Friday, August 22, 2008

Old School Adventure Path

In the comments to yesterday's post about the difference between plot-driven and locale-based modules, the possibility of an old school "adventure path" is briefly discussed. I'd been giving that very idea some thought and had been looking into the structure of earlier modules to see if there might be a model lurking among them -- and in fact there is, namely the famed G and D series of modules written by Gary Gygax.

What's really remarkable about these modules, the first ones ever published by TSR for D&D, is how many people's memories of them differ rather radically from their actual texts. The biggest misconception is that they're plot-driven, when in fact there's only the thinnest of plots in them. G1 begins thusly:
Giants have been raiding the lands of men in large bands, with giants of different sorts in these marauding groups. Death and destruction have been laid heavily upon every place these monsters have visited. This has caused great anger in high places, for life and property loss means failure of the vows of noble rulers to protect the life and goods of each and every subject - and possible lean times for the rulers as well as the ruled. Therefore, a party of the bravest and most powerful adventurers has been assembled and given the charge to punish the miscreant giants. These adventurers must deliver a sharp check, deal a lesson to theclan of hill giants nearby, orelse return and put their heads upon the block for the headsman’s axe!
And that's extent of its "plot." The body of the adventure itself consists simply of a map and description of the steading, the dungeon beneath, and its inhabitants and their treasures. The description of Nosnra, the main "villain" of the adventure, provides only game stats and nothing more. He is not given any real background or motivations and indeed his role in planning and/or executing the giant raids mentioned above is never explained. In his treasury, the characters find a map of the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and a magical chain that will transport up to 6 people to said locale.

Module G2 follows a very similar pattern to G1, with Jarl Grugnur not being given any background or motivations other than simply being the leader -- and most powerful example -- of the frost giants who are among those raiding civilized lands. In his private cavern can be found a magical lever that transports people outside the Hall of the Fire Giant King, Snurre Iron Belly. But, again, that's the extent of the "plot": seek out the frost giant stronghold and deliver a blow to them that might dissuade them from ever again attacking the lands of men.

Module G3 ramps up the actual plot elements somewhat, but not by much. In King Snurre's council room, there is a signed missive from the drow high priestess Eclavdra, encouraging the fire giant monarch to make an alliance with as many giants and humanoids as he can muster so that they might march united against the nearby settled lands. No explanation of why Eclavdra wishes this is provided and even the description of the drow leader provides no more details. There is a hint of a suggestion that the drow may be doing the bidding of the Elder Elemental God, a shrine to whom is found in the lower level of the Hall, but even the drow's connection to this Lovecraftian entity is implied (by proximity and their use of tentacle rods) rather than outright stated. When the drow flee the adventurers (or are killed by them), they leave behind a map of their escape route into the deep caverns beneath the world.

Modules D1 and D2 provide nothing in the way of a "plot." They are simply descriptions of locales and encounters along the way to the drow metropolis of Erelhei-Cinlu. Along the descent into the depths of the earth, the characters might make various friends and enemies to aid them in their explorations, but none of these encounters is part of a grand plot as such. Instead, what we get is a subterranean "wilderness," with many different monster lairs, along with the usual tricks and traps. Even the fabled Shrine of the Kuo-Toa is mostly a dungeon without any greater significance, although the characters may loot from it drow brooches and clothing to aid them in infiltrating the Vault of the Drow.

Module D3 is, like its immediate predecessors, mostly a travelogue, in this case of the drow city and its surrounding areas. The only plot we get is the following text, in the description of the House of Eilserv:
The Eilservs have long seen a need for an absolute monarch to rule the Vault, and as the noble house of first precedence, they have reasoned that their mistress should be Queen of All Drow. When this was proposed, the priestesses of Lolth supported the other noble families aligned against the Eilservs, fearing that such a change would abolish their position as the final authority over all disputes and actions of the Dark Elves. Thereafter, the Eilservs and their followers turned away from the demoness and proclaimed their deity to be an Elder Elemental God [see MODULE GI-2-3). Although there is no open warfare, there is much hatred, and both factions seek to destroy each other. An attempt to move worship of their deity into the upper world, establish a puppet kindom there, and grow so powerful from this success that their demands for absolute rulership no longer be thwarted, was ruined of late, and the
family is now retrenching
In this text, we finally get an explanation of the reasons for the alliance of the various giants, as well as some specific insight into the politics of Erelhei-Cinlu. Beyond that, though, there is nothing. The city is otherwise treated much like a wilderness area, with individual "lairs" of drow here and there and the Fane of Lolth is given a map as if it were a dungeon like any other. There is even an opportunity to square off against the Demon Queen of Spiders' physical form if the characters prove themselves bold (or unlucky). It's interesting too that there's a dissident male drow imprisoned in the Fane named Nilonim, who is neutral aligned -- with good tendencies -- and who leads a band of rebels trying to overthrow the nobles of Erelhei-Cinlu. D3 ends with this rather inspiring text:
Terrific stuff.

My memories of these modules were quite different than the reality. My recollections were of a number of memorable encounters with various antagonists, strong connections between the various groups of evildoers, and an overall coherence that simply isn't there. But then I was the referee for all these modules and ran them many times. I provided huge doses of "connective tissue" based on what my players did and how well they succeeded (or failed). The end result was as least as much "my" module as it was Gygax's.

One of the key things I noticed in rereading these modules is how there are no "events" that occur within them. They're largely static, with the monsters occupying some location (or series of locations, since some of them do move around). Events occur when these monsters interact with the PCs. They're almost entirely player-driven rather than being modules where things happen to the characters by fiat of the plot. Thus, there is no inherent "drama" in them other than what the players bring to them. I like that and my memories bear out the fact that "steady state" adventure locales can and do inspire great roleplaying moments.

I'll still have to ponder some more about the concept of an old school adventure path, but I'm more convinced than ever that we have a good model here in the Giants/Drow series. What we need now is for someone to produce another series in the same general vein. A project for the future perhaps ...


  1. Isn't there something in the Background to D1-2 about the adventurers being hired by a council and being provided "elven aid" to investigate the Underdark? Was this where that weird pyramid device came in, or was that in D3?

    This seems like more suggested "connective tissue" [love the metaphor] that was implied to be used in case a referee didn't have his/her own plot devices in place for use with the modules.

  2. There's nothing about elven aid as such in D1 or D2, although there is a vague suggestion that the surface elves might be interested in knowing more about the activities of the drow.

    The pyramid device is in D3 and is part of a treasure trove from the Fane of Lolth.

    (It's possible that Queen of the Spiders, the mega-adventure from the 2e era that combined the G, D, and Q series into one package might be the source of some of your recollections)

  3. James, I think there was an attempt to link T1-4 to A1-4 to the G&D series. I have always been a big fan of the A series as it provides good challenges, interesting locations, tournment outline (which can be used for shorter sessions), and there are plenty of interesting villians to be expanded upon.

  4. More connective tissue may have been added in the "Against the Giants" edition of these modules when they were published all together. I've heard this, but don't know the extent of the doctoring that was done (I've never read the compilation, just the originals). Sometimes people don't seem to be on the same page when discussing the series, and I think this might be why.

  5. I only own the G1-2-3 and D1-2 color versions of these, so I can't speak directly to the question of differences between those and the monochromes, but I do distinctly recall the part about elven aid being provided in one of the two. The 1986 "megamodule" compilation, which I have not thoroughly read, adds all sorts of plot railroading specifically for that publication, some of which also serves to connect T1-4, A1-4, and GDQ. I understand why they did it, but IMO it was a mistake and what little I've read of it comes off as contrived and unnecessary.

  6. The textual differences between the soliary G and D modlues and the complied G1-3 and D1-2 are minimal, and don't add much if any background/connecting materials as far as I recall. The primary differences are some dropped text from the solitary modules, and artwork that didn't make it into the compiled versions. One day I'll get around to doing the A/B comparison for these like I did for tourney Tsojconth and S4 Tsojcanth (and the compiled S1-4 S4 version, which has more background added as well).

    The GDQ supermodule and the supermodule plot connections added from T1-4 and A1-4 to GDQ were all done post-Gygax's departure, and are not part of the original materials. There's definitely additional background, but it's been some time since I read those, so I don't recall if there's specific connecting info leading froM G1 to G2, etc., etc.; I don't recall more than what was in the solitary and G1-3 compiled versions, but it's been quite some time, so my memory may well be off.

    Perhaps Joe (greyhawkgrognard) can shed further light on this, if some of his recent researches have gone in this direction?


  7. Another point: while the D1-3 underworld offers a map to entice the PCs along Eclavdra's path to Erelhei-Cinlu, that underworld environment is much more open-ended than is the case in most Adventure Paths that I've read (only the ones published in Dungeon---if Paizo has tweaked the model further in the subsequent Pathfinder APs, I'm not familiar with those). That is, while the Giants-Drow modules can (and do) form a path that leads from the surface to Erelhei-Cinlu (or perhaps even the Abyss), the path seems to me to be less rigidly-structured than the Dungeon APs, and to be a more-open-ended environment that's holistically very dangerous vs. the progression of danger that APs provide (a mostly-linear path from lower- to higher-level challenges).

    I think that open-endedness, with the trademark Gygaxian "add your own level here" markers throughout that encourage a DM to build further beyond what has been provided in the module text, needs to be a key element in any true old-school AP.


  8. I'm preparing to run "The Isle of Dread", into an existing campaign following 2e system. I am changing the goal some to fit my own campaign goals, which requires no work on my part. To do this for a 2e mod would require some rewriting and possibly some major headaches with continuity problems.

    For a DM who prefer hand craft adventures, using modules only to skate out of really hard work, I will always chose the old mods over any new one, and it is because of the format which is brief and leaves all of the actual gameplay up to me.

  9. The recent C&C module "Assault on Blacktooth Ridge" is like the spiritual successor to Keep on the Borderlands.

    It's got a well-fleshed-out base and an interesting encounter area full of beasties, but aside from the typical evil monsters raiding the lands of men and rumors of the dark overlord's return, there's not much in the way of situation or plot in there.

    I don't know how much the later C&C modules follow on from it, though, so it might not qualify as a full-fledge Adventure Path.

  10. James, I think there was an attempt to link T1-4 to A1-4 to the G&D series.

    This was done in the 2e era, but it has no relationship to any connection that existed prior to that. Other than the Temple of Elemental Evil, I'm not even certain any of these modules arose from actual play in Gary's campaign, instead being wholly artifacts of design for sale, but I could be wrong on that point.

  11. I do distinctly recall the part about elven aid being provided in one of the two.

    If it's there, it's so small as to have escaped my notice when I recently reread the whole series. There's a suggestion the elves would like to know about the drow and might reward the PCs if they provide such information, but no details. Likewise, it's noted that, if the PCs are too low-level to survive, the referee can provide them with "elven aid" in the form of some additional gear and magic items, but that's it.

  12. I think that open-endedness, with the trademark Gygaxian "add your own level here" markers throughout that encourage a DM to build further beyond what has been provided in the module text, needs to be a key element in any true old-school AP.

    Absolutely. Even the most structured old school materials always included lots of room for expansion and individual development and that's a feature that needs to remain.

  13. I really enjoy reading Paizo's pathfinder stuff but I have often wondered how many pages each module would be if it was rewritten in an old school style. Would it even be as long as the very concise G1 without the statblocks, lengthy back stories, all of the text that seems to be required to describe each individual area, railroading links required to lead the characters through the entire path and other 3E-isms?

    Also, if done in an old school format (even if still done for either 3E or 4E) would these adventures, which seem to be very popular, be nearly as successful?

  14. Pdiddy,

    Those are some interesting questions you ask and, of course, I have no answers for them. I often worry that the greater level of background to be found in modern gaming products is the result of the fact that many RPGs are now read rather than played. That is, gamers will pick up and buy this stuff, because they view it as "reading material." The G/D series is mostly pretty dull if what you're after is fascinating fantasy "stories," whereas I can say with surety that I enjoy reading Pathfinder stuff, even if I'm unlikely to ever run the adventures. They're great reads.

  15. I really enjoy reading the Pathfinder stuff as well.

    I think another part of it is - like the proliferation of rules - a mindset that the GM-role should be limited to referee. Like having rules for every eventuality, presenting a very detailed story takes the GM's individuality out of the game play process.

    I also think that this would be the biggest obstacle towards an "old school adventure path" being any kind of relative commercial success. My guess is that most current GM's now expect this type of story line and would view an old school-style path as either incomplete or taking to much work to flesh out. I can already read the reviews of "I spent hard earned money on this and I still have to do a bunch of work." They have either forgotten or had the misfortune of never knowing how much fun it is to use their own imagination to develop the story.

  16. I'm actually thinking of creating a magazine that would be released probably between 2-4 x a year, and have a dungeon in it...and have them be modules in this sense. Originally I was just going to do it for Tunnels and Trolls (my dungeon crawling game of choice), but will also stat out stuff for S&W, OSRIC and D&D 3.5...

    this, of course, is still on the drawing board...

  17. Heh, funny, just today I had a little discussion and even made a blog post about this adventure. I think it's very linear, which is good for games with kids. While not having a plot per se, with twists and decisions, it does have a rather exciting change of environment and progression from simple and weak enemies to magical and tougher enemies.

    All in all, it's not a good adventure for experienced gamers but an excellent module for young beginners.

    In any case, great blog. I'm only 26, but I really identify with many of your posts :)

    Uri K.