THE HOLE IN THE OAK
A Review by Warren D.
The end of the year and beginning of the next in RPG-land prompts thinking about how to get our non-RPG friends and family into the hobby. It is also a time when soon-to-be DM’s receive their first rulebooks and seek recommendations on what to run. The options are numerous and rapidly climbing to the top of many recommendation lists is The Hole in the Oak. In this review, I hope to outline why I think The Hole in the Oak deserves such a position by describing its opening, evaluating the content, and touching on how the adventure facilitates world building.
This review arises from 4 three-hour sessions of The Hole in the Oak which started after a TPK playing its sibling module Incandescent Grottoes. I used Old School Essentials/BX D&D as it is my preferred D&D flavor and the players randomly generated 2 clerics, 2 dwarves, 1 elf, 1 fighter, 1 magic-user, and 1 thief. I have no relationship with Necrotic Gnome or its products beyond being a fan.
THE LAY of the LAND
The Hole in the Oak is billed as a low-level dungeon situated in any “magic forest” possibly constructed by wizards, definitely inhabited by creatures of a fay bent, and currently being used as a base of operations for an evil gnome cult. More specifically, it is a 60-room dungeon well “jaquaysed” by 5 large loops from west-to-east and boarded by a large cavern to the south and a fast river to the north. Monetary treasure guarded, buried, forgotten, or secreted away totals about 17,000 GP which will take a party of 8 from 1st level to about 2nd by the end (using the Fighter XP progression as an average). Total magic item count is 11 which includes magic scrolls, a spell book, potions, rings, a couple of pieces of armor, and weapons of note. The opposition to the PCs’ clandestine infiltration includes three cannibalistic and duplicitous fauns, a slumbering ogre, three troglodyte fishers, seven (!) hungry ghouls, twenty (!!) heretic gnomes that worship a demonic tree trunk and finally four giant lizards.
|The map for Hole in the Oak
Interestingly, while the module as a whole has a “French vanilla D&D” feel- meaning it’s a well-done dungeon featuring many classics of fantasy adventure- it is a heterogeneous environment that doesn’t feel like patch-work. This is a skillful trick and it’s worth a moment to list the adventure’s thematic clusters. If you imagine the dungeon as a compass:
- East “places of worship” cluster: alters involving a giant statue, defunct lizard-cult, & demon tree stump
- Northeast cluster: “Hot house” gardens, giant lizards, and a lizard cult
- Southeast cluster: Weird gnomes & weird caverns
- West “areas of experimentation” cluster: trap rug, magic mirrors, & mysterious levers
- Southwest cluster: Tricky fauns & a mutant ogre
- Northwest cluster: Drowned ghouls and fishing troglodytes
Often in D&D modules of lesser quality the presentation of an equivalent amount of heterogeneity requires far more levels. With each of those levels being a very expected presentation of those environments. Or conversely, the same number of environments are presented in a more patchwork fashion making it feel as if it was assembled merely from die rolling on random tables. The Hole in the Oak employs its environments to unify seemingly disparate D&D classics. For instance, I would expect troglodytes in a cave environment and ghouls in a crypt environment. Here, the presence of the river allows both of them to be tied to the theme of water-ghouls posing as drowned corpses and trogs that have fishing spots (and even a “feed the fish” sign). This “classic but clever” presentation is exactly what I wanted for my two players who grew up with B/X D&D and is also exactly what I want as a DM at the table when giving new players their first taste of old-school play and D&D in general.
Let’s delve into the specifics of why I think Hole in the Oak is a present day classic…
THE OPENING of the DUNGEON
Openings in D&D, defined here as the first 30 minutes or first 3 rooms in a dungeon, are critical because it’s the literal first impression new players will make about the game as a whole. Starting off with an interesting opening helps focus excitement built up through character generation and helps new players understand how to “do a D&D”. Novice players often understand the concept of D&D, but the next question I often get is, “yeah, but like, how do you do it? How do you play?” What is more difficult for new players to picture is how a character sheet, dice, and their actions combine to make the game of D&D move.
A good opening in a starter adventure has an easily understood goal whose solution and/or interaction quickly promotes the unification of character sheet, stats, dice, and player action creating the understanding of how D&D works. The “oh I get it” moment. This is why tavern starts are generally terrible because they offer little immediate and apparent goals. And most actions in taverns—talking, ordering ale, recounting backstory do little to provide that character-sheet-dice-player unification needed for the understanding of D&D. Another important element to a good opening is that it contains elements that the players have to be reactive to. The benefit of players having to be reactive is that it creates a feeling of danger, consequence, and meaningfulness. Now, this does not mean a fight right out of the gate. While combat is the easiest exciting thing to do, it sets up a potential immediate kill in the opening moments of the game, leaving players feeling helpless. Not a good impression. Neither is the dungeon setup, where its stairs leading down into a small room, empty, with another door leading to another larger room, empty, save for a door east and west but no discernible information on why players should choose east or west.
For The Hole in the Oak, both of these qualifications are met. The initial problem is an easily understood one - how to get into the dungeon without suffering a 20’ foot fall (and 2d6 damage). New players don’t have to have any particularly special in-game equipment, they don’t have to have assembled any special party composition, and they don’t have to know any special meta-knowledge about D&D. They can just apply real-life knowledge about how to avoid falling and the whole group can discuss the situation. But this problem does highlight that party diversity and equipment can matter because free climbing down carries a 1 in 6 chance of falling for those in heavy armor, but those classes with climbing skills can easily descend.
Next, the players are asked to make a decision: north toward rushing water or wind or east toward a faint green glow. If they strike north, they hit a room covered in a magic rug that will teleport them far east into the dungeon. If they head east, they will encounter grabbing roots that can snatch items away from them. Both of these encounters act on the players, teaching them that even benign things can carry risk, but not in a rock-falls-everyone-dies manner. So what happens beyond the ~30 minute mark?
THE BODY of the DUNGEON
With a good opening is there enough to sustain the interest of a party? Again, The Hole in the Oak provides on that front. To evaluate to what extent, let's move through Arnold K’s dungeon checklist. For the Goblin Punch author, a dungeon should have something; to steal; be killed; kill the PCs; choose between; talk to; experiment with; something the PCs won’t find.
So why these qualities? For me it is a concise list that spans a range of activities that embody general human behavior (talk, fight, trick) when confronted by adversity. In sticking with the context of novice players, by orienting elements of the dungeon around these three behaviors there is no need for prior D&D-meta knowledge. This list also offers a more expanded range of potential responses than “combat” or “pick 1 of 2 dialogue options” found in video game RPGs. And this list ensures that a randomly generated party composition will never be stymied by some element of the dungeon design. Similarly, it also helps potentially maximize randomly generated spells possessed by clerics, elves, and magic-users. Did my players’ party of 8 randomly generated PCs hit an example of each entry on that list? Let’s see…
- To steal: I think the best thing they stole would be the giant lizard eggs from their nest toward the end of the adventure. I used the Retainer reaction table in OSE to simulate the selling of the eggs to two different noble factions.
- Be killed: This would be the poor troglodytes simply eating their catch of fish the PCs surprised and subsequently slaughtered.
- Kill the PCs: Those eggs had to come from somewhere these came from the four giant lizards whose gaze induces mental images of erotic lizard folk rituals. The giant lizard certainly eliminated 60% of the party by the time the combat was over.
- Choose between: As expressed above, the opening offers an immediate choice and encouragingly almost all of the large rooms in the dungeon have 3-5 entrances and exits. The northern river often can be heard so players are making informed choices and not just blindly picking.
- Talk to: A favorite encounter of mine is found here because at the end of the first session the players were cornered by ghouls. They made a deal to find fresh meat. And for several encounter checks I had the ghouls call out Warriors-style to bring the promised meat. This might have encouraged the troglodyte assault.
- Experiment with: The rug, roots, and a small room filled with bottles full of tiny people all offered long pauses for experimentation. There was also the illusionary pile of gold goblets
- Something PCs won’t find: Despite having a rumor regarding The White League and consulting the root faces in the adventures, my players did not make a push toward the aptly named Hidden Crypt. They did find the hidden trapped chest the trogs were hiding though.
What did the players think? I asked them to give me three things they remembered about the dungeon. Thing that made impressions on them:
Player 1 (of the dwarven brothers, a cleric and an elf): “A good general dungeon-crawl with numerous rooms that have individual tricks and tasks. I enjoyed looking for the trog’s secret treasure. The giant lizards were just too deadly for a first level party. One of them would have been tough to beat, much less four. Oof.”·
Player 2 (of the fighter, magic-user, other cleric, and thief): “I liked the buried corpse by the river and the legends were good because it is fun to interpret or anticipate those things. Questions for treasure was good too (i.e. Root Faces). Enjoyed that we could negotiate with the ghouls that would have torn us apart. And the trog stench was fun. But the lizards did not belong, if we could have run fine, but 75% of the party was paralyzed so retreat was impossible. And there were so many.”
I think the player responses are congruent with what I remember above. What left impressions were encounters focused on the exploration and experimentation aspects of the dungeon. As did negotiations with risky stakes (the ghouls). Players also enjoyed trying to match what their character knew about the dungeon with what they were seeing as they traversed it. And when combat is mentioned, it's mainly in the context of the conflict modified by some aspect of the combatants. The trogs’ stench or half a ghoul corpse within grabbing reach of a bag of treasure.
Now I think it is worth noting that the ogre (6+1 HD), troglodytes (3x attacks), ghouls (paralyzing touch), and giant lizards (6 HD) will provide an ample challenge. And for my PCs the giant lizards certainly did. But while the PCs might find combat with these creatures daunting, the choice here is a wise one for the DM for three reasons. First, while I am not an advocate of meat-grinder dungeons, players (even veterans) will sometimes draw swords as a first solution unless confronted with an obvious asymmetrical disadvantage. These monsters teach or remind the players to seek other ways of resolution. Second, all of these creatures, save for the giant lizards, are intelligent and can be reasoned with or at least have wants they might express to the PCs. Parley is always on the table with at least an offer of coin or food. Third, the presence of higher HD creatures prevents the dungeon from becoming “exhausted” once the PCs have completed it by whatever measure. This non-exhausted dungeon can now become a future source of adventure that the PCs are familiar with through experience. And this is good because the world is not back at a zero-state the players have to re-learn. New problems arise from familiar locations. This provides a further equalizer in whatever solution the PCs come up with against say a rampaging ogre arising from the Hole. And speaking of dungeon longevity…
THE LINGERING EFFECTS of the DUNGEON
I think a final aspect of a good beginning dungeon is the ability to help the DM generate ideas to support a continuing campaign. Two aspects I think facilitate idea generation are flexible hooks and, more broadly, fantastical ideas drawn from general mythological, symbolic, or fairy-tale sources rather than D&D self-reference. The first adventure will be the longest experience new players have with the campaign and maybe D&D in general. By building off that initial experience, a DM can maximize the time invested by players and the interest generated to create forward momentum. An ideal state, I think, is to have players saying, “what next!?” or “Here’s what we should do with this gold…” as opposed to, “…is that it?”. Flexible hooks centered on mythological, symbolic, or fairy-tale like elements also allow players new to D&D to generate their own next steps in the world without apriori D&D knowledge—such a critical element
What is a flexible hook? My definition is a hook that (1) can be related to a wide variety of character classes, (2) easily understood by novice players, and (3) helps the DM build out a piece of the world beyond the adventure. The Hole in the Oak has several that fit this description:
- Potential factions: The history section briefly outlines both the reptile cult and their opposition The White League. Related is the crypt of Jorg the Defiler and the Azure Serpent Blade. Jorg defied Kezek—another name of importance.
- Notable trouble-causing NPCs: Also mentioned are two wizards who make appearances: Bozurah the Imperishable, who claims the dungeon, and, in the random encounter table, Hazard the Unholy—who is responsible for the irresponsible upkeep of tiny people in bottles.
- Soon-to-be PC antagonists: Also found are heretic gnomes who worship a demon-infested tree stump—a fun twist on the expectations of gnomes. Similarly, there is the trio of evil cannibalistic fauns present as well.
- Mystery for all involved: Finally, there is the giant seemingly benevolent bronze statue also in the dungeon. And the black skeletons
|Wil Hugyen's Gnome
But, again, key is none of this require special knowledge because it's easily understood by people’s prior experience with fantasy and fairytales or at least if they’ve watched the Witcher on Netflix or any of the Marvel/Lord of the Rings movies: evil faction vs. good faction; meddlesome wizards; demon-worshiping cult; trickster goat people. And the players’ time in the dungeon will inform their decision making in the world at large and for the continued campaign—time-well spent. A DM does not have to find another adventure and re-start the players’ knowledge from zero. And because of a fairy-tale base, The Hole in the Oak is easy to match with other material in the fantasy adventure space.
And there you have it, The Hole in the Oak is a fantastic starting adventure due to an engaging opening yielding to a fairy-tale fantasy adventure familiar to most (potentially new) players of D&D with enough hooks to continue beyond its slim page count. If you are interested in the playthrough report of this module, it can be found at:
Reviewer's Playthrough on "I Cast Light"
 For veteran players a good opening helps define what the campaign is about in a “show don’t tell manner”. Similar to how Shakespeare opens up Romeo and Juliet with a factional fight or Hamlet with his father’s ghost.
 I believe the one thing that will kill “official” D&D will be its continued self-reference. It will build a continuingly higher & higher barrier to entry that eventually is too insurmountable. Some evidence of this? Magic the Gathering has to combine its IP into other IP properties like D&D, Warhammer, and even Stranger Things. A new player might not understand the whole “Magic thing”, but they did watch Stranger Things or they do play Warhammer. Only time until Magic the Gathering Marvel Heroes because they’ve just gone “cyberpunk” with their new block.