Skull Mountain Review
Skull Mountain by Faster Monkey Games is a 36-page adventure module for the Labyrinth Lord Roleplaying Game. This is a review of the PDF I purchased from RPGNow. It uses a two-column, right-aligned layout with a clean, readable font. The font is fairly small, which means a lot of content is packed into its 36 pages. The writing is clear and the editing is good (I actually can’t recall any typos).
WARNING!!!! SPOILER ALERT!!!
This is a Game Master’s review which means it contains a ton of SPOILERS. If you plan to play this module, don’t read any further. If you’re looking to buy a good module for your GM to run, do two things: first, take my word for it, this module is well worth the price; second, drop me a line about joining my group. It’s hard enough getting my players to buy their own core books, let alone adventure modules for me.
The author, Jeff “bighara” Sparks recently did a video review of my Blood Moon Rising Labyrinth Lord adventure. I also included an ad for Skull Mountain in the back of BMR in an effort to fill a page count and help support fellow OSR authors. Neither of these facts influence my review in any way.
Note: This is the second of what I hope to be many OSR product reviews, so if you have a smallish OSR product (around 50 pages or less) you want reviewed, send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’ve played D&D for any length of time, you’ve probably seen the famous Holmes Skull Mountain dungeon complex map from the Basic set. If not, James Maliszewski at Grognardia touches on it in his blog.
Let me go ahead and say that if you can’t get any inspiration from looking at that map, then you probably shouldn’t be playing D&D. It’s almost a perfect depiction of the themes of adventure, excitement, and exploration that D&D should be about. Faster Monkey Games took that inspiration one step further, creating an entire module that is heavily inspired by that map.
I’ll preface this review by saying I don’t do megadungeons. I like my dungeons to be short and sweet, able to be cleared out in a session or two. I play once a week, and we have short attention spans, so it’s hard to stay focused when you begin each game waking up in the same dungeon session after session. Nor do we like returning to the same place over and over until it’s cleared out. That was cool when we were younger, but these days I try to keep everything as fresh and new as possible.
Skull Mountain is built for longer play, but according to the text, it’s expected that the characters will have to rest several times and/or leave the dungeon and return before completing the adventure. I can say that seems pretty accurate as I can see at least one logical stopping point before you start getting into the deeper, stranger, and to me, more interesting levels. After that though, you’re probably going to want to finish the rest of the dungeon before leaving.
The adventure background covers a lot of ground, starting about 1,000 years ago when a polymorphed dragon tricked a bunch of humans into believing it was a god. The terrified humans formed a cult around its worship, built a cult inside Skull Mountain, and began supplying the dragon with food and treasure. The cult’s depredations eventually resulted in its destruction by a band of heroic adventurers, including a cleric who used an earthquake spell to smash the dungeons and seal the dragon beneath the earth.
The dragon soon encountered a tribe of lizardfolk and again set itself up as a god to be worshipped. Under his guidance, the lizardfolk conquered a huge underground realm. The polymorphed dragon even mated with the lizardfolk creating a new stronger smarter strain called Darklings that became the lizarfolk ruling caste.
Meanwhile on the surface, the remnants of the cult became bandits and thieves. After a failed coup, a bandit chieftain was thrown into the volcano shaft that lies behind the skull face (one of several minor aesthetic changes to the Holmes map). The chieftain survived, was captured by lizardfolk, and eventually freed to revive the cult and bring treasure and sacrifices back to Skull Mountain. When the local militia stepped up patrols, the cult responded by kidnapping a nobleman’s son and holding him hostage. This sets the stage for the PCs.
The adventure provides a number of interesting NPCs for the characters to interact with, including a corrupt seneschal who was willing to overlooka little banditry, but cannot let the cult continue their depredations, a bandit chief who’s looking to take down the cult and reestablish his own organization, a benevolent priest who receives power through the faith of his followers (more on that later), the (slightly insane?) cult leader and former bandit, and of course the greedy and cowardly dragon who is ultimately responsible for all of the bad happenings in and around Skull Mountain. All the basic info needed for some great roleplaying is presented here (personalities, motivations, etc.), but a lot of it depends on how much you want to flesh out the encounters.
Skull Mountain consists of a hollowed out cave complex behind the skull that is used by the cult, an underground cave system inhabited by a powerful tribe of lizardfolk, and a dormant volcano which serves as the dragon’s lair. The dungeons are well developed and get more interesting (and dangerous) the deeper the party goes.
The Adventure The adventure begins with the PCs being hired by the corrupt seneschal to rescue the son of his noble lord. It involves a pretty straightforward entry into Skull Mountain, taking down the cult, and rescuing the boy from roughly level 3 of the Holmes map.
Rescuing the boy is a good regrouping point as you really don’t want to drag an injured and traumatized youth through a dangerous underground dungeon. Obviously, there’s still a lot of exploring to do, assuming, that is, the characters find the secret path that leads to the lower levels. Otherwise, you’ll have to find some other way of getting them to realize the cult was just one part of the problem (they should suspect this by the time they rescue the boy, but they might not realize the extent of the problem or that an entirely different complex exists underneath Skull Mountain). There are no guidelines for this, however, which ties into one of my two main complaints that I’ll expand on later.
The lower levels consist of a lot of natural cave formations. One of my all-time favorites involves a winding stairway that is carved into the stone of an enormous stalactite hanging from the ceiling. The party starts at the top and works their way down to a bridge at the tip. I think the stairway is a great setup for a memorable encounter, but unfortunately, the only combat the characters are likely to see is a ranged combat encounter involving a catapult! If I were to run this module, I would almost certainly replace the catapult encounter with a guard post hollowed out inside the stalactite. This would lead to what could become an epic battle on the stairs, with the chance of falling off into the darkness. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m going to steal this map/idea in the future, for use in my own game.
Another standout of the lower levels are the strange religious domes where the lizardfolk worship and make sacrifices to the dragon. The adventure is set up so that the characters interrupt a sacred ritual and rescue more prisoners, who can then tell them about the extent of the lizardfolk kingdom. For dramatic effect, there seems to be no time lockon the ritual, as far as I can tell. It is basically “in progress” whenever the characters arrive, so even if the characters have made several forays into the dungeon, they still get a chance to disrupt the ritual and rescue the prisoners. This works for me. Makes it much more interesting than an empty chamber.
The adventure effectively ends with a boss fight against the dragon, which may or may not occur during the ritual encounter. Seeing as how the characters are recommended to begin the adventure at levels 4-6, I don’t think they will have attained a high enough level to be tackling a 1,000 year old magic-using dragon by the end of the adventure, especially after having fought their way through an army of entrenched lizardfolk. This is easily balanced by the fact that the dragon is not used to being hurt, so the GM could have it retreat back to its lair after taking a few wounds (the fight can last just long enough to scare the characters and make them want to come back better prepared). A number of scaling options are also given for the dragon in the front of the book, but I don’t like the idea of nerfing the dragon just because the PCs are too weak to face him. You’ll have to use your best judgment on that.
New monsters include a Stone Guardian (similar to an animated stone statue), lizardfolk (as per the LL core book), and the Darkling ruling caste (part lizardfolk, part dragon). All of these are statted in the back of the book. Again, I prefer stats with encounters.
Skull mountain introduces an interesting NPC cleric spell system wherein a cleric’s powers are fueled by the belief of his followers. This means that one does not even have to worship a true god in order to be able to cast cleric spells. I’ve come across this concept in reading, but I can’t recall ever seeing it in an adventure. It’s an interesting take that had me thinking in terms of players. What happens if they somehow become worshipped as gods? Will they have followers that can cast spells in their name? Interesting concept that I’d like to see played out.
The Tomb of Horrors was my first experience with handouts (right before I jumped through the green devil face) and I’ve loved them ever since. Skull Mountain provides you with 5 different handouts to be given out at various points during the adventure. None of them are strictly necessary, but they all add flavor to the game.
The module has a very “old school” feel to it, with the homage to the Holmes map being the most obvious. The dungeon as the module’s focus is another point that says old school. This isn’t a “roleplaying” adventure. It’s about the dungeon. There is enough information about the NPCs to set the stage, but the hook is very loose and the GM is free to alter it to better suit his game, and the dungeon is not tied to a specific town or region, so you can basically drop it in anywhere. Lastly, there is also the presence of a possible TPK at several points throughout the module, including a number of “save or die” situations (usually involving monsters or traps that can be avoided), deadly falls, intelligent monster tactics (there are a _lot_ of situations where the characters may be doused with burning oil and set alight), and of course, the fight with the dragon at the end.
Okay, here’s where I put up my first real gripe. There are no real guidelines for any type of resolution for any of the events that occur in the module. The PCs are hired to rescue the boy, but what happens next? Do they get paid? Does the seneschal give them a public celebration where they are lauded as heroes or are they given mercenary wages and sent on their way? The PCs smash the cult, but what happens next? Do the more fanatical cult members come looking for revenge? What happens if the PCs do not find the secret door to the underground caves? Do the lizardfolk begin preying on surface dwellers? The PCs desecrate the lizardfolk”s holy site, but what happens next? Do the Darklings find a way to reestablish control? Is there another race that might move into the cave system? What does the dragon do if he escapes? (Because I personally think he’s too smart to fight to the death.) Sure, a good GM can use common sense and work these things out on his own, but I really want a Concluding the Adventure section that wraps up all the loose ends and perhaps provides some inspiration for further adventures down the road.
My second gripe is the lack of monster stats throughout the text. The main monsters are statted in the back of the book, but in the text, this is the writeup for a typical monster: “If any High Priest’s grave is disturbed, the four sets of bones nearest the entrance animate and combine into a BONE GOLEM (LL79).” I’ve seen this done with several other products from various publishers and I don’t like it. It means I not only have to flip to a certain page of the LL, but I also have to determine hit points, weapons, treasure, etc., for every encounter. I prefer to have all the monster stats written out for every encounter (or at least every section, if the same type of monster, such as orcs, occurs throughout that section). Again, this is a personal preference, and I’ve seen it done elsewhere, so maybe I’m just lazy and/or maybe I’ve been out of the D&D loop for so long that it’s become the norm.
If you’re looking for an old school dungeon, Skull Mountain delivers. The background is solid, the dungeon layout is well designed, and the encounters range from simple to deadly. If you judge the module strictly for its dungeon, Skull Mountain gets an A (an A+ if the monster stats were included throughout the text). As a roleplaying adventure, I can’t give it more than a B-. You get a great setup, with some really interesting NPCs and power struggles, but you’re left entirely on your own when it comes to developing any sort of plot lines. So overall, a combined B+ or A-, depending on your preference.
Either way, it’s a great product that’s definitely worth the cost and I feel comfortable recommending.