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

Friday 21 April 2023

2003: Idylls of the Rat King

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Published in 2003, Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King was the first adventure to ask the question, “Remember the golden days of role playing, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Well, those days are back. Dungeon Crawl Classics feature bloody combat, intriguing dungeons, and no NPCs who aren't meant to be killed. Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you fear, and the secret doors you know must be there somewhere.” In doing so, it launched the Dungeon Crawl Classics line from Goodman Games that in the twenty years since has seen the publication of over one hundred titles for three different roleplaying games. It began with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition in 2003, before moving on to Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition in 2008 and finally finding a home with Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying and the release of Dungeon Crawl Classics #66.5: Doom of the Savage Kings and the classic Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King is designed to ape the appearance of early adventures for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. Thus, the blurb is on the front cover rather than the rear, the rear being saved for a list of other products, and the maps inside the card cover are done in white on blue to thwart photocopying. The scenario itself is set in and around the town of Silverton, known for its silver mines. In recent months, goblins have been raiding the caravans carrying the silver and so hindering the town’s primary trade and means of income. The scenario begins with the Player Characters at the entrance to an abandoned mine whose silver has long been worked out and where the tracks of the raiders on the last caravan lead back to. The Player Characters have been hired to deal with the raiders and end their menace once and for all. Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King is designed for a party of Player Characters of First to Third Level. It is recommended that a Rogue, a Good-aligned Cleric, and a strong Fighter, preferably one armed with a silver sword be amongst their number. That said, an Elf, which his ability to spot secret doors will also be very handy.

The bulk of the scenario consists of a four-level ‘Abandoned Silver Mine’ infested with goblins and worse. The rooms of the played-out mine are all decently described, and where the Player Characters do encounter opposition, the location descriptions do include their tactics upon seeing intruders. Initially, the Player Characters will face a fair bit of opposition. The goblins are on guard and prepared to defend their home. The first level of the mine appears to be quite lightly populated, but an encounter with the Goblin Chief reveals that there is something else going on in the mine. Patience upon the part of the players and their characters will pay off if they find the secret vaults scattered across this level. The secret vaults and chambers on this level and the levels below contain not just treasure, but also useful, silvered or magical weapons and clues to the secrets of the mine.

Notably, although the Goblins are Neutral Evil, and signs of their nasty, vicious ways are found throughout the mine complex, the scenario specifically states that Good-aligned Player Characters suffer an Experience Point penalty should they put the females and young of the tribe to the sword. There are several nurseries and day-care rooms where they may be found, but there are also several temples dedicated to the rat gods, Narrimunth and Nimlurun, as well. The lower levels—three and four—are smaller, with the third actually being worked by miners still. Zombie miners, including zombie badgers, but miners, nonetheless. The nature of the encounters down here changes too, and whilst there no dragon in the final room, there is a definite sense of something much bigger on the fourth level. In comparison to the upper levels, there is scope on the lower for more than combat. The important NPCs will at least initiate or engage in conversation before they turn on the Player Characters and attempt to kill them. Some of the encounters on the lower levels are tough.

So what is going in the mine and Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King? The back story explains that century ago, one Jasper Gannu discovered the first silver mine outside what would become Silverton. However, the miners uncovered a great evil which had been buried there in ages past—a vampire named Serrenna. She was only stopped and locked away once again after twenty miners were killed. The survivors turned on him, lynched him, and drove his wife and child out with a curse. This curse turned them both into wererats, and now, Jasper’s grandson, Lawrence, has returned to the area to enact his revenge. Not only is he directing the goblins in the raids on the caravans, but he has also turned some of them in Wererats too! This is the reason why the Fighter needs to come armed with a silver weapon. The other is the vampire, Serrenna. If the Player Characters do not discover the clues to the ’ancient evil’ buried in the mine or ignore the warnings when they do, they may well free her from her prison and that would be a bad thing to do. Of course, she is evil, but Serrenna is very tough opponent too. That said, the Dungeon Master should have fun roleplaying her should the Player Characters encounter her.

In addition, Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King includes two appendices. One describes the Silverton Area and its inhabitants. Lawrence Gannu can be encountered here, performing as a Bard, and spying on the townsfolk and anyone who passes through the town. The handouts hint at the great evil in the mine as well as give the Player Characters a map. The start of the scenario provides three possible employers who would pay well for the Player Characters to investigate the abandoned mine.

Physically, Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King is a mixed bag. The layout is clean and tidy. The artwork is decent. However, the handouts are plain, just handwriting founts and whilst the map of Silverton is clearly done using Campaign Cartographer, so is decent enough, the map of the four levels of the mine is dull. To be fair, we have all been spoiled by the fully featured and illustrated maps of the scenarios for Dungeon Crawl Classics, but here they are all but featureless. The maps primarily consist of straight corridors and rectangular rooms, so all of the detail comes from the room descriptions. Trying to describe the route through the mine can only be challenging for the Dungeon Master because the maps are so bland.

One issue with Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King lies in the presentation of the monster stats and that comes from the d20 System and Dungeons & Dragons, 3.5. NPCs, including monsters, in Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, 3.5 can have Classes and that leads to extended, detailed stat blocks. In addition, there are lots of Wererat Goblins in the scenario, so for every encounter there are three sets of stat blocks—one for Goblin form, one for Dire Rat form, and one for Hybrid form. There is a lot of detail for the Dungeon Master to handle in terms of game stats in the scenario. Also, placing the town details in appendix makes it feel like an afterthought, but at the same time, it means that the Dungeon Master can get straight into the adventure without having to flip to the back of the scenario if it is not required.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King received an Honourable Mention for Best Adventure, at the ENnies in 2003. It would be followed by a sequel in 2006. This was Dungeon Crawl Classics #27: Revenge of the Rat King designed for Player Characters of Fourth to Sixth Level. Then in 2008, the two modules were compiled for release at Gen Con 2008, but not for Dungeons & Dragons, 3.5. Rather it was written for use with the version of the roleplaying game whose style for its scenarios the two scenarios were aping—Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First edition. In addition, Dungeon Crawl Classics: Saga of the Rat King included a third adventure, ‘The Scourge of Silverton’, which bridged the two. Although titles for the Dungeon Crawl Classics line for previous iterations have since been updated for use with Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying is not one of them. Perhaps on its twentieth anniversary, it deserves the Dungeon Crawl Classics treatment? Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King would also be the subject of several reviews at the time of its release—one of which is here.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King is twenty years old and was even a nostalgia piece back then. There is much to like. The choice of monsters is a surprising combination, and with its mixture of the Undead, Vampire femme fatale, and Wererat Goblins, there is an element of horror to the scenario which adds to both its atmosphere and mystery. Yet this is undone in part by the maps, which are featureless and uninteresting, adding nothing to the adventure and barely even supporting it. The scenario is primarily combat and exploration focused, but it does have the mystery of the unspeakable evil and a few roleplaying opportunities here and there. For a twenty-year-old, nostalgia focused scenario, that is not bad. Indeed, Dungeon Crawl Classics #1: Idylls of the Rat King is not perfect, but definitely not bad, and it definitely got the Dungeon Crawl Classics line off to a solid start.

No comments:

Post a Comment