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Friday, 29 March 2019

Friday Fantasy: A Delve in the Cave

A village in peril.

An ancient legend. 

A mystery.

If you were told that these were the elements of a set-up to a First Level adventure for Dungeons & Dragons and any of the roleplaying games derived from it, then your reaction might be to roll your eyes and move on, because what this sounds like is a set of clichés. And to be fair, you would be right given that this set-up goes all the way back to classic adventures like T1 The Village of Hommlet and U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. It is a set-up that designers return to over and over, so that sometimes the result can be less than satisfying, such as Idol of the Orcs. What this means is that designers have to go that bit further in order to make their First Level adventure—or dungeon—stand out from the rest. The good news is that the designer of A Delve in the Cave, an adventure requiring four or five characters of First Level and written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, has done that.

Published by Signal Fire Studios, the set-up for A Delve in the Cave is simple. The town of Shadowhaven has of late been beset a dark mood as its inhabitants have suffered from sleeplessness, a rash of minor misfortunes and incidents, food tasting of ash, wine of vinegar, and so on. The townsfolk believe that their misfortunes are linked to the hill that overlooks Shadowhaven, known as Bren Brenin. The hill is known to have an extensive cave system and to be where a great wizard named Brenin was interred many years ago. This was after he spent years exploring the region and then together with some friends, putting an end to the Shadow Fey threat said to be emanating from the hill. The question is, could the Shadow Fey have returned, and if so, what of the protections that Brenin put in place?

The dungeon under the hill consists of just twenty-four locations. For the most part these are of natural cave system, nicely detailed and with a sense of naturalism influenced by the outré, rather than having the outré run amok. Make no mistake though, its influence permeates the caves. In the main, the player characters will be facing a mix of natural threats and an environment which has been strewn with traps to deter their progress. This is because there is a timed mechanism to the scenario, one that the player characters will be unaware of and the fact that they are unaware of it, is really the scenario’s only real weakness. In order for the timing mechanism to work, one of the adventure’s two NPCs will lead the player characters on a merry dance through the caves. This is nicely handled with advice and tactics throughout on his actions and is really what marks A Delve in the Cave as different to other Dungeons & Dragons adventures with a similar set-up. Yet this also the adventure’s primary problem, that some signal or clue could have been given as to the fact that there is a timing mechanism and that there is something going on under Bren Brenin other than the obviousness of their being attacked, at least for those new to adventuring… Veterans are likely to ask themselves why they have been attacked and why they are chasing their attacker round the cave complex, and perhaps go looking for a reason… but those new to playing Dungeons & Dragons, less so.

A Delve in the Cave can be run with varying degrees of set-up. It be run with little preparation, the game beginning with the player characters standing outside of cave entrance, ready to venture forth. Alternatively, the Dungeon Master can simply give the player characters the hooks to pull them into the scenario or have them visit the Shadowhaven and roleplay interacting with the townsfolk to learn more about what is going on, pick up rumours, and so on…  To that end, there are some good hooks to pull the player characters into the scenario and its events.

In addition to the adventure itself, A Delve in the Cave includes a couple of new magical items, a new monster or two, and a pair of detailed NPCs. It uses a monster from the Tome of Beasts, a bestiary published by Kobold Press, but that supplement is not necessary to run the adventure.

Another issue with A Delve in the Cave is that the connections between the given rumours and hooks and what is going on in Bren Brenin are not clearly stated upfront. Now they are there and they are obvious, but the Dungeon Master will need to read through the whole of the scenario with care to make them. Not that she is not going to, but the links and information could have been made more obvious.

Physically, A Delve in the Cave is cleanly laid out and presented in a large font, making it easy to read. The map is also nicely done. There is just the one piece of art though, but that is by design. This is because there are two versions of the scenario. This, the ‘Early Access Edition’, has no art beyond a single piece and the development of the scenario’s background has been kept to a minimum, though a very playable minimum. Indeed, there is enough information for the Dungeon Master to create the town of Shadowhaven and its surrounds if she so desired. The other version has been funded via a Kickstarter campaign, which adds much more art and more information about the town.

A Delve in the Cave is a simple, straightforward adventure with a couple of slightly undeveloped hooks that the Dungeon Master will need to work on (but only a little) and a nice means of pulling the adventurers deeper into both the adventure and the cave system. Veteran players may find it a little unsophisticated, but it is easy to prepare and it is easy to bring to the table. For those new to playing Dungeons & Dragons though, A Delve in the Cave is a decent first adventure which should provide a session or so’s worth of play—and perhaps a bit more if the Dungeon Master develops the town.

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