Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Retrospective: Palace of the Vampire Queen

In the history of the hobby, there are a handful of early products that might rightly be called legendary. 1976's Palace of the Vampire Queen, written by Pete and Judy Kerestan, probably qualifies for such status. The first in a series of "Dungeon Masters Kits" published by a company called Wee Warriors, Palace of the Vampire Queen is the first stand-alone adventure module ever produced, which probably explains why its earliest printings were "distributed exclusively by TSR Hobbies, Inc.," as the credits page notes. There was a demand for prefabricated adventures and this adventure was written to meet it.

At the time, the only other adventure available was "The Temple of the Frog" in Supplement II to OD&D and, awesome as it is, it was probably too idiosyncratic to serve as a model for others to use in creating their own adventures. Palace of the Vampire Queen, on the other hand, is a much more "traditional" scenario, combining the classic elements of the post-Dracula vampire myth with D&D distinctives, like demihumans, giant vermin, and magic treasures. In a sense, one could call it an ancestor of the more well-known Ravenloft, except that Palace of the Vampire Queen contains only the thinnest plot, being more of a location-based adventure rather than an occasion for romance novel-level melodrama.

The Palace of the Vampire Queen is thus a very bare bones affair, but that probably makes it more immediately useful. Its basic assumptions are those of most D&D campaigns, namely that the characters are a party of "adventurers" looking to acquire fame and power by venturing into Chaos-tainted locales and battling the monsters that dwell therein. Introductory text explains that the daughter of the dwarf King Arman of Baylor has been kidnapped by the dreaded Vampire Queen, providing some context for the PCs' actions, but there's little else to frame the story nor are there additional rewards for rescuing the unnamed dwarven princess from the Palace.

Instead, what we get is a five-level dungeon intended as "only a basic outline -- you can make it a dramatic adventure." Each of the five levels has two maps each, one that is keyed and one that is not, the latter being available "to speed game play" if the referee prefers not to have the players map the Palace themselves. The maps are unusual in several respects. First, they're not presented on a grid, instead using a scale of one-quarter inches equaling six feet. [This is in error; please forgive my aging eyes --JDM] Second, they use non-standard symbols, eschewing those presented in the LBBs in favor of its own. Finally, the maps have rather attractive decorated borders as you can see below.

The same level of attractiveness applies to the map keys, which, despite their oddities, are clear and easy to use, far more so than the convoluted keys of "The Temple of the Frog." In this way, Palace of the Vampire Queen established a standard of presentation that, while not wholly adopted by others, would nevertheless exert an influence.

This was a product intended to be picked up and used by any referee, regardless of the campaign he was running or the characters being used in it. That alone makes it remarkable, even if by the standards of TSR and Judges Guild adventures from just a short time later, it feels very "flat." Palace of the Vampire Queen is a milestone in the history of the hobby and it certainly deserves to be more well-known than it is.

23 comments:

  1. Very cool. It's always interesting to hear about the very beginnings of our hobby before there were definitive directions, goals, and expectations.

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  2. One advantage of that map; it makes it easy to determine "do the doors open in or out?" which my players are always asking.

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  3. There is currently a copy of it going eBay for $1300...

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  4. I bought one of the reprints (which were unfortunately limited), but haven't had a chance to read it over. At some point I'd love to run it using the OD&D white box rules and put up some commentary and footage.

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  5. I'm curious, was there a contemporaneous review of it or the other Wee Warriors products? I haven't found any references in the Alarums & Excursions issues that I have, and there were occasional reviews of D&D supplements and the like.

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  6. I had never heard of this module. Thank you for writing about it.

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  7. I got to play this module at a con last winter, GMed by Frank Mentzer. It was a blast. I would really love to read the thing, but unfortunately the price this module fetches these days is prohibitive.

    There was a rumor a while back that Doug Rhea of North TX RPG Con was thinking of reprinting the thing. If that ever happens, I'll be first in line for a copy.

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  8. I picked up one of the reprints recently and I am quite pleased with it.

    Of course I had been searching for this one for years given my love for horror themed gaming.

    It is a very basic module, free of a lot of the things we take for granted in adventures today. But what is most interesting about this module is how well it can be adapted to nearly any edition or game for that matter.

    I could play this under Pathfinder or move the location to some where in the Carpathian Mnts or the Alps and run it under Ghosts of Albion.

    It is a rare treat to finally have this piece of history.

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  9. "There was a rumor a while back that Doug Rhea of North TX RPG Con was thinking of reprinting the thing. If that ever happens, I'll be first in line for a copy."

    We (Doug and the NTRPG Con) did reprint this in digest form, but the amount was limited(100 copies I believe). I'm not sure if Doug has anymore left but last time I checked it was a handful at best. Check the site for ordering info:
    www.ntrpgcon.com

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  10. Why do you say that the maps aren't printed on a grid? The example image clearly shows grid lines.

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  11. I said that because my eyes are failing me :)

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  12. Wayne,

    Finding contemporaneous reviews of almost anything prior to the late 70s is hard, but I'll do some digging and see if I can find any discussion of the module.

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  13. > I'm curious, was there a contemporaneous review of it or the other Wee Warriors products?

    As many as for Tsojconth? ;)

    My favorite isn't a review but the gameplay report in Trollcrusher #2 (Apr 1977) & #5 (Aug 77)

    > I said that because my eyes are failing me :)

    You could've said it was a later print, James, when the grid did indeed vanish.

    The (undated) NTRPG Con digest-size reissue would be interesting to try to use in gameplay: must give that a try some time.
    Would've been good to get more linking built up between the three WW kits but I'm sounding like a cracked record on that, already. :)

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  14. "There is currently a copy of it going eBay for $1300..."

    Thank god for file-share sites, or I would have never seen the inside of this wonderful book! I remember seeing the cover and description in the net years ago, and it really annoyed me that I could not see what wounder that might lurk inside! I had the same issue with most of the old books - until I found their pirated copies. Unfortunately, there are many classic books that are still unscanned!

    To anyone who objects to my pirating: I don't have money to throw around, I don't what to own delicate antiques, and this is all I can hope for, so you can all kiss my ass!

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  15. Great review. Thanks!


    "Check the site for ordering info:
    www.ntrpgcon.com"

    I checked there but didn't see anything for ordering a reprint. I'd love to get my hands on one

    ara

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  16. Badmike - Assuming you guys the rights to do so, why not slap some scans of that sucker up as a PDF on some RPG reseller site? It might create a nice steady trickle of income for you.

    I'll take a reasonably priced copy of this thing any way I can get it.

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  17. Re: your bad eyesight- That makes sense.

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  18. @ Paul: the .pdf is available for $2 @ RPG Marketplace.

    Allan.

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  19. Sorry to hijack James' blog:

    Pete has signed over the rights to not only POTVQ but all the other Wee Warriors modules, so we hope to publish Misty Isles and Dwarven Glory in the future. Pete part of the proceeds of the sales.

    The pdf idea is a good one Paul and has been discussed....perhaps in the future when all the hard copies we have left are sold.

    The details about ordering the digest copies of POTVQ are here:

    http://ntrpgcon.com/index.php?option=com_kunena&Itemid=55&func=view&catid=2&id=860

    Again sorry for the hijack....

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  20. Allan is correct about the pdf, I misunderstood Paul thinking you asked about a free download. The $2 pdfs are available as stated!

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  21. The pdf auction has ended and doesn't appear to have been re-listed. Is this item going to be re-listed and if so could someone let us know here in the comments with a new link please? Thanks.

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  22. > I said that because my eyes are failing me :)

    Ah... there it is.

    You could've asked Randall for a larger scan of his copy, I guess, James?
    His blog entry is also a good link for another perspective/intro to the mod, too, IMHO; http://blog.retroroleplaying.com/2010/06/notes-on-palace-of-vampire-queen-wee.html

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  23. I never owned this BITD (but had heard of it - John Wheeler and Peter Rice talked a lot about it in their DMing seminars at GenCon) and just picked it up this year at NTRPGCon. I was pleasantly surprised by it, both the charming maps and some fun flavorful little tidbits scattered among the encounters. I wouldn't want to run this in a regular campaign, because I don't think it has enough variety to hold interest for as long as it would take to play through with a single group of players (and it commits one of the cardinal big-dungeon sins by establishing a seemingly time-sensitive goal that there's no way is going to get resolved in a time-sensitive manner -- the PCs are ostensibly going to the palace to rescue the kidnapped dwarf princess -- will the vamps still be holding the princess hostage several weeks-months later and after a half dozen or more incursions by adventurers?) (of course both of these weaknesses also apply to TOEE, and are a lot less excusable in 1985 than they were in 1976) but I think it would be great to run as a big multi-group weekend-long marathon a la "Tower of Mythrus" -- use Jeff Rients' starting XP table (which by roll of 3d6 starts characters with anywhere from 0 to 35K XP) and let them loose in the palace -- weak parties can hang around the upper levels fighting bandits and goblins, tougher ones can scout the lower levels looking for the secret routes down to the bottom, and then at the end of the weekend everybody can get together for a big 15-20 player "boss raid" on level 6. That would be awesome, and would suit this module perfectly :)

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