Thursday, February 16, 2012

AD&D Modules

At D&D XP, I played the D&D Next playtest, and by sheer coincidence I ended up in a great group run by Monte Cook, which also hosted Rob Schwalb, Bruce Cordell, Miranda Horner, Shawn Merwin, and three other cool folks. If you're keeping track, that's a table of 8 players and most of the D&D Next design team. 

Relevant anecdote: The only time I'd met Monte previous to D&D XP was at Gen Con 1999 when he ran my table for the D&D 3rd Edition announcement and playtest. At XP, Monte joked that he'd see me back here for 7th Ed.

As has been reported pretty much everywhere, the adventure was the Caves of Chaos, aka Keep on the Borderlands, and it was a blast. Afterward, I was near the vendor area when some old modules caught my eye. I don't need to own old modules, but the playtest had me excited and I was overcome with nostalgia. I caved, and bought a stack of them. I followed up on Ebay the next week and bought another stack.

The thing is, I never had money to buy modules as a kid. I saved my pennies for the game books, and back then I only cared about being a player--I didn't want to DM. My cousin Dave ran me through the modules he had, though. His favorites were The Lost City and The Assassin's Knot. Last year, Bart Carroll asked me in an interview which module was my favorite. I didn't have much to pick from. I told him Ravenloft. That's probably still the right answer, but in the past few weeks as I've started to devour this stack, I've come to appreciate the fun and quirky elements of the old AD&D adventures. Monte's playtest felt so much like AD&D, I'm determined to run my own D&D Next playtest with those old modules so I can experience them in all their glory. Here's what I've done so far.

I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City

I read this module first because I somehow misread the levels appropriate for the adventure (I thought it was lower level). It wasn't long until I was completely taken by this one, and I wanted to go on the adventure all by myself (memories of lying on my bedroom floor in 1984 with my red box set, rolling up characters and then DMing myself through the adventures I made up--how else could I have achieved a 36th level fighter/magic-user/thief/cleric? But I digress...
What I love about this module is how much like a Conan adventure it is. Snake people in the jungle, sacrifices to dark gods, ruined civilizations full of degenerate people... it's Conan all right, and man is it ever cool. Another neat thing about the adventure is that the adventure is largely about choosing how you want to get to the city. What you do when you get there isn't written out as an adventure, but many suggestions are listed as to which way you can take it with your campaign. That's the gold in this one.

B1: In Search of the Unknown, by Mike Carr

This one was an introductory adventure where the rooms are described, but as the DM you're supposed to fill them in with treasures and monsters. A list is provided at the end of the module. What I love about this one (apart from the way it teaches DMing) is that the background of the module is: two hooligans named Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown established a hidden base somewhere and stocked it with all kinds of decadent things. When a barbarian invasion came, they fought the horde off and were recognized as heroes (the background implies that they really weren't). Then they go off to invade the barbarian lands and never return. You find their hidden fortress and loot it. I like this somewhat ambiguous story the module gives you, the mystique behind these two "heroes" of questionable character. There's some great DM advice in the beginning of the module that's still very relevant today.

B3: Palace of the Silver Princess, by Tom Moldvay

B3 is pretty amazing. I hadn't been too excited by Tom Moldvay's introductory adventure to Star Frontiers when I read it last fall, so I wasn't sure what to expect from him in D&D. Although I believe both Crash on Volturnus and Palace of the Silver Princess were published in the same year, they couldn't be more different. In Crash on Volturnus, the characters (are hijacked by space pirates, crash on Volturnus, make friends with an alien tribe of sentient octopuses) wander around a lot. There's very little story to it. Palace of the Silver Princess, on the other hand, has a whole dramatic background behind the events that take place. These early adventures have lots of dungeon crawling, but the reasons you're doing the dungeon crawling are--especially in this case--very cool, and story-oriented. Love it.
Edit: I've since learned why B3 is so different.

L1: The Secret of Bone Hill, by Lenard Lakofka

The Secret of Bone Hill threw me for a loop. I just didn't know what to make of it. On the one hand, there's a meticulously detailed setting here, a setting that includes the specific flora and fauna of every region. There's a whole village where all the buildings are named and the people that live there given statistics. The level of detail is obsessive. The adventure, on the other hand, only ever hints at what's going on. What's the Secret of Bone Hill? That's kind of for you to decide. The elements are there to create a secret, but it's really up to you. At first I thought this module was a little schizophrenic, but the more I've read over it the more I like it. It's quirky, it's eccentric, but it does give you a whole setting in miniature, ideas for adventure, and places to explore (not to mention a sequel in L2: The Assassin's Knot). I've even discovered a cool blog that explores its eccentricities. For the purposes of my campaign, I've combined B1: In Search of the Unknown with L1: The Secret of Bone Hill. Roghan's & Zelligar's fortress is hidden among the hills outside Restenford. Since Bone Hill gives you a little sandbox to play in, I've simply added a site to that sandbox and combined the rumor tables given in both modules. Done! Also... rumor tables are as wonderful as I always remembered. They add to the mystique about a place.

B4: The Lost City, by Tom Moldvay

Another Tom Moldvay module, this was one of my cousin's favorite adventures growing up. Now I see why. It's another Conanesque story, just about as rich as B3: Palace of the Silver Princess, and there's a ton of cool directions you can take the module. There's a lot of role-playing in it, cool places to explore, and a neat history to be unearthed. Loved this one even more than when I was a kid.

The only thing I disliked about it was that some of the lower levels are filled in with a crazy ecosystem of monsters packed in right next to each other in the kind of silly way that we make fun of D&D adventures nowadays. To be fair, this is only in the "suggestions for expanding the adventure" section, and the rooms aren't written out with the story and care that the actual adventure employs. I have to imagine this was Tom Moldvay's way of keeping the hack & slash crowd happy back then. "Like this adventure? Here's more monsters. Have fun."

UK1: Beyond the Crystal Cave

I read this a year ago in preparation for my own adaptation for D&D Encounters. However, this is the first time I've owned a print copy. I think I just have a better appreciation for what this module did in comparison to the others of its era. I want to run it. I've been thinking a lot about how a module is a template for the DM, to be strayed from, altered, combined, disassembled, and reformed at the will of the DM and the players; the D&D Encounters reports have really shown me that. I'm used to making my own homebrew adventures in which the player characters have ultimate freedom; I've always felt a little restrained by modules. But thinking of modules as flexible templates rather than iron shod plot lines helps me see the inherent potential when combined with my passion for homebrew/world-building. At any rate, if I run BtCC, I'll likely use some of my takes on the story, many of which didn't see print in the Encounters season. I'm excited to give that one another go at some point, now that I own it in glorious paper.

That's what I've read in the past couple weeks. I'm currently reading L2: The Assassin's Knot, following up to L1: The Secret of Bone Hill. What else is in my stack? I have several: there's the Desert of Desolation sequence, The Ghost Tower of Inverness, one of the slaver modules, Descent into the Depths of the Earth, The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, and some I have on order. There are also a few on my shelf that I've never read fully, such as Dungeonland, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, and I should read Ravenloft again cover to cover.

I think what strikes me most about these modules is seeing what each one of them was working towards. None of the ones I've read approaches a D&D adventure in the same way. I've read criticisms of all of these modules, but I'm not sure they deserve the criticism they receive. I think each one strives for something different, and thus it's not going to suit every taste... nor should it. Thinking back on the past couple years, Madness at Gardmore Abbey (goal-oriented sandbox) is a completely different kind of adventure than The Siege of Gardmore Abbey (character and choice-driven story), and both of these are entirely different from Beyond the Crystal Cave (plot-driven episodic narrative). I've never designed an adventure the same way. They all have different goals, different things that make them unique. That's what I'm finding I love about the oldschool modules as well. I have a big reading list!


19charisma said...

If you are allowed to share unpublished ideas, I would love to see your complete thoughts and take on the Crystal Cave story.

Steve said...

Hey 19charisma,

I'd certainly like to do that. I just want to be a little mindful of how I write it out. I'm good friends with everyone who worked on the project and I know that there are many details that had to be changed to make it work in an Encounters format.

Give me a little while and I'll discuss that story some as well as ideas on how to adapt them for the original module as I'd like to do. :-)

Mike Kuciak said...

I LOVE Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and Palace of the Silver Princess is the bomb.

A personal favorite was Lost Caverns of Tsojnath (sp?).

David Weasley said...

Nice. Looks like a good list of reading and playing! I'd love to try some of these myself...

I've been having a great time with Crystal Cave and my group of 11-year-old's, and I'd also be interested in hearing more of your thoughts about it.

Steve said...

Hey David and 19charisma,

I'm working on a post about adapting Beyond the Crystal Cave.

Since I'd like to run it when the D&D Next playtest goes live (presuming such a thing is possible, though from the D&D XP session it seems like it will be) I'll explore ways to adapt the module's story for a modern group, all the while discussing every decision point I made in the process of the D&D Encounters adaptation. (I hope it proves interesting and helpful!). I'll start to do that very soon (this week, I expect).