Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/08/01/tabletop-review-adventures-dark-and-deep-a-curious-volume-of-forgotten-lore/
Back in March of this year, I, along with 243 other Gygaxians took part in a Kickstarter to fund Adventures Dark and Deep: A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore. It was quite successful, garnering Joseph (who I always want to call Robert) Bloch three times the money he was looking for. I’ll admit I’m not the most diehard D&D fan on the planet even though I’ve written for both the TSR and WotC versions of the game. I always gravitated more towards Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu and Vampire: The Masquerade as a kid, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love D&D. I remember combing through old issues of Dragon magazine, reading the Wilderness Survival Guide and Oriental Adventures with apt fascination and enjoy the game books about D&D even though playing it wasn’t as fun as my big three (mainly due to who I knew that played each game as a kid). Adventures Dark & Deep became the first D&D based Kickstarter I’ve funded out of the eighty-odd projects I’ve given money to. I’m still not sure what drew me to it exactly. Perhaps it was the premise of Mr. Bloch trying to piece together things written by the late, great E. Gary Gygax to present what his version of Second Edition AD&D might look like had he not “left” TSR in 1985 that intrigued me. Perhaps I just liked the play on anagrams with both titles (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons/Adventures Dark and Deep = AD&D.). Whatever the reason, I knew I wanted to be a part of this project, even if it was just financially.
On July 27th, the PDF version of the book (which was the level I had backed at arrived by a link to RPGNow.com. By the evening of the 28th, I had read the entire book twice. I have to say that I’m looking forward to seeing the next few ADandD products Mr. Bloch puts out. Although there’s a lot in this book that I would never personally use in my own AD&D campaign and other information I felt was mostly retread or stuff that has already been covered repeatedly, Mr. Bloch’s writing style and the entire book really did look, feel and read like it was straight out the TSR brain trust in the late 70s/early 80s. So while a good part of the book isn’t something that will ever see the light of day in any D&D or OSR campaign that I personally partake in, it was still both entertaining and informative to read. I was definitely hit with strong waves of nostalgia through both my reads of this tome.
Before going into the content proper, I do want to state the artwork in A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore, all done by Brian “Glad” Thomas” is excellent. Again, the images feel like they were ripped straight out of old TSR manuals (and even a bit of Dragonmirth from the old Dragon magazine). From the cover image that is both comical and dramatic to the black and white interior pictures, I was hit with images how D&D used to look and how much I missed that style. Kobolds reminiscent of dogs rather that dragonpeople? Beautiful. I especially loved Glad’s trolls as they were exactly the ones I remembered from my childhood. Bloch made a great choice for the artist and I really hope Brian Thomas returns for the other Adventures Dark and Deep books.
So what’s in Adventures Dark and Deep: A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore? Well a lot. Besides a great deal of content, there are tables for everything the book covers. So many random tables! If you had any doubts that this book would be true to the spirit of 1e AD&D, all you need is to see the sheer volume of tables contained therein. There are also five new characters for the game: The Bard, The Jester, the Mountebank, the Mystic and the Savant. All of these classes are fairly interesting, but I can’t see too many people actually choosing one as their character class.
You might be stating to yourself, “but the Bard WAS in both first and second edition AD&D.” That’s true, but remember, First Edition’s Bard class was a terrible mess in every way possible and the Second Edition Bard isn’t necessarily in line with what Gygax’s retooling of the bard would be. Bloch’s Bard is still a mix of mage and thief classes, but with some new skills like Distract, Listen at Doors and Slight of Hand thrown in. As well, Bloch’s Bard has spells that are a mix of Druid, Mage, Illusionist and Cleric spells, making them a little more versatile. At the same time Bardic magic occurs through music, and so it is handled quite differently from the AD&D 2e Bard. Finally, Bards learn spells through listening to other bards, both friends and foe. This makes a rather unique way for studying magic.
The Jester was a class brought up once or twice in Dragon magazine, although generally as an April’s Fool’s joke. Although the magazine did contain full character class rules, like the Bard, Bloch has completely retooled the Jester for this book. Here the Jester is a sub-class of the Bard who engages in pranks and verbal banter. It’s a bit akin to the Thief-Acrobat from Unearthed Arcana but with more pratfalls. I like that two of the Jester’s equivalent to thief skills are Fire Breathing and Knife Throwing, but I can’t see the class really worth playing as and I especially didn’t like that the Jester can learn up to Fourth Level spells, including things like Fireball, Lightning Bolt and Stone to Flesh. These don’t fit the theme of the character (or any Jester really) at all.
The Mountebank is a specific type of thief, specifically a con man or trickster. It’s a nice change from the all-purpose Rogue, but it is a bit redundant. Still, it’s one of the two classes I liked best in the book and probably the one I’d be most likely to play. My big complaint is that like every class in this book, the Mountebank gets access to magic spells at some point. Every class shouldn’t be able to cast spells. There’s just too much magic being handed out to the new classes here.
The Mystic is a Cleric sub-class and the other class that I really like. It feels more like an Eastern holy person than the Western one typified by the usual Cleric. I also like how certain spells such as the Crystal Magic and Awaken Chakra series stack. It’s the most balanced class of the five and I especially enjoyed some of the optional abilities like taking a vow of silence in exchange for extra EX and losing the verbal requirement for all spells.
The final class introduced here is the Savant and it’s a really odd duck. First, the minimum starting age for a Savant is roughly twice all other classes in D&D games. Meaning you’re likely to have a First Level Savant be in their mid thirties to early forties when other characters are in their late teens are early twenties. I get that the savant is basically a sage, but the age restriction doesn’t make sense for what you get with the class. After all, a fifth level Magic-User will have more power and knowledge than a beginning Savant and a fraction of their age to boot. You’re definitely better off with the Magic-User or Illusionist if you’re playing a D&D game than with this class. The Savant is a pretty good idea, but it really needed to be retooled a bit as it really just feels like a weaker mage that can read Druid, Cleric and Mystic scrolls at higher levels. That’s not really all that impressive.
So two of the classic are quite good, one it a bust and two are…okay. Not bad all things considering.
Next up is a new version of Secondary Skills. In Second Edition AD&D, this was something optional that you rolled for on a chart and you basically had that knowledge and skill set starting out, never to be touched again. With Forgotten Lore, you don’t start with any secondary skill (then what did your character do before they became a mage or paladin?). Instead you purchase the skills with experience points, which I really detest the idea of. Perhaps it’s from childhood experience with the American version of Lunar 2 for the Sega-CD, but I’ve learned that any time you are forced to purchase something with experience points, it’s a bad thing. Especially when it’s something not necessarily all that helpful in-game like the version of secondary skills put forth here. Hmm, I could gain another level, or I could be slightly better at making armour or courtly intrigue. Considering early AD&D was more roll-playing than role-playing, this system doesn’t work for me. I do like the ability to gain new levels in Secondary Skills, but again, the spending of experience points is a concept I just really strongly dislike. Plus, how do you explain it in-game? “Well, my killing of this dragon meant that I was suddenly better at crafting necklaces rather than fighting?” It just doesn’t work for me at all. I do love the Secondary Skills presented here, but I’d definitely retool the system to have you start off with a level in one at Level 1 and then gain a new level in the skill you already have or a new one every three to five levels or so.
There are a lot of little concepts presented throughout the book that I had fun with, such as a reminder about cost of living upkeep for characters – which is something a lot of DMs forget about. This is ingrained in me as a Shadowrun player so whenever I’ve DM’d, I’d made this something my D&D players had to partake in. Bloch really does have a great eye for the little but still no less important details that so many gamers sadly overlook.
There’s a very long and detailed section of the book devoted to what is called an “Alternate Combat System,” but there’s nothing dramatically different from the usual “THACO” style of gameplay. There’s a bit devoted to helmets for AC, weapon proficiencies and two-weapon fighting, but all of these are things covered in TSR made D&D books, both 1e and 2e, so I’m not sure why Bloch devotes space to them here. Things like a giant list of melee weapons and detailed descriptions of them are already in Player Handbooks, so they weren’t really needed here. It’s all stuff gamers practically know by heart. I would have excised this entire section for something else. It’s almost as if this section was written for people that have never played D&D before AT ALL. I think we all know when to roll Saving Throws, that a scimitar does 1d8 damage and so on. I did like the Unarmed Combat bits as well as the adjusting armour class based on what type of weapon was being used against it, but the chart for the latter is a little too extreme. The idea works just as well if you simplified it to bludgeoning, slashing and piercing rather than a break out for several dozen different weapons.
I do like the concept and follow through of the “Alternate Treasure Method” which breaks hordes down into things like jewelry, paintings and more specific tangibles that force parties to think about what they are going to do. After all, it’s quite hard to carry out 10,000 copper pieces from the 10th level of a dungeon. It’s also hard in a different way to abscond with a large painting that is as fragile as it is valuable. This section has a ton of tables that detail everything from breaking down sundries to various furs. It’s so in-depth it’s a bit frightening. I also really liked how the game brings up that selling treasures generally doesn’t net you the full value of something. Ever sold something to a pawn shop or reseller? You don’t get what you paid for it, even if it’s in perfect condition. The same holds for going to a fencer in a fantasy game. Again, another incredible eye for detail that a lot of manuals and DMS both overlook.
The next section is a wonderful bit on waterborne travel, combat and encounters. I’ve always loved water based adventures so this was a real treat to me. That section is then followed up by a large compilation of new magic spells. It’s almost thirty pages long and details new magic spells for the five new character classes. From there we move on to “The Game Environment” which basically gives DM advice about various locales and situations. A lot of it is common sense that anyone who has dabbled in D&D should know, but I enjoyed the wilderness and underwater bits. I was a bit thrown by having leprosy being a worse disease than mummy rot or lycanthropy and that the bloody thing is almost untreatable. I’m not sure the reasoning behind doing this as I’m sure someone, somewhere will take offense. My favorite part of this section was the bits on natural disasters. Concepts like exploding volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, tidal waves and tornados are, once again, common enough real world events that most DMs never think about and so it’s nice to have something for them.
The penultimate section of the book is devoted to magic items. Almost all of this has been seen before. Many of these items are ripped straight from other D&D books and the section on intelligent weapons will be equally familiar to most of you. I’d rather have seen these pages devoted to all new magic items rather than a retread of items that already exist in the D&D world and reworked tables for them.
The final section is “Monsters” and I have to admit, although I liked the optional rule of giant (and larger) creatures doing additional damage, I was little creeped out by eight and a half pages being devoted to the Judeo-Christian angels. Now I don’t have a problem with the concept of angels in role playing games at all. It’s that Bloch uses actual Judeo-Christian angels like Gabriel, Metatron, Michael and more in the game. I think this is going to definitely offend someone, somewhere. I think religion in fantasy role-playing games are best left to either dead Earth religions or completely made-up ones. When you start having Jesus fighting Takhisis or act out a battle where Shiva and Allah are killed by Vecna, you are just opening a door to stupidity that is very hard to close. This was just an all-around very bad idea that would have the potential of earning itself a “Dark Dungeons” style Chick tract if this was a more mainstream release. Besides this major faux pas, the other monsters are interesting, but nothing groundbreaking. Some new giants, some poisonous coral (?!), a few new dragons, a lot of pages devoted to gnomes and men and a narwhal. Odd selections overall, but worth flipping through.
In all, Adventures Dark and Deep: A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore is a fun read for any fan of old school AD&D and its retro-clone spin-offs. The mileage you will actually get from this book will vary greatly depending on who you game with and more importantly HOW you game. Even though I personally would only use a fraction of this book in an AD&D game that I’d run, it’s still a very well written book well worth the ten dollar asking price of the PDF. Even if you never use anything directly from A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore, there are still some interesting ideas worth reading about (or debating/discussing with your gaming friends), some wonderful art to look at and some well thought out ideas that most campaigns never even think of, but probably should. At the end of the day, I’m glad I helped in some very small way to bring A Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore into print and if you’re a fan of games like Lamentations of the Flame Princess, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord and any other homage/tribute/rip-off of first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, seriously consider picking up this first Adventures Dark and Deep offering. You won’t be disappointed and I’m really looking forward to seeing what comes next from BRW Games.