Deja View Review #2: 1st Level Dungeons of old and NeMoren’s Vault

by @Todd Secord and @1jamesbell and the Fiery Dragon Crew

What with the ongoing play testing of D&D Next the past few years, the most recent incarnation of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons Tabletop Roleplaying Game, and now the result of that play testing – the impending release of new 5th edition set of rules – I have to say I’m feeling pretty excited and nostalgic about my favourite game.

D&D 5th Releases

D&D 5th Releases

As fans of D&D, we at Fiery Dragon have never experienced the snag of the “Edition Wars”, having enjoyed each version of the game for what it was trying to do in its own way. We have the luxury of being veteran players (and designers) and with that experience the understanding that things change. D&D has ALWAYS been a game about what you make it, not what you’re told it should be. Yes, we enjoyed 4th edition muchly, but I think it’s fair to say that the 3rd edition will forever be our home. I can assure you, if we ever get inducted into gamer Valhalla 3rd edition will be the team jersey we’ll chose to wear. Mostly, because it was 3rd edition and the promise of the Open Gaming Licence that inspired the inception of Fiery Dragon Productions. We were nothing more than a group of hot shot hobbyists back then, a bunch of gamers from the old school 70’s that had wives and families and responsibilities and a love for a game that never quite left our systems. As word of the OGL became solidified we quickly made plans to throw our hat in the ring, and that hat turned out to be our inaugural adventure product NeMoren’s Vault.

042_1339430505Designed to launch a RPG gaming company, NeMoren’s Vault turned out to be far more successful than we ever hoped for. From the fact that it was one of the earliest published adventures available to buy for the D20 System (right behind Atlas Games’ “Three Days to Kill” and Green Ronin’s “Death in Freeport”), to its two Ennie nominations (Best Adventure and Best Writing for @1jamesbell), to it being the platform that essentially launched our long line of counter products, it had garnered us a lot of attention. It paved the way for us to establish connections with highly recognized talent throughout the industry and propelled us forward as a creative force in our own right.  And all of this was achieved because at the heart of NeMoren’s Vault is a rather innocently crafted introductory adventure; a blend of the great 1st level dungeons that we grew up on, with a healthy dose of Fiery Dragon know how.

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This is what we mean by Fiery Dragon “know how”.

With the coming of the 5th edition, there will be a lot of talk of launching new campaigns, and like any new campaign, embarking upon a 1st level adventure marks a special ritual of D&D – much like spring training for baseball, or watching a favourite movie that you haven’t seen in years. For brand spanking new players, 1st level adventures are not only an introduction to an innovative concept of gaming, they’re a foray into the possibilities of something fantastic and fun. Usually, this level of adventure includes a mixture of both experienced and non-experienced players, with the reward of uncomplicated enjoyment and new beginnings…

This is what we mean by “uncomplicated enjoyment”.

And so, looking back on NeMoren’s Vault, we had all this in mind when we sat down to design and playtest. The gang were throwing ideas back and forth, and James took the lead to compile all these musings into a tight, enjoyable dungeon crawl, with the suggestion of a realized setting beyond its haunted corridors.  Since its original 3rd edition release, we have revamped it twice – once for the 3.5 edition (updated with new art and content) and most recently for Pathfinder.

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But seeing as we’re talking about 5th edition D&D, new beginnings, and the excitement of learning a new version from the perspective of 1st level adventures, I thought it would be cool to look back on what Fiery Dragon would consider low level adventure classics, and the influences they’ve had on us and our adventure design.

May be some spoilers ahead…

5. “Sample Dungeon” The Wizard’s Tower – From the Eric Holmes Basic D&D set

Given the inclusion of a Starter Set with the 5th edition, it becomes a no brainer to talk of one my favourite little dungeon crawls. The first published adventure that I experienced (up until the basic set, I was taken through a number of random homebrew dungeons) would be the sample dungeon found in the back of Eric Holmes’ “Blue” Basic Set rulebook from 1977.  You see, ’77 – ’78 was a good time to be an aspiring nerd, or more likely, interested in things that would later be deemed as nerdy. So, amidst the heyday of Star Wars, Rankin and Bass’ The Hobbit, and Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, this adventure will be forever etched in my mind.

Nostalgia aside though, it still manages to present all the basic awesome that Dungeons & Dragons has to offer – albeit in an unsophisticated manner. But then, that would be its charm methinks. James has always been very adamant about simplicity, open the book and Go! style of design, and this adventure always comes to mind. Basic background, well written, capable of evoking imagery and atmosphere, the suggestion of a few adventure seeds and BAM – into the dungeon. I love this bit:

Fifty years ago, on a cold wintery night, the wizard’s tower was suddenly engulfed in green flame. Several of his human servants escaped the holocaust, saying their master had been destroyed by some powerful force he had unleashed in the depths of the tower. Needless to say the tower stood vacant for a while after this, but then the neighbors and the night watchmen complained that ghostly blue lights appeared in the windows at night, that ghastly screams could be heard emanating from the tower at all hours, and goblin figures could be seen dancing on the tower roof in the moonlight.”

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These were the days where rules were so secondary that quick notations about complicated tactics were nestled among descriptions of how the room smelt or what refuse might be lying around. But more importantly, the adventure managed to include puzzles, riddles, pirates, a damsel in distress, a rogue wizard, traps, the undead, and a pissed-off ape.  What more could you want at 1st level?

4. Eye of the Serpent – UK5

It’s always a nice touch when a 1st level adventure provides a clever reason as to why all the characters would find themselves brought together for a common goal (and consequently form the bond to continue as a team for the rest of the campaign).  Eye of the Serpent was the first adventure I was aware of that attempted to kick off a campaign with a little more than “you’ve gathered at a local tavern, and now, the adventure!” While on their way to somewhere else, the adventuring party is scooped up by a pair of Rocs (and being 1st level, the Rocs are more of an act of nature beset upon the party rather than a foe to be dealt with) and are deposited in their nest at the top of a Mountain. Hold on though, getting out of that predicament is only the beginning of the adventure because from their new found vantage point the adventurers can see the “Serpents Eye”, a mysterious destination point on the horizon that’s totally worth exploring.

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For a 1st level adventure, this kind of start is completely original. The one time I ran it, I modified it a bit and had the adventurers deposited separately, only to have them wake up from the ordeal to discover themselves in each other’s unexpected company.  This set the tone for a very fun time and taught me that 1st level adventures are more about atmosphere and tone than necessarily trying to keep the party alive long enough to power up a bit. The trip down the mountain is full of nooks, caves and waterfalls (there’s actually a bajillion waterfalls in this adventure), making it all seem very “cozy” while the party negotiates its way past its threats.

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Furthermore, it being a mountain, there are a couple of climate changes that the party have to worry about (it’s coooold at the top) as well as a variety of environmental obstacles (ice, swamps, waterfalls) making their allotted denizens that much more dangerous.  Lastly, Eye of the Serpent is one of few adventures where it utilizes the direct involvement of all character classes – yes, if you like to play Druids this adventure is for you – which is a pleasant change to starting a campaign.  It was written by Graeme Morris who also wrote one of my favourites of all time, “When a Star Falls” and also helped with the next adventure on this list…

3. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh – U1

I remember when this adventure first came out, it’s premise was like a super expanded version of the “Sample Dungeon” listed above – a dilapidated edifice, resting close to a seaside town with the reputation of being haunted – is really a front for a larger scheme, or as I like to call it, the Adventures of Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine.  In all seriousness, this adventure takes the idea of using atmosphere to a whole new level, to such a degree that it actually warns the DM that if they’re not doing it right, the players might get bored. However, if you ARE doing it right, the adventure is a highly satisfying mixture of haunted house fable and sinister “if wasn’t for you meddling 1st level adventurers” conspiracy.

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I think what really sets it apart though is the fact that if the characters do not behave in an intelligent and subtle manner through the course of the scenario there is a high probability that they will get their asses handed to them. Once they begin to realize that the haunted house is not so haunted the adventure uniquely switches gears in tone and goes from Shaggy and Scooby get lost in the creepy cellar to Solid Snake goes into stealth mode boarding a pirate ship. And that’s the other intriguing aspect to this adventure; pirate flavour. Before its release in 1981, Dungeons & Dragons never really went there. Strangely, they had already tried Swords vs. Robots long before doing Black Beard gets a magic missile. Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh unabashedly goes there, and expects medieval 1st edition AD&D types to get all up in it.

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This adventure is actually the first in a three part series, which I never went on to play, but is widely regarded as equally awesome.  What I always thought was cool was the presence of the Lizard Men emissaries on the pirate ship, similar to the appearance of the Drow in the G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King; both suggesting a bigger picture in their respective story lines.  The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh was very influential to us, and one of the best of all time. Clearly, the British liked a good 1st level adventure.

2. Keep on the Borderlands – B2

For a veteran D&D guy, I personally have spent very little time in the Caves of Chaos, if at all, nor do I have any recollection of actually running a session. Still, the influence this adventure has had on the Fiery Dragon crew has been great.  As basic as its premise is, it has a fully fleshed “home base” for a 1st level party to begin its assault on the evil unknowns of its surrounding lands, and gives them plenty of opportunity to make friends and allies within the walls of the keep.

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Famously known for the knowledge that cries of “Bree-yark” mean “we surrender” in goblin, Keep on the Borderlands is a little heavy on what would later be coined as “hack n’ slash”. Still, it’s emphasis on the environment where the characters would be spending most of its time when not in a dungeon or dangerous cave is its most dependable feature, and would be duplicated time and time again by future adventures of any level, since its arrival.

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This “sandbox” style of campaign, that is, it is the character’s actions that dictate the “story”, is what Keep of the Borderlands is best at.  The quality of any great story comes from the quality of its characters, and what better characters are there to drive the story than the ones depicted by the player’s themselves? The Keep is the center piece for the characters in the early stages of their legend building careers as adventurers, to leave behind to embark on an event filled mission of exploration, or return to for a flagon of ale in celebration of surviving yet another perilous escapade.

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Some might argue that the early adventure T1 Village of Hommlet creates the same experience, and does it even better. I can’t say that I agree with this. For me, Village of Hommlet is actually very bland, if not boring, and since I’m the one writing this…Of course, in the hands of a skilled DM maybe this is not the case, but you could say that about any adventure.

1. In Search of the Unknown – B1

This is not only the best 1st level dungeon of all time, it’s gotta be one of the best of all time. It’s set-up in 3 parts: The first part are a few pages of advice on how to run an adventure, of any kind, and be an effective Dungeon Master. Keep in mind, although Basic Dungeons & Dragons was considered advanced stuff at the time, it was essentially a rule book with little on how to run a game beyond those rules. The first part makes an attempt to enlighten potential DMs on how to get better. The second part is the dungeon crawl. It has its charm, but its most notable feature is that the monsters and treasures need to be keyed by the DM. I mean, It provides the lists to choose from in each case, so it isn’t a hard request, but many have criticized the fact that pre-paid adventures are supposed to do this for you. I would say that it is an attempt at being a learning tool, albeit a pretty straightforward one, in showing prospective Dungeon Master’s some of the simple mechanics involved in creating dungeons of their own. Lastly, as I have said with The Keep on the Borderlands, all good adventures start with its characters, and the third part of the module focuses on just that – Non Player Characters. All in all, the total package that is In Search of the Unknown acts not only as an introductory adventure to first time players, but to first time Dungeon Masters as well. It’s a learner’s guide to getting to the real fun of being a Dungeon Master, creating adventures of your own. In a lot of ways, it’s a product teaching you the lessons required on how not to buy any further products of its type. That’s hilarious.

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Aside from all the rules crunching, In Search of the Unknown is a pretty cool dungeon crawl, filled with all the simple kinds of encounters that may seem trivial at first, but turn out to be pretty interesting when they’re actually play out.  There’s no doubt, the best opening passage in all of dungeon history would be The Tomb Horrors, but a close second are the first few encounters of Quasqueton. Rogahn and Zelligar, fearless adventures of legendary renown built their own personal stronghold known as Quasqueton, a complex that in recent years appears to have been abandoned and left to ruin. Not many are aware of this, but those that would dare to penetrate such a place will soon discover it haunted and full of danger.

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Upon entering the dungeon the party will come upon a number of alcoves, each loaded with a magic mouth with a thunderous message of warning, and at the end of the corridor, a scene of death and horror.  The sickening remains of an adventuring party that happened before them, now dead, the state of their bodies leading to a story of stalwart defending by the stronghold’s guards – all CSI-like. If handled well, it can all leave quite an impression with first time players. Couple this with a very detailed Wizard’s Laboratory to explore, teleportation rooms, and the famous Room of Pools and you have a very satisfying adventure. There’s lots to explore, try and be trapped by. Sure, it’s no Ravenloft, but as far as good ol’ fashion fun is concerned, In Search of the Unknown is it.

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