Review of AD&D module UK1: Beyond the Crystal Cave

If there is one adventure that really shows how different and ambitious the UK division of TSR were, it is this one. Published in 1983, Beyond the Crystal Cave is notionally in the World of Greyhawk, although the world it evokes is one that would be unfamiliar to most players of D&D at the time. Indeed, the entire adventure would feel unfamiliar, as it moves greatly away from the hack’n’slash play of most D&D adventures to a more thoughtful, interaction-based approach. There are particular similarities with Dungeonland and Beyond the Magic Mirror; both adventures provide many unfamiliar and challenging encounters, but where Gygax uses them just to trick the players before resolving it in a combat, negotiation is often the better choice here.

D&D has often evoked the mythic and legendary, the original Giants series owing much to Norse mythology, but this evokes a later mythology, one that would not seem out of place in Shakespeare’s plays. Two lovers, their love not approved of by their families, have disappeared into an enchanted realm. This realm was created by a human wizard for his half-elven lover, and is enchanted to preserve its peace against all intruders. The wizard and his princess are long gone, but the inhabitants and magic of the realm see the young lovers as their old master and mistress returned and will protect them against the misguided adventurers who want them to leave! But the lovers’ families, now reconciled, hire adventurers to recover them…

As you can see, it’s a most atypical adventure. It presents a real challenge for the DM; to run the adventure in a manner that brings out the magic of the story, and to guide the adventurers into realising that their opponents are not to be slain! That said, a group of adventurers who know nothing about negotiation could certainly play this adventure, and provide much amusement to the DM as their foes proceed to teach them a lesson about attacking first!

The garden exists in a demiplane which alters the rules of magic and time. Magic-users might be horrified to learn that their fireball spells will not work! Druids, however, are quite at home in the garden, and will find their abilities enhanced. Personally, I wouldn’t want to run the adventure without the services of a druid, as their abilities would allow more of the adventure to be revealed.

Although the garden is full of creatures that (in theory) should not be killed, a couple of combat encounters are found in the entrance caverns. These present the “traditional” challenge part of the adventure, with monsters attacking and attempting to slay the party, but there are only two such encounters, with a small ochre jelly and with a group of mud-men.

Once the garden is reached, negotiation and puzzle-solving should take the upper hand. The map of the garden is overlaid with a square grid, with paths leading from encounter to encounter (not following the paths in the woods has a high chance of disorientating the players). Leprechauns play tricks on the players, dryads attempt to charm the handsome men in the party, satyrs likewise with any pretty women, and a number of animals that can be quite helpful if speak with animals is employed.

There are more forestland (and faerieland) creatures here, most of which are initially hostile towards the party. The balance between understanding that none of the creatures here are evil and reconciling that with their actions creates the bulk of the tension in the adventure.

The trouble with the adventure comes from the pure hostility of most of the creatures to the players. It’s fine to say the adventure is about negotiation, but there needs to be something to negotiate about! The leprechauns can provide clues to the players in their antics, but there are entirely too many creatures that are just described as hostile, with no possibility of interesting interaction. Thus, it’s very easy for the group to fall into the old D&D ways of hack’n’slash. The adventurers will need to find four items to enter the palace where the lovers are living, but the acquisition of these items isn’t made more interesting by them having guardians that might send the adventurers on quests or suchlike, although finding them may be frustrating if the group can’t befriend anyone in the garden (something that seems somewhat unlikely given the set-up).

The adventure also makes use of the Green Man, a curious character from British mythology, but the character is ill-defined in its interactions with the characters. In theory, the character could provide some of the most memorable interactions in the adventure, but the details we get boil down to the Green Man “will converse with them” and “will otherwise boast at length of [the garden’s] splendours and regale the listeners with long tales of his travels.” Details of those travels are left entirely in the DM’s hands. It isn’t really enough to work with.

Many years later, Chris Sims and Steve Townshend used this adventure as the basis of one of the D&D Encounters season. Their re-envisioning of the adventure puts in a lot more conflict, but also emphasises questing and interaction in a way that the original does not; comparing the two helps us understand why Beyond the Crystal Cave is, in fact, a flawed adventure. The central idea is there, but the “let the players do what they will” is actually a dreadful way of approaching such an adventure: a more structured approach is needed. This is not to say that the rigid structure of the Encounters season is the best choice, but that it comes a lot closer to achieving what this adventure aspires to create.

One aspect the adventure does get absolutely correct is the artwork. Timothy Truman is one of the great artists of this period of D&D, and it is a pity that his work didn’t appear in more adventures; his evocative style fits perfectly here, as it did with Dungeonland. The frontispiece, by De Leuw, is of much lesser quality. The maps are good to adequate.

So, what are we then to make of Beyond the Crystal Cave? Personally, I think it is an ambitious adventure that will properly work only in the hands of a good Dungeon Master who is not afraid to create material that the module lacks, who can give the inhabitants of the garden more personality, and who can allow the tension between the needs of the party and the desires of the garden’s inhabitants to flower in a way that really challenges the party. In particular, to present the party with moral and ethical problems. The basic idea behind the adventure is fantastic, but, in 1983, the structures known to the designers aren’t quite enough for it to be remembered as a masterpiece.

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