Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Oldest of the Old School (part II) - Temple of the Frog - The First Module?

The review previous to this one is an in depth review of the adventure module S1 - Tomb of HorrorsTomb of Horrors was written in 1975 as a tournament adventure for the first Origin's Conference of July 1975.  It was not published until 1978, when S1 - Tomb of Horrors appeared.  This means that Tomb of Horrors is not the first published piece of adventure content for tabletop roll playing.  The first is likely to be "Temple of the Frog", included in the Second Supplement to the original Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D) box set - Blackmoor by Dave Arneson.  In the introduction to Blackmoor Gygax credits Arneson as the "innovator of the 'dungeon adventure' concept."

Yup that's Blackmoor
So 1975 - the first published adventure (it's unclear to me if the very different Tomb of Horrors was written first) and one that fundamentally sets the style for published adventure content - but "Temple of the Frog" is a strange thing, 19 pages long and filling the center of Blackmoor.  Most of the supplement is a scattering of house rules (stupidly complex combat rules based on hit location and height, the fragmentary Monk and Assassin classes, a monster manual very close to the Monster Manual largely focusing on aquatic foes, some rules for underwater adventure, diseases and hiring specialists), but there in the middle is "Temple of the Frog". 

I happen to have a copy of Blackmoor, so I can suggest picking up a PDF (even if it's one of the simpler Little Brown Books to find) because the type is tiny (9 point maybe) and written densely to the margins in large blocks of text.  The information design is not good...even by the standards of the OD&D box set.

Still this is apparently the first "Dungeon Adventure" which I take to mean a location based exploration adventure as opposed to a siege, battle or a campaign of sieges and battles.  This is very interesting from a historical prospective, even if I don't really find much use in game history, and in thinking about writing this review I was somewhat excited to see what is in "Temple of the Frog" that one might style recognize as the ancestor for standards, mechanics and ways for playing and producing location based adventures today.

I read the thing, all 19 pages of confusing, poorly mapped, weirdness and while "Temple of the Frog" is 'interesting' and it really does appear to have set the standard for the way adventures are designed and written, it's a mess.  "Temple of the Frog" is not the worst adventure ever written (it's not a linear combat based railroad for one), certainly it's not a good one - especially not today - but it's bad largely in the same way that a Model T Ford is bad compared to a Porsche 911 or a Prius.  Most of the right parts are included and one can see that a game could be run from "Temple of the Frog", but it might be clunky and fairly uncomfortable.  The pattern that Temple of the Frog creates invites comparison with Tomb of Horrors and a curiosity about what the original, pre-publication 1975 version of Tomb of Horrors looked like.It invites curiousity because while the adventures are practically compatriots they are so very different in mood, theme, scope and approach that they are entirely different species of adventure.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Gravesand Beach - One Page Dungeon

It's been a long time since I did one of these - a one page dungeon.  Here it is a terrible place infested with the spirits of murdered few reavers, now transformed into gull-like avian horrors and the wreck of their giant turtle fortress, now home to a Sea Wyrm with plans and a clock collection.

I should note that this is my entry for the One Page Dungeon Contest this year.


Friday, April 21, 2017

The Oldest of the Old School (Part I) S1 Tomb of Horrors - Gygax at his most Gygaxian


Tomb of Horrors is a high level (8th -14th) AD&D adventure written in 1975 (published in 1978) by Gary Gygax.  In the past several years gotten a bit of press, being the D&D dungeon cited in Ernest Cline's novel "Ready Player One" and a while back the subject of a highly critical blog post over at John Wick Presents. The Alexandrian strongly disagrees with the Wick assessment, pointing out inaccuracies in the initial review.  Even more recently Tomb Of Horrors is one of the old adventures adapted (apparently without much change) to Fifth Edition. For me the question remains...

That's the first Tomb of Horrors cover.
"Is Tomb of Horrors useful and how?"

I want to address the standard complaint about Tomb of Horrors - the mythology that it is the most terrible and unfair killer of characters ever written. I don't think this is true, I'm sure plenty an antagonistic GM has made worse, but complaints aren't in a vacuum, and in general they are likely based on experience with the adventure.  Complaints about what some GM's will do to their players and how well Tomb of Horrors allows them to do it. Imagine one played Tomb of Horrors in some retro-nostalgic 80's suburban rec room, eating pizza combos and drinking grape Shasta soda into the nights of a long summer weekend - and the game went wrong ... that beloved dwarf fighter you'd raised from level one to twelve dies to some stupid trap that the GM totally encouraged you to test, even withholding key description. Then the rest of the party dies as well, picked off by traps and ultimately the lich thing at the end that they can't seem to harm. Some punches might have been thrown and the latent sadism and martinet pettifoggery of that kid who always wanted GM was to blame.  Now imagine how your 80's rec room child GM likely ran things, it was likely antagonistic, and more then normal on those particular nights - because you were playing Tomb of Horrors, the baddest dungeon penned by Gary Gygax, the game's inventor, designed for tournament play.   Imagine this with the gullibilty of an early 80's youth, with a conviction that one's hobbies have heights of virtuosity and heroes - that tabletop games aren't quite a game but an entire world of imagination.  This sort of scenario seems to me less justification for a loathing of Tomb of Horrors then a cautionary tale with the moral that playing games in a mean manner tends to annoy one's friends and that 12 year-olds are cruel.  There still remains a more objective question about the module however, does Tomb of Horrors encourage antagonistic GMing, and even if it doesn't is it interesting?

Tomb of Horrors is of course an early D&D module, written by Gary Gygax for characters levels 9-14 (there are some lower leveled demi-human characters provided as well, but they are dual, or even triple classed).  With 33 keyed areas it's not a huge adventure by old school standards, and the areas are generally more carefully described then in many modules of its era, likely due to the number of traps within.  Originally designed as a tournament module in 1975 it seems clearly targeted as a 'one-shot' adventure.

The upshot of all this?  Tomb of Horrors can be run as a terrible adventure lacking in fun.  The  real question is can it be run in some other way or is there something inherently badly designed about the adventure?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mortzengerstrum the Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak - Review


A few days ago Trey of Sorcerer’s Skull and Hydra Collective released their first site based adventure for Causey’s gonzo fantasy setting “The Lands of Azuth”. Mortzengerstrum the Mad Manticore of Prismatic Peak is a forty page PDF with an adventure and a few extras designed for Fifth Edition D&D and a jolly, bright presentation.  It’s packed with great, cartoony art that compliments the setting by Jeff Call who also seems to have enjoyed himself and added a few special treats (like a centerfold ‘board game’ version of the adventure). I should mention that a map I drew some time ago is included as extra setting material in the PDF version, but I promise I’m not self-promoting as all I got for the map (and all I wanted) was a copy of the adventure PDF to read and review.

Two things come to mind when looking at Prismatic Peak, and thinking about the current ‘OSR’ or ‘DIY D&D’ subculture.  First is the problem or question of ‘personalities’ and second the perennial issue of fidelity to the implied setting of D&D.  Trey and Sorcerer’s Skull are not a ‘personality’ in the DIY D&D scene, but they should be a presence - Sorcerer’s Skull has been one of the most consistently updated blogs about fun and strange imaginative table-top games since I started playing again in 2011, and Trey’s published works (most recently Strange Stars, but most notably for me Weird Adventures) are consistently high quality, and consistently approachable.  They aren’t complexly written, difficult and literary like some other authors, but they are written with verve, humor and a deep well of pop cultural appreciation.  None of these products or their author courts controversy, either to stir up sales or out of some personal need for drama, but the product is still well-crafted with a unique authorial voice.  I think Trey’s attitude is well paired with the Hydra CoOp, who have consistently produced high quality location based adventure books that remain playful and unique while not abandoning the traditional ‘mood’ or play-forms of classic D&D.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Veins of the Earth - A Review

The Underdark

I was reading and reviewing Wizard of the Coast’s
Out of the Abyss, which is fundamentally a decent campaign book about the Underdark.  It’s likely the best that Wizard’s has produced for 5E, but that means that compared to the recently, long rumored and carefully produced Veins of the Earth by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess (with production by Jez Gordon) published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess it’s 255 pages of flabby, dead writing, dull illustration and unimaginative dross.  This isn’t to say Out of the Abyss is bad, it’s got some great bits, and tries hard to bring the weird and evocatively wonderful to 5th edition D&D, it’s just that it’s written by a committee of people with worse vocabularies, weaker minds, lesser imaginations and far far less love for their creation then the author and artist of Veins of the Earth.  Out of the Abyss isn’t a waste, but it won’t make you think, feel and want to run an Underdark game the way Veins of the Earth will.

This just seems appropriate

I am unsure about the quality of the physical book, though knowing the work that Lamentations of the Flame Princess puts into its physical products I suspect it’s very good.  The PDF is serviceable, though displaying as a double page spread and using a clear, but somewhat degraded typeface means one has to enlarge it a fair bit to read, scrolling about in a 350 plus page PDF.  I appreciate that unlike many DIY projects Veins of the Earth doesn’t use giant lettering and a few paragraphs per page and even though it's dense, Veins' layout is clear and breaks the text up into nice manageable chunks.  The real hero here appears to be Jez Gordon, who has consistently provided both excellent art (he is not the artist for Veins) and stellar layout on everything he’s been involved in.  Scrap Princess’ art in Veins of the Earth is also excellent, and it’s consistency and volume is a fine compliment to the text, with gestural, primal boldness that conceals details of Veins’ dark underworld while inspiring the reader with shapes and an overall sense of frenzied, jagged, contrast.