Sunday, 17 September 2023

[REVIEW] Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination

Into the Caves of the
Pestilent Abomination
Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination (2023)

by Marcelo P. Augusto

Published by Giallo Games

Levels 1–2

The idyllic rural community beset by a monstrous menace is one of the main plots in fantasy games, and the premise of a myriad low-level adventures, so much so that it probably beats “undead-haunted crypt of a local notability” and “Keep on the Borderlands” to the top spot. The majority of them are low-complexity affairs, with a straightforward setup and a mini-dungeon at the end. Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination is a typical representative of the genre, and suffers from its typical issues, including a misunderstanding of what makes an adventure.

Where the rural idyll is concerned, the module lays it on thick: “The small community of Woodsmen Village lived in tranquility, without anything or anyone bothering its peaceful residents. Days come and go while the gardens sprout succulent and showy greens. Shepherds quietly follow their flocks of sheep to the nearby hills, and poultry farmers happily inspect the beautiful eggs their fat hens daily laid. (sic)” Woodsmen Village, mainly noted for the Fussy Lark tavern and the magical throwing axe of a dwarf hero who has once helped the place, is troubled by a problem. A traveling priest who has settled near the village has gradually grown wild and transformed into a stinking, decrepit abomination, scaring the local folk and eventually moving on to killing the livestock. All this is told through an overly long backstory, which is then followed by a disproportionately simplistic adventure. The paragraph you have just read would have sufficed for an introduction conveying the same ideas the module spends four pages elaborating.

Ceci n'est pas une d'une
exploration hexadécimale.
The adventure proper has a wilderness segment in this idyllic little land, which serves no purpose whatsoever. There is a hex map with nine keyed areas, but these are not functional encounters of interest to the adventurers. Rather, the locations mentioned in the backstory are put on the map, from the dwarf hero’s serene lakeside tomb (a nice touch: flowers and tobacco are deposited near the grave as a local tradition), to the location where a local kid once saw the Pestilent Abomination, the place where the torn off sheep’s head was found, and the other place where the mule carcass was discovered. These places are not encounters per se, since nothing really happens at them, nor do they offer useful information to finding the Abomination’s lair. As the module helpfully tells us, “It’s possible that the adventurers try to investigate the area, but they won’t find any clues about the recent incidents at the village.” The only function of the wilderness is to bump into random encounters, except they are mostly not functional encounters either, being local wildlife like deer, a snake, an eagle, shepherds and sheep, a mountain goat, 1d4 wolves, and travelling dwarves. This is mainly just set dressing before the adventure – but there is no adventure in these outdoors.

The actual adventure begins on page 12, where the module starts to describe the nearby swamp. Some of the encounters here are actual monsters and hazards (like a depth change), although this is basically just mucking around until you arbitrarily find a trail to the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination. The best part of the adventure is found here; an encounter with “the Swamp Predator”, “a bizarre cross between a crab and a spider”, which attacks from beneath the murky water of the lake before the cave entrance. This is simple but well done; an interesting monster with an effective setup.

The caves feature seven keyed areas (13 if we generously count sub-areas), and follows a linear path with three side-branches. There are the beginnings of interesting locales here. A half-flooded cave glittering with rough citrines and populated by giant salamanders (the adventure’s only treasures of note, worth a total of about 180 gp) is pretty cool. A completely flooded cave with a submerged quicksand pool is a good challenge of problem-solving and equipment use. The descriptions are sometimes effective, let down by parts of the key describing things which are evident from the map. In the final room, the adventure ends up as a bait-and-switch: you do not actually get to encounter the original Pestilent Abomination, as he has died a while ago and been replaced by a troll which has taken his place. This development is probably realistic, but disappointing. The shepherds and farmers of Woodsmen Village would probably see the troll as a fearsome monster of whispered legend. For the actual people playing this adventure, it is just a troll. It also nullifies the priest plotline the module had spent so much ink setting up. There is no treasure except a cursed necklace which transforms you into the Pestilent Abomination, and has an overlong backstory of its own.

Into the Caves of the Pestilent Abomination is just an example of a general trend that has beset old-school adventure design, and it is perhaps not fair to single it out for criticism. It is one of many, and its sins are of the age which had birthed it. There are ways out, but they must be shown so people can walk them. Good adventure design is not that hard, and old-school gaming has much to offer in this respect. But regrettably, this is still really bad. The lesson is thus: sometimes, horrors are hidden around idyllic communities, and we must put them to the sword for the sake of peace and quiet.

This module credits its playtesters properly.

Rating: * / *****


  1. I really thank you for reviwing my writings and for the space given, and all feedback is important and may be useful. All the best!

  2. By the way, only in case it went unnoticed, the real threat is the artifact...

    1. I believe that was quite well communicated. Hope the review has been useful, even if it was a negative one.