Thursday, September 30, 2010

REVIEW: Skull Mountain

I think it goes without saying that, among gamers of a certain vintage, the words "Skull Mountain" immediately conjure images of the dungeon cross-section included toward the end of the Holmes "Blue Book" edition of Dungeons & Dragons. As a kid, I know I was enormously fascinated by this suggestive illustration, with its seven levels (not counting sub-levels), the Pit, and mysterious Domed City. For a long time, I planned on using Skull Mountain as a basis for a megadungeon of my own invention, since Holmes gives us no details beyond that cross-section. Unfortunately, I judged the project too big and never did pursue it. I briefly contemplated taking up the project again and, while I didn't do so, there's no question that my conception of Dwimmermount is at least partially influenced by Skull Mountain.

Recently, Jeff Sparks of Faster Monkey Games decided to venture where I did not, offering his own version of Skull Mountain as an adventure for Labyrinth Lord characters of levels 4-6. This 36-page PDF sells for $6.00, which is a more than fair price for what you get. Skull Mountain has close to 20 maps of the dungeon's various levels and areas, as well as new items and illustrated handouts (with artwork by the inimitable Steve Zieser). As with all Faster Monkey releases to date, Skull Mountain uses a very attractive and easy-on-the-eyes two-column layout, with small illustrations throughout to break up the text. The text itself is engagingly written with a minimum of editorial errors. The module's cover is a nice piece by Andy Taylor that sets the mood for the whole adventure.

Skull Mountain itself, as depicted in this product, is a lot smaller than I'd always imagined it to be. For whatever reason, I long assumed Skull Mountain was a proper megadungeon rather than what some refer to as a "lair" dungeon. I'll grant that that assumption on my part was based on nothing but my youthful imagination rather than anything directly stated in the Blue Book. Consequently, my disappointment at how self-contained Sparks's version of Skull Mountain is says nothing about the quality of the module he wrote, but I don't think I'll be the only gamer of long years who will feel this way. Consequently, the biggest "flaw" in Skull Mountain is the power of memory. When presenting one's own take on an iconic D&D setting, it's inevitable that it will compare unfavorably with the ideas others had about the place and "how it ought to be."

That's unfortunate in most case, but especially so here, since the version of Skull Mountain this module presents is very well done and interesting. Yes, it is much smaller than I was expecting and it takes a very different approach than I'd have done, but that may well be for the best. I'm still not yet convinced that a true megadungeon can be presented in a commercial product anyway, so any expectation that Skull Mountain would be such a thing was likely misplaced. Furthermore, my experience is that most gamers want a "complete" adventure when they buy a module. By that, I don't think they necessarily want a pre-scripted story, but they do prefer that the module does most of the "heavy lifting" for them in terms of stocking a location with opponents, traps, mysteries, and treasures to be won.

Skull Mountain
certainly does all of that and does so with great aplomb. As presented here, there's an intriguing backstory behind Skull Mountain, an explanation for both its creation and its present circumstances. Sparks also takes good advantage of the dungeon's volcanic environment, presenting a place that feels "right" and that ought to challenge and pique the interest of players. The inhabitants of Skull Mountain make sense in a Gygaxian naturalistic sort of way, but they're not boring. In fact, I found Skull Mountain refreshingly plausible as a lair, which I think is important for self-contained dungeons such as this. Whereas a sprawling megadungeon can get away with a certain amount of whimsy and oddity, owing to its nature, a lair needs to make sense, at least within the context of a fantasy world. Skull Mountain certainly does make sense and it's a credit to Sparks that he understood this.

In the end, I think Skull Mountain is a solid product and ought to please a lot of Labyrinth Lord and other old school gamers, especially those that don't have any expectations about this legendary dungeon locale. I'll admit that I still find it difficult to look on a dungeon as small as this as the Skull Mountain, but, as I said, that's my problem and says nothing about this module, which is a very good example of a large but self-contained lair that referees can drop into an ongoing campaign for a few night's worth of exploration and adventure.

Presentation:
8 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Get This If:
You're looking for a clever and well presented single-use dungeon in an unusual location.
Don't Get This If: You prefer larger, more open-ended dungeons or have no interest in pre-made adventure modules.

20 comments:

  1. Why was I not consulted?!

    Seriously, though, this sounds like something I might pick up. Too bad it's only in PDF format - running games off my laptop is a pain for me.

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  2. Thanks for the kind review James!

    Yes, the megadungeon was tempting, but –as you've mentioned before– problematic in published form. Also, we monkeys are suckers for Gygaxian Naturalism!

    @blizack. Funny you should mention PDF only. Look for more news about that in the near-to-immediate future!

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  3. James,

    Your comments vis-a-vis the difference between "lair" and "mega" dungeons are interesting; they clarify for me why megadungeons bored me early on in my gaming life, and why I prefer the smaller lair type. Back then, at least, a dungeon had to make sense in the context of the world. If it was just a series of random rooms and monsters, it grew boring. Lair dungeons were more "authentic" and natural-seeming to me.

    That said, your Dwimmermount write ups have been doing a great job of showing the potential inherent in a megadungeon setting, making it interesting to me again.

    Oh, and I plan to buy this, too. :)

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  4. "I'm still not yet convinced that a true megadungeon can be presented in a commercial product anyway..."

    Isn't that what you're trying to do with the upcoming Dwimmermount product?

    I know you plan on presenting it much like In Search of the Unknown, but that is obviously a commercial product, no?

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  5. @Evan, have you taken a look at Stonehell Dungeon? In my opinion, it's perhaps the best megadungeon published to date and can be purchased on Lulu. Our current group is currently exploring it and it is huge! Check out the review here on Grognardia: http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2009/11/review-stonehell-dungeon.html

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  6. So, how many levels is it then? I'm assuming it doesn't have the Domed City.

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  7. Based upon my perusal of the pdf preview, I felt the same appreciation and excitement about Jeff's fine product.

    It appeared to me in looking at the cross-section at the beginning of the module, that the domed city was indeed there, although not (understandably) shown to scale in the illustration. If it's not actually detailed within, I think that's fine in light of providing the DM with a place to develop for themselves within the context of the adventure.

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  8. just bought it, going to print it out tonight, and then slowly read it a few times. When i find time i'll give it a play.

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  9. In Holmes, it's actually the "Great Stone Skull" on "Stone Mountain". But "Skull Mountain" is the popular name (much like "Tower of Zenopus"). And perhaps a better usage in a product like this when considering copyright. ; )

    Since the text of the Holmes rulebook makes no specific reference to the SM cross-section, I've wondered whether Holmes or someone else at TSR designed it (Sutherland, perhaps?). The cross-section is clearly an update of the rougher one in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, which seems like an editorial decision. And there is a feature resembling "The Pit" in Holmes’ Maze of Peril, as well as an underground city (Dagonites!). So perhaps Holmes designed it rather than just telling the artist to "put an updated cross-section here".

    Interestingly, a "Great Stone Skull" appears in the the Conan story “Shadows in the Skull” by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. It's in a southern region (south of Zembabwei) and is home to a city of serpent-folk. This story is most easily found in the book Conan of Aquilonia (1977), a compilation of four Conan stories, but was first published as the headline story in the February 1975 issue of Fantastic magazine. This places the story’s first publication well before that of the Holmes Basic Set in 1977. This story was later illustrated in King Conan #4 (Marvel, Dec 1980). Holmes once contracted with L. Sprague De Camp to write a Conan sequel set in Africa (“Conan on the River of Doom”), though it was canceled before he finished it.

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  10. My opinion is that it really should be a megadungeon.

    Question: How many total rooms, approximately (including empty ones)? I would want each separate level to have at least as many rooms as the Holmes Sample Dungeon -- like, 25 or so minimum.

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  11. I bought it tonight and, so far (about 30 pages in), I'm very happy with this interpretation of Skull Mountain. Good backstory, mostly believable foes... I could even see adapting this to WFRP's Old World setting. Based on my reading so far, I highly recommend it.

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  12. Some of the ideas in this advanture are very creative. Having said that, I would have preferred larger levels attached to the skull's eyes and such. I'm not talking megadungeon, just more than was provided. That's just a quibble, not a criticism. As an aside, the Time Tracker they have is wonderful.

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  13. I know its off topic, but i can't think of Skull Mountain without thinking of this song...
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZq2m906xzQ

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  14. @TheGrumpyCelt

    Gee! I don't think that song went through my head more than A THOUSAND times while writing this! =)

    (I even have the Skullcrusher Mt. T-Shirt from when I saw JoCo)

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  15. Isn't that what you're trying to do with the upcoming Dwimmermount product?

    I know you plan on presenting it much like In Search of the Unknown, but that is obviously a commercial product, no?


    Dwimmermount is going to be an experiment. An attempt to provide a structure from which others can construct their own megadungeon, using the materials I give them in the book. It's not intended to be used straight from the page; it requires the referee to add his own details and make choices in stocking the place. I don't know if this approach will be well received. Indeed, I've already heard from a couple of people who don't see the point in my approach and that could well be the majority opinion. But I remain committed to the notion that anything calling itself a "megadungeon" can't be printed up in a ready-to-run book/module.

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  16. So, how many levels is it then? I'm assuming it doesn't have the Domed City.

    Counting sub-levels, there are 9 levels in total, but most are quite small. The domes are there on Level 7, but, again, they're very small -- not a "domed city" as in Holmes but more like a series of domed buildings on an island in the lake on the lowest level.

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  17. In Holmes, it's actually the "Great Stone Skull" on "Stone Mountain". But "Skull Mountain" is the popular name (much like "Tower of Zenopus"). And perhaps a better usage in a product like this when considering copyright. ; )

    Correct as always, Zenopus! I'm not sure when/where I picked up the Skull Mountain usage, but it's of long vintage, so that probably explains why so many others know what I meant, even if it's not, as you rightly point out, what is stated in the Blue Book itself.

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  18. Question: How many total rooms, approximately (including empty ones)? I would want each separate level to have at least as many rooms as the Holmes Sample Dungeon -- like, 25 or so minimum.

    Unfortunately, none of the levels in the product are anywhere near that size. In fact, I don't any level has more than about a dozen rooms/areas on it and most are fewer than that. This is a very small lair-style dungeon.

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