by Gabor Lux
“The treasure-filled burial mound of an ancient warlord! The news spread like wildfire along the coast, right after reports of raids by hyena-men hungering for human flesh. But if the treasures have rested so long underground, what manner of traps, guardians and enigmas might protect them? Who will be the one to challenge the infernal cunning of a long-dead mind? (Not to mention the hyena-men…) The labyrinth of Strabonus has already claimed many lives, and it will take a man of great cunning to unveil its long-kept secrets.”
Description and contents: Strabonus was conceived for our second Wilderlands adventure series, the Wormshead Peninsula campaign (City State map, hex 4006), and was unfortunately the last hooray for my old group early 2004: after two sessions spent exploring the tomb, multiple participants moved away (two as far as Great Britain) or got overwhelmed by real life. As a relatively small but very compactly designed scenario, Strabonus involves demanding mapping, combat and puzzle-solving challenges in a six-level dungeon, with very generous rewards for those who brave it to the end.
Design notes: Strabonus is a good practical primer for the ideas on dungeon mapping I was slowly developing around the time of the campaign. The paths in the burial mound form interlocking, level-spanning circular routes with several stairways connecting them to form a gridlike structure that always presents relatively little complication at a specific point, but becomes devious through the layered complexity of individual navigation challenges.
The entrance segment introduces very dangerous combat situations with the gnoll inhabitants of the upper levels, who are tough and organised enough to surround and destroy an overconfident group. As humanoid opponents, gnolls are an ideal challenge for characters entering the mid-level range: their 2 HD makes dropping them with one melee attack uncertain, and they do enough damage with halberds and javelins to be dangerous in a prolonged combat situation. (They also lack the “been there, seen that” factor of orcs and goblins.)
After dealing with the gnolls, the scenario moves on to puzzles, interspersed with the odd undead encounter. In retrospective, the puzzles in Strabonus are some of the better ones I have written, which is pretty good considering I always have an easier time thinking of descriptive detail, combat situations and layout when designing dungeons. They are perhaps optimal in their balance between danger and rewards (the final encounter expected – that’s a rather unfair one), while the various companions of the tomb’s builder add a nice touch of variety, including an interesting detour (Tagon the Thick, whose ditty is a thing worth being proud of – both Hungarian and English versions have that shameless, smirking attitude which really establishes a personality only mentioned in passing).
I think what makes Strabonus work really well are graduality and the reuse of space: the nature of challenges changes as the characters explore further, and previous elements which seemed to be simple colour gain a new meaning and a reason for revisiting them. It would be an interesting challenge to try creating an even more complex module without resorting to the annoying key >> obstacle >> key >> obstacle pattern of progression. A module in that mould would be equal to a true sandbox from the players’ perspective without really being one.
Where to get it:
Strabonus — Download (1.5 MB PDF)
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