Wednesday, April 30, 2008

REVIEW: The Original Bottle City

The Original Bottle City is the second product in what Pied Piper Publishing is calling the Lake Geneva Castle & Campaign (LGC&C) series, the first being the previously reviewed The (Original) Living Room. The LGC&C series comes close to being a Holy Grail for old school gamers. As I noted previously, Rob Kuntz was the co-DM of the Greyhawk campaign that Gary Gygax ran in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin back in the 1970s. Despite the prominent role Gygax played in writing for and promoting D&D, he actually provided comparatively few details about his own campaign. Certainly we got snippets here and there, sometimes quite large ones, but few of them were ever presented in a way that would allow Joe Gamer to experience the same adventures as those players of yore. We never got, for example, a true Gygaxian treatment of Castle Greyhawk, instead having to content ourselves first with an unfunny parody module, then a valiant pastiche, and finally a still-incomplete reconstruction by the Man himself.

The lack of such products now feels especially acute in the wake of Gary's death this past March. The death of Bob Bledsaw this month is a further reminder that the original generation of gamers is getting older and much of what they created and experienced in those bygone days may soon be lost. Consequently, Kuntz's LGC&C series fills a sizable void. He's in a unique position to be able to fill in gaps in our knowledge about the Greyhawk campaign and, at the same time, to produce products that evoke not an "old school feel," for that implies a certain amount of artifice, but rather are a window on a time when what we now call "old school" was simply "fantasy gaming." Indeed, the mere existence of the term "old school" only highlights the discontinuity modern gaming has with its past. Before that past is forever lost, we need more products like the LGC&C series; they provide a valuable service in preserving the hobby's collective memory of what it is and where it came from.

Most of my quibbles about The Living Room are nicely corrected in The Original Bottle City. Comparing the two products purely in terms of production is like comparing night and day. Bottle City is a staple-bound 32-page module with a cover, complete with a color illustration by Eric Bergeron that is nicely evocative of 1970s-style gaming art. The interior text, which is even more densely packed than that in The Living Room, is laid out in the two-column style we used to see in TSR's old modules. Jason Braun provides several small pieces of art to break up the text and these little pieces remind me a bit of Dave Sutherland's pieces in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. The text continues to be clear and well-edited and proofread. I noticed no glaring typos or other errors. I should add that, unlike The Living Room, the OGL is properly filled out this time around and both Product Identity and Open Game Content are clearly identified. (The module uses several terminology changes -- "umbra hulk" and "brain flayer," for example -- to get around WotC's reservation of some iconic monsters to itself) All in all, the production of the module stands head and shoulders above that of the earlier product. On these qualities alone, Bottle City is a good value for its $20.00 price tag, which, I concede, is still probably higher than some would like, but I think, given its small print run and audience, perfectly justifiable.

Before moving on to the actual content of the module, allow me a moment of editorializing. The Original Bottle City looks almost as if it could have been a TSR module from the old days. This was clearly intentional and it's an intention shared by many publishers who trade in "old school" modules. On the one hand, nostalgia is an important part of what these products are about, so I can't really begrudge any company that decides to take advantage of that. At the same time, though, I do worry that, given how far the "technology" of game products has advanced in the last 30+ years, old school products are handicapping themselves by explicitly adopting older styles of presentation and art. I love the artwork of Trampier, Otus, and Sutherland as much as the next grognard. However, I think there's something to be said for, if the goal is to introduce a wider audience to old school content and style, using contemporary techniques and artwork rather than simply aping the past. I'm half-tempted to try and produce an old school product of my own that employs contemporary production values and see how well it's received. I have a feeling it might attract more attention from younger gamers than one that tries to look like it was made in 1977.

But I digress.

The premise of Bottle City is that the adventure described within its pages all take place within a city in a magical bottle, hence the name. The bottle can be placed in any location, whether in a dungeon, as it was in Castle Greyhawk, or in some other place. Once again, this makes the product delightfully modular and easily adaptable to anyone's campaign, regardless of its setting details. The module details only a single "level" of the city, one that seems to be a sub-level of some sort, since there are references to undescribed "upper" levels that form the city proper. I presume that, in the original campaign, these upper levels were seen and experienced by the player characters. Kuntz suggests he may detail these other levels at a later date and I certainly hope he does so, although, in true old school fashion, design lacunae like this serve as excellent opportunities for individual referees to make the material their own.

The same principle applies to the map of the level itself, which includes many, many rooms that are not keyed. This was a common practice back in the day, both to allow the referee flexibility in adding new encounters on the fly and because old school dungeons were "alive," which is to say, they changed between adventures. Far from being static, isolated collections of rooms with monsters that didn't interact with one another or that served no purpose other than to wait for adventurers to enter them, old school dungeons were living, breathing ecologies, albeit fantastical ones. There was in fact a rhyme and reason to their internal workings and the presence of empty rooms helped facilitate them. Bottle City comes with a beautiful and inspiring reproduction of the original map Kuntz drew on graph paper. The map is charming, right down to its misspellings of words and lack of clarity in places. It reminds me very much of the maps I used to draw in my youth. I do wish Bottle City had also included a modern version of the map, simply for ease of use if nothing else, but that's a minor criticism.

The meat of Bottle City are the descriptions of the many rooms, chambers, and other locations within the level detailed. These descriptions are all quite fascinating, since the nicely illustrate a lot of old school gaming principles. There are puzzles aplenty, as well as obstacles that can only be overcome through trial and error. Likewise, there are a goodly supply of new creatures, in this case three creatures originating in The Empire of the Petal Throne game and used by kind permission of M.A.R. Barker. There's a terrific amount of variety here that should appeal to players of all stripes, provided they enjoy these challenges in the spirit in which they were written.

The specific content includes reams of trivia and insights into elements of the Greyhawk campaign. For example, there is a Hall of the Gods in which aspects of nine gods can be encountered. These gods have names that might seem vaguely familiar to those familiar with Greyhawk lore -- Hyero, Arathnul, Trython, Rhalysh, Sestian, etc. -- just as the idea of nine trapped gods echoes a famous incident involving Kuntz's own Lord Robilar character (a fact Kuntz himself readily admits). There is also an encounter with a witch named Ahsat, who rides a flying cauldron, and perfected an "uncontrollable laughter" spell. Clever readers versed in Greyhawk lore should be able to connect quite a few dots here. And of course Kuntz includes lots of commentary throughout the product, both on his reasoning in creating a particular section of the level and on how these elements worked in actual play. It's frankly an amazing package and I'm hard pressed to see how a fan of gaming history could pass it up.

The Original Bottle City is written for character levels 8-12 and I think that's about right. Many of the encounters are difficult and even unforgiving of mistakes, which is exactly what one ought to expect from it. I think it would prove a fun and exciting challenge for players who appreciate the old school sensibilities Kuntz has so lovingly presented here. What strikes me most of all is how joyful a module it is. By that I mean that it's clear Kuntz has fond memories of his time as a DM and it shows. Likewise, his digressions into the theory and philosophy of refereeing are refreshingly positive and free from jargon or pretense. They come across as a bit "rough" at times, but they're also practical, which is the other thing that comes through -- this is a module to be played. Theorizing is all well and good, but gaming is about, well, playing together with your friends in an imaginary world and anything that doesn't serve that goal is beside the point. Would that more RPGs nowadays took that approach.

In short, The Original Bottle City is a great product and I'm very proud to own it. As an adventure, it looks like a lot of fun and, as an artifact of the hobby's past, it's invaluable. I sincerely hope Mr. Kuntz will produce many more products of this sort in the near future. Lots of older gamers will appreciate being reminded of why they fell in love with this hobby in the first place and many younger gamers may have no knowledge of what they're missing. If Pied Piper Publishing came produce more products like this one, both goals could be served and I, for one, will be a very happy gamer.

Final Score: 5 out of 5 Polearms

5 comments:

  1. Great review. No reason not to put content like this on your blog, but if you're into it it might see reprint in Fight On! sooner or later too.

    - Ig

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  2. James, thanks for this review. I am going to purchase Bottle City based on your post. In the past, I used a similar encounter idea based on a Snow Globe which led to a frozen 'sub-level' in my campaigns, so I was hesitant to pursue Bottle City based on the fact that the themes were almost identical. Regardless, I feel that this publication deserves a place in my D&D collection.

    Also, I wanted to echo this sentiment:

    "Indeed, the mere existence of the term "old school" only highlights the discontinuity modern gaming has with its past."

    I really need to stop using that phrase.

    Regards,

    Dave

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  3. I'll be writing a post about "old school" today, so don't stop using the term just yet :)

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  4. I'm glad to see you bring up the point about all these products using art and layout from the 1970's. I've often thought they should try updating the look, at least if they want to introduce this playstyle to newer gamers who weren't around then (which some publishers do claim.) It also wouldn't hurt to include essays or notes on what older (I don't want to say old school!) gaming was *really* all about, because there are a lot of very negative misconceptions about it. That's why it's so often derided as outdated, with newer games being seen as "evolved" versions.

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  5. Re: 1970s art and layout

    I hesitate to say this, but I do think that the one area where grognards are letting nostalgia cloud their judgment is the esthetics of old school products. I don't think there's anything sacred or even worth preserving in TSR's trade dress or layout. I'd much rather see new old school modules that had more modern layout and organization, as well as more technically adept art. It's the content and spirit of the old school that matters to me, not the way the module looks.

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