Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 25 February 2011

This Skull Needs Flesh

If you are of a certain age, you will recall an image from the rulebook for the version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons designed by writer, Doctor John Eric Holmes. The image showed a cross section of a dungeon consisting of seven levels with two standout features. One was that the last level of the dungeon consisted of a cave system containing a lake surrounding an island that was home to a domed city. The other, more evocative feature was the entrance to the dungeon was through “Skull Mountain.” What exactly lay behind that Skull Mountain we will never know, but now Faster Monkey Games has picked up the gauntlet to present a dungeon adventure based on that map. The result is an adventure designed for a party of four to six characters of fourth through sixth levels for use with the Retroclone, Labyrinth Lord and its supplement, the Advanced Edition Companion.

Skull Mountain comes with a setting outside of the dungeon, plots going on inside and outside of the dungeon, six levels of dungeon, plus a complex within the dungeon itself. The setting outside of the dungeon is the town of Wolford, which stands within sight of the gently smoking volcano that is Skull Mountain. The town has always been prone to banditry and robbery, but of late there have attacks and worse committed against its populace. Further, Aidan, the teenaged son of the ruling noble, has been kidnapped, and the town’s seneschal, Master Grüber, needs to ensure his safe return before his father discovers his disappearance. This sets up the reason for the presence of the player characters to be in Wolford, to rescue young Aidan, and is the adventure’s initial plot.

Yet for a plot that is meant to drive the party into investigating Skull Mountain, its set up and support are both woefully underdeveloped. Their patron, Master Grüber, has been left a blank canvas and his terms for the party’s employment have also been left blank. Two pages lay out the scenario’s extensive background, but no means of presenting or just hinting at that background is given, when all that was really needed was a traditional rumour table. This omission is at odds with the treatment of the other plots in Skull Mountain which actually encourage the player characters to return to the dungeon and explore its depths after they have rescued Aidan. What this means is that a DM will need to do a bit more work than he really should to fully flesh out the beginning of the scenario.

The dungeon itself below Skull Mountain feels quite small given the feeling of space conveyed in Holmes’ original cutaway. Most of the individual levels consist of between six and eight locations, the lowest level having three times that number in total. Getting down to the level where Aidan has been imprisoned should take no more than a couple of sessions, but there is much more to the dungeon than just that. It is expected that the party will leave once it has located Aidan, hence the need for a plot nudge that will persuade them to re-enter and explore the lower levels. The route to the adventure’s final areas is unfortunately very linear, but it does start with the dungeon’s most memorable feature, a stairway that spirals down round the outside of giant stalactite. Unfortunately, the author does not make as much of it as he could have done. Later on, the characters have to walk over a lake of lava under arrow fire while being snapped at by a salamander, yet the only problem they might face on the way down is catapult, which is easy to avoid. All the characters have to do is run around the other side of the stalactite. The location itself is exciting, but it just needs something a little extra to make it really memorable.

The finale of the adventure is plotted such that it plays out as a fitting climax to the exploration of the dungeon and revelation of its mysteries, essentially delving back into the adventure’s background that goes back over a thousand years. The player characters will find themselves facing a tough foe, but will be well rewarded for that effort. As with the set-up of the adventure, Skull Mountain also fails to deal with its aftermath. There is no discussion of what happens when Aidan is returned, how the player characters are rewarded for dealing with the threat that lies at the heart of Skull Mountain, and how the villains of the piece react to the adventurers’ efforts.

Physically, Skull Mountain is a well written, well presented thirty-six page 9.13Mb PDF. Its maps are nice and clear, but its artwork budget has been saved for a set of five illustrations that can be shown to the players. These have a pleasing Old School feel to them.

Ultimately, Skull Mountain is an excellent dungeon, but not necessarily a good adventure. The dungeon is well thought out and tied into the adventure’s detailed history with some memorable locations. There are probably three or four good sessions of play to be got out of exploring the dungeon alone. Unfortunately, neither Skull Mountain as a location or its plots are as well supported or as well developed as they should have been. For the want of six or eight pages extra support and development, and Skull Mountain would have been as good an adventure as it is a dungeon. With some effort upon the part of the DM, it still can be.