Friday, 11 September 2020

Thoughts on A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity

Thoughts on A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity

“Begin, be bold, and venture to be wise.”
― Horace

Slave Pits of the Undercity
It is time to put a stop to the marauders! For years the coastal towns have been burned and looted by the forces of evil. You and your fellow adventurers have been recruited to root out and destroy the source of these raids. But beware, hundreds of good men and women have been taken by the slavers and have never been seen or heard from again! [A1]

For those of you who are of a certain age, or those who have read my thoughts on A0 Danger at Darkshelf Quarry, and Lowdown in Highport, you know the events leading up to this module. For those who haven’t, this is how the adventure was introduced:
For several years, organized bands of pirates and slavers have made a living by raiding the coastal towns on the Sea of Gearnat. Ranging from Onnwal to the Wild Coast, they have descended quickly and ruthlessly on the small towns and villages, and carried off innocent citizens into the night. Although these marauders were not approved of by the lords and rulers of the lands they raided, they were allowed to continue their depredations. Feuding amongst the lords and lack of funds prevented all but an occasional naval battle with the villains and the slow fortification of towns. Bribery was often a more effective method of protecting one’s lands from the incursions of these avaricious seawolves.
Recently, however, the slavers’ attacks have become more frequent and vicious. Believing their prey to be weak and helpless, the raiders have burnt entire villages and pulled down the walk of towns. Women, children, and whole families have disappeared; and though bribes are accepted, the agreements are ignored. Vast tracts of coastline have been reduced to ashes, left barren except for packs of wild dogs.
The lords have finally become determined to take action, forgetting their petty squabbles to unite against the marauders of the yellow sails. Through information gained from escaped slaves, and those fortunate enough to have been found and bought by families or friends, the lords have traced the slavers to a port from which they launch their swift attacks on the coast – the despoiled city of Highport in wasted Pomarj. Some who have lost kin and fortune to the reavers have advised taking a fleet and crushing the outpost, but cooler heads have prevailed. They have pointed out that such a base is undoubtedly well-defended and that the slavers, if alarmed, might arrange that loved ones and kin are never seen again. Instead, they have chosen a plan of stealth. Several bands of adventurers have been gathered together and will be sent to infiltrate the base and destroy the leaders of this evil band. Caution is recommended, for the true strength and extent of this slave ring is not known, but they seem to be stronger and better organized than encounters with their small raiding parties would indicate.
Highport was once a human city, but the land and town have been overrun by humanoids - orcs, goblins, kobolds, ogres, and gnolls. Looted, burned, and ill-kept, the city has become a base for human outcasts wishing to deal with these unsavory creatures. Your party, provided with transport, has managed to arrive in Highport and pose as one of these groups come to deal. [A1]
The PCs have been hired to investigate and put an end to these dastardly foes. Sounds exciting.

It’s been forty years since David Cook penned Slave Pits of the Undercity. Has it held up? That’s a matter of opinion.
Modules have certainly evolved since it was released, WotC preferring to publish long adventure paths in preference of their shorter cousin, the tournament module. In truth, the tournament module is alive and well, and has evolved as well, leaving their initial format behind long ago.
Personally, I don’t think that A1 has aged well. It was released during the Monte Hall era, when PCs required a lot of magical items to face down those enemies they were sure to meet. But that isn’t, exactly, what dates it—although that does, as well, when one considers the lack of magic treasure to be found in those epic modern adventure paths; it’s the lack of verisimilitude and what we might call dungeon ecology.
Tournament modules were meant to be short, completed, if possible, in the four-hour timeslot allocated it at a convention. (Full disclosure, I’ve never been to a gaming convention, let alone participated in one of these competitions, so I can only repeat what I’ve heard from those who have.) They were meant to be challenging. To be so, the designers invariably included a couple new monsters to trip up those players who had memorized the Monster Manual. Those monsters were pretty “trippy,” in my opinion, many of them never to see the light of day again, except maybe in someone’s home campaign.

Upon rereading the module recently, I was of mixed mind as to how it held up. It’s not horrible. It’s not bad, either. For a classic tournament module, it’s really good, in fact.
But I must say that I was never a fan of dungeon crawls, and far too many classic modules were inundated with them.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved them when I began playing AD&D all those years ago. And were I thrown back into one, I’d likely feel the same thrill I did then, too. But why are they there? Was there a classic period of dungeon building when all kings and nobles and Ur-Flan priest-wizards wouldn’t be caught dead without having one tucked under their estate?
“How’s the dungeon coming, Acererak?”
“Great! I’d love to tell you about it, but…secrets, traps, you know the drill. I wish you could see it; it looks like a grinning skull when viewed from on top!”
“I shouldn’t have told you that.” Casts Finger of Death.
So, if I were to run this classic now, what would I do to “fix” it? I’d ditch the dungeon. Keep the action above ground. Okay, I’d throw in a basement or two, if you must know. Nothing scales a PC more than plumbing the depths.
My complaint aside, is it good? I thought there was a lot to recommend it. Hordes of orcs guarded it; there were a number of undead scattered about it. Tortured slaves to rescue. And dastardly villains to defeat.
But the layout has to go. The temple looks like a dungeon and not a temple. And don’t get me started on the aspis. Were they ever used again?

No matter. It was always meant to be a one-off, but what if it weren’t? It needs greater depth. It needs greater continuity beyond a simple map pointing the PCs in the right direction, to the next module, to the next dungeon. Luckily, everything needed to do just that is already included in the A-series. I would not rewrite it so much as retool it.
Sturm Blucholtz

Firstly, the cleric and the Slave Lord (thief) ought to play a greater role in the narrative, and in keeping with such, they ought to be named. In 1986’s A1-4 Scourge of the Slavelords, the thief Slave Lord was named Sturm Blucholtz (a member of the Slavers’ outer circle), and then in 2000’s Slavers, they were referred to as Dirk (we’ll assume that’s Sturm’s alias) and Pieta. How ever you choose to name them, I’d make Pieta an acolyte of the Elemental Eye (and not a cleric of Grummsh as suggested online in the Great Library of Grehawk) for continuity and simplicity’s sake. Why? Because I really like the Elemental Evil, that’s why. And because it was referenced in A0 Danger at Darkshelf Quarry.

Secondly, there should be cameos to link this narrative with those that follow. One might be Nerelas of A3 Assault on Aerie of the Slave Lords, there to inspect Highport’s efficiency of operations.

Thirdly, Highport needs to be developed. Unless you are running this module as a tournament and start the PCs at the foot of the temple, they are going to explore it. There’s a fair description of the sundered city in Dungeon magazine’s Lowdown in Highport.
The Temple Ruin in Highport
The town of Highport sits on a small sheltered inlet along the northern coast of the Pomarj peninsula, facing the Wooly Bay. It is divided into two main parts: numerous docks and a port district right on the shore, and a walled urban area at the top of a steep bluff. When humans controlled and lived in Highport, both sections of the town were kept in good order. Since the humanoid invasion, much of the place has fallen into ruin, either razed during the initial attacks or through subsequent neglect.
The port district is little more than a shanty town, filled with ramshackle wooden buildings constructed out of spare planks, boards, and netting. The unstable structures often lean at odd angles, and the “streets” are really narrow, twisting alleys that frequently dead end. Only a handful of original structures still stand, including a couple of inns and several warehouses. Life in the port district is a dangerous, vermin-filled affair that frequently ends in bloody death.
The High City, as the upper area is known, has more breathing room, although its conditions are little better than the port district below. It was once surrounded by a high stone wall to protect it from the depredations of the marauding humanoids that roamed the hills beyond, but much of that protective barrier was demolished in the attacks. The High City is now a wasteland of rubble-strewn streets, and one building in three is a burnt-out shell.
A switchback road cut into the face of the bluff leads from one part of Highport to the other, still protected at each turn by a gated guardhouse. Though sufficient for all the foot traffic that once traveled along it, the road was too narrow to handle all the merchant wagons that needed to move between the two sections of the town, so a number of stout cranes of dwarven design were installed along the bluff to hoist cargo up and down. These are no longer functioning, and only two even remain in place. The rest were cast down during the invasion, crushing hundreds of refugees waiting to flee Highport by boat in the port district below. Those have since been disassembled, their parts used for constructing hovels. [Lowdown in Highport]

Finally, and most importantly, the temple and surrounding buildings need to be re-mapped and fleshed out in detail. That’s where the action is, after all. It was, but I don’t like the look of the layout. The temple and the surrounding structures look like a dungeon, and they most assuredly would not.  I’d move the Slave Lords to the rectory and develop that even more fully. Infest the cemetery with undead; have quite a few of them milling about, guarding the approaches. Fill the temple with too many orcs to fight, and the basement with too many slaves to liberate. Would there be traps? Not in the temple, surely. In the rectory? Maybe on doors barring personal quarters and chests, to safeguard their personal treasures from the orcs, but not in many other places; the Slavers ought to feel secure here, if they were to feel secure anywhere. They are in the heart of the Pomarj, after all. Who could possible attack them there?

So, once again, the question need be asked. Did I like A1 Slave Pits of the Slave Lords?
I did. It might not sound like it, but I did. David Cook did a hell of a job.

The Art:
Cover Art, from A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity, by Jeff Dee, 1980
Temple Cartography, from A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity, 1980
Two Adventurers Fighting Aspis, from A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity, by Bill Willingham, 1980
Sewer Orcs, from A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity, by Jeff Dee, 1980

All source material presented within this blog piece is owned and copyrighted by WotC.
The use of this material is not intended to challenge the rights of WotC.
This document is fan content and presented solely for the personal use of those individuals who game within the Greyhawk Setting.

9039A A0 Danger at Darkshelf Quarry, 2013
9039 A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity, 1980
9040 A2 Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade, 1981
9041 A3 Aerie of the Slave Lords, 1981
9042 A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, 1981
Lowdown at Highport, by Thomas M. Reid, Dungeon magazine #221, 2013

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