Is Autarch, the guys behind one of the better OSR megadungeons (Dwimmermount) and the Adventurer, Conqueror, King system, recently released the digital version of their highly successful Kickstarter, Secrets of the Nethercity. Unavailable on the open market at this time, it’s wide release is one to watch for if you have any interest in organically driven D&D campaigns.
Before we dig too deep into what this dungeon does right, let me state outright that if my descriptions seem a bit vague, that deliberate choice stems from a desire not to ruin the secrets for DMs or players. Also, due to the recent release and mid-level challenges, it will be some time before you can expect a proper post-play review.
Yes, we are taking a broad definition of “wargame” in order to include this review the House Blog on a Wargame Wednesday. Guilty as charged.
This sprawling dungeon details the lost tombs and catacombs of the vile faith of a long since fallen civilization. A mostly static dungeon when the players first arrive, as their characters explore deeper and deeper and begin unlocking more and more secrets, they will inevitably set things in motion among the denizens. Breaking seals, triggering traps, and disturbing the residents will result in changes to this setting. Factions will arise, allegiances made, and before too many delves pass the PCs may find themselves in the midst of a war for the Nethercity.
In one of the more interesting design choices, Autarch does not burden DMs with a linear plot or lock NPCs into specific roles and goals. Instead, he provides a short list of motivations for each of the major dungeon players, to be determined as they are encountered, perhaps even randomly. This does two things for the better. For one, it allows each play-through to be nearly unique. For another, it allows the DM to slowly build the overall conflict within the dungeon, and only gradually increase the complexity of the situation.
This is no modern adventure. It eschews the current big publisher fixation on stories meant to be read first and only perhaps played as an afterthought and then only as a pre-scripted linear series of events. Secrets is meant to be read, but only in service to play at the table. Like any travel guidebook, it is a location description with maps added. Merely reading it, one is struck by the repetitiveness of the exercise. One is also struck by the great lengths to which the writers and editors went to assist DMs. The layout is superb, with important bits highlighted and cross references galore.
The place as written is heavily tied tight to Autarch’s in-house setting, with alien elder gods worshipped by degenerate ancients in a pseudo Roman/Egyptian era populated by Old and Fallen Elvish types. That said, it should be little work to adapt it to any setting that has a fallen civilization and one giant ruined city. Atlantis, Numenor, or even one of Dragonlance’s pre-Cataclysm cities would work just as well as the written setting, and Autarch provides some assistance and suggestions along that line. A helpful touch for less experienced DMs and of some use even for the grognards.
The full color art is a nice touch, with a good mix between ‘action shots’ and images meant to be shown to the players to expedite play. Michael Syrigos’ work is a bit rough around the edges, which is a plus in my book. The photo-realistic works common in today’s rulebooks works against imagination by hand holding the reader. Syrigos’ work conveys setting and mood with enough detail to build upon, but uses enough of an impressionistic touch to open the doors of imagination for the reader. He leaves just enough gaps in his work to lend specifics, while still inspiring a unique vision for every player.
The one complaint this old grognard has is that the sprawling map is too cluttered with stuff. This is a play preference, but it feels a little crowded. The labyrinthine nature of the place – the map offers plentiful intersections, choke points, and routes from one point to another – liberates players to probe and explore and find ways around trouble. It’s just not enough. When every room contains something to maim, mail, or kill the characters, it turns the exploration into a slogging series of jumping hurdles. Blank space open up options, allow.for more scouting and strategic movement, and give players a chance to get out ahead of the odds. A small thing, but worth noting.
The result is a polished and ultimately usable product, suitable for any D&D edition or clone. It’s that one product that has enough meat on its bones to keep your table busy for months on end, but with enough structure to save your DM a lot of effort.