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Monday, 9 March 2015

Dark Druids by Robert J. Kuntz

One of the pieces of gaming swag that I've picked up on this holiday is a copy of Dark Druids, written by Robert J. Kuntz and published by Chaotic Henchmen Productions, a little RPG microbrewery run by a pal of mine. You can order it here. The proprietor hooked me up with a copy, which I read eagerly over the past few days. So let's take a look at the scenario. This review contains spoilers, so if you think you're going to be playing this you should probably stop reading now. 

Dark Druids is an updated version of an older scenario by Robert J. Kuntz, one of the earliest D&D players and longtime designer. It's designed for quite a powerful group, either a small team of 12th level characters or a somewhat larger group of slightly lower level. 

This is the print copy, which costs, I believe, $24 (about £16 at the moment, though hopefully the exchange rate will sort itself out). I don't think a PDF is available, although Chaotic Henchmen's earlier scenarios, The Fane of Poisoned Prophecies and Many Gates of the Gann are available in PDF for $6 (£4) each. I haven't read them, but now I kind of want to!


You gotcher basic colour cover, which ... 
... has maps of the larger dungeon areas on the inside. In classic module style,
the cover is a separate piece from the adventure booklet itself.
Interior layout is a simple two-column setup with black and white illos,
text boxes and more maps and diagrams. 
So what's it about? 

The basic premise is that your party are recruited by a conclave of local good cleric types to find out what a bunch of weirdo evil druids are up to. There's a side quest of "find out what happened to the last bunch of guys we sent to find out what the weirdos are up to." The lair of the bad guys is deep within Fang Forest. 

What the good taskmasters don't know is that there are not one but two sects of evil druids. The main group (called the Black Hats, which is mandatory change number two, right after "conclave of good religious leaders who shout Steel and Spell! in unison") is under attack by a radical splinter faction called the Umber Eyes, who are sick and tired of just worshiping evil and want to actually summon their demon lord. I guess the fact that the Black Hats are the (relative) goodies is pretty funny. 

So when the PCs arrive, the Umber Eyes are just mounting their final assault on the three-level dungeon that serves the Black Hats for a base. This means that everyone's attention is distracted, and no one is really looking out for threats from outside, giving the PCs a chance to sneak in and accomplish their mission. This also makes the situation inside the dungeon extremely fluid, something that's going to be particularly important once the PCs get down to the lower levels and start upsetting the balance. 

What did I like about it? 

  • Once you're past the relatively linear opening, it's quite a large, open dungeon with plenty of different paths the players can follow. The upper levels are mainly open spaces with sub-areas or side rooms, leading to a third level with multiple access points, each differently defended, and a big battle raging in the middle. It rewards thinking about space, planning and intelligent -- but quick -- tactical thinking. 
  • Although the enemies on both sides are basically similar -- druids, y'know, who mainly fight via summoning -- the encounters are thematically and tactically different enough from each other that they don't feel repetitive. 
  • It is stuffed with new material -- a new variant class for AD&D 1st (the "dark druid"), four new monsters, 16 new magic items (some of 'em more or less variants on existing items, some of them scenario-unique, but many of them usable elsewhere), and a whopping 42 spells. 
  • It is mostly clear and easy to follow, with good explanation of NPC tactics (normally I don't care about this, but high-level spellcasters are quite complex and the explanations are useful). 
  • The little historical commentary section in one of the appendices is a fun look at where this scenario fits into the history of Greyhawk. 
  • It has a mixture of stand-up fights, sneaking, puzzle-solving and general mystery material. Thinking about the clues provided in the scenario -- and not just explicit clue clues but the information provided by the environment -- will really help the characters develop their tactical thinking. 
  • Several of the encounters are well-thought-out little vignettes that really make you feel like the bad guys need sortin' out. Early on, for instance, the PCs come across two of the Umber Eyes torturing some captives for information using a particularly nasty method (conceptually nasty rather than graphically described), and any party that tends toward the good-aligned side is going to want to give them what for after that. 
  • They're also creepy in a druidical way, which isn't always easy. 
  • It gives a lot of thought to the clues scattered around the place; evidence is important and it's been described in nice clear detail. 
  • Some of the art is cool and atmospheric. 
What didn't work for me? 

  • It could use another touch of the editor's pen. I don't mean that there are typos or errors -- although there are one or two, including an unfortunate one in the description of a puzzle -- but that it, like many old-school modules, is overwritten. The language is sometimes clumsy, and word choice is sometimes slightly off. If you're furiously battling to defend yourself, for instance, you're not "sequestered." Mind you, this is pure old school and some people like that kind of thing.
  • The intro is not engaging. Some unnamed clerics want you to go into the woods after the last pack of fools. I understand that these things are hard to write, because each party is different; I assume most people will throw this intro out and use one more suited to their own characters.
  • There is a certain amount of guff. For instance, to get into the dungeon, the PCs have to find a magical dingus hidden in a tree to activate the portal and then pass a puzzle-y initiation test. There's no useful info for solving the puzzle other than a clue scrawled by a previous initiate, the solution isn't interesting, there's no time pressure, failure is not an option (the penalty for failing is "you don't get to play the scenario") and each PC has to do it alone. It does help explain why the Umber Eyes have infiltrated an elite team of spellcasters into the complex rather than flooding it with mooks, but still
  • There is poetry. Again, that's old-school, so some people like it and other people don't. I like it in principle, but it has to be done particularly well. 
  • The scenario ends with a lead into a sequel that isn't out yet and quite possibly never will be. It does give you a little outline to work from, so that's cool, but it's not self-contained.
  • Some of the art is a bit rough. Again, some people like that in their old-school products, or at least don't care. 
  • There is boxed text.
What will I use? 

As you may know if you're reading this, I don't play an old-school game. I've read older editions of D&D and I've incorporated a lot of their good features into my campaign, I hope, but ruleswise I am a 5th ed. guy these days. Obviously, then, some of the things in this scenario aren't going to be a lot of use to me. What am I going to use? 

  • The scenario itself, in terms of its general outline and layout. My campaign world is rife with weirdo cults who want to summon their dark lords, and I've liked the idea of the split between two factions in one of them ever since I ran into it in an old Cthulhu Live supplement. 
  • The map, for sure. It's a nice map! So I'll keep the general plot outline and the physical structure, but rejig some of the antagonists to fit in a little more specifically with my campaign and my player group. 
  • Several of the monsters are going to turn up in other scenarios, especially the demon that takes the form of a big thorny hedge thing that evilly nourishes the bad guys within it. That's creepy. 
  • Several of the magic items are clever and complex enough that they could turn up again in other scenarios. 
So I'm definitely going to use the majority of it, and even the majority of the scenario itself in broad strokes. About the only thing that's no use to me is the spell list and variant class -- and, in fairness, that's because I don't play the game this thing is for, which is not exactly a criticism of the product itself.

Disclaimer!

Like I said, I don't really play AD&D 1st. It's possible that the spell list is broken or the class is incomplete or something -- I have no idea. I've read the rules and played once or twice, but I don't have good instincts for the rules. If you play the game and have questions you'd like me to answer, though, I'd be happy to!

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