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.