Wednesday, October 26, 2011
I had hoped that the UK modules would somehow reveal their origins in Britain, though it was never quite clear even in my own mind what that might mean. The first one that I acquired, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, was an excellent low-level module that took a very different approach to its central conflict than I was expecting. I liked it a lot -- and still do -- but it didn't quite fulfill my hopes that it'd be "distinctively British" in a way that was recognizable to my younger self.
Consequently, I had high hopes that 1983's Beyond the Crystal Cave, written by Dave J. Browne (who'd worked on Saltmarsh), Tom Kirby, and Graeme Morris might somehow possess something that'd set it apart as clearly being a product of the British Isles. There's no denying that the module is distinctive and quite unlike anything TSR had published previously, but, at least to my young American mind, I didn't sense anything uniquely British about it, a topic to which I'll return shortly.
Indeed, I found Beyond the Crystal Cave something of a disappointment. And how could I not? The module takes place on the unfortunately named Island of Sybarate, nominally located within the World of Greyhawk. On the island, the PCs learn of its history, particularly of the human magic-user Porpherio Profoundeus and his lover, the half-elven princess Caerwyn, who, in a secluded vale beyond a crystal cave, created a beautiful garden as a place of seclusion for themselves. Two years before the PCs' arrival to Sybarate, the daughter of the island's governor and her lover eloped together and somehow gained access to Porpherio's Garden. There the governor hopes they still remain, though every effort to find them to date has met with failure. He offers a 10,000 gp reward to anyone who would undertake the search for them. Assuming the PCs accept his offer, the adventure truly begins.
The area beyond the crystal cave is, effectively, a pocket dimension, as it functions according to its own rules. Many magical spells, for example, either do not work or have diminished effects. On the other hand, druids will find their abilities increased, owing to the weird sylvan environment on the other side. Numerous creatures, generally of a woodland sort, can be found too and many of them present puzzles and riddles to the PCs, in addition to the more usual challenges. Solving these puzzles and riddles yields great rewards, not least being the bypassing of combat, an action that the module's notes to the referee state will grant full experience points for "defeating" the creatures in question. Consequently, Beyond the Crystal Cave is a module for thinkers and talkers, not fighters, or at least thinkers and talkers will have a far easier time of it.
Back in '83, I didn't have a lot of use for this module. I never ran it -- I still haven't -- and I couldn't conceive of a circumstance where I might. I kind of regret that now, since, while Beyond the Crystal Cave is no masterpiece, it'd have been a useful reminder that, sometimes, the best course of action isn't combat but something else. That said, I think the module overdoes it a little bit, making it entirely possible to navigate most, if not all, of the adventure, without every once having to swing a sword or cast a spell. I personally prefer a mix of solutions to obstacles rather than privileging a single approach again and again (and, yes, this applies equally to combat).
With the eyes of experience, I'm still not convinced that the UK modules couldn't have been written by non-British writers. However, it's also clear to me that they are different. They all possess a very unique atmosphere, one that feels simultaneously more historically-grounded and yet also more fantastical. It's seemingly paradoxical, I know, but it seems as apt a summation as I can muster. Likewise, there's a greater sense of a world outside the adventure itself, a place that goes on even without the actions of the PCs and that might be affected, for good or for ill, by their actions. It's a species of a naturalism, I'd say, but not necessarily of a Gygaxian sort, because its "rules" seem to be subtly different. Just what those rules are I can't yet say, but it's a topic to which I'll be returning again in the future.