Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Continuity and Tradition, Part II

It’s my contention that the first super adventure was a slim, 28-page module called Dwellers of the Forbidden City, published by TSR, Inc., in 1981. “Proto-super adventure” might be a more accurate term. It was really just a setting that was ripe for exploration, combined with a single quest that barely scratched the surface of its possibilities.

The adventure as published called for the characters to track down goods recently stolen from merchant caravans. To do that, they had to find the Forbidden City, and a way into it, and track down a wizard who had made his home among the ruins. A straightforward quest—but what made it exceptional was the number of possible ways to accomplish that single goal. This adventure pioneered the idea of nonlinear exploration. No dungeon corridors channeled the characters’ movements. There were at least four ways to get down into the crater where the Forbidden City lay, each one detailed as a mini-site within the larger setting. The characters could choose their approach and go whatever way they wanted to in the ruined city.

Within the city itself were three factions of monsters. The yuan-ti made their first appearance in this adventure, and they were accompanied by froglike bullywugs and
humanoids of highly questionable heritage called mongrelmen. Long-armed, arboreal humanoids called tasloi rode giant wasps through the jungle trees. Fighting the bullywugs or the tasloi didn’t bring the characters any closer to finding the lost caravan goods, but there they were anyway.

An all-too-brief section at the end of the adventure took a tentative next step, suggesting other quests that might bring the characters into the Forbidden City. With more detail, more fleshed-out quests, and another hundred pages or so, Dwellers of the Forbidden City would have been a spectacular super adventure—four years before the landmark release of The Temple of Elemental Evil, which more properly deserves that description.
So opines James Wyatt in the 4e Dungeon Masters Guide; I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry. Dwellers of the Forbidden City is a module with which I am very familiar, as it's one of my all-time favorites. As I noted elsewhere, I consider it a near-perfect example of late old school adventure design, which emphasizes locales over plots and being suggestive rather than being exhaustive.

Mr. Wyatt makes it clear that, while he remembers the broad outlines of the module, he never really understood the reasons behind its contents and presentation. I've bolded a number of sentences that I think nicely illustrate the heady mix of historical rootlessness and self-serving nonsense contained in the above quote, a mix that, in my opinion, is emblematic of the design principles on which the new edition is founded.

Let's look at just one of those bolded statements, because I think it's the key one: "This adventure pioneered the idea of nonlinear exploration." Really? Dwellers of the Forbidden City was written in 1981, which is seven years after the release of OD&D and four years after the release of AD&D. If you take a look at almost any listing of published D&D modules, you'll see quite a few were released between 1974 and 1981, including such classics as Keep on the Borderlands and the entirety of the Giants/Drow series (and this isn't even including the many more modules produced by Judges Guild during the same period). Given this, what does Mr. Wyatt mean? The next sentences explains it quite clearly: "No dungeon corridors channeled the characters’ movements." That's a funny thing to say in my opinion. Far from channeling movement, dungeon corridors actually provide options. Do we go this way or that way? It's absurd to attribute linearity to dungeons, because a well-designed dungeon allows the players many options and alternatives, none more obviously better than the others. Anyone who's read reminscences of the adventures beneath Castle Greyhawk or Blackmoor Castle would know this.

So what is going on here? Mr. Wyatt elaborates on his thought further still in the conclusion of the second paragraph: "There were at least four ways to get down into the crater where the Forbidden City lay, each one detailed as a mini-site within the larger setting. The characters could choose their approach and go whatever way they wanted to in the ruined city." Add to this the statement later, "With more detail, more fleshed-out quests, and another hundred pages or so, Dwellers of the Forbidden City would have been a spectacular super adventure ..." And there we have it. It's not that there weren't "nonlinear" adventures before Module I1; there clearly were, as I've discussed at length previously. Rather, it's that those modules didn't flesh out the possibilities, instead leaving them to the individual referee to create in response to player choice. Because Dwellers of the Forbidden City fleshed out four likely possibilities in detail, it qualifies as having "pioneered the idea of nonlinear exploration" while modules like Descent into the Depths of the Earth or Vault of the Drow don't qualify, because they leave most of the possibilities as just that -- possibilities that a referee can choose or not choose to actualize depending on his players' actions.

I realize this may seem like a nitpick and perhaps it is. If so, my apologies. However, I'm increasingly convinced, as I read more and more of 4e at length, that there is nothing -- and I mean nothing -- left of the old school here. This is a game whose history is a blank page, despite the ritual invocation of the past every chapter or so. I don't begrudge anyone who enjoys this game or appreciates it virtues; I myself can see how finely tuned its design is. But I hope I can forgiven for saying that it bares as much relationship to the game I call Dungeons & Dragons as this guy has to this guy. More power to you if you like the former rather than the latter, but please don't attempt to claim they share any significant genetic material.

10 comments:

  1. This is the point where your comments about looking deeper at old school than formal matters and trade dress start to ring true. Obvious and blatant namedropping of D&D's past aside, the text of the 4e rulebooks indicates that the designers either failed to understand old school D&D, did not care about what they found there, or understood and cared, but did not incorporate this understanding/care into the final product.

    Some elements of 4e appear more old school than the last few editions. The Pyramid of Shadows has received favourable reviews from people I consider informed about old school gaming... yet when I read the excerpt about the elf head that plays a prominent role in the module, it felt wrong, all wrong - aesthetically, mechanically, and in DMing style. The basic concept was excellent (so excellent that I had written something damn similar for Fight On! #2), but the actualisation - very much not. The sanitisation is a vital part of my disappointment, but far from the only one.

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  2. Obvious and blatant namedropping of D&D's past aside, the text of the 4e rulebooks indicates that the designers either failed to understand old school D&D, did not care about what they found there, or understood and cared, but did not incorporate this understanding/care into the final product.

    The other possibility, and a likely one, is that the designers (some of them anyway) understand the old school but, for reasons of commerce, couldn't allow that understanding to inform the design of the new except in the most superficial ways. As I delve more and more into this, it's pretty clear that the old school isn't very commercially viable, at least not if your goal is to sell millions of copies and justify your continued existence to a multi-billion dollar a year toy company.

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  3. I believe your suggestion is covered by "understood and cared, but did not incorporate this understanding/care into the final product."

    The commercial viability of old school is an interesting issue. I think it would be commercially viable for a well marketed entry game, and unviable for the "milk existing fans for what they are worth" strategy.

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  4. I believe your suggestion is covered by "understood and cared, but did not incorporate this understanding/care into the final product."

    Fair enough.

    The commercial viability of old school is an interesting issue. I think it would be commercially viable for a well marketed entry game, and unviable for the "milk existing fans for what they are worth" strategy.

    I think you're right. Certainly an old school RPG doesn't make a good foundation for a "brand," which is all that matters in the industry today.

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  5. I personally believe that WotC RnD are unable to do so because, uh, some, people out there in our hobby don't have maps and, uh, I believe that our, uh, education like such as, uh, Hardby and, uh, the Pomarj, everywhere like such as, and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the hobby should help the hobby, uh, or, uh, should help WotC and should help the Pomarj and the Forgotten Realms, so we will be able to build up our future, for our children.

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  6. I agree that the designers are not being allowed to go retro. There are a lot of sendups to Necromancer Games efforts in the books if you know where to look, and I think there is a hidden "old school mode" in 4e. I think that everytime they say "or you could do it this way" they really mean "for old school do it this way" Take for example the talk on being a referee. At first you think Wyatt is saying "you are not a referee, but by the end of it you feel like you are being encouraged to be one. The fact that the word Referee even shows up in the DMG indicates to me a cry for help.

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  7. I think there is a hidden "old school mode" in 4e.

    I'm certain that the designers think there is, but in my opinion it's a very stylized one based on a shallow understanding of the old school. It's more akin to the way that "retro" is used by a lot of people -- a caricature of the past rather than an actual appreciation of its virtues.

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  8. Mr. Wyatt makes it clear that, while he remembers the broad outlines of the module, he never really understood the reasons behind its contents and presentation.

    Most of them at WoTC are the same. Bunch of ***kers without historical knowledge of this hobby (most of them - as I said).

    Maybe in a matter - "Oh, we don't have any good ideas for next months to publish! Let's see some good ol' books of the past. Rip out previous, not-clear-and-clever-now overall context and voila!". OD&D is, by definition, not for them.

    I think I'll construct (in my OD&D campaign) something like unstoppable, huge, ever-spinning barrel - a metaphor of WoTC crew - full of neanderthal looking EHPs. Unholy symbol will be a big golden "$" mark on tunics and shields. Bah, I'll even break 3LBB style and give them chance to take Thief class - Name level at start.

    Cheers
    J

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  9. Reprint the Moldvay or Mentzer basic sets, get it on the shelves of Target and Wal-Mart, and I’m betting you could make a profit.

    There’s not been any huge change in the world that would prevent them from being any worse for new gamers today than they were then. (I don’t buy the “can’t compete with computer/video games” angle, and I think the “fad” nature of D&D then was more of a bonus than a necessity.)

    Maybe give it a bit of a facelift and a modest amount of smart marketing, and you could have a hit. I wouldn’t be surprised if it would sell as well as the 4e PHB, which is neither as accessible or enough to play that evening.

    Although Moldvay and Mentzer are, for some people, too far from “old school” to qualify.

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  10. Although Moldvay and Mentzer are, for some people, too far from “old school” to qualify.

    While I'm one of those people, I'd be vastly more happy to see kids with Moldvay or Mentzer as their entry into the hobby than I would be to see them pick up 4e. Whatever the flaws of those editions, they're nothing compared to the alternatives.

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