Monday, December 16, 2013

B4 - The Lost City - Review


B4 – The Lost City

A classic module of the golden age of D&D, Written by Moldvay in 1982 for Red Book (it says so itself) Basic D&D. There is something pleasant about B4 because of its origin, as it’s clearly written with youthful players in mind (the glossary for exciting dungeon terms like “niche” for example [Aside: I sometimes wonder if the use of certain archaic words in D&D has changed the frequency of these words in popular usage since]), and ultimately, while B4 has many troubles, there’s an endearing spirit to the adventure that makes it worth reading. It seeks to encourage, even requires, a great deal of imagination and dungeon building by the GM, and while I think this is a noble intent for an introductory product, it is a weakness in a published dungeon when one is looking for either a drop in location or something to fill out specifics, such as traps and set encounters (the reasons I use published modules).
The Art is kinda great as well - the giant headed bald guy keeps appearing
While Lost city is labeled B4, it’s a tighter and less sprawling adventure then B1(search for the unknown) or B2(Keep on the Borderlands), yet without the narrow focus of B3 (Silver Princess). Some might find this enough to stop reading, B4 is no sandbox, it’s a dungeon adventure that makes some weak gestures at a sandbox in the end.  Indeed, these weak gestures, and the typical poor monster placement of products from its era, are B4’s biggest flaws. The better elements of the adventure are its excellent traps and a certain spirit worth emulating.

The beginning of B4 is dubious, the hook is miserable. The party stumbles across the adventure local starving and dehydrated because their caravan go lost in the desert. Yet, this isn’t really that bad for a first adventure. It’s introductory and for a first adventure these sorts of forced starting situations are a way to explain how a diverse gang of misfits got involved in the adventuring life – beginning things in media res also has the advantage of starting the fun up immediately and justifying pre-gens for new players. The Lost City includes pregens in fact – boring faceless pregens that lack even a name. The only nice thing about the pregens is the 'pick a kit adventure packs'. This is a good thing, and helps cut the sting of losing a character, especially for new players, though in Lost city it’s really a bit limited. I adore pregens, I sometimes think all adventures should be run with pregens and random equipment packages. Still, Lost City does this poorly with not enough thought (though given that this module was written in 1982 the fact that packs and pregens are in Lost City is pretty impressive).

After the dubious start Lost City gets far better. The traps are universally excellent, if simple, and have an added benefit of being dangerous but not immediate lethal (salvos of multiple darts that do 1-3 damage each). An excellent trap to me is one that has at least a tiny bit of mechanical sense to it  allowing inventive solutions, not percentage rolls, and the gas trap in Lost City’s first room is a great example. This trap is proceeded by a sprung trap that creates a sense of either caution or complacency, and the effects are dangerous, but not instantly lethal. Likewise the opportunity to disarm this trap is fairly intuitive (stuff the gas vents with rags or open the door. It’s good in a starting adventure where the traps are surely dangerous but not instantly lethal.

The first two levels of the adventure are strong, and have the nice addition of being faction heavy. The maps are small, but create some verticality and mostly make sense. There are also some lovely set encounters - specifically the giant guard beehive and the table of random crazy folk who make up the largest number of random encounters. With a series of faction encounters that leave the party with plenty of opportunity to talk and make alliances, there’s a real feeling of a living adventure locale here. Yet even these early parts suffer from a certain lack of flare by contemporary standards. The monsters are almost all rather boring, which is forgivable, but worse they are placed in some odd places without any organic sense. Open the long sealed dusty treasury, and face it’s ancient guardians – a pack of stirges. Now I like stirges, but they are living vampire bird, bug bat things and really aren’t likely to last too long sealed in a secret chamber without prey or water. Similar monster placement (a fondness for giant lizards within an inhabited dungeon for example) is a bit problematic and while typical of older products doesn’t help the players make any sense of the dungeon. The treasure is likewise lackluster, it’s always just piles of coin and an odd piece of ‘jewelry’ with a flat GP value.

After these first levels, things start to fall apart. The entire module has a feeling of being unfinished or sketched out rather than complete, while there is a lovely underground city map, and a few entire lower pyramid floors they are written with only the most vague details. This is B4’s downfall, it’s under-realized. There’s the core of a classic idea here, and it’s nicely implemented as far as it goes, but ultimately it’s insufficient to play without a lot of work. While others have praised the later part of Lost City as inspirational and successful precisely because it gives the GM so much leeway to create and innovate an adventure in an underground city. Yes, Lost City does this, but by providing bare incomplete notes for the vast majority of the adventure locale I don’t think Lost City does any favors to the contemporary GM. Sure the underground city idea is neat, with its mad dreamers and tentacle god monster, but these days there’s nothing especially novel about these ideas. Rather then provide an open feeling that encourages design, the limited notes (in the form of one or two lines descriptions) actually act to constrain rather than inspire, because they fail to give interesting or exciting nuggets of scene and setting, but only provide monster placement (again somewhat haphazard) and treasure value.

What’s interesting about Lost City, and it’s experiment, is that it doesn’t just grudgingly suggest GM innovation and scenario design might be doable, but demands it. In an introductory commercial product there is something refreshing about this. Additionally the (limited) advice about design and running the adventure is solid and helpful. Lost City encourages player and GM creativity rather than additional purchases, and this is a good thing. B4’s heart is in the right place, and in the spirit of old style D&D, even if the execution feels a bit weak, rushed or clumsy.  While Lost City provides a great look at some 80's dungeon design ideas - especially in its early pages, it suffers from many of the problems typical of the era as well, with unfocused monster placement and boring treasure.  This sort of uninspired and completely unnaturalistic monster and treasure placement is well worth mockery in modern products, and it's still a problem in B4.  The sort of faction play that might have been novel in 1982 is now almost a requirement for large dungeon complexes. Still B4 is playable with a fair bit of work, which is more then can be said for some of its contemporaries or modern imitators. 

12 comments:

  1. Are you mixing up the use of "B3" and "B4" in a couple places ir am I just confused?

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    1. Indeed I was - I think I've fixed the typos - unless you meant that more as a philosophical claim. That sort of typos are found often in my post tumbler of scotch writing.

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  2. The whole idea is heavily inspired by Conan (the Slither Shadow or Red Nails most notably, though the inhabitants are more like Melniboneans from Moorcock), and the hook is pretty much straight out of Conan as well - most of his stories just started with him wandering after getting separates for some reason and stumbling across an inhabited ruin.

    And it's certainly not detailed enough, but you could do a book 6x its size and still not full detail the premise. Modules were more frameworks back then, rather than fully realized...

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    1. it does have a Red Nails feel about it (though I like Red Nails giant enclosed city with warring morlock clans a bit better) and certainly modules were less back then. It's not that the hook isn't straight out of source material, it's a question of does a hook that is that much of a railroad work well - and does it send the right message in an introductory game. Secondly the hook proposes that the characters should be starving and thirsty when they reach the ruins, that water is treasure - and indeed the need for water is what forces them into the pyramid, but give no rules for thirst etc. that would mechanically raise the stakes and remind the characters that they need shelter and water more then gold. The intro Star Frontiers adventure managed to do this even.

      As far as modules being sketchy back then - yes they are, though Keep on the Borderlands isn't really when compared to Lost City. I think you're right Moldvey just ran out of space for the size of the publication.

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  3. My biggest problem when running B4 was that the hook makes replacement characters difficult to justify. Sure, the locals could be recruited, but they're not the most suitable people to take out of the Pyramid and demi-humans would be out of the question.

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    1. Good point - That does make things a bit troubling - perhaps sell the players a caravan guarding mission and then have the caravan lost in a storm or have their food and water stolen by raiders. The caravan itself is wandering aimlessly until finding the pyramid. That way one could pull more caravan guards, guest and whatnot.

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    2. If the PCs are part of a larger caravan they are the brave souls willing to scout the pyramid. If replacements are needed one more desperate soul among those dying on the surface is willing to choose the unknown.

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  4. I have considered running a campaign from 1-10th level in here - I liked the mad cydonoian factions and thought they were like alexander the great types gone mad. Id make the whole place cursed with other planar influences. I wish more modules had as interesting ideas to continue

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  5. The first ever module i played over 30 years ago. It was love at first sight.

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  6. I think this review misses the mark in many areas. B4 was one of the best old school modules produced by TSR, and probably the best ‘Classic D&D’ module ever made.
    I’ll address your criticisms piecemeal:

    1. The hook. There’s nothing wrong with the ’caravan lost in the desert hook’, it’s uncontrived and easily adaptable. For an introductory adventure, I think it’s fine.
    2. The pre-gens. Nothing wrong here, the boring part for many people is all the dice-rolling for new characters, and here all the work is done for you. The lack of names isn’t an omission, but an opening for players to put their personal mark on a ‘pre-gen’. An intentional and great idea. Additionally, the pre-pack equipment lists provided are genius.
    3. Monster ecology and placement? Moldvay’s got you covered. You stated in your review: “The monsters are almost all rather boring, which is forgivable, but worse they are placed in some odd places without any organic sense. Open the long sealed dusty treasury, and face it’s ancient guardians – a pack of stirges. Now I like stirges, but they are living vampire bird, bug bat things and really aren’t likely to last too long sealed in a secret chamber without prey or water.” This is just plain wrong, read to the end of the stirge room description and you will find: “The room also has a small hole high in the north wall. The stirges fly through the hole when they go out hunting at night.” Succinct, logical, and a great piece of writing for a 1982 module when ecology wasn’t a byword. You then go on to say: “Similar monster placement (a fondness for giant lizards within an inhabited dungeon for example) is a bit problematic and while typical of older products doesn’t help the players make any sense of the dungeon.” but I disagree. In room 9 Moldvay gives us a giant Gecko: “It is munching on the body of an unfortunate Cynidicean. If the party enters the room without looking up, they will be surprised by a second Gecko that drops down from the ceiling (hp 12). Fantastic. The lizards dine on the drug-addled Cynidiceans, makes perfect sense, and the heroes are about to get a taste for how the Cynidicean met his/her fate when the second Gecko drops on their head! In room 4 we find: “On the floor lies the body of a dead hobgoblin. The body looks several weeks dead. Its left arm is swollen and discolored…” with the description
    “This room was once the quarters of a high priest of the Brother- hood of Gorm. The hobgoblin was killed by a killer bee from room 7” so already Moldvay has described a living, dynamic environment, which provides information for astute players to better make decisions.
    Additionally, Tom provides a short blurb of monster ecology in Part 5 (see later comment).

    Continued on next post…

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  7. Cont...

    Granted the treasure is fairly banal, although I don’t see anything wrong with getting gp and gems back in 1982, and there is some panache in there such as: “A special kind of honey is found inside the beehive. If eaten, the honey acts as one half- strength potion of healing, curing 1-4 points of damage. All the honey in the hive is needed to cure one character of 1-4 points of damage.” and much of the treasure comes in the form of the cynidicean’s jewelled masks which is cool.
    4.You say in your review: “After these first levels, things start to fall apart. The entire module has a feeling of being unfinished or sketched out rather than complete, while there is a lovely underground city map, and a few entire lower pyramid floors they are written with only the most vague details.” I think this is a gross mischaractization of what is clearly pitched as BONUS material. The adventure proper culminates on page 20, and provides 58 detailed rooms spread over five fantastic maps. What we get over the next seven pages is pure bonus. If not for the munificence of Tom Moldvay these pages could well have been omitted and the adventure would’ve still been fine. Instead, we get bonus monsters, bonus pyramid maps, a massive campaign map, detailed adventure seeds, and a instructive blurb on how to populate dungeons. Contrary to your stated gripes on ecology, Moldvay even compels us with: “How to Design an Encounter. To design an encounter, decide why a monster is there. For example, see the hellhounds on Tier 7, room 79. Since the Priests of Zargon often take prisoners down to room 100, and since there are trolls nearby in room 78, the hellhounds could be guarding the way down for the Priests. Now reason for the pile of copper is needed. One reason: the hounds will let anyone who throws a copper piece on the pile go down the ladder without a fight.
    ….There are many other ways to set up this encounter, but the basic idea is is to give the monster a reason to be in the area. If there are no monsters, you might give clues to nearby monsters: tracks, smashed furnishings, bones, and so on.”
    It is also worth bearing in mind that a lot of ‘Expert Level’ monsters were first previewed here, in preparation for the upcoming 1983 release of the Mentzer Expert set. This was pure nerd candy for my childhood self, as I’m sure it was for many other young gamers.
    Lastly, as a ‘Basic’ module, its pretty clear that B4 was pitched to younger, school-age gamers not to the grognard of the future (as evidenced by the glossary provided, a nice touch I thought). What makes it remarkable however, is that it still has relevance to the older gamer, both through its ‘Weird Tales’ Howard/Clark Ashton Smith old school vibe, and it’s cross-generational quality and appeal. It’s like ‘The Princess Bride’ or one of those clever Disney movies that you take the kids to, which has little adult gems scattered throughout to keep the mums and dads entertained.
    B4 is one of the all time great modules. It was a blast to play when I was a kid, and it was a blast to run my old school grog buddies through a couple of years ago, where it was easy to take the shell provided by Moldvay and spin it out into an opulent, opium-dream campaign.

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    1. I don't think my take on B4 is nearly as critical as you make it out to be. I do think it's a good module, one of the top three or four of the B series - with B2 and B10 certainly. However, I stand by the idea that it's hampered by the typical issues of its era - a monster zoo approach (likely the result of wanting to limit monsters to red box denizens) and less attention to evocative detail then the better examples of newer style adventures.

      For example - the pregens are great (you'll note that I agree there - in the review), but they could be better with slightly more evocative details (for example an interesting item or two in the packs, a 'distinguishing feature' table, or even a 'former career' table. At the core B4 is breaking new ground (for its time) but these ideas have been refined and improved upon since.

      Additionally, while I like the spirit of creativity that the thinly sketched underground city provides - I think a module called "The Lost City" should at least deliver a lost city.

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