Friday, October 30, 2009

Black Sheep: Gates of Firestorm Peak

Welcome back to another installment of Black Sheep, where I (we?) recognize and celebrate the precious few shining lights to come out of the Dark Ages of D&D: The 1990s.

Today's subject: Gates of Firestorm Peak (GoFP), a 1996 AD&D module by Bruce Cordell. Since it's an adventure, anybody out there with an inkling that your referee might want to run you through this one should probably stop reading now before any spoilers show up. I'll try not to get too detailed, though.

GoFP would seem to have two huge strikes against it right from the start. Debuting in the latter half of the 90s, it runs smack into the common belief that TSR releases only got worse and worse as the decade rolled on, culminating in downright putrid dreck like the Diablo computer game tie-in products.

Second, it was advertised as being a showcase for options taken from the then-new Skills & Powers expansion rulebooks. Ack.

Still, GoFP weighed-in at a remarkable 11th place in the late Dungeon Magazine's "30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time" countdown, which otherwise featured "Golden Age" D&D adventures from the early 80s almost exclusively.

How? Here's the lowdown: GoFP is a 96-page "Underdark crawl" adventure with some interesting Lovecraftian twists for parties of 5th-8th level characters. The back cover has this to say:

"Once a generation, they say, a strange comet appears in the sky overhead and the gates of Firestorm Peak swing open. Twenty-seven years ago, your father led his band of adventurers into the mysterious mountain, never to return. Now the Dragon's Tear once more flickers in the sky, and the glass gates on the mountainside beckon. Will you pass through to discover the secrets that await beyond the portal none has ever dared and returned?"

This summary is pretty accurate, although you should feel free to ignore the fact that this sounds hella railroady thanks to the "missing father" angle. In fact, that's only one of many suggested ways of involving PCs in the adventure. Blame that one on whichever poor sap churned-out TSR's ad copy around that time.

The module opens with a brief description of Longbridge, a small town close to Firestorm Peak that allows PCs the opportunity to do some shopping and maybe fish for some tavern rumors before taking-on the dungeon itself.

Once through the Gates, the dungeon complex is divided into three main sectors:

The Outer Complex: This area is heavily populated by Duergar (evil dwarves; mounted on giant tarantulas, no less) and a handful of other intelligent underground races. Quick wits, stealth, trickery, and diplomacy are key here, since the prospect of attempting to plow straight through the heart of a well-manned Duergar outpost is daunting to say the least. Less hack-and-slash PCs might even have the opportunity to replenish their supplies at a cavern bazaar frequented by numerous underworld denizens.

The Twisted Caverns: Are just what they sound like. This is more of an underground wilderness area, so expect inhabitants to generally fit the ravenous beast archetype. Parties worn down by too much unnecessary combat in the Outer Complex will have the odds stacked heavily against them here.

The Inner Sanctum/Vast Gate: It's here that surviving PCs can unravel the mystery at the heart of Firestorm Peak: An ancient gateway to a malignant alien reality that's presently seeping-through to contaminate the PC's own in various disturbing ways. If they're smart and lucky, they may be able to seal it off. If not, they may very well never see the light of day again.

GoFP is a lengthy adventure and a difficult one. It will take several playing sessions, some smart players, and even a bit of luck to successfully complete. It's strongly non-linear, with more than one way to tackle the dungeon's challenges. Most of all, it positively oozes freaky flavor. The alien life forms infesting the depths of the dungeon are truly unsettling in their aspect and the gradual transition from a classic Underdark romp to the heart of an otherworldly Foulness is handled quite deftly.

As for the Skills & Powers dross, do what I and probably almost everybody else did and ignore it. It's remarkably easy.

As one of the few TSR adventures from its period with a reputation that's actually improved significantly over time, you can expect a used copy of GoFP to run you more than average, but it can still be found for sale around the $20.00 or less range if you spend some time shopping around.

Word to the wise: Try to make sure all the very neat color maps are included with the booklet itself before you buy.


  1. I liked this adventure, and kept it in my collection while I was jettisoning other less noteworthy adventures.

  2. I remember back when we ran this one.

    "You enter the next cavern. You start to feel dizzy..."

    "I run back out."

    "Good call."