Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Retrospective: Apple Lane

If you wanted a quick way to highlight the differences between RuneQuest and Dungeons & Dragons in the early days, you could do worse than to read Apple Lane and compare it to its near-contemporary The Keep on the Borderlands. Such a comparison is probably unfair to both adventure modules, but there's a certain appropriateness to it nonetheless, for each was bundled in a boxed set through which many people were first introduced to their respective rules systems.

Apple Lane was originally published in 1978 as "Scenario Pack 2" for RuneQuest, but was revised in 1980 for inclusion in the aforementioned boxed set. It was in this form that I first encountered it, so it's possible there are differences between the 1978 and 1980 editions of which I am unaware. The module presents the small Sartarite town of Apple Lane, so called because of the apple orchards that surround it. A glance at the crude map of the town provided makes it clear that Apple Lane is a very small place, as there are only about a dozen buildings present in the whole place, in addition to the orchards and public grazing ground.

However, the buildings aren't what make Apple Lane interesting; it's the inhabitants of the place that give this rural locale its unique charm. Every inhabitant of the place is given a name and all adult inhabitants are given full RuneQuest statistics. What's more, most of the inhabitants are given personalities, histories, and motivations. They're also given context -- connections to other NPCs and to Apple Lane itself. They don't exist solely to interact with the PCs who come into the town and have need of their goods and services. I hesitate to call them "real people," because, truth be told, many of Apple Lane's NPCs are broadly-sketched caricatures (or, if you prefer, archetypes), but, even so, that's generally more than you get in The Keep on the Borderlands, where NPCs noticeably lack even names, being known instead by their titles ("The Corporal of the Watch" and "The Curate," for example).

Of course, it's precisely this specificity that some might find off-putting. Whereas The Keep on the Borderlands takes place at the frontier of a vague "realm," Apple Lane sits squarely within Glorantha. That means that there are references to deities, historical events, and cultural practices that, while very useful for referees wanting to use Glorantha, need to be altered if the referee isn't using that world. But who'd play RuneQuest if they weren't using Glorantha? That too is another useful point of comparison that Apple Lane highlights. RuneQuest is Glorantha, at least that's how it was seen in its earliest days. Glorantha is one of the game's main selling points. The setting's richness and depth -- and quirks -- were a big part of what separated it from D&D, which lacked an integrated setting beyond the vague pseudo-medieval world in which "You play Conan, I play Gandalf. We team up to fight Dracula."

RuneQuest
can't be summed up so blithely and that's something that comes through even in as early a product as Apple Lane. The product includes two scenarios, plus a brief introductory piece in which it's suggested the PCs begin play as newly initiated adulthood inhabitant of Apple Lane. The first scenario, "Gringle's Pawnshop," is little more than an extended battle, defending the aforesaid pawnshop from an attack by baboons in alliance with a group of non-human outlaws led by a centaur. As crazy as that sounds, it actually makes sense in context and might even be described as "normal" for old school Glorantha. What stands out to me, though, is that, again, every baboon and outlaw has a name and many have personalities, histories, and individual motivations.

Apple Lane's second scenario is "The Rainbow Mounds," which could be described as this module's equivalent to the Caves of Chaos, as it details a large cave complex filled with inimical creatures. Once more, we're treated to lots of individualized opponents rather than faceless orcs, as well as what might be called a fully-fledged "villain," the dark troll Whiteye, whose machinations are behind the recent spate of attacks on Apple Lane. I don't mean to dwell too much on this, but I nevertheless find it amazing how much detail and, dare I say, "story" is contained within Apple Lane's brief text. It's palpably different than the approach taken with The Keep on the Borderlands, being perhaps to the presentation of The Village of Hommlet (no surprise, as both Apple Lane and Hommlet arose out of actual play), but far quirkier, given the nature of Glorantha.

Apple Lane is not without its faults, particularly the rather limited nature of the community itself, but it's still eye-opening to consider that this module was first published in 1978. It represents a very different strand of old school play than is often discussed, one much more concerned with world building and coherence than was the case in many other corners of the hobby at the time. Such an emphasis comes at a price, of course, most notably its singular authorial vision, but, if one shares that vision or is less interested in providing one's own, Apple Lane has a great deal to offer. It's a classic of the hobby and well worth reading if one has the chance.

15 comments:

  1. I ran this in June, but I am sorry to report that everybody found the attack on Gringle's Pawnshop to be a howler. The baboons especially was felt to be too ridiculous.

    This was compounded by the fact that in Runequest 2 body parts tend to fly off a lot!

    Plus the setup of "I am too busy to deal with an attack on my own pawnshop." Lead to mocking of Gringle behind his back.

    The whole experience was a bit surreal to say the least.

    There may be plots and motivations in there but I seriously doubt that most can play them with a straight face.

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  2. There may be plots and motivations in there but I seriously doubt that most can play them with a straight face.

    Of the two scenarios, "Gringle's Pawnshop" is the weakest and was probably intended as an introduction to the mechanics of combat. And you're right, it is hard to play Gloranthan baboons with a straight face. Many people feel the same way about ducks, morokanths, and myriad other unique aspects of the setting, because, honestly, they're pretty wacky. Even so, it's possible and if one can get into the right frame of mind, it all somehow works.

    (To be clear, I think this is true of all the best fantasy, including many aspects of D&D, but Glorantha, I've noticed, especially really old school Glorantha, seems particularly hard for people to get into.)

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  3. Back in the day, I think I did actually run Gringle's Pawnshop. These days, I ignore it, focusing on the Rainbow Caverns.

    As to the "funny" races, we did have jokes about orange sauce and such, but in my more recent play, while there were still jokes, it really wasn't all that bad (though I'm not sure I've ever had a PC duck - we have had PC newtlings and baboons though). I don't mind a bit of humor with the ducks considering their curse.

    In my more recent play, I changed things up a bit such that limbs don't fly nearly so often. That was a problem with my early play.

    Frank

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  4. An aside: Who'd play Runequest if they weren't using Glorantha?

    I am glad that Runequest over time went the way of understating its tie to the Gloranthan setting and became more of an "open", DIY system. Whereas many consider Glorantha to be a "selling point", I find it to have too much of a "cost" of setting depth to interest me. I think the rpg evolved into something better than what came before, providing GMs with a rules set to apply to a more gritty style of play, or reflect historical or sword & sorcery settings. Instead of an rpg that confines itself to one "sandbox".

    (It's almost like RQ was "ahead" of its time - starting from a very defined, exhaustive setting (more akin to rpgs from the 90s on) - and then shifting to more of an old school-style of game from RQ3 on).

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  5. Coincidentally, I just finished running an intro arc of Runequest using Apple Lane for the New York Red Box crew, largely because I was encouraged to revisit the game by James' series of RQ posts here.

    I was leery of the pawnshop defense scenario so we did an expanded set of "initiation games" then went directly to the Rainbow Mounds. The ultimate result: a one-armed King of the Newts!

    I was immersed in RQ2 back in the day so I find baboons more interesting than wacky. My problem with the assaulting gang was the weird diversity: baboons, dragonewts, centaurs,all mushed in tightly together as bandits. Just too many impossible things before breakfast. However, what really made me balk was the set up of powerful NPCs who are ready to burst in and save the day at the last moment, ick.

    However, the Pawnshop offers a unique twist that makes me want to use it sometime: the PCs know that there will be an assault on the pawnshop to reclaim a gem. The DM is instructed to leave the room for awhile, while the players figure out where they hide the gem and their general plan. So neither side has absolute knowledge of the situation.

    The Rainbow Mounds were awesome. Whiteeye's extinguish spell brought a near TPK that led to between-adventures drilling on lighting a torch in the dark ("This is my torch! There are many like it but this one is mine!") and careful tactics. The Newtling/Rock Lizard rivalry is a great side quest that led to more strategy and carnage.

    I regret to say we hardly spent any time in Apple Lane itself, since I was trying to complete the dungeon arc in 4 short sessions. If I had it to do over, I would invite the PCs to spend more time there. Among the townsfolk, there are a couple or three cult connections that would serve well as an introduction to the greater setting.

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  6. Heh, in my most recent RQ campaign, Whiteye's Extinguish vs. the PC's torches was definitely a factor, however, it only slowed the PCs down. Eventually they overcame the trollkin and Whiteye ended up using Divine Intervention to escape though.

    Frank

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  7. Plus the setup of "I am too busy to deal with an attack on my own pawnshop." Lead to mocking of Gringle behind his back.
    Whereas that looks like a plot hook to me. Why is Gringle "too busy"? What's so important that he can't protect his own source of wealth?

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  8. For introductory scenarios, I've always preferred village/small town settings with adventure nearby to a straight dungeon, so it's no surprise that both Village of Hommlet and Apple Lane are among my favorites.("Larm" from Brave Halfling also looks promising.) Oddly, I've never run Apple Lane, though I don't think it would be that hard to fit into another setting.

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  9. In some ways, it sounds as if Apple Lane would be better compared to something like People of Pembrooktonshire by LotFP.

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  10. http://templeofdemogorgon.blogspot.com/2009/02/my-favorite-d-module-was-runequest.html

    I loved this one.

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  11. I am glad that Runequest over time went the way of understating its tie to the Gloranthan setting and became more of an "open", DIY system. Whereas many consider Glorantha to be a "selling point", I find it to have too much of a "cost" of setting depth to interest me. I think the rpg evolved into something better than what came before, providing GMs with a rules set to apply to a more gritty style of play, or reflect historical or sword & sorcery settings. Instead of an rpg that confines itself to one "sandbox".

    It's an interesting thing. For me, the only appeal of RQ is Glorantha. I like the rules well enough but I already have D&D as my go-to fantasy game. If I use some flavor of BRP, it's because I want to play in Glorantha or the Young Kingdoms or Tragic Europe or whatever.

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  12. Whereas that looks like a plot hook to me. Why is Gringle "too busy"? What's so important that he can't protect his own source of wealth?

    The scenario states outright that Gringle has "ritual obligations" that demand he be elsewhere. In a setting other than Glorantha, this would seem implausible, but I can totally buy that a Runelord of Issaries can't forsake the demands of his cult to protect his material livelihood. Indeed, given that Apple Lane is, at least in part, intended to introduce new players to Glorantha, I can't help but think it was intentionally written this way in order to spur interest in the "secret stuff" the Issaries cultists are up to that demands Gringle's full attention.

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  13. In some ways, it sounds as if Apple Lane would be better compared to something like People of Pembrooktonshire by LotFP.

    How do I say this without ruffling someone's feathers somewhere: People of Pembrooktonshire is better :) Or more accurately, the NPCs of Apple Lane are detailed, yes, but they're still little more than sketches. That's more than you get in The Keep on the Borderlands, but nowhere near what Jim Raggi presented us with.

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  14. No feathers ruffled here. Apple Lane was definitely a turning point, but RPG content at the time was still solidly "hack 'n slash." I don't think it is until Griffon Mountain and the Pavis and Borderlands modules that more depth was started to be given to NPCs.

    I agree with James, to me, RuneQuest is Glorantha is RuneQuest.

    Frank

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  15. While RQ has always been my system of choice, I used to think that the rate of limb loss was over the top. Then I started watching Deadliest Warrior and realized it wasn't. The episode in which the expert attacked a ballistics gel torso with a Roman gladius (a simple shortsword) and hacked off both arms with his first two whacks convinced me that it is entirely realistic. Then there was the Vlad the Impaler episode where the scimitar cut a pig in half in one stroke, and the William Wallace episode where the Claymore removed three heads in one swing. To survive even a basic armed attack, you need luck (he blew his attack roll or rolled low on damage), skill (I parried him!) or armor (3pt linen absorbs 3 of the 6pt damage - phew, I still have my arm!).

    Baboons, ducks etc take a bit of work as GM to pull off, but they're worth it. So much more interesting than yet another generic orc.

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