Dungeon Module A0
Danger At Darkshelf Quarry
by Skip Williams
An AD&D adventure for character levels 1-3
Published by Wizards of the Coast copyright 2013
This module was included in the Against the Slavelords hardcover published in 2013. The book is a re-issued collection of the original four Slavelords modules - A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity, A2 Secret of Slavers Stockade, A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slavelords, and A4 In the Dungeons of the Slavelords. Danger At Darkshelf Quarry serves as a prequel to the series, kickstarting the campaign for 1st level characters. While the module is presented for AD&D rules, it should be noted that this review is based on play using the D&D Next Playtest packet, which is no longer available through Wizards of the Coast. The module is a short and sweet twenty-three pages long, but still packs a lot of quality exploration into the adventure (there are 66 encounter areas with very few empty rooms). Even still, a 1st-level party will have problems reaching the desired 4th level, which is the recommended minimum level for A1. Dungeon Magazine #221 has solved some of this problem with a segue AD&D adventure titled "Lowdown In Highport" that bridges the two modules, but I will review that separately. Regardless, the DM will likely need additional material to get the party up to level 4.
The adventure begins in the small coastal town of Darkshelf, located in southern Nyrond where Relmor Bay meets the Sea of Gearnat. This is an excellent starting point: the humble, quiet mining town is close enough to be targeted by raiders but still foreshadows the long reach of the slavelords. The PCs must discover from the townsfolk (the background info is not spoon fed to them at the beginning of the adventure) the strange occurrences that have happened recently. Dead bodies discovered floating in the river, pirate activity reported in the region, and tension has risen at a nearby quarry - where most of these troubles stem from and the where the party must eventually investigate. Indeed, some of the key villains are locals of Darkshelf and the PCs may very well cross paths with them in town before confronting them at the quarry. The small-town confines of the region make this not only plausible, but also adds a layer of intrigue to the story. Sadly, only a few details of the town itself are provided but not enough to develop a living, breathing environment. The onus is squarely on the shoulders of the DM.
The main part of the adventure is broken into two parts: the quarry itself and the guardhouse that overlooks the quarry. Player characters are encouraged to use their own approach to either location and the module is crafted to accommodate this. There are several ways to access the mines or the guardhouse, neither of which has priority. Designer Skip Williams has done an excellent job creating a wide-open, sandbox style dungeon where there are no right or wrong ways to go and provides several escape routes should the party get in over their heads - which is very possible! This is very much a dynamic environment where enemies will continually move about, coordinate tactics, and respond efficiently to intrusion. The enemy leaders are smart and know how to keep their nefarious operation a secret - PCs who try a frontal assault will likely be overwhelmed in short order. Still, there are several weak links and schisms to exploit in the villains' defenses. Players love options and there are many provided throughout the adventure: stealth, sabotage, diplomacy, uneasy truces, blackmail, combat and bluffing were just some of the tactics my players utilized.
With this module, Williams has had the luxury of writing an old-school dungeon with modern-day gaming sensibilities. He provides the DM with notes for adventure troubleshooting (such as the PCs being overwhelmed), as well as the party openly approaching the guardhouse and/or bluffing their way inside - the villains are not easily duped and have their own procedures to unmask a ruse. There are also relevant shift changes at the quarry (dayshift and nightshift) with moral implications that can affect the PCs actions and decisions, depending at what time of day they explore. Suffice to say, not all is what it seems at the quarry and the party will have a few surprises.
The monsters and NPCs are of the standard variety found in low-level adventures, but many are given just enough personality, quirks or odd habits to separate them from the pack and make them remarkable. There is even a checklist included for the DM to keep track of key NPCs and their locations. Its this additional attention to detail that elevates Danger At Darkshelf Quarry above the average 1st-level dungeon. Also of special mention is the black and white artwork which does a fantastic job of capturing the look and feel of the 80s-era modules: simple, clean and evocative. The maps are clear and easy to understand, although all seven are squeezed onto two pages which makes them frustratingly small. The writing is also excellent, with some outstanding descriptive boxed text without being verbose. Here is a sample:
"The floor in this cavern is packed sand, pale yellow with flecks of iridescent material. Tendrils of pale mist or smoke writhe along the ground, carrying the rank odor of muddy filth and the sharp tang of resin or incense."
The slavelord series is a beloved, yet flawed, campaign from the golden age of D&D. Despite its glaring problems of railroading, it has deservedly maintained its classic status for breaking new ground in fantasy roleplaying. Danger At Darkshelf Quarry capitalizes on these strengths without falling into the traps of its predecessors, offering a very worthy addition that fits in perfectly with the rest of the series. Despite it coming up short on experience, it is a fun adventure that gives the series some new life and kicks the campaign off in fine form. I rate this module a very solid 8 out of 10.
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