N5 Under Illefarn was the first module written for the Forgotten Realms setting. (N4’s setting was retroactively put into the Realms after publication, and while I think I3-5 Desert of Desolation came out with a Forgotten Realms logo on it first, that was also a case of shoehorning older material into the Realms.) It centers around the town of Daggerford near the Sword Coast about 200 miles south of Waterdeep, and at the edge of the 30 mile/inch maps of the original boxed set.

It is also my first PDF purchase from the D&D Classics store. The quality is a little disappointing. The text has been completely converted over by OCR, and is in good shape. There’s a few glitches (such as a list of spells cutting off at the end of a page, and then the second half of a paragraph from the middle of that page at the beginning of the next) that are probably from the TSR original, though I’m guessing the two commas in a row at one point is new. The cover resolution is barely adequate, and the back cover shows serious artifacting in the text and is crooked. Worse, the maps from the outer screen are passable, but don’t look like they’d survive printing out. The most painful part for me is the header banners. These are identical on each page (well, left and right reversed), but each page has its own copy of the banner, many of which are extremely crooked, and none of which are entirely true. I’m sure this is being done fast and cheap, but it wouldn’t have been too much more work to scan it right once, square it off, and copy and paste it to each page (especially since the same header was used in both N4 and N5, so you just need to do it once for both). On the other hand, the interior maps and illustrations look to be in good shape.

As a “Novice” module, it begins with a fair amount of advice for new players and DMs. It’s not overly long or involved, but does help with getting a feel for the type of place Daggerford is, and what kinds of people live there. After the pure intro sections, there’s about fourteen pages of information about the town itself. Looking around online, I’m a little disappointed not to be able to find any discussion of playing through the module, though I did find a thread where a few people talked about using Daggerford as the beginning point of their Forgotten Realms campaigns because it’s presented well in N5.

In general, the town makes sense (…not always a given with TSR). The fact that the outer wall is a wooden palisade on an earthen rampart, with stone towers embedded in it, is unusual, but not nonsensical. Combined with the existence of cisterns and a common field reserved for use in a siege shows a better grasp of military realities than other products of the time. Better yet, is the main module hook: every able-bodied adult in Daggerford is liable for service in the militia. Service is generally once a month, and a visitor who stays longer than two weeks will start getting asked to take part. No ‘you happen to meet in a bar’, or other awkward campaign starter here. You’re a resident in Daggerford, you’re liable for militia duty, this happens to be your time, and here’s your orders. As long as there’s no problems with buy-in for the general situation, the rest should be fine.

I’d appreciate some discussion of ‘normal’ militia duty here, and how monthly assignments are determined. A few hooks for more interaction with the local population during normal duty for those interested would be nice. But, this is AD&D, and we’re here for action and adventure, not for Adam-12, so fine; but I think it would have been a good idea to remind the beginning DM again that this is about when unusual incidents happen to the town, and normal life is happening in between. At any rate, the rest of the module is a set of four small adventures of escalating size and complexity. Other than the last, they’re meant to be able to run in any order, but the order given makes a lot of sense.

The biggest surprise for me is repeated use of ceratosaurs early in the module (one random encounter, and a few incidents in the first adventure). If the nearby swamp is supposed to have something of a ‘lost world’ feel to it, I wish the author would just say so. Not being a dinosaur fan, I’d probably just have to give an embarrassed shrug if a player gave me a ‘really?‘ look after presenting one of those straight.

Plot-wise, the first two adventures are pretty straightforward, but stubborn players could get into a lot of trouble with the third one. I think the first two should be pretty easy to do in a single long session; I’m not sure about the third adventure, but I think it’s designed for no more than two sessions, but I could see it dragging out a bit.

The fourth and final adventure is much more complex and is the heart of the module. Unfortunately, typical TSR editing problems show up here. The first of several maps related to this section shows up in the previous adventure, some eight pages away from the key describing it. The adventure is both more complex than the previous ones, and gets into regular tropes. The adventurers are sent to find a source of pollution that is killing animals and destroying crops, and headed downstream to Daggerford. This leads to fairly small, but complex, dungeon that is being fought over by three factions. There’s eleven sub-maps showing parts of the complex, and two side-view diagrams showing how they all fit together across four levels, but it’s just not presented well. I recommend looking up the maps here, that show how the sections fit together into those four levels.

The biggest problems of the adventure turn up here. There’s a serious case of ‘helpless competent NPC’ here (which is addressed in the text, but a bit later and lighter than might be wise), and if the party screwed up in the third adventure, the person who is to ask for the PCs wouldn’t want to see them again, or may never have met them (or even be dead!). This is generally unlikely, but never count on the PCs to do something…. At any rate, all the previous adventures can have ties to this one, but they’re bonuses, not essential parts of their plots. This last adventure is decidedly longer than the others, and text refers to places party can go back to as safe bases, and a possible way to introduce new characters if there are some deaths. It’s possible for this one to wrap up quickly, with most of the area unexplored, but more likely, it will drag on a while (possibly after the main problem is solved), while the party works their way through the rambling complex.

Overall, the dungeon is a little odd, with large numbers of rooms being only given a cursory group listing, but this actually works well, and makes a lot more sense for the setting, and in general. There’s some secret doors that no one else in the area has found, and while they’re hiding important areas, there’s no description is given of how they work, presumably leaving discovery to pure mechanics and die rolling. It is easy to lose track of just what the central concern of the party is going through all this, but there’s a nice ending section that brings that back to the fore, and provides some wrap up.

As a whole, this looks to be one of the better ‘beginner’ adventures I’ve seen, with fairly minimal problems, and a variety of things for the party to get involved in. It is more of a ‘scripted’ adventure than many others of the type, but less so than N4 Treasure Hunt was, and I think some plot guidance is a good thing here. The scaling up of size and scope of adventures looks really good, and I would think that players who started with the first adventure would really feel like they’ve accomplished something at the end.