RPG Review: Slave Pits of the Undercity

Dungeon Module A1, Slave Pits of the Undercity, is one of the classics of the 1st edition of AD&D. It was later collected into the "supermodule" Scourge of the Slave Lords. A sequel appeared very late in the 2nd edition of AD&D with the Wizards of the Coast-published adventure Slavers.

I got a lot of mileage out of this series. I know I DM-ed Slave Pits of the Undercity at least three times, possibly more. One of the more memorable times was in its collected version. Just my brother and I gamed our way through it, making liberal use of the pregenerated PCs in the adventure, with Karraway the cleric and Blodgett the halfling thief playing major roles in later adventures (and the poor ranger Freda turned to stone for a basilisk and stuffed into a portable hole for later restoration but hence forgotten and rediscovered years later during an inventory - "this fascinating statue I refer to as 'terrified ranger'"...

I recently made the discovery that several of the old TSR adventures were small campaign settings unto themselves - adventures like The Secret of Bone Hill, Keep on the Borderlands, and Isle of Dread all have a main dungeon, one or more "bases" for the PCs, and lots of side encounters. Flipping through my newly acquired copy from Noble Knight Games (my original is practically in tatters) I see that Slave Pits of the Undecity lacks that characteristic. That is not surprising as the adventure was originally intended for tournament play and was adapted into a full-fledged adventure.

Let's talk a bit about the background behind the adventure before we dive much deeper. Defaulting to the World of Greyhawk setting but easily portable it concerns the adventurers being dispatched by lords of coastal towns who have repeatedly been ravaged by pirates and slavers. The lords have determined that the slavers are operating out of the city of Highport, once a human town that fell to humanoids. The adventure starts off with the PCs having determined the base of operations is a ruined temple compound within Highport.

Interestingly Scourge of the Slave Lords (which I will likely give its own review) has the characters establish their own base of operations in Highport and has them actually seek out the location of the slavers. Though the supermodule has some railroading in its setup phase, this is one change that I think was very well done.

The adventures in this series have the characters determining the slavers in Highport are part of a larger network, with the 2nd adventure dealing with a major "processing station" for slaves and the 3rd and 4th adventures dealing with the headquarters of the Slave Lords. Unfortunately the 3rd adventure also ends with one of the most blatant instances of railroading ever, though the DM is not required to use it, though failing to do so will may make the 3rd adventure the climax of the series.

In any case, Slave Pits of the Undercity is therefore almost solely a dungeon-crawl, with two levels, a temple complex on the ground floor and an underground complex. It is a dungeon I was rather fond of however - the temple level has lots of ruined rooms, treacherous floors, undead critters, basilisks (which like petrifying rangers apparently...), orc guards who man a funky flamethrower.

The underground complex was always a rather memorable experience in the times I have played it. It is made up of multiple "terrains" and ant-like humaoids known as aspis, one of two monsters introduced in this adventure. The dungeon consists of a dirt-dug complex inhabited by giant ants and the aspis, a sewer complex, and finally the main slaver complex. The titular "slavepits" appear near the end of the adventure, with an encounter forcing the characters to cross over narrow ledges over cages, battling their way past aspis guards - with an aspis in a nearby control booth who will seal the characters in the cages should they fall into them.

The final encounter, against a minor slave lord, is a little anticlimactic in my experience, after battling past the slavepits. It includes a record of the slavers' activities and a map for a slave caravan, leading to the next adventure, Secret of the Slavers' Stockade.

Despite my quibbles about the adventure lacking some of the setting information that other early D&D adventures had, it does make for a fun and challenging dungeon. Unlike a lot of other early adventures however it does not really make the assumption that the characters are pursuing their own agenda and are after treasure, rather it assumes that the adventurers are motivated to infiltrate the slavers' base of operations in Highport. This isn't an insurmountable obstacle, though were I to wish to run this adventure in a more "sandbox"-type environment, I'd probably pepper the encounters leading up to it with some reason for the adventurers to want to go to this lost temple and make the discovery it is also being used by the Slavers. It is even possible they would want to contact the local lords in hopes of getting aid from them in return for infiltrating the base. I wonder if this is an adventure that could be snuck into Dwellers of the Forbidden City - it seems like with some modification it could be done.

Overall this is an adventure worth hunting down or reusing if you are confident that your players would go for the plot as written or if you are comfortable modifying. It is also a useful adventure for inspiration and as a historical artifact. For those playing 3.x/Pathfinder or 4e versions of the rules it is probably one of the more useful adventures to mine - it has a strong emphasis on memorable encounter areas that would make for interesting encounter areas, though the encounters would need to be carefully balanced for those rules. (Grumpy Old Man voice activation... "Back in my day we didn't have balanced encounters. If we were first level and a wandering frost giant came along we got stomped on and peeled off its boot. And we liked it. We loved it...")

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