Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Retrospective: Blizzard Pass

Yesterday's post about solo wargames reminded me of something that I had almost forgotten: that, in 1983, TSR  published the first of two solo adventure modules for Dungeons & Dragons. Entitled Blizzard Pass and written by David Cook, this module is, in broad outline, not all that different from a Fighting Fantasy book like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Considering the immense popularity of the Fighting Fantasy books at the time, one can hardly blame TSR for attempting to horn in on that market.

TSR's solo adventure modules differed from Fighting Fantasy in two key ways, however. First, and most obviously, they were written for the D&D rules, which are required to use them. Second, and more interestingly, the solo modules didn't simply make use of numbered paragraphs, as Fighting Fantasy did. It also used an invisible ink pen. When you opened up the module, before playing it, you'd see lots of blank boxes scattered throughout the text. As you worked your way through it, you'd use the invisible ink pen to reveal the text hidden in those boxes. Though obviously a gimmick – and an excuse, no doubt, to increase the price of the module – it's not an inherently ridiculous idea. Mind you, at the time, I thought it was yet another manifestation of kiddie D&D and made fun of it. I only had the chance to read it years later and it's not nearly as bad as my younger self would had imagined.

The adventure scenario itself isn't itself particularly memorable, but it nevertheless contains some interesting content, as we'll see. The module provides you with a pre-generated character – a Level 1 Thief – is provided for use with Blizzard Pass, though it does leave open the possibility that you might want to generate your own character. Unfortunately, the text indicates that, if you go this route, you're limited to creating a thief, which is rather disappointing. In any case, the pre-generated character has 18 Constitution, presumably to ensure that he has 7 hit points. That's because the adventure is quite difficult, even unforgiving at times, and your character will need each and every one of those hit points to survive, a fact Cook acknowledges straightaway: "This adventure is a dangerous one, so do not take any decision lightly." Good advice!

That acknowledgment is part of "Guidelines and Tips for Playing the Solo Adventure." Some of the points it offers are so fascinating that I have reproduced the section below for the benefit of everyone reading this post.

Notice that guideline 2 is to "resist the temptation to alter die rolls, for any role-playing game will lose all its excitement and challenge if the players use only the best rolls." I find it hard to argue against this point and I presume most readers of this blog would feel similarly. Guideline 5, meanwhile, states "If you are using a character from a regular game, be ready to accept the character's fate. It must be removed from the regular game if it is slain in this adventure!" That's pretty hardcore, wouldn't you say? I think it's a perfectly defensible position, but I rather expect that very few people abided by it. It's also a little odd, given the limitation on the type of character that can undertake this adventure (thieves). My suspicion is that this is boilerplate text that was reproduced in all the modules of this series (of which there are two), though I can't say for sure, since this is the only one I have seen.

The adventure itself, as I mentioned above, is not particularly memorable, though it's not awful, given that it's a solo scenario. It begins in medias res, with the character fleeing from an unjust accusation of murder. If he's lucky, the character ends up captured and joining a caravan of snow sledges heading toward the titular Blizzard Pass. Because of his skills as a thief, the character is eventually given the option of aiding his captors as the weather worsens and their situation becomes more precarious. Naturally, he soon finds things aren't as simple as that and the real adventure begins, including a means to prove his innocence. 

Like the Fighting Fantasy books, there are ample opportunities for death, both of the instant "You are dead" variety resulting from a bad choice and from bad dice rolls in combat or for saving throws, according to the rules of D&D. Some of the "right' choices are hard to determine, while some of the "wrong" choices actually make more sense, at least to me. But then part of the fun of these kinds of programmed adventures is that they're hard and require as much dumb luck as skill in surviving the situations they describe. In that respect, Blizzard Pass is fine, though nothing special. Its real appeal, I suppose is that, after you've played through it, the caverns of Blizzard Pass can be re-used as an adventure locale, complete with two new monsters. That might not seem like an innovation, but I can't tell you how often I wished that the Fighting Fantasy books had included a full map and key so that they could be re-purposed for a RPG session. 

I know very little about the success or failure of the solitaire D&D modules. I can only assume they sold poorly, or at least not as well as more traditional modules, because there were only ever two published. 1983 is right in the middle of TSR's "experimental" phase, when the company was trying all sorts of new ideas, in an effort to secure and expand D&D's appeal. Like licensed adventures and odd branded items, Blizzard Pass doesn't seem to have advanced that goal significantly and is now mostly a curiosity from the Electrum Age of Dungeons & Dragons. 

12 comments:

  1. I have recollections of having had a good time playing the solo AD&D module that uses a red-tinted plastic lens.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midnight_on_Dagger_Alley

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  2. I got one in 1984 and the marker had already dried out in the packaging so it was pretty much useless. There was a work around I think, but I can't remember what it was.

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  3. There were only 2 magic marker ones published, Blizzard Pass & Maze of the Riddling Minotaur. The latter also allowed you to run it as a normal module (or run a party through solo, if you were so inclined).

    There were 2 magic viewer modules, Mystery of the Snow Pearls (Companion rules, must play an elf) and Midnight on Dagger Alley (AD&D, 3 quests: thief, assassin, and monk).

    Then there were 3 without gimicks: Ghost of Lion Castle (Basic, for M-U or elf), Thunderdelve Mountain (Expert, dwarf), and Lathan's Gold (Expert). Lathan's Gold is one of the cleverest solo modules I've ever seen. You get 7 quests, one for each B/X class, and (primitive) mass combat rules. You can also just use it as a solitaire nautical sandbox (I did). Ghost of Lion Castle is a lot like Runequest's solo Scorpion Hall. The idea for both is that you send lone adventurers to the dungeon, and they keep getting killed until one finally emerges victorious. The dungeon is changed with each go; you're supposed to note what items your PCs take and the position of the corpses, so successive adventurers can find and take their stuff where it lies.

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  4. For those who may have the module but no pen, all the entries are at:

    https://www.angelfire.com/games/blizzardspass/

    Alan

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    1. The PDF on DMs Guild also comes with the entries typed in. You can see it in the Preview.

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    2. Your post reminded me of my fondness for the "group adventure" in this dungeon, which I DM'd a few years ago, and I set down some of my thoughts on its design:

      M1 Blizzard Pass: Dungeon Design

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  5. I played through both of the MSolos and XS back in the day.

    Blizzard Pass at least is a normal, usable dungeon. Minotaur is the worst of the semi-random mazes, just impossible to navigate even if you fill in the map.

    Lathan's Gold is a great general-purpose solo exploration game, it's similar in many ways to Barbarian Prince.

    Thunderdelve is fine but the map was very hard to fill in correctly, Pandius has a map http://www.pandius.com/tdlv_map.html

    Only Lathan's compares favorably to a Tunnels & Trolls solo, or Lone Wolf or Fighting Fantasy gamebook. TSR trying to wedge their much larger system into a standard module format instead of adopting a paperback style like everyone else making solos, is why they did so poorly.

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  6. I bought this when I was a teen. Loved the cover! I also picked up XSOLO: Lathan's Gold. But honestly I can't remember ever finishing either one for some reason. I think it's just because I was a dabbler and page flipper. I'd read bits, look at the pics, then create something of my own. If I can be inspired by a thing, then that thing is a winner in my book.

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  7. I've always had a soft spot for both this and M2; they bring back a lot of nostalgic childhood memories. Tim Truman's cover of this remains one of my all-time favorites (it's a shame he didn't stay at TSR longer). That said, even as a kid the "invisible ink" gimmick sucked - the pens lasted long enough to play through the adventure once (if you were lucky) but didn't have enough ink to fill in all of the blanks to allow you to replay it later, and even when revealed the text was light and faded to become unreadable over time. I'm glad the DriveThruRPG edition shows all the hidden text. If the ever release this in print I might buy both it and M2 (already available in print) for old times' sake.

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  8. I also purchased Blizzard Pass as a kid, though my pen ran out of ink long before I ever completed the adventure.

    However, I have retained the module in my collection ever since, and have run it at least half a dozen times as a straight dungeon. I've found it excellent for low-level B/X play and an inspiration on how to construct small "lair" type dungeons. Though it lacks a certain sophistication, it has a definite Sword & Sorcery vibe to it that makes for great D&D. One of my favorites.

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  9. I had both XSOLO Lathan's Gold and BSOLO Ghost of Lion Castle as a kid. Lathan's Gold is definitely trickier but more awesome.

    Merle Rasmussen did a fine job with Lion Castle, though. It's a fun dungeon with great maps, literally a castle in the shape of a lion, with a total of six levels. I had great fun with it as a kid, and recently expanded the monsters and treasures contained therein to make it a regular module for my group to play in. They had a really great time, completing it in three sessions.

    Paul and Dan of the Wandering DMs also did a few videos recently where they ran 1 DM 1 player or actual solo modules with one of them acting as a quasi-DM with the other as player, and they played through both Blizzard Pass and Lion Castle among a few others (like the tournament thief module The Gem and the Staff). Those were quite fun to watch.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ey9eE7SKLTc

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmDXdv3SBXs

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