Sunday, April 26, 2009

Five Classic D+D Modules that didn't suck

OK, I loved every minute of playing D+D back in the '80's. Who cared if the environments we were given by the gaming industry led us on another boring hack and slash adventure. We were young adolescence, and violence was fun. Interesting characters and intricate plots, if they existed, were purely due to the accident of a good GM, who could provide those things on his own.

Still, some of these old modules smell just as fresh as the day I removed the shrink-wrap.

5. Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits (David Sutherland, Gary Gygax). OK, I ranted against the six modules that led up to this one. And, like many Gygax modules, it is filled with pointless combat encounters. But those encounters almost all include twists to keep players thinking (like the demons polymorphed into white mice, or the Drow agents assulting the party from behind peepholes). This was one of the first high-level adventures published, and it was the first extra-planar adventure. It did not disappoint on either front. The challenges are challenging but not insurmountable. The Demonweb really was an alien place, with its own physical laws for players to discover. Lolth became one of the hobby's most persistent villains, not because she was tough, but because she was sinistersexycool. Much as I hate the artwork of Erol Otis, his image of her in a spiderweb bikini getting cozy with two demons fueled about half of my adolescent fantasies.

4. C2 Ghost Tower of Inverness. This tournament adventure was just as contrived as could be. Four towers, each with a portion of a key that was protected by exactly two encounters. Once the players had the key, they climbed a tower, puzzling their way through a few more encounters until they achieve the Great McGuffin. But oh, what encounters. Random though they may be, each was designed to test a team's resourcefulness. This was a great mix of light adventure, wild action, and innovative set pieces (like the room with reversed gravity).

3. A1-4 Against the Slavers. Again with the tournament modules. Perhaps because these were designed with a specific competition in mind, they tend to be written more clearly for the GM, and the pacing of the adventure seems to be be tighter. No endless garrisons of humanoids with NPC leaders who lack personality and motivation. These modules are full of interesting challenges. There are logical lapses, to be sure. For instance, why would the slavers in the first module leave their back door unguarded, so that the PCs have the chance to reach the lower levels without the alarm being raised? But such issues are forgotten once the action starts, unlike the G-series, these adventures are logically linked and build to a crescendo through plotting, not through tougher boss monsters.

2. L1 Secret of Bone Hill. Ah, yes, another cover geared to the tastes of my thirteen year old self. Never has a magic missile looked so sexy. But once one clears the cover (did you hear that, thirteen year old me? Turn the damn page!), one finds a terrific low-level setting by Len Lakofka. There is a village to explore with well-defined NPCs and an adventure site. There is a wilderness area for PCs to explore at their leisure. The challenges are tough and fluid (they change with the time of the day and they will respond to initial PC intrusions into their territory). The final dungeon has a garrison that makes sense: an alliance between a wraith and its undead minions and a wizard and his bugbear minions. There are also plausible tricks--the mirror of opposition, the chatty beholder-kin, the mixed up potions--to keep players on their toes and to prevent the ossification of yet another dungeon slog. I have run this setting in four different settings of D+D and it has yet to feel stale.

1. S2 White Plume Mountain. This one feels a little like the Ghost Tower of Inverness, in that players explore three branches of a dungeon's complex, searching for three magical weapons. It is a place that only a mad wizard could create, filled with seemingly random encounters and traps. But, oh, what a ride! This one feels like a carnival fun house, if carnival fun houses threw javelins at your head. Swinging on chains over a lake of lava! A menagerie built like an inverted ziggurat (I learned what a ziggurat was through S2)! A barrel-roll room to keep players (ahem) on their toes! The Heat Metal trap, which my player detected when they sent a summoned badger down the hall and discovered a new way to cook their food! These encounters stay with you so long, they become the moments that you bond with your friends over. And isn't that a great reason to game?

That's what I'm talkin' about...

Believe it or not, this image did not appear in any google image search I tried, and I could only find one snarky reference to it in text. Imagine, a writer was suggesting that this image was included solely for the purpose of the titillation of adolescents. Well, duh!

"The Soloist" for gaming nerds

John Desmond, a member of PAGE (Philadlephia Area Gaming Enthusiasts), sent this item about Allan Calhamer, the creator of the popular board game Diplomacy. Turns out he peaked early and never really accomplished much after that, moving on to a series of menial service jobs.

A shame, really. Diplomacy was a cornerstone of past and present game clubs. It is still an elegant paragon of good game design, spawning countless imitators and variants. Nerds like me learned a lot about social skills (like lying and skullduggery, to be sure, but they marked an improvement over what I started with: none) through the game. Who doesn't have a story about how the game brings out hard feelings in the real world?

So, Allan, for what it's worth, thanks.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Overrated "Classic" D&D Modules

Hey, sometimes the good old days aren't as peachy as we remember them. A good, close look at the adventures that lured us into gaming decades ago often don't stand up to scrutiny one we strip the gauzy film of nostalgia off of them. That's not to say that there has been no crap published in the last ten years, but, hey, let's give today's crap time to ferment, no?

10. B2 Keep on the Borderlands. This was the first published D+D module I encountered, as it was for legions of gamers entering the hobby in the early '80's. It gave my twelve-year old self what I craved, the chance to feel powerful as I cleaved my way through legions of vile humanoids. But that's all there is to it. Cave after cave stocked with generic foes. No greater plot (Gygax implies some sinister conspiracy, but it is up to the GM to flesh it out, a hallmark of his). B2 is a decent enough proving ground where new players can learn the rules. But for years I was trapped with this model of the dungeon adventure. Plot and a sense of mystery would have to come much later.

9. X1 Isle of Dread. This one gets remembered fondly because it was the first published wilderness adventure. There is a cool tip of the hat to King Kong, but in the end, the authros (Cook and Moldvay) do not exploit the setting as well as they might. The plot is as linear as it ever was in the previous dungeon adventures, and players options are far more limited than later "setting based" modules would provide.

8. EX1 Dungeonland. Gygax was clearly past his prime when he published this former joke level of Castle Greyhawk. He alludes to it in the 1e DMG as a possibility for GMs to stretch their imaginations. Instead, what we get in this published module is a hacked-up effort to turn Alice in Wonderland into an RPG setting. Dungeonland shows the limits of D+D as a storytelling engine. With its roots in wargaming, any genre that does not have violence at its core does not translate well. So we get the bells and whistles of Lewis Carroll's fantasia, but none of the whimsy that made it so distinctive. No amount of GM improvisation could save this stinker.

7. S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. This is another one by Gygax (my, doesn't he seem to appear a lot on this list?). It drew a lot of attention for merging sci-fi and fantasy conventions. Given how often that has been done so well since this module was published in 1980, this early effort is looking more than a little thin. Once you get past the new monsters and cool toys for PCs (I remember drooling over my very first Laser Rifle), this was yet another boring dungeon crawl with little rhyme or reason. Plunder was the primary motivation for continuing on. My group of adolescents grew bored with the monotony after three sessions and we had hardly penetrated the third level.

6. D- and G- series Against the Giants and Drow. Yeah, you knew these would be on the list, didn't you? Once more, Gygax informs us that there is some great sinister plot that the characters must disrupt, but for three boring hack and slash dungeon crawls, this amounts to little more than finding a note that leads to the next adventure. And if the party does not find the secret treasure room (which, given the 2 in 6 chance of finding secret doors), what then? The GM is given absolutely no guidance as to how to play important NPCs. The lairs of giants, troglodytes, and kuo-toa are treated a static, with only Wandering Monsters to suggest that creatures ever leave their assigned rooms. For instance, if players hear the noise of Nosnra's east and decide to come back in eight hours, he will still be there, partying it up with a ridiculously overpowered bunch of homeboys. The climax of the adventure is entering the vault of the drow (thank you, Gygax, for inventing a sop to throw to emo gamers everywhere), where we are told that infighting politics have left the Drow in chaos, but once again the GM must flesh out the details and figure out how to involve the PCs in the strife.

5. T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil. The first part of this adventure, The Village of Hommlet, remains one of the best introductory-level modules ever written. Despite the dungeon crawl feel of the moathouse, it all made sense, was well scaled to a low-level group of adventurers, and was near a village full of interesting and meaningful NPCs. The long awaited temple, however, left me feeling robbed. The setting was a complete mess. Once again there is a lot of implied political tension among the baddies, but there are no hooks to get the players involved. This is a common complaint of mine, and I realize that it sounds like I am pining for more programmed adventures, but I'm not. It is possible to create a complex setting, as Gygax and Mentzer did, with plenty of options for PCs to pursue, without having to resort to boxed text. What I wanted was some sense of how PCs were supposed to involve themselves in these intricate plots. What might prisoners know? Under what circumstances would the characters actually be approached by NPCs to take a more active role in the temple's power struggles. And how on earth are they ever supposed to learn of the role of Zuggtmoy, which will provide the climax to the adventure?

4. Dark Tower. Heaven knows how this stinker from Paul Jacquays warranted not one but two 3rd edition revisions. Judges Guild provided us with some fascinating wilderness settings with some exquisite maps back in the day, but their weak area was creating dungeon adventures (there are a few exceptions, like the cool Book of Treasure Maps). Dark Tower was long considered the best of the bunch. It had a plot behind it, which to be fair was explained far better than Gygax ever did with his modules. However, the setting is a hopeless mishmash of monster encounters and NPCs who seem to have no relationship to other folks who live fifty feet away. Some encounters are played for laughs (like the Giant Gay Gnome who gives out belts and the room of Mind Switch) while others are supposed to be played for bone-chilling intensity. PCs are supposed to gather artifacts to defeat Set's plot, yet they're pretty much in the dark as to what they need to do and why.

3. H1 Bloodstone Pass. I had high hopes for this one. I came to D+D from wargaming, and I read with excitement the Battlesystem rules when they came out. For the time, they were a pretty good set of medieval rules, and they made a decent effort to incorporate the fantasy element. H1, though, was a disappointment. In an effort to weave the Battlesystem rules into an adventure, we get a tired Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven retread. The players must make all the right choices in the preliminary encounters, or they will be seriously undergunned when the bad guy forces arrive. The opportunities for roleplaying are severely limited, and the setting amounted to a village and the uninteresting camp f the opposing army. Authors Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson had to contrive all sorts of reasons why our party of high-level adventurers couldn't just sneak into the camp and whack the leaders, like they have done in all of their adventuring careers up to this point.

2. WG4 Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. "WG4", I believe, was an early spelling of "WTF". Once again, Gygax gives us a garrison full of humanoids, an implied sinister plot, and a perplexing resolution to the end. While the setting is cool, this baby must have made countless GMs pull their hair out. Somehow, players were supposed to know to dress in unholy robes (yeah, let's hear the good cleric's apology for that one), light candles that are hidden in the upper levels and don't appear to be candles, than perform the right juju to open a gate to the (admittedly cool) cyst in the center of the earth. If they do not find the right written clues (and being a Gygax module, that is entirely likely), the PCs will wander around pointlessly until they get bored.

1. S1 Tomb of Horrors. Yes, Gygax makes it yet again. I have heard that, as a GM, he used to cackle maliciously whenever he killed off a PC. He must have been in stitches when he ran Tomb of Horrors. This module exists for no reason other than to kill PCs and make their players feel helpless and impotent. There must be a half-dozen instances where a character can die with no chance of saving themselves. As usual, Gygax presents challenges that can be overcome with the correct knowledge, but then he gives players no chance to acquire that knowledge. Take, for instance, the encounter with the demilich, assuming players make it that far. Gygax gives several means by which a player might hurt the undead villain, but then denies the players the means to do so. The pregenerated characters that come with the module do not have access to the spells or weaponry they will need to defeat Acerak. Unless, of course, a mage loads up on a half-dozen or so Shatter spells. You know, just in case. This module works well as a joke, if player go in knowing that they are going to be killed in nasty ways. Otherwise, it's a very very bad joke.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Why isn't real life more like this?

Come on, we've all had that fantasy where we're walking through a crowded place, and suddenly our life turns into a big musical production number.

Or is it just me?