|Lloth from D3|
The first chunk of the module (continuing the D series methods) is a hex crawl through tunnels and caves, using a nodal map and geomorphs for random encounter areas. This is a lot of content in a little space, and it’s a solid way to do it. No keyed locations, but several tables of encounters. Unfortunately these encounters show a limited and minimalist understanding of what a random encounter can be. All the encounters are with monsters, and while some are Drow merchant caravans which are well detailed with giant pack lizards, evocative cargo, and slave lines, nothing really jumps out to provide atmospherics or wonderment one would like from wandering the underworld. Still this is an excellent hex crawl to cram into a few pages, and seems like the solid basis for the module. While it’s a bit odd that almost every monster in the random encounter table is Drow aligned, I suppose that this could be a cool feature, indicating the control and power of the evil elves underground empire.
The map and random encounters have a few small areas spread about (using specific geomorphs) that appear like they would be hard going for even a 10th level party, but since each is presumably tackled at full power I can’t say these locations are unfair. A nice thing about them is that the lighting and some description is often mentioned, and the treasure, while largely simply described, contains a few interesting items such a jeweled goblets and solid platinum scroll tubes – enough to work with. Magical items are similarly handled in this portion of the adventure, with at least a few unique magic items spread around (perhaps just to make things harder for the players, but interesting still). In general these small encounters, while very combat focused at least create some solid flavor for the decadent under empire of the Drow. A Drow idol in a spider lair (while not the most deadly of these encounters) is a great set piece, where the fabulous treasure is more dangerous than the monsters within.
On to the Drow, they are a pretty iconic D&D monster, and one that still gets a lot of material about them (in possibly annoying ways). So the first note about the Drow in Vault of the Drow is “that these evil elves are hated and feared by the other intelligent races inhabiting the subterranean lands.” Yeah hated by mindflayers and Blibdoolpoolp worshiping fishmen. That’s a lot of hate, no misunderstood dark anti-heroes here. The Vault of the Drow goes to lengths to emphasize that the Drow are a corrupt and decadent people that hold themselves above everyone else and engage in perversion and depravity in some very gruesome ways. This is good, this is a solid 1970’s bad guy, not some conflicted sinister with a heart of gold, seductive evil kind of dark mirror society. The Drow are solidly, completely evil: with their enslaved bugbears, ghast minions, gladiatorial games, blood sacrifice and decadent society of infighting - they are also adequately explained. The Drow may be organized and militarized, likely able to expand and conquer the underdark, but they’re all backstabbing sociopaths, that haven’t really united as a polity. This division goes a long way to explain why the Drow are limited to their vault, and (as pointed out) why the party may be able to sneak in and wander about without meeting a coordinated military response. The rivalry and feuding atmosphere within the Drow vault is well hinted at in the random encounter tables without excessive backstory. Random encounters also do a decent job of portraying the Vault as a living space, with fungi harvesters, wild “animals”, escaped slaves, merchants, Drow raiders and Drow hunting parties. The Drow themselves are pretty dangerous, even if their bugbear and troglodyte minions shouldn’t present much trouble for a large 10th level party, additionally Drow’s tactics are often described and they act intelligently enough to defend themselves.
|Original Drow Art|
The Drow City and associated dungeons, buildings are actually some of the weaker portions of the adventure. They are described in a limited manner, and while the random encounters within the city provide the party with potential allies that could help wreck Drow society, the Vault of the Drow from this point is less a hex crawl or dungeon module and more of a gazetteer, with the noble houses and merchant houses of the Drow lightly described, but no real adventure hooks or clear narrative possibilities. This isn’t a bad thing, but it makes for an odd change from the wilderness crawl before and could require a huge amount of GM work to run well. Personally this is where I’d pull out Vornheim or a similar city building set and twist it towards it’s most depraved and debauched. It may be that with the right party, the Drow capitol simply because the home base of further adventure and polticial intrigue, rather than something to topple. Indeed that seems preferable, as the process of ruining a city of 30,000 plus (a third of them magic using super-elves) would be a campaign in itself.
Not too many problems with this adventure – a vast underground world, described broadly but with a fair bit of detail and flair. A few bits of silly – such as the decaying magical equipment of the Drow, and various types of magical dark vision lens, but even these oddities ultimately have a rationale and make sense. Mostly it’s an overwhelming work, and while actually better laid out and described then the other underground civilization module I recently reviewed (B4 – Lost City), Vault of the Drow suffers from the same problem of wanting to do so much and leaving a lot of space to fill in. D3 could be expanded into an entire box set campaign world (oh wait it was), but there's enough here to run with. Also unlike Lost City it gives a lot of flavor without dumping useless statlines on the GM, the locations are largely exemplars rather then thin descriptions of the whole locale. Additionally, I think Vault of the Drow has a lot going for it that was lost in the later additions to the Underdark, the Drow city is weird, alien, corrupt and filled with lawless depravity. That the Drow are presented as villains without redeeming features, but with a complex society and some rational order is great, they can be fought and make very competent enemies, but they can never really be allied with or coopted, and they will never accept the characters as equals. This is the first of these old modules that I really have to say I enjoyed and would find myself willing to run (though I think it’s a year worth of regular campaign material).