Friday, December 17, 2010

Reviews of Classic DnD Modules 4: (S2) White Plume Mountain

S2 White Plume Mountain

Experiences and Reminisces: This is one I never owned until my adult years. I remember playing it in Paul Fey’s backyard, where his mom set up a picnic table for gaming al fresco. Playing in this module was like visiting a funhouse. Each room represented a wildly different encounter, which was more or less by design, as this was originally a tournament module. There was a sphinx asking riddles in the first room, a hallway that functioned like a microwave over, swinging chains over lava pits, hallways that turned into rotating cylinders. Damn, this place was wild. But the room that captured my imagination was the “inverted ziggurat,” a stepped arena where each level had a different environment for the monsters that lived there—giant scorpions, sea monsters, and manticores. I don’t remember if we ever recovered even one of the three magic weapons we were looking for, but all of us in the game has a blast.

What Made it Popular? Well, White Plume Mountain did not win praise because of its well-thought out ecology or logical arrangement of rooms. Lawrence Schick, the author, went to great lengths to make each single encounter unusual and memorable. At a time when most TSR produces would describe a room as “Four goblins guarding a chest with 236 sp,” S2 makes sure that players are constantly on their guard, challenging their own first impressions of the situation. Most of the traps had several possible solutions, encouraging creative solutions to problems (judicious use of flight helped us with the inverted ziggurat, if I recall correctly. So, yeah, this is a funhouse. There must be better ways to guard important magical artifacts. But if you can get past the sheer irrationality of the setup, there are far worse ways to spend time in the hobby.

Test of Time. Two subsequent editions were published. The 2E “Return to White Plume Mountain” greatly expanded the dungeon and the history behind it. The dungeons were stocked with copies of the mad mage, who replicated his personality in a host of unpleasant beasties. This creates a political dimension to the dungeon. I admire the sophistication of this adaptation, but I think it loses a lot of the sheer lunatic fun of the tournament challenge that S2 presented. Wizards released an online update for 3.5E that is fairly faithful to the original, with a few updates to promote new rules supplements (such as the “weapons of legacy” and the recently published Fiend Folio.

Given how short the original is (along with the 3.5 update), an experienced party could complete the dungeon in a single long session or perhaps two. White Plume Mountain is an ideal diversion, with unique challenges and rewards. It is well worth looking up and adapting to your game, if only to keep in reserve for that night when everyone is feeling a little silly.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reviews of Classic DnD Modules 3: City State of the Invincible Overlord (Judges Guild)

City State of the Invincible Overlord (Judges Guild)

Experiences and Reminisces: I remember playing this one in my friend’s dining room. This was a day of vivid memories for me. My friend had a dog that peed whenever you were nice to it. Someone spilled coke on my character sheet. And for the first time ever, I saw a Judges Guild map. It was on that pebbly golden stock which felt absolutely great. It even looked old. I read on the Necromancer lists that most printers cannot obtain anything even close, so the hope of reproducing them is dim at best. And, best of all, most of the map was blank. It was the players map, which contained only the location and names of the streets and public squares. I caught of glimpse of the GM’s map, and I knew that a vastly detailed city awaited us, just waiting for us to explore.

I grew up on Tolkien, and most of my experiences with D+D to that point were based on the presumption that all fantasy ultimately derived from Lord of the Rings. After all, the four possible races in early editions—human, elf, dwarf, and Halfling—came right form Professor T’s pages. But the City-State gave a glimpse of a fantasy world based on the writings of Howard, Vance, Norton, and Leiber. This was low fantasy, and it offered a whole new world of possibilities. Here, trolls serve as barkeeps and goblins, who lived on a reservation outside of town, came in to perform menial work. There were slaves and red-skinned barbarians and a table to determine a woman’s measurements and “inclinations”—politically incorrect stuff that would never see the light of day in a published gaming supplement these days. But the whole thing was incredibly appealing to my young soul. This was not a world of squeaky-clean good vs. palpable evil. Everything existed in shades of grey, and we could be as bad as we wanted to be.

Our GM fully got us into the spirit of things. My duelist character (a Dragon Magazine subclass, if I recall correctly) wound up getting wings after falling into a magical well. Our party nearly trashed one tavern after picking a fight with some orcish patrons. We all longed after the amazons—beautiful, dangerous, and contemptuous of us, so we just knew that they had good sense.

What Made it Popular? This was the first published city adventure ever, so for a while it stood alone. TSR would go years before they attempted a similar environment, and in my mind they only ever really came close when they adapted Fritz Leiber’s Lankmahr in the late ‘80’s. But every fantasy RPG city I have seen since has been pretty much designed with a single concept in mind, with everything flowing out logically and holistically from that central organizing concept. Usually, a city exists to serve some narrative or thematic purpose in the campaign (much like Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul glare at each other across the pages of Return of the King). CSIO is a chaotic mess, a seemingly random assemblage of taverns, cults, shops, and personalities. Order is supplied by the Overlord, who rules by terror and force. Gods in disguise run shops and cellars open into vast dungeons. Harlots, thieves and lawyers compete to separate the party from their money. This is an environment where anything can happen, and since power goes to the strongest, the sky is the limit for an ambitious character. And let’s not forget those maps…

Test of Time. After several printings and editions of the original work, two subsequent versions were published. The Mayfair Games revival lost more than it gained. The Necromancer Games 3.5 update went back to the content and spirit of the original (although it came with but one map, on plain ol’ glossy paper. *sigh*). The fact that these babies doubled in price on eBay in just a few years speaks volumes about the demand for quality products with an old school feel.

I’ve dusted off the City-State for at least a half-dozen campaigns I have played. It has got to be my most used campaign supplement, and even after all these years it does not feel stale. Sometimes I place it in the Wilderlands, its original campaign home. Sometimes, I shoehorn it into whatever campaign world I happen to be using at the time. As soon as players see the map, they want to explore. I enjoy sharing that magical moment of anticipation with new players. There is enough adventure and intrigue in one quarter of the city-state to keep players out of the dungeon for months. The rumors listed at each location provide dozens of adventure hooks for a GM who is comfortable making things up on the fly.

What would I change? While each shop and tavern is an adventure unto itself, there is not a lot of interaction between the residents of the City-state. Everyone exists in their own little worlds, and the same kind of static ecosystem that was characteristic of old school dungeons seems to inform the City-state. So we get a thieves’ guild, but outside of their home base, we know little about the effect they have on the city. A GM who really wants to breathe life into the City-state, or one who wants to run complex adventures there, will have his or her work cut out for them. Once the players start stirring things up, though, connections should be easy to forge. Once again, though, this mandates a GM who can think on his feet, so be ready.

I saw a copy of the 1979 edition on eBay for $26. It’s in reach, so there’s no excuse for not getting it!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Review of Classic DnD Modules 2: (S1) Tomb of Horrors

S1 Tomb of Horrors

Experiences and Reminisces: This was the second module I ever bought, after B2. I did not even have the AD+D rules yet, so I only had guideline for making characters through level 3. So suffice it to say that it blew my little adolescent mind away. Even the names of the spells seemed like forbidden knowledge: Power Word Kill, Holy Word, Shatter. I mean, with spells that badass, I knew I just had to move up to ADVANCED Dungeons and Dragons. The three core books made my Christmas list that year.

I ran Tomb of Horrors twice. The first time was with my regular group of players. We ended up with a TPK before the fifth room (the Sphere of Annihilation in the entry corridor took out two PCs. Brutal). The second time I ran it was at the height of D+D’s popularity in the early ‘80’s. Our normal group of six players grew into a mob of fifteen. They all wanted me to DM, so I pulled out Tomb of Horrors. Not the ideal entry into D+D. Many of those who played that day never came back to the game, I am certain. But at least the numbers of players was manageable after thirty minutes of play.

What Made it Popular? Well, there is nothing like ToH. Never has been, never will be again. This is the epitome of a gauntlet, a lethal dungeon environment that eats PCs alive. A player whose character survives this one has something to brag about. Or else they’re a big fat liar. No-one survives S1. Tomb of Horrors is about as far as you can get from the monster-slaughtering funhouse of the Keep on the Borderlands. While the introductory adventure pits characters against hordes of mundane monsters, Acerak’s tomb is one long series of puzzles and traps. There might be a half-dozen combats in the entire module, if characters go looking for them.

There has to be a reason beyond nostalgia that Tomb of Horrors has been published by TSR/Wizards for every single edition of D+D. No other module can claim that distinction. Perhaps gamers are masochists at heart. More likely, DM’s are probably sadists at heart. It is worth noting that every new edition of Tomb of Horrors is a little less lethal than the one that precedes it. For instance, the archway of orange mists that changes a character’s gender and alignment in the first edition version had the potential to destroy a party from within if a player was willing to play along. In the 4th edition version, the character still suffers a permanent gender switch (to keep the pervy hentai set happy, no doubt) but the alignment reversal has been mollified to a few rounds of berserk rage. After that, things go back to normal, with innies and outies reversed.

However, I think the reason that so many old timers like me feel nostalgic for the Tomb is that we, like Mr. Gygax, came out of a wargaming environment. Player characters int he old days were not so much alter-egos as they were units to be maneuvered on the board to win a tactical challenge. We were as likely to refer to characters as "the elf" and "the cleric" as we were to call them by their names. Sure, we identified with our characters, and it was hard to see them die, but when the character creation process consists of six rolls of 3d6, there's really nothing to creating a replacement for an old character. in the old days, we did not spend a lot of energy coming up with backgrounds and motivations for our characters. They existed to loot dungeons, and the Tomb of Horrors represented the ultimate challenge. It was the big game, and underdog players hoped to pull off a miracle upset. Things have changed since then, and though I get nostalgic sometimes, I would have to say for the better. Tomb of Horrors survives as a relic and a curiosity from the old days. These Fourth Edition kids can hold on to the newly-installed safety rails to get a taste of what it was like in the frontier days of D+D.

Test of Time. Would I play this today? Well, maybe. If the players involved knew what they were in for, and they had a pack of back-up characters prepped and ready to go to fill party losses. Or maybe I would add a “respawn” option, with some minor penalty accruing for each loss of life, to give the players a fair shot at finishing the dungeon. I often thought about running this game but allowing the players metagaming knowledge. They could not research the game while they were playing, but they would be free to use any information they remembered from playing the game in the past. Perhaps the characters are modern gamers sucked into a fantasy world. Perhaps they read diaries of other adventurers who attempted the tomb. Whatever. I would never, ever just send players in unprepared.

To me, Tomb of Horrors represents Gygax at his worst: a controlling, sadistic DM out to butcher his players and then laugh about it. I have known two gamers who have played with Gygax and they both recounted similar stories of frustration as he wiped out their players and then gloated about it. Interestingly, there is a note to beginning GM’s at the beginning of B2 to NOT behave in this way. I wonder if Mr. Gygax had a revelation, or if he just started to lose friends.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Reviews of Classic DnD Modules 1: (B2) The Keep on the Borderlands

B2 Keep on the Borderlands

Experiences and Reminisces: The Keep on the Borderlands was the first D&D module I ever owned, purchased in 1979. It was bundled with the “Blue Box” rules, the ones that took you character to level three and had dragon on the cover that was a pretty cheesy ripoff of Smaug from the Rankin-Bass production of The Hobbit. I spent endless hours playing this scenario, mainly because it was the only one we had. Usually I gamed with just another friend or two, since the heyday of D&D was still a few years off, and only the seriously nerdy were willing to give the game a try. I still have my copy, covered in penciled notes in my shaky seventh-grade hand. The map of the keep and the lands around it, is worn so thoroughly that it looks and feels like rag paper. Curiously, I made no notes on or alteration to the map of the Caves of Chaos.

As much as I played this scenario with my friends, I have few recollections of actual game play. I remember rolling up characters in this period, and I remember moments from other adventures I played in middle school. This one is just a blur…oh, wait. I think I remember an encounter with the gelatinous cube. How sad is that?

What Made it Popular? Well, for a while, it was the only game in town. B1 (In Search of the Unknown) was hard to find, because it had been bundled with an earlier printing. The AD&D modules were just on the horizon, and I believe that S1 had just been published (Imagine if THAT was your first experience with D&D!). That said, I believe that a lot of gamers have a soft spot for B2 which goes beyond “You never forget your first one.” The Caves of Chaos are pretty much a hackfest. When you’re a nerdy twelve-year old kid, that’s pretty much all you want out of gaming (I remember endlessly sketching various types of polearms in my school books in those days). The setup for B2 was pretty simple: a safe base of operations, a fairly small and well-defined wilderness (only four encounters prepared, with the option for the DM to add more), and a rather unusual dungeon built around a box canyon, with a fairly clear hierarchy of difficulty laid out for the players. Many old hands like myself get misty for the days of “old school” gaming. Well this was it. No narrative for the DM to railroad his players through, no boxed text. Just kick in the door and kill the beasties.

Test of Time Some serious adaptation would have to be done to make B2 palatable for modern gamers. I never really understood the Keep when I was a wee one. None of the characters within have any personality of note. Indeed, they don’t even have names. It was years before I learned that “Castellan” was a title, not a man’s name. Unless players actually actively seek to cause trouble, nothing of interest will ever occur in the Keep. It’s just a place to resupply and…well…nothing.

The wilderness are needs to be shaken up to. There was an effort to add depth to the Borderlands in the “Return to the Keep on the Borderlands” update, issued about a decade ago. It’s more than the number of potential encounters that the wilderness section needs. It’s the sense that it is completely unconnected to either the Keep or the Caves of Chaos. I mean, here we have to strongholds at war with each other, and neither one is active in the few miles of frontier that separate them? I find that hard to swallow.

And the Caves of Chaos are what they are. Few published adventures have lined up such a buffet table of humanoids, waiting for the slaughter. Some critics have pointed out that the mix of races and alignments would result in a violent (and probably rather short) clash. Those critics aren’t much fun. One could, of course, rationalize such a strange and strained political situation, as the authors of “Return to the Keep on the Borderlands” did, by assuming that some higher power (such as the priests in the highest caves) is imposing order on the humanoids below to serve some nefarious scheme. But such adjustment is not necessary if B2 is run as what it was meant to be: an introductory module designed to teach new players the ropes. If the Caves have a weakness, it is in the monotony of the encounters. Fighting bands of humanoids is all well and good, but such fights dominate B2 to the near-exclusion of traps, puzzles, and more unusual monsters. Of course, a clever DM could add the opportunity to negotiate with the humanoids and throw in an occasional trap or riddle. A DM with experienced players would almost have to do that.

I always thought B2 would be an ideal setting for a fantasy setting of Feng Shui, the HK-style martial arts RPG. That game has rules for combats against large numbers of nameless mooks that might suit a romp through B2.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tales of the Arabian Nights: A Review

Tales of the Arabian Nights

Published by ZMan Games (2009)

Back in college, I had a long and spirited argument with a friend about the role of the critic. He maintained that the critic’s main responsibility was to articulate his reaction to a work, making clear his reasons for his like or dislike of his subject. My position was that the critic should distance himself from his own opinions, listing the strengths and weaknesses of a work and identifying those people who would be an audience for it.

The reissue of Tales of the Arabian Nights is sure to draw strong positive and negative reactions from gamers. I feel that if I gave my own reactions, it would come across as narrow, subjective, and parochial. So, I will attempt to channel my college-age self, putting forth the many strengths of the game while describing what I acknowledge to be potential pitfalls. Certain elements of the gaming community will loathe a game like this, while others will put it on their all-time top ten list.

First of all, few could argue that, visually, the art is top notch. The map had been the strength of the 1985 West End edition, and the new one pushes it to a new level. It is more readable and easy to use than the original map, and both the design and color are lush and evocative. The cards and other components represent a vast improvement over the original. What had been crude cardboard chits with silhouette artwork have been replaced by full color, high-quality cards, die-cut pieces, and stand-up player pieces. I’m sure the lavishness of the game design added a few dollars to the price, but I am glad that ZMan did not skimp. For lovers of the game, the physical components of the game feel like a reward for years of dedication.

For those new to the game, players take turns moving their pieces in a nonlinear manner around the board. The goal is to acquire a predetermined number of Destiny and Story Points, obtained through encounters. A player has at least one encounter on each of their turns. A roll of the die sends a reader to the “Book of Tales,” a collection of nearly three thousand paragraphs, which guide the players through short adventures similar to the old “Choose your Own Adventure” books. Players must pick how their hero reacts to an encounter from a predetermined list of responses, like grovel, pray, beat, or avoid. Along the way, players acquire skills which often (but not always) improve the result of an encounter. In addition to the aforementioned Story and Destiny Points, players can gain or lose wealth (which affects movement) and statuses (like Accursed, Enslaved, Greif-Stricken, Sex-Changed, or Imprisoned). Interaction between players is minimal, unless special variants are brought into play.

Results are often counter-intuitive. In one game, a player gained the status “Lost” in his home city. Another wound up getting “Married” to a same sex partner (I suspect that, while enlightened, the medieval Islamic world was not THAT tolerant!). Sometimes seemingly foolish decisions lead to good results (you might beat a powerful wizard only to have him offer you a valuable ransom, while if you attack a vile thief you might end up in prison, as the thief was really a prince in disguise). Even with a good set of skills, players often find themselves at the mercy of seeming capricious turns of fate.

I could not in good conscience recommend this game to a player who feels that their decisions alone should lead to victory or defeat in a game. Our most recent game took place alongside a game of Diplomacy, and the contrast between the two groups of players could not have been more distinct. For the Diplomacy players, games were all about strategy—making plans and making good decisions to realize them. Yet it was the people playing Arabian Nights who more often exploded into hoots of laughter and spontaneous cheers. Relinquishing control to fate can have its appeal, too, as long as the player can occasionally steer things in a desired direction. Anything can happen in Tales of the Arabian Nights, and every turn brings surprises and wonders. Thus, the game captures the spirit of mystery and adventure inherent in the source materials, from the original texts (I prefer the translation of Husein Haddawy) through the cheesy Harryhausen Sinbad films, through Disney’s Aladdin. I can’t think of a board game I’ve had more fun playing, even if my strategic senses were not always fully engaged.