Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Retrospective: Vault of the Drow

It might be an exaggeration to call Module D3, Vault of the Drow, the greatest D&D adventure of all time. It might even be an exaggeration to say that it's my favorite D&D module of all time. However, I think it could reasonably be argued that it's the greatest Gygaxian naturalist adventure of all time, for what it presents is a vast subterranean locale -- the Drow city of Erelhei-Cinlu -- brought to darkly beautiful life, from the various feuding dark elf noble houses to their monstrous servitors to their pitiful slaves. It's really an amazing piece of work -- even moreso when you consider that it was only 28 pages in length.

What a lot of gamers forget, assuming they ever actually played D3, is that there is absolutely no plot to the module, just as there was no plot to its precursors in the D series. The "plot" of the series, such as it is, mostly occurred in modules G1, G2, and G3, where the evil high priestess of the Elder Elemental God, Eclavdra, was attempting to organize the giants into a vast army with which to subjugate a portion of the surface world, in the process gaining power for herself and her house, Eilservs. Once that plan is defeated, though, all that remains for the PCs is vengeance and exploration of the depths of the earth. Eclavdra -- or her clone -- reappears in Vault of the Drow, but only as the leader of House Eilservs, not as "the big bad evil guy" of the module. No such personage exists in D3, as its 28 pages are devoted primarily to describing Erelhei-Cinlu, its inhabitants, and their activities.

There's a lot to love in this module, though I admit that its hard to erase from my memory the horrible ways in which the drow have been fetishized and bastardized in the years since. It's frankly a testament to Gygax's brilliant imagination that he made chaotic evil elves who (mostly) had a thing for spiders so alluring. And of course, in 1978, when this module was first published, the drow were new and exciting rather than clichéd and dull. I know I found the drow fascinating back in the day, even if I never quite shared the same level of interest that many did (the same goes for elves generally, so maybe I'm weird).

Erelhei-Cinlu itself is like a pulp fantasy come to life, illuminated by the soft purple glow of phosphorescent fungi and filled with buildings built on the presumption its inhabitants could naturally levitate, it's an alien place, where the PCs can't help but feel like fish out of water. Even more unsettling in my experience is that, unless the PCs are actively disturbing the peace of the city (or have ticked off someone of importance), they can wander about the place without being hunted down like dogs. True, it's a chaotic evil city and it's all too easy to wind up on the wrong side of inter-house disputes, but the drow are civilized and their city behaves according to rules, albeit twisted and evil ones.
The tiers and dungeons of Erelhei-Cinlu reek of debauchery and decadence, and the city‘s inhabitants are degenerate and effete. (Those with any promise and ability are brought out of the place to serve the fighting societies, merchant clans or noble houses. The rest are left to wallow in the sinkhole of absolute depravity which is Erelhei-Cinlu.) The most popular places in the city are the gambling dens, bordellos, taverns, drug saloons, and even less savory shops along the two main streets. The back streets and alleyways too boast of brothels, poison shops, bars, and torture parlors. Unspeakable things transpire where the evil and jaded creatures seek pleasure, pain, excitement, or arcane knowledge, and sometimes these seekers find they are victims. All visitors are warned that they enter the back streets of the city at their peril.
It's easy to see why the drow made such a profound impression on gamers. What Gygax has done here is present us with an entire evil city to use as our sandbox, pursuing whatever adventures we wished within or without its walls. It's a great example of location-based design and a reminder of what modules were like before the demands of convention play or obsession with "story" changed their nature forever.

When I get around to it, after all my various other projects are put to bed, I'd love to take a whack at designing something like Erelhei-Cinlu. If it's even a tenth as evocative and useful as what Gygax achieved, I'll be beside myself with joy.

18 comments:

  1. Once again James -- excellent work. And timely with All Hallows Eve just around the corner. Now I'm going to have to go pull out my archives and find D3 and reread it myself! (Although I think I have the late 80's D1-3 combined version with the blue (green?) cover. Cant remember... hopefully I can still find it.

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  2. I think that Gary's D trilogy of modules are the best A/D&D modules of all time.

    Perhaps the highest bit of High Gygaxian is the following passage from pp. 10-11 of D3: Vault of the Drow. The first paragraph gives the context, while the second ramps it up to maximum Gygaxian.

    'The true splendor of the Vault can be appreciated only by those with infravision, or by use of the roseate lenses or a gem of seeing. The Vault is a strange anomaly, a hemispherical cyst in the crust of the earth, an incredibly huge domed fault over 6 miles long and nearly as broad. The dome overhead is a hundred feet high at the walls, arching to several thousand feet height in the center. When properly viewed, the radiation from certain unique minerals give the visual effect of a starry heaven, while near the zenith of this black stone bowl is a huge mass of tumkeoite -- which in its slow decay and transformation to lacofcite sheds a lurid gleam, a ghostly plum-colored light to human eyes, but with ultravision a wholly different sight.

    'The small "star" nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large "moon" of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres, vermillions, russets, citron, and aquamarine shades. (Elsewhere the river and other water courses sheen a deep velvety purple with reflected highlights from the radiant gleams overhead vying with streaks and whorls of old silver where the liquid laps the stony banks or surges against the ebon piles of the jetties and bridge of the elfin city for the viewers' attention.) The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more like mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland.'

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  3. And people say Gygax can't write! That passage puts the lie to that, I think. I think the "dark fairyland" bit at the end is the real kicker for me, since it sums it up so well in so few words.

    I also think there's something profoundly human about the way Gary continued to slip small homages to his boyhood friend Tom Keogh into his works. He obviously felt his loss greatly.

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  4. tumkeoite = Tom Keogh

    I never noticed that before.

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  5. Don't feel bad: Gary was a master punster; he included lots of such stuff everywhere and I miss them all the time.

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  6. James, you may be aware of this, but I thought this was pretty neat myself:

    http://www.greyhawkonline.com/grodog/gh_anagrams.html


    ...sort of a Gygaxian decoder!

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  7. Now I want to buy a copy of this module!

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  8. Oddly, I never found D3 that compelling, as a DM reading it. "What are they supposed to do?" I thought. "Raid warehouses?" It did not seem a compelling diversion to me compared to raiding dungeons.

    However, when I finally got around to running it after years, it led to some very exciting moments. The PCs were discovered in a courtyard in the heart of the city and, as they battled the residents, the players were getting scared when mind flayers started showing up to watch the battle, and intrigued as the mind flayers just stood there observing. Good times.

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  9. Great entry. This one, Shrine of the Kuo-Toa (my personal favorite for atmosphere alone) and Tharizdun all achieve that sublime Lovecraftian weirdness that elevate them above a mere collection of encounters on a keyed map. And every one of them, as you point out, with such economy; together, those three modules don't add up to all the pages in on of the Forgotten Realms grey box books.

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  10. When I got into D&D the drow already seemed played out, and vaguely depressing. Because of this post, I'm going back and reading D3 for the first time now.

    It's incredible. Thanks James.

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  11. Awesome retrospective on one of Gygax's crowning achievements. As you say, getting so much into just 28 pages is a feat literally impossible with today's design standards.

    At the risk of shamelessly promoting my own blog, I would humbly point folks interested in some of the more obscure and interesting points related to DMing the D series to a couple of posts I did on the subject this summer.

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  12. I never realized what a good writer Gygax was. I'm going to have keep my eye out for this one.

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  13. Great article, James. I definitely need to go back and look at Vault again. I think in my mind, I sort of have the drow in the overplayed Realms/Salvatore vein, and its hard to remember it wasn't always so.

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  14. James, you may be aware of this, but I thought this was pretty neat myself:
    http://www.greyhawkonline.com/grodog/gh_anagrams.html
    ...sort of a Gygaxian decoder!


    Thanks for the plug, Jim. I'm pretty sure that lacofsite is also a play on Len Lakofka, as well....

    Allan.

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  15. ...sort of a Gygaxian decoder!

    Allan Grohe is one of the great scholars of Gygaxian lore out there; he's a font of terrific information and we're lucky to have him around.

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  16. I'm pretty sure that lacofsite is also a play on Len Lakofka, as well....

    That seems very likely.

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  17. Inspiring. Thanks.

    Now... Where did I put my own copy of that module...

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  18. Man, I love that module, it's been a very long time since I raised a pint of brains in sloppy joe's Mind Falyer Bar.

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