Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Retrospective: Descent into the Depths of the Earth

One of the most obvious ways that the hobby has changed from its early days can be seen in the concept of adventure modules. Nowadays, we're prone to expect large and detailed products, replete with maps, fully fleshed-out NPCs, and a coherent plot made up of "scenes" that lead toward some kind of clear climax. Back in 1978, when TSR released Gary Gygax's Descent into the Depths of the Earth, such expectations, if they existed at all, weren't the norm. Then, an adventure module generally provided a locale, whether a "dungeon" or a wilderness, and its inhabitants that the referee could flesh out in play. There may or may not be any broader context for this locale, but, regardless, the module's focus was on that locale and its inhabitants rather than on anything approaching dramatic coherence.

In the case of module D1, the immediate context is as a sequel to modules G1, G2, and G3 -- later compiled as G1-3, Against the Giants -- in which the player characters enter and sack the strongholds of three different giant leaders who have, for reasons unknown, been coordinating their attacks against human lands. The PCs discover that this coordination is at the behest of the drow, a nation of evil subterranean elves, who leave behind a map leading to their city. If the characters choose to use this map, Descent into the Depths of the Earth provides the referee with an underground "wilderness" map and some keyed locations, along with random encounter tables, to simulate their explorations.

Unlike the giants modules, where the PCs have been ordered, under pain of punishment, to investigate their titular locales, there is no such compulsion in module D1. The choice to move forward or not is entirely left up to the PCs, as is the course of their travels. For that reason, the referee needs to be prepared to make use of the many random encounter tables included to flesh out the underworld. There are several well described encounter areas in D1, but the vast majority of them are presented simply without much exposition -- once again demanding significant improvisation by the referee to use effectively. That's not a criticism as such, but, looking back on this module, I was surprised to see just how little information it straightforwardly includes.

When I was a younger man, I would have ranked Descent into the Depths of the Earth as one of my favorite AD&D adventures. I had a lot of fun using it in days of yore and there are a number of set pieces it includes, such as the lich Asberdies, who has cast over 600 magic mouths in his cavernous lair, that I still recall having a lot of fun with. Of course, back then, I readily accepted that a module couldn't really be used "out of the box" and that no self-respecting referee would expect such a thing in any case. It's a perspective that I've only, in the last few years, come to embrace again, believing that, sometimes, less is more.

That said, I'm not sure that, even given that, module D1 is one of Gygax's better works, certainly in comparison to, say,  Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, let alone Vault of the Drow, both of which retain the open-ended "sandboxy" feel of D1 while, at the same time, providing more structure on which the referee can hang his own creations. The whole module feels very much like an introduction to the subterranean wilderness of the drow, a kind of primer of what's to come. That might explain why it was later combined with module D2 in 1981. Together, I think they complement each other nicely, which is a topic I'll return to next week in my retrospective of D2.


  1. These are among my favorite modules of all time. As a matter of fact, one of the earliest series of posts on my own blog was an in-depth (no pun intended) treatment of D1-3. It's here.

  2. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on D2, which I prefer in many ways to D1.

  3. What module or adventure, even today, can be used 'Out of the Box'? I can't think of any that I've come across, but I also can't resist tinkering with adventures.

    A great module, like D1, is an adventure that fires my imagination. This module just gave me an idea, a sign pointing on a map, like the hand in the Hobbit pointing at the misty mountain. I knew that the journey was up to me to design, but with D1 I had a great start.

  4. "Back in 1978, when TSR released Gary Gygax's Descent into the Depths of the Earth, such expectations, if they existed at all, weren't the norm. "

    Are you sure? I know I didn't start playing D&D until 1982 but I remember already wanting "large and detailed products, replete with maps, fully fleshed-out NPCs, and a coherent plot made up of "scenes" that lead toward some kind of clear climax. " I just had to do most of that work myself as a DM. I always did wish the products I bought had at least some of these details in them.

    So in 1978 D&D players would complain about "fleshed-out NPCs, and coherent plots" and "large and detailed maps"? Seems odd since the whole inspiration for D&D (whether that be Swords and Sorcery fiction or Tolkien as you prefer) was pretty much all about characters and plots and maps of the world (with Tolkien at least). D&D took war game rules and added personal goals (ie story) and characters, right?

    I think maybe today there is a group of players that prefer sandboxes over story driven and detailed adventures and groups that prefer mercenary players over heroes but I think that is what some of todays crowd wants. Not what the whole D&D crowd wanted in 1978. Especially considering just about every DM I knew in the 80s took the frameworks and added a coherent story and fleshed out NPCs of their own. So maybe that's what you mean? That in 1978 DMs wanted space to add their own story and NPCs instead of being force fed what the author came up with? That makes more sense to me.

    I always felt that the reason the old D&D modules were more framework and less detail was due to the limits in manpower, resources, word processing capabilities, and publishing schedules. Given adequate staff, plenty of time and money, and modern day word processing technologies I bet Mr. Gygax would loved to have added more detail to Descent or any of his modules. He was quite verbose after all and did enjoy writing novels.

  5. Gygax was a master at balancing the particular with a world of infinite horizon. For example this module had very particular creatures and environment, but wasn't self-contained rather part of the longer series *plus* world of Greyhawk. And it didn't follow a script. He respected (encouraged) the creativity of the DM and players, for better and worse.

    For me this module seemed familiar because I grew up watching Land of the Lost re-runs with Sleestak, and who didn't in the 70s, probably Gygax's children as well.

  6. I recall using Shrine of the Kuo-Toa quite extensively during summer break in high school. Ran my best friend through that one and extended the area out quite a bit with underdark maps of my own creation. Quite fun.

  7. The whole "... or return to face the headsman's axe!" thing from Steading is a running joke in my gaming group. After all, any group of PCs that can survive the module could probably take out an entire army of ordinary humans.

  8. I never really thought of D1 as a stand-alone module, having always used it as the first chapter of the D1–3 trilogy. I enjoy it as a chaotic introduction to the underworld... a sort of buffer-zone between the kingdoms of giants on the surface and the strange and cruel cities of kuo-toa and drow beneath.

    In a way it is even more terrible than D2 and D3 if you consider how difficult it would be to navigate those twisty troglodyte caverns. How horrible it would be to get lost down there while your torch slowly dies out!

    (Okay, yeah, most characters that had gotten this far would be using magical light by now... but still!)

  9. Do you ever sleep? :o

    Keep 'em coming! :)

    Nice to hear more about these old standbys.