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.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.
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.
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.