With just three players on hand I wanted a quick zero-prep dungeon for a few hours entertainment: time to crack open my copy of Dungeon Delve. This is, I reckon, one of the best value tomes yet released for 4e D&D. There’s 30 one-shot sessions within, and any GM worth his salt should be able to use them either as-is or pad them out to become fully-fledged multi-session adventures. I consider it like D&D’s version of Traveller’s 76 Patrons, giving you just enough information to play. It provides the bones. You, as GM, provide the meat.
I’d heard that of all the Delves, number 3: Orc Stronghold was the weakest, and that of course meant I wanted to run it. As written it’s a straight “clean out the old keep” scenario where the adventurers have been commissioned to….. you’re ahead of me, right?
It’s not high on originality – there’s a metric tonne of Orcs (18 by my count), 2 fire beetles, a dire wolf and a pit trap and not a lot else. The perfect clean slate for a wicked GM mind. My first consideration was to apply a theme to the Delve. Make all the monsters Zombies (complete with Undead Pit Trap. Oh yeah!) or have them infused with a Chillborn taint. Or perhaps have the spirit of the Keep itself infect the monsters and give them a stone-like quality. I’m liking the idea of Half-Elemental Orcs. Then, it hit me.
Reverse the dungeon.
The Reverse Dungeon has a long and (dis)honourable part to play in the history of D&D. I remember several takes on the theme of the playing the monsters in the pages of Dungeon (and before that, Dragon) magazine and the classic Reverse Dungeon module from AD&D gave you everything you needed to play the other side of the fence in 96 perfect-bound pages.
Looking further afield and there’s the utterly lovely Goblin Lake solo adventure for Tunnels & Trolls – first published in 1979 and re-released as part of Free RPG Day back in 2007. I’m sure other systems can lay claim to scenarios which offer the chance for players to game at the opposite end of the alignment chart.
We’re not talking about playing the noble savage here. This isn’t the game where the PCs are savage Orc Barbarians or honourable-yet-ruthless Drow Assassins. This is true role-reversal where the PCs characters are evil scum and villainy and the GM-controlled “monsters” are the tough and noble party of heroes.
I generated four third-level heroes as my GMPCs – Edda the Gnome Wizard, Fangnir the Dwarf Fighter, Rhyl the Halfling Rogue and Modesty the Human Cleric Nun – and handed Dungeon Delve to the players.
“You’re the Orcs and their pets. Split them between you and defend the keep!”
For the first encounter Mark took the Fire Beetles, Paul the Orc Raider in the Tower and Jon the other two Raiders. I juggled the four PCs as best I could (Gnome Wizards rock!) and won out, but not before Fangnir took a shedload of damage from not one to but two Fire Sprays from the Beetles! Ouchy.
Encounter two was a different matter. With 3 players controlling the monsters (1 for the Eye of Gruumsh, 1 for the orc berseker and half the drudges and 1 for the rest) if felt like I’d been ganged up on! Half the Drudges went around the cauldron while the others stayed with the Berseker to the North of the Pit trap – effectively boxing my GMPCs in right on top of the Pit Trap. Cue the Eye of Gruumsh pulling the lever and down they go. Both Modesty and Edda fail the save and take damage, followed by the Orcs tipping the flaming Cauldron on top of the whole party for another 2d4 damage – and another 2d4 damage next turn as they’re now swimming in a Flaming Pool. Nice. Thanks for that.
We ended it there because, seriously, we’re laughing too much to play. Two encounters and I’ve had my ass well and truly chewed. I’ve been shown that even a setup that looks deceptively simple can be brilliant in-play.
I’ll be looking at reversing a few more of the Delves in the future, that’s for sure. But not before my ego recovers from the bruising it took this time around :D