Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Retrospective: Dwellers of the Forbidden City

Despite the fact that David Cook's 1981 adventure, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, is one of my favorite D&D modules of all time, if not my actual favorite, I've never done a retrospective post on it. I did use the module previously as the centerpiece for my early ruminations of location-based adventures, but I don't think that post did the module full justice. Today's post is thus a partial attempt to make up for that fact.

Though parts of what would become Dwellers of the Forbidden City were used in the official AD&D tournament at Origins 1980, module I1 doesn't include a scoring sheet and referees are halfheartedly encouraged to design their own if they choose to use it in a tournament fashion. The module also conspicuously lacks the tournament "vibe" of other early modules, lacking both a precise, straightforward goal or a high density of combat/trap encounters intended to test the mettle of the players, instead opting for a more open-ended, exploratory style. In that respect, I1 might be an exemplar of the "Electrum Age" that marked a shift in the style and content of adventures from the earlier Golden Age, a shift some cheer and others decry.

Ostensibly, Dwellers of the Forbidden City is about the characters, in the employ of merchant leaders, seeking to put an end to raids on caravans passing through a remote jungle locale. However, once pointed in the right direction, the characters soon discover that there's more going on in the jungle than mere caravan raids, as they stumble across the mysterious Forbidden City, a lost city that recalls Robert E. Howard's Conan yarns -- no surprise given David Cook has admitted that the City was inspired by "Red Nails." Though getting to the Forbidden City is an adventure in itself, with multiple means to enter it and lots of potential allies and enemies along the way, it is within the City (a version of whose map is reproduced below, thanks to Lord Kilgore) that the real adventure begins.

As can see from the map, the Forbidden City is large and located within a canyon and thus isolated from the rest of the jungle. It is a world unto itself, one that operates according to the whims of its inhabitants, chief of whom are the yuan-ti snake men, who make their debut appearance in this module. In my younger days, I used this module innumerable times with several different groups of people, including some I barely knew. What's interesting is how similar the experience was right up until the point where the characters enter the Forbidden City. From that point on, nearly every group did something different, with quite a few completing forgetting their original mission and focusing instead on exploring the Forbidden City and its strange inhabitants.

Dwellers of the Forbidden City is only 28 pages long, so it's necessarily brief when it comes to describing its titular locale. Yet, that never bothered me. Indeed, I think it's probably one of the great strengths of the module and the reason I was able to use it so often: it was easy to make and remake the City to suit my present needs, whatever they were. My personal preference for modules these days are ones that fire my imagination; they give me the bare bones details I need to get started but they don't weigh me down with extraneous details that either get in the way or easily forget in the heat of play. Far from needing, in the words of James Wyatt, "more detail, more fleshed-out quests, and another hundred pages or so," module I1 is almost exactly the right length. Anything more than what it includes would, I think, have lessened its spartan appeal for me.

Re-reading Dwellers of the Forbidden City in preparation for this post brought back a lot of memories, all happy ones. I could recount many tales of adventures past, but those in the Forbidden City are among the most vibrant nearly 30 years after the fact. I remember well when Morgan Just and his stalwart companions braved this place, doing battle with the yuan-ti, the tasloi, and the bullywugs united under King Groak. I remember too my expansions of the City, using the adventure seeds Cook includes at the end -- the under-city warrens filled with ghouls and demons, the vampire orchid-men, the Black Brotherhood, and time travel to the days when the City was at its decadent height. This was a module I literally played to pieces; my original copy of the booklet fell apart from so much use and its maps were smudged and stains from similar service. With the possible exception of The Isle of Dread -- another David Cook module -- I'm hard pressed to think of a module that more powerfully engaged my imagination and showed me what a powerful game D&D could be.

19 comments:

  1. I have similar fond memories of refereeing this modules. My only criticism would be about the Bullywugs. For me they were just one ridiculous humanoid creature too many.

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  2. One of my favorites as well (and I have a mighty itch to play it again).

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  3. I ran a campaign that spent about four months in the Forbidden City. Probably ended up with around 30 hours of play time that were within the rim of the volcano, and another fifteen or twenty in outlying communities.
    This is my favorite module of all time. The map alone is worth the price of about half of all the other modules I own.

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  4. I've used that ruined city map more times than I can recall accurately. Good stuff.

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  5. Red Nails is one of my favorite Conan stories. I'll have to give this module another look.

    Ed Green

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  6. One of the best sandbox adventures ever. Any competent DM can develop hundreds of hours of play from the evocative map and the brief set up of the Forbidden City, adding his own adventures and scenarios.

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  7. I've never used the module, though it is in my library. But it will be included in my next campaign. I plan on combining DotFC, Isle of Dread, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and The Temple's Tribute (a DCC adventure in #46 the Book of Treasure Maps) into one "lost world" island mini-campaign region.

    I think it'll be fantastic.

    I might incorporate Isle of the Ape, but that might be a bit too much..

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  9. I wonder if it is just me, but I always think this map looks quite a lot like the state of Alaska.

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  10. I picked up a copy of this module at the GenCon auction this summer for $6.50, and didn't notice until I got home that it's actually still in its original shrink wrap. Faced with the collector/gamer's dilemma, I put it on a shelf and forgot about it. This post though may be what finally pushes me to tearing open its ancient plastic seal.

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  11. This is one of my favorites too. I do wished they would of included a bit more info of the region and an additional map detailing the area outside the city( the same way they did with Keep on the Borderlands) But I'm not complaining.

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  12. That map has a hint of 3-d, a foreshadowing of the Ravenloft maps.

    Definitely one of my all time favorite modules.

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  13. It was inspired by Red Nails? I had presumed the inspiration was Jewels of Gwahlur/Servants of Bit-Yakin.

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  14. @Zaister:

    No, it's not just you. This post is (I think) the first time I've ever seen the map, and that was my almost-immediate reaction.

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  15. Sparked my imagination, but I never actually worked it in. Will have to at some point.

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  16. @ Captain Jack

    We'll have to agree to disagree. Bullywugs are awesome.

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  17. I GM'd this once, and, in fact, it was in this adventure that two of my players put on the best display of "combined arms" low-level magic I've ever seen.

    Can't say this is one of my favorite modules though. May have to give it a reading to see if that opinion holds up.

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  18. Didn't Mongrelmen make their debut here as well? IIRC, when I first ran this adventure, my players took it upon themselves to act as the Mongrelmen's protectors, defending them against the rival factions in the city. But it's been so long since I read this adventure, that I am not sure I remeber that correctly.

    I do remember that this was a great module. Unfortunately, I gave it away (along with a ton of other D&D stuff, little black Traveler books, and some Car Wars sets) in my senior year of high school, during a brief "I am done with gaming" phase.

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  19. This module ranks among my players' favorites. it is a classic pulp adventure, taking place in faraway land, with a lost city, and both enemies and allies to be found along the way. I did ended up fleshing out the city in more detail, adding in some ancient evil in the form of the ziggurat in the middle of the city being built over an obex of black stone sunk into the ground beneath it. I also fleshed out the Black Brotherhood a bit(as have many others), and yes, they were linked to the obex. ;)

    As you say, this module has all of the elements of a great adventure; to be made even greater by finishing it off with added details which makes it more relevant to one's own campaign. For me, the events that came about during the adventure ended up being pivotal to my own campaign. Dwellers of the Forbidden City is definitely an adventure that I would run again, and I recommend it very highly.

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