Friday, February 7, 2014

B3 - Palace of the Silver Princess - Review


Palace of the Silver Princess, B3, was first published in 1981 and written by Jean Wells and later revised by Tom Moldvay. Apparently when first published the module had less of a story and was more of a ruined castle to plunder with more fill in the blank style encounters. There was also something about replacing some naughty art work, but I doubt anyone really knows or should care about the whole story. Palace of the Silver Princess was designed as an introductory module, rather like Keep on the Borderlands, but rather than Gygax’s three pages of advice, the author chose to make the first three or four rooms into a 'choose your own adventure' of sorts that takes up a solid chunk of the module that doesn't give especially useful advice. Palace of the Silver Princess does not seem to be a well-loved module, and it is fraught with problems, but it's not completely lacking merit.


Rather then focus on it's problems, central one being that Palace moves away from sandbox and towards trying to coerce the players into having a certain outlook and telling a particular story, I am going to jump straight into how I'd change B3 so I could run it.

Palace of the Silver Princess has a story, of the B series B3 is the first module to try to tell a complex story akin to a fantasy epic or fairytale. The story is confused and muddy, but at its core there is something quaint and fun about the tale of the Silver Princess’ kingdom cursed by a wedding gift from the dwarfs. The whole idea of the castle being magically transformed to evil, and attracting an evil patriarch who seeks to finish transforming the peaceful valley kingdom into a dark hellscape full of carnivorous roses is also fairly fun. It’s just a question of how to do it.  Palace takes some brute force approaches of locking the party into the castle with no chance of escape (which gives new players the idea they are supposed to camp inside the thing), then it creates a situation to remove the curse with three solutions that aren't really clear, and provides explicit clue giving green fairies to nudge the party in the right direction.  This is not a fun way to run a D&D game.  What if the players decide they area a pack of blackguards intent on plunder? That the valley of Haven turns into an outpost of some evil ruby eyed demon is not necessarily a loss condition for a party of wandering plunderers, and really it provides a better source of a campaign then Princess Argenta back on her throne handing out boons.  

On the positive side of it's story, Palace of the Silver Princess manages to create a certain feeling of whimsy and strangeness.  I’ve suggested Horror on the Hill had a fairy tale element, but it’s nothing compared to Palace – as written it includes a dragon riding knight (oddly it’s a good white dragon – which seems uncharacteristic for the alignment rigidity of TSR products), a castle full of marble statutes that were once its residents and the princess trapped inside an evil ruby. Additionally the idea that the party is exploring the result of a recent disaster rather then an ancient ruin are nice and allow some leeway in treasure and description.

The art is also quite nice (at least in this later printing), though strangely some of it (like the lady centaur giving directions) doesn’t really make sense in the adventure (which entirely lacks an overland component). Otherwise there are some fun drawings, including the zany decapus on the cover. What's good about the art is it captures a bit of the fairy tale feel already solidly in this module, for example in several drawings the skeletons have eyes - big creepy bulging eyes, and in one a severed skull is biting an adventurer's foot.  When I was young this illustration suggested a new sort of especially malicious, perhaps vaguely intelligent skeleton who's parts would keep fighting.

Some of the traps and encounters also have a good feel to them, I especially like the pit that fills with oil but doesn't ignite because of upkeep issues, and the garden of murderous shrubbery. Ultimately, these quaint touches can’t save Palace of the Silver Princess as it is written. The module looks like it would be absolutely wretched to run, it’s map is a mess, with strange monster and trap placement.  The adventure itself has a strong push towards a specific ending, mechanisms for trapping the party in the palace until they reach it, and glowing green spirits to provide clues if they cannot. I don't want to suggest that coercive situations, like one way doors or a cursed land making escape difficult are always bad, some kind of terrible railroad that a GM should never use, but one should be careful about encounters that reduce a player choice, and beware of the extent that such effects impose courses of action rather then simply limit them.

HOW I’D RUN PALACE OF THE SILVER PRINCESS

I would push B3's fairy tale setting to the extreme, this goal doesn’t mesh with the assumptions of Basic/Expert D&D and grim adventurers in grimy chain coifs are pleasantly laughable in a palace of elf-wood bowers and floating crystal chandeliers. Rather then use such characters it might be fun to run Palace of the Silver Princess as a fairy tale funnel, with halfling cobblers and gnomes in red hats trying to understand the scope of disaster.

Rather then simply being good and really interested in silver, the princess would have to be some sort of immortal elf queen, and the PCs courtiers or villagers who were preparing for her wedding to the glamorous dragon riding prince.  The adventure begins in a village carved into giant mushrooms standing in the lee of the Silver Princesses’ quaint fairy castle. A huge earthquake has wracked the palace on the morning of the wedding and no one has dared enter the pile in the days since. The main gates into the palace have collapsed, or grown shut (assuming the castle is partially made of a living wood), and now some kind of red light is starting to spread from the palace, corrupting whatever it touches. The crops in the mushroom village are failing or transforminginto horrors while wolves can howl in the woods for the first time in generations. Something is very wrong and it’s up to the players to save mushroom town, their princess, and their families or conversely they are visitors and this presents an opportunity to loot a fairy castle. A rumor table is needed – describing some of the dangers and the presence of the dwarf (who would be sinister figures here) and their ruby gift, because the palace needs context.

I would dispense with the limitations that trap the characters inside the palace. No glowing portcullis, and the red glow, while dangerous, would lack the potential lethality it has in the module. This way the players could go back and forth between town and castle, with the glow getting stronger each session, the towns folk more corrupt and the wolves giving way to red caps and were beasts. The glow would still cause negative effects, perhaps small amounts of damage or risk of mutations rather than potentially lethal amounts of injury, but it would be an obstacle rather than a force trapping the party.

The palace itself presents a greater problem, mainly the lower level. While the upper level is a fine castle, the map of the lower level has these long looping corridors that don’t really lead anywhere. Likewise the locations on the lower level don’t make much sense. The princess keeps her secret boudoir next to the palace butcher, the bath area also contains a magical sword trick and cursed medallion stroage room. The explanations for these areas are likewise terrible - an insane alchemist (which is I suppose the low level equivalent of a mad wizard) did it. The insane alchemist can be dispensed with, but the whole are needs to be redesigned and reskinned. There are some things worth keeping, petrified castle residents especially, and with a fairy castle redesign the odd nature of the castle is less confusing.

Rather than a random set of rooms and halls all vaguely “castle like”, this area is the palace’s underworld and it suffered greatly in the earthquake, with lots of collapsed areas and cracked hallways. Originally the lower level was mostly devoted to the lesser servants, guards and workshops of the palace, and carved from living rock. However, the gatehouse entrance leading to this lower level, itself an auxiliary gate, leads directly to a travelers shrine to a nature and earth goddess held in special regard by the princess. This can explain the temple a few doors away from a library, a strange bathhouse (now built on a magic spring, and an odd trick/trap that protects a magical weapon. Likewise, the boudoir now becomes a mediation chamber. This also allows the rather random invulnerable bard to be replaced with an avatar of the elven earth goddess linked to the now threatened holy spring.

Beyond the shrine (NW, the level can be divided into a guard/jail area (SW quadrant), Workshops (mostly collapsed in the SE) and an area for more guards and supplies (NE). The jail area also contains some strange caves that feel much like a darker shrine to the same earth goddess, with a cursed pool that marks thieves and some troglodytes.

Traps and tricks in the Palace of the Silver Princess are rather good, with some worthy of borrowing and emulation. The illusory guards are nice, as is the cursed amulet. Some of them could be moved around a bit, like the pit and oil trap between the school room and a small library, which was presumably designed to incinerate studious palace children.
Getting replaced with Jareth the Goblinking.


The monsters and monster placement is poor, while there are good encounters they make little sense. Humanoids have taken over the palace in the manner standard of later TSR products – throwing themselves at adventurers with the without provocation. There are also random monsters scattered about, giant beetle in the boudoir, giant spider in the library, stirges in the bath, and finally the decapus in the great hall. While these encounters don’t make sense there are others that do create a sense of wonder. The garden of blood drinking roses is great, Travis the lunatic guard is likewise fun, and so are the white ape pets of the guards. The upper level is too dense with powerful monsters as well, but some, such as the wight can be dispensed with, and there is no reason to fight the decapus.

Of course these monsters can be reskinned, and easily.  Since the adventure occurs in a cursed castle magically warped residents and furniture would make ideal enemies. I'd replace the humanoids with red eyed palace residents, their base desires having been emphasized by the spreading evil radiation. All are obviously suffering from magical effects, with skin in various states of petrification or erupting with red crystal lesions.  This way I can not only explain why several 1-1 HD creatures are ransacking a kitchen, but give the players pause about fighting them and allow an interesting interaction from a good reaction roll (The crazed warped servants will try to sell the characters awful corrupting food).

Within the lower level of the palace, one of the best encounters are with white apes that the palace guards keep as pets.  I like this idea and like it even better if these creatures are some sort of semi intelligent beast, perhaps large shaggy forest monsters (like Sasquatches with horns) straight out of a Jim Henson film, or perhaps some kind of walking tree stump/sapling creatures.  Uncorrupted by the ruby's magic (perhaps through the magic of the protective runes that keep them from wandering about)  these confused monsters will be willing to help the players if treated well and given food.

Worse then the humanoids are a random selection of monstrous vermin that seems randomly distributed about the castle.  All of these will be replaced with animate, malicious, furnishings.  The tiger beetle in the boudoir - a ferocious sideboard of massive carved wood (likely filled with a valuable set of linens or silver that can be plundered if the party doesn't resort to incinerate the thing). The spider in the library - a mass of torn scrolls and books that injects its victims with poison ink. Stirges in the bath become animate flying bottles of unguent, while the decapus is reskinned as a huge chandelier that lashes about with the chains holding it to the ceiling. The other major faction in the palace is the evil priest, his werewolf companion and orc guards.  These main villains will be reskinned as the sinister dwarfs who brought the cursed gift ruby and now lounge in luxury n the princess' suite, their grubby soot stained paw prints all over the silk and lace.  It might even be possible to use the animate furniture or crazed and mutating survivors against them, because rather then presenting a single disorganized force this re-skinning creates factions.

Treasure also needs a reskin and additions, there's not enough of it for a fancy palace, and while it seems appropriate that the Princess will be upset if she is rescued to discover the party looted her palace (she can be ungrateful she's an elf), there isn't much to loot here.  There's a room stuffed with iron rations, and while no value is given, my players would be carting these out to sell them to refugees of the red glow rather quickly. A table of valuable room furnishings and such (silver candlestick, fancy soaps, golden bowls, tapestries, nice rugs, and finely carved chairs) would suffice.

Also I would replace the dragon knight husband to be of the Silver Princes (who only appears in the module as an illusion) with Jareth the Goblinking form labyrinth.  Jut because I want him in any game with that much fairy tale whimsy. Actually, if you want whimsy just run this adventure by Dyson Logos.

10 comments:

  1. The original version, with the goofy art is available online. The project was basically taken away from Ms. Wells. The new monsters included hermaphrodites and bubbles.

    Yes, bubbles.

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    1. Bubbles appeared before that in the dungeon under the storm giants castle (judgesguild).

      The original version of the module is different, it doesn't have the pick a path intro section.

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    2. The Ubues were never supposed to be hermaphrodites. Erol Otus drew them that way due to a misunderstanding, and by the time Jean Wells found out, it was too late to fix them. They're supposed to be all one sex or the other.

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  2. I've never had a look at the revised module but, from what you describe, Moldvay's revisions made the module significantly different from Jean Wells' original creation. I prefer the original, weirdness & all. It is a site based adventure where the most likely motive for going into the ruins is retrieving the legendary gem that once belonged to the long dead princess. Pandius.com has a link to a pdf of the original - www.pandius.com/b3_orig.pdf‎ if you're interested.

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    1. Tahnks! I've read it - it's a different adventure - my current goal is to trundle through the old B series though, in the easily accessible versions (not sure why) and discuss how they can be made better. Perhaps I secretly hope that someone writing for 5e will read these and think "Oh we could do that!".

      I was actually surprised how good (within certain limits) the 2e "Return to the Keep on the Borderlands" was, so it can be done.

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  3. I think you should just write your earthquake fairytale dungeon. It sounds pretty fucking awesome to me.

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    1. Yeah that seems logical, but the point of these posts is to look at the old B-series as it available (hence I'm not really interested in the Silver Princess 'controversy' either) and to see what they would need for me to want to run them.

      B3 has some good traps, that's about it.

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  4. I have a soft spot in my heart for this one. It was one of the first modules I owned and we had a lot of fun with it.

    It was also one of the first modules I looked at and realized what a mess it really is. I've read the original too and it's also a mess. A bit of a different mess, but still a mess.

    But still, I'll always appreciate it for how much we played it back when we were first getting into the game.

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  5. When I read this, the players could come and go as they pleased. The portcullis would slam down and attract a wandering monster each time they entered. (This was the original version, not the edit.)

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  6. Inspiring! I'm running a truncated/combined map re-skin of B3 as an ancient Elven (underground) Hanging Garden - part of the hidden vaults of a corrupt(ed) Elf Chieftain over which the original Moathouse from T1/T1-4 was built.

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