Guest Writer: Nick Monitto
I came to the “Dungeons & Dragons” game when both it, and I, were quite young. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s it was just about the biggest of my hobbies, taking up a fair bit of my free time, and more than a little of my spending money! Back then, I did not do much buying by mail order or the like, when I got new books it was usually from our Duane’s Toyland or the Waldenbooks in the mall.
Most of what I saw and bought were the modules and accessories from TSR itself. I would find a few other things here and there, such as the “Grimtooth’s Traps” series from Blade (from which I reviewed a book just a few weeks ago!), but those were definitely the exception. A lot of these other publishers did not get as wide a distribution for their books, so I never really found them. Many stores concentrated on the dominant TSR, and most companies at the time did not seek to officially tie in with them, whether for the license cost involved or the ‘coolness cred’ of remaining independent.
One company which did have a close relationship with TSR was Judges Guild. Founded in 1976 by Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen, the company sought an agreement for TSR to publish the ‘home-brew’ style materials that they had used on their own. Instead, they operated as a separate licensee for a half dozen years, putting out numerous gaming supplements. TSR was given review authority, and Judges Guild was allowed to use a “Designed and Approved For Use With ‘Dungeons & Dragons’” notation on their books.
In their prime, Judges Guild held a great reputation within the gaming community for its varied products. As gaming books evolved to a more slick and professional look in the 1980’s, though, the appeal of that ‘fun of it’ original style started to fade. I regret that I missed this company’s books back in the day; as I manage to find ones for my modern collection, I am convinced that I would have enjoyed them greatly back then.
One of those, which I have for review today, is “The Caverns of Thracia”. by Jennell Jaquays writing as Paul Jaquays, this 78 page book details a vast underground dungeon and city setting. It is appropriate for use by first level characters to start, though there are elements later on which can easily challenge some strong parties. The city and four levels of the caverns are vast, providing more than enough material for many gaming sessions.
In its brief general comments, the book provides some suggestions for where Thracia might be located in a campaign world. It mentions that some unique monsters are to be found within (all the better to surprise players who think they know everything!), and also gives some game mechanics for worshipers of “Thanatos” the death god (also referred to as “The Dark One”). Next is presented a very detailed history of the Caverns of Thracia, for the Dungeon Master to read for background. Many hundreds of years of background are laid out there, some of the key points include:
-Before the age of humanity, a reptile race thrived in its own large cities and underground temples. As humans developed and spread out, these reptiles faded into what gamers know as “Lizard Men”. The ruler of these reptiles, the “Immortal King”, died in a sense, actually becoming a powerful lich!
-The lower caverns became closed off as humans occupied the upper areas, then chose to move above ground. Later groups enslaved “Beast Men” creatures like gnolls and minotaurs to kind of ‘gentrify’ the underground. Those creatures revolted, causing the humans to flee or be killed, then they occupied the lower levels themselves.
-Worship of Thanatos was banned, the priests were killed or sealed into the chapel. After hundreds of years, though, the god would be worshiped again.
-Invasions over hundreds of years killed most of the Thracians and blocked the caverns. But now, they are becoming reopened, and it is learned that the Beast Men have allied themselves with the reptile survivors.
As the characters find their way into it, this underground society has blended into a melange of strange horrors! It is left up to the DM whether they would like to leave the players entirely in the dark, or give hints as to what awaits them. Much like some of the early “Dungeons & Dragons” modules, a “Taverns of Thracia” section provides 20 rumors and clues (mostly true, some false), including the chance to learn to read the Thracian language itself. For narrative sake, these hints may be discovered in conversation with non-player characters, or just given more directly to the characters themselves.
With the background complete, along with some charts for wandering monsters and patrols of gnolls or lizards, the book then dives into the adventure areas themselves. The Lost City of Thracia on the surface is rather small, spanning only five pages. One describes it, another shows the map, while three full pages are used on black ink supporting art.
Each of the four caverns levels below gets a full page or two for its overview map. Within the levels are also some supplemental (inset style) maps to help detail some room complexes. A few additional art pieces are found throughout, mostly looking to be more for mood than for players’ eyes, since this was a product from a time before player handouts and illustrations were common. Similarly, you will not find any shaded or boxed ‘reading’ text, the descriptions are for the DM to interpret and describe as they see fit. Owing to its licensed status, the monster descriptions are exactly ready for “Dungeons & Dragons” game use. For example:
Room 26) The Bear Lair: In this rough-carved room resides a black bear, AC: 7, HD: 3+3, Damage: 1-3/1-3/1-6, Hugs for 2-8, HP: 24. This bear will attack any characters not in the guards’ distinctive Platemail. The bars to its cave are raised and lowered by a lever in Room 25.
Overall, I found it to be an impressive accessory. The depth of content is fantastic; the quantity itself gives plenty of fuel for a challenging multiple-session adventure, and the detail within shows why Jaquays has a strong positive reputation in game design. The effort given on the history side, for example, could well have been glossed over. By including it, the DM will appreciate exactly why the caverns are set up and populated as they are. They may even find a way to tweak it in order to dovetail with a world’s established history. This is a great example of an old-school dungeon crawl that would be fun to run.
Nick Monitto is a gaming geek who came of age on the classic games of the 1970s and ‘80s. He is currently resting up before a huge convention adventure soon to come!