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Played It Review of The Hole in the Oak for D&D and Old-School Essentials

The Hole in the Oak arrived as a free adventure PDF from Exalted Funeral during the corona virus lockdown. Based on Old-School Essentials (combination of 1981’s Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Expert D&D), it is the perfect blend of modern adventure design and an old school dungeon crawl.

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Mike, a friend I met in high school, asked me to DM The Hole in the Oak. I ran this module via Google Hangouts using theater of the mind for a group of gamers I’ve known from childhood all the way up to meeting them in my current campaign. While no longer free, The Hole in the Oak is well worth getting for two reasons.

First, the modern design includes short concise descriptions. Not boxed text. Here is an example from the Faun’s Kitchen:
Cobblestones (round and smooth).

Glazed brick walls (iridescent black).

Earth roof (8’ high, dangling roots).

Lantern light (hung from a root).
Combined with the map, these descriptions are all I needed to quickly run the module. Combat descriptions are similar, and the map itself has the names of the monsters in the room they are encountered in which is another big help. The physical map is well illustrated with water features, some curving passages, and important notes written right on the rooms themselves.

Second, the old school feel comes from a sprawling dungeon with multiple entrances, rooms interconnecting in many different ways, and dungeon denizens divided into factions similar to D&D The Lost City. Weird beasts, ravenous ghouls, scheming fauns, and duplicitous gnomes all create both roleplaying and possible combat challenges. Who the PCs befriend and how those interactions play out change and modify the rest of the PCs’ exploration of the dungeon beneath the hole in the oak.

The dungeon itself is part of a bigger sprawling fantastical underground maze called the Mythic Underworld. The description given of the Mythic Underworld sums up what exploring the dungeon under the hole in the oak will be like succinctly:
The Mythic Underworld is not a place that “makes sense”. It is a realm of perplexing mystery and dream logic, where player characters can fight weird monsters, uncover lost treasures, and die in horrid (and hopefully entertaining!) ways.
Tim, my brother, played a fighter, Mit, who met his end fighting giant iguanas. His left fist had been mutated to twice its normal size and as the teeth of the lizard tore him open, Mit struck with his mighty fist and laid the lizard low even as he died. The promise in the description above translated directly to the virtual tabletop.

I did modify the iguana encounter. Four of the reptiles are included with multiple hit dice and multiple attacks. I dialed this back to less hit points and one attack for my adventure. However, an overwhelming encounter that requires retreat or clever problem solving is okay as well. I just didn’t want to try to run it electronically.

Adventurers start off knowing some rumors and can learn more about the dungeon from talking faces in the walls, ghostly wizard projections, and the NPCs themselves. Many of the NPCs like the fauns and gnomes are twisted and disturbing but before they reveal their true selves can be fonts of knowledge and even bastions of rest and recovery. Traversing the labyrinth twists and turns of the NPCs’ motivations and minds can be just as daunting as facing the physical challenges of the actual dungeon itself.

Suggested ways to expand beyond the adventure are covered as well. The underground river can lead to new caverns and new adventures either upriver or downriver past a waterfall where lizard men and giant reptiles roam. A stairway could be added to the crypt and lead to a deeper level, perhaps populated by undead monsters like reanimated serpents and mummified reptiles. I would likely throw a mummy in as well.

Sometimes making a complex character with a deep back story that is part of a larger group with a shared back story all exploring a huge world is a worthy and fun endeavor. Other times, it is equally enjoyable to spend five minutes rolling up a character, joining a misfit band, and exploring a weird and wild mythical underground world. The Hole in the Oak offers the second opportunity and delivers what is promised: a fantastic and dangerous world of weird characters and challenging encounters. If you are like us you will likely laugh a lot while enjoying a great dungeon crawl.
 
Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody



I like that method for descriptors a lot.

Yes, the whole thing sounds rather lovely but that particularly stuck out as a very useful approach for a pre-written adventure, because it means DMs can immediately locate the right information to get the vibe of an area correct. Many otherwise-good pre-gens have that information carefully squared away and easy to miss (or even in the wrong place entirely, or just forget about it).

Personally when I started writing my plots for adventures like movie-scripts, with ALL CAPS for all the character names whenever they appeared I found them a lot easier to read - and that was my own stuff. Lot of little tricks to be done there.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I like that method for descriptors a lot.
Agreed.

Not shown in the example, however, is whether the descriptors include a line for the room's size e.g.

Dimensions (40' x 20', roughly oval-shaped)

If not, it should, as there's nothing worse than having to stop mid-description and count squares* - particularly if they're 5' squares which can add up in a hurry - in order to tell the players how big the room or chamber is (we map everything). This becomes even more useful in cases where the map isn't detachable (the reviewer doesn't say whether it is or not) to save having to flip pages.

* - I've just been running Castle Amber, where even with 10' squares there's a lot of counting involved (50 x 130' rooms are not uncommon in that one); having the room dimensions repeated in the write-up would have saved me some headaches!
 

Libramarian

Adventurer
Cobblestones (round and smooth).

Glazed brick walls (iridescent black).

Earth roof (8’ high, dangling roots).

Lantern light (hung from a root).


Mmm...I don't like this at all.

I appreciate the emphasis in recent OSR adventures on usability, and the willingness to experiment with format, but I don't think this particular trend will last.

Player: I open the door.
DM: Earth roof
Player: Uh...?
DM: Why use lot word when few word do trick?
 

Mmm...I don't like this at all.

I appreciate the emphasis in recent OSR adventures on usability, and the willingness to experiment with format, but I don't think this particular trend will last.

Player: I open the door.
DM: Earth roof
Player: Uh...?
DM: Why use lot word when few word do trick?

I assume you are joking but I don't get the joke, sorry.
 

Libramarian

Adventurer
I assume you are joking but I don't get the joke, sorry.
The joke was imagining the DM actually treating the abbreviated descriptions as boxed text and reading it verbatim. I know they wouldn't, but I still don't like this style of room description. I think it's easier and faster to read complete sentences.
 

The joke was imagining the DM actually treating the abbreviated descriptions as boxed text and reading it verbatim. I know they wouldn't, but I still don't like this style of room description. I think it's easier and faster to read complete sentences.

The intent was never for a description to be read as a boxed text. DMs don't try to read monster stats in an adventure like boxed test. Why would they read room stats that way?

Boxed descriptions can't cover everything. Having a map, monster stats, and room stats in easy to read format makes GMing faster if you have to find a bit of data quickly.
 

Libramarian

Adventurer
I disagree that a description in an idiosyncratic shorthand like "Glazed brick walls (iridescent black)." is easier to read than the same information in a syntactically complete sentence, e.g. "The walls are made of brick and glazed an iridescent black." I'm quite certain the latter is both easier for the DM to understand and faster to relate to the players. Maybe not meaningfully so with this particular description, since it's quite simple. The difference would be more obvious in a more complex room with more things and relations between them.

The point of shorthand generally is to make writing faster, not reading. From that perspective I could see why this is becoming popular for module authors--maybe it's faster to crank out rooms in this style. It doesn't make things easier for the DM, though.
 

I disagree that a description in an idiosyncratic shorthand like "Glazed brick walls (iridescent black)." is easier to read than the same information in a syntactically complete sentence, e.g. "The walls are made of brick and glazed an iridescent black." I'm quite certain the latter is both easier for the DM to understand and faster to relate to the players. Maybe not meaningfully so with this particular description, since it's quite simple. The difference would be more obvious in a more complex room with more things and relations between them.

The point of shorthand generally is to make writing faster, not reading. From that perspective I could see why this is becoming popular for module authors--maybe it's faster to crank out rooms in this style. It doesn't make things easier for the DM, though.

Cool. Glad you know what you like. It did make it easier for me though and I am a DM too. The antinomy might leave one discombobulated.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I disagree that a description in an idiosyncratic shorthand like "Glazed brick walls (iridescent black)." is easier to read than the same information in a syntactically complete sentence, e.g. "The walls are made of brick and glazed an iridescent black." I'm quite certain the latter is both easier for the DM to understand and faster to relate to the players. Maybe not meaningfully so with this particular description, since it's quite simple. The difference would be more obvious in a more complex room with more things and relations between them.

The point of shorthand generally is to make writing faster, not reading. From that perspective I could see why this is becoming popular for module authors--maybe it's faster to crank out rooms in this style. It doesn't make things easier for the DM, though.
It does for me - it's faster to read five words than ten, and most of the time what I'm going to say to the players will be in my own words anyway.

Also, with point-form there's less chance of something relevant getting buried in a wall of text.
 

It does for me - it's faster to read five words than ten, and most of the time what I'm going to say to the players will be in my own words anyway.

Also, with point-form there's less chance of something relevant getting buried in a wall of text.

I agree with both your points. Info getting buried in a wall of text is my biggest hurdle now if I'm considering buying an RPG. Wall of text writing results in a no sale from me.
 

Libramarian

Adventurer
Here's a more complex room to consider. This very topic came up recently on the OSR D&D reddit. A poster there made an "OSR-style" edit of a room from The Temple of Elemental Evil. I strongly prefer the original here (although it is a bit wordy):
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I was going to try rewriting this in point-form but on reading closer, all I did was find a flaw in the write-up of the sort that annoy me to no end.

The trap (the slippery floor) is nearly useless unless the water is drained out somehow; as if the retaining wall is 4' high and the cistern floor is 4' below the room-floor level the water is at minimum 8' deep, meaning nobody's going to be standing on that floor anyway without first downing a Potion of Growth. :) Anyone reaching that floor will already be swimming, making the trap almost completely ineffectual.

For the trap to work as intended the cistern floor has to start at the same level as the room floor (thus the water there is only 4' deep), then slope away.
 


Libramarian

Adventurer
Then sure as Hell styay away from Arden Vul. Some of the single encounter descriptions in there run in excess of 4 pages!
Yeah! Arden Vul has amazing content but desperately needs another editing pass to improve at-the-table usability. The shorthand approach discussed here would NOT work, though. Genuinely complex situations require full sentences to describe clearly.

I would argue that traditional, ToEE-style boxed text would have been the right approach for Arden Vul. Good boxed text facilitates the appropriate rhythm for running a complex room: the DM has the first salvo of information ready to go when the players enter, they chew on it for a few minutes while the DM scans and absorbs the rest of the situation, then back-and-forth interactivity begins.

Without boxed text (or functional equivalent) the players enter and then wait for a few minutes while the DM synthesizes their initial description. Maybe several minutes in an Arden Vul-style room which might begin with a few hundred words of this-room-used-to-be backstory, which is obviously inappropriate to immediately narrate to the players.
 


Retreater

Legend
Is OSE a good system? I've read good reviews, but I don't know if it's for me. I never played BECMI (I started with AD&D 2e). The Rules Cyclopedia is a little verbose for me and harder to understand than I'd like (honestly, I'd just play 5e). Looking for something good for a theatre of the mind, rules lite game to play on video chat with my friends during quarantine. (And 5e is too complex for some of them.)
 

Is OSE a good system? I've read good reviews, but I don't know if it's for me. I never played BECMI (I started with AD&D 2e). The Rules Cyclopedia is a little verbose for me and harder to understand than I'd like (honestly, I'd just play 5e). Looking for something good for a theatre of the mind, rules lite game to play on video chat with my friends during quarantine. (And 5e is too complex for some of them.)

OSE is perfect for what you're looking for. I played it online no problem and it is easier than the RC.
OSR - Played It Review of Old-School Essentials Using D&D ‘s The Lost City
 

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