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Sunday, 30 December 2018

Retrospective: Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead

Before the advent of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, the market for scenarios and other content was of course dominated TSR, Inc., but there were plenty of third party publishers too. Judges Guild of course, but also Mayfair Games as well as smaller publishers like such as Daystar West Media Productions (which would actually be bought out by TSR) or Phoenix Games, Inc. In the United Kingdom, TSR, Inc.—in the form of TSR (UK), Inc.—dominated Dungeons & Dragons support, with the ‘U’ and ‘UK’ series of modules. Yet there were third party publishers too who typically released one or two titles and for the most part, both titles and their publishers remain obscure some three or four decades on. No Honour in Sathporte from Chaotic Intellect Products and Northern Sages’ highly regarded Starstone are both typical of this. The biggest British publisher to release adventures for Dungeons & Dragons at the time though, was Games Workshop. A few years before the leading hobby games publisher in the United Kingdom switched focus to its miniatures and wargames, it released two titles for use with Dungeons & Dragons and more—and they were odd beasts too.

The two titles were Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead and Dungeon Planner Set 2: Nightmare in Blackmarsh and they were part of the Dungeon Planner series—of which they were the only entries. Each Dungeon Planner title was a boxed set which contained “...[a] complete adventure for use with fantasy roleplaying games such as RuneQuest, Dungeons & Dragons, or Warhammer.” In addition there were maps of an area plus its local history, and it was intended that this would build into a region as the series proceeded and in turn added dungeons, tombs, wizard’s lairs, villages, towns, and so on. The aim of the Dungeon Planner series was to save the Games Master, “...[a] great deal of tedious writing…” and claimed that, “We do the paperwork: you have the fun!” What this means is that any associated  preparation time is designed to take hours rather than days.

Designed by Gary Chalk—whose son, Titus, wrote Generation Decks, the history of Magic: The GatheringDungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead is the first entry in the series. Underneath the impressive cover depicting a scared adventurer being surprised and attacked by a skeletal warrior, Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead asks what the adventurers will find the Royal Tombs of Eastern Koss—vampires, a bandit gang, or the tomb and treasures of the legendary Orm? Inside can be found a Game Master’s Screen and booklet, an area map, and an A3-size poster map showing the floorplans of The Royal Tombs.

The very first thing inside the Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead box is the Game Master’s Screen and inside that is the booklet. The screen is done in light card, its outside again showing the cover of the box and a one-page general history of Eastern Koss. The Caverns of the Dead of the title are in fact, the Royal Tomb of the royal house of Koss, supposedly built by the house’s founder, a nobleman named Orm. The tomb complex is at least four hundred years old and has been used intermittently by the royal house over the course of this time. When in use, it is properly staffed by tomb keepers and guards, but at other times, has been left all but abandoned.

Like the outside of the screen, the inside of the screen is divided in two, but is done in black and white rather than colour. On the one side is a plan of the Royal Tomb complex, all marked up with room numbers, ready for the Game Master’s reference. On the other side, is a set of encounter tables for the tomb complex. In fact, there are three sets of encounter tables, one for each of the possible conditions that the tombs might be found in. The first is if the tombs are in use and are fully staffed with tomb keepers and guards and tables are also provided for tomb keeper, novice tomb keeper, and tomb guard activities. So in this situation, the player characters might encounter a party of grieving royals and their retainers or novice tomb keepers playing leapfrog! The second set of tables is for the tombs if they in a neglected state, so a party might encounter a dead tomb keeper, bandits, or an urchin graffiting a wall! In this situation, the tomb keepers and tomb guards have retreated away from the main areas of the complex and are unable to maintain it. The third and final table is for when the complex has been totally abandoned and it is essentially for when the Game Master runs Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead as a dungeon crawl.

The booklet details and explains what is in the Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead before delving into the tomb itself. Eight plot hooks are given, the most notable of which suggests how the adventure could be run using Warhammer—the early edition of the fantasy battle game—rather than a roleplaying game. To be fair, they are not that interesting in part because they are not tailored to a pre-written adventure.

The actual complex consists of thirty doors, ten corridors, and twenty-nine individual locations. The doors have a table to indicate their status, the corridors have no description, and the locations each typically have a two or three sentence description. The descriptions are full of little details which are left hanging with no further explanation. For example, the Tomb of Prince Hargon has a faded frieze which depicts his victory over the Orcs on the Plains of Tagor, but who is Prince Hargon and where are the Plains of Tagor? Below each description are several dotted lines where the Game Master can note the encounters to be had in that location or corridor and possible treasure to be found—if any. Rounding out the Game Master’s Booklet is much longer section for her notes and a map which again depicts the tomb complex, but which has room for her to expand the map.

All of this feels reminiscent of another adventure, one of the very first to be published for Basic Dungeons & Dragons. This is B1 In Search of the Unknown, published in 1979, in which, famously, the Dungeon Master fills in the inhabitants and encounters to be found in the ‘Caverns of Quasqueton’, typically from a set of options provided in the back of the module. Just as this design format had a profound format on the nature of B1 In Search of the Unknown, it had a profound effect on Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead and Dungeon Planner Set 2: Nightmare in Blackmarsh. It requires a greater degree of preparation than a pre-written scenario as the Game Master has to populate the dungeon and add some kind of plot to the scenario. Of course, in doing so, the Game Master will make the adventure in Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead hers rather than the author’s. Of course, the encounter tables given in the Game Master’s booklet are more directed to telling a specific set-up—or rather three specific set-ups—than the monster lists in B1 In Search of the Unknown and so there is a stronger basis for plot and story.

Below the Game Master’s Screen and booklet is the A4-size area map of Eastern Koss. This depicts an area forty by twenty-eight miles with just a few locations—two villages, an inn, various runestones, the remnants of Ormsdyke (part of which is snake or serpent-like), and of course, Orm’s Finger where the Royal Tomb is located. The Game Master will need to develop these other locations herself as no information is given about then, although it would have been nice if such details had been included, perhaps on the reverse of the map, which is otherwise blank.

Lastly, under everything else in Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead is the full colour, A2-size map of the Royal Tomb. It is done in 25 mm scale, on very sturdy paper, and is designed to be used with miniatures—miniatures that of course, Games Workshop, or rather Citadel Miniatures sells—and of course, it is compatible with Games Workshop’s line of Dungeon Floor Plans sets. So it is big and bold in a rather workmanlike fashion. It is not necessarily a fantastic piece of cartography, but once on the table with the addition of miniatures and perhaps a little dungeon dressing, there is no doubt that it will look impressive.

Physically, Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead is a lovely thing. Perhaps the Game Master’s booklet feels a bit thin and perhaps there could have been some more details on Eastern Koss, but the production values are otherwise really nicely done.

At the start of the review, Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead was described as being an adventure for Dungeons & Dragons. This is true. This is also untrue. In actuality, Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead is a generic adventure as there are no game stats at all given for any of the suggested creatures or encounters. Yet the monsters and encountered listed on the three sets of Encounter Tables are those taken from Dungeons & Dragons—Hobgoblins, Kobolds, Paladins, and what-not are de facto Dungeons & Dragons monsters. Arguably, some could be said to generic creatures—giant rats, wolves, and so on—but the suggested monsters are those of Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, this makes it easy to adapt Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead to the roleplaying game and setting of your choice. Dungeons & Dragons would be easy, Warhammer or Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay would be barely a little more difficult as would HARP, whilst roleplaying games with a stronger setting, like RuneQuest and Glorantha, would be a great deal more difficult. This is not to say that it could be done, but the more generic the roleplaying game in terms of its fantasy, the easier it would be to adapt.

As an adventure and a dungeon, Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead still needs preparation and more preparation than a pre-written scenario normally requires. It is more of a halfway house between an unwritten and pre-written adventure. There is certainly potential in terms of plot and theme to be found in Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead, along with some of the means to extract and develop that. Unfortunately, as much as Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead and the Dungeon Planner series develops the concept and supports it with some great maps, it awaits the input of the Game Master—or the Dungeon Master—to make it memorable.