Friday, August 12, 2022

Retrospective: Lathan's Gold

Lately, I've found myself strangely interested in historical attempts by game companies to produce solo or small-group roleplaying adventures. This is a field pioneered by Tunnels & Trolls, whose Buffalo Castle is, I think, the first example of a "solitaire dungeon" in the hobby. (If I am mistaken in this surmise, I am sure my readers will let me know in the comments.) Other companies followed suit, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, in the following years. However, I don't think it was until the success of the Fighting Fantasy series – which I suspect was very successful indeed – that TSR put much effort into solo gaming and, even then, the approach was scattershot and frequently gimmicky

One of the better examples of TSR's forays into this market is 1984's Lathan's Gold, written by Merle M. Rasmussen. Rasmussen is perhaps best known for having designed Top Secret, but it's worth noting that, in the very same year as Lathan's Gold, he also penned Midnight on Dagger Alley, another solo adventure, albeit employing a rather different approach. In fact, Lathan's Gold evinces a rather different approach in a number of areas, which might explain why I think much more highly of this solitaire module than I do of others of its kind, as I'll explain.

One of my biggest complaints about previous TSR solo modules is that they're quite limited when it comes to the types of characters one can play. In most cases, they're limited to a single, pre-generated character or several characters that are all fairly similar to one another. Lathan's Gold, conversely, gives the player the choice of six characters, each one of a different class: elf, dwarf, cleric, fighter, magic-user, and thief – all that's missing is a halfling. This might seem like a small thing, but it's not, especially when one considers that several of these characters are spellcasters, something for which I don't believe any previous solo modules made allowances. Consequently, Lathan's Gold feels a bit more "open," even if, of necessity, the range of choices is still very restricted when compared to a "normal" Dungeons & Dragons module.

Related to this is the fact that each character has his own quest, which the player uses to guide his choices. For example, the elf Lathan, after whom the module is named, is on a quest to raise 1000 gp to pay the ransom of his betrothed. Meanwhile, Suparjo the magic-user is on a quest to find a rare seven-headed hydra and Krag Skraddle the thief is seeking a buried pirate's treasure. The other four character each have unique goals as well. All these goals have time limits placed upon them, ranging from about 20 to 90 days. To "win" while playing a particular character, the player needs to succeed in his character's quest within the given timeframe. That's yet another way in which Lathan's Gold differentiates itself from other solitaire modules.

Like the Fighting Fantasy books (or Choose Your Own Adventure books), Lathan's Gold is presented as a series of numbered sections. As a character proceeds through the module, the player turns from section to section, each one describing the situation as it unfolds. In doing so, the player makes use of an "expedition record sheet." The sheet tracks your character's hit points, money, and rations, as well as the number of days that have passed. This is a rare example of a published module where the passage of time plays a central role to a character's ultimate success. It's a genuinely remarkable thing.

Also remarkable is the module's alternate combat system. Rather than having the player play out every combat between his character – and his hirelings; yes, you can bring along hirelings – and any opponents he might encounter, Rasmussen has devised a simpler way to determine the results of a fight. The player compares the number, level/hit dice, and armor classes of those engaged in a fight and then rolls on a few tables to find the outcome. The tables remind me quite a bit of those used in hex-and-chit wargames. Some might find them less satisfying than "real" D&D combat, but I find they work quite well in the context of a solitaire adventure, where the player has to handle all aspects of gameplay. Obviously, opinions will vary on this front.

Lathan's Gold is not a highly detailed adventure. Rather, it's a collection of procedures for handling a character's journey in urban environments, on the seas, and on one or more mysterious islands in the seas. These procedures are quite expansive in their available options, especially when compared to most solitaire adventures, but they're sketchy at times, leaving a lot to the imagination of the player. That's the price for the openness I mentioned earlier. Unless the module for many times larger than it is, I don't see any way that it could be anything but somewhat skeletonic in its presentation. Ultimately, I'm not sure Lathan's Gold fully succeeds in its goals. Even so, it's much better than I remembered its being and far better than TSR's other experiments with solo adventures.


  1. I still own my old copy. I keep trying to use it as the core to a play-by-post campaign using several of the other sea and island-based modules (like Isle of Dread, Riddling Minotaur, and Treasure Hunt).

  2. I bought this on DTRPG out of curiosity. I've read through the first part of it, but haven't played more than a few entries in it. The combat system here might be able to be used for a small mass combat scenario, and for that reason I find the module interesting.

    While I have only ever read about it I realise from reading your review is that the misson goals and time element reminds me of what I've read of Barbarian Prince.

  3. I've been thinking of writing some solo adventures, and now I totally have a title for the label -- "Skeletonic Adventures." Yoink!

  4. I should note that I am actually quite a fan of XSolo, XS2 Thunderdelve Mountain and BSolo Ghost of Lion Castle. Got a lot of use out of Lion Castle back in the day, even used the map and basic ideas as a standard adventure. Not so fond of the M marker series or Midnight, due to the gimmicks.

  5. Interestingly, Fighting Fantasy is still going strong. There is a convention in London at the start of September ('Fighting Fantasy Fest 4') launching 2 new gamebooks by both Steve Jackson (UK) and Sir Ian Livingstone. The second edition of Advanced Fighting Fantasy is also doing well, with 2 more publications this year also (a group-play adaptation of Citadel of Chaos and a treasure and magic item encyclopedia). :-)

  6. That sounds a bit like Barbarian Prince, a 1981 (?) single-player board game with story elements. BP can be tremendous fun and I'll have to check out this module to see if there's more to this than superficial similarities.

  7. When I saw Lathan's Gold at my game store back in the 80s, I was quick to scoop it up. I was happy it didn't have an invisible ink pen to reveal entries, and thought with the D&D/TSR banner on the cover it had the potential to elevate solo adventures to a position I always they could reach, but hadn't at that time.

    In the end, LG didn't get there for me. I really favored it less than Blizzard Pass and Maze of the Riddling Minotaur, but it was far better than Ghost of Lion Castle and Midnight on Dagger Alley.

    Somewhere in the decade of the 80s I realized it was about story, writing quality for me, and that's why I favored Fighting Fantasy and Joe Dever's Lone Wolf series more than solos produced for fully fleshed out RPGs.

    I will say Alone Against the Flames, a solo that came with for Call of Cthulhu's 7th edition Starter Set is the best solo adventure I've ever played for a fully fleshed out RPG.

    1. I never played any of the CoC solos. Maybe I should give one a whirl.

    2. I only recommend Alone Against the Flames. Alone Against the Ice (I think the recent edition has been renamed) and the other CoC solo set in the Canadian wilderness, I loathed.

  8. I loved Lathan's Gold as a kid. It was fun to play as-is, but I also used it with 3rd edition Runequest (which had great ship rules) to play a solitaire maritime sandbox campaign.

  9. "all that's missing is a halfling. This might seem like a small thing, "

    *Insert Rimshot Here*