by Jeff Heinen
Published by Hrafn Forge
Level 1 (Shadowdark)
Games which make a large splash tend to be inundated with ill-conceived crap from incompetents and shovelware artists. Mrög Brög, OSE, Troika, and now Shadowdark are just continuing a trend proudly set by OSRIC (Phil Reed showing up is a telltale sign). After a while, when the game’s reputation has been soundly thrashed by the talentless and opportunistic, the horde moves on to drag down the next hot thing. It is thus not easy to find the good stuff for these systems among the rubbish. This adventure is not rubbish: a sense of wonder, good presentation, and decent encounter design show signs of emerging competence.
The first thing that stands out is the sense of wonder. The caves are an old refuge of nobility; a place of beauty and history. The module is willing to be fantastic by digging into the foundations of D&D fantasy: places like a gallery, a magnificent feasting hall with a grand chandelier, and subterranean cave realms combine strong imagery with functional gameplay. The text helps establish a place with a good appeal to multiple senses. Let’s consider the setup for the first area: “Stench of stale sweat and damp earth. The light of your torches flickers off damp, roughly hewn cave walls. Four individuals, clearly not of noble birth, clad in mismatched leather armor, have set up a crude watchpost here. They bear the marks of hard lives, their faces hidden under layers of grime and rough stubble. A sense of alertness emanates from them, their hands never straying too far from their belted weapons. A pair of smoking braziers gives off an acrid smoke that burns the eyes and lungs, providing a meager light source.” It has a few remnants of boxed text – some entries imply player action a bit too much – but you can see good descriptions taking shape. It is not overlong, and it concentrates on visceral detail. Stale sweet and damp earth. Mismatched leather armour. Grime and rough stubble. Acrid smoke. You get a solid mental image out of them.
Beginner modules are not an easy genre to write for: balancing limited character power with the need to design something that does not feel nerfed and limited is a challenge many fail at. Caves of Respite does a decent job at giving you a first-level dungeon in 24 keyed areas. That’s sort of the threshold of viability; under 20 is usually too small, although around 30-40 would be better. This cave system is large enough to accommodate player choices and offer alternate paths – the structure follows a larger loop crossed by two strings of rooms; not elaborate, but again, it does its job. If you added about 50% empty space to extend it a little, and introduced a few dead ends and side-branches, it would be spot on. What works particularly well, though, is the sense of progression. The entrance section is a bandit lair, barricaded off from the deeper caves. This is followed by natural caverns ranging from a mushroom garden to a chasm spanned by a rickety rope bridge. You eventually get to the lost noble sanctum with its set-piece rooms, and that’s a great sense of discovery, even in such a small dungeon. It transcends simple “cabinet contents” room design by exploring slightly out-of-place elements with a sense of the odd and fantastic, like an underground music room or a grand library. A definite high water mark.
The encounters run the gamut from combat to hazards and navigation challenges. Monster encounters include basic tactics – ettercaps try to ensnare the party, while kobolds and goblins are a cowardly lot who might be more likely to bargain for a surrender. Monster numbers could be increased a little; meeting 16 kobolds is just more exciting than a combined group of five kobolds and three goblins. Two ghouls in a room is just sad, balance be damned. There are opportunities for parlaying and making deals with the denizens.
There is decent signposting – three skeletons impaled by fallen stalactites followed by, well, falling stalactites. It is perhaps on the simple side, but this is a beginner affair. Occasional bad practices are still present: for example, the bandits’ belongings can potentially yield healing potions, lockpicks, and small amounts of gold. Well, do they yield them or not? Do they only yield them if it is convenient for the GM? This is a point where an adventure designer should put down his feet, at least by establishing some odds. There are a few “hidden niche contains some loot” secrets too many – more variety here would be to the adventure’s benefit. The loot amounts are based on Shadowdark standards, so it is more “I am happy with this 50 gp” and less “you find 1000 gp, a meagre haul so far”.
The module follows a fairly effective presentation: keyworded player-side descriptions are followed by GM info in bullet points. The absence of monster stats is puzzling. Is this a Shadowdark thing or a module-specific thing? In either case, stats should be included, no ifs and no buts. The Achilles heel of the presentation is the map. Features noted in the text are often missing from the map – not on the level of furniture, but things like a grand stairway, a secret door, or a chasm and a rope bridge are the most notable cases. Sure, you can draw them in based on a read-through of the text, but then the author could have done the same. I wonder if this was originally a repurposed map or some sort of template.
All things considered, this is not bad at all, sort of like a good Basic D&D adventure. It is not yet at the point where decent becomes very good, but perhaps where good things starts to emerge – a good start. The author is someone who clearly has talent, and is getting more skilful. It would be good to see more.
No playtesters are credited in this module.
Rating: *** / *****