Thursday 31 January 2019

[REVIEW] The Ruins of Quinstead

The Ruins of Quinstead (1994)
by Roland O' Connell (only credited as R.O.C.)
Published by Gamer’s Group Publications
Level 1-12 (but see below)

Depicted: the castle that's NOT
actually in the module
There is no mistake about the year. This is an authentic third party AD&D module from 1994, recently made available again as a PDF on DriveThruRPG. Of course, it is careful not to call itself AD&D and get sued by TSR, Inc. – it is the kind of thing where you might encounter, say, a Level 2 Zealot with 13 Dps, owning a Vial of Curing Potion and a Level 1 Cloak of Guarding. Nobody is fooling anyone. In a way, it is a direct challenge to the TSR Overlords: as the introduction states, “As an avid supporter of the fantasy role playing games, I became discouraged by the lack of quality in the modules I was purchasing. Several of my gaming counterparts also felt this same dissatisfaction. The modules published by Gamer’s Group Publication come from a group of experienced role players who enjoy creating and playing fantasy role playing scenarios. (…) The original the Ruins of Quinstead adventure was created in 1980 by a novice game-master for use with the fantasy role playing system distributed by TSR industries. [sic] As this novice game-master improved his skills and knowledge of fantasy role playing games, the adventure underwent several modifications in an attempt to create a truly enjoyable gaming experience. The result, is the product you have just purchased.

I wonder if this could be one of the first game scenarios to have bragging rights about taking a deliberately old-school stance. It is there if you look at it carefully:
1) It identifies the problem (that the craft of adventure writing has declined radically, and TSR was pushing worthless junk on gamers);
2) It draws on a better tradition (1980-style dungeoneering);
3) It adapts that tradition through experience into something combining old and new ideas.
4) It is produced and published independently of AD&D’s existing owner.
How’s that for an “Old School Renaissance”? Are there earlier third party modules with a consciously declared back-to-the-roots message? Here is a puzzle for the Acaeum sleuths!

This, however, is an adventure review, so let’s have at it.

The Ruins of Quinstead takes you into the dungeons beneath the cursed castle of Quinstead, once owned by an evil marauder who had in the end met a tragic fate. As it happens in Not-AD&D, the castle is once again showing signs of habitation, and adventurers are tasked to learn what’s happening. In 44 pages, the adventure presents a three-level, 76-room dungeon (the castle itself is left undescribed), from a humanoid-inhabited entrance complex to more varied fare down below.

There is a lot of content in the dungeon, and when comparing it to modern old-school offerings, it is immediately apparent how much larger dungeons used to be in the past. Quinstead’s two main levels are both substantial, with 31 and 36 keyed areas, respectively. It is not megadungeon-sized, but it is a proper labyrinth calling for exploration, discovery, and lots and lots of combat. Interestingly, there is a notable difficulty spike between the levels: the first one is suitable for a large beginning party, but as you go deeper, it becomes downright brutal with high-level undead, demons, and save-or-die traps. You either start higher than first level, level up those characters quickly, or you should expect a break in play before tackling the dangerous areas on the second and third levels.

This split is also apparent in the quality of the content. Unfortunately, for all the old-school credentials, the entrance level is largely one humanoid-infested barrack room after another, with hordes of low-level humanoids and lovingly described “cabinet contents”-style fare. Boxes with 10 neatly folded blankets and 60 candles, crates with 12 weeks’ worth of mouldy food, or an iron box with hams, a 5 lb. sack of flour, and a jar of pickles (but “hidden at the bottom of the box is 250 gc’s”). This is the kind of thing that grounds adventures in reality in small quantities, and turns them dull when there is too much of it. And there is definitely too much of it.

Another issue with the setup is that the module tries to tell a story in a way we now largely recognise as The Wrong Way To Do It. The adventure is liberally peppered with roadblocks preventing completion until the characters find the proper keys hidden somewhere else, decipher an obscure clue, or do things in a specific way. There is an unfolding tragic backstory which is very AD&D in its execution, but the drama is largely between NPCs, with the characters as helpers and perhaps just spectators. In the end, the adventure becomes much more linear than you would think from the map, because you have to turn every stone to find the next progression token, and do it in sequence. This in turn exacerbates the module’s weaknesses – you can’t skip them until you find the damn keys.

On the other hand, the second and third levels suddenly become more interesting. The encounters are more varied, with a better roster of monsters, a higher number of “specials”, and more interesting locations. There are distinctly themed subsections with their own mapping style and challenges. There is an underground arena, a vast chasm, a vampire named Jennifer, treasure vaults, upscale living quarters, and undead/troll caverns. Perhaps it was written later, or mid-to-high-level AD&D just fired up the author’s imagination better, but this part is a substantial improvement, if ­ a bit heavy on brutal traps (if your Thief doesn’t die here, he is good). Nothing earth-shattering, just good, solid dungeoneering.

So in the end, this might be a first. Unfortunately, it is not the best. You could improve it by opening it up so it is not as linear and scripted, but you will still be left with the radical jumps in encounter difficulty, and a lacklustre first level. It stacks up well when we compare it to early 90s TSR modules, but why would you compare something to Swamplight or Terrible Trouble at Tragidore?

(And a random observation: the first level is oriented differently than the other two, so check that compass before you give your players directions.)

No playtesters are credited in this publication (and the author is only credited by his initials so the TSR goons don't break his legs).

Rating: ** / *****


  1. Huh. Interesting. Thanks for the review!

  2. First level is harder to pull wonder out of with experienced players. Familiarity is high, and customization ranges narrow.

    The sweet spot of D&D parallels a DM's increasing range and the top out comes at each group's complexity ceiling.

    1. (Sorry, accidentally truncated that.)

      So it's interesting that the lower levels have a verve that the first lacks.

    2. That's a good observation. Thinking about it, traditional OD&D-style megadungeons seem more flexible when it comes to challenge variety than "story mode" D&D.
      a) it does not matter if PCs die or expeditions can't get through difficult bottlenecks;
      b) they are more open to the irrational, and just making it up.
      a) is important but b) may be even more significant. In a lot of later AD&D modules, even fairly good ones, the authors don't dare to stray outside the rules=physics boundary. On lower levels, the system provides little to work with, but the limit is really in our mind.

  3. I've noticed that there is also a 3E version for sale on DTRPG. The description boasts an extra 50 pages (!). I didn't remember the d20 system stat blocks to be so long...

    1. It'd be interesting to see how much extra content there is in there.

    2. The d20 version may have a different layout. The version I read is a very dense text with few illustrations.

  4. Why are you reading let alone reviewing anything less than your 5/5?

    Why review anything you don't think is excellent?

  5. I purchased one of the original blue covered modules many years ago and have ran the module dozens of times for multiple groups. While it may not live up to today's standards (nothing too challenging for today's gamers), my groups have always loved the hack and slash simplicity the module has to offer.