Wednesday, August 10, 2011
In the case of module D1, the immediate context is as a sequel to modules G1, G2, and G3 -- later compiled as G1-3, Against the Giants -- in which the player characters enter and sack the strongholds of three different giant leaders who have, for reasons unknown, been coordinating their attacks against human lands. The PCs discover that this coordination is at the behest of the drow, a nation of evil subterranean elves, who leave behind a map leading to their city. If the characters choose to use this map, Descent into the Depths of the Earth provides the referee with an underground "wilderness" map and some keyed locations, along with random encounter tables, to simulate their explorations.
Unlike the giants modules, where the PCs have been ordered, under pain of punishment, to investigate their titular locales, there is no such compulsion in module D1. The choice to move forward or not is entirely left up to the PCs, as is the course of their travels. For that reason, the referee needs to be prepared to make use of the many random encounter tables included to flesh out the underworld. There are several well described encounter areas in D1, but the vast majority of them are presented simply without much exposition -- once again demanding significant improvisation by the referee to use effectively. That's not a criticism as such, but, looking back on this module, I was surprised to see just how little information it straightforwardly includes.
When I was a younger man, I would have ranked Descent into the Depths of the Earth as one of my favorite AD&D adventures. I had a lot of fun using it in days of yore and there are a number of set pieces it includes, such as the lich Asberdies, who has cast over 600 magic mouths in his cavernous lair, that I still recall having a lot of fun with. Of course, back then, I readily accepted that a module couldn't really be used "out of the box" and that no self-respecting referee would expect such a thing in any case. It's a perspective that I've only, in the last few years, come to embrace again, believing that, sometimes, less is more.
That said, I'm not sure that, even given that, module D1 is one of Gygax's better works, certainly in comparison to, say, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, let alone Vault of the Drow, both of which retain the open-ended "sandboxy" feel of D1 while, at the same time, providing more structure on which the referee can hang his own creations. The whole module feels very much like an introduction to the subterranean wilderness of the drow, a kind of primer of what's to come. That might explain why it was later combined with module D2 in 1981. Together, I think they complement each other nicely, which is a topic I'll return to next week in my retrospective of D2.