21 Sep

Review: Frank Mentzer’s Lich Dungeon Level 1

Frank Mentzer's Lich DungeonThe OSR movement has been quietly swelling, to the point where it’s less and less quiet, really. OSR, or Old School Roleplaying (or Revival, or Renaissance, depending on who you ask) delves into the earliest dungeons and their straightforward philosophy of slay the monsters, pillage the loot, abide by the rules only as necessary, but have as much absurd fun as possible. For those who picked up and cast their dice in the 70’s, there’s nothing new about this mindset. But gamers who believe in the bipartisan Pathfinder versus 4E split as the foundation of gaming might be surprised by what they find in the origin story of “their” game and Frank Mentzer’s role.

Frank Mentzer’s Lich Dungeon embraces the very core principles of the OSR dungeon delve. It presents the expansive first level of a mega-dungeon that’s feel is admittedly “what we first discovered back in the 1970s.” There is as often no reason behind certain encounters as there is, but that was (and remains, for some) the lure. If the party simply wants to attack the room of bugbears and loot them, it’s easily done. But if they want to talk to the bugbears about the nature of the dungeon, then the DM is free to improvise and, likely, spin a strange but engaging off-the-cuff side story.

This isn’t to say there is no rhyme or reason to the adventure. In fact, many of the encounters are seeded with hooks that players might pursue or the DM might emphasize. There are plenty of details available to aid the DM as well. Need a chart that breaks down the strength and weight of the materials used in the dungeon’s construction? It’s in there. And although this might seem like an absurd table to add to a (non-OSR) adventure, its presence actually encourages creative use. (Suddenly it seems like a great idea for an ogre to break a door from its hinges and pin a hapless wizard to the floor with it!)

Inside Frank Mentzer’s Lich Dungeon

The mechanics presented throughout the adventure are generic modifiers set in relation to an “average human,” making it as system neutral as possible without forgoing stats entirely. There are two approaches here: cook up stats on the fly, or simply superimpose like creatures from whatever game system you are using. My initial read-through found the expressions a little distracting, but I adjusted quickly and before long the distraction faded.

The layout is clean, and the material is organized well, crucial to such a sprawling, maze-like map. Some material is deliberately repeated (in similar areas), but the reduction in page-flipping is worth it. (Although, having reviewed the PDF version of Lich Dungeon, I’ll add that the lack of bookmarks was a little bothersome, but not overwhelmingly so.) The artwork is evocative of the past, as are the maps, and they are neither overdone nor sloppy.

In the oldest tradition of roleplaying games, much is left to the discretion of the DM to adjust to the play style of his group. Mentzer presents options, but invites you to ignore or expand upon them, at times directly addressing the reader. For example, a series of mathematical riddles has the potential to engage one group of players but prove tedious to another. They are included in the text, but whether they are included in the adventure is up to the DM. There are even a couple of locations intended to be stocked and defined by the DM (that made me think of B1, by the way).

OSR Adventure, History Book

He built that. Among other things.

Lich Dungeon contains more than one nod to the past and has moments that read like annotated notes from a personal campaign and, based on the author’s preface, you find that such is the case. But it’s Frank Mentzer’s campaign, so fans of the history of RPG’s might take just a little more from the experience. Personally, I’m fascinated by the history of our hobby, and there is as much entertainment value in that aspect, however nostalgic it might be, as there is in having an old school delve to run.

Overall, I would say that fans of the OSR can take a great deal away from Lich Dungeon, but should go into it knowing that they will need to do some preparation to bring it in line with their edition or system of choice. A good DM can probably improvise quite well “in the moment” based on what is provided and there is bestiary summary at the end of the adventure to familiarize yourself. I’ll add that fans of the new school who are students of gaming history might also take some broad lessons from this adventure in terms of just how much improvisation resulted from the design decisions of the time, but that approach certainly is not for everyone.

Frank Mentzer’s Lich Dungeon is a product of Eldritch Enterprises and can be purchased from DriveThruRPG here.

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