Sunday, 31 May 2020

[REVIEW] Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag

Gatehouse on Cormac's Crag
Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag (2020)

by David Bezio
Published by David Bezio’s Grey Area Games
Levels 1–3

Nothing is harder to do well than simplicity. Gaming history is littered with the corpses of attempts which had tried and failed. The badly written Keep on the Borderlands clone (its own subgenre); the flat goblin hole module; the uninspiring cavern system with dungeoneering 101 monsters; the orc castle with endless guard rooms and footlockers containing 1d6 gold pieces and a rat on a string – we have all known several, and they never stop. It may be easy to declare the creative potential of this style has been exhausted, that there is truly nothing there… but then nothing would explain how Jeff Rients and David Bezio can do it. Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag is solid proof there is still untapped power in ultra-vanilla Moldvay/Cook-style beginner dungeons.

Gaehouse on Cormac’s Crag thrives in the same aspects where its competitors fail. It is very close to the platonic idea of a Basic D&D dungeon. That platonic idea is of course the Skull Dungeon sidecut, and this is one dungeon which gives you a dungeon just like that, including its own take on the fabulous Domed City – and more, precisely enough context to make it feel just a bit more than the central adventure location. There is a background section to discuss how the dungeon came to be as the end result of multiple unrelated dungeon building projects, and an overview on who controls its various areas now. A home base, The Village of Caoilainn, is provided over a two-page spread for adventure hooks, shopping, recruitment, and a rumour table. A small one-page wilderness section describes the various ways the party can travel to and around the dungeon through customised, simple encounter tables (with monsters, local colour, and even the odd friendly NPC). Nothing is superfluous – it is all simple, yet there is no feeling here that corners have been cut. D&D’s owners have long been selling crippleware in their beginner sets. This is not crippleware, but the kind of adventuring experience you should pack into an ideal beginner box.

All the way down
Most of the module is dedicated to the seven dungeon levels of the Gatehouse. That’s right – seven levels, with 134 keyed areas, in a 40-page booklet. These are not enormous dungeon levels, but they are big enough, and there is a pleasant progression through the adventure, as you go deeper into more dangerous, more lucrative, and more strange locales. You can follow a gradual path of engagement, or take an enormous risk and try your luck in the deep levels by descending down a shaft that goes all the way down (if it has not been completely clear this is indeed a love letter to the Skull Dungeon, it should be by now). But wait! There are two side levels hiding a dangerous secret, and there are clues leading you deeper underground on the trail of three lost girls, or an adventuring party who never came back. There is also enough combat, interaction and puzzle-solving to teach a new group the ways of proper dungeoneering. There are dungeon mushrooms, coded messages, treasure maps, green slime, and the rest of the good stuff.

Much of the joy of Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag is found in the way these small links tie together different levels and different themes. You have a kobold outpost, a lair populated by ratlings, a larger level featuring two goblin tribes duking it out in an abandoned dwarven stronghold, the hideout and shrine of an evil priestess, a slave mine operated by ogres, and a lost level with the greatest “low level” archetype, a mysterious underground lake. These are quite different places, and might disintegrate in a badly made module, but they are connected by small stories weaving through multiple levels; leads which encourage adventurers to explore further; and secrets which can be resolved by visiting multiple levels. Nothing on its own is very deep – most room entries are simple encounter types described in a paragraph – but there is a dynamic which is very well realised, and establishes the dungeon as a complex environment for exploration and decision-making.

Would you buy a used
glaive-guisarme from this guy?
This is not a module for everyone. There is a good reason many of us prefer AD&D’s more complex encounter design, shadier aesthetics, and its promises of a broader world behind the adventure scenery. This is painted in stark black and white, like the excellent, Jeff Dee-flavoured illustrations – here is an evil cleric; he has a forked beard and he dresses in black; here are ogre slavers doing ogre slaver things (there is actually an evil shrine area that’s fairly dark, and which I think is going to be food for a lot of thought if run for a bunch of 10-years-olds). It is cartoonish, low-concept, good-vs-evil D&D. I have to accept it is not for me. But let’s say you want to run a substantial adventure for your kids or distant family, or you want to hand a module to someone just getting into the hobby. This might not be the perfect module for all times and people, but it could be the perfect module for that occasion. It excels at formal matters like presenting information efficiently and directing the GM’s hand (while also leaving enough open to encourage building from its base and establishing opportunities for further adventures), and it is also a hell of an underground journey which strings you along naturally as you go deeper and deeper into a fantastic underworld. If I were WotC, I would be taking copious notes about this one.

Let it be noted that there never was a Skull Mountain Dungeon, only the idea of one, and numerous fascinated gamers taking notes and trying to make it happen. Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag did not just try, it succeeded admirably and making something that, if not a straight carbon copy, is damn close to what a good practical realisation would look like. It was a one-man job, too: writing, illustrations, cartography and editing – all of them good to excellent, with a sparse yet effective style – seem to have come from the mighty hand of David Bezio. And that is no small feat either.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: **** / *****


  1. Thanks for the informative review. I like Bezio's stuff but it's always good to hear another opinion before picking something up.

  2. Imagine if something this simple-yet-complete had existed from the birth of the hobby.

    1. B1 and B2 are not bad - I have some misgivings about T1. It is the later attempts at intro adventures where the problems start to emerge. Ironically, Phandelver is fairly competent at introducing a certain style of gaming, even if it is an illusionism-heavy, highly artificial style. Most of the rest lack the charisma, appeal, or scope to make a compelling case for getting into gaming. I think a lot of designers and product line managers didn't take their intro products seriously (or they did in horrid ways - see the flaming disaster that is "Dragonstrike"). Which is a very rookie mistake to make, but there you have it.

      You could conceivably package Gatehouse into your preferred OSR intro boxed set, and it would make for a hell of a killer package.

    2. B1 and B2 are both great but still limited. As teaching tools they (and orange B3 and B4) are great; as adventures they have great strengths and real weaknesses. (T1 is also great, flawed, but no learning tool.)

      I think Hole in the Oak, ASE1, TotSK are good learning modules *for players*. Stargazer has good DM advice but is poor teaching for players.

  3. Lovely stuff. A simple, introductory module to run for kids is exactly what I've been looking for for a while. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

    1. Glad to spread the word about this one - I hope more people will learn of its existence.

  4. I ran levels -1.5 this weekend for a group and had an excellent time. They fell for the Troll trap and immediately ran away. The players were then quite creative in their approach to the Gatehouse, rappelling over the top and behind the kobold guards. Level 1.5 was easy, but handling level 1 was the exact opposite, the tight hallways, a damn cleverly placed pit trap, and perfectly set up arrow slots created much havok for the party. Shouts of "Tucker's Kobolds!" were yelled at the DM.

    It was great! ;-)