Ruins of the Undercity (Review)
What do you need to know?
Ruins of the Undercity (RotU) is a random dungeon generator for playing a dungeon crawl without a GM. You can play solo or with a group. It is written with Labyrinth Lord (LL) in mind and is thus compatible with most D&D retroclones/OSR products of the Basic/Expert vein. RotU comes with an assumed setting of Cryptopolis, a city which has an arabian flair.
Deep beneath the streets of the City-State of Cryptopolis, sanctuary of the lich-thieves and abode of the Red Goddess, sewers and ancient ruins mingle together into a labyrinth of horrors and wonders. 1
What is it about?
The game features some blurb about the city Cryptopolis, a rotten metropolis on desert sands with old ruins underneath. This is just a short section of one page and not a fully fleshed out setting. Nonetheless, it’s evocative and will get your creative juices running.
So, how does this adventure creator work?
First off, you need to create a party of adventurers with the rule set you prefer. As the book is written with references to Labyrinth Lord this would be an obvious choice. You can also use other systems but they might need some converting. For instance, the tables for monsters list the entries for LL. In my playtest I used the minimalist 1974 Style by Stan Shin with some houserules from Sine Nomine’s Scarlet Heroes (aff). Next, the Average Level of your party is calculated. This mechanic helps scaling the challenge level accordingly. The formula was not explained that well, I had to read it several times to understand it. In my playtest I used two level 1 characters who would have had a very hard time if I hadn’t implemented the more heroic mechanisms of Scarlet Heroes. While it fits the old school thought it can be frustrating to have to fight against 13 kobolds or more with two starter characters. Finally, you need to determine Routines. This is a worksheet which defines the default mode of your marching order, night watch or scouting order. It is a fall back to decide which character gets attacked/runs into a trap. I like that, it’s a clever idea. The generator has two modes: city adventures and underworld adventures. In the city you can buy equipment, hire henchmen, sell loot and level up. This takes time and there is a 1 in 6 chance that a special event/encounter happens. The section about the city also contains equipment lists so you can see what’s available in Cryptopolis. I especially like the reaction tables for selling loot. The real adventures lies in the dungeoncrawling part. You need some graph paper to roll up your dungeon. There are six starting areas available. The rest of the chapter is filled with explanations on how to roll up the areas and lots of tables. Some rules are hard to spot as they are sprinkled throughout the text. For instance, I first ignored some rules about exits because I overlooked them. To give you an impressions about the content, here is an excerpt of the tables available:
- door type
- door location
- space behind the door
- illumination corridor
- type corridor features […]
- chamber room structure […]
- type treasure container […]
- traps magic effects […]
- monster tables
So you’re rolling a lot while playing this game. Some tables use a D20, some a D100. The monster encounters are scaled to your level with the Average Level value. As level 1 characters you mostly only have to deal with level 1 monsters although there can be a lot of them (10 kobolds in a 10"x10" room with one exit!). The game concludes with some vague advice on how to spin a campaign out of your dungeon crawl and an appendix with character quirks and background.
The PDF weighs in at 73 pages total (includes cover and OGL). It is completely black & white except the cover. There are some sparse illustrations which look pretty nice. The tables are generally good to read. Unfortunately, the author chose one font called Gothic Hijinx to highlight some rules and references and this font is a) butt ugly b) very hard to read and c) doesn’t really fit a classic medieval fantasy/sword&sorcery dungeon crawl. The PDF has no electronic bookmarks which is a big drawback for this kind of product.
This is a fun dungeon romp. I really liked sketching out the dungeon as I go. It’s a very good solo game because you still have that sense of excitement as you don’t know what will come next. RotU is a very straight dungeon crawl and works very well within that constraint.
You need to roll a lot. Some tables give fluff but after rolling the 100th time on the illumination table to get “no illumination” (70 % chance) I just gave up on rolling for that. Some tables are very repetitive or redundant. The promise of “an infinitive adventure generator with a twist” 2 is a bit misleading. RotU is not an universal adventure creator with lots of plots but a simple dungeon generator. The monster tables explicitly refer to LL monsters which either makes the use of LL as a rule set mandatory or a lot of flipping around in your prefered rule set to find the appropriate monster or the need for converting stuff on the fly. Seasoned old school players won’t have a problem with that. The Routines worksheet should be a separate download especially if you buy the print version.
As above mentioned, the font choice is pretty annoying to me. Furthermore, the product could be organized better. It mixes rules explanations and tables so you constantly need to turn pages. The PDF is not a good fit for that and it doesn’t have electronic bookmarks. It would have been better to separate rules explanations and tables so you’ll have the tables at one place. The scattered organization also makes it hard to find some rules.
I have mixed feelings about this product. On the one hand I had fun with drawing out the dungeon, fighting monsters and finding traps and treasures. On the other hand the tables were a bit monotonous which diminished the joy. The navigation of the PDF with no bookmarks and a disorganized content was a hassle. I still think I got my money’s worth for five bucks. However, RotU has some irritating flaws which doesn’t make it a must-buy.