Tuesday, April 28, 2009

REVIEW: The People of the Pit

The People of the Pit is, quite simply, one of the more interesting adventure modules to come out of the old school renaissance. Written by Alphonso Warden and published by Brave Halfling, this 42-page product retails for $10.00. Though written for OSRIC characters of levels 5-7, it's easily adaptable to characters of higher or lower levels, as well as to other fantasy RPGs.

In terms of its production values, The People of the Pit is probably the most attractive Brave Halfling product I've seen so far. Though it retains the two-column layout of earlier products, the dense text is broken up by a dozen pieces of superb black and white art by John Bingham, all of which have a terrific old school feel to them, from the hideousness of the eponymous People of the Pit to the adventurers and their pack mules preparing to face them. I also appreciated the fact that the cover does not ape the appearance of old AD&D modules, instead opting for a unique look. Also included are four removable maps, all of which have a slightly pixelated appearance. They're serviceable but not particularly attractive. The text itself is well-written and clear. I noticed no obvious editorial glitches beyond the fact that the module can't seem to decide whether its title includes the definite article or not, with the outside and inside covers disagreeing with another on this matter.

As one might expect from its title, The People of the Pit draws on the 1918 Abraham Merritt short story of the same name for inspiration. Indeed, the module's text uses quotes from Merritt's work to good effect throughout. As one might expect, I was quite pleased to see this, since Merritt is both an under-appreciated fantasist generally but also an under-appreciated influence on D&D. Gygax specifically places him alongside Howard, Leiber, and Vance, as one of the "most immediate influences on AD&D" in Appendix N of the Dungeon Masters Guide. Fortunately, some people are making an effort to bring Merritt out of the shadows and expose a new generation to his fervent imagination and luxurious language.

The module itself is an open-ended one, providing multiple means by which the characters can become involved in it, as well by which they can proceed once involved. All of these events point them toward the City of the Pit, a subterranean city inhabited not only by the loathsome, slug-like People of the Pit, but also their human and demihuman slaves, as well as abominable hybrid beings that serve as the priesthood of the God of the Pit. The People's regular communion with the God of the Pit is what enables these other-planar beings to remain on the Prime Material Plane. Cutting them off from that communion would thus cast them out of the world and eliminate the threat they pose to it.

Long-time D&D fans may experience moments of déjà vu while playing this module, since the City of the Pit bears many similarities to the drow metropolis of Erelhei-Cinlu from The Vault of the Drow -- except, of course, that it's likely Erelhei-Cinlu is in fact an echo of Merritt's work, given how highly Gary regarded the writer. That said, the City of the Pit is far less of a mini-sandbox than was the drow city; it's more like a small subterranean wilderness area, complete with its own wandering monster table. That's not a criticism so much as an acknowledgment that The People of the Pit feels more like a single-use module rather than as a touchstone for further adventures. That's probably just a failure of imagination on my part, though, since there are enough loose ends and "rough edges" for clever referees to pick up and use as the basis for follow-up adventures.

If I have any complaints about The People of the Pit, they're minor ones. First, I wasn't especially fond of the unsubtle references to Abraham Merritt (the Kingdom of Merritt under the leadership of a chieftain called Abraham, for example). In my own Dwimmermount campaign, there's a decadent, subterranean race of men called the Tirrem, a name I feel is a bit less obvious while nevertheless honoring their origins. Second, the adventure includes two "timed events," which are basically encounters that occur independent of character action but according to the passage of time instead. Both these events foreshadow things the PCs may encounter later in the module. For some reason, their presentation irked me. Perhaps it's because I think they might have worked better as entries on a random encounter table rather than as examples of auctorial fiat. That said, these are both minor issues in what is otherwise an excellent, atmospheric module that draws heavily on the game's pulp fantasy roots. Would that more old school adventures were as remarkable as this one.

8 out of 10
Creativity: 9 out of 10
Utility: 7 out of 10

Buy This If: You're looking for a mid-level adventure that draws heavily on D&D's pulp fantasy roots
Don't Buy This If: You're not interested in the pulp fantasy roots of the game or in modules set in a subterranean realm devoid of dark elves


  1. This one sounds pretty good...I may to pick it up.

    I'm glad that you're highlighting Merritt - he really is one of the under appreciated, and under-utilized, fantasy writers. Now, we just need someone to write a Ship of Ishtar module!

  2. Indeed, this is an excellent new module. I noticed the post did not mention OSRIC. I think it is important to note OSRIC makes these types of modules in print more possible. To date, 7 publishers have produced more than two dozen OSRIC modules. That's great news for someone like me who always has and always will play AD&D. My thanks to P&P, Mythmere, and all the rest for opening the gates for new AD&D to be produced via OSRIC.

  3. Strange -- I'd had a specific mention of OSRIC in the review, along with a link to the free PDF, but it seems to have somehow disappeared. I have now re-added the reference.

  4. I didn't know until now that Paizo was reprinting The Ship of Ishtar. That's awesome news, as it's surely on a very short list of the best books in the entire genre (IMO head-and-shoulders above anything else Paizo has published to date). I wonder, though, about Erik Mona saying the edition they're publishing is "about a third longer" than the Avon version (the one I read). I thought that version was just about perfect and wonder what 25% more content would add, other than slowing down the pace, which is already pretty slow in the first half -- the real swords & sorcery stuff doesn't start until the second half. More isn't necessarily always better, and many books (and movies) had material cut for a reason...

  5. I have the Avon version, as well. Its been a long time since I read it, but I agree with T Foster on the pacing and that more is not always better.

    All the talk on Merritt and other Appendix N authors has got me all motivated. I have a stack of about 25 books for my impending one month trip to Kazakhstan! I know I will have plenty of free time to catch up on some serious old school reading, not to mention a few levels of my own megadungeon.

  6. Nice review. I will put this on my 'to get' list. One thing I do like is that we now have an underground adventure that does not use the drow. Sadly these guys have been far overdone in recent years and I think this will be a breath of fresh air.

  7. This sounds like a good one. I've only just started breaking into Merritt's works with The Moon Pool, but so far I'm digging it. I'm sort of wondering if this story is the genesis of the "oh shit, we're on a crazy magic trolley that we can't exactly control" meme that appears in so many D&D adventures.

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  9. Nice. I've just finished reading this one and I'm about to start dropping hints into my campaign. Hopefully someone takes the bait...

    I'll be posting my own review soon, even though my appraisal pretty much echoes your own.

  10. I realize that I'm a few days late to the party on this one, but the Ship of Ishtar edition we're publishing is the "memorial" edition that represents Merritt's preferred version of the text.

    Whether it's better or not is the reader's decision, of course, but I liked both versions plenty. :)

    --Erik Mona
    Paizo Publishing