Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Retrospective: Slave Pits of the Undercity

I have a very complicated relationship with the A-series of AD&D modules, starting with the premier offering, Slave Pits of the Undercity by David Cook. Released in 1980, it kicks off what is probably, after the Giants/Drow adventures by Gary Gygax, the most well known series of Dungeons & Dragons modules released during the Golden Age. Once upon a time, I owned all four modules in the series and used them extensively as the basis for many adventures, inspired less by their actual content than by the ideas behind it all. Even now, a cabal of evil slave lords strikes me as great recurring antagonists in a D&D campaign, so it's no wonder these modules struck my fancy way back when.

Unfortunately, Slave Pits of the Undercity itself is not a particularly great module. Its premise is that the characters have been sent into the dilapidated city of Highport, now home to all manner of disreputable outlaws, where, beneath a ruined temple, a band of slavers have their headquarters. It's the characters' job to find that headquarters and strike a blow against the slavers in retaliation for their recent depredations in civilized lands. It's not a bad set-up for an adventure, but, as written, it's a lot less interesting -- or challenging -- than one might expect.

There are a number of memorable "set piece" encounters in Slave Pits, it's true, and the new creatures introduced in its pages, the ant-like aspis and the giant sundew, are a nice change of pace. Unfortunately, the bulk of the module fails to follow through on the promise suggested by either its premise or the atmosphere it evokes. The result is a fairly lackluster adventure made up primarily of combat encounters, with very little problem solving, exploration, or opportunities to roleplay.

This is probably because the A-series were originally created a modules for use in AD&D tournaments at GenCon. Indeed, a significant part of the adventure's page count is taken up with details pertaining to its use in tournaments, including pregenerated characters (like Eljayess, a half-elf cleric/fighter whose name is clearly a play on the initials of designer Lawrence J. Schick). Viewed in this light, the limited nature of Slave Pits becomes more understandable, if not necessarily more forgivable. Once again, I find myself reflecting unhappily on how often TSR repackaged material produced for tournaments to sell to gamers for use in their home campaigns. It's little wonder that the subsequent development of the game turned out as it did, given the impression so many of D&D's official modules gave about what constituted a "good" adventure.

And yet, as I said above, I still have fond feelings for Slave Pits of the Undercity. I don't believe I ever used the module as written, instead taking it as a springboard for my own ideas. I took the maps, the basic premise, and the new monsters, and then went off in my own directions with them. That says very little about the actual module itself, of course, but there's still a part of me that wants to impute some of my own youthful creativity to what David Cook presented in A1's pages. Without it, Morgan Just and his compatriots would never have embarked on some of their greatest adventures, adventures I still remember 30 years later. That's got to be worth something, right?

22 comments:

  1. Only a matter of time before Hasbro re-packages the Slaver series for 4E. What does it say that WotC continue to milk TSR's old stuff instead of coming up with original ideas?

    Regarding the original modules...I agree with your sentiments and have to say that I find the third one to have the most intriguing ideas within it, adventure-wise...though I LOVE the challenge inherent in A4 as well.

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  2. @JB "Original ideas" often don't sell as well as nostalgia. In other news, I just saw the announcement for a trailer for a movie called 'Kung Fu Panda 2'... it may be clear to the WotC marketeers that their buying public likes them some re-dos.

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  3. I don't think 4E players have much nostalgia for these old modules, since by and large they haven't played them. Maybe some sort of "contact nostalgia" from a guy who talked to a guy who said they were great back in the day...

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  4. @ Viktor: Not to belabor the point, but I wouldn't say the trend is limited to WotC. Hollywood IS run by business folks after all.

    Naive or not, I think of game designers being some of the more creative people on the planet. Still, I suppose it's rather cynical of me to think WotC would re-issue a "kewler" form of the Slavers series rather than coming up with their own handsome adventure project, right?
    ; )

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  5. Only a matter of time before Hasbro re-packages the Slaver series for 4E. What does it say that WotC continue to milk TSR's old stuff instead of coming up with original ideas?

    In the 3E era, Wizards was on record as saying that "adventures do not sell", and refused to invest in this area. There were quite a few memorable adventures during the 3E years (I particularly liked "Siege of Durgam's Folly"), but they were all third party companies like Necromancer Games.

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  6. That's a big nostalgia touchstone for me as well, because my first copy of D&D (the Moldvay Red Box) in Christmas 81 was, unbeknownst to my mother, a copy that had been opened in the store by some potential shoplifter -- the dice were gone (replaced the day after Christmas by a trip to the local bookstore) but in their place was a copy of SLAVE PITS OF THE UNDERCITY.

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  7. Honestly, this is one of my favorite modules (along with A2). Partly, like you, slavers make a great, emotionally resonant opponent: there's no moral relativity about who the bad guys are, and defeating them is an unequivocal good. It also came along at a good time in my Greyhawk campaign, when my players were entering the Wild Coast, so it was easy to take the brief background and mesh it with what was already going on in my PCs' "lives." The town of Highport and roleplaying encounters were made up as we went along. Great fun, with an espionage or commando feel to it.

    I was less fond of A3 and A4 and wound up not using them, instead setting up a different endgame.

    I'll have to reread this to see if my opinion of A1 holds up after all these years.

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  8. I have great fondness for A1, although I will say the sewer-dungeon was a little too linear for my tastes... definitely an artifact of being a tournament module. Still, great flavor though!
    A2 was truly my favorite in the series, Markessa one of those classic villains and the whole "sneak into the slavelord's fortress" an excellent premise.
    A3 felt lackluster and feebly designed, although, with a bit of work the slavelord city could filled with many sessions of excitement. The railroad of the final encounter, though, drained much life from the whole module.
    A4 had an really fun first half, I thought... a new and challenging idea. The second half was, again, a lackluster affair that required a good deal of work from the DM to make it feel fleshed out and alive.

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  9. It is curious to note that WotC have only recently take an interest in its back catalogue with the redesign of the Dark Sun setting and the Tomb of Horrors scenario as well as the Keep on the Borderlands Encounters series. Before that, WotC all but ignored the history of its IP, even when revisiting them such as in the "Expedition to..." series.

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  10. I liked A1. I liked most of the modules that started out as tournament adventures. What they lacked in roleplaying opportunities they made up in tricks, traps, puzzles and new monsters. The level of challenge is appropriately strong: if you use the pregenerated characters or comparably powerful original characters, they are spent (if not dead) after finishing one tournament level. (The level of challenge climbs still further when you add the additional non-tournament encounters and factor in wandering monsters, which include a squad of soldiers led by a 9th level fighter!)

    Like Dwellers of the Forbidden City, A1 can be played as-is, but works best when the DM fleshes out the scenario, as James evidently did. Like Anthony, our group found rich roleplaying opportunities just getting to Highport, establishing a base in that hostile humanoid town, and then mounting a series of assaults upon the fortress. Since the slavers reinforced the upper ruins between assaults, my players decided to seek a back door through the sewers of the undercity, which led to much fun and exploration.

    I'm not sure we can judge A1 without reference to the rest of the series. The Suderham section of A3 was almost 100% roleplaying.

    As for WotC's 4e remakes of 1e products, I think they do it because 1e veterans are an important segment of the 4e market, and nostalgia sells. Also, I think they're trying to capture some of the magic that made 1e so massively successful. What's sad is how poorly the new products evoke the spirit of the originals. They feel as derivative as fan fiction. Most 4e modules are little more than a series of combat encounters, with few opportunities for roleplaying, puzzle-solving, or exploration. Since 4e combat is such a time-consuming grind, the plots of their published modules (to the extent that they have plots) unfold so glacially that it's hard to hold character interest. Unless the players really love the minutia of 4e combat.

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  11. Generally, we never played mods as they were written. They DM always used them as a seed of inspiration as well as a source of maps, NPCs, and other details. Even then we knew to do what we wanted rather than what was scripted.

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  12. A1 is certainly nostalgic for me, but not for anything inside the module...

    (My best friend bought this when we were kids. Between us we had the Moldvay basic box, the Mentzer Expert, and the 1e Monster manual (with the cover art by Jeff Easley). We still didn't realize the difference between D&D and AD&D, and had no idea what "tournament play" was. We mostly just ignored the stuff we didn't understand... He was fond of buying AD&D modules just to read through them; I don't know if we ever actually played this one.)

    ... it's the cover art that was endlessly intriguing to me, especially the character that I now believe to be a female dwarf. What the hell was that? The proportions looked human to me. But the guy has boobs! Or was that just the armor that looked like boobs? Or is it a girl with a beard?

    ;)

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  13. Totally agree with this! (Glad you said it and not me.) The temple layout here is, like, totally nonsensical/impossible if you look at it closely. No other adventure smacks you in the face so much with fact that "I was a tournament railroad track of disconnected setpieces, now with extra stuff glopped around it for publication".

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  14. A-1 has one of my favorite Jeff Dee covers and recently been thinking about a possible adventure hook dealing with slavers and have been looking at the A-series for inspiration. Maybe the modules haven't entirely aged well, but I really do like the basic storyline and series of events when you combine all three modules from beginning to end.

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  15. Josh said: "... it's the cover art that was endlessly intriguing to me, especially the character that I now believe to be a female dwarf. What the hell was that?"

    It's Elwita, the female dwarf fighter in the pregenerated characters.

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  16. The A1-4 modules were my most consistent run through of back-in-the-day modules as a player. Honestly it was my first experience of feeling railroaded, rushed from one experience to the other (as others have noted here) over the whole course of a summer.

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  17. Thanks for another nostalgia trip ;)

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  18. I had the dubious pleasure of playing in A1 in the GenCon 1980 tournament. I discovered that style of play did not interest me at all, so I guess that was something. :) My brother and I long remarked on that GenCon and that the most fun we saw anyone having was in a pickup fantasy miniatures game on a table in a hallway.

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  19. I'm making use of this now, with some changes:
    1) placed the temple in the "respectable" city that the PCs use as a home base
    2) converted all the humanoids to humans
    3) replaced the statue of grummash with a human, lawful deity

    So it's not yet an adventuring locale, but the PCs have visited it to meet with the bosses.

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  20. The cover art is great. Those who enjoy it should check out the cover art of the Kenzer parody, "Smackdown the Slavers."

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  21. I think I just read over at Zach's blog that the charity adventure he played in is going to be packaged and resold by WotC/Hasbro. Everything old IS new again!

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  22. And I agree that the cover art is great. Many has been the time the cover art enticed me to open it up and consider using it, then my brain melts a bit at the map/encounter areas. The cover definitely "sells" the module (cannot a judge a book, et. al.)

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