Guest Writer: Nick Monitto
In the early years of the “Dungeons & Dragons” game, the TSR Company was growing forth from small humble roots. Out of the living room and basement of Gary Gygax’s own home, the rule books and adventures were created, assembled, and sent into the hands of eager gamers. But dominant as they were starting to become, they were not the only ones. Many people were trying their hand at creating games and accessories. In some ways, it was not too terribly different from the gaming market we see nowadays. The largest differences would be in exposure and production. Without the consumer Internet of today, people had to get their product out using the old ways: mailing out from a classified ad, or getting their booklets into the local game shops. And those booklets did not have the look of modern products; many of these were built in monospace type by hand, photocopied and stapled together.
But even in this modern age, we must be careful not to judge harshly on those looks. Inside of those older pages, many classic adventures were lurking. Back in the day, I bought things from a number of these non-TSR publishers. Some were trying to get traction for their own answers to the role playing game; others just wanted to be helpers to the big ones. And some, such as David A. Hargrave’s “Arduin”, glided their way across the spectrum.
I had not seen this company’s products when they were new, but have learned about them in recent years through old school gaming groups. They had, and still seem to have, a quite devoted fan base; when original books come up for auction the bidding is usually rather heavy. And while some companies sought the blessing of TSR to associate with “Dungeons & Dragons”, or made an effort to be very vague, “Arduin” was a bit more… ‘Adventurous’, you could say. Wikipedia notes that after he ran afoul of TSR for being too direct, Hargrave simply ran correction tape over his master copies and reprinted them, employing a much more casual approach than we might see in today’s market!
Anyhow, on to the particular module for this review, Hargrave’s “Dungeon #1: Caliban”. The module’s introduction gives three pages of background and setup. An ancient legend describes how a vile skeletal creature was able to move and transform the rocks and ground itself to form the tower which would eventually be known as Caliban. It was a home to great evil for tens of thousands of years, outlasting nearly all who endeavored to fight against it. I will not spoil all the rest of the details, but to say that the story takes a turn through and beyond war magic, seemingly into the realms of other planes themselves! It is within that limbo where the players may find themselves there, seeming almost like a sinister version of the village from the musical “Brigadoon”.
That introduction, along with the module’s components, runs for 25 pages of text, maps, and art. I want to address the art first so that I may be sure to emphasize how much I loved it! Having come of age on the game art of the 1970’s and 80’s, I am always going to have a sentimental spot for the work from that era. It is not to say that I dislike modern game art; there are great people making some beautiful works now. But deep down, I just love so much of the early work, including the black and white line art style seen here. In its time this module came with two different covers, one by Brad Schenck (in the PDF I received), and another by Greg Espinoza. Each one features a fearsome creature doing battle under a night sky. The module also includes two pages of 8 reference cards apiece for the Dungeon Master to cut out. The first lists some unusual new monsters that may be fought in the module, the second lists exotic magic artifacts to be found among the treasure.
These monsters are quite fearsome, and the magic items are definitely worthy to be called artifacts! The module is advertised as a moderately high level adventure (for characters at 8 or higher), and I do not think that is an overstatement. This is a powerful and dangerous dungeon, quite at home with some of the most deadly of the early days.
The presentation of the dungeon is as you might expect for a product of the older days. This is from the time of early “Dungeons & Dragons”, before the days of ‘Read the text in this box to your players’ which some people find to be a bit bothersome. Even without that kind of quotable text, I found that the way they laid things out is quite good. The adventure takes place in a stronghold with four levels. Each of them is laid out on a large map, taking up a full page. However, as some would say makes sense, the majority of the rooms are considered to be empty. Ignoring those empty ones, only about 10 rooms on each level are numbered and described in print, so you don’t have multiple listings of ‘This [such and such] room is empty and dusty’. The introduction includes a note that this dungeon “…has room for much, much more” and encourages the reader to use their books (or others) to add more and create one’s own unique product. This harkens back to the classic B1 “In Search of the Unknown” module, a sometimes underrated adventure that is one of my sentimental favorites.
Each numbered room presented here has its description in two blocks. The first is “Room Description and Treasure” which tells the Dungeon Master everything to be known about the furniture in the room, as well as any common objects or treasure to be found. The second is “Guardians and Monsters”, describing what the characters will be up against in each. Several of the rooms feature pretty typical creatures that the writer expects you to find in the rule books, so only a few key statistics are mentioned. When a room contains a new monster, you are told to refer to the matching reference card. So like most adventures of this era, you cannot just open it up and improvise a run through it. All the information you need is there, but you are better served to make some notes in advance, or you will have to slowly phrase out the descriptions on the fly. To give an example of one of the rooms, with odd spelling choices intact:
[Room Description and Treasure]
The entire room is rusty, flaking iron, however on the 10’ ceiling a faint cabalistic design of unknown origin is just barely visible. In the secret, small room to the south east the following treasure is lieing in a jumbled mess: 34,500 silver pennys, 3,965 G. S., a “Cloak of Never”, and a roll of “Life Savers”! This is the sole treasure.
[Guardians and Monsters]
The guardians are a mated pair of Chaeronyx. Both are 5D8, 40 hit points with 14 dexts. Each has a +1 flaming sword (no other powers) that does 1D8 extra fire damage.
A bit of impressive treasure, guarded by some strong monsters, and that is one of the smaller room descriptions! I would say that any adventurers who made it through this place alive would be hauling a small fortune in treasure and experience points. That is a presumption, though, that should not be taken lightly. Besides the monster combat challenges within, there are also 26 spots across the maps labeled with the letters A through Z. Each of those is meant to be a floor, wall, or ceiling trap. They are detailed in a chart at the end with effects ranging from whimsical to downright deadly.
I am not the Dungeon Master for any game groups right now, so I did not have a chance to test this with actual victi… er… subjects, but just from reading it I can see that it would pose a strong challenge to even a good sized party.
For my first introduction to the works of Hargrave’s “Arduin” realm, I was quite pleased with this module. It was a bit surprising for a ‘Number 1’ module to be such a high level challenge, but one could regard it as a ‘Let’s jump into the deep end!’ kind of fun time. The background is an amusing one, over the top in the right way for an exciting game, and something that a Dungeon Master could work into a dark corner of their long running campaign. It strikes a good balance that should please most anyone who would play it; the rooms that are already in place hold ample opportunities for combat and the treasures to reward it well. The traps provide a good challenge, enough to assure that a party will not just wander casually through, once they’ve sprung one or two of them. As I would probably run it through some version of “Dungeons and Dragons”, I can see that it would take some work to convert (or replace) the monsters, but not too much more than I would put in on module preparation anyway.
Nick Monitto is a gaming geek who came of age on the classic games of the 1970’s and 80’s. He is currently cultivating his spy game alter ego.