Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Retrospective: Dungeonland

When you insert this module into your campaign, do so without alerting the players. That is, they will not see a white rabbit and a rabbit hole anywhere, nor will they discover a looking glass to pass through. I have tried these methods, and they put players on guard immediately. Conceal this module within the body of your game material. At a convenient point—for you, not for the party—have them fall into a pit or have a passageway suddenly become a perpendicular shaft. Then have them descend, ever so slowly, into the “front door” of Dungeonland.
Published in 1983, Dungeonland, like so many of the modules written by Gary Gygax in the last few years of his time at TSR, is a throwback, an atavism, a reminder of the early days of the hobby. I'm not sure one can necessarily draw any conclusions about Gary's opinions on the state of the game he helped created almost a decade earlier, but I think it's interesting to note that, just as the Hickman Revolution was building up a head of steam, the Dungeon Master was producing not one but several modules that ran counter to the adventure design principles in vogue at the time.

Dungeonland -- an obvious pun on "Wonderland" -- sits on the faultlines of a couple bugaboos of gaming and, like many similar modules, one's reaction to it is a good indication of how in tune one is with the pulse of the early hobby. First and foremost, module EX1 is a classic "funhouse" module. It has no rhyme or reason; there is no grand explanation for how or why Dungeonland exists, except that Gary Gygax felt, as have many other old school referees, that Lewis Carroll's imaginary world serves as a great inspiration for a whimsical, if deadly, adventure. Second, Dungeonland is clearly meant to challenge the player, not his character. Throughout the module, there are many places where the standard rules of D&D don't apply, leaving the characters without recourse to their usual bag of tricks. The only way to overcome such circumstances is for the player to be clever, using his wits and his knowledge of Carroll's tales to assist him. It's an adventure that actually invites players to engage in the heinous sin of "meta-gaming," because, many times, it's the best chance one's character has of surviving. In short, Dungeonland is a module that mocks "immersion" and adds a much-needed layer of nuance to one's understanding of what naturalism is and is not.

I've noted before that I have never been a huge fan of funhouse dungeons, but I've always liked Dungeonland (and its sequel, The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror). Perhaps it's because, as a child, I found the stories of Alice's adventures simultaneously awesome and terrifying. Wonderland truly is a wonder -- an alien landscape following its own bizarre "rules" and shot through with a darkness that, even as a kid, I found strangely compelling, even as I was horrified by it. I don't have to imagine why Gary Gygax found the idea of throwing his players into a D&D-ified version of the same to be such a grand jest. Likewise, fan of the Harold Shea stories that he was, I imagine it seemed perfectly reasonable to him that there existed a dimension parallel to Greyhawk that was based on a twisted version of Lewis Carroll's creations. Couple that with the opportunity to engage in painful punnery and gallow's humor and suddenly the whole venture seems to have been tailor-made for Gary's unique talents.

I have a hard time imagining a module like Dungeonland being written today, at least outside the old school movement. Indeed, even within the old school community, there are probably lots of people who would look askance at it. EX1 is a concatenation of opposites: at once light-hearted and deadly, literary and low-brow, and, above all, supremely challenging. Run in the spirit in which it was written, players will be hard pressed to come out of this adventure with their characters intact. An adventure like this was already a museum piece in 1983, at the close of the Golden Age. How much more of a curiosity would it be regarded 25 years later? There is no story to Dungeonland -- except the story of a book most gamers have probably never read -- and no attempt to provide anything more than a dangeous romp that players can, if they succeed, take pride in having beaten. I can still tell you many stories of my own players' adventures in Dungeonland, right down to how some of their characters died, which is a pretty good indication of how memorable Dungeonland is. How many modules published in its wake, no matter how finely crafted, can say the same?

17 comments:

  1. I'm not sure one can necessarily draw any conclusions about Gary's opinions on the state of the game he helped created almost a decade earlier, but I think it's interesting to note that, just as the Hickman Revolution was building up a head of steam, the Dungeon Master was producing not one but several modules that ran counter to the adventure design principles in vogue at the time.

    I suspect that Gary saw his modules and Hickman’s more as two parallel alternatives rather than harkening back versus in vogue.

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  2. It's possible. I'd love to know what role Gary played, if any, in greenlighting Dragonlance and the modules that preceded it.

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  3. Sometime in the late 70's I read an article in White Dwarf about a Wonderland Dungeon level years before the module cane out. I'm not sure it was Gygax who wrote the article, but it sounds more like something the wacky brits would dream up.

    I don't like funhouse "looney" dungeons, but I suppose an Alice level sounds better to me than a Star Trek level.

    I think a Wonderland area of The Dreamlands would make a great side adventure for Call of Cthulhu.

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  4. I think Alice never works in CoC as well as you'd hope: the willfulness destroys the basis for a game, unless that basis is tucked safely away in mechanics, as it generally is in D&D. Carnivalesque interludes, like the King in Yellow section of Orient Express, suffer from the same problem - you're always waiting for the moment when the faces melt, partly because there's nothing to do up to that moment but play along.

    I owned but never played Dungeonland; my impression was that it belonged in that genre of 60s TV writing, where every series would eventually get its Western or gangsters episode. I think Gary's advice is exactly right at the start - don't announce it, just interject it - but I've never had a gaming group that would be pleased to know they'd fallen into it, and I think I'd probably end up just using odd moments and motifs rather than playing through the serial encounters - more an occasional seasoning than a whole meal.

    That said, I can't resist adding "drink me" labels to potion bottles.

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  5. I'll never know why, but some people just hate the hell out of whimsy in fantasy. They also tend to be the same ones who need their fantasy to be "pure", with no sci-fi elements. They're convinced the whole genre needs to be very staid Serious Business for them to enjoy it.

    That always seemed to be behind the disdain for these mods more than anything else.

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  6. EX1 and EX2 are among my favorite Gygax adventures. I overlooked them (and their merits) for a long time because of the 'fun house' aspect, which I didn't appreciate, at the time these came out.

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  7. It's possible. I'd love to know what role Gary played, if any, in greenlighting Dragonlance and the modules that preceded it.
    I'm fairly sure he had no role whatsoever, as he was in exile in Hollywood at that time (and even before his exile had been reduced to powerless figurehead status). One of his last editorials in Dragon magazine before his ouster was about the need to "swing back the pendulum" from story-oriented games to game-oriented games, which I think indicates pretty well what he felt about the Dragonlancification of D&D. (He also, IIRC, scoffs at the notion of playing pregenerated PCs, and maybe even cites Dragonlance specifically, in Roleplaying Mastery).

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  8. That said, I can't resist adding "drink me" labels to potion bottles.

    It just fits, doesn't it?

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  9. One of his last editorials in Dragon magazine before his ouster was about the need to "swing back the pendulum" from story-oriented games to game-oriented games, which I think indicates pretty well what he felt about the Dragonlancification of D&D.

    Yes, I remember it well. I may need to dig out again and take a look to see what I might glean from it. I always got the impression that he didn't think much of Dragonlance, but I simply couldn't recall any place where he'd touched on it, even obliquely.

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  10. Dungeonland (or White Plume Mountain, Castle Amber or any of a number of other modules) might be as poor a fit for a much more serious campaign as an Epic Quest might be for one more geared to this sort of thing.

    At least in D&D, I personally favor the more "game" oriented approach. The rules were designed around the "dungeon" concept exemplified in Blackmoor and Greyhawk. I see it mainly as a "puzzle" game, and the Alice stories fit that wonderfully as sources of inspiration.

    EX1 and EX2 stand out as notable challenges to player skill, which is something I greatly appreciate. The opportunity for hard-won triumphs is one of Gygax's frequent gifts, the chance to meet a memorable demise another!

    I really wish we'd seen more modules from the Dungeon Master. I can easily come up with "plotline" scenarios I consider better than most of TSR's later produce -- but not so easily match the brilliance in those glimpses of Gary's (and Rob's) classic dungeon levels.

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  11. Brunomac said: Sometime in the late 70's I read an article in White Dwarf about a Wonderland Dungeon level years before the module cane out. I'm not sure it was Gygax who wrote the article, but it sounds more like something the wacky brits would dream up.

    That was Don Turnbull's "Alice in Dungeonland: A Carrollian Dungeon Adventure"---excerpted from Turnbull's Greenfields dungeon IIRC (his equivalent to Greyhawk Castle)---and published in White Dwarf #4 (Dec 1977/Jan 1978). Combining the two will definitely help to throw off players who know EX1.

    Relatedly, a number of reinterpretations of Alice in Wonderland have been published over the years, and I like to re-envision EX1 and EX2 in light of alternate versions that I like, such as Disney, Frank Brunner, Zenescope's Return to Wonderland/Beyond Wonderland, American McGee, etc., etc.

    Allan.

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  12. Fun trivia about this module and EX2: TSR flipped their covers (presumably unintentionally) -- the encounter with the roc (depicted on the EX1 cover) occurs in EX2, and the encounter with the hangman trees (depicted on the EX2 cover) occurs in EX1.

    Another fun bit of trivia is that they were originally assigned (as seen in the 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set) module codes GC1 and GC2, presumably standing for Greyhawk Castle.

    These are two of my favorite D&D modules (though I actually significantly prefer EX2 -- I like more of its encounters (and the fact that it seems to have retained more of its "Greyhawkiness" (e.g. Murlynd and Zagyg references) whereas more of an effort seems to have been made to genericize EX1), I don't like the canned "finale" section of EX1 (the "trial" and the chase scene), plus I've always been confused how the maps in EX1 all fit together -- when the players go from the Tiny Garden to the Woods of Trees and Giant Fungi where do they enter the latter -- is there a key missing on the map or am I just blind and have been missing it for all these years?

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  13. I seem to recall Gary having nothing good to say about Dragonlance.

    For me, there’s a difference between Dragonlance and the other Hickman modules.

    In any case, maybe I should rephrase my comment to merely say that I would prefer to see them as parallel alternatives rather than “throwback” and “the new way”.

    But, Dragonlance? It was just wrong. ^_^

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  14. While I own EX1 and EX2, I've never run them and have only given them a cursory glance. I don't have anything against "funhouse" adventures, but they're not really my cup of tea. I welcome humor in the game, but prefer it to punctuate the challenges and atmosphere, not be a pervading element.

    Having said that, I land firmly in support of the gaming approach that challenges the player, not the character. The character is simply the player's means, a tool, to successfully navigate and overcome the challenges set by the DM. I don't think this means you can't develop a personality for characters, or that their stats are meaningless; I just mean that the game originally served to be a glorified chess (or wargaming) board, and the emphasis was not on amateur theater hour, but on the hardships in front of the group.

    I love it when the PCs survive and overcome obstacles, and I love it as they develop reputations and stories in the campaign world. I like to watch the players figure the characters out and flesh them out. But the latter parts shouldn't, IMNSHO, be the focus of gaming, especially D&D.

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  15. The opportunity for hard-won triumphs is one of Gygax's frequent gifts, the chance to meet a memorable demise another!

    Very well said.

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  16. In any case, maybe I should rephrase my comment to merely say that I would prefer to see them as parallel alternatives rather than “throwback” and “the new way”.

    I actually agree with this. In an alternate world, this could have happened and indeed it's still possible that we might see such a thing occur. I have a post on this topic brewing in the back of my brain. Perhaps I'll get to it sometime before the holidays end.

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  17. I recall reading somewhere that Gary either suggested a series of modules that would each center around a different dragon type, or approved the concept, while he was doing his Hollywood stint. But that that was about the extent of his involvement at the time.

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