“Welcome to Nightmare Keep, one of the most demanding adventures your players will ever experience. The challenges awaiting within these pages are intended for only the most skilled, courageous, and resourceful heroes of the Forgotten Realms. Novices are advised to turn back now.”
-Nightmare Keep, Pg. 3
Written by Rick Swan and published in 1991, Nightmare Keep is a high level adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. Designed for 4-6 characters level 18-20, the module combines traditional dungeon crawling with an emphasis on deadly traps, puzzles, and a heavy dose of otherworldly horror for good measure. It feels like TSR’s attempt to create an adventure for 2nd Edition that is as iconic and infamous as 1st Edition’s Tomb of Horrors. Did it succeed?
Nightmare Keep never developed the infamy of Tomb of Horrors, in fact I rarely hear it mentioned in OSR circles. That’s a pity, because it is a good adventure. I would even say that it does several things better than Tomb of Horrors. However it suffers from several flaws that hold it back.
Let’s start with the good stuff, and fortunately that’s the meat of the adventure. Something evil stirs beneath Woloverton Keep; an unknown horror that has already claimed the lives of several powerful adventures. As the characters enter its forgotten halls they find themselves trapped in the maze of Icelia, an ancient lich with far-reaching plans. As they descend deeper into the labyrinth the horrors around them grow more alien and horrific and the players begin to uncover Icelia’s plot; the labyrinth itself is designed to generate and absorb feelings of dread and suffering, emotions Icelia is collecting to fuel her unstoppable army of monstrous insect creatures.
Right there, I’m hooked. Nightmare Keep is a funhouse dungeon, but one with a purpose, and that makes it work for me. Plus, the madness doesn’t begin right away, instead it grows more and more as the party descends deeper into the dungeon.
Now let’s talk about dungeon design, which is very good. With this kind of adventure it would be easy to fall into a completely linear design, but Nightmare Keep avoids this. While it is certainly not an “open” layout, and it is meant to funnel the characters deeper, there are options on how the players proceed and in what order they face Icelia’s challenges.
The environments are beautifully creepy and there is as much of an emphasis on problem solving as straight up fights, perhaps more. The progressive changes that occur in the dungeon as the players make it further in is also an excellent idea and contributes to the atmosphere of horror. The original monster designs are also excellent, with the lichlings being an inspired monster. There is also a fun set of tables for random sensory and physical encounters, strange things meant to pump up the spook-factor.
Also worth mentioning is the beautiful artwork. The cover is by Brom and has a very Conan-esq feel to it. The interior art is by Valerie Valusek and Terry Dykstra, and it warms my OSR heart. The interior art is lovely and focused on dungeoneering. It would feel at home in an early TSR adventure, right alongside the work of greats like David Trampier.
The core of the adventure is solid and worth your time to check out. As to things I’m not a fan of? There is nothing that is a deal-breaker. It’s more a series of smaller issues that collectively hold the adventure back.
Let’s start with the map.
This is a fantastic map, beautifully rendered with nice flourishes. The use of color in the map is not only aesthetically pleasing, it is also functional, making it easier for the DM to chart the players’ course through the entwined dungeon passages.
However, it’s also impractical. Printed in a fold-out poster sized format, it’s too big to be easily used at the gaming table. A tiled format would be far more useful for running the game. The poster map is nice enough that I’d consider hanging it on the wall, but it’s also printed on both sides, so half of this beautiful work would be hidden. If Nightmare Keep was produced today with Kickstarter, they’d probably release it with a map book and save the poster map for a stretch goal.
Next there is the core of the adventure. While I’ve sung its praises, there are still a few things I’d change. Unraveling the secrets of the dungeon and Iceleia’s plans is a big part of the fun in Nightmare Keep, but while there are some hints provided along the way, they’re minor. The adventure relies on a massive reveal at the climax of the adventure. I’d rather see more solid clues spread out through the dungeon. The biggest reveal would have more punch if the players already think they understand the scope of the lich’s plan.
Treasure is surprisingly shy. Again, the adventure relies on a massive hoard towards the end, and it’s a treasure that the players may completely miss out on if they overlook something seemingly minor early in the game. I’d rather see more minor treasures spread out to whet the player’s appetite.
Now we get to my biggest problems, the framework for the adventure. In keeping with TSR’s objectives of the time, this adventure is solidly tied in to the Forgotten Realms. While you could move the core adventure to any other world, there are several pages of setup for the adventure that are tied to Cormyr. The setup also includes long stretches of boxed dialog from the king’s representative that make specific assumptions about the character’s motivations. This adventure is meant for the “good guys”, not battle hardened adventures out for loot and fame. It would be hard to reconcile the dialog as written for a party that includes evil or even neutral party members. You can come up with your own of course, but seeing several pages out of a 62 page module devoted to this makes TSR’s intentions clear.
This also ties in with my least favorite part of the module, the ending. Specifically, what happens if the party fails. While I appreciate that the game is designed to allow for a Total Party Kill, the epilogue falls prey to TSR’s commitment to keeping the status quo. Should the party be wiped out, their actions have still done enough damage to Icelia’s plan that it will eventually fail. At the time, TSR was committed to keeping control of how their worlds developed and encouraging gaming groups everywhere to share the same setting. If there were going to be changes to the Forgotten Realms, they wanted it to be due to events in one of their big boxed sets, or more likely one of their novels. Seeing this written in to the adventure annoys me and blunts the significance of success or failure.
In the end, none of these are major issues. Collectively they’re an annoyance, but there isn’t anything that can’t be discarded or adjusted to suit your preferences. Nightmare Keep may not have achieved the status of an iconic adventure, but that shouldn’t keep you from taking a look at it. If you want a high level challenge for your old school game, it’s well worth your time to track down. I think it would also be an excellent candidate for conversion to Dungeon Crawl Classics.
Nightmare Keep is available in .pdf format from the Dungeon Masters Guild site (Formerly DND Classics), Drive Thru RPG, and RPG Now.
Have you ever run or played through Nightmare Keep? I’d love to hear your stories about it.