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The Star Cairns (2e)

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Derro swarm in the Abbor-Alz. The Doomgrinder windmill's blades approach their zenith. Strange sightings in Hardby and rumors of a bandit empire in the mountains have commoners and nobles concerned. The Circle of Eight hopes that the key to averting this disaster can be found in the mysteries of a group of five ancient crypts, the Star Cairns. But first someone has to find the fifth cairn . . . .

Five separate adventure sites playable individually or linked together, The Star Cairnscan provide a diversion for treasure-hungry adventurers—or can be used as the seeds for an extensive campaign. Although the adventures are designed for four to eight characters of levels 5-8, each section can be adjusted for weaker or stronger groups.

The Lost Tombs series continues with The Crypt of Lyzandred the Mad (Volume 2) and The Doomgrinder (Volume 3).

Product History

"The Star Cairns" (1998), by Sean Reynolds, is the first adventure in the Lost Tombs trilogy. It was published in September 1998.

Origins (I): Return to Greyhawk. The first three Greyhawk products of 1998 were foundation, laying the groundwork for a whole new line. "The Star Cairns" then built on that groundwork, offering the first old-school Greyhawk adventure in many years.

However, there was already one major change to the line: the previous three supplement had all used an extreme two-column format, with a narrow column on the edge and a wide column in the middle. Though "The Star Cairns" maintains the arty borders of the previous books, it reverts to more standard columns. As Reynolds explained it, one of the problems with the short-lived format of the previous books was that it "made art and maps a real pain".

Origins (II): A New Designer. The "Star Cairns" project was given to Sean K. Reynolds, a new designer at Wizards of the Coast. It was his first full-length solo project, after contributions to books like "Children of the Night: Ghosts" (1997) and shorter RPGA adventures. A project the size of "Star Carins" would usually have had a five-week turnaround, but Reynolds was only given four weeks. Then his next project, "The Crypt of Lyzandred the Mad" was due just two weeks after that. So, time was short!

As might be expected for a first project, there were some glitches. For one, no one told Reynolds about Wizards' style guides or their Word templates. To keep things simple, he wrote the adventure in a plain text file. He now says that he's surprised that his editor, Kij Johnson, didn't kill him for that. Reynolds also had the wrong word count, and so overwrote by 25%. If you think the print is small in "Star Cairns", that's why.

Origins (III): Back to the Ashes. All three of the Lost Tombs have a somewhat surprising origin: these new dungeons aren't based on any of Gary Gygax's Greyhawk lore. Instead, they're all based on references and plot seeds from Carl Sargent's From the Ashes (1992).

There, the Star Cairns get a quarter page as part of the "Abbor-Alz". They are said to be four partially looted tombs of Suloise wizards; fiends stalk them looking for the lost fifth Cairn. Curiously, Reynolds' cairns don't turn out to be burial sites at all, as was suggested by Sargent; instead, they were lairs and laboratories. This would not be the last time that the concept of a Lost Tomb changed dramatically between 1992 and 1998.

Adventure Tropes. However, "The Star Cairns" does whole-heartedly embrace Sargent's idea that the tombs were partially looted. Each tomb is laid out out with notes on "the cairn's history" and "the modern cairn", melding together its origins and its current usage. This was an old trick; Ed Greenwood talked about evolving his dungeons over time as players looted them, particularly in the dungeons that became FRQ1: "Haunted Hall of Eveningstar" (1992). However, the trope was pretty rare in published products.

Otherwise, the "Star Cairns" is a fairly typical dungeon crawl (or more precisely: five dungeon crawls), something that was little seen in the '90s. The extra details on the cairns' origins and usage show how much even this classic trope had changed in twenty years time.

Adventure Tropes: Variable Levels.> "The Star Cairns" clearly says that it's for characters of levels 5 to 8, but it makes a half-hearted attempt to support characters at different levels by giving guidance for adjusting to "low-level" and "high-level" parties.

Expanding D&D: The Missing Rule. While playtesting this adventure, Jonathan Tweet discovered that the AD&D 2e rules (1989, 1995) had neglected to ever provide rules for what a human had to roll to detect a secret door. D&D staff had long assumed that the 1e rules, which said a human had to roll a 1 on a d6, were in the 2e rules … somewhere. (They weren't.)

Exploring Greyhawk. The Star Cairns are located in Abbor-Alz, southeast of the City of Greyhawk. Other than some random encounters for Abbor-Alz, however, all the detail is focused on the five Star Cairns, including not just the delves, but some nice history too. This was a return to a classic area, following on C2: "The Ghost Tower of Inverness" (1980), which lies quite near to two of the Cairns, as shown on the area map.

NPCs of Note. Lyzandred the Mad has quite a bit to do with the history of the cairns, though most of those details appear in "Crypt of Lyzandred the Mad" (1998). He also left graffiti on all the cairns, to lead foolish wizards to his lair (and the next module in the series).

About the Creators. Reynolds was just getting his start at Wizards of the Coast. He'd continue on with the next adventure in the series, "Crypt of Lyzandred the Mad" (1998).

About the Product Historian

The history of this product was researched and written by Shannon Appelcline, the editor-in-chief of RPGnet and the author of Designers & Dragons - a history of the roleplaying industry told one company at a time. Please feel free to mail corrections, comments, and additions to shannon.appelcline@gmail.com. Thanks to the Acaeum for careful research on Monster Manual printings.

 
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Author(s)
Rules Edition(s)
Pages
48
Edition
1.0
Publisher Stock #
TSR 9579
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File Last Updated:
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This title was added to our catalog on June 06, 2017.