by Gene Weigel
Keep on the Borderlands and The Village of Hommlet: two of the most recognisable, and most played introductory D&D/AD&D modules. Both have served as the blueprint for a myriad successors, clones, and “inspired by” adventures. This freely available, 14-page module (of which half is taken up by the actual dungeons, and half by the new monsters featured therein) is a fanmade side-show to Hommlet, but following the design of Keep’s Caves of Chaos. While deceptively simple, the Caves have rarely been successfully imitated, let alone equalled in adventure design. Anyone can plonk down a succession of monster caverns, but replicating the gotchas and dirty tricks of Gary’s original requires design chops. Norkers and Xvarts – “Chapter Two B” in “The Elemental Castle Environs” series – is one adventure that does it right.
The module is set in a narrow, meandering valley allowing access to twelve small dungeon-complexes through eleven entrance points. Like the Caves of Chaos, the higher up the sides of the valley you go, the more dangerous the caves become; from a brigand lair to elemental-themed shrines and of course lairs with a multitude of low-level monsters. That’s no small feat in seven pages: a lot of “OSR” adventures use as much space to describe a single 12-area lair. Gene crams in a complex 92-area dungeon environment (B2 was 64 areas in 10 pages), and while the key is terse, it does not feel lacklustre; you do not feel like you do with most one-page dungeons. It is effective, play-friendly writing like:
“D27) ENTRANCE TO EARTH CULT – A man in full scale armor with helmet is actually a spider zombie (See NEW MONSTERS). He says to intruders, “Welcome to the chapel of Earth!” then immediately attacks.”
“D34) THE GIFTED ONE – This is the lair of a giant spider that is the guardian of the shrine to Lolth in the other cave. Livth the spider can look like a beautiful human woman as a gift from Lolth. She can also in spider form spray out a web like the web spell.”
“E46) OLD SHRINE OF AIR – Another altar similar to the other Iuz altars lined with air-vesicled basalt. The walls of this columned cave shrine has various wicked and winged creatures (Gargoyles and harpies) dropping children from tremendous heights as a pair of sinister orange and purple swirled inhuman eyes look on. It reads underneath “Pneumo, King of Elemental Evil Air”. A giant bin of crudely nailed together boards seems to be for offerings as it has a sign reading “PAY UP YOU RUBES OR GET SQUISHED”” (etc.)
Descriptions are relatively simple and action-focused. There is a very good variety to the encounters. Many Caves of Chaos clones focus solely on the combat – Norkers and Xvarts has that in spades (all of Sir Mulfric the Smurfinator’s smurf-killing wishes will be fulfilled in the xvart caves alone), but it livens up the action with simple dirty tricks worthy of Gygax. There are monster tactics and alarms, character-killing traps for the unwary, mysterious elemental shrines to experiment with, and some light potential for interaction. The gotchas are funny, deadly, and ultimately fair (“I69) FRIENDLY SKELETON – A skeleton waves from the far end of this room as if very friendly. It is a false skeleton illusion and is a pit trap.”) There are great moments of adversarial GMing: in the previous trap, there is a 5% probability anyone falling into the pit will also fall on the antlers of a rotting deer carcass for an extra 1d4 Hp.
Above all, the
caves offer good variety. Far from endless monster hotels, the individual mini-dungeons
have interesting sub-themes. The A-C areas have abandoned areas with a strong
horror component playing on fears of helplessness (a pool of stagnant water
with zombies lurking underneath the surface; an illusionary floor plunging you
into a bone pit with 5 ravenous larvae; a horrific mummy mermaid). D is a
mysterious evil earth shrine with weird,
creepy aesthetic, where the action slows down and you have to watch your every
move. G and J are a norker/xvart meat-grinders. K houses a mysterious frog-mage
and his servants. There are constant hints throughout the complex of a wider
world of evil intrigue; not in a didactic way, but as places where you may come
across the machinations of evil elemental lords, Lolth, and old Iuz. It is all
tied to what will presumably be Gene’s take on The Temple of Elemental Evil,
although neither this future adventure nor Hommlet are necessary for the use of
this module as a standalone. Variety is also seen in the monster roster, which
uses the Fiend Folio, adding several new low-level creatures like the creepy
spider zombies (corpses animated by arachnid parasites), the luphid
(snake-wolf), or the shadrow (shadowy drider forms) – just to mention a few.
Some design choices are peculiar, at odds with accepted wisdom. Monetary treasure is absolutely minimal. In The Village of Hommlet, even random cobblers and leatherworkers may have a thousand gp or a priceless gemstone hidden in the rafters, and the Moathouse ruins have over 10,000 gp in key locations. Monster lairs in Norkers and Xvarts have pitiful copper pieces and handfuls of silver; the brigand leader (to cite an example) has about 54 gp in loose change; the norker treasury has 370 gp and 420 gp of gems, and their leader has a 50 gp gold chain plus a pewter tub filled with gold-washed lead coins (actual value 675 cp – mean!). These are some of the larger caches, too; magic items are not particularly generous either, although monster XP is relatively decent due to the abundance of combat. By AD&D’s levelling/training requirements, this is very little. The choice, according to Gene, is deliberate – I would nevertheless recommend adding some more loot at various locations, or even multiplying existing figures by 4-5, which should take care of this issue.
The module has a simple but generally effective presentation. Gone are Broken Castle’s generic-system stats (it is all nice, readable AD&D), and the layout is simple but functional. There is an excellent blue-tone map that might have come right out of B2. If you end up running this scenario, it may be useful to chart out the valley on a piece of paper with only the entrances and surface vegetation visible – the map, while great, overlays the two, and I had a slight difficulty reading the surface topography. One extra complaint is that locked doors are not marked – you will have to study the text beforehand and do the job yourself. A simple but useful trick in room numbering: it is all sequential, but in the text, entries are preceded by the caves’ letter codes (e.g. A6, E41, H68A), which makes things extra readable. The monster section is illustrated; this is not pro art, but it does have a lot of soul.
Norkers and Xvarts is a great example of a short-form module that nevertheless packs a mean punch. It is nothing fancy, but it knows what it is doing, and written with a lot of understated skill in building memorable encounters. It can serve as an add-on to The Village of Hommlet, or used as a dungeon in a different campaign, and in any case, it offers a lot of useful insight into building a good Gygaxian dungeon environment. It is, also, free. Highly recommended.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: **** / *****