Monday, October 3, 2011

Review: The Ruins of Undermountain

The Ruins of Undermountain


In my quest to plunk a big tent-post megadungeon in my GURPS DF game, I have been looking at the (relatively few) pre-generated megadungeons out there. I see no reason to spend my afternoons mapping if I don't have to, and I figure I can steal ideas from dungeons even if I don't use them outright. My quest for a pretty good map I can just steal and use started by digging into my old AD&D stuff and finding something my buddy Ryan gave to me years back - Undermountain.

This post is totally riddled with spoilers, so if you have any intention to play in this dungeon, DO NOT READ THIS. But it's an out-of-print supplement for a not-much-beloved AD&D edition (as far as I can tell), so it's not likely you'll encounter it without dumping wads of cash on it. Is it worth those wads? Let's take a look and see.

Undermountain is the giant megadungeon underneath Waterdeep in Ed Greenwood's Forgotten Realms setting. It's apparently where his pre-Shadowdale adventurers made their mark back in his 70s GMing days, if I have my history right.

The module comes in a boxed set with maps of the first three levels of the nine-level dungeon. It also comes with a booklet - mine was slit down the side and three-hole punched by the previous owner - and some cards detailing magical doors, traps, and random dungeon sounds and encounters.

It's an interesting look at a living dungeon. That is to say, it has active gates pulling in monsters and legends of its creator still being active down below. It is also living in the sense that it is directly below a large, sprawling city and it equally sprawls sideways and down. So there are both reasons and opportunities for active groups to use the dungeons as a base, shortcut around the city, storage dump, place for nefarious activities, and so on. This is great if, as a GM, you want to tightly tie the dungeon to the city above.

The dungeon also has connections below, to the inevitable Underdark of Faerun, populated by monsters cooler than you. So you get random extraplanar beings and critters from the realms dumped into the maze, Underdark beings coming up from below, invaders and Bad Guys (tm) coming from above, and the original creator(s) sticking opposition all over the place. The is great from a GM perspective. You can always restock, have an excuse for weird traps or strange monsters, and can always fit whatever you need to add in somewhere. No "How did those half-drow samurai bandits get here, anyway?" questions because they'll figure out about the gates and wizards and go right to "Why are those half-drow samurai bandits here?" Good stuff.

I also like that the dungeon's first level isn't some rinky-dink hideout for goblins and giant rats. Random encounters with powerful critters are possible, and the traps and dangers are real even for solidly strong PCs (like, say, 250+ point starting DF characters). So you don't need to plunge down to level 3+ before you encounter something that isn't 2d6 orcs with 1d6 copper pieces each and a 5% chance of a leader-type. It's a challenge right from the start.

It's tied to the Realms pretty tightly. This means you can't really just plunk the dungeon in a generic campaign, unless that campaign has a giant city ruled by faceless lords with a dungeon underneath it. You damn well better like beholders and beholder variants and magic items that break the rules in a way that says "My players didn't like some of these game effects so here is a free way out" and Secret Organizations of Better than You, er I mean, Of Good - aka The Harpers, the Lords of Waterdeep, etc. You can't use too much of the detail without accepting those Faerunisms.

The setting also has a fair amount of . . . "why are the PCs doing all this stuff in the dungeons?" Waterdeep has Force Gray, a small pile of level 20+ good aligned mages (including former adventurers), high-level former adventurers who run the taverns that have dungeon entrances in them, and so on. The PCs are always the small fish . . . so you get an impression of Undermountain as a convenient playground for the PCs but only because the NPCs aren't bothering to clear it out. Heaven help PCs who mess around in town, though - they'll get squashed. But mind flayers and drow underfoot get ignored if they don't mess with the city. Yet it's okay for players to go mess with them and potentially rile up a big reaction against the surface. It's a big elephant in the room you have to ignore - again, it's a common theme to published Realms material. The world is full of very powerful NPCs who let you adventure, but you aren't expected to really shake the world like they did. A credit to this module is that it does a lot less of this than usual for a Realms publication. But still, AD&D rules and customized magic spells make permanently killing off bad guys and altering the balance of power difficult.

The layout of the module is pretty good. You get separate sections on history, magic items, spells, monsters, NPCs, etc. Each level's entrances and egresses and gates are explained in one section, as well as repeated in the appropriate encounter area. You don't need to dig to find the details you need.

The dungeon itself is barely detailed, with only the major level features written up. The rest is left to the GM, with plenty of hooks to tie them into. These major level features are enough to hand your own material onto, though, and they are reasonably complete. Realms-specific random encounter tables (on the maps, by level) round out the useful material, and come with separate tables for wandering monsters and monsters you attract by being too damn noisy. Nice! So the material appears very easy to actually use. Even better, much of it is easy to steal if you want to use it elsewhere.

One big downside to actual usage is the poster-sized maps. They are very attractive and easy to write on (the guy I got this set from did just that). But . . . poster sized. How the hell do you use a poster-sized map in actual play? How do you keep it concealed from the players and yet be able to see and read it clearly? If you just fold the sucker up, they'll know it's a big level by the sound of you flipping and folding and unfolding. With a poster-sized city map you could drop it down and say "Here is Waterdeep" or "Here is the parks district" or whatever and it helps play. With a dungeon that is an epic fail. This isn't some particular flaw of Undermountain itself but it's a flaw of poster-sized maps and Undermountain provides nothing but. It's not clear to me how to overcome this short of a jpg or gif or other image file you could annotate and zoom in on with a laptop. Good luck scanning them yourself, too.

The book is also well-written and easy to understand. It does have the annoying tendency to remind GMs that the dungeon (and it's master) change things just to mess with PCs who "read too much." Yeah, we all know we can change stuff if the players read the module. You can just say that once at the beginning and save us all a lot of patronizing.

One bit related to this are the magic traps and magic doors of the dungeon. The dungeon is actively being used and changed, and the book tells you flat-out that if you forget what kind of magic door it was, or if it was magical, or whatever, just decide over again. It's now non-magic/a different magic door/there is no door, etc. Leave the mystery up to the PCs, and know there is an explanation (the active elements in the dungeon) to explain it.

The adventure contents are good, too. They do suffer from a big flaw I find in gaming - I giveth and then I taketh it right away. The original owner stomped but good on transport magic, so you can't go Teleporking around or into and out of the dungeon. You can't burrow through the walls (but monsters can), you can't summon extraplanar help (but monsters can), you can't ask the gods for assistance, and you can only summon monsters if they are in the dungeon - although plenty of exceptions are available. Oh, and the NPCs (good and evil alike) often have magic items which exempt them from this stuff. Personally, I hate this. Mordenkainen and his buddies teleported around Greyhawk, but you can't leave Undermountain except by rope and ladder or gate. GURPS Dungeon Fantasy takes away spells like Teleport and gate magic and specifically makes it hard to tunnel out of dungeons. But I think that's more fair - take the ability away in the first place, don't allow it but then nerf the hell out of it because you don't like it. Better that you could teleport but you don't have the ability than giving you the ability and then saying "but it doesn't work here." A lot of wordage - more than I just spent here - is wasted explaining the restrictions and repeating them wherever it seems like the players might just try to clever up a way to allow it.

I actually like the Forgotten Realms a lot, and I ran a long 1st edition GURPS campaing there. But only after I nerfed a lot of the NPCs and tossed things that made the PCs a bunch of second fiddles who couldn't change anything. So I hope this review doesn't sound like a Faerun Hater. It's just it's bad tendency to be a static realm you can't change comes through, and that's not something an OD&Der or GURPS GM is probably going to think of as a positive.

Rating:
Content: 4 out of 5. Poster map utility aside, this was a heck of a product, and it's well put together. I could see running this straight out of the box in a FR game in 2nd edition AD&D.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Okay, okay, blue text on an off-white background with watermark-like edging looks cool, but it's hard to read after a while. Otherwise well put together.

Overall: If you run the FR and want a megadungeon, or want a megadungeon under a big city and like the FR, this is worth finding. Maybe not worth collector's prices, but it's a nice find if you can snag one. Good stuff even if you just like to mine ideas.

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