Thursday, January 8, 2009

Retrospective: Tegel Manor

Tegel Manor vexes me.

First published in 1977 and revised in 1980 (and expanded in 1989) by Judges Guild, Tegel Manor is without a doubt one of Bob Bledsaw's masterpieces. Describing a sprawling 240-room haunted castle, the module is a textbook example of a funhouse dungeon, utterly lacking in anything resembling an ecology and filled with many encounters for which the adjective "whimsical" is charitable at best. The contents and/or inhabitants of each room are random -- in some cases literally -- meaning that, here you might find nothing more threatening than some giant beetles but next door you might find a Type III demon polymorphed as a kindly old beggar.

Now, I've come clean on the fact that I'm not a huge fan of funhouse dungeons, with a few exceptions. At the same time, I recognize their importance in the history of D&D and see them as an important antidote to post-Hickman tendency to treat adventure modules primarily as a vehicle for "story." But, even within that context, Tegel Manor irks me. I'm not entirely sure how to take it. Is it intended as a joke, a Castle Greyhawk before its time? With its random encounter charts containing 100 members of the cursed and unfortunately named Rump family (all of whose names start with the letter R) and its goofy encounters ("Four Zombies ... bowing to a Giant White Rat ... in a pink cape and red plumed hat"), it certainly seems that way. It's one thing to sidestep naturalism, but Tegel Manor goes above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to "gonzo."

But the map is a think of beauty. Nothing -- and I mean nothing -- has ever beaten it. You can see a bit of it in the image above, but it doesn't do justice to the thing. It's filled with winding passages, secret doors, mazes, empty rooms, weird features, and more. Best of it, the map is completely legible and usable in play, despite its complexity. I think the quality of Judges Guild's maps is often overlooked. Compared to what others produced at the time, JG's output is often unparalleled. Bill Owen, in his reminsicences about the Guild, commented on the difficulties Bob Bledsaw encountered in fnding printers capable of producing maps of the quality he wanted to include in his modules and I can believe it. Even now, with so many advances in technology, very few gaming maps are as multifaceted yet usable as Judges Guild's best work. It's really a testament to the company that they did so much first and best.

Tegel Manor isn't a module I'd ever run as written. There's too much about it that rankles me and, if it rankles me, you can be sure that it'd get even less warm a reception by today's gamers. Yet, despite that, there's something very compelling about it. Perhaps it is because it's so different from my own tastes that it elicits a frisson in me whenever I read it. Perhaps I can't shake the feeling that I've yet to reach the zen state where, suddenly, the whole thing will make sense to me. Or perhaps it's simply that the maps are so damned cool. Whatever it is, I find it hard to dismiss Tegel Manor outright, even though I want to. It's simply not the kind of module I'd ever run, let alone write, but that may be the point. One of the joys of my exploration into the history of the hobby is encountering stuff that is so different from my own preferences. Even when I don't change my mind, I still come away enriched by the encounter.

14 comments:

  1. I still have my copy of Tegel, and in taking a quick look at the players map, only a few corridors and rooms had been mapped out. As I recall, I ran a couple of sessions where mid-level characters explored a bit of the front entrance and adjoining rooms. I kept most of the encounters as is, but I am pretty sure I had some Green "Warhoon" Martians in one of those front ballrooms, radium rifles and all. I remember one player being pissed that I didn't give the Green Martians minuses for laughing heartily when they wounded somebody.

    As a teen I also ran an evening session for my girlfriend of the time, who had had a trio of her PC's explore a small part of the mansion. I think fear from some ghosts ended that game as here characters ran like hell out of the mansion.

    I don't have a fondness for funhouse cheese, but something about Tegel was so awesome to me. I just loved reading it and picturing those rooms and effects. Of course, I grew up here in Southern California going to Disneyland and the Haunted Mansion all the time. While reading Tegel for the first time, I based much of the look and feel of the place on that, and was predisposed to wanting players to experience something like that mansion in game terms. I mean, if you have ever been to Haunted Mansion (before it got Tim Burtonized with Jack Skellington), as a D&D gamer you could envision adventures walking into there and having to fight tooth and nail through each room.

    I haven't used Tegel in 25 years or so, but I may again soon. It still sits above my main city, and one of my new players who got wind of it's existance wants to take the party there after the current adventure. It would be awesome to have an entire campaign try to map the place, but that would probably not just be difficult to run, but in the long run might get boring. Tegel is best when explored in small doses.

    OH yeah, I didn't use the name "Rump." I just had it be the "Tegel Family." Man, Judges Guild could be so lame sometimes.

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  2. Tegel Manor is one of my favorites, though I have yet to run it since it would not (at all) fit into my Carcosa campaign.

    I particularly like the terse, two-line room descriptions. Tegel would be easy to run even without a lot of study before hand. It makes no sense to me to have to spend more time studying a module than it would take to create my own.

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  3. I know this module only as a player, but I love it and am always clamoring for "more Tegel Manor." I don't think any of my fellow players have quite the same taste for it, though. It sure claims a lot of PCs.

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  4. The first time I ever heard of Tegel Manor was in a Roger E. Moore editorial in Dragon. He was reminiscing about another player's character who won (or rather was allowed to win) the property in a card game. The PC recruited her buddies, nailed the deed to the Manor to the front of her shield, and proceeded to "evict" the previous tenants, room by room.

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  5. What my players don't know is that Tegel Manor is their next port of call! I'm trying to run them though a series of rejigged 'old school' dungeons and T.M. is next :)

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  6. "Compared to what others produced at the time, JG's [map] output is often unparalleled." Hear, hear! I generally thought the other parts of Judge's Guild products left something to be desired, but the maps always gave me a sense of an adventure waiting to happen.

    Never saw "Tegel Manor" before. Per your article, it came out the same year I started playing, when my student-level budget was pretty much maxed out buying the Holmes set, "Greyhawk", and "Blackmoor". Thanks for writing about it.

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  7. Tegel Manor is one of those modules you either love, hate, or love to hate.

    One common misconception is about that list of 100 Rumps. The list has two uses.

    One, as a list of the subjects of the 100 portraits that are scattered around the manor; these are the numbered locations 1 to 100. These are living portraits, with the ancestor thus mentioned taking on the form of the creature listed with it (for example, #22, Rancorous Rimy Rump, is a portrait of a zombie; the zombie can come out of the portrait and attack if the picture is disturbed, etc.) Some of the portraits also have additional powers; others are non-magical, and the family member depicted does not come to life (the monster listing is just used for random encounters, see below). I remember being astounded when I first read Harry Potter and there in Hogwarts they had living portraits, like in Tegel Manor! Of course, most of those in Hogwarts can't reach through the frame and attack you...

    Second, the chart is also a list of random encounters of the monsters in the list, not the family members; the family members are only encountered as portraits on the walls. So if I determine that there is a random encounter, I roll d100 and refer to the monster on the list, not the family member.

    Two birds, one stone.

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  8. I'm pretty sure my gamescience version says that the random encounter is with the undead Rump, the portraits are of them when alive.

    Anyway, I love Tegel and had good fun running it in a PBEM recently. The white rat with his zombies was fun. When we last played the PCs had acquired the Type III demon who was chomping through their cohorts...

    Adventure is a mite light on treasure, though.

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  9. sirlarkins: "The first time I ever heard of Tegel Manor was in a Roger E. Moore editorial in Dragon."

    That's the same way I did. It was the one and only issue of Dragon Magazine I bought before they came out with the CD-ROM Dragon Archives... the magazine was very uninspired, but that editorial really evoked the wonder of the place. I even tried to build a dungeon based on the idea (with the very original name of Tegel-Nor!) but being a kid with a short attention span, it never got further than two or three pages of fairly lame maps. Now that is a place where I will admit nostalgia fully applies. Mind you, I didn't actually see JG's Tegel until something like 2002; getting hands on products that old in Hungary was just out of the question.

    Tegel's an odd thing. I like the whimsical attitude, but interpret it in a more CAS-ian way. The Rumps are actually pretty cool, and the combination of family tree/portrait gallery/random encounter chart is so clever I could weep. And I think there is also a certain quality to the prose that makes it click. The map, of course, is the best dungeon map I know of (did you know there are sections which are devilishly hard to get into? And that there is a room you can't enter at all, just like that?).

    I spent quite some time obsessing over Tegel when I was a kid and it was out of my reach except for those few tantalizing hints, and I spent even more when I was writing the update for Necromancer Games, which was not to be. And maybe that's the most appropriate end to it all.

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  10. The loss of Necromancer Tegel is tragic.

    Although it would probably be better in C&C or 1e than 4e, but coversion shouldn't be hard.

    My Gamescience pdf off rpgnow is pretty hard to use, judging by Caverns of Thracia the Nec version would have been excellent.

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  11. One quick thing about the Hickman revolution: It really didn't start until the Dragonlance era. Rahasia, Black Opal Eye, and Pharoh were all Daystar-west adventures before they were TSR. Apparently they were less story oriented in their Daystar formats. It was not until they got reprinted into their Metzger and AD&D formats (right about the time of DL) that they went story focused.

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  12. The loss of Necromancer Tegel is tragic.

    I agree. Much as I was sometimes disappointed with Necromancer's efforts -- I think many were too reductionist in their treatment of "1st edition feel" -- there's no question they were one of the few publishers in recent memory to treat the 1970s as more than just a nostalgia mine. Their Judges Guild products are among the best things published during the D20 era and I'm very proud to own them.

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  13. Apparently they were less story oriented in their Daystar formats.

    I'd love to see the originals, but I suspect they're pretty expensive to acquire, assuming they're even available any longer.

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  14. I comment on this in my blog about game theory. I know it's an old topic, but I think it's particularly relevant with WoW's continuing popularity and the still-rising Old School Renaissance.

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