“When I’m playing an RPG and I take a risk with a character, it is awesome because it can go bad. The higher the stakes, the higher the tension. The more that turns on a single die roll the mores eyes around the table that are glued to it as it stops. This tension is where a lot of the fun comes from in an adventure!” — Searching for Magic
Okay, I’m going to pick the opening stages of this module apart. I will be completely merciless. Harsh even. I am going to say some really mean things here, but I can’t speak for the complete module itself as I haven’t read it. This is purely from a player’s perspective. Maybe the Dungeon Master failed to present the material well and I didn’t get the real Dragon Lance experience that everybody’s been talking about for so long. That’s possible. The guy was obviously new at running the game and us players weren’t exactly kind to him. My feeling is that not only is this module inherently bad, but that it also actively prevents novice game masters from learning anything about how to get a good experience out of a role-playing game. It’s not just terrible… it’s actively harmful to the hobby! (As such, I will of course be pressuring OneBookShelf not to carry PDF’s of this one….)
It was a cool group, though. Three veterans from my Isle of Dread games were there. A guy I had played Hellenes and Pacific War with was there. Everyone had their own copy of the first edition AD&D Players Handbook to reference. We were looking up stuff in the totally real first edition AD&D Gary Gygax Dungeon Masters Guide. And get this… some random Pathfinder player wandered up to ogle the proceedings and my group was the kind of group to encourage him to pull up a chair and take a pre-gen. That had never happened to me when I was in a similar situation as him, so I was glad to be with a group of gamers that wasn’t like most role-players I’ve seen that end up playing publicly in a game store. Yay us!
Getting read to play….
So we start off in this crappy town at some sort of crappy civic group meeting. One of the items on the agenda was to talk about the Red Dragon Armies. All of us were like… dang! Red Dragon armies?! What the heck?! Nobody in town was concerned about them, but we asked how this made sense… what’s the sort of geopolitical situation here where anything could matter if there were freaking armies of Red Dragons doing stuff. We never got an answer and we decided the NPC’s were all smoking crack.
Well, there was this thing that was supposed to happen in this town: a plot point that triggered the start of our adventure. We were completely terrified of it for some reason. We knew something was up and we wanted to extract every possible advantage we could get before it went down. We figured out that my cleric’s Detect Evil spell could basically be used on every single person at the fair grounds due to its area effect, range, and duration. All we got from it was a general sense of evilness in a particular quarter. We sent the thief in to investigate and he came back telling us about this dead silver dragon that was hidden under a tarp. This scared the crap out of us!
So there were these Knights of Oofus Boofus playing music on stage. I didn’t like them. Too much like bards for my tastes. I cast Know Alignment when they went to talk to us. They couldn’t tell us anything about the setting and they were Lawful Good, so we kept looking around. The fair’s organizer turned out to be Lawful Good, too. Also useless. We went to the Mule Wrasslin’ event and a couple of us tried it, but no one could win. (Fortunately the party’s druid was selling dream catchers or something at his booth, so he couldn’t complain about the animal cruelty.) I kept asking if we could roll on the random harlot table, but there was not single darn harlot in the whole town.
Somehow we got word that some eight foot tall bald green dude was coming to speak. It sounded like the thing that was supposed to happen that everything was foreshadowing and we expected the worst. Our magic-user cast fly and haste on himself and went to check him out before his entourage could arrive. We expected some sort of army that would kill us all arbitrily. Our mage saw them coming, but for some reason, there was nothing we could do except let whatever was happening go ahead and happen. (Is that a common theme in Dragon Lance modules? I bet it is!) So we all picked our spots where we’d be on the map, calculated ranges, and let the big green bald dude show up and speak.
He got to talking on stage and it was like some sort of snake oil salesman medicine show. He preached the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. The stars and the moon were going to darken, the gold and silver and bronze dragons were going away. The silver dragons were cursed by the gods! Haha! But the awesome demonic people were all going to make the world a better place without that silly meddling from Lawful Good monsters. The crowd ate it up. “Them dragons is bad for the economy anyway. Har har!” Suddenly on stage was the dead silver dragon. We were all like, huh?! (How did they move it?!) Then the magic-user cast E.S.P. and got a couple of extra hints about the adventure premise. The green bald guy left town before we could react. (?!) Then the town leader took us aside and showed us his magic Blackberry and used it to show us more about the situation. We had to go two days march to find some dragon expert to find out what was wrong with the silver dragons. (Designers and game masters: that was the real start of the adventure right there. Just sayin’!)
We had this beautiful map to look at and plan our journey. It was really nice… nicer than anything I normally get to play with. But to us… it was full of crappy small towns with nothing in them and idiot people that we didn’t care if they died. And really… that map gives a false impression of choice… band infinite possibilities… but we all knew we were heading to the next plot point because that was the only way forward. So the wide open freedom implied by a hexcrawl scenario was nearly abusive all things considered. Perverse even….
And lemme tell ya. We were pissed. I mean, we were trying to cooperate with the game. But we had pulled every wacky stunt we could think of to create a choice or an advantage or to interact with the game world beyond playing the little dipstick games at the fair booths… and nothing freaking mattered. The whole time it felt like we were trapped in the opening chapters of an unbelievably stupid fantasy novel that was written by someone that had not read a book published before 1980. Everything about the world felt like a 12-year-old’s D&D campaign. It was just stupid. At some point, I was like, “dang it this is AD&D… can I just freaking kill something already?!” I was completely of a mind to take out all my frustrations on the innocent peoples of the game world itself and not the bad guys that we were “supposed” to go after.
A beautiful map… chock full of places no player character would want to go!
So there were stupid random encounters in every hex. (I’m not sure the dungeon master was supposed to roll for every hex. We could go maybe five or six of those 2.5 mile hexes in a day. He started to run out of encounters after a while…!) It was like twelve of them to get to the NPC that knew what we needed. Sometimes it was normal people giving us a window into the wider situation. We didn’t care because it didn’t have anything to do with our objective. Sometimes it was a hint about our upcoming battles, but we didn’t care because even when we pulled every stupid gamer trick in the book, it didn’t affect our status vis-à-vis the game anyway. Sometimes it was monsters who were so outclassed by us, we had to wonder why they didn’t flee when they first saw us coming. Sometimes it was the obvious foreshadowing encounter that we couldn’t otherwise do anything with. Sometimes it was the white stag that signaled we were going where the adventure designer wanted us to go. Other times it was goofy peasant encounters that were meant to give us minor clues while showing off enough local color that we could (presumably) be dazzled by the vast amount of detail in the Dragon Lance setting. But every attempt on the designer’s part to fold in detail and background information was undercut by the almost insane lack of coherence from either gaming, ecological, or demographical contexts. It was completely bizarre, and any questions we had about how it would make sense for anything to be the way it was were brushed off, ignored, or deflected.
As we closed in on the plot point in the town, we were surprised by rocks suddenly falling from the sky. Our magic-user flew ahead to check it out– it was gnomish tinkers firing their catapult. Our druid continued to charge up his Call Lightening spell while the rest of the party closed in. They were peeved about not getting paid for helping make a Dragon Model in the town hex next to them. We let them live even though they were annoying. (We might need them as allies later?) As we walked into town, we noticed rocks everywhere and we had to wonder why the townspeople had not formed a mob and burned those gnomes’ damnable catapult to the ground.
The NPC we were supposed to meet in order to move the snail-paced plot forward another notch… he was unavailable. His two zero level stooges told us he had gone into the Dragon Model a couple of days ago and not come back. They were worried about him. We asked why no one had gone in to check on him and they said they were claustrophobic. Both of them. (The dungeon master could have showed us that this was in the book exactly like that.) I snapped. My character was a lawful good cleric, but I took one of these dudes, twisted his arm behind his back, and made him go first as we made our way into the Dragon Model. I threatened him, mocked him, and intimidated him constantly. I peppered him with questions but he just so happened to not really know anything.
We began exploring this “dungeon” and opened one door and cow blood flowed into the room. We went another way and heart heart sounds. We went another way and detected some sort of trap. I made our zero level “friend” open the door and he was stabbed to death by a piston of some kind. I then took over the party, getting the group to pin down a marching order. I set up a routine where (with the players’ consent) the thief would check for traps and then the ranger would open the doors. We then went through passage after passage and trap after trap. Although the traps were basically unavoidable, they were not a threat to such high level characters. They were just scenery… a nuisance and an indication of just how juvenile the module designer was. I have never seen anything as utterly retarded in a fantasy story as this stuff. I can’t believe how awful this is given how slick the covers are and how nice the components are. It’s a travesty. The poor saps that bought this back in the day… I just feel so bad for them….
We passed some rooms with pulleys and levels which we ignored. (We worried that we would accidentally kill the person that could push the plot forward.) We then found a gelatinous cube powered garbage disposal. We ignored that, too. (The dungeon master said there were no magic items in it, so meh.) After mapping a dozen rooms or more, we finally heard knocking on a door. We talked to the guy inside, figured out it was our man, opened the door, made him eat and drink something, and then headed to his abode to get the information we needed to actually begin adventuring in earnest. He wasn’t too bothered when we walked past the body of his hireling. He could always get more! (My kind of scum right there! Are you lawful good? Me, too!)
The guy was so stupid that he was capable of locking himself into a room with no way to get out. He would have starved to death had we not showed up because the only people in town the could have done anything for him were claustrophobic hirelings that couldn’t go into his awesome dungeon-ish Dragon Model. And of course, he lived in a crappy “no horse” town… and thus couldn’t afford to pay the gnomes to finish the construction work he’d hired to create this thing. And the town was liable to leveled because no one there could be bothered to stop the gnomes from lobbing rocks at it. And yet… why would the gnomes take such a weird job in such a piss poor town to begin with? How could they possibly have thought that the job was worth taking on in the first place?
Yes. These idiots had the information that an epic group of heroes ranging from levels six to eight could not get for themselves. With all our magic items, arcane knowledge, all around savvy, and even easy access to clerical spells like Augury and Divination, we needed to go begging to these moronic dunderheads to please give us something so that we could follow along in this abominable “adventure.” None of this made any sense. None of it! And yeah, the dungeon master could maybe have finessed some of this… fleshed some things out, ad libed some kind of rationalization to cover up the weaker parts… or maybe even been a bit more subtle with some of his hints. He could have done more to create the illusion of player autonomy. But watching him, it was clear that he was running this thing as straight as he could. The most bafflingly maddening stuff came directly from the adventure designer! Argh!!!
Well, new knowledge in hand, we set off to the north hoping to hook up with a few gold dragons that might help us kick the butts of the uber-nasty bad guys before the bad guys could link up, merge like the Wonder Twins, and become more powerful than we could possibly imagine. We randomly encountered a floating eyeball monster, but the encounter text specifically stated that it went away before we could react to it. (Oh, like none of our spells or movement rates mattered? Really?) A few hexes later, we sighted some bronze dragons flying in a direction that would take them out of Krynn forever. Our magic-user cast haste and flight on himself before the dungeon master could say we couldn’t do it and intercepted them in order to pick their brains.
It turns out… the dragons really were leaving. Sorta like the high elves in Lord of the Rings. They were useless and didn’t want to help us fight or anything. We asked were the gold dragons were and they pointed us towards some mountains in the east. We asked for a lift– it wouldn’t take them long. Besides, if they were acting like Tolkien’s high elves, then maybe they knew about Tolkien’s use of the giant eagles as sort of a deus ex machina. They said no and then flew away.
Well, we were ticked. We talked about going straight to those mountains, but the dungeon master said that we would die if we did that. I was thinking, “but this adventure is so stupid, none of cares if this thing ends quickly in a total party kill!” I don’t even know where we got the idea anymore, but somehow we took off to the west to go to some ranch for some reason. I guess it was just the next stop to make the story come out like it was supposed to.
Well we get there and it’s another mornic NPC that does completely idiotic stuff but that happened to be able to help us even those he was useless to himself. It just so happened that while we were there, big fat ugly demon woman’s face appeared in the sky and demanded money that the guy couldn’t pay. We were like, “why is she bothering with a crappy ranch like this?” If she could give a bunch of player characters like us a run for our money, why is she messing around with pathetic peasant folk?
The yellow d20’s are the dragons. The orange dice are the eyeball monsters. My cleric is the red d4!
Well, fire rained from heaven burning up all the goats and stuff and two black dragons appeared along with six floating eyeball monsters. We about wet our pants. The bad guys won initiative and the dragons swooped in and attacked/// these two towers instead the people that could, you know, kill them. (?!) (It made no sense. Not that we complained…!) The eyeball monsters also converged on the two towers and cried poisonous acid tears of death on them. I think we argued about how to adjudicate it for thirty minutes or so because none of us knew where the grenade scatter rules for AD&D were or if applying something like that in this case was even the right thing to do. (That’s what happens when half the players are dungeon masters on the side.)
Well, the druid went up to the dragon that happened to land right next to him, succeeded in a touch “attack” (Roll against AC 10, right…? another big argument!) and cast the reverse of neutralize poison on the thing. The dragon missed his saving throw by one and died. I dunno exactly what else happened, but we all whooped up on the other dragon and maybe even killed it that turn. I can’t remember. The crying eyeball monsters attacked again and nearly killed our five allied archers that weren’t as tough as us. Our NPC that knew where the next plot thing had to happen was dead, though. Our druid cast faerie fire on all six eyeball monsters. Our magic-user then ruled for himself (with the dungeon master’s assent) that a really good to-hit roll on his part would get all three eyeball monsters at his tower within the burst radius of his fireball spell. He rolled… and it was only good enough for two monsters… but with the faerie fire bonus, it was enough to actually get all three of them. Damage was kind of mediocre, but all three monsters failed their saving throws and died. Mopping up the rest wasn’t too hard given that the archers finally started hitting. I think the last eyeball monster had six or seven arrows stinking out of him.
The fight was over, but we had this dead NPC that knew what was what. I asked the dungeon master if he was using the AD&D rule where hit points could go down to negative ten. He said it was okay, but the magic-user’s player then butt in and suggested he be required to make a system shock roll… which the dungeon master declined to enforce after I argued against it…. Yeah, that’s how we roll…!
Okay, there is an adventure structure that was popularized in the mid to late eighties that S. John Ross calls a “string of pearls.” The sample adventure in the old GURPS Humanx world book is a good example of this. There is this scene that you throw at the players and they have a relatively large amount of freedom within it. Then it resolves and things are kind of wide open for a while. The players might investigate some stuff until you throw another scene at them. The scenes are the “pearls” but they are strung together with more free form interactions that can include just about anything the players want to pursue. There’s a lot of things the players can do to shoot themselves in the foot, but there’s also a lot of perks and advantages they could work up in and between scenes if they are both lucky and smart. This is a pretty good way to give the sense of complete autonomy without having play bog down into a static mode were the players are all wondering where the “real” adventure stuff is. Also, even though there is enough plot there to give the feeling that the players are participating in a real story, there are still consequences for both good and bad play. It’s a compromise between the two extremes of “sandbox” and “full railroad.” It works. People like it.
Now, what we had in this Dragon Lance session was three “pearls.” We had an opening scene with this dumbassed fair where we could wrestle mules, shoot at puppets, and listen to boring NPC’s. We had a middle scene that was basically a dungeon crawl that arbitrarily buried our NPC plot-pusher away from us. Though there were plenty of “traps,” there was nothing there that could either harm us or challenges (that we saw anyway) and it was a complete waste of time. Finally, at the end we had this combat where the monsters behaved so stupidly, we had only the smallest possible chance that we might lose a player character. Even then, with the negative 10 hit point rule and my massive amount of cleric spells, even that wasn’t too much a threat. This is not a “string of pearls.” This is a string of crap! The net effect of all this is that basically each of these scenes appear to be engineered to be impervious to not only our biggest conceivable screw ups, but also our most cunningly devious plans. If that’s how it’s going to be, you might as well save everyone a lot of hassle and just tell them the story…! We couldn’t mess it up then!! Aigh!!!
Now… the biggest “lie” in this module is… that it purports to be an AD&D game. It might have been fine if it had been adapted into some sort of game book or something. Maybe one of those Middle Earth type game books that had a hex map with short “choose your own adventure” type thingies for each of the hex locations. But to put this in an AD&D module and then to engineer everything so that every stinking class ability and spell that the players have at their disposal is completely irrelevant… if that doesn’t infuriate a crack team of dungeon hackers, I don’t know what will. I get the feeling that the guy that made that would have looked upon my Isle of Dread and Keep on the Borderlands games with derision. “Hrumph,” he might say. “You think you’ve got story…? Bah! All you do is hack and slash!” Never mind that the kobald cave invariably produces hilarious action that’s worth retelling years later. Never mind that the journey to Dread’s central plateau rivals Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in my mind. And hey, I may be biased, but this guy Rick Swan either never had experiences like mine or else he really decided he could do better. Either way, this module came off to me like a monumental train wreck. And I’m not just saying that because of the railroad…!
The biggest problem is I don’t look at any hex on that map and think, “oh boy, I want to go there!” I just don’t get it. I mean, what kind of person is mule wrestling, animatronic fluid-filled dragon model, and two tower goat ranch supposed to appeal to? These are utterly worthless situations that cannot be salvaged without a complete rework. Firstly, the opening scene needs to be cut completely. We might start at some arbitrary podunk town, but please… let that ridiculous fair be over with. If an AD&D party makes it to seventh level or so, let ’em prop their feet up at the inn, smoke some pipe weed, and roll on the random harlot table already. And I’d rather just have the archeypical “old man with a map” set everything up for us in advance. All the player characters would even pretend to like each other even though they just met and have no reason to trust each other!
Seriously, though…. These are people that have cleared dungeons and are getting ready to clear wilderness hexes and establish domains. What the heck are they doing playing carnival games?! Cut that crap out. Also, don’t tease them with a closeup look of the main bad guy and then let him exit before the party can react. That’s crazy! If he has to pass through there, please… let him have left a couple days ago after doing something suitably horrific. Tell us the situation so we can start play in five minutes. Don’t makes us watch an opening act that takes an hour or so to play out. And that dragon model. Cut, cut, cut! If we come to town to meet someone that has key information and we play along… you are really asking for it if you bury that dude and then make us deal with an hour or so of stupid people instead of him. And good grief, if we travel to a town, why not put something there that players like instead of forcing us to “enjoy” the idiocy of a crappy mid-eighties fantasy writer that probably hasn’t ever read anything by Robert E. Howard? Oh, but there needed to be some “challenge.” Well great, toss out the pointless encounters that we had on the road and replace them with something scary. Maybe a “push” in the form of something monstrous chasing after us. (Think the Nazgul in the Fellowship of the Ring.) And hey, we might actually like the NPC a little more if we’re having a hard time and he sends some assistance to us to help us make the last leg to his sanctum. Just a thought.
And that bit with the dragons that didn’t want to help us, that couldn’t fly us anywhere, and that gave us intel that could kill us or break the game if we acted on it. Now some of this might be about a novice dungeon master and not the module itself, but lets say that going to the mountains to find the gold dragons too soon would ruin the game. Are you seriously telling me that there is not one encounter between our location and the mountains that would have given us a clue that this was the case…? If we ignored them and went there anyway, are you telling me that the adventure scenario could not possibly handle a moment like Frodo had at the black gate when he realized that he was going to have to backtrack and try something completely different than what he originally had in mind? Did the guy who made this thing really have no concept than an epic adventure might even require that sort of thing just because it was that challenging and awesome?
Well I wouldn’t know without reading the module from cover to cover. But I do know that the battle at goat farm was completely absurd. Is it too much to ask that the monsters be played somewhat intelligently? Wouldn’t they talk first? Threaten us? Intimidate us? Or maybe they’d hit and run– try to kill one of our PC’s and then run away before we could decimate them. Or maybe they would try to do that, bloody our noses, and then run away when they fail a morale check. Maybe they’re the ones that are going to decide to find some allies and then try again. Maybe there are places on the map were we can get some decent help and we actually have to go there to replace the people we lose along the way. Is it really that hard to stock a hex map so that it’s possible to have things go completely, crazily wrong and yet still have some semblance of the intended adventure?
Maybe it is hard. Or maybe… the kind of person that is going to try to impose a completely worked out story onto classic AD&D characters and monsters and hexcrawls is by definition incapable of setting things up in such a way that a story emerges that nobody at the table could have expected. Maybe someone that knows how the adventure should end before the players even roll some dice has no concept of just how pointless and irritating it is for people to try to play in it.
It’d certainly save a lot of time if the designers of this sort of thing had just played it for us. I mean, it would save us gamers that don’t know what’s “supposed” to happen having to hear from every single NPC in the game why it is that what we want to do is the wrong thing. That is what Krynn pretty well boiled down to to us. It’s no wonder that we wanted to join forces with the bad guys and then completely destroy the place. That’d be more fun than wrestling a greased mule anyway….
Gratuitous display of gaming awesome…!