Tuesday, 9 May 2017

[REVIEW] Death in Reik Caverns

[REVIEW] Death in Reik Caverns
by Cactus Games Staff
Published by Cactus Games

Few gaming products I have read have been more deeply rooted in a certain time and place than this adventure module. Death in Reik Caverns was run as a tournament scenario at GEN CON 92’ for 7th to 11th level characters, and it is an interesting time capsule of the late 1st edition – early 2nd edition AD&D era. This was not the best time of adventure design; poorly playtested, overwritten and sometimes plainly non-functional modules ruled the official AD&D® landscape, while fan materials were neither as numerous, nor as interesting as a decade before. Much of the good practice of the 1st edition classics was gone. Death in the Reik Caverns is better than most of its official or home-made peers because it follows in the footsteps of good modules, but it can’t escape the typical flaws of its time.

Pastel Memories
The first thing about this module is the anonymity of its creators. It is published by Cactus Games, and credited to the Cactus Games Staff. Neither the author nor the cartographer or the illustrator – whose grotesque, sometimes bloody images are pretty funny – nor any other contributors are named despite the hefty 60-page size and the decent production values. There isn’t even a copyright notice. Do they still think TSR is out to sue them? Proudly identifying Death in Reik Caverns as a “1st Ed. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons / OGL” module, and setting it in the World of “Darkhawk” is a bit like tempting fate, but frankly, nobody cares anymore, and giving credit is the right thing to do. Also, am I the only one who immediately associates the title with WFRP's Death on the Reik?

The setup is not bad. Evil humanoids have been harassing the little market town of Breehaven, and although they have been beaten back so far, a recent change in leadership and organisation has caused them to become more dangerous and aggressive. This is pretty much Against the Giants, except there is a convenient time limit involved because the monsters have taken the whole village militia prisoner, and they are currently preparing to strike Breehaven and wipe it off the face of the Oerth. That’s nice: it establishes the stakes, gives the bad guys a plan, and tells the players to get their stuff together or there will be consequences.

Here is another straight out admirable thing about Death in the Reik Caverns: it is not afraid to be ambitious. It is a properly large, properly complex one-level dungeon with 85 keyed areas and a two-page map. It has a neat structure where there is an element of progression (gaining access to new areas via a few chokepoints) but also an expansive element of exploration. The caverns have multiple sub-sections, as well as a central underground lair formerly inhabited by a 30th level Wizard, and now occupied by the main baddies and their humanoid army. Now this is a dungeon. Having seen too many lair-sized efforts from old-schoolers with the usual fifteen-odd rooms, it is nice to see someone think a little bigger. This is not campaign-length, just large enough to allow for some proper exploration, and maybe getting lost once or twice in a while.

Day: ruined
The content of the dungeon is regrettably less interesting. There is functional but blandish boxed text that assumes too much (“Dozens of arrows start flying in your direction before you have a chance to do anything.”, “It all happens before you have time to react.”), and occasionally assumes the party consists of idiots (there is a long description of a kitchen followed by “This room is no doubt a kitchen.”, and a “Stone Golem Storage Room” where the text ends with “To your surprise, it comes to life and attacks.” – no shit, Gandalf). It is much less worse than late TSR boxed text that goes on and on for pages, but it is pretty bad. The main encounter entries also have a smirking thing going about red herrings and wild goose chases – it used to be funny to read how the players will think this or that empty room contains secret doors or valuables, but it got old many encounters and way more than 25 years ago. I am not entirely impressed by the way the module interprets the AD&D rules – I get the impression of a GM who is bending them in his own favour to an unfair degree with too many gotchas (mainly to make low-level monsters and traps more deadly for a high-level group), and applying them inconsistently to boot (some spiked pits work different than the others). These issues can be fixed.

The encounters are mostly a long succession of monster outposts, lairs (you can slaughter various kinds of humanoid women and children if you like), store rooms, traps and standard cabinet contents / dungeon dressing stuff. There is mundane trash and occasionally magical trash. Sometimes the combat encounters are memorable and clever, and if you like a lot of high-level tactical combat with hordes of dug-in enemies, this could be your module. If we evaluate it as a meat-grinder, it is a fairly decent one, although relatively little is made of the fact that this is a monster military waiting for the call to action. While the garrison in Reik Caverns is at full readiness (the monsters are all prepared and just a little too hair-trigger perfect in jumping to action as soon as the characters come close), there is no textual reference to lines of communication, contingency plans or working together. The humanoid groups just seem to await the time they are encountered, and don’t work as a cohesive group, or even as a grou with hidden enmities. (Although if they worked together, it would probably be a massacre.)

What is missing is the spirit of whimsy and magic which transformed the classic deathfests like Against the Giants (which, again, this is basically an homage to) or Keep on the Borderlands into something more than a combat scenario. There is none of the crazy mushroom forests, magic pools and elder god shrines with mauve pillars out of a different dimension that told you you were in a fantastic place, and hinted of a larger world beyond the dungeon. The Reik Caverns are just there. You explore this cavern system, but don’t actually discover anything worth discovering. It is almost all rationalised, mundane stuff, and when it is magical, it is over-explained magical realism – here is a room where the wizard received his visitors, here is where he left a wall of force, etc. No surprises, no memorable imagery: the best part is the place where the wizard has a floor of hexagonal tiles depicting the World of Darkhawk in minute detail, but that’s one room in a long, long series of dug-in monsters and traps.

To sum up, Death in the Reik Caverns does a bunch of things right, but can’t keep up the original good impression. In many ways, it is a typical 2nd edition AD&D dungeon with all the problems of 2nd edition era design. It was created in a period when the craft of adventure writing was at its nadir, and if it was evaluated in its original context, it would stand up pretty well. From the vantage point of a more fortunate age, its flaws are too apparent, and it offers too little to compensate.

Rating: ** / *****
Wait... How the fuck did I get here?!


  1. Thanks for the review, Melan. I'll admit that I'd never heard of this module, and I'm now curious how many more products such as this were released during this time period. Looks like I'm going to be doing some digging!

    1. It probably existed as a convention special, if that - nobody on Acaeum has discussed it. These small-press modules are really interesting, because they show how people played their games, and how they thought about AD&D.