Continuing my multi-year program of running one of the classic AD&D GDQ modules at sequential HelgaCon gatherings, this year I was pleased to roll out module D1: Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, which has all kinds of great flavor and atmosphere. Recall that this series is really the "killer app" for D&D: it was the first official series of modules ever published, it's surely the most-played and well-regarded set of modules, it's Gygax at his most creative, and this particular series is what hooked a generation on Drow Elves and the Underdark (although they certainly got overexposed in later years).
For my HelgaCon session I had a full 8 players at the table, ranging from nearly brand-new to very experienced indeed (including my fellow HelgaCon bloggers Paul and BJ). Last year we were low on players, which probably contributed to the TPK pasting they took in the Hall of the Fire Giant King. I started by passing around the same premade OED characters we've been using in prior years, and explained that they'd been resurrected through miraculous means, spending the prior year hunting for a secret entrance beneath the Hall which connected to a series of deeper tunnels.
Having selected their individual characters, I read a modified version of the module's introductory text ("Knowing that the giants seemed to be guided by some unearthly intelligence, you reason that perhaps you can cut this line of support and direction at the source, without confronting Snurre and his titans directly again..."), handed them the fortuitously-discovered Player's Map from the module, and explained the victory conditions for the session.This would be a simplified grading system from prior years, assessing 4 goals: (1) securing passage beyond the first major area shown on the map, (2) discovering some means to allow infiltration into later areas, (3) collecting at least 30,000 silver value, and (4) having all characters survive to the end.
Given this, they picked a party leader/caller (thankfully without prompting on my part), and took some time planning on supplies and equipment. As expected in the module, they did opt to buy a pair of donkeys and load them up with about two month's supply of food and water. I was highly entertained when my friend Paul guessed, "We'll do this to be safe, but surely this adventure can't take more than a single day," when it does in fact extend to a multi-day wilderness-style exploration of miles and miles of tunnels in the Underdark (as we now call it). Having settled on supplies and a tactical marching order for the yawning 30' wide tunnels -- including several continual light items, and an invisible dwarven thief about 100' in front of the party -- they departed into the ever-descending northwest passage. (Regarding the provisioning stage, I must again recommend my simplified stone encumbrance system, which makes calculations for that kind of stuff trivially doable in one's head.)
One thing I did was to make a short custom table to communicate environmental flavor in little bits at a time. I was rolling on this once per mile in the main thoroughfare until the basic table was exhausted. (There's at least one Dragon article by Vic Broquard that has more sophisticated tables for this purpose; as written they're overwhelmingly complicated, but you might cut down parts of them for this purpose; see Dragon #131, p. 22):
- Spur (short side cave)
- Small stream or pool, drinkable.
- Carved side chamber (door 50%).
- Cave bats (huge, ugly) fly overhead.
- Gust of dank, musty air blows downward.
- Stone bridge over crevasse.
But this was the point where the party managed to start fighting back quite heroically. Someone thought to finally try the precious jug of mithridate (neutralize poison) they'd been given, which did serve to resuscitate the first wizard (and then wisely cast protection from missiles as he got up). The lordly lead fighters charged into the weakly lichen-illuminated tunnel and started hacking down several of the front row of Drow warriors. This then triggered an escalating response from the Drow; the noble magic-user, hanging back in the rear, cast an ice storm spell down on the party; this did 24 points of damage before a save, killing the dwarf scout and one of the donkeys. The party then replied with more concentrated melee, as well as blasts from a fireball wand (at the rear area), a lightning bolt spell, as well as conjuring a 16-HD earth elemental to start pounding Drow and a phantasmal-force duplicate of the same to add to the terror. (Drow special saves versus these effects went in the party's favor, fortunately for them.)
So the players did in fact manage to rally and kill most of the dark elves at the checkpoint, driving off the rest off them. The commanding EHP fled the area with just 5 hp left, having never actually faced the PC's. The party thereafter regrouped, healed whom they could, and successfully used their one reincarnation scroll on their fallen member, bringing the group back to full strength. One of the party fighters, Boris of Briansk had unfortunately shattered his intelligent magic sword in the combat, destroying it (sadly his player Mike inevitably has the worst luck with my critical fumble tables), so he picked up one the fine Drow short swords to use as a replacement. The group cursorily scanned the encampment caves to the side of the tunnel, but didn't want to waste much time investigating them in detail. Several took black cloaks from the fallen dark elves and opted to wear them. (One oversight on my part: If I'd adjudicated crossbow-fire against the donkeys, then both would surely have been killed, and the party would have had to face a significant disruption in their supply plans at this point -- as it was, the one donkey with 2 hp left could carry most of their gear uninterrupted.)
Following this, the group showed much greater proficiency dealing with the underworld environment. Correctly reading their partial map, they chose to take the circuit of side-tunnels and wisely avoid the, shall-we-say, "mind-blowing" second encounter point (in hex M12). Although these side tunnels become more rougher and more rugged, claustrophobically narrowing in on the travelers, they avoided the occasional bottomless crevasses and major wandering monsters. At one point, a group of pulsing, glowing fire beetles were allowed to rush by without incident. The group successfully figured out that camping in a side-spur would be safer than flopping down in the middle of a tunnel (I had the party leader roll the overnight encounter check). Shortly after re-connecting with the main tunnel, the advance scout managed to sneak up on a huge purple worm coiled in the center of the passage, and tiptoed back to the party to hold a whispered (in real life at the table) conversation on what to do -- they wisely retreated down the passage for an hour to let it pass, after which they found a new and smaller tunnel chewed laterally across the main thoroughfare. (This brought up some interesting conversation about Lovecraftian influences, and the possibility of following purple-worm tunnels into new areas or possibly back to the surface.)
After about 3 days of travel in the underearth, the party reached the area of the enormous mega-cavern (hex Q18/19). Time in the session was drawing short, and they made some excellent choices about scouting their way ahead: a combination of infravision and wizard eye spells from two wizards allowed them to scout out much of the main cavern ahead, avoid the mazy side-tunnels, and note what seemed to be the main path of travel back out the northern side. Then they had the insight to thickly wrap their refreshed continual light items in red cloth (courtesy the pregenerated "Jurdan the Red Wizard") so as to mimic fire-beetle light. Thus they advanced stealthily through the stalagmites of the main cavern, and got within striking distance of the Drow watchers before they knew that the party were enemies.
At this point, the final major fight broke out. As usual, the dark elves extinguished the party's bright lights and tried to light them in turn with dim, signalling faerie fire. This time, the party took an aggressive posture, immediately unleashing fireballs (burning up the advance elven watchers) and similar magic. While the drow reinforcements tried to arrive, the party first sealed them in their cave with an illusory wall of fire (which was dispelled), then a real one, followed by more fireballs, and a mighty air elemental summoned from the upper regions of the grand cavern; meanwhile fighters cleaved and thieves backstabbed any of the few fighters who managed to emerge. With time running out, the party leader, Hedron the
So, an excellent adventure! The party successfully battled back from what looked like a sure TPK on Round 3 of the first encounter (ouch!). I gave them an overall "C" grade, having met half of their victory goals (passage beyond the huge cavern, and still having all the PCs alive, post-reincarnation), but not the other half (no treasure to speak of, and no method of infiltrating later areas). Yes, I grade pretty hard, but nonetheless I was very impressed by the level of play. Congratulations to my players, and enormous thanks for letting me run them through this.
Now, let me make a few comments about Drow responses in this module, which I think stand out as a real dilemma for the DM running this module, as I now see it. On the one hand, the tournament-style checkpoints are clearly set up as combat encounters. But on the other hand, the module does include the possibility of certain passes which the party might use to "enable them to go through Drow areas without undue questioning or molestation!" (p. 3). But my problem with this is, for that to be the case, then how do Drow initially interact with any explorers? Do they all go dwarf-tax-collector by default, stand and deliver themselves to any humans in the underworld, and ask, "Pardon me sir, can we check your papers please?". Because frankly that's definitely not the impression I want to give to my new players on their first interaction with the Drow -- I want them to be mysterious, shadowy, powerful, alien menaces (not department store rent-a-cops). And let's say the party meets one of the possible Drow merchant trains wending their way through tunnel -- how will these figures react: attack, parley, demand passage, or make a pitch for trade? The module gives absolutely no guidance whatsoever, which you might consider a nice opening for DM creativity, but I think is a great oversight. I suppose you could just go pure random reaction rolls, but that seems unsatisfying, especially for the earliest encounters (i.e., first impressions). Especially with justifying how the possible passes could be checked, it seems like a real problem. I made some notes on how how I'd handle it for this session, but I'll keep them to myself for the time being. For those experienced DMs in this regard, how would you deal with this aspect?