Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Retrospective: Isle of the Ape

1985's Isle of the Ape is the last official D&D module by Gary Gygax published by TSR. That alone makes it fairly significant. Like its predecessor in the WG series, Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure, this module is, at least in part, a throwback to the early days of the hobby, since the eponymous Isle was a feature of Gary's own (still-unpublished at that time) Castle Greyhawk. Though I have no firsthand knowledge to substantiate this supposition, I believe that these late Gygax modules were to some degree a reaction to the Hickman Revolution. I base my feelings on contemporary articles by Gary in Dragon, in which he makes the case that D&D had become too focused on "story" and that there was a need to "start pushing the pendulum the other way" back toward "action, rather than role playing, ... [as] the major focus of gaming." (Issue 102) Isle of the Ape has only the thinnest plot, being mostly a romp through an extremely deadly version of King Kong's Skull Island, re-imagined as a demiplane, so, if I'm wrong in this supposition, I don't do so without cause.

Remember too that 1985 is part of Gygax's Cent-Jours, after he wrested control of TSR back from the Blumes, but before he in turn lost control of the company to Lorraine Williams. By most accounts, TSR was deep in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy. In fairly short order, Gygax turned the company around, shedding personnel and projects that were both unnecessary and distracted the company from its core competencies. Books like Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures were products of this time, being rushed out the door in order to generate revenue to cover TSR's financial obligations to creditors. So too were later Greyhawk products like this one. Written by Gary himself and harkening back to the early days of the hobby, these modules were less focused on a satisfying dramatic narrative or even world-building, preferring to concentrate on presenting exciting, action-oriented locales after the fashion of D&D's Golden Age modules.

Yet, in a sense, modules like Isle of the Ape represents a departure from the Golden Age's approach, even if not quite as large a one as does something like Dragonlance. WG6, for example, is explicitly written with the assumption that the referee owns and uses Unearthed Arcana, as there are unexplained references to magic items, classes, and rules from that "unearthly tome" (as the Introduction calls it). Certainly the module can be used profitably without UA, but the fact that the module assumes one is using a tertiary rulebook represents a very big shift in the way modules were written. It likewise marks one of several starting points for the "everything is core" movement that has, in my opinion, done great violence to the hobby.

Nevertheless, Isle of the Ape is a very interesting and enjoyable module. Written for characters of very high-level (18+), it's quite demanding and requires the use of equal parts magic, brute force, and wits to be able to overcome its challenges, most notably the giant ape Oonga, from whom it derives its name. The Isle is a mini-sandbox, with many interesting encounters throughout, most of them obviously derived from the Lost World genre of pulp fantasy. Gygax notes in the Foreword that the original Isle proved too difficult for his players, who opted "to risk other fell places rather than continuing to face the perils of the island." If the original was anything like the published version, I can believe it. When I ran it for the mightiest PCs of my old campaign, they also found it more than enough of a challenge. Indeed, some spoke of it as being worse than The Tomb of Horrors, because they all expected The Tomb to be a deathtrap, whereas they initially just saw the Isle as The Isle of Dread, Mark II, which it most certainly is not.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Isle of the Ape and appreciate its almost "retro" feel, both in terms of its inspirations and the way it flew in the face of the conventions of the post-Dragonlance world. And, for good or ill, it's also a window into some of the plans Gary Gygax might have had for the future development of AD&D had he remained at the helm of TSR. Consequently, it feels far more like an artifact from a different age than do many other even older modules, which may explain why I like it in spite of its flaws.

27 comments:

  1. >>Isle of the Ape has only the thinnest plot

    ... and two full pages of blocked text to deliver it. ay ay ay!

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  2. I looove sandbox adventures!
    An ideal D&D campaign is where the players can go anywhere do anything and the DM is ready to accomodate them. No single line dungeon crawls, no boss monsters at the bottlenecks. Players can turn around at the Dungeon's door and go someplace else.

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  3. I bought this when it came out and loved it. However, I've never played it as we've never had any PCs within light-years of 18th level.

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  4. It likewise marks one of several starting points for the "everything is core" movement that has, in my opinion, done great violence to the hobby.I want to make sure that I understand this statement, does this mean that you feel that it is here which TSR started to expect people to own every product that they put out? Is that what "everything is core" means, or am I getting it wrong, and you mean something else entirely?

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  5. t likewise marks one of several starting points for the "everything is core" movement that has, in my opinion, done great violence to the hobby.That's an amazingly powerful statement to say, especially given the cycle of "core books" that WotC is delivering now.

    When I've made statements about the "churn", I'm told that the idea is that these books support and are compatible to "core" - which makes me ask - when wouldn't they be?

    Ah, that's probably another topic in and of itself - I think you've lit another fuse, James.

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  6. James, I would love to read an entire post on why "role play" is bad? I know you have probably mentioned reasons all over the blogs of the last year or so, but I have a job and other life interventions that keep me from reading everything.

    Is it because the term "role play" has become enmeshed with "storytelling" gaming of the last decade or so? I mean, my friends and I as young kids new to the game were pretty much role playing right away, that is, putting a lot of heart and soul into a character and thus in a way bringing them more to life than just a Monopoly token.

    I have to admit that, to my advantage, myself and many of my players have been actors and performers (improv my specialty). Maybe that sort of personality type is more prone to role-play or mechanics.

    Some of my greatest moments of gaming has been important and often heart-wrenching decisions characters have made based on how they have set themselves up to role-play that character. Not that they get some mechanic right or get a good role on a chart or table.

    Again, I haven't been able to research enough, but from what I can gather historically is:
    Gygax - "role play bad."
    Arneson - "role play good."

    I personally go for a 50/50 combo of "heart" and "brain" in my games. Not to say I hit that mark perfectly every time.

    As for the adventure, I like the sound of it. But jeez, I don't have characters hit the high level teens in my games (for the most part), so I guess I gotta stick with Isle of Dread.

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  7. I also have soft spot for WG6. The general idea of the adventure is referenced back in the AD&D DMG, so when I got it, it scratched quite an itch. I ran it (converted by by me for 3E) with my group in Boston (complete with big dinosaur posters on the walls). This echoed the publishing history, in that it also constituted the last game with that decade-long group of mine before I moved off to NYC.

    A very few comments about the mechanical play. (a) While the back cover does dictate level 18+, inside the pregenerated PCs average 16th level. (b) Yes, that intro text is too long, and Gary fell victim to a slight bit of Elminster-itis, indulging the spotlight on a personal PC. (c) The sizable rules for constant exposure and disease are a bit of a misstep, since in practice very low-level cleric spells can continually ward off these problems. (d) For my players, it's the "thought bubbles" encounter that did them in; they fell to this EGG-style puzzle in desperation, finally all attacking the bubbles (causing them to disappear and reappear in permanent imprisonment). (e) As a "what-if" scenario, we played through the ending, defeating Oonga handily. It seems like the "rainbow colors" puzzle at the end has dated poorly, as this was eminently obvious as soon as it popped up.

    Perhaps most importantly, near the beginning there's the question: How to run a fight between a few 16th+ level PCs and an army of hundreds of barbarians, spellcasters, and huge apes? No advice is given (and Gary told me personally that he assumed they run off after a few fireballs). This drove me to a spend a few years on a proper mass-combat system that interfaced correctly with man-to-man combat.

    Flavor-wise, there's almost no module like it. If anyone's interested in the 3E conversion with additional in-play observations, that's here:

    http://www.superdan.net/download/WG6.pdf

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  8. This drove me to a spend a few years on a proper mass-combat system that interfaced correctly with man-to-man combat.
    This sounds very interesting - anything you would wish to share?

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  9. ... and two full pages of blocked text to deliver it. ay ay ay!

    Quite true! There is boxed text throughout the module and some of it does stray beyond mere description of the things most immediately apparent to one's character. It's definitely a flaw in the module, no question.

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  10. I want to make sure that I understand this statement, does this mean that you feel that it is here which TSR started to expect people to own every product that they put out? Is that what "everything is core" means, or am I getting it wrong, and you mean something else entirely?

    I meant it to mean that this is another example of a trend that begins in the mid-80s to expect that the players own more than the base rules of the game to get the most enjoyment out of a supplement. Compared to what we see today, this is small potatoes stuff, but it's still there.

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  11. I think you've lit another fuse, James.

    Oh, I fully expect to catch flak from both sides on this one. Such is my lot in life :)

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  12. James, I would love to read an entire post on why "role play" is bad?

    Roleplay isn't bad and neither I nor Gary Gygax in the cited article say that it is. However, I agree with his larger point that we must remember that "roleplaying" modifies "game," not the other way around. Gaming is not amateur theater nor is it an occasion to tell a great story of one's own devising. Such things aren't the point of gaming, though they may be a consequence of it. Roleplaying must never overshadow the game's other aspects, such as exploration, problem-solving, and, of course, action. It's the undue emphasis on roleplaying in these games that rankles, nothing more.

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  13. >It's the undue emphasis on roleplaying in these games that rankles, nothing more<

    I think regardless of what the game asks, people either emphasize role play or they don't.

    I have yet to read 3rd ed. - 4th, so I actually have zero education on what the games ask as far as role-play emphasis.

    And not to say that I or my players do "theater" or even funny voices (just gruff inflections when doing dwarves or orcs or whatever - which I am sure almost every DM does), though I could do more if I wanted. But yeah, I don't want my games to be acting classes, I want them to be games. Like I said, I think I find a nice balance most of the time.

    I want these characters to be different from each other and have interesting things about them, like any group of characters in a book or movie. And I want them to do things that flesh out the world, just as the world helps flesh them out.

    As a comic book fan growing up, I used to think on the idea of endless alternate universes, and that the goings on in my world actually might be happening somewhere. In those terms, it was necessary to think more in terms of heart and soul than mechanics.

    Of course I am grown up now, and have no time for such childish notions (wink wink)

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  15. One of these days the old school community is going to have to reconcile their issues with Dragonlance and realise that it isn't the great evil of gaming or the cause of utter moral decay or something.

    It would also help if people stopped equating story games with railroading and badly written early days DL modules.

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  16. There is boxed text throughout the module and some of it does stray beyond mere description of the things most immediately apparent to one's character. It's definitely a flaw in the module, no question.This is actually a flaw in all of Gary's later-period modules, going back, arguably, as far as the canned intro to WG4. Both Necropolis and Hall of Many Panes are chock-full of overwritten boxed text. If Castle Zagyg isn't (and I confess I haven't read it closely enough to know one way or the other) it's presumably due to the good influence of Jeff Talanian.

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  17. I meant it to mean that this is another example of a trend that begins in the mid-80s to expect that the players own more than the base rules of the game to get the most enjoyment out of a supplement. Compared to what we see today, this is small potatoes stuff, but it's still there.Note that WG4 assumes the DM owns Fiend Folio without ever actually saying so, and EX1 assumes both FF and the MM2 (or perhaps modules D2 and S4 -- there are encounters with a behir and kuo-toa). The 1983 World of Greyhawk boxed set also included FF creatures in its encounter tables, and T1-4 contains creatures from both FF and MM2 and spells and magic items from UA -- mostly in the Nodes section, but there are at least 2 MM2 creatures that show up in the temple dungeons (drelb and rock reptiles) and numerous fungoid creatures from MM2 in Zuggtmoy's den IIRC.

    The point of this being that the "everything is core" mentality was already established well before WG6 and, if anything, the fact that it wasn't as prominent earlier is due solely to there being less core material. Module I1 is the only TSR product I can think of that actually reprints monster stats from FF rather than just assuming the reader already owns it.

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  18. If Castle Zagyg isn't (and I confess I haven't read it closely enough to know one way or the other) it's presumably due to the good influence of Jeff Talanian.

    Castle Zagyg does have a fair amount of boxed text, but most of it is short, to the point, and focused solely on surface descriptions.

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  19. The point of this being that the "everything is core" mentality was already established well before WG6 and, if anything, the fact that it wasn't as prominent earlier is due solely to there being less core material.

    True enough, on both points. Still, I think it's telling that WG6 explicitly counsels the use of a then-new book in order to get maximal enjoyment out of it.

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  20. I remember finding all the FF monsters pretty irritating when I would find them in Dragon or Dungeon since I never managed to ever find a Fiend Folio at any of the places I bought games (I'm pretty sure it was out of print by then). Now I have it (2 in fact!) and I am no longer puzzled by what the heck a norker is.

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  21. NOT A GREAT AVENTURE, BUT SOME SWEET SOFTCORE PORN ART IN THAT MODULE. IM TALKING SPECIFICAL ABOUT THE CHICK IN THE BIKINI THATS ALL TYED UP WAITING FOR KING KONG, AND SHE'S STRUGGLING A LITTLE BUT THE HAIR IS PERFECT AND SHE IS A KNOCK- OUT. ONE LOOK AT HER AND YOU'LL NEVER GO BACK TO HARPIES OR SUCUBUS AGAIN!!!

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  22. I remember finding all the FF monsters pretty irritating when I would find them in Dragon or Dungeon
    I was under the impression that the FF was a compilation of monsters from White Dwarf; did they appear in TSR's magazines too?

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  23. Boxed text was borrowed into D&D from other areas of life (such as interviewing by promotion boards) where the same boxed text HAS to be read verbatim to all applicants under the same conditions.

    To me role-playing and story-rtelling is intertwined, with narrators alternating between DM and the players and interfacing with the game mechanics. Stortytelling is what keeps the game from becoming roll playing dungeon crawls.

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  24. "I was under the impression that the FF was a compilation of monsters from White Dwarf; did they appear in TSR's magazines too?"

    I think he's talking about adventures that use/reference FF monsters.

    Of course, not everything was from White Dwarf -- FF compiles some monsters from early TSR modules (G/D drow, Lolth, daemons, etc... not sure about the I1 monsters, they came out in the same year).

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  25. I think he's talking about adventures that use/reference FF monsters.
    Ah yes, that makes rather more sense in context! And thanks for the clarification too.

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  26. We had the FF back in the day and I STILL don't really know what a norker is...

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  27. I have this module in my collection, but have never actually read it yet. It sounds pretty intreguing, and I will have to dig my copy out tonight.Thanks for the review.It definately falls into that forgotten module category.

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