Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Guest Post: The Mythic Underworld and Gygaxian Naturalism in The Lost City

Before detailing the rest of the sessions, I’d like to explain some changes I’ve made to the module and give credit for them. While I’d had it in mind to run B4 for years, a big inspiration to do so came from stumbling over Philotomy’s B4 campaign account and his OD&D musings. His site is down, which pains me to no end, along with his Lost City Campaign reports. Mercifully, other admirers have preserved his thoughts in different corners of the internet. Philotomy’s “Dungeons & Dragons Additional Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns Playable with Paper and Pencil and Miniature Figures” is a worthy read. He makes a good case for using OD&D and for the house rules he has developed. I’m certainly persuaded by his advocacy of OD&D, and I’m sure that playing in a game run by him would be rewarding.

I’m not really a rules guy though, and I don’t actually care that much about mechanics. I just want to see the story I want to tell (and that my players want to play) unfold. I’m using B/X because it’s part of my personal history and I’m fond of it. And even though I’m interested in exploring B/X mechanics to figure out for myself the good and bad of them, I am absolutely not advocating for or against any system here. This whole project is an elaborate, personal thought experiment. Anyway, the section “The Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld” (page 22) was influential to me, and gave me a framework around which to re-conceive B4. I want a coherent game world. I want the existence of monsters, magic, etc. to exist in a physical and ecological context that “makes sense”. A shorthand term for this point of view is Gygaxian Naturalism. (See here for a fine definition and here for an insightful & entertaining discussion of Gygaxian Naturalism.)

Tom Moldvay certainly provided a great framework for adventure and various plot hooks in B4, and he took some pains to have the Lost City “make sense”. B4 is far more impressive in this way than most other modules of the time (with the possible exception of B2). But, like almost all old school modules, it’s still pretty silly. The sheer variety of monsters running about the place (and their thin-to-absent reasons for being there) bend realism too far for me. Philotomy’s ideas offer a two-fold path out of this silly wilderness.

The Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld is a great justification for abandoning Gygaxian Naturalism in certain areas. The monsters and other horrors in any given module can be viewed as an expression of the Wrongness of the place. These are warped environments, molded by the evil forces inhabiting them. B4 just so happens to have a perfect catalyst for this Wrongness embodied in Zardoz. Non-player characters in my version of the Lost City refer to “the breath of Zardoz”. Sitting in its little cave under the ziggurat, Zardoz breathes out chaos. Its warping influence turns otherwise normal animals into monstrous horrors (e.g. giant rats, vampiric bats, Stirges, etc.). Its breath animates the dead. It clouds the mind. It lends awful power to the rituals of its priests.

Philotomy also examines B4 in nitty-gritty detail, subtly modifying the map, monsters and encounters. (Many of his changes are preserved here.) In particular, I appreciate the modifications that make transit to and from the ziggurat to the underground city more sensible. The reasons for how and why members of the three old-God cults exist in the ziggurat at all had really been bugging me, and his changes help. So, as my session accounts progress, you may note deviations from the module as written. Many of these are taken whole cloth from Philotomy. Some are my own invention. I’ve altered the names are certain non-player charaters and Gods for my own amusement as with Zardoz or to better fit into the overarching game world.

For instance, in the previous post, wherein the party approaches and enters the ziggurat, there were two deviations from the module as written. The first was the encounter with outdoor Stirges, which doesn’t exist in the module at all. Indeed, B4 kind of feels to me like there’s a membrane around the pyramid with a marked difference between inside and out. I wanted to break down that feeling a bit. Some beings in my pyramid have access to the outdoors. Zardoz’s intangible influence extends beyond the masonry walls. This was not meant to be understood to the players immediately. I just wanted to plant the seed for later. This encounter also gave the players an opportunity to whittle down the strength of the Stirge-nest a bit. That room is pretty dangerous to a crew of low-HP goons. Lastly, it renders the outdoor environment a little more interesting—to have something potentially happen.

I dropped two more dead Orcs in Room 1 because I kind of wanted to convey the inverse of the lesson above—outside agents can and have penetrated the ziggurat. Mostly, I wanted to reinforce the notion that there may be other caravan refugees operating independent of the party. Lastly, it provided chain mail to strip, if any characters needed to upgrade armor. More than anything, these were atmospheric changes that highlight non-PC interactions within the game world. I like to convey to PCs that they are not the center of the universe, and that everyone and everything else has business of its own. This is one of the cornerstones of my approach as a GM.

Read Earlburt’s entire series on The Lost City:

  1. Setting out for the Lost City
  2. Nonvariable Weapon Damage, Alignment Tongues, and Rolling Hit Dice
  3. Setting and Player Introduction for The Lost City
  4. Into The Desert
  5. Context, Cut Scenes, and the Pen and Paper Experience
  6. Death Lurks in Every Nook and Cranny
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3 responses to “Guest Post: The Mythic Underworld and Gygaxian Naturalism in The Lost City

  1. Ben Brophy November 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    This kind of hits on why I never liked playing modules. I preferred having an environment and seeing what story happened. I don’t think I ever had more than inkling of what might happen. I did love reading the modules though for ideas. For example, I read ‘Secret of the Slavers Stockade’ repeatedly but I don’t think we ever tried to actually use it in a game.

    • Earlburt November 28, 2012 at 3:57 pm

      Secret of the Slavers Stockade is probably my third favorite module ever, after B2 & B4. I dunno why exactly. Something just caught my imagination. It might have had to do with how low-level a conflict it was. It was really just about uncovering a slvae trade organization– nothing world-saving about it. And I liked how realistic the fortress seemed to be, vs. an elaborate cave system. The rest of the Slavers series kind of blew, I think.

      I remember having used the map in that module once for a Rolemaster game. But not the story.

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: King Alexander’s Burial Chamber | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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