Guest Writer: Shane Davis
“Against the Cult of the Reptile God” is the first of the N-series, or Novice series, of modules. It is written with the new player or game master in mind. The module is designed for 4-7 characters from first to third level. Notably, it is also the first published AD&D module that relies upon investigation of a mystery as the main plot hook.
In the fall of 1987, I began what would become a life-long love of fantasy role-playing games. Having received the Red Box for my birthday that summer, I was fortunate to find a small group of gamers when I started junior high later that year. One of my new “gaming-buddies” had amassed a sizable collection of TSR products, amounting to a majority of what would later come to be known as “classic modules.”
Among this veritable treasure trove of fantasy lore was “N1- Against the Cult of the Reptile God” by Douglas Niles. Having only recently started playing, and still a few years away from becoming a game master, much of the beauty and perfection of this module was lost to me at the time. It was years later that I was able to revisit many of these early TSR products and judge them with a critical eye. I admit that while I’m steeped with nostalgia over many of the first edition products, when it comes to this particular module, I can see now, what I missed before – a true masterpiece.
The story begins in the small border town of Orlane. While the land has been blessed with abundance for years, recently people have started disappearing. Some never return, but others come back and act very differently – as if they are in some kind of daze, or just somehow different than they were before. About town, there are many theories as to what is happening, but no one suspects the truth – that an evil cult has infiltrated the town and is slowly taking control of it’s citizens.
As the party explores the town, they find themselves warmly received by some, while others are distant and wary. Some people they meet may even be hostile. It is clear that something is amiss. The plot feels a lot like a Call of Cthulhu storyline at this point, with people disappearing in the night, while others reappear with no recollection of what happened to them. Needless to say, there is a certain tension slowly building in the town, a tangible fear and dread. Eventually, the party (or at least a player or two) will either face being kidnapped by the cult, or they will decide to start investigating the mysterious disappearances on their own. Either way, this is when the adventure truly begins.
The town is fully mapped, with nearly every building, and NPC named and thoroughly detailed. We are provided with not only rich details of the buildings and furnishings, but also with all the notes a game master needs to give the varied characters their own unique personalities, motivations and characterizations. This is one of the main strengths of the module and builds upon the same formula of settlement design found in the module T1- “The Village of Hommlet” that was published three years earlier. This is not just a simple rehash of Hommlet, though. This is what Hommlet should have been. A timeline of the cults activities as well as numerous mini-adventures in the town combine to make it feel like a living and breathing place.
As the party’s investigation continues, they learn that the source of the evil cult is not located in the town, but in the marsh a few days away. During this wilderness trek, the party transitions through grassy plains, thick forest and finally reedy marshland. Wandering monster tables are provided for each terrain type. One of the few pitfalls of the module is the fact that the local wizard, Ramne, must accompany the party on this journey. Failure to have him tag along will likely cause the final boss battle to be impossible.
The base of the Cult of the Reptile God is a rather straightforward two level dungeon crawl. There is ample combat to be had with small groups of cultists, troglodytes, an evil priest and, of course, the “reptile god” – a spirit naga.
Why Douglas Niles felt that a spirit naga was a suitable final encounter is beyond me. This creature has a decent armor class and a fair number of hit points, but it’s charming gaze attack (usable once per round) and the fireball spell it has memorized is a game changer. This is where Ramne and his minor globe of invulnerability comes into action. As you can see, without his aid this battle will likely result in a total party kill, especially if all you have in your party are a few first or second level characters.
The character of Ramne clearly plays a vital roll in the final act of this module. The likelihood of him stealing the show is warned about in the DM notes when the character is first introduced. While he proves to be a valuable resource for information about the cult, aids the party in following their trail to their base, and then proves a major force in defeating them, it just seems a little forced. Perhaps Ramne was intended to become that powerful ally that every party needs when they start out, but in this case it seems a little much. He is a just too Elminstery, or Gandalfy for my tastes. There is no way to reasonably expect the party to defeat the spirit naga without him, but once he is with the party, it is a major challenge for the game master to not have him become the main hero. A bit too railroady for my tastes.
Despite having a few lackluster moments, I still stand by my earlier assessment. The module is a true masterpiece in its layout and emphasis on roleplay (as opposed to combat) based encounters. The degree of detail given to Orlane and it’s citizens set the standard for city/town based modules for years to come. The module is one that you should take serious time studying, in that it is far more than just endless waves of combat like many of the modules released during this period. It is truly a remarkable work and should prove quite an entertaining challenge for player and DM alike.