1060 Ruins of Undermountain review

What a commercial module is, is an elusive thing which has changed over the years.  What makes a great module? I like a module where the designer talks to you, personally. They shouldn’t hide behind anything, I want them front and center; but a good module, is more of a setting than a novel. Stories are fun, but I don’t really find it to be very satisfying. I prefer a module that gives us a place to play, over one that tells us how to do it. My group and I found this out very quickly, and it can be linked to a specific product, Ed Greewood’s mega dungeon 1060 Ruins of Undermountain.

Undermountain was released in March of 1991, it appeared at 17th place in Dungeon Magazine’s list of The 30 Greatest Modules ofall time. This product is massive, and a very odd one to be released when it was. At this period, TSR was looking to steal all of our games. A few key insiders were providing information to help us avoid being caught up in TSR’s plot-lines, but for the most part, there was a whole lot of meta-gaming going on. TSR wanted you to feel that you weren’t competent to create your own adventures; not because you are stupid, but because creating adventures takes a lot of time and planning which your trusted professionals at TSR will gladly do. It is utter hogwash, and they knew it, but if you repeat the same message long enough, people will believe anything.

Undermountain went against the grain, and I mean WAY against it. TSR had many of its users convinced that the 2nd Edition was a brand new and exclusive product and everything that came before was child’s play, and was completely incompatible with this new and improved system, and then this comes out, and THIS was straight up OD&D. Ruins of Undermountain was as much stuff from Ed Greenwood’s original gaming sessions as he could fit into a box. Sure, he had to dumb it down some, and replace some of his stuff with explanations for new players (to conform to TSR’s status quo), but it saved us. It was a life-preserver thrown to those of us drowning in an ocean of commercialism. Ed Greenwood was a DIY kind of guy, and he wanted others to be a DIY kind of guy too; he took the concepts placed before him by Gygax and Arneson, and made them his own. That is how you play the game and he knew it. Greenwood is brilliant, and his writing style was infectious when it came to creativity. Just reading his stuff, one feels his excitement for building, and comes away with confidence that they can do this too.

Meanwhile, back at the Ranch, my fellow players and I are delving into the grandest dungeon ever published. If the DM even owned a copy of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting Box, we never used it; all we used was Ruins of Undermountain. None of us knew it at the time, but we were playing OD&D; we were getting squished by the DM and laughing about it, not caring that our characters had no chance of survival. This Box Set was just so much fun! This was my first experience with Dungeons & Dragons, and we played it our own way. We started our PCs off at 5th level, we ignored food and water, we ignored how we were carrying all of this stuff around with us, and we even ignored XP. If you survived an entire gaming session you gained a level, which was rare.

Our DM at the time (my first DM) really didn’t like DMing; he would do it, but eventually he’d just want to play so bad that he’d have somebody else DM. They would have a published module and we’d play that but get incredibly bored of it. We rarely, if ever actually finished those things. Even today we just can’t play published adventures straight through, they lack charm and challenge. Back then, we’d get bored of being micromanaged, and we’d go right back to getting squished in Undermountain as soon as we could.

Ruins of Undermountain is, to this day, the largest mega-dungeon ever published*, and it isn’t even complete. This is just the first 3 levels! We played this box for years and years, and never did explore every nook and cranny that it had to offer. Most of the rooms are left blank, to be filled in by the DM, which is crazy talk for a product of the 90’s! DM’s wanted complete products, right? According to TSR they did, but this boxset is better than everything else in their module library. Ruins of Undermountain allowed the new players of the 90’s to experience freedom and creativity that was practically unheard of for a very long time. Greenwood included a whole bunch of room descriptions, and this is true Greenwood, his gift to inspire the users to create without limitations is evident here.

The map is an issue; I know that when we played it, the DM needed the entire table, just for his maps. I had played it again more recently, but this time the DM used the PDF files, which allowed him to have greater control over the map, and he was able to run this thing taking up the small space that was allotted to him at the table. The PDF is also affordable, the original boxsets are going to run you a pretty penny, so even if you do print off every page of the PDF, it will still be much cheaper than forking over the cash just to say that you own a piece of gaming history.

What Ruins of Undermountain is is a setting within a setting, it takes place inside ofthe city of Waterdeep, which takes place inside of Forgotten Realms, but it is still completely independent of them. You could just as easily set Undermountain in any published setting and because of the nature of this thing, it will fit. You don’t need Forgotten Realms, or the Waterdeep Boxsets to play this game. All you need is an open mind, a bunch of scrap paper, and some players. It doesn’t tell you how to play, it can take anything that you want to throw at it, and I do mean EVERYTHING! If you want to use it for telling a story, it can do that. If you want to play go find the flag, it can do that too. If you want to just hang out and play a mindless dungeon delve just to play, it can definitely do that. Versatility and re-play-ability is what makes a product valuable, and this box set is definitely valuable.

It comes with a lot of stuff. Interesting NPCs that you can use, or ignore, new magic items, spells, and monsters, lots and lots of traps and room descriptions, and the cool thing is that anybody can pick this thing up, read it, and use it. As a player, I played this under two different dungeon Masters and got a completely unique and entertaining experience each time. It does have those really good ideas that can bring strangers together talking about it, but it also helps the DM discover his and his clubs play style, or even gives them a chance to mix things up a bit and do something that you might not normally get to do! You can play this setting as a death trap, a place to start your first game, or the place to take high level adventurers to give them one last game before they are retired. That is versatility!

I give Ruins of Undermountain an A+. It will make you a better DM regardless of your skill level. This is a glimpse behind Ed Greenwood’s screen, giving the reader a chance to study his methods, which are very sound. This product is Dungeons & Dragons, it doesn’t matter what D&D system you are playing, it was reformatted for 2e, but with just a couple of easy tweaks here and there it is core to any edition, and appropriate for any player group. I had talked about returning to the dungeons of yore, and this product allows anybody to try it out. You are the boss! If you just want to use the maps, you can; if you want to make your own maps and use this box for some easy room descriptions, you can use this thing for years, this product truly is a masterpiece! That is why it boggles my mind that TSR allowed it to be released. If you haven’t heard of it, or just assumed that it was 2e module trash, check it out! I think that you’ll really enjoy it.

* Google+ user Mike Wilson told me that Ruins of Undermountain is no longer the largest dungeon ever printed, that honor goes to "The World's Largest Dungeon" which he doesn't recommend buying, but it is technically larger! Thanks Mike, and you do have a point about Bigger isn't always better.
Also, our good friend Jens D. of The Disoriented Ranger fame suggests that we check out this awesome blog post at DM David called Megadungeons in Print and On The Web. DM David quickly reviews other Megadungeons out there, and offers an excellent read!


Unknown said...

A+ review! I always had a great time running Undermountain and still do! I meet my group every other week (adult responsibilities…) to play AD&D 2e. I have always liked playing in Forgotten Realms. My current campaign in 1338 a few years before the elven retreat. I plan on my players heading to Waterdeep and eventually duking it out in Undermountain. I have almost 20 years of material detailing the various caverns and halls of Halaster. I still like throwing some of the monsters introduced in the box set at my players. I have to agree that one of my favorite things about the Undermountain, and later the series -TSR 1104, 9528, 9538, was that it built a framework within a greater world. You could easily run it as a standalone campaign outside the Forgotten Realms. Another great article and review!

RipperX said...

Thank you, Todd, I'm glad that you enjoyed it. This product has more critics than I thought. I prefer to do a lot of my own writing, and tend to ignore or change what is core to suit my needs. My papertrailes aren't very good, I go very minimalist when it comes to writing details down, most of the stuff I keep in my head, I'll just jot down a couple of thoughts to remind me of something. As a creator, taking notes presents a problem because if I write too much down, then I'll have a wall of text that I can't find anything in, which I think is what happened to Greenwood. He had to remember some stuff that he had done years ago, and then write it down for publication. Folks say that this box is nothing but a giant map that's partially filled in. To me, that is awesome! I guess that many others saw this as a rip off.

Pedro O. said...

This was one of the first products I'd had, I used to read it even without knowing how to properly use it, but it was great for the imagination.

This was one of the few modules published in portuguese here in Brazil, in the 90s we had some settings (ravenloft, karameikos, forgotten realms) but almost no modules. In fact, this was cause of some interesting scenario here, even today there aren't much people who like to run published adventures, we had no option but create our own content, so it just became our regular behavior.

We had, in the 90s, the so called "xerox generation", we had so few books published here compared to the US, what used to happen is that someone (a friend of a friend of a friend) would get a book abroad and lend it so everybody could get a copied for themselves.

Another curiosity: Ruins of Undermountain was selled in newsstands here in Brazil, a book/map/monster index each week.

RipperX said...

Pedro, that is an awesome post! I think that we in the U.S. are rather sheltered. If this blog has done anything for me, it has opened my eyes to how people all around the world do things.

I was able to steal a number of organization templates from modules, I can't imagine having to figure all of that stuff out on my own. What you guys are doing down there is really incredible, and I thank you for sharing! It is really fun to read :)

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