This isn’t a brand-new review; I’m just archiving it on my blog for those who missed it in my original posting on rpggeek.com
The third part of the D (Drow) series brings the pursuit of the drow to a close. Finally, in this adventure, they find from where the drow originated – and it’s an astonishing place. Unfortunately, the execution of the Vault does not match the concepts on which it was designed.
There are three small encounter areas described before the PCs reach the Vault itself. Random monster tables for the tunnel section are listed here once more, and now the jermlaine and kuo-toa are entirely gone: most of the encounters are with the drow, which is not surprising so near the vault.
The first of the small encounter areas is a drow outpost, and it’s a dangerously fortified place; with the drow attacking from behind parapets and gates of beaten bronze, it might be wiser to speak rather than fight. Unfortunately, there is no aid to the DM as to whether the drow would be inclined to negotiate, and it’s certainly written from the point of view of a battle-themed encounter.
The second of the small encounter areas is very dangerous: an illusionary garden, which is actually the lair of a succubus and her drow vampire lover. Again, this is primarily intended as a combat encounter, and a difficult one at that, as the succubus will use charm and suggestion to sow dissension in the party.
The third encounter area is a cave of spiders – which, in itself, isn’t that scary (although it gives the possibility of death by poison), but the highlight is a cursed spider idol which will turn the possessor into a giant spider. Certainly, Gary Gygax had a twisted glee in such items.
The bulk of the adventure module deals with the Vault of the Drow proper. Two pages are devoted to wandering monsters in the vault, and then the great vault itself: first the wilds of the fungi forest, then the city of Erelhei-Cinlu. Finally, the Fane of Lolth itself is detailed: the great temple to the spider goddess.
There’s a lot of inspirational writing here, but all-in-all, the Vault of the Drow falls flat for me. What’s great about it all is the concept: a great underground ‘paradise’ that the drow elves live in. The starry vault (when viewed using ultravision or the strange eye cusps) is beautifully described, but the actual drow of the vault are reduced to mostly lists without personality: the levels and classes the nobles possess in each estate. The actual estate of Eilservs, which contains those responsible for the giant attacks, describes a small part of their history, but apart from “the family is now retrenching”, you gain no idea of what actual specific intrigues are taking place in the city. Yes, you get to learn what rank each house has, and its current allies and enemies, but little more.
It’s a great disappointment, and it highlights a flaw of most of Gygax’s early module writing. He’s great at describing strange tricks, environments and monsters, but he’s terrible at writing NPCs. It’s most problematic in the Vault of the Drow since the setting demands so much from the DM, and there’s little help from the module.
Along the way, the original scheme of the series seems to have been lost as well. In the Giants modules, the adventurers are asked to find out who is behind the attacks. They do that in G3, where it’s discovered to be these rebel drow serving the Elder Elemental God. Now, it’s hardly beyond comprehension that all drow are blamed for the attacks, but there’s no mention of this at all, and certainly no further description of the Elder Elemental God, save a note in the Eilservs description that there’s a secret temple in their estate which is the same as that in G3.
A really good DM will make a lot out of Vault of the Drow, but he or she will do so without all that much help as to how to run it. The previous adventure in the series promoted negotiation over combat; but although such would seem necessary here, there’s little guidance given.
Assuming that the party eventually assault the Fane of the Drow, under the impression that Lolth is really behind everything, they will get an (probably) entertaining dungeon setting. As with D2, there’s a chance to go to the home plane of Lolth – and that would be covered in a later adventure, Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits. Q1 was advertised on the cover of each of the D-series adventures. It would be a surprise when it took two further years for the last adventure to appear, and that it was written by Dave Sutherland and not Gary Gygax – but more on that when I review Q1.
The final encounter area described in the book is that of a wharf cavern, which has ships that can sail onto the Pitchy Flow, the Svartjet and even the Sunless Sea. A picture of the boat ends the adventure, along with the text:
THIS ENDS THE DESCENT INTO
THE DEPTHS BUT BEGINS MANY
NEW AND EXCITING PROSPECTS
From here, I assumed we’d get more adventures in the Depths (especially as many encounter areas on the DM’s map were described as “Encounter Area to be Designed by DM or in a Forthcoming Module”), but such was not the case. Given the list of adventures in the series on the “D” modules’ covers, the plan was always to confront Lolth.
I like the concepts behind Vault of the Drow a lot, but the execution puts a disproportionate burden on the DM to make it a success. It works as written as a hack’n’slash module, but it should be so much more.