I’m finally taking the time to finish this review, because Jenx told me it’s a good practice to review adventure’s you’ve run. And I agree.
The Shattered Circle is a Dungeon.
It is a pretty solid dungeon.
It is also often overlooked, despite having been written by a pretttty famous designer, Bruce R. Cordell. It came out towards the end-times of TSR D&D (for AD&D 2e), and, among that batch of adventures, it is overshadowed by his works for later editions, or the Sahuagin or the Illithid Trilogies.
When compared to those adventure cycles, The Shattered Circle is different in scope and aim. It’s supposed to be a true adventure MODULE, one that you can easily slot into your own world. So, while I was also drawn to the over-the-top beauty of, say, Cordell’s The Gates of Firestorm Peak, I picked this one when I needed a medium-sized dungeon complex to slot into the 5e campaign I ran back when (there is a Classic Modules Today supplement available). It’s almost setting-neutral. And the dungeon’s connections to the overworld are easy to tailor to your own liking. And you probably should, because the hooks offered in the book are, hmm, underwhelming/uninspiring. However, as this was an on-going campaign, with established conflicts and NPCs, I just modified a couple of things as needed.
--- From here on be spoilers ---
What did I change? Surprisingly little. I put the campaign-driving portal to the Feywild the party was seeking down in the deepest room of the dungeon. I got rid of two or three empty rooms, and the riddle-based tests in one of the areas – I don’t generally like riddles.
What did this leave me with? A lot of fun stuff.
This is a 75-room dungeon, spread out over three levels. The Upper and Lower levels are part of an ancient dungeon complex/arcane laboratory. To keep things varied, they are separated by a middle area, which is a large cave, with one of the best set pieces of this module. There is one main entrance into the complex, but after that there are many passages to follow, with alternative ways of access to deeper levels.
The main sentient creatures are the arachno-humanoid Chitines, split into two opposing factions. You get a lot of variety from the other monsters and wanderers: from the more common undead to freakin dinosaurs and gibbering mouthers. So there is definitely a cool weird tinge to this place. The presence of all of them is explained, and there is ample space in the dungeon between their main lairs, so there is no “monster hotel” effect.
Speaking of ample space: I love it when the cramped corridors of the upper zone give way to the caverns below. And in the central cave, there is the magnificent set piece of the Chitine city, a gigantic spherical mass of webbing suspended mid-air. Comes with a great illustration to boot!!
The dungeon also presents a variety of challenges: from combat through diplomacy to navigational challenges. There is even a flooded sub-zone. One of the challenges is a three-component “key search”, which might feel a bit computer-gamey, but my players actually enjoyed it (and it forced them to face their greatest fear, the aforementioned flooded area, for some cool underwater action).
I ran this from a PDF, and printed out the maps for ease of reference. The publication is overwritten by today’s OSR standards, but many important details are highlighted, and the room keys are structured in a uniform, predictable way, so there shouldn’t be much trouble running it after a read-through of the whole thing. Yes, there is boxed text, generally kept to a sensible length (3-4 sentences), and evocatively written, so I used some of the phrases and sentences as-is. They give a good description of the initial impression the party gets from the room.
Overall, I definitely recommend this adventure. It is a good fit for modern or old-school games, quite versatile, and evocative. The tone veers towards dark fantasy, with some Lovecraftian touches you can emphasize if needed.