The Dragon’s Secret is a 52-page adventure written for the Swords & Wizardry system by Jennell Jaquays, one of the great game designers who started in the early days of role-playing games. Swords & Wizardry is a variant of the original D&D rules published by Frog God Games, and as such, I’ve chosen to tag this review with the Original D&D tag. Conversion to 5E statistics requires some work by the Dungeon Master; some monsters are in the 5E Monster Manual, but others don’t exist in 5E lore at present, and the DM must create those.
Jaquays created the original dungeon was in the 70s during the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. The adventure shows a portion of her original notes for the dungeon; they are not dissimilar to those in my short dungeon from last week, by which I mean they’re short and undetailed. This presentation expands that significantly. Each encounter breaks down its elements into Backstory, Lore, Secrets, Curios, Treasure, Denizens and Tactics/Roleplay sections. The descriptions of these sections are brief but effective. This format makes the adventure very readable and easy to run.
The adventure features a wilderness section and a dungeon, with the dungeon being the main attraction. The backstory for the dungeon is that it was once a cathedral built to honour a gold dragon and that dragon’s lair. Little features like the “dragon” really being a greedy rogue polymorphed by her partner to bilk the locals add to the amusement of the backstory. The dragon is long dead, but her treasure remains. The ruins of the cathedral feature a host of unsavoury personages and monsters, some of which are wanted by the law. The adventure provides four reasons for the players to enter the dungeon. I’m very glad to say that they’re not all the same reason phrased differently; you can choose one that suits your players. And yes, one is to find the dragon’s hoard.
While the adventure doesn’t have a wilderness map, it does have random encounters that can occur around the cathedral. Each has a paragraph describing why the monsters are here; some are linked to the dungeon, others are just wilderness predators. The most notable encounter is with the “fowl folk adventurers” – anthropomorphic bird creatures. I first encountered “duck” adventurers in the RuneQuest RPG, for which Jaquays wrote several significant products, but the range of birdfolk is expanded here with a goose and a crow also present. The capsule descriptions of their personalities – only a paragraph each – are brilliantly done; giving enough information to role-play without overwhelming the DM with information. For instance:
Dor of Duckmarsh: He’s the band’s leader and a bit of jerk towards others, despite working well as a team. He is often condescending towards non-ducks. No one’s ready to stick a shiv in him over it… yet, but none of the others consider him a friend.
The dungeon consists of three main levels with a total of 34 areas. There is a wide variety of encounter; traps, tricks, monsters and puzzles. The traps are varied and occasionally quite deadly. There are many innovative uses of illusions; in one room, the walls appear to move towards the characters, but if the characters move to the centre of the room to evade them, they’ll fall through an illusionary floor into a pit trap! Which then hides a second pit trap – and there are zombies as well!
This feature of the original dungeons – areas with unusual tricks to challenge and entertain the players – is very strong in this adventure. Does it make perfect sense? Not really – but I’m a fan of the old funhouse dungeons such as White Plume Mountain, and this adventure amuses me greatly. Jaquays describes her earliest dungeons as being “monster hotels”, which gained more interesting areas during development and play – and this is based on a very early adventure. Jaquays notes it was possibly written in 1976 or before! The work of the mature game-designer is evident in this presentation.
The writing is full of humour. Asides such as “What’s worse than zombies and spiders? Zombie spiders!!” bring a smile to my face. There are not a lot of opportunities for role-playing with denizens of the dungeon, but there are few rogues who have sought shelter there that give the players a chance to converse with someone other than themselves.
The maps and artwork are rendered attractively in black and white. As noted, the writing is of high quality, although a few minor editing errors have sneaked into the text: a misplaced apostrophe here, a missing word there. Occasionally, the layout stumbles, with a full-page textbox intruding between the start and end of a paragraph, or some art otherwise breaking the flow.
The product ends with a couple of new player character races for Swords & Wizardry – fowl folk and aardvarks – and a small selection of new monsters. It also includes a handout for one of the major puzzles.
Sidebars in the text describe a few homebrew rules. I note that one is the “deadly” rules for falling damage, which makes a 10-foot fall inflict 1d6 damage, a 20-foot fall inflict 3d6 damage, and so on (6d6, 10d6, 15d6, etc.) This method of dealing falling damage was intended to be used in early D&D but was removed during editing – causing much puzzlement to players when reading the thief-acrobat in Unearthed Arcana, which assumed that the rule was in the Players Handbook!
The adventure is available in both print and pdf from DriveThruRPG. Overall, The Dragon’s Secret is an entertaining dungeon, with many features to challenge players. Highly recommended!