Is the Moathouse the Perfect Low-Level Dungeon?

Very few adventures can be played in any edition of D&D and still be awesome. The Moathouse, from T1 The Village of Hommlet, is one of those dungeons.

The Moathouse


T1 The Village of Hommlet is one of my favourite adventures of all time. Earlier this year, I blogged about why Hommlet is awesome. In the post, I threatened/promised to talk a bit about the Moathouse and why I think it’s the perfect (or near-perfect) example of a low-level dungeon.

(And yes, while writing this I was wearing my +5 rose-tinted spectacles of Gygax appreciation. I think they might be cursed; I can’t seem to remove them…)

So What’s Good?

Over 5 pages and 35 encounter areas, Gary packs an incredible amount of detail into the module. Like so many of his adventures, he gives you just enough to be going on with, and leaves you—the GM—with the design space to make the dungeon your own. Here’s the five reasons I think it’s great:

  • It’s Self-Contained: The Moathouse is wholly self-contained. If the party doesn’t want to progress onwards to the Temple of Elemental Evil, they aren’t forced to do so. They can simply loot the ruins and move on. While this is unlikely—most GMs will run the Moathouse as part of the greater Temple of Elemental Evil campaign—the locale can still be easily used as a standalone adventure site. It’s generic enough to be be set almost anywhere in a “normal” campaign world.
  • It’s Linked to Greater Adventures: While the Moathouse is self-contained, it has links to further adventures. This is great, if the PCs decide to explore the nearby Temple of Elemental Evil. Linking the two adventures takes zero effort on behalf of the GM. Even better, if the PCs don’t want to visit the temple, the temple might force the matter. If Lareth is slain—and the party identified as the perpetrators—the heroes may be the target of an assassination attempt (which could propel them into the greater adventure).
  • It’s Got Different Zones: The Moathouse doesn’t just contain one basic type of foe; it’s got several. The upper ruins host vermin and animals; elsewhere lurk bandits. In the lower level we’ve got undead, evil humanoids and cultists. This keeps what is essentially a slew of combats interesting and fresh and gives the heroes opportunities to use different tactics, spells and so on.
  • It’s Got Verisimilitude: The Moathouse reeks of realism (as far as is possible in a fantasy game); it feels like a place that could really exist. Its history, including recent events, is evident in the character and flavour of the place as well as those lurking within the ruin. The Moathouse has got lots of cool details a GM can use to flesh out the place and reward attentive play.
  • It’s Got a Mix of Challenges: In some places, the party must simply batter their way through the opposition. In others, they must overcome or bypass environmental challenges such as a rotting drawbridge. Secret doors, lurking traps and hidden treasures give something for the rogues to do while the undead provide a prime target for any clerics or paladins in the group. (And, of course, there’s lots of things for fighters to whack).

(In fact, I liked these facets of the Moathouse so much as used several of them to inform my design of there Shadowed Keep on the BorderlandsRaging Swan’s most popular adventure.)

So What’s Bad?

The Moathouse is a fantastic adventure locale, but (sadly) it has a couple of flaws:

  • Nothing for Wizards: While there is some treasure for wizards and their ilk, there’s nothing special for such characters to do in the ruins beyond cast spells.
  • Not A Lot of Talking: Most of the ruin’s denizens aren’t particularly pre-disposed to talk to the PCs. In most cases, combat is the inevitable (and immediate) result of encountering any given group. On the upper level, the bandits are the most likely—or only—group the party could speak with, and the text provides no guidance on the matter. In the lower level, there are a few more possibilities for roleplaying—some of the gnolls will desert if bribed and the PCs could speak with Lareth in the Chamber of the New Master. (However, this is almost certainly going to end in combat and/or betrayal).

Of course, these imperfections could be fixed by any half-competent GM but it’s a shame they exist in the first place.

So is it Perfect?

At its heart, the Moathouse is a simple two-level dungeon and that’s part of its genius. It aims to be one thing, and it does it spectacularly well. Is it perfect? No; but it’s damn close!

And even better than that, it stands the test of time superbly. I’ve run it repeatedly with multiple edition of D&D and we’ve had a blast every time. If you haven’t run your current group through the Moathouse (and if they haven’t visited Hommlet) stop reading this and go dust off your copy!

Do You Agree?

In any event, do you agree? Is there a better low-level dungeon (not adventure, dungeon) out there? What did I miss? Let me know in the comments below!


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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

11 thoughts on “Is the Moathouse the Perfect Low-Level Dungeon?”

  1. The only problem I ever had with the Moat house is that there seems to be no set-up towards “the new master”. The few times I have been in it, the party just ran into another room “oh, look, this one’s a cleric.” and down he goes– no build-up in drama, no story. In one game, the GM made sure he got away to threaten to be a recurring villain. Unfortunately, he became a running gag, as we made sure to blacken his reputation as often as possible.

    Lareth kisses hobbits. Pass it on.

  2. My only issue is that I feel like the fight with Lareth and his men is far too hard for the suggested level range. I mean some second and third level characters could make a difference but there isn’t enough treasure to level a party beforehand.

  3. I love the Village of Hommelet, however in four maybe five tries I feel I haven’t been able to run it well. It’s got lots of stuff but not really lots of stuff.
    I think your pro points are quite valid. I prefer your Shadowed Keep to the moat house because of its palpable history, distinct zones and opportunities for parlay. I agree with your cons too and would add it doesn’t have a wilderness “zone”. I suppose this allows it to more easily be dropped into any game world. No wilderness zones is one of the things that separate it from Orlane, The Keep on the Borderlands and Nights Dark Terror or Eye of the Serpent.

  4. The fight with Lareth can be very difficult. I had a group of 1st-2nd level characters (eight in all) take it on and they were soundly trounced. Instead of letting them die, I had them captured and thrown in with the gnome. Of course, they promptly escaped, recovered their equipment, and went to face Lareth again, better prepared. This time, while the fight was tough, they prevailed, largely through better tactics.

  5. Perfect low-level dungeon? Excellent module (T1) and dungeon – yes. Perfect – no. The question is subjective, but then I guess that is the whole point of this blog post.

    “Very few adventures…in any edition of D&D” – only the majority of the Basic modules, especially the earlier ones. The only 1st level AD&D adventures back in the early days were T1 Village of Hommlet, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God and U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, all great adventures, but the selection was limited unless you wrote your own adventures. Len Lakofka missed the mark by setting L1 The Secret of Bone Hill as being for level 2+ adventurers (an intro adventure to get to level 2 would have been nice).

    This is indeed a great adventure, and quite challenging, but it does not stand out as being the best. One might favour Horror On The Hill or The Lost City over this. They all have their merits, and it’s largely a question of taste.

  6. I love Hommlet as much as I love Keep on the Borderlands (B2), Cult of the Reptile God (N1), and Secret of Saltmarsh (U1). Bone Hill (L1) could count if you are willing to find a way to get your PCs to second levels.

    I think one of the secrets in Hommlet is recruiting muscle, like Elmo, to accompany the team. When they hit the heavy boss fight, he’d be useful. Admittedly, due to his cover as a simpleton, he’s not going to be as useful as he doesn’t want to blow cover, but he can smash things. There are other good potential hires (and some risky ones like Kobort) that could help get to the Moathouse, but perhaps be a problem otherwise.

    If I have a few nits to call out of the larger T1 + Temple, it would be:

    a) 6 miles is too close for Nulb. I’d say 16 or more might make more sense. 6 miles is walkable in an afternoon. That’s just too close for much to go unnoticed.

    b) The Hommlet map makes the turn off to the Moathouse too obvious.

    c) There aren’t any rumours and there isn’t a chart of NPCs so finding one you are looking for (I was looking for Rufus’ stats when the party elected to go straight to the top for a job) can be a bit of poking around in room descriptions.

    d) There ought to be more wilderness happening. I like this for several reasons: traveling is a good way to get some description of an area conveyed to the players, traveling can be a source of encounters and XP, possibly allies or enemies, and it could let Rangers, Druids, woodsy races and woodsy Clerics do some things. These ‘warm up’ encounters (including perhaps small ambushes) can let the players figure out how to fight together and coordinate if they are new players before they take on the Moathouse and at least one boss fight that’s kinda tough. The XP may also help get some of them to L2 before they dig deep into the Moathouse.

    e) I like them not naming everyone (I like to use particular region-specific namings to make modules fit into an area, along with modifying some of the description of woods and meadows) but in any case, give me a roster of NPCs and leave me a blank to name them. That way I can quickly populate the Welcome Wench with different people every eve (and some regulars) without needing to read every cottage description.

    f) Given that the Temple was only smashed a few decades ago, some in the village would remember that and likely since it required and army, people passing through larger centers and other villages might hear the tale before they get to Hommlet. If bad things start happening, players (if not characters) will immediately start thinking ‘Hmm, guess the Temple’s coming back’ so there’s not a lot of mystery or misdirection. I suspect players who heard that bit of history would immediately ask where the ruins are and head there to check it out.

    If they’d set the Temple’s crushing back over 100 years, they’d have something that had faded from knowledge in many places and even in Hommlet it might be an old wives tale to scare children into bed at night by now.

    The rumor table I was suggesting could also muddy the waters by mentioning bandits on the road and groups of marauding goblins or orcs. Some of these could have Moathouse ties (or at least be organized by an agent from same) or they could be entirely unrelated. Then the players would not immediately know that the Temple was the big threat.

    I’m curious how close to the original KOTB map your SKOTB map is… I mean, the idea of turning the old Keep into a dungeon (vs. a base) is totally awesome. It fits with the Caves of Chaos (one day, they overwhelm the garrison) and then it leaves the Keep as a recovery project that players could involve themselves in for many levels (if you start throwing in slavers, more humanoids, maybe giants, you have an entire progression to L9+ without changing locale).

    Good blog!

  7. I concur! I’m running this beauty currently, converted to 5E. One of the great things about having run it more than once is that several of the Hommlet NPCs tend to become a bit more 3D and lifelike. Better yet, I find it gets easier to layer in more plot hooks and historical exposition via those characters as time goes on since they’ve “been around for a while,” so to speak.

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