Written by Andy Action
First off, let me say that it is literally impossible for me to do an impartial review of this classic TSR adventure module. It’s one of the first I ever purchased (at 10 years old, in 1981) and I have run it countless times (well, more like actually about a dozen times, including currently) and I just adore it. That said, I’ll do my best to objectively review it here for those of you who might be coming with fresh minds and hearts to this scenario.
Another thing I should address here, before the review proper, is that there are A LOT of reviews of this product out there on the interwebs (and elsewhere) already. As this is my first TSR Games Review assignment, I had a choice to make: should I read several reviews first and then try to give a fresh personal version with the aim of not covering the same ground, or should I just dive in head first and ignore what’s already out there? I chose the later.
Please note that this lengthy review is rife with spoilers. I figure that’s ok, with the knowledge that this was published in 1980. Would-be players, beware!
Dungeon Module A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity is a snapshot of a time when TSR Hobbies, despite being at the apex of RPG publishers at the time, was still finding its legs when it came to publishing adventure scenarios for AD&D. This one’s particularly interesting because it is a “Tournament Module,” specifically for Gen Con VIII, 1980. It’s part of a series of four adventures, each written by different TSR staffers, and it includes notes and instructions on both tournament play and “non-tournament” (i.e. campaign) play. As someone who has never played in a tournament AD&D game before, I’ve always found this element to be fascinating. According to the Tournament Notes, there were five teams of nine Players, each using the same pre-generated Tournament Characters (included in the module!), going through the same scenario and being judged against specific criteria in each room or encounter of the adventure. I find this interesting but, that said, I pretty much always ignored the tournament aspects (including the truncated maps, also included!) of this module and used the expanded parts of the scenario at my tables. Now that I think of it, it might be fun to try to run this adventure as written for tournament play some day!
The premise of the adventure sets up the four-part series as a whole: Slavers have been gaining power and marauding along the Wild Coast (the series is set in Gary Gygax’s/TSR’s World of Greyhawk setting) and have taken control, along with numerous humanoids (orcs, goblins, kobolds, ogres and gnolls are specified) of the coastal city of Highport. The Lords of the region have decided to take action against the slavers and the party has been outfitted to undertake a mission of stealth and/or force at a ruined temple compound on the edge of the city where the Slavers are known to have a base of operations. Tournament play begins outside the walls of the compound, at a “secret entrance” at the back of the temple.
It is interesting to note that the author doesn’t inform the reader about the actual Slavers themselves – either in the introduction or in the module proper. This is largely left for the DM to “skin” as is useful to their campaign and it is presumed that this element isn’t much focused upon during tournament play – the locale is the main feature here. The adventure location (and the tournament, as stated) itself is divided into two parts: “the above ground and underground sessions.” The first section is known as The Temple Level and the second as The Sewer Level. Just typing those words makes me want to play!
The city of Highport or the sewer system beneath it (except for those specifically in the module) aren’t described at all here but development of it is encouraged by the author. This really unlocked my mind as a young DM. I found it amazing that aspects of the scenario that seem so essential to play were left out of these publications. This is definitely a hallmark this era of TSR adventures (q.v. U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh) and it served the purpose of motivating this DM towards a lifetime of both developing backdrops for my favorite modular locales in which to fit and learning the most indispensable of DM techniques: improvisation!
As for the locale itself, The Temple Level is a vibrant place ripe for adventure. The Slavers have built a “headquarters” in and around the ruins of a temple to an unspecified deity (again, left for the DM to flesh out as per their campaign milieu), presumably sacked during the hostile takeover of Highport. A great fire is referenced in the Temple Description, with the two upper floors stated as being gutted and the temple roof rebuilt. As such, there are multiple areas that are exposed to the elements – ruins that spill into a debris-strewn courtyard. This is a much-maligned and storied complaint about the module: there is no specific nor obvious way for the PCs to access or enter the ruined courtyard (where there is much adventure to be had!) by a visual inspection of the map or from the module text. Of course, this can be easily remedied by slight augmentation to the map or the courtyard may be accessed by the PCs ascending to the gutted upper floors and dropping down into it. Spoiler alert: death awaits therein, as does the promise of some sweet loot for the courageous adventurers who dare traverse the inner courtyard areas! Interestingly, this “missing aspect” was never “corrected” in the two future official re-releases of the adventure (q.v. TSR’s 1986 “super-module, A1-4 Scourge of the Slavelords” and WotC’s 2012 deluxe hardcover, A0-4 Against the Slave Lords).
There are other places on the Temple Level that are naturally exposed to the elements here as well: the Cemetery, Main Courtyard (beyond the double portcullis guard house entrance) and Cloister Garden. This makes the above-ground portion of the adventure quite varied in its terrain. Not to mention that there are a wide variety of possible entrances to the compound – four by my count (the Stable, Stonecutter’s Shed, Main Courtyard portcullis and secret entrance) and seven if you include the possibility of ascending to the upper floors and dropping down into the three areas without roofs! The Tournament Entrance (secret door at the back of the Temple) opens into a gauntlet of nasty traps and combat encounters that raise the question: do they slavers themselves utilize this entrance (it’s not particularly convenient!) or is it set up as a ruse to keep any would-be intruders at bay? My guess is that Mr. Cook set this up as a fun way to challenge the Tournament PCs right at the start of play.
The Main Courtyard entrance is noteworthy for its elaborate and unique detail – in particular, a flamethrowing wheelbarrow device with a protective mantlet manned by half-orc guards. The PCs will surely turn this clunky mobile “death machine” around on the unwary DM every time (trust me). Also worth mentioning is the drama going on with the half-orc guard in the Inner Portcullis Winch room, who has just realized that his companion guard is actually a doppelganger! This type of detail encourages really dynamic game play and a skilled DM can weave this nuance into some serious fun at the table.
The climax of the first part of the adventure occurs in the Temple Chamber, which is a shrine to the Greyhawk Orcish deity, Gruumsh One-Eye, although this isn’t specifically stated in the text and must be extrapolated from context as well as the stellar Bill Willingham illustration of the statute itself. Again, the Temple’s previous deity isn’t mentioned, but will likely be an important detail to any Clerics or Paladins who have traveled here. DMs, here’s another chance to expand the verisimilitude of your campaign!
Interestingly, the “main villain” of the Temple Level is an unnamed female slaver, referenced only as a “6th level evil cleric.” This, too, gives the DM the opportunity to customize the “big bad” as needed for their campaign. It is curious that she presides over a temple dedicated to an Orcish deity – is she a human devotee of Gruumsh? This is in stark contrast to the later A-Series modules, wherein the slavers are more vividly detailed and uniquely named! Regardless, the battle here promises to be climatic indeed, with some quite effective pre-combat spell tactics outlined by the author for the DM’s consideration. Presented here also is another very fun and unique nuance that occurs two rounds into combat, which will serve as quite a surprise for both Players and DMs alike. I’ll leave that detail out of this review and won’t spoil it for any of you! Well played, Mr. Cook.
The below-ground portion of the adventure is equally unique and fraught with dangerous adventure! The Sewer Level, similarly, has at least four possible means of entry: the Escape Ladder (connecting to the trap door in front of the statue in the Temple Chamber), the Spare Food Chamber (beneath the trap door in the False Slavers’ Lair on the first level), a small staircase down near the Giant Sundew Lair on level 1 (this isn’t even mentioned anywhere in the text and can only be extrapolated by aligning the maps!) and the staircase in the large crypt found in the Cemetery that leads down to a passage just outside the Slave Lord’s Den! This last option is literally the most direct route to the module’s “grand finale” making it possible to get right to the heart of the enemy in very short order with very few encounters to overcome along the way – if the PCs are lucky enough to find and choose that route! It is also possible that the sewers themselves, either via some aqueduct in the city or by the drainpipes near the docks, could offer a method of egress of the DM’s own design.
A main feature of the second level is the actual sewers themselves – filled with nasty aquatic traps and sub-passages packed with humanoids: LOTS of Orcs, including a Witch-Doctor (a Cleric/Magic-User, levels 3/3) and a 3HD Chieftain as well as a few nasty Ogres. The layout of the sewer portion of the “dungeon” is itself quite an interesting array of multi-tiered terrain pieces (both wet and dry) for the PCs to traverse, complete with hidden and secret doors, collapsed passages and party-dividing sluice drains. Navigating this varied level will most certainly trip up even the most seasoned mappers in your play group!
The Sewer Level perhaps most-famously features a new creature, the insectoid Aspis (in Drone, Larva and Cow forms) which are a much-maligned aspect of this adventure to many of its detractors. Nowhere in the module does the author describe the exact nature of the relationship between the Slavers and the Aspis slave keepers. Personally, I love that this facet is left to the DM’s judgment! For my campaigns, the opportunistic Slavers have negotiated a symbiotic relationship with the Aspis. Having unearthed their lair (Hatchery, Egg Chamber, Aspis Chamber & Breeding Chamber) during the takeover, the Slavers struck a deal with the insectoids native to these sewers: in exchange for their martial guardianship of the slave pits, the hive would be well-fed and allowed to continue to thrive here. This solution is simple and elegant, not to mention that it explains the extreme lack of ACTUAL SLAVERS on the premises (only two, by my count!) As it turns out, this location isn’t much of a base of operation for the Slavers at all…
Personally, I find that the Aspis and their Giant Ant cohabitants serve as a strange and amazing alternative to the typical humanoid cannon-fodder common to most AD&D modules of this era. They and their winding warrens provide a surreal and alien element to this scenario, keeping even the most veteran players wary and on their toes. Combat with the Aspis Cow and her fervent Drone guardians could prove to be the toughest challenge of the entire adventure.
The Aspis themselves guard the titular “Slave Pits” which are perhaps my favorite part of the entire module: a grid of massive cages beneath metallic walkways, over which slave buyers can walk and observe the Slaver’s wares. Of course, the Slave Pits are the perfect location for the PCs to attempt a heroic rescue of the slaves as Aspis Drones attempt to knock them off the 6” wide beams into the pits, while an operator waits to close trap doors over those who fall within! The David S. LaForce illustration depicting this has inspired me since I was ten years old, and not just because of the comely female slave depicted in it!
An interesting addendum to the Slave Pits is the Main Slave Chamber, which features a group of slave buyers who are fairly high level NPCs, including a 6th level Magic-User, and their five Orc guides/interpreters. These NPCs, along with the actual slaves in captivity (including another fun twist, courtesy of Mr. Cook,) could be fleshed out in various ways to add additional adversity and/or potential allies for the PCs. A bit of DM leg work here would go a long way to expand the campaign overall.
The “grand finale” of the second dungeon level is, admittedly, an anti-climax – and perhaps by design. The “Slave Lord’s Den” is the quintessential “villain’s lair” – a circular room with a platform in a sewage moat (cool!) but is occupied only by another unnamed* minor Slaver (a 5th level Thief) and his five Giant Weasel pets (the real threat here) plus ten Orc guards. Although it will likely be a fun battle (SPOILER: he does have a potion of Invisibility!), it does feel a bit underwhelming in the grand scheme of the adventure. In the light of the rest of the modules in this series, it is clear that the Slave Lords have moved on from this location as a true “base of operations” to greener pastures (i.e. A2 The Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade and A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords) and in campaign play, this would be an interesting revelation that might offset the less than compelling nature of the actual “Slave Lord” here. Alternately, a thoughtful DM could utilize this unique room to stage a different climax of their own making.
I can’t review this adventure without mentioning the artwork. Putting it bluntly, it is a true treasury of old school RPG art by some of the best in the business at the time. The color cover by Jeff Dee is stunning, featuring the Tournament PCs Dread Delgath (casting a Magic Missile spell via illuminated metal horns!), Blodgett the Halfling Thief (climbing the rafters, gearing up for a backstab!) and the famously bearded and flame-haired female Dwarf, Elwitta (in full swing with her warhammer!) fighting the loathsome Aspis Drones. David S. LaForce’s frontispiece shows another battle between the Tournament PCs and Orcs, featuring another appearance of Elwitta and her beard! Jeff Dee’s depiction of the stairs leading up to the Temple proper sets the tone perfectly and Dee’s team-up with LaForce for the “Treacherous Floor” room is the perfect image to depict an otherwise complicated room description to the Players. Bill Willingham’s Gruumsh One-Eye statue and accompanying Orcs is pulp fantasy at its finest and his depiction of the Aspis Drones is hauntingly weird. Jeff Dee’s simple drawing of Orcs descending into a water-filled passage is a classic and Jim Roslof’s contribution of the Orc Chieftain tells a full story in one image. I already sung the praises of DSL’s Slave Pits Battle illustration but, heck – I’ll mention it again: it rocks! In the “new monster” section, Jeff Dee’s Aspis Cow is purely Lovecraftian and Willingham’s Giant Sundew had my pre-teen eyes a-popping (notice the victim’s outfit)! Last is the back cover, another color piece by Jeff Dee – an Orc with a bloodied sword about to be surprise-attacked by Blodgett, the fair-haired Halfling! Clearly, I unapologetically love the artwork from this module.
As the first part of a four-part series (known colloquially by gamers as the “A-Series,” “Slavers-Series,” or “Slave Lord-Series”), the adventure continues in A2 Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade by Harold Johnson and Tom Moldvay, A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slavelords by Allen Hammack and A4 In The Dungeons of the Slave Lords by Lawrence Schick – all published by TSR in 1981. I won’t discuss these here except to say that reading one adventure to the next is a fascinating study in the varied authorship styles of the TSR staff during the golden age of the hobby. In my opinion, this is one of the true merits of these classics – as the presentation of each scenario is palpably different from its fellows, in terms of both content and style. One can only imagine how different the Slave Lords modules might have been had they been penned by a single author.
It is worth noting that A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity has been repackaged in not one, but two compilations for 1st Edition AD&D. The first was 1986’s A1-4 Scourge of the Slavelords “super-module” which combines all four adventures with a considerable amount of additional material presented campaign-style as a chronological follow up to TSR’s infamous T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil module. David Cook is credited with the “revision” of the compilation and additional authorship is given to Ed Carmien, who is presumably responsible for some of the new “connective tissue” elements in this 128 page (plus a 16 page map booklet) omnibus. The new material within is much-maligned by fans of the original series, mostly because it succumbs to the “railroad” style of adventure writing that the mid-late 80s TSR modules typify – best (worst?) exemplified by the DragonLance adventures. In conjunction with the infamous “railroad” plot moment from A4 (not discussed here), this was a bridge too far for many. Personally, I’ve used some of the campaign elements from the expansion with varied success, but the true assets in the super-module are still the location pieces from the originals.
Also noteworthy in the compilation is the exclusion of (nearly) all the original artwork and the addition of some very unique art pieces by Ron Lindahn and Val Lakey Lindahn. Their art direction features a “rotoscope” style of photo-realism (possibly derived from actual photos?) and is quite a departure from other artwork of the TSR artist stable of the era. The compilation’s cover is by Jeff Easley and, honestly, isn’t my favorite example of his work. The slaves depicted (especially the female) look like they are fresh from a 1980s hair salon and the perspective in the piece is particularly jarring to my eye – the slave and slaver’s legs are combined in an awkwardly composed array of limbs that just makes the hobgoblin slaver look like he has three legs!
The second compilation featuring A1 is the 2012 Wizards of the Coast “deluxe hardcover” reissue, A0-4 Against the Slave Lords. This is a fascinating document by any measure and features a new 1st Ed. AD&D adventure (in 2012!) by Skip Williams, A0 Danger at Darkshelf Quarry, which serves quite capably as a set-up to the original A1. This 174 page hardcover also includes forewords by each of the authors and ten pages of additional artwork submitted by fans – a very cool choice by WotC, in my opinion. The cover of Against the Slave Lords is an amazing 3-D metallic “hologram” image of Icar, an iconic NPC from A2, against as faux-leather and gold-gilt background. As stunning as this cover is, missing are the gorgeous color covers of the originals which are only included as thumbnail images (including a new grey-colored cover for A0) on a full-color, removable cardboard insert within the shrink wrap. Sadly lost is an opportunity to have included these classic art pieces as color plates within the “deluxe” reissue.
The Slave Lord adventures have been expanded, tributed and revisited in various forms over the decades since their original publication. In 2000, Wizards of the Coast released Slavers for 2nd Ed. AD&D, extrapolating the events of the original adventures into its (at the time) current Greyhawk timeline. It is a worthy expansion by Sean K. Reynolds and Chris Pramas, containing many fun revelations within as well as some excellent maps, which can be incorporated into a Slavers campaign set in any timeline. In 2002, Kenzer & Co. released Smackdown The Slavers for their Hackmaster product line. Half homage and half parody, this fun-loving version of the Scourge of the Slavelords super-module, emphasizing hack-and-slash style play, can certainly be mined for additional content or inspiration for a campaign or played as-written for the Hackmaster system.
Additional materials for the Slavers modules were included in TSR’s (and later WotC’s) house-organ periodicals, Dragon Magazine & Dungeon Magazine, over a surprisingly wide time period. Dragon Magazine #167 (March, 1991) contains an article entitled “See the Pomarj and Die” by Joseph Bloch, which is an invaluable resource in developing both the humanoid population of the region and introduces a unique quasi-deity (Krovis, an avatar/aspect of Trithereon – Greyhawk god of liberty, justice and retribution) who can change the tone and scale of an entire campaign. Trust me, this is worth a look-see! Dungeon Magazine #221 (Dec., 2013) features a 1st Ed. AD&D “prequel” to A1 called “Lowdown in Highport” by Thomas M. Reid. This is an ideal conduit between 2012’s A0 Danger at Darkshelf Quarry and A1. It’s remarkable that WotC decided to support this 1980 adventure with brand new material some 30-31 years later – quite an honor and it’s a quality adventure to boot! Dungeon Magazine #215 (June, 2013) also contains a “postscript” addendum adventure to the entire A-Series called “The Last Slave Lord” by Robert J. Schwalb (including both 1st Ed. AD&D & 4th Ed. D&D stats) which would serve as a stellar and suiting finale to any Slavers campaign.
In 2015, Pacesetter Games published Dungeon Module A1 Path of the Slave Masters, by Bill Barsh, also for 1st Ed. AD&D or OSRIC, its retroclone. Essentially, the events of the module occur after the timeline of the original series (much like WotC’s Slavers, 2000), but can be easily interpolated into any campaign timeline. My Players and I have been enjoying the coastal battles and “sunken city” from this module in my current AD&D Slave Lords campaign! This is the first in a series of four modules based on the original Slavers series, the second and third of which have been published in playtest/folder format: A2 Sanctuary of the Slave Masters & A3 War of the Slave Masters.
Clearly, there is great fun to be had by deeply delving into these classic and storied adventures. If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to do so and if you have already played through them, maybe it’s time to revisit and expand them with a fresh perspective! Just pick up A1 and read (or re-read) it. You’ll thank me afterwards, I assure you.
– Andy Action, NYC
*In the 1986 “super-module” compilation (A1-4 Scourge of the Slavelords), the Slaver Thief is fleshed out a bit more and named Sturm Blucholtz. Also, detailed correspondence between the minor slavers and higher-ranking Slave Lords is outlined and provided as connective tissue with the other modules in the series. The Cleric from the Upper Temple isn’t named, however.