Thursday, February 26, 2009

Retrospective: Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure

Let me state for the record that I absolutely hate the title of this module, which I think implicitly places far too much emphasis not just on the character of Mordenkainen but also on the adventure he and his companions had there in 1973. There are few people for whom the prehistory of Dungeons & Dragons is as important as it is for me. Had I the money and time to do so, I'd certainly be flying all over the country, interviewing people associated with the early days of the hobby in order to record their reminiscences for posterity. We've already lost far too many of our founding fathers as it is -- and their memories along with them. Their experiences at the start of it all are important and ought to be preserved.

Given that Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure contains no significant information about Gary Gygax's experiences in Rob Kuntz's Maure Castle dungeons -- for that you have to go to the May 1974 issue of Wargames Digest -- on which this module is based, I don't see a lot of point in drawing attention to his PC's exploration of it. Since it was published in 1984, I can't plausibly blame the Forgotten Realms or even Dragonlance as baleful influences over the marketing of module WG5. And given that the World of Greyhawk had (for the most part) been a setting largely free of treating NPCs as a focus of interest, there's something inappropriate -- and even unseemly -- about the title, at least for me. Consequently, I give points to the Paizo crew for giving it the much more straightforward title "Maure Castle" in their v.3.5 update in Dungeon #112.

With that grumble out of the way, let me now state for the record that I absolutely adore this module. I may not be fond of the proper name in the title, but WG5 is indeed a fantastic adventure. Consisting of three levels, Maure Castle is, in many ways, the Castle Greyhawk module we never got. Not literally, of course, since Maure Castle is a separate dungeon and originally was not even part of the Greyawk setting at all, but "spiritually" this module more clearly recalls the birth of the hobby and the early days of D&D than does, say, Gygax's own Castle Zagyg. Part of the reason I say that is WG5's presentation, which includes no boxed text, unlike many other contemporaneous modules (or Castle Zagyg). That may seem a small point, but it's not in my estimation. Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure is far less "canned" than most modules of the period (or since). Indeed, its room descriptions are quite terse, leaving a lot up to the referee to describe and adjudicate in play.

The content of the module is almost uniformly excellent, with a good mix of monster encounters, traps, and mysteries. It's exceptionally challenging, as one might expect of a module geared for 9th-12th level characters. Gygax himself, in his introduction, notes that "There is plenty of real thinking necessary, but the action is nearly non-stop," which I think is a good estimation of the adventure. It's definitely an old school adventure, one that felt like a bit of a throwback at the time of its publication. I know that it, along with several other late Gygax modules, seemed very much out of step with everything else TSR was publishing at the dawn of the Silver Age. In retrospect, I suspect that this was deliberate and I'm very grateful for its publication.

Its name aside, Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure is an important piece of gaming history: a record of one of an early D&D adventure and a solid example of what guys like Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz thought dungeons should be like. A pity TSR didn't publish more modules like this.

22 comments:

  1. WG5 is one of my favorites, too, probably in the top 3 or 4. I've written elsewhere (probably somewhere buried in K&KA) that I think the introduction to WG5 is the best introduction to a module ever written.

    I thought Maure Castle was in Greyhawk, though, generally to the east and south of the City. Is that a revision made in post-EGG TSR or WotC?

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  2. The dungeon originates in Rob Kuntz's Kalibruhn campaign setting, significant portions of which were later incorporated into Greyhawk, once Rob became co-DM of that campaign. Allan Grohe probably knows the full story better than I.

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  3. This adventure's updated/expanded presentation in Dungeon is, without exaggeration, the only worthwhile thing to come out of its WotC era incarnation.

    I'd be really interested to hear your reviews of some of Kuntz's most recent published advantures, especially Bottle City.

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  4. I have to mention I don't hate the name, if only because it has the baroque naming style I've come to associate with lots of really cool spells.

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  5. Wait, you already did Bottle City. I forgot.

    Well, pretend I said The Stalk or one of the two magic item compilations he just put out. :)

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  6. @ Matt: James hit it squarely on the head. The WG5 levels were originally a side-quest semi-related to Rob's El Raja Key castle in Kalibruhn, which is the equivalent of Maure Castle in Greyhawk (which is in Urnst, south and east of Greyhawk City). For a quick snapshot of the GH locations, see http://members.cox.net/dmprata/ghmap.jpg.

    One of the items on Rob's development agenda (and for this year, IIRC) is the original version of WG5, as EGG initially adventured in it (and with its ties to the Lost City of the Elders).

    Allan.

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  7. Boxed text really bothers me, too. The last thing I want to do as a DM is sit there and read to the players. The last thing I want to do as a player is sit there and try to listen to the DM read to me.

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  8. >Lwhich includes no boxed text<

    I went to some recent monthly "game day" events in Anaheim, and hung out just to watch some gameplay (I don't have kids and I don't want to play with any). The somewhat celebrated (in that scene) DM running 1st edition AD&D would read those boxed items as-is robotically. No wonder the kids playing would get bored and wander to other tables.

    Talented DM's just read those to themselves to help with flavor, and described in their own words and personality to the players when the time came. Personally, I usually changed so much in a module that reading those boxed text as is was not an option.

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  9. This adventure's updated/expanded presentation in Dungeon is, without exaggeration, the only worthwhile thing to come out of its WotC era incarnation.

    Tweet's Omega World had merit as well, in my humble opinion.

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  10. Either way, neither of those articles were published by Wizards of the Coast, instead coming from the magazine's PAIZO era.

    I should know, as I edited both projects.

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  11. Re: Original version of WG5 this year. I am incredibly giddy at this news.

    Re: Boxed text. I like properly executed boxed text. And by properly executed, I mean boxed text that in no way describes or assumes what he PCs are doing.

    In that format, boxed text is simply a convenient way of segregating the information that should be immediately available to anyone looking into a room. As a GM, that segregation is useful to me -- it means that I don't need to try to parse out of the room description what I should and shouldn't be revealing to the PCs. (IOW, it eliminates the, "And in the middle of the room you see-- Err. Nothing. Nothing at all." moments.)

    But I can understand the frustration many people have with it. Boxed text that (a) assumes the PCs are taking some action; (b) describes the PCs taking action regardless of whether the players have said they're doing that or not; or (c) worst of all, describes some long sequence of events with the implicit assumption that the PCs can do nothing to interpret it... Bite me. I'm playing a roleplaying game, not a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

    So, short version: Boxed text as a way of segregating "what you see in a glance" information is good. Any boxed text which actually describes or assumes PC action/inaction is bad.

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  12. >>Had I the money and time to do so, I'd certainly be flying all over the country, interviewing people associated with the early days of the hobby in order to record their reminiscences for posterity.

    I'm sure I'm repeating what I said after the last time you said this...

    ... telephone (or Skype or whatever) plus a tape recorder (and attachment to connect the recorder to a phone if you don't have a speaker phone) is all you need to do these sorts of interviews.

    Hell, since nobody in Finland (including me) has a landline anymore, I'll go ahead and send you my recorder-to-phone attachment if you want. :P

    I find Skype easier though since I can just place the recorder next to the computer speakers and not worry about attachments.

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  13. Going by the name I always assumed this was an FR style NPC-centric railroad and never had any interest in acquiring it, until now. Thanks! - S'mon using wife's account.

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  14. James, a side question regarding Mordekainen, Bigby, Otiluke and other wizards who were canonic to the Greyhawk campaign. It appears that these were actual player characters in the original D&D games. Spells, which are named after them, which appear in the Players Handbook, were these spells created by Gygax or by the Players, who played the wizards after whom the spells are named?

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  15. Either way, neither of those articles were published by Wizards of the Coast, instead coming from the magazine's PAIZO era.

    I think it's unfortunate that a lot of what Paizo did during the last years of Dragon and Dungeon gets credited to WotC, since the direction of both magazines improved considerably during that time. I hadn't had a subscription to either magazine since the early 80s and I took out one during Paizo's shepherding of them. Had I been more of a 3e fan, I might have kept with them till the end, since there was some excellent stuff in both, articles and adventures that really showed knowledge of and respect for the history and traditions of this hobby. That's a pretty remarkable thing and I regret that, in the end, my preference for older editions prevented me from continuing a subscription (or from picking up Pathfinder as well).

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  16. So, short version: Boxed text as a way of segregating "what you see in a glance" information is good. Any boxed text which actually describes or assumes PC action/inaction is bad.

    I won't disagree strenuously, because I think you're largely correct. Nonetheless, I'd much prefer some other presentation -- perhaps a bulleted list? -- that achieves the same goal without the need for a canned description.

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  17. ... telephone (or Skype or whatever) plus a tape recorder (and attachment to connect the recorder to a phone if you don't have a speaker phone) is all you need to do these sorts of interviews.

    It's certainly a thought to consider. My big problem would be -- and this is just as true for interviews -- getting a hold of these people in the first place, since many of them have basically dropped off the face of the earth.

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  18. who played the wizards after whom the spells are named?

    Off the top of my head:

    Bigby - Gary Gygax
    Drawmij - Jim Ward (obviously)
    Leomund - Len Lakofka
    Mordenkainen - Gary Gygax
    Otiluke - Luke Gygax
    Rary - Brian Blume
    Serten - Ernie Gygax
    Sustarre - Dennis Sustare
    Tenser - Ernie Gygax

    There are probably others, but my memory fails me.

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  19. "Either way, neither of those articles were published by Wizards of the Coast, instead coming from the magazine's PAIZO era."

    By "WotC era" I was referring to the period of time when Dungeon and Dragon were compelled to utilize WotC's game rules.

    It's damn hard to polish a turd, no matter how skilled a polisher you are.

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  20. Of the high level modules, I enjoyed WG5 because meeting "superstar" NPCs and acquiring artifacts like the Tome of the Black Heart seemed fitting for heroes that had already defeated many WoG villains like the Slave Lords. Nothing says you're "12th level famous" like teaching Bigby a spell or two!

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  21. James, it seems that all of the D&D authors were playing the wizards. If so, were these wizards only campaigns, or were there others playing fighters, clerics, thieves, etc? Also, did the players invent the spells or did Gygax, and later named them after players?

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  22. If so, were these wizards only campaigns, or were there others playing fighters, clerics, thieves, etc? Also, did the players invent the spells or did Gygax, and later named them after players?

    They weren't wizard-only; there were some notable non-MUs, including Rob Kuntz's Robilar, but they were definitely a minority. As for the spells, I really don't know the answer to that question.

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