Thursday, January 25, 2024

Let's Talk Adventures: Highfell

 I am going to experiment with a slightly more conversational tone to discuss some of the big modules out there in the OSR and beyond, rather than giving them the lengthy, structured approach I give to TTRPGs here. Partially in the name of doing more with this blog, and partially because I feel the value you get from a module depends very much on what you intend to do with it, and partially because I am, as always, here to share the things I find awesome. And you all don't always want to read 20 paragraphs.

So I am going to start this experiment with Highfell: The Drifting Dungeon.

Highfell: The Drifting Dungeon

Author: Greg Gillespie
Publisher: OSR Publishing
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG,
System: OSR Compatible

Greg Gillespie is probab;ly one of those designers who doesn't need much by way of introduction. He has a pretty good reputation in the OSR community for his massive and complex modules.

Every couple of years Greg Gillespie releases aa new module that he has been hammering away at, often daily for years. His first one, Barrowmaze, is legendary: a sprawling labyrinth of barrows in a haunted valley that is peopled by undead, strange magical monstrosities, and terrible curses. As the PCs explore this on-floor labyrinth they will find that trditional "levels" are replaced by zones that are inreasingly deadly as you push further away from the nearby town. Sattered runestones introduce a new kind of magic, and there is a history of the place that can be learned by clues.

Highfell: the Drifting Dungeon, along with Dwarrowdeep are two follow-up megadungeons. They are offered in both OSR and D&D5e versions. with the OSR versions being mostly structured along the conventions of AD&D / OSRIC, meaning you will see relatively middling stats for NPCs, high stats for the pre-gen PCs, and two-part alignments, but as always, OSR is OSR, you can convert anything for a B/X system like Old-School Essentials in a few seconds in your head as a veteran GM.

All three modules are set in a consistent world, and Dwarrowdeep and Highfell cross over with one another and have cross-over material from Barrowmaze seeded into them. As a clever manoevre, most of the towns and villages of the settin make menton of cities with familiar names like "Threshold" allowing a comfortable drop into existing D&D worlds like Mystara.

This module is pretty much a full canned campaign: you have a hometown with enough factions and intrigue to make time in  "Town" compelling play, and a pretty big cast of NPCs. A couple of smaller villages that have enough details to make them interesting, A few adventure sites, and then one immense megadungeon. Like Keep on the Borderlands or Temple of Elemental Evil there is enough material beyond the dungeon to run a whole campaign, probably for years if you want to.

As to the dungeon in question, it might be better to call it "megadungeons":  Highfell is a floating island caught in a timespace distortion. It was once a college of wizardry to a now-dead civilization, and has been a popular pace for a local guild of sorcerers to plunder for lost secrets for generations. Now the mountain top where it once sat has lifted off and is drifting towards Threshod... only it glitches when it gets within a certain range, and the rematirializes on the far corner of the map... sometimes taking a detour through one of the inner planes on the way. This isalnd has thirteen wizard's towers, with eight of them having sizable dungeons underneath, and a network of teleportation devices interlinking them.

Eventually the PCs can discover that the dungeon is being moved by a cult caught in a time-loop that had intended on dropping it on the town of Threshold. Thwarting them might possibly destroy the dungeon, or send it sailing off onto the infinite horizon.

The island is dangerous, and sometimes subject to lethal planar conditions. The dungeons definitely have a lot of interactive funhouse elements and puzzles. Everything from a network of forcefields to play with to lore on the archmagi that built them to piece together their secret passcodes, to mind-warping paintings that teach secret magics, to collections of enchanted hats.

Overall I would call it a "Thinking man's dungeon," there are enough puzzles, clues, tricks, and fun widgets to keep your PCs experimenting, working on creative problem solving, and managing resources in a hostile environment. There are not too many monsters, and where they appear, they are often challenging or even potentially lethal if the PCs don't put their brains to work.

Which means there is a lot to steal if you are looking for ides for puzzles.

Highfell is pretty challenging to get to, and PCs may need to find a sponsor to loan them potions, flying mounts, or teleportation services at low levels to get to it, which forces the PCs to get involved with patrons and their factions pretty early. Which is a great example to take if you want to make factions front-and-center in your game.

I ran this one briefly with my wife and a friend as a casual AD&D1e campaign, and while she is not usually a fan of the big dungeon crawls, the demands of a style of play that required constant clever and creative thinking really suited her. Unfortunately health issues forced us to drop that one, and I never did get back to it. I chronicled part of the adventure in The Dungeon That Ate itself.

I really enjoyed the flavor of it. So much so that as I am starting up a business producing podcasts, I have considered making a light-hearted, module-driven, gonzo-fantasy take on the Tale of the Manticore style of solo gaming podcast as a way to woodshed my production workflow and equipment. And running Highfell, Ultraviolet Grasslands and the Black City, or Hot Springs Island as my setting have all been on the top of my ideas. That it is sitting there in that august company ought to tell you something.

(If that idea appeals to you, let me know!)

As for some specific hackable bits of the book: Treasure is often found in the form of shelves of rare books and magical ingredients and the book has a table for randomly generating those kinds of treasures which I have regularly stolen for my own campaign. There is enough detail on the salt god's religion to make it an interesting clerical order in any setting. And I have stolen the staff of the tavern at least once because the NPCs there are pretty detailed and make for interesting people.

As written, the whole thing is a bit tongue-in-cheek with the wizards of old being obsessed with odd hats, that becomes a major theme, a race of flyig apes called "luftbaboons", and the often neurotic personalities of long-dead archmagi leading to quirky and bizarre dungeon contents (and a touch of adult humor in the process.) It definitely is not a dungeon that takes itself too seriously, and if you are  looking for dark, serious fantasy, this module is going to take some work. If you want the odd giggle, and play your Dungeons & Dragons with your tongue firmly in your cheek, OTOH, this will be right up your alley.

I'm actually dying to have a look at Barrowmaze and Dwarrowdeep, if they are half as good as Highfell, then they are worth my time.  They are pricier as modules go, but that is because you are buying a full campaign in a book. As my hobby has to be self-sustaining, I am saving up, and really hope I will have a chance to get them in hardcopy rather than PDF, which means I need to take my tme... and get some more books out sooner rather than later.

Overall it is a module I am happy to recommend, have played (at least through the first dungeon and two towers), and will use in the future.


  1. You might want to look a little closer at his reputation.

    1. I'm interested in and speak solely to his reputation as a designer. In the future I shall speak less about reputation of people at all and restrain myself to reputation of products.

      The OSR is so full-up on people being shitty to one another, often without any reference to truth or nuance, it is enough to send any sane man running for the hills. I've tuned out of the fandom hard enough I am no longer qualified to speak to the reputations of people anyway.

      Nor do I want to engage in gossip here, not the function of the blog.

      But it is a worthwhile caveat to make: He has a great reputation as a DESIGNER.

    2. Thanks Brian. I appreciate where you're coming from.

    3. The church of Marx follows their god's commands to purge all heretics and unbelievers.

      You know, this sort of thing would actually work really well as a major villain network in a game.