eyes of a huntsman, and this activates an entry on the random encounter table where you encounter a spectral huntsman.
Treasure is customized, pretty good and too generous. I know most low level adventures make the mistake of being too stingy but 3 Troglodytes with a hoard of almost 1000 gp is too high. Even 7 ghouls with something on the order of a thousand gp + a magic dagger seems too high. I think in other adventures the treasure was generally more dispersed, so you would get a dripfeed of treasure every once in a while and then a major hoard once you had cut and carved your way through multiple encounters. Hole in the Oak is a bit more free with its gifts. Magical items are occasionally interesting and charming. My favorite is a ring that raises your Con by 1 and gives you the ability to increase the fermentation of yeast by a factor of 20? What about a horn that summons a loyal hound for 1 hour. I appreciate the occasional subversion so finding a hidden closet with nothing but jars of teeth and insect husks is a nice nod.
Another nice nod to traditional dungeon crawling design is the introduction of the weird. Strange black fruits, do you eat them? Weird holes in the walls, do you stick your hand in. Faces in the gnarled roots that can be bribed in order to gain information about the rest of the dungeon. This is the sort of stuff that is bread and butter for oldschool games, almost like a gamble, and its good to see it implemented properly. Mörk Borg always fucks it up by making all the weird negative, here it’s unpredictable, it might be good, it might be bad. Perfect. And then you have random events or little hints in the dungeon that lead PCs to certain areas. Also good.
The dreaded OSE subliterate format rears its head once more but somehow the keywords, arrows and sentences work infinitely better in the hands of Gavin Norman working with clearly delineated spaces then they do with Luka Rejec desperately figuring out what things to highlight in an abstract space. Norman manages to extract critical details, meaning we don’t have to burn precious processing cycles unzipping the room in our head during the game, we can parse the information quite cleanly. I am still not, and might never be, convinced this format beats out natural language wielded effectively but the result is quite useable.
Hole in the Oak is no work of profound genius, but as far as a solid introduction to Oldschool D&D is concerned it is quite fit for purpose. While it does not win out to B1, possibly the finest introductory module of all time, unlike something like Tomb of the Serpent King, it manages to give a pretty good cross-section of what Dungeons & Dragons is about, it does communicate the type of wonder oldschool DnD is about, and it doesn’t coddle the players or treat them like morons. Though not quite to my taste, this would be a fairly suitable introduction to D&D for a younger audience. You get the idea Gavin Norman understands D&D, and is not just aping Bryce’s review standards. I would rate it a high ***.
9 thoughts on “[Review] The Hole in the Oak (OSE); Adult Swim”
A number of comments:
1) Hyper-realism? Like the art school? Because otherwise I am confused how this place is hyper-realistic.
2) Those are indeed gorgeous maps.
3) Your proper use of “homing in” (instead of “honing in”) is a credit to you.
4) Your comment re the secret rooms and the multiple ways to find them packs a lot of insight in. A secret door that requires players carefully measure out and chart on graph paper when their characters are underground in a vault of evil with torchlight and charcoal is…well, one does not exactly feel the fantasy in the good sense.
5) Depletable wandering encounters are good and wise. Oddly, I don’t think I have ever seen wandering encounters of the type “there are 80 gnolls in this place total, including the X in here, they send out patrols, if enough patrols disappear Y happens” though one would think it would be a natural development for module-writing.
1) I may have blundered that one. Hyper-gygaxian naturalism? Surrealism? The encounters are somewhat too strange even within the parameters and confines of a Mythical Underworld.
3) My thanks
4) Jaquays is a master of this and few others utilize it. The idea is that by placing a known secret door in one area the players are prompted to examine the possibility of other secret passageways in the area. In addition, you might sometimes discern a sort of skip in the rhytm of encounter-treasure-trap every so many rounds and consider ‘this is too easy, there must be more.’
I do think careful mapping should reveal architectural assymetries that might hint at the presence of secret doors. It does not scream Fantasy Adventure, but neither is careful management of encumberance and torchlight. Nevertheless, these parts do add to the game as a game, and the game as an expedition.
5) Gygax must have used them at some point, even if only partially. I’ve seen them done before I think.
5. Melan’s modules usually do this
Thank you for reviewing this one, I figured you’d enjoy it as a palate cleanser. I ran it for a group new to old-school D&D and they hit most of the rooms. Here are some things I noticed:
>I disagree that the treasure is too generous. The dungeon is deadly for an inexperienced party, so a lot of that XP was drained away into dead PCs. It’s well placed too: my players never found the troglodyte hoard (despite mapping the area flawlessly) and when they got the wight’s magic sword and ruby necklace, they bloody well earned it.
>The module suggests several ways the dungeon can be expanded, something I like quite a bit. I tried my hand at mapping out the reptilian temple complex below the waterfall, which my players ventured into a couple times. Norman also made a sequel, The Incandescent Grottoes, which can be placed upstream.
>The encounters (except for the gnomes, who should have had an order of battle) are well-designed. See my play report highlights below.
>There’s a lot of red herrings and random oddities like the giant chess pieces and the bowler hat. A bit too many in my opinion, players had a bit of trouble separating the signal from the noise.
>The art is butt ugly and does indeed look like something from a bad Adult Swim cartoon. If you’re going to write a mythic underworld module, please get an illustrator who can do something that inspires a mythic feeling.
Play Reports Highlights
>Jayquon (E1) was wounded by the scythe trap after Hoss (T1) blew his Detect Traps roll. They found the fauns, who promised to help the elf by giving him some healing tea. When Jayquon got knocked out by the drugged tea the situation turned hostile, but Ramius offered to hand over his treasure if the adventurers would leave in peace. Rend (C1) and Shakira (F1) stayed behind to guard the sleeping elf and the faunesses, while Ramius led Hoss into his bed chamber and activated the enchanted sheep skulls. Rend and Shakira rushed to help Hoss, leaving Jayquon alone with the faunesses, who promptly slit his throat and attacked the party from the rear. Hoss and Shakira were battered to death by the enchanted skulls while the faunesses stabbed Rend in the back. TPK.
>A later four man team found the ghoul bay and passed the seemingly dead bodies, only to be attacked from behind. The only escape route was the three-man rowboat, so Schpitz (MU1) hurled himself into the swiftly-flowing river so that his companions had a chance to escape. I rolled on Melan’s Table of Terror and ruled that he made it out of the dungeon alive, minus his clothes and gear. Gerhold (D2) and Schpax (MU1) climbed aboard, but when Hieronymus (Paladin 1) tried to join them he tumbled into the dark water and drowned in his platemail. The two survivors drifted downstream and landed in unknown territory, with no mapped route to the exit. They were able to escape by negotiating passage with the gnomes (the dwarf starting languages are handy in dungeons) and narrowly avoiding the ogre.
>When the party finally went to kill the ogre, they told Zarxes (MU1) to get into melee since he only had utility spells. He was the only PC to hit in the second round and the ogre crushed his skull in retaliation. While the rest of the party finished off the ogre, Zarxes’ player rolled up an INT3 dwarf, who I introduced to the party by putting him in one of the ogre’s cages. After some debate, the other players decided to let him out of the cage.
I would rank B1 below The Hole in the Oak due to the older module’s overwrought room descriptions and weak monster placement/encounters. Otherwise, great review.
TPK on Hole in the Oak? Brutal. I did think there were a few encounters there that were liable to leave some bodies on the floor. Sounds like a blast!
B1 vs Hole
I don’t disagree with your assessment but I prefer B1 because it is a training module for both GMs and players, it teaches certain lessons, and it is an adventure in the lair of a band of adventurers, which is a grand bit of foreshadowing.
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I suspect you were correct, broadly speaking. The Wight treasure was certainly alright, but there is something about bowling over a band of humanoids or ghouls numbered 8 or below and landing face first in the upper hundreds-lower thousands that trips my Treasure is Too High radar.
I know B1 did something similar with the fucking pools but it seemed a bit annoying. The technique is probably good but the frequency sucks.
Morty! There’s a dungeon under the oak morty!
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Read this now. Well reviewed. To achieve its atmosphere, the module seems to use unexplained whimsy rather than something more coherent (e.g. dark/altered fairytale). Not sure about the utility of a page repeating the treasure to be
found in the dungeon, perhaps a monster roster would be more useful (reducing numbers if any are killed in random encounters). The “chest trap” in the secret troglodyte stash seems both rather deadly and incompletely described: what is the range of the vapour, and would contact poison make more sense (and be avoidable for a thief using and then discarding gloves)? But overall, a fine starter module. Gavin Norman shows skill in his selection of details to include in the somewhat skeletal OSE house style.