Axe of the Dwarvish Lords
A game review by S. John Ross


Price: $26.95
Components: 192pp Softcover Book, Color Map Booklet
Designer: Skip Williams
Publisher: TSR/WotC*



In Radruundar does Irontooth lay,
The Fierce Axe upon his breast.
To Radruundar you must away,
To see Irontooth at his rest.

- From Farvak's Poem

The pull of the dungeon remains strong. It's still, on some level, why I game.

I'm nearly thirty. I've been writing RPG material profesionally for most of a decade. I've never stopped gaming, exploring every imagineable genre and setting from both sides of the GM screen. I like westerns. I like space opera. I like modern action. I like historicals. I like TOON.

But to hike into a forbidding wood, to reach a distant mountain . . . To strap on a pack and descend into the stony darkness, where evil dwells - "to carry a sword, instead of a walking-stick" - that's the stuff that still grips me by the chest and yanks me in. I'm a fantasy gamer. I'm a dungeon-delver.

Wizards of the Coast's incarnation of TSR seems to have grabbed onto the idea that the basic themes of old-style fantasy gaming are still powerful, even if the years have matured us beyond being amused by a series of rooms filled with hostile hit points. They're taking AD&D back to Greyhawk, after all - a world that sings with rustic fantasy flavor. I'm looking forward to seeing that. In Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, Skip Williams and company bring us back to the roots of it all: A Bigass Quest through lots of Bigass Tunnels. Mazes of twisty passages, all alike? You betcha, brother. A dungeon for every hit point you've got, monsters and treasures and a Big Nasty Evil Wizard. Oh goodie.

Hmm.

First impressions first. Beautiful art. The cover is dull, but the interiors are really nice. The maps are lovely, too . . . and my hands can feel that there's a map book in the back. So I'm happy. I like maps.

Mmmm. Map book. Those bigass dungeons we saw flipping through pages on the way here? Nono. They weren't bigass. These are bigass. They're in color, too, which doesn't help with that sinking feeling of dread I'm suddenly getting. I mean, yeah, dungeons. Yeah, delving. Questing, questing, rah-rah-rah. But that's a lot of rooms. I mean a lot. Can this possibly be anything but (gulp) a cool story leading up to a terrifyingly slow series of marching-order commands and Checking For Traps? My nostalgia starts to phase out; my footing gets weak. Dungeon-crawls, they call them. It's a warning.

First impressions over. Now to the book.

What's that? I'm droning on? I'm taking forever to get to what the adventure's about? Ah, gentle reader. Have faith. I am, for your benefit, simulating Axe of the Dwarvish Lords for you.

Rules. The first 20 pages or so are rules material, stats, and a dose of very dull, irrelevant (for now) backstory. Twenty pages. Twenty.

New rules are all well and good, but they make for a tiresome introduction, even if the stuff on "smart fighting" goblins brought back happy "Tucker's Kobolds" memories (man, now I want that bloody Dragon Magazine CD-ROM even more. Curse you, WotC). This includes the stuff on the history of the Axe itself, the NPC stats, in fact everything in the first twenty pages or so. Good god, man. We never get to find out what the Player Characters get to do - or even how they enter the story - until somewhere on page 22! This is poor design. Somebody slap the editors. Give me the action from the get-go; put the rules and droning backstory in the back where my thumb can find them at need.

But I shoulder my burden and sally forth. I'm delving, dammit, and these rules won't stop me.

The next twenty pages are murder. The introductory act. Clans are feuding. Magic items are being used. Lots of NPCs with lots of motivations, none of them especially compelling. I'm already nodding off, and since the PCs aren't really important, here, they are given short shrift. There are notes on how to have them be around as the story happens. Good god. There are some fights to pass the time.

But then, dear friends, the sun breaks through. After more than 40 pages, we finally get to the beginning.

This is a kickass adventure. Seriously. I mean, eventually. The return of ancient evil heralds a dramatic time of danger and renewal for dwarfkind, and the ancient priesthood gives up its secrets. Suddenly, the party are the heroes, and the quest is before them. Guided by an ancient poem, they must away to a distant tomb. There will, of course, be resistance. [Hefting my trusty axe] "Good."

It's almost hidden, and that's the tragedy. The writing in Axe of the Dwarvish Lords is both bloated and dry, which is an interesting trick, but one that shouldn't be encouraged in public. But, if you have the stamina to wade through the muck, what you have here is a richly-detailed quest adventure with tons of opportunities for the PCs to show off, kick ass, take names, get their own asses handed to them, meet interesting NPCs, fight new monsters, and delve into the dark places - both physically and otherwise.

I can't slam this book, despite its tremendous flaws of writing and design, because it really does manage to capture the essence of this fundamental kind of fantasy, providing just what you want it to: an exciting, get-your-feet-dirty-and-your-hit-points-bloody quest. The old priest recites a peom at the beginning (the "beginning" on page 44, mind you), one that foreshadows each step of the adventure to come. It is, as it should be, a player handout - and the players get to tick off each verse at they come to pass, and shudder as the more dreadful hints loom into the foreground (that the priest is slain by a hideous Ancient Evil once he's done reciting it provides an excellent tone-setter, and a bit of justice, in light of how really wretched the poetry is).

The next (main) part of the adventure is great. The goblins here aren't an essay on smart tactics or a series of stats - they're entertaining NPCs, the kind worth killing, by golly! I want my hostile hit points to have a bit of meat on them before I whittle them down, and here, the adventure begins to deliver. More player handouts here, too, as the first dungeons open up - hand-drawn maps. Can they be trusted? Fah, sally forth. Things get deeper: the ancient dwarven stronghold. Mines untouched for years except by hideous beasts. Opposition at every turn. Opportunities at every turn. Getting that axe is hard, man, and it will take some time. Set aside several long gaming sessions for this one. Lay in a supply of chips and pizza and soda. Bathe, for god's sake; people will be sitting right next to you for hours.

To make a long dungeon short, the axe is there to be won, and then there's a fun little epilogue, of sorts. That Ancient Evil that killed the priest for his bad poem? Well, there's no point in getting an ancient powerful axe unless you get to use it on something . . . Off we go. A few more hostile hit points to reduce. Fun fun fun.

The dungeons are huge. What they are not is repetitive. The sins of the past, where twenty rooms may as well have been randomly generated (and often were, I'm sure) are not here. These dungeons have character and atmosphere and thrills a'plenty.

But be warned, eager Dungeon Masters. To win the prize contained therein, you're going to need to delve even harder than the PCs. The writing, from beginning to end, is muddy. The organization, from top to bottom, is ill-considered and (I suspect) hasty. This adventure could be, easily, 33% shorter and still pack the same punch. It would hit harder, in fact.

This adventure captures the essence of what is really exciting about a classic quest adventure: The heroism, the horror, the desperate struggle to achieve something, the sense of deadly place, the triumph. The copious kicking of ass. It captures it, then hides it under a mile of random, wandering rubbish (the text, not the monsters).

Take this thing, place it on your anvil, and forge it into something worthwhile. If you do what Skip Williams and his editors should have done, you can hammer out a mighty adventure with the raw ore hidden here. If you have the time.


Copyright © 1999,2007 by S. John Ross. All rights reserved.
Now stop reading the boring fine print and go play a game, fer chrissakes.

* This was published by Wizards of the Coast, during the time when
WotC was still operating TSR as a subsidiary with all the TSR logos intact.

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