Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Retrospective: Beyond the Crystal Cave

Growing up in the early '80s, most of my friends were obsessed with Japan. This was, after all, the period when ninjas were all the rage in American popular culture, which was in turn reflected in the content of roleplaying games from the period. I, on the other hand, was much more interested in a different island empire, that of Great Britain. So, when TSR UK began to put out its own modules, to say that I was interested in them is something of an understatement.

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.

35 comments:

  1. Yeah, but what would make something "British?" (beyond throwing in a lot of tea, umbrellas, Bobbies in those funny helmets and bowler hats --- which is what I thought of as 'British' when I was a kid).

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  2. I'm bemused and amused by the idea that British-produced modules would be somehow be identifiably "British".

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  3. 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.

    Perhaps what you mean is that it grounds itself in historical details (and literary traditions) that were outside of the American "fantasy" (i.e. post-Tolkein, post-pulp, pseudo-medieval elves-and-swords-and-wizardry) genre.

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  4. The british modules are my favorite. I'm currently re-running The Sentinel.

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  5. Well, maybe in some ways it is...it is similar in some ways to a rip "through the wardrobe."

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  6. @Anthony: Really? It's been ages since I last read it, but my memory indicates it was a mish-mash of different Shakespearean themes -- rather like "Romeo and Juliet run away, get sucked into The Tempest, and there are also some Midsummer Night's Dream faeries in there as well."

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  7. Thanks for featuring this one, James. It’s a rich classic for which I have considerably more enthusiasm than you do. I explained why in my pick list of the 20 best D&D modules, as I know you’re aware. Great memories here.

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  8. @Erin: Well, superficially, that is.

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  10. The game that feels most "British" to me is WFRP, although the irony is that it's set in a fantasy Germany. It's something about the style and mood, something irreverent and punky.

    See also The Laundry, which is Delta Green only with red tape, bureaucratic incompetence and a lack of funding; Call of Cthulhu meets Yes, Minister.

    It's all about attitude.

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  11. James, I was inspired to post about this module on my new-then blog, by none other than a comment on your blog. My take was how this is one of the very few non-violence adventures from the old days.

    http://templeofdemogorgon.blogspot.com/2009/11/beyond-crystal-cave-role-play-and-non.html


    The presence of John Barleycorn in the garden is very, very British. That aspect is not something that would likely appear in an American product.

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  12. It's my thinking that Anglo-isms (?) would appear more in campaign setting and play. In the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Browne & Turnbull refer to 13th Century English seaside towns as a point of reference for Saltmarsh. Not exactly setting detail that Americans would immediately pick up on vs. say a 17th or 18th Century New England town can create mental associations pretty instantly.

    I think one Anglo-Americanism that is in both games is that campaign settings presume a post-Enlightenment era of global free trade and private property rights.

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  13. I had this one and never ran it. I went back to it much later in my GURPS 1e days, but I still couldn't find much inspiration in it. I pretty much hold onto it out of a sense of completeness. The "faerie world time dilation" thing was cute, and I took the idea for a game where I needed to shift the players a bit in time, but otherwise . . . it just seemed a little cute and a lot boring.

    The other British modules - the Saltmarsh trilogy, the excellent UK2 and UK3 (I ran both several times, twice with GURPS and at least once with AD&D), and Ravager of Time (I think that was an I-series one, but British) . . . all were really good stuff. They were more than just sequential encounters or caves full of stuff. But this one just seem like a cave full of boredom with a campaign-breaker tossed in.

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  14. I think one Anglo-Americanism that is in both games is that campaign settings presume a post-Enlightenment era of global free trade and private property rights.

    Yeah, and I don't think D&D would be any fun for the modern player without that aspect. It's sort of the culture of the Wild West Frontier town with swords instead of sixguns. My impression is that in real medieval times, everyone had to ask someone else's permission first before they did just about anything. Unless your players are all playing upper echelon nobles (or outlaws living outside civilization), they are constantly going to have to answer to NPCs (or other players who outrank them); and idea which does not really appeal to me as a premise for a role playing game.
    One of the books I read right before I started playing D&D was 'The Hobbit,' which probably influenced my early D&D games a lot --- but Tolkien's 'Hobbiton' seems more like the 18th or 19th century small town than medieval England in character (as far as I know History I guess). Hobbits seem to own their own homes and property, can trade freely, etc. My impression is that medieval times were much more restrictive. If a gang of unknown PCs wandered into a real medieval town all fully strapped and just 'looking for adventure,' the local lord would probably just arrest them instantly and feel no qualms about imprisoning, torturing or killing them because that would have been his right. Most players wouldn't find such a game a lot of fun I suspect.

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  15. It was clear to me in this post the intent was talking about modules being distinctly"British" in nature. I'm going to make some generalization here, but I think considering the weight of Tolkien's influence, much of the fantasy genre is arguably British. But what would a distinctly British Module look like? Perhaps exploring the the distinct history and mythology of the various cultures in the UK and amplifying that would be a a good way of doing it.
    For that matter, what would a distinctly Japanese TSR module look like? Or Mexican TSR Look like? I'm not sure of the history of the Oriental Adventures book or the Maztica Box Set, but I would hazard to guess while there was research done, it wasn't written by authors from those areas and cultures.

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  16. This is actually a GREAT adventure for evil parties of adventurers, as many of the meetings with benign or otherwise helpful creatures will turn into conflicts that normally would be handled quite non-violently (and very, very boringly). I'd actually love to run this with an evil party just to see what would happen. Otherwise, this is on my list of ten worst D&D modules ever published...dull, lots of storytelling, little for anyone to do (especially fighters and mages) except to follow around and let the railroad take them to the end of the line. This module unlike almost any other published by TSR goes out of it's way to make any sort of conflict completely detrimental to party success, and as you say Matt the best modules always had a nice mixture of tricks, traps, negotiation and conflict.

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  17. I think Kelvin has it right. 'Britishness' in gaming, given the period we are all interested in here, is actually about Britain in the late 1970s - 1980s. And it isn't about 'Britishness' in isolation, but the aspects of British popular culture of the time that seemed in contrasted with American popular culture.

    In my first post on my blog, I wrote this:

    "In two imaginary worlds [the Known World of D&D and the Old World of WFRP], and their associated game systems, we have neat encapsulations of the gulf between American and British pop-culture. One the one hand you have the Justice League of America, on the other the Justice Department of Megacity One. The Known World of D&D is bright, clean, and [super-]heroic. The PCs survive (mostly), save the world, defeat the evil, and grow powerful and rich. The Old World of WFRP is dark, dirty, and a grim struggle. If the PCs survive (and there’s a good chance they won’t), they merely forestall the spread of chaos, before they are permanently disabled fighting a pickpocket in a filthy alley, grow sick, and die in poverty."

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  18. So, if you're thinking about modules that could only have been written by a British writer, you need to find those traces of pessimism and cynicism that were present in the British character before Thatcher, but certainly were accentuated by a political system that fostered, mass unemployment, urban decay, and sink estates, and, simultaneously, obscenely wealthy city boys and the glorification of luxury.

    Incidentally, I don't think Beyond the Crystal Cave is a very good example of a 'British' module in this regard.

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  19. My favorite of the UK series was UK4 "When a Star Falls", written by Graeme Morris.

    The opening hook is literally imprinted on players, when they kill a memory web and receive the memories of several slain monks, which drives them to investigate the fallen star.

    The enemies are pretty well done. The shade assassin/monk following them is a useful tool to spook the players as well as a means to add some drama. The attempted coup by the Monastery's leading acolytes, and the fact that the gnome mercenaries are unaware of it, creates an interesting challenge where fighting isn't the only answer. And the derro lair and evil snirfneblin are a good touch of Underdark flavor. (The two red dragon fight at the end is a bit much, though.) The fallen star (and what evil purposes it will be used for) is a great lead for future adventures.

    I think what I like the most, though, is the AWESOME illustrations in the module. They're very strong and powerful, even in black and white.

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  20. Excellent pick by Adamantyr -- 'When a Star Falls' is a fantastic module. Some other notable UK efforts:

    - The Serpent's Tale
    - The Sentinel/The Gauntlet
    - The Saltmarsh trilogy

    The quality of TSR UK's modules was extremely high overall -- Crystal Cave is one of their weakest offerings.

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  22. The most British of all modules is undoubtedly my own "Wibble Watkins and the Knackered Crumpet." Unfortunately, despite my daily entreaties, WotC is REFUSING to publishing it, almost certainly because of how much their own work pales in comparison.

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  23. Yeah, and I don't think D&D would be any fun for the modern player without that aspect. It's sort of the culture of the Wild West Frontier town with swords instead of sixguns.

    I certainly agree with that. Despite not appearing in "Appendix N", in retrospect the game as it's played owes a great deal to Frederick Faust and John Ford. Here's an interview with longtime Games Workshop artist John Blanche where there's the insightful remark:

    Early RPG's were kind of the American dream writ large, cartoon versions of the frontier, where adventurous spirits could wrest vast fortunes from unfortunate Orcs by the application of a big axe, even becoming Gods if sufficient foes were felled. Not so in Warhammer and the science fantasy universe of Warhammer 40,000, places populated by flawed characters, where the only path to glory is dark and diabolical, and the gods are forever hungry.

    "To me fantasy is much darker than American High Fantasy, certainly more violent, and more oppressive. But it's also very real," says John. "I didn't see fantasy being occupied by shiny characters, it was all very Dickensian. Fantasy denizens to me all look like Fagin. Everybody has an eye-patch and a wooden leg, dirty fingernails, and worn clothes. And thereby lies the strength of it. It is evocative, there is so much background there, the universes are so strong."

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  24. Another shout out for "When a Star Falls". That module was one of the best (comercially bought) experiences that my group had in the 80s. We plugged it in because we needed something and didn't have time to write something, and it literally changed our campaign. We built off that module into the world and used it to define the next three years of our campaign.

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  25. Let's not forget Night's Dark Terror, also a British production and a very interesting one, because it uses the Known World but managed to be subtly different from US TSR's efforts in this regard. The encounters with wyrds, the faery encounters, the fascination with horse thieves, slavers as a criminal organization, the Cthuluesque lost civilization, were all unique elements not present otherwise. A fantastic module.

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  26. A fantastic module.

    Indeed it was -- one of my favorites, despite its flaws.

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  27. Perhaps what you mean is that it grounds itself in historical details (and literary traditions) that were outside of the American "fantasy" (i.e. post-Tolkein, post-pulp, pseudo-medieval elves-and-swords-and-wizardry) genre.

    That's more or less the gist of it, yes. Thanks for making my thoughts more clear.

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  28. I think Kelvin has it right. 'Britishness' in gaming, given the period we are all interested in here, is actually about Britain in the late 1970s - 1980s. And it isn't about 'Britishness' in isolation, but the aspects of British popular culture of the time that seemed in contrasted with American popular culture.

    There's definitely some truth to this, although, to be fair, when I was a younger man I was quite convinced that "Britishness" was something broader -- and more explicable -- than just this. I'm still not convinced it isn't, but for the purposes of the present discussion, I do think there's something to the idea that British fantasy from the 70s and 80s has a unique and unmistakable vibe all its own.

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  29. Actually, in a Western, everybody does have worn clothes and dirty fingernails, and there's usually a good many physically impaired people living and working in town. Most Westerns present good people as people trying to choose the most moral of several bad alternatives, and heroes live and work with people of the most dubious trades. There is a moral vision and code, and generally there's hope to find a way up and out of bad situations; but that's about all that distinguishes Westerns from dark and gritty rogue fantasy. (Though that's a lot.)

    I've been reading Louis L'Amour and other pulp Western writers the last couple years, and I usually find Western movies way too depressing to watch. So the idea that Westerns are simplistic and happydappy is kinda humorous to me.

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  30. +1 to Adamantyr and cherryfunk about When a Star Falls. An excellent module which I ran several times. Eye of the Serpent and the Sentinel/Gauntlet were also very good. Graeme Morris wrote or had a hand in all of these, including Beyond the Crystal Cave.I did own Beyond the Crystal Cave but never ran it. It was the first and worst of all the UK modules.

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  31. Another favorite artist who did similar work to what was in UK4 was the one who did the Sorcery! books for Steve Jackson games. (In particular, the Sorcerer's Crown series)

    I have a name for this kind of artwork: asymmetrical fantasy. Basically, I mean that when characters or items are drawn, they tend to not be symmetrical; plate armor doesn't look the same on both sides, background art and buildings don't follow a discrete logical pattern, etc.

    I think that contributes to the "griminess" that is often observed. In real life, we have to patch things up, things don't always look like they just came off the shelf. It really feels more like classic swords & sorcery, the grimy streets of Lahnkmar, city of seven score and ten thousand smokes.

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  32. Another favorite artist who did similar work to what was in UK4 was the one who did the Sorcery! books for Steve Jackson games.

    That would be the aforementioned John Blanche, and the Sorcery! books were written by the other, British Steve Jackson. The other, British Steve Jackson co-founded Games Workshop, where Blanche still plies his trade today. It's all very incestuous. ;)

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  33. "I have a name for this kind of artwork: asymmetrical fantasy."

    I'd say that Gary Chalk, illustrator of the Lone Wolf gamebooks, and some early Games Workshop products is another 'asymmetrical fantasy' artist.

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  34. Another difference I felt there to be between American and British Dungeons & Dragons was the degree of detail to be found in their modules. The fantasy to be found in American scenarios always felt too glossy, whereas the fantasy in British scenarios invariably seemed to concentrate on the details.

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  35. The fantasy to be found in American scenarios always felt too glossy, whereas the fantasy in British scenarios invariably seemed to concentrate on the details.

    Certainly by the time the UK modules were coming out, I'd agree with you. One of the things I most disliked, even as a kid, about the direction TSR took in the '80s was toward a more glossy, Hollywood-ized fantasy at the expense of the slightly darker, slightly grubbier stuff you saw in the '70s.

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