Necrotic Gnome. It is written for use with Old School Essentials, the Old School Renaissance retroclone based on the version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons designed by Tom Moldvay and published in 1980. It is designed to be played by a party of First and Second Level Player Characters and is a standalone affair, but could be connected to another scenario from the publisher, The Incandescent Grottoes. Plus there is scope in the adventure to expand if the Referee so desires. Alternatively, it could simply be run on its own as a self-contained dungeon adventure. The scenario is intended to be set underneath a great mythic wood, so is a perfect addition to the publisher’s own Dolmenwood setting, but would be easy to add to the Game Master’s own campaign setting. Further, like so many other scenarios for the Old School Renaissance, The Hole in the Oak is incredibly easy to adapt to or run using the retroclone of the Referee’s choice. The tone of the dungeon is weird and earthy, part of the ‘Mythic Underworld’ where strangeness and a degree of inexplicability is to be expected.
The first thing that strikes you about The Hole in the Oak is the way in which it is organised. The map of the whole dungeon is inside the front cover, and after the introduction, the adventure overview provides a history of the dungeon, an explanation of its factions and their relationships, and details—but definitely not any explanations—of its unanswered mysteries. The latter can be left as they are, unexplained, or they can be potentially tied into the rumours which will probably push the Player Characters into exploring its depths. Or of course, they can be tied into the Referee’s greater campaign world and lead to other adventures, or even developed from the players’ own explanations and hypothesises should the Referee be listening carefully. Besides the table of rumours, the adventure includes a listing of the treasure to be found in the dungeon and where, and a table of ‘Random Happenings’ (or encounters). The latter is placed inside the back cover where it is very convenient.
In between are the descriptions of the rooms below The Hole in the Oak. All sixty of them. These are arranged in order of course, but each is written in a parred down style, almost bullet point fashion, with key words in bold with details in accompanying parenthesis, followed by extra details and monster stats below. For example, the ‘Nonsense Study’ is described as containing “Cobblestones (round and smooth). Root walls and roof (clean; hand-worn patches). Arched roof (8’ high),” It expands up this with “South: Smell of tea and crumpets. Warm light. Quiet bleating (words?).” It expands upon this with descriptions of the room’s bookshelves, upholstered chairs, and monster stats for the latter. There is a fantastic economy of words employed here to incredible effect. The descriptions are kept to a bare minimum, but their simplicity is evocative, easy to read from the page, and prepare. The Hole in the Oak is genuinely easy to bring to the table and made all the easier to run from the page because the relevant sections from the map are reproduced on the same page. In addition, the map itself is clear and easy to read, with coloured boxes used to mark locked doors and monster locations as well as the usual room numbers.
In places though, the design and layout does not quite work. This is primarily where single rooms require expanded detail beyond the simple thumbnail description. It adds complexity and these locations are not quite as easy to run straight from the page as other locations are in the dungeon.
The dungeon in The Hole in the Oak, has an earthy, musty feel to it. Roots protrude in places from the walls and ceilings, and will sometimes lash out, talk to passers-by, or even hide things they steal. The inhabitants—factions even—have a mouldering feel to them too, many of them secretive and deceitful, and several of them would be more than willing to eat the adventurers if they can. Obviously, the Ghouls will—and will play dead as if drowned by the river—to ambush intruders, whilst the flock of sheep-headed fauns in its spiral-shaped home will invite visitors in for tea before striking. The most dangerous of the dungeon’s inhabitants consists of several giant lizards and a mutagenic Ogre whose breath could warp any adventurer he exhales on. There is plenty of weirdness too, including ghostly battles, black skeletons which seem to do nothing but stand there, and a strange cult of heretical Gnomes dedicated to decidedly odd, if megalomaniacal, object of veneration. Throughout, there are lots of lovely little details and oddities that make The Hole in the Oak much more than a simple series of connected rooms.
However, The Hole in the Oak can be a tough scenario. Not so much the traps, but the denizens. These include the aforementioned Ghouls and giant lizards, as well as the troglodytes. Of course, this encourages careful play, just as any classic Old School Renaissance dungeon or scenario should, and the likelihood is that the Player Characters will be making two or three delves down into it before exploring its fullest reaches.
Physically, The Hole in the Oak is a handsome little affair. The artwork is excellent, the cartography clear, and the writing to the point.
The Hole in the Oak can be used as an introductory dungeon—and it would be perfect for that, but it begs to be worked into a woodland realm of its own, its various details and connected rumours used by the Referee to connect it to the wider world and so develop context. Whichever way it is used, The Hole in the Oak is a superbly designed, low level dungeon, full of musty, fusty flavour and detail, presented in a format that makes it incredibly accessible and easy to run.