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Friday 17 November 2023

Friday Fantasy: The Dragon’s Secret

Deep in the forest stands a grand cathedral. A grand cathedral dedicated to ‘Aulde Dawne’, a Gold Dragon who answered the call to protect the peoples of the nearby village and give them her blessing. In return the villagers gave tribute to her and a temple was built, then upgraded, and more tribute was made. Yet this was never enough, for eventually ‘Aulde Dawne’ went mad and rampaged across the countryside, and it took heroes a great effort to be put a stop to her predations. Yet as successful as those heroes were, they never found the treasure hoard that had been given to ‘Aulde Dawne’ over the years and neither has anyone else since. For a great many years, the Cathedral of the Golden Dragon has been sealed up, but rumours abound of not just the great treasure to be found in its vaults, surely hidden where none has been able to find it to date, but also great secrets. This is the set-up for The Dragon’s Secret, a dungeon adventure published by Fifth Wall Games & Miniatures for use with Swords & Wizardry that requires a party of six to eight Player Characters of Fifth to Seventh Level. Notably, it is designed by Jennell Jaquays, best known as the designer of one of the greatest Dungeons & Dragons scenarios ever published, Dark Tower, and certainly the best scenario that Judges Guild ever published. If The Dragon’s Secret is half as good as Dark Tower, or even Caverns of Thracia, then this is definitely a dungeon worth looking at.

The Dragon’s Secret is based on maps that Jaquays drew as a teenager and the adventure that she subsequently developed for both the 2017 North Texas RPG Con and the Dungeons of Doom IV Kickstarter campaign. The current and completed version consists of some thirty-four locations across three levels, homebrew rules, a few factions, two new Player Character species, several new monsters, and a potential means to access the author’s own The Thousands Worlds campaign setting. All packaged in an easy-to-use fashion. The ease of use extends to adapting to the Game Master’s own campaign, since the Cathedral of the Golden Dragon is located in a relatively isolated forest. Consequently, it would work in settings such as The Midderlands or Dolmenwood without any problems, just as it would in the Game Master’s own campaign setting. The scenario includes several ‘Dragon Tales’ or reasons why the Player Characters might want to get involved, including helping would be villagers resettle an abandoned village called Dragon’s Gold; going for the bounty on a pair of wizard’s apprentices; collecting a spider venom which could induce a zombie-like effect; and so on. These can be used to involve the Player Characters and tie the scenario into the Game Master’s campaign.

The Dragon’s Secret begins with the author giving some engaging context and history to the dungeon before she settles down and provides the backstory to the scenario and explains how the book works. The backstory is genuinely original and clever, leaving you to wonder why you never thought of it. Essentially, the presence of ‘Aulde Dawne’ and the construction of the Cathedral of the Golden Dragon was one big confidence trick. A good one, which is one reason why the Game Master should take a look at The Dragon’s Secret rather than the reviewer unnecessarily giving too much away. Then the scenario’s format for its room features—Snapshots, Backstory, Remarkables, Secrets, Curios, Traps, Treasure, and Denizens—is explained. Of these, ‘Snapshots’ represents what a Player Character would be aware of upon first glance; ‘Backstory’ adds further details, sometimes for the benefit of the Player Characters rather than the Game Master; ‘Remarkables’ are the standout features of the location; ‘Curios’ are often exotic, out of place, or out of context objects randomly found (and rolled for on a table at the back of the book); and Denizens covers everything that might be encountered in the location. Denizen descriptions then have their own features—Tactics/Roleplay, Encounters, Snapshots, Insight, Profiles, Lore, and Tales. ‘Encounters’ is where a denizen may be encountered; ‘Insights’ the Player Characters’ first impressions of him; ‘Lore’ gives any rumours or gossip associated with him; ‘Profile; a more detailed description of the denizen; and ‘Tales’ are ideas for further adventures which might involve the denizen and the Player Characters. Not every denizen or group has all of these features, but they all do provide a structured means of providing detail about them.

Besides random encounters, The Dragon’s Secret includes several factions. These include a band of Fowl Folk Adventurers and a group of merchants. All of whom have full stats and guides on their tactics in a fight and on how to roleplay them. Their presence, as well as that of Erebox the Aardvark, can drive the adventure forward or can impede the Player Characters’ progress depending on how they interact with them. There is also a table of random encounters for outside of the dungeon, though in the main, The Dragon’s Secret is not a wilderness and dungeon adventure. There is scope here for the Game Master to expand this aspect of the adventure if she wants to.

There are some decent encounters to found across the dungeon, supported with some terrific NPCs. For example, there is a Giant Clockwork Automaton, which will clank and bash about with the Player Characters in its chamber, but search further and they find the operators of the device, who were having ‘fun’ with them. Both are very well described and the Game Master will have a lot of fun herself in portraying them. Then there is a Black Onyx Skull, a cursed magical item that wakes up nearby undead, but a cost of draining a Player Character’s Levels. The finale itself takes place in a giant cavern against a trio of ghoulish-dragons and their ghoul minions, each of the undead dragons slightly different in design and personality. It is a grand fight around a towered spiral staircase and in and out of the nearby tunnels, and definitely deserves to be played on the table with miniatures.

However, the design of The Dragon’s Secret is split in two. One half is dedicated to its backstory, with the Player Characters attempting to find their way to Aulde Dawne’s hoard and possibly learning about the Cult of the Gold Dragon. The former is more likely than the latter, with it unlikely that the Player Characters will ever learn the back story to the scenario. The half of the dungeon is dedicated to a series of rooms that are only tangentially connected to each and not to the back story. These locations draw from the funhouse style of dungeons, with rooms full of random ideas and concepts. The Player Characters will have to investigate these in order to find the keys to puzzle to get to the end, but they do not anything more than a weird randomness to the whole thing.

As good as the back story is to The Dragon’s Secret and as fun and as entertaining as some of its encounters are, problems abound with the scenario, the majority of which extend from it not quite being a completed book and it not being fully edited. There are design issues with the format of room descriptions and adherence to that format, which can often lead to minor elements being mentioned before the more important elements that the Game Master will definitely need to know. For example, the fact that there might be a curio at the bottom of a pit before mentioning the fact that the room does actually contain a pit trap or waiting until the description of the denizens in the Denizen section that there are actually zombies in the room. It is often unclear how one room connects to another or how aspects of a room interact with another, or where the important pieces of a puzzle are in the rest of the dungeon, let alone the fact that there is tunnel going nowhere. The dungeon maps are almost, but not quite decent, being numbered in an odd order and there being one location mentioned in the text, but which is not on the map. It turns out that this location is actually outside the dungeon, on the plateau behind the cathedral. Obviously, the description should have been in the wilderness section where the Player Characters could have encountered it there!

The writing also veers between humour and annoyingly pointless text. Examples of the former include, “What’s worse than zombies or spiders? Zombie spiders!!” and a room called ‘The Unpopular Dead’. Examples of the latter include the Backstory for the ‘The Pot O’ Silver’ location, which reads, “There’s obviously a story here, but now is not the time for its telling.” and the Backstory for ‘She’s Got Legs …’, which reads, “This was a room that originally just had centipedes in it. I made it more interesting in the update. Oh? You were expecting backstory about the centipede goddess? That’s yet another story.” And? Exactly when is a good time to tell that story? If so much attention is paid to providing the Game Master with detail and information throughout the rest of the scenario, why not here?

All of these problems are not insurmountable. All it takes to overcome them is good preparation upon the part of Game Master. However, it is not just ‘good’ preparation required by the Game Master, but extra preparation, in order have the necessary and often wayward information at her fingertips.

In addition, there are also two further problems, both idiosyncratic in nature. These are the addition of the two new Player Character species—also given as monsters—from the author’s campaign. These are the Fowl Folk and Earth Pigs, or rather Ducks (and other waterfowl) and Aardvarks. The latter are clearly drawn from the long-running comic book series, Cerebos the Aardvark, whilst the former are heavily influenced by the Durulz, or Ducks of Glorantha and RuneQuest. In fact, one major NPC, Erebox the Aardvark is more or less Cerebos the Aardvark renamed and given stats for the adventure. Both species tend to be played for their inherent humour, let alone their oddness, both of which may feel out of place in the Game Master’s own campaign. As a one shot, their inclusion is fine, but as part of a campaign, they will probably require adding in earlier lest their inclusion feel unnecessarily odd or out of place.

Physically, The Dragon’s Secret looks great. The artwork is excellent and the maps good bar the missing and the extra locations. The text itself needs a good edit and the scenario as a whole a little more development that would come with a good editor asking the author questions.

The Dragon’s Secret is playable as written, but requires more preparation time than it ordinarily should. In general, the funhouse aspects of the dungeon outweigh its theme and the plot of its backstory, and anyone coming to the adventure expecting something like Dark Tower or The Caverns of Thracia will be disappointed. Nevertheless, with some extra effort upon the part of the designer, let alone the Game Master when she comes to run it, and The Dragon’s Secret will be an enjoyably detailed funhouse dungeon. Unfortunately, The Dragon’s Secret is not a Jaquays classic.

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