|Gatehouse on Cormac's Crag|
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|
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?
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: **** / *****