Monday, 28 November 2016

Review: Underport: Abyssal Descent

Reading Crimhthan The Great's OD&D Blog reminded me I've bought a module called Underport: Abyssal Descent many months ago. Released by Direbane Publishing this adventure promises to be a vintage mega dungeon from the halcyon days of the hobby. It focuses on action, and does not give a shit about encounter balance. Sounds good! The dungeon was written for the Knights of the All Mind ruleset, which seems like an unholy mix of 3e and OD&D. It's unlikely anyone ever used this system other than its author. Thankfully it's easy to convert the stats to any editions of D&D.

Opening the book will immediately invoke the inimitable old-school feel thanks to a layout so bad, it makes even the LBBs look good. Single paragraph, shitty fonts, ugly stat blocks... I'm not sure if it's intentional, but well done! The foreword confirms that the adventure will be a huge mess, with changing styles and a wide variety of influences including Judges Guild, Arduin, and puberty (unless you've forgot about those years, the latter means violence, sex, drugs). We also learn important information like the average heights of tunnels, chambers, caverns, and why didn't the author include wandering monster charts: if the PCs make noise just pull the monsters from the nearest room, or throw them a gelatinous cube. That's a simple and elegant solution I was thinking about using too.

The adventure is 88 pages long, with a seperate 18 pages long file for the maps. The dungeon has more than a dozen levels, big and small ones alike. They are scans of old drawings that were never cleaned, full of stains and smudges. Until you get familiar with them it can take some effort to find out what's going on, and where the different labels are. Once you can see through the Chaos you will find a real gold mine! The maps are full of exciting names, like Tita Luigi Bomba's Castle Hold, Battle Caves, Prime Material Gate To Abyss. Names like these are a perfect way to pique my curiosity in no time. They sound interesting! I want to check them out! I want to know what's going on there! To make things even more olde school, there is a cross section of the levels too.

Not only there are many levels, but they are varied too. The module starts in an underground pirate hideout, then continues to the depths through a mining complex, a crossdresser overlord's castle, the battle caves, a monk's hold in a mushroom forest, a "multi-dimensional demiplane Hellscape prison", and other weird places until the aforementioned gate is reached at the bottom of the Eternal Pit.

The encounters are just as colorful as the environment. The adventurers can meet both classic and unique monsters during their delve. What I really love about them is that these creatures aren't just put in a room to be slaughtered: the book is full of scenes where something is actually happening! A bar with drinking skeletons! Drunken pirates causing fire! Hobgoblins planning a rebellion against their king! Fire giants having sex! An insectoid creature disguised as a crying little girl trying to lure victims to their doom! I could go on all day about all the amazing happenings of this dungeon.

The writing is short, rough, and goddamn evocative in the beggining. The descriptions could've been even more effective with more powerful choice of words, but they are still miles better than your average dungeon room read aloud text that gets bogged down by unnecessary details. It's a pity the style changes dramatically midway. The encounters become more static, the descriptions longer, the levels less interesting. Sometimes I felt the author being tired, maybe even a bit burnt out. This doesn't mean of course that the lower levels are rubbish, but they aren't as good as the upper ones.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this product to anyone interested in megadungeons and early homebrew adventures. It's my favorite historical artifact besides the Rythlondar chronicles. I wonder if the Necropolis of Chaos, a sequel promised at the end of the book will be released too one day.

Tl;dr: Underport is an authentic old-school megadungeon with exemplary upper levels, and a bit weaker lower levels. You can buy it HERE.

2 comments:

  1. I heartily concur! This is one of my favourite purchases of the year, filled with authentic, evocative areas and encounters. It isn't afraid to be crazy, but it is the right kind of crazy, even if it is also a mess.

    And yes, it does lose something midway. I know that feeling perfectly well - this is the Big Dungeon that's planned out but never properly finished after the first few levels. Maybe the characters never got any further or the GM ran out of ideas. Who knows? Rappan Athuk? Different style, same deal. The rest is reconstruction, probably based on a very loose monster + treasure key, and it is not quite the same. Which, I think, just makes it more authentic.

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    1. Indeed, losing steam midway is something that most of us experienced, which makes the adventure even more real and familiar for us. I wonder what the campaign looked like. Alas Underport doesn't have journals and reports like Rythlondar.

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