MANY GATES OF GANN
|Cover of Many Gates of Gann|
As any reader of this blog must realize, I am rather fond of a bit of silly in my D&D. Pure Tolkienesque mock seriousness with every elf a wise-eyed noble stoically forging on under the weight of an eon of sadness and an unfortunate name like "Glintiever the Unsullied" makes me feel like making trouble as a PC and makes me feel like a complete jerk as a GM. Equally I can't really embrace the Warhammer style vikings, chaos and scumbags approach, I lack the cruelty to make every tussle with street urchins a life and death situation and don't enjoy properly modelling wound fevers.
This means I mostly enjoy a bit of the strange light hearted sentiment known among the OSR as gonzo (though most D&D games seem to have an element of Hunter S. Thompson's greatest scraps in them). Gates of Gann is billed as such, and contains a fair bit of fun and weird ideas. It feels less of an homage and pastiche of 80's Sword & Sorcery cartoons/media than ASE, which I've seen it compared to, and more of a flavor like a Kull or Conan story. This is a good thing, a different authorial voice that still allows for legions of white apes (the two armed kind) with gemstones implanted in their skulls.
Now why do I enjoy gonzo adventures, beyond being a way to sidestep the bathos of most high fantasy? Gonzo weirdness allows for some of the joy of discovery to come back into playing D&D. Example, combat. Frankly, there aren't a lot of people interested in the hobby these days that don't know that a ghoul paralyzes everyone but elves, or how to knock off a Medusa. This is boring and tends to turn D&D into a bad form of a Japanese style console RPG. Fight/Loot/Level/Repeat. Older editions of D&D have a pretty simple mechanical system for resolving combat, so if every monster is expected then every encounter becomes a dry exercise in running probabilities - does the party have enough HP left to take on two 5HD displacer beasts, assuming the beasts get two attacks per round and are immune to normal missiles? Even if players are trying to feel the verisimilitude, the gap between character and player knowledge is almost impossible not to bridge in these situations. When the monster is gonzo or strange (even if its a reskinned displacer beast) it becomes terrifying - dashing forward while the party's arrows, bullets and bolts seem to miss, slide through the beast or somehow sheer off at the last minute. Same monster, same danger, but a 3rd level party will be a bit terrified. Gonzo allows this kind of thing, not only with monsters, but with spells, magic items (it's not a +1 mace, it's an active ancient robot arm!), traps, and location.
I think Gates of Gann gets this, but it's not only motivated by the spirit of gonzo/weirdness/newness - the module is also deeply a classic 80's AD&D homage. This is the affectation I found less interesting. The monsters aren't mostly new, they're just some of the more odd denizens of the Fiend Folio and Monster Manuals - gratuitous vargoyle, minor reskinning of an underused classic, Flinds (why must they be a separate monster) and as always irresistible ghouls. The ghouls are handled well though, and really so are most the monsters - but a certain devotion to the style and content of 80's AD&D runs through Gates of Gann that seems to be holding it back. Gates of Gann is best when it steps away from the typical use of the creatures it contains and creates a strange context for them - such as an alchemical Grell producing set of brain jars (why these had to be Grells rather than some new brain thing I don't know). I don't mean to focus on monster choice, but it seems symptomatic of a larger issue of "feeling" that keeps me from unreservedly enjoying the module.
Don't misunderstand me, Gates of Gann is an excellent adventure and allows for a fair amount of strange discovery and odd moments of triumph or defeat. Gann also contains some good puzzles, but something about the presentation kept me from feeling like I could use it for my own and it's didn't feel especially inspiring, except in few moments like the previously mentioned Grell encounter.
Since Gates of Gann is an attempt to recreate the best of 80's AD&D module play I will proclaim it to be almost as good as I1-Dwellers of the Forbidden City, but not quite.