Archive for September, 2011

Editorials by Gygax

I just finished reading S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.  Before I dig into this module though, I wanted to share a couple quick passages that really made me smile.  Every now and then Gygax gets a little editorial in his writing, and I always enjoy it immensely.  The first bit appears at the beginning:

Players seeking the early death of their characters should be quite satisfied with The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, for there are many opportunities for the foolish or rash to end it all. … Those without real knowledge of the AD&D™ game play, without the ability to handle characters of the appropriate level for this adventure, will see their characters perish swiftly if the module is handled correctly.

The second section comes towards the end.  For a little context, Gygax is generously giving the GM permission here, due to the nature of the adventure and its remote location, to allow players to gain levels without requiring them to go back to town for training.  Even then though, only “provided that the quality of play has been very high.”  He continues:

Poor play does not merit special consideration.  Players will not improve if the DM pampers rather than challenges them.  If our players perform badly, do not allow their characters to increase in experience level.  Be most judicious in how you handle awards to player characters.  Allowing foolish and ignorant players to advance their characters to high levels reflects badly upon the game and even more so upon the Dungeon Master who allowed such a travesty to occur.  In effect, it is the excellence of the DM which is judged when the caliber of play by an group is discussed.  Keep yours high!


Book of War

Delta has informed me of the release of his war-game Book of War, which I highly recommend anyone reading this blog immediately check out.  It’s a very light and easy miniatures battle game, which alone is enough to commend it, however it has one very excellent feature that really makes it noteworthy to us old school folks: parity with old school D&D.  It’s pretty easy to take say, the town of Restenford from L1, stat out its defenders, an incorporate its defense into your regular D&D game.  Or model whatever other large scale battle your D&D campaign requires.

Modules from Amazon

In the comments to my first post about the A-series modules, Delta claimed that they represent a shift in design sensibilities from the earlier G/D series.  To which I replied:

The theory of a corporate (TSR) or cultural (convention go-ers) shift in design sensibilities is very interesting, and I wish we had more data points to prove or disprove it. The G series was originally run at Origins in 78, and the A series at GenCon 80. That’s a pretty short time frame for such a shift. Might not it also be possibly that this is just a style difference between Gygax and other module authors? Are there later works by Gygax that do not include the same naturalism as the G-series?

I decided a bit more research was in order, so I started looking for later Gygax designed modules.  I landed on S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and WG4: The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, both printed in 1982.  These fit the bill very well, as the publication date is later than the A-series (82 vs. 80), and S4 was even originally designed as a tournament module for Wintercon V.  Unfortunately WinterCon V was held in 1976, so perhaps the publication date doesn’t do justice to the ‘period’ of this module, hence my also looking at WG4, which is considered a loose sequel to S4, and for which I have (so far) found no evidence of its existence prior to 1982.

While I have some PDF copies of these modules, I find it hard to read an entire module off the computer screen.  Not only do I not like reading large quantities of text off a monitor, but with modules it’s especially annoying to flip between the map and text on a digital copy.  It’s so much nicer to just have the printed book such that you can lay the map next to the text on your desk.  So I decided I had to get hard copies.

I tried e-Bay first, and found some to bid on, but alas got sniped at the end.  Next I looked at some eBay stores, which were a bit pricier, but at least I didn’t have to worry about snipers.  As long as I was looking there, I thought I might as well also try some Amazon resellers.  Interestingly I found both modules on Amazon, and slightly cheaper than on eBay.  And suprisingly, a copy of WG4 was actually available shipped from Amazon and thus covered by my Amazon Prime membership.  I don’t totally know how that works, but I’m tickled by the idea that Amazon actually has some old AD&D modules in their warehouses.  OK, I know that’s probably not true, but that’s how I like to imagine it.

My copy of S4 arrived in good time, well packed, and for some reason along with a copy of B2 and a little note saying a “free gift” had been included.  That’s a very nice sentiment and I will certainly praise the seller for it, even though I need another copy of B2 like I need another hole in the head.  As for WG4, well, take a look:

OK, I know to collectors “original shrink” is kind of big deal.  I personally hate it, as I then feel strangely guilty when I tear it off to read it.  On the other hand, keeping these things in their original shrink wrap seems just wrong, they were meant to be read and played with, not hidden away in a box wrapped in plastic in the vain hope that someday they might be worth a little extra money.

It’s such a big deal, that some people go through some strange efforts to mimic original shrink.  The funniest is the ones that are carefully wrapped in Saran-Wrap to look like original shrink from the front.  Others do a more professional job, like the one above.  Now I grant that this item was not billed as “original shrink”, so perhaps this is just an attempt at preserving the book rather than pulling a fast one on some collectors.  I certainly hope so, because they did a pretty poor job.  See that big sticker in the bottom left that says “Used – Very Good”?  That’s actually on the book itself, under the shrink wrap.  Doh!

Anyway, I found it very amusing and wanted to share a picture.  I’ll discuss the modules more closely after I’ve had a chance to read them.  And after I tear off that stupid shrink wrap and maybe pull the sticker off too if I can.

Dungeon D’enouement

Last night was a kind of slow session.  In the previous week the players had pretty much cleared out the dungeon they were exploring, though they were still a bit mystified about the back story of the dungeon itself.  This week they spent a good chunk of time wandering the halls searching for more clues or last bits of treasure before finally heading back to town to rest and split up the loot.  That was pretty much the entire session, not one fight, barely any new treasure found, and lots of questions still lingering in their minds.

I’m never sure what to do in these cases.  I could toss in some more encounters to liven things up, but it would just be random encounters that even further slow down their final exit from the place that’s now pretty much played out.  I feel bad for them that can’t seem to quite figure out exactly what happened in the dungeon before they found it, but I’m certainly not going to just out and tell them.  If they’ve either missed clues or failed to interpret the ones they have, I don’t feel like I should be adding more to try and nudge them in the right direction.

I suppose if I had one piece of advice for my players (and they do read this blog, so excuse me if I tread lightly here), it’s that the dungeon is not the only source of information about itself.  When trying to learn to juggle, you don’t stare at three balls until you figure out how to keep them in the air all the time.  Sure, you spend plenty of time throwing those balls up and down (and drop them fairly often), but also you go find someone else who knows how to juggle, maybe take a book out from the library on juggling, etc.

But that’s a bit of a tangent.  I’m curious what other folks do when their players start doggedly going over the same part of the dungeon over and over, or otherwise beat their heads against a dead end.  Do you just start tossing in monsters?  Do you insert more information to try and prod them along?  Do you just let them bang their heads against the wall until they finally move on?  What’s the best way to keep the game lively?

Elfin Chain Follow-Up

Thanks to Delta for pointing out the location of Elfin Chain in the DMG (p. 27):

Chain, Elfin,  is a finely wrought suit of chain which  is of  thinner  links but stronger metal. It is obtainable only from elvenkind who do not sell it.

It is mentioned once more on page 28, in a section about magical armor:

When magic armor  is worn, assume  that  its  properties allow movement of  the  next higher  base  rate and  that weight  is  cut  by 50%.  There  is no magical elfin chain mail.

Besides a comment about it being immune to the Heat Metal spell and a row in the encumbrance chart, those are the only references to elfin chain in the DMG.  As such, I think it’s pretty clear that it was not intended to be handed out to players.  It’s explicitly not purchasable per the description, nor does it show up in the treasure charts.  However, as we can see in A1, this did not deter players from obtaining it and DMs from handing it out.  As such, we see it show up in the treasure charts of Unearthed Arcana.  What’s more, we see magical versions of to +5 enchantment (Unearthed Arcana, p. 88), which directly contradicts the second quote above from the DMG.

Delta claims that this ultimately started as an attempt to explain the unusual movement rate of elves in Chain Mail.  It’s a reasonable explanation, and I find it thus fascinating how strongly the idea took hold in the D&D community.  Clearly this item is the grand-father of mythril, a concept now thoroughly enmeshed in the fantasy genre.  Sure, the true source here is probably the armor Tolkien gave to Bilbo, but I suspect that the fantasy-consuming culture at large is responsible for its increased significance.  I’m tempted to go back and re-read the parts focusing on this armor in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, to see if as much significance is given to it as in the movies.  I suspect not.

Elfin Chain

I just took a fascinating spin through just about every D&D source book I own searching for elfin chain,  I cannot find it in OD&D (v1-3 and S1), Holmes, B/X, nor the 1st edition AD&D DMG.  I did find it in my 2nd edition AD&D DMG, and then discovered it as well in Unearthed Arcana.  Is this really the first appearance of the amazing light-weight armor?  It always struck me as such an iconic piece of treasure, I really expected it to exist in earlier versions of the game.

More troubling though is the dates here.  Unearthed Arcana was printed in 1985.  However, the whole reason I went digging for this item was that I was transcribing the pre-gen characters from A1 to character sheets, and noticed one of them wears it.  A1 was printed five years earlier, in 1980, so clearly the item existed well before UA hit the shelves.  Am I missing something here?

Tournament Modules – A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords

OK, A4 is actually one of my favorites, possibly my most favorite, of this series.  Which is really kind of odd, because frankly, the trope it’s based on is one I’ve frequently railed against.  It’s the old “you’re taken prisoner, try to escape” bit.  Not only is it overplayed, it’s often the worst offender when it comes to railroading, especially if you play out the capture.  Fortunately by being a tournament module it’s easy for A4 to avoid this problem: it simply starts with some boxed text about how the party was captured and what they’ve endured, then dumps them into dungeon from which they must escape.

This module is one of the easiest in which to tell the tournament content from the extended content.  The tournament stuff is the first half.  There’s a pretty obvious point in the module where the tournament ends, the extended campaign play stuff begins.  Essentially, the tournament is just about escaping the specific dungeon complex, the campaign then extends this by detailing the island the prison sits on, so you go from escaping a dungeon to escaping a wilderness.  In this post, like the others, I largely ignored the campaign stuff and focused on the tournament.

For a prison escape adventure, this one does not hold any punches.  The characters have no equipment, heck, almost no clothes at all.  The spell-casters have practically no spells at all.  None for the magic-users, a couple for the clerics who manage to memorize only the essentials (cure light wounds. create food and water, etc.) despite the slavers’ system of only allowing them to sleep for a few hours at a time.  There’s one gimme at the front, some spells on a scroll, but the party has no light by which to read them!

It feels harsh, but it really does encourage inventive playing on the part of the players, which I loved as a player and think would be a hoot to DM.  Even better, while advice is given to the DM on how to handle some common tactics players might try, it’s not like each room specifically drops items on the players that have an obvious use.  Some enemies have flint weapons, which clever players will realize can be used to strike sparks and ignite a fire for a light source.  There are bits of wood and pitch in different areas, but these materials have a dozen uses beyond just making torches.

Best of all, the dungeon actually does have multiple exits.  There’s no single right way to finish this module, and the players needn’t hit every single encounter.  This makes A4 a bit unique in the series, and better in my mind.  Both adventures I ran at last GenCon included a multi-level dungeon, with multiple connections between each level, including the surface to the first.  The levels themselves were small, maybe 3-6 rooms in total, but having multiple exits on each really gives the party that sense of choice even if they do end up exploring the entire thing.  Though I think this is to be avoided as well, and A4 and my own GenCon adventures include more content than any party could realistically be expected to complete.

In retrospect, I think our DM was a bit too generous with us.  I’ve tried following our route through the map but I can’t make it work.  I think perhaps he dumped a couple extra resources on us than actually exist in the module.  Also, when we got hold of the scrolls and some light to read them by, he made a point of telling us they could be memorized from like a spellbook, which we latched onto and immediately spent an hour memorizing a spell each.  This is blatantly not in the module, and also seems kind of foolish to me.  The fact is there are more spells on those scrolls than we’d be like to use in the course of the adventure, and there’s no reason to hold onto any resources in a convention game.  If he hadn’t told us that, I bet we would have been a lot less stingy with the spells, reading them off the scrolls rather than hording them for some non-existent future use.  If he was trying to be generous, I think he actually did the opposite.

I’m definitely looking forward to running this, which puts me in a difficult situation at least for HelgaCon.  Should I decide to run any of these at HelgaCon, I’m tempted to follow Delta’s lead and start at the beginning and run one per year.  That makes this 7 years of content though, 7 years before I get to run A4.  Is it worth it?  I suppose there’s always TotalCon.

Gygax on Improv

Here’s a little bit from Cheers Gary that struck a chord:

The main difference between formal creation of material and doing it as one serves in the role of GM is spontaneity, that allowing the material created on the spot to better suit the player group and the situation at hand.  Otherwise, one must set forth the material to be played and recite it more or less verbatim, forcing the group to its mold.  The creative demand is much the same, but the free-style method usually allows for more enjoyment for all participants.

I recommend it to all GMs able to manage such playing style. 😀

The basic idea here in Gygax’s post is something I’ve talked about before, and a lesson I originally learned from James M.  However, I think the concept is still foreign enough to modern GMs that they assume it’s crazy or only for the truly masterful GMs.  Gygax’s own words seem to argue for the latter, encouraging the style for those “able to manage such playing style.”  However, I like to focus on an earlier point in his statement, that “the creative demand is much the same.”

I might even argue that it’s less.  I spend so little time preparing for game day these days that some times I don’t even realize it’s Wednesday and a game is happening until the middle of the afternoon.  Occasionally I have felt like I need to prep some material, but it’s almost always been a bad idea.  It’s so much better to not decide on anything, and make it up as we go.  And it really isn’t that hard!

I’m not saying you don’t need any material.  A couple loosely stocked dungeons that can be easily placed anywhere in your world are good to have on hand.  Personally I really like writing these in the one-page style, as it forces me to devote only a line or two to each room.  I give no thought to what the players might do, or even how I might use the material I create or read.  Yeah, I said read, there’s a lot of good printed material out there that’s easy to adapt into your world.  Or if stocking your own dungeons, remember that odd items and bits of furniture are always good to include.  Just chuck stuff in there and when the players show interest in something, then worry about what it really is and why it’s important.  While playing just remember what Jeff Rients said: always keep the main thing the main thing.

Even now a year and a half later it feels counter-intuitive to me, so I’m sure if you haven’t tried it you’re thinking the same thing.  All I can say is that you have to trust me on this.  Let go and set yourself free.

Tournament Modules – A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords

A3 strikes me as the most unusual of the series.  Broken into three parts (A, B, and C), the first part is the last of the five tournament first rounds, and the second two parts form the semi-final.  It follows the same mechanism as A2 for indicating what parts of the map are not part of the tournament, but interestingly the only addition it seems was made for the campaign version is a single secret tunnel in part C.

Similar tunnels were found in A2 which I guess to be intended as some explanation for how the heck the main bad-guys get in and out of these convoluted death-trap lairs.  I suppose it’s easier when writing for a tournament and you needn’t bother think about what if anything is beyond the last room.

Part A is typical of the first rounds.  Some very interesting rooms to get through in a surprisingly linear progression.  Amusingly there are a couple places where there are several exits from a room which either dead-end, lead back to the same room they left, or join together with the one correct passage to the next room.

The semi-final is broken into two parts each with its own map.  Part C is much like part A, and other pieces of the entire series, being an underground dungeon with various traps, puzzles, and monsters to contend with.  Part B is the odd bit.  Apparently the semi-final starts with the players finding the city of the slave lords (the titular ‘Aerie’), and knowing they must find the secret underground passage in the city that will lead them into the final stronghold.  Part B consists of the entire city, with short descriptions of every building.  There are a few clues here and there as to the location of the entrance to the underground, but most buildings are dead ends.  Given that the scoring for the semi-final is based completely on the number of rooms in the underground explored, the entire thing seems to be nothing more than a massive time waster.  The best way to score high in the semi-final is to find the entrance as fast as possible and get into the underground.

It makes me wonder if part B was really part of the tournament at all.  Given that part C is exactly the same number of rooms as part A, it seems odd to have this bit in here at all.  Don’t get me wrong, it is kind of cool and would make a great sandbox in which you could spend a lot of sessions.  This seems another argument though for it being included for campaign play rather than for the tournament.  The text does seem to indicate it is part of the tournament, but little guidance is given in just how to run this.  A blank player map is included, do they just point to which building they want to check out and the GM runs it from there?  Should there be potential to get in trouble right in the streets?  What happens if the party gets in deep and the citizens and/or guards overwhelm them?  I don’t care how powerful a party may be, a city full of enemies is going to take them down relatively quickly.

Perhaps the idea is that by this point the participants have been whittled down to the most superior players, who know better than to dicker around when there’s a secret passage to be found.  This is the semi-final after all.  Still, for all the effort I’ve read about being put into making sure the tournaments were fair and equal for all participants regardless of DM, this part strikes me as pretty contradictory to that goal.  Different DMs could really run quite differently with the semi-final, and I think even a good party might find themselves running out of time if they had an inventive DM who might enjoy elaborating on this part.

Another interesting thing to note about the semi-final: the pre-gens have changed slightly.  Two sets of pre-gens are included in the module.  As far as I can tell, the only difference between them is some slight changes in inventory, especially around the magic items.  It’s an interesting nod to consistency, assuming the party used up their expendable magic items in the previous round so shouldn’t have them in this round.  Again it pushes that interesting feeling of a consistent narrative — that many groups were simultaneously attacking the slave lords but that this group is the one that got through.  It works to a degree, provided you ignore the fact that every group consisted of the same characters.  It makes me a little sad, as I know it’s the bit I could not replicate with a modern re-running of this tournament.  I doubt we’ll ever see another case of a massive convention running hundreds of players through a single consistent multi-round tournament.  Sigh.

Someone get on that time-machine already.  I want to go to GenCon XIII!

Tournament Modules – A2: Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade

Much like A1, module A2 includes two of the five first round parts of the original tournament.  Unfortunately, unlike A1, A2 does not do a very good job of presenting the tournament material separately from the campaign version.  In this case, the maps are shaded to indicate which rooms are part of the original tournament, but that seems to be the only concession.  Sure, there’s some text in there about running the original tournaments, and ultimately I’m sure the module could be used to run the original tournament, but the presentation makes it much more difficult to read only the tournament content and skip the filler.

And filler it really is.  The rooms that are added for the campaign really don’t add much, in my opinion.  The two sections include an above-ground fort to be raided, and the undergound passages below it.  They are tenuously connected by main bad-guy characters and some secret passages, but I have to wonder in reading this if the underground was even really envisioned as being underneath the fort at all in the original tournament.  The fort adds a bit more for campaign play, in as much as the assault entry point in tournament is very linear and the module offers several other approaches to entry not possible in the tournament.  The underground portion remains fairly linear, with or without the extra material.

I suppose ultimately for campaign play the filler is exactly what you need.  The tournament material is pretty linear, with a few places appearing to have choice of direction but usually one choice quickly terminates.  In campaign play the players need a chance to go the wrong way, find some stuff that’s unimportant to the main plot, maybe find alternate paths to the goal locations.  Ultimately I don’t begrudge the authors the additional material, but it’s not why I’m reading these modules, and I find myself skimming it pretty quickly to get on to the next tournament location.

All in all I’d say this module feels the weakest to me in the series.  The set pieces don’t have quite the impact of the stuff in that first part of A1, though they are still much better than your average module, and the linearity of the adventures seems much more apparent.  Now maybe my perception is skewed because I didn’t actually play this one, and I think I will still try to find an opportunity to run these.  The effort to link the two parts seems a little more ham-fisted, but it’s also hard to see how the second part stood alone in the original tournament.  Perhaps that just means the underground of this module is the weakest of the five first rounds.  Still, I wish I could have seen the original tournament write-ups before they were coddled together into these modules.