of the Sea
The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords (2019)
by Keith Sloan
Published by Expeditious Retreat Press
6th to 8th level
It all began in 2006 with Advanced Adventures and Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom, at least if we define our beginning as “the first commercial module to exploit the Open Gaming License to publish an adventure for a classic D&D edition” (these things are fuzzy because Cairn of the Skeleton King was published around the same time, and solved the license problem by simply sidestepping it). Yet Pod-Caverns was not just the first one through the door, but also a solid demonstration of the old-school aesthetic and adventure design principles. The Advanced Adventures line has had its ups and downs in the 13 years since, and it has faded from the public eye a bit – at least I don’t see it mentioned with the same kind of excitement as the newest Kickstarter money sink. This is a mistake. There is still very good stuff there.
The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords (any relation to Tomb of the Sea Kings?) has a lot of the same timeless qualities which were found in Pod-Caverns. It fills a niche perfectly, and even helps define it. There are many tombs of this and tower of that, but Forgotten Grottoes is the natural choice if you would like to run an adventure in a series of sea caves (U2 and U3 are close, but a lot more specific). Like Pod-Caverns ran with D&D’s bizarre ooze and fungus monsters, this module mashes together all your favourite sea legends from pirates and sea monsters to fishy cults and buried treasures, and puts them in a big, open-ended dungeon. It is not stuck on a single note, but integrates a lot of them into a place that feels both cohesive and varied.
The Forgotten Grottoes are a large place, beyond the scope of a single expedition. 112 keyed areas are described over two dungeon levels, all in some 13 pages (the rest are supplementary material). Yet nowhere does it feel bare-bones or lacking in some aspect: the adventure has both complex set-piece encounters and small, hidden mysteries; bargaining and combat; puzzles and environmental hazards. Even lesser side-areas receive their due, or offer some odd opportunity for discovery and interaction. There are all kinds of small, clever touches that are hella atmospheric and make for neat mini-puzzles. The dungeon denizens have hung up a few dead seals near one of the entrances, which you can toss into the water to distract a hungry monster. Observing a pattern of repeating bas-reliefs lets you spot the odd outlier, and find a long-forgotten hidden room. Strange and powerful dungeon denizens like a weird bird-sage, a vampiress or a lich can become temporary allies, patrons or dupes (if the players play their cards well).
The number of things to mess with – not to mention the number of ways you can mess with these things – is staggering for a lean booklet. With six ways in and many more routes and level connections to get around, not to mention the strong inter-NPC dynamics, there will always remain an element of the unknown. In the finest traditions of old-school dungeon design, this is a place to explore and plunder, or a fine location to locate your favourite MacGuffin, but its scale and complexity prevent it from being fully explored and solved. You can’t go in and “clean it” – it is a place you organise expeditions into, then get out of before things get too hot. And that’s how it should be: there is always a corner of this dungeon that will make the players wonder – what did we miss there? Fabulous treasures or horrible death?
The balance of old and new material is right. There are well-known (or vaguely familiar) AD&D mainstays, but like the better TSR modules, there is sufficient novelty in terms of new monsters (including some truly horrid crustaceans) and non-standard magic items to keep the players off balance and guessing. Creative thinking will go far here, but there are just as many satisfying opportunities for good, honest hack-and-slash. It is a generous module that rewards the shrewd and the adventurous alike.
The Forgotten Grottoes of the Sea Lords feels a lot like a lost TSR module in style and execution. It maintains a strong identity while remaining broadly usable – if you have seacoasts and pirates in your campaign, it will certainly have a place there. It is the precise kind of “generalist” module which fits most games without sacrificing its distinctive identity. Well worth owning.
Both playtesters and their characters are credited in this adventure.
Rating: **** / *****