Thursday 13 April 2023

[REVIEW] Expedition to Darkfell Keep

Expedition to Darkfell Keep
(white borders original)
Expedition to Darkfell Keep (2023)

by Joseph Mohr

Published by Old School Role Playing

Levels 1–3 (I’d assume)

Darkfell Keep (from the noble lineage of Shadowbad, Felldark, and so on) is a ruined keep in a dangerous forest wih a dungeon under it. Orcs, goblins, raiders and bandits have been spotted in the area. Heroes are called for. It is the bland stereotype of a beginning basic D&D adventure, a fifth-generation photocopy of Keep on the Borderlands and In Search of the Unknown without Keep’s solid craft, complexity and curveballs, or Quest’s magic pools and adventurer home base premise. It has the typical vestigial sections which do not add anything to the game, but are somehow required to be included. A rumours table with bland entries like “Other adventurers have gone to explore the keep. Many of them never returned alive.” A half-page wilderness section that’s basically a random encounter chart with entries like “Kobolds (1-6)” or “Gnolls (1-4)”, and a “Sounds in the forest” table that would be an interesting concept if more was done with it. But there is no actual wilderness section in the adventure; there is nothing to explore in the Darkfell, not even a trail to follow to the dungeon, or an estimate of how much it takes to get there (thus the instruction to check for random encounters twice daily makes no sense). It serves no function except take up space. We could start right at the dungeon entrance.

The dungeon uses a Dyson Logos map with 30 keyed areas spread out across a surface section and three small dungeon levels. Not a bad scope for a smaller adventure. However, the encounters themselves are nothing to write home about. A lot of time is spent restating the obvious about basic architectural features. The rest is a crash course of basic dungeon encounters: promising-looking corpses drawing the characters into a monster attack, generic storerooms and barracks, simple mechanical and environmental traps, and the world’s least surprising pressure plate puzzle (you have to place weights on it to open a secure door). The adventure is entirely static, a place of scavengers and the odd group of undead, so much so that unlike the wilderness, no random encounters are provided. The combats are usually with small, isolated monster groups that rarely pose an interesting challenge, and monetary treasure is a trickle of mostly low-value items (although magic items are awarded very generously, so if those can be sold, it gets a lot better).

There are some bits that stand out: a portcullis trap separating the party right next to a combat encounter, or a fairly standard “cobwebbed room” encounter with the obligatory corpses and obligatory giant spider, except this is a proper, cunning D&D spider with an evil intelligence which cannot be flamed out so easily. Creative hiding places for loot are used. Some of the descriptive detail on the ruined environment makes a good effort to spin them into functional encounters. Right around the start, you have a hazardous section of stairs which can result in a broken neck for a beginning character, and you’ve even got a dead goblin sprawled out at the bottom – infested with rot grubs! That’s precisely how intro dungeon encounters should look like: killer, not filler. Unfortunately, a lot is filler.

It is really quite remarkable how shoddily this module is put together from cover to the badly implemented OGL section. This is not the charm of early DTP or something hand-crafted and a little rough around the edges. It is just lazy editing, the bad sort of public domain artwork, and a Dyson Logos map stretched out in a weird way and never fixed despite the glaringly obvious error. Great content could make you forget any of this, but that’s not present here. There are occasional brighter spots, but this module is not really suitable for anyone. The basic dungeoneering building blocks you can find in it are a rearrangement of ideas found in better adventures. The sense of wonder is also missing. If you are a beginner, you deserve a dungeon at least as good as (say) Gatehouse on Cormac’s Crag. Starter modules should never be half-hearted; they should go all in and give you the best. If you are an experienced player, you could play this on autopilot and it’d just be a distorted echo of things you have already seen and solved, so it would not give you much. It is not the worst, but it is plainly dissatisfying.

Ironically, despite claims of thorough playtesting on the product line, no playtesters are actually credited in this module.

Rating: ** / *****

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